Tag Archives: books

Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

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.

Marion Byron & Anita Garvin

 

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

Advertisements

Silent London Poll of 2017 – the winners!

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!

Blus

Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2017

GOLD: You’re going to hear this name a lot tonight. The best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2017 is London Symphony – out now in the US from Flicker Alley. Some of these votes may also have been anticipating the UK DVD release in February from New Wave.

SILVER: Another British film gets a medal, though it’s more international than most. Second prize goes to the BFI’s Dual Format DVD/Blu release of Arthur Robison’s The Informer.

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.

London Symphony (2017)
London Symphony (2017)

Best silent film theatrical release of 2017

GOLD: It’s a second gold medal for London Symphony, which went on an ambitious tour of UK venues in 2017 – and is still going!

SILVER: Second place goes to Eureka’s theatrical release of Der Müde Tod – amazing to see one of Lang’s more obscure silents get this treatment. Brava!

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.

Continue reading Silent London Poll of 2017 – the winners!

Silent Santa: classics for your Christmas list

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.

London Symphony (2017)

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.

Helen of Four Gates (1920)

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”.

Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks

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.

Continue reading Silent Santa: classics for your Christmas list

Your silent cinema shelfies – in pictures

Clara Bow
Clara Bow

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…

Take a spin for yourselves:

Continue reading Your silent cinema shelfies – in pictures

My silent cinema shelfie

  
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.

 
Continue reading My silent cinema shelfie