Category Archives: Blog

‘Hopeless destruction’: Neil Brand looks back on The Big Parade

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. The Big Parade screens at BFI Southbank on 2 February 2020 with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand and an introduction by author Michael Hammond.

In 2006 my wife and I experienced a very personal, very deep loss. Happy events since have well overtaken the pain it involved, but it occurred just as I was about to leave to play for the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile and I had to delay my arrival there until the Monday. Two days later I played The Big Parade. It was last thing on a midweek night, I had asked for the gig and nobody, least of all me, was expecting anything special.

The morning after, as I looked back in horror at what I can only describe as a traumatic experience, I felt that I had to write a document that could be given to the audience at that screening, explaining a few things. With the permission and profound support of my pianist colleagues, and particularly Giornate director David Robinson, I wrote this… Continue reading ‘Hopeless destruction’: Neil Brand looks back on The Big Parade

The Silent London Poll of 2019: The Winners

Happy new decade Silent Londoners! Let’s kick off the Twenties with a party shall we? A Silent London Poll-Winners’ Party. You know the drill by now, these prizes go to the best of the past year in silent film, as voted for by YOU. With that said, I will starting handing out the gongs immediately

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  1. Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2019

This was a very popular winner – the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu release of the magnificent Der Golem was by far your favourite disc of the year. The package comprises a beautiful restoration of the movie, accompanied by a choice of great scores and a feast of insightful extras. An excellent choice. I reviewed this release in more detail in the January 2020 edition of Sight & Sound.

  • Honourable mention: Fragment of an Empire (Flicker Alley)

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  1. Best Theatrical Release of 2019

Go, Golem! The expressionist classic was your classic for the best theatrical release of the year, as this sumptuous restoration played several dates around the world. I saw it in NFT1 in the summer and I am not sure I have recovered yet.

Bait-1

  1. Best Modern Silent of 2019

It may not BE silent but it WAS shot silent, as forthcoming screenings with live musical accompaniment are sure to emphasise – Mark Jenkin’s brilliant Cornish drama Bait was your favourite modern silent of the year.

  • Read: My review of Bait
  • Honourable mention: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, of course!

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2019: The Winners

The Silent London Poll of 2019: vote now!

It’s election week here in the UK, and while I know the decision is easier for some of us than others, voting in a new government is always a serious business. So why not distract yourself from all that by using your franchise to support silent cinema as well? I can’t make many promises, but I can assure you that voting in the Silent London Poll is more fun than a General Election debate.

NOT ONLY THAT, BUT A PRIZE!

Yes, if you vote in the poll you can enter a prize draw to win a copy of 30-Second Cinema, the movie book I edited this year. Please note that this prize draw is open to UK residents only.

Tonka of the Gallows (1930)
Tonka of the Gallows (1930)

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2019: vote now!

Silent film: coming soon to a laptop near you

The weekend is nearly upon us and it promises to be cold and damp. Normally I would advise you to go to the cinema, wouldn’t I? I stand by that. There are plenty of shows on in Scotland this weekend, and Londoners can go to see Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne accompany Alraune at the Barbican this Sunday.

But if you can’t find a silent film screening near you and instead you’d rather curl up inside with a hot water bottle and your broadband connection, there are some silent films playing inside your computer that you won’t want to miss.

