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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.

I can hardly believe my eyes, but it looks like Kino are releasing three of Victor Sjöström’s Swedish silents on DVD. For those who don’t know, Victor Sjöström was an early master of film who began making films in Sweden in 1912. The kind of independence he and his fellow filmmakers, such as Mauritz Stiller, were able to reach, meant that they could develop distinctly personal films. Almost as though cut off from the world during the war, Sjöström made films of such sensitivity and vision that they seemed to be far advanced of filmmakers working elsewhere, including America.

The history books and other critics will tell you that Sjöström is known for his dazzling portrayal of landscapes. And while he certainly was able to create a synthesis between a character and their surroundings, it is certainly not the be all and end all of Sjöström’s cinema. What ultimately makes his films so unique is the psychology that Sjöström manages to draw from these characters. It seemed as though the rest of the world was still learning what Sjöström managed to do with ease.

The first is a two-film set of Ingeborg Holm (1913) and A Man There Was (Terje Vigen, 1917) . Ingeborg Holm is one of the few surviving Swedish silents from before WW1 and it is a fascinating example of the early feature film. It is particularly interesting for its visual style, which is distinctly pre-Classical. It includes lengthy single-shots in which the staging of characters shifts throughout the scene, changing the status and meaning of their relationship together. It is also a remarkable psychological portrait of a woman’s downfall from contented wife to a mental institution.

A Man There Was is an adaptation of an Ibsen poem and tells an epic story of a man torn away from his wife and child at sea, causing their deaths on a remote island. Years later he is given the chance to avenge their deaths when he finds himself in a position of power over the men who imprisoned him. This is a succinct film of only about 45 minutes in which one man’s psychological struggle is played out against striking scenes of the open sea. The central character is played by Sjöström himself who was also an actor and featured in many of his own films.

He also featured in his feature film The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). It is truly difficult to decide which is Sjöström’s greatest since he created a string of brilliant films right through the 1910s (and indeed the 1920s in Hollywood), many of which are little-seen nowadays. The Outlaw and His Wife would certainly be among his finest. This is another epic tale of a couple who are forced to live in the mountains. As always, shot on location with a vivid authenticity, this film portrays the turbulent lives of this couple as they face severe hardships.

I was lucky enough to see every film Victor Sjöström made that still exists, and it was a revelation. This is cinema from the 1910s that is far more complex, thrilling and sensitive than most of the films made since. These films prove that there is little that is primitive about silent cinema and that there are worlds to be discovered. Buy these immediately, if only to actually own a copy of the rare and beautiful Ingeborg Holm.

As the new high-definition format continues to grow, it is becoming a more and more interesting prospect for classic film lovers. Message boards have been filled with young technophiles asking ‘But how can a film made before High Definition look anywhere near as good as movies made today?’ Others are quick to point out that a 35mm frame is far higher resolution than the highest HD currently available. Below are the few titles to be excited about on the new format, and indeed you couldn’t do far worse than wind up on a desert island with these six.

 

1. Black Narcissus (Great Britain, Michael Powell,1947) Probably the title I am most excited about. My DVD copy, released briefly during the early days of the format, is a mangled picture of washed out colours. Being one of the most gloriously colourful of all films, it’s incredible to see what a difference can be made using the new format. A tale of repressed passions amongst nuns in an Indian convent, this is surely one of the greatest of all films?

 

 

2. Great Expectations (Great Britain, David Lean, 1946) Black-and-white British films are often neglected in favour for American product, even where seasoned filmgoers are concerned. They are often equated with war movies, cut glass accents and the afternoon slot on TV. As a fan of the novel, I had seen David Lean’s Great Expectations before but its full power came to me when watching scenes from a newly-restored version from the front row of NFT1 at the BFI Southbank. Watching Magwitch threaten young Pip was a powerful and elemental scene, turning every viewer back into a child. This edition is especially important due to the degraded quality of earlier DVD releases.

 

3. The Seventh Seal (Sweden, Ingmar Bergman, 1957) I don’t know how long this next pick will be available since Tartan Video only recently closed its doors. A pretty tragic affair; Tartan has long been, along with Artificial Eye, the premier distributer of art-house cinema. Long before DVD came about it was only the distinctive design of Tartan and Artificial Eye tapes that lined the World Cinema section. They put out some very important releases on their time, including a heavy emphasis on the films of Ingmar Bergman. Fittingly, their first (and last) Blu-Ray release was Bergman’s most famous, The Seventh Seal. Featuring glorious black and white cinematography – the ominous skies of the opening are not far from Great Expectations – this is a film that actually contains more humour that it is ever given credit for, and is a dense text that warrents many a repeated viewing. In fact, I think I’ll watch it again soon.

