Review of the Year: 2016 :  Review of the Year: 2016

Film Listings

The end of 2016 marked the first full year in which has been up and running so we thought that this would be an appropriate time at which to offer up a few thoughts on how the year has been from a silent film listing perspective. Perhaps a good place to start would be in terms of numbers of silent films being shown across the country.  Over the course of the 2016 we managed to list 548 silent film events.  There was quite a wide monthly variation with just 16 screenings in August and a high of 86 in November.      Broken down regionally, the largest number of these screenings were almost always in London and the South East but there were a respectable number of screenings in several other areas although regional highs usually occurred in specific months reflecting particular silent film festival events (eg the January Slapstick festival in the South West, HippFest in Scotland in March or the July Yorkshire Silent Film Festival in the North of England.).

Although we do our best to list every silent film event we come across, we don’t claim to be all inclusive.  There are silent film screenings which we do not hear about until after the event and there must be others which we never hear about at all.  Trying to quantify what we don’t know is obviously quite a challenge but we’d like to think that we are listing the majority of silent film events.  To this end, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say we are including perhaps 75% of them. So, if we add in another 25% to the 548 screenings we have listed, to cover the ones we probably miss, then that gives a total of around 680 screenings for the year, or almost two silent film screenings per day nationwide which strikes us as a quite respectable figure for what is regarded supposedly as very much a niche area of the overall film viewing market.

‘Bums on Seats’

So how does this translate in terms of ‘bums on seats’?  Clearly it’s another challenge to come up with an average audience number for a silent film event.  We’ve been to silent film screenings this year with as few as 25 people present or to events with 1000+ in the audience.  But on balance we’re going to say that an audience of 150 is probably typical.  In this case, our 548 listed events would give a total audience of just over 80,000 people and factoring in another 25% for events we may have missed this gives us an overall audience of just over 100,000, again quite a respectable total for a supposed niche interest area.

And What Films Were We Watching?

Well, it’s not as if there wasn’t a broad range of films to choose from.  In all, we counted 197 different silent films being screened over the year, covering every possible film genre, be it drama, war, western, adventure, comedy, romance, science fiction, documentary, you name it, it was all on offer.  The most frequently shown film of the year was Battle of the Somme (Dir. Geoffrey Malins, 1916) with 51 recorded screenings.  This is perhaps not surprising given the campaign to present it one hundred times during the 100th anniversary year of the actual battle of the Somme, each time with a live orchestra playing the acclaimed Laura Rossi composed score.  Coming in #second with an impressive 43 screenings was Napoleon (Dir. Abel Gance, 1927), particularly striking given that watching this film involves a 332 minute commitment, a reflection both of the dedication shown by silent film fans and, of course, the quality of the film on show.

In third place with 20 screenings was Shooting Stars (Dir. Anthony Asquith, 1927). Next up with 18 screenings was Nosferatu (Dir. F W Murnau, 1922), followed by Play On: Shakespeare on Silent Film  (Dir. various, 2015) with 15 while Sunrise : A Song Of Two Humans (Dir. F W Murnau, 1927) and Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lange, 1927)  shared the next slot with 13 screenings each, just edging out Phantom of the Opera (Dir. Rupert Julian, 1925) with 12.  The inclusion of Nosferatu, Sunrise, Metropolis and Phantom in this group is not surprising given their status as widely regarded popular classics of silent cinema.  The inclusion of Shooting Stars and Play On is more unexpected but results largely from multiple showings at the BFI Southbank’s small Studio screen helping to promote its own release of both films on disc.

Further down the list we had;

8 Screenings  –   The General (Dir. Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, 1926), Wonder der Schopfung (akaWonder of Creation) (Dir. Hanns Walter Kornblum,1925 , The Lodger : A Story of the London Fog (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

7 Screenings  –    Steamboat Bill Jr (Dir. Charles Reisner/Buster Keaton, 1928) , Safety Last (Dir . Fred C Newmeyer/Sam Taylor, 1923)

6 Screenings  –   Arsenal (Dir. Oleksandr Dovzhenko, 1928) , Vampyr (Dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1932)  , The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

5 Screenings  –   The Immigrant (Dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1917) , The Kid (Dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1921), Make More Noise – Suffragettes In Silent Film (Dir. Various, 2015), Man With A Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) , One Week (Dir.  Edward F Cline/Buster Keaton, 1920) , Piccadilly (Dir.  E A Dupont, 1929) , Underground (Dir. Anthony Asquith, 1928),  Battleship Potemkin (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1926)

4 Screenings –  The Cameraman (Dir. Edward Sedgwick & Buster Keaton, 1928 ) , Liberty (Dir.  Leo McCarey, 1929) , The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Dir. Lotte Reiniger  1926)  ,  A Pair of Tights (Dir.  Hal Yates, 1929)  , Sherlock Jr (Dir.  Buster Keaton, 1924) , Peter Pan (Dir. Herbert Brenon, 1924) , Hamlet (Dir. Svend Gard/Heinz Schall, 1920).

