Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”
The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.
The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou
Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.
The maggots in Battleship Potemkin
Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.
Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery
George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Isabel Stevens, production editor of Sight & Sound. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Just as films in the nascent years of cinema were characterised by their visual innovation, so too were their posters. Designers enjoyed far more freedom than most of their successors working in the sound era, who toiled in large publicity departments and had to comply with strict restrictions on the size and prominence of stars’ images and their names.
Designs for silent movie posters were also created using many different techniques – from hand-painting unique posters for local theatres to mass-produced lithographs or linocuts. The Stenberg brothers, whose designs alone could fill a list of 10 ground-breaking silent movie posters, even invented a special projector that paused a film frame so faces could be traced, the resulting image appearing somewhere between a painting and a photograph.
The designs collected here are for both masterpieces and little-known films alike, but all preference mood and visual daring, never just relying on tantalising narrative tit-bits to sell a movie. Many of them contain echoes of art movements of the time – Cubism, Art Deco, Constructivism, the Bauhaus and Expressionism – and were created in the 1920s, that decade of wild avant-garde experimentation.
The Green Spider, Vladimir Egorov, 1916
Here is the original spiderwoman, accessorised delightfully with eight-legged earrings. It’s a surreal vision that proves that Russian film poster design in the 1910s could be just as imaginative and strange as that of the Soviet era. Little is known about this tale of lust, apart from that it was considered a cult movie at the time of its release and played in theatres in seedy parts of St Petersburg. The poster is the work of Moscow theatre designer Vladimir Egorov, sketched one presumes under the influence of the many arachnoids that featured in the drawings of Symbolist artists such as Odilon Redon and Alfred Kubin.
Safety Last!, Curt Peters, 1923
Swedish film poster design was particularly adventurous in the 1920s, as exemplified by this vibrant design featuring stunt-mad comedian Harold Lloyd swinging into the frame and promising vertiginous laughs and spectacle galore. With his clothes billowing in the wind, his hair standing on end and a smile on his lips, he’s enjoying the ride as much as you will.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Robert Seidman, author of Moments Captured, a novel based loosely on the work and life of the pioneering 19th century photographer Eadweard MuybridgeThe Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Nine Firsts – and One Disputed First – by Eadweard Muybridge, Photographer Extraordinaire
1. The Trotting Horse
In 1878 Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) created the mechanism that recorded the first photographs of a horse trotting. No photographer had ever been able to capture such rapid motion before. Muybridge’s multi-camera mechanism stopped time and seized motion itself so that he and his employer, California’s ex-governor Leland Stanford, could analyse the animal’s gait and improve the training of his racehorses.
2. The Photo Finish
Muybridge was at a racetrack when two horses finished in a dead heat. The usual volatile debate followed about which animal had triumphed. The dispute tripped Muybridge’s innovative impulse, and soon Eadweard invented the first device to record the “photo finish”. In a letter to Nature magazine in May 1882, Eadweard Muybridge argued that every horse race should make use of a high-speed photo at the finish to determine the winner. A camera very much like the one that Muybridge deployed still determines the outcome of contested horse races.
3. Photo Finish Ubiquity
The idea of Muybridge’s photo finish was later expanded to include other sporting events, including foot races and swimming contests. Today, on TV and in film, the grace and agility of divers and swimmers, sprinters and footballers are presented in stop-motion, yet another of Muybridge’s contributions to the way we see and perceive.
In January 1877, Muybridge placed his view camera on the roof of railroad magnate Mark Hopkins’ half-finished mansion in the posh Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and began the process that recorded the most detailed and complete – though not the first – panoramic view of the city. Starting at 11am and using the contemporary equivalent of a telephoto lens, Muybridge took 13 photos as he carefully moved his camera around in 360 degree circle. The panorama remains the most complete description of the City’s “Golden Era” before its partial destruction in 1906 by an earthquake and subsequent fire.
5. The American West and US National Parks
Throughout the late 1860s Muybridge produced a stunning portfolio of the wild beauties of the American West, including breathtaking documentation of Yosemite before it became a national park. Multiple historians assert that the photos helped spur the National Parks movement itself. Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the US National Parks system, was directly influenced by Muybridge’s and other early photographers views of the American wilds.
