Last week, I recommended a new Buster Keaton box set. Well, there’s an evergreen sentiment. I remain a devotee of physical media (and in the interests of full disclosure, also make part of my living from it), but I realise it’s getting a little trickier for people to get hold of news discs right now, whether that’s because of distribution difficulties or lack of funds. I hear you.
How are you doing? You can be honest here, you’re among pals. It’s a bit difficult out there these days isn’t it? Whether you’re out on the front line (thank you, THANK YOU), out-of-work, homeworking or home-schooling, life is stressful at the moment. Apparently we’re all either filling our time or switching off at night by streaming more than ever. Why not? There are some great resources out there for watching silents online (and more from me on this anon), but streaming is not the only fruit.
If you still have some pennies to spare in the age of lockdown, don’t forget that physical media is your best friend. Silents on Blu-ray (or DVD) won’t disappear at the whim of the rights-holder, or glitch or go lo-res every time your bandwidth gets overloaded by your flatmate’s Zoom cocktails or your kids’ homework chats. Not only that, but the best discs coming out these days are packed with commentaries and extras that celebrate the film and will expand your knowledge in the most entertaining way. Continue reading Buster Keaton: 3 Films review: discs the doctors would order
I said something a little flippant in a Q&A once. OK, more than once, but let’s just talk about this one time. The occasion was a screening of A Page of Madness (1926) as part of the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival, and I was responding to a comment about experimental silent film, and whether there was anything out there in the same vein as the movie we had just seen. According to the notes of Dr Lawrence Napper, I said “when you’re talking about silent cinema, you’re talking about the first four decades of film history, so in a way it’s all experimental, you can show almost anything”.
So much, so overstated. But there’s a truth there, to my credit.
Yes, being a movie pioneer means experimenting – and the history of cinema is the history of innovations and new ideas, from close-ups to Cinerama, montage editing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When these innovations still seem new, or when they didn’t last, we can call them experiments. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema
Sad news today. Baby Peggy, the last of the surviging silent film stars, has died aged 101. She was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego on 29 October 1918 and she died on 24 February 2020, 400 miles away in Gustine, California.
She was a star before she was even two years old, starting out as a cute dimpled co-star for Brownie the Wonder Dog, before going on to play the lead in around 150 comedy shorts and features. She was an unforgettable presence on screen: dimpled, diminutive and delightful – one of the youngest and most brilliant of child stars. And she really was a star, the “Million Dollar Baby”.
Long after her own days as a silent film star were over, she was a writer and an advocate not just for the silent era but for the rights of child performers. It had never been an easy life being a toddler-actress, far from it, and on 14 February this year, she gave an interview to Silence is Platinum in which she said this:
“People asked me in my teens how I could remember anything about making films and I said I remembered everything about making them. I never had any problem with that, but many child stars had that denial thing. They didn’t want people to think they started out like that. Many times, and I did it too, I ended up denying that I had ever been in movies … There are so many sad stories, it was overwhelming. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think about them, and the most depressing ones are the ones that shouldn’t have gotten mixed up in it. They paid a terrible price for it. To me, they were all cautionary tales. Perhaps I assumed it because I lived it. Not all of my stories are negative, but the one you get caught in is a negative story.”
We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude, not just for her wonderful films and her fantastic comedy, but for her memories, which she put to good use, even though many of them were traumatic.
My Sight & Sound obituary for Baby Peggy is online here. We will all remember her, her work, and her beautiful smile, very fondly.
- The 2013 TCM documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is available on DVD from Milestone, with a selection of her films, including Captain January (1924)
- The Family Secret (1924) has also been released on disc by Undercrank Productions, with more of her short films and some archive footage.
- 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
Could there be a finer thought in a grey week such as this one than a burst of California sunshine? Maybe there’s one, the gilded interior of the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco, which truly has to be seen to be believed.
What I’m driving at is the fact that Early Bird Passes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are on sale now, and it’s a very wonderful event indeed. If you’ve never been before, see below everything you need to know (that I know) about this welcoming, and rather glitzy, event in northern California.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the festival, and they are promising great things, not least a long-awaited restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, undertaken in collaboration with MOMA New York, accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony, playing a new score commissioned by Timothy Brock. The rest of the programme will be announced on 24 March. Continue reading California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival
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
Happy 10th birthday to our favourite friends north of the border, The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival! This annual Bo’ness bonanza of silent cinematic goodness has pulled out several stops for its 10th anniversary edition, which runs from 18-22 March 2020, and features great movies, brilliant musicians, special guests and apparently, a barrage of custard pies.
