Early in my career as a silent film accompanist I had an experience, which in retrospect probably affected the way I think about the work. I was accompanying a Louise Brooks film that, as was typical at the time, I had not seen in advance. The piano was positioned directly beneath the screen, so that the image filled my field of vision. I recall it being one of those rare evenings when I was totally lost in the film and music seemed to flow directly from brain to piano, almost bypassing the hand.
At one point Louise was held in an extended close-up – her smiling, enigmatic beauty framed by silver light. Then she started to speak and, although there was no intertitle, it was very clear to me what she was saying. In fact, just for a few seconds, I could actually hear her voice speaking the words. At least, that’s how it seemed. In retrospect, I realised that I had almost certainly been lip-reading. However, something about the moment, as immersive as it was, made the words transform into the sound of a voice within my head.
This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway to Hollywood and then ran away to Europe to make three stunning, complex films that would secure her legacy as one of the great actors of the silent era. This film, 1930’s Prix de beauté, is the final film she made in Europe. It’s also the last silent film that she ever made, and without giving away the ending, it is an almost too-apt finish to her silent career.
Europe was Brooks’s sanctuary at the end of the 1920s, after she escaped from Hollywood. First, there were two German films. She was the unforgettable Lulu in GW Pabst’s dark, decadent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Then she played a waif who finds refuge in a brothel, in Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. Her third and final European film was this French title, Prix de beauté, shot by an Italian director. It was also Pabst’s idea.
Hip-hip hooray, it’s Hippfest programme announcement day. News that arrives like a sweet, sweet vaccination into the veins of a drizzly February.
While personally I am sorry not to be watching these films in the warm embrace of the Hippodrome this year, the lineup is immense, and I delighted to tell you that the films will be available to stream not only in the UK, but also in Europe and North America. So if you have never had the pleasure of a trip to Bo’Ness, the silent cinema capital of Scotland, well now is your chance to experience the award-winning Hippfest magic.
The full lineup is online … NOW. So you can peruse at your leisure. But may I please bring your attention to:
Brooksie! I am honoured that Hippfest has asked me to introduce a very special screening of Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté starring Louise Brooks on the Saturday afternoon, which will be accompanied by Stephen Horne, who really has a way with this film.
Rudolph Valentino! Without even consulting me, the Hippfest hipsters programmers chose my favourite Valentino film for the Friday night gala. It’s The Eagle, everyone! And with Neil Brand at the keys, this will be well worth dimming the lights in your lounge for. I insisted on writing the programme notes for this one …
Oscar Micheaux and Paul Robeson! Delve into the history of Black silent film history with a rare screening of Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 film Body and Soul starring Paul Robeson, with music by Wycliffe Gordon.
Sunday with Mary Pickford! Not only is Hippfest showing the silent Hollywood masterpiece that is Sparrows, with an introduction from Cari Beauchamp, but earlier that day, we are invited to a cookalong with Jenny Hammerton of Silver Screen Suppers to make one of Pickford’s favourite recipes, and to mix a special Hippfest cocktail.
Marlene Dietrich! So happy that this is in the programme: on Saturday night, the Frame Ensemble will accompany the gorgeous German silent The Woman Men Yearn For/Die Frau, Nach der Man Sich Sehnt, starriung the divine Dietrich.
There’s more! So much more, including Bryony Dixon introducing Asquith’s Underground with Brand’s orchestral score, Pudovkin’s Chess Fever, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, talks, a quiz, a tour of the Hippodrome … Book your pass as early as you can to support this wonderful festival.
““I am delighted to present our tenth HippFest… a year later than we originally planned but no less of a milestone!,” says festival director Alison Strauss. “We are looking forward to welcoming back all the many fans of HippFest and to throwing open the virtual cinema doors for audiences joining us for the first time. It’s exciting to think that more people might take the plunge because attendance this year is as easy as turning up in your own front room. This is definitely one of the upsides of a virtual festival. Whilst we will miss all being together under the star-studded ceiling of the Hippodrome we have tried to create a comparable cocktail of screenings with music, workshops, events and activities to sweep you up in the marvellous magic of early cinema. If dressing up is your thing, go for it! If you like mingling with other festival-goers, dive in to our virtual festival hub! However you do HippFest we’re sure you’ll have a great time.”
