Category Archives: Blog

Ritrovato Roundtable: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 podcast report

I’m back from Bologna and joined in the podcast studio by Pete Baran and film writer Philip Concannon. We’re chatting about our highlights, discoveries and duds from the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – a banquet of archive, vintage and restored cinema, spanning silent and sound films.

Ritrovato Roundtable: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017 podcast report

Sensation Seekers (Lois Weber, 1927)

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.

 

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Beggars of Life: a Companion to the 1928 Film review – behind the scenes of a silent classic

Nobody knows more about Louise Brooks than Thomas Gladysz. Having founded the Louise Brooks Society in 1995, he has spent more than two decades researching her life and work, curating memorabilia and writing about this most fascinating of silent era actresses. A few years back he published a sumptuous illustrated edition of the novel that Brooks’s second German film, Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst, 1929) was based on, and he has contributed audio commentaries to American DVDs of that film, and her finest Hollywood movie, Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928).

Which brings us up to date with Gladysz’s latest publication – a short book about the Wellman film, packed with anecdotes and information. Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film is a quick, satisfying read, illustrated with promotional material, posters and stills as well as press clippings. In these pages, Gladysz takes us through the making and the reception of the film and clears up a few mysteries too.

Beggars of Life (1928)
Beggars of Life (1928)

The film, which you may have been lucky enough to see accompanied by a live score from the fabulous Dodge Brothers, features Brooks as an orphan fugitive, dressed as a boy and riding the rails with a handsome tramp played by Richard Arlen and a gang of his peers, including the the menacing Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery. It’s adapted from a famous book by “hobo author” Jim Tully, and although it was a little sanitised by Hollywood, it’s still a remarkably raw, realist film. Not least of its strengths is that Brooks here gives an excellent performance as a survivor of sexual abuse, as she would in her two Pabst films, drawing perhaps on her own experiences as a child.

Continue reading Beggars of Life: a Companion to the 1928 Film review – behind the scenes of a silent classic

Malombra (1917): Lyda Borelli and the Italian divas of silent cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog.

The so-called “Italian diva” school of silent cinema presents challenges for those in love with narrative and closure, and not just because many of the films are incomplete or untranslated. These movies seem genuinely less concerned with plot than surrounding national cinemas, though this assertion must be qualified in a number of ways.

Francesca Bertini

What the films definitely are obsessed with is their stars, such women as Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini, and Pina Menichelli, around whom the films revolve, wholly. It’s as if the Italians noted that stars seemed to be what the public cared for most, and so decided to put everything else on the back burner while serving up long, langurous shots of languishing, anguished beauties. Superficially resembling both the kohl-daubed vamps of the Theda Bara school, and the later Swanson type of clothes-horse drama queen, Borelli and her sisters in sin dominated their films in a way few stars have been allowed to. Dietrich, maybe, or Garbo, but even those screen queens had to make way for plotting and forward momentum.

Continue reading Malombra (1917): Lyda Borelli and the Italian divas of silent cinema

Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler


The Victorians were falling away. And with them a withered system of reality embodied in overwrought virtuoso performances. Technique as a means of reflecting Nature – or, to quote Balzac, the “conjugation of objects with light” – was displaced, uncrowned by painters pursuing a darker mirror, a diabolical truth for smashing the mendacity of a bloodless representational art.

It was finally time for Edgar Allan Poe’s crepuscular light to shine. Not solely via accepted modes but written alchemically in cinematographic rays beamed through silver salts. Filmmaking is the darkest and unholiest of arts (done right, that is), and the director was emerging now – supreme pimp to a coterie of fallen angels, nymphs and sirens.

Modernism began materialising, slowly and unevenly at first, as an answer to 19th-century illusionism. The rank trickery of which academic art’s heroes lay dead and dying – granting Poe a new, posthumous plasticity to actualise delirium, converting it from literature into an art… art worthy of the name. And here, the “Decadents” became forerunners. Consider Surrealism, its nose-dive into the gulf of interiority, as a bequest from Poe – via his greatest interpreter.

