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George Kennedy alongside James Stewart in Shenandoah (1965)

George Kennedy alongside James Stewart in Shenandoah (1965)

On Tuesday night (22nd April 2009) I had the great opportunity to attend a live interview with George Kennedy at the BFI Southbank. The conversation was preceded by a screening of Cool Hand Luke in which Kennedy played Dragline, the self-appointed leader of the prison gang who transforms into Luke’s most ardent disciple. His performance of rough masculinity contrasts well with Newman’s cooly confident title character.

I knew Kennedy primarily from his films with James Stewart such as Shenandoah, The Flight of the Pheonix and Fools’ Parade, but of course he has starred in a range of films such as The Sons of Katie Elder with Dean Martin and John Wayne, The Dirty Dozen, Demented with Joan Crawford and the Aiport and Naked Gun series.

When Kennedy took the stage he was gracious and talked engagingly about getting drunk with John Wayne, befriending Bette Davis and even hanging out with Leslie Nielson and O.J. Simpson in their Naked Gun days. I was also interested to find out that he had served in the airforce and went on to act as a technical advisor on Sergeant Bilko where he witnessed the artistry of the vaudevillians at work.

Of particular interest to me was his recollections of knowing James Stewart. To Kennedy, who never knew his father, Stewart became a kind of father figure. Without ever having a male role model in his life, Kennedy believed that Stewart embodied everything a man should be. Interestingly this rings true with our perceptions of Stewart through the virtuous characters he played on-screen. Kennedy had seen Stewart’s films in the 1930s, naming Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and felt extremely lucky to have worked with and known him. Indeed Kennedy talked of him with reverence and came to hold him in the highest regard of any male in his life. He did not mention the connection between his own wartime service in the airforce (he actually participated in the Battle of the Bulge) and James Stewart’s famously distinguished wartime service.

The evening was a rare opportunity, as would be the next night. It was revealed that Kennedy had flown to London with his old friend and co-star, Ernest Borgnine.

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BBC Radio 5 Live

I will be one half of a debate on The Richard Bacon Show on BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday 15th January at 12 midnight (Thursday night).

As the classic film expert I will be talking about how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

You can listen live on the BBC Radio 5 Live website.

Or listen again for up to a week after broadcast at Radio 5 or on the BBC iPlayer.

This Summer I went to see a Buster Keaton film outdoors at The Scoop, a kind of amphitheater alongside the Thames by Tower Bridge.

Anyone passing by could have stopped and watched The General which continued to play during the chilly night. I took these photos of the film which in some ways is quite a surreal sight: a silent playing to the city itself, and to a curious, appreciative and bewildered stream of onlookers.

Alongside the marvelous Chaplin restorations now playing at the BFI Southbank in London there is yet another exciting season coming up next month.

Playing over 3 days (and therefore mimicking the festival itself) The Best of the British Silent Film Festival brings together a hand-picked selection of films screened since the festival began in 1998. The festival was sparked by growing concern over the lacklustre worldwide interest in British silent film. 

As an attendant of the festival earlier this year, I can tell you that the films shown were a revelation. Varied in their style and scope, an entirely refreshed perspective on cinema can be gleaned from a festival such as this. It proves that British silent cinema is as vital and fascinating as any other.

I would particularly recommend the enthralling presentation on the Olympic Games, presented by Luke McKernan who also runs the definitive blog on silent film: The Bioscope.

I will certainly be attending The Battle of the Somme, The Lure of Crooning Water and Triumph of the Rat. But I also hope to revisit the crime movies I saw earlier this year which will be re-screened. In fact I hope to take all three days in. See you there!

The Battle of the Somme

  • Sat 27 Sep 18:45 NFT1 book

Special preview of this ground-breaking propaganda film from 1916.

The First Born

  • Sun 28 Sep 20:40 NFT2 book

Miles Manders adaption about jealousy among the upper classes.

The Lure of Crooning Water

  • Sat 27 Sep 20:40 NFT2 book

One of the finest examples of the British pastoral film.

The Olympic Games on Film 1900-1924

  • Fri 26 Sep 18:20 NFT2 book

The early Olympics Games on film, including London 1908.

Triumph of the Rat

  • Sun 28 Sep 18:20 NFT2 book

Lavish, passionate silent sequel with Ivor Novello.

True Crime on Film

  • Sun 28 Sep 16:00 NFT2 book

Sensationalist illustrated history of true crime in film.

The Ware Case

  • Fri 26 Sep 20:40 NFT2 book

1920s murder mystery with a fabulous twist.

When All Films Were Short

  • Sat 27 Sep 16:00 NFT2 book

Lucky-dip programme of shorts favourites.

On the 21st of July 2007 I was lucky enough to get my hands on a piece of movie memorabilia estimated at £90,000. What it actually signified in terms of cinema history is much harder to quantify. It was part of a pre-auction exhibition at Christie’s in London, and it was the camera on the podium that was the prized piece.

This Bell & Howell 2709 belonged to Charlie Chaplin and was used on films from Shoulder Arms in 1918 and into the 1920s. This camera then would have therefore been involved in such films as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925). These very lenses were witness to scenes that have become so embedded into our consciousness (even if you haven’t actually seen them), it’s quite difficult to imagine that these classics ever had to be made at all.

I was lucky enough to look through the very eyepiece Chaplin would have looked through to judge a scene. I also had a chance to crank the handle itself. I would describe it as having a steady, fluid motion about it which was surprisingly compelling.


To coincide with the screening of Chaplin’s Keystone films, there is also an incredible (and free) exhibition of Chaplin merchandise and artifacts on display at the BFI Southbank. A combination of items from both the Bill Douglas Centre and the BFI’s own collection, it includes a fascinating array of original posters, toys, games and postcards. Titled ‘Chapliana’, it conveys how far Chaplin became embedded in popular culture during the 1910s and 1920s.

The prized piece in the collection is Chaplin’s original hat and cane. There are a few genuine hats and canes in existence since Chaplin used several throughout his career. This particular hat and cane is dated before 1921, the time at which Chaplin returned to England for the first time since leaving for America in 1912. Also featured is the costume worn by Robert Downey Jr. in the title role of Chaplin (1992).

The Chaplin screenings at the BFI Southbank are set to last for 6 months as all his short films from before 1921 are played in chronological order, an incredible 72 in total. Be sure to get there quick since the display is set to end on 31st August.

photos by the author

The Auditorian (photograph by Gill Allen)   

Wilton’s Auditorium (photograph by Gill Allen)

If you know where to look in London, you can find some astonishing places. Winding through the backstreets of the East End you may come across a faded building, its front scuffed and peeling, more reminiscent of a Venetian side-street than a London alley.

It’s humility hides the fact that this door is a portal into Victorian London. Wilton’s Music Hall is the oldest surviving music hall in the world and to step through the door is to immerse yourself in Victorian entertainment culture. Opened in 1859, it held a crowd of 1500 at its busiest, and featured music hall stars of the day such as Champagne Charlie. The auditorium is now faded, with its scuffed walls and balcony suggesting a grander past. But in many ways this is a far more vivid representation of what it once was than if it were superficially gilded and restored.

The current show playing there, Wink the Other Eye (until 16th August 2008), is a great introduction into music hall culture. Hosted by the ebullient John Wilton himself, you are led through an evening’s entertainment that features songs, comedy and drama in the old music hall style. Played out by the stars of the day, such as Dan Leno and George Formby, Sr., it is essentially a night out at the music hall combined with a strong sense of history. Taking you through the decade in one evening, it demonstrates how the music hall was affected by emerging technologies (electricity), new trends (moving pictures) and world events (The Great War). Not forgetting a reference to a young Charlie Chaplin, the show is highly recommend it if you can catch it in time.

A true study of the cinema is to look closely at other traditions, histories and cultures. The music hall was central to the development of areas such as the star system and film comedy, and filmgoing culture came out of the tradition of visiting the music hall. If you want to get a far deeper understanding of film, investigate other avenues. Graces Alley, London, is a perfect place to start.


This is a real treat for fans of Chaplin and silent cinema more widely. All of Chaplin’s 35 films from his work at Keystone during 1914 have been reconstructed and restored by the British Film Institute and the Cineteca di Bologna. They will all be screened at the BFI Southbank in London during August and September. 

