Tag Archives: silent film

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at the Roundhouse with Innervisions, 19 August 2011

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

The Roundhouse in Camden has long been one of London’s most inventive and atmospheric arts venues – and now it has just had a radical, zoetrope-inspired makeover courtesy of artist Ron Arad. What could be better? Perhaps a late-night screening of the mind-bending expressionist horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with cool electronic accompaniment.

The illustrious Berlin-based electronic music label Innervisions joins forces with Ron Arad to present a spell binding evening of film, music and artistic installation. The evening will feature a projection of the epic 1920’s classic Dr. Caligari with Innervision’s Henrik Schwarz, Ame and Dixon performing a live score they’ve written to accompany the film.

The evening also features a live DJ set in collaboration with the technical and aesthetic expertise of Arad’s studio to project a range of stunning visuals by Berlin visual collective JUTOJO, providing a completely immersive and unique experience for the audience.

Tickets cost £25 or £18 for concessions. Doors open at 7.30pm and the film will begin at 8.30pm. To find out more, and to book tickets, visit the Roundhouse website.

Silent films with live music – festival special

The Great White Silence (1924)
The Great White Silence (1924)

No festival worth its salt is without a silent film screening these days – which is a great way to introduce people to this world. Rock festivals increasingly offer cinema tents and film festivals are often involved in commissioning new scores for films, or simply offering musicians an opportunity to perform their soundtracks in front of a large audience. It’s well worth keeping an eye on what’s going at festivals, even if you’re not planning to attend: what debuts at a festival one year, may turn up in your city the next. Here’s a selection of interesting festival events coming up in the next month or so alone.

  • At the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons (19-21 August), the rock band Minima are performing an improvised set to a selection of early science films in the Einstein Tent. Over in the Cinema Tent, Blue Roses will perform her piano score to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920). You may remember that this score first appeared as part of the Birds Eye View Festival’s Sound & Silents strand back in March. Watch out for news of a forthcoming UK Sound & Silents tour on their website.
  • The following week, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Minima will perform their score to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari six nights in a row – kicking off at midnight.
  • Also in Edinburgh and courtesy of the Birds Eye View Film Festival Sounds & Silents strand, there will be a screening of Lotte Reiniger’s Hansel & Gretel with a live score by Micachu  – that’s at the Edinburgh Art Festival.
  • The Cambridge Film Festival runs from 15-25 September and although it hasn’t announced its full lineup yet, I am pretty certain we’ll see some silent movies in the lineup. And before the festival even begins they are hosting a special screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood in Rendlesham Forest with a new score by Neil Brand – that’s on 29 August, bank holiday Monday.
In the Nursery perform their soundtrack to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
In the Nursery perform their soundtrack to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
  • Also on the bank holiday Monday, Bath Film Festival is hosting a screening of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the short film One Week, with live music from James Harpham.
  • At the beginning of September, the Little White Lies cinedrome at the End of the Road festival in Dorset will be showing all kinds of good things, including The Great White Silence.
  • Back in London, on 17 September, gothic electronic duo In the Nursery will soundtrack The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in a pop-up cinema as part of the Portobello Film Festival. And as reported elsewhere, the Peckham Free Film Festival is screening Safety Last and Battleship Potemkin, on 16 and 18 September respectively. And entrance to all of those screenings can be had for the very reasonable price of zero pence exactly.
  • The New Forest Film Festival has a very exciting event planned for 18 September. The Dodge Brothers (featuring Mark Kermode) and Neil Brand are teaming up to score another movie. The Ghost That Never Returns is a Soviet film directed by Abram Room (Bed and Sofa) about a fugitive from jail being chased by an assassin in South America. What makes the screening even more exciting is that the cinema will be powered by bicycle – it’s a movie, a gig and a workout, all in one. The Dodge Brothers’ performances have been a highlight of recent British Silent Film Festivals, so let’s hope we see this one in London soon.
  • The Branchage Film Festival in Jersey commissions and hosts all sorts of fascination film/music combinations, and holds events in London throughout the year too. Its festival closer this year is a very beautiful thing. On Sunday 25 September, Simon Fisher Turner and the Elysian Quartet will play their intensely emotional score for The Great White Silence live at Jersey Opera House. Not to be missed.

