Category Archives: Blog

Hamlet (1921) at BFI Southbank: Shakespeare’s sister

Hamlet (1921) screens at the BFI Southbank twice this week as part of the season, In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen. It’s a must-see, although I would say that. You can see the film on Wednesday at 6.15pm with musical accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch and on Saturday at 5pm with music by Meg Morley and an introduction by Professor Judith Buchanan.

Hamlet is a woman! At least she is in this German feature film, Hamlet: A Drama of Vengeance (1921). And not just any woman, but the inimitable Danish diva Asta Nielsen.

From Sarah Siddons to Maxine Peake, many actresses have played the Prince of Denmark, and a fragment of Sarah Bernhardt’s stage interpretation of the role was even captured in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. However, the distaff twist in this film was prompted, or at least justified, by Edward P Vining’s scholarly 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which makes the case for Prince Hamlet being so feminine a character that his contradictory nature is best explained by imagining that underneath the black tunic he’s really a woman. The film also draws on Danish history and a German play from 1704 called Fratricide Punished. The gender-swap allows for an intriguing new take on Shakespeare’s text, recasting his hero/heroine’s relationships with Ophelia, Horatio and Gertrude in fresh moulds.

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The Silent London Poll of 2021: And the winners are …

It may already feel like a long time ago, but 2021 was one heck of a year. We were online, we were in-venue, sometimes we were both. But we were all grateful for the films, and the music. Below, it gives me great pleasure to reveal your chosen favourites, and a selection of your insightful and amusing comments too.

Thank you for your votes. Here are your winners!

  1. Best real-world silent film screening of 2021

Your winner: Casanova (1927), accompanied by the Orchestra San Marco, conducted by Günter Buchwald, playing his new orchestral score

You said:

Casanova at Teatro Verdi, by Gunther Buchwald. But I also want to mention: Shoes at the Frankfurt Schauspiele with Maud Nelissen trio and also Bett und Sofa at open-air Beykoz Kundura Istanbul with Korhan Futaci and his band.”

“I only saw one (down from pre-pandemic 30 or 40 a year). So that one wins! It was a goodie though. Pandora’s Box, 35mm, Hebden Bridge, with Darius Battiwalla. Well worth the terrifying road trip over icy moors!”

2. Best online silent film screening of 2021

Prix de Beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930)
Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2021: And the winners are …

Hippfest is back in Bo’Ness for 2022

Hippfest returns! You don’t know how happy it makes me to think about watching silent films with live music at the stunning Hippodrome in Bo’Ness.

The festival is held from Wednesday 16 to Sunday 20 March and the full toothsome lineup just dropped, as they say. Here are a few highlights, some of which have been postponed from the sadly cancelled 2020 edition. I am so ready.

  • The Dodge Brothers accompany FW Murnau’s City Girl on Saturday night – this is the Scottish premiere of their brilliant score for this incredible, jaw-dropping Hollywood silent.
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Asta Nielsen: coming soon

Hello, Silent Londoners. Soon I will have the results of the 2021 Poll to share with you, but a bout of January sickness has set me back a little. However, I did want to pop on here to tell you that the BFI Southbank season In The Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen starts NEXT WEEK.

The season opens with a lecture and panel event on Thursday 3 February, The ABC of Asta Nielsen. At this event, I’ll be giving an illustrated lecture all about ‘Die Asta’, and then I will be joined by Erica Carter, So Mayer and Bryony Dixon to delve further into the stardom and significance of the woman known as the greatest actress of the silent era. Later that evening I will also be introducing The Abyss and The ABC of Love. Please explore the programme further and remember February represents just the first half of the season – there is more to come in March, including more guest speakers!

To whet your whistles, some links:

Asta Nielsen in The Black Dream (1911)
Asta Nielsen in The Black Dream (1911)

Season’s Greetings, Silent Londoners

Hello readers, near and far!

Are we allowed to celebrate Christmas yet? I believe so. And I certainly didn’t want to delay sending my warmest greetings to you, wherever you are – and my thoughts go out especially to those of you who can’t be with the ones you love this winter.

Everything feels very uncertain right now, but I am taking a little comfort from the fact that despite adverse circumstances we have had almost a full calendar of screenings and events this year – and judging by the votes rolling into the Silent London Poll, many of you have been there, in-person or online, enjoying the best of silent cinema and live music.

