Tag Archives: early cinema

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


The Artist and Hugo clean up at the “silent Oscars”

It's Oscar!

Well, I think we can allow ourselves to enjoy the moment. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has become the first silent film to win the best picture Oscar since Wings. It also carried away best actor (for Jean Dujardin), best director, best score and best costumes. Martin Scorsese’s not-quite biopic of Georges Méliès, Hugo, was the other big story of the night, winning the same number of awards, including heavyweight gongs for cinematography and art direction as well as three technical awards: best sound mixing, best sound editing, visual effects. I’d like to think it doesn’t take anything away from Scorsese to suggest that his awards were also a tribute to Méliès himself, in recognition of his beautiful, magic films.

We all know that Hollywood loves films about the movies, and there are those who love silent film who don’t necessarily love these two films – but there is no doubt that last night was a triumphant one for fans of the silent era. Let’s not forget that the Buster Keaton-inspired The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore triumphed in the best animated short category too. And the 2012 Academy Awards capped a joyous year in which early cinema was talked about more than it had been for years.

Here’s a quick look back at how it was reported on Silent London:

The Artist is announced for Cannes

The Cannes critics fall for The Artist

The Hugo trailer lands

The Artist: London film festival review

Hugo: review

I meet Uggie, star of The Artist

The Artist triumphs at the Baftas

What to watch when you have watched The Artist

Georges Méliès at the Ciné Lumière 4, 12 & 14 December 2011

Le voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)
Le voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)

Between Lobster films’s eye-popping restoration of the hand-tinted Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) and Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo, 2011 is a good year for remembering Georges Méliès – not to mention the 150th anniversary of his birth. To mark this auspicious time, the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Francais is celebrating the early French film-maker with three special events in December.

The first show, Classic Medley Méliès, is a Sunday afternoon matinee – a 90-minute screening of shorts to introduce the director and some of his best-loved films, restored by Lobster films:

This programme is a unique opportunity to watch what can only be described as a treasure trove of lost gems which were uncovered and lovingly restored by Lobster films. Explore the sublime realm of Méliès’ cinema through The Man with a Rubber HeadThe Magic Lantern or the colour version of The Devilish Tenant and discover his favourite themes: the moon, space, illusion and the comedy-burlesque.

Classic Medley Méliès screens at Ciné Lumière on Sunday 4 December 2011 at 2pm. To book tickets and to find out more, click here.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Secondly, Ciné Lumière is offering the exciting opportunity to see the new restoration of the hand-tinted full-colour Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) with its new soundtrack by the French group Air, who will also attend the screening.

Six scholars, members of the Astronomers’ Club, set off on an expedition to the moon. They travel in a bullet-shaped rocket fired into space by a giant canon. After arriving on the moon safe and sound, they meet its inhabitants, the Selenites, escape their king and return to earth in their rocket which, after falling into the ocean, is fished out by a sailor. Applause, decorations, and a triumphant parade for the six heroes of the first outer-space adventure in the history of cinema.

 The screening of Le Voyage Dans la Lune is at 6pm on Monday 12 December. Entrance is free, but you must book, via the Institut Français’s newsletter, which you can sign up to here.

The third show is an evening event, a ciné-concert in which a selection of Méliès films will be accompanied by composer John Garden, who earlier this year toured a semi-improvised electronic score to The Lost World (1925):
Accompanying the films will be an original score of electronic soundscapes which revive and celebrate the sense of magic, mystery and occasional menace that play at the heart of Méliès’ films. Experience silent cinema as never before
Georges Méliès Revival screens at the Ciné Lumière on Wednesday 14 December 2011 at 7pm. To find out more and to book tickets, click here.

From the Archives: Made in Barnet at the Phoenix Cinema, 18 September 2011

The Phoenix Cinema
The Phoenix as it used to look

It’s always a pleasure to visit one of Britain’s oldest and most beautiful cinemas – and what a treat also to see some early films on the big screen. As part of the Phoenix Cinema’s ongoing Century of Cinema celebrations, film historian Gerry Turvey will present a selection of films from the BFI’s archives celebrating Barnet’s pioneering film-makers. There will be work from Birt Acres and RW Paul among others – and what’s more, it’s all free.


From the Archives: Made in Barnet screens at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley at 2pm on 18 September 2011. Tickets are free but booking is essential, so call the box office on 020 8444 6789. For more information, visit the website.

Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder

Link: Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder

Serpentine Dance

Early Cinema Myth No 1 is surely that all silent films were black and white. It’s not true in the slightest, which is why we’re so keen to see this new exhibition in Brighton, which explores early attempts to achieve colour – from magic lanterns onwards.

We take the moving image in colour for granted, but the search for a way to capture the world in colour is a story of ingenious inventions, personal obsession, magic and illusion, scientific discovery, glamour, hard work and determination.

The Capturing Colour exhibition is at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until 20 March 2011 and admission is free.

Silent London is planning a field trip to take a look at the show later in the week – we’ll report back here.