All posts by PH

Pamela Hutchinson is the editor of Silent London

Abwege (1928): delirious dissolution in the Weimar nightlife

Abwege, otherwise known as Crisis, or The Devious Path, is streaming as part of the 2020 Limited Edition Pordenone Silent Film Festival. You can sign up here – tickets start at €9.90.

Abwege, GW Pabst’s 1928 film about the descent of one respectable married woman into the depth of the notorious Weimar nightlife is one of the unmissable titles in the programme, and it will be available for 24 hours from Thursday 8 October, with musical accompaniment by Mauro Colombis. You can explore the rest of the programme online.

Pabst was born in Austria in 1885. He started out in the theatre, an actor turned director who only began making films in 1923 at the age of 37. He soon became known as an actor’s director, and especially an actress’s director. His 1925 film The Joyless Street, for example, starred both the Danish diva Asta Nielsen and a then little-known Greta Garbo. He also made two films with the iconic Louise Brooks. But Brigitte Helm, the star of Abwege, was the special one for him.

Continue reading Abwege (1928): delirious dissolution in the Weimar nightlife

News in brief: Festivals and stars

No time to blog today but there is NEWS to share. So here goes, welcome to Silent London’s News in Brief column.

• The virtual Pordenone lineup is live now! Laurel and Hardy, Brigitte Helm, Sessue Hayakawa, Ruan Lingyu! And all your favourite Pordenone musicians. Tickets for the whole shebang start at €9.90, and go on sale next week.

• The London Film Festival lineup is also live now, and the screenings will be more accessible this year. The big silent film this year is Paulette McDonagh’s The Cheaters, restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and co-presented by the wonderful Kennington Bioscope. Cyrus Gabrysch will provide the accompaniment and you’ll be able to catch the film on the BFI Player.

• I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this morning, to talk about Olive Thomas, who died 100 years ago tomorrow.

• Exciting news from Denmark, where an exhibition devoted to Asta Nielsen will run from the end of October to the middle of next August. More on this soon …

I will have more news to share soon. Exciting news!

• 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.

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #5: To Fight a War

The festival closed, for me at least, on a grim note. Apocalyptic in fact. Perhaps it was end-of-festival anguish. Perhaps it’s just the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s how I rounded off my virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #5: To Fight a War

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #4: a long weekend online

If I were in a Pollyanna frame of mind, I could argue that it was my good fortune to be in cloudy England and not sunny Italy when contemplating spending the bank holiday weekend indoors. I promise you I did some bank holiday-ish things in between films, but I wasn’t going to miss out on virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato. There are a few things more important than movies, but not many.

It was a fine weekend at the sofa-festival. For one thing, on Friday night we announced the winners of the DVD awards, after meeting to discuss the candidates on Zoom earlier in the week (rather than over lunch in Bologna as is customary, but roll on next year).

And then there were the movies. A film such as the recently found and restored Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976) from Iran really exemplifies all that ‘s so great about this festival, and indeed Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation too. And there was a killer silent feature too, my most anticipated film of the virtual festival: Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), brilliantly restored from the BFI’s nitrate print.

So let’s begin.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #4: a long weekend online

Tenet (2020): the oldest special effect in the world

I think this blogpost contains spoilers, but it’s very hard to tell.

Christopher Nolan’s new film is notoriously complex, or perhaps just convoluted. I say that because although I wasn’t always ready to answer probing questions on either the plot or the physics that propelled it, I was fascinated by Tenet’s central use of the simplest, and most effective weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the rewind.

Film is a time-based medium, which is always played forwards but can be recorded backwards. And at the heart of Tenet, this is all there is: film moving backwards and forwards. This being a Nolan blockbuster, we know it was actually shot on film, which makes it extra satisfying. Tenet calls the rewind “negative entropy” and so would you if you were making a multimillion-dollar movie.

Continue reading Tenet (2020): the oldest special effect in the world

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

Simple maths question for you? How long does it take to watch an 85-minute movie? If I had answered “85 minutes” this morning I would have been wide of the mark. It took me more like 140 minutes to get through an at-home screening of Marco Ferreri’s brilliant military satire Donne e Soldati (1955).

