This delightful short film doesn’t bill itself as being a silent film, but that’s what it is – exquisitely demonstrating wit and comic suspense through action, character and adroit choice of shot, and all wordlessly. It certainly has affinities with some of the comic masters of the silent era. The filmmaker is Nuno Rocha and his film, entitled 3×3 and made in 2009, has won awards at a number of festivals. It lasts just five minutes. Enjoy.

Lives in film no. 3 – Dan Leno

Dan Leno, from http://www.rfwilmut.clara.net/musichll/xleno.html

In 1921 Charlie Chaplin returned home to Britain to an ecstatic welcome. Touring his old London haunts, however, he found one shop-owner less than overawed by his worldwide fame. Chaplin went to a photographer’s shop on Westminster Bridge Road where he recalled seeing a framed picture of his comic idol, Dan Leno. It was still there. This conversation then followed:

My name is Chaplin … You photographed me fifteen years ago. I want to buy some copies.

Oh, we destroyed the negative long ago.

Have you destroyed Mr. Leno’s negative?

No, but Mr. Leno is a famous comedian.

Such is fame, as Chaplin notes. The man in the picture, Dan Leno, was for anyone of Chaplin’s generation the epitome of comedy. He was among the funniest and the most loved of comedians of the Victorian age, one whose career formed a bridge between the pantomime clowning of the Joe Grimaldi early-19th century era and the era of motion pictures that was to bring about the unprecedented fame of Leno’s successor as public favourite, Chaplin himself.

Dan Leno (1860-1904) was one of the greatest of all comedians. Born George Wild Galvin, the child of entertainers (as was Chaplin), he was raised in poverty in London, first trod the boards aged just four, and first rose to prominence by winning a world clog-dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. He made it to the main London stages by 1885, immediately acclaimed as a comic master, and soon established as a national favourite, particularly on account of his peformances in Drury Lane pantomimes. His artistry was built around an uncanny ability to mimic the trials and absurdities of everyday living. Leno excelled in making his comic characters as realistic as they were comic, products of an acute sense of human characteristics. As a railway guard, waiter, shop-walker, lodger, recruiting sergeant, swimming instructor or Widow Twankey (he was the archetypal pantomime dame), Leno’s befuddled demeanour reflected life’s puzzlements in a form that all could recognise and delight in. Max Beerbohm wrote of him:

Dan Leno’s was not one of those personalities which dominate us by awe, subjugating us against our will. His was of that other, finer kind — the lovable kind. He had, in a higher degree than any other actor I have ever seen, the indefinable quality of being sympathetic. I defy anyone not to have loved Dan Leno at first sight. The moment he capered on, with that air of wild determination, squirming in every limb with some deep grievance that must be outpoured, all hearts were his.

Leno’s humour was grounded in character observation and word-play, but as with all great comedians it was a shared understanding with his audience that made him special. He pinpointed what Beerbohm identified as “the sordidness of the lower middle class, seen from within” while making that “trite and unlovely material … new and beautiful”. How we laugh at ourselves is how Dan Leno made us laugh.

Dan Leno is now the subject of a new biography, the first since 1977. Barry Anthony’s The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius is published by I.B. Tauris and it is a delight from start to finish. Anthony (previously co-author with Richard Brown of A Victorian Film Enterprise: The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and a fine booklet on the Kinora) is well-known among a small coterie of music hall historians for his meticulous research and encyclopaedic knowledge. He also writes beautifully. The research is worn lightly, the observations are acute, the characters stand out vividly, and the material is handled in an engaging style that makes the Victorian music hall era come alive. There is much on the Victorian music hall in general, so that the book serves as a valuable general history as well as biography. It is particularly good at giving you the essence of Leno’s performances (and those of others), as if a motion picture camera had been there.

But, as Anthony points out, towards the end of Leno’s career, the motion picture cameras were there. Leno’s later career coincided with the rise of mass media as means to package and spread fame, and Leno was filmed on several occasions. Interestingly, the films that were made of Leno for the most part did not attempt to record his performances but rather focussed on his celebrity. There was a surprising number of films made of Leno – at least a dozen. But the reason why he seldom turns up in film histories is that only one of these films survives, and that in a non-film state.

Leno was first filmed on 23 June 1899 on a trip by the music hall society the ‘Water Rats’ to Box Hill in Surrey. Impresario A.D. Thomas had them filmed on the road to Mitcham travelling in coaches (‘The Rats’ off on a Picnic), at play befor a crowd of spectators (‘The Rats’ at Play) and picnicing (‘The Rats’ at Dinner). Alongside Leno were such notables as Herbert Campbell, Joe Elvin, George Robey, Will Evans and Harry Randall. A few days later Thomas filmed the Music Hall Sports at Herne Hill in London, the sports being interspersed with comic performances intended to raise money for the Music Hall Benevolent Fund. Dan Leno featured in Burlesque Indian Attack on Settlers’ Cabin, Dan Leno’s Attempt to Master the Wheel (in the character of his famous role of Mrs Kelly) and Burlesque Fox Hunt. All titles were subsequently included in the Warwick Trading Company catalogue.

Leno was filmed at other charity events. Birt Acres filmed Dan Leno’s Cricket Match in July 1900 at another mix of charity and sports, where Leno again took a turn on a bicycle. A year later, in September 1901, he was back on the cricket field (at Stamford Bridge) for Warwick’s Dan Leno’s Day Out, paired with Dan Leno, Musical Director, where he mock-conducted the Metropolitan Police Band in ‘A Little Bit Off the Top’. A few days later he appeared before the 70mm camera of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company for Dan Leno’s Record Score, which showed him in comic argument with a wicket-keeper (for photographs from the day in Black and White Budget see the excellent Arthur Lloyd website). Anthony records that the film was exhibited alongside genuine cricket film of C.B. Fry and Ranjisinhji. Another Biograph film was Mr Dan Leno, Assisted by Mr Herbert Campbell, Editing ‘The Sun’ (1902) in which Leno and the frequent partner in pantomime, a comic promotional film for a journal run by the notorious Horatio Bottomley. This was the only film to show an acted peformance from Leno, apart from Bluebeard (1902), an extract from a Drury Lane pantomime in which Leno played Sister Anne, produced by Warwick.

Dan Leno and his wife Lydia in The Obstinate Cork (1902), from The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius

Biograph produced the only film of Leno that exists today. Its 70mm products were often issued in flip-card or flip-book form through a variety of devices for viewing at seaside arcades (through the Mutoscope) or in the home (through the Kinora). Biograph made two films in 1902 of Leno with his family in the garden at their home in Clapham, one of which showed Leno and his wife Lydia struggling to open a bottle of champagne and eventually resorting to a giant property axe to do so. The Obstinate Cork survives – in private hands – as a Kinora reel (i.e. a set of flip-cards for exhibiting in a Kinora) and forms the only moving image that exists of the great comedian.

As said, most of these films did not present Leno in performance but rather Leno the celebrity, seen clowning in public, playing up to his popular persona. They crossed the barrier between fiction and non-fiction. If any were to be discovered they wouldn’t so much show us Leno’s art as his popularity, and that would be so precious in itself. Leno the comic giant belonged to his time. Nothing dates so remorsely as humour. What makes one generation roll in the aisles makes the succeeding generation shrug its shoulders or wince with embarassment. What matters for our understanding of the history of comedy is not whether we would find Grimaldi, Leno or Chaplin funny today (though we might) but that we appreciate just what they meant to the people of their time. This is what Barry Anthony’s book achieves so well. It tell us enough to give a good idea of Leno’s comedy, but still more it shows us how key he was to his times, how people identified with his humour, how much he was of his times and yet transcended his times. The films that were made of him were not intended to replicate his act but to reflect the profound affection with which he was held by millions.

Dan Leno suffered throughout his professional life from a series of mental and physical breakdowns, brought on by the pressures of huge popularity. He died in 1904, aged just 43.

Finding out more
Leno made a number of sound recordings, and unlike his motion picture legacy, all of these survive. Recordings from 1901 and 1903 can be heard Music Hall Perfomers site, while his famous number ‘The Grass Widower’ can be heard on YouTube. Peter Preston has written an interesting piece in The Guardian comparing Leno’s passing fame to that which endures for Marlon Brando – as unlikely a pairing as one could imagine. Paul Morris’ essay on the English Music Hall site evocatively sums up Leno’s art. Finally, Leno’s comical pseudo-autobiography, Dan Leno Hys Booke (1899) is available online from the Internet Archive.

Sounds and Silents


Sounds and Silents is an off-shoot of the annual Bird’s Eye View festival of women filmmakers. The strand brings together classic silent films starring iconic actresses and innovative musical accompaniment by female artists.

Its latest manifestation is Sounds and Silents at King’s Place, bringing silents to one of London’s latest art venues. Four films are to be screened 27-29 May, and here are the programme details:

The Temptress with original live score from Natalie Clein
Dir. Fred Niblo, USA 1926
Hall One, Thur May 27, 7.30pm

Narcissistic Elena (Greta Garbo) drives every man she meets to despair. One of her victims, Manuel Robledo tries to escape, but this time Elena is in love and she follows him from Paris to his native Argentina.

