Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Festival 2016

The Cinema Museum, Lambeth

     18-19 June 2016

It’s hard to believe that it has been a year since the first Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend.  But here we were, back once more in the splendid Cinema Museum, for their second annual festival.  And what a programme they had in store, ten features and almost as many shorts, only one of which (if memory serves) I’d seen before.  Was there really a better way to spend a weekend?

The programme kicked off at ten o’clock sharp with Bryony Dixon (Silent Film Curator at the BFI) introducing two shorts and a main feature.  First up was The Jest (Dir.Fred Paul, 1921, GB. 13mins) about a man who, in the years after his wife leaves him, pines for her return.  Eventually, in response to a newspaper advertisement he has placed, she appears to have come back but all is not as it seems.  Although quite atmospheric and building to a surprising climax this short had a somewhat distasteful feel with the increasingly cruel pranks played on the man by his fellow boarding house residents.  So there was no sense of sorrow when one of these pranksters got his come-uppance at the end.   (This film appears unavailable, either on disc or on-line.)

This was followed by what was clearly one of pianist John Sweeney’s favourite shorts, Barcelona (Dir. J Stevens-Edwards, 1927, GB. 11mins).  Any notion that the pop video dates back to the 1970s and 80s is neatly disproved with this film, produced to promote the song Barcelona, written in 1925 by composers Evans and Khan. Introduced by a glove puppet called Alphonse with a cod-Spanish accent (“Lets-a lift-a de roof, it no-a belong-a to me!!”) it featured a veritable kaleidoscope of images from the band revolving on a giant phonogram record (HMV of course!) to jazz-babes on a beach which could have been the sun-drenched south of France but was more likely the windswept coast of Kent.  Despite a rousing accompaniment from the said Mr Sweeney, the response to his encouragement to sing along on the chorus was a tad underwhelming.  But good fun nevertheless.  This was apparently one of a series of twelve ‘Syncopated Melodies’ from the same Producer.  It would be nice to see more.  (Sadly, I can find no version of this film in any format)

The day’s first main feature was The Head of The Family (Dir H Manning-Haynes, 1922, GB. 60mins).  At last years Ken Bio Festival we saw two of a series of Manning-Haynes films based on the stories of W W Jacobs ( A Will and a Way (1922) and The Boatswain’s Mate (1924)) both of which were just wonderful, so the opportunity to see another was hard to resist and boy did it live up to expectations.  In this film, a sailor (Robert Letts) pretended to be Mrs Green (Daisy England)’s long lost son in order to protect her from mistreatment by her new husband (Johnny Butt).  At first unsure of this course, the sailor was convinced once he set eyes on Mrs Green’s daughter, Betty (Cynthia Murtagh).  This film was just a delight. The ensemble acting was top notch, the plot very funny, the location shooting fascinating (possibly somewhere on the north Thames estuary?) and the print quality excellent.  One scene in particular stood out, as the sailor expressed his love for Betty he said words to the effect that ‘The month is December, but it feels like May’ and suddenly the bare trees around them burst into blossom, just beautifully done.  The tragedy is that these films are so little known.  Yet they are caught in a Catch22 situation, so little known because they are virtually unavailable but judged unworthy of wider release due to lack of demand precisely because they are so little known.  Come on BFI, surely you can justify release on the BFI Player at the very least!

Next up was Jazz Mad (F Harmon Weight, 1928, US. 70mins), introduced by Kevin Brownlow who admitted that he had once thought so little for this film that he had given it away in exchange for another but then, on reconsideration, felt it had merit and repurchased another copy.  I wasn’t so sure I agreed with his reconsideration.  If ever the phrase ‘overwrought melodrama’ applied to a film then this was it, with the story of a German composer (Jean Hersholt) and his daughter (Marion Nixon) seeking fame in America by hawking round a supposed symphonic masterpiece but being rejected at every turn and the composer ending up as the butt of a nightclub musical comedy act. Despite Universal clearly splashing the cash (the finale features a concert supposedly with 30,000 extras) the film failed to convince.  It had the feel of an Emil Jannings melodrama (such as The Last laugh (1924) or The Last Command (1928)), albeit with a more upbeat ending, but it never really measured up.  Hersholt was good as the composer (although a little over the top) but for me it is Roscoe Karns who stole the acting credits as the brash vaudeville agent, Sol Levy.  Yet while the film may not have measured up, the accompaniment from CyrusGabrysch was absolutely top notch, particularly the scenes where the composer is rehearsing with the nightclub ‘orchestra’ And why was it called Jazz Mad when jazz never even featured in the film!  (Somewhat surprisingly there is no indication of this film being available on DVD/BluRay or on-line.

