Unknown knowns, and known unknowns

http://www.flickr.com/people/nfig/

Is there any other art form where the unidentified and the lost have as much cultural cachet as they do in film? Perhaps in some quarters there are those who fret over lost operas or unattributed paintings, but there doesn’t seem anything that quite matches the fascination film buffs (especailly silent film buffs) and film archivists have for films that no longer exist (but might be found somewhere), and films that do exist but whose identity is no longer known. It must have something to the photography and the nearness in time. We’re just a few generations away from when these films were made, and yet we have forgotten already. There is tragedy, and there is guilt.

Perhaps the nearest discipline, if not art form, is archaeology, which likewise looks for that which is lost, and puzzles over that which has been found but whose purpose is unclear. So it is appropriate that a workshop on identifying unidentified films, to be organised at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus, should be entitled Silent Film Archaeology. The workshop takes place 14-16 June at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, and here are the details:

SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY:
A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop

The staff of the Moving Image Section of the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation will host SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop, during June 14-16, 2012. The workshop will include unidentified films from other film preservation archives in addition to those from the Library’s collection.

NOTE: Due to resource limitations, participation in this workshop in 2012 will be limited to film archivists and historians actively engaged in film preservation activities and research efforts devoted to American produced films of the silent era. No support will be provided by the Library of Congress for travel, lodging, meals, local transportation or other expenses incurred by participants.

SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will be a three day event and take place at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, during June 14-16, 2012. The majority of the films presented will be “silents” but will not be shown in silence. Phil Carli, Ben Model and Andrew Simpson will provide musical accompaniment. In addition to full days of workshop screenings, there will be evening public screenings of recent restorations the titles of which will be announced at a later date.

A recently completed study by David Pierce, now being prepared for publication by the Library of Congress, confirms what film archivists have long suspected—that 76% of all U.S. feature films produced between 1912 and 1930 no longer survive, or exist only in fragments in non-US film archives. In spite of this sobering statistic, it is known that most US film archives hold considerable amounts of both “unidentified” and “inadequately identified” films and film fragments from the silent era. The SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will bring together practicing film archivists and researchers in an informal atmosphere for the purpose of screening 35mm prints and sharing comments and opinions, with the expectation that a significant number of the puzzles among the Library’s collection of unidentified and poorly identified films will be solved. Some film elements with sound tracks may also be screened.

It is hoped that this important film research and discovery effort will become a regularly scheduled Packard Campus activity, in service to the community of film preservationists, and that it can be expanded in the future to include all under-investigated areas of creative and technological achievement in the history of US motion pictures.

Prior registration is required and no reservations will be accepted after May 18, 2012. For more information, or to request a registration form contact: Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator at rsto [at] loc.gov. All registrants will receive additional information on schedule, housing and directions.

One of the organisers of the workshop, Rachel Parker, is also the person behind the Nitrate Film Interest Group, a Flickr site established by the Association of Moving Image Archivists which posts images from unidentified films from archives around the world, and invites anyone to have a go at ientifying them. Many have since we first drew your attention to the site, and there is now a triumphant section presenting those images which have now been identified thanks to the wisdom of individuals, if not the crowd.

It’s a good an example as there is of film archives reinventing themselves and their relationship with their users through the opportunities the web now presents to us. Do take a look, and if you can’t identify any film or person therein, you can still delight in the images and maybe contemplate the passing of time and the transcience of fame.

The death of poor Joe

The Death of Poor Joe

The BFI has scored a considerable coup, revealing that it has uncovered a copy of what is not only the earliest surviving film based on a Charles Dickens character (in this the bicentenary of Dickens’ death birth), but a film that apparently no-one had identified as being Dickensian before now. The film was discovered by the BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon while she was investigating early films of China. She spotted the connection between a film in the archive entitled Man Meets Ragged Boy with a late 1900/early 1901 (the exact production date is uncertain) film The Death of Poor Joe, made for the Warwick Trading Company by Brighton director G.A. Smith, the title of which made Dixon think of the character Jo the Crossing Sweeper in Dickens’ novel Bleak House. The film was donated to the BFI back in the 1950s by collector Graham Head, who was a friend of Smith’s. The previous earliest surviving Dickens film was Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost, issued by Robert Paul in November 1901, as also held by the BFI.

So why was it missed all this time? Well, I don’t know why Man with Ragged Boy was overlooked, except that I don’t remember the title at all from the dim and distant days when I was at the BFI, so maybe it was lurking in some neglected corner for the past sixty years. But the reason no one seems to have spotted the Dickens connection is that Jo was written as Joe. Jo the Crossing Sweeper is a minor character in Bleak House, a pathetic, homeless boy who sweeps horse manure from the streets, knowing nothing but the wretched small life to which he is condemned, a metaphor for neglected childhood. In the novel, Jo collapses outside the gates of Tom-all-alone’s Cemetery before dying at a shooting gallery.

The character in the film we now have is partly Dickens, partly something else (Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Match Girl, suggests the BFI press release). Here he dies in the snow outside the gates of an unspecified building, attended to by a nightwatchman who shines a lantern in the face of the dying boy, who clasps his hands together in prayer. There is no nightwatchman in the novel, and no snow, but Joe/Jo is carrying a broom which makes the identification with Dickens fairly certain (Jo in the novel also dies in mid-prayer).

The Biokam camera-projector, from a Warwick Trading Company catalogue

The film is a Warwick Trading Company production (manager one Charles Urban, of whom you will have heard me speak before now). At this time Warwick were issuing some films in both 35mm standard format and cheaper narrow gauge 17.5mm format for its Biokam camera-printer-projector, which was aimed at the domestic market. The Biokam, invented by Alfred Wrench, was originally designed for people to shoot their own films when it was launched in 1899, but Warwick soon started supplying ready-made films for people to project in their own homes. The Death of Poor Joe was one such film, though it is the 35mm version that survives, not the 17.5mm. The 17.5mm copy would either have been optically reduced to the narrower gauge, or possibly could have been restaged entirely for the different format, as sometimes happened with Biokam films. It is listed in the 1901 Warwick catalogue (catalogue number 1021), which was issued around March 1901. What is also intriguing about Biokam films is who made them. G.A. Smith himself was certainly in charge of their production, but there is this intriguing snippet from an October 1899 interview with Smith in the Brighton Herald which indicates a joint responsibility. The reporter complains that films look to be too expensive for the humble amateur:

“All in good time,” said Mr Smith. He brought out a small hand-camera. “This is a camera in which I am interested and which I expect will soon be all the rage. Films are being made for this that will cost only 3s. 6d. a minute.” Then Mrs Smith came in to borrow the identical camera, to go off and photograph the waves breaking over the Hove sea all.

