Silent London

A place for people who love silent film


Buster Keaton

The Keaton Project: polishing the Great Stoneface

Buster Keaton's One Week (1920)
Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920)

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of silent comedy. They say you have to pick one to love, but there is nothing to stop you admiring both. If you’re a Keaton devotee, though, you may have watched the progress of the Cineteca di Bologna’s Chaplin Project with green eyes. Though of course your expression will have been too deadpan to reveal your true feelings.

Over several years and many gala screenings, the Cineteca and the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab, working in collaboration with archives, labs and historians across the world, restored all of Chaplin’s works to the utmost technical standards. You can see the results of these labours in releases such as the recent Chaplin Mutuals Blu-ray, which really is worth adding to your Christmas list. Now it’s Buster’s turn. Using material from the Cohen Film Collection, the Keaton Project will set about buffing and shining all the silent shorts and features made by the Great Stoneface. It’s a mammoth task for the ladies and gents in the lab, but a massive treat for those of us who get to watch the finished films.

Continue reading “The Keaton Project: polishing the Great Stoneface”

Silent London special offer: Buster Keaton night

Hello silent film fans. The wonderful people at the Lucky Dog Picturehouse, who put on some wonderful, and very eclectic, silent film/live music shows around the capital, have a special offer for you – and some tickets to give away too. First, here’s how to acquire some tickets for a night of Buster Keaton films in Streatham, and enjoy a buffet too.
Join us at London’s famous Hideaway Jazz Club for our Buster Keaton Special! Some of Buster Keaton’s most well loved short films and a few surprises along the way … Live piano accompaniment by Tom Marlow, musician at The Lucky Dog Picturehouse (performed: BFI, Wilton’s Music Hall)

We’ve got a fantastic offer of FILMS PLUS BUFFET just £13 (£10 concessions) next Thursday 24th July at the famous Hideaway Jazz Club, Streatham. Click here to buy tickets.

Advance Tickets include finger buffet from the Hideaway kitchen. Please arrive at 7.30pm for buffet (includes vegetarian selection).

Please note: Tickets purchased after 21st of July will not include the buffet selection, but will be at the reduced price of £10. Food may be ordered separately at the venue.

But don’t forget – The Lucky Dog Picturehouse has two pairs of tickets to give away to Silent London readers. Just email your name to to enter the ballot. Here’s hoping you’re a lucky dog too!


Five more reasons to see The General again

The General (Park Circus restoration)

Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) goes on theatrical release this Friday – which should be cause for celebration and mass ticket-buying among all of you. However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably seen this classic, poll-bestriding Civil War caper before, very possibly in the dim and distant. What worries me, what keeps me up at night, is that if so, you may feel a bit “so-whattish” and “seen-it-all-beforeish” about Keaton’s masterpiece. That would be a tragedy, as The General is one of the funniest, most ingenious and gosh-darn exciting films you will ever see in your long and happy life. If familiarity has bred a tough of contempt, or just complacency, in your bosom, I would gladly bend your ear about the pin-sharp 4k transfer, and the booming rendition of Carl Davis’s nimble and turbo-charged score on this digital print. But that geeky stuff isn’t for everyone, so if that doesn’t tempt you, here are five more reasons to see The General … again.

The early, funny stuff

So we all know The General as a chase film, packed with stunts and crashing locomotives. Well, it actually starts in a very sedate fashion, as our hero Johnnie (Buster Keaton) goes to visit his girl Annabelle, who prompts him to enlist and fight for the South. Patience is a virtue – don’t be in a rush to get to the fast and furious business on the tracks. Johnnie’s pratfall as he leaves Annabelle’s house, the beautiful recruiting-office sequence and that wonderful selfie of Johnnie and his other beloved are all worth arriving at the cinema nice and early for. The scene-setting opening ends with one of the quietest, but most dangerous stunts in the whole movie, as Johnnie perches forlornly on the coupling rods of a locomotive that is picking up speed …

Annabelle Lee

The General‘s Southern belle is far more than a damsel in distress. To be frank, she’s a pain in the neck – watch her daintily selecting firewood and feel Johnnie’s pain. But to be fair, she takes more than her share of punishment too: kidnapped, soaked (twice), caught in a bear trap, stuffed into a sack and loaded as freight. Not only that, but consider this: to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, you try doing everything Buster Keaton does, but backwards and in a crinoline.

There is another reason to take note of Annabelle – she is played by a fascinating woman. Marion Mack knew more than most about the silent movie business. A former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, she later turned her hand to screenwriting, including a semi-autobiographical flick called Mary of the Movies, which she also acted in. In the the 30s, she even wrote a talkie short for Keaton. And when critical favour began to smile on The General in the 70s, she was on hand to speak at screenings and festivals, explaining what it was like to play one of Keaton’s not-so-straight women. We don’t have opportunities like that any more, so thank you Marion.

