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, 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.
L’Atlantide (1921, Jacques Feyder)
Jacques Feyder was a wonderful director, as anyone who’s seen his Visages d’enfantswill 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.
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 …
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.
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.
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)
Shock of the day was short of Javanese 'sport' where they used a live duck as an static archery target. One right in the neck, yeesh. #GCM32
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. Doors open at 7pm, which is when dinner will be served. The programme begins at 7.45pm and there will be a licensed bar.