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→
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television
Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.
This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.
My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.
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 …
Welcome back to our silent Hitchcock series. This week we’re looking at Downwhill (1927), hardly one of the director’s most acclaimed films, but one that offers rich, if distasteful, rewards for any Hitchcock aficionado. Dreamy Ivor Novello stars as Roddy, a sixth-former at a private school and thoroughly decent chap who takes the blame for a friend’s misbehaviour and suffers a degrading decline in his fortunes.
Downhill is clunky in places, and the thirtysomething Novello is one of cinema’s least convincing schoolboys, but the film’s strength lies in its brutal, single-minded nastiness. Cynical, misogynistic and determined to reveal the seediness beneath polite society, Downhill expresses the darkest of Hitchcock’s dark side – all without a single murder. It also gives us an insight into Novello’s psyche too; he co-wrote the play the film was based on, and one can only speculate whether he based it on any of his own experiences.
If you thought The Ring took a graphical idea and ran wild with it, then get a load of Downhill. Roddy’s progress through society, after his expulsion from school, is only going one way and that’s, er, down. You’ll find a lengthy shot of Novello slinking underground on Tube escalator – it’s widely mocked as the clumsiest example of Hitchcock warming to his theme.
There’s another, more interesting, pattern running through Downhill, though: the reveal. The most celebrated example is introduced by the intertitle “The world of make-believe”: a series of slowly retreating camera placements reframe a shot of Roddy in contradictory ways, forcing the audience to continually shift their interpretation. At first we think he’s a smartly dressed gent. Then a waiter. Then a thief. Finally, the camera pans right to uncover the true extent of Roddy’s social degradation – he’s on stage, an extra in a cheesy musical, bobbing like a chump.
Poor Roddy: such a noble young man, and so unfortunate to meet, and be mistreated by, some of the most grotesquely venal women ever committed to film. Hitchcock’s misogyny is often discussed in relation to his sound films and some possibly apocryphal pranks and fallings-out on set, but Downhill suggests the rot set in a lot earlier than that – in fact, it makes the likes of Vertigo seem positively sensitive. The Farmer’s Wife gets laughs out of silly and unattractive spinsters, but the women of Downhill are almost entirely self-interested monsters. There’s even a spot of casual transphobia (see the clip below).
Ultimately, these crudely drawn villainesses are not just a cause of politically correct 21st-century complaint: they contribute to the structural failure of the film. Downhill is all Roddy, all the time, and virtually everyone else on screen is a mere cipher, which is unsatisfactory all round.
Synopsis: A boy takes the blame for his best friend’s misdeed and is expelled from school. From that point on, his life proceeds on a downward spiral into poverty and degradation. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Another painful reveal: here’s why sunlight and early-hours drinking dens don’t mix.
Watch out for: A foretaste of Vertigo. No, not that shot, but a splash of sickly green tinting.
Each week, as you know, we’ll be looking at a different silent Hitchcock – and this week we have arrived at The Lodger, a bona fide Hitchcock thriller, yet only the third feature he directed. The film he made before this and after The Pleasure Garden, The Mountain Eagle, is sadly a lost film.
The Lodger is a wonderfully atmospheric “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” intrigue starring Ivor Novello as a man suspected of being a serial killer – a ripper who calls himself the Avenger and targets pretty blonde women. Heralded as an early classic and praised for its Expressionist flourishes now, The Lodger was almost never released following a damning assessment by a distributor at an industry screening. Michael Balcon and Film Society member Ivor Montagu both went to bat for the film and after the addition of some elaborate intertitles, The Lodger was finally released, pleasing critics and audiences alike. The Bioscope praised it, saying: “It is possible that this film is the finest British production ever made”.
The film bears the evocative subtitle “A Story of the London Fog”, but the peasouper here is really a miasma of suspicion, temptation and guilt. To varying extents, the lodger’s landlord and lady (the Buntings) suspect him of being the killer, as do their daughter Daisy and her steady policeman boyfriend, but still they welcome him into their home. When Daisy first kisses the lodger, she does so with open, watchful eyes. When Mrs Bunting sees some cash on his mantelpiece, her mind immediately turns to theft. Does she not even trust herself?
It’s a grimy, nasty film in so many ways, but there’s humour here of course, most notably in the gallows mode from the wearily pragmatic dancing girls who crowd round the paper to read about the latest murder then go out with brunette ringlets tucked in their hats as a precaution.
Hitchcock has said that he was forced to drop his preferred ending for the film and The Lodger‘s final moments are from convincing. It’s not as audacious as Murnau’s tacked-on happy ending for The Last Laugh (1924), but knowing that Hitchcock saw that film goes a long way to explaining the tone of the final scene.
Synopsis: London is being terrorised by a Jack the Ripper-style murderer, the Avenger, who targets young blond-haired women. A mysterious new lodger arrives at the home of Mr and Mrs Bunting, whose daughter Daisy is courted by a policeman on the case. When the lodger begins behaving strangely, he attracts suspicion, particularly when he shows an interest in Daisy. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Three minutes in, Joe initiates a very ghoulish conversation over tea, but is interrupted by something apparently terrible happening upstairs.
Watch out for: Hitchcock’s first cameo, as a newspaper editor.
The Lodger screens at the Barbican on 21 July 2012, with the London Symphony Orchestra performing a new score by Nitin Sawhney. The film will then be theatrically released on 10 August 2012. More information here.
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