  • The Danish Film Institute has done a wonderful thing – digitised its entire surviving silent film heritage and put it online at Stumfilm.dk, where you can stream it for zero krone. Yes, and many of the films have music and English subtitles too. There is so much here to enjoy, including Pat & Patachon. I was quite taken with the copious amounts of Asta Nielsen available, and AW Sandberg’s The Golden Clown from 1926 – but then I barely scratched the surface.
  • Consider this one of your semi-regular reminders to check out the BFI Player again, because it seems like new silent films arrive there all the time. In particular, may I draw your attention to the new Robert Paul collection, celebrating his 130th anniversary, which includes some of his less well-known works. Not to mention the rest of the epic Victorian collection. If you’re a Paul fan (and of course you are), don’t miss the opening of the RW Paul exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford on 22 November. Another date for your early film diary: the Ernest Lindgren lecture on 10 December at BFI Southbank remembers the pioneering film preservation work of Harold Brown.
  • Of course there’s always the Orphan Works on the BFI YouTube channel for all you international readers.
  • Pop over the the Eye Film Museum YouTube channel to check out the Jean Desmet Collection – currently containing 370 films, many with English subtitles. New titles are added every Thursday!
  • Highlights of the fantastic Kino Lorber Women Film Pioneers box set curated by Shelley Stamp are on Netflix in the UK, and many other countries too.
  • US readers can find a variety of silents, including Chaplin features, when they subscribe to the Criterion Channel
  • And next month, from 14 December, you’ll be able to see the lustrous new restoration of Maurice Tourneur’s The Broken Butterfly (1919) on the Film Foundation website.

Where else do you – legally – watch silent films online? Archive.org? Kanopy? Feel free to share any great finds in the comments.

  • 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 Fall: Jonathan Glazer’s impossible monsters

This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Project Fear Blogathon. Happy Halloween!

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

That’s the motto attached to Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is also one of the inspirations for an utterly disturbing new dialogue-free film. Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall (2019) screened on BBC2 on 10pm on Sunday, unannounced in the listings, and at a selection of cinemas across the country. It’s a scant seven minutes of unnamed horror – a mob, a victim, an escape attempt – soundtracked by an eerie score from Mica Levi.

Talking to the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, Glazer named his other inspirations as Goya’s Disasters of War pictures, some lines by Bertolt Brecht (“In the dark times / Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.”) and a snapshot of Eric and Donald Trump Jr hunting big game. It’s no coincidence, surely, that Glazer is currently working on a feature-length film set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, based on Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest. Continue reading The Fall: Jonathan Glazer’s impossible monsters

Kevin Brownlow on Cecil B DeMille: ‘controversial, innovative and funny’

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kevin Brownlow, the Oscar-winning film historian, filmmaker and author. On 16 November 2019 the Kennington Bioscope is holding a Cecil B DeMille Day at the Cinema Museum in London, in honour of the great director who started out in the silent era. The programme for the day has been curated by Brownlow and includes prints from his own 16mm collection. All the silent films will have live piano accompaniment. Here Brownlow introduces his highlights of the day and DeMille himself.

When did you last notice anyone screening a Cecil B DeMille Retrospective? He is the most neglected of the Great Pioneers – DW Griffith, Thomas Ince and  Mack Sennett – and yet he could be as controversial as Griffith, as innovative as Ince and as funny as Sennett.

The DeMille Day opens with Cecil B DeMille: American Epic, an hour-long documentary (from Photoplay) about DeMille’s silent career, with interview subjects including DeMille himself, Gloria Swanson, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Elmer Bernstein who wrote the music for this documentary as well as for The Ten Commandments. Continue reading Kevin Brownlow on Cecil B DeMille: ‘controversial, innovative and funny’

LFF review: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Dr Rebecca Harrison. Harrison is a film critic and a lecturer in the Theatre, Film and Television Studies department at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (IB Tauris, 2018).

 

Known as ‘The Queen of Happiness’ during her reign as Britain’s foremost star of the screen, Betty Balfour very nearly meets her unhappy match in Love, Life and Laughter, the 1923 feature that until recently the BFI had feared lost. Directed by George Pearson, the picture was found in the Netherlands in 2015 (thanks to a cinema that failed to return the film to the distributor), and the newly restored version appeared in October as the Archive Special Presentation at the 2019 London Film Festival. While the audience had to make do with digital projection rather than a print, we were treated to a improvised live score by composer and accompanist Meg Morley – not to mention 70 minutes of Balfour’s luminescent presence on screen. Continue reading LFF review: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Competition: win Carl Davis’s Intolerance score on CD

Competition time! Answer one easy question and you could win a copy of Carl Davis’s stunning score for DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) on a shiny new CD – there are five copies waiting for a new home here at Silent London HQ.

