Phoenix Cinema, Leicester
13-17 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers throughout
Where does one start? Sixteen features, eleven shorts, ten presentations, three compilations, two documentaries and two readings, all squeezed into the five days of the 19th British Silent Film Festival, held at the Phoenix Cinema in Leicester from 13-17th September. We got drama, comedy, suspense, war and adventure and in line with the festival’s current focus on the transition from silent to sound, we even got a few of those nasty ‘talkies’ thrown in for good measure.
But before we got to see the films themselves the first day was given over mainly to presentations on aspects of silent and early sound film from a variety of learned speakers. These included; writer and screenwriter Michael Eaton who provided a fascinating contrast between the original George Elliot source material for the film Mr Gilfil’s Love Story (1920, image right), the screenplay for the film written by Eliot Stannard (the earliest complete British film screenplay to have survived) and the completed film as directed by A Bramble; the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, relating the tale of Eric Allan Humphriss (a man almost lost to history due to a frequent misspelling of his surname) who in 1931 made one of the first attempts at manually altering the soundtrack of an early talkie to change the dialogue spoken by the film’s star, in what could be seen as one of the first steps towards the sort of audio and video manipulation that today contributes to the scourge of fake news; pianist and Yorkshire Silent programmer Jonathan Best then spoke to challenge the conventional notion that most silent era film piano accompanists were playing genuinely improvised scores but were instead more focused on an ‘adaptive’ form of improvisation based upon various modifications of existing themes; Federico Striuli provided a hugely informative perspective on the transition from silent to sound within the Italian film industry; and lastly film historian Geoff Brown spoke on the new musical practices that needed (or in some cases failed) to be adopted by British film studios in the nascent sound period.
And then it was time for the first film. And where better to experience a selection of Edgar Allan Poe adaptions than in the hugely atmospheric St Mary De Castro church. As a scene setter we watched not a silent but a chilling 1953 animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart (Dir. Ted Parmelee, US, image right) narrated by James Mason. This was followed by a (perhaps slightly over-long?) reading of Poe by Bryony Dixon. Unfortunately either the church acoustics or poor PA system meant that the sound of both the film and the reading were almost wholly inaudible beyond about the third row, which was a shame. But things picked up with Prelude (UK, 1927, image left), written by and starring Castleton Knight. The film claimed to be an attempt to interpret the inspiration behind Rachmaninov’s composition of his Prelude in C and sees Knight frighten himself through his late night reading Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ as the book’s conscious victim is trapped, helpless, in a coffin as soil gradually closes in on him. The film was a chilling and uncomfortable assemblage of images and the chills were enhanced by pianist John Sweeney’s superb interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Prelude.
Next up was The Fall of the House of Usher (US. 1928) an experimental avant garde exercise heavily influenced by German expressionist cinema with impossibly angled film sets and bizarre camera angels and which also drew from French cinema of the 1920s with the use of camera effects and optical distortions to represent mental disturbance. A visual delight, the film has sadly been largely overshadowed by a French version of the same year directed by Jean Epstein.
Lastly, we had a silent version of the The Tell-Tale Heart, directed in 1928 by Charles Klein. This was another adaption heavily influenced by expressionist cinema, much in the style of Caligari, as the central character murders his neighbour, of whom he has developed an inexplicable hatred. Then, as the police investigate, the murderer believes he can hear the dead man’s heart beat which gradually drives him insane and he confesses his crime. The strong visuals, the highly stylised acting and the imposing inter-titles which frequently overlaid rather than interrupted the images resulted in an absorbing but unsettling 24 minutes.
Accompaniment for both of these films came from John Sweeney on piano, Stephen Horne on accordion and percussion and Neil Brand on organ. Piano and accordion were excellent but the films got an even greater charge thanks to the floor shaking power of the organ which almost literally brought the house down and produced a suitably chilling climax to the evening.
(NB All three of these silents are available to watch on-line with a range of musical accompaniments.)
In focusing on the transition from silent to sound, the second day was given over largely to early British‘talkies’. First up was Rookery Nook (Dir. Tom Walls, 1930), an adaption of one of the hugely popular 1920s Aldwych Farces penned by Ben Travers. Starring many of the original stage cast, the film followed newly-married Gerald (Ralph Lynn, image left) and his cousin Clive (Tom Walls, who also directed), the chaos caused by the arrival of scantily clad Rhoda (Winifred Shotter) at their country cottage and Gerald’s efforts efforts to avoid being caught in flagrante. Although the script held up pretty well and there were were plenty of laughs, this was a very static production, essentially a filmed stage play, largely a result of the immobility of the cameras, housed as they were in large sound-proof boxes. But the sound quality was excellent and the film proved very successful with contemporary audiences (earning more than a ten-fold return on its budget), so much so that further Aldwych Farce adaptions were to follow. Although the cast were uniformly excellent, Mary Brough as the housekeeper Mrs Leverett and Robertson Hare as the downtrodden husband Harold (image right, centre figure) were particularly good.
(NB Most of the Tom Walls directed Aldwych Farces are available on DVD, but sadly Rookery Nook does not seem to be amongst them.)
We then had the first of three festival outings for Betty Balfour, starring as song and dance girl Maisie Gray in Raise The Roof (Dir. Walter Summers, 1930). In the film, Maisie is the star in a third-rate travelling variety show. When naive young investor Rodney Langford (Maurice Evans)takes over the show against his parent’s wishes his father arranges for the troop’s leading man (Jack Raine) to sabotage the show. Despite his best efforts, Maisie saves the day and falls for Rodney in the process.
