British Silent Film Festival 2019

Phoenix Cinema, Leicester

11 – 15 September 2019


Warning: Spoilers Throughout

Films reviewed include:      From Morn To Midnight  (1920);   The Oyster Princess (1919);   Comradeship (1919);   Song Of The Scarlet Flower  (1919);   The Alley Cat (1929);   The Silver Lining (1928);   Tons of Money (1924);   Spring Awakening  (1929);   The Runaway Princess (1928);   The Midnight Girl (1919);   Toni (1929);   Phantom of the Moulin Rouge  (1925);   Tesha (1928);   The Puppet Man (1921)

Day 1

There was that slight frisson of anticipation as we pulled into Leicester railway station on a bright Wednesday afternoon, en route to the 2019 British Silent Film Festival.  It had seemed like a long two years since the previous event and it was great to be back.

First stop was the City Art Gallery and Museum which was hosting the festival opening night with a rare screening of director Karl Heinz Martin’s expressionist masterpiece From Morn To Midnight (aka Von Morgens bis Mitternacht) (1920). Introducing the film, Paul Moore from the University of Leicester painted a fascinating picture of German politics, art and cinema during the Weimar era.

In the film, a lowly bank cashier becomes fascinated with the life of a rich and glamorous customer.  He steals money from the bank and, after absconding from his tedious family life, seeks out a life of luxury and glamour in the city.  But despite his new found wealth he finds neither  happiness nor contentment.  In a seedy pub he enters a card game and begins to win yet more money.  Saved from the other gamblers aggression by a Salvation Army girl he confesses his crime and gives away the rest of his money.  When he tells her of the reward for his capture, she runs to report him to the police and the cashier shoots himself.    

While this brief synopsis may catch the basic plot of the film, no mere synopsis could begin to capture the true uniqueness of From Morn To Midnight.  Made less than a year after Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari which is often considered the quintessential work of German expressionist cinema, From Morn to Midnight takes the genre to a whole new level.  The film uses uber-stylised and distorted stage sets and costumes, designed by Austrian art director Robert Neppach. Added to this, the often wild camera work gives some scenes, particularly the cycle race, an almost hallucinatory feel.  While the plot is a somewhat conventional morality story, it is largely overtaken by the striking visuals, deliberately overly dramatic acting styles and even the stylised typeface of the inter-titles. The appearance of death is a recurring theme throughout the film with faces transforming into skulls, foretelling the cashier’s suicide and while there is a Christian symbolism in his crucified appearance under the Ecce Homo banner, this title would be taken up by artists such as George Grosz in a critique of the social, economic and political conditions of the Weimar Republic.

From Morn to Midnight was never released in its native Germany, likely a victim of its over stylised tone and appearance which was not considered commercially viable and for a long time the film was considered lost.  However, it did prove popular in a number of foreign markets, particularly Japan, where a surviving copy was eventually discovered in Tokyo’s National Film Centre in 1959.  

Providing live musical accompaniment to the film were Neil Brand on piano and Stephen Horne on piano-accordion. I had not previously seen these two musicians working together but they produced a score which nicely complemented the dramatic tone of the film without ever overwhelming it.


Day 2

Thursday saw us returning to the Festival’s regular home, Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema.  The day’s first session was an introduction to the work of early cinema pioneer Alf Collins (image right, with wife Maud) and his film-making family, presented by Collins’ own great grandchildren, Ray and Sylvia Spare.  This was a fascinating presentation on a largely forgotten era of silent film development in Britain, particularly as it was from such a personal, family perspective.  Collins was there pretty much at the outset of the film era, working with the likes of camera and film maker R W Paul and Gaumont’s London agent Alfred Bromhead.  Along with Collins himself, his wife Maud also made a decisive contribution to their success, adapting ideas into working scripts and starring in many of the films. There were some fascinating insights into the days of early film-making, not least Alf’s prosecution and fine for causing an obstruction to the highway while filming!  There was also an opportunity to see several surviving Collins films including When Extremes Meet (1905) an amusing story of two couples struggling for space as they make out on the same park bench; The Runaway Match (1903) which may have been the first car chase movie, (including shots taken from a moving car), and; It Was A Nice Quiet Morning (1908?, image left) perhaps the earliest surviving British sound film, made using a sound-disc system known as “Chronophones”, and still very funny. Although few of the at least 226 films made by Alf Collins have survived, Ray and Sylvia have discovered more in the US Library of Congress (often saved as paper prints) and are attempting to get additional funding to have them digitised.


Next up was a presentation from the BFI’s Bryony Dixon entitled ABC In Sound in which she presented the work of numerous film makers in their efforts to ‘visualise’ sound. There were examples of film makers giving visual prominence to the sound recording strip usually hidden on the edge of 35mm film, with Canadian pioneer Norman McLaren explaining in Pen Point Percussion (1951) how this was done and then an example of it in an actual film, Synchromy (1971).  There were filmed attempts to hand draw a sound strip on film with Experiments in Hand Drawn Sound (1933) and the recently rediscovered (by Bryony hrself) ABC In Sound (1933).  But perhaps most fun of all was film of 1920s music hall act Gwen Farrar and Billy Mayerl singing ‘I’ve Got A Sweetie On The Radio (1926) while making up their own sound effects throughout the song.  


Then it was time for the first feature of the day, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (1919). Providing a detailed and hugely informative introduction to the film and to the broader subject of Weimar cinema as a whole was film programmer Margaret Deriaz.

The Oyster Princess is the story of spoilt heiress Ossi (Ossi Oswaldo) and her determination to marry a prince forthwith, largely on account of her jealousy over a friend’s recent marriage to a Count.  Unfortunately, the chosen Prince Nucki is destitute and, when he sends along his aide Josef to check out his intended, Ossi unwittingly ends up marrying Josef instead. Meanwhile, Nucki goes out on the town with his mates, and gets blind drunk.  The next morning, still inebriated he stumbles in on the Multi-Millionaires’ Daughters Association Against Dipsomania.  Being the only attractive man amongst the down and outs waiting for treatment, the millionaires’ daughters fight over him with Ossi emerging victorious.  While the two immediately fall for each other, they despair that one is already married and the other likely to be so soon.  But when Josef bursts in he tells them that they are indeed already married to each other as he married Ossi in Nucki’s name.      

