If you want to see Buster Keaton on the big screen next weekend, go see John Wick 2 – but be careful not to blink. The action sequel opens in New York, with a Buster Keaton movie being projected on the external wall of a building. Why? “We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people,” says director Chad Stahelski.
As soon as you have clocked, and cheered, the reference, the action has begun down on the streets with blistering collision between a motorcycle and a car. The film’s opening sequence is very funny, hugely violent, and actually a pretty clever example of how to cover a lot of exposition (for those like me who hadn’t seen the first film) with a minimum of dialogue. All you need to know about the plot, and all I can really tell you, having seen the film, is that John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is a hitman, with a revenge motive. The film takes him from New York to Rome and back again – and en route, he kills a hell of a lot of people.
The nods to silent cinema don’t stop with the Keaton film, though*. One of the movie’s key shootouts takes place in a hall of mirrors. Very Enter the Dragon (1973), a little The Lady from Shanghai (1947). But surely Chaplin got there first with The Circus in 1928. Despite his smart suit, John Wick is essentially a tramp like Charlie – homeless and friendless, he’s a hired hand for a shadowy and moneyed elite, and he’s happiest trudging about with his dog by his side. The film reveals a fearsome network of derelicts, in fact, assassins just like Wick who pass through the city unseen. When Wick puts on his fancy togs and goes to a party his presence is disquieting – he’s not one of the in-crowd, but someone they have hired to do their dirty work. That tension is the source of many of Chaplin’s best gags.
In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.
Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.
So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.
Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.
Competition time! You could win two top-priced tickets for a very exciting event, Charlie Chaplin on Screen at the Royal Festival Hall.
On Sunday 10 April the Philharmonia Orchestra presents a screening of three Charlie Chaplin films, with live music conducted by Carl Davis. Chaplin’s own music accompanies A Dog’s Life, in which Charlie strikes up a friendship with a stray dog that leads him into farcical antics, and Shoulder Arms, where hapless Charlie is sent over the top whilst fighting in the First World War. Davis also conducts his own score to short film Kid Auto Races at Venice, the first ever film appearance of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character.
A few words from Carl Davis: “The scores are each in their own way highly evocative with a strong music hall style. A Dog’s Life even has a music hall scene in which the leading lady is accompanied by a musical saw. These, what I call ‘half features’, are a stepping stone from Chaplin’s cycle of two-reelers – The Mutuals – and his first feature-length film The Kid of 1921. Our evening opens with a real collector’s item, Charlie’s third short, Kid Auto Races in Venice released in 1914. Its significance is that Charlie is wearing for the first time on film the iconic makeup and costumes that he became so strongly identified with: the little moustache, top hat and oversized shoes. I tried to pretend I was composing for a little band that might have been brought in to entertain the public attending the race, i.e. rough and raucous!”
For your chance to win two top-priced tickets for Charlie Chaplin on Screen, simply email your answer to the following question to email@example.com:
Which actress appeared in two of the three films shown at Charlie Chaplin on Screen?
a) Georgia Hale
b) Edna Purviance
c) Mabel Normand
Good luck! The competition closes on Friday 1 April at 12pm.
After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.
Charley v Charley
Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?
The many faces of Phyllis Haver
Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.
Cary doffs his hat to Buster
If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.
When Taschen sent me a copy of its latest book, I was overwhelmed. And so was the courier who brought it to my desk at work. Blimey, it’s big. Open the box, and you’ll discover that this is a very beautiful volume too. The Charlie Chaplin Archives is a stunning new book, which pays tribute to south London’s favourite son across 560 gorgeous pages crammed with quotes, archive imagery, classic film stills and snippets of Chaplinalia. It takes the reader step-by-step through all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature films and many of his shorter works. Along the way, you’ll find out how Chaplin made his movies, and a little bit more about Hollywood’s greatest ever rags-to-riches tale. As the foreword by editor Paul Duncan explains, Chaplin was famously secretive about the creative process, so these glimpses behind the camera are fascinating – especially when we learn how much was reworked and invented in the studio, rather than at the script stage. This is an oral history too: as much as possible, the story is told by Chaplin and his collaborators, from archive interviews and memoirs.
I wanted to do proper justice to a book that is so lavish and thorough and … majestic in scope. So I decided that the best way to review The Charlie Chaplin Archives was not with words, but with pictures.