This is a film made much in the Hollywood ‘Let’s put on the show right here’ tradition of back-stage musicals, but with a certain Englishness about it, such as the down-at-heal boarding houses where the troop stay, with the cheery land-lady and obligatory aspidistra in the window. Its pure hokum but enjoyable hokum for all that. Compared to the previously screened Rookery Nook made less than a year earlier it also shows how the studios were getting around the initial limitations that sound imposed, with much more fluid camera movement, far removed from the filmed-play look of the earlier picture. Betty Balfour is the best thing about the film. She clearly looked to be enjoying herself and puts in a typically cheery performance. Despite appearing entirely comfortable in sound films her career in the 1930s was never to capture the heights it did in the ‘20s when she was not only one of the most popular stars in Britain but also carved out a respectable international career in Europe. Sadly she was only to make another seven films before her eventual retirement in 1945. For director Walter Summers this film marked a notable change in tone having been associated more routinely with war or war related dramas such as A Couple of Down-And-Outs (1923), The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) or Suspense (1930). Although he made a couple more musical comedies, most of his films during the 1930s were well received thrillers such as Premiere (1938) and At the Villa Rose (1939) but after a stint in the army during World War Two Summers never directed another film.
(NB No sign of Raise The Roof being available in any format)
Next up was a welcome opportunity to listen once again to film historian Geoff Smith’s illustrated talk The Last Silent Picture Show, exploring the sometimes frantic attempts of British studios to cope with the transition to sound. In some ways its is a shame to see what was lost with the coming of sound. For example, in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1927) we all know how good the “KNIFE!” scene is in the sound version, but equally effective I thought was the shadow of the hand passing over the breadknife’s handle inthe same scene in the now seldom-seen silent version. And hopefully now with the beautifully restored silent version The Informer (1929) it means we will never again have to hear the cut-glass tones of RADA trained actors ludicrously dubbing the voices of the Irish terrorists played by Lya de Putti and Lars Hanson(image, above right) in the sound version. In Geoff’s very humorous but always informative presentation it was also nice once more to see a few clips of the glorious Tondelayo and the dangers of ‘damp rot!’ in White Cargo (1929) even if I probably couldn’t ever face the sheer horror of having to sit through the entire film!
We then had something of an oddity, a silent and a sound film combined. In 1928, director Sinclair Hill made a silent film for Stoll Picture Productions called The Price of Divorce. But coming when it did, the film was overtaken by the popular clamour for talkies and was never released. In 1930, presumably to get back something of what they had invested in this earlier film Stoll produced another picture, Such Is The Law, also directed by Sinclair Hill, the plot of which would use most of footage shot for The Price of Divorce in the form of flashbacks.
Such Is The Law begins with Marjorie Majoribanks (Janice Adair), the daughter of a wealthy family, planning her elopement over the phone with an unidentified man. The man will join the family later for dinner after which the pair will secretly depart for France. The family gather with several guests in the sitting room prior to dinner and Marjorie’s mother encourages two of the guests (C Aubrey Smith (image right) and Bert Coote) to discuss a recent legal case they have been involved with. That case involved a doctor who was sued for divorce by his wife on account of his (entirely innocent) friendship with a young nurse. The divorce leaves him a broken man,his medical practice ruined and without access to his beloved small son. But as the story unfolds it turns out that it was the doctor’s wife who had been having an affair and that her she and her lover had set out to frame the doctor to engineer a divorce in her favour. In the end, new evidence emerges to prove the doctor’s innocence, his character is restored and he regains custody of his son. As the Majoribanks family are about to sit down for dinner, the man whom Marjorie is planning to elope with arrives and turns out to be the ex-lover of the doctor’s wife. The elopement is off and it turns out that the whole evening had been planned by Marjorie’s mother in order to break-up her daughter’s relationship with the man, who she knew to be a bad-un!
The idea behind Such Is The Law was clever, both in terms of the flashback structured plot and as a means of making use of the unreleased film. But the staging left a bit to be desired. There was nothing wrong with the flashback story which, while perhaps not a towering cinematic achievement, was a perfectly watch-able drama, competently acted and well filmed with some interesting interiors and nice location shooting. No, the problem lay with the scenes in the Majoribanks household. These were very much back to the forma of a filmed theatrical play, very contrived, with somewhat stilted dialogue involving interminable discussion of the pros and cons of marriage and divorce. At one point, as one of the guests compares appearing in the witness box with torture we even have a sudden cut to a scene of a Torquemada-like torture chamber and then, in the blink of an eye, we are back in the sitting room! If those scenes had been pared back to a minimum this wouldn’t have been a bad film. As it was, I felt that this was three hours of my life I would never get back.. and the film only ran 78 minutes!
(NB No sign of this film being available in any format.)
Next up was our second Walter Summers directed talkie of the day. Although he made a good job with the somewhat light-weight Raise The Roof, screened earlier, he was on more familiar territory with Suspense (1930), a World War One drama. At the last British Silent Film Festival in 2015 we were lucky enough to see a very rare screening of Anthony Asquith’s Tell England (1931) a film about the WW1 British campaign in Gallipoli, the impact of which left the audience stunned. In contrast, Suspense is set on the Western Front, on a much smaller scale, taking place almost entirely in a single trench and dugout, and as such is more a taut melodrama than an action film, but its impact was almost as intense as that of Asquith’s effort.
The film follows a platoon of British soldiers taking up a forward position on the trench line. The soldiers they are relieving appear unusually strained and are particularly keen to leave. Pretty soon the reason for the departing soldiers’ anxiety becomes clear as the newly arrived troops began to hear the rhythmic sound of German tunnelling under their position in preparation for the setting off of an explosive mine. As long as the sound of digging continues the men are safe but when it stops the mine will be assembled and detonated. As the days go by the continuing sound of tunnelling begins to press on the soldier’s nerves and tempers fray. When one young soldier can take it no more he races off into no man’s land in the hope of being captured and sitting out the rest of the war as a prisoner. The officer orders his men to open fire on him but they all shoot wide. The young soldier eventually returns with two German prisoners and looks now to be in line for a medal. Just as the digging stops a relief platoon arrives but are short handed so the officer remains while his men depart. As they move to the rear of the lines the mine is detonated. Although the departing soldiers are seemingly spared, the explosion heralds a German offensive and in the subsequent fighting, most of the platoon are killed.
