London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.
Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in a shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?
One of the many things that Silent London loves about the Barbican’s Silent Film and Live Music strand is the way it crosses over other with film festivals taking place at the venue. There are silent screenings coming up that are part of the Portuguese and Czech Film Festivals, for example. The Portuguese silent, The Wolves (1923), looks particularly interesting – but more of that in a future post.
The film festival we’re concerned with today is the Bicycle Film Festival, now in its 11th year and packed full of cool documentaries about urban bikers and BMX stunts. The Wheels of Chance (1922) is rather more genteel, though: an adaptation of an HG Wells novel by American director Harold Shaw. The hero of this caper is an awkward draper’s assistant, who falls for a cycling beauty while on holiday in the home counties. We’re told that the story is a “metaphor for the revolutionary effect of the bicycle on Edwardian society”, but it also sounds like a good deal of fun. This is how the Bioscope reported a screening of the film at Pordenone two years ago:
Filmed, as is seemingly usual with Shaw, largely on location with strong emphasis on pictorialism. Wheels of Chance is a comedy with a plot borrowed from a melodrama, with George K. Arthur, back from Shaw’s Kipps, as a draper’s assistant on a cycling tour foiling the machinations of a foreign-named cad – Bechamel – trying to elope, also by bicycle, with a naive suburban girl thereby trapping her into compromising situations in Home Counties pub/hotels, while her mother and her entourage set off in pursuit. Charming but never cloying, the happy ending here is not the unlikely riding off into the sunset – socially impossible in those times – but a recognition by all parties of the lessons learned; she is less naive, and she and her elders have learned respect for their ‘social inferior’; he gains self-respect, and has had his horizons broadened just a little bit … it’s a well-made film, with its heart in the right place, and those evocative shots of 1920s Surrey and Hampshire …
Music for the screening will be provided by Robin Harris on piano and the feature will be accompanied by two early shorts: Thomas Edison’s Bicycle Tricks (1899) and the hypnotic Ladies on Bicycles (1899), shown above.
The Wheels of Chance screens at the Barbican Cinema at 4pm on 9 October 2011. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Barbican website.