Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world

This is a guest blog for Silent London by Maria Wyke, professor of Latin at University College London.

Recently I came across a silent short in the archives of the US Library of Congress that displays the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906. It was the first time the destructive volcano had been captured in moving images. But what caught my attention even more than that was how the (as yet unidentified) Italian filmmaker had juxtaposed scenes of destroyed buildings and dead bodies in the local towns with shots of tourists serenely visiting the ancient city of Pompeii – as if to accuse the elegant visitors of preferring to look at the pretty ruins of the past instead of helping overcome present suffering. I’ve managed to got hold of a digital copy of the film and now you too can see it alongside three other rarely seen silents about the classical world (including a recently restored feature about the emperor Caligula, about which more below).

The screening takes place at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on Saturday 6 July, 7.30 to 10pm. Tickets are £12 and available from the Bloomsbury Box office. Live accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne, whose impressive performances have won several Silent London awards.

2 Excursion_in_ancient_Greece
An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913)

Silent cinema delivers a democratic take on the classical world. That’s one theme that emerges from across the films I’ll be screening. From Filmarchiv Austria comes a Pathé travelogue, An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913), that follows its well-dressed sightseers along the Corinthian canal to view various celebrated monuments on and around the Acropolis. Distributed worldwide, the short rescues ancient Greece from its associations with high culture and moneyed tourism and offers its spectators the opportunity to visit sites affordably from the comfort of their local picture house. Continue reading Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world

Alice Guy Blaché and the first female film directors

You’ve heard me talk about women in silent film before, it’s one of my favourite topics. But if you haven’t taken the plunge yet, head over to the BFI website, where I wrote this short guide to starting to explore the work of the first female film directors.

early_women_s_filmmakers_bd_1

There’s more, of course. I also contributed some notes on Alice Guy Blaché for this lovely looking Blu-ray box set also forthcoming from the BFI. And on Tuesday 11 June at BFI Southbank, I will be hosting a panel discussion on that very topic (where I will also present on Guy Blaché)  to support the launch of the Blu-ray. My fellow speakers include Bryony Dixon, Ellen Cheshire and Virginie Selavy. We will be talking about lots of different filmmakers and showing clips and short films too.

If you can’t get to that, I will also be introducing some Guy Blaché shorts at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol. And watch this space (or this one) for more Guy Blaché events coming up soon!

And just as a PS, I am introducing Diary of a Lost Girl at the BFI on Thursday 13 June – don’t miss Brooksie on the big screen.

Read more:

 

Digging for gold: The 5th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.

Silent films never sleep… They may seem kind of ‘quiet’ (LOL), but then, all of a sudden, they can muster and mass and come at you pretty fast and furious … And here we are, in the midst of experiencing somewhat of a feast period of silent film exhibition, certainly in London, let alone everywhere else where plenty of our favourite film medium can also be found. All boom and no bust. We’ve had wickedly brilliant Weimar silents and glorious Victorian films from the BFI, with more of the former yet to come, and 700 of the latter just recently becoming free to view on the BFI Player (free, I say!! FREE!!! Go view them NOW!! Well, maybe after you’ve finished reading this…).

Even more servings of these cinematic deep dishes are being brought to the table by us lot, down Kennington way, hot on the heels of our Silent Comedy Weekend at the end of April, which we were pleased to hear brought so much delight to so many of you. Well, good warning all, we’ve had our celluloid spades out again and have dug up some more treasures, emerging for light and air next weekend at the Cinema Museum in our 5th Silent Film Weekend in association with Kevin Brownlow. The combined efforts of the Bioscope crew’s fevered programming hivemind mean that the films on offer over the weekend of June 1st and 2nd consist mostly of titles of such rarity that many of you will never have heard of them. But they’re creating some buzz, so please, trust in us, and be not afraid. We’ll see you right. Continue reading Digging for gold: The 5th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

Arctic review: the silent survival film

Contains spoilers

Silent movies are action movies. Instead of Hitchcock’s “pictures of people talking”, the images in silent films are of people doing, being: walking, fighting, dancing, poking the fire, stirring their tea, knitting a scarf. Sometimes the reverse is true. Action movies can be silent, or at least, so unreliant on dialogue as to function like a silent film.

