10 London Silent Movies You Have To See

By Londonist Last edited 22 months ago
10 London Silent Movies You Have To See

'Silent' is probably the worst way to describe films pre-1930s; early cinema always had accompaniment and the best thing about it was that, from the lowly solo piano to a complete orchestra, it was always live. Our early British silent films display groundbreaking techniques, colour tinting and sophisticated plots that still impress today. Here are 10 classics with London associations.

10. Piccadilly (1929)

Chinese-American star Anna May Wong stars as a very modern woman working in the nightclubs of London. Shot on location, the story follows her dramatic ascent from dishwasher to dancing star, with love triangles, racial discrimination and murder along the way.

Watch Piccadilly with live accompaniment at Lost Format Society rooftop cinema in Croydon on 9 August.

9. The films of Mitchell and Kenyon (1900-1913)

Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon's pioneering films show the day-to-day lives of British people throughout the Edwardian era and beyond. Advertised at the time as 'local films for local people', these clips make the most incredible time capsule, depicting sporting events, workers leaving factories and families on holiday. For us southerners, check out the 1924 series Wonderful London by Harry B Parkinson and Frank Miller. This was the Londonist of its time, giving tips on the best places to go and things to see around the capitol. Chapters included 'Free London' and 'London Sundays'.

8. The Lodger, A Story Of The London Fog (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock began his career in the silent era and this film was his third feature. It was later described by the director himself as 'the first true 'Hitchcock' film', and stars the great actor and composer Ivor Novello. The Lodger shaped the thriller genre with themes such as the innocent man on the run from an overbearing self-righteous society. It is worth seeing just for Ivor Novello's facial expressions...

7. Alice in Wonderland (1903)

At 12 minutes long and spanning 800 feet of film, Wonderland was the longest film ever produced in the UK at the time. The film, shot in Walton-on-Thames, was particularly impressive for its early use of special effects, as directors Stow and Hepworth's Alice changes size and the Cheshire Cat appears out of thin air. Many people hired individual scenes from the film for parties, the most popular of course being The Mad Hatter's Tea Party — a favourite for childrens' birthdays.

6. Birth of a Flower (1910)

Though it runs at just under eight minutes long, that is all you will need to fall in love with this wonderful early example of time-lapse photography. Japanese lilies, roses, crocuses and other flowers burst in to bloom in these colour (tinted) films, and launched the career of their London-born photographer, F. Percy Smith.

5. Honourable mentions to Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

They may have made their names in Hollywood, but as Brits we're going to claim them. Chaplin's The Kid and Laurel and Hardy's Liberty are among their best works. Charlie Chaplin grew up in Elephant and Castle, spending much of his time in and out of workhouses, but would go on to be the most highly paid star in Hollywood.

See Laurel and Hardy's Liberty with live accompaniment at Stanley Halls on 22 June, as part of Croydon Heritage Festival.

4. A Glass of Goat's Milk (1909)

This comedy was filmed by Percy Stow's Clarendon Film Company in Croydon. Transformation was a popular storytelling device in early cinema and is used to great comic effect here as we see a man drinking the milk of a rather fierce goat and absorbing its caprine qualities... Horns and hooves cause mayhem about town as he chases down Croydonians and knocks over the local horse-drawn bus before being apprehended.

3. The Open Road (1924)

Fulham-born filmmaker Claude Friese-Greene takes us on an all-colour tour of England from Land's End to John O'Groats in his Vauxhall D-type. Originally in 26 episodes, this groundbreaking travelogue was designed to be shown at cinemas on a weekly basis and is a great example of 1920s Britain.

2. The (?) Motorist (1906)

This curiously-named film by director W.R Booth for producer R.W. Paul begins with a motorist failing to stop for a policeman and quickly turns in to a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-style adventure, as the car soars into the heavens to evade capture and races round the rings of Saturn. Booth was an amateur magician and the pair may have first met at London's Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, where Booth was a member of the magic company and Paul had exhibited some of the earliest British films in 1896. This is a great example of early special effects and animation, and one to watch for fans of Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans La Lune.

1. The Epic of Everest (1924)

The colour (tinted) film documents the fateful expedition of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, planned by the Royal Geographical Society in London, as they attempt to reach the summit of Everest. This is the very earliest footage of the Himalayas and beautifully captures its untouched landscape, whilst displaying the bravery of this group of British mountaineers and their Nepalese team. Following the news of disappearance, Mallory and Irvine were hailed at national heroes. A memorial service was held at St Paul's Cathedral — attended by dignitaries including King George V, Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and his entire cabinet.

See it with live musical accompaniment at The Oval Tavern, Croydon on 24 June as part of Croydon Heritage Festival.

Emily O'Hara is a musician and composer from Croydon. Her company The Lucky Dog Picturehouse perform original era-authentic soundtracks to silent film.

The 5th Croydon Heritage Festival, curated under the theme of Evolution, will celebrate the unique story of the town with a programme full of events taking place from 24-30 June 2017.

Most of the above films are available to buy from BFI or available to view on BFI Screenonline.

Last Updated 25 May 2017