Tag Archives: BFI Southbank

Jean Grémillon’s silent symphonies of life, BFI Southbank, July 2013

Maldone (1928)
Maldone (1928)

“Who could fail to sense the greatness of this art, in which the visible is the sign of the invisible?” – Jean Grémillon

The name Jean Grémillon may be spoken in hushed tones by French cinephiles, but it is less familiar to our ears. A director many consider in the same ranks as Renoir, Carné and Feyder, Grémillon began as a documentary-maker in the silent era, but switched to fiction in the late 20s and continued to produce intensely beautiful films until the 1950s. In July, the BFI is holding a retrospective season called Symphonies of Life, including Remorques (1941), starring Jean Gabin and Madeleine Renaud, and Lumière d’été (1942), written by Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche.

Grémillon espoused a style of film-making that has been called enchanted realism, or poetic realism: the noirish, fatalistic lovechild of French impressionism and surrealism. Grémillon was not interested in what he termed “mechanical naturalism”, but rather: “that subtlety which the human eye does not perceive directly but which must be shown by establishing the harmonies, the unknown relations, between objects and beings; it is a vivifying, inexhaustible source of images that strike our imaginations and enchant our hearts.” Sadly, Grémillon’s artistic ambitions often clashed with demands of studios and producers. At the end of his career, he returned to documentary-making, and he died aged just 58.

Grémillon’s most famous works are those he made during the 30s and and under German occupation, but the silent features on offer in the season are very exciting. Both will be presented with live piano accompaniment and there are two opportunities to see each one. The films are also showing at the Edinburgh film festival this month. Maldone has been recently restored by the CNC in France and screens with Chartres, a silent short made by Grémillon in 1923 about the famous medieval cathedral. Here’s what the BFI has to say about the season:

Maldone (1928)

Beautifully performed and packed with resonant details, this dark drama tells of Olivier Maldone (Dullin), who left his wealthy family’s estate for a free and easy life on the canals only to return to a life of staid respectability when his brother dies. But temptation – in the form of the gypsy Zita, met during his youthful wanderings – still beckons… Even in this early feature, Grémillon had a great crew: the camerawork by Georges Périnal and Christian Matras and designs by André and Léon Barsacq contribute to a magical mood pitched expertly between realism and expressionism.

Maldone screens at BFI Southbank’s NFT2 on 4 and 10 July, with Chartres. Read more and book tickets here.

Gardiens de Phare (1929)

Gardiens de Phare (1929)
Gardiens de Phare (1929)

A father and son go to spend a month tending their remote lighthouse off the Brittany coast, little knowing that a dog which recently bit the latter was rabid… Grémillon’s intense drama combines expressionism and a real feeling for the traditions of the Brittany coastal communities. Not much ‘happens’ in Jacques Feyder’s script, but the skilled use of flashbacks and cutaways, the meticulous pacing and George Périnal’s striking compositions and lighting make for sustained suspense throughout.

Gardiens de Phare screens with Dainah la Métisse at BFI Southbank’s NFT 3 on 6 July and NFT2 on 10 July. Read more and book tickets here.

Laurel and Hardy rarities at BFI Southbank, 30 January 2013

Laurel and Hardy in Atoll K (1951)
Laurel and Hardy in Atoll K (1951)

There are so many silent film myths and so little time to wearily dismiss them all. But next time someone blathers on about the coming of sound causing all the silent stars to disappear in a puff of smoke, never to darken the doors of Hollywood again, point them in the direction of Laurel and Hardy. Case closed.

And once you’ve sung the praises of the little clever British one and big daft American one, you’ll be in the mood for seeing some of their films. Happily BFI Southbank is screening the full version of their last feature, the rarely seen Atoll K (1951) on 30 January. You can read more here from Uli Ruedel about why this is such a special opportunity:

Shot in Europe by the comics with genuine enthusiasm, but in poor health and under chaotic production circumstances, the film has been much maligned by some fans and writers, who would rather see it erased from history than enjoy it for what it is.

The film’s longest version – with its extra two reels including “some of the funniest sight gag sequences” (Everson) – has practically been unseen for decades, let alone in its original technical quality.

Curators, comedy historians and conservation scholars at BFI have now previewed and confirmed that the archive’s 35mm print, preserved from unique nitrate master materials in glorious black and white, does conform to the length of this longest existing (and likely never theatrically released) extended English-language version.