• The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival takes place online Wednesday 17 – Sunday 21 March 2021. Passes cost £20 or £5 for concessions. To read more about Hippfest and to book, click here.
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Yes, I’m talking about the Pandora’s Box rerelease this summer again – but I’ll be brief. I have three things to share with you.
First, here is the very chic poster for the rerelease. The BFI marketing team is clearly adopting a Brooks-first strategy, and who can blame them?
Second, here is the trailer!
Third, which you may have guessed by now – contrary to previous reports, this theatrical release will actually be a 2K digital print of the newest restoration of the film, complBoxhereeted in 2009 by Martin Koerber and the Deutsche Kinemathek. As Koerber said to me, in this version “you can see every flutter of Louise Brooks’s eyelashes”. How can you resist?
You can buy my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box here.
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
There is no such thing as too many images of Louise Brooks. Even during her Hollywood years, she was more photographed than filmed – appearing in portraits in movie magazines more often than she did on the big screen. Now, a fascinating discovery by the BFI shows us Louise Brooks in the roaring twenties as we have never really seen her before. In glorious two-strip Technicolor, posing, laughing and fidgeting with her costume in and out-take from the lost film The American Venus (Frank Tuttle, 1926). Check out that beaming smile!
The clip was found in a collection of Technicolor fragments in the BFI archive. They are stunning to watch. As well as Brooksie, don’t miss Hedda Hopper in Mona Lisa an Karl Dane gurning with a pipe. To read more about the discover of these amazing images, listen to the commentary by Bryony Dixon in the video below – and pick up the June 2018 issue of Sight & Sound, which contains the full story of the fragments’ discovery and is out next week (it also includes a feature by me on Pabst’s women).
(Impatient people can skip to 1.07 to see Brooksie, but there are many more treasures in this reel.)
While we’re on, I want to say that lots of people have been kind enough to write thoughtful and positive reviews of the book on Amazon UK and on Goodreads so far – thank you to everyone who did that! And if you want to join them, please be my guest.
Sight & Sound also ran a very nice review of the book in its February 2018 issue: check it out! David Thompson wrote the piece and here are some of the things he said about the book:
highly sympathetic and well researched book … a welcome and long overdue addition to the BFI Film Classics series … particularly valuable in detailing the origins of the film, how it came to be made at all and the striking personalities involved …
Hutchinson takes us through this narrative in unerring detail, underlining Pabst’s significant departures from the original and demonstrating how Wedekind’s palindromic structure is compressed but also heightened through the film’s imagery …
As Hutchinson adroitly points out, it pictures “female sexuality not as moral weakness but as an eruption of pleasure”. She notes that everything turns constantly on how much men’s desire for Lulu is transformed into hate, and how far money potentially poisons all the relationships throughout …
As this book makes very clear, rarely has the blurring of a screen role and real life been so fruitful for a creator and so tantalising for the audience.
“Unerring detail”, eh? Don’t let that put you off. Stick out the “unerring detail” and soon enough you’ll get to that “eruption of pleasure”, I promise.
Hello! To celebrate the fact that my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box is on sale in the US as of today (LINK) I have rounded up some links relating to the book. I’ve been out and about talking about the film IRL but also online, as you’ll see. I’ve included some of the nice things that people have said about the book, too. *blush*
The fantastic Paul Joyce gave the book a great writeup on his site Ithankyou. “Pamela writes with an expert eye, easy wit and steadfast concision; there is much attention to detail in the book but it is all explained with fluid precision. The research is thorough, with revelations both scandalous and surprising and this is one of the best of the BFI’s Film Classics series I’ve read, achieving its key objectives with ease. Pandora’s Box is engrossing, informative and entertaining … it made me experience the film in a completely different way”
Rick Burin was kind enough to write this about the book: “Pamela Hutchinson’s brilliant new study of Pandora’s Box (2017), in the BFI Film Classics series, is an extremely astute, readable reading of a fascinating film, explaining the enduring appeal and allure of both the picture and its heroine, the shimmering, sensual, black-helmeted Lulu: chauvinist avatar turned feminist icon.”