With but the slightest of story lines the joy of The Oyster Princess isn’t so much in the plot as in the telling.  In a new world order increasingly dominated by America, the film pokes gentle fun at these nouveaux riche newcomers with their brash and ostentatious consumerism. Given the sumptuous scale of the film its hard to believe it was made in a Germany which just months before had surrendered to the allies, materially and economically bankrupt and with its population on the brink of starvation.  Then there is the sheer panache with which it is made. Years later, Lubitsch himself referred to it as “my first comedy which showed something of a definite style.”.  Certainly the style here just overflows with a glorious fluidity of movement, not just in the brilliantly choreographed dance scenes but throughout, be it the formal wedding banquet, Ossi’s bathing routine or even just the way in which the Oyster millionaire jogs around his mansion with servants in tow. The cast are uniformly excellent and clearly enjoying themselves.  Ossi Oswalde portrays the hyper impatient spoilt teenager to a tee, rarely more than a heartbeat away from the next destructive tantrum (image above) .  Yet her career was to fade even before the end of the silent era and she died in poverty in Prague in 1947 aged just 50.  Equally good was Victor Jansen as her laid back (often to the point of comatose!) father (image right), the oyster millionaire, who is always ‘hard to impress’.  But my own favourite scene involved Julius Falkenstein as Josef, who, becoming bored as he awaits an audience with Ossi, takes to increasingly frenetic pacing of the waiting room along the lines of its patterned floor.

The Oyster Princess is just a joy to watch from beginning to end and this certainly seemed to be pianist Neil Brand’s view with his joyous accompaniment adding to our overall enjoyment of the film.


We chose to bow out of the next screening, Peace On The Western Front, a drama-documentary on a soldier’s experience of the First World War, having seen it a couple of times previously.  


We had also seen previously the next feature presentation, Comradeship (1919), but this necessitated a second viewing.  Directed by Maurice Elvey, Britain’s most prolific director, the film focuses upon the human cost of war.

The film revolves around middle-class shop owner Bob Armstrong (Gerald Ames).  Left-leaning and something of a loner, he opposes military conflict and when war breaks out initially refuses to join up.  But eventually he is shamed into enlisting due to his love for the upper class Betty Mortimer (Lily Elsie). Once in the army, Armstrong discovers genuine comrades and friendship, particularly with the boisterous Ginger Dickens (Teddy Arundell). During an offensive, Armstrong saves the life of an officer but is blinded in the process.  Invalided back to Britain he still loves Betty but refuses to marry her as he does not want to burden her with a blind husband.  He fills his time by organising a local Comrades Society for ex-servicemen.  At the society’s opening event Betty arrives and she herself proposes to Armstrong, who eventually accepts.  After they are married, he successfully undergoes an operation to restore his sight.   

Comradeship was a surprising film on several levels.  The relationship between Armstrong and Ginger was particularly interesting. In addition to the usual obvious male bonding, here were two men shown discussing with an unexpected frankness, their inner most thoughts, their fears of going into battle, even breaking down in tears in front of one another, a relative rarity in film even now but particularly so in films of this vintage.  Similarly, what other (serious) film of this era would have a woman proposing to a man!  There was even a controversial (for its time) sub-plot involving shop girl Peggy (an excellent Peggy Carlisle, image right) having an illicit affair with and becoming pregnant by a German co-worker.  In these aspects, the film had a surprisingly modern feel to it, yet in other ways it retained the more conservative traditions of the times.  In particular, there was the sledge-hammer like subtlety by which Betty and her family convinced Armstrong to enlist (very much in the style of the “Women of Britain say…GO!”propaganda poster) and the way in which a spell in the army and the love of a good woman ‘cures’ Armstrong of his more firebrand political tendencies.   

Amongst the cast, Gerald Ames (image left) was excellent as Armstrong as was Teddy Arundell as Ginger. But for stage actress Lily Elsie (image below right), in a rare film role as Betty, the over theatricality of her acting was a particular weakness.   As for director Maurice Elvey, it was interesting that he looked to be experimenting with the idea of wide screening, not by increasing the screen width but by blacking out the top and bottom thirds in some shots to give a letter-boxed screen format. However, on the down side, his depiction of the battlefront did contain the most immaculately manicured trenches ever seen, with not so much as a puddle of mud in sight!. 

Nevertheless, in many respects this was a strikingly realistic portrayal of the often hidden, human costs of war and appreciation of the film was much improved by the gentle and sympathetic accompaniment from pianist Lillian Henley.


We then had a dramatic change of both location and genre with Song Of The Scarlet Flower (Sången om den eldröda blomman) (1919), with the accompanying handout describing it as ‘a big budget classic from the golden age of Swedish silent cinema’.  

In the film, leading man Lars Hansen plays Olof, a farmer’s son.  Ever the womaniser, Olof forsakes girlfriend Annikki in favour of another, Ellie.  But after falling out with his family he walks out to join a group of loggers transporting felled trees down the river rapids. After a spectacular log riding feat he meets and falls for Kyllikki

But her father then refuses Olof permission to marry his daughter on account of his apparent poverty and itinerant lifestyle.  Olof leaves with the other loggers.  Some time later he is picked up by a prostitute and in the brothel discovers Annikki working there.  In shame at being discovered by Olof she commits suicide. Seeing his reflection in a bar mirror Olof is disgusted at the man he has become and decides to return home where he discovers that his parents are dead and their farm is now his.  Meeting again with Kyllikki, the two now decide to marry despite her father’s objections.  However, when he discovers that Olof is in fact a farmer rather than an itinerant worker, Kyllikki’s father is content with the marriage.   

It was hard to elicit a great deal of sympathy for Lars Hanson’s moody, womanising, leather jacketed character for most of the film, in a performance very much predating Hollywood’s misunderstood bad boys of the 1950s and 1960s, such as James Dean or Marlon Brando.  But underneath the leathers, there is a considerable acting talent here.  Clearly Lillian Gish thought the same when she invited Hanson to Hollywood to star opposite her in The Scarlet Letter (1926).  He followed this with a couple of films starring alongside fellow Swedish exile Grata Garbo before starring again with Gish in The Wind (1928). But his strong Swedish accent meant Hanson was unlikely to prosper with the newly emerging American talkies so he decided to return to Sweden (via Britain where he starred in The Informer (1929) ) and where he continued an illustrious film and stage career.  And although a stunt double stood in for Hanson in some of the more demanding scenes, he certainly didn’t look out of place hopping from log to log as they flowed along the river.  Amongst the rest of the cast, Greta Almroth ( image left, who would also later excel as the fiance in The Parson’s Widow (1920 ) was excellent as the rejected Annikki as was an un-credited Doris Nelson as the prostitute.

