Tag Archives: London Film Festival

The Goose Woman: London Film Festival review

The Goose Woman (1925)
The Goose Woman (1925)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.

During his interesting (if incredibly long) introduction to The Goose Woman at its London Film Festival screening, Robert Gitt suggested that Louise Dresser would have won an Academy Award if the ceremony had existed in 1925. Having watched the film, few will disagree with his assessment. Dresser plays Mary Holmes – the eponymous goose woman – an alcoholic, embittered old crone living on a remote farm. Twenty years earlier, she was Marie de Nardi, a beautiful singer on the cusp of fame, but she gave up her career to have her son Gerald (Jack Pickford) and now she has nothing but her memories, her geese and a pile of broken booze bottles outside her window. Dresser’s performance as this unsympathetic protagonist is remarkable, expressing sadness, regret and bitterness through her subtle but forceful acting.

Clarence Brown’s film is adapted from a story by Rex Beach, which was itself based on the real-life “Pig Woman” case (heavily publicised by William Randolph Hearst’s press at the time). It’s the tale of a murder that Mary claims to have witnessed, milking the subsequent publicity and press attention for all it’s worth, and propelling herself back into the spotlight, but her fabricated account of what happened that night inadvertently frames her own son for the murder. This narrative is given an extra charge by the tensions that are already simmering between Mary and Gerald, with Mary blaming her son for her ruined career, and their relationship reaches its nadir when she hits him with a revelation about his parentage that’s so shocking the film can’t even articulate it. The Goose Woman is so coy about the nature of this secret that for some time I wasn’t sure what it was; all we see is Mary spitefully mouthing the truth as her son recoils in horror, and then he tearfully runs to his fiancée Hazel (Constance Bennett) who reacts with similar dismay.

Aside from that confusing plot niggle, The Goose Woman‘s story is handled with great skill and sophistication by Brown, who keeps the action down-to-earth and rooted in character, sustaining an impressive level of suspense (with welcome burst of humour) until the final scenes. He has a great eye for detail and there are some lovely, telling moments scattered throughout the movie, like the running gag involving Mary’s attempts to hide her whisky bottle, or her habit of judging every man she meets by rubbing his business card (if you don’t have embossed lettering, you’re not worth a damn, clearly). His visual style is simple but effective, and he puts together a terrific sequence during Gerald’s interrogation, cutting away to a dripping tap, nuts being cracked and coins jangling, as the suspect’s anxiety grows. This latter scene is also the kind of interlude that allows accompanist Stephen Horne to get creative on his piano and flute; as ever, his playing at this screening caught the tone and mood of the picture perfectly.

In the years following this film, Brown went on to direct a number of stars to some of their most celebrated performances (including Greta Garbo, who called him her favourite director) and it’s clear from The Goose Woman that he was very much an actors’ director. All of the performances here are a pleasure to watch, particularly the scene-stealing James O Barrows and Gustav von Seyffertitz as a detective and district attorney who have a competitive relationship in the movie’s background, and it’s nice to see Jack Pickford – so often in his sister’s shadow – given a rare chance to shine. However, The Goose Woman ultimately belongs to Louise Dresser, whose outstanding lead performance, like the film itself, deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated.

Philip Concannon

A Trip to the Moon: London Film Festival review

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.

Even if you’ve never seen Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon (1902) you’ll be familiar with its most enduring image, that of the Man in the Moon grimacing as a rocket lands in his right eye. However, you probably recall that shot in black-and-white, as that’s how the film has been presented for so many years, but Méliès also made A Trip to the Moon in colour. Following the rediscovery of a severely damaged colour print in Barcelona in 1993 – and a painstaking, frame-by-frame restoration – we finally have the opportunity to enjoy the director’s original vision, which surely hasn’t looked as good as this since it premiered in 1902.

Méliès was cinema’s first magician, and he blesses his characters with the same gift for wizardry. In the opening scene, a group of bearded astronomers gather in a great hall, clutching telescopes that they quickly transform into stools so they can sit and listen to their leader’s lunar exploration plans. You might expect editing tricks such as this to appear rudimentary to the modern viewer, but there’s something delightful about the casual ease with which Méliès pulls them off, and the whole film contains moments to thrill and enchant. The lavish sets create a remarkable sense of depth and scale as the intrepid explorers stroll around on the moon’s surface, and there are some wondrously inventive touches, such as the stars coming to life and observing the explorers while they sleep, or the alien creatures who suddenly ambush them, prompting a frantic escape. Our heroes only have their umbrellas to defend themselves with (never visit the moon without one) but it proves to be enough, as one strike from that deadly weapon turns each alien into a puff of smoke, an effect that looks even better now that the smoke is green.

The restored version of A Trip to the Moon that screened this week at the London Film Festival is a beauty. The tinting respects Méliès’s original intentions and helps us pick out details in the background of his often busy compositions, with the celebratory scenes of the explorers’ departure and return being particularly well-served by this new presentation. Visually, A Trip to the Moon is a constant delight, but I have doubts about the score, which has been composed for the film by the French duo Air. One audience member amusingly cried “Oh no!” as the band’s credit was revealed, and while the score doesn’t quite deserve such a despairing reaction, it does feel like an odd fit for the movie. In some scenes, notably the preparations for launch, the music possesses a sense of rhythm that perfectly matches the action, but in other sequences their electric guitars and animal noises (!) jar discordantly with Méliès’s images.

That caveat aside, A Trip to the Moon is essential viewing. It is 14 minutes of pure imagination and it remains as surprising and charming as ever – 109 years on, Méliès the magician still knows how to cast his spell over an audience.

Philip Concannon

Silent films at the 55th London Film Festival – a preview

Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)
Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)

• This post was updated on 30 September 2011

Stand by for 15 days of non-stop film-film-film in the capital – the London Film Festival approaches. High-profile events such as this are renowned for attracting the best new films, but increasingly they offer a space for freshly restored classics as well. Happily, this year, silent films fall into both of those categories.

The headline news is that Michel Hazanavicius’s hotly-tipped The Artist (2011) is coming to London. This modern silent, a love letter to 1920s Hollywood, has consistently charmed critics since it was first shown at Cannes and the Weinsteins are opening it in America at Thanksgiving, leading inevitably to what the magazines call “Oscar buzz”. There is still no news of the UK release date, so these two London gala screenings, while pricey, are certainly precious. I can’t wait to see it, myself.

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)

The next big thing, as it were, is the London Film Festival Archive Gala, which this year will be the BFI’s brand-new restoration of Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928), as I revealed on Wednesday. This stunning film will be accompanied by the premiere of a new score written by the incomparable Stephen Horne when it screens at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. Do not miss.

The Goose Woman (1925)
The Goose Woman (1925)

Stephen Horne will also provide musical accompaniment for two of the other silent film screenings at the festival – in the Treasures from the Archives strand. First up is The Goose Woman (1925), a Hollywood film directed by Clarence Brown (Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie). This film is a recent rediscovery, which been restored by Kevin Brownlow and Robert Gitt, who will introduce the screening. The Goose Woman stars Louise Dresser as a former opera singer who tries to regain some of her fame by claiming to have witnessed a murder. Unfortunately, her false testimony frames her son, played by Jack Pickford. This movie was a great success at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so it’s very exciting to finally be able to see it in the UK. The screening at BFI Southbank will be prefaced by a couple of early Vitaphone shorts  – yes, sound films.

Shoes (1916)
Shoes (1916)

Next, a double-bill of restorations from foreign archives – The Nail in the Boot (1931), from the Gosfilmofun in Moscow, is a piece of Soviet silent propaganda, that was nonetheless attacked at the time for prioritising form over content. When a soldier fails in an assignment because of an injury caused by a broken shoe, a military inquiry is held to find out whether he is a traitor to the cause. The film is partnered an American film, Shoes (1916), directed by Lois Weber. This movie, which was been restored from separate prints by the EYE institute in the Netherlands, focuses on inner-city poverty – as experienced by a young shopworker who wants some new shoes, which of course she can’t afford. This programme screens at NFT1 in BFI Southbank.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

A late addition to the programme, the restoration of Méliès’s hand-tinted, full-colour  Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) will screen twice at the festival, accompanying Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952), “a satirical fantasy … about a photographer who discovers that his camera has magic powers: as he develops snapshots in his studio, their subjects expire in another part of the town, inspiring the cameraman to devise a scheme to kill the wicked, the greedy and the corrupt.” Click here for more information and tickets to the screenings, which will be held at BFI Southbank.

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

The final silent Treasure from the Archive is a collection of tinted and toned documentary travelogues, showing London in the 1920s. Wonderful London incorporates footage from all across the city, and the screening will be introduced by Bryony Dixon, with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. Talk about silent London … you can watch these six films in two screenings at BFI Southbank.

I must add a special mention also, to a short film playing as part of a collection called Just Because You’re Paranoid, It Doesn’t Mean They’re Not After You at BFI Southbank. Henry Miller’s A Short Film About Shopping (2011) is described as “a silent study” in which a “a dentist’s mundane routine is radically altered by a trip to the shops. You can watch the trailer here.

The 55th London Film Festival runs from 12-27 October 2011. Everything you need to know about booking tickets for the London Film Festival is explained here.

The First Born will be the 55th London Film Festival’s Archive Gala film

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)

The full lineup for the 55th London Film Festival has now been announced and I am pleased to say that this year’s Archive Gala film will be Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928) with a new score by Stephen Horne. The film will be screened with its new score at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre on 20 October 2011.

I’ll be writing more about the film in coming weeks, but for now I can tell you that The First Born is a sophisticated drama, adapted by Mander from his own novel and play, about a philandering politician and his wife. Mander plays the politician, Sir Hugh Boycott, and Madeleine Carroll is his unhappy wife. The couple are unable to have a child, which puts a further strain on their marriage and so Boycott’s wife attempts to dupe him into believing that someone else’s baby is his own…

Bryony Dixon explains more on the BFI Screenonline website.

The First Borndeals with difficult subjects – the double standards of the upper classes, jealousy and secrecy, miscegenation, and the tension between conformity and a more modern morality. Sewn into the plot are also references to the world of politics, of which Mander had much experience, as the younger brother of Sir Geoffrey Mander, the eminent Liberal radical … The treatment is unusually ‘adult’ and made with skill and a degree of invention. The most striking example is a point of view shot with handheld camera as Boycott stalks through the marital bedroom to tease and torment his wife as she is in the bath. The film is masterly in its construction and continuity.

Dixon goes on to speculate whether the influence of Alma Reville, who co-wrote the film, might be due credit for some of the film’s Hitchcockian flourishes. In October, we will be able to judge for ourselves.

And of course, the other big news for silent film fans is that Michel Hazanavicius’s modern silent The Artist will be screening at the festival as well. Wonderful news.