Silence really is golden

Ridiculed, forgotten, destroyed. It's about time we saluted the British silent film, says Matthew Sweet
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The Independent Culture

In September 1937, a correspondent from the Kinematograph Weekly took his pad and pencil to the premises of HA Gregory and Co, a busy industrial plant near Cheshunt. "This," he noted, "is where they perform the last rites over a large proportion of films that once thrilled thousands but have now ended their useful life." A guide led the man from the Kine through the factory gates and past the tottering mountains of circular tins ranged in the yard. Inside the main hangar, they watched overalled workers prise open these tins and feed their contents, 18 at a time, into the ravenous jaws of the stripping machine. Each year at HA Gregory, 200 million feet of film was liquefied along with other plastic trash - toothless fake tortoiseshell combs, broken spectacles, discarded Xylonite dentures - and recycled into resin to make waterproof paint. Next time you see a Spitfire in a museum, run your fingers over its skin. You might be touching a missing Hitchcock, or a pair of your great-grandmother's false teeth.

Around 80 per cent of our silent film heritage has been lost to reprocessing, fire, fungus and neglect. But despite the richness and vitality of the material that has survived, the pleasures of this cinema are barely known beyond a small circle of enthusiasts. Our silent classics are never screened on television. Most people who write about movies for a living have never seen a silent British film. Academic books on the subject are not overburdened with evidence that their authors have taken the trouble to sit down and view very many of the pictures upon which they pronounce. Indeed, hostility towards our silent cinema has been propagated by some of the very people who ought to have been working hardest to dispel it. A current prospectus for a film studies course run by the University of Dundee, for instance, sums up the first 30 years of British production with five words of ignorant philistinism: "cottage industry stifled by prejudice."

The first half of 2004 will bring several opportunities to find out what they've all been missing. For the next seven weeks, the National Film Theatre will host a celebration of British movies of the 1920s. Audiences will have the opportunity to see the Channel Tunnel blown up by terrorists and the New York skyline pulverised by air-raids in High Treason (1929); observe the matinee idol Ivor Novello in The Rat (1925), slashing the pencil skirt of his dance partner to allow her to wrap both legs around his waist; watch the fur-wrapped glamour queen Ivy Duke in The Lure of Crooning Water (1920), lying in a hammock and teaching a baby to smoke fags. In March, the Barbican will screen a bright new print of EA Dupont's Piccadilly (1929) - a compelling melodrama of multicultural London, starring the shimmering Anna May Wong - with a new jazz score by the pianist and composer Neil Brand. In April, the Broadway cinema in Nottingham will stage the seventh British Silent Cinema Weekend, a festival devoted to pre-1930 films which has been steadily growing since its inception in 1998. By the summer, anybody with a British Film Institute library card will be able to consult an important new collection of documents that will illuminate the day-to-day business of film-making in 1920s Britain - the private production diaries of Henry Edwards, one of the most creative (and unjustly neglected) actor-directors of the period.

Despite the effects of the First World War and ruthless American economic protectionism, Britain's silent years were among the most vital and productive in the history of the industry. British movie studios from Cricklewood to Borehamwood turned out action flicks, weepies, detective serials, avant-garde experiments, period dramas with casts of thousands, satirical animation, lavish science fiction and star vehicles for a generation of screen idols whose fame did not survive the advent of the talkies.

The central figures of this era are long gone. Lilian Hall-Davis, Hitchcock's first leading lady, cut her throat with her brother's razor blade in 1933, turning on the gas stove to make her death doubly certain. Ivor Novello took a final bow in 1951, his public image tarnished by a stint in prison for contravening wartime petrol regulations. Betty Balfour, the googly-eyed, frizzy-haired flapper who delighted 1920s audiences by breaking up marriages and crashing biplanes into the sea, died a recluse in 1977. Henry Edwards, once so celebrated that local newspapers would print the times at which he and his film star wife Chrissie White might be seen motoring through the countryside between public engagements, spent the last decade of his life jobbing cheerfully between character parts, unconcerned that the public had forgotten his contribution to the medium.

A handful of survivors remain, however, to tell their stories. The actress Cora Goffin, 101, can remember hurling herself from a horse on location for Down Under Donovan (1922), and under a red car on the streets of Paris - "the police," she recalls, "turned out to be rather angry to be in a film with no prior permission." The director Ronald Neame remembers belting around the corridors of Elstree, 20 years before he produced Brief Encounter (1945), and watching Hitchcock direct Lilian Hall-Davis on the set of The Farmer's Wife (1928). As a child actor, Jack Cardiff, the Oscar-laden cinematographer of Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), shared a scene with Violet Hopson in Her Son (1920), and can recall the words barked by the director through his long megaphone as the camera cranked away: "Look over to Miss Hopson ... You LOVE her ... SMILE a little ... Take his hand, Violet ... Jackie, look up at her and SMILE..." Joan Morgan, an actress on the brink of her century, can still see, in her mind's eye, the "wonderful light, the sparkling glass" of the Motograph studio, a film facility housed inside Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace at Sydenham, where she starred in films during the First World War.

The journalist Nerina Shute, 95, continues to rejoice in the offence her articles caused to a generation of British film personalities. In 1929 she was a bohemian teenager with a passion for sexual politics and broad-brimmed black hats, who bagged the job of gossip columnist of the fan magazine Film Weekly. Her cuttings books record her visits to the sets of several of the pictures included in the NFT's 1920s season. At Elstree for the filming of High Treason, she observed the director Maurice Elvey as he used special effects to smash Manhattan to smithereens. "How charming an experience," she enthused. "Particularly when considering the scene in which New York is to be bombed and gassed and suffocated and what not - right before our eyes, so that no detail is lost, mind you!" EA Dupont, the director of Piccadilly, was so annoyed by the comments she made about him in Film Weekly that he banned her from the studio floor. (She sneaked back, she recalls, in rabbinical disguise.)

After three quarters of a century, Nerina Shute's memories of her time as Britain's most feared movie gossip columnist have grown hazy. She remembers how Carl Brisson, the muscular hero of Hitchcock's The Ring (1927) plied her with cocktails at the Savoy in a successful attempt to persuade her to throw an approving comment his way. She recalls her easy relationship with Walter Mycroft, a five-foot-nothing hunchback whose career brought him from proto-fascist politics to the post of film critic of the London Evening Standard to a position as production chief at Elstree. She remembers the writs that landed on her desk from actresses who had taken her comments the right way. If someone had taken the trouble to interview her when these experiences were fresh in her mind, we might now have all the juicy details of the behind-the-scenes stories that her editors refused to print. The tradition of critical distaste for British cinema of this period, however, has ensured that such treasures will remain buried forever.

At the South Bank, the Barbican and the Broadway, you'll have your best chance to gaze upon the stars with whom she lunched in the studio canteen; the heroines and heroes of a lost world: Charles Laughton in Piccadilly, eating his way down a restaurant menu with the appetite of Mr Creosote; Ivor Novello in Downhill (1927), as a gorgeously wasted teenage gigolo who slow-dances with middle-aged Parisians for cash; Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929), losing her dignity as she dodges anarchist bombs and bullets on the way to her Ruritanian coronation; Sydney Chaplin in A Little Bit of Fluff (1928), attempting to entertain a midget under the impression that she is a cute little girl, and proving that the comedy of excruciating embarrassment predates Ricky Gervais by seven decades. Plenty to make you catch your breath, and curse the name of HA Gregory.

'Between Restraint and Passion: British Cinema of the 1920s' is at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3223), to 29 February. Matthew Sweet's 'Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema' is published by Faber and Faber in November