Mrs G.A. Smith, film director? Quite possibly. Her name was Laura Bayley, and it looks like her who plays Joe/Jo in the film (or just possibly her sister Eva), though it has to be said she is rather too robust and tall to convince much as a neglected waif. The nightwatchman is possibly played by another Brighton performer, Tom Green, a regular in Smith’s films.

The film was very likely to have been based on a stage original (Bayley was a stage actress and pantomime artist in Brighton) or possibly a magic lantern slide set. It has that look of deliberation which comes when something is being followed closely, particularly the actions of the nightwatchman. Further investigation of the film’s production origins may reveal just how closely or tangentially it is related to Dickens’ novel. The film is also interesting for the effect of the nightwatchman’s lamp light (created by a light shining off-screen) and for the wind-blown backdrop with the shadows of branches – the film was clearly made in the open-air (probably St Ann’s Well Gardens in Hove, when Smith had an open-air studio).

Anyway, it is a cleverly timed discovery which has captured the news media’s attention. The film featured this evening at the BFI South Bank as a surprise extra item in a programme of silent Dickens film shorts, which will be repeated on 23 March. It’s already turned up on YouTube, as you will have seen, and the Bioscope must now adjust its Dickens on silent film filmography to incorporate this latest discovery.

Meanwhile let’s all look out for The Death of Nancy Sykes, made by the American Mutoscope Company in 1897 and starring Mabel Fenton as Nancy and Charles Ross as Bill Sykes, from Oliver Twist. The very first Dickensian film remains a lost film.

Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish Filmarkivet.se, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ‘1911’ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

The Delhi Durbar

The 1911 Delhi Durbar, showing the royal pavilion. From Wikimedia Commons

To the north of Delhi lies a deserted and desolate patch of open ground, surrounded by slums and a dual carriageway. Trees and scrub are broken up here and there by empty pedestals. Some statues stand there, though most have lost the inscriptions that told passers-by who the once great figures they represented were. One statue is still cared for, that of King George V, standing forlornly over a space where he once witnessed the pinnacle of his greatness, if greatness was what it was.

The space is Coronation Park, location in 1877, 1902/3 and 1911 of the three Durbars held to mark the establishiment of the Empress or Emperor of India. Though there are moves to restore the park, its desolate state now seems a rather appropriate comment on the vaingloriousness of the British Raj, and on human ambition generally. But while the Durbars are now chiefly of interest to imperial historians, romantics and collectors, the 1911 Durbar in particular is of importance to film history. It was one of the most important newsfilm subjects of its time, serving as a testing ground for the newsreels which had only recently be established. One film in particular of the Durbar, whose main ceremony took place 12 December 1911, one hundred years ago, became the most celebrated and influential film of its age. So let us spend a little time recounting the history.

A durbar was a Mughal word (taken from the Persian) meaning a reception, a court, or body of officials at such a court. The term was appropriated by the British Raj and used to describe the formal ceremonies held in 1877 to acknowledge the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. Delhi was selected as the location, being the old Mughal capital, and the Viceroy Lord Lytton devised a celebration that set the pattern for the Durbars that followed. A temporary city of tents was constructed, and an ampitheatre wherein the main ceremonies were staged. In a richly colourful display, British rule in India, and the privileged but inferior position of the Indian princes (on whose presence particular emphasis was placed) within the ruling hierarchy was illustrated through procession, pageantry and obeisance. Queen Victoria did not attend.

When the second Delhi Durbar was held in 1902-3 (at the same location), to recognise Edward VII as the new Emperor of India, once again the King-Emperor did not go to India and was represented by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The ceremonies attracted several film companies, and some pioneering Indian filmmakers. The significant difference when it came to the Delhi Durbar of 1911 was that this time the King-Emperor himself attended. It was King George V’s own idea to go to India. George believed profoundly in the solemnity and responsibility of his position, and he wished to see his annointment as Emperor of India properly sanctified, as well as expressing a wish to do what he could to calm seditious tendencies (which had been insufficiently placated by the India Act of 1909 which established the Indian councils) by his presence.

His idea was not greatly welcomed by the British parliament, which feared the great expense that would fall upon the government of India. The eventual cost would be £560,000, plus a further £207,000 covering the management and manoeuvres for 80,000 troops (multiply those figures by 100 to get a rough idea of what those cost would be today). The King had suggested that he should be crowned Emperor on Indian soil, an idea vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (noting that a ceremony of Christian consecration would be offensive to Muslim and Hindu sensibilities), and instead a new crown was made, the existing crowns not being allowed to leave British soil, at a cost to the people of India of £60,000. Preparations took over a year, and were organised by Sir John Hewett, the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces.

The ceremonies were to take place in the same location outside Delhi as in 1877 and 1902/3, and a giant ‘city’ of 40,000 tents was erected, which was eventually to house some 300,000 inhabitants. On 11 November 1911 King George V and Queen Mary left on the P&O ship Medina for the three-week voyage to Bombay, arriving on 2 December.

Charles Urban (centre) with his camera team at Delhi

Awaiting them in Bombay were the film cameramen. Five British film companies had successfully applied to the organising committee for permission to film the ceremonies: Barker Motion Photography, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company. Each sent at least two operators; Charles Urban had a team of seven or eight, of whom probably four were cameramen (Joseph De Frenes, Hiram Horton, Alfred Gosden, Albuin Mariner). Urban’s intentions were to make two films – one newsfilm in black-and-white, but the other on a far greater scale was to be in colour. There were various announcements by Indian film companies that they would be filming the Durbar, though only the Bengali film pioneer Hiralal Sen definitely did so (his films, sadly are lost).

The day of the Coronation Durbar itself was 12 December. Up to 100,000 people filled the ampitheatre during the morning before the formal ceremonies began. At the head of the procession came veterans of past wars, including over a hundred survivors of the 1857 Mutiny, both Indian and British. Next came the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge (temporarily divested of his official power during the King-Emperor’s visit) and Lady Hardinge in an open carriage. An escort and the sound of fanfares preceded the entry of the royal carriage, with its canopy of crimson and gold, the King-Emperor and Queen-Empress dressed in their purple imperial robes, each wearing crowns. They processed down the central road, then round in a semi-circle past the central Royal Pavilion, to the Shamiana (a pavilion at the far end of the arena in front of the guests’ enclosure), where the Viceroy led them to their thrones. Here the Indian princes were to do homage to their Emperor, and after the King had given a short address, the maharajahs and princes of India came one by one (in strict order of precedence) to express their loyalty to the crown. One of the maharajahs, the Gaekwar of Baroda, caused a diplomatic incident when he declined to bow properly and then walk backwards after paying homage, instead turning his back on the King and Queen. Accident or deliberate act of defiance? Whichever, frame stills from the film record would later be used by the newspapers as evidence of the slight, for those who might not otherwise believe that such an act could even have been contemplated.

