[08 JUL 2020]: The COVID-19 shutdown has changed film clubs & film appreciation globally. We tuned in for the sixth episode of KBTV to see how silent film gurus Kennington Bioscope have adapted to streaming whilst spending time away from their traditional home, The Cinema Museum. Here’s what we found…
By RADIANT CIRCUS
The lineup for this evening’s programme was music to our ears, a series of short films about filmmaking and cinema-going along with a two-reel western featuring an uncredited Fay Wray. You might have noticed that our RADIANT CIRCUS logo features a Kong roaring away in the background. KING KONG (1933) was one of the films – thanks to an affordable ‘home cinema’ edition on VHS – that kickstarted our love of the movies. Any associated screen event becomes a must-see (well, not Peter Jackson’s bloated, uninspired remake, but you get the point…).
Right from the get-go, Kennington Bioscope’s streaming experience was a rich nostalgia-fest, their pre-show footage of The Cinema Museum a powerful reminder of how much we miss and still stand to lose if this crisis worsens. Seeing lights go up across the venue before the screening, and then down at the end, evoked the spirit of live cinema events – complete with their stage shows and special features – that are still the thing we miss most about gathering in the darkness despite London’s return to regular movie-going at Genesis and Everyman cinemas.
The film programme itself opened with an illuminating introduction from Kennington Bioscope stalwart Michelle Facey, an expert on the many women of silent cinema (you can read PART ONE + PART TWO of our 2018 interview from the RADIANT CIRCUS archive). Michelle’s a friend of ours, so we know she won’t mind us giving her the ‘Elvira of silent cinema’ accolade in our closing comments on the live chat that accompanies every KBTV screening…
Speaking of live chat, this is a feature of streaming that we’ve come to love. It’s like sitting inside a hive mind where instead of hearing fellow cinema goers cough and shuffle, you get to hear their running analysis of the movie, from the curious – “He seems to be wearing some kind of stocking cap as a hairpiece…” – to more in depth conversation about the film itself. Of course you can always ignore this by maximising your screen settings.
Audiences on Wednesday – and ever after in Bioscope’s archived versions of these screenings on their YouTube channel – benefitted from having Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam’s early silent film and nitrate specialist, join the chat. Rongen-Kaynakçi shared her expert knowledge about the first four shorts in the stream that come from their extensive collection.
The four shorts hailed from the estate of distributor Jean Desmet who, Rongen-Kaynakçi explained, “stopped his distribution business around 1916. After that the nitrate prints were never screened again and kept in this attic until his death in 1957”. Eye Filmmuseum also holds “the entire company papers of Desmet’s rental office”. It seems he kept track of every time a print was lent, meaning there’s a full record of where these film reels were shown and how extensively they travelled. These shorts from 1912-1913 were screened “well into 1915-1916 since WWI made it impossible to get new titles”. The 100+ year old movies are incredibly crisp and clear, testament to Eye’s careful preservation and restoration.
What did we see? The delightful shorts included two documentaries UNE PROMENADE DANS LOS ANGELES (1912) about the sights and sounds of LA, and PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE SCREEN SUPPLEMENT (1919), which is a bit like those ‘behind the scenes’ star-studded show reels Pearl & Dean project at the mainstream pictures. The two other dramatic films were ARTHÈME OPÉRATURE (1913), a comedy of errors in the projection booth, and THE PICTURE IDOL (1912) about “a girl in love with a movie star, who follows him everywhere…” complete with a drag denouement.
Inevitably for us, the highlight of the evening was FOUR SQUARE STEVE (1926), a two-reel Universal ‘Mustang’ western featuring Fay Wray from the film collection of Christopher Bird. The film is one of a slate of 52 programme fillers that – according to the expert context provided by Michelle and Fritzi Kramer’s blogging about the film – were marketed as a guaranteed sell to content-hungry exhibitors:
“Full of thrills and punches that the fan seems to want”.Universal Studios poster for their Mustang Westerns series.
We loved the second reel action sequence that goes from a fist fight in a log cabin, to a cross-country chase on horseback, to a cable car climax. Some of camerawork in this sequence is quite incredible as a horse and rider plummet down a steep ravine, or the chase unfolds across the open plains. Kramer’s blog Movies Silently explains how this was achieved using cutting edge camera technology, which you can read more about HERE.
Our final salute of this writeup has to go to the amazing collaboration required to preserve one stunning feature of any Kennington Bioscope production, the live piano accompaniment. Whilst these films might have been digital editions – followers of Bioscope will know their devotion to original projection formats – the piano playing here was mostly live (Colin Sell provided two pre-recorded tracks made earlier in the week). John Sweeney tackled two of the shorts and Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied the Western at a breathtaking pace. Being able to see these expert accompanists play alongside the film – thanks to a mini ‘piano cam’ inserted into the live stream – was simply joyous.
As Michelle explained in her summary, none of this is easy and the process of streaming such unique live cinema events has become all-consuming for the volunteer team. Kennington Bioscope’s passion for the promotion and preservation of the silent cinema experience is remarkable, ranking them amongst our most treasured ’screen idols’ on London’s alternative cinema scene. It’s wonderful to see them finding a global audience for their online events but we can’t wait to see them back in person at The Cinema Museum.
If you haven’t been to a Kennington Bioscope show, or are curious about silent cinema, tune in for the next episode of KBTV on 22 JUL 2020 at 19:30. And don’t forget to binge the boxset of all previous episodes on Kennington Bioscope’s YouTube channel.
> Support Kennington Bioscope by donating to their Ko-Fi fundraiser.
Main featured image: THE PICTURE IDOL (1912) from Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
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