Welcome to the long-awaited return of the Silent London Podcast – coming to you straight from Paris. I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema and I will be podcasting my reports from the screenings. Today, my first two days at the festival including lots of of Hollywood fare: the good, the bad and the baffling. This podcast tackles a lot of films about war and racism: films by D W Griffith, Abel Gance, Thomas Ince …. But there is plenty of star power too, from Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish.
I hope you enjoy this first podcast from the festival!
Seduced and betrayed by a scoundrel, mother to a dead child, and cast out by an unfeeling employer, “frenzied – tortured” Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) stumbles out into a blizzard and, hearing the rush of the river, on to her certain death. The melodramatic climax of DW Griffith’s old-time tearjerker Way Down East (1920) is a violent assault on the audience’s emotional wellbeing. Anna collapses in the snow, and asleep on a sheet of ice, drifts downstream towards a waterfall. Her hair and her hands dip in the icy water, icicles collect on her eyelashes, snowflakes gather on her cheeks … and all the time, just too far behind her, a true-hearted gentleman in a fur coat (Richard Barthelmess) leaps from floe to floe in pursuit, hoping to save her from death, from his own father’s coldhearted cruelty, and from her moral disgrace.
Even in 1920, this was a bit much for most filmgoers to swallow. Griffith had spent thousands on acquiring the film rights to Lottie Blair Parker’s 19th-century stage play, a huge hit in the provinces but hopelessly dated: a hokey melodrama, hinging on unlikely events and leavened with rustic humour. Even the waif to end all waifs, wide-eyed Lillian Gish, was concerned about playing naïve country girl Anna Moore, who is tricked into a mock marriage by an unscrupulous womaniser. But if they were to recoup some of that money, the cast and crew were going to have to make the cinemagoing public believe in Way Down East. And for that, Griffith needed to show them something authentic.
“Audiences want to see a real blizzard, not a sub-title with a two sentence description. If this film was going to work, the audiences wanted to see the real thing. Otherwise, whatever we did would be laughable,” worried Gish. And she was right to be concerned. At the opening night in New York, the audience howled with laughter – until the ice sequence, which is, despite the inserted footage of Niagara Falls and some canny editing, a triumph of endurance and performance rather than special effects. The sentimental appeal of Gish’s frozen tears, and the very real danger she is in during this scene would melt the hardest heart. It’s not just a nail-biting finale to a movie, it’s a spectacle of human courage – and it called for dedication above and beyond the call of cinematic duty.
A fortnight spent filming in a real blizzard and a “ninety-mile-an-hour gale” in White River Junction, Vermont, took its toll on cast and crew both. The cameramen lay down on the ice to hold the camera still, but sheltered themselves from the wind, while Gish, in a simple dress and shawl, faced the gusts until her face turned blue. When ice crystals formed on her face, Griffith had his crew film a closeup before offering her a blanket and a cup of hot tea. While it was Gish’s idea to drape her hair and hands in the river, her director gladly agreed – to the cost of her frostbite-ravaged fingers.
It’s our birthday! Silent London is five years old today. Definitely school age and time to grow up, right? Thanks to all of you who have followed the blog, commented, contributed, pushed a like or retweet button or generally been fabulous over the years!
I wanted to find a suitably epic way to celebrate the fact that I haven’t give up or been shunted off the internet by blogger-hating meanies but until yesterday I was drawing a blank.
Then, the postman delivered a copy of the BFI’s latest Blu-ray to my door. It’s a biggie. It’s The Birth of a Nation. Love it, hate it, puzzle over it, misunderstand it, do what you will, you can’t ignore it. And yet sometimes it seems to be a film more talked about than, y’know, actually watched. So let’s watch it together, tonight, a hundred years after it was first seen, on the meaningless anniversary of a silent movie blog.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it feels like a long time since we saw a solid silent retrospective in this town. No need to bleat about it much longer though, eh, as the BFI has just the thing. DW Griffith – still arguably the most important American movie director of all time – will inhabit the BFI Southbank for most of June.
The season concentrates on the feature films up to and including Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie. Especial care is taken over Griffith’s best-known, and still-controversial, film Birth of a Nation (1915), in its centenary year. The movie will screen with introductions on both occasions, and a special roundtable event will bring together keynote speakers from UCL’s “In the Shadow of Birth of a Nation” conference to discuss the film. To provide further context, on 7 June the BFI will screen all three parts of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s DW Griffith: Father of Film documentary.
This is one of those events that should have every cinephile in the city licking their lips. And you don’t have to be a silent nerd or a completist to understand why. There’s far more to DW Griffith than the awful things he believed and the clever things he is credited with doing first. Watching the films, especially on the big screen, is the best way to appreciate his genius. And look at the cast list here too: the season features several turns from the wonderful Lillian Gish, as well as Richard Barthelmess, Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Mae Marsh.
