Tag Archives: BFI

LFF review: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Dr Rebecca Harrison. Harrison is a film critic and a lecturer in the Theatre, Film and Television Studies department at the University of Glasgow. She is the author of From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (IB Tauris, 2018).

 

Known as ‘The Queen of Happiness’ during her reign as Britain’s foremost star of the screen, Betty Balfour very nearly meets her unhappy match in Love, Life and Laughter, the 1923 feature that until recently the BFI had feared lost. Directed by George Pearson, the picture was found in the Netherlands in 2015 (thanks to a cinema that failed to return the film to the distributor), and the newly restored version appeared in October as the Archive Special Presentation at the 2019 London Film Festival. While the audience had to make do with digital projection rather than a print, we were treated to a improvised live score by composer and accompanist Meg Morley – not to mention 70 minutes of Balfour’s luminescent presence on screen. Continue reading LFF review: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Breaking Betty Balfour news: Love, Life and Laughter (1923) at the LFF

How is that for an alliterative headline?

I was just finishing my last post (on Bait – go see it), when this very exciting news came in. The 2019 London Film Festival Archive Special Presentation will be the lost Betty Balfour film that was discovered in the Netherlands a few years ago: Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923). Continue reading Breaking Betty Balfour news: Love, Life and Laughter (1923) at the LFF

The Living Picture Craze: learn all about Victorian Cinema

Hello, just wanted to share the details of this online course with you because a) it’s all about Victorian cinema b) it’s free c) it’s a partnership between the BFI and the fantastic Bill Douglas Cinema Museum d) it seems like the perfect way to whet your whistle for the British Silent Film Festival in September.

BFI Education are launching a free 3-week online course The Living Picture Craze: A Introduction to Victorian Film in partnership with Exeter University and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum starting on 2nd September 2019.

Silent film takes a starring role in this course exploring the emergence of a new medium that was set to capture the world’s imagination. Explore the birth of film and the end of Queen Victoria’s epic reign. Using the BFI’s unique collection of surviving Victorian films this course will debate common myths about the period and the materials, as well as examine what the films reveal about the society that produced them.

This course is designed for anyone with a passion for silent film, and Victorian and British history.

Join here now – it’s FREE! Sign up link: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/victorian-film/1

Victorian value: early British films on the BFI Player

UPDATE: Watch the Victorian Film Collection on BFI Player

Is it too late to tell you about the BFI’s Victorian Film Weekender? Not quite. There’s still time to book for this weekend’s three days of screenings, debates and talks – including a reprise of the magnificent Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, first seen at the London Film Festival. So hurry – go do that – and then mark another date in your diary: Monday 13 May.

That’s when a cavalcade of Victorian cinema will appear online, on the marvellous BFI Player. And it’s all in honour of a bicentenary: it’s coming up to 200 years since Queen Victoria was born, on 24 May 1819. In Canada, they celebrate that date every year as Victoria day. Now we can join in by watching vintage cinema in the great monarch’s honour.

He and She (1898)
He and She (1898)

Here’s Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, telling you why you should watch.

“Early British film is a legacy to be proud of, these rare moving pictures document the last years of Queen Victoria’s long reign with a vividness that no other kind of historical artefact can bring. These incredibly rare, fragile film fragments speak volumes, adding colour and texture to our understanding of the Victorians vibrant and rapidly progressing world”

More than 700 British films made between 1895 and 1901 will be available to watch, entirely free of charge, on the streaming site, including those astonishing 4K digital restorations of the 68mm large-format films. That’s around 200 Victorian-era titles from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection and 500 newly transferred films.

The filmmakers responsible include: including RW Paul, Birt Acres, WKL Dickson, James Williamson, Walter Booth, GA Smith, Cecil Hepworth and Walter Gibbon. The quality of many of these films is incredible and the range and variety breathtaking.

Subjects include the Boer War, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Boat Race, travelogues, boat launches, football, theatre, agriculture and working life. And you’ll be able to spot figures including Queen Victoria, Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Pope Leo XIII, WG Grace, Prince Ranjitsinhji, Herbert Campbell, Lil Hawthorne and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. There’s even sound and colour – so hold on to your hats!