The prince identified on the Gaumont newsfilm of the Delhi Durbaras being the Gaekwar of Baroda, turning his back to King George and Queen Mary. Whether it is the Gaekwar is uncertain (see discussion below)

The Emperor and Empress rose from their thrones and walked to the central Royal Pavilion. Fanfares sounded. The official proclamation of the King’s coronation in June was made, in English and Urdu, and there were various announcements concerning beneficial funds and concessions made to the people of India. The royal couple returned to the Shamiana, while a salute was fired and cheers were taken up by the thirty thousand troops, then the sixty or more thousand guests, then those many thousands more outside the arena. At the Shamiana, the Emperor gave two last announcements concerning political changes, which had been kept in the greatest secrecy for months. These were that the capital of India was to move to Delhi, and that the partition of Bengal (an unpopular decision from the Curzon era) was to be cancelled. Both announcements, but particularly former, were received in almost stunned silence, before being greeted by general cheering. The Durbar was declared formally closed, the royal couple returned to their carriage, and departed.

The mood at the time, at least among the British, was one of complete awe as the majesty and colour of the spectacle, which seemed to be the very apex of the imperial dream. Journalist Philips Gibbs summed up its (British) impact:

Sound and colour combined to form a panorama of beauty and grandeur such as one might suppose could have its being only in a dream. Uniforms, robes, turbans of every shade and tone produced an effect which, though infinitely varied in its contrasts, was blended into one flawless harmony by the orderliness of the entire scheme. There seemed a mystic bond that welded the tremendous music of the bands, the clear notes of the bugles, and the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching hosts, into one vast paean of triumphant praise to the King-Emperor, and that found its more material counterpart in the riot of colour displayed so lavishly on every side.

The film companies hurried back to Britain. Only Urban’s camera team filming in the Kinemacolor process stayed behind (his black-and-white films were returned to Britain, however). He was seeing things beyond the news, and felt that so precious were the films that his team has captured that there was danger of their being stolen or damaged by his rivals. He later recalled:

We had the choicest of all possible positions; the officials afforded us the best of protection. They had heard rumors that rival film companies were bent on damaging or destroying our pictures and inasmuch as the King expected to see these pictures in London, it was up to the Army to see that we got them safely there. Each night we used to develop the negatives exposed during the day, and bury them in cases dug in the sand in my tent with a piece of linoleum and a rug on top – my bed on top of them, a pistol under my pillow and armed guards patrolling our camp.

The other film companies had also brought with them film processing equipment, so that they could show their films locally as well as dispatch prints back to Britain. Prints were sped back to Britain by ship and train. According to Stephen Bottomore, pre-eminent historian of the films of the 1902/3 and 1911 Durbars, all of the companies got their films onto screens in London on the same day, Saturday, 30 December 1911, including Kineto (Urban’s company filming in black-and-white), most if not all showing their results in the first show of the morning at 11:00. The films were news records, between five and fifteen minutes in length.

King George and Queen Mary viewing Barker Motion Photography’s black-and-white films of the Durbar at Calcutta House, 6 January 1912, from the Illustrated London News. Lord Hardinge noted in his diary: “In the evening we had a dinner of 50 and a cinematograph afterwards giving scenes from the Durbar and the Calcutta visit. They were not good but the King and Queen seemed to enjoy seeing them”

The films were a great, if brief, commercial success. Viewed as news, they were the toast of the town in January, and a dead duck by February, as Bottomore notes. News has to be fast, then it has to die, and a strategy of speed in order to capture the passing interest of the crowd was the only one the newsreel companies understood. Prints were sent out around the world, though perhaps not surprisingly few territories view the ceremonies with quite the same enthusiasm as did the British. But wherever you were, and whatever your sympathies, by February the Delhi Durbar was history. Its pomp was past.

On 2 February 1912 at the Scala Theatre in London Charles Urban revealed his strategy. He did not see the Delhi Durbar as news; he saw it as living theatre. His plan was to recreate the experience and the emotion of the Delhi Durbar as far as might be possible on a London stage. It was not that people were tired of the Durbar; they had not seen it as it had been seen, and as it could now be presented. Urban organised his Kinemacolor footage into a two and a half hour programme (16,000 feet), a previously unheard of length for a film show, and with introductions and intervals it in fact stretched to three hours in full. It had the overall title With Our King and Queen Through India. Its centrepiece was entitled the Coronation Durbar at Delhi, but the programme as a whole covered the whole tour. The Scala stage was turned into a mock-up of the Taj Mahal, with special lighting effects. Music was composed and scored for forty-eight pieces, a chorus of twenty-four, a twenty-piece fife and drum corps, and three bagpipes. Music that had been played at the actual event was used whereever possible, including fanfares. This was virtual reality – pictures, sound, colour, pomp and circumstance, and all for a better and cheaper seat than if you had been one of those who had sailed off to India. The show at the Scala was going to be better than the real thing.

The Taj Mahal backdrop used for the screenings of With Our King and Queen through India at the Scala Theatre, from the National Media Museum collection

Things turned out as Urban had dreamed. With Our King and Queen in India became a huge hit, commercially and socially. It became the show that every discriminating person in London had to go and see, then repeated that success acros the UK, and then worldwide (it did particularly well in America). Society came to the Scala to see a medium that it would never have deigned to cast an eye on before. Duke and duchesses, lords and ladies, royalty themselves (King George and Queen Mary visited the Scala to see the film on 11 May 1912), all came to see the Durbar recreated on the screen. Children were taken to a show whose worthiness greatly commended it to parents who had previously been suspicious of moving pictures. Among such visitors were the young John Grierson (aged 11), Ivor Montagu (7) and Paul Rotha (4), future lions of the British documentary movement.

With our King and Queen in India was not a conventional film. Quite aside from its length, and the fact that it was in colour, it was more of a theatrical event than a film per se. Its different components recording incidents from the whole royal tour could be selected or ordered according to the length of available programme, so that no one screening might be the same as the next. The use of a lecturer throughout, the special music, stage and lighting effects, the whole sensory impact created something that was rather more than a mere picture show (to use a phrase said by one of Urban’s acquaintances at the time).

Four colour images from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue showing scenes from With Our King and Queen through India. It was not possible to reproduce Kinemacolor in print, so the images were conventionally coloured for print and do not accurately represent how the film actually looked. Clockwise from top left – the arrival of the royal couple in Bombay, state entry into Delhi, the royal review, and the Durbar ceremony itself

The film made a fortune. Urban calculated that through a combination of the Scala programme and five touring road shows in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the film grossed more than £150,000 (though this figure may be for all Kinemacolor exhibited in UK); over the two years that Kinemacolor had its residency at the Scala, gross receipts (from a theatre that seated just 920) were £64,000. That’s six and a half million pounds in today’s money, from one small theatre alone.

