12th British Silent Cinema Festival Diary

June 5, 2009



18 Responses to “12th British Silent Cinema Festival Diary”

  1. Nathalie Says:

    Well, the first day of the 12th Silent British Cinema has been a cracker. This year’s theme is ‘Music, Sound and the Silent Film’, giving the chance for the festival’s regular team of musicians to shine. To offer up a ‘Women and Silent Britain’ slant on the proceedings, the first film of the day was Anthony Asquith’s, ‘The Runaway Princess’. Mady Christians is a Ruritanian princess, determined to escape her destiny of an arranged marriage to the Prince of Savona (Paul Cavanagh). The film is full of Asquith’s trademark inventive montages and use of close ups and also reveals a great knack with physical comedy (Christians is very much an unruly, almost slapstick heroine – the roller skate fashion show being a case in point). Asquith wrote the screenplay from a novel by Elizabeth Russell aka Anne Cholmonedley aka Elizabeth von Armin, author of Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898). ‘The Runaway Princess’ is Russell’s only silent film credit on the BFI Film and TV Database but if anyone knows otherwise, please let us know!
    The lovely Norah Baring also features as a glamorously dressed forger who takes the runaway princess on as an unwitting accomplice.

    There was more Asquith via A V Bramble’s ‘Shooting Stars’, accompanied by Phil Carli. With its film studio setting I was hoping to spot at least a continuity girl lurking in the background but the only women portrayed on the studio floor were bathing beauties and Annette Benson’s petulant and adulterous film star, Mae Feather. However, a female film journalist does make an appearance in the form of Asphodel Smthye (played by Ella Daincourt). She works for a fictional magazine called Flickers. Judging from the interview she conducts with Feather early in the film she is no Nerina Shute. She records Feather’s love of music, poetry, all things furry and feathered etc. (although who knows what her finished copy was like?!). Hopefully she also got a great scoop regarding Mae Feather’s affair and Andy Wilks’ tragic death…

    Other events today included an excellent musicians’ masterclass in which Neil Brand, Stephen Horne, Phil Carli and Gunther Buchwald talked through some of the challenges of scoring and accompanying silent films, and a presentation by Toby Haggith and Stephen Horne on the music for The Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Ancre. The latter has a new commissioned soundtrack by Laura Rossi – and very excellent it is too, if the extracts we heard were anything to go by.

    Finally, the day was rounded off by an American William S Hart Western, ‘White Oak’ (1921) with an excellent but decidedly non-female accompaniment by the Dodge Brothers.

  2. Nathalie Says:

    Unfortunately I had to miss most of today’s festival so am relying on someone else to fill in the blanks. Please?! How was Under the Greenwood Tree?

    The only part I was able to attend was David Robinson giving the Third Annual Rachael Low Lecture. Robinson is director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Giornate del Cinema Muto), biographer of Charlie Chaplin and author of many other significant works on silent cinema. Rachael Low qualifies for a place within this website being a a) woman b) author of the phenomenal, multi-volume History of the British Film and the annual lecture in her honour is a reallt great initiative on the part of festival directors Bryony Dixon and Laraine Porter. The previous Rachael Low Lectures have been delivered by Sir Christopher Frayling and Kevin Brownlow.

    I’m constantly amazed by the amount and depth of research Low conducted and have often be gazumped by her when thinking I have discovered something exciting and new in the archives. No, Dr Low was generally there first. She’s not the biggest fan of British silent cinema (with a few exceptions) but nevertheless makes many pertinent and pithy observations. Without her, the historiography of silent British cinema would be much the poorer.

    Robinson’s lecture was titled ‘Silence is Another World’, giving a personal account of his experience of watching, exploring and adoring silent cinema. How does/can a modern audience connect with silent cinema? As Robinson pointed out, it is 80 years since silent cinema was usurped by the talking film. Within art, this is a relatively short time – do Picasso, Cocteau, Man Ray or other contemporaries of silent cinema speak in an idiom we cannot understand? (yes, I guess Cubism requires a bit of imagination) How different a language is silent cinema to sound cinema and how can modern audiences comprehend and engage with these films? Robinson’s conclusions were positive, and I think I agree. As the character of redundant silent star Norma Desmond (played by the legendary Gloria Swanson) pointed out in Sunset Boulevard: ‘We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!’. And as the clip from the final scene of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) proved, films from eight decades ago are perfectly capable of moving an audience to tears: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpeiPbjDlDs
    Another world perhaps, but one that modern audiences have a passport to visit at any time.

