Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…
Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016
If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.
Best silent film theatrical release of 2016
Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.
Best modern silent of 2016
Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.
It’s back, the perfect post-Pordenone pick-me-up: a weekend of giggles at the Cinema Museum curated by the inimitable David Wyatt. I heard great things about last year’s event, but this time you’ll have double the fun with a two-day festival. So ink 22 & 23 October 2016 into your diary and look out for tickets on sale in early September. Here’s what the Kennington Bioscope crew are promising for their second Silent Comedy Weekend:
Two days of (mostly) silent comedy – except for the audience laughter (judging from last year’s successful extravaganza) and live music from our world famous accompanists.
Feature films with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, Monty Banks, Syd Chaplin, Harry Langdon and more. Rare showings of Lupino Lane’s LAMBETH WALK and Walter Forde’s first feature WAIT AND SEE – long–neglected British stars in need of re evaluation – plus some equally forgotten funny females, European shorts from the early years and Laurel & Hardy as you’ve never seen them before! Plus presentations on Mack Sennett and Lupino.
Guest speakers are hoped to include renowned authors David Robinson, Geoff Brown and Brent Walker, legendary film archivist Bob Gitt and of course, our own Kevin Brownlow.
Please not that the programme is ‘subject to change’ as films are still to be confirmed. Please see websites for updates.
The votes are in! Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to this year’s poll – we had a wide range of responses, and votes cast from around the world. Looking back on the 2015 reveals that it was a very strong year for silent film, which meant that many of these decisions were very close-run things. Congratulations to everyone who won a category – and those who just missed out too.
The best DVD/Blu-ray of 2015
There have been some corking discs and box sets released this year, so there were several contenders for this prize. But out in front by some distance, was the BFI’s brilliant suffragette compilation with music by Lillian Henley: Make More Noise! Don’t mind if we do.
The best theatrical release of 2015
Not so many titles up for contention here, and some confusion as to what represents a bona fide theatrical release. Good to see some love for films that were popular on the festival circuit such as Synthetic Sin and The Battle of the Century, even if they weren’t exactly what we were looking for here. However, among several nods to Steamboat Bill Jr and Man With a Movie Camera, your winner was … well why not: Make More Noise! again. Congratulations to Bryony and Margaret Deriaz, who curated this fabulous selection of films.
The best modern silent of 2015
My personal favourite new film of 2015 won this category hands-down. While Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s deaf-school drama The Tribe technically has plenty of dialogue, the fact that said dialogue is entirely in Ukrainain sign language makes this a silent film for most. And an astonishingly powerful one too. Not for the faint-hearted, but a fantastically exciting film nonetheless.
The best orchestral film screening of 2015
Well you saw some excellent shows in 2015, didn’t you? There were many great nominations for this category, and the title very nearly went to a London screening … but not quite. The winner was the triumphant conclusion to this year’s Pordenone silent film festival: The Phantom of the Opera with Carl Davis’s excellent score played by Orchestra San Marco and conducted by Marc Fitzgerald. I can confirm that this was a blinding performance, but also that the Teatro Verdi lighting stayed firmly in place throughout the show.
UPDATE: I updated this post on 6 September 2015 once the programme for the Silent Laughter festival had been finalised.
Our favourite south Londoners are at it again. Fresh from staging a triumphant weekend-long event in June, the Kennington Bioscope team promise a full day of chuckles with a comedy festival in October. Tell us all about it, Ken!
Programmes include shorts with Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Laurel & Hardy and others; rare features with Raymond Griffith and Walter Forde (Britain’s best silent comedian) concluding with Harold Lloyd’s classic GIRL SHY.
Plus special presentations – Kevin Brownlow on his Buster Keaton Thames TV series ‘A Hard Act to Follow’, David Robinson on Laurel & Hardy (whom he interviewed in 1954), including some new discoveries, guests Tony Slide (historian, author, founder of ‘The Silent Picture’) and Matthew Ross (editor of ‘Movie Night’, Britain’s only magazine devoted to silent & vintage comedy).
Here is the final programme – the Raymond Griffiths films is Paths to Paradise (1925) and the Walter Forde title is You’d be Surprised (1930). And I have heard, from the most delightful little bird, that the vegetarian cafe next door will be open for food again, possibly with a special offer for festivalgoers.
Sounds great. The perfect cure for the post-Pordenone blues, Silent Laughter is a one-day event taking place at the Cinema Museum on Saturday 24 October, from 10am-10pm. Tickets will be available from 1 September so bookmark this page now.
Wait a minute, wait a minute …
Yes, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The Kennington Bioscope is branching out even further, into the realm of early sound cinema, with a little something they are calling Kennington Talkies. What?
At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.
We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.
The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.
But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.
Well hello there, Elephant & Castle tube station. A few months back I wrote about the many wonders of the Kennington Bioscope – a regular silent screening event held at the Cinema Musesum, south London. Short version: it’s ace.
Now the Kennington Bioscope has gone one better than brightening up our Wednesday evenings. The Kennington Bioscope Weekender will take over the Cinema Museum for two days in the summer – 20 & 21 June – to screen a mouth-watering selection of silent films.
Two things to note straight away – first, the majority of these films will be shown on film, either 35mm or 16mm. The website makes it clear which is which. And second, the films have been chosen and will be introduced by an estimable group of film historians including Kevin Brownlow.
London is the best city in the world for silent cinema. OK, so maybe I should admit to a little bias, but really, between the BFI Southbank, the Barbican, the London Film Festival, the Phoenix cinema in Finchley, and the capital’s many film societies, rep cinemas, arthouse cinemas, orchestras, concert halls and festivals (including the many visits of the British Silent Film Festival, the Fashion in Film Festival and the recently departed Birds Eye View Film Festival) we are sitting pretty for silents. Whether it’s a symptom or a cause I don’t know, but we also have many of the world’s best silent film accompanists based right here in the Big Smoke.
It’s in this context that in the summer of 2013, two of London’s fabulous silent film musicians, John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrysch, set up a “silent speakeasy” called the Kennington Bioscope: “a silent cinematic event dedicated to the rediscovery of forgotten masterpieces”. Since then, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out, and I am about to make you jealous. I can’t let another Bioscope go by without telling you all how amazing it is.
The KB (as I have never yet heard one person call it) is held once every three weeks at the Cinema Museum – a volunteer-staffed Aladdin’s Cave of cinematic memorabilia and ephemera. There are more than a few reasons why you voted this place as your favourite silent film venue of 2014. It’s a wee bit like a time machine, whisking you back to a more sedate era of cinemagoing. There’s always an interval, ushers may well be wearing natty uniforms, someone will undoubtedly strike a gong to prompt patrons to take their seats, and the adverts before the screening will remind those assembled of the proper etiquette required. Tickets, which cost just £3, are made of cardboard and ripped off a reel. Most important of all, the projection booth is staffed by an expert projectionist, showing films of all shapes and sizes as often as possible.
Just like last year, the British Silent Film Festival hits London town, but not in its traditional form. Very much as was the the case last year, actually, the festival proceeds in a slightly cut-down version, comprising a symposium at Kings College London on Friday 2 May 2014 and a full day of screenings at the Cinema Museum on the next day.
There’s a loose theme to those screenings at the Cinema Museum – runaway women or some such. I like. More to point: Betty Balfour fans – fill your boots. And if you want to submit a proposal for a paper to the symposium, you have until 31 March – so hurry up, clever clogses.
Here are the full details for each day:
The British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2014 will take place on 2nd May 2014 at King’s College, London.
Following the success of last year’s symposium, this one-day event again seeks to draw together scholars and enthusiasts of early British cinema, and operate as a forum for the presentation of new research, scholarship and archival work into film culture in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Possible areas may include but will not be confined to: Cinema in the context of wider theatrical, literary and popular culture; Empire and cinema; Cinema and the First World War.
An early evening screening of The Wonderful Story (Graham Cutts, 1922) will be included in the day’s events.
Proposals (around 200 words in length) are invited for 20 minute papers on any aspect of new research into film-making and cinema-going in Britain and its Empire before 1930. Please submit them to Lawrence.1.Napper@kcl.ac.uk by 31st March.
Put-upon ladies take on the world in this programme of rarely seen silents from the BFI National Archive.
A double bill from talented Hungarian director Geza von Bolvary, stars Britain’s favourite actress Betty Balfour as the stand-in princess in The Vagabond Queen (1929) and besotted bottle-washer in Bright Eyes (1929). Also yearning to break free, an oppressed wife hangs her hopes on a typewriter in J.M. Barrie’s The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a programme of shorts continues the theme.
10.00-11.30 The Twelve Pound Look
12.00-13.30 The Vagabond Queen
14.30-16.00 Shorts programme
16.30-18.00 Champagner/Bright Eyes
Doors open at 09.00 for a 10.00 start.
Refreshments will be available in our licensed café/bar.
TICKETS & PRICING
£25 for the full day, £15 for a half day, £8 for one session. Sorry, no concessions.
Advance tickets may be purchased from WeGotTickets, or direct from the Museum by calling 020 7840 2200 in office hours.
As you know, this year the British Silent Film Festival has taken a year off – but luckily for us, it’s the kind of year off where two all-day events still go ahead. Just to keep things ticking over, as it were. So last weekend there was a symposium on British silent cinema, held at King’s College London and organised by Dr Lawrence Napper. The following day the Cinema Museum hosted an all-dayer of screenings, themed on the tantalising idea of “sensation-seeking”.
I attended both events and while it didn’t feel like the festival was running, it was a real treat to be immersed in British silent film in this way. Let’s hope the festival returns back to full strength next year.
