Variety is the spice of life: watching the silents at the 2015 London film festival

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)

This year’s London film festival did not make life easy for cinemutophiles. Many of the silent films in the 2015 programme were scheduled slap-bang against each other, or almost, necessitating a frantic cab ride across to town. All very glamorous in its own way, and nice to be spoiled for choice, but frustrating for those who aren’t lucky enough to have seen some of these films in other festivals, or want to cram as much as possible into a trip to London. That said, the LFF pulled off a coup to make those Londoners who wished they were at Pordenone instead feel smug for once. The two festivals always clash, but if you stayed home this year, you’d have had the chance to see the restoration of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century, a day before your counterparts in Pordenone. Ta-da.

As you might have noticed, your humble correspondent was indeed in Pordenone, but when I got home, I managed to squeeze in a few trips to the London film festival. Rude not to, after all. And if the programme seems a little light on silents at first, as is always the way, things pop up where you might not expect to find them. Festival opener Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015) closed with a fragment of archive footage; and I spotted Gloria Swanson in one of the festival most-talked about movies, Todd Haynes’s magnificent Carol (2015).

Sherlock Holmes (1916). Cinémathèque française, Paris
Sherlock Holmes (1916). Cinémathèque française, Paris

First: the silent movies that I didn’t see at the London film festival. I had already see William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes in Porders (check it out), and Laurel and Hardy a day after my fellow sparrows there too (read about that here). Lucky me, not only had I had a preview of the Make More Noise! compilation of silent suffragette movies, I wrote about it at some length for the November issue of Sight & Sound and here, for the Guardian.

Shooting Stars (1928)
Shooting Stars (1928)

The headline silent screening of the festival was of course the Archive Gala – Anthony Asquith’s bite out of the movie business, Shooting Stars (1928). A film well worth putting your best frock on for, this – so I was delighted to see it in the West End, at the Odeon Leicester Square. Funny, adult and with a fantastic pulse-racing climax, the movie went down a treat with the uptown audience. As you’d expect from the Archive Gala by now, Shooting Stars has had one of those fancy restoration jobs I always try to pretend I understand. It looked much cleaner to my eyes as well as bright and detailed on the Odeon’s looming screen. And the new score, by John Altman, was joyfully jazzy and brought out the fun of the film at all times. Did I detect a hint of Singin’ in the Rain at times? Hard to avoid given the subject matter I guess. Watch out for this one on a future home video release, and fingers crossed, a few more big-screen outings too. 

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)

Shooting Stars is great, but my favourite silent at the London film festival was Variety (1925), EA Dupont’s kinetic, dazzling drama set among libidinous circus folk. I’ve seen this movie before, but never looking so sharp. This is a fantastic film, with Emil Jannings firing on all cylinders and Lya De Putti the definition of minxiness as the woman who leads him astray. It’s the lenswork that’s the star here though – a wildly unchained camera, tethered only to a series of killer compositions. At the end of it, I was as giddy as if I had been in the trapeze ropes myself. I would go out and buy it on DVD immediately so i could enjoy it all over again, but, well. I’ve heard things about the score on the disc that worry me. I might just hold out a little longer to see whether this restoration turns up in any other format, while I savour the memory of Stephen Horne’s multi-instrumental improvised score, which filled the NFT1 with a little extra cinema magic at this screening.

  • For more detailed reports on many of the London film festival silents, visit the fab ithankyouarthur blog

4 thoughts on “Variety is the spice of life: watching the silents at the 2015 London film festival”

  1. Good report. However, the ‘fragment’ at the end of Suffragettes is not really that – it has been cropped to fit into a 2.39:1 frame. Hopefully, we will see the actual newsreel in Make More Noise. Oddly there does not appear to be a listing of all the titles that are included in this compilation.

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