What’s better than a film set on a train? A silent film set on a train. You know it’s true, and so do the wonderful people at the Kennington Bioscope, who have compiled a day of railway-themed silent films with live music for next month.
Taking place at the glorious Cinema Museum on 7 July 2018, this event should prove the perfect pick-me-up for those who missed out on Il Cinema Ritrovato, or who went, but already miss spending all day watching old films with fabulous people.
It’s bound to get pretty steamy, too …
Here are the details from the Bioscopers themselves:
An all-day excursion into the greatest railroading moments of silent cinema. Thrill to the train of events that put movie heroines Ruth Roland, Helen Holmes and Gloria Swanson in peril! Express hilarity with Monty Banks aboard a runaway train, and sneak ‘A Kiss in the Tunnel’ from 1899! Signal your approval of Jean Arthur in ‘The Block Signal’ (1926).
Climb aboard ‘The Flying Scotsman’ (1929), in the rare silent version that differs radically from the talkie. Take a round trip with Kevin Brownlow as he pilots ‘The Runaway Express’ (1926) before conducting us through the making of Abel Gance’s ‘La Roue’ (1923). Ride along with the ‘Railroad Raiders of ’62’ (1911) – a precursor to Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ – which will be rolling in from the sidings alongside other shorts, from the Lumière brothers’ famous ‘L’arrivée d’un train en gare’ de ‘La Ciotat’ (1896) to a hair-raising journey ‘When the Devil Drives’ (1907). After that, don’t be afraid of ‘The Ghost Train‘ (1927), the first film adaptation of the famous stage play by a (very) pre-Dad’s Army Arnold Ridley. The booking office is opening NOW so couple up to a season ticket for the whole day!
Kevin Brownlow on Abel Gance! Rare silents! Live music!
The Silent Railway Day takes place at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH, from 10am (doors 9.30am) to 10pm on 7 July 2018. Full-day tickets cost £18, or £10 for a half-day ticket, or £5 for the last show only. Book tickets here. Or find out more at kenningtonbioscope.com where you can read all about the regular silent screenings, at which you can see all manner of beautiful and rare silents with live music on a Wednesday night.
You haven’t been to the Kennington Bioscope yet? Hush your mouth. It’s a really vibrant element of the rich silent film culture in this fantastic city, and should be a regular fixture in your diary. As I reported on this site back in 2015:
Since 2013, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out …Long may it run, and run – the Kennington Bioscope is a cherished addition to London’s silent film scene.
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Welcome to the long-awaited return of the Silent London Podcast – coming to you straight from Paris. I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema and I will be podcasting my reports from the screenings. Today, my first two days at the festival including lots of of Hollywood fare: the good, the bad and the baffling. This podcast tackles a lot of films about war and racism: films by D W Griffith, Abel Gance, Thomas Ince …. But there is plenty of star power too, from Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish.
I hope you enjoy this first podcast from the festival!
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.
Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.
The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.
There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.
Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.
So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
Hold on to your three-cornered hats. This may well be the news you have been waiting for since … ooh 1980 or thereabouts. BFI and the Photoplay have announced jointly that Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece, is coming to a screen near you – whether that is a concert hall, cinema, TV or computer. We all have three-screen TVs right?
So you can see Napoléon (1927) with the Philharmonia orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this autumn – and many of us know what a treat that can be – but it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray, to stream on the BFIplayer and theatrically released in cinemas too. And make no mistake, this is the Kevin Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis’s epic score – the definitive five-and-a-half hour version of Napoléon that you really need in your life.
And while the live and cinema screenings will be magical experiences, I am getting a little thrill from the idea of being able to rewind sequences from the film and look at them again, and more closely. The snowball fight, for example! As that occurs at the the beginning of the movie, it could take me some time to get right to the end …
I won’t say too much more now, as we will no doubt be talking about Napoléon all year, which I am hugely looking forward to. But I do want to share some details about the restoration, and the people who made it possible. For example, we have been told that the digital process of restoration has cleaned up some damage in the 35mm print and allowed for greater capacity to recapture the tinting and toning of the original film.
This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.
The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only 4 times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.