Even with this the bleakest of endings (or perhaps in part because of it), Suspense is a superb film. True to its title, the tension builds throughout, becoming almost unbearable at times, particularly when the digging ominously stops. As a product of the early sound era, this is a film whose plot was wholly dependent upon the actual sound of the German digging, to the extent that its difficult to imagine how it could have been made in the silent era. Much would have depended upon the musical accompaniment being able to convey the incessant tapping sound which so un-nerved the soldiers. Although this sort of sound effect could be achieved in shorter stretches, for example the sound of the beating heart in The Tell Tale Heart (1928) screened yesterday, that lasted just a couple of minutes and I’m not convinced that it could have been effectively sustained for a feature length film.
Suspense also possessed a gritty realism, with the soldiers endlessly wading through mud, the decaying bodies of the dead littering the ground and the randomness of mortar and shell fire. The grime and claustrophobia of the dug-out with its brazier giving off an eerie light just added to the tension. The film was also notable for the challenge it posed to virtually every established order. In particular, it was very much an anti-war film. There was no glory here, just grime, misery and the likelihood of a horrible death and all for what? In particular, the scene with the young soldier in line for a medal after what was in effect an attempt at desertion was hugely prescient of a line in Apocalypse Now (1979) as Colonel Kurtz was awarded a medal for disobeying orders. Clearly it seemed that, as in Vietnam, the bullshit on the Western Front “piled up so fast that you needed wings to stay above it”. But the film also took striking aim at the British class system and, perhaps more surprisingly for its time, it was particularly anti-religious. Amongst the uniformly good cast, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor) stood out as the battle hardened sergeant as did Jack Raine as the doomed officer and Percy Parsons as Private ‘Alleluia’ Brett.
(NB No sign of this film being available in any format.)
For the last screening of the day there was a complete change of tone as well as a welcome return to silent film with a screening of Cocktails (1928). The film featured the now almost wholly forgotten comedy double act of Carl Schenstrom and Harald Madsen, known professionally as who were perhaps cinema’s first ‘tall and short’ comedy duo. The film also marked the directorial début of Monty Banks.
In the film, Pat and Patachon play stowaways ‘Gin’ and ‘It’ (the film is called Cocktails after all!!) on a liner bound for London. Gin (the tall one) is seriously memory impaired with kleptomaniac tendencies while the more rotund It is the brains of the outfit, for what that’s worth! Also on board is the apparently orphaned heiress Betty (Enid Stamp-Taylor) and the love of her life Jerry (Wylde) plus Betty’s guardian Giles (Nigel Barry) who is secretly after her fortune. Giles is also in cahoots with the ship’s purser in a cocaine running scam. Thinking he can kill two birds with one stone he plants some of the C on Jerry to get him arrested and out of the picture and gives the rest to Gin and It to smuggle ashore. The rest of the plot revolves around proving Jerry’s innocence, foiling Giles’ evil plans and catching up with the maid that It has taken a fancy to while on-board. Oh, and there is the task of recovering Gin’s memory and finding Betty’s father (and we can all see what that’s leading to).
But the plot was secondary and really just the hook for a series of comic moments, funniest of which had to be Gin’s careful attention to detail in getting all the bulges in the right places when he dons a woman’s dress as a disguise and then, while still in drag, lighting up an enormous cheroot to the consternation of fellow passengers on the top deck of a London omnibus. The film was also interesting in the extensive use made of outdoor location shooting with fine shots of London’s East End docklands as well as some more well known London locations. While the rest of the cast put in a workmanlike if unspectacular performance, Pat and Patachon were the real stars, with an endearing habit of holding hands at times of stress, superb comic timing and a somewhat unique take on the mixing of a cocktail.
Danish born Schenstrom and Madsen both had independent careers before teaming up in 1921. Schenstrom had appeared on stage and in film since 1909 while Madsen was a circus clown. Reminding one a bit of tweedle-dee and a strangely elongated tweedle-dumb their films proved popular across Europe as well as in America and the Soviet Union. Cocktails was the first of two films they made in Britain and they continued to work together until shortly before Schenstrom’s death in 1942.
Live piano accompaniment for the film was provided by John Sweeney who at times had his work cut out to keep up with the frenetic pace of the film but who clearly sounded s if he was enjoying this as much as the audience.
(NB A seven DVD collection of the films of Pat and Patachon apparently exists, released in 2005 by Kinowelt. It does not appear to be available at present and there are reports that the films are in an edited format and of poor quality.)
Day three began with an early morning reveille call to attend a screening of Maurice Elvey’s Balaclava (1928). The film was preceded by an informative introduction from Lucie Dutton who has made the study of Mr Elvey’s early films something of a personal odyssey.
Elvey’s original version of Balaclava was shot in 1928 as a silent, but was never released following the decision to convert it to sound. Although the large scale action scenes were retained most of the more dialogue laden sections were re-shot with a slightly altered cast. The film being screened this morning was a truncated variation of the original silent version, held by the BFI.
The film focuses upon Lt. John Kennedy (Cyril McLaglan), deployed to the Crimea with his regiment. Somewhere along the way Kennedy meets and strikes up a relationship with Jean McDonald (Benita Hume), an English woman living locally (although much of this footage is lost). Kennedy also falls foul of a fellow officer, Captain Gardner (Colin Kenny) who challenges him to a duel. When Gardner is shot in the back by a hidden assailant during the duel, Kennedy gets the blame and is dismissed from his regiment in disgrace. He then re-enlists as an ordinary trooper in another regiment. Some time later both Kennedy’s current and former units are both part of the Light Brigade, deployed to Balaclava. During a skirmish some British field guns are captured by the Russian’s and the Light Brigade is ordered to recapture them. However, the order is misinterpreted and the Light Brigade ends up making its fatal charge on the full might of the Russian artillery. Kennedy is wounded but survives and returns to his own lines and is reunited with Jean. Another wounded officer nearby then makes a death-bed confession that it was he who shot Gardner and Kennedy is exonerated.
