Tag Archives: silent film

Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.

Marion Byron & Anita Garvin

 

Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa

In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.

An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 8

What do you need to make a great movie? At the end of a week at Pordenone, is it the images that burn in your mind, or the stories that tug at your heart? Today we had more films that wooed us with visual than narrative pleasure, making for an exhilarating lineup that celebrated the artistry of silent cinema.

Let us begin at the end – with the gala performance of The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), restored by Photoplay in 1990 and playing here with a superb orchestral rendition of Henri Rabaud’s original score. This story of revolutions and robotics is a tremendous one, but it’s the images that scorch: The automaton army raising its sabers in unison; Edith Jehanne surveying the wreckage through a broken window; the pyrotechnic display of the firing squad in a snowy palace courtyard. A wonderful, rousing, and visually thrilled film that provided a suitably grand flourish to a week that has revelled in epic excitement.

 

A case in point: the tremendous The Last of the Mohicans (1920), one of those Canon Revisited films that is tucked away in an unassuming slot in the schedule and acts like a shot in the arm to the jaded festivalgoer. I had not seen it before and my expectations were somewhere around the middle, but this is wonderful stuff. Amid the action (which is wonderfully staged and always nailbiting) what emerges is an unexpectedly tragic and touching romance – one you wouldn’t go looking for in material like this, but there you go. I was moved. And of course that cliffhanger sequence is the best we have seen all week and we have seen some excellent ones.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 7

I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl.  Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.

The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6

Lyda Borelli, Lillian Gish, Florence Vidor, Stacia Napierkowska. Let’s hear it for the ladies after an exceptionally strong day at the Giornate. My favourite film of the day was a Stahl that surprised us all, so let’s start with the great master of melodrama himself. or do I mean, the master of comedy?

Husbands and Lovers (1924) was one of the few silent Stahls I had seen before, sort of. I had seen a cutdown version of this film, which stars Vidor and Lewis Stone as a married couple, and Lew Cody as their friend who makes up one of those triangles we have learned so much about this week. It’s dedicated to “the tired American wife who has a husband and craves a lover, or some such. The shortened version gave me a bum steer, turning it into a mini-melodrama. This is a sparkling, and very smart marital comedy, much in the same vein as Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle. In the opening sequence, Vidor does everything she can do for her helpless man to assist with his morning routine, dashing about in her dressing gown. And then the cad has the verve to say she looks frumpy and untidy.  Does that mean there was not a hint of tragedy or an outlandish coincidence in sight? No, but it was played for laughs. And the joy of it is the slowly shifting relationship between the three characters, first one way, then another, until a joyous ending. Fantastic cinematography, sharp lead performances and a very adult understanding of what gets lost and goes unsaid in a long-term relationship. Do look out for this if you can. And it goes without saying, it gave us plenty more to talk about at today’s Stahl collegium presentation.

 

 

The second big American movie of the say was Fred Niblo’s The Enemy (1927), starring Lillian Gish as a tired Austrian wife waiting for her hubby to come home from the war. One of Stahl’s favourite tropes was present here, or at least in the reconstruction of the missing final reel, but I won’t say which. This was hardship a la Hollywood, and so not quite as grim as it could have been. Gish, too, seemed a bit distracted, but it’s a very effective example of a solidly anti-war film, with the enemy of the title being hate itself. It’s unbelievably poignant to see such messages being delivered with such sincerity, knowing what was to come a few years later. I really enjoyed Frank Currier as Gish’s principled father and especially slapstick comic Polly Moran as her resourceful, if clumsy, maid. This film, which was thought lost for years, was playing as part of Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By strand. Gives one pause to think that we are rediscovering these movies all over again, on the fiftieth anniversary of that great book.

The really excellent thing about this screening of The Enemy was that in the first place it was deftly accompanied by John Sweeney, but also it was preceded by some breathtaking actuality footage of occupied Belgium. History alive before our very eyes. The reality and the romance of it both.

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Today was a day for divas, though, with the wondrous Lyda Borelli starring alongside Mario Bonnard in La Memoria Dell’Altro (1914), a captivating drama about the tragic love life of a successful aviatrix – Lyda of course. She’s always so strong, and acted Bonnard off the screen, quite frankly. You’d expect vivid gestural drama, right? And maybe a deeply sexual dance performed in the depths of gloom and degradation? Maybe. But comic byplay with a pair of goggles? Borelli knocked this out of the park right up to and including her contorted death scene. She takes you on an emotional adventure every time. Strong accompaniment too, from the musicians of the Giuseppe Tartini conservatoire in Trieste.

Now, I really must talk about Jacques Feyder’s L’Atlantide (1921), which clocks in at around three hours, and hands on the table, I don’t much like. It’s too slow, too static, too safe, when it could be wild, wicked, terrifying and claustrophobic. But then, there’s the movie, and the moment. And this was quite a moment. In an astonishingly gorgeous restoration (from the camera negative no less), the film gleamed tonight. And with a fascinating live accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Luigi Vitale, we were kept engaged right through to the gloomy finish. I may not feel the need to lobby for a Blu-ray of my own, but this resto premiere was a brilliant example of the silent cinema magic that happens at Pordenone – the care and skill that goes into giving each film its very best presentation. And I did like the owls. A tremendous end to the day.

 

 

  • Intertitle of the day: “There’s strength in THIS soup.” Yes, but there is no parrot in THIS cage, Barushka. Desperate times call for desperate measures in The Enemy.
  • Aspirational workplace of the day: I have been in a few newsrooms in my day. None of them a tenth as opulent as the one in La Memoria Dell’Altro.
  • Neologism of the day: Sigh-lent Cinema. Whether the coincidence is too unlikely, the landscape too beautiful, or the restorations credits are too long, or the child actor too cute … we do like a sigh in the Verdi, from time to time.
  • Wardrobe wonder of the day: What was keeping Napierkowska’s bosom just covered in L’Atlantide? Hope, or perhaps hashish?
  • Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website
  • 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.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 5

I heart John M Stahl. He’s revealing more and more to me with each movie I watch. But I have to be honest. For me, the Lincoln Cycle has gone off the boil – too much folksy moralising, not enough of either cute childish antics or actual grownup politics. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s final instalment will change that…

Today’s Stahl feature was the very definition of a kitchen-sink drama, with the director abandoning his customary upper-class milieu for The Song of Life (1922). He’s establishing himself in my mind as a first-rate New York filmmaker, but here he abandons the lavish Park Avenue apartments for cramped tenements, where life is hard and people live so cheek-by-jowl that their darkest secrets can deep through the floorboards. A hard-pressed housewife, sick of spending her day with her hands sunk deep in the dishwater abandons husband and child in a fit of dissatisfaction with the rural life. But years later we find her still living in the city, all alone, but still doing the dishes to get by. She’s on the verge of saying goodbye to it all with a bottle of Lysol, when the novelist downstairs takes her in as housekeeper to himself and his, yes, dissatisfied wife. Maybe it’s the Bess Meredyth screenplay, or just Stahl honing his skills, but this was a neat and to-the-point melodrama, despite the crashingly improbably coincidences powering the story. And strong performances all round too, especially from Georgia Woodthorpe as the mother and Gaston Glass as the novelist.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

It’s always a joy to travel the world in a day at the Giornate, but we tarried a little in  Sweden this afternoon. A screening of Victor Sjostrom’s deathless The Phantom Carriage was preceded by two less well-known Swedish films, a recent rediscovery of an early work by Sjostrom and a reconstruction of one by his compatriot Mauritz Stiller that survives only in fragments.

Accompanied expertly and very melodically by John Sweeney (coping heroically with the amount of stills in the Stiller), this was an intriguing and very enjoyable double-bill. They were both three-act drama, which unfolded swiftly and with a rich emotional impact. Sjostrom’s recently discovered Judaspengar (1915), starring Egil Eide and John Ekman was a story of betrayal, naturally, as a hard-up worker resorts to increasingly desperate measures when his wife is sick. The attraction here is the aesthetic more than the drama – with interior shots framed prettily by windows on several occasions. The opening is very striking, when the camera glides through an open window to the sick room. Elsewhere, dramatically lit scenes in a gloomy attic contrasted well the open countryside, where our heroes came cropper out poaching.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 3

As the great sage Rachel Bloom has pointed out, the mathematics of love triangles isn’t hard to learn. But what happens when one of the angles in the love triangle is so very much more acute than all the others? Which is to say, age ain’t nothing but a number, but some numbers are certainly far higher than others. And we learned a lot about May-December relationships at the Giornate this morning.

