Its that time of the year again when we take a few minutes to look back at silent film events of the previous year in order to highlight some of the highs (and lows!) of 2018; make some comparisons with previous years; attempt to identify one or two trends and pick out some of our favourite events of the year.
As usual, all of our statistics are based upon the listings we have compiled throughout the year. Although we seek to make these as comprehensive as possible, there are screenings which we subsequently discover we have missed (in Donald Rumsfeld’s strangulated English parlance the ‘known unknowns’) while there must be others which pass us by completely unnoticed (the ‘unknown unknowns’!). In the hope that we are doing a reasonable job in pulling together most silent film screenings nationwide, we’ll continue to assume that we are about 80% successful.
During the course of 2018 we listed a grand total of 735 silent film screenings nationwide. This figure represents just a modest increase on the 714 screenings recorded the previous year and, using our 80% assumption, means that around 880 silents were probably screened during the year.
London and the South East continues to dominate silent screenings, accounting for almost two thirds of the total but the South West of England is fast becoming a significant player, with over sixty screenings during the year. This is thanks largely to the ever expanding ambitions of South West Silents in the Bristol area and beyond (and who thoroughly deserved their ‘Silent Hero’ award in this year’s Silent London poll) as well as the valiant efforts of accompanists Wurlitza in their lonely task of bringing silent film to the Devon and Cornwall region. The Yorkshire region are also benefited from this year’s Yorkshire Silent Film Festival although we will miss their contribution in 2019 with the festival apparently switching to a bi-annual event. Scotland maintains a modest level of screenings but in the Midlands, East of England, Wales and Ireland screenings remain a comparative rarity.
Screenings for 2018 were dominated by the cinematic re-release of two films, Pandora’s Box (Dir. G W Pabst, Ger, 1929) and Shiraz (Dir. Franz Osten, 1928), which accounted for over a quarter of all screenings during the year. By far the most successful film of the year was Pandora’s Box with 122 screenings (compared to just nine the previous year). This was also significantly higher than 2017’s most screened film, Der Mude Tod (Dir. Fritz Lang, Ger, 1921) with 80 screenings. Shiraz in second place with 65 screenings was also well ahead of the 2017 second place film Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lang, Ger, 1927) which was screened 52 times. In third place was the modern silent Arcadia with 20 recorded screenings (although this figure is likely to have been much higher with some first-run cinema screenings likely being missed.). Reflecting continued commemoration of the centenary of the end of World War One, Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (Dir. Geoffrey Malins, UK, 1917) was fourth with 16 screenings while a re-release late in the year of some of Mabel Normand’s classic shorts came in fifth with 15 screenings.
Further down the order, Phantom of the Opera (Dir. Rupert Julian, US, 1925) screened 14 times while Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lang, Ger, 1927) and The General (Dir. Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman, 1926) both got 13 outings. A Cottage on Dartmoor (Dir. Anthony Asquith, 1929) was shown 12 times as was Dawson City – Frozen Time (Dir. Bill Morrison, US, 2016) which, although perhaps not technically a silent, was a fabulous documentary on silent film and did let the pictures largely speak for themselves. The Lodger (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1927) and Sherlock Jr (Dir. Buster Keaton, 1924) both got 11 screenings, The Lost World (Dir. Harry Hoyt, US, 1925) got 10 and another modern silent, London Symphony (Dir. Alex Barrett, UK, 2017) got 9.
Then on 6 screenings came The Penalty (Dir. Wallace Worsley, US, 1920 ) and the BFI compilation Around India With A Movie Camera ( Dir. Various, 1905-1930). Speedy (Dir. Ted Wilde, US, 1928), Brighton – Symphony of a City (Dir. Lizzie Thynne, UK, 2015), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1928), The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Dir. Lotte Reiniger , Ger, 1926), Piccadilly (Dir E A Dupont, UK, 1929), The Unknown (Dir. Tod Browning, US, 1927), Sunrise (Dir. F W Murnau, US, 1927) and Beggars of Life (Dir. William Wellman, 1928) all had five screenings.
Drawing comparisons with last year, Metropolis remains a perennial favourite as do Phantom of the Opera and A Cottage on Dartmoor, probably due largely to their regular screenings by accompanists Minima and Wurlitza respectively. The Lodger and The Lost World also remain popular. Buster Keaton is another favourite with Sherlock Jr although this year The General looks to have replaced The Cameraman amongst his most frequent screenings. It is also encouraging to see The Penalty, The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Unknown getting more regular screenings.