After lunch we took a Franco-Japanese direction with Hara-Kiri (Dir. Marie-Louise Iribe,1928, Fr.  93mins). Apparently never given a UK distribution and almost unseen anywhere since its first release, this could conceivably be the first time this film has been screened publically in Britain.  Yet it had to be one of the most beautifully filmed pictures I have ever seen, right from the opening scene showing a woman pacing around a room yet we see only her hands, never her face.  But just from this it is clear not only that she was leaving her husband but that she was anxious, unsure, confused.  The woman (Marie-Louise Iribe, image right) was the Eurasian wife of French academic (Constant Remy) who was leaving him for a visiting Japanese prince (Liao Szi-Yen).  There was a fantastic overhead tracking shot following Iribe as she crossed a ballroom to meet the Prince with the camera then retreating to underline their intimacy together.  Also stunning was a scene in which layers of veil were lifted from the camera lens to reveal Iribe’s face and another of water (tears?) running down the lens which gradually obscures her features.  In fact, the film had the look and feel of what would now be classed as an art-house production (imagine a silent film directed by Godard or Chabrol and you might be getting close!). While the pacing may have been a little slow, Iribe as director and artistic manager provided a convincing portrayal of Japanese concepts of honour and tradition while as an actress she had a powerful screen presence.  But it was the visuals of Hara Kiri which so captivated; the alpine location shooting, the art deco hotel scenes and the traditional Shogun’s palace, all stunningly shot. And the accompaniment from Stephen Horne perfectly complemented the film, excelling particularly with his oriental themes. (Sadly, I can find no trace of this film on DVD/BluRay or on-line.)    

We then had Tony Fletcher introducing a selection of short films which had been screened at the London Film Society in the 1920s.  First up was Autumn Mists (Dir. Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1928, Fr. 12mins).  This came from the same Director/Actress partnership responsible for the much better known Menilmont (1926).  To my mind this was something of a victory of style over substance.  The photography was stunning, with shots of rain, falling leaves, reflections in water and a woman’s face (Nadia Sibirskaia, image left) all infused with some clever and effective optical effects. But what did it all mean?  The programme notes spoke of a poetic evocation of lost love.  Well, maybe.  There were certainly a lot of brooding glances and angst ridden eyes, like watching an Ingmar Bergman silent!  (Available on DVD as part of an Avant Garde compilation and there is a good quality version on YouTube.

Next up was Rain (Dir. Joris Ivens/Mannus Franken, 1929 Neth.  14mins). Coming from pioneer Dutch avant garde documentary film-maker Ivens, this is reminiscent of an Amsterdam set city-symphony but focusing on the arrival of a rainstorm and its impact on the city and its occupants.  With some beautiful, almost abstract, shots of falling rain, reflections in water and, in one particularly striking scene, the random patterns made by thousands of unfurled umbrellas, all shot with hand held cameras, it was another visual delight.  (Available on a Region 2 DVD compilation of Ivens’ work and is also viewable on YouTube.)

This was followed by A Film Director’s Nightmare (Dir. J Pinschewer, 1925, Ger.  4mins), a publicity film for the annual German film industrial fair.  It comprised a rapid fire montage of film production processes as well as glimpses of silhouette film-maker Lotte Reineger at work and other then-current films in production including Siegfried (1924).  (Not surprisingly, no sign of this film being available in any format.)

