Festival season is upon us. There’s Pordenone, of course, and London and also the Cambridge Film Festival all in October. A trip to the fenland city is very appealing at this time of year – and all the more so with a tempting selection of silent films.
The star of the slate is Lois Weber, one of the very best American silent film directors. And Cambridge will be showing four of her films over the weekend, all with live music. One of these in particular, The Blot, is rarely shown, but I think it’s very special indeed. Kevin Brownlow says that you won’t find a better film for showing you how life was really lived in the 1920s. That’s very probably true, but I think that inadvertently undersells it. There is a lot more to the film than its realism. It’s a real heartbreaker, and a nuanced drama too.
There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?
Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!
More silent film goodness to look forward to in 2018, and this time a little closer to home.
The 2018 edition of Bristol’s Slapstick festival takes place at venues across the city centre from 25-28 January and tickets are on sale now. If you’re not familiar with this event let me tell you how it breaks down. Funny films. Funny people. That’s it, really. The Slapstick Festival celebrates the tradition of visual comedy on screen, beginning in the silent era. And it invites famous comedians to present and share their favourites, as well as a host of experts and the best silent movie musicians in the business.
So next year, silent comedy fans can look forward to:
The Silent Comedy Gala at Colston Hall on Friday night will be hosted by Tim Vine. The headline film is the superlative Sherlock, Jr, accompanied by Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life and Angora Love, starring Laurel and Hardy. The Buster Keaton feature will be accompanied by the world premiere of a new, semi-improvised score composed by Günter Buchwald and performed by the renowned European Silent Screen Virtuosi and members of Bristol Ensemble. A Dog’s Life features Chaplin’s own composition for the film and will be performed by a 15-piece Bristol Ensemble conducted by Buchwald.
Comedian Lucy Porter introduces two screenings of female-led silent comedies at the Watershed Cinema: Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen, and Constance Talmadge in Her Night of Romance. Porter is great at these intros, both knowledgeable and passionate, so don’t miss these. Music by John Sweeney too.
Someone else who is rather good at introducing silent movies is Kevin Brownlow, who will introduce a lesser-known film, Skinner’s Dress Suit, starring the brilliant Laura La Plante and Reginald Denny. Piano accompaniment by Daan Van den Hurk.
Meet the Austrian answer to Laurel and Hardy, Cocl and Seff, with a screening of some of their rarely seen work at the Watershed, with music by Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
And there will be a chance to see even more rare films at a screening called Lost and Found, in which collector Anthony Saffrey and historian David Robinson will present some recently rediscovered silent comedies, from André Deed (AKA Foolshead) Marcel Perez, Max Linder, Karl Valentin and more. Music will be provided by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Daan Ven den Hurk.
An early Christmas present for silent film fans in the form of some excellent news from the non-archive festival circuit. The retrospective strand at next year’s Berlin Film Festival will be devoted to Weimar Cinema – one of the most exciting, attractive periods in film history. Not only that but we can expect a sweep of some lesser-known titles, including new restorations.
According to the director of the retrospective strand, Rainer Rother: “Now, with this thematic look back, it’s time to turn our attention to the films that are not necessarily part of the inner canon.
“The diversity of the Weimar film landscape is best grasped via the works of filmmakers who are not usually counted among the great and prominent directors of the era. The variety of the films, by directors as varied as Franz Seitz, Sr. (Der Favorit der Königin, 1922), Hermann Kosterlitz (The Adventure of Thea Roland, 1932), and Erich Waschneck (Docks of Hamburg, 1928), is evident in the abundance of not only differing subject matter, stories, and characters, but also aesthetic approach. Looking at this legendary epoch in German film history from a new perspective reinforces its artistic reputation.”
Silent Londoners are an erudite group, and no doubt we’re all regularly found in halls of academe, talking loftily of theories and histories, of books and poems and one-reel Snub Pollard movies. But even though we’re such scholars, we could all do with a trip to Cambridge this month to complete our silent film education.
The Cambridge Film Festival is one of the best regular film festivals in the country for silents, and this year, the programme of early film is full of surprises, and wonderful music. Here’s what you should be looking out for.