In October, of course, it will be time for the 55th London Film Festival. Watch this space to find out silent film events await us there.

British silent film screenings, autumn 2011

Underground (1928)
Underground (1928)

There is far more to British silent cinema than Hitchcock, whatever recent news reports might have you believe. From Yorkshireman Louis Le Prince’s claim to have invented motion-picture technology, through Cecil Hepworth’s pioneering days in Walton-on-Thames, to the directors who gathered at the London Film Society in the 1920s, our early cinema industry has much to offer. And it’s not just directors that we can praise, but actors, writers, producers and more besides.

That’s why I am so happy to report that, before Hitchcock’s work takes centre-stage next year, there are several screenings of silent films by other British film-makers coming up in London soon. This is a great opportunity to learn more about what we can loftily, but quite rightly, call our cinematic heritage – and to enjoy some rather good films. Continue reading British silent film screenings, autumn 2011

The Lost World with live score by John Garden at the Barbican, 25 September 2011

The Lost World with live score by John Garden
The Lost World with live score by John Garden

The special effects genius Willis O’Brien, who sent King Kong to the top of the Empire State Building in 1933, was something of a dinosaur specialist. In the silent era, he worked on a handful of short films on a prehistoric theme, and one Hollywood feature – the Arthur Conan-Doyle adventure The Lost World (1925), directed by Harry Hoyt.

Wallace Beery plays Professor Challenger, who leads an expedition (including Bessie Love) into Venezuela to prove his pet theory that even in the 20th century, dinosaurs still walk the earth. Lo and behold, he’s right, and in a remote plateau the travellers encounter several dinosaurs, whose violent antics are brought to life by O’Brien’s pioneering stop-motion effects. One of the film’s most famous sequences is a based a little closer to home, however, as a brontosaurus shipped home to England by Challenger escapes, and rampages around the streets of London.

Composer John Garden, whom you might have seen performing with the Scissor Sisters, has written a new electronic score for The Lost World, and following several successful shows around south-west England, he will be accompanying the film at the Barbican in London. you can listen to samples of the score here on Soundcloud, but for a taster, here’s a sequence from the film with Garden’s score:

The Lost World with live score by John Garden screens at the Barbican on 25 September at 4pm. Tickets cost £10.50 full price but less if bought online or for members. Visit the Barbican website for full details and to book. This event is hosted in partnership with the marvellous people from Bristol Silents. To find out more and for details of where else in the country Garden is performing his score, check out the Facebook page.

• And if you want to see King Kong, it’s playing at the Roxy Bar and Screen on Saturday 13 August to open the Scala Forever programme.

The White Shadow – when a Hitchcock film isn’t a Hitchcock film

The White Shadow (1924)
The White Shadow (1924)

Celebrity sells, and newspapers, news websites and trade journals alike all know that the likelihood of a story being read increases if a big name is attached to it. Woe betide you if you want to write about the silent era without mentioning Chaplin, Hitchcock or DW Griffith – preferably in the first paragraph.

So reports of the discovery of “Alfred Hitchcock’s Earliest Surviving Film” need to be taken with a pinch of salt. To recap, a few reels of The White Shadow (1923) have been discovered in a film archive in New Zealand. And this is how the BBC opens its online news story:

Footage from Alfred Hitchcock’s first film has been uncovered in New Zealand.

The British director was 24 when he made the 1923 silent film, The White Shadow.

