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.
Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ celebrates the immortality of the WWI soldiers who died in service. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.” The word contemn isn’t used very often – it means “to treat with contempt”. The poem, popularly recited at Remembrance Services, argues that the sacrifice of the fallen will be honoured by the following generations, but also means that they are suspended in the aspic of their youth. While we grow feeble, they retain their strength and vitality.
In a similar spirit, Peter Jackson’s new film, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, seeks to erase the lapsed years between today and the Great War. The soldiers in his film are ostensibly unwearied – living, breathing, talking men in full colour, rather than the silent, black-and-white figures of archive footage. It’s telling that Jackson has taken Binyon’s line and contorted it. The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old – a more digestible, less archaic version of the original, with modern grammar, and arguably less mystery and grandeur. It also seems to have a more literal meaning, pointing to their demise, not their immortal memory. Continue reading LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive→
These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.
Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa
In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.
An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes→
What do you need to make a great movie? At the end of a week at Pordenone, is it the images that burn in your mind, or the stories that tug at your heart? Today we had more films that wooed us with visual than narrative pleasure, making for an exhilarating lineup that celebrated the artistry of silent cinema.
Let us begin at the end – with the gala performance of The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), restored by Photoplay in 1990 and playing here with a superb orchestral rendition of Henri Rabaud’s original score. This story of revolutions and robotics is a tremendous one, but it’s the images that scorch: The automaton army raising its sabers in unison; Edith Jehanne surveying the wreckage through a broken window; the pyrotechnic display of the firing squad in a snowy palace courtyard. A wonderful, rousing, and visually thrilled film that provided a suitably grand flourish to a week that has revelled in epic excitement.
A case in point: the tremendous The Last of the Mohicans (1920), one of those Canon Revisited films that is tucked away in an unassuming slot in the schedule and acts like a shot in the arm to the jaded festivalgoer. I had not seen it before and my expectations were somewhere around the middle, but this is wonderful stuff. Amid the action (which is wonderfully staged and always nailbiting) what emerges is an unexpectedly tragic and touching romance – one you wouldn’t go looking for in material like this, but there you go. I was moved. And of course that cliffhanger sequence is the best we have seen all week and we have seen some excellent ones.
I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl. Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.
The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.