William Holden is drawn into the dysfunctional, secluded household of a fading Hollywood star, seduced and horrified by what he finds. In his familar crisp voice-over, he tells a sad story of Hollywood brutality. This beautiful screen siren, her heyday far behind her, has a terrible secret, but despite her advanced age, she remains fascinating, almost irresistible…
No, it’s not Sunset Boulevard, but Billy Wilder’s penultimate movie Fedora, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Masters of Cinema on Monday 26 September. Made in 1978, Fedora belongs to a different era than 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “The kids with beards have taken over,” as Holden’s character laments, referring to those cinematic titans who were once movie brats: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. And Fedora is not a silent movie star either. She belongs especially to the 1930s and 1940s, when she made woman’s pictures, a genre that has gone out of date in 1978. But still, her career was suspiciously long.
It’s said that Wilder may have modelled Fedora on Pola Negri – she is Polish, aristocratic and melodramatic, and she was one of the women approached to play Norma Desmond way back then, too. Negri also retired to live quietly with a lady companion, after a couple of brief comebacks in the 1940s and 1960s. But Negri’s latter years were spent in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to Catholicism. Fedora skulks in an island villa in Corfu, and her end is much less pleasant.Wilder refused to pin this character down though. “I have known Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich, Lombard, and Monroe,” he said. “Fedora is a fictitious combination of them all.”In the opening sequence, in fact, Fedora looks like a much earlier screen goddess, Musidora, as she sprints in a fluttering black cloak towards her fate.
That was a bit harsh of me, I shouldn’t have been so blunt and I think I rained on his parade a little. Lots of people don’t think they like Hollywood films, especially the kind that win Oscars. Although lots more do, surely. And French avant-garde films are much cooler than Top Gun – I probably agree with that. I did wonder how many people thought that they were sharing an obscure example of le septième art rather than slick Hollywood film-making, when they pushed that nightclub tracking shot around Facebook.
Today, I saw the clip was back – transformed into a very smooth gif by the twitter account @silentmoviegifs and going great guns for shares and likes. This time it was more accurately credited. Wow, People really love Wings! Or at least this part of it.
This animated 2015 piece about the cinematography in Wings puts the tracking shot above the flying sequences, and this may be where the gif first took off. My clever colleague had read on Facebook that the smooth camera movement was achieved by splitting the tables in half as the camera moved forward. Now that is quite bizarre, although this shot was quite tricky to achieve. This YouTube video explains how it really worked:
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
So we already know that the Archive Gala will be the Irish-set thriller The Informer. And we already know that it is on the same day as Robin Hood. So that’s your first now-traditional schedule clash.* It’s also something of a shame that the Archive Gala will be at BFi Southbank, not the festival’s specially built 780-seat pop-up cinema in Victoria Embankment Gardens, where all the other galas will be held, although I assume that is to do with finding space for the band. Designers of these new-fangled cinemas always forget the orchestra pit.
However, here’s what the rest of the 60th London Film Festival has got planned for you, silents-wise. Erm, not quite as much as I would have hoped …
One of the most exciting annual announcements in the silent film calendar, at least for us Brits, is the London Film Festival Archive Gala. So start rolling those drums now. This year, the beneficiary of a digital restoration, a new score, a gala screening and and a Blu/DVD release is … Arthur Robison’s The Informer (1929).
This rare silent adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s famous novel is set among Dublin revolutionaries in the early days of the newly independent Irish Free State, formed in 1922. The Archive Gala will take place at BFI Southbank on Friday 14th October, 6.30pm in NFT1 and features a specially commissioned live score by Irish composer Garth Knox with a six piece ensemble.
The silent Informer is a British-made movie, filmed at Elstree by British International Pictures, but has the flavour of an international co-production too, starring Englishman Carl Harbord, Swedish Lars Hanson, and Hungarian Lya de Putti (you may know her from Varieté). The story is set in early 1920s Dublin, during the first years of the Irish Free State and it is a tale of revolution and betrayal, with an underground cell of activists torn apart when one of their member accidentally kills a police officer.
According to novelist O’Flaherty, he wrote The Informer “based on the technique of the cinema,” as “a kind of high-brow detective story”. The BFI says that the film draws on this lead, with an expressionist vibe that looks forward to film noir. Robison’s studio-shot film is tense, and claustrophobic, reflecting the anxieties of the lead characters, almost exclusively shot in mid-shot or close-up.
The dense narrative develops in a short time heightening the intensity of emotional effect. Our sympathies are challenged to deal with the complexity of personal versus political loyalties, where no-one is entirely innocent and the implications of seemingly minor or impulsive decisions create inescapable moral dilemmas for all the protagonists.