The piece goes on to mention the film’s stars Clive Brook (Shanghai Express) and Betty Compson (The Docks of New York) – but there is no word of the film’s director. Because yes, Hitchcock worked on The White Shadow, as assistant director, art director, editor and writer, but the film was directed by someone else – Graham Cutts. While we’re always interested in early work by Hitchcock, whatever his job title, particularly with the forthcoming 2012 silent Hitchcock extravaganza on the horizon, we should also be happy to find out more about Cutts.

In the 1920s, Graham Cutts was ticket-office gold. He was called “a sure-fire maker of box-office attractions” by Kinematograph Weekly, and his Rat trilogy, starring Ivor Novello as an absurdly attractive Parisian jewel thief, is still celebrated and enjoyed today. Cutts’s films are sophisticated, sexual and employ any number of tracking shots, dramatic lighting and off-kilter camera angles to ramp up the tension – and the cinematic pleasure. Yes he worked with Hitchcock as a young man, but also Novello, Noël Coward and Basil Dean. He even made a successful transition to sound – with a career behind the camera that ran into the 40s.

The White Shadow looks like a fascinating find, with Compson playing twin sisters, one good and one evil, and plenty of opportunity for Cutt’s dynamic style to come into play. But please don’t take the credit away from a name that has almost been forgotten and give it to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

And if you have a copy of The Mountain Eagle in your loft at home, that really is a lost Hitchcock silent – so please call the British Film Institute right away, and tell them I sent you.

Silent films at the Silent Cinema, Deptford Project, August 2011

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

• Update: Sorry, guys, I’ve just been told that these events have been cancelled. Don’t know why as yet, but hope to find out more soon – including whether they will be rescheduled for later in the year.

Have you ever been to a Silent Disco? It’s great fun. You dance around in a huge group of people but the music isn’t played out loud, it’s piped into your headphones. Hilarious for onlookers, but there’s a great sense of community on the dancefloor – like you’re sharing a secret with everyone in the crowd. The Silent Cinema in Deptford, south London, works on the same principle, but with films. The wireless headphones deliver the film’s soundtrack, but filter out the popcorn munching and chatter from your fellow audience members.

Although the name has obviously caught my attention before, I never thought they would show silent films there. But I was wrong. Silent Cinema is devoting a weekend in August to … silent cinema. They’re calling the programme the  “Black & White Classics Weekend”, and why not? Here’s the lineup:

Paul Merton and Neil Brand’s Silent Clowns at the Cinema Museum

Laurel and Hardy
Laurel and Hardy

Whether Paul Merton’s recent Birth of Hollywood documentaries piqued your interest in silent cinema, or you are already a fan of the era’s exquisitely hilarious comedians, this is a date for your diary. Merton, and silent film pianist Neil Brand, are reprising their Silent Clowns show, which toured throughout 2009, at the Cinema Museum this September.

According to my sources, we can expect some classic moments from Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as well as a complete Laurel and Hardy short, We Faw Down, their first film to be directed by Leo McCarey, which is sometimes known under the simpler title We Slip Up. Paul Merton will introduce the clips, and Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment. You really can’t go wrong. Anyone who has read Merton’s Silent Comedy book or watched his recent TV programmes, will know that he is passionate about this subject, and if you only know him from the radio, you’ll know that he is exceedingly funny himself.

Silent Clowns is at the Cinema Museum in Kennington on Saturday 3 September at 7.30pm, but doors will open an hour earlier for you to look around the collections. Refreshments will be available too, and there should be some time for you to mingle and have a high old time. Tickets cost £6.50 or less for concessions. For more information, visit the Cinema Museum website, or to buy tickets, visit WeGotTickets.

Want more links? Try Paul Merton’s official website, and Neil Brand’s site, too.

Pandora’s Box at BFI Southbank, 4 & 5 September 2011

Louise Brooks Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box (1929)

The Passport to Cinema strand returns to BFI Southbank in September and October, under the banner of Making the Modern. And the strand begins with a timeless silent cinema favourite, Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks.

