An early Christmas present for silent film fans in the form of some excellent news from the non-archive festival circuit. The retrospective strand at next year’s Berlin Film Festival will be devoted to Weimar Cinema – one of the most exciting, attractive periods in film history. Not only that but we can expect a sweep of some lesser-known titles, including new restorations.
According to the director of the retrospective strand, Rainer Rother: “Now, with this thematic look back, it’s time to turn our attention to the films that are not necessarily part of the inner canon.
“The diversity of the Weimar film landscape is best grasped via the works of filmmakers who are not usually counted among the great and prominent directors of the era. The variety of the films, by directors as varied as Franz Seitz, Sr. (Der Favorit der Königin, 1922), Hermann Kosterlitz (The Adventure of Thea Roland, 1932), and Erich Waschneck (Docks of Hamburg, 1928), is evident in the abundance of not only differing subject matter, stories, and characters, but also aesthetic approach. Looking at this legendary epoch in German film history from a new perspective reinforces its artistic reputation.”
This guest post is an edited version of an article on the origins of the early British thriller by Bryony Dixon, curator at the British Film Institute. The full article appears in the BFI’s new compendium on the thriller, Who Can you Trust?, now available in the BFI shop.
Next month’s Sunday Silent at the BFI Southbank is a rare chance to see a rare early film version of Edgar Wallace’s first great success, The Four Just Men. Released in 1921 by the Stoll Company, it was adapted by its director George Ridgewell, who worked on many of the Sherlock Holmes episodes for the same company. It’s a well-made film – nothing fancy but surprisingly competent for its year – from a well written novel, in fact a novel that is noticeably cinematic.
Try this passage from the opening of the original novel:
A NEWSPAPER STORY
On the fourteenth day of August, 19—, a tiny paragraph appeared at the foot of an unimportant page in London’s most sober journal to the effect that the secretary of state for foreign affairs had been much annoyed by the receipt of a number of threatening letters, and was prepared to pay a reward of fifty pounds to any person who would give such information as would lead to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons, etc. The few people who read London’s most sober journal thought, in their ponderous Athænaeum Club way, that it was a remarkable thing that a Minister of State should be annoyed at anything; more remarkable that he should advertise his annoyance, and most remarkable of all that he could imagine for one minute that the offer of a reward would put a stop to the annoyance.
News editors of less sober but larger circulated newspapers, wearily scanning the dull columns of Old Sobriety, read the paragraph with a newly acquired interest.
“Hullo, what’s this?” asked Smiles of the Comet, and cut out the paragraph with huge shears, pasted it upon a sheet of copy-paper and headed it:
“Who is Sir Philip’s Correspondent?” As an afterthought—the Comet being in Opposition—he prefixed an introductory paragraph, humorously suggesting that the letters were from an intelligent electorate grown tired of the shilly-shallying methods of the Government.
The news editor of the Evening World – a white-haired gentleman of deliberate movement – read the paragraph twice, cut it out carefully, read it again and, placing it under a paper-weight, very soon forgot all about it.
The news editor of the Megaphone, which is a very bright newspaper indeed, cut the paragraph as he read it, rang a bell, called a reporter, all in a breath, so to speak, and issued a few terse instructions.
“Go down to Portland Place, try to see Sir Philip Ramon, secure the story of that paragraph—why he is threatened, what he is threatened with; get a copy of one of the letters if you can. If you cannot see Ramon, get hold of a secretary.”
And the obedient reporter went forth.
He returned in an hour in that state of mysterious agitation peculiar to the reporter who has got a “beat.” The news editor duly reported to the editor-in-chief, and that great man said, “That’s very good, that’s very good indeed” – which was praise of the highest order.
What was “very good indeed” about the reporter’s story may be gathered from the half-column that appeared in the Megaphone on the following day:
Cabinet Minister in Danger
Threats to Murder the Foreign Secretary
“The Four Just Men”
Plot to Arrest the Passage of the Aliens
It reads like a screenplay. The ramping up in stages of tension from the total under-reaction of the old codgers of the Athenaeum, to the more informed curiosity of the Comet, to the instant action of the Megaphone creates a mental image very reminiscent of the condensed montage-opening of the standard film thriller of the 1930s and 40s. To us the vision of whirling presses and scurry of the newspaper boys may be a cliché from the opening scenes of a thousand crime films, but it was a relatively new thing in 1921, when the story was first filmed, and certainly in 1905 when it was written.
