True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.
“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”
The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…
Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..
Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.
Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.
Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934
Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)
A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.
This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.
Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.
The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama
Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)
You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.
This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.
Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown, but this book should encourage more screenings.
Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.
Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection
By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)
The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.
And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?
I wrote a little more on this book for the April 2019 issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale next week.
These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.
Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa
In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.
An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes→
There ain’t no party like a Silent London Poll-Winners’ Party. Why? Partly because this is a virtual party, so you can join in the fun, and still stick to your Dry January #goals. Alternatively, take a shot every time you spot a typo and boy will this blogpost go with a swing. Not only that, but we politely declined Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s offer to host this year, so fingers crossed, the prizes will go to their rightful winners, right away.
While I shuffle the envelopes and the guests sashay down the red carpet, a little announcement. Every year the poll gets more international (although obviously the British bias is strong). Plus, this year we had the most votes we had had in years. As you are free to nominate whatever you like (and you did!), the answers were pretty diverse. So in the 2017 poll, I am awarding Gold, Silver and Bronze awards for the very first time. At Silent London, we like to share the love!
So, as the sports commentators say, let’s find out who, and what, podiumed this year!
BRONZE: It’s another Flicker Alley release at number three! The notorious Behind the Door, directed by Irvin V Willat, restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and once seen, never forgotten.
BRONZE: The Informer places here too, for its theatrical run after the 2016 LFF Archive Gala.
Best modern silent of 2017
GOLD: Can you guess? It’s another gold medal for London Symphony!
SILVER: Lots of you voted for Bill Morrison’s magical documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time. And who can blame you? Not strictly a modern silent but I see exactly why you love it.
BRONZE:The Moonshiners takes third place. This Finnish short, directed by Juho Kuosmanen, is actually a remake of Finland’s first ever fiction film – the original is sadly now lost. You can read more about The Moonshiners in the February 2018 edition of Sight & Sound, too.
With one week to go before the big day, the Silent London elves bring you a selection of festive gift recommendations. These are great ideas to buy for the sexy silent cinephiles in your life – or to spend your gift vouchers on in the sales.
I have mostly linked to UK Amazon for ease, but you should be able to find these elsewhere online, direct from the supplier or (hopefully) in a shop near you.
A silent symphony
London Symphony, Alex Barrett’s gorgeous, moving tribute to the capital city is out to buy on multiregion Blu-ray now from the good folks at Flicker Alley. Also included on the disc is a 1933 archive film London Medley, as well as an interview with Barrett and his short form Hungerford Bridge. It’s a brilliant, beautiful modern city symphony, with a cameo from yours truly, and possibly a couple of other faces you will recognise. Readers in the UK may want to wait until the UK DVD release in February from New Wave.
The perfect introduction
New to silent cinema? Or just want to read an intelligent, refreshing perspective on late teens and 1920s cinema? Lawrence Napper’s Silent Cinema: Before the pictures got small is a valuable, and highly readable guide to pre-sound film. I loved it. Regular readers of this site will especially enjoy the hurrah for British silent cinema: “thrillingly cosmopolitan”.
Film on the front line
The history buff in your life will be fascinated by the Imperial War Museum release of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) on Blu-ray and DVD. Geoffrey Malins’ followup to The Battle of the Somme (1916) is more tightly constructed and cinematically shot with a greater focus on the soldiers than strategy. It is presented here in a crisp, fresh restoration with a beautiful score by Laura Rossi, and a reconstruction of the recommended medley score from 1917, compiled by Stephen Horne.
Gosh you lot are incredibly well read, aren’t you? After I shared my little silent cinema shelfie a week ago, many of you returned the favour – and now I am suffering from serious library envy. It’s all to the good though – nosing through other people’s bookshelves is one of my favourite vices. And the same goes for many of you, I suspect.
Themes emerged in each bookshelf portrait – quite a few of you are devoted to silent comedy above all else, one of you has a grand passion for Rudolph Valentino, some bookshelves were adorned with figurines of favourite film-makers, and more or less everybody had a copy of The Parade’s Gone By…
When I am not watching silent movies, I’m often reading about them. Or writing about them. Or dancing in my kitchen to Taylor Swift, but that’s another matter entirely.
The point is that there are a lot of great and not-so great silent cinema books out there. And I have a few of both. Recently the frequently hilarious Movies Silently blog posted a list of silent film books perfect for beginners, and on the BFI website, Geoff Andrew listed the cinema books he truly loves. Inspired by both those posts, here is my silent cinema “shelfie”. It’s not my full collection, but an edit – a representative selection of the silent film books I have loved, or leaned on.
A couple of these are books I don’t entirely love (can you guess?), one infuriates me, and many of them I worship wholeheartedly. A few are highfalutin texts I used as a student – and still dip into now. Those are for theory, history and analysis – which are essential. Some satisfy my greed for gossip and glamour – ditto.
You’ll spot a classic picture book, and a new one too. There’s a novel in there, because silent cinema inspires fiction as well as fact, and a list book, although I claim to dislike lists. There’s an autobiography and two biographies, which are all more entertaining than any novel.
There are two books here by Kevin Brownlow. And the other obvious bias is towards writing by and about women. I wouldn’t have it any other way
The Giornate catalogue stands in for all its erudite siblings, of course. And there’s a recent favourite in there too – which I am evangelical about.