Hello lovelies. From me, and from Conrad, here’s hoping you have a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year, with many silent nights to come in 2019! Thanks for all your support, comments and messages this year – as well as your votes in the end-of-year poll. I am currently tallying the results and hope to share them with you very soon.
This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Late Show Blogathon. I have chosen to write about the final screen appearance of the wonderful Lillian Gish, but this movie is a late or last film for many of the people involved.
“Alas dear ladies, all of this is in the past.” Vincent Price’s elegant Mr Maranov delivers the sad news to his elderly neighbours Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis). He is talking about his heyday, his rarefied life as a Russian noble, before the revolution, before the war, before the coming of sound. Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987), announces itself with a whiff of sawdust, and nitrate. It’s a film based on a play, a very quiet and melancholy play, and it opens with something far too gentle to be called a flashback, a monochrome glimpse of three young girls with flowing hair and white dresses excitedly rushing to the shore to catch sight of the ocean’s summer visitors. A glimpse of the silent era, in tribute to the film’s iconic and beautiful star.
Do the whales come to Maine in August any more, now those young girls have lived a lifetime each, separated, and reunited to live in awkward interdependence? That constitutes this delicate movie’s only real note of suspense. Sarah and Libby live the definition of a twilight existence, quietly in a house that is really a summer cottage, although it is early autumn, exposed on a grassy cliff. They brush their long white hair (Sarah’s a has a touch of blonde still, as she can’t quite resist letting Libby know) and dress for dinner in floral and powder-blue chiffon, and low-heeled pumps. It’s a beautiful spot, Cliff Island in Maine, where each evening they can “dine by moonlight” when the twilight floods their parlour. A picture window would make the most of that sumptuous view, and a friendly handyman neighbour (not Price, no fear) offers to install one for the ladies. Libby has doubts, though. Aren’t they too old to make changes? And besides, although she doesn’t like to mention it, Libby is blind. She can no longer see the whales, whenever they may or may not arrive.
Gish was 93 when she made The Whales of August, but preternaturally youthful, in the unique way of a waif who barely grew up. She plays a widow who mourns her soldier husband, and patiently takes care of cantankerous Libby, her older sister (though Davis was 15 years younger, and had one more feature in her, despite the decades of chain-smoking). She lives resolutely in the present, though, lobbying for that picture window and delighting in good food, fresh conversation, and the changing beauty of nature. She still believes the whales will return in August. Davis, who often seemed to delight in complaining about her co-stars, said it was a nightmare to work with Gish, who was all but entirely deaf. Anderson, inevitably, drew a different preference. Gish was an angel to direct, and rebellious Davis more of a headache. “Lillian’s first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for. Her professional attitude comes from those days with DW Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.” As such, they were perfectly cast as Sarah and Libby.
Today, Silent London is eight years old. If this were a marriage we’d be exchanging bronze gifts. But I consider this more of an open relationship, so don’t worry about buying me anything too expensive – unless you absolutely insist.
Thank you for reading, whether you are new around here or have been with me for the full eight-year stretch. If it’s the latter, you really do deserve a medal. All I can offer you is this deathless gif of Buster Keaton and Rosalind Byrne in Seven Chances instead:
Fabulous isn’t it? You’ll have guessed by now that I am after something. And yes, it’s quite tradition by now. Today we open the Silent London Poll of 2018, and I want your votes. Lots of em. Very few of the questions are mandatory, so even if you think that you haven’t watched that many silents this year, do take a look and see if you can support the films, film-makers, restorers, musicians, venues, festivals and so on that have made your year in silent cinema rich and exciting. I think 2018 has been a vintage year, what about you?
Are you struggling to remember the festivals, films, and music that you loved the most in 2017? Well take a look back through the pages of Silent London, or the Silent Film Calendar or ithankyou, both of which sites kept up to date with silent happenings all year round.
Don’t be afraid to lobby for your favourites, or to vote for events outside the UK. The poll is now a global affair and the more votes the merrier. Sharing is caring!
I will be closing the poll on 20 December, so you have plenty of time to ponder your choices – but don’t forget to vote!
Refresh your memory by finding out who won last year, here.
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.
It’s an article of faith in these parts that silent cinema is live cinema. We’re talking about the magic of live musical accompaniment, for the most part, but also, if we go right back to the early film period, narration, as well as the timing and skill involved in the projectionist changing reels, and perhaps the odd audience member reading the intertitles out loud.
There’s more discover in this vein though, and a project at the University of Reading aims to revive the art of the movie prologue. Not just any silent movie prologues, but Brazilian silent movie prologues. It’s an international project then, part of a wider quest to explore intermediality in Brazilian cinema, and connecting Reading to Rio de Janeiro, specifically that stretch of the coast that was once known as Cinelandia, because there were so many cinemas there.
This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).
Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?
Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché→
This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.
There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.
It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.
This post is a version of an introductory talk I gave at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol this year. The next Cinema Rediscovered festival will take place 25-28 July 2019.
This film, My 20th Century (1989), is a very special and intriguing piece. For my money, it is the perfect film to see at this festival. It may be only 29 years old, so it barely qualifies as vintage, but it is not shown as much as it should be – so it is ripe to be rediscovered. And it has as much in common with the cinema of a hundred or more years ago as it does with modern work, so it sits well in a festival devoted to film history.
It’s a fact, also, that Ildiko Enyedi fits perfectly with the name of this strand of the festival: Women on the Periphery. Hungarian director Enyedi was born in 1955 and has forged a thoroughly independent career. She studied philosophy at university, but quit because she considered the course to be badly taught. Then she went to the Budapest Film Academy and managed to complete the course, despite considering leaving because she felt that “some of those in power were lazy thinkers”. She became a visual artist and joined the Bela Belazs studio in Budapest 1979 – this is the place that produced works by such Hungarian notables as Béla Tarr. Enyedi made several short films, but My Twentieth Century was her first feature, and it won the Camera d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, the prize for the best debut feature showing in competition.
Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ celebrates the immortality of the WWI soldiers who died in service. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.” The word contemn isn’t used very often – it means “to treat with contempt”. The poem, popularly recited at Remembrance Services, argues that the sacrifice of the fallen will be honoured by the following generations, but also means that they are suspended in the aspic of their youth. While we grow feeble, they retain their strength and vitality.
In a similar spirit, Peter Jackson’s new film, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, seeks to erase the lapsed years between today and the Great War. The soldiers in his film are ostensibly unwearied – living, breathing, talking men in full colour, rather than the silent, black-and-white figures of archive footage. It’s telling that Jackson has taken Binyon’s line and contorted it. The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old – a more digestible, less archaic version of the original, with modern grammar, and arguably less mystery and grandeur. It also seems to have a more literal meaning, pointing to their demise, not their immortal memory. Continue reading LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive→
These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.
Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa
In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.
An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes→
What do you need to make a great movie? At the end of a week at Pordenone, is it the images that burn in your mind, or the stories that tug at your heart? Today we had more films that wooed us with visual than narrative pleasure, making for an exhilarating lineup that celebrated the artistry of silent cinema.
Let us begin at the end – with the gala performance of The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), restored by Photoplay in 1990 and playing here with a superb orchestral rendition of Henri Rabaud’s original score. This story of revolutions and robotics is a tremendous one, but it’s the images that scorch: The automaton army raising its sabers in unison; Edith Jehanne surveying the wreckage through a broken window; the pyrotechnic display of the firing squad in a snowy palace courtyard. A wonderful, rousing, and visually thrilled film that provided a suitably grand flourish to a week that has revelled in epic excitement.
A case in point: the tremendous The Last of the Mohicans (1920), one of those Canon Revisited films that is tucked away in an unassuming slot in the schedule and acts like a shot in the arm to the jaded festivalgoer. I had not seen it before and my expectations were somewhere around the middle, but this is wonderful stuff. Amid the action (which is wonderfully staged and always nailbiting) what emerges is an unexpectedly tragic and touching romance – one you wouldn’t go looking for in material like this, but there you go. I was moved. And of course that cliffhanger sequence is the best we have seen all week and we have seen some excellent ones.
I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl. Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.
The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.
Lyda Borelli, Lillian Gish, Florence Vidor, Stacia Napierkowska. Let’s hear it for the ladies after an exceptionally strong day at the Giornate. My favourite film of the day was a Stahl that surprised us all, so let’s start with the great master of melodrama himself. or do I mean, the master of comedy?
