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.
The Passport to Cinema strand returns to BFI Southbank in September and October, under the banner of Making the Modern. And the strand begins with a timeless silent cinema favourite, Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks.
So, Pandora’s Box is the oldest film in the season, but its nonchalant treatment of sexuality, violent plot and chic Berlin architecture make it about as modern as modern can get. Perhaps that is why the film’s popularity has grown over the decades, from a disappointing start at the box office, to universal acclaim as a cool classic.
Judging by the running time given in the BFI programme, this might not be the new restoration of the film shown at the London Film Festival, but sex appeal like this really deserves to be seen on the big screen, nonetheless. So get your dancing shoes on, folks.
Pandora’s Box screens in NFT1 on Sunday 4 September at 3.20pm and in NFT2 on Monday 5 September at 6.10pm, with an introduction by Dr Nathalie Morris of the BFI and the Women and Silent British Cinema project. There will be live piano accompaniment at both screenings (by John Sweeney on the Sunday and Stephen Horne on the Monday), and tickets will be on sale in August.
There’s very little that Silent London enjoys more than a touch of Hollywood glamour, and evidently the National Portrait Gallery agrees. Their new exhibition, which opens on Thursday 7 July, is entitled Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits and features photographs taken from The John Kobal Collection. To accompany the show, which includes stunning pictures of Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and other beautiful megastars, the Gallery has programmed a series of events, including free film screenings on Sunday afternoons.
Fittingly, two of the films come from Hollywood’s most glamorous decade, the 1920s. First, Buster Keaton’s cattle-herding adventure Go West (1925) will be screened on 17 July. You may have seen this film featured on Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood documentary recently. This is the film that apparently offers a glimpse of Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, long after he was officially exiled from the movies.
Second, one of the silent era’s slinkiest actresses, Louise Brooks, stars in the notoriously decadent Pandora’s Box (1929) on 31 July. Brooks’s effortless sex appeal in this film really set the template for Hollywood glamour for decades to come, so you can’t afford to miss it.
Go West screens in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre of the National Portrait Gallery at 3pm on 17 July 2011. Pandora’s Box screens in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre of the National Portrait Gallery at 3pm on 31 July 2011. Entrance to both films is free. Entrance to the Glamour of the Gods Exhibition is £6, less for concessions or free for members. You can book tickets online here. Glamour of the Gods runs from 7 July to 23 October 2011.
Hat-tip to @soshanau on Twitter for telling me about this one.
For the vintage-lovers among you, this exhibition should be a real treat. Pam Glew’s Beautiful and Damned exhibition at Blackall Studios in east London uses vintage fabrics and techniques to create poignant but gorgeous images of silent movie stars. It’s only on for a few days, so catch it while you can:
‘Beautiful and Damned’, the shows title, is of course taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel, which explores the listless lives of moneyed society during the Jazz Age. This captivating era, drenched in glamour yet tinged with tragedy is the decadent setting for this extraordinary series of work. The exquisitely beautiful movie starlets, society icons and characters on display capture the spirit of the age all who are caught in the unforgiving glare of the limelight and some sadly burn out before their time. As Pam states, “the tragedy amongst the beauty is what has inspired this show, the sharp contrast between a blessed life and one that ends in scandal, hedonism or destitution”.
Time for some exclamation mark abuse, I feel. Louise Brooks! In Pandora’s Box! On the big screen! For free!
It’s true. The Prince Charles Cinema has generously donated a pair of tickets to see Pandora’s Box on 26 May to one lucky reader of this blog. All you have to do is answer a simple silent film question and drop me an email. This is the question:
Louise Brooks made one more film with director GW Pabst after Pandora’s Box. What was it called?
Know the answer? Then email both your answer and your full name to email@example.com by 11 May 2011. When the closing date rolls around I will pick one correct answer at random and the fortunate emailer will receive two free tickets to the Pandora’s Box screening on 26 May. Simple as that. Good luck!
If you haven’t seen Pandora’s Box (1929) before, I’m actually a little jealous of you. This film and its notorious leading lady are so irrepressibly gorgeous that your first viewing really should be a big-screen experience – and this is the perfect opportunity.
By the end of the 1920s Louise Brooks had had her fill of Hollywood, and Hollywood had pretty much had its fill of her. Lucky, then, that she caught the eye of German director GW Pabst and moved to swinging Weimar Berlin to take the lead role in Pandora’s Box. Brooks plays Lulu, a hedonistic dancer who pursues her own pleasure at the expense of bourgeois morality, or pretty much anyone’s morality, come to mention it. The role has come to define Brooks and rightly so. Who hasn’t, when watching Brooks shake her iconic bob, thought: “That girl could get away with murder”? Pandora’s Box puts that theory to the test like no other movie, and Brooks’s sensual performance radiates here – even as events take a series of sinister turns and the film transforms from a backstage comedy, to a thriller, to something approaching horror.
Keep an eye out for your chance to win a pair of free tickets to Pandora’s Box next week, here on Silent London
Pandora’s Box screens at the Prince Charles Cinema on Thursday 26 May at 8.30pm. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by the marvellous John Sweeney. Tickets cost £10 or £6 for members and they’re available here.
The time is right for a little rock’n’roll – and who better to rock our world than Louise Brooks? The British Silent Film Festival is putting on a screening of Beggars of Life (1928), which stars Brooks as a young runaway who dresses as a boy and falls in with criminals, “riding the rails” across Depression-era America. It is known as the best of Brooks’s American silents, thanks to her fresh lead performance and the film’s fast-moving pace. If you’ve read Lulu in Hollywood, you’ll know from Brooks’s own account that between the stuntwork, the bitchiness and the practical jokes, the cast and crew had a hell of a time making this film, too.
The aforementioned rock’n’roll comes from the musical accompaniment for the screening: the Dodge Brothers, featuring film critic Mark Kermode and joined on this occasion by silent film pianist Neil Brand. The Dodge Brothers are a skiffle band, and play in a retro rockabilly style. They’ve worked on silent films before – soundtracking White Oak at the Barbican in 2009 and playing along to Beggars of Life at the British Silent Film Festival in Leicester last year. Here, Mark Kermode talks about what it’s like to work on a silent film project:
This promises to be a fantastic show – and tickets for the screening are likely to be very popular. Beggars of Life screens in NFT1 at the BFI Southbank on Sunday 10 April at 6pm. Tickets are £13 or £9.75 for concessions and £1.50 less for members. Tickets go on sale to BFI members on 8 March, and on general sale on 15 March. For more details, visit the BFI website.