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

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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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