For 1905 it was, when one of the best known British thriller novels was penned by a man who would come to be known as the ‘King of Thrillers’. Edgar Wallace was a Londoner of humble origins, who overcame a modest education to become a journalist and then an astonishingly prolific writer of ingenious thrillers, plays and film scripts. His lowbrow (his word) thrillers were written to be easily readable, were hugely popular and eminently adaptable for the screen. His works spawned some 200 films and television programmes, including famously at the end of his life, the first script for King Kong (1933). He died of a chill contracted while in Hollywood working on the film for Merian Cooper.
One-hundred-and-eleven years ago, the actress, writer and icon Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas. She danced, she inspired a comic strip, she scandalised people, she acted, she starred, she disappeared … then she came back and told us all about it, in a series of wise and candid essays and some revelatory interviews. Her famous cool look, with those sharp features, glittering eyes and that slick haircut, represent the essence of 1920s chic. Her fame and popularity seem to grow every year. In short, Louise Brooks is hot stuff, even now.
To celebrate the anniversary of Louise Brooks’s birth I want to share with you the first look at my new book on her greatest film, Pandora’s Box (1929). Thanks for all your support along the way to writing this book. It has meant so much to me.
We strongly recommend that you keep the evening of Friday 24th November free in your diaries! Why?! As we are offering, for our second silent film event at the Cube Cinema, Bristol, a very rare treat indeed. As not only do you have a chance to see G. W. Pabst’s masterpiece that is Pandora’s Box (1929), starring the incredible Louise Brooks on the big screen (on 35mm film from the BFI Archives we should add). But this rare treat will also give us a chance to welcome back to very good friends of South West Silents.
Pianist John Sweeney will be playing live for us and returns to the Cube after our highly successful screening of Il Fuoco (1916; The Fire) which took place back in March.
Saturday night’s London Film Festival Archive Gala was an extraordinary experience. Regularly a highlight of the silent film year, previous galas have showcased glistening restorations of old and faded movies paired with fresh scores of mostly excellent quality. This year’s event was an exercise in enchanted restoration – with makeover and music transforming a simple film into something entirely wonderful.
Shiraz: A Romance of India was an Indian/British/German co-production from the late silent era. You might know two more films by the director Franz Osten: A Throw of Dice and Light of Asia. Shiraz is a shamelessly romantic and fairly romanticised, telling of the love affair honoured by one the most beautiful mausoleum in the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Shiraz (Himansu Rai, who also produced the film) is a humble, but exceptionally talented potter, who has a deep love for his adopted sister Selima. When Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) grows up, she is sold as a slave into the royal court and they are separated. What’s more, a love affair slowly begins to spark between Selima and Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) … Meanwhile, general’s daughter Dalia (Seeta Devi) is plotting to get her own hands on the prince.
The story may seem paper-thin, but it has a beautiful surface. The romantic leads are very sweet, with the halting love story between Selima and the Prince always believable and Devi delightfully minxy. The location backdrops of the mountains and palaces are ravishing – a testament to the art direction of Promode Nath and cinematography by Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann that makes the most of natural light.
The action sequence that opens the film, with a caravan raided on its way across the desert, leaving the baby Selima behind, is brilliantly staged. Frequent cuts to her nurse anxiously peeking out at the incoming danger ramp up the tension.There are moments of violence elsewhere too, notably two gruesome threats lobbied at Shiraz himself – the “elephant’s foot” moment caused many in the audience to audibly gasp, and understandably so. It’s a fairly dark story, in truth, with poison, plotting, torture, vengeance, heartbreak and loss on the cards for our group of amorous young things. If you know anything about Indian film, you may be surprised that the lovers share a passionate clinch – and they do.
With such a beautiful film, the restoration work has its chance to shine. Working from an original copy of the film, the BFI has removed scratches, blotches, tremors and flickers, leaving Shiraz unblemished, stable and luminous. Watching the film, simply gazing at it, was a pure pleasure. A fairytale such as this repays the polish.
Performing alongside the film, however, was an ensemble led by Anoushka Shankar playing a sensational new score that she had composed for the film. At this gala, the standing ovation was no mere matter of politeness. Multilayered, pulsing with energy, weaving a selection of Indian and European instruments together with, I think, a foley track, Shankar’s score invigorated the film and hinted at its own “fusion” history as a co-production. Shankar’s sitar playing alone was pretty exceptional, but the score overall was one of the best I have ever heard by a non-specialist.
