Tag Archives: Walter Summers

Sound Barrier: Dunkirk (2017) & The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Sound Barrier returns with two wartime blockbusters. In this episode, Pete Baran and I are joined in the studio by the Guardian’s Nick Dastoor.

We’re debating the relative merits of Christopher Nolan’s smash-hit WWII spectacle Dunkirk and Walter Summers’ patriotic WWI re-enactment film The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

Sound Barrier: Dunkirk (2017) & The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

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

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.
The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.

Read more about The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

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The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

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.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

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.

bfi-00n-sc3
The Guns of Loos (1928)

Continue reading The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

Bargains on the BFIplayer

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

If you missed the London Film Festival gala screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands last month, and it isn’t showing at a cinema near you, and you can’t wait for the home video release in February 2015 … well all is not lost. Walter Summers’ naval epic is avilable on the BFIplayer, in the comfort of your own computer, and you can rent it for just £10, or £8.50 for BFI members.

But what is more, from 11.02am on Tuesday 11 November 2014, for 24 hours, streaming The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands is totally, delightfully free

To whet your appetite, this short video about scoring the movie is free  – all the time.

High Treason (1929)
High Treason (1929)

There are several more British silent films on the BFIplayer, as you might expect, in glistening high-definition. Here’s a quick Silent London top 10, in no particular order:

Moroder's Metropolis
Moroder’s Metropolis

And a couple of little-known gems from foreign parts, as a bonus:

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.

Continue reading London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927): ‘the spectators are exhilarated’

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

This a guest post for Silent London: an edited extract from Dr Lawrence Napper’s forthcoming book, a study of British film in the 1920s and its relation to the First World War, which is provisionally called ‘Before Journey’s End’: British Popular Cinema and the First World War, 1918-1930, and will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. This extract is taken from a longer chapter tracing the development of the British Instructional Films series of battle reconstructions from 1921 onwards. Dr Napper is a lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London and the author of British Cinema and The Middlebrow in the Interwar Years (Exeter University Press, 2009).

  • This article contains spoilers, though as the films discussed deal with historical events, we hope no one will be too disappointed.

In 1927, as the flood of war-themed films identified by critic Caroline Lejeune the previous year developed into a torrent, two British companies were drawing on the legacy of British Instructional Films’ (BIF) war reconstruction series. Both The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands and The Somme (MA Wetherell) could claim to be legitimate heirs to the series. The former was directed by Walter Summers and produced by Harry Bruce Woolfe, while the latter shared a number of personnel with BIF’s other productions including its producer, E Gordon Craig.

In their release strategies, too, the two films followed the model of their predecessors – The Somme opened at the Marble Arch Pavilion on 5 September for an exclusive run, while The Battles of Coronel and Falklands Islands was screened privately for the royal family at Balmoral before opening at the New Gallery on 15 September. These openings were announced together in the press coverage, implying a parallel between the two films. Both films went on general release during Armistice week, where they competed with a number of other British films with war themes, including Remembrance (Bert Wynne, 1927) and Roses of Picardy (Maurice Elvey, 1927). In the premier London houses, they were succeeded by further exclusive runs of new war dramas, Blighty (Adrian Brunel, 1927) replacing The Somme at Marble Arch, and Land of Hope and Glory (Harley Knoles, 1927) in the Plaza, Regent Street.[1]

The Somme (1927) (Image: BFI)
The Somme (1927) (Image: BFI)

Despite these similarities, it is nevertheless possible to identify divergent strategies in the two films. The self-conscious use of formal moments of remembrance evident in the 1925 Ypres (Walter Summers) was incorporated into a number of the fictional war dramas, including Remembrance, Blighty and Land of Hope and Glory. The balance of drama and documentary elements continued to shift, and both The Somme and Coronel and Falklands develop the more dramatic shooting structure evident in Mons (Walter Summers, 1926), although in different directions. Mindful of the criticisms of Mons, director MA Wetherell re-instated the diagram elements of earlier films in his explanation of the overall strategy of The Somme (a decision which earned him praise from a number of reviewers), while Summers took advantage of the relatively contained story of Coronel and Falklands to offer a film much more clearly driven by the narrative conventions of fiction film-making.[2] As part of this, the exploits of Victoria Cross (VC) winners – so consistent an element in all of the previous films – were dropped entirely from Coronel and Falklands, which offers instead a much clearer identification with motives and inner emotions of the captains of both the British and German ships, conveyed through classical editing.

