As you know, this year the British Silent Film Festival has taken a year off – but luckily for us, it’s the kind of year off where two all-day events still go ahead. Just to keep things ticking over, as it were. So last weekend there was a symposium on British silent cinema, held at King’s College London and organised by Dr Lawrence Napper. The following day the Cinema Museum hosted an all-dayer of screenings, themed on the tantalising idea of “sensation-seeking”.
I attended both events and while it didn’t feel like the festival was running, it was a real treat to be immersed in British silent film in this way. Let’s hope the festival returns back to full strength next year.
The papers at the symposium were limited to 20 minutes apiece, but covered a wide range of topics, from Edwardian theatre to state censorship to international co-productions to saucy novels. One hardly knows where to begin.
There were two papers with a theatrical bent: Ken Reeves’s dip into musical comedy theatre and its links to silent film concluded with some ideas for “crossover” events that would mix theatre, film and audience participation to spread the love about early British cinema. Audience participation? Reader, I sang. Very badly. Theatre historian David Mayer’s unforgettable presentation played and replayed the same baffling scrap of film as he uncovered the truth behind its creation. The scene of a waterfall bursting its bank and bringing down a bridge (and a couch and four) was, it turned out, not shot on location but on stage at the London Hippodrome in 1902, where a collapsible stage could be dropped and filled with water to create watery scenes. There was more – involving elephants on a slide. Elephants. Read more here.
Lucie Dutton, sometimes of this parish, also talked about the stage, presenting a history of film director Maurice Elvey‘s early career – in theatre in London and New York, before moving into the pictures with his star Elisabeth Risdon. She was followed by John Reed from the National Screen and Sound Archive in Wales, who took us through the production, loss, rediscovery and restoration of Elvey’s landmark film, The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Intriguingly, Reed pointed out a few instances in which Elvey could be seen in the film, waving a handkerchief and appearing to direct the action. Could this be because in these scenes the prime minister was played not by Norman Page but by Lloyd George himself? It’s an enticing thought.
Another famous British director was under the spotlight – one even more renowned than Elvey. Charles Barr presented on what we do know, and what we don’t, about the first film that Hitchcock ever shouted action on: Always Tell Your Wife. It’s an adaptation of a stage comedy starring theatre veterans Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss and it seems the director fell out with his inflexible actors and therefore a “fat youth” from the props room was elevated to the job. You may struggle to see bold Hitchcockian strokes in what we have left of the film (which screened at the Cinema Museum on the Saturday), but we do have the director’s handwriting, unmistakably, in an insert shot of a telegram.
Far less well known than Hitchcock, but fascinating to hear about, was showman-turned-film director Mark Melford. His name, just like most of his films, may be lost to time, but Stephen Morgan attempted to flesh out his story, taking his cue from a Bioscope blogpost of 2007 that posed the pertinent question: “Who needs films to write film history anyway?” We did see a clip from the recently rediscovered romp The Herncrake Witch, directed by and starring Melford (amended, see comments) as well as being based on one of his own comic operas and also featuring his daughter (Jackeydawra, named thus due to her parents’ love of Jackdaws. True story). The story of the Melfords was hugely entertaining, but Morgan concluded by making the hugely important point that the study of lost films and forgotten film-makers is vital to a full understanding of the silent film era as a whole.
And of course, one never knows when a lost film will suddenly become an un-lost film. It happened to The Herncrake Witch and The Life Story of David Lloyd George after all. And it wasn’t so long ago that a treasure trove of Mitchell & Kenyon works was unearthed, giving us an invaluable glimpse of (mostly working-class) Edwardian Britain. In one of the day’s most diverting 20-minute segments, Tony Fletcher played a selection of Mitchell & Kenyon’s fiction films, while explaining a little more about them. The films were comedies, often chases and knockabout stuff, all with a backdrop of industrial northern England – factory gates, brick kilns and terraced streets. I particularly liked the mischievous snow comedy and the animated intertitles in a short called (I think) Driving Lucy.
More comedy, but this time of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up school: Alex Rock put recent Leveson revelations in the shade with a paper on the Metropolitan Police’s tangled relationship with the film industry. Its rather heavy-handed Press Bureau, founded in 1919, was popularly known as the Suppress Bureau. You can guess why. Rock’s paper traced the development of an official documentary film, supported by the Met, called Scotland Yard, and the squashing of another, based on the memoirs of a former detective.
The correspondence of public servants baffled, outraged or simply dismissive of the “movies” is unexpectedly entertaining, and never more so than in Jo Pugh’s paper on the official military response to Walter Summers’ The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands. I could barely keep up with the information he was imparting, partly because I was giggling so much. Really. The good news is that we should hear more from Jo’s research and more about the film too as a little bird tells me a full restoration (possibly in time for next year’s Great War centenary) is in process.
Sarah Street’s research into early colour film in Britain, particularly the work of Anglo-American film pioneer J Stuart Blackton, was an out-and-out bright spot in the middle of the day. Just take a look at this still from The Glorious Adventure (1922), shot in shimmering Prizmacolor. Blackton, described by Rachael Low as a “temporary, colourful visitor”, went on to shoot The Virgin Queen in Prizmacolor too and the stills of renowned beauty Lady Diana Cooper in the title role were precociously peachy.
