The eye wants to travel, and never more so than in these pandemic times. Which means that this presentation from the BFI’s blockbuster Japan season is actually more welcome on its delayed arrival.
In Around Japan With a Movie Camera, across an hour and a quarter, we are transported through space and time to Japan in the very early 20th century – the films span the period from 1901 to 1913. But you’ll want to devote a full ninety minutes to this one and click the “Watch introduction” button on the BFI Player. The films are more than ably introduced by the BFI’s own Bryony Dixon and Japanese film historian Mika Tomita, and the programme is hosted by Michelle ‘Bioscope Girl’ Facey. They also take time to introduce the band, as it were. The films are accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch, Costas Fotopolous, Stephen Horne and Lillian Henley – their hands are sometimes visible thanks to the ingenuity of Gabrysch’s pandemic-era innovation, the “piano-cam”.
At the start of this festival I missed a date with An Old Fashioned Boy, but you can bet your last Euro I wasn’t going to pass up a rendez-vous with Casanova. Tonight, the final night of this very precious Giornate, belonged to Ivan Mosjoukine, his magnicifent eyebrows and the show-stopping music of Günter Buchwald.
This is my tenth Giornate, which means I have graduated from newbie, all the way to novice, but also that I have been present for a quarter of the festival’s history. This is the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – an annual celebration of silent cinema that began with a short retrospective of Max Linder films at Cinemazero in 1982, viewed by around eight people. Tonight in the Verdi, it seemed like every other seat was taken for a rendez-vous with Linder.
Unprecedented scenes in the Teatro Verdi tonight, as the audience of customarily meek silent film enthusiasts stamped their feet, booed and exclaimed “outrageous!” “Close the curtains!” and “Down with this sort of thing!” But more reports on the incident the papers are calling the 2021 Giornate riot later.
Anna Q Nilsson! Tom Moore! Dark deeds with gold mines, wedding regrets and stock certificates! A mysterious, abrupt finale! It can only be the welcome return this afternoon of the 1916 serial Who’s Guilty?, which we loved so much in 2016. This was a classic example, with Nilsson and Moore marrying in haste and repenting at leisure but Nilsson’s ex proving to be no better option. And that was before the mine gave up its gold. What a nostalgic treat.
“I don’t think I’ll be falling in love with Ellen Richter any time soon,” said a gentleman to me in the hotel lift this lunchtime. Everyone else, please form an orderly queue. We sampled riches of Richter today, in three hour(ish)-long installments of Die Frau Mit Millionen (The Woman Worth Millions, Willi Wolff, 1923) – a fine example of her work in the “Reise- und Abenteuerfilme” or travel-and-adventure films genre.
The lure of distant shores drew us into the Verdi this Monday morning, though initially it looked a little like false advertising. Ilka Schütze’s In Den Dschungeln Afrikas/In the Jungles of Africa (1921-24) was a stop-animation story of two dolls travelling via “balloon” not to another continent but only as far as their garden, or their dreams. If dolls can dream. I hope so, don’t you?
Here in Pordenone, life is an endless round of parties, each more glamorous than the last. Sorry, that’s not my lifestyle but that of Ellen Richter and co in Leben Um Leben (Richard Eichberg, 1916). This film is a sequel so abandon all hope of following the plot all ye who enter in. What I can tell you is that Weimar star Ellen Richter, subject of a retrospective here at the Giornate, plays a scheming Princess in this glitzy romp. There was a costume ball, a “jolly hunt”, some stolen pearls, a run on the “Volksbank” and non-stop shenanigans and all of it was entertaining but it didn’t quite add up to a whole film. Still there was a marvellous multi-tinted dance sequence, as if the star of the floor show was grooving under coloured electric lights, which was far more than set-dressing – it was an attraction all of its own, a very modern throwback.
“Now more than ever, welcome home!” If Jay Weissberg’s address to the Verdi at tonight’s opening gala didn’t lodge a lump in your throat, you may be an irredeemable cynic. Or perhaps you were just marvelling at the man’s mastery of the Lubitsch Touch – the exquisite pain of terribly mixed emotions. But more on the importance of being Ernst later. Let us begin at Act One, Scene One. Enter your humble scribe, stage left.
