Saddle up for Silent Western Saturday at Kennington Bioscope

This just in on the pony express. The dudes at the Kennington Bioscope are celebrating the Silent Western with an all-day event of screenings on Saturday 11 March 2017 – hosted by Silent London’s hero of 2016, Kevin Brownlow. Now then, didn’t we tell you this was going to be a good year?

Here’s the message from the Lambeth ranchers in full.

‘Hitch up your wagon, fasten on your gun belt, saddle your horse and prepare to ride the range with the Kennington Bioscope as we explore the silent Western in the company of such Western heroes as Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, Tom Mix and – not forgetting our pistol packin’ frontier gals – Texas ‘Queen of the West’ Guinan.

Highlights will include Fred Thomson in THUNDERING HOOFS (1924) and Hart’s THE NARROW TRAIL (1917) – and will you dare ride THE DEVIL HORSE (1926)? – with the main evening event being a screening of Henry King’s classic rip roaring contemporary Western THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926), with the popular romantic pairing of Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky, together with Gary Cooper in his first major screen role.’

Don’t know who Texas Guinan was? Allow Vogue to educate you Allow Vogue to educate you on the subject of the star it is calling “the original nasty woman”.

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1917 on film: a world at war and a country feeling the pinch

Hey silent cinephiles. This is a quick note to tell you about the treasures to be found in the BFI Player’s freshly launched collection 1917 on Film. The footage collected here paints a striking portrait of a world at war and a nation doing its best to stay strong, conserve resources, fight its foes and keep the country on track. From celebrity philanthropy to citizen volunteers helping to work the land and feed the country; reports from the grim events in continental Europe to morale boosting cartoons and celebrations. I’d love to talk you through the lot, but I lost a few crucial hours watching the films myself. So why not explore for yourself?

Seriously, this is great stuff, and I have had the teeniest, tiniest involvement in putting it together so I felt a burst of pride to see it online and ready to stream. Silent London is a big fan of the BFI Player – a truly fantastic historical resource and the most diverting use of a rainy day lunchbreak I can imagine. So dive in to 1917 – and watch out for future additions to the site. Don’t tell anyone, but there are good things ahead .

katecarney

That said, please don’t miss my favourite … ‘Coster Comedienne’ Kate Carney stepping out of the music hall and on to the streets of London to deliver fresh veg and fruity jokes.

Silent London Poll of 2016 – the winners!

Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…

Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016

If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.

Napoléon (1927)
Napoléon (1927)

Best silent film theatrical release of 2016

Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

Best modern silent of 2016

Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.

Continue reading Silent London Poll of 2016 – the winners!

The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release

Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.

The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.

I can't lie – this is some pretty exciting post! #silentfilm #classicfilm #africanamericancinema

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For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.

This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.

Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”

Continue reading The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release

LSFF: Silent cinema and deaf culture event at the ICA in January 2017

Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year? I am a big fan of them – I made one last year, and although it wasn’t easy I definitely followed through on it (BTW did I mention that I am freelance now? Commission me!). The best are those that combine self-improvement with a little pleasure and entertainment (in fond remembrance of the Great Theatre Binge of Early 2012). Here’s one for you – how about you go to see more silent movies in 2017?

Reckon you already clock up quite a few silent screenings? Hmmm. How about something a little different?

For example, there’s a silent film screening with a twist at the ICA in January. You should come along! The event is part of the London Short Film Festival and takes place on 10 January. The screening takes its title from a Victor Hugo quote, “What matters deafness of the ear when the mind hears?”, and will explore the relationship between silent cinema and hearing impairment. To that end, all the films screened will play without musical accompaniment, and the programme is “designed to be accessible to people with hearing impairments as well as hearing audiences, creating a shared and uniquely immersive experience of silent film”.

Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad's Dial (1914)
Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914)

Continue reading LSFF: Silent cinema and deaf culture event at the ICA in January 2017

Slapstick 2017: Ben Model on being a silent comedy detective

Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs. 

The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved  comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.

Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …

Ben Model
Ben Model
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?

Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.

Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?

It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.

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The Silent London Poll of 2016: time to vote!

December is here, so it’s time to look back at the year. 2016 may not have been the happiest of times for many of us, but at least some of the movies were good. We’d love it if you would take a few minutes to share your silent cinema highlights of the year with the readers of Silent London.

rr_03b_kean
Kean ou Désordre et génie (1924)

Don’t know where to begin? How about … a change of direction at Pordenone, a new orchestral score from Neil Brand, the cinema of the Great War on show at BFI Southbank, and around the world, with some sharp new music, the ascent of Napoléon, The Informer in London, a celebration of black talent in silent cinema, great repertory programming, festivals all over the world, the decline of dialogue, and the rise of silence, and everything else I missed that was rocking your silent world.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

This year, in addition to the usual questions about live shows and DVDs, I am also asking you to nominate your silent film book of the year. What’s the standout on your shelf? And as is now traditional, I want to know your silent hero of the year also.

Follow this link to fill in the survey – or scroll down and get started straight away.

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2016: time to vote!

Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

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

Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.

Continue reading Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

Ali Smith on Louise Brooks: ‘the revelation of movement’

I can’t believe I have been keeping this one to myself. As part of the process of writing a book on Pandora’s Box, I took a chance and wrote to a woman who I admire hugely, and who I know is a serious Louise Brooks aficionado. The novelist Ali Smith kindly agreed to answer a few hastily gathered questions on Brooks. Her answers were so eloquent, and inspirational, that I wanted to share them in full with you here …

Ali Smith
Ali Smith

It’s very common, since the 1960s, to talk about films belonging to directors. One hardly ever hears those auteurist labels on Brooks’s European films. I wondered if you felt these films mean something different when labelled as the work of their star rather than their director?

I kind of don’t care, and have never been much interested in labels. They’re always simplifications. But labels definitely preserve things over time, so thank god for that, and for the little flags they erect on the surface of knowledge so that people can see where to go to dig down deeper. I do despair, though, of the way our individual and common knowledge, both, get so lost so fast. Brooks, lost after the silent masterpiece years, till she died, was reclaimed in the 70s and 80s. I saw Pandora’s Box on TV in, I think, 1981. My mother, who wasn’t one for idle speculation or idle interests in things on TV, or idle anything, and who always went off to bed early, stayed up till 1am watching the film with me, till she couldn’t stay up any later, and in the morning the first thing she asked me was what happened at the end of that film?

Thirty years later, we have to do it all again – I heard your piece on Woman’s Hour, and sensed Jenni Murray’s astonishment at encountering Brooks for the first time. I was amazed – how could people not know Brooks? How could such a central cultural commentator not have her in her bones? (Unless she was simply being a kind introducer of Brooks to a listening audience who might bot know her.)* Where does that knowledge go? Here you are, doing that vital task.

louise-brooks-pandoras-box

Continue reading Ali Smith on Louise Brooks: ‘the revelation of movement’

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