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.

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