Talking about the 20th British Silent Film Festival

Spring Awakening (1929)

Spring Awakening (1929)

After five days of wonderful films, music, research, conversation, coffee and Jan Kiepura the British Silent Film Festival is over for another year. We had a fantastic time and were happy to welcome some new faces (and old ones) to the festival this time. We’d especially like to thank the amazing musicians and the staff of the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester for their warm welcome and their awesome technical skills – also the New Walk Gallery who hosted three of our most popular events.

If you have been following the festival on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, you’ll have seen that many of screenings prompted a certain amount of discussion online. If you haven’t, or you’d like a recap, here’s just a flavour of what people were saying about the festival. Check the #BSFF19 hashtag for more …

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A massive well done to the planning team, programmers and musicians for delivering an impeccable 20th edition of the @britishsilentfilmfestival. It was my very first one and it certainly won’t be the last – there is so much passion on display throughout the whole event, not only of cinema as an art form but also as a social agent that brings people together. The community feel is very strong throughout the whole festival, and I am very happy to have met so many like-minded passionate cinephiles very over the past 5 days. The programme provided us with the opportunity to see some very rare 35mm prints from the BFI archives that have barely seen the light of day since their original theatrical runs – some so rare in fact that I could barely find any info on them online and had to create new Letterboxd pages for them. Some of the highlights included: . – THESSA (1928): There is so much challenging material to savour under the glossy veneer of this so-called “women’s picture”: repressed female sexuality, controling matriarchy, male sexual impotence, PTSD, the masochistic nature of marriages… and why Russian women characters in English-speaking movies tend always be cast as a ballerina, a spy or a prostitute (in this case Corda gets the ballerina role). Luminous cinematography, a great star turn for Corda, a very mature theme handled tactfully and a bonus synchronised-sound dialogue scene. . -BE MINE TONIGHT (1932): A major discovery of the festival was the talents of Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, who was a major star at the beginning of the talkies. Directed by Anatole Litvak, this musical is a sheer delight and a testament to the power of populist entertainment. An operetta with witty staging and sophisticated editing, being meta when the talkies were barely old enough to be self-aware of their new conventions. . – THE MIDNIGHT GIRL (1919): A lively example of early movie marketing cross-promotion, with the theme song that gives the film a name being played on the screen and sung live in the theatre (in this case by the lovely Michelle Facey who also programmed the film).Marie Pagano looks lovingly sassy and one wonders what sort of career she would have had.

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The 20th edition of the @britishsilentfilmfestival started on a strong note with a screening of the German expressionist rarity FROM MORN TO MIDNIGHT (Von morgens bis mitternachts, 1920). Made only a few months after THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, this very close relative also relies on heavily stylised painted sets to depict a world on the verge of collapsing, drawing on many of the themes that would become hallmarks of Weimar-era cinema: moral ambiguity, the fear of death, lust for power and sexual desire as a cause for social and psychological decline. It also has a heavy-handed moralist ending that CALIGARI was too wise to avoid. Stellar musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and John Sweeney, and great to finally meet fellow film buff @no_light_without_darkness. From tomorrow most screenings will be held @phoenixleic, and I am very excited to hear many of them will be from celluloid. . . . #bsff19 #britishsilentfilmfestival #silentfilm #silentcinema #leicester #ukculture #silentmovies #weimarrepublic #germanexpressionism #germancinema #film #globetrotter #cinephiles #cinephilecommunity

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Yesterday, as part of the @britishsilentfilmfestival, I briefly spoke on the BBC about Victorian film as revolutionary and a new form of technology which allowed Victorians to experience watching themselves on screen for the first time, as well as seeing other places they didn't have the luxury of travelling to. The clips were of course edited to be cut down short enough to feature on the 6 o'clock news, but I also drew attention to how these films are fascinating from a historical perspective, as they brought to life the experiences of work, leisure and broader daily life which we read about in history books. . I was joined by @another_horrorhag on the show, who gave an insightful interpretation into how the Victorians were fascinated with filming their experiences, comparing it to how we use Instagram today to capture single moments in our lives.

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And special thanks to Paul Joyce for two superb blogpost reports from the festival, which really captured the excitement of the event.

Oh, and in case you were wondering …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mabel Poulton: British silent cinema’s cockney darling

Mabel Poulton in The Alley Cat

Mabel Poulton in The Alley Cat

Mabel Poulton, star of The Alley Cat, which we are showing at the 20th British Silent Film Festival, was one of the most popular, and sadly one of the swiftest forgotten actresses of the 1920s. She was a waif-like star, who excelled in romantic and tragic roles, and ultimately became a victim of the vagaries of the film industry.

Her start in the cinema was hardly glamorous, but it did rely on her natural resemblance to the American star Lillian Gish. Poulton was working as a typist at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, but studying acting in her spare time, when her manager asked her: “How would you like to die three times a day?” He required her to wear a kimono and enact her demise as a dramatic prologue to screenings of Broken Blossoms, DW Griffith’s east-end drama. Continue reading

Silent René Clair: The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (1925)

Le Fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (1925)

Le Fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (1925)

René Clair was one of France’s most celebrated auteur directors, who made great films in both the silent and sound eras and on each side of the Atlantic. We’re thrilled that our festival will host the UK premiere of Lobster Films’ new restoration of his first feature film, Le fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge, 1925). And we’re even more excited to say that this screening will be accompanied by two of our favourite musicians, multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne and harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.