But over and above the acting performances, what stood out from Song of the Scarlet Flower was the photography, the composition and the editing.  Virtually, any single frame taken from the film would have made a beautiful stand alone photograph.  The action scenes, especially the log riding and the fight scene were both superbly and breathtakingly shot.  Director Mauritz Stiller was a pioneer of Swedish cinema, active since 1912 and with a string of successes.  His 1924 film The Saga of Gösta Berling launched the career of Greta Garbo and on the strength of this he was signed by Hollywood yet despite some success his differences with the American studio system led to him returning to Sweden in 1927 where he died the following year from pleurisy aged just 45

Rather than a live accompaniment, for tonight’s screening we got to hear a recording of the original score written especially for the film.  Finnish-born  Stiller approached Finnish composer Armas Järnefelt (then hugely popular but today largely forgotten other than for being Sibelius’ brother-in-law) and commissioned him to write a full orchestral score for the film.  Considered Järnefelt’s final orchestral masterpiece and a pioneer work in film music (and long thought lost until a copy was discovered amongst the possessions of a relative) the score was indeed impressive although at times I felt that it did tend to overpower the visuals somewhat, particularly in the more intimate scenes.  


It was then time for another dramatic change of pace, moving from high drama to high comedy, with The Alley Cat (1929). Another in the many examples from this era of an Anglo/German co-production, the Nachtgestalten was directed by Hans Steinhoff and starred Britain’s Mabel Poulton.

Mabel played Polly, a typical Cockney lass, who comes to the rescue of West End singing sensation Melora Miller who is out sampling the dubious delights of the East End night-life with her manager.  When Melora is attacked by ex con Simon Beck it is Polly who fights him off.  In return, Melora invites Polly to her theatre to see her perform at a future date.  As she is returning home Polly stumbles upon an injured man, Jimmy, who she helps back to her home.  He tells her that he fears he has accidently killed a man in an argument over money.  As he recovers, Jimmy writes a song for Polly.

When Polly takes up Melora’s offer to visit her at the theatre, she herself displays a talent for musical comedy as she sings Jimmy’s song and is offered a trial in the show.  However, Melora recognises the style of the song as belonging to the renowned composer Jimmy Rice who used to write songs for her.  She tracks Jimmy down to Polly’s home which jeopardises his relationship wth Polly.  Meanwhile, Simon Beck is aware that the police are looking for a murderer and is looking to get the reward by turning Jimmy in.  However, an expensive cigarette eventually identifies Beck as the real murderer.  After a violent shoot out with the police Beck is killed and Jimmy and Polly are reunited.

How would you categorise The Alley Cat?  Comedy? Musical? Melodrama? Crime Thriller? Romance? Well, all of the above really and it packed an awful lot into just 90 minutes, leaving the audience exhausted.  Most of the credit for this must go Poulton, about five feet six inches of pure energy, a natural comedienne but one who can also act and dance.  Poulten made her first film appearance in Nothing Else Matters (1920) alongside Betty Balfour who was also making her debut and for most of the 1920s she was Balfour’s only real rival amongst popular British female stars. At the height of her popularity, Poulton went to France to audition for the part of Violine in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) but despite earning Gance’s praise she lost out.  However, more serious acting roles were now coming along in Britain with The Constant Nymph and Palais De Danse (both 1928) Yet, with the coming of the talkies, her career was all but over due to her strong cockney accent.  She even lost out to Wendy Hiller for the Eliza Doolittle role in Pygmalion (1938).  Amongst the rest of the cast, Clifford McLaglan (brother of Victor) stood out as the low life thug Beck. But a hat tip also goes to the murder victim’s dog and his dogged (sorry!) pursuit of Jimmy across town.  This was a lovely comic touch.  

The product of another well funded Anglo-German co-production, with exteriors shot in London and interiors in Berlin,The Alley Cat trod similar territory to Piccadilly (1929) with its mix of low life East London drinking dens and the upmarket West End, albeit in a more light-hearted manor but its portrayal of authentic looking Chinese gambling dens and glitzy West End shows was no less effective for all that.  

Director Hans Steinhoff had had a fairly solid track record of success with light film drama in the 1920s but by the early 1930s he was a committed Nazi and went on to direct Nazi propaganda films throughout the war including Ohm Kruger (1941) starring Emil Jennings.  He was killed in the final days of the war, when his plane was shot down while trying to flee Berlin.             

Providing musical accompaniment for the screening on piano, accordion and flute was Stephen Horne, who really did pull out all of the stops with a performance to match the frenetic pace of the film  


Day 3

Day three of the festival got off to a bit of a rocky start with City Of Song (1931), an early talkie.  Although perhaps a little unkind, probably the best part of the screening was the introduction from the ever interesting and amusing film historian Geoff Brown.  Although nominally an Anglo-German co-production, the film featured an Italian director, Austrian producer, Hungarian cameraman, Danish editor and Polish star.  With location shooting in Italy, this was the first time a British sound crew had traveled abroad to record a film.  

That Polish star was the then popular but now completely forgotten opera singer Jan Kiepura, playing Giovanni Cavallone,  a tour guide in Naples.  His singing talent is discovered by a rich British tourist (Betty Stockfeld) who brings him back to England to present him on the London stage.  However, when he fails to win the exclusive romantic affections of his benefactress, he returns to Naples and his true love.

With an original running time of over ninety minutes, this surviving copy is a ruthlessly edited version of barely an hour, and it shows, with at least one significant sub-plot left hanging (what ever did happen to that English sculpter?).  Nevertheless, there is still time for some of the most stilted dialogue ever put on film, some of it unintentionally (I think!) hilarious as for example, when one British aristo declares “ There’s nothing wrong with foreigners, as long as they stay abroad.”.  Then there is the somewhat haughty young miss who has come to the conclusion that “As soonas I crossed the channel I realised that I was the foreigner which is why I always holiday in Torquay now”  Clearly a film for the Brexit crowd!  The only hint of quality acting comes with a nice cameo from Miles Malleson (who also wroth the screenplay) as a theatre doorman. But in its favour, the film does feature some beautiful (and interesting from an historical perspective) location shooting in Naples, Capri and Pompeii.   

Made in two versions for the British and German markets, the German version apparently survives in its entirety (re-titled The Singing Star). While nothing on this earth could induce me to watch a fuller version of the British film, its German counterpart features the infinitely more enticing Brigitte Helm as the benefactress. Maybe I’ll mull over watching that.  


We then had a collection of silent film rarities of the 1910s and early 1920s from film collector Bob Geoghegan’s Archive Film Agency.

A Merry Night (1914) featured a gent returning home one night somewhat inebriated and the goings on as he seeks to get to bed.  He’s embraced by his coat rack, a picture of a castle in the living room opens fires on him and his clothes mysteriously refuse to be undressed.  This was a really clever and very funny film, with excellent use of trick photography and a strong streak of surrealism and zany humour, the sort of silent film Spike Milligan or Michael Bentine would have made.  Best moment was the castle on the wall running out the white flag as the man returns fire with a pistol he takes from the dresser.  

