Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…
Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016
If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.
Best silent film theatrical release of 2016
Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.
Best modern silent of 2016
Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.
Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.
The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.
There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.
Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.
So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
It’s back, the perfect post-Pordenone pick-me-up: a weekend of giggles at the Cinema Museum curated by the inimitable David Wyatt. I heard great things about last year’s event, but this time you’ll have double the fun with a two-day festival. So ink 22 & 23 October 2016 into your diary and look out for tickets on sale in early September. Here’s what the Kennington Bioscope crew are promising for their second Silent Comedy Weekend:
Two days of (mostly) silent comedy – except for the audience laughter (judging from last year’s successful extravaganza) and live music from our world famous accompanists.
Feature films with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, Monty Banks, Syd Chaplin, Harry Langdon and more. Rare showings of Lupino Lane’s LAMBETH WALK and Walter Forde’s first feature WAIT AND SEE – long–neglected British stars in need of re evaluation – plus some equally forgotten funny females, European shorts from the early years and Laurel & Hardy as you’ve never seen them before! Plus presentations on Mack Sennett and Lupino.
Guest speakers are hoped to include renowned authors David Robinson, Geoff Brown and Brent Walker, legendary film archivist Bob Gitt and of course, our own Kevin Brownlow.
Please not that the programme is ‘subject to change’ as films are still to be confirmed. Please see websites for updates.
The next Kennington Bioscope event is one very close to my heart. On Wednesday 10 February, the Bioscopers will celebrate the achievements of early female film-makers. It’s all in aid of a new book on the subject called Silent Women, featuring contributions from writers including Bryony Dixon, Shelley Stamp and Kevin Brownlow
Inspirational and informative, Silent Women will challenge many people’s ideas about the beginnings of film history. This fascinating book roams widely across the era and the diverse achievements and voices of women in the film industry. These are the stories of pioneers, trailblazers and collaborators – hugely enjoyable to read and vitally important to publish.
One of the most eye-catching chapters in the book is an interview with the wonderful Dorothy Arzner, by Kevin Brownlow. Arzner’s career spanned the silent and sound eras and she hasd a notably close working relationship with Clraabow, so she certainly had some tales to tell. It’s a fascinating read, covering so much ground, but this quote really appealed to me – and I think you will enjoy it too:
I was always known as a dreaming schoolgirl who wanted to do things that were impossible to do. Later it was done, but I was reaching all the time for something unusual. I always had something unusual in my pictures if I could catch it.
Hold on to your three-cornered hats. This may well be the news you have been waiting for since … ooh 1980 or thereabouts. BFI and the Photoplay have announced jointly that Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece, is coming to a screen near you – whether that is a concert hall, cinema, TV or computer. We all have three-screen TVs right?
So you can see Napoléon (1927) with the Philharmonia orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this autumn – and many of us know what a treat that can be – but it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray, to stream on the BFIplayer and theatrically released in cinemas too. And make no mistake, this is the Kevin Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis’s epic score – the definitive five-and-a-half hour version of Napoléon that you really need in your life.
And while the live and cinema screenings will be magical experiences, I am getting a little thrill from the idea of being able to rewind sequences from the film and look at them again, and more closely. The snowball fight, for example! As that occurs at the the beginning of the movie, it could take me some time to get right to the end …
I won’t say too much more now, as we will no doubt be talking about Napoléon all year, which I am hugely looking forward to. But I do want to share some details about the restoration, and the people who made it possible. For example, we have been told that the digital process of restoration has cleaned up some damage in the 35mm print and allowed for greater capacity to recapture the tinting and toning of the original film.
This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.
The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only 4 times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.
At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.
We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.
The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.
But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.
Well hello there, Elephant & Castle tube station. A few months back I wrote about the many wonders of the Kennington Bioscope – a regular silent screening event held at the Cinema Musesum, south London. Short version: it’s ace.
Now the Kennington Bioscope has gone one better than brightening up our Wednesday evenings. The Kennington Bioscope Weekender will take over the Cinema Museum for two days in the summer – 20 & 21 June – to screen a mouth-watering selection of silent films.
Two things to note straight away – first, the majority of these films will be shown on film, either 35mm or 16mm. The website makes it clear which is which. And second, the films have been chosen and will be introduced by an estimable group of film historians including Kevin Brownlow.
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 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.
