SWS' Silent Film Christmas List 2020
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
It can be challenge when it comes to getting that special present for that film fanatic in your life; although, to be honest, it can be even harder if they are silent film fan. Fear not then because below is a selection of silent film related presents (updated for 2020) which will keep them entertained over and beyond this festive season.
Do let us know if you have any favourites or thoughts on any books or films you have recently read/seen...
There are so many great silent film books out there. Of course Kevin Brownlow’s trilogy on the history of America’s silent film made up of The Parade's Gone By... , The War, the West, and the Wilderness and Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Crime, Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era are most certainly the most significant books which should make up everyone’s silent film book collection. Other titles which make this pantheon of key silent film books include David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art (as well as Robinson’s From Peepshow to Palace: Birth of American Film), Barry Paris’ Louise Brooks biography, Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Richard Koszarski’s Fort Lee: The Film Town, Rachel Low’s seven volume The History of the British Film (1896 – 1939) and Jay Leyda’s Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film.
But many more great books are shadowed by the ones listed above. Many of which are far more recent publications as well; below are just a few of those recent publications:
Where would we be without this book? Can it really be nearly 10 years since the original publication of 100 Silent Films? Not one week goes by without us picking up our copy and devouring Bryony Dixon’s thoughts on some of the most known and less well known silent film titles available. And that is the great thing about this book; from big Hollywood epics to early British silent shorts every single film is approached with the key question, why this film? What makes this film (whether epic or short) so important to include in a list of films which make up a book called 100 Silent Films?
But not only is the book a great in-depth guide to the history of cinema it is also a fantastic book just to pick up and flick through. It is a great starting block for everyone who wants to know more about silent films but also a key book to own for all us silent film veterans; it is a fantastic piece of writing. Thus making 100 Silent Films one of the most important books to come out recently for all silent film fans (and film fans in general). Frankly, this book is still essential even 10 years on!
A book which has been on our radar ever since historian Ian Christie originally mentioned it to us so many moons ago and wow! The wait has been worth it! What Christie has been able to bring us is not only the life and work of Robert Paul (aka R. W. Paul) but also able to illustrate the world around Paul in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
Establishing the world of the film pioneers is most certainly not an easy task. Especially when there were so many names aiming for the one single objective, to bring (the) film to the world. Within the first few pages of his Robert Paul biography Christie gives us a good sense of where Paul is within this global struggle. But he is also able to clearly highlight the key people and moments that would take us to the point of the invention of film. Those first few pages are a perfect guide and a perfect starting block into the world of Robert Paul.
But it is the insight of Paul’s business (exhibition, manufacturing, filmmaking) that really takes this biography to the next level. The amount of detail that we find out, thanks to Christie’s work, is just incredible. Paul's relationship not only with his fellow exhibitors but also filmmakers, performers and actors is quite incredible; we can, at last, for the first time, put names to the many people we see in front of his camera. Another wonderful aspect that Ian Christie discusses is the importance of certain locations found within Paul's films to Paul himself. Films which you may have seen hundreds of times are given a new lease of life and a new context not only at the way we look at the world of the Victorians and the Edwardians. But also at the way we think of the life and work of Robert Paul.
In fact, you will find yourself grabbing your smart phone to re-watch certain Paul films after reading certain segments (a collection of Paul’s films can be found on the BFI Player). We cannot recommend this book enough!
Another great book that you can just pick up and just flick through, even if it is rather big, is Silent Movies. Wonderfully illustrated with bright colourful film posters and highly detailed photographs.
Peter Kobal‘s book is a rapid non-stop history of cinema from those pioneering years to the final stages of the silent era. The book also delves into over looked areas of the era including the promotional side of the industry and set design. Whether you are a novice or a veteran of silent cinema, this is worth having on your table and with a foreword by Martin Scorsese and introduction by Kevin Brownlow you really can’t go wrong.