Amongst these screenings there were few surprises as most are popular classics although it was nice to see the German documentary Wonder der Schopfung in this list, aided by its excellent live musical accompaniment, as well as the superb Asta Neilson version of Hamlet and the somewhat dark and sinister Peter Pan, particularly good with Elizabeth Jane Baldry’s superb harp accompaniment.

Where Were We Watching Them?

If nothing else, silent cinema demonstrates that there is no such thing as a typical film venue.  During 2016, silent films were screened in cathedrals, churches, church halls, town halls, community centres, public houses, schools, museums, castles, country houses, national parks, a swimming pool, a nissan hut and even a railway station….oh, and in a few cinemas as well.  In all, we counted 263 different silent film venues during the year of all shapes and sizes.  The most frequent silent film venue was the BFI Southbank in London with 78 screenings.  Perhaps this is not surprising given its supposed position as the country’s premier film archive and restoration centre.  But all is not as rosy as it appears.  True, there were some rare and innovative screenings, particularly documentary compilations associated with the First World War (on subjects such as food, animation and propaganda) as well as a couple of superb silents as part of the Black Star season (Body & Soul (Dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1925) and The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Dir. Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter, and Sam Corker Jr., 1913) ).  But there were numerous repeat screenings (14 for Shooting Stars and 13 for Play On: Shakespeare on Silent Film).  There were also less numerous repeat screenings for other popular classics (Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis and The General) which can be regularly viewed in any number of other venues.  As a result, of the 78 screenings at the BFI Southbank, there were just 35 different titles.

In contrast, the second most frequent screening venue, the Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, screened 42 films and they were 42 different titles.  As usual with the KenBio their emphasis during 2016 was on the little seen, the little known and the obscure, which has further underlined their position as the country’s most innovative exhibitor of silent films   Honours for third most frequent screener of silents goes jointly to the Barbican in London and the Watershed in Bristol with 15 films each.  The Barbican maintained a modest but eclectic mix of both popular and less well known titles, invariably complemented nicely with a diverse range of quality accompanists.  The bulk of the Watershed’s silents came as part of the Bristol Slapstick Festival but also included a brave and apparently very successful decision to screen Napoleon four times in December. Other frequent exhibitors included Regent St Cinema in London and the Hippodrome in Bo’ness  with 12 screenings each; Cambridge Picture House with 11; the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds and the Lansdown Pub in Bristol with 9 each; the Curzon Clevedon with 8; and the Phoenix Finchley with 7.

Film Highlights of 2016

So what were the silent film highlights of 2016.  In early January, London’s Close-up Cinema held a short season of Eisenstein films.  The end of the month saw the annual Slapstick Festival in Bristol, with the silent film strand centred around the Watershed Cinema.  Although a little out of place in a festival of slapstick the highlight was a Russian classic, Bed and Sofa (Dir. Abram Room, 1927) although Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Enny’Day in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (Dir. John Emerson, 1916) had the most astonished laughs!  February saw an evening of ‘women in silent film’ at the KenBio, marking the launch of a new book on the subject and highlighted by a rare showing of Shoes (Dir. Lois Weber, 1916).  March saw the KenBio’s screening of the superb Girl With The Hat Box (Dir. Boris Barnet, 1927) starring the fantastic Anna Sten.  The Barbican also screened the fabulous Hamlet (Dir. Svend Gard/Heinz Schall, 1920) with Asta Nielson in the starring role as part of a fascinating season of Shakespeare in silent film.  The month ended with the annual Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in Bo’ness, with the highlights including a beautifully restored print of Variety (Dir. E A Dupont, 1925) with sublime score by Stephen Horne, Mania (Dir. Eugen Iles, 1918) starring Pola Negri and with superb score by Polish electro-rock outfit Czerwie and the fascinating documentary Wonder der Schopfung (Dir. Hanns Walter Kornblum, 1925) with music by electro/acoustic jazz duo Herschel 36.  There was also a weekend of Ukrainian classics by the likes of Vertov, Kaufman and Dovzhenko held at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle.

