Pordenone diary 2010 – day five

Seating in the Verdi theatre, Pordenone

Let’s talk about seats. Given the amount of time that filmgoers spend sitting down to watch films, it surprising that the objects on which they rest while doing so seldom get discussed. Yet what the seating is and how it is arranged bear significantly upon our enjoyment of what is on the screen. I have sat on wooden chairs, benches, stone steps, sofas, armchairs, velvet plush seating, church pews and grass to watch silent films. At the Zancanaro theatre in Sacile, which was home to the Giornate del Cinema Muto for a few years, the seating was admirably comfortable so long as you were not much more than five-and-a-half-feet tall. For anyone of my height, you practically had to stretch yourself over three rows and to do so in an upper tier to avoid those neighbours who might quite reasonably object to such a display.

The seats under discussion here are those at the Verdi theatre in Pordenone. They are particularly comfortable seats. You could go a long way before finding better, and they could have been designed specifically to support the earnest silent film enthusiast determined to make it through three hours of the next Japanese film and being able to walk away afterwards. But then there is the matter of arrangement, and here is where the Verdi has its critics, certainly among film followers. The theatre was not designed for cinema screenings. This is most obvious in the first circle, where the central portion of seats has to be covered up because the heads of the audience would get in the way of the projector beam. But it is the sight-lines that cause the most comment. It’s not a matter that bothers me that much – I have an odd preference for looking at films from the periphery – but many want to have an optimum view of the screen wherever they choose to sit, and here the Verdi comes up short. So there is great competition for favourite seats, and festival regulars tend to occupy the same section of the theatre year after year. There is the front row crew (earnestly taking notes on every film), those who like to stretch their legs over the gap between rows midway up the stalls, those happiest to look down from the first circle (like yours truly, always seated front row, penultimate seat to the right as you face the screen), and the upper circle afficionados who look to escape the madding crowd (and hello to the cheery bunch of American students who occupied the central portion of the upper tier and whose enthusiasm for all that the festival had to offer was a delight to witness). As with any public space, the Verdi is wonderful for people watching.

Choosing your favourite seat at the Verdi

And so, after all that talk of seats, we turn to a different sort of furniture with the first film on Wednesday 6 October, Tretya Meshchanskaya (USSR 1927), known in English as Bed and Sofa. Directed by Abram Room, this gained much notoriety on its release for its frank depiction of a ménage à trois between a building worker, his bored wife, and his printer friend who is invited to stay in their Moscow apartment. Its piquant polygamous set-up, the uncritical acceptance of sexual relations outside marriage, and discussion of abortion make the film strikingly modern in tone (Jules et Jim without the savoir faire), but what really fascinates is the background detail and the attention to the minutiae of life. There is the vividness of everyday life on the Moscow streets, and the absorbing clutter of the apartment with its nick-nacks, pictures, the Stalin calendar, the curtain dividing one couple from the other man, and of course the bed and sofa. The film also allowed space for its characters to be seen thinking, engaging in the mundane. Though in the end the ménage à trois itself felt too forced, what remained with you was the sense of a film true to life as seen and felt.

Another Room film followed, Yevrei Na Zemle (Jews on the Land) (USSR 1927), a documentary on Jewish resettlements in a stark, flat, tree-less Crimea whose impact wasn’t what it might have been because the Russian titles weren’t translated, which meant we missed the reportedly light-hearted tone that they took.

I decided not to sit through Rejin (Japan 1930) (The Belle), which tipped the scales at a mere 158 minutes this time, but the print was poor and I reckoned my eyes needed a rest. After a mooch around Pordenone and conversations at the Posta, I returned in the afternoon for one of the great treats (for me) of the festival, a series of films made in Madagascar in 1898 (images from Cinémathèque française site). As someone who thought he knew film from the 1890s pretty thoroughly, news of a filmmaker from this period entirely new to the history books was thrilling in itself. Louis Tinayre was a French artist with a fascinting personal history (his parents were Communards). He made a speciality of paintings as reportage. He travelled with a French military force to Madagascar in 1895 when an uprising was being quelled and was fascinated by the country. He returned later in the year to make sketches and photographs, then again in 1898 to work on a giant panorama of the surrender of the town of Antananarivo which he exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. But he didn’t just take his brush and canvas – he brought with him a Lumière Cinématographe.

How and why he obtained the camera is not known – he may have been filming scenes to aid his work on the panorama. Eighteen films have survived, having been presented to the Cinémathèque française by the filmmaker’s grandson in 2009. They are thrilling to see. Artfully composed, they show Madgascan people at work in fields, road building, going to market, going about their daily drudgery. We were shown thirteen of the eighteen, with these titles:

  • Chantier de terrassement à Marorangotra [Construction of terraces at Marorangotra]
  • Femmes chargeés montant et descendant une colline [Laden women going up and down a hill]
  • Environs de Tananarive. Marché à Alatsinainy [Environs of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. Market at Alatsinainy]
  • Labour de rizières par les boeufs [Ploughing in the paddy fields with oxen]
  • Chantier d’empierrement à Marorangotra [Constructing a road at Marorangotra]
  • Vallée [Valley]
  • Forge malgache à Marorangotra [Malagasy forge at Marorangotra]
  • La route d’Ambohimanara. Un jour de marché à Tananarive [The Ambohimanara road. A market day in Antananarivo]
  • Labour de rizières à l’Angady [Ploughing the paddy fields at Angady]
  • L’artère principale du marché à Tananarive [The main road of the market at Antananarivo]
  • Jeunes garçons fabriquant des briques [Boys making clay bricks]
  • Femmes transportant paniers près d’un ruisseau [Women carrying baskets near a stream]
  • Hommes travaillant sur un chantier [Men working on a construction]

The people were all shown in mid-distance, with never a glimpse of a face, mere figures in a landscape (possibly supporting the panorama thesis) though always displaying movement. It was the colonial gaze par excellence. The films (in wonderfully sharp prints) were utterly compelling, just to be seeing so far back, images from a remote land being filmed for the first time, revealing landscapes and customs that were centuries old and were now captured in motion. An added bonus was that the films were accompanied by Touve Ratovondrahety, a Malagasy himself, who played piano and sang Madagascan songs. The happy sense of homeland rediscovered was palpable.

Some Pordenone regulars may mutter at these early films and hanker for the emotional journey that the feature film offers, but for others the rare chance to see the early films is why we want to be there. And so we moved to the latest installment of the Corrick Collection, a remarkable collection of films from the mid to late 1900s amassed by an Australian family of touring entertainers, and now featured over a number of Giornates. The films were introduced by festival director David Robinson, who comitted an engaging faux pas when he announced the award of some medal to the New Zealand film archive for its work in preserving the collection, an award that was diplomatically collected by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, which cares for the films.

The films were the usual marvellous mix. Among the stand-out titles were Le Singe Adam (France 1909), one of the most memorable films of the whole festival, in which a trained baboon imitated the actions of its trainer to an extraordinary degree that divided up the audience equally into amused and disturbed; an unidentified British film given the title The Arrested Tricar (GB c.1905) in which three boys steal a motorcar which eludes them and drives off by itself; Don Quixote (France 1904) a meticulously recreated set of scenes by Pathé including windmills that turned into giants and an impressive alternating between studio and open-air setting, all rounded off with the habitual appearance by the Pathé dancing girls; Le Sculpteur Express (France 1907), an unusual variation on the familiar ‘lightning sketch’ form of early film, here shown a sculptor making clay faces at speed; and the delightful A Winter Straw Ride (USA 1906) showing a bobsleigh journey through the show with beautiful scenic effects.

No Rastro Do Eldorado (The Silence of the Amazon), from http://www.cinemateca.gov.br

Farsangi mámor (Hungary 1921) was a three-minute fragment of an otherwise lost Hungarian feature film which was identified after stills were published on the Lost Films site. This was followed by No Rastro Do Eldorado (Brazil 1925) (The Silence of the Amazon), a return visit to the Brazilian jungle. The film was made by Silvino Santos and documented the travels of American geographer Alexander Hamilton Rice as he mapped areas of the Amazon. The film’s presentation was unusual – there were no intertitles, instead we got a somewhat breathy female live commentary taken from Rice’s own accounts of the expedition, plus a creative multi-instrumentalist who played electronica, clarinet, percussion and guitar. Rice’s words revealed a superior attitude towards the native peoples which jarred somewhat with the poetic delivery. The film was profficient at best (though the aerial views were stunning), but the print – which was supplied by the Brazilians but came via the BFI National Archive – was awful, with very poor definition. I just hope negative material survives and that someone can try and produce something a good deal sharper.

Marizza, from http://www.ilgazzettino.it

The Giornate likes to reserve the special treats for the evening shows, and pride of place went to a thirteen-minute, seventeen-second fragment of an otherwise lost feature film, Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (Germany 1921-22). The reason this was so special was because the director was F.W. Murnau. The fragment survives with Italian titles in a tinted print. It would be easy to read too much into this early work of a master, and to be honest I wonder how many would detect Murnau’s hand in a tale of a bewitching gypsy loved by a customs officer and an elegant gentleman. However, even as an anonymous fragment you would have noted the adroit handling and keen eye for the right image. It looked like we were going to get Carmen in the countryside, then all too quickly it was gone and mere speculation remained.

Next up was one of the festival special musical events, with two French films accompanied by Maud Nelissen (piano), Lucio Degani (violin) and Francesco Ferrarini (‘cello). First up, shown to Yves de la Casinière’s original score, was Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien Que Les Heures (France 1926). This venerable classic of the avant garde is an odd, beguiling work which gives an oblique view of life in Paris, mixing documentary shots with dramatised sequences. It sometimes gets labelled with the city symphonies, but it could have been set in any town or city. As the the title suggest, its real concern is time and its passing, which is the best of themes for a work of art. I’ve seen it many times and don’t think I will ever tire of it.

Next, and last for me that day, was Germaine Dulac’s La Folie des Vaillants (France 1926). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. It was a feminist gypsy drama of sorts (gypsies featured strongly at the Giornate), which emphasised feeling over such trivial matters as acting and plot (a Gorky story). Unfortunately acting and plot are just what audiences look out for to anchor themselves, and the film’s technical limitations distracted from the filmmaker’s symbolic intentions. Also it’s hard these days to take gypsies as the epitome of social freedom in the way that Dulac (and Murnau) did in the 1920s. So it didn’t quite work for me, but it was graced by a quite superb score from the Maud Nelissen trio – the music from the festival that I’d most want to hear again.

And then I slipped away, into the balmy night.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

The great white silence

Trailer for the BFI National Archive restoration of The Great White Silence

Last night I attended the premiere of The Great White Silence at the London Film Festival. The Great White Silence is a documentary feature, released in 1924, which documents the expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole. He of course failed, and died with four companions on his wretched journey back from the Pole, having discovered that he had been beaten into second place by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian party.

But Scott had romance on his side. He left behind a diary of exceptional artistry and poignancy, which helped enshrine his legend and turn vainglorious failure into the epitome of noble, patriotic self-sacrifice. And he had ensured that future generations would become engrossed in his story through what they could see as well as what they could read. Herbert Ponting (1870-1935) was taken on as expedition photographer and cinematographer, both for documentary purposes and because the sale of photographic and cinema rights helped pay for the expedition (40% of the profits from the films’ exhibition went to the expedition, 40% to the Gaumont company for producing and distributing the film, and 20% to Ponting).

Ponting was a still photographer of renown, who had done notable work in Japan. But he had never handled a cine camera before. He turned out to be a cinematographer of uncommon ability. Kevin Brownlow pays him the highest of accolades in The War the West and the Wilderness by comparing his work that Mary Pickford’s cinematographer:

Herbert Ponting was to the expedition film what Charles Rosher was to the feature picture – a photographer and cinematographer of unparalleled artistry.

Herbert Ponting achieved work that was exceptional in every degree. It was exceptional in image quality, exceptional in the way it overcame the difficulties of filming in extreme conditions when cinema technology was still in its infancy, exceptional as a documentary record.

Iconic image of the Terra Nova, from The Great White Silence

The BFI National Film Archive has restored the 1924 feature because the footage no longer survives in the original forms in which it was released. The release structure of Ponting’s films was determined by the nature of the expedition and a need to keep up audience interest over the two years that the expedition would take. Ponting joined Scott’s ship the Terra Nova in New Zealand in November 1910. He took an initial 15,000 feet of negative film with him, along with Prestwich and Newman Sinclair cine cameras (the latter’s manufacturer Arthur S. Newman gave Ponting intensive instruction in its use, and added special ebonite fittings to prevent Ponting’s fingers from freezing to the camera). He shot and developed 8,000 feet of this on site (Cape Evans) before the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand in January 1911. This film was delivered to Britain, and edited by Gaumont into a 2,000 foot release (lasting around 30 minutes) entitled With Captain Scott, R.N. to the South Pole. This was first exhibited in November 1911. Ponting’s second batch of film was released by Gaumont as the ‘second series’ of With Captain Scott R.N. to the South Pole, into two 1,500 foot parts, first shown in September and October 1912 respectively, and which featured the final scenes of the polar party, included sequences where they demonstrated sledge-hauling and life inside their tent. By this time Scott and his final polar party were all dead, and news of Amundsen’s success in reaching the pole first dented the film’s commercial appeal. One of the most haunting passages of The Great White Silence is where four of the final five-man party illustrate how they were going to journey across the ice, including scenes of them huddled together for warmth in a tent. Scott, Birdy Bowers, Edward Wilson and Edgar Evans – but not Titus Oates – all appear in a sequence which was produced in anticipation of triumph but now looks like an uncanny intimation of their fate.

The tent scene from The Great White Silence, with (left to right) Evans, Bowers, Wilson and Scott

The bodies were discovered in November 1912 and the news reached the outside world in February 1913. Ponting then began to devote his life to the promotion of the Scott legend, and to the recouping of his investment, because in 1914 he purchased all rights in the film from Gaumont for £5,000. This he did against a waning audience interest, and much of the bitterness that Ponting was to feel in his latter years was due to the public’s insufficient awe at a story which he progressively built up and romanticised, as the Scott story evolved into myth. The films were re-edited and released in 1913, after Scott’s death had been reported, as The Undying Story of Captain Scott.

Ponting then lectured with the films constantly, giving a Royal Command performance in May 1914, where King George V declared that:

I wish that every British boy could see this film. The story should be known to all the youth of the Nation, for it will help to foster the spirit of adventure on which the Empire was founded.

