Silent Londoners are an erudite group, and no doubt we’re all regularly found in halls of academe, talking loftily of theories and histories, of books and poems and one-reel Snub Pollard movies. But even though we’re such scholars, we could all do with a trip to Cambridge this month to complete our silent film education.
The Cambridge Film Festival is one of the best regular film festivals in the country for silents, and this year, the programme of early film is full of surprises, and wonderful music. Here’s what you should be looking out for.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Katie Wright.
A pair of comics shuffle onstage at the Palace Theatre in Blackpool, England in June 1947. One is swimming in an oversized checked suit, dripping past his hands and towards the floor. The other is round and squat, sporting a moustache comically small for his wide face. Together, they frolic and play, every bit the annoyed schemer and his hapless buffoon. Laurel and Hardy finish their act to thunderous applause. The duo is famous all over the world, but one of them is playing to a “hometown” crowd.
The pair were best known for their feature films and silent shorts, and shared a bond as close as brothers, although Oliver Hardy hailed from Georgia while Stand Laurel remained a proud northern Briton throughout his life. While onstage Laurel played the fool, he was writer, director, and comic mastermind behind the pair’s success.
At the heart of Laurel’s stardom lies his boyhood as a young performer in Britain. Despite moving several times in his youth, the local boy who made good is revered in various “hometowns” across the north, and many avid fans and academics have sought to better understand the boy behind the man.
In Ulverston, Cumbria, where Laurel was born on 16 June, 1890, long-time admirer Bill Cubin put his lovingly assembled memorabilia collection on display in the mid 1980s, leading to what is now a full-fledged museum run by his grandson.
A statue of Laurel stands in Dockwray Square, North Shields, where he lived as a boy from 1897 to 1902. The Eden Theatre in Bishop Auckland, County Durham hosts a Laurel statue erected in 2008. There are more plaques in pubs and venues from Leicestershire to Glasgow.
University of Nottingham professor of sociology Danny Lawrence grew up in North Shields, and sees in Laurel’s story a “parallel to [his] own life”. The connections drove him to begin researching Stan Laurel, and prompted his biography The Making of Stan Laurel: Echoes of a British Boyhood.
“I was born in the same town 50 years apart, nearly 100 yards from where he lived,” explains Lawrence. “Laurel lived in North Shields during the formative years of childhood and youth. It fascinated me to begin exploring the relationship between the town and the artist.”
Stan Jefferson, later Stan Laurel, began acting young, a student of Britain’s traditional music hall and pantomime. He eventually travelled to the USA with the Fred Karno troupe alongside a young Charlie Chaplin.
“It was by chance that he got to the States. I think that chance element makes his story alluring,” says Lawrence.
“His ability was there, but there was no distinctive character until he met Hardy. He only got that chance when the Karno tour was failing, and he instead chose to stay in the USA in search of greener pastures.”
Come break the Sound Barrier with us again. In this episode, we go to the edge of the world and the ends of the earth and back again with two animated features.
We’re talking about Studio Ghibli’s modern silent The Red Turtle (in cinemas now), and also Pixar’s beloved Wall-E from 2008. We talk about ‘Dustbuster Keaton’, teenage mutant turtles, pizza plants and bad romance, as well as artistic animation, dialogue-free direction and creation myths. You can even hear Pete sing!
This episode of the Sound Barrier features two druggy and slightly dim detectives. We’re talking about Julian Barratt’s absurdly funny TV spoof Mindhorn and the cult favourite that is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks as sleuth Coke Ennyday. We talk about outrageous accents, preposterous plasticine, obscene graffiti and excessive amounts of cocaine.
The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.
If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.
The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.
Silent London in no way, not even with a wink, endorses the consumption of illegal narcotics. We prefer the consumption of Class-A silent movies.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.
We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.
But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.
But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.
If you want to see Buster Keaton on the big screen next weekend, go see John Wick 2 – but be careful not to blink. The action sequel opens in New York, with a Buster Keaton movie being projected on the external wall of a building. Why? “We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people,” says director Chad Stahelski.
As soon as you have clocked, and cheered, the reference, the action has begun, down on the streets with a blistering collision between a motorcycle and a car. The movie’s opening sequence is very funny, hugely violent, and actually a pretty clever example of how to cover a lot of exposition (for those like me who hadn’t seen the first film) with a minimum of dialogue. All you need to know about the plot, and all I can really tell you, having seen the film, is that John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is a hitman, with a revenge motive. The film takes him from New York to Rome and back again – and en route, he kills a hell of a lot of people.
