Book review Napper (2017)
October 2017 – circa 750 words
Lawrence Napper, senior lecturer of King’s College London, published an inspiring introduction to silent cinema as part of the Short Cuts series of Wallflower Press.
On the first pages he states his aim clearly:
“By outlining the historical contexts of their production, and suggesting some interpretative frameworks through which they might be approached, I hope to enable readers to experience these films not as technical or artistic curiosities, but as emotionally fulfilling, pleasurable entertainments in their own right – as audiences of the 1920s experienced them.” (p. 3)
The reconstruction of contemporary audience experiences is presented as part of the perspective of a revisionist film historian. His focus is on three European countries (Germany, Russia and Britain) confronted by the hegemony of Hollywood. In each case Napper gives a brief and well-informed overview of the historical context of the film industry and society at large. It is an excellent recap of relevant commentaries of American and British film historians, supplemented with own insights. In each of these concise overviews Napper discusses the recognized masterpieces but also gives equal attention to the popular films of the period which have been neglected for a long time and therefore became lesser known. The most interesting passages are his descriptions of some of these exceptional silent films, nearly forgotten. He groups them together in interesting combinations.
It is tempting to give a long list of examples. For instance two realistic ‘street wise’ films in Germany: Die Strasse (The Street; Karl Grune, 1923) and Asphalt (Joe May, 1928). Or the German mountain film Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain; Arnold Frank, 1926) set against the French film Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children; Jacques Feyder, 1925), the Norwegian film Brudeferden i Hardanger (The Bridal Party in Hardanger; Rasmus Breistein, 1926), and the Swedisch film Den Starkaste (The Strongest; Alf Sjöberg & Axel Lindblom, 1929).
In the chapter about Russian silent cinema Napper mentions the masterful use of depth in the melodramas of Evgeni Bauer and he compares this with the mise-en-scene of Italian diva films. The intimate and cheerful portrayal of a love triangle in Tretya Meshchanskaya (Bed & Sofa/Three in a Cellar; Abram Room, 1927) is discussed in the context of Soviet film comedies like Potseluy Meri Pikford (A Kiss from Mary Pickford; Sergey Komarov, 1927) and Devushka s Krobkoy (The Girl with a Hatbox/Moscow That Weeps and Laughs; Boris Barnet, 1927).
Meanwhile in Hollywood the studios produced a series of ‘flapper films’ about young women in the Roaring Twenties. It (Clarence G. Badger, 1927, starring Clara Bow) is considered the most legendary of them. But his report on Ella Cinders (Alfred E. Green, 1926, starring Colleen Moore) made me curious. And I can only agree with the highlighting of The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928, starring Marion Davies), because I had the chance many years ago to watch this film live accompanied in a very apt and dynamic way by the Dutch ensemble The Sprockets (repeated in Bologna at Cinema Ritrovato 2017).
His overview of British silent film is informed by the visits Napper made to the British Silent Film Festival in Leicester and his own research resulting in earlier publications. British silent films were long time neglected and even disregarded. Napper argues convincingly that this is unfair because there are also in this case many excellent films to be discovered beyond the established canon. The melodramatic heritage films of Cecile Hepworth for instance could be compared with the work of Yevgeni Bauer and the Italian diva film. And the young Hitchcock was not the only successful director at the influential studio Gainsborough Pictures: Napper mentions Graham Cutts and Maurice Elvey as directors of comparable level. The films of Anthony Asquith have known a revival, thanks also to the availability through the DVD-label of the BFI. Others still wait for this kind of revival, for instance the emigrated Hungarian director Géza von Bolváry.
The book consists of four comprehensive lectures, presenting a balanced survey of a firmly motivated selection of national cinemas. The danger of namedropping is skilfully avoided. It is a pleasure to be guided around. Suddenly you reach the last page, leaving you with an appetite for more. But the available space is regrettably limited. It would have been nice to include also a review of French and Czech silent cinema for instance, and also more reports on the triumphs of restorations, the joy of festival screenings, and the best practices of online fandom. Although many silent films are lost, clearly enough there is still much to be discovered. This publication offers a well-advised starting point.
- Lawrence Napper (2018) Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small. New York/Chicester: Columbia University Press/ Wallflower Press.
Time-line of films mentioned in my review (and their online availability, October 2017)
· Die Strasse (The Street; Karl Grune, 1923) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCd35pF_XeQ
· Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children; Jacques Feyder, 1925) - https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/032349-000-A/visages-d-enfants/
· Brudeferden i Hardanger (The Bridal Party in Hardanger; Rasmus Breistein, 1926) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mv_0FIaRbiw
· Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain; Arnold Frank, 1926) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K12q21dATG8
· Ella Cinders (Alfred E. Green, 1926) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WlowTI6Arc
· It (Clarence G. Badger, 1927) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4MOQSRC_bM
· Potseluy Meri Pikford (A Kiss from Mary Pickford; Sergey Komarov, 1927) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJiDxT7sozA
· Tretya Meshchanskaya (Bed & Sofa /Three in a Cellar; Abram Room, 1927) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lNipP_F4MxI
· Devushka s Krobkoy (The Girl with a Hatbox/Moscow That Weeps and Laughs; Boris Barnet, 1927) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsK4lhubGYE
· The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tr-Ng4LHhCU
· Asphalt (Joe May, 1928) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gu0XTaf-MWo
· Den Starkaste (The Strongest; Alf Sjöberg & Axel Lindblom, 1929).
Recommended additional reading
· Bloemheuvel, Marente et.al. (eds. 2014) Jean Desmet’s Dream Factory: The Adventurous Years of Film (1907-1916). Amsterdam/Rotterdam: EYE Filmmuseum/nai010 Publishers.
· Bronlow, Kevin (1968) The Parade Gone By... London: Secker & Warburg.
· Cherchi Usai, Paolo (2000) Silent Cinema: An Introduction. London: BFI Publishing
· Dixon, Bryony (2011) 100 Silent Films. London: Palgrave Macmillan (BFI Screen Guide).
· Eisner, Lotte (1969) The Haunted Screen:Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt London: Thames & Hudson(translated form the French).
· Gunning, Tom et.al. (2015) Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema. Amsterdam : EYE Filmmuseum/ Amsterdam UP.
· Marlow-Mann, Alex (2013 ed.) Film Festival Yearbook 5: Archival Film Festivals. St.Andrews : St. Andrews Film Studies.
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