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Searching for Silent London: 10 highlights from the Britain on Film archive

Covent Garden Porters (1929)
Covent Garden Porters (1929)

Attention amateur historians and nostalgic souls. The BFI has launched its Britain on Film project on the BFIPlayer, comprising around 2,5000 pieces of archive footage. It’s an incredibly easy way to lose an entire afternoon, or more of your life. But fascinating too. Simply type in a location, a decade or a subject, and the BFIplayer will throw some digitised (and contextualised) film right back at you.

I learned a lot about the fashions on sale in the local Co-Op in my hometown in the 1930s, and the story of how my High School came to have a swimming pool in the 1950s (sadly it had long since been filled in before I started there). Moving to my hood in London, I was offered footage of former local MP Clement Attlee talking about William Morris and socialism in the town hall. Not a bad selection at all.

So what of “Silent London”? At this link, you can find all the footage labelled “London” from 1890-1930 in the Britain on Film archive. That comes to 232 films, ranging in length from a few seconds up, but still more than a mouthful, even for someone as greedy as me.

But I did have a poke around, and I do already have a few favourites. Here are ten to try:

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On Yer Bike: a History of Cycling on Film DVD review: rattling wheels and retro charm

Lady Cyclists (1899)
Lady Cyclists (1899)

London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.

Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in a shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?

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London on film at BFI Southbank: walking these silent streets

Flowers of London
Flowers of London

Just a quick note to let you know about a season coming up at BFI Southbank, which promises to contain a few silent treasures. London on Film: The Changing Face of London runs from 1 July to 9 October 2015. I’m taken by the idea of a film programme devoted to our favourite city, and hoping that the BFI will make the most of the opportunity to show some great silent dramas, and actuality footage.

Here’s the official blurb:

The BFI present a three month season which celebrates London’s stories through a century of extraordinary film making from archive clips to more modern cinematic adventure. the programme will include over 200 films, from classic features to home movies, shot in London over the last 120 years. For Londoners this season will show the city they know and love, as they may never have known it before.

Already slated are screenings of Anthony Asquith’s Underground and A Night in Victorian and Edwardian London with Bryony Dixon. At the latter event, the BFI’s silent film supremo will introduce archive clips of the capital dated 1881 (!) to 1910. The evening will also include a screening of Joseph Ernst’s captivating short film inspired by Mitchell & Kenyon, Londoners.

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

UPDATE: Over on Facebook, BFI head curator Robin Baker tells us we can expect films including: “Passmore family films from 1902 (part of London Home Movie Night), The Right to Live (1921), London Old and New (1924), Cosmopolitan London (1924), The Fugitive Futurist (1924), The Marriage of Miss Rose Carmel to Mr Solly Gerschcowit (1925) and Piccadilly (1929)”. Plus, the sound version of High Treason (1929)

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Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.

Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.

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Two tickets for the price of one: the DW Griffith season at BFI Southbank

DW Griffith on set
DW Griffith on set

Last month we previewed the blockbuster DW Griffith taking place at BFI Southbank in June. This week, tickets went on sale! But before you start flashing your debit cards around, Silent London can save you a little cash, with a two-for-one ticket offer. You could buy twice as many tickets, or even bring a friend along, free, and share the greatness of Griffith at a bargain rate.

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London Film Festival Archive Gala: instant expert

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

Name: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Age: 87 years old. The clue’s in the number in brackets.

Appearance: Shiny and new.

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense – I thought you said it was 87 years old. The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands may be knocking on a bit, but it has been lovingly restored by the BFI and from what we gather, it’s looking pretty damn sharp. Just take a look at these stills.

Great, where can I see this beautiful old thing? At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 October 2014 – it’s being shown at the London Film Festival as the Archive Gala. It will then be released in cinemas nationwide, and simultaneously on the BFIPlayer …

Blimey. And then it will be coming out on a BFI DVD.

Wonderful news, I’ll tell all my friends. Really?

No. I’ve never heard of it. Fair enough. You could have said that in the first place.

I was shy. Don’t worry, the BFI calls it a “virtually unknown film” on its website.

Phew. But you should have heard of the director, Walter Summers.

Rings a bell … He’s a Brit. Or he was, rather. And he was quite prolific, working in both the silent and sound eras. “I didn’t wait for inspiration,” he once said. “I was a workman, I worked on the story until it was finished. I had a time limit you see. We made picture after picture after picture.”

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A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – in August 2014

This is a really fascinating idea, and a hugely entertaining hour and a half of anyone’s time. The BFI has compiled a typical “mixed” cinema programme from a century ago, and is releasing it theatrically this summer. It’s called, of course, A Night at the Cinema in 1914, and it comes out in August. Yes, you may be seated in an air-conditioned room with comfy seats and Dolby 5.1 sound, but you’ll be able to watch a variety bill of drama, actuality, comedy, serials and travelogues – just like your own great-grandparents in the Hippodromes of yore.

Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)

Some of the titles in the bill will be familiar to you, but there are a few surprises too – and the cumulative experience of watching 15 films in one sitting is wholly refreshing. There’s Chaplin, Florence Turner and Pimple larking about, but also newsreel footage from the front, and from suffragette demonstrations in London, and Ernest Shackleton’s preparations for his Antarctic voyage. Of course, there’s a segment from The Perils of Pauline, and an opportunity for a singalong too. Music is provided by an expert – Stephen Horne has recorded an improvised score for the whole shebang.

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England v Ireland (1905): watch the earliest footage of the national side

Ready for the game tonight? Warm up with this treat from the BFI archives. England play Ireland at Manchester City’s Hyde Road ground on 14 October 1905. The film is only three minutes long, but don’t worry, I can reveal that England won the game 4-0!