In the past these films have been branded as ‘primitive’, but in many cases the severely degraded quality of the prints worked against a proper appreciation of these early titles. The incredible popularity of these titles, as well as their lack of copyright, resulted in a heavy duplication and deterioration of the prints. In many cases the films were chopped into a variety of alternative versions with different titles which then went on to circulate for decades. This made the job of restoring and reconstructing these titles a particular challenge. Indeed the Keystone films are the last of Chaplin’s shorts to have been restored by the British Film Institute, following on from the Essanay and Mutual restorations.

Keystone was known for its breakneck comedies featuring quick thrills and chaotic chases, and in many ways these titles live up to that reputation. But the Charlie you see here is not the sensitive soul found in his later feature films. Here is character is rude, abrasive and violent while his virtuoso performances are wild, thrilling and unexpected. Chaplin’s performance style is unique to him: he manages to be many things at once. Not only does his dandyish gestures contradict the state of his clothes, but his body can often belie his face and vice-versa.

I was lucky enough to preview some of these restorations at the Charlie Chaplin Conference in 2005 and indeed they were revelatory. I will be attending every screening myself over the next two months (I will probably be the one taking notes) as a way of re-aquainting myself with these films.

Not only do you get to watch the glorious Chaplin himself as vivid as ever on-screen, you get to witness his early development as performer and director. You also get to see a slice of American cinema history that instantly poses several overlapping questions: what was popular American cinema like in 1914? What were films by independent studios such as Keystone like? What was the studio brand and how do they differ from the films of the larger studios that would emerge just after the war? Why were these films, and more importantly Chaplin himself, so popular? How far were these films and Chaplin’s performances performed by the British music hall from which he came?

The still above from A Film Johnnie offers a glimpse of movie posters outside a cinema in 1914. Interestingly they feature films from the studios Keystone, Essanay (a Bronco Billy title) and Mutual, the three studios that Chaplin himself would work at between 1914 and 1917.

Book below with the full schedule for August. The September schedule will follow.

 

Early Chaplin: Programme 1

  • Sat 9 Aug 16:00 NFT2 
  • Wed 13 Aug 18:20 NFT2 

Ninety minutes of early Chaplin, including his Keystone debut.

Early Chaplin: Programme 2

  • Sat 16 Aug 16:00 NFT2 
  • Wed 20 Aug 18:20 NFT2 

A programme of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone shorts.

Early Chaplin: Programme 3

  • Sat 23 Aug 16:10 NFT2 
  • Tue 26 Aug 18:20 NFT2 

Our third programme of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films.

Early Chaplin: Programme 4

  • Thu 28 Aug 18:20 NFT2 
  • Sat 30 Aug 16:00 NFT2 

Our fourth programme of the Keystone movies of 1914.

Turn on TCM right now! For the entire month of August, Turner Classic Movies (U.S.) hosts its annual Summer Under the Stars festival.  Summer Under the Stars is a month long event that celebrates the most legendary names in film by dedicating 24-hours each to their films, meaning at least 12 of their films each day in August. Days are dedicated to stars such as Claude Rains, Greta Garbo, Richard Widmark, Peter Lorre, Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyk, Spencer Tracey and even Marie Dressler. And that’s just for starters. Perhaps the most imaginative, ambitious and exciting classic film programming possible, this is a massive slice of Hollywood history in a single month, containing very rare films. The volume of it makes it a classic film lover’s dream but also pretty much impossible to record all of them! Charlie Chaplin is on today! A great selection of shorts followed by every single feature film he made. You could be a Chaplin expert in a mere 24 hours. Stop reading this now. Go, go, go!

Charlie Chaplin, August 2

6:00am             The Knockout
6:30am             The Rounders
6:45am             A Dog’s Life
7:30am             Shoulder Arms
8:15am             Sunnyside
8:45am             A Day’s Pleasure
9:15am             The Kid
10:15am           The Idle Class
11:00am           Pay Day
11:30am           The Pilgrim
12:15pm           A Woman of Paris
1:45pm             The Gold Rush
3:00pm             The Circus
4:15pm             City Lights
5:45pm             Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin
8:00pm             Modern Times
9:30pm             The Great Dictator
11:45pm           Monsieur Verdoux
2:00am             Limelight
4:15am             A King In New York

Find more info about the Summer Under the Stars season.