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In the Eyes of a Silent Star: Asta Nielsen at BFI Southbank in February and March 2022

Finally, the time has come for me to stop sitting on my hands. Those of you who are on Twitter may have seen a sneak preview of this, but I am delighted to say that I can finally announce … Astafest!

Continue reading In the Eyes of a Silent Star: Asta Nielsen at BFI Southbank in February and March 2022

Neil Brand scores South – plus ticket offer for BFI Southbank

Wonderful news from a true friend of Silent London. Musician, broadcaster, writer and man of many talents Neil Brand has composed a new orchestral score for a truly staggering British silent film, South (1919) – the gripping document of Ernest Shackleton’s journey to the Antarctic, with stunning photography by Frank Hurley. It is the highlight of a BFI Southbank celebration of British explorers and the films that captured their endeavours. Here’s more about the season.

On 5 January 1922, the ‘heroic age’ of Antarctic exploration drew to a symbolic close with the death of Anglo-Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Marking both this centenary, and that of Britain’s first attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the BFI presents TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH: EXPLORATION AND ENDURANCE ON FILM, a season at BFI Southbank throughout January, with associated film releases in cinemas and for home entertainment. There will be themed collections on BFI Player (available from 5 January) and in the BFI Mediatheque.

The Epic of Everest (1924)
The Epic of Everest (1924)

And yes, there will be plenty of silent film in the season:

Continue reading Neil Brand scores South – plus ticket offer for BFI Southbank

Time to vote: the Silent London Poll of 2021 is live!

Welcome Silent Londoners, the festive season starts here. The mince pies are baking in the oven, the lights are twinkling on the tree, and it is time to start chewing your pencils as you complete the Silent London Poll of 2021.

Last year when I introduced the poll, I wrote: “in the face of adversity the silent film community has more than rallied. The pandemic did not stop people screening, scoring, restoring and publishing. So we want to applaud and honour those efforts.”

Continue reading Time to vote: the Silent London Poll of 2021 is live!

Carl Davis on composing for Buster Keaton: ‘the hardest challenge’

This is a guest post for Silent London by the composer and author Carl Davis. Today is his 85th  birthday, and his new album Buster Keaton: The Carl Davis Soundtracks is released next week, 5 November. The two-disc set comprises highlights from the Carl Davis soundtracks composed for the Buster Keaton movies commissioned for Thames Silents and The Cohen Film Collection. The music is composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the Thames Silents Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of London and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. recorded between 1984 and 2020.

What makes Buster Keaton different from his two great rivals, Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd in the Hollywood of the 1920s? These three artists played very defined and different characters and supporting them in their differences is the role of the music.

Charlie’s Tramp evolved from 1914 and he played him until 1936 when the character made his final appearance in Modern Times. Chaplin was himself a gifted composer. As soon as sound film became the standard he completed and recorded his score for City Lights (1931) and did so for the rest of his career. Chaplin’s scores evolved out of the pre-1914 world of Victorian Music Halls: sentimental ballads, waltzes and polkas as well as melodramatic underscoring.

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Neil Brand on Oscar Micheaux: an audience for Body and Soul

This is a guest post for Silent London by composer, broadcaster, writer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand.

I will be playing Oscar Micheaux’s wonderful Body and Soul at BFI Southbank on 31 October. I have to say, that movie means a great deal to me for a very important reason – one which has affected my whole attitude towards silent cinema since a memorable night a decade or so ago…

In the 35 years that I have been a silent film accompanist, I have been privileged to have a front-row seat for all the major discoveries of early cinema during that time. I have seen films come and go, attitudes shift, and loyalties become challenged, and never more so than at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, the spiritual home and trade show of our industry. There and elsewhere, I have tried never to stop learning, hearing from people vastly more experienced than me about films I thought I would never get to see, and, from time to time, films I should avoid.

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London Film Festival review: The Afterlight

The Afterlight is the last-chance saloon for the lost souls of film history. It’s a conceptual experiment, one that stalks the shadows of world cinema, gathering the spectres of movie stardom as it stumbles all the way to obsolescence. This new film from Charlie Shackleton, which played the Experimenta strand of the London Film Festival, is cast entirely from the grave and destined to self-destruct. Composed of snippets of archive cinema, The Afterlight stars only actors whose obituaries have already been published and exists only in one 35mm print, which will deteriorate, just a little, with each screening, until even these echoes diminish.