With just two films accounting for over a quarter of the total number of screenings in 2018 and with this total figure not increasing significantly on the previous year there was the possibility that the range of films being screened in 2018 would be less than in 2017. However, this did not prove to be the case. In fact the total number of different films screened during the year actually increased, from 259 in 2017 to 262 last year.
The total number of screening venues declined in 2018 to 238, compared to 281 the previous year and 263 in 2016. However, the range of venues remains as varied as in previous years and this year included for the first time, two shops, a pier, a miner’s welfare club, an historic boathouse, a public records office and a former horse hospital. A particular trend appears to be the increasing use of churches and cathedrals as venues for silent film screenings, accounting for around a tenth of all screenings last year.
As with the previous two years, the most significant screening location was the BFI Southbank in London. In fact, its significance became even stronger in 2018 with 145 screenings compared to 88 the previous year. This increase was accounted for largely by a 33 screening run for both Pandora’s Box and Shiraz and a 19 screening run for Arcadia. Given that all three films were BFI releases their heavy promotion at this venue is perhaps not surprising. However, it is unclear how well attended they were. From our own (admittedly limited) observation, the screenings with live accompaniment were well attended but much less so for those with recorded scores. As well as the increased number of total silent film screenings at BFI there were other positives about this venue in 2018. The number of silent films seemingly used as programme ‘gap fillers’ with recorded scores appears to have declined while the introduction of a regular Sunday afternoon slot for silent film has resulted in an improved range of less well known silents being screened, such as Mother of Men (Dir. Willis Robards, US, 1917), Blighty (Dir. Adrian Brunei, UK, 1927), The Racket (Dir. Lewis Milestone, US, 1928) and The First Born (Dir. Miles Mander, UK, 1928). It is to be hoped that this improved regular programming continues (although the signs already in early 2019 are not good!).
But when it comes to good programming, it is the Cinema Museum and its resident Kennington Bioscope that continued to excel in 2018 (deservedly picking up Silent London’s ‘Best Venue’ award.). They retained their second most significant screening venue slot, with the number of films screened increasing from 42 in 2017 to 58 last year. Not only did they stage their regular ‘Silent Film’ and ‘Comedy Film’ weekends but there was also a ‘Silent Train Film Day’ and a ‘Silent Films of World War One’ day. However the significance of KenBio isn’t so much in the number of films shown but in their range and quality. Their mantra remains the little known, the rarely screened and the long forgotten, but always with an emphasis on quality. Particular delights this year included The Bride of Glomdal (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Nor., 1926 ), The Ghost Train (Dir. Geza von Bolvary, UK/Ger, 1927 ), Sam’s Boy (Dir.H Manning Haynes, GB, 1922), Miss Lulu Bett (Dir. William C De Mille, US, 1921), The Golden Butterfly (Dir. Michael Curtiz, Aust-Ger, 1926) and oh, so many more. All accompanied by top notch piano accompaniment and knowledgeable introductions, including from renowned silent film historian Kevin Brownlow who also provides many of the rare titles screened.
Amongst other significant venues, a number were based upon multiple showings of the same film. For example, the Edinburgh Filmhouse screened 21 silents (although this included 16 screenings of Pandora’s Box!), Home Manchester screened 16 (but made up largely of 13 Shiraz screenings) and the Belmont Aberdeen screened 10 (all Pandora’s Box). Of more interest,the Hippodrome in Bo’Ness screened 19 silents (compared to 20 the previous year) in a varied and quality programme mainly during its HippFest. The Watershed in Bristol screened 14 (the same as in 2017) largely as part of the excellent Slapstick Festival). Both the Genesis and the Barbican in London screened 11, those at Genesis a result of their newly resident accompanists Grok, while the Barbican screenings although of high quality declined in number compared to the 20 of 2017. Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds screened a respectable 12 and Abbeydale Cinema in Sheffield 11, both largely as part of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival. Another positive development were the 9 films screened at the Palace Cinema in Broadstairs, accompanied by resident pianist Lillian Henley.
One downturn amongst screening venues last year was the lack of first-run cinema chains. The 2017 re-releases of Der Mude Tod and Metropolis were picked up by chains such as Picture House and Curzon, But the same was not true in 2018 for the re-release of Pandora’s Box and Shiraz, with screenings being focused much more more on independent cinemas and film clubs and societies.