And what of the film now? Just as Coronation Park, venue for vaingloriousness has become a deserted wasteland, so the Kinemacolor film that so entranced a world that still believed in the pageantry of empire is lost, with only reviews, catalogue records and memoirs to give us a second-hand sense of what experiencing it must have been like. Well, not entirely lost. Just as a statue or two, a commermorative obelisk and a plaque stand in the park as reminders of once was, so something of the Kinemacolor film survives, having been discovered in the Russian state film archive in 2000. It doesn’t show the main ceremonies; the single reel shows a parade of British troops and an artillery display that took place two days later. It is marvellous that it survives, and was undoubtedly grand to experience at the time, but it is a sideshow. The greater part is lost.

Frame still showing the Kinemacolor effect from the surviving reel of With Our King and Queen through India. The colour synthesis has been recreated electronically, because true Kinemaclor can only be see by projecting the films (via a rotating red/green filter). From the Russian State Archives

But fate has been kinder when it comes to the black-and-white films that were made. Those of Barker, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick survive and can be found online in various places. They show us the spectacle, the deep sense felt of the power of the visual to express power, and the absurdity of it all. The best to watch is probably that by Gaumont, which is available on the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire site (despite some nitrate damage at the start). It includes a title that reads “How the Gaekwar of Baroda paid homage to King George”, but Stephen Bottomore has queried whether the prince shown is in fact the Gaekwar. Intriguingly the evidence of the films show that there was more than one Indian prince who turned his back on the royal couple (two turn their backs, both dressed in white, but one with a dark turban, the other white). Was this mass disdain, or was the whole incident manufactured by the press?

If you are interested to pursue the history of the 1911 Delhi Durbar and its films, there are several online sources available:

Parts of this post have been taken from my article “The modern Elixir of Life”: Kinemacolor, royalty and the Delhi Durbar, Film History, vol. 21 no. 2, 2009. I am also indebted to Stephen Bottomore’s essay ‘Have You Seen the Gaekwar Bob?’: filming the 1911 Delhi Durbar, Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 17 no. 3, August 1997. Both are available online, but only via academic subscription services.

Finally, there are plans to redevelop Coronation Park, with gardening, more trees, a cricket area, an interpretation centre, and a general tidying up, though they have missed their original deadline which was the Durbar centenary. The Wall Street Journal has the story.

Coronation Park today, from The Wall Street Journal blog

First flight

Seven frames from an otherwise lost film of British aviator Percy Pilcher, flying his ‘Hawk’ glider on 20 June 1897

We were discussing ‘first’ films the other day, and warning of the dangers of lapsing into ‘firstism’ when it comes to films. Too often asking “what was the first such-and-such film?” “what was the first film to …?” is the wrong question to ask, because it presupposes that film forms and subjects that we understand now were understood in the same way when films were being created for the first time. Moreover, no sooner do you announce that such and such a film was the first whatever then someone is bound to pop up and tell you of one that is earlier.

But the heck, it’s still a fun game to play. So here we present to you what may be the first film of human flight. The film – or rather the mere seven frames of the film that survive reproduced in the journal Nature from 12 August 1897 – shows the pioneering British aviator Percy Pilcher (1866-1899) taking off from a hillside, probably outside Eynsford, for 20 June 1897. The glider was one of his own construction, named ‘The Hawk’, and you can just make out that it is being towed as the aviator takes to the air. I have animated the seven frames and repeated them several times, since the action naturally lasts for less than a second. It is not known how long the original film was (it seems to have been made as a scientific record, not as a commercial release).

Aviation enthusiast and photographer William J.S. Lockyer (who may have taken the film) wrote in Nature about the particular point of the action that we see in these seven frames.

The start was made at a given signal, the line being pulled by three boys, and Mr. Pilcher gradually left the ground, and soarred gracefully into the air, attaining a maximum height of about 70 feet. After covering a distance of about 180 yards the line suddenly parted, a knot having slipped. The only apparent difference this made was that the operator began now to slowly descend, his motion in the horizontal direction being somewhat reduced. A safe and graceful landing was made at a distance of 250 yards from the starting-point. the photographs illustrate that part of the flight previous to the attainment of the greatest height.

The film records Pilcher’s first public demonstration of one of his gliders, with a party of scientists having been present to witness the occasion. On the same day Pilcher’s cousin Dorothy also flew the Hawk, in what is believed to be the first instance of a woman operating a heavier-than-air aircraft. It is said that she was being filmed as well when she crashed into the cinematograph operator. I do hope this is true and not just a good story.

Percy Pilcher would die in a crash flying the same glider two years later, aged just 32. Poignantly, Lockyer’s account tells us not only that “in these attempts it must not be forgotten that there is always a certain amount of danger” but adds the following hint of what might have been:

Mr. Pilcher now proposes to employ, as soon as possible, a small and light engine indicating about four hourse-power, this being considerably more than sufficient for flights of moderate length … With this improvement it is hoped that further distances will be covered, and a nearer approximation to a flying machine will be attained.

A true flying machine to make real the dream of powered flight would finally be achieved by the Wright brothers in 1903. We don’t know if Pilcher could ever have put his dreams into reality, but it is likely that he was the first human to be shown in flight on film. The Lumières filmed a balloonist taking off the following year in 1898 (Départ d’une montgolfière, cat.no. 998) and a view of the ground below filmed from that balloon – probably the first example of aerial cinematography (Panorama pris d’un ballon captif, cat. no. 997).

The view from the air provided by Panorama pris d’un ballon (1898), from Die Kunst zu Fliegen in Film und Fotografie (Düsseldorf: NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft, 2004)

Balloonist Alberto Santos-Dumont was filmed by a Lumière operator on 19 September 1900 precariously perched beneath his dirigible, and in 1901 was filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in Santos Dumont’s Aerial Flight Around the Eiffel Tower and Santos Dumont Explaining his Air Ship to the Hon. C.S. Rolls The Lumière films survive; the Biograph film of Dumont in flight does not. However the film of Dumont with Rolls was recently discovered in São Paulo as a Mutoscope reel and made the subject of a thoroughly researched documentary film, Santos Dumont’s Mutoscope (2010), directed by Brazilian scholar Carlos Adriano. Rolls was a pioneering aviator himself, and the first Briton to be killed in an airplane crash, in 1910. He was also the Rolls in Rolls-Royce.

