Dan Carrier has a few words with a champion of the wordless movie, film historian Kevin Brownlow
02 March, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Albert Dieudonné in Napoléon
They could be found on dusty shelves in junk shops and cardboard boxes stacked in film libraries. They were considered at the time a little like how we look at a VHS film today: but for the young Kevin Brownlow, the 9.5mm reels contained magic.
Kevin, a renowned film historian based in Belsize Park, is presenting the outstanding silent film The Signal Tower at the Primrose Hill Community Library next Tuesday, March 7. Made in 1924, it includes a live piano accompaniment – and introducing it is a man who has spent a lifetime fascinated by the early years of film.
Kevin was given a projector by his parents as a child and he began collecting 9.5mm reels. They had been produced in that format for the home movie market and were being abandoned as TV took over.
“When, aged 11, I had been given a projector, the only films available to me were silent films so I found myself immersed in a rarified atmosphere of a forgotten art,” he writes in a book about the Abel Gance masterpiece, Napoléon, which Kevin has spent the best part of five decades restoring to the director’s original vision.
“As small boys become experts on stamp collecting or locomotives, so I became an expert on the films of Douglas Fairbanks Snr or the Vitagraph Corporation of America.”
This trawling for films to screen at his childhood home in Swiss Cottage led him to uncovering Gance’s Napoléon – and he was captivated by what he saw.
He was 15 and had been sent two reels from a film library in Bromley and he recalls the day he first saw them – January 18, 1954 – and was mesmerised.
“It was like a masterly newsreel of the 18th century,” he writes.
But he only had two of six reels, so spent his time searching out the others. He eventually tracked down enough to screen 90 minutes of the film, set to an orchestral accompaniment from gramophone records.
Kevin also started researching the story behind the film, curious as to why such a big-budget, technically brilliant film should have been so roughly cut on release, and its place in film history so neglected.
In his book, he describes how Gance had to negotiate huge financial and technical obstacles – but the results were stunning. Filmed between 1925 and 1927, it came in at lengths reported as being between six and nine hours long, to be released in feature-length episodes, and was well received when it was first screened in Paris.
But despite this, it suffered from disastrous re-cutting by both French and American studios.
“The film was so far ahead of its time that it seemed set to become the most famous film ever made, and to sweep the markets of the world,” he explains.
But when it was eventually shown in other countries, it was a different film – “it had suffered a mutation,” he says, describing the act as “a masterpiece of ineptitude”.
Abel Gance, director of the 1927 masterpiece Napoléon
“Crowds no longer stood and cheered. They seemed confused and bored. In America, it was a fiasco. It was accorded a status of ‘just another movie’ and one that would lose a great deal of money for its backers.”
The birth of the film was not straightforward. Controversies included a French film director using German money so soon after the First World War to help finance the project about a national legend. Then there were the extraordinary lengths Gance went to to shoot scenes with absolute authenticity.
The book also describes how Kevin reconstructed the film to honour Gance’s vision, and his campaign to have it shown once more.
Over the years, he managed to piece together the original version and it has now been shown across the UK this year after being screened to great acclaim at the Royal Festival Hall.
Kevin has been a standard bearer to preserve the history of this most popular form of contemporary culture, a medium that has changed how we see the world – for the silent film has been treated horrendously by the very companies one would have expected to celebrate their roots.
“When sound came in, Hollywood studios saw silents as obsolete merchandise and wanted to clear them out,” he says. “They’d load reels on barges and drop them overboard in the deep water off San Pedro. A lot of films were lost to chemical decomposition. They were all printed on flammable stock, and Fox lost most of their silent pictures when prints exploded in a warehouse in New Jersey in 1937.
“Universal junked their silent material. People at the time simply did not realise the value of these films.”
Today, the appreciation of the silent era is growing. “Silents are full of surprises. Almost every technical advance we know today took place in the silent era, except for CGI,” Kevin says. “They were often shown with a full orchestra playing the score. They are fantastically entertaining. There are, of course, lots of bad ones, but the best are breathtaking, well acted and with wonderful production values. They were made with real care.”
And today films like The Artist, which celebrates the period, have introduced a new generation to the genre. “Going to the movies should once again become a theatrical event,” Kevin says.
• Kevin Brownlow will introduce the screening of The Signal Tower on Tuesday March 7 at Primrose Hill Community Library, Sharpleshall Street, NW1 8YN, at 7.30pm. £8, including glass of wine. Tickets, up to two per person, from the library (on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) or on the door. www.phcl.org