Silent Studies in the Kino – According to Tara

For a long time I thought I didn’t like silent cinema. It’s easy to be prejudiced against an era or a genre of film when your first encounter had you looking through the wrong keyhole.

It was about seven or eight years ago that I went to a silent film screening in Bristol. I can’t remember which film it was but I know it was a slapstick comedy with either Chaplin or Keaton, and it featured blackface. I was horrified and, quite honestly, shocked. I’d never seen a film with blackface exhibited publicly before and there had been no trigger warning before the screening. There was no context given and there I was, amidst a room full of white middle-class folk laughing their asses off.

On a less serious but still ultimately off-putting note, the music was poorly matched to the film. It was jaunty, whimsical and upbeat all the while. I hated everything about the screening and, as a result, was pretty much turned off silent cinema for life.

Or so I thought.

Several years later I met Dr Peter Walsh. He’s a feminist and a film scholar. His expertise is in early and silent cinema. He seemed immediately like a great guy who doesn’t endorse jaunty, inappropriate, crap music – or blackface. So, I thought, maybe there’s more to this silent cinema malarkey than I’ve given it credit for…

And so, with curiosity and hope, I invited Pete to run a silent cinema course at Flicks. I was first to enroll.

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The course exceeded the foolishness of my keyhole metaphor and opened an actual door to previously inaccessible cinema. Throughout the course I was introduced to The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993) which included the totally amazing Alice Guy who experimented with Gaumont’s sync sound system known as the Chronophone until such time as she got married and had to resign. She continued to work elsewhere after Gaumont gave her the boot but her husband kinda got in the way.

While a woman being nudged out of the way by dudes is an all too familiar story in film history it was great to at least hear about some of the women who made a mark before the patriarchy pushed them aside because documentaries (un)like this one far too often have us believing that women were altogether absent. Turns out it’s not just funny white dudes doing blackface after all. In fact, Lois Weber, who also features in the documentary, refused to work on one particular film, taking a stand against blackface – yep, there were heroes fighting for what’s right even in the early era.

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Course, I can’t help but wonder why The Silent Feminists, a forty-five minute documentary about women in a field where women are often absent from the dominant historical narrative, has yet to be released on DVD or BluRay. Please, BFI, help a sister out?

I also discovered that not all silent cinema is scored with unimaginative organ playing (like The Lost World, 1925) or jaunty piano. Having seen clips from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) many times before, I was amazed to discover that I have never seen the full film, restored, coloured, and gloriously scored by Air. I was also amazed at how many inappropriate scores have been recorded and released with Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Personally, I like it properly silent: no score. We also had a series of great, and divisive, discussions after watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with a Giorgio Moroder score.

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Perhaps most surprisingly was that I chose, of my own volition, to watch silent movies at home – not so much for homework or even extra curricular viewing, but just for the fun of it and with a genuine interest. Jean Painlevé’s wonderful sea urchins on our old never-before-rented VHS of Surrealism and Science (1925) and a beautifully scored, visually exciting and honestly suspenseful Swedish horror film, The Phantom Carriage (1921) were two such treats.

Silent Studies in the Kino was our first foray into adult education courses at Flicks and, from the perspective of both student and course administrator, I can honestly say that it was so darn good it not only makes me want to schedule more classes in the Kino but it also changed my previously rigid opinion of an entire era of cinema. Cheers, Pete.

Dr Peter Walsh is Co-director and Co-curator of South West Silents and can found on twitter as @soylent_grey.

 

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South West Silents Speak Up! Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

“There will be no further reason for a future production of Ben-Hur for the screen… Ben-Hur is a picture for all times!” Variety, 1925

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It’s hard to think of the name Ben-Hur without thinking of the two accompanying names Charlton! and Heston! Even as Paramount Pictures and MGM are about to hurl another incarnation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) at us (now the fifth adaptation of the book to be made into a feature film) it is still very hard not to think about that tall, blond haired, big jawed, gun loving American superstar.

But that gives you some idea of the importance Ben-Hur has had on the history of cinema and how much the 1950s’ version is burnt into our cultural consciousness. After all, every Bank Holiday we get the opportunity to see it on our television screens (that or The Great Escape (1963), The Sound of Music (1965),  or Zulu (1964) – it was always Zulu in my house to be honest.)

