The Afterlight is the last-chance saloon for the lost souls of film history. It’s a conceptual experiment, one that stalks the shadows of world cinema, gathering the spectres of movie stardom as it stumbles all the way to obsolescence. This new film from Charlie Shackleton, which played the Experimenta strand of the London Film Festival, is cast entirely from the grave and destined to self-destruct. Composed of snippets of archive cinema, The Afterlight stars only actors whose obituaries have already been published and exists only in one 35mm print, which will deteriorate, just a little, with each screening, until even these echoes diminish.Continue reading London Film Festival review: The Afterlight
It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?
Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.Continue reading London Film Festival review: The Real Charlie Chaplin
The eye wants to travel, and never more so than in these pandemic times. Which means that this presentation from the BFI’s blockbuster Japan season is actually more welcome on its delayed arrival.
In Around Japan With a Movie Camera, across an hour and a quarter, we are transported through space and time to Japan in the very early 20th century – the films span the period from 1901 to 1913. But you’ll want to devote a full ninety minutes to this one and click the “Watch introduction” button on the BFI Player. The films are more than ably introduced by the BFI’s own Bryony Dixon and Japanese film historian Mika Tomita, and the programme is hosted by Michelle ‘Bioscope Girl’ Facey. They also take time to introduce the band, as it were. The films are accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch, Costas Fotopolous, Stephen Horne and Lillian Henley – their hands are sometimes visible thanks to the ingenuity of Gabrysch’s pandemic-era innovation, the “piano-cam”.Continue reading London Film Festival review: Around Japan With a Movie Camera
This is a guest post for Silent London by writer/director Alex Barrett. You can watch The Cheaters as part of the London Film Festival until 1pm on Wednesday 14 October.
Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.Continue reading LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)
No time to blog today but there is NEWS to share. So here goes, welcome to Silent London’s News in Brief column.
• The virtual Pordenone lineup is live now! Laurel and Hardy, Brigitte Helm, Sessue Hayakawa, Ruan Lingyu! And all your favourite Pordenone musicians. Tickets for the whole shebang start at €9.90, and go on sale next week.
• The London Film Festival lineup is also live now, and the screenings will be more accessible this year. The big silent film this year is Paulette McDonagh’s The Cheaters, restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and co-presented by the wonderful Kennington Bioscope. Cyrus Gabrysch will provide the accompaniment and you’ll be able to catch the film on the BFI Player.
• I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this morning, to talk about Olive Thomas, who died 100 years ago tomorrow.
• Exciting news from Denmark, where an exhibition devoted to Asta Nielsen will run from the end of October to the middle of next August. More on this soon …
I will have more news to share soon. Exciting news!
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
How is that for an alliterative headline?
I was just finishing my last post (on Bait – go see it), when this very exciting news came in. The 2019 London Film Festival Archive Special Presentation will be the lost Betty Balfour film that was discovered in the Netherlands a few years ago: Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923). Continue reading Breaking Betty Balfour news: Love, Life and Laughter (1923) at the LFF
This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.
There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.
It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.
Happy London Film Festival programme launch day! The festival runs 10-21 October this year and there are oodles of films showing, from the competition titles and the galas to the weird and wonderful pieces in the experimental and short categories. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s cut to the chase. We have no time here for talkies. What does the 62nd London Film Festival have to offer in the way of silent cinema? Plenty. More than usual, I’d say. Some we knew about, some we didn’t.
The really good news – none of these silent screenings need clash with Pordenone. That is to say, there are duplicate screenings to avoid that.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show
Nineteenth-century films, shot on 68mm film, beautifully restored, introduced by Bryony Dixon and accompanied by John Sweeney and his Biograph Band. Oh, and they are screening at the actual, flipping IMAX. This is going to be massive. If your mouth isn’t already watering, I don’t know what to do with you. This year’s Archive Gala should be a silent cinema experience like no other. Book now.
Plays: 18 October 2018, BFI IMAX
This year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala has been announced – and it’s big.
You may have had a sneak preview of the Victorian films, shot on 68mm film, that the BFI has been restoring recently. Samplers have popped up at a few festivals and conferences over the past year or so. The clarity and the detail in these early films are incredible. For this year’s Archive Gala, the BFI are going to project these beauties in their natural home – at the IMAX. Step aside, Christopher Nolan. Your host for the evening will be Bryony Dixon and music will be provided by the maestro John Sweeney – and his Biograph Band.