Film Highlights of 2018
January got off to an interesting start with the screening of one of the few surviving Indian silents, Gallant Hearts (aka Diler Jagar) (Dir. GP Pawar, Ind, 1931), at the BFI with a fascinating musical pairing of Stephen Horne on piano/flute/accordion and Jeevan Singh on percussion. Stephen Horne reappeared at the Barbican along with Martin Pyne for the beautifully restored Variety (Dir. E A Dupont, Ger, 1925). South West Silents kicked off the year with a Herbert Bosworth night while at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival Constance Talmadge raised the roof in Her Night of Romance (Dir. Sidney Franklin, UK, 1924), as did Buster Keaton in his last and much underrated silent Spite Marriage (Dir. Edward Sedgwick/Buster Keaton, USA, 1929) although Cocl & Seff: Austria’s Laurel & Hardy only really went to prove that there was only one L&H. The much anticipated re-release of Shiraz (Dir. Franz Osten, 1928) pretty much dominated February screenings although the Kennington Bioscope fought back with the wonderful The Bride of Glomdal (aka Glomdalsbruden) (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Nor., 1926) a beautiful and lyrical poem of life in rural Norway. In complete contrast, Bristol’s Cube screened the unutterably dark Behind The Door (Dir. Irvin Willat, 1919) while the Palace Cinema in Broadstairs had a rare screening of Hitchcock’s debut film The Pleasure Garden (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1925) offering an early chance to spot all the later iconic Hitchcock motifs used here for the very first time. March meant HippFest so we were off to The Hippodrome in Bo’Ness for what was a top notch festival, highlights including an enthralling talk from Prof.Paul Pickowicz on gender stereotyping in Chinese silent film, a stunning score by David Allison for Last of the Mohicans (Dir. Maurice Tourneur/Clarence Brown, US, 1920) and the unutterably bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan with wild and wacky score from Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. Stephen Horne was on superb form again alongside Frank Bockius for Striving (Fen Dou) (Dir. Shi Dongshan, China, 1932) while John Sweeney did an equally good job with Shiraz (Dir. Franz Osten, 1928). Other highlights of the month included stylish Polish melodrama The Call Of The Sea (aka Zew Morza) (Dir. Henryk Szaro, Pol, 1927) at Barbican London, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Dir. Rex Ingram, US, 1921) in Dublin and Manchester and plus Garbo in The Mysterious Lady (Dir. Fred Niblo, US, 1928) at the Festival Hall. Then there was the KenBio’s ‘Silent Laughter Weekend’ with classics from Raymond Griffith, The Night Club (Dir. Paul Iribe/Frank Urson, US, 1925), Beatrice Lillie, Exit Smiling (Dir. Sam Taylor, US, 1926), and Max Linder, Seven Years Bad Luck (Dir. Max Linder, US, 1921).
April was notable for a short tour of the Russian epic Arsenal (Dir. Aleksandr Dovzhenko, USSR, 1928) with live score from the ever inventive Bronnt Industries Kapital. Stephen Horne (again!) was in Birmingham accompanying Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Dir. Benjamin Christensen, Swe., 1922) with live translation of the Swedish inter-titles by Reece Shearsmith. Bristol’s Watershed had some tasty Treasures From The Turin Film Museum (Dir. Various, It, 1910-11) while the Barbican had silent film diva Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (Dir. Urban Gad, Ger, 1913). Meanwhile, the Austrian Cultural Forum in London began a short series of von Stroheim classics with Blind Husbands (Dir. Erich von Stroheim, US, 1919) and Foolish Wives (Dir. Erich von Stroheim, US, 1922). This series continued into May with the controversial (in every sense) Queen Kelly (Dir. Erich von Stroheim, US, 1929). The KenBio took us out East with the superb Tokyo Chorus (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Jap, 1931) while the BFI had crime classic The Racket (Dir. Lewis Milestone, US, 1928). Italian diva Francesca Bertini made it to Glasgow in Assunta Spina (Dir. Gustavo Serena and Francesca Bertini, It, 1915) but the month was dominated by the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival. Neil Brand accompanied Oliver Twist (Dir. Frank Lloyd, US, 1922) while harpist Elizabeth Jane Baldry took on the challenge of Beggars of Life (Dir. William Wellman, 1928) and Sunrise; A Song of Two Humans (Dir. F W Murnau, US, 1927). Festival highlight was probably the very rare screening of Louise Brooks’ Prix de Beaute (Dir. Augusto Genino, Italy, 1929). Elsewhere, at the Cinema Museum acclaimed silent film historian Kevin Brownlow got to introduce some of his favourite silent film clips while the KenBio had another hit with Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer (Dir. Herbert Brennon, US, 1923). June was pretty much the month of the newly re-released Pandora’s Box (Dir. G W Pabst, Ger, 1929) with screenings just about everywhere! But there was still space for Josephine Baker in Siren of the Tropics (Dir. Mario Nalpas/Henri Etievant, Fr, 1927) at the BFI. At the Phoenix in Finchley, the newly restored The Ancient Law (Dir. E A Dupont, Ger, 1923) proved to be an instant classic, helped by Meg Morley’s superb accompaniment. Equally good was the KenBio’s The Road To Happiness (Dir. Michael Curtiz, Aust, 1926) and there was still time for Clara Bow to prove that she certainly had It (Dir. Clarance Badger, US, 1927) at the BFI.