We then had a complete film from Lotte Reineger, Cinderella (Dir. Lotte Reineger, 1922, Ger. 13 mins).  This pre-dated her most well known feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), but was interesting in showing how her work was evolving.  I have to say that while I can appreciate the skill and patience involved in this form of silhouette animation work, it never really engages me at an emotional level although the grisly lengths to which those ugly sisters went to get their foot into the glass slipper was a bit of a shock.  Maybe this one should have at least a 12A rating!  (Available on Region 2 DVD in a Lotte Reiniger  ‘Fairy Tale Films’ compilation and on YouTube.

This was followed by a real gem in the form of The Fall of The House of Usher (Dir. Melville Webber, 1928, USA.  13 mins).  An avant garde experimental film based on the Poe story, this was heavily influenced by German expressionist cinema with impossibly angled film sets and bizarre camera angels reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1922) (indeed the character of ‘the traveller’ with his top hat even reminded one of Caligari himself). But it also drew from French cinema of the 1920s with the use of camera effects and optical distortions to represent mental disturbance.  And while a lack of inter-titles meant that the plot would have been difficult to follow without foreknowledge of Poe’s story, it was a visual delight.  Sadly, this film has been largely overshadowed by a French version of the same year directed by Jean Epstein.  (Does not seem to be available on BluRay/DVD but is viewable on YouTube in several differently scored versions.)

Finally we had Rachmaninioff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor  (Dir. Castleton Knight, 1927, GB. 7 mins) another interpretation of a Poe story, this one The Premature Burial and filmed in Knight’s own home.  Once again this needed at least some fore-knowledge of Poe’s story but the film had some striking images and a decidedly eerie feel.  (No sign of it being available on DVD/Blu-Ray but it can be viewed on the BFI Player – albeit without sound!.

Full marks to the pianist for this mixed bag of short films, Costas Fotopoulos, who had the challenge of providing accompaniment in a varied range of styles and settings and he succeeded admirably.   

Then it was time to get back to the features.  First up was The Red Mill (Dir. William Goodrich (aka Roscoe Arbuckle), 1927, US. 74 mins).  It was only relatively recently that I finally caught up with the film Show People (1928) and was knocked out by how good Marion Davies was, so I was really looking forward to  this rare showing of another of her films.  Here she played a lowly drudge working in The Red Mill tavern in Holland and infatuated with a visiting American (Owen Moore) who in turn had his eyes set on the wealthy Burgomaster’s daughter, Gretchen (Louise Fazenda).  In Show People, Davies had not been afraid to take on the self deprecating role of spoilt film diva.  Here she proved equally bold in taking on the plainest of lead characters, without benefit of make up or fine costume. And once again she demonstrated a fine sense of comic timing although some of the more visual gags, such as the ironing board scene, may have been more Arbuckle that Davies. There were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, particularly the mud-pack and multiple petticoats scenes.  Amongst the supporting cast Owen Moore had the good looks but that was about it while Louise Fazenda and Snitz Edwards were, as always, good value for money.  And while Hearst’s money was well spent here creating a lush spectacle, it was not one which overwhelmed Davies as was so often the case with the historical melodramas he was so keen to star her in.  So, all in all, I enjoyed this film, perhaps not as much as Show People but enough to further convince me that I had previously underestimated Marion Davies acting talents. The excellent accompaniment to the film was provided by Costas Fotopoulos who must have been worn out at the end having now pulled a ‘double shift’.  (Available on DVD as a Region 1 import.)     

