There's a tendency to rhapsodise about the lost world
of silent movie going, the prime years of which ran
until the late -1920s. How can one imagine those old
Roxys and Cameos without conjuring them as Last Picture
Shows where Americans learned to yearn, as dime-store
dream palaces where adventure and beauty reigned in
larger-than-life display? Nostalgia, however,
carries us only so far toward understanding the place of
these silent classics in contemporary movie culture.
Sentimental memories may overlook a fundamental point:
popular entertainment is first of all a commercial
culture, created and disseminated for private profit.
Mainstream distributors are unmindful of the huge
dedication that composers still bring to the genre,
breathing new life into classic works by directors such
as Chaplin, Keaton, Eisenstein and Gance. Instead they
regard the screening of silent films as branches of
movie commerce - links, however unique and unusual, in a
chain of motion-picture production, distribution, and
exhibition that encircles the globe.
Most people won’t watch silent films as they think of
the jumpy movements and melodramatic plots, which is
actually not accurate in much early material. There are
many 'silents' that are works of art and need to be
seen, either accompanied by the traditional keyboard
player ‘vamping’ on cinema organ or piano, or by a new
and original score arranged for orchestra.
The current vogue
for silent film screenings accompanied by live music is
truly international. Like opera, it can be done in a
grand space with sixty-piece orchestra, or in a village
hall with an upright piano. In America, old silent
cinemas have been restored and there is growing
enthusiasm, especially among the young, to discover the
classics of the 1920s.
In the UK the phenomenon is concentrated in London,
focusing on the celebrated achievements of Kevin Brownlow’s
Photoplay Productions and a few well-known composers,
such as Carl Davis and Philip Glass (both of whom are
For almost a decade, during the late 1980s and early
1990s, Channel 4 Television supported Photoplay in print
restoration, music commission and live performance at
both The Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican - two of
London’s greatest venues. The revitalised films,
combined with new music, were subsequently broadcast on
Channel 4 - as were new art house movies from Asia,
Europe, North and South America. Sadly, those golden
days of enlightenment are long over. Even Sky’s
Artsworld satellite channel, although dedicated to
promoting the arts in all its forms, hasn’t the
financial resource to support their return.
By contrast, the Netherlands nurtures live music for
silent film. Amsterdam impresarios and regional
orchestras frequently promote the genre. Way back in
November 1982, Leonid Trauberg (1901-1990) came to
Eindhoven to see - for the first time in 53 years - his
film The New Babylon,
by Shostakovich's music.
He told the press it was the happiest day of his life.
Trauberg visited the Netherlands again in 1983 and 1984
during which all surviving pictures he made with
co-director Grigori Kozintsev (1904-1973)
were screened. The performance proved overwhelming for
an established North-Brabant composer, Jo van den Booren.
Having enjoyed worldwide success and a Deutsche Gramofon
recording with his score to Carl Dreyer’s 1928
masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,
van den Booren was looking for another silent film
with similar qualities.
Seeing the illustrious Soviet cinema
Kozinstev and Trauberg’s The Overcoat (1926) - based on
the short story by Gogol - did the trick.
It is not only the enthusiasm of composers and producers
such as Carl Davis and Kevin Brownlow that keeps silent
films vital and alive, but also the zeal of independent
film festival directors and small-time promoters. These
dedicated sleuths reveal that misappropriation and
negligence have been regular failings of many film
companies. La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
was an undisputed product owned by the famous
French production company Gaumont Films. However,
according to Brownlow, the original Gaumont Company
ceased to exist during the last century and a new
company, trading under the same name, simply assumed the
rights to the Dreyer film.
Unlike books, films result from a corporate effort.
In the UK, copyright in a book ends 70 years
after the author’s death, but the law appears somewhat
hazier when applied to makers of films: the
screenwriter, director and producer. Under British law,
the ‘author’ of a film is generally assumed to be the
producer, an interpretation that naturally offends
writers and directors.
The European Community, on the other hand, takes its
lead from France, where the primary author of a film is
the director while others, including the scriptwriter,
can be named as co-authors. Although this practice is
applied to more recent productions, where the provenance
is known, for many films of the silent era the way has
remained open to more imaginative attributions and
the importance of archiving silent films wasn't realised
until often it was too late and many classic films were
either lost for good or survived badly damaged.
There are many reasons for this: due to the high
cost of film, or because after an initial success,
prints were destroyed to save on storage costs. Old
prints naturally became worn and on their re-evaluation
at the arrival of the talkie era, they were considered
worthless. Those silent film companies that didn’t go
out of business frequently found the cost of archiving
films was too high.
the silent era, cellulose nitrate film was used for the
majority of films. It is a highly flammable and unstable
compound, with a life of between thirty and eighty
years. The decomposition of nitrate film cannot be
halted, although in the right conditions, it can be
slowed. Many years ago Universal Pictures melted down a
stash of its silent films in order to salvage the silver
and in 1948 dumped the remainder to free up storage
space for its new films. In a scandal of similar
proportions, all of Samuel Goldwyn’s silent productions
were destroyed to save money on insurance premiums.
Nowadays we look back in horror, realising that film is
an art form, possessing its own history. However, the
destruction of art by other artists is nothing new. Due
to lack of available space, many frescoes completed in
the Early Renaissance were over-painted in a ‘newer’
style. Imagine the outcry if the majority of
impressionist paintings had been destroyed simply
because Cubism had arrived!
Restoring film is quite time consuming, and is best done
if the reel is in 35mm
format. Many of the Charlie Chan movies were declared
lost, but in
2001 Fox found and restored 24 Charlie Chan films produced
Century Fox - including the legendary lost 1929 film
Behind That Curtain.
Some films are just overlooked. When James Mason bought
and lived in Buster Keaton’s old Italian Villa, he found
a hidden room that contained reels of Keaton’s films.
This was a gold mine, as discoveries of old silent films
are rare enough and unless properly stored, degrade
MGM held onto more films than any other company
(although Disney did a pretty good job), and they were
the most thorough of the major studios to transfer
everything photographed on nitrate film to safety stock,
starting a major project to do this in the late 1960s.
The work eventually covered an almost twenty year
period, and cost over $30,000,000. Everything was
converted, no matter how obscure, in this worthy
mission. Unfortunately, some time between 1967 and 1972,
a major vault fire (Vault #7) in Culver City destroyed
many of the films that were awaiting restoration.
There have been countless fires at all vaults owned by
the major studios - both in the movie industry and in
the music industry. Fire sprinklers aren’t much help as
they ruin the materials. Since the 1960s, many new
techniques of storage have been implemented, including
gas extinguishers that withdraw the oxygen. However, It
became so expensive to keep a vault at just the right
temperature and humidity that companies began using salt
mines, which contain these elements naturally. If the
local environment is not compromised, a fire is
unlikely. Fox Studio still owns a salt mine in Kansas
where they store over one million films.
Although every year newspapers report the rediscovery of
a classic, 90 percent of all the silent films ever made
remain listed as ‘lost’. But a film doesn’t have to be
old to be lost or underplayed.
Worse things have happened. Sometimes it has been
‘misunderstood.’ There are still film companies who
undervalue, or simply don’t appreciate, the works of art
stored in their archives.
In 1930 Dmitry Shostakovich was commissioned to write an
original score for the silent film
Odna, (Alone), a realistic feature film, and undoubtedly one of the most
beautiful pictures ever produced by the Soviet-Russian
stars Yelena Kousmina as a very young, bright and happy
Leningrad teacher. Very much against her will she is
told to go to the Altai mountain area, to start a school
for the young children of illiterate shepherds. In the
Altai the community adores her but she experiences
hostility from both the traditional rulers in the
district and the responsible Communist Party
Abducted by a cattle-trader, Kousmina barely survives
the Siberian winter and frostbite when she is lost in
the snow. Villagers rescue the young woman just in time.
She is taken to a hospital in Novosibirsk by a plane but
promises the school children to return to continue her
has a tremendous dramatic quality and a rare emotional
impact even for a Russian film of that time.
Shostakovich's music very much contributes to the film's
passionately emotional appeal.
During the 1941 Leningrad siege the Soyuzkino / Lenfilm
complex was consumed by fire. Three of the Kozintsev and
Trauberg films were completely destroyed along with film
scripts, music, studio material and costumes.
In the mid-sixties the Russian State Film Archive
Gosfilmofond restored the film using different sources.
Apart from a fragment from the last but one act the
whole film could be reconstructed in its original form.
The sheet music from the missing scenes survived,
containing the only music Shostakovich wrote for the
'Theremin' (Termenvox, the earliest electronic musical
instrument, from which a humming sound is produced by
manipulating a radio frequency).
Odna was shot
and Shostakovich had composed his score (for soloists,
chorus, large orchestra) Soyuzkino decided to release
the film with a sound track. It was to be one of the
first Soviet-Russian sound films. Thus the music was
recorded and during post-production a few sound effects
and monologues, usually coming from loudspeakers, were
largely remained a silent film with a music score and
English conductor Mark Fitz-Gerald, in partnership with
Theodore van Houten and Nic Raine have restored the 1930
26) in an initiative of the Dutch Film in Concert
Foundation, authorized by the Dmitry Shostakovich Estate
and the composer's publishers and supervised by
Shostakovich's pupil and biographer, the Polish composer
and musicologist Krzysztof Meyer.
certainly had some success during the brief period of its
original release. However during the first Five Year
Plan it became apparent that the film contained elements
of serious criticism, and doubts about the utopian
communist state. For instance, the character of the
official responsible for sending an inexperienced
adolescent to the outskirts of Siberia identifiably
represents Krupskaya, Lenin's widow. She is only seen
from the rear: the State has no face!
was not distributed, hardly exported and shelved by the
mid-thirties because of its noticeable 'cultural
Films promotes new symphonic scores to accompany classic silent films.
American Movie Classics
helps protect the nation's film heritage with an annual
Film Preservation Festival. In conjunction with The Film
Foundation, a consortium of seven of America's
pre-eminent film archives, AMC has to date raised nearly
Article first published in
Contemporary Review, Oxford, 2003