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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Raising the roof: how British cinema made the leap to sound

The Lady from the Sea (1929)

The Lady from the Sea (1929)

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.

blackmailposterSound 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.

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Bill Morrison’s awe-inspiring use of archive film

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016) Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016) Courtesy Kathy Jones Gates/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time and The Great Flood screen at the 19th British Silent Film Festival

Archive silent film is rarely perfect. Age weathers all things, but especially nitrate film stock, which decomposes and distorts in the most alarming way. Watching a damaged print, you will likely see sections of the frame swallowed up by black or grey blooms, figures twisted, pock-marks raining across the image.

Experimental film-maker Bill Morrison has made a career out of savouring the beauty in these warped and wrecked reels. His work takes archive film and turns it into not just a history lesson, but a work of art in its own right. You may already be familiar with his haunting 2002 feature, Decasia, a collage of film footage haunted by the shadows and spectres of nitrate decay. We all fervently wish the damage weren’t there, of course, but we can also be awed by it.

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Betty Balfour: “Great Britain’s Queen of Happiness”

Betty Balfour in 1925

Betty Balfour

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”.

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