“Why are your thoughts in America when you tell me your heart is in Italy?” Well, Theda Bara, since you ask, it’s because the Giornate showed a mid-period silent American classic on Friday night. A Fool There Was (1915), or as I prefer to call it, The Cabinet of Dr Libido, is a bizarre film, by turns prosaic and ethereal. The plot is slight, but the imagery is immense, with Bara as an especially vampirish vamp, her long dark hair framing a milk-white face in the most demonic way. She can bat away a revolver with a rose and drive a man to distraction with a glimpse of ankle or shoulder – these are superpowers, not seduction techniques. No wonder the image of Fox’s foxy lady endures even when so many of her films are lost, burned up in the heat of her own fiery screen presence. And as silents go, A Fool There Was has great words, not least in the recurring appearance of Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’, but in a few killer lines of dialogue, one of you which you already know is going to appear below. And speaking to the film as well as for it, tonight, we had a brilliant new score written by Philip Carli and played by a quintet, which kept pace with the film’s many twists and dramatic moments and also added some much-needed nuance, as in the heartbreaking scene in New York traffic when Schuyler ignores his own daughter’s pleas, so engrossed is he in his new paramour’s charms.
After Theda Bara, Hollywood turned to Pola Negri for a more authentically exotic vamp, although a more romantic one too. So it was fitting that one of her early German films, Mania (1918) closed the evening’s viewing. I’ve written about that one before, a couple of times, so I skipped it tonight.
But it was a great day for strong leading women, from a selection of cheeky Nasty Women shorts (I loved Lea causing havoc in an office full of besotted men) and beyond. We had the rich, psychological drama Thora Van Dekan (John W Brunius, 1920), for example – a story of a woman trying to protect her daughter’s inheritance from her wayward ex-husband, in the face of opposition and judgment in her village. Pauline Brunius is hypnotic in the lead role as a spiky, often unlikeable, singleminded and clearly emotionally brutalised woman trying to do her best by her child. This was a sombre piece, all the more so with Maud Nelissen’s downbeat improvisation, and just the sort of thing that nestles into your brain cavities and makes itself at home for days.
If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.
From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.
Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.
In case you are wondering, this is the correct order of business, in my humble opinion: watch the film, then read the book, then watch the film again. Repeat as required and enjoy!
So I have a few dates and venues confirmed, where you can come along, watch the film, with an introduction or Q&A from moi, and if you feel so inclined, buy a copy of the book (very reasonably priced, lots of pictures). It would be great to see some Silent Londoners in the audience. As more dates are arranged, I’ll add them to this post, but as ever, pay attention to the Silent London social media channels to get the breaking news.
So far, ALL these screenings are 35mm projections with live musical accompaniment. Because if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. And seeing Pandora’s Box on the big screen is definitely a thing worth doing.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has just closed for another year. Four days of movies and music at the sumptuous Castro Theatre – and this time I was actually there! Pinch me, I still can’t believe it’s true. In this short podcast, I run through a few of my highlights of the weekend and try to give a flavour of this fantastic event. Enjoy!
Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.
As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.
So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.
Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.
Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…
Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016
If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.
Best silent film theatrical release of 2016
Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.
Best modern silent of 2016
Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.
Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.
Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.
Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.
The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.
As regular readers of this blog have probably guessed, I dwell in splendid isolation in a Hollywood mansion. Occasionally I kidnap a passing blogger to help me refine a post or two, but normally the only people I see are my pet leopard and Georg Wilhelm the butler. So it makes a nice change to be leave the house and talk about silent cinema in the presence of the beautiful people of London. I am doing that twice in the near future – so read all about it.
The fabulous Phoenix Cinema in Finchley is hosting a silent cinema festival on the weekend of 15-17th July, which promises to be very special. On the Saturday they are showing Steamboat Bill Jr, in a special kids screening,with Neil Brand, and also Why Be Good? with the wonderful Colleen Moore and a “live flapper performance”. On the Sunday, Ian Christie introduces a selection of archive films of north London with music by John Sweeney, followed by a screening of the cockney silent East is East, with Lillian Henley at the piano and Gerry Turvey introducing. On Friday 15th July, Stephen Horne is accompanying one of the greatest films of all time, the magical Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and I will be on introduction duty. Expect much inarticulate swooning from me, and sumptuous music from Mr Horne.
It might be the northern welcome, it could be the gorgeous vintage cinema, but it’s probably the combination of great films and first-class music … the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a highlight of our calendar. This year’s festival runs from 16-21 March 2016 and excitingly, the programme has just dropped!
This means you can start booking your tickets now and believe me, these events often sell out, so act fast.
One of the greatest films of all time, Dovzhenko’s Earth, is the opening night gala, with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and Hazel Morrison.
Camera acrobatics in Dupont’s thrilling love-triangle drama Varieté starring Emil Jannings and Lya di Putti, with Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius providing excellent, multilayered accompaniment.
