Another podcast, and this time it’s all about the laughs in our comedy special. I’m joined in the studio by Phil Concannon of Philonfilm.net, Ayse Behçet, who writes the Charlie’s London series for Silent London, and podcast expert Pete Baran. Plus Chris Edwards of the wonderful Silent Volume blog also contributes a few well-chosen words on his favourite silent film: Exit Smiling, starring Beatrice Lillie.
We’ll be talking about our favourite silent comedies, and yours, and perhaps touching on a few films and film-makers you won’t expect. Plus we’ll be reviewing some recent silent film screenings, Ayse will be reporting back from the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna and we’ll be taking a look at the calendar too.
There’s also a lot of business about trousers. And possibly the odd 90-year-old spoiler.
The Farnborough Symphony Orchestra begins its 90th anniversary year by performing the live accompaniment to two screenings of the 1927 comedy classic silent film The General at Farnham Maltings on Saturday 17 March. The General, directed by and starring Buster Keaton, was recently listed in The Independent as one of the 10 best silent films, and features some of the most dangerous (and explosive) stunts with steam trains ever filmed. Carl Davis’ score includes every famous civil war song, as well as a tender folk song the composer’s grandmother used to sing him when he used to sit on her knee. The General was described by Orson Welles as “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made” and this unique performance, conducted by the FSO’s charismatic musical director Mark Fitz-Gerald, will delight young and old alike.
The General screens on Saturday 17 March at at 3pm & 7.45pm. Tickets are priced at £10 for adults or £5 for children or students in full-time education and are available from the FSO Ticket Secretary on 07775 789477, Farnham Maltings Box Office on 01252 745444 or online at www.farnboroughsymphony.org.uk
I hate to admit it, but there are good reasons to leave London sometimes. Bristol, for example, can lay a good claim to being the capital of silent cinema in this country, thanks mostly to the year-round efforts of the marvellous people at Bristol Silents. Indeed, come January there is nowhere finer for the discerning silent comedy fan to be. The annual Slapstick Festival is a four-day, multi-venue extravaganza of comedy, mostly of the silent era, presented by comedians and experts – and accompanied by live music.
The 2012 Slapstick Festival will take place from 26-29 January 2012, and the full lineup has just been announced. Yes, there will be some more recent comedy courtesy of gala screenings featuring Dad’s Army, Monty Python and the French film-maker Pierre Étaix. But Slapstick Festival is noted for its passionate endorsement of silent comedy, and it’s here in spades.
Kevin Brownlow will be talking about Buster Keaton and showing footage from his documentary A Hard Act to Follow, while Griff Rhys-Jones will introduce a night of silent comedy including a screening of The General at Colston Hall with music from Günter Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. On the last day of the festival, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ian Lavender and Barry Cryer will also introduce their favourite Buster Keaton shorts.
Historian David Robinson will give an illustrated lecture, with clips, on Charlie Chaplin and also discuss his work with fan and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar; Barry Cryer will present a Harold Lloyd double-bill and Graeme Garden will make a case for the debonair Charley Chase. David Wyatt will give two presentations: one talking about lesser-known silent comics such as Max Davidson and Larry Semon and the other on the spoofs and parodies rife in silent-era comedy.
Slapstick Festival events will take place in Colston Hall, the Watershed Cinema and the Arnolfini Arts Centre, Bristol from 26-29 January 2012. See the Slapstick Festival website for more details and to book tickets.
And don’t forget, the Slapstick Festival has its own real ale, brewed locally, especially for the event. The launch of the Slapstick Beer takes place at the Victoria Pub, Clifton on Friday 9 December at 7.30pm. Details on Facebook.
Everyone loves Buster Keaton, but the readers of Silent London love him more than most. So today, on 4 October 2011, which would have been Buster Keaton’s 116th birthday, let’s pause to celebrate the Great Stone Face. After all, if it wasn’t for Buster Keaton, this blog wouldn’t exist. My first silent film and live music experience was a double-bill of Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr accompanied by the Harmonie Band. What a treat. I was already smitten with early film before I went, but that evening turned me into an evangelist for the ‘live cinema’ experience.
