The Bioscope Guide to … South Africa

Mabel May and the children of Piccanin village in The Picannins’ Christmas (1917), from http://www.vintagemedia.co.za

After rather too long a gap, we return to the Bioscope’s occasional series on national film histories – essentially a quick reference guide, with listings of online and offline resources for the researcher. So far we have covered Italy and China. And, inspired to a degree by my recent discovery of the guide to South African film and television, VintageMedia, our attention turns to a land not generally associated much with silent film at all, South Africa.

History
South African history, and therefore South African film history, is profoundly bound up with colonialisation, racial segregation and apartheid. The state enforced system of racial segregation was instituted in 1948 and ended only in 1994, but apartheid merely enshrined in statute an absolute state of privilege for the minority white population which had existed for a century or more. South African silent cinema was a minority cinema – white-owned, white-produced, white-performed (though not absolutely so) and exhibited for whites (again, not absolutely so). It was also a colonial cinema, similar to the situation in Australia, where local production was constrained by distance from Europe and America, by a lack of finance, and by a paucity of talent. It was a cinema on the margins.

Edna Flugrath and Holger Petersen in Der Voortrekkers (1916), from vintagemedia.co.za

When motion pictures first came to Johannesburg in 1895, South Africa did not exist as a country. There were the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It was in 1910, following the upheavals of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 that the four combined as the Union of South Africa. Motion pictures came in 1895 in the same form as they did throughout the world, that is via the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, which opened to the public on 19 April 1895 at Henwood’s Arcade in Johannesburg. American magician Carl Hertz brought projected film to South Africa when he first exhibited at the Empire Palace of Varieties, Johannesburg on 9 May 1896. Variety theatres quickly picked up on the new phenomenon, showing films mostly obtained via the Warwick Trading company in Britain, whose trademark projector the Bioscope became so fixed in the mind of South African patrons that it is still the common name for a cinema in South Africa over a century later.

The manager of the Empire Palace of Varieties, Edgar Hyman, became the leading figure in early South Africa film, obtaining a Bioscope cine-camera and becoming the first of a number of cameramen to film scenes from the Anglo-Boer War, an event of worldwide interest that ensured films from South Africa were in high demand. Joseph Rosenthal and William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson were aong the filmmakers whose war-front footage demonstrated the power (and the limitations) of the cinematograph as war reporter.

After the war and until the creation of the Union of South Africa, local production was minimal, mostly topicals of restricted interest, though British film companies, including Butcher’s and the Charles Urban Trading Company, filmed in the country. The first South African cinema opened in Durban in 1909, and such bioscopes spread rapidly throughout 1910, with the first cinema for ‘coloured people only’ reportedly appearing in Durban in December 1910. The issue of race came to the fore in 1910 with the banning of the film of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries world heavyweight championship fight, because local authorities feared that its exhibition might cause racial unrest. Exhibitors in vain pointed out that in 1909 film of Johnson defeating the white Tommy Burns had not caused any social disruption, but the ban remained.

South Africa’s first fiction film, The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery, was released in 1910. Made by the Springbok Film Company, it does not appear to have been a particularly disinguished production. The African Mirror newsreel, produced by I.W. Schlesinger African Films Trust, was a greater success, becoming the local agent for Pathé Frères. South Africa film production expanded in the teens through Schlesginger’s formation of African Film Productions in 1915. AFP brought in American talent in the form of Lorrimer Johnston and Harold Shaw to produce films with the potential for export to British and American markets.

Shaw was the most notable filmmaker in South African silent cinema. He directed three feature films [correction, four – see comments], each starring his wife Edna Flugrath: Der Voortrekkers (1916, retelling the story of the Great Trek of the Boer people and the Battle of Blood River), The Rose of Rhodesia (1917, a drama about stolen diamonds with a strong underlying theme of racial understanding, made by Shaw’s own company) and a horse-raing drama, Thoroughbreds All (1919), the only title of the three now lost (almost no other South African silent fiction films survive). A fourth film, The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918), was to have been made by Shaw, but after disgreements with the film company it was directed by Dick Cruikshanks. The only other director of note was Joseph Albrecht, who was AFP’s main director into the 1930s.

British newsreel showing a screeing of Der Voortrekkers (as Winning a Continent) at the West End Cinema Theatre, London, in 1917, from www.britishpathe.com

Der Voortrekkers gained some overseas screenings under the title Winning a Continent, but African Film Productions struggled to find a market outside South Africa for its productions, with only King Solomon’s Mines (1918), made by British director H. Lisle Lucoque, and the lavish The Blue Lagoon (1923) being relative successes. The great popularity of American product, with vastly superior production values, meant that local productions such as Prester John (1920) and The Man Who Was Afraid (1920) struggled to find audiences even in South Africa. AFP produced over forty fiction films between 1916 and 1924, before turning largely to documentary and newsreel work, South African fiction film production effectively disappearing until the talkie era.