Heartening news from Paris, where the great Josephine Baker is to be granted a rare honour. The dancer, actress, film star, civil rights activist and hero of the French Resistance is to be memorialised in the Panthéon, Paris’s secular temple, after nearly a decade of campaigning.
An inscription at the Panthéon reads: “To its great men, a grateful fatherland” and around 80 notable French people are honoured there, most of them men. Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman to be commemorated there.
Her predecessors are Marie Curie, Resistance heroes Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, feminist icon Simone Veil and Sophie Berthelot, the first woman to enter these hallowed crypts, and who was interred alongside her chemist husband Marcellin Berthelot “in homage to her conjugal virtue”.
“It is vital to be photogenic from head to foot. After that you are allowed to display some measure of talent.” Musidora, who wrote those words, is remembered as one of the true icons of silent cinema in her incarnation as Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires. However, there was more to her talent than her photogenic features, her white face and kohl-rimmed eyes and that famous slinky figure in a black body-stocking.
As revealed in a retrospective strand at the recent Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, the full range of Musidora’s career was fascinatingly diverse, feminist, ambitious and wittily self-reflexive. She was born Jeanne Roques in Paris on 23 February, 1899, and by the time of her death, aged 68, on 11 December, 1957, she had worked as a stage actor, singer, film star, novelist, journalist, producer, director and archivist, among other jobs. It’s doubtful that many of the cinephiles purchasing tickets at the Cinématheque Française in the 1950s would have recognised the woman who occasionally worked in the ticket booth as Musidora, the original screen vamp, muse to the surrealists and catnip to the moviegoing public in the 1910s.
This week, I had the honour of delivering the Philip French Memorial Lecture at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol. Due to the strange times that we are living in, the lecture was livestreamed as well as being held in person at the Watershed Cinema.
My task for the lecture was to talk about the role of critics in reframing film heritage. I spoke a little about Silent London, and also about Musidora, why cinema is like a tree and what I like to call “young cinema”.
Early in my career as a silent film accompanist I had an experience, which in retrospect probably affected the way I think about the work. I was accompanying a Louise Brooks film that, as was typical at the time, I had not seen in advance. The piano was positioned directly beneath the screen, so that the image filled my field of vision. I recall it being one of those rare evenings when I was totally lost in the film and music seemed to flow directly from brain to piano, almost bypassing the hand.
At one point Louise was held in an extended close-up – her smiling, enigmatic beauty framed by silver light. Then she started to speak and, although there was no intertitle, it was very clear to me what she was saying. In fact, just for a few seconds, I could actually hear her voice speaking the words. At least, that’s how it seemed. In retrospect, I realised that I had almost certainly been lip-reading. However, something about the moment, as immersive as it was, made the words transform into the sound of a voice within my head.
Please excuse typos in this blogpost. I am writing this in a mixture of mental fog and nervous excitement. Yesterday I had my second dose of my Covid-19 vaccination, and the ‘Moderna flu’ is real but suddenly the future seems a little bit brighter. So I thought I would pop on here to remind you of some upcoming silent-film-related events that you can attend in person or online, making your summer a wee bit more joyous and more silent.
This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway to Hollywood and then ran away to Europe to make three stunning, complex films that would secure her legacy as one of the great actors of the silent era. This film, 1930’s Prix de beauté, is the final film she made in Europe. It’s also the last silent film that she ever made, and without giving away the ending, it is an almost too-apt finish to her silent career.
Europe was Brooks’s sanctuary at the end of the 1920s, after she escaped from Hollywood. First, there were two German films. She was the unforgettable Lulu in GW Pabst’s dark, decadent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Then she played a waif who finds refuge in a brothel, in Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. Her third and final European film was this French title, Prix de beauté, shot by an Italian director. It was also Pabst’s idea.
Time flies when you’re getting nothing done. So I will forgive you if you don’t believe me, but this weekend the Silent Comedy Watch Party will webcast its 50th edition, a year to the day since the first show, back at a time when we were just getting our heads around this new word “lockdown”. That’s a whole year in which our Sundays have been blessed by silent comedy, live music and erudite introductions courtesy Ben Model, Steve Massa, and friends.
Silent London couldn’t let a milestone like that pass without a chat, and Ben and Steve were kind enough to take part in an interview with me, socially distanced at a range of around 3,500 miles.