He continued to show his films throughout the First World War, emphasising the call to patriotic sacrifice, but now to dwindling audiences. In 1924 Ponting re-edited the films once more as a feature-length documentary, The Great White Silence, which followed on from the 1921 publication of his book The Great White South. The film was 7,000 feet long (around two hours in length), and released by the New Era company. Reviews were complimentary, marvelling at the hardships endured, and praising both the film’s patriotic virtues and “extremely clever studies of Antarctic life”, while pointing out (a little meanly) that the final scenes were, of necessity, heavily dependent on still pictures, diagrams and intertitles. Scott’s adventures were already of another age, and the film was not a notable success.

Ponting failed in his subsequent attempts to sell his films to the nation, an appropriate film archiving body not existing at that time, and in 1933 he produced a sound version of his films, now entitled 90º South, released by New Era once again, and whittled down to 75mins. Ponting himself provided the film’s commentary, and years of lecturing to these images tell in his polished and succinct words. This time the reviews were more enthusiastic, as reviewers newly aware of the documentary as an art form rightly praised Ponting’s artistry.

90º South is the form in which we have been familiar with the footage in recent years, because the BFI did not have a complete viewing print of The Great White Silence. But with material from a release print held in the Netherlands, and with reference to Ponting’s uncut footage, an exceptional restoration has been produced. The images really do look like they were shot yesterday. The clarity of the faces of the explorers – Wilson, Evans, Bowers, Oates and the rest – is a revelation. The grading is a tour de force. Perhaps most notable is the colour tinting, introduced digitally by following Ponting’s own instructions (written onto gaps in the original footage), which results in the familiar polar scenes unfolding in strange, otherwordly amber, blues and greens. We see the familiar anew.

The film itself is not a documentary as we now expect. It was probably released by Ponting because he had been encouraged by the success of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), but if that film ushered in the new form of documentary filmmaking, Ponting’s film is the ultimate expression of an older form of documentary, one with its roots in the magic lantern lecture. Ponting was a practiced lantern lecturer before he joined Scott, and entertained the expedition party with lantern shows during the Antarctic winter. Throughout his work on the Scott expedition, Ponting imagined how he would present such scenes to an audience back home, and selected, composed and arranged his material accordingly. This included a marked emphasis on animals, particularly penguins (inevitably), to what seems to us the surprising detriment of the human story, but Pointing knew his market and he balances his material admirably. Certainly the 2010 audience seemed as engrossed in seals, penguins, killer whales and skuas, and as susceptible to their anthropomorphic appeal, as those in 1912.

Herbert Ponting giving a magic lantern show on his Japanese travels for members of the Scott expedition

Once Scott had died and Ponting went on the road with the films, he lectured to them – and his hundreds of still photographs – literally hundreds of times. This experience is readily evident in The Great White Silence. The intertitles chat to us in familiar style; Ponting (the titles are written as though it is he speaking to us) points out things for us to look at, his words guide our eyes and our thoughts. He knew how to engage an audience, and he suceeded all over again in 2010. The film is a mixture of footage, photographs and intertitles, and is in effect a lecturer’s show with his words transferred to the intertitles. The slideshow effect reaches its height in the last half hour of the film, when there is no more footage (because Ponting did not travel with Scott into the Antarctic interior) and so all that he can use are photographs, passages from Scott’s diaries, and quaint but moving model animations showing ant-like sledges moving over the polar wastes. Scott’s diaries have barely lost their power to move even in this cynical age, and the film’s ending left the audience breathless, the final scenes accentuated by a solo voice singing ‘Abide with me’.

Ah yes, the music. The film was accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ by composer Simon Fisher Turner which combined strings (more plucked and scraped than bowed) with electronica, gramophone recordings from the time, recordings of banjo music, Terry Riley-ish sequenced keyboard music, singing, and at one disconcerting point a modern voice speaking in Scott’s hut from earlier this year. You can experience some of the electronica on the YouTube clip at the top of this post. The ‘music’ was clearly greatly appreciated by many in the audience, so I shall refrain from commenting as severely as I might. I shall say just this – the point of musical accompaniment for a silent film is to draw attention to the film, not to draw attention to the music. I’m all for imaginative forms of silent film presentation, but last night’s accompaniment drew far too much attention to itself.

The Great White Silence is going to be given the works when it comes to exhibition. A DVD and Blu-Ray release is planned for next year, it will be screened on the Discovery channel, and it is going to get a theatrical release in the UK. So, amazingly, we will have had Metropolis screened in many UK cinemas in 2010, and The Great White Silence at your local fleapit (who knows?) in 2011. These are remarkable times for silents, and The Great White Silence is a remarkable film. See it if you can – you are certainly going to be presented with every opportunity to do so.

The BFI Live channel has a fascinating short documentary on the technicalities of the film’s restoration. (It’s also available on yourdiscovery.com)

Some of the text of this post is adapted from an essay I wrote, The Great White Silence: Antarctic Exploration and Film’, in South: The Race to the Pole (London: National Maritime Museum, 2000).

A trip down Market Street

Last night CBS’s 60 Minutes programme had an item on A Trip Down Market Street, a ‘phantom ride’ view taken from a cable car travelling down San Francisco’s Market Street a month or less before the earthquake of 18 April 1906. The film, three copies of which survive, and which can be viewed on the Internet Archive or on the Library of Congress’s American Memory site, was previously thought to have been made in 1905, but film historian Dave Kiehn presents evidence in the programme (including weather reports and car registration numbers) to demonstrate that the film was probably made in March or early April 1906. The producers were the Miles Brothers, and two of their descendants appear in the programme as well as film archivist Rick Prelinger, owner of one of the surviving copies (that which appears on the Internet Archive).

We’ve covered the film on the Bioscope before now. There was a post on Bioscopist Joe Thompson’s discovery of a 1907 newspaper article on the film and more recently a post on the overlaying of a YouTube video of the film on top of present day Google Street View images of Market Street on the innovative There and Then site.

The SFGate blog has a full account of Kiehn’s research into the film’s correct dating.

The 60 Minutes piece includes footage of Market Street after the earthquake taken by a different filmmaker. Recently filmmakers Dan Meyerson and Matt Peterson put together a compilation of post-earthquake views of San Francisco, focussing on another travelling shot down Market Street. The post-nuclear landscape is all the more extraordinary for the matter-of-fact way in which people are seen to be still going about their daily business. Looking at pre- and post-earthquake films, the buildings are transient, fragile constructions, but ordinary people endure.

Who shot the post-earthquake films I don’t know. Some of the footage appears in a unidentified series of films of San Francisco in 1906 to be found on the Internet Archive (again from the Prelinger Archives). The main journey down Market Street appears to be unique, however. Anyone know who the filmmaker, or filmmakers, might be?

Pordenone diary 2010 – day three

Interior of the Verdi, showing the cover which goes over the central seats of the lower circle to prevent people sitting in front of the projector beam

Some said that it was a strong programme at Pordenone this year. But maybe they were misheard and what they really said as that you had to be strong for the programme at Pordenone this year. It certainly felt that way as we faced up to the epic offering on Monday morning, Ai Yo Jinrui To Tomo Ni Are (Love, Be With Humanity) (Japan 1931), all four hours and one minute of it. It took up the entire morning and the screening had to start half an hour earlier than usual, at 8:30, to fit it in.

I will confess that I lingered over breakfast and did not get to the Verdi until 9.00, where I expected to catch five minutes of the film and then head out for a coffee somewhere. But I got hooked. This wasn’t directed by Shimizu, it was the work of Shimazu (Yasujiro Shimazu), and what a difference the change in vowel made. This was as polished and authoritative a piece of direction as you could hope to find, aided by some outstanding performances. Love, Be With Humanity (is the title really that dreadful in Japanese too?) was the dramatic highlight of the festival so far.

The story was pure Peyton Place, or Jeffrey Archer. A rich, selfish father, superbly played by Sojin Kaminyama (who had returned to Japan after a period in Hollywood appearing in The Thief of Bagdad and as Charlie Chan), is deservedly saddled with four ungrateful, awkward children, each of different mothers. One is a wealthy wife most interested in jewelry than her child, another daughter is getting married, one son is a cold, intellectual, the other son is a fiery rebel (played by Denmei Suzuki) who refuses to take any money from his father, after the way his mother died wretchedly. The stage is set for a soap opera of epic proportions and concomitant confusion, but unlike his near namesake Shimazu so ably managed the interlocking elements of his narrative that you were never lost, and never impatient, despite the indulgent running time. In the end the father is ruined and the only child who cares for him is the rebellious son. Their climactic argument, where they trade insults yet the son’s wife recognises that they have actually already forgiven one another, exemplified the intelligent approach, constantly playing against expectation, that characterised the film.

And then there was the final reel. No one who was there is likely to forget it in a hurry. Father and son have emigrated to the USA, and taken up the cowboy life. The intertitles have switched from Japanese to English, and the whole conclusion, with stetsons, cowboy boots, beaming neighours and the home on the range, just boggled the mind. Doubtless it all rang true in Japan, but here we couldn’t quite believe our eyes. And then it was over, and there was huge applause for pianist Mie Yanashita, whose vivid accompaniment had been subtly attuned throughout to the film’s ebbs and flows, but it was sort of applause for ourselves as well for having made it all the way through.

I had been looking forward to the afternoon’s first offering. André Deed is generally thought of as one of the great non-American comic performers of the silent cinema period. He was a music hall comedian who joined the film business in 1901 with Georges Méliès in 1901, moving to Pathé in 1906. The character that he established, Boireau, became progressively popular throughout Europe and effectively established the idea of the comic character appearing in a series of films. He moved to Italy in 1908, establishing a new character, Cretinetti, for the Itala company (known as Foolshead in English) and it is Cretinetti films that I’ve long revered for their energetic style and clever mixture of half-wittedness with quick-wittedness. He returned to Pathé in 1911 and became Boireau once more before his career faded with the onset of the First World War.

Pordenone was presenting a strand on French comedy films (a speciality of festival director David Robinson) so it was Boireau that we got on Monday afternoon, ten titles, of which two were from his first period with Pathé, eight from his second. Sadly they were a huge disappointment. Deed mugged and gurned for all he was worth in a series of sloppily conceived scenarios that were resolutely unfunny. In the place of any visual invention we got face-pulling from Deed and much laughter directed at the camera from other performers – it’s always a bad sign when the actors feel obliged to laugh at the comic business, when that is our business. Alas, Boireau on this evidence was tedious, certainly no match for Cretinetti.

Variety is guaranteed at Pordenone. From pre-war French comedy we moved to late 20s Soviet cinema. One of the festival’s main strands was ‘Three Soviet Careers’, looking at the work of Mikhail Kalatozov, Abram Room and Lev Push. Lursmani Cheqmashi (The Nail in the Boot) (USSR 1931) was made by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozishvili, who as Kalatozov would gain international fame for The Cranes are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964). His documentary films of the late 20s/early 30s were characterised by a truly extraordinary visual style but also a muddled ideology that saw them fall foul of Stalin’s censors.

The Nail in the Boot adapts the old tale of the nail eventually causing some great disaster as things build up because the original small irritation was not dealt with (“and all for the want of a horseshoe nail”). A group of soldiers in an armoured train come under attack. One of their number goes off to find help, but because of a nail in his boot he is hampered in his journey and the battle is lost. He is the subjected to a trial, where he comes in for intense criticism but eventually successfully argues his case.

The film was roundly criticised by the Soviets (particularly the Army) for being confusing and ideologically unsound, as a consequence of which it was banned. Seeing it now you have some sympathy with those critics. The nail theory is ridiculous, and the succession of calamities that befalls the soldier encourages our sympathies not our censure, so that he seems cruelly victimised by the subsequent show trial. Whosever’s fault it was that the armoured train was lost, it was surely not his. If there was a message there at all, it was not one that any true Soviet would wish to champion.

But in truth there is no message there at all. The Nail in the Boot is an exercise in pure cinematic style. No doubt Kalatosov was driven by some ideological certainties, but his camera drove him elsewhere. It is just an astonishing film to experience. Every image is burnished to perfection. The stylised results look like nothing on earth. There are the statuesque faces, the unreal landscapes, the astonishing shots from within gun barrels, the eerie intensity of the court room. It is cinematically brilliant – except that cinematic must mean more than technique, it must be technique applied to a particular and consistent aim. Here Kalatozov fails – but what an extraordinary failure.

Talking of extraordinary things, Stephen Horne‘s music was a multi-instrumental tour de force. Some may have though that there was a piano, accordion and flute trio accompanying the film, but no, it was the one man. Stephen can so far only play two of those three instruments at the same time, but it surely can’t be long before he is able to add the third as well.

Torres Straits islanders recreating ceremonies of the Malu cult for A.C. Haddon’s camera, from the 1898 film in the BFI National Archive

Anthropology was an unexpected sub-theme of the festival. Next up came The Masks of Mer (UK 2010), a documentary made by Michael Eaton about the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition of 1898 to the Torres Strait islands to the north of Australia. The expedition was led by Alfred Cort Haddon, a zoologist who became so fascinated by the native people he met on the islands when he first visited them in 1888 that he returned a decade later to study the humans. Remarkably he took with him not just notebooks to record his findings, but a phonograph to record songs and speech, and a motion picture camera.

The films survive, and form the centrepiece of Eaton’s fascinating and rather wise film. Haddon only received his camera a day or two before he was due to leave, but he captured short scenes of fire-making, of dances by some visiting Australian Aborigines, and most remarkable of all a Malu cult initiation ceremony dance which had had been suppressed by Christian missionaries. Haddon invited the people of the island of Mer to recreate three sacred masks (out of cardboard) which were essential to the ceremony and got them perform the forbidden dance for the camera. Some might think that this recreation falsifies the value of the film and the anthropological study, but Eaton argues persuasively that the collaborative nature of the film – Haddon working closely and sympathetically with his subjects – displays a deeper truth. Just pointing a camera at actuality does not reveal its true substance. It is what its subjects wanted to be shown that counts. This was as much the Torres Straits islanders’ film as it was Haddon’s, and that what was so extraordinary about Haddon, that he recognised this. The film also runs the sound recordings alongside the films. The two were not recorded together, but Haddon certainly exhibited them together (in 1906, if not before), so the experiment was justified. The film’s most magical moment was when Eaton visited Cambridge University and was shown the very masks that appear in the film, lovingly stored in the Haddon archive. It was a mysteriously moving moment. Anyway, a fine documentary of the kind you just don’t see on television any more.