Germination (Odilon Redon, 1879)

In Odilon Redon’s Germination (1879), a wan, baleful, free-floating arabesque of heads of indeterminate gender suggests either a linear, ascending involution, or a terrifying descent from an unlit celestial void into a bottomless pit of an all-too-human, devolving identity. Redon’s disembodied heads gradually take on more human characteristics, culminating into a black haloed portrait in profile. The cosmos of Redon’s etching is governed by an unexplained, inexplicable moral sentience, which absorbs the power of conventional light. Thus black is responsible for building its essential form, while glimmers of white, hovering above and below, prove ever elusive; registering as somehow elsewhere, beyond the otherwise tenebrous unity of the picture plane; adding to the depth of its unsettling dimensions.

Continue reading Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

Baby Driver: where we’re going we don’t need words

In the Three Flavours: Cornetto trilogy directed by Edgar Wright, the joke was that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters find themselves thrust into an ersatz version of the media they consume. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), it was zombie movies, in Hot Fuzz (2007), action blockbusters, and in The World’s End (2013), apocalyptic sci-fi. Similarly, in the same director’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), a geeky musician in Toronto is faced with a set of super-villains to battle. The film was adapted from a series of graphic novels and incorporates comic-book styling in its mise en scene as well as its plot. Its structure and visual style also intentionally recall video games, and the Xbox and PlayStation adaptations were released alongside the movie.

Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver, is about a young man living inside a music video, or attempting to. Specifically, a music video that Wright himself directed, for ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale, in which Noel Fielding plays a getaway driver who grooves along to a track on his CD player while his fellow crims rob a bank. Our callow, taciturn hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), was listening to his iPod when his parents were killed in a car collision, and now he can only get through the day with his earplugs in, tapping his head to a carefully selected soundtrack, and lipreading his way through his interactions with others. The tunes are there to down out his tinnitus, caused by the crash, but it’s heavily implied that they protect him from emotionally engaging with other people too.

On a good day for Baby, as for all of us, his iPod track of choice synchs perfectly with the world around him. There is an especially fun sequence, almost like something from a musical, when he buys coffee to the sound of ‘Harlem Shuffle’. Or, in his work as a getaway driver, he can play air-drums to ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the time it takes for his employers to relieve a bank of its cash. On a bad day, the city does not groove to Baby’s vibe, and a holdup in the holdup will mean he has to grab his iPod and rewind ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by the Damned to keep on track.

There’s something very attractive about staying plugged in, and living life to your own soundtrack, seeing the world as if it were a silent movie, or a succession of three-to-five-minute silent movies, all strung together. So I was intrigued by Wright’s new film, as a former Walkman-addicted teenager, and a silent-movie buff both. Of course, Baby’s failure to listen to the world around him would make his stunt-driving even more lethal than it already is. And his lip-reading skill a) has to be explained by giving him a deaf foster father* and b) has to be translated on screen into floating intertitles.

baby-driver-image-1

Though, to be honest, the dialogue is largely redundant in this likeable, if slight film: Baby drives a getaway car for a man called Doc (Kevin Spacey, camp as Christmas); Baby falls in love with a waitress called Debora (Lily James, doing the best she can) and wants to go straight; Baby has to do One Last Job. The film begins as quite charming, almost whimsical, but gets better, and far more action-heavy in the last half hour. Sadly the characters that surround young Baby are barely sketched, or even named. He has a colleague called Bats who is, well, batty (Jamie Foxx, providing most of the humour) and another just called Buddy (a menacing, enjoyably odd, Jon Hamm), whose girlfriend is called Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, though why they bothered casting anyone for such a thinly drawn role is beyond me).

The influences on Baby Driver extend beyond the world of pop videos, but not much further. Much here, from the slightly dreamy twist on60s-Americana settings (check out the Technicolor washing in the laundromat) to the pop-culture chit-chat, recalls Quentin Tarantino (apparently a supporter of the project) and it is little surprise that when a pizza restaurant appears it is called Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster saga is surely the ultimate in jukebox movies, and although Wright’s playlists skew more 90s indie and cult classics than the stomping sounds of the 60s and 70s, it’s clear what Baby Driver’s pop collage aspires to. As those two influences suggest, there’s a retro tinge to Baby Driver. Baby may be only a young man, but this is an action movie with a title taken from a Simon and Garfunkel B-side and a soundtrack that could have been lifted straight from Radio 6 Music. Even Baby’s collection of iPods, like his C90s full of sampled electronica, are pretty outdated these days. Hasn’t he heard of Spotify Premium?

Ansel-Elgort-in-Baby-Driver

However it appears, the film is smothered in music, and a lot has been written about Hollywood films ditching most of their dialogue to play well in Asian markets, but surely these aural reference points would reverse that? And Baby Driver is full of chatter too, which even if it isn’t as comic as Wright’s previous work, is often full of geeky pleasures. Debora and Baby leap straight into a discussion about the songs featuring their names; the best, possibly only, joke here, involves a heavy mistaking comedian Mike Myers for Michael Myers from Halloween. Ultimately, Baby Driver is a very likeable, entertaining film (Spacey is fabulous and the stunt sequences are brilliant) but emotionally every bit as a shallow as a pop video. After every setpiece, it seems to start again from first positions, especially for the blank female characters. It’s like La La Land, but if nobody got out of their cars. And Baby’s non-committal moral stance and self-enforced social isolation is hard to root for, which wouldn’t be a problem if the plot didn’t later hinge on him being a saintly kind of criminal.

Maybe one day Wright will channel this particular strategy, which has worked so often before, but backfired here, into a drama about a young man whose world transforms into a silent drama. That I would like to see. Or a woman, for once, even more so.

  • Baby Driver is released on 28 June, but preview screenings are available now.

*I give the film credit for casting a deaf actor, CJ Jones, in this role.

Stockholm My Love: an intimate City Symphony

Mark Cousins’ new film is a City Symphony, he says, citing many of the classic early examples of this particularly silent genre, including Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Rien que les heures, but also later, more complicated urban hymns such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I’ve added the director’s credits in the later works because those films move away from the collective City Symphony format, offering a distinctive filmmaker’s own view of a place, adding in a story those focuses on individuals instead of the modern, urban mass. So does this one.

Cousins’ Stockholm My Love, like those films, breaks some of the ‘rules’ of the City Symphony: there’s a single subjective perspective, and a fictional narrative. Our guide to the Swedish capital is Alwa, an architect and academic, pacing around her home city while she comes to terms with a traumatic event that took place on these streets a year before. Alwa is played by Neneh Cherry, a starry figure, who nevertheless offers a restrained, often quite still performance. It doesn’t distract us from our view of the city that a famous singer is standing in front of it. This is not her film, so much as it is Cousins’.

There is sound too, although this film was largely shot silent, with Cousins coaching Cherry live through her performance like Griffith and Pickford, sometimes, he says, even holding her hand during the close-ups. At the Q&A after the screening I saw at BFI Southbank, he quoted Fellini, saying that he made a visual film, and then added a radio play on top of it.

In the soundtrack there is music, three sets of it. New, gorgeous, tracks from Cherry, with lyrics by Cousins; folk songs written by Benny Andersson (from Abba); and Swedish classical music by Franz Berwald. Most notably, though, there is a voice-over. Alwa describes the city around her, talking directly to her father (who may have passed away), to a man called Gunnar who is linked to the traumatic event a year ago, and to the city itself. Cherry speaks naturally, sympathetically, and quietly but full of compassion. However, this narration belongs almost wholly to Cousins. He has such a distinct written and spoken style (you’ll remember his epic cinema documentary The Story of Film) that it is impossible not to recognise him in the rhythm of these words. Writing about Stockholm My Love, I almost feel that I am echoing his rises and falls. Cousins-speak has seeped into my brain.

Continue reading Stockholm My Love: an intimate City Symphony

Sound Barrier: Der Müde Tod (1921) & The Seventh Seal (1957)

We’re breaking the Sound Barrier rules again. Or bending them slightly. Once more, the new-release film we want to discuss in this episode is actually silent. It’s the theatrical re-release of Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (Destiny, 1921), so we decided to pair it with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). This means that today we are talking about two critically acclaimed films in which young people play games with death.

We’ll be talking about faith, symbolism, storytelling and Max von Sydow’s handsome face. Enjoy!

Continue reading Sound Barrier: Der Müde Tod (1921) & The Seventh Seal (1957)

Laurel and Hardy: from Ulverston to Hollywood

This is a guest post for Silent London by Katie Wright.

A pair of comics shuffle onstage at the Palace Theatre in Blackpool, England in June 1947. One is swimming in an oversized checked suit, dripping past his hands and towards the floor. The other is round and squat, sporting a moustache comically small for his wide face. Together, they frolic and play, every bit the annoyed schemer and his hapless buffoon. Laurel and Hardy finish their act to thunderous applause. The duo is famous all over the world, but one of them is playing to a “hometown” crowd.

laurelandhardyblackpoolposter

The pair were best known for their feature films and silent shorts, and shared a bond as close as brothers, although Oliver Hardy hailed from Georgia while Stand Laurel remained a proud northern Briton throughout his life. While onstage Laurel played the fool, he was writer, director, and comic mastermind behind the pair’s success.

