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In an occasional series I will be publishing images of stars found in contemporary cities. Here we have an image of Marlene Dietrich in Berlin. You can see Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and James Stewart in another city here.
I’d love to see any of your images of stars in the city, send them over and I’ll add them to the site: firstname.lastname@example.org.
photograph by Christian Hayes.
By looking at early and silent cinema you are investigating primal questions about cinema. What is cinema, where did it come from and how does it actually function? Your understanding of silent cinema will adjust your understanding of cinema right up to the present day. So if you want to study, write or talk about cinema, you’d better get reading.
Here are five books I highly recommend that will give you a foundation for understanding where cinema came from, and frameworks with which to think about early and silent film.
The Emergence of Cinema by Charles Musser
Charles Musser is a leading authority on early American film. This was the first volume of the excellent History of American Cinema series and takes a definitive look at the origins of cinema and its development. Musser makes an important distinction that cinema emerged out of existing traditions rather than being invented in an ‘Eureka’ moment. Essential for an understanding of cinema as a whole.
The Dream That Kicks by Michael Chanan
In this book Michael Chanan rethinks everything. All our assumptions about cinema are questioned and reassessed. He provides an insightful account of the emergence of cinema, deconstructs the myths that have surrounded ‘persistence of vision’ and provides an excellent account of how celluloid came to be cinema’s medium. A thought-provoking and exciting book.
The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vols 1-5 by John Barnes
This ambitious five-volume masterwork investigates the cinema in England from 1904 to 1901. Written by revered film historian John Barnes, this was the most complete survey of early film in Britain at the time of publication in the 1970s (reprinted in the 90s) and it remains an authority on the subject to this day. To collect all five volumes will set you back £250, so if you ever find a bargain on one of the volumes, don’t think twice.
Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative edited by Thomas Elsaesser
Published in 1990, this key collection of essays gathered groundbreaking research on early film from the 1980s. This new wave of early film study was a direct result of the annual conference of the International Federation of Film Archives held in Brighton in 1978, in which over 200 early films were studied and reassessed. What scholars found was that pre-conceived notions of early film as ‘primitive’ and ‘unsophisticated’ had to be rethought. This inspired new research methodologies, theoretical frameworks and a reassessment of the work of the Lumières, Méliès, and the Brighton school. This book acts as an important overview of early film scholarship after 12 years of research.
The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow
The book that rekindled an interest in silent film. Today’s enthusiasm and preservation for silent film owes a lot to Kevin Brownlow who has tirelessly championed, preserved and documented silent film throughout his life. The Parade’s Gone By was the end product of a series of pioneering interviews that Brownlow undertook with forgotten filmmakers during the 1960s. The place to start for an understanding of the silent film in Hollywood.
still from Les Palais Des Mille et une Nuits (Georges Méliès, 1905) available in the Five Volume DVD Set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)
Louise Brooks in Overland Stage Raiders (1938)
The only thing tragic about Louise Brooks’s appearance in Overland Stage Raiders (1938) is that it was her final film. No longer the icon of the silent screen, here she is unrecognisable. Her exoticism has turned to homeliness and her famous Pandora’s Box (1929) bob has been replaced with a shoulder length cut as Lulu meets rising star, John Wayne:
Available on a cheap 20-disc John Wayne DVD set.
Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast (1970)
The beautiful Veronica Lake starred in now-classic noirs such as This Gun For Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), and also sparkled in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one of the finest films of the 1940s. Yet she went on to have a tragic life. Dropped from Paramount at the end of the 1940s, she failed to continue her career independent of a studio contract. Washed up, she wound up working in bars and turned to drink and eventually died at the age of 53. Her final acting appearance was in the cheap Flesh Feast (1970), a world away from her films of the forties.
Available on a schlocky DVD release.
Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)
By the 1940s Joan Crawford was giving some of the most stylised and unique performances of classic cinema. It felt like films such as Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947) were constructed around her image of a fragile yet powerful woman. Kicked out of the studio system and into the world of low budget horror, Crawford still attempts to hold some control through the mannered nature of her performance. But then again she was starring in films such as Straight-Jacket (1964) and Berserk (1967). Once an icon of refinement, here we see the surreal sight of the great Joan Crawford on the quest to discover a frozen monkey…. thing, in her final theatrically-released film, Trog (1970).
Mae West in Sextette (1978)
Mae West, one of the true comediennes of the studio era, famously returned to the screen in the 1970s after a 30-year hiatus for the films Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978). As the name would suggest West continued to play a sex-kitten even though she was in her eighties.
Available on a now-expensive out-of-print DVD.
Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother (1989)
Of course Bette Davis continued to work non-stop from the 1930s to the 1980s, eventually featuring in over 100 movies. Her final film was Wicked Stepmother (1980), an eighties ‘comedy’ that has come to be widely reviled, partly for its sense of exploiting a once-great star. Rumour has it that she even walked off the picture mid-production. Most shocking, however, is how frail Davis looks at the very end of her life. Yet even though she looks impossibly skeletal, she still seems tough as ever.
This one is currently unavailable and DVD, but can be found on an old VHS release.
If you know of any other final films as tragic, surreal or as shocking as these, please let me know.
Here’s a secret: I watch new movies. I even like some new movies. But truthfully it’s becoming more and more difficult to care about any new releases.
