This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.
Silent films never sleep… They may seem kind of ‘quiet’ (LOL), but then, all of a sudden, they can muster and mass and come at you pretty fast and furious … And here we are, in the midst of experiencing somewhat of a feast period of silent film exhibition, certainly in London, let alone everywhere else where plenty of our favourite film medium can also be found. All boom and no bust. We’ve had wickedly brilliant Weimar silents and glorious Victorian films from the BFI, with more of the former yet to come, and 700 of the latter just recently becoming free to view on the BFI Player (free, I say!! FREE!!! Go view them NOW!! Well, maybe after you’ve finished reading this…).
Happy London Film Festival programme launch day! The festival runs 10-21 October this year and there are oodles of films showing, from the competition titles and the galas to the weird and wonderful pieces in the experimental and short categories. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s cut to the chase. We have no time here for talkies. What does the 62nd London Film Festival have to offer in the way of silent cinema? Plenty. More than usual, I’d say. Some we knew about, some we didn’t.
The really good news – none of these silent screenings need clash with Pordenone. That is to say, there are duplicate screenings to avoid that.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show
Nineteenth-century films, shot on 68mm film, beautifully restored, introduced by Bryony Dixon and accompanied by John Sweeney and his Biograph Band. Oh, and they are screening at the actual, flipping IMAX. This is going to be massive. If your mouth isn’t already watering, I don’t know what to do with you. This year’s Archive Gala should be a silent cinema experience like no other. Book now.
Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.
It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.
I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.
My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.
Thank you to the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival for another great week/end of music and movies in a very warm and sunny Bo’ness. I was there from Wednesday to Saturday and here’s my podcast report from the event, now in its seventh year.
From Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake and Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together to Marion Davies and Marie Dressler in The Patsy, Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess and Aleksandra Khoklova in By the Law there was a special emphasis on the women of silent cinema at this year’s festival. But the programme as a whole was far too diverse to summarise here. I hope you enjoy hearing all about it – especially if you were lucky enough to be here.
The Silent London Podcast is available on iTunes. Go there for more details and to subscribe – if you like what you hear, please leave a rating or review too. The intro music is by kind permission of Neil Brand, and the podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio. The other music you can hear on this podcast was written and performed by Maud Nelissen and the Sprockets for the Hippodrome Festival.
Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.
As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.
So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.
Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.
If HG Wells could fix it for you to travel back to the silent era, you surely would, right? And while no doubt it would be enlightening to talk shop in the studios and editing rooms of 1920s Hollywood, it’s arguable that the real action would be in the nightclubs and hotel suites. Take it from me, the catering would be … interesting.
Many of you will know Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris. Jenny Hammerton works as a film archivist, and runs the wonderful Silver Screen Suppers site on the side. She’s researching a forthcoming book of recipes from classic film stars, you see. Nathalie Morris works at the BFI as an archive curator, and also blogs about food: the Food on Film site recreates meals from movies. She is working with Jenny on a different book, along the same lines, but dedicated to the most important meal of the day – the cocktail hour.
Such a noble pursuit deserves all our support, of course, so myself and a few other selfless souls tripped up to Nathalie’s flat on the weekend to sample some cocktails and canapés. As the evening was undertaken in the name of research, not simple fun, here is what we learned.
We may remember Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson as health freaks, but they let their hair down occasionally, culinary speaking. Garbo layered bacon over healthsome cottage cheese and rye bread to create a rather unwieldy canapé. Swanson deviated from the ways of brown rice for, what else, tempting bites topped with caviar.
Edith Roberts‘ sweetcorn fritters require a LOT of lard for deep-frying. Fear not, though, as our group couldn’t quite choose between the lighter veggie versions and the lardy originals in the final analysis.
Solid and unexciting to look at, they may have been, but Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers’ potato and nut croquettes were seriously savoury – with a rich seam of nuts down the centre. Unexpectedly toothsome.
Zasu Pitts is an idiosyncratic one. We all loved her omelette with hot spanish sauce. But the Greed star cheated us of any actual spice in that sauce – hot in name only. And there was baking powder – yes, baking powder – in the omelette.
