Category Archives: Blog

Silent Sirens: Stephen Horne on playing for the ghosts of silent film

This is a guest post by Silent London award-winning silent film accompanist Stephen Horne, to mark the release of his stunning new album Silent Sirens from Ulysses Arts on 9 July.

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.

Continue reading Silent Sirens: Stephen Horne on playing for the ghosts of silent film

Silent summer: some dates for your diary

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.

Silent Sirens! More on this on the site later this week, but Stephen Horne’s debut album is released on Friday. I am listening to some extracts as I type this and it’s really beautiful. Pre-order now.

Continue reading Silent summer: some dates for your diary

Prix de beauté (1930): Louise Brooks pays the price of beauty

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.

Continue reading Prix de beauté (1930): Louise Brooks pays the price of beauty

“A friendly place to get some laughs and forget all the craziness”: A year of the Silent Comedy Watch Party

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.

Ben Model and Steve Massa

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.

Continue reading “A friendly place to get some laughs and forget all the craziness”: A year of the Silent Comedy Watch Party

Siren of the Tropics (1927): Josephine Baker is reborn on screen

The best thing I’ve seen so far at this year’s online Slapstick Festival is the French film Siren of the Tropics (Mario Nalpas & Henri Étiévant, 1927), starring one of the all-time greats of the dance world, Josephine Baker. With this movie, Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major studio picture. And it’s a triumph. I was lucky enough to see the film at the festival with an excellent live score played by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, which definitely brought up the best of this vivacious film.

Siren of the Tropics may feature one of America’s greatest stars, but it’s a film that could never have been made in America at the time, or for decades later. In the silent era, Anna May Wong set sail for Europe to play romantic leads, escaping Hollywood’s prohibition on what it called miscegenation. In the classical Hollywood musical, Black performers from The Nicholas Brothers to Lena Horne were seen only as “featured players” with no connection to the story – so their show-stopping sequences could be excised from the film for exhibition in the South.

In Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker isn’t just the star of the film, she is giving a career-defining star performance. Not least because this film fictionalises the creation of her star persona. It’s the story of a young woman from the Caribbean who falls in love with a white man and follows him to Paris. While searching for him, she is scouted by nightclub impresarios and becomes the toast of the city. Finally reunited with her love, she sees that they can never be together and she makes a sacrifice for him before sailing away to America to start a new life.

Siren of the Tropics (1927)

It’s a complete fiction, but one that hits on all the aspects of Baker’s persona that would have been familiar to her audience. It’s her A Star is Born. Baker’s character, Papitou, displays natural dance talent at home in the fictional Caribbean mining colony of Monte Puebla, grooving on the sand with her friends. She eventually travels to Paris where she becomes feted on the nightclub circuit with an act that involves her both performing an eccentric dance in the torn blouse and satin rompers of her famous plantation routine and also bringing the house down in sequins, lace and feathers as she twirls her limbs in the Charleston: two of her signature moves. Although Papitou is a dancer, not also a comedienne, the film supplies plenty of setpieces for Baker to prove her skills in both disciplines. At the end of the film that Papitou travels to Baker’s actual birthplace, the US.

Continue reading Siren of the Tropics (1927): Josephine Baker is reborn on screen

Losing my accent …

One of the nicest, and to me the oddest, things I have ever read about this blog was David Cairns of Shadowplay writing that it’s “not just for cockneys”. Why, as anyone self-respecting Londoner knows, very few people in the capital are yer actual born-within-the-sound-of-Bow-Bells cockneys, anyway. I’m certainly not a cockney. I’m not even a Londoner, really, because I was born hundreds of miles away from the Big Smoke.

But what Cairns meant, I think, is that Silent London is not just for Londoners. The blog was born when “hyper-local” was a big trend, and its initial purpose was to keep tabs on the burgeoning silent movie scene in London. Ever since I stopped running listings, it has been decreasingly London-centric, which may be a good thing, depending on your postcode. To be honest, many of my most popular posts were written in Italy, or about German, American or French films.

Continue reading Losing my accent …

Hippfest 2021’s star-studded online lineup: Valentino, Pickford, Robeson, Brooks & Dietrich

Hip-hip hooray, it’s Hippfest programme announcement day. News that arrives like a sweet, sweet vaccination into the veins of a drizzly February.

While personally I am sorry not to be watching these films in the warm embrace of the Hippodrome this year, the lineup is immense, and I delighted to tell you that the films will be available to stream not only in the UK, but also in Europe and North America. So if you have never had the pleasure of a trip to Bo’Ness, the silent cinema capital of Scotland, well now is your chance to experience the award-winning Hippfest magic.

The Eagle (1925)

The full lineup is online … NOW. So you can peruse at your leisure. But may I please bring your attention to:

Brooksie! I am honoured that Hippfest has asked me to introduce a very special screening of Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté starring Louise Brooks on the Saturday afternoon, which will be accompanied by Stephen Horne, who really has a way with this film.

Rudolph Valentino! Without even consulting me, the Hippfest hipsters programmers chose my favourite Valentino film for the Friday night gala. It’s The Eagle, everyone! And with Neil Brand at the keys, this will be well worth dimming the lights in your lounge for. I insisted on writing the programme notes for this one …

Body and Soul (1925)

Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson! Delve into the history of Black silent film history with a rare screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul starring Paul Robeson, with music by Wycliffe Gordon.

Sunday with Mary Pickford! Not only is Hippfest showing the silent Hollywood masterpiece that is Sparrows, with an introduction from Cari Beauchamp, but earlier that day, we are invited to a cookalong with Jenny Hammerton of Silver Screen Suppers to make one of Pickford’s favourite recipes, and to mix a special Hippfest cocktail.

Die Frau, Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)

Marlene Dietrich! So happy that this is in the programme: on Saturday night, the Frame Ensemble will accompany the gorgeous German silent The Woman Men Yearn For/Die Frau, Nach der Man Sich Sehnt, starriung the divine Dietrich.

There’s more! So much more, including Bryony Dixon introducing Asquith’s Underground with Brand’s orchestral score, Pudovkin’s Chess Fever, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, talks, a quiz, a tour of the Hippodrome … Book your pass as early as you can to support this wonderful festival.

““I am delighted to present our tenth HippFest… a year later than we originally planned but no less of a milestone!,” says festival director Alison Strauss. “We are looking forward to welcoming back all the many fans of HippFest and to throwing open the virtual cinema doors for audiences joining us for the first time. It’s exciting to think that more people might take the plunge because attendance this year is as easy as turning up in your own front room. This is definitely one of the upsides of a virtual festival. Whilst we will miss all being together under the star-studded ceiling of the Hippodrome we have tried to create a comparable cocktail of screenings with music, workshops, events and activities to sweep you up in the marvellous magic of early cinema. If dressing up is your thing, go for it! If you like mingling with other festival-goers, dive in to our virtual festival hub! However you do HippFest we’re sure you’ll have a great time.”

• The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival takes place online Wednesday 17 – Sunday 21 March 2021. Passes cost £20 or £5 for concessions. To read more about Hippfest and to book, click 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.

The Silent London Poll of 2020: And the winners are …

So, 2020 wasn’t a standard year by any stretch, but instead of giving up on the Poll I decided to go ahead with it, to celebrate all the people who kept silent film culture alive in the midst of a global pandemic. And you clearly agreed, because I had far more votes to count this year than last. Here are your winners!

  1. Best real-world silent film screening of 2020

None of us got to the pictures as much as we would have liked in 2020, but nevertheless there were some choice events nominated in this category. Your favourite? Filibus, presented by Hippfest at the The Barony Community Theatre in Bo’ness with accompaniment by Jane Gardner (piano) and Hazel Morrison (percussion).

Honourable mentions: The Big Parade with Neil Brand at BFI Southbank and Tatjana with John Sweeney at The Kennington Bioscope.

2. Best online SILENT FILM SCREENING OF 2020

Did we ever think we would get used to streaming silents so much? Or that the quality of presentation and music could be *this* good? This was a hotly contested category, but the winner is Penrod & Sam, with Stephen Horne, presented as part of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival online.

As I wrote at the time: “A delightful film, and beautifully accompanied, it left me with just one poignant thought – that this sort of caper is exactly, exactly the kind of film that comes alive when watched with a crowd. The laughter and tears might be heard ‘as deep down as China and as far back as the alley’.”

