A Day At The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival 2016

Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds

                                                                     3 July 2016

We’re in Leeds today to catch just a taster of the first Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, a hugely ambitious undertaking comprising 31 screenings over 30 days in 11 different venues all across the county. It’s the brainchild of organiser and silent film accompanist Jonathan Best.

Today’s screenings all take place at the Hyde Park Picture House, built in 1914 and now one of the oldest functioning cinemas in the country.  The cinema retains many of its original features including operational gas lights, a decorated Edwardian balcony, art-nouveau fittings, decorative plaster work, stained glass windows and a ribbed arched ceiling.  Crucially it has also retained its film projectors enabling today’s main features to be screened in 35mm.  The cinema was saved from closure in 1989 when it was purchased by Leeds City Council and now operates as a community cinema with a focus on independent, art house, classic and foreign language films and is host to the annual Leeds International Film Festival. But today we are here for silent films and it added an extra frisson of excitement to know that we were seeing these films at a venue that may well have shown them on their first release almost a hundred years ago.    

The first screening of the day was The Grim Game (Dir. Irvin Wilat, 1919, US, 71 mins), a vehicle by which escapologist and illusionist Harry Houdini could demonstrate some of his renowned skills.  In the film, Houdini plays Harvey Hanford (he always played characters with the initials H H, geddit!), a newspaper journalist who comes up with a plan to get himself framed for the supposed murder of his reclusive rich uncle as part of his newspaper’s campaign against the use of circumstantial evidence!  But when his uncle is actually murdered, Hanford finds himself staring at the electric chair.  His only hope is to escape (repeatedly) and track down the real killer.  Along the way he also manages to win the hand of his uncle’s attractive ward (Ann Forrest). 

This was not a film I had seen before.  Indeed it is not a film many in the UK have seen.  Long considered lost, a copy was discovered in the hands of a Brooklyn juggler who had acquired it in 1947 from the Houdini estate.  He consistently declined to sell until, at the age of 95, he finally agreed in 2014 and the restored film has had only one previous screening in the UK.  On watching it today I have to say it has the most convoluted plot and Hanford’s reasoning behind getting himself framed seemed just a tad bonkers but its a film that is certainly not short of thrills.  One contemporary reviewer wrote “There is more excitement in one reel of The Grim Game than in any five reels of celluloid I have ever watched.”  And Houdini, despite his age (he was 45 when he made this film), took well to the action hero role, indeed his escapology skills must have given his character something like super-hero status in his day.  He’s also not bad in the lighter comedic moments and as a romantic lead but it is his skills as an escapologist which are to the fore, escaping from handcuffs, chains and straight jacket.  While his leap from one airplane to another may have relied on a stunt double (who may or may not have died in the subsequent crash!) Houdini certainly put his life on the line in some of these stunts, particularly when dangling from a roof-top while getting out of a straight jacket.   All in all, great fun in a Schwarzenegger/Stallone sort of way, with pianist Jonathan Best not only rising to the challenge of keeping up with the pace of the film but also of managing to increase the sense of excitement another notch or two.  (The Grim Game is not available on DVD/BluRay or online)

Before the next feature, there was a bonus in the form of the short A Pair of Tights (Dir. Hal Yates, 1929, US 20mins) starring Marion Byron and Anita Garvin, (often hailed as the  female answer to Laurel and Hardy) who are invited on a cheap date by stingy suitors and stop en route for ice-cream with disastrous results.  There is some great slapstick comedy but for me the funniest scene is of what has to be the longest put-down stare in film history that Anita Garvin gives Edgar Kennedy while they both sit on a piano stool. Wonderful.   ( A Pair of Tights is available on a two DVD collection  Hal Roach – Female Comedy Teams available via Amazon and can be viewed on You Tube, albeit without sound!)

Next up was a Colleen Moore comedy Orchids and Ermine (Dir. Alfred Santell, 1927, US, 90mins) in which Colleen plays switchboard operator Pink Watson, working at the Gotham Cement Company but dreaming of the luxuries of life.  Then she gets a job at the swish De Luxe Hotel on 5th Avenue and things start to look up. When handsome but shy oil millionaire Richard Tabor (Jack Mulhill) checks in he is overwhelmed by gold-diggers.  To escape their attentions he switches identities with his worldly-wise valet, Hank (Sam Hardy).  While Pink’s colleague Ermintrude (Gwen Lee) thinks she’s landed a millionaire when Hank chats her up, the real Richard Tabor has eyes only for Pink, but she’s not interested in him because he’s only ‘the valet’.   Hank’s coaching of his boss in chat-up lines only makes things worse.  But when Tabor is knocked out by a low bridge after chasing Pink onto the upper deck of an open top bus she starts to fall for him, still not realising he’s the millionaire husband she’s been dreaming of, but there still remain a few more plot twists before the inevitable happy ending.