I have Buster Keaton news to share, also. In the US, movie channel TCM is celebrating by showing Keaton’s films every Sunday throughout October. Sadly, that pleasure is not available on these shores, but Scottish film blogger Jon Melville isn’t going to let that stop him. He will be rewatching the same films on DVD, and writing them up for his Holyrood or Bust(er) project. Follow his progress on his blog here.
Project Keaton will be a month long open forum in which writers, artists, everyday Joes and everyday Janes (like me) from all over the world are being invited to tip their pork pie to Buster. The goal is to foster a month of creative exchange, with Buster as muse, and to celebrate one of cinema’s few, true geniuses. There are no rules as to content: essays, reviews, art, critiques, tributes, prose, poetry, all are welcome. And, since this is a month long project, there are no pressing deadlines: participants may contribute as little or as much as they wish any time at all during the course of October.
Find out more, including how to contribute to Project Keaton, here.
If all this has reawakened your love of Buster Keaton, then you may want to join the Blinking Buzzards – the UK Buster Keaton society, who produce quarterly newsletters and hold regular meetings. They are even working on a clothing range and talking about a festival, too. There is not much information on their website at present, but their next meeting will be held at the Cinema Museum on 22 October. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, where they are far more talkative and a regular source of Buster Keaton clips and news.
The final titbit I’ve been keeping stashed under my pork-pie hat is a date for your diary. You may already know that The Slapstick Festival, an annual orgy of silent comedy in Bristol, will take place from 26-29 January next year. This festival is organised by the fabulous people at Bristol Silents and is always enormous fun, with an enchanting mix of silent film geekery and out-and-out hilarity. Although it’s too early for the full lineup to be revealed, the four galas, the flagship events of the weekend, have been announced.
May I draw your event to the event taking place on Friday 27 January? Comedian Griff Rhys Jones will introduce a screening of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926), with a new score written by Günter Buchwald and performed by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. There will also be a chance to see Laurel and Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916), as well as a performance by the Matinee Idles, featuring actor Paul McGann. The Gala takes place at Colston Hall in central Bristol, and tickets are available here.
There are few things more joyous than watching a Buster Keaton classic with live music, but this event might be one of them. It’s a fundraiser for the Sing for Joy Bloomsbury choir, incorporating a concert by the group themselves and a screening of Sherlock Jr, with piano accompaniment by the marvellous John Sweeney.
Sing for Joy is made up of singers who have Parkinson’s disease or other neurological conditions, and their friends and carers. Singing as a group isn’t just fun, it boosts confidence and helps with the speaking and breathing exercises that people with Parkinson’s do to keep tremors under control. You can find out more about the choir, and their director Carol Grimes, here.
If you’re not familiar with Sherlock Jr, it’s one of Keaton’s most inventive and charming films. Keaton plays a projectionist who fantasises about being a detective hero in a movie. When he falls asleep in the projectionist’s booth one night, he dreams that he walks through the cinema screen and into the heart of the action. You may have seen some clips of it if you watched The Story of Film on Saturday night.
The Sing for Joy Sherlock Jr event will take place in the hall of The Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer (full disabled access) 24 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE (nearest tube Farringdon) on 13 October 2011. Tickets cost £18, which includes a buffet dinner. They are availale from Mike Blackstaffe on 07584 471 104 or email@example.com. Doors open at 7pm, which is when dinner will be served. The programme begins at 7.45pm and there will be a licensed bar.
• Update: Sorry, guys, I’ve just been told that these events have been cancelled. Don’t know why as yet, but hope to find out more soon – including whether they will be rescheduled for later in the year.
Have you ever been to a Silent Disco? It’s great fun. You dance around in a huge group of people but the music isn’t played out loud, it’s piped into your headphones. Hilarious for onlookers, but there’s a great sense of community on the dancefloor – like you’re sharing a secret with everyone in the crowd. The Silent Cinema in Deptford, south London, works on the same principle, but with films. The wireless headphones deliver the film’s soundtrack, but filter out the popcorn munching and chatter from your fellow audience members.