I’ve had a little advance peek at some of this, and I can tell you that it’s a fascinating collection – offering glimpses of public and private life from the century before last as well as some seriously experimental filmmaking.

LFF review: Stan & Ollie revives the joy of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy magic

This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.

There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.

Continue reading LFF review: Stan & Ollie revives the joy of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy magic

Pandora’s Box: poster, trailer and news

Yes, I’m talking about the Pandora’s Box rerelease this summer again – but I’ll be brief. I have three things to share with you.

First, here is the very chic poster for the rerelease. The BFI marketing team is clearly adopting a Brooks-first strategy, and who can blame them?

Second, here is the trailer!

Third, which you may have guessed by now – contrary to previous reports, this theatrical release will actually be a 2K digital print of the newest restoration of the film, complBoxhereeted in 2009 by Martin Koerber and the Deutsche Kinemathek. As Koerber said to me, in this version “you can see every flutter of Louise Brooks’s eyelashes”. How can you resist?

  • Pandora’s Box is released on 1 June 2018, screening at BFI Southbank and cinemas nationwide. Details will be available here.
  • Don’t miss Louise Brooks in Technicolor.
  • You can buy my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box here.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

The American Venus (1926): Louise Brooks discovered in Technicolor

There is no such thing as too many images of Louise Brooks. Even during her Hollywood years, she was more photographed than filmed – appearing in portraits in movie magazines more often than she did on the big screen. Now, a fascinating discovery by the BFI shows us Louise Brooks in the roaring twenties as we have never really seen her before. In glorious two-strip Technicolor, posing, laughing and fidgeting with her costume in and out-take from the lost film The American Venus (Frank Tuttle, 1926). Check out that beaming smile!

The clip was found in a collection of Technicolor fragments in the BFI archive. They are stunning to watch. As well as Brooksie, don’t miss Hedda Hopper in Mona Lisa an Karl Dane gurning with a pipe. To read more about the discover of these amazing images, listen to the commentary by Bryony Dixon in the video below – and pick up the June 2018 issue of Sight & Sound, which contains the full story of the fragments’ discovery and is out next week (it also includes a feature by me on Pabst’s women).

 

(Impatient people can skip to 1.07 to see Brooksie, but there are many more treasures in this reel.)

Continue reading The American Venus (1926): Louise Brooks discovered in Technicolor

Pandora’s Box opens in June

UPDATE: This release will actually be the most recent restoration of the film. Hurrah! Read more here.

Welcome to your latest Lulu alert, courtesy of a website in danger of needing to rename itself “Pabst London”. I assure you that I am working on some non Pabst-related content, which will be with you soon.

Anyway, the Big News is … that the BFI is giving Pandora’s Box a theatrical re-release in June this year. The version that will be shown is a 2K DCP of the 1997 Munich Film Museum restoration, not the more recent one, which is slightly disappointing, but that said, I saw this version on a big screen recently and it really is grand. The print really does well by Gunther Krampf’s complex patterns of light and shade in his cinematography, and there is enough detail to highlight all the nuances and symbols lurking in the background. Louise Brooks sparkles as she ought to, of course.

Continue reading Pandora’s Box opens in June

Five reasons to pick up Shiraz on DVD and Blu-ray

The BFI’s sumptuous restoration of Indian romance Shiraz is out on dual format DVD/Blu-ray now. Assuming that you took this website’s advice and already saw this lush film at the London Film Festival Archive Gala or on its recent theatrical run (actually, there are probably some more screenings coming up – check here) why should you buy it on disc?

1) Because this is a film to wallow in. Hat-tip to the illustrious Anglo-German cinematography team of Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann. It takes repeat viewings of Shiraz to satisfy your hunger for those gorgeous landscapes and grand palaces. All that beauty looks great in high-definition on the Blu-ray – and you can watch a short demo of the restoration to see just the BFI put into making it look so stable and blemish-free. I am shameless, as you know by now, so I recommend using the scene selection function to skip straight to the kiss, or to the reveal of Taj Mahal. Not forgetting the fact that you can pause that elephant’s foot moment to see just how close a call it was.

