What the censor saw

The notorious crucifixion scene from Auction of Souls (1919), shown uncertificated in the UK

If you look up the British Board of Film Classification in The Encylopedia of British Film, you are given a cross-reference to ‘censorship’. That’s a little hard, indeed misleading for an organisation which since 1985 has had the C in its initials standing for Classification rather than Censorship. They do not censor films as such (though some cuts are made where films infringe guidelines or actually break the laws of the land), they rate films according to social expectations. Those expectations are reflected in guidelines which have changed down the years as society and society’s relationship to the screen have changed. To follow the BBFC’s journey from censorship to classification is to understand how much films are profoundly connected to the temper of their times.

The British Board of Film Censors was formed one hundred years ago in 1912. Ever since motion pictures first appeared in Britain, the authorities sought to control them, though primarily they were concerned with how and where films were shown rather than what they showed. Tragic deaths at Newmarket in 1907 (where two woman and a girl died in a film fire) and Barnsley in 1908 (when sixteen children were crushed to death at crowded cinematograph show) demonstrated that film shows had to be brought under local authority control, though equally there was concern at the young, the mixed sexes and the working class being brought together in the dark where you couldn’t keep a proper eye on them. The fire risk was real, but it was also an excuse for the exercise of moral censure.

Existing legislation did not cover cinema shows, so in 1909 the Cinematograph Act was passed, which required cinemas to be licensed. Now attention turned to the films themselves. There was considerable social disquiet at the content of some films, particularly as a large part of the cinema audience consisted of children. Films were accused of encouraging children to steal, of corrupting morals, of transgressing the bonds of society.

There were calls for government censorship, and local authorities started to censor films for themselves, applying widely different standards. It was to bring about uniformity of decisions nationally, and to avoid the perils of state-imposed censorship, that the British film industry decide to police itself. So in November the British Board of Film Censors was formed, head by George Redford. The Secretary was J. Brooke Wilkinson, and there were four examiners. Every film to be screened in Britain had to be passed by the BBFC, though it had no statutory authority, those powers remaining with the local councils (who also administrated cinema licences) and who could override the BBFC’s decisions if they so chose. Topicals, or newsreels as they were to become, were made exempt from censorship (except in wartime). Film companies had to pay for films to be registered, which funded the service (and does to this day).

The BBFC began work on 1 January 1913, and there were two categories of certificate that it could assign to a film: U, for Universal exhibition, and A, for Adult only. Some films were subject to cuts; others were rejected entirely. In its first year of operation the BBFC examined 7,488 films, passed 6,681 as U, 627 as A, took exception to 166, and completely rejected 22 (figures from Rachael Low, The History of the British Film 1906-1914).

Originally there were only two rules applied by the BBFC to films, which were that they must not show the living figure of Christ, and that they must not show nudity. Otherwise they simply followed their sense of what would offend against morals or upset all or part of a cinema audience. No formal code was ever drawn up (in contrast to the Hayes Code in the USA), but gradually a set of guidelines grew and grew, as revealed by T.P. O’Connor in 1916 at an enquiry into cinema-going undertaken by the National Council of Public Morals, which listed, sometimes comically, all those scenes in a film which would cause them to reject a film in part or in its entirety:

1. Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging
6. The modus operandi of criminals
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding
10. Nude figures
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
12. Indecorous dancing
13. Excessively passionate love scenes
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
15. References to controversial politics
16. Relations of capital and labour
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
18. Realistic horrors of warfare
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
21. Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute
British prestige in the Empire
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
25. Executions
26. The effects of vitriol throwing
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
30. ‘First Night’ scenes
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality
32. Indelicate sexual situations
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
34. Men and women in bed together
35. Illicit relationships
36. Prostitution and procuration
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
40. Themes and references relative to ‘race suicide’
41. Confinements
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ

Some might look at such a list and wonder what on was left that would make going to the cinema any fun at all. The BBFC started to gain for itself a reputation for extreme fuddy-duddy-ness, exemplied by the famous pronouncement on Germaine Dulac’s experimental work The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928):

The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.

which stands as one of the most memorable lines of film criticism ever written.

The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman)

This reputation is not entirely fair. The BBFC took its work seriously, and when it took upon itself not to allow films that could be ‘calculated to demoralise an audience … or undermine the teachings of morality’ then it only did so after careful consideration of each film, measured against what it sensed to be the prevailing feeling of society. The problem was that the society familiar to the BBFC’s examiners in the 1920s was a narrow one, constrained by class and social prejudice. They tried to dictate the behaviour of society at large by muffling the films that people wanted to see, but banning the film did not halt the public taste for what it showed, nor did it halt the vice from happening in real life. The BBFC thought it was protecting society, but really it was protecting itself from that society – and it was fighting a losing battle.

Various decisions made by the BBFC in the 1920s have become renowned for what they reveal of the governing class’s fears and assumptions. Damaged Goods (1919), a coy drama about the dangers of venereal disease, was rejected outright (despite appeals from some authorities to allow screenings beause of the lessons the film made) as much because it was propagandist in tone as because of its subject matter. The same producer, Samuelson’s, subsequently submitted Married Love (1923), scripted by family planning pioneer Marie Stopes, which decorously approached the subject of birth control. This was passed with cuts once its propagandist tone had been cut down, Marie Stopes’ name had been removed, and the title was changed to Maisie’s Marriage.

On the subject of drugs, the BBFC rejected Mrs Wallace Reid’s impassioned Human Wreckage (1923), not wishing to countenance any film on the theme of drug addiction, yet it passed Graham Cutts’ Cocaine (1922), once its sensational title had been changed to While London Sleeps and after the producer Herbert Wilcox had defied the BBFC by securing screenings of the film in Manchester. Another Wilcox production, the ponderous Dawn (1928), on Nurse Edith Cavell (executed by the Germans during the war for helping Allied soldiers escape), which was denied a certificate because it might revive anti-German feeling. Political pressure was probably exercised, but many local authorities passed the film for screening anyway, demonstrating how the BBFC’s rulings were, after all, only guidelines.

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin (1925) was a notable victim of the BBFC’s timorousness (the film had been screened without trouble in the USA), rejected because it forbade films that addressed issues of ‘political controversy’. As the BBFC website’s case study notes on the film state:

No doubt at the back of the BBFC’s mind was the nine day British general strike in May 1926 which had provoked fears amongst some quarters of society of a potential revolution in the UK.

It was claimed that the violence scenes in the film were further reason for its rejection, but no cuts were ordered for these, making its unwelcome political theme the real reason why it was refused a certificate, though it was shown in its uncertificated state at the London Film Society (it was eventually passed by the BBFC in 1954, with a X certificate).

Another example of a film screened in Britain despite hot having been passed by the BBFC was Auction of Souls. This semi-drama semi-documentary told of the Armenian genocide as experienced by escapee Aurora Mardiganian. It featured scenes of massacres, tortures, brutalities of every description, culminating in an horrific scene of a row of crucified naked women. It is hard to imagine such a film being made, still less being offered as a commercial proposition, yet it had been widely shown in America where it was produced. The film was shown at the Albert Hall in London by the League of Nations Union, before the BBFC had viewed it, and when the distributor refused to countenance any cuts the BBFC said it was inevitable that the film would be rejected (though it never actually reviewed the film formally). It was not just the shocking scenes but a fear expressed through the Foreign Office that the film could endanger ongoing peace talks with Turkey that influenced their thinking. Subsequently a London cinema showed it in defiance of its local authority which said that all films shown in its district needed a BBFC certificate. The cinema won the ensuing court case, but in the end the Home Office instituted a system whereby almost all local authorities agreed not to permit the screening of any film rejected by the BBFC. This decision helped cement the position of the BBFC at the heart of British film exhibition, a place that it retains to this day.

Many have mocked the BBFC of the 1920s, seeing it as an out-of-touch institution peopled by retired colonels and maiden aunts gently bent on maintaining the values of a past age which had probably never existed in the first place. The BBFC was unduly concerned by contentious moral issues, it did display political bias, and though ostensibly independent it did bow to political pressure from the Home Office. But it could also be argued as having helped save the British film business, carefully managing the conflicting interests of distributors, audiences and society’s guardians, in a manner that helped establish the cinema as an accepted feature of British life rather than the threat that many felt it represented back in 1912.