Although the name has obviously caught my attention before, I never thought they would show silent films there. But I was wrong. Silent Cinema is devoting a weekend in August to … silent cinema. They’re calling the programme the “Black & White Classics Weekend”, and why not? Here’s the lineup:
“If you’ve never watched a silent movie before, this is the time to do it,” says the Stratford Picturehouse. That’s the spirit. The east London cinema is having a day of cinematic interactive fun on Sunday – including screenings of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr and One Week. After watching the first film, the audience will be encouraged to play along to the short, One Week, so if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to accompany a silent film, this is your big chance. Although the setup might be a little more raucous that your average screening at the BFI – audience members are asked to bring their own instruments, whether “real” or homemade.
The day of events is free and as well as the two Keatons, there will be “film karaoke”, plus screenings of The Gruffalo, krumping documentary Rize with a street-dance workshop and, as a finale, Singalonga Grease. Everything kicks off at 12 noon – for more details, click here.
There’s very little that Silent London enjoys more than a touch of Hollywood glamour, and evidently the National Portrait Gallery agrees. Their new exhibition, which opens on Thursday 7 July, is entitled Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits and features photographs taken from The John Kobal Collection. To accompany the show, which includes stunning pictures of Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and other beautiful megastars, the Gallery has programmed a series of events, including free film screenings on Sunday afternoons.
Fittingly, two of the films come from Hollywood’s most glamorous decade, the 1920s. First, Buster Keaton’s cattle-herding adventure Go West (1925) will be screened on 17 July. You may have seen this film featured on Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood documentary recently. This is the film that apparently offers a glimpse of Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, long after he was officially exiled from the movies.
Second, one of the silent era’s slinkiest actresses, Louise Brooks, stars in the notoriously decadent Pandora’s Box (1929) on 31 July. Brooks’s effortless sex appeal in this film really set the template for Hollywood glamour for decades to come, so you can’t afford to miss it.
Go West screens in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre of the National Portrait Gallery at 3pm on 17 July 2011. Pandora’s Box screens in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre of the National Portrait Gallery at 3pm on 31 July 2011. Entrance to both films is free. Entrance to the Glamour of the Gods Exhibition is £6, less for concessions or free for members. You can book tickets online here. Glamour of the Gods runs from 7 July to 23 October 2011.
Hat-tip to @soshanau on Twitter for telling me about this one.
It’s not too often you get to watch silent films in a Tudor mansion in Hackney, so grab this chance while you can. The Sutton House Music Society is staging a night of classic silent comedy with accompaniment from jazz pianist Dave Morecroft on Sunday 10 July. The National Trust describes Sutton House this way:
Built in 1535 by prominent courtier of Henry VIII, Sir Ralph Sadleir, Sutton House retains much of the atmosphere of a Tudor home despite some alterations by later occupants, including a succession of merchants, Huguenot silkweavers and squatters. With oak-panelled rooms, original carved fireplaces and a charming courtyard.
Not your run-of-the-mill cinema then. They will be showing four films: Earl McCarthy stars as Hairbreadth Harry in Sign Them Papers; Ben Turpin chases a pancake in Why Babies Leave Home; Harold Lloyd is a piano player in a wild west saloon in Two-Gun Gussie; and Buster Keaton dabbles in DIY in the sublime One Week.
What’s more, there will be cocktails and popcorn – and guests are encouraged to dress “film star fabulous”. I think they’re suggesting you channel Bebe Daniels rather than Snub Pollard, but heck, it’s up to you.
Doors open for the Silent Film Night at 6pm, and the movies will begin at 7pm, on 10 July 2011. Tickets cost £10 or £8 for concessions and include £1 membership of the Sutton House Music Society Film Club. Sutton House is at 2&4 Homerton High Street, London E9 6JQ.
Buster Keaton’s popularity is booming, and rightly so. The stone-faced comic is seen as cooler, more elegant and less sentimental than Chaplin – but just as funny. And that’s why the Prince Charles Cinema in the West End has got two Keaton classics lined up for summer, to continue its silent season. Something really magical happens when you watch silent comedy with live music, and most importantly, a big crowd. You’ll laugh until your sides ache, just see if you don’t.