Although Clair is credited, quite rightly, with one of the most sophisticated transitions to the talking pictures with the eloquent sound design of Sous les Toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930), his silent work is particularly fascinating and has been overlooked by too many people. His silent work combines the avant-garde, the comic and the fantastical to make films that are filled with beauty and wonder, as well as humour. Continue reading

From Morn to Midnight: extreme German Expressionism

Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (From Morn until Midnight, 1920)

Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (From Morn to Midnight, 1920)

This year, the British Silent Film Festival is commemorating the anniversary of the birth of the Weimar Republic. This means we will be looking both at some acclaimed German films of the 1920s, but also international co-productions and those British films that betray the clear influence of Weimar cinema. We are also exploring the origins of the horror genre, as the  nights draw in. So there is no finer way to begin our festival than with an influential and bold classic of German Expressionist cinema. We want to create the perfect atmosphere too, so our opening night movie will screen at the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, which is home to an internationally acclaimed collection of Expressionist art.

The film we are screening is Karlheinz Martin’s From Morn to Midnight (1920) – a bold  film that epitomises the styles and concerns of German Expressionism. The Expressionist movement moved from fine art – distorted perspectives and artificiality combine with thick, obvious brush strokes to create a visual representation not of naturalism but of the artist’s innermost psychological turmoil – to the theatre . From Morn to Midnight was made very shortly after the famous The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), which has widely been celebrated as the first true Expressionist film. It shares with that film a sense of foreboding and introspection, a feeling that the outside world is filled with danger – and of course a heavily stylised, theatrical production design.

From morn tomidnight4

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A hundred years ago … The Midnight Girl and the cinema in 1919

Adolph Philipp and Marie Pagano in The Midnight Girl (1919)

Adolph Philipp and Marie Pagano in The Midnight Girl (1919)

We’re standing on the verge of the Roaring Twenties all over again. It’s often instructive (and fun!) to look back at how cinema has advanced in a century and 1919 was a particularly strong year for the movies. As the Cento anni fa strand at Il Cinema Ritrovato proved this year, many films we now acknowledge as silent classics were released just before the feted 1920s began. In 1919, the war in Europe had ended, Hollywood was growing strong, the feature film was rapidly becoming a fixture, and things were about to get very interesting in Germany. At the 20th British Silent Film Festival, we’re commemorating the anniversary of the Weimar Republic by looking at the fascinating German cinema of this period and its global influence too.

We’ll be screening several diverse films from 1919 at this year’s festival in Leicester: from Mauritz Stiller’s captivating Swedish drama Song of the Scarlet Flower starring Lars Hanson, to Maurice Elvey’s WWI movie Comradeship and Ernst Lubitsch’s frenetic comedy The Oyster Princess. One of the 1919 films on the slate is likely to be unfamiliar to most of us – The Midnight Girl, a charming two-reel comedy, which reveals the extent of the influence not just German culture but the New York stage had on mid-period silent cinema. Not only that, but our screening of the film will be very special.

Adolph Philipp, the writer and director of The Midnight Girl,  was born in Germany but ran away as a teenager to join an acting troupe. In the early 20th century he opened a theatre in New York, where he staged many of his own musicals for the substantial German-speaking audience in the city, as well as selling his sheet music. Continue reading

Talking about the 19th British Silent Film Festival

L’Hirondelle et la mésange (André Antoine, 1920)

L’Hirondelle et la mésange (André Antoine, 1920)

After five days of films, music, research, conversation, sandwiches and coffee, the 19th British Silent Film Festival has drawn to a close. We had a wonderful time and we’d like to thank the staff of the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester for their warm welcome and their awesome technical skills.

If you have been following the festival on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll have seen the that screenings prompted lots of discussion online. If you haven’t, or you’d like a recap, here’s a flavour of what people were saying about the festival:

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It started with a kiss: sex and the silent cinema

Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919)

Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919)

Silent cinema began in the Victorian era and faded away at the end of roaring twenties, just before the repeal of prohibition in America. So silent films were made in the context of around four decades of social change. It was a time in which women fought for the vote, workers campaigned for greater rights, the world went to war, the Russian empire fell, the aeroplane was invented, the motorcar drove horses off our streets, factories built assembly lines, radio waves circled the globe, and attitudes to sex, and censorship went through revolutions.

When we talk about early 1930s Hollywood cinema, we call that period pre-Code: the last few wild years before William Hays’s MPDDA regulations about sex, violence, religion, race, drugs and alcohol were rigorously enforced on screen. Effectively all silent cinema is pre-Code, but that doesn’t mean that “anything went”. Hollywood studios practised some severe self-censorship in the early 1920s, following a few lurid scandals, and while 19th-century morality was not quite as prudish as it has been painted, early cinema was generally more coy about sex than films of today. But that is not the full story …

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