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Charles Dickens on silent film: part three, BFI Southbank, March 2012


One of the great strengths, at least as far as this blog is concerned, of the BFI’s ongoing Dickens on Screen programme, is that the silent films on offer have been spread out across the season, rather than all lumped into the first month. Witness: the impressive range of silents screening in January and February.
More silents appear in March, including another programme of pre-1914 shorts and a rare sighting of a Danish film, AW Sandberg’s Our Mutual Friend (1921). The Nordisk films is one of four Dickens adaptations by Sandberg, which were all well received in Denmark at least. Our Mutual Friend, or Vor Faelles Ven, is the least seen of the quartet, and indeed the restoration work on this print has been going on for quite some time. Now, 90 years after it was released, we can see it as it should be seen.
Our Mutual Friend screens at NFT3, BFI Southbank at 6.20pm on 6 March 2012 and at 8.45pm on 9 March 2012 with live piano accompaniment. Buy tickets here.

Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer in Scrooge (1913)
Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer in Scrooge (1913)

The shorts programme kicks off with Thomas Bentley, who went on to direct several Dickens films, in front of the camera taking on a number of roles in Leaves from the Books of Charles Dickens (1912). American comedian John Bunny starred in three films based on The Pickwick Papers – but the two shown here are the only ones to survive. Two versions of A Christmas Carol finish the programme, with Seymour Hicks playing the miser in 1913 version and Charles Rock being visited by spectres in 1914.
Pre-1914 Short Films (Programme two) screens at 9.30pm on 9 March at NFT3, BFI Southbank (with introduction by Michael Eaton) and at 6.20pm on 23 March 2012 in NFT2, BFI Southbank. Both screenings will feature live piano accompaniment. Buy tickets here.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part two, BFI Southbank, February 2012

Jackie Coogan as Oliver Twist
Jackie Coogan as Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday party continues in formidable style with the second part of the BFI’s Dickens on Screen season. Happily, the silents were not confined to the first run of screenings and February brings much to get excited about. First off is the famous 1922 adaptation of Oliver Twist. Frank Lloyd directs, while The Kid star Jackie Coogan plays the young orphan and Lon Chaney contorts his features into a suitably grotesque Fagin. With Coogan’s winsome pluck and Chaney’s gift for playing a villain, this was always going to be a classic Twist. It’s a spirited romp through the novel and a particular treat as this is one of the famous “lost” films of the silent era, which was found and restored in the 1970s, with some input from Coogan himself. To learn more, read Silent Volume’s appreciative review here or watch this clip, featuring one of the novel’s most melodramatic flourishes. Why not do both?

Oliver Twist screens at 6pm on Friday 3 February and at 8.45pm on Wednesday 8 February 2012 at NFT2, BFI Southbank. Both screenings will feature live piano accompaniment. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

The Only Way (1925)
The Only Way (1927)

The final silent Dickens film and the next screening in the season is The Only Way, a lavish and rather free adaptation of The Tale of Two Cities. This is a British production and John Martin Harvey reprises his stage role as Sydney Carton, despite his advancing years. His wife Madge Stuart plays Mimi his maid. Don’t remember Mimi from the novel? That’s cinematic licence for you. The famous director and producer Herbert Wilcox is at the helm and The Only Way was a smash hit, taking more than twice its £24,000 budget at the box office.

The Only Way screens at 3.50pm on Saturday 11 February and 8.40pm on Monday 27 February 2012 at BFI Southbank. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

• Don’t forget that there will be an exhibition to accompany the Dickens on Screen season in the Mezzanine at BFI Southbank from 12 January to 25 March. Also, during February, BFI members can watch The Pickwick Papers, an Anglo-American co-production from 1913, free online. The 15-minute fim stars the comedian John Bunny.

Charles Dickens on silent film at BFI Southbank, January 2012

Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901)
Scrooge; or Marley

2012 marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a festival of events has been organised to celebrate – including the reopening of the Charles Dickens museum and an exhibition at the Museum of London. The lion’s share of the audiovisual strand of Dickens 2012 begins with a three-month season of screen adaptations at BFI Southbank, which will then tour both nationwide and internationally.

The Dickens on Screen season has been curated by Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton and the first tranche features some heavyweight adaptations such as David Lean’s masterful Great Expectations (1946) and a wealth of 1930s films, including George Cukor’s 1935 David Copperfield, starring WC Fields, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan and Thomas Bentley’s 1934 The Old Curiosity Shop.

It’s the early films that interest us the most, though, and two programmes with live piano accompaniment offer opportunities to watch Dickens adaptations made between 1901 and 1913, some of which are very rarely seen.

Pre-1914 Short Films commemorates a period of film history in which literary adaptations were rife – even if they were mostly no longer than a couple of reels. It is often claimed that Dickens’s use of parallel action inspired DW Griffith’s experiments with cross-cutting – and there are two Griffith films here, only one of which (The Cricket on the Hearth, 1909) is a straight Dickens adaptation. There are two lively versions of A Christmas Carol, one British (directed by RW Paul, 1901, pictured above) and one American (by Thomas Edison in 1910 and posted below).

The Vitagraph company is well represented, as would be expected, with J Stuart Blackton’s Oliver Twist (1909), starring a teenage Edith Storey as the winsome orphan and William Humphrey as Fagin. Humphrey appears again in Vitagraph’s A Tale of Two Cities (1911), which runs to an epic 30 minutes and makes great use of crowd scenes and bona fide stars such Maurice Costello, Florence Turner and briefly, Norma Talmadge.

There are two Thanhouser films in the programme: The Old Curiosity Shop from 1911 and a 20-minute version of Nicholas Nickleby (1912) with Harry Benham in the lead role, a fragment of which can be seen below. It’s not the only Nickleby on offer, though. You can also see a three-minute film called Dotheboys Hall from 1903, directed by the English comic Alf Collins and featuring some knockabout corporal punishment.

Pre-1914 Short Films screens at BFI Southbank on Tuesday 3 January 2012 at 8.30pm and Saturday 7 January 2012 at 3.50pm. The first screening features an introduction by screenwriter Michael Eaton and both screenings will have live piano accompaniment.

David Copperfield (1913)
David Copperfield (1913)

David Copperfield (1913) is a British adaptation, one of the first feature films made in this country and shot in the actual locations named in the novel. This is one of director Thomas Bentley’s six silent Dickens adaptations, but the only one to survive, and it is noted for both its elegant composition and naturalistic performances. Bentley himself started out at a stage comedian and was celebrated for his impressions of Dickens characters. The film stars Alma Taylor, one of British silent cinema’s most popular actresses thanks, at first, to her “Tilly the Tomboy” films, as Dora. The Eric Desmond credited as the young David is really Reginald Sheffield, father of Johnny Sheffield who played Tarzan’s Boy in the Johnny Weissmuller films.

David Copperfield screens with a three-part adaptation of the same novel, made by the Thanhouser Company in 1911-12. You can watch the films on Sunday 8 January 2012 at 3.30pm and on Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 6pm at BFI Southbank. There will be live piano accompaniment.

That’s not all, dear reader. There will be an introductory talk called Dickens on Screen on Tuesday 3 January 2012, at 6.20pm, given by Michael Eaton and Adrian Wootton, just before the first programme of shorts, and there are also several more silent Dickens adaptations to be seen in the BFI Mediatheque. Plus, we are promised, later in the season, Frank Lloyd’s 1922 Oliver Twist, starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney.

Tickets are on sale via the BFI website.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part two!