Tag Archives: early cinema

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

It was auteur day at Pordenone, with works by three silent master-directors scattered nonchalantly through the programme: Ozu, Murnau and Dreyer. But auteurism is anachronistic to silent cinema and anathema to many early film aficionados, so fittingly some of my favourite screenings today fell far from the canon.

UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow 
UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

One of the best things I saw all week was Valentine Robert’s presentation of Tableaux Vivants in the early cinema strand. This was something very special indeed – like a video essay, but more expansive. The idea was simple: popular paintings were projected on screen before early films that mimicked their compositions. The effect was spectacular though, and very illuminating about narrative and visual culture in the early film period. As this presentation made clear, many narrative films at this time were also adaptations of images associated with historical, literary and biblical narratives, rather than the story themselves. Or both, at least. Erotic films too, as you might imagine, took their cues from paintings and sculptures. The care and detail in this presentation was very impressive and all served the argument beautifully. All this as well as Stephen Horne’s gorgeous accompaniment for a long, and very varied presentation, comprising 30-plus films and many more art works.

The double-bill of German films this afternoon featured some very familiar names. First there was Der Golem. No, not the 1920 one, but the 1915 original, long thought almost entirely lost. The bad news is that it is still lost, but some more fragments have been discovered and spliced together with titles to form something that is not really a film, but rather a suggestion of one. In this kinda prequel Paul Wegener’s clay man comes to life brilliantly and with just the most tender and slender of movements. Other scenes reinforce the sense that James Whale’s Frankenstein would be nothing without this silent-era antecedent. Utterly fascinating.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

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Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler.

Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.

Continue reading Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 6

Was this the perfect Pordenone day? Very likely. Sunshine, coffee and great films in abundance. Plus, not one but two appearances from Ivan Mosjoukine. Giornate excellence achieved.

First things flipping first. Best. Who’s Guilty?. Ever. Anna and Tom are in love, a bit. Anna considers marriage but doesn’t come close. And the backdrop is a factory, which soon becomes embroiled in a workers’ dispute. Yes there is a strike! Much broader, bolder drama here, with nice location shooting and some sharply composed long shots. if Eisenstein had made potboilers. Maybe. And before the morning’s main event, a now-obligatory trip to an ersatz pre-revolutionary Russia with Ivan Mosjoukine in Der Adjutant des Zaren, a charming Japanese animation about a boy grown from a peach who became gentle and strong – but mostly badass enough to slay a shedload of ogres.

This morning also featured a quartet of City Symphonies to delight the eyes. I especially liked a very elegantly shot look at the reconstruction of Tokyo in 1929 (I know!), Fukko Teito Shinfoni and a zoom up Chicago’s main drag in Halsted Street (1934). A tour of Belgrade was pretty enough but lacked direction and so outstayed its welcome. I am very fond of these films though, and look forward to more. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 6

London Film Festival 2015: a silent preview

Shooting Stars (1928)
Shooting Stars (1928)

Surprises can be fun, but maybe, when you’re stumping up for film festival tickets say, it’s good to get what you really wanted. The silent movies on offer at this year’s London Film Festival may not contain any unexpected treasures, but they do comprise some of the year’s most anticipated restorations, so let’s fill our boots. Our only reservation is that a few of these silent screenings do clash, so choose your tickets carefully.

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)

Variety (1925)

Well don’t I feel a little less sick about missing this new restoration of EA Dupont’s romantic drama at Bologna? Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, that woozy unleashed camera … you know this is going to be a treat. Variety is a highlight of Weimar cinema, and deserves to be seen at its shimmering best. It’s screening just once at the festival, in NFT1, so make sure you’re there. The word from those who have seen the new 2k resto already is: the print is gorgeous, but there is less enthusiasm for the new score, from the Tiger Lillies. No such worries for us cockney sparrows, who will have the pleasure of Stephen Horne’s assured accompaniment.

The Battle of the Century (1927)
Stan and Ollie in The Battle of the Century (1927)

The Battle of the Century (1927)

You might have heard a whisper about this one. The rediscovered second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century makes the film almost entirely complete – and essential viewing for fans of Stan and Ollie. Enjoy it at the London Film Festival with three more L&H shorts for company and musical accompaniment from messrs John Sweeney or Stephen Horne, depending on which of the two screenings you attend. Bear in mind, if you’re not heading to Pordenone, that the first screening is a full 24 hours before it plays at the Giornate – could this be a world premiere of the restoration?

Sherlock Holmes (1918)
Sherlock Holmes (1918)

Sherlock Holmes (1918)

Benedict Cumberbatch is all very well (very well indeed if you ask me), but if any actor could lay claim to the “definitive” Holmes, it was William Gillette. And for many a long year, the film that committed his stage performance of the gentleman detective to celluloid was thought to have vanished in the night. An elementary mistake, Dr Watson – the film was rediscovered at the end of last year and has been prepped for a Blu-ray release and a handful of festival screenings, including this one, in NFT1 on Sunday 18 October. There’s live music from Neil Brand, Günter Bichwald and Jeff Davenport and an irresistible accompanying short, A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912).

Continue reading London Film Festival 2015: a silent preview

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 6

Bailey's Royal Punch & Judy show in Halifax (1901)
Bailey’s Royal Punch & Judy show in Halifax (1901)

Two Barrymores today, two appearances from Little Tich and too much, as usual, to recount here. But like the hard-working Cupid in La Rose Bleue (Léonce Perret, 1911), I’m going to give it my best shot. So if you’re sitting comfortably …

In a move designed to cure, or provoke, homesickness in weary British bloggers, this morning we were treated to 90 minutes of Edwardian Entertainment courtesy of Bryony Dixon and Vanessa Toulmin. Accompanying the 40-odd shorts and fragments on piano, percussion voice and everything in between were Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius on stellar form (Horne’s witty use of a kazoo, yes kazoo, in a telephone sketch was priceless). This was a peek at England in its Sunday best and some more outlandish costumes. It was all fun, fun, fun with trips to the seaside, the Punch and Judy show, fireworks, the cinematograph, barrel jumping, the fun fair, the panto and many wonderful processions showcasing our forefathers and mothers’ considerable talent in the fields of costume design and formation dancing – and not just Morris troupes and maypoles. It’s enough to make one crave a stick of rock and a trip to the illuminations. Certainly my northwestern heart leapt at a panorama of Blackpool. And who could resist the sight of a row of Mutoscopes on Morecambe beach with the sign “Look at this and get a laugh”. The perfect solution for those of us who want to watch the flicks all day without depriving ourselves of vitamin D.

If you really want sunshine at this time of year, a trip to Greece is in order, and Oi Peripeteiai Tou Villar (The Adventures of Villar, 1924), the oldest film ever restored by the Greek Film Archive, was a sketchy comic caper, doubling as a sun-dappled tour of Athens. Larky nonsense, but great shots of the Acropolis etc. And now I can say I have seen a Greek silent movie, which is sure to wow the folks down at the Rose and Crown on my return.

The Toll of the Sea (1922)
The Toll of the Sea (1922)

But if you want something really gorgeous … the second Dawn of Technicolor compilation had many diverting treats inside, culminating in The Toll of the Sea (1922). This was an exceedingly picturesque melodrama, a reboot of Madame Butterfly in which Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese woman in love with an American. But the bond of love and “marriage” is held more sacred by her than him … Oh and it all ends in sadness and sacrifice and another word beginning with S. Not before Wong’s sumptuous wardrobe and elegant garden (complete with peacock!) have been given the full Technicolor treatment, though. The sweetest of sorrow and the sugariest of eye candy.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5

Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)

We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.

Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)
The Glorious Adventure (1922)

It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

The New Janitor (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor (1914)

Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.

Pansidong (1927)
Pansidong (1927)

There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.

Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)
Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)

But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.

The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)

Colleen Moore, first among flappers, is so universally adored among the silent cinema crowd that she can get away with anything. Case in point: today’s screening of the irrepressible Synthetic Sin (1929), in which La Moore plays an aspiring actress whose talents lie further towards comedy than tragedy. So much so that she interrupts a dance show to perform a wigglesome, gigglesome routine of her own … in blackface. She wins the crowd in the movie, and perhaps a little more guardedly she repeated the trick in Teatro Verdi today. You can’t edit the past, and you can’t deny the crowd-pulling power of Colleen Moore.

Synthetic Sin was a winner today, a restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone project; this film has been primped back to its best, and even comes with a snippet of its original sound-on-disc score. That blackface moment wasn’t only thing that was “of its time” about the movie, but Moore’s personality, and charm, and sheer comic talent brook no obstacles. An early scene in which she mimics “Paderewski playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude” was far funnier than such a skit had any right to be. A thunderous round of applause ensued, from a live audience 85 years too late to catch the real thing.

The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)
The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)

But Moore only arrived four screenings into the day. We’re calling this a Manic Monday, with three heavyweight movies in the morning alone: two Barrymores (Ethel and Lionel) and a treat from the Russian Laughter strand: Zakroischchik iz Torzhka (The Tailor from Torzhok, Yakov Protazanov, 1925).