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An epic film demands an epic score and Carl Davis’s music, originally created for the Thames Silents presentation of the film in 1986, certainly rises to the challenge of DW Griifith’s monumental movie.

“Scoring Intolerance poses two distinct problems for the composer,” says Davis. “The first is to establish the four distinct stories in their precise periods. The second, to help the film present those stories as having one theme i.e. the destructive power of intolerance upon individual people and the civilisations they live in. Therefore, I decided that I would use a large orchestra with certain features that would allow me to characterise each narrative. Continue reading Competition: win Carl Davis’s Intolerance score on CD

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7.5

Greetings, not from Pordenone, but from Marco Polo airport. Sadly I am not staying for the final day of the Giornate, so this may not be the blogging finale you were expecting.

There is a fine day ahead for those of you still at the festival, including Colleen Moore in Ella Cinders and Reginald Denny in Skinner’s Dress Suit, not to mention the conclusion of the Charles Hutchison serial The Great Gamble.

Tonight’s special event in Teatro Verdi is one that I am especially sorry to miss, and perhaps the fog surrounding the airport this morning is some kind of sympathetic sign.The closing gala for the 38th Pordenone Silent Film Festival will be Alfred Hitchcock’s murky murder mystery The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), starring the beauteous Ivor Novello and the marvellous Marie Ault. I hope you’re looking forward to watching the silky new BFI restoration of this British silent classic, especially when I tell you that the music will be Neil Brand’s brilliant new orchestral score, conducted by Ben Palmer. Enjoy it for me, blub. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7.5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7

“You must go to the KiPho!” That was the message of the morning, where KiPho means cinema: kino + photografie. It takes a certain frame of mind to rise early in the morning to learn “how to be modern” from films that are nearly a century old, but here in Pordenone it seems perfectly natural. So today’s Weimar shorts selection began with Kipho, AKA Film from 1925, a speedy run-through of the medium to that point, flipbooks and all. That was followed by the most bizarre, and brilliant, ad for a motor show I have ever seen (featuring a martian, fallen to Earth and revived with lager, and that was just the start of it), some tips on kitchen design and lighting and a couple of comical films offering hygiene advice. And that’s how to be modern.

This concoction of the weird and the well-meaning was followed by Cecil B DeMille’s 1916 epic Joan the Woman, starring opera singer Geraldine Farrar, gorgeously accompanied by Philip Carli. All 11 reels unspooled today, although I confess that I couldn’t stay for all of them, which is a shame as what I saw was h-y-p-n-o-t-i-c. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6

Norma Desmond reckoned the silents didn’t need dialogue. But she never came to the Giornate. This may be a silent film festival but it’s good to talk. And listen. So I spent about as much time listening to people chat today as I did watching them mouth words. And yes, today did mark the return of benshi artist Ichiko Kataora to Pordenone with the Japanese silent Chushingura (1910-1917). So there is a method to this festival madness, I promise you. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 5

You can’t watch everything. Well maybe you can. I can’t. So it is with regret that I have to make some difficult choices – today of all days. Weimar cinema or William S Hart westerns, for example. I followed my heart, and my research interests. What else can you do?

So I spent my morning immersed in 1920s Germany (and my 2019 inbox). To begin with, a diverting selection from the Weimar Shorts strand, which including some utter wonders. Watching Otto Dix at work with ink, watercolour and oil paint was a real thrill. Although I felt a little “seen” by his first portrait: a lady with dark, heavy circles around her eyes. That was Schaffende Hände. Otto Dix (1924). There were more artists at work too: the uncanny elegance of Lotte Pritzel’s wax figurines came to life in Die Pritzelpuppe (1923), and when they were shot in silhouette it was hard to forget that other great female film artist of the Weimar years, Lotte Reiniger. I was especially intrigued by the tableaux at the end in which actors (including Niddy Impekoven) posed in costumes designed by Pritzel, in unheimlich imitation of the puppets’ posture, as part of a pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland, written by Frank Wedekind. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 4

Still mooning about the goat-herder? Another Giornate blogpost will take your mind off it, Marion.