This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney. John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for the Phono Cinéma-Théatre project and is one of the brains behind the wonderful fortnightly Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts. When Silent London started with these lists I joked with a friend that what was needed was a list of silent films to avoid: no sooner had I spoken than films started coming to mind, but I also started thinking of the opposite list, of films that aren’t anything like as well known as I think they should be. So, I’ve settled for five films that you might think would be good but really aren’t, and five films that are definitely worth seeking out. Opinions differ and it’s quite possible that I’ve missed the point of some the films – put me right in the comment space below if you disagree.
Five silent films to avoid
Note: I make no claim that these are the worst films – merely that they should be a lot better given their reputation, or who made them.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, Stuart Paton)
Yes, this film features groundbreaking underwater photography for a few minutes, but the screenplay is stupid, the acting is ridiculous, and the editing’s completely random. On IMDB someone writes “It’s by no means a bad movie”, but it is, it really is! Do not watch this movie.
If it’s submarines that float your boat, try Submarine, directed by Frank Capra.
L’Atlantide (1921, Jacques Feyder)
Jacques Feyder was a wonderful director, as anyone who’s seen his Visages d’enfantswill know, but this exotic farrago, weighing in at almost three hours, is dreadful. Two French soldiers stumble on the lost kingdom of Atlantis, in the middle of the Sahara Desert (!), which is ruled by the ageless Queen Antinéa. Featuring far too much sand and a decidedly uncharismatic performance from Stacia Napierkowska as the supposedly endlessly fascinating and desirable queen, you really don’t need to see this film.
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 Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
1) The Drag Net(1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Draculasurvived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf(The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot(1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman(1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
5) The Mountain Eagle(1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?
This is a guest post for Silent London by Stephen Horne, silent film musician and composer. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Looking at some of the dictionary definitions of the word “haunting”, it strikes me that they are applicable to silent films in general. After all what could be more poignant, evocative or difficult to forget than watching long passed-away performers, their mute emotions given voice by music? The following films have extra elements that have made them lodge in my memory like nagging melodies. Usually there is something about them that is unexpected, unresolved or ambiguous. They often feel as though they end on an ellipsis, a cinematic ” … ”
These are all films that I have accompanied at some point, which is probably a big reason for their place in my heart. As I’m sure every silent film musician can testify, when a live accompaniment is going well, it can sometimes feel as if you are channeling the film in a way that can be positively uncanny. One warning. It’s in the nature of this subject that often what lingers most in the mind is the denouement. Therefore, what follows could potentially be regarded as an extended spoiler. Please approach with caution!
The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)
While The Battle of the Somme is much better known, the final images of its “sequel” remain more firmly in my mind. Seen in spectral silhouette, soldiers prepare “to continue the great fight for freedom”, as the intertitle puts it. Of course, what they are also heading towards is further slaughter. The original official score, a cue sheet medley rediscovered by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, calls for this finale to be accompanied by Land of Hope and Glory. Seldom has a musical suggestion seemed, at least to a modern sensibility, more heartbreakingly wrong. Which somehow makes it right.
J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)
Gance’s first world war classic is full of images that scarify the memory. The March of the Dead is the most famous example: is it to be interpreted literally, allegorically or as a mass hallucination? The knowledge that Gance used real soldiers on leave from the front as actors makes the viewing experience all the more impactful: we are watching the cinematic portrayal of a phantom army, played by people who were soon to become phantoms themselves.
However, the moment that always slays me is a quiet one in the scene that immediately follows. Jean, now completely mad, re-enters his old home, looks around … and calls out his own name. He has lost everything, including himself.
The Woman from Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)
In 1996 the BFI programmed a season of films to coincide with the publication of Gilbert Adair’s book Flickers. Marking the centenary of cinema, this often-whimsical tome wove brief essays around a single still from one film of every one of those hundred years. Gilbert explained in his introduction to the screening of this little-known film that he had never actually seen it. All he knew was the still image included in his book, but it was one that had haunted him: a woman standing alone, perhaps lost, on a path in the middle of nowhere. He had always wondered about the backstory that had led her to this point and was almost scared to watch the film, in case the reality disappointed him. Truthfully I don’t remember the film in detail, but now the same image lingers in my mind. For me the woman from nowhere is still standing on that road, lost for ever.
Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)
One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, despite the perfectly rendered happy ending. What lingers is the impression of a child’s struggle to comprehend bereavement, uncannily conveyed in Jean Forest’s dark eyes. The moment when the boy sees his father crying for the first time is very prescient of the ending of The Bicycle Thieves.
Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925)
Where does Stella go, after she walks away from the window? Something in her expression indicates that she has come untethered and I always imagine that she eventually drifts into homelessness. Sometimes if I see an elderly homeless woman, having a conversation with an unseen third party, I think: “Stella – talking to her daughter … ”
Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926)
Is it possible for a comedy to be haunting? The film is delightfully funny, but it is the heartbroken expression on Beatrice Lillie’s face at the bittersweet climax that seems to resonate longer. Her character has been courageous and loveable and she deserved better. It’s also a surprising and brave way for a comedy to end.
Jenseits Der Strasse (Leo Mittler, 1929)
I saw this at the Bonner Sommerkino many years ago. The expression on the face of Lissy Arna’s streetwalker in the last scene burned itself into my memory. The moment itself is partially comic, as the gross belly of her next client protrudes centre-frame. However as she tries to smile at him, her vacant eyes belie the fact that her personal window of happiness has definitively slammed shut.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)
What I love most about Asquith’s masterpiece is the ambiguity of its final act. Few other silent films seem to generate so much discussion of character motivation. Is Sally’s forgiveness of Joe purely born of compassion or does she perhaps regret her life choices? When he asks “are you happy?” she seems to pause a beat too long, before turning her head away from him and answering “very”.
The final scene, which transcends an often wonderful but undeniably uneven film, is poignant in many ways. Louise Brooks’ character is watching herself in a screen test – one that will determine her future career in talking films – when she is shot dead by her ex-lover. While silent film Louise dies in the foreground, sound film Louise continues to sing on, framed in the screen behind her. It seems like a metaphor for both Brooks’ own soon-to-be curtailed career and the imminent death of silent films.
The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (Otto Kylmälä, 2011)
A slight indulgence, partly as this is a 21st-century silent, but also because I provided the music. However, I make no apology, as Otto Kylmälä’s seven-minute jewel of a short ends with a truly haunting moment that I won’t spoil, as it’s not generally available to watch at the moment. But you’ll know it when you see it. Come to think of it, the moment is accompanied by a rather haunting melody… …
This is a guest post for Silent London by Nina Giacomo from Brazil, who blogs at Primeiro Cinema. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
The great majority of the films made between the origins of cinema and the 1910s had colour in some way. People often don’t know that because a lot of films from the 1920s were actually released in black and white and so the evolutionary view of film history makes us think that silent cinema was deprived of colour. But, since the beginnings of cinema, a lot of research was done into colour film and two tendencies were explored: the colourisation after the film had been shot and the capture of “natural colours” while shooting.
This is not a “top 10” list … It is a selection of 10 films that show a variety of ways of giving colour to the moving image. It is my list of 10 must-watch silent colour films!
Annabelle Serpentine Dance (Edison, 1895)
The first of many films dedicated to the “serpentine dance” created by the american dancer Loïe Fuller in 1889. The hand colourisation, frame by frame, represents Fuller’s spectacular stage effects, which combined the constant flow of the dress’s movement with the projection of electrical lights.
Pierrette’s Escapades (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1900)
A vibrant example of hand-colouring made by Gaumont.
Untitled experiments (Edward Turner, 1901/02)
Theses pictures, recently discovered, are actually a series of tests for a new invention. They show how early the attempts to reproduce “natural colours” began.
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
The colour version of this film was unknown until 1993, when it was found in Barcelona in a terrible condition. Not until 2010 could the restoration could be released and it transformed the image we have of this most iconic of all silent films.
The Lonedale Operator (DW Griffith, 1911)
Here we have an interesting use of colour in silent cinema. The young lady can only trick the bandits (making them believe that she has a gun, when actually it is a wrench) because the scene takes place at night. The blue tinting suggests the time of day.
This classic has just been restored and the new version will be shown in February at the Berlin International Film Festival with its original tinting and toning … I can’t wait to see it.
Virginian Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (1926)
An amazing example of Pathécolor, just recently discovered. It shows us a late use of this method that was pioneered by Pathé in France during 1905. Stencils were used to automate the hand-colouring of films.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
A hybrid in many ways: this is a silent, talkie, black-and-white and colour motion picture. The colour scenes are just marvellous.
The Love Charm (Howard Mitchell, 1928)
And here is a little known example of the two-colour Technicolor process. A weird love story in amazing colours.
Do you agree with Nina’s choices? Share your suggestions below
This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.
The Unknown (1927)
Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.
Captain Salvation (1927)
An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)
A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.
Behind the Door (1919)
With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”
DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.
The Cheat (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”
Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.
An Interesting Story (1904)
A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!