So, Pandora’s Box is the oldest film in the season, but its nonchalant treatment of sexuality, violent plot and chic Berlin architecture make it about as modern as modern can get. Perhaps that is why the film’s popularity has grown over the decades, from a disappointing start at the box office, to universal acclaim as a cool classic.

Judging by the running time given in the BFI programme, this might not be the new restoration of the film shown at the London Film Festival, but sex appeal like this really deserves to be seen on the big screen, nonetheless. So get your dancing shoes on, folks.

Pandora’s Box screens in NFT1 on Sunday 4 September at 3.20pm and in NFT2 on Monday 5 September at 6.10pm, with an introduction by Dr Nathalie Morris of the BFI and the Women and Silent British Cinema project. There will be live piano accompaniment at both screenings (by John Sweeney on the Sunday and Stephen Horne on the Monday), and tickets will be on sale in August.

Shadow Play: gallery talk and master class at the Barbican, 1 September 2011

Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)
Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

The Barbican’s Watch Me Move animation exhibition continues all summer, and is well worth a look. These two events may be of particular interest to silent film fans, though. On 1 September, writer Marina Warner will be giving a talk in the gallery about “shadow play” animation, from Lotte Reiniger, through to more contemporary artists such as William Kentridge and Kara Walker (below):

The lecture is followed by a shadow play animation workshop – Warner will be joined by artist Reza Ben Gajra, and you’ll learn all you need to know to create your own piece in the vein of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Both events take place on 1 September 2011, at 6.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets for the talk cost £10, and for the master class £12. For more details, click here, and here.

High Treason at BFI Southbank, 5 October 2011

High Treason (1929)
High Treason (1929)

The British Metropolis? Not quite. But Maurice Elvey’s High Treason was heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s film – in its slick futurist designs and its pacifist theme too. Based on a play written by unpleasant MP Noel Pemberton Billing, High Treason is set in the far-off future that is 1950 AD, when a war between the America and Europe seems inevitable. The leader of the Peace League is determined to avoid the conflict, leaving his daughter Evelyn torn between him and her boyfriend, a commander in the Air Force.

You can see an extract from High Treason here. It’s worth noting that in this bleak, dystopian vision of the future, Prohibition is still in force in America.

High Treason screens at the BFI Southbank with a short film from 1924, The Fugitive Futurist: a Qu-riosity by “Q”, in which an “inventor” attempts to hawk a device that can see the future, treating the audience to glimpses of London landmarks as they might appear in time, including Trafalgar Square submerged by water, and a blimp anchored to the Palace of Westminster.

High Treason screens at NFT1 on Wednesday 5 October at 6pm. The screening will be introduced by BFI curator Simon McCallum and is part of the BFI’s Capital Tales season. There will be live piano accompaniment. Tickets are available from the BFI website.

Sherlock Jr and One Week at Stratford Picturehouse, 24 July 2011

Sherlock Jr (1924)
Sherlock Jr (1924)

“If you’ve never watched a silent movie before, this is the time to do it,” says the Stratford Picturehouse. That’s the spirit. The east London cinema is having a day of cinematic interactive fun on Sunday – including screenings of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr and One Week. After watching the first film, the audience will be encouraged to play along to the short, One Week, so if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to accompany a silent film, this is your big chance. Although the setup might be a little more raucous that your average screening at the BFI – audience members are asked to bring their own instruments, whether “real” or homemade.

The day of events is free and as well as the two Keatons, there will be “film karaoke”, plus screenings of The Gruffalo, krumping documentary Rize with a street-dance workshop and, as a finale, Singalonga Grease. Everything kicks off at 12 noon – for more details, click here.

Safety Last and Battleship Potemkin at the Peckham Free Film Festival, September 2011

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)
Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)

• This post was edited on 10 August 2011

This is a lovely thing to report: openair screenings of two silent film classics, with a local twist. And best of all, they are free.