One-hundred-and-eleven years ago, the actress, writer and icon Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas. She danced, she inspired a comic strip, she scandalised people, she acted, she starred, she disappeared … then she came back and told us all about it, in a series of wise and candid essays and some revelatory interviews. Her famous cool look, with those sharp features, glittering eyes and that slick haircut, represent the essence of 1920s chic. Her fame and popularity seem to grow every year. In short, Louise Brooks is hot stuff, even now.
To celebrate the anniversary of Louise Brooks’s birth I want to share with you the first look at my new book on her greatest film, Pandora’s Box (1929). Thanks for all your support along the way to writing this book. It has meant so much to me.
Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.
It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.
However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.
In case you are wondering, this is the correct order of business, in my humble opinion: watch the film, then read the book, then watch the film again. Repeat as required and enjoy!
So I have a few dates and venues confirmed, where you can come along, watch the film, with an introduction or Q&A from moi, and if you feel so inclined, buy a copy of the book (very reasonably priced, lots of pictures). It would be great to see some Silent Londoners in the audience. As more dates are arranged, I’ll add them to this post, but as ever, pay attention to the Silent London social media channels to get the breaking news.
So far, ALL these screenings are 35mm projections with live musical accompaniment. Because if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. And seeing Pandora’s Box on the big screen is definitely a thing worth doing.
Just a short note, to give you a little bit of news. The book I’ve been writing, well actually wrote last summer, has a release date! It’s a short book in the BFI Film Classics series, about one of the most beautiful and fascinating of all silent movies, GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), starring the unique Louise Brooks. #pandorasbook
Bad news for now – the book isn’t out until 21 November.
Good news for now – you can pre-order the book already, on Amazon, on the Palgrave site, or in a selection of other bookshops.
Good news to come – I’m talking to several people at venues up and down the UK, about screenings of the film to tie in with the launch. The deal is: I’ll come along, chat about the film, sell you a book and it will be midwinter magic all round. Details of those events to come, so watch this space …
Thanks for all your support. It’s also exactly a year today since I quit my full-time job and I have had a fabulous, busy 12 months of freelance film-related work. It’s enough to make a girl want to dance …
Nobody knows more about Louise Brooks than Thomas Gladysz. Having founded the Louise Brooks Society in 1995, he has spent more than two decades researching her life and work, curating memorabilia and writing about this most fascinating of silent era actresses. A few years back he published a sumptuous illustrated edition of the novel that Brooks’s second German film, Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst, 1929) was based on, and he has contributed audio commentaries to American DVDs of that film, and her finest Hollywood movie, Beggars of Life (William Wellman, 1928).
Which brings us up to date with Gladysz’s latest publication – a short book about the Wellman film, packed with anecdotes and information. Beggars of Life: A Companion to the 1928 Film is a quick, satisfying read, illustrated with promotional material, posters and stills as well as press clippings. In these pages, Gladysz takes us through the making and the reception of the film and clears up a few mysteries too.
The film, which you may have been lucky enough to see accompanied by a live score from the fabulous Dodge Brothers, features Brooks as an orphan fugitive, dressed as a boy and riding the rails with a handsome tramp played by Richard Arlen and a gang of his peers, including the the menacing Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery. It’s adapted from a famous book by “hobo author” Jim Tully, and although it was a little sanitised by Hollywood, it’s still a remarkably raw, realist film. Not least of its strengths is that Brooks here gives an excellent performance as a survivor of sexual abuse, as she would in her two Pabst films, drawing perhaps on her own experiences as a child.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has just closed for another year. Four days of movies and music at the sumptuous Castro Theatre – and this time I was actually there! Pinch me, I still can’t believe it’s true. In this short podcast, I run through a few of my highlights of the weekend and try to give a flavour of this fantastic event. Enjoy!
This is an extended version of a paper that I gave at the British Silent Film Festival Symposium at King’s College London on 7 April 2017. My book on Pandora’s Box (1929) is forthcoming from BFI Palgrave.
G. W. Pabst’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, but in many places a very loose one. Those German plays are about thirty years older than the film, a Weimar-era classic that marries traces of Expressionism with the late-1920s sobriety of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Pandora’s Box was filmed in Berlin, or at least in a former zeppelin hangar in Staaken, and its American star Louise Brooks identitfied its depiction of divergent sexualities and the sex trade with the city’s glamorous, permissive nightlife. Her evocative description of the city during the shoot, when she was staying at the famous Eden Hotel, begins: “Sex was the business of the town …”
“At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors’ agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub, Eldorado, displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre.”[i]
There is only one named location in the film, however, and it is in this place that the fictional narrative bumps into historical circumstance – so in this case, geography carries crucial meaning. The final act of Pandora’s Box the film, just like the final act of Wedekind’s play of the same name, takes place in London – in a slum district most likely in the east of the city. Jack the Ripper walks these streets, and our heroine Lulu, reduced to prostitution, encounters him with fatal consequences. This murder is her dramatic destiny, and to understand the film more fully, which was possibly the first cinema adaptation of the plays to feature London and the Ripper, we need to think about the British capital rather than the German one. To explore this topic I am going to examine three disappointing “misadventures” in London: the visits made by Frank Wedekind, Louise Brooks and the film itself.
I can’t believe I have been keeping this one to myself. As part of the process of writing a book on Pandora’s Box, I took a chance and wrote to a woman who I admire hugely, and who I know is a serious Louise Brooks aficionado. The novelist Ali Smith kindly agreed to answer a few hastily gathered questions on Brooks. Her answers were so eloquent, and inspirational, that I wanted to share them in full with you here …
It’s very common, since the 1960s, to talk about films belonging to directors. One hardly ever hears those auteurist labels on Brooks’s European films. I wondered if you felt these films mean something different when labelled as the work of their star rather than their director?
I kind of don’t care, and have never been much interested in labels. They’re always simplifications. But labels definitely preserve things over time, so thank god for that, and for the little flags they erect on the surface of knowledge so that people can see where to go to dig down deeper. I do despair, though, of the way our individual and common knowledge, both, get so lost so fast. Brooks, lost after the silent masterpiece years, till she died, was reclaimed in the 70s and 80s. I saw Pandora’s Box on TV in, I think, 1981. My mother, who wasn’t one for idle speculation or idle interests in things on TV, or idle anything, and who always went off to bed early, stayed up till 1am watching the film with me, till she couldn’t stay up any later, and in the morning the first thing she asked me was what happened at the end of that film?
Thirty years later, we have to do it all again – I heard your piece on Woman’s Hour, and sensed Jenni Murray’s astonishment at encountering Brooks for the first time. I was amazed – how could people not know Brooks? How could such a central cultural commentator not have her in her bones? (Unless she was simply being a kind introducer of Brooks to a listening audience who might bot know her.)* Where does that knowledge go? Here you are, doing that vital task.
Silent London may be a little neglected over the summer, because I am writing a book. Yay! Just a little one. The site won’t entirely close though: I hope to pop back here occasionally to update you on the progress of the book, and my research, and maybe to find a little company during my summer hibernation.
The book will be a BFI Film Classic, on a very special and beautiful movie. I’ll be writing about … Pandora’s Box (1929), GW Pabst’s dazzling take on Wedekind’s Lulu plays, starring the endlessly fascinating Louise Brooks. I know that many of you love this film – and quite right too. So I am very pleased to be spending the summer with Georg and Louise and Frank, sweating happily over a hot keyboard.