While Maurice Elvey made some excellent silent films (The Life of David Lloyd George (1918) was a particularly fine film and Hindle Wakes (1927) is a personal favourite) sadly the same cannot be said for Balaclava. In fact, the only thing that prevents it being just another somewhat hackneyed melodrama is his depiction of the actual charge of the Light Brigade, which is stunning. Shot on the military training grounds of Salisbury Plain with the full co-operation of the War Department and the participation of hundreds if not thousands of troops its a magnificent sight as the cavalry charge the Russian guns, fantastically staged and superbly filmed. I can’t think of another scene in a British silent which matches this for scale, shooting sophistication or impact. But then we come back to the fictional melodrama which book-ends the action. Although some of this was missing from the print, I couldn’t really bemoan its absence. For Kennedy to stumble across Jean as he emerged from the carnage of battle strained credibility but for him to then overhear the death-bed confession of the very man who had framed him was a coincidence too far even by the admittedly generous standards of silent film. And as for the army surgeon telling Kennedy that his wound wasn’t fatal, this raised a smile coming as it did in a war where disease and infection took ten lives for every one lost in battle and where even a flesh wound was likely to prove fatal. No, put this one down as a miss for Mr Elvey.
John Sweeney’s stirring piano accompaniment added mightily to the ‘daring-do’ and even made the melodrama just about watch-able.
(NB There is no sign of Balaclava being available in any format.)
Next up was a return to those pesky talkies and another military themed outing for director Walter Summers, this time with Men Like These (aka Trapped, 1931). This was the story of a real-life British submarine accident involving HMS Poseidon, which sank off the Eastern coast of China in 1931 after colliding with a steamer. Following the collision, a number of the crew are trapped in a forward compartment of the sunken submarine and have to wait for the compartment to flood until they can make their way to the surface using their escape equipment.
Submarine set dramas have been around since almost the earliest days of the cinema. George Melies released a film adaption of Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Thousand Leagues Under The Sea in 1909 and the America Picture Corp. made the adventure film serial The Secret of the Submarine in 1915. But as far as I can see this is the first film plot to focus purely on escape from a sunken submarine. As a taut, claustrophobic melodrama the film worked very well although it was not without its clichés. When one of the crewmen started to panic as the water level rose, he was told in no uncertain terms to pull himself together because “that’s not British!!” And although, in relation to the two Chinese crew members, the phrase “Watch out for the chinks” may not be politically acceptable today it was at least used in a benevolent way, to make sure that they managed to get out safely as well. For an early sound film the actual sound quality was good with the dialogue clear (although sudden changes in volume sounded as if some dialogue may have been re-dubbed at a later stage. However, I don’t know if this was technically possible at that time). Additionally, the assorted bubbling and gurgling sound effects used to simulate the noise of the sea did get a bit trying at times but overall this was a convincing drama.
(NB There is no indication of this film being available on disc or on-line but there is some interesting footage on YouTube of the film’s premier and the attendance of Royal Navy officers and men.)
We then had a nice compendium of early travelogue films forming part of the BFI’s Around The World in 80 Films project, examining the world as it existed prior to the outbreak of the First World War. The focus of these films was Asia and there was some stunning photography of the tea industry in India, street scenes of life in Korea (the ‘Land of the morning calm’!!), early white water rafting in Japan, an expedition through the then still largely unexplored North Borneo, making paper umbrellas in Java and some thrilling footage of water buffalo racing in northern Java (in which issues of crowd health and safety went completely out of the window!!) All in all, this was a fascinating collection and all the more so because many of the films were intended to have a long shelf life in commercial film libraries so were very well made and often beautifully tinted or otherwise coloured.
Musical accompaniment for this hugely varied collection of films was nicely accomplished by Stephen Horne using a veritable orchestra of instruments to bring out the various Asian themes.
(NB These films should be available to watch on the BFI-player.)
It was then time to make the jump to a twenty first century film, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), a documentary made by director Bill Morrison telling the story of the discovery of hundreds of silent films in a disused swimming pool in Dawson City in northern Canada. The films, made in the 1910s and 1920s, arrived in Dawson City at the very end of a long distribution chain after which the distribution companies did not judge it commercially viable to pay for their return so they were simply stored away and forgotten until their rediscovery in the late 1970s.
The story was beautifully told and covered not just the films themselves but also the rise (and fall) of Dawson City, its gold rush, the early movie business and even the development of nitrate film stock in an absolutely gripping fashion. Who knew that the Trump family fortune grew out of a Dawson City brothel or that Grauman’s Chinese Cinema chain started in a similar way or that The Gold Rush may have come about after Roscoe Arbuckle told Chaplin of his exploits in the city. The film is also brilliant in its use of clips from the rediscovered films (sadly often badly damaged) to cleverly illustrate aspects of the story. A fascinating and wonderfully entertaining documentary, well worth looking out for.
(NB Dawson City has had a very sporadic release in the UK but should be coming out on disc in the near future.)
This was followed by another Bill Morrison directed documentary, this time using contemporary newsreel and home movie footage to tell the story of the 1926 Mississippi flood in which hundreds died and over half a million people lost their homes. Called simply The Great Flood (2012) the film contains a wealth of footage, much of it of stunning quality and very dramatic content. However, with the exception with a few contemporary and very broad-brush inter-titles there was no narration of precisely what we were watching or of what the consequences were which left the viewer constantly posing questions such as what happened to the two people floating away on the car roof, or the guy trapped behind a tree trunk as the flood waters rushed by; or the dog cut off on a shed roof? Compared to Dawson City, this film didn’t really work. However, on the plus side it did have a knock-out score from jazz-man Bill Frisell.