Next up was The Curate’s Double (1907) with a hen pecked husband attempting to escape from his wife ( a man in drag) by stealing the clothes of a curate who happens to be his lookalike double and causing confusion all round.  Again, another clever film with an early example of the mistaken identity genre, which remains a poplar cinematic theme to this day.  But the biggest post-film talking point was the final scene.  Was it trick photography or did the film employ identical twins!

We then had Kelly Takes His Missus To Southend (1910), with Mrs Kelly also being played by a man (what is it with British comedy and men in drag?) which was amusing but of most interest for its depiction of the Kursall fun fair in Southend.

In a more serious vein, The Oath (1917) was one of a series of Grand Guignol films from director Fred Paul.  Living up to its genre the film was characterised by over theatrical acting going above and beyond the phrase ‘ham’.  Then there was A Tale of Two Cities (1922) from a film series Tense Moments With Great Authors directed by Walter Courtney Rowden.  A standard re-telling of the Dickens story, it featured the glorious and definitely non-Dickensian inter-title “There is no time….take off your clothes!”

This varied collection were all superbly accompanied by Neil Brand.


Getting back to feature presentations, we then had The Silver Lining (1928).  Billed in the programme hand-out as “a light hearted crime story” this was an altogether grimmer tale, with precious little ‘silver lining’ at the end of it.

When gamekeeper Thomas (Patrick Aherne) has a falling out with his ne’er do well brother John (John Hamilton) over their mutual affection for Lettie Deans (Eve Gray) it all ends up with John framing his brother for the theft of some pearls.  Aware of his brother’s deceit, Thomas feels morally bound to conceal the truth from their aged mother (Marie Ault) and as a result goes to jail.  By the time he is released brother John is racked with guilt over his actions and seeks the return of the pearls from the real thief. Butt in doing so he is shot and mortally wounded, whereupon he makes a deathbed confession of his guilt, leaving Thomas and Lettie to be reunited.

This was something of a pot boiler of a ‘B’ film, only somewhat enlivened by the presence of the always reliable Marie Ault (image right) as the boy’s mother and a young (-ish, he was already 44!) Moore Marriot (he of ‘old Harbottle’ fame in many a Will Hay film). Then there was Eve Grey, with a hairstyle that could only be described as a ‘Princess Leia’.  As for the rest of the cast, the programme notes contained a Bioscope review from 1927 which stated “The remainder of the cast do well considering their handicaps”.  What handicaps? There is a crying need for more information here!.  But if there was any silver lining in the film, it was in the form of some beautiful rural photography.  Oh, and there was also Lillian Henley’s halcyon and beautifully paced accompaniment on piano.  


Lightening the mood considerably was the next feature presentation, Tons of Money (1924) an English farce based upon the stage play of the same name.  Although not strictly speaking one of the celebrated Aldwych farces, the considerable theatrical success of Tons of Money (original theatrical poster image right) led co-producers Tom Halls and Leslie Henson (image left) to begin their long running and very successful series of comedies at London’s Aldwych Theatre.  When the play was adapted for film, Henson reprised his role as Aubrey Allington.

In the film, Aubrey Allington and his wife Louise (Flora le Breton) are minor aristocrats up to their necks in debt and besieged by creditors.  Salvation appears to have come when they learn that Aubrey has inherited a fortune.  But when they realise that this will barely pay off their creditors and still leave them broke Aubrey, or rather his wife, suggests that Aubrey fakes his own death, returning disguised as the next rightful heir George Maitland, who himself disappeared in Mexico many years earlier, to claim the inheritence. However, complications arise when Aubrey’s crooked butler Sprules arranges for an accomplice to also arrive claiming to be Maitland.  Then Louise’s best friend reveals that she was secretly married to Maitland just before his disappearance.  To cap it all, the real George Maitland then shows up and we are in characteristic farce territory!

Like all good farces, Tons of Money proceeds at a frenetic.  Some of the comedy works and some doesn’t but there is still enough in there to make it frequently laugh out loud funny. There was also a fair selection of amusing inter-titles, such as this scene setter “The Allington household looked to be as relaxed as a sausage reclining in its skin”.  Leslie Henson is good as Aubrey, if a little over the top as he returns disguised as Maitland a la Mexican bandido! But better still is Flora le Breton (image right), the architect of much of her husband’s misfortunes through her increasingly wacky ideas, particularly when it looks as if her overly amorous best friend is married to her own husband (now disguised as Maitland). The theatrically trained Breton was a considerable star on the mid-1920s before retiring from film to concentrate on stage work in America.  There is also a nice cameo role from Mary Brough as Allington family friend Mrs Mullet. She would go on to become a stalwart of the Aldwych farce series, both on stage and film.  

It was clearly a big ask to keep up such a frenetic pace throughout the film and it did tend to flag a little before the end.  However, this was an enjoyable romp, livened up no end by the piano accompaniment from Neil Brand who successfully matched the film’s often frenzied pace.


We were then back to the glories of Weimar cinema with Spring Awakening (aka Fruhlingserwachen) (1929), an adaption of the Frank Wedekind play of the same name. From a cinema perspective, Wedekind is probably best known for the source material for G W Pabst’s version of Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks.  Introducing the film, play and script writer Michael Eaton provided a passionate defence and promotion of the work of Wedekind.

In the film, Melchior (Rolf van Goth) and Moritz (Carl Bauhaus) are school friends.  Melchior is the student to whom everything comes easily.  In contrast, his friend Moritz is the one who always ends up in trouble and is failing academically, much to the annoyance of his stern father. When Moritz is caught by authoritarian teacher Habebald (Fritz Rasp) with a sexually explicit essay he is expelled.  But the story was actually written by Melchior, based upon his relationship with the innocent and over-protected Wendla, (Toni van Eyck).  Moritz’s life spirals down.  After returning drunk from a party with the rich and worldly wise Ilsa (Ita Rina) he is beaten by his father and then commits suicide.  Melchior and Wandla sleep together but after learning of Moritz’s death he confesses to writing the essay and is sent to a boarding school.  Eventually, he receives word that Wendla is seriously ill after an illegal abortion goes wrong.  He returns just as she dies.  At Moritz’s grave he too considers suicide but a sympathetic teacher tells him that the best atonement is through making something of his life.        