The British Board of Film Classification, as it now is, rarely rejects films outright these days. It demands cuts, certainly, measured against a regularly reviewed set of guidelines, but it seldom bans outright, despite films of a nature that would make Messrs Redford or O’Connor faint dead away with shock. It has to maintain a balance between those who abhor being told what they can or cannot see and protest at any cuts and those revolted or upset by cinema’s latest extremes and who call for such films to be banned. Striking a balance has always been at the heart of the BBFC’s work, even if the organisation of today is predicated on a trust in the audience’s good judgment that the BBFC of earlier decades was not.

The BBFC’s website is well worth visting. It has a history of the organisation, explanation of its guidelines, statistics, the law, and information on recent decisions. There are supplementary websites for parents, schools, and students of media regulation and film. Above all there is its database – a listing of films or videos that the BBFC has examined. Using the Advanced Search option with the date delimiters, the database turns out to have 4,590 titles for the silent era (1912-1929). This cannot be anywhere near the number of films that were actually examined by the BBFC for the period, but it is a rich resource nonetheless.

The records are a little on the spartan side. Mostly you get title, date submitted, distributor (i.e. the company that submitted the film for examination), length of cuts made (but no details of wat the cuts were or why they were made) and three categories – U, A or R for Rejected. Refining the search to Rejected titles only brings up 208 results. It is fascinating mixture of the familiar and the little known, identification of which is sometimes difficult because English titles are given for what were often foreign releases. But because this post has gone on long enough, further analysis of the 208 rejectees will have to be the subject of a follow-up post.

From the front cover of the 1912 pamphlet introducing the British Board of film Censors to the film business

The BBFC is marking its centenary in a number of ways. There is a centenary section of the site, which includes outlines various celebratory activities taking place and has an archive section looking back at past highlights and items of interest. Post number one in the archive contains a downloadable facsimile of a 1912 pamphlet introducing the BBFC to exhibitors and promising “absolutely independent and impartial censorship”.

There is to be a film season at the BFI Southbank marking the centenary later in the year, and a book marking “100 years of film classification” (they don’t say censorship) will be published in the Autumn. This is going to be particularly welcome, since it’s been a while since we had a good book published on British film censorship (or classification). If you do want to read more, a good place to start is James C. Robertson’s The British Board of Film Censors: Film Censorship in Britain 1896-1950 (1985) and The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913-1972 (1989). For those interested in the legal side, Neville March Hunnings’ Film Censors and the Law (1967) is an exceptional work, exhaustive and illuminating, covering not only Britain but the history of film censorships in the USA, India, Canada, Australia, Denmark, France and the USSR. Also recommended is Annette Kuhn’s sophisticatedly argued Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality 1909-1925 (1988) and Picture Palace: A Social History of the Cinema (1974), written by Audrey Field, a BBFC examiner, who reveals that comonsense and a sympathetic understanding of people were hallmarks of at least some at the BBFC far earlier than many might suspect.

Update: A follow-up post identifying the 208 films rejected by the BBFC during the silent era is at http://thebioscope.net/2012/03/22/the-rejected.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 30

Mural of Lillian Gish on the wall of a pump station at Massillon, Ohio, from http://www.indeonline.com

Hi folks, and welcome to the latest issue of the Bioscope’s erratically published but lovingly composed newsreel, mopping up for you some of the more diverting news stories of the week on silent film.

More on Brides of Sulu
A few weeks we published a post on Brides of Sulu, a supposedly American film from the mid-1930s which probably took footage from an Philippine silent fiction film (possibly two) and added an American commentary. All Philippine silent film production was believed to be lost, so this is an exciting discovery, and it was naturally a highlight at Manila’s recent International Silent Film Festival. If you read comments to the original Bioscope post you can find extra information from the grandson of the film’s lead actor, ‘Eduardo de Castro’ (real name Marvin Gardner). Or there’s an informative piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the research involved – though I think the director was not the Philippine José Nepomuceno but rather American silent film veteran Jack Nelson. But the journalist has read the Bioscope, which is grand. Read more.

The day the laughter stopped
A feature film adaptation of David Yallop’s account of the Fatty Arbuckle case, The Day the Laughter Stopped, is in development. The film is scheduled to star Eric Stonestreet and will be a telefilm made for HBO. Will silent cinema’s pre-eminent tragic tale make a successful transference to the screen? With Barry Levinson as director, we must hope at least for a thoughtful interpretation. Read more.

Lillian at the pump station
Massillon, Ohio artist Scot Phillips has created a mural featuring Lillian Gish at the junction between Lillian Gish Boulevard and Route 21, unromantically painted on a west-facing wall of a pump station next to the Tuscarawas River. The silent film star grew up in Massillon, hence the mural and the road. It took him all summer. Read more.

Telluride coup
What are the two most discussed silent films of 2011? They must be Michel Hazanavicius’ modern silent The Artist, and the colour restoration of George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. So hats off to the Telluride Film Festival for bringing the two together in one of the more imaginative programming coups of the year. And they are playing at the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema … Read more.

The story of film
Mark Cousins’ book The Story of Film (2006) is a pretty good and impressively wide-ranging generally history of the medium. It’s now been turned into a 15-part television series showing in the UK on Channel 4’s offshoot channel More4 from tomorrow. Expect to see silent films given their fair due (says the press release of episode one, “Filmed in the buildings where the first movies were made, it shows that ideas and passion have always driven film, more than money and marketing”). What you don’t expect to see is a UK television channel go so far as to show a silent film itself, but – incredible to relate – Film4 is showing Orphans of the Storm on 6 September to accompany the Cousins series. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Bioscope Newsreel no. 10

I’m going to try and revive a neglected feature, the Bioscope Newsreel. It was an irregularly issued round-up of news stories on silent films that weren’t going to make it into fully-fledged posts, and in bringing it back to life I want to expand the brief a little to include interesting new pieces writing, blog posts etc. on our silent world (and its contexts). If I’m really good I’ll make it a weekly occurence, but I won’t commit myself to that just yet. Anyway, after a gap of just under two years, here’s issue number ten:

Films in concert
Films en Concert is a two-day silent film festival being held at the Salle André Malraux, Lambersart, France 4-5 February 2011. Featuring Chaplin biographer and Pordenone director David Robinson plus Pordenone pianists Neil Brand and Touve R. Ratovondrahety, the festival focusses on Chaplin with talks, screnings and a session for school children, plus Bébé and Bout-de-Zan comedies, Jacques Feyder’s Gribiche (1926) and Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). Read more.

Female Hamlet
John Wyver of the film and video production company Illuminations writes an excellent blog on film, art and culture. His latest post is on the Asta Nielsen Hamlet (1920), recently screened at the BFI Southbank, in which the great Danish actress plays the great Dane. An observant piece from a present-day producer of Shakespeare films (Hamlet, Macbeth). Read more.

Silent and white
Michael Hogan of The Daily Telegraph reviews the TV screening of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary record of the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition. Interestingly the review doesn’t look upon the film as historically quaint but simply as a record of those events equivalent to any TV polar documentary. Read more.

Film and European copyright
The EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands has produced some Guidelines for Copyright Clearance and IPR Management for the European Film Gateway project. Viewing things from the European angle, the guidelines consider copyright basics, exploitation rights, moral rights, orphan works, clearing rights in related media (stills, posters), searching for rights holders and a summary of copyright law in various European countries (though not the UK). Read more.

Lost and significant
It’s hard to say what exactly is the appeal in describing films that no one living has seen, but the Shadowlocked site has an entertaining item on ’15 historically significant “lost” films’, most of which are silent, and include Saved from the Titanic (1912), The Werewolf (1913), A Study in Scarlet (1914) and that great Bioscope favourite, Drakula halála (1921). Read more.

‘Til next time!

Pen and pictures no. 8 – Arthur Conan Doyle

Here in the UK we have been enjoying the latest screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. Hot on the heels of Robert Downey Jr’s steampunkish feature film interpretation, Benedict Cumberbatch has starred in the BBC’s Sherlock as a modern day consulting detective. It is a compelling portrayal of a self-described ‘high-functioning sociopath’, and of course is just latest in over a century of screen and stage interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Doyle is the next subject in our series on literary figures and silent films (see earlier posts on Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, John Buchan, Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy), where each figure is seen to have faced faced up to the upstart phenomenon of motion pictures in a different way. For Doyle, key matters were seeing a character you had created turned into film while you were still writing the stories, and the vexed issue of copyright.

Note: This post is accompanied by a separate filmography for Arthur Conan Doyle and silent era film.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a physician and a prolific author of novels, short stories, plays, pamphlets, non-fiction books and poetry. His historical and romantic adventure novels included Micah Clarke (1889), The White Company (1891), The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896, originally a set of short stories), Rodney Stone (1896) and The Lost World (1912, the first of a series of Professor Challenger tales). His plays included The Story of Waterloo (1907) and The House of Temperley (1912); influential pamphlets included The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902) and The Crime of the Congo (1909). He wrote much else besides.

For all his prodigious literary output, Doyle became predominantly known in his lifetime – and ever since – for the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Beginning with the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887), Doyle produced fifty-six Sherlock Holmes short stories (mostly published first in the Strand Magazine) collected in several volumes, and three further novels, The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915).

Though a number of his plays and adventure novels were filmed during the silent period, it was the Sherlock Holmes stories that attracted film producers the most. The last Sherlock Holmes story was not published until 1927, so Doyle witnessed the extension and wider distribution of his character into other media (there were stage interpretations as well) even as he was still having to think up new stories. He saw the character he had created take on a life of its own, appropriated by other media, embedded in popular culture, to a point where he ceased to have full control over it. Even when he wanted to kill off Sherlock Holmes his public forced him to bring his creation back to life.

Viggo Larsen (right, appearing from a hole in the floor) as Sherlock Holmes in Den grå dame (1909), from http://www.dfi.dk

The separation of character from creator was demonstrated by the first Sherlock Holmes films, which used the name but not the stories. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company kicked things off with a fleeting comedy, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), where the detective on-screen clearly owes nothing more than his name to Doyle’s invention (in the film a cigar-smoking detective is unable to capture a house thief who keeps on disappearing by magic). Other such name borrowings followed, culminating in a 1908-1911 series of Danish films, mostly made by and starring Viggo Larsen as Holmes, for the Nordisk company. Highly popular, the series pitted Holmes against another literary detective, Raffles, as well as featuring Moriarty, though no Dr Watson. The results owed little to Doyle and everything to standard detective thrillers of the period, such as Éclair’s Nick Carter series, with Sherlock Holmes seen as just anothermaster detective without any of his individual characteristics. Only one film from the survives, Sherlock Holmes i Bondefangerklør (1910)

It is not clear whether Doyle was aware of the Danish series specifically, but he was certainly aware in general of films being made which featured his character, which raised the vexed problem of copyright. To what degree did Doyle have any ownership over the character he had created? The situation was unclear, particularly if someone avoided using one of Doyle’s stories or copying the look of Holmes from the Sidney Paget illustrations. In the film world copyright in creative works adapted for the screen had only been recognised since 1911 (in the USA), following a celebrated case concerning a film of Ben Hur (1907), where the producers Kalem had not paid any fee to the author’s estate. In the UK the Karno v Pathé Frères case of 1908 had shown that a film of a dramatic work was a copy of that work, but the situation remained unclear until the Copyright Act of 1911, which recognised motion pictures are works in their own right (and potentially infringing works) for the first time.

As a professional author, Doyle naturally recognised the commercial value of his literary properties and the importance of asserting rights, particularly when it came adaptations. He had seen the value of stage adaptations following the American actor William Gillette’s renowned 1899 stage production Sherlock Holmes, which had been a considerable success in the USA and Britain (where in 1903 the part of Billy was played by a certain Charles Chaplin, then aged fourteen). But the cinematograph promised greater returns for the future. Andrew Lycett, in his biography of Doyle, records this letter that Doyle wrote to fellow author Mrs Humphrey Ward:

… our rights is an asset which is rising in value, no one knows quite how much. English cinemas films are in their infancy, but promise well, and it is there that our hopes lie. Unhappily the higher literature of thought and pathos is handicapped as compared to mere plot and action.

Doyle therefore saw limited opportunities for his grander novels given the supposed limitations of the silent film, but for lower literature (which is how he viewed his Holmes stories), the films offered opportunities – for authors prepared to wait, as the fees they could command got higher.

George Tréville as Sherlock Holmes in the Éclair/Franco-British production The Copper Beeches (1912), from http://www.silentera.com

Doyle’s answer to the challenge posed by the Nordisk films was to sell the film rights to some of the Holmes stories to a film company on a one-off basis, not long after the Copyright Act came into force. For reasons that are unclear, he did a deal with the French company Éclair (though a producers of the Nick Carter series the company may have asserted particular expertise in detective dramas). After an initial foray with Les aventures de Sherlock Holmes (1911), the first official Sherlock Holmes film (Holmes was p;layed by Henri Gouget), Éclair filmed eight two-reelers in Bexhill-on-Sea in Britain in 1912 through a subsidiary, Franco-British Film. With titles such as Le ruban moucheté aka The Speckled Band and Flamme d’argent aka The Silver Blaze these were the first film adaptations of Holmes stories, though indications from reviews are that the results bore scant relation to Doyle’s plots. The films’ producer Georges Tréville is understood to have played Holmes himself. Two episodes of the eight survive (The Copper Beeches and The Musgrave Ritual).

Doyle had more luck with producers adapting his other novels (at least accuracy-wise), with the British company London Film Productions producing prestigious feature film versions of The House of Temperley (1913) and The Firm of Girdlestone (1915). Films borrowing the Sherlock Holmes character continued, with Viggo Larsen, star of the Danish series, moving to Germany for five titles in the Arsène Lupin contra Sherlock Holmes series (1910-11), while the American company Thanhouser made Sherlock Holmes Solves ‘The Sign of Four’ (1913) without any certain acknowledgment of Doyle’s ownership. But it was in Germany where copyright infringement was most flagrant, with Jules Greenbaum (producer of the Arsène Lupin series) making a massively popular six-part series (strictly speaking he wasn’t involved in part four) very loosely based on The Hound of the Baskervilles, which ran 1914-1920, with Alwin Neuss and others playing Holmes.

Doyle really only had control over what was produced in Britain, and the next offical Holmes film was A Study in Scarlet (1914), directed by George Pearson for G.B. Samuelson, with James Bragington playing Holmes (he was not previously an actor but an office worker picked for his Holmesian looks). In the same year the same novel was adapted in the USA in a completely unauthorised version, directed by and starring Francis Ford, brother of John Ford.

In 1921 Doyle finally did a deal with ‘English cinema films’ that matched his expectations financially while satisifying his hopes for a respectful adaptation from page to screen. The Stoll Film Company was the leading film company in Britain, newly established by theatre magnate Sir Oswald Stoll with high ambitions to raise the quality of British films. Central to Stoll’s plans was adapting popular novel and plays with a ready-made audience, while its strongest suit (outside Sir Oswald’s money) was director Maurice Elvey, easily the most talented filmmaker in Britain at the time.

Eille Norwood in a Pathe Pictorial cinemagazine item, shown preparing to appear on stage in The Return of Sherlock Holmes at the Princes Theatre, London in 1923, from www.britishpathe.com

However, what made the Stoll Holmes series such a success was its choice of Holmes. At the age of sixty, Eille Norwood was hardly ideal for the role, and with an average stage and occasional screen career behind him, his name alone was not a draw. But his somewhat cadaverous features echoed the Sidney Page illustrations of Holmes in the Strand, and on screen the transformation was complete. Norwood’s subtle portrayal was grounded in a close reading of the original stories yet was equally attuned to the needs of the screen. Plot sensations (the hallmark of earlier Holmes films) were kept in moderation; now the drama could be read in the detective’s eyes. For the first time one could see the mind of the great detective at work. It helped greatly that Norwood had the ideal foil in Hubert Willis as John Watson – a genial, loyal companion perpetually dumbfounded by the workings of the brighter, deeper mind of his companion.