April saw a beautifully restored Polish classic, People With No Tomorrow (Dir. Aleksander Hertz, 1921) playing at the Regent Street Cinema as part of the Kinoteka Polish Film Festival with a superb tango-based live score. Birmingham’s Flatpack Festival also saw a string of classics playing at venues around the city including The Last Laugh (F W Murnau, 1924) and Faust (Dir. F W Murnau, 1926) while Frau im Mond  (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1929) screened at the Elephant & Castle Coronet in London with a ‘live and unique cine-mix’ musical accompaniment by Techno pioneer Jeff Mills.  In May Carl Davies conducted a full orchestral accompaniment to Ben-Hur (Dir. Fred Niblo, 1925) at the Birmingham Symphony Hall while on the South coast the Worthing World of Words (WOW) festival kicked off with some real rarities including A Lowland Cinderella (Dir. Sidney #Morgan, 1921) and Back To God’s Country (Dir. David Hartford/Nell Shipman, 1919).  The highpoint in June was the KenBio’s Silent Film Weekend, two glorious days of rarities you are never likely to see again including the sublimely beautiful Hara Kiri (Dir. Marie Louise Iribe, 1928) and the wonderful Head of the Family (Dir. H Manning-Haynes, 1922).  Other classics included The Man Who Laughs (Dir. Paul Leni, 1928) and The Red Mill (Dir. William Goodrich (Roscoe Arbuckle), 1927).  Kevin Brownlow also brought along his original 9.5mm print of Napoleon (Dir. Able Gance, 1927) which set him on his 50 year quest to restore the film to its original glory.  Kevin had another success at the KenBio in June with the first of two presentations of some of his other 9.5mm Vitagraph films, the highlight of which was the only surviving version of Captain Blood (Dir. David Smith, 1924).

July was dominated by the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, a fantastic undertaking, consisting of 31 silent film screenings throughout the month spread across the whole county, all with live accompaniment.  Highlights included The Wind (Dir. Victor Sjostrom, 1927), Orchids and Ermine (Dir. Alfred Santell, 1927) with the irrepressible Colleen Moore, The Blot (Dir. Lois Weber/Phillips Smalley, 1921), Helen of Four Gates (Dir. Cecil Hepworth, 1920), our old favourite Hindle Wakes (Dir Maurice Elvey, 1927) as well as all of the Chaplin’s Mutual comedies.  A great month to be in Yorkshire.  August saw the start of an excellent series of silent compilations at the BFI Southbank on aspects of the First World War (food, animation, propaganda, animals etc) as well as a number of WW1 associated features including The Guns of Loos (Dir. Sinclair Hill, 1928).  September’s highlight was probably The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dir. C T Dreyer, 1928) screened at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London with a score by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).

In October, performances of The Battle of the Somme (Dir. Geoffrey Malins, 1916) accompanied live by the Laura Rossi orchestral score really got going.  The Barbican in London also premiered The Adventures of Robin Hood (Dir. Alan Dwan, 1922) with a new orchestral score by Neil Brand.  For unfathomable reasons the BFI Southbank choose the very same evening to premier a new score to The Informer (Dir . Arthur Robinson, 1929) as part of the London Film Festival, the only other silent highlight of which was A Woman of The World (Dir. Malcolm St Clair, 1925).  The Cambridge Film Festival also included some silent classics including Destiny (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1921), Les Deux Timides (Dir. Rene Claire, 1928) and Salome (Dir. Charles Bryant, 1922) .  We also had the KenBio’s Silent Laughter Weekend, the highpoint of which was either the drunk pantomime horse in The Better ‘Ole  (Dir.  Charles Reisner, 1926) or the facial expressions of the chicken eating diners in Pass The Gravy (Dir.Fred Guiol and Leo McCarey, 1928).    November was obviously dominated by Napoleon (Dir. Able Gance, 1927) with full live orchestral accompaniment at London’s Royal Festival Hall together with cinema showings across the country as well as a superb release on disc.  But we also had a rare screening at the KenBio of the silent version of Prix de Beauté (Dir. Augusto Genina, 1930) starring the wonderful Louise Brooks and a superb Czech romantic drama Erotikon (Dir.Gustav Machatý, 1929) at the Barbican with spellbinding score played on the theremin. There was also the first of two excellent silents screened at BFI Southbank as part of their Black Stars season, The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Dir.  Edwin Middleton/ T Hayes Hunter, 1913), unique in being only recently compiled from rushes which had been in store since first shot in 1913.  The second, shown in December, was Body and Soul  (Dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1925), Paul Robeson’s only silent film appearance, accompanied by a truly superb jazz score.

Our Top Ten Of The Year

And that was it, 2016 silent film screenings in a nutshell.  So, should we try and pick out the ten best events of the year?  Absolutely not, partly because we didn’t see all of the films we listed but mainly because such a subjective judgement can only be down to you.  However, what we will do is list the ten most enjoyable silent events we have seen during the year.  Not necessarily the best films or the best accompaniment, just screenings that left us with that ‘wow’ feeling when the house lights came back on. And these were (in date order);

Bed and Sofa (Dir. Abram Room, 1927) – 21 January at the Watershed Cinema, Bristol with live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.  For a 1920s film, a breathtakingly modern storyline, beautifully directed, with superbly naturalistic acting.  Any film that could be banned both by Communist Russia and capitalist America has got to have a lot going for it and it was nicely complemented by John Sweeney on piano.

