British Silent Film Festival 2014

The Cinema Museum logo The regular presentation of Britain’s early filmed legacy this year took the form of a one-day conference followed by a day of screenings at Kennington’s Cinema Museum. There were four sessions, each presenting a feature film, and some shorts, with the final film of both late-morning and late-afternoon sessions being a feature directed by Hungarian émigré Géza von Bolváry and starring Britain’s 1920s screen darling Betty Balfour, respectively The Vagabond Queen and Bright Eyes (both 1929). Other highlights were a drama about a woman finding liberation through, ahem, secretarial work in The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a sort of proto-kitchen sink drama about working-class East Enders, one of whose set finds love with a posh toff in The Right to Live (1921). Each of the sessions was accompanied by a different musician, respectively John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lily Henley, and Stephen Horne, all of whom did a wonderful job.

Bright Eyes (aka Champagner, 1929)

For me, the highlight of the Festival was its final film, a 1929 drama set in Paris nightclub the Palais de Danse, and following the travails of kitchen assistant Jenny (Betty Balfour). In its setting it recalls the delights of E.A. Dupont’s contemporaneous Piccadilly (1929), and though the saucer-eyed (or should it be said, bright-eyed) and cheekily flirtatious blonde Balfour is the star, it still manages to deftly move into some darker emotional terrain before its rather more optimistic conclusion. Even as it touches on the unfairness of life, the turmoil of capitalist excess, and the dark depths of depression, the film — chiefly through Balfour’s central performance — manages to retain an essentially comic outlook. As such, we never really fear for her as much as some of the events might suggest, and it’s her romancing of the sternly tall and handsome waiter Jean (Jack Trevor) which grounds the film’s narrative, even if I was rather hoping she’d hook up with her fellow kitchenhand Marcel. It’s mostly all set in the one location, and as such there’s plenty of glamorous dressing-up, with an excess of sequins and glitz and even a few dance numbers, all beautifully filmed. And of course there’s the champagne, in what must be an early product placement spot for Moët et Chandon, though the alternative title for the US market (Champagner) is presumably an attempt to piggyback on Hitchcock’s earlier Champagne (1928), also starring Balfour. However, I feel confident that if only it were more easily available, Bright Eyes would be acclaimed as the better film.

Bright Eyes film posterCREDITS
Director Géza von Bolváry; Writers Katherine Reeves and Franz Schulz; Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl; Starring Betty Balfour, Jack Trevor; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014.

The Right to Live (1921)

Even in 1921, I imagine there was a veritable tradition of this kind of Cockney working class melodrama, so while it may not break new ground, it’s still fascinating to see the filmmakers put a little slice of East End life on film. The star and director is one Mr Coleby, a jowly middle-aged man largely forgotten to film history (though from a quick bit of census sleuthing he appears to have been born in 1876 in Southwark, London, and his first name was Albert). He keeps things moving along nimbly, using a de rigueur (for the period) trotting race as a nailbiting action setpiece. There’s also a curious two-part structure wherein we get a slice-of-life family melodrama set in the home of Coleby’s fishmonger Bill Rivers and his wife and kids, as we find out how his niece Marjorie has run away following the death of her father, before the film cuts without warning to a bunch of snooty toffs and their tediously entitled lives. It takes a little time before we find out the connection: the niece has become an actress and is now enamoured on one Sir Robert. The two strands are then brought together with a bit of laboured plot dynamics, but there’s always plenty to retain one’s interest, including the cheerful Mockney intertitles and (for me) a few scenes set in and around pubs.

Director/Writer A.E. Coleby; Cinematographer unknown; Starring A.E. Coleby; Length 60 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014.

The Vagabond Queen (1929)

A fascinating feature sadly underrated by history, it was released on the cusp of sound reproduction and suffered badly as a result, even though it was hastily rereleased with a soundtrack. It exemplifies many of the big gestural performances typical of the silent era that can’t have translated well outside that idiom, but it also has so many wonderful touches in its story of a working class woman, Sally (Betty Balfour), recruited to take the place of exiled Princess Zonia (also Balfour, of course). Zonia is heir to the crown in the fictional land of Bolonia, but a dastardly general has staged a coup, hence wily diplomat Lidoff (Ernest Thesiger)’s overtures towards Sally as a means of attracting the ire of potential assassins on the Princess’s return to take back power. Of course, as with many such Ruritanian romances, it always retains a sheen of daffiness to its melodramatic machinations, communicated by the joyfully rhyming intertitles and a lighthearted way with puns (my favourite being the diffident ruling family the “Perhapsburgs”). It’s also a handsomely-mounted production that clearly made extensive use of the finest British studio craftsmanship, with some very large and elaborate sets.

Director Géza von Bolváry; Writers Douglas Furber and Rex Taylor; Cinematographer Charles Rosher; Starring Betty Balfour, Glen Byam Shaw, Ernest Thesiger; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014.

The Twelve Pound Look (1920)

You never realise how much society has changed in a hundred years until you watch a story of female emancipation which takes the form of the liberating powers of becoming a typist. It’s to the film’s credit, though, that its female star (Jessie Winter, playing Kate, a parson’s daughter) doesn’t define herself by her marriage to the aspirationally wealthy plutocrat Harry Sims (Milton Rosmer), finding his vulgarity and displays of wealth boring and unfulfilling. That she should leave him for a humble typewriter — whose £12 price tag, once she’s earned and paid for it, allows her to leave the suffocating marriage — is almost an echo of his own attitude to his humble origins: we see Harry firing his first boss, just as she fires Harry after a fashion. He after all is the one whose view of marriage is strictly as a business transaction. The characters are stock types, with Harry introduced at the other end of a large cigar behind a desk, and Kate doing some needlework while sitting in her garden. That said, it’s a perfectly likeable film with some nice performances. Harry’s younger, second wife has a great comedic scene looking monumentally bored during his obsessive rehearsals for receiving his knighthood, and Kate’s decisive move into independence is flagged by her looking off into the half-distance, even if the method of her liberation (her love for a typewriter!) brings things back to bathos.

Director Jack Denton; Writer Eliot Stannard (based on the play by J.M. Barrie); Cinematographer William Shenton; Starring Jessie Winter, Milton Rosmer; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014.

Beauty and the Beast (1922)

This is an odd little short film in which husband and wife team Ivy Duke and Guy Newall (the latter also writing and directing) play the eponymous couple, frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. It’s the latter aspect that’s the most interesting, of course, as the drama itself revolves around a constrictive garment worn by the Beauty (some kind of corset-like vest it seems) which the man unwittingly pulls apart at the theatre (Newall’s Beast is indeed a rather witless moron here, allowing Duke to shine brightest). I suppose this kind of premise is most suited to a short film and were it not for the framing device of them addressing the audience directly, it might be more easily forgotten.

Director/Writer Guy Newall; Starring Ivy Duke, Guy Newall; Length 30 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014.

Tubby’s Typewriter (1916)

This is just a fragment of one of many shorts comedian Johnny Butt made in ‘The Exploits of Tubby’ series using the eponymously rotund (and fairly unmemorable) character. Here his wife is provoked to jealousy by a letter referring to how smitten he is with a journalist colleague’s new typewriter, unaware that this refers not to a woman but to a new-fangled piece of machinery. It’s a thin premise, and when the journalist invites Tubby out to dine with two girls he’s just met (one of whom is Tubby’s wife) we are set up for the feuding couple to be awkwardly reunited. This however is where the fragment cuts out so we are left to imagine an undoubtedly rote conclusion to this little domestic comedy.

Director Frank Wilson; Writer Percy Manton; Starring Johnny Butt; Length 7 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014.


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