Festival season is upon us. There’s Pordenone, of course, and London and also the Cambridge Film Festival all in October. A trip to the fenland city is very appealing at this time of year – and all the more so with a tempting selection of silent films.
The star of the slate is Lois Weber, one of the very best American silent film directors. And Cambridge will be showing four of her films over the weekend, all with live music. One of these in particular, The Blot, is rarely shown, but I think it’s very special indeed. Kevin Brownlow says that you won’t find a better film for showing you how life was really lived in the 1920s. That’s very probably true, but I think that inadvertently undersells it. There is a lot more to the film than its realism. It’s a real heartbreaker, and a nuanced drama too.
London’s great, it really is, but sometimes a blogger has to seek wider horizons. So this year I will be packing up my laptop and getting my soy cappuccino to go. I’m hitting the road to report on the silent film festival circuit – more of which anon – and I may possibly be popping up in a cinema near you.
First, an exciting announcement! The British Silent Film Festival is back this year. We have dates and a venue confirmed – 14-17 September 2017, at the Phoenix in Leicester – but no more news yet. Barring flood or fire, I’ll be there, and I recommend that you attend also.
Before that, however, I’ll be introducing two fantastic silent films by female directors at venues that couldn’t be much further from Leicester, and each other.
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.
This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.
The Unknown (1927)
Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.
Captain Salvation (1927)
An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)
A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.
Behind the Door (1919)
With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”
DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.
The Cheat (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”
Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.
An Interesting Story (1904)
A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson, and the first in a new series of posts bringing you very personal top 10s from silent cinema experts and enthusiasts.
From a programming point of view, it’s always good to have a few shorts up your sleeve: either to accompany a feature or to make up a shorts programme, which are always a good way to introduce new audiences to silent film. I’m trying to write short screenplays at the moment and I’m inspired by these film-makers, several of whom spent the majority of their careers working on shorts.
How to be an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Made in the US by Solax, film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché’s production company, this is such a brilliant darkly anarchic comedy. View the version on the Retour de Flamme (06) disc by Lobster Films for one of the most inspired accompaniments to a silent film.
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Breathtakingly stylish (talk about Eisenstein’s “kino fist”!) but also heartbreakingly moving, this is avant-garde cinema of the 1920s at its most profound. The scene on the bench is as poignant as anything by Chaplin or more recent master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unforgettable.
Kid Auto Races (Henry Lehrman, 1914)
Chaplin’s Keystone films are sometimes written off as unsophisticated fare, preceding a more nuanced approach to style and content at later studios. However, Chaplin’s performance here is pure clown, and shows why contemporary audiences immediately wanted more, more, more of “The Little Fellow”.
Two silent films, both with a lot to say, concluded the London Film Festival archive strand on Wednesday night. The double-bill of Soviet war film The Nail in the Boot (1931) and Lois Weber’s drama Shoes (1916) was not, we were assured, meant to be witty – rather it was a happy accident of programming. The films are from different times and continents, with contrasting styles. If they have anything in common beyond their titles, it is that they both issue moral warnings to the audience: look what can happen if you let your standards slip.
Expectations were raised for The Nail in the Boot when we were told that not only has it long been championed by our musician for the evening, Stephen Horne, but that he has won an award at the Bonn Sommerkino silent film festival for his accompaniment. And a spectacular soundtrack it was too, dynamic and inventive, incorporating accordion, flute and piano – often played in unconventional ways. Piano strings were plucked as missiles exploded in the battlefield; the accordion bellows hissed as soldiers were choked with gas. The same melody Horne plays on the accordion as the red soldiers celebrate a victory is repeated later on the flute after a terrible loss.
The film, by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, I am Cuba) is in three sections: a battle scene featuring an armoured train under aerial bombardment; a nervy sequence when one soldier is despatched from the train to call for help, but is hobbled by the eponymous nail injuring his foot; a trial scene, which tips into fantasy, as the soldier is accused of sabotage. The first two thirds are by far the most thrilling, and not just because the trial scene carries the weight of the film’s propagandist message. Kalatozov’s combat scenes are unforgettable: frenetic montage, extreme close-ups (even inside a gun barrel) and low angles make the viewer feel as if they too are being bombarded. I lost count of the number of times the camera appeared to be run over by enemy tanks, but I’m sure I flinched each time. Modern audiences will enjoy Kalatozov’s extravagant use of formalistic trickery for the same reason that the Soviet authorities suppressed it – it draws attention away from the film’s message and towards the skill of the film-maker. His triumph is that his abstract style makes the violence more tangible, not less.
Reeling from the battlefield, we were all urging the soldier on as he raced across open country. Faced with barbed wire, and a bare, bandaged foot, he nobly attempts to climb the fence. We wince. He tries again. Aah. So many curled toes and pained faces in one audience.
The Nail in the Boot has recently been restored by Gosfilmofond, and although we had no information as to the state of the print before work began, the film we saw was crisp, clean, with a wonderful quality of light and rich in detail. The latter was particularly noticeable in a lattice of shadows cast by a broom on our protagonist’s face.
We had more clues about the restoration of Shoes (including a neat before-and-after comparison reel), which has been rescued from a blizzard of nitrate deterioration and bacterial damage by the EYE film institute in the Netherlands. Based on two tinted and toned nitrate prints with a few frames grabbed from a sarcastically dubbed 1930s version, the new Shoes is hugely improved, although it still retains unobtrusive marks at the edge of the frame in some scenes.
Lois Weber was one of the silent era’s very few female film directors and for that reason alone her work will always be of interest. Shoes is a simple enough tale of young shop worker, Eva (Mary MacLaren), who can’t afford a replacement pair of boots, and the moral dilemma she faces when opportunity presents itself, albeit in an unwelcome form. If it feels that Weber spends too long moralising in the title-cards, that may be because visually she expresses her heroine’s predicament so well. We were forewarned by as representative of EYE to play close attention to the end. After an hour spent walking inEva’s tattered, sodden shoes, a 21st-century audience may find less to condemn or lament in the choice she makes.
At one point a superimposed hand labelled “Poverty” appears to crush Eva as she sleeps, but Weber’s touch is not quite always so heavy. While the film is always elegantly composed, the kitchen-sink details of slum life, from watered-down milk and sugar sandwiches to empty shelves and broken furniture are everywhere – Shoes is relentlessly unglamorous. Even MacLaren’s lead performance is sullen, quietly anguished, rather than melodramatic. If I were her, I’d be seething too.
BFI Southbank has a busy schedule of silent films in March. All except this one are part of the Birds Eye View festival, and you can read about them here. The odd one out is also a film by a pioneering female film-maker, however, and is screened as part of the Passport to Cinema programme, introduced by Kevin Brownlow. It’s The Blot, directed in 1921 by Lois Weber:
The Blot is a realistic study of genteel poverty among the struggling middle-classes. An underpaid college professor scarcely has the means to support his wife and daughter, who in turn has three suitors, one an impoverished cleric, one the son of a nouveau riche neighbour, and one a playboy. The film is a subtle and compassionate study of the vagaries of society’s rewards.
An early example of “gritty” socially conscious film-making, The Blot was shot largely on location, often using natural lighting and with non-professional actors. The story highlights the plight of low-paid workers and the film’s mesage is sadly still relevant to modern audiences, so this should be a very interesting evening.
The screening of The Blot will be accompanied by the short animation The Country Mouse and the City Mouse as well as the talk by Kevin Brownlow. It will be shown at 6.10pm on Monday 28 March in NFT2. Tickets are available on the BFI website here.