Come break the Sound Barrier with us again. In this episode, we go to the edge of the world and the ends of the earth and back again with two animated features.
We’re talking about Studio Ghibli’s modern silent The Red Turtle (in cinemas now), and also Pixar’s beloved Wall-E from 2008. We talk about ‘Dustbuster Keaton’, teenage mutant turtles, pizza plants and bad romance, as well as artistic animation, dialogue-free direction and creation myths. You can even hear Pete sing!
This episode of the Sound Barrier features two druggy and slightly dim detectives. We’re talking about Julian Barratt’s absurdly funny TV spoof Mindhorn and the cult favourite that is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks as sleuth Coke Ennyday. We talk about outrageous accents, preposterous plasticine, obscene graffiti and excessive amounts of cocaine.
The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.
If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.
The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.
Silent London in no way, not even with a wink, endorses the consumption of illegal narcotics. We prefer the consumption of Class-A silent movies.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.
We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.
But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.
But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.
After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.
Charley v Charley
Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?
The many faces of Phyllis Haver
Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.
Cary doffs his hat to Buster
If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.
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.
So, yesterday I spent the afternoon in the cinema watching 18 movies. Jealous, right? I was lucky enough to be part of the judging panel for the Walthamstow International Film Festival and we were watching the shortlisted works in order to hand out some prizes. It’s a fun job, and a great local festival that I am chuffed to be a tiny part of. All the entries are around five minutes or less, and while the festival encourages local film-makers, particularly young people, it is open to all, and this year we saw films from as far away as Australia, Argentina and Hong Kong. Our overall winner was the fantastically moving, and intriguing, Speed by Jessica Bishop – a film that interrogates the grieving process by counterpointing family photos and voices. A worthy winner indeed.
This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.
Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Carl Davis CBE to celebrate the 126th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth. Renowned as a composer, Davis is a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has written music for more than 100 television programmes, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films – including his score for the Kevin Brownlow restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon.
In 2003 and 2004 the British Film Institute released, in two volumes, 12 comedy shorts by Charlie Chaplin, created by him at the contractual rate of one a month across the years 1916-1917. They are known today as “The Mutuals” after the company that produced them and, as in my case, they are often the first glimpse that people have into the art of Chaplin. My first adult look at this project occurred in 1983 while scoring the Thames Television three-part series Unknown Chaplin: virtually the entire first episode consisted of an analysis of Charlie’s working methods, brought to light after a hidden cache of Mutual out-takes had recently been discovered.
The next step forward occurred in 1989 after the successful experiment of transcribing the orchestral score and parts of the 1930 recorded soundtrack of City Lights for a live performance at London’s Dominion Theatre. The performance started a vogue, thriving today, of stripping the scores from the soundtracks of all manner of sound films and performing them live. After the London screening I found myself conducting City Lights around the world and subsequently I expanded my Chaplin repertoire with TheGold Rush and The Kid. Out of sheer enthusiasm I added the shorts The Immigrantand Easy Street to my list. But the real impetus to continue came in 2003 when I discovered that the BFI were planning to release the complete Mutuals. I declared my interest and our collaboration began.
Matt Lucas is a bit of a comedy hero, from his hilarious cameos on Shooting Stars, to the taste- and boundary-pushing Little Britain, to the trenchant way he knocks down the idiots who try to step to him on social media. I may not like everything Lucas does, but he is one of the most original, and bravest, voices in TV comedy. Unafraid to go against fashion as ever, his new project is a “visual comedy” TV series, Pompidou, which debuts on BBC2 on Sunday 1 March.
So I'm delighted to tell you that my new series POMPIDOU begins on SUNDAY 1st MARCH AT 6:30PM ON BBC TWO!
Lucas has co-written the series with Julian Dutton, and he plays the title character: “an elderly oddball aristocrat who has fallen on hard times”. Alex MacQueen plays his long-suffering butler, Hove. And they have a canine companion, too: the elegant Marion, an Afghan hound.
Animals fare far better in silents than talkies. The absence of dialogue puts them on an equal footing with their human co-stars, and what’s more, they’re cuter. The only place left in these synchronised days where feathered and furred characters can expect top billing is in animated movies – digitally rendered and belting out showtunes. While we have become accustomed to talking animals in children’s animations, ever since Mickey Mouse started to squeak, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is a gent from the old school, having stubbornly refused to articulate anything more complicated than a bleat for 20 years.
And now Shaun the Sheep, who like the most illustrious slapstick comedians, is both black-and-white and silent, has been given his very own feature film. And no bankable Hollywood name has been roped in to voice his inner monologue. While the advance publicity has not been playing up the silent angle, this is a dialogue-free delight, a champion of visual gags, physical comedy and unutterable joy. Following on from the 2007 series of short animations made for CBBC, Shaun and his fellows dwell in an almost wordless world, baa-ing and snorting and belching their feelings, just like their harrumphing two-legged companions. As in the shorts, the written word often appears as an incomprehensible squiggle – perfect for young children who would be challenged or bored by too many letters.
But Shaun the Sheep has an adult audience too, who appreciated his seven-minute TV escapades not just as kid-friendly fun, but as throwbacks to the silent comedy greats. Aardman’s previous films have cheekily plundered the classics for plots and sly in-jokes – restaging The Great Escape in a hen coop for its feature debut, Chicken Run (2000). Shaun the Sheep the Movie is no exception. There’s barely a frame, or a foley effect here that isn’t a wink to Jacques Tati. And amid nods to Inception, Taxi Driver and The Terminator, there is a Hannibal Lecter-impersonating cat who wins the movie-reference game hands down. C’mon, you’d feel cheated without a mention of The Silence of the Lambs, wouldn’t you? There’s a tip of the titfer to classic British animation too. Shaun’s longing for a break from the farm’s daily grind of tedium and indignity accidentally results in a barnyard mutiny and more than a shade of Animal Farm.
For Jacques Tati, diegetic sound is about as useful as headlights on a broom. He’d rather not illuminate anything with such a crude tool. Playtime, his masterpiece, is a work of brow-furrowing complexity in its design and structure, but a model of narrative clarity.
Amid the Babel of un-synched language spouted by its multiple characters, Tati tells us a story of a man, M Hulot, trying to negotiate a city, Paris, that doesn’t exist. Only Hulot (Tati, of course), and an American tourist, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) seem to notice that the steel and glass skyscrapers of the soaring sixties have hidden the real city, obscuring its landmarks and dividing its citizens. Tati goes to a business meeting, is diverted to a furniture show, meets an old friend who invites him home for a drink, attends the opening of a restaurant, meets a girl and loses her, all in the space of 24-odd hours.
Each twist in Hulot’s meander is a prompted by a mistake or misapprehension. His attempt to refuse to enter the restaurant shatters the door and he stumbles inside unwillingly. If I tried to explain to you why a German door salesman then ushers him further into the dining room I would expend many, many words to explain a labyrinthine incident earlier in the film that is played out in at least three languages, none of which needed subtitles at all.
Trust me, it was a wonderful moment. I felt that door salesman’s anger, his hostility, his sarcasm, his deep shame and his ingratiating warmth so deeply, because they were so strongly expressed, not because I translated “Dumbkopf!” in my head. The only skills you need to understand this film are patience and observation, which transparently makes my German GCSE barely worth the paper it is written on.
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.
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.
So when I had the opportunity to return to Slapstick this year I jumped at the chance. For me it was a sort of homecoming and a chance to reflect on the year’s events. My partner and I volunteered at the festival this year and we still managed to see most of the programme, which was fantastic.
Thursday night’s only event was a fascinating insight into the work of Aardman Animations, famously the force behind Wallace and Gromit and Morph. Both Nick Park and Peter Lord were present, offering the chance to see the genesis of some of their greatest works. Park and Lord have long been staunch supporters of Bristol Silents and Slapstick and were both around for the duration of the festival: two great guys who always had time to chat with fellow enthusiasts and fans.
Friday unfortunately was very busy for me until the evening, meaning I missed Boris Barnet’s The Girl with the Hatbox, starring Anna Sten and introduced by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. However, I was lucky enough to see the film while in Pordenone last year: I can tell you all it is a masterpiece whose time in the limelight is long overdue. Sten’s performance is funny and heartfelt: thankfully her talent is now being recognised.
Now, my main love of the silent era is our very own homegrown hero Sir Charles Chaplin. So the absence of Chaplin at this year’s festival did make me yearn for the twirling cane and moustache. However, the other two of the “Big Three” were present in all their glory. Saturday night saw Harold Lloyd take centre stage as the gala’s main feature with an introduction by “national treasure” Victoria Wood (that’s what festival director Chris Daniels called her: she reluctantly accepts the title, believing the only national treasure is Joanna Lumley). Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother and Keaton’s The Goat brought the house down and reminded us all that we do not need CGI to have a good cinematic time. For me the highlight of the night was George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon: conserved and restored to all its full-colour cinematic glory, with a beautiful narration by Slapstick advocate Paul McGann.
On exiting I heard an audience member comment “Lloyd gets a little left behind when it comes to Keaton and Chaplin”. I am not sure if this is true – but after Kevin Brownlow’s fascinating “The Third Genius” presentation on Friday afternoon I most definitely felt I knew the man behind the comedy a little bit more than I did before. Brownlow always has such wonderful insights, having met Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton various times. Last year I was lucky enough to be in the audience for a similar presentation on Buster Keaton. It goes without saying that men such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson help us all to get a little closer to an era long gone.
Saturday morning saw another presentation by Brownlow: this time on Colleen Moore – to introduce a screening of Orchids and Ermine. I think that Moore has developed quite a following: a lot of masculine swooning seemed to issue from the theatre on the crowd’s exit, and I cannot say I blame them! She was gorgeous.
Saturday night’s main feature was a selection of personal Keaton favourites by Dad’s Army legend Ian Lavender. The Electric House and College were strokes of genius made at a time when Keaton’s private life was beginning to ruin the one thing he loved so dear, his art. Lavender really struck a chord with me. He showed me a true fan’s passion for Keaton and how it can be so infectious. I often have people say to me: “I don’t know anything about Charlie Chaplin, but your passion makes me want to.” That’s the effect Lavender had on me.
Sunday saw the return of the Goodies and a fantastic reprisal of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue at the Bristol Old Vic plus a chance to see the brilliant June Whitfield on stage too – receiving her Slapstick/Aardman Comedy Legend award. Yet for me the highlight was Sunday night, my only Chaplin of the entire festival. OK it was not exactly a feature, a short or even a gala. It was about 30 seconds of a cameo in the 1928 Marion Davies film Show People presented by comedian Lucy Porter. Now before you wonder, no I did not swoon. I was in fact incredibly well-behaved and blogged about it instead!
So there you have it everyone: a rundown of my highlights of the 2013 Slapstick festival. I hope you have enjoyed it and thank you for all your support in making Charlie’s London what it is. You can find us on Facebook, Eblogger, Tumblr and Twitter.
Bye for now, and here’s to 2014, the centenary of The Little Tramp …
Greetings! I’m just back from spending a week at the 31st Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. Between sipping espresso and circling my favourite films in the schedule, I spoke to some of my fellow travellers about their experiences of this wonderful week of silent cinema. You’ll find full coverage of the festival on Silent London by clicking here, but in the meantime, enjoy this short podcast.
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.
With The Farmer’s WifeHitchcock proved that he could excel at comedy, but Champagne (1928) unhappily revealed that froth was far from safe territory for the director. The critics were hardly impressed, with Close-Up crowing about: “champagne that had been left out in the rain all night”. Looking back, Hitchcock tended to agree, saying: “That was probably the lowest ebb of my output.”
Hitchcock wasn’t happy at the time either, no fan of the source novel and uncertain how to proceed. What Champagne does have is a promising cast: Betty Balfour (the “British Mary Pickford”) takes the lead role and one of Hitchcock’s favourite character actors, Gordon Harker, plays her millionaire father. Balfour, who had made her name playing cockney sweetheart Squibs, does her best, but her likable screen persona fares much better in the second half of the film, when her character (The Girl) develops a touch more vulnerability and sweetness.
In the earlier stages of the film, The Girl is a spoiled, grandstanding heiress, but a combination of Balfour’s hard-to-repress charm and Hitchcock’s steely gaze means she’s very hard to hate. She invokes her father’s displeasure by commandeering a plane to catch up with her boyfriend’s cruise liner. For this, he wants to teach her a lesson. But Hitchcock gets in first, shooting Balfour triumphant in a ballgown after her dramatic entrance, but with her face covered in soot from the flight. I was rooting for her from that moment on. Further humiliations are in store, but it’s a blessed relief when she reaches the point of redemption.
That said, there are some hugely enjoyable glimpses of Hitchcock on top form here: including a cynical street robbery (shades of a similar scene in The Pleasure Garden, maybe even a nod to Graham Cutts), and some bold subjective camerawork.
Champagne is also of considerable interest as film that is utterly of its own time – a cocktail-swigging flapper, her father with his fortunes balanced precariously on Wall Street, her straitlaced fiance with his old-fashioned views – and a reflection of our own. Mira Calix, who will be scoring the film for its gala screening later this year, points out that Champagne attacks a continuing 21st-century obsesssion with celebrities who, just like The Girl, behave atrociously and are famous off the back of their parents’ success. It also, she hopes, will chime with supporters of the Occupy movement: a front-row seat to watch the 1%ers behaving badly and meeting their icky comeuppance.
A minor work, but not without its charms, Champagne maybe largely a waste of Balfour’s talents, but it’s a showcase for the director’s style and his mean streak both.
Disapproving of her love affair, a millionaire sets out to teach his irresponsible daughter a lesson by pretending to lose all his money. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Our heroine is attacked by a creep (7:25). Pure Hitchcock. But not entirely what it seems.
Watch out for: Those alarmingly close subjective shots, most notably some tricksy ones through the bottom of a champagne glass.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And every schoolchild knows that statement is never more true than when the gent in question is a farmer.
Jameson Thomas, whom you you may not recognise under his bristly facial hair as the dashing lead in Piccadilly, plays Samuel Sweetland, a widowed farmer whose thoughts turn to matrimony. Samuel surveys the village women and sets about wooing potential Mrs Sweetlands, with hilariously disastrous results. Disastrous, but not in the usual vein of Hitchcock calamity. Samuel isn’t a perverted sex killer bumping women off in the dead of night. The Farmer’s Wife is a comedy, a broad one too, and the only injuries sustained are bruised egos and spoiled dinners.
Comedies are meant to have happy endings of course, and when I tell you Samuel is assisted in his quest for a new spouse by his sweet-faced and good-hearted housekeeper Araminta (Lillian Hall-Davis) perhaps you’ll be reassured that all will end well.
So how well does Hitchcock, acclaimed for his urban thrillers, succeed in staging a rural comedy? With flying colours. It’s not all down to the director, of course, this is an Eliot Stannard adaptation of a very popular play, but Hitchcock shoots The Farmer’s Wife as if it were a thriller, which somehow emphasises the poignancy of all these lonely people and their missed connections. His brisk economic style also ensure that the horseplay mostly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Not exactly what you may expect from Hitchcock, but the silents rarely are, and there’s a huge amount to enjoy here.
A middle-aged widowed landowner decides to marry again. With the aid of his faithful housekeeper he draws up a list of all the eligible women in the neighbourhood, each of whom in turn rejects him. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Never mind the jelly and ice-cream, nor the awkward trouser situation. This proposal looks like one of Hitchcock’s murder scenes and features a very bizarre intertitle
Watch out for: The empty chair by the fireside. And what Hitchcock does with it.