Sunday 21 April 2024

Silent Day… The Seventh Silent Film Weekender, The Kennington Bioscope

Seeing the bright lights tonight... KB MC Michelle Facey

A special Saturday in Kennington, an early start and an onslaught of mostly unseen-by-me silent film in the company of the most informed audience in London, some of the very best accompanists – familiar and new – programmers operating on a global level, along with driven collectors and the silent-addicted who just can’t say no to the possibility of unexpected glimpse of Oliver Hardy or a dolly-reverse shot from a film made in 1910.


Not for Sale (1924) with Neil Brand, BFI 35mm print

“You taught him nothing and now you’ve left him with nothing.”


Directed by W. P. Kellino and starring Mary Odette, Ian Hunter, Gladys Hamer and Mary Brough, this was Hunter’s screen debut. It is always fascinating to see homegrown silent films on screen and to watch a discrete re-write of history as more are revealed as not only competent but skilled and enjoyable – see East Lynne below! - and “charming” is not to damn this British comedy with faint praise but to accurately reflect its infectious good humour, energy and sense of fun.

Hunter plays Martin Dering wayward son of the Earl of Rathbury (Edward O'Neill) who is half-heartedly engaged to Virginia Strangeways (Phyllis Lytton) who is, along with her ne’er-do-well brother Bertie (Lionelle Howard), are the people he trusts most in the world as they are tied to him through loyalty to his money. Martin loans Bertie his £3,000 quarterly allowance for some madcap scheme and, of course, doesn’t get it back… Don’t worry, says Martin, there’s plenty more where that came from… only this time there isn’t as he’s cut off by Daddy and left with only a fiver a week on the condition that he finds a job.

He chances upon a guest house in Bloomsbury Square run by Annie Armstrong (Mary Odette) with the aid of a relative or two, including her cheeky brother John (a barnstorming performance from young Mickey Brantford). Their father has passed away leaving them his paintings as well as the house but they struggle to make ends meet. Martin quickly impresses John with his debut at the dinner table, rebuffing the attentions of the other guests – played by the kinds of character actors you can only find in these kind of films… and enlists him into his anti-lodger society. There’s a secret sign: pull on your nose, tug your earlobe and thumb to temple, waggle your fingers… it could catch on, slightly easier than The High Sign.

Will he succeed or will he fail? Refreshingly Annie may be the one to show the men how life should be lived… (remembering that she’s also just got the vote at this point).

Gladys Hamer tries to see the funny side.

James Searle Dawley, Forgotten Film Pioneer with John Sweeney 35mm and digital prints

“Unless one appreciates the beautiful things in life, he cannot be a successful director…”

This presentation by Dave Peabody, film-researcher by day, blues musician by night, looked at the career of James Searle Dawley, who has been called `The First Professional Motion Picture Director’ and more of a major figure than I’d ever assumed. Dawley was a contemporary of DW Griffith, born two years after him in 1877, who became the first person to be hired solely as a film director when Edward S. Porter recruited him for Edison. He’s probably most famous for the 1910 version of Frankenstein (screened later in the day) but, as Dave demonstrated, over his career of 56 features and 300 shorts, was a crafter of innovative and enjoyable films.

We saw the Edison film Rescued from an Eagles Nest (1908) featuring Griffith as a woodsman recuing his baby (Jinnie Frazer) from the nest of a rather impressive bald eagle then the extraordinary Cupid’s Pranks (1908) featuring in-camera split screen trickery with the eponymous demi-God flying over Manhattan spreading the love. Then there was Laughing Gas (1907) featuring Bertha Regustus extraordinarily energetic reaction to exposure to nitrous oxide; do not try this at home kids. There was that audacious reverse dolly shot in The Song that Reached His Heart (1910) and another time-jarring moment with Eubie Blake’s astonishing piano playing for Improvisation on Swanee River (1923), one of Lee DeForests pioneering optical sound on film productions directed by Dawley.

Apart from Eubie, we had John Sweeney accompanying the other films and doing a might fine job as usual, from Cupid’s flying, historical battles and Snow White to gaseous hilarity he’s always your man. Talking of which… it was time to get EPIC!


Bertha Regustus definitely gets the joke!

The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) with John Sweeney BFI 35mm print

“The production is without question the most sensational and spectacular artistic film ever conceived…”

Now then, this was one of two competing versions of the story made in Italy during 1913 and I had assumed that this was the other as produced by Ambrosio and directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and Mario Caserini, but no, this was directed by Giovanni Enrico Vidali for Pasquali & Co. and was released just four days after with the accompanying breathless blurb!  As with the other film, it was based on British novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton published in 1834, which was itself inspired by the painting The Last Day of Pompeii by the Russian painter Karl Briullov, handily displayed before the screening.

This was a 65-minute version compared with the 78-minute version of the Ambrosio film available on the Kino DVD and which has a slight lead on IMBD probably because it is more widely seen. It was a treat to view the competition and it’s perhaps a more immediate and kinetic film with a simpler story albeit one jumbled by a mix of lost materials and some intertitles that linger for just a few frames on screen. It also lacks the tints of the Ambrosio which features more extras but fewer lions and horses… probably!

Suzanne De Labroy is this film’s Nydia who is the faithful blind slave who helps the young couple of Glaucus (Luigi Mele) and Jone (Cristina Ruspoli) escape the evil schemes of the high priest Arbaces (Giovanni Enrico Vidali multi-tasking) who has his eye on advancing the cause of the Egyptian gods as well as stealing Jone for himself.

As with the other version, this film represents the high point of tableaux films with static cameras capturing intricately choreographed action capture on a large scale with those “100 lions and tigers, 300 people and 50 gladiators…” promised by the advertising. It is well played and most enjoyable especially with John Sweeney’s dynamism and classical lines; if there’s one person you can trust to “play Pompeii erupting” it’s John! He raised the roof too.

