Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Silver Age… British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2017, Kings College, London

Random quote of the BSFF Symposium: "What for did ye no let your mither ken ye were in life?"

Back to college and two days of top-quality research, broken instruments, revelations and biscuit-fueled enlightenment and a reminder to always lock the door of your laboratory if there’s a cobra in it.

The Transition to Sound 1925-7 - Tony Fletcher

Tony introduced four films that featured early sound experiments that were a mixture of well-synched wonder and the downright shocking! The films were directed with metronomic precision in single studio set-ups in which very deliberate diction could be synchronized with minimal movement.

In The Gentleman (1925) – probably the earliest surviving British sound-on-film production – RB Salisbury is foppishly unsettling as George (RS Salisbury) a husband who, finding himself in “triangular circumstances”, uses weird passive-aggression to win back his wife, Lorna (Daye Dawne… great name) back from the suave Paul (Reginald Fox).  George starts throwing things out of their window and bemoaning his inability to get angry whilst Lorna had earlier said she might have loved him more “if only he’d knocked me about a bit.”

The odd man kept on piping “Thank you!” (pronounced Thank-Q!!) - a catchphrase that needed some work I felt…

Next up Betty Chester chatted amicably to camera in Pig-Tail Alley (1926) before being made up to look Chinese and singing the title song: the words “sinister”, “dope” and “oriental” were probably used in the same sentence… and Betty seemed so nice when she chatted before the song.

Then Basil Gill played a scary Santa Claus visiting two well-spoken children played by Nona and Sheila, the daughters of Vivian Van Damm, later the impresario behind the Windmill Theatre. Little Shiela went on to run the theatre after a successful career as a rally driver… 

There was more triangulatory discomfort in The Antidote (1927) in which an earnestly-bearded Jameson Thomas plays Professor Gilbert Oliver a man to wrapped up in his work with snakes to notice that his wife, Marion (Primrose Morgan) is bored enough to have started an affair with Dick - pronounced Dick! – (Walters Sanders). Dick’s discarded glove gives the game away and the prof plans poisonous revenge…

Look out!!
Class and the Train’s Effect: Reinvestigating the ‘Panicking Audience’ - Rebecca Harrison

We were reminded of the eternal snobbery of British society as the actuality of working class response to the new media of film was revealed as something more than contemporary descriptions of bumpkin-panic and ill-educated confusion.

The mechanics of cinema was well known across the country thanks to travelling fairs which featured sophisticated pop-up picture houses every bit as sophisticated as their more illustrious urban counterparts.

Once again, the establishment press is the main culprit for lazy portrayals of the poor and the “un-educated”. A reaction against the threat posed to the established order by modernity – new media will do that.

Trainspotting Too: Reporting from the BFI’s Victorian Project - Bryony Dixon & Steve Foxon

If you’ve never seen a 60mm (yes, six-ty!) Victorian moving picture then be prepared for your jaw to hit the floor. This was an update on the BFI’s ongoing mission to digitize and restore all of its films from the era of empire. The focus was on trains and Steve Foxton is a specialist with a rare passion for locomotives. He showed us four films and then re-showed them to explain what we were seeing: the make of trains, the direction of travel and the historical background.

This was film as forensic history – animated archeology that is every bit as exciting as digging up physical evidence…there should be a TV series in this!

Hang on!
Seismic Sturnutations: That Fatal Sneeze (1907) as Earthquake Film - Stephen Morgan

That Fatal Sneeze features a man sneezing so hard the whole world shakes or rather the camera, with a pendulum attached, makes it seem so. Stephen drew a connection with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and then explained the difference in director Lewin Fitzhamon’s approach from others: everything is shaken by the screen and not just the actor. The audience’s perception is impacted as men and dogs cling on for dear life. Ground-shaking stuff!

The Series Character on UK Screens before the First World War - Andrew Shail

Series as in ongoing stories based around the same characters as opposed to serials, ongoing single stories presented as linked episodes, were hugely popular. Andrew has identified 87 recurring characters who appeared in roughly 6% of all films placed on the UK market from 1907-12. There were spreadsheets and graphs which helped to explain how this phenomenon created a demand for the same characters and brand recognition for the actors who played them: the birth of the star system?