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… …
I’m proud to be bringing people back to the cinema, in an age when people will happily watch Lawrence of Arabia on their mobile phones. Napoleon is pure cinema, and cinema was designed for sharing. There’s something about the way it was shot that makes it like no other. I can’t tell you how many people, having seen our restoration, have said: “That was the greatest experience I have ever had in a motion picture theatre.” Kevin Brownlow, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
My eyes and ears are still adjusting back to normality. Yesterday’s screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon at the Royal Festival bombarded the senses and befuddled the brain. It was not, as you may have been warned, a marathon. The five-hours-forty-minutes running time appears to go by in a flash, powered along by Carl Davis’s invigorating orchestral score. I would happily watch it all again tomorrow and the next day, and for as many times as it took to get to the bottom of its many mysteries.
Right then, six hours of Abel Gance's Napoleon with live orchestra, Here I Come.
Because despite the pleasures it offers, this is not an easily digestible film. Napoléon’s open-ended structure, which closes just as Bonaparte’s career takes flight, doesn’t help. It’s also a film of unexpected variety, and yes, unevenness, if only because its very best sequences are impossible to match. Immense but not immaculate, Napoléon is at times a masterpiece and at others a sketchbook of enthralling, intricate designs. The magic is that Gance’s ambition is every bit as exciting as his achievements. After just one, eagerly anticipated screening, I may be addicted.
I’m not going to attempt to write a review proper this morning, but I did want to give a flavour of the film, the event and the audience’s reaction to it.
Napoléon is a biopic that pairs the grandeur of its subject’s work and vision with its own cinematic innovations. You will have read about the triptychs that close the movie (more of which later) but perhaps you’ve also heard about the flash cuts, superimpositions, multiple exposures and the cameras thrown, whirled, mounted on horseback. The first act of the film, in this restoration by Kevin Brownlow, contains much of its experimentation and bravado. It follows Napoléon as an unhappy alienated schoolboy, and his disastrous return as a young man to his native Corsica. The snowball fight that opens the film, in which Bonaparte and nine chums strategise their way to a crucial victory over 40 of their peers, led by a particularly unscrupulous pair of urchin villains, is a beauty – staged as if were the culmination of a bloody war. Likewise the frenzy of a pillow fight in the dorm. Vladimir Roudenko as the young Bonaparte is marvellous too – showing far more pluck and passion than Albert Dieudonné in the adult role. There is pathos and humour here, as throughout the film, but Napoléon excels at bombast, exemplified by the sequence that closes the act: Bonaparte, lost at sea in a boat with a Tricolour sail, thrillingly cross-cut with uprisings at the Paris Convention.
So far, so much like what I expected from Napoléon, although more exhilarating that I hoped it could be. What I wasn’t prepared for was a sudden shift in tone, as the second act lingered on the battlefield – crowded, red-tinted frames of bloody combat. Memorable details: a drowning man’s hand thrashing the in the mud, a cannon-cart rolling over a fallen soldier’s ankle. This typifies the movie’s take on history: grim faces, skewiff hairdos, grit and squalor. The film punctuates Bonaparte’s moody middle-distance staring and eloquent intertitle speeches with a mode one might call grotesque realism – whether it’s the exposed flesh of dancers at a ball, the tattered foot bindings of the Italian army or Napoleon’s cardboard boots disintegrating in the gutter, this is visceral stuff. And a note on realism: Napoléon footnotes all bona fide incidents and quotations with a “(Historical)” label on the relevant title. Not quite as clunky as it sounds, several “based on a true story” films would benefit from a similar device. Who knew that a clerk ate Josephine’s accusatory dossier to save her from the guillotine? Or that Nelson wanted to sink Napoléon’s “suspicious” boat on his return from Corsica, decades before Trafalgar?
After the long dinner interval, and much inevitable analysis and debate, the third act proved the most controversial. While the sequences exploring the Reign of Terror, from the ructions in the Convention, to brutality of the authorities (including Gance himself as a rather glamorous Saint-Just) were universally admired, many audience members I spoke to were of the “Not tonight, Josephine” persuasion. The courtship between Bonaparte and Josephine is strange, truncated and slightly unsettling. An impressionistic montage of their previous meetings suggest Napoléon’s passion for his lady, but a queasy sequence in which he embraces a globe superimposed with her face shows that his motivations may not be entirely romantic, with Josephine just another territory to be conquered as he builds his empire. The shadow of this bizarre love story is Violine, the young girl infatuated with Napoléon, who insinuates her way into Josephine’s household, imitates her dress and keeps a shrine to the General above her bed. Hardly edifying, but I found these glimpses of the warrior’s homelife fascinating, and enjoyed the tension between these awkward scenes and the single-mindedness of his military strategies.
