Please excuse typos in this blogpost. I am writing this in a mixture of mental fog and nervous excitement. Yesterday I had my second dose of my Covid-19 vaccination, and the ‘Moderna flu’ is real but suddenly the future seems a little bit brighter. So I thought I would pop on here to remind you of some upcoming silent-film-related events that you can attend in person or online, making your summer a wee bit more joyous and more silent.
There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?
Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!
It’s that time of year again, when we get to delve into the Hippfest programme. The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, Scotland, is the most welcoming event in the early cinema calendar, with one of the most glamorous venues. The lineup is always an enjoyable mix of the classic and obscure too, so I await this announcement with more interest than most.
You can read the full lineup and schedule on the Hippfest website, but here are some selected highlights – and yes, I am terribly, terribly biased.
Pabst! So much Pabst around these days, which is great. The Hippfest is showing GW Pabst’s first film, the most traditionally expressionist of his career, Der Schätz, with live accompaniment written and performed by acclaimed German composer and musician Alois Kott.
More Pabst! On 22nd March, yours truly will be giving an illustrated “Cuppa Talk” lecture entitled Lost Girls and Goddesses, all about women in Pabst’s silent films. Brooks, Garbo, Nielsen, Helm … all will be in (virtual) attendance.
Galas! The opening night screening has already been announced as The Last of the Mohicans with live accompaniment from David Allison.
On the Friday night, get yourself glammed up for a date with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, with live music from the maestro Neil Brand. This silent comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is perfect in practically every way. And Brand, yeah he’s a bit of a legend too.
Lon Chaney swings by on Saturday night. You can watch him play “the master of the underworld” in The Penalty with a new score, commissioned by the festival, from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello.
Stick around after The Penalty for an ideal late-night movie: Benjamin Christensen’s loopy Seven Footprints to Satan, with a live score from the always excellent Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. This film has to be seen to be believed!
Sunday night closes with two screening of recent BFI silent restorations. First, the sumptuous Indian romance Shiraz, accompanied by the wonderful John Sweeney, and then Anthony Asquith’s Underground, accompanied live by the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
Competition time! I hope you’re feeling lucky, because I have a very special prize to give away. You may remember reading on these pages about a screening of silent classic The Phantom of the Opera coming up in London. Not just any screening, but the premiere of Roy Budd’s symphonic score for the film, at the Coliseum opera house in London. Sadly, composer Budd died just before the planned premiere of the score in 1993. But now, more than 20 years later, his music can take its place alongside this beautiful, chilling silent film from 1925.
The even better news for one of you is that I have a pair of tickets to give away to this special event, which takes place on 8 October 2017.
To win a pair of tickets for this prestigious screening, just send the answer to this question to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight on 19 September 2017.
Lon Chaney was known as ‘The man of a thousand … ‘what?
Good luck! The winner be chosen at random from the correct answers and will be notified by email.
You can find out more, and book tickets for The Phantom of the Opera, here.
Jazz musician and composer Roy Budd was well known for his film scores, for popular movies including Get Carter, but one of his compositions has never seen the light of day. In 1993, Budd was due to premiere his symphonic score for the classic silent film The Phantom of the Opera, but just a few weeks before the screening, he died suddenly, from a brain haemorrhage. Budd was just 46 years old. The screening was cancelled and Budd’s score has never been played in public, but it will finally get its belated premiere this year, on 8 October 2017.
A self-taught pianist and child prodigy, Budd performed his first concert at The London Coliseum in 1953 at six years of age and went on to perform with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, and Antonio Carlos Jobin as well as scoring 40 feature films. In 1989 Budd acquired an original 35mm film print to the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera from a collector. He restored the film to its full glory using an experimental two colour process and original tints from the film’s original release. Budd completed a full orchestral score for the film using an 84-piece orchestra and recorded this with the Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, with five weeks to go before a London premiere and European tour, Budd suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away at just 46 years of age.