In September, the Peckham Free Film Festival will be showing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last on a giant inflatable screen on Peckham Rye near the cafe. The film will be accompanied by Neil Brand on the piano and by a package of local archive footage including newsreels, too. You’ll be able to buy refreshments from the cafe, which focuses on “free range, fair trade, organic, locally sourced, healthy” food, but I can’t be held responsible for the consequences of laughing with your mouth full.

Safety Last screens at Peckham Rye on Friday 16 September at 8pm. Entrance is free. 

The festival will close in rousing style with another free silent film screening, on the roof of Peckham multi-storey car par. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin will be screened near Franks Cafe and Campari Bar, also located on the roof, so you can grab a drink and something to eat while you watch. Live music will be provided by Super Best Friends club, who describe themselves this way:

Super Best Friends Club are a friendly beast from London. We wonder if it’s possible to transform this cutthroat universe to a loving frequency. And we wonder if its possible to do this through nudity and frantic dancing. I think its worth trying.

Battleship Potemkin screens on 18 September at 8pm. Entrance is free. For more information on the Peckham Free Film Festival, click here.

100 Silent Films: A Silent London special offer

100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon
100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

A fortnight ago, I reviewed Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films here on Silent London and I was very taken with it. It may have a simple format, but the choice of films is often surprising, so it’s as much a pleasure to read in one sitting as it is useful as a reference work. For those of you who want to buy a copy, perhaps to start ticking off films as you watch them, as some people have suggested to me on Twitter, the publishers are offering a discount to readers of this blog.

This illuminating guide provides a selection of one hundred key films of the silent period (1895-1930), featuring films from a variety of countries, genres and directors. You can order a copy of BFI Publishing’s 100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon (RRP £12.99) for £8.50 on the Palgrave website here. Just quote the discount code WSILENT11.

The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon on BBC4

A quick mention for a chance to see some early films on TV. BBC4 is repeating the three-part series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon and it is a very welcome return. The Mitchell and Kenyon hoard was discovered in the cellar of a disused shop in Blackburn in 1994 and contains many beautiful films of Northern England in the Edwardian era. When the programmes were first shown in 2005, Guardian TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith called them “Lowry come to life”.

The films were advertised to the public at the time as an chance to “see yourselves as others see you”, but now they are a precious opportunity to see ourselves as we once were. The collection has recently been added to the Unesco World Heritage list and is even being used by scientists at Imperial College London to study “handedness” – the researchers are scanning the films by computer to measure how many of the people waving at the camera in the films are using their left or right hands. For the rest of us, they offer a nostalgic, often bittersweet, glimpse at a time gone by.

If you want to learn more, visit the BFI Mitchell and Kenyon page or read this essay by Ian Jack.

The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon screens on BBC4 at 10pm and begins on Tuesday 19th July.

With thanks to Peter Walsh.

Silent films at the Cheltenham Film Festival, 4-6 November 2011

Piccadilly (1929)
Piccadilly (1929)

The beautiful regency town of Cheltenham is home to a very impressive film festival and this year’s lineup is particularly exciting for lovers of silent cinema. Across the festival weekend in November there are no fewer than six silent events – all with live music, and incorporating fiction and non-fiction films. Some of these special events have already been seen in London – but by no means all of them. Let’s go straight into a list:

Continue reading Silent films at the Cheltenham Film Festival, 4-6 November 2011

Shiraz and A Throw of Dice, Watermans Arts Centre, 23 & 24 July 2011

Shiraz (1928)
Shiraz (1928)

Hopefully the BFI members among you have entered the ballot for Light of Asia tickets – fingers crossed you get them, too. But there is also a chance to catch director Franz Osten’s two other collaborations with screenwriter Niranjan Pal in the mini-season curated by the South Asian Cinema Foundation. The Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, Middlesex will be showing Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929) at the end of the month, no ballot necessary.