Although director Richard Oswald’s film version differs significantly from Wedekin’s original in several key aspects, it still manages to convey the same emotional and dramatic impact in its examination of awakening adolescent sexuality in an era of sexual oppression and ignorance.  The performances of all of the cast are exceptional.  Toni van Eyck was superb as the innocent and over-protected Wendla in her first major film roll as was Carl Bauhaus as the doomed Moritz (image right with Ita Rina).  In yet another sinister role, Fritz Rasp was also excellent  as the repressed and repressive teacher (was there ever a film in which Rasp played a sympathetic character?).  And while the wonderful Ita Rina (so good in Erotikon (1929) and Tonka Sibenice (1930) ) had a somewhat lesser role here, what she did she did well.

By the time of this film, Richard Oswald had already proven himself a director unafraid to tackle difficult subject matter with works such as Prostitution (1919) and Different From The Others (1919).  As with these previous titles, Spring Awakening ran into difficulty with the German censors with some scenes being removed, although the film itself was a critical if less a popular success.  Although now best remembered for his realist social dramas such as Spring Awakening, Oswald also turned his hand to comedies and thrillers.  Being Jewish, he fled Germany in the 1930s but continued to direct in America until his last film in 1949.        

With accompanist Stephen Horne again on top form, layering on the drama and the tension, Spring Awakening had to be the film of the day and set a challenging benchmark for being the film of the festival.  


With film fatigue setting in after some eleven hours straight, we opted to bow out of the day’s final screening, The Struggle For The Matterhorn (1928), having seen this alpine epic previously at the BFI’s recent Weimar season.


Day 4

Day four of the festival kicked off with another early sound film and another starring role for Polish tenor Jan Kiepura.  After the previous day’s somewhat less than enthralling experience of Mr Kiepura in City Of Song, would this second appearance prove any better.  Well, much to everyone’s surprise the answer was a resounding yes.  

In the film, Kiepura plays (surprise, surprise) Enrico Ferraro, a world renowned tenor, who has become disillusioned with a life of endless touring and performances. Slipping away from his domineering manageress he hops on a train where he meets Koretsky (Sonnie Hale) a travelling con-man.  Finding themselves in a small town in the Swiss Alps, they endeavour to swap roles but things become difficult with the police looking for the real Koretsky while Ferraro falls for the mayor’s daughter. Needless to say, things work out neatly in the end and Ferraro not only avoids jail but also gets the girl.

Alright, this was never going to be a film deemed worthy of an Oscar, but as a light musical comedy it was pretty good with several laugh out loud moments.  Much of the credit must go to the supporting cast, particularly Sonnie Hale as Koretsky and Edmund Gwenn (best known as Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) ) as the mayor.  I also liked Magda Schneider (image right, mother of Romy) as his wild, car driving daughter. It was also interesting to compare this film with City of Song, made just a year earlier, to see how the technical quality and sophistication of sound films had progressed in just twelve months,


It was then back to the silent era, with The Runaway Princess (1928), directed by Anthony Asquith.  The film was based loosely upon the book Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight, by Australian born author Elizabeth Russell.  Married into the somewhat stultifying life of the Prussian aristocracy and with a domineering husband, this and several other of her novels had a strong autobiographical theme.

The Runaway Princess opens with Princess Priscilla (Mady Christians), already dissatisfied with palace life in her father’s Ruritarian kingdom.  She then learns that he plans to marry her off to the Prince of Savonia, a man she has never met.  Escaping the palace in disguise with her aged tutor, she is aided on her way by an unknown man (Paul Cavanagh).  She also comes into contact with a group of forgers while crossing Europe by train.  Arriving eventually in London, Priscilla has difficulties adopting to life without money or title.  Once again the unknown man comes to her assistance and a romantic attachment develops.  She is also recruited unwittingly by the forgers who use her to distribute counterfeit money. Eventually arrested  for distributing the foreries,her efforts to reveal her true identity are not believed until the unknown man steps in to reveal who she is and that he is in fact the Prince of Savonia. The film ends with them happily married back in her Ruritarian palace.       

In contrast to the three other silent films directed by Anthony Asquith (Shooting Stars (1927), Underground (1928) and Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) ) The Runaway Princess is a much lighter piece of work, a romantic comedy. An Anglo-German co-production, location shooting was on the streets of London (featuring in particular a fascinating open top bus ride along Fleet Street) with the interiors shot in studios in Berlin.  Although clearly a much slighter piece than Asquith’s other work of this era, the film is still nicely made, gently amusing if not laugh out loud funny although the revelatory ending was somewhat telegraphed right from the start. And although ostensibly a happy ending, wasn’t there just a hint of sadness, with the Princess back in the same stuffy and formalised aristocratic environment she had previously striven so hard to escape!  Surely this is not how Elizabeth Russell would have concluded the story.

Austrian born Mady Christian was charming as the princess.  After a decade working in film in Europe, including in the first German talkie, she relocated to America in 1933 where she continued her film and stage work but her career was effectively ended when she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and she died shortly afterwards.  Paul Cavanagh was at the beginning of a long, hundred plus film career in which he would perfect the suave English gent.  But it was Norah Baring (image right) who added a bit of dramatic impact as one of the forgers. Having already starred in Asquith’s Underground, she would work with him again in Cottage on Dartmoor and with Hitchcock in Murder (1930) before a somewhat premature retirement from film work in 1934.  

Providing a nicely sympathetic live musical accompaniment to the film was harpist Elizabeth Jane Baldry.


We then switched from drama to documentary, with a collection of early newsreels under the title of ‘The Boer War on Screen’, introduced by the BFI’s Bryony Dixon and Matthew Lee from the Imperial War Museum.  Shot at the very dawn of the movie era, these were some of the earliest newsreels ever made and the first to capture a military conflict.  Many of the BFI films I had seen previously but they still retained their impact, particularly the mass casualty evacuation after the slaughter of Spoin Kop (image right).  In a war characterised largely by sudden and short duration guerilla attacks, there was little chance of the cameraman with his large and unwieldy camera equipment being able to capture actual ‘action’.  Instead, the focus was usually on staged events (parades, re-enactments etc) and logistical operations such as river crossings or moving heavy equipment.  In contrast, the Imperial War Museum footage was all new to me, and had some fascinating insights, particularly the image of an observation balloon being shipped by wagon across a river.  And in another river crossing, this time of a large infantry unit, there was the fascinating discovery in the diary of one of the soldiers with a written record of the events being shown and of him being filmed by the ‘kinematograph’. As you watched the hundreds of troops crammed on the rafts you couldn’t help but wonder which of them would be the one to write up the days events later in his diary. Following on from the newsreels were some early and rather crude examples of British propaganda films made during the war, portraying the ‘sneaky Boer’ up against the righteous British soldier and some oh so plucky nurses. Seen a hundred years ago they may have served their purpose but viewing them today they were unintentionally hilarious in a Ripping Yarns sort of way.  All in all this was a fascinating collection.  Many of these films are available on the BFI Player and on IWM Film.  They are certainly worth a watch, even if they lack today’s excellent live musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne.  


