First things first – you’re all invited to a bank holiday Monday party! Some friends of mine, based in London’s most happening* postcode of E17 will be unveiling a plaque on 1 May 2017 to celebrate a slice of suburban London’s silent movie history. And you should be there!
Walthamstow was home to several movie studios in the silent era – Precision, British & Colonial, Broadwest and I. B. Davidson all had their premises on these streets. Why? Because silent film producers loved to shoot in the suburbs, beyond the “fog zone” of central London, where the air was muggy, and apparently the movie-savvy punters would try to get their faces on camera. But they liked to stay close enough to Theatreland that their actors could get back to work after shooting finished.
So on 1 May, actor Paul McGann (who you may know is a bit of a silent film fan) will be unveiling a special blue plaque to mark the sites of the Precision studios, and he says: “I am proud to be associated with this event to give the deserved recognition to the silent film pioneers of the last century.” There will be more plaques to follow, marking the site of each studio.
Welcome to another edition of the Silent Paris Podcast. I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema all weekend and podcasting my reports from the screenings. Saturday was a game of two halves: two silent films and two British films noir. Listen to today’s podcast to find out what I made of them …
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. Brand will accompany a screening of Alfred hitchcock’s The Ring at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 October 2015
The Ring is the only Hitchcock movie scenario that Hitch wrote himself. His highly regarded screenwriter Elliott Stannard, Hitch and Alma, his wife plotted it out together, inventing wonderful visual set-pieces such as a sideshow boxer’s rise through the ranks shown as changing fight posters over the months and the leading character’s Othello-like jealousy growing throughout a drink-fuelled dinner party.
Lillian Hall-Davis arguably precedes Anny Ondra as Hitch’s first sexy femme fatale, particularly in this film, in which she loses her head to boxing beefcake Ian Hunter despite marrying genuine athlete Carl Brisson, who is forced to fight for his wife’s affections.
I first scored this film over 10 years ago for a small jazz ensemble and have always loved its daring, its cheeky vivacity and the physicality of its fight scenes. But where did Hitch’s love of the fight game come from, and what does this eccentric film tell us about its creator?
Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?
The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.
There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.
Did you guess this one? I must confess I had an inkling. After the BFI’s rightly acclaimed restorations of Anthony Asquith’s other silent features A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground, his directorial debut Shooting Stars (1928) is about to take its turn in the key light, at the London Film Festival Archive Gala. On 16 October 2015, in the Odeon Leicester Square, a sparkling new print of this important British silent will screen with a new jazzy score by John Altman. We’ve waited a long time to hear this good news, so now all we have to do is enjoy the anticipation, book some tickets, and cross our fingers that, following previous form, Shooting Stars will also make its way to a theatrical and Blu-ray release before long.
Shooting Stars, which Asquith wrote and officially co-directed with AV Bramble, is, much like his two other silents, a romantic drama in which a love triangle precipitates violence. But this is far more glamorous than the others: it’s a peek behind the scenes of the film biz. That’s a hint of how audacious young Asquith was – his first time in the director’s chair and he was already turning the camera around in the opposite direction. It’s also a clue to how experienced he already was – he had spent time in Hollywood, as a guest of the Pickford-Fairbanks household no less, and toured German film studios as well. He was a leading light of the London Film Society, and had been working at British Instructional Films since the early 1920s. When the infamous “quota” was brought in with the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, BIF turned to fiction film-making – Asquith, and Shooting Stars, were up first.
The film’s director isn’t the only name worth noting. Shooting Stars’ cast includes some notable talent from the British silent cinema: Brian Aherne (High Treason, Underground), Annette Benson (Downhill) and Donald Calthrop (Blackmail) for starters. And if you have never had a chance to see slinky Chili Bouchier do her thing, well aren’t you in for a treat?