With all the recent Top 10 lists of the films of 2009 and indeed the decade, it was interesting to see how dull a lot of the choices were. Of course there were some great movies over the past 10 years, but I was surprised how many of the choices were movies I didn’t like. There also seemed to be a desperation to pin down the ‘important’ films of the last ten years, but I can’t help feeling that it’s all been done before.
I can’t help thinking that you’d have a far better time watching an old film.
So as an antidote to those lists, here’s my Top 10 of 1939, 70 years prior. It’s almost too easy a selection in this case, as many have commented on how this was perhaps the ‘golden’ year of classical Hollywood.
Could any movie from 2009 beat any of these?
My favourite performer, Jimmy Stewart, in his first western. Dietrich characteristically appears out of place, but wait in particular for the moving ending.
The best kind of epic: spectacular and passionate, yet with a tight focus on its central character. It features both one of the greatest performances and one of the greatest characters of the era, Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara, a character surely based on Becky Sharp.
I find this movie pretty serious, but it’s atmospheric and exciting, and Cary Grant makes a great adventure hero.
A funny, delicate and complex ensemble drama directed by and featuring Jean Renoir. Worth seeing a few times.
The definitive film about prohibition and the rise of the gangster with Cagney continuing to mark his territory as the performer who revolutionised film acting in the sound era.
The movie that defined James Stewart’s star persona as the naive outsider who brings about law, order and decency. It’s funny and light-hearted in places, but also as political as you want it to be.
The film that galvanised the western genre and created John Wayne’s mighty star image.
This famous Japanese drama directed by Kenji Mizoguchi is vivid, delicate and moving, with long takes that give it a naturalistic and gentle pace. See this one on the big screen if possible as it’s not currently available on disc.
The film that sums up the Hollywood film experience with its escapist theme and Technicolor technology. See the new Blu Ray transfer if you can, it’s so detailed that it’s practically a new film.
Surely I haven’t missed any?
Rarely seen, this is a welcome release of master French comic Jacques Tati’s final film as both director and performer. Made for television, Parade is a live compendium of circus, music hall and magic acts hosted by Tati himself. With opening scenes of audience members taking their seats, the film appears at its outset to be a recording of a 1970s Tati-on-tour live show, a final attempt to sell tickets as a comic giant’s career wanes. But although we may witness a mid-show interval and genuine audience reactions, it becomes apparent that the film is a playful and imaginative take on the experience of seeing a show. Sketches play out in the corridors, in the theatre bar and indeed after the show has ended.
In a similar vein to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, in which he revisits his music hall past, Parade is a return to Tati’s own music hall experiences during the 1930s. Tati’s key performances during the film revolve around the miming acts that gave him early success. He is transformed into a goalie, a boxer and a tennis player, and even at one point becoming an English policeman. While at first these may appear as comic ideas too antiquated to still remain humorous, Tati infuses them with an accuracy that is indeed very funny – in particular watch for his recreation of a tennis match in slow motion.
The film is filled with surrealistic touches, with cardboard cut-outs planted amongst the audience and a set that is constantly being painted even as the show is playing out. During the interval the bartender bursts open a soft drink only to find his own head springing a leak. With the audience playing a key role in the film’s focus, the space between audience and performers become blurred, especially when members of the audience cross onto the stage and participate in the action. One enthusiastic bald spectator finds himself compelled to jump into the ring and ride a wild pony, while a conspicuously bored blonde boy wanders in and out of the action. As these participations occur, the character of the audience shifts from innocence to complicity, yet throughout the film the audience’s reactions are so convincingly spontaneous that they are clearly fulfilling their role as genuine spectators by having a good time.
Other acts performed by the troupe include juggling, acrobatics, sword swallowing, singing and clowning. Even when performed to the 1970s audience, these acts appear as though from another time, each one evoking a lost circus and music hall tradition. As such Parade acts as a kind of final record of long-forgotten acts and entertainments. Traditions such as mimesis, which Tati himself excelled in, have long since been ridiculed as the cliché of outdated entertainment but what Parade does is show us how it is meant to be done. This results in unexpected reactions; a miming showjumper forces us to imagine a galloping horse, only for that very animal to then stride into the ring for real and put flesh to our fantasies.
Parade is the latest in a range of Jacques Tati films that the British Film Institute have strived to make available on DVD, and they have done so in this case with a pristine transfer. The film was originally produced on a combination of video, 16mm and 35mm, and has undergone a digital restoration which has resulted in Parade looking and sounding as good as it possibly can on DVD.
• Previously unseen interview with Jacques Tati, filmed in London in 1977 (19 mins)
• Illustrated booklet with essays by Philip Kemp and Jonathan Rosenbaum; director biography and credits
Release date: 22 June 2009
RRP: £19.99 / cat. no. BFIVD808 / cert U
France / 1974 / colour / French language with English subtitles / 84 mins /
The Ultimate Film Archive is a hand-picked chronology of films from each decade (starting with the 1940s), all of which I highly recommend you seeking out. Not an exhaustive list but it’s a start as further films are added.
How many of these have you seen? Either leave a comment or email me at email@example.com.
Have I missed any out? Any further suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
1940 The Grapes Of Wrath (USA, John Ford)
1940 Fantasia (USA, Walt Disney Productions)
1940 The Great Dictator (USA, Charlie Chaplin) … See all here…