Themed Playlist: A Self-Isolator’s Silent Film Festival
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
Patrick Adamson, a final year PhD student at the University of St Andrews (who recently received a BAFTSS nomination for his article on the epic silent western) shares his list, which gives us wonderful silent film resources to make our own silent film festivals at home:
This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list, and frankly, the sooner it is outdated the better – so further suggestions are more than welcome! And if you’re in a position to do so, uncertain as these times are, consider investing in the future of silent film in Scotland by making a donation to HippFest.
A Self-Isolator’s Silent Film Festival
If all had gone to plan, I would have spent last weekend at HippFest – Scotland’s only silent film festival, held at the country’s oldest purpose-built theatre, the Hippodrome in Bo’ness. Tickets had been secured pretty much as soon as they became available, so enticing was the programme. Here was an opportunity to take in such rarities as Julien Duvivier’s Poil de Carotte / Carrot Top (1925), one of the earliest surviving Chinese features, 串珍珠 / A String of Pearls (1926), and Marlene Dietrich’s first starring feature, Die Frau, Nachder man Sich Sehnt / The Woman Men Yearn For (1929).
But, like everything else, these plans have been very much (and very sensibly) put on ice – hopefully to be rescheduled, in some form, come October. And yet, in these challenging times, when distraction is so needed, it feels almost doubly galling to miss out on something as diverting as a silent film festival: the one-off screenings of titles scarcely seen in a century; the new restorations that, if we’re really lucky, might make it onto DVD/Blu-Ray someday; the novelty of seeing favourites projected from 35mm; and, last but of course not least, the live music, lectures, and so on.
This all got me thinking about how we might go about recreating this experience – or some suggestion of it, anyway – without leaving the house and without expense (beyond internet access). There’s arguably never been a better time to do so. Recent months have seen a number of archives set up new free streaming platforms, with digitized versions of their silent holdings being at the core what they have to offer. So, with this in mind, here are a few pointers for anyone looking to fill that festival void.
The Broken Butterfly (1919) – The Film Foundation
To begin with a premiere – an online one, anyway: The Film Foundation’s pristine restoration of Maurice Tourneur’s long-unseen The Broken Butterfly (1919) arrived late last year, with screenings taking place in the US and at the Festival Lumière in Lyon. Now, as of this week, it has been made available for free streaming on their site, accompanied by a newly recorded score from Donald Sosin.
(On the off-chance that you’re inspired to look further into the artistic stylings of Tourneur, an unduly marginal figure in film history, here’s Richard Suchenski’s helpful overview of his career. If you can access it, I also highly recommend Rebecca Genauer’s recent chapter on The Wishing Ring (1914) in Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films, 1914–1934 (ed. by Steve Neale) for a sophisticated approach to the director’s idiosyncratic working methods.)
Late last year, the Danish Film Institute launched a site for silent films, on which, in the course of the next four years, restored versions of over 400 works from between 1903 and 1928 will be made available for free: ‘From dogsleds in Copenhagen to spaceships bound for Mars and much more – discover sensational as well as experimental works plus the great names of the time such as Asta Nielsen, Valdemar Psilander and Carl Theodor Dreyer.’ A few suggestions from the 64 titles uploaded so far:
- Witness the start of Asta Nielsen’s screen career, before her arrival in Germany and her emergence as its first major film star – as described in Julie Allen’s profile for the Women Film Pioneers Project. To begin with, there is her very first role, in Afgrunden / The Abyss (1910, DEN/EN). Also available, with a piano score by Ronen Thalmay, is Den sorte drøm / The Black Dream (1911, DEN/EN), which sees her cast as a circus princess in love with an impoverished count.
- Watch Atlantis (1913, DEN/EN), which provoked controversy upon release due to its resemblance to the recent Titanic tragedy, presented with music by Robert Israel.
- In terms of unnervingly topical programming, there’s Verdens Undergang / The End of the World (1916, DEN/EN): with a meteor approaching Earth, an unscrupulous speculator concocts misleading news articles to placate the public and make a killing on the stock exchange. A remarkable apocalyptic vision, but perhaps not one for those seeking diversion from current news cycles.
For those looking to combine entertainment with a little edification, themed playlists are also available, alongside videos by Liv Thomsen, founder and owner of ‘Historieselskabet’, and brief write-ups: ‘The Brightest Stars of Early Danish Film’ and ‘Danish Silent Film During World War I’.
Located in Lombardy, a region acutely affected by the present pandemic, Cineteca Milano have generously made 500+ films available for streaming, in a move already declared to be ‘a resounding success’ by its director, Matteo Pavesi: ‘cinema, even the most distant over time, the silent one…has become an indispensable vaccine to get up in the morning and smile to the world.’ After registering for a free account, you can – and this is really scarcely scratching the surface:
- Indulge in peplum legend Maciste’s final silent adventure Il Gigante Delle Dolomiti The Giant of the Dolomites (1927, IT) or an extract from his Maciste Alpino / The Warrior (1916, IT).
- Check out a lustrous presentation of Robert Wiene’s version of Crime and Punishment, most often seen in evil-looking VHS copies, Raskolnikow (1923, GER) or Arthur Robison’s Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination / Warning Shadows (1923, no intertitles).
- Trace Douglas Fairbanks’ progression from the breezy comedy of The Americano (1916, IT) to the swashbuckling heroics of The Mark of Zorro (1920, EN).
- See Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928, EN), starring Emil Jannings, then on a brief detour to Hollywood, or the lesser-seen silent cut of Prix De Beauté / Miss Europe (1930, IT), the final film from Louise Books’ famous spell in Europe.
- Watch Josephine Baker live in Paris in a 1925 Pathecolor short.
- Look out for some familiar faces in an array of comedy shorts (and maybe help to identify some still unidentified!). See Harold Lloyd upend an antique store, Lige Conley defy social convention to drive up a flight of stairs, or Joe Rock hit the bar with a gaggle of pretty plausible Chaplin-, Lloyd-, Keaton-, and, erm, Larry Semon-alikes.
As of December 2019, the National Audiovisual Institute (KAVI), Helsinki, have been streaming thousands of Finnish films via their Elonet service – with many of its 150-odd silent titles being available to watch in 4K. Some recommendations, once more:
- Anna-Liisa (1922, FIN/EN) was, in its day, a controversial melodrama of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, based on a play by writer and feminist activist Minna Canth. The musical accompaniment is by the Welho Trio, recorded at the Forssa International Silent Film Festival in 2013.
- A silent drama with horror elements, Meren kasvojen edessä(1926, FIN/EN) is set around Hylkysaari – a distant island said to harbour a horrible secret. Again, musical accompaniment is included.
- Finally, you might choose to take in Finland (1911) itself – a tour around the country, produced initially with tourist appeal in mind but that has, as Hannu Salmi writes, also become a ‘memory box’ for latter-day audiences since its 1990s rediscovery.
Now, these are only the latest additions to the silent film streaming landscape. For several years, the National Film Preservation Foundation site has been offering a slate of curated programmes and collaborations with various archives. The EYE Institute keeps its YouTube channel is regularly updated with rarities from its collections, while the BFI Player has enough free content to while away the most interminable of quarantines – as does the Library of Congress National Screening Room. Those with Netflix subscriptions can also access a curated selection from Kino’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.
Finally, if you still find yourself yearning for live music and the company of likeminded folks, recent weeks have seen old and new technology come together in the form of streamed silent film showings. Accompanist and film historian Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party showcases rare, and often otherwise unavailable, short comedies (see his social media for future dates/times). Donald Sosin has also spoken of moving online and recently presented the rare dance film Diana The Huntress (1916) on Zoom. And Joe Rinaudo has hosted an informative (and very wholesome) ‘Quarantine Concert’ to demonstrate the operation of his American Fotoplayer – an instrument designed to provide music and sound effects for silent films.
Patrick Adamson is a final year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, working on a thesis entitled ‘The 1920s Epic Western and American Historical Consciousness’. Taking a primary interest in the historiographical function of Hollywood silent cinema, both in the U.S. and beyond, his recent publications include ‘American History at the Foreign Office: Exporting the Silent Epic Western’ in Film History: An International Journal (which is among the nominations for Best Doctoral Student Article at the 2020 BAFTSS Awards). He is also the book review editor at Frames Cinema Journal (framescinemajournal.com).