Alberto Santos-Dumont (left) and C.S. Rolls in 1901, filmed by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and preserved as a Mutoscope reel

Santos-Dumont was also the first person to be filmed flying an aeroplane. A fleeting film exists, taken by I know not whom on 23 October 1906, showing his 14-bis aircraft undertaking the brief but first successful flight by a fixed-wing powered aircraft in Europe. The Wright brothers’ Flyer was not filmed until it was brought to Europe in August 1908 (Wilbur made the trip with Orville following in January 1909), when the aeroplane was filmed near Le Mans. Motion pictures of the Wright Flyer in Europe greatly helped spread the word that powered flight had been achieved.

Alberto Santos-Dumont’s brief flight in the 14-bis outside Paris on 23 October 1906

Orville and Wilbur Wright stayed in France until April 1909, when they moved for a short time to Italy. There another first was achieved, though there has perhaps been no more hotly contested a first in aviation filming than the first person to film from the air. I’ve come across so many competing claims. The film below was taken in Italy from Wilbur Wright’s aircraft, on 24 April 1909 by the Italian film company Società Italiana Pineschi (ignore the erroneous 1907 date given for the clip on YouTube). It is fairly certain that it is the first film taken from an airplane (if not – as already demonstrated – the first film taken from the air).

The view from Wilbur Wright’s Flyer, 24 April 1909

If you want a rudimentary, pseudo-philosophical overview of the relationship between early film and early flight (including pre-cinema and pre-flight), there’s my essay, ‘Taking to the Air‘, on my personal website. If you are interested in investigating the links between aviation and film once the plans were up in the air and the cinematograph was able to record them more fully, it’s well worth browsing through the archives of Flight magazine, covered fully in an earlier Bioscope post. And if I’ve got my various ‘firsts’ wrong – please tell me. It’s all part of the game.

Brides of Sulu

Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro in Brides of Sulu, from http://www.gmanews.tv

A lot of us will know the commonly accepted figure of 80% of all films from the silent era as being considered lost. The figures varies for different territories, however (and whether you are counting fiction films only or all kinds of production). For America there is an estimated a survival rate of 7-12% for each year of the teens (feature films only), moving to 15-25% for the 1920s, but for China the figure is 95% loss, and for Japan the figure is between 95% and 99% loss. For the Philippines the figure is even worse – 100% loss of all native silent film production. Or at least that was what was thought. But silent films can lurk in some surprising places.

Brides of Sulu is an obscure American B-movie, made anywhere between 1933 and 1937 according to assorted sources. It’s included in the American Film Institute’s catalogue for the 1930s. The film tell of two lovers from the Philippine islands, one a Mohammedan princess (Venita), the other a pagan pearl diver (Assam). To escape her aranged marriage to a local chief, the couple flee to a remote island only to be pursued by her tribe, determined to kill Assam. It was filmed in the Philippines, though there is apparently no written account there of its production, and has an American narration (the country was still a colony of the USA at this time). The film was directed by one John Nelson, of whom nothing else (according to IMDb) is known, and stars two Phillipines film actors, Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro, as well as local Moro tribesmen.

Now Brides of Sulu is to feature at Manila’s International Silent Film Festival, because recent scholarship indicates that the film was made out of one, if not two, Philippine silents. According to the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film:

There were two late silent-era Filipino films made in 1931 about the Moros of Sulu – Princess Tarhata (Araw Movies) and The Moro Pirate (Malayan Movies). The first was produced by the forgotten cinematographer Jose Domingo Badilla, while the latter was produced and directed by Jose Nepomuceno, acknowledged as the Father of the Philippine movie industry. Tarhata‘s lead actress is Adelina Moreno, while main actor of Moro Pirate is Eduardo de Castro …

… Coincidentally, both Moreno and De Castro, are the main starring actors in Brides of Sulu. The film also looks like it has two separate parts- the dramatically acted scenes and the documentary portions. Which raises the the intriguing possibility- is Brides the mutant offspring of the re-cutting and reconstitution of two earlier local films via the editing room? Then dubbed in English and re-editorialized for U.S. release with the intention of making it look like an American production so it would be easier to sell abroad? And who is director John Nelson? … Why are his initials the same as those of Jose Nepomuceno’s? So is the nationality of the film American or Filipino?

For the exciting conclusion, please attend the opening of the 5th International Silent Film Festival on Aug. 26 at the Shangri-la Mall Cinema …

Well, given that they promise an exciting conclusion, and given that the film is to screen at a silent film festival, I think we are safe in declaring that the Philippines has found one, or maybe two, films from its silent heritage, the first such films known to survive. Brides of Sulu has circulated on assorted obscure video labels for many years, and you can view the whole film on YouTube.

Extract from Brides of Sulu, in which Assam (Eduardo de Castro) faces up to Datu Tamboyan, father of Benita (Adelina Moreno)

Viewing the film undoubtedly suggests a silent film cannibalised by some opportunistic American producer with some actuality footage and narration to make an exotic B-movie release. Maybe Jose Nepomuceno, a revered figure in Philippine film history who directed their first fiction film, Dalagang Bukid, in 1919, is ‘John Nelson’, though there doesn’t seem much reason why this should be. No doubt all will be revealed at the International Silent Film Festival, which is now in its fifth year. The festival takes place 26-28 August at the Shang Cineplex (Cinema 2), Shangri-La Plaza, Mandaluyong Manila. Brides of Sulu will be screened with musical accoompaniment by Armor Rapista and the Panday Pandikal Cultural Troupe, which suggests that they will be dropping the American narration, which will be no bad thing. Other films screening at the festival are Nosferatu (Germany 1922), Akeyuku Sora (The Dawning Sky) (Japan 1929), L’Inferno (Dante’s Inferno) (Italy 1911), The Greek Miracle (Greece 1921) and Pilar Guerra (Spain 1926) – an impressive eclectic selection.

When certain information is reported on the provenance of Brides of Sulu, we will report it. Meanwhile, you can discover more about Jose Nepomuceno in a thesis by Nadi Tofighian of Stockholm University, The role of Jose Nepomuceno in the Philippine society: What language did his silent films speak? (2006), which shows what a rich history early Philippine filmmaking can boast, even without the films themselves to refer to.

Lost Graham Cutts film discovered!

Betty Compson as the good and evil twins in The White Shadow (1923), from the National Film Preservation Foundation

Terrific news has spread all across the wires today. A lost film by one of the leading British directors of the silent era, Graham Cutts, has been discovered in New Zealand. The film is The White Shadow, made in 1923. It starred the American actress Betty Compson, who had been brought over to star in three British films at the exalted sum of £1,000 a week, and Clive Brook, British-born but on his way to success in Hollywood riding on the back of the trio of films he made with Compson. Sadly, the film does not survive in a complete state. Around 30 minutes has been found. But it’s an important discovery for all that – as a product of a the work of a talented production team, as a notable starring vehicle, and as an example of the directorial work of Graham Cutts.