  3. Nathalie Says:

    Another great day of screenings and talks, with the session on ‘Lost Musicians’ being a particularly interesting one from this website’s point of view. Neil Brand’s fascinating presentation looked at the myths vs realities of the sounds of silent cinema. He played some beautiful recordings of cinema orchestras from the time, while the wonderful Phil Carli experimented with the music cue sheets from Douglas Fairbanks’ ‘The Black Pirate’. Neil argued that modern readings of many silent films should be informed by some understanding of their contemporary intended soundtrack and/or target audience. For instance, the films of Oscar Michaeux were intended to allow time and space for audience response – perhaps resulting in a pace that could seem more ponderous to us now, with that context removed.

    Anyway, on to the women! Neil recalled speaking to silent British star Chilli Bouchier who told him that there would often be music played during filming. This would help the actors ‘feel’ the scene and inform their performance. Musicians would often therefore be on set and involved with film at the level of production. With the help of Jane Bryan, Neil highlighted the careers of two female musicians: Ella Mallet and Gwen Barry. Jane and Neil read from a transcript the BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union) Oral History project interview with Mallet (you can read more about Mallet on her WSBC homepage: https://womenandsilentbritishcinema.wordpress.com/the-women/ella-mallet-homepage/). Mallet worked at the New Gallery Kinema, Regent Street from 1914 until the coming of sound and her interview offers a fascinating account of the life of a cinema musician and the types of music and sound effects that were created.

    The second woman featured, Gwen Barry, was a cellist at the Grand Cinema, Saltley, Birmingham. Her family recently gave her diaries to Neil Brand, and they make enlightening, moving and often very funny reading. Barry’s experience shows the transition to sound did not immediately make all musicians redundant, but was instead a drawn out decline (please check back to this site for a Gwen Barry homepage which will report in more detail).

    Gerry Turvey then gave an illuminating case study of Finchley, London. It turns out there was a veritable battle of cinema orchestras within the suburb, with venues constantly struggling to outdo each other in terms of size and novelty of accompaniment. The presence of women musicians during the 1910s and 20s became clear from Gerry’s talk: a Miss White who was both pianist and cashier at the Picturedrome (later the Phoenix); Cecile Allen, of the Nella Bijou Orchestra; Ethyle Reeve, conductor at the Grand Hall cinema c. 1919. Some female vocalists were also enlisted to appear at the Finchley cinemas: Eva Stuart (for a performance of ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’) and Isabelle Marden (‘Peter Pan’). Again, pages for some of these women will be constructed on this site very soon. As the case of Gwen Barry demonstrates, there may be family members or other researchers able to offer further information on these lost musicians.

  4. Mrs Elvey Says:

    In answer to Nathalie’s question “How was Under the Greenwood Tree?” – it was like the curate’s egg – good in parts. The sound was of reasonable quality, there was some lovely photography, and parts of the film were genuinely moving, particularly when the Church Quire were giving their final performance with the newly arrived organ. One by one, the musicians stopped playing, tears running down their faces, and it was heartbreaking to watch. But there was a bad side too – and unfortunately that was the voice of the leading actress playing Fancy Day, Marguerite Allan. She spoke a very strangulated RP. So – perhaps the film would have been better silent! But I must say that I did enjoy it.

  5. Jane Bryan Says:

    Pipped to the post by Mrs Elvey! I was going to say very much the same about Under the Greenwood Tree – though I will add that it wasn’t Marguerite Allan’s strangulated voice that we were subjected to, but that of Peggy Rob-Smith. Was Marguerite too much of a cockney sparrer like poor Mabel Poulton? Speaking of whom, Mabel starred in my favourite film of the day (maybe even the festival? It’s a close run thing with The Runaway Princess)Palais de Danse. She was wonderful as ever, but frequently upstaged by the fabulous (gum-chewing) Chili Bouchier. Even the final shot, due to a small chunk of missing film, is a big gleaming close-up of a chewing Chili rather than just married Mabel. I must also mention another highlight of the day – Ellaline Terris and dancers dancing while lighting and smoking cigarettes. It couldn’t happen now. This was shown as part of the Tony Fletcher Presents programme – as ever, one of the most intriguing, informative and entertaining regular sessions of the festival.