Happy new decade Silent Londoners! Let’s kick off the Twenties with a party shall we? A Silent London Poll-Winners’ Party. You know the drill by now, these prizes go to the best of the past year in silent film, as voted for by YOU. With that said, I will starting handing out the gongs immediately
Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2019
This was a very popular winner – the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu release of the magnificent Der Golem was by far your favourite disc of the year. The package comprises a beautiful restoration of the movie, accompanied by a choice of great scores and a feast of insightful extras. An excellent choice. I reviewed this release in more detail in the January 2020 edition of Sight & Sound.
- Honourable mention: Fragment of an Empire (Flicker Alley)
Best Theatrical Release of 2019
Go, Golem! The expressionist classic was your classic for the best theatrical release of the year, as this sumptuous restoration played several dates around the world. I saw it in NFT1 in the summer and I am not sure I have recovered yet.
Best Modern Silent of 2019
It may not BE silent but it WAS shot silent, as forthcoming screenings with live musical accompaniment are sure to emphasise – Mark Jenkin’s brilliant Cornish drama Bait was your favourite modern silent of the year.
It’s election week here in the UK, and while I know the decision is easier for some of us than others, voting in a new government is always a serious business. So why not distract yourself from all that by using your franchise to support silent cinema as well? I can’t make many promises, but I can assure you that voting in the Silent London Poll is more fun than a General Election debate.
NOT ONLY THAT, BUT A PRIZE!
Yes, if you vote in the poll you can enter a prize draw to win a copy of 30-Second Cinema, the movie book I edited this year. Please note that this prize draw is open to UK residents only.
The weekend is nearly upon us and it promises to be cold and damp. Normally I would advise you to go to the cinema, wouldn’t I? I stand by that. There are plenty of shows on in Scotland this weekend, and Londoners can go to see Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne accompany Alraune at the Barbican this Sunday.
But if you can’t find a silent film screening near you and instead you’d rather curl up inside with a hot water bottle and your broadband connection, there are some silent films playing inside your computer that you won’t want to miss.
- The Danish Film Institute has done a wonderful thing – digitised its entire surviving silent film heritage and put it online at Stumfilm.dk, where you can stream it for zero krone. Yes, and many of the films have music and English subtitles too. There is so much here to enjoy, including Pat & Patachon. I was quite taken with the copious amounts of Asta Nielsen available, and AW Sandberg’s The Golden Clown from 1926 – but then I barely scratched the surface.
- Consider this one of your semi-regular reminders to check out the BFI Player again, because it seems like new silent films arrive there all the time. In particular, may I draw your attention to the new Robert Paul collection, celebrating his 130th anniversary, which includes some of his less well-known works. Not to mention the rest of the epic Victorian collection. If you’re a Paul fan (and of course you are), don’t miss the opening of the RW Paul exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford on 22 November. Another date for your early film diary: the Ernest Lindgren lecture on 10 December at BFI Southbank remembers the pioneering film preservation work of Harold Brown.
- Of course there’s always the Orphan Works on the BFI YouTube channel for all you international readers.
- Pop over the the Eye Film Museum YouTube channel to check out the Jean Desmet Collection – currently containing 370 films, many with English subtitles. New titles are added every Thursday!
- Highlights of the fantastic Kino Lorber Women Film Pioneers box set curated by Shelley Stamp are on Netflix in the UK, and many other countries too.
- US readers can find a variety of silents, including Chaplin features, when they subscribe to the Criterion Channel
- And next month, from 14 December, you’ll be able to see the lustrous new restoration of Maurice Tourneur’s The Broken Butterfly (1919) on the Film Foundation website.
Where else do you – legally – watch silent films online? Archive.org? Kanopy? Feel free to share any great finds in the comments.
- 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
This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Project Fear Blogathon. Happy Halloween!
“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
That’s the motto attached to Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is also one of the inspirations for an utterly disturbing new dialogue-free film. Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall (2019) screened on BBC2 on 10pm on Sunday, unannounced in the listings, and at a selection of cinemas across the country. It’s a scant seven minutes of unnamed horror – a mob, a victim, an escape attempt – soundtracked by an eerie score from Mica Levi.
Talking to the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, Glazer named his other inspirations as Goya’s Disasters of War pictures, some lines by Bertolt Brecht (“In the dark times / Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.”) and a snapshot of Eric and Donald Trump Jr hunting big game. It’s no coincidence, surely, that Glazer is currently working on a feature-length film set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, based on Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest. Continue reading The Fall: Jonathan Glazer’s impossible monsters
Competition time! Answer one easy question and you could win a copy of Carl Davis’s stunning score for DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) on a shiny new CD – there are five copies waiting for a new home here at Silent London HQ.
An epic film demands an epic score and Carl Davis’s music, originally created for the Thames Silents presentation of the film in 1986, certainly rises to the challenge of DW Griifith’s monumental movie.
“Scoring Intolerance poses two distinct problems for the composer,” says Davis. “The first is to establish the four distinct stories in their precise periods. The second, to help the film present those stories as having one theme i.e. the destructive power of intolerance upon individual people and the civilisations they live in. Therefore, I decided that I would use a large orchestra with certain features that would allow me to characterise each narrative. Continue reading Competition: win Carl Davis’s Intolerance score on CD
“You must go to the KiPho!” That was the message of the morning, where KiPho means cinema: kino + photografie. It takes a certain frame of mind to rise early in the morning to learn “how to be modern” from films that are nearly a century old, but here in Pordenone it seems perfectly natural. So today’s Weimar shorts selection began with Kipho, AKA Film from 1925, a speedy run-through of the medium to that point, flipbooks and all. That was followed by the most bizarre, and brilliant, ad for a motor show I have ever seen (featuring a martian, fallen to Earth and revived with lager, and that was just the start of it), some tips on kitchen design and lighting and a couple of comical films offering hygiene advice. And that’s how to be modern.
This concoction of the weird and the well-meaning was followed by Cecil B DeMille’s 1916 epic Joan the Woman, starring opera singer Geraldine Farrar, gorgeously accompanied by Philip Carli. All 11 reels unspooled today, although I confess that I couldn’t stay for all of them, which is a shame as what I saw was h-y-p-n-o-t-i-c. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7
Norma Desmond reckoned the silents didn’t need dialogue. But she never came to the Giornate. This may be a silent film festival but it’s good to talk. And listen. So I spent about as much time listening to people chat today as I did watching them mouth words. And yes, today did mark the return of benshi artist Ichiko Kataora to Pordenone with the Japanese silent Chushingura (1910-1917). So there is a method to this festival madness, I promise you. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6
You can’t watch everything. Well maybe you can. I can’t. So it is with regret that I have to make some difficult choices – today of all days. Weimar cinema or William S Hart westerns, for example. I followed my heart, and my research interests. What else can you do?
So I spent my morning immersed in 1920s Germany (and my 2019 inbox). To begin with, a diverting selection from the Weimar Shorts strand, which including some utter wonders. Watching Otto Dix at work with ink, watercolour and oil paint was a real thrill. Although I felt a little “seen” by his first portrait: a lady with dark, heavy circles around her eyes. That was Schaffende Hände. Otto Dix (1924). There were more artists at work too: the uncanny elegance of Lotte Pritzel’s wax figurines came to life in Die Pritzelpuppe (1923), and when they were shot in silhouette it was hard to forget that other great female film artist of the Weimar years, Lotte Reiniger. I was especially intrigued by the tableaux at the end in which actors (including Niddy Impekoven) posed in costumes designed by Pritzel, in unheimlich imitation of the puppets’ posture, as part of a pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland, written by Frank Wedekind. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 5
Still mooning about the goat-herder? Another Giornate blogpost will take your mind off it, Marion.
One of the beauties of Pordenone is the fact that the programme is so omnivorous, ranging far and wide over the first four decades of film history, and the audience are equally diverse. No doubt the main attraction of today, the headline act as it were, was the Hollywood comedy double-bill that played this evening. While I enjoy Marion Davies and Laurel and Hardy as much as the next silent cinema blogger, like everyone here I have my own particular passions that draw me back to the Verdi every year.
So it was that I woke up this morning most excited to see an eleven-minute film playing in the middle of the morning: Gerolamo Lo Savio’s 1909 Otello. Yes, I am a silent Shakespeare fan and this was my treat for the day. Stencil-colour, Venetian location shooting, a passionate but hardly Moorish Othello (I think it was the divine Michelle Facey sho said that meant he was surely “lessish”) and a nicely malevolent Iago made this a Shakespeare to savour, even if inevitably one had to devour it in one small mouthful. The colour was especially memorable here – notably a brief bloom of scarlet at Othello’s throat as he dies. An attractive and unexpected gory entry in the silent Shakespeare canon. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 4
Not to brag*, but I recently returned from the San Sebastián International Film Festival. There I saw people falling over themselves to catch a glimpse of Penélope Cruz or Kristen Stewart. That’s cool, but I do like it here at Pordenone where the mere sight of Léontine’s name on a title cart can cause someone in the Verdi stalls to whoop so loud that I was wondering who it was from the second balcony.
This bit certainly isn’t a brag, but my day job followed me to Pordenone this week, and I was tapping away at my laptop in my hotel room, writing about H****y W*******n when I suddenly realised I only had a minute to spare to get to the Verdi for the next session, the session I really didn’t want to miss: the return of Nasty Women, curated by Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak. Readers, I dashed to the Verdi and what I saw there was enough to wipe such horrid thoughts from my mind. Joyously anarchic, gleefully disruptive, messy, wild and endlessly hilarious antics, perpetrated by women on an unsuspecting world. Alice Guy-Blaché’s pregnant Madame with her escalating cravings, Léontine vandalising the petit bourgeoisie of a whole town, the housemaids on strike and marching through the streets, Cunégonde trying to keep tabs on her man … I loved all these gigglesome, radical short comedies. Up to and including the wonderful La Peur des Ombres with its shadowplay, sophisticated splitscreen and good-natured gurning – it rips a classic DW Griffith actioner into shred and sprinkles it around like confetti. Would love to think Weber saw it before making Suspense. This sort of thing should be available on the NHS: National Hilarity Service. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 3
It was a day for film stars in Pordenone today: from the contract players lining up to do studio promo in this morning’s Films on Film programme to Ita Rina the Slovenian tragedienne in the Estonian drama Kire Lained at the end of the night. But when I consider all the stars shining brightly in the Verdi today, I have to confess, my heart belongs to William S.
Tonight’s evening screening was devoted to the western star William S Hart, kicking off a whole strand devoted to his peculiarly soulful machismo and hearty horsemanship. Before the feature we had two short films. One was a talkie clip from 1939 with Hart introducing his final film, Tumbleweeds (1925) and lamenting, it seemed, both the decline of the old west and the passing of his days as a western star. Only slightly less poignant was a silent fragment of Hart on a promotional tour of New York in 1919 and, so the intertitles told us, pining for the frontier lands. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2
Charlie Chaplin, whose early masterpiece The Kid played this year’s Giornate opening-night gala, said some very wise things. Among which was the famous dictum that “a day without laughter is a day wasted”. It’s especially glorious to reflect on that idea after a day spent in fits of giggles in the Verdi. Today belonged to Chaplin, to Max Linder, to Suzanne Grandais and Léonce Perret. And more than that, to a rather more grand cosmic joke, played in Pordenone today, which thankfully had results rather more charming that catastrophic.
Yes, the slapstick gods truly smiled on us at the start of the 38th Giornate del Cinema Muto. How else to explain the fact that the industrious town of Pordenone had scheduled both a silent movie festival, and a marching band convention for the same day? Yes, a dozen or more brass bands were stepping around the piazza outside the Verdi reinterpreting pop and rock favourites, all while the afternoon films were playing. Fret not, the Verdi was entirely soundproofed, so there was no interruption to the excellent work of the day’s pianists. But just imagine what Messrs Chaplin and Linder might have made of such a circumstance?
Anyway, enough of my prattle. Welcome home! Today your humble correspondent enjoyed an especially fine afternoon of silent goodness, and she is feeling very buoyant indeed about the week to come. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1
You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.
Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.
The dog in Mighty Like a Moose
This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.
The Laughing Jester in Blackmail
Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt. Continue reading No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema