This is a guest post for Silent London by the composer and author Carl Davis. Today is his 85th birthday, and his new album Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks is released next week, 5 November. The two-disc set comprises highlights from the Carl Davis soundtracks composed for the Buster Keaton movies commissioned for Thames Silents and The Cohen Film Collection. The music is composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of London and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. recorded between 1984 and 2020.
What makes Buster Keaton different from his two great rivals, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the Hollywood of the 1920s? These three artists played very defined and different characters and supporting them in their differences is the role of the music.
Charlie’s Tramp evolved from 1914 and he played him until 1936 when the character made his final appearance in Modern Times. Chaplin was himself a gifted composer. As soon as sound film became the standard he completed and recorded his score for City Lights (1931) and did so for the rest of his career. Chaplin’s scores evolved out of the pre-1914 world of Victorian Music Halls: sentimental ballads, waltzes and polkas as well as melodramatic underscoring.
In the 35 years that I have been a silent film accompanist, I have been privileged to have a front-row seat for all the major discoveries of early cinema during that time. I have seen films come and go, attitudes shift, and loyalties become challenged, and never more so than at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, the spiritual home and trade show of our industry. There and elsewhere, I have tried never to stop learning, hearing from people vastly more experienced than me about films I thought I would never get to see, and, from time to time, films I should avoid.
The Afterlight is the last-chance saloon for the lost souls of film history. It’s a conceptual experiment, one that stalks the shadows of world cinema, gathering the spectres of movie stardom as it stumbles all the way to obsolescence. This new film from Charlie Shackleton, which played the Experimenta strand of the London Film Festival, is cast entirely from the grave and destined to self-destruct. Composed of snippets of archive cinema, The Afterlight stars only actors whose obituaries have already been published and exists only in one 35mm print, which will deteriorate, just a little, with each screening, until even these echoes diminish.
It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?
Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.
This is a guest post for Silent London from Michelle Facey AKA The Bioscope Girl to tell you about some exciting silent cinema events scheduled for London and online now that the Giornate has come to an end.
Well, my silent film lovelies, its been a long time coming. Those who’ve been to the 40th Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone are now home or wending their ways back around the world. I’m sorry that myself and others who form the steering Kennington Bioscope team, apart from John Sweeney of course, essential to festival proceedings, felt unable to be there on this occasion, but hopefully next year we’ll all reunite around the Verdi and the Posta. At least we were able to join in online and keep abreast of all the essentials of the physical fest, via the insights, intertitles and general Giornate goss of Silent London’s much welcomed daily blogs, written by Italian moonlight. We missed being with everyone there and kindly, several of you let us know throughout the week that you missed us too.
The eye wants to travel, and never more so than in these pandemic times. Which means that this presentation from the BFI’s blockbuster Japan season is actually more welcome on its delayed arrival.
In Around Japan With a Movie Camera, across an hour and a quarter, we are transported through space and time to Japan in the very early 20th century – the films span the period from 1901 to 1913. But you’ll want to devote a full ninety minutes to this one and click the “Watch introduction” button on the BFI Player. The films are more than ably introduced by the BFI’s own Bryony Dixon and Japanese film historian Mika Tomita, and the programme is hosted by Michelle ‘Bioscope Girl’ Facey. They also take time to introduce the band, as it were. The films are accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch, Costas Fotopolous, Stephen Horne and Lillian Henley – their hands are sometimes visible thanks to the ingenuity of Gabrysch’s pandemic-era innovation, the “piano-cam”.
At the start of this festival I missed a date with An Old Fashioned Boy, but you can bet your last Euro I wasn’t going to pass up a rendez-vous with Casanova. Tonight, the final night of this very precious Giornate, belonged to Ivan Mosjoukine, his magnicifent eyebrows and the show-stopping music of Günter Buchwald.
This is my tenth Giornate, which means I have graduated from newbie, all the way to novice, but also that I have been present for a quarter of the festival’s history. This is the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – an annual celebration of silent cinema that began with a short retrospective of Max Linder films at Cinemazero in 1982, viewed by around eight people. Tonight in the Verdi, it seemed like every other seat was taken for a rendez-vous with Linder.
Unprecedented scenes in the Teatro Verdi tonight, as the audience of customarily meek silent film enthusiasts stamped their feet, booed and exclaimed “outrageous!” “Close the curtains!” and “Down with this sort of thing!” But more reports on the incident the papers are calling the 2021 Giornate riot later.
Anna Q Nilsson! Tom Moore! Dark deeds with gold mines, wedding regrets and stock certificates! A mysterious, abrupt finale! It can only be the welcome return this afternoon of the 1916 serial Who’s Guilty?, which we loved so much in 2016. This was a classic example, with Nilsson and Moore marrying in haste and repenting at leisure but Nilsson’s ex proving to be no better option. And that was before the mine gave up its gold. What a nostalgic treat.
“I don’t think I’ll be falling in love with Ellen Richter any time soon,” said a gentleman to me in the hotel lift this lunchtime. Everyone else, please form an orderly queue. We sampled riches of Richter today, in three hour(ish)-long installments of Die Frau Mit Millionen (The Woman Worth Millions, Willi Wolff, 1923) – a fine example of her work in the “Reise- und Abenteuerfilme” or travel-and-adventure films genre.
The lure of distant shores drew us into the Verdi this Monday morning, though initially it looked a little like false advertising. Ilka Schütze’s In Den Dschungeln Afrikas/In the Jungles of Africa (1921-24) was a stop-animation story of two dolls travelling via “balloon” not to another continent but only as far as their garden, or their dreams. If dolls can dream. I hope so, don’t you?
Here in Pordenone, life is an endless round of parties, each more glamorous than the last. Sorry, that’s not my lifestyle but that of Ellen Richter and co in Leben Um Leben (Richard Eichberg, 1916). This film is a sequel so abandon all hope of following the plot all ye who enter in. What I can tell you is that Weimar star Ellen Richter, subject of a retrospective here at the Giornate, plays a scheming Princess in this glitzy romp. There was a costume ball, a “jolly hunt”, some stolen pearls, a run on the “Volksbank” and non-stop shenanigans and all of it was entertaining but it didn’t quite add up to a whole film. Still there was a marvellous multi-tinted dance sequence, as if the star of the floor show was grooving under coloured electric lights, which was far more than set-dressing – it was an attraction all of its own, a very modern throwback.
“Now more than ever, welcome home!” If Jay Weissberg’s address to the Verdi at tonight’s opening gala didn’t lodge a lump in your throat, you may be an irredeemable cynic. Or perhaps you were just marvelling at the man’s mastery of the Lubitsch Touch – the exquisite pain of terribly mixed emotions. But more on the importance of being Ernst later. Let us begin at Act One, Scene One. Enter your humble scribe, stage left.
Heartening news from Paris, where the great Josephine Baker is to be granted a rare honour. The dancer, actress, film star, civil rights activist and hero of the French Resistance is to be memorialised in the Panthéon, Paris’s secular temple, after nearly a decade of campaigning.
An inscription at the Panthéon reads: “To its great men, a grateful fatherland” and around 80 notable French people are honoured there, most of them men. Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman to be commemorated there.
Her predecessors are Marie Curie, Resistance heroes Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, feminist icon Simone Veil and Sophie Berthelot, the first woman to enter these hallowed crypts, and who was interred alongside her chemist husband Marcellin Berthelot “in homage to her conjugal virtue”.
“It is vital to be photogenic from head to foot. After that you are allowed to display some measure of talent.” Musidora, who wrote those words, is remembered as one of the true icons of silent cinema in her incarnation as Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires. However, there was more to her talent than her photogenic features, her white face and kohl-rimmed eyes and that famous slinky figure in a black body-stocking.
As revealed in a retrospective strand at the recent Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, the full range of Musidora’s career was fascinatingly diverse, feminist, ambitious and wittily self-reflexive. She was born Jeanne Roques in Paris on 23 February, 1899, and by the time of her death, aged 68, on 11 December, 1957, she had worked as a stage actor, singer, film star, novelist, journalist, producer, director and archivist, among other jobs. It’s doubtful that many of the cinephiles purchasing tickets at the Cinématheque Française in the 1950s would have recognised the woman who occasionally worked in the ticket booth as Musidora, the original screen vamp, muse to the surrealists and catnip to the moviegoing public in the 1910s.