And finally, to round off day one we had an encounter with The Man Who Laughs (Dir. Paul Leni, 1928, US. 110 mins).    Conrad Veidt (image right) plays Gwynplaine, the tragic hero who, as a child, had a permanent laugh carved into his face.  Grown up now and in love with the blind Mary Philbin he once more runs foul of the high placed villains responsible for his plight.  This was a real slice of grand-guignol, in the same vein as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notra Dame (1923), and Veidt was every bit as good in this production as Lon Chaney had been in those earlier films, aided by make-up artist supreme Jack Pierce.  Despite his fixed laugh he effectively captured the torture and tragedy of his situation.  The grotesque chief villain Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) was also excellent as was Olga Baclanova (image below right with Hurst) playing the earthy, fun loving Duchess Josiana.  But Mary Philbin was wasted as the blind Dea, required for the most part just to maintain a beatific smile. This was a big budget production and it shows.  With a cast in the thousands and sets on a grand scale, the night-time chase through the streets of Southwark was, even in a Hollywood-stylized recreation of 17th Century London, both evocative and exciting. And top marks go to the somewhat unfortunately named Homo the dog, for taking out the villain at the end.  This was great fun, even more so with a rousing accompaniment from Lillian Henley.  (Available on DVD in a couple of versions and viewable in full on YouTube with quite a rousing score).

Day two of the Second Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Festival kicked off with a western, albeit a low budget one from poverty-row producers Independent Pictures Corp., called The Fighting Smile (Dir. Jay Marchant, 1925, US. 55 mins), Bill Cody (signed by Independent Pictures as a gimmick on the strength of his name, despite having nothing to do with the real life Western hero,   played Bud Brant, returning home to protect his father’s ranch from cattle rustlers.  Along the way he discovered that his father’s ranch hand was in league with the rustlers while the newly discovered love of his life (Jean Arthur) was stepdaughter to the rustler-in-chief.  It all ended in a shoot-out at the rustlers hide-away and the good guys won (why are we not surprised!).  Cody might not have been Oscar material but he was  agile on horseback and could throw a good punch. But Jean Arthur added a touch of class, she might not have been asked to do much more than whimper a little, but she did it well.  There were enough holes in the plot to sink a battleship and overall the film might have been tosh, but it was enjoyable tosh which benefited greatly from Meg Morley’s accompaniment.  (No sign that this is available on disc or on line.)

Next up, Bryony Dixon introduced Paradise (Dir. Denison Clift, 1928, GB. 72 mins) starring Betty Balfour (studio shot, below right).  Balfour had made her name in light, comic roles, but this film had a more serious undertone. 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.  When Spirdoff was revealed to be a thief Kitty and her fiancé were reconciled and return to England.  When the film was first released, the audience probably approved of the ‘happy’ ending.  Yet Kitty only seemed to be truly happy amongst Spirdoff’s friends and the wistful look she gave to two of them who were happily in love despite not being married spoke volumes.  Revealing Spirdoff to be a thief was a bit of a plot cop-out neatly facilitating Kitty’s reconciliation with her fiancé.  The overwhelming view amongst today’s KenBio crowd seemed to be “ditch the boring fiancé and head to Berlin with Spirdoff”.  How attitudes have changed!  Despite what could now be seen as a somewhat downbeat ending, with Kitty dragged back to dreary London, this film was a delight. Balfour was excellent, 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). But there was nothing dreary about Lillian Henley’s excellent piano accompaniment.   (Not available on disc or on-line)

Then it was time for another kitchen sink drama, but of the Australian variety, with That Sentimental Bloke (Dir. Raymond Longford, 1919, Aust. 106 mins) introduced by film researcher Steve Morgan.  Based on a well loved book of verse by C J Dennis this is regarded by many as Australia’s greatest silent film.  It’s a film where nothing spectacular happens, it’s just a slice of life.  The ‘bloke’ (Arthur Tauchert) finds a girl (Lottie Lyell), looses her, wins her back, gets married and becomes a father.  But it all takes place with oh so much charm and effortless grace, much like yesterday’s Head of the Family.  Just like that film the ensemble acting was superb and the locales (a down at heal Sydney suburb) fascinating.  My only difficulty, to begin with at least, were the inter-titles, using Dennis’ slang laden text.  These took a few minutes to get the hang of but after that the film was just sheer joy. There were so many delightful moments but two stood out, the couple’s visit to the theatre to watch Romeo and Juliet together with the bloke suddenly worrying before his marriage that his girlfriend could turn into her mother!  I’m not sufficiently familiar with Australian cinema to judge whether this is indeed the greatest ever Australian silent, but if there is a better one it’s going to be a heck of a film.  And Meg Morley on piano provided us with the perfect accompaniment.  (Available on Region 0 DVD, at a price, and viewable on YouTube, albeit with the most annoying plinkity-plink piano accompaniment!)