Sweeping away the veil of time, this Archive Gala will project Britain’s earliest films at their grandest scale (68mm, almost four times the image size of regular 35mm film) on the nation’s biggest screen, the BFI IMAX. Festival-goers will be astounded by the sheer clarity, scale and spectacle of these incredibly rare surviving fragments of our first films, preserved by the BFI National Archive. Breathing new life into these filmic ghosts, superbly restored from the 68mm original nitrate prints under the meticulous and painstaking supervision of the BFI’s Conservation Centre, these films will be presented digitally in their fully fleshed, large format, high-definition glory for the first time in over 120 years.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show will reveal the quality, scope and scale of their technical ambition in developing a new media, combined with their avid curiosity in the world opening up around them. It also showcases the drive and media savvy of the showmen and film pioneers who sold audiences this new perception of reality. This unique opportunity promises to show the Victorians in a whole new light, blowing the lid off any preconceptions of our forebears and dispelling the image of the stuffy, stoic, stern Victorian for good.
In a night not to be missed, this one-off gala event will transport the audience back to the end of Victoria’s long reign, a time when competing showmen were projecting their moving picture shows in London’s great West End theatres. Among the frontrunners was the peerless William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, whose British Mutoscope and Biograph Company enjoyed a long residency at the Palace Theatre of Varieties (now known as the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus, home to a different magician in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Of Scottish heritage, Dickson, who had worked for Thomas Edison, arrived in London in 1897 with his own very special USP: large-format films – the IMAX films of their day – aiming to outgun his rivals with his high quality pictures.
At only a minute or so long, these films range in date from 1897-1901, serving up an eclectic spread of subjects, from gorgeous panoramic vistas to dizzying ‘phantom rides’, from music hall turns to the pomp of royal pageantry, from the bustle of the Victorian street to genuine dispatches from the Boer War. The night has been programmed by and will be presided over by BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon, with music from composer/pianist John Sweeney and his Biograph Band.
- I can’t wait. The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show will take place on 18 October at the BFI IMAX in London. Tickets will go on sale soon, I guess, with the rest of the London Film Festival events.
- Read more here.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Saturday night’s London Film Festival Archive Gala was an extraordinary experience. Regularly a highlight of the silent film year, previous galas have showcased glistening restorations of old and faded movies paired with fresh scores of mostly excellent quality. This year’s event was an exercise in enchanted restoration – with makeover and music transforming a simple film into something entirely wonderful.
Shiraz: A Romance of India was an Indian/British/German co-production from the late silent era. You might know two more films by the director Franz Osten: A Throw of Dice and Light of Asia. Shiraz is a shamelessly romantic and fairly romanticised, telling of the love affair honoured by one the most beautiful mausoleum in the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Shiraz (Himansu Rai, who also produced the film) is a humble, but exceptionally talented potter, who has a deep love for his adopted sister Selima. When Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) grows up, she is sold as a slave into the royal court and they are separated. What’s more, a love affair slowly begins to spark between Selima and Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) … Meanwhile, general’s daughter Dalia (Seeta Devi) is plotting to get her own hands on the prince.
The story may seem paper-thin, but it has a beautiful surface. The romantic leads are very sweet, with the halting love story between Selima and the Prince always believable and Devi delightfully minxy. The location backdrops of the mountains and palaces are ravishing – a testament to the art direction of Promode Nath and cinematography by Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann that makes the most of natural light.
I first heard Robert Land’s name earlier this year. The context was: “Robert Land … ever heard of him?” I hadn’t, of course. But suddenly Land was in sight everywhere: films of his played at Bologna and there was a very informative piece on this Austrian-Czech director in Sight & Sound. At Ritrovato, I saw the rather plodding comedy I Kiss your Hand, Madame (1927), starring Marlene Dietrich, but I missed the screening of the rather better regarded Little Veronika (1929) and worried that I had made an error.
Hurrah for the Archives strand at London Film Festival, which brought the new restoration of Little Veronika to my doorstep today, on 35mm with live accompaniment of the highest quality from John Sweeney. Made around the same time, and for the same production company, as Pandora’s Box, and more to the point, Diary of a Lost Girl, Little Veronika is a short, sharp tale of rustic innocence in peril.
Little Veronika (played by Käthe von Nagy, an experienced, if young, actress) lives with her family in the Tyorl, caring for furred creatures, being polite to the neighbours and doing her chores like the good girl she promises to be. She goes to Vienna to visit her glamorous Aunt Rosie (Maly Delshaft, the wife in Varieté), who has grown impressively wealthy and well-dressed in her decade in the capital. Aunt Rosie has slinky lingerie and lives in a big house with several other women. You’d have to be as innocent as Veronika not to know what’s going on, how Aunt Rosie earns her money, or what plans her new friends have for her future.