The Bank of England doesn’t usually let the public have a say in its decisions, but there is a first time for everything. Having decided to boot Adam Smith’s profile off the £20 banknote, the Bank asked the public to help them choose a replacement – although the institution itself has the final say. Those of us who spend rather than print the money were invited to nominate a visual artist for the bank to select from. An astonishing 29,701 bids came in, resulting in a longlist of 592 British visual artists that someone out there deems worthy of having their face on folding money. The Bank will draw up a shortlist from these names for the Governor to examine, and they will announce the chosen face in early 2016, with the new £20 note finally coming into circulation in 2020.
This is the selection criteria for the new face of the score note:
Through its depiction of historic characters on its banknotes the Bank seeks to celebrate individuals that have shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society. We do this by representing a person or small groups of individuals whose accomplishments or contributions have been recognised widely at the time, or judged subsequently to have been of lasting benefit to the United Kingdom and, in some cases, beyond.
In choosing the character or characters to appear on a specific note, the Bank takes account of its past decisions. This is because the Bank intends to celebrate achievement and contribution across a wide range of skills and fields and aims, through time, to depict characters with varied personal characteristics, such that our choices cumulatively reflect the diverse nature of British society.
Did you vote? I suspect some of you might have done, because the longlist is a fascinating read: so many esteemed, and not so highly esteemed, artists appear,including film-makers from Carol Reed to Stanley Kubrick. And there are definitely a few cinematic stars who fulfil that note about “a wide range of skills and fields”, as well as “characters with varied personal characteristics”, although not perhaps reflecting the “diverse nature of British society”. More specifically, I was heartened to see some key figures from the silent era there: from the expected nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, to more leftfield choices such as Maurice Elvey and Louis Le Prince.
This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.
Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Carl Davis CBE to celebrate the 126th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth. Renowned as a composer, Davis is a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has written music for more than 100 television programmes, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films – including his score for the Kevin Brownlow restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon.
In 2003 and 2004 the British Film Institute released, in two volumes, 12 comedy shorts by Charlie Chaplin, created by him at the contractual rate of one a month across the years 1916-1917. They are known today as “The Mutuals” after the company that produced them and, as in my case, they are often the first glimpse that people have into the art of Chaplin. My first adult look at this project occurred in 1983 while scoring the Thames Television three-part series Unknown Chaplin: virtually the entire first episode consisted of an analysis of Charlie’s working methods, brought to light after a hidden cache of Mutual out-takes had recently been discovered.
The next step forward occurred in 1989 after the successful experiment of transcribing the orchestral score and parts of the 1930 recorded soundtrack of City Lights for a live performance at London’s Dominion Theatre. The performance started a vogue, thriving today, of stripping the scores from the soundtracks of all manner of sound films and performing them live. After the London screening I found myself conducting City Lights around the world and subsequently I expanded my Chaplin repertoire with TheGold Rush and The Kid. Out of sheer enthusiasm I added the shorts The Immigrantand Easy Street to my list. But the real impetus to continue came in 2003 when I discovered that the BFI were planning to release the complete Mutuals. I declared my interest and our collaboration began.
By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …
Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.
I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The mountain footage in 'Colored Views from the Entire World' with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne was particularly magical. #GCM33
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
I barely knew a thing about Charles Lane this time last week. But since Saturday night I have been trying to find out as much as I can. Twenty five years ago, Lane directed a modern silent film of great style and bounteous charm, which was warmly received at the time, but has barely been heard from since. Like so much in the history of silent film, Sidewalk Stories (1989) is buried treasure, though from a rather more recent past. The good news is that the tail end of 2014 may finally be the time when Sidewalk Stories gets its due. The likelihood is that you will get a chance to see it soon, and I definitely recommend you take the opportunity when it arises.
As a film student, Lane was apparently very sniffy about silents, but when a chum insisted that he catch a screening of The Gold Rush, he relented. Chaplin worked his magic, and Lane was hooked for life. The influence of Chaplin is powerfully strong in Sidewalk Stories, a silent black-and-white comedy shot on the streets of New York;Lane directs and stars in the film, which has more than a touch of The Kid about it. Lane plays a street artist, who sleeps rough in a derelict building in Greenwich Village (yes, you might say he was a tramp), but, through some convoluted circumstances finds himself in charge of a small child. No messing about: the Artist’s foldup easel looks uncannily like the window-repair kit Chaplin equips himself with in the earlier movie. It’s clear that Lane has an eye for the most devilish of details. Lane’s two-year-old daughter plays the Child, and although it seems strange to critique a toddler’s performance, she’s fantastic and of course, utterly adorable. Sandye Wilson, an elegant woman with a devastating smirk, plays the Artist’s bewildering and benevolent love interest. Lane’s character is a cheeky one, all right, and a dreamer too: a nonchalant riff on Chaplin’s Tramp, which retains the sweetness and the acrobatics of the original but with a pared-down ego. Lane’s Artist is a more of an everyman than a showstopping clown: a little guy in a zip-up denim shirt and cargo pants with neatly cropped hair. Perhaps it’s because the big city is just a wee bit more terrifying in the late 80s. The Manhattan of this movie is perniciously hostile: crushing Lane’s character, and maybe squashing his performance a little too.