(NB The Great Flood is available on disc and is well worth acquiring if only to listen to the soundtrack.)
It was then time to get back to the silents and a film from German’s early Weimar period which was veritable paean to gay rights, Different From The Others (Anders als die Andern, 1919) directed by Richard Oswald. The film was introduced by Matthew Jones from De Montford University who provided a brief recap on the history of LGBT film-making in German cinema to illustrate his contention that despite its reputation for liberalism and freedom of expression , Weimar Germany was in fact less tolerant than many now assume, in particular with its continued retention of laws criminalising homosexuality. Underlining this point is the fact that, despite its positive reception on first release Different From The Others was banned in 1920. When the Nazis came to power most copies of the film were destroyed and it survives now only in a fragmented form.
The film tells the story of renowned violinist Paul Korner (Conrad Veidt) and his growing affection for student Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz). When a blackmailer, Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schunzel), sees the two walking hand in hand he demands money from Korner. At first Korner pays but as Bollek’s demands increase Korner refuses to pay any more. Instead, Bollek decides instead to break into Körner’s house and steal his money He is discovered by Sivers and Körner and a fight breaks out. When Bollek reveals to Sivers that he is blackmailing Korner, Sivers leaves and disappears. Left alone, Korner recalls his past and how his sexuality resulted in repeated rejection and ostracism. He decides to report Bollek to the police and both he and the blackmailer are charged. Bollek is jailed for three years and while the judge is sympathetic to Korner’s situation he has no alternative but to find him guilty. Although he is only jailed for a week, Korner’s reputation is destroyed and he commits suicide. When Sivers returns to find Korner dead he also tries to take his own life but is prevented. The film ends with a plea for the overturning of Germany’s outlawing of homosexuality.
Decades ahead of its time when first released, Different From The Others is something of a cinematic oddity. Although on one level telling a conventional, fictional story it is also an impassioned plea for tolerance and better understanding of homosexuality. This is perhaps not surprising given that the film was part funded, by Dr Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute for Sexual Science who campaigned tirelessly in support of this goal. Hirschfeld appears in the film (playing, surprise surprise, a sexologist) and delivers several addresses directed more at the audience than the advancement of the plot. But in its plea for tolerance the film is more nuanced than simply presenting an us-and-them mentality. Bollek is shown to move comfortably within the homosexual community and is helped in his blackmail plot by a member of that community which poses the question of whether he himself is homosexual? Despite its tendency towards polemics, Different From The Others still worked effectively as a film (despite the missing footage). Conrad Veidt produced a characteristically intelligent and cultured performance (when did he ever make a bad film?) and Schunzel as the dirty-mac wearing blackmailer was as sleazy as you’d expect.
Pianist Philip Carli provided a beautiful live accompaniment to the film which must have been particularly challenging given the preponderance of multiple inter-titles and photographic stills necessary to take the story forward in place of the missing footage.
(NB Different From The Others is available on disc from Kino Lorber and a good quality version is available on YouTube )
The last film of the day marked a complete change in tone, Hands Up (1926) a comedy directed by Clarence Badger set in the American Civil War and starring Raymond Griffith.
Griffith plays Jack, a Confederate spy who is tasked to prevent the Unionists getting their hands on a vital gold shipment. Along the way he meets up and exchanges identity with the Unionist spy tasked with securing the goal, is pursued by both of the gold mine owners daughters, hilariously escapes from a firing squad and of course fights off marauding indians. With his mission accomplished (sort of!) he must make a choice between the two daughters but a chance meeting with Brigham Young gives him an idea and they are all off to Salt Lake City!
Raymond Griffith is a somewhat forgotten figure from silent comedy, not helped by the fact that few of his films survive. But this one was a cracker, well thought out,
with a number of hilarious gags, some frenetic action scenes and occasional dark humour, while the ending must have been a bit racy for its time. Made in the same year as The General, yet while Keaton’s film has acquired classic status, Hands Up is now virtually forgotten and while it might not quite measure up to The General, it deserves to be better known.
Neil Brand on piano had the challenge of keeping up with the frenzied pace of the comedy and clearly seemed to be enjoying himself in that pursuit.
(NB Hands Up is available on disc from Grapevine and ReelClassics although there are apparently two versions of the film with different endings so watch out! )
Another early start to the day saw Tony Fletcher kicking off proceedings with a brief look at Women Variety Performers of the 1920s in Early Sound Films and in particular some of the performances caught on surviving British Phonofilms material. Highlights included comedienne Beryl Beresford, a performer somewhat in the Hilda Baker mould, in an amusing sketch with fellow performer and husband Leslie Hinton Cole and pianist Emmie Joyce performing a couple of comic songs, one of which featured what were some of the most deliberately excruciating lyrics ever put on film. But the highlight of this session had to be unbelievably effervescent singer Fay Marbe (image right) with her rendition of ‘There’s more to a kiss…’ which had the more shameless members of the audience gleefully singing along with the ‘Mwah, mwah, mwah’ chorus. Who says variety ain’t dead!
Philip Carli, now wearing his ‘silent film historian’ hat, then provided a fascinating and highly amusing short history of the Kinetophone system, an ill-fated attempt in 1913 by Thomas Edison to synchronise sound and moving pictures. With sound recorded on wax discs, films made using this system were limited to about six minutes in length and had to be shot in one take, which were obviously major impediments to commercial success. But there were also problems with the over-complexity of both the recording and projection systems and the added hindrance of rats occasionally chewing through the rubber drive belt which was supposed to keep sound and image systems running in sync! As a result, Edison had abandoned the system by 1915 and very few kinetophone films survive. But luckily for us Philip brought along one such survivor to show, and it instantly found a place in my top ten list of most bizarre silent films ever made, featuring a musical ensemble performing straight to camera consisting of two singers in black face make up, a choir in French renaissance costume, conductor and musicians in evening dress and an MC whose face screamed ‘I would rather be anywhere on the planet than here’. The high (or low?) point came with the sound of the ensemble singing God Save The King while they were visibly mouthing Star Spangled Banner. Priceless.