After its triumphant premiere in London, we can expect to see Shiraz in cinemas and on Blu-ray in January 2018 – I’ll bring you more news on that when I have it. Plus you can catch it, with piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, at the Cambridge Film Festival this month.
The BFI has more ambitious plans for Shiraz though, and both film and score will be embarking on a short Indian tour in November, in partnership with the British Council:
1 November: Hyderabad International Convention Centre, Hyderabad
3 November: Kala Mandir, Kolkata
4 November: Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi
5 November: Sri Shanmukhananda Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Auditorium , Mumbai
This is a guest post for Silent London by John Leman Riley, a writer and editor, specialising in Eastern European culture, and film sound.
Film theory is usually visually driven, and the Soviet kind – with its emphasis on editing – especially so. And since the theorisers were often directors, they are better known than the men (and, inevitably, they were almost always men) who argued about the music. So much so that the best-known Soviet film-sound-theory text is 1928’s AStatement by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov (“on Sound” is often added to translations to clarify the subject). With its dream of asynchronous, anti-realistic sound, it was an idealistic text, and its ideas would never be fully followed through.
But beyond that is a huge bibliography of articles, pamphlets and books about the aesthetics of film music, and the competing technologies being developed for synchronised sound. The critical tracts were often written by properly trained musicians with practical experience in the cinema but their writings are rarely translated, and remain largely unknown outside Russia.
What were these competing theories about film music? Nowadays, we tend to look at the degree to which the music reflects and reinforces the images but, as A Statement argues, it could counter them. And there was a third option: the music could go its own way, fitting the film where it touched. This approach was taken by a Kiev cinema whose 60-piece orchestra simply played Tchaikovsky symphonies regardless of what was on screen, which must have made for some bizarre audiovisual moments! How successful these approaches were depended to some degree on whether the film was being accompanied by a composed score, a selection from albums or improvisation (what composer-critic Leonid Sabaneyev – a regular film-music critic – called “tasteless vamping”).
But today we’re discussing October, so we’ll go back to Eisenstein. His writings are polymathic: I opened a random page to find references to and quotes from Gounod, Bach, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dickens’ Hard Times, Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and The Little House at Kolomna, and Dumas père in a discussion of structure, movement and the visualisation of non-visual phenomena. Unsurprising then, that he put some thought to film music (or rather, as A Statement showed, film sound). Indeed, the audiovisual was a topic with which he had long been obsessed.
Silent Londoners are an erudite group, and no doubt we’re all regularly found in halls of academe, talking loftily of theories and histories, of books and poems and one-reel Snub Pollard movies. But even though we’re such scholars, we could all do with a trip to Cambridge this month to complete our silent film education.
The Cambridge Film Festival is one of the best regular film festivals in the country for silents, and this year, the programme of early film is full of surprises, and wonderful music. Here’s what you should be looking out for.
I first heard Robert Land’s name earlier this year. The context was: “Robert Land … ever heard of him?” I hadn’t, of course. But suddenly Land was in sight everywhere: films of his played at Bologna and there was a very informative piece on this Austrian-Czech director in Sight & Sound. At Ritrovato, I saw the rather plodding comedy I Kiss your Hand, Madame (1927), starring Marlene Dietrich, but I missed the screening of the rather better regarded Little Veronika (1929) and worried that I had made an error.
Hurrah for the Archives strand at London Film Festival, which brought the new restoration of Little Veronika to my doorstep today, on 35mm with live accompaniment of the highest quality from John Sweeney. Made around the same time, and for the same production company, as Pandora’s Box, and more to the point, Diary of a Lost Girl, Little Veronika is a short, sharp tale of rustic innocence in peril.
Little Veronika (played by Käthe von Nagy, an experienced, if young, actress) lives with her family in the Tyorl, caring for furred creatures, being polite to the neighbours and doing her chores like the good girl she promises to be. She goes to Vienna to visit her glamorous Aunt Rosie (Maly Delshaft, the wife in Varieté), who has grown impressively wealthy and well-dressed in her decade in the capital. Aunt Rosie has slinky lingerie and lives in a big house with several other women. You’d have to be as innocent as Veronika not to know what’s going on, how Aunt Rosie earns her money, or what plans her new friends have for her future.
Can you believe it? It seems like only a week ago I’d never seen a French western or become intimately acquainted with The Island Girl. Our “week of miracles” is over, but the last programme delivered a fitting send-off.
When it’s the final day of the festival, the Teatro Verdi is required for orchestra rehearsals, so the Pordenauts have a change of scenery – we troop a scant 10 minutes up the road to the local arthouse cinema, Cinemazero. Little did I know, this morning, that it would be a journey to the dark side, and also from (not quite) sublime to the ridiculous.