The cat is out of the bag. The programme for the 61st London Film Festival has been announced and there is only one question on our lips: “Got any silents?” The answer is …
First things first, we already knew that this year’s LFF Archive Gala would be Shiraz, a sumptuous late-silent Indo-German production, which relates the romantic story behind the building of the Taj Mahal. This gorgeous film, freshly restored by the BFI, will be accompanied by a new score, composed by Anoushka Shankar. The gala screening takes place on 14 October 2017 at the Barbican and tickets are already on sale now. Read more here. And why not book a ticket here too?
Plays: 14 October 2017, Barbican
Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.
The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.
The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.
Cinema has always found itself delicious. Showing at the London Film Festival next month is a movie made out of movies in which people watch movies at the movies. There are movies within the movies within this movie, and it will leave you with an intense craving for popcorn – as well as celluloid.
Paul Anton Smith was one of Christian Marclay’s assistants on his tick-tock supercut The Clock. For his debut feature, he has dipped back into the archives to create Have You Seen my Movie? (2016) – a less ambitious film, but with a more romantic theme. Have You Seen my Movie?, which screens in the Experimenta strand, stitches together sequences from feature films in which characters watch films, mostly at the cinema, but occasionally in screening rooms or edit suites and in one very enjoyable sequence, at the drive-in. The movie is roughly chronological not by era, but by the stages of movie-going: beginning in the ticket queue, taking us through the whole feature presentation and ending only when the cinema has closed and the last customer has been booted out.
Have you cleared your calendar for October yet? Between Pordenone, for those lucky enough to go, the Robin Hood screening at the Barbican, and the Kennington Bioscope comedy festival, not to mention the mounting excitement about Napoléon in November, it’s a busy month to begin with. And then the London Film Festival pops up in the middle of October with its own programme of silent screenings.
So we already know that the Archive Gala will be the Irish-set thriller The Informer. And we already know that it is on the same day as Robin Hood. So that’s your first now-traditional schedule clash.* It’s also something of a shame that the Archive Gala will be at BFi Southbank, not the festival’s specially built 780-seat pop-up cinema in Victoria Embankment Gardens, where all the other galas will be held, although I assume that is to do with finding space for the band. Designers of these new-fangled cinemas always forget the orchestra pit.
However, here’s what the rest of the 60th London Film Festival has got planned for you, silents-wise. Erm, not quite as much as I would have hoped …
One of the most exciting annual announcements in the silent film calendar, at least for us Brits, is the London Film Festival Archive Gala. So start rolling those drums now. This year, the beneficiary of a digital restoration, a new score, a gala screening and and a Blu/DVD release is … Arthur Robison’s The Informer (1929).
This rare silent adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s famous novel is set among Dublin revolutionaries in the early days of the newly independent Irish Free State, formed in 1922. The Archive Gala will take place at BFI Southbank on Friday 14th October, 6.30pm in NFT1 and features a specially commissioned live score by Irish composer Garth Knox with a six piece ensemble.
The silent Informer is a British-made movie, filmed at Elstree by British International Pictures, but has the flavour of an international co-production too, starring Englishman Carl Harbord, Swedish Lars Hanson, and Hungarian Lya de Putti (you may know her from Varieté). The story is set in early 1920s Dublin, during the first years of the Irish Free State and it is a tale of revolution and betrayal, with an underground cell of activists torn apart when one of their member accidentally kills a police officer.
According to novelist O’Flaherty, he wrote The Informer “based on the technique of the cinema,” as “a kind of high-brow detective story”. The BFI says that the film draws on this lead, with an expressionist vibe that looks forward to film noir. Robison’s studio-shot film is tense, and claustrophobic, reflecting the anxieties of the lead characters, almost exclusively shot in mid-shot or close-up.
The dense narrative develops in a short time heightening the intensity of emotional effect. Our sympathies are challenged to deal with the complexity of personal versus political loyalties, where no-one is entirely innocent and the implications of seemingly minor or impulsive decisions create inescapable moral dilemmas for all the protagonists.
The new score for the gala and Blu-ray release has been written by a composer from Ireland, Garth Knox. The music draws on his interest in medieval, baroque and traditional Celtic music, and uses some traditional Irish instruments as well as avant-garde composition styles. It will be performed by a six-piece ensemble including accordion, flute, Irish pipes and viola d’amore.