The parties thrown by Marion Davies may have gone down in Hollywood legend, but her cheese patties were unlikely to get anyone hot under the collar – tasty yes, but rather chunky and bland for a canapé. Perhaps they were just there to soak up the booze?
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 …
Us silent-film bloggers have guilty pleasures too, you know. My weaknesses are a spot of Hollywood scandal – and a good musical. A new West End show, opening at the Arts Theatre in February, promises a touch of both. The Tailor-Made Man tells the tale of William Haines, the openly gay silent film actor who defied studio pressure to marry and put an end to rumours about his love life. He stayed with his long-term boyfriend Jimmy Shields instead, and when the studios turned their back on him, he switched careers and became a popular Hollywood interior designer – working for the stars who had been his colleagues along.
THE TAILOR-MADE MAN is the true story of William Haines, the silent screen star who was fired by Louis B Mayer of MGM Studios because he was gay and refused to marry and give up his lifelong partner Jimmy Shields. The new musical will receive its world premiere at the Arts Theatre in London opening on Thursday 21 February 2013, following previews from 13 February, for a limited eight-week season ending on 6 April. It will star Faye Tozer as Marion Davies and Dylan Turner as William Haines.
In 1930, William “Billy” Haines was one of MGM’s most idolised male stars, second only to John Gilbert. On screen he was tailor-made to get the girl in the last reel. On the back lot he cruised every bit player and stagehand in sight. Billy lived openly with his lover and former stand-in Jimmy Shields. This was tolerated by the studio until rumours started to seep out into the wider world. Louis B Mayer ordered him to marry the sultry silent screen vamp Pola Negri. Billy refused and so Louis B Mayer fired him. Billy’s defiance of the studio led to his second and even more successful career as an interior designer to the stars. THE TAILOR-MADE MAN is a powerful story about Hollywood and its system and hypocrisy, but above all it is the story of Billy and Jimmy’s turbulent, passionate love affair that survived and lasted over 50 years.
So there will be silent film scandal and glamour aplenty on the West End stage next year, but the question that concerns me is, will The Tailor-Made Man be any good? Mack and Mabel or Sunset Boulevard? Dylan Turner, who will play Haines, has a string of solid West End musical credits behind him, and Faye Tozer, who will play his loyal pal and co-star Marion Davies, does too. You might also remember her from Steps. Ahem. No word yet on who will play Shields, Mayer or Negri.
The musical has been adapted by the well-regarded playwright Amy Rosenthal from Claudio Macor’s play of the same name. He’ll also be directing the show. The songs are by Adam Meggido and Duncan Walsh Atkins who worked together on the improvised musical Showstoppers. I had a dig through the archives to find some reviews of Macor’s work – and I found some positive notices about his other work, but just this, from the Independent in 1993 about the play version of The Tailor-Made Man. I’m afraid it’s not pretty.
The story of Hollywood’s first openly gay movie star, William Haines, Macor’s script is badly hampered by the writer / director’s ambivalence towards both his hero and that dirty rotten town.
Macor shows Haines cavorting arrogantly from sailor to sailor in public parks while his companion, Jimmy, waits long-sufferingly at home. He reveals how Haines was built up by the studio system only to be knocked down once his lifestyle became an embarrassment. But Macor also shows himself half in love with the glamour of the era and Haines’ unpalatable egotism.
This uncertainty of tone is compounded by a cramping set and a series of performances which almost look like parodies. Simon Tweed’s Haines can’t put a charming spin on Haines’ callous treatment of Jimmy. Marion Davies and Carole Lombard become goggling bimbettes, Louis B Mayer a muttering administrator. At least these escape the risible hatchet-job that Macor and actress Rebecca Forrow wreak on Pola Negri.
At the end, Macor uses Haines’ and Jimmy’s later, happy professional and personal relationship as interior decorators to the stars, to make a plea for Haines as a gay hero for today. But most of his scrappy production is at odds with the claim: it’s only in Hollywood that a happy ending makes everything right.