Caravans and Kinematographs: the origins of the public health film - Stephen Bottomore

In which we learned about the Women’s Imperial Health Association of Great Britain and their investment in cinema to educate the masses in entertaining ways. They were health missionaries who started making their own films by 1909-10 including How to Have a Baby and How to Dust a Room (my daughter needs to see the latter at least). They projected their films on the back of a caravan named The Florence Nightingale including one about flies…

The Fly Pest (1909) 35mm

It was excellent timing to schedule this one just before lunch, close-up photography of flies on all manner of surfaces including meat, sugar and a baby… All done to educate the public and yet I still ended up with the steak in King’s canteen…

‘A New Palace of Pleasure’: The Bohemia Cinema Pleasure Garden at Finchley, North London, 1912-18 Gerry Turvey

Modern day denizens of Finchley might be surprised to learn that not only were there elaborate picture houses lining their high street but Summer and Winter Gardens. The Picture Drome survives as the Phoenix but sadly the spectacular Bohemia with its 2,000 capacity gardens have long gone.

Llandudno, "Queen of the Welsh Resorts" as seen in Hindle Wakes
Maurice Elvey and Hindle Wakes: “It’s really about something – it’s about people” Lucie Dutton

Maurice Elvey told the BFI in 1949 that Hindle Wakes was “the greatest play ever written” and one of the films he most enjoyed making. Lucie set out to show us why he was so keen on Stanley Houghton’s play that he filmed it twice; was it the lure of Blackpool… of Llandudno?!

The director’s background in art theatre – he produced plays by Chekov, Strindberg, Ibsen - and political leanings – he was a trade unionist - would have seen him identify very closely with the message of working class independence. He also wanted naturalism in the film and both Estelle Brody and Peggy Carlisle spent time in a mill to learn how to properly look like they were doing the work.

This was more than just a “Lancashire film for Lancashire people” as the publicity had it, this was a liberating tale for all.

Adrian Brunel and the ‘missing’ film A Light Woman - Jo Botting

Adrian Brunel was one of the more… highly-charged characters of twenties film-making and A Light Woman - A Tale of Sunny Spain was a bridge-burner for him and Gainsborough Pictures who refused to allow him to edit the film after he attempted to sue his employers and generally tried to do just as he wished.

Screening - A Light Woman (1928)

Benita Hume shows impressive hurdling and swimming skills and as Dolores de Vargas, the “light” woman of the title and shows more shade than you could expect from abbreviated version of what is otherwise a lost film*. A DVD was shown of a 9.5mm reduced version produced for the home cinema market in the early thirties; the original was around 90 minutes whereas this was 25… enough to get the gist and to enjoy the mild tension of one man’s efforts to save his pal from marrying this flibbertigibbet.

Benita Hume in The Wrecker (1929)
Lots of good Benita on show her presence rather overshadowing the wimpy Donald Macardle as Ramiro her all-too-earnest would be lover and the rather-too-old-for-her Gerald Ames as the worldly Don Andrea who woos her in an attempt to save his friend from inevitable heartbreak. There’s rock-climbing and two of the main characters fall off a cliff-face: will they survive?!

It is hard to judge a film on this excerpt but it was engaging fare that made you wish for more outdoors adventures, character development and certainly more Benita.

*A fuller-length version was shown at a film club in 1976 and may still exist in the hands of a private collector... No one likes a hoarder: please share!

Making progress in re-assessing Progress Films - Ellen Cheshire

In which England’s Hollywood was revealed as being Shoreham-on-Sea and not, as you might expect, Ealing or Pinewood. Electric Pictures, Sunny South Films and Sealight had all been based in Brighton’s neighbouring town before Progress Films was set up in 1919 by Frank E. Spring.

Joan Morgan in 1917
It was Britain’s first studio complex in which people lived as well as worked and its main star was Joan Morgan daughter of house director Sidney Morgan. Ellen’s research revealed that Joan later became a writer and, unfortunately, a vocal supporter of the British Union of Fascists which hasn’t played well in Shoreham but at least Ellen has helped to find one of Joan’s other Progress films, Fires of Innocence (1922) which had been presumed lost…

Screening - A Lowland Cinderella (1921) 35mm

And so, onto the day’s main screening and Joan Morgan acting in simpler times…

Joan proves herself no light woman when it comes to acting and has leading-lady charm. She plays Hester Stirling the dispossessed daughter of a disappearing Dad (George Foley) who is abused by the morally-ugly sisters, uncle and aunt of the Torpichan clan with whom she is forced to live after her grandmother dies. It’s quite a neat little tale that involves a mildly complicated stash of rubies, sabotaged ball gowns and kindly nobility.