South African silent cinema was white-produced for white audiences, but there were few South African films that did not feature the black population in one form or another. Inevitably such roles depicted the native population as either threatening or compliant, with Harold Shaw’s boldly inclusive The Rose of Rhodesia only able to stand out because it was an independent production (in every sense). Black performers appeared as tribes imperilling whites in gung-ho dramas of imperialist adventure such as King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, and as naive and obedient in sentimental productions such as The Piccanins Christmas (1917). There were a few early AFP productions with all-black casts, notably the Zulutown Comedies series of slapstick shorts from 1917, performed by the Zulutown Players (though these made for white audiences). Zulu actor Goba starred in one of AFP’s first productions, A Zulu’s Devotion (1916) and in several productions thereafter.

Director Dick Cruickshanks (centre) with the Zulutown Players, from Screening the Past

Little now survives of South African silent film production, but scholarly interest has grown following the recent discovery of a print of The Rose of Rhodesia in the Netherlands, and through a rise in African film history studies generally, headed by such scholars as Jacqueline Maingard, Neil Parsons and James Burns. South Africa also boasts one of the most notable of all film histories, Thelma Gutsche’s truly epic The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940 (1972, but completed in 1946). South African film history is still trying to live up to it.

Notable filmmakers
Joseph Albrecht, Dick Cruickshanks, Henry Howse, Lorrimer Johnston, Norman Lee, Harold Shaw

Notable performers
Adele Fillis, Edna Flugrath, Goba, Mabel May, Marmaduke A. Wetherell, Grafton Williams

DVDs and online videos

  • The Rose of Rhodesia (streaming, via Screening the Past website)
  • The Symbol of Sacrifice (some scenes were included in the DVD Isandlwana, Zulu Battlefield but this seems to be no longer available; The Symbol of Sacrifice was also available from online pay service Kuduclub but this closed down in 2011)
  • Der Voortekkers (DVD-R from Villon Films)

Publications

Archives and museums

Websites

  • African Media Program (extensive database of films and videos on Africa, with variable information on some silent era productions)
  • A History of the South African Film Industry 1895-1003 (useful timeline from South African History Online)
  • Screening the Past (special issue on the online film studies journal on The Rose of Rhodesia ith rich material on silent era South African production in general)
  • Vintage Media (useful site surveying South Africa film and television history, with authoritative descriptions of most South Africa silent fiction films)

In a silent way

In our occasional discussions of jazz and silent film, particularly jazz / improvisatory guitar and silent film, we haven’t yet covered Marc Ribot. The guitarist whose edgy sounds are best known through his work with Tom Waits, recently released an album entitled Silent Movies. The album was inspired by his experience of playing live to Chaplin’s The Kid at Merkin Concert Hall in January 2010 as part of the New York Guitar Festival, though he has played to silent films before now (Giovanni Pastrone’s Il Fuoco in 2007, for example). Only one track on the album comes from that score, but all are about the experience of putting music to film. As it says on the record company’s website:

The album reflects Ribot’s fascination with movies and contains pieces intended to function as music for films: some are adaptations of music he has actually written for films, others for classic silent movies that he scored for his personal amusement, still others for films of his own imagination. His goal is to explore, as he says “the strange area between language and spatiality that exists partly in between music and visual image, and partly as a common property of both.”

Contrary to other solo guitar forays by Ribot, where “bracing atonality or studies in texture” prevail, Silent Movies is – we are promised – “replete with beautiful melodies and quietly wistful playing”, with Ribot commenting on the CD liner notes that the project ““did indeed have the feeling of having walked backwards into the beautiful frame of a silent movie.”

All of which sounds rather pleasant, and is still further evidence of the new interest some in the jazz world are finding in silent films. Of course, we who attend silent film shows are used to improvised music where the musician works as much to the themes on the screen as the musical themes. It’s seldom what you would call jazz if you listened to it without watching the screen, but the same spirit – exploratory yet disciplined – pervades.

There’s an article in the current Jazz Times (available online) which rounds up some of the recent comings-together of jazz and silent films, each of which has been covered by the Bioscope. Apart from Marc Ribot, there’s Dave Douglas’ Keystone project (covered here, plus his new work Spark of Being with filmmaker Bill Morrison here), guitarist Bill Frisell’s tributes to Buster Keaton (covered here), and billionaire filmmaker Dan Pritzker’s film Louis, made as a silent film and performed live with a Wynton Marsalis score (covered here). Not covered in the article is the work of Gary Lucas, a guitarist whose works hovers between jazz and the avant garde (covered here).

