The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: is randomly decrepid and is neo-bankrupt: is so analogue it's anal.
The Oxford Silent Film Society has had regular and mesmerising screenings in the Beatnik. All of the films have been of interest historically, although some nearly as dull as lukewarm ditchwater (The Adventures of Prince Achmed was like watching a kaleidoscope of paper doilies), but the stories behind them have always been fascinating, especially those of the directors, colossal figures who stampeded California in its cinema rush and who panned for acetate gold. I had been unaware that early commercial film was a worldwide phenomenon: many countries were coming to terms with the nascent technology and struggling to make sense of its budgets.
The Life Story of David Lloyd George was one of Britain’s most noteworthy films of the silent era. Made in 1918 at a time when Britain was finally seeing off the Boche, it is less a celebration of nationalism – Lloyd George was alarmingly Welsh – and more of an assertion of the Empire, its glories not yet seen as faded. The film’s budget was the largest in Britain to date. It lasts over two hours and requires stamina, for it focuses on hard fact and achievement rather than the many shaded subtlety of the politician’s personality; it is hagiographic in the sense of it being a benevolent Wikipedia page. Opening shots include Lloyd George’s birth certificate, photos of his parents, and a sequence of tedious tableaux which make it a wooden experience by today’s standards. Maurice Elvey, its director, was a cinematic number cruncher: he was at this time producing twenty films each year; he went on to have a lengthy career, his last film made in 1957. A Dick Whittington character, he’d left his home in County Durham aged nine, ran away to London to make his fortune, and, like so many others in that rootless situation, ended up finding a home in the theatre. He sidestepped into film, made his first in 1913, and before he made the Lloyd George biopic he had adapted Shakespeare and shot several character profiles, heroes of the Empire such as Nelson and Florence Nightingale.
Watching it a few days ago was a great way to celebrate the darkest week of the political calendar, election week, when we pretend that the country isn’t run by the Civil Service and the Bilderberg Group, when we pretend that we actually have a say in what goes on and who does it. For in this film we got politicians that are silent – coz it’s a silent film! If only it were so in real life, that we could silence Corbyn, whatever the Lib Dem one is called, and the other one, that slightly warmed up Frankenstein lookalike who identifies as a woman, her script written by Alf Garnett, gotta a pudding basin haircut and trouser suits that hang like Milk Tray chocolate wrappers, and, yeh, lips that pucker like a monkfish. (This makes her slightly sexier than Ann Widdecombe, together the Vinnie Jones and Tyson Furie of the Tory catwalk.)
It is a film that was never released though! It was in its final stages of completion when two anonymous solicitors, presumably at the behest of the Liberal Party, called by the studio with wallets of cash (£20,000 in £1,000 notes*) and a metaphorical knuckleduster to relieve its director of all his copies: the film was press ganged into retirement. It saw the light of day in 1996 after a copy had been discovered in the Lloyd George archive; we can assume that he was a participant in the acetate’s kidnap. What interest was had in the film’s suppression may never be known, although the interest must have been political. Lloyd George was, of course, the man who should have gone on to lead us in the Second World War, our greatest ever politician, the man who saw life as one long Machiavellian eisteddfod (the victor ludorum usually won by him until his twilight days when that crucial sense of timing let him down, and his hatred of Neville Chamberlain – an inappropriate and early incarnation of the Remain argument, sssh – got the better of him). He was motivated by power and women, our very own eggshell version of the indecent Trump, and, after Barry John, he was the greatest Welshman ever, though the statistical mean greatness of the Welsh somewhat diluted by all those male voice choirs.
Elvey’s film was gloriously English, its budget high but modest compared to perhaps its American equivalent. Expansive, stupefyingly ambitious, vaulting, ludicrously expensive, overwhelming, forbiddingly long (well over three hours) – only words of excess can be applied to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916): four storylines over many centuries, each story marked with its own colour tint. Its creative and antidotal impetus was a moral brickbat, to parry the critical stones of racism thrown at his previous film. The Birth of a Nation, which had aroused the anger of the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), had made acceptable the malaise of slavery, glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and seemingly hit the mood of white America’s bigoted moment well before Trump. It was also, inflation related, the most successful box office film ever. Intolerance, one year later, was probably the most expensive; Griffith had already a reputation for overspending, but $688 by today’s estimates is pretty cool. And neither excess – success and overspending – was by design. The wellspring of Griffith’s ambition was chaos, not order, and Intolerance was made very much on the hoof. “Move those 10,000 horses a trifle to the right, and that mob out there, three feet forward,” was one of Griffith’s fabled commands; employing 4,000 extras at $2 per day, whole scenes were shot with only the director knowing what might be going on, and doubtful that he knew for certain, 100 feet above on a camera-crane. The whole film was spliced together in the editing room, each storyline overlapping, a collage of chaos from which emerged order and a significant notch on the bedpost of cinematic history. After the film’s commercial failure his reputation within the industry declined, as did his own purse (he had bought the picture back from its funding banks), although he did not die as impecunious (or as alone) as often alleged; after 1931 he had all but retired; he died in 1948. Naturally Orson Welles held an affinity with Griffith’s pioneering reputation – his use of close-up, narrative technique, so on – but, unlike Welles, Griffith was no true innovator. Simply, he was the boldest man in film of that era, the man supple and able enough to bolt together all new cinematic experiments, techniques and narrative grammar without the glue showing. His first love was theatre (like Elvey) and he didn’t even want to be in film, yet he was ambitious enough to seize the initiative from European film-makers, and careless enough to turn it into an art form.
It has become a tradition of the Film Society to commemorate the death of the evening’s star: Griffith was found slumped dead in the foyer of the hotel in which he spent his final years. I was concerned because I was an absentee for that evening’s viewing. I was anxious not to return to cadavers slouched on chairs: the shop is no hotel (room service is awful, though the bar is more costly than the mini-fridge in any Hilton), and besides it was a Good Friday screening, rigor mortis isn’t in the spirit of Easter Day. Far less harmful was the celebration of Lon Chaney, early cinema’s ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. He was a seminal Hollywood figure, famous for his depiction of the grotesque – the hunchback, the phantom – and for his dramatic use of make-up. He was also the first A-list film actor to die from a branded breakfast cereal: he accidentally inhaled Corn Flakes (used as snowflakes on set) which then infected his lungs. Kellogg’s have never cited this in their advertising campaigns. Nonetheless the O.S.F.S. approached them for product placement sponsorship: the complimentary popcorn for the evening was replaced by Frosties.
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* The £1,000 bank note was white, issued first in 1725, issued last in 1943, withdrawn in 1945. It had an image of a seated (embossed) Britannia in the top left corner. The Bank of England will still issue £1,000,000 notes (‘Giants’) and even £100,000,000 notes (‘Titans’), although only internally as “records of movement” and never in general circulation; since the Banking Act of 2009 they are no longer required legally.