Les Vampires (1915-16)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD), Saturday 25 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Gaumont

The silent film serial is sort of like a precursor to the modern TV mini-series, but feels like it must have its roots in the serial publication of novels so popular in the 19th century. Les Vampires, too, was wildly popular in its time (although not with the contemporary critics, who dismissed its vulgarity), and it’s still possible to make out some of that excitement even through the almost hundred years of distance from us. Indeed much of its frontal staginess now seems quaintly archaic, though Feuillade was no slouch at composing his shots, even when writing and filming at such speed. There’s some great use of depth, as well as occasions when the camera is unmoored to present such scenes as a car chase through suburban streets. There’s a good use of location filming in and around Paris, as well as a formal playfulness, as our journalist-detective and hero Philippe (Édouard Mathé) and particularly his put-upon sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) break the fourth wall to gesture towards the audience when things are getting particularly heated. To try and summarise the plot of 10 episodes’ worth of cinema would be futile, suffice to say it involves the titular criminal gang, who are not in fact vampires, but rather masked hoodlums — not just literal masks as frequently modelled by one of their key associates, Irma Vep (the delightful Musidora), not averse to prowling around Catwoman-like, but also the masks of respectable society figures like lawyers and aristocrats. The gang has inveigled itself into polite society, where it is causing particular havoc. The focus on this piercing of middle-class respectability hints at a political undertow on the part of Feuillade, who has a critical eye cast towards society’s entitled plutocrats and which is no doubt part of what resounded with popular audiences at a time of European war (and perhaps raised the hackles of establishment critics). However, even without this layer of social commentary, it’s still an enjoyable watch once it gets going for all its mystery thriller twists and turns, though not one perhaps for which you’d want to clear seven hours in one sitting.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Louis Feuillade | Cinematographer Manichoux | Starring Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque | Length 417 minutes (10 episodes)

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LFF: Why Be Good? (1929)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 19 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Warner Brothers

Every year the London Film Festival presents a mix of archival screenings from restorations of well-loved films to those which seem to be unknown to the film canon and present a rich surprise to the audience, and this 1929 film falls firmly into the latter camp. Apparently it was only rediscovered in the last few decades and has now finally been restored, one of a small number of star Colleen Moore’s films to survive (the sad story being that though she herself had had the forethought to submit them to an archive for preservation, that archive had managed to lose them all in the intervening decades). Moore, however, it turns out, is a delightful screen presence with the kind of perky smiling jeu d’esprit that reminds me of Betty Balfour over in the UK during the same period. In any case, a film that starts off almost immediately with a Charleston dancing contest will always have my attention. The plot, such as it is, takes the form of a romantic comedy. Moore plays the aptly-named Pert, a party girl who falls for a dapper chap (Neil Hamilton) who keeps her up late; when she’s late for work at her shop the next day, she’s summoned to the office of the new personnel manager, who turns out to be none other than that same chap, Peabody Jr, son of the store’s owner. Things develop from there in the way of such films, but the delights are to be had in Moore’s effervescent performance and in the jaunty swing of the party scenes (soundtracked by a surviving Vitaphone disc, which aside from the jazzy period tunes includes a few sound-based jokes, notably one where a group of intoxicated men ‘sing’ outside Pert’s home; despite this, the film remains in the form of a traditional silent, with intertitles for speech). There’s also a rather liberated sensibility to Pert’s characterisation, who may live with her strict father and caring mother, but who is also pretty clear about what she wants from life (to have a good time, to dance as much as she can) and about the double-edged sword of male attention (there’s a great speech where she she notes that men expect women to dress and act with a certain licentiousness, and then damn them for doing so). In short, it’s a late delight from the silent era of cinema and an enduringly good-natured romantic comedy, and Colleen Moore deserves all the fame of her contemporaries Clara Bow and Louise Brooks.


