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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)
I have just had word of an upcoming box set from Fox. It contains 12 discs and features two F.W. Murnau films (including City Girl) and ten by Frank Borzage, four of which are silents. This seems to be in the spirit of the monumental Ford at Fox box from last year. The box contains:
Sunrise (Murnau, 1927)
City Girl (Murnau, 1930)
Lazybones (Borzage, 1925)
Seventh Heaven (Borzage, 1928)
Street Angel (Borzage, 1928)
Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929)
They Had to See Paris (Borzage, 1929)
Liliom (Borzage, 1930)
Song O’ My Heart (Borzage, 1930)
Bad Girl (Borzage, 1931)
After Tomorrow (Borzage, 1932)
Young America (Borzage, 1932)
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!
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.
I recently got rid of a lot of videotapes, weeding out the ones that I either didn’t watch or didn’t much care for. The reason for this was an increasing lack of space. Once the shelves were full, they suddenly overflowed until books, tapes and discs began to overtake the room. It was becoming hard to find somewhere to sit, or indeed to open the door when I returned home. This eventually began to really frustrate me. The tapes were sitting there, untouched, gathering dust and taking up space.
Now I am positive that this is something that all movie lovers have to struggle with: an obsessive desire to collect. Have you ever felt somewhat dazed and out of breath when in a DVD or bookshop? Ever wandered around like a somnambulist, piling up objects in your arms until you somehow find yourself outside the shop in the rain holding two bags of stuff with a really empty wallet? I know I have.
Getting rid of the tapes really put this obsession with collecting in perspective. I felt like a weight had lifted once I handed them into the charity shop. And as time went by I realised even more that I didn’t need those tapes, that they were not essential to my life. Since then I have not been buying very much. Instead I take note of what I already own and what I have yet to watch. Why buy another box set when I have several still to get through?
Why do film lovers in particular have this desire? Partly I think it’s because we feel we have to ‘own’ the film. By having a copy of it, the film belongs to us, is not fade from memory, and is available to be watched 24/7. Except we do not watch 24/7. The likelihood is that DVDs will be watched once and never again. When I was younger I would watch and re-watch and I do my best to revisit my favourites now, but that drive to push on, to keep watching and see more takes over. Certainly some people can get very depressed dwelling on how to fit all these hours of moving pictures into a lifetime. We ultimately devise an instinct as to the types of films we will enjoy over films we feel we do not have time for.
We also collect in other ways. The watching of another film is an extra notch on a kind of mental collection stored in our heads. Asked a movie question we can flick through that collection in an instant, no videos required. A movie collection of course branches out beyond the films themselves, but quickly spirals out to books, merchandise, posters, autographs and even ticket stubs. If you’re a more serious collector you may have 16mm or even 35mm prints of films stored in a temperature-controlled cellar.
It is also about a lack of time, and ultimately time management. If a job takes up your day and you only have time to watch in the evening, how do you manage this? Do you watch a film a night? What about other responsibilities? Of course at the end of the day you may be exhausted and not have the energy to watch for 120 minutes. I sometimes watch films like books, a section at a time before I get through the film. And onto the next one. But then what about reading? Do you find yourself only reading on the way to work? And then when do you find time to write?
My advice would be: work through the titles you already own before ordering yet another box set.
Okay, well, I say this and I promise I was doing so well myself, but I have to admit that I had a serious relapse this weekend. I found myself wandering about London with carrier bags full of videotapes. That’s right, not DVDs, but VHS tapes.
I found myself in a London film shop where they were getting rid of old out-of-print video stock. These were seriously rare titles that in their day would have sold for £20 each. There were many great titles in there but it was the silents I was most interested in. I had not seen them released elsewhere and I thought this may be my only chance to see them for quite some time. I knew in particular that the 10-video set of early Russian cinema was particularly valuable. So I got out my wallet and walked out with a small archive. Now I’ve just got to blow the dust off my old VCR and try and get it hooked up again.
For those interested in which films I felt were that essential, they were the following:
1. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 1: Beginnings
2. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 2: Folklore and Legend
3. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 3: Starewicz’s Fantasies
4. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 4: Provincial Variations
5. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 5: Chardynin’s Pushkin
6. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 6: Class Distinctions
7. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 9: High Society
8. Early Russian Cinema, vol. 19: The End of an Era
[for more info on the Early Russian Cinema series, click here]
9. Chess Fever (USSR, 1925), dir: Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shipovsky
10. The Whispering Chorus (USA, 1918), dir: Cecil B. DeMille
11. The Chess Player (France, 1926), dir: Raymond Bernand
12. Windsor McCay: Animation Legend (USA, 1911-1921), dir: Windsor McCay
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.
- Sat 9 Aug 16:00 NFT2
- Wed 13 Aug 18:20 NFT2
Ninety minutes of early Chaplin, including his Keystone debut.
- Sat 16 Aug 16:00 NFT2
- Wed 20 Aug 18:20 NFT2
A programme of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone shorts.
- Sat 23 Aug 16:10 NFT2
- Tue 26 Aug 18:20 NFT2
Our third programme of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films.
- 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
8:45am 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
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.
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.
|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)
The Gentleman Thief (aka Max Leads Them a Novel Chase ; Le voleur mondain)
Nick Winter and the Case of the Famous Hotel (Nick Winter et l’affaire du Célébric Hôtel )
The Pearl (La Perle)
|The Kidnapping of Fux Banker (Únos bankére Fuxe)
Czech Republic 1923. Dir Karl Anton.
With Anny Ondra, Karel Lamac. 75 min. 35mm.
New musical accompaniment by DJ Charles Kriel and “funny face”.
Introduced by Marketa Uhlirova.
Sunday 25 May, 18.20, BFI Southbank NFT1
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
This will hopefully be the very first of many posts to come on early film, one of my particular interests.
It seems to me that few are aware of the pleasures of early film. The term ‘early film’ refers to the earliest films, from around 1894 until around 1907 at which point films shifted towards a the more explicitly narrative cinema.
Early films are distinctly different to the narrative feature films in obvious ways: namely they’re far shorter, contain far fewer shots, and many are factual. At least silent feature films resemble the fiction films we are used to of today. As a result early films tend not to be dealt with in broad film histories (particularly online), and as I’ll probably end up mentioning over and over on this site, many people seem to believe that cinema began with either A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Great Train Robbery (1903) or The Birth of a Nation (1915).
These fragments of film can seem to come out of the blue, a tiny window on somewhere in the world. One common reaction is that these films are ‘primitive’, almost naive, in their form. ‘Why have a single shot when we now know that films are meant to be made up of many shots? If they only knew then what we know now.’
One aspect of films that many do not take into account is how they were exhibited. For many, films should ‘hold up’ as singular entities that should ‘work’ regardless of the year in which they are being watched. Therefore if they do not work today, they do not ‘work’ at all. Early films, many of which today can be comprehended with absolute clarity, were shown in a programme of other films, and often other kinds of acts. Moving pictures would have played on a music hall programme amidst live acts, for instance. Therefore these films were not intended to be watched in isolation.
There is often great imagination in these films, which consisted of trick films with spectacular special effects or actualities documenting life and movement. The earliest films consisted of a single shot, as in the film above, View From An Engine Front – Ilfracombe (1898). One of the earliest multi-shot films was G.A. Smith’s A Kiss in the Tunnel from 1899. The technological constraint of only being able to shoot using a single strip of film was not viewed as a constraint to early filmmakers but rather a mere fact of their trade. This ‘limitation’ to creative variations, such as in the phantom ride above, and to a visual economy that was ultimately succinct aesthetically intriguing. The single shot also resulted in early films having a distinct temporal difference to edited fiction feature films, namely that they linger, play out in real time, and in many ways do not seem to begin or end, they just happen.
Many people do not realise that cinema began as early as it did and that there indeed were Victorian films. These films can still be a pleasurable shock in the vivid window they present to us of our world over 110 years ago.
I plucked the film above from the BFI’s YouTube collection. Indeed it’s one of the films I have written about for the BFI’s Screenonline here. Also check out my mini-essay on the ‘phantom ride‘, of which this is a great example, here.
If only you were watching it on a big screen rather than through the fog of pixels.