In praise of La Maison du mystère and the silent serial

 This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney. John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for the Phono Cinéma-Théatre project and is one of the brains behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. His score for Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici will accompany the film on its forthcoming DVD/Blu-ray release this year.

The Silent Serial is perhaps the least watched of all the great silent film genres. Yet they were hugely popular: from about 1910 most studios produced serials, or their close relative, series (serials keep a plot going over the course of all the episodes, series have self contained plots in each episode but a common cast of characters). Some of the most famous are The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (also 1914), both starring Pearl White as the heroine struggling against assorted villains, The Hazards of Helen (119 episodes!), and in France Louis Feuillade directed the wonderful Fantômas (1913), followed by Les Vampires, Judex, Tih Minh, Barrabas and Parisette.

Fantômas (1913)
Fantômas (1913)

In an age when cinema going was a regular occupation, serials made complete sense, and would encourage the audience to return each week for another exciting episode. Nowadays they are almost impossible to programme, as people don’t go to the cinema on such a regular basis, and, alas, silent films aren’t screened every week. The only practical way of screening them is at a festival; in the first year I attended the Giornate del Cinema Muto I saw a number of the Feuillade serials, and fell in love with the genre. As viewers of Game of Thrones or any of the other TV series know, there is something addictive about following the exploits and vicissitudes of a cast of characters over a number of episodes.


This year the excellent people running Flatpack festival in Birmingham have programmed one of the greatest of silent film serials: The House of Mystery (La Maison du mystère). Created in 1923 In France by the group of expatriate Russians who had founded the Film Albatros studio ,and directed by Alexandre Volkoff, it starred Ivan Mosjoukine, one of the greatest of silent film actors, and a whole cast of great character actors such as Charles Vanel, who plays the embittered and obsessed Corridan, and Nicolas Koline.

Not only does it have all the exciting elements you’d expect from a serial, but it also has brilliant and imaginative cinematography, a gripping plot with real depth to the characters, and of course a great performance from Mosjoukine, with his enormous range, not to mention his intense and hypnotic gaze.

Fritzi Kramer of the wonderful Movies Silently blog puts it best in her review: “By about episode six, I was willing to commit murder if anyone got between me and the next installment.”

The trailer for the DVD release will give you a taste of The House of Mystery, but you really need to come to Birmingham on the 8th and 9th April where I’ll be playing for all ten episodes, spread over four programmes on two days. Where else are you going to see it?

  •  The House of Mystery plays at the John Lee Theatre, The Birmingham and Midland Institute, 9 Margaret Street, Birmingham B3 3BS
  • Find out more and book here

Saturday 8th April
11:00-13:00: Episodes 1, 2, & 3
16:00-17:20: Episodes 4 & 5

Sunday 9th April
11:00-13:00: Episodes 6, 7, & 8
15:30-17:00: Episodes 9 & 10




2 thoughts on “In praise of La Maison du mystère and the silent serial”

  1. Louis— *here’s a paragraph re the silent film serials, (Suzanne was talking about them)…. I watched ‘New Babylon’ with Shostakovich’s music on line recently, it was performed with an orchestra and the film in London, but I was unable to go… a great film… * *I dropped my delightful little computer on the kitchen floor and shattered the screen… waiting for a new one to arrive… catch up soon …….. Adios!, (m closs).*

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