Tag Archives: John Sweeney

In praise of La Maison du mystère and the silent serial

 This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney. John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for the Phono Cinéma-Théatre project and is one of the brains behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. His score for Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici will accompany the film on its forthcoming DVD/Blu-ray release this year.

The Silent Serial is perhaps the least watched of all the great silent film genres. Yet they were hugely popular: from about 1910 most studios produced serials, or their close relative, series (serials keep a plot going over the course of all the episodes, series have self contained plots in each episode but a common cast of characters). Some of the most famous are The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (also 1914), both starring Pearl White as the heroine struggling against assorted villains, The Hazards of Helen (119 episodes!), and in France Louis Feuillade directed the wonderful Fantômas (1913), followed by Les Vampires, Judex, Tih Minh, Barrabas and Parisette.

Fantômas (1913)
Fantômas (1913)

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Back in Bo’ness: the 2017 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.

As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.

nell-shipman

So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 7

Most people come to Pordenone in October for the silent films. Many come for the networking. Others for the music. Or the gelato, or the Aperol Spritz. But when those attractions pall, they say, you can also hop on a train and go to Venice. The idea horrifies me. Sure you could see St Mark’s Square, and meet a handsome gondolier. But think of the early cinema you would miss.
Still, even if you don’t take such a hard line as I do, Friday presented an innovative solution. Why leave town at all, when Venice can come to the Teatro Verdi? In honour of 120 years of cinema in Venice, a short programme of Lumière shorts offered us a leisurely drift down the canals. Then Max Reinhardt’s Eine Venezianische Nacht (1913) offered Commedia characters and whimsical comedy, as a nerd spends the night in the floating city and becomes infatuated with an ethereal bride, although sadly the narrative did not flow as smoothly as the canals. I really enjoyed the dream sequences, especially a neat setup whereby the local characters danced around the scholar’s bed, thanks to the magic of double exposure. But in this case the music, from a Trieste ensemble, didn’t seem to help.

blue-jeans-viola-dana-john-collins-1917-2

And we deserved a little light sightseeing, after an emotional day, which began with a melodramatic double-bill. First, our customary voyage to the dark side of human nature in a Who’s Guilty? short featuring Anna Q as a jealous wife. Very little mystery in this one, but there was a novelty for the audience, as the Giornate’s two masterclass students took to the piano to share accompaniment duties. Jonathan Best and Meg Morley both did the drama proud, and we are very lucky to have both of these talented musicians playing in the UK.

Then one of my most highly anticipated screenings of the festival: the well-known stage drama Blue Jeans (1917), rendered for the screen by John H Collins and starring the wondrous Viola Dana as a tomboyish orphan caught up in a complex small-town intrigue. There was a lot of plot and back story to pack into the 84-minute running time. It is really the kind of film where you might draw a diagram on your ticket stub in the café afterwards to make head or tail of the marriages and feuds etc. Disturbing to some of us also, that in the local elections, our hero stood for the Conservatives and the villain for the Liberals – but of course the baddie won that battle. Anyhoo, this one is well worth seeking out, if only for the famous climax at the saw mill when said hero narrowly escapes a haircut. Viola Dana to the rescue! And Donald Sosin’s music was just right, with a recording of Joanna Seaton singing a song inspired by the play adding another layer of nuanced dramatic Americana to the screening.

The rest of the morning was a delightful patchwork, the kind the Giornate excels in. A programme of French comic shorts directed by Emile Cohl, accompanied by Stephen Horne in suitably bonkers fashion on a plethora of instruments, included some wild animation, and surreal live-action comedy. Hugely inventive and almost impossible to describe in this space, but do take the chance to see these charming oddities when you can. Hopefully with Mr Horne and his bag of tricks.

THE DOVE (US 1927) United Artists/Photofest
The Dove (1927), Directed by Roland West, Shown from left: Gilbert Roland, Norma Talmadge United Artists/Photofest

The final slot of the morning was crowned with two curios from the William Cameron Menzies strand. An early sound film, The Wizard’s Apprentice (1930) was a trick-photographed forerunner to the more famous Walt Disney version with matchstick brooms sloshing tiny tin buckets. And the four reels remaining of The Dove (1927) were hot-blooded comedy drama, with the gorgeous duo of Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland offset by the leering machinations of Noah Beery as the self-aggrandising local Caballero. Before both of those, we met our friend Momotaro the peach boy from yesterday, this time on an underwater adventure to assassinate a shark. Brilliant fun.