The papers at the symposium were limited to 20 minutes apiece, but covered a wide range of topics, from Edwardian theatre to state censorship to international co-productions to saucy novels. One hardly knows where to begin.
There were two papers with a theatrical bent: Ken Reeves’s dip into musical comedy theatre and its links to silent film concluded with some ideas for “crossover” events that would mix theatre, film and audience participation to spread the love about early British cinema. Audience participation? Reader, I sang. Very badly. Theatre historian David Mayer’s unforgettable presentation played and replayed the same baffling scrap of film as he uncovered the truth behind its creation. The scene of a waterfall bursting its bank and bringing down a bridge (and a couch and four) was, it turned out, not shot on location but on stage at the London Hippodrome in 1902, where a collapsible stage could be dropped and filled with water to create watery scenes. There was more – involving elephants on a slide. Elephants. Read more here.
Lucie Dutton, sometimes of this parish, also talked about the stage, presenting a history of film director Maurice Elvey‘s early career – in theatre in London and New York, before moving into the pictures with his star Elisabeth Risdon. She was followed by John Reed from the National Screen and Sound Archive in Wales, who took us through the production, loss, rediscovery and restoration of Elvey’s landmark film, The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Intriguingly, Reed pointed out a few instances in which Elvey could be seen in the film, waving a handkerchief and appearing to direct the action. Could this be because in these scenes the prime minister was played not by Norman Page but by Lloyd George himself? It’s an enticing thought.
Another famous British director was under the spotlight – one even more renowned than Elvey. Charles Barr presented on what we do know, and what we don’t, about the first film that Hitchcock ever shouted action on: Always Tell Your Wife. It’s an adaptation of a stage comedy starring theatre veterans Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss and it seems the director fell out with his inflexible actors and therefore a “fat youth” from the props room was elevated to the job. You may struggle to see bold Hitchcockian strokes in what we have left of the film (which screened at the Cinema Museum on the Saturday), but we do have the director’s handwriting, unmistakably, in an insert shot of a telegram.
Far less well known than Hitchcock, but fascinating to hear about, was showman-turned-film director Mark Melford. His name, just like most of his films, may be lost to time, but Stephen Morgan attempted to flesh out his story, taking his cue from a Bioscope blogpost of 2007 that posed the pertinent question: “Who needs films to write film history anyway?” We did see a clip from the recently rediscovered romp The Herncrake Witch, directed by and starring Melford (amended, see comments) as well as being based on one of his own comic operas and also featuring his daughter (Jackeydawra, named thus due to her parents’ love of Jackdaws. True story). The story of the Melfords was hugely entertaining, but Morgan concluded by making the hugely important point that the study of lost films and forgotten film-makers is vital to a full understanding of the silent film era as a whole.
And of course, one never knows when a lost film will suddenly become an un-lost film. It happened to The Herncrake Witch and The Life Story of David Lloyd George after all. And it wasn’t so long ago that a treasure trove of Mitchell & Kenyon works was unearthed, giving us an invaluable glimpse of (mostly working-class) Edwardian Britain. In one of the day’s most diverting 20-minute segments, Tony Fletcher played a selection of Mitchell & Kenyon’s fiction films, while explaining a little more about them. The films were comedies, often chases and knockabout stuff, all with a backdrop of industrial northern England – factory gates, brick kilns and terraced streets. I particularly liked the mischievous snow comedy and the animated intertitles in a short called (I think) Driving Lucy.
More comedy, but this time of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up school: Alex Rock put recent Leveson revelations in the shade with a paper on the Metropolitan Police’s tangled relationship with the film industry. Its rather heavy-handed Press Bureau, founded in 1919, was popularly known as the Suppress Bureau. You can guess why. Rock’s paper traced the development of an official documentary film, supported by the Met, called Scotland Yard, and the squashing of another, based on the memoirs of a former detective.
The correspondence of public servants baffled, outraged or simply dismissive of the “movies” is unexpectedly entertaining, and never more so than in Jo Pugh’s paper on the official military response to Walter Summers’ The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands. I could barely keep up with the information he was imparting, partly because I was giggling so much. Really. The good news is that we should hear more from Jo’s research and more about the film too as a little bird tells me a full restoration (possibly in time for next year’s Great War centenary) is in process.
If my email inbox is anything to go by, several of you have been wondering when we would hear details of the 16th British Silent Film Festival. After last year’s trip to Cambridge, many of you will have been anticipating the festival’s return to London, for one thing…
Well. There’s bad news – but happily there’s far more good news.
The BSFF is taking a break this year – but there will still be a BSFF, of sorts. And yes, some of the events will be in London, but festivalgoers will also be packing their buckets and spades for a trip to The Suffolk coast – and the historic Aldeburgh Cinema.
The centrepiece of the events, according to my insider sources, will be the screening of Hobson’s Choice (Percy Nash, 1920), starring Arthur Pitt, Joan Ritz and Joe Nightingale – a very, very rarely seen film and a magnificent adaptation of the play by Harold Brighouse. You’ll also have a chance to see the full surviving fragment of Graham Cutts’s Cocaine (1922) and the only surviving reel of Monkey’s Paw(Manning Haynes, 1923). Speaking of Haynes – you’ll be able to feast on his delightful WW Jacobs comedies down in Suffolk – a treat for any British silent film fanatic. If you linger by the seaside, you’ll also catch the Dodge Brothers accompanying the Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life (1928), which is well worth sticking around for.
There will be no British Silent Film Festival this year while the team regroup – however, we are organising three fantastic one off events , with three enthusiastic new hosts:
19th April One day British Silent Symposium courtesy of Lawrence Napper at King’s College, University of London –incorporating the Rachael Low lecture. A ‘Call for Papers’ will be coming soon.
20th April – All day event at the Cinema Museum – a programme of sensational London related film – The Yellow Claw, full surviving fragments of Cocaine, Monkey’s Paw, and rare shorts from other collections. Also the 21st century premiere of the 1920Hobson’s Choice a genuinely good silent adaptation of the Harold Brighouse classic made famous by David Lean.
4th May – join us by the sea as the BSFF are guests of the glorious Aldeburgh Cinema for an all-dayer, with a coastal theme, including the ‘east coast’ films of Manning Haynes and Lydia Hayward based on the W W Jacobs stories, a programme of Lifeboat films and others. The fabulous Dodge Brothers will be playing ‘Beggars of Life’on the 5th for those who want to make a weekend of it!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Jasper Sharp – scroll down for a chance to win tickets to these events.
Taking place at the Cinema Museum between 14-16 September, the UK’s premiere celebration of cutting-edge Japanese film, Zipangu Fest, returns for its third year, with a number of choice items of interest to silent film fans.
The centrepiece is the screening on Saturday evening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s classic of the avant-garde, Crossways (Jujiro, 1928) from 35mm, with a new score performed live by Minima. One of the first Japanese films ever shown in the West, Crossways was Kinugasa’s follow up to his better-known Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji, 1926). Set in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district, Crossways was described by its director as a “chambara [samurai action film] without swordfights” and was heavily influenced by German Expressionism.
This screening will be introduced by a visual presentation on the history of the film by Zipangu Fest director and author of the recent Historical Dictionary of Japan Cinema, Jasper Sharp. The evening kicks off at 7.30pm, and tickets are available from the Zipangu Fest website.
Crossways will be preceded by another very rare screening for those with an interest in Japan’s early cinema, To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume miru you ni nemuritai), the 1986 debut from Kaizô Hayashi (Circus Boys, Zipang, and the ‘Yokohama Mike’ trilogy).
Two private detectives hunt for an actress trapped within a frame of an ancient ninja film in this magical double-handed homage to the movie worlds of the 1910s and 1950s. Predating Michel Hazanavicius’ recent faux-silent work The Artist by 25 years, To Sleep So as to Dream is chockfull of references to Japan’s rich cinematic heritage, featuring cameos from a host of veteran talent including the benshi (silent film narrators) Shunsui Matsui and Midori Sawato, and the baroque sets of Takeo Kimura, the Nikkatsu art designer fondly remembered for his flamboyant work with Seijun Suzuki in the 1960s. Playing for the most part without dialogue, it toys with the conventions of both the silent film and hardboiled detective genres, leading the viewer through a maze of colourful locales such as a carnival fairground and a deserted film set.
Both of these titles will be screened from film. Indeed, cinema purists might want to also note Zipangu Fest’s Sunday afternoon session, beginning at 4.30pm, Spirit Made Flesh: Works from 3 Experimental Filmmakers, featuring work by Shinkan Tamaki, Momoko Seto and Takashi Makino, all of which interrogate and explore the very essence of celluloid and analogue technologies. The screenings will be followed by a panel discussion “Is There Still a Need for Film in a Digitising World?” in what promises to be a lively and fascinating event.
Zipangu Fest is generously offering a pair of tickets to all three of these events. All you have to do is sign up to our mailing list, and tell us which of the films in our 2012 lineup interests you. On submission you will be signed up to our responsibly-managed mailing list, and three names will be selected at random for a prize. The first gets a pair of tickets to the Crossways event, the second to To Sleep so as To Dream, and the third to Spirit Made Flesh. Click here to enter.
Zipangu Fest was established in 2010 to shatter existing preconceptions about what ‘Japanese cinema’ is, and to celebrate one of the most vibrant and dynamic moving image cultures anywhere in the world. The third Zipangu Fest, hosted by the Cinema Museum in Kennington from 14-16 September, looks set to be our most ambitious and exciting yet.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Ayşe Behçet
Hi everyone, again thank you for taking time out to read this instalment of Charlie’s London. This segment is going to look at the importance of family with the backdrop of the Lambeth Workhouse. Events that transpired behind the walls of that Victorian institution would change Charlie’s life; but it also holds some personal significance for me too.
I thought long and hard about how to start this piece. The answer to my prayers came in the form of my three-year-old godson Jayden, whose mannerisms and speech are so precociously adult-like you can imagine him starring in The Kid. Jayden is my cousin Em’s little boy, I was there when he was born and have never lived more than three doors away from his mother my entire life. Jay waltzed into my bedroom one afternoon after playing in our joint garden (Em’s parents live next door to us) and pointed at my wall.
“What’s that, Ayşe?” He was referring my two framed Chaplin film posters, one of The Kid and one of The Gold Rush. When I explained to him that they were posters from films made by a very funny man called Charlie Chaplin, Jayden was intrigued.
“Can we watch him?” Well! I don’t need an excuse, so I reached for one of my DVDs.
We snuggled up on the sofa to watch The Kid (I choose this one because I felt Jay could really identify with little Jackie Coogan, both cheeky and comical). I was right; Jayden loved it! He giggled and squealed at every comedy moment, until the scene when the Kid is ripped away from the Tramp. It disturbed him, you could see in his little face the terror and torment; the fear that someone could do that to him, and he would no longer see his mother and father. I have to confess, Coogan’s lips moving to the words “I want my daddy” always causes a lump in my throat. Of course, when the Tramp rescues the boy from the moving orphanage van and holds him the way only a father can, I assured Jay that all little boys have their parents in the end, if they are good little boys.
After he had gone home I sat thinking about the film. Jayden’s reaction had hit a nerve with me that I needed to explore.
Chaplin never hid the fact that he cared about human suffering, and it has been suggested the world over that his own poor upbringing left him with emotional scars. If my godson at three felt moved and distressed at he sight of this in a film, what must a young Chaplin have felt? His whole world, mother and Syd ripped apart from him by a system that was designed to protect but ultimately hindered the welfare of the poorer classes and their children. Initially, a frightened seven-year-old Chaplin, his mother Hannah and brother Sydney went of their own accord to the Lambeth workhouse, once known as the Newington Workhouse because of its location (just off Newington Butts in Lambeth). This was largely because of their mother, who struggled to cope with the financial difficulties the family had to endure. Once the family were admitted their clothes were removed and their heads were shaved; can you imagine the humiliation? I have to be honest: I think Hannah’s decision to admit her sons rather than show defeat actually showed love and strength. She admitted to herself they deserved better, what more can a mother who loves her sons do?
Hannah Chaplin’s breakdown and the family’s arrival at Lambeth Workhouse happened in 1896. By June that same year the two boys were removed from their mother, which caused Chaplin much distress, and sent to Central London District School at Hanwell in west London. The journey seemed like a holiday to the young brothers, who travelled to their new home by horse-drawn bakery van. However, when they arrived, they spent time in an “approbation” ward where Chaplin was separated from his beloved brother and placed in the infants section of the school. Chaplin remembered in his Autobiography many years later how the older girls would bathe the younger boys, recounting in particular the cold and wet all-over flannel wash he received from a fourteen-year-old.
If you have read these blogs before you will know I’ve mentioned my great-grandmother Nanny Harris before. Her daughter Esther, my nan’s sister whom I always lovingly referred to as Auntie Etty, was born in a Lambeth workhouse. My nan’s brother, my uncle Fred, was also born in one too. Family story leads us to believe my great-grandmother literally sat upon the steps of the workhouse each time her waters broke and told them to take her in: “Or I am going to have this bleeding baby in the street.”
What’s more, a family mystery could tie us directly to Chaplin – and we didn’t realise it for many years.
There is a famous picture of Chaplin, huddled against a group of small boys, his seven-year-old face looking at the camera with the same cheeky grin that would later make him a worldwide star. Two rows back is a small boy, his jawline is strong and his face familiar, this boy we believe is the brother of my great-grandmother, who, if records are to be believed was in the Lambeth Workhouse the same time as Chaplin. Unfortunately no other photo of him exists as an adult, no photos of my great-grandmother survive either, so it really is a family mystery that will never be solved. The family would again later return to this building but thankfully in better circumstances.
In the 1960s my mother volunteered at the building when it was still a hospital and institution within the borough, she probably stood in the chapel area, famously linked to the Chaplin family, and never realised the connection that her own daughter would later write about. Now, of course, the workhouse has become the Cinema Museum. Recently it was my turn to return there, to meet David Robinson, a hero I have been reading from the age of 11, for a fantastic presentation on Chaplin, my ultimate hero – I came full circle!
Who do you watch silent movies with? Your friends? Your partner? Toute seule on the front row taking notes? The answer is that we all watch silent films in the company of the musician, who is not just accompanying the movie, but guiding the audience through it as well. Whether composing a score or improvising on the fly, silent cinema musicians are arguably closer to and more involved with the film then anyone else in the auditorium. Which is why it’s always fascinating to hear what they have to say about the movies.
Neil Brand does more to share his wisdom than most, with regular appearances on TV and radio discussing film history and film scores – as well as his work with the British Silent Film Festival too. But for the real skinny on silent cinema as he sees it, you need to catch him on stage, with a projector and a piano, holding forth. The good news is that Brand’s The Silent Pianist Speaks show is back in London on Saturday, at our beloved Cinema Museum.
From the earliest, earthiest comedies and thrillers, through a silent cine-verité classic scripted by a young Billy Wilder, to the glories of Hollywood glamour and the sublime Laurel and Hardy, Neil provides improvised accompaniment and laconic commentary on everything from deep focus to his own live cinema disasters. He investigates how music works with film by inviting the audience to score a love scene, and the show culminates with Neil accompanying a clip ‘sight unseen’ whilst simultaneously describing his reactions to it. The result is a hilarious, sharp and ultimately moving show about cinema and music which pays tribute to the musicians of the silent era through the observations of one the world’s greatest improvising accompanists.
You don’t want to miss this, do you?
The Silent Pianist Speaks is at the Cinema Museum on Saturday 19 May 2012 at 7.30pm. To read more about this particular event, and to buy tickets at the bargainous price of £8.50 or less for concessions, click through to the Cinema Museum website here. Read more about The Silent Pianist Speaks here. If you don’t live in the capital, you;ll be pleased to know that the Silent Pianist Also Speaks Elsewhere. Visit Neil Brand’s website for details of shows around the country (there’s one coming up in Ipswich on 27 May).
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome back for the next instalment of Charlie’s London. In this segment I am looking at the Lambeth Workhouse, an institution that Chaplin spent some time as a youngster. But unlike in the previous chapters of this blog, which focus on either my connections with Charlie or the places our paths have crossed, I want to look at a fantastic event that really brought home to me the importance of keeping his memory alive.
For me, who had grown up in South London, loving Chaplin, knowing this very building was the old Lambeth Workhouse and of course reading Robinson’s biography of Chaplin since I was 11 years old, this event was really the final piece in the jigsaw. I was 10 when I first saw the biopic Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jnr. I had wanted to read more about Chaplin’s life, and so ventured to the local library with my nan, where I uncovered Robinson’s book. I can remember sitting on a stool in the library stool while my nan browsed, my elbows rested on the table while my hands were placed firmly on my jaw line, head transfixed in the book. Everyone always tells me they know when my concentration level is at its highest: I swing my legs like a crazy person or bite my bottom lip as I read. Well, according to my nan this is exactly what I did.
I borrowed the book for two weeks and read the whole thing. I was hooked. For my birthday I asked for my own copy – Mum couldn’t quite understand why, especially as I had not long finished the library copy. I just knew, even at that age that I would want to read it over and over again. Now, 18 years later, it’s still sitting there on my shelf. I have used it for references, quotes, even to solve arguments – it has always been my true companion on my Chaplin journey. Of course, I understand the book very better now as a grown woman than I did as a child, with life comes greater understanding. Yet I will never forget asking my nan what certain words meant and if she had heard of the actors and actresses mentioned in the books. Did she remember any of the events and of course what was it like to actually see a Chaplin film in the cinema? Her stories always fascinated me!
The first time I met David Robinson was at the 2012 Slapstick Festival in Bristol. It was January and traditionally cold and miserable, but the festival cheered up every dreary day. Robinson gave two presentations that weekend, one on Chaplin’s life and one showing shorts and clips from some of his most memorable films. I watched in fascination at the first event, which I remember being 9am on the Saturday morning. It was everything I loved and adored about Chaplin, his London and how it affected him; his controversies and how he reacted to them. Well, after nearly 20 years and quite a bit of courage I finally got to talk to Robinson, and if I ever felt his book was an inspiration I can promise anyone who reads this that the man himself it so much more. Through him I have met some amazing and interesting people: I have continued a journey I started as a small child and I have felt very privileged in many ways. I wouldn’t have half the material I have in my blog without him, that’s for sure.
So this blog post has been rather sentimental, not that the others have really been anything else! And of course I have quoted Robinson and mentioned him before. But it is no exaggeration that you cannot possibly research Chaplin without having his biography constantly on hand. For me, being sat in the very room where Charlie and Sydney Chaplin spent such hard times, listening to David and remembering my roots, I truly felt I had come home. London never leaves you. Getting off the tube at the Elephant and walking down towards Renfrew Road; seeing the Imperial War Museum in the background; remembering the stories I grew up on – all these things remind me of the person I really am. Your home and your birth make up a large part of who you are. My nan always taught me that, and just as Robinson said in his reminiscence that Chaplin had always been in his life because of his father’s love of his films, so has he (and Robinson) very much always been in mine. I truly hope that this will always continue!
Thank you so much for taking time to read this blog spot, normal Chaplinesque service will be resumed in two weeks’ time when we will venture back to the workhouse once more to give some context to our hero and his life in London, as well as its use now as a fantastic gem of a museum.
On 14 June, the Cinema Museum is showing a programme of little-seen British silent films, including a new print of the racy spy thriller A Woman Redeemed (Sinclair Hill, 1927), starring Brian Aherne and Joan Lockton, with musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne. I’ve seen A Woman Redeemed, and it’s a stylish, well-paced film from the latter end of the silent era that deserves a far more exciting title – and a wider audience. Here, to introduce the film more fully, is a guest post from Amy Sargeant, author of British Cinema: a Critical History (BFI, 2005).
Stoll’s 1927 release, A Woman Redeemed, was adapted by Mary Murillo from Frederick Britten Austin’s Strand magazine short story, ‘The Fining Pot is for Silver’. Both scenarios exploit a contemporary appetite for spy fiction – possibly best exemplified by John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Huntingtower and Greenmantle – and the audience for wartime memoirs published by former Secret Service personnel. Basil Thomson, appointed head of the Criminal Investigation Department in 1913, was twice charged with interviewing the alleged spy, Mata Hari. Self-servingly, he concluded:
No drama, no film story yet written has been so enthralling as our daily repertory on the dimly lighted stage set in a corner of the granite building in Westminster. In a century after we … are dead and gone, the Great War will be a quarry for tales of adventure, of high endeavour, and of splendid achievement: when that time comes even some of the humbler actors who play their part in these pages may be seen through a haze of romance.
Both Britten Austin’s story and Sinclair Hill’s film feature an organisation of foreign agents, intent upon power and destruction. Geoffrey Wayneflete (Brian Aherne), an irreproachable young pilot distinguished for his service in the Great War, has designed a wireless controlled, pilotless aeroplane ‘that shall make Britain strong enough to keep peace in the world’. The agents conspire to steal his plans, pressing into service Felice Annaway (Joan Lockton), ordering her to use her ‘charm and beauty’ to seduce Geoffrey. Stella Arbenina, meanwhile, plays the darkly enigmatic and heartless Marta, threatening to expose Felice should she fail to comply with the instructions of a dastardly ‘Twisted Genius’. The Criminal Investigation Department is not to be outwitted and pursues the agents to France; a chase ensues, from Paris to London, the centre of a ‘Proud Empire’.
A masked ball afforded Walter Murton, Hill’s designer, the opportunity to produce the most spectacular set witnessed to date in British Cinema: spangled bathing belles dive into a pool from tiered platforms. A 1927 Bioscope reviewer commented wryly on the decors provided for Felice’s Paris hotel suite:
The bedrooms with gold and silver draperies seem rather to suggest Hollywood taste, but for anything we know that may be the taste that appeals to ladies in the pay of alien governments.
One guest at the ball has drawn inspiration from Douglas Fairbanks; Geoffrey comes dressed as Harlequin.
As an author, Britten Austin was something of a pasticheur, with a range spanning from popular farce to a modish fascination with the occult: Buried Treasure, combining parapsychology, adventure and costume drama, was filmed by Cosmopolitan in 1921 from a Britten Austin short story, as a vehicle for Marion Davies. However, as a prediction of future aerial warfare, A Woman Redeemed bears comparison with Maurice Elvey’s 1929 High Treason, likewise featuring a gang of alien, deracinated mercenaries and idealists.
A Woman Redeemed uses multinational aliases to designate suspect characters. It gestures towards a return to nationalism in Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a guarantor of inner security and the potential incubator of external conflict.
A Woman Redeemed screens at the Cinema Museum in south London on 14 June 2012 at 6.30pm, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Tickets cost £8.50 or £6.50 for concessions and are available online here.
Images courtesy of the National Film and Television Archive.
There has been a lot of talk about Napoléon (1927) recently – Abel Gance’s extravagant film, painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow, scored by Carl Davis and scheduled for some long-overdue screenings in San Francisco next year. But Napoléon is not the only lavish French epic to have benefited from a Photoplay restoration. Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player (1927) is a wildly ambitious film, and if you are interested in the far reaches, excesses and extraordinary achievements of late-period silent cinema, you won’t want to miss it.
The Chess Player is based on a novel that takes the true story of the Turk, a seemingly ingenious 18th-century chess computer, subsequently revealed to be a devastatingly simple hoax, and introduces it to Catherine the Great’s Russian empire. The inventor of the device is an eccentric man who lives in Polish Lithuania and is friendly with some leading local revolutionaries. After a peasant uprising is violently quashed (the film is celebrated for these battle scenes, and associated fantasy sequences), he attempts to smuggle one of his friends across Europe using the device as a cover…
The Chess Player is screening at the Cinema Museum on Sunday 18 September at 2pm as part of the first in a series of lectures on French cinema by Jon Davies. This lecture deals with the silent era, specifically “Méliès, Lumière, Gance and their contemporaries”. Tickets are £10 or £7 for concessions and they are available from WeGotTickets here. There is no mention of musical accompaniment for this screening, but the Milestone DVD of The Chess Player includes a performance of the original orchestral score by Henri Rabaud. Find out more here on the Cinema Museum website.
There is far more to British silent cinema than Hitchcock, whatever recent news reports might have you believe. From Yorkshireman Louis Le Prince’s claim to have invented motion-picture technology, through Cecil Hepworth’s pioneering days in Walton-on-Thames, to the directors who gathered at the London Film Society in the 1920s, our early cinema industry has much to offer. And it’s not just directors that we can praise, but actors, writers, producers and more besides.
That’s why I am so happy to report that, before Hitchcock’s work takes centre-stage next year, there are several screenings of silent films by other British film-makers coming up in London soon. This is a great opportunity to learn more about what we can loftily, but quite rightly, call our cinematic heritage – and to enjoy some rather good films. Continue reading British silent film screenings, autumn 2011→
“Horse operas” are almost as old as cinema itself. Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery is regularly claimed to be the first western – and that was made in 1903. So this special event at the Cinema Museum mines a rich seam. You’ll spend the evening in the company of BFI archivist John Oliver and pianist Cyrus Gabrysch, touring the history of westerns in the silent era, incorporating screenings of several rarely seen films:
The first part of the evening will be devoted to Western star Tom Mix, with the premiere of the MoMA’s 35mm restoration of some of his early films from the Selig Studio: The Foreman of Bar Z, comprising four 1915 shorts, and Ranch Life in the Great South West (1910), featuring Mix’s first screen appearance. The evening’s second half features the work of controversial Hollywood star J. Warren Kerrigan, with screenings of James Cruze’s celebrated epic Western The Covered Wagon (1923) and the short The Poisoned Flume (1911), directed by Allan Dwan.
Tom Mix was a hugely popular star, known as the “King of the Cowboys” who really defined our idea of a western hero. J Warren Kerrigan was another successful actor in the silent years – the controversy that surrounded him was less to do with his homosexuality than his outspoken refusal to enlist during the Great War.
You want glamour? We got it. on 26 March, the Cinema Museum will host an evening to celebrate the life and work of the beautiful actress Anna May Wong, star of Piccadilly and Shanghai Express.
The night begins with a screening of the biographical documentary Anna May Wong – Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend, and a Q&A session with the film’s director Elaine Mae Woo. Frosted Yellow Willows is the literal translation of Wong’s real name: Wong Liu Tsong. The documentary incorporates interviews with those who knew Wong, and was made with the support of such luminaries as Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin.
From humble beginnings in a Chinese laundry, she went on to star in pictures such as Technicolor’s Toll of the Sea (1922), E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929) and Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich. Never one to rest on her laurels, Anna would utilize her fame to aid her country and the country of her ancestors during times of war. Her body of work establishes her as a true pioneer of early cinema.
For more information about the documentary, visit the official website here. The Q&A will be followed by a screening of the melodrama Song (1928):
After the interval we will be screening a BFI archival 35mm print of the rarely-seen 1928 film Song (Richard Eichberg), an Anglo-German production in which Anna May Wong received top billing. In this her first European film, Anna plays a dancer drawn into a tragic romantic triangle when she meets a cabaret knife thrower (Heinrich George) and his capricious sweetheart. Song is notable both for Anna’s dancing and for the dramatic power of her performance. There will be a live piano accompaniment.
Most British silent film fans will know Wong primarily for her role in Piccadilly, but this will be a welcome chance to see one of her lesser known films, and the whole evening will be an opportunity to learn more about Hollywood’s first Chinese American leading lady.
Tickets in advance are £6.50 available from www.wegottickets.com or 0207 840 2200, and they will also be for sale on the door at £8. Doors will open at 6.30pm and refreshments will be available. The event is due to start at 7.30pm and finish at 10.30. For more information, visit the Cinema Museum website or the event’s Facebook page.
• UPDATE: This event will also be held at Liverpool John Moores University on 22 March 2011. More details here.
Fresh from winning an Oscar last year, Kevin Brownlow will be in London in April to give an illustrated lecture at the Cinema Museum. The talk will use clips (all projected in 35mm) to explore the development of silent film technique, from one-shot shorts, to epic features. The clips will include newsreel footage as well as a sequence from The Fire Brigade (1926, hat-tip to mrbertiewooster on Nitrateville for that information), and will be accompanied on the piano by Stephen Horne.