Our first silent films of the day were a collection of three P G Wodehouse adaptions all made in 1924 by the Stoll Company. The Clicking of Cuthbert sees golf fanatic Cuthbert (Peter Haddon) trying to win the affections of Adeline (Helena Pickard) in competition with her more cultured friend. To boost his chances Cuthbert joins Adeline’s literary society. But when the society’s guest, eminent Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff (Moore Marriot), turns out to be a golf fanatic too, he, Cuthbert and Adeline are soon happily ensconced on the fairway. In Rodney Fails To Qualify Jane Packard (Phyllis Lytton) is the golfing fanatic constantly distracted from her game by her poetry spouting boyfriend Rodney (Victor Robson). Clearly Rodney will have to go and Jane eventually finds a kindred golfing spirit in William (Lionelle Howard). Lastly, in Chester Forgets Himself the aforementioned Chester (Jameson Thomas) is a golfing fanatic with an inability to control neither his temper or his language. When he meets Ena (Felicia Blakeney) romance looks to be blossoming and Chester is desperate not to jeopardise this with a sudden outburst. But unknown to him Ena is fed up with polite society and looking for ‘a bit of rough’ (in so much as there can be any ‘rough’ in a P G Wodehouse story!) . Just as it looks like Ena is going to give the Chester the old heave-ho for being too posh he is struck by a ball hit be some errant golfers and a torrent of abuse ushers forth. Ena is overjoyed and they are clearly hitched for life.
These were three delightful films, perfectly catching the charm of the Wodehouse stories despite the absence of the great man’s delicious prose (of which we got a sample with a reading by Neil Brand of another Wodehouse story). There are another three of these Stoll adaptions which it would be nice to get an opportunity to see, say perhaps at a Wodehouse day at the BFI, maybe? That would also give another opportunity to see Harry Beasley who played the caddie in all three films and was the undoubted star. A diminutive and seriously dentally challenged individual who could be aged anywhere between twelve and forty, I’d love to know more about him bug sadly there’s barely a word about him in on-line sources. .
Accompaniment for these films came from the always excellent Stephen Horne.
(NB These films are unavailable in any form.)
It was then time for Canine Capers, four silent shorts with a doggy theme. First up was Dog Outwits The Kidnappers (1908, image right), an everyday story of your usual car-driving dog that rescues a small child. Teddy at the Throttle (1917, image left) follows a similar story although in this one Teddy is saving a young Gloria Swanson. Despite Teddy’s charm this is a film for which I have a very low opinion because it is largely responsible for spawning the false notion that most silent films were about heroines tied up on railway tracks! So not true!. Next up was Wedding Bells (1924) in which Monty Banks’ girlfriend tells him that either the dog goes or the marriage is off, but this proves harder than anticipated as the dog has something of a boomerang tendency. But the best of the bunch was Dog Shy (1926) with perennially under-rated funny guy Charley Chase. To get to the girl of his dreams, dog fearing Charley gets the job of butler in her parent’s house. But he’s unaware that they have a dog called Duke. The funniest scene is where the lady of the house tells Charley to bath Duke. When Charley thinks she means the real life visiting duke you know this is going to end badly!
(NB All four of these films are available on disc. All except Wedding Bells can be viewed on YouTube)
The first silent feature of the day was The Pleasure Garden (1925) which was also Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial début. After three years at Gainsborough where he gained experience in virtually every aspect of film making, including three films as assistant director, Micheal Balcon dispatched the still only 25 year old Hitchcock to Germany to direct his first film in a co-prodution with Munich’s Emelka Studios.
The Pleasure Garden tells the story of Patsy (Carmelita Geraghty) and Jill (Virginia Valli), two dancers at the Pleasure Garden Theatre in London. Jill’s fiancé Hugh (John Stuart) is being sent to Africa for two years but plans to marry her on her return. However, once he departs Jill is courted by a number of rich patrons of the theatre, particularly the wealthy Prince Ivan. When Patsy reminds Jill of her engagement to Hugh their friendship becomes strained. Meanwhile, Levet (Miles Mander), Hugh’s friend who will soon be joining him in Africa proposes to Jill and she agrees to join him in Africa when he writes. But once in Africa, Levet resumes his relationship with a native girl. When she eventually receives a letter from Levet saying that he has been taken ill, Patsy decides to join him immediately. In the meantime Huge reads in a newspaper that Jill has married Prince Ivan and is then stricken with illness himself. When Patsy arrives to discover Levet living with the native girl she walks out on him but then finds Hugh seriously ill with fever and decides to stay and nurse him. Levet, angry at this wife’s departure then drowns the native girl and when he finds Patsy with Hugh he orders her back to him, threatening to kill Hugh if she refuses. During the night Levet becomes increasingly unhinged, with hallucinations of the dead girl seemingly telling him to kill Patsy but she is saved when Levet is shot by a colleague of Hugh’s who he has sent to protect her. Hugh and Jill are married and return to London.
Despite this being his first feature, this is a very assured directorial debut from Hitchcock, demonstrating right from the start many of the features that would become Hitchcock trademarks such as the unabashed voyerism or the latent threat to the (invariably blond) heroine. The film also benefits from good performnces from Virginia Valli as Patsy and particularly Miles Mander as the supremely creepy Levet. Also of curiosity, in several cast lists for The Pleasure Garden the native girl (image left) is credited as Nita Naldi but this is surely wrong. Naldi was a big star in America at the time, sharing leads with the likes of Valentino. She was hardly likely to take on such a minor, uncredited role. She was also aged 31 at the time while the native girl was clearly at least a decade younger. Naldi did not travel to Europe until 1926 when she took the lead role in Hitchcock’s second directorial effort, the now lost Mountain Eagle (1926). A single source credits the native girl as German actress Elizabeth Pappritz about whom I can find out no more.
