Category Archives: 1920s

The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1927)

Martin Harvey 1I’ve finally been lucky enough to see The Only Way, the British silent adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which sadly isn’t on DVD – but is available to see in BFI mediatheques in the UK, and also via the web for universities and colleges and in some libraries. I’ve written to the BFI asking them to release it on DVD and saying that I’m sure a lot of Dickens fans would be interested to see it, but I won’t hold my breath! I wrote a short posting mentioning this film last December during my Dickens season, and posted a great photo of the star, Sir John Martin-Harvey. Some good discussion about the movie followed on, which made me even more determined to see it.

Now I’ve actually bought two photos of him in the role on Ebay and am posting scans of them here – they are both postcards, and I love the fact that, on one of them, someone has written “In sweet remembrance, JOCD.” (Not entirely sure about those initials.) All that is on the other side of the photo is the address, to a Miss D Dennis in London’s Notting Hill. The romantic in me is now wondering if a spurned lover sent this to his beloved, comparing himself to Sydney – or was it one fan sending it to another in “sweet remembrance” of seeing the  play? Or does the ‘CD’ refer to Dickens? Who knows. Anyway, the postcards are clearly from the stage play, which toured Britain for around 30 years, rather than the film, as Martin-Harvey is much younger and not yet knighted.

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The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

This is my contribution to the Gish Sisters blogathon, being organised by  Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures blogs. Please note I will be discussing the whole plot of The Scarlet Letter, both the film and the book.
The Scarlet Letter 9Great Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) is regularly hailed as one of the very greatest silent films. However, The Scarlet Letter, a movie he made just two years earlier with the same screenwriter, Frances Marion, and the same main stars, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, tends to be strangely overlooked. Yet, for my money, his adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel is another masterpiece – and, as with The Wind (which has at least had a Spanish release), I can hardly believe there isn’t a DVD available.

It is about time Sjöström and Gish got the recognition they deserved, and  that both these great films were released on DVD, and preferably Blu-ray too. Sadly, the only way I could see The Scarlet Letter was on Youtube, where the picture quality wasn’t very good – but the film’s astonishing power shone through all the same. (It is occasionally shown on TCM in the USA, but I don’t think it is ever screened on TV in the UK, where I live.)

Portraits by Jenni has also reviewed The Scarlet Letter for the blogathon and her review includes a fascinating account of how Lillian Gish campaigned for the film to be made and how it was her project all the way. I won’t go over all this ground again, but please do read Jenni’s posting.

During filming for MGM, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson acted their parts in English and Swedish respectively – something which was possible in the silent era – but you would never know that by watching. They both give great performances as the heroine, Hester Prynne, and the tortured young clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale, while another fine actor of the era, Henry B Walthall, dominates several scenes as the vengeful Roger Chillingworth. (His name exactly suggests his chilling personality.) Gish  expresses her character’s suffering and passion through her eyes, as she also does in The Wind.

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John Martin-Harvey as Sydney Carton in ‘The Only Way’ (1927)

I’d been hoping to write about the 1927 British silent film The Only Way, based on A Tale of  Two Cities, as part of my series of Dickens postings – but so far I haven’t managed to see this film. The BFI does have it available to watch online but only to registered universities/colleges and libraries – my local libraries are in the process of registering, but this is likely to take a while.

However, though I haven’t managed to see the film as yet, I couldn’t resist sharing this photograph of the film’s star, Sir John Martin-Harvey, as Sydney Carton. He had also played the role on stage many times and there are many striking photos and even paintings of him as Carton online.

the only way

I will hope to write more about this film in future when I finally get a chance to see it!

BFI’s taster for silent Dickens – and lamentations over lost films

Thanks so much to everyone who has shown an interest in my Dickens in December series of postings. I’m getting the impression that quite a few people are particularly fascinated by the silent adaptations – it is amazing to realise that there were around 100 silent films of his works during that era, though many have sadly been lost.

I don’t have all that much time tonight, but thought I’d share a link to the BFI’s taster for the surviving Dickens silent films. This has left me very keen to see the adaptation of  David Copperfield made in 1913 by Thomas Bentley, which is said to be the second oldest feature-length British film (I don’t know what the very oldest was!)  There are a few minutes of footage included on the Dickens Before Sound DVD, but I now really want to see the whole thing.

Luckily, the 1913 British film of David Copperfield does survive complete, although it hasn’t been released on DVD, so I should hopefully be able to get hold of it at some time.

However, there are many other lost or unavailable silents which I would love to see. For instance, a 1914 two-reel version of Martin Chuzzlewit with Alan Hale, so great as a supporting actor in many 1930s Warner films, playing the young Martin – this is said to survive in George Eastman House’s collection, so it may emerge at some time, but it may remain as just a tempting thought. There were also two versions of The Chimes made the same year, now lost, as well as a Hard Times in 1915, a Great Expectations in 1917 – and the list goes on. Another one I’m especially sorry not to get a chance to see is A Tale of Two Cities from 1922, starring Clive Brook as Sydney Carton.  There are plenty of Dickens adaptations which are available and which will keep me busy for ages, but it is sad to think how much has been lost. I’ll once again link to the excellent page at The Bioscope blog which lists all the silent Dickens productions that were made, both those which still exist and those which are gone forever.

Oliver Twist (Frank Lloyd, 1922)

Oliver Twist 1922 1After watching Frank Lloyd’s early silent feature A Tale of Two Cities (1917),  I couldn’t resist taking a look at the second Dickens silent he directed five years later. This one is much better-known, because it has a more famous cast, headed by Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin – and it is also available on DVD (it is the centrepiece of the BFI’s region 2 DVD Dickens Before Sound, and I believe there are other releases too) as well as online. Here’s a link to a Youtube version for anyone who would like to watch it online, but, be warned, the musical soundtrack for this version is extremely repetitive! I’m puzzled by the  poster shown left which mentions a song, but I suppose there must have been one played at the original showings.

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Dickens in December

As a lifelong Dickens obsessive, I’ve been vaguely intending all year to do a series of postings on films based on his books for his bicentenary, but have only got round to a couple of postings, on the 1935 films of David Copperfield and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Now it’s December and, if I don’t get down to it right now, the moment (or the year) will be gone.

Of course, Christmas is always thought of as the season for Dickens (though there was a lot more to him as a writer than that)  - so I’m going to aim to post something about films associated with and inspired by my favourite novelist every day this month. Realistically, I don’t think I will come up with a full-length review every day, but there will be something Dickensian here for those few people who keep faith with my erratic blogging.

dickens before soundTo start off with, let me just recommend the region 2 BFI DVD Dickens Before Sound, which followed on from their fascinating Silent Shakespeare collection. It features some of the very earliest film adaptations of  Dickens, made between 1901 and  the 1920s. Most of the films are very short and focus on just brief incidents from his novels, but they give a feeling of just how well-known and well-loved his works were. I was especially amazed by Gabriel Grub, a series of lantern slides portraying the short story from Pickwick  Papers which was the inspiration for A Christmas Carol.  Also featured are an adaptation of the Carol from 1901, DW Griffith’s version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and more snippets from Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, as well as Frank Lloyd’s full-length silent feature of Oliver Twist from 1922. Of course, Dickens’ voice and use of language are central to his appeal, but he is also a very visual writer, who was interpreted by great illustrators like Cruikshank and Phiz, and adapted for the stage from the very beginning – and these  early films tie in with that.

The Ring (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) – and the BFI’s Hitchcock retrospective

Lilian Hall Davis and Carl Brisson

It’s great that so many classic movies are now available for home viewing – but nothing compares with seeing them as they were made to be shown, on the big screen. So far I’ve only managed to see a relatively small number of older films in this way, but I’ve found they tend to stick in my mind more vividly than those I’ve only seen on TV. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be at the historic Hackney Empire cinema in London for the premiere of the BFI’s (British Film Institute) new restored print of  Hitchcock’s silent boxing/romantic melodrama The Ring, accompanied by music from Soweto Kinch’s jazz band. I won’t write a full review (there are many excellent reviews of this film online, which I can’t add much to) but just wanted to say something about this movie and the BFI’s Hitchcock season. The Ring is one of the ‘Hitchcock Nine’ which the BFI has been busy raising money to restore – his nine surviving silent films. The £2million target to restore all of these with brand new musical scores has almost been reached, and four restored silent  movies are being premiered as part of the London 2012 Festival, but the BFI is not quite there yet and still needs more donations.

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