Russian diva Alla Nazimova kicked off July at the KenBio with an oh-so over-the-top performance in The Red Lantern (Dir. Albert Capellani, US, 1919 ) but things were a bit more down to earth with the KenBio’s ‘Silent Trains’ day. There were some real surprises here including a low budget precursor to Keaton’s The General, Railroad Raiders of ’62 (1911), but the real highlight had to be The Ghost Train (Dir. Geza von Bolvary, UK/Ger, 1927) which really came to life with Ilse Bois’ performance as the hilariously inebriated Miss Bourne. The month really did belong to the KenBio with another superb film, H G Wells’ gentle romantic comedy Kipps (Dir. Howard M Shore, UK, 1921) beautifully accompanied by Neil Brand although Bristol’s Watershed did also get a look in with some Scandinavia gloom in the form of The Phantom Carriage (Dir. Victor Sjostrom, Swe, 1921), accompanied (yet again!) by Stephen Horne. The Scandinavian theme continued in August with Vampyr (Dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1932) at the Chichester Festival. There was lots more Pandora’s Box (Dir. G W Pabst, Ger, 1929) across the country and some L’Age d’or (Dir. Luis Bunuel, Fr, 1930) at the BFI. September opened with South West Silents’ Silent Open Day in Bristol and a string of surprise screenings. We then had the KenBio’s fourth annual Silent Film Weekend. Highlights were another Manning-Haynes/Hayward/W W Jacobs film, Sam’s Boy (Dir.H Manning Haynes, GB, 1922), the uplifting and surprisingly modern Miss Lulu Bett (Dir. William C De Mille, US, 1921) and Russian railway building epic Turksib (Dir Victor A Turin, USSR, 1929) with breathless piano accompaniment from Costas Fotopoulos. Oh, and nothing could really prepare you for the sheer spectacle that was Lily Damita in The Golden Butterfly (Dir. Michael Curtiz, Aust-Ger, 1926). The month ended in a boat shed in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, the No.6 Cinema,a surprisingly apt place to see a series of naval themed films organised by the geographically expanding South West Silents. There was Eisenstein classic Battleship Potemkin (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) and little known drama-documentary Zeebrugge (Dir. A V Brambell/H Bruce Woolfe, UK, 1924). But most interest focused upon Nelson (Dir. Maurice Elvey, UK, 1918) although this proved a little episodic and only really came to life during the Naples uprising scenes, where director Maurice Elvey’s skills really shone through. The month ended with L’Hirondelle et la Mésange (Dir. Andre Antoine, Fr, 1920) at the Barbican, our film of the year from 2017 with the same stunning accompaniment from Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne.
