Lives in film no. 4: Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson knocks Jim Jeffries out of the ring at the climax of their world heavyweight bout at Reno, Nevada, on 4 July 1910. The referee is the fight’s promoter, Tex Rickard. Frame still from Sights and Scenes from the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (BFI National Archive)

I’m Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world.
I’m black. They never let me forget it.
I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.

100 years ago, on 4 July 1910, two men met to contest the world heavyweight championship. One was James Jeffries, a former world champion brought back out of retirement to answer the call made by many in America to defend the white race. The other was the Afro-American Jack Johnson, the most iconic sportsman of the era, a man feared inside the ring for his tremendous power and outside it for the threat he seemed to pose to white society. The contest at Reno, Nevada was perhaps the most socially significant sporting event of the twentieth century. And of course the motion picture cameras were there.

Johnson lived much of his life in front of the camera. By the time he began fighting, sales of motion picture rights were a major source of revenue for those in the fight business, and every bout of significance was filmed, generally in its entirety, albeit semi-illegally given that prize fighting was prohibited in most American states. Films of Johnson’s fights were among the most significant of their age, to the point where legislation was created to contain them. Above all, Johnson was the first black person to be a leading film attraction – Dan Streible calls him “the first black movie star”. He helped change how America saw itself.

Arthur John Johnson, or Jack Johnson (1878-1946), was born in Galveston, Texas, the son of a former slave, and began his fighting career in 1897. He emerged as a major contender in the early 1900s, but the leading white boxers of the period mostly declined to fight against him, such was the racism endemic in the sport and American society generally. In particular he was effectively barred from any world heavyweight championship fight. There were other talented black boxers in Johnson’s time, notably Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey and Sam Langford, but they were mostly forced to fight among themselves for black-only championships. Johnson was unusual in his thirsting for the very top, avoiding the likes of Langford as much as possible in his search for the heavyweight crown.

Following the retirement of James J. Jeffries as world heavyweight champion in 1905, the championship and boxing in general went into decline. Two inadequate champions followed, Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns. Johnson became the beneficiary of the impoverished heavyweight scene, for the lacklustre Tommy Burns had failed to attract the crowds and money, and a new black champion, it was suggested, would attract controversy and a challenger to regain white supremacy. Johnson eventually hunted down Burns to Australia, and defeated him in Australia on 26 December 1908, becoming the first black world heavyweight champion. The fourteen-round fight was filmed by the British branch of Gaumont, though the Sydney police dramatically halted the filming and the fight in the final round to prevent the live and future audiences from witnessing any further humiliation for Burns. The film’s distribution around the world greatly helped revitalise interest in heavyweight boxing, while making the idea of a search for a white challenger to retake the crown something of an obsession for white American society. It also made Johnson a considerable film attraction.

The Johnson-Burns fight, Sydney, Australia, 26 December 1908, with the booth housing the motion picture cameras to the right. From Wikimedia Commons.

At first it was believed that a challenger would soon dispose of Johnson, but his easy defeats of such challengers as Stanley Ketchel (filmed for the Motion Picture Patents Company), ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, Al Kaufman, and even the future film actor Victor McLaglen (not a title fight), created an atmosphere of panic and the very real search for a ‘white hope’ who would crush the disturbingly confident and powerful Johnson. Eventually former champion Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement to face him.

The build up to the fight of the century was tremendous, and the cinema was greatly involved. Films of both boxers in training were released, including one of a bulky and seemingly invincible Jeffries working on his ranch (Jeffries on his Ranch, made by the Yankee Film Co.). The fight itself took place on 4 July 1910 at Reno, Nevada, promoted by the larger-than-life Tex Rickard. Three film companies, Selig, Vitagraph and Lubin, representing the Motion Picture Patents Company, combined to organise the production and distribution of the fight film, under the one-off name of the J. & J. Company, with J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph supervising overall production and distribution. The cameras were set up in pride of place on a stand overlooking the ring, with no attempt at closer shots or other viewpoints, but with plenty of material shot prior to the event – enthusiastic crowds filling the street of Reno, both boxers in training, star fighters of times past and present (Abe Attell, ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, Sam Langford, Jake Kilrain), and unique film of a portly John L. Sullivan, champion from another era, mock sparring with the first official world heavyweight champion, Jim Corbett (who made racial taunts at Johnson throughout the fight).

The fight lasted fifteen rounds, but was a foregone conclusion from round one, as Johnson humiliated a patently inferior Jeffries. That the fight lasted so long was no indication of Jeffries’ staying power; more likely it was an indication of Johnson’s awareness of the value of a full-length fight film. A film of a fifteen-round fight would command bigger audiences and greater revenue than a one-round knockout. It was commonly felt that Johnson had spun out the fight to increase its revenue (Rickard had promised $101,000 for the boxers, with 75% for the winner, and two-thirds of the movie rights), and this seems borne out by the evidence of the film itself. Johnson patently extends the contest beyond what was necessary, and can be seen taunting the hapless Jeffries during their numerous clinches. However, on the eve of the fight both Johnson and Jeffries had agreed to take lump sums for the movie profits rather than a percentage, so one might judge that Johnson’s motives were as much vengefulness as good business.

Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, from American Memory

But the most significant effect of the Johnson-Jeffries fight on the world of film came afterwards. The shock of Johnson’s victory terrified white America and thrilled the black community. Immediately the result was known there were racial conflicts throughout the country, resulting in many deaths and injuries. It was not only Johnson’s defeat of a white man, but his very public cockiness, his fondness for fast cars, fancy talk and fancy clothes, and above all his taste for white women (his various white wives were always prominent in newsreel footage of Johnson) compounded the fears. The existence of the film greatly added to the shock. Not only was one forced to read about the unspeakable Johnson becoming champion over the whites, but he could be appearing in your very own neighbourhood. The film of the fight had to be banned. With the racial violence that followed the fight as the primary excuse, and following heavy lobbying by such interest groups as the United Society of Christian Endeavor, the film was soon barred from many individual cities, and fifteen states went further by banning all prize fight films – it was assumed there would be other Johnson fights and other Johnson films, and so the states legislated against all boxing films rather than the specific cases of the Johnson-Jeffries film.

However, no immediate federal law was passed. Such legislation only arose when another Johnson fight film, that of his contest against ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn on 4 July 1912, threatened further social unrest. Bills had already been introduced by the grossly racist Congressmen Representative Seaborn A. Rodenberry and Senator Furnifold Simmons to prohibit the interstate transportation of fight films, and on 31 July 1912 the legislation was passed. It was now a federal offence to transport fight films over State lines. This naturally had a severe effect on the production and distribution of boxing films, though it by no means stopped them. The ambiguous legislation, which was much challenged as it seemed directly to contradict reasonable commerce, did not necessarily prevent such films’ exhibition, and there was still a large audience keen to see such films, especially the Johnson-Willard contest of 1915 where the victorious Jess Willard finally proved to be the ‘white hope’ so many had been looking for.

One of the most striking attempts to by-pass the ban on interstate transportation occurred in 1916. The film in question was that of the Johnson-Willard fight; the company involved the Pantomimic Corporation (created by L. Lawrence Weber, the producer of the Johnson-Willard film). A motion picture camera was placed eight inches from the New York-Canada border, pointing north. On the Canadian side was placed a tent containing a box with an electric light. Past this was then run a positive of the Johnson-Willard film, which by means of a synchronising device was then photographed on the American side, and thus a duplicate negative (of doubtful quality) was produced. The whole extraordinary process was deliberately given wide publicity, but Pantomimic lost the ensuing court case, for having violated the spirit if not the letter of the law.

The law was a preposterous one, contrary to the basic rules of commerce and unashamedly racist in intent. It was widely violated throughout the 1920s, as the continued production of fight films indicates, and the Johnson ‘threat’ was in any case over. However, it was not until the late 1930s that calls for the legislation to be repealed were heard. Boxing was now seen to be popular among all classes, with a clear following among women, and the new, unthreatening black champion Joe Louis, modesty and courtesy personified, was the very model of what white America hoped to see. The Senate finally passed a bill permitting the interstate shipment of prize fight films on 13 June 1939.

Jack Johnson with one of his fast cars, from the Henry E. Winkler Collection of Boxing Photographs, University of Notre Dame

After the Willard fight, Johnson’s life went into decline. He had been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in 1913 for violation of the anti-‘white slavery’ Mann Act (“transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”) but skipped bail and fled to France, where he successfully defended his title against Frank Moran, the film of which was widely derided for its obvious spinning out of the fight to make a more commercial film offering. The Willard fight took place in Havana, Cuba, and he only returned to the USA to serve out his sentence in 1921, after spending time in Spain and Mexico. He carried on fighting in prison and following his release, and continued to appear before the motion picture cameras, though now in dramatic films, albeit very obscure titles made for the Afro-American community: As the World Rolls On (1921) and For His Mother’s Sake (1921) (Johnson had made at least one fiction film during his time in Spain).

Johnson kept on fighting until 1938, as well appearing on stage, refereeing fights, giving talks and making personal appearances. Always fond of fast cars and speeding, he died in a car crash in 1946.

From having been probably the most reviled man of his age, posthumously Johnson has undergone a considerable change in reputation. Always honoured by most fight fans for his boxing ability and his historical importance, he was increasingly held up as an example of black empowerment, starting with Howard Sackler’s 1967 play The Great White Hope, filmed in 1970 with James Earl Jones as the Johnson-like character Jack Jefferson. There then followed Bill Cayton’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Jack Johnson (1970) with its superb Miles Davis jazz score, which ends with the imposing words (spoken by Brock Peters) cited at the top of this post. Sympathetic biographies followed, notably Randy Roberts’ Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, and recently Geoffrey C. Ward’s book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was turned into a documentary by Ken Burns with another jazz soundtrack, this time by Wynton Marsalis. There is now a strong move in the US for Johnson’s 1913 conviction to be overturned, with Congress recommending in 2008 that he be granted a presidential pardon, a motion that received the unexpected support of Senator John McCain.

Finding out more
The PBS Unforgiveable Blackness website has extensive information on Jack Johnson and his times, including a special Flash feature on the Jeffries fight.

As noted above, the key biographies are Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, and Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. On the Johnson-Jeffries fight in particular, see Robert Greenwood, Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries: The Prize Fight of the Century; Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910.

For the history of fight films in the silent era, with extensive information on Jack Johnson, there is the excellent Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema, by Dan Streible, to which this post in much indebted, particularly the filmography. Acknowledgments also to Larry Richards, African American Films Through 1959: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography.