Graham Cutts (1885-1958) was arguably the leading British film director of the 1920s. Working with Herbert Wilcox and then Michael Balcon, two of Britain’s top producers of the period, Cutts made stylish romantic dramas characterised by fluid narrative, sumptuous production (on slim budgets) and subtly emotional performances. It could be argued that he was the first British film director to think cinematically. In particular he proved his worth by bringing out the best in some of the many American stars who were brought over to appear in British films at this time, such as Mae Marsh in Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (1923), Alice Joyce in The Passionate Adventure (1924), Jane Novak in The Prude’s Fall (1925) and Betty Compson in Woman to Woman (1923). This was a huge hit at the time, and is arguably the most sought-after lost British silent film – at least on artistic grounds or importance to film history.

The White Shadow, from the National Film Preservation Foundation

Woman to Woman starred Compson and Brook, and was hit with both audiences and critics, who admired its maturity of style and theme. Produced for Balcon-Saville-Freedman (Michael Balcon, Victor Saville and John Freedman), the film was directed by Cutts and produced by Michael Balcon, the first film to be made by one of British cinema’s most notable production talents. The success of the film led to a second made by the much the same production team. This was The White Shadow (1923), a tale of twins, one good, one bad, each played by Betty Compson. The verdict at the time was that the film was not as successful, commercially or artistically, as Woman to Woman, but we will have to wait until what survives of the film is made generally available to judge what we think of the latter.

Graham Cutts would go on to make a number of notable films for Balcon’s Gainsborough Studios, this time showing how to bring the best out of British stars. The Rat (1925), starring Ivor Novello as a Parisian apache, was very popular and is one of those British silents that still works well with general audiences today. It inspired two sequels. Cutts also made the accomplished The Sea Urchin (1926) with Betty Balfour and The Rolling Road with Flora Le Breton (1928). His star waned in the latter half of the decade, probably exacerbated by an awkward personality (he was obsessively jealous of his fellow filmmakers), but he continued to do some professional, if low-key work in the 1930s (the boisterous Just William, made in 1939, is a Bioscope favourite).

And yes, of course, there is some extra interest in The White Shadow because of its assistant director, art director, dialogue writer and editor. The same man undertook all four functions, and he was Alfred Hitchcock. The news has gone round the world that this is a rediscovered Alfred Hitchcock film, which is a little misleading. It is something that will have undoubtedly had Cutts whirling in his grave, because he was particularly resentful of how the young man’s talent came to eclipse his own, so that by the end of the decade the pre-eminent talent in British film was not Graham Cutts but his presumptuous protégé. Hitchcock had entered film production in 1920 as a title writer, and had directed two short films (the unfinished and lost Number Thirteen and Always Tell Your Wife, of which half survives), before joining Balcon’s team as an all-purpose talent. He was assistant director, art director and co-scriptwriter on Woman to Woman, and told Truffaut the following about working with Cutts:

FT: Graham Cutts directed that Picture [Woman to Woman]. You did the adaptation and dialogue, and were assistant director as well?

AH: More than that! My friend, the art director, was unable to work on the picture. I volunteered to serve as art director. So I did all of this and also helped on the production. My future wife, Alma Reville, was the editor of the picture as well as the script girl. In those days the script girl and the editor were the same person … It was while working on that picture that I first met my wife.

Then I performed these various functions for several other films. The second was The White Shadow

The White Shadow – three reels of it – was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive by archivist Leslie Lewis, having originally been in the collection of New Zealander projectionist and collector Jack Murtagh. It is to recieve its “re-premiere” on 22 September 2011 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. There are reports on the National Film Preservation Foundation and in the LA Times, neither unfortunately doing Cutts’ reputation many favours. Let’s turn such shallow historio-filmography around. Alfred Hitchcock’s doesn’t need any new find to bolster up his reputation; Graham Cutts is the one in need of rediscovery. His was a real and important talent. Now we have a little more in the way surviving archive by which to celebrate it.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Fred Storey and Julie Seale in The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), one of a few frames held by the National Media Museum

As we reported yesterday, a copy of Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896) has been discovered at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and will be premiered at the Pordenone silent film fesival in October. This is a discovery of major importance, since the film is generally recognised as the first British fiction, or narrative film. However, the film has never been entirely lost, nor is it (arguably) the first British fiction film. Let us examine the history.

In 1936 Robert W. Paul, the British film pioneer, reminisced about the residency his Animatograph projector enjoyed at the Alhambra music hall in London’s Leicester Square in 1896, a little over a month after projected films were first shown to an audience in Britain:

The first public exhibition of the Lumière cinematograph in England took place … on February 20th, at the Polytechnic in Regent Street, and the results were then superior in steadiness and clearness to my own. To compete with that machine, as shown at the Empire Theatre in Leciester Square, the Manager of the Alhambra asked me to give a show, as a ten-minute item in the programme, with my Theatrograph, which he renamed the Animatographe. This engagement was for two weeks, beginning March 25th, but actually continued for about two years. The salary, or fee, was at the rate of eleven pounds for each performance, far more than I has expected. In April, the Alhambra manager, Mr. Moul, who wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder, staged upon the roof a comic scene called The Soldier’s Courtship, the 80-foot film of which caused great merriment.

Paul’s account suggests that both the idea and the setting up of the film were the idea of the Alhambra’s manager, Alfred Moul, and the leading performers in the mini-drama were two Alhambra regulars, dancer and comedian Fred Storey and and dancer Julie Seale. Paul was chiefly there to turn the handle of the camera, though his wife Ellen did play the role of the interloper in the simple comic scene, described in the theatre journal The Era (16 May 1896):

Mr R.W. Paul has much improved the animated pictures presented by means of his clever invention … The element of humour is introduced by a picture of a soldier’s courtship. Mars and Venus (a befeathered Harriet) are interrupted in their ‘billing and cooing’ by a lady of maturer years, who insists on making a third on the seat occupied by the lovers. Protestations are in vain. Finally, the linesman, taking the law into his own hands, tips up the seat violently and throws the uninvited one to the ground. The courtship then continues.

The film appears to have been a great hit, so much so that Paul produced a remake two years later, entitled Tommy Atkins in the Park. The Soldier’s Courtship has since gone down in British film mythology as the first British fiction film.

But what is a fiction film, and what is a first? Anyone familiar with early film history will recognise the perils – nay, the folly – of describing any film as being the ‘first’ of something. Apart from anything else, such labels are meaningless when it comes to describing films produced at a time before such labels existed.

Arrest of a Pickpocket, made by Birt Acres and Robert Paul in April 1895, and a stronger candidate for the first British fiction film

If we want to dip into such controveries and argue that a fiction film is one that contains dramatic elements, then The Soldier’s Courtship had its predecessors. Robert Paul had begun film production in February or March of 1895, when he and the photographer Birt Acres collaborated on producing films for the Edison peepshow Kinetoscope, which Edison had notoriously neglected to patent in Europe, presenting a money-making opportunity to the two quick-minded London men. They produced a number of films between March and May 1895, before they fell out and went their separate ways, each finding his way towards a projected film system by early 1896. But among the films they made in 1895 (the full extent of which remains unknown) were:

  • An untitled ‘comedy’ filmed outside Acres’ Barnet home, ‘starring’ Henry Short (an acquaintance of both Acres and Paul), a few frames of which survive and which is various known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate. Whether it contained any genuine dramatic content is unclear – it seems chiefly to have been a test to demonstrate movement and image contrast (Short dressed in cricket whites).
  • Arrest of a Pickpocket – made in April 1895, this is the strongest candidate for the first British fiction film. It shows in single shot a pickpocket pursued by a policeman; he escapes the policeman’s clutches only to be captured by a passing sailor. The present tense is apposite, because the film survives, at the National Fairground Archive, and can be seen online at the Europa Film Treasures site.
  • Comic Shoeblack – made around May 1895. No description survives (and no film), but the title indicates an element of dramatisation, even if it is only to add spice to an actuality.
  • Carpenter’s Shop – made around May 1895, in emulation of Edison films showing scenes in a barroom and a blacksmith’s, this was ostensibly a scene from actuality, but had small dramatic points designed to capture the interest of the peepshow viewer, and could therefore be argued as being fictionalised. It is a lost film.
  • Arrest of a Bookmaker – John Barnes dates this Paul production to August 1896, but Denis Gifford in the British Film Catalogue puts it as May 1896, possibly even before The Soldier’s Courtship. A film which may be this is held by the BFI National Archive [The BFI has the film under the supplied title of Footpads - see comments]. Gifford also places Acres’ Golfing Extraordinary (a comic scene with golfers) as May 1896 and considers Acres’ Boxing Match to be a January 1896 production and to have dramatic elements (i.e. a staged match).

So, The Soldier’s Courtship is not the first British fiction film, if we can talk of fictional or narrative films in their later sense. Nor is it entirely a lost film. Firstly, a few frames from the film survived in the Kodak collection for many years and are now preserved by the National Media Museum in Bradford – one of the frames is used as the illustration at the top of this post. Secondly, as John Barnes points out – and illustrates – in The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vol. 1 – 1894-1896, a Filoscope exists of the film. The Filoscope was a hand-held flickbook with sequential images taken from cinefilms (a demonstration video is here). It was the invention of Henry Short, the same man who appeared in the ‘Clovelly Cottage’ film made by Acres and Paul in February or March of 1895. John Barnes had a copy of the Filoscope himself (his collection is now held by Hove Museum and Art Gallery) and reported that there were 176 leaves, or images. Hardly a complete film, but enough to show the central action. It was marketed as The Soldier’s Embrace, and at least one other copy has come up for auction before now.

Well, this leaves us with The Soldier’s Courtship being neither the ‘first’ British fiction film, nor a ‘lost’ film. But it is a landmark film for all that, and we have a complete 35mm copy in good condition, and that is a marvel all by itself, given that it is 115 years old. Moreover it’s a film with an identified cast, among whom Fred Storey in particular was a musical comedian of some fame. It is the first British film where we can set out a full set of credits (because we do not know the cast members of Arrest of a Pickpocket):

    The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896)
    director: Robert Paul
    production company: Paul’s Animatograph Works
    supervised by: Alfred Moul
    length: 80 feet
    location: Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London
    cast: Fred Storey (soldier), Julie Seale (his sweetheart), Ellen Paul (woman)

And that’s a movie.

I hope that there will be chances for everyone to see it following its Pordenone premiere in October. It certainly is an exciting and important discovery.

It’s a miracle!

A newspaper illustration of the Olympia stage production of The Miracle

A few years ago – specifically in 2008 and 2009 – you may recall that we ran the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films. It was a droll conceit, using a blog to put on a festival of silent films that no longer existed. We described the films as if we were watching them (and yet not watching them), in London venues that once were cinemas but are no more, and with silent film musicians of the past to accompany said films. Regular Bioscopists got into the swing of things, even commenting on details of the clothes they had worn for the evening. All in all, it was a fun thing to research and write. You can find links to all of the films shown as part of the 2008 and 2009 festival on the Series page.

However, we pulled the plug on the festival thereafter, for three reasons. One, the festival took up too much time to research. Two, we received several requests from readers for information on these films, which they had imagined were lost and who couldn’t quite grasp what the concept of a lost film festival was supposed to imply. Thirdly, we learned after the 2009 festival that one of the films had in all probability survived. Great news for film; not such great news for a lost film festival, so we decided enough was enough.

We then waited for official notice of the film having been discovered before telling you about it, only to have discovered today that the news has been out for a quite a while now. Tsk tsk – the Bioscope should do better than that. So, belatedly, it is a pleasure to be able to tell you that Das Mirakel (Germany 1912) is not a lost film. It is held by the CNC film archive in France, and was screened last year as part of a Lubitsch retrospective (Ernest Lubitsch appears in a minor role in the film) and was reviewed – in French – on that excellent blog, Ann Harding’s Treasures. Alas, she reports that while the film is in prime condition, the direction is amateurish and the performances absurdly histrionic. This is both a surprise, given that the film was based on production by one of the greats of 20th Century visual theatre Max Reinhardt, while also not a surprise at all given the film’s peculiar production history.

As we related in the original post about the film, Das Mirakel came about when the British theatrical impresario C.B. Cochran was looking for an entertainment on a suitably grand scale to fill the vast arena of London’s Olympia. Cochran had seen Max Reinhardt’s production in Germany of Oedipus Rex and invited the great producer to devise a new epic production that would make best use of Olympia.

Reinhardt initially thought of recreating the Delhi Durbar ceremonies, held in India to mark the coronation of King George V in 1911. But instead he latched upon the idea of staging a medieval legend of a nun who escapes from her convent with a knight, experiencing assorted adventures and dangers, while at the convent a statue of the Virgin Mary miraculously comes to life and undertakes the nun’s duties. The major spectacle was provided by the drama’s cathedral setting, not to mention 1,000 performers, 2,000 costumes, 500 choristers, 25 horses, an orchestra of 2,000 and assorted examples of ingenious stage mechanics (see programme, left, from http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/9028). Given the distance between the audience and the action, the drama was presented in dumbshow (apart from the choir). The drama was written by Karl Vollmöller, with music composed by Engelbert Humperdink.

