Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.
So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.
As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.
Comfort zone be damned. Here I am in Leicester, an hour or so north of the Big Smoke and the first movies that the British Silent Film Festival chooses to show are all talkies … OK, OK I am not going to pretend that they are a novelty to any of us, but kicking off the festival with early British sound films seemed initially to be either a bold move or an acknowledgment that a few of the delegates would still be on the train/in the office at the start of play.
After a day of dialogue films I was desperate for a real silent movie, and Thursday’s finale was worth the wait by any stretch. But more of that anon. While “talkie Thursday” was occasionally grating, it was always fascinating.
Laraine Porter introduced the first two films of the day with a fun whistlestop tour of the British film industry’s transition to sound. She showed us possibly my favourite talkie of the day, Up the Poll (1929), a short political satire featuring Donald Calthrop as a newly elected MP bungling a victory speech that was essentially a string of very funny gags, with “canned laughter” and heckling off-screen. Up the Poll used a combination of synch and non-synch sound, and I’d be intrigued to know whether the balance was as it seemed, ie synch for Calthrop and non-synch for everything else. I assume so, which is usually a dangerous move …
Porter also introduced our first feature, an ambitious war movie starring Brian Aherne and Madeleine Carroll called The W Plan (1930). At first it seemed that this one just wouldn’t catch fire, lots of awkward pauses and odd emphases, but boy did it start to blaze when Aherne was on the run in enemy territory. Punching German officers, hallucinating during a firing squad, leading a team of POWs to sabotage an enemy plan using a not-so elaborate code based on whist … Aherne was a dashing hero in a strange and exciting movie. Shame about Carroll – perhaps she will get another chance to show us what she can do.
Star of the day was Geoff Brown who introduced films with aplomb and gave fascinating talk on the rush to sound #bsff15
After lunch, Geoff Brown took to the stage with a massively entertaining, not to mention informative, presentation on, yes, the first British talkies made in 1929. Was Blackmail really the very first? You can guess that the answer is both yes and no, can’t you? Yes, it was first to be released, but it had far less synch dialogue than its main rival High Treason, so go figure. Hitchcock v Elvey: fight! More interesting than the lead question was Brown’s exploration of those first homegrown talkies, which were a rather rum bunch. We went in for melodrama and thrillers, as a nation, it seemed, where the US favoured musicals and such. So these films, many of which we saw clips from, were a heady brew. Miscegenation and damp rot featured in White Cargo; a murderous epileptic led To What Red Hell. It made one long for the simpler pastoral pleasures of Under the Greenwood Tree, or Elsa Lanchester larking about on the old joanna in Mr Smith Wakes Up!
Back to the studio for a full-length edition of the Silent London Podcast. I’m joined by Pete Baran to talk about the festival scene, discuss the first silents we ever watched and catch up on the news. We’re joined by London Symphony director Alex Barrett, who tells us about his favourite silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and we preview the British Silent Film Festival as well as reviewing the great Hollywood silent Flesh and the Devil.
We also make inappropriate comments about Greta Garbo, and I get a little bit over-excited about Pordenone. Just another day in the office really.
The Bank of England doesn’t usually let the public have a say in its decisions, but there is a first time for everything. Having decided to boot Adam Smith’s profile off the £20 banknote, the Bank asked the public to help them choose a replacement – although the institution itself has the final say. Those of us who spend rather than print the money were invited to nominate a visual artist for the bank to select from. An astonishing 29,701 bids came in, resulting in a longlist of 592 British visual artists that someone out there deems worthy of having their face on folding money. The Bank will draw up a shortlist from these names for the Governor to examine, and they will announce the chosen face in early 2016, with the new £20 note finally coming into circulation in 2020.
This is the selection criteria for the new face of the score note:
Through its depiction of historic characters on its banknotes the Bank seeks to celebrate individuals that have shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society. We do this by representing a person or small groups of individuals whose accomplishments or contributions have been recognised widely at the time, or judged subsequently to have been of lasting benefit to the United Kingdom and, in some cases, beyond.
In choosing the character or characters to appear on a specific note, the Bank takes account of its past decisions. This is because the Bank intends to celebrate achievement and contribution across a wide range of skills and fields and aims, through time, to depict characters with varied personal characteristics, such that our choices cumulatively reflect the diverse nature of British society.