Scotland’s only silent film festival returns to the glorious Hippodrome cinema in Bo’ness with another impressively wide-ranging programme. There are some real treasures to be unearthed here: rare screenings of little-seen but highly valued films, and innovative ways to share the magic of silent cinema with younger audiences. Gala screenings include the Dodge Brothers‘ Scottish debut, accompanying the Hollywood classic Beggars of Life, starring Louise Brooks; Jacques Feyder’s heartstopping Visages d’Enfants closes the festival, with music from Stephen Horne; Frank Borzage’s wartime weepy Lucky Star plays on the Friday night, with Neil Brand on the piano; and Jane Gardner will perform a specially commissioned new score for Ozu’s gangster drama Dragnet Girl. German group The Aljoscha Zimmermann Ensemble will provide a score for Murnau’s timeless The Last Laugh; Jason Singh will create his magical vocal soundscapes for Grierson’s landmark documentary Drifters, live at the Hippodrome.
Three discs, two formats, both existing versions of the movie, the Carl Davis score, snippets of previously unseen footage including a reel from the the lost talkie adaptation, trailers, essays and the comprehensive documentary Lon Chaney: Man of a Thousand Faces … yes, this is a pretty fabulous Phantom.
But first things first … the movie. Well sit comfortably, because this gets a little complicated. The Phantom of the Opera is a 1925 Hollywood adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel, starring the unforgettably versatile Lon Chaney as the malignant spectre who stalks the vaults beneath the Paris Opera House, and falls catastrophically in love with one of the sopranos who appears on the stage above him. Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera was booed by the audience at its first test showing, so had many scenes reshot by Edward Sedgwick, failed yet again to impress at screenings and was so handed over to Maurice Pivar and Lois Weber, who reconfigured and edited it down – this version, finally, was a hit, with the punters if not the critics. When talkies arrived, Universal reissued the movie with a score and effects track, plus newly filmed dialogue sequences, in 1929. We have only the soundtrack for this version, but the existing later version of the movie, presented on this dual format disc, is probably the silent version of the sound re-release. You follow?
Here’s what’s clear: Chaney is astounding in this film. His famous makeup skills are responsible for his hideously twisted face, with bulging eyes, no nose and leathery skin. His physical prowess is even more powerful, however. This Phantom is elegantly sinister, a ghost fit for a grand opera house. And even through those grotesque features, his heartsickness for the unattainable Christine, played rather flatly by Mary Philbin, is plain.
What supports Chaney’s performance is the glorious gothic beauty of the thing. The Phantom of the Opera is art directed splendidly, lending due grandeur to the set pieces, such as the chandelier falling on the Opera audience, and adding luscious detail to the glamorous settings. Tinting adds texture to the film: warmth to the brightly lit theatre, a lurid violet for the spooky cellars. The apogee of Phantom’s grand design is the Bal Masqué sequence – a burst of searing two-strip Technicolor, in which Chaney, dressed in a skull mask and rich red satin cloak, stalks into the party, scattering guests and disrupting the festivities to declare a hex.
This is high-camp Hollywood hokum to be sure, but hokum dressed up to the nines. And arguably the sheer gorgeousness of the film, as well as Chaney’s chill portrayal of the spectre, lend the entire endeavour an unexpected gravitas. And there is so much here that repays not just the care taken in the Photoplay restoration, and in the composition of Carl Davis’s thrilling score, but the high-def Blu-Ray treatment too. That spectacularly crashing chandelier; the creepy shadows in the vault; the heartbroken unmasked Phantom, lurking on the Opera House roof, scarlet cape fluttering in the blue tinted night ; the horror of the first moment that Christine sees her pursuer’s terrifying face; the brutality of the mob at the movie’s close.
It should be no surprise that the success of The Phantom of the Opera spurred Universal on to create its famous string of horror movies in the 1930s. If you’re a horror fan yourself, you can’t miss this film which is both a fascinating predecessor to the genre, and also, courtesy of Chaney, a masterclass in acting for scary films. After all, what terrifies us most about the Phantom is not his unnatural powers, but that his very human vulnerabilities prompt him to use them.
The Phantom of the Opera Dual-format edition is available on 2 December from the BFI, rrp £22.99. Extras on the 3-disc set include 1925 and 1929 trailers, a reel from the lost talkie version, the mysterious “Man With a Lantern footage, the 1925 version of the film with a piano score by Ed Bussey, the Lon Chaney documentary, and a booklet of images and essays by Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury as well as a 1975 Monthly FIlm Bulletin review by Geoff Brown. Order a copy for £16.99 from MovieMail here.
