There is far more to British silent cinema than Hitchcock, whatever recent news reports might have you believe. From Yorkshireman Louis Le Prince’s claim to have invented motion-picture technology, through Cecil Hepworth’s pioneering days in Walton-on-Thames, to the directors who gathered at the London Film Society in the 1920s, our early cinema industry has much to offer. And it’s not just directors that we can praise, but actors, writers, producers and more besides.
That’s why I am so happy to report that, before Hitchcock’s work takes centre-stage next year, there are several screenings of silent films by other British film-makers coming up in London soon. This is a great opportunity to learn more about what we can loftily, but quite rightly, call our cinematic heritage – and to enjoy some rather good films.
Director Walter Summers is best remembered today for his first world war films, notably The Battles of the Coronel and Falklands Islands (1927), but earlier in his career he directed fiction features for GB Samuelson’s Napoleon Films. One of these, The Unwanted (1924), had been thought lost, but has been recently discovered in a Dutch archive and will be shown for the first time in London in more than 80 years at the Cinema Museum. This “lost” film does star one very familiar face, the cricketer-turned-actor C Aubrey Smith, who went on to later success in Hollywood, where he took character parts and hobnobbed with fellow British expats such as Ronald Colman, David Niven, Rex Harrison and Leslie Howard. The Unwanted’s female lead is Lillian Hall-Davis, whose life story isn’t quite so happy. A major British star in the silent era, she shone in films such as Adrian Brunel’s Blighty and Hitchcock’s The Ring. Sadly her career faltered after the coming of sound, and in 1933 she killed herself.
This is what the Cinema Museum has to say about the film:
The Dutch title Het Gezicht naar den Vijand, or Face to the Foe, is taken from the hero’s family motto, whereas the British title alludes to the story of illicit love and an illegitimate child. The film actually combines both these elements into a narrative set over two generations before and during the First World War. It opens with location shooting in Venice and Switzerland and features later scenes on the Western Front shot with an original WW1 tank known as “Crème de Menthe”.
The Unwanted screens with a selection of French silent shorts including Camille de Morlhon’s Sémiramis (1910) – a Pathécolor stencilled film featuring Stacia Napierkowska as the pagan queen, which includes an early film-maker’s vision of the hanging gardens of Babylon – and La Fiancée Récalcitrante (1909), featuring French actress and singer Mistinguett on 8 September 2011 at 7.30pm at the Cinema Museum. For more information and tickets, visit the Cinema Museum website.
A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground
The son of a Liberal prime minister, Anthony Asquith took a rather glamorous route into film-making. After graduating from Oxford, he spent six months in Hollywood as a guest of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, learning about the movie business. On his return to London, Asquith took a job at British Instructional Films and co-founded the London Film Society, which screened ambitious, experimental and avant-garde films to an audience of artists and film-makers. The influence of the work shown there, particularly Soviet films such as Battleship Potemkin, can be seen in the two Asquith films being shown at the Barbican this autumn.
Asquith’s Underground (1928) was a hugely popular film, and while its stylised shot compositions and set design may have been inspired by the arthouse fare screened at the Film Society, it bills itself as a “story of of ordinary workaday people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert”. The plot involves the love lives of four Londoners and it’s mostly set on and around the tube, including some nail-biting chase sequences.
The Barbican is screening the newly restored print of Underground in its concert hall on 5 October. What makes this a must-see event is the debut of a new orchestral score, written by Neil Brand and performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. For more information and to buy tickets visit the Barbican website.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) is a rather good film with a rather bad name. It’s the story of a love triangle in a small-town hair dresser’s that tips over into violence, told in flashback by a fugitive prisoner. Asquith’s use of montage editing, particularly in the film’s violent climax, nods to his Soviet and avant-garde influences. A scene set in a cinema where the audience is shown to be besotted with a Harold Lloyd comedy and perplexed by a new “talkie”, demonstrates his love for more populist entertainment. The film stars Norah Baring, who appeared in Underground a year earlier, as a flirtatious manicurist and Uno Hemming, a Swedish actor, as the menacingly jealous barber.
A Cottage on Dartmoor screens at the Barbican cinema on 11 September at 4pm. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Barbican website.
The Silent House
Yorkshire-born music-hall comedian Walter Forde is now better known for the films he made in the 1930s (Rome Express, Chu Chin Chow), but he had a lot of success in the silent era, primarily directing himself as his persona “Walter” in a series of caper films. One of these films, What Next? Was recently rediscovered and shown as part of the British Silent Film Festival in April. Comedy was his forte, and Forde progressed from slapstick in his earlier work, to more sophisticated comedy thrillers in later years.
Forde doesn’t feature in front of the camera in the rarely seen The Silent House (1929), though, which is an adaptation of a popular melodrama of the time. The action is set in the far east and Gibb McLaughlin plays a creepy character called Dr Chang Fu, who is intent on hypnotising our heroine T’Mala, played by the winsome Mabel Poulton.
The Silent House screens at the Cinema Museum on 22 September at 7.30pm. There will be an introduction by film historian Geoff Brown, live piano accompaniment and refreshments. For more details visit the Cinema Museum website, or to book tickets go to WeGotTickets.
The most prolific of all British film directors, Maurice Elvey was never busier than during the silent era, when he was making up to 20 films a year. Critical opinion used to be against Elvey, but in recent years his silent work has been reconsidered and he is now considered an important figure in British film history. He is celebrated for films such as Hindle Wakes (1927), the epic The Life story of David Lloyd George (1918) and High Treason (1929) – a futuristic science-fiction film with a pacifist message that owes a debt to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but is somehow still as British as a damp scone.
• And don’t forget – Herbert Ponting’s haunting The Great White Silence (1924) is still being screened at BFI Southbank and around the country.
If you want to find out more about British silent film, Rachael Low’s The History of the British Film is still of the utmost, but more recent titles, Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon and Amy Sargeant’s British Cinema: A Critical History will give you plenty of insights and not a little gossip, too. If you’re online, visit British Pictures or the Women and Silent British Cinema site.