Then the stage was given over briefly to film historian David Robison to relate the story of how he met with a 14 year old  schoolboy in the 1950s to watch a couple of reels of 9.5mm film he had discovered.  The schoolboy was of course |Kevin Brownlow and the film was the Vitagraph print of Napoleon (Dir. Abel Gance, 1927, Fr) which would set Kevin on his 50 year search to track down the complete print.  As well as hearing from Kevin himself the story of this search we got to see the original 9.5mm reels plus part of a documentary he made about the film’s restoration.  A truly fascinating session, with John Sweeney working wonders on the piano around a theme of Les Marseilles, to thunderous effect.  (The complete Napoleon will be screened at the Royal Festival Hall in November followed by a wider cinema and DVD/BluRay release.)

Keeping with the French theme we now had Cyrano De Bergerac (Dir. Augusto Genina, 1925, Fr/It. 113mins).  This was a fairly faithful retelling of the Rostand play, centered on nasally-challenged Cyrano (Pierre Magnier), the tounge-tied Christian (Angelo Ferrari) and their mutual love interest Roxanne (Linda Moglia).  This is a great film because its one of the earliest colour features, coloured in an incredibly time consuming process taking three years but producing a sumptuous colour quality.  But would it be a great film if it was just another black & white.  I’m not so sure. I did struggle with the first half of the plot but wasn’t sure if this stemmed from the plot itself or the onset of ‘film festival fatigue’.   And although faithful to the play, I did find the switch from comedy to tragedy after Christian’s death disconcerting.  But the film had other merits.  The large scale action scenes were impressive and well handled.  The acting was competent if not exceptional and the comedic touches were good.  So, on balance, a good if perhaps not exceptional film but one well worth seeing on account of the glorious colourisation, particularly if John Sweeney is accompanying it on piano.  (Available on DVD with just short clips on YouTube.)

And then, all too soon, we are on our last film, but what a cracker, the western Three Bad Men (Dir. John Ford, 1926, US. 92mins).  Just as in his 1924 classic western The Iron Horse, Ford here once again manages to combine the epic with the deeply intimate.   In this case the story of a massive land rush of Native American lands thought to contain gold is portrayed via the story of a girl (Olive Borden, image right) who is looked after by three wanted outlaws (Tom Santschi, J Farrell MacDonald and Frank Campaeu, image below eft) after her father is murdered.  The film betrays the usual Ford lightness of touch, particularly with the comedy scenes but also his total mastery of the epic action scenes (and they don’t come any bigger than the actual land rush in this film).  The acting is uniformly excellent.  Borden is superb as the sassy girl while Santschi is suitably grizzled as the head of the three bad men and MacDonald and Campaeu have immaculate comic timing.  The chemistry between Borden and leading man George O’Brien was such that they were soon an item in real life while Lou Tellege is the epitome of the evil villain.  Having always been a big fan of The Iron Horse I have to admit that Three Bad Men may just put it in the shade, while on piano Cyrus Gabrysch pulled out all the stops with a rousing finale.  (Available on DVD as a Region 1 import and view-able in its entirety on YouTube)

And with that the KenBio Silent Film Festival was over for another year.  As with last year’s event, it was well organised, the accompanists were uniformly excellent and there were comprehensive programme notes.  We had a good mix of films between domestic and foreign and between comedic and serious.  But more than that, the focus remains on the little seen, the little known and the obscure, because such films are always worthy of screening and more often than not reveal some hidden gems.  While we can always get to see a Caligari or a Nosferatu, this weekend will likely be the only chance many of us ever get to see such extraordinarily good films as  Hara Kiri, Paradise or Head of the Family.  The KenBio’s approach underlines its position as the country’s most innovative exhibitor of silent films, doing what the BFI should do, what it used to do and what it no longer does.  Long may such an attitude prevail as we’re already looking forward to next year’s festival.