Welcome to the long-awaited return of the Silent London Podcast – coming to you straight from Paris. I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema and I will be podcasting my reports from the screenings. Today, my first two days at the festival including lots of of Hollywood fare: the good, the bad and the baffling. This podcast tackles a lot of films about war and racism: films by D W Griffith, Abel Gance, Thomas Ince …. But there is plenty of star power too, from Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish.
I hope you enjoy this first podcast from the festival!
Seduced and betrayed by a scoundrel, mother to a dead child, and cast out by an unfeeling employer, “frenzied – tortured” Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) stumbles out into a blizzard and, hearing the rush of the river, on to her certain death. The melodramatic climax of DW Griffith’s old-time tearjerker Way Down East (1920) is a violent assault on the audience’s emotional wellbeing. Anna collapses in the snow, and asleep on a sheet of ice, drifts downstream towards a waterfall. Her hair and her hands dip in the icy water, icicles collect on her eyelashes, snowflakes gather on her cheeks … and all the time, just too far behind her, a true-hearted gentleman in a fur coat (Richard Barthelmess) leaps from floe to floe in pursuit, hoping to save her from death, from his own father’s coldhearted cruelty, and from her moral disgrace.
Even in 1920, this was a bit much for most filmgoers to swallow. Griffith had spent thousands on acquiring the film rights to Lottie Blair Parker’s 19th-century stage play, a huge hit in the provinces but hopelessly dated: a hokey melodrama, hinging on unlikely events and leavened with rustic humour. Even the waif to end all waifs, wide-eyed Lillian Gish, was concerned about playing naïve country girl Anna Moore, who is tricked into a mock marriage by an unscrupulous womaniser. But if they were to recoup some of that money, the cast and crew were going to have to make the cinemagoing public believe in Way Down East. And for that, Griffith needed to show them something authentic.
“Audiences want to see a real blizzard, not a sub-title with a two sentence description. If this film was going to work, the audiences wanted to see the real thing. Otherwise, whatever we did would be laughable,” worried Gish. And she was right to be concerned. At the opening night in New York, the audience howled with laughter – until the ice sequence, which is, despite the inserted footage of Niagara Falls and some canny editing, a triumph of endurance and performance rather than special effects. The sentimental appeal of Gish’s frozen tears, and the very real danger she is in during this scene would melt the hardest heart. It’s not just a nail-biting finale to a movie, it’s a spectacle of human courage – and it called for dedication above and beyond the call of cinematic duty.
A fortnight spent filming in a real blizzard and a “ninety-mile-an-hour gale” in White River Junction, Vermont, took its toll on cast and crew both. The cameramen lay down on the ice to hold the camera still, but sheltered themselves from the wind, while Gish, in a simple dress and shawl, faced the gusts until her face turned blue. When ice crystals formed on her face, Griffith had his crew film a closeup before offering her a blanket and a cup of hot tea. While it was Gish’s idea to drape her hair and hands in the river, her director gladly agreed – to the cost of her frostbite-ravaged fingers.
It’s quite old, and very short, but The New York Hat (DW Griffith, 1912) is one of my favourite films, and I’d really like to explain why. As with Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916), this film looks at the lives of women and their finances through the lens of consumerism, but the ramifications run deeper than the shop window.
The first reason that I love The New York Hat is that it is an early woman’s picture and I mean that in a fully feminist sense. Today we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, which is basically a test to ascertain whether the women in a film are fully realised characters and not just appendages to the blokes. To pass the Bechdel Test, two named female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something that isn’t a man. Sounds simple. In the field, films that pass this test are rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s really hard to map the Bechdel test back on to silent films in the first place, and so many modern films fail it that you have to assume that older ones will struggle.
However, The New York Hat passes not just the letter but the spirit of the Bechdel test with flying colours, because its narrative is driven entirely by what women want, by what women understand about the world and the values that women have. We have the mother who wants the best for her daughter, the “bits of finery” that she craves, and the daughter who wants to grow up. Then we have some more women, the gossips, who create a conflict for her.