First, the sweetly pretty Swedish film Dunungen (1919), in which a young lady known as Downy (yes, I know, I tried to swap in Fluffkins to make sense of it as a nickname) gets engaged to a fancy dude who is actually the mayor’s son. And she is just the baker’s daughter so she should be grateful right? Well despite her disadvantages he takes her along to go butter up his uncle for an inheritance. Uncle has a big ironworks business and a country estate, and maybe, just maybe he likes Fluffkins more than her rubbish fiancé does. Perhaps they should be together and live happily in rural bliss. Well, it takes some elongated shenanigans and many beautifully hand-drawn folk art intertitles to get there, but yes, she swaps her immature snob for a classy chap who knows what he wants out of life eventually. This was a treat, a film from the Scandinavian Challenge strand that has had a little resto work to fill in the missing reels. It’s gorgeous and funny and spins out its domestic drama until the conclusion feels fully earned.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 2

Sunday in Pordenone, and it’s time to get this John M Stahl show on the road. We spent the morning with the master of melodrama, give or take an hour or so in the company of Jean Epstein and it was … exhilarating, actually.

Most mornings the Giornate will be showing instalments from The Lincoln Cycle, a series of standalone, two-reel dramas taken from the life of the 16th POTUS. The impetus for these films came from Benjamin Chapin, a renowned Lincolnalike, known for plays and monologues in which he impersonated the great man. He’s credited here as writer, director and producer – which I think we should be discreetly booing by the end of the week. JMS directed these beauties, very early in his career and got no credit for it. I must admit, honest Abe, that the prospect of the first two instalments, devoted to each of Lincoln’s parents, respectively (Chapin plays Lincoln Sr), didn’t sound too thrilling. But, that’s where Stahl (perhaps) comes in. Delicately directed, nuanced performances (especially Madelyn Clare as Abe’s mother) and brisk, smart storytelling – these were actually gems, and though these childhood episodes never featured in Chapin’s stage shows, so we could be tempted to assign praise to our man Stahl, I suppose we’ll never know exactly how much influence he had. Can’t wait to see more though. Sadly some dramatic-sounding stories are missing, but let’s treasure what we have. Gorgeous prints too.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 2

Silent Guns: Kennington Bioscope remembers WWI

Anniversaries are a wonderful reason to show some archive film, and some anniversaries are better than others. The Kennington Bioscope, which has had a spectacularly busy year, has added yet another special event to the calendar. Silent Guns is a celebration of First World War cinema, to commemorate 100 years since the conflict ended, curated by the KB team and Kevin Brownlow himself.

The screenings will take place on Saturday 17 November 20187, from 10am to 10.30pm at where else but the wonderful Cinema Museum in south London. Most of the film prints will be 35mm or 16mm and of course all the silent films will be accompanied by live music.

The gala film, so to speak, is King Vidor’s The Big Parade, a rare chance to see this Hollywood classic starring John Gilbert on the big screen and on film too. But there are some very intriguing titles further down the programme, including some little-seen British films, including Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) and and George Pearson’s Reveille (1924) – and a German one too. There are shorts (From Pearl White to Chaplin), extracts from films that don’t survive intact, and even a couple of sound artefacts too.

Continue reading Silent Guns: Kennington Bioscope remembers WWI

Pictures of Lili: The Golden Butterfly & the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.

There are many treats coming up in the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend 8 & 9 September 2018, held at our beloved Cinema Museum, the Jewel of Lambeth. From Canadian canine capers with wonder dog Rin Tin Tin, putting his best paw forward to start off the weekend in Where The North Begins (1923), to sparkling comedy with Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman in Her Night Of Romance (1924), through to marvellous Mary Pickford in our Saturday night feature Sparrows (1926) by way of other films from the USA with William C deMille’s naturalistic drama Miss Lulu Bett (1921) and Herbert Brenon’s Dancing Mothers (1926).

Dancing_Mothers_lobby_card_2

Mothers’ lead actress was Alice Joyce but with Clara Bow also featuring in what was her first picture for Paramount, she was left more than a little in the younger woman’s shade. Louise Brooks (quite popular around these parts, I’m led to believe) commented that: “Everybody forgot Alice Joyce because Clara was so marvellous; she just swept the country. She became a star overnight with nobody’s help.”