That time lag is on me, and my susceptibility to drop what I am doing when a piece of work comes through on email, on the fact that I was doing a load of laundry, that I made coffee and that the postman knocked twice (well, this is a movie blog). I’m not proud of it, and I need to try harder (other screenings today were far less interrupted). I am beyond grateful to Il Cinema Ritrovato for organising this online companion to the festival, so I promise I will get better at tricking myself I am in the Cinema Jolly, and not my front room.

Today’s films were excellent and Donne e Soldati is one of my top recommendations from the fest so far. Away from Ferreri’s medieval siege, we had law courts and circuses galore today. So the question of the day is, I guess, if you absolutely had to be cross-examined under oath, would you rather that Henry Fonda or Mae West was doing the questioning? Be careful, anything you say may be used against you … etc etc.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Day Two of Il Cinema Ritrovato, in this sala at least, was filled with cinematographic splendour, and I am not just talking about Mr Grant’s dimple.

Today we’re dividing the films geographically rather than by era. Don’t @ me, I don’t make the rules. Well, I do make the rules but a) I make them up as I go along, b) I am usually too busy watching films to reply to constructive criticism.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #1: Have fun, honey bunch

Finally, east London has a world-class archive film festival. Almost.

Il Cinema Ritrovato has shifted a little in time and (virtual) space this year, for reasons I am sure you all understand. The postponed festival is now going ahead in Bologna, Italy, IRL but in late August rather than late June. However, for reasons that are slightly more obscure, I am not there. I am at home in east London, with a laptop, a projector and a white wall. And high hopes. I have very high hopes.

Although I am very sad not to be taking part in the living breathing festival this year but I am determined to make the most of my streaming pass. I intended to clear the week of work as much as possible, but the very second that the first virtual event began, I found myself in an actual cinema, in Soho, for a press screening. Still, the clever people at Ritrovato allow 24 hours for you to catch up with each screening, so as soon as I got home, I was ready to get started.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #1: Have fun, honey bunch

Hollywood history: Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley

Quick question. Can you remember March 2020? Me neither. Far too long ago.

So, a few things have happened since then, but at the beginning of March I reported for the Guardian on film historian John Bengtson’s campaign to have one alley in Hollywood renamed in honour of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, who all shot famous scenes there. When I wrote the piece, I hoped to be visiting the alley to see it for myself quite soon. Now there’s a bad joke.

The point is, that the campaign continues, and gathers support. Also, I wanted to share this video John has made that sums up the importance of the alley rather smartly. Why share, give it a thumbs-up, or just enjoy the gags?

 

  • Find out more about John’s campaign here.
  • On a not-entirely-related topic, did you know that you can watch Il Cinema Ritrovato from home this year? Sign up here for a streaming pass.
  • Eureka releases another great Buster Keaton box set next week, comprising College, Our Hospitality and Go West.
  • 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.

 

Hippfest at home: horribly good news

I am delighted to share some very welcome news. Personally, I was really sorry that Hippfest had to be cancelled this year – a week or two earlier and it would have been fine. It’s no secret that it’s one of my favourite festivals, so I am already excited about returning to Bo’ness in 2021.

So I am chuffed to my boots to let you know that on Saturday 4 July, at 8pm (BST) Hippfest will be screening a classic silent horror movie with live accompaniment by the maestro Neil Brand on YouTube. That’s what I call a Saturday night. Continue reading Hippfest at home: horribly good news

Pordenone goes online: news about the 2020 Giornate del Cinema Muto

The news you were waiting for, or perhaps dreading, is here. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival has announced that its programme for 2020 will be postponed until 2021. But! There will be a virtual, “limited edition” version of the festival online this year, running 3-10 October 2020.

The need to make health our number one priority, and the impossibility of welcoming a full complement of international guests in the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi for our annual rendezvous with silent film, has led the organizers of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival/Giornate del Cinema Muto to shift the 2020 programme set by director Jay Weissberg to 2021. Given that eight days of thematic screenings and events is simply not viable in an online format, the decision has been made to make the world’s leading film archives the Festival’s co-producers, in a sense, offering them the opportunity to present some of their riches online to the Giornate’s public during the established dates.

So, as always but even more so, the festival will be an international collaboration of film archives – and there will be plenty for us to watch. The cinematheques involved include: the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., Lobster Films in Paris, Det Danske Filminstitut in Copenhagen, the China Film Archive in Beijing, EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Film Archive of Japan in Tokyo, together with the Cineteca del Friuli, co-founder with Cinemazero of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

There will be everything we come to expect from Pordenone: rarities, restorations, live music, a collegium, the Jean Mitry award and even the bilingual catalogue. I can’t actually wait.

Wait, there’s more. The Giornate has a blog now? I’m beaming.

With an eye to reinforcing the ties between the Festival and its international public, a new blog is being launched this weekend, called La Gatta Muta; or, The Silent Cat, created by director Jay Weissberg and hosted on the Giornate’s website. Its aim is to stimulate discussion by uncovering the forgotten people and episodes of the silent era, privileging storytelling as a path towards rediscovery.

See you in the cyber-Posta!

Top Hat (1935): Fred and Ginger disturb the peace

Top Hat is currently streaming on the BBC iPlayer and will be online for the next year, along with a slate of other Fred’n’Ginger movies and more RKO classics.

If you have never seen a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical before, Top Hat is a great place to start. I would say that if you only see one Fred‘n’Ginger musical you should make it this one, but the thought of only seeing one Fred‘n’Ginger musical is too awful to contemplate.

Top Hat was made in 1935, and it is the fourth film that Astaire and Rogers made together, but the first one that was written especially for them, and it is popularly known as their lightest, brightest film. It became the second biggest box-office hit of the year, RKO’s greatest hit of the decade, and Astaire’s second most profitable film of all time, just behind Easter Parade from 1948.

Top Hat makes the most of the particular opposites-attract chemistry between Rogers and Astaire. Katharine Hepburn famously said of the duo that “he gives her class and she gives him sex appeal”. Well plenty of people have disagreed with Hepburn (though none to her face I’ll bet) and you might even say the positions were reversed here, with Rogers playing a rather pompous socialite, and Astaire the amorous dancer who recklessly pursues her. But this film is all about class and sex. It “simply reeks” with both of them. It’s set in prim and proper London, for the most part, and in this scenario, the class-bound etiquette of the stuffy upper-classes is perpetually undermined by the wandering desires of husbands, lovers, and Americans, as well as a stream of sexual innuendo – both straight and queer. In the same way that Fred’s noisy tap shoes constantly disturb the peace.

Continue reading Top Hat (1935): Fred and Ginger disturb the peace

New York, New York: Spike Lee’s quarantine city symphony

A few days ago, Spike Lee premiered his latest movie. Not Da Five Bloods, coming to Netflix next month, without stopping at Cannes, but a three-minute movie he unveiled on Instagram called New York, New York. Lee calls his film “a love letter to [the city’s] people. Plain and simple”. But it’s not as plain and simple as all that.

Although, the film is only three and a half minutes long, I’m calling it a city symphony, and here’s why. For one thing, the movie is cut to music, Frank Sinatra singing the familiar song ‘New York, New York’ – and Lee’s montage is always on point.

Continue reading New York, New York: Spike Lee’s quarantine city symphony

Dispatches from lockdown: BFI Japan, Women Make Film and other stories

The first rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club. The second rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club because Blog Club doesn’t exist. But if there were more rules, and indeed a club in the first place, round about number five I reckon would be this: “Don’t write a blogpost apologising for having not posted in a while.” Why? Because people have more important things to think about? Probably. But also because in this case it’s not hard to guess why I haven’t been Silent Londoning so much. We’re all in the same boat. But only I am in blog club. Because I made it up. And frankly even I haven’t paid my subs in a while.

This post, however, brings you NEWS. So let’s begin.

  • Japanese silents to come. The BFI’s new blockbuster season for 2020 was to be Japan: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema. And it still is. Instead of launching the season in cinemas and then transferring it over to the BFI Player, and Blu-rays etc, the BFI is flipping the model, shifting the paradigm and generally “doing a 2020”. So the season has begun in the digital realm, and while we are promised benshi screenings in the future (yay!), for now there is a feast of Japanese cinema to enjoy on the BFI Player, including one of Ozu’s best, the silent film I Was Born, But … (1932). To be fair, this one was already on there, but you need no excuse to watch it. It’s perfect. Treat yourself. And watch out for more to come. Also forthcoming are such archive treats., including gems from “the BFI National Archive’s significant collection of early films of Japan dating back to 1894, including travelogues, home movies and newsreels, offering audiences a rare chance to see how European and Japanese filmmakers captured life in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. I’m intrigued!

  • Women Make Film. Next Monday sees the launch of Mark Cousins’s epic 14-hour documentary about female filmmakers, Women Make Film. It’s an alternative history of cinema, entirely peopled by brilliant, creative and often sadly forgotten women. If you’re a silent cinema fan (and just on a limb here, but I reckon you must be), this story may sound familiar, but Cousins and his researchers have gone deep, and there is plenty here that was new to me. Read Kate Muir’s great piece for the Guardian to get a flavour of what’s involved. Then sit back, stream and prepare to have your mind expanded. Refreshingly, it’s not chronological, so even silent film purists will find points of interest throughout: look out familiar names such as Germaine Dulac, Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, Paulette McDonagh and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. The whole thing is going up on the BFI Player in five blocks, starting on 18 May.

  • Silent cinema watch parties. They are everywhere. Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party has been enlivening Sunday afternoons (his time) and evenings (ours) for a few weeks now. And now the Kennington Bioscope has opened its YouTube channel and its first silent film and live music screening was a roaring success. Subscribe for more: their next screening is Wednesday at 7.30pm. The Netherlands Silent Film Festival event on Friday night was a blast too, making the most of the live-chat facility. Belgium’s Cinemathek is doing something on Thursday afternoons. Frankly I am astonished, heartened and tickled pink by the ingenuity, and the hard work that goes into these.
  • More streaming silents than you can shake a stick at … You will not run short of films to watch. The perspicacious Silent Film Calendar site is posting a link to an online silent every day. The Cinémathèque Française, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and more are all uploading silents for you to watch online, making old posts like this rapidly obsolete. I am a big fan of the Eye Filmmuseum YouTube channel, specifically its Bits and Pieces strand.

  • Cancellations and postponements. Not such happy news here. Sadly Hippfest has had to cancel its postponed October event, though San Francisco Silent Film Festival is still promising us a raincheck in November. Il Cinema Ritrovato says its festival is postponed (dates TBA) and Pordenone promises an announcement by the end of the month. Perhaps we have to come up with a snappy way to say it’s very sad, but we understand and we support the organisers in their new plans while appreciating how very difficult it is for them and everyone involved. Or just to say that, with proper pauses for breath, because we really mean it. Love to all our festival friends.
  • The Fall is on Mubi. Watch Jonathan Glazer’s horror short here, and and read my review from last year here.
  • From the Department of WTF. The Neural Networks guy keeps upscaling early films, and at this point it is just funny to me. The Roundhay Garden Scene!
  • What have I been up to in lockdown? Lots of things, some of which I sadly can’t share with you yet, including a BIG EARLY FILM THING I can’t wait to share. But do sign up to Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin, if you haven’t already. And the second edition of my Pandora’s Box BFI Film Classic comes out on 28 May, if the previous artwork had not persuaded you, perhaps. I have been on the radio a bit, recording from home, and this show was particularly good fun. You can find me on this box set talking about Jean Arthur too.

 

  • 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

 

 

 

 

 

Silent lockdown: where to get your early cinema fix online

Last week, I recommended a new Buster Keaton box set. Well, there’s an evergreen sentiment. I remain a devotee of physical media (and in the interests of full disclosure, also make part of my living from it), but I realise it’s getting a little trickier for people to get hold of news discs right now, whether that’s because of distribution difficulties or lack of funds. I hear you.

So with that in mind, I wrote this feature for the BFI website all about where to stream silent movies. Continue reading Silent lockdown: where to get your early cinema fix online

Buster Keaton: 3 Films review: discs the doctors would order

How are you doing? You can be honest here, you’re among pals. It’s a bit difficult out there these days isn’t it? Whether you’re out on the front line (thank you, THANK YOU), out-of-work, homeworking or home-schooling, life is stressful at the moment. Apparently we’re all either filling our time or switching off at night by streaming more than ever. Why not? There are some great resources out there for watching silents online (and more from me on this anon), but streaming is not the only fruit.

