Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.
I am very excited to share this screening with you – The Woman Under Oath (John M Stahl, 1919) is a really special film that I was lucky enough to research last year, and it is showing on 35mm with live music in NFT1.
Most of you will be familiar with the work of John M Stahl – even though he is best known for a few films that were remade by more famous directors. Douglas Sirk remade both his The Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, while Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is based on the novella by Stefan Zwieg that seems also to have inspired Stahl’s 1933 Only Yesterday. Perhaps Stahl’s most famous film is 1944’s Leave Her to Heaven. If you have seen any of those titles, it won’t surprise you to learn that Stahl is celebrated as master of melodrama who directed films with strong, passionate heroines. If you’ve seen the last one, you’ll be excited to learn that The Woman Under Oath pivots on a trial.
Until last year, I had never seen any of Stahl’s silent films, which is partly because so few of them have survived (just nine features and various fragments) and even more so because they are very rarely screened. Stahl was born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, but moved to New York as a youngster. Taking the name John Malcolm Stahl, he made a series of movies in the teens and early twenties in New York, before signing with Louis B Mayer Pictures (which later became MGM) in Hollywood in 1924. He was a founding member of the Academy and briefly an executive at the Tiffany studio. He went on to make 20 sound films, however (all of which survive), including the ones mentioned above. His final picture, made in 1949, was the musical Oh, You Beautiful Doll.
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.