The new score for the gala and Blu-ray release has been written by a composer from Ireland, Garth Knox. The music draws on his interest in medieval, baroque and traditional Celtic music, and uses some traditional Irish instruments as well as avant-garde composition styles. It will be performed by a six-piece ensemble including accordion, flute, Irish pipes and viola d’amore.
The Informer (1929)
The digital restoration has substantially cleaned up the film, which was made in both silent and talkie versions at the dawn of the sound era – and reintroduced the lavender tinting it would have enjoyed on its first release.
More to come on this for sure … Silent London will keep you informed.
The London Film Festival runs from 5- 16 October 2016
The Archive Gala screening of The Informer with Knox’s live score will take place on 14 October 2016
The newly restored version of The Informer will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI DVD in February 2017
Ta-da! Silent London has had a bit of a makeover. Everything that used to be on the site is still there, but hopefully it is now easier to find. The social media is back on the front page, as a few people have requested, and some of the best stuff is displayed on a slider at the top too. All the usual menus and gizmos should be to hand as well.
The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.
Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.
Seduced and betrayed by a scoundrel, mother to a dead child, and cast out by an unfeeling employer, “frenzied – tortured” Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) stumbles out into a blizzard and, hearing the rush of the river, on to her certain death. The melodramatic climax of DW Griffith’s old-time tearjerker Way Down East (1920) is a violent assault on the audience’s emotional wellbeing. Anna collapses in the snow, and asleep on a sheet of ice, drifts downstream towards a waterfall. Her hair and her hands dip in the icy water, icicles collect on her eyelashes, snowflakes gather on her cheeks … and all the time, just too far behind her, a true-hearted gentleman in a fur coat (Richard Barthelmess) leaps from floe to floe in pursuit, hoping to save her from death, from his own father’s coldhearted cruelty, and from her moral disgrace.
Even in 1920, this was a bit much for most filmgoers to swallow. Griffith had spent thousands on acquiring the film rights to Lottie Blair Parker’s 19th-century stage play, a huge hit in the provinces but hopelessly dated: a hokey melodrama, hinging on unlikely events and leavened with rustic humour. Even the waif to end all waifs, wide-eyed Lillian Gish, was concerned about playing naïve country girl Anna Moore, who is tricked into a mock marriage by an unscrupulous womaniser. But if they were to recoup some of that money, the cast and crew were going to have to make the cinemagoing public believe in Way Down East. And for that, Griffith needed to show them something authentic.
“Audiences want to see a real blizzard, not a sub-title with a two sentence description. If this film was going to work, the audiences wanted to see the real thing. Otherwise, whatever we did would be laughable,” worried Gish. And she was right to be concerned. At the opening night in New York, the audience howled with laughter – until the ice sequence, which is, despite the inserted footage of Niagara Falls and some canny editing, a triumph of endurance and performance rather than special effects. The sentimental appeal of Gish’s frozen tears, and the very real danger she is in during this scene would melt the hardest heart. It’s not just a nail-biting finale to a movie, it’s a spectacle of human courage – and it called for dedication above and beyond the call of cinematic duty.
A fortnight spent filming in a real blizzard and a “ninety-mile-an-hour gale” in White River Junction, Vermont, took its toll on cast and crew both. The cameramen lay down on the ice to hold the camera still, but sheltered themselves from the wind, while Gish, in a simple dress and shawl, faced the gusts until her face turned blue. When ice crystals formed on her face, Griffith had his crew film a closeup before offering her a blanket and a cup of hot tea. While it was Gish’s idea to drape her hair and hands in the river, her director gladly agreed – to the cost of her frostbite-ravaged fingers.
It’s a stellar year for silent film screenings in London, big and small, but there is one particular show I have been looking forward to for months …
Allan Dwan’s captivating, super-sized adaptation of Robin Hood, starring the athletic, charming Douglas Fairbanks, is one of my all-time favourite family-friendly silents. It has wit, and spectacle and action and a true star to recommend it. And who doesn’t love Robin Hood?
But there is another reason to anticipate this screening. Robin Hood screens at the Barbican in October, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing a brand new score, by the one and only Neil Brand, a veritable swashbuckler among film composers. The Barbican promises us that Brand’s score transforms and further enlivens the classic silent, adding “a new richness and relatability to the film’s building tension and dark humour”. I think this is going to be very special.
Robin Hood set a very good example when he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. You could win a pair of tickets to experience the movie, and the new score, for yourself (and a friend).