10 great British silent films

As the landmark British silent film Piccadilly lands on Blu-ray, we turn the clock back to the roaring 20s and beyond in search of some of the UK’s finest silent feature films.

Piccadilly (1929)

Released in 1929, Piccadilly is a particularly bright example of a new confidence in the British film industry, just as our cinemas were converting to sound, upsetting a decade or two of rapid development in the art of silent filmmaking. Set in London’s glittering West End, it’s a sultry tale of ambition, seduction and murder, undercut with issues of race. The screenplay was written by the famed English writer Arnold Bennett. 

British International Pictures, which made Piccadilly, were, as the name suggests, upping their game and setting their sights on the global market. As a result, Piccadilly was well funded, with A-list stars like Anna May Wong and Gilda Gray imported from the US. Director E.A. Dupont was brought over from the well-developed German studios along with a top-notch technical team.

Making its Blu-ray debut this June, it’s the kind of film that the British – by then a regular and loyal cinema audience who went weekly in their millions – were coming to expect. Something that could hold its own against imported films. 

Not every film made in silent Britain offers the same polish, but as the feature film format – cinema’s equivalent to the play or novel – grew in popularity in the years following the First World War, the UK industry maintained a modest domestic production line that resulted in many lasting feature-length releases. At their best, these remain as funny, thrilling and entertaining today, as well as offering invaluable insight into British life in the 1920s.

We had world-class directors in Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith, but in the selection below we’ve also highlighted less well-known talents. These are films that display British filmmaking talent of all kinds: acting, directing, photography, writing. They also show us a lost Britain and its people, as we were a century ago.

Bryony Dixon

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East Is East (1916)

Director: Henry Edwards

East Is East (1916)

A cockney girl (Florence Turner) unexpectedly becomes an heiress, but discovers high society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and longs to return to her old life and friends. You’d be forgiven for assuming this romance of class mobility might draw a conservative ‘everyone in their place’ moral, but you’d be wrong. The film offers a strikingly sympathetic portrait of working-class life, weaving a variety of familiar habits and locations into its narrative. The picture theatre, the chip shop and the hop fields of Kent are all photographed with the picturesque charm that British films of the period were known for. 

Florence Turner was both star and producer of a number of British films made by her own company around this time. Henry Edwards regularly starred alongside her, and here also directs. They are delightful together, and it’s a great shame that none of the other films they made together have survived.

Lawrence Napper

The Lure of Crooning Water (1920)

Director: Arthur Rooke

The Lure of Crooning Water (1920)

The films of co-stars Guy Newall and Ivy Duke, made in the early 1920s, were an anomaly in British film history. These simple, character-driven dramas are beautifully acted and photographed on location. Newall, particularly, was celebrated for his minimalist acting style and often referred to as ‘Britain’s best actor’. Historian Rachael Low expressed real regret that Newall couldn’t take his directorial career further. 

The story is a little like Sunrise (1927), the later Hollywood classic directed by F.W. Murnau. Duke plays a glamorous but jaded city actress who is sent to the country by her doctor friend for a rest cure, where she makes married farmer Horace (Newall) fall in love with her – just because she can. This being England, he makes no attempt to drown his wife in a lake (as in Murnau’s film), but the less melodramatic plot does nothing to diminish the electricity between the leads.

Bryony Dixon

Sam’s Boy (1923)

Director: H. Manning Haynes

Sam’s Boy (1923)

English whimsy is perennially popular and this charming feature, one of a series based on the stories of W.W. Jacobs, is very much in the mode of P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome, but hopping down the social scale to the working classes of Britain’s coastal ports. Our hero is the adorable and resourceful orphan Billy Jones (Bobbie Rudd) who, sleeping rough in London’s dockside, observes a stray dog ‘adopting’ a new owner. Following this lead, Billy chooses Sam (Tom Coventry), a seaman and stalwart of the Salvation Army, claiming him as his father. 

The ensuing social embarrassment drives the comedy, as Sam flees and the persistent Billy selects another likely ‘father’ from the ship’s crew. The confident direction by H. Manning Haynes is complemented by the skilful adaptation from Lydia Hayward, Britain’s most celebrated female screenwriter of this era, perfectly capturing Jacobs’ observational genius. Sam’s Boy was all shot on location, but we have yet to identify the villages on the Kent coast – maybe you can tell us?

Bryony Dixon

The Great White Silence (1924)

Director: Herbert G. Ponting

The Great White Silence (1924)

In this stunning record of Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole of 1910 to 1913, Herbert Ponting’s magnificent cinematography captures the mmense beauty of the Antarctic, proving that this was indeed the ‘heroic age of exploration’. The sheer effort and dedication to filming in dangerous conditions, with heavy hand-cranked cameras and wooden tripods, is rewarded with stunning images of bergs, ice caves and the Terra Nova breaking through sea ice on its journey south. 

Ponting films day-to-day routines like cooking, eating and cleaning, the efforts of pulling weighted sledges across snowfields, and the men’s delight in encountering playful penguins. His images of Scott’s small party setting off on foot for the Pole are moving beyond belief when we know the outcome of that final journey. The massive understatement of Scott’s last message, “These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale”, can only hint at the suffering they endured. But the overwhelming impression at the end of this film is of humanity’s capacity for hope, survival and joyful camaraderie in extremis. 

Laraine Porter

The Ghost Train (1927)

Director: Géza von Bolváry

The Ghost Train (1927)

Directed by Géza von Bolváry, The Ghost Train is not only an excellent adaptation of Arnold Ridley’s thriller about passengers stranded on a station at night, but also a superb example of the Anglo-German cooperation that typified British features of this period. It was a co-production between Gainsborough Pictures and Phoebus Film, shot in the latter’s Berlin studios. 