Early in my career as a silent film accompanist I had an experience, which in retrospect probably affected the way I think about the work. I was accompanying a Louise Brooks film that, as was typical at the time, I had not seen in advance. The piano was positioned directly beneath the screen, so that the image filled my field of vision. I recall it being one of those rare evenings when I was totally lost in the film and music seemed to flow directly from brain to piano, almost bypassing the hand.
At one point Louise was held in an extended close-up – her smiling, enigmatic beauty framed by silver light. Then she started to speak and, although there was no intertitle, it was very clear to me what she was saying. In fact, just for a few seconds, I could actually hear her voice speaking the words. At least, that’s how it seemed. In retrospect, I realised that I had almost certainly been lip-reading. However, something about the moment, as immersive as it was, made the words transform into the sound of a voice within my head.
Please excuse typos in this blogpost. I am writing this in a mixture of mental fog and nervous excitement. Yesterday I had my second dose of my Covid-19 vaccination, and the ‘Moderna flu’ is real but suddenly the future seems a little bit brighter. So I thought I would pop on here to remind you of some upcoming silent-film-related events that you can attend in person or online, making your summer a wee bit more joyous and more silent.
This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway to Hollywood and then ran away to Europe to make three stunning, complex films that would secure her legacy as one of the great actors of the silent era. This film, 1930’s Prix de beauté, is the final film she made in Europe. It’s also the last silent film that she ever made, and without giving away the ending, it is an almost too-apt finish to her silent career.
Europe was Brooks’s sanctuary at the end of the 1920s, after she escaped from Hollywood. First, there were two German films. She was the unforgettable Lulu in GW Pabst’s dark, decadent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Then she played a waif who finds refuge in a brothel, in Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. Her third and final European film was this French title, Prix de beauté, shot by an Italian director. It was also Pabst’s idea.
Time flies when you’re getting nothing done. So I will forgive you if you don’t believe me, but this weekend the Silent Comedy Watch Party will webcast its 50th edition, a year to the day since the first show, back at a time when we were just getting our heads around this new word “lockdown”. That’s a whole year in which our Sundays have been blessed by silent comedy, live music and erudite introductions courtesy Ben Model, Steve Massa, and friends.
Silent London couldn’t let a milestone like that pass without a chat, and Ben and Steve were kind enough to take part in an interview with me, socially distanced at a range of around 3,500 miles.
Congratulations on a year of webcasting live silent film and music shows from your homes. It’s an awesome achievement. My first question has to be: why did you start the Silent Comedy Watch Party?
Ben Model: I’d played a weekend of shows in Nebraska and came home – then two days later things started shutting down and all my gigs were cancelled. I thought of the people who’d have gone to them who were now at home and couldn’t. I’d had the concept for the show in my head for a few years but with all silent film showings cancelled, this seemed like the moment to give it a shot. The tech of it worked, thankfully, and even more overwhelming was the response we got on socials and in emails.
Steve Massa: Since all our live shows were suddenly cancelled it seemed like the perfect way to stay in touch with the silent comedy universe. Ben told me he thought that we could technically do it and asked what I thought. Of course I was onboard immediately. Once we started we discovered how therapeutic laughter really is, and it became a mission to provide a little needed relief during the pandemic.
Did you ever think it was too much to take on? The work involved, all the technical challenges?
SM: This is really a question for Ben as he’s producer, technical director, film historian and accompanist. In addition to co-hosting, I gather the photos and information on the films, but he’s got the real burden of technically making the shows happen.
BM: Yes. Every week. But also, where was I going? Where was anybody going? The responses we got on socials and emails from day one were so moving, that’s what’s kept me going. No matter what the tech issues I’ve dealt with have been – and thi sis the thing my wife Mana keeps reminding me – there are hundreds of people out there who count on the show being there, for the laughs they need to get through all this.
I’ve developed an even greater respect for projectionists – what I’m doing tech-wise is pretty much like what happens in a booth during a show. And I’m doing that while I’m also hosting and accompanying, plus the factor of functioning as the tech director of a small TV studio.