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… …
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!
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)
The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.
Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)
The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend. The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.
(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)
That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)
Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle. In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!
In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.
They say the world is divided between night owls and early-rising larks. Here at the Giornate, we split in two similar camps: are you up and at ’em first thing for Felix the Cat, who opens each day of the festival, or up all night with curtain-closer Koko the Clown? Your humble correspondent, it seems, is very much a cat person.
And by lunchtime today I was longing for the narrative simplicity of our lovable early morning Felix cartoon (Felix Loses Out, 1924). There was much to enjoy in the morning screenings, but either my mind was especially feeble or the plotting in some of the comedies was needlessly complex. First up, we had a Czech Anny Ondra double-bill. Chytÿte ho! (1925) was a romp and a half – Ondra plays a young lady whose guardian was a chronic gambler. There is a charming but dissolute artist, a gang of robbers and all kinds of shenanigans involving a stolen dowry. Ondra is all impish charm when in front of the camera, but most of the running time was taken up by male lead Karel Lamac undertaking a series of increasingly inventive comic stunts – the only shame was that the execution fell short of the imagination. Still lively stuff, and for me, preferable to the following film, Dáma S Malou Nozkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1920). A couple of amateur sleuths, one wily, one scrappy and dwarfish, attempt to recover a case of stolen money. It’s a strange film, made stranger by a missing length of film that renders one subplot barely intelligible. Strange too, in that it resists the expected narrative resolution. As it says in an intertitle, it’s a “comical piece about a detective, who discovered nothing, but found his true love”. Anny Ondra appears briefly as a young lady who has feet that are small, shapely and completely irrelevant to the plot. Anny, meet the “MacGuffin”, your friend Alfred will tell you more later …
I had little time for Polis Paulus Paskasmäll (The Smugglers, 1925) in the Swedish strand, though others heartily enjoyed it. Its stars were a famous comic duo in Denmark, though as far as I could tell their humour was based on the fact that one was shorter and fatter than the other, who in turn had a ridiculous moustache. Bucketloads of plot here, too, as love affairs, criminal schemes and old rivalries cause havoc among the residents and staff of a ski hotel. There was some excellent slapstick here (a sequence in which the taller comedian dressed himself in a bearskin rub, notably) but though you may call me shallow for it, my favourite thing in this film was leading lady Lili Lani’s chic winter wardrobe.
The West London Trades Union Club in Acton, London W3 is a welcoming place for those who enjoy a well-kept ale and a natter, and a haven for left-leaning cinephiles too. The venue’s Saturday afternoon film club is friendly, and pleasingly broad-minded: recent seasons have taken a look at the work of film-makers ranging from Joseph Losey to Paul Robeson as well as giving club members the chance to show their own favourite titles, week by week.
Last year I spent four hugely enjoyable, chatty Saturday afternoons in west London showing silent films chosen in collaboration with members of the club. The discussions afterwards were well-informed, not to say boisterous, and one topic we often returned to was: what are you going to show next year?
So, the silent film club is back, with some much-longed for comedy, another British film, some Weimar glamour and French impressionism. Here’s what’s coming up this autumn in Acton:
Comedy double-bill: The General (1926) and The Circus (1928)
Two classic films from the two titans of silent comedy: Buster Keaton’s ingenious civil-war chase film The General and Chaplin’s poignant, hilarious The Circus. These two films offer an opportunity to marvel at the best of silent comedy, but also to compare and contrast the different styles of these two great film-makers. Buster Keaton’s deadpan mechanical inventiveness versus Chaplin’s sentimental appeal and graceful physicality – you decide. 8 September 2012, 4pm
Hindle Wakes (1927)
This adaptation of the much-loved northern melodrama was filmed by Maurice Elvey, a giant of British silent cinema, now sadly all but forgotten. Elvey was a trade unionist himself, and Hindle Wakes is the story of a clandestine romance between a factory worker and an industrialist’s son. It’s gorgeously filmed, with some fantastic “Wakes Week” sequences shot in Blackpool – and the heroine, played by Estelle Brody, is a refreshingly modern woman. Not to be missed. 20 October 2012, 4pm
Pandora’s Box (1929)
Another modern woman, and one of the most famous films of the silent era. Louise Brooks is truly iconic as the liberated, amoral Lulu breaking hearts in swinging Weimar Germany. Erotic, witty and ultimately tragic, Pandora’s Box is a classic that rewards repeated viewing and while coolly received at the time, has subsequently made an international star or its reckless leading lady – it now stands as the definitive portrait of a decadent society. 10 November 2012, 4pm
When Marcel Herbier announced his intention to adapt Zola’s L’Argent but to place it in the contemporary setting of the 1920s Paris stockmarket, many were horrified that he would take an acclaimed historical novel about ruthlessly greedy, over-reaching bankers out of its context. But Herbier’s passion, “to film at any cost, even (what a paradox) at great cost, a fierce denunciation of money”, proved as pertinent in pre-crash Europe as it does now, in the fallout of the global financial crisis. L’Argent is not just social commentary, it’s an ambitiously innovative film, a masterpiece of poetic impressionism. 15 December 2012, 4pm
You don’t have to be a member of the club, or even of a trade union, to turn up and receive a warm welcome – and you will find the venue at 33 Acton High Street, London W3 6ND. It’s about five minutes walk from Acton Central train station, and on plenty of bus routes.
If you were at the British Silent Film Festival last year, you won’t need telling twice to book for Beggars of Life. The gorgeous Louise Brooks, leery Wallace Beery, a hulking great train, ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman at the helm and a soundtrack by the coolest skiffle band in town.
This show is a fine example of how invigorating the combination of a great silent movie and live music can be. The Dodge Brothers, an Americana-drenched quartet featuring none other than bequiffed film critic Mark Kermode on bass and harmonica, will accompany rail-riding rom-com Beggars of Life at the Barbican next month. And their numbers will be swelled by Neil Brand on the piano. Here’s a taster of one of the quieter moments from their score.