This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson. If you haven’t seen The Wind, be warned that this article discusses the ending of the film.
Ethereal, delicate, poetic, otherworldly are just some of the somewhat elusive adjectives used to describe Lillian Gish since the early years of her stardom. Effusive admirer Vachel Lindsay said “Lillian Gish could be given wings and a wand if she only had directors and scenario writers who believed in fairies.” However, in reality Gish had her feet firmly on the ground. She had a career spanning eight decades, was a spokeswoman for cinema’s history with high artistic ambitions for herself and for the medium. King Vidor, who directed her in La Boheme (1926) commented: “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”
In his autobiography A Tree is a Tree Vidor said that Gish was incredibly assertive and had her own thoughts about the filmmaking process. Indeed, she knew a great deal about cinematography and in particular lighting. She had learned her trade during the more collaborative process of the silent era, where she had received extensive tutelage from DW Griffith in a production context where actors frequently worked without scripts and where they were encouraged to collaborate on characterisation and staging. She may only have had had a small acting role in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), however she designed and furnished sets, helped with lighting and cutting, wrote intertitles and advertising copy.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson
Cecil B DeMille is perhaps predominantly remembered for his big-budgeted biblical epics of the 1940s and 50s. For instance, the captivatingly lurid Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments are both still television staples. However, DeMille had a career that spanned several decades and he made more than 50 films in the silent era alone. Many of these early titles were similarly lavish and sensationalist, whilst also seeking to exploit contemporary social concerns.
Jesse L Lasky, Vice President of Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), encouraged “modern stuff with plenty of clothes, rich sets, and action”. Savvy to the growing female audience, Lasky contracted screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson to portray women “in the sort of role that the feminists in the country are now interested in … the kind of girl that dominates … who jumps in and does a man’s work.” The result was several delightful, enormously successful, marital comedies, starting with Old Wives for New and followed by Don’t Change Your Husband. Why Change Your Wife? completes the “does what it says on the tin” trilogy. With their focus on female glamour and desire, these films offer more permutations of the “New Woman”, which Birds Eye View has explored in previous Sound & Silents strands.
Considering his somewhat indomitable, patriarchal image, it is perhaps surprising to find a large number of women amongst Demille’s regular collaborators. Anne Bauchens edited his films, from Carmen (1915) all the way through to The Ten Commandments (1959), his last film. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that it was an essential clause in every contract that she be his editor. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner he is quoted as saying that: “‘though a gentle person, professionally she is as firm as a stone wall … We argue over virtually every picture.”
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson.
Sumurun screens with a live score by Amira Kheir at BFI Southbank as part of Birds Eye View Film Festival on Thursday 4 April at 6.10pm. Read more here.
Sumurun is the product of an intensely creative time in the German film industry when an extraordinary range of artistic and entrepreneurial talent emerged: creating ambitious films that challenged American productions for the international market.
Paul Davidson, the director of the German production firm Projektions-AG Union(PAGU), was a film producer unafraid of financial risk-taking and he invested large amounts of capital early on in the industry. In 1918 the company was merged with several other firms under the umbrella of Ufa, with Davidson becoming an executive on its board. Much of Ufa’s success was the result of the absorption of PAGU’s talent, which included directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Wegener and stars such as Pola Negri and Ossi Oswalda. Indeed because of its established reputation it still produced under the PAGU brand and retained a considerable degree of independence.
With financial support from the German bank, Ufa began a policy of big-budget films aimed at the international market. In 1918, Davidson suggested Lubitsch try making one of these Großfilmes, epic productions indebted to the Italian spectacle films, such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) – films which in their budgets and enormous sets were an attempt to compete with Hollywood. Lubitsch assembled a regular production team around him for a series of these ambitious films, including his co-writer Hanns Kräly, the set designer Kurt Richter, and cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl. Famous actors such as Pola Negri added star allure to these films and became a big draw for audiences’ world-wide. Sumurun is one of several extraordinary films that resulted from these collaborations during the late 1910s and early 1920s.
