Tag Archives: silent film

David Shepard: 1940-2017

Unfortunately, I never had the honour of meeting David Shepard, who died this week aged 76, but it’s true to say that his work has had a tremendous impact on my life. I wrote a short obituary of him for Sight & Sound, which you can read here.

Many wonderful tributes have been posted to this man who did so much to rescue, preserve and share American silent film (and more): from Thomas Gladysz at the Louise Brooks Society; Howie Movshovitz at the Denver Silent Film Festival; Kyle Westphal on the Chicago Film Society blog; on the Cartoon Research site; from the brilliant Movies Silently site; and on Nitrateville (who changed the famous banner for the occasion) for starters. There will be many I have missed. Others have posted on social media or issued statements that were quoted in this very nice piece by The Hollywood Reporter.

On Facebook, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced that the 2017 event would be dedicated to Shepard. A splendid idea. He is already very much missed.

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Nell Shipman and the pioneer spirit of silent cinema

Nell Shipman, silent-era actress, writer, producer and director, gives new meaning to the phrase “film pioneer”. A truly adventurous soul, at the height of her career she starred in a series of outdoorsy action films featuring a menagerie of animals and seriously risky stuntwork – when she nearly drowned shooting a scene in a river, it didn’t occur to her to complain: instead she said, “I should have paid Vitagraph for the adventure.” Furthermore, she worked completely outside the system, running her own production company and filming her “little dramas in big places” deep in the hills of Idaho, more than 1,000 miles north of Los Angeles.

But isolation from Hollywood has contributed to a neglect of her legacy. Along with many of her contemporary female film-makers, she was missing from the first histories of the film industry, and remains little-known. A new documentary directed by Karen Day, The Girl from God’s Country, intends to rectify that. The film tells the story of Shipman, but also broadens the scope to examine how her peers’ histories have also been erased and the impact of that on the modern industry and on generations of female filmgoers.

Canadian-born Shipman was a thrillseeker through and through, who “refused to be a lady” and ditched school early to go into rep, becoming what she called a “vagabond actress”. She wrote her first novel soon after marriage and the birth of her first child, then moved into screenwriting. When the star of a film failed to turn up to the set one day, Shipman stepped in and started her career as a screen actress. Her breakthrough role was in Vitagraph’s God’s Country and the Woman (1916), an adaptation of a novel by James Oliver Curwood, bestselling author of American wilderness adventures, and the first in a series of God’s Country films.

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Look sharp: support the Fashion in Film Festival 2017

Not all of Silent London’s best-loved festivals are devoted solely to pre-sound film. A longstanding favourite here at Silent London HQ is the wonderfully glamorous Fashion in Film Festival. This event’s focus on cinematic design and unforgettable visuals, plus its enthusiasm for digging into the archives, means that silents often feature, of course, but it is always a wide-roaming affair. And this festival is a beautiful thing, a jewel in the London repertory film calendar.

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Le Costume à travers les âges – Reconstitué par le couturier Pascault, 1911

This year, the Fashion in Film Festival will take place in London venues from 19-26 March. The full programme has not been unleashed yet, but I do have reason to believe a silent or to may be on the cards. I’m posting today because the Fashion in Film Festival is asking for a little help this year. The organisers have launched a Kickstarter to raise £5,000 before the event begins. If you support them, rewards range from designer knick-knacks such as an Eley Kishimoto tote bag, a copy of the fantastic Birds of Paradise book and tickets and passes for the festival itself. Hurry, the festival passes are running out!

Here’s what the festival team have to say:

The festival celebrates our last ten years and EVERYONE who has been involved in making it a success, contributing or holding our hand. We have lined up an ambitious programme, co-curated with the wonderful Tom Gunning, including an exhibition and some 28 events, with fantastic speakers and some true archival gems we think everyone must see. But some of this is in danger due to a dire funding landscape in the UK. It has been a really tough year!

 

corsets
A Retrospective Look at Corsets, 1920s

And here’s a taste of this year’s programme:

Our programme features cinema’s well-loved as well as neglected masterpieces (Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, Ophuls’ Lola Montes, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Leisen’s Lady in the Dark, Protazanov’s Aelita), artist films (by Joseph Cornell, Jane and Louise Wilson, Cindy Sherman, Michelle Handelman, Jessica Mitrani), fashion films (by Nick Knight and Lernert & Sander), industry films and many archival gems. There will be talks, film introductions and panel discussions. As special highlights we are staging two film-based performances – with Rachel Owen (at Genesis Cinema) and with MUBI and Lobster Films (at the Barbican).

If you can spare a little money for the festival, I am sure it will be hugely appreciated. Just think of it as paying for your ticket in advance. I did!

Silent London hits the road

 

London’s great, it really is, but sometimes a blogger has to seek wider horizons. So this year I will be packing up my laptop and getting my soy cappuccino to go. I’m hitting the road to report on the silent film festival circuit – more of which anon – and I may possibly be popping up in a cinema near you.

First, an exciting announcement! The British Silent Film Festival is back this year. We have dates and a venue confirmed – 14-17 September 2017, at the Phoenix in Leicester – but no more news yet. Barring flood or fire, I’ll be there, and I recommend that you attend also.

Shoes (1916)
Shoes (1916)

Before that, however, I’ll be introducing two fantastic silent films by female directors at venues that couldn’t be much further from Leicester, and each other.

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Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

 

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.

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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.

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Saddle up for Silent Western Saturday at Kennington Bioscope

This just in on the pony express. The dudes at the Kennington Bioscope are celebrating the Silent Western with an all-day event of screenings on Saturday 11 March 2017 – hosted by Silent London’s hero of 2016, Kevin Brownlow. Now then, didn’t we tell you this was going to be a good year?

Here’s the message from the Lambeth ranchers in full.

‘Hitch up your wagon, fasten on your gun belt, saddle your horse and prepare to ride the range with the Kennington Bioscope as we explore the silent Western in the company of such Western heroes as Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, Tom Mix and – not forgetting our pistol packin’ frontier gals – Texas ‘Queen of the West’ Guinan.

Highlights will include Fred Thomson in THUNDERING HOOFS (1924) and Hart’s THE NARROW TRAIL (1917) – and will you dare ride THE DEVIL HORSE (1926)? – with the main evening event being a screening of Henry King’s classic rip roaring contemporary Western THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926), with the popular romantic pairing of Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky, together with Gary Cooper in his first major screen role.’

Don’t know who Texas Guinan was? Allow Vogue to educate you Allow Vogue to educate you on the subject of the star it is calling “the original nasty woman”.

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1917 on film: a world at war and a country feeling the pinch

Hey silent cinephiles. This is a quick note to tell you about the treasures to be found in the BFI Player’s freshly launched collection 1917 on Film. The footage collected here paints a striking portrait of a world at war and a nation doing its best to stay strong, conserve resources, fight its foes and keep the country on track. From celebrity philanthropy to citizen volunteers helping to work the land and feed the country; reports from the grim events in continental Europe to morale boosting cartoons and celebrations. I’d love to talk you through the lot, but I lost a few crucial hours watching the films myself. So why not explore for yourself?

Seriously, this is great stuff, and I have had the teeniest, tiniest involvement in putting it together so I felt a burst of pride to see it online and ready to stream. Silent London is a big fan of the BFI Player – a truly fantastic historical resource and the most diverting use of a rainy day lunchbreak I can imagine. So dive in to 1917 – and watch out for future additions to the site. Don’t tell anyone, but there are good things ahead .

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That said, please don’t miss my favourite … ‘Coster Comedienne’ Kate Carney stepping out of the music hall and on to the streets of London to deliver fresh veg and fruity jokes.

Silent London Poll of 2016 – the winners!

Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…

Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016

If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.

Napoléon (1927)
Napoléon (1927)

Best silent film theatrical release of 2016

Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

Best modern silent of 2016

Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.

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The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release

Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.

The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.

I can't lie – this is some pretty exciting post! #silentfilm #classicfilm #africanamericancinema

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For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.

This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.

Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”

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