2) Vintage extras. I really like the BFI’s habit of putting extra archive films on movie discs. In this case it the Temples of India, a short travelogue from 1938 that features the Taj Mahal, which was shot in blistering colour by none other than genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff. There’s also Musical Instruments of India – a government film designed to promote Indian culture, which might be of special interest if you’re drawn to reason Number Three …

Continue reading Five reasons to pick up Shiraz on DVD and Blu-ray

Around India with a Movie Camera: the ghosts in the archive

“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.

Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.

Around India with a Movie Camera (2017)
Around India with a Movie Camera (2017)

Continue reading Around India with a Movie Camera: the ghosts in the archive

Binge-watch alert: Early British animation on the BFI Player

Deadlines done? Laundry basket empty? Dinner in the oven? Sure? Then prepare to fritter away some time. The British Film Institute has launched a new collection on the BFI Player. Animated Britain presents more than 300 animated films from the UK. There are some nostalgic favourites from my own childhood here, and also a fine set of films from the infancy of cinema.

Browse the “Early Animation” set on the BFI Player (or the BFI YouTube channel) and you can watch, for free, gems such as WR Booth’s 1909 trick film Animated Cotton, or the Shakespeare spoof Oh’phelia: a Cartoon Burlesque, from 1909. You’ll build up a mental picture of Britain in the early 20th century while you you titter. There is plenty of Great War Propaganda here, lots of cricket-comedy and a couple of shorts produced on behalf of the Conservative Party.

I was especially taken with an episode featuring Giro the Germ, made for the Health and Cleanliness Council, a rather haunting warning about hygiene hazards. In this sinister short, germs hop on fly-taxis right out of dustbins and into the mucky homes of hapless Brits. It’s rather repulsive, but may well encourage you pass the duster around after you’ve had your cartoon break.

Best of all, though, is Running a Cinema (1921), which offers a few quirky insights into what a trip to the pictures was like nearly a century ago.

Shiraz: coming to a screen near you soon

Were you at the Barbican for the London Film Festival Archive Gala last year? It was a really special evening: the premiere of the BFI’s immaculate new restoration of Indian-Anglo-German romance Shiraz: A Romance of India with a stunning new score composed by Anoushka Shankar. I was there, and you can read my review here.

However, whether you missed out, or you just want to relive the magic, there is good news. Shiraz gets a theatrical release very soon – it lands in cinemas from 2 February 2018. If you want to take Shiraz home, you’ll be able to buy it on DVD/Blu-ray on 26 February too. You’ll also be able to watch Shiraz on the BFI Player, and BBC4 will broadcast a behind-the-scenes documentary on the recording of Shankar’s ambitious score at some point during the year.

Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography
Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography

Last night I had a sneak preview of the DCP of Shiraz – the digital version that will be shown in cinemas and appear on disc, with the recorded score. A repeat viewing confirmed that this is an especially gorgeous film, with beautifully composed frames full of detail. The first time round I was distracted by the leading players, but on second viewing the landscapes in the background caught my eye, not to mention a donkey scratching his neck on a tentpole, a potter spinning his wheel. And sorry, Hollywood, but all your grandest designs can’t compete with the stunning architecture in this film. Shankar’s score, too, is full of surprises, bold decisions and graceful melodies. The range of instruments and styles in this piece of music is really breathtaking, and yet it’s always sensitive to the film – a really accomplished silent movie score.

Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

There may be more good news too – although you’ll have to cross your fingers. The BFI hopes to stage some more screenings of the film with the music played live, but we will just have to wait and see …

A festive free-for-all: BFI releases silent ‘orphans’ on YouTube

Exciting news from the BFI today – especially for those of us about to break up for the holidays and looking forward to having some spare viewing time on our hands. The BFI has released more than 170 ‘orphan’ films on its YouTube channel – and they can be watched around the world as well as in the UK (unlike the BFI Player, where some of these films are also found). ‘Orphan’ films are those protected by copyright for which rights-holders are positively unknown or uncontactable. The films range from 1899 to 1985, but as you’d expect, there are several silent movies in the collection.

