Tag Archives: Silent Cinema

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2015

Production still from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Another year, and another fantastic British Silent Film Festival Symposium last Friday – a chance to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and to finally put a real face to Twitter avatars. Oh, and it was chock-full of film history goodness, as ever.

Among the most interesting papers on offer was Andrew Shail’s forensic detective work, proving that Europe beat Hollywood to the star system by a matter of weeks; Stephen McBurney’s similarly detailed work on the kaleidoscopic colour acts of Aberdeen-based showman William Walker; Lucie Dutton’s ongoing, ever-enthralling expansion of our understanding of the life and career of Maurice Elvey; Malcolm Cook’s wonderful exploration of the significance of sound in the early films of Len Lye; and, Geoff Brown’s fabulous introduction to HMV’s brief dalliance with cinema at the dawn of the sound era.

For what it’s worth, I once again sought to insert Australian cinema where it isn’t really wanted by presenting a paper on the 1908 British tour of The Story of the Kelly Gang (d. Tait, 1906).

I’ll spare you the finer details (ie. save them for a future article), but here’s the basic story, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain. The Tait’s joined forces with a British gent named John Henry Iles, best known as a promoter of brass bands, forming a touring company, the Colonial Picture Combine (although it seems as though it was just another company – St Louis Animated Picture Company – renamed). A show was assembled, the Kelly Gang film taking up about half the bill (so, probably the hour that most people estimate), with a mixture of other films and music/variety acts in the first half, and during reel changes.

The tour started in January 1908 with a week at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, before heading to Barnstaple, Southsea (Portsmouth) and Swindon. From there, they headed to Dublin, leasing the Queen’s Theatre, before taking the film to Belfast, Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol.

One particular highlight occurred in Cardiff, where the local council seemingly deemed The Story of the Kelly Gang to be a ‘theatrical production’ and therefore ineligible to play on Good Friday. This wasn’t made clear in the advertisements, of course, causing something of a mini riot when patrons realised they weren’t going to see the Kelly Gang film that had clearly drawn them in. Cue boos, hisses, etc., before the show finished with people rushing the projection booth, and throwing chairs into a large pile, requiring the police to come and clear the auditorium.

Thankfully, my paper had a slightly less hostile reception, and even garnered a few nice mentions on Twitter:

The 1908 tour certainly makes for an interesting story, and it fills a rather gaping hole in our understanding of how this film – often credited as the first feature-length fiction film ever made – circulated outside Australia, so it will be published in some form in the future. Watch this space!

In the meantime, if you’re keen to see the seventeen or so remaining minutes of The Story of the Kelly Gang (as restored by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), and shown here with live piano accompaniment), as well as learning more about its production and circulation, the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts are holding a very special event at King’s College London on May 30. After the film, myself and Dr Ian Henderson, director of KCL’s Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, will be joined on stage by Angus Forbes, grandson of Charles Tait, who will discuss how the film was made, lost, and – eventually – rediscovered. Tickets can be purchased on the ANZ Festival website.

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The Water Magician / Taki no shiraito
d. Kenji Mizoguchi / 1933 / Japan / 98 min
Silent Film & Live Music series @ Barbican (London, UK)

Still from The Water Magician

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the American film industry was clamouring to update to the latest sound technology in the hope of capturing an ever-lucrative market share, Japanese cinema audiences were beholden to a vastly different way of experiencing the moving image.

Developed from long-practiced traditions of Noh and kubuki theatre, films of the silent era – both local and imported – were interpreted for Japanese audiences by live benshi narrators, who would relate the story, give voice to the characters and apply their own personalities to an entirely unique brand of cinematic storytelling.

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Metropolis: Reconstructed and Restored
d. Fritz Lang / 1927 / Germany / 145 mins
Silent Film Series @ Barbican (London, UK)

Production still from Metropolis

A little while back, I wrote a piece about F.W. Murnau’s  Der Lezte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924), with reference to some rather odd title-cards and the notion of whether what we see of certain films (particularly those from the silent era) can be considered ‘authentic’, and what these notions of authenticity might mean for audiences today. This particular point is illustrated, in a very unique way, by the most recent, high profile restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction classic, Metropolis.

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Oh yeah, it’s been a while, so I should probably mention that Screen Addict is currently on hiatus whilst I complete a dissertation for the Masters in Film Archiving from the University of East Anglia…

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The Last Laugh / Der Letzte Mann
d. F.W. Murnau / Germany / 1924 / 101 mins
Viewed at: Screen 3 @ Cinema City (Norwich, UK)

One of the problems with viewing (and writing about) silent cinema, comes with the knowledge that there is every possibility that – due to the loss of certain elements (such as tinting and toning), the addition of others (newly created soundtracks), or even re-editing (which often took place when films were re-released) – there is no way of knowing whether what you are watching is the ‘genuine article’, the film ‘as it was meant to be seen’.

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