Molly Picon in East and West (Ost und west), from Barbican Film
The home for silent film in London is now the Barbican centre, whose Silent Film and Live Music continues to demonstrate imaginative programming in the titles selected and the music chosen to accompany them.
Apart from highlighting the current series, I wanted to draw particular attention to the film showing on Sunday February 17, Ost und West (East and West) (Austria 1923). This features Molly Picon, the great star of Yiddish stage and screen, and gives me the opportunity of reproducing the splendid still above. The diminutive, round-eyed Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a New York Yiddish theatre star, on the stage from the age of six, and massively popular among Jewish and on-Jewish audiences in the 1920s. She made made a handful of films in the 1920s and 30s, before returning to the screen more regularly in the 1970s (she’s most familiar to general audiences for playing the matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof). Ost und West is the earliest of her films that survives. I’ve not see the film (yet), so here’s the Barbican’s blurb for it:
Featuring Molly Picon, one of the great stars of Yiddish cinema, it tells the story of streetwise New York flapper Mollie, who travels to her cousin’s wedding in a traditional Polish shtetl. Contrasting sophisticated city values against those of simple village life, the film contains classic scenes of the irrepressible Picon lifting weights, boxing and teaching young villagers to shimmy, and eventually meeting her match in a young yeshiva scholar.
The music comes from Lemez Lovas of Oi Va Voi and guest musicians Moshikop and Rohan Kriwaczek, taking in “traditional klezmer to contemporary electronica, from liturgical melancholy to party pop kitsch and from vaudeville to breakbeat.” Directed by Sidney M. Goldin and Ivan Abramson, the film is screening at 16.00 and runs for 85mins.
For anyone interested in the history of Yiddish film, the essential source is J. Hoberman’s Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Wars (1991), which apart from its commendable written content, is just one of the most beautifully-produced books on film history that I know. Check out also Sylvia Plaskin, When Joseph Met Molly: A Reader on Yiddish Film (1999) (Joseph being the Polish director Joseph Green), Judith N. Goldberg, Laughter Through Tears: The Yiddish Cinema (1983), or Eric A. Goldman, Visions, Images and Dreams: Yiddish Film Past and Present (1984).
Other titles being screened in the Barbican series are:
9 March – On Our Selection (Australia 1920) – homely, landmark Australian comedy-drama about the pioneering Rudd family. With piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.
3 April – Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (USA 1927) – King Kong creators Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B Shoedsack’s classic dramatised documentary set in the jungles of Thailand (and producing background footage that went on to pad out a number of Tarzan movies). With live accompaniment by Italian group Yo Yo Mundi.
20 April – The St Kilda Tapes – a collection of silent films from the Scottish Screen Archive, including the topical St. Kilda – Britain’s Loneliest Isle (1923-28), Da Makkin O’ A Keshie (1932), and A New Way to a New World (1936), all set to music by acoustic guitarist David Allison.
4 May – Nanook of the North (USA 1922) – the so-called first documentary film (if you’ve got a couple of hours I’ll give you chapter and verse on how wrong all the text books are), directed by poet of cinema Robert Flaherty. Music from the Shrine Synchrosystem, featuring Max Reinhardt, DJ Rita Ray, world music kora master Tunde Jegede and Ben Mandelson on guitars, which ought to steer us away from the siren temptations of too much authenticity (like Flaherty?).
17 May – The Wind (USA 1928) – one of the cast-iron classics of silent cinema, Victor Sjöström’s visual masterpiece stars Lillian Gish living a hard life in dust-bowl Texas, and is guaranteed to convert even the stoniest-hearted sceptic into acclaming silent cinema. With the Carl Davis symphonic score (sadly, not with actual orchestra).
1 June – The Passion of Joan of Arc (Denmark 1928) – somehow not convinced even by The Wind? Carl Theodore Dreyer’s astonishing, overpowering work, with Falconetti as Joan, will do the trick. With music by In the Nursery.
15 June – Stella Dallas (USA 1925) – classic weepie from Henry King, starring Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Belle Bennett. Remade with Barbara Stanwyck in 1937, but this is the version to see. With piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
The Barbican programme sounds excellent, and a pilgrimage may well be in order. But did they have include musical accompaniment for Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc? I was forced to sit through the utter silent spectacle as it should be seen, and it’s absolutely marvellous for it. Perhaps it would be a bit much to expect In the Nursery to go all John Cage-y 4′33″ on us, but that would be shifting the silent accompaniment paradigm!
It’s well worth experiencing silents in a genuinely silent form once in a while, but I wouldn’t recommend it for public performance. The Cinematheque Francaise makes a point of exhibiting silents without music, persumably to preserve the purity of the images, but that just means that you get distracted by rustles, coughs and rumbling stomachs. You have to trust to the musicians, and if the results are not to your taste, well you can always see the film again with another score entirely – that’s the beauty of the medium. But I know there are those who often turn the sound down from the silent DVDs they purchase, and I must admit to finding the organ scores on some American DVDs pretty unbearable…