Natalie Clein

‘Clein plays everything with passion’ – The Times

Natalie Clein’s exceptional musicality has earned her a number of prestigious prizes including the Classical Brit Award for Young British Performer of 2005, the Ingrid zu Solms Cultur Preis at the 2003 Kronberg Academie, and the BBC Young Musician of the Year aged just 16.

My Best Girl with original live score from Elysian Quartet
Dir. Sam Taylor, USA 1927
Hall One, Fri May 28, 7.30pm

Maggie (Mary Pickford) falls in love with Joe, her new colleague in the stock room, unaware that he is the son of the department store owner working undercover to prove his business skills.

Elysian Quartet

‘Feisty boundary pushers, four supremely talented classical musicians’ – Metro

The Elysian Quartet is one of the UK’s most innovative young ensembles. They have worked with artists as diverse as virtuoso beat-boxer Killa Kela, jazz pianist Keith Tippett, and experimental electronic composer Simon Fisher-Turner.

I Don’t Want to be a Man! with original live score from Zoe Rahman / The Danger Girl with original live score from Juice
Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, Germany 1919 / Dir. Clarence G Badger, USA, 1916
Hall One, Sat May 29, 7.30pm

– Ossi’s father hires a guardian to educate his rebellious daughter. Escaping from house arrest dressed as a man, Ossi begins to investigate whether life is more liberated this way.

– When vampish Helene (Gloria Swanson) uses her charms on Bobbie, Gloria breaks up the pair by disguising herself as a man to seduce Helene.

Zoe Rahman / Juice

‘One of the finest young pianists in Europe’ – The Observer

– Zoe Rahman has firmly established herself as one of the brightest stars on the contemporary jazz scene. Zoe has recorded four critially acclaimed albums, her second ‘Melting Pot’, wasnominated for the 2006 Mercury Music Award and was voted ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ at the 2006 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

– Juice is an experimental vocal trio specialising in vibrant, theatrical performances commissioned countless new works. They draw on world music, jazz, folk and pop and have been featured on BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM and Resonance FM.

King’s Place (“a creative hub, a dining venue, a conference and events centre, and office complex”) is at 90 YorK Way London N1, close by King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. More details, including tickets, from the Bird’s Eye View site.

Defining Muybridge


As was pointed out here recently, this is turning out to be the year of Eadweard Muybridge. The sequence photographer whose work laid paths both technological and intellectual towards motion pictures isn’t enjoying a centenary of any sort, but nevertheless we have a major exhibition now running Washington until July, moving to Tate Britain in London in September, and San Francisco in February 2011; a new critical biography by Marta Braun to be published in September; other events, exhibitions and symposia (there was a one-day event at the BFI South Bankon May 21st); and now a new website: Eadweard Muybridge: Defining Modernities.

The website has been produced in collaboration by Kingston University and Kingston Museum in the UK, Kingston being Muybridge’s home town. It sets out “to provide a definitive research resource surrounding the work of 19th Century photographer Eadweard Muybridge”, and it has gone about its task in a particularly handsome way. The site is divided into four main sections: Collection Map & Database; Muybridge: Image & Context; Comparative Timelines; and Bibliography.

The Collections Map & Database lists “all known physical collections of Muybridge’s work housed in cultural organisations around the world; as well as selected collections of rare books published by Muybridge during his lifetime”. The search form on the front page suggests that the research will be able to locate individual items in these collections through a single database, but in fact you are pointed to a more basic collection guide with indication of number of Muybridge-related items held. You can refine your research by country and category, and see the collections arranged on a world map.

‘Boy. Child without legs. Getting off chair’, from http://www.eadweardmuybridge.co.uk

Muybridge: Image & Context is a set of useful short essays on key aspects of Muybridge’s work, beautifully illustrated with slide shows (Muybridge remains an absolute gift to any designer). Themes include The Modern City, Landscape, Foreign Bodies, and The Human Figure in Motion.

Comparative Timelines is a browsable timeline of the Muybridge era, 1800-1907 (he lived 1830-1904). It allows you to trace events in his personal life, film history, invention, photography, US history and world history side-by-side. Finally there is a bibliography, with a surprisingly brief supplementary list of web links.

Eadweard Muybridge: Defining Modernities is a pleasure to look at and easy to navigate. It has ambitions to become the definitive resource for Muybridge online, and hopefully it will indeed build on these good foundations, though it has a little way to go before it can match Stephen Herbert’s solo production The Compleat Muybridge (oddly not included among the site’s links) for its range and comprehensiveness.