The Miracle, as it was known, was every bit the stage sensation that Cochran hoped it would be, with London audiences being overawed by its dramatic scale and its sentimental religosity when it opened over Christmas 1911. But where things get odd is when it comes to the film – or rather films – made of The Miracle. A film of The Miracle apears to have been an afterthought – a quick cash-in on the stage production’s popularity, at a time before Reinhardt gave any serious consideration of the possibilities of cinema (he would of course go on to produce a the classic Warners 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It was originally reported that the film was to be made in London, but production instead moved to Austria, with producer Joseph Menchen and scenarist Michel Carré who was probably also the film’s director. Max Reinhardt himself seems to have had little to do with the film’s actual production. The oddness came with the camera operators and leading actress. The operators were the brothers William and Harold Jeapes, owner and chief cameraman at the Topical Budget newsreel. How they got the call to make the film is a mystery, but it was a hurried appointment, as William Jeapes later recounted:

In the first place, I may say that my own connection with the undertaking commenced just about twenty-four hours before I actually entered upon it, so you can imagine that there wasn’t much time for preparation. I received and accepted the request that I should take on the business, grabbed camera, films and baggage; caught the first train that was available, and, in almost less time than it takes to tell (as the novelists say) I was starting on the first preliminaries with Professor Reinhardt and M. Michel Carré (who adapted the play for the camera), near Vienna.

I left London on September 21st, and I returned on October 15th. During that time we were working regularly from the early morning until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at which hour it was necessary for the company to start back for Vienna, where ‘The Miracle’ was being played nightly – at the Rotunda. We did nothing on Sundays.

Jeapes and Jeapes were able newsreel operators, but were the last people you would have thought of to film a dramatic production, still less one so dependent on plausible illusion and a sense of scale. Odder still was that the key part of the Nun did not go to anyone from Reinhardt’s German production of the play, but instead went to an English actress without any film pedigree (or much of a stage one), Florence Winston. And she was Mrs William Jeapes. Other performers included Maria Carmi as The Madonna, Douglas Payne as The Knight, Ernst Matray as Spielmann, and somewhere in the background Ernst Lubitsch. All in all, a rum do.

As we wrote in 2009, the film received mixed reviews. Variety was dumbstruck, finding the film to be one of the wonders of its age:

The ‘Miracle’, reproduced from the wonderful Reinhardt pantomime of the same name presented at the London Olympia, is probably the finest exhibition of the “Celluloid drama” ever conceived. In some respects it is superior to the original pantomime spectacle, in that the paths of the performers – or characters – may be followed more minutely and with greater detail than is possible in the original, due to the possibility of showing the scenic progression with the unfolding of the plot … The whole presentment is remarkably impressive in general effect, the pictures so beautifully to resemble natural colors, the scenes so plentifully interspersed with captions announcing the progress of the tale, and finally the awakening to a realization that it was all a ghastly, enervating “dream”, is extraordinarily vivid. No spoken play could be more so.

The film’s lavish presentaton at special venues, with coloured print, a cathedral-like proscenium, organ, large choir and even incense wafting over the audience appears to have blinded some reviewers to the film’s actual shortcomings. The Bioscope (our favourite film trade paper) was more clear-sighted:

The whole play seems to have been adapted for the camera with only the most cursory regard for the latter’s possibilities and limitations. It has been forgotten that a scene viewed through an artifical glass lens is a very different thing from the same scene viewed in actuality by the naked eye … In the scenes showing the cathedral’s interior the stage is too deep, with the result that the players are constantly out of proportion with each other, and swell from midgets to giants in a fashion which is almost ludicrous as they move “down stage”.

Confusingly, there was a rival Miracle film, produced in Germany at the same time, which claimed that it was based on the legend rather than Vollmöller’s drama, to get round any copyright claim. It was also called Das Mirakel or Alte Legende – Eine Das Marienwunder, but in the UK it was marketed as Sister Beatrix. Produced by Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH in 1912, it was written and directed by Mime Misu, and is – we are fairly confident in stating – a lost film.

You can find details of the extant Das Mirakel on the CNC database. They credit the direction to Michael Carré and Max Reinhardt, but we doubt that Reinhardt had much to do with the film beyond initial negotiations (William Jeapes does at least note Reinhardt’s presence in Austria at the time of filming). Ann Harding’s Treasures’ review describes watching the hour-long film today as sheer torture, with acting styles of the flailing arm variety, no sense of composition or narrative, and a camera bolted to the floor simply recording theatre. She notes that a very much better film from the same source material exists, Jacques de Baroncelli’s La Légende de Soeur Béatrix (1923).

For all that, it would be good to have a chance to see Das Mirakel one day, just to get a sense of what so moved the variety reviewer. All it would need is a cathedral setting, an organ, a fair-sized choir and some incense. And every lost film found must be a cause for rejoicing, even if the story behind the film is of somewhat greater interest than the film itself. It is good to hae been wrong.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 20

Well, it’s all been happening in the land of the silents. Here’s your latest edition of the Bioscope Newsreel, rounding up some of the news stories from the week, starting with what might just turn out to become the most watched silent film ever …

Doodling with Chaplin
We kick off with Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday, which Google has commemorated in distinctive fashion by making a Chaplin video its Google logo (or doodle) for the day (strictly speaking, for 36 hours). It is the first time the Google logo has been a live-action video, and it is most elegantly done. It’s not Chaplin himself, alas – instead we get a so-so pastiche, starring members of the Google Doodle team, including Mike Dutton as Chaplin. The background to the video is given on the Google blog. Read more.

Top 50 lost films
The idea of lost films is endlessly engrossing, and listing those films believed lost that one would most like to see is many a film fan’s favourite parlour game. In 2008 the Film Threat site gave us a list of 50 top lost films it would most like to see, and now it has returned with another 50. Most of them are silents, and there are some obscure but knowledgeable choices among them. Tsunekichi Shibata’s Tokyo’s Ginza District (1898), anyone? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913)? Or the clever-clever choice of Olives and their Oil (1914) the other half of the split reel on which Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice was released. Read more.

Gorgeous George
There’s a (fairly) new website published, dedicated to George O’Brien, star of Fox silents, and a screen history immortal for his presence in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Entitled Gorgeous George O’Brien, it comes with biography, photos, articles and filmography. Read more.

Silent Britain
The British Silent Film Festival recently took place. The Bioscope was only there for a short while, but the Dumdidumdum tumblr has some short reports, and Pamela Hutchinson of the lively Silent London blog has written a thoughtful, historically informed piece on the festival and silent film music for The Guardian. Read more.

An understanding
And finally, it doesn’t have much to do with silents directly, but anyone interested in film, research and digital opportunities should take note of the news that the British Film Institute and the British Library have signed a memorandum of understanding, with the intention of increasing “public, professional and research access to audiovisual and broadcast content and integrating it with other knowledge collections”. I write about this on my other, somewhat disused blog, Moving Image. Read more.

‘Til next time!

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