Film Classics are short and sweet as you may know, but I will still be working full-time so it may take me a little while to get there. And I will probably still be writing elsewhere. As always, the best way to keep up with the other things I write is here on my portfolio site, or by clicking on the “More by me” tab at the top of the site.
Obviously, in what feels like the dim, distant future when the book is published, I’d love it if you could buy it, or put it on your Christmas lists, or borrow it from your library, or just tell some interested friends about it.
But that’s not the request I want to make today. It’s simply this: don’t be a stranger! Bear with with Silent London while it is on a go-slow – I’ll still post here, and on Facebook and Twitter sometimes. And please be patient if all I seem to talk about is Neue Sachlichkeit and Brooks’s razor-sharp fringe for a while.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.
Louise Brooks and GW Pabst, an irresistible combination? Certainly Pandora’s Box (1929) caught lightning in a bottle, creating one of the most iconic female roles in all of silent cinema. In Pandora’s Box, Pabst and Brooks tease eroticism out of a certain ingenue naivety, whereas in her previous US films (A Girl In Every Port and Beggars of Life in particular) Brooks had offerede a slightly more world-weary sensuality. So it is no surprise that Pabst saw Brooks as the perfect person to play Thymian, the sheltered girl who will drop through the cracks of life via a workhouse for fallen women and prostitution.
This new Blu-Ray transfer of Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer verlorenen, 1929) by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is a crisp and beautiful version of what is clearly an exploitation movie. As in Pandora’s Box, Pabst’s walks the tightrope of commenting on eroticism and sensuality; too often he falls off the tightrope into titillation. The film is set up for us to rue the difficult circumstances that lead to Thymian’s journey from a fine middle-class household down into poverty and eventually to selling her body. Except everything is still a bit clean. The reformatory is horrid, but only in comparison to her comfortable home – and its horridness is more due to a Miss Hanniganesque management rather than something inherent in the system. And there isn’t really too much criticism of Thymian’s shaming (AKA rape), and pregnancy. You get the sense that the original author (the film is based on a popular Margarete Böhme novel) and the film-makers are just following through the logical conclusion of these incidents. Instead, we end up with a somewhat warped fairytale, a slow-burn Snow White where the dwarves run a brothel full of happy hookers, or Cinderella with calisthenics.
There is a sensuality and rawness in Pandora’s Box, coming from Lulu’s naivity, which Thymian doesn’t share at all. At least by the time the film has put her through her paces as part of the reformatory’s physical education routine, she has no sense of wild abandon. It is a wholly more sinister erotic thrill, underlined (perhaps a bit too heavily) by the matron whipping her gong and clearly getting far too much pleasure out of the whole affair. This part of the film could be subtitled Reform School Girls do gym:
On Saturday night at Glastonbury 2014, the mud, the terrible noodles and the hangovers will all be worth it. For the first time ever, a silent film will play the country’s leading rock festival. Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers will perform their rousing score for William’s Wellman’s rail-riding rollercoaster Beggars of Life in the Pilton Palais cinema tent, at 6pm on 28 June. We’ll be there – will you?
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 Stephen Horne, silent film musician and composer. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Looking at some of the dictionary definitions of the word “haunting”, it strikes me that they are applicable to silent films in general. After all what could be more poignant, evocative or difficult to forget than watching long passed-away performers, their mute emotions given voice by music? The following films have extra elements that have made them lodge in my memory like nagging melodies. Usually there is something about them that is unexpected, unresolved or ambiguous. They often feel as though they end on an ellipsis, a cinematic ” … ”
These are all films that I have accompanied at some point, which is probably a big reason for their place in my heart. As I’m sure every silent film musician can testify, when a live accompaniment is going well, it can sometimes feel as if you are channeling the film in a way that can be positively uncanny. One warning. It’s in the nature of this subject that often what lingers most in the mind is the denouement. Therefore, what follows could potentially be regarded as an extended spoiler. Please approach with caution!
