Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was released 90 years ago this June. This is a version of a piece I wrote for the Loud Silents estival screening of the film in 2015. The 2019 Loud Silents festival takes place 12-14 April in Tampere, Finland.
In Blackmail (1929), Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film, guilt spreads like a virus across London, from criminal to accomplice, and as it travels, it subsumes the city itself. By the end of this film, even London’s most respectable neighbourhoods will have been transformed by a rippling crimewave. And Hitchcock’s use of key locations in the city maps this disruption, illustrating the terrible consequences of his heroine’s fatal mistake.
Hitchcock was certainly a law-fearing Londoner. He grew up in a flat over a greengrocer’s shop in the eastern suburb of Leytonstone, but by the time he made Blackmail, he had lived, worked and studied all over the city. We know that he was a keen film and theatregoer in his youth, fascinated by lurid crime stories. We also know that he grew up in awe of the police, a terror exacerbated if not born when his father punished him by having him locked in a cell at the local station – he was just five years old. Many of his best films, from The Lodger (1927) to Frenzy (1972), via Sabotage (1936) portray the city of his birth as a dangerous place, stalked by terrorists and serial killers who make the streets unsafe.
Blackmail takes in some of London’s most famous landmarks, from Scotland Yard to the Palace of Westminster to the British Museum, and the first twenty minutes of the film travel full-tilt across the city, from west to east and back again, in the company of a sharp-jawed detective called Frank (John Longden). We begin the movie on the right side of the law, and with the criminals in their expected place. So naturally, we begin at Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, slap-bang in the heart of the Establishment.
The camera travels with the flying squad on their way to arrest a wrong ’un. We are not privy to the exact address, but the arches and tenements at their destination suggest the inner East End, and the criminal they arrest is straight out of a rogue’s gallery. As soon as the coppers arrive, he reaches for the gun on his bedside table. Continue reading Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime→
Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..
Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.
Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.
Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934
Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)
A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.
This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.
Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.
The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama
Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)
You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.
This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.
Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown, but this book should encourage more screenings.
Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.
Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection
By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)
The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.
And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?
I wrote a little more on this book for the April 2019 issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale next week.
This article was originally published on the Drugstore Culture site on 23 November 2018. As that site is currently shuttered, I am reposting it here.
The career of Mabel Normand represents one of the biggest gaps in popular film history. Why isn’t this uproariously funny comic, who starred in more than 167 shorts and 23 features, remembered as one of the greats of silent comedy? Instead, there is a long-established male hierarchy in slapstick: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the top, vying for the number one slot, with Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd snapping at their heels. Then there’s Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Raymond Griffith and many more, cramming in to the picture like a cohort of bungling Keystone Cops. For years the top ranks have been pictured this way, as a boys-only club, with room only for comedians, not comediennes. In his 1975 slapstick bible The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr even declared: ‘No comedienne ever became a truly important silent ﬁlm clown.’ The reason being, he argued, the beauty standards required of women in the film industry. ‘Comediennes, from Mabel Normand all the way to Marion Davies, laboured under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty… The girl was expected to function as a girl, no matter what incidental nonsense she might be capable of; grotesques need not apply, except for supporting roles.’
It’s a misperception that is finally shifting. A hundred years after the fact, it seems we are finally appreciating the contribution of women to the art of silent comedy, including many more great comediennes besides Normand and Davies. Recent books such as Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas (2017) and Maggie Hennefeld’s Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (2018) are changing our idea of the comedy canon, and in the UK, screenings as part of the nationwide BFI Comedy Genius season and at the annual Slapstick Festival in Bristol should help to get the word out further. For the record, Marion Davies was deathlessly hilarious, squeezing acclaimed comic set pieces into the action of hit comedies including Show People (1928) and The Patsy (1964), and I would add to that list Marie Dressler, Beatrice Lillie, Colleen Moore, Alice Howell, Laura La Plante, Zasu Pitts and Mary Pickford, just for starters. If we go back further in time, a phalanx of rambunctious women were making boisterous comedies in the pre-Hollywood years: Cunégonde and Rosalie in France, Florence Turner, Laura Bayley and the ‘Tilly Girls’ in Britain. If you’ve been led to believe that women took only dramatic roles in silent cinema, take a second look at these comics, who were as comfortable falling, fighting and making a mess as any of their male counterparts.