One of the beauties of Pordenone is the fact that the programme is so omnivorous, ranging far and wide over the first four decades of film history, and the audience are equally diverse. No doubt the main attraction of today, the headline act as it were, was the Hollywood comedy double-bill that played this evening. While I enjoy Marion Davies and Laurel and Hardy as much as the next silent cinema blogger, like everyone here I have my own particular passions that draw me back to the Verdi every year.

So it was that I woke up this morning most excited to see an eleven-minute film playing in the middle of the morning: Gerolamo Lo Savio’s 1909 Otello. Yes, I am a silent Shakespeare fan and this was my treat for the day. Stencil-colour, Venetian location shooting, a passionate but hardly Moorish Othello (I think it was the divine Michelle Facey sho said that meant he was surely “lessish”) and a nicely malevolent Iago made this a Shakespeare to savour, even if inevitably one had to devour it in one small mouthful. The colour was especially memorable here – notably a brief bloom of scarlet at Othello’s throat as he dies. An attractive and unexpected gory entry in the silent Shakespeare canon. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 3

Not to brag*, but I recently returned from the San Sebastián International Film Festival. There I saw people falling over themselves to catch a glimpse of Penélope Cruz or Kristen Stewart. That’s cool, but I do like it here at Pordenone where the mere sight of Léontine’s name on a title cart can cause someone in the Verdi stalls to whoop so loud that I was wondering who it was from the second balcony.

This bit certainly isn’t a brag, but my day job followed me to Pordenone this week, and I was tapping away at my laptop in my hotel room, writing about H****y W*******n when I suddenly realised I only had a minute to spare to get to the Verdi for the next session, the session I really didn’t want to miss: the return of Nasty Women, curated by Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak. Readers, I dashed to the Verdi and what I saw there was enough to wipe such horrid thoughts from my mind. Joyously anarchic, gleefully disruptive, messy, wild and endlessly hilarious antics, perpetrated by women on an unsuspecting world. Alice Guy-Blaché’s pregnant Madame with her escalating cravings, Léontine vandalising the petit bourgeoisie of a whole town, the housemaids on strike and marching through the streets, Cunégonde trying to keep tabs on her man … I loved all these gigglesome, radical short comedies. Up to and including the wonderful La Peur des Ombres with its shadowplay, sophisticated splitscreen and good-natured gurning – it rips a classic DW Griffith actioner into shred and sprinkles it around like confetti. Would love to think Weber saw it before making Suspense. This sort of thing should be available on the NHS: National Hilarity Service. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2

It was a day for film stars in Pordenone today: from the contract players lining up to do studio promo in this morning’s Films on Film programme to Ita Rina the Slovenian tragedienne in the Estonian drama Kire Lained at the end of the night. But when I consider all the stars shining brightly in the Verdi today, I have to confess, my heart belongs to William S.

Tonight’s evening screening was devoted to the western star William S Hart, kicking off a whole strand devoted to his peculiarly soulful machismo and hearty horsemanship. Before the feature we had two short films. One was a talkie clip from 1939 with Hart introducing his final film, Tumbleweeds (1925) and lamenting, it seemed, both the decline of the old west and the passing of his days as a western star. Only slightly less poignant was a silent fragment of Hart on a promotional tour of New York in 1919 and, so the intertitles told us, pining for the frontier lands. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1

Charlie Chaplin, whose early masterpiece The Kid played this year’s Giornate opening-night gala, said some very wise things. Among which was the famous dictum that “a day without laughter is a day wasted”. It’s especially glorious to reflect on that idea after a day spent in fits of giggles in the Verdi. Today belonged to Chaplin, to Max Linder, to Suzanne Grandais and Léonce Perret. And more than that, to a rather more grand cosmic joke, played in Pordenone today, which thankfully had results rather more charming that catastrophic.