The morning after #Napoleon. Really, everything pales after seeing Brits weep openly during the finale last night.
Seven hours after first taking our seats, we assembled for the finale. I freely admit that my lower lip had already wobbled as the titles rolled at the start of the film (“This is it! I’m watching Napoléon!”) but according to my sources, Napoléon was at its most most Napoléon in its last 20 minutes. Not long to wait. In fact, the final hour breezes by, as Napoléon sets out to conquer Italy (writing passionate love letters to the missus in his carriage even while he dispatches orders to his riders). The troops are dilapidated, and morale is as low as funds, but the mountain landscapes are incredible. So, as Napoléon rallies his men with more fine words, it’s just a matter of time before the screen grows, the orchestra soars and Gance’s Polyvision finale kicks in. The panorama shots, after five and a half hours of Academy Ratio, are enough to send anyone into a spin, but when Gance designs each frame individually, multiplying his montage techniques, using colour and superimposition and animation, the the effect is truly astonishing. And at the centre of it all, Dieudonné’s graven face, beneath that famous hat, surveying his own triumph. It’s a monument to patriotism of course, but in the RFH last night, our awe at the work of Gance, of Brownlow and of Davis, rekindled our devotion not to a country but to the cinematic arts. A magnificent monstrosity, Napoléon offers refined beauty, raw thrills and a thousand and one reasons to adore the cinema.
“There’s nothing that matches the experience of going along to see it. It’s incredible. Word has gotten round: this is fun, this is extraordinary.” Carl Davis, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
Everyone’s favourite Oscar-winning silent film historian, the erudite and tireless Kevin Brownlow, is bringing his mega-restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon back to London later this year. You already have your tickets, right? Ahead of that screening there is a timely chance to see one of his finest silent film TV documentaries at BFI Southbank this July – introduced by the man himself.
All silent film fans are familiar with Brownlow and David Gill’s landmark 1980s series Hollywood, crammed with legendary interviews with silent film stars and film-makers from the US. The documentary showing at the former NFT is from the followup 1995 series focusing on the other side of the Atlantic: Cinema Europe. This episode, The Music of Light, is all about French Cinema – and in particular the genius and ambition of Napoléon director Abel Gance.
The screening is paired with Barrie Gavin’s 1967 TV documentary The Movies: The World of Josef von Sternberg, which also features a contribution from Brownlow.
Controversially, I have been known to say that London is the centre of the silent film universe. You may think I’m biased – and you would be right. But this November, I will be feeling pretty smug. The most audacious of all silents, Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s epic Napoléon, will screen at the Royal Festival Hall in London – accompanied by the Philharmonia orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis as they play his masterful score.
It couldn’t be more convenient for me. I’ll hop on the tube for 25 minutes, grab a coffee and spend all day absorbed in a cinematic masterpiece. But I’ve already heard whispers from fellow silent film fans in the States, in Canada, in continental Europe and yes, even places-in-Britain-that-are-not-London, that they may want to sample the Napoléonexperience too. It’s a dream come true – a world of silent cinema aficionados in this fair city, under one roof.
This video, advertising last year’s California screenings of Napoléon, should help you to understand why it’s worth the airfare.
You’re tempted, aren’t you? Therefore, in the spirit of welcome, for those of you who haven’t been to the Big Smoke before, or at least not since Napoléon last played here in 2004, here’s my 10-point guide to making the most of your trip, Silent London-style.
If you are travelling from the continent, bear in mind that it’s no longer the place where the Eurostar arrives though – that’s Kings Cross St Pancras (take the Victoria line southbound and change on to the Bakerloo line at Oxford Circus).
The Southbank is really quite a groovy part of London, so if you’re around for a few more days, you may want to explore further – stroll along the front, and visit the amazing Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre or the Hayward Gallery. There’s lots of sleek but brutal concrete, gangs of youthful tousle-haired skateboarders and pop-up artisanal food markets to admire also. And those daft living-statue things. They give me the creeps.
Of course, the BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre, is another neighbour. Pop in here to watch a film, visit the library, browse the museum displays, shop in the filmstore (DVDs, books, magazines, T-shirts) or just lounge in one of the trendy cafés with a cappuccino. If you’re wearing the film-buff uniform of black polo neck and chunky glasses while carrying a copy of Film as Art, you’ll fit right in.