Did you vote? I suspect some of you might have done, because the longlist is a fascinating read: so many esteemed, and not so highly esteemed, artists appear,including film-makers from Carol Reed to Stanley Kubrick. And there are definitely a few cinematic stars who fulfil that note about “a wide range of skills and fields”, as well as “characters with varied personal characteristics”, although not perhaps reflecting the “diverse nature of British society”. More specifically, I was heartened to see some key figures from the silent era there: from the expected nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, to more leftfield choices such as Maurice Elvey and Louis Le Prince.
Jonathan Croall would like to introduce you to his father, his father’s friends and their neglected, but fascinating, glory days. Readers of this blog will recognise Croall’s father as John Stuart, the dashing star of many a British silent movie, including The Pleasure Garden, Roses of Picardy and Hindle Wakes, plus many more talkies besides. Stuart worked right until the late 70s. His last big-screen role was as a Kryptonian elder in 1978’s Superman.
This lovingly written and hugely informative book, Forgotten Stars: My Father and the British Silent Film World, is concerned with Stuart’s heyday, however, and his cohorts in Britain’s silent movie industry. As Croall tells his father’s story, he loops in the tales of the actors, writers, producers and directors he worked with: there’s Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock; Lillian Hall-Davis and Estelle Brody; the Film Society and the coming of sound. It’s a distinctive methodology – a chapter on a wider topic will suddenly focus on anecdotes from Stuart’s career alone, and then usher in two more dramatis personae. Under the chapter heading Fans and Fan Clubs, say, one reads several paragraphs on the publicity industry surrounding silent movie stars. Beneath the subheading A Star Under Siege we encounter a story about Stuart being mobbed by fans at the Film Artists’ Fair, which leads to a discussion of his fans, his fan club, his gruelling schedule of personal appearances and the speeches he made. (These sections that dwell solely on Stuart’s career are flagged with his smiling portrait.) This is then followed by two profiles of British silent cinema’s two biggest stars: Betty Balfour and Ivor Novello.
It’s podcast o’clock once more. This time I’m joined in the studio by the marvellous Pete Baran, and in the pub by Lucie Dutton, who tells us all about British silent film director Maurice Elvey. All that, plus a guest appearance by Otto Kylmälä, film-maker and festival organiser, praising the “subtle brilliance and mature beauty” of his favourite silent movie, Chaplin’s City Lights.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand.
In late 1918 a film was in preparation that was to rewrite the history books – a British picture, running almost as long as Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, bringing to life the political career of the country’s prime minister, the full ferocity of the war and the experience of ordinary people caught up in these momentous events. It was called The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Nothing as ambitious had been tried before and it was ready for launch immediately after Armistice Day. There was even a deal in place with Carl Laemmle to splash it across the American continent.
Then late one afternoon in January 1919, a lawyer arrived at the offices of Ideal Film Company, the film’s producers, handed over £20,000 in £1,000 notes and drove away with the only negative and positive copies of the film. It was never seen again by its makers, its writer, the respected historian Sir Sidney Low, or its director Maurice Elvey. No audience saw it at the time and the film became a lost treasure.
But you can see it at the Barbican on 17 February, 2013.
The story behind these extraordinary events is still murky, but what we do know is this. Towards the end of 1918, as the film was nearing completion, the owners of Ideal Film, the Rowson brothers, issued a writ for libel against John Bull magazine, edited by the virulent xenophobe Horatio Bottomley, which had accused them of being German sympathisers (largely on account of their original name, Rosenbaum). At the same time, word came down from Lloyd George himself that he was unhappy with the film going ahead, this despite the fact that the producers had secured his involvement before shooting began. These two events are almost certainly linked, but the outcome is still shocking to this day.
The £20,000 paid to Ideal represented the out-of-pocket costs of the film not appearing – the greater costs, to Elvey, to lead actor Norman Page, whose Lloyd George is a phenomenal performance of nuance and understatement, even to the future of the British film industry, are incalculable. As Kevin Brownlow wrote on seeing the film in 1996, “… had the Life Story of David Lloyd George been released, Elvey might even have been hailed ‘The Griffith of Britain’ … certainly the film would have been placed beside the best work from America and the continent and it would not have been entirely overshadowed.”
