Silents to see before you die

Do silent films ever get seen as cult films? There are some cult silents – Pandora’s Box is an obvious example – but for the most part silent films get billed as classics and tend to attract audiences that are a mixture of cineastes and nostalgists, augmented at specialist festivals by film archivists and academics. Silent films are understood to appeal to a very select taste, though there are some efforts to bill the comedies of the era as being the equal of those today and hence as having appeal for a general audience (of course they are frequently hugely superior to the comedies of today, but that’s not quite my point).

But it seems to be a rare thing to promote silent films as cult viewing – not as something that it would be worthy to experience, but something word-of-mouth cool. I was wondering why this wasn’t attempted more often as I went to the Prince Charles cinema in London’s Leicester Square last Thursday to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The Prince Charles is London’s home of cult cinema. It specialises in picking up on films just out of general release which it can offer at cheaper prices to the impoverished students that make up a large part of its audiences. As well as these recently recent releases it has repertory seasons of cult films, retrospectives, ‘films to see before you die’, audience participation singalonga films (Sound of Music, Grease) and the inevitable Rocky Horror Picture Show.

And now it has silent films. On the last Thursday of every month the Prince Charles is showing a silent film, and is attracting the sorts of audiences you just don’t see at any other sort of silent film screening. The initiative has only just started, with The Cameraman shown last month, Hunchback last week, and Aelita in February. So an audience is still being built up, but it looks like word-of-mouth is working already, because the reasonably-sized cinema with its curious reverse raking was nearly full, with those attending being young, enthusiastic, cine-literate to a degree no doubt, but also just keen to have a good time.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from

It was a great audience to be a part of, with a palpable sense of discovery in the air. Unfortunately, if you are going to build up a cult reputation, films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame are not the way to do it. It looks spectacular, of course. It is the archetypal historical screen romance. It has an iconic performance from Lon Chaney. But the direction (by the obscure Wallace Worsley) is sluggish and uninspired. There is no real human feeling to it (aside from Chaney, of course). Moreover the film looked terrible (I believe only poor elements survive), and I think it was a DVD that they were projecting. If you had prejudices against silent films before you went in, you would have gone out having had them confirmed.

On the plus side there was John Sweeney playing the piano in bravura style, with a marvellous set of dissonant chords mimicking the ringing of bells to open the film, and he brought out the best of what was on the screen. Sometimes the audience laughed at its quaintness, sometimes they laughed with it. Certainly they stayed with it. You got a good sense that they would be coming back for more, and Aelita on February 24th is a good choice for the next screening, with live music acompaniment by Minima.

I hope very much that this experiment continues, and that silents start to be billed as films that you have to see before you die (alas, the Prince Charles lapses into the bad habit shown by others and bills the films as ‘classics’ – we shouldn’t want to see these films just because they are worthy). With Metropolis having broken out of the cinematheques to reach some general theatres, there is something in the air about silent films, which suggests that there are new audiences out there eager to discover the best in them. The films just need to go to where those audiences are. The Prince Charles is showing the way.

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