Yes, the name of the Russian Laughter strand has raised some sniggers in the hotel corridors and café terraces of Pordenone already, but we don’t listen to haters here at Silent London. And we’re right, as usual, because The Tailor from Torzhok was a hoot. This is Soviet cinema’s first feature-length comedy, and it’s definitely western-style in its reliance on physical stunts and romance. It was intended to promote the state lottery, but enjoyably not a single likable character gives two figs for the lotto – the government bond is sold on, rejected, crumpled and, ahem, fixed to the wall with nasal mucus. Ick. Great comic work from Igor Illiinsky in the lead role, whether pratfalling or winningly rubbing shoulders with his pretty miss.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3

Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

The launch of the London Film Festival programme is a cascade of A-list stars, esteemed auteurs, Oscar contenders, Hollywood blockbusters and world premieres. But enough of all that. Did someone mention Colleen Moore? Here’s our rundown of the silent cinema offering at the BFI London Film Festival this year.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

“Virtually unknown” it may be, but this fantastic British war film was a real genre game-changer. Walter Summers directs the noble tale of “a victory and a defeat almost as glorious as a victory”, which was a hit with audiences and critics both on its release. Unjustly neglected for years, TBOCAFI has been rescued from osbcurity via a gleaming new restoration and a modern brass score, which will be performed by members of the Royal Marine band at the LFF Archive Gala screening.

Screens: 7pm, 16 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

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The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess (1934)

This sumptuous Chinese melodram stars Ruan Lingyu as “goddess” or sex worker, trying to care for her child, who is pushed into taking violent revenge on her pimp. Described on these pages by John Sweeney as: “Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film.” The festival screening will be accompanied by the English Chamber orchestra, playing a new score by Chinese composer Zou Ye.

Screens: 7.30pm, 14 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

Continue reading Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema – documentary coming soon

thanhouser poster

The story of the Thanhouser Film Studio follows a rise-and-fall pattern familiar to all aficionados of early cinema: innovation, success, expansion, loss, obscurity. But there is a gratifying twist in the Thanhouser tale that marks it out among its fellows.

Edwin and Gertrude founded the studio in 1909 in New Rochelle, New York as an independent outfit. They were successful for many years and made more than 1,000 films, shown all over the world, including some truly fantastic early literary adaptations. The biggest star on their books was probably the wonderful Florence LaBadie, heroine of the serial Million Dollar Mystery. You may also be familiar with the precociously winsome Marie Eline, AKA “The Thanhouser Kid”. Sadly, after many profitable years, in 1917, the downturn in the movie industry forced Edwin Thanhouser to close the company for good.

The Thanhouser Studio in 1914
The Thanhouser Studio in 1914

The story would end there, with Thanhouser another footnote in film history, were it not for the tireless efforts of Edwin and Gertrude’s grandson. Ned Thanhouser has spent the past three decades hunting down the movies that his grandparents made, as well as preserving and exhibiting them all over the world. Two-hundred-odd films later, Thanhouser is a name to conjure with, and the world is lot wiser about early American film-making. Just last year, a screening of Thanhouser films played to an appreciative crowd in London at the BFI Southbank.

But Ned has been working on another film project: a documentary about the family business.

This 50-minute documentary reconstructs the relatively unknown story of the studio and its founders, technicians, and stars as they entered the nascent motion picture industry to compete with Thomas Edison and the companies aligned with his Motion Pictures Patents Corporation (MPPC). Ned Thanhouser, grandson of studio founders Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, narrates this compelling tale, recounting a saga of bold entrepreneurship, financial successes, cinematic innovations, tragic events, launching of Hollywood careers, and the transition of the movie industry from the East Coast to the West and Hollywood. It will be of interest to scholars, archivists, early film historians, and everyone who loves the intriguing stories about the people who pioneered independent movie-making in America.

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema had a little help over the finishing line from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and it will be released next year. Excitingly for those of us Pordenone-bound in October, the film will have its premiere at this year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto. I’ll be there, will you?

Read more about studio, and the documentary on the Thanhouser site.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone Promises

 

Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past

Gaumont Comes Home

This is a guest post for Silent London by Tony Fletcher, film historian at the Cinema Museum, about director-actor Alf Collins. Some of Collins’ Gaumont films will be shown on 30 August at a special open-air screening on the site of the original studio in Camberwell, with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.

Alfred Bromhead started the English agency for Gaumont in Britain in 1898. He distributed the films produced by the French arm of the company, which was run by Leon Gaumont, and he also attempted to produce a few films in Britain in 1899. He opened a small outdoor studio on a four-acre cricket field in Loughborough Junction in south-east London. The open-air stage measured 30ft x 15ft However, this venture was short-lived and lasted for only one summer.

Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905
Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905

In 1902, Bromhead decided to make another attempt at producing films. Alfred Collins came on board as stage manager, and Gaumont continued producing short films over the next seven to eight years. These were often shot in the streets of south-east London – pioneering chase comedies and dramas. Alf Collins had already had some film experience working with Robert Paul, as well as at the British Biograph Company. He had started performing at the Surrey Theatre under George Conquest, later joining the William Terris Company at the Lyceum Theatre. He also performed in Drury Lane Pantos playing The Copper in the Harlequinade. His full-time job between 1902 and 1932 was as the stage manager for the Kate Carney Company, which gave him opportunities to make films when they were appearing in London and the provinces.

During 1904, Bromhead moved studios from Loughborough Junction to a 14-acre site at Freeman’s cricket field, Champion Hill. Thomas Freeman was a local builder and decorator living at 127 Grove Lane. In 1891, he had acquired a site at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House (roughly where Sainsbury’s superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC are now situated). Freeman built three wood and iron cricket pavilions which were hired out during the summer to the Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and during the winter to Dulwich Hamlet FC. These appear in some of the films. Bromhead constructed an open-air stage to film interior shots as no artificial lights were available.

Continue reading Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past

Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall: review

Our Hospitality (1923)
Our Hospitality (1923)

I watched my first silent films, not on my grandpa’s knee, nor at one of these grand screenings with live music that they have nowadays, but in a sixth-form college classroom while being guided through my film studies A-level. It’s not a very romantic story, but I loved what I saw, and while studying for my exams, and subsequently at university, I sought out, saw, and enjoyed many more silents – going from a teenage film fan to an early cinema buff-in-waiting. The film studies syllabus (WJEC, a few years ago now) that I took was great – introducing us to relatively obscure arty silents as well as a healthy appreciation of Hollywood industry mechanics and even a smattering of theory. It stood me in good stead for my English lit & lang degree and a master’s in film history. Plus, I doubt the 18-year-old me would ever have got to see Un Chien Andalou without it. If you want someone to take the blame for Silent London, you can point your finger squarely at a tertiary college in Ealing W5. (I chose the college, incidentally, primarily because it was so close to the famous film studios.)

The point is, I think that sixth form is a great time to introduce people to early and silent film. Teenagers who seek out noisy bands and edgy art want off-beat films to watch too. Silents fit the bill perfectly. There’s something off-kilter about silent movies when you first meet them, and something unexpected about a supposedly modern subject area taking you so far back into the past.

A Corner in Wheat (DW Griffith, 1909)
A Corner in Wheat (DW Griffith, 1909)

Cheering then, to see Keith Withall’s Studying Early and Silent Cinema land on my desk. It’s an expansion of a 2007 volume and clearly informed by two things: his years spent teaching film studies at FE and HE level, and a passion for attending the film festivals at Pordenone and Bologna. This is a useful work for anyone interested in silent cinema to use as a reference but a great introduction to the subject for students. It’s a read-this-now-watch-that thing, and I’m all for it. Not only that, but Withall blogs too, posting thoughtful, erudite essays at cinetext.wordpress.com

Withall’s expanded book is an enjoyable and wide-ranging introduction to the key concepts and landmarks in the early and silent film period. This guide tackles a breathtakingly vast amount of material in the clearest of terms, and always with one eye on the here-and-now. There are references not just to modern films and attitudes, but also practical consideration of the availability of viewing material. Case studies examine classic films in detail, while wider sweeps take in potted histories of alternative and smaller national cinemas. Throughout, Withall encourages students towards wider exploration of the subject area – and most importantly, towards further viewing.

E&SC Cover 2014 v2Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall will be on sale in May 2014, priced £16.99 in paperback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-69-8) and £50 in hardback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-70-4), published by Auteur

The top 10 silent film dream sequences

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Paul Joyce, who blogs about silent and classic cinema at Ithankyouarthur.blogspot.co.uk. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Cinematic dreams are a staple of the silent era more than any other, possibly because much of what was on screen had only previously been experienced in dreams for contemporary audiences. Now our dreams are founded on over a century of cinema and we’re so much harder to impress but … we can still dream on. Here’s a top ten of silent dreams with a couple of runners up as a bonus.

The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)

A madly inventive three minutes from George Méliès in which an old astronomer is bothered by a hungry moon as the object of his observation makes a rude appearance in order to eat his telescope.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)

A feast of special effects in Edwin S Porter’s cautionary tale on the matter of over-indulging in beer and cheese. Jack Brawn plays the titular fiend who suffers all manner of indignities once he staggers home to his bed, whereupon his sleep is interrupted by rarebit imps and his bed flies him high into the night sky … Proof that the whole cheese-and-dreams rumour is actually true.