Continue reading The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927): ‘the spectators are exhilarated’

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.

Read more

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.

Continue reading Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

London Film Festival Archive Gala: instant expert

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

Name: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Age: 87 years old. The clue’s in the number in brackets.

Appearance: Shiny and new.

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense – I thought you said it was 87 years old. The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands may be knocking on a bit, but it has been lovingly restored by the BFI and from what we gather, it’s looking pretty damn sharp. Just take a look at these stills.

Great, where can I see this beautiful old thing? At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 October 2014 – it’s being shown at the London Film Festival as the Archive Gala. It will then be released in cinemas nationwide, and simultaneously on the BFIPlayer …

Blimey. And then it will be coming out on a BFI DVD.

Wonderful news, I’ll tell all my friends. Really?

No. I’ve never heard of it. Fair enough. You could have said that in the first place.

I was shy. Don’t worry, the BFI calls it a “virtually unknown film” on its website.

Phew. But you should have heard of the director, Walter Summers.

Rings a bell … He’s a Brit. Or he was, rather. And he was quite prolific, working in both the silent and sound eras. “I didn’t wait for inspiration,” he once said. “I was a workman, I worked on the story until it was finished. I had a time limit you see. We made picture after picture after picture.”

Continue reading London Film Festival Archive Gala: instant expert

Walter Summers at war: ‘the Service has got into my blood’

The Battles of the Coronel and Falkand Islands (1927)
The Battles of the Coronel and Falkand Islands (Walter Summers, 1927)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jo Pugh, based on hitherto unpublished information about the military record of British film director Walter Summers.

“I did fairly well in the war – not that it would interest you very much.”
– Walter Summers, interviewed by Garth Pedler in 1972

In 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went to town on the international distribution of the British war film Mons, from the British director Walter Summers. Chronicling the 1914 defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France (but a defeat as great as any victory – to paraphrase a classic Summers intertitle) Mons was promoted alongside Ben-Hur and its director “Captain Walter Summers, D.S.O., M.C.” praised for his wartime experience. One newspaper went further, asserting that Mons had “a genuineness and a reality that could only have been achieved by a director who had actually lived and fought during the immortal retreat.”[1]

Mons (1926)
Mons

History written by the victors is one thing, but history written by movie studio advertising executives may not meet the highest standards of evidence: Walter Summers did not fight at Mons, Walter Summers was not a Captain in the Great War, Walter Summers was not the recipient of a DSO. But the truth is not any less interesting. Walter Summers was a highly decorated war veteran but the precise details of his early life and military career have become a little mangled through a combination of hazy memory and the application of a  bit of stardust. Surviving records allow us access to a little understood side of Summers and seem to place his film career in a slightly different light.

Walter Summers' birth certificate
Walter Summers’ birth certificate

Walter George Thomas Summers was born on 2 September 1892 in the West Derby district of Liverpool. This date has become confused, probably because Summers seems so confused about it himself, writing conflicting ages on just about every official form going. His mother and father were both actors, his father (also Walter) a member of one of D’Oyly Carte’s touring companies who had a close association with Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre. He died when Summers was quite young, leaving his mother, Mary Ann, to bring up Walter and his three sisters, Mary, Beatrice and Irene in Liverpool. In the 1911 census, Walter gives his occupation as “Theatrical Property Maker” – his association with the theatre began very early. On his application to become an officer, Arthur Lawrence, manager of the Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, testifies as to Walter’s good character for the period 1903-6[2], in other words from the age of about 11 to 14.  In their haste to join up in 1914, many young men lied about their age. Summers was a more seasoned 22 (though, characteristically, he wrote 21 on his form) and unlike many of his compatriots was not contemplating leaving England for the first time: he had already travelled to Australia and South Africa with Thomas Quinlan’s opera company, prior to his first film work with London Film Productions. This latter role probably culminated in work on George Loane Tucker’s version of The Prisoner of Zenda[3], in which a certain amount of armed European conflict is treated with all the seriousness of a works outing.