The series of two-reelers (approx. twenty minutes each), entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and set in the 1920s, ran to fifteen episodes and was issued throughout 1921. It was enthusiastically received in Britain and the USA, with Norwood’s pinpoint interpretation the focus of the praise, though one would now want equally to highlight Elvey’s deft, filmic handling of the material. A rousing feature film followed, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1921, a powerful influence on the young David Lean). Elvey left for other duties to be replaced for two further Stoll Holmes series, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1922, fifteen episodes) and The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1923, fifteen episodes) directed by the plainer talent of George Ridgwell. Elvey returned in 1923 to direct a second Holmes feature film, The Sign of Four. All films in the Stoll series starred Eille Norwood, who also took his successful interpretation of Holmes to the stage. Of his screen successors, only Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett have been his equal for inhabiting the spirit of Doyle’s creation.

However, the Stoll series raised the thorny issue of copyright once more. Doyle had instructed his literary agent to check the validity of his copyrights in the USA before he signed his deal with Stoll in 1920, but American interests challenged the Stoll series nonetheless. The Goldwyn Corporation argued that Doyle had sold the dramatic rights to the Holmes stories when William Gillette had created his stage version in 1899, rights which then passed on to the Essanay company in 1916 when a feature film was made of Gillette’s play (starring Gillette), and then to Goldwyn, which produced the feature film Sherlock Holmes in 1922, with John Barrymore as the detective. The case was thrown out by the New York Supreme Court, but it demonstrated the muddle that Doyle (or his representatives) had created and the difficulty the law had in separating stage from screen.

The Lost World (1925)

Doyle’s other literary works were also filmed during the silent era. Aside from the London productions of The House of Temperley and The Firm of Girdlestone mentioned above, there were British films made of Brigadier Gerard (1915), Rodney Stone (1920), The Croxley Master (1923) and The Tragedy of Korosco, filmed as Fires of Fate (1923). In France, Éclair returned to filming Doyle with Un drame sous Napoléon (1921), based on Uncle Bernac, while in the USA First National made the hugely successful The Lost World (1925), with its Willis O’Brien-animated dinosaurs and Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger, while Rod La Roque starred as Brigadier Gerard in The Fighting Eagle (1927).

By the time of the great successes of his works in the film world in the 1920s, Arthur Conan Doyle had turned much of his attentions to spiritualism. This side of his personal history is remarkable for the stubborn credulousness he displayed (for example, refusing to believe that Harry Houdini did not have supernatural skills, even when Houdini carefully explained how his tricks were done), but there are few crossovers between his passion for spiritualism and motion pictures. However there are some. Although Doyle only became heavily involved in spiritualism after the First World War, he had shown interest in it and in the allied areas of hypnotism, seances and psychic research as far back as the 1880s. Fascinatingly, Andrew Lycett notes that in 1888 Doyle was in contact with Frederick Myers, a leading figure in the Society for Physical Research, who introduced Doyle to George Albert Smith, then a stage hypnotist whose fraudulent ‘second sight’ act conned the naive SPR members much as Doyle would be willingly conned by spiritualist evidence twenty years later. Whether Doyle actually met Smith Lycett does not say, but Smith would soon abandon his stage career and become a leading filmmaker in Britain in the 1890s (including making films that mocked his former associations, such as The Mesmerist, 1898) and the inventor of the world’s first successful motion picture colour system. This intriguing association aside, in 1922 Doyle used rushes from The Lost World to startle an audience of magicians who could not rationalise what these living pictures of dinosaurs were, while a 1923 documentary, Is Doyle Right?, made by Cullom Holmes Ferrell, purported to explore Doyle’s theories (Doyle had no connection with the film himself).

Finally there are the silent films of Doyle the man. He appeared in at least two American films as himself, when actuality film was taken of him on his visit to the USA in 1914. His friend the American detective William J. Bryan filmed him for a drama in which Bryan starred as himself, The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (1914), while through the same association with Bryan Doyle also found himself appearing in episode 26 of the serial Our Mutual Girl (1914). In both cases Doyle was briefly filmed as himself, not taking part in the drama in any way. Doyle also appeared in a prologue to The Lost World, once again as himself (a sequence missing from existing copies). He also appeared in some newsreels, notably a 1929 Fox Movietone sound interview (released 1929 but filmed in 1928, according to Greg Wilsbacher’s research in the 2009 Pordenone catalogue), where he spoke about spiritualism and helped usher in the talkies.

Like any professional author of his age, Arthur Conan Doyle was necessarily bound up with the motion picture industry. The movies wanted to film his works, wanted to appropriate his characters, and wanted to film him. The filmography of Doyle and silent era films that acompanies this post has been a challenge to compile, because of the elusiveness of some of the information but also because of problems of definition. When is a Holmes film not a Holmes film? The so-called first Sherlock Holmes film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) is a knockabout spoof with seemingly minimal connection with Doyle’s detective. The first ‘genuine’ Holmes film would not be made until 1911, but with the name rapidly becoming a generic term for anyone on the detective trail, the great number of films that allude to Holmes in one way or another (most famously Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.) are a part of the film history of Arthur Conan Doyle, if only because they show how tenuous an author’s hold can be on his original creation, once the public has taken it to their hearts.


This post owes much to Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle: The Man who Created Sherlock Holmes, Alan Barnes’ Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History, and Jay Weissberg’s notes for ‘Sherlock and Beyond:The British Detective in Silent Cinema’ in the 2009 Pordenone Silent Film Festival catalogue. There is further information on the films described above, and several other films not otherwise described here, in the filmography for Arthur Conan Doyle and the silent era of film which accompanies this post.

The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Literary Estate provides a present-day copyright statement for the European Community and the United States.

Arthur Conan Doyle – a silent era filmography

John Barrymore as the detective in Sherlock Holmes (1922)- a trailer for the Kino International DVD release

Arthur Conan Doyle: Silent era filmography

This filmography accompanies the Pen and Pictures post on Arthur Conan Doyle and his involvement in film during the silent period. Instead of being strictly chronological, it divides up the silent films of Doyle’s works by producer and series, for greater ease of reference. There are also sections on individual films that weren’t part of any series, films of or about Doyle himself, and films which borrow Sherlock Holmes’ name or characteristics but which aren’t strictly speaking adaptations of Doyle’s works.

Each record gives title, country, year, literary source, genre (using terms adopted by Alan Barnes in Sherlock Holmes on Screen), director, production company, leading actor, length, archive (where the film exists) and DVD (where commercially available). Any corrections or additions are most welcome – please add them to the comments at the end of this post.

1. Films of or about Doyle
Films in which Doyle appeared (deliberately or inadvertently), including fiction films, newsreels and documentaries.

  • The $5,000,000 Counterfeiting Plot (USA 1914), none, none, d. Bertram Harrison, p.c. Dramascope, William J. Burns (as himself), 6 reels, lost [Doyle briefly appeared in this feature film alongside its star and subject the real-life detective William J. Burns]
  • Our Mutual Girl: Episode 21 (USA 1914), none, none, ?, p.c. Reliance, Norma Phillips, ?, lost [Doyle was filmed as himself as he arrived by ship to the USA]
  • The Chevrons Club (for POs and NCOs) (Topical Budget 338-1) (UK 13/02/1918), none, newsreel, none, p.c. Topical Film Company, none, 56ft, Imperial War Museum [newsreel showing Doyle at opening of Club]
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Family (Fox News) (USA 1922), none, newsreel, none, p.c. Fox, none, 132ft, University of South Carolina [newsreel showing Doyle family arriving in New York - same event also filmed by the Kinograms and Pathé newsreels]
  • [Conan Doyle and family] (USA 1923), none, newsreel, none, p.c. Fox, none, ?, lost [newsreel of Doyle and family arriving in New York in 1923]
  • Is Conan Doyle Right? (USA 1923), none, documentary, Cullom Holmes Ferrell (‘author’), p.c. Pathé Exchange, none, ?, lost
  • The Lost World (USA 1925 ), The Lost World, adaptation, d. Harry O. Hoyt, p.c. First National, Wallace Beery (Professor Challenger), 9700ft , George Eastman House, DVD [Image Entertainment] [Doyle appeared in prologue, missing from existing copies)
  • Sir A. Conan Doyle (Topical Budget 792-2) (UK 01/11/1926), none, newsreel, none, p.c. Topical Film Company, none, 56ft, BFI [newsreel showing Doyle laying foundation stone of spiritualistic church]

2. Single titles (Holmes)
Sherlock Holmes films that are not otherwise part of a series or collection of films made by a single film company.

  • Sherlock Holmes Baffled (USA 1900), character, parody, d. Arthur Marvin [credited with photography], p.c. Biograph, ?, 284 ft[?], Library of Congress
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for a Ransom (USA 1905), character, pastiche, d. J. Stuart Blackton, p.c. Vitagraph, ?, 221 metres, lost
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Great Murder Mystery (USA 1908), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Crescent, ?, 800 ft, lost
  • [The Latest Triumph of Sherlock Holmes] (France 1909), character, ?, d. unknown, p.c. Gaumont, ?, 566 ft [unclear provenance - original title not traced]
  • A Study in Scarlet ( USA 1914), A Study in Scarlet, adaptation, d. Francis Ford, p.c. Universal, Francis Ford (Sherlock Holmes), 2 reels, lost
  • Sherlock Holmes (USA 1916), A Scandal in Bohemia/The Final Problem, adaptation, d. Arthur Berthelet, p.c. Essanay, William Gillette (Sherlock Holmes), 7 reels, lost
  • William Voss, der Milliondeib (Germany 1916), character, pastiche, d. Rudolf Meinert, p.c. Meinert-Film Burstein und Janak, Herr Boerns (Sherlock Holmes), 1041m, Nederlands Filmmuseum
  • Sherlock Holmes (USA 1922), character, adaptation, d. Albert Parker, p.c. Goldwyn, John Barrymore (Sherlock Holmes), 8200 ft, George Eastman House, DVD [Kino]
  • Der Hund von Baskerville ( Germany 1929), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Richard Oswald, p.c. Erda-Film, Carlyle Blackwell (Sherlock Holmes), 7815ft, DIF
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes (USA 1929), character, pastiche, d. Basil Dean, p.c. Paramount, Clive Brook (Sherlock Holmes), 6376ft (sound version 7102ft), Library of Congress (sound version only?)

3. Single titles (non-Holmes)
Films made of Doyle’s non-Holmes works that are not otherwise part of a series or collection of films made by a single film company.

  • Brigadier Gerard (UK 1915), Brigadier Gerard, adaptation, d. Bert Haldane, p.c. Barker, Lewis Waller (Brigadier Gerard), 5260 ft, lost
  • Rodney Stone (UK 1920), Rodney Stone, adaptation, d. Percy Nash, p.c. Screen Plays, Rex Davis (Boy Jim), 6500 ft, BFI
  • Un drame sous Napoléon (France 1921), Uncle Bernac, adaptation, d. Gérard Bourgeois, p.c. Éclair, ? , lost
  • The Croxley Master (UK 1921), The Croxley Master, adaptation, d. Percy Nash, p.c. Screen Plays, Dick Webb (Robert Montgomery), 3900 ft, BFI
  • Fires of Fate ( UK 1923), The Tragedy of Korosco, adaptation, d. Tom Terriss, p.c. Gaumont, Wanda Hawley (Corinne Adams), 7185 ft, lost
  • How It Happened (Twisted Tales) (UK 1925), How it Happened, adaptation, d. Alexander Butler, p.c. Repricocity, Sydney Seaward (The Motorist), 750 ft, lost
  • The Lost World (USA 1925 ), The Lost World, adaptation, d. Harry O. Hoyt, p.c. First National, Wallace Beery (Professor Challenger), 9700 ft, George Eastman House, DVD [Image Entertainment]
  • The Fighting Eagle (USA 1927), The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, adaptation, d. Donald Crisp, p.c. DeMille, Rod La Roque (Etienne Gerard), 8002 ft, extant

Droske 519 (Sherlock Holmes V) directed by and starring Viggo Larsen, from http://www.dfi.dk

4. Nordisk
Danish series of detective dramas which used Sherlock Holmes as a name but which were not adapted from any of the Doyle stories.

  • Sherlock Holmes I/Sherlock Holmes i Livsfare (Denmark 1908), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Nordisk, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 1140ft, lost
  • Sherlock Holmes II/Raffles’ Flugt fra Faengslet (Denmark 1908), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Nordisk, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 680ft, lost
  • Sherlock Holmes III/Det hemmelige Dokument (Denmark 1908), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Nordisk, Einar Zangenberg (Sherlock Holmes), 890ft, lost
  • Sangerindens Diamanter/Sherlock Holmes IV (Denmark 1909), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Nordisk, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 591ft, lost
  • Droske Nr. 519/Sherlock Holmes V (Cab no. 519) (Denmark 1909), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Nordisk, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 1125ft, lost
  • Den grå dame (The Grey Dame)/Sherlock Holmes VI (Denmark 1909), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Nordisk, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 1007ft, lost
  • Sherlock Holmes i Bondefangerklør/Den stjaalne Tegnebog (A Confidence Trick) (Denmark 1910), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Nordisk, Otto Lagoni (Sherlock Holmes), 873ft, Danish Film Institute
  • Den Sorte Haand/Mordet i Bakerstreet (The Blackmailer) (Denmark 1910), character, pastiche, d. Holger Rasmussen, p.c. Nordisk, Otto Lagoni (Sherlock Holmes), 958ft, lost
  • Den forklaedte Barnepige/Den forklaedte Guvernante (The Bogus Governess) (Denmark 1911), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Nordisk, Otto Lagoni (Sherlock Holmes), 1050ft, lost
  • Den stjaalne Millionobligation/Milliontestament (The Stolen Legacy) (Denmark 1911), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Nordisk, Alwin Neuss (Sherlock Holmes), 1017ft, lost
  • Hotelmysterierne/Hotelrotterne (Hotel Thieves) (Denmark 1911), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Nordisk, Einar Zangenberg (Sherlock Holmes), 837ft, lost
  • Den sorte haette (Denmark 1911), character, pastiche, d. William Augustinus, p.c. Nordisk, Lauritz Olsen (Sherlock Holmes), 1273ft, lost

5. Mack Sennett series
Some sources say that Mack Sennett starred in eleven Sherlock Holmes spoofs for Keystone, but these four titles (one made for Biograph) are all I have traced, so far, and the degree to which these were Holmes films at all is unclear.

  • The $500 Reward (USA 1911), character, parody, d. Mack Sennett, p.c. Biograph, Mack Sennett (Sherlock Holmes?), ?, lost
  • The Stolen Purse (USA 1913), character, parody, d. ?, p.c. Keystone, Mack Sennett (Sherlock Holmes?), ?, lost
  • The Sleuth’s Last Stand (USA 1913), character, parody, d. ?, p.c. Keystone, Mack Sennett (Sherlock Holmes?), ?, lost
  • The Sleuths at the Floral Parade (USA 1913), character, parody, d. ?, p.c. Keystone, Mack Sennett (Sherlock Holmes), ?, lost

6. Éclair
The first official Holmes films, sanctioned by Doyle. The first film was produced separately in France; the other eight were produced as a series in Britain.

