Happy London Film Festival programme launch day! The festival runs 10-21 October this year and there are oodles of films showing, from the competition titles and the galas to the weird and wonderful pieces in the experimental and short categories. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s cut to the chase. We have no time here for talkies. What does the 62nd London Film Festival have to offer in the way of silent cinema? Plenty. More than usual, I’d say. Some we knew about, some we didn’t.
The really good news – none of these silent screenings need clash with Pordenone. That is to say, there are duplicate screenings to avoid that.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show
Nineteenth-century films, shot on 68mm film, beautifully restored, introduced by Bryony Dixon and accompanied by John Sweeney and his Biograph Band. Oh, and they are screening at the actual, flipping IMAX. This is going to be massive. If your mouth isn’t already watering, I don’t know what to do with you. This year’s Archive Gala should be a silent cinema experience like no other. Book now.
Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”
The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.
The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou
Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.
The maggots in Battleship Potemkin
Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.
Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery
George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Nina Giacomo from Brazil, who blogs at Primeiro Cinema. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
The great majority of the films made between the origins of cinema and the 1910s had colour in some way. People often don’t know that because a lot of films from the 1920s were actually released in black and white and so the evolutionary view of film history makes us think that silent cinema was deprived of colour. But, since the beginnings of cinema, a lot of research was done into colour film and two tendencies were explored: the colourisation after the film had been shot and the capture of “natural colours” while shooting.
This is not a “top 10” list … It is a selection of 10 films that show a variety of ways of giving colour to the moving image. It is my list of 10 must-watch silent colour films!
Annabelle Serpentine Dance (Edison, 1895)
The first of many films dedicated to the “serpentine dance” created by the american dancer Loïe Fuller in 1889. The hand colourisation, frame by frame, represents Fuller’s spectacular stage effects, which combined the constant flow of the dress’s movement with the projection of electrical lights.
Pierrette’s Escapades (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1900)
A vibrant example of hand-colouring made by Gaumont.
Untitled experiments (Edward Turner, 1901/02)
Theses pictures, recently discovered, are actually a series of tests for a new invention. They show how early the attempts to reproduce “natural colours” began.
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
The colour version of this film was unknown until 1993, when it was found in Barcelona in a terrible condition. Not until 2010 could the restoration could be released and it transformed the image we have of this most iconic of all silent films.
The Lonedale Operator (DW Griffith, 1911)
Here we have an interesting use of colour in silent cinema. The young lady can only trick the bandits (making them believe that she has a gun, when actually it is a wrench) because the scene takes place at night. The blue tinting suggests the time of day.
This classic has just been restored and the new version will be shown in February at the Berlin International Film Festival with its original tinting and toning … I can’t wait to see it.
Virginian Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (1926)
An amazing example of Pathécolor, just recently discovered. It shows us a late use of this method that was pioneered by Pathé in France during 1905. Stencils were used to automate the hand-colouring of films.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
A hybrid in many ways: this is a silent, talkie, black-and-white and colour motion picture. The colour scenes are just marvellous.
The Love Charm (Howard Mitchell, 1928)
And here is a little known example of the two-colour Technicolor process. A weird love story in amazing colours.
Do you agree with Nina’s choices? Share your suggestions below
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson, and the first in a new series of posts bringing you very personal top 10s from silent cinema experts and enthusiasts.
From a programming point of view, it’s always good to have a few shorts up your sleeve: either to accompany a feature or to make up a shorts programme, which are always a good way to introduce new audiences to silent film. I’m trying to write short screenplays at the moment and I’m inspired by these film-makers, several of whom spent the majority of their careers working on shorts.
How to be an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Made in the US by Solax, film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché’s production company, this is such a brilliant darkly anarchic comedy. View the version on the Retour de Flamme (06) disc by Lobster Films for one of the most inspired accompaniments to a silent film.
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Breathtakingly stylish (talk about Eisenstein’s “kino fist”!) but also heartbreakingly moving, this is avant-garde cinema of the 1920s at its most profound. The scene on the bench is as poignant as anything by Chaplin or more recent master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unforgettable.
Kid Auto Races (Henry Lehrman, 1914)
Chaplin’s Keystone films are sometimes written off as unsophisticated fare, preceding a more nuanced approach to style and content at later studios. However, Chaplin’s performance here is pure clown, and shows why contemporary audiences immediately wanted more, more, more of “The Little Fellow”.
You may notice the widget on the righthand side of this page, ticking down the days until this blog dispatches itself to Italy, to report from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. We have many reasons to get excited about the arrival of the world’s most prestigious silent film festival. There’s the debut of the lost-and-found Orson Welles short Too Much Johnson, the premiere of a new restoration of The Freshman with a score by Carl Davis, Italy’s first glimpse of Blancanieves, an Anny Ondra retrospective, a programme of Swedish silents, more treasures from the Corrick collection, Ukrainian classics, Mexican rarities, a strand devoted to Gerhard Lamprecht and much more.
I had a smile on my face this morning, however, when I learned that a documentary co-directed by none other than a fellow classic/silent film blogger – the marvellous David Cairns of Shadowplay – will be showing at the Giornate. Natan takes a look at the controversial life of French film-maker Bernard Natan, and the various scandalous assaults on his name. Natan was a Jewish French-Romanian film produced, who was at one time the head of the Pathé studio. Financial troubles, antisemitism and allegations that he was a pornographer degraded his reputation in the industry. His story ends on an even darker note – he died in 1942, in Auschwitz.
Bernard Natan used to sign his films — literally, his producer credit was an animated signature inscribing itself on the screen. And then, as Natan’s reputation was destroyed and his company taken away from him, a lot of his films were shorn of their signatures. When the movies got re-released, it was considered embarrassing for their executive producer’s name to be seen. And during the Occupation, many Jewish filmmakers were quietly erased from title sequences.
Since then, Natan’s name has been restored to some of his films, and a few historians have attempted to restore his reputation. That’s the effort Paul and I hope to contribute to with our film, which should tell a dramatic and tragic story, shine a light upon some neglected corners of cinema history — but also help give Bernard Natan his good name back ~
The film has already shown at several festivals, including Edinburgh and Telluride – and it plays at Cambridge film festival this week. The Pordenone festival will also be screening a documentary about another French cinema legend: Musidora: la Dixieme Muse. The documentary, by writer and filmmaker Patrick Cazals, promises to trace the actress’s career right form the early days of Vampires and Judex, to her work in later life as a producer and director as well as at Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque, positioning her as a cornerstone of French cinema as much as a legend.
So that’s a nicely themed double-bill at Pordenone for us to savour, but French cinema pioneers are in vogue right now – you can’t have failed to miss the successful Kickstarter campaign for the Jodie Foster-narrated Alice Guy-Blaché documentary. It has been a massive campaign, conducted enthusiastically and cannily across social media. The line they have been using is that Guy-Blaché’s name is forgotten now because she has been written out of history by her male colleagues and successors. That may be true for many film fans, but just like Musidora, her name is already well-known in silent cinema circles – if Be Natural is to redeem her reputation, it must spread her fame to a far wider audience. While certainly impressive, Be Natural‘s 3,840 Kickstarter backers represent a drop in the ocean. The movie looks like it could be great though – and it’s the popularity of the documentary, rather than the worthiness of its intentions, that will return Guy-Blaché’s name to global renown.
Catch Natan at Cambridge if you can, or if you have already seen it or Musidora, do let me know your thoughts below. There’s a Variety review here. You can also like Natan on Facebook. I have to say, I am looking forward to all three of these films.
PS: I think Lady Gaga, for one, has been mugging up on her early French film – spot the Méliès refs and Musidora costumes in her latest video, Applause