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 →
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 →
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.
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:
Had a simply marvellous time in Leicester for the #bsff17. Good for the soul. Star of the show was undoubtedly Betty Balfour. Here's to her! pic.twitter.com/beAIXJ9rVi
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 …
It’s still the biggest change ever to hit the film industry. The coming of sound changed the way films were made, and shown. It affected the livelihoods of actors, technicians, producers, musicians and cinema owners. This period of change, in which some filmmakers rose to the challenge and others struggled with the new technology is one of the most fascinating periods in cinema history. For the past three years, a research project led by British Silent Film Festival co-director Laraine Porter has been delving into this process of disruption and reinvention, as experienced by the British film industry.
Sound came a little later to Britain than to the US. The first fully synchronised sound film to be released in this country was horror film The Terror, in November 1928. The following year, studios and cinemas hurriedly mobilised to accommodate the “Talker Wave” and by the time Hitchcock had released his Blackmail in both silent and talkie versions, the industry knew it would have to enter the 1930s wired for sound.
Two years ago, the 18th British Silent Film Festival shared some of Porter and her team’s research, and several of the country’s first, occasionally faltering, sound films were shown. At this year’s festival, we’ll be finding out even more about the transition to sound. The five-day event opens with a one-day colloquium of papers and screenings, and then through the following days we’ll be showing some more assured early British sound films, which show studios and staff adapting to the new medium with greater confidence and more advanced technology.
Betty Balfour could well be the mascot of the 19th British Silent Film Festival. You will see her in three different films across the weekend – two silents and a musical. In each film, you’ll get a glimpse of why she was once one of the most popular British film stars. In her heyday, she was occasionally compared to Hollywood’s Mary Pickford, but her appeal was not quite so girlish and innocent. Balfour was first and foremost a comedienne, with an earthy, active charm that she deployed to great effect playing the Cockney flowergirl ‘Squibs’ in a series of hit films. Later in her career, she played more sophisticated characters in more serious films, but the Balfour charm still shines through.
Balfour was not a Cockney herself, although she was raised in London. As a profile on Balfour in Picturegoer in 1924 wrote, “‘Squibs’ was a rough-cast, ragged, little East-Ender and Betty is a smartly-attired, highly-polished little West-Ender.” In fact, when Balfour had introduced herself to the readers of that magazine in 1921, in an article entitled ‘Mainly about me’, she stressed her aristocratic connections. The patronage of the “late lady FitzGeorge” was responsible for her big break, she explained, her first stage job at the Ambassadors’ Theatre in 1914, when she was just 12 years old. As a younger child she had performed songs and recited speeches at “At-homes” to an audience comprising “crowned heads, princes, duchesses; men who had helped to make empires, and men who were planning to wreck them”.
All the silent films will be accompanied by some of the world’s best silent film musicians, including a very special score for Vampyr, by Stephen Horne and Minima. This haunting, hallucinatory horror film was directed by Carl Th Dreyer in 1932 with barely any dialogue. It is based on the writings of Sheridan le Fanu and follows a young scholar of the occult who enters a village that is under the curse of a vampire.
More silent horror in the programme comes courtesy of a selection of chilling films inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, which will screen at Leicester’s atmospheric 12th-century St Mary de Castro church, with an introduction from BFI curator Bryony Dixon.
We’ll also be celebrating some of the silent era’s lesser-sung comedians. We are screening the hilarious Hands Up! in which comic Raymond Griffith plays a Confederate spy trying to capture some Yankee gold during the American Civil War. We are also showing Cocktails, a rarely seen, sparkling comedy from 1928 starring Pat and Patachon, the “Danish Laurel and Hardy”.
L’Hirondelle et la mésange (André Antoine, 1920)
A rarely seen treasure of silent cinema, L’Hirondelle et la mésange, directed by André Antoine in 1920, also screens at the festival. This lyrical, suspenseful film, set in the canals of Flanders, and taking its name from two barges driven by the protagonists, was not released for 60 years as the studio considered it too realistic. Now its naturalistic acting, and sophisticated camera effects are celebrated as an example of silent cinema at its finest. This film has been restored by La Cinémathèque française, and we are showing the film in a gorgeous 2K restoration, complete with the original tints.
It wouldn’t be a celebration of British silent cinema without Alfred Hitchcock, and we’ll be showing the recent BFI restoration of his debut film The Pleasure Garden, with an introduction by musician, composer and TV presenter Neil Brand.
The Pleasure Garden (Alfred Hitchcock, 1925)
Again we’re looking at British cinema’s transition from the silent era to the talkies. We are screening some early sound classics, including Walter Summers’ nail-biting Suspense (1930) in which a group of British WWI soldiers are forced to listen to the enemy laying mines in the tunnel beneath their trench. This brilliant film will be introduced by journalist and film researcher Geoff Brown.
There is plenty more in the full programme, which we’ll be announcing in full soon, including some fascinating archive film, two appearances by Betty Balfour, and Bill Morrison’s acclaimed documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time.
Don’t forget, the festival kicks off on 13 September with a one-day colloquium on Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound – see the at a glance timetable for the papers and presenters!