The Informer (1929)
The digital restoration has substantially cleaned up the film, which was made in both silent and talkie versions at the dawn of the sound era – and reintroduced the lavender tinting it would have enjoyed on its first release.
More to come on this for sure … Silent London will keep you informed.
- The London Film Festival runs from 5- 16 October 2016
- The Archive Gala screening of The Informer with Knox’s live score will take place on 14 October 2016
- The newly restored version of The Informer will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI DVD in February 2017
Surprises can be fun, but maybe, when you’re stumping up for film festival tickets say, it’s good to get what you really wanted. The silent movies on offer at this year’s London Film Festival may not contain any unexpected treasures, but they do comprise some of the year’s most anticipated restorations, so let’s fill our boots. Our only reservation is that a few of these silent screenings do clash, so choose your tickets carefully.
Well don’t I feel a little less sick about missing this new restoration of EA Dupont’s romantic drama at Bologna? Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, that woozy unleashed camera … you know this is going to be a treat. Variety is a highlight of Weimar cinema, and deserves to be seen at its shimmering best. It’s screening just once at the festival, in NFT1, so make sure you’re there. The word from those who have seen the new 2k resto already is: the print is gorgeous, but there is less enthusiasm for the new score, from the Tiger Lillies. No such worries for us cockney sparrows, who will have the pleasure of Stephen Horne’s assured accompaniment.
The Battle of the Century (1927)
You might have heard a whisper about this one. The rediscovered second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century makes the film almost entirely complete – and essential viewing for fans of Stan and Ollie. Enjoy it at the London Film Festival with three more L&H shorts for company and musical accompaniment from messrs John Sweeney or Stephen Horne, depending on which of the two screenings you attend. Bear in mind, if you’re not heading to Pordenone, that the first screening is a full 24 hours before it plays at the Giornate – could this be a world premiere of the restoration?
Sherlock Holmes (1918)
Benedict Cumberbatch is all very well (very well indeed if you ask me), but if any actor could lay claim to the “definitive” Holmes, it was William Gillette. And for many a long year, the film that committed his stage performance of the gentleman detective to celluloid was thought to have vanished in the night. An elementary mistake, Dr Watson – the film was rediscovered at the end of last year and has been prepped for a Blu-ray release and a handful of festival screenings, including this one, in NFT1 on Sunday 18 October. There’s live music from Neil Brand, Günter Bichwald and Jeff Davenport and an irresistible accompanying short, A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912).
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.
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.
This a guest post for Silent London: an edited extract from Dr Lawrence Napper’s forthcoming book, a study of British film in the 1920s and its relation to the First World War, which is provisionally called ‘Before Journey’s End’: British Popular Cinema and the First World War, 1918-1930, and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. This extract is taken from a longer chapter tracing the development of the British Instructional Films series of battle reconstructions from 1921 onwards. Dr Napper is a lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London and the author of British Cinema and The Middlebrow in the Interwar Years (Exeter University Press, 2009).
- This article contains spoilers, though as the films discussed deal with historical events, we hope no one will be too disappointed.
In 1927, as the flood of war-themed films identified by critic Caroline Lejeune the previous year developed into a torrent, two British companies were drawing on the legacy of British Instructional Films’ (BIF) war reconstruction series. Both The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and The Somme (MA Wetherell) could claim to be legitimate heirs to the series. The former was directed by Walter Summers and produced by Harry Bruce Woolfe, while the latter shared a number of personnel with BIF’s other productions including its producer, E Gordon Craig.
In their release strategies, too, the two films followed the model of their predecessors – The Somme opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion on 5 September for an exclusive run, while The Battles of Coronel and Falklands Islands was screened privately for the royal family at Balmoral before opening at the New Gallery on 15 September. These openings were announced together in the press coverage, implying a parallel between the two films. Both films went on general release during Armistice week, where they competed with a number of other British films with war themes, including Remembrance (Bert Wynne, 1927) and Roses of Picardy (Maurice Elvey, 1927). In the premier London houses, they were succeeded by further exclusive runs of new war dramas, Blighty (Adrian Brunel, 1927) replacing The Somme at Marble Arch, and Land of Hope and Glory (Harley Knoles, 1927) in the Plaza, Regent Street.