We have two male characters: the father is a no-good man who doesn’t really understand or care about women, and the minister who is a very good man, but also fails to understand women and their world.
The second reason that I love The New York Hat is that even though it was made in 1912, it is like a glimpse at the future, at Hollywood in the height of the 20s. If you are interested in the history of silent cinema then this film is going to give you a real kick because everyone is in it. If The New York Hat were a pop band it would be a rock supergroup. The scenario for The New York hat was written by Anita Loos, who would go on to have a fabulous Hollywood career, writing films and intertitles and also the hilarious novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The New York Hat is pure Loos – it’s very sharp on the way that women interact with each other and it also contains two of her favourite hobbies: fashion and gossip. When the lead character wears her new hat, the gap between the impression she thinks she is making and the one she really is, is a bitterly dark example of Loos’s vicious humour. It’s also a very poignant moment – and those mixed emotions are part of the magic of this enduring film.
It’s our birthday! Silent London is five years old today. Definitely school age and time to grow up, right? Thanks to all of you who have followed the blog, commented, contributed, pushed a like or retweet button or generally been fabulous over the years!
I wanted to find a suitably epic way to celebrate the fact that I haven’t give up or been shunted off the internet by blogger-hating meanies but until yesterday I was drawing a blank.
Then, the postman delivered a copy of the BFI’s latest Blu-ray to my door. It’s a biggie. It’s The Birth of a Nation. Love it, hate it, puzzle over it, misunderstand it, do what you will, you can’t ignore it. And yet sometimes it seems to be a film more talked about than, y’know, actually watched. So let’s watch it together, tonight, a hundred years after it was first seen, on the meaningless anniversary of a silent movie blog.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it feels like a long time since we saw a solid silent retrospective in this town. No need to bleat about it much longer though, eh, as the BFI has just the thing. DW Griffith – still arguably the most important American movie director of all time – will inhabit the BFI Southbank for most of June.
The season concentrates on the feature films up to and including Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie. Especial care is taken over Griffith’s best-known, and still-controversial, film Birth of a Nation (1915), in its centenary year. The movie will screen with introductions on both occasions, and a special roundtable event will bring together keynote speakers from UCL’s “In the Shadow of Birth of a Nation” conference to discuss the film. To provide further context, on 7 June the BFI will screen all three parts of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s DW Griffith: Father of Film documentary.
This is one of those events that should have every cinephile in the city licking their lips. And you don’t have to be a silent nerd or a completist to understand why. There’s far more to DW Griffith than the awful things he believed and the clever things he is credited with doing first. Watching the films, especially on the big screen, is the best way to appreciate his genius. And look at the cast list here too: the season features several turns from the wonderful Lillian Gish, as well as Richard Barthelmess, Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Mae Marsh.
Don’t believe everything you read in the press. Contrary to published reports, legendary silent film actor Lillian Gish is not dead – she’s alive and well and totally winning at Twitter. Using the handle @MsLillianGish, the star of Broken Blossoms and The Birth of a Nation drops wisdom on the internet from a great height every day. Check out her Twitter biography, which is typically witty, informative and self-effacing: “I am the greatest actress of all time. If I had been a scientologist, you all would be one today. Yeah, I rocked it like that.”
Not content with enjoying Ms Gish’s wise words 140 characters at a time, I asked the star if she would be happy to answer a few questions for the benefit of the Silent London readers. To my great delight, she accepted. Unfortunately the time difference did not allow us to conduct the interview live, but I posted some questions to Ms Gish, and with her help of her loyal secretary she was able to answer them. Her responses are illuminating, I think you’ll agree. Here is the transcript of my interview with Lillian Gish …
This is a guest post for Silent London by Nina Giacomo from Brazil, who blogs at Primeiro Cinema. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
The great majority of the films made between the origins of cinema and the 1910s had colour in some way. People often don’t know that because a lot of films from the 1920s were actually released in black and white and so the evolutionary view of film history makes us think that silent cinema was deprived of colour. But, since the beginnings of cinema, a lot of research was done into colour film and two tendencies were explored: the colourisation after the film had been shot and the capture of “natural colours” while shooting.
This is not a “top 10” list … It is a selection of 10 films that show a variety of ways of giving colour to the moving image. It is my list of 10 must-watch silent colour films!
Annabelle Serpentine Dance (Edison, 1895)
The first of many films dedicated to the “serpentine dance” created by the american dancer Loïe Fuller in 1889. The hand colourisation, frame by frame, represents Fuller’s spectacular stage effects, which combined the constant flow of the dress’s movement with the projection of electrical lights.
Pierrette’s Escapades (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1900)
A vibrant example of hand-colouring made by Gaumont.
Untitled experiments (Edward Turner, 1901/02)
Theses pictures, recently discovered, are actually a series of tests for a new invention. They show how early the attempts to reproduce “natural colours” began.
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
The colour version of this film was unknown until 1993, when it was found in Barcelona in a terrible condition. Not until 2010 could the restoration could be released and it transformed the image we have of this most iconic of all silent films.
The Lonedale Operator (DW Griffith, 1911)
Here we have an interesting use of colour in silent cinema. The young lady can only trick the bandits (making them believe that she has a gun, when actually it is a wrench) because the scene takes place at night. The blue tinting suggests the time of day.
This classic has just been restored and the new version will be shown in February at the Berlin International Film Festival with its original tinting and toning … I can’t wait to see it.
Virginian Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (1926)
An amazing example of Pathécolor, just recently discovered. It shows us a late use of this method that was pioneered by Pathé in France during 1905. Stencils were used to automate the hand-colouring of films.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
A hybrid in many ways: this is a silent, talkie, black-and-white and colour motion picture. The colour scenes are just marvellous.
The Love Charm (Howard Mitchell, 1928)
And here is a little known example of the two-colour Technicolor process. A weird love story in amazing colours.
Do you agree with Nina’s choices? Share your suggestions below
This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.
The Unknown (1927)
Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.
Captain Salvation (1927)
An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)
A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.
Behind the Door (1919)
With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”
DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.
The Cheat (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”
Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.
An Interesting Story (1904)
A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson, and the first in a new series of posts bringing you very personal top 10s from silent cinema experts and enthusiasts.
From a programming point of view, it’s always good to have a few shorts up your sleeve: either to accompany a feature or to make up a shorts programme, which are always a good way to introduce new audiences to silent film. I’m trying to write short screenplays at the moment and I’m inspired by these film-makers, several of whom spent the majority of their careers working on shorts.
How to be an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Made in the US by Solax, film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché’s production company, this is such a brilliant darkly anarchic comedy. View the version on the Retour de Flamme (06) disc by Lobster Films for one of the most inspired accompaniments to a silent film.
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Breathtakingly stylish (talk about Eisenstein’s “kino fist”!) but also heartbreakingly moving, this is avant-garde cinema of the 1920s at its most profound. The scene on the bench is as poignant as anything by Chaplin or more recent master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unforgettable.
Kid Auto Races (Henry Lehrman, 1914)
Chaplin’s Keystone films are sometimes written off as unsophisticated fare, preceding a more nuanced approach to style and content at later studios. However, Chaplin’s performance here is pure clown, and shows why contemporary audiences immediately wanted more, more, more of “The Little Fellow”.
Whichever way you look at cinema history, you can’t avoid The Birth of a Nation (1915), a landmark, but one that casts a murky shadow. It is absolutely fitting and proper that the film regarded as the first American feature, which kickstarted Hollywood’s rise to global domination, and that was made by a true cinematic genius should be given the Masters of Cinema treatment – Blu-Ray transfer, archival extras, fancy booklet and all. Just don’t call The Birth of a Nation a masterpiece – while this is an important film, it is a terribly flawed one.
Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis) is an abolitionist congressman, based on Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones in Spielberg’s Lincoln), and his children are friends with the Cameron family in the South. Four of the children will fall in love with each other, but the Civil War will tear them apart. The second and most controversial part of the film details the consequences of the war and of freeing and enfranchising the slaves. Legislature is overrun by loutish black men; Cameron’s youngest daughter commits suicide when pursued by a “renegade negro”. The Ku Klux Klan exert a rough justice for this and other crimes and bully the black citizens back into their place. All ends, apparently, happily ever after, “Aryan birthright” defended, wedding bells pealing, with a vision of Christ.
The Birth of a Nation is an epic film, running for three hours and more, with a big subject, but a small mind. Beginning just before the American Civil War does, and hanging around to see the South recover from its heavy defeat, the movie encompasses battle, politics, romance and a family saga of sorts. Its text-heavy intertitles reveal a worthy ambition: to convey “the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence”. Other intertitles protest against censorship, asking that the film be given the same liberty to speak as the Bible, or Shakespeare. We are frequently told that this or that scene is a “historical facsimile” drawn from library sources. But these arguments feel hollow. The Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Clansman, is guilty of a sin of omission, and the far more serious crime of racism. This is a paean to the South, but specifically a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan, who in this narrative save the “white South” from “the heel of the black South”. It concerns itself not one jot with the “abhorrences” of slavery or slave-trading. Its black and mixed-race characters are cartoonish (“Dem free-niggers f’um d N’of am sho’ crazy”) and mostly venal – cowardly, yet sexually predatory, weak-minded, easily led. Of course, many of them are played by white actors, and needless to say, blackface is never a good look. In one horrific sequence a group of black men lynch another for supporting their rivals; in another equally nauseating scene lines of black voters cower in front of Klan members – this vote-rigging by intimidation is presented a as triumph. A cotton-field is used as a romantic setting for the white upper-class characters to coo at each other in.
I mention this because you may have heard that The Birth of a Nation is a great film, but a racist one. That is part of the way to the truth, which is that the film’s racism prevents it from becoming truly great. DW Griffith made many other films with old-fashioned, sentimental storylines – but his best work moves the audience, because it is based on an emotional truth. That emotional truth is missing in this film. Here, in a typically Griffithian sentimental moment, impoverished Carolina belle Mae Marsh trims her dress with “Southern ermine” that is, raw cotton daubed with fingerprints of soot. We’re expected to feel sorry for her character in her shabby frock, but not for the slave who picked that cotton for her family in the first place. That’s quite the feat of mental acrobatics. It’s hard to believe that this film was made by the same director who created A Corner in Wheat six years earlier. Even the wonderful Lillian Gish is disappointing here – her role as Stoneman’s thoughtless daughter (she never visits the library) who is disgusted by her boyfriend joining the Klan until a mixed-race men attempts to assault her, gives her little to work with. Although Miriam Cooper in a quieter role as the elder Cameron sister, is constantly compelling.
Without making excuses for the film’s failings, we should also note its monumental achievements: the deft storytelling here cuts across years and state lines from the home front to the battlefield and never feels forced or confused. It’s long, but never boring. Those war scenes are epic in scale and brutal in the vividness of their hand-on-hand combat – vistas of the battlefield spread out before the audience smothered in gunsmoke; or are sometimes vignetted to catch a vicious or poignant moment. Almost every scene looks sumptuous – this crisp, though occasionally grainy, transfer captures every detail of those “historical facsimiles” as well as the more poetic moments when Griffith indulges himself with a composition of romantic, painterly beauty: as in the love scenes, or the moment when Henry Walthall’s Colonel Cameron is inspired to form the Klan.
