It’s that time of year again, when we get to delve into the Hippfest programme. The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, Scotland, is the most welcoming event in the early cinema calendar, with one of the most glamorous venues. The lineup is always an enjoyable mix of the classic and obscure too, so I await this announcement with more interest than most.
You can read the full lineup and schedule on the Hippfest website, but here are some selected highlights – and yes, I am terribly, terribly biased.
Pabst! So much Pabst around these days, which is great. The Hippfest is showing GW Pabst’s first film, the most traditionally expressionist of his career, Der Schätz, with live accompaniment written and performed by acclaimed German composer and musician Alois Kott.
More Pabst! On 22nd March, yours truly will be giving an illustrated “Cuppa Talk” lecture entitled Lost Girls and Goddesses, all about women in Pabst’s silent films. Brooks, Garbo, Nielsen, Helm … all will be in (virtual) attendance.
Galas! The opening night screening has already been announced as The Last of the Mohicans with live accompaniment from David Allison.
On the Friday night, get yourself glammed up for a date with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, with live music from the maestro Neil Brand. This silent comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is perfect in practically every way. And Brand, yeah he’s a bit of a legend too.
Lon Chaney swings by on Saturday night. You can watch him play “the master of the underworld” in The Penalty with a new score, commissioned by the festival, from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello.
Stick around after The Penalty for an ideal late-night movie: Benjamin Christensen’s loopy Seven Footprints to Satan, with a live score from the always excellent Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. This film has to be seen to be believed!
Sunday night closes with two screening of recent BFI silent restorations. First, the sumptuous Indian romance Shiraz, accompanied by the wonderful John Sweeney, and then Anthony Asquith’s Underground, accompanied live by the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
Welcome, wherever you are … Shooting Stars, Anthony Asquith’s bittersweet movie biz satire, is screening at the BFI Southbank on Thursday 3 March 2016. As you no doubt know, this is the gorgeous new restoration that graced the London Film Festival Archive Gala in October. Also, at this screening, there will be live music, courtesy of John Altman’s jazzy new score. It’s a fantastic British film, and a glorious treat for all silent movie buffs. Think of it as a forerunner to Hail, Caesar!, but with Brian Aherne in a stetson rather than George Clooney in a toga.
If you’re quick, you could win two tickets to this screening, so listen up.
To be in with a chance of winning some tickets, email Filmcompetitions@bfi.org.uk with STARS in the subject header by Wednesday 2 March at 9am. Tickets are limited to one pair per person and it is first come first served.
You will only be contacted by if you are successful. In which case, your name will be added to a guest list and you will receive an email by 7pm on 2nd March.
This year’s London film festival did not make life easy for cinemutophiles. Many of the silent films in the 2015 programme were scheduled slap-bang against each other, or almost, necessitating a frantic cab ride across to town. All very glamorous in its own way, and nice to be spoiled for choice, but frustrating for those who aren’t lucky enough to have seen some of these films in other festivals, or want to cram as much as possible into a trip to London. That said, the LFF pulled off a coup to make those Londoners who wished they were at Pordenone instead feel smug for once. The two festivals always clash, but if you stayed home this year, you’d have had the chance to see the restoration of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century, a day before your counterparts in Pordenone. Ta-da.
As you might have noticed, your humble correspondent was indeed in Pordenone, but when I got home, I managed to squeeze in a few trips to the London film festival. Rude not to, after all. And if the programme seems a little light on silents at first, as is always the way, things pop up where you might not expect to find them. Festival opener Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015) closed with a fragment of archive footage; and I spotted Gloria Swanson in one of the festival most-talked about movies, Todd Haynes’s magnificent Carol (2015).
There are two ways of looking at Sunday’s programme. You might glance at the listings and say: “it’s the last day of the festival, the films finish early, it’s all winding down.” But if you were there with us, watching these films, you’d know different. Sunday at the BSFF offered a big finish, with three feature films shown: one of which was a gem, and two of which were genuine masterpieces. And there was plenty more besides.
Shall I begin with a confession? Reader, I slept in. And those extra zeds were delicious, but I did regret missing Bryony Dixon’s presentation on Gallilopi, a curtain-raiser for the screening of Tell England (1931) that was to follow.
