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The silent moving image, whether you’re swooning over Swanson, chortling with Chaplin or weeping for Wall-E, offers a universal language that transcends the clumsiness of dialogue. With the dawn of the talkie, films lost a great deal of subtlety and physical theatre - no character could stray too far from the microphones. This year’s British Silent Film Festival brings you Edwardian stop motion animation, a family feature on animal stars of the silent screen, and the chance to speak to experts from the BFI and BBFC. It also brings you sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.Think silents are stuffy? Read on. In 1915 Charlie Chaplin was the first to challenge the British Board of Film Censors with a brazen display of wanton transvestism in the two-reeler A WOMAN. A sub-plot centring on an adulterous love affair sealed the deal - “premeditated seduction of a girl” set off the censors’ alarm bells. WHAT THE SILENT CENSOR SAW, screening on 20th April at 17.30, features clips that caused similar controversy, as well as the Adrian Brunel spoof, CUT IT OUT: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A FILM CENSOR. Whet your appetite with our potted history of the BBFC on page four.
It’s common knowledge that cocaine and opium use was fashionable at the turn of the century. THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH (1916) stars Doug Fairbanks Sr. as a dopefiend detective, “Coke Ennyday”. Primarily a showcase for Fairbanks’ proto-Parkour skills, this goofy pro-drug laff-riot was written by D. W. Griffith and Tod Browning. The BSFF programme features Graham Cutts’ COCAINE (1922), a revenge thriller known as the most controversial British film of its time. Silent films were never intended to be watched in silence. For many, silent film is associated with shoddy DVD transfers, generic stock music and even canned laughter. For a completely authentic experience, the British Silent Film Festival offers quality screenings with live musical accompaniment, ranging from the legendary Neil Brand’s improvised piano to rockabilly from Mark Kermode and the Dodge Brothers.You are invited to bring your own laughter, especially for the P. G. Wodehouse shorts.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
True silent cinema is a combination of music, moving image and theatre; and as the accompanist and audience feed off one another’s shifting moods and building enthusiasm, this unique experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts - and anything but silent. - ROSY HUNT
INTERVIEW (PART ONE)
LARAINE PORTER DIRECTOR OF THE BSFF
Toby Miller: Many saw the success of THE ARTIST as a sign of a renaissance in silent cinema, but it’s been making waves for a while now: a restored METROPOLIS toured last year, NAPOLEON just screened in LA and, thanks to Blu-ray, labels like Eureka and Kino are bringing once obscure silents to the high street. Is there a rise in the medium? Laraine Porter: Yes, I think there has been. It’s been slower in Britain than it has been elsewhere: there’s a silent film festival that has been running for 25 - 30 years in Italy, and there have been silent film festivals in America, but 15 years ago no one was really interested. One of the reasons we started the British Silent Film Festival was in response to a lot of criticism from the Americans, who of course feel they invented cinema. They hadn’t seen much [silent film], but the material they had seen was very slow, it was very pictorial, very stagey, and very heavily reliant on literary adaptation, and they felt that compared to the films that were being produced in America at the same time that basically Britain was very, very stodgy.
[Silent] films are a window on a world, and a chance to see our ancestors.
We set out to disprove this, and over the past 15 years we’ve been able to uncover what is in the BFI archive. Now there isn’t just an increased amount of interest from scholars, but also the general public. But some of the interest in silent cinema is because it is coming into fashion again; people are interested in that period of history.
TM: Picking up on the historical element, is there a line to be drawn between silent cinema as historical document, and silent cinema as notable cinema? Or should there be a blurring of the two? LP: I think there is a blurring. Even in fiction films you can see the way people dress, the way they move, the way they deported themselves, their cultural interests, even things like the novels they read. For instance, we’re screening A WILL AND A WAY and THE BOATSWAIN’S MATE. When these films were originally released in 1922 and 1924, critics praised them as fabulous adaptations of one of the most popular authors in the world. But who has heard of WW Jacobs now? So we learn more and more about what people read and how they entertained themselves. And then with films shot on location you can see the way cities looked, how people occupied public spaces, so both fiction and non-fiction are a window onto a world that no longer exists. TM: …but that is only echoing the American criticism that these are not works of actual cinema... LP: The silent films of Alfred Hitchcock, the silent films of Anthony Asquith alone prove [the Americans] wrong. Does Britain have a film to compete with a film like Murnau’s SUNRISE? Yes, it does: we’re screening THE LURE OF CROONING WATER from 1920, a lovely film along similar themes, but much less known about and seen. By the early 1920s British cinema did have a particular cinematic style: quite often it was pictorial, and adapted from literary sources, but it used landscape and developed particular acting styles; and by the mid 1920s it had begun to develop a fluent narrative style. So the argument that British cinema was static and stagey was based on the fact it was so little seen.What we have done over the last 15 years is open up this fabulous treasure trove of British silent film.
Read part 2 of Toby Miller’s interview in issue 2, available on Saturday 21 April.