I’m very fond of the Watermans, so I’m happy to say that they have told me they will be screening 35mm prints of both films, but I’m still waiting to hear about any potential musical accompaniment. I’ll update this post when I know more. But either way, these are classics of Indian cinema, forming a trilogy with Light of Asia. Shiraz tells the love story behind the construction of the Taj Mahal and A Throw of Dice is another romance, taken from an episode in the Mahabarata in which two kings gamble to win the love of a young woman. You may remember a few years back that the composer Nitin Sawhney wrote a new soundtrack for a restoration of A Throw of Dice, which was released theatrically.

Shiraz screens at the Watermans Arts Centre at 4.30pm on Saturday 23 July and A Throw of Dice is on Sunday 24 July at 7.15pm. Tickets cost £10 or less for concessions or members, and are available here.

The Far Paradise in Pimlico, 9 July 2011

Paulette McDonagh directing
Paulette McDonagh directing

Stop press! This is a bit late-notice, but a screening of an Australian silent film is still a bit of a rarity, and this sounds like a very interesting evening. Group 9.5 is a society for 9.5mm film enthusiasts, and on Saturday they are showing The Far Paradise (Australia, 1928), with piano accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch. The film will be shown with some silent shorts (screened on 16mm) and there will be some special guests in attendance too:

Attending the screening will be the 3 children of the star Isabel McDonagh (Charles, Alan and Sandra Stewart) and also Trader Faulkner, son of another star of the film, John Faulkner. Regrettably, the 16mm print supplied by the Stewarts is severely affected by vinegar syndrome and is not project-able. However, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia has very kindly sent us a DVD of the film which will be run instead. I hope this will not disappoint our audience too much as we always endeavour to run film whenever possible.

The Far Paradise was directed by Paulette McDonagh and stars her sister Isabel, under her stage name of Marie Lorraine. It’s a melodrama about forbidden love and a very highly regarded Australian silent film. Here’s a little more information from the Australian government’s website:

Self-taught filmmakers Paulette, Phyllis and Isobel McDonagh were also pioneers in Australian cinema. The three sisters collaborated to produce both feature-length dramas and short documentaries. Paulette McDonagh assumed principal directing and writing duties, Phyllis served as producer and art director and Isobel acted under the name Marie Lorraine.

The McDonagh sisters debut film, Those Who Love (1926), premiered publicly in Newcastle, New South Wales, on 26 November 1926. The film was successful enough to finance their next picture, The Far Paradise (1928). Other McDonagh productions were The Cheaters (1930) and Two Minutes Silence (1933).

The McDonagh productions were filmed almost entirely at the McDonagh’s residence, historic Drummoyne House. The films were set in an urban background, a contrast to the bush setting common to Australian films of the time. Another distinctive feature of the productions was the portrayal of the heroines, played by McDonagh sister Isobel (Marie Lorraine). These characters were more active than their contemporaries and the films ‘ showed her breaking and entering and cracking safes, as well as in a lover’s arms’.

The McDonagh sisters’ work was all but forgotten until the re-screening in the early 1970s of The Far Paradise and The Cheaters (the prints are now held in the National Film and Sound Archive). Shortly before her death, Phyllis McDonagh received the Australian Film Institute’s 1978 Raymond Longford Award. It was presented to Phyllis in recognition of the three sisters’ contribution to Australian filmmaking. Today the McDonagh sisters are remembered as ‘the most talented of the late silent era film-makers in Australia’.

The Far Paradise screens at St Gabriel’s Parish House, Churchill Gardens, Pimlico London SW1 on Saturday 9th July 2011 at 8pm. 

With thanks to Brent Reid for letting me know about this screening.

Hitchcock 9 update

Rescue the Hitchcock 9
Rescue the Hitchcock 9

I think the time is ripe for a quick update on the BFI’s Hitchcock 9 project, and a reminder that you can still donate to the restoration work. The BFI put out a statement this week saying that the restored Hitchcock silents will be screened in London next year as part of the London 2012 Festival, which is the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad. From what we’ve heard before, we can expect a variety of screenings around town, from large-scale outdoor events to more intimate screenings in smaller venues. Just the sort of thing to get Silent London all hot and bothered.  This will be followed in the autumn by a full Hitchcock retrsopective at BFI Southbank, which is cause for celebration in itself.