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2020: And the winners are …

Reasons to be cheerful in 2021: Hippfest, Slapstick and more

You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a tough time right now. All I can say is that I hope you’re all taking care of yourselves out there, celebrating the small wins and staying connected.

Talking of connections, I have news of upcoming online delights for silent cinephiles. Viz, to wit, henceforth, etc etc.

  • Hippfest is back! Yes, the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival returns, online, this 17-21 March. The star attraction here is the  wonderful Marlene Dietrich silent The Woman Men Yearn For (1929), along with a new score from Frame Ensemble. But believe me there are more delights yet to be announced. I am sworn to secrecy, however, and shall remain silent until the full programme is announced on 16 February. Read more.
  • I trailed this event last year, but the full programme for Slapstick 2021 (1-17 March 2021) is a few steps closer to being announced – the full details will be revealed on Monday 25 January. Passes are on sale now, at a variety of price points, and individual tickets for each event will be on sale on Monday, too. Read more.
  • On 4 February Coram hosts an online roundtable celebrating the centenary of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, and its depiction of care, with Bryony Dixon and Kate Guyonvarch. Sounds fascinating. Book here.
  • The Silent Comedy Watch Party courtesy Ben Model and Steve Massa was a trailblazer in the online silent game during the early weeks of the pandemic, and has gone from strength to strength. Wouldn’t you know it, they will be celebrating their 50th edition a year to the day since they started, this March? Catch up with previous weeks and get set for future episodes (this Sunday we’re treated to Alice Howell, Martha Sleeper and Charley Chase) here.
  • Kennington Bioscope shows no sign of slowing down – the shows just seem to get better and better. The next episode, on Wednesday, promises a programme called “Daring Deeds”. I can’t wait for historian-host Michelle Facey to explain further. Set a reminder.
  • Today is the anniversary of the births of Yevgeni Bauer, DW Griffith, Conrad Veidt and Sergei Eisenstein. What special silent film powers are unleashed on 22 January?
  • Next week: I reveal the winners of the 2020 Silent London Poll! Iron your bowties and polish your stilettoes, ladies and gentlemen…

Stay safe, lovelies. I’ll be back in touch next week to open those golden envelopes.

• 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.

Season’s Greetings, Silent Londoners

Hello dear readers!

It may not feel very festive where you are right now, but I want to wish you all the very best for the holidays coming up. This time last year, I was full of enthusiasm for the new decade and I am still sure good things are in the post, but just like our Christmas cards and parcels, it may take a little while for them to get here. The silent film community has inspired me so much this year – showing resilience, ingenuity and good humour.

I hope then, that Mary Pickford can spread a little cheer to the fine readers of Silent London. May the next few weeks bring you good health, good films, and plentiful merriment!

  • Don’t just mull your wine, mull your answers to the Silent London Poll – every vote counts, believe me!
  • 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.

Away (2020): A game of silence

I couldn’t let 2020 go by without talking to you about Away, a truly remarkable animated feature, and a modern silent too. This deceptively simple quest film has zero dialogue, and was all, every frame, the work of one man, Latvian filmmaker animator Gints Zilbalodis. He wrote, directed, scored and yes animated this award-winning film over the course of three and a half years.  

He admits that that he concocted the screenplay on the fly, but that it soon came to feel that that film’s story was a metaphor for his struggles to complete the film. That’s why I say deceptively simple: beneath Away’s bright, almost cute surface there’s something deeper at work.

Continue reading Away (2020): A game of silence

The Silent London Poll of 2020 is here!

Happy December! The good news is that 2020 is almost over, and the even better news is that it is Silent London Poll time again.

I don’t need to remind you that this year has not been like other years. But in the face of adversity the silent film community has more than rallied. The pandemic did not stop people screening, scoring, restoring and publishing. So we want to applaud and honour those efforts.

Also, think back to the beginning of the year. There were real-life screenings and festivals – and we want to celebrate those achievements too.

Perhaps this year your own silent film activities were curtailed, but maybe you were able to attend far more events than usual, albeit virtually. Share your discoveries via the Poll!

As ever, only two questions in the poll are mandatory – so even if you have to skip some sections, I really, really want to collect your votes in the other categories. Especially in this, Silent London’s 10th year of doing business.