No matter. Here’s why Sidewalk Stories is easily worth 97 minutes of your precious time. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s very clever and it has a quite remarkable lightness of touch. There’s some virtuoso material here, including some fantastically choreographed fight scenes and (a first for a silent movie?) a fantasy slapstick sex nightmare. There’s not a single intertitle here either. Most impressive of all perhaps is a sustained tracking shot early on that takes us from one end of a street in the Village to another, from the panhandlers and street sleepers, to the Artist’s patch where he and his fellow dancers and magicians are busy making believe that they are anywhere but urban hell. There’s some comic business with a piece of string and two beds that is simultaneously hilarious and terribly sad. I also enjoyed the way that a laugh-out-loud, but silly, gag at the start of the movie with yuppies grappling over a yellow cab (it’s the 80s, I’m allowed to call them yuppies) was replayed later on with a more sinister meaning. I particularly liked the fact that the second time around the carfight takes place during a chase that’s straight out of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy – Lane was clearly in close touch with his New York silent forebears.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Juliet Jacques. Jacques is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, sexuality, film, football and literature. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the LRB and her new book Trans: a Memoir will be published by Verso in 2015.
Film historians often credit DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation(1915) with popularising the full-length feature film, if not inventing it – changing both the language of cinema and the way it was seen. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s US Civil War novel The Clansman, it opened with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”, attempting to create new formal techniques that drew on literature and drama. Distancing it from the fairground sideshows at which Edison, Méliès and other pioneers showed their works, aiming to attract more middle-class viewers, Griffith’s epic screened in theatres with an interval and printed programme, and a three-hour score by Joseph Carl Breil, which combined original music, familiar melodies and classical compositions, notoriously Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the ride of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Birth of a Nation was not the first full-length feature, historical epic or literary adaptation: Giovanni Pastrone’s 200-minute Cabiria, set in ancient Carthage and Sicily, inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô and written by poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, was released a year earlier, and several Italian studios took such risks, by now assured of their audience. So 1914 – that seismic year for Western culture – marked a turning point for cinematic convention, departing from the collections of single or double-reel comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels shown at music halls, shop fronts and penny gaffs during the early 1900s.
Marking the centenary of the First World War, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 attempts to recreate the atmosphere in one of Britain’s 3-4,000 “picture houses”, featuring 14 short films from the BFI archives, curated by Bryony Dixon, all in good condition, with an improvised score by pianist Stephen Horne that references music of the time, it invites 21st-century viewers to imagine when movies would have provided not just a social occasion, with rowdier audiences happy to talk not just between reels but also during them, but also the chance to catch up with the world, illustrating what had been covered by the newspapers.
Several newsreels open the collection. First, a “light” item about British pilots Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks Looping the Loop at Hendon, in March. This lasts just a few moments, but shows how bracing aviation must have been, the rickety box-planes flying low, the pilots exposed. What seems most amazing now is that just months later, 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, these were used in warfare. (Less surprising is that far more British pilots died in training than combat.)
One of the biggest pre-war political concerns features in Palace Pandemonium (May), which shows Emmeline Pankhurst marching to Buckingham Palace, held by police who barely hide their contempt, to petition George V for women’s suffrage. This reminds us how high-profile the campaign was, but Austrian Tragedy immediately shifts the agenda, chronicling the Austro-Hungarian royal family’s efforts to carry on after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
This is a really fascinating idea, and a hugely entertaining hour and a half of anyone’s time. The BFI has compiled a typical “mixed” cinema programme from a century ago, and is releasing it theatrically this summer. It’s called, of course, A Night at the Cinema in 1914, and it comes out in August. Yes, you may be seated in an air-conditioned room with comfy seats and Dolby 5.1 sound, but you’ll be able to watch a variety bill of drama, actuality, comedy, serials and travelogues – just like your own great-grandparents in the Hippodromes of yore.
