Category Archives: Blog

Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema

I said something a little flippant in a Q&A once. OK, more than once, but let’s just talk about this one time. The occasion was a screening of A Page of Madness (1926) as part of the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival, and I was responding to a comment about experimental silent film, and whether there was anything out there in the same vein as the movie we had just seen. According to the notes of Dr Lawrence Napper, I said “when you’re talking about silent cinema, you’re talking about the first four decades of film history, so in a way it’s all experimental, you can show almost anything”.

So much, so overstated. But there’s a truth there, to my credit.

Yes, being a movie pioneer means experimenting – and the history of cinema is the history of innovations and new ideas, from close-ups to Cinerama, montage editing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When these innovations still seem new, or when they didn’t last, we can call them experiments. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema

In memoriam: Diana Serra Cary AKA Baby Peggy, 1918-2020 – ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and last living silent film star

Sad news today. Baby Peggy, the last of the surviging silent film stars, has died aged 101. She was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego on 29 October 1918 and she died on 24 February 2020, 400 miles away in Gustine, California.

She was a star before she was even two years old, starting out as a cute dimpled co-star for Brownie the Wonder Dog, before going on to play the lead in around 150 comedy shorts and features. She was an unforgettable presence on screen: dimpled, diminutive and delightful – one of the youngest and most brilliant of child stars. And she really was a star, the “Million Dollar Baby”.

Long after her own days as a silent film star were over, she was a writer and an advocate not just for the silent era but for the rights of child performers. It had never been an easy life being a toddler-actress, far from it, and on 14 February this year, she gave an interview to Silence is Platinum in which she said this:

People asked me in my teens how I could remember anything about making films and I said I remembered everything about making them. I never had any problem with that, but many child stars had that denial thing. They didn’t want people to think they started out like that. Many times, and I did it too, I ended up denying that I had ever been in movies … There are so many sad stories, it was overwhelming. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think about them, and the most depressing ones are the ones that shouldn’t have gotten mixed up in it. They paid a terrible price for it. To me, they were all cautionary tales. Perhaps I assumed it because I lived it. Not all of my stories are negative, but the one you get caught in is a negative story.”

We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude, not just for her wonderful films and her fantastic comedy, but for her memories, which she put to good use, even though many of them were traumatic.

My Sight & Sound obituary for Baby Peggy is online here. We will all remember her, her work, and her beautiful smile, very fondly.

Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)
Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)
  • The 2013 TCM documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is available on DVD from Milestone, with a selection of her films, including Captain January (1924)
  • The Family Secret (1924) has also been released on disc by Undercrank Productions, with more of her short films and some archive footage.
  • 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

California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Could there be a finer thought in a grey week such as this one than a burst of California sunshine? Maybe there’s one, the gilded interior of the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco, which truly has to be seen to be believed.

What I’m driving at is the fact that Early Bird Passes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are on sale now, and it’s a very wonderful event indeed. If you’ve never been before, see below everything you need to know (that I know) about this welcoming, and rather glitzy, event in northern California.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the festival, and they are promising great things, not least a long-awaited restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, undertaken in collaboration with MOMA New York, accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony, playing a new score commissioned by Timothy Brock. The rest of the programme will be announced on 24 March. Continue reading California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Tulák Chaplin review: a ballet tribute to the Little Tramp

The thought of a telling a story without words never fazed Charlie Chaplin, creator of some of the most indelible silent films ever made. But can his own complex life story be related in just over two hours, in dance? I went to Bratislava to find out. Yes, really.

Tulák Chaplin (the name means “Chaplin, the Tramp” in Slovakian) is a bio-ballet for the slapstick star-director, which premiered at the Slovak National Theatre last March – that’s in beautiful Bratislava, Slovakia. It’s part of the celebrations for the 130th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. The choreography is by the Brazilian Daniel De Andrade, whom you may know from his work with the Northern Ballet, and the score is by the estimable Carl Davis, whose work you certainly do know if you are a regular reader of this blog – he has written some of the most iconic orchestral scores for silent film, not least of which is his epic composition for Napoléon. The two collaborated once before on a commission for the same theatre – that time it was a portrait of Nijinsky, another great physical artist of the 20th century. Continue reading Tulák Chaplin review: a ballet tribute to the Little Tramp

Brighten up your 2020: the 5th International Colour in Film Conference

All things bright and beautiful are coming to our fair city once more this March. The fifth International Colour in Film Conference will take place at BFI Southbank, London, 11-13 March 2020. That’s the week before Hippfest, people.