It was then time for a little light relief in the form of The Midnight Girl, a little known short from 1919 directed by Adolf Philipp.  Introducing the screening, silent film programmer and researcher Michelle Facey gave an update on her work uncovering the life of the film’s star Marie Pagano.  But not content with simply introducing the film, Michelle was also there to sing the title song, which she did faultlessly (twice!), accompanied by Neil Brand.

The film opens with the wealthy, night-life loving and frequently well oiled Thomas Gee (played by director Philipp himself) bemoaning to his butler the effect that prohibition was having on his life… and health! His doctor arranges for a nurse, Clarisse (Marie Pagano) to take care of him, and Thomas soon takes a shine to his new caregiver.  Then, when he discovers that his day time nurse is also a night time cabaret singer he believes that romance beckons.  But all is not what it seems for Clarisse is working to raise money for her and her husband to return to France.  To drown his sorrows, Thomas goes teetotal.

The Midnight Girl is something of a lightweight affair, amusing but never particularly funny (although there are a couple of good inter-titles). But it earns a cinematic footnote by being one of the first films (and one of the few made during the silent era) to focus upon the impact of prohibition (introduced in America in mid-1919). Michelle’s work on the little known Ms Pagano, of which this is believed to be her only surviving film appearance, reveals a horse rider extraordinaire, stunt woman, Theda Bara body-double and clearly a very capable hoofer. Sadly she seems to have disappeared from cinematic history by the early 1920s.  Hopefully Michelle’s work will reveal more soon.  As for actor/director Philipp, he was also a composer and theatrical impresario.  The Midnight Girl was based upon his earlier stage musical (image left) and, although it may have been his last (only?) film directorial role, he certainly coined in the money from sales of the associated sheet music for the theme song.


We then had a slice of British light comedy with Toni (1929) with a nice double role for Jack Buchanan.

In the film he plays Toni Marr, a man so overcome with apathy and listlessness that his doctor fears for his health and recommends a dose of adventure.  At the other end of the scale is the detective Marini (also played by Jack) who needs a rest from his hectic workload.  So the two decide to swap places. But before you can say vice versa, Toni is up to his eyes in adventure as he comes to the aid of fleeing Princess Eugenie (Dorothy Boyd) in an increasingly frantic finale.

Toni was a very pleasant surprise, knockabout and consistently funny with Buchannan ( that quintessential English gentleman, despite being a Scot!) on top form.  Dorothy Boyd didn’t have a great deal to do but she did it well and there was another appearance for Moore Marriot. It also had one of the best inter-titles of the day, commenting on Toni’s change of lifestyle “He was transformed from a liverless wreck to a wreckless liver.”

Providing a spirited accompaniment to these farcical goings on was Neil Brand.               


Then in another dramatic change of mood we were plunged into the world of silent French fantasy with Rene Claire’s Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (aka Le fantôme du Moulin Rouge)(1925).  After two short films, Entr’acte and Paris qui Dort (both 1924) Rene Clair went on to direct this, his first feature length film.  

The film tells the story of wealthy businessman Julien Boissell (Georges Vaultier), secretly engaged to Yvonne (Sandra Milovanoff), the daughter of aged Statesman Victor Vincent (Maurice Schutz).  But Vincent is being blackmailed by Gautier (Jose Davert), the editor of a Paris scandal sheet, who has evidence incriminating him in a serious wrongdoing. Gautier will return the evidence to Vincent in return for the hand of his daughter Yvonne. Reluctantly Yvonne agrees and Boissell is devastated.  Drowning his sorrows at the Moulin Rouge nightclub,Boissell meets the strange Dr Window (Paul Ollivier) who makes him a proposal.

A week later Paris is beset by a series of anonymous pranks and practical jokes of increasing seriousness.  With Boissell reported missing, Gautier puts a young reporter, Jean Degland (Albert Prejean) on the case. Breaking into Boissell’s apartment Degland is terrorised by a phantom presence but he eventually he manages to track down Dr Window where he also discovers the body of Boissell.  Despite appearances, the doctor  explains that Boissell is not dead, merely sleeping while his spirit has left his body, a technique perfected by the doctor.   However,  Boissell’s newly freed spirit is so enjoying its existence that it now refuses to return to his body, and it is this spirit that is responsible for the wave of pranks and practical jokes assailing Paris.   

But when the spirit of Boissell witnesses a couple embracing it rekindles memories of his love for Yvonne and then while invisibly in her presence he learns of the incriminating papers.  Meanwhile, the police have also discovered Boissell’s body and arrested Dr Window for murder.  At Gautier’s office. Boissell’s spirit finds the incriminating papers and returns them to Vincent’s office but he fails to see them.  

With an autopsy imminent on Boissell’s body, his spirit realises he must prevent this or forever be marooned and unable to return to Yvonne.  After a terrifying visit from Boissell’s spirit Dr Window’s convinces the police to let him do one more experiment on Boissells’s body and there is a frantic chase to get to the morgue before the autopsy commences.  Much to everyone’s amazement, Dr Window then revives Boissell who brings the papers to Vincent’s attention, throws Gautier out and is reunited with Yvonne.  

For those who have seen Clair’s two earlier shorts Entr’acte and Paris qui Dort, then Phantom of the Moulin Rouge should come as no surprise, retaining as it does that same element of playfulness, fantasy and surrealism. There is also the same reliance on trick photography and special effects.  Yet unlike his earlier films, Phantom of the Moulin Rouge has a much more conventional narrative and despite the strong fantasy element there remains a clear focus on the central human drama. However, it is also apparent that Clair is still experimenting with cinematic techniques which accounts for the film sometimes veering wildly between genres.  At times it is a knockabout comedy, at other times a story of great poignancy while the finale is a classic against-the-clock chase sequence.

Yet despite its somewhat unfocused progression, I found the film surprisingly enjoyable.  The special effects while far from ground-breaking, were well done.  The editing, particularly of the climactic chase sequence, was superb as was the cinematography with, for example, the scene of the unseen phantom kissing Yvonne’s hand simply breathtaking. Favourite amongst many scenes was the Doctor’s growing frustration at the the reluctance of Boissell’s spirit to return to his body and the accusatory looks the revived Boissell gives to the pathologist who was just about to slice him open in the autopsy.  

But the real question I was left with was what was the significance of the Moulin Rouge in the story. It really had little to do with the plot and seemed little more than an excuse for a couple of very over-extended and wildly self indulgent, if well shot, dance routines. However, in terms of irrelevance it was as nothing compared to the ‘Eccentrics Bar’ sequence although this did have the merit of being ‘just what it said on the tin’, one of the most eccentric and surreal bar scenes I have ever come across (and one that makes the Mos Eisley cantina scene from Star Wars look positively restrained by comparison.).