Dr. Silvanus Torpichan (Charles Levey) steals away the bag of rubies her father had secretly left for her and uses them to get rich in London. His shrew-like other half (Mary Carnegie) leads the bullying with her daughters Ethel (Mavis Clair) and Claudia (Eileen Grace) but the white sheep of the family is Tom (Cecil Susands) who even when Hester rebuts his romantic advances is kindly and jolly decent about it all.

A mild amount of tension is built up and, well, not for nothing is this film called Cinderella… As organizer and KC MC Dr Lawrence Napper pointed out on Day Two, these films are presented as much for their historical importance as their critical worth but I enjoyed this film and John Sweeney’s excellent accompaniment.

The Film Renter & Moving Picture News applauded a production that “demonstrates conclusively an author’s ‘atmosphere’ can be successfully transferred to the screen…” and also praised Joan Morgan’s “delightful acting”.    

Day Two

Sadly, work commitments meant that I missed the morning session including some fascinating-sounding talks on Sound, Music and Scotland as well as Scotland and Empire which included a screening of The Unsleeping Eye (MacDonald, 1928) on 35mm with live accompaniment from Stephen Horne – both film and music went down very well by all reports.

I arrived in time for the session on Sound and the British Exhibitor with four speakers who were also part of the ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound 1927-1932’ research project coordinated at De Montfort University, Leicester and the University of Stirling, and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

“Almost, If Not Quite, As Good as the W.E.”: On Sound Apparatus 1929-1930 - Nyasha Sibanda

How the plucky Brits tried to compete with Western Electric in the provision of cinema sound systems. You know how this ends, but there were no lack of ideas from the manufacturers of Synchrophone and others.

The Projectionist faces the future
How to Lose Money in British Films: A Shareholder’s Guide - Geoff Brown

Geoff Brown gave a witty take on the tribulations of film companies as they failed to take advantage of the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 and the introduction of quotas for home productions. The failings were ultimately very British

‘Avoiding a disaster attaching to a stampede’; the CEA and the reluctance of British cinemas to wire for sound - Laraine Porter

The Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association advised British cinemas not to wire for sound in 1928 and by the time the inevitability of talkies was accepted the following year the race for amplification had become a desperate one. Failure to plan ahead, vision and strategy… themes repeated throughout British history…

The Empowering of British Cinema Operators, 1927-33 - John Izod

The new, new media disruption brought a major shift in the make-up of Cinema employees as musicians and other “operatives” became less important in the delivery of the product.

Anxieties of the Middle Generation in The Flag Lieutenant (1927) - Christina Hink

Generational tensions between those who fought in the Great War and those only old enough to remember it, came to a head in the late twenties. Maurice Elvey’s The Flag Lieutenant had no specific adversary and was more about the tensions between youthful ingenuity and aged experience (even though the “young” lead, Henry Edwards, was 44 at the time…)

Lulu’s ‘misadventures’ in London - Pamela Hutchinson

This truly was the most salacious section of our days and whilst we learned about “lustmord” and the impact of Jack the Ripper on Pandora’s Box we also heard of the young Brooks’ less than stellar turn at the Café de Paris (later to be the location for Piccadilly and some awful dancing from me in the late eighties). For the full scoop see Silent London here.

‘The Worst Kind of American Sensationalism’: Selling Stardom in the 1922 Daily Sketch Contest - Chris O’ Rourke

There were contrasting reactions to Norma Talmadge-branded initiatives – the first a search for a British star which led to accusations that it could undermine rather than encourage domestic talent. The Daily Sketch was particularly damning but changed its tune for the more overtly commercial Pretty Hair Competition of 1923 as sponsored by AMAMI Shampoo.

Chris had a slide showing some of the other competitions including that from Picture Show won by Sybil Rhoda who went on to feature in Hitchcock’s Downhill as well as Sinclair Hill’s Boadicea (1927) with Lillian Hall-Davis. If only more were known about Sybil and the latter film…

Sybil Rhoda wins the Picture Show prize!
Bryony Dixon, Laraine Porter delivered the plenary and facilitated the final discussion and we were done for another year with all eyes now turned to Leicester for the British Silent Film Festival screenings in October. Watch the BSFF site for more details!

In the meantime there are ongoing programmes from the Bioscope, Barbican and BFI – the mighty Three B’s of British silent film screening: The Silver Age of Silents!


  1. An excellent post, one of those to come back to and then carry out more research on the actors and movies discussed.

    1. Thank you Jamie!

      It was a superb event with so much more to investigate!

      Best wishes.