The best thing about the Southbank for many film fans is that it’s a stone’s throw from where a little-known film-maker called Charlie Chaplin grew up. Feel the vibe, take a detour into Lambeth, commune with his spirit, and if you are feeling flush, take a trip to the London Film Museum further down the river where you can browse their permanent exhibition on the Great Londoner.
Happily, seats for Napoléon start at a very affordable £11, but they do go up to £60 for a “premium experience”, which may tempt you to push the boat out. Tickets are available here, and you’ll be able to pick and choose where you want to sit. For more information, especially if you have not been to the RFH before, try the very useful website TheatreMonkey, which will explain where the best (and worst) bargains are to be had.
You’ll probably need somewhere to stay: Napoléon begins at 1.30pm and doesn’t finish until 9.30pm, which means you can probably get a late train home, but you’ll more than likely be a bit dazed and in need of a liedown. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, which means that hotels are not cheap, I’m afraid. So, if your budget doesn’t stretch to the Ritz or the Savoy, check out one of the economical chains such as Travelodge, Premier Inn or Holiday Inn; book in advance and look for a location that is handy for public transport rather than dead central. If you’re watching the pennies, commuting in as a tourist from Zone 3 or 4 of the tube network really doesn’t take very long and needn’t be stressful in off-peak hours. Cast your eyes eastwards, where hotels that sprang up in time for the London 2012 Olympics may be looking to fill up their empty rooms. Alternatively try the YHA, or Couchsurfing. You know about lastminute.com too, right?
You’ll want to eat before Napoléon, during Napoléon, or after Napoléon. Possibly all three. There is a 100-minute interval for a reason and a person can’t live on coffee and cinematography alone. Not a problem though. There are cafés and bars in the Southbank Centre, and quite-posh restaurant called Canteen too (book ahead). There’s also a pizza place opposite and all kinds of food from sandwiches to noodles to burgers available nearby on the Southbank. The RFH itself is licensed too, if you want to accompany your viewing of a French cinema classic with un petit vin rouge.
Some of the nearby bars will open late, if you want to party like it’s 1927 after the movie, and the tubes run until around 1am, with nightbuses and black cabs to scoop up the wilder ones among you.
We’ve all read Oliver Twist and learned that London is crammed with grubby-faced urchins with their eyes on your pocket watch. Sort of. Pickpocketing and other crime does happen, but not really as often as you may think. Keep hold of your valuables in crowds, think twice before walking home somewhere quiet late at night, and don’t jump into an unlicensed minicab. Just like you’d do at home.
English innit. Just like what the Queen talks. But if you want to mingle with ease among the British silent film crew, just drop in a few references to “Porders”, the carrier-bag rustlers in NFT2, your intimate friendship with Kevin Brownlow, the LFF archive gala, that time you got lost on the way to the Cinema Museum/inside the Barbican, the latest issue of Sight & Sound, where you think next year’s BSFF should be held and, of course, your devotion to a certain marvellous silent cinema website, whose name briefly escapes me.
Seriously, this should be a very social occasion, and hopefully between this site, the Bristol Silents site, Nitrateville and the wider world of Twitter and Facebook, we should be able to make quite a party of it and meet lots of new and old faces. Don’t be a stranger.
Obviously, this is another popular topic of conversation. If you’ve not been to the UK before, you need to know that London in November will be cold. Not properly cold, not Norway cold, but definitely nippy. Bring your coat and your umbrella too, because the English skies love to rain. Unfortunately, however, you have been lied to by the movies and there is very little chance of you being caught in a “right old pea-souper”. That’s a good thing, really, as the views down the Thames from the Southbank are gorgeous.
7. Being a tourist
Apparently there is more to do in London than just watching old movies. News to me. If you’re staying for a few days, and you have exhausted all the possibilities here, then you’ll want to look further afield for entertainment. An official tourism website such as this one should keep you busy with palaces, museums, West End shows, abbeys and graveyards, but for something a little more quirky, cultural or off the beaten track, try the dispatches from Londonist or the listings from Time Out. The Vintage Guide to London may well be your cup of char too.
And to get you in the mood for the big show in November, anyone based closer to London should book now for Modern Times in March and The Thief of Bagdad in June – both Photoplay presentations with Carl Davis and the Philharmonia, just like Napoléon, and showing at RFH too.
Your loved ones will no doubt be delighted that you went all the way to London just before Christmas and brought back lots of Region 2 DVDs from the BFI shop for their stockings. I can just imagine their happy faces now. On the off-chance that that isn’t true, London has lots more to offer shops-wise. Covent Garden, Camden Market, Marylebone High Street and the gift shop at any of the big museums should sort you out and keep your rellies happy. The London Transport Museum gift shop in Covent Garden is particularly good for retro souvenirs of Laaaahndan Town. Alternatively, you can buy some Edinburgh shortbread at the airport. No one will know the difference.
This weekend, something momentous is happing in California. Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth restoration of Abel Gance’s legendary epic film Napoléon is screening at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra playing the US premiere of Carl Davis’s wonderful score. Wow. That’s five-and-a-half hours of majestic, groundbreaking silent cinema with fantastic live music, and it’s not an opportunity that comes along very often. If you want to be there, you need to know that there will be two screenings this weekend, and two the next: tickets are available here, starting from around $50 and going up to $550 for a premium seat including a gourmet dinner and reception with Brownlow and Davis.
Unfortunately, it’s not a cheap proposition for us Silent Londoners if you throw in the cost of flights, hotels and taking leave from work. While a few friends of the blog are making the trip west for Napoléon, most of us will be sitting at home, trying not to let the jealousy get the better of us.
But there’s no need to succumb to the green-eyed monster. Napoléon last played in London in 2004 and although Brownlow is adding new footage all the time (the original film ran at around nine hours) so the California screenings will technically be an advance on those shows, it’s only a matter of time before Gance’s masterpiece makes its way back to us. What I’m hearing, from reputable sources, is November 2013, at the Royal Festival Hall.
However, if that still seems like a long way away, and you’re suffering from FOMO (otherwise known as the Fear Of Missing Out), here is a five-point guide to help you pass the time, and overcome the Napoléon blues.
The story of how Abel Gance struggled to make his masterpiece, how it was shredded and how Kevin Brownlow pieced Napoléon back together starting with the 9.5mm snippets he bought as a schoolboy is worthy of a film adaptation itself. You can read all about it in Brownlow’s book, which is available to buy here with a sampler CD of Davis’s score. Napoléon has been all over the American media recently too, in the runup to the Oakland shows, so there’s plenty more to devour. You can read Martin Scorsese in Vanity Fair, or this neat MUBI post, which tells the story of the film via its many posters. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both printed heavyweight features about the film, Gance and Brownlow’s restoration. If your French is up to the task, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival blog has posted some original articles from the French press about the making of the movie. I also enjoyed this Smithsonian blog that pushes The Artist to one side to say that this restoration is the silent film event of the year. And who can argue with that?
3 See the bigger picture
Of Gance’s many extraordinary technical and artisitic innovations in Napoléon, the most famous must surely be the film’s climactic triptychs: a way of creating an early form of widescreen that required three cameras on set and three projectors in the cinema. This Polyvision effect is also one of the reasons why the film is so rarely shown. Intrigued? On 29 April, more or less fresh from the Oakland screenings, Kevin Brownlow is speaking at the Widescreen Weekend festival in Bradford, and it’s a fair bet that he will mention Napoléon. The subject of his lecture is: ‘From Biograph to Fox Grandeur. Early Experiments in Large Format Presentations’. It strikes me that if you want to learn more about Polyvision from the man who knows more than most, that’s the place to be. If you’re lucky, he may even screen a clip or two.
4 Gen up on Gance
Of course, Napoléon wasn’t Gance’s only film. It wasn’t even his only great film. If you have the technology to play Region 1 discs, Gance’s anti-war film J’Accuse (1919) and his impressionistic railway melodrama La Roue (1923) are both available on very nice DVDs, courtesy of Flicker Alley. At around four-and-a-half hours long each, they are ambitious by any standard, although they can only hint at the scope of Napoléon, and they’re well worth devoting a clear afternoon and a coffee pot to. If you’re shopping around for import DVDs, you may well find the four-hour cut of Napoléon, with Carmine Coppola’s score. It’s not quite the real deal, of course, but still fascinating.
5 Clear out your attics
Brownlow’s restoration of Napoléon is magnificent, but it’s still not complete. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was more waiting to be discovered? And unearthing the final reels of a film this important is surely every silent cinema geek’s number one fantasy. Apart from the ones that involve a close encounter with Buster Keaton/Louise Brooks (delete as applicable), that is.