The Navigator, playing in July, sees Keaton play a toff stranded on a massive boat drifting across the ocean. He’s not alone though, his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) has stowed along as well. The visual gags are as inventive as ever – watch out for the underwater diving sequence, in particular. And the scene in which the lovers attempt to make breakfast. And the chase around the empty boat. And…
Keaton’s The General is one of those notorious cinematic beasts – a film that was panned on its initial release and now sits securely in the top ranks of those Greatest Films of All Time lists. Set in the American Civil War, The General is crammed with stunts that are equal parts hilarious and precarious, as Keaton races across the US in pursuit of his beloved locomotive, his girlfriend and some dastardly Union spies. But you don’t have to take my word for it: here’s New York Times critic AO Scott, and some choice clips from the film.
What’s better than a silent film screening eh? A free silent film screening of course. The Barbican is camping out at Canary Wharf this August to stage three outdoor screenings of feature-length silent comedy classics and you won’t have to pay a penny to attend.
Neil Brand will be accompanying on the piano while the assembled crowds enjoy Monday night screenings of Buster Keaton’s The Navigator and The General and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. There’s nothing like watching silent comedy with a large, lively audience and Neil Brand is always on top form, so these shows should be inked in your diary already.
Monday 8 August
6.30pm – The General (U) (US 1926 Dir. Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman 89 min)
Set during the Civil War and based on a true incident, The General is considered to be the one of the greatest comedies of all time. Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray who loves his steam train The General. When Union soldiers penetrate Confederate lines and steal his locomotive, Johnnie sets off in hot pursuit – and seven of the film’s eight reels are devoted to the nail-biting chase.
Monday 15 August
6.30pm – Safety Last! (U) (US 1923 Dir. Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor 73 min)
In Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd’s most famous comedy, he plays a sales clerk in a department store who finds himself hanging off the hands of a collapsing clock on the side of a skyscraper high above the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Harold’s legendary building climb is breathtaking and hilariously funny at the same time. A sequence achieved without any special effects.
Monday 22 August
6.30pm – The Navigator (U) (US 1924 Dir. Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton 60 min)
Keaton’s biggest box-office success tells the story of inept millionaire Rollo Treadway and Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire), his rich, pampered girlfriend, who find themselves on a huge deserted liner adrift in the ocean. The Navigator is one of Buster Keaton’s finest films.
Hopefully some of the financiers of Canary Wharf will be tempted to leave their offices and join in the fun – it’s got to be more of a laugh than banking.
Another excuse for a trip outside the big smoke, Flatpack Festival is a quirky event, showing “cinematic wonders” of all kinds at venues across Birmingham at the end of March. And there is plenty on the schedule to entice a silent film fan.
First up is an evening at Birmingham Town Hall called Digging for Gold. This event is a tribute to film historian Iris Barry and features a screening of Buster Keaton’s magnificent Sherlock Jr along with some European shorts. Music will be provided by Nigel Ogden and Alcyona Mick
On the final day of the festival you can enjoy The Keystone Cut Ups at the Electric Cinema, which mixes early slapstick film with scenes from surrealist films of the same era.
People Like Us and Ergo Phizmiz have been regular collaborators for some time, and when commissioned by Berwick Media Arts & Film Festival last year the result was The Keystone Cut Ups; a kaleidoscopic split-screen voyage through silent cinema which combines celluloid moments both familiar and uncanny with an original score performed live in the auditorium. Striding purposefully into its second century, the Electric Cinema should provide the perfect setting.
Depending on which way your interest in early cinema runs, you may also be interested in a couple more events. There’s a screening of the classic Mae West film She Done Him Wrong (1933) on Sunday 27 March and the spooky Shadow Shows opens the festival on Wednesday 23 March with its Lotte Reiniger inspired silhouettes:
The performance is built around a triple-screen film projection, incorporating techniques of early cinema and a variety of shadow effects. The original music score and sound effects are performed live by Pram as hidden conspirators behind a giant film screen, occasionally also glimpsed as silhouetted figures incorporated into its fractured scheme of images. The musicians employ an eclectic mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments, while the sound effects are created using hand-crafted devices from the theatre of a bygone age.
All this as well as screenings of new and classic films, a vintage mobile cinema, and some very special cakes. More details at the Flatpack Festival website here.