Here’s what the BFI has to say about it:
Shooting Stars is a dazzling debut which boasts a boldly expressionist shooting style, dramatic lighting and great performances from its leads. Annette Benson (Mae Feather) and Brian Aherne (Julian Gordon) play two mis-matched, married stars and Donald Calthrop (Andy Wilkes) a Chaplin-esque star at the same studio, with whom Mae becomes romantically involved. Chili Bouchier, Britain’s first sex symbol of the silent era, plays a key role as an actress/bathing beauty, an attractive foil to the comic antics of the comedian. The film manages to operate as a sophisticated, modern morality tale, while it’s also both an affectionate critique of the film industry and a celebration of its possibilities. It teases the audience with its revelations of how the illusions of the world of film-making conceal ironic and hidden truths
Despite the director credit going to veteran director A.V. Bramble, this is demonstrably the original work of rising talent Anthony Asquith, exhibiting all the attention-grabbing bravado of a young filmmaker with everything to prove. His original story offers sardonic insight into the shallowness of film stardom and Hollywood formulas by use of ironic counterpoint. He flaunts his dynamic cinematographic style and upgrades design and lighting by bringing in professionals.
There’s a little information about the score too. John Altman says that his score is “inspired by dance band sounds and Duke Ellington in 1927”, taking its cue from a piece of music that features in the film itself – the popular song ‘Ain’t She Sweet’.
The 18th British Silent Film Festival features some stunning highlights, re-discoveries and rareties gleaned from the BFI Archive and international collections. Highlights include the British premiere of Stephen Horne’s new musical score for The Guns of Loos (1928) and Laura Rossi performing her new score to British cinema’s first epic Jane Shore (1915) at Leicester Cathedral which recently saw the reinternment of Richard III who features in the film as a key protagonist.
A missing-believed-lost early Hitchcock collaboration, the comedic Three Live Ghosts (1922) will be featured after recently being re-discovered in the Russian film archive. We’ll also have the British premiere of a brilliant new score by Bronnt Industries Kapital for the Soviet classic Arsenal (1929)
Michel Strogoff (1926)
Our theme of ‘heroes and villains’ will be explored in stunning masterpieces of European cinema including Michel Strogoff, (1926) featuring the charismatic Russian star,
If there was ever a week to emphasise the power of archive film, this is it. On the weekend, the Sun on Sunday released what appeared to be home movie footage from the early 1930s of Edward VIII apparently teaching the young Princess Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother to make Nazi salutes. Not surprisingly, those few frames of film have caused a media storm – with debates raging over whether Edward was not the only Nazi sympathiser in the family, or the footage should have been released at all. It seems to me that the princess is more interested in showing off her Scottish dancing moves than practising the salute – she is on holiday at Balmoral after all. And her young sister Margaret really isn’t in the least bit involved. But what do I know? This is home movie footage, of course, not intended to be scrutinised by the public, even if it may after all hint at some disturbing information in the public interest.
The fact remains, however, that this film is owned and still guarded, privately. If there is context to this clip, we are denied it, because all that has been released is a silent, heavily watermarked 17-second snatch on the Sun website. In the era of FOI requests (the Freedom of Information Act is 10 years old this year), post-WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, after MPs’ expenses and the Prince Charles letters, full disclosure and open access is where it’s at.
And it is in this climate of free access to information that the Associated Press and British Movietone have decided to release a monumental slice of their archive on to YouTube today, where it can be seen, shared and embedded by the public. There are two news YouTube channels as of today: one for the AP Archive and one for British Movietone. More than a million minutes of newsreel footage has been digitised and uploaded, creating what the archive call “a view-on-demand visual encyclopedia, offering a unique perspective on the most significant moments of modern history”.
The YouTube channels will comprise a collection of more than 550,000 video stories dating from 1895 to the present day. For example, viewers can see video from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modelling the fashions of the 1960s
For silent enthusiasts, the fact that this upload includes the Henderson collection of news footage will be particularly welcome. In effect, this is not a release of footage (many of these films were always available to watch on the AP Archive site), but a way of liberating it.
I had a good nose around, and spoke to the artistic director Shira MacLeod as well as Anna McNally from the university archives. Take a look around this picture gallery, and have a listen to the podcast, which explains the unique history of this building, and what we can expect from its forthcoming programme.