Yes, that is a real train

The one that falls through the burning Rock River Bridge? Yup. It’s not a model (you’re thinking of The Blacksmith). And if you thought it was CGI – shame on you. Famously, the destruction of the train in The General is the most expensive shot in silent movie history, and it’s a salient reminder that everything you see on screen here is real – including the danger that Keaton and Co frequently faced as they went about those wild stunts.

Those damn Yankees

Marion Mack isn’t the only thing here that gives us a flashback to Mack Sennett’s mid-teens romps. Those Yankee soldiers giving chase to Johnnie and Annabelle are enjoyably, hilariously inept. Hoot as a whole gaggle of them fail to fix the points our man has so thoroughly snookered, until their driver appears with a an axe and a shove; chortle as they topple like dominoes with every jolt of the engine. These buffoons are Keystone Kops in all but name. A guilty pleasure in a very sophisticated film.

War is hell

It’s not all larks and big kids playing with big train sets, of course. The General is a war movie, based on a true story – the hijacking of a train headed for Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it’s easy to forget that The General has a rather grim battle scene of its own, with swords and snipers and several deaths. Even the jokes fail to lighten the mood here. The flag gag, in which Johnnie grabs a confederate pennant from his falling comrade’s hand, and waves it in victory from a rocky outcrop, only to discover he has seriously misplaced his feet, is an unexpected splash of black humour. It’s a nifty moment that sharply undercuts any jingoistic vibes you may get from this story of a plucky underdog and his little engine that could.

Bonus reason

If you see The General on its extended run at BFI Southbank, it will accompanied by Keaton’s sublime early short One Week. If you were to ask me, right now, which of the two were the better film, I would have to say … “tough call”.

The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

Silents by numbersThis is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)

The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.

Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)

The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.

Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)

Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend.  The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.

(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)

That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)

Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle.  In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!

Continue reading “The 11 best silent movie dance sequences”

The top 10 silent film dream sequences

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.

The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)

A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.

Atlantis (1913)
Atlantis (1913)

Atlantis (1913)

In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep …  As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard.
Continue reading “The top 10 silent film dream sequences”

The 10th Slapstick Festival, January 2014: a centenary salute to Chaplin

City Lights (1931)
City Lights (1931)

The funniest weekend of the year is back: Bristol’s own rib-tickling Slapstick Festival. This year marks not only the 10th year of the festival but, as you all very well know, the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp. The Slapstick Festival will be celebrating the tramp in fine style with an orchestral gala screening of the the wonderful City Lights (1931), recently voted into the Top 10 Silent Movies by the Guardian and Observer. The screening will be introduced by comedian Omid Djalili and music will be provided by the 39-piece Bristol Ensemble.

There’s a full weekend of funny films beyond the Chaplin too. Check the listings below for details. Notable screenings inlcude the Societ laugh-riot The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the rarely shown Raymond Grifffith romp Hands Up! (1926) and a chance to see Constance Talmadge in Her Sister From Paris (1925). And don’t miss Harold’s Lloyd’s classic Safety Last! (1923) with Radio 4’s Colin Sell on the piano.

Max Davidson
Max Davidson

More treasures are to be found in the talks and lecture events: David Robinson on the Tramp, Kevin Brownlow on Chaplin and the Great War, all three Goodies on Buster Keaton and Graeme Garden delving into the work of German Jewish comic Max Davidson.

There will be some modern work featured too: from Wallace & Gromit (naturally) to The Meaning of Life and Withnail & I. Yes, Tim Vine will be offering a tribute to Benny Hill too!

The 10th Slapstick Festival will be held at various venues across Bristol from 24-26 January 2014. Visit the website for more details, or read on for full listings and ticket information.

Continue reading “The 10th Slapstick Festival, January 2014: a centenary salute to Chaplin”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8

Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation
Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation

Update: My Guardian report from the Giornate is here

That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.

The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8”

Win tickets for a silent movie night at Hackney Attic

The Lucky Dog (1919)
The Lucky Dog (1919)

Competition time again, Silent Londoners, and this time I am giving away tickets for a night of silent film and live music at one of our favourite venues, Hackney Attic. The lucky winner can look forward to an uproarious evening, featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy (in their first film together) and even Felix the Cat – plus a surprise! This latest event in the Filmphonics series has been put on by the silent film fanatics at the Lucky Dog Picturehouse. Here’s what they have to say about it:

The Lucky Dog Picturehouse specialise in providing an authentic 1920’s silent film experience, with live piano soundtrack. Collecting together 5 of the best silent film shorts ever made by some of the world’s greatest silent stars. Buster Keaton attempts to build his new flat-pack home in the stunt-filled ‘One Week’. You’ll find a love-lorn Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Pawn Shop’. Laurel & Hardy team up for the first time ever in ‘The Lucky Dog’ (featuring a dog to rival Uggie from The Artist). To balance the dog ‘Felix the Cat’ makes a madcap appearance. And the final film is “TBC” but it might involve a certain “Trip to the Moon”. All of the films will be scored by live keyboard accompaniment. Just as they were supposed to be seen.