Here’s a short selection of some highlights, although you can see the full playlist here.

The first filmed version of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, this is from 1920, directed by Percy Nash and starring Joe NightingaleJoan Ritz and Arthur Pitt:

The Fisher Girl’s Folly (1914), a glimpse of an early two-reel drama directed by George Pearson: Continue reading A festive free-for-all: BFI releases silent ‘orphans’ on YouTube

LFF review: Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928) with Anoushka Shankar

Saturday night’s London Film Festival Archive Gala was an extraordinary experience. Regularly a highlight of the silent film year, previous galas have showcased glistening restorations of old and faded movies paired with fresh scores of mostly excellent quality. This year’s event was an exercise in enchanted restoration – with makeover and music transforming a simple film into something entirely wonderful.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Shiraz: A Romance of India was an Indian/British/German co-production from the late silent era. You might know two more films by the director Franz Osten: A Throw of Dice and Light of Asia. Shiraz is a shamelessly romantic and fairly romanticised, telling of the love affair honoured by one the most beautiful mausoleum in the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Shiraz (Himansu Rai, who also produced the film) is a humble, but exceptionally talented potter, who has a deep love for his adopted sister Selima. When Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) grows up, she is sold as a slave into the royal court and they are separated. What’s more, a love affair slowly begins to spark between Selima and Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) … Meanwhile, general’s daughter Dalia (Seeta Devi) is plotting to get her own hands on the prince.

Himansu Rai (Shiraz) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Himansu Rai (Shiraz) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

The story may seem paper-thin, but it has a beautiful surface. The romantic leads are very sweet, with the halting love story between Selima and the Prince always believable and Devi delightfully minxy. The location backdrops of the mountains and palaces are ravishing – a testament to the art direction of Promode Nath and cinematography by Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann that makes the most of natural light.

Continue reading LFF review: Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928) with Anoushka Shankar

Sound Barrier: Dunkirk (2017) & The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Sound Barrier returns with two wartime blockbusters. In this episode, Pete Baran and I are joined in the studio by the Guardian’s Nick Dastoor.

We’re debating the relative merits of Christopher Nolan’s smash-hit WWII spectacle Dunkirk and Walter Summers’ patriotic WWI re-enactment film The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

Sound Barrier: Dunkirk (2017) & The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.
The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.

Read more about The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Informer DVD/Blu review: twists and turns on the mean streets of Dublin

The Informer truly put the “international” into British International Pictures. This film, shot entirely in the Elstree studios in 1929, was adapted from an Irish novel, directed by a German, and starred a Swedish man and a Hungarian woman. As far as in-front-of-the-camera talent goes, this is exactly the kind of international collaboration that would perish with the coming of sound. Behind the scenes, British studios would only welcome in more European personnel through the 1930s, though sadly for the worst of reasons.

So The Informer is a movie on the cusp – geographically and historically. It’s fitting then that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions. The BFI restored the talkie Informer a while back, but in 2016, the silent version got the full makeover treatment, and was presented as the London Film Festival Archive Gala with a new score by Garth Knox.

 

informer-the-1929-011-after-restoration

And thank goodness it did, because, whether you have seen the stilted and shaky sound version or not, the silent Informer is a breath of fresh air. This is a truly accomplished late silent drama, with a graceful moving camera and fine performances, and all that emotion is heightened by slinky black shadows and high-angled shots that recall director Arthur Robison’s achievements in German Expressionism (you may have seen Warning Shadows, 1923). The story may be set in early 1920s Dublin, but this vampiric treatment suits it perfectly. Liam O’Flaherty pictured his moody thriller being made into a German film when it was still words on a page.

In this taut, cat-and-mouse thriller, Lars Hanson plays Gypo Nolan, one of a disintegrating band of Irish revolutionaries, who tips off the police to the whereabouts of his exiled comrade, Francis, played by Carl Harbord. Famed vamp star Lya de Putti plays the woman they both love. The story plays out in the mean streets of Dublin – there’s a claustrophobic sense of place as we feel that the characters are trapped in the city streets by their ideals as much as by their betrayals. But this city could also be any city where the people and the police are at odds. It could be Weimar Berlin, for example. And it’s uncannily like the crime-infested LA of 1940s film noir. Those shadows get everywhere.