This blog is primarily, but not exclusively, about silent film screenings in London – but when there are festivals, exhibitions or special screenings elsewhere in Britain they deserve a place on these pages too. Which is my excuse for telling you about this show coming up in Lincolnshire in May.
The Kinema in the Woods is a former concert pavilion, which began showing films in 1906 and continued to do so until it burned down in a fire in 1920. Two years later the Pavilion Kinema was rebuilt as a purpose-built cinema, with a rear-projection screen and the Phantom Orchestra providing the tunes.
These days, the Kinema in the Woods (named for its rural location) is still running, showing current releases and classics in its gorgeous 1920s-style building. So what better place could there be to watch a 1920s film? Particularly a 1920s film set in a 1920s cinema? I am hugely pleased that the Kinema in the Woods will be screening Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924) on Sunday 8 May 2011. It’s a beautiful, hilarious film about a projectionist who falls asleep in the booth and has a strange dream that he is a movie detective, prompting a series of fantastically inventive gags. Music will be provided by Alan Underwood on the Kinema’s Compton organ and a short film will be shown also.
You can buy tickets and find out more about this unusual cinema on the website here, and there is a particularly entertaining Twitter feed too.
Sherlock Jr screens at 2.30pm on Sunday 8 May 2011 at 2.30pm.
The Forest Row film society in East Sussex are discerning and enthusiastic cinephiles, who show heaps of exciting films, old and new, every week. Like all people of taste, they love silent films, and so I am pleased to say that their forthcoming comedy festival will feature some slapstick delights. Top of the silent bill is a screening of Buster Keaton’s magnificent The General on Saturday 19 March, with musical accompaniment by award-winning composer Terry Davies.
And the following day, Sunday 20 March, there will be a programme called Silents, Please, which is still slightly TBC, but this is what they have to say:
Many of the great silent comedies of the 20s were two-reelers, lasting around twenty minutes. The festival will also screen a programme of these, including Buster Keaton in Cops, maybe some Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and other gems. Screened with live music from Terry Davies and Anna Cooper.
Cops is hilarious. This should be great.
For more details about the festival, check out the website here, or find the Forest Row film society on Facebook. Forest Row is easily accessible from London. Simply catch a train from Victoria to East Grinstead, then a bus or cab three miles to Forest Row itself, I am told.
The Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk, beautifully restored to match its 1920 heyday, will host Scotland’s first silent film festival – and it promises to be an event with a real ‘vintage’ feel. The programme incorporates some enduringly popular silents, from a rare chance to see It (1927), starring Clara Bow, to FW Murnau’s influential vampire film Nosferatu (1922) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), plus a handful of comedies from Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.
Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment to several of the films, and he will also perform his acclaimed one-man show The Silent Pianist Speaks. David Allison of The Island Tapes will reprise his score for Nosferatu at the festival’s closing night gala, and another of the films will benefit from a specially commissioned soundtrack performed by local schoolchildren.
There will be a Slapstick Workshop for over-12s by Scottish theatre company Plutôt La Vie, and a new, specially commissioned soundtrack for one of the films performed by local schoolchildren. Another retro treat for younger viewers is the “jeely jar special” – a revival of a 1920s practice whereby film fans can get a two-for-one deal on tickets for The Kid if they bring along a clean jam jar (with lid). Bargain.
And for a touch more glamour, the Opening Gala screening of It has a 1920s dress code. Dropped waists, long strings of beads and cloches – it’s the perfect opportunity to indulge your inner flapper and give Clara Bow a run for her money. Perhaps you can find some sartorial inspiration here. Festival director Allison Strauss says:
The whole event is designed to celebrate the magic, glamour and pure entertainment of films from the silent era. Our programme and the supporting events include something for all ages and we’ve made sure that the wide appeal will involve a broad range of tastes, from cinephiles to anyone discovering early film for the first time.
For full details and to download a brochure, visit the website here.
Crystal Palace Pictures is a thriving local film society, which shows a film every other Thursday on a 17ft screen in the Gipsy Hill Tavern, near Gipsy Hill station. Residents of Crystal Palace are currently embroiled in a long-running campaign for a cinema, so it’s good to see that there is an alternative in the local area. Ideally, there would be room for both, but until then, Crystal Palace Pictures is doing sterling work, showing a hugely diverse range of films.