Tag Archives: silent film

The Informer (1929): 2016 London Film Festival Archive Gala announced

One of the most exciting annual announcements in the silent film calendar, at least for us Brits, is the London Film Festival Archive Gala. So start rolling those drums now. This year, the beneficiary of a digital restoration, a new score, a gala screening and and a Blu/DVD release is … Arthur Robison’s The Informer (1929).

This rare silent adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s famous novel is set among Dublin revolutionaries in the early days of the newly independent Irish Free State, formed in 1922. The Archive Gala will take place at BFI Southbank on Friday 14th October, 6.30pm in NFT1 and features a specially commissioned live score by Irish composer Garth Knox with a six piece ensemble.

The silent Informer is a British-made movie, filmed at Elstree by British International Pictures, but has the flavour of an international co-production too, starring Englishman Carl Harbord, Swedish Lars Hanson, and Hungarian Lya de Putti (you may know her from Varieté). The story is set in early 1920s Dublin, during the first years of the Irish Free State and it is a tale of revolution and betrayal, with an underground cell of activists torn apart when one of their member accidentally kills a police officer.

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According to novelist O’Flaherty, he wrote The Informer “based on the technique of the cinema,” as “a kind of high-brow detective story”. The BFI says that the film draws on this lead, with an expressionist vibe that looks forward to film noir. Robison’s studio-shot film is tense, and claustrophobic, reflecting the anxieties of the lead characters, almost exclusively shot in mid-shot or close-up.

Informer

The dense narrative develops in a short time heightening the intensity of emotional effect. Our sympathies are challenged to deal with the complexity of personal versus political loyalties, where no-one is entirely innocent and the implications of seemingly minor or impulsive decisions create inescapable moral dilemmas for all the protagonists.

The new score for the gala and Blu-ray release has been written by a composer from Ireland, Garth Knox. The music draws on his interest in medieval, baroque and traditional Celtic music, and uses some traditional Irish instruments as well as avant-garde composition styles. It will be performed by a six-piece ensemble including accordion, flute, Irish pipes and viola d’amore.

The Informer (1929)

The Informer (1929)

The digital restoration has substantially cleaned up the film, which was made in both silent and talkie versions at the dawn of the sound era – and reintroduced the lavender tinting it would have enjoyed on its first release.

More to come on this for sure … Silent London will keep you informed.

  • The London Film Festival runs from 5- 16 October 2016
  • The Archive Gala screening of The Informer with Knox’s live score will take place on 14 October 2016
  • The newly restored version of The Informer will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI DVD in February 2017

The Gag Man review: a brutal insight into the silent comedy business

The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.

Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for  Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.

ClydeBruckman
Clyde Bruckman

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Way Down East: how Lillian Gish suffered for her art

Seduced and betrayed by a scoundrel, mother to a dead child, and cast out by an unfeeling employer, “frenzied – tortured” Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) stumbles out into a blizzard and, hearing the rush of the river, on to her certain death. The melodramatic climax of DW Griffith’s old-time tearjerker Way Down East (1920) is a violent assault on the audience’s emotional wellbeing. Anna collapses in the snow, and asleep on a sheet of ice, drifts downstream towards a waterfall. Her hair and her hands dip in the icy water, icicles collect on her eyelashes, snowflakes gather on her cheeks … and all the time, just too far behind her, a true-hearted gentleman in a fur coat (Richard Barthelmess) leaps from floe to floe in pursuit, hoping to save her from death, from his own father’s coldhearted cruelty, and from her moral disgrace.

Even in 1920, this was a bit much for most filmgoers to swallow. Griffith had spent thousands on acquiring the film rights to Lottie Blair Parker’s 19th-century stage play, a huge hit in the provinces but hopelessly dated: a hokey melodrama, hinging on unlikely events and leavened with rustic humour. Even the waif to end all waifs, wide-eyed Lillian Gish, was concerned about playing naïve country girl Anna Moore, who is tricked into a mock marriage by an unscrupulous womaniser. But if they were to recoup some of that money, the cast and crew were going to have to make the cinemagoing public believe in Way Down East. And for that, Griffith needed to show them something authentic.