Pola Negri was born Barbara Appollonia Chalupiec in Yanowa, near Lipno in Poland. She took as her professional name the last name of Ada Negri, an Italian poet she admired and the diminutive form of Apollonia as a first name. She had danced at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg and had acted on stage and screen in Poland before being invited by Max Reinhardt to Germany to star in Sumurun (a story derived from The Arabian Nights) after she had appeared in a Polish theatrical version. It was here that Negri met Lubitsch, who was a Reinhardt player and comedy short director at the time, and who was playing the role of the hunchback opposite her in the German theatrical version (a role he would recreate in the film). They became good friends and he made her the star of several of the large-scale costume pictures for Ufa. Lubitsch told her: “We’re going to make a picture of Sumurun. Reinhardt’s letting us have the sets and costumes. We’ll use most of the actors from the stage productions. We’ll hardly even have to rehearse. It’ll cost practically nothing.” (Pola Negri, Memoirs of a Star). Production started in September 1920. It was substantially cut and released by First International in the US in October 1921 with the new title One Arabian Night. Negri remembered its production as: “a very easy and happy chore. Except for a few Lubitsch innovations, it was essentially a photographed stage play.” (Memoirs of a Star)
This kind of dismissive assessment has plagued One Arabian Night, with even relatively recent biographies of Lubitsch granting the film scant attention. However it is an important film, both as an example of Germany’s aesthetic advancements and also in the context of Negri’s and Lubitsch’s career. For instance it was this film that impressed Mary Pickford so much that she brought Lubitsch to the US for Rosita (1923). The film’s critical neglect is most likely a result of viewing the bowdlerised US print, which is missing thirty minutes. Thankfully now we can see the fully restored version.
Many historians agree that German films improved when Hollywood films began to be seen in Germany from 1921, and yet, interesting approaches to cinematography preceding the American influence are evident in films such Sumurun. For instance, in the opening of the film where the light streaming through blinds in the caravan causes chiaroscuro patterns. Cameraman Sparkuhl also has a tendency to hold closeups from a high angle, which adds variety to some of the scenes. Indeed, most of the closeups of Pola Negri, particularly the scenes of her dancing in Sumurun, are shot in this manner. This may have been a way of singling Negri out from the rest of the characters; similar to the technique of filming stars that was developing in Hollywood.
German film’s reputation for elaborate set design is evident in Sumurun. There is a rhythm both in the set design and also in the movement of figures within that design. Lotte Eisner has noted how the American musical would pattern itself on the “delicate arabesques” in this film (The Haunted Screen). Contemporary reviews often observed how Lubitsch’s films were on a par with the best American productions. Variety reviewing the film in 1921 commented: “The production is colorful throughout, the atmosphere of the East being perfect in detail.” These films were incredibly successful in Germany and abroad. Their settings, such as Sumurun’s Persia, and subject matter, offered audiences an escape from everyday reality. Negri observed that “one of the reasons [for the success of Sumurun] was certainly because its intensely romantic oriental fatalism was precisely the kind of escapism a war-weary people craved for” (Memoirs of a Star).
Negri and Lubitsch were among the first international celebrities to be brought to the US – later director-star duos included Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo. Negri arrived under contract with Paramount in 1922 to a storm of publicity. The press went wild over an affair with Charles Chaplin and supposed spats between her and Gloria Swanson, whose top star status at Paramount she challenged. Her vampish screen persona was conflated with anecdotes about her private life. The press spread rumours about her many lovers and delighted in reporting quirky acts such as her walking a tiger on a leash down Hollywood Boulevard.
Negri had became known abroad for playing roles where women exploited their sexuality for economic and political gain (see also Carmen and Madame Dubarry). Her swaggering sexuality is parodied sublimely by Marion Davies in The Patsy (1926). Diane Negra has observed the transformation that her persona undertook in the move from Germany to Hollywood. In the Hollywood films her femme fatale image was tempered and the films frequently ended happily. The American films also deemphasised the ethnic and class dimensions found in earlier films. Her US films were not as successful as the European ones and Negra argues that this was the result of her ethnic sexuality. Her Italian surname, Polish ethnicity and connections to German film industry meant she could not (or would not) be fully assimilated. In public and private she appeared to resist being Americanised. “As the unassimilatable woman, both in ethnic and sexual terms, she stood for a type that was in fact far more transgressive than the thoroughly American, upper-middle-class flapper who, for all her supposed flouting of social conventions, was nearly always safely married off in the end.” (‘Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology’, Diane Negra).