CREDITS || Director William A. Seiter | Writer Paul Perez | Cinematographer Sidney Hickox | Starring Colleen Moore, Neil Hamilton | Length 84 minutes

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.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Saturday 3 May 2014

Bright Eyes (aka Champagner, 1929) || Director Géza von Bolváry | Writers Katherine Reeves and Franz Schulz | Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl | Starring Betty Balfour, Jack Trevor | Length 89 minutes || My Rating 4 stars excellent

© British International Pictures (pictured: Thesiger, Shaw and Balfour in The Vagabond Queen)

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.

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Crainquebille (1922)

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014

Crainquebille (1922) || Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France) | Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster | Starring Maurice de Féraudy | Length 76 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

© Pathé

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

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Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess, 1919)

I wrote this review for the wonderful Silent London site to celebrate the rerelease of the Lubitsch in Berlin box set, and you should read it there, as it is accompanied by five better reviews of the other films in that box set. The set is from the ever-reliable Eureka on their Masters of Cinema imprint, and I can highly recommend it.


FILM REVIEW || Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writers Hanns Kräly and Ernst Lubitsch | Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl | Starring Ossi Oswalda, Julius Falkenstein, Victor Janson, Harry Liedtke | Length 60 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 1 February 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Eureka Entertainment

One of the wonderful things about silent cinema is that film techniques and technologies we nowadays take for granted were still evolving. This occasionally means we get stagy affairs with huge melodramatic emotions matched to over-the-top gestural acting and a sense of decorum a hundred years removed from our own sensibilities. Sure, some may live up to this stereotype (like the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I recently reviewed), but for every ten of those there’s a film like Die Austernprinzessin: constantly inventive, filled with laughs, and with a satirical sense that doesn’t feel hugely out of step with anything being made today. The director is Ernst Lubitsch, who at this point was still making his name but would go on to become one of the world’s most famous directors upon moving to Hollywood in the 1930s. He even had a brand of sorts, the “Lubitsch Touch”, which is sufficiently vague a term to have prompted much subsequent speculation. Whatever it may be, he certainly does have a way with a film, no less in this early effort than in many of his ‘mature’ works.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director John S. Robertson | Writers Thomas Russell Sullivan and Clara Beranger (based on the novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson) | Cinematographer Roy F. Overbaugh | Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Nita Naldi | Length 80 minutes | Seen at Barts Pathology Museum, London, Wednesday 29 January 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Paramount Pictures

There were a fair few adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed horror story the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the early years of cinema, probably because it was written only a few decades earlier and was well known to most cinemagoers. This 1920 version is not the most well-regarded adaptation (that probably goes to Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version) or the earliest (that was in 1908), but it does have the benefit of a performance from John Barrymore, an early scion of that famous acting dynasty. The screening I attended was in the atmospheric surrounds of the Barts Pathology Museum on the grounds of the ancient St Bartholomew’s hospital in London, whose walls filled with many jars of preserved anatomical specimens certainly added a potent atmosphere to this Victorian story.

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Go West (1925)

This screening was presented with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, whose work was excellent and deft as ever. I always worry I should try to have something more precise to say, but if he had been unduly drawing attention to his playing, it would hardly have been so successful; instead I was fully engrossed in the Keaton comedy.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Buster Keaton | Writers Raymond Cannon and Buster Keaton | Cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Bert Haines | Starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale | Length 80 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 21 January 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Metro-Goldwyn

There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled over the years (although that’s not entirely an apt metaphor for this modern era) discussing the differences between the various silent film comedians, along with people’s personal preferences. I’ve not seen enough by any of them (although I did, rather briefly, review a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! last year) to contribute much that’s worthwhile to that discussion — which I can only hope will be a blessed relief to readers, who should be free to make their own judgement on this matter. I will say that of the famous ones, I’ve seen the most films by Buster Keaton, a disparity that’s hardly going to be rectified by the BFI’s current Keaton retrospective season. Amongst his fine body of work, Go West is it seems a little underappreciated, but over a series of vignettes set in the Wild West, Keaton mines plenty of humour, and even a bit of pathos.