Yes, the slapstick gods truly smiled on us at the start of the 38th Giornate del Cinema Muto. How else to explain the fact that the industrious town of Pordenone had scheduled both a silent movie festival, and a marching band convention for the same day? Yes, a dozen or more brass bands were stepping around the piazza outside the Verdi reinterpreting pop and rock favourites, all while the afternoon films were playing. Fret not, the Verdi was entirely soundproofed, so there was no interruption to the excellent work of the day’s pianists. But just imagine what Messrs Chaplin and Linder might have made of such a circumstance?

Anyway, enough of my prattle. Welcome home! Today your humble correspondent enjoyed an especially fine afternoon of silent goodness, and she is feeling very buoyant indeed about the week to come. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1

A Star is Born again and again

I wrote this piece for Drugstore Culture last September, when Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born was released. Now that that site has shuttered, and Judy Garland is back in the cinema in the form of Rupert Goold’s late-life biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, I have republished it here. There is not much to do with silent cinema here, but it’s all film history, so why not?

 

According to the website of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the birth of a star is a ten-stage process. To paraphrase from this already simplified version: first, clouds of gas accumulate in galaxies – and then trouble strikes. ‘Random turbulent processes lead to regions dense enough to collapse under their own weight,’ reads stage three, ‘in spite of a hostile environment.’ The star begins to form at the centre of all this collapsed matter, which the website calls a ‘blob’. The protostar achieves bona fide status as the result of fusion and, in the process, creates a lot of rubbish. By the end of the tenth stage, the new star is fully formed, along with a few collateral planets, and all that unwanted debris.

Stormy weather and a hostile environment leading to a collapse and a union, leaving us with one shining star and a heap of has-beens. As in the heavens, so in show business. Just ask Bradley Cooper. For his directorial debut, which received its UK premiere last night, the actor has just revived the Hollywood myth A Star is Born as a heady, emotional rock musical, and it is a worthy, self-aware successor to the other films bearing that name. It’s a simple story, which explains its enduring appeal. Two talented people fall in love and get married: one is a gleaming new star, and the other a falling meteor, soon to become so much showbiz detritus.

Cooper also appears as the veteran rocker on the slide who takes Lady Gaga’s ingénue on a bumpy ride to the top. It’s an old, old story, but Cooper and Gaga tell it exceedingly well. Theirs is the fourth feature to be made with the name A Star is Born since 1937, although the story began a little earlier than that. A Star is Born cropped up roughly every 20 years for a while. After 1937, there was 1954, and 1976 – which means the latest instalment is long overdue. Cooper and Gaga’s antecedents are Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, directed by William Wellman; Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor; and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, directed by Frank Pierson. In the nineties and noughties, there were whispers of new chapters: for a while we expected to see Clint Eastwood directing Beyoncé, with perhaps Will Smith or Leo DiCaprio as the male lead, in a script that was apparently inspired by Kurt Cobain. Perhaps we should be grateful that never happened. Continue reading A Star is Born again and again

No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.

Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

The dog in Mighty Like a Moose

This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.

Blackmail1929AnnyOndrapainting
Blackmail (1929)

The Laughing Jester in Blackmail

Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt. Continue reading No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

The best and worst Charlie Chaplin films – ranked!

Why did I do this? Well partly that’s between me and my conscience. The man we know as the Little Tramp was born on 16 April 1889 and in Chaplin’s 130th anniversary year I thought it would be fun to list his feature films* in the manner of the Guardian’s Culture – ranked! series. 

So here goes …

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

  1. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Sneeze and you will miss Charlie Chaplin himself in this, his final feature, which was also his only film to be made in colour. Sophia Loren plays a stateless stowaway who catches a ride to America in the cabin of a US diplomat, played by Marlon Brando of all people. Although Chaplin pokes his head round the door to play a steward, and a handful of his children have roles too, this is barely recognizable as his. The physical comedy drags, the sentiment is forced (Brando’s mumbles are the antithesis of Chaplin’s style) and it’s hard to disagree with the New York Times critic, who wrote: “if an old fan of Mr Chaplin’s movies could have his charitable way, he would draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred”. Continue reading The best and worst Charlie Chaplin films – ranked!