Last Saturday morning myself and a modest assembly of kids big and small gathered at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on the promise of witnessing some of the fluffier stars of the silent screen in action. The event was part of the 15th Annual British Silent Film Festival and was presented by silent pianist and composer Neil Brand .
Brand opened the event by explaining to his mostly-inexperienced audience that Uggie of The Artist fame came from a long line of movie mutts that dates back to the early days of cinema. To demonstrate he gave the nod to the projectionist and effortlessly accompanied the film The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper  which, amongst other highlights, features a dog driving a car. The dog in question went by the name of Blair and was the property of early film pioneer Cecil Hepworth [ a full feature on Blair can be found in issue one of our print magazine ].
So obedient was this big screen bowwow that when Brand asked the children in the audience how the filmmakers had made it seem like a dog was driving a car one little girl ventured ‘maybe the dog was a puppet.’ I first watched this film when the BFI originally released it on Youtube but, alas, it was without music. There simply is no substitute for seeing a touching, innovative work like this in a communal setting, on the big screen with Brand’s seamless piano playing.
In addition to Hepworth’s proefficient pooch the audience were also treated to a screening of A Canine Sherlock Holmes – a film that is a hundred years old this year. The narrative follows a Detective Hawkshaw as he tries to solve the case of a bank robbery. Gratefully he has Spot [known as Spot the Urbanora dog] at his side who pretends to have been run over in order to gain access to the culprit’s home and collect clues. Many of the tricks Uggie performed in The Artist can be seen in this much earlier picture.
The most extraordinary film screened at this event was undoubtedly F. Percy Smith’s The Strength and Agility of Insects  . There is only one print known to exist in the world and it showcases a range of small insects performing in front of the camera. An ant carries a matchstick, a scorpion lifts a snake and a bluebottle juggles on its back. Almost as extraordinary, but with more of a cutesy edge, was the final animation staring Bonzo the dog [this character appeared in numerous adventures between 1914 and 1925] . In this outing the audience saw him chasing after the spot on his back as though it was a ball, stealing fish from a sealion and transforming the lettering from a zoo’s signage into a bicycle so he can ride home. A narrative so quirky an innovative it was a joy to watch.
Perhaps the most heart-warming aspect of events such as this one is that they make films made over a hundred years ago accessible to a new generation. Brand was keen to explore the role of music in cinema with the children and consequently hammered out several improvisations before asking for feedback on what the audience had heard. The audience in question came up with myriad descriptions of Brand’s compositions including ‘snowflakes falling into a river’, ‘a giants footsteps’ and ‘soldiers marching into war.’ A very perceptive crowd indeed.
A full interview with Neil Brand can be found in issue 5 of our magazine which is a silent film special.