Taking place last December, The Smoking Cabinet presented itself as a celebration of cabaret and
burlesque cinema from 1895 to 1933. The three-day festival at the Curzon Soho specifically concentrated on Germany and Europe rather than looking towards the later burlesque scene in 1950s America. Their centrepiece screening was the 1930 film by Josef von Sternberg The Blue Angel, which launched the career of Marlene Dietrich. The film is set around a small German town nightclub that hosts the touring burlesque stars of the day. It’s mostly frequented by young male students from the local university, but one night their outraged professor follows them there, and falls under the seductive spell of Dietrich’s Lola.
The screening was followed by an excellent panel discussion about burlesque in general, featuring Amy Lamé, host and founder of the notoriously outré vaudeville club Duckie, held weekly at the Vauxhall Tavern; Marisa Carnesky, a long-time burlesque performer with a number of plays and art projects under her belt; and Bryony Dixon, expert and curator of silent and historical film at the British Film Institute. It was interesting to hear both Carnesky and Lamé pronounce burlesque dead at a time when it seems to be in the throes of a massive revival, with countless nights documented weekly in Time Out‘s Social Club section, and risqué outfits gracing the pages of many a fashion magazine. Commenting that a star like Dita Von Teese has made burlesque overground and safe, Carnesky described the current cabaret nights as ‘students in their Hennes underwear’. This is why The Smoking Cabinet as a cinematic experience was so important: it provided an educative programme to an audience who may only know burlesque in its sanitised, modern form.
Elsewhere in the festival, short films weren’t as blindingly obvious as people were perhaps expecting. In an era when old found footage of dancing girls in grainy black & white can be found on any nightclub wall, the Smoking Cabinet programmers have tirelessly researched early cinema to give us work that doesn’t immediately fit into the burlesque canon. The early half of the twentieth century was an important time for all art forms, a time when cinema, live performance, music and dance all interacted with one another in the work of artists such as Man Ray, Norman Bel Geddes, Jean Cocteau, and George MéliÃÂ¨s. The Smoking Cabinet recognised these connections, in the screening of such films as the futurist Ballet Mécanique from 1924: using all sorts of mechanisms from airplane propellers to giant bells the film recreates the madness of dance, all accompanied by a highly percussive tribal score that evokes the new musical forms of the 1920s.
Outside of the films, the Curzon Soho bar area gave added attractions and perfect flourishes, from DJs playing 1920s cabaret music to free fairy cakes hand-decorated by the Smoking Cabinet festival organisers themselves. You wouldn’t see the director of Cannes or Edinburgh sitting in full view pouring hundreds & thousands into a creamy paste to tip onto sponge cake! Here’s to a further Smoking Cabinet, and perhaps to widening the net to look at America in the 50s or Britain in the 60s.
Philip Ilson is the co-founder of Halloween and organiser of the London Short Film Festival.