Tag Archives: silent film

The Late Show: The Whales of August (1987)

This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Late Show Blogathon. I have chosen to write about the final screen appearance of the wonderful Lillian Gish, but this movie is a late or last film for many of the people involved.

“Alas dear ladies, all of this is in the past.” Vincent Price’s elegant Mr Maranov delivers the sad news to his elderly neighbours Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis). He is talking about his heyday, his rarefied life as a Russian noble, before the revolution, before the war, before the coming of sound. Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987), announces itself with a whiff of sawdust, and nitrate. It’s a film based on a play, a very quiet and melancholy play, and it opens with something far too gentle to be called a flashback, a monochrome glimpse of three young girls with flowing hair and white dresses excitedly rushing to the shore to catch sight of the ocean’s summer visitors. A glimpse of the silent era, in tribute to the film’s iconic and beautiful star.

Do the whales come to Maine in August any more, now those young girls have lived a lifetime each, separated, and reunited to live in awkward interdependence? That constitutes this delicate movie’s only real note of suspense. Sarah and Libby live the definition of a twilight existence, quietly in a house that is really a summer cottage, although it is early autumn, exposed on a grassy cliff. They brush their long white hair (Sarah’s a has a touch of blonde still, as she can’t quite resist letting Libby know) and dress for dinner in floral and powder-blue chiffon, and low-heeled pumps. It’s a beautiful spot, Cliff Island in Maine, where each evening they can “dine by moonlight” when the twilight floods their parlour. A picture window would make the most of that sumptuous view, and a friendly handyman neighbour (not Price, no fear) offers to install one for the ladies. Libby has doubts, though. Aren’t they too old to make changes? And besides, although she doesn’t like to mention it, Libby is blind. She can no longer see the whales, whenever they may or may not arrive.

Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987)
Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987)

Gish was 93 when she made The Whales of August, but preternaturally youthful, in the unique way of a waif who barely grew up. She plays a widow who mourns her soldier husband, and patiently takes care of cantankerous Libby, her older sister (though Davis was 15 years younger, and had one more feature in her, despite the decades of chain-smoking). She lives resolutely in the present, though, lobbying for that picture window and delighting in good food, fresh conversation, and the changing beauty of nature. She still believes the whales will return in August. Davis, who often seemed to delight in complaining about her co-stars, said it was a nightmare to work with Gish, who was all but entirely deaf. Anderson, inevitably, drew a different preference. Gish was an angel to direct, and rebellious Davis more of a headache. “Lillian’s first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for. Her professional attitude comes from those days with DW Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.” As such, they were perfectly cast as Sarah and Libby.

Continue reading The Late Show: The Whales of August (1987)

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The Silent London Poll of 2018: vote now!

Today, Silent London is eight years old. If this were a marriage we’d be exchanging bronze gifts. But I consider this more of an open relationship, so don’t worry about buying me anything too expensive – unless you absolutely insist.

Thank you for reading, whether you are new around here or have been with me for the full eight-year stretch. If it’s the latter, you really do deserve a medal. All I can offer you is this deathless gif of Buster Keaton and Rosalind Byrne in Seven Chances instead:

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Fabulous isn’t it? You’ll have guessed by now that I am after something. And yes, it’s quite tradition by now. Today we open the Silent London Poll of 2018, and I want your votes. Lots of em. Very few of the questions are mandatory, so even if you think that you haven’t watched that many silents this year, do take a look and see if you can support the films, film-makers, restorers, musicians, venues, festivals and so on that have made your year in silent cinema rich and exciting. I think 2018 has been a vintage year, what about you?

Are you struggling to remember the festivals, films, and music that you loved the most in 2017? Well take a look back through the pages of Silent London, or the Silent Film Calendar or ithankyou, both of which sites kept up to date with silent happenings all year round.

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Don’t be afraid to lobby for your favourites, or to vote for events outside the UK. The poll is now a global affair and the more votes the merrier. Sharing is caring!

I will be closing the poll on 20 December, so you have plenty of time to ponder your choices – but don’t forget to vote!

Follow this link to fill in the survey – or scroll down and get started straight away.

  • Refresh your memory by finding out who won last year, 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.

 

From Rio to Reading: the art of the silent movie prologue

It’s an article of faith in these parts that silent cinema is live cinema. We’re talking about the magic of live musical accompaniment, for the most part, but also, if we go right back to the early film period, narration, as well as the timing and skill involved in the projectionist changing reels, and perhaps the odd audience member reading the intertitles out loud.

There’s more discover in this vein though, and a project at the University of Reading aims to revive the art of the movie prologue. Not just any silent movie prologues, but Brazilian silent movie prologues. It’s an international project then, part of a wider quest to explore intermediality in Brazilian cinema, and connecting Reading to Rio de Janeiro, specifically that stretch of the coast that was once known as Cinelandia, because there were so many cinemas there.

Continue reading From Rio to Reading: the art of the silent movie prologue

LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).

Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably  Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?

Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

LFF review: Stan & Ollie revives the joy of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy magic

This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.

There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.

Continue reading LFF review: Stan & Ollie revives the joy of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy magic

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

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. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6

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).

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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.

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