London is great, but sometimes it does a soul good to get away from the big smoke to breathe some sea air. Less than 90 minutes away from the capital by train is Deal, a very elegant seaside resort in Kent. Attractions include a smart pier, a pebbly beach, the intriguing Time-Ball Tower, fish’n’chips and all the ozone you can fill your lungs with.
There’s a new reason to visit Deal though, for those film-historically inclined. A small but very welcoming museum called Kent Momi, or the Kent Museum of the Moving Image, if you haven’t been introduced yet.
A pebble-dashed house, just a couple of minutes stroll from the train station and the seafront, is now home to something between a collection and an exhibition of cinema artefacts. In fact it is full to bursting with cameras, pre-cinema devices, posters, pressbooks, and other memorabilia. Even a reconstruction of Googie Withers’ dressing table. And crucially, this film museum goes back further than most – to magic lanterns, dioramas and all the predecessors of the cinema as we know it.
Forbidden Paradise – You know that your humble scribe is smitten with Pola Negri. So when I saw the restoration of the sizzling Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Negri and Rod La Rocque at Pordenone, I was bowled over. I am looking forward to watching it again, slightly more composed, but also glammed up for the HIppfest Friday Night Gala. This film deserves your best bib and tucker. I am also psyched to hear the new score by Jane Gardner. Here’s what I said when I saw it in October: “Hearts and reputations are won and lost. Moustaches are twirled. Fingers and furtive glances are everywhere. A revolution rages and is quashed, and always, behind a door Negri is making a conquest or throwing a plan into disarray. It’s ironic and light, but also physical and passionate. I can’t tell you what a treat it is. Seek it out and savour if you can.”
You love the British Silent Film Festival. I love the British Silent Film Festival. We all love the British Silent Film Festival. So I am delighted to share the good news that the British Silent Film Festival is back, back, back for 2019. The 20th British Silent Film Festival will run 12-15 September 2019 at the fantastic Phoenix in Leicester – so save the date, Silent Londoners. Will there be special events to mark that big round 20 number? I don’t know, but I hope so. The 2017 event was absolutely brilliant, so I have great expectations for this year.
The event will include screenings, keynote lectures and presentations from international film and colour scholars, in the BFI’s NFT2 theatre. Details of the program will be announced as they emerge – follow us on Facebook for updates!
The lineup for the three-day conference covers a broad spectrum (geddit?) of areas. On the first day, Tom Gunning will give a keynote lecture on ‘Projected Cinema Colours: Transparency, Light and Space’, and David H Foster, Professor of Vision Systems, University of Manchester, will give the Colour Group Keynote the following day. There will also be papers on colour comedy, early fashion films, and the 1950s colour wars. There will be a session focusing on two-colour formats and plenty more on the nitty-gritty of colour restoration, conservation and preservation. Continue reading Colour in Film 2019: a kaleidoscope conference→
Don’t ever make the mistake of assuming the writer wrote the headline. What Gilbey meant, I think, was why hasn’t there ever been a female comedy duo quite as successful as Laurel and Hardy? You could also ask, why hasn’t there ever been a male comedy duo quite as successful as Laurel and Hardy? But that’s not what Gilbey is getting at, writing very perceptively:
Never underestimate the ingrained sexism of male impresarios, who must have decreed that audiences simply don’t respond to female double acts, explaining away the ones that work as exceptions to the rule. But perhaps there is some deeper reason why the sight of two women performing harmoniously together as heightened versions of themselves has never properly clicked, or never been allowed to … Male friendship and rivalry is routinely the stuff of comedy. Does the notion of women getting along – or not – make us so uncomfortable that we can’t even bear to laugh at it?