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The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This screening was preceded by an early silent short film, which I’ve reviewed separately at the end.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Rupert Julian | Writers Elliott J. Clawson, Tom Reed and Raymond L. Schrock [all uncredited] (based on the novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux) | Cinematographer Charles Van Enger | Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry | Length 93 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 20 January 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Universal Pictures

I imagine a lot of people have at least a smattering of knowledge about this story based on its long-running stage musical incarnation or its soundtrack. And though I can’t pretend (like the snob I am) that I’ve entirely avoided Andrew Lloyd Webber in the course of my life, I had at least missed out on this particular creaky stage musical of his, so I can’t make any comparison between it and this (much earlier) film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s original. I can only assess it as it compares with other silent films I’ve seen of the era, and certainly the 1925 Phantom provides plenty of enjoyment on its own merits, including an iconic role for the all-too-brief silent film career of Lon Chaney (senior), as well as featuring some beautiful camerawork and use of colour and tinting.

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LFF: Jenseits der Straße (Harbour Drift, 1929)

BFI London Film Festival 2013 This is the first film I saw at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival, aside from the preview screening of The Epic of Everest (1924), and I shall be presenting relatively short reviews of the films I saw at the Festival over the next week or two.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Director Leo Mittler | Writers Willy Döll and Jan Fethke | Cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund | Starring Lissy Arna, Paul Rehkopf, Fritz Genschow | Length 94 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 13 October 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Prometheus-Film

Film history has a tendency to memorialise only a few films as exemplars of passing trends and styles. In part this is due to the demands of film history texts, which can hardly include everything, but also reflects the way that certain films are more easily categorisable. The so-called “German expressionism” of the 1920s has its Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1920) and Metropolis (1927), while Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1929) is often recalled for its star Louise Brooks’s style. In the absence of a stand-out star or a definable style, perhaps Jenseits der Straße (literally “Beyond the Street”; the origin of the more common English language title is obscure, presumably relating to its dockside setting, much of it filmed in Rotterdam) has fallen through the cracks in film history. Or maybe, as is the way with a lot of silent films, it just didn’t really exist in a physically viewable version for critics and viewers to discover until this recent restoration. A lot of films have dropped out of film history that way, too. In any case, it deserves to be reinstalled as a classic of the Weimar cinema of Germany and as one of the great silent-era films.

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The Return of Draw Egan (1916) / The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924)

The Cinema Museum logo These two full-length features (albeit short by modern standards) were presented with a short film and some amusing historical anecdotes by the film historian Kevin Brownlow to a packed audience of avid silent film fans at South London’s Cinema Museum, part of the regular ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night. Piano accompaniment was provided by Lillian Henley for ‘The Passer-by’, Cyrus Gabrysch for William S. Hart western ‘The Return of Draw Egan’, and John Sweeney for the Rin Tin Tin adventure ‘The Lighthouse by the Sea’. Although on such a sweltering Summer evening it was warm in the room, the evening was enjoyable enough that any discomfort was almost forgotten. As these were prints from Brownlow’s private collection they may not have been in the best condition (and their running time may have differed from the times given below), but all were projected very capably by the Cinema Museum staff. I should be clear that my ratings and reviews below are a rather futile attempt to judge the films like any others I’ve seen this year, and though they may have been hoky melodramas, the evening was superbly enjoyable and I’m glad to have seen all three.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 4 September 2013

The Return of Draw Egan (1916) || Director William S. Hart | Writer C. Gardner Sullivan | Cinematographer Joseph H. August | Starring William S. Hart | Length c50 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

© Triangle Distributing

By the time this Western was made, a couple of years into his film career, William S. Hart was already in his 50s but also one of the biggest box office draws in the country. Of course, the ‘Draw’ which is his character’s nickname in this film is less to do with his popularity, as with his quick-draw skills. Despite this, the life of an aging gunslinger is a solitary one, and Hart basically inaugurated the kind of weathered frontier cowboy image that would become a staple of the genre, tracing a direct line through to — taking some random examples — Randolph Scott’s collaborations with Budd Boetticher in the 1950s, or Clint Eastwood’s hard-bitten outlaw in Unforgiven (1992).

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