(NB No sign of The Pleasure Garden on disc or on-line.)
We were then back to the silents for the next feature of the day and a second appearance for Betty Balfour, this time in the Swedish/German co-production Sister of Six (Flickorna Gyurkovics) a little known but wildly funny comedy. When the film was shown at Pordonone in 2015 the festival programme described the plot as “rather complex” which was a masterful understatement. The intricacies of the story are far too complex to put into words, composed as they are of layer upon layer of concealed identity, false identity and mistaken identity (not to mention some hilarious cross-dressing) as the lead players all struggle to find their preferred romantic partners. That so convoluted a plot can be successfully achieved in a silent film, with just a few inter-titles to move the story forward is a work of genius . But it all works beautifully and builds to an hilarious climax. The film centres around Betty Balfour and she puts in a brilliant performance as the mischievously wayward middle sister, typified by the scene where, in all her newly brought finery, she squares up to the local thugs who are taunting a dog, rolling up her sleeves with a “come on, I’ll take you all” attitude. But beyond this, there isn’t really a weak performance amongst the entire cast. The film is so skilfully plotted, the timing is flawless and the end result has to be one of the funniest silent comedies I’ve ever seen. The only depressing point was the realisation that with a DVD release from the Swedish Film Institute unlikely and with it screened so rarely, this was a film I was unlikely ever to get to see again.
( NB Sadly, no chance of finding this film in any format.)
We then had the final feature of the day, C T Dreyer’s hybrid picture Vampyr (1932), characterised by some sparse dialogue but still reliant in part on inter-titles. The film follows Allan Grey (Nicolas de Gunzburg) and his efforts to rid a village of its vampire curse and save the life of Leone (Sybille Schmitz), daughter of the Lord of the Manor. The film has a cogent if sometimes difficult to follow plot but its main attraction is the strength of its visual images. Dreyer sought to give an impression of a conscious dream or nightmare, almost as a trance like experience. With a hazy soft-focus look, the film presents a series of vivid images many of which have gone on to become widely used staples of the horror genre and a number of which still have the power to shock, particularly the doctor ‘drowned’ by the cascading flour.
The power of Vampyr and its ability to disturb was enhanced by the excellent accompaniment of four-piece group Minima performing with Stephen Horne. Occasionally discordant, always unsettling, the music was the perfect match to the disconcerting images on the screen.
(NB Vampyr is available on disc from Criterion and can be viewed on-line (YouTube) )
The last day of the festival began with a third and final outing for Betty Balfour, this time in the silent drama Paradise (1928). Here she played Kitty Cranston, stuck in dreary London but dreaming of escape and adventure. Winning a competition enabled her to fund a holiday on the French Riviera, going on her own after her fiancé and clergyman father refuse to accompany her. Here she was attracted to Spirdoff (Alexander D’arcy) a self-confessed gigolo and spent time with him and his friends at their villa, which threatened to spark a scandal at her posh hotel. But her fiancé turned up to bring her home, even going as far as stealing her money to make her dependent upon him to pay her hotel bill!. When Spirdoff was revealed to be a thief Kitty and her fiancé were reconciled and return to England.
Although not in any sense a bad film, watching Paradise for a second time left me just as annoyed as when I first saw it. As the film builds to a climax you almost want to scream at the Balfour character, ‘Ditch the boring fiance and the holy-joe father and head off to a life of excitement in Berlin with that Spirdoff”. But of course its not to be. Despite what today would be seen as a somewhat downbeat ending but presumably was the touching and expected conclusion in a 1920s rom-com, this was an excellent film. Balfour was a delight as Kitty, as adept at serious drama as with comic touches and D’arcy added a certain oily charm. Location shooting in France was very good, ensuring that London had never looked drearier (fiancé and clergyman father included).
(NB Paradise is not available in any format.)
We then had a change of pace from rom-com to crime-drama and the thrills of The Flying Scotsman (1929) in another early talkie. The film opens with Flying Scotsman engine driver Bob White (Moore Marriot) reporting his fireman Crow (Alec Hurley) for drinking on the job. When Crow is sacked he swears revenge. Meanwhile fireman Jim Edwards (Raymond Milland) meets and chats up Bob’s daughter Joan (Pauline Johnson). Bob is suspicious of his daughter seeing someone but doesn’t know who it is. On Bob’s last day before retirement he is allocated Jim as his fireman. While seeing off her father, Joan sees Crow also boarding the train so she jumps on as well. As the train is moving Crow climbs along the outside to reach the engine and Joan follows. Just then Bob discovers it is Jim who is seeing his daughter and attacks him, knocking him out. Crow then attacks Bob but is surprised by Joan and he retreats back to the train and uncouples it from the engine. When the engine stops Joan manages to divert the rest of the train from crashing into the back of the engine. Crow is then arrested, Bob and Jim make up and the train reaches Edinburgh safely.
While the plot for the Flying Scotsman is somewhat unbelievable (how unbelievable?) the film is certainly worth watching for the beautiful photography and the dramatic action scenes. Both Alec Hurley and Pauline Johnson did their own stunt-work, climbing along the outside of the train as it sped along at about 45mph, with Johnson doubly encumbered by wearing high heels! The perennially ancient Moore Marriot (he was only 41 at the time he was supposed to be retiring) would go on to play the ever more ancient Harbottle in many a Will Hay comedy while Raymond shortened his name to Ray and never looked back. Pauline Johnson went straight on to star in another train crash drama The Wrecker (1929) but after that her career petered out.
(NB The Flying Scotsman is available on DVD from StudioCanal and can be watched on-line (YouTube) )
And after the excitement of The Flying Scotsman it was time to calm things down with Slow Silents: Life on the Canal, a series of travelogue clips introduced by BFI’s Bryony Dixon. We had the Grand Canal in Venice from 1898, a taste of canal life in the (now drained) wetlands of St Omer in Northern France from 1910 and some views of Paris taken from the canalised Seine from 1911. Finally there was a substantial chunk of the 1928 Paris city symphony Etudes sur Paris directed by Andre Sauvage which focused upon views of the city taken from its river and canals.
The very brief footage of Venice was a bit frustrating. Shot apparently on large format 68mm film the detailing was incredible, so much so that you really wanted to freeze frame it to pick out everything of interest. The film of St Omer was fascinating, capturing a way of life now gone where the canals appeared the only mode of transport for everyone and everything, from farm animals to the coffin en route to burial. The footage of both London and Paris had a wonderfully peaceful feel to it and some of the filming in Paris was stunningly beautiful, in particular the columns of sunlight illuminating the canal tunnels under the city. Accompaniment by Philip Carli on piano added most aptly to the sense of calm and serenity.
(NB Etudes sur Paris is available on DVD while I think that the other three films can be viewed on the BFI-Player)
In the next screening there were scenes of equal beauty but considerably less tranquillity. Jenny Gilbertson (nee Brown) is an almost unknown Scottish drama-documentary film-maker who wrote, photographed, directed, edited and produced a number of films about life in remote communities. In 1933, with encouragement from John Grierson who had been impressed with her earlier work, she made The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric. A narrated sound version was subsequently produced but today we got to see what is considered the superior silent version. With a backdrop of the hard lives of Shetland crofters, the film tells the story of Andrew (John Gilbertson) and Enga (Enga Stout) who are planning to marry. When a letter comes from a relative in Australia, with stories of a good life and an invitation to emigrate, Enga is keen to leave. But after due consideration, Andrew tells her he feels obliged to remain in order to look after his ageing parents, after which relations between him and Enga become strained. But when a sheep which Enga has hand reared becomes trapped at the foot of some cliffs Andrew is lowered down to rescue it and he and Enga are re-united.
Despite its slight story-line and using a wholly non-professional cast of Shetland crofters, Gilbertson creates a vivid picture of crofting life in all its harshness and uncertainty. Yet the people come over with a quiet, under-stated dignity. This is perfectly captured in the scene where Andrew has risked his life rescuing the sheep and Enga simply comes up to him, puts her arm through his and they walk off together and you know that everything between them is all right once more. Added to this the stunning photography, often undertaken at considerable risk to director and cast alike, all of which makes The Rugged Island a beautifully accomplished piece of work.
(NB The Rugged Island is available on DVD from Panamint Cinema)
And then all too soon it was time for the final film of the festival. But what a delight this turned out to be. L’Hirondelle et la Mesange (The Swallow and the Titmouse) was shot by director Andre Antoine in 1920 but when producer Charles Pathe saw the unedited film he deemed it commercially un-viable and the footage was stored away and forgotten. It was not rediscovered until 1982. Cinémathèque Française commissioned editor Henri Colpi (Hiroshima mon Amour (1961), Last Year at Marienbad (1963) ) to assemble the footage into a finished product using Gustave Grillet’s original script and the director’s detailed notes as a guide and 63 years after the film was originally shot it had its world premier in 1983.
The film follows barge captain Pieter van Groot (Louis Ravet), his wife Marthe (Maguy Deliac ) and her sister Griet (Jane Maylianes ) who live on their barges l’Hirondelle and Mésange transporting goods along the rivers between northern France and Belgium. Arriving in Antwerp to pick up a cargo of coal Pieter arranges with a local jeweller to smuggle some diamonds back into France while Marthe and Griet buy fine lace for the same purpose. Another sailor, Michel (Pierre Alcover) recognises the jeweller and when he finds that Pieter is looking to take on a new crewman he gets the job. As they travel back towards France Michel looks for an opportunity to steal the diamonds. But as he searches for them one evening he sees Marthe undressed and being wrapped in the lace to conceal it under her clothes when they pass through customs and is overcome with lust. The next day he tries to force himself on her but is thwarted when Pieter arrives back early. That evening he takes Pieter to a bar to get him drunk so he can steal the diamonds unhindered. But Pieter only feigns drunkenness and follows Michel back to the boat where they struggle and Pieter drowns Michel. Life on the barges continues as normal.
Shot entirely on location on the waterways of Flanders (even down to the barge interior shots) with a mixed cast of professional and non-professional actors the film is gorgeous to look at. As the barges slowly travel the rivers and canals it has a supremely gentle, almost dream like quality with stunning cinematography both of the war damaged landscape and of the medieval towns (particularly Gent). The acting is beautifully understated, especially from Maguy Deliac (one of the non-professionals, image right) as Marthe who was able to convey huge depths of feeling with just a look or a glance. The pacing of the film was such that one almost failed to notice the gradually rising tensions and simmering under-currents and the final violent encounter is so out of character with the rest of the film that it is truly shocking. Perhaps equally disturbing was the pace at which the dream like progression of the barges resumed, as if nothing untoward had ever happened.
But as good as the film was, enjoyment of it was hugely enhanced by the sumptuous musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne (piano, flute and accordion) and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (harp) performing a semi-improvised score. Together they caught perfectly the dream like pacing of the film but then very effectively helped to underline the rising tensions and added marvellously to the shock of the dramatic climax. When I heard them accompany Stella Dallas (1925) at HippFest last year I wasn’t sure that a piano/harp combination worked. But this evening with L’Hirondelle et la Mesange it worked just perfectly making this one of the finest silent film with live music screenings I have ever had the pleasure of attending.
And that was it. The British Silent Film Festival over for another year. I can’t say that every film was a classic but every one had something to savour and enjoy. And at the end of the year I think I’m safe in saying that three of the screenings (Dawson City, Sister of Six and L’Hirondelle et la Mesange) will be in my list of top ten film screenings of the year. So thanks go out to the festival organisers for coming up with such a great programme, to the musicians for uniformly excellent accompaniment and to all the staff at Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema for such a smoothly run event. Already looking forward to the next one.