The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)
While The Battle of the Somme is much better known, the final images of its “sequel” remain more firmly in my mind. Seen in spectral silhouette, soldiers prepare “to continue the great fight for freedom”, as the intertitle puts it. Of course, what they are also heading towards is further slaughter. The original official score, a cue sheet medley rediscovered by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, calls for this finale to be accompanied by Land of Hope and Glory. Seldom has a musical suggestion seemed, at least to a modern sensibility, more heartbreakingly wrong. Which somehow makes it right.
J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)
Gance’s first world war classic is full of images that scarify the memory. The March of the Dead is the most famous example: is it to be interpreted literally, allegorically or as a mass hallucination? The knowledge that Gance used real soldiers on leave from the front as actors makes the viewing experience all the more impactful: we are watching the cinematic portrayal of a phantom army, played by people who were soon to become phantoms themselves.
However, the moment that always slays me is a quiet one in the scene that immediately follows. Jean, now completely mad, re-enters his old home, looks around … and calls out his own name. He has lost everything, including himself.
The Woman from Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)
In 1996 the BFI programmed a season of films to coincide with the publication of Gilbert Adair’s book Flickers. Marking the centenary of cinema, this often-whimsical tome wove brief essays around a single still from one film of every one of those hundred years. Gilbert explained in his introduction to the screening of this little-known film that he had never actually seen it. All he knew was the still image included in his book, but it was one that had haunted him: a woman standing alone, perhaps lost, on a path in the middle of nowhere. He had always wondered about the backstory that had led her to this point and was almost scared to watch the film, in case the reality disappointed him. Truthfully I don’t remember the film in detail, but now the same image lingers in my mind. For me the woman from nowhere is still standing on that road, lost for ever.
Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)
One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, despite the perfectly rendered happy ending. What lingers is the impression of a child’s struggle to comprehend bereavement, uncannily conveyed in Jean Forest’s dark eyes. The moment when the boy sees his father crying for the first time is very prescient of the ending of The Bicycle Thieves.
Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925)
Where does Stella go, after she walks away from the window? Something in her expression indicates that she has come untethered and I always imagine that she eventually drifts into homelessness. Sometimes if I see an elderly homeless woman, having a conversation with an unseen third party, I think: “Stella – talking to her daughter … ”
Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926)
Is it possible for a comedy to be haunting? The film is delightfully funny, but it is the heartbroken expression on Beatrice Lillie’s face at the bittersweet climax that seems to resonate longer. Her character has been courageous and loveable and she deserved better. It’s also a surprising and brave way for a comedy to end.
Jenseits Der Strasse (Leo Mittler, 1929)
I saw this at the Bonner Sommerkino many years ago. The expression on the face of Lissy Arna’s streetwalker in the last scene burned itself into my memory. The moment itself is partially comic, as the gross belly of her next client protrudes centre-frame. However as she tries to smile at him, her vacant eyes belie the fact that her personal window of happiness has definitively slammed shut.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)
What I love most about Asquith’s masterpiece is the ambiguity of its final act. Few other silent films seem to generate so much discussion of character motivation. Is Sally’s forgiveness of Joe purely born of compassion or does she perhaps regret her life choices? When he asks “are you happy?” she seems to pause a beat too long, before turning her head away from him and answering “very”.
The final scene, which transcends an often wonderful but undeniably uneven film, is poignant in many ways. Louise Brooks’ character is watching herself in a screen test – one that will determine her future career in talking films – when she is shot dead by her ex-lover. While silent film Louise dies in the foreground, sound film Louise continues to sing on, framed in the screen behind her. It seems like a metaphor for both Brooks’ own soon-to-be curtailed career and the imminent death of silent films.
The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (Otto Kylmälä, 2011)
A slight indulgence, partly as this is a 21st-century silent, but also because I provided the music. However, I make no apology, as Otto Kylmälä’s seven-minute jewel of a short ends with a truly haunting moment that I won’t spoil, as it’s not generally available to watch at the moment. But you’ll know it when you see it. Come to think of it, the moment is accompanied by a rather haunting melody… …