The hilarious Exit Smiling starring Beatrice Lillie (“the funniest woman of our civilisation,” according to Noël Coward) as an aspiring stage star in a shabby touring company, with the ever-brilliant Neil Brand on the piano. That’s the Friday night gala with an introduction by Bryony Dixon – and the perfect excuse to dress up.
The unbeatable tearjerker Stella Dallas (the 1925 version), with a new score by Stephen Horne performed by himself and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, and an introduction by your own humble correspondent.
Intergalactic German space documentary Wunder der Schöpfung screens with a wild soundscape score by Herschel 36 (who will be talking about how they wrote their score in another event at the festival) on Saturday night.
Late Chinese silent Daybreak, starring Li Lili, with accompaniment by John Sweeney. This screening will be supported by a talk on early Chinese Cinema, which is sure to be illuminating.
My own favourite film star, Pola Negri, in one of her early German films, Mania, with music from kraut-rock band Czerwie.
Reel rations – Bryony Dixon’s tour of British propaganda films from the Great War.
Herbert Brenon’s charming, inventive Peter Pan, with an acclaimed live score by harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
British train crash drama The Wrecker – screened at Bo’ness train station!
Comedy! Courtesy of a Laurel & Hardy triple-bill, as well as Buster Keaton in My Wife’s Relations and Anita Garvin and Marion Byron in A Pair of Tights.
The votes are in! Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to this year’s poll – we had a wide range of responses, and votes cast from around the world. Looking back on the 2015 reveals that it was a very strong year for silent film, which meant that many of these decisions were very close-run things. Congratulations to everyone who won a category – and those who just missed out too.
The best DVD/Blu-ray of 2015
There have been some corking discs and box sets released this year, so there were several contenders for this prize. But out in front by some distance, was the BFI’s brilliant suffragette compilation with music by Lillian Henley: Make More Noise! Don’t mind if we do.
The best theatrical release of 2015
Not so many titles up for contention here, and some confusion as to what represents a bona fide theatrical release. Good to see some love for films that were popular on the festival circuit such as Synthetic Sin and The Battle of the Century, even if they weren’t exactly what we were looking for here. However, among several nods to Steamboat Bill Jr and Man With a Movie Camera, your winner was … well why not: Make More Noise! again. Congratulations to Bryony and Margaret Deriaz, who curated this fabulous selection of films.
The best modern silent of 2015
My personal favourite new film of 2015 won this category hands-down. While Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s deaf-school drama The Tribe technically has plenty of dialogue, the fact that said dialogue is entirely in Ukrainain sign language makes this a silent film for most. And an astonishingly powerful one too. Not for the faint-hearted, but a fantastically exciting film nonetheless.
The best orchestral film screening of 2015
Well you saw some excellent shows in 2015, didn’t you? There were many great nominations for this category, and the title very nearly went to a London screening … but not quite. The winner was the triumphant conclusion to this year’s Pordenone silent film festival: The Phantom of the Opera with Carl Davis’s excellent score played by Orchestra San Marco and conducted by Marc Fitzgerald. I can confirm that this was a blinding performance, but also that the Teatro Verdi lighting stayed firmly in place throughout the show.
At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.
KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.
We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.
We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8→
This, too, is history – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You can blame it on too much caffé espresso, or Douglas Fairbanks withdrawal, or the collective post-Les Mis comedown. Whatever the reason, I saw two comedies today that I could only just follow, and which just occasionally made me laugh. If I tell you they were Soviet comedies, you might jump to a conclusion. But trust me, I have form in this area – I normally laughalonga-Lenin.
Tonight’s evening screening was Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik (The State Official, 1931), a cheeky caper about a faceless state underling tempted by the chance to pilfer a suitcase of roubles for him and his missus and their young daughter. I suspect it is gentlest of comedy anyway, but with a propagandistic framing story about renovating the rolling stock on either end of it, it truly is, as I was warned, not a “comedy-comedy”.
Rating higher on the laughometer but lower on comprehensibility for my poor failing brain was Krupnaia Nepriyatnost (Big Trouble, 1930), in which the culture clash between old and new in a provincial village is exemplified by, at first, the rivalry between old-style carriages and imported American cars. The scene thus laid, the real set-to involves a mixup of of speakers at local events: the director of the new arts centre rocks up to the church, and the priest appears to address the culture vultures. Horror, and then an “exchange of hostages” ensues. This was much brighter, with vivid casting, compositions that took us by surprise and a real sense of pace and energy. Plus, inventive musical accompaniment courtesy of a Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin collaboration. We were still a little flummoxed though. The same director as Dva Druga, Model I Poodrugaand a similar sense of fun, but not as successful.