So that was the afternoon done. Supper was spent in conversation about archives, exhibitions, scholarly project and the rich subject of colour, the fruits of which you may learn of at some other time. But then it was time to hurry back to the Verdi for the great treat of the evening, a film I had been waiting twenty years to see, ever since Kevin Brownlow programmed it at the National Film Theatre, describing it as one of the most amazing visual spectacles of the silent era, and for some reason I was unable to see it. This was going to be good.

Le Miracle des Loups (The Miracle of the Wolves) (France 1924) has a reputation as one of the highpoints of French silent cinema. It is set in the fifteenth century during the reign of Louis XI (Charles Dullin) and it tells of the challenge to the king’s authority by the rebellious Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (Vanni Marcoux), while rival noblemen fight over heroine Jeanne Fouquet, played by Yvonne Sergyl. The film, directed by Raymond Bernard, is on a truly epic scale, with setpieces of the battle of Montlhéry and the siege of the castle of Beauvais which are meant to show off the millions of francs that were clearly spent on them. Romance, rivalry, intrigue, violence, spectacle, all in the hands of a skilled director – what could possibly go wrong?

Oh dear, oh dear. Right from the start it was clear that something was wrong, when the prelude introduced us to the romance between Jeanne and Tobert Cotterau, played by the toe-curlingly unromantic-looking Romauld Joubé, during which she gets her pet dog to pass a message to him by lifting the bewildered dog over a wall. On top of this we were fed long and tedious intertitles filling us in on all the history, with all of the unwelcome earnestness of a history teacher of very much the old school. It set the tone for the disaster that was to unfold before us over the next two hours or more.

A more turgid plod of a movie it would be hard to imagine. What it did remind me of, in fact, is a 1909 Gaumont one-reeler, Le Huguenot, which crams in a complex plot with too many characters, overlong intertitles obsessed with pedantic detail, all put over with histrionic performances strong on gesture and redundant when it comes to human feeling. The Miracle of the Wolves is simply a 1909 historical film stretched out to 130 minutes. It was so half-hearted throughout. The performances were lethargic (particularly Charles Dullin, who tried to look Machivellian but just looked like he was struggling to remember where he was), and even the battle scenes were undercooked (despite some bloody examples of what fighting in the Middle Ages was actually like), with extras just about going through the motions.

The key scene was the miracle itself. Jeanne is being pursued by the evil Comte du Lau (Gaston Modot, chewing up the scenery) in the mountainside snows when she is surrounded by wolves, who settle down around her before attacking the Comte’s men. We were meant to be awe-struck – instead all too many of the audience laughted heartily at the scene’s absurd piety. All in all, a film without any heart at all. I’d waited twenty years to see it and it felt like twenty years watching it. There was some historical interest in the screening for which Touve Ratovondrahety played a piano transcription of Henri Rabaud’s original score, but to be honest it had little to stir the imagination. But then it had such poor material to work with. Oh dear oh dear.

But there would be better fare on the morrow.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day two

Verdi theatre, Pordenone

There’s no time for slouching at Pordenone if you are serious about your film-watching. A few habitués of the Giornate del Cinema Muto seem to have come for the sun and conversation, taking up near permanent residence in the pavement cafés, but for the rest of us breakfast was swiftly followed by the first film of the day at 9.00am sharp and the final film of the day concluding around midnight. They do let you out for lunch and dinner, but in general it’s a tough regime we had to follow.

And so we move to day two, Sunday 3 October, and what was to become the daily routine of starting off with a long Japanese film, just to test our stamina. Our 9.00am offering was Nanatsu No Umi (Seven Seas) (Japan 1931-32), made in two parts and shown back-to-back over 150 minutes. The films were made by Hiroshi Shimizu, director of the previous day’s Japanese Girls at the Harbour, and there were clear similarities in preoccupations and style.

The film tells of Yumie (played by Hiroko Kawasaki) who is torn between two brothers. She is engaged to the first but seduced by the second, following which her father dies and her sister goes mad. She marries her seducer but takes her revenge by refusing to let him touch her and spending all his money on her sister’s care in a mental hospital. It was pure soap opera, with a somewhat discontinuous narrative (particularly in part 1) characterised by seemingly random elements (just who was it who committed suicide in part 1, and why?) and unclear connections between some of the characters. Then it all ended with a happy ending so rapidly organised that you suspected that a reel was missing. As with Saturday, Shimizu showed off plenty of directorial tricks but lacked the basic skill of connecting one shot with another to propel a narrative forward. But he also showed the same intriguing, codified cultural elements, dividing the action up into public lives that showed the influence of the West (clothing, occupations, the key location of a sports shop) and traditional Japanese dress and manners within the private sphere. You felt you had been given a privileged glimpse into early 1930s Japanese life in the kind of middle-brow film that doesn’t usually make it to retrospectives. Japan’s leading silent film pianist Mie Yanashita was an excellent accompanist for this and all the other Japanese films that featured in the festival.

Scenes from Rituaes e festas Borôro (1916), from http://www.scielo.br

Now these dramatic films are fine in themselves, and even the severest of film critics likes to see a story told well, but regulars will know that what really stirs the heart of the Bioscope is the non-fiction film. So I was looking forward greatly to what was next on the list – Brazilian documentaries – and was not disappointed. In particular the first film of three, Rituaes e festas Borôro (Rituals and Festivals of the Borôro) (Brazil 1916) was one of the highlights of the festival. The filmmaker was Luiz Thomas Reis, photographer and cinematographer with the Commission of Strategic Telegraph Lines from the Mato Grosso to the Amazon, more simply known as the Rondon Commission. The Commission was tasked with mapping the unknown regions of Brazil and making contact with remote tribes. Reis documented this work on film, in part with the hope that the exhibition of such films would raise further funding.

Rituaes e festas Borôro is an extraordinary work, simply by letting the extraordinary speak for itself. Its subject is the Borôro people of the Mato Grosso region, specifically the funeral ceremonies for an elder of the village. I am no expert in anthropology, but the film seemed to me notable for its observant, unpatronising, humane manner. The camera never intruded, only witnessed, and the Borôro were not looked upon as objects of curiosity but as people respected for their customary practices and milieu. This was somewhat charmingly exemplified by the dogs. Stray dogs in early films are something of a Bioscope fetish, and Reis’ film captured not just the dances of the Borôro but the dogs who casually wandered in and out of the frame, surveying the strange things that these humans do in whatever part of the globe that humans happen to gather. The only questionable note was the assurance made by the film’s titles that these rites were not permitted to be seen by whites or women – yet here was the camera filming them. Such are the paradoxes of the anthropological film, a subject to which the Giornate would find itself returning in subsequent days.

Two other Reis films made for the Rondon Commission followed, Parima, fronteiras do Brasil (Brazil 1927) and Viagem ao Roroima (Brazil 1927). Each just under 30mins in length, these were more conventionally ‘travelogue’ in style. The first documented an inspection of the Brazilian-French Guiana border, following the river, with some thrilling shots taken from the front of a travelling canoe (the Brazilian version of the phantom ride), but with plenty of signs of encroaching colonisation in the builings that littered the banks of the river. The second explored the borderland between Brazil, Venezuela and British Guiana and concluded with breathtaking views of 1,000-foot high rock faces. In both films there were sequences where they came upon tribes, so positioned in the film as to be the big pay-off shots, the exotic conclusions which would capture the interest and wallets of likely funders. Rituaes e festas Borôro was in every sense the better film.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, with a band in the understage area playing the Internationale

So that was the morning session. A foul snack lunch and earnest conversations about budget cuts (again) and we were back at 14:30 for Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness) (Germany 1929). This was being shown as pat of the Giornate’s ‘The Canon Revisited’ strand. There is an occasional air of pompousness about the festival, and this idea of re-assessing canonical films exemplifies it. It’s a good idea to revisit classics, especially for the new audiences the festival is attracting, but a number of these films were titles that many of us had not had any chance to see the first time round; indeed I suspect most of us had not even heard of them. Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück was a case in point; a film I’d vaguely heard of, but never seen, though I will admit it’s a classic of sorts and certainly merits being brought back to the screen once more.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück is as agit-prop a film as you could expect to see. Directed by Piel Jutzi, it combines melodrama with documentary realism in its depiction of the ground-down lives of the Berlin proletariat. It tells of the family and tenants of an apartment managed by the aged Mother Krause (Alexandra Schmidt), pitting the apathy and resignation of the individualised poor (generally the elderly) against the positive binding together of those who follow the Communist party (generally the young). Its highpoint is where the harassed daughter (Ilse Trautschold) joins her boyfriend in a protest march to the sounds of the Internationale – literally so in our case, because at this point a marching band of red-suited musicians entered the Verdi theatre and played the marching song to much applause. It was a wonderful thearical coup – typical of the imagination that goes into the Giornate.

However, despite such rousing gestures, the film’s message was an unsettling one. We were supposed to reject Mother Krause’s miserablist view of her fate, but only after the film had done all it could to make us feel sorry for her, so that the ending – where she gasses herself and a sleeping child, because life simply isn’t worth it for either of them – was distasteful and the conclusion ambiguous. It was a stylish and imaginatively experimental film, but what it expounded was more posture than principle.

Next up came a selection of Pathé short comedies with surprisingly sophisticated live musical accompaniment from pupils of the Scuola Media “Balliana-Nievo” from nearby Sacile, music that was a good deal richer in colour and instrumentation than other schools’ work with silent films that I have heard. They were followed by pupils of Pordenone’s Scuola Media Centro Storico, who took on the truly bizarre Charley Bowers, an American comedian whose gimmick was to combine comedy with stop-frame animation. In There it is (USA 1928) he plays a Scottish detective from Scotland Yard who tackles the case of a haunted house with the aid of his cockroach sidekick, MacGregor. It wasn’t strictly funny, but it left this viewer – whose first Bowers film it was – opened-mouthed at its unabashed weirdness. If Salvador Dali had been employed by Leo McCarey, he might have made There it is.

In need of a break, I missed the new documentary Palace of Silents (USA 2010) on the story of Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theater, returning for the evening’s screenings. The Giornate was celebrating the 75th anniversary of two of the world’s leading film archives, MOMA and the BFI National Archive. To mark its 75th year, the BFI took the interesting decision to try and recreate part of a programme of the Film Society. The Film Society was formed in London in 1925 by a bunch of radicals led by the Hon. Ivor Montagu, which eventually included such notables as Anthony Asquith, Iris Barry, Sidney Bernstein, Roger Fry, Julian Huxley, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The Society (the first of its kind in the world) put on films of artistic, historic or political interest at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, often showing films from the USSR which had been refused a licence by the British Board of Film Censorship (they could do so because the films were shown to members of a private club). The Film Society had a huge influence on British film culture, and after it ceased operating in 1939 its collection went to the BFI.

On 10 November 1929 the members of the Society witnessed perhaps the most remarkable film programming coup ever – the world premiere of John Grierson’s Drifters, the cornerstone of the British documentary movement, and the UK premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, plus James Sibley Watson’s avant garde classic The Fall of the House of Usher (USA 1928) and Walt Disney’s Barn Dance (USA 1929). Now that’s programming.

Drifters (1929)

Audiences were made of sterner stuff in 1929, because we were only shown the first two. Drifters (UK 1929) is one of those classics more cited than seen and those who have seen it generally did years ago. Looking at it again after twenty years in my case, it is a work that easily merits its high reputation. It documents the work herring fishermen, and by its Soviet-inspired use of montage combined with a very British tatse for understated realism it immediately stands out from any other film of actuality produced in the UK (or anywhere else) to that date. One understands why its effect on audiences at the time was so electric, and why it did indeed inspire a whole school of documentary filmmaking.

However, it is also an odd film. It falls into three parts. The first, where the fishermen go out to sea, is in classic documentary style, showing man pitted against the elements, elevated (but not excessively ennobled) by toil. Part two, the night-time sequence, is strange. The fishermen sleep, but in the seas beneath we see the herring shoals swimming to and fro, menaced by dogfish. What has this to do with documentary? It tells us nothing of the people involved. Are we mean to gain insight into the lives of the fish? What is going on? It’s a sequence that dosn’t seem to get discussed much in studies of Drifters, yet here is the archetypal Griersonian documentary, and at its heart it slips into a strange, blue-tinted reverie, a fisherman’s dream. Part three is where the catch is taken to harbour, with often exhilaratingly scenes of commerce, industrialisation and human interaction. As Russell Merritt notes in the Giornate catalogue, “Grierson claimed the sequence was pointed social critique, exposing capital’s exploitation of the workers”. It is no such thing. It is unabashed championing of the power of the marketplace. Grierson the instinctive filmmaker was not the political filmmaker that he thought that he should be – he was too good for that.

Do you really need my thoughts on Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin) (USSR 1925)? As probably the most discussed film in history outside of Citizen Kane, I guess not. It was an odd way of celebrating the anniversary of the BFI National Archive, especially as the print came from the Deutsche Kinemathek, but it was enriching to compare and contrast with Drifters. It’s a film that disappointed me greatly when I first saw it (with the original Edmund Meisel score), probably because I was so expecting to be impressed and because of the absence of conventional narrative. As a story, it hasn’t got much going for it. As cinematic posturing, particularly as one of a planned series of films celebrating the 1905 revolution, it makes absolute sense. Every scene is overplayed, but it is always compelling to watch. There is not a dull composition in it.

And that was enough for a Sunday. I did see the first twenty minutes or so of Dmitri Buchowetski’s Karusellen (Sweden 1923), which looked fabulous. but I was sceptical of any story where a circus sharpshooter somehow is able to afford a vast country house and where the happily married wife instantly falls for a stranger because that’s what always happens with strangers. Enough of such artificiality – give me the kine-truth of documentary, and better still the unvarnished simplicity of actuality. For all of the canonical classics on show, the film of the day was a plain record of tribal dances from the Amazonian forest in 1916. So often the simplest is best.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Suffragettes before the camera

Asta Nielsen playing a suffragette undergoing forcefeeding in Die Suffragette (1913), from Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek

Early film reflected the society in which it arose, and there is no clearer example of this than the campaign for women’s suffrage. The movement to gain women the vote in Britain reached its climax during the period when mass cinema-going was first underway in the early 1910s, and films reflected the popular understanding of the suffragettes. The militant woman became a standard figure in early ficition films, generally portrayed for comic or satiric effect. At the same time the suffragettes were regularly covered by the newsreels, a dynamic new medium for reporting what was happening in the world to a mass audience.

