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British Silent Film Festival

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: let’s all go down the Strand

Is there a more pleasant sounding word than “symposium”? I think not, even if like me you are just old enough to remember the mid-90s punk pop band of the same name.

So it is with a satisfied, cat-like smile, that I share the news of a symposium, coming to these parts in April. it’s the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, if you hadn’t guessed, and it will take place at King’s College London, on 28 and 29 April. Two days? Yes, one day (the 29th, a Friday) will be given over to papers, the afternoon and evening of the previous day will be devoted to screenings of British silent films. Like, ooh I don’t know, The Somme (1927), perhaps? Surely not. Well, you didn’t hear it from me …

Betty Balfour as Tiny Toes in Love, Life and Laughter (1923)
Betty Balfour demonstrates the dress code for the BSFF Symposium. Photograph: British Film Institute

But of course, the BSFF Symposium is a partner to the BSFF itself, so whatever is shown, and discussed, at the event will relate to “the opportunity to re-assess film-making in Britain between 1895 and 1930”, and offer a chance to “consider the achievements and the key debates brought to light by the festival, and to discuss the new directions that future research may take”.

If you are a little highbrow you’ll be especially pleased to know that the likelihood of biscuits is: good to high. If you are really clever, you’ll want to also know how to propose a paper for this delightful symposium. Hold on for the details of the call for papers, courtesy of Dr Lawrence Napper, the supremo of this symposium:

200-word proposals for 15 minute papers are invited on any aspect of film-making and film-going in Britain from 1895-1930. We encourage submissions from early career researchers and independent scholars, and this year especially welcome papers which respond to the themes of the most recent festival, and the current AHRB project on ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound’.

Proposals should be sent to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk  by 29 March 2016. See you there!

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane hoped to sneak out to the BSFF Symposium undetected …

The Silent London poll of 2015: the winners!

The votes are in! Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to this year’s poll – we had a wide range of responses, and votes cast from around the world. Looking back on the 2015 reveals that it was a very strong year for silent film, which meant that many of these decisions were very close-run things. Congratulations to everyone who won a category – and those who just missed out too.

protesting-suffragettes-early-1900s1
Make More Noise!

The best DVD/Blu-ray of 2015

There have been some corking discs and box sets released this year, so there were several contenders for this prize. But out in front by some distance, was the BFI’s brilliant suffragette compilation with music by Lillian Henley: Make More Noise! Don’t mind if we do.

Make More Noise!
Make More Noise!

The best theatrical release of 2015

Not so many titles up for contention here, and some confusion as to what represents a bona fide theatrical release. Good to see some love for films that were popular on the festival circuit such as Synthetic Sin and The Battle of the Century, even if they weren’t exactly what we were looking for here. However, among several nods to Steamboat Bill Jr and Man With a Movie Camera, your winner was … well why not: Make More Noise! again. Congratulations to Bryony and Margaret Deriaz, who curated this fabulous selection of films.

The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

The best modern silent of 2015

My personal favourite new film of 2015 won this category hands-down. While Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s deaf-school drama The Tribe technically has plenty of dialogue, the fact that said dialogue is entirely in Ukrainain sign language makes this a silent film for most. And an astonishingly powerful one too. Not for the faint-hearted, but a fantastically exciting film nonetheless.

The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera

The best orchestral film screening of 2015

Well you saw some excellent shows in 2015, didn’t you? There were many great nominations for this category, and the title very nearly went to a London screening … but not quite. The winner was the triumphant conclusion to this year’s Pordenone silent film festival: The Phantom of the Opera with Carl Davis’s excellent score played by Orchestra San Marco and conducted by Marc Fitzgerald. I can confirm that this was a blinding performance, but also that the Teatro Verdi lighting stayed firmly in place throughout the show.

Continue reading “The Silent London poll of 2015: the winners!”

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 4

Tell England (1931)
Tell England (1931)

There are two ways of looking at Sunday’s programme. You might glance at the listings and say: “it’s the last day of the festival, the films finish early, it’s all winding down.” But if you were there with us, watching these films, you’d know different. Sunday at the BSFF offered a big finish, with three feature films shown: one of which was a gem, and two of which were genuine masterpieces. And there was plenty more besides.

Shall I begin with a confession? Reader, I slept in. And those extra zeds were delicious, but I did regret missing Bryony Dixon’s presentation on Gallilopi, a curtain-raiser for the screening of Tell England (1931) that was to follow.

