British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3

Jane Shore (1915)
Jane Shore (1915)

On Saturday, outside events threatened to intrude the sanctity of the festival – and we weren’t complaining. First, the morning’s historical presentations were timed around a break for an update on the Labour leadership decision. Is victor Jeremy Corbyn a silent movie fan? Here in “red” Leicester (that joke TM Peter Walsh) we assume he would be an Eisenstein man. And in the afternoon, we segued neatly from checking the football scores to taking our seats for The Great Game (1930), a rollicking good film, albeit a talkie, set in the world of soccer and strangely apt for the modern game. At night, we watched a film set during the Wars of the Roses, just a few feet from Richard III’s tomb. Perhaps it was all just meant to be …

Believing in fate is a double-edged sword, though. We started the day with a thoroughly intriguing film that danced with the dangers of destiny. The tale of a doomed ship, Windjammer (1930) was a haunting film that was shot as a silent documentary record of the final journey of sailing ship the Grace Harwar, but then had dramatic “talkie” scenes of life below-deck added to make it more palatable to the general public. Those fictional scenes added a plot, one that echoed the real-life tragedies that had taken place on board the Harwar on that long and difficult last voyage. The very handsome Tony Bruce plays a posh boy, Jack, who was travelling home after having his heart broken in Melbourne – and sad to say he meets a watery end. The scenes of the boat battling the waves are both beautiful and terrifying – the chat among the crew crude but naturalistic. More than a curio, but a curious beast all the same. And we were grateful to Laraine Porter’s exquisite introduction setting a complex film in its proper context.

More terror at sea in a very poignant presentation from Bryony Dixon on the films that tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. From newsreels of the aftermath of anti-German riots, to Winsor McCay’s stunning propaganda animation, this was an engrossing selection of films, rendered all the more powerful by the witness testimony Dixon read as the films played, and Stephen Horne’s sensitive accompaniment.

Staying in historical territory, Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum gave us a thoroughly fascinating presentation in two parts. The first was an introduction to the many films that commemorate the work and early death of Lord Kitchener – from footage of him inspecting troops in France just before his death, to the unveiling of a memorial to him in Orkney in the 1920s. We learned a lot about this important, and yet still mysterious man, who is surely ripe for a latterday controversial biopic. Haggith also talked very movingly about how Kitchener was mourned even when the public didn’t have a body to bury. This “ruptured grief” becoming a public example of all those families who had lost sons in the war, without a funeral to weep at. The second half of Haggith’s presentation was quirkier indeed, a selection of animated films used to assist in military training. A puppeteered set of diagrams to assist trainee lorry drivers had us all amused, and baffled in equal measure …

The Great Game (1930)
The Great Game (1930)

After lunch, it being Saturday afternoon and all, our thoughts turned to serious matters. Those that aren’t life and death, but are much more important than that … The Great Game was not a great film but jolly good sport and a leap and bound more accomplished (as was Windjammer) than many of the 1929 talkies we saw on Thursday. And the issues at play in this football drama don’t seem to go out of style. At Stockford Utd, the business-minded chairman is at odds with the team’s manager, who unlike him has not lost his love and feel for the game. To buy a new star centre-forward or to bring on homegrown talent in the form of young Dicky Brown? That is the question. So nice to see the location shooting at Stamford Bridge and Wembley and to know that many of the players on the pitch were actually football players from top-flight clubs. This was directed by Jack Raymond, who also helmed Splinters: camaraderie, performance and working-class male culture equally on display here, but no cross-dressing that I spotted at least.

The Cosmic Voyage (1936)
The Cosmic Voyage (1936)
Weightless lunar expedition fantasy The Cosmic Voyage (1936) was up next – a film guaranteed to put a smile on your face, and destined to be double-billed with Voyage Dans la Lune at a film club near you soon. Neil Brand is currently writing a score for a forthcoming home video release, but tonight he improvised with Gunter Buchwald and Jeff Davenport, to create a lively and joyous score for this delightful movie. Exquisite model effects, the best we’ve seen this weekend by a long chalk, enhanced a kinetically paced but charming story about an odd trio’s trip to the moon. The glee in those gravity-free bounces! The boy cosmonaut’s bravery! The fact that they all packed blankets for the trip! And we couldn’t help but notice that the design of the “rocketplane” was the perfect illustration of “streamline” from one of Toby Haggith’s scientific animations in the morning. This is a pick-me-up of a film – to gladden the heart and one’s cinephile senses all at once.
But the real treat of the night involved a change of venue and of pace. We are here to worship cinema, all right, so a trip to Leicester Cathedral is inevitable. And Jane Shore (1915) was the right film in the right place, with the right music, courtesy of Laura Rossi. This century-old film has the scope and quality (not to mention the running time) of a feature film, but largely the grammar of a much earlier, shorter movie. Short, tableau-type scenes are beautifully shot, but punctuated by wordy intertitles. It was gorgeous though – imaginatively framed, teeming with period design details and galloping extras. Thanks be to Will Barker and his fledgling Ealing Studios for the budget. Leading lady Blanche Forsythe was effective as poor Jane Shore, torn between her husband and her king. My main quibble really was just that the real Jane Shore was far more interesting, and active, than this fictionalised sacrificial lamb. Elsewhere, I especially enjoyed Dora De Winton’s skittish, door-slamming performance as jealous cousin Margaret. With a sumptuously tinted print, as well as deft and lyrical accompaniment from Rossi and ensemble that gave a real sense of immersion into the film’s picture-book world, this was a precious moment.
Who could ask for a better end to Saturday at the festival? Well perhaps a few late-night drinks with good friends would round the evening off nicely? Don’t mind if I do … Did.
Song of the day
  • A sombre choice – Abide With Me was sung both by Windjammer’s crew and the Wembley crowd in The Great Game.
Tactical error of the day
  • Having recently watched Steamboat Bill Jr again recently I skipped the Buster Keaton show – and by all accounts missed out on a fantastic presentation from Mr Brand, replete with insights and fabulous clips.
Shameless plug of the day

Cute-but-realistic couple of the day

  • When Peggy and Dicky in The Great Game plot to keep their affair a secret, their “No, YOU cut me dead” exchange was adorable. And after the FA Cup Final, when they embrace, and Dicky produces a small jewellery box from his shorts … well what else could it be but a chance to show his sweetheart his cup-winner’s medal?
Intertitle of the day
  • “You collect the atmosphere – I’ll help the pussycat!” This line from The Cosmic Voyage just can’t be beaten – even by the beautifully highly strung cards in Jane Shore.

4 thoughts on “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 3”

  1. Ms. Dixon presented this incredibly moving presentation in San Francisco in May, Paul McGann did the reading of the witnesses, a real treat! It really made the tragedy real and it was heart stopping.

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