The nods to silent cinema don’t stop with the Keaton film, though*. One of the movie’s key shootouts takes place in a hall of mirrors. Very Enter the Dragon (1973), a little The Lady from Shanghai (1947). But surely Chaplin got there first with The Circus in 1928. Despite his smart suit, John Wick is essentially a tramp like Charlie – homeless and friendless, he’s a hired hand for a shadowy and moneyed elite, and he’s happiest trudging about with his dog by his side. The film reveals a fearsome network of derelicts, in fact, assassins just like Wick who pass through the city unseen. When Wick puts on his fancy togs and goes to a party his presence is disquieting – he’s not one of the in-crowd, but someone they have hired to do their dirty work. That tension is the source of many of Chaplin’s best gags.
In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.
Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.
So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.
Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.
Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs.
The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.
Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?
Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.
Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?
It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.
Ever fallen in love with a film you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? I did, tonight, I must confess. I am utterly besotted with a Polish silent that isn’t a silent at all, really, but a musical of sorts that has long since parted company with its Vitaphone discs. What remains of Janko the Musician (Janko Muzykant, 1930) is a very poignant film, with easy charm and visual lyricism.
Young Janko is a peasant boy in rural Poland, and although he is a gifted musician, he hasn’t the funds to develop his talent, or even practise it. His homemade rustic violin is ingenious, but far from sufficient. In fact, for a young man of his class, artistic endeavour is so far off-limits that he is criminalised for his love of music, which destroys his poor mother and nearly breaks him. Even when it seems that he has used his talent to transcend these social divides, his past catches up with him.
Janko is played by two strikingly handsome actors, Stefan Rogulski and Witold Conti, and the supporting cast, notably his two partners in demi-crime in the second half of the film are excellent. Without the sound discs, it is still very easy to follow the film, as the dialogue was always intended to be carried by the intertitles, but we are left with longish sequences when Janko plays, or others sing. To fill these silences, we had a very sympathetic live (improvised?) score from Günter Buchwald, Frank Bockius and Romano Tadesco, which left the Verdi every bit as spellbound as the crowds who gathered to hear Janko play. The first third of the film is especially successful, and the first two-thirds very good indeed. If it felt slower in that last third it is because we have left Janko’s natural habitat and his essential conflicts behind. This film is at its best in the countryside, and wherever people gather, not in high-class drawing rooms and court offices. It was also 35 minutes longer that advertised, so I guess it was actually slow, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining about that. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 2→
The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.
Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.
After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.
Charley v Charley
Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?
The many faces of Phyllis Haver
Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.
Cary doffs his hat to Buster
If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.
Here at Silent London we are big, BIG, fans of the Slapstick Festival in Bristol. It is a friendly, wide-ranging event, run by beautiful people, in a great city – and it always tickles our funnybone.
If you’ve ever been lucky enugh to attend you’ll know that it is a pretty special special festival, which doesn’t cut corners. Top-quality prints are shown accompanied by first-rate musicians and introduced by people who are experts or celebrities – or sometimes both.
And that’s not easy in these tricky times, so this year the Slapstickers are asking for a little help, from you. The Slapstick festival crew have launched a Kickstarter appeal to cover some of their costs, and they would love it if you could support them. The money will go to very good causes including more live music and affordable tickets for kiddies. As it’s a Kickstarter your assistance will be rewarded by some fabulous gifts, from kazoos to custard pies to the chance to meet a VIP – even Morph himself!
As for the more tradtional way of showing your support, tickets are now on sale for the festival gala, which will feature Chaplin’s wonderful The Kid among other treats.
If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.
You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.
First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence.
The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast.
Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.
So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.
I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.
UPDATE: I updated this post on 6 September 2015 once the programme for the Silent Laughter festival had been finalised.
Our favourite south Londoners are at it again. Fresh from staging a triumphant weekend-long event in June, the Kennington Bioscope team promise a full day of chuckles with a comedy festival in October. Tell us all about it, Ken!
Programmes include shorts with Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Laurel & Hardy and others; rare features with Raymond Griffith and Walter Forde (Britain’s best silent comedian) concluding with Harold Lloyd’s classic GIRL SHY.
Plus special presentations – Kevin Brownlow on his Buster Keaton Thames TV series ‘A Hard Act to Follow’, David Robinson on Laurel & Hardy (whom he interviewed in 1954), including some new discoveries, guests Tony Slide (historian, author, founder of ‘The Silent Picture’) and Matthew Ross (editor of ‘Movie Night’, Britain’s only magazine devoted to silent & vintage comedy).
Here is the final programme – the Raymond Griffiths films is Paths to Paradise (1925) and the Walter Forde title is You’d be Surprised (1930). And I have heard, from the most delightful little bird, that the vegetarian cafe next door will be open for food again, possibly with a special offer for festivalgoers.
Sounds great. The perfect cure for the post-Pordenone blues, Silent Laughter is a one-day event taking place at the Cinema Museum on Saturday 24 October, from 10am-10pm. Tickets will be available from 1 September so bookmark this page now.