However, Tell England was a rousing start to the day – you couldn’t ask for better. We have been on a journey with these early sound films over the weekend – from the stumbling first steps of Dark Red Roses et al, via two beguiling movies on Saturday, to this, a real masterpiece. We were warned that the soundtrack was not of good quality, but really, it was not a problem. In fact, for every mishandled piece of dialogue here, there was a sound collage that did credit to co-directors Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas. And I suppose it does help that the actors offered a parade of perfectly clipped RP accents. Asquith and Barkas fold silent film-making techniques into their exploration of sound cinema – making this a bold and visually exciting war film. Tell England follows two young heroes (Tony Bruce and Carl Harbord) from their public school in divine middle England to the trenches of Gallipoli where the horrors of war and their duties as precociously promoted officers weigh heavy on their hearts. While the characters speak with traditional English restraint and understatement, the film whirls around them to show the physical violence of warfare (with mortar shells whirring and crashing on the soundtrack), and its psychological toll too, on the soldiers themselves and Fay Compton as a distraught mother almost driven mad by grief and fear. Not a documentary record of Gallilopi, although its vivid beach landing scenes are often cut up and used in factual programmes, but a fine dramatic film that would ideally be more widely available. So, insert a snide remark about the talkies catching on here.

After lunch, a commercial break, as the BFI’s Steve Foxon gave us a  guided tour of screen advertising, from Edison’s short 1890s clip promoting Dewar’s whisky, to a bouncy Halas & Batchelor cartoon tribute to Kellogg’s Cornflakes in the1940s. All good fun, and the sort of presentation that provokes many more questions in the coffee break afterwards. Early screen advertising is both very different from and so similar to modern examples, with detergents cleaning whiter, and making easy work of tough jobs, as well as twee poetic tributes to the English countryside and even celebrity endorsements. And of course you can’t believe that anyone fell for these tricks. But we all do.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 4”

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

On Saturday, outside events threatened to intrude the sanctity of the festival – and we weren’t complaining. First, the morning’s historical presentations were timed around a break for an update on the Labour leadership decision. Is victor Jeremy Corbyn a silent movie fan? Here in “red” Leicester (that joke TM Peter Walsh) we assume he would be an Eisenstein man. And in the afternoon, we segued neatly from checking the football scores to taking our seats for The Great Game (1930), a rollicking good film, albeit a talkie, set in the world of soccer and strangely apt for the modern game. At night, we watched a film set during the Wars of the Roses, just a few feet from Richard III’s tomb. Perhaps it was all just meant to be …

Believing in fate is a double-edged sword, though. We started the day with a thoroughly intriguing film that danced with the dangers of destiny. The tale of a doomed ship, Windjammer (1930) was a haunting film that was shot as a silent documentary record of the final journey of sailing ship the Grace Harwar, but then had dramatic “talkie” scenes of life below-deck added to make it more palatable to the general public. Those fictional scenes added a plot, one that echoed the real-life tragedies that had taken place on board the Harwar on that long and difficult last voyage. The very handsome Tony Bruce plays a posh boy, Jack, who was travelling home after having his heart broken in Melbourne – and sad to say he meets a watery end. The scenes of the boat battling the waves are both beautiful and terrifying – the chat among the crew crude but naturalistic. More than a curio, but a curious beast all the same. And we were grateful to Laraine Porter’s exquisite introduction setting a complex film in its proper context.

More terror at sea in a very poignant presentation from Bryony Dixon on the films that tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. From newsreels of the aftermath of anti-German riots, to Winsor McCay’s stunning propaganda animation, this was an engrossing selection of films, rendered all the more powerful by the witness testimony Dixon read as the films played, and Stephen Horne’s sensitive accompaniment.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3”

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.

So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.

As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …

The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2”

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 1

The Guns of Loos (1928)
The Guns of Loos (1928)

Comfort zone be damned. Here I am in Leicester, an hour or so north of the Big Smoke and the first movies that the British Silent Film Festival chooses to show are all talkies … OK, OK I am not going to pretend that they are a novelty to any of us, but kicking off the festival with early British sound films seemed initially to be either a bold move or an acknowledgment that a few of the delegates would still be on the train/in the office at the start of play.

After a day of dialogue films I was desperate for a real silent movie, and Thursday’s finale was worth the wait by any stretch. But more of that anon. While “talkie Thursday” was occasionally grating, it was always fascinating.

Laraine Porter introduced the first two films of the day with a fun whistlestop tour of the British film industry’s transition to sound. She showed us possibly my favourite talkie of the day, Up the Poll (1929), a short political satire featuring Donald Calthrop as a newly elected MP bungling a victory speech that was essentially a string of very funny gags, with “canned laughter” and heckling off-screen. Up the Poll used a combination of synch and non-synch sound, and I’d be intrigued to know whether the balance was as it seemed, ie synch for Calthrop and non-synch for everything else. I assume so, which is usually a dangerous move …

The W Plan (1931)
The W Plan (1931)

Porter also introduced our first feature, an ambitious war movie starring Brian Aherne and Madeleine Carroll called The W Plan (1930). At first it seemed that this one just wouldn’t catch fire, lots of awkward pauses and odd emphases, but boy did it start to blaze when Aherne was on the run in enemy territory. Punching German officers, hallucinating during a firing squad, leading a team of POWs to sabotage an enemy plan using a not-so elaborate code based on whist … Aherne was a dashing hero in a strange and exciting movie. Shame about Carroll – perhaps she will get another chance to show us what she can do.

