SPECIAL FEATURES #2 – PART 2: Michelle Facey talks women in silent cinema
In our continuing series of interviews with London’s independent curators, Michelle Facey of Kennington Bioscope talks about film legend Kevin Brownlow, her programming passions and her research into the many amazing women in silent cinema.
In the second part of our interview, Michelle Facey of Kennington Bioscope talks about film industry legend Kevin Brownlow, the development of her programming passions at The Cinema Museum and her important research into the many women of silent cinema, both in front of and behind the camera.
> Read the first part of our conversation with Michelle here.
Michelle will next be introducing Kennington Bioscope’s screening of THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS aka Fiaker No. 13 (1926), directed by Michael Curtiz (13 JUN 19:30, The Cinema Museum). A programme of silent shorts from the collection of Bob Geoghegan will get things started.
Links and more after the interview.
Kevin Brownlow celebrates his 80th birthday this year. He’s such a pivotal name in silent film. Can you say a bit about him?
Where do I start?! He is a filmmaker and editor, a film preservationist and collector, a formidable researcher, and an Honorary Oscar winner for his work in saving and promoting silent film. He is behind the restoration of the major 1927 epic silent film NAPOLEON, which has now been released in a BFI DVD or Blu-ray package. This has been his lifelong passion from when he was a boy and which is pretty much the film that started him on his journey, following on from being at school and their monthly treat being to see film projected, and it was silent films that they were shown. Then he started to collect film. When he was a teenager in the ‘50’s he was already collecting the 9.5mm home movie version of NAPOLEON. The British Film Institute knew about this and Abel Gance, the director, turned up at the BFI one day and they rang Kevin’s home and said “You need to get Kevin down here. Abel Gance is here…” Kevin’s mum rang his school and he took himself down to the BFI and met Gance. It’s pretty extraordinary!
So that was a big moment for him. He wanted to right the wrong of the neglect, sidelining and denigration of silent film in film history and he appreciated that, obviously, silent film participants, whether in front of or behind the camera, were soon going to run out of time and their stories needed recording and logging. And this is where his book The Parade’s Gone By… came about, with interviews and the story of various aspects of silent film, mainly American, but some European as well, which is a really valuable document.
Then, in the late seventies, he made the important HOLLYWOOD series for Thames Television: a 13-part documentary, interviewing writers, cameramen, stuntmen, actresses, actors, directors, whoever he could get hold of who were well placed to tell the story of silent film in Hollywood. Unfortunately, that series isn’t available on DVD because of rights issues, but it is on YouTube, as is another essential documentary of his, CINEMA EUROPE: THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD. He’s made various other wonderful films too about Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton plus his own feature films.
The Kennington Bioscope is very lucky to enjoy Kevin’s involvement. It’s been wonderful for the group and for the audience to get to see prints from his collection and also for him to share them with us so regularly and to benefit from his knowledge in planning and to hear his introductions. He’s still full of ideas and full of enthusiasm and it’s a joy to have him with us.
I knew some of that but hearing his biography being put together is fascinating. We spoke in the first half of our interview about how your love of silent film also developed when you were a teenager and how you later started going to the Kennington Bioscope. How did your own programming develop?
Alongside being a faithful attendee of the Kennington Bioscope in its first year when it was on fortnightly – I never missed one! – I was reading about silent film and starting to attend other silent film events. I’d also joined Amran Vance’s London Silent Film meetup group, which was a lot of fun. Amran had become involved with the Kennington Bioscope. Within that group, I got to meet some like-minded people, attend events where we could talk about the films afterwards and start to build up a bit of a network within the silent film community.
After a year of attending the Kennington Bioscope, I said that I would really, really like them to show – and could I possibly introduce it? – Lubitsch’s DIE PUPPE, The Doll. They’d shown another film which starred Ossi Oswalda, THE WOOING OF EVE and I really enjoyed her performance in that. I’d bought the Lubitsch in Berlin box set by Eureka, Masters Of Cinema, and I just absolutely fell in love with DIE PUPPE and her other work – she’s just such an exuberant actress and personality. You felt like she could be your friend. She’s really, bubbly and funny and an excellent comedian. They let me put it on.
I wrote a kind of ‘silent debutante’s’ intro explaining who I was and my passion for the Kennington Bioscope and explaining my feeling about the film and about Ossi Oswalda. That seemed to go down well. Another year went past of attending the Bioscope and then in 2015, they asked me to join the Bioscope officially… they’d had a meeting and it had been proposed…
It’s sounding more like a cult than I thought it was, but I quite like that…
[Laughs] The cult of silents! It can seem a bit like that sometimes, I suppose! So, they asked me to join the Ken Bio committee and in the couple of years since then I’ve got in to the whole seemingly mysterious process of going to the BFI research film viewing booths in the basement at Stephen Street, which I’d heard the collectors and historians often talk about. Now I’ve done it a few times myself and I know how to thread the film up on the Steenbeck, it’s thrilling. It’s thrilling to be able to run and watch a 35mm film or a 16mm film yourself and then say, “I’d like to put this on and show it to an audience.” Then to research around the film and put together something hopefully of interest to people.
The first film on celluloid I’d really wanted to show was THE MAN WHO LAUGHS 1928, taken from the Victor Hugo novel, starring Conrad Veidt, directed by Paul Leni. I’d asked Kevin, in early 2015, in a fish and chip shop in Ealing…
Where all the best deals are done…
Absolutely! [laughs]… if he had a copy of the film. It turned out he did: he had a 16mm of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS and the next year it got programmed into a silent film weekend at The Kennington Bioscope. Kevin presented it, and I wrote an essay about the film that went into the festival programme notes package. Longer than normal programme notes… I’m not known for keeping it short!
Then I programmed a couple of things that I wanted to show to people in a silent comedy day and that’s when I really started to focus more on the women of silent film. That’s become a real passion, to uncover or shine a light on hidden or forgotten women or women that haven’t been featured particularly. Sometimes the male co-star overshadows them or whatever – and to uncover things about them and focus on them instead. People have told me that through this way they’ve noticed performances they’d overlooked before or been introduced to female performers they weren’t aware of.
For that comedy event I highlighted Martha Sleeper and Dorothy Devore. I wanted to talk about Martha Sleeper because I really liked her and wanted to show one of the comedies that she was in with Max Davidson, called PASS THE GRAVY, which is just hilarious. She does some wonderful stuff in it and she’s a very fascinating lady in herself. And I wanted to talk about Dorothy Devore who was a big star of comedy films. She’d made – following on from Harold Lloyd’s SAFTEY LAST – another thrill-picture called HOLD YOUR BREATH. That has her hanging off window ledges and flag poles and all sorts of stunts. Harold Lloyd appreciated the film himself and then he paid homage to her film later in a one of his called FEET FIRST. I like the way things feed into each other and that’s one of the things I love about the research is joining the dots of who made things, who starred in them, the people behind the scenes and how they can relate to each other at different times.
How accessible is that information? Where are your main sites of research to piece it together?
Contemporary magazines are essential to me. They are absolutely absorbing and are available online through Lantern – the search engine for vintage movie magazines – or available through the BFI Reuben library on microfiche.
Are these primarily audience-facing publications or industry-facing publication?
Both. Exhibitors World, The Film Daily and all sorts of exhibition journals as well as fan magazines. You get a nice insight as to what exhibitors and reviewers are saying about films, the promotion given to and by theatre owners and distributors and then, of course, the fan magazines where you get wonderful pictures and snapshots of publicity campaigns and the backstory about the actors and actresses, what they think about the film they’re making or they’d just made, and announcements about productions or deals done. Plus, wonderful features on film writers, and so many of those being female. They’re so valuable. I get a lot of information from them.
It’s fascinating what you’re saying about women on and behind screen. Obviously, there’s a movement today that is forcing our awareness, finally, of the need for equality and equivalence. But actually, women played many equal and prominent roles in the film industry in the past and this is often overlooked. Looking into the contemporary coverage of silent films that you’ve studied, was there equivalence? Because history has mainly given us the men…
Oh yes. There have been several projects and individual historians working alone and also coming together to uncover the histories of women in silent film. They were much, much more prominent than was once thought. The statistics vary on it, so I won’t settle on any figures, but it is still very notably a phenomenally higher figure than it is now for contemporary film. That difference is really marked in the transition from silent to sound which saw a lot of women pushed out of the industry. The histories of female directors are still being uncovered and told, whether it be Alice Guy-Blaché or Lois Weber or Nell Shipman or Dorothy Arzner who went into the sound era as well. Also, June Mathis and Anita Loos were well-paid, famous, highly respected screen writers. And there were many more. Their names attached to films were certainly a selling point.
And women writing about film. You know, there are lots of female writers in the magazines. Adela Rogers St. Johns for one, who Kevin interviewed in the HOLLYWOOD series. She was a prominent writer about film and stars and also wrote scenarios for film. There were many more. There was a wealth of women. There’s a wonderful site, the Columbia University Women Film Pioneers project, which is in the business of cataloging and making available to the public online historiographies of female silent film participants from all aspects including female editors.
I went to see THE MYSTERIOUS LADY, a Greta Garbo film, at the Royal Festival Hall fairly recently with Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonic. Greta was the big female star, obviously, but also the editor was a woman. The scenario writer was a woman. The title writers were women. The story treatment and continuity person was a woman. That was a big female contingent. It was great to see their names coming up on the screen in a major MGM production. It does provide a fairly sharp contrast to now.
When I did my research for our Silent Western Saturday last year, I started to uncover the story of one of Alice Guy-Blaché’s actresses, a young girl called Vinnie Burns. Alice Guy-Blaché trained her as a stunt woman. She made many films with her. I was reading in the contemporary magazines her accounts of doing stunts. She did suffer some injuries. She was a plucky girl.
Researching about the women in silent westerns, there were a lot of them… You wouldn’t have thought there were because western films, from the talkie period onwards, pretty much – there have been some exceptions, whether it be BAD GIRLS or things like that – have been very heavily male dominated. But there was a plethora of female-led Westerns and serials. Texas Guinan was a big star and we showed another of her films recently, which always go down really well with the audience. I’ve found lots of images – and I’ve only scratched the surface really – of women in their suede fringed skirts, holding big guns, riding horses, doing stunt work and generally saving the day in silent films.
For one of the films that I showed, THE SUBSTITUTE, which was a Lubin film from 1916, none of the cast and crew were known. There’s nothing on the IMDb or on the AFI website, even though the film is on there: no cast, no crew, nothing known about who was in it. But using those contemporary magazines I managed to find the writer of the film, from a tiny piece on her having changed her job at Lubin from being the editor of the in-house company magazine to being a scenario writer, and the piece just happened to coincide with when she’d written the scenarios for a few films with one of them being THE SUBSTITUTE. There was a beautiful picture of her – Lillian M. Rubenstein – and it was so exciting when I found her picture in the magazine: I said, “Hello, Lillian!” Just suddenly you feel like you’ve met someone from the past. And it was just a little thing, but you’ve uncovered one person. And their work is going to spring to life again on the screen. I was happy that she was a woman and that she’d written this really lovely little silent film, a rescue story set in a telegraph office on a railway featuring an engaging lead role for a woman.
Wow. This is how we reappraise the past, isn’t it? By revealing individuals? That must have been a beautiful moment to see that face. Looking back at you.
Yeah. Kevin bought me a celebratory drink! [… laughter]
There’s a beautiful Pamela Hutchinson quote from one of her tweets, which was about how you can work your way diligently through someone else’s idea of the canon, but there’s much more joy in following your own “weird path”. Has the process of exploring, unearthing, re-examining and promoting women in all aspects of the silent film industry become your “weird path” through silent film history, or would you define your exploration of silent film in a different way?
No, I think that probably is my weird path. I enjoyed the research so much for the Silent Western Saturday, my Women Out West programme, that I overran massively…
Because every night I was researching in the lead up, I was just finding out more and more and more, particularly about Vinnie Burns, and ran out of time to edit it down. There was so much out there, particularly in the contemporary mags, and I just wanted to share it. I was so desperate to share it with everybody. I was at the podium and I was thinking I really should cut the next two pages and then a little something in me just said “no, just do it, do it.” And you know, people were very positive about that programme and what I’d found and how it came across. They seemed to have liked what they heard and about what I’d found. That encouraged me.
Do you have a sense of where your path stretches out in the future? Do you know where you want to go next?
There’s no grand plan. I’d like to present more though, certainly. Or to write for some publications. Hopefully, as long as The Cinema Museum is there – God willing – I will carry on with the Kennington Bioscope, sourcing films which appeal to me, and have a spirit about them. Repertory film programmers have a fairly personal relationship with the films that they show. I think it says something about them and I have alluded to that in my introductions, that I identify somehow with the female protagonists in the films. Not in reality, because I’m not a dancer in a cabaret or going to be shinning up a telegraph pole to save the day… But there’s a feistiness and a sense of personality, agency and autonomy about these often really pioneering women, that I aspire to identify with. I hope to carry that forward and give some more of the hidden women or forgotten women of silent film a voice, to talk about them and to bring them to people. I think that’s a great pleasure.
… and that’s the meat of it.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Michelle will be introducing Kennington Bioscope’s screening of THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS aka Fiaker No. 13 (1926), directed by Michael Curtiz (13 JUN 19:30, The Cinema Museum). A programme of silent shorts from the collection of Bob Geoghegan will get things started.
- You can read the first part of our interview with Michelle where she talks about how her love for silent film spawned in the likeness of Louise Brookes here.
- A prodigious presence on Twitter (@best2vilmabanky), Michelle is also the voice of the Kennington Bioscope (@kenbioscope), so be sure to follow her there too!
- You can keep up with Kennington Bioscope’s activities online and discover more treasures of The Cinema Museum – including how you can support the campaign to save it – here.
- Discover more silent film with the specialist listings for silent cinema – both ancient and modern – for UK & Ireland, Silent Film Calendar.
- Buy Napoleon [Blu-ray] at the big river (all purchases made through RADIANT CIRCUS help us build & grow).
Featured image: Lili Damita, star of the THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS aka Fiaker No. 13 (1926) which screens at The Cinema Museum (13 JUN 19:30).