EROTIKON (SE 1920) © AB Svensk Filmindustri
EROTIKON (SE 1920) © AB Svensk Filmindustri

The evening’s show promised great things. Erotikon? Erotic con more like. Yes, this Mauritz Stiller comedy could happily have been about 20% funnier, and no, there were not erotic thrills to be had on screen. Not by 2016 standards, at least. The main disappointment for me was realising that I had actually seen it years ago and what I thought was a me-premiere was in fact a retread. But it is a fine film, after all. A professor of entomology and his flirty wife seem to be headed for the skids because of her “infidelity”, but perhaps missus is not as bad as she has been painted? Maybe she is in love? Maybe the doddery professor has moved his fancy piece into their homestead under her nose and on false pretences? This Swedish sex comedy is lightly sparkled like the local prosecco and and was pleasingly open-ended. I was silently screaming at the end “C’MON, what is the real deal with that niece?” at the end. A grownup comedy, if not a totally hilarious one, and we were delighted to have John Sweeney’s witty accompaniment for this tale of crossed wires and mistaken glances.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien
Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien

The town was like a loaded gun, needing only a spark to set it off – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“It’s the last time I shall say it, so I shall say it,” began David Robinson, introducing what is surely not his final Giornate, but the last over which he will preside as artistic director. The Robinson era will close with the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, which looks on paper at least as if it will be a very special festival, with a jewel-studded programme. And he hands the baton to the surest of hands: the marvellous Jay Weissberg of Variety, who joined him on stage tonight by way of introduction, and performed as Robinson’s personal interpreter too. We said another goodbye on Saturday evening  – this festival will be dedicated to the memory of one of its staunchest supporters, Jean Darling, who passed away in early September. A snippet of her singing Always at a previous festival began our gala evening, as Robinson took to the stage to say… what was it? Ah yes. “Welcome home!”

The two directors… the present and the future #GCM34 #PordenoneSilent #SilentFilm #Pordenone

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But before we get to the gala, and the speeches and the changing of the guard, we have a full afternoon of films to catch up on. Fasten your seatbelts, fellow Pordenauts*, we’re going on a journey.

Our world tour began with trip to Berlin – this was not classic Symphony of a City territory mind, but a visit to Gypsy Berlin – from the camp to the racetrack to the streets. Terrifying to think what lay in store for the people featured in this film, Grossstadt-Zigeuner (1932), but it was a true gem, directed by the Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with great verve and edited with playful intricacy. Despite its many stylistic flourishes, it’s a warm, humane portrait, and served as an excellent introduction to the main feature in this afternoon’s bill from the Other City Symphonies strand. The longer film was a document of Chicago, made by a German film-maker Heinrich Hauser in 1931. Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht uber Chicago (A World City in its Teens. A Report of Chicago) carried itself at an unexpectedly relaxed pace, puttering up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer for the longest time before reaching the metropolis, and even then, we moved slowly, until the film suddenly discovered the residents of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the poverty caused by the Great Depression, etched in the faces of men being turned away from labour exchanges. When workers unloading banana boats at the dock empty the rotten fruit into the river, another group of men in row boats appear to scoop them out of the water. Elsewhere in the city, too, on the south side in the streets largely populated by African Americans, on the lake beach bursting with sun worshippers, Chicago was defined by its people, not its towering skyscrapers. Hats off too to Philip Carli, for fantastic piano accompaniment for both films.

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British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.

So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.

As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …

The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.

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In praise of the Kennington Bioscope: London’s silent speakeasy

Tol'able David (1921)
Tol’able David (1921)

London is the best city in the world for silent cinema. OK, so maybe I should admit to a little bias, but really, between the BFI Southbank, the Barbican, the London Film Festival, the Phoenix cinema in Finchley, and the capital’s many film societies, rep cinemas, arthouse cinemas, orchestras, concert halls and festivals (including the many visits of the British Silent Film Festival, the Fashion in Film Festival and the recently departed Birds Eye View Film Festival) we are sitting pretty for silents. Whether it’s a symptom or a cause I don’t know, but we also have many of the world’s best silent film accompanists based right here in the Big Smoke.

It’s in this context that in the summer of 2013, two of London’s fabulous silent film musicians, John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrysch, set up a “silent speakeasy” called the Kennington Bioscope: “a silent cinematic event dedicated to the rediscovery of forgotten masterpieces”. Since then, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out, and I am about to make you jealous. I can’t let another Bioscope go by without telling you all how amazing it is.

The Cinema Museum is a wonderful place #britishsilents

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The KB (as I have never yet heard one person call it) is held once every three weeks at the Cinema Museum – a volunteer-staffed Aladdin’s Cave of cinematic memorabilia and ephemera. There are more than a few reasons why you voted this place as your favourite silent film venue of 2014. It’s a wee bit like a time machine, whisking you back to a more sedate era of cinemagoing. There’s always an interval, ushers may well be wearing natty uniforms, someone will undoubtedly strike a gong to prompt patrons to take their seats, and the adverts before the screening will remind those assembled of the proper etiquette required. Tickets, which cost just £3, are made of cardboard and ripped off a reel. Most important of all, the projection booth is staffed by an expert projectionist, showing films of all shapes and sizes as often as possible.

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London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe

Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?

The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.

While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.

Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.

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

And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good? (1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.

Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.

As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.

Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation  – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 8

City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S
City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S

By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …

The Last Edition (1925)
The Last Edition (1925)

Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.

I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 7

The Beloved Rogue (1927)
The Beloved Rogue (1927)

You know it’s Pordenone when you’re still having a conversation about melodrama, cliché and the difference between parody and sendup as you turn the key in the lock of your door at midnight. Or maybe that’s just me and the people I choose to hang out with. Still, I think it’s telling, because the penultimate day of the Giornate had plenty for us to chew on, get lost in and provoke the temper too.

But first, let me lay the scene: a medium-sized town in northern Italy, it’s Friday, spitting with rain. Interior: a bell rings, it’s nine am in the auditorium and it is clear that quite a few people in attendance have that Friday feeling. You know, the one was manifests itself in a splitting headache and grey circles under the eyes? But if there is one thing that we have learned this week, it is that Yakov Pratazanov is worth getting out of bed for.

Chiny I Liudi (1929)
Chiny I Liudi (1929)

And Chiny I Liudi (Ranks and People, 1929), a portmanteau film comprising adaptations of three Chekhov short stories, was another great “serious comedy”, leading me to kick myself that I missed last night’s Don Diego I Pelageya (1928). Each story deals with the problems of living in a rigorously stratified society: a clerk fears he has offended a high-up and apologises to death; an officer is caught between asserting his authority and sycophancy to a general; a poor woman marries a heartless rich man, but has her head turned when she experiences high society. It was all beautifully done, as witty as it was tenderly heartbreaking. A false perspective frame of the clerk approaching his senior’s desk, and a high-angled shot pretty Anna admiring herself in her finery were particularly memorable. I’m more keen than ever to see tomorrow morning’s sound-era Pratazanov. Another 9am Soviet film, just how I like it.

Russian cinema, but not as we know it, before the midday break without a curio from Germany: Panzerkreuzer Potemkin (1930). This is the “talkie” adaptation of Eisenstein’s classic, of course, featuring the Meisel score (in his own arrangement) and a lot of dubbed dialogue. All the intertitles apart from act breaks have been removed from the body of the film and historical explanations tacked on either end, read out in a thumping German voiceover. So it runs shorter than the original, but for me slightly less smoothly, which I freely admit may simply be due to my familiarity with the rhythms of the silent original. It seems strange to hear the men mutter their complaints rather than seeming to rise instinctively to a collective understanding of their circumstances. And because the film was conceived without so much dialogue, a lot of what we hear in this version is simply redundant. There’s an interesting, unintentional effect whenever dialogue runs over a montage cut, actually, as when an officer shakes a sailor awake or another sailor throws that fateful plate. But anyway, it would be very hard to kill the majesty of this movie – the images speak so eloquently that even if Stephen Horne were to reprise his kazoo routine from yesterday, the audience would still be moved. And of course, for a native German speaker, this may be the Potemkin they have always imagined. See what you think (please excuse the “Verdi tidemark”):

Today was a tale of two Fairbankses, both of them Douglas Sr, and of two Barrymores, both of them John, whom I think we can all agree was a bit of a beloved rogue. In the film of the same title, which came first today, he plays a gadabout poet in a 15th-century Paris so smothered in snow that it looks like a Christmas card. And this is Barrymore a la Fairbanks, just to confuse you, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with a goblet of wine in his hand and a jaunty feather in his cap. You just know that he is going to save France (despite the best efforts of feeble-minded King Louis XI, played creepily by Conrad Veidt with a finger up his nose), win the heart of a fair lady (Marceline Day as a poetry-loving aristo), complete some audacious stunts and compose lots of jaunty (terrible) verse on the spot. There is also a completely gratuitous loincloth scene, for the keener Barrymore fans among us. The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927) is total bunkum, but much more fun than, say When a Man Loves. The only way to enjoy this sort of thing is to commit totally to it, and we were helped along by sparkling accompaniment from not one musician but four: a harmonious grouping of Donald Sosin, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Frank Bockius and Romano Todesco.