Some of the titles in the bill will be familiar to you, but there are a few surprises too – and the cumulative experience of watching 15 films in one sitting is wholly refreshing. There’s Chaplin, Florence Turner and Pimple larking about, but also newsreel footage from the front, and from suffragette demonstrations in London, and Ernest Shackleton’s preparations for his Antarctic voyage. Of course, there’s a segment from The Perils of Pauline, and an opportunity for a singalong too. Music is provided by an expert – Stephen Horne has recorded an improvised score for the whole shebang.
Don’t tell me you missed the fact this year, this February in fact, we are celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kid Auto Races, Chaplin’s first screen appearance as the anarchic scruff, was released on 7 February 1914. It’s a cinematic centenary of the best kind – one that affords the opportunity for screenings of wonderful films and some clever-clever comment and analysis too. An event at the BFI Southbank on 4 February will add a little star power to proceedings, as well as some new insights into the Tramp and his creator.
This special event marks the centenary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’. One hundred years ago this week the iconic character first stepped in front of the camera at the Keystone studios. David Robinson, Chaplin’s official biographer, presents his latest thoughts on Chaplin and the tramp and celebrates the launch of his new book ‘The World of Limelight,’ commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna, which draws on previously unpublished material from the Chaplin Archive.
Robinson will be launching his book at the event and I think copies will be on sale after the talk with perhaps a booksigning too. A particularly well-informed little bird tells me that Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight, English actress Claire Bloom, will be in attendance also. In fact, Robinson’s book is dedicated to her. Here’s a little more about the book:
Limelight was first cast not as a film script, but as a long novella, Footlights, with the supplementary Calvero’s Story. Both are here published for the very first time – the ultimate raison d’être of this volume. Out of these Chaplin extracted a screenplay which passed through several drafts before being transferred to the screen.
The accompanying commentary in this volume explores the documentary reality of the world which Chaplin recreated from his memories and evoked for posterity – London, the music hall and ballet at the end of an era, the outbreak of the First World War. The book is illustrated with images from the author’s own collection, and reproductions of documents and photographs from the Chaplin archives, which clearly depict the development of the film LIMELIGHT that David Robinson so intricately describes.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)
The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.
Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)
The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend. The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.
(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)
That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)
Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle. In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson, and the first in a new series of posts bringing you very personal top 10s from silent cinema experts and enthusiasts.
From a programming point of view, it’s always good to have a few shorts up your sleeve: either to accompany a feature or to make up a shorts programme, which are always a good way to introduce new audiences to silent film. I’m trying to write short screenplays at the moment and I’m inspired by these film-makers, several of whom spent the majority of their careers working on shorts.
How to be an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Made in the US by Solax, film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché’s production company, this is such a brilliant darkly anarchic comedy. View the version on the Retour de Flamme (06) disc by Lobster Films for one of the most inspired accompaniments to a silent film.
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Breathtakingly stylish (talk about Eisenstein’s “kino fist”!) but also heartbreakingly moving, this is avant-garde cinema of the 1920s at its most profound. The scene on the bench is as poignant as anything by Chaplin or more recent master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unforgettable.
Kid Auto Races (Henry Lehrman, 1914)
Chaplin’s Keystone films are sometimes written off as unsophisticated fare, preceding a more nuanced approach to style and content at later studios. However, Chaplin’s performance here is pure clown, and shows why contemporary audiences immediately wanted more, more, more of “The Little Fellow”.
The funniest weekend of the year is back: Bristol’s own rib-tickling Slapstick Festival. This year marks not only the 10th year of the festival but, as you all very well know, the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp. The Slapstick Festival will be celebrating the tramp in fine style with an orchestral gala screening of the the wonderful City Lights (1931), recently voted into the Top 10 Silent Movies by the Guardian and Observer. The screening will be introduced by comedian Omid Djalili and music will be provided by the 39-piece Bristol Ensemble.
There’s a full weekend of funny films beyond the Chaplin too. Check the listings below for details. Notable screenings inlcude the Societ laugh-riot The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the rarely shown Raymond Grifffith romp Hands Up! (1926) and a chance to see Constance Talmadge in Her Sister From Paris (1925). And don’t miss Harold’s Lloyd’s classic Safety Last! (1923) with Radio 4’s Colin Sell on the piano.
More treasures are to be found in the talks and lecture events: David Robinson on the Tramp, Kevin Brownlow on Chaplin and the Great War, all three Goodies on Buster Keaton and Graeme Garden delving into the work of German Jewish comic Max Davidson.
