Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

There is little so dispiriting as a joke that has to be explained. I don’t pretend to speak for Charlie Chaplin as a rule, but I am fairly sure he would agree with me on that one.

A joke that takes people in, that fools them into swallowing impossible truths? Well that can be funny, but dangerous too – we tend to hope national newspapers won’t fall for them.

A week or so ago I posted about a story in the Mail on Sunday that didn’t add up. The newspaper claimed that Chaplin had been offered, rather grudgingly, a screentest by Universal in 1912, to replace the misbehaving Buster Keaton, but having seen him in action, decided he wouldn’t do, certainly not with that hat, that moustache, that silly walk and that name. If it quacks like a duck and all that – the story sounded like nonsense, and it was, too. Almost.

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Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Update: Mystery solved! The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.

The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.

The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.

The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’

The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’

Hold up. Yes, I know.

In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:

Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’

It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.

But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:

Continue reading Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

John Wick: Chapter 2, Buster Keaton and silent comedy

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 a blistering collision between a motorcycle and a car. The movie’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.

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Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

 

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.

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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.

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Competition: Win tickets for Charlie Chaplin on Screen at the Royal Festival Hall 

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 orchestra@philharmonia.co.uk:

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.

 

 

 

Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

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.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

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?

Chicago-1
Chicago (1927)

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.

The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937)

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.

Continue reading Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

The Charlie Chaplin Archives review: a heavyweight addition to your collection

The Charlie Chaplin Archives
The Charlie Chaplin Archives

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.

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Poll: Which British silent film-maker is worth £20?

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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.

Continue reading Poll: Which British silent film-maker is worth £20?

Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

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.

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Music for Charlie Chaplin: Carl Davis on scoring ‘The Mutuals’

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 The Gold Rush and The Kid. Out of sheer enthusiasm I added the shorts The Immigrant and 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.

Continue reading Music for Charlie Chaplin: Carl Davis on scoring ‘The Mutuals’

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 8

City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S
City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S

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 …

The Last Edition (1925)
The Last Edition (1925)

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 …

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

The New Janitor (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor (1914)

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.

Pansidong (1927)
Pansidong (1927)

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.

Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)
Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)

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 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.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

Sidewalk Stories review: buried treasure from silent cinema’s recent past

Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as The Artist and The Kid Photographer: Bill Dill
Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as the Artist and the Child. Photographer: Bill Dill

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.

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

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.

Continue reading Sidewalk Stories review: buried treasure from silent cinema’s recent past

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914
A Night at the Cinema in 1914

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.)

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914
Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914

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.

Continue reading A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – in August 2014

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.

Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)

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.

Continue reading A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – in August 2014

Wish Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp a happy 100th birthday with David Robinson and Claire Bloom

Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)
Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

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.

At The Centenary of the Little Tramp David Robinson will be talking specifically about how Chaplin drew on the music hall tradition of his youth to create his signature character – and how those influences stayed with him and found a beautiful expression in the gorgeous 1952 film Limelight.

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.

The event takes place at 6.20pm in NFT3. For more details, see the event page on the BFI website.

Further reading

The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

Silents by numbersThis 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)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

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!

Continue reading The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

Silents by numbers

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 (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in Kid Auto Races (1914)

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”.

Leave 'em Laughing (1928)
Leave ’em Laughing (1928)

Leave ’em Laughing (Clyde Bruckman, 1928)

I just have to think about the final sequence of the Laurel and Hardy classic and I start chuckling madly to myself.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial (Florence Turner, 1914)

“The Vitagraph Girl” pulls a face at being one of the first screen stars.

Continue reading The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

The 10th Slapstick Festival, January 2014: a centenary salute to Chaplin

City Lights (1931)
City Lights (1931)

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.

Max Davidson
Max Davidson

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.

Continue reading The 10th Slapstick Festival, January 2014: a centenary salute to Chaplin

Help to save Chicago’s Essanay Studios

UPDATE 13 December 2013: Sad news – St Augustine College has pulled the plug on the restoration project.

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.

If you want to donate to the restoration project, click here to visit Essanay Studios’  Indiegogo page. Find out more about Essanay Studios here.