Amongst the cast, there were no really outstanding performance. Albert Prejean as the young reporter quickly became annoying although his ability to scale a sheer wall couldn’t be faulted. He was a little known player at the time, an ex-WW1 flyer and then stunt man before some minor starring roles.  But subsequent appearances in a string of Clair directed films such as The Italian Straw Hat (1928) and Under The Roofs of Paris (1930) would make him a star.  Russian emigree Sandra Milovanoff was probably the biggest name in the cast at that time having starred in a number of very successful French serials since 1917.  The same year as Phantom she also played the dual role of Fantine/Cosette in Henri Fescourt’s epic version of Les Miserables (1925).  But her career faltered with the talkies and she died almost completely forgotten in 1957.  

As for director Rene Clair, he was to go on to much greater acclaim both during the silent and early sound era with films such as the above mentioned The Italian Straw Hat and Under The Roofs of Paris but also Les Deux Timides (1928), and A Nous La Liberte (1931).  A long sojourn in Hollywood produced mixed results before his return to France in 1947.  But within a decade his style of work was under attack by a  new wave of French critics.  Amongst the harshest voices was Francois Truffaut;  “We don’t follow our elders in paying the same tribute to Renoir and Clair. There is no film by Clair which matches the invention and wit of Renoir’s Tire au flanc…. Clair makes films for old ladies who go to the cinema twice a year.”  Clair directed his last film in 1965 but since his death in 1981 there has been a gradual positive reappraisal of his work.  

Contributing no end to enjoyment of Phantom of the Moulin Rouge was the live musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne (piano, accordian and flute) and Elizabeth Jane Baldry (harp).  While Stephen’s accordion perfectly matched the frivolity of the Moulin Rouge dance scenes, Elizabeth’s playing of the harp wonderfully captured the eeriness of the floating disembodied spirit. And who would have thought that the harp could be considered a percussion instrument.  This was a superb silent film and live music combination and must be one of the highlights of the festival.


The day’s final film saw a return to British drama in the shape of the little known Tesha (aka Synderskan,1928).  This was one of those curious films made on the cusp of the talkie era which began life as a silent but then had an added soundtrack of music and sound effects plus a few scenes with dialogue.

Robert Dobree (Jameson Thomas) is a successful and wealthy businessman but being unmarried he worries over the lack of an heir for his business. At a charity event he meets the celebrated Russian dancer Tesha (Maria Corda) who also dreams of having children. There is a mutual attraction and they are soon married but five years on they remain childless.  On a trip away, Tesha meets a stranger and they spend the night together. But on returning home she is horrified to discover the stranger in her house, a guest of her husband , who turns out to be his long lost wartime comrade Jack Lename (Paul Cavanagh).  Embarrassed at the situation, Lename leaves.  Weeks later, Dobree reveals to Lename that his wife is pregnant.  When Lename returns, the atmosphere is so emotionally charged that Dobree eventually realises that it is Lename rather than he who is the father.  Initially toying with the idea of shooting Lename, reminded of their wartime experiences together he relents and Lename departs forever.  Tesha has the baby and Dobree looks to have decided to accept him as is own.  

This is a strange film on several levels but also quite a courageous one for its era. Firstly, on the down side, it is padded out with a whole host of extraneous material (scenes in Dobree’s factory, the extended charity dance scene, Tesha’s upbringing, a wartime flashback etc) which adds little to the overall plot.  Then there is the somewhat ludicrous coincidence that the stranger Tesha has an affair with turns out to be her husband’s long lost best friend. Finally, when he learns of Tesha’s pregnancy why would Lename return and risk the truth emerging?      

But ignoring these down sides, in its favour the film’s story-line does have a markedly modern feel in several respects.  When Tesha and the stranger meet, this is no sort of old fashioned romance. She clearly wants him purely for sex, in order to get pregnant.  And even more unusually for a film of the 1920s this story of an illegitimate pregnancy does not end with either mother and/or baby dying in childbirth as was the more normal plot-line for the era.  Instead, both she and the baby survive with the baby seemingly accepted by Tesha’s husband despite him not being his father. Most surprising indeed!

As for the film production itself, it had a very stagy feel (although I believe it derived from a novel rather than a stage play).  Made initially as a silent but then re-released the following year as a talkie, the first two thirds of the film used inter-titles so it was a bit disconcerting when it suddenly burst into the spoken word.  Despite the drama, the cast weren’t really called upon to do a great deal.  Maria Corda was by far the biggest name in the film.  Hungarian born, she married Alexander Korda in 1919 which certainly didn’t do her career any harm, starring in a string of hits he produced and moving on with him first to Germany and then to America.  Although hugely popular, not everyone was in awe of her abilities.  Commenting on her performance in this film, a reviewer in the American Photoplay Magazine wrote  “Maria Corda, who made ‘Helen of Troy’, is starred. She has the classic hues of a Greek statue, and almost as much dramatic ability.” Corda’s acting career came to an end with the arrival of the talkies, given her limited grasp of English but may also not have been helped by her divorce from Korda in 1930. Jameson Thomas (Dobree) was a minor British star whose most significant role probably came in 1929, starring in Piccadilly alongside Anna May Wong.  But he then left Britain for America where he was a minor player, albeit often in big films (It Happened One Night (1934), Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935 ) and Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936) ).  This was only Paul Cavanagh’s second film appearance.  His next role was as the Prince of Savonia in The Runaway Princess (1929) which we saw yesterday.  He went on to a long if not particularly prestigious career first in American film and then TV.   

Director Victor Savile would also go on to a successful career, directing several popular Jesse Matthews films ( The Good Companions (1933) and Evergreen (1934) ) before focusing more on production (King Vidor’s The Citadel (1938), Goodbye Mr Chips with Robert Donat (1939) and A Woman’s Face (1941) starring Joan Crawford)


Day 5

The final day of the festival opened with a surprise…literally.  We were sitting down to watch a film but had no idea what it would be.  In another of his highly amusing introductions, film historian Geoff Brown threw out a few clues – like the running length of the film in feet! – which left us no wiser.  So it wasn’t until the opening credits began that we knew we were watching another early British talkie, The Blue Danube (1932).

The film opens at the camp of a band of travelling gypsy musicians, with Yutka (Chili Bouchier) and Sandor (Joseph Schildkraut) very much in love.  But when the elegant and sophisticated Countess Gabriella Kovacs (Brigitte Helm) arrives and asks the musicians to play at her forthcoming party Sandor is immediately infatuated.  Learning that the two have spent the night together Yutka leaves him. Years later, the lonely and now down-at-heel Sandor meets Yutka once again, only to find her married to an army officer.  But just as Sandor believes he has won back her heart his chance meeting with the Countess reawakens Yutka’s jealousy and she departs forever with her husband, leaving a broken Sandor to return to the gypsy encampment.   

Described by the New York Times on its American release as “a sorry tale of poor editing, incoherence and an overwrought performance by Joseph Schildkraut” there isn’t much else to say about The Blue Danube, even director Herbert Wilcox conceded that the reviews it received were amongst the worst of his career. There were only really two points in the film’s favour.  The first was Brigitte Helm, perfect in the first half as the cold and aloof countess but on slightly dodgier ground later when she gets all emotional.  The second was Chili Bouchier, excellent as the homely Yutka.  Despite the NY Times’ critical view of Joseph Schildkraut it didn’t stop him going on to have an illustrious Hollywood career (Cleopatra (1934), The Three Musketeers (1939), The Shop Around The Corner (1940), The Diary of Ann Frank (1959) etc).  He even picked up an Oscar for The Life of Emile Zola (1937)


We then had a complete change of pace with A Slow Journey Around Europe, a collection of short early travelogues introduced by Bryony Dixon.  This was a fascinating collection of short films covering such varied topics as fish processing in Norway, cheese making in the Netherlands and iron smelting in the Soviet Union.  There was a beautifully filmed journey by boat down the Danube, somewhat harrowing footage of how the poor eat in Paris and gentle footage of Venice from a time before the tourist invasion.  But the overwhelming motif in many of the films was the sheer abject poverty in much of Europe at this time, not only in Paris but in Portugal, in Italy and in Turkey.  But the two films which impressed me most were the beautifully colourised scenes in Salerno, particularly the shots of the women and girls laden with unbelievable loads of firewood, together with the haunting scenes from the ruined city of Ani in Armenia with its many crumbling churches and palaces which never recovered from an eleventh century encounter with the Mongols followed by a devastating earthquake.   


The festival then took on a very local flavour with an illustrated talk from film academic Sue Porter on the establishment and history of the Leicester Film Society in the 1930s.  Established as part of the wider film society movement which began in London in the late 1920s, the societies were meant as a means of bringing less commercial and more ‘arty’ films to a wider audience.  This was a fascinating presentation, based upon a collection of early records of the society which have recently come into DeMontford University’s possession. Its a timely tale also, what with the inexorable rise today of the multiplex and the slow death of arts and niche cinemas.  Mind you, the concept of a dress code when visiting the cinema together with a ban on expressions of feelings during a screening seems a bit harsh today.  Heaven knows what they would have thought of the presence of phones, popcorn and hot-dogs in the auditorium!


The last feature of the day (and of the festival in fact) was The Puppet Man (1921), a drama set in the world of the traveling circus.  

When Alcide (Hugh Miller) the principal circus acrobat is disfigured in a fire and reduced to running the puppet show he blames fellow acrobat Bobbie (Johnny Reid) and sets out for revenge.  Aware of Bobbie’s love for horseback rider Jenny (Molly Adair) he sets out to destroy their relationship by encouraging fellow acrobat Bimbo (Leo Fisher) to make a play for her.  Alcide’s efforts result in a souring in relations between Bobbie and Bimbo and during a performance Bimbo lets Bobbie fall and he is badly injured.  But just as Alcide is about to seal his revenge his scheme is uncovered.  Bobbie and Bimbo’s friendship is restored and Bobbie and Jenny are reunited.

Apart from some nice location shooting and clever camera work recording the circus performances there wasn’t a great deal to recommend in The Puppet Man.  Hugh Miller was somewhat over dramatic as Alcide but this was only his second film in a career that would end with Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  Molly Adair’s film career did not last beyond 1924 after which she focused exclusively on stage work.  Mention should also be made of Mane Belocci who, in an remarkable albeit brief performance, played Bimbo as an orphaned child (although I have to admit that it took me a while to realise that she was in fact a he!). American born director Frank Hall Crane started out as a film actor in 1909 and began directing two years later. The Puppet Man was the second of five films he made in Britain before returning to America in 1925.

Providing his usual excellent live accompaniment to the film was Stephen Horne.    


The final event of the festival was ‘Screening The Victorians’, a collection of very early, mainly large format, films made between 1895 and 1901 and recording Victorian Britain from the very beginning of the movie age.  Having seen this event previously at the BFI we decided to bow out at this stage.


And that was it, festival over.  And a long two years to wait until the next one, with the added anxiety that with the festival forced to run operate on such a hand-to-mouth existence there is always the danger that it may not happen at all!

But looking back on this year’s festival what were the highs and lows? Well the illustrated talk on film pioneer Alf Collins and his family was fascinating, especially from such a personal perspective.  I will never again go past the Sainsbury’s on Dog Kennal Hill without thinking of the Collins film studio that once stood on the site.  Then there was The Boer War on Screen which included another impressive collection of early newsreel coverage of the conflict. Toni was a little known but very amusing Jack Buchanan comedy which was good fun as was Tons of Money even if it ran out of steam a little before the end.  The Runaway Princess gave a welcome opportunity to complete my viewing of Anthony Asquith’a silent oeuvre, even if it was probably the slightest of his pre-sound films.  Then there was a welcome opportunity to enjoy once again Maurice Elvey’s remarkable Comradeship and to see again the irrepressive Ossi Oswaldo in The Oyster Princess.

But three films stood out in particular (and just to emphasise, not necessarily the  ‘best’ films, whatever that may mean, just the ones which proved most enjoyable).   Firstly there was The Alley Cat, an admittedly slight tale but one that proved consistently funny and in which Mabel Poulton excelled in a  human-dynamo sort of performance; Then there was The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge, a very clever (and funny) escapist fantasy but one which always retained its focus upon the human drama.  But the real high point of the festival was Spring Awakening, Wedekind (via Richard Oswald)’s story of teenage sexual awakening in Weimar Germany. With remarkable performances from virtually the whole cast the drama moves to its inevitable tragic climax eliciting feelings of anger, frustration and sadness but with a last hope of redemption for the surviving central character.  

Praise was due to the accompanists at the festival (Lillian Henley, Neil Brand, Elizabeth Jane Baldry) who all performed to perfection.  But special praise must go out to Stephen Horne who was in a particularly rich vein of form. Was it really any coincidence that the three screenings I enjoyed most were all accompanied by the good Mr Horne. And as usual, the festival ran with clockwork precision for which thanks must go to the organisers, the volunteers, projection and sound crew and the Phoenix Cinema staff.  

See you in 2021, hopefully.