Trailer for Dan Pritzker’s Louis, with Wyonton Marsalis’ music

What other examples are out there? Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon played his part-composed, part-improvsed score for 16-piece big band for Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925) at the National Black Arts Festival in July. Guitarist Alex de Grassi has been playing to Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), while last month saxophonist Javon Jackson premiered his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger at the Syracuse International Film Festival. Saxophonist Courtney Pine produced a score for the BFI DVD release of Kenneth Macpherson’s experimental feature Borderline (1930). Clarinettist Louis Sclavis scored Charles Vanel’s Dans la nuit (1929). Another clarinettist Don Byron has scored for another silent film designed for black audiences, Frank Peregini’s The Scar of Shame (1927). And another guitarist, Henry Kaiser, has played to Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness (1926). Finally, avant jazz musician Jan Kopinski has scored and played for a number of silent films, including Nosferatu, Safety Last and The Seashell and the Clergyman.

Any more examples?

AFI Catalog Silent Film database

We are still ploughing our way through online catalogues and databases for silent film. Next up is the AFI Catalog Silent Film database. The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films is a series of catalogues that document the American film. The project began in the late 1960s, with the printed volumes covering decades (with a couple of exceptions), starting with 1921-1930, published in 1971. Subsequently the AFI issued volumes for 1961-1970 (in 1976), 1911-1920 (1988), 1931-1940 (1993), 1893-1910 (1995), 1941-1950 (1997) and Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 (1997). Publication of further printed volumes has now stopped (it was just too expensive), and all subsequent records (for the 1950s and some of the 1970s, with a few star titles from the 2000s) have been added to the online version of the catalogue.

The Catalog is a stupendous achievement, one where the AFI’s team got better as they went along, so the volumes for the 1930s and 40s are extraordinarily rich in the detail they provide. The earlier volumes were less thorough in their cataloguing, and the 1960s volume is unusual in that it includes all films released in the USA as opposed to produced in the USA, on account of the large number of co-productions. In 1997 the online edition was published, with the inestimable advantage of bringing all of the titles (some 50,000 of them) into one place. The full database is normally accessible to AFI members only or through the paid service ProQuest, but currently the entire catalogue is open to all. Use it while you can. However, from the outset the AFI decided to make a portion of the database freely available, namely the 25,000 films originally covered by the three volumes for the silent period 1893-1930, and will presumably continue to do so. And’s that’s what we’ll cover here.

The information is uneven because the original volumes are uneven. The 1921-1930 volume, first in the series, covers feature films only – that is, films of four reels or 4,000 feet in length or 40 minutes long (to use the AFI’s own definition). The 1893-1910 volume covers the pre-feature film era and includes every kind of film, fiction and non-fiction. The 1911-1920 volume follows the 1920s volume in concentrating on feature films, so there are no short films despite their high level of production at this time. For example, if you search under ‘Charlie Chaplin’ for the teens you will only get Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Carmen and the compilation films in which he appeared (the absence of Shoulder Arms is a puzzle, however).

Theere is a simple search option (which nevertheless lets you filter requests by title, personal name, character name, genre, summary and others) and a thorough advanced search option. The records give cast, role, credits, release date, duration in feet and reels, physical properties, genre terms and subject terms – all of which are hyperlinked for cross-searching with other records, so you can discover, for instance, how many 7-reel films were produced (3,409), how many films starred Richard Barthelmess (57), how many films featured dogs (457), and how many horror films were made (just 10 for the silent period). There is a plot summary, notes, bibiliographical sources, and information on availability on DVD and VHS (possibly not completely up-to-date, especially since Laserdisc availability is also given). When you first come to a record, do note that you only get partial details at first, and you need to click on Display Movie Detail to see the full details.

The 1893-1910 records do not offer so much detail, taken as they are from copyright records for the most part, often with little more information available than title, production company and date. Some records from this period are fuller, but they seldom have cast details, and plot summaries are rare. It should also be noted that access for some titles from the 1893-1910 period is restricted to AFI members if you use the silent film database, but are available if you search through the unified catalogue, which as we’ve said is currently open to all – but won’t stay that way.

Also to be noted is that films for African-American audiences which were not always covered in great detail in the 1920s volume are given in greater detail here, benefitting from the boom in research in the area in recent years and the publication of the Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 volume of the AFI Catalog, whose relevant records have been added to the silent film database. Finally, do note that not only are short films missing from 1911 onwards, but that the AFI has not included newsreels or magazine series. They are promised for one day, but as always they have been left til last.

And so as we move well into the seventh week of Catalogue Month, the AFI Catalog has been added to the growing list of resources included in the Catalogues and Databases section of the Bioscope Library. Though it is highly pleasurable to handle the printed volumes themselves, which are handsome, weighty productions, nothing can beat the convenience or cross-linking of the online version. The AFI Catalog does aim to be definitive, though some titles are known to be missing, and there are inevitable small errors in credits and descriptions. Also, and disappointingly, the notorious fake record that the AFI included in the teens volume, for a feature film of bizarre plot and ludicrously named actors, entitled Marooned Souls, is not given on the online version. The intention was supposedly to catch out those who might copy out its records wholesale, but beyond wanting to catching out plagiarists I think they just did it for fun.

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.)

Oscar Micheaux honoured

Only a few years ago there wasn’t a film reference book anywhere that included the name of Oscar Micheaux. Now he’s on a stamp. The US postal service has issued the stamp honouring the African-American filmmaker as part of its Black Heritage series, alongside such luminaries as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson and Scott Joplin. Few photographs exist of Micheaux, and the image by stamp artist Gavin Kelley is taken from the portait of him that was included with his 1913 novel The Conquest.

Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) was an author and filmmaker, who directed over forty films for black audiences between 1919 and 1948. He first started to attract the attention of film historians and historians of African-American life when a print of his 1924 film, Body and Soul, starring Paul Robeson, was discovered. However the real interest got underway in the late 80s/early 90s when prints were discovered of Within our Gates (1920), Micheaux’s controversial work on racism (white and black) in America, and an incomplete The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), on the Ku Klux Klan. The discoveries encouraged the unearthing of other films made by African-American directors in the 1920s and 30s, and histories, biographies, filmographies, screenings and DVD releases have followed.

For information on Micheaux visit the Oscar Micheaux website, or for reading you can take you pick from Patrick McGilligan, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker, Pearl Bowser, Jane Marie Gaines, and Charles Musser (eds.), Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era, Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, Writing Himself into History : Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences, or the American Film Institute Catalog Within our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films,1911-1960.

Of his silent films on DVD, Body and Soul is available as part of a Criterion Paul Robeson collected set, while Within our Gates is available from Grapevine as a DVD-R. It’s good that it’s available at all, but ever there was a silent film that deserved the handsome treatment that the major labels can give, this is it. The low-budget nature of Micheaux’s films inevitably narrows their audience now, but we have to look beyond what a film cost to what it tried to express, and to appreciate the huge hurdles that Micheaux had to overcome to sustain a film and writing career over such a long period. It is good that he is written about, that he now turns up in the reference books, and that he is going to appear on envelopes, but no filmmaker can survive unless he is seen. How about a double-DVD set one day of Birth of a Nation and the the film that Micheaux made to counter D.W. Griffith’s abhorrent vision, Within our Gates?

The Rose of Rhodesia

rose-of-rhodesia

Chief Kentani (left) and Prince Yumi in The Rose of Rhodesia, from Screening the Past

A while ago we wrote a piece on the peripatetic American film director Harold Shaw, who – in between periods in America, Britain and Russia – for a short period (1916-1919) produced films in South Africa. Shaw made three films in the country – De Voortrekkers, The Rose of Rhodesia and Thoroughbreds All (a fourth, Symbol of Sacrifice, was started by Shaw but completed by other hands). The first was an Afrikaner nationalist epic of the Battle of Blood River; the third (a lost film) was a racing horse comedy.

The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) has been attracting a lot of interest lately, following its happy rediscovery by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. The process of critical rediscovery has led to a special issue of the always commendable Australian online journal Screening the Past dedicated to the film. There are pieces by the two foremost experts in filmmaking in Africa at this period, Neil Parsons and James Burns, which provide rich detail on the background to the film’s production and personalities, Parson concentrating on the production history and Burns on Bioscope audiences in South Africa at the time (Bioscope was – and I believe remains – the common name for a cinema in South Africa). There are other essays on its racial politics, political and literary perspectives and position in cinema history, and a rich selection of background materials including reproductions of original press notices and advertisements.

rose1

Prince Yumi (Mofti), Edna Flugrath (Rose Randall) and M.A. Wetherell (Jack Morel), exchanging a white rose

But what it is particularly notable is that Screening the Past is delivering the entire restored film itself (streaming only), courtesy of the Filmmuseum. 81 minutes long, with German intertitles (an English translation is supplied) and inventive soundtrack by Matti Bye, the film is a revelation. What commentary the film had received before its rediscovery (chiefly Thelma Gutsche’s 1972 great history The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940) dismissed it as an amateurish failure which was roundly dismissed by local audiences. It is hard to match the recorded disappointment of South African audiences with the remarkable, engrossing film we see now (which is some 20 minutes shorter than the film as originally produced) which more than merits the attention given it by Screening the Past. Indeed, as Shaw had fallen out bitterly with Isidore Schlesinger, film producer and owner of practically all of the South African distribution and exhibition business, one suspects that the film’s reception was sabotaged.

