Silent films at the 55th London Film Festival – a preview

Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)
Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)

• This post was updated on 30 September 2011

Stand by for 15 days of non-stop film-film-film in the capital – the London Film Festival approaches. High-profile events such as this are renowned for attracting the best new films, but increasingly they offer a space for freshly restored classics as well. Happily, this year, silent films fall into both of those categories.

The headline news is that Michel Hazanavicius’s hotly-tipped The Artist (2011) is coming to London. This modern silent, a love letter to 1920s Hollywood, has consistently charmed critics since it was first shown at Cannes and the Weinsteins are opening it in America at Thanksgiving, leading inevitably to what the magazines call “Oscar buzz”. There is still no news of the UK release date, so these two London gala screenings, while pricey, are certainly precious. I can’t wait to see it, myself.

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)

The next big thing, as it were, is the London Film Festival Archive Gala, which this year will be the BFI’s brand-new restoration of Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928), as I revealed on Wednesday. This stunning film will be accompanied by the premiere of a new score written by the incomparable Stephen Horne when it screens at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. Do not miss.

The Goose Woman (1925)
The Goose Woman (1925)

Stephen Horne will also provide musical accompaniment for two of the other silent film screenings at the festival – in the Treasures from the Archives strand. First up is The Goose Woman (1925), a Hollywood film directed by Clarence Brown (Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie). This film is a recent rediscovery, which been restored by Kevin Brownlow and Robert Gitt, who will introduce the screening. The Goose Woman stars Louise Dresser as a former opera singer who tries to regain some of her fame by claiming to have witnessed a murder. Unfortunately, her false testimony frames her son, played by Jack Pickford. This movie was a great success at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so it’s very exciting to finally be able to see it in the UK. The screening at BFI Southbank will be prefaced by a couple of early Vitaphone shorts  – yes, sound films.

Shoes (1916)
Shoes (1916)

Next, a double-bill of restorations from foreign archives – The Nail in the Boot (1931), from the Gosfilmofun in Moscow, is a piece of Soviet silent propaganda, that was nonetheless attacked at the time for prioritising form over content. When a soldier fails in an assignment because of an injury caused by a broken shoe, a military inquiry is held to find out whether he is a traitor to the cause. The film is partnered an American film, Shoes (1916), directed by Lois Weber. This movie, which was been restored from separate prints by the EYE institute in the Netherlands, focuses on inner-city poverty – as experienced by a young shopworker who wants some new shoes, which of course she can’t afford. This programme screens at NFT1 in BFI Southbank.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

A late addition to the programme, the restoration of Méliès’s hand-tinted, full-colour  Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) will screen twice at the festival, accompanying Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952), “a satirical fantasy … about a photographer who discovers that his camera has magic powers: as he develops snapshots in his studio, their subjects expire in another part of the town, inspiring the cameraman to devise a scheme to kill the wicked, the greedy and the corrupt.” Click here for more information and tickets to the screenings, which will be held at BFI Southbank.

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

The final silent Treasure from the Archive is a collection of tinted and toned documentary travelogues, showing London in the 1920s. Wonderful London incorporates footage from all across the city, and the screening will be introduced by Bryony Dixon, with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. Talk about silent London … you can watch these six films in two screenings at BFI Southbank.

I must add a special mention also, to a short film playing as part of a collection called Just Because You’re Paranoid, It Doesn’t Mean They’re Not After You at BFI Southbank. Henry Miller’s A Short Film About Shopping (2011) is described as “a silent study” in which a “a dentist’s mundane routine is radically altered by a trip to the shops. You can watch the trailer here.

The 55th London Film Festival runs from 12-27 October 2011. Everything you need to know about booking tickets for the London Film Festival is explained here.

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