WHEN THE SILENCE ENDED Asking how people felt about the introduction of the talkies around 1927 (when THE JAZZ SINGER came out) is like asking people what they thought about 3D in 2009 (when AVATAR cleaned up). People raved but foresight proved lacking. Photoplay editor James Quirk put it well in 1924: “Talking pictures are perfected… So is castor oil.” Dramatist Bernard Shaw put it better, “The nicest thing about film so far was that it kept its mouth shut.” Sound films had existed in experimental forms for years beforehand. Underdogs Warner Bros. took an almighty gamble on a new synchronised sound-ondisc system Vitaphone and the conventional birth of the talkies began with Al Jolson mugging in THE JAZZ SINGER. Warners then quietly switched to the competing (and better) sound-on-film system a few years later. They sugar-coated it by announcing that their films were now available in both formats, a move similar to the way some home-entertainment releases combine DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital copies.
The conventional birth of the talkies began with Al Jolson mugging in THE JAZZ SINGER.
burst open with some guy running out yelling, ‘Wally On the road to THE JAZZ SINGER Warners tested Beery has a voice! Wally Beery has a voice!’ It was a their sound technology with shorts. One onlooker strange time for Hollywood”. Beery went on to win observed, “Throughout the rest of the first half of the an Oscar using that voice in 1932. program the audience sat breathlessly drinking the novelty in. It found that it liked films that talked…. Sadly others were less adaptable. Expatriate Emil found itself brought closer to those artists than ever Jannings returned to making films in Germany; Clara before…”. Bow’s star faded as her acting style failed to change; John Gilbert, a Rudolph Valentino level heartthrob, The ensuing panic of Hollywood movie stars has may have been scuppered by poor dialogue in the been exaggerated mostly by the Hollywood machine brave new speaking world. The Kenneth Anger myth – just watch SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN or SUNSET about Gilbert having a squeaky voice is much funnier BOULEVARD. Again this is similar to some of the and mildly reminiscent of the ‘David Beckham’ paranoia flying around about the introduction of HD conundrum. Meanwhile Lon Chaney had different television prompting facelifts. But one great reaction problems, “I have a thousand faces, but only one from this period goes like this: “I’ll never forget the voice.” time I was standing outside a stage, and the door - DAVID PERILLI “There are those rare moments in life where you are privileged to bear witness to a unique event, this, for me was one of them. Should they saddle up and recreate this triumph at any time in the future, then my advice to anyone, is buy your ticket early.” - Richard O’Brien Don’t miss the Gala screening of Abram Room’s THE GHOST THAT NEVER RETURNS, with music from Neil Brand and The Dodge Brothers! Screening on the 22nd April at 17.30, at West Road Concert Hall.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE BBFC This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the British Board of Film Classification, which has assessed all UK releases since it was first established during the silent film era. Its role during that time, and beyond, is being celebrated at the British Silent Film Festival.
The BBFC was launched on January 1st, 1913.
In the early days of cinema, the danger of film to the general public was a literal one. Films were produced on a highly flammable nitrate film base, and projection booth fires were not uncommon: in Newmarket in 1907, two women and a child were killed in a cinema fire started by the film itself. Crowd control also caused several dangerous incidents: in Barnsley in 1908, sixteen children were crushed to death at a screening. This resulted in the Cinematograph Act 1909, which pushed the responsibility of health and safety in cinemas onto local authorities. This turned attention to the content of the films, especially as the medium was so popular with children. As the burden now lay on the local authorities, at first they marshalled the content of film by cutting and splicing the films as they saw fit, and various versions of films were shown around the country. Soon the film industry decided to take a more standardised approach towards censorship, appeasing the authorities while maintaining some control. Thus the British Board of Film Censors was launched.
Films were classified either U(niversal) or A(dult Only)
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN was rejected in 1925.
This censorship followed only two hard rules: no nudity, and no living impersonations of Jesus Christ. But the BBFC had to change with the times, and gradually collected some ‘grounds for rejection’ as advice for examiners. Some of these included “scenes of men and women in bed together”; “scenes laid in disorderly houses” and “references to controversial politics”. Unlike the famous Hayes Code of the USA, the BBFC viewed these more as guidelines rather than unquestioned rules. Films were not often cut: instead, offensive films were simply rejected. But it must be remembered that this was an organisation new to its purpose, as was the film industry itself – certainly not knowing the impact that film would have on audiences throughout the rest of the century. The use of guidelines rather than rules when determining the release of films was certainly a more liberal approach than the heavy Hayes Code, and showed that the Board was more considerate of context. Putting in place measures that would ease the various pressures placed on films at the time, and negotiating its way through conflicts, the Board showed that the industry could police itself. The ongoing history of the BBFC is testament to that, in the way that it has rolled with the changes throughout the twentieth century and determined how these changes have reflected in cinema. - MIKE BOYD WHAT THE SILENT CENSOR SAW, celebrating the history of the BBFC, is showing at 5.30pm on Friday 20 April with special guests.
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