October came with three superb silent film focused documentaries. Firstly, at the Cinema Museum programmer Michelle Facey brought off a real coup by arranging not just a screening of the fabulous Dawson City – Frozen Time (Dir. Bill Morrison, US, 2016) but projected from the original 35mm print of the film. But better still she had the film’s director in person, on stage talking with Kevin Brownlow. Then there was Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache (Dir. Pamela B Green, USA, 2018). Although the film took some criticism for portraying Guy-Blache as a little more forgotten than she perhaps is within the silent film community, it did serve to re-emphasise the astonishing influence she had on later film-makers. Nowhere was this better illustrated than a clip of one of her films which featured a pram going down some steps, then a cut to a page from the diary of a youthful Sergei Eisenstein where he recounts seeing the French film, which so impressed him that he even made a sketch of the pram, then finally a cut to Eisenstein’s own Battleship Potemkin, with the self same pram descending the Odessa steps. Astonishing. Finally, there was Saving Brinton (Dir. Tommy Haines & Andrew Sherburne, US, 2017) a somewhat quirky but delightful film about the efforts to save the films and memorabilia of Frank Brinton, an American pioneer travelling cinema showman. The London Film Festival had some quality silents including Fragment of an Empire (Dir. Fridrikh Ermler, USSR, 1929) and Lights Of Old Broadway (Dir. Monta Bell, USA, 1925). It also featured the premier of They Shall Not Grow Old (Dir. Peter Jackson, UK, 2018) which engendered wildly differing reactions from the mainstream and silent film communities. But the highlight of the festival was The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show (Dir. Various, UK, 1897-1901), with restored early 68mm films projected on the BFI’s mighty IMAX screen. The month ended with Cambridge’s own festival and pianist John Sweeney working wonders with The Dumb Girl of Portici (Dir. Lois Weber, US, US, 1915) while at the Barbican there was a mighty Czech epic St Wenceslas (Dir. Jan S Kolar, Cz, 1929). November featured another epic, French this time, the heart-rending J’Accuse (Dir. Abel Gance, Fr, 1919). There was also a rare screening of the silent version of another anti-war epic, All Quiet On The Western Front (Dir. Lewis Milestone, US, 1930), at the Fleapit Cinema Club in Westerham. Sternberg’s rarely screened classic The Docks of New York (Dir. Josef von Sternberg, US, 1928) played at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds and the much anticipated restoration of The City Without Jews (Dir. Hans Karl Breslauer, Aus, 1924) played at Milton Court. The KenBio screened a day of World War One themed films including the superb Comradeship (Dir. Maurice Elvey, UK, 1919) and the hugely suspenseful Q Ships (Dir. Geoffrey Barkas and Michael Barringer, UK 1928). The day finished with a bang and The Big Parade (Dir. King Vidor, US, 1925) with the great Carl Davis recorded score. Keeping up the war theme, South West Silents had ‘Cinema On The Front Line’ an illustrated talk on the role of the cinema as it intersected with the lives of those who served for Britain during the First World War. Getting a timely reappraisal this month also was the work of Mabel Normand, the ‘Leading Lady of Film Comedy’ with a new compilation of her work accompanied by the Meg Morley Trio. In December, Lon Chaney’s somewhat bizarre The Penalty (Dir. Wallace Worsley, US, 1920) was on tour in Scotland. The Virgin of Stamboul (Dir. Tod Browning, USA, 1920) with a wildly mis-cast Priscilla Dean brought the KenBio’s season to a close while the BFI bowed out with the interesting and surprisingly adult political melodrama The First Born (Dir. Miles Mander, UK, 1928).
Our Top Ten Of The Year (Plus A Couple Of Duds!)
Time pressures this year meant that we only managed 99 silent film screenings (all but two with live accompaniment) compared to the 118 of last year. But despite seeing fewer films it gets no easier to pick out our ten favourites. Coming oh-so-close to making the top ten were Striving (Fen Dou) (Dir. Shi Dongshan, China, 1932) and The Treasure (Der Schatz) (Dir. G W Pabst, Ger, 1923) at HippFest; Her Night of Romance (Dir. Sidney Franklin, UK, 1924) at Slapstick; St Wenceslas (Dir. Jan S Kolar, Cz, 1929) at the Barbican; Blighty (Dir. Adrian Brunei, UK, 1927) and The First Born (Dir. Miles Mander, UK, 1928) at BFI Southbank; and, The Ghost Train (1927) and The Road To Happiness (Dir. Michael Curtiz, Aust, 1926) at KenBio.