Running a delightful 98 minutes, it’s only a couple of minutes short of the 100 minutes worth of footage used in all the different national versions altogether. And with a splendid visual and sound quality, it allows for a fresh appreciation of the French-Italian ‘European super-production’, its sight gags and satire, even its mostly post-synched, faux American English soundtrack – the only dub incorporating the Boys’ distinctive voices in the original, on-set performances.

The hardcore nothing-but-silent fans among you will be pleased to note that Atoll K will also be accompanied by some dialogue-free treats – including a surprise change to the programme.

First up is Grand Hotel (aka Laurel and Hardy Visit Tynemouth, UK 1932, Dir JG Ratcliffe, 10min, silent). In this newsreel footage, the duo “are rapturously received when they visit Tynemouth in 1932, and Stan clowns for the camera with his dad”. But there’s more: “programme will now include previously unseen silent amateur footage of Stan and Ollie opening a Gymkhana at Eastwood Park, Giffnock, during their visit to Scotland in June 1947.” That’s another nice er, bit of BFI archive film programming you’ve gotten yourself into.

Two more thing to know if you’re a Laurel and Hardy fan:

a) You want to be at the amazing Slapstick festival in Bristol this weekend.

b) Book now for this triple-bill of silent Laurel and Hardy films at the Barbican.

The Laurel and Hardy rarities programme screens in NFT1 at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 30 January at 6pm, introduced by Glenn Mitchell, author of The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, and Archive curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler. You can buy tickets here.

The Silent Passion of Carl Dreyer, BFI Southbank, March 2012

The Master of the House (1925)
The Master of the House (1925)

Today, Carl Theodor Dreyer is best known for one lost-and-found silent masterpiece, and five subsequent sound films shot many years apart – but the little-mentioned fact is that the 1920s were his most productive decade. The BFI’s forthcoming retrospective, The Passion of Carl Dreyer, offers a chance to to shift the balance. In March, you’ll be able to see all nine of the Danish director’s silent features on the big screen, from 1919’s daring The President to the timeless The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). A closer look at Dreyer’s silents is always rewarding, both for their continuity with the themes of religion and female suffering found in his later films such as Ordet and Day of Wrath, and for the revelation that this serious Scandinavian was also a master of comedy.

Dreyer had been working as a journalist when he was first hired by the Nordisk company in 1913 to write intertitles and to edit and write screenplays. This was a boomtime for Danish cinema: in the teens, Nordisk was not just making hundreds of films a year but exporting them widely too. From writing intertitles, he discovered the strength of distilled, almost elliptical speech – he later talked about how he whittled down the dialogue in Vampyr (1930) until it was almost a silent film, and it was all the more powerful, all the more eerie, for his labours. Dreyer worked on the screenplays of several literary adaptations at this time, which also cemented his opinion that great films should have literary sources – and all his features did.

It was as he grew more confident in his work at the studio, and was working as an editor, that Dreyer developed his signature film-making style too – before he had even stepped on set as a director. As David Bordwell has written, Nordisk’s films at this time were predominantly shot in the “tableau” style, with the actors blocked in sophisticated patterns on a deep stage. When Dreyer got behind a camera he ditched that approach in favour of an edit-heavy style more popular with American film-makers such as DW Griffith. This distinctive, modern, method is apparent in his very first feature, just as it is in the barrage of close-ups that comprise his final silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.

The purpose of this post is to offer a quick introduction to Dreyer’s silents, which are for the most part much less widely seen than his sound films – and really do draw a different picture of the director. I assume that most of you are familiar with The Passion of Joan of Arc – if you haven’t seen it, you must take this opportunity to do so – but I also highly recommend many of the others, especially The Parson’s Widow and The Master of the House.

Continue reading The Silent Passion of Carl Dreyer, BFI Southbank, March 2012

The Cinematic Race to the South Pole, BFI Southbank, March 2012

The Great White Silence (1924)
The Great White Silence (1924)

Spring 2012 marks a couple of grisly, yet hugely significant centenaries. The Titanic sank on 15 April 1912 (more of which in forthcoming posts) and on 29 March 1912 or thereabouts, Robert Falcon Scott succumbed to cold and starvation and died a few miles from the South Pole.