Lucky Dog Picturehouse

To win a pair of tickets to the Lucky Dog Picturehouse night, simply email the answer to this simple question to with Lucky Dog in the subject header by noon on Friday 17 May 2013.

  • In which British town was Stan Laurel born?

The Lucky Dog Picturehouse night at Hackney Attic is on Sunday 19 May at 7.30pm. Tickets start at 7pm for members (with £2 off if you book for The Great Gatsby the same day). Click here to book and for more information.

Win tickets to see The General at Hackney Picturehouse

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

The Hackney Attic at London’s newest Picturehouse cinema is becoming to make name for itself as a silent film venue, with recent screenings ranging from Piccadilly to Aelita: Queen of Mars. Heartening news, then, that this trend continues with another Filmphonics presentation of a silent classic this month: Buster Keaton’s groundbreaking comedy The General, on 20 January 2013.

Surely The General needs no introduction from me: the funniest war film you’ll ever see, an astonishing technical achievement and did I mention it was hilarious too? If you need a taster though, you could do worse than this sampler from film critic AO Scott:

There’s more good news: this screening of The General will be accompanied live by the marvellous Costas Fotopoulos on piano.

Costas has now been working for many years as an improvising silent film pianist at BFI Southbank and he has also accompanied silent films at the Barbican Centre, the Prince Charles Cinema, Riverside Studios, Chelsea Arts Club among other venues, as well as scoring many silents in the London Film Festival.

The even better news is that you could get your hands on a free pair of tickets to this screening. Free. To win a pair of tickets to see The General at Hackney Attic, just send the answer to this question to by noon on Wednesday 16 January. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct entries.

  • What was Buster Keaton’s real first name?

The General screens at 7.30pm on 20 January 2013 at Hackney Attic. To book tickets, please click here. To visit the Facebook page, click here.

Silent films at the West London Trades Union Club, 2012 season

Hindle Wakes (1927)
Hindle Wakes (1927)

The West London Trades Union Club in Acton, London W3 is a welcoming place for those who enjoy a well-kept ale and a natter, and a haven for left-leaning cinephiles too. The venue’s Saturday afternoon film club is friendly, and pleasingly broad-minded: recent seasons have taken a look at the work of film-makers ranging from Joseph Losey to Paul Robeson as well as giving club members the chance to show their own favourite titles, week by week.

Last year I spent four hugely enjoyable, chatty Saturday afternoons in west London showing silent films chosen in collaboration with members of the club. The discussions afterwards were well-informed, not to say boisterous, and one topic we often returned to was: what are you going to show next year?

So, the silent film club is back, with some much-longed for comedy, another British film, some Weimar glamour and French impressionism. Here’s what’s coming up this autumn in Acton:

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

Comedy double-bill: The General (1926) and The Circus (1928)

Two classic films from the two titans of silent comedy: Buster Keaton’s ingenious civil-war chase film The General and Chaplin’s poignant, hilarious The Circus. These two films offer an opportunity to marvel at the best of silent comedy, but also to compare and contrast the different styles of these two great film-makers. Buster Keaton’s deadpan mechanical inventiveness versus Chaplin’s sentimental appeal and graceful physicality – you decide.
8 September 2012, 4pm

Hindle Wakes (1927)

This adaptation of the much-loved northern melodrama was filmed by Maurice Elvey, a giant of British silent cinema, now sadly all but forgotten. Elvey was a trade unionist himself, and Hindle Wakes is the story of a clandestine romance between a factory worker and an industrialist’s son. It’s gorgeously filmed, with some fantastic “Wakes Week” sequences shot in Blackpool – and the heroine, played by Estelle Brody, is a refreshingly modern woman. Not to be missed.
20 October 2012, 4pm

Louise Brooks Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929)

Pandora’s Box (1929)

Another modern woman, and one of the most famous films of the silent era. Louise Brooks is truly iconic as the liberated, amoral Lulu breaking hearts in swinging Weimar Germany. Erotic, witty and ultimately tragic, Pandora’s Box is a classic that rewards repeated viewing and while coolly received at the time, has subsequently made an international star or its reckless leading lady – it now stands as the definitive portrait of a decadent society.
10 November 2012, 4pm

L’Argent (1928)

When Marcel Herbier announced his intention to adapt Zola’s L’Argent but to place it in the contemporary setting of the 1920s Paris stockmarket, many were horrified that he would take an acclaimed historical novel about ruthlessly greedy, over-reaching bankers out of its context. But Herbier’s passion, “to film at any cost, even (what a paradox) at great cost, a fierce denunciation of money”, proved as pertinent in pre-crash Europe as it does now, in the fallout of the global financial crisis. L’Argent is not just social commentary, it’s an ambitiously innovative film, a masterpiece of poetic impressionism.
15 December 2012, 4pm

Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928)
Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

You don’t have to be a member of the club, or even of a trade union, to turn up and receive a warm welcome – and you will find the venue at 33 Acton High Street, London W3 6ND. It’s about five minutes walk from Acton Central train station, and on plenty of bus routes.

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