Way Down East (1920)
Lowell Sherman and Lillian Gish in Way Down East (1920)

“Audiences want to see a real blizzard, not a sub-title with a two sentence description. If this film was going to work, the audiences wanted to see the real thing. Otherwise, whatever we did would be laughable,” worried Gish. And she was right to be concerned. At the opening night in New York, the audience howled with laughter – until the ice sequence, which is, despite the inserted footage of Niagara Falls and some canny editing, a triumph of endurance and performance rather than special effects. The sentimental appeal of Gish’s frozen tears, and the very real danger she is in during this scene would melt the hardest heart. It’s not just a nail-biting finale to a movie, it’s a spectacle of human courage – and it called for dedication above and beyond the call of cinematic duty.

A fortnight spent filming in a real blizzard and a “ninety-mile-an-hour gale” in White River Junction, Vermont, took its toll on cast and crew both. The cameramen lay down on the ice to hold the camera still, but sheltered themselves from the wind, while Gish, in a simple dress and shawl, faced the gusts until her face turned blue. When ice crystals formed on her face, Griffith had his crew film a closeup before offering her a blanket and a cup of hot tea. While it was Gish’s idea to drape her hair and hands in the river, her director gladly agreed – to the cost of her frostbite-ravaged fingers.

Filming the climax of Way Down East (1920)
Filming the climax of Way Down East (1920)

Continue reading Way Down East: how Lillian Gish suffered for her art

Competition: win tickets to see Robin Hood at the Barbican

It’s a stellar year for silent film screenings in London, big and small, but there is one particular show I have been looking forward to for months …

Allan Dwan’s captivating, super-sized adaptation of Robin Hood, starring the athletic, charming Douglas Fairbanks, is one of my all-time favourite family-friendly silents. It has wit, and spectacle and action and a true star to recommend it. And who doesn’t love Robin Hood?

But there is another reason to anticipate this screening. Robin Hood screens at the Barbican in October, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing a brand new score, by the one and only Neil Brand, a veritable swashbuckler among film composers. The Barbican promises us that Brand’s score transforms and further enlivens the classic silent, adding “a new richness and relatability to the film’s building tension and dark humour”. I think this is going to be very special.

Robin Hood set a very good example when he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. You could win a pair of tickets to experience the movie, and the new score, for yourself (and a friend).

Neil Brand – and friends
Neil Brand – and friends

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The 2nd Kennington Bioscope Silent Comedy Weekend: the laughter returns

It’s back, the perfect post-Pordenone pick-me-up: a weekend of giggles at the Cinema Museum curated by the inimitable David Wyatt. I heard great things about last year’s event, but this time you’ll have double the fun with a two-day festival. So ink 22 & 23 October 2016 into your diary and look out for tickets on sale in early September. Here’s what the Kennington Bioscope crew are promising for their second Silent Comedy Weekend:

Two days of (mostly) silent comedy – except for the audience laughter (judging from last year’s successful extravaganza) and live music from our world famous accompanists. 

Feature films with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, Monty Banks, Syd Chaplin, Harry Langdon and more. Rare showings of Lupino Lane’s LAMBETH WALK and Walter Forde’s first feature WAIT AND SEE – long–neglected British stars in need of re evaluation – plus some equally forgotten funny females, European shorts from the early years and Laurel & Hardy as you’ve never seen them before! Plus presentations on Mack Sennett and Lupino.

Guest speakers are hoped to include renowned authors David Robinson, Geoff Brown and Brent Walker, legendary film archivist Bob Gitt and of course, our own Kevin Brownlow.

Please not that the programme is ‘subject to change’ as films are still to be confirmed. Please see websites for updates.

Tickets will be available at the Kennington Bioscope website from early September.

Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow in Kid Boots (1926)
Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow in Kid Boots (1926)

 

Around China With a Movie Camera review: bewitching scenes from another world

In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.

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Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.

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A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.

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The Passion of Joan of Arc at Shakespeare’s Globe: a film out of time

If you are reading this post and you have never seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, stop now. Skip to the end, click on the link to buy tickets and make your life better with just a few taps of the mouse. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I have to say. Passion is not just one of the very best films of all time, but one that has inspired some of the most exciting scores too – despite the director’s misgivings about it being accompanied by music at all. There have been many film adaptations of the story of Joan of Arc, but Falconetti’s haunting portrayal of the saint, in front of Dreyer’s unflinching camera, is unforgettably raw and moving.

