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It's the reel thing

PUBLISHED: 17:01 11 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013

Steamboat Bill Jr

Steamboat Bill Jr

The golden age of silent film is glorified through the Electric Silents festival at the Electric Palace cinema in Harwich this month. Jenny Smith explains the lure of these powerful movies

MARRIONETTE-STYLE figures rush around their flickering sepia-tinged frame madly gesticulating at some unseen foe, as cascading minor chords signal mortal peril.


Such is the stereotype of silent cinema, but one that is soon to be dispelled at the four-day film festival at the Electric Palace cinema in Harwich which runs from May 7.

Electric Silents, the inaugural film festival at the Electric Palace, has prompted a worldwide response in recognition of the enterprising nature of the project. Live musical accompaniments - including Stephen Horn's new composition for A Cottage On Dartmoor - will feature alongside the restored film prints festival programmer Carolyn-Ann Ford has secured on special loan from the film museum in Amsterdam, the National Archive, the British Film Institute and the private collection of film historian Kevin Brownlow. Kevin will also give a key note presentation on the closing day of the festival.


Visual poems
The choreographed acting style, coupled with expressionist locations and atmospheric music, transform these moving photographs into an almost balletic spectacle of emotion which transcends spoken narrative. For Carolyn-Ann these films are, 'visual poems' which render modern cinematic offerings bland.

'Silent films radiate a dream-like quality, akin to reverie,' explains Carolyn-Ann. 'There is no dialogue or special effects to encroach upon the visual mood; these films stay with you. Creativity and technical experimentation were the order of the day. The moving image - which was to become the motion picture - was born.'

For modern audiences, experiencing these films in the 1911 purpose-built environment of the Grade-II listed Electric Palace cinema provides an opportunity to witness the full and authentic spectacle, without treading the sentimental path of history. Carolyn-Ann adds: 'The festival is not about nostalgia for these films or indeed the era, but rather providing a new experience for film-goers of all ages.'


Love and rivalry
Following an opening night screening of Alfred Hitchcock's tale of love and rivalry, The Ring, Electric Silents revels in an exploration of melodrama and talks on the works of inspired filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon, Arthur Melourne-Cooper and Cecil Hepworth. The Master Mystery, stars escapologist Harry Houdini as a government agent on the trail of a group of villains who attempt to stall his investigation through a series of traps prompting thrilling escapes by the protagonist. A rare episode of 1913 French serial Fantomas follows a master criminal in his campaign of robbery and blackmail against high-society and concludes the first day of the festival.

Mystery, action and adventure are just three of the genres which characterised early cinema. During the festival, tales of jealousy, spurned love and passion such as Piccadilly and A Cottage On Dartmoor, are set alongside the Arabian Nights-based animation The Adventure's Of Prince Achmed and the slapstick comedy Steamboat Bill Jr. The piece de la resistance of the festival is FW Murnau's Sunrise. This story of a farmer ensnared by city femme fatale Margaret Livingston explores the themes of lust, remorse and redemption as Murnau follows the husband and wife on a journey to rediscover their love, qualifying the film's subtitle, 'A song of two humans'.

Originally displayed as carnival entertainments and acts within vaudeville theatres, cinema began as short slice-of-life episodes capturing everyday occurrences on film. The novelty and strangeness of witnessing a recording of something real, played back to you on a screen is a concept we take for granted, but its was groundbreaking as recently as a 100 years ago.


Pioneering work
The captivating nature of live music heightens the on-screen emotion in a way a soundtrack never could achieve. In our digitalised era it is misconceived that these films were slow, jerky and staid, but when seen as they ought to be on the Electric Palace's 35mm projector, at the correct speed and in the context of the musical score, the sense of emotion and dramatic action surpasses stereotyped expectation. Pioneering camera work and technical prowess exemplify the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist of inventiveness and the rapid development of the cinema industry - a theme captured in the pace and creativity of the films.

From the sweeping moorlands of A Cottage On Dartmoor through Picadilly's 1920s London nightclubs, to the gritty world of carnivals and sideshow boxing booths in The Ring, a definite sense of place is established, but these locations have a mysterious quality which makes them a part of the drama in their own right.

The shape and depth of shadows, backgrounds and sense of space create more than a location, but an atmosphere where underlying tensions are exposed. Expect the atmosphere to be positively charged at Electric Silents.


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