Two essays cover the legislative back ground to the Johnson films: Barak Y. Orbach, ‘The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and Censorship of Black Supremacy‘, and Lee Grieveson, ‘Fighting Films: Race, morality and the governing of cinemas, 1912-1915′, in The Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Grieveson and Peter Kramer.

The Chronicling America site of digitised historic newspapers has a special section on the Johnson-Jeffries fight.

For celebratory centenary events, see www.johnsonjeffries2010.com.

In 2005 Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910) was added to the National Film Registry as a work of “enduring significance to American culture”.

Parts of this post are taken from a long essay I wrote for Griffithiana in 1998 entitled ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’.

Filmography

1. Fight films
(Note: Fight films tend to be recorded under a variety of titles, but US copyright titles are given where available. Dates are the dates of the fights)

  • [Jack Johnson v Ben Taylor] (GB, 31 July 1908, producer unknown)
  • World’s Heavyweight Championship Pictures between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson aka The Burns-Johnson Boxing Contest (GB/Australia, 26 December 1908, Gaumont)
  • World Championship, Jack Johnson vs. Stanley Ketchell [sic] (USA, 16 October 1909, J.W. Coffroth)
  • Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest, held at Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910 (USA, 4 July 1910, J&J Company) [The cut down version held by the BFI is entitled Sights and Scenes from the Johnson-Jeffries Fight. There were also a number of re-enactment films made of the fight - see Streible, Fight Pictures]
  • Jack Johnson vs. Jim Flynn Contest for Heavyweight Championship of the World (USA, 4 July 1912, Jack Curley/Miles Bros.)
  • Johnson-Moran Fight / The Grand Boxing Match for the Heavyweight Championship of the World between Frank Moran and Jack Johnson (France? 27 June 1914)
  • Willard-Johnson Boxing Match (USA, 5 April 1915, Pantomimic/L. Lawrence Weber) [Streible records a pirated version of the fight as well]
  • Note: Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue lists a Jack Johnson v Bombardier Billy Wells fight film made in 1911 by Will Barker, but though the film was advertised the fight itself was abandoned and the film never made.

2. Fiction films

  • Une aventure de Jack Johnson, champion de boxe toutes catégories du monde (France 1913)
  • Fuerza y nobleza (Spain 1917-18, four-part serial)
  • Black Thunderbolt (Spain 1917-18, released in USA in 1921 by A.A. Millman, 7 reels) [it is possible that this is the same film as Fuerza y nobleza]
  • The Man in Ebony (USA 1918, T.H.B. Walker’s Colored Pictures, 3 reels) [uncertain credit, because Johnson did not live in the USA 1913-1919]
  • As the World Rolls On (USA 1921, Andlauer Production Company, 7 reels)
  • For His Mother’s Sake (USA 1922, Blackburn Velde Productions, 5-6 reels)
  • Madison Sq. Garden (USA 1932, Paramount) [guest appearance]

3. Other films
(Note: Some of these titles probably reproduce material from earlier releases, such as the Kineto films of Johnson in training)

  • Burns and Johnson Training (GB? 1909) [given by Streible, not by Gifford]
  • Jack Johnson in Training/How Jack Johnson Trains (GB? 1909, Kineto) [given by Streible and BFI database, not by Gifford]
  • Jack Johnson Training Pictures/Jack Johnson Training (GB? 1910, Kineto) [given by Streible, not by Gifford]
  • Johnson Training for his Fight with Jeffries (USA 1910, Chicago Film Picture Co.)
  • Mr Johnson Talks (USA 1910, American Cinephone Co.) [gramophone recording synchronised to film]
  • How the Champion of the World Trains, Jack Johnson in Defence and Attack (GB 1911, Kineto) [given by Streible, not by Gifford. The title of the copy in the Nederlands Filmmuseum is Jack Johnson: Der Meister Boxer der Welt]
  • Jack Johnson, Champion du Monde de Boxe (Poids Lourds) (France 1911) [newsreel]
  • Jack Johnson Paying a Visit to the Manchester Docks (GB 1911) [newsreel]
  • Jack Johnson and Jim Flynn Up-to-date (USA 1912, Johnson-Flynn Feature Film Co.)

The second birth of cinema

The Electric Cinema, Notting Hill, London, which celebrates its centenary in 2011. See www.electriccinema.co.uk.

The problem with centenaries is that they only come around once every 100 years. This is a long time to wait, especially if you want to celebrate 100 years of cinema, because we all put on our party hats for that way back in 1995 (or 1996). But some are clearly not happy with waiiting, or more precisely are not entirely satisfied with 1895 (or 1896) as the starting date of what we call cinema. It started a technology, but did it start a phenomenon? What is cinema anyway?

Well, whether it’s because of an intellectual problem, or because film study academics love any excuse for a scholarly knees-up, there has been a call for papers for a conference entitled The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference. Taking place at Newcastle University, UK 1-2 July 2001, and with Newcastle University, 1-2 July 2011, and with André Gaudreault, Philippe Marion, Ian Christie and Joe Kember as keynote speakers, it takes as its theme the approximate centenary of the breakaway of cinema from other media to the point where it stood out as an individual medium. And that occured in 1911? They are certainly going to have plenty to debate. Here’s the conference blurb:

This conference commemorates cinema’s ‘second birth’, the historical developments and departures that broke cinema’s subordination to other media to give us the medium, the industry and the building that we know as ‘the cinema’.