Which brings us to Arctic, and a subgenre I am going to call the ‘silent survival film’. I named it myself, because I made it up myself. Arctic, like All is Lost or The Red Turtle, recently reviewed on this site, offers the spectacle of a lone survivor, one man among the voiceless elements, fighting for his own life. We see the hero of the silent survival film act, and more importantly plan, in silence. The suspense is not just about whether he or she will survive, but how they will make the attempt. The silence, or rather the absence of dialogue, increases the tension, and the fascination.

You could add films such as A Quiet Place and the excellent The Naked Island to this list. The circumstances are different, but the families in each of these films work together, in mostly silence, to get by. We watch them as we do the characters in a silent movie, without verbal cues as to what they will do next, we scrutinise their expressions, their eyelines, the objects they pick up. The intuitive family bond is expressed, rather than hidden, by their mutual silence. Continue reading Arctic review: the silent survival film

Victorian value: early British films on the BFI Player

UPDATE: Watch the Victorian Film Collection on BFI Player

Is it too late to tell you about the BFI’s Victorian Film Weekender? Not quite. There’s still time to book for this weekend’s three days of screenings, debates and talks – including a reprise of the magnificent Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, first seen at the London Film Festival. So hurry – go do that – and then mark another date in your diary: Monday 13 May.

That’s when a cavalcade of Victorian cinema will appear online, on the marvellous BFI Player. And it’s all in honour of a bicentenary: it’s coming up to 200 years since Queen Victoria was born, on 24 May 1819. In Canada, they celebrate that date every year as Victoria day. Now we can join in by watching vintage cinema in the great monarch’s honour.

He and She (1898)
He and She (1898)

Here’s Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, telling you why you should watch.

“Early British film is a legacy to be proud of, these rare moving pictures document the last years of Queen Victoria’s long reign with a vividness that no other kind of historical artefact can bring. These incredibly rare, fragile film fragments speak volumes, adding colour and texture to our understanding of the Victorians vibrant and rapidly progressing world”

More than 700 British films made between 1895 and 1901 will be available to watch, entirely free of charge, on the streaming site, including those astonishing 4K digital restorations of the 68mm large-format films. That’s around 200 Victorian-era titles from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection and 500 newly transferred films.

The filmmakers responsible include: including RW Paul, Birt Acres, WKL Dickson, James Williamson, Walter Booth, GA Smith, Cecil Hepworth and Walter Gibbon. The quality of many of these films is incredible and the range and variety breathtaking.

Subjects include the Boer War, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Boat Race, travelogues, boat launches, football, theatre, agriculture and working life. And you’ll be able to spot figures including Queen Victoria, Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Pope Leo XIII, WG Grace, Prince Ranjitsinhji, Herbert Campbell, Lil Hawthorne and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. There’s even sound and colour – so hold on to your hats!

I’ve had a little advance peek at some of this, and I can tell you that it’s a fascinating collection – offering glimpses of public and private life from the century before last as well as some seriously experimental filmmaking.

Weimar Noir: ‘lounge time’ in the cinema of GW Pabst

In an influential 1998 essay, the theorist and critic Vivian Sobchack invited us to understand film noir through the spaces that the characters in these movies inhabit. Not the psychological or metaphorical spaces, but the real bricks-and-mortar locations in which the tough guys and femmes fatales pass their time – a kind of time that Sobchack called “lounge time”. The places “to which we should pay heed,” she wrote, “are the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel. These are the recurrent and determinate premises of film noir and they emerge from common places in wartime and postwar American culture that, transported to the screen, gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning.”

Sobchack identifies the fact that film noirs are hardly ever set inside traditional family homes, but in transient places instead – hotels, stations and bars, even prison cells. When we spend any length of time in a character’s home, as in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, it looks more like an upmarket cocktail lounge than a dwelling. Sobchack talks about “cold glitter of the houses of the rich, where money buys interior decoration and fine art but no warmth, no nurturance”. Or, in the same film, we see a traditional family home, with a nuclear family living within it, only to see that ideal destroyed in an instant.

clashbynightkitchen
Clash by Night

Continue reading Weimar Noir: ‘lounge time’ in the cinema of GW Pabst

Treasures from the silent era: the Townly Cooke Collection

Many of you reading this will have known the artist and photographer Townly Cooke, who died in 2016. He had a huge collection of silent film stills and memorabilia and was a regular at the British Silent Film Festival.

After he died, his collection of around 1,000 pieces was bequeathed to the wonderful Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter, and they are now on display there. Cooke never exhibited his collection, so this is the first time that these pieces have been shown to the public.

It’s a treasure trove for fans of British silent cinema. The majority of the collection consists of of stills from films of the 1910s and 1920s and most of these are from British films. Cooke was especially interested in the work of Cecil Hepworth, and his stars, including Alma Taylor and the It couple Henry Edwards and Chrissie White. Continue reading Treasures from the silent era: the Townly Cooke Collection

So this is comedy: 2019 Kennington Bioscope Silent Laughter Weekend

This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.

Feeling a post-Easter ennui? Well, you could do no better than to ready your laughing gear and get yourselves down anywhichway to the Cinema Museum for all or part of a weekend of silent comedy fun 27-28th April, curated by us, especially for you, at the Kennington Bioscope.

This last week saw the 130th anniversary of the birth of Lambeth’s most famous son, the Little Fellow himself, Charlie Chaplin, and as many of you may know, the Cinema Museum is of some significance in his origin story. The Master’s House, home of the Museum in Kennington, was at one time, part of the Lambeth Workhouse where Chaplin was sent as a child, and we will be marking his birthday anniversary with several programmes. Respected Chaplin biographer David Robinson will introduce Charlie’s stone-cold classic silent film, The Gold Rush (1925), showing with its recorded score. Filmmaker, collector and editor, Christopher Bird, brings us his original 16mm amber prints of The Immigrant (1917) and The Vagabond (1918). And (tweet tweet) that little Bird has told me his copy of the former “looks gorgeous.”

The Immigrant (1917)
The Immigrant (1917)

Continue reading So this is comedy: 2019 Kennington Bioscope Silent Laughter Weekend

The Parson’s Widow (1920): Dreyer’s humanism and humour

This is an extended version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of The Parson’s Widow at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied brilliantly by John Sweeney – who will be playing live for the film in Bristol soon. See details below.

Don’t let the forbidding reputation of Carl Th. Dreyer, legendary director of films including The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, mislead you. Dreyer didn’t believe that seriousness and quality went hand in hand. “God forbid! It would be a terrible world if we only had problem films,” he said. “I put, to be sure, farce and comedy just as high. Only one most note that in back of it all is love, heart, and warmth.”

The Parson’s Widow (1920) was Dreyer’s first comedy and is a wonderful example of not just his humour but his humanism. In the words of film historian Eileen Bowser: “Once we have seen The Parson’s Widow, is it easier to find a comic element in even the most serious Dreyer films, stemming from Dreyer’s humanism, his acceptance of man for what he is, with all his weaknesses and strengths.”

The Parson's Widow (1920)
The Parson’s Widow (1920)

Continue reading The Parson’s Widow (1920): Dreyer’s humanism and humour

Laila (1929): the epic adventure of a young woman’s life

This is an edited version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of Laila at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied by a spellbinding score by Rona Wilkie and Märit Falt, commissioned by Hippfest, which will be touring Scottish venues with the film in the coming months – more details below.

George Schnéevoigt was born in Copenhagen in 1893. His Danish father was a musician and his Finnish mother was a photographer. He lived with her in Berlin for much of childhood, before returning to Denmark as a young man to become a filmmaker. As a director at the Nordisk studio, he directed several films, but he also worked as a cinematographer, most notably on some beautiful films by Carl Th. Dreyer (The Parson’s Widow and Leaves from Satan’s Book, both 1920). It was when working as a cinematographer on a film called The People of the Wilds (1928), a melodrama set in the Sami community in northern Norway, that he was struck by the inspiration for his Laila (1929).

