We’ll never know whether people fled from the screen when they saw the Lumière brothers’ film of a train arriving in La Ciotat station. We do know now that it wasn’t among the very first films they showed at that famous occasion on 28 December 1895 and that when they did make it they were trying to achieve a kind of stereoscopic effect – a train that looks like it is going to leap off the screen.
The implication is they were trying to impress, to go one better than the original impact achieved by their first screening of moving pictures. Continue reading Train in vain→
This piece originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 2016.
Among the treasures on display in Paris at Toute la Mémoire du Monde in February, one film seemed to justify the festival’s existence by itself. René Clair’s ingenious late silent Les Deux Timides/The Two Timid Ones (1928) harks back to an earlier age of film comedy, reworking the styles of Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett into something new and elegant. At the same time, the new restoration of this sublime farce reveals it as a silent classic in its own right – to be esteemed as highly as the films that inspired it. Thanks to a ravishing new restoration, it may be about to receive the credit it has long deserved.
By 1928, René Clair had moved on from his early art films, the science-fiction caper Paris qui dort (1923) and the cinéma pur of Entr’acte (1924) and joined Albatros, a French studio staffed mostly by Russian exiles. It was here that he made his best known silent, the beautifully elaborate farce Un chapeau de paille d’Italie/The Italian Straw Hat (1927). Clair’s 1930s triumphs Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931) were ahead of him, but Les Deux Timides is his silent masterpiece, folding the avant-garde and the comic into a delightful, expertly judged story of provincial romance and misapprehension.
Les Deux Timides takes what could be a Linder scenario, of a young middle-class man overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a pretty girl, merges it with Chaplinesque outsider charm and punctuates it with Keystone-quality chaos. Clair’s film is as serious and silly as its predecessors at their best, a film that is so intensely funny it makes humour itself, and the business of film comedy, seem vitally important.
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
I reported on one Buster Keaton restoration project in the summer – and now there is another one. This one comes to us courtesy of the fabulous Lobster Films in Paris, and proves that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
This project has both a narrower and a wider focus – the aim is to complete restorations of Buster’s short films only, but the list runs to 32 and includes those that he made with Roscoe Arbuckle, such as his movie debut, The Butcher’s Boy (1917). And Lobster will be taking elements from archives and collections around the world, to get the best possible result. Not only that, the team will be commissioning new scores for all the films that they work on.
Here’s an extract from the polished version of The Playhouse (1920), to show you what is planned:
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of silent comedy. They say you have to pick one to love, but there is nothing to stop you admiring both. If you’re a Keaton devotee, though, you may have watched the progress of the Cineteca di Bologna’s Chaplin Project with green eyes. Though of course your expression will have been too deadpan to reveal your true feelings.
Over several years and many gala screenings, the Cineteca and the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab, working in collaboration with archives, labs and historians across the world, restored all of Chaplin’s works to the utmost technical standards. You can see the results of these labours in releases such as the recent Chaplin Mutuals Blu-ray, which really is worth adding to your Christmas list. Now it’s Buster’s turn. Using material from the Cohen Film Collection, the Keaton Project will set about buffing and shining all the silent shorts and features made by the Great Stoneface. It’s a mammoth task for the ladies and gents in the lab, but a massive treat for those of us who get to watch the finished films.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sabina Stent. You can read more of her reviews at silverembers.com
The name “Dr Caligari” may cause a shudder to those of a weaker disposition. The eponymous character of the 1920 classic Das Cabinets des Dr Caligari has long been a figure of terror – and with good reason. The film has been described not just as one of the first “horror” films, but one of the first examples of a movie generating a real psychological uneasiness in its audience. Caligari has been labelled in many different ways – German expressionism, horror story, psychological thriller and a classic of the silent era – but it was also Germany’s first postwar cinematic success, and it reflects the anguish of the people who had been through four terrible years.
Thanks to those classic expressionist touches, the sharp and angled sets, gothic imagery and expressionist undertones, Caligari was as visually frightening as its narrative. More recent audiences may have also been unsettle by the poor physical condition of prints of the film. Despite numerous attempts to finesse the quality of the film – first by the Filmmuseum München in 1980 and followed by the German Federal Film Archive (Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv) in Koblenz (1984) and as part of the Lumière European MEDIA project in 1995 – imperfections were still evident: visible scratches, jumps and blank screens, blurred title cards, unstable images and bleached-out, near-featureless faces.
Caligari’s story is told in partial flashback as Francis (Friedrich Fehér) tells the tale of the horrors that he and fiancée Jane (Lil Dagover) have endured at the hands of the Doctor. One day Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend a local carnival where they watch the act of Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) “who has slept for 23 years but will tonight wake from his dream-like trance”. The only time Cesare speaks is to tell carnivalgoers their fortune. Cesare “knows the past and sees the future” and when Felix asks “how long will I live?” his serious, haunting response is: “To the break of dawn”. Yet the fear is not restricted to the carnival. At night Cesare is woken by Caligari to do his deathly bidding, and so begins a series of murders, abductions and mental unravelling.
We’re all saddened by the idea of silent film heritage sites falling into decay and disrepair. So I thought you would like to know about this crowdfunding campaign to restore the historic Essanay Studios in Chicago. As if you don’t know, the Essanay Studio was a major player in the first years of the American movie industry. Stars associated with the studio in its infancy include Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Ben Turpin, Francis X Bushman and, of course, Broncho Billy Anderson, who funded the company in 1907 with George Kirke Spoor.
The studio building is now a college, and is seeking help with funding for renovations, and to transform itself into an arts centre, with a studio, performance space and an area where people can come and learn some silent movie history.
Before there was Hollywood, there was Chicago. This initiative seeks to preserve and revitalize one of the world’s first and last remaining silent film studios and a unique piece of a great city’s history. The restoration and rebirth of the Essanay Film Studio Complex will provide an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn and experience the magic and mystery of early film-making and Chicago’s unique role. It will also extend and expand the studio’s cultural legacy by providing a community space for the performing arts.