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But forget about those Bank Holiday TV schedules because when it comes to the history of film, Ben-Hur has always been there; Ben-Hur systematically appeared at every changing moment of cinema’s history, all the way back to the birth of cinema (the unofficial 1907 version,   At the height of the silent era there was the faithfully titled Ben-Hur a Tale of Christ (1925), and at the peak of the Hollywood Studio system there was William Wyler’s version (1959) – through the ages the words BEN HUR were always there.

This is why the new adaptation has been a long time coming; you would have thought that a new 21st Century Ben-Hur would have been announced straight after the success of Gladiator (1999). On the band wagon films like Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), King Arthur: Director’s Cut (2004) and even Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) went into rapid production, shortly after the release of Gladiator, and yet, Ben-Hur didn’t.

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Maybe the 2003 animated version of Ben-Hur (Heston’s final acting role; he voiced Judah) which was already in production stalled all possibility of making another live action version for quite some time. Whatever the story Ben-Hur is back on the big screen this August (2016) and from the look of the trailer it most certainly has the hint of a 21st Century adaptation; it’s loud, screaming-in-your-face and seems to have even more animation than the actual animated film from 2003.

And yet, when watching the trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s all-screaming and all-chariot-racing Ben-Hur, you can almost hear that old saying in your head, “Well, they don’t make ’em like they used to!” But, to be honest, it’s more than likely people would have said the same thing about William Wyler’s 1959 version had they seen Fred Niblo’s earlier silent version from 1925.

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There are slight differences in both versions when it comes to the storytelling; the 1925 version gives far more screen time to the connections between Judah and Jesus than in the later Wyler version, which is understandable as Niblo very much stuck to Wallace’s book, unlike the later adaptations. But, alas, this particular element slows down the 1925 version at certain points, particularly in the scenes just after the sea battle – it has to be said that the sea battle and the infamous chariot race are extraordinary! Truly extraordinary in fact!

This is what I really want to flag when it comes to talking Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Many have asked us over the years what makes the silent film era different from any other in the history of cinema? While obviously the classic quote from Gloria Swanson, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!” from Sunset Boulevard (1950), springs to mind, but one other major factor makes the silent era different from any other era in cinema: they built everything for real!

Cabiria (1914), Intolerance (1916), Robin Hood (1922) and Napoleon (1927) are titles that secure the legend that when it came to money, they threw it in front of the camera. If anything, Ben Hur is another classic example of this. Nothing is left out.

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When watching the 1925 silent version of the sea battle it seems far more extensive than the later Wyler version, after all, the silent version has real boats to crash and burn! These real size Galleys and Roman Trireme were completely seaworthy and very capable of reacting to a full-on sea battle that would include plenty of local Italian extras armed to the teeth and all in suited up in armour. In the end, the filming that took place included smashing one of the galleys into the Roman Trireme and setting the Trireme alight (which is all in the book). But the action got out of hand on the shoot and the production lost control of the fire and lost the entire Trireme before they could finish shooting. All the extras had to throw themselves into the sea to escape being burned. The 1959 film can’t touch that – understandably, they ended up using model boats!

But what about Ben-Hur’s famous chariot race? Surely the 1959 film wins hands down. Well, possibly. It’s incredibly exciting but have you seen the 1925 version? What can I say? The 1925 production had already built one Circus Maximus in Rome, a set which was later abandoned due to spiraling production costs. The production then expanded on original plans and a bigger version of the Circus Maximus was built set just outside Hollywood. They prepared for one of the biggest shooting days in Hollywood’s history.

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A call out was made for (if studio publicity is correct) 7,000 extras for a single day’s filming. Almost all of Hollywood left the city on Saturday 7th October 1925 to see what all the fuss was about. They arrived at the Circus Maximus set (which had apparently cost the studio $500,000) and were given a full day’s entertainment of chariot racing. The likes of John and Lionel Barrymore, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Sam Goldwyn, and Lillian Gish were all noted being as in the crowds, as well as celebrated directors such as Henry King, Reginald Barker, Clarence Brown and George Fitzmaurice. They, like the rest of the crowds who had arrived to be part of the auction, were stunned by the sheer size of the set. Someone else stunned was  assistant director, William Wyler, who, 34 years later, would end up directing the 1959 version. In 1963 Wyler explain to film historian Kevin Brownlow,

“I was given a toga and a set of signals…. The signals were a sort of semaphore, and I got my section of the crowd to stand up and cheer to sit down again, or whatever was called for. There must have been thirty other assistant doing the same job.”  

At the end of the day, 42 camera operators had filmed roughly 53,000 feet of film. Filming continued on the Maximus set for another month, filming close-ups as well as stunt work. In the end, Editor Lloyd Nosler had to compete with 200,000 feet of film for the chariot sequence alone. But what a job Nosler did when it came to the completed sequence. In the end he did such a good job that it influenced framing and editing of the later adaptations for not only Wyler’s version but also for the animated 2003 version. Let’s see if it influenced this newest adaptation!

At a cost of $3.96 million the 1925 version of Ben-Hur claims to be the most expensive silent film ever made. If it is the most expensive film of the silent era, it most certainly shows it.

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So if you want to see the REAL Ben-Hur! Look no further than Fred Niblo’s 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. You won’t be disappointed!

Recommended Reading:

The Parade’s Gone By: Kevin Brownlow

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer: Scott Eyman

Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks

South West Silents Speak Up: Mark Fuller on Piccadilly (1929)

I’m a particular fan of British Silent Film; for many decades ill-served by critics, historians and archives, to the extent that few bothered watching them, even while decrying them in print, relying on hand-me-down opinions propagated by twenties and thirties intellectuals with political axes to grind. Although this attitude lingers on in places, the fight-back began around fifteen years ago when a small group of women historians and archivists who knew better, founded the British Silent Film Festival, and a radical reappraisal begun. Long-time unseen films were finally being discovered by new generations who saw how dazzling, inventive and progressive British film could be before the sound era.

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Even now, however, British Silent Film is fairly ill-served on home entertainment formats; aside from Hitchcock’s rightly lauded silents, few are available with decent prints and thoughtful scores….but an exception is the BFI release of Piccadilly, a late silent made in 1929 by an international team, combining British and American actors, with German direction, design and photography, in a British production.

The resulting Piccadilly (1929) is a stunning film, a prototype film noir, with two femme fatales; Shosho (Anna May Wong), the young, beautiful Chinese girl washing dishes at the nightclub where Mabel (Gilda Gray) is the ageing star turn. The club’s boss, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), also Mabel’s lover, discovers Shosho, sets her dancing in the club, where she is an immediate sensation, and falls for her.

The story is not the most original, but has fine observation and some killer lines. But the film is a must-see for its visuals; German expressionist flavourings run throughout, featuring the designs of Alfred Junge (best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger in the ’40s), creating a look that would dominate Hollywood films in the forties and fifties – in 1929.

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The acting is stunning; Jameson Thomas is a seedier Ronald Colman, trapped between the two women who want him; Gilda Gray goes from awful prima donna to a sympathetic, tragic figure with great conviction, and Anna May Wong is breath-taking, utterly convincing both in the nightclub and in Limehouse, growing from timid girl to full-fledged sexual predator! You simply cannot take your eyes off her: even in the plain clothes she wears at the beginning, she has a cool, almost 1960s quality. The German director, E.A.Dupont, somehow manages to combine all these disparate acting styles, moments of high drama and touches of comed, with deft little bits of business informing us about the people behind their public masks, and about the layered nature of London society. The sequences in the old East End offers a particularly fascinating look at the sexual and racial politics of the time. If you were lucky enough to attend South West Silents’ screening of Dupont’s Varieté (1925) at The Cube late last year you will know already what a fine filmmaker, and handler of actors, he was.

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The restored print is stunning, rarely showing its age, more often showing the beautiful cinematography by Werner Brandes, ex-UFA – the sequence where Shosho debuts in the club being one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on film, although the tinting and toning of the restoration seems a bit bold to my eyes, so you may want to turn the colour settings down on your TV.

The extras on the DVD include text biographies of Wong and Dupont, a howlingly bad sound prologue for the film, but most importantly a briefing by Neil Brand about his thinking for his new score, but which also, incidentally, acts as an illuminating commentary and analysis on the film itself . The film’s background is a jazz club of sorts, and the score is a jazz-based one, but he has (thankfully) resisted the temptation of a Charleston-fest, and gone for a style that actually fits the style of the film, the emotions at work; restrained, cool, languid, but with an underlying tension. It works brilliantly.

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If you are wary of Silents, or think they begin and end with Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), or perhaps think Film Noir started around WWII, then this is an approachable, beautiful and thrilling entry point to a whole area worthy of discovery. Enjoy…

Recommended Reading:

Destination London: German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925-1950 by Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli

Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion by Christine Gledhill

Written by Mark Fuller of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.