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Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

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Ann Harding
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Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby Ann Harding » December 13th, 2013, 11:30 am

Image
Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra during the final triptych (I am not the author of that shot - but I thought it was great)

I should have written a review at least a week ago. But I got busy with various other tasks. Now I have time to tell you everything about this amazing experience: watching Gance's Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall with the fabulous Philharmonia Orchestra (the film was shown as part of their concert season). On the 30th November, I took the Eurostar very early with my mum to get to London in time to watch Gance's masterpiece. The show was starting at 1.30 pm and ending at 9.30 pm with three intervals. The Royal Festival Hall is a prime venue for classical concerts with about 2,500 seats. Its acoustics are excellent. Watching Napoléon is a marathon, but you never feel it's too long.
This screening marked the 33rd anniversary of the first ever screening of Kevin Brownlow's restoration with Carl Davis' music in London. It took place on 30th November 1980 at the Empire Leceister Square. It was wonderful to be able to celebrate this event again in London. Some people came from all over Europe to see it. A dozen or so film friends from France I know came to London especially to see it.
Being very familiar with the 1983 restoration in B&W, I was able to spot the new elements of this 2000 restoration. First, the print has been tinted and toned. Then numerous sequences have been developped: the Marseillaise, the Corsica sequence, the Toulon siege, Josephine playing the piano, etc. I had previously in Paris a disastrous experience with Napoléon. The film was presented in December 2009 with 1983 Brownlow restoration with an ghastly score by contemporary French composer Marius Constant. The music never followed what happened on the screen and was incredibly dark and depressing. I fled the room after only 2 hours. What a difference, this time! Carl Davis illuminate each character with spark and wit. He never tries to do a second degree which doens't exist in Gance's film. He reflects the emotions of the characters on screen: love, loneliness, despair, passion. When you think he managed to compose and compile this core in less than 4 months in 1980, it's a brilliant achievement. You have to remember that in those days, nobody knew how to write a silent film score for orchestra. Carl Davis was at the forefront of a new era. Davis decided to use composers from the Napoleonic era: Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Gossec, Dittersdorf, etc. This is an excellent decision at it gives the spectator the actual ambiance of the French Revolution. If the French changed the course of History with the Revolution, in music such a revolution was also happening thanks to Beethoven who cracked the Classical mold to move on to Romantic era. Davis used also numerous French songs from the period (Marseillaise, le Chant du départ, la Carmagnole) which are absolutely spot on in terms of atmosphere and beautifully orchestrated.
In France, people always wonder how to react in front of Napoleon. A huge amount of prejudices prevents people from enjoying Gance's film for what it is: a recreation of the French Revolution mixing historical events and characters and fiction like Alexandre Dumas, the novelist. In London, there is no such problem. The public laughed numerous times through the film, always in the right place.
The new tinting brings a real warmth to a lot of sequences such as the Marseillaise one. Unfortunately, the red tinting for the Toulon siege was disappointing as it drowned the contrast a lot. Red is a difficult colour to handle as I have seen with many other silents. The Toulon battle remains nevertheless a great moment in the film where Gance managed to recreate a battle at night under gale, rain and hail in a studio in the most masterly way. In the first two hours of the film, you have a collection of film innovations that could be tedious if not handled the way Gance did it. He never tries to impress for the sake of it. Each technical device is used for a purpose in the story. You have hand-held cameras, camera on sled, camera on the back of a horse or suspended on a pendulum. It's there to put the spectator at the centre of the action.
And there is the final with the screen becoming bigger and bigger as the curtains open to reveal a triple screen covering the entire length of the hall. Again, Gance filmed some huge panoramas (forecasting Cinerama, 27 years before it was created) but also some combinations of three images with fascinating imagination. By the end, as Davis repeated Méhul's Le Chant du départ and La Marseillaise with tremendous effect. I had the feeling of being on the 14th of July while it was only 30th of November!
It was really an extraordinary event.

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby moira finnie » December 13th, 2013, 6:46 pm

Thank you for sharing your impressions of this splendid event, Christine. You make me feel as though I were there.

As you reminded me here, Carl Davis is a living treasure, as is Kevin Brownlow.
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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby feaito » December 13th, 2013, 9:01 pm

Thanks for your detailed and heartfelt review Christine; it made me feel as if I had been there with you all. Undoubtedly a landmark moment, like the San Francisco screening a couple of years ago. I can only dream of an event of such quality. I have missed you, so it's good to see you posting again.

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby JackFavell » December 14th, 2013, 4:59 pm

Yes, thanks for the wonderful personal description of the event! Wish I could have been there, but this is the next best thing.

We've missed you over here at the Oasis.

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby Rita Hayworth » December 14th, 2013, 10:37 pm

Ann Harding, thanks for sharing this with us and I just wanted to let you know that I would loved to see this film someday and hopefully TCM would make it happen. You were very fortunate to see it on this day. :)

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby Ann Harding » December 15th, 2013, 10:25 am

Thanks everybody. :) Actually, I should have written also an account of the 1913 Show I attended on December 2nd at the BFI. Every year the BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon shows a selections of films made 100 years ago. I saw the 1912 show last year which was very interesting with in particular an early western by Allan Dwan.
This year we saw a selection of films and newsreels from 1913 including one dealing the funeral of Emily Davidson, a suffragette who was killed by a horse during the 1913 Derby. Her funeral procession was very impressive with masses of onlookers and men removing their hats. It looked like a funeral fit for royalty.
There was a short British comedy Nobby the New Waiter with a comedian being a hopeless waiter. It was not to up to the standard of Charlie Chaplin, but shows how comedy moved forward in the space of a year.
We saw a fragment of British fiction The Battle of Waterloo where the emperor stands surrounded by explosions and charging horses. The rest of the film was missing. It made the perfect contrast with a spoof of the same battle called Pimple's Battle of Waterloo which felt like an early Monty Python. All the horses were men dressed as horses, Napoleon was tossing a coin with Wellington to see which one would fire first and they went to Waterloo via Waterloo station (a board said: "trains up for France"). At one point, Napoleon was attacked by a suffragette yielding a board "Vote for Women"! It looked like a very cheap production which was compensated by its humour.
One of the revelations of the show was a thriller made in Italy called Tigris directed by a Vincenzo Denizot. It looked very similar to a Feuillade serial, dealing a criminal mastermind full of abductions and stunts. One in particular stands in my mind. A man is lying bound and gagged on the track waiting to be run over by an incoming train. But - o surprise!- as the train arrives the bound man manages to release his hand and grabs the buffer and climbs onto the train! :o :shock: The sequence was actually shot and not faked. It contained also some great special effects when a man has been drugged and the whole room starts rolling like a boat while he stays motionless. A really nice discovery.
And finally Suspense, Lois Weber's masterful short was screened. It contains some of the most amazing high-angle shots of the teens. Each sequence is so perfectly framed and edited, it still really shines.
Last edited by Ann Harding on December 15th, 2013, 11:28 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby JackFavell » December 15th, 2013, 10:56 am

That sounds fantastic, Ann! I saw a writeup on the 1913 program somewhere, and wished I could see it. Your description of Pimple's Battle of Waterloo had me laughing, this is definitely a short I'd like to find. It sounds hilarious! Also very interested in Tigris. For a very short time, serials were the most advanced films around, I believe, innovating at a fast clip.

Suspense
by Lois Weber is here:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfgiUvBaosg[/youtube]

Here's another version with a different score:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iy-apScA5mY[/youtube]

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby charliechaplinfan » December 16th, 2013, 9:08 am

Napoleon sounds terrific Christine, I can just sense the atomosphere by looking at your photograph. How I would have loved to have been there. The 1913 silent sound like a treat too.
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself - Charlie Chaplin

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby JackFavell » December 16th, 2013, 9:33 am

Alison! :D :D

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby feaito » December 16th, 2013, 10:48 am

Welcome back Ali!! :D

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby Rita Hayworth » December 16th, 2013, 11:53 am

Great seeing you posting Allison ... :)

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Re: Napoléon (1927) at the Royal Festival Hall, 30 November 2013

Postby Ann Harding » December 17th, 2013, 10:33 am

Really glad to see you're back, Alison


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