If, as André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion have recently insisted, cinema was born once as a technology and then again as a medium, just when and how did this occur? What caused film practice, the film business and film discourse all to generate a media identity for cinema? How did we get from ‘animated photography’ to ‘the pictures’?

Possible questions to consider:
Was cinema’s ‘second birth’ a radical short-term event or a gradual and imperceptible change? What was the most significant cause? Was this ‘second birth’ a matter of maturation or deliberate manipulation? What people and organisations were most instrumental in bringing it about, and how did it vary from country to country? How extensively was cinema’s audience contract re-written? What kinds of genealogies were invented for cinema, what genealogies were forgotten, and what genealogies were actively disavowed? Was cinema drafted into bourgeois culture, or did it fashion its own unique identity? Did this period create a lasting identity card for cinema, or were third and fourth births still to come? How did contemporaries register this change? How early did the process of reinventing cinema begin, and when, if ever, did it end? And what date stands out as the watershed? Indeed, was 2011 a good choice for the centennial year?

Abstracts are invited for 20-minute papers on any aspect of this ‘event’ in any part of the world. Please send abstracts, by email attachment, to Andrew Shail at a.e.shail [at] ncl.ac.uk, with the subject line ‘Second Birth of Cinema’, by the 30th of September 2010.

There’s no web page as yet, but I’ll add details as and when they appear to the Bioscope’s Conferences page.

This is not the only event which has laid claim to the mysterious second centenary. Last year’s Continuous Performance exhibition at the University of Kent (images from which are now on the Bioscope’s Flickr site) ostensibly celebrated 100 years of cinema, while this December’s 1910 Centenary Conference at the University of Glasgow looks at 100 years of modernism, including film within its frames of reference. Or check out William Drew’s 100 Years of Hollywood and the Stars site, which recognises the centenary of both Hollywood and the movie star in 2010. Or pick your own centenary.

Update: (September 2010)
There is now a website for the conference, at http://conferences.ncl.ac.uk/secondbirth.

100 years of newsreels in Britain

Frame still from Pathé Gazette’s The Movie Cameramen’s Derby, released 7 September 1922, which shows a race between British newsreel cameramen (with their cameras) – available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=19541

One hundred years ago, give or take a few days, a new kind of film appeared for the first time on British cinema screens. The Bioscope of those days took note of this interesting new development with this report:

There is no mistaking the smartness of Messrs Pathé, and their latest achievement — the production of a weekly cinematograph paper, The Animated Gazette — has just about beaten all records for the interest which it has awakened among the great B.P. [British Public]. The daily Press has been devoting considerable space to it, with the result that curiosity has been aroused, and people are now busily discussing the latest thing in moving pictures.

Briefly the idea is to incorporate the usual journalistic methods of writing into filming, and to portray, in lengths of about 80 odd feet, the chief items of interest that have happened during the week. Thus the illustrated newspaper is being superseded by The Animated Gazette, which depicts the actual scenes of contemporary history in living and moving reality.

Mr Valentia Steer, a well-known journalist, is editor of this moving picture periodical, and he has a staff of photo-correspondents, who are stationed in all the big cities of Europe, besides another staff at home. Last week’s news consisted of pictures of the cross-channel flight, Oxford University Eights’ trial, Peary at Edinburgh, Roosevelt at Cambridge, besides many interesting ‘glimpses’ from home and abroad.

This week’s contents bill announces motor-racing at Brooklands, the manouevres at Salisbury Plain, the departure of the Terra Nova, Chinese mission in Paris, quarrymen’s strike, Caruso in the street, Modes in Paris, and other ‘newsy’ films.

That the idea will catch on is undoubted, and it is perhaps not looking too far into the future to anticipate the time when the weekly Animated Gazette will become an indispensable ‘daily’.

The Bioscope, 9 June 1910

This piece announced the arrival of the British newsreel, in the form of Pathé’s Animated Gazette, edition no. 1 of which appeared at some point in the first week of June 1910. It wasn’t the first newsreel in the world – that honour generally goes to Pathé Fait-Divers (later Pathé Journal), launched in France in 1908. There has been film of news events ever since films had been invented, but they weren’t newsreels. Newsreels meant regularity of service, and that was dependent on a network of cinemas and an audience which could be guaranteed to come back to the cinema week after week. Before cinemas started to appear – the first ten years or so of film history – a film might be made of a news event, but it seldom could be presented as news, that is while the event was still current and with the report being understood as being part of a regular, always updated filmed news service. Cinemas supplied the loyal audience, and it is the audience that makes the news, because what is news to one person isn’t necessarily news to another – it all depends where you are, and where that news is coming from.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette main title card from 1915 (with British Pathé spoiler). Note the boast that it was reaching 20 million people (5 million is more likely for the UK) and the line about having been passed by the British Board of Film Censors – only in wartime were British newsreels subject to censorship