  6. Jane Bryan Says:

    In answer to my own question – Marguerite Allan was Russian …

  7. Mrs Elvey Says:

    Well I didn’t realise that Marguerite Allan was dubbed but thinking about it it was obvious – why else would she have spoken so slowly! Palais de Danse was a real highlight, and for me the best film of the festival. The suspense in the fight on the roof was ratcheted up with real effectiveness; a real cad, rotter and lounge lizard was magnificently evil; and Mabel Poulton was winning. Chili Bouchier says in her autobiography that her mother “still did not seem to realise that the film industry was not peopled by sex-maniacs who leapt into bed with each other at the drop of a hat. If Maurice Elvey, the director, would call me down to his room in the evening to discuss a script or something, although she knew that there were other people in the room with us, she would wait grim-faced outside until I emerged.”

  8. Nathalie Says:

    Well, having heard about Mr Elvey from you, Mrs Elvey, Chilli Bouchier’s mum was probably right to be on guard.

    I’m very sad to have missed Palais de Danse. Mabel Poulton was really something. I remember The Alley Cat from the 10th Silent Cinema Festival, and she was excellent in that too. Fingers crossed we will be showing The Constant Nymph at this year’s Women and Silent Britain event (November 2009 – details to follow on WSBC Diary page). There’ll also be the chance to hear more from Mabel herself – not in her Cockney sparrer tones, but through her unpublished autobiography which is held in BFI Special Collections.

  9. Mrs Elvey Says:

    Did anyone see The Flag Lieutenant on Monday? That was a real treat, and Henry Edwards was very engaging indeed. It’s been great to see so many good films over the festival, and having had to return to 2009 and the day job has been a bit of a challenge!

    I’d love to see Mabel’s autobiography from when she was shooting Palais de Danse, and see whether it adds any further colour to what we know about Mr Elvey and the ladies.

    One person who would be worthy of more research is Elizabeth Risden, who was a big star in the teens, but then went to the States to try to make more of a career there. She was Mr Elvey’s leading lady from his theatre days and starred in all his films from about 1913-15. I’ll probably dig up more information about her in due course so I will keep you posted.

  10. Jane Says:

    Elizabeth Risden is really interesting – there was an Elizabeth Risden doll! I was going to write about her in my thesis until I discovered that Jon Burrows had got there first in his!

  11. Nathalie Says:

    A doll? What, like a porcelain one?! I’m now imagining a whole set with Mabel, Alma, Chrissie etc.

    Has anyone seen those slightly aesthetically hit and miss books of paper dolls in costumes eg Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford? Wouldn’t a book of 1910s/1920s British film stars be lovely? Perhaps illustrated by someone like John Peacock who has done all of those interesting and slightly unusual Thames and Hudson costume sourcebooks? Maybe there’s an interested publisher out there… I’d like to see a Norah Baring ‘Runaway Princess’ one, for instance, and a Benita Hume a la ‘High Treason’.

    • Jane Bryan Says:

      Yes – a proper 3D doll. I think it was a competition prize – she really was very popular in the mid 1910s. I’ve got apicture somewhere … I think your your idea of a book of paper dolls of 1920s girls is great (Betty as Squibs?) but not sure it would sell??

  12. Mrs Elvey Says:

    I’ve got the Rudolph Valentino paper doll set, which is quite nice, but I can imagine a much lovelier set with Mabel Poulton and Isobel Elsom. What about with the Tilly Girls? I’d put money on there being some sort of representations of Henry Edwards and Chrissie White from the 20s.

    I shall be looking at Elizabeth Risden in more detail over the coming months as my next chunk of research is to be focussed on Mr Elvey’s work between 1913 and 1918 and of course the person who features most often as the lead actor in his films during this period was Miss Risden. So I am looking forward to finding out much more about her.

  13. Great news! Dates, location and theme for the 13th British Silent Cinema Festival have been announced. 15-18 April, Phoenix Square Cinema, Leicester. The festival will be epxloring the Natural World in British Silent Cinema. See the diary page or http://britishsilents.wordpress.com/ for more details.

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