Category: Silent Era

Film on the Front Line: British Propaganda from WWI


This is a presentation on video of films made during World War I. The films are from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It runs at the Royal Armouries Museum for the duration of the Leeds International Film Festival. The screenings opened on November 8th with a presentation by Doctor Claudia Sternberg, a specialist on the First World War. And the films runs continuously daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There are five films ranging a 100 foot short to a two reel film.

The longest film is Exploits of a German Submarine (U-35).Operating in the Mediterranean (UK, 1918 – 36 minutes. This has an interesting pedigree. The film footage was originally a German propaganda film The Enchanted Circle, showing the exploits of one of the most successful examples of submarine warfare at the time. The British took the footage, changed the titling and possibly re-edited the material. Thus is became an example of what is called ‘counter-propaganda’. This version is quite clearly decrying the enemy. Title cards suggest that the Germans are lax about war ethics and about veracity, implying that the British are not. There is some interesting footage of the vessel and a large number of ships sunk.

Liveliness on the British Front (UK, 1916 – 8 minutes). This was produced by the same people who made the famous and extremely influential The Battle of the Somme (UK, 1915): Geoffrey H. Malins and Edward G. Long of the British Topical Committee for War Films. It was only at this stage of the war that the British Government realised and implemented using film for the war effort. We see British troops relaxing behind them lines, but also going into action. The latter are fairly clearly staged. However there is footage that gives a sense of the state of the trench system and the living conditions that troops endured.

Home on leave (UK, 1916, – 7 minutes). The film follows soldiers leaving the Western Front and retuning home for leave: something that soldiers generally had to wait a considerable time for. There is a light-hearted feel to the antics of the soldiers as they journey by road and then by ship.

The Destruction of a Fokker: Our Mobile Ant-aircraft Guns in Action (UK, 1916 – 6 minutes). The Fokker was one of the very effective German fighter planes. Most of the film shows the mobile gun crews, moving, manoeuvring and firing their 13 pound weapon. For much of the film the enemy plane is in extreme long shot. For the climax there is a special effect – the use of a model: and then shots of the burning wreckage of seemingly two downed aircraft.

Fighting U-Boats in a London Back Garden (UK, 1918 – 1 minute). This very brief film is a ‘digging for victory’ feature. Civilians demonstrate the cheerful resilience that is expected from the British as they dig and plant in their tiny garden.

As you might expect the condition of the old prints varies considerably. Moreover, video transfer is not that kind to the contrast and definition of old film. Quite a lot of the footage is reasonably sharp and clear. However, within the films there are passages [especially in the U-35 footage] which is fairly washed out and poorly defined]. It is still an interesting an informative 58 minutes. There is a musical accompaniment by the Ithaca Trio. This is a quiet and appropriately sombre piece: it avoids more rousing music even during the action sequences.

A word of caution. The Royal Armouries is not the best signposted museum I have visited. And there are not specific signs or indicators for this event – it was not listed in the Daily Events Calendar that I saw. Moreover the Museum has a large number of video installations in the permanent exhibition, and I was at first misdirected to one of those.

So Film on the Front Line is in the Cinema on the second floor, the first floor of the War exhibits. Coming in the main entrance take the right hand lift at the far end: turn left out of the lift on floor 2 and the first entrance has the cinema, also on the left. When I went the auditorium doors had been wedged open so there was extraneous noise from the other exhibits: but the wedges are easily removable.

One last note – if you find this interesting, after the Festival you could check out the Mediatheque at the National Media Museum in Bradford which has large collection of archive film, including from the World War I period.

Happy Anniversary Hyde Park Picture House

Filling up with an expectant audience

Filling up with an expectant audience

This anniversary fell on November 7th: presumably on November 8th the friendly, hardworking staff of the cinema were all recovering from their exertions. For the Friday saw six separate screenings during the day and the evening. The key event though was the evening presentation of A Night at the Cinema in 1914. This was preceded by drinks and excellent cakes whilst the ‘After Hours Quintet’ played appropriately varied syncopations. Meanwhile the screen was filled by a selection of World War I stills and film extracts.

