Tag Archives: silent film

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1

Charlie Chaplin, whose early masterpiece The Kid played this year’s Giornate opening-night gala, said some very wise things. Among which was the famous dictum that “a day without laughter is a day wasted”. It’s especially glorious to reflect on that idea after a day spent in fits of giggles in the Verdi. Today belonged to Chaplin, to Max Linder, to Suzanne Grandais and Léonce Perret. And more than that, to a rather more grand cosmic joke, played in Pordenone today, which thankfully had results rather more charming that catastrophic.

Yes, the slapstick gods truly smiled on us at the start of the 38th Giornate del Cinema Muto. How else to explain the fact that the industrious town of Pordenone had scheduled both a silent movie festival, and a marching band convention for the same day? Yes, a dozen or more brass bands were stepping around the piazza outside the Verdi reinterpreting pop and rock favourites, all while the afternoon films were playing. Fret not, the Verdi was entirely soundproofed, so there was no interruption to the excellent work of the day’s pianists. But just imagine what Messrs Chaplin and Linder might have made of such a circumstance?

Anyway, enough of my prattle. Welcome home! Today your humble correspondent enjoyed an especially fine afternoon of silent goodness, and she is feeling very buoyant indeed about the week to come. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1

No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.

Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

The dog in Mighty Like a Moose

This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.

Blackmail1929AnnyOndrapainting
Blackmail (1929)

The Laughing Jester in Blackmail

Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt. Continue reading No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

The best and worst Charlie Chaplin films – ranked!

Why did I do this? Well partly that’s between me and my conscience. The man we know as the Little Tramp was born on 16 April 1889 and in Chaplin’s 130th anniversary year I thought it would be fun to list his feature films* in the manner of the Guardian’s Culture – ranked! series. 

So here goes …

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

  1. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Sneeze and you will miss Charlie Chaplin himself in this, his final feature, which was also his only film to be made in colour. Sophia Loren plays a stateless stowaway who catches a ride to America in the cabin of a US diplomat, played by Marlon Brando of all people. Although Chaplin pokes his head round the door to play a steward, and a handful of his children have roles too, this is barely recognizable as his. The physical comedy drags, the sentiment is forced (Brando’s mumbles are the antithesis of Chaplin’s style) and it’s hard to disagree with the New York Times critic, who wrote: “if an old fan of Mr Chaplin’s movies could have his charitable way, he would draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred”. Continue reading The best and worst Charlie Chaplin films – ranked!

Live now: Lois Weber on Film Club with Caspar

UPADTE: the podcast on Lois Weber is live now. You can listen here, or search for it on all good podcasting platforms.

Podcast news: I am going to be appearing on a podcast soon. To talk about Lois Weber – quelle surprise. Normally, I would at least wait until the ’cast was in the digital can before posting about it. But this podcast is different, it’s Film Club with Caspar, and it’s interactive.

Caspar Salmon is a very eloquent film critic based here in London, and this podcast is his brainchild. I don’t think I have ever chatted to him about silent cinema, but let’s just say that clearly this gentleman is aware of my proclivities. Continue reading Live now: Lois Weber on Film Club with Caspar

Bait review: Silent landscapes, angry voices

It’s a great week for new British cinema. I don’t get to type that very often. But this week, as the heatwave cools, you can spend your cinema money on two fascinating and brilliant new movies by young British filmmakers: Joanna Hogg’s finely polished dissection of a troubled romance, The Souvenir, and Mark Jenkin’s Bait. I highly recommend both*, but it’s Bait I want to talk to you about today.