And there’s more. Also just launched is Muybridge in Kingston, a site which usefully brings together Muybridge collections, events and projects located in Kingston, which certainly is doing its native son proud. Next, the always excellent Luminous Lint photography website has an online exhibition entitled Scientific Movement. Created by Alan Griffiths, the exhibition traces the history of the efforts by scientists to capture movement through photography, covering Muybridge, his great French contemporary E.J. Marey, and others whose less familiar work continued well into the twentieth-century: Ottomar Anschütz (1846-1907), Arthur Clive Banfield (1875-1965), Prof. A.M. Worthington, Ernst Mach, the Bragaglia brothers in Italy, Frank B. and Lillian Gilbreth and Harold E. Edgerton (1903-1990).

Finally, as a taster for what we in the UK can expect in September, here’s short promo for the Washington exhibition, Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change:



Louis is a new silent film about Louis Armstrong. It is directed by Dan Pritzker (a rock musician and the 246th richest man in America, no less), photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, and stars Anthony Coleman, Jackie Earle Haley and Shanti Lowry. Being a silent film in form as well as spirit, it requires live musical accompaniment, and the film premieres in five US cities this August with music provided by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad and a 10-piece all-star jazz ensemble. The music will be a mixture of a Marsalis score primarily comprising his own compositions, and Licad playing the music of 19th century American composer Louis Gottschalk. Marsalis says of the experience:

The idea of accompanying a silent film telling a mythical tale of a young Louis Armstrong was appealing to me. Of course, calling it a silent film is a misnomer – there will be plenty of music, and jazz is like a conversation between the players so there’ll be no shortage of dialogue.

The film’s website supplies this plot summary:

LOUIS is an homage to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women and the birth of American music. The grand Storyville bordellos, alleys and cemeteries of 1907 New Orleans provide a backdrop of lust, blood and magic for 6 year old Louis (Anthony Coleman) as he navigates the colorful intricacies of life in the city. Young Louis’s dreams of playing the trumpet are interrupted by a chance meeting with a beautiful and vulnerable girl named Grace (Lowry) and her baby, Jasmine. Haley, in a performance reminiscent of the great comic stars of the silent screen, plays the evil Judge Perry who is determined not to let Jasmine’s true heritage derail his candidacy for governor.

Pritzker was inspired to make Louis while he was working on a screenplay for a feature film about Buddy Bolden. He went to a screening of Chaplin’s City Lights with the Chicago Symphony, calling it “without a doubt the best movie experience I ever had”. He decided to produce a film that would follow on historically from where Bolden ended, and to make it in the early film style of Louis Armstrong’s childhood. His original idea to produce a short, black-and-white silent with Marsalis’ music to accompany Bolden, under the title The Great Observer, but the idea grew – and gained colour. Bolden, which is not a silent film, will be released in 2011.

Louis is playing at these American cities in August:

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Norma Talmadge in The Woman Disputed (1928), from http://www.silentfilm.org

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place 15-18 July at the Castro Theatre, and what is quite frankly a sensational programme has just been announced. The biggest draw is going to be the new version of Metropolis, but the programme is choc-a-bloc with classics everyone should see, rediscoveries, surprises, and some of the funniest comedy short films ever made. Here are the details:

Thursday, July 15th

The Iron Horse (USA, 1924, 150 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: John Ford
Cast: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy
Accompanied By: Dennis James
Set in mid-19th century America, The Iron Horse is the silent era’s version of How the West Was Won, weaving its themes of romance and history around the story of the building of the first transcontinental railway. This glorious print is the only surviving 35mm print of the American version.

Friday, July 16th

Amazing Tales from the Archives 1 (60 mins)
Lost Films from the Silent Era: Presentations by Joe Lindner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires (the archivists responsible for finding the lost Metropolis footage).
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin

A Spray of Plum Blossoms (China, 1931, 100 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Bu Wancang
Cast: Ruan-Lingyu, Jin Yan
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin
One of the most prolific Chinese directors of the silent era, Bu Wancang based this film on William Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” setting the action in China, circa 1930 and casting China’s favorite on-screen couple, Ruan Ling-yu and Jin Yan. Like any Shakespeare comedy, Plum Blossoms is replete with star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, and a satisfying happy ending. By situating the play in the ’30s-era Chinese army, the “gentlemen” of the Shakespeare’s title are the film’s officers, the duke is a warlord, and his daughter’s ladies-in-waiting are military police!
Presented with both Mandarin and English intertitles.

