Comfort zone be damned. Here I am in Leicester, an hour or so north of the Big Smoke and the first movies that the British Silent Film Festival chooses to show are all talkies … OK, OK I am not going to pretend that they are a novelty to any of us, but kicking off the festival with early British sound films seemed initially to be either a bold move or an acknowledgment that a few of the delegates would still be on the train/in the office at the start of play.
After a day of dialogue films I was desperate for a real silent movie, and Thursday’s finale was worth the wait by any stretch. But more of that anon. While “talkie Thursday” was occasionally grating, it was always fascinating.
Laraine Porter introduced the first two films of the day with a fun whistlestop tour of the British film industry’s transition to sound. She showed us possibly my favourite talkie of the day, Up the Poll (1929), a short political satire featuring Donald Calthrop as a newly elected MP bungling a victory speech that was essentially a string of very funny gags, with “canned laughter” and heckling off-screen. Up the Poll used a combination of synch and non-synch sound, and I’d be intrigued to know whether the balance was as it seemed, ie synch for Calthrop and non-synch for everything else. I assume so, which is usually a dangerous move …
Porter also introduced our first feature, an ambitious war movie starring Brian Aherne and Madeleine Carroll called The W Plan (1930). At first it seemed that this one just wouldn’t catch fire, lots of awkward pauses and odd emphases, but boy did it start to blaze when Aherne was on the run in enemy territory. Punching German officers, hallucinating during a firing squad, leading a team of POWs to sabotage an enemy plan using a not-so elaborate code based on whist … Aherne was a dashing hero in a strange and exciting movie. Shame about Carroll – perhaps she will get another chance to show us what she can do.
After lunch, Geoff Brown took to the stage with a massively entertaining, not to mention informative, presentation on, yes, the first British talkies made in 1929. Was Blackmail really the very first? You can guess that the answer is both yes and no, can’t you? Yes, it was first to be released, but it had far less synch dialogue than its main rival High Treason, so go figure. Hitchcock v Elvey: fight! More interesting than the lead question was Brown’s exploration of those first homegrown talkies, which were a rather rum bunch. We went in for melodrama and thrillers, as a nation, it seemed, where the US favoured musicals and such. So these films, many of which we saw clips from, were a heady brew. Miscegenation and damp rot featured in White Cargo; a murderous epileptic led To What Red Hell. It made one long for the simpler pastoral pleasures of Under the Greenwood Tree, or Elsa Lanchester larking about on the old joanna in Mr Smith Wakes Up!
Brown’s talk was followed by two sound features. First, Sinclair Hill’s uneven, but engaging Dark Red Roses, a tale of jealousy and sadistic violence, featuring the film director Jack Clayton as a young scamp of a boy. Sculptor Stewart Rome is overcome by jealousy when his wife (Frances Doble) seems to be crushing on a continental cellist. So he threatens, in an alarmingly vicious scene, to chop off the cellist’s hands with a samurai sword. His sick revenge is inspired by a ballet (watch out for George Balanchine and Lydia Lopokova). There is a also a mole (unseen) used as a thumping metaphor for mental disturbance – so all in all, not something you see every day.
Greater danger, but more wholesome fun, was on offer in Splinters (1929), a movie version of the popular wartime revue. This was dragged a bit, at least it did when the characters weren’t actually on stage in drag (“a beauty chorus of 40 – and everyone’s a perfect gentleman”), high-kicking and chirping their way through comic songs and a few hoary old gags we may remember from our grandfather’s knee. It did suffer from repetition, and a curious lack of tension, despite the enemy being just around the corner, and bombs falling all around, but undeniably a treasure trove of British eccentricity.
Much better known in this field is High Treason, the futuristic war thriller that Maurice Elvey saw fit to shoot in both flavours. Quelle surprise, we were treated to the sound version tonight, which Brown made a good case for as the superior experience. Well sorry, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. The sound HT is around half an hour shorter, being taken from a cut US print, but for me it is was far slower. Partly this is down to the wildly mismatched vocal performances from the lead actors, with Jameson Thomas, Benita Hume and Basil Gill all acting in completely different styles, and rendering the quippy dialogue ridiculous. Though arguably Hume was just fine, with the chaps around her competing as to who could be the least convincing. And who would ever guess from the silent version that the chap handing out banknotes to the arms moguls is singing “Money talks” to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory? Just bizarre. This, by far the most highly regarded of the talkies we saw today, drew far more giggles from the crowd. Is that talkie fatigue? It’s a shame this cut doesn’t work so well, because when the central drama is uninvolving, Elvey’s pacy, slickly designed sci-fi is reduced to the sum of its parts, and we snigger at the quaint retro-futurism, the cheap models and the shoddy stock film inserts instead.
Perhaps I am letting my bias show. But really, I longed for a full-blooded silent drama after all these stilted sound affairs. And I got one. Thursday night went out in style with The Guns of Loos (1928), a war movie that is as much about the psychological effects of war on the home front as the drama of battle – and eloquent in its dealings with both. Here we saw both Madeleine Carroll and Sinclair Hill do better work, especially Hill. Henry Victor is the iron-faced steel works owner John Grimlaw trying to keep update with demand for munitions, and woo Diana (Carroll), who is also the object of her adoptive brother Clive’s affections. When John and Clive are tested in battle, and the workers back home struggle with their lot, all nearly comes undone … The Guns of Loos has an oddly Soviet feel in its structure, setpieces and also some clashing montage, but the message is hardly socialist, with the workers taught to sacrifice their own needs to the war effort. The battle scenes, especially the “capture of the guns” sequences are brilliantly done, just the right side of chaotic.
This first silent of the festival had a top-class score too: a gorgeous new composition by Stephen Horne for piano, percussion, trumpet and all those other instruments he usually has to hand. The music was a joy, with an ensemble seemingly more suited to the battlefield excelling also with a melodic and poignant accompaniment to the domestic scenes. And Horne has added sampling to his repertoire. “Piper Laidlaw” who pumped his bagpipes through the battle depicted in the film, plays himself in the movie. When he was playing on screen, we heard a recording of his music – which added an extra dimension of realism to such a glossy production. It was all far more articulate, and beautiful, than dialogue.
So there we have it: after a meander through the talkies, we finally struck silent movie gold. And now I am ready for more. Sleep tight!
Intertitle of the day
- Not much competition, but it has to be the opening of The Guns of Loos: “A times of national crisis, primitive forces take hold of a man”.