I’m proud to be bringing people back to the cinema, in an age when people will happily watch Lawrence of Arabia on their mobile phones. Napoleon is pure cinema, and cinema was designed for sharing. There’s something about the way it was shot that makes it like no other. I can’t tell you how many people, having seen our restoration, have said: “That was the greatest experience I have ever had in a motion picture theatre.” Kevin Brownlow, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
My eyes and ears are still adjusting back to normality. Yesterday’s screening of Abel Gance’s Napoléon at the Royal Festival bombarded the senses and befuddled the brain. It was not, as you may have been warned, a marathon. The five-hours-forty-minutes running time appears to go by in a flash, powered along by Carl Davis’s invigorating orchestral score. I would happily watch it all again tomorrow and the next day, and for as many times as it took to get to the bottom of its many mysteries.
Right then, six hours of Abel Gance's Napoleon with live orchestra, Here I Come.
Because despite the pleasures it offers, this is not an easily digestible film. Napoléon’s open-ended structure, which closes just as Bonaparte’s career takes flight, doesn’t help. It’s also a film of unexpected variety, and yes, unevenness, if only because its very best sequences are impossible to match. Immense but not immaculate, Napoléon is at times a masterpiece and at others a sketchbook of enthralling, intricate designs. The magic is that Gance’s ambition is every bit as exciting as his achievements. After just one, eagerly anticipated screening, I may be addicted.
I’m not going to attempt to write a review proper this morning, but I did want to give a flavour of the film, the event and the audience’s reaction to it.
Napoléon is a biopic that pairs the grandeur of its subject’s work and vision with its own cinematic innovations. You will have read about the triptychs that close the movie (more of which later) but perhaps you’ve also heard about the flash cuts, superimpositions, multiple exposures and the cameras thrown, whirled, mounted on horseback. The first act of the film, in this restoration by Kevin Brownlow, contains much of its experimentation and bravado. It follows Napoléon as an unhappy alienated schoolboy, and his disastrous return as a young man to his native Corsica. The snowball fight that opens the film, in which Bonaparte and nine chums strategise their way to a crucial victory over 40 of their peers, led by a particularly unscrupulous pair of urchin villains, is a beauty – staged as if were the culmination of a bloody war. Likewise the frenzy of a pillow fight in the dorm. Vladimir Roudenko as the young Bonaparte is marvellous too – showing far more pluck and passion than Albert Dieudonné in the adult role. There is pathos and humour here, as throughout the film, but Napoléon excels at bombast, exemplified by the sequence that closes the act: Bonaparte, lost at sea in a boat with a Tricolour sail, thrillingly cross-cut with uprisings at the Paris Convention.
So far, so much like what I expected from Napoléon, although more exhilarating that I hoped it could be. What I wasn’t prepared for was a sudden shift in tone, as the second act lingered on the battlefield – crowded, red-tinted frames of bloody combat. Memorable details: a drowning man’s hand thrashing the in the mud, a cannon-cart rolling over a fallen soldier’s ankle. This typifies the movie’s take on history: grim faces, skewiff hairdos, grit and squalor. The film punctuates Bonaparte’s moody middle-distance staring and eloquent intertitle speeches with a mode one might call grotesque realism – whether it’s the exposed flesh of dancers at a ball, the tattered foot bindings of the Italian army or Napoleon’s cardboard boots disintegrating in the gutter, this is visceral stuff. And a note on realism: Napoléon footnotes all bona fide incidents and quotations with a “(Historical)” label on the relevant title. Not quite as clunky as it sounds, several “based on a true story” films would benefit from a similar device. Who knew that a clerk ate Josephine’s accusatory dossier to save her from the guillotine? Or that Nelson wanted to sink Napoléon’s “suspicious” boat on his return from Corsica, decades before Trafalgar?
After the long dinner interval, and much inevitable analysis and debate, the third act proved the most controversial. While the sequences exploring the Reign of Terror, from the ructions in the Convention, to brutality of the authorities (including Gance himself as a rather glamorous Saint-Just) were universally admired, many audience members I spoke to were of the “Not tonight, Josephine” persuasion. The courtship between Bonaparte and Josephine is strange, truncated and slightly unsettling. An impressionistic montage of their previous meetings suggest Napoléon’s passion for his lady, but a queasy sequence in which he embraces a globe superimposed with her face shows that his motivations may not be entirely romantic, with Josephine just another territory to be conquered as he builds his empire. The shadow of this bizarre love story is Violine, the young girl infatuated with Napoléon, who insinuates her way into Josephine’s household, imitates her dress and keeps a shrine to the General above her bed. Hardly edifying, but I found these glimpses of the warrior’s homelife fascinating, and enjoyed the tension between these awkward scenes and the single-mindedness of his military strategies.
