This is probably my final Asta Nielsen-related post for a while. I am delighted to be able to tell you that I was a guest on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, Shakespeare Unlimited, to talk about Nielsen and her Hamlet.
I had a long chat with Shakespeare Unlimited host Barbara Bagaev about the film, and its context in Nielsen’s career. You can access information about the podcast here and listen to my episode and read the transcript here. You can also find Shakespeare Unlimited wherever else you find your podcasts.
There are so many great silent film screenings in London right now, and I trust you are keeping up with the nationwide listings run by our friends the Silent Film Calendar. But I had to pause a moment and let you know about this event – a real one-off.
The Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image is showing a newly restored, but rarely shown Ukrainian silent film on 29 April, with a live score by Crimean Tatar folk and jazz guitarist Enver Izmaylov and an introduction by scholar Dr Olena Palko.
The appeal of What Happened to Jones? is not hard to place – as long as you are in possession of a funny bone. It’s a cheeky, crowd-pleasing gag-fest, adapted from a Broadway farce of the same name that packed houses on Broadway and the West End in the late 1890s, even as it left the critics largely cold. What Happened to Jones? thrived in silent cinema, being adapted in 1915, 1920 and finally in 1926 – starring the fabulous Reginald Denny. It’s a breezy tale of a chap called Tom Jones who goes out gambling with his friend Ebenezer Goodly the night before his wedding. Comic complications ensue, as you would fervently hope!
Reginald Denny, the dapper star of this farce, may now be best remembered as a character actor in talkies, but in the silent era he was a leading man, a comic star. Though in truth his heart belonged to aviation and athleticism as much as it did to acting. He was born into a theatrical family in Richmond, Surrey, and although he had some success as a child actor, he was sent to boarding school aged 11 after his mother died. He ran away from school to London as a teenager – that’s where he took up boxing and eventually became a heavyweight champion.
You know how much I love the Bo’ness bonanza that is the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. So this week I was honoured to appear with José Arroyo and Richard Hayne on their fantastic podcast Thinking Aloud About Film for a special episode dedicated to all things Hippfest 2022.
This blogpost is a version of the introduction I was honoured to give at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival on Friday for the Nasty Women: Gender Rebels double-bill. The films were brilliantly accompanied by Meg Morley, and the festival continues all weekend.
Welcome to the world of Nasty Women. Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a curatorial project from two American academics, Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak. The name is taken from Donald Trump’s notorious remark about Hillary Clinton, and for the past five years, Hennefeld and Horak have been screening films that reveal women being transgressive, riotous and unbiddable on the silent screen at festivals around the world.
This May you will be able to take the nasty women home with you on a four-disc DVD and Blu-ray box set, containing 99 films, dating back to the very beginnings of cinema, sourced from a dozen international archives. It will be crammed with “feminist protest, anarchic, destructive slapstick, and suggestive gender play”.
This irresistibly grotesque German silent is an adaptation of a play that was hugely popular in Germany and around the world, in the early 20th century, and has been subsequently adapted many times, loosely or otherwise, for the screen. The play is Erdgeist/Earth Spirit, the first part of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu cycle, which silent film viewers may be more familiar with in the form of GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box of 1929, starring Louise Brooks. The later, iconic film has overshadowed this adaptation, which has been harder to see. And indeed, Brooks wrote rather scathingly about the film in Lulu in Hollywood: disparaging the film for its lack of lesbianism and incest (a questionable complaint for two reasons), and accusing Nielsen’s Lulu of performing “skippity-hops” and appearing to suffer from an attack of indigestion at the crucial moment. Nielsen’s Lulu was, she said, a “man-eater” who “devoured her sex victims”, whereas her own portrayal of the femme fatale was much more innocent…
We are referring to this film as The Decline. It is also known as Downfall. The original German title is Der Absturz, which is perhaps something more like The Crash. The Dutch title, and this film survives in a partial Dutch print, was “The Penalty of Sin”. The subtitle was A Drama From the Artist’s Life. The film was and written and directed by Ludwig Wolff and it was made in 1922, by Asta Nielsen’s own production company, Art Film, in Berlin – she described the existence of that company as “three glorious years”. So it is a star vehicle of sorts, but without the vanity that you might expect from such a project.
Asta Nielsen was one of the first truly international film stars, mobbed by crowds when she made personal appearances and beloved by audiences all over the world. Was she the first? You might call it a tie between her and the French comedian Max Linder, who made his name with a dapper, high-class comic character in a dress suit. When they burst on to the scene, Charlie Chaplin was four years away from making his debut. Although acclaimed as a tragedienne, the melancholic counterpart to Linder’s slapstick sensation, Nielsen proved often that she could do funny, too. And in tails as well.
In fact she had needed a little encouragement to play humorous scenes at drama school. “It all went wrong when I had to try my hand at comedy,” she wrote in her memoir. “Every type of humour was utterly foreign to me.” But in many ways the seriousness and commitment she brought to drama was her secret weapon as a comedienne. And as Robert C. Allen has written, perhaps the confidence boost of global stardom gave her the freedom to be silly.
You have heard of the face that launched a thousand ships. In this film you will see the hips that launched a very famous face.
Asta Nielsen, a dissatisfied stage actress with little interest in film, had her interest piqued when her friend the set designer Urban Gad offered to write her a role and direct her in it. Nielsen felt that the cinema was silly stuff, cowboys and cream pies. But The Abyss (Afgrunden/The Woman Always Pays, Urban Gad, 1910) was an adult film, a serious story, about a love triangle between a young music teacher, Nielsen, a vicar’s son, played by actor and director Robert Dinesen, and a brutishly sexy circus performer, played by Poul Reumert. All three actors were making their debut in front of the camera, and Reumert and Nielsen would remain friends. In the self-titled autobiographical documentary that Nielsen made in 1968, she is shown in conversation with Reumert – the beginning and end of her career on film is with him.
Another quick blogpost from me to note that it is 100 years to the day since the wonderful vampire film and (bootleg) Dracula adaptation Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror premiered! You don’t often get to celebrate a full century of a deathless classic – well you do if you’re a silent film fan, but you know what I mean – so I wanted to celebrate the occasion with some links, perfect for sinking your teeth into.
I have written something about the film to mark its anniversary, but it’s for a print publication and it won’t emerge from his coffin until next month sometime. So here is some reading and listening for your pleasure, right now.
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Yes, more Asta Nielsen news! Just a quick update this time to let you know that I am giving an online lecture about Asta Nielsen on Monday 7 March in the evening – 6.30-8.30pm, UK time, via Zoom. The event is being held in collaboration with the London Drawing Group, as part of its Feminist Lecture Programme, which is full of fascinating subjects.
The lecture will give an introduction to and overview of the life and career of Asta Nielsen. It will be illustrated with imagery and clips and will be an extended version of the lecture that I gave at the opening of the season last month at BFI Southbank. It will be accessible all around the world, and if book but can’t be online at the right time, you can catchup via a recording later in the week.
Hamlet is a woman! At least she is in this German feature film, Hamlet: A Drama of Vengeance (1921). And not just any woman, but the inimitable Danish diva Asta Nielsen.
From Sarah Siddons to Maxine Peake, many actresses have played the Prince of Denmark, and a fragment of Sarah Bernhardt’s stage interpretation of the role was even captured in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. However, the distaff twist in this film was prompted, or at least justified, by Edward P Vining’s scholarly 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which makes the case for Prince Hamlet being so feminine a character that his contradictory nature is best explained by imagining that underneath the black tunic he’s really a woman. The film also draws on Danish history and a German play from 1704 called Fratricide Punished. The gender-swap allows for an intriguing new take on Shakespeare’s text, recasting his hero/heroine’s relationships with Ophelia, Horatio and Gertrude in fresh moulds.
It may already feel like a long time ago, but 2021 was one heck of a year. We were online, we were in-venue, sometimes we were both. But we were all grateful for the films, and the music. Below, it gives me great pleasure to reveal your chosen favourites, and a selection of your insightful and amusing comments too.
Thank you for your votes. Here are your winners!
Best real-world silent film screening of 2021
Your winner:Casanova (1927), accompanied by the Orchestra San Marco, conducted by Günter Buchwald, playing his new orchestral score
“Casanova at Teatro Verdi, by Gunther Buchwald. But I also want to mention: Shoes at the Frankfurt Schauspiele with Maud Nelissen trio and also Bett und Sofa at open-air Beykoz Kundura Istanbul with Korhan Futaci and his band.”
“I only saw one (down from pre-pandemic 30 or 40 a year). So that one wins! It was a goodie though. Pandora’s Box, 35mm, Hebden Bridge, with Darius Battiwalla. Well worth the terrifying road trip over icy moors!”
Hippfest returns! You don’t know how happy it makes me to think about watching silent films with live music at the stunning Hippodrome in Bo’Ness.
The festival is held from Wednesday 16 to Sunday 20 March and the full toothsome lineup just dropped, as they say. Here are a few highlights, some of which have been postponed from the sadly cancelled 2020 edition. I am so ready.
The Dodge Brothers accompany FW Murnau’s City Girl on Saturday night – this is the Scottish premiere of their brilliant score for this incredible, jaw-dropping Hollywood silent.
Hello, Silent Londoners. Soon I will have the results of the 2021 Poll to share with you, but a bout of January sickness has set me back a little. However, I did want to pop on here to tell you that the BFI Southbank season In The Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen starts NEXT WEEK.
The season opens with a lecture and panel event on Thursday 3 February, The ABC of Asta Nielsen. At this event, I’ll be giving an illustrated lecture all about ‘Die Asta’, and then I will be joined by Erica Carter, So Mayer and Bryony Dixon to delve further into the stardom and significance of the woman known as the greatest actress of the silent era. Later that evening I will also be introducing The Abyss and The ABC of Love. Please explore the programme further and remember February represents just the first half of the season – there is more to come in March, including more guest speakers!
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Are we allowed to celebrate Christmas yet? I believe so. And I certainly didn’t want to delay sending my warmest greetings to you, wherever you are – and my thoughts go out especially to those of you who can’t be with the ones you love this winter.
Everything feels very uncertain right now, but I am taking a little comfort from the fact that despite adverse circumstances we have had almost a full calendar of screenings and events this year – and judging by the votes rolling into the Silent London Poll, many of you have been there, in-person or online, enjoying the best of silent cinema and live music.
Wonderful news from a true friend of Silent London. Musician, broadcaster, writer and man of many talents Neil Brand has composed a new orchestral score for a truly staggering British silent film, South (1919) – the gripping document of Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the Antarctic, with stunning photography by Frank Hurley. It is the highlight of a BFI Southbank celebration of British explorers and the films that captured their endeavours. Here’s more about the season.
On 5 January 1922, the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration drew to a symbolic close with the death of Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Marking both this centenary, and that of Britain’s first attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the BFI presents TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM, a season at BFI Southbank throughout January, with associated film releases in cinemas and for home entertainment. There will be themed collections on BFI Player (available from 5 January) and in the BFI Mediatheque.
And yes, there will be plenty of silent film in the season:
Welcome Silent Londoners, the festive season starts here. The mince pies are baking in the oven, the lights are twinkling on the tree, and it is time to start chewing your pencils as you complete the Silent London Poll of 2021.
Last year when I introduced the poll, I wrote: “in the face of adversity the silent film community has more than rallied. The pandemic did not stop people screening, scoring, restoring and publishing. So we want to applaud and honour those efforts.”
This is a guest post for Silent London by the composer and author Carl Davis. Today is his 85th birthday, and his new album Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks is released next week, 5 November. The two-disc set comprises highlights from the Carl Davis soundtracks composed for the Buster Keaton movies commissioned for Thames Silents and The Cohen Film Collection. The music is composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of London and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. recorded between 1984 and 2020.
What makes Buster Keaton different from his two great rivals, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the Hollywood of the 1920s? These three artists played very defined and different characters and supporting them in their differences is the role of the music.
Charlie’s Tramp evolved from 1914 and he played him until 1936 when the character made his final appearance in Modern Times. Chaplin was himself a gifted composer. As soon as sound film became the standard he completed and recorded his score for City Lights (1931) and did so for the rest of his career. Chaplin’s scores evolved out of the pre-1914 world of Victorian Music Halls: sentimental ballads, waltzes and polkas as well as melodramatic underscoring.