Pathé’s Animated Gazette was immediately recognised as an exciting innovation. It was a product of cinema, yet it had a clear relationship with newspapers. It gave a new social purpose to cinema-going. This new film form was called by a variety of names – animated newspapers, topicals etc.- but not as yet newsreels (that term didn’t begin to catch on until 1917 or so), and Pathé’s model was soon followed by Warwick Bioscope Chronicle (1910), Gaumont Graphic (1910), Topical Budget (1911), Eclair Journal and Williamson’s Animated News, all before the First World War. In the US there was Pathé’s Weekly (1911), Gaumont Animated Weekly (1912), Mutual Weekly (1912) and Universal’s Animated Weekly (1912); France added Gaumont Actualités and Eclair-Journal; Germany had Tag im Film (1911), Eiko-Woche (1913), Union-Woche (1913) and Messter-Woche (1914). Russia had Zerkalo voiny (Mirror of the World) (1914); Australia had Australasian Gazette.(Note by the way how the newsreels all emulated newspapers by taking on names like Gazette and Journal)

The form spread around the world, often as off-shoots of the French parent companies of Pathé and Gaumont. Filmed news became a product of the early film multinationals, and through means of international exchange, world news was screened in cinemas across the globe, though the time taken to transport film internationally lessened its value as news, and audiences expressed a strong preference for local news, on subjects that were news to them. ‘Foreign’ news often wasn’t news at all, in its timing or in how the audience viewed it.

The newsreels were released at regular intervals to match the pattern of cinema-going that people in their millions were starting to adopt. In Britain newsreels were very early on issued twice-weekly and stayed that way for five decades. In the US the distances were greater and so news tended to be issued weekly. Newsreels had become firmly established as part of practically cinema programme by the start of the First World War, and newsreels were to play a key part in informing audiences about how the war was progressing. Such was their importance that the British, French and American governments each took over or created a newsreel to act as a means to deliver officially sanctioned footage (i.e. propaganda) – respectively War Office Offical Topical Budget, Annales de la Guerre and Official War Review.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visit Britain, from Pathé Gazette issue 679, released 24 June 1920. Available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=27815

In the 1920s newsreels built on these strong foundations and became an essential and popular element of the cinema programme. The average newsreel in the silent era ran for some 7-8 minutes and contained anywhere between four and eight stories, eached introdued by a title card with the story title and a short comment, and sometimes with further titles cut into the story as the newsreels increasingly sought to add commentary even before sound gave them their voice. The newsreels rapidly gained a repuation for light-hearted items, stunts and gimmicks, with a fascination for sport, royalty, pageantry, tradition and sensation. Oscar Levant notoriously summed up newsreels as being “a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show”.

That’s unfair. Anyone who has looked at newsreels in any sort of depth will soon find that there was a lot more too them than fashion shows. The newsreels were acutely aware of what were the current topics of conversation (they were released after the daily newspapers, so the news agenda had been already set for them) and picked up on the personalities and issues of the day that audiences wanted to see covered with an astute eye. This propensity for the topical makes them an excellent barometer of contemporary social concerns, albeit usually sugared with that lightness of tone that the newsreels deemend necessary because they were, after all, in the entertainment business, and their audience had come to the cinema to be entertained.

The newsreels entertained, and that ultimately became the noose around their necks that condemned them. That however was in the future – our concern is with the silent era, and in the 1910s and 1920s the newsreels reigned supreme, and we cannot understand what silent cinema means if we do not take them into consideration. Indeed no other area of silent cinema is so well represented online as newsreels (such is their continuing commercial value).

Fortunately there is amply opportunity to consider them. The newsreels may have faded away in the 1950s and 60s, but their libraries live on, selling footage to television programmes. In the UK there are five major newsreel libraries and a great deal of what they hold has been made available online, either available to all or free at point of use for educational users. They are:

  • British Pathé
    Pathé operated a newsreel in Britain between 1910-1970. Its entire archive (3,500 hours) is freely available online, albeit with low resolution copies
  • ITN Source
    ITN holds the British Gaumont (1910-1959), Paramount (1929-1957) and Universal (1930-1956) newsreel libraries. A substantial amount of this is available on its site, included among other footage managed by ITN – go to the advanced search option and select ‘New Classics’ to narrow searches down to newsreels. The entire Gaumont collection is available in download form for UK higher and further education users only via Newsfilm Online
  • British Movietone
    The entire British Movietone News collection 1929-1979 is available for free, alongside non-Movietone silent material going back to the 1890s
  • BFI National Archive
    The BFI owns the Topical Budget (1911-1931) newsreel, examples of which are available on its Screenonline site (accessible to UK educational and library users only) and on its YouTube channel
  • Imperial War Museum
    The IWM holds service newsreels from the First and Second World Wars, a number of which are available through Film and Sound Online (UK higher and further educational users only)

These services has been covered by the Bioscope before now (see links below). As it is Pathé’s centenary, let’s finish with a few words about them. First of all, happy centenary! the Bioscope sends its congratulations on having achieved such a major milestone and still a significant commercial moving image presence. Pathé has changed hands several times down the years. Until a couple of years ago it was owned by the Daily Mail newspaper; now it is managed by venture capitalists.

http://www.britishpathe.com

For anyone who cares about newsreels, the British Pathé site is a mixed blessing. It is a wonderful window onto the past, the digitisation of the films having been originally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund but kept on as a free service long beyond the original agreement with the HLF. But on the other side it has of late become a little soulless, disfigured by front page advertising, and dominated by an idea of news as gimmick and sensation, a lucky dip into the quaint ways in which our ancestors behaved rather than showing what the newsreel fundamentally was – a vehicle for the news.

One cannot get a sense of the Pathé newreels as newsreels i.e. as a set of stories released on a single reel, and for that it is necessary to cross-refer to the BUFVC’s News on Screen site (formerly the British Universities Newsreel Database) where you will find an almost complete record of issues for all British newsreels 1910-1979, together with background histories, biographies of those who worked in the newsreels, digitised documents, and links across to the British Pathé site. It is place to go if you appreciate newsreels for what they mean to the study of society and history. Newsreels matter – and the more we understand them the more we will get from viewing them.

Finding out more
These Bioscope posts have covered British newsreel collections and the use of online resources: British Pathe part one, British Pathe part two, Revisiting Pathe, Movietone and Henderson and Welcome to Newsfilm Online

Pathé editor P.D. Hugon wrote an informative booklet Hints to Newsfilm Cameraman (1915) with much information on how newsreels operated at that time. The online text has an important introduction by Nicholas Hiley.

British Pathé has a lively Twitter feed, drawing attention to exciting novelties they discover in their collection.

I’ve written lots about newsreels in the past. My history of the Topical Budget newsreel (1992) is long out of print (but you can get it dirt cheap second-hand), but there’s Yesterday News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (2002) which tells the history of British newsreels through texts contemporary and modern, and most recently I’ve an essay on newsreels in Richard Howells and Robert W. Matson’s Using Visual Evidence (2009).

100 years ago

One of the elements of early cinema shows that is frequently forgotten is the presence of a lecturer. It certainly wasn’t the case for every show, and as cinemas spread, got bigger, and intertitles became common, the lecturer became redundant. But this inheritance from the variety theatres and fairground shows where films were first exhibited lingered for a time as cinemas were first developing and many felt the need to have the sometimes bewildering action on the screen explained to them.

How common were such lecturers? It is interesting that in all the memoirs of early cinema-going in London, of which I’ve made a special study, there is not a single mention of someone talking to the pictures. Nevertheless, there were definitely some around, though by the time of this article from The Bioscope of a hundred years ago they starting to become anachronistic. The article, with its quaint language and references to Greek oratory, is describing an ideal, much as other articles from this time describe the sort of music that the author feels should be played in cinemas, rather than the music that actually was.

So we have to read between the lines, and to understand that everything the writer says the lecturer should not do is what the average lecturer almost invariably did.

Explain the Pictures!

The Most Pressing Need of the Day is an intelligent description of Film Plots and Travel Pictures

There seems to be a tendency amongst present day managers to quietly lean back on the reputations they built up in the early years of the industry, confident that the impetus which they engendered then by real grit and toil will carry them along and keep them in the front rank for all time. We must always be on the qui vive. We must not be deceived and deluded by a long period of properity, but must watch for fresh and new fields of enterprise. Good pictures and good prices must not be the only consideration.

One of the most urgent requirements to-day is that every picture shall be introduced to the audience in a manner that will ensure the good points of the film being intelligently appreciated. The developments in the selection and the building up of subjects during the last few years have schooled us until we are quite decided that the lay mind – the mind which is not always devoted to the manufacture and the elucidation of screen mysteries – is quite incapable of seeing and of comprehending the inner nature and the underlying humanity which are the life and soul of to-day’s great creations. Nowadays the lecture is an attribute to success. Some managers have seen it already; others are slowly discovering the fact; while as to the remaining many, we are going to explain to them why they should lecture and how. And if they accept our advice, and act on it, we shall not wait long for their thanks.

Verbal explanation is necessary, finally, because it is impossible to place on the screen real pathos and real humanness – these must be preserved from the full glare of people’s eyes or the effect is lost; secondly, because spectators will not trouble to look for these latent qualities unless the search is suggested to them; and, thirdly, because educational travel pictures minus an explanation of why they should be considered important enough to occupy the screen tend to make interest wane and eventually to fade away altogether.

The Greek orator, when asked what was the essence of speech making, answered “Delivery”. The essence of giving a lecture on a bioscope picture is not distinguished by such a word. The lecturer’s key to success is “to tell the tale”. It should be told simply, clearly and intellectually. The lecturer should know the picture well before he attempts to explain it to others. He should keep perfect pace with the projecting machine, should quietly indicate the inner cause when the outer result is taking place. He should indulge in no stock phrases, no personal reminiscences which the picture may recall, no opaque phrases, no drawn-out, windy sentences; in fact, nothing which could possibly lower his description in the estimation of any single member of his audience. Let him always keep well in mind that he is talking to an assembly, not to a few of his acquaintances, who would probably laugh at his jokes and listen to his rhetoric merely for the sake of their friendship. Audiences do not tolerate any admixture of personality. They want the discription [sic] to be clear, unalloyed, to serve the purpose which it is intended to serve.

But while endeavouring to make himself understood by using words which everyone knows and sentences the meaning of which will be readily grasped by all, the lecturer must guard against falling into the opposite error – that of making his explanation too elementary. Either extreme is wrong, and not wanted. By making his story too academical he will run the risk of being thought by a portion of his audience, to be aiming higher than is necessary, and if he is so unfortunate as to lose himself for a moment, the chaos, which is always threatening, comes; while if he goes too far in the other direction his listeners will accuse him of looking down on them. So the only sensible course to pursue is a middle one. Let the words used be ordinary ones, but let the construction of the sentences be perfect. Do not have your lecture “scrappy” and disconnected. The more intellectual people object strongly to this, and never listen to it more than once.