The fifty gladiators in action

Restored Laughter: Lubin Films, with Neil Brand and Sam Geoghegan scans of 35mm nitrate, digital & 16mm prints

Presented by Glenn Mitchell and Dave Glass this programme examined the legacy of the Lubin company and featured recent restorations sourced from private and other collections and also from the Cinema Museum’s own archives. The two shared their wealth of knowledge on the all too few films that survive from the company set up and run by Siegmund Lubin, a German émigré who initially specialised in “interpretations” of other films such as Méliès A Trip to the Moon and Edison’s Great Train Robbery.

Lubin films became more original and here were featured early turns from an impossibly young Alan Hale as well as some fella named Oliver Hardy who was especially impressive in a pleasing romantic comedy, A Lucky Strike (1915) in which the cruel jokes are on him but he still gets the girl and a fortune. We also saw The New Valet (1915) which featured Billie Reeves, one of Chaplin and Laurel’s mentors at the Fred Karno’s company and a man who refused to be moulded into a Charlie-wannabe, no matter how much the company would have wanted it.

Piano accompaniment came from Mr Neil Brand who relished these rare comedy grooves, and from the ten-year old grandson of the Bioscope’s Bob Geoghegan, Sam Geoghegan who won rapturous applause for his first live accompaniment and rightly so, Sam was very fluent, calm under pressure and felt his way along the narrative on screen; a very good job indeed!


Glenn Mitchell and Dave Glass

East Lynne (1913) Restoration Premiere with Colin Sell, 35mm nitrate scan

As Christopher Bird said in his introduction, East Lynne is not a lost film as such but when quality is, as Kevin Brownlow says, the main thing archive cinema has to sell itself to modern audiences, this film has certainly been missing in terms of the vibrancy, contrast and tasty tints we glimpsed today. Chris obtained an almost complete nitrate copy from a private collector which, compared with the black and white copy held by the BFI is missing the first reel but comes with an extra three minutes and those higher quality tints. Together with fellow Bioscoper Bob Geoghegan and the BFI the restoration work is ongoing and the hope is to present the finished item at this year’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone.


What we saw was a visual feast as it is with good use of depth-of-field, form, foliage (!) and texture by director Bert Haldane and his photographer Oscar Bovill. Fritzi Kramer has been involved in reconstructing some of the film’s title cards and, as she said to Chris, melodramas like this have to be watched in the spirit in which they were made and meant to be received – “loving the hokum, not taking it too seriously”. That said, there are some impressive performances from a very modern-looking cast led by Blanche Forsythe (who has the look of Annette Bening or is it just me?) as Lady Isobel, handsome Fred Paul and the steadfast Archibald Carlyle and who-ever it was playing Barbara Hare, the sister of the man falsely accused of a murder committed by Isobel would be paramour, Captain Levison as played with pantomime menace by Fred Morgan.


The film is well-made, even Rachel Lowe admired it as one of the better Brit-flicks of this period, and it stands up against most films of the year in what was a time of innovation as the industry stretched out well ahead of DW’s supposed game-changer in 1915. It’s interesting to compare the relatively naturalistic performances of these stage-trained British actors with those from the more operatically spectacular Pompeii… Whoever it is plays Mr Dill, continues acting and reacting even as he is relegated to the background in one scene whilst Mary Morton as the maid Joyce, is one of a number of strong supporting actors, the less said about the two blonde and robotic man-servants the better though.


I like the nods to period politics when Carlyle goes up against the scheming Levison to become the local MP, there are signs calling for the abolishment of the Window Tax and the Corn Tax (Corn Laws), as well as in support of Chartism which indicate that the evil one is a radical Whig whilst the goodie is a Tory. For the sake of history, I should point out that the repeal of the Corn Laws was only a good thing whilst the Chartists stood apart from both main parties and were calling for things like a vote for all men over 21, secret ballots and an end to property qualification for MPs, of their six main demands, all but one – annual elections – were achieved by 1919. I can write you an essay if you like! It is interesting that the baddie is on the side of these dangerous ideas though…


Blanche Forsythe and - booo! - Fred Morgan

Oh, Willie, my child dead, dead, dead! and he never knew me, never called me mother!


Ellen Wood wrote East Lynne in 1961 and it was followed by A Life’s Secret (serialised in 1862) which attacked what she saw as unscrupulous Trade Unionists and caused a riot and threats to the still anonymous author… She was the daughter of a glove manufacturer and later married another industrialist; her books were sensationalist and hugely popular. East Lynne was adapted into a play - East Lynne. A Domestic Drama in a Prologue and Four Acts by T. A. Palmer in 1874 and it was on stage where the story became a phenomena, almost guaranteeing success and the half-joking line “East Lynne’s playing next week”. It was also the source of much ridicule with Palmer’s line during Little Willie’s death scene, given birth to the term “dead and never called me mother…”


Colin Sell, who must have heard Barry Cryer use that line at least once or twice, played along in splendidly sensational fashion, in sympathy with and for the film and audience. A splendid job all round for this re-emerging British milestone.


He Who Gets Slapped (1924) was to follow but domestic responsibilities led me homeward. It’s a fabulous film which I have written about elsewhere on this sites near 1,000 posts. Many of those pieces have been about the Bioscope and hopefully many more will follow for, as today showed once again, it’s hard to compete with the range and passion of this gathering of like minds in Charlie’s old workhouse.

The Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, 10 April 1848, just a few minutes down the road from the old Lambeth Workhouse which opened in 1873 and which now houses the Cinema Museum and the Kennington Bioscope...


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