Bait is Jenkin’s debut feature and it continues the themes and techniques he has explored in his short work. He’s a Cornish filmmaker, and in shorts such as Bronco’s House (2015), he has tackled subjects very close to his own home, the dissolution of the local way of life due to housing shortages exacerbated by unchecked tourism and the loss of traditional crafts and livelihoods. Those themes surface again in Bait, a portrait of a belligerent, bereaved young man called Martin (Edward Rowe) who lives in Newlyn, once a busy fishing port. Martin’s family home has been bought by a middle-class London family who have decked it out with tacky nautical accessories and use it only for holidays and Airbnb income, and his job as a fisherman has also dwindled to a shadow of itself. He no longer has his own boat, and relies on what he can catch from hand-cast nets instead. His brother has a boat, but adding insult to injury, uses it for pleasure cruises rather than the family business. It’s important, not to say simply refreshing, to see British filmmakers bringing regional issues to light in this way. Too many commercial films portray the British countryside as a moneyed idyll or a folksy home for cute eccentrics. Bait doesn’t do that. Continue reading Bait review: Silent landscapes, angry voices

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: the rest is silence

A friend of mine is an archeologist. She does lots of exciting work digging through history, and actual dirt, in order to discover how humans lived hundreds of years ago. Or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Which is where it gets tricky for people to understand her work, and I don’t blame them. Claire studies the Paleolithic Age, which dates back to around one million years ago. Most of our brains boggle at trying to understand that concept. One million years of human history: making tools, having babies, grinding flour, painting, writing, loving, moulding plastics, fighting wars, vaccinations, vegetarianism, the Cinématographe, the smartphone, Tinder.

See, as a silent film specialist I only have to go back 130-ish years to get the start of my period, and yet I know I lose a lot of people once I dip back any further than Modern Times (1936). We called our podcast The Sound Barrier for a reason: lots of people fail to engage properly with pre-sound cinema. Just as most of us western critics are ignorant of large swatches of Asian and African cinema. Sometimes there is too much time to take in, and too little time in which to do so.

There’s such a thing as historical anxiety. These days 10, 15, maybe more films come out every week, in cinemas and across streaming platforms. It’s basically impossible to catch up with new films, let alone with everything that came before. And while canons exist to tell us which films from the past it is most essential to familiarise ourselves with, quite rightly, researchers are beginning to question and expand those very canons. I turned to silent cinema in the first place because I loved movies, but the films I was frequently told were important and essential disappointed me. Films of value, films that many people enjoy, left me cold, or offered depictions of women that I instinctively found degrading or dismissive.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, the evocatively titled Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It came out last week in the UK, so maybe you’ve seen it already. It’s set in 1969, and tells a loose and rambling story about a washed-up star, his stunt double, a sinister group of young people who live communally at the Spahn Movie Ranch, and a young starlet called Sharon Tate. Continue reading Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: the rest is silence

The Living Picture Craze: learn all about Victorian Cinema

Hello, just wanted to share the details of this online course with you because a) it’s all about Victorian cinema b) it’s free c) it’s a partnership between the BFI and the fantastic Bill Douglas Cinema Museum d) it seems like the perfect way to whet your whistle for the British Silent Film Festival in September.

BFI Education are launching a free 3-week online course The Living Picture Craze: A Introduction to Victorian Film in partnership with Exeter University and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum starting on 2nd September 2019.

Silent film takes a starring role in this course exploring the emergence of a new medium that was set to capture the world’s imagination. Explore the birth of film and the end of Queen Victoria’s epic reign. Using the BFI’s unique collection of surviving Victorian films this course will debate common myths about the period and the materials, as well as examine what the films reveal about the society that produced them.

This course is designed for anyone with a passion for silent film, and Victorian and British history.

Join here now – it’s FREE! Sign up link: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/victorian-film/1

Ritrovato Roundtable: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019 podcast

The Bologna suntans are fading but the Il Cinema Ritrovato memories are still vivid. So Peter Baran and I were delighted to be joined on our latest podcast by academic and film programmer Eloise Ross, as well as filmmaker Ian Mantgani and writer Philip Concannon from the Badlands Collective. We’re chatting about our highlights, discoveries and duds from the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – a feast of archive, vintage and restored cinema, spanning silent and sound films.

Eloise Ross, Ian Mantgani, Peter Baran and Philip Concannon in the podcast studio.
Eloise Ross, Ian Mantgani, Peter Baran and Philip Concannon in the podcast studio.

Maximum effort!

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

Le Chat (1971)

 

Ritrovato Roundtable: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019 podcast

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.

Baara (1978)
Baara (1978)

 

Back to Bristol: Cinema Rediscovered 2019

I should say this through gritted teeth, but Bristol is rapidly becoming Britain’s most cinematic city. Designated a UNESCO City of Film in 2017, its reputation for great cinema screenings and heritage is growing and growing. One of the newest, shiniest gems in its movie crown is Cinema Rediscovered, a kind of West-Country offspring of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, which takes place every July at venues including the Watershed cinema in the city centre.

Disclaimer time: First, I am working with this festival again this year, and second, it’s not all silent. But genuinely, it’s one of the most exciting and ambitious archive cinema events in the country. Taking place from 25-28 July, Cinema Rediscovered will screen films ranging from the earliest experiments of Victorian cinema to a new 4K restoration of Chan-wook Park’s classic revenge thriller Oldboy (2003).

Other restorations on show include the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams (1989) and Márta Mészáros’ 1975 Berlinale Golden Bear winner Adoption (1975). There are strands devoted to the extraordinary films of legendary British director Nicolas Roeg, as well as to Nigerian director Moustapha Alassane and to feminist filmmaker Maureen Blackwood, who was the first black British woman to have a feature film theatrically released in the UK, The Passion of Remembrance (1986). Cinema heritage doesn’t always look like a pantheon of dead white men. Continue reading Back to Bristol: Cinema Rediscovered 2019

Silents in the Piazza: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

Buongiorno! I have just returned from a week in Bologna and while sadly I have no tan to show off, I did see a lot of silent films while I was there. What else is there to do in Italy?

As you may know, I was at Il Cinema Ritrovato last week – the international festival of archive cinema par excellence. You can read my tips for doing Ritrovato right here, but this post is all about the silent gems I saw while I was there.

First: a disclaimer. I approach Ritrovato like an omnivore, tasting a little of everything, talkies and all, so this is not an exhaustive report of the silent offering, just the ones that I especially enjoyed.

The Circus (1928)
The Circus (1928)

1928 and all that

Let’s deal with the giants first: Buster Keaton’s freshly restored The Cameraman (1928) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) won a flock of new converts at grand open-air screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. Especially the latter, which I think is one of the very finest of all the silent comedy features. Watch out for the Criterion edition later this year, with a booklet essay by your humble scribe. Continue reading Silents in the Piazza: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world

This is a guest blog for Silent London by Maria Wyke, professor of Latin at University College London.

Recently I came across a silent short in the archives of the US Library of Congress that displays the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906. It was the first time the destructive volcano had been captured in moving images. But what caught my attention even more than that was how the (as yet unidentified) Italian filmmaker had juxtaposed scenes of destroyed buildings and dead bodies in the local towns with shots of tourists serenely visiting the ancient city of Pompeii – as if to accuse the elegant visitors of preferring to look at the pretty ruins of the past instead of helping overcome present suffering. I’ve managed to got hold of a digital copy of the film and now you too can see it alongside three other rarely seen silents about the classical world (including a recently restored feature about the emperor Caligula, about which more below).

The screening takes place at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on Saturday 6 July, 7.30 to 10pm. Tickets are £12 and available from the Bloomsbury Box office. Live accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne, whose impressive performances have won several Silent London awards.

2 Excursion_in_ancient_Greece
An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913)

Silent cinema delivers a democratic take on the classical world. That’s one theme that emerges from across the films I’ll be screening. From Filmarchiv Austria comes a Pathé travelogue, An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913), that follows its well-dressed sightseers along the Corinthian canal to view various celebrated monuments on and around the Acropolis. Distributed worldwide, the short rescues ancient Greece from its associations with high culture and moneyed tourism and offers its spectators the opportunity to visit sites affordably from the comfort of their local picture house. Continue reading Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world

Alice Guy Blaché and the first female film directors

You’ve heard me talk about women in silent film before, it’s one of my favourite topics. But if you haven’t taken the plunge yet, head over to the BFI website, where I wrote this short guide to starting to explore the work of the first female film directors.

early_women_s_filmmakers_bd_1

There’s more, of course. I also contributed some notes on Alice Guy Blaché for this lovely looking Blu-ray box set also forthcoming from the BFI. And on Tuesday 11 June at BFI Southbank, I will be hosting a panel discussion on that very topic (where I will also present on Guy Blaché)  to support the launch of the Blu-ray. My fellow speakers include Bryony Dixon, Ellen Cheshire and Virginie Selavy. We will be talking about lots of different filmmakers and showing clips and short films too.

If you can’t get to that, I will also be introducing some Guy Blaché shorts at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol. And watch this space (or this one) for more Guy Blaché events coming up soon!

And just as a PS, I am introducing Diary of a Lost Girl at the BFI on Thursday 13 June – don’t miss Brooksie on the big screen.

Read more:

 

Digging for gold: The 5th 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.

Silent films never sleep… They may seem kind of ‘quiet’ (LOL), but then, all of a sudden, they can muster and mass and come at you pretty fast and furious … And here we are, in the midst of experiencing somewhat of a feast period of silent film exhibition, certainly in London, let alone everywhere else where plenty of our favourite film medium can also be found. All boom and no bust. We’ve had wickedly brilliant Weimar silents and glorious Victorian films from the BFI, with more of the former yet to come, and 700 of the latter just recently becoming free to view on the BFI Player (free, I say!! FREE!!! Go view them NOW!! Well, maybe after you’ve finished reading this…).

Even more servings of these cinematic deep dishes are being brought to the table by us lot, down Kennington way, hot on the heels of our Silent Comedy Weekend at the end of April, which we were pleased to hear brought so much delight to so many of you. Well, good warning all, we’ve had our celluloid spades out again and have dug up some more treasures, emerging for light and air next weekend at the Cinema Museum in our 5th Silent Film Weekend in association with Kevin Brownlow. The combined efforts of the Bioscope crew’s fevered programming hivemind mean that the films on offer over the weekend of June 1st and 2nd consist mostly of titles of such rarity that many of you will never have heard of them. But they’re creating some buzz, so please, trust in us, and be not afraid. We’ll see you right. Continue reading Digging for gold: The 5th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

Arctic review: the silent survival film

Contains spoilers

Silent movies are action movies. Instead of Hitchcock’s “pictures of people talking”, the images in silent films are of people doing, being: walking, fighting, dancing, poking the fire, stirring their tea, knitting a scarf. Sometimes the reverse is true. Action movies can be silent, or at least, so unreliant on dialogue as to function like a silent film.

Which brings us to Arctic, and a subgenre I am going to call the ‘silent survival film’. I named it myself, because I made it up myself. Arctic, like All is Lost or The Red Turtle, recently reviewed on this site, offers the spectacle of a lone survivor, one man among the voiceless elements, fighting for his own life. We see the hero of the silent survival film act, and more importantly plan, in silence. The suspense is not just about whether he or she will survive, but how they will make the attempt. The silence, or rather the absence of dialogue, increases the tension, and the fascination.

You could add films such as A Quiet Place and the excellent The Naked Island to this list. The circumstances are different, but the families in each of these films work together, in mostly silence, to get by. We watch them as we do the characters in a silent movie, without verbal cues as to what they will do next, we scrutinise their expressions, their eyelines, the objects they pick up. The intuitive family bond is expressed, rather than hidden, by their mutual silence. Continue reading Arctic review: the silent survival film

Victorian value: early British films on the BFI Player

UPDATE: Watch the Victorian Film Collection on BFI Player

Is it too late to tell you about the BFI’s Victorian Film Weekender? Not quite. There’s still time to book for this weekend’s three days of screenings, debates and talks – including a reprise of the magnificent Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, first seen at the London Film Festival. So hurry – go do that – and then mark another date in your diary: Monday 13 May.

That’s when a cavalcade of Victorian cinema will appear online, on the marvellous BFI Player. And it’s all in honour of a bicentenary: it’s coming up to 200 years since Queen Victoria was born, on 24 May 1819. In Canada, they celebrate that date every year as Victoria day. Now we can join in by watching vintage cinema in the great monarch’s honour.

He and She (1898)
He and She (1898)

Here’s Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, telling you why you should watch.

“Early British film is a legacy to be proud of, these rare moving pictures document the last years of Queen Victoria’s long reign with a vividness that no other kind of historical artefact can bring. These incredibly rare, fragile film fragments speak volumes, adding colour and texture to our understanding of the Victorians vibrant and rapidly progressing world”

More than 700 British films made between 1895 and 1901 will be available to watch, entirely free of charge, on the streaming site, including those astonishing 4K digital restorations of the 68mm large-format films. That’s around 200 Victorian-era titles from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection and 500 newly transferred films.

The filmmakers responsible include: including RW Paul, Birt Acres, WKL Dickson, James Williamson, Walter Booth, GA Smith, Cecil Hepworth and Walter Gibbon. The quality of many of these films is incredible and the range and variety breathtaking.

Subjects include the Boer War, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Boat Race, travelogues, boat launches, football, theatre, agriculture and working life. And you’ll be able to spot figures including Queen Victoria, Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Pope Leo XIII, WG Grace, Prince Ranjitsinhji, Herbert Campbell, Lil Hawthorne and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. There’s even sound and colour – so hold on to your hats!

I’ve had a little advance peek at some of this, and I can tell you that it’s a fascinating collection – offering glimpses of public and private life from the century before last as well as some seriously experimental filmmaking.

So this is comedy: 2019 Kennington Bioscope Silent Laughter Weekend

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

Feeling a post-Easter ennui? Well, you could do no better than to ready your laughing gear and get yourselves down anywhichway to the Cinema Museum for all or part of a weekend of silent comedy fun 27-28th April, curated by us, especially for you, at the Kennington Bioscope.

This last week saw the 130th anniversary of the birth of Lambeth’s most famous son, the Little Fellow himself, Charlie Chaplin, and as many of you may know, the Cinema Museum is of some significance in his origin story. The Master’s House, home of the Museum in Kennington, was at one time, part of the Lambeth Workhouse where Chaplin was sent as a child, and we will be marking his birthday anniversary with several programmes. Respected Chaplin biographer David Robinson will introduce Charlie’s stone-cold classic silent film, The Gold Rush (1925), showing with its recorded score. Filmmaker, collector and editor, Christopher Bird, brings us his original 16mm amber prints of The Immigrant (1917) and The Vagabond (1918). And (tweet tweet) that little Bird has told me his copy of the former “looks gorgeous.”

The Immigrant (1917)
The Immigrant (1917)

Continue reading So this is comedy: 2019 Kennington Bioscope Silent Laughter Weekend

The Parson’s Widow (1920): Dreyer’s humanism and humour

This is an extended version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of The Parson’s Widow at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied brilliantly by John Sweeney – who will be playing live for the film in Bristol soon. See details below.

Don’t let the forbidding reputation of Carl Th. Dreyer, legendary director of films including The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, mislead you. Dreyer didn’t believe that seriousness and quality went hand in hand. “God forbid! It would be a terrible world if we only had problem films,” he said. “I put, to be sure, farce and comedy just as high. Only one most note that in back of it all is love, heart, and warmth.”