If you have seen, and loved, Griffith’s shorts and more rewarding films such as Broken Blossoms, then you’ll rightly want to see this film. Be warned though, you may not like it as much as you admire it, and you may admire it less than you expect to. But once you have seen it you will want to place the film in context, both historically and in terms of the debate around its content. The booklet of material provided with this release includes a tribute by Michael Powell and defences by Griffith and the author of The Clansman as well as a contemporary attack from the New York Times (“It is insulting to every man of Southern birth to assume that he is pleased by misrepresentation so colossal”) and another by Francis Hackett, which calls the film “spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”
The Birth of a Nation is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray from Masters of Cinema, RRP £17.99 (DVD) or £19.99 (Blu-Ray).
This is a guest post for Silent London to mark International Women’s Day by Kelly Robinson, curator of the Birds Eye View Sound and Silents programme.
Birds Eye View’s Mary Pickford Revived event is part of WOW – Women of the World Festival 2012 at the Southbank Centre. Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley with The New York Hat and Female of the Species screen at the Southbank Centre on 9 March at 8pm (find out more). Sparrows screens at Hackney Picturehouse on 11 March at 4pm (find out more).
“My success has been due to the fact that women like the pictures in which I appear” – Mary Pickford
In any serious study of early cinema, prominent men such as the “Father of Film” DW Griffith and silent clown Charles Chaplin are always first to feature. Happily though, recent literature has sought to readdress this critical gender imbalance by also highlighting the contribution of similarly extraordinary pioneers – including Mary Pickford.
Pickford was certainly a creative force on a par with Chaplin, and the two had a lot in common. Like Chaplin, she also performed in the theatre from a young age to support her family. At 13, a precocious Pickford harangued theatre impresario David Belasco to hire her, apparently telling him: “I’m the father of my family.” Like many other theatre actors, she was initially disdainful of cinema but was drawn in by the financial rewards. She enquired at the bustling Biograph studios for work, and it was here that she met Griffith, the director of two of the beautiful shorts that feature as part of the Southbank programme.
The films in this programme span a period of just seven years but this was a time of rapid change. Indeed, in the months that separate Griffith’s The New York Hat and Female of the Species we can see striking developments in film form and style. The volume of films Biograph churned out was phenomenal and between 1909 and 1910 Pickford appeared in 80 films for Griffith.
Pickford said: “I got what no one else wanted and I took anything that came my way because I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.” Indeed she quickly became a favourite with audiences, although they didn’t yet know her name; she was referred to as the ‘”girl with the curls”. Once she had established the extent of her fame, she asked for a rise from Griffith and her name on the screen.
Paul Merton is probably the most high-profile silent film fan in the country, with a book, a stage show and a series of documentaries on comedy under his belt. And now he’s back, on BBC 2 no less, with a three-part series of programmes about the early days of the American films industry – Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood.
The first programme will focus on DW Griffith, the beginnings of the star system and the relationship between music and silent film. There’s a very jolly introduction to the series on Paul Merton’s official website here, and some musings about making the documentaries on the BBC site here. You’ll be pleased to know that Neil Brand is involved too – he’s written the title music
Merton clearly has a great passion for the subject, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see documentaries on early cinema airing on one of the major channels. What would be great, of course, would be a screening of a silent film or two after the programme, but it looks like that is not to be. Better luck next time, chums.
Merton appeared on Danny Baker’s radio show on Saturday to promote the show and their 10-minute chat is well worth a listen on iPlayer, if only for the infectious enthusiasm the pair have for the subject. Follow the link here, and fast-forward to an hour and five minutes into the programme.
Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood begins on BBC 2 at 9.30pm on Friday 27 May 2011.
Due to technical difficulties, the screening of The Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915) at the BFI Southbank on 24 January has been cancelled, but it will be rescheduled for later in the year. Hopefully, the rearranged screening will also benefit from an introduction from Kevin Brownlow as originally planned. Of course, we’ll pass on the details as soon we know more.