However, Tell England was a rousing start to the day – you couldn’t ask for better. We have been on a journey with these early sound films over the weekend – from the stumbling first steps of Dark Red Roses et al, via two beguiling movies on Saturday, to this, a real masterpiece. We were warned that the soundtrack was not of good quality, but really, it was not a problem. In fact, for every mishandled piece of dialogue here, there was a sound collage that did credit to co-directors Anthony Asquith and Geoffrey Barkas. And I suppose it does help that the actors offered a parade of perfectly clipped RP accents. Asquith and Barkas fold silent film-making techniques into their exploration of sound cinema – making this a bold and visually exciting war film. Tell England follows two young heroes (Tony Bruce and Carl Harbord) from their public school in divine middle England to the trenches of Gallipoli where the horrors of war and their duties as precociously promoted officers weigh heavy on their hearts. While the characters speak with traditional English restraint and understatement, the film whirls around them to show the physical violence of warfare (with mortar shells whirring and crashing on the soundtrack), and its psychological toll too, on the soldiers themselves and Fay Compton as a distraught mother almost driven mad by grief and fear. Not a documentary record of Gallilopi, although its vivid beach landing scenes are often cut up and used in factual programmes, but a fine dramatic film that would ideally be more widely available. So, insert a snide remark about the talkies catching on here.
After lunch, a commercial break, as the BFI’s Steve Foxon gave us a guided tour of screen advertising, from Edison’s short 1890s clip promoting Dewar’s whisky, to a bouncy Halas & Batchelor cartoon tribute to Kellogg’s Cornflakes in the1940s. All good fun, and the sort of presentation that provokes many more questions in the coffee break afterwards. Early screen advertising is both very different from and so similar to modern examples, with detergents cleaning whiter, and making easy work of tough jobs, as well as twee poetic tributes to the English countryside and even celebrity endorsements. And of course you can’t believe that anyone fell for these tricks. But we all do.
Did you guess this one? I must confess I had an inkling. After the BFI’s rightly acclaimed restorations of Anthony Asquith’s other silent features A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground, his directorial debut Shooting Stars (1928) is about to take its turn in the key light, at the London Film Festival Archive Gala. On 16 October 2015, in the Odeon Leicester Square, a sparkling new print of this important British silent will screen with a new jazzy score by John Altman. We’ve waited a long time to hear this good news, so now all we have to do is enjoy the anticipation, book some tickets, and cross our fingers that, following previous form, Shooting Stars will also make its way to a theatrical and Blu-ray release before long.
Shooting Stars, which Asquith wrote and officially co-directed with AV Bramble, is, much like his two other silents, a romantic drama in which a love triangle precipitates violence. But this is far more glamorous than the others: it’s a peek behind the scenes of the film biz. That’s a hint of how audacious young Asquith was – his first time in the director’s chair and he was already turning the camera around in the opposite direction. It’s also a clue to how experienced he already was – he had spent time in Hollywood, as a guest of the Pickford-Fairbanks household no less, and toured German film studios as well. He was a leading light of the London Film Society, and had been working at British Instructional Films since the early 1920s. When the infamous “quota” was brought in with the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, BIF turned to fiction film-making – Asquith, and Shooting Stars, were up first.
The film’s director isn’t the only name worth noting. Shooting Stars’ cast includes some notable talent from the British silent cinema: Brian Aherne (High Treason, Underground), Annette Benson (Downhill) and Donald Calthrop (Blackmail) for starters. And if you have never had a chance to see slinky Chili Bouchier do her thing, well aren’t you in for a treat?
Here’s what the BFI has to say about it:
Shooting Stars is a dazzling debut which boasts a boldly expressionist shooting style, dramatic lighting and great performances from its leads. Annette Benson (Mae Feather) and Brian Aherne (Julian Gordon) play two mis-matched, married stars and Donald Calthrop (Andy Wilkes) a Chaplin-esque star at the same studio, with whom Mae becomes romantically involved. Chili Bouchier, Britain’s first sex symbol of the silent era, plays a key role as an actress/bathing beauty, an attractive foil to the comic antics of the comedian. The film manages to operate as a sophisticated, modern morality tale, while it’s also both an affectionate critique of the film industry and a celebration of its possibilities. It teases the audience with its revelations of how the illusions of the world of film-making conceal ironic and hidden truths
Despite the director credit going to veteran director A.V. Bramble, this is demonstrably the original work of rising talent Anthony Asquith, exhibiting all the attention-grabbing bravado of a young filmmaker with everything to prove. His original story offers sardonic insight into the shallowness of film stardom and Hollywood formulas by use of ironic counterpoint. He flaunts his dynamic cinematographic style and upgrades design and lighting by bringing in professionals.
There’s a little information about the score too. John Altman says that his score is “inspired by dance band sounds and Duke Ellington in 1927”, taking its cue from a piece of music that features in the film itself – the popular song ‘Ain’t She Sweet’.
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… …
It was another strong day, and an emotional one too, not least because we were saying our first farewells to the Corrick Collection. There’s just one more batch of these strange and vivid early films to go (on Saturday) before they depart the Giornate schedule for good.