Voted best Silent Film Book for 2019 on Silent London’s 2019 Poll, Joseph McBride’s epic biography on German film director Ernest Lubitsch is just a treasure trove for cinephiles. And while the whole of the book is just magnificent, for us, the early stages of Lubitsch’s life and work really comes to life thanks to McBride’s incredibly detailed research.
In the past, Lubitsch’s early life and work is usually covered within a couple of paragraphs, even a chapter if we were lucky. McBride dedicates almost three chapters (over a quarter of the book) to the silent era and takes us through the importance of his early work and how Lubitsch became the great film director we now love.
This is a perfect book to sit alongside McBride’s other amazing films books (Searching for John Ford, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? and Hawks on Hawks). You won’t be disappointed!
If there was a silent film book which should have been published sooner, it’s this one. Edited by Melody Bridges and Cheryl Robson, Silent Women is an incredibly important collection of writing looking at the many aspects of the importance of women within the film industry during the silent era.
Subjects which are covered include a look at the first early women cinematographers, African-American female filmmakers and women producers, writers and directors. We have highlighted this book on a number of occasions since its publication in 2016; it’s actually been on sale at a number of our Silent Women Film Pioneers events over the years. This book will very much open the doors to a very much forgotten history of the silent era. Fingers crossed a second book will be in the works in the future.
As always it is the boutique DVD/Blu-Ray labels which have continued to push the boundaries when it comes to silent films and 2020 was no exception. FLICKER ALLEY, had a very strong start to the year with the release of their fantastic Bolshevik Trilogy They continued with a superb release of both Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews/ 1924) and Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks/ 1924) and we are really looking forward to their 2021 Laurel or Hardy: Early Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy box set release as well.
In the UK, EUREKA's MASTERS OF CINEMA has been flying the flag with a fantastic array of releases including The Son of the Sheik (1926) starring Rudolph Valentino then another key Buster Keaton box set in the shape of Volume 3: Our Hospitality, Go West, College. We then ended up with a run of Paul Leni films with Conrad Veidt starring in The Man Who Laughs (1928) and Leni's earlier film Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks/ 1924) making its very own UK release. While Leni’s final film, The Last Warning (1929) will be joining both titles in early 2021 as well. On top of all of this, you can also pre-order MOC's re-release of the limited edition Buster Keaton Volume 2 box set which includes The Navigator / Seven Chances / Battling Butler. Making 2021 another bumper year for silent film fans, very much all thanks to Masters of Cinema.
So 2020 has been a fantastic year for silent film releases and here are some of our favourites:
Harold Lloyd and that clock not only is a key moment in silent cinema, but one of the iconic moments of American cinema in general. In fact, just like Chaplin’s ‘little fellow’ silhouette, Lloyd hanging off the clock has very much been burned into our public consciousness.
In fact when Bansky’s ‘Well Hung Lover’ mural appeared on a wall in Bristol in 2006 (do check it out), a selection of people thought it was, ‘due to the similarity of the composition of the figures in both images’, some sort of publicity stunt by Slapstick Festival who were screening Safety Last! the very same month the mural had appeared. It wasn’t. But a good idea for the future maybe?
Anyway, back to Harold Lloyd and Safety Last!; a film that could well be the ultimate Lloyd film. It most certainly has the essence of everything that Lloyd always wanted from his films, the longing to thrill an audience. Terrify his audience maybe. You defiantly get that kind of feeling when watching the showpiece of Safety Last! anyhow
But not only do you get a fantastic looking Safety Last! (and music by Carl Davies and Gaylord Carter is great) you also get David Gill and Kevin Brownlow’s fantastic Photoplay documentary series Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius narrated by Lindsey Anderson, a selection of shorts (including 1919’s Young Mr. Jazz (1919), a brand new and a very fun introduction by Suzanne Lloyd. Plus a very informative commentary by Leonard Maltin and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll.
There is a reason why the Criterion Collection have continued to be so successful over the decades when it comes to producing releases like this (as well as Harold Lloyd’s 1928 film Speedy); every one of their titles are worth every penny.
This is the fourth set of Keaton's films in Eureka's Masters of Cinema series, after the well-received complete set of his short silent films, and two past box sets featuring many of his heaviest-hitting features (Volume 1: The General / Steamboat Bill Jr. / Sherlock Jr. and the soon to be re-released box set Volume 2: The Navigator / Seven Chances / Battling Butler).
This new set comprises of Our Hospitality (1923), Go West (1925), and College (1927); three films that are not quite as well known or revived quite as often as the the three in the previous sets, but absolutely as deserving of the box-set treatment that Eureka have given them here, and the bountiful extras to contextualise each film and give added value to each disc.
As before, the source for the features are the latest restorations from Cineteca di Bologna's Keaton Project, so while there are occasional minor variations in the visual quality within each film, we can be pretty certain that, unless someone finds a stash of pristine camera negatives in a vault somewhere, these versions are going to be in the best visual quality we shall ever see in our lifetimes. If you are now used to the camera-negative crispness of the images in The General, then the second- and third- generation dupe negative look of College may be a disappointment, but the film itself will sweep you into the action soon enough… (you can read Mark Fuller’s full SWS review here)
If there’s one Buster Keaton film that’s been neglected over the past years, even decades, then it has to be The Cameraman. Compared to Keaton’s past features his first project for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been crying out for a decent restoration. Screenings which have occurred over the years have either been sourced straight from a 35mm print (fine), from the DVD found on TCM’s Buster Keaton Collection (alright) or a ripped file straight from YouTube (why even bother?) and Home Entertainment hasn’t looked down upon the film with great affection either. Apart from the 2004 exclusive American TCM boxset mentioned above, Keaton’s last true great masterpiece hasn’t donned British shelves since a Warner’s VHS release in 1998! So there is much to rejoice when it comes to The Criterion Collection’s UK Blu-ray release of The Cameraman... (you can read James Harrison’s full SWS review here)
The Man Who Laughs is a film that has haunted me since childhood; 45 years ago I was introduced to it by Denis Gifford in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a book that spent more time in my bedroom than in the Town Library that nominally owned it.
Within, the ghastly grin of Conrad Veidt and the blank mask of Mary Philbin shared a page with Lon Chaney's extraordinary shark-toothed 'vampire' from London After Midnight. But not much information; reading between the lines dear Denis was having to go by contemporary press hoopla; it doesn't seem as if he had the chance to see the film itself. Well, it took me another 25 years to do so... (you can read Mark Fuller’s full SWS review here)
Soviet Cinema has had a hard time over the years. This is mainly due to poor quality produced DVDs and VHS releases. But if any labels really did make an effort, all that energy was always delegated to the most well-known of films in the Soviet canon such as Battleship Potemkin (1926) or Man with a Movie Camera (1929) (we recently ended up getting two releases within the course of a couple of months in fact). There is of course nothing wrong if these well celebrated films; but much more has to be done to showcase the lesser known titles of Soviet cinema.
Thankfully, that approach has begun to change as labels (and even film archives) begin to an interest in other Soviet related silent films; the recent release of Fragments of an Empire (1929) (also Flicker Alley) is a clear example of this. And with Flicker Alley and Lobster Films’ most recent release earlier this year. Also, we highly recommend everyone check out the Kino Klassika Foundation website; it has introduced many of us to even more Russian Cinema than we had ever thought possible. So with Kino and more film titles being released in 2021, it does look like that the tide is now turning at last.
In fact, this Bolshevik Trilogy boxset is just, frankly, stunning. All three Pudovkin films, Mother (1926), The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and the new 2K restoration of Storm over Asia (1928), thanks to Lobster Films, Paris just look incredible. The scores by Antonio Coppola, Vladimir Yurovsky and Timothy Brock are spot and with a great selection of extras including Pudovkin’s directorial debut short Chess Fever (1925) looking better than ever; you really can’t go wrong with boxset.