You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.
Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.
The dog in Mighty Like a Moose
This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.
The Laughing Jester in Blackmail
Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt. Continue reading No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema→
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has just closed for another year. Four days of movies and music at the sumptuous Castro Theatre – and this time I was actually there! Pinch me, I still can’t believe it’s true. In this short podcast, I run through a few of my highlights of the weekend and try to give a flavour of this fantastic event. Enjoy!
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.
What is admirable in the clash of young minds is that no one can foresee the spark that sets off an explosion, or predict what kind of explosion it will be. – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Forgive me and my fellow delegates if we are a little dazed, but today an array of high-wattage stars dazzled the Verdi: Clara Bow, Ossi Oswalda and Douglas Fairbanks all took a turn in the spotlight, and didn’t we all know about it? But they were all playing second fiddle, I am afraid, to one of the festival’s guests of honour.
The real star of the day was Naum Kleiman, erstwhile director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, who was in town to deliver the Jonathan Dennis lecture at the Giornate. He didn’t really do that, though. He spoke a few words, and graciously answered our questions, but instead of a formal lecture we watched a new film that has been made about Kleiman, the Museum, and the frankly appalling state of affairs in Russia today, where the museum has been evicted and its good works all-but sacrificed to the opaque aims of the Ministry of Culture. It was called Cinema: a Public Affair, and it was directed by Tatiana Brandrup, who was also in attendance to answer questions. At an event where we have so much Russian cinema to celebrate, it is beyond distressing to learn that film culture in that country is in such a perilous position. Founded in 1989, the Cinema Museum used to show 20 – 20! – films a day. Important films, films from around the world, films that are now impossible to see in Russia. It was always run on a shoestring – Jean-Luc Godard made a gift to the Museum of a Dolby sound system ahead of a retrospective of his works there. But now, the situation is as absurd as something in one of the Soviet comedies screening at the Giornate. A new building intended to house the Museum has been repurposed as a parking garage, while the Museum’s collections are all in temporary storage at yes, garages at the Mosfilm studios…
Kleiman is an inspiring man, who spoke in the film movingly about the first film he remembered seeing as a four-year-old child. Before that point he had seen war, he had seen fear and devastation, in fact his own father was missing, but one night at a park near his refugee camp in Tashkent, he saw the cinema for the first time. That screening of Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad was to him a “window on to another reality”. He stood on his bench, and flapped his hands, imagining that he had a magic carpet under his feet. And he has dedicated his life to sharing that magic, that escape, that understanding of a different world, with other people. A member of the Verdi audience asked simply: “How do you find the strength to go on fighting?” “I’m not fighting,” he replied. “I’m just working.”
For Kleiman, the conversation that films can spark are almost the point of screening them. “The film begins when it’s over,” he said. And although they were lighthearted in tone, this morning’s programme of shorts illustrated that perfectly. A package put together by Laura Horak on the theme of cross-dressing girls on film, these movies, which were mostly comedies, were hugely intriguing, and provided delicious food for thought. The shorts included actresses playing boys, playing dual roles or simply playing characters who dress up as lads, or take on male characteristics. The way that the teens and twenties of the last century approach these ideas is consistently intriguing – so often they skirt close to something really subversive, something to challenge the relentless heterosexuality of so much silent Hollywood cinema, and then retreat, having nibbled their doughnut and kept it too. I enjoyed Anna Q Nilsson as a rebel spy in disguise during the civil war in The Darling of the CSA (1912) (riding sidesaddle even when in drag). I also liked a futuristic “nightmare” of 21st-century gender role reversals called What is the World Coming to? (1926), a surprisingly nifty restoration of a 16mm print, in which a kept husband worries that his bigshot wife spends too much time with her “sheik stenographer”.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 4→
By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …
Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.
I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …
Clara Bow never had a role quite as good as Clara Bow. This mini comic is a tribute to the beauty and talent of the famous flapper, but also a testament to her tragic life and truncated career. The author, Jessica Martin, is an actress herself, best known for her work on Spitting Image and Doctor Who, so it follows that one of the strongest panels here dwells on the mechanics of screen performance. It’s a triptych of Bow’s eyes demonstrating the three stages of “it”: lovesick, passionate and innocent. But by and large, It Girl, which was inspired by a TV documentary on Bow, is concerned with the drama off-set: sex, drugs and mental instability.
Black-and-white panels flash back and forth across Bow’s life, looping in her childhood in Brooklyn, her Hollywood glory and her secluded decline. The gutsy rags-to-riches story is suited to the punchy graphic format. Bow’s beauty on screen was manifested not just in her slinky figure and doe eyes but her restless, vivacious movement and the comic-book style expresses this quality far better than a straight portrait or photograph. Bow’s appeal was famously elusive – the famous “It” of the comic’s title – if this graphic novelette leaves the reader craving the real thing that is nothing to be ashamed about.
It Girl plunges the reader straight into Bow’s psychological traumas, opening with a violent nightmare and a suicide attempt, then tumbling fast into a flashback to her childhood hardships. The pace never lets up, and across these 12 pages there is enough incident and emotional pain to flesh out a novel – or indeed a lifetime. It’s a whistlestop tour through a notoriously salacious biography, and as such it’s an experience that is as bewildering as it is bewitching.
Martin’s affection for her subject is tangible, though, and this is an invigorating introduction to Clara Bow. After this taster, it would be a hard heart that didn’t immediately want to reach for a DVD of It or Mantrap.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alex Barrett.
Long legendary as the first – and only – silent film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (at the very first ceremony, back in 1927), Wings now comes to us in a stunning new restoration, courtesy of Eureka’s ever-dependable Masters of Cinema label. The film tells the story of Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), who compete for the affections of Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), before becoming comrades in the airfields of World War I. Star power was added by the original “It girl”, Clara Bow, in the role of Jack’s neighbour, Mary – the pure-eyed girl next door with an undying love for our hero.
If this setup – minus the Mary strand – sounds familiar to silent film fans, it’s perhaps due to a striking similarity to the setup of Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919), in which two rivals in love become comrades on the battlefields of World War I. However, if the overall plot of Wings at times resembles that of J’accuse, it does so without that film’s stringent anti-war message – and without its power.
In Wings, we are often told of the “horrors” of war in the title cards, but rarely do we see them. Even towards the end, when the body count begins to rise, it never feels as if we’re given a true sense of the barbarity of war. Compare, for instance, the lightness of the scenes detailing the cancellation of the soldier’s leave with the devastating impact of the equivalent scenes in Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses, released just five years later. The closest Wings gets to touching upon this darkness is its final tragedy, but even there the film doesn’t quite hit home, despite the characters explicitly saying that the “war” is to blame. Wings was made with the assistance of a military in need of good PR, and perhaps it’s this that led to the film becoming a paean to the “young warriors of the sky” (as with J’accuse, real soldiers acted in the film, many of whom had seen service in the Great War). It’s a fine tribute to those who fought but, in being so, there remains a whiff of propaganda around the film’s portrayal of the chivalric life of these “knights of the air”.
We’re back! For the third year running, I will be presenting a series of screenings at the West London Trades Union Club in Acton, London W3. Silent film fans of west London, come one, come all. And if you’re new to silent movies, you should definitely pop us in your diary: the autumn/winter collection for 2013 contains some stone-cold classics.
The Trades club on Acton High Street offers well-kept, reasonably priced ale and friendly conversation between left-leaning movie fans too. We show films on Saturday afternoons at 4pm, with no entrance charge, a short introduction courtesy of your favourite London-based silent movie blogger* and generally a good free-for-all chinwag afterwards.
This year’s lineup includes a jaw-dropping tale of British exploration, a high-tension thriller, an Expressionist masterpiece and the divine Clara Bow. Interested?
The Great White Silence (1924)
You’ve seen films about Scott of the Antarctic before – but not like this one. Herbert Ponting took his camera (almost) every step of the way on Scott’s final, fatal expedition. It’s an intimate portrait of Scott’s team at work, and a staggering vision of the unspoiled Antarctic landscape. All this, plus a gleaming restoration from the BFI and an unforgettable score by Simon Fisher Turner, incorporating some surprising found sounds. And penguins. Watch this now as the perfect preparation for viewing the BFI’s new restoration of The Epic of Everest in October. 14 September, 4pm
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Did you see Underground when it was released earlier this year? That is just one of Anthony Asquith’s two great silent thrillers. A Cottage on Dartmoor is darker, edgier, artier and altogether murkier than Underground – it’s all about jealousy, frustration and razor blades. There’s even a subplot about the coming of sound. Horrific. A Cottage on Dartmoor deserves to be seen on the big screen, and will be shown at the WLTUC with Stephen Horne’s fantastic score too. 26 October 2013, 4pm
You may think you’ve seen Metropolis, but think again. If you haven’t seen the new version of Metropolis with rediscovered footage, you haven’t seen it at all. No WLTUC screening of Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece would be complete without a discussion of the labour politics at the heart of the film, it’s true. But equally, you can gaze upon the gothic futurist splendour of it all – and remind yourself where all those other, more recent, sic-fi movies stole all their best ideas. 16 November 2013, 4pm
Clara Bow, Elinor Glyn declared, had ‘it’. And you don’t need me to explain what ‘it’ is do you? In the greatest flapper movie of them all, Bow plays a determined, perky working-class girl in pursuit of her dream guy. A delicious pre-Christmas treat, It will immerse you in the bustle and swing of 1920s New York, and remind you why Bow is still such a revered fashion icon. Watch out for a cameo by Glyn, and an early appearance by Gary Cooper, whom many say was the great love of Bow’s tragic life. 14 December 2013, 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. Visit the club’s website here, or join the Facebook group.
The Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk, beautifully restored to match its 1920 heyday, will host Scotland’s first silent film festival – and it promises to be an event with a real ‘vintage’ feel. The programme incorporates some enduringly popular silents, from a rare chance to see It (1927), starring Clara Bow, to FW Murnau’s influential vampire film Nosferatu (1922) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), plus a handful of comedies from Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.
Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment to several of the films, and he will also perform his acclaimed one-man show The Silent Pianist Speaks. David Allison of The Island Tapes will reprise his score for Nosferatu at the festival’s closing night gala, and another of the films will benefit from a specially commissioned soundtrack performed by local schoolchildren.
There will be a Slapstick Workshop for over-12s by Scottish theatre company Plutôt La Vie, and a new, specially commissioned soundtrack for one of the films performed by local schoolchildren. Another retro treat for younger viewers is the “jeely jar special” – a revival of a 1920s practice whereby film fans can get a two-for-one deal on tickets for The Kid if they bring along a clean jam jar (with lid). Bargain.
And for a touch more glamour, the Opening Gala screening of It has a 1920s dress code. Dropped waists, long strings of beads and cloches – it’s the perfect opportunity to indulge your inner flapper and give Clara Bow a run for her money. Perhaps you can find some sartorial inspiration here. Festival director Allison Strauss says:
The whole event is designed to celebrate the magic, glamour and pure entertainment of films from the silent era. Our programme and the supporting events include something for all ages and we’ve made sure that the wide appeal will involve a broad range of tastes, from cinephiles to anyone discovering early film for the first time.
For full details and to download a brochure, visit the website here.