In September, you can see Passion at one of London’s most fascinating venues, Shakespeare’s Globe, as part of a season of live music events called Wonder Women curated by Lauren Laverne and The Pool. The music for this screening is a very special score – it’s a mixture of choral singing, electric guitars, harp, horns and synthesisers, written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) and conducted by Charles Hazlewood. I’ve heard it, back in 2011 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and I really loved it. The ancient and modern elements suit this timeless film well. I reviewed that event for a now-defunct and much missed arts blog, so here it is, reprinted, if you like.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

For Jean Cocteau, The Passion of Joan of Arc was ‘an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist’. And somehow that makes sense. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the trial and martyrdom of the Maid of Orleans claims fidelity to the 15th Century court transcripts, but has little in common with contemporary filmmaking. Continue reading The Passion of Joan of Arc at Shakespeare’s Globe: a film out of time

The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.

Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.

The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.

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The Guns of Loos (1928)

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Sunrise and Sunset: Silent London speaks

As regular readers of this blog have probably guessed, I dwell in splendid isolation in a Hollywood mansion. Occasionally I kidnap a passing blogger to help me refine a post or two, but normally the only people I see are my pet leopard and Georg Wilhelm the butler. So it makes a nice change to be leave the house and talk about silent cinema in the presence of the beautiful people of London. I am doing that twice in the near future – so read all about it.

The fabulous Phoenix Cinema in Finchley is hosting a silent cinema festival on the weekend of 15-17th July, which promises to be very special. On the Saturday they are showing Steamboat Bill Jr, in a special kids screening,with Neil Brand, and also Why Be Good? with the wonderful Colleen Moore and a “live flapper performance”. On the Sunday, Ian Christie introduces a selection of archive films of north London with music by John Sweeney, followed by a screening of the cockney silent East is East, with Lillian Henley at the piano and Gerry Turvey introducing. On Friday 15th July, Stephen Horne is accompanying one of the greatest films of all time, the magical Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and I will be on introduction duty. Expect much inarticulate swooning from me, and sumptuous music from Mr Horne.

Read more about the event, and book your tickets here

Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise (1927)

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Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse

Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel Stella Dallas was destined to become a great movie. In fact, it has been adapted for the screen three times: in 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role and in 1990 with Bette Midler, but before both of those in 1925 starring Belle Bennett as the unforgettable Stella.

Prouty’s novel is very cine-literate. It describes exactly the pleasure of a trip to the movies, but also the way that we can look at our real life as if it were a film. Sometimes we feel like an actor who is part of the spectacle, but at other times an onlooker, observing the action but not truly involved. Teenage Laurel, who is used to “standing on the outside” understands true love in real life because she has seen it in the movies: “Laurel had seen too many close-ups of faces not to recognize that look!”

The genius of this filmed Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925) is that it captures the poignancy of watching life from the dark of the auditorium, but its emotional reach draws us in, even from the back of the balcony. The final scene of the film, in which Stella watches her daughter’s wedding through a lit window on the dark and rain-drenched street, is the perfect visual incarnation of Laurel’s horrified realisation, voiced early in the novel, that she had “become a part of the picture on the screen, while her mother was still in the audience, out there in the dark, looking on”.

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

On its release, the Manchester Guardian’s film critic CA Lejeune described the “painful beauty” of Stella Dallas, saying: “We are stirred into sympathy with all these people because we cannot help identifying ourselves with them … the whole picture is full of the half-tones of which ordinary life is composed.” In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall praised one of the romantic scenes in the strongest terms: “It is all so natural, so sweet and genuine, so true to life, so fervent and sincere, so tender.”

Stella Dallas was made by Samuel Goldwyn in 1925, and the mogul was determined that it would be his masterpiece. He would end up spending $700,000 on the film – which was twice his line of credit.

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

Key to the success of Stella Dallas is Frances Marion, the woman who wrote its sophisticated screenplay. Marion takes the events of the novel, which are jumbled by flashbacks to create the drama of suspense and revelation, and straightens them out into a flowing narrative that begins in a garden in spring and ends on a city street in the cold. She also takes a few discreet liberties, rearranging scenes and editing them slightly to emphasise the agonies that plague Stella and Laurel. Her screenplay for this silent adaptation became the basis for the subsequent sound film starring Stanwyck – making that film a true remake rather than a second adaptation. And the film is beautifully directed by Henry King, who tells the story visually, exploring the novel’s concern for appearances both contrived and mistaken, but who also coaxes excellent performances from his cast.

Continue reading Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse