Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928), from http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff
Silent film restorations, they seem to be everywhere at the moment, pitched ever more as gorgeous attractions whose time has come. They have (re)premieres, they are presented as works restored to life, as somehow belonging as much to our time as the time in which they were made. Maybe it’s the tinting and toning, maybe it’s the orchestral scores, maybe it’s just the hype – but they have glamour.
It is certainly striking to see a silent film restoration among one of the star attractions in the London Film Festival programme, and a British silent that few will have heard of to boot. The First Born (1928) is a film well worthy of the honour, however; indeed it is a rather better film than the festival blurb might suggest, whose attempts to sell it to a modern audience include comparisons with the TV series Downton Abbey and an invitation to consider how far the action on the screen mirrors the private lives of its stars. There are better reasons to see it than those – it is sophisticated, subtle, mature in theme and and bold in technique, perhaps what Mauritz Stiller might have made had he been in Britain rather than Sweden. It was directed by Miles Mander, and stars he and Madeleine Carroll in a tale of marital disharmony. The BFI’s copy of the film has long suffered from a missing ending, but additional footage has been uncovered to complete what should now gain the acclaim it deserves as a masterpiece. Stephen Horne has produced a new score, and it screens at the LFF on October 20th.
The LFF has a regular ‘Treasures from the Archives’ section, showing the pick of the world’s film restorations, and the silent selections this year are Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman (USA 1925); Mikhail Kalatosov’s visually extraordinary The Nail in the Boot (USSR 1931) paired with Lois Weber’s powerful tale of urban poverty, Shoes (USA 1916); and a selection from the Wonderful London series of travelogues from 1924, made by Frank Miller and Harry B. Parkinson, a hack director of humblest ambition who just for this series found the technique to match the theme and produced some hauntingly simple vignettes of London life. Well worth catching.
Another restoration grabbing our attention, not least through the strategy of a stylish web presentation, including the above trailer, is Ernst Lubistch’s The Loves of Pharoah (Das Weib des Pharao) (Germany 1922). Those who associate Lubitsch solely with sly, visually witty social comedies, and going to find The Loves of Pharoah something of a shock. It is a grand epic of the old school, with scenery-chewing performances from Emil Jannings and Paul Wegener, and literally a cast of thousands for some spectacular crowd scenes. Though it has its silly side, and not much of a story for one will care about, it is a film to see for the handling of scale and just a sense, now and then, that maybe Ancient Egypt was exactly like this. It was the last film Lubitsch made in Germany before he went over to the United States and he truly went to town, building what looks like an entire Egyptian city (complete with full-sized Sphinx) on the outskirts of Berlin.
For years the film has existed only in an incomplete form, but the bringing together of prints in the USA (George Eastman House) and Russia has allowed the reconstruction of almost the entire film, complete with the original score by Eduard Künneke. The digital restoration has been undertaken by Alpha-Omega, who previously worked on the digital restoration of Metropolis. The film will have its German premiere at the Neues Museum in Berlin on 17 September, with a TV broadcast on ARTE on 26 September. The US premiere will be at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles on 18 October, and a DVD and Blu-Ray release will then follow. More information is available, in English and German, on the Alpha-Omega site.
A third restoration doing the rounds, and with not just a trailer but a website to champion its importance is Mania, or, to give it its full title, Mania: The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker (Mania: Die Geschichte einer Zigarettenarbeiterin) (Germany 1918), Mania being the central character’s name. The great appeal here is that the film stars Pola Negri, the Polish vamp, shortly on her way to Hollywood to add a dash of pre-Garbo European glamour and mystique to American screens.
The film has been restored by the Filmoteka Narodowa in Poland and had a screening last night in Paris and has other lined up in Madrid, London (the Barbican on 13 October), Kiev and Berlin, with orchestral score, details of which are on the website. The trailer hasn’t been cut together all that well, but more than enough reason to see it is supplied by an enthusiastic account of the film in The Guardian. It was written by Pamela Hutchinson of the highly commendable Silent London blog, and is nicely observant when it comes to pinpointing Negri’s talent and appeal.