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).
Competition time again, Silent Londoners, and this time I am giving away tickets for a night of silent film and live music at one of our favourite venues, Hackney Attic. The lucky winner can look forward to an uproarious evening, featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy (in their first film together) and even Felix the Cat – plus a surprise! This latest event in the Filmphonics series has been put on by the silent film fanatics at the Lucky Dog Picturehouse. Here’s what they have to say about it:
The Lucky Dog Picturehouse specialise in providing an authentic 1920’s silent film experience, with live piano soundtrack. Collecting together 5 of the best silent film shorts ever made by some of the world’s greatest silent stars. Buster Keaton attempts to build his new flat-pack home in the stunt-filled ‘One Week’. You’ll find a love-lorn Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Pawn Shop’. Laurel & Hardy team up for the first time ever in ‘The Lucky Dog’ (featuring a dog to rival Uggie from The Artist). To balance the dog ‘Felix the Cat’ makes a madcap appearance. And the final film is “TBC” but it might involve a certain “Trip to the Moon”. All of the films will be scored by live keyboard accompaniment. Just as they were supposed to be seen.
To win a pair of tickets to the Lucky Dog Picturehouse night, simply email the answer to this simple question to email@example.com with Lucky Dog in the subject header by noon on Friday 17 May 2013.
In which British town was Stan Laurel born?
The Lucky Dog Picturehouse night at Hackney Attic is on Sunday 19 May at 7.30pm. Tickets start at 7pm for members (with £2 off if you book for The Great Gatsby the same day). Click here to book and for more information.
It’s podcast o’clock once more. This time I’m joined in the studio by the marvellous Pete Baran, and in the pub by Lucie Dutton, who tells us all about British silent film director Maurice Elvey. All that, plus a guest appearance by Otto Kylmälä, film-maker and festival organiser, praising the “subtle brilliance and mature beauty” of his favourite silent movie, Chaplin’s City Lights.
This date should already be in your diaries. Charlie Chaplin’s wise and heartwarming not-so-silent silent film Modern Times screens at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank on 22 March, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. It’s a magnificent movie: a slyly hilarious portrait of Depression-era America, with a tremendous score written by Chaplin himself. There’s a lot to love about Modern Times – not least the final screen appearance of the Little Tramp and the debut of Chaplin’s song Smile.
If you’d like to see Modern Times, and who wouldn’t, you can take advantage of this special offer and get best available seats for just £10 if you quote FILM when booking online or by calling 0844 847 9910. Find out more and book online here.
This is the final Charlie’s London post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London. Charlie’s London is now moving to its own site!
Welcome to the last edition of Charlie’s London on Silent London. I had been thinking for a while about what would be the best goodbye post for a site I hold so very dear. Without Silent London, Charlie’s London would not have an audience and I would not have had the platform to express my love for one of the greatest artists/comedians/directors/humanitarians the world has seen.
Chaplin means something different to everyone. To me he has somehow become part of my family history! From little William in that workhouse to seeing my very own godson fall in love with his films, I can honestly say Charlie never leaves me. Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Southbank showing of The Circus and as I sat in what really is Charlie’s London I felt very honoured and emotional. It was not just because it was a Chaplin film, but because my grandmother and I had watched this film many times when I was a child. I clearly remember her singing “swing little girl” to me on more than one occasion; I wish she had been able to sit in one of those deckchairs with me and enjoy it for herself.
There has been so much written about Chaplin the film-maker, the genius of cinema. There has been even more on Chaplin the man. What has interested me throughout my time writing this blog is Charlie the Londoner. It is true that most of his london no longer exists, but his presence still lingers those streets, even if people do not realise it. Poverty is still a massive problem in inner-city areas around the world, and South London is no different. Chaplin saw all this. For him it was a different age, a different life, but not a different London. You can see this in every one of this films: Easy Street, The Kid, Modern Times and right up until Limelight, Chaplin never forgot his roots.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Today I am going to look at the importance of another figure in Charlie’s life, his brother Sydney, whom I feel should never be overlooked.
Until the groundbreaking biography by Dr Lisa K Stein (Syd Chaplin: a biography), Sydney’s story was only really told as a piece of the Charlie Chaplin jigsaw puzzle. She has completely changed this, showing Sydney as an individual who helped to create his brother’s career. Stein’s book allows us to see Sydney like never before. Her work is a testament to the extensive resources in the Chaplin archives in Bologna, as well as her own personal collection and enthusiasm for her subject. For me, it shows that the information is all very much still there for us to all see, it’s just a question of knowing where to look, having the guts to challenge what is already known, interpret it differently and give a new dimension to further Chaplin research.
Four years older than his famous brother, Sydney would look out for his younger brother for the rest of his life. Born in 16 March 1885 to the 19-year-old Hannah Hill, and originally known as Sidney John Hill, Syd become a Chaplin when he was a few months old upon the marriage between his mother and Charlie’s father. The bond these brothers or the rest of their lives was a powerful one. Their shared time in south London workhouses and poorhouses, while their mother suffered with mental illness, required great courage. These events would later shape the brothers’ outlook on their art and their lives – although in different ways. Sydney Chaplin junior, Charlie’s son by his second wife Lita Grey, would reportedly later joke that his father’s choice of name for him was very apt. Whereas Charlie lived and breathed his work until its completion, Sydney senior would adopt a much more laidback approach and enjoy the fruits of his labour. In my humble opinion, Sydney felt he worked hard so he could play hard, Charlie however felt he had to hold on to his tragedy, because it helped mould his comedy.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Hi everyone. Welcome back to another edition of Charlie’s London.
As promised I will be looking at two more women who I believe shaped his life, both on screen and off. Last time I looked at Chaplin’s mother and Mabel Normand, this week I will look at Edna Purviance and Oona O’Neill. I have to confess, Normand never used to be a favourite of mine, even though I consider her contribution to be important and often overlooked. Now, I have to say, I’m really in her corner. People have often said that Chaplin and Normand hated each other. People have also often said Chaplin and Mary Pickford hated each other too, for me, these relationships are one and the same. Their relationships were creative ones: if they clashed, let’s call it artistic differences.
Normand not only directed Chaplin but also acted as his leading lady too: a role taken most often by Edna Purviance, who appeared in 33 of his pictures including extra parts in Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Purviance was first cast opposite Chaplin in 1915 after a chance meeting with one of his associates in a Tate’s Cafe in San Francisco – the director was looking for a new female lead for his Essanay comedy A Night Out. Even after her final film with Chaplin, A Woman Of Paris in 1923, Purviance stayed on the company payroll right up to her death in 1958.
Chaplin and Purviance were romantically linked for many years, and unfortunately this is how some film enthusiasts and historians seem to want to remember her. I completely disagree with this. Chaplin would never have another leading lady like Purviance – Paulette Goddard comes close, but they don’t have the same bond on screen.
The West London Trades Union Club in Acton, London W3 is a welcoming place for those who enjoy a well-kept ale and a natter, and a haven for left-leaning cinephiles too. The venue’s Saturday afternoon film club is friendly, and pleasingly broad-minded: recent seasons have taken a look at the work of film-makers ranging from Joseph Losey to Paul Robeson as well as giving club members the chance to show their own favourite titles, week by week.
Last year I spent four hugely enjoyable, chatty Saturday afternoons in west London showing silent films chosen in collaboration with members of the club. The discussions afterwards were well-informed, not to say boisterous, and one topic we often returned to was: what are you going to show next year?
So, the silent film club is back, with some much-longed for comedy, another British film, some Weimar glamour and French impressionism. Here’s what’s coming up this autumn in Acton:
Comedy double-bill: The General (1926) and The Circus (1928)
Two classic films from the two titans of silent comedy: Buster Keaton’s ingenious civil-war chase film The General and Chaplin’s poignant, hilarious The Circus. These two films offer an opportunity to marvel at the best of silent comedy, but also to compare and contrast the different styles of these two great film-makers. Buster Keaton’s deadpan mechanical inventiveness versus Chaplin’s sentimental appeal and graceful physicality – you decide. 8 September 2012, 4pm
Hindle Wakes (1927)
This adaptation of the much-loved northern melodrama was filmed by Maurice Elvey, a giant of British silent cinema, now sadly all but forgotten. Elvey was a trade unionist himself, and Hindle Wakes is the story of a clandestine romance between a factory worker and an industrialist’s son. It’s gorgeously filmed, with some fantastic “Wakes Week” sequences shot in Blackpool – and the heroine, played by Estelle Brody, is a refreshingly modern woman. Not to be missed. 20 October 2012, 4pm
Pandora’s Box (1929)
Another modern woman, and one of the most famous films of the silent era. Louise Brooks is truly iconic as the liberated, amoral Lulu breaking hearts in swinging Weimar Germany. Erotic, witty and ultimately tragic, Pandora’s Box is a classic that rewards repeated viewing and while coolly received at the time, has subsequently made an international star or its reckless leading lady – it now stands as the definitive portrait of a decadent society. 10 November 2012, 4pm
When Marcel Herbier announced his intention to adapt Zola’s L’Argent but to place it in the contemporary setting of the 1920s Paris stockmarket, many were horrified that he would take an acclaimed historical novel about ruthlessly greedy, over-reaching bankers out of its context. But Herbier’s passion, “to film at any cost, even (what a paradox) at great cost, a fierce denunciation of money”, proved as pertinent in pre-crash Europe as it does now, in the fallout of the global financial crisis. L’Argent is not just social commentary, it’s an ambitiously innovative film, a masterpiece of poetic impressionism. 15 December 2012, 4pm
You don’t have to be a member of the club, or even of a trade union, to turn up and receive a warm welcome – and you will find the venue at 33 Acton High Street, London W3 6ND. It’s about five minutes walk from Acton Central train station, and on plenty of bus routes.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome to another edition of Charlie’s London! For this segment and the next I’m going to look at some of the women in Chaplin’s life, showing how influential, important and ultimately empowering some of these women’s roles really were.
A lot has been written about Chaplin’s private life; he was a dashing and charismatic individual whose appeal extended beyond stage and screen. Recently I was talking to a fellow Chaplin fan and friend in Bologna. We both agreed that there was something so beautiful about Charlie, it was no surprise that his private life become front-page news, whether the stories were true or not. Putting the gossip aside, for me the women who shaped, moulded and even changed Chaplin were his mother Hannah, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance and of course Oona O’Neill.
This subject will often be debated, with some enthusiasts and historians adding Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love, and even Paulette Goddard, his third wife and star of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, to that list. I hope with these two blogs I will explain why I have chosen this group. In this first instalment I will talk about Hannah Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
Hannah Hill, Chaplin’s mother, was arguably the most influential woman in his life. Her struggles in order to give Chaplin a decent upbringing, only to suffer such terrible mental health problems, no doubt haunted him for the rest of his days. I have spoken of Hannah before, and I am quite fond of her as a historical character, not only because she is the mother of my hero, but because I feel she is incredibly interesting. Historians have labelled Hannah as everything from a woman of ill repute to an undiscovered music hall genius whose renditions of the era’s classics would ignite her son’s thirst for the art.
The “fallen woman” analysis comes very much from psychologist Dr Stephen Weissman whose book Chaplin: A Life paints Hannah in a very unflattering light. His depiction of her affair with stage star Leo Dryden (the union that would produce Chaplin’s brother Wheeler) and his suggestion that syphilis was the cause of her madness (including references to her working as a prostitute) are seen as very controversial by other Chaplin enthusiasts and historians. David Robinson is quite rightly kinder to Hannah, noting the confirmed ancestral link to mental health dificulties within the Hill women as the roots of her tragic downfall, while also highlighting her faults such as her affair.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for another edition of Charlie’s London. This week I am going to be talking about my debut appearance on the Silent London Podcast, as well as my recent trip to the thoroughly mindblowing Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy
Being a Chaplin fan you are never short of on-screen comedy capers to keep you entertained, but when someone tells you you can visit the Charlie Chaplin Archive in Bologna, Italy should you be in the area, well you don’t really have to think twice. My partner Kieran and I took a 6am flight to Bologna so that I could visit the archive, but also so we could enjoy the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival too.
At the Cineteca in Bologna we registered for the archive and the festival. All around us everyone complained about the heat, but being half Turkish I didn’t really mind. No sooner had we sat down for a coffee, my phone began to ping, it was Jenny, a fellow festival-goer who had not only made the journey to Bologna but was also staying in the same hotel as us. Pretty soon we were all together, along with Mark, another friend and great supporter of Bristol Silents looking over the festival plan.
Initially I began to look over the schedule from Wednesday to Friday, because I was due to be in the archives Monday and Tuesday, but this turned out this was a pointless exercise. In the end, I was in the archive until Friday morning and in total saw only five films at the festival. The film that left the biggest impression on me was the new restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Mark had told me many times before that it was a film I would enjoy, not only because I have a soft spot for Technicolor but because I have spent a lot of time researching the first and second world wars. He wasn’t wrong! It was a feast of restored beauty, history and irony.
My biggest adventure came on Monday when I finally got to visit the Chaplin archives. Everything has been digitised to make viewing incredibly easy. The staff are so helpful and friendly, even with the busy festival under way in the grounds. Before I knew it I was engrossed, flicking through pages and pages of useful and exciting documents all relevant to a massive piece of research I am undertaking. Kate Guyonvarch, Kevin Brownlow and of course David Robinson all were there to give me a helping hand: their support was priceless. Imagine, as I have done, having read someone’s work since you were 11 years old, only to find them standing behind you in an archive and clarifying a sentence in one of their books that you want to quote in your research! That what David Robinson did, and he refreshed my memory on something I had a mental block on. After many cups of lovely Italian coffee and long chats I had more than 40 pages to take back to England: the tip of the iceberg had been scratched.
Bologna is a long way from South London! Charlie’s London had very much gone continental. Here is where my biggest conundrum lay – you can’t just take a bus to these archives. I knew I had so much I wanted to look at, but I was meant to be at a film festival, what was a girl to do? Luckily enough I have a very supportive partner who smiled and told me to book more time in the archives. So, what started as two days ended up being the whole week, and it was worth it! I discovered so much more about my hero.
Another podcast, and this time it’s all about the laughs in our comedy special. I’m joined in the studio by Phil Concannon of Philonfilm.net, Ayse Behçet, who writes the Charlie’s London series for Silent London, and podcast expert Pete Baran. Plus Chris Edwards of the wonderful Silent Volume blog also contributes a few well-chosen words on his favourite silent film: Exit Smiling, starring Beatrice Lillie.
We’ll be talking about our favourite silent comedies, and yours, and perhaps touching on a few films and film-makers you won’t expect. Plus we’ll be reviewing some recent silent film screenings, Ayse will be reporting back from the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna and we’ll be taking a look at the calendar too.
There’s also a lot of business about trousers. And possibly the odd 90-year-old spoiler.