The morning after #Napoleon. Really, everything pales after seeing Brits weep openly during the finale last night.
Seven hours after first taking our seats, we assembled for the finale. I freely admit that my lower lip had already wobbled as the titles rolled at the start of the film (“This is it! I’m watching Napoléon!”) but according to my sources, Napoléon was at its most most Napoléon in its last 20 minutes. Not long to wait. In fact, the final hour breezes by, as Napoléon sets out to conquer Italy (writing passionate love letters to the missus in his carriage even while he dispatches orders to his riders). The troops are dilapidated, and morale is as low as funds, but the mountain landscapes are incredible. So, as Napoléon rallies his men with more fine words, it’s just a matter of time before the screen grows, the orchestra soars and Gance’s Polyvision finale kicks in. The panorama shots, after five and a half hours of Academy Ratio, are enough to send anyone into a spin, but when Gance designs each frame individually, multiplying his montage techniques, using colour and superimposition and animation, the the effect is truly astonishing. And at the centre of it all, Dieudonné’s graven face, beneath that famous hat, surveying his own triumph. It’s a monument to patriotism of course, but in the RFH last night, our awe at the work of Gance, of Brownlow and of Davis, rekindled our devotion not to a country but to the cinematic arts. A magnificent monstrosity, Napoléon offers refined beauty, raw thrills and a thousand and one reasons to adore the cinema.
“There’s nothing that matches the experience of going along to see it. It’s incredible. Word has gotten round: this is fun, this is extraordinary.” Carl Davis, How we made – Napoleon, theguardian.com
Everyone’s favourite Oscar-winning silent film historian, the erudite and tireless Kevin Brownlow, is bringing his mega-restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon back to London later this year. You already have your tickets, right? Ahead of that screening there is a timely chance to see one of his finest silent film TV documentaries at BFI Southbank this July – introduced by the man himself.
All silent film fans are familiar with Brownlow and David Gill’s landmark 1980s series Hollywood, crammed with legendary interviews with silent film stars and film-makers from the US. The documentary showing at the former NFT is from the followup 1995 series focusing on the other side of the Atlantic: Cinema Europe. This episode, The Music of Light, is all about French Cinema – and in particular the genius and ambition of Napoléon director Abel Gance.
The screening is paired with Barrie Gavin’s 1967 TV documentary The Movies: The World of Josef von Sternberg, which also features a contribution from Brownlow.
This weekend, something momentous is happing in California. Kevin Brownlow’s mammoth restoration of Abel Gance’s legendary epic film Napoléon is screening at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra playing the US premiere of Carl Davis’s wonderful score. Wow. That’s five-and-a-half hours of majestic, groundbreaking silent cinema with fantastic live music, and it’s not an opportunity that comes along very often. If you want to be there, you need to know that there will be two screenings this weekend, and two the next: tickets are available here, starting from around $50 and going up to $550 for a premium seat including a gourmet dinner and reception with Brownlow and Davis.
Unfortunately, it’s not a cheap proposition for us Silent Londoners if you throw in the cost of flights, hotels and taking leave from work. While a few friends of the blog are making the trip west for Napoléon, most of us will be sitting at home, trying not to let the jealousy get the better of us.
But there’s no need to succumb to the green-eyed monster. Napoléon last played in London in 2004 and although Brownlow is adding new footage all the time (the original film ran at around nine hours) so the California screenings will technically be an advance on those shows, it’s only a matter of time before Gance’s masterpiece makes its way back to us. What I’m hearing, from reputable sources, is November 2013, at the Royal Festival Hall.
However, if that still seems like a long way away, and you’re suffering from FOMO (otherwise known as the Fear Of Missing Out), here is a five-point guide to help you pass the time, and overcome the Napoléon blues.
The story of how Abel Gance struggled to make his masterpiece, how it was shredded and how Kevin Brownlow pieced Napoléon back together starting with the 9.5mm snippets he bought as a schoolboy is worthy of a film adaptation itself. You can read all about it in Brownlow’s book, which is available to buy here with a sampler CD of Davis’s score. Napoléon has been all over the American media recently too, in the runup to the Oakland shows, so there’s plenty more to devour. You can read Martin Scorsese in Vanity Fair, or this neat MUBI post, which tells the story of the film via its many posters. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both printed heavyweight features about the film, Gance and Brownlow’s restoration. If your French is up to the task, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival blog has posted some original articles from the French press about the making of the movie. I also enjoyed this Smithsonian blog that pushes The Artist to one side to say that this restoration is the silent film event of the year. And who can argue with that?
3 See the bigger picture
Of Gance’s many extraordinary technical and artisitic innovations in Napoléon, the most famous must surely be the film’s climactic triptychs: a way of creating an early form of widescreen that required three cameras on set and three projectors in the cinema. This Polyvision effect is also one of the reasons why the film is so rarely shown. Intrigued? On 29 April, more or less fresh from the Oakland screenings, Kevin Brownlow is speaking at the Widescreen Weekend festival in Bradford, and it’s a fair bet that he will mention Napoléon. The subject of his lecture is: ‘From Biograph to Fox Grandeur. Early Experiments in Large Format Presentations’. It strikes me that if you want to learn more about Polyvision from the man who knows more than most, that’s the place to be. If you’re lucky, he may even screen a clip or two.
4 Gen up on Gance
Of course, Napoléon wasn’t Gance’s only film. It wasn’t even his only great film. If you have the technology to play Region 1 discs, Gance’s anti-war film J’Accuse (1919) and his impressionistic railway melodrama La Roue (1923) are both available on very nice DVDs, courtesy of Flicker Alley. At around four-and-a-half hours long each, they are ambitious by any standard, although they can only hint at the scope of Napoléon, and they’re well worth devoting a clear afternoon and a coffee pot to. If you’re shopping around for import DVDs, you may well find the four-hour cut of Napoléon, with Carmine Coppola’s score. It’s not quite the real deal, of course, but still fascinating.
5 Clear out your attics
Brownlow’s restoration of Napoléon is magnificent, but it’s still not complete. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was more waiting to be discovered? And unearthing the final reels of a film this important is surely every silent cinema geek’s number one fantasy. Apart from the ones that involve a close encounter with Buster Keaton/Louise Brooks (delete as applicable), that is.
This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.
During his interesting (if incredibly long) introduction to The Goose Woman at its London Film Festival screening, Robert Gitt suggested that Louise Dresser would have won an Academy Award if the ceremony had existed in 1925. Having watched the film, few will disagree with his assessment. Dresser plays Mary Holmes – the eponymous goose woman – an alcoholic, embittered old crone living on a remote farm. Twenty years earlier, she was Marie de Nardi, a beautiful singer on the cusp of fame, but she gave up her career to have her son Gerald (Jack Pickford) and now she has nothing but her memories, her geese and a pile of broken booze bottles outside her window. Dresser’s performance as this unsympathetic protagonist is remarkable, expressing sadness, regret and bitterness through her subtle but forceful acting.
Clarence Brown’s film is adapted from a story by Rex Beach, which was itself based on the real-life “Pig Woman” case (heavily publicised by William Randolph Hearst’s press at the time). It’s the tale of a murder that Mary claims to have witnessed, milking the subsequent publicity and press attention for all it’s worth, and propelling herself back into the spotlight, but her fabricated account of what happened that night inadvertently frames her own son for the murder. This narrative is given an extra charge by the tensions that are already simmering between Mary and Gerald, with Mary blaming her son for her ruined career, and their relationship reaches its nadir when she hits him with a revelation about his parentage that’s so shocking the film can’t even articulate it. The Goose Woman is so coy about the nature of this secret that for some time I wasn’t sure what it was; all we see is Mary spitefully mouthing the truth as her son recoils in horror, and then he tearfully runs to his fiancée Hazel (Constance Bennett) who reacts with similar dismay.
Aside from that confusing plot niggle, The Goose Woman‘s story is handled with great skill and sophistication by Brown, who keeps the action down-to-earth and rooted in character, sustaining an impressive level of suspense (with welcome burst of humour) until the final scenes. He has a great eye for detail and there are some lovely, telling moments scattered throughout the movie, like the running gag involving Mary’s attempts to hide her whisky bottle, or her habit of judging every man she meets by rubbing his business card (if you don’t have embossed lettering, you’re not worth a damn, clearly). His visual style is simple but effective, and he puts together a terrific sequence during Gerald’s interrogation, cutting away to a dripping tap, nuts being cracked and coins jangling, as the suspect’s anxiety grows. This latter scene is also the kind of interlude that allows accompanist Stephen Horne to get creative on his piano and flute; as ever, his playing at this screening caught the tone and mood of the picture perfectly.
In the years following this film, Brown went on to direct a number of stars to some of their most celebrated performances (including Greta Garbo, who called him her favourite director) and it’s clear from The Goose Woman that he was very much an actors’ director. All of the performances here are a pleasure to watch, particularly the scene-stealing James O Barrows and Gustav von Seyffertitz as a detective and district attorney who have a competitive relationship in the movie’s background, and it’s nice to see Jack Pickford – so often in his sister’s shadow – given a rare chance to shine. However, The Goose Woman ultimately belongs to Louise Dresser, whose outstanding lead performance, like the film itself, deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated.
Pierre Loti’s novel Pêcheur d’Islande combines realism and impressionism as it explores the hard life of Breton fishermen who risk their lives to catch cod in Icelandic waters. The tragic air extends as far as the novel’s love story, a romance between a sailor, Yann and a young girl, Gaud, who meet at a party. Gaud is in love with Yann, but he is also in love with the sea …
In 1927 the novel was adapted for the screen and directed by the Jacques de Baroncelli, a Frenchman who had made many films in the silent era. Pêcheur d’Islande was shot on location in Brittany, and the landscapes both on land and at sea are magnificent. It’s a rarely seen film, and so you’ll be very happy to know that its forthcoming London screening will be introduced by – Kevin Brownlow. Not only that, but Neil Brand will provide piano accompaniment.
Pêcheur d’Islande screens at the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français on Tuesday 11 October at 6.30pm. Tickets cost £10 or less for concessions and are available on the Institut Français website here.
These two events caught my eye in the JuLy BFI brochure. They’re not silent film screenings, and one of them isn’t even in London, but they are definitely worth a peek.
First up, your favourite silent film historian and mine, Kevin Brownlow, will be appearing at BFI Southbank to introduce a screening of his film Winstanley on 5 July. There’ll be time for a discussion after the film too, which is bound to include some talk of silent cinema. I’d bet my second-best cloche on it, in fact. This event is free for seniors, so if you’re over 60 this is a can’t-miss. The rest of us whippersnappers are invited too, but we’ll have to pay usual matinee ticket prices.
Winstanley screens at 2pm on Tuesday 5 July in NFT1. There are no details on the BFI website, so it might be worth ringing the box office on 020 7928 3232.
Second, there is an opportunity for BFI members to pay a visit to the National Archive in Berkhamsted. It’s a three-hour tour, including light refreshments, and you’ll have the chance to talk to some of the talented people who work there, and find out how films are restored. It seems like an apposite time to visit, with all the work currently being done on the Hitchcock 9 project, and the fact that the archive has recently been placed on the Unesco World Heritage register.
The cost of the archive visit is £25 or £20 for concessions, and the tour will take place on Tuesday 19 July. Log in to the BFI website to find out more or call 020 7928 3232 to book.
Fresh from winning an Oscar last year, Kevin Brownlow will be in London in April to give an illustrated lecture at the Cinema Museum. The talk will use clips (all projected in 35mm) to explore the development of silent film technique, from one-shot shorts, to epic features. The clips will include newsreel footage as well as a sequence from The Fire Brigade (1926, hat-tip to mrbertiewooster on Nitrateville for that information), and will be accompanied on the piano by Stephen Horne.
BFI Southbank has a busy schedule of silent films in March. All except this one are part of the Birds Eye View festival, and you can read about them here. The odd one out is also a film by a pioneering female film-maker, however, and is screened as part of the Passport to Cinema programme, introduced by Kevin Brownlow. It’s The Blot, directed in 1921 by Lois Weber:
The Blot is a realistic study of genteel poverty among the struggling middle-classes. An underpaid college professor scarcely has the means to support his wife and daughter, who in turn has three suitors, one an impoverished cleric, one the son of a nouveau riche neighbour, and one a playboy. The film is a subtle and compassionate study of the vagaries of society’s rewards.
An early example of “gritty” socially conscious film-making, The Blot was shot largely on location, often using natural lighting and with non-professional actors. The story highlights the plight of low-paid workers and the film’s mesage is sadly still relevant to modern audiences, so this should be a very interesting evening.
The screening of The Blot will be accompanied by the short animation The Country Mouse and the City Mouse as well as the talk by Kevin Brownlow. It will be shown at 6.10pm on Monday 28 March in NFT2. Tickets are available on the BFI website here.