Today’s selection brought us an increasingly rare moment of comedy in the form of the three-minute romp Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907), fascinating early 1900s street scenes from China and Japan, a stencil-tinted biblical drama by Louis Feuillade (Aux Lions les Chrétiens, 1911) and some outrageous examples of animal cruelty, from quail-fighting to a brutal twist on archery in Distraction et Sport à Batavia (1911)
Shock of the day was short of Javanese 'sport' where they used a live duck as an static archery target. One right in the neck, yeesh. #GCM32
There was more early cinema to savour in Patrick Cazals’ documentary portrait of French star and film-maker Musidora. There was far more to her career than Les Vampires and Judex. She was a prolific writer (of letters, poems and scripts); a painter; a director; a film historian at the Cinématheque; a feminist icon; and yes, a muse to many. Where Musidora, la Dixieme Muse (2013) succeeded best was in interviewing her relatives – who could speak to her personality as well as her polymathic achievements. An affectionate hour. A recording of the woman herself included in the doc captured her opining that films should be produced like good books, with images worth revisiting 20 years after they are made. As the Verdi crowd watched, rapt, as clips of Musidora in her first screen appearance (Le Misères de l’Aiguille, 1913) played, we can fault her only on the scale of her ambition.
We’re back! For the third year running, I will be presenting a series of screenings at the West London Trades Union Club in Acton, London W3. Silent film fans of west London, come one, come all. And if you’re new to silent movies, you should definitely pop us in your diary: the autumn/winter collection for 2013 contains some stone-cold classics.
The Trades club on Acton High Street offers well-kept, reasonably priced ale and friendly conversation between left-leaning movie fans too. We show films on Saturday afternoons at 4pm, with no entrance charge, a short introduction courtesy of your favourite London-based silent movie blogger* and generally a good free-for-all chinwag afterwards.
This year’s lineup includes a jaw-dropping tale of British exploration, a high-tension thriller, an Expressionist masterpiece and the divine Clara Bow. Interested?
The Great White Silence (1924)
You’ve seen films about Scott of the Antarctic before – but not like this one. Herbert Ponting took his camera (almost) every step of the way on Scott’s final, fatal expedition. It’s an intimate portrait of Scott’s team at work, and a staggering vision of the unspoiled Antarctic landscape. All this, plus a gleaming restoration from the BFI and an unforgettable score by Simon Fisher Turner, incorporating some surprising found sounds. And penguins. Watch this now as the perfect preparation for viewing the BFI’s new restoration of The Epic of Everest in October. 14 September, 4pm
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Did you see Underground when it was released earlier this year? That is just one of Anthony Asquith’s two great silent thrillers. A Cottage on Dartmoor is darker, edgier, artier and altogether murkier than Underground – it’s all about jealousy, frustration and razor blades. There’s even a subplot about the coming of sound. Horrific. A Cottage on Dartmoor deserves to be seen on the big screen, and will be shown at the WLTUC with Stephen Horne’s fantastic score too. 26 October 2013, 4pm
You may think you’ve seen Metropolis, but think again. If you haven’t seen the new version of Metropolis with rediscovered footage, you haven’t seen it at all. No WLTUC screening of Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece would be complete without a discussion of the labour politics at the heart of the film, it’s true. But equally, you can gaze upon the gothic futurist splendour of it all – and remind yourself where all those other, more recent, sic-fi movies stole all their best ideas. 16 November 2013, 4pm
Clara Bow, Elinor Glyn declared, had ‘it’. And you don’t need me to explain what ‘it’ is do you? In the greatest flapper movie of them all, Bow plays a determined, perky working-class girl in pursuit of her dream guy. A delicious pre-Christmas treat, It will immerse you in the bustle and swing of 1920s New York, and remind you why Bow is still such a revered fashion icon. Watch out for a cameo by Glyn, and an early appearance by Gary Cooper, whom many say was the great love of Bow’s tragic life. 14 December 2013, 4pm
You don’t have to be a member of the club, or even of a trade union, to turn up and receive a warm welcome – and you will find the venue at 33 Acton High Street, London W3 6ND. It’s about five minutes walk from Acton Central train station, and on plenty of bus routes. Visit the club’s website here, or join the Facebook group.
Underground, surely one of the greatest “Silent London” films, has been turning our heads for some time now: at festivals, at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2011, and this year selling out screenings on its theatrical outing. This home video release is Underground’s latest, glossiest incarnation, and by rights should bring the film to the widest possible audience.