According to the website of the Phoenix independent cinema in Leicester, the British Silent Film Festival is moving back northwards this year! The BSFF began in the East Midlands town back in 1998 and has subsequently been based at the Barbican and the Cinema Museum in London, in Cambridge and Nottingham. It will return to the Phoenix in Leicester from 10-13 September 2015, so mark it in your diaries now.
Here’s what the Phoenix has to say about the event.
Formed in 1998, the Festival fulfils an important role – presenting a wealth of treasures from the silent period to audiences who would not otherwise have access to their own film heritage and to the wealth of international silent cinema.
The Festival is curated, organised and presented by Laraine Porter, Bryony Dixon and Neil Brand and a team of UK experts and advisors in this field.
Open to all, the films are presented with live music from the world’s leading professional silent film accompanists (and we hope, local guest musicians) in a variety of entertaining and accessible ways.
Hat-tip to Jenny Stewart for the news – more details to follow as soon as they arrive.
Meanwhile, back in the capital, the popular British Silent Film Festival Symposium will take place again this year at King’s College London. The one day event will be held on 24 April, and proposals for presentations should be sent to Lawrence Napper at King’s by 20 March 2015 – email Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk.
Drawing on the success of our previous events, we again seek to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema. This one-day symposium is intended as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930.
As such we would like to invite presentations from people working in all aspects of this field, including cinema in the wider context of theatrical, literary and popular cultures; cinema and World War I; cinema and technology, exhibition, reception and critique.
In the light of a recent AHRC award investigating the transition between silent and sound cinema in the UK (1927-1933), we would be particularly interested to include papers on this topic.
Excitingly, the day will be topped off with a screening of one of my very favourite British silent films: Paul Czinner’s The Woman he Scorned (1929), starring the wonderful Pola Negri.
The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe
Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?
The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.
While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.
Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.
And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good?(1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.
Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.
As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.
Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.
Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.
FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.
This article contains spoilers, though as the films discussed deal with historical events, we hope no one will be too disappointed.
In 1927, as the flood of war-themed films identified by critic Caroline Lejeune the previous year developed into a torrent, two British companies were drawing on the legacy of British Instructional Films’ (BIF) war reconstruction series. Both The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and The Somme (MA Wetherell) could claim to be legitimate heirs to the series. The former was directed by Walter Summers and produced by Harry Bruce Woolfe, while the latter shared a number of personnel with BIF’s other productions including its producer, E Gordon Craig.
In their release strategies, too, the two films followed the model of their predecessors – The Somme opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion on 5 September for an exclusive run, while The Battles of Coronel and Falklands Islands was screened privately for the royal family at Balmoral before opening at the New Gallery on 15 September. These openings were announced together in the press coverage, implying a parallel between the two films. Both films went on general release during Armistice week, where they competed with a number of other British films with war themes, including Remembrance (Bert Wynne, 1927) and Roses of Picardy (Maurice Elvey, 1927). In the premier London houses, they were succeeded by further exclusive runs of new war dramas, Blighty (Adrian Brunel, 1927) replacing The Somme at Marble Arch, and Land of Hope and Glory (Harley Knoles, 1927) in the Plaza, Regent Street.
Despite these similarities, it is nevertheless possible to identify divergent strategies in the two films. The self-conscious use of formal moments of remembrance evident in the 1925 Ypres (Walter Summers) was incorporated into a number of the fictional war dramas, including Remembrance, Blighty and Land of Hope and Glory. The balance of drama and documentary elements continued to shift, and both The Somme and Coronel and Falklands develop the more dramatic shooting structure evident in Mons (Walter Summers, 1926), although in different directions. Mindful of the criticisms of Mons, director MA Wetherell re-instated the diagram elements of earlier films in his explanation of the overall strategy of The Somme (a decision which earned him praise from a number of reviewers), while Summers took advantage of the relatively contained story of Coronel and Falklands to offer a film much more clearly driven by the narrative conventions of fiction film-making. As part of this, the exploits of Victoria Cross (VC) winners – so consistent an element in all of the previous films – were dropped entirely from Coronel and Falklands, which offers instead a much clearer identification with motives and inner emotions of the captains of both the British and German ships, conveyed through classical editing.
Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17. Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.
Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.