At the heart of Laurel’s stardom lies his boyhood as a young performer in Britain. Despite moving several times in his youth, the local boy who made good is revered in various “hometowns” across the north, and many avid fans and academics have sought to better understand the boy behind the man.

The Laurel and Hardy Museum at its original location in Ulverston

 

In Ulverston, Cumbria, where Laurel was born on 16 June, 1890, long-time admirer Bill Cubin put his lovingly assembled memorabilia collection on display in the mid 1980s, leading to what is now a full-fledged museum run by his grandson.

A statue of Laurel stands in Dockwray Square, North Shields, where he lived as a boy from 1897 to 1902. The Eden Theatre in Bishop Auckland, County Durham hosts a Laurel statue erected in 2008. There are more plaques in pubs and venues from Leicestershire to Glasgow.

Stan Laurel
Stan Laurel

University of Nottingham professor of sociology Danny Lawrence grew up in North Shields, and sees in Laurel’s story a “parallel to [his] own life”. The connections drove him to begin researching Stan Laurel, and prompted his biography The Making of Stan Laurel: Echoes of a British Boyhood.

“I was born in the same town 50 years apart, nearly 100 yards from where he lived,” explains Lawrence. “Laurel lived in North Shields during the formative years of childhood and youth. It fascinated me to begin exploring the relationship between the town and the artist.”

Stan Jefferson, later Stan Laurel, began acting young, a student of Britain’s traditional music hall and pantomime. He eventually travelled to the USA with the Fred Karno troupe alongside a young Charlie Chaplin.

“It was by chance that he got to the States. I think that chance element makes his story alluring,” says Lawrence.

“His ability was there, but there was no distinctive character until he met Hardy. He only got that chance when the Karno tour was failing, and he instead chose to stay in the USA in search of greener pastures.”

Continue reading Laurel and Hardy: from Ulverston to Hollywood

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017: podcast report

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has just closed for another year. Four days of movies and music at the sumptuous Castro Theatre – and this time I was actually there! Pinch me, I still can’t believe it’s true. In this short podcast, I run through a few of my highlights of the weekend and try to give a flavour of this fantastic event. Enjoy!

Continue reading San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017: podcast report

Sound Barrier: The Red Turtle & Wall-E (2008)

Come break the Sound Barrier with us again. In this episode, we go to the edge of the world and the ends of the earth and back again with two animated features.

We’re talking about Studio Ghibli’s modern silent The Red Turtle (in cinemas now), and also Pixar’s beloved Wall-E from 2008. We talk about ‘Dustbuster Keaton’, teenage mutant turtles, pizza plants and bad romance, as well as artistic animation, dialogue-free direction and creation myths. You can even hear Pete sing!

Continue reading Sound Barrier: The Red Turtle & Wall-E (2008)

The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

There is little so dispiriting as a joke that has to be explained. I don’t pretend to speak for Charlie Chaplin as a rule, but I am fairly sure he would agree with me on that one.

A joke that takes people in, that fools them into swallowing impossible truths? Well that can be funny, but dangerous too – we tend to hope national newspapers won’t fall for them.

A week or so ago I posted about a story in the Mail on Sunday that didn’t add up. The newspaper claimed that Chaplin had been offered, rather grudgingly, a screentest by Universal in 1912, to replace the misbehaving Buster Keaton, but having seen him in action, decided he wouldn’t do, certainly not with that hat, that moustache, that silly walk and that name. If it quacks like a duck and all that – the story sounded like nonsense, and it was, too. Almost.

Continue reading The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

Japanese silent film: brush up your Benshi

Fantastic news. Two events coming up in London explore the Japanese art of Benshi narration for silent film, both of them courtesy of the Japan Foundation. You may have already heard that there will a screening of the masterpiece I was Born, But … (Yasijuro Ozu, 1932) at the Barbican on 25 June with piano accompaniment and Benshi narration. Book your tickets here.