Beau Brummel (1924)
Beau Brummel (1924)

But John won’t win my heart that way: I crave romance, and splendour, and something beautiful to soothe my fevered brow. Beau Brummel (Harry Beaumont, 1924) will do the trick nicely thank you. It’s gentler, and more tender than the other JB films we’ve seen this week, even if equally as preposterous. Barrymore is the foppish captain deemed too lowly to marry his lady-love (an excellent, if teenaged, Mary Astor), who therefore plots to take obscure revenge on “society” by insinuating himself into the Prince Regent’s inner circle and fighting the system from within, yeah. But dear me, he does it in style. Skinny britches, umpteen rows of frogging, diamond buttons on his frock coat and a powdered wig – and still all you can concentrate on are those flashing eyes and his wicked comic timing. Preening in front of the mirror, practising his poses, or repeating the same lines to another pretty woman until he almost believes them himself … ah he’s a belov-able rogue here too all right. And in the end, it’s very touching, if both overdone and overlong. Stephen Horne was there for the duration (the Giornate showed the fullest print possible, of course), with a light touch on piano, flute and accordion bringing out the best of the comedy and plucking on our collective heartstrings. Good for the soul.

The Good Bad Man (1916)
The Good Bad Man (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks is just as reliable a star as JB, if a simpler proposition all round. We were lucky enough to see The Good Bad Man (Allan Dwan, 1916) today, a western that went about its business as swift and straight as an arrow. Fairbanks is a Robin Hood cowboy, stealing from the rich-ish and giving to illegitimate children. Is there a dark secret in his past? Will he discover it, have his vengeance and live to make eyes at Bessie Love another day? I thought he just might – but was I right, kids? Kudos to London-based musician David Gray who accompanied the movie with verve and accuracy – he has been partaking in the Giornate’s musical masterclasses all week and this show marked his graduation.

Our second sighting of Dougie was far more epic. The evening show brought another eye-popping collection of two-strip Technicolor treats, including a bizarre set of out-takes from The Gaucho (1927): a reel of attempts to shoot Mary Pickford as a vision of the Virgin Mary on a rockface. Shimmering loveliness its very self until an assistant hovers into view with a clapperboard. Fairbanks showed his face, and his biceps for the main feature, the unstoppable force that is The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926): as gruesome as it is gorgeous and grand, this is a hard film to take against. If only because that dagger-down-the-main-sail makes you catch your breath each time. And in case you were wondering, John Sweeney can even make a sea shanty sound elegant. Classy stuff.

Verdi curves #gcm33

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Almost time to turn in, and Whoozit (Harold L Muller, 1914) was our first bedtime story. Now, if a whole Charley Bowers movie makes very little sense at all, then I think it’s fair to say a single rediscovered reel will be a puzzler indeed. Great larks though: oysters with eyes humping across the bathroom floor, a teddy bear growing a beard, magic spectacles and an ogre sharpening a giant razor. Deeply enjoyable, brilliantly surreal.

One last thing before we go. The return of Sidney Drew, paired up here with Clara Kimball Young, to prove that the silent movies were spoofing silent movies long before pesky 21st-century scamps thought to do so. I thought Goodness Gracious; Or Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1928) was ragged, but good clean fun, with hapless Gwendoline careering through loopy scenarios while chomping on her chicklit and waiting for her “brave youth” Cornelius to rescue her from another poorly framed misadventure. Undercranked and overegged and mad as a box of oysters. But a wiser soul than I caught up with me and raised a valid question: if this is the parody what is the original? Especially bearing in mind that this was made in 1928. Hmmm …

Corpse of the day: Bessie Love’s dear old pa in The Good Bad Man, God love him. Flat out on his front porch and breathing like a freshly landed fish.

Absurd romantic metaphor of the day: Home is where the hearth is for John Barrymore and Marceline Day in The Beloved Rogue – “Your eyes have swept my heart clean and kindled a fire there that will outlast me.”

Tiny things I love about Pordenone No 36: When the logo appears before a film and a group of dedicated colleagues cheer their own archive. Adore it.