The BFI has also, excitingly, announced three of the composers who will be scoring the films. Avant-garde composer Tansy Davies is on board but has not selected a film yet. Recent graduate Daniel Cohen will be working on The Pleasure Garden and his score will be performed by Academy Manson Ensemble from the Royal Academy of Music. The songwriter, producer and composer Nitin Sawhney will be writing music for the London Symphony Orchestra to play alongside The Lodger, possibly the best known film in the group.

Continue reading Hitchcock 9 update

100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon
100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon

Have you ever read a movie list you agreed with 100%? Of course not. And that’s the fun of them. A cinema buff’s spluttering outrage over the omission of a favourite title, just like his or her tutting dismay over the running order, fools no one. We love other people’s lists, because they give us the opportunity to write our own. And no doubt our first move is to increase the number of silent films in the countdown.

Well I’m happy to say that Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films offers a very different kind of pleasure. For one, all these films are silent, and its alphabetical presentation means that we are not faced with the problem of comparing, and placing in order, such disparate films as The Big Swallow (1901), Napoleon (1927) and The Battle of the Somme (1916). (You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?)

Dixon, the curator of silent film at the British Film Institute and co-founder of the British Silent Film Festival, has written an engaging guide to the world of silent cinema – ostensibly for novices, but with plenty to please those longer in the tooth. 100 Silent Films is part of a series of Screen Guides that includes 100 Westerns, 100 Shakespeare Films, and so on – but as the author points out, silent cinema is not as easily digestible a topic. “Silent cinema is not a genre; it’s the first thirty-five years of film history … a complex negotiation between art and commerce, and a union of creativity and technology.” So Dixon makes no bones about the fact her project is a vast one, and many of her chosen films have very little in common. Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to fit the awkward square pegs into round holes, but presents each film on its own terms. She’s wary of misplacing “isms” (expressionism, surrealism, feminism) and hesitates to put the titles into anachronistic categories such as film noir.

Continue reading 100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

Robin Hood in Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, 29 August 2011

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)
Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

• Update 19 September 2011: Cambridge Film Festival is screening Robin Hood again, tonight, with live music by Neil Brand in the grand surroundings of Trinity College. Sounds wonderful. Click here for details.

It’s going to be a good summer for outdoor screenings of silent films, both across London and at festivals around the country. And I expect this one will be one of the most atmospheric. Cambridge Film Festival On Location is presenting a special screening of Robin Hood (1922), the swashbuckling classic starring Douglas Fairbanks, along with the world premiere of a new score by Neil Brand.

This is an epic, but charming Robin Hood, shot on some of Hollywood’s largest and most lavish sets, with fantastic action sequences and a mischievous streak of humour. Fairbanks leaps tall turrets in a single bound as a spectacularly gymnastic Robin Hood, while Wallace Beery gives us an imposing King Richard. Allan Dwan directs with flair, making the most of the gigantic sets – getting a lot of mileage out of the drawbridge, in particular.

Robin Hood dazzled audiences back in the 1920s. Photoplay magazine (quoted on Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone by) raved about it, while considering it the apotheosis of Hollywood excess:

More than anything else, Robin Hood is a show. It seems to be stretching the word photoplay to classify it under that name. In fact, it’s the last thing in spectacles. We doubt if the silversheet will go much further along this expensive road.

If only Ridley Scott had taken the hint. I love the word “silversheet”, too. Perhaps we should try to bring that one back.

Robin Hood screens at the theatre in Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk on Monday 29 August. Neil Brand’s merry band will include violinist Günter Buchwald and percussionist Jeff Davenport. For more details, click here.