You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.
Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.
The dog in Mighty Like a Moose
This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.
The Laughing Jester in Blackmail
Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt. Continue reading No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema→
This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Late Show Blogathon. I have chosen to write about the final screen appearance of the wonderful Lillian Gish, but this movie is a late or last film for many of the people involved.
“Alas dear ladies, all of this is in the past.” Vincent Price’s elegant Mr Maranov delivers the sad news to his elderly neighbours Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis). He is talking about his heyday, his rarefied life as a Russian noble, before the revolution, before the war, before the coming of sound. Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987), announces itself with a whiff of sawdust, and nitrate. It’s a film based on a play, a very quiet and melancholy play, and it opens with something far too gentle to be called a flashback, a monochrome glimpse of three young girls with flowing hair and white dresses excitedly rushing to the shore to catch sight of the ocean’s summer visitors. A glimpse of the silent era, in tribute to the film’s iconic and beautiful star.
Do the whales come to Maine in August any more, now those young girls have lived a lifetime each, separated, and reunited to live in awkward interdependence? That constitutes this delicate movie’s only real note of suspense. Sarah and Libby live the definition of a twilight existence, quietly in a house that is really a summer cottage, although it is early autumn, exposed on a grassy cliff. They brush their long white hair (Sarah’s a has a touch of blonde still, as she can’t quite resist letting Libby know) and dress for dinner in floral and powder-blue chiffon, and low-heeled pumps. It’s a beautiful spot, Cliff Island in Maine, where each evening they can “dine by moonlight” when the twilight floods their parlour. A picture window would make the most of that sumptuous view, and a friendly handyman neighbour (not Price, no fear) offers to install one for the ladies. Libby has doubts, though. Aren’t they too old to make changes? And besides, although she doesn’t like to mention it, Libby is blind. She can no longer see the whales, whenever they may or may not arrive.
Gish was 93 when she made The Whales of August, but preternaturally youthful, in the unique way of a waif who barely grew up. She plays a widow who mourns her soldier husband, and patiently takes care of cantankerous Libby, her older sister (though Davis was 15 years younger, and had one more feature in her, despite the decades of chain-smoking). She lives resolutely in the present, though, lobbying for that picture window and delighting in good food, fresh conversation, and the changing beauty of nature. She still believes the whales will return in August. Davis, who often seemed to delight in complaining about her co-stars, said it was a nightmare to work with Gish, who was all but entirely deaf. Anderson, inevitably, drew a different preference. Gish was an angel to direct, and rebellious Davis more of a headache. “Lillian’s first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for. Her professional attitude comes from those days with DW Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.” As such, they were perfectly cast as Sarah and Libby.
Lyda Borelli, Lillian Gish, Florence Vidor, Stacia Napierkowska. Let’s hear it for the ladies after an exceptionally strong day at the Giornate. My favourite film of the day was a Stahl that surprised us all, so let’s start with the great master of melodrama himself. or do I mean, the master of comedy?
Husbands and Lovers (1924) was one of the few silent Stahls I had seen before, sort of. I had seen a cutdown version of this film, which stars Vidor and Lewis Stone as a married couple, and Lew Cody as their friend who makes up one of those triangles we have learned so much about this week. It’s dedicated to “the tired American wife who has a husband and craves a lover, or some such. The shortened version gave me a bum steer, turning it into a mini-melodrama. This is a sparkling, and very smart marital comedy, much in the same vein as Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle. In the opening sequence, Vidor does everything she can do for her helpless man to assist with his morning routine, dashing about in her dressing gown. And then the cad has the verve to say she looks frumpy and untidy. Does that mean there was not a hint of tragedy or an outlandish coincidence in sight? No, but it was played for laughs. And the joy of it is the slowly shifting relationship between the three characters, first one way, then another, until a joyous ending. Fantastic cinematography, sharp lead performances and a very adult understanding of what gets lost and goes unsaid in a long-term relationship. Do look out for this if you can. And it goes without saying, it gave us plenty more to talk about at today’s Stahl collegium presentation. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6→
In this episode of the Sound Barrier, Silent London’s cinematic sommeliers pair Victor Sjostrom’s majestic The Wind (1928) with William Oldroyd’s astonishing debut feature Lady Macbeth, out in cinemas now. We highly recommend both films, which feature isolated women doing battle with the elements, and come laced with sex, violence and vengeance.
In the studio, I am joined as ever by Peter Baran, and also by special guest Ewan Munro, who reviews films at Filmcentric.
The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.
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.