At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.
We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.
The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.
But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.
The Best Five Films I Saw at the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend (That I Hadn’t Seen Before)
Les Deux Timides (René Clair, 1928)
This provincial French farce may well be the best thing I saw all weekend: sweetness, cleverness and complete mastery of the silent screen. It has more charm than The Italian Straw Hat, for me, though I would happily watch that more famous film again to make a more complete comparison. A young girl in a small town in rural France is pursued by an overbearing suitor we know she must not marry. Trouble is, her father is too shy to say no to the brute, and her lover is too shy to ask for her hand. Bizarrely, this misunderstanding will not be resolved without a hail of gunfire … Clair conducts his imagery as if it’s music, dividing and combining screens, and cutting with steely precision, to create a symphonic film: elaborate, and beautifully poignant. It’s also very, very funny. Froth, but of the very finest kind.
Beau Geste (Herbert Brenon, 1926)
A beast of a film, this, opening on a mysterious and gruesome discovery in the desert, then tracking back via some enjoyably hyped-up intertitles to a genteel England of village greens and manor houses run to seed. The three Geste brothers (Ronald Colman, Neil Hamilton and Ralph Forbes), are each as daft as the other and equally as devoted to their guardian Lady Patricia. Soon, each suspect that one of the others has stolen the family’s last remaining treasure, a rare sapphire. What to do, but to shoulder the blame instead and run off to join the Foreign Legion? Ludicrously each has but this single thought in his pretty head and we next encounter them in North Africa, headed for the death fort of the film’s bizarre opening scene. It’s ridiculous, but Herbert Brenon has a winning way with the spectacular set pieces that the story demands. And the scenes are always stolen by the supporting cast: Alice Joyce as Lady Patricia, Noah Beery Sr as the tyrannous Sergeant Lajaune and most of all, a boggle-eyed William Powell as an unscrupulous cowardly thief lurking in the Legion. I do enjoy these 1920s blockbusters, and it’s clear why Beau Geste has been so repeatedly adapted for the big screen.
For Heaven’s Sake (Sam Taylor, 1926)
Outside of the silent era, my biggest cinematic weakness is for classic musicals. So what a delight to discover that Harold Lloyd had stepped on to Guys and Dolls territory with For Heaven’s Sake. As a millionaire and a slum evangelist, Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston are “the man with a mansion and the miss with a mission”. Lloyd’s endless cash buys Ralston a new haven for the down-and-outs of a nameless city, and his reckless ingenuity (a stupendous chase scene, this) delivers plenty of ne’er-do-wells ripe for conversion. The obligatory climactic set piece chase through the city is precipitated when Lloyd must race to the mission for his wedding to Ralston, without losing one of his inebriated charges, notably via a revolving door and on a tilting double-decker bus. Bucketfuls of belly laughs to be had, and I nearly gagged when Lloyd munched on a powder puff soaked in cologne believing it to be a cake baked by his sweetie. Happyface emoticon. LOL.
The Great K and A Train Robbery (Lewis Seiler, 1926)
There are those who say you can’t go wrong with a western. That’s simply not true – much as I love many of the films my dad likes to call “horse operas”. And I had always been told that you can’t go wrong with Tom Mix, but had yet to be convinced. No longer will I be sniffy about Mix though, after this romp. Yes, this film relies on a string of outlandish stunts and one incredible hat. But I have a real fondness for films such as this one that embellish a news story into an action rollercoaster. I’m sure the real hero of the K and A Train Robbery wasn’t so flamboyantly masked or as cheeky as Mix, and he probably didn’t trick the bandits with assistance from a helpful frog or a horse as sophisticated as the famous Tony. But what a way to print the legend. Smart direction from Lewis Seiler and a cute turn from Harry Grippe as stowaway Deluxe Hardy ensure this film never lags for a second. And I don’t think I will ever forget the lascivious look on heroine Dorothy Dwan’s face when she curled up with her Book of Romantic Highwaymen on her chaise longue.
Run, Girl, Run (Alf Goulding, 1928)
No prizes for guessing that I enjoyed the Funny Ladies presentation on Sunday afternoon, hosted by Glenn Mitchell and David Wyatt, and I could have plumped for the scraps of a quirky Universal Joker comedy starring Gale Henry that opened the show here, say. But I couldn’t resist Carole Lombard in her Mack Sennett days, partnered with petite Australian comic Daphne Pollard as a high-school track star and her coach respectively. A slightly disturbing piece this, with both Lombard’s coach and her dean taking a too-close interest in her love life and her bedroom both. But the treat of seeing Lombard in a silent, and the hearty physical comedy of the athletic sequences makes up for that. Another, less successful, take on the powder-puff/cake mixup here, but the sight of Pollard being hobbled by her own jumper was as elastic and surreal as the best silent slapstick. Go team.
Well done to everyone involved in the KBSFW – and here’s hoping it returns next year!