Scroll down to start voting, or click here to load on a new tab. The poll will stay open until early January, so you have time to think and watch and think some more … We won’t ‘stop the count’ early, whatever happens.

Happy voting!

• 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.

A cool decade of Silent London

Happy birthday to us! Break out the socially distanced celebrations! Today Silent London reaches double digits. The blog was born on 26 November 2010, with a sketchy tumblr and a humble tweet.

Since then this site has grown, and made many new friends, around the world. I am honestly astonished by everything that has happened since then, and feel so very lucky to be part of it. It’s Thanksgiving in America today, which is appropriate as I am very, very grateful for all the films, the fantastic music, and the people who have supported Silent London over this decade. That’s you, that is. Everyone who has read and shared the posts here, and the brilliant people who have contributed their own posts too. I am grateful for the archives, festivals and cinemas who have welcomed this blogger to watch their work, and the musicians who have brought the films to new life with every screening. The silent film community is a wonderful thing and I am honoured to one of its members.

If you needed proof, just look at this year and how this community has coped in a crisis. I tip my hat to the way that silent cinema has thrived online, from the Kennington Bioscope (catch up with last night’s programme, it was fab!) and Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party screenings on YouTube to the online versions of Bologna and Pordenone’s festivals. Let alone all the archive material accessible on websites from Paris to Amsterdam to Copenhagen to San Francisco … mind, blown. This very weekend, Scotland’s wonderful HippFest is hosting an online screening of a fascinating silent film as part of the third edition of St Andrew’s Fair Saturday. Please read on for more details.

Continue reading A cool decade of Silent London

Mank (2020): a short note about Marion Davies

Can a fictional film damage a real person’s reputation? William Randolph Hearst certainly thought so, as he mobilised to stop the screenplay of Citizen Kane being turned into a movie. Charles Foster Kane was modelled, blatantly and pointedly, on Hearst himself, and within its fiction, Citizen Kane contained some painful, and subversive truths. That’s a moment captured in David Fincher’s fascinating new film Mank, which dramatises the process by which Herman J. Mankiewicz, holed up in a desert ranch with a collection of broken bones, wrote that incendiary movie script. And also, how his words were received in San Simeon, Hearst’s famous Californian castle.

Naturally, the film unfolds via a series of flashbacks, Kane-style, including a fun scene in which the MGM writing room pitches a remake of Caligari to Irving Thalberg, off-the-cuff. The central dramatic tension here is not between Mankiewicz (played here by Gary Oldman) and Tom Burke’s Orson Welles (although there was plenty of aggro there), but Mank’s previous encounters with Hearst (Charles Dance), and Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more than studio politics at stake, but actual politics too – here we see the genesis of Citizen Kane, which is here explicitly Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst. But while there no love lost between the men at the table, Mank does have a soft spot for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, played here radiantly by Amanda Seyfried.

This is a platonic, playful friendship, and among Mank’s cast of fulminating and frustrated men in suits, Marion’s scenes leap off the screen. Marion and Mank chat while admiring the San Simeon elephants, while sipping from a flask hidden in one of the terraces’ stone benches – what’s not to love? Mank and Marion are great pals, who enjoy each other’s company and see the best in each other. Seyfried’s performance is every bit as captivating as Oldman’s, bursting through the heavy makeup she wears as Marion. Their dialogues are wonderful, but there is one devastating scene in which Marion sits silently horrified while Mank delivers a bitter, drunken monologue to her and Hearst’s guests at San Simeon. Seyfried proves an excellent silent actress, which is just as well, because she doesn’t have any lines.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank (2020)

Which brings us to an uncomfortable problem with Citizen Kane. Why did Mankiewicz expose his enemy Hearst by writing the undignified truth about him, but also humiliate his friend Davies by distorting her image with untruths? To summarise, a little bluntly: in the movie, Kane’s mistress and second wife is a talentless and lonely alcoholic with naïve dreams of being a great opera singer. Davies was a talented comic actress, whose films were very profitable. She was also an extremely popular person, whose career was stymied only because of Hearst’s insistence that she play prestige dramatic roles. Welles ferociously denied there was any connection between Davies and the fictional character of Susan Alexander Kane:

“That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. … The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”

And yet Hearst read the script as an insult to Davies and many people fear that the mud, as it were, has stuck. Mank explains in full why Mankiewicz wanted to attack Hearst, but offers only one reason why his screenplay diminished his friend Davies. Some people, Mank asserts are headliners, and others are merely secondary characters. That’s a dramatist’s distinction, not the words of a friend.