With the help of Norwegian producer Helge Lunde, Schnéevoigt was able to make Laila, an adaptation of a popular novel about the Sami people by author J. A. Friis. At the time, the indigenous Sami people, who lived in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, were the targets of a certain amount of racial prejudice – traces of which you can see in the finished film. Nevertheless, Friis’s novel took a slightly more sympathetic view, and had proved a big success. It had first been written as individual stories under the title From Finnmark: Descriptions, but Friis added more chapters to create a cohesive novel named Lajla, using the adventures of a young woman to tie the story together. Continue reading Laila (1929): the epic adventure of a young woman’s life

Down the Shaft, watching silent movies

Psst … this just in from the whisper network. There’s a new silent movie venue in town and it’s strictly underground.

I mean, it’s literally underground: underneath a candlelit garden, at the entrance to one of the capital’s engineering masterpieces – the Thames Tunnel. Cocktail experts Midnight Apothecary have founded a night called the Down the Shaft Film Club to screen classics in this unique space. Hey, the name may not be elegant, but you get the drift.

For two nights in May Down the Shaft will be showing classic silent movies with – crucially – live music, courtesy Meg Morley (2 May) and Neil Brand (16 May). The movies? Deathless comedies from Messrs Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Are you down?

Oh yes, and there will be fancy booze too, naturally. Here’s the blurb:

For your delectation we present Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Easy Street’ and Laurel & Hardy’s ‘Big Business’ and ‘Liberty’.  They will be accompanied on grand piano by the virtuoso talents of the UK’s leading silent film piano accompanists Meg Morley (2 May) and Neil Brand (16 May) in the Victorian underground Grand Entrance Hall to Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at the Brunel Museum.

This is one of London’s secret and most unusual underground venues to enjoy classic silent cinema.  This historic venue is directly below our hidden candlelit garden where you will be able to toast marshmallows around the firepit and sample a hot toddy, delicious street food or one of our award-winning botanical cocktails made from ingredients grown in the garden or foraged close by. We also have rather wonderful beer from local Bermondsey brewers Hiver and Anspach & Hobday and gin from award-winning Bermondsey distiller Jensen.

See you at the movies!

 

 

Agnès Varda, 30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019

Agnès Varda died on Friday – an event that I had to mark in some way. There is no real connection between Varda and silent cinema, apart from that irreverent interlude in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). However, her films meant a great deal to me, so this is a very small tribute. This video is a condensed version of a talk I gave at BFI Southbank on 2 June last year as part of an event called The Many Faces of Agnès Varda, in collaboration with Cléo. I was asked to discuss women and feminism in Varda’s films. Here are a few thoughts, inspired by her beautiful body of work.

If you don’t know her work, two of the films that I discuss here, Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), are streaming on Mubi right now. I highly recommend both.

Silent Paris: you can help restore Georges Méliès’s grave

Bonjour! Just a quick note to say that the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for restoring Georges Méliès’s dilapidated grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery goes live today. I wrote about this campaign, which was launched by the film pioneer’s descendants, in the Guardian last week.

The crowdfunding campaign launches today on 26 March 2019 and will run until 18 April 2019. 

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’

This post, in honour of Women’s History Month, is adapted from a talk I gave at the BFI Southbank recently as part of an event called Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters. You can read a report from that event here.

Anita Loos’s family pronounced their name Lohse, but as an adult she got tired of correcting people and opted for something a little more “Loose”. It suited this true original to reinvent her own name, especially as even that sounded like a good joke. Loos was one of the greatest wits of the 20th century, who wrote one of the best modern American novels, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but her career kept coming back to the cinema. It’s where she started. She wrote movies – in several different ways – and she wrote some of the best books about Hollywood too. She helped the cinema grow up and she exposed many of the industry’s foibles as well. Her jokes travelled so far that even if you don’t think you know her work, you may well have been laughing at her best gags for years.