If you don’t know it (why?), the first thing you need to know about Anthony Asquith’s film is that it is an exercise in contrasts. Underground spins high drama out of a love story in a humble setting, pivoting from flirtation to daggers-drawn aggression. A hybrid romcom-thriller sounds like commercial gold, the elusive “perfect date movie”. Well, I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that assessment, but Underground is no popcorn flick: it’s passionate, arty, and unafraid to trip up the audience with a sudden, disconcerting shift in tone.
Getting down to brass tacks, this is a tale of love, jealousy, madness and missed connections. Pals Bill (Brian Aherne) and Bert (Cyril McLaglen) meet sweet Nell (Elissa Landi) on the tube one morning. Nell only has eyes for Bill, but nevertheless incurs the wrath of Kate (Norah Baring), a dangerously unhinged woman who carries a lonely torch for Bert. The narrative, and the tension, escalate as a chance meeting on the tube results in a violent confrontation at the now disused Lots Road power station. Asquith’s second film as director, the first he received a full credit for, is an astonishingly distinctive and inventive work. Everywhere there are bravura touches that mark him out as a great of British silent cinema: the shadows of tentative lovers embrace even while they pull awkwardly apart; a pub brawl is edited montage-style, a kaleidoscope of splintered violence.
So, the story of Underground may be simple, but its treatment is unexpectedly dark, stylised and violent – the good news is that this Blu-Ray does Asquith’s expressionist experiments proud. The slanting shadows of the tube tunnels and the boarding house are deep and black; the white-knuckle action of the final chase remains sharply defined.
You’ll want to turn this disc up loud too. If you haven’t heard Neil Brand’s orchestral score for Underground yet, you’ve been missing out. This full-bodied, stirring music is a masterclass in silent film music. It’s lush and classic, certainly, but unafraid to cling to the twists and jolts on the track: alert to the film’s many mood swings. Try watching any sequence in Underground with and without Brand’s score (I recommend that furtive shadow-kiss, or Kate’s mad scene) and you’ll notice how the music inhabits every corner of the film, animating it without smothering it. Should you tire of the music, there is an alternative option, one I found fascinating but initially, at least, harder to warm to. Recordist Chris Watson has created a soundtrack for Underground that uses noises rather than music. That fantasy kiss is here accompanied by the sound of trains rushing through tunnels; the birds sing when Bill and Nell picnic in the park, although the young boy’s harmonica is eerily silent. It’s finely crafted, and as artful as any musical score could hope to be. However, shoot me, but I miss the romance of the symphony orchestra in full flow.
This is a dual-format release, with plenty of room for extras (though some of them you will only find on the DVD disc). There is a brief but illuminating featurette on the restoration of the film (the short answer is that it wasn’t easy and that a French print in a Belgian archive filled in many of the gaps in the decomposing British reels) and a generous booklet featuring essays from Brand, Bryony Dixon, Christian Wolmar, Simon Murphy and Michael Brooke as well as snippets from the archive. The archive film extras are the real treat though: including glimpses of Asquith as a young boy with his notable father in tow. I was particularly taken by Under Night Streets, a 1958 documentary about the Underground network’s night workers, with its jaunty cockney narration explaining the whys and wherefores of the work done by men “hard at it, down in the hole” while the city sleeps above them.
As a souvenir of 1920s London, this is hard to beat. And it’s a damn fine treatment for a great British film. But I am greedy. This release will sit neatly on my shelf next to the BFI’s DVD of Asquith’s final silent A Cottage on Dartmoor with Stephen Horne’s brilliant score. Two out of three ain’t bad, but how about Shooting Stars to complete the set?
Underground is released on a Dual-Format DVD/Blu-Ray set by the BFI, RRP £19.99 on 17 June 2013. To pre-order, click here.
Excellent news for fans of British silent cinema (that’s you). Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) will be released in cinemas next year. It’s a romantic and thrilling film about a love triangle that sparks jealousy, madness and terrible violence. Asquith’s direction is confident – and richly expressive.
Underground is also a fascinating portrait of 1920s London, including a public transport system that has only subtly changed in the intervening 80-odd years. Indeed this theatrical release is intended to celebrate 150 years of the Tube. The film stars Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen, and Norah Baring in the roles the opening intertitle describes as “ordinary workaday people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert”. It’s no ordinary film though, Asquith uses subjective techniques inspired by European cinema to convey his character’s emotional turmoils and to make Underground both atmospheric and suspenseful. If you’ve seen his final silent film A Cottage on Dartmoor, you’ll know just what to expect.