Perhaps there is something in this. A deep-seated distrust of the idea that women can be funny, which doubles when there are two or more women on screen together? It’s very difficult to measure such a response, though. I’m more interested in where Gilbey went looking for his examples. He starts out in the 70s, and moves forward … citing French & Saunders as a prime example (but character comedy doesn’t count, apparently). Gilbey’s point is that female duos have a tougher time getting recommissioned – we, or the powers-that-be, don’t allow them to thrive. He may well be right there. Continue reading Looking for a female version of Laurel and Hardy?→
News! I have some fun news. I actually thought long and hard about posting this on Silent London. My concern was: is this really something that Silent Londoners need? Then I thought, what the heck, it’s fun to share some good news when you have it, and actually you may be more interested than I think.
Drumroll … I have a new book coming out! Very soon. Last year I had the delicious job of editing 30-Second Cinema, a lushly illustrated guide to film history and world cinema from Quarto, an imprint of Ivy Press.
Here’s the official blurb:
Are you an art-movie buff or a blockbuster enthusiast? Can you reel off a list of New Wave masterpieces, or are you more interested in classic Westerns? Most of us love the movies in one form or another, but very few of us have the all-round knowledge we’d like. 30-Second Cinema offers an immersion course, served up in neat, entertaining shorts. These 50 topics deal with cinema’s beginnings, with its growth as an industry, with key stars and producers, with global movements—from German Expressionism to New Hollywood—and with the movies as a business. By the time you’ve worked your way through, you’ll be able to identify the work of George Melies, define auteur theory or mumblecore in a couple of pithy phrases, and you’ll have broadened your knowledge of global cinema to embrace not only Bollywood but Nollywood, too. All in the time it takes to watch a couple of trailers.
Today the Bafta-nominated Stan & Ollie is released in cinemas, and I highly recommend it. Starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as Stan and Babe respectively, this bittersweet movie tells a tale of the boys’ final tour in Britain. I found it to be a remarkably poignant film about their friendship and also, especially thanks to Coogan’s fine impersonation of Laurel, an accomplished evocation of the duo’s comedy magic. Watch out for Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda stealing the show as the duo’s bickering wives, too. Yes, it’s not always strictly, strictly true to the history, but the changes made have a clear dramatic purpose, and I think what it captures of their relationship is very special, so I hope you enjoy it.
In celebration of the film’s release, here are some links you may enjoy:
A Quiet Place, directed by and starring John Krasinski, is not a silent movie, but it is a movie that revolves around silence. It made me think about what sound gives to a movie, and what it takes away. Krasinski’s co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who originated the idea, say that they watched a lot of silent films in college, their excellent horror film made me ponder silent film presentation rather than production. In fact, I kept thinking about a recent, controversial score for a 1920s movie, and what the purpose of music and sound is in a film.
Hitchcock said that one mark of a good film is that you can follow it with the sound turned off, and that is certainly true of A Quiet Place. Our heroes are a family of five, led by Krasinski and his real-wife wife Emily Blunt. Their daughter is played by Millicent Simmonds, the young deaf actress who is every bit as remarkable here as she was in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, and her little brother is played by Noah Jupe, whom you may have seen in The Night Manager or Suburbicon. The premise, as with the best horror movies, is both simple and devastating. New York State has been left desolate after an influx of seemingly indestructible monsters. They’re blind, but highly sensitive to sound, so staying silent is the only way to stay alive.
The opening sequence, in which the family raid a deserted drugstore for supplies, illustrates their survival strategy. The cast go barefoot, move slowly and deliberately, and communicate only via sign language (subtitled for those viewers who don’t read it). There are just two intertitles, counting the days since the invasion. Because the scenario unfolds so neatly with so little spoken or audible dialogue, much has been made of the film’s clever visual exposition, though that may be laying it on a bit thick. There’s a whiteboard back at the family’s base camp with helpful notes writ large, and a selection of carefully curated headlines from the New York Post pinned up alongside it. Continue reading A Quiet Place (2018): the horror of silence→
January is a time for looking forwards, not back, right? That’s just not the Silent London way. With immense thanks to all of you for voting and sharing in the 2018 poll, I am delighted to announce your silent film highlights of the past year.
Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2018
It arrived late in the year, but hotly anticipated and was everything we wanted it to be. Kino Lorber’s magnificent Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set is your favourite release of the year. And mine too. Check out selected highlights from the set on UK Netflix now.
Best Theatrical Release of 2018
Never let it be said that there is any kind of bias in this list – but the BFI’s release of Pandora’s Box, in a gorgeous new restoration topped your choices this year. And of course I wholeheartedly agree.
Slim pickings in this category, but an overwhelming number of you got creative and chose John Krasinski’s held-breath horror A Quiet Place in this category. I see what you did there and I like the way you think.
Birt Acres was born on 23 July 1854 in Richmond, Virginia. He died on 27 December 1918, 100 years ago today, in Whitechapel, London. For reasons I cannot explain, he is buried in a cemetery in Walthamstow, further out of the city, and just a few minutes away from where I live.
The other day I took a stroll to Queens Road Cemetery, London E17 to take a look at Birt Acres’s grave. It may be hard to make out the lettering in this pictures, but beneath the caption “Peace”, it reads:
loving memory of
A pioneer of the cinematograph
Acres was a pioneer all right – a massively important figure in the history of early British cinema. In 1894, when he was working as a photographer in Barnet, RW Paul sought his expertise on a project of his: the development of a motion picture camera. According to Paul, he rejected Acres’ design suggestions, but they continued to collaborate and Acres patented the new device, so it’s likely his contribution was actually significant. Together, in 1895, they filmed the “first successful motion picture film made in Britain”, outside Acres’s house, Clovelly Cottage in Barnet.
Hello lovelies. From me, and from Conrad, here’s hoping you have a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year, with many silent nights to come in 2019! Thanks for all your support, comments and messages this year – as well as your votes in the end-of-year poll. I am currently tallying the results and hope to share them with you very soon.
This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Late Show Blogathon. I have chosen to write about the final screen appearance of the wonderful Lillian Gish, but this movie is a late or last film for many of the people involved.
“Alas dear ladies, all of this is in the past.” Vincent Price’s elegant Mr Maranov delivers the sad news to his elderly neighbours Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis). He is talking about his heyday, his rarefied life as a Russian noble, before the revolution, before the war, before the coming of sound. Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987), announces itself with a whiff of sawdust, and nitrate. It’s a film based on a play, a very quiet and melancholy play, and it opens with something far too gentle to be called a flashback, a monochrome glimpse of three young girls with flowing hair and white dresses excitedly rushing to the shore to catch sight of the ocean’s summer visitors. A glimpse of the silent era, in tribute to the film’s iconic and beautiful star.
Do the whales come to Maine in August any more, now those young girls have lived a lifetime each, separated, and reunited to live in awkward interdependence? That constitutes this delicate movie’s only real note of suspense. Sarah and Libby live the definition of a twilight existence, quietly in a house that is really a summer cottage, although it is early autumn, exposed on a grassy cliff. They brush their long white hair (Sarah’s a has a touch of blonde still, as she can’t quite resist letting Libby know) and dress for dinner in floral and powder-blue chiffon, and low-heeled pumps. It’s a beautiful spot, Cliff Island in Maine, where each evening they can “dine by moonlight” when the twilight floods their parlour. A picture window would make the most of that sumptuous view, and a friendly handyman neighbour (not Price, no fear) offers to install one for the ladies. Libby has doubts, though. Aren’t they too old to make changes? And besides, although she doesn’t like to mention it, Libby is blind. She can no longer see the whales, whenever they may or may not arrive.