The fifth instalment of Scotland’s only silent movie festival announces its programme today – and judging by previous years, you should start snapping up tickets straight away (tickets go on sale today, 10 February 2015, at noon). The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema takes place in Bo’ness, a small town tucked away on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Falkirk, Scotland. Bo’ness has a stunning vintage cinema, the Hippodrome, which has been restored to its 1920s glory, and each year hosts of a celebration of the silent era that is as welcoming as it is wide-ranging.
HippFest celebrates its fifth birthday in style with three major World Premiere Festival Commissions, a pop-up cinema at Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, the chance to discover forgotten stars Colleen Moore and Eric Campbell and get hands-on with a series of workshops and interactive events covering everything from beatboxing to Joan Crawford’s favourite dinner party recipes.
You can find all the information about the festival, and how to book tickets for the events, on the festival website here. You can also follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter. This year’s event runs from 18-22 March 2015 and below I have picked out some highlights from the programme. I have to say I am pretty excited.
The Friday night gala screening will be the hilarious Synthetic Sin, starring Colleen Moore. There’s a dress code ladies and gents – flapper glamour! Neil Brand will accompany on piano and some silent movie blogger or other will be introducing the film …
“The Film Explainer” Andy Cannon will perform alongside extracts from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with musicians Wendy Weatherby and Frank McLaughlin.
“To the feminine mind nothing appeals quite as strongly as clothing, hats, or shoes – in fact finery of any kind,” opined Moving Picture World in 1916. Gentlemen spectators apparently preferred films with fighting in them. On finishing this fascinating survey of how the fashion and film industries met and grew together in the early 20th century, I’m inclined to excuse MPW’s sweeping generalisation.
Clothing, and fashion, are at the heart of everything that Hollywood has ever done. All film is spectacle, early film unambiguously so – and nothing epitomises the excesses of La-La Land more than the view of preening, primped movie stars lining up on the red carpet draped in borrowed couture and jewels. Baffling then, to remember that the first film actors were required to supply their own costumes. Turning up well-dressed to an studio (as the supremely stylish teenage Gloria Swanson did at Essanay) could secure you a chance at stardom. Even when studios had appointed a seamstress, numbers were so short that they would frequently be called upon to play roles on screen. In fact, Hollywood wardrobe departments would be staffed by many a former actress. And because few people kept proper records of who did what in the early studios, it is the memories of stars such as Swanson and Lillian Gish that often provide the clearest picture of how the costumes were supplied, chosen and recycled in-house.
To begin with, Michelle Tolini Finamore’s scholarly illustrated book examines fashion trends that made for great movie subject matter, from the exploited women working in sweatshops that churned out shirtwaists for America’s increasingly well-dressed urban working-class, to the extravagant picture hats that caused havoc in Nickelodeons, to the risque Paris styles that marked a lady out as a vamp. The idea that US fashions were practical and democratic and French ones outlandish and revealing kicks off a major theme in this book – the battle for fashion supremacy between first New York then LA with Paris.
Don’t believe everything you read in the press. Contrary to published reports, legendary silent film actor Lillian Gish is not dead – she’s alive and well and totally winning at Twitter. Using the handle @MsLillianGish, the star of Broken Blossoms and The Birth of a Nation drops wisdom on the internet from a great height every day. Check out her Twitter biography, which is typically witty, informative and self-effacing: “I am the greatest actress of all time. If I had been a scientologist, you all would be one today. Yeah, I rocked it like that.”
Not content with enjoying Ms Gish’s wise words 140 characters at a time, I asked the star if she would be happy to answer a few questions for the benefit of the Silent London readers. To my great delight, she accepted. Unfortunately the time difference did not allow us to conduct the interview live, but I posted some questions to Ms Gish, and with her help of her loyal secretary she was able to answer them. Her responses are illuminating, I think you’ll agree. Here is the transcript of my interview with Lillian Gish …
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson. If you haven’t seen The Wind, be warned that this article discusses the ending of the film.
Ethereal, delicate, poetic, otherworldly are just some of the somewhat elusive adjectives used to describe Lillian Gish since the early years of her stardom. Effusive admirer Vachel Lindsay said “Lillian Gish could be given wings and a wand if she only had directors and scenario writers who believed in fairies.” However, in reality Gish had her feet firmly on the ground. She had a career spanning eight decades, was a spokeswoman for cinema’s history with high artistic ambitions for herself and for the medium. King Vidor, who directed her in La Boheme (1926) commented: “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”
In his autobiography A Tree is a Tree Vidor said that Gish was incredibly assertive and had her own thoughts about the filmmaking process. Indeed, she knew a great deal about cinematography and in particular lighting. She had learned her trade during the more collaborative process of the silent era, where she had received extensive tutelage from DW Griffith in a production context where actors frequently worked without scripts and where they were encouraged to collaborate on characterisation and staging. She may only have had had a small acting role in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), however she designed and furnished sets, helped with lighting and cutting, wrote intertitles and advertising copy.