Girl With The Hat Box (Dir. Boris Barnet, 1927) – 2 March at the Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.  Another Russian classic, worth watching for the stunning Anna Sten’s eyes alone but its also a superbly clever romantic comedy and the perfect antidote to the ‘serious’ Soviet classics being turned out at this time by Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Co.   John Sweeney’s enjoyment of this film was certainly reflected in his enthusiastic accompaniment.

When The Earth Trembled (Dir. Barry O’Neil, 1913) – 4 March at the Fleapit Cinema Club, Westerham with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.  This recently restored gem is the story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the film and is a case study in just how much breathtaking action you can squeeze into only 43 minutes of nitrate.  Stephen Horne came along with the biggest drum you have ever seen which, when struck, really did make the building quake.

Hamlet (Dir. Svend Gard/Heinz Schall, 1920) – 6 March at the Barbican with live musical accompaniment by Robin Harris, Laura Anstee and Aaron May.   Admittedly playing fast and loose with Shakespeare’s original story by having Asta Nielsen play Hamlet as a woman disguised as a man, this was a cracking good adaption with Nielsen superb with a subtle, under-stated and naturalistic acting style.  Great fun especially with multi instrumentalists Robin Harris and Laura Anstee plus electronics wiz Aaron May creating a complex collage of acoustic and electronic sound which complemented the film beautifully.#

Variety (Dir. E A Dupont, 1925) – 19 March at the Hippodrome, Bo’Ness with live music accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.  With what could have been a template for 1940s Hollywood film noir, the cinematography of Karl Freund is fantastic and Lya de Putti is knockout as the young seductress.  But this screening was special because the quality of the restored print simply took your breath away while the accompaniment from Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius was just out of this world.

Hara Kiri (Dir. Marie-Louise Iribe,1928)  – 18 June at the Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live musical accompaniment from Stephen Horne.  Possibly the first time this film has ever been screened publically in Britain, and one of the most visually stunning and exquisitely directed silent films I have ever seen, breathtaking!  If you ever get a chance to see this film, don’t miss it. As ever, the accompaniment from Stephen Horne perfectly complemented the film, excelling particularly with its oriental themes.#

Three Bad Men ((Dir. John Ford, 1926,) – 19 June at the Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch.  Having long considered The Iron Horse to be the finest silent era Western, after this viewing it now has to take second place.  Three Bad Men underlines Ford’s genius in combining the epic with the deeply intimate, as well as an absolute gift for comedy and Olive Borden is a revelation as the sassy cowgirl.  The rousing finale was made all the more exciting by Cyrus Gabrysch’s excellent accompaniment.

Orchids and Ermine (Dir. Alfred Santell, 1927) – 3 July at the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds with live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley.  At last, a chance to see this Colleen Moore rarity and what fun it was with Moore allowed ample opportunity to display her indomitable spirit and natural talent for light comedy.  Frequently laugh out loud funny, it fairly zipped along, much helped by Lillian Henley’s sparky accompaniment.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dir. C T Dreyer, 1928) – 19 September at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London with a score by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).  Dominated by the performance of Renee Jeanne Falconetti in the title role, this is a film more to be experienced than enjoyed, with an almost visceral intensity.  The musical accompaniment performed on electric guitars, percussion, horns, harp and synthesizers plus choir perfectly captured the brooding passion of the film.

Prix de Beaute (Dir. Augusto Genina, 1930) – 1 November at Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne.  Revolving around Louise Brooks’ portrayal of Lucienne, it beautifully serves to highlight the astonishing breadth of her acting ability (and she looks stunning as well). Stephen Horne’s accompaniment added an extra emotional depth to the film and beautifully captured both the highs and lows.

Body and Soul (Dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1925) – 5 December at BFI Southbank, London with live musical accompaniment by the Peter Edwards Trio.  Although technically rather a primitive film for its time, Body & Soul tackles some challenging issues.  Paul Robeson dominates as the corrupt preacher but the screening was really made by the outstanding jazz score from Peter Edwards.

But before we finish, a quick word to everyone involved in any of the silent film screenings we have listed over the year, whether you are organisers, film programmers, venue staff. projectionists, musicians or even just the people who make the tea and coffee.  Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the enjoyment you have given us with these screenings over the past twelve months.  We can only hope for more of the same in 2017.