The story of Scott and his crew’s tragic expedition has been told many times, but nowhere more movingly than in The Great White Silence (1924), Herbert Ponting’s silent documentary that was rereleased theatrically last year.

To commemorate the centenary, the BFI has scheduled three special screenings of documentary material relation to Antarctic exploration, each pegged to an individual explorer. You’ll probably be familiar with The Great White Silence by now, but if you haven’t seen it yet (or bought it on DVD/Blu-Ray), this is a fantastic opportunity to see it on the big screen. The Ernest Shackleton film South is a marvellous companion to The Great White Silence, with fantastic photography from Frank Hurley. It was also recently restored by the BFI and released on DVD. The footage of Roald Amundsen’s rather more successful voyage is less widely seen and promises to be fascinating.

Race to the South Pole: Amundsen and the Others

Our first programme focuses on Roald Amundsen and the little-seen film Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd (1910-12), restored by the Norwegian Film Institute and here playing in context with a selection of surviving fragments from films of the expeditions of William Speirs Bruce in 1902-4 (The Scottish Antarctic Expedition), Shackleton in 1908-9 (Departure of the British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttelton, NZ 1st Jan 1908), the Japanese Shirase in 1911 (Nihon Nankyoku Tanken), and a work in progress to recreate cinematographer Frank Hurley’s original lecture on the Mawson Australian Antarctic Expedition 1910-12.

With introduction by Bryony Dixon and live piano accompaniment.

Race to the South Pole: Amundsen and the Others screens at NFT3 at 6.20pm on 14 March 2012. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Race to the North Pole: Scott

Memorial Service at St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Antarctic Heroes (Pathé Animated Gazette, UK 1913, 1min) + Captain Scott and Dr Wilson with ‘Nobby’ the Pony (Gaumont Graphic, UK 1912, 1min) + Cardiff: The Ship ‘Terra Nova’ Leaving Harbour Towards the South Pole (Pathé Animated Gazette, UK 1912, 1min) + The Great White Silence (UK 1924, dir Herbert Ponting, 106min. Digital)

To commemorate the centenary of the death of Scott and his companions we present Herbert Ponting’s moving tribute The Great White Silence (1924), together with newsreels of the time showing how contemporary audiences followed the momentous news from the planet’s last unexplored continent.

Introduced by Bryony Dixon

Race to the South Pole: Scott screens at NFT3 at 6.30pm on 21 March 2012. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Race to the South Pole: Shackleton

South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic (UK 1919, dir Frank Hurley, 72min) + El Homenaje del Uruguay a los Restos de Sir Ernest Shackleton (Uruguay 1922, dir Henry Maurice, 10min, Spanish intertitles) + Southward on the ‘Quest’ (UK 1922, extract, c5min).

Of all the heroic age Antarctic explorers, Shackleton seems to have the most enduring popular appeal. Almost nothing of the film from the Nimrod expedition which inspired Scott and Amundsen seems to survive, but we do have Frank Hurley’s extraordinary document South (1919) which we will be showing with rare footage of Shackleton’s last expedition and the huge crowds gathered for his lying in state in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Introduced by Bryony Dixon. Live piano accompaniment.

Race to the South Pole: Shackleton screens at NFT3 at 8.40pm on 22 March 2012. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part three, BFI Southbank, March 2012


One of the great strengths, at least as far as this blog is concerned, of the BFI’s ongoing Dickens on Screen programme, is that the silent films on offer have been spread out across the season, rather than all lumped into the first month. Witness: the impressive range of silents screening in January and February.
More silents appear in March, including another programme of pre-1914 shorts and a rare sighting of a Danish film, AW Sandberg’s Our Mutual Friend (1921). The Nordisk films is one of four Dickens adaptations by Sandberg, which were all well received in Denmark at least. Our Mutual Friend, or Vor Faelles Ven, is the least seen of the quartet, and indeed the restoration work on this print has been going on for quite some time. Now, 90 years after it was released, we can see it as it should be seen.
Our Mutual Friend screens at NFT3, BFI Southbank at 6.20pm on 6 March 2012 and at 8.45pm on 9 March 2012 with live piano accompaniment. Buy tickets here.

Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer in Scrooge (1913)
Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer in Scrooge (1913)

The shorts programme kicks off with Thomas Bentley, who went on to direct several Dickens films, in front of the camera taking on a number of roles in Leaves from the Books of Charles Dickens (1912). American comedian John Bunny starred in three films based on The Pickwick Papers – but the two shown here are the only ones to survive. Two versions of A Christmas Carol finish the programme, with Seymour Hicks playing the miser in 1913 version and Charles Rock being visited by spectres in 1914.
Pre-1914 Short Films (Programme two) screens at 9.30pm on 9 March at NFT3, BFI Southbank (with introduction by Michael Eaton) and at 6.20pm on 23 March 2012 in NFT2, BFI Southbank. Both screenings will feature live piano accompaniment. Buy tickets here.

Charles Dickens on silent film at BFI Southbank, January 2012

Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901)
Scrooge; or Marley

2012 marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a festival of events has been organised to celebrate – including the reopening of the Charles Dickens museum and an exhibition at the Museum of London. The lion’s share of the audiovisual strand of Dickens 2012 begins with a three-month season of screen adaptations at BFI Southbank, which will then tour both nationwide and internationally.

The Dickens on Screen season has been curated by Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton and the first tranche features some heavyweight adaptations such as David Lean’s masterful Great Expectations (1946) and a wealth of 1930s films, including George Cukor’s 1935 David Copperfield, starring WC Fields, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan and Thomas Bentley’s 1934 The Old Curiosity Shop.

It’s the early films that interest us the most, though, and two programmes with live piano accompaniment offer opportunities to watch Dickens adaptations made between 1901 and 1913, some of which are very rarely seen.

Pre-1914 Short Films commemorates a period of film history in which literary adaptations were rife – even if they were mostly no longer than a couple of reels. It is often claimed that Dickens’s use of parallel action inspired DW Griffith’s experiments with cross-cutting – and there are two Griffith films here, only one of which (The Cricket on the Hearth, 1909) is a straight Dickens adaptation. There are two lively versions of A Christmas Carol, one British (directed by RW Paul, 1901, pictured above) and one American (by Thomas Edison in 1910 and posted below).

The Vitagraph company is well represented, as would be expected, with J Stuart Blackton’s Oliver Twist (1909), starring a teenage Edith Storey as the winsome orphan and William Humphrey as Fagin. Humphrey appears again in Vitagraph’s A Tale of Two Cities (1911), which runs to an epic 30 minutes and makes great use of crowd scenes and bona fide stars such Maurice Costello, Florence Turner and briefly, Norma Talmadge.

There are two Thanhouser films in the programme: The Old Curiosity Shop from 1911 and a 20-minute version of Nicholas Nickleby (1912) with Harry Benham in the lead role, a fragment of which can be seen below. It’s not the only Nickleby on offer, though. You can also see a three-minute film called Dotheboys Hall from 1903, directed by the English comic Alf Collins and featuring some knockabout corporal punishment.

Pre-1914 Short Films screens at BFI Southbank on Tuesday 3 January 2012 at 8.30pm and Saturday 7 January 2012 at 3.50pm. The first screening features an introduction by screenwriter Michael Eaton and both screenings will have live piano accompaniment.

David Copperfield (1913)
David Copperfield (1913)

David Copperfield (1913) is a British adaptation, one of the first feature films made in this country and shot in the actual locations named in the novel. This is one of director Thomas Bentley’s six silent Dickens adaptations, but the only one to survive, and it is noted for both its elegant composition and naturalistic performances. Bentley himself started out at a stage comedian and was celebrated for his impressions of Dickens characters. The film stars Alma Taylor, one of British silent cinema’s most popular actresses thanks, at first, to her “Tilly the Tomboy” films, as Dora. The Eric Desmond credited as the young David is really Reginald Sheffield, father of Johnny Sheffield who played Tarzan’s Boy in the Johnny Weissmuller films.

David Copperfield screens with a three-part adaptation of the same novel, made by the Thanhouser Company in 1911-12. You can watch the films on Sunday 8 January 2012 at 3.30pm and on Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 6pm at BFI Southbank. There will be live piano accompaniment.

That’s not all, dear reader. There will be an introductory talk called Dickens on Screen on Tuesday 3 January 2012, at 6.20pm, given by Michael Eaton and Adrian Wootton, just before the first programme of shorts, and there are also several more silent Dickens adaptations to be seen in the BFI Mediatheque. Plus, we are promised, later in the season, Frank Lloyd’s 1922 Oliver Twist, starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney.

Tickets are on sale via the BFI website.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part two!