Highlights for this year include James Layton’s presentation of new MOMA restorations and Barbara Flueckiger’s closing report on the massive ERC project, FilmColors: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Eva Hielscher will present the ColorMania book and there will be a curatorial keynote from Paolo Cherchi Usai, who will also be signing copies of his latest book.

The full programme is online here for your perusal, and you can register your attendance on Eventbrite now.

There will be papers and presentations on matters pertaining to colour film and colour film restoration, and an evening screening that is currently TBA. Plus I hear Neil Brand will be on hand to accompany films on the Monday … Psst, but my insider informs me there will be also be some 1970s luridness that has to be seen to be believed!

The event is co-organised by the Colour Group GB (http://colour.org.uk/) and HTW –University of Applied Sciences Berlin (http://www.fiafnet.org/pages/Community/Supporters-HTW.html and http://krg.htw-berlin.de/files/Stg/KR/Bachelor/KRG_Audiovisuelles_und_Fotografisches_Kulturgut-Moderne_Medien_En.pdf.pdf), and ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors (University of Zurich) (http://filmcolors.org/2015/06/15/erc/) in collaboration with The British Film Institute (BFI) .The event will include screenings, keynote lectures and presentations from international film and colour scholars in the BFI’s – National Film Theatre 3.

Train in vain

We’ll never know whether people fled from the screen when they saw the Lumière brothers’ film of a train arriving in La Ciotat station. We do know now that it wasn’t among the very first films they showed at that famous occasion on 28 December 1895 and that when they did make it they were trying to achieve a kind of stereoscopic effect – a train that looks like it is going to leap off the screen.

The implication is they were trying to impress, to go one better than the original impact achieved by their first screening of moving pictures. Continue reading Train in vain

Hippfest 2020: the lineup has landed

Happy 10th birthday to our favourite friends north of the border, The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival! This annual Bo’ness bonanza of silent cinematic goodness has pulled out several stops for its 10th anniversary edition, which runs from 18-22 March 2020, and features great movies, brilliant musicians, special guests and apparently, a barrage of custard pies.

Continue reading Hippfest 2020: the lineup has landed

Shaking up the Slapstick Festival 2020

“My four-year-old thinks One Week is a Sybil Seely film that just has Buster Keaton in it.” Polly Rose said many wise things in her introductions to three restored Keaton shorts to kick off the Slapstick Festival this year, but this one really stuck with me. The annual celebration of visual comedy had a fantastic lineup of silent cinema this year, and I saw lots of it. In between chuckles, I had plenty of time to ponder the fact that that Rose’s four-year-old made a really good point.

This year, as it has done for a few years now, Slapstick Festival goes beyond the big three, or big four, or however you want to cut the comedy canon. There are programmes devoted to those performers designated “forgotten clowns” and a dedication throughout the schedule to showcasing female talent. There was a screening of suffragette comedies for example, and even an entire distaff gala on Thursday evening – a presentation of female-led movies at Bristol Cathedral, introduced by Shappi Khorsandi, running along the same lines as the Friday night gala, hosted by Paul McGann and featuring Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Applause emojis all round for all of this. I absolutely loved it.

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The insightful conversation between (hero) Samira Ahmed and Lucy Porter about the manifestation of the campaign for universal suffrage in silent cinema was a real highlight for me. Great to see these newsreels and comedies not just shown, but contextualised and deeply considered as well. And Porter’s line about “Darren” will stick with me for a long time. There was quite a meandering discussion in the room and the bar afterwards about the intent of filmmakers presenting such violent farces as Milling the Militants or Did’ums Diddles the Policeman. And how audiences took them! It’s hard to know the truth, but I feel that copper-bashing suffragettes and those who opposed them had both become popular caricatures by this point. So, many people watching the films, instead of looking for points of identification or moral victory, would have been merely enjoying the spectacle of a bunfight between two camps reduced to their most absurd and extreme positions – like switching on Question Time, say. Certainly one could see a few upper-middle-class white men claiming to be oppressed by intersectional feminism in these comic shorts. Though, I guess I have just proved that we all bring our own perspective to the films we watch. Make your own minds up – you can see many of these films on the BFI Player or indeed on the fine BFI DVD Make More Noise.

Continue reading Shaking up the Slapstick Festival 2020

‘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