So how did Brownlow come to see it? In 1994 the Welsh Film Archive in Aberystwyth took delivery of 16 cans of film found on the farm of Lord Tenby, grandson of Lloyd George. These turned out to contain 137 unedited rolls of nitrate film, which, after two years of painstaking restoration and reconstruction work, finally hit a screen before an audience in North Wales in April 1996 – I was the pianist on that occasion, unable to believe my luck.
For Lloyd George is a phenomenal film, a history that plays out like a biopic, a time-capsule that, at its best, still holds a modern audience with extraordinary power. Like the best biopics it hops nimbly between the big picture and the small, creating a fascinating portrait of Lloyd George within an entirely convincing political and domestic world. It has massive scenes, including a riot at Birmingham Town Hall with nearly a thousand extras; and quiet, contemplative scenes informed by Page’s charismatic dignity. Best of all, it still has the power to move, as much as it would have done with those audiences of 1919 who were destined never to see it. I urge you to see this “lost” masterpiece on its only London showing, and be prepared to have your preconceptions about British cinema, the first world war and silent cinema acting overturned.
The National Library of Wales holds more information on this extraordinary film and its story, if not the solution to the mystery of the film’s disappearance. Here’s my take on it – the film turned up among Lloyd George’s own possessions and, as was common knowledge at the time, £20,000 was about the going rate for a baronetcy …
This is a guest post for Silent London by Lucie Dutton. Lucie is currently researching a PhD thesis on Maurice Elvey’s early career. This post contains plot spoilers.
Lights! Fairyland! Romance!
This intertitle from Maurice Elvey’s 1927 version of Hindle Wakes might lead an audience to think that the film is just enjoyable froth; a pleasant way of spending a couple of hours but not much more. In truth, Hindle Wakes is far better summarised by another of its intertitles: “Romance is all very well … but marriage would be a failure.”
Hindle Wakes, from the play by Stanley Houghton, is one of the finest works to come out of the British film industry of the late 1920s. It explores the social and moral pressures faced by a young woman who decides to assert her own sexual and feminist identity. During Wakes Week, mill worker Fanny Hawthorne takes a trip to Blackpool and embarks on an affair with Allan Jeffcote, the son of the mill owner. Fanny and Allan start off being slightly awkward when left alone together at the Pleasure Beach, but develop an ever-increasing ease with one another, until they kiss at the Tower Ballroom. The way the film is constructed leads the audience into thinking it is a conventional love story – but appearances are deceptive.
The affair is discovered and Fanny’s and Allan’s parents put pressure on the pair to marry. Fanny, however has other ideas – much to Allan’s consternation. She tells Allan: “I’m a woman, and I was your little fancy – you’re a man and you were my little fancy. Don’t you understand?” She determines to make her own way – without apology – rather than being “given away with a pound of tea, like.”
Fanny’s attitude is so appalling to her mother (Marie Ault at her most disapproving) that Fanny has to leave the family home. Watched by a street full of neighbours and her heartbroken father (Elvey regular Humberstone Wright) Fanny refuses to be shamed by her “little fancy” but retains her dignity: “I’m a Lancashire lass and so long as there are spinning mills in Lancashire I can earn enough to keep myself respectable.” And she does – the film ends with her working in the mill and agreeing that her loyal friend and admirer Alf may take her to the pictures that evening. This is a celebration of practical working-class feminism. It is Fanny’s freedom as a worker – her freedom to seek work anywhere and her confidence that she will find it – that enables her to maintain her own integrity.
Director Maurice Elvey admired Stanley Houghton’s original play greatly. He told Denis Gifford that he thought it was “the finest English play ever written … a really great play; it is really about something.” (The Denis Gifford collection of taped interviews with leading figures from the British film industry is held by the BFI.) He filmed it twice – once in 1917, with Colette O’Niel and Hayford Hobbs (who recently wowed Pordenone audiences as Walter Gay in Elvey’s Dombey and Son); and again in 1927 working closely with his colleague Victor Saville, starring Estelle Brody and John Stuart. Sadly, the 1917 version no longer exists – if it did, it would provide us with great scope for analysing Elvey’s development as a director. We would also be able to compare the performances of the great Norman McKinnel, who played mill owner Nat Jeffcote in both versions.
While Hindle Wakes boasts many fine performances, it is Estelle Brody who dominates the screen. Her examination of her face in the mirror to see whether it has changed following an off-screen sexual encounter with Allan is one of the best examples of acting in British silent cinema.
Brody was an American actor who worked with Elvey in the UK between 1926-28. Such was the resentment of the dominance of the American film industry at that time, publicists said that she was Canadian. Her obituary (by Kevin Brownlow) describes Brody and other residents of her retirement home watching Hindle Wakes:
“She was glued to the screen throughout. Apart from one or two who didn’t stay the course, all were transfixed. Afterwards, she was mobbed by the others congratulating her. Throughout the screening, the viewers, including some nuns, were constantly comparing the frail old lady in her wheelchair to the image on the screen with fascination and admiration.”
As well as strong performances, the film has some fine locations. Elvey was an early expert in location shooting, starting with his 1913 film, Maria Marten. For Hindle Wakes, he filmed in the Monton Mill in Manchester, in Eccles, at various Blackpool locations, and overlooking the sea at Llandudno. To ensure that the visiting actors appeared authentic in the mill scenes, the foreman advised them how to handle cotton bobbins and machinery.
Elvey, who had a reputation for working quickly and efficiently, shot 51 scenes at the Pleasure Beach and Tower Ballroom at Blackpool in 10 hours over the course of one day. The Blackpool scenes are one of the highlights of the film – with shots taken up Blackpool Tower, and on the Pleasure Beach Helter Skelter and Big Dipper. In the Tower Ballroom, Elvey filmed an ambitious dance sequence, which led to the film being advertised In Blackpool as “starring Estelle Brody and 5,000 local artistes”.
The film was well received on its release – Caroline Lejeune, writing in The Guardian (5 February, 1927) called it “the best advocate we have yet seen for the promulgation of British films” and said that Elvey had “made time and space and madness whirl before us on the screen … Elvey has successfully borrowed from the Germans what is apt to his own needs, shaped it to his hand, and made it for the time being his own.” She went on to name it one of her seven best films of the year (31 December, 1927). For Kinematograph Weekly (10 February, 1927), Lionel Collier said that Elvey, with his colleague Victor Saville, had “produced the best picture he has ever made, and an outstanding British triumph.” Even Variety – not known for its praise of British cinema – felt that it was a film that “did more to establish the birth of the British industry than any other” (13 October 1931).
We are privileged that in 2012 we are still able to see Hindle Wakes, 85 years after Elvey, Estelle Brody and John Stuart took their trip to Blackpool. It remains an important part of our cinematic and cultural history and comes highly recommended.
Hindle Wakes screens at the West London Trade Union Club on Saturday 20 October. Read more here.
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.
There is far more to British silent cinema than Hitchcock, whatever recent news reports might have you believe. From Yorkshireman Louis Le Prince’s claim to have invented motion-picture technology, through Cecil Hepworth’s pioneering days in Walton-on-Thames, to the directors who gathered at the London Film Society in the 1920s, our early cinema industry has much to offer. And it’s not just directors that we can praise, but actors, writers, producers and more besides.
That’s why I am so happy to report that, before Hitchcock’s work takes centre-stage next year, there are several screenings of silent films by other British film-makers coming up in London soon. This is a great opportunity to learn more about what we can loftily, but quite rightly, call our cinematic heritage – and to enjoy some rather good films. Continue reading British silent film screenings, autumn 2011→
The British Metropolis? Not quite. But Maurice Elvey’s High Treason was heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s film – in its slick futurist designs and its pacifist theme too. Based on a play written by unpleasant MP Noel Pemberton Billing, High Treason is set in the far-off future that is 1950 AD, when a war between the America and Europe seems inevitable. The leader of the Peace League is determined to avoid the conflict, leaving his daughter Evelyn torn between him and her boyfriend, a commander in the Air Force.
You can see an extract from High Treason here. It’s worth noting that in this bleak, dystopian vision of the future, Prohibition is still in force in America.
High Treason screens at the BFI Southbank with a short film from 1924, The Fugitive Futurist: a Qu-riosity by “Q”, in which an “inventor” attempts to hawk a device that can see the future, treating the audience to glimpses of London landmarks as they might appear in time, including Trafalgar Square submerged by water, and a blimp anchored to the Palace of Westminster.
High Treason screens at NFT1 on Wednesday 5 October at 6pm. The screening will be introduced by BFI curator Simon McCallum and is part of the BFI’s Capital Tales season. There will be live piano accompaniment. Tickets are available from the BFI website.