Congratulations on a year of webcasting live silent film and music shows from your homes. It’s an awesome achievement. My first question has to be: why did you start the Silent Comedy Watch Party?
Ben Model: I’d played a weekend of shows in Nebraska and came home – then two days later things started shutting down and all my gigs were cancelled. I thought of the people who’d have gone to them who were now at home and couldn’t. I’d had the concept for the show in my head for a few years but with all silent film showings cancelled, this seemed like the moment to give it a shot. The tech of it worked, thankfully, and even more overwhelming was the response we got on socials and in emails.
Steve Massa: Since all our live shows were suddenly cancelled it seemed like the perfect way to stay in touch with the silent comedy universe. Ben told me he thought that we could technically do it and asked what I thought. Of course I was onboard immediately. Once we started we discovered how therapeutic laughter really is, and it became a mission to provide a little needed relief during the pandemic.
Did you ever think it was too much to take on? The work involved, all the technical challenges?
SM: This is really a question for Ben as he’s producer, technical director, film historian and accompanist. In addition to co-hosting, I gather the photos and information on the films, but he’s got the real burden of technically making the shows happen.
BM: Yes. Every week. But also, where was I going? Where was anybody going? The responses we got on socials and emails from day one were so moving, that’s what’s kept me going. No matter what the tech issues I’ve dealt with have been – and thi sis the thing my wife Mana keeps reminding me – there are hundreds of people out there who count on the show being there, for the laughs they need to get through all this.
I’ve developed an even greater respect for projectionists – what I’m doing tech-wise is pretty much like what happens in a booth during a show. And I’m doing that while I’m also hosting and accompanying, plus the factor of functioning as the tech director of a small TV studio.
The best thing I’ve seen so far at this year’s online Slapstick Festival is the French film Siren of the Tropics (Mario Nalpas & Henri Étiévant, 1927), starring one of the all-time greats of the dance world, Josephine Baker. With this movie, Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major studio picture. And it’s a triumph. I was lucky enough to see the film at the festival with an excellent live score played by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, which definitely brought up the best of this vivacious film.
Siren of the Tropics may feature one of America’s greatest stars, but it’s a film that could never have been made in America at the time, or for decades later. In the silent era, Anna May Wong set sail for Europe to play romantic leads, escaping Hollywood’s prohibition on what it called miscegenation. In the classical Hollywood musical, Black performers from The Nicholas Brothers to Lena Horne were seen only as “featured players” with no connection to the story – so their show-stopping sequences could be excised from the film for exhibition in the South.
In Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker isn’t just the star of the film, she is giving a career-defining star performance. Not least because this film fictionalises the creation of her star persona. It’s the story of a young woman from the Caribbean who falls in love with a white man and follows him to Paris. While searching for him, she is scouted by nightclub impresarios and becomes the toast of the city. Finally reunited with her love, she sees that they can never be together and she makes a sacrifice for him before sailing away to America to start a new life.
It’s a complete fiction, but one that hits on all the aspects of Baker’s persona that would have been familiar to her audience. It’s her A Star is Born. Baker’s character, Papitou, displays natural dance talent at home in the fictional Caribbean mining colony of Monte Puebla, grooving on the sand with her friends. She eventually travels to Paris where she becomes feted on the nightclub circuit with an act that involves her both performing an eccentric dance in the torn blouse and satin rompers of her famous plantation routine and also bringing the house down in sequins, lace and feathers as she twirls her limbs in the Charleston: two of her signature moves. Although Papitou is a dancer, not also a comedienne, the film supplies plenty of setpieces for Baker to prove her skills in both disciplines. At the end of the film that Papitou travels to Baker’s actual birthplace, the US.
One of the nicest, and to me the oddest, things I have ever read about this blog was David Cairns of Shadowplay writing that it’s “not just for cockneys”. Why, as anyone self-respecting Londoner knows, very few people in the capital are yer actual born-within-the-sound-of-Bow-Bells cockneys, anyway. I’m certainly not a cockney. I’m not even a Londoner, really, because I was born hundreds of miles away from the Big Smoke.
But what Cairns meant, I think, is that Silent London is not just for Londoners. The blog was born when “hyper-local” was a big trend, and its initial purpose was to keep tabs on the burgeoning silent movie scene in London. Ever since I stopped running listings, it has been decreasingly London-centric, which may be a good thing, depending on your postcode. To be honest, many of my most popular posts were written in Italy, or about German, American or French films.