More artistic adventures with Michael Eaton, who offered an insight into the work of the dramatist, by discussing the “obligatory scenes” that any screen version of a literary classic must include. With Oliver Twist, for example, those scenes would include “Please Sir, can I have some more?” and the death of Nancy. Eaton transferred this template to the scripting of a biographical drama, using the example of notorious 19th-century thief Charles Peace. In the case of Peace, those obligatory scenes are made famous by illustrations on the front of magazines. And obligingly, the two films made of Peace’s life in 1905 feature those moments faithfully, including the dream the night before his execution and his daring escape from a train. Will Eaton’s forthcoming Peace drama contain them also? We can only wait and see.
Obviously, I am not au fait with smutty paperback fiction, so I can only imagine that the novels Chris O’Rourke was referring to in his paper on Bree Narran’s The Kinema Girl (1919) would be quite the eye-opener. O’Rourke introduced us to a literary subgenre that wallowed in the degradations that befall naive young women once they fall into the clutches of the film industry in 1910s and 20s London: extramarital sex and opium just for starters. A romp through social, literary and film history – and a precious insight into the regard the film biz was held in at the time, attitudes towards women, and the social problems of London too.
Amy Sargeant‘s paper on the Betty Balfour-starring European co-production Bright Eyes whetted the appetite, both in hopes of a screening of what seems to be a delightful film, and for future British Silent Film Festivals to come. During her discussion of the film, which would be an excellent double-bill with Piccadilly or Champagne, Sargeant drew on lessons learned from papers given and films shown throughout the previous 15 British Silent Film Festivals.
What about the next 15? That was the topic under discussion in the day’s closing panel. Alison Strauss of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema was joined by Bryony Dixon and Laraine Porter from the British Silent Film Festival to discuss the programming, popularity and I suppose point of such events. It was fascinating to hear Strauss say that according to her audience research, 52% of Hippodrome Festival attendees had not experienced a silent film before. How do events such as the BSFF tap into new audiences, without alienating the hardcore, the people who have been coming for 15 years and troop to London for a symposium? One problem is the relative unpopularity of British silent film globally. Another may be the prohibitive cost of marketing events, particularly ones directed at “niche” rather than “mainstream” film lovers. There was cheering news from the Phoenix Cinema in north London, who report full houses for silent films on Sunday afternoons (much of the credit there must go to Kevin Brownlow’s appearances and the reputations of the musicians who play there, such as Stephen Horne and Minima). You’ll not be surprised to learn that I piped up also to say that Silent London has proved popular, and that I am running to catch up with myself when it comes to updating the listings. Would that I had time to widen my geographical limits and provide listings for the whole country.
Strictly within my patch was the the next day’s event at the Cinema Museum – a mixed bag of films, it’s true, but a consistently entertaining day, with excellent music provided by Neil Brand, Stephen Horne, Cyrus Gabrysch and Lily Henley. Would it be terribly lowbrow of me to also note the quality of the sandwiches and baked goods on sale at the Museum? If you’ve been, you know they give great cake.
The on-screen action mostly involved something a little stronger than coffee and buns, I have to say. Although we kicked off with Always Tell Your Wife, trailed the previous day, we were soon swept into the underworld. Two adaptations of lurid stories by Sax Rohmer – The Shrine of the Seven Lamps, the concluding part of a Stoll serial, and The Yellow Claw, a feature-length thriller – introduced a milieu of mysterious Oriental uber-villains, drug-pushing and brave detectives saving the day. There’s much to dislike in the racial politics here, and the twists and turns of the plots were often baffling, but The Yellow Claw in particular featured some memorable touches: giddy lighting effects and creeping shadows. It has to be said that we were lucky not to be watching these films cold: Laraine Porter’s introduction illuminated the social contexts of these crime fantasies and the fear of the “yellow peril”, as well as the contemporary popularity of Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories.
After lunch (during which we all posited our theories as to the identity of the villainous Yellow Claw), a spot of Cocaine. Oh how I longed to type that. Graham Cutts’s sensational but oddly unglamorous drama survives in fragments and while we saw a teaser of it at last year’s BSFF, Bryony Dixon has now edited together a workable version, so we could follow innocent Madge’s brush with the druggy club scene of 1920s London, her father’s hypocrisy and the sacrifice of her immensely likeable addict pal Jenny. There’s fun to be had here, but it is chased with a heavy moral message. Nevertheless, who could fail to be charmed by an intertitle such as this one?
Another fragment followed: one more irresistible Manning Haynes adaptation of a WW Jacobs story, but this time a gruesome one. In many ways we should be thankful that The Monkey’s Paw was truncated before its full horrors could be unleashed, but still… The accompaniment was notable here too, as Neil Brand on the piano was joined by Stephen Horne spooking the crowd with a theremin.
Time for more coffee before a marathon presentation of shorts, curated by Tony Fletcher. Far too many to mention here, but my highlights included the “song film” Won’t You Buy My Pretty Flowers? (1921), which I had seen before but was much enhanced by hearing the song itself, sung by Lily Henley; a Mitchell & Kenyon scene titled May Day in the Slums; a compilation called Stage Stars Off Stage (featuring Carl Brisson boxing); and a borderline avant-garde comedy Dickens adaptation called Oliver Twisted, featuring Pimple as a reluctant Bill Sykes.
The final screening of the day was a real treat, especially for those among us whose hearts remain at least partly in the north-west of England: a silent adaptation of Salford drama Hobson’s Choice, directed by percy Nash and with a cast who had perfected their roles on stage. It was a little talkie for a silent film, it’s true, but Joan Ritz provided a captivating, likeable lead and the action swept along with good humour and great economy. Gradeley stuff.
Keep up to date with news about the British Silent Film Festival here on their website, where you can also sign up to their invaluable mailing list, which provides, among other things, details of silent film events around the country. See you next year!