Birds Eye View is one of Silent London’s favourite film festivals – a celebration of female film-makers with an exceptionally strong and musically adventurous silent cinema strand. Last year, even though the festival was on haitus, the Sound & Silents programme brought us a selection of newly scored Mary Pickford films. This year, in keeping with the overall theme of the festival, the screenings have an Arabian flavour.
The two films in the Sound & Silents segment are, to be frank, German – but the first, Lotte Reiniger’s trailblazing cutwork animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is based on a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights, as also, perhaps more loosely, is the second, Ernst Lubitsch’s boisterous harem farce Sumurun (1920). Achmed, widely acknowledged as the first animated feature film, and still as elegantly beautiful today as in the 1920s, probably needs no introduction from me.
The latter film is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine – a rather well-made romp, enlivened by the sinuous presence of the young Pola Negri, and the more demure charms of Swedish ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist. Lubitsch himself appears as a leery clown with hunchback, but his real star turn is behind the camera, crafting a fast-paced and vivacious comedy out of unpromising material. Sumurun had been a stage hit for Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin, and Negri had starred in both that production as well as one back in her hometown of Warsaw – perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that this film is so slick, with such larger-than-life performances, including Paul Wegener as a bully-boy sheik. I will concede, of course, that it is rarely, if ever, politically correct.
Sound & Silents is as much admired for its musical commissions as its programming, and it’s intriguing that these German Arabian pastiches will be accompanied by scored from musicians whose roots lie in both Western Europe and the Middle East – British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and Sudanese-Italian Amira Kheir.
Multi-award-winning contemporary classical composer Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemblecombining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.
Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Kheir has recently won acclaim for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts.
This is a guest post for Silent London to mark International Women’s Day by Kelly Robinson, curator of the Birds Eye View Sound and Silents programme.
Birds Eye View’s Mary Pickford Revived event is part of WOW – Women of the World Festival 2012 at the Southbank Centre. Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley with The New York Hat and Female of the Species screen at the Southbank Centre on 9 March at 8pm (find out more). Sparrows screens at Hackney Picturehouse on 11 March at 4pm (find out more).
“My success has been due to the fact that women like the pictures in which I appear” – Mary Pickford
In any serious study of early cinema, prominent men such as the “Father of Film” DW Griffith and silent clown Charles Chaplin are always first to feature. Happily though, recent literature has sought to readdress this critical gender imbalance by also highlighting the contribution of similarly extraordinary pioneers – including Mary Pickford.
Pickford was certainly a creative force on a par with Chaplin, and the two had a lot in common. Like Chaplin, she also performed in the theatre from a young age to support her family. At 13, a precocious Pickford harangued theatre impresario David Belasco to hire her, apparently telling him: “I’m the father of my family.” Like many other theatre actors, she was initially disdainful of cinema but was drawn in by the financial rewards. She enquired at the bustling Biograph studios for work, and it was here that she met Griffith, the director of two of the beautiful shorts that feature as part of the Southbank programme.
The films in this programme span a period of just seven years but this was a time of rapid change. Indeed, in the months that separate Griffith’s The New York Hat and Female of the Species we can see striking developments in film form and style. The volume of films Biograph churned out was phenomenal and between 1909 and 1910 Pickford appeared in 80 films for Griffith.
Pickford said: “I got what no one else wanted and I took anything that came my way because I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.” Indeed she quickly became a favourite with audiences, although they didn’t yet know her name; she was referred to as the ‘”girl with the curls”. Once she had established the extent of her fame, she asked for a rise from Griffith and her name on the screen.
Mary Pickford is one of the most fascinating figures in Hollywood history. She was “America’s sweetheart” with long blonde curls and a fairytale marriage to handsome Douglas Fairbanks. But she was also the co-founder of United Artists and producer, star and director in all but name on some of her most successful pictures. More than just a pretty face indeed. Pickford knew exactly how the movies worked, and having grown up in terrible poverty as a child in Toronto, she knew what life was all about too, which you can see clearly in her finest screen performances.