There will be some modern work featured too: from Wallace & Gromit (naturally) to The Meaning of Life and Withnail & I. Yes, Tim Vine will be offering a tribute to Benny Hill too!
The 10th Slapstick Festival will be held at various venues across Bristol from 24-26 January 2014. Visit the website for more details, or read on for full listings and ticket information.
We’re all saddened by the idea of silent film heritage sites falling into decay and disrepair. So I thought you would like to know about this crowdfunding campaign to restore the historic Essanay Studios in Chicago. As if you don’t know, the Essanay Studio was a major player in the first years of the American movie industry. Stars associated with the studio in its infancy include Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Ben Turpin, Francis X Bushman and, of course, Broncho Billy Anderson, who funded the company in 1907 with George Kirke Spoor.
The studio building is now a college, and is seeking help with funding for renovations, and to transform itself into an arts centre, with a studio, performance space and an area where people can come and learn some silent movie history.
Before there was Hollywood, there was Chicago. This initiative seeks to preserve and revitalize one of the world’s first and last remaining silent film studios and a unique piece of a great city’s history. The restoration and rebirth of the Essanay Film Studio Complex will provide an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn and experience the magic and mystery of early film-making and Chicago’s unique role. It will also extend and expand the studio’s cultural legacy by providing a community space for the performing arts.
Alexa Chung is described as an “It Girl” so often that it is safe, with apologies to Clara Bow, to go ahead and call her that. Which means that when she appears on the cover of British Vogue, as she does this month, the fashionistas take note. The Vogue cover story in question is a couture fashion shoot styled by the magazine’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers and photographed by the legendary Patrick Demarchelier. Did I mention that it is inspired by and named after one of our very favourite silent films: Chaplin’s heartbreaking, hilarious The Kid?
According to the pages of Vogue, “Alexa Chung channels her inner Charlie Chaplin in the the season’s most magical designs”. The outfits featured combine couture gowns by houses including Chanel, Valentino (!) and Versace with vintage hats (something of a trademark for Chambers), and classic Chaplinesque touches – oversized boots, baggy pinstripe trousers and even a spindly bamboo cane. It’s a fashion shoot rather than a fancy-dress act, so the source material has been interpreted, not replicated: Chung wears a peaked cap that’s more Jackie Coogan than Little Tramp, for example. But it’s not entirely fast-and-loose. You could view those designer dresses, embellished with pearls and sequins, as a nod to Edna Purviance’s upper-class character in the same film – meaning that Chung encapsulates the whole family. More likely, the Chaplin look has been chosen to offset all that opulence and to capitalise on Chung’s gamine beauty. She has long been celebrated for a certain “street-urchin” look that’s pure The Kid. In fact, she told Glamour magazine in 2012 that Chaplin inspired her dress sense, captioning a selfie with the words: “This is my Charlie Chaplin look – black trousers with suspenders and an Yves Saint Laurent shirt. Putting weird pieces of clothing together is what I’m good at.”
If you think it strange to see a woman taking fashion tips from a fictional tramp, played by a bloke nearly 100 years ago … well that does sound odd when you say it loud. But it’s not so off-the-wall as all that. Chaplin’s early years were spent in London music halls – that’s where he first performed, and where his parents had worked too. Male impersonators were popular in the halls, and fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart writes here about the immaculately turned out Vesta Tilley. When Chaplin first picked out his Tramp outfit, he may well have been thinking of this female twist on a masculine suit. The Tramp is in a kind of drag himself – in clothes that don’t quite fit, an outfit with aristocratic pretensions undermined by ragged hems.
According to Chaplin’s autobiography he created the Tramp’s outfit from deliberately contradictory elements: baggy pants, tight jacket, oversized shoes and small derby hat provided by fellow actors and whangee cane owned by himself. Accessories such as the high-collar shirt, check waistcoat and tie are not accounted for, but Chaplin claims to have added a moustache to make himself appear older. In this first manifestation, the Tramp is scruffier and less affecting than he became later. The cigarette adds to his louche appearance and the cane is a parody of gentleman’s attire. Chaplin gives a professional clown’s performance in the tradition of the North American Tramp/Hobo; his costume is based on a collage of mismatched pieces that appear to have been randomly collected from discarded clothing … While the dissonant parts of the Tramp’s outfit do not cohere into a sartorial whole, their recombination indicates the character’s aspirations to be a dandy.
The Tramp’s clothes draw attention to the social significance of dress as well as to his affectation, which Chaplin developed as a feature of his performance. The collage effect, deriving from popular forms such as the circus and street theatre, resonates with the aesthetic strategies of the Surrealists and others. The pastiche of styles portrays the character as a fabrication, a social type rather than a rounded individual. While the rudiments of psychological motivation are there in the costume’s ridicule of the Tramp’s desire to belong to a higher class, the emphasis on disguise focuses the viewer’s attention on Chaplin’s self-presentation as star performer … The Tramp and his costume become the spectacle.
For a woman to dress up as Chaplin may seem drab (the dark colours, the masculine cut) but that is far from the case. It’s a look that demands attention, and playfully blurs gender and class divisions, which is sexy and provocative in itself. In fact, aspects of the Chaplin look are hugely feminine and easy to wear: tight jackets and baggy trousers are flattering to many women’s body shapes. The tailoring can be softened by the casual fit, or even a buttonhole flower and lots of smudgy eyeliner. Just check out how many women on the fashion site Polyvore are channeling their own inner Chaplins. Female celebrities from Jessica Alba (when pregnant) to Brigitte Bardot have raided the costume box to pay homage to the star. And female Chaplin impersonations multiply on screen – including Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard but going far beyond that. Remember Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim? And the ultimate in tomboy-chic, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall – her tennis-date outfit has Chaplin fan written all over it. More recently, Melanie Laurent’s character Anna, having lost her voice, adopts a Chaplinesque costume in the romantic film Beginners.
In 2011, Comme Des Garcons put female models in androgynous cut-up coats and jackets that reminded many onlookers of Chaplin’s Tramp. This spring, Vivienne Westwood called for a Climate Revolution in a sequined oversized bowler and Magic Marker moustache. Supermodel-of-the-moment Cara Delevingne, no less, also claims to be a Chaplin devotee – it must be the eyebrows.
So why Chaplin in 2013? Well, the extent of Chaplin’s fame means that he will never disappear as a cultural reference point. The fact that his image has been protected by the Chaplin association all these years means that the source of his signature style remains intact and undiluted, no matter how many fashion shoots, fancy-dress parties or street imitators get their hands on it – so he is always ripe for a speedy revival. I need not mention how The Artist nudged the silent era back into mainstream consciousness, nor that 2014 will mark the anniversary of the Little Tramp’s creation. The acting success of Chaplin’s granddaughter Oona Chaplin (who was also photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for a very slinky shoot in Vanity Fair last year) may have given him another boost in fashion circles.
But if you break the Tramp’s look down into its constituent parts, as Cook does in the extract printed above, you’ll see exactly why he resonates in a time of austerity measures, bank bailouts and Occupy camps. These days Chaplin’s bowler hat and pinstripe trousers signify something more specific than “gent” – the modern bogeyman, the City Banker. Just as Chaplin remixed the attire of the upper classes to cock a snook at their pretensions, we can dress up as his character today and thumb our nose at the financial institutions that so often determine our fate. To distort the armour of the City, with rags or sequins, with a smile and knowing wink, is to expose a chink in it. Chaplin would enjoy that, don’t you think?
No I am not about to tell you to spend more of this glorious summer tucked away in a dark and musty cinema rather than out in the park. Holland Park’s Luna Cinema is hosting an evening of silent cinema at its open-air venue – which is what we call a win-win. It promises to be a great night, with classic films starring Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy on the big screen. You’ll be even more impressed when you hear that the musician and host for the evening is Neil Brand.
The Luna Cinema, the country’s leading producer of pop-up cinema, presents a night celebrating silent cinema to Opera Holland Park on the 11th August. The stunning summer theatre, in Holland Park, with its velvet seats, bars and beautiful canopy (in case of bad weather) will host the Luna’s giant screen for a very special night of classic silent films. We will have silent film expert Neil Brand hosting the evening and providing live musical accompaniment to an array of classic silent films including Charlie Chaplin’s most famous work, “The Immigrant” – it’s a rare opportunity to see this 1917 comedy showcasing Chaplin at his very best. Amongst other classic shorts we will also be screening “Liberty” – one of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous comedies and considered to be their greatest silent work before they moved to the “talkies”.
The Luna Cinema’s silent film night takes place at Opera Holland Park, London on Sunday 11 August. Tickets cost £9.50 – £19.50 and they are available through thelunacinema.com or by going straight to the Opera Holland Park box office (operahollandpark.com or 0300 999 1000).