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London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe

Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?

The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.

While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.

Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good? (1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.

Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.

As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.

Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation  – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)

Colleen Moore, first among flappers, is so universally adored among the silent cinema crowd that she can get away with anything. Case in point: today’s screening of the irrepressible Synthetic Sin (1929), in which La Moore plays an aspiring actress whose talents lie further towards comedy than tragedy. So much so that she interrupts a dance show to perform a wigglesome, gigglesome routine of her own … in blackface. She wins the crowd in the movie, and perhaps a little more guardedly she repeated the trick in Teatro Verdi today. You can’t edit the past, and you can’t deny the crowd-pulling power of Colleen Moore.

Synthetic Sin was a winner today, a restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone project; this film has been primped back to its best, and even comes with a snippet of its original sound-on-disc score. That blackface moment wasn’t only thing that was “of its time” about the movie, but Moore’s personality, and charm, and sheer comic talent brook no obstacles. An early scene in which she mimics “Paderewski playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude” was far funnier than such a skit had any right to be. A thunderous round of applause ensued, from a live audience 85 years too late to catch the real thing.

The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)
The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)

But Moore only arrived four screenings into the day. We’re calling this a Manic Monday, with three heavyweight movies in the morning alone: two Barrymores (Ethel and Lionel) and a treat from the Russian Laughter strand: Zakroischchik iz Torzhka (The Tailor from Torzhok, Yakov Protazanov, 1925).

Yes, the name of the Russian Laughter strand has raised some sniggers in the hotel corridors and café terraces of Pordenone already, but we don’t listen to haters here at Silent London. And we’re right, as usual, because The Tailor from Torzhok was a hoot. This is Soviet cinema’s first feature-length comedy, and it’s definitely western-style in its reliance on physical stunts and romance. It was intended to promote the state lottery, but enjoyably not a single likable character gives two figs for the lotto – the government bond is sold on, rejected, crumpled and, ahem, fixed to the wall with nasal mucus. Ick. Great comic work from Igor Illiinsky in the lead role, whether pratfalling or winningly rubbing shoulders with his pretty miss.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 1

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014

This season the colour to be seen in is a mid-blue, almost teal, with accents of lime green. The autumn collection also features motifs of a certain scruffy character with a square ’tache, and a charming floral detail. Hemlines are low, and hats are definitely “in” … Milan fashion week was so last month sweetie, I am reporting to you direct from the catwalks of Pordenone, instead, where the 33rd Giornate del Cinema Muto has begun, in fine style.

The stars of this year’s Giornate are yet to be decided, but the wise money goes on the Barrymores, an acting dynasty of stage and screen and recipients of their own retrospective at the festival this year. So starstruck are we all by the (virtual) presence of John, Ethel, Lionel et al that for Pordenone’s opening night, that we attempted an almighty feat – travelling through time and space (and the march of feminism) to New York, February 1927. But more of that adventure anon. Here’s how the first day unravelled.

The Feudists (1913)
The Feudists (1913) – Sidney Drew, far left

In anticipation of the Gala, the first session of the Giornate was devoted to The Drews, that is mostly Sidney Drew (uncle of John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore), but often accompanied by his lady wife, in a series of mostly slight domestic comedies (and one roughly sketched drama about an elderly painter, his pretty niece and his young apprentice). Antiquated and inconsequential they might be, but don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Of the films here directed by Drew himself, some parlayed familiar gags, as in Her Anniversaries (1917), a wordy skit in which a husband fails to remember the “special” days when his wife chooses to celebrate their relationship. But there were some enjoyably bizarre elements. Drew’s flexible features were stretched in A Case of Eugenics (1915) when his babyish husband outdoes the brattish, oversized child his wife is “sitting” for infantile antics.

In the strangest of the lot, Boobley’s Baby (1915), Drew is a harassed commuter, sick of giving up his trolley seat for parents of small children – so he totes around a doll, which unfortunately causes him problems with the ladies. The whole endeavour was just the right side of distasteful – for the most part. Kudos as ever, to expert accompanist and Barrymore/Drew expert Dr Philip Carli for some smart, witty playing for this selection – I particularly enjoyed the rock’n’roll diversion during a badly damaged segment of Boobley’s Baby.

As the night drew in, we snuggled up with a love letter to film archivism, film archivists and Pordenone itself. The Soviet silent animated cartoon Pochta or Post (1929) was shown at the Giornate last year and delightful it was too. This year, a two-part documentary, Searching for “Pochta”, explored the search for its sound 1930 remake, long thought lost. Richly detailed, and not afraid to scurry down rabbit-holes, but accessible and witty, this was a tribute to the stuff that film discoveries are really made of: diligence, chance, persistence and collaboration. You can order those however you think fit.

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Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

The launch of the London Film Festival programme is a cascade of A-list stars, esteemed auteurs, Oscar contenders, Hollywood blockbusters and world premieres. But enough of all that. Did someone mention Colleen Moore? Here’s our rundown of the silent cinema offering at the BFI London Film Festival this year.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

“Virtually unknown” it may be, but this fantastic British war film was a real genre game-changer. Walter Summers directs the noble tale of “a victory and a defeat almost as glorious as a victory”, which was a hit with audiences and critics both on its release. Unjustly neglected for years, TBOCAFI has been rescued from osbcurity via a gleaming new restoration and a modern brass score, which will be performed by members of the Royal Marine band at the LFF Archive Gala screening.

Screens: 7pm, 16 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

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The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess (1934)

This sumptuous Chinese melodram stars Ruan Lingyu as “goddess” or sex worker, trying to care for her child, who is pushed into taking violent revenge on her pimp. Described on these pages by John Sweeney as: “Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film.” The festival screening will be accompanied by the English Chamber orchestra, playing a new score by Chinese composer Zou Ye.

Screens: 7.30pm, 14 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

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