  • Les aventures de Sherlock Holmes (France 1911), ?, ? , d. Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset, p.c. Éclair, Henri Gouget (Sherlock Holmes), ?, lost
  • Le ruban moucheté / The Speckled Band (Sherlock Holmes no. 1) (France/UK 1912), The Speckled Band, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1700ft, lost
  • Flamme d’argent / The Silver Blaze (Sherlock Holmes no. 2) (France/UK 1912), The Silver Blaze, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1300ft, lost
  • The Beryl Coronet (Sherlock Holmes no. 3) (France/UK 1912), The Beryl Coronet, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 2300ft, lost
  • The Musgrave Ritual (Sherlock Holmes no. 4) (France/UK 1912), The Musgrave Ritual, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1290ft, Lobster Films
  • The Reigate Squires (Sherlock Holmes no. 5) (France/UK 1912), The Reigate Squires, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1800ft, lost
  • The Stolen Papers (Sherlock Holmes no. 6) (France/UK 1912), The Stolen Papers, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1400ft, lost
  • Le mystère de Val Boscombe / The Mystery of Boscombe Vale (Sherlock Holmes no. 7) (France/UK 1912), The Boscombe Valley Mystery, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1700ft, lost
  • The Copper Beeches (Sherlock Holmes no. 8) (France/UK 1912), The Copper Beeches, adaptation, d. Adrien Caillard? Georges Tréville?, p.c. Franco-British Film/Éclair, Georges Tréville (Sherlock Holmes), 1700ft, extant, DVD [Grapevine and Synergy Entertainment]

7. London Film Productions
Authorised adaptations of two of Doyle’s non-Holmes novels by leading British film company.

  • The House of Temperley ( UK 1913), Rodney Stone, adaptation, d. Harold Shaw, p.c. London, Charles Maude (Captain Jack Temperley), 4500ft, lost
  • The Firm of Girdlestone (UK 1915), The Firm of Girdlestone, adaptation, d. Harold Shaw, p.c. London, Edna Flugrath (Kate Horston), 5100ft, lost

8. Thanhouser
Unauthorised productions from American film company specialising in literary adaptations.

  • Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of Four (USA 1913), The Sign of Four, adaptation , d. Lloyd Lonergan, p.c. Thanhouser, Harry Benham (Sherlock Holmes), 2 reels, lost
  • The Crogmere Ruby (USA 1915), character, pastiche, d. Ernest C. Warde, p.c. Thanhouser, Hector Dion (Sherlock Holmes), short, lost
  • The Crimson Sabre (USA 1915), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Thanhouser, Hector Dion (Sherlock Holmes), short, lost

Der Hund von Baskerville, 2. Teil – Das einsame Haus (1914), from http://www.filmportal.de

9. Vitascope / Greenbaum / PAGU
Two series from producer Jules Greenbaum (or connected with him). The Arsène Lupin series featured the star of the earlier Nordisk series Viggo Larsen; the Der Hund von Baskerville series that followed (unauthorised) was initially made by Greenbaum’s Vitascope company in association with PAGU, but the two split and ended up producing rival episodes – see Alan Barnes’ Sherlock Holmes on Screen for an explanation of the complex history.

  • Arsène Lupin Contra Sherlock Holmes 1: Der alta sekretär (Germany 1910), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Vitascope,Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 1115ft, lost
  • Arsène Lupin Contra Sherlock Holmes 2: Der blaue diamant (Germany 1910), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Vitascope, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 1411ft, lost
  • Arsène Lupin Contra Sherlock Holmes 3: Die falschen Rembrandts (Germany 1910), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Vitascope, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 968ft, lost
  • Arsène Lupin Contra Sherlock Holmes 4: Die flucht (Germany 1910-11), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Vitascope, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), length?, lost
  • Arsène Lupin Contra Sherlock Holmes 5: Arsène Lupins ende (Germany 1910-11), character, pastiche, d. ?, p.c. Vitascope, Viggo Larsen (Sherlock Holmes), 902ft, lost
  • Sherlock Holmes contra Professor Moryarty – Serie 1: Der Erbe von Bloomrod (Germany 1911), character, pastiche, d. Viggo Larsen, p.c. Vitascope, ?, 2231ft, lost
  • Der Hund von Baskerville ( Germany 1914), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Rudolf Meinert, p.c. Vitascope, Alwin Neuss (Sherlock Holmes), 4386ft, Munich Filmmuseum, DVD [Edition Filmmuseum, forthcoming release]
  • Der Hund von Baskerville, 2. Teil – Das einsame Haus (Germany 1914), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Rudolf Meinert, p.c. Vitascope, Alwin Neuss (Sherlock Holmes), ?, lost
  • Detektiv Braun / Sherlock Holmes contra Dr Mors (Germany 1914), character, pastiche, d. Rudolf Meinert, p.c. Vitascope, Alwin Neuss (Sherlock Holmes), ?, lost
  • Der Hund von Baskerville, 3. Teil – Das unheimliche Zimmer (Germany 1915), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Richard Oswald , p.c. Greenbaum, Alwin Neuss (Sherlock Holmes), ?, lost
  • Der Hund von Baskerville, 4. Teil- Die Sage vom Hund von Baskerville (Germany 1915), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Richard Oswald , p.c. Greenbaum, Alwin Neuss (Sherlock Holmes), ?, lost
  • Das dunkle Schloss (Der Hund von Baskerville. III. Teil) (Germany 1915), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Willy Zeyn, p.c. PAGU, Eugen Berg, ?, lost
  • Der Hund von Baskerville – 5. Teil: Dr. Macdonalds Sanatorium (Germany 1920), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Willy Zeyn, p.c. Greenbaum, Erich Kaiser-Titz , ?, lost
  • Der Hund von Baskerville – 6. Teil: Das Haus ohne Fenster (Germany 1920), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Willy Zeyn, p.c. Greenbaum, Lu Jürgens, ?, lost

James Braginton as Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (UK 1914)

10. Samuelson
Authorised versions by leading British film company.

  • A Study in Scarlet (UK 1914), A Study in Scarlet, adaptation, d. George Pearson, p.c. Samuelson, James Bragington (Sherlock Holmes), 5479ft, lost
  • The Valley of Fear (UK 1916), The Valley of Fear, adaptation, d. Alexander Butler, p.c. Samuelson, H.A. Saintsbury (Sherlock Holmes), 6500ft, lost

11. Kowo-Gesellschaft
Unauthorised series of feature films which appear to have carried on the Nordisk/Vitascope tradition of exciting detective dramas borrowing Holmes’ name and little more. Some sources say there were up to twelve titles in the series.

  • Die Kassette (Germany 1917), character, pastiche, d. Carl Heinz Wolff, p.c. Kowo-Gesellschaft für Filmfabrikation, Hugo Flink (Sherlock Holmes), 3983ft, lost
  • Der Erdstrommotor ( Germany 1917), character, pastiche, d. Carl Heinz Wolff, p.c. Kowo-Gesellschaft für Filmfabrikation, Hugo Flink (Sherlock Holmes), 4 reels, lost
  • Der Schlangenring (Germany 1917), character, pastiche, d. Carl Heinz Wolff, p.c. Kowo-Gesellschaft für Filmfabrikation, Hugo Flink (Sherlock Holmes), 3724ft, lost
  • Was er im Spiegel sah (Germany 1918), character, pastiche, d. Carl Heinz Wolff, p.c. Kowo-Gesellschaft für Filmfabrikation, Ferdinand Bonn [?] (Sherlock Holmes), 4 reels, lost

Eille Norwood, star of the Stoll series of Sherlock Holmes films

12. Stoll Film Company
The classic adaptations of the silent era, starring Eille Norwood throughout and adapting most of the Holmes stories published to that date.