  • My blog from the first day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the second day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the third day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the fourth day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the fifth day of the Giornate is here.
  • My blog from the sixth day of the Giornate is here.
  • For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here

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

Five silent films to avoid … and five to seek out

Silents by numbers This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney. John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for the Phono Cinéma-Théatre project and is one of the brains behind the wonderful fortnightly Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.   When Silent London started with these lists I joked with a friend that what was needed was a list of silent films to avoid: no sooner had I spoken than films started coming to mind, but I also started thinking of the opposite list, of films that aren’t anything like as well known as I think they should be. So, I’ve settled for five films that you might think would be good but really aren’t, and five films that are definitely worth seeking out. Opinions differ and it’s quite possible that I’ve missed the point of some the films – put me right in the comment space below if you disagree.

Five silent films to avoid

Note: I make no claim that these are the worst films – merely that they should be a lot better given their reputation, or who made them.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, Stuart Paton)

Yes, this film features groundbreaking underwater photography for a few minutes, but the screenplay is stupid, the acting is ridiculous, and the editing’s completely random. On IMDB someone writes “It’s by no means a bad movie”, but it is, it really is! Do not watch this movie.

  • If it’s submarines that float your boat, try Submarine, directed by Frank Capra.
Atlantide (Jacques Feyder)
Atlantide (Jacques Feyder)

L’Atlantide (1921, Jacques Feyder)

Jacques Feyder was a wonderful director, as anyone who’s seen his Visages d’enfants will know, but this exotic farrago, weighing in at almost three hours, is dreadful. Two French soldiers stumble on the lost kingdom of Atlantis, in the middle of the Sahara Desert (!), which is ruled by the ageless Queen Antinéa. Featuring far too much sand and a decidedly uncharismatic performance from Stacia Napierkowska as the supposedly endlessly fascinating and desirable queen, you really don’t need to see this film.

  • Watch instead: Visages d’Enfants.

Continue reading Five silent films to avoid … and five to seek out

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 6

Konstgjorda Svensson (1929) Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1929 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

Another disappointing Anny Ondra performance – but in an unforgettable movie – two Mothers, a part-talkie that wants to be a silent, a Lamprecht with a happy ending, and Buster Keaton with a Benshi. Day six at Pordenone, coming right up.

Let us begin with Anny Ondra. It has been extremely stressful. On paper, a programme of early films made by the bewitching star of The Manxman and Blackmail, Czechoslovakia’s first true silent movie star, promised to be my festival highlight. The reality has been brutal. In these early roles Ondra has had terribly little to do and been physically encumbered by towers of curls on her head and tentlike, unflattering dresses too. She has also, I would venture, been horribly underdirected. Hitchcock may have been a brute, but he would not have stood for her gazing into the near distance, twiddling her hair, when the camera was turning. Maybe she just needed a decent part to get her teeth stuck into; maybe the Czech film industry just didn’t know what they had in her. Maybe …

Otrávené svìtlo (1921) árodní filmový archiv, Praha
Otrávené svìtlo (1921) árodní filmový archiv, Praha

Anyway, we’ve seen some enjoyable if occasionally hamfisted movies in this strand, and while there has been not as much as we hoped to see from Ondra, I am calling her sometime husband Karel Lamac as the hardest-working man in the Prague movie industry at the time. We have seen drama, action and slapstick from this chap. And he even directed some of these flicks, including today’s absurdity, which was admittedly early in his career. Otrávené Svetlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921) was a bizarre concoction almost like an adventure serial, with a meandering plot, ever-present danger and nonsensical movie-science of the highest order. Lamac stars as well as directs, in a story that contains much codswallop, but principally codswallop concerning a series of assassinations carried out via toxic lightbulbs. When the filament gets too hot, the glass shatters, releasing … poison gas! Thus, late in the movie, we have the threat of murder courtesy of a desk lamp. An anglepoisoning. Ondra appears to be tranquilised, Lamac is heaving the whole messy endeavour on his broad shoulders and, yes, the quarry sequences are quite nice. I bust a gut laughing: definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good-OK-maybe-it’s-just-bad-no-stuff-it-I’ve-not-had-this-much-fun-in-years camp. Camp being the operative word.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 4

A Day With John Burroughs (1919) George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection
A Day With John Burroughs (1919) George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection

It was another strong day, and an emotional one too, not least because we were saying our first farewells to the Corrick Collection. There’s just one more batch of these strange and vivid early films to go (on Saturday) before they depart the Giornate schedule for good.