Rotaie (Italy, 1929, 74 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Mario Camerini
Cast: Käthe von Nagy, Maurizio D’Ancora
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
One of the most important Italian movies of the late silent period, Rotaie is the story is of two young lovers, very poor and on the brink of suicide, who come into a bit of temporary good luck. Finding a lost wallet in a train station, the lovers hop a train to two thrilling weeks of high living. The film’s exquisite style is influenced by the expressionism of German master F.W. Murnau. Presented with Italian intertitles accompanied by a live English translation.

Metropolis (Germany, 1927, 148 mins, Digital)
Directed By: Fritz Lang
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Brigitte Helm
Accompanied By: Alloy Orchestra
When Fritz Lang’s masterpiece debuted in Berlin in January, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes, but in order to maximize box office potential the German and American distributors cut the film to 90 minutes for its commercial release. For decades crucial scenes from the film were considered lost. In 2001, the Munich Film Foundation assembled a more complete version with additional footage from four contributing archives, and Metropolis had a premiere revival at 124 minutes (widely believed to be the most complete version that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see). But, in 2008 archivists from the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires made a spectacular discovery—a 16mm dupe negative of Metropolis that was considerably longer than any existing print! That discovery led to this remarkable restoration and Metropolis can now be shown in Fritz Lang’s original—25 minute longer—complete version. Digital print from Kino International. Special Guests: Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña of the Museo del Cine, the pair who found the lost footage!

Saturday, July 17th

The Big Business of Short, Funny Films (62 min)
The Cook (USA, 1918, 22 min), Pass the Gravy (USA, 1928, 22 min), and Big Business (USA, 1929, 18 min)

Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film (70 mins)
This special moderated program will shine a light the process of composing scores for silent films. Pianists Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne will take part, along with organist Dennis James, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra, and Swedish musician and composer Matti Bye. Chloe Veltman, Bay Area culture correspondent for The New York Times and producer and host of public radio’s VoiceBox, will moderate.

The Flying Ace (USA, 1926, 65 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Richard E. Norman
Cast: Lawrence Criner, Kathryn Boyd
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin
Richard E. Norman was among the first to produce films starring African-American actors in positive roles. Between 1920 and 1928, the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. produced six feature-length films as part of a movement to establish an independent black cinema at a time when blacks were demeaned in mainstream movies. The Flying Ace is the only Norman film that survives and its story of a crime-fighting ace pilot is still a crowd-pleaser! 35mm print from Library of Congress.

The Strong Man (USA, 1926, 75 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Frank Capra
Cast: Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
This Harry Langdon comedy will be shown in a pristine print from Photoplay Productions in England. Frank Capra’s second feature, this effervescent slapstick has Langdon as Paul Bergot, a mild-mannered Belgian soldier who goes on the road with German strongman Zandow the Great after World War I. When they get to the States, Paul searches for (and finds) his American sweetheart pen pal.

Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany, 1929, 116 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks, Kurt Gerron
Accompanied By: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Diary of a Lost Girl represents the second and final work of one of the cinema’s most compelling collaborations: G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks. Together with Pandora’s Box, Diary confirmed Pabst’s artistry as one of the great directors of the silent period and established Brooks as an “actress of brilliance, a luminescent personality and a beauty unparalleled in screen history.” (Kevin Brownlow) This version has been mastered from a restoration of the film made by the Cineteca di Bologna with approximately seven minutes of previously censored footage. 35mm print of Kino International.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden , Denmark, 1922, 90 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Benjamin Christensen
Cast: Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt
Accompanied By: Matti Bye Ensemble
Benjamin Christensen’s legendary film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients. But the film itself is far from serious—instead it’s a witches’ brew of the scary and darkly humorous. 35mm restored, tinted print from the Swedish Film Institute.

Sunday, July 18th

Amazing Tales from the Archives 2 (60 mins)
Presentations by Annette Melville (National Film Preservation Board) and Mike Mashon (Library of Congress, Moving Image Section)
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
Presentations by Annette Melville (National Film Preservation Board) and Mike Mashon (Library of Congress, Moving Image Section)

The Shakedown (USA, 1929, 70 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: William Wyler
Cast: James Murray, Barbara Kent, Jack Hanlon
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin
Restored to 35mm by George Eastman house, The Shakedown is a superb action-drama about a boxer whose life changes when he meets up with an orphan boy. Director William Wyler is most celebrated for his talkies (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben Hur, Funny Girl) and this uplifting tale is a splendid introduction to the master’s early career. Beautiful camerawork, fast-paced editing, and remarkable effects make this a riveting feature. Leonard Maltin will interview the children of director William Wyler onstage.

Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929, 70 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Dziga Vertov
Accompanied By: Alloy Orchestra
Considered one of the most innovative and influential films of the silent era. Startlingly modern, this film demonstrates a groundbreaking style of rapid editing and incorporates innumerable other cinematic effects to create a work of amazing power and energy. This dawn-to-dusk view of the Soviet Union offers a montage of urban Russian life, showing the people of the city at work and at play, and the machines that endlessly whirl to keep the metropolis alive. Vertov’s masterpiece employs all the cinematic techniques at the director’s disposal — dissolves, split-screens, slow motion, and freeze-frames — to produce a work that is exhilarating and intellectually brilliant.

The Woman Disputed (USA, 1928, 110 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Henry King, Sam Taylor
Cast: Norma Talmadge, Gilbert Roland
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
This splendid romance is a true discovery, starring the extraordinary Norma Talmadge as a goodhearted streetwalker who is coveted by Austrian and Russian rivals. “I have just seen The Woman Disputed and it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The plot takes Maupaussant’s Boule de Suif to extremes, but it succeeds so well as a brilliant piece of film craft that it MUST be brought back to life.” (Kevin Brownlow).

L’Heureuse mort (France, 1924, 83 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Serge Nadejdine
Cast: Nicolas Rimsky, Lucie Larue
Accompanied By: Matti Bye Ensemble
This remarkable comedy stars Nicolas Rimsky as Parisian dramatist Théodore Larue whose latest premiere is a disaster. His reputation gone, Larue takes a sea voyage, during which he is swept overboard in a storm and lost. The press and the literary world react with an abrupt revaluation of his work, elevating him to the stature of France’s greatest dramatist. His widow finds herself in possession of a hugely valuable literary property… At which point, Larue — inopportunely — returns home. But, dramatist above all, he decides to masquerade as his colonialist brother Anselme, while industriously turning out posthumous works by Théodore. But then the real Anselme turns up with his Senegalese wife… Beautiful 35mm print from the Cinémathèque Française. Presented with French intertitles accompanied by a live English translation.

The festival website is choc-a-bloc itself with things to explore, quite apart from standard stuff like ticketing details. Every film is illustrated, well described, and comes with links to the IMDB, biography of the musician, recommendations for other film like it in the festival (if you like L’Heureuse mort they suggest you try out The Cook), and chances to mark your favourites through Twitter, Digg and such like. You can view the programme by date, title or musician, follow the very active festival blog, catch up on news from the festival, read articles from past festival programmes, and more.

All in all it looks like quite some four days. The Bioscope particularly recommends The Shakedown, Pass the Gravy and (because it has a particular fondness for silent Shakespeare) A Spray of Plum Blossoms – a pleasant surprise to see that rather delightful curio included in the programme. Lucky all you who can get there.

Classics upon classics

It must be evidence of the increasing taste of the disc-buying public that we seem to be getting more and more classic titles appearing on DVD and Blu-Ray, handsomely produced to appeal to the general cineaste as well as to the silent film specialist. And these are not just the obvious, every-good-home-should-have-one titles, but a range of titles that extends the available canon and increases the chance of discovery for those maybe investigating silents for the first time.

All of which is preamble to the news that Criterion is to release a collector’s set of three classic titles directed by Josef von Sternberg: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). Von Sternberg is known to most film buffs for the exotic films he made in the 1930s with Marlene Dietrich, such as Shanghai Express and Morocco. His silent American films are more cited than seen, so there appearance of these three titles for the first time on DVD will give many the chance to see for the first time how von Sternberg’s brooding, rich visions were established in the 1920s and what continuity there is between the silent and sound era director. Underworld is the archetypal gangster film, The Last Command is a Russian Revolution drama for which Emil Jannings won the first-ever Academy Award for best actor, and The Docks of New York is a fog-bound, intense human drama of waterfront life in the kind of storytelling that silent film does better than another other medium.

The films each come with two scores: one by Robert Israel for each film; two by the Alloy Orchestra, for Underworld and The Last Command; and a piano and voice piece by Donald Sosin for The Docks of New York. The extras include two ‘visual essays’ by Janet Bergstrom and Tag Gallagher, a 1968 Swedish television interview with von Sternberg, a ninety-six-page booklet, the original film treatment for Underworld by Ben Hecht; and an excerpt from Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, on Emil Jannings.

The box set will be available from Criterion on 24 August.

And if that wasn’t enough, Flicker Alley has announced a 2-DVD set of Chicago (1927), based like the recent musical on Maurine Watkins’ gleefully cynical 1926 play. The film was directed by Frank Urson, though it is generally understood to be mostly the work of Cecil B. De Mille (he declined to take a credit because such a tale of low life didn’t really fit in with his King of Kings image – the made both films in the same year). It has become established as a festival favourite since its recent restoration. It stars Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart and Robert Edeson and Billy Flynn. The music on the DVD is supplied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (listen to some extracts here). The extras include The Golden Twenties (1950), a compilation documentary feature produced by The March of Time; a documentary The Flapper Story (1985); a brochure by Thomas Pauly on author Maurine Watkins and the factual background to Chicago, notes by Robert S. Birchard, and a documentary supplement, Chicago; The Real-Life Roxie Hart by Jeffery Masino and Silas Lesnick.

Chicago will be released on 6 July.

The Brand Blackmail


Last year Neil Brand‘s orchestral score for the silent version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was premiered (and much acclaimed) at Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna in July 2008. Happily there is going to be a further outing for the score, as film and music are to feature at the Barbican in London on 31 October 2010. The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Timothy Brock, and tickets can now be booked from the Barbican site. As said before, this is probably the first full orchestral score to be written for a British silent fiction film since the 1920s (The Battle of the Somme, a documentary feature, received the orchestral treatment at the Royal Festival Hall in 2006).

For an extract from the score, photos of the Bologna screening, and extracts from reviews, see the Blackmail page on Neil’s personal site.

And there’s more. As regular readers will know, Neil is progressively building up a further reputation as a radio dramatist, and on 27 and 28 May (each at 14:15) BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting Waves Breaking on a Shore, a two-part play about early cinema, Jewish culture, nationalism and radical politics in London’s East End, co-written by Neil and Michael Eaton. The two parts will be broadcast in the Afternoon Play slot and will be able to be heard live on the Radio 4 site and – one trusts – for a week thereafter on iPlayer (if you are in the UK).

I’ve read it and I warmly recommend it (and if it ends up mentioning Walter Gibbons’ Phono-Bio-Tableaux, then I contributed three words to it as well).

The art of the benshi

Here’s an interview from the Japanese Times with Midori Sawato, best-known of the small band of voice artists who keep alive the art of the benshi. There are around ten modern benshi in Japan, who continue the tradition of adding live narration to silent films, which was the standard manner in which silent films were exhibited in Japan up to the late 1930s, when – at its peak – there were some 7,000 such benshi in employment. The benshi would be positioned alongside the screen and take on the multiple roles, accompanied by live music, and putting their particular personality onto the film entertainment. Sawato gives around 100 such shows per year.

Sawato has been featured here before, as she is main voice artist featured on Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series of Japanese silents with benshi narration, reported on here. In the interview (which takes a couple of minutes before she gets to silent films) she describes how she was working in publishing in 1972 when she went to a silent film narrated by master benshi Shunsui Matsuda, one of a number of celebrated benshi still active. She became so engrossed by the art that she became his apprentice, making her debut with Chaplin’s The Rink. One of the interesting aspects of the interview is the realisation that benshi narrate for non-Japanese silents as well as Japanese – which is of course how it was during the silent era.

The interview covers how she learned the art (mostly by listening), how she conveys different characters, and her thoughts about the importance of silent film as a means to preserve history and culture. There’s also the oblique admission that she continues to perform to the films despite relatively small audiences, believing that it is good work to be doing whether the audience be large or small. It’s a noble activity.

The video serves as my means to introduce The Bioscope on YouTube. I’ve set up a channel, or playlist, on YouTube which lists almost all of the videos featured on The Bioscope since its inception in February 2007. I say almost all, because some videos have been taken down since then, and some have come from other sites (such as Vimeo). But it’s most of them, and I think they make interesting browsing. I’ll continue to add each new video to the channel as they are featured on the blog. The Bioscope on YouTube is now a link on the right-hand column of this site, alongside our other satellite sites, The Bioscope on Flickr (images featured on or associated with the blog), The Bioscope Bibliography of Silent Cinema (selected from the British Library catalogue, still ongoing), The Bioscope on Twitter (a feed from blog posts only), and Urbanora’s Modern Silents (another YouTube playlist, with some overlaps with the new channel).