Husbands and Lovers (1924) was one of the few silent Stahls I had seen before, sort of. I had seen a cutdown version of this film, which stars Vidor and Lewis Stone as a married couple, and Lew Cody as their friend who makes up one of those triangles we have learned so much about this week. It’s dedicated to “the tired American wife who has a husband and craves a lover, or some such. The shortened version gave me a bum steer, turning it into a mini-melodrama. This is a sparkling, and very smart marital comedy, much in the same vein as Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle. In the opening sequence, Vidor does everything she can do for her helpless man to assist with his morning routine, dashing about in her dressing gown. And then the cad has the verve to say she looks frumpy and untidy. Does that mean there was not a hint of tragedy or an outlandish coincidence in sight? No, but it was played for laughs. And the joy of it is the slowly shifting relationship between the three characters, first one way, then another, until a joyous ending. Fantastic cinematography, sharp lead performances and a very adult understanding of what gets lost and goes unsaid in a long-term relationship. Do look out for this if you can. And it goes without saying, it gave us plenty more to talk about at today’s Stahl collegium presentation. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6→
I heart John M Stahl. He’s revealing more and more to me with each movie I watch. But I have to be honest. For me, the Lincoln Cycle has gone off the boil – too much folksy moralising, not enough of either cute childish antics or actual grownup politics. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s final instalment will change that…
Today’s Stahl feature was the very definition of a kitchen-sink drama, with the director abandoning his customary upper-class milieu for The Song of Life (1922). He’s establishing himself in my mind as a first-rate New York filmmaker, but here he abandons the lavish Park Avenue apartments for cramped tenements, where life is hard and people live so cheek-by-jowl that their darkest secrets can deep through the floorboards. A hard-pressed housewife, sick of spending her day with her hands sunk deep in the dishwater abandons husband and child in a fit of dissatisfaction with the rural life. But years later we find her still living in the city, all alone, but still doing the dishes to get by. She’s on the verge of saying goodbye to it all with a bottle of Lysol, when the novelist downstairs takes her in as housekeeper to himself and his, yes, dissatisfied wife. Maybe it’s the Bess Meredyth screenplay, or just Stahl honing his skills, but this was a neat and to-the-point melodrama, despite the crashingly improbably coincidences powering the story. And strong performances all round too, especially from Georgia Woodthorpe as the mother and Gaston Glass as the novelist.
It’s always a joy to travel the world in a day at the Giornate, but we tarried a little in Sweden this afternoon. A screening of Victor Sjostrom’s deathless The Phantom Carriage was preceded by two less well-known Swedish films, a recent rediscovery of an early work by Sjostrom and a reconstruction of one by his compatriot Mauritz Stiller that survives only in fragments.
Accompanied expertly and very melodically by John Sweeney (coping heroically with the amount of stills in the Stiller), this was an intriguing and very enjoyable double-bill. They were both three-act drama, which unfolded swiftly and with a rich emotional impact. Sjostrom’s recently discovered Judaspengar (1915), starring Egil Eide and John Ekman was a story of betrayal, naturally, as a hard-up worker resorts to increasingly desperate measures when his wife is sick. The attraction here is the aesthetic more than the drama – with interior shots framed prettily by windows on several occasions. The opening is very striking, when the camera glides through an open window to the sick room. Elsewhere, dramatically lit scenes in a gloomy attic contrasted well the open countryside, where our heroes came cropper out poaching.
As the great sage Rachel Bloom has pointed out, the mathematics of love triangles isn’t hard to learn. But what happens when one of the angles in the love triangle is so very much more acute than all the others? Which is to say, age ain’t nothing but a number, but some numbers are certainly far higher than others. And we learned a lot about May-December relationships at the Giornate this morning.
First, the sweetly pretty Swedish film Dunungen (1919), in which a young lady known as Downy (yes, I know, I tried to swap in Fluffkins to make sense of it as a nickname) gets engaged to a fancy dude who is actually the mayor’s son. And she is just the baker’s daughter so she should be grateful right? Well despite her disadvantages he takes her along to go butter up his uncle for an inheritance. Uncle has a big ironworks business and a country estate, and maybe, just maybe he likes Fluffkins more than her rubbish fiancé does. Perhaps they should be together and live happily in rural bliss. Well, it takes some elongated shenanigans and many beautifully hand-drawn folk art intertitles to get there, but yes, she swaps her immature snob for a classy chap who knows what he wants out of life eventually. This was a treat, a film from the Scandinavian Challenge strand that has had a little resto work to fill in the missing reels. It’s gorgeous and funny and spins out its domestic drama until the conclusion feels fully earned.
Sunday in Pordenone, and it’s time to get this John M Stahl show on the road. We spent the morning with the master of melodrama, give or take an hour or so in the company of Jean Epstein and it was … exhilarating, actually.