But our top ten (and just to re-emphasise not the ten ‘best’ films, whatever that may mean, but the ten screenings we most enjoyed) by screening date order were as follows;
The Bride of Glomdal (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Nor., 1926) – 7 February at Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum, with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney This film may only have been a ‘gap filler’ in C T Dryer’s career, between Master of the House in 1925 and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) but it is nevertheless it stands out as a beautiful and lyrical poem of life in rural Norway. The cinematography by Einar Olsen is stunning. The film itself is nicely structured and beautifully paced with wonderfully realistic performances by the entire cast. While a very in-form John Sweeney provided an equally lyrical and nuanced improvised score which precisely caught the humour, romance and drama of the film.
Last of the Mohicans (Dir. Maurice Tourneur/Clarence Brown, US, 1920) – 21 March at the Hippodrome Cinema, Bo’Ness with live musical accompaniment from David Allison. This is a superlatively crafted piece of entertainment, beautifully written, well acted and superbly directed. J F Cooper’s novel is stripped to the bare bones and the film is centered around the three key figures of Cora, Uncas and Magua. The acting is excellent, particularly by Barbara Bedford as Cora. And the film looked wonderful with the climactic scenes, shot in the Yosemite National Park, looking almost like an Ansell Adams photograph in motion. Added to the visuals was a glorious live accompaniment from David Allison with an electronic score played on guitar and keyboard. The haunting themes beautifully captured the emotion of the film while the impact of the action scenes were intensified quite brilliantly by the frenzied, at times almost discordant playing. This was a stunning soundtrack and a piece of music that would make a superb stand-alone CD
Seven Footprints to Satan (Dir. Benjamin Christensen, US, 1929) – 24 March at the Hippodrome Cinema, Bo’Ness With live musical accompaniment by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin). Whatever your experience of silent film, nothing really prepares you for this, a film as weird in its own way as Fairbanks’ Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) albeit one without quite so much ‘coke’. This was The Cat and the Canary (1927) meets The Old Dark House (1932) but with Satan himself thrown in as a bonus. Like all the best comedy-horrors, its played with deadly seriousness by all involved and beautifully shot by Christenson. The editing is superb, the lighting and shadows hugely atmospheric and some of the jump cuts are fantastic. The cast seem to be enjoying themselves hugely, albeit with about as much idea as the viewer as to what is going on. As for the musical accompaniment rarely have I seen a silent film in which the music fits it so perfectly. And it all started out so ordinarily, Jane on piano and Roddy on violin and a nice conventional score to match the opening society party. But then as we are catapulted into the surrealism of the old dark mansion and its weird goings-on Jane switched to electronic keyboard and Roddy’s violin took on some electronic distortion of its own and the effect was literally, well, electrifying! The zanier the film got so too did the score, the playing more frantic and the sound more warped and distorted. The film was great fun but the accompaniment took it to another dimension
The Racket (Dir. Lewis Milestone, US, 1928) – 6 May at BFI Southbank, London with live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. A silent classic and one which went a long way towards establishing the rules for the gangster genre for decades to come. The film paints a bleak picture of organised crime and corruption but at the same time isn’t above querying just what separates the criminals from the good guys. Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim are excellent as good cop and chief crook respectively but Marie Prevost steals every scene as the hard-bitten night club singer. Stephen Horne’s jazz-orientated score added immensely to the film’s highs and lows and, as well as having the apparent ability to play every instrument imaginable, he even showed here that he could whistle along with the film.
The Ancient Law (Dir. E A Dupont, Ger, 1923) – 3 June at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley with piano accompaniment by Meg Morley. This was the UK premier of a stunning new restoration, following a young Jewish boy torn between his orthodox family life in rural 19th century Austria and his dream of an acting career in Vienna. The contrasts between ghetto life and the bright lights are beautifully drawn while the acting, particularly from Henny Porten are excellent. Credit also to Meg Morley because this was a gentle but long film without a great deal in the way of dramatic highs and lows for her to work with. Nevertheless her improvised score worked very well, with recurring themes that added warmth to the story and as a result the film just flowed by.
Miss Lulu Bett (Dir. William C De Mille, US, 1921) – 9 September at Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment by Meg Morley. What could at the outset have turned out to be a overly melodramatic tragedy of a family ‘drudge’ put upon by all around her and gradually ground down turns instead into an uplifting, and surprisingly modern, feminist parable, thanks largely to a wonderful performance by the little known Lois Wilson. Once again, pianist Meg Morley’s playing added greatly to enjoyment of this film.
