I began writing professionally in 1954 for the Amateur Cine World in London. My column was devoted to silent films, and I was proud that it was the first since sound arrived to tackle such an unfashionable subject. But when I looked at back numbers, I discovered that I was not alone. During the grim days of World War II, amateur filmmakers had been deprived of raw stock, and they had to settle for projection. Film libraries came into their own, and a writer called H.A.V. Bulleid started a column entitled Famous Library Films. He had been making amateur films when he was at Cambridge University in the early 1930's - one was about spies, appropriately enough since that was where the famous spies like Burgess, Maclean and Philby had been educated. But he was an assiduous film-goer and a connoisseur of home movie presentations (although once, when he invited a girl to see a rare film, she replied, "I'd much rather go to the cinema.")
Anthony Bulleid and I corresponded occasionally, but never met until I made a documentary called "Lon Chaney - a Thousand Faces" and went down to his home in Sussex to interview him because he remembered seeing Lon Chaney in "London After Midnight." (He didn't think that legendary or not, it would stand up today). And so began a friendship in which we exchanged silent films and he loaned me - and even gave me - some of his treasures.
His publishers, Link House, had planned a book of his articles, but in 1947, Britain had had a severe winter and a financial recession and the publishers bowed out. This was a pity, because Bulleid had gone to the trouble of asking for a preface from Fritz Lang. When I met him, I asked him about that preface, and to my relief he said he still had it. So I can add it to these articles and produce an electronic equivalent of that book - even if we have had to wait sixty years.
Anthony Bulleid is now 95, and since he was born in 1912, and was thus a mere boy in the 1920's, it is a reminder of how distant the silent era has become. But he still drives a car, his memory is sharp and he can bring to life forgotten films like "The Girl in the Taxi" (1920) with Carter de Haven. Bulleid was responsible for donating that to the National Film Archive along with such priceless 35mm nitrate prints as Wm. S. Hart's "Hell's Hinges," and D.W. Griffith's "True Heart Susie" (1919) which has been recently made available on DVD in excellent quality with its original tinting.
He was brought up with railways - his earliest memory is wandering across the tracks at Doncaster station looking at rolling stock with his father. At his Catholic public school, Ampleforth, in the 1920's, he was incredibly fortunate; it was equipped with a 35mm projector. It was excellent training, for the boys were allowed to assist the projectionist. The shows were the highpoint of the week.
"They were enhanced by the fact that one of the monks had a natural gift for piano accompaniment," said Bulleid. "I thought he was very, very good. In 'Don Q., Son of Zorro' there's a long argument where Douglas Fairbanks is teasing his opponent who doesn't know who he is, and this monk did a wonderful, teetering sort of augment."
Bulleid was asked not to show one of the reels in "Wings" - the scene of Clara Bow caught half-naked by military police in Buddy Rogers' hotel bedroom. Bulleid argued that there was perfectly good aeroplane action in that reel - was it all right to run that? And he got permission. It was during this period that he began to go three times a week to the local cinema, seeing such classic titles as "Steamboat Bill Jr." with Keaton, from which he remembered a sequence missing from modern prints in which Buster and Marion Byron got married on the river, "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" with Lon Chaney, and "The Wedding March" with Erich von Stroheim and Fay Wray. "A tenor came on singing during the long love scenes," recalled Bulleid. "Quite effective."
The Bulleid class locomotive is famous in Britain - and Anthony took an engineering degree at Cambridge. But he wanted to go into film-making. "My father went to a lot of trouble and actually went to Elstree Studios and had a session with Joe Grossman, who said, in effect, that if you want to join the film industry you've got to join as a boot boy. 'Get into the team, and it's entirely up to you.' People like Michael Powell did exactly that. He took better stills than the stills man so everybody sent for Michael Powell. I haven't got that personality and would never have succeeded in doing that. My father said, 'You've got to go on with engineering course, get a good, pensionable job, then you can do whatever you like as a hobby.' I thought that was a good idea."
When war broke out, Bulleid became Production Assistant at Vickers Armstrong armaments factory, and although he was very busy - he and his colleagues showed willing by working extra time for nothing, and he was also teaching - he began writing his column in Amateur Cine World. It was primarily devoted to silents, although he included "night Mail," "The Lady Vanishes," etc. His descriptions were sometimes restricted to the reduced versions put out for home movie use in the 20's and 30's. The first reactions from readers were not encouraging; "I feel I must draw your attention to a matter which makes me boil. Why devote so much of your very excellent magazine to a commentary on a film that is 16-years old, on S stock (9.5 mm notched titles), and in such detail that I don't need to see the film? Having to share ACW with several other amateur cinematographers, I can assure you that is the feeling in general. Let's have more 'gen'." P.J. Oram, Brookswood, Surrey.
The editor of ACW, Gordon Malthouse, was not deterred, and Bulleid's pieces became much admired. Whenever possible, he would write to the director of to technicians connected with the film to get background information. Some would decline to answer, saying it was all too long ago(!), but others supplied unique and valuable information.
I was most impressed by Bulleid's knowledge and perception and feel that now silent films are being taught in film courses, these articles deserve revival. A website is the ideal place for them, since the descriptions are now more than sixty years old, and we have learned more about films in the years since. Perhaps those readers who find the chapters of value would add footnotes bringing them up to date?
Copyright 2008 by Kevin Brownlow. All rights reserved.
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