Early in my career as a silent film accompanist I had an experience, which in retrospect probably affected the way I think about the work. I was accompanying a Louise Brooks film that, as was typical at the time, I had not seen in advance. The piano was positioned directly beneath the screen, so that the image filled my field of vision. I recall it being one of those rare evenings when I was totally lost in the film and music seemed to flow directly from brain to piano, almost bypassing the hand.
At one point Louise was held in an extended close-up – her smiling, enigmatic beauty framed by silver light. Then she started to speak and, although there was no intertitle, it was very clear to me what she was saying. In fact, just for a few seconds, I could actually hear her voice speaking the words. At least, that’s how it seemed. In retrospect, I realised that I had almost certainly been lip-reading. However, something about the moment, as immersive as it was, made the words transform into the sound of a voice within my head.
Please excuse typos in this blogpost. I am writing this in a mixture of mental fog and nervous excitement. Yesterday I had my second dose of my Covid-19 vaccination, and the ‘Moderna flu’ is real but suddenly the future seems a little bit brighter. So I thought I would pop on here to remind you of some upcoming silent-film-related events that you can attend in person or online, making your summer a wee bit more joyous and more silent.
This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway to Hollywood and then ran away to Europe to make three stunning, complex films that would secure her legacy as one of the great actors of the silent era. This film, 1930’s Prix de beauté, is the final film she made in Europe. It’s also the last silent film that she ever made, and without giving away the ending, it is an almost too-apt finish to her silent career.
Europe was Brooks’s sanctuary at the end of the 1920s, after she escaped from Hollywood. First, there were two German films. She was the unforgettable Lulu in GW Pabst’s dark, decadent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Then she played a waif who finds refuge in a brothel, in Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. Her third and final European film was this French title, Prix de beauté, shot by an Italian director. It was also Pabst’s idea.
Time flies when you’re getting nothing done. So I will forgive you if you don’t believe me, but this weekend the Silent Comedy Watch Party will webcast its 50th edition, a year to the day since the first show, back at a time when we were just getting our heads around this new word “lockdown”. That’s a whole year in which our Sundays have been blessed by silent comedy, live music and erudite introductions courtesy Ben Model, Steve Massa, and friends.
Silent London couldn’t let a milestone like that pass without a chat, and Ben and Steve were kind enough to take part in an interview with me, socially distanced at a range of around 3,500 miles.
Congratulations on a year of webcasting live silent film and music shows from your homes. It’s an awesome achievement. My first question has to be: why did you start the Silent Comedy Watch Party?
Ben Model: I’d played a weekend of shows in Nebraska and came home – then two days later things started shutting down and all my gigs were cancelled. I thought of the people who’d have gone to them who were now at home and couldn’t. I’d had the concept for the show in my head for a few years but with all silent film showings cancelled, this seemed like the moment to give it a shot. The tech of it worked, thankfully, and even more overwhelming was the response we got on socials and in emails.
Steve Massa: Since all our live shows were suddenly cancelled it seemed like the perfect way to stay in touch with the silent comedy universe. Ben told me he thought that we could technically do it and asked what I thought. Of course I was onboard immediately. Once we started we discovered how therapeutic laughter really is, and it became a mission to provide a little needed relief during the pandemic.
Did you ever think it was too much to take on? The work involved, all the technical challenges?
SM: This is really a question for Ben as he’s producer, technical director, film historian and accompanist. In addition to co-hosting, I gather the photos and information on the films, but he’s got the real burden of technically making the shows happen.
BM: Yes. Every week. But also, where was I going? Where was anybody going? The responses we got on socials and emails from day one were so moving, that’s what’s kept me going. No matter what the tech issues I’ve dealt with have been – and thi sis the thing my wife Mana keeps reminding me – there are hundreds of people out there who count on the show being there, for the laughs they need to get through all this.
I’ve developed an even greater respect for projectionists – what I’m doing tech-wise is pretty much like what happens in a booth during a show. And I’m doing that while I’m also hosting and accompanying, plus the factor of functioning as the tech director of a small TV studio.
The best thing I’ve seen so far at this year’s online Slapstick Festival is the French film Siren of the Tropics (Mario Nalpas & Henri Étiévant, 1927), starring one of the all-time greats of the dance world, Josephine Baker. With this movie, Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major studio picture. And it’s a triumph. I was lucky enough to see the film at the festival with an excellent live score played by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, which definitely brought up the best of this vivacious film.
Siren of the Tropics may feature one of America’s greatest stars, but it’s a film that could never have been made in America at the time, or for decades later. In the silent era, Anna May Wong set sail for Europe to play romantic leads, escaping Hollywood’s prohibition on what it called miscegenation. In the classical Hollywood musical, Black performers from The Nicholas Brothers to Lena Horne were seen only as “featured players” with no connection to the story – so their show-stopping sequences could be excised from the film for exhibition in the South.
In Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker isn’t just the star of the film, she is giving a career-defining star performance. Not least because this film fictionalises the creation of her star persona. It’s the story of a young woman from the Caribbean who falls in love with a white man and follows him to Paris. While searching for him, she is scouted by nightclub impresarios and becomes the toast of the city. Finally reunited with her love, she sees that they can never be together and she makes a sacrifice for him before sailing away to America to start a new life.
It’s a complete fiction, but one that hits on all the aspects of Baker’s persona that would have been familiar to her audience. It’s her A Star is Born. Baker’s character, Papitou, displays natural dance talent at home in the fictional Caribbean mining colony of Monte Puebla, grooving on the sand with her friends. She eventually travels to Paris where she becomes feted on the nightclub circuit with an act that involves her both performing an eccentric dance in the torn blouse and satin rompers of her famous plantation routine and also bringing the house down in sequins, lace and feathers as she twirls her limbs in the Charleston: two of her signature moves. Although Papitou is a dancer, not also a comedienne, the film supplies plenty of setpieces for Baker to prove her skills in both disciplines. At the end of the film that Papitou travels to Baker’s actual birthplace, the US.
You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a tough time right now. All I can say is that I hope you’re all taking care of yourselves out there, celebrating the small wins and staying connected.
Talking of connections, I have news of upcoming online delights for silent cinephiles. Viz, to wit, henceforth, etc etc.
Hippfest is back! Yes, the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival returns, online, this 17-21 March. The star attraction here is the wonderful Marlene Dietrich silent The Woman Men Yearn For (1929), along with a new score from Frame Ensemble. But believe me there are more delights yet to be announced. I am sworn to secrecy, however, and shall remain silent until the full programme is announced on 16 February. Read more.
I trailed this event last year, but the full programme for Slapstick 2021 (1-17 March 2021) is a few steps closer to being announced – the full details will be revealed on Monday 25 January. Passes are on sale now, at a variety of price points, and individual tickets for each event will be on sale on Monday, too. Read more.
On 4 February Coram hosts an online roundtable celebrating the centenary of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, and its depiction of care, with Bryony Dixon and Kate Guyonvarch. Sounds fascinating. Book here.
The Silent Comedy Watch Party courtesy Ben Model and Steve Massa was a trailblazer in the online silent game during the early weeks of the pandemic, and has gone from strength to strength. Wouldn’t you know it, they will be celebrating their 50th edition a year to the day since they started, this March? Catch up with previous weeks and get set for future episodes (this Sunday we’re treated to Alice Howell, Martha Sleeper and Charley Chase) here.
Kennington Bioscope shows no sign of slowing down – the shows just seem to get better and better. The next episode, on Wednesday, promises a programme called “Daring Deeds”. I can’t wait for historian-host Michelle Facey to explain further. Set a reminder.
Today is the anniversary of the births of Yevgeni Bauer, DW Griffith, Conrad Veidtand Sergei Eisenstein. What special silent film powers are unleashed on 22 January?
Next week: I reveal the winners of the 2020 Silent London Poll! Iron your bowties and polish your stilettoes, ladies and gentlemen…
Stay safe, lovelies. I’ll be back in touch next week to open those golden envelopes.
• 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.
Some news from our good friends at the Slapstick Festival this morning. As you know, this annual showcase of physical comedy is a guaranteed good time, and it usually takes place in January, in venues across the city of Bristol.
Well, nothing is going to plan right now and Bristol is currently in the highest tier of Covid-19 restrictions. That means that there will be no IRL event this year, but there is good news, not unrelated to the £11,000 raised by the festival’s crowdfunding campaign during lockdown. Slapstick is shifting to March, and pivoting to online.
I couldn’t let 2020 go by without talking to you about Away, a truly remarkable animated feature, and a modern silent too. This deceptively simple quest film has zero dialogue, and was all, every frame, the work of one man, Latvian filmmaker animator Gints Zilbalodis. He wrote, directed, scored and yes animated this award-winning film over the course of three and a half years.
He admits that that he concocted the screenplay on the fly, but that it soon came to feel that that film’s story was a metaphor for his struggles to complete the film. That’s why I say deceptively simple: beneath Away’s bright, almost cute surface there’s something deeper at work.
True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.
“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”
The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…
Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.
The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.
The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.
The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.
Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …
The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.
By Friday night of Pordenone the cracks are usually beginning to show: sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction and FilmFair splurge-shopping. Are we holding up better or worse in this Limited Edition year? Hydrating, taking regular screen breaks and a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day? No, me neither. In fact I am just warming up, and I could handle a silent movie show every night please, for at least a month.
A showstopper of a masterclass today, as the multi-instrumentalists assembled: Gunther Buchwald, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Another double book presentation too, and the announcement of the Jean Mitry prize, but all roads lead to Mary Pickford here on Silent London. And A Romance of the Redwoods, courtesy Cecil B DeMille and Jeanie MacPherson in 1917.
Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …
GW Pabst’s Abwege (1928) is, as Jay mentioned in his intro, a certain thread of what we think of when we imagine Weimar cinema. Not the exoticism of Expressionism of high-concept fiction, nor the relentless realism of Street Films, but a sampler of the era’s endless fetisished culture. This is a tale of infidelity, intrigue, independence and the famous temptations of the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s.
Now remind me, did I mention already that I was in Athens recently? Yes, Athens, the cradle of western civilisation. Well I was. And today I returned there via the magic of silent cinema …
But first, an audience with the maestro. I was lucky enough to catch the masterclass today and so I spent a happy hour listening to Mr Neil Brand discussing his career and approach to silent cinema accompaniment. His explanation of how to read a scene backs up my theory that the musicians have all the best critical insights when it comes to silent cinema. It’s all about close reading, and rolling with the narrative punches. Still, catch up with this for yourself if you can – Neil has far more interesting things to say than I do.
Today’s trip to Pordenone should probably have been made available on the National Health, pandemic or no pandemic. In times of stress, laughter is the best medicine, after all.
A real treat this afternoon before the films began was the masterclass of masterclasses. John Sweeney hosted a roundtable conversation between some of the Giornate’s wonderful accompanists: Philip Carli, José María Serralde Ruiz, Daan ven den Hurk and Mauro Colombis. Lots of insights here into writing, recording and improvising silent cinema scores, and I really like the way that Pordenone has incorporated live events into the online limited edition, and especially the sense of collegiate conversation, and the sharing of expertise that characterises a week in the Verdi. This was a superb example of that. Do catch up if you can, if only to understand why John and Philip have such an aversion to thinking of rabbits, or squirrels.
So I learned about something new today. Have you heard of the Instagram “VFX magicians”? These are visual effects whizzes who post short videos to Instagram (also TikTok, and once upon a time Vine) that are digitally manipulated to create illusions, or magic tricks, you might say. Zach King is one of the most famous, a 30-year-old “internet personality, filmmaker, and illusionist based in Los Angeles” according to Wikipedia, whose content is appealing whimsical and really quite slick.
He first became known for a 2011 YouTube video of kittens fighting with lightsabers. Last December, a video he posted of himself apparently riding a broomstick got 2.1 billion views on TikTok. In four days.
As baffling as King’s digital sleights of hand appear to be, there is something familiar about his work. Essentially, they are trick films, and excellent ones too.
Abwege, GW Pabst’s 1928 film about the descent of one respectable married woman into the depth of the notorious Weimar nightlife is one of the unmissable titles in the programme, and it will be available for 24 hours from Thursday 8 October, with musical accompaniment by Mauro Colombis. You can explore the rest of the programme online.
Pabst was born in Austria in 1885. He started out in the theatre, an actor turned director who only began making films in 1923 at the age of 37. He soon became known as an actor’s director, and especially an actress’s director. His 1925 film The Joyless Street, for example, starred both the Danish diva Asta Nielsen and a then little-known Greta Garbo. He also made two films with the iconic Louise Brooks. But Brigitte Helm, the star of Abwege, was the special one for him.
No time to blog today but there is NEWS to share. So here goes, welcome to Silent London’s News in Brief column.
• The virtual Pordenone lineup is live now! Laurel and Hardy, Brigitte Helm, Sessue Hayakawa, Ruan Lingyu! And all your favourite Pordenone musicians. Tickets for the whole shebang start at €9.90, and go on sale next week.
I will have more news to share soon. Exciting news!
• 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.
If I were in a Pollyanna frame of mind, I could argue that it was my good fortune to be in cloudy England and not sunny Italy when contemplating spending the bank holiday weekend indoors. I promise you I did some bank holiday-ish things in between films, but I wasn’t going to miss out on virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato. There are a few things more important than movies, but not many.
It was a fine weekend at the sofa-festival. For one thing, on Friday night we announced the winners of the DVD awards, after meeting to discuss the candidates on Zoom earlier in the week (rather than over lunch in Bologna as is customary, but roll on next year).
And then there were the movies. A film such as the recently found and restored Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976) from Iran really exemplifies all that ‘s so great about this festival, and indeed Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation too. And there was a killer silent feature too, my most anticipated film of the virtual festival: Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), brilliantly restored from the BFI’s nitrate print.
I think this blogpost contains spoilers, but it’s very hard to tell.
Christopher Nolan’s new film is notoriously complex, or perhaps just convoluted. I say that because although I wasn’t always ready to answer probing questions on either the plot or the physics that propelled it, I was fascinated by Tenet’s central use of the simplest, and most effective weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the rewind.
Film is a time-based medium, which is always played forwards but can be recorded backwards. And at the heart of Tenet, this is all there is: film moving backwards and forwards. This being a Nolan blockbuster, we know it was actually shot on film, which makes it extra satisfying. Tenet calls the rewind “negative entropy” and so would you if you were making a multimillion-dollar movie.