Anita Loos photographed by Cecil Beaton
Anita Loos photographed by Cecil Beaton

A seriously petite brunette, Loos was born in Mount Shastam California in, whisper it, 1888. She didn’t like that fact to get around and so she lied ferociously about her age, with the vanity of a movie star. Unfortunately for her, films have dates on, so to make the timeline fit, Loos claimed to have been in her early teens when she started writing movies, and thus in her own twenties during the Jazz Age. No. She was more like 24 when she started out, and while she remains one of the greatest chroniclers of the Roaring Twenties, she herself was in her 30s and 40s at the time. That’s a grand age for a wit, actually: old enough to make fun of the naivety of youth, and young enough to be aghast at the staidness of the older generation.

Loos had four main topics: sex, fashion, gossip and men. She wrote about what interested her. She was a fashion plate, a storyteller and she loved men, even though they consistently disappointed her. She was briefly married in her youth, which was a juvenile mistake – he was skint and boring – and simply her ruse to leave home. In 1919, however, she married writer-director John Emerson and she stayed married to him until he died in 1956. She was besotted with him at first, but he soon let her down, reinforcing her opinion that sex was some sort of absurd cosmic joke played on unsuspecting mortals.

They worked together, which is to say, as she recalled it, she worked while he lay in bed watching her. “I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up,” she later said, “but what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was.” He was a philanderer, a malingerer and took most of the credit and at least half the money for their collaborations. Sam Goldwyn said “Emerson was one of those guys that lived by the sweat of his frau” and Loos’s friend Charles Lederer called him “Sweet Mister E of Life”. One time, it seems, he tried to strangle her. But he did not write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so we won’t mention him again unless we absolutely have to. Continue reading Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’

City Lights (1931): the course of true love never did run smooth

We are celebrating two important Chaplin anniversaries in 2019. Next month, on 16 April it will be 130 years since Charlie Chaplin’s birth, and last month, 5 February marked the centenary of United Artists, the studio that Chaplin founded with DW Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Famously, however, City Lights is a film that ignores time, a silent picture made in the age of the talkies, and an 87-minute feature that took more than two years to make.

Pre-production on City Lights followed swiftly on from the release of Chaplin’s The Circus in 1928. By this time, The Jazz Singer had been released and Hollywood was caught in the scramble to convert to sound. But Chaplin wasn’t so sure. He had long been ambivalent about the idea of sound film, saying in 1921: “I would as soon rouge marble cheeks. Pictures are pantomimic art. We might as well have the stage. There would be nothing left to the imagination.” That’s a beautiful and very bold statement, not least because it implies that cinema is superior to the stage, but also because it compares silent cinema to classical art, to marble statuary. At the beginning of City Lights, you’ll see Chaplin making a joke that recalls this statement, making a mockery of a marble statue. Of course, Chaplin made City Lights as a silent film anyway, and in the year that it was finally released, 1931, he was still unenthusiastic about the appeal of talking pictures, even if necessarily by then he was as defensive as he was defiant, saying: “I’ll give the talkies three years, that’s all.”

City Lights was to be one of the most troubled productions in film history, beset not just by Chaplin’s own demanding, often tyrannical, perfectionism, but by sad circumstances beyond his control. Even before shooting began, in the midst of pre-production, Chaplin’s mother Hannah died in August 1928, and understandably he took weeks to recover from the grief. The sets were being built at this stage, creating a mythical mishmash of a city that combined elements of such diverse urban landscapes as Paris, Los Angeles, London, Naples, Tangier and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Chaplin was sure of the themes and narrative of his new film, which would concern The Tramp, a millionaire and a blind flower girl, but kept on writing and refining his ideas for incidents and minor characters until shooting began on 31 December that year.

Shooting of City Lights would continue until the summer of 1930, more than eighteen months later. You might not think it from the grace and good humour of the finished film, but the shoot was a nightmare, characterised by false starts and reshoots and even recasting. Chaplin worked six or seven days a week for almost three years, and was constantly exhausted – yet despite that stress, this film contains some of his most delicate and joyful comedy.

