This list of essential British silent films is, above all, a testament to the power that “home video” has had to rewrite movie history. A couple of early Hitchcocks notwithstanding, the silent British cinema has never figured prominently into any official versions of the story of early motion-picture development. Fortunately, the efforts of numerous film institutions and preservation foundations have in more recent years seen to the restoration and re-release of many important silent British movies. (the story broke only a couple of months ago that an important British silent, George Pearson’s Love, Life and Laughter, was discovered in Amsterdam — proving yet again how notions of film history evolve with the vicissitudes of fate.) Below are nine eye-opening personal silent British favorites that I consider well worth any movie buff’s time.
Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon (Kenyon/Mitchell, 1900-1913)
This is not a feature film but rather a series of brief documentary shorts of Edwardian England that were put out as a DVD anthology approximately 100 years after their initial release. Originally produced between 1900 and 1913, the movies of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were advertised as “Local Films for Local People” and screened at town halls and local fairs across the U.K. by itinerant showmen. A kind of Anglo-equivalent of the earliest films of the Lumiere brothers, the Mitchell and Kenyon shorts are mostly one-shot actualities that delightfully show how English men, women and children lived, worked and played in the early 20th century. These are invaluable documents of a now-vanished era, particularly interesting for what they reveal about fashion sense, social interactions and how the subjects vibrantly but unselfconsciously “perform” for the camera. Culled from 28 hours of footage, the superbly curated 85-minute “Electric Edwardians” DVD features an enlightening audio commentary by one Vanessa Toulmin and was released by the BFI in the U.K. and by Milestone Films in the U.S. Unmissable for lovers of what historian Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions.”
The Epic of Everest (Noel, 1924)
“Since the beginning of the world men have battled with Nature for the mastery of their physical surroundings. Such is their birthright, and such is their destiny.” So reads a quintessentially British — and vaguely imperialist — opening title card in this mesmerizing documentary from explorer/filmmaker Captain J.B.L. Noel. Newly restored and released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, this masterpiece is the official record of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine’s ill-fated 1924 attempt to scale the world’s highest mountain. The film’s focus, refreshingly, is not on the personalities of the men involved but on the arduous task of mountain-climbing itself; most of its power stems from shots of wee man, often not more than a black speck on the horizon, crawling all over the overwhelmingly indifferent, ice-capped peaks of Mount Everest. Some of Noel’s astonishing montage sequences feature shots where the most dramatic thing happening is the way drifting clouds cast shadows over mountaintops, images that resemble moving paintings in their abstract beauty. The best such scene is arguably the last, after the two men spearheading the trek have perished; the final images of Everest, tinted blood-red, conjure up the futility of their mission with an almost unbearable poignance.
The White Shadow (Cutts, 1924)
One of the great recent stories of the discovery of a film previously thought to be lost is the 2011 unearthing of Graham Cutts’s silent British melodrama The White Shadow from a New Zealand archive. The discovery sparked worldwide interest mainly because the movie was a formative work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock (who wrote the script and also functioned as set designer, assistant director and editor). Although Hitch wouldn’t make his own feature directing debut until the following year, it’s surprising how much his artistic DNA seems to be all over this (e.g., Expressionist lighting effects, a “doppelangger” motif, and a plot revolving around mistaken identity). Betty Compson excels in a dual role as twin sisters — one naughty, one nice — both of whom become romantically involved with an American tourist (Clive Brook) who is unaware that they are, in fact, the same person. Unfortunately, the last three reels of the film are still missing and so it ends in the middle, right when all of the characters have congregated at a seedy Parisian nightclub named “The Bohemian Cat” — the kind of joint in which Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang would have been at home. But a synopsis fills us in on the conclusion, which apparently involved a mystical transfiguration between the sisters. Cinephiles should be grateful for what exists, however, for an important, previously missing piece of the Hitchcock puzzle is now firmly in place.
Hindle Wakes (Elvey, 1927)
My favorite silent British film of all is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play about mill employee Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her leisure-time adventures during “Wakes Week,” a traditional week-long holiday for factory workers and students in Lancashire. This is the most shockingly progressive silent movie I’ve ever seen in terms of how it portrays gender relations: Fanny has a tryst with the mill owner’s son who is engaged to be married to another, more respectable woman. The film’s sympathetic — and casual — treatment of a woman engaged in a pre-marital sexual relationship, and the way it attacks the hypocrisy of how society views the behavior of single men and women, makes the tone feel strikingly modern. (Also modern is an utterly sublime ending that suggests the resilient heroine will survive and endure.) But the progressiveness of the film’s content is also impressively matched by its innovative form: a scene taking place at an amusement park that uses extended point-of-view shots of characters on carnival rides is as cinematically breathtaking as any similar scenes in more well-known silent masterpieces like Sunrise, Lonesome and Coeur Fidele.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Hitchcock, 1927)
One of the most delightful home video surprises of this decade was the UK label Network’s sensational Blu-ray disc of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger. The master of suspense’s first thriller was originally released in 1927 and the Blu-ray was based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it was until viewing the BFI’s restoration. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous Blu-ray package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Bernard Herrmann-esque score.
Underground (Asquith, 1928)
In recent years, the British Film Institute in particular seems to have spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of silent British cinema in general, which I’ve been delighted to find is of interest beyond the earliest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock. One of my most pleasant film-related surprises of the past year was discovering the great silent movies of Anthony Asquith, an English director better known for his less-exciting sound-era work. BFI’s home video division released a revelatory Blu-ray of Asquith’s second film, 1928′s Underground, last June. The plot, a love triangle between a shop girl, a nice-guy subway worker and a douchebag power-plant employee, allows Asquith to indulge in some wondrous cinematic conceits — including astonishingly fluid crane shots during a protracted climactic chase scene — and offers a fascinating, documentary-like glimpse of “ordinary” Londoners from a bygone era besides. The image has been painstakingly restored (as evidenced by a short doc included among the extras) and the new orchestral score by Neil Brand sounds brilliant in a 5.1 surround-sound mix. Hopefully, a Blu-ray release of the same director’s even better A Cottage on Dartmoor, a late silent from 1929, will not be far behind.
Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)
Alice (Anny Ondra), the girlfriend of Scotland Yard Inspector Frank (Johnny Longden), agrees to meet another man, a young artist, behind her inattentive boyfriend’s back. After the artist attempts to rape her, Alice kills him in self defense but refuses to confess to the crime. Frank is assigned to investigate the case and figures out the truth but the pair soon find themselves being blackmailed in exchange for their silence. This was originally released in silent and sound versions, making it both Hitchcock’s last silent and his first talkie. The latter version features a much-acclaimed experimental employment of sound and dialogue (in particular during the famous “knife” sequence) but I think the silent version trumps it as an elegant work of purely visual storytelling. Hitch’s effective use of real London locations, especially the climactic chase through the British Museum, prefigures the director’s celebrated use of iconic American locations later in his career. The silent version was restored, along with the eight other surviving Hitchcock silents, by the British Film Institute in 2012.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Asquith, 1929)
This unique and incredibly dynamic film pulls out every cinematic trick in the book to tell the tragic story of Joe (Uno Henning), a barber’s assistant, who is sent to prison after using a razor to menace another suitor to the object of his affection, manicurist Sally (Norah Baring). The story plays out in flashback as the love triangle is remembered by Joe, who has escaped from prison and is making his way to the cottage in Dartmoor where Sally now lives with her husband and child. Director Anthony Asquith’s command of visual storytelling in this late silent, arguably more advanced than what Hitchcock achieved in the same era, is incredibly sophisticated — light and shadow, striking close-ups, and rapid-fire editing are all used to establish a poetic mood and sustain a suspenseful tone. The film’s undisputed highlight, however, is also its most lighthearted scene: the main characters go on a date to the movies to see a double-feature of a silent comedy followed by a “talkie.” A montage of faces in the audience watching the latter in stunned silence (undoubtedly meant to express Asquith’s displeasure with the new technology) is a poignant commentary on one of the most important transitional periods in cinema’s history.
Piccadilly (Bennett, 1929)
Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to achieve movie stardom, although she’s better known today for her iconic visage (and pageboy haircut) in still photographs than for any of her actual performances, which tended to be supporting roles and “dragon lady” villains. The best showcase for her acting talent is not a Hollywood film at all but the 1929 British production of Piccadilly. The story concerns a love triangle between a nightclub owner (Jameson Thomas) and two of his employees — a dancer (Gilda Gray) and a dishwasher (Wong). Wong’s character, “Shosho,” makes a dazzling early impression in a sequence where she dances on top of a table in a restaurant kitchen and, much like Sessue Hayakawa in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, undeniably goes on to steal the show even though she’s ostensibly not the lead. The melodramatic courtroom finale is a little too twist-filled for its own good but the direction — by German filmmaker E.A. Dupont (who had earlier made Variety, one of the masterpieces of the Weimar-era German cinema) — is consistently lively, expressive and fluid.