Above all else, make the story bright. Make your explanation worthy of the beautiful picture you are showing. Every description can be made bright and sparkling, for it is not the subject but the way it is exploited that determines the amount of interest the narrative shall be accorded. Travel films can be described with a swing and a healthy raciness which help the listener to persuade himself that he, too, is bounding along and partaking of the pleasure of actual expedition, while the picture of sentiment and pathos lends itself to that terseness and conciseness which, while bordering almost on the abrupt, is the real acme of of pathetic narrative. Do not have your lecture like a few dry old extracts hitched up from a text book, and, without boring the audience, make yourself felt. Be an authority on the subject in hand; be the larger half of the show.

And when you have done all this you have faithfully discharged your duty. You have sown the seed of success and can look forward to the harvest. You begin to reap exactly one week after the inauguration of the lecture, and the crop increases weekly. So try it. Engage a lecturer or improvise one from your own material. Whether you have spoken in public or not matters little. Study your audiences, work on the ideas I have attempted to explain, and watch for the crowds being turned away.

The Bioscope, 10 December 1908, p. 5

Particularly amusing is the implication that there were lecturers who attempted to provide commentaries to films they had not seen. If all that you are doing is conducting a running jokey conversation with your friends in the audience, perhaps you may even have got away with it.

One last thought. Is this high-minded commentator (who ought to have read some of his own words about the use of clear language) thinking more of lecturers for magic lantern shows than cinema shows? He refers to film dramas and travel pictures, but there is more of an air of the church hall than the electric theatre about this curious piece.

100 years ago

100 years ago, The Bioscope was relieved that a certain type of film was certain to be no more:

Indecency’s Decline and Fall

The indecent picture is departing, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung. It has been tried in the balance of public opinion, and has been found wanting. It has been adjudged by the general consent of the public to be “not what we want.” The great majority of manufacturers and showmen have known all along that clean amusement is what is wanted by that section of their patrons which really matters. They have relegated the questionable film to the zone of undesirables, and so, banned by the respectable frequenter of our great picture halls, and uncountenanced by the bulk of manufactuers and dealers simply because they respect public opinion, and themselves recognise the evil which would most assuredly be the result of its constant exhibition. The indecent picture is gradually disappearing. It is mortifying to think that the man whose sole mission on earth seems to be to pull the world down into the mire, should ever have found a place in the bioscope world. But it is gratifying to note that with the steady rise of this form of entertainment into the favour of the populance [sic], there arose men who were ready to give the people real healthy diversion, to minister to the man, not to the beast. The result we all know. It has been the big jump into popularity of the really elevating yet dramatic picture, a huge slump in the output of the low-down manufacturer, and a big increase in the number of patrons who are in search of a good, sensible form of recreation, for themselves and for their children, and who are willing to pay for it. Bioscope entertainments must necessarily have a big hand in the moulding or the marring of a country’s morals, and it behoves us as fellow-workers for the general good of all mankind, to all lend a hand in the work of stamping out this evil altogether and placing those dealers and manufacturers who are inclined to look on it with an encouraging eye, in their proper places – outside the bioscope business.

The Bioscope, 6 November 1908, p. 3.

How indecent did they mean by indecent? Pornographic films of every hue had been produced from practically the start of cinema, but these were really only encountered in ‘smoking concerts’, men’s clubs and brothels. Pathé kept films it described as Scènes grivoises d’un caractère piquant in its catalogue during the early 1900s, and there were companies like Austria’s Saturn Films (examples of whose output can be found on the Europa Film Treasures site) producing coyly erotic films, but these would not have made into the public halls and proto-cinemas of London at this period.

Yet clearly there were shows not reported by the film trade press whose existence threatened the reputation of the industry. Although some research has been done on early pornographic films, little written evidence remains, as might be expected. While one can speculate on what to read between the lines of this editorial piece, what is most striking about it is the sense of responsibility coming out of general popularity. “Bioscope entertainments must necessarily have a big hand in the moulding or the marring of a country’s morals … ” – that’s big claim for what was still a relatively small industry, albeit one just about to mushroom in size to a remarkable degree. The editor of the Bioscope evidently foresaw this, and the anguished debates over motion pictures and morality which were to follow – and which have remained with us, in one form or another, ever since.

100 years ago

Back to our series of pieces from the original film journal The Bioscope, published 100 years ago to the day. Today we consider the dreadful crime of having music at a film show, and on a Sunday too…

The Camden Case

PROPRIETORS FINED FOR INCLUDING MUSIC IN PROGRAM, AND SUNDAY SHOWS BARRED

Some months ago, itwill be remembered, Mr. Robert Arthur, Mr. Walter Gibbons, and Mr. W.H. Terrell were bound over at Clerkenwell Sessions, a jury finding them guilty of having carried on a music-hall entertainment at the Camden Theatre without having a license from the London County Council.

At the Sessions on Tuesday, it was alleged that the terms of the recognisances of the parties had been broken, and notice had been served upon them to attend the court to show why they should not be forfeited.

Mr. Horace Avory said the house was closed after the conviction until Monday 14th September, when without any license being obtained from the L.C.C., the theatre was opened with an animated picture entertainment, along with music. There were also Sunday performances.

The music, counsel argued, was not incidental to or subsidiary to the entertainment, but was independent and substantial. This was shown by the fact that so soon as the selections ceased, the gallery became noisy, and quieted down again when it re-started.

Mr. Muir said his client, Mr. Robert Arthur had absolutely nothing to do with the place at all since the early days of the former proceedings.

Mr. George Elliott did not dispute the facts, but disputed that what was done was an infringement of the Act.

Mr. Barnes, solicitor for the prosecution, said the music was supplied by an electrical orchestral piano. The entertainment would have been a dull one with no music, because the intervals were very long. People joined in the choruses, and sang.

Mr. Muir asked that, as Mr. Arthur had no desire to offend, he might be allowed to go.

Mr. Wallace, K.C.: Certainly.

Mr. Walter Gibbons called on his own behalf, said he was not conscious at any time of having violated his recognisances. The public came to see the bioscope.

Mr. Wallace, K.C., items of the Sunday program as follows:-

The Pneumatic Policeman. (Laughter.)
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
“The Sign of the Cross.”
The Reluctant Dog.
Yachting on the Solent.

Is that a Sunday program?

The Witness: Yes, they are all pictures which no one can object to on a Sunday.

Mr. Wallace, K.C., found that defendants (Messrs. Gibbons and Terrell) had violated their recognisances.

He fined them 40s. each, requiring an undertaking that there should be no music at week-day performances, and no performances at all on Sunday.

Mr. Wallace intimated that he did not think defendants deliberately intended to violate their obligations.

The Bioscope, 30 October 1908

Before the Cinematograph Act of 1910, there was no licensing scheme for moving picture shows in Britain, something which exercised the authorities greatly. The London County Council, which oversaw the licensing of entertainments in the capital, could licence public shows under three categories: music, music and dancing, or stage. Film shows fitted none of these per se, so had to obtain a licence for music or music and dancing if they were not to be in danger of being closed down by the L.C.C for having failed to conform to the Disorderly Houses Act of 1751. Most complied, but quite a number prefered (or had no option but) to risk it, or even in some cases put on film shows without music.

Sunday film shows were another vexed issue for the L.C.C., it being considered that entertainments of any kind on a Sunday were unwelcome, but friviolous and doubtless immoral bioscope shows especially so. Venues liked show films on Sundays, because they drew the crowds, but to keep sweet with the L.C.C. suitably ‘harmless’ programmes were concocted for Sunday shows.

The Cinematograph Act, introduced in January 1910, was established to monitor this mushrooming new public entertainment by establishing a licensing scheme specifically tailored towards it. It was the first piece of legislation in the UK which recognised the film business.

Walter Gibbons (1871-1933) had been in the film exhibition business for a decade by this point. He inherited a music hall empire and in 1910 built the London Palladium as his flagship venue. He would be knighted for his services to British variety theatre, but ended his life bankrupt.

100 years ago

As promised, the Bioscope is starting up a new occasional series, to be called 100 Years Ago, which will reproduce texts from the original British film trade journal The Bioscope, from exactly 100 years ago.

The Bioscope included reports on film and film exhibition around the world, and this piece reported on a strike of nickelodeon projectionists and singers (songs were a common part of early cinema shows) in Chicago.

Artistes and Operators Strike

A somewhat humourous situation recently arose in Chicago, where the ladies and gentlemen who warble such sweet music at the five-cent picture shows joined forces with the bioscope operators and “struck.” There are now over 400 picture shows, employing about 900 people, and they have formed an Operators’ Union. The strikers complain that some of them have been forced to work twelve hours a day. One of the leaders say [sic] “I have known several instances where they did not have time to stop for their meals. I saw a performer bite into a sandwich, leave it on a chair until his act was done, and then finish it.

“If we cannot secure eight-hour days and the pay we ask, this army of employees will stand at the doors of these amusement places Monday and persuade patrons not to enter until the union demands are met.”

On the following Monday, Miss Leonora Drake stood in front of a five-cent theatre on the West Side, and warbled the latest illustrated song. Actors and actresses stop [sic] beside her, and when the crowd paused to listen they called out to them:

“Stay where you are. Don’t go in that theatre. It’s unfair. We’re on a strike, and if you’re with us stay on the outside. She’ll sing. Don’t you think that’s worth a decent salary?”

And while Leonora sang, theatre patrons stood outside and listened.

All over the city striking five-cent theatre artists adopted similar tactics to compel theatre owners to agree to union demands. Vaudeville performers did their turns for nothing out in the middle of the street; teams danced and sang, and moving picture operators, with no machines to operate, explained to the crowds what the strike was for, and declared that five-cent theatre artists were being driven like slaves for the entertainment of the public.

Latest advices [sic] from the scene of war do not tell us if the strike is ended yet.

The Bioscope, 16 October 1908, p. 17

I don’t know what happened to the strike, but on leisure (including cinema) and the eight hours in the day rallying call of American workers at this time, see Roy Rosenzweig’s classic Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and leisure in an industrial city, 1870-1920 (Cambridge university Press, 1983).

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