Tag Archives: women in film

LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by writer/director Alex Barrett. You can watch The Cheaters as part of the London Film Festival until 1pm on Wednesday 14 October.

Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.

Continue reading LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)

Shaking up the Slapstick Festival 2020

“My four-year-old thinks One Week is a Sybil Seely film that just has Buster Keaton in it.” Polly Rose said many wise things in her introductions to three restored Keaton shorts to kick off the Slapstick Festival this year, but this one really stuck with me. The annual celebration of visual comedy had a fantastic lineup of silent cinema this year, and I saw lots of it. In between chuckles, I had plenty of time to ponder the fact that that Rose’s four-year-old made a really good point.

This year, as it has done for a few years now, Slapstick Festival goes beyond the big three, or big four, or however you want to cut the comedy canon. There are programmes devoted to those performers designated “forgotten clowns” and a dedication throughout the schedule to showcasing female talent. There was a screening of suffragette comedies for example, and even an entire distaff gala on Thursday evening – a presentation of female-led movies at Bristol Cathedral, introduced by Shappi Khorsandi, running along the same lines as the Friday night gala, hosted by Paul McGann and featuring Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Applause emojis all round for all of this. I absolutely loved it.

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The insightful conversation between (hero) Samira Ahmed and Lucy Porter about the manifestation of the campaign for universal suffrage in silent cinema was a real highlight for me. Great to see these newsreels and comedies not just shown, but contextualised and deeply considered as well. And Porter’s line about “Darren” will stick with me for a long time. There was quite a meandering discussion in the room and the bar afterwards about the intent of filmmakers presenting such violent farces as Milling the Militants or Did’ums Diddles the Policeman. And how audiences took them! It’s hard to know the truth, but I feel that copper-bashing suffragettes and those who opposed them had both become popular caricatures by this point. So, many people watching the films, instead of looking for points of identification or moral victory, would have been merely enjoying the spectacle of a bunfight between two camps reduced to their most absurd and extreme positions – like switching on Question Time, say. Certainly one could see a few upper-middle-class white men claiming to be oppressed by intersectional feminism in these comic shorts. Though, I guess I have just proved that we all bring our own perspective to the films we watch. Make your own minds up – you can see many of these films on the BFI Player or indeed on the fine BFI DVD Make More Noise.

Continue reading Shaking up the Slapstick Festival 2020

The Silent London Poll of 2019: The Winners

Happy new decade Silent Londoners! Let’s kick off the Twenties with a party shall we? A Silent London Poll-Winners’ Party. You know the drill by now, these prizes go to the best of the past year in silent film, as voted for by YOU. With that said, I will starting handing out the gongs immediately

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  1. Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2019

This was a very popular winner – the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu release of the magnificent Der Golem was by far your favourite disc of the year. The package comprises a beautiful restoration of the movie, accompanied by a choice of great scores and a feast of insightful extras. An excellent choice. I reviewed this release in more detail in the January 2020 edition of Sight & Sound.

  • Honourable mention: Fragment of an Empire (Flicker Alley)

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  1. Best Theatrical Release of 2019

Go, Golem! The expressionist classic was your classic for the best theatrical release of the year, as this sumptuous restoration played several dates around the world. I saw it in NFT1 in the summer and I am not sure I have recovered yet.

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  1. Best Modern Silent of 2019

It may not BE silent but it WAS shot silent, as forthcoming screenings with live musical accompaniment are sure to emphasise – Mark Jenkin’s brilliant Cornish drama Bait was your favourite modern silent of the year.

  • Read: My review of Bait
  • Honourable mention: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, of course!

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2019: The Winners

Alice Guy Blaché and the first female film directors

You’ve heard me talk about women in silent film before, it’s one of my favourite topics. But if you haven’t taken the plunge yet, head over to the BFI website, where I wrote this short guide to starting to explore the work of the first female film directors.

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There’s more, of course. I also contributed some notes on Alice Guy Blaché for this lovely looking Blu-ray box set also forthcoming from the BFI. And on Tuesday 11 June at BFI Southbank, I will be hosting a panel discussion on that very topic (where I will also present on Guy Blaché)  to support the launch of the Blu-ray. My fellow speakers include Bryony Dixon, Ellen Cheshire and Virginie Selavy. We will be talking about lots of different filmmakers and showing clips and short films too.

If you can’t get to that, I will also be introducing some Guy Blaché shorts at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol. And watch this space (or this one) for more Guy Blaché events coming up soon!

And just as a PS, I am introducing Diary of a Lost Girl at the BFI on Thursday 13 June – don’t miss Brooksie on the big screen.

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Looking for a female version of Laurel and Hardy?

The release of Stan & Ollie has got a lot of people thinking about comedy. And in the Guardian opinion pages, one of my favourite film writers posed a very interesting question. So why hasn’t there ever been a female version of Laurel and Hardy?

Don’t ever make the mistake of assuming the writer wrote the headline. What Gilbey meant, I think, was why hasn’t there ever been a female comedy duo quite as successful as Laurel and Hardy? You could also ask, why hasn’t there ever been a male comedy duo quite as successful as Laurel and Hardy? But that’s not what Gilbey is getting at, writing very perceptively:

Never underestimate the ingrained sexism of male impresarios, who must have decreed that audiences simply don’t respond to female double acts, explaining away the ones that work as exceptions to the rule. But perhaps there is some deeper reason why the sight of two women performing harmoniously together as heightened versions of themselves has never properly clicked, or never been allowed to …  Male friendship and rivalry is routinely the stuff of comedy. Does the notion of women getting along – or not – make us so uncomfortable that we can’t even bear to laugh at it?

Perhaps there is something in this. A deep-seated distrust of the idea that women can be funny, which doubles when there are two or more women on screen together? It’s very difficult to measure such a response, though. I’m more interested in where Gilbey went looking for his examples. He starts out in the 70s, and moves forward … citing French & Saunders as a prime example (but character comedy doesn’t count, apparently). Gilbey’s point is that female duos have a tougher time getting recommissioned – we, or the powers-that-be, don’t allow them to thrive. He may well be right there. Continue reading Looking for a female version of Laurel and Hardy?

The Silent London Poll of 2018: The Winners

January is a time for looking forwards, not back, right? That’s just not the Silent London way. With immense thanks to all of you for voting and sharing in the 2018 poll, I am delighted to announce your silent film highlights of the past year.

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  1. Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2018

It arrived late in the year, but hotly anticipated and was everything we wanted it to be. Kino Lorber’s magnificent Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set is your favourite release of the year. And mine too. Check out selected highlights from the set on UK Netflix now.

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  1. Best Theatrical Release of 2018

Never let it be said that there is any kind of bias in this list – but the BFI’s release of Pandora’s Box, in a gorgeous new restoration topped your choices this year. And of course I wholeheartedly agree.

  1. Best Modern Silent of 2018

Slim pickings in this category, but an overwhelming number of you got creative and chose John Krasinski’s held-breath horror A Quiet Place in this category. I see what you did there and I like the way you think.

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2018: The Winners

LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).

Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably  Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?

Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.

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Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa

In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.

An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.

We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.

But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.

But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.

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Continue reading Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy