Its been a long time since our last annual review of silent film screenings nationwide, three years in fact, since the onset of the dreaded Covid pandemic which so disrupted every aspect of life. But, as things have gradually returned to what now passes for the new normal, so there is now enough going on vis-a-vis the silent film world to make a review of 2022 worthwhile.
The first bit of good news is that, with 506 silent films screened last year, this was marginally higher than the 473 screened in the last pre-Covid year, 2019. However, the number of screenings do remain significantly below those in both 2018 (735) and 2017 (714).
Additionally, the overall number of 2022 screenings were heaviltyaccounted for by a large number of showings of just three films, Vampyr (1932) (98 screenings) and Nosferatu (80 screenings) largely to celebrate the ninetieth and hundredth anniversary respectively of their original release, plus 28 screenings for South (1919). In contrast, the most frequently shown film in 2019 was Nosferatu (1922) with just 21 screenings.
Looking beyond just these three frequently screened films, the next most frequent screenings were Journey To The Isles (8 screenings), Metropolis (6), The General and Haxan (5 each), Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Diary Of A Lost Girl, Phantom Of The Opera and Sunrise (4 each).
Metropolis, The General, Caligari and Phantom are perennial favourites but its nice to see Haxan and Sunrise getting a few more outings while Journey To The Isles was a musical memory with some silent home film footage of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, one of Scotland’s great early collectors of traditional arts. The event was commissioned by the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival and subsequently went on tour across the Highlands and Islands.
And yet, although just three films accounted for some 40% of the total number of silent film screenings in 2022 it was nice to see that the total number of different films being screened during the year was a still respectable 187, compared to 259 in 2019, and 262 in 2018, perhaps suggesting that film programmers are perhaps becoming just a bit more adventurous with the silent films they choose to screen.
During 2022, silent films were screened in 155 different venues across the UK, continuing a downward trend we’ve noted since starting these reviews, of 281 venues in 2017, 238 in 2018 and 175 in 2019. Although the number of screening venues may be in decline, as always there are a few new and unusual venues cropping up and this year that included a castle and, going one better, where better to see Nosferatu than in Whitby Abbey, the location for Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel.
The leading venue for silent film in the UK remains the BFI Southbank, which hosted 102 screenings last year, a big increase from the 87 screenings the previous year. However, last year’s screenings did included 20 screenings of Vampyr and no less than 24 screenings of South. On the plus side, the BFI did put on a comprehensive Asta Nielsen season and their Sunday afternoon silent slot looks to have become an established feature. However, the BFI retains a tendency to use well known silents as little more than gap fillers in their monthly programme, often with just the recorded scores.
Retaining its position as the second most frequent venue for silent film screenings is the Cinema Museum with 44 screenings, thanks largely to the efforts of the Kennington Bioscope. As well as its regular Wednesday evening events the KenBio also staged full two weekend events with their usual eclectic mix of the obscure, the rarely screened and the recently rediscovered, all with live musical accompaniment. It remains the London go-to venue for silent film aficionados.
Looking beyond London, the Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness screened an impressive 25 films, largely in their March HippFest but also with a growing number of side events throughout the year. The Watershed in Bristol screened 18 films mainly thanks to the regular Slapstick Festival screenings. Also in Bristol, the Arnolfini screened 9 films as a new regular venue for South West Silents. Back in London, Wilton’s Music Hall also screened nine films, all programmed by the Lucky Dog Picturehouse who also provided live musical accompaniment. Finally, in Sheffield, the Abbeydale Picture House and Yellow Arch Studios each screened eight films, hosting a sizeable part of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival. A hat tip also to the tiny Palace Cinema in Broadstairs with its now firmly established monthly screenings, all with live accompaniment by Lillian Henley.
Silent Film Highlights of 2022
In London, the BFI kicked off the year with the trusted fall-backs Metropolis and Caligari. Of more interest was their Sunday afternoon slot featuring Intrepid Women, with none more intrepid than the memorably named Aloha Wanderwell. Wilton’s Music Hall had a three night Keaton/Lloyd fest with Sherlock Jr, The Cameraman and Safety Last. In Bristol, South West Silents opened their programme with some swashbuckling from Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers while the Slapstick Festival featured Soviet off-the-wall comedy My Grandmother, Marion Davis at her best in The Patsy and Show People and Harold Lloyd again, this time in The Kid Brother. February saw the start of the BFI’s Asta Nielsen festival with an excellent introduction to the great diva’s works by Pamela Hutchinson. Films screened included The Abyss (1916) featuring Nielsen’s unforgettable rope dance, the wonderfully knockabout Zapata’s Gang (1914) and the dramatic tragedy of Dora Brandes (1916). The BFI also managed to squeeze in a taut little Danish crime drama, The Hill Park Mystery (1923) Over in Dublin, the Irish Film Institute put on a short Chaplin silent season including The Kid (1921), Goldrush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Meanwhile, the KenBio opened their year with Austrian melodrama A Soul In Torment (1921) and that perennial favourite Chicago (1927) and in Bristol South West Silents started the year with SF classic Aelita: Queen Of Mars (1924). March saw the BFI’s Asta Nielsen season continuing with a dark thriller, In The Eyes of the Law (1919), the cross dressing Hamlet (1921) and an astonishing performance in The Decline (1923). The Borderlines Festival took on a chilly feel with Airship Norge’s Flight Across The Arctic Ocean (1926) Nanook of the North (1922) while SWS introduced us to the Flying Ace (1926) one of the few surviving works from director Richard E. Norman, one of the most prominent and most prolific of the early race film pioneers. In Sheffield, the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival had a great day screening Hell’s Hinges (1916), The Navigator (1924) and crime drama classic Underworld (1927). Then it was off up to Scotland for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival with highlights including the newly rediscovered and restored The Loves Of Mary Queen Of Scots (1923) with brilliant ‘MacBenshi’ narration, a stunning Japanese amateur short Sister (1933) that was more Ozu than Ozu, a profile on little known screenwriter Lydia Hayward together with one of her best films The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) and a knockout screening of City Girl (1930) with fantastic accompaniment from the Dodge Brothers.
April saw Polish arch-diva Pola Negri at the BFI in Forbidden Paradise (1924), As well as screening Old Heidelburg (1916) the KenBio also put on their silent comedy weekend featuring Harry Langdon, Mack Sennett and Lupino Lane as well as Reginald Denny in What Happened To Jones (1926) and the Lubitsch gem, The Marriage Circle (1924). London’s Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image had a very rare screening of Alim (1926), a Ukrainian ‘western’ with a Robin Hood theme. There was a by now all too rare silent film outing at the Barbican with The Fall of The House of Usher (1928) while there were more thrills at Coventry Cathedral with Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1920). In May, Cornish accompanists Wurlitza took Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929) on tour in Devon and Cornwall, the Indo-German epic Shiraz (1928) screened at Manchester’s Stoller Hall and the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival team had another packed day in Sheffield including the delightful rom-com Lonesome (1928) and the uber-intense Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Over in Harwich, the venerable Electric Cinema reopened with A 1911 Night At The Movies, a wonderfully eclectic mix of films celebrating the cinema’s original opening year, all screened via an original hand-cranked projector. There was also the beginning of an extensive cinema release of Vampyr (1932) celebrating the films restoration, disc re-release and 90th anniversary. Multiple screenings of Vampyr continued in June along with that other horror favourite Nosferatu (1922). Dickens classic Oliver Twist (1922) came to the Palace, Broadstairs while seminal hobo film Beggars of Life (1928) came to Hull. In London, the BFI came good with the delightful Miss Lulu Bett (1921) while the KenBio had the suspended-animation story The Man Without Desire (1923). Bristol’s Arnolfini had that rare thing, a watchable Marion Davies big-budget historical drama, When Knighthood Was In Flower (1922).
July was a busy month for silent film musicians Minima, on tour with Nosferatu (1922) and Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). In London, the BFI had some oft-screened classics including Pandora’s Box (1929) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) but a more interesting cross-dressing rarity with Phil-For-Short (1919). Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival screened crime drama The Joker (1928) and pioneering German gay rights film Laws of Love 1927). August opened at Wilton’s Music Hall with newly commissioned scores for Metropolis (1927) and Underground (1928), Rob Roy ( 1922 and featuring the gloriously named ‘Hamish the Biter’) screened in Edinburgh while the beautifully filmed Breton sea-faring drama The Divine Voyage (1929) was shown at BFI. September saw some swashbuckling at the KenBio with The Sea Hawk (1924). They also screened Norwegian snow-bound crime drama Thin Ice (1928). SWS screened Phantom (1922) at Bristol’s Arnolfini, a story of obsession and the corrupting influence of money, with a newly commissioned score. London’s newly opened Garden Cinema screened its first silent, Salt For Svanetia (1930} widely regarded as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, while up in Saltaire they were being terrorised by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).
In October, the London Film Festival sadly had but a single silent, the Stroheim melodrama Foolish Wives (1922). The KenBio had an amazing child focused drama Faces Of Children (1925), the Palace, Broadstairs brought us The Golem (1920) while the Musical Museum in Brentford featured Phantom Of The Opera (1925). Up in Bo’ness, the Hippodrome Cinema continued the thrills theme with The Hound Of The Baskervilles ( 1929) and The Last Warning ( 1928) as did London’s Month of Dead Festival which included The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) and Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922). And persisting with the horror theme, Nosferatu was playing……everywhere! It was left to the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival to provide some lighter relief with The Bride of Glomdal (1926), A Woman Passed By (1927) and the newly rediscovered Adam Bede ( 1918) all at the Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield. November saw a continuing explosion of Nosferatu screenings. It also brought us that darkest of silents, Behind The Door ( 1919) at both the Hippodrome in Bo’ness and Eden Court in Inverness. The KenBio staged their second festival weekend of the year featuring classics including The Wedding March (1928) and Dragnet Girl ( 1933) as well as some little known gems such as the newly rediscovered The Gold Diggers (1923) and the charming Bright Eyes (1929) starring Britain’s own ‘Queen of Happiness’, Betty Balfour. The KenBio even had time to end the month with a bang, with a William S Hart western double bill, Tumbleweeds ( 1925) and The Gunfighter (1917). Rounding off the year, December brought us steamy Czech melodrama Erotikon (1929) at the BFI, Stroheim’s story of seduction Foolish Wives (1922) at the Arnolfini in Bristol and the equally steamy Piccadilly (1923) in Hanley. Melodrama was also the theme of the day at KenBio with The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929) while the year ended with Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) in both London and Glasgow.
Our Top Ten Of The Year
So, what then were our ten favourite silent films of the year (not necessarily the ten best films, but those screenings and accompaniment which we most enjoyed). They are as follows (by screening date order);
My Grandmother (Dir. Kote Mikaberidze, USSR, 1929) 26 January Slapstick Festival at Watershed Cinema with live accompaniment by John Sweeney. This long banned and little known gem of Soviet political cinema is a cornucopia of absurdest satire, political criticism and surrealist humour with a blend of live action and animated sequences. The film provided ample opportunity for John Sweeney to demonstrate his skills on the piano which he did to superb effect.
Zapata’s Gang (Dir. Urban Gad, Ger, 1913/14) and Eskimo Baby (Dir. Walter Schmidthässler, Ger, 1916/18) 12 February at BFI Southbank with live piano accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulos. Perhaps better known as a serious actress, these two films amply demonstrate Asta Nielsen’s considerable comedic talent, first as the member of a film crew on location who get confused with a bandit gang and secondly as a fish-out-of-water Eskimo in Berlin. Both films are frequently laugh out loud funny and Costas’ playing just added to the enjoyment.
The Decline (Dir. Ludwig Wolff, Ger, 1923) 5 March at BFI Southbank with live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney. The Decline sees Asta Nielsen in a more familiar serious role playing, in a very unforgiving part, an ageing actress whose declining fortunes are etched on Nielsen’s face and the final denouement is just devastating. John Sweeney’s playing effectively added to the emotional depth of the film.
The Loves Of Mary Queen Of Scots (Dir. Denison Clift, UK, 1923) 16 March at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival with live piano accompaniment by Mike Nolan. Long considered a lost film, a sole surviving copy was recently rediscovered by Tony Fletcher and painstakingly and beautifully restored by Bob Geoghegan. Well acted and with high production values for a British film of this time it is a largely accurate retelling of Mary’s life. Accompanying the film in a sort of MacBenshi role was ‘explainer’ Andy Cannon, one of Scotland’s leading storytellers. He excelled in providing both an amusing and informative commentary throughout the film which nicely complemented the on-screen events and in a last minute stand in role Mike Nolan provided an excellent improvised piano accompaniment.
Sister (Kichi Takeuchi, Jap, 1933) 17 March at Hippodrome Silent Film Festival with live accompaniment by John Sweeney and students from the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh University. With a decidedly Ozu-ish feel, this is a simple but beautiful short drama of a young woman visiting the grave of her younger brother to lay flowers and then meeting his friend. The beauty of this film is not so much in its story, which is so slight, but in the visualisation and the emotions the film conveys; the woman’s sense of loss, a fleeting moment of happiness, then back to melancholy. The two actors play their parts with an incredible naturalness and the film is beautifully shot and edited. The closing scene, as the woman walks off into the distance, is a shot to die for. Music for Sister was just sublime, taking an already excellent film to another level, with the use of cello and clarinet beautifully complementing the somber tone of the film.
City Girl (Dir. F W Murnau, US, 1930) 19 March at Hippodrome Silent Film Festival with live musical accompaniment by the Dodge Brothers. Murnau’s third Hollywood film has always been a favourite but what made this screening so exceptional was the accompaniment. But surely this wasn’t a film that would benefit from accompaniment by a skiffle group. How wrong could you be. The music fitted the film perfectly. It was also fascinating to see the group talk amongst themselves, cueing in changes in pace, key or tone. Almost as engrossing as the film itself.
Alim (Dir. Heorhii (or Georgi) Tasin, Ukr, 1926) 29 April at Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image with recorded score, artist unknown. An incredibly rare film, Ukrainian made, set in Crimea, the Robin Hood like true life story of a nineteenth-century Crimean Tatar folk hero, fighting against exploitation by the rich. The film didn’t last long before it was heavily censored and eventually banned by Soviet authorities, but has now been largely restored. With something of the feel of an American western it clearly demonstrated the influence of Hollywood on Soviet film-makers of the 1920s. The film benefited enormously from a modern electronic score by unknown musicians which sounded to be weaving in traditional tarter melodies to great effect.
A 1911 Night At The Movies 21 May at the Electric Palace, Harwich with live musical accompaniment by John Sweeney. A 1911 vintage cinema, newly restored, but how to celebrate its reopening? How about by screening a selection of films which could have been shown on its original opening night, 111 years ago And more than that, why not screen them using a hand-cranked projector of similar vintage. What we got was an eclectic mix of early comedies, trick films, dramas, news footage of the Titanic, and even a film about the battle of Trafalgar that was actually shown at the Palace’s original opening night. John Sweeney had his work cut out switching between film genres, emotions and pacing. He even managed to weave in the Match Of The Day theme to a little football drama. All round, a great evening.
Faces Of Children (Dir. Jacques Feyder, Fr/Swiss, 1925) 26 October Kennington Bioscope at Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment by Meg Morley. Long only available in a butchered 9.5mm version the restored version of Faces Of Children is a marvel with director Feyder getting astounding performances from his child actors in this story about the estrangement of a small boy from his father and sister after his mother dies, a situation that worsens when he finds himself with a new stepmother and stepsister. Add to this some superb cinematography together with the exceptional piano accompaniment from Meg Morley to make an altogether exceptional evening.
Dragnet Girl (Dir. Yasujiro Ozu, Jap, 1932) 6 November Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend at the Cinema Museum with live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley. Despite having seen Dragnet Girl numerous times, it never fails to offer something new with each subsequent viewing. Despite having been made some 90 years ago the film always has an immediacy, a contemporary relevance, there is never any sense that it is an ‘old’ film. The film’s brilliance is a reflection of its superb direction, highly naturalistic acting and sparkling cinematography. And Lillian Henley’s superb piano accompaniment added yet another dimension to the film.
And A Few Of The Year’s Misses
Well, the good news is that we didn’t see a single film this year where we felt that the accompaniment was wholly inappropriate for and singularly failed to meld with the film on screen or where the film was relegated to just a backdrop for the musicians (always a personal bugbear). So that being said, the only real misses of the year we’re missed opportunities to get to particular screenings. First amongst these was the fascinating sounding Airship Norge’s Flight Across The Arctic Ocean (1926) and there was that failed attempt to see the fabulous Erotikon (1929), sabotaged by a Jubilee Line failure! Then there were those missed opportunities to hear particular accompanists, in particular we missed not one but two chances to hear Meg Morley performing with Haika Salut for the endearing People On Sunday (1929) as well as Meg dueting this time with Stephen Horne, in Coventry Cathederal no less, for Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1920). And then there were those projecting mishaps. I’m still waiting to see how Rowdy Ann (1919) ended after a digital projector failure mid-film. But these were just minor quibbles in what has been a year in which silent film viewing has firmly bounced back post-Covid and here’s to looking forward to an even more successful 2023.
And that pretty well wraps up this review of the year, other than to express, as usual, our thanks to all of those venues, programmers, projectionists, accompanists, hosts, speakers and volunteers who give so generously of their time, energies and skills to make these silent events happen. Your efforts as always are really appreciated.