Slapsticon returns

Slapsticon is a four-day film festival of rarely seen comedies from the silent and early sound eras, held at Arlington VA every July. This year’s festival takes place 15-18 July at Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, Arlington, and the programme has just been announced:

Thursday July 15, 2010
12:00 pm — Spectrum Doors Open

1:00 pm

* The Great Radio Comedians (1971)

3:00 pm — Weiss-O-Roni II

* Thick and Thin (1929) — Snub Pollard, Marvin Loback
* Taking the Count (1929) — Ben Turpin, Leo White
* Deaf, Dumb and Blonde (1928) — Poodles Hanneford
* Dizzie Daze (1928) — Jimmy Aubrey

5:00 pm — Dinner Break

7:00 pm — Abbott and Costello Rarities, including Africa Screams (1949) in 35mm

9:00 pm

* The Covered Schooner (1923) — Monty Banks
* Too Many Kisses (1925) — Richard Dix, Harpo Marx

Friday July 16, 2010
8:00 am — Spectrum Doors Open

9:00 am — Early Comedies:

* Medium Wanted as Son-In-Law (1908) — Pathé Comedy
* Miss Stickie Moufie Kiss (1914) — Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew
* Cruel and Unusual (1915) — Musty Suffer
* Poor Policy (1914) — Billie Ritchie, Henry Bergman
* Mishaps of Musty Suffer: Going Up (1916) — Harry Watson Jr.
* The Feudists (1913) — John Bunny, Sidney Drew
* Lizzy’s Dissy Career (1915) — Neal Burns, Victoria Forde
* Goodnight Nurse (1916) — Neal Burns
* Ham at the Garbage Gentlemen’s Ball (1915) — Ham and Bud

11:00 am — Kids ‘N’ Animals

* Ladies’ Pets (1921) — Snooky the Humanzee
* Dad’s Boy (1923) — Buddy Messinger
* The Knockout (1926) — Dippy Do Dads
* Buster’s Picnic (1927) — Buster Brown
* The Smile Wins (1928) — Our Gang

12:30 pm — Lunch Break

2:00pm — The Sennett Spot

* Shot in the Excitement (1914) — Al St. John, Alice Howell
* Don’t Weaken (1920) — Ford Sterling, Charlie Murray
* The Funnymooners (1925) — Ralph Graves
* Ice Cold Cocos (1926) — Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde
* The Bluffer (1930) — Andy Clyde
* Courtin’ Trouble (1932) — Charlie Murray, Arthur Stone

4:00 pm — Rob Stone Rarities

6:00 pm — Dinner Break

8:00 pm

* The Round-Up (1920) — Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
* Pop Tuttle’s Movie Queen (1922) — Dan Mason

10:00 pm

* Horse Shy (1927) — Edward Everett Horton
* Wide Open (1930) — Edward Everett Horton

Saturday July 17, 2010
8:00am — Spectrum Doors Open

9:00 am — Cartoon Show

10:30 am — Hal Roach Comedies

* Peculiar Patient’s Pranks (1915) — Harold Lloyd
* Pardon Me (1921) — Snub Pollard
* Shoot Straight (1923) — Paul Parrott
* Cuckoo Love (1927) — Glenn Tryon, Chester Conklin
* Fallen Arches (1933) — Charley Chase
* Taxi Barons (1933) — Taxi Boys

12:30 pm — Lunch Break

2:00 pm

* Modern Love (1929) — Charley Chase
* South of the Boudoir (1940) — Charley Chase

4:00 pm

* You Made Me Love You (1934) — Stanley Lupino, Thelma Todd

6:00 pm &nmash; Dinner Break

8:00 pm

* The Caveman (1926) — Marie Prevost, Tom Moore

10:00 pm — Talkie Shorts

* Fireproof (1929) — Lupino Lane
* Dangerous Youth (1930) — Daphne Pollard
* Gents of Leisure (1931) — Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent
* Old Sawbones (1935) — Andy Clyde

Sunday July 18, 2010
9:00 am — Spectrum Doors Open

10:00 am — More Talkie Shorts

* Honeymoon Trio (1932) — Al St. John, Walter Catlett
* In a Pig’s Eye (1934) — Clark and McCullough
* I Don’t Remember (1935) — Harry Langdon
* Down the Ribber (1936) — Leon Errol
* Teacher’s Pest (1939) — Charley Chase

12:00pm — Lunch Break

1:30 pm

* Luck (1923) — Johnny Hines
* Broken China (1927) — Bobby Vernon
* A Briny Boob (1926) — Billy Dooley

3:30 pm — Ones for the Road

* Papa’s Boy (1928) — Lloyd Hamilton
* Drama Deluxe (1927) — Lupino Lane
* Fluttering Hearts (1927) — Charley Chase

Ah, what joyous things silent and early sound comedies are by their names alone. There’s all the information need on location, accommodation, and registration on the festival site. And, as final temptation, a little bird tells me that those attending may very well be able to see something “that will add a new title to the Charlie Chaplin filmography”. Intriguing.