If you still have some pennies to spare in the age of lockdown, don’t forget that physical media is your best friend. Silents on Blu-ray (or DVD) won’t disappear at the whim of the rights-holder, or glitch or go lo-res every time your bandwidth gets overloaded by your flatmate’s Zoom cocktails or your kids’ homework chats. Not only that, but the best discs coming out these days are packed with commentaries and extras that celebrate the film and will expand your knowledge in the most entertaining way. Continue reading Buster Keaton: 3 Films review: discs the doctors would order

Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema

I said something a little flippant in a Q&A once. OK, more than once, but let’s just talk about this one time. The occasion was a screening of A Page of Madness (1926) as part of the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival, and I was responding to a comment about experimental silent film, and whether there was anything out there in the same vein as the movie we had just seen. According to the notes of Dr Lawrence Napper, I said “when you’re talking about silent cinema, you’re talking about the first four decades of film history, so in a way it’s all experimental, you can show almost anything”.

So much, so overstated. But there’s a truth there, to my credit.

Yes, being a movie pioneer means experimenting – and the history of cinema is the history of innovations and new ideas, from close-ups to Cinerama, montage editing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When these innovations still seem new, or when they didn’t last, we can call them experiments. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema

In memoriam: Diana Serra Cary AKA Baby Peggy, 1918-2020 – ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and last living silent film star

Sad news today. Baby Peggy, the last of the surviging silent film stars, has died aged 101. She was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego on 29 October 1918 and she died on 24 February 2020, 400 miles away in Gustine, California.

She was a star before she was even two years old, starting out as a cute dimpled co-star for Brownie the Wonder Dog, before going on to play the lead in around 150 comedy shorts and features. She was an unforgettable presence on screen: dimpled, diminutive and delightful – one of the youngest and most brilliant of child stars. And she really was a star, the “Million Dollar Baby”.

Long after her own days as a silent film star were over, she was a writer and an advocate not just for the silent era but for the rights of child performers. It had never been an easy life being a toddler-actress, far from it, and on 14 February this year, she gave an interview to Silence is Platinum in which she said this:

People asked me in my teens how I could remember anything about making films and I said I remembered everything about making them. I never had any problem with that, but many child stars had that denial thing. They didn’t want people to think they started out like that. Many times, and I did it too, I ended up denying that I had ever been in movies … There are so many sad stories, it was overwhelming. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think about them, and the most depressing ones are the ones that shouldn’t have gotten mixed up in it. They paid a terrible price for it. To me, they were all cautionary tales. Perhaps I assumed it because I lived it. Not all of my stories are negative, but the one you get caught in is a negative story.”

We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude, not just for her wonderful films and her fantastic comedy, but for her memories, which she put to good use, even though many of them were traumatic.

My Sight & Sound obituary for Baby Peggy is online here. We will all remember her, her work, and her beautiful smile, very fondly.

Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)
Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)

  • The 2013 TCM documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is available on DVD from Milestone, with a selection of her films, including Captain January (1924)
  • The Family Secret (1924) has also been released on disc by Undercrank Productions, with more of her short films and some archive footage.
  • 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

California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Could there be a finer thought in a grey week such as this one than a burst of California sunshine? Maybe there’s one, the gilded interior of the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco, which truly has to be seen to be believed.

What I’m driving at is the fact that Early Bird Passes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are on sale now, and it’s a very wonderful event indeed. If you’ve never been before, see below everything you need to know (that I know) about this welcoming, and rather glitzy, event in northern California.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the festival, and they are promising great things, not least a long-awaited restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, undertaken in collaboration with MOMA New York, accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony, playing a new score commissioned by Timothy Brock. The rest of the programme will be announced on 24 March. Continue reading California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Tulák Chaplin review: a ballet tribute to the Little Tramp

The thought of a telling a story without words never fazed Charlie Chaplin, creator of some of the most indelible silent films ever made. But can his own complex life story be related in just over two hours, in dance? I went to Bratislava to find out. Yes, really.

Tulák Chaplin (the name means “Chaplin, the Tramp” in Slovakian) is a bio-ballet for the slapstick star-director, which premiered at the Slovak National Theatre last March – that’s in beautiful Bratislava, Slovakia. It’s part of the celebrations for the 130th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. The choreography is by the Brazilian Daniel De Andrade, whom you may know from his work with the Northern Ballet, and the score is by the estimable Carl Davis, whose work you certainly do know if you are a regular reader of this blog – he has written some of the most iconic orchestral scores for silent film, not least of which is his epic composition for Napoléon. The two collaborated once before on a commission for the same theatre – that time it was a portrait of Nijinsky, another great physical artist of the 20th century. Continue reading Tulák Chaplin review: a ballet tribute to the Little Tramp