Live cinema: experimental shorts in Modena

A quick despatch from Italy! It seems that silent cinema finds me wherever I am: I’m currently staying in Modena, Italy, and what should be taking place but an open-air cine-concerto. Therefore, last night I attended the event Anemic Cinema, which presented a selection of 1920s experimental films with live accompaniment. Continue reading

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Previewing Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016


In a week’s time, the 30th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato will kick off in Bologna, Italy—and for the first time, I’m going to be there! It goes without saying that I’m really pumped to be attending—it will be a fantastic opportunity to catch up with friends and take in a lot of wonderful cinema. Below, I take a quick tour through the festival programme.

Pola Negri in A Woman of the World (US 1925)

Pola Negri in A Woman of the World (US 1925)

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In search of Astrea, mysterious ‘strongwoman’ of the Italian silent cinema

Astrea. Postcard from my collection

Astrea. Postcard from my collection

The silent era was something of a golden age for athletic female stars. American serial queens were beloved by audiences around the world—it would be hard to overestimate how popular (and bankable) stars like Pearl White were at their peak. In France, Josette Andriot was the premier French action actress, playing black-bodystockinged detective Protéa in five separate film instalments. Elsewhere in Europe, daredevil acrobats like the Dane Emilie Sannom enthralled audiences with their stunts.

Italy was not immune to the action woman craze: Pearl White was a popular draw, and Danish director Alfred Lind made several action-themed films in Italy, including these two circus pictures, and Sannom’s last film, La fanciulla dell’aria | Mistress of the Sky (1923).

via European Film Star Postcards

Astrea postcards via European Film Star Postcards

But what of the homegrown talent? Of several Italian women who are noted to have performed athletic roles on film, perhaps the most prominent is the mysterious Astrea, who starred in four films between 1919 and 1921. In Greek mythology, Astrea (or Astraea) was the virgin goddess of innocence and purity; there is also a connotation of stardom or diva status to the name. A woman of considerable stature and strength, the actress Astrea was promoted as the ‘female Maciste’,1 playing roles that emphasized her physical power as well as her beauty and elegance. Continue reading

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Stacia Napierkowska on film

La modella IT 1916 Napierkowska (7) SML

Stacia Napierkowska in La modella (1916)

As dancer Marfa Koutiloff in Les Vampires (FR 1915-16), Stacia Napierkowska gave the silent cinema one of its most iconic images: a woman in a black bodystocking and great black bat wings, stretching and swirling as if to take flight. Later, she starred in a genuine blockbuster, L’Atlantide | Queen of Atlantis (FR 1921), playing the eternal and rapacious Queen Antinéa. However, much of Napierkowska’s feature film career took place not in France, but in Italy. Today, I’ll take a tour through Napierkowska’s screen career, with a particular look at two films she made one hundred years ago in Italy: Effetti di luce | Effects of Light and La modella | The Model. Continue reading

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Researching and restoring Universal’s King of Jazz (1930): an interview with James Layton and Crystal Kui

KoJ banner 600px

1930 saw the release of a film that Universal Pictures expected to be a smash hit: King of Jazz, a musical revue starring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. Shot in two-strip Technicolor, King of Jazz featured a grand set-piece in the performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, as well as the first animated Technicolor sequence, a pre-recorded/post-synced soundtrack, and the first screen appearance of Bing Crosby.

James Layton and David Pierce, the team behind last year’s excellent publication The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935, have again joined forces to bring the story behind King of Jazz to the public. As with Dawn of Technicolor, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue will draw upon an extensive body of documentation and visual material to illuminate the film’s origins, production and release, as well as describing the film’s recent restoration. The book is currently the subject of a Kickstarter, to be found here. I spoke with James Layton and Crystal Kui about their work on King of Jazz, with a particular view to the archival research undertaken for this project. Continue reading

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Romance of celluloid: celebrating nitrate film


via George Eastman Museum

Nitrate film: shimmering, unstable, explosive. Very shortly, the second annual Nitrate Picture Show will kick off at George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Billing itself as “the world’s first festival of film conservation”, this festival includes screenings of vintage nitrate prints from George Eastman Museum’s collection and overseas, as well as a lecture series, workshops, and tours of GEM’s facilities. The screening programme is not announced until the day of the festival, but last year’s event included Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (GB 1948); a print of Casablanca primarily printed directly from the original negatives (US 1942); adverts in Gasparcolor; William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (US 1948); and an original dye-transfer print of William Wellman’s Nothing Sacred (US 1937).

One of the big questions for this year is whether any silent films will be screened. In an article published last year, festival technical director Deborah Stoiber expressed a wish to show a silent at the 2016 edition of the Nitrate Picture Show, but as she states, “finding a complete, projectable [silent, nitrate] print is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

The Docks of New York (US 1928)

The Docks of New York (US 1928)

Cellulose nitrate is generally considered the first semi-synthetic plastic, and it is, of course, the first material that was used as a film base. Today, nitrate film is often fetishized, for three main reasons: its inflammability, its chemical instability, and its striking visual qualities. Continue reading

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Silent cinema from the vaults to the world: an interview with film archival scholar Grazia Ingravalle

Film programme, Dryden Theatre at George Eastman Museum: Tribute to Gloria Swanson (May 1966)

Film programme, Dryden Theatre at George Eastman Museum: Tribute to Gloria Swanson (May 1966)

Silent cinema is gaining more prominence and availability than ever before—but how does the work of archives and cinémathèques drive the way we perceive it? Grazia Ingravalle is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland whose work focuses on the exhibition and curatorial practices of film heritage institutions in regard to early and silent cinema. I talked to her about her highly interesting research. Continue reading

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