Hip-hip hooray, it’s Hippfest programme announcement day. News that arrives like a sweet, sweet vaccination into the veins of a drizzly February.
While personally I am sorry not to be watching these films in the warm embrace of the Hippodrome this year, the lineup is immense, and I delighted to tell you that the films will be available to stream not only in the UK, but also in Europe and North America. So if you have never had the pleasure of a trip to Bo’Ness, the silent cinema capital of Scotland, well now is your chance to experience the award-winning Hippfest magic.
The full lineup is online … NOW. So you can peruse at your leisure. But may I please bring your attention to:
Brooksie! I am honoured that Hippfest has asked me to introduce a very special screening of Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté starring Louise Brooks on the Saturday afternoon, which will be accompanied by Stephen Horne, who really has a way with this film.
Rudolph Valentino! Without even consulting me, the Hippfest hipsters programmers chose my favourite Valentino film for the Friday night gala. It’s The Eagle, everyone! And with Neil Brand at the keys, this will be well worth dimming the lights in your lounge for. I insisted on writing the programme notes for this one …
Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson! Delve into the history of Black silent film history with a rare screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul starring Paul Robeson, with music by Wycliffe Gordon.
Sunday with Mary Pickford! Not only is Hippfest showing the silent Hollywood masterpiece that is Sparrows, with an introduction from Cari Beauchamp, but earlier that day, we are invited to a cookalong with Jenny Hammerton of Silver Screen Suppers to make one of Pickford’s favourite recipes, and to mix a special Hippfest cocktail.
Marlene Dietrich! So happy that this is in the programme: on Saturday night, the Frame Ensemble will accompany the gorgeous German silent The Woman Men Yearn For/Die Frau, Nach der Man Sich Sehnt, starriung the divine Dietrich.
There’s more! So much more, including Bryony Dixon introducing Asquith’s Underground with Brand’s orchestral score, Pudovkin’s Chess Fever, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, talks, a quiz, a tour of the Hippodrome … Book your pass as early as you can to support this wonderful festival.
““I am delighted to present our tenth HippFest… a year later than we originally planned but no less of a milestone!,” says festival director Alison Strauss. “We are looking forward to welcoming back all the many fans of HippFest and to throwing open the virtual cinema doors for audiences joining us for the first time. It’s exciting to think that more people might take the plunge because attendance this year is as easy as turning up in your own front room. This is definitely one of the upsides of a virtual festival. Whilst we will miss all being together under the star-studded ceiling of the Hippodrome we have tried to create a comparable cocktail of screenings with music, workshops, events and activities to sweep you up in the marvellous magic of early cinema. If dressing up is your thing, go for it! If you like mingling with other festival-goers, dive in to our virtual festival hub! However you do HippFest we’re sure you’ll have a great time.”
• The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival takes place online Wednesday 17 – Sunday 21 March 2021. Passes cost £20 or £5 for concessions. To read more about Hippfest and to book, click here.
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
So, 2020 wasn’t a standard year by any stretch, but instead of giving up on the Poll I decided to go ahead with it, to celebrate all the people who kept silent film culture alive in the midst of a global pandemic. And you clearly agreed, because I had far more votes to count this year than last. Here are your winners!
Best real-world silent film screening of 2020
None of us got to the pictures as much as we would have liked in 2020, but nevertheless there were some choice events nominated in this category. Your favourite? Filibus, presented by Hippfest at the The Barony Community Theatre in Bo’ness with accompaniment by Jane Gardner (piano) and Hazel Morrison (percussion).
• Honourable mentions:The Big Parade with Neil Brand at BFI Southbank and Tatjana with John Sweeney at The Kennington Bioscope.
2. Best online SILENT FILM SCREENING OF 2020
Did we ever think we would get used to streaming silents so much? Or that the quality of presentation and music could be *this* good? This was a hotly contested category, but the winner is Penrod & Sam, with Stephen Horne, presented as part of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival online.
As I wrote at the time: “A delightful film, and beautifully accompanied, it left me with just one poignant thought – that this sort of caper is exactly, exactly the kind of film that comes alive when watched with a crowd. The laughter and tears might be heard ‘as deep down as China and as far back as the alley’.”