The 15th British Silent Film Festival 2012

While the travelling archivist only made it to one day of the British Silent Film Festival, it was still worth the day trip last Friday! This year the fest, which alternates between the Barbican and partner venues across the UK, was in Cambridge with screenings and events at the Arts Picturehouse and Emmanuel College. It was lovely catching up with fellow blogger and silent cinephile Pamela of Silent London, and meeting her fab Chaplin correspondent Ayse, alongside other friends I made at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone last year. It’s a shame I couldn’t afford to stay longer, and I urge all you silent film fans to catch next year’s fest.

Here’s a recap of what little I saw of the 15th British Silent Film Festival…

Women, Film and the First World War

This presentation, given by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, featured various propaganda from WWI, shedding light on the drive to recruit women workers into agriculture and industry. There was a fascinating restoration of a curious short feature, The Woman’s Portion, which has been reconstructed from elements in the archive and edited into an order that makes narrative sense! Like good archivists, however, the folks of the IWM were upfront and open about the ethics of editing blindly, and it is very possible that the story (of a young mother deciding whether she’d rather have a dead husband than a deserter) has never been screened in this form before.

The IWM’s contribution to the BSFF is always as educational as it is entertaining. Haggith noted that a common theme in the presentation of women in wartime is that the upper-middle classes were often perceived as self-serving and selfish (they weren’t all like Lady Sybil, y’know!). Such representations served a dual purpose: they persuaded those more affluent women to do their bit, but more importantly they praised and thanked those lesser off women who had signed up to help. Indeed, the most affecting films in the screening were the short actualities of real women workers – including one who did a quite uncanny Chaplin impression to the amusement of her companions!

The Lure of Crooning Water (Arthur Rooke, 1920)

After all that brain food for breakfast, some melodrama was needed. Though I hadn’t seen it before, the story of The Lure of Crooning Water was instantly recognisable; London stage starlet (Ivy Duke) suffers from a bout of badcityitis and is sent to recuperate in the back of beyond, where she manages to charm her rugged and humble host (Guy Newell). Best bit, hands down, is the moment of realisation that man is falling for woman, seemingly because she offers his youngest child a cigarette – aren’t city types just adorable?!

Lady Windermere’s Fan (Fred Paul, 1916)

Confusion in the schedules meant that some might have been expecting Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of the Oscar Wilde play from 1925. Having not seen either, I was happy to sit and enjoy this slight, lesser known version. Favourite performance had to be Irene Rooke as the complex, mysterious Mrs Erlynne who arrives in London desperate to talk to Lord Windermere. Also, the costumes were pretty lush too.

Thing is, while silent cinema should be admired for all its inherent wonders, it’s not really the ideal medium to showcase Wilde’s wordy wit. And, as Laraine Porter noted before the screening, it sort of gave away the ending in the opening scene. Oh well.

What the Silent Censor Saw!

Happy birthday to the British Board of Film Classification (nee Censorship)! THis thoroughly enjoyable collaboration between the BSFF and the BBFC showcased the peculiar mysteries of early film censorship in Britain. Through a series of unfortunate events (sparse record keeping and that old chestnut – an archive flood) the BBFC only knows what films were, to use the old terminology, full of ‘exceptions’ but do not have any official record of exactly why they were censored. What they do have is T P O’Connor’s 43 reasons for bannination.

What followed was a fun game of screen-the-clip and guess-the-crime. Turns out that Charlie Chaplin probably acted a bit too drunk on occasion… My favourite, however, has to be those films that dared to show ‘indecorous dancing’. There was also time for a welcome screening of Cut it Out, Adrain Brunel’s spoof of censorship.

See New Empress Magazine’s review of the event here.

The First Born (Miles Mander, 1928)

Miles Mander’s masterpiece in mystery has been doing the rounds since its restoration was showcased at the London Film Festival last year. There’s not much I can add to the praise that has already been lavished upon it, suffice to say that the cinematography really is stunning, Madeleine Carroll is timeless, and Stephen Horne’s score is stompingly good.

Lastly, I spied yet another smoking toddler! Obviously it was a thing.

Thanks, BSFF, looking forward to catching the whole shebang in 2013!

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