  • The Dying Detective (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 1) (UK 1921), The Dying Detective, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2273ft, BFI, DVD [Grapevine]
  • The Devil’s Foot (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 2) (UK 1921), The Devil’s Foot, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2514ft, BFI, DVD [Grapevine]
  • A Case of Identity (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 3) (UK 1921), A Case of Identity, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2610ft, BFI
  • Yellow Face (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 4) (UK 1921), The Yellow Face, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2020ft, BFI
  • The Red-Headed League (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 5) (UK 1921), The Red-Headed League, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2140ft, BFI
  • The Resident Patient (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 6) (UK 1921), The Resident Patient, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2404ft, BFI
  • A Scandal in Bohemia (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 7) (UK 1921), A Scandal in Bohemia, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2100ft, BFI
  • The Man with the Twisted Lip (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 8) (UK 1921), The Man with the Twisted Lip, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2412ft, BFI, DVD [Grapevine and Synergy Entertainment]
  • The Beryl Coronet (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 9) (UK 1921), The Beryl Coronet, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2340ft, BFI
  • The Noble Bachelor (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 10) (UK 1921), The Noble Bachelor, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2100ft, BFI
  • The Copper Beeches (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 11) (UK 1921), The Copper Beeches, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2193ft, BFI
  • The Empty House (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 12) (UK 1921), The Empty House, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1800ft, BFI
  • The Tiger of San Pedro (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 13) (UK 1921), The Tiger of San Pedro, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2080ft, BFI
  • The Priory School (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 14) (UK 1921), The Priory School, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2100ft,BFI
  • The Solitary Cyclist (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 15) (UK 1921), The Solitary Cyclist, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2140ft, BFI
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (UK 1921), The Hound of the Baskervilles, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 5500ft, BFI
  • Charles Augustus Milverton (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 1) (UK 1922), The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1900ft, BFI
  • The Abbey Grange (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 2) (UK 1922), The Abbey Grange, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2200ft, BFI
  • The Norwood Builder (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 3) (UK 1922), The Norwood Builder, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2100ft, BFI
  • The Reigate Squires (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 4) (UK 1922), The Reigate Squires, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1900ft, BFI
  • The Naval Treaty (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 5) (UK 1922), The Naval Treaty, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1600ft, BFI
  • The Second Stain (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 6) (UK 1922), The Second Stain, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2200ft, BFI
  • The Red Circle (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 7) (UK 1922), The Red Circle,adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1780ft, BFI
  • The Six Napoleons (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 8) (UK 1922), The Six Napoleons, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1790ft, BFI
  • Black Peter (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 9) (UK 1922), Black Peter, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1800ft, BFI
  • The Bruce Partington Plans (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 10) (UK 1922), The Bruce Partington Plans, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2196ft, BFI
  • The Stockbroker’s Clerk (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 11) (UK 1922), The Stockbroker’s Clerk, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1830ft, BFI
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 12) (UK 1922), The Boscombe Valley Mystery, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2450ft, BFI
  • The Musgrave Ritual (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 13) (UK 1922), The Musgrave Ritual, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1750ft, BFI
  • The Golden Pince-Nez (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 14) (UK 1922), The Golden Pince-Nez, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1675ft, BFI
  • The Greek Interpreter (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 15) (UK 1922), The Greek Interpreter, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1862ft, BFI
  • Silver Blaze (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 1) (UK 1923), Silver Blaze, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2100ft, BFI
  • The Speckled Band (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 2) (UK 1923), The Speckled Band, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1800ft, BFI
  • The Gloria Scott (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 3) (UK 1923), The Gloria Scott, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2070ft, BFI
  • The Blue Carbuncle (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 4) (UK 1923), The Blue Carbuncle,adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2000ft, BFI
  • The Engineer’s Thumb (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 5) (UK 1923), The Engineer’s Thumb, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2000ft, BFI
  • His Last Bow (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 6) (UK 1923), His Last Bow, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1600ft, BFI
  • The Cardboard Box (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 7) (UK 1923), The Cardboard Box, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1800ft, BFI
  • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 8) (UK 1923), The Disappareance of Lady Frances Carfax, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1800ft, BFI
  • The Three Students (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 9) (UK 1923), The Three Students,adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2500ft, BFI
  • The Missing Three Quarter (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 10) (UK 1923), The Missing Three Quarter, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2200ft, BFI
  • The Mystery of Thor Bridge (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 11) (UK 1923), The Mystery of Thor Bridge, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2200ft, BFI
  • The Stone of Mazarin (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 12) (UK 1923), The Stone of Mazarin, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1878ft, BFI
  • The Mystery of the Dancing Men (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 13) (UK 1923), The Mystery of the Dancing Men, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2600ft, BFI
  • The Crooked Man (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 14) (UK 1923), The Crooked Man, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 2228ft, BFI
  • The Final Problem (The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes no. 15) (UK 1923), The Final Problem, adaptation, d. George Ridgwell, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 1686ft, BFI
  • The Sign of Four (UK 1923), The Sign of Four, adaptation, d. Maurice Elvey, p.c. Stoll, Eille Norwood (Sherlock Holmes), 6750ft, BFI

Douglas Fairbanks parodying Holmes as the detective Coke Ennyday in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), from http://www.nytimes.com

13. Holmes parodies, allusions etc.
This is a selection of the many individual silent era films which parodied, spoofed, emulated or borrowed the names of Sherlock Holmes. No definitive list could be produced, given the all-pervasiveness of the idea of Holmes as master detective. Title, country, date and production company are given.

  • Un rivale di Sherlock Holmes (Italy 1907), p.c. Ambrosio
  • Miss Sherlock Holmes (USA 1908), p.c. Edison
  • Ein Meisterstück von Sherlock Holmes (Germany 1908), p.c. Internationale Kinematograph
  • A Squeedunk Sherlock Holmes (USA 1909), p.c. Edison
  • The Italian Sherlock Holmes (USA 1910), p.c. Yankee Film Company
  • A Case for Sherlock Holmes (UK 1911), p.c. Cricks & Martin
  • Sherlock Holmes Jr. (USA 1911), p.c. Rex
  • A Canine Sherlock Holmes (UK 1912), p.c. Urban
  • Cousins of Sherlock Holmes (USA 1912), p.c. Solax
  • [Sclau, schlauer, am schlauesten!] (France c.1912, p.c. Eclipse [listed by Barnes as a meeting of detectives Nick Winter, Nick Carter, Nat Pinkerton and Sherlock Holmes - original French title not know]
  • Fricot emulo di Sherlock Holmes (Italy 1913), p.c. Ambrosio
  • The Sherlock Holmes Girl (USA 1914), p.c. Edison
  • Sherlock Bonehead (USA 1914), p.c. Kalem
  • Sherlock Holmes roulé par Rigadin (France 1914), p.c. Pathé
  • Shorty and Sherlock Holmes (USA 1914), p.c. Broncho
  • The Sherlock Boob (USA 1915), p.c. Mica
  • Kri Kri contro Sherlock-Holmes (Italy 1915), p.c. Cines
  • La disfatta di Sherlok-Holmes (Italy 1915), p.c. Cines
  • The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (USA 1916), p.c. Triangle, DVD [Kino]
  • A Black Sherlock Holmes (USA 1918), p.c. Ebony
  • Das Detektivduell (Germany 1920), p.c. Valy Arnheim
  • Lya als Sherlock Holmes (Germany 1921), p.c. Albert Löwenberg
  • Sherlock Brown (USA 1922), p.c. Metro
  • Sherlock Jr (USA 1924), p.c. Buster Keaton Productions, DVD [Kino]
  • Sherlock Sleuth (USA 1925), p.c. Pathé Exchange
  • Københavns Sherlock Holmes (Denmark 1925 ), p.c. Palladium


This filmography has been compiled from many sources. Particular acknowledgments to Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History, Jay Weissberg’s notes for ‘Sherlock and Beyond: The British Detective in Silent Cinema’ in the 2009 Pordenone Silent Film Festival catalogue, the German film database Filmportal, the two volumes of the American Film Index, Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue and Books and Plays in Films 1896-1915, the American Film Catalog (online version), the Danish Film Institute online national filmography, and the Internet Movie Database.

The National Archives goes to the movies

The National Archives

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive – not to be confused with the National Archives and Records Administration in the USA. In 2003 the UK’s Public Record Office merged with the Historic Manuscripts Commission to become The National Archives (known to its friends as TNA), which pointed to a broader, more inclusive remit, but some still hanker for the reassuring days of the PRO. The location has remained the same – an imposing modernist building in Kew, to the west of London, with ponds and swans in its grounds, and hordes of historians and amateur genealogists within. It holds government and public records from the Domesday Book onwards, which are released to the public generally after thirty years have elapsed from their original production.

All of which is preamble to the news that TNA has produced a podcast entitled The National Archives Goes to the Movies, and it’s rather good. Written and presented by Joseph Pugh, the podcast is a knowledgeable guide to the history of British cinema through the records of The National Archives. Recorded before an audience, around half of the hour-long talk is about the silent period. Among the subjects he covers are Will Barker’s 1911 film of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, all copies of which were burned in a publicity stunt; the efforts of the Colonial Office to ban The Birth of a Nation; concern within the Home Office at how Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat could offend the Japanese; the production of Maurice Elvey’s ill-fated epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918); the British government-sponsored dramas Hearts of the World (1918) and The Invasion of Britain (1918); Home Office efforts to ban Graham Cutts’ sensationalist Cocaine (1922); and Marie Stopes’ correspondence with the Home Office over her birth control film Married Love (aka Maisie’s Marriage) (1923).