Any opportunity to see a Colleen Moore film has to be seized upon; particularly if it is one I haven’t caught up with before, so it was a real thrill to finally get to see Orchids and Ermine.  Moore has never really got the recognition she deserves, not helped by so many of her films being lost while those that survive are often unavailable to buy or rarely screened. Although she had already achieved renown as a serious actor, it was as a star in the flapper era comedies of the mid-late 1920s that Moore found real fame and Orchids and Ermine is an excellent example, allowing her ample opportunity to display her indomitable spirit and natural talent for light comedy.  The film has some great scenes, as when Moore uses the office cat to see how she would look wearing an ermine stole, while the inter-title dialogue (penned by Ralph Spence) fairly zips along and is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, particularly as Hank coaches his boss in chat-up lines.  A very early appearance by six-year old Mickey Rooney as an amorous, cigar chomping hotel guest is an added bonus as are the location shots around New York. As well as Moore, the rest of the cast are excellent, particularly Mulhill and Hardy.  There is some nitrate damage at the start of the film but stick with it, this doesn’t last long and what follows is just pure delight and the piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley hits just the right tone.    (Orchids and Ermine is currently unavailable on DVD/BluRay and there are just the briefest of clips, including the one with Mickey Rooney, on-line)

We then had a trio of short films under the title Short & Surreal.  First up was Un Chien Andalou (Dir. Luis Bunuel, 1929, Fr, 21mins) your everyday story of sliced eyeballs, ant infested hands and people dragging grand pianos laden with dead donkeys across the lounge.  While this film never fails to amaze with its striking and occasionally shocking visuals, there is little to be gained in attempting to find meaning,  given Bunuel’s own admission that in making the film  “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”  So just sit back and soak in those images.  (Un Chien Andalou is widely available on Bluray and DVD and viewable on-line.)  Next up was Ghosts Before Breakfast (Vormittagsspuk) (Dir. Hans Richter, 1928, Ger, 9mins)  a dadaist short featuring stop motion animation and live action,  The film  does not present a coherent narrative, featuring a number of seemingly arbitrary images including a collection of flying bowler hats.  As with Un Chien Andalou, don’t try to make sense of it, just enjoy the whimsy and the visuals.  (Ghosts Before Breakfast is available on DVD in a Hans Richter – Early Works compilation and can be viewed online.)  We then had Anemic Cinema (Dir. Marcel Duchamp, 1926, Fr, 7 mins) which I hadn’t seen before but was a bit of an oddity, even in a collection of surrealist films, featuring a number of what Duchamp called Rotoreliefs, discs comprising either meaningless French text or patterns which were placed on a phonograph turntable and filmed revolving from above.   ( Anemic Cinema is available on a DVD compilation  Avant-Garde: Experimental Films of the 1920s and 1930s  and can be viewed online.) Lastly in this selection we had a short clip from Journey Through the Impossible (Voyage A Travers L’Impossible) (Dir. George Melies, 1904, Fr, 20 mins) which was a real eyeopener.  This was not a film I had seen before, being more familiar with Melies’  A Trip To The Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902, Fr, 18 mins).  However, the clip we saw was absolutely stunning, being a hand coloured version of unbelievable quality.  I have only recently seen  Cyrano De Bergerac (Dir. Augusto Genina, 1925, Fr/It. 113mins) in a hand coloured version made some twenty years after Melies’ film yet the quality of colouring in that film was nowhere near as good.   Having now caught up with a full version of Journey Through the Impossible I have to say it is an incredibly inventive film, especially for its time, very clever and equally amusing and is really worth a look.  (Journey Through the Impossible is available on a number of Melies compilation DVDs and BluRays.  It is also viewable on-line, with one version in particular on You Tube having a superb live scoreSee Here)

The final feature on today’s programme was The Wind (Dir. Victor Sjöström, 1927, USA, 88 mins} starring Lillian Gish.  This was a film very close to Gish’s heart.  It was she who had recognised the potential of Dorothy Scarborough’s original novel and brought it to Irving Thalberg and MGM’s attention.  She was particularly keen for Sjöström to direct, having previously worked with him on The Scarlet Letter (1926) and also selected Lars Hanson as her leading man.  But the film was neither a critical or popular success in the US on its initial release.  Having sat on the shelf for a year due to studio concerns over its potential, The Wind was eventually released just as popular interest was turning to ‘talkies’ and it marked the end of an era in many respects, the last significant silent film released by MGM, the last silent film by Sjostrom, one of the era’s great directors and the last silent film starring Gish, one of its foremost stars.  Yet now The Wind is regarded as one of the finest films of the silent era and in which Gish produces one of her greatest performances. 