The relationship between women’s suffrage and early film is explored in Frühe Interventionen: Suffragetten – Extremistinnen der Sichtbarkeit (Early interventions / Suffragettes – extremists of visibility), a series of films and lectures being held at the Zeughauskino, Berlin, 23-27 September 2010. Behind the somewhat forbidding title is a tremendous programme of rare materials uncovered from archives across Europe and curated by Madeleine Bernstorff and Mariann Lewinsky. The films document not only the suffragettes as audiences saw them in fiction and non-fiction films, but also the role of women in early cinema generally, showing how trangressive, rebellious and sometimes just plain exuberant displays by women on screen echoed the drive for changes in society of which the campaign for the vote was but a part.

The Pickpocket (USA 1913), from EYE Film Institute Netherlands

Here is the programme:

Thursday 23. September 20:00 h

Radical maid(en)s
Cheerful young girls’ break-outs, class relations and radicalisations.

Sedgwick’ s Bioscope Showfront at Pendlebury Wakes, GB 1901, 30m 1’30“
La Grêve des bonnes, France 1907 184m, 10’
Tilly in a Boarding house GB 1911 D Alma Taylor, Chrissie White 7’
Pathé newsreel The Suffragette Derby, GB 1913, ca 5’
Miss Davison’s Funeral, GB 1913, 45m 2’
A Suffragette in Spite of Himself GB 1912 Edison R: Bannister Merwin D: Miriam Nesbitt, Ethel Browning, Marc McDermott 8’, 16mm
Break
Robinette presa per nihilista Italy 1912, D: Nilde Baracchi, 124m, 8’
Cunégonde reçoit sa famille France 1912 D: Cunegonde – name unknown, 116m, 6’
Les Ficelles de Leontine France 1910, D: Leontine – name unknown, 155m, 8’
Tilly and the fire engines GB 1911 2’ D: Alma Taylor, Chrissie White
[A Nervous Kitchenmaid] France c.1908, 74m, 4’
Introduction: Madeleine Bernstorff
Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Friday 24. September 18:00 h

The Fanaticism of the Suffragettes
Lecture with images and filmclips by Madeleine Bernstorff

Following the lecture Mariann Lewinsky will present the DVDs Cento anni fa/A hundred Years ago: European Cinema of 1909 and Cento anni fa/A Hundred Years ago: Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914 [for more information, see end of this post].

Friday 24. September 19:00 h

Militancies

Les Femmes députées France 1912 D: Madeleine Guitty 154m 8’
England. Scenes Outside The House Of Commons 28 January 1913 2’
Trafalgar Square Riot 10 August 1913 1913 2’
Milling The Militants: A Comical Absurdity GB 1913 7’
St. Leonards Outrage France 1913 21m 1’
Womens March Trough London: A Vast Procession Of Women Headed By Mrs Pankhurst. March Through London To Show The Minister Of Munitions Their Willingness To Help In Any War War Service GB 1915 23m 1’
Scottish Women’s Hospital Of The National Union Of Women’s Suffrage Societies France 1917 133m 6’30
Dans le sous-marin France 1908 Pathé 145m 5’
Introduction: Madeleine Bernstorff
Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Friday 24. September 21:00 h

Women’s Life and Leisure in the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection
Presented by Vanessa Toulmin

The renowned Mitchell & Kenyon Collection provides an unparalled view of life at the turn of the twentieth century and this screening will allow us an opportunity to see women’s life and leisure in industrial England. The social and political background as well as working conditions will be shown on screen. The range and sheer diversity of women in the workplace will be revealed from the domestic to the industrial environment, women played an important role in the transition to modern society. From girls working in the coal mines to spinners and weavers leaving the factory this selection from the Collection will reveal previously unseen footage from the Archive, in a following workshop Vanessa Toulmin will speak about: Discovery and Investigation: The Research Process of the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection.

Women at Work: The ‘Hands’ Leaving Work at North-Street Mills, Chorley (1900), North Sea Fisheries, North Shields (1901), Employees Leaving Gilroy’s Jute Works, Dundee (1901), S.S. Skirmisher at Liverpool (1901), Birmingham University Procession on Degree Day (1901), Life in Wexford (1902), Black Diamonds – The Collier’s Daily Life (1904)
Women in the Social Environment: Liverpool Street Scenes (1901), Jamaica Street, Glasgow (1901), Manchester Street Scenes (1901), Manchester Band of Hope Procession (1901), Electric Tram Rides from Forster Square, Bradford (1902)
Leisure and Play: Sedgwick’s Bioscope Showfront at Pendlebury Wakes (1901), Spectators Promenading in Weston Park, Sheffield (1902), Trip to Sunny Vale Gardens at Hipperholme (1901), Bootle May Day Demonstration and Crowning of the May Queen (1903), Blackpool Victoria Pier (1904), Greens Racing Bantams at Preston Whit Fair (1906), Calisthenics (c. 1905).
Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Saturday 25. September 18:00 h

La Neuropatologia
Lecture by Ute Holl+ screening of La Neuropatologia (I 1908)

La Neuropatologia is a medical instructional film by the Turin neurologist Camillo Negri. The film can be read – utilising medical-historical methology – as the presentation of an hysterical seizure, but it could also be called an expressionist drama, a love triangle. Medical fact cannot be visualized without the medical stage, the theatre, the mise-en-scène. End of the 19th century the visual turn in medical methodology and in neurological diagnosis gets introduced.

Saturday 25. September 19:00 h

Staging and Representation: A cinematographic studio

La Neuropatologia opens the view on representational relations. The Austrian company Saturn Film produced so-called ‘titillating’ films for a male audience, but the models also had her own ideas about erotic stagings. Normal work is part of an installation, and a re-enactment of four late-19th century photographies by Hannah Cullwick, who worked as a maid and produced numerous (self)portraits as part of a sado-masochist bond with her bourgeois boss Arthur Munby.

La Neuropatologia Italy 1908 Camillo Negro 107m 5’
La Ribalta (Fragment) Italy 1913 Mario Caserini D: Maria Gasparini 60 m 3’5’
Beim Photographen Austria 1907 Saturn 50m 3’
Das eitle Stubenmädchen Austria 1907 Saturn 50m 3’
Normal Work Germany 2007 Pauline Boudry, Renate Lorenz D: Werner Hirsch 13’ 16mm/DV
Concorso di bellezza fra bambini / Kindertentoonstellung Italy 1909 80m 4’
La nuova cameriera e troppo bella Italy 1912 D: Nilde Baracchi, 138m 7’
Rosalie et Léontine vont au théâtre France 1911, D: Sarah Duhamel + Leontine – name unknown 80m, 4’
L’intrigante France 1910 Albert Capellani 162m 8’
Introduction: Madeleine Bernstorff
Live piano accompaniment

Saturday 25. September 21:00h

Glittering stars, athletic women, first star personas
From 1910 on many female comedians had their own series. There was alsoa strong presence of female artistes and performers in the cinema before 1910.

Danse Serpentine / Annabella USA c.1902 Edison ca 2’ 16mm
La Confession France 1905 D: Name nicht bekannt 60m 3’
Femme jalouse France 1907 D: Name nicht bekannt 58m 3’
Lea e il gomitolo Italy 1913 D: Lea Giunchi 99m 5’
Danses Serpentines France / USA 1898-1902 D: U.a. Annabella 60m 3’
La Valse chaloupée France 1908 D: Mistinguett, Max Dearly 38m 2’
Sculpteur moderne France 1908 R: Segundo de Chomon D: Julienne Matthieu 8’
Les Soeurs Dainef France 1902 65m 3’
Introduction: Mariann Lewinsky
Live piano accompaniment Eunice Martins
+
Zigomar peau d’anguille France 1913 Eclair Victorin Jasset D: Alexandre Aquillere, Josette Andriot, 940m 45’
On the turntables: Julian Göthe

Sunday 26. September 18:00

Re-Reading Steinach
Lecture and video-presentation by Mareike Bernien

Re-Reading Steinach is a re-assembly of the popular-science film Steinachs Forschungen by Nicholas Kaufmann/UFA from 1922 – with the idea to analyze representations of normative and divergent body-and gender-constructions in the beginning of 20th century.