The point of the talk is not only to entertain but to encourage research. Consequently most of the films that Pugh refers to are also listed on Your Archives, TNA’s wiki where researchers can post information on files that they have found. I’m not sure how much the wiki gets used, because researchers tend to be a little wary of giving away all their sources, but the principle is noble.

A trade paper advertisement for Cocaine and a poster for Maisie’s Marriage, taken from The National Archives’ Flickr site, original file references HO 45/11599 and HO 45/11382

The sort of records one find in The National Archives are those which document the day-to-day processes of government departments. There are memos, memos responding to memos, and memos responding to memos responding to memos. There are letters, minutes, briefing papers, personal papers, official papers, diaries, reports, lists, registers, passenger lists, medal rolls, photographs, maps and posters. The contents are generally arranged chronologically, identified by government department and then gathered together by theme into individual numbered folders.

The National Archives can be a daunting place for any newbie researcher. There is no single index, and although they produce an amazing rich online catalogue (helpfully named the Catalogue) they also have to produce a multitude of specialist guides that explain how to pursue particular topics. One of these research guides covers The Arts, Broadcasting and Film, and it’s a very good starting point. As said, The National Archives arranges its records by department, so it is important to know that responsibility for film was held by the Board of Trade’s Industries and Manufactures Department (formed 1918), but information on film is spread widely across particularly all departments. To produce a complete guide to TNA records to silent film would require a blog (or a wiki) all of its own, but here’s an outline guide to some of the key departments to explore. Please note that catalogue references will simply take you to the barest of descriptions online, and to view the documents themselves you will have to visit Kew.

  • AIR (Air Ministry, Royal Air Force etc)
    Records of aerial photography and cinematography during World War One are held in AIR 2 (search under ‘cinematography’).
  • BT (Board of Trade)
    Records of registered companies (since dissolved), including hundreds of film businesses (producers, distributors, cinemas etc), with information on capital and shareholders, are in BT 31; records of liquidated companies 1890-1932 are in BT 34; trade marks (BT 42-53) includes film company trademarks, though there is no overall index so you need to search on-site by date (see the TNA guide on registered designs and trade marks); BT 226 has bankruptcy records for companies and individuals. BT 26 and BT 27 contains lists of ship passengers who arrived in (1878-1960) or left (1890-1960) the UK. The incoming lists themselves can be viewed online (payment required) at Ancestry, and the outgoing list (again payment required) at Ancestors on Board.
  • CAB (Cabinet)
    Papers from the very heart of government. Nicholas Reeves’ Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War has a handy guide to PRO/TNA papers relating to official film, including Cabinet papers in CAB 21, 23-25, 27, 37 and 41.
  • CO (Colonial Office etc)
    Many records relating to the production, distribution and exhibition of films in British colonies and countries of the empire, including records of the Empire Marketing Board (for which John Grierson worked) in CO 758 (correspondence), CO 759 (index cards), CO 760 (minutes, papers) and CO 956 (posters).
  • COPY (Copyright Office, Stationers’ Company)
    Before the 1911 Copyright Act if a UK film producer wanted to copyright a film (usually they did so only if there had been a case of their work being copied) then they had to do so as it if was a photograph; consequently there are numerous records of films 1897-1912 registered under COPY 1. The registration forms were accompanied by single frames, bromide prints, or in a few cases a few frames of film (the originals are now held by the BFI). For a guide to this collection, which comprises a few hundred titles among the many thousands of photographs, see Richard Brown’s essay in Simon Popple and Colin Harding’s In the Kingdom of Shadows. There are also registers and indexes under COPY 3. Some film posters and other promotional material can also be found in the COPY records.
  • ED (Department of Education and Science)
    Disparate documents on film and education, a theme of growing interest throughout the 1920s, including assorted commissions of enquiry.
  • FO (Foreign Office)
    The Foreign Office was concerned with promoting British foreign policy. There are extensive records relating to British propaganda films being shown overseas during World War One, in particular FO 115 on propaganda in the USA and Canada, FO 371 covering general correspondence, and FO 395 which covers war films and American propaganda 1916-17. There is a card index to the FO papers in TNA’s search rooms, making this a particularly fruitful area to explore.
  • HO (Home Office)
    The Home Office oversaw domestic policy. There are extensive records on actual legislation (starting with the 1909 Cinematograph Act) and proposed regulation affecting the British film business, including such issues as censorship, local authority control, unlicensed film exhibitions and the filming of contentious events (political marches etc) are in HO 45. See also HO 158 for relevant general papers and correspondence.
  • INF (Ministry of Information etc)
    A particularly valuable source, with records of the War Propaganda Bureau, the War Office Cinematograph Committee, the Department of Information and the Ministry of Information, all of which were concerned with film production during the First World War (further official papers on war film production are held by the Imperial War Museum). The main section to follow is INF 4. Of particular interest is one chapter from the unpublished memoir by J. Brooke Wilkinson, leading film industry representative and first head of the British Board of Film Censors, at INF 4/2
  • J (Supreme Court of Judicature)
    Covers records of court cases (Chancery), often a rich source of information on how a film company operated. See in particular the winding up orders under J 13.
  • LAB (departments responsible for labour and employment matters and related bodies)
    Includes documents on film industry employees and industrial relations (though relatively little here for the silent era).
  • MEPO (Metropolitan Police)
    The Metropolitan Police conducted surveys of early London cinemas around 1908-09 after they were causing some social concern. The result is a rich record of the early cinema business and audiences, to be found in MEPO 2. They are described in detail in Jon Burrows’ two essays ‘Penny Pleasures: Film exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon era, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 1 (2004) and ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, anarchy and junk film in London’s “Nickelodeons”, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 2 (2004), while the London Project database lists the venues covered by files MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/7 and MEPO 2/9172, file 590446 (see also HO 45/10376/16142). There are later surveys of cinemas and screenings of indecent films in the 1920s.
  • RG (General Register Office)
    Has census returns from 1861 onwards (1841-1851 are under HO 107). These can all be found online through various commercial services (see details here), but all are available for free at Kew – see the helpful TNA guide to researching census records.
  • WO (War Office)
    There is relatively little that specifically relates to film here, as most papers relating to the War Office Cinematographic Committee will be found at the Imperial War Museum and the House of Lords Record Office (Beaverbrook Papers). But surviving records of film personnel who served during the War (including Official cameramen) can be found at WO 338 (officers’ service records), WO 363 (service records), WO 364 (pension records) and WO 372 (medal cards). Digitised copies of the actual documents in all four categories can be found online through TNA’s Documents Online or Ancestry (in both cases payment is required for downloads).
  • Other records where information on silent era films can be found include ADM (Admiralty), CUST (Customs and Excise), IR (Inland Revenue), and T (Treasury).

This is a very simplistic overview, and it must be stressed that information on films will be found all over the place. For example, type in the term ‘cinematograph’ in the catalogue and you will get 1,108 records from forty-four separate departments (448 records from twenty-five departments if you narrow the date search to 1896-1930). It is a good idea to look at the bibliographies of books and the end notes of journal articles which have benefited from research at TNA (or PRO before it) to pick up specific references and useful indications of where it would be profitable to search.

The National Archives has produced some substantial publications which explore a subject in depth with copious file references. However, there is no such guide for film (one has been talked about for years but has never been forthcoming). However, there is a classic article by Nicholas Pronay, ‘The “Moving Picture” and Historical Research’, Journal of Contemporary History vol. 18 (1983) (available to higher education users on JSTOR) which describes in details the several kinds of government records which can be used for the study of film, describing why they were created, and giving specific file names. Note also that the above file information relates only to silent films – there is a huge amount of information at The National Archives relating to film (and television) from later periods, particularly govering the GPO Film Unit, film during World War II, the COI Film Unit, the Colonial Film Unit, broadcasting policy, British Council records, and much more besides.

The National Archives is still an underused resource for film history, though we have got beyond the days when Rachael Low could write a multi-volume history of British film apparently without any reference to the Public Record Office. If you’ve not been, and you can get there, then you really should – it’s the most engrossing and rewarding research experience imaginable. Go explore.

By the way, films can be public records too, but the productions of the Ministry of Information, the COI Film Unit and others are preserved on TNA’s behalf by the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum.

My thanks to Brad Scott for alerting me to the podcast.

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