Most mornings the Giornate will be showing instalments from The Lincoln Cycle, a series of standalone, two-reel dramas taken from the life of the 16th POTUS. The impetus for these films came from Benjamin Chapin, a renowned Lincolnalike, known for plays and monologues in which he impersonated the great man. He’s credited here as writer, director and producer – which I think we should be discreetly booing by the end of the week. JMS directed these beauties, very early in his career and got no credit for it. I must admit, honest Abe, that the prospect of the first two instalments, devoted to each of Lincoln’s parents, respectively (Chapin plays Lincoln Sr), didn’t sound too thrilling. But, that’s where Stahl (perhaps) comes in. Delicately directed, nuanced performances (especially Madelyn Clare as Abe’s mother) and brisk, smart storytelling – these were actually gems, and though these childhood episodes never featured in Chapin’s stage shows, so we could be tempted to assign praise to our man Stahl, I suppose we’ll never know exactly how much influence he had. Can’t wait to see more though. Sadly some dramatic-sounding stories are missing, but let’s treasure what we have. Gorgeous prints too.
How long would you wait for a date with Lars Hanson? Maybe don’t answer that, but the past year we have spent yearning for Lars, after seeing his brooding visage on all those beautiful posters for the 2017 Giornate, has flown by. This year, the artwork celebrates the divine Pola Negri, but we’ll have plenty of time to get to her later in the week. Tonight, on the opening evening of the 2018 Giornate, we finally had our night with Lars, and Dr Philip Carli, thanks to a triumphant orchestral screening of Captain Salvation (1927). It was an invigorating start to proceedings, and just the kind of high-quality discovery that keeps us coming back (and back) to the festival.
Captain Salvation? No, I hadn’t come across it before, but it’s a wonder. Hanson plays Anson, a young vicar-in-training living in a coastal village near Boston. He loves the sea, his fiancé Mary (Marceline Day) and God. Quite possibly in that order. When a shipwreck washes up a sex worker named Bess (a wonderful Pauline Starke), Anson defies the locals to offer her charity, rather than the bum’s rush. Ostracised by the piety police, Anson and Bess take passage on a ship captained by a leering Ernest Torrence (excellent as always), which turns out not to be quite what it seemed.
Anniversaries are a wonderful reason to show some archive film, and some anniversaries are better than others. The Kennington Bioscope, which has had a spectacularly busy year, has added yet another special event to the calendar. Silent Guns is a celebration of First World War cinema, to commemorate 100 years since the conflict ended, curated by the KB team and Kevin Brownlow himself.
The screenings will take place on Saturday 17 November 20187, from 10am to 10.30pm at where else but the wonderful Cinema Museum in south London. Most of the film prints will be 35mm or 16mm and of course all the silent films will be accompanied by live music.
The gala film, so to speak, is King Vidor’s The Big Parade, a rare chance to see this Hollywood classic starring John Gilbert on the big screen and on film too. But there are some very intriguing titles further down the programme, including some little-seen British films, including Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) and and George Pearson’s Reveille (1924) – and a German one too. There are shorts (From Pearl White to Chaplin), extracts from films that don’t survive intact, and even a couple of sound artefacts too.
Festival season is upon us. There’s Pordenone, of course, and London and also the Cambridge Film Festival all in October. A trip to the fenland city is very appealing at this time of year – and all the more so with a tempting selection of silent films.
The star of the slate is Lois Weber, one of the very best American silent film directors. And Cambridge will be showing four of her films over the weekend, all with live music. One of these in particular, The Blot, is rarely shown, but I think it’s very special indeed. Kevin Brownlow says that you won’t find a better film for showing you how life was really lived in the 1920s. That’s very probably true, but I think that inadvertently undersells it. There is a lot more to the film than its realism. It’s a real heartbreaker, and a nuanced drama too.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.
There are many treats coming up in the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend 8 & 9 September 2018, held at our beloved Cinema Museum, the Jewel of Lambeth. From Canadian canine capers with wonder dog Rin Tin Tin, putting his best paw forward to start off the weekend in WhereThe North Begins (1923), to sparkling comedy with Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman in Her Night Of Romance (1924), through to marvellous Mary Pickford in our Saturday night feature Sparrows (1926) by way of other films from the USA with William C deMille’s naturalistic drama Miss Lulu Bett (1921) and Herbert Brenon’s Dancing Mothers (1926).
Mothers’ lead actress was Alice Joyce but with Clara Bow also featuring in what was her first picture for Paramount, she was left more than a little in the younger woman’s shade. Louise Brooks (quite popular around these parts, I’m led to believe) commented that: “Everybody forgot Alice Joyce because Clara was so marvellous; she just swept the country. She became a star overnight with nobody’s help.”