Live Cinema

Kevin Brownlow, film historian, author and director, had a life long ambition. To restore the film “Napoleon”, directed in France in 1927 by Abel Gance, back to something like its full glory. Brownlow had come across clips in his travels, and knew it was a true silent masterpiece. He recognised that it used or even invented techniques and ideas that were rare then but are all too common now, such as multiple cameras, underwater work, tinting (ok, so it’s computerised nowadays) and a multiprojector finale (an early version of Cinerama). Apparently there had even been some 3D filming, though I suspect that is lost.

The record of Brownlow’s can be found in his book which you may still be able to find.

By the 1980s, the film was in some kind of a complete form. It was ready to be seen by the public. The success of “Hollywood” on TV had generated an appetite for silent films with music, and a showing of the five hour epic took place in London, and later elsewhere, in the early 1980s. The music used a full orchestra and was created by Carl Davis. It sold out immediately (in the pre-internet days, when booking was more difficult).

Further showings happened. I saw it at the Empire in Leicester Square. By then it had reached way more than five hours as more material had been found. Now, that’s a long time to watch a film, but for the orchestra, it is two, probably three consecutive classical concerts, so multiple breaks were in order. It was a day long event. Towards the end, Davis could be heard giving the flagging players vocal encouragement.

The success prompted Thames to request more films, so many of the films highlighted in the series “Hollywood” got similar treatment, restoration, musical score and public performances. These included “The Crowd”, “Broken Blossoms”, “Greed”, “The Wind” and “Intolerance”.

As time went on, UK station Channel 4 took up the series and we had “The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse” and “The Iron Mask”, running once a year until the late 1990s. Many of these films got some kind of TV broadcast and home media release. Some are still available, “The Big Parade” and “Napoleon” for example.

But it wasn’t all heavyweight and serious stuff. There was Keaton’s “The General” and Chaplin’s masterpiece “City Lights”. Ah yes, Charles Chaplin…

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