After lunch, Geoff Brown took to the stage with a massively entertaining, not to mention informative, presentation on, yes, the first British talkies made in 1929. Was Blackmail really the very first? You can guess that the answer is both yes and no, can’t you? Yes, it was first to be released, but it had far less synch dialogue than its main rival High Treason, so go figure. Hitchcock v Elvey: fight! More interesting than the lead question was Brown’s exploration of those first homegrown talkies, which were a rather rum bunch. We went in for melodrama and thrillers, as a nation, it seemed, where the US favoured musicals and such. So these films, many of which we saw clips from, were a heady brew. Miscegenation and damp rot featured in White Cargo; a murderous epileptic led To What Red Hell. It made one long for the simpler pastoral pleasures of Under the Greenwood Tree, or Elsa Lanchester larking about on the old joanna in Mr Smith Wakes Up! 

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 1”

Don’t miss the British Silent Film Festival

High Treason (1929)
High Treason (1929)

Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?

The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.

Michel Strogoff (1926)
Michel Strogoff (1926)

There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.

Continue reading “Don’t miss the British Silent Film Festival”

The Silent London Podcast: Festivals, firsts, a favourite and Flesh and the Devil

Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Back to the studio for a full-length edition of the Silent London Podcast. I’m joined by Pete Baran to talk about the festival scene, discuss the first silents we ever watched and catch up on the news. We’re joined by London Symphony director Alex Barrett, who tells us about his favourite silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and we preview the British Silent Film Festival as well as reviewing the great Hollywood silent Flesh and the Devil.

We also make inappropriate comments about Greta Garbo, and I get a little bit over-excited about Pordenone. Just another day in the office really.

 

Continue reading “The Silent London Podcast: Festivals, firsts, a favourite and Flesh and the Devil”

Highlights of the British Silent Film Festival, 10-13 September 2015

I had to share this news as soon as it landed: booking is now open for the British Silent Film Festival, which takes place from 10-13 September this year at the Leicester Phoenix. See you there!

british silent film festival

cropped-bfi-00n-sc3.jpg The Guns of Loos (1928)

The 18th British Silent Film Festival features some stunning highlights, re-discoveries and rareties gleaned from the BFI Archive and international collections. Highlights include the British premiere of Stephen Horne’s new musical score for The Guns of Loos (1928) and Laura Rossi performing her new score to British cinema’s first epic Jane Shore (1915) at Leicester Cathedral which recently saw the reinternment of Richard III who features in the film as a key protagonist.

A missing-believed-lost early Hitchcock collaboration, the comedic Three Live Ghosts (1922) will be featured after recently being re-discovered in the Russian film archive. We’ll also have the British premiere of a brilliant new score by Bronnt Industries Kapital for the Soviet classic Arsenal (1929)

51473-1 Michel Strogoff (1926)

Our theme of ‘heroes and villains’ will be explored in stunning masterpieces of European cinema including Michel Strogoff, (1926) featuring the charismatic Russian star,

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The British Silent Film Festival returns to Leicester in 2015

Estelle Brody and John Stuart in Hindle Wakes (1927)
A weekend away … Estelle Brody and John Stuart in Hindle Wakes (1927)

According to the website of the Phoenix independent cinema in Leicester, the British Silent Film Festival is moving back northwards this year! The BSFF began in the East Midlands town back in 1998 and has subsequently been based at the Barbican and the Cinema Museum in London, in Cambridge and Nottingham. It will return to the Phoenix in Leicester from 10-13 September 2015, so mark it in your diaries now.

Here’s what the Phoenix has to say about the event.

Formed in 1998, the Festival fulfils an important role – presenting a wealth of treasures from the silent period to audiences who would not otherwise have access to their own film heritage and to the wealth of international silent cinema.

The Festival is curated, organised and presented by Laraine Porter, Bryony Dixon and Neil Brand and a team of UK experts and advisors in this field.

Open to all, the films are presented with live music from the world’s leading professional silent film accompanists (and we hope, local guest musicians) in a variety of entertaining and accessible ways.

Hat-tip to Jenny Stewart for the news – more details to follow as soon as they arrive.

The Woman he Scorned (1929)
Pola Negri in The Woman he Scorned (1929)

Meanwhile, back in the capital, the popular British Silent Film Festival Symposium will take place again this year at King’s College London. The one day event will be held on 24 April, and proposals for presentations should be sent to Lawrence Napper at King’s by 20 March 2015 – email Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk.

Drawing on the success of our previous events, we again seek to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema. This one-day symposium is intended as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930.

As such we would like to invite presentations from people working in all aspects of this field, including cinema in the wider context of theatrical, literary and popular cultures; cinema and World War I; cinema and technology, exhibition, reception and critique.

In the light of a recent AHRC award investigating the transition between silent and sound cinema in the UK (1927-1933), we would be particularly interested to include papers on this topic.

Excitingly, the day will be topped off with a screening of one of my very favourite British silent films: Paul Czinner’s The Woman he Scorned (1929), starring the wonderful Pola Negri.

Read more on the British Silent Film Festival.

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