Marion Davies

What makes Davies a secondary character though? I can’t possibly imagine. Mank tantalises the audience by giving us a glimpse of Davies’s brilliance, and then pushing her back to the sidelines. Because … she’s a secondary character, a distraction from the wranglings of men over their own legacies. Davies has a legacy worth protecting too, as anyone who has seen The Patsy or Show People, or any number of her other films, can tell you.

If you want to discover the truth about Marion Davies, you can read the many testimonies of her Hollywood friends in their own memoirs, you can even read her own autobiography of sorts (The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst) if you can find it. But I recommend you wait a little, until 2022, and the publication of Lara Fowler’s impressively researched biography, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies (University of California Press). It’s bound to be worth a read, because the work Fowler has done already is exemplary, and because Davies deserves to be more than just a secondary character in someone else’s life story – whether that story belongs to Hearst, or Mankiewicz or anybody else.

  • Mank is released on Netflix on 4 December
  • Citizen Kane is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
  • I programmed a film season! Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again plays at BFI Southbank in December and includes the wonderful silent film she starred in: The Three Lovers/The Woman Men Yearn For (Curtis Bernhardt, 1929)
  • 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.

Discovering lost films in fin-de-siècle flipbooks: Léon Beaulieu and Georges Méliès

TL;DR: book news, see below.

True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.

Here’s what I wrote for Criterion on the plane home:

“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”

The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…

Continue reading Discovering lost films in fin-de-siècle flipbooks: Léon Beaulieu and Georges Méliès

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.

The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.

The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.

Day Eight

Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …

The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

By Friday night of Pordenone the cracks are usually beginning to show: sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction and FilmFair splurge-shopping. Are we holding up better or worse in this Limited Edition year? Hydrating, taking regular screen breaks and a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day? No, me neither. In fact I am just warming up, and I could handle a silent movie show every night please, for at least a month.

Day Seven

A showstopper of a masterclass today, as the multi-instrumentalists assembled: Gunther Buchwald, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Another double book presentation too, and the announcement of the Jean Mitry prize, but all roads lead to Mary Pickford here on Silent London. And A Romance of the Redwoods, courtesy Cecil B DeMille and Jeanie MacPherson in 1917.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …

Day Six

GW Pabst’s Abwege (1928) is, as Jay mentioned in his intro, a certain thread of what we think of when we imagine Weimar cinema. Not the exoticism of Expressionism of high-concept fiction, nor the relentless realism of Street Films, but a sampler of the era’s endless fetisished culture. This is a tale of infidelity, intrigue, independence and the famous temptations of the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

Now remind me, did I mention already that I was in Athens recently? Yes, Athens, the cradle of western civilisation. Well I was. And today I returned there via the magic of silent cinema …

Day Five

But first, an audience with the maestro. I was lucky enough to catch the masterclass today and so I spent a happy hour listening to Mr Neil Brand discussing his career and approach to silent cinema accompaniment. His explanation of how to read a scene backs up my theory that the musicians have all the best critical insights when it comes to silent cinema. It’s all about close reading, and rolling with the narrative punches. Still, catch up with this for yourself if you can – Neil has far more interesting things to say than I do.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 3

Today’s trip to Pordenone should probably have been made available on the National Health, pandemic or no pandemic. In times of stress, laughter is the best medicine, after all.

Day Four

A real treat this afternoon before the films began was the masterclass of masterclasses. John Sweeney hosted a roundtable conversation between some of the Giornate’s wonderful accompanists: Philip Carli, José María Serralde Ruiz, Daan ven den Hurk and Mauro Colombis. Lots of insights here into writing, recording and improvising silent cinema scores, and I really like the way that Pordenone has incorporated live events into the online limited edition, and especially the sense of collegiate conversation, and the sharing of expertise that characterises a week in the Verdi. This was a superb example of that. Do catch up if you can, if only to understand why John and Philip have such an aversion to thinking of rabbits, or squirrels.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 3