On Saturday, outside events threatened to intrude the sanctity of the festival – and we weren’t complaining. First, the morning’s historical presentations were timed around a break for an update on the Labour leadership decision. Is victor Jeremy Corbyn a silent movie fan? Here in “red” Leicester (that joke TM Peter Walsh) we assume he would be an Eisenstein man. And in the afternoon, we segued neatly from checking the football scores to taking our seats for The Great Game (1930), a rollicking good film, albeit a talkie, set in the world of soccer and strangely apt for the modern game. At night, we watched a film set during the Wars of the Roses, just a few feet from Richard III’s tomb. Perhaps it was all just meant to be …
Believing in fate is a double-edged sword, though. We started the day with a thoroughly intriguing film that danced with the dangers of destiny. The tale of a doomed ship, Windjammer (1930) was a haunting film that was shot as a silent documentary record of the final journey of sailing ship the Grace Harwar, but then had dramatic “talkie” scenes of life below-deck added to make it more palatable to the general public. Those fictional scenes added a plot, one that echoed the real-life tragedies that had taken place on board the Harwar on that long and difficult last voyage. The very handsome Tony Bruce plays a posh boy, Jack, who was travelling home after having his heart broken in Melbourne – and sad to say he meets a watery end. The scenes of the boat battling the waves are both beautiful and terrifying – the chat among the crew crude but naturalistic. More than a curio, but a curious beast all the same. And we were grateful to Laraine Porter’s exquisite introduction setting a complex film in its proper context.
More terror at sea in a very poignant presentation from Bryony Dixon on the films that tell the story of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. From newsreels of the aftermath of anti-German riots, to Winsor McCay’s stunning propaganda animation, this was an engrossing selection of films, rendered all the more powerful by the witness testimony Dixon read as the films played, and Stephen Horne’s sensitive accompaniment.
Comfort zone be damned. Here I am in Leicester, an hour or so north of the Big Smoke and the first movies that the British Silent Film Festival chooses to show are all talkies … OK, OK I am not going to pretend that they are a novelty to any of us, but kicking off the festival with early British sound films seemed initially to be either a bold move or an acknowledgment that a few of the delegates would still be on the train/in the office at the start of play.
After a day of dialogue films I was desperate for a real silent movie, and Thursday’s finale was worth the wait by any stretch. But more of that anon. While “talkie Thursday” was occasionally grating, it was always fascinating.
Laraine Porter introduced the first two films of the day with a fun whistlestop tour of the British film industry’s transition to sound. She showed us possibly my favourite talkie of the day, Up the Poll (1929), a short political satire featuring Donald Calthrop as a newly elected MP bungling a victory speech that was essentially a string of very funny gags, with “canned laughter” and heckling off-screen. Up the Poll used a combination of synch and non-synch sound, and I’d be intrigued to know whether the balance was as it seemed, ie synch for Calthrop and non-synch for everything else. I assume so, which is usually a dangerous move …
Porter also introduced our first feature, an ambitious war movie starring Brian Aherne and Madeleine Carroll called The W Plan (1930). At first it seemed that this one just wouldn’t catch fire, lots of awkward pauses and odd emphases, but boy did it start to blaze when Aherne was on the run in enemy territory. Punching German officers, hallucinating during a firing squad, leading a team of POWs to sabotage an enemy plan using a not-so elaborate code based on whist … Aherne was a dashing hero in a strange and exciting movie. Shame about Carroll – perhaps she will get another chance to show us what she can do.
Star of the day was Geoff Brown who introduced films with aplomb and gave fascinating talk on the rush to sound #bsff15
After lunch, Geoff Brown took to the stage with a massively entertaining, not to mention informative, presentation on, yes, the first British talkies made in 1929. Was Blackmail really the very first? You can guess that the answer is both yes and no, can’t you? Yes, it was first to be released, but it had far less synch dialogue than its main rival High Treason, so go figure. Hitchcock v Elvey: fight! More interesting than the lead question was Brown’s exploration of those first homegrown talkies, which were a rather rum bunch. We went in for melodrama and thrillers, as a nation, it seemed, where the US favoured musicals and such. So these films, many of which we saw clips from, were a heady brew. Miscegenation and damp rot featured in White Cargo; a murderous epileptic led To What Red Hell. It made one long for the simpler pastoral pleasures of Under the Greenwood Tree, or Elsa Lanchester larking about on the old joanna in Mr Smith Wakes Up!
Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?
The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.
There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.