Arthur Holmes-Gore as Duke Michael of Strelsau in The Prisoner of Zenda (1915).
A thorougly Prussian baddie: Arthur Holmes-Gore as Duke Michael of Strelsau in The Prisoner of Zenda (1915). Holmes-Gore was killed at Gallipoli

London Film’s studio was a former skating rink at St Margaret’s, just over Richmond Bridge, which explains why Summers, the Liverpool boy, joined the army at Kingston. He joined up in October 1914, less than two months after the defeat at Mons. In retrospect, MGM’s claim that he fought at the battle is not very plausible: only members of the British Expeditionary Force, regular soldiers who had joined up before the war started, fought at Mons. Summers was a member of Kitchener’s volunteer army and would have been among the first significant wave of recruits to reach France. Even so, he didn’t leave England until the autumn of 1915, almost exactly a year after he had joined up. Joining as a private, Summers quite quickly rose to the rank of Sergeant in the 9th battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. This battalion is most closely associated with the playwright RC Sherriff, who used his experiences serving within it as the basis for his most famous play Journey’s End, subsequently directed on stage and then in 1930 on screen by James Whale, who had himself served in the Worcestershire Regiment. Summers and Sherriff knew each other but seemingly as comrades, not friends. Summers arrived in France a year before Sherriff and shortly after the battalion had suffered appalling losses at the battle of Loos. Subsequently, the 9th East Surrey fought at Ypres and the Somme. At the latter in July 1916, Summers was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his service at the Battle of Delville Wood. “A nightmare that men will dream again,” wrote the journalist Philip Gibbs, of the month-long conflict over the small piece of woodland believed to offer some tactical advantage. By the end of it, thousands had been killed and barely a tree was left standing.

Military Artist drawing of the Battle of Delville Wood
Military Artist drawing of the Battle of Delville Wood, The Somme. July 1916. First published in “The Great War” Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1917

Summers won his Military Medal for leading a fighting squad of eight men from the battalion in a risky daylight raid on 25 January 1917 near Hulluch, in the Pas de Calais. One of six such squads, with orders to identify the unit opposite, “inflict losses” and obtain a sample of German bread, the small force ran across no man’s land under the cover of somewhat tardy smoke bombs and a smattering of “wild and erratic” machine gun fire.[4] With the element of surprise, the British killed a number of Germans (Summers shot at least one) before meeting “hostile resistance”. Summers’ group were among the last to withdraw from the German trenches. The force returned with three prisoners and the bread sample. By its own account it had suffered seven casualties and inflicted around 21. German records in contrast put their losses at eight.[5] Summers was personally commended for “the determined and fearless leading of his fighting squad”. Reading the description of the attack in the unit’s war diary, it is impossible not to be reminded of the raid depicted in Journey’s End. This is because it was indeed Sherriff’s inspiration for the attack that preoccupies his characters in the second half of the play.[6]

Continue reading Walter Summers at war: ‘the Service has got into my blood’

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 8

A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions
A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions

I couldn’t possibly imagine a more heartwarming finale to my first Pordenone trip than Saturday night’s midnight show of The Boatswain’s Mate (Horace Manning Haynes, 1924), with our own Neil Brand on the piano. This vigorously witty, quintessentially British comedy is a neat three-hander starring Florence Turner, Johnny Butt and Victor McLaglen, as a pub landlady, her buffoonish admirer and an out-of-work soldier. I loved it when it showed at the British silent film festival in Cambridge, and the Giornate crowd lapped it up too. The humour of the film comes not just from three strong comic performances, but from the pen of Lydia Hayward, who as with the other films in this strand, adapted the scenario from a WW Jacobs short story. Here though, her pithy intertitles are augmented with cute line drawings that underline – or comically undercut – the text. A 25-minute, 88-year-old gem of British cinema.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The final day of the Giornate began in the unfamiliar, but very comfortable, surroundings of Cinemazero, while Carl Davis rehearsed the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra in the Teatro Verdi for that evening’s gala screening. We assembled for a double-bill of late Thanhouser features, with all the tightly plotted melodrama that entails. A Modern Monte Cristo (1917), transplanted the classic tale’s theme of long-simmering revenge to California, as a shipping magnate frames his love rival for a crime and lives to regret it. Fifty-six minutes of storms, shipwrecks and Machiavellian machinations later, the assembled audience were thoroughly awake and heartily entertained. The wronged hero (played by Vincent Serrano) bore a passing resemblance to George Clooney I felt, and the heroine was played vivaciously by Gladys Dore as an adult and long-time Thanhouser actor Helen Badgley as a child.

Badgley returned, this time as a boy, alongside Jeanne Eagels in the second film of the morning, Fires of Youth (1917), which appeared to be an early pilot for the reality TV show Undercover Boss. Misunderstood foundry owner Pemberton (Frederick Warde) disguises himself in order to live and work among his staff, to regain the spirit of his long-forgotten childhood. As a bonus, he learns to appreciate his workers – and give them the payrises and safe working conditions they have long petitioned for. Or at least I think that’s what happened. Due to a mixup, the intertitles were unexpectedly in French and so no translation was available. A sweetly moralistic, but energetically played film, although this substitute print was abruptly abridged towards the end. Special mention here must go to Bruno, an “aspirant” from the Pordenone accompaniment masterclasses, who played beautifully and sensitively for both films – even more of an achievement considering the surprise switch.

Anna Sten
Anna Sten

Stephen Horne provided the music for the next screening, one of the most hotly anticipated British films in the Giornate: Herbert Wilcox’s highly enjoyable The Only Way (1926), an adaptation of a long-running play that was itself a free-ranging take on Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Theatrical giant John Martin-Harvey made a fine Sydney Carton: understated in the drunk scenes and powerfully charismatic in the courtroom. It’s a shame that he was so much older than his opposite number Charles Darnay, which rendered the crucial mistaken identity aspect of this grand story rather ludicrous.

A return to Teatro Verdi – for what? A sound film? Rest easy, this was the silent (but with recorded musical soundtrack) Italian release of Anna Sten’s German film Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion, Robert Siodmak, 1931). Tempestuous it was indeed, with Emil Jannings as a released convict, Sten as his wandering wife and Siodmak rehearsing his noir moves in a precociously hot-headed drama. Sten sang, quite well in fact, but with her highlighted hair, slinky satin wardrobe and sultry pout, she came across best as a silent hybrid of Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. Steamy stuff: the perfect prep for watching Greta Garbo and John Gilbert circle each other lustily later that night.

A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions
A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions

Before the gala’s main feature came many speeches, thank yous and prize-givings, culminating in the unadulterated joy of Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carriere’s 1961 short Rupture. All by itself, this virtuoso comedy proved Étaix to be, in festival director David Robinson’s words: “the last of cinema’s great silent clowns”. If you don’t;know Étaix’s work, read more here, and take any opportunity you can to see his wonderful films.

Finally, Garbo and Gilbert took to the stage, introduced in a short film clip by one of the film’s other stars, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and accompanied by Carl Davis’s hearty score. Doomed romance, barely repressed sexual passion, treachery, sublimated homosexuality, alcoholism and reckless driving: A Woman of Affairs (1928) had it all. Garbo here is elegant, seductive and a million miles away from the grubbiness (and greasy kohl) of Die Freudlose Gasse; Gilbert is dapper and heartbroken; Fairbanks Jr handsome and unhinged.