Wait a minute, wait a minute …
Yes, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The Kennington Bioscope is branching out even further, into the realm of early sound cinema, with a little something they are calling Kennington Talkies. What?
There’s a silent half-hour comedy on the iPlayer right now. It will be there until 19 March 2014 and I reckon you should check it out. Here’s the link.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s new anthology series of standalone half-hour comedies has been picking up rave reviews. But the excitement turned positively feral on Wednesday night when episode two, A Quiet Night In, aired on BBC2. The episode features an old rich geezer (Denis Lawson), the two cat burglars who are trying to half-inch his priceless modern art (Pemberton and Shearsmith), his trophy, er, wife (Oona Chaplin) and a door-to-door salesman (Kayvan Novak) – and for the very most part, it is deliciously dialogue-free.
Just to be clear, Inside No.9 last night was a masterclass. IN EVERYTHING. iPlayer at your earliest convenience.
What I really like about what Pemberton and Shearsmith have done is that the idea may be an old one (they have talked about Mel Brook’s Silent Movie as an inspiration), but the tone of A Quiet Night In is far from rowdy slapstick of much modern silent humour, or even the genre-spoofing horror-comedy of their Psychoville series, which was just as inventive as Inside No 9 is shaping up to be. A Quiet Night In is a clever, and very dry comedy – in parts it is almost bleak. It is certainly not for kids, nor sensitive dog lovers. And you’ll never look at kitchen paper, Post-Its and baking foil the same way again.
That Oona Chaplin has a starring role will doubtless please the silent fans – one can only imagine what her grandfather would have made of what lurks under the bedstead here …
On this site you can find out a little more about A Quiet Night In, and watch clips, including a video of the creators discussing their motivation for writing a silent episode.
All this will have to tide us over until Matt Lucas’s Pompidou airs later in the year on BBC1. Yes, the Little Britain star is working on an entirely silent comedy series for the Beeb’s flagship channel. No catchphrases, no David Walliams. Lucas is co-writing, and he will play the title character, “an elderly aristocratic English oddball who has fallen on hard times but who remains upbeat and resourceful”.
It seems the idea is catching: two very famous ITV stars want to develop their own silent comedy project too. Mr Lucas is very supportive, as you can see.
I wonder if @antanddec’s forthcoming silent comedy TV show will be called ‘Let’s Get Ready To Mumble.'
There are so many silent film myths and so little time to wearily dismiss them all. But next time someone blathers on about the coming of sound causing all the silent stars to disappear in a puff of smoke, never to darken the doors of Hollywood again, point them in the direction of Laurel and Hardy. Case closed.
And once you’ve sung the praises of the little clever British one and big daft American one, you’ll be in the mood for seeing some of their films. Happily BFI Southbank is screening the full version of their last feature, the rarely seen Atoll K (1951) on 30 January. You can read more here from Uli Ruedel about why this is such a special opportunity:
Shot in Europe by the comics with genuine enthusiasm, but in poor health and under chaotic production circumstances, the film has been much maligned by some fans and writers, who would rather see it erased from history than enjoy it for what it is.
The film’s longest version – with its extra two reels including “some of the funniest sight gag sequences” (Everson) – has practically been unseen for decades, let alone in its original technical quality.
Curators, comedy historians and conservation scholars at BFI have now previewed and confirmed that the archive’s 35mm print, preserved from unique nitrate master materials in glorious black and white, does conform to the length of this longest existing (and likely never theatrically released) extended English-language version.
Running a delightful 98 minutes, it’s only a couple of minutes short of the 100 minutes worth of footage used in all the different national versions altogether. And with a splendid visual and sound quality, it allows for a fresh appreciation of the French-Italian ‘European super-production’, its sight gags and satire, even its mostly post-synched, faux American English soundtrack – the only dub incorporating the Boys’ distinctive voices in the original, on-set performances.
The hardcore nothing-but-silent fans among you will be pleased to note that Atoll K will also be accompanied by some dialogue-free treats – including a surprise change to the programme.
First up is Grand Hotel (aka Laurel and Hardy Visit Tynemouth, UK 1932, Dir JG Ratcliffe, 10min, silent). In this newsreel footage, the duo “are rapturously received when they visit Tynemouth in 1932, and Stan clowns for the camera with his dad”. But there’s more: “programme will now include previously unseen silent amateur footage of Stan and Ollie opening a Gymkhana at Eastwood Park, Giffnock, during their visit to Scotland in June 1947.” That’s another nice er, bit of BFI archive film programming you’ve gotten yourself into.
Two more thing to know if you’re a Laurel and Hardy fan:
The Laurel and Hardy rarities programme screens in NFT1 at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 30 January at 6pm, introduced by Glenn Mitchell, author of The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, and Archive curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler. You can buy tickets here.