Many of you reading this will have known the artist and photographer Townly Cooke, who died in 2016. He had a huge collection of silent film stills and memorabilia and was a regular at the British Silent Film Festival.
After he died, his collection of around 1,000 pieces was bequeathed to the wonderful Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter, and they are now on display there. Cooke never exhibited his collection, so this is the first time that these pieces have been shown to the public.
It’s a treasure trove for fans of British silent cinema. The majority of the collection consists of of stills from films of the 1910s and 1920s and most of these are from British films. Cooke was especially interested in the work of Cecil Hepworth, and his stars, including Alma Taylor and the It couple Henry Edwards and Chrissie White. Continue reading Treasures from the silent era: the Townly Cooke Collection→
Laughter is sunshine, it chases winter from the human face – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Sometimes, a seven-hour epic will come along to sweep you off your feet. At other times, 18 minutes will do the same job, or even just a few seconds. Friday at the Giornate was Laurel and Hardy’s day and no mistaking. The happy discovery of the missing reel of The Battle of the Century (1927) has been dominating the runup to the festival, and with good reason. The house was full for the evening screening, one of the first in the world, of the nearly restored, almost complete two-reel comedy. When I say full, yours truly was perched in the gods, nearly touching the ceiling. But if I was giddy, it was with excitement, and as Battle unspooled with its restorer, Serge Bromberg at the piano keys, we all felt a little thrill I’ll bet. The central pie fight sequence is slapstick gold – expertly orchestrated, constantly inventive and teasing us with the escalating violence. So often a group are poised with pies in hands … we know another splat is on its way, but we don’t know where it will come from. And because of that, seeing it in proper context, as a counterpoint to the damp squib boxing match in the first reel, was hugely satisfactory. The pie fight’s no longer a scene, but part of a real movie, albeit one with one sequence still missing.
And with that, Stan and Ollie were gone. To be replaced by something else entirely. Days don’t tend to have themes here at Pordenone, The programme is far too wide-ranging and eccentric for that. But Friday, I like to think, was also western day – with a feminine twist.
The morning dawned with cowboys – and what you might call cowgirls too. These short movies from the 1910s were equal-opportunity adventures, with women exploring the west along with their men. Of the few I saw, I most liked How States are Made (1912), in which a pioneer family must lay stake to their plot in the Cherokee Land Rush, but with hubby out of action due to a gunshot wound, it’s up to the missus (Anne Schaeffer) to ride west and beat their rivals in the big land rush.
A double-bill (of sorts) of Victor Fleming westerns followed, and picked up the theme too. After a snippet of The Call of the Canyon (1923) in which young Carley must decide whether to follow her man out of the city and into the frontier land, we were treated to To the Last Man (1923), which was a real triumph. This film is based on a novel, which was based on a real family rivalry, a blood feud no less, which claimed several lives. In the fictional version at least, a youngster from each family have fallen in love, Romeo and Juliet style. As the two lovers, Richard Dix was a solid and handsome hero, and Lois Wilson was fantastic as young Ellen, seemingly the only woman for miles and miles around, whose reputation was cruelly slandered as a result. Lushly shot by James Wong Howe, with plenty of ferocious action (which Stephen Horne wrung the most out of), this was a winner from beginning to end. Except for one thing: this was a Russian print, and so were the intertitles, which means we now had third-hand versions of each line, which were often baffling, and sometimes incomprehensible. “And then your kisses were come-at-able,” for instance. This was really a minor inconvenience, but added a sour note to what would otherwise have been a sweet, sweet movie.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 7→
It’s remarkable what you can pick up in three minutes and 45 seconds. This short video by Gary Chapman, author of London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, is an excellent introduction to the British Famous Players-Lasky outpost.
This is the time and the place where Victor Saville and Michael Balcon began their ascent through the British movie industry, where Ivor Novello smouldered for Graham Cutts, and where Alfred met Alma, while making a film or two you may have heard of …
Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.
FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.
Celebrity sells, and newspapers, news websites and trade journals alike all know that the likelihood of a story being read increases if a big name is attached to it. Woe betide you if you want to write about the silent era without mentioning Chaplin, Hitchcock or DW Griffith – preferably in the first paragraph.
Footage from Alfred Hitchcock’s first film has been uncovered in New Zealand.
The British director was 24 when he made the 1923 silent film, The White Shadow.
The piece goes on to mention the film’s stars Clive Brook (Shanghai Express) and Betty Compson (The Docks of New York) – but there is no word of the film’s director. Because yes, Hitchcock worked on The White Shadow, as assistant director, art director, editor and writer, but the film was directed by someone else – Graham Cutts. While we’re always interested in early work by Hitchcock, whatever his job title, particularly with the forthcoming 2012 silent Hitchcock extravaganza on the horizon, we should also be happy to find out more about Cutts.
In the 1920s, Graham Cutts was ticket-office gold. He was called “a sure-fire maker of box-office attractions” by Kinematograph Weekly, and his Rat trilogy, starring Ivor Novello as an absurdly attractive Parisian jewel thief, is still celebrated and enjoyed today. Cutts’s films are sophisticated, sexual and employ any number of tracking shots, dramatic lighting and off-kilter camera angles to ramp up the tension – and the cinematic pleasure. Yes he worked with Hitchcock as a young man, but also Novello, Noël Coward and Basil Dean. He even made a successful transition to sound – with a career behind the camera that ran into the 40s.
The White Shadow looks like a fascinating find, with Compson playing twin sisters, one good and one evil, and plenty of opportunity for Cutt’s dynamic style to come into play. But please don’t take the credit away from a name that has almost been forgotten and give it to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
And if you have a copy of The Mountain Eagle in your loft at home, that really is a lost Hitchcock silent – so please call the British Film Institute right away, and tell them I sent you.