This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway to Hollywood and then ran away to Europe to make three stunning, complex films that would secure her legacy as one of the great actors of the silent era. This film, 1930’s Prix de beauté, is the final film she made in Europe. It’s also the last silent film that she ever made, and without giving away the ending, it is an almost too-apt finish to her silent career.
Europe was Brooks’s sanctuary at the end of the 1920s, after she escaped from Hollywood. First, there were two German films. She was the unforgettable Lulu in GW Pabst’s dark, decadent adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Then she played a waif who finds refuge in a brothel, in Diary of a Lost Girl, also directed by Pabst. Her third and final European film was this French title, Prix de beauté, shot by an Italian director. It was also Pabst’s idea.
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)
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!→
The festival runs 13-17 September 2017 at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester and each day or five-day pass covers you for lunch as well as every screening on that date.The full timetable for the festival is online here. You can book here and let all your friends know you are attending by clicking on the Facebook event.
To get you up to speed on what to expect in Leicester, the festival* has been posting blogs on the festival site. Yes, silent film blogging is all the rage now. Here are all the posts so far:
When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.
As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.
I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.
The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.
These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.
Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.
When I first began to fall in love with the movies, I watched French New Wave double-bills at my local arthouse cinema. I saw the kids in Quatre Cents Coups and Bande à Part dashing across Paris and thought nothing could be more cinematic, more evocative of youth and passion and adventures in the city of light. Nearly two decades later and I, too, am sprinting down Parisian streets, and all in the name of le septième art.
At Toute la Mémoire du Monde, a sprawling festival of restored cinema hosted by the Cinémathèque Française, there are always far more films playing than you could hope to see, at screens across the city. So occasionally you have to forgo that customary pause and sigh of happiness at a film’s heartbreaking conclusion, grab your bag and leg it like Léaud to catch the Métro.
On my first day at the festival, as Marlene Dietrich ditched her heels and trudged across the desert to prove her devotion to Gary Cooper in the plush new Les Fauvettes rep cinema, I set out on my own speed-march back to the Cinémathèque to catch Fred Astaire getting his shoes shined. Then, of course, as I wandered back to my hotel across the Seine with ‘That’s Entertainment’ ringing in my ears, I had all the more to reflect upon.
I’m trying to explain why this festival offers a rush of blood through the veins, and that I felt ever so slightly light-headed all weekend. Doubtless, the effort of translating French intertitles in my head also gave my brain as much of a workout as my poor old feet. This is a French-language festival – all the sound films are “version originale” with French subs, and for silents, the only intertitles you can guarantee will be French ones. But the good news is that even though I am far from fluent in French, I understood about 80% of the captions just fine. So if you are wondering whether the language barrier would come between you and this festival, well bonne chance!
It’s difficult not to feel close to the cinema in Paris, the city where the projection of moving images first began. The Cinémathèque, and the other screens I visited, are a long way from the upscale Boulevard des Capucines where the Lumières first unspooled their magic. But catching a programme of French shorts from the 1900s and teens gave me a little historical thrill. Not least when Oscar (Oscar au Bain, Léonce Perret 1913) whisked his ladylove around the capital in a taxi. And even the later films I saw, from The River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) to Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), all owe their existence to those first flickers, it’s true.
It’s in the nature of an archive festival to be eclectic, but had I been strictly silent all weekend, it’s a fair bet that I would have seen mostly Swedish films from the teens and early twenties by Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, courtesy of the L’école suédoise strand. I stretched my wings a little further than that, but still made time to see haunting, brilliant films by both directors: Stiller’s Herr Arnes Penningar (1919) as well as Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage, (1921). All three heart-wrenching experiences of the best kind – pitching the viewer into a world that is physically tough and spiritually fraught. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema→
For Jacques Tati, diegetic sound is about as useful as headlights on a broom. He’d rather not illuminate anything with such a crude tool. Playtime, his masterpiece, is a work of brow-furrowing complexity in its design and structure, but a model of narrative clarity.
Amid the Babel of un-synched language spouted by its multiple characters, Tati tells us a story of a man, M Hulot, trying to negotiate a city, Paris, that doesn’t exist. Only Hulot (Tati, of course), and an American tourist, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) seem to notice that the steel and glass skyscrapers of the soaring sixties have hidden the real city, obscuring its landmarks and dividing its citizens. Tati goes to a business meeting, is diverted to a furniture show, meets an old friend who invites him home for a drink, attends the opening of a restaurant, meets a girl and loses her, all in the space of 24-odd hours.
Each twist in Hulot’s meander is a prompted by a mistake or misapprehension. His attempt to refuse to enter the restaurant shatters the door and he stumbles inside unwillingly. If I tried to explain to you why a German door salesman then ushers him further into the dining room I would expend many, many words to explain a labyrinthine incident earlier in the film that is played out in at least three languages, none of which needed subtitles at all.
Trust me, it was a wonderful moment. I felt that door salesman’s anger, his hostility, his sarcasm, his deep shame and his ingratiating warmth so deeply, because they were so strongly expressed, not because I translated “Dumbkopf!” in my head. The only skills you need to understand this film are patience and observation, which transparently makes my German GCSE barely worth the paper it is written on.
We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.
Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.
It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?
Midweek #GCM33. What with a late night Chinese 'spirit' film and early morning Prizmacolor feature I have now upgraded to 'doppio' espresso.
You hate bad dialogue, I hate bad dialogue. And clunky, needless expository dialogue is the worst: the most heinous crime in sound cinema. A good rule of thumb for screenwriters would be to look at each line they want their actors to spout and say: “Would this be an absolutely essential intertitle?” Without all those words, actors have to tell the story physically, by acting, rather than describing: they say a picture tells a thousand words after all. With 24 frames a second, who needs text, by that logic?
This is clearly a pet hate of mine – I rarely see a new movie without wanted to take a red pen to the script here and there. So thank heavens for All is Lost, the tremendous new film from JC Chandor (Margin Call), starring Robert Redford as a sailor lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford is the only actor in the film – it’s just him, the boat, the water and a series of catastrophes until the bitter end. And he’s fantastic in it – his nicely grizzled features reacting moment by moment to his impending doom. It’s a physical role for sure, as he tackles the high winds and rolling waves – but for the full Ancient Mariner angst, he needs to capture our sympathies too, and let us know what’s going on behind those famous blue eyes.
You’ll have guessed the twist: as Redford helms the movie solo, there’s no real dialogue at all. I don’t want to spoiler the film, but he speaks a few words; wouldn’t you curse a little, in his deck shoes? For most of the film’s 106-minute running time, however, all you’ll hear is the roar of the ocean, the clattering and cracking of his boat and a hell of a lot of weather. The score, by Alex Ebert, appears only sporadically, and there’s no intrusive internal monologue to break the tension either. So with all that space in which to act, and such a simple story, Redford is free to give an indelible, immense performance that’s a pleasure to watch. Or it would be, if one weren’t so terrified for him.
All is Lost wouldn’t qualify as a silent movie, I know that. In fact its stunning sound design is as Oscar-worthy as Redford’s star turn. But it is a rare sound film that has learned the extraordinary power of silents – and it’s really very special indeed.