Turksib (Dir Victor A Turin, USSR, 1929) – 9 September at Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulos. What possibly could be the attraction of a Communist propaganda piece about the building of a railway in the back end of beyond. Well, in the hands of director Turin this was an exhilarating triumph of montage film making. But Costas’s accompaniment took the film to a new level, matching the increasingly frenetic pace of the editing and giving an auditory power to match that of the visuals on screen which by the end left the audience as breathless as he must have been. Superb!
L’Hirondelle et la Mésange (aka The Swallow and the Titmouse) (Dir. Andre Antoine, Fr, 1920) 30 September at the Barbican, London with live musical accompaniment from Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne. Shot in 1920 but only edited and released in the 1983 this was the most exquisitely beautiful and serene film, a drama set on the canals in war-damaged northern France, this was our film of the year for 2017 when we saw it at HippFest. And on a second viewing the film is as good if not better than the first time, aided once again by the wonderful accompaniment from Stephen (piano, flute and accordion) and Elizabeth-Jane (harp). It remains a sheer joy both to eye and ear.
Comradeship (Dir. Maurice Elvey, UK, 1919) 17 November at Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment from Meg Morley. This was a surprising film on several levels. The relationship between the two male leads, two men thrown together by wartime service, was particularly interesting. In addition to the usual obvious male bonding, here were two men shown frankly discussing 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 and 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 a pregnancy outside marriage. In these aspects, the film had a surprisingly modern feel as well as being expertly staged by director Elvey. This was both an entertaining and thought provoking film and one which benefited greatly from the sympathetic accompaniment on piano by Meg Morley.
Q Ships (Dir. Geoffrey Barkas and Michael Barringer, UK 1928) – 17 November at Kennington Bioscope/Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney In a near perfect model for how a dramatised-documentary should be made,this film provided a masterful visual guide to the naval conflict in the Atlantic and the way in which technical developments tilted the battle first one way and then the other. The climax, as a carefully disguised armed British merchant ship waited for its chance to fire on the circling U-Boat had the entire audience sitting on the edge of their seats and the piano accompaniment from John Sweeney just served to ramp up the tension even further.
But if those were our ‘hits’ of the year, what about the ‘misses’? In her Silent London poll Pam Hutchinson focuses upon he great and the good, but what about one or two categories for the not so good. If there was a category of ‘Disappointment Of The Year’ it would have to go to The City Without Jews (aka Die Stadt ohne Juden) (Dir. Hans Karl Breslauer, Aus, 1924) at Milton Court, one of the most eagerly anticipated silent screenings of the year and yet one that was undermined by a largely inappropriate and dissonant score. While this may have been intended to generate a sense of unease, distress or perhaps even rage over the film’s storyline, I found instead that it ultimately became little more than an annoying distraction which ill-matched the events on screen and detracted from any emotional resonance with the unfolding visuals. ‘Most Annoying Screening of the Year’ would have to be shared between two films. Firstly, Salome (Dir. Charles Bryant, US, 1923) at the Barbican, where the accompanists decided to screen the film without inter-titles (Why would you?!!). To make matters worse the music was wholly inappropriate to the film (accompanying Salome’s dance of the seven veils was music more akin to a cavalry charge) and the evening was summed up when even one of the musicians struggled to stifle a yawn. Then there was Fantomas: Episode2 – Juve Versus Fantomas (Dir. Louis Feuillade, Fr, 1913-14) at LSO St Lukes, where this time the accompanists chose to screen the film without translations of the French inter-titles (Again…why would you?). Even more frustrating, the music was excellent and probably would have well matched the action on screen… if only you knew what the hell was going on! Lastly we should perhaps have a category for ‘Worst Silent Film Audience’. This had to go to Diary Of A Lost Girl (Dir. G W Pabst, Ger, 1929) at, no I won’t reveal where. But it was awful, people walking in and out to buy drinks, inappropriate laughter (at a child rape scene!) and when someone’s phone went off for the fourth time even the pianist told her to turn it off. Full marks to Jonny Best for his heroic efforts to ignore all the distractions and still provide superb accompaniment. I can only guess that some ‘talkies’ fans got in by mistake.
And that was it. Despite one or two minor disappointments it was another great year for silent film watching. As usual, our thanks go out to all of those programmers, projectionists, accompanists, hosts and volunteers who who give so generously of their time, energies and skills to make these silent events happen. Your efforts really are appreciated.