Atlantis (1913)
Atlantis (1913)

Atlantis (1913)

In August Blom’s classic – the first Danish feature film – Olaf Fønss’ doctor dreams of walking through the sunken city of Atlantis with his dead friend, as the passenger ship he is on begins to sink. It’s either a premonition or recognition that his true feelings have been submerged … JG Ballard was obviously later inspired to write The Drowned World.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

After being accidentally overdosed with sleeping draught by careless servants, Mary Pickford’s character falls into a deep and dangerous sleep …  As she hovers on the edge of oblivion the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her Oz-like reverie. Sirector Maurice Tourneur excels as “the hopes of dreamland lure the little soul from the Shadows of Death to the Joys of Life”.

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)
When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

Douglas Fairbanks is harassed by vengeful vegetables after being force-fed too many in an effort to drive him to suicide (yep, it’s a comedy). Directed by Victor Fleming, who later returned to dreams with Dorothy and that Wizard.
Continue reading The top 10 silent film dream sequences

The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

Silents by numbers

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 (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in Kid Auto Races (1914)

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”.

Leave 'em Laughing (1928)
Leave ’em Laughing (1928)

Leave ’em Laughing (Clyde Bruckman, 1928)

I just have to think about the final sequence of the Laurel and Hardy classic and I start chuckling madly to myself.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial (Florence Turner, 1914)

“The Vitagraph Girl” pulls a face at being one of the first screen stars.

Continue reading The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8

Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation
Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation

Update: My Guardian report from the Giornate is here

That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.

The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 7

Earth (1930) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev
Earth (1930) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev

Lucky number seven. Today was a red-letter-day in Pordenone for many reasons. I rewatched one of my all-time favourite films, Anny Ondra finally came good, and I managed my first Felix-to-Ko-Ko shift (with a few breaks in between). No wonder I’ve got that Friday feeling.

Excluding the charming cartoons (although strictly we shouldn’t) the day opened, and closed, with rippling cornfields. First up was Zemlya (Earth, 1930): Dovzhenko’s classic hymn to nature. It played in the Ukrainian strand, with an impressive recorded score by DakhaBrakha. Just sublime and well worth the early start.

Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013
Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013

The day’s final cornfields came courtesy of the Swedish programme, and Rågens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929): a sumptous rural romantic drama with extra mysticism, sex and violence. Very Thomas Hardy. Gorgeously photographed, with flashes of Expressionism, it was directed by Ivan Johansson and adapted from a Finnish poem. Like so many of these Swedish films, it concerns a couple happily in love and the complications keeping them apart. The ending is beautiful, but as we’ve come to expect, slooooooow. It couldn’t be much more different from Earth, but there was a pleasing unity to the day, really.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 7

Edwardian Insects on Film, BBC4

It’s not often I find myself recommending a natural history programme, but on Tuesday night this week a BBC4 nature documentary will celebrate the work of film pioneer Percy Smith. Edwardian Insects on Film is punchy name of the hour-long doc, which is part of the channel’s Alien Nation insects season. As the video above shows, the film follows wildlife film-maker Charlie Hamilton Jones’s attempts to replicate Smith’s ingenious film The Acrobatic Fly (1910). It promises to be a rare opportunity to look in detail at early cinema methods and technology – and an even rarer opportunity to see such things on TV.

While the tricksy manipulations of The Acrobatic Fly are many miles away from modern wildlife film’s hands-off observe-from-a-distance approach, the documentary also looks at Smith’s pioneering work in timelapse photography (the gorgeous The Birth of a Flower, 1910), which is still a staple of the genre – used for example in David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995). Attenborough himself makes an appearance in the programme, as will a few other faces familiar to readers of this blog.

Smith continued working in the film industry into the 30s, most notably making the Secrets of Nature series for British Instructional Films from 1922-33. Should you want to know more, BFI Screenonline has plenty of information about Smith and his films, some of which are available on DVD, or like the clips above, on the BFI YouTube channel:

Smith was a true pioneer, inventing original (and bizarre) methods for time lapse and micro cinematography, involving all kinds of home-made devices, including alarms all over his home to wake him up in the middle of the night if the film in the camera needed changing. With endless patience, he could spend up to two and a half years to complete a film. He also had the popular touch, with the happy knack (as he put it himself) of being able to feed his audience “the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment”. Modern film technique could hardly better the results achieved by Smith in the first decades of the century and his early masterpiece Birth of a Flower (1910) has never been out of distribution.

Edwardian Insects on Film screens on BBC4 at 9pm on Tuesday 19 March 2013 and again at 2.40am on Wednesday 20 March 2013.

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman – book review

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It’s a commonplace that the cinema struggles to translate the scope and nuances of great literature. Conversely, fiction often fails to capture the joys and texture of the film experience. There are exceptions to both rules, of course, and Beatrice Hitchman’s Paris-set debut aspires to the latter form of bilinguality; to commute the strange pleasures of early cinema to the printed page.

The simplest but least effective way to go about this involves a lot of research and an evangelist’s joy in sharing knowledge. These pages are littered with Max Linder postcards, asides on the intricacy of in-camera editing and the (re)invention of the Latham Loop – but there’s more to Petite Mort than that. The geek in me delighted in this scene-setting, notably the flies swarming around the studio, but Petite Mort is most cinematic when it dispenses with the history lessons.

Hitchman’s classy prose reveals not just a film lover’s appreciation for the pictorial, but a photographic appreciation for the texture of light: “slanted light”, or “light that moves like treacle”. Naturally enough, Hitchman’s silences are also tangible. In one scene, a painful pause between two lovers transmutes a cinematic trope of romance into something far more disturbing: “The silence runs down from their joined hands and over them and spreads out over the carpet, blending with the sunset, which is unexpectedly fiery and distinct. They sit like statuary of a king and a queen, saying nothing to each other. Eventually the silence fills the whole house.”

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Beatrice Hitchman

Petite Mort takes place in two distinct golden ages of French cinema. And these reels are clipped, cut up and spliced together in a way that immediately betrays the author’s experience as a film editor. In 1967 a journalist called Juliette investigates the rediscovery of a film from 1913; while in the earlier part of the century, country girl Adèle moves to Paris, finds work at Pathé and becomes romantically and fatally involved with a rich married couple. Juliette’s curiosity is aroused by the fact that the rediscovered print is still missing a section – a trick “doppelgänger” shot that made the film, Petite Mort, famous and may, she intuits, contain the secret of the murder trial that made its star, Adèle, notorious.

imageAnd Adèle has a doppelgänger of her own, her sister Camille, introduced as “a bright-eyed, sly duplicate of myself”. Doubles and duplicity abounds – from the multiple plotlines to that bold double entendre of a title and Adèle’s bisexual affairs. While Petite Mort builds to a whodunnit revelation, it’s these flashy patterns that catch the eye – just as that complicated ‘doppelgänger’ special effect is advertised as the highlight of the lost film. This diversionary tactic is perfectly in keeping with the novel’s cinematic contexts – both of them. Early film has been characterised by Tom Gunning as a transition between the “cinema of attractions” (trick films such as those by Méliès, or the absinthe fairies and ghosts conjured by Adèle’s lover André) and the “cinema of narrative integration” (bluntly, Griffith’s developments in storytelling across the Atlantic). However, as Vicki Callahan argued in Sight & Sound last year, the epic serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas and Les Vampires) from this era blur the distinctions between the two modes, following a “principle of uncertainty … a use of cinema that questions our understanding of the real”. Those early serials and their knotted narratives are evoked by Petite Mort in the two-timing, amateur-sleuthing plot, but also in the slippery, fused identities of our heroines. Callahan traces this tricksy approach to narrative cinema to the French New Wave and beyond (citing Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Assayas’ Les Vampires remix Irma Vep (1996)).

That Petite Mort incorporates a history of French film audacity into its sexy plot is a trick shot of its own. It’s an elegantly written, richly satisfyingly novel, and in its own distinctive way, utterly cinematic too.

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman is published by Serpent’s Tail, RRP £12.99 as a hardback or ebook. Find out more.

In praise of early cinema: the theatrical and the cinematic

A Christmas Accident (1912)
A Christmas Accident (1912)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Chris Edwards, who writes the Silent Volume blog.

Being a silent film fan can marginalise you. Recently, I went to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Afterward, the cinephiles were discussing Hitch films they’d seen. “What do you think of the Hitchcock 9?” I asked them. “The Lodger’s pretty good.”

Crickets.

It’s better among fellow fans. We all skirt the periphery together. We talk about the great silent classics, arguing their places in the canon; we discuss the latest restoration, the newest score, the anticipated Criterion release date, or what a crime it is that there isn’t one. We hear about an obscure gem, and then can’t wait to see it.

But it is possible to be marginalised even by silent film aficionados. I have felt it. Because, while I love all silent film, I hold a particular affection for the very earliest stuff: films made from the late-19th century to about 1913 or so. Films that many silent films fans have no use for.

Well, that’s harsh. And it’s not quite what I mean. Many silent film fans do love these old curios; it’s just that few of us love them for their artistic merit.

Rarely do we hear anyone discuss a director from this period as an artist, or the works themselves as having any profundity. Brief, stiff, and broadly acted, these ancient movies are valued primarily as museum pieces. They’re notches on a scale of development from proto-film experiments through to “modern” film as we have come to recognise it. They’re assessed in terms of what they lack. And I’m telling you, we’re missing out.

Why do I think that? Because some of these films have left me with ideas to ponder. Not just ideas about the history of film or the paucity of technique early filmmakers possessed, but real ideas. Rarely do they convey these concepts literally. Rather, they express them through their unique mashing up of the abstract and the verisimilar – the theatrical and the cinematic, the fake and the real – whatever you want to call it. They say things in their own way.

I don’t have space to describe too many examples. But I will tell you about some of the features of these films which intrigue me. Though they’re often dismissed as weaknesses, these features can also, in the hands of an artist, become the means by which early films convey meaning.

One feature is flatness. Much as a stage can only push back so far, these films, too, exist mostly in a middle distance. Vistas are, for the most part, backdrops, and not very convincing ones. Almost all shots are medium shots. This flatness is coupled with a strong sense of boundaries—top and bottom, and especially stage-right and -left. This is your space, viewer.

(Vintage gamers will see a natural comparison here to early video games. Much as films evolved from theatre, video games have evolved from board games and pinball. The games of the late 1970s to early 1980s retained the primacy of the board or static plane. There was much action in games such Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Berzerk, and Asteroids, but your avatar typically stayed in that box.)

Yes, the result feels old-fashioned. But flatness and boundaries aren’t simply limitations. They can create very interesting effects. When you’re conscious of a scene as a flat plane with defined boundaries, and the actors are somewhat depersonalised by medium shots, you start looking at set, action, and boundaries as a unified object. As you would look at a painting.

I was struck by this last year while watching A Christmas Accident (1912): a holiday parable about two families (one poor and giving, the other wealthy and miserly) sharing a duplex. I blogged about it:

Director Bannister Merwin pays close attention to the two halves of his frame … he splits the lower façade of the house exactly in two, dividing the centre of the frame with a porch pillar standing between the two front doors. The rear of the house has almost-identical doors as well, with a tall railing spindle marking the midpoint between them. Gilton [the miser] almost never crosses the midpoint … We’re not to see the halves of the house as parts of a literal object, but rather, as the world of sin and the world of righteousness; compartmentalised, but close.

The pillar and spindle were not only part of the scene, but part of the frame, separating the characters visually to make Merwin’s point. In this way, A Christmas Accident resembles a medieval painting more than a modern film.

You can do a lot with a good set. And you’ll typically do more if you don’t have the luxury of multiple camera angles, close-ups and complex tricks.

Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

In terms of technical excellence and versatility, Georges Méliès’ sets have probably never been equalled. They’re seamless collections of pieces, each sliding into frame, perfectly timed, layer upon layer. They embed Méliès’ often-frantic actors in a fantastical world, pulsing with action. This world bears no more resemblance to reality than a comic strip does, mind you. But that’s a good thing.

Early directors’ near-indifference to aesthetic consistency is what I love most about them. I adore scenes of time-pressed people consulting clocks with painted-on hands; struggling to lift two-dimensional vases, and on and on. On stage, this kind of thing is a practical necessity, but in a film, it’s a choice.

It’s also a declaration of faith in us, as viewers. We’re people capable of merging these disparate levels of reality into one. Anyway, what’s so “real” about the environments we wander through every day – or the ones we see in most modern, live-action movies? Art and trickery is everywhere. These early films were just blunter about showing it.

The most powerful example of this I’ve seen occurs in His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914). His Majesty is not a well-respected film; in part, I think, because it was made in an era when true cinematography was beginning to develop. But it is nevertheless a remarkable thing. Particularly for this scene:

[Mombi the witch] captures Gloria [niece of the King of Oz] and ties her to pillar. With an incantation she summons three other witches … and combines their powers with her own to create a cauldron-full of magic potion. Then … Mombi ladles the stuff over Gloria’s blouse. Mombi now cups her empty hand just below Gloria’s breasts. A heart (a stuffed heart in the shape of a real one) appears in her hand, and ices over. The now-frozen heart disappears, and Gloria’s capacity for love goes with it.

Wikipedia describes Mombi “pulling out her heart,” but that’s wrong. Nothing is pulled from Gloria’s chest.

Filmed in close-up, this scene represents a total dismissal of the boundary between literal and abstract – they co-exist in one cinematic reality, with limitless story-telling potential. I wish more films were like this. The closest modern comparison I can think of would be Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but even in that case, the human actors acknowledge the physical differences between themselves and the Toons. In His Majesty, the differences are forgotten.

Look at these old, old films, and you can see the potential of the medium. Every hesitant movement of the camera inward, every subtle gesture chosen by an actor, pointed the way forward. But if you see these movies only as first steps to something truly great, you’ll be missing a lot. I say some of them are truly great on their own – in their era, in ours, and in the future.

Chris Edwards

Phono-Cinéma-Théatre at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

Cléo de Mérode dances Photograph: Cinémathèque française / Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Cléo de Mérode dances Photograph: Cinémathèque française / Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand.

Among the gorgeously designed pavilions on the banks of the Seine at the Paris Exposition of 1900 was a small, ornate theatre called the Phono-Cinéma-Théatre, which contained a screen and a small musical ensemble.  Across the screen moved the greatest actors, dancers, mimes and clowns of the day – they spoke, they sang, they moved to music provided by musicians playing live and they were often in exquisite, hand-tinted colour. Five years after the birth of cinema, film and recorded sound brought France’s finest theatrical artists to mechanical life for the lucky generation of fin-de-siècle Paris. It was ephemera among ephemera, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters pulled aside to reveal the artists that inspired him, and, of course, not made to last – half a century of progress and war on an industrial scale would sweep away those films and the spirit of The Banquet Years, as well as millions of those lucky or wealthy enough to experience them, leaving the rest of us with just the books, the posters, a few photos … until last week.

Phono-Cinéma-Théatre poster. Photograph: David Robinson Collection
Phono-Cinéma-Théatre poster. Photograph: David Robinson Collection

On Thursday last the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, showed 23 surviving films of the 41 originally shot, most complete with their hand-colouring, many with their synchronised sound, almost all accompanied live by a small ensemble directed and arranged by John Sweeney. John had spent months finding as much of the original music to the dances and songs as possible, then rehearsed synchronising them to the pre-recorded singing and dancers’ steps, which were set in stone over a hundred years ago – the result was an astounding time-bridge that placed us all more viscerally in the Paris Exposition auditorium than any sound and image record could have done – the artists were now  performing for us, their movements driven by John’s piano, their eyes returning our gaze and their efforts aimed at pleasing us.

It was all so relaxed – Little Tich missed a catch with his hat but just picked it up and carried on as if nothing had happened, the odd dance step was fumbled, but unlike the stiff subjects of so much still photography of the time, our performers did what they did for the camera just as they had done on stage for years (in some cases decades), blissfully uncaring of giving a “definitive” performance or of the legacy of our critical response from an unimaginable distance of posterity.

Sarah Bernhardt fought Hamlet’s duel beautifully, despite her 56 years, and with the addition of Frank Bockius’s uncannily precise sword clashes on triangle; Emilio Cossira sang Romeo’s aria from Gounod’s opera silently, his voice reproduced by Romano Todesco’s single notes on accordion, the intent of feeling vibrant in his features and his genial return for a second bow – Mariette Sully wrung genuine comedy out of singing and dancing “La Poupée” and Cléo de Mérode, La Grande Horizontale to many of the crowned heads of Europe, danced in the way that had turned those heads in the first place.

Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

We found out what made 1900 audiences laugh, thanks to Jules Moy’s anarchic dancing master and Polin’s Troupier Pompette singing about, among other things, stroking a lady’s leg, wondering at the lack of resistance and, on raising her skirt, realising he is touching up the table leg. The entire 90-minute show was a triumph of 1900 and 2012 technology – I have worked with early film for 30 years, and never have I felt so privileged to see these wonders more clearly than any generation before, even the one for which they were intended.

Little Tich Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Little Tich Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

Above all, I now feel I understand turn-of-the-century Paris with a profundity that was impossible before last Thursday night – its potency, its sexuality, within which the highest arts of performance were also the most immediately sensual and arresting, its gaiety and love of sensation, the vibrancy and diversity of its entertainments. The combined efforts of the Cinémathèque Française, Gaumont, Lobster Films, Olivier Auboin-Vermorel and the historical and aesthetic energy of Pordenone director David Robinson have brought not just a corpse but a memory back to life – theatre as film as theatre, a heady concoction only available through the medium of “silent film” – in London, the equivalent would be seeing a complete night at the music hall from 1900, in full colour and with synchronised sound – for now, London must get to see this show, preferably in the perfect surroundings of Hackney Empire where the artists can emerge from the proscenium arch of a Matcham theatre – but maybe after Paris has seen its own long-lost child, this November at the Cinémathèque Française – and, of course, John Sweeney and his ensemble will be there to assist at the rebirth.

Neil Brand