Lost Betty Balfour film discovered by EYE: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Genuinely exciting news for silent film fans. A long-thought-lost film starring the wonderful Betty Balfour, and directed by the somewhat elusive George Pearson, has been returned to us. The film is Love, Life and Laughter (1923): Betty “Queen of Happiness” Balfour stars in a typically winning role as Tip Toes, an impoverished chorus girl who dreams of fame on the music-hall stage. She befriends a young aspiring writer, also down on his luck, and they decide on a plan – to meet two years later back at their tenement building to see if either of them have achieved their fondest wishes.

Love, Life and Laughter was found in a cinema in Hattem, in the Netherlands. The cinema was due to be rebuilt and so the anonymous film cans stored there were taken to EYE, the the Dutch Film Museum, in the hope that they might contain footage of local historical interest.

The BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, welcomes the discovery with open arms, saying:

Contemporary reviewers and audiences considered Love, Life and Laughter to be one of the finest creations of British cinema, it will be thrilling to find out if they’re right! We hope to be able to acquire some material from our colleagues at EYE soon so that British audiences can have a chance to see this exciting discovery.

We know that the copy EYE has acquired of Love, Life and Laughter has Dutch intertitles and has the original tints and tones intact – and we do have reason to believe that it is a very special picture. Contemporary reviews praised the film, with the Telegraph saying it was “destined in all probability to take its place among the screen classics”. In the Manchester Guardian, CA Lejeune’s gives nicely rounded sense of the film, and its importance:

Love, Life and Laughter is the latest Pearson film, and legend has it that the latest Pearson film is aways the best. It is certainly the most ambitious, spectacular at times in the De Mille ballroom manner, lit and photographed with a beauty to dream of. Devotees have called it George Pearson’s masterpiece, and so it is – of bluff. He lights common things uncommonly, and legend makes them symbolic; he catches a series of farcical situations, and legend makes them comic; legend turns sentimentality into sentiment, and confusion into mystery.

This fantasy of a chorus girl and a young poet is clever, but chiefly clever in simulating cleverness, in tickling the intellectual vanity of its audience with a goose feather, coloured peacock by imagination. It will succeed. And its success will be the result not of innate quality but of the great Welsh-Pearson legend – and, when all is said and done, nothing else matters.

That rather guarded review takes on a new aspect when we remember that the “great Welsh-Pearson legend” has now been forgotten, and their films have almost entirely vanished – which has the affect of rather enhancing the title’s allure. Until its rediscovery, Love, Life and Laughter sat on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of much-missed British films.

A 1923 programme for the film offers this romantic and tantalising description:

“The Story is but a simple exposition of the oldest, yet ever youngest desire of the human heart, the achievement of an earnest ambition. The incidents tell in picture form of the striving of a boy and girl, against the odds of the world. The portrayal of this struggle towards a final goal of the desired happiness is unconventional in treatment. The Boy and Girl laugh and weep, succeed and fail, move onward and forward to an inevitable destiny, and to a climax which should live long in the memory.”

One of the many attractive elements to this news is that the film’s subject matter – of two starry-eyed types struggling to achieve their artistic ambitions – resonates against the life stories of the director and star both. Poignantly, in light of the fact that this film has been missing for so long, both Balfour and Pearson were highly acclaimed in the silent era and subsequently forgotten by most. It’s discoveries such as this, in fact, that make us appreciate anew how terrible the odds of survival for silent cinema are – with 75% of silents by the wayside, for each one we treasure there are three more we may never see.

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British Silent Film Festival: 2014 style

Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)
Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)

Just like last year, the British Silent Film Festival hits London town, but not in its traditional form. Very much as was the the case last year, actually, the festival proceeds in a slightly cut-down version, comprising a symposium at Kings College London on Friday 2 May 2014 and a full day of screenings at the Cinema Museum on the next day.

There’s a loose theme to those screenings at the Cinema Museum – runaway women or some such. I like. More to point: Betty Balfour fans – fill your boots. And if you want to submit a proposal for a paper to the symposium, you have until 31 March – so hurry up, clever clogses.

Here are the full details for each day:

The British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2014 will take place on 2nd May 2014 at King’s College, London.

Following the success of last year’s symposium, this one-day event again seeks to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema, and operate as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Possible areas may include but will not be confined to: Cinema in the context of wider theatrical, literary and popular culture; Empire and cinema; Cinema and the First World War.

An early evening screening of The Wonderful Story (Graham Cutts, 1922) will be included in the day’s events.

Proposals (around 200 words in length) are invited for 20 minute papers on any aspect of new research into film-making and cinema-going in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Please submit them to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk by 31st March.

Read more on Facebook & register for the symposium here

Betty Balfour
Betty Balfour

Put-upon ladies take on the world in this programme of rarely seen silents from the BFI National Archive.

A double bill from talented Hungarian director Geza von Bolvary, stars Britain’s favourite actress Betty Balfour as the stand-in princess in The Vagabond Queen (1929) and besotted bottle-washer in Bright Eyes (1929). Also yearning to break free, an oppressed wife hangs her hopes on a typewriter in J.M. Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a programme of shorts continues the theme.

PROGRAMME

  • 10.00-11.30 The Twelve Pound Look
  • 11.30-12.00 Break
  • 12.00-13.30 The Vagabond Queen
  • 13.30-14.30 Lunch
  • 14.30-16.00 Shorts programme
  • 16.30-18.00 Champagner/Bright Eyes

Doors open at 09.00 for a 10.00 start.

Refreshments will be available in our licensed café/bar.

TICKETS & PRICING

£25 for the full day, £15 for a half day, £8 for one session. Sorry, no concessions.

Advance tickets may be purchased from WeGotTickets, or direct from the Museum by calling 020 7840 2200 in office hours.

UPDATE: tickets on sale now

Read more on the Cinema Museum website

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