 

 

4. Rio Bravo (U.S., Howard Hawks, 1959) The first of two classic westerns on the list. Revered as one of legendary director Howard Hawk’s finest films, Rio Bravo is a western driven by a simple and effective set-up. Misfits John Wayne, Dean Martin and Walter Brennan are left to protect the small outpost in a world comprised only of a prison, bar and hotel. When the gang of outlaws ride into town, the distance from which they appear seems like an almost mystical place far beyond the trio’s world. The simplicity of the film turns it into a succinct allegory of good vs. bad, but the real joy comes from watching the interplay between Wayne, Martin and Brennan, all in their element.

 

5. The Adventures of Robin Hood(U.S., Michael Curtiz, 1938) Michael Curtiz directed Errol Flynn in many of his films throughout the 1930s, defining the swashbuckler’s persona in his first starring role in Captain Blood. Flynn would go on to repeat that successful formula in period dramas, pirate adventures and westerns. But perhaps it was the vivid Technicolor of The Adventures of Robin Hood and its pure adventurous spirit that turned it into one of the best loved of all adventure films. I suspect it has a lot to do with viewers’ childhoods and how they connect to the film when they were young (Indeed it was Tony Curtis’s favourite film as a child). Also featuring Olivia de Havilland whose elegance played well against Flynn’s exuberant performance. But as always it is Flynn who acts as the driving force: charismatic, dashing, playful and intense, it’s not hard to see why he was so successful.

 

 

 

6. The Searchers (U.S., John Ford, 1956) There are other great westerns and other great films by John Ford, but over the years The Searchers has risen to become one of the most revered of all films. With its wide open vistas of Monument Valley and the classic images of John Wayne returning home at the beginning and framed in the doorway at his exit at the end, this is an impeccable example of the genre. But with its themes of family, race and redemption it is also particularly complex and sensitive. Ultimately it is the open-ended and almost spiritual quest that Ethan Edwards (Wayne) must set out upon that keeps viewers returning.

For me the most important aspect of these films on Blu-Ray is the clarity of the image. Even if you know these films very well, there will be a definite sense of rediscovery when watching these six titles in High Definition. As a set of bone fide classics – to the point at which we can tend to take them for granted – these six early releases are certainly worth watching and rewatching.

If your attention was caught by the recent release of La Roue on DVD, then you’ll definitely want to also pick up a copy of J’Accuse (1919), another silent epic by Abel Gance. It promises to be as fulfilling as his other movies, this time concerned with the First World War. It will most certainly be interesting as a contemporary reaction to the war as well as yet another exhilarating silent.

Flicker Alley DVD are really proving themselves with their release record. In particular check out this monumental tribute to the great magician of the silent cinema, Georges Méliès.

james-stewart-zebras

Today is a big day, the centenary of James Stewart – 100 years since his birth on 20 May 1908. In many ways he is a difficult star to define. Known for his ‘everyman’ persona he also proved to be an actor of unusual intensity. Witness the desperation found in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Naked Spur (1953) and Vertigo (1958)

A particular favourite of mine, I hope to look more closely at James Stewart and his films in upcoming posts as way of celebration.

Seeing as we’ve all seen his Capra and Hitchcock films over and over again, I would suggest watching these five films to celebrate Jimmy:

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Winchester ’73 (1950)
The Man From Laramie (1955)
Strategic Air Command (1955)
The FBI Story (1959)

Let me know what you think. Which five would you pick to celebrate the work of James Stewart?

key-to-reserva

For anyone who hasn’t seen this yet, there is a mysterious little film online that is well worth a look. The prologue suggests that Martin Scorsese adapted three pages of an unpublished Hitchcock screenplay into a complete short film. He believes that if it is to be made then it must be made how Hitchcock would have made it back then.

The result is actually very impressive. The film slickly mimics the Hitchcock style and almost seems to answer the call of ‘they don’t make ’em like they used to.’

The film is ultimately a reworking of the Royal Albert Hall scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) but there are many references to other films to be found. I spotted North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), and Rear Window (1954). I’m sure there are many more in there, and please leave a comment to let me know if you find any more.

Click here and enjoy the movie:

The Key to Reserva

Mad Detective on Blu-Ray

Only recently had Criterion announced upcoming titles on Blu-Ray, and now it looks like Masters of Cinema has also. The only title so far to have been announced is Mad Detective (Sun taam, Hong Kong: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai, 2007). Although a recent title, the Masters of Cinema are known for their very rare titles, many silent and many from around the world.

If you don’t know the Masters of Cinema which is a UK label, they produce world-class editions including incredible prints of obscure titles and are highly recommended. Check out their great catalogue here.

I predict an exciting time for lovers of silent, world and classic Hollywood cinema – it looks like there may just be something in Blu-Ray for us too…

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Christian Hayes
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