 The film opens with Letty (Lillian Gish), a fragile and impoverished woman from the East coast, traveling by train through the desert to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) and his family at their isolated and wind blown desert ranch.  On the train, fellow passenger Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) makes her acquaintance and warns her that the incessant desert wind can drive a person crazy.   Once at the ranch, Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) takes an instant dislike to Letty.  At a party, friends Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) and  Sourdough (William Orlamond) flip a coin to decide who will propose to Letty but she does not take them seriously.  Wirt is also present and offers to take Letty away with him. Later, Cora demands that Letty leave the ranch so, as she has no money, she decides to go with Wirt but he now reveals that he is married and only wants Letty as his mistress. She now has no alternative but to marry Lige. After the wedding Lige tries to force himself on Letty and she tells him that she hates him.  Lige determines to find the money to send her back East.  Meanwhile, the ever present wind adds to the emotional strain on Letty.  While Lige is away during a particularly fierce storm Wirt arrives at the ranch and rapes Letty.  The next morning he tries again to persuade her to leave with him but instead she shoots him dead and buries his body outside.  However, the ever blowing wind uncovers the body, further terrifying Letty.   When Lige returns, Letty is overjoyed to see him and confesses to killing Wirt. But the body is gone and Lige  tells Letty that the wind can remove all traces when a killing is justified. Although he now has enough money to send her away Letty declares her love for Lige and says she no longer wants to leave having conquered her fear of the wind.

If The Wind was a film for which Lillian Gish had a passion to see made, it was certainly one that she and the rest of the crew suffered for, with location shooting in the Mojave Desert amid high temperatures and eight giant aircraft propellers providing ‘the wind’.  And the wind certainly makes its presence felt, from the opening shot of the train crossing the desert to the ending with Letty and Lige facing up to their future together, but the other overwhelming element is sand, blotting out the view from the train window, overwhelming the ranch, in the food and the water, being constantly brushed from clothing and eventually used by Letty to conceal the body of Wirt.  Its easy to see why Gish wanted Sjöström to direct, with his track record of films in which landscape and the elements had often played a key psychological role.  But he also had a reputation for subtle character portrayal which enabled Gish’s acting talent to shine through.  The role of Letty was almost custom-built for her as the delicate and refined Easterner struggling in both a harsh climate and amongst its rough inhabitants.  She perfectly captures the hopelessness of her situation after Cora casts her out and her descent into near madness in the face of the ever-present wind is chillingly reflected in both her eyes and hand gestures as well as through Sjostrom’s use of swaying camera angles.  Lars Hanson is good as the awkward and uncouth Lige and Montagu Love excellent as the scheming womaniser Wirt, elegantly flicking the dust from his clothes as he lusts over Letty.  But it is Gish who dominates the film, present in almost every scene, her discomfort at being in a landscape and social environment so alien to her almost palpable.  My only qualm with The Wind is its conclusion.  In Scarborough’s original story, after killing Wirt a by-now insane Letty wanders off and is swallowed up by the wind and the sand.  But MGM would not countenance this and, despite Gish and Sjostrom’s protestations,  wanted a more upbeat ending.  This could have worked if more had been done to show a developing relationship between Letty and Lige but, as it is, the ending with the two of them suddenly deeply in love looks rushed and tacked on. 

And that final shot, where have I seen that used again…….oh yes….       





But with perhaps the ending apart, The Wind is a fabulous film, beautifully directed, brilliantly acted and with some stunning location work.  And accompanist Jonathan Best on the piano really pulled out all the stops with this one,  raising the tension to storm pitch as the wind and sand blew on the screen.  A terrific performance.    (The Wind is widely available on BluRay and DVD with some short clips viewable on line)
So, all in all, an excellent day in Leeds.  The idea of a month long festival of silent films all across Yorkshire is truly inspired and organiser Jonathan Best deserves great credit for bringing this to fruition.  The range of films selected is excellent.  There are enough well known titles to appeal to those new to or less familiar with the genre while there are also some real treats and rarities  for the more cognoscenti to seek out.  And the subject matter (comedy, melodrama, sci-fi, social drama and swashbuckling adventure) is more than enough to appeal to all tastes.  With all performances featuring live musical accompaniment and an emphasis on 35mm film projection wherever possible this is an event which deserves to succeed.  It would be great next year being able to attend the second Yorkshire Silent Film Festival.