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