Therefore, it’s a pleasure to learn that this year’s Birds Eye View Sound and Silents commissions will celebrate Mary Pickford with a triple-bill of her films at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre. The New York Hat (1912), The Female of the Species (1912) and Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918) will be screened, accompanied by new scores by three very different musical talents:
Bouncing off Pickford’s on-screen radiance are three contemporary female artists. Anna Meredith is an in-demand composer/performer of acoustic and electronia, Welsh-born Roshi absorbs Iranian influences in her experimental folk. And multi-instrumentalist Tanya Auclair merges British, Rwandan and Canadian roots.
The New York Hat and The Female of the Species are both short films directed by DW Griffith, featuring Pickford in wildly different roles; the first of them was written by a young Anita Loos. Another legendary Hollywood screenwriter, Frances Marion, wrote the scenario for Amarilly, which is closer to feature-length and features Pickford as a young woman from a poor family who meets an upper-class sculptor but falls foul of his snobbish and cruel aunt.
The Mary Pickford Revived event is part of the Women of the World Festival and takes place at 8pm on 9 March 2012 at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre. Tickets cost £15 and are available here.
Also as part of the Sound and Silents programme, the magnificently gothic and strangely comic Sparrows (1926), one of Pickford’s greatest films, will be shown at Hackney Picturehouse on 11 March, with a live score by Aristazabal Hawkes from the Guillemots. You may remember that the score was commissioned by BEV last year and was due to be performed at the BFI Southbank, but the performance was cancelled. Sounds like a must-see to me. You can buy tickets here.
To find out more about the Birds Eye View Film Festival, which returns next year, visit the website.
Disappointing news this week, as Birds Eye View announced that it will not be putting on a festival in 2012, due to a cut in its public funding. You can read more about the announcement here. This is a real shame for many reasons, not least the festival’s track record of commissioning cutting-edge scores for silent films from some wonderful musicians.
To tide us over while we wait for the festival’s no-doubt triumphant return in 2013, Birds Eye View will be staging some one-off events, including a touring programme of highlights from its fantastic Sound & Silents strand. You’ll see these popping up on the Silent London calendar, and on Facebook and Twitter as they are announced, but here are a couple for your diary straight away.
Blue Roses will perform her score for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Arnolfini in Bristol on 18 February 2012. Tickets will be on sale soon.
Imogen Heap and the Holst Singers will present their soundtrack to The Seashell and the Clergyman at the Roundhouse in London on 26 February 2012 and at the Sage, Gateshead on 27 February 2012. Tickets for the London show are on sale now.
For more information, visit the Coming Soon section of the Birds Eye View website.
No festival worth its salt is without a silent film screening these days – which is a great way to introduce people to this world. Rock festivals increasingly offer cinema tents and film festivals are often involved in commissioning new scores for films, or simply offering musicians an opportunity to perform their soundtracks in front of a large audience. It’s well worth keeping an eye on what’s going at festivals, even if you’re not planning to attend: what debuts at a festival one year, may turn up in your city the next. Here’s a selection of interesting festival events coming up in the next month or so alone.
At the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons (19-21 August), the rock band Minima are performing an improvised set to a selection of early science films in the Einstein Tent. Over in the Cinema Tent, Blue Roses will perform her piano score to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920). You may remember that this score first appeared as part of the Birds Eye View Festival’s Sound & Silents strand back in March. Watch out for news of a forthcoming UK Sound & Silents tour on their website.
The following week, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Minima will perform their score to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari six nights in a row – kicking off at midnight.
Also in Edinburgh and courtesy of the Birds Eye View Film Festival Sounds & Silents strand, there will be a screening of Lotte Reiniger’s Hansel & Gretel with a live score by Micachu – that’s at the Edinburgh Art Festival.
Also on the bank holiday Monday, Bath Film Festival is hosting a screening of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the short film One Week, with live music from James Harpham.
At the beginning of September, the Little White Lies cinedrome at the End of the Road festival in Dorset will be showing all kinds of good things, including The Great White Silence.
Back in London, on 17 September, gothic electronic duo In the Nursery will soundtrack The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in a pop-up cinema as part of the Portobello Film Festival. And as reported elsewhere, the Peckham Free Film Festival is screening Safety Last and Battleship Potemkin, on 16 and 18 September respectively. And entrance to all of those screenings can be had for the very reasonable price of zero pence exactly.