Fashion In Film Festival

The 2nd Fashion in Film Festival kicks off tomorrow in London, spreading itself across the BFI Southbank, ICA,  Ciné Lumière and Tate Modern.

The scope is large and imaginative. Below are some highlights for me (from the online catalogue), though there is a lot of more recent titles which also look very interesting including a remake of The Red Shoes from South Korea.

Note in particular the illustrated lecture by the brilliant academic writer Tom Gunning and the UK Premiere of a Czech silent, The Kidnapping of Fux Banker (1923). It also includes one of my particular favourites, Leave Her to Heaven (1945) starring the exquisite Gene Tierney. It’s also great to see silents make such a prominent appearance.

         
 
  The Colour of Nothingness: costumes of invisibility and transformation in early detective films and literature 
An illustrated lecture by Guest Curator Tom Gunning, with live musical accompaniment.
.Saturday 24 May 15:50, BFI Southbank NFT2
         
  Follow Me Quietly 
USA 1949. Dir. Richard Fleischer. 
With William Lundigan, Dorothy Patrick. 60 min. 35mm.
Wednesday 21 May 18.20, 
BFI Southbank NFT2 Introduced by Roger Sabin.
Saturday 31 May, 20.30, BFI Southbank NFT3
 

 

 
  Silent Film’s Thieves, Jewel Robberies and Cases of the Lost Glove
Introduced by Christel Tsilibaris.
Sunday 18 May, 17.00, Ciné lumière    

A Man With White Gloves (L’homme aux gants blancs
France 1908. Dir Albert Capellani. 
With Henri Desfontaines, Marguerite Brésil. 35mm.

The Gentleman Thief (aka Max Leads Them a Novel Chase ; Le voleur mondain
France 1909. Dir Louis Gasnier. 
With Max Linder. 16mm.

Nick Winter and the Case of the Famous Hotel (Nick Winter et l’affaire du Célébric Hôtel ) 
France 1911, Dir Gérard Bourgeois. 
With Georges Vinter. 35mm.

The Pearl (La Perle
Belgium 1929. Dir Henri d’Ursel. 
With Georges Hugnet, Kissa Kouprine. 35mm.

         
  The Kidnapping of Fux Banker (Únos bankére Fuxe
Czech Republic 1923. Dir Karl Anton. 
With Anny Ondra, Karel Lamac. 75 min. 35mm.
UK PREMIERE 
New musical accompaniment by DJ Charles Kriel and “funny face”. 
Introduced by Marketa Uhlirova.
Sunday 25 May, 18.20, BFI Southbank NFT1
         
  The Rat 
UK 1925. Dir Graham Cutts. 
With Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans. 80min. 35mm.
Saturday 24 May 17:45, BFI Southbank NFT1
         
  Asphalt (Der Polizeiwachtmeister und die Diamantenelse)
Germany 1929. Dir Joe May. 
With Betty Amann, Gustav Fröhlich. 94 min. 35mm.
With live piano accompaniment.
Sunday 25 May, 15.30, BFI Southbank NFT1
         
  Desire OASIS Gala screening
USA 1936. Dir Frank Borzage. 
With Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper. 89 min. 35mm. 
Saturday 17 May, 20:30, Ciné lumière
         
         
  The Lodger : A Story of the London Fog
UK 1927. Dir Alfred Hitchcock. 
With Ivor Novello, June. 98 min. 35mm. 
Introduced by Alice Rawsthorn.
With live musical accompaniment.
Tuesday 13 May, 18.30, BFI Southbank NFT1
         
  Leave Her to Heaven 
USA 1945. Dir John M. Stahl. 
With Gene Tierney. 105 min. 35mm.
Monday 19 May, 18.20, 
BFI Southbank NFT2

 

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Christian Hayes
classicfilmshow@gmail.com
christianhayes.net
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