Continue reading The Informer DVD/Blu review: twists and turns on the mean streets of Dublin

Two-for-one special offer on tickets to India on Film at BFI Southbank

The BFI’s mega India on Film season kicks off this month and continues all year. The season culminates (for us early cinephiles at least) in this year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, which will be the sumptuous silent drama Shiraz (1928), at the Barbican on 14 October 2017, beautifully restored with a brand-new score by Anoushka Shankar.

But before all that, there are plenty of films to be getting on with, and if you’d like to take advantage of a two-for-one ticket offer for the films showing at BFI Southbank in the India on Film season, step this way …

Simply quote INDIA241 when booking on line, in person or over the phone to claim the offer. Only valid for all films and events in the BFI’s India On Film season in 2017.

Please note that this ticket offer does NOT include the Archive Gala.

The first silent morsels that caught my eye in the season are a couple of talks on Saturday 20 May 2017:

The first of those talks concludes with a screening of Raja Harishchandra – a rarely seen film from 1913, and the earliest extant Indian movie. To find out a little more about the making of this film, and early Indian cinema in general, why not read a little feature I wrote for the Guardian in 2013, to mark the Centenary of Bollywood’?

If you can’t make it to BFI Southbank this year, look out for screenings of Shiraz around the country after the Archive Gala, and check out the India on Film collection on BFI Player.

 

The Goddess (1934) DVD review: gossip is a fearful thing

Ruan Lingyu appeared in her first film in 1927, aged 16. In 1935, she took her own life, just over a month before her 25th birthday. In that short time, she had appeared in many Chinese silent films and become one of the country’s best known actresses. Today she is celebrated for her delicately nuanced performances in those films that survive – she has been called the “Chinese Garbo”. However, if you’ve seen Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage say, you will also know about the troubles Lingyu encountered, and the events leading up to her shocking suicide.

Lingyu’s private life shouldn’t concern us now, any more than in 1935, but when you watch The Goddess, a stunning Chinese silent film and one of the last she made, it is difficult not to make a link between the actress and the character she plays. Lingyu’s suicide note (which may have been forged) famously read “gossip is a fearful thing”, and her early death came after she had been monstered by the press over her love life. In The Goddess, Lingyu plays another woman devastated by malicious gossip. But it’s important not to take this comparison too far – the chatter of small-minded women is not the worst of her character’s problems.

the-goddess-1934
The Goddess (1934)

The first thing to know about this film, which is every bit as beautiful and tragic as its star, is that “goddess” was a Chinese slang term for a prostitute, perhaps a slightly ironic one. Lingyu’s character embodies the perceived contradictions in that name: she is a loving mother who supports her son by nightly sex work. The crib is in the centre of her home, and her garish cheong sams are hanging on the wall. The nameless heroine has the misfortune of running into the house of a sleazy gambler, “The Boss”, when fleeing the police one night. From that moment one, her decides to exploit her, taking her earnings on the threat of harming her son. When the “goddess” attempts to send her son to school, the other mothers soon catch on to the way she earns her money, and complain to the principal, which is when our heroine faces the worst crisis of all.

Prostitution was rife in China in the 1930s and The Goddess’s story would not have been unusual. Many women were forced by poverty or trafficking into a career that was both illegal and made them vulnerable to pimps and clients – some of whom might be beasts like the Boss. If they aspired to a better, safer, more respectable life, the taint of sex work could hamper their efforts – which this film illustrates. The Goddess doesn’t feel like a campaigning film, despite a rousing speech made by the school principal, and you may feel let down by the ending. But this is a humane and very moving film – who knows whether it may have changed a few attitudes in its time?

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

Continue reading The Goddess (1934) DVD review: gossip is a fearful thing

Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

 

In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.

Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.

image003

So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.

Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.

Continue reading Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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