The New Forest Film Festival has a very exciting event planned for 18 September. The Dodge Brothers (featuring Mark Kermode) and Neil Brand are teaming up to score another movie. The Ghost That Never Returns is a Soviet film directed by Abram Room (Bed and Sofa) about a fugitive from jail being chased by an assassin in South America. What makes the screening even more exciting is that the cinema will be powered by bicycle – it’s a movie, a gig and a workout, all in one. The Dodge Brothers’ performances have been a highlight of recent British Silent Film Festivals, so let’s hope we see this one in London soon.
The Branchage Film Festival in Jersey commissions and hosts all sorts of fascination film/music combinations, and holds events in London throughout the year too. Its festival closer this year is a very beautiful thing. On Sunday 25 September, Simon Fisher Turner and the Elysian Quartet will play their intensely emotional score for The Great White Silence live at Jersey Opera House. Not to be missed.
In October, of course, it will be time for the 55th London Film Festival. Watch this space to find out silent film events await us there.
Latitude is a damn cool festival, bringing together music, theatre, poetry, comedy and multicoloured sheep in one beautiful package. Now they’ve have added silent film to the deal, and it’s pretty much irresistible. The wonderful people at Birds Eye View are bringing some of the highlights of this year’s festival to the Suffolk countryside, putting on a spectacular multimedia show at Latitude’s Film and Music Arena. You might have seen some of these performances at the Birds Eye View festival in March, but for those of us who missed them is a very welcome opportunity. This is what they’ve got lined up:
An a cappella choral score from Grammy award winner Imogen Heap to the first ever surrealist film ‘The Seashell and the Clergyman’ (Germaine Dulac, 1927) with the Holst Singers; Micachu and an old cassette player to Lotte Reiniger’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1955); haunting vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Seaming accompanying Maya Derren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943) and Tara Busch’s compelling performance alongside Lois Weber’s early thriller ‘Suspense’ (1913). In addition, hotly tipped Blue Roses is re-scoring classic ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1920) and fashion photographer and filmmaker Wendy Bevan is bringing a dark 1930s cabaret inspired performance with her new band Temper Temper.
If those films and artists are unfamiliar to you this review of the Sound & Silents night at the Southbank Centre by Bidisha gives a real flavour of what you can expect. She’s pretty enthusiastic about it. And rightly so: I’m a real fan of Tara Busch’s spooky, icy score for Weber’s Suspense, in particular. And you can find out more about Blue Roses, who will be scoring Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, here.
This year, Latitude Festival is headline by The National, Paolo Nutini and Suede. You can find out more about the festival, including how to buy tickets, here on the official website.
Yes, yes, I know, Sparrows is playing at the BFI Southbank on Tuesday 15 March with a live score by Aristazabal Hawkes from the Guillemots. But you may not have noticed this note on the BFI web page for that screening:
Please note, this film will now be projected from high quality video on Tue 15 March as the specially written score has been locked at that speed. For customers who wish to see the film projected from the 35mm print with live improvised piano accompaniment, we have arranged a special screening on Sun 20 March 13:00 NFT2. Ticket-holders should contact the box office via phone or in person for an exchange or refund. We apologise for any inconvenience.
So, for the 35mm fans among you or perhaps those who just couldn’t get tickets for the first (sold-out) screening in NFT3, this is a godsend. It will definitely be a shame to miss out on Hawkes’s score, but it’s great to get the chance to see the film on film, as it were.
Sparrows (1926) is set in a creepy “baby farm” in the middle of a swamp. The collection of orphans who live there are terrorised by the owner, Mr Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Their only defence against this brute is the oldest among them, plucky Molly (Mary Pickford). But can she lead the youngsters to safety, in such perilous circumstances? Start growing your nails now, because you’ll be chewing on them for sure. Is that a bit gross? Sorry.
Sparrows screens at the BFI Southbank on 20 March 2011 at 1pm in NFT2. Tickets are £9.50 or less for members and concessions. They’re available here. There will be live improvised piano accompaniment at this screening.