Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Marlene on the wall... The Kennington Bioscope 3rd Silent Film Weekend, Day Two

Programme 1: Norma Talmadge Starter

The Safety Curtain (1918) with Meg Morley

Back early for Day Two because, amazingly, I’ve never seen a Norma Talmadge film screened, even though, I’ve seen many of her films and always thought she deserves more recognition from modern audiences.

I’ve watched a dodgy DVD of The Safety Curtain but it was a completely different experience on screen and with expert accompaniment from Meg Morley. Talmadge was a phenomenon for almost twenty years and yet she is less well regarded now than some of her peers; historically and just in terms of pure technique and star power she is worthy or more.

Norma Talmadge
It was good to see her performance in such detail and yes, whilst there was a good deal of hands over face and agonised moments, she is still emotionally convincing even with this fairly prosaic script. It’s about the mistakes of youth and the compromises you make to drag yourself forwards: you can’t pull down the safety curtain on your past as Norma’s character, music hall performer Puck tries to do.

Programme 2: W. W. Jacobs Story Teller

The Skipper’s Wooing (1922) with John Sweeney

It’s always a treat to discover another British silent film especially one featuring the peerless Moore Marriott.

The BFI’s Bryony Dixon introduced and detailed the career of author WW Jacobs, who was hugely popular in the late Victorian period and beyond. He specialised in well-written tales of the mildly expected with Punch once describing this story as being about “men who go down to sea in ships of moderate tonnage…

Source material
It’s about the search for a Captain Gething (Charles Levey) who after a night on the town, decks one of his men sending him over the edge into a dry dock. Thinking he’s killed the men he goes on the run leaving his wife and daughter mourning his mysterious loss especially after his workmate has survived by landing on tarpaulin.

Over the ensuing years the replacement skipper, Captain Wilson (Gordon Hopkirk) spends many months working up the courage to woo Gething’s daughter, Annie (Cynthia Murtagh), but, hilariously, can’t work up the courage… so painful it’s like watching me at 17… He has competition from a flash Harry salesman called Jim (JT MacMillan).

It’s an actual hoot, full of English whimsy and all manner of complications with an originally dialogue-heavy novel well translated by Lydia Hayward.

Mr Sweeney played along elbows at the ready for the inevitable deviations of tone and temper you’d expect from The English.

Programme 3:  Socialist Cinema

The Four Musicians of Bremen (1922) was an early Walt Disney full of painful misfortune for the animals forming the eponymous band: it’s hard to get a gig in Bremen and it’s really hard to catch fish without them fighting back. Proto-Itchy and Scratchy. Really!

That Sharp Note (1916) was a spy spoof produced by the Flying A Studios – aka the American Film Manufacturing Company – and squeezed a lot of daft into its twenty minutes.

By way of immense contrast, The Shadow of a Mine (Ums Tagliche Brot) (1929) was a docu-drama showing working class life in the Waldenburgh coal district of Silesia. It featured no professional actors and was released in the UK by the London Workers Film Society. A glimpse of the life driving so much agitation in the early twentieth century at a time when the outcomes of global socialism were far from clear.

Mabel and Creighton
Programme 4: Women Playing Comedy

David Wyatt introduced a trio of female comics who we’d like to see more of.

Hypnotizing the Hypnotist (1911) with Costas Foutopoulis
Florence Turner flips her elegant features from transfixed to tortured in what remains of this two reeler. I’d seen her pull faces before but here she proves that beauty needn’t get in the way of a giggle as her husband gets revenge on the hypnotist who has her under his thrall.

Should Men Walk Home? (1927) with Costas Foutopoulis
Mabel Normand was a huge star and one of the earliest women directors, creating a cinematic comedy template years ahead of our Charlie. She was not in the best of health when she made this, her final film but she’s still recognisably the star of Mickey and all those Sennett classics. It’s odd to see her in late twenties fashions but she carries it off alongside Creighton Hale who is as funny as I’ve ever seen him. The pair play a couple of crooks in search of a necklace at a society party and in addition to being pursued by Eugene Pallette they also have a robust encounter with a Mr Oliver Hardy.

Satan Junior (1919) with John Sweeney
Viola Dana is another whom modern audiences underestimate and, having previously only seen her in drama, it was good to have see her in such a fierce comedy. She’s a 4 feet 11 inch powerhouse who refuses to be told what to do and pursues the man she wants – I think? – no matter what he tries to do to stop her, even offering up his younger brother. It’s a mad premise, but I love the anarchy and Viola’s comic chops that helped make her one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Programme 5: Before the Blue Angel

The Woman One Longs For (Die Frau, Nach Der Man Sich Schnt) (1929) with Meg Morley

A fourth leading lady on the trot and we got swept away by Marlene Dietrich…
Silent film number 16?
Even in her later years Dietrich was still trying to control her own myth and we heard as much in a documentary made in the 80s by Maximilian Schnell in which, even when confronted with the evidence, she denied making any silent films, deriding her own performances and the worth of the films. She told Josef von Sternberg she made three but then he discovered it was nine and the actuality was 17 as revealed in Michelle Facey’s fascinating introduction.

Michelle also had a quote from Marlene’s daughter in which she recalled watching The Jazz Singer and her mother bemoaning the ending of “acting with the eyes” in favour of so much chatter…

Those eyes are used to startling effect in The Woman One Longs For, transfixing Uno Henning’s character, Henry, as he prepares to board the train for his honeymoon: it’s love at first sight and he forgets all about the woman he has just married, Angela (Edith Edwards) out of affection and with the future of his family firm possibly in mind. He can’t get this blonde out of his mind and catches her eye once again on the train when she – Stascha - tells him to help her escape from her partner, Dr Karoff (Fritz Kortner, on duty with deranged menace).

Uno Henning and Marlene Dietrich
He leaves the train to follow the odd couple, after she tells Kortner he’s her cousin. Never mind broken-hearted Angela, he’s got compulsive obsessive Dietrich and he can’t help himself as he begins to get caught in the web of dark deceit that binds this strange couple…

It’s a proto-noire and Meg Morley accompanied with some massive minor chords with a compelling, well-judged music that created the most engaging screening of the day. Despite what it’s star later thought, we’d like to see more of the silent Marlene and her eyes, acting…

Programme 6 Lon Chaney    

The Unholy Three (1925)

It was time to head home and I therefore missed what was another highlight of the weekend featuring another master of expression: Lon Chaney could act with his entire face plastered in make-up. One for another day.

Another very full two days of top quality programming and music from the Bioscope and a huge thankyou to all of those who played, talked, served and otherwise welcomed us into this warmest of film clubs!

Here’s to 2018 and, before that the Second Silent Laughter Saturday on 11th November!


  1. I can't say that I thought much of The Safety Curtain or Norma's performance in it - strange, since I usually love histrionic type performances. The W.W. Jacobs films are delightful, though! I saw a programme of them at Pordenone one year, and they were so much fun. I'd love it if they got a DVD release.

    1. I liked seeing a decent print of Norma at work but there are other films were she's has more to work with: Going Straight, Smilin' Through and the two Frank Borzage films. This was the second W.W. Jacobs film I've seen screened and they're fun - shows how entertaining and genuinely "local" British silents could be! I've promised myself Pordenone this year - are you going again? Best wishes, Paul

  2. No Pordenone for me this year, I'm afraid! I started a new job not too long ago, so it's not really feasible. I'm banking on Il Cinema Ritrovato or Pordenone next year, though.

    (silentsplease here - I frequently have trouble with blogspot comments)