If there was ever a week to emphasise the power of archive film, this is it. On the weekend, the Sun on Sunday released what appeared to be home movie footage from the early 1930s of Edward VIII apparently teaching the young Princess Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother to make Nazi salutes. Not surprisingly, those few frames of film have caused a media storm – with debates raging over whether Edward was not the only Nazi sympathiser in the family, or the footage should have been released at all. It seems to me that the princess is more interested in showing off her Scottish dancing moves than practising the salute – she is on holiday at Balmoral after all. And her young sister Margaret really isn’t in the least bit involved. But what do I know? This is home movie footage, of course, not intended to be scrutinised by the public, even if it may after all hint at some disturbing information in the public interest.
The fact remains, however, that this film is owned and still guarded, privately. If there is context to this clip, we are denied it, because all that has been released is a silent, heavily watermarked 17-second snatch on the Sun website. In the era of FOI requests (the Freedom of Information Act is 10 years old this year), post-WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, after MPs’ expenses and the Prince Charles letters, full disclosure and open access is where it’s at.
And it is in this climate of free access to information that the Associated Press and British Movietone have decided to release a monumental slice of their archive on to YouTube today, where it can be seen, shared and embedded by the public. There are two news YouTube channels as of today: one for the AP Archive and one for British Movietone. More than a million minutes of newsreel footage has been digitised and uploaded, creating what the archive call “a view-on-demand visual encyclopedia, offering a unique perspective on the most significant moments of modern history”.
The YouTube channels will comprise a collection of more than 550,000 video stories dating from 1895 to the present day. For example, viewers can see video from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modelling the fashions of the 1960s
For silent enthusiasts, the fact that this upload includes the Henderson collection of news footage will be particularly welcome. In effect, this is not a release of footage (many of these films were always available to watch on the AP Archive site), but a way of liberating it.
Do you know the way to Pordenone? It’s about 80km north-east of Venice, but that’s not important right now. When I say Pordenone, I mean Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: the world’s most prestigious silent film festival, which takes place in the town every October. This year will be the 34th instalment of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, a veritable institution, which showcases the best (and some of the rest) of silent cinema, accompanied by the world’s leading musicians. It’s eight full days of silent cinema, and a chance to meet the most knowledgeable early film enthusiasts around.
Never been? I think I understand why. Something about the words “prestigious” and ”institution” can be a little daunting. For years I thought Pordenone was not the place for me – it was for the real experts. I was intimidated too by the website, which is actually phenomenally useful, but a little hard to navigate and very text-heavy in two languages.
But as soon as I arrived for my first Giornate in 2012, I knew I had been a fool to stay away. Pordenone isn’t intimidating at all. And if you love silent cinema, which I know you do, it’s an essential indulgence. You can call that the Pordenone paradox.
So here’s a short guide to planning and enjoying your trip to Pordenone for this year’s festival. If you have any more tips – please share them below:
The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe
Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?
The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.
While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.
Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.
And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good?(1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.
Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.
As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.
Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.
This article contains spoilers, though as the films discussed deal with historical events, we hope no one will be too disappointed.
In 1927, as the flood of war-themed films identified by critic Caroline Lejeune the previous year developed into a torrent, two British companies were drawing on the legacy of British Instructional Films’ (BIF) war reconstruction series. Both The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and The Somme (MA Wetherell) could claim to be legitimate heirs to the series. The former was directed by Walter Summers and produced by Harry Bruce Woolfe, while the latter shared a number of personnel with BIF’s other productions including its producer, E Gordon Craig.
In their release strategies, too, the two films followed the model of their predecessors – The Somme opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion on 5 September for an exclusive run, while The Battles of Coronel and Falklands Islands was screened privately for the royal family at Balmoral before opening at the New Gallery on 15 September. These openings were announced together in the press coverage, implying a parallel between the two films. Both films went on general release during Armistice week, where they competed with a number of other British films with war themes, including Remembrance (Bert Wynne, 1927) and Roses of Picardy (Maurice Elvey, 1927). In the premier London houses, they were succeeded by further exclusive runs of new war dramas, Blighty (Adrian Brunel, 1927) replacing The Somme at Marble Arch, and Land of Hope and Glory (Harley Knoles, 1927) in the Plaza, Regent Street.
Despite these similarities, it is nevertheless possible to identify divergent strategies in the two films. The self-conscious use of formal moments of remembrance evident in the 1925 Ypres (Walter Summers) was incorporated into a number of the fictional war dramas, including Remembrance, Blighty and Land of Hope and Glory. The balance of drama and documentary elements continued to shift, and both The Somme and Coronel and Falklands develop the more dramatic shooting structure evident in Mons (Walter Summers, 1926), although in different directions. Mindful of the criticisms of Mons, director MA Wetherell re-instated the diagram elements of earlier films in his explanation of the overall strategy of The Somme (a decision which earned him praise from a number of reviewers), while Summers took advantage of the relatively contained story of Coronel and Falklands to offer a film much more clearly driven by the narrative conventions of fiction film-making. As part of this, the exploits of Victoria Cross (VC) winners – so consistent an element in all of the previous films – were dropped entirely from Coronel and Falklands, which offers instead a much clearer identification with motives and inner emotions of the captains of both the British and German ships, conveyed through classical editing.