Sunday 26. September 19:00

Man/woman/norm/cinema
Cross-dressings of men and women: Elegant page-uniforms and pantskirts, men in nurse-dresses and the wonderful Lotion Magique which grows beards on breasts and breasts on bald heads.

Mes filles portent la jupes-culotte France 1911 120m 6’
Monsieur et Madame sont pressés France 1901 20m 1’
Le Poulet de Mme Pipelard France 1910 84m 5’
Cendrillon ou La Pantoufle merveilleuse France 1907 R: Albert Capellani 293 m 15’
Il duello al shrapnell Italy 1908 100m 5’
La Lotion magique France 1906 Pathé 80m 5’
La Grève des nourrices France 1907 190 m 10’
Schutzmann-Lied from Metropol-Revue 1908, Donnerwetter! – Tadellos! Germany 1909 D: Henry Bender Beta 2’ (digital sound image reconstruction by Christian Zwarg)
Introduction: Mariann Lewinsky and Madeleine Bernstorff
Introduction to Schutzmannlied: Dirk Foerstner
Live piano accompaniment

Sunday 26. September 21:00

The Woman of Tomorrow
Cinema before 1910 was abundant in non-fiction films about daily work. La Doctoresse is part of a comedy-serial by Mistinguett and her partner Prince. The Russian film The Woman of Tomorrow is about a successful feminist female doctor.

Recolte du sarasin France 1908
L’Industria di carta a Isola del Liri Italy 1909 147m 7’30“
La Doctoresse France 1910, D: Mistinguett, Charles Prince 140m 7’
Zhenshchina Zavtrashnego Dnya / The woman of tomorrow Russia 1914, D: Vera Yurevena, Ivan Mosjoukine, 795m 40’
Live piano accompaniment

Monday 27. September 18:00

Political Stagings of the Suffragettes in England
Lecture by Jana Günther on strategic image politics of the militant English suffragette movement: between permanent spectacle and crusade. The Suffragettes appropriated activist strategies of the workers’ movement and tried out acts of civil inobedience like chaining themselves to railings, hunger strikes and other distruptive acts.
+ presentation of the film A Busy Day aka A Militant Suffragette D:Charlie Chaplin, USA 1914 16mm 6’

Monday 27. September 19:00h

Die Suffragette

The restored version (by Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek) of the Asta Nielsen melodrama Die Suffragette with some rediscovered scenes – including the force-feeding-scene which had been cut because of strict censorship regulations.

Bobby und die Frauenrechtlerinnen/Mijnher Baas + de vrije Vrouwen Germany 1911 Oskar Messter 112m 6’
Pickpocket USA 1913 260 m 13’
Les Résultats du féminisme France 1906 Alice Guy 5’
Die Suffragette Germany 1913 D: Asta Nielsen (Nelly Panburne) 60‘
Introduction: Karola Gramann + Heide Schlüpmann
Live piano accompaniment Eunice Martins

Monday 27. September 21:00h

The Year of the bodyguard
The film essay by Noël Burch deals with the subject of suffragettes in 1912 training under the first English female jiu-jitsu expert Edith Garrud to fight the police and protect their leaders.

Wife, The Weaker Vessel GB 1915 D: Ruby Belasco, Chrissie White, 190m 9’
Le Sorelle Bartels Italy 1910 74m 4’
The Year of the Bodyguard Noel Burch 1981 54’ ZDF
Works and Workers at Denton Holme GB 1910, 90m 5’

In the foyer of Zeughauskino there will be a video installation ‘I would be delighted to talk Suffrage’ by Austrian artist Fiona Rukschcio and a lightbox and bulletin board by Madeleine Bernstorff with materials from the National Archives, London on police spy photographs depicting the suffragettes.

Suffragette Demonstration at Newcastle, from BFI National Archive

Madeleine Bernstorff writes these words about women’s suffrage and film in the notes to the programme:

In the early twentieth century, the cause of women’s suffrage and the suffragette movement became a cinematic topic. Something seemingly untameable had appeared on the city streets, provoking a good deal of anxiety: women, often sheltered ladies of the bourgeoisie, were organising and even demanding participation in democratic processes! By 1913 more than 1,000 suffragettes had already gone to prison for their political actions. In addition to cartoons in the print media, newsreels and melodramas were produced along with countless comedies that referred – in all their ambivalence of subversion and affirmation – to the movement. They told the audience that women belonged at home and not at the ballot box, that these unleashed furies who now appeared in the streets en masse were growing mannish, neglecting their families and even setting public buildings ablaze. In the anti-suffragette films, women’s rights activists were often misguided souls who needed to be brought back to their proper calling. They also left plenty of room for nod-and-wink voyeurism on all sides. Men, too, masqueraded as suffragettes – to illustrate how inappropriate and grotesque it was for women to overstep their roles – or to act out against the prevailing order even more wildly?

The figure of the suffragette in early fiction (usually comedy- the seriousness of Asta Nielsen’s Die Suffragette is a notable exception) film is one that has been written about in several places, though never before has such an extensive collection of relevant films been seen in one place, to my knowledge. However, I would encourage those attending the event to look twice at the newsreels as well. There are many surviving newsreels showing the suffragettes – for the simple reason that they made it their business to be filmed.

The suffragettes showed themselves to be particularly media savvy by staging events that would attract the media. The simplest strategy was to organise marches with banners with bold slogans that could be easily picked up by the cameras. Then there was the obvious tactic of letting the newspapers and newsreels know beforehand of when a march or such like was going to take place. Just occasionally there was active co-operation with the newsreel companies. Rachael Low, in The History of the British Film 1906-1908, reproduces this report from the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly 25 June 1908, p. 127, which shows how far this could go:

From certain sources whispers had reached us anent Mr. Harrison Ward’s secret conclaves with Mrs. Drummond and Miss Christabel Pankhurst, and as we surmised the plottings of the trio within the suffragette’s fortress have taken definite shape in the form of a picture history of recent performances of the ‘great shouters’ during their campaign … With exclusive right for kinematographing from the suffragists’ conning tower Mr. W. Jeapes obtained some exceptionally interesting pictures, those showing Mr. R.G. Knowles discussing the burning question with some of the leaders at the base of the tower being particularly good, the same remark applying to the life-size portraits of Mrs. ‘General’ Drummond, Miss Pankhurst and others. Mr. Jeapes and Mr. Ward probably never played to a bigger house than they did on Sunday, and the sight of the surging mass of humanity following the pantechnicon ‘conning tower’ as it emerged from Hyde Park, what time the energetic pair on top recorded the scene was something to arouse the envy of any kinematographer with an eye for picture effects.

The film, made by the Graphic Cinematograph Company, was a bit more than the average newsreel (it showed the major demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union that took place 21 June 1908 in Hