Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 5

I heart John M Stahl. He’s revealing more and more to me with each movie I watch. But I have to be honest. For me, the Lincoln Cycle has gone off the boil – too much folksy moralising, not enough of either cute childish antics or actual grownup politics. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s final instalment will change that…

Today’s Stahl feature was the very definition of a kitchen-sink drama, with the director abandoning his customary upper-class milieu for The Song of Life (1922). He’s establishing himself in my mind as a first-rate New York filmmaker, but here he abandons the lavish Park Avenue apartments for cramped tenements, where life is hard and people live so cheek-by-jowl that their darkest secrets can deep through the floorboards. A hard-pressed housewife, sick of spending her day with her hands sunk deep in the dishwater abandons husband and child in a fit of dissatisfaction with the rural life. But years later we find her still living in the city, all alone, but still doing the dishes to get by. She’s on the verge of saying goodbye to it all with a bottle of Lysol, when the novelist downstairs takes her in as housekeeper to himself and his, yes, dissatisfied wife. Maybe it’s the Bess Meredyth screenplay, or just Stahl honing his skills, but this was a neat and to-the-point melodrama, despite the crashingly improbably coincidences powering the story. And strong performances all round too, especially from Georgia Woodthorpe as the mother and Gaston Glass as the novelist.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 5

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

It’s always a joy to travel the world in a day at the Giornate, but we tarried a little in  Sweden this afternoon. A screening of Victor Sjostrom’s deathless The Phantom Carriage was preceded by two less well-known Swedish films, a recent rediscovery of an early work by Sjostrom and a reconstruction of one by his compatriot Mauritz Stiller that survives only in fragments.

Accompanied expertly and very melodically by John Sweeney (coping heroically with the amount of stills in the Stiller), this was an intriguing and very enjoyable double-bill. They were both three-act drama, which unfolded swiftly and with a rich emotional impact. Sjostrom’s recently discovered Judaspengar (1915), starring Egil Eide and John Ekman was a story of betrayal, naturally, as a hard-up worker resorts to increasingly desperate measures when his wife is sick. The attraction here is the aesthetic more than the drama – with interior shots framed prettily by windows on several occasions. The opening is very striking, when the camera glides through an open window to the sick room. Elsewhere, dramatically lit scenes in a gloomy attic contrasted well the open countryside, where our heroes came cropper out poaching.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 3

As the great sage Rachel Bloom has pointed out, the mathematics of love triangles isn’t hard to learn. But what happens when one of the angles in the love triangle is so very much more acute than all the others? Which is to say, age ain’t nothing but a number, but some numbers are certainly far higher than others. And we learned a lot about May-December relationships at the Giornate this morning.

First, the sweetly pretty Swedish film Dunungen (1919), in which a young lady known as Downy (yes, I know, I tried to swap in Fluffkins to make sense of it as a nickname) gets engaged to a fancy dude who is actually the mayor’s son. And she is just the baker’s daughter so she should be grateful right? Well despite her disadvantages he takes her along to go butter up his uncle for an inheritance. Uncle has a big ironworks business and a country estate, and maybe, just maybe he likes Fluffkins more than her rubbish fiancé does. Perhaps they should be together and live happily in rural bliss. Well, it takes some elongated shenanigans and many beautifully hand-drawn folk art intertitles to get there, but yes, she swaps her immature snob for a classy chap who knows what he wants out of life eventually. This was a treat, a film from the Scandinavian Challenge strand that has had a little resto work to fill in the missing reels. It’s gorgeous and funny and spins out its domestic drama until the conclusion feels fully earned.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 2

Sunday in Pordenone, and it’s time to get this John M Stahl show on the road. We spent the morning with the master of melodrama, give or take an hour or so in the company of Jean Epstein and it was … exhilarating, actually.

Most mornings the Giornate will be showing instalments from The Lincoln Cycle, a series of standalone, two-reel dramas taken from the life of the 16th POTUS. The impetus for these films came from Benjamin Chapin, a renowned Lincolnalike, known for plays and monologues in which he impersonated the great man. He’s credited here as writer, director and producer – which I think we should be discreetly booing by the end of the week. JMS directed these beauties, very early in his career and got no credit for it. I must admit, honest Abe, that the prospect of the first two instalments, devoted to each of Lincoln’s parents, respectively (Chapin plays Lincoln Sr), didn’t sound too thrilling. But, that’s where Stahl (perhaps) comes in. Delicately directed, nuanced performances (especially Madelyn Clare as Abe’s mother) and brisk, smart storytelling – these were actually gems, and though these childhood episodes never featured in Chapin’s stage shows, so we could be tempted to assign praise to our man Stahl, I suppose we’ll never know exactly how much influence he had. Can’t wait to see more though. Sadly some dramatic-sounding stories are missing, but let’s treasure what we have. Gorgeous prints too.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 1

How long would you wait for a date with Lars Hanson? Maybe don’t answer that, but the past year we have spent yearning for Lars, after seeing his brooding visage on all those beautiful posters for the 2017 Giornate, has flown by. This year, the artwork celebrates the divine Pola Negri, but we’ll have plenty of time to get to her later in the week. Tonight, on the opening evening of the 2018 Giornate, we finally had our night with Lars, and Dr Philip Carli, thanks to a triumphant orchestral screening of Captain Salvation (1927). It was an invigorating start to proceedings, and just the kind of high-quality discovery that keeps us coming back (and back) to the festival.

Captain Salvation? No, I hadn’t come across it before, but it’s a wonder. Hanson plays Anson, a young vicar-in-training living in a coastal village near Boston. He loves the sea, his fiancé Mary (Marceline Day) and God. Quite possibly in that order. When a shipwreck washes up a sex worker named Bess (a wonderful Pauline Starke), Anson defies the locals to offer her charity, rather than the bum’s rush. Ostracised by the piety police, Anson and Bess take passage on a ship captained by a leering Ernest Torrence (excellent as always), which turns out not to be quite what it seemed.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 1

Silent Guns: Kennington Bioscope remembers WWI

Anniversaries are a wonderful reason to show some archive film, and some anniversaries are better than others. The Kennington Bioscope, which has had a spectacularly busy year, has added yet another special event to the calendar. Silent Guns is a celebration of First World War cinema, to commemorate 100 years since the conflict ended, curated by the KB team and Kevin Brownlow himself.

The screenings will take place on Saturday 17 November 20187, from 10am to 10.30pm at where else but the wonderful Cinema Museum in south London. Most of the film prints will be 35mm or 16mm and of course all the silent films will be accompanied by live music.

The gala film, so to speak, is King Vidor’s The Big Parade, a rare chance to see this Hollywood classic starring John Gilbert on the big screen and on film too. But there are some very intriguing titles further down the programme, including some little-seen British films, including Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) and and George Pearson’s Reveille (1924) – and a German one too. There are shorts (From Pearl White to Chaplin), extracts from films that don’t survive intact, and even a couple of sound artefacts too.

Continue reading Silent Guns: Kennington Bioscope remembers WWI

A weekend with Lois Weber: silent movies at the 2018 Cambridge Film Festival

Festival season is upon us. There’s Pordenone, of course, and London and also the Cambridge Film Festival all in October. A trip to the fenland city is very appealing at this time of year – and all the more so with a tempting selection of silent films.

The star of the slate is Lois Weber, one of the very best American silent film directors. And Cambridge will be showing four of her films over the weekend, all with live music. One of these in particular, The Blot, is rarely shown, but I think it’s very special indeed. Kevin Brownlow says that you won’t find a better film for showing you how life was really lived in the 1920s. That’s very probably true, but I think that inadvertently undersells it. There is a lot more to the film than its realism. It’s a real heartbreaker, and a nuanced drama too.

Lois Weber calling the shots
Lois Weber calling the shots

Continue reading A weekend with Lois Weber: silent movies at the 2018 Cambridge Film Festival

Pictures of Lili: The Golden Butterfly & the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.

There are many treats coming up in the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend 8 & 9 September 2018, held at our beloved Cinema Museum, the Jewel of Lambeth. From Canadian canine capers with wonder dog Rin Tin Tin, putting his best paw forward to start off the weekend in Where The North Begins (1923), to sparkling comedy with Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman in Her Night Of Romance (1924), through to marvellous Mary Pickford in our Saturday night feature Sparrows (1926) by way of other films from the USA with William C deMille’s naturalistic drama Miss Lulu Bett (1921) and Herbert Brenon’s Dancing Mothers (1926).

Dancing_Mothers_lobby_card_2

Mothers’ lead actress was Alice Joyce but with Clara Bow also featuring in what was her first picture for Paramount, she was left more than a little in the younger woman’s shade. Louise Brooks (quite popular around these parts, I’m led to believe) commented that: “Everybody forgot Alice Joyce because Clara was so marvellous; she just swept the country. She became a star overnight with nobody’s help.”

Speaking of heroines, we’re very lucky to be looking forward to a programme on the most famous silent serial queen of them all with Pearl White: A Cliffhanging Life presented by Glenn Mitchell and Michael Pointon, who have done extensive research on plucky Pearl. Continue reading Pictures of Lili: The Golden Butterfly & the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

London Film Festival 2018: the silent preview

Happy London Film Festival programme launch day! The festival runs 10-21 October this year and there are oodles of films showing, from the competition titles and the galas to the weird and wonderful pieces in the experimental and short categories. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s cut to the chase. We have no time here for talkies. What does the 62nd London Film Festival have to offer in the way of silent cinema? Plenty. More than usual, I’d say. Some we knew about, some we didn’t.

The really good news – none of these silent screenings need clash with Pordenone. That is to say, there are duplicate screenings to avoid that.

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The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show

Nineteenth-century films, shot on 68mm film, beautifully restored, introduced by Bryony Dixon and accompanied by John Sweeney and his Biograph Band. Oh, and they are screening at the actual, flipping IMAX. This is going to be massive. If your mouth isn’t already watering, I don’t know what to do with you. This year’s Archive Gala should be a silent cinema experience like no other. Book now.

Plays: 18 October 2018, BFI IMAX

Continue reading London Film Festival 2018: the silent preview

Les Vampires: a dream of silent cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by Tim Major, a writer of speculative and weird fiction. His short stories have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year. His next novel, Snakeskins, will be published by Titan Books in spring 2019. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.com

There are moments when I experience a twinge of surprise that I’ve written a long-form non-fiction book about Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 crime serial, Les Vampires. I’m a novelist and short-story writer rather than a film writer. While I love silent film, it’s far from my specialism. Even so, when I was invited to write a book for the Midnight Movie Monographs series from Electric Dreamhouse Press, Les Vampires was my first choice.

Les Vampires exists in a strange hinterland between the ‘cinema of spectacle’ and the narrative and montage techniques being developed concurrently by filmmakers such as DW Griffith. Nowadays Les Vampires is accepted as highly important in the canon – it laid the groundwork for many staples of crime films as well as the conventions of episodic drama now more likely to be experienced on TV – but it’s equally likely to be mentioned as an example of one of the world’s longest films, at seven hours. Frankly, I’m appalled that the serial gets referenced so much, but seems to be watched relatively little. Continue reading Les Vampires: a dream of silent cinema

LFF Archive Gala 2018: Welcome to the Victorian IMAX

This year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala has been announced – and it’s big.

You may have had a sneak preview of the Victorian films, shot on 68mm film, that the BFI has been restoring recently. Samplers have popped up at a few festivals and conferences over the past year or so. The clarity and the detail in these early films are incredible. For this year’s Archive Gala, the BFI are going to project these beauties in their natural home – at the IMAX. Step aside, Christopher Nolan. Your host for the evening will be Bryony Dixon and music will be provided by the maestro John Sweeney – and his Biograph Band.

Here’s what the BFI has to say:

Sweeping away the veil of time, this Archive Gala will project Britain’s earliest films at their grandest scale (68mm, almost four times the image size of regular 35mm film) on the nation’s biggest screen, the BFI IMAX. Festival-goers will be astounded by the sheer clarity, scale and spectacle of these incredibly rare surviving fragments of our first films, preserved by the BFI National Archive. Breathing new life into these filmic ghosts, superbly restored from the 68mm original nitrate prints under the meticulous and painstaking supervision of the BFI’s Conservation Centre, these films will be presented digitally in their fully fleshed, large format, high-definition glory for the first time in over 120 years.

The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show will reveal the quality, scope and scale of their technical ambition in developing a new media, combined with their avid curiosity in the world opening up around them. It also showcases the drive and media savvy of the showmen and film pioneers who sold audiences this new perception of reality. This unique opportunity promises to show the Victorians in a whole new light, blowing the lid off any preconceptions of our forebears and dispelling the image of the stuffy, stoic, stern Victorian for good.

In a night not to be missed, this one-off gala event will transport the audience back to the end of Victoria’s long reign, a time when competing showmen were projecting their moving picture shows in London’s great West End theatres. Among the frontrunners was the peerless William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, whose British Mutoscope and Biograph Company enjoyed a long residency at the Palace Theatre of Varieties (now known as the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus, home to a different magician in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Of Scottish heritage, Dickson, who had worked for Thomas Edison, arrived in London in 1897 with his own very special USP: large-format films – the IMAX films of their day – aiming to outgun his rivals with his high quality pictures.

At only a minute or so long, these films range in date from 1897-1901, serving up an eclectic spread of subjects, from gorgeous panoramic vistas to dizzying ‘phantom rides’, from music hall turns to the pomp of royal pageantry, from the bustle of the Victorian street to genuine dispatches from the Boer War. The night has been programmed by and will be presided over by BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon, with music from composer/pianist John Sweeney and his Biograph Band.

  • I can’t wait. The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show will take place on 18 October at the BFI IMAX in London. Tickets will go on sale soon, I guess, with the rest of the London Film Festival events.
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A feast of festival news: London, Bristol and Pordenone

Greetings from Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol – the fabulous west country weekend inspired by a certain Bolognese festival of archive cinema. I am here to work a little and watch a lot – or that’s the plan. If you haven’t made it to this annual event (and this is the third instalment, so why not?) do try to rectify that next year. Bristol is a lovely place to be at the end of July and it’s a warm and wide-ranging festival too, based mostly at the fantastic Watershed cinema on the harbourside.

While I am here, I really must share some more festival news with you, because I have lots. First, because we’re in Bristol, but also last, as it is not until next year, I have Slapstick news. The Slapstick Festival is going ahead for 2019, but as the Colston Hall is closed for refurbishments, a few changes have been made to the setup. The festival will go ahead as usual 18-20 January at the Watershed and the Bristol Old Vic. The Gala screening of Modern Times will become a standalone event and take place at the beautiful Hippodrome Theatre on 10 February instead. Here are the details:

Hosting the event will be stand-up, TV and radio show panellist, writer, satirist and actor Marcus Brigstocke. Its centrepiece will be a complete screening of the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece Modern Times (1936), showing on a super-sized HD screen and accompanied live by the 40-piece Bristol Ensemble playing Chaplin’s own score for the film and conducted by Guenter A Buchwald.

In addition, there will be pre-show entertainment by students of the Circomedia circus-theatre school; screenings, with music, of Bacon Grabbers (1929), starring Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow (1924) and comedy magic from John Archer – the first act on Jonathan Ross’s Penn and Teller: More Fool Us series to perform a trick which left the duo baffled and a regular on the BAFTA-winning CBBC series Help! My Supply Teacher’s Magic.

You can book your seat for the Modern Times gala now on the Slapstick website. And keep your eye on that site too, as the full programme for the festival should be announced in October.

Continue reading A feast of festival news: London, Bristol and Pordenone

Cinema muto ritrovato: silent films at Bologna 2018

Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.

It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.

Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1971)
Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1971)

I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.

Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford on the set of Rosita (1923)
Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford on the set of Rosita (1923)

My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.

Continue reading Cinema muto ritrovato: silent films at Bologna 2018

Les Deux Timides (1928): a bold comedy of shy lovers

This piece originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 2016. 

Among the treasures on display in Paris at Toute la Mémoire du Monde in February, one film seemed to justify the festival’s existence by itself. René Clair’s ingenious late silent Les Deux Timides/The Two Timid Ones (1928) harks back to an earlier age of film comedy, reworking the styles of Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett into something new and elegant. At the same time, the new restoration of this sublime farce reveals it as a silent classic in its own right – to be esteemed as highly as the films that inspired it. Thanks to a ravishing new restoration, it may be about to receive the credit it has long deserved.

By 1928, René Clair had moved on from his early art films, the science-fiction caper Paris qui dort (1923) and the cinéma pur of Entr’acte (1924) and joined Albatros, a French studio staffed mostly by Russian exiles. It was here that he made his best known silent, the beautifully elaborate farce Un chapeau de paille d’Italie/The Italian Straw Hat (1927). Clair’s 1930s triumphs Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931) were ahead of him, but Les Deux Timides is his silent masterpiece, folding the avant-garde and the comic into a delightful, expertly judged story of provincial romance and misapprehension.

Les Deux Timides (1928)
Les Deux Timides (1928)

Les Deux Timides takes what could be a Linder scenario, of a young middle-class man overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a pretty girl, merges it with Chaplinesque outsider charm and punctuates it with Keystone-quality chaos. Clair’s film is as serious and silly as its predecessors at their best, a film that is so intensely funny it makes humour itself, and the business of film comedy, seem vitally important.

Continue reading Les Deux Timides (1928): a bold comedy of shy lovers

All aboard the Silent Railway Day at the Kennington Bioscope

What’s better than a film set on a train? A silent film set on a train. You know it’s true, and so do the wonderful people at the Kennington Bioscope, who have compiled a day of railway-themed silent films with live music for next month.

Taking place at the glorious Cinema Museum on 7 July 2018, this event should prove the perfect pick-me-up for those who missed out on Il Cinema Ritrovato, or who went, but already miss spending all day watching old films with fabulous people.

It’s bound to get pretty steamy, too …

Here are the details from the Bioscopers themselves:

An all-day excursion into the greatest railroading moments of silent cinema. Thrill to the train of events that put movie heroines Ruth Roland, Helen Holmes and Gloria Swanson in peril! Express hilarity with Monty Banks aboard a runaway train, and sneak ‘A Kiss in the Tunnel’ from 1899! Signal your approval of Jean Arthur in ‘The Block Signal’ (1926).
Climb aboard ‘The Flying Scotsman’ (1929), in the rare silent version that differs radically from the talkie. Take a round trip with Kevin Brownlow as he pilots ‘The Runaway Express’ (1926) before conducting us through the making of Abel Gance’s ‘La Roue’ (1923). Ride along with the  ‘Railroad Raiders of ’62’ (1911) – a precursor to Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ – which will be rolling in from the sidings alongside other shorts, from the Lumière brothers’ famous ‘L’arrivée d’un train en gare’ de ‘La Ciotat’ (1896) to a hair-raising journey ‘When the Devil Drives’ (1907). After that, don’t be afraid of ‘The Ghost Train‘ (1927), the first film adaptation of the famous stage play by a (very) pre-Dad’s Army Arnold Ridley. The booking office is opening NOW so couple up to a season ticket for the whole day!

Kevin Brownlow on Abel Gance! Rare silents! Live music!

The Silent Railway Day takes place at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH, from 10am (doors 9.30am) to 10pm on 7 July 2018. Full-day tickets cost £18, or £10 for a half-day ticket, or £5 for the last show only. Book tickets here. Or find out more at kenningtonbioscope.com where you can read all about the regular silent screenings, at which you can see all manner of beautiful and rare silents with live music on a Wednesday night.

The Ghost Train (1927)
The Ghost Train (1927)

You haven’t been to the Kennington Bioscope yet? Hush your mouth. It’s a really vibrant element of the rich silent film culture in this fantastic city, and should be a regular fixture in your diary. As I reported on this site back in 2015:

Since 2013, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best  – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out …Long may it run, and run – the Kennington Bioscope is a cherished addition to London’s silent film scene.

When Italian cinema meets its Celtic shadow: Castle of Blood (1964)

This is a slightly unusual guest post for Silent London, by Daniel Riccuito from the Chiseler, who promised me he could persuade us that 1964’s Castle of Blood/La Danza Macabra was essentially a silent film. What do you think?

Her appearance in 1960’s Black Sunday had already conquered him. And thereby imbued Raymond Durgnat’s now famous one-liner – “She is the only girl in films whose eyelids can snarl” – with more than surrealist fancy. His Companion to Violence and Sadism in the Cinema came out in February 1963. Reading it today, I’m humbled by its prescience: Barbara Steele would soon prove that “snarls” should remain metaphors, and that synchronised sound never amounted to more than a tattered cloak. Cinema is visual and, therefore, silent.

And the screen’s own metaphorical whisper (“There must be other Alices”) invites new, unexpected iterations of Lewis Carroll’s looking glass.

Barbara Steele in Castle of Blood (1964)
Barbara Steele in Castle of Blood (1964)

Enter a 26-year-old: maturing as an actress while retaining a profound sense of uncontrollable childhood rage, capable of playing emotions too vast for the human body — commanding them into air. Barbara Steele, who holds the patent on gothic atmosphere, occasionally leases it to cinema. Here, she’s pursued by a camera that may as well be the all-engulfing eye of some hypnotised cat, as Ricardo Pallottini’s lens captures the most erotic blacks and whites ever filmed. Picture the primordial shadow, rather than the reflection of Alice to fathom 1964’s cinematic tone poem La Danza Macabra AKA Castle of Blood. Her face “chops and changes its character as the lights carve at its neat, stark cheekbones, high forehead.” I share Durgnat’s rather pointed fascination with the way Steele transforms via filmic reproduction, as if he were channeling Jean Epstein’s theories of “photogénie”, the notion that movies can reveal and magnify a subject’s moral character.

Continue reading When Italian cinema meets its Celtic shadow: Castle of Blood (1964)

Walk Cheerfully (1930): Yasujiro Ozu’s toe-tapping tough guys

I wrote this essay for the BFI’s The Ozu Collection – The Gangster Films DVD box set, released in 2013. 

The cheeky twist in the story of Yasujiro Ozu is the revelation that the director Donald Richie hails as the ‘most Japanese of all’ was actually a devoted fan of American movies. And while Ozu never slavishly mimicked his Hollywood heroes, his early work pushes his passion for Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch proudly to the fore. Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume) is a prime example: a gangster story ostensibly set in Tokyo, but truly resident in an imagined trans-Pacific replica of the city, part-populated by snappy, glamorous types strangely familiar from American flicks. But Walk Cheerfully goes further than a fan letter. Behind the genre trappings of guns and cars and toe-tapping lowlifes, there’s a classic Ozu domestic drama unfolding – one that reflects real concerns in early 1930s Japan.

Walk Cheerfully (1930)
Walk Cheerfully (1930)

In the director’s own words, this is the story of ‘a delinquent who goes straight’. His name is Kenji the Knife (Minoru Takada) and he casts off his spurs only for the love of a good woman, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki). He needs a good reason to walk the line because Walk Cheerfully depicts the life of a hoodlum as mostly jovial. The snarling gangsters in Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (a clear influence on this film’s sharp light and shade) may pause their feud for a decadent ball, but Kenji and his cohorts mix business with pleasure far more comfortably. Their hangouts are a bar and a boxing gym; the walls of the latter are graffitied with slushy English lyrics and playing cards. These fun-loving criminals wear western suits and dabble in American leisure pursuits: pool, convertible cars, golf and jazz. The gang boss is a hoot, a camp delight complete with fussy moustache, cigarette holder and a teeny-tiny dog, who is greeted by a chorus-line of twirling goons when he makes an entrance. The crew’s cute habit of moving and dancing in unison is a nod to Lloyd (Ozu’s slacking students display the same quirk in his comedy I Flunked, But … 1930), which is also picked up by the police, and the office workers who hang their hats as one. When we do see Kenji in the commission of a crime, his cons are so coolly and stylishly pulled off that we understand why even old-fashioned girl Yasue is charmed by him. It’s the chutzpah of his upstanding citizen pose when his sidekick Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) is accused of theft; his tough-guy stance as he ambushes a mark with his moll Chieko (Satoko Date). Were the Shangri-Las around in 1930s Japan, they’d surely discern that Kenji is ‘good-bad, but he’s not evil’, despite his leather gloves and his dagger tattoo. Continue reading Walk Cheerfully (1930): Yasujiro Ozu’s toe-tapping tough guys

Pandora’s Box: poster, trailer and news

Yes, I’m talking about the Pandora’s Box rerelease this summer again – but I’ll be brief. I have three things to share with you.

First, here is the very chic poster for the rerelease. The BFI marketing team is clearly adopting a Brooks-first strategy, and who can blame them?

Second, here is the trailer!

Third, which you may have guessed by now – contrary to previous reports, this theatrical release will actually be a 2K digital print of the newest restoration of the film, complBoxhereeted in 2009 by Martin Koerber and the Deutsche Kinemathek. As Koerber said to me, in this version “you can see every flutter of Louise Brooks’s eyelashes”. How can you resist?

  • Pandora’s Box is released on 1 June 2018, screening at BFI Southbank and cinemas nationwide. Details will be available here.
  • Don’t miss Louise Brooks in Technicolor.
  • You can buy my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box 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.

The American Venus (1926): Louise Brooks discovered in Technicolor

There is no such thing as too many images of Louise Brooks. Even during her Hollywood years, she was more photographed than filmed – appearing in portraits in movie magazines more often than she did on the big screen. Now, a fascinating discovery by the BFI shows us Louise Brooks in the roaring twenties as we have never really seen her before. In glorious two-strip Technicolor, posing, laughing and fidgeting with her costume in and out-take from the lost film The American Venus (Frank Tuttle, 1926). Check out that beaming smile!

The clip was found in a collection of Technicolor fragments in the BFI archive. They are stunning to watch. As well as Brooksie, don’t miss Hedda Hopper in Mona Lisa an Karl Dane gurning with a pipe. To read more about the discover of these amazing images, listen to the commentary by Bryony Dixon in the video below – and pick up the June 2018 issue of Sight & Sound, which contains the full story of the fragments’ discovery and is out next week (it also includes a feature by me on Pabst’s women).

 

(Impatient people can skip to 1.07 to see Brooksie, but there are many more treasures in this reel.)

Continue reading The American Venus (1926): Louise Brooks discovered in Technicolor

Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence

Two just-teenage runaways arrive in New York City, one in monochrome 1927 and the other in the notorious, sultry summer of 1977. That’s the simple premise of Todd Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, a film that is as rich as it is gentle. The film is based, as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was, on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick, but this is more impressionistic and less didactic than that affectionate tribute to Georges Meliès. There is a silent cinema connection again, though. Both children are deaf, and the 1920s scenes are filmed entirely silent, but this is no fussy exercise in cinematic nostalgia; it’s a film about deaf culture, but also the silence of loneliness, of being friendless in a big city, or unloved at home.

In fact, and let’s get this out of the way at the very beginning, the brief silent-film-within-the-film here is a thuddingly offkey pastiche, witlessly mashing up The Wind and Way Down East with bone-headed intertitles. That aside, there are some nice mockups of silent-era movie magazines, and a couple of nods to Nosferatu and The Crowd, but Haynes is doing something more interesting than reconstruction. His film, carried along by Carter Burwell’s brilliantly alive score, creates an almost silent movie – a wordless communion between two periods of time, interrupted by snatches of dialogue.  Continue reading Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence

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