The story concerns, at least initially, the theft of a diamond from a Rhodesian mining concern. The diamond is called ‘the rose of Rhodesia’, but Shaw develop this into a deeper metaphor, as Rose is the name of a gold prospector’s daughter (played by Edna Flugrath, Harold Shaw’s wife), who falls in love with Fred Winter, the overseer who has stolen the diamond, before transferring her affections to a missionary’s son, Jack Morel, played by M.A. Wetherell. Jack is friendly with Mofti, son of the chieftan Ushakapilla, and a white rose is exchanged as a symbol of their friendship. Ushakapilla is planning an uprising against white rule, and expects his reluctant son to adopt the cause, but after Mofti’s accidental death and news that his people’s ancestral lands has been granted to them by the “great white Chief”, Ushakapilla relents. Rose retuns the diamond to the mining corporation (it had been found by one of Ushakapilla’s men), and the reward money enables she and Jack to marry.

mofti

Prince Yumi, as Mofti

The Rose of Rhodesia is distinguished in particular by its portrayal of Africans. The African parts were taken by members of the M’fengu people, with Ushakapilla played by ‘Chief’ Kentani (probably a local headman) and Mofti by ‘Prince’ Yumi (possibly a migrant worker or student). The portrayals are sympathetic and convincing, and the friendship between Mofti and Jack Morel affecting and unforced. The theme of African discontent over loss of lands reflects genuine feelings of the time, and the potential for uprising was one that greatly exercised white authorities at the time (to the degree that the film could never have been made in Rhodesia itself, where the authorities greatly feared cinema’s subversive potential, and was instead filmed at Sea Point studio in Cape Town and by the spectacular Bawa Falls in Eastern Cape – none of the film was made in Rhodesia). It may be felt that the films shies away from what seems to be its initial interest – to depict African versus white tensions – by playing it safe with a story of diamond stealing. Interestingly this was even commented upon at the time by the British trade paper The Kinematograph Weekly:

At the start the impression is given that there is to be strong drama founded on a conflict between the interests of the natives and those of imperialism. But, in reality, the “native question” does not develop. The producers have carefully avoided the danger of giving offence to either partisan side … [and] have left a story rather devoid of “punch”.

But viewing the film now one is struck by how readily the diamond plot is set to one side, and how inter-racial relations become the film’s real interest. Local sensibilities undoubtedly stayed Shaw’s hand, but the theme of the importance of mutual trust and respect demanded of black and white is not diluted at all. Such a progressive view of Africans would not appear again in South African cinema for many years thereafter.

The Rose of Rhodesia was written and directed by Harold Shaw for Harold Shaw Film Productions. It was photographed by the American Ernest G. Palmer and Briton Henry Howse (like Shaw a much-travelled figure whose career included filming for the Salvation Army and in the Arctic). It was first shown on 23 March 1918 in Cape Town, and in Britain on 28 October 1919. It is unclear how widely it may have been seen in Britain (it gained some trade press coverage, reproduced in Screening the Past), while it it a mystery how a print turned up with German titles as no record has been found of its exhibition in any German-speaking territory. Its story is a fascinating one, while its quality as a film is unexpected and most welcome. I warmly recommend seeing the film, and engrossing yourselves in its history.

The Rose of Rhodesia is a late addition to the programme at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival.

Going to the show

bijou

Postcard of the Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., 1914, from Going to the Show

Though there are some who would deny it, cinema history involves the history of cinemas. The study of a medium that ignores the social form in which it has been consumed is a blinkered one, yet sadly so much of film studies exists in just such state of denial. Happily there has been a concerted effort by a dedicated band of academics in recent years to investigate cinema-going as an integral part of cinema history. Inspired in the first place by Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie in the United States (1992), the school uses socio-historial tools to analyse the experience of movie-going through patterns of audience types (age, gender, race, class), venue locations, social mobility, transportation links, purchasing power, leisure time and competing attractions. The significant output from such investigations has become the database which maps and documents particular territories. We’ve already had Cinema Context for the Netherlands and the London Project for the early film business in London. Now we have Going to the Show for North Carolina, 1896-1930.

This is a fabulous resource. It is going to make many other places wish that they had something much the same. Going to the Show “documents and illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930)”. At its heart are 750 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of forty-five towns and cities in North Carolina between 1896 and 1922 that locate film venues within general urban life. All of these are mapped to a database (a welcome feature for the specialist is that not only are all the database fields explained but the database relationship diagram is given) to which have been added photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, architectural drawings, advertisements and more. It totals over 1,300 film venues across two hundred communities.

burlington

Film venues marked on Sanborn fire insurance map for Burlington, N.C.

As said, Going to the Show is based around fire insurance maps, and gives this explanation of their provenance and use:

From 1867 to 1977, the Sanborn® Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced large-scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities in North America to assist fire insurance companies in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented each built structure in those districts, its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example). The intervals between new map editions for a given town or city in the early decades of the twentieth century varied according to the pace and scale of urban growth — from a few years to more than five years. In all, Sanborn® produced 50,000 editions comprising some 700,000 individual map pages. Because almost all early movie theaters were repurposed from an existing retail space located in the commercial heart of a town or city, they appear on thousands of Sanborn® map pages after 1906. Larger, purpose-built theaters were included in later Sanborn® maps.

Going to the Show takes these precise records of film venues and marries them to Google Maps, with all the familiar tools of zoom-in, zoom-out, scan across and marking of venues with hyperlinks to further information. But it is the range of extra information that makes Going to the Show so powerful. Map searches can be refined by year, venues and period in which the venue was active, while you can select whether to view modern or historical map with an opacity slider, and bring in current street names. Each venue is marked with a Ticket icon, which links you to additional information.

dixie

New Bern, N.C. shown through modern Google map and Sanborn fire insurance map, pinpointng the Dixie Theatre 1913-1918 catering for African American audiences only

A major aspect of the research has been the racial division of film venues. Keen to demonstrate how race conditioned the experience of movie-going for all North Carolinians – white, African American and American Indian – the resource extends beyond the silent era to document every known African American film venue in North Carolina operational between 1908 and 1963.

What distinguishes Going to the Show is its attention to database searching and presentation. The faceted browse option shows how you can refine searches by item type (Architectural Drawing, City Directory, Commentary, Illustration, Newspaper, Organization, Overlay Map, Periodical, Person, Photograph, Postcard, Typescript, Venue),
location (by City, County or Region), venue name, date (allowing for searching by decade), and keyword or tag (including such useful terms as admission price, boxing films, children, fire, influenza, penny arcade, racial policy, religious objection and separate entrance). The tag ‘notable’ leads you to some of the choice items, such as this 1897 press notice saying that owing to the popularity of the Edison Projectoscope at the Wilmington Opera House that the dress circle will be reserved for “colored citizens”:

projectoscope

Wilmington Star, 20 March 1897

And there’s more. Robert C. Allen, James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies, History, and Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the presiding genius behind Going to the Show, has produced an eye-catching timeline for Wilmington, N.C., chronicling and commenting upon twenty-six venues from 1897 to the end of racial segregation in 1954. Business papers from this period are a rarity, and another very welcome feature is the Joyland Theatre Ledger, the manager’s ledger from 28 September 1910, to 14 January 1911, including expenses and ticket receipts.

searle

Going to the Show is handsomely and sensibly presented. It merits detailed study. It has been produced as one of a number of University of North Carolina digital resources under the title Documenting the South. It ought to be the springboard for much further research, not simply within film/cinema studies, but as part of that general social history of which film history needs to be a part. This is the point – that so much of film history speaks only to those who know about film. It constricts itself to a narrow field by not speaking the language that is natural to other disciplines. I’ve mentioned at a couple of conferences what for me is the shocking case of G.R. Searle’s A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005), part of the New Oxford History of England. This 951-page magisterial history builds on new research in the areas of social, cultural, ecnomic and political history, yet among all those 951 pages just one throwaway paragraph is devoted to cinema. The bibliographic essay notes the extensive work done in music hall and sport history, but has nothing on cinema at all. Film historians – and in this case particularly British film historians – simply aren’t writing in a language than anyone else recognises, or cares about. The situation is better in America, as the work of Gomery, Allen, Garth Jowett and others indicates, but much much more remains to be done. Moreover, such moviegoing studies as there are often tend to get subsumed within concerns about spectatorship – handy enough in itself, but still making the audience subservient to the film. For discussion on this issues, read Richard Maltby’s essay for Screening the Past, ‘How Can Cinema History Matter More?‘, the title of which rather sums it up. To read about some of the other projects worldwide which are investigating cinema-going, see the HOMER website (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition, and Reception).

To understand the phenomenon of film, of course we need to appreciate it as an art form, but we must ask those basic questions how, where and when motion pictures were consumed, and to see their world as integral to a wider social world. Datasets and databases don’t answer everything by themselves, but they provide the foundations for thinking about the right answers. Going to the Show points the way.

Note

Robert C. Allen would welcome any feedback from Bioscope readers. You can email him at rallen [at] email.unc.edu.

Faded glory

micheaux1

Oscar Micheaux directing (possibly Within Our Gates), from the magazine film Screen Snapshots (1920), held by the BFI National Archive

News, a little late in the day, of a conference taking place 6-7 February 2009 on the key African-American filmmaker of the silent era, Oscar Micheaux. Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and the Pre-War Black Independent Cinema is being presented by the Columbia University School of the Arts Film Programme and Film Society of Lincoln Center. It is, they say, fifteen years since the last conference took place on Micheaux’s work, and undoubtedly a great deal of work on Micheaux has appeared since then, as well as re-discovered film titles.

The conference site gives this useful background information on the rise in Micheaux studies, showing how important it is for film studies in any period to have films to study (not always the option when it comes to silent cinema – but what survives generally determines what is understood, and written about):

In 1991, American film history was radically transformed when the U.S. Library of Congress acquired a 35mm print of a silent film titled La Negra (1920) from the Filmoteca in Madrid in a swap for a print of Dracula (1932). La Negra, as historian of African American history, Thomas Cripps, discovered, was the lost film, Within Our Gates (1920), one of twelve silent era films produced, directed, and written by African American director Oscar Micheaux. Soon after, the Museum of Modern Art acquired a print of Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), this time from the Cinémathèque Royale in Brussels, with intertitles still in Flemish and French. Suddenly, these two films opened up a radical new angle on the prolific filmmaker who had been known primarily through his controversial sound films. Paired with Body and Soul (1924), in which Paul Robeson plays a double role, the three silent Micheaux films became a trilogy that brought scholars of African American culture into silent era film history (1895 – 1929). The teaching of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) was transformed as now it could be countered with Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1920), the film that grew from opposition to Griffith and Thomas W. Dixon’s offensive epic.

More importantly, the Micheaux silent trilogy allowed teachers and scholars to raise sensitive cultural issues because of the filmmaker’s bold approach to the question of what it meant to be a black American. It is not only that Within Our Gates contains a sequence in which a black man and woman are lynched and white Southerners gleefully cheer. In Symbol of the Unconquered, a black man passing as white rides with the Ku Klux Klan against a black oil prospector, and in Body and Soul, a black preacher rapes a loyal churchgoer’s daughter. From the position of Micheaux’s films, 1918 – 1948, which take the political pulse of the pre-civil rights era, one is led to ask about voting rights, property ownership, educational inequity, black entrepreneurialism, urbanization and black-white intermarriage.

It has been nearly fifteen years since the first serious Micheaux conference. Held at the Yale University Whitney Humanities Center in January of 1995, “Oscar Micheaux and His Circle,” was structured as the second generation of Micheaux scholarship, a reconsideration of the definitive 1970s Black Film as Genre by Thomas Cripps. The films screened at Yale had an immediate second life on the program of the Giornate del Cinema Muto international festival in Pordenone, Italy, in October, 2001, and a collection, Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, edited by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser followed. Soon, a number of other scholarly works on race theory, black audiences, black musicals, and early African American cinema appeared. In 2007, the first comprehensive biography, Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only by Patrick McGilligan was published.

The consensus among Micheaux scholars is that a third generation of scholarship is now emerging, fueled by the fact that Micheaux remains a mystery and therefore a high priority research challenge. Some scholars have attempted to fit him into the Harlem Renaissance, others have argued that black literary Harlem was elite and Micheaux was a popularizer; some have defined him as a conservative, others as a radical, but Oscar Micheaux as an historical figure still remains elusive. Micheaux, however, is symbolic of the historical difficulty of retrieving the consciousness of another era. The fact that some of his motion pictures have survived him, however, makes the challenge of understanding his moment all the more alluring. Thus a defining feature of this conference weekend will be the Lincoln Center public exhibition of Micheaux films never screened together.

Now, in 2008, there are additional motion picture titles, some newly restored, that fill out the cultural territory of what was then called the “race movie” circuit. Both fragmentary footage and still images from the “lost” titles and the public 35mm and 16mm film exhibition of relatively complete work will bring to life the productions of these companies: The Richard Norman Company (Florida), the Lincoln Motion Picture Company (Los Angeles and Omaha, Nebraska), the Ebony Company, Richard Maurice Film Company (Detroit); other directors: Spencer Williams (Blood of Jesus, Dirty Gertie from Harlem, Juke Joint), and important actors: Paul Robeson, Bert Williams, Charles S. Gilpin, Evelyn Preer, Noble Johnson, and black film genres: (Harlem, western, detective, comedy).

Further information, including a full conference schedule, is available from the conference site. For background information on Micheaux, as well as the books cited above, see the Micheaux Society website and the Oscar Micheaux Home Page.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 4

The Sport of the Gods
The US Postal Service has issued a series of stamps celebrating African-American performers in early (i.e. pre-1950) films. The titles chosen are each represented by posters and include the 1921 all-black cast The Sport of the Gods, directed by Henry J. Vernot and starring Elizabeth Boyer and Edward R. Abrams. Read more.

Shakespeare goes Hollywood
Director Scott Palmer and the theatrical company Bag & Baggage Productions are putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is set in the world of silent-era Hollywood. Chaplin, Lloyd, Valentino, Theda Bara and Louise Brooks are all referenced, while Puck echoes Murnau’s Nosferatu. The production is being put on for Oregon State University’s Bard in the Quad at Corvallis. Read more.

Telegu silent once more
Telugu comedy actor Brahmanandam, who is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for having appeared in the most number of films in a single language, is to star in a silent film, which is reckoned will be the first Indian silent commercial feature film since the classic Pushpak. The film, Brahmanandam Drama Company, is a Telegu remake of the 2006 Hindi film Bhagam Bhag. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Iamhist conference report

Amsterdam

Iamhist (International Association for Media and History) is an organisation of filmmakers, broadcasters, archivists and scholars dedicated to historical inquiry into film, radio, television, and related media. It publishes the widely-respected Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and organises biennial conferences. This year’s was held in Amsterdam 18-21 July, on the theme Media and Imperialism: Press, Photography, Film, Radio and Television in the Era of Modern Imperialism. There were several papers given on silent film subjects, and the Bioscope was there with pen and notebook.

A number of the best papers were given on media outside Iamhist’s usual frame of reference. Pascal Lefèvre spoke lucidly and informatively on Imperialist images in French and Belgian children’s broadsheets of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, finding arguably positive or some downright critical images that differed from the usual Western view of African peoples at this time. Andrew Francis was equally entertaining and observant in talking about the use of pro-Empire imagery in New Zealand newspaper advertising during the First World War.

On silent films themselves, James Burns spoke on the distribution (or lack of distribution) of the films of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910 and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1914 to black audiences in Africa and the Caribbean. The Johnson-Jeffries film (the black Johnson defeated ‘white hope’ Jeffries for the world heavyweight title) is well-known for how its images of a black victory alarmed many in America, though Burns pointed out that films of Johnson’s earlier victories over white opponents had not aroused anything like the same rabid reaction. He also pointed out that Birth of a Nation was not exhibited in Africa (until 1931), yet no evidence has yet been found to show why it was withheld. Burns’ has done excellent work on film and black African audiences (see his Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe), and his new research promises much, even if evidence of black audience reactions (outside the USA) remain elusive.

Simon Popple spoke on films of the Anglo-Boer War, focussing on the dramatised scenes of the conflict produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company. M&K are now renowed for their actuality films of life in Northern England in the Edwardian era, after the successful BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, but they also made dramas, recreating melodramatic scenes from the South African war to feed a public appetite for moving picture scenes of the war which had been disappointed by undramatic newsfilms of the conflict. These crudely histrionic dramas, with titles such as Shelling the Red Cross, A Sneaky Boer, and Hands Off the Flag, raise a laugh now, but presumably had them cheering in the aisles in 1900.

With the unavoidable but unfortunate practice of parallel sessions so that as many speakers as possible can be crammed in, no one could attend everything, and I missed some relevant papers, including Teresa Castro on ‘Imperialism and Early Cinema’s Mapping Impulse’ and Yvonne Zimmermann on ‘Swiss Corporate films 1910-1960′. Too few witnessed Guido Convents‘ excellent presentation on the huge production of Belgian colonial films, from the early years of the century onwards, all designed to remind the world and audiences at home that Belgian had a presence in Africa and an Imperial role to play. He also showed a heartbreaking film of the difficulties faced by the Congo film archive, which put into perspective some of the institutional troubles faced by the world’s larger film archives, described by Ray Edmondson in a plenary session. Edmondson nevertheless made an eloquent case for the ways in which some film archives have come under threat through insensitive political fashions and institutional follies. Archives seem hampered by being archives: politicians do not grasp what it is that they are about in the same way that they do with museums, a far more generously funded sector with a considerably greater public profile.

And there was more. Martin Loiperdinger showed magic lantern slides of British Empire subjects from the nineteenth century and considered their impact upon audiences. Kay Gladstone of the Imperial War Museum showed a two-hour selection of films from its amazing archive for the two world wars (and more), including a live action political ‘cartoon’ from the Anglo-Boer War, and images of Colonial troops in the First World War, though what left the audience stunned was silent, colour home movie footage of India at the time of partition in 1947, showing scenes of the misery caused that the newsreels of the time scrupulously avoided. And there was plenty on post-silent subjects, and me thrilling a small audience with a disquisition on databases and the misuse of thesauri and keywording in describing Imperial and Colonial themes. You should have been there…

These conferences are curious affairs. They are an excellent meeting place and a good way to catch up on the latest ideas, but you do also sit through some truly grim presentations – mumbled monotones, heads bowed down reading from indigestible text, oblivious to the needs of an audience. How some people can still continue to draw salaries as lecturers beats me – you do pity their poor students. And then there are the natural entertainers, who know their audience as well as their subject, and can speak wisely and clearly, in whatever time allotted. It was a well-organised event, the sun shone, the pavement cafés were inviting, and the coffee was fine. I’ll be following up some of the themes (especially silent cinema in Africa) in future posts.

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