The Parson’s Widow (1920) was Dreyer’s first comedy and is a wonderful example of not just his humour but his humanism. In the words of film historian Eileen Bowser: “Once we have seen The Parson’s Widow, is it easier to find a comic element in even the most serious Dreyer films, stemming from Dreyer’s humanism, his acceptance of man for what he is, with all his weaknesses and strengths.”

The Parson's Widow (1920)
The Parson’s Widow (1920)

Continue reading The Parson’s Widow (1920): Dreyer’s humanism and humour

Laila (1929): the epic adventure of a young woman’s life

This is an edited version of the screening notes I wrote for the screening of Laila at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019. That screening was accompanied by a spellbinding score by Rona Wilkie and Märit Falt, commissioned by Hippfest, which will be touring Scottish venues with the film in the coming months – more details below.

George Schnéevoigt was born in Copenhagen in 1893. His Danish father was a musician and his Finnish mother was a photographer. He lived with her in Berlin for much of childhood, before returning to Denmark as a young man to become a filmmaker. As a director at the Nordisk studio, he directed several films, but he also worked as a cinematographer, most notably on some beautiful films by Carl Th. Dreyer (The Parson’s Widow and Leaves from Satan’s Book, both 1920). It was when working as a cinematographer on a film called The People of the Wilds (1928), a melodrama set in the Sami community in northern Norway, that he was struck by the inspiration for his Laila (1929).

With the help of Norwegian producer Helge Lunde, Schnéevoigt was able to make Laila, an adaptation of a popular novel about the Sami people by author J. A. Friis. At the time, the indigenous Sami people, who lived in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, were the targets of a certain amount of racial prejudice – traces of which you can see in the finished film. Nevertheless, Friis’s novel took a slightly more sympathetic view, and had proved a big success. It had first been written as individual stories under the title From Finnmark: Descriptions, but Friis added more chapters to create a cohesive novel named Lajla, using the adventures of a young woman to tie the story together. Continue reading Laila (1929): the epic adventure of a young woman’s life

Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’

This post, in honour of Women’s History Month, is adapted from a talk I gave at the BFI Southbank recently as part of an event called Broad Strokes: Trailblazing Comedy Screenwriters. You can read a report from that event here.

Anita Loos’s family pronounced their name Lohse, but as an adult she got tired of correcting people and opted for something a little more “Loose”. It suited this true original to reinvent her own name, especially as even that sounded like a good joke. Loos was one of the greatest wits of the 20th century, who wrote one of the best modern American novels, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but her career kept coming back to the cinema. It’s where she started. She wrote movies – in several different ways – and she wrote some of the best books about Hollywood too. She helped the cinema grow up and she exposed many of the industry’s foibles as well. Her jokes travelled so far that even if you don’t think you know her work, you may well have been laughing at her best gags for years.

Anita Loos photographed by Cecil Beaton
Anita Loos photographed by Cecil Beaton

A seriously petite brunette, Loos was born in Mount Shastam California in, whisper it, 1888. She didn’t like that fact to get around and so she lied ferociously about her age, with the vanity of a movie star. Unfortunately for her, films have dates on, so to make the timeline fit, Loos claimed to have been in her early teens when she started writing movies, and thus in her own twenties during the Jazz Age. No. She was more like 24 when she started out, and while she remains one of the greatest chroniclers of the Roaring Twenties, she herself was in her 30s and 40s at the time. That’s a grand age for a wit, actually: old enough to make fun of the naivety of youth, and young enough to be aghast at the staidness of the older generation.

Loos had four main topics: sex, fashion, gossip and men. She wrote about what interested her. She was a fashion plate, a storyteller and she loved men, even though they consistently disappointed her. She was briefly married in her youth, which was a juvenile mistake – he was skint and boring – and simply her ruse to leave home. In 1919, however, she married writer-director John Emerson and she stayed married to him until he died in 1956. She was besotted with him at first, but he soon let her down, reinforcing her opinion that sex was some sort of absurd cosmic joke played on unsuspecting mortals.

They worked together, which is to say, as she recalled it, she worked while he lay in bed watching her. “I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up,” she later said, “but what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was.” He was a philanderer, a malingerer and took most of the credit and at least half the money for their collaborations. Sam Goldwyn said “Emerson was one of those guys that lived by the sweat of his frau” and Loos’s friend Charles Lederer called him “Sweet Mister E of Life”. One time, it seems, he tried to strangle her. But he did not write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so we won’t mention him again unless we absolutely have to. Continue reading Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’

City Lights (1931): the course of true love never did run smooth

We are celebrating two important Chaplin anniversaries in 2019. Next month, on 16 April it will be 130 years since Charlie Chaplin’s birth, and last month, 5 February marked the centenary of United Artists, the studio that Chaplin founded with DW Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Famously, however, City Lights is a film that ignores time, a silent picture made in the age of the talkies, and an 87-minute feature that took more than two years to make.

Pre-production on City Lights followed swiftly on from the release of Chaplin’s The Circus in 1928. By this time, The Jazz Singer had been released and Hollywood was caught in the scramble to convert to sound. But Chaplin wasn’t so sure. He had long been ambivalent about the idea of sound film, saying in 1921: “I would as soon rouge marble cheeks. Pictures are pantomimic art. We might as well have the stage. There would be nothing left to the imagination.” That’s a beautiful and very bold statement, not least because it implies that cinema is superior to the stage, but also because it compares silent cinema to classical art, to marble statuary. At the beginning of City Lights, you’ll see Chaplin making a joke that recalls this statement, making a mockery of a marble statue. Of course, Chaplin made City Lights as a silent film anyway, and in the year that it was finally released, 1931, he was still unenthusiastic about the appeal of talking pictures, even if necessarily by then he was as defensive as he was defiant, saying: “I’ll give the talkies three years, that’s all.”

City Lights was to be one of the most troubled productions in film history, beset not just by Chaplin’s own demanding, often tyrannical, perfectionism, but by sad circumstances beyond his control. Even before shooting began, in the midst of pre-production, Chaplin’s mother Hannah died in August 1928, and understandably he took weeks to recover from the grief. The sets were being built at this stage, creating a mythical mishmash of a city that combined elements of such diverse urban landscapes as Paris, Los Angeles, London, Naples, Tangier and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Chaplin was sure of the themes and narrative of his new film, which would concern The Tramp, a millionaire and a blind flower girl, but kept on writing and refining his ideas for incidents and minor characters until shooting began on 31 December that year.

Shooting of City Lights would continue until the summer of 1930, more than eighteen months later. You might not think it from the grace and good humour of the finished film, but the shoot was a nightmare, characterised by false starts and reshoots and even recasting. Chaplin worked six or seven days a week for almost three years, and was constantly exhausted – yet despite that stress, this film contains some of his most delicate and joyful comedy.

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931)

Chaplin had hired a woman with no acting experience, Virginia Cherrill, as his leading lady, the blind flower girl. It sounds quite bizarre now, but he chose her because he thought she played blind more attractively than the other actresses who auditioned – they rolled they eyes too far back in their heads it seems. He had initially thought that the lack of acting experience would be good thing, but it wasn’t long before he began to have his doubts. There was no affection between the two and Chaplin notoriously spent days forcing Cherrill to repeat a simple movement, holding out her hand and saying “Flower, sir?” to his satisfaction. The tension and repetition must have been infuriating for everyone on set. They began at the end of January, but two weeks went by, then another, then Chaplin fell ill. On 1 April they started again for another 10 days, without success. Chaplin moved on to other, more elaborate scenes, such as the opening sequence involving the statue and hundred of extras. By comparison, it seemed easier. Continue reading City Lights (1931): the course of true love never did run smooth