Speaking of heroines, we’re very lucky to be looking forward to a programme on the most famous silent serial queen of them all with Pearl White: A Cliffhanging Life presented by Glenn Mitchell and Michael Pointon, who have done extensive research on plucky Pearl. Continue reading Pictures of Lili: The Golden Butterfly & the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

London Film Festival 2018: the silent preview

Happy London Film Festival programme launch day! The festival runs 10-21 October this year and there are oodles of films showing, from the competition titles and the galas to the weird and wonderful pieces in the experimental and short categories. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s cut to the chase. We have no time here for talkies. What does the 62nd London Film Festival have to offer in the way of silent cinema? Plenty. More than usual, I’d say. Some we knew about, some we didn’t.

The really good news – none of these silent screenings need clash with Pordenone. That is to say, there are duplicate screenings to avoid that.

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The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show

Nineteenth-century films, shot on 68mm film, beautifully restored, introduced by Bryony Dixon and accompanied by John Sweeney and his Biograph Band. Oh, and they are screening at the actual, flipping IMAX. This is going to be massive. If your mouth isn’t already watering, I don’t know what to do with you. This year’s Archive Gala should be a silent cinema experience like no other. Book now.

Plays: 18 October 2018, BFI IMAX

Continue reading London Film Festival 2018: the silent preview

Cinema muto ritrovato: silent films at Bologna 2018

Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.

It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.

Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1971)
Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1971)

I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.

Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford on the set of Rosita (1923)
Ernst Lubitsch and Mary Pickford on the set of Rosita (1923)

My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.

Continue reading Cinema muto ritrovato: silent films at Bologna 2018

Les Deux Timides (1928): a bold comedy of shy lovers

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 (1928)
Les Deux Timides (1928)

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.

Continue reading Les Deux Timides (1928): a bold comedy of shy lovers

All aboard the Silent Railway Day at the Kennington Bioscope

What’s better than a film set on a train? A silent film set on a train. You know it’s true, and so do the wonderful people at the Kennington Bioscope, who have compiled a day of railway-themed silent films with live music for next month.

Taking place at the glorious Cinema Museum on 7 July 2018, this event should prove the perfect pick-me-up for those who missed out on Il Cinema Ritrovato, or who went, but already miss spending all day watching old films with fabulous people.

It’s bound to get pretty steamy, too …

Here are the details from the Bioscopers themselves:

An all-day excursion into the greatest railroading moments of silent cinema. Thrill to the train of events that put movie heroines Ruth Roland, Helen Holmes and Gloria Swanson in peril! Express hilarity with Monty Banks aboard a runaway train, and sneak ‘A Kiss in the Tunnel’ from 1899! Signal your approval of Jean Arthur in ‘The Block Signal’ (1926).
Climb aboard ‘The Flying Scotsman’ (1929), in the rare silent version that differs radically from the talkie. Take a round trip with Kevin Brownlow as he pilots ‘The Runaway Express’ (1926) before conducting us through the making of Abel Gance’s ‘La Roue’ (1923). Ride along with the  ‘Railroad Raiders of ’62’ (1911) – a precursor to Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ – which will be rolling in from the sidings alongside other shorts, from the Lumière brothers’ famous ‘L’arrivée d’un train en gare’ de ‘La Ciotat’ (1896) to a hair-raising journey ‘When the Devil Drives’ (1907). After that, don’t be afraid of ‘The Ghost Train‘ (1927), the first film adaptation of the famous stage play by a (very) pre-Dad’s Army Arnold Ridley. The booking office is opening NOW so couple up to a season ticket for the whole day!

Kevin Brownlow on Abel Gance! Rare silents! Live music!

The Silent Railway Day takes place at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH, from 10am (doors 9.30am) to 10pm on 7 July 2018. Full-day tickets cost £18, or £10 for a half-day ticket, or £5 for the last show only. Book tickets here. Or find out more at kenningtonbioscope.com where you can read all about the regular silent screenings, at which you can see all manner of beautiful and rare silents with live music on a Wednesday night.

The Ghost Train (1927)
The Ghost Train (1927)

You haven’t been to the Kennington Bioscope yet? Hush your mouth. It’s a really vibrant element of the rich silent film culture in this fantastic city, and should be a regular fixture in your diary. As I reported on this site back in 2015:

Since 2013, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best  – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out …Long may it run, and run – the Kennington Bioscope is a cherished addition to London’s silent film scene.

When Italian cinema meets its Celtic shadow: Castle of Blood (1964)

This is a slightly unusual guest post for Silent London, by Daniel Riccuito from the Chiseler, who promised me he could persuade us that 1964’s Castle of Blood/La Danza Macabra was essentially a silent film. What do you think?

Her appearance in 1960’s Black Sunday had already conquered him. And thereby imbued Raymond Durgnat’s now famous one-liner – “She is the only girl in films whose eyelids can snarl” – with more than surrealist fancy. His Companion to Violence and Sadism in the Cinema came out in February 1963. Reading it today, I’m humbled by its prescience: Barbara Steele would soon prove that “snarls” should remain metaphors, and that synchronised sound never amounted to more than a tattered cloak. Cinema is visual and, therefore, silent.

And the screen’s own metaphorical whisper (“There must be other Alices”) invites new, unexpected iterations of Lewis Carroll’s looking glass.

Barbara Steele in Castle of Blood (1964)
Barbara Steele in Castle of Blood (1964)

Enter a 26-year-old: maturing as an actress while retaining a profound sense of uncontrollable childhood rage, capable of playing emotions too vast for the human body — commanding them into air. Barbara Steele, who holds the patent on gothic atmosphere, occasionally leases it to cinema. Here, she’s pursued by a camera that may as well be the all-engulfing eye of some hypnotised cat, as Ricardo Pallottini’s lens captures the most erotic blacks and whites ever filmed. Picture the primordial shadow, rather than the reflection of Alice to fathom 1964’s cinematic tone poem La Danza Macabra AKA Castle of Blood. Her face “chops and changes its character as the lights carve at its neat, stark cheekbones, high forehead.” I share Durgnat’s rather pointed fascination with the way Steele transforms via filmic reproduction, as if he were channeling Jean Epstein’s theories of “photogénie”, the notion that movies can reveal and magnify a subject’s moral character.

Continue reading When Italian cinema meets its Celtic shadow: Castle of Blood (1964)

Walk Cheerfully (1930): Yasujiro Ozu’s toe-tapping tough guys

I wrote this essay for the BFI’s The Ozu Collection – The Gangster Films DVD box set, released in 2013. 

The cheeky twist in the story of Yasujiro Ozu is the revelation that the director Donald Richie hails as the ‘most Japanese of all’ was actually a devoted fan of American movies. And while Ozu never slavishly mimicked his Hollywood heroes, his early work pushes his passion for Harold Lloyd and Ernst Lubitsch proudly to the fore. Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka ni ayume) is a prime example: a gangster story ostensibly set in Tokyo, but truly resident in an imagined trans-Pacific replica of the city, part-populated by snappy, glamorous types strangely familiar from American flicks. But Walk Cheerfully goes further than a fan letter. Behind the genre trappings of guns and cars and toe-tapping lowlifes, there’s a classic Ozu domestic drama unfolding – one that reflects real concerns in early 1930s Japan.

Walk Cheerfully (1930)
Walk Cheerfully (1930)

In the director’s own words, this is the story of ‘a delinquent who goes straight’. His name is Kenji the Knife (Minoru Takada) and he casts off his spurs only for the love of a good woman, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki). He needs a good reason to walk the line because Walk Cheerfully depicts the life of a hoodlum as mostly jovial. The snarling gangsters in Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (a clear influence on this film’s sharp light and shade) may pause their feud for a decadent ball, but Kenji and his cohorts mix business with pleasure far more comfortably. Their hangouts are a bar and a boxing gym; the walls of the latter are graffitied with slushy English lyrics and playing cards. These fun-loving criminals wear western suits and dabble in American leisure pursuits: pool, convertible cars, golf and jazz. The gang boss is a hoot, a camp delight complete with fussy moustache, cigarette holder and a teeny-tiny dog, who is greeted by a chorus-line of twirling goons when he makes an entrance. The crew’s cute habit of moving and dancing in unison is a nod to Lloyd (Ozu’s slacking students display the same quirk in his comedy I Flunked, But … 1930), which is also picked up by the police, and the office workers who hang their hats as one. When we do see Kenji in the commission of a crime, his cons are so coolly and stylishly pulled off that we understand why even old-fashioned girl Yasue is charmed by him. It’s the chutzpah of his upstanding citizen pose when his sidekick Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) is accused of theft; his tough-guy stance as he ambushes a mark with his moll Chieko (Satoko Date). Were the Shangri-Las around in 1930s Japan, they’d surely discern that Kenji is ‘good-bad, but he’s not evil’, despite his leather gloves and his dagger tattoo. Continue reading Walk Cheerfully (1930): Yasujiro Ozu’s toe-tapping tough guys

Pandora’s Box: poster, trailer and news

Yes, I’m talking about the Pandora’s Box rerelease this summer again – but I’ll be brief. I have three things to share with you.

First, here is the very chic poster for the rerelease. The BFI marketing team is clearly adopting a Brooks-first strategy, and who can blame them?

Second, here is the trailer!

Third, which you may have guessed by now – contrary to previous reports, this theatrical release will actually be a 2K digital print of the newest restoration of the film, complBoxhereeted in 2009 by Martin Koerber and the Deutsche Kinemathek. As Koerber said to me, in this version “you can see every flutter of Louise Brooks’s eyelashes”. How can you resist?

  • Pandora’s Box is released on 1 June 2018, screening at BFI Southbank and cinemas nationwide. Details will be available here.
  • Don’t miss Louise Brooks in Technicolor.
  • You can buy my BFI Film Classic on Pandora’s Box here.
  • 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.

Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence

Two just-teenage runaways arrive in New York City, one in monochrome 1927 and the other in the notorious, sultry summer of 1977. That’s the simple premise of Todd Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, a film that is as rich as it is gentle. The film is based, as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was, on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick, but this is more impressionistic and less didactic than that affectionate tribute to Georges Meliès. There is a silent cinema connection again, though. Both children are deaf, and the 1920s scenes are filmed entirely silent, but this is no fussy exercise in cinematic nostalgia; it’s a film about deaf culture, but also the silence of loneliness, of being friendless in a big city, or unloved at home.

In fact, and let’s get this out of the way at the very beginning, the brief silent-film-within-the-film here is a thuddingly offkey pastiche, witlessly mashing up The Wind and Way Down East with bone-headed intertitles. That aside, there are some nice mockups of silent-era movie magazines, and a couple of nods to Nosferatu and The Crowd, but Haynes is doing something more interesting than reconstruction. His film, carried along by Carter Burwell’s brilliantly alive score, creates an almost silent movie – a wordless communion between two periods of time, interrupted by snatches of dialogue.  Continue reading Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence

Bologna tips: A beginner’s guide to Il Cinema Ritrovato

A few years back, when the world may not have been young but this blog certainly was, and I had begun to hit the silent film festival trail, I received some alarming advice from Neil Brand. “What you really want to do as well,” he said, “is to go to Bologna. The weather’s great, the food’s amazing – and there are even talkies, too.”

Well two out of three ain’t bad. By Bologna, Neil meant Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of archive cinema that takes place every summer. Ritrovato means something like rediscovered. So, fittingly this festival shows rediscovered films, but also rarely seen films, films on rare formats and vintage prints, and newly restored films too. Largely, anything more than thirty years old qualifies for the festival, which gives it a giant scope.

I knew lots of people who went to this festival, but as always with anything new, I was a little wary to dipping my toe in the water. Worst-case scenario – I might really enjoy it and develop an expensive habit. So, the first year I went for just three days, then I skipped the next year and was filled with regret. For the past three years running I have turned up for about five or six days, almost the whole thing. And every time I have had a ball. Great films, in vast quantities, and a celebratory atmosphere that is almost as warm as the Italian sunshine.

Are you pondering a trip to Bologna this summer? I know some Silent London readers are Ritrovato regulars, but for those who haven’t had the pleasure yet, here are some hints and tips for getting the most out of the festival (without breaking the bank). Continue reading Bologna tips: A beginner’s guide to Il Cinema Ritrovato

Brighton: Symphony of a City/Symphonic Visions review: fascinating faces past and present

Are we in the midst of a City Symphony revival? As well as recent essayistic examples from Terence Davies and Mark Cousins we have had last year’s London Symphony, and in 2016, Brighton Festival commissioned another, which has been screened a handful of times around the country and is now out on DVD, and about to screen again in London and Brighton soon.

I’ve been keen to set my eyes on Brighton: Symphony of a City for a while, especially once I started hearing such good things about it. The DVD it is available on is called Symphonic Visions, and it is a showcase for the work of composer Ed Hughes. Alongside Brighton: Symphony of a City, directed by Lizzie Thynne, which is a whisker over 47 minutes long, there are four silent shorts featuring new scores by Hughes and Sky Giant (1942), a British Movietone film from the Imperial War Museum archive about the Arvo Lancaster Bomber.

Continue reading Brighton: Symphony of a City/Symphonic Visions review: fascinating faces past and present