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London Film Festival review: The Real Charlie Chaplin

It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?

Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.

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Welcome back from the Bioscope Girl

This is a guest post for Silent London from Michelle Facey AKA The Bioscope Girl to tell you about some exciting silent cinema events scheduled for London and online now that the Giornate has come to an end.

Well, my silent film lovelies, its been a long time coming. Those who’ve been to the 40th Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone are now home or wending their ways back around the world. I’m sorry that myself and others who form the steering Kennington Bioscope team, apart from John Sweeney of course, essential to festival proceedings, felt unable to be there on this occasion, but hopefully next year we’ll all reunite around the Verdi and the Posta. At least we were able to join in online and keep abreast of all the essentials of the physical fest, via the insights, intertitles and general Giornate goss of Silent London’s much welcomed daily blogs, written by Italian moonlight. We missed being with everyone there and kindly, several of you let us know throughout the week that you missed us too.

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London Film Festival review: Around Japan With a Movie Camera

The eye wants to travel, and never more so than in these pandemic times. Which means that this presentation from the BFI’s blockbuster Japan season is actually more welcome on its delayed arrival.

In Around Japan With a Movie Camera, across an hour and a quarter, we are transported through space and time to Japan in the very early 20th century – the films span the period from 1901 to 1913. But you’ll want to devote a full ninety minutes to this one and click the “Watch introduction” button on the BFI Player. The films are more than ably introduced by the BFI’s own Bryony Dixon and Japanese film historian Mika Tomita, and the programme is hosted by Michelle ‘Bioscope Girl’ Facey. They also take time to introduce the band, as it were. The films are accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch, Costas Fotopolous, Stephen Horne and Lillian Henley – their hands are sometimes visible thanks to the ingenuity of Gabrysch’s pandemic-era innovation, the “piano-cam”.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 8

At the start of this festival I missed a date with An Old Fashioned Boy, but you can bet your last Euro I wasn’t going to pass up a rendez-vous with Casanova. Tonight, the final night of this very precious Giornate, belonged to Ivan Mosjoukine, his magnicifent eyebrows and the show-stopping music of Günter Buchwald.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 7

This is my tenth Giornate, which means I have graduated from newbie, all the way to novice, but also that I have been present for a quarter of the festival’s history. This is the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – an annual celebration of silent cinema that began with a short retrospective of Max Linder films at Cinemazero in 1982, viewed by around eight people. Tonight in the Verdi, it seemed like every other seat was taken for a rendez-vous with Linder.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 6

Pordenone 6

Unprecedented scenes in the Teatro Verdi tonight, as the audience of customarily meek silent film enthusiasts stamped their feet, booed and exclaimed “outrageous!” “Close the curtains!” and “Down with this sort of thing!” But more reports on the incident the papers are calling the 2021 Giornate riot later.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 5

Anna Q Nilsson! Tom Moore! Dark deeds with gold mines, wedding regrets and stock certificates! A mysterious, abrupt finale! It can only be the welcome return this afternoon of the 1916 serial Who’s Guilty?, which we loved so much in 2016. This was a classic example, with Nilsson and Moore marrying in haste and repenting at leisure but Nilsson’s ex proving to be no better option. And that was before the mine gave up its gold. What a nostalgic treat.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 4

“I don’t think I’ll be falling in love with Ellen Richter any time soon,” said a gentleman to me in the hotel lift this lunchtime. Everyone else, please form an orderly queue. We sampled riches of Richter today, in three hour(ish)-long installments of Die Frau Mit Millionen (The Woman Worth Millions, Willi Wolff, 1923) – a fine example of her work in the “Reise- und Abenteuerfilme” or travel-and-adventure films genre.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 3

The lure of distant shores drew us into the Verdi this Monday morning, though initially it looked a little like false advertising. Ilka Schütze’s In Den Dschungeln Afrikas/In the Jungles of Africa (1921-24) was a stop-animation story of two dolls travelling via “balloon” not to another continent but only as far as their garden, or their dreams. If dolls can dream. I hope so, don’t you?

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 3