Tag Archives: Pre-Code Cinema

Pre-code Hollywood: Rules are Made to be Broken

It has been said by many a wise soul that every Hollywood silent is essentially Pre-code. That sentence itself is my entire justification for sharing this with you. The fabulous Christina Newland and I have collaborated on a Pre-code Hollywood project to make this hot summer sizzle with a little more steam. But yes, it’s all talkies.

We have curated five films from Park Circus and Warner Bros’s new collection of sharp remasters of Pre-code classics, and we will be showing and discussing them at the fantastic Cinema Rediscovered festival next week in Bristol. After this launch, the films will be available to book by cinemas across UK and Ireland and you may even find Christina or I popping up to introduce them.

You can read more about these films in my feature for the Guardian (as you’ll see, the story starts in 1922), and about the events in Bristol here. Now check out the gorgeous artwork below. Isn’t it fabulous?

I am spending most of this summer locked in archives or chained to my computer to hit some book deadlines, but you never know… maybe I will see you at the movies!

• I am on the Watershed podcast with Mark Cosgrove talking about the joy of Pre-code cinema.

• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler.

Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.

Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Sherlock, Jr (1924)

Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.

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