The Finnish film in the Scandinavian strand today was Anna-Liisa (1922), a rather harrowing adaptation of a stage play. The subject was infanticide, and by implication, rape. “Quiet and timid” Anna-Liisa is engaged to sweet Johannes and about to make it official – she’s spinning the thread for her wedding dress, he wants to publish the banns – but the mother of local boy Mikko is having none of that. She remembers helping Anna-Liisa to dispose of the evidence of the “bond” that exists between the girl and her son. Very, very not pleasant, and somehow not quite as dramatic as one might expect from the material, but nicely done, if occasionally awkwardly staged, and gorgeously accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
Daan ven den Hurk was at the keys for the next film, which was an entirely different kettle of flying fish: Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) was a surreal hoot from start to finish, populated by dwarves, monkey men, heavily browed housekeepers and an escaped gorilla. All of them simply having a James Whale of a time. It is best summed up here by the estimable Mark Fuller:
A Universal Horror as directed by Charley Bowers…..
Think Thelma Todd and Creighton Hale in a house of horrors, beset on all sides by the henchmen and handmaidens of Satan and the fruit of the feverish imaginations of all concerned. This was a grab-bag of characters and tropes from several different horror movies, most of which had not been made yet.
“Why are your thoughts in America when you tell me your heart is in Italy?” Well, Theda Bara, since you ask, it’s because the Giornate showed a mid-period silent American classic on Friday night. A Fool There Was (1915), or as I prefer to call it, The Cabinet of Dr Libido, is a bizarre film, by turns prosaic and ethereal. The plot is slight, but the imagery is immense, with Bara as an especially vampirish vamp, her long dark hair framing a milk-white face in the most demonic way. She can bat away a revolver with a rose and drive a man to distraction with a glimpse of ankle or shoulder – these are superpowers, not seduction techniques. No wonder the image of Fox’s foxy lady endures even when so many of her films are lost, burned up in the heat of her own fiery screen presence. And as silents go, A Fool There Was has great words, not least in the recurring appearance of Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’, but in a few killer lines of dialogue, one of you which you already know is going to appear below. And speaking to the film as well as for it, tonight, we had a brilliant new score written by Philip Carli and played by a quintet, which kept pace with the film’s many twists and dramatic moments and also added some much-needed nuance, as in the heartbreaking scene in New York traffic when Schuyler ignores his own daughter’s pleas, so engrossed is he in his new paramour’s charms.
After Theda Bara, Hollywood turned to Pola Negri for a more authentically exotic vamp, although a more romantic one too. So it was fitting that one of her early German films, Mania (1918) closed the evening’s viewing. I’ve written about that one before, a couple of times, so I skipped it tonight.
But it was a great day for strong leading women, from a selection of cheeky Nasty Women shorts (I loved Lea causing havoc in an office full of besotted men) and beyond. We had the rich, psychological drama Thora Van Dekan (John W Brunius, 1920), for example – a story of a woman trying to protect her daughter’s inheritance from her wayward ex-husband, in the face of opposition and judgment in her village. Pauline Brunius is hypnotic in the lead role as a spiky, often unlikeable, singleminded and clearly emotionally brutalised woman trying to do her best by her child. This was a sombre piece, all the more so with Maud Nelissen’s downbeat improvisation, and just the sort of thing that nestles into your brain cavities and makes itself at home for days.
It was auteur day at Pordenone, with works by three silent master-directors scattered nonchalantly through the programme: Ozu, Murnau and Dreyer. But auteurism is anachronistic to silent cinema and anathema to many early film aficionados, so fittingly some of my favourite screenings today fell far from the canon.
One of the best things I saw all week was Valentine Robert’s presentation of Tableaux Vivants in the early cinema strand. This was something very special indeed – like a video essay, but more expansive. The idea was simple: popular paintings were projected on screen before early films that mimicked their compositions. The effect was spectacular though, and very illuminating about narrative and visual culture in the early film period. As this presentation made clear, many narrative films at this time were also adaptations of images associated with historical, literary and biblical narratives, rather than the story themselves. Or both, at least. Erotic films too, as you might imagine, took their cues from paintings and sculptures. The care and detail in this presentation was very impressive and all served the argument beautifully. All this as well as Stephen Horne’s gorgeous accompaniment for a long, and very varied presentation, comprising 30-plus films and many more art works.
The double-bill of German films this afternoon featured some very familiar names. First there was Der Golem. No, not the 1920 one, but the 1915 original, long thought almost entirely lost. The bad news is that it is still lost, but some more fragments have been discovered and spliced together with titles to form something that is not really a film, but rather a suggestion of one. In this kinda prequel Paul Wegener’s clay man comes to life brilliantly and with just the most tender and slender of movements. Other scenes reinforce the sense that James Whale’s Frankenstein would be nothing without this silent-era antecedent. Utterly fascinating.
To reverse the usual order of proceedings, let’s start with the music, not the movies. This morning, in a Pordenone first for me, I attended one of the masterclasses AKA a crash course in silent film accompaniment, from the professionals, for the benefit of the Giornate audience and two very talented students. This was a fun session, led by Neil Brand and Gabriel Thibaudeau (with a little light heckling from Philip Carli and John Sweeney), who put Richard Siedhoff and Bryson Kemp through their paces with the help of some carefully chosen film clips.
Their instructions were wise, inspired, and stricter than I expected. Also quite bizarre. At one point a student was required to play to The General in the style of Wagner, and then with an added Bossanova rhythm. Another was asked to score the same film just on one bass note, and then to perform a “one-fingered love song”. Don’t google that last one, I fear you might end up somewhere untoward. From the secrets of playing ice, say, or heroism, but with fear, or without patriotism, to the use and abuse of musical cliché and the “toolbox” with which an accompanist can suddenly summons bells, trains, or even China, this was invaluable advice. Brand’s exercise in reading a film, guessing where the narrative and the characters will go next (Beggars of Life was the chosen example), was useful for us critics and punters too.
If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.
From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.
Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.
Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.
It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.
However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.
Any day that closes with a Pola Negri film is a good day, and Sunday was a very good day. La Negri, my personal favourite silent movie star and the owner of the best peepers in the pictures, bar none, features in three films in the official Giornate programme this year (plus a schools matinee of The Wildcat). I knew artistic director Jay Weissberg was a fan, but well, consider me chuffed.
Tonight’s Negri film was Der Gelbe Schein (1918), often known as The Yellow Ticket. Negri plays a young medical student with a melodramatically plotted backstory that slowly unfurls as the film progresses. Suffice it to say that aside from some nice location shooting in Warsaw and the very striking image of a champagne glass full of coins in a brothel scene, this film lives and dies by Negri’s mesmeric performance. She radiates emotion, from those incredible eyes to her fluid posture, and even this early in her career she has the “star quality” that divides actors from icons. We saw the film tonight with a klezmer-tinged folky score from Alicia Svigals that worked very well, giving he melodrama enough room to breathe and softening the edges of a film in which structure runs the risk of overwhelming character.
Back to the beginning, though, and there is nothing like breathing fresh mountain air first thing in the morning. While Pordenone may not be as rural as all that, we were in the hills today, with A Norway Lass (1919), part of the Swedish Challenge strand. No one I spoke to denied that this film proceeded at a sedate, almost glacial pace, but all agreed also that it was astonishingly beautiful, romantic, inventive, charming and felt far more advanced than many 1919 movies. Two youngsters on neighbouring farms fall in love, but he, Thorgbjorn (Lars Hanson) is a hothead and so she, Synnöve (Karin Molander) must wait for him to grow and earn her love. Although, he’s clearly a good guy from the start, and sometimes it seemed as if the more passionate relationship was that between Synnöve and Thorgbjorn’s sister Ingrid (see below), especially when they danced in the high pasture. An excellent portrayal here of a slow-burning romance set in a place torn between puritanism and paganism, with contrasting Midsummer rituals. Also, a rather mischievous, gargoyle-faced young farmhand was busy persuading Thorgbjorn of the existence of a troll family in the valley (cue excellent inserted troll feasts) when he was the only goblin in sight and all too human at that.
The Brits are coming! Where have I heard that before? Hmmm… Anyway, it seems there is a UK invasion of Pordenone this year, with what looks like a bigger than usual home crowd in attendance already. And a British movie on the first day! After a journey that involved a plane, a train, an automobile, and a bus, I am part of that merry band. Jubilations, I even made it into the Verdi for the first film of the festival, which doesn’t always happen.
And that film was … 3 Days to Live (Tom Gibson, 1924). This was a pacey, if hokey melodrama, hinging on some awful foreign types manipulating the stock market in San Francisco and driving good men to suicide. Yes, it was not very 2017. It was more like 1917, or earlier, racial politics wise (see 1915’s The Cheat, for example), and definitely not a classic, though it had effective moments. A series of three closeups of a woman’s tapping feet, twisting hands and mobile face when she was waiting for her boyfriend to ask her father that question, was one. Another was a set of dissolves between empty rooms in an abandoned house. In such highlights we might detect the hand of youthful assistant director, editor and title writer Frank Capra. Or perhaps not – will we ever know?
I had to miss most of a package of early French Westerns. Yes, French Westerns. Just when you think you have seen it all … I did see Le Revolver Matrimonial (Jean Durand, 1912) thought. This was sweet ersatz Americana trifle in which Arizona Bill woos wealthy Maud (un homme in drag) and must lasso a sympathetic pastor to seal the union. There’s romance for you.
The Scapegrace (Edwin J Collins, 1913) finished the set. This was a British two-reeler though, and I expected Brian Aherne on his hobby horse a la Shooting Stars, but realism prevailed, to a point. This was a sprightly if slightly directionless drama in which black sheep Jack flees to the Yukon to escape his gambling debts and mend his ways. He finds, gold, a girl and forgiveness from his father so all’s well that ends, you know. And The Scapegrace was a Cricks studio production so that makes Croydon the wild frontier … I guess.
In case you are wondering, this is the correct order of business, in my humble opinion: watch the film, then read the book, then watch the film again. Repeat as required and enjoy!
So I have a few dates and venues confirmed, where you can come along, watch the film, with an introduction or Q&A from moi, and if you feel so inclined, buy a copy of the book (very reasonably priced, lots of pictures). It would be great to see some Silent Londoners in the audience. As more dates are arranged, I’ll add them to this post, but as ever, pay attention to the Silent London social media channels to get the breaking news.
So far, ALL these screenings are 35mm projections with live musical accompaniment. Because if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. And seeing Pandora’s Box on the big screen is definitely a thing worth doing.
Before Hollywood became the heart of the American film industry, New Jersey was studio city. About 20 miles from West Orange, where Thomas Edison’s famous Black Maria swiveled to catch the light in the 1890s, the town of Fort Lee became the site of DW Griffith’s acting debut in 1908, and the birth of movie mammoths now known as Universal, MGM and 20Th Century Fox.
Now, to best understand the history of Fort Lee, and its importance to the US film business, you should read Richard Koszarski’s 2005 book Fort Lee: The Film Town. This DVD set from Milestone, The Champion: A story of American’s first film town, could work either as a companion to that volume, or as the best kind of introduction to the subject. Whatever you have or haven’t read, this set represents an exceptionally entertaining way to potter around movie history for three hours.
How to relate five days of silent and early sound cinema in a pithy blogpost form? I have honestly no idea, but here goes …
The best film on Wednesday
A small choice here, cos I am selecting only from the evening screening of Edgar Allan Poe shorts at St Mary de Castro church. The rest of the day was devoted to papers. This was a wonderfully atmospheric night event though, with the candlelit church forming an eerie backdrop to the (non-German) Expressionism on the big screen. I am going to plump for a British effort – Castleton Knight’s Prelude. This is more or less Eraserhead in seven short minutes, with disquieting images proceeding across the screen motivated by a spooky kind of dream logic. And the accompaniment was sublime – John Sweeney playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude (of course) behind the screen.
Just one silent film was shown on Thursday, and I have made my feelings about Pat and Patachon clear elsewhere, but today would have almost certainly been carried by a talkie anyway. I had heard a lot about Walter Summers’s Suspense (1930) but I wasn’t prepared for just how devastating it could be. We’re in the thick of the First World War, but happily in a “posh trench, with a clean dugout and a cushy job” when the soldiers begin to hear Germans laying mines beneath their feet. Something about the mood of the piece tells you early on that there will be no happy ending here. Eerily photographed and vibrantly acted by its ensemble cast, this a claustrophobic war epic confined into 81 minutes. There’s much enjoyment also in the dialogue, which, cleaned of actual swearing, becomes positively Shakespearean in its baroque ribaldry: “You do a mucky lot, you windsucker.”
The festival runs 13-17 September 2017 at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester and each day or five-day pass covers you for lunch as well as every screening on that date.The full timetable for the festival is online here. You can book here and let all your friends know you are attending by clicking on the Facebook event.
To get you up to speed on what to expect in Leicester, the festival* has been posting blogs on the festival site. Yes, silent film blogging is all the rage now. Here are all the posts so far: