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Well-researched and well-done! "Silent Britain" is a fantastic journey through the silent era & a look at early British cinema!
on 25 September 2010
When it comes to silent cinema, we tend to read and watch many of the films that were shot in Hollywood/Los Angeles, California or Fort Lee, New Jersey but rarely do you hear about silent films shot in the UK.
The truth is that there are thousands of silent films that were made in Britain, while only a few hundred still survive today, many people including those in Britain are unaware of these precious films because film critics of the past in England had a disdain towards silent films and it also didn't help that the American studios literally squeezed many of the British silent films being shown in British theaters, let alone giving the chance for these films to be shown in America.
In 2006, the British Film Institute (BFI) along with BBC worked in a co-production to show how British silent films did have an importance in cinema history but also to right some of the wrongs of film critics of disallowing silent cinema and showcasing the films of yesteryear as well as the talents who have been long and forgotten.
The 88-minute documentary is hosted by BBC broadcaster and British journalist Matthew Sweet, who has done a lot to contribute to the "Oxford Companion to English Literature" but also as a film and television critic. He is also a man who is passionate about the British film business during the silent cinema years and has interviewed many of the talents from the silent era as well.
"Silent Britain" is a fantastic documentary that has a lot of archived footage from silent Britain, from topics on the three pioneers of early silent cinema from the late 1880's who were doing all they can to project moving images to the big screen.
We learn about George Albert Smith who would put on shows at his garden and with his camera in 1898, created Britain's first sex comedy "Hanging Out the Clothes" and went on to revolutionized splicing of film and implementing cuts and experimenting with defocus and eventually developed the first successful colour film process known as Kinemacolor.
Sweet talks about learn about the competition between British filmmaking and what Thomas Edison would create but Edison would take credit for a lot of the innovations despite the British doing it first.
Sweet then introduces us to innovative filmmakers in Britain at the time. We learn about R.W. Paul who was the first man to project moving pictures on a big screen and using innovation and trick cinema and also Paul would be known for creating cameras and in fact, George Melies would purchase his first camera from R.W. Paul. He also is noted as possibly the first man who created the first documentary as he filmed British soldiers.
We learn about Percy Smith who used time-lap photography to create the short film, "Birth of a Flower". Another early Britain filmmaker featured in the documentary was Charles Urban known for creating the 12-minute documentary of people living in London back in 1904 and also creating the Anglo-Boer War in the late 1890's.
We learn about Cecil Hepworth who created the 1904 film "Rescued by Rover" (possibly the pre-cursor to the "Lassie" and canine rescuing human films of today) in which his collie saved a baby who was kidnapped. The film was a huge success at the time and would be important in cinema history as it showed on film the relationship of animals and humans but most importantly, recognizing the full potential of people as film stars. Hepworth would create his own magazine that would spotlight on his talent and put a name to the face of the talents that appeared in his films.
Matthew Sweet then goes into Britain's unsung silent film stars such as Chrissie White, Alma Taylor, Ivor Novello, Guy Newall, Ivy Duke, Henry Edwards, Eilie Norwood and how some of them didn't take well to talkies. But how some people such as Alfred Hitchcock did thrive during the sound years.
We also learn about what possibly may be Britain's most famous (and surviving) silent film "A Cottage on Dartmoor" by filmmaker Anthony Asquith and Arnold Bennett's "Picadilly".
Matthew Sweet does a wonderful job in showing us how the beginning of cinema up to the introduction of talkies and how "Silent Britain" was affected by the new dawn of cinema technology.
"Silent Britain" is presented in 4:3 and picture quality varies as we get digital modern shots from 2006 with various archived footage from the late 1800's through the 1920's. But for the most part, the archived footage selected was good and for the most part, the documentary looks great. The DVD does exhibit combing but for the most part, I don't many people will notice unless they really look for it.
Audio for "Silent Britain" is presented in stereo. Dialogue is clear and understandable and detected no major audio problems throughout the documentary.
"Silent Britain" comes with the following special features:
* Neil Brand interview - (20:04) A 2006 interview between Matthew Sweet and silent-film composer Neil Brand as they talk about British silent cinema and also the scoring of silent cinema. But also how British silent film were off the radar and how British film courses never showcase British silent cinema.
* Cut it Out - (19:19) Adrian Brunel's 1925 silent short about a film being shot but a spoof censor keeps interrupting because the filmmaker and their talent are breaking their censorship rules.
* Stills Gallery - Silent film stills from Britain long ago. You can cycle through photos with your remote.
* Also Available - Text based information on currently available BFI releases.
Well-researched, well-presented and overall, a fantastic documentary from Matthew Sweet and showing us how British silent cinema should not be forgotten, nor should American entertainment overshadow British cinema and its accomplishments.
The fact is that during the earlier years of cinema, American studios were the bullies of what was shown in theaters overseas. Despite having a growing industry from the early 1900's through the 1920's, because many people were drawn into films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, etc., the deals that American studios had with theaters really hurt the British film industry. Not only were these films squeezed out from being seen in many British theaters but the American studios made sure that along with each major American silent film screened, the theaters had to commit to showing American silent films and shorts as well.
So, with no visibility for its own silent films and also no visibility for their own stars, Silent Britain suffered and it didn't help that many people never had a chance to see what came out of Britain but it was not taught at film school in the UK, nor are people familiar with the films or its stars at that time. Film critics looked as the invisible Silent Britain was a failed Silent Britain and thus no one championed for these films to be seen.
That is until now.
Matthew Sweet has been using his status as a film and television critic and writer to help promote early British cinema, especially silent films and together with the British Film Institute and the assistance of BBC and the BFI National Film and Television Archive, through this wonderful documentary "Silent Britain", many of us who are passionate about silent films can know that it was not only Hollywood or Fort Lee, New Jersey or the Gaumont Studios in France were where many silent films were created but there was an industry in Britain.
It's unfortunate that British silent cinema has received the shaft after all these years but as more and more people are starting to discover silent films today, we can only hope that companies will bring out more silent films from Britain and expose them to the public worldwide. As an American who has a passion for silent films and knows nothing about British Silent films outside of "A Cottage on Dartmoor" or "Picadilly", I certainly would love that!
As for the DVD, you also get a silent short of Adrian Brunel's "Cut it Out". It's quite interesting to see the film making process in this short comedy but also to see it poke fun of censorship. It's an amusing short but tends to appear disjointed at times. But if there was an interesting part I found in the film, right at the final shot of stock footage of the train, you hear this ominous laugh from the left speaker. Was this an accidental laugh caught accidentally during the recording of the piano audio track?
"Silent Britain" is a fantastic DVD release and a big applause goes to Matthew Sweet and those involved in this wonderful documentary. You have taken the viewer in this wonderful journey to help us understand British silent cinema and the stars of the era and now we can only hope that we see more of these films on DVD or Blu-ray in the near future. One can only hope!
"Silent Britain" from bfi can be purchased through Amazon UK (please note that for those in the US, this is a region 2 release and you will need an all-region DVD player to play this DVD or via VLC or another software on a PC or Mac). It's important to note that "Silent Britain" is available in the US and is included on KINO Video's release of "A Cottage on Dartmoor" DVD but the special features included on the bfi release are not included in the KINO DVD release.
Overall, "Silent Britain" was a fascinating, well-researched and enjoyable documentary and I hope that we can continue to see more British silent cinema released and that the whole world can truly enjoy these films and the stars of the silent era from "Silent Britain" many years ago. This DVD is highly recommended!