By the time the film time rolled round there was a fairly full house and an expectant audience. There were Welcomes by Wendy Cook, the General Manager, and by Counsellor Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Chair of the Leeds Grand Theatre Trust, which now controls the cinema. Wendy offered many thanks, but especially to the Friends of the Hyde Park, now in their thirtieth year, and to the co-founder and current Chairperson Peter Chandley. Counsellor Yeadon complemented the staff of the cinema on their work over the years and the audiences whose support has meant that the Hyde Park is still a thriving venue for film and related events. She also managed a reference to Louis Le Prince: the centenary of his pioneer film was the centre piece the 1988 Leeds International Film Festival. Then two local poets, James Nash and Matthew Hedley Stoppard, read us works written in or at least about the cinema.

The feature was a compilation of films produced in 1914, both in the UK and the USA. One wonders if any of them were in the original or early programmes of the cinema. There were a number of Actualities, Travelogues, Newsreel extracts and War Shorts (including Christmas at the Front but not any fraternisation or football). There was an entertaining animation by Lancelot Speed. His name referred to his style of animation, in which drawings were applied on-screen at high speed and then animated into short scenes.

One of the pleasures of early cinema is the frequent appearance of canine performers. We had a whole pack of Dogs for the Antarctic being trained up for an expedition by Ernest Shackleton. There was also an early example of product placement: by a firm named Spratt who appeared to specialise in dog treats.

There was an example of an early attempt at accompanying sound, The Rollicking Rajah. In 1914 the film was accompanied by a recorded song on synchronised disc. In this transfer it had been recreated with a piano accompaniment.

There was an extract from a US series featuring the Intrepid Pauline (The Perils of), one of the feisty heroines who were popular in the period. Since it was only an extract some of the plot developments had to be guessed at. But we had a flight in a balloon, a dangerous descent to and fight in a steep quarry, and a frantic chase followed by a last minute rescue from a burning house. Thrills and spills.

And there were three one-reel comedies.  The first featured Florence Turner, a very popular actress from the USA.  Daisy Doodad’s Dial was filmed by Turner’s own Production company at the Hepworth Studio on the Thames. The ‘dial’ referred to her facial contortions for a competition, but which frightened unsuspecting passersby. There were some witty moments and a couple of clever superimpositions.

Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine featured the comic persona of Fred Evans, a popular music hall star turned kinema star. This film was comic pastiche of one reel naval heroics. The film made witty use of simple sets and had some imaginative sequences ‘underwater’. There was one splendid visual joke with a fish!

The third comedy was an early Charlie Chaplin vehicle, from Keystone A Film Johnny. One could see that Chaplin was still developing his persona of The Tramp. And the direction lacked the flair that he himself would bring to filmmaking. Even so there were delightful moments and sequences that suggested later routines in embryo, The film was set first in a nickelodeon, then in a film studio and then on location: so there was pleasure in seeing the working of early cinema. I did think that the transfer had the film running a shade too fast.

The whole feature had piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who has a fine sense of the rhythms of early film and a great knowledge of the musical forms of the time.

The event was clearly enjoyed by the audience. We came out to see a queue for the last screening of the day, Final Cut, a popular film which also featured in last year’s Film Festival.

So felicitations to the staff for a delightful and successful evening, which I am sure involved much hard work. There are a lot of promising screenings to follow during the rest of the Festival and more special events to come throughout the centenary year. Next in line will be a commission by the Pavilion and the Hyde Park – To the Editor of Amateur Photography.

Thanks to Stephen Brown for the photograph.

J’accuse (France 1919)

This is one of the films from the Silent Era noted in the earlier preview of Leeds International Film Festival. Now the Festival Catalogue is available and it notes the film will be screened from a DCP. This means we will get a theatrical standard presentation together with a live accompaniment on the Town Hall Organ. This will be the sort of event for which the Concert Auditorium provides a perfect setting.

The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. This version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederland Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. The latter are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.

Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.

The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama; romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.

The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though this is nearly three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War. And as in 1919 the audience will find the drama and emotion of the film heightened by the live musical accompaniment.

Silent Films at the Leeds International Film Festival

Buster Keaton in The General

Buster Keaton in The General

Early films made in the decades before the advent of sound on film are a regular feature at the Festival. Most have title cards, which are easier to read than subtitles as they occur between shots and sequences. They were not really ‘silent’, and the Festival regularly provides musicians who accompany the films: a technique that can bring out the drama, emotion and pathos.

This year there is a bumper selection. The one caveat is that all of them are screened from digital formats – either a DCP or DVD/Blu-Ray. The quality of these transfers can be very good, though I personally feel that the 2K DCP does not match the quality of a good 35mm print. The other drawback can be the running speed – in the Silent Era this gradually progressed from 16 fps to 24 fps. So far the UK has not caught up with FIAF, who have produced specifications for silent running speeds on digital. Depending on the frame rate this requires step-printing, adding additional frames copied from the existing ones. This can upset rhythm of films and can produce ‘ghosting’, when an image ‘hangs over’. At least all of these films will be shown on a large theatrical screen.

War and Cinema



There are two classic silents and two associated events focusing on World War I. J’accuse is a famous anti-military film directed by Abel Gance in 1919.  The film has been restored in recent years and now runs for just over two and half hours, [the version shown at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2009 ran for over three hours, this version may have been transferred at a faster frame rate]. This is a key film in the development of two important film techniques in the silent era – superimpositions and montage [fast editing]. The film has a traditional dramatic plot, focussing on two participants in the war. But at the end in a justly famous sequence the film develops into a moving and impressive cry against the violence and destruction of the conflict.

A rather different and typically Hollywood approach is found in Seventh Heaven (1927). The director, Frank Borsage, who won one of the first ever Oscars for this film, had a facility for intense romantic dramas. The lovers in this film are played by Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Gaynor also won in the first Oscar Ceremony, for this film along with Street Angel and Sunrise,

Both films will have a live organ accompaniment in the Town Halls spacious concert auditorium – this is always a splendid film experience.

In addition there is How I filmed the War (Canada 2010), a documentary about the making of The Battle of the Somme. That film, released in 1916, had an immense impact on the British public who flocked to see this film of actual and restaged conflict in droves. There is also a video installation at he Royal Armouries Museum, Film on the Front Line: British propaganda from WWI. This presents a selection from the Imperial War Museum archives with a musical accompaniment. There will be an introduction at the launch at the Museum on Saturday November 8th.

Silent comedy

Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) is probably his finest film and one of the great comedies of that era. Perversely the hero is a Confederate volunteer, so the Union forces fill the role of ‘villains’. The film offers Keaton’s mastery of timing and his ability to stage complex gags – the final train disaster is epic. The film is screening at the City Varieties with live musical accompaniment.

The Festival also features Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fete (12949), which is a sort of hybrid between silent and sound films. There are beautiful evocations of French rural life and superb comic sequences. I assume this will the colour version that was restored a few years ago.

And Charlie Chaplin will feature in the Night at the Cinema event below.

Hollywood Roots

Der Letze Mann

Der Letze Mann

This is a programme of films that show the European Origins of noted Hollywood filmmakers. The Last Laugh (Der Letze Mann, 1924) is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House with a live Piano accompaniment. This is the key example of the contribution of 1920s German film to cinematic style. In particular the film pioneered what became known as ‘the unchained camera’, moving the camera on the ground and through the air. Hollywood was so impressed with the film that they recruited the director F. W. Murnau and the cinematographer Karl Freund to the Fox Studio. The film also makes splendid use of chiaroscuro, models and special effects. It relies almost entirely on visual plotting rather than the conventional title cards. And there is a splendid performance by Emil Jannings as a hotel doorman who falls from grace.

[Excuse the plug – but this film is featured in the newly published Studying Early and Silent Cinema –].

The Hyde Park is also hosting People on Sunday (Menschen am Sontag, 1930). This film employed the talents, not only of Billy Welder, but also Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann – all to become important filmmakers in Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. The film has a simple story line as a group of young Berliners enjoy their day of leisure at the nearby Wannsee Lake. The film achieves a sense of realism that was to be influential in the realist movements in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The musical accompaniment is played by Neil Brand, a noted silent accompanist who is a regular at events in the UK and at International Festivals like Le Giornate. [See a longer review on the Early & Silent Cinema Blog].

The Hyde Park Picture House Centenary

The Hyde Park Picture House - inteterior

The Hyde Park Picture House – inteterior

This will be one hundred years on from November 7th 1914. So [along with other programmes] the cinema is screening a new compilation from the British Film Institute, A Night at the Cinema in 1914. The film is a selection of films produced in the UK and the USA in 1914: there are ‘actualities’ [documentaries], newsreel, an episode from a serial and comedies. This digital transfer comes with a pre-recorded musical accompaniment played by Stephen Horne, a talented musician who performs regularly at the National Film Theatre and the prestigious Le Giornate. The programme of the film offers:

A Night at the Cinema in 1914            85 minutes

Looping the Loop at Hendon (March 1914)

Pioneering British aviators Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks perform stunts at the legendary Hendon airfield. Although not hard news, this was a topical story. 

Palace Pandemonium (May 1914)

The leading campaigner for votes for women, Emmeline Pankhurst, goes to petition the King in person at Buckingham Palace. The campaign for votes for women was very high-profile and often featured in the news. The suffragettes would stage appearances at events for maximum impact.

Austrian Tragedy (July 1914)

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, this newsreel shows footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, including the wedding of Archduke Karl who succeeded Franz Ferdinand as heir to the imperial throne.

Dogs for the Antarctic (August 1914)

Following the death of Captain Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton plans another expedition to Antarctica, taking plenty of dogs. This is typical of the ‘magazine’ style film shorts of the time.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial

American Vitagraph studio star Florence Turner ran her own film company at the Hepworth studios on the Thames. In this comedy ‘dial’ means ‘face’. The ebullient Daisy Doodad practises for a face-pulling competition and ends up getting herself arrested.

Egypt and her Defenders

This travelogue of the famous sights of Egypt shows Lord Kitchener as British Consul General before he was made Secretary of State for War. In this film with colour tinting, he is seen reviewing the troops.

Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine

Fred Evans was the most popular British comedian of the age, turning out hundreds of ‘Pimple’ films which made a virtue of their low budgets. Here Pimple foils the plans of dastardly foreign spies. If Monty Python had made comedies in 1914 they would look like this.

Scouts’ Valuable Aid (August 1914)

As the nation gears up for war even the young are mobilised to help the war effort … Here a pair of Sea Scouts are on the look-out on the cliff tops for an invading fleet.

German Occupation of Historic Louvain (September 1914)

When Germany invades neutral Belgium, the destruction of the historic town of Louvain and its ancient university library provokes worldwide outrage. This newsreel was presumably filmed by a cameraman from a neutral country.

General French’s Contemptible Little Army

General French, commander of the British army in France, gets the better of the Germans in this lightning sketch by pioneering animator Lancelot Speed. Animation was popular and commonly distributed as part of the newsreels. Cartoons allowed Speed to be splendidly irreverent.

Christmas at the Front (December 1914)

Troops celebrate Christmas at the Front. We’re not told where for reasons of national security. But it’s good to see the boys being well fed before they return to the trenches.

The Perils of Pauline

American imports were always popular and serials were the latest sensation in 1914. In this excerpt, Pearl White stars as Pauline, a feisty heroine pursued by villains eager to get their hands on her fortune and features both an accidental hot air balloon trip and a spectacularly daring rescue from a burning building.

The Rollicking Rajah

Years before the arrival of the ‘talkies’, this Vitaphone song film (which wonderfully shows the ladies fashions and dance moves of the day) would have been accompanied by a synchronised sound disc, which is now lost. The song is recreated here from the surviving sheet music. The Vitaphone was a British sound on disc system pioneered by Cecil Hepworth.

A Film Johnnie

In 1914, Hollywood is born and British comedian Charles Chaplin is its greatest star. He explodes onto British screens in summer of that year. This is one of his very first films and is, appropriately, set in a cinema.