The subject and characters may be British stereotypes but the production, performances and special effects are all pure German Expressionism. Reliable British star Guy Newall has no problem playing silly ass Teddy Deakins, but the teetotal spinster Miss Bourne is transformed into a hoochie-coochie cabaret turn, not surprisingly since Ilse Bois (sister of actor Curt Bois) was indeed a star of Berlin cabaret. She adds wonderfully to the sense of Weimar playfulness throughout. The piece lends itself to cinematic shadows, double-exposure and model-work, and if it only slightly touches spine-tingling horror, that’s the fault of the play rather than the film.

Neil Brand

Hindle Wakes (1927)

Director: Maurice Elvey

Hindle Wakes (1927)

In Wakes Week, the factory workers of the fictitious Lancaster town of Hindle depart to Blackpool for larks, and a little licentiousness. In the sunshine, a young mill worker named Fanny and the mill-owner’s son, Allan, will meet, kiss and embark on their own private holiday… but will their affair stay secret and just who is really who’s “little fancy”? 

In this, Maurice Elvey’s second film of Stanley Houghton’s 1910 play, American actress Estelle Brody is wonderful as the independent-minded Fanny and British actor John Stuart charms as her handsome romantic foil, Allan. It’s realist melodrama, but one spiked with humour, and resistant to cliché and sentiment. The location-shot Blackpool sequences, from the Pleasure Beach to the Tower Ballroom, are filled with life. In fact, the whole film has a verve that carries audiences straight through to the deathless climax. Fanny’s spirit may have shocked prewar theatre audiences, but it’s still a thrill to see her reject conventional attitudes to class, work and sex.
Pamela Hutchinson

The First Born (1928)

Director: Miles Mander

The First Born (1928)

Miles Mander’s The First Born is a beautifully made late silent film drawing on all the techniques developed by filmmakers in that most fertile decade. After seeing it, the argument that British studios didn’t know how to put together a good film no longer holds water. In its story of a philandering would-be politician and his unhappy wife, it tackles sensitive, even uncomfortable ‘adult’ issues about double standards and the political class. It shows the artistic ambition of its principal creator, Miles Mander, who wrote the novel and the play and directed and starred in this film version. 

It’s also the film that launched the career of actress Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps), but perhaps most significantly for us today, it’s an example of the work of one of our finest screenwriters, Alma Reville, best known for the work she did with her husband, Alfred Hitchcock. Mander is a great writer, but we can probably attribute the layers of complexity in the story – perhaps even the film’s ‘Hitchcockian touches’ – to this remarkable woman. 

Bryony Dixon

Blackmail (1929)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Blackmail (1929)

Thirty-year-old Alfred Hitchcock was in a good position as British cinemas wired for sound in 1929. He had nine solo features under his belt, but he was keen to maintain his prime status as sound film developed. To this end he pulled off a master stroke, directing both a clever sound and a brilliant silent version of the same film. The whole project looks like a calling card for the attention of the top studios. 

In Blackmail, he selected a taut thriller, a genre about to become a fixture in 1930s Hollywood. The first seven minutes is a tour de force of silent film editing, showing the ruthless hunting down, integration and imprisonment of a felon by the London police. This sets the tone for the main plot concerning a case of date-rape, murder and blackmail – all of which concludes with a classic Hitchcock chase over the roof of the British Museum.

Bryony Dixon

The Informer (1929)

Director: Arthur Robison

The Informer (1929)

Shot and released right on the cusp of sound, the fully silent version of Arthur Robison’s The Informer is vastly superior to its part-talkie counterpart thanks to its lack of creaky dialogue and clashing accents. It’s a multinational project, with a German director and Hungarian and Swedish co-stars featuring in a British production based on a novel by Irishman Liam O’Flaherty. 

An absolutely authentic dive into sectarian Ireland, it features a sterling performance from Lars Hansen as an unthinking man, Gypo Nolan, inexorably coming to terms with the path he has chosen for himself. The long single shot in which Nolan barrels through the crowded street to the police station to betray the partner of the woman he loves is bravura filmmaking. It’s on a par with the best of British film of the period. The unflinching shootouts, shadowy gunmen and tough dialogue make for a heady brew that, for this writer, more than challenges the John Ford remake of 1935. Robison is better known for Expressionist crime thriller Shadows (1923), but this film makes one wish he had made more contemporary thrillers.

Neil Brand

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Director: Anthony Asquith

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Anthony Asquith’s late silent thriller represents the artistic peak of British silent cinema. It features a young manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) who rebukes the obsessive attentions of her colleague, Joe (Uno Henning), in favour of a local farmer, Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow). 

Asquith deployed European techniques in camera, lighting and editing in a virtuoso sequence set in a provincial cinema where Sally and Harry relax in each other’s company, oblivious to Joe sitting menacingly behind them. The fictional audience enjoys a silent comedy accompanied by the cinema’s orchestra, their laughter and Asquith’s montage gathering momentum as the comedy builds to a climax, the music to a crescendo and Joe’s jealousy to breaking point. Then silence. The orchestra downs tools as the talkie starts, the audience strains to hear the alien sounds emanating from the screen, and an elderly woman has the dialogue relayed into her ear-trumpet. In this one scene, Asquith skilfully develops his thrilling plot and bids a poignant farewell to the art of the silent film and the thousands of musicians who played for it.

Laraine Porter

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