It’s tricky to describe this as a silent film, though, seeing as it has diegetic sound – real diegetic sound, which was all recorded on set, not added in post-production. Nor can we classify it “dialogue-free” … there appears to be plenty of dialogue in The Tribe, but all of the words spoken are in Ukrainian sign language. There are, the trailer proudly proclaims, no subtitles or voiceover to soften that blow. I can’t find figures for how many people in the world speak Ukrainian Sign Language, although this site affirms it is in a healthy state, and two years ago, the Daily Mail reported that inventors in Ukraine had developed a “super glove” to turn UKL into audible speech via a smartphone app. The point is that I suspect none of the Cannes judges were fluent in it, and for them, and most of us, this film will play more like a silent than a talkie.
It’s a violent, gritty, sexually explicit film: the grim story of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a teenager at a boarding school for deaf-mute children. Said school is rife with gang violence and prostitution, and Sergey clambers his way to the top of the tree before risking it all by falling in love with the wrong girl. There’s little gloss here: the cast are all non-professionals, and UKL speakers, rather than hearing actors. Slaboshpytskiy made a short, and similarly brutal, film set in a boarding school like this one a few years back, a real-time drama called Deafness/Glukhota (2010) in which a police officer grills a deaf-mute teenager in his car – while suffocating him with a plastic bag.
Slaboshpytskiy constructs his film with no dialogue and no subtitles, allowing the story to be enlivened by the magnificent pantomimic acting of deaf-mute non-professionals, in a brilliant balance of clarity and ambiguity that puts hearing audiences in a fascinating, active position …
The Tribe peels away the tenderness of its protagonists, communicating in the purest cinematic forms the rawness hidden behind the fragility of youth.
I like that phrase abut the hearing audience being put in a “fascinating, active position”. Doesn’t that go straight to the heart of why we love silent cinema? In his review for Variety, Justin Chang expands on this idea, writing that:
Sans dialogue or translation, each interaction effectively becomes a puzzle to be solved, and Slaboshpytskiy is brilliant at using ambiguity to heighten rather than dull the viewer’s perceptions. Even when the meaning of a particular exchange eludes us, a greater sense of narrative comprehension begins to take hold.
The trailer for The Tribe is hugely intriguing too: I love the strict, square framing and its icily distant long takes. In the foreground of a shot of gang members signing vigorously to each other, one toughnut shoulder-shoves another – a gesture that is as clear as any dialogue. After a screeching hairpin camera-move, a young man’s confusion in the face of a semi-naked and angry young woman in a bedroom reminds us how much of teenage life is a struggle to negotiate a path between our own feelings and those of the people around us. And who could fail to be impressed by the stirring declaration that “for love and hatred you don’t need translation”.
The Tribe plays twice during the London Film Festival. It screens at 8.45pm, 15 October 2014 in NFT1, BFI Southbank and 8.30pm, 17 October 2014 at Screen 5, the Vue West End Cinema. Buy tickets here.
Click on any of the above images to view a slideshow of stills from Damn The War! (1914)
One of the highlights of the silent offering at this year’s London Film Festival, Alfred Machin’s Damn The War!/Maudite Soit la Guerre (1914) is not just a moving pacifist drama, it is an object of jewel-like beauty. As those who saw the restoration of this Belgian film at the Bologna this year attest, the secret is in the vibrant, expertly applied, stencil colour. Head Curator at the BFI Archive, Robin Baker, says:
The ravishingly beautiful restoration has returned a magical range of stencilled colours, evoking the nostalgia of tinted postcards and a world stained with the blood of war.
Stencil coloring required the manual cutting, frame by frame, of the area which was to be tinted onto another identical print, one for each color. Usually the number of colors applied ranged from 3 to 6. Theprocess was highly improved by the introduction of a cutting machine. Thus the cutter could follow the outlines of the image areas on a magnified imagefrom a guide print projected onto a ground glass. Apantograph reduced the enlargement back to framesize. The machine performed the cutting on the stencil print with a needle. When cut-out manually, the gelatin had to be removed from the stenciled print to form a transparent strip. In the machine cutting process the stencil was cut into a blank film directly. For every color the stencil print was fed in register with the positive print into a printing machine where the acid dye was applied by a continuous velvet band.
At the time that Damn The War! was made, this painstaking work would have been done by large teams of female workers. Stencil colouring was part-mechanised, however, and as such was a sight easier than the hand-colouring techniques that preceded it. In fact, it’s the combination of soft pastel-coloured inks and machine-cut precision that creates such a beautiful painterly look. In Damn The War! a wash of vivid red ink is also used to dramatic effect, and masks are used to intensify the impact of the coloured scene.