Despite these similarities, it is nevertheless possible to identify divergent strategies in the two films. The self-conscious use of formal moments of remembrance evident in the 1925 Ypres (Walter Summers) was incorporated into a number of the fictional war dramas, including Remembrance, Blighty and Land of Hope and Glory. The balance of drama and documentary elements continued to shift, and both The Somme and Coronel and Falklands develop the more dramatic shooting structure evident in Mons (Walter Summers, 1926), although in different directions. Mindful of the criticisms of Mons, director MA Wetherell re-instated the diagram elements of earlier films in his explanation of the overall strategy of The Somme (a decision which earned him praise from a number of reviewers), while Summers took advantage of the relatively contained story of Coronel and Falklands to offer a film much more clearly driven by the narrative conventions of fiction film-making. As part of this, the exploits of Victoria Cross (VC) winners – so consistent an element in all of the previous films – were dropped entirely from Coronel and Falklands, which offers instead a much clearer identification with motives and inner emotions of the captains of both the British and German ships, conveyed through classical editing.
When I checked out the silent films on offer at the London Film Festival this year, I missed The Tribe. Luckily for me, the sharp-eyed Neil Alcock noticed it and pointed me in the right direction. The Tribe/Plemya is a modern film, from Ukraine – the debut feature from Kiev-born director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy – and it was heavily garlanded in the critics’ week at Cannes this year, so it’s definitely worth a look. And it’s definitely of interest to silent cinema fans.
It’s tricky to describe this as a silent film, though, seeing as it has diegetic sound – real diegetic sound, which was all recorded on set, not added in post-production. Nor can we classify it “dialogue-free” … there appears to be plenty of dialogue in The Tribe, but all of the words spoken are in Ukrainian sign language. There are, the trailer proudly proclaims, no subtitles or voiceover to soften that blow. I can’t find figures for how many people in the world speak Ukrainian Sign Language, although this site affirms it is in a healthy state, and two years ago, the Daily Mail reported that inventors in Ukraine had developed a “super glove” to turn UKL into audible speech via a smartphone app. The point is that I suspect none of the Cannes judges were fluent in it, and for them, and most of us, this film will play more like a silent than a talkie.
It’s a violent, gritty, sexually explicit film: the grim story of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a teenager at a boarding school for deaf-mute children. Said school is rife with gang violence and prostitution, and Sergey clambers his way to the top of the tree before risking it all by falling in love with the wrong girl. There’s little gloss here: the cast are all non-professionals, and UKL speakers, rather than hearing actors. Slaboshpytskiy made a short, and similarly brutal, film set in a boarding school like this one a few years back, a real-time drama called Deafness/Glukhota (2010) in which a police officer grills a deaf-mute teenager in his car – while suffocating him with a plastic bag.
The Tribe plays at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, before coming to London in October, and while we wait for reviews from that festival, this writeup for the TIFF programme by Dimitri Eipides sounds very promising:
Slaboshpytskiy constructs his film with no dialogue and no subtitles, allowing the story to be enlivened by the magnificent pantomimic acting of deaf-mute non-professionals, in a brilliant balance of clarity and ambiguity that puts hearing audiences in a fascinating, active position …
The Tribe peels away the tenderness of its protagonists, communicating in the purest cinematic forms the rawness hidden behind the fragility of youth.
I like that phrase abut the hearing audience being put in a “fascinating, active position”. Doesn’t that go straight to the heart of why we love silent cinema? In his review for Variety, Justin Chang expands on this idea, writing that:
Sans dialogue or translation, each interaction effectively becomes a puzzle to be solved, and Slaboshpytskiy is brilliant at using ambiguity to heighten rather than dull the viewer’s perceptions. Even when the meaning of a particular exchange eludes us, a greater sense of narrative comprehension begins to take hold.
(It’s well worth reading Chang’s full review, actually.)
The trailer for The Tribe is hugely intriguing too: I love the strict, square framing and its icily distant long takes. In the foreground of a shot of gang members signing vigorously to each other, one toughnut shoulder-shoves another – a gesture that is as clear as any dialogue. After a screeching hairpin camera-move, a young man’s confusion in the face of a semi-naked and angry young woman in a bedroom reminds us how much of teenage life is a struggle to negotiate a path between our own feelings and those of the people around us. And who could fail to be impressed by the stirring declaration that “for love and hatred you don’t need translation”.
The Tribe plays twice during the London Film Festival. It screens at 8.45pm, 15 October 2014 in NFT1, BFI Southbank and 8.30pm, 17 October 2014 at Screen 5, the Vue West End Cinema. Buy tickets here.