After months of work on his score for Undergound (1928), Neil Brand is still, happily, a big fan of the film. In fact he’s enthusiastic, and generous, enough to offer Silent London a preview of the music ahead of the world premiere next Wednesday and to chat about the film, and the process of scoring it too. Anthony Asquith’s film is set in London, but borrows its visual style from the European and Soviet art cinema that he loved so much: expect dark shadows, quickfire editing and geometric compositions. “Asquith was never again so bold as he was with Underground,” Brand says, and this score represents Brand’s attempt “to make music as bold as the film is”.
It hasn’t been an easy task. At first, he says, he was intimidated by the task ahead: the difficulty about writing for Underground, as opposed to Blackmail, which Brand scored for the BBC Symphony Orchestra last year, was that Asquith’s film requires snatches of lighter music. Blackmail is like an “icicle to the heart”, but Underground has wry, comic moments, at least towards the beginning of the film, before the characters make some disastrous decisions, and the film’s romantic triangle becomes an “Expressionist nightmare”. “Those first 20 minutes were horrendous to write,” he says. But four months later he has a complete score, which will be played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Brock, at the Barbican Concert Hall next month.
Brand is of course known for his piano scores, often improvised, for silent films, and here he has incorporated a piano into an orchestra score for the first time. He tells me this is partly because he wanted to use the love theme he had written for the film when he accompanied it at the London Film Festival with the Prima Vista Social Club two years ago. He also wanted to use the piano’s percussive bass sound and he enjoys the sound of a solo piano, at moments, over a quiet orchestra. “It’s almost a Morricone effect.”
Other than that though, Brand tackled the score as he always does, from the beginning to the end. This means that every morning, before starting work on the next segment of the film he would play through the existing score from the start. So he has heard the opening of the score, on his home computer setup, many, many times.
There’s nothing like seeing a film with a live orchestra – it’s far more exciting than surround sound. That’s why at Silent London we’re so excited about the world premiere of Neil Brand’s score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928), which will be performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 5 October.
Undergound is set in London, among what Asquith called “everyday” people, but that doesn’t mean that this is an unsophisticated film. Far from it. The director’s appreciation of European and Russian cinema (he was a co-founder of the London Film Society) is betrayed by his use of Expressionist shadows, subjective camerawork and montage editing. This is 1920s London, but not like you may have seen before.
Underground tells the story of four young working people making their way in 1920s London. The parallels with life in the metropolis today are poignant and it is fascinating to see location footage of the Underground network, old London pubs, department stores and of course the climactic chase through the Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea … Asquith had a remarkable ability to portray the lighter and darker aspects of life through staging and cinematography. He was aided by the superb and unusually good-looking cast of Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi as the nice young couple, with Norah Baring and Cyril McLaglen as the unluckier, troubled duo.
The print of Underground that will be shown at the Barbican is the product of many hours of restoration work by the BFI, using new, cutting-edge techniques. The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Timothy Brock.
To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to watch Underground at the Barbican Concert Hall, just answer this simple question:
Cyril McLaglen, who plays Bert in Underground, had an older brother who was also a film actor. What was his name?
Email your answer to email@example.com by noon on Monday 26 September. The winner will be picked at random from the correct entries and emailed with the good news. Best of luck!
“Will you come with me to a talkie to-night?” From the moment we first see that intertitle in A Cottage on Dartmoor – we know we’re in for a fright or two. Anthony Asquith’s classic silent film is the story of a violent love triangle told in a sinister flashback by an escaped convict. The menacing tone is interspersed with some adventurous visual flourishes, a very English sense of humour and an unforgettable glimpse of an audience’s reaction to an early sound film. Bryony Dixon has said in her recent book 100 Silent Films that: “of all the British silent films now resurfacing A Cottage on Dartmoor is the most significant rediscovery”. You really don’t want to miss this one.
A Cottage on Dartmoor screens at the Barbican Cinema at 4pm on Sunday, with live musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne. To win a pair of tickets to this screening, just answer this simple question:
What is the name of the first film that Anthony Asquith directed?
Send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Friday 9 September. The winner will be picked at random from the correct entries and emailed with the good news. Best of luck!
There is far more to British silent cinema than Hitchcock, whatever recent news reports might have you believe. From Yorkshireman Louis Le Prince’s claim to have invented motion-picture technology, through Cecil Hepworth’s pioneering days in Walton-on-Thames, to the directors who gathered at the London Film Society in the 1920s, our early cinema industry has much to offer. And it’s not just directors that we can praise, but actors, writers, producers and more besides.
That’s why I am so happy to report that, before Hitchcock’s work takes centre-stage next year, there are several screenings of silent films by other British film-makers coming up in London soon. This is a great opportunity to learn more about what we can loftily, but quite rightly, call our cinematic heritage – and to enjoy some rather good films. Continue reading British silent film screenings, autumn 2011→