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931)

Chaplin had hired a woman with no acting experience, Virginia Cherrill, as his leading lady, the blind flower girl. It sounds quite bizarre now, but he chose her because he thought she played blind more attractively than the other actresses who auditioned – they rolled they eyes too far back in their heads it seems. He had initially thought that the lack of acting experience would be good thing, but it wasn’t long before he began to have his doubts. There was no affection between the two and Chaplin notoriously spent days forcing Cherrill to repeat a simple movement, holding out her hand and saying “Flower, sir?” to his satisfaction. The tension and repetition must have been infuriating for everyone on set. They began at the end of January, but two weeks went by, then another, then Chaplin fell ill. On 1 April they started again for another 10 days, without success. Chaplin moved on to other, more elaborate scenes, such as the opening sequence involving the statue and hundred of extras. By comparison, it seemed easier. Continue reading City Lights (1931): the course of true love never did run smooth

It’s Lois Weber month: Hereford, Hippfest & Hexham

Friday is International Women’s Day and all through March it is Women’s History Month. It also appears to be Lois Weber month, too.

Not that we need any excuse to celebrate a great silent film director, but it just so happens that this March I am hitting the road around the UK to talk about Lois Weber, and I don’t want you to miss out on seeing her wonderful films.

On Friday 8 March I will be in Hereford at Borderlines Film Festival with South West Silents, Tara Judah and Lillian Henley, for an evening devoted to Weber. There will be introductions, screenings of Suspense and The Blot accompanied by Henley and a Q&A afterwards. You can book tickets here.

On Friday 22 March I will be in Bo’Ness at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival with South West Silents again. I’ll be introducing a screening of The Blot with live accompaniment by Lillian Henley once more, in the afternoon. Pick up your tickets here.

And on Sunday 24 March I will be in Hexham at the Forum Cinema as part of the Tyne Valley Film Festival. I will be giving a short lecture on female filmmakers in the silent era before a screening of Shoes. Book your tickets here.

See you there!

 

Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime

Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was released 90 years ago this June. This is a version of a piece I wrote for the Loud Silents estival screening of the film in 2015. The 2019 Loud Silents festival takes place 12-14 April in Tampere, Finland.

In Blackmail (1929), Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film, guilt spreads like a virus across London, from criminal to accomplice, and as it travels, it subsumes the city itself. By the end of this film, even London’s most respectable neighbourhoods will have been transformed by a rippling crimewave. And Hitchcock’s use of key locations in the city maps this disruption, illustrating the terrible consequences of his heroine’s fatal mistake.

Hitchcock mural
A mural commemorating Hitchcock on a row of houses near his birthplace – his former home has been demolished and there is a petrol station in its place

Hitchcock was certainly a law-fearing Londoner. He grew up in a flat over a greengrocer’s shop in the eastern suburb of Leytonstone, but by the time he made Blackmail, he had lived, worked and studied all over the city. We know that he was a keen film and theatregoer in his youth, fascinated by lurid crime stories. We also know that he grew up in awe of the police, a terror exacerbated if not born when his father punished him by having him locked in a cell at the local station – he was just five years old. Many of his best films, from The Lodger (1927) to Frenzy (1972), via Sabotage (1936) portray the city of his birth as a dangerous place, stalked by terrorists and serial killers who make the streets unsafe.

Blackmail (1929)
The right side of the law. Image credit: The Hitchcock Zone/Canal Plus UK (2019)

Blackmail takes in some of London’s most famous landmarks, from Scotland Yard to the Palace of Westminster to the British Museum, and the first twenty minutes of the film travel full-tilt across the city, from west to east and back again, in the company of a sharp-jawed detective called Frank (John Longden). We begin the movie on the right side of the law, and with the criminals in their expected place. So naturally, we begin at Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, slap-bang in the heart of the Establishment.

 

Blackmail (1929)
The wrong side of the tracks. Image credit: The Hitchcock Zone/Canal Plus UK (2019)

The camera travels with the flying squad on their way to arrest a wrong ’un. We are not privy to the exact address, but the arches and tenements at their destination suggest the inner East End, and the criminal they arrest is straight out of a rogue’s gallery. As soon as the coppers arrive, he reaches for the gun on his bedside table. Continue reading Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime

Silent reading: book reviews roundup

Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.

Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.

Assunta Spina (1915)
Assunta Spina (1915)

Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934

Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)

A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.

This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.

Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.

STAHL_06_HUSBANDS
John M Stahl (centre), directing Husbands and Lovers (1924)

The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama

Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)

You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by  Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.

This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.

Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown,  but this book should encourage more screenings.

Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.

The Exploits of Elaine
The Exploits of Elaine

Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection

By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)

The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.

And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?

Continue reading Silent reading: book reviews roundup

Mabel Normand: ‘a kiss that explodes in a laugh’

This article was originally published on the Drugstore Culture site on 23 November 2018. As that site is currently shuttered, I am reposting it here.

The career of Mabel Normand represents one of the biggest gaps in popular film history. Why isn’t this uproariously funny comic, who starred in more than 167 shorts and 23 features, remembered as one of the greats of silent comedy? Instead, there is a long-established male hierarchy in slapstick: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the top, vying for the number one slot, with Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd snapping at their heels. Then there’s Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Raymond Griffith and many more, cramming in to the picture like a cohort of bungling Keystone Cops. For years the top ranks have been pictured this way, as a boys-only club, with room only for comedians, not comediennes. In his 1975 slapstick bible The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr even declared: ‘No comedienne ever became a truly important silent film clown.’ The reason being, he argued, the beauty standards required of women in the film industry. ‘Comediennes, from Mabel Normand all the way to Marion Davies, laboured under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty… The girl was expected to function as a girl, no matter what incidental nonsense she might be capable of; grotesques need not apply, except for supporting roles.’

It’s a misperception that is finally shifting. A hundred years after the fact, it seems we are finally appreciating the contribution of women to the art of silent comedy, including many more great comediennes besides Normand and Davies. Recent books such as Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas (2017) and Maggie Hennefeld’s Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (2018) are changing our idea of the comedy canon, and in the UK, screenings as part of the nationwide BFI Comedy Genius season and at the annual Slapstick Festival in Bristol should help to get the word out further. For the record, Marion Davies was deathlessly hilarious, squeezing acclaimed comic set pieces into the action of hit comedies including Show People (1928) and The Patsy (1964), and I would add to that list Marie Dressler, Beatrice Lillie, Colleen Moore, Alice Howell, Laura La Plante, Zasu Pitts and Mary Pickford, just for starters. If we go back further in time, a phalanx of rambunctious women were making boisterous comedies in the pre-Hollywood years: Cunégonde and Rosalie in France, Florence Turner, Laura Bayley and the ‘Tilly Girls’ in Britain. If you’ve been led to believe that women took only dramatic roles in silent cinema, take a second look at these comics, who were as comfortable falling, fighting and making a mess as any of their male counterparts.

Continue reading Mabel Normand: ‘a kiss that explodes in a laugh’

A daytrip to Deal: visiting Kent Momi

London is great, but sometimes it does a soul good to get away from the big smoke to breathe some sea air. Less than 90 minutes away from the capital by train is Deal, a very elegant seaside resort in Kent. Attractions include a smart pier, a pebbly beach, the intriguing Time-Ball Tower, fish’n’chips and all the ozone you can fill your lungs with.

There’s a new reason to visit Deal though, for those film-historically inclined. A small but very welcoming museum called Kent Momi, or the Kent Museum of the Moving Image, if you haven’t been introduced yet.

Kenmomi1.jpg

A pebble-dashed house, just a couple of minutes stroll from the train station and the seafront, is now home to something between a collection and an exhibition of cinema artefacts. In fact it is full to bursting with cameras, pre-cinema devices, posters, pressbooks, and other memorabilia. Even a reconstruction of Googie Withers’ dressing table. And crucially, this film museum goes back further than most – to magic lanterns, dioramas and all the predecessors of the cinema as we know it.

Continue reading A daytrip to Deal: visiting Kent Momi

A place for people who love silent film