Yes, it’s a little over-the-top, and there was more than one dramatic tracking shot too many, but this was silent Hollywood at its starry, crowd-pleasing, beautiful peak. If you didn’t swoon just a little, you weren’t, I would contend, paying proper attention. Not my favourite film of the festival, but well worth the applause.

So that’s it for the 31st Giornate del Cinema Muto – it’s been utterly intoxicating, a feast of cinema and cinema appreciation. Will I return next year? Just you try to stop me.

Unsolicited advice of the day: Would you take makeup tips from Emil Jannings? Both he and John Gilbert admonished their lady-friends (Anna Sten and Dorothy Sebastian) for daubing on too much “lip rouge”.  Hmmm…

Giornate stats

  • Eight days in Pordenone.
  • 47 hours, 37 minutes and 12 seconds of silent cinema watched.
  • 18 cups of caffé espresso.
  • Eight blog posts.
  • Four Aperol spritzes.
  • One frico.
  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 7

Anna Sten in Provokator (1927)
Anna Sten in Provokator (1927)

The choices we make in life define us, and this morning I got up bright and early for Viktor Turin’s Provokator (1927), but gave early Selig feature The Ne’er-do-Well (1916) a miss. Did I do right to choose Anna Sten’s anguished student and her revolutionary chums over Kathlyn Williams and the adventures of the rich and beautiful? I don’t know. Provokator, which marks Sten’s cinema debut, was occasionally stirring, but mostly on the pedestrian side, though a raid on the revolutionaries’ den was rather fine, boosted by terrific accompaniment from Gabriel Thibaudeau and Frank Bockius.

Walter Summers
Walter Summers

Where I may have erred is in choosing such a downbeat opener on a day that was to close with GW Pabst’s heartbreaking social critique Die Freudlose Gasse (1925). However, I am getting ahead of myself. My afternoon was perked up considerably by the patriotic hubbub around Walter Summers’ lovely postwar tearjerker A Couple of Down-and-Outs (1923), introduced by the producer’s grandson Sidney Samuelson, who was seeing the film for the first time. What could be a very harrowing tale is handled with care, as Rex Davis’s Danny finds unlikely allies when he rescues his war horse from a foreign abattoir: manipulative, but charming with it.

The audience groaned in unison at the start of the next screening, as another tranche of German animated shorts kicked off with a toothpaste advert featuring the “tooth devil” cracking open a poor vulnerable gnasher with his drill. It was, as before, a diverting and diverse hour. In the name of commerce, all kinds of unlikely objects have been animated: detergent, rolling pins, matchboxes, kettles and even, in a sweet but fussy stop-motion ad for aspirin, a silent-film star and director (Im Filmatelier, 1927). Günter Buchwald at the piano followed with apparent ease the rapid changes of subject-matter, media and mood – as when a promo film for a department store dwelt proffered a new suit as a suicide-prevention measure (Der Hartnäckige Selbstmörder, 1925).

Asta Nielsen in Die Freudlose Gasse (1925)
Asta Nielsen in Die Freudlose Gasse (1925)

I have a date with Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928) on Saturday, but I spent Friday night with both Garbo and Asta Nielsen in the elegant but emotionally gruelling Die Freudlose Gasse (1925), giving a beautiful face to the seedy economic exploitation of women in 1920s Vienna. Both the lead stars are fantastic, and supported by a cast of wonderful character actors including Valeska Gert as a pixie-faced madam. Pabst’s direction veers between sober restraint and wild bouts of inventive, unchained camera excitement. This new print is not quite complete, but mostly crisp, with deep tinting, most especially effective in a fire scene towards the end.

Accidentally profound statement of the day: “The joyless street is long,” exclaimed I, when I read in the catalogue that Die Freudlose Gasse clocks in at 151 minutes long in its present state. It ran for closer to three hours at the Berlin film festival, apparently, but that was based on a projection speed of 16fps, as opposed to the Giornate’s 19fps. Phew.

  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are here.

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