Gish was 93 when she made The Whales of August, but preternaturally youthful, in the unique way of a waif who barely grew up. She plays a widow who mourns her soldier husband, and patiently takes care of cantankerous Libby, her older sister (though Davis was 15 years younger, and had one more feature in her, despite the decades of chain-smoking). She lives resolutely in the present, though, lobbying for that picture window and delighting in good food, fresh conversation, and the changing beauty of nature. She still believes the whales will return in August. Davis, who often seemed to delight in complaining about her co-stars, said it was a nightmare to work with Gish, who was all but entirely deaf. Anderson, inevitably, drew a different preference. Gish was an angel to direct, and rebellious Davis more of a headache. “Lillian’s first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for. Her professional attitude comes from those days with DW Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.” As such, they were perfectly cast as Sarah and Libby.
Today, Silent London is eight years old. If this were a marriage we’d be exchanging bronze gifts. But I consider this more of an open relationship, so don’t worry about buying me anything too expensive – unless you absolutely insist.
Thank you for reading, whether you are new around here or have been with me for the full eight-year stretch. If it’s the latter, you really do deserve a medal. All I can offer you is this deathless gif of Buster Keaton and Rosalind Byrne in Seven Chances instead:
Fabulous isn’t it? You’ll have guessed by now that I am after something. And yes, it’s quite tradition by now. Today we open the Silent London Poll of 2018, and I want your votes. Lots of em. Very few of the questions are mandatory, so even if you think that you haven’t watched that many silents this year, do take a look and see if you can support the films, film-makers, restorers, musicians, venues, festivals and so on that have made your year in silent cinema rich and exciting. I think 2018 has been a vintage year, what about you?
Are you struggling to remember the festivals, films, and music that you loved the most in 2017? Well take a look back through the pages of Silent London, or the Silent Film Calendar or ithankyou, both of which sites kept up to date with silent happenings all year round.
Don’t be afraid to lobby for your favourites, or to vote for events outside the UK. The poll is now a global affair and the more votes the merrier. Sharing is caring!
I will be closing the poll on 20 December, so you have plenty of time to ponder your choices – but don’t forget to vote!
Refresh your memory by finding out who won last year, here.
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.
It’s an article of faith in these parts that silent cinema is live cinema. We’re talking about the magic of live musical accompaniment, for the most part, but also, if we go right back to the early film period, narration, as well as the timing and skill involved in the projectionist changing reels, and perhaps the odd audience member reading the intertitles out loud.
There’s more discover in this vein though, and a project at the University of Reading aims to revive the art of the movie prologue. Not just any silent movie prologues, but Brazilian silent movie prologues. It’s an international project then, part of a wider quest to explore intermediality in Brazilian cinema, and connecting Reading to Rio de Janeiro, specifically that stretch of the coast that was once known as Cinelandia, because there were so many cinemas there.
This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).
Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?
Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché→
This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.
There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.
It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.
This post is a version of an introductory talk I gave at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol this year. The next Cinema Rediscovered festival will take place 25-28 July 2019.
This film, My 20th Century (1989), is a very special and intriguing piece. For my money, it is the perfect film to see at this festival. It may be only 29 years old, so it barely qualifies as vintage, but it is not shown as much as it should be – so it is ripe to be rediscovered. And it has as much in common with the cinema of a hundred or more years ago as it does with modern work, so it sits well in a festival devoted to film history.
It’s a fact, also, that Ildiko Enyedi fits perfectly with the name of this strand of the festival: Women on the Periphery. Hungarian director Enyedi was born in 1955 and has forged a thoroughly independent career. She studied philosophy at university, but quit because she considered the course to be badly taught. Then she went to the Budapest Film Academy and managed to complete the course, despite considering leaving because she felt that “some of those in power were lazy thinkers”. She became a visual artist and joined the Bela Belazs studio in Budapest 1979 – this is the place that produced works by such Hungarian notables as Béla Tarr. Enyedi made several short films, but My Twentieth Century was her first feature, and it won the Camera d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, the prize for the best debut feature showing in competition.