Première Sortie d'une Cycliste (1907) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra
Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra

Today’s selection brought us an increasingly rare moment of comedy in the form of the three-minute romp Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907), fascinating early 1900s street scenes from China and Japan, a stencil-tinted biblical drama by Louis Feuillade (Aux Lions les Chrétiens, 1911) and some outrageous examples of animal cruelty, from quail-fighting to a brutal twist on archery in Distraction et Sport à Batavia (1911)

There was more early cinema to savour in Patrick Cazals’ documentary portrait of French star and film-maker Musidora. There was far more to her career than Les Vampires and Judex. She was a prolific writer (of letters, poems and scripts); a painter; a director; a film historian at the Cinématheque; a feminist icon; and yes, a muse to many. Where Musidora, la Dixieme Muse (2013) succeeded best was in interviewing her relatives – who could speak to her personality as well as her polymathic achievements. An affectionate hour. A recording of the woman herself included in the doc captured her opining that films should be produced like good books, with images worth revisiting 20 years after they are made. As the Verdi crowd watched, rapt, as clips of Musidora in her first screen appearance (Le Misères de l’Aiguille, 1913) played, we can fault her only on the scale of her ambition.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 3

Die Unehelichen (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1926)
Die Unehelichen (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1926)

An outstanding day at the Giornate: a varied programme of astonishing films, and excellent musical accompaniment. So while it was drizzly and grey outside, inside the Teatro Verdi all looked bright, even if most of the films tended towards bleakness. After the delightfully sugary surrealism of Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925) for breakfast, the Giornate hit us with some heavy emotional dramas today – and I relished them.

Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925)
Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925)

The slow but seductive tearjerker Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927) is the title track of the Swedish strand and it was a real beauty, directed by Gustaf Molander. Karin Swanström, director-star of Flickan i Frack pops up again (all too briefly as a jealous wife) in this Italian-set romance between a convent schoolgirl and a married English painter. Misunderstandings, emotional repression and heartbreak reverberated against a backdrop of stunning scenery, and with a nuanced, textured score by Stephen Horne too. All I spoke to agreed that the show was stolen by Stina Berg (also seen in Polis Paulus Paskasmäll) as the snuff-snorting nun Sister Scolastica – at her best when engaged in a comedy double-cat with a recalcitrant donkey. The opening sequence, in which Scolastica attempts to take her young charge to the train station was a beautifully simple idea, warmly and expertly played out.

Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927)
Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927)

The second Swedish title of the day came with a warning attached: it starts slow, cautioned the Giornate programme, but soon warms up. Did it ever. In Den Starkaste (The Strongest, 1929) two sailors compete for the hand of the skipper’s daughter, and despite her clear preference for one, and via many complications, they take their macho competitive streaks out into the Arctic Ocean where they are hunting on rival vessels. Blood is spilt on the glaciers, most of it belonging to seals – and in the staggering last reel, polar bears. Polar bears! The Arctic photography is crisp and gorgeous (especially when soundtracked by John Sweeney on the piano), and comes courtesy of expert Swedish cinematographer Axel Lindblom – who is also said to have photographed A Cottage on Dartmoor, more of which tomorrow.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 3

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

Sherlock Jr and Sing for Joy, Exmouth Market, 13 October 2011

Sherlock Jr (1924)
Sherlock Jr (1924)

There are few things more joyous than watching a Buster Keaton classic with live music, but this event might be one of them. It’s a fundraiser for the Sing for Joy Bloomsbury choir, incorporating a concert by the group themselves and a screening of Sherlock Jr, with piano accompaniment by the marvellous John Sweeney.

Sing for Joy is made up of singers who have Parkinson’s disease or other neurological conditions, and their friends and carers. Singing as a group isn’t just fun, it boosts confidence and helps with the speaking and breathing exercises that people with Parkinson’s do to keep tremors under control. You can find out more about the choir, and their director Carol Grimes, here.

If you’re not familiar with Sherlock Jr, it’s one of Keaton’s most inventive and charming films. Keaton plays a projectionist who fantasises about being a detective hero in a movie. When he falls asleep in the projectionist’s booth one night, he dreams that he walks through the cinema screen and into the heart of the action. You may have seen some clips of it if you watched The Story of Film on Saturday night.

The Sing for Joy Sherlock Jr event will take place in the hall of The Church of Our Most Holy Redeemer (full disabled access) 24 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE (nearest tube Farringdon) on 13 October 2011. Tickets cost £18, which includes a buffet dinner. They are availale from Mike Blackstaffe on 07584 471 104  or tickets@blackstaffe.demon.co.uk. Doors open at 7pm, which is when dinner will be served. The programme begins at 7.45pm and there will be a licensed bar.