This is an exciting match of venue and film, before we even get on to the score. Imagine the thrill of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in a beautiful opera house – the Coliseum in Covent Garden no less. Hold on to your seats, and watch the chandeliers, because Lon Chaney’s phantom will take to the stage at the home of the English National Opera.
Budd’s score, which was described by Geoff Brown of the Times as “succulent” will be performed by the Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra and conducted by Spencer Down. This is a very special premiere, in a prestigious venue, of a long-anticipated piece of music.
At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.
KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.
We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.
We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8→
Good news for the silent film hipsters of east London: the Hackney Attic goes from strength to strength as a silent film venue. The Filmphonics group regularly take over the top of the Hackney Picturehouse for an increasingly ambitious series of silent film screenings with live music.
The next date for your diary is a showing of one of our favourites: Lon Chaney in the gorgeously grotesque The Phantom of the Opera (1925). You owe it to yourself to see this classic on the big screen!
A mad, disfigured composer seeks love with a lovely young opera singer…. Far beneath the majesty and splendour of the Paris Opera House, hides the Phantom in a shadowy existence. Shamed by his physical appearance and feared by all, the love he holds for his beautiful protégée Christine Daaé is so strong that even her heart cannot resist.
And there’s more: this screening of The Phantom of the Opera will be accompanied live by the marvellous Costas Fotopoulos on piano.
Costas is based in London and works internationally as a concert and silent film pianist, and as a composer and arranger for film, the stage and the concert hall. He regularly provides live piano improvisations to silent films at BFI Southbank and he has also accompanied films at other major British venues such as the Barbican Centre and the Prince Charles Cinema, as well as in New York, Warsaw and Northern Italy.
The great news is that you could get your hands on a free pair of tickets to this screening. Get in! To win a pair of tickets to see The Phantom of the Opera at Hackney Attic, just send the answer to this question to email@example.com by noon on Wednesday 16 July 2014. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct entries.
Lon Chaney was known as the Man of a Thousand … what?
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.
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!
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.
Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday party continues in formidable style with the second part of the BFI’s Dickens on Screen season. Happily, the silents were not confined to the first run of screenings and February brings much to get excited about. First off is the famous 1922 adaptation of Oliver Twist. Frank Lloyd directs, while The Kid star Jackie Coogan plays the young orphan and Lon Chaney contorts his features into a suitably grotesque Fagin. With Coogan’s winsome pluck and Chaney’s gift for playing a villain, this was always going to be a classic Twist. It’s a spirited romp through the novel and a particular treat as this is one of the famous “lost” films of the silent era, which was found and restored in the 1970s, with some input from Coogan himself. To learn more, read Silent Volume’s appreciative review here or watch this clip, featuring one of the novel’s most melodramatic flourishes. Why not do both?
Oliver Twist screens at 6pm on Friday 3 February and at 8.45pm on Wednesday 8 February 2012 at NFT2, BFI Southbank. Both screenings will feature live piano accompaniment. Tickets are available from the BFI website.
The final silent Dickens film and the next screening in the season is The Only Way, a lavish and rather free adaptation of The Tale of Two Cities. This is a British production and John Martin Harvey reprises his stage role as Sydney Carton, despite his advancing years. His wife Madge Stuart plays Mimi his maid. Don’t remember Mimi from the novel? That’s cinematic licence for you. The famous director and producer Herbert Wilcox is at the helm and The Only Way was a smash hit, taking more than twice its £24,000 budget at the box office.
The Only Way screens at 3.50pm on Saturday 11 February and 8.40pm on Monday 27 February 2012 at BFI Southbank. Tickets are available from the BFI website.
• Don’t forget that there will be an exhibition to accompany the Dickens on Screen season in the Mezzanine at BFI Southbank from 12 January to 25 March. Also, during February, BFI members can watch The Pickwick Papers, an Anglo-American co-production from 1913, free online. The 15-minute fim stars the comedian John Bunny.