I_Was_Born,_But..._1932.jpg

Before that, on Friday 23 June at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, you can learn more about Benshi itself, with Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and silent film pianist Mie Yanashita. There’ll be a talk, demonstration (with a scene from Orochi, 1925) and even the chance to have a go yourself. I’ll be there too, giving an introductory talk about silent cinema to set the scene and chairing the Q&A with Yamashiro. More details below – it’s free but you have to book your seat on Eventbrite.

benshiflyer

In conjunction with the Barbican’s screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born, But… organised as part of The Japanese House exhibition, the Japan Foundation is delighted to present a special evening exploring the art of Benshi. Following an introductory talk by silent cinema specialist Pamela Hutchinson, Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and Silent Film Pianist Mie Yanashita will perform a clip from Orochi (1925) recreating an authentic Benshi experience. As part of his illustrated talk, Yamashiro will discuss Benshi as a contemporary occupation as well as the unique appeal of Japanese silent cinema.

This fascinating event will also offer a few audience members the chance to take to the stage and perform the role of Benshi under instruction from Yamashiro himself!
This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To book your place via Eventbrite, please click here

Film and Notfilm review: when Buster Keaton met Samuel Beckett

“I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night.” Buster Keaton’s first impression of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into the cinema, Film, is entirely understandable. Although no one would wish its nightmarish scenario to appear in their own cheese dreams. This short, dialogue-free existential chase movie was made in 1966 starring a near-septuagenarian Keaton – and it remains one of the most intriguing corners of film history. The Nobel Laureate’s film might promise slapstick, but as Ross Lipman the director of a documentary on the work, NotFilm says: “It was at once an investigation of the cinematic medium, and of the human experience of consciousness.” Popcorn, anyone?

Keaton plays O, a man pursued by a camera, E. Object and Eye. O runs away from E, and when cornered in a room, goes to desperate lengths to avoid its piercing gaze. The reveal at the end of the movie is chillingly sinister, even if you see it coming. The film is shot in black and white, and although Keaton has aged, he is still recognisably the acrobatic star of the 20s – his pork-pie hat is worn at an angle, an eye-patch caps those famous cheekbones. The mood is bleak, paranoid, the camera is unsteady, Keaton shifty.

beckett-with-film-strip-copy
Samuel Beckett examines a film strip

Beckett was displeased with Film, despite conceding that it contained “the strangeness and beauty of pure image”. The critics were unimpressed at the time, but as is so often the way with these things, the reputation of Film has risen with time. This art film has become, in its own way, a cult movie: very hard to see, and referred to or homaged almost as often as it is screened. The theatrical release of Lipman’s brilliant “kino-essay” documentary was very welcome – offering historical background, cinematic context, and critical interpretation for Beckett’s movie. (I wrote about that last year for the Guardian.)

Continue reading Film and Notfilm review: when Buster Keaton met Samuel Beckett

London Symphony: a new silent film released this September

Do you remember London Symphony? It’s a project this site has long been excited about. You may even have backed it on Kickstarter, or like me, even appeared in it. The film is directed by Alex Barratt and it’s a sumptuous new city symphony for the capital – an entirely silent movie that swoops around more than 300 locations in London to the tune of a newly composed musical score by James McWilliam. And finally, you’re going to get the chance to see it.

London Symphony will have a ’boutique’ theatrical release, with a screening at the Barbican on 3 September 2017, accompanied by the Orchestra of St Paul’s playing McWilliam’s score live. You can book tickets here.

There will be further UK screenings after the Barbican event, which will be announced shortly, and the film will be distributed internationally by Flicker Alley.

Photograph: Alex Barrett
Photograph: Alex Barrett

 

LONDON SYMPHONY is a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of creative non-fiction that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life. As well as serving as a form of virtual tourism, city symphonies raise important and universal questions about the nature of community life – questions that have become vital within the current political climate.LONDON SYMPHONY’S September release will coincide with the 90th anniversary of Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, one of the most important examples of the original city symphonies. Ruttmann was one of the great pioneers of experimental film, and Barrett and McWilliam have worked hard to bring a similar sense of poetic playfulness to LONDON SYMPHONY, while also updating the form for the 21st Century.

 The project’s September release will be launched with a special screening at the Barbican Centre, the home of silent cinema in London, where it will be presented with the live premiere of McWilliam’s musical composition, as performed by OSP (the Orchestra of St Paul’s) and their conductor Ben Palmer. Says Palmer: “It’s always a thrill to bring a new piece to life, but this promises to be an unusually interesting collaboration for OSP. We’re very excited to be premiering James McWilliam’s fantastic music for LONDON SYMPHONY, especially at the iconic Barbican Centre”.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Barrett, McWilliam, Palmer and London history specialist Mark Rowland, chairman of Footprints of London. It will also mark the opening of the Barbican’s autumn ‘Silent Film and Live Music’ series. Tickets can now be purchased here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/film/event-detail.asp?id=21462.

After this special launch event, LONDON SYMPHONY will tour around a number of carefully selected venues throughout the UK, including conventional cinema spaces and alternative spaces such as a Parish Church and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. “In many ways,” says Barrett, “LONDON SYMPHONY is a community project, and we hope to bring it directly into those communities during our release”.

Photograph: Alex Barrett
Photograph: Alex Barrett

Roy Budd’s Phantom of the Opera score premieres at the London Coliseum

Jazz musician and composer Roy Budd was well known for his film scores, for popular movies including Get Carter, but one of his compositions has never seen the light of day. In 1993, Budd was due to premiere his symphonic score for the classic silent film The Phantom of the Opera, but just a few weeks before the screening, he died suddenly, from a brain haemorrhage. Budd was just 46 years old. The screening was cancelled and Budd’s score has never been played in public, but it will finally get its belated premiere this year, on 8 October 2017.

A self-taught pianist and child prodigy, Budd performed his first concert at The London Coliseum in 1953 at six years of age and went on to perform with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, and Antonio Carlos Jobin as well as scoring 40 feature films. In 1989 Budd acquired an original 35mm film print to the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera from a collector. He restored the film to its full glory using an experimental two colour process and original tints from the film’s original release. Budd completed a full orchestral score for the film using an 84-piece orchestra and recorded this with the Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, with five weeks to go before a London premiere and European tour, Budd suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away at just 46 years of age.   

This is an exciting match of venue and film, before we even get on to the score. Imagine the thrill of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in a beautiful opera house – the Coliseum in Covent Garden no less. Hold on to your seats, and watch the chandeliers, because Lon Chaney’s phantom will take to the stage at the home of the English National Opera.

Phantom.jpg

Budd’s score, which was described by Geoff Brown of the Times as “succulent” will be performed by the Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra and conducted by Spencer Down. This is a very special premiere, in a prestigious venue, of a long-anticipated piece of music.

Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Update: Mystery solved! The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.

The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.

The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.

The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’

The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’

Hold up. Yes, I know.

In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:

Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’

It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.

But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:

Continue reading Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Sound Barrier: Mindhorn & The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

This episode of the Sound Barrier features two druggy and slightly dim detectives. We’re talking about Julian Barratt’s absurdly funny TV spoof Mindhorn and the cult favourite that is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks as sleuth Coke Ennyday. We talk about outrageous accents, preposterous plasticine, obscene graffiti and excessive amounts of cocaine.

Sound Barrier: Mindhorn & The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

In the studio, I am joined as ever by Peter Baran, and also by special guest Julian Coleman (you can follow him on Twitter here).

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.

The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.
Silent London in no way, not even with a wink, endorses the consumption of illegal narcotics. We prefer the consumption of Class-A silent movies.

The Lodger at Yorkshire Silent Film Festival: Neil Brand’s score completes a classic

This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television

 

Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.

lodgerscream

This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.

The Lodger (1927)
The Lodger (1927)

My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.

The Lodger (1927)

Continue reading The Lodger at Yorkshire Silent Film Festival: Neil Brand’s score completes a classic

Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.

We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.

But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.

But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.

rosalie

Continue reading Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy

Sound Barrier: Lady Macbeth and The Wind (1928)

In this episode of the Sound Barrier, Silent London’s cinematic sommeliers pair Victor Sjostrom’s majestic The Wind (1928) with William Oldroyd’s astonishing debut feature Lady Macbeth, out in cinemas now. We highly recommend both films, which feature isolated women doing battle with the elements, and come laced with sex, violence and vengeance.

In the studio, I am joined as ever by Peter Baran, and also by special guest Ewan Munro, who reviews films at Filmcentric.

Sound Barrier: Lady Macbeth and The Wind (1928)

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

Should you wish to, you can read my review of Lady Macbeth for Sight & Sound magazine here.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.

The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.