This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television
Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.
This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.
My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.
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.
The British Silent Film Festival is great, but it only happens once a year, when we are lucky. So the annual British Silent Film Festival Symposium, taking place each spring at King’s College London, is a very Good Thing indeed. It’s a meeting of the clan, really, a gathering together of everyone who cares about British silent cinema in this town, and hopefully beyond. At the symposium, these likeminded souls can gather to watch films, debate them, listen to papers and eat biscuits.
This year’s event takes place over two days (6-7 April 2017) and builds on the format of previous years by incorporating screenings in between the papers. And biscuits. These screenings are of little-seen films, and the papers cover a wide range of topics all within the field of British cinema and cinemagoing during the silent era.
Here is what the organisers have to say:
The British Silent Film Festival affords scholars, archivists and enthusiasts the opportunity to re-asses film-making in Britain between 1895 and 1930. By bringing forgotten films out of the archive, and encouraging scholarly activity that can place those films in appropriate production and reception contexts, the festival has been the driving force behind a complete re-appraisal of what was previously an almost unknown cinema.
This two-day symposium is intended to complement the festival itself – an opportunity to consider the achievements and the key debates brought to light by the festival, and to discuss the new directions that future research may take. Highlights of the programme this year include screenings of A Lowland Cinderella (Sidney Morgan, 1921) starring Joan Morgan, in a romance set in Scotland but filmed on the English south coast, and two films not seen publically since their release – The Unsleeping Eye (Alexander Macdonald, 1928) and Empire adventure shot by a Scottish production company, and A Light Woman (Adrian Brunel, 1928) which was previously thought lost, but has now been discovered in a truncated home-market version.
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.