Readers of this blog will note that in the year that this film was made, the Technicolor corporation was born, which would eventually create a whole new approach to colour film. Glorious though that could be, it’s hard not to think that a certain kind of cinematic gorgeousness was lost when the stencils were all packed away.
Watch Damn The War! (1914) at 6.30pm, 12 October 2014, NFT1, BFI Southbank, in the London Film Festival. Buy tickets here.
The launch of the London Film Festival programme is a cascade of A-list stars, esteemed auteurs, Oscar contenders, Hollywood blockbusters and world premieres. But enough of all that. Did someone mention Colleen Moore? Here’s our rundown of the silent cinema offering at the BFI London Film Festival this year.
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
“Virtually unknown” it may be, but this fantastic British war film was a real genre game-changer. Walter Summers directs the noble tale of “a victory and a defeat almost as glorious as a victory”, which was a hit with audiences and critics both on its release. Unjustly neglected for years, TBOCAFI has been rescued from osbcurity via a gleaming new restoration and a modern brass score, which will be performed by members of the Royal Marine band at the LFF Archive Gala screening.
This sumptuous Chinese melodram stars Ruan Lingyu as “goddess” or sex worker, trying to care for her child, who is pushed into taking violent revenge on her pimp. Described on these pages by John Sweeney as: “Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film.” The festival screening will be accompanied by the English Chamber orchestra, playing a new score by Chinese composer Zou Ye.
Screens: 7.30pm, 14 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.
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.”
You hate bad dialogue, I hate bad dialogue. And clunky, needless expository dialogue is the worst: the most heinous crime in sound cinema. A good rule of thumb for screenwriters would be to look at each line they want their actors to spout and say: “Would this be an absolutely essential intertitle?” Without all those words, actors have to tell the story physically, by acting, rather than describing: they say a picture tells a thousand words after all. With 24 frames a second, who needs text, by that logic?
This is clearly a pet hate of mine – I rarely see a new movie without wanted to take a red pen to the script here and there. So thank heavens for All is Lost, the tremendous new film from JC Chandor (Margin Call), starring Robert Redford as a sailor lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford is the only actor in the film – it’s just him, the boat, the water and a series of catastrophes until the bitter end. And he’s fantastic in it – his nicely grizzled features reacting moment by moment to his impending doom. It’s a physical role for sure, as he tackles the high winds and rolling waves – but for the full Ancient Mariner angst, he needs to capture our sympathies too, and let us know what’s going on behind those famous blue eyes.
You’ll have guessed the twist: as Redford helms the movie solo, there’s no real dialogue at all. I don’t want to spoiler the film, but he speaks a few words; wouldn’t you curse a little, in his deck shoes? For most of the film’s 106-minute running time, however, all you’ll hear is the roar of the ocean, the clattering and cracking of his boat and a hell of a lot of weather. The score, by Alex Ebert, appears only sporadically, and there’s no intrusive internal monologue to break the tension either. So with all that space in which to act, and such a simple story, Redford is free to give an indelible, immense performance that’s a pleasure to watch. Or it would be, if one weren’t so terrified for him.
All is Lost wouldn’t qualify as a silent movie, I know that. In fact its stunning sound design is as Oscar-worthy as Redford’s star turn. But it is a rare sound film that has learned the extraordinary power of silents – and it’s really very special indeed.
There is no beating about the bush here. The 57th London Film Festival’s approach to silent cinema is definitely quality over quantity. Here’s what you can look forward to this year.
The Epic of Everest (1924)
This year’s Archive Gala, also going on nationwide release, is this unforgettable expedition film of Mallory and Irvine’s doomed attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1924. Gorgeous photography, a heart-stopping story and another great, surprising score from Simon Fisher Turner. Read our full review here. The gala screening will feature the score played live, which is sure to be fantastic.
I saw this last year at Pordenone, and I loved it. Harbour Drift/Jenseits des Strasse is a moody, romantic melodrama, directed by Leo Mittler – the kind of film that gives even the grubbiest events a touch of magic. The screening at the London Film Festival will also be accompanied by Stephen Horne, making it a must-see. Here’s what I had to say about it in 2012.
My highlight was a lyrical German film that came between them, called Jenseits der Strasse or Harbor Drift (Leo Mittler, 1929). A beggar nabs a pearl necklace from a puddle, and promises to share the profits on its sale with a new-found drifter pal, all the while a prostitute plans to take it, and sell it herself … Impressionistic, oddly noirish, tragic and ultimately dark-hearted, this is a real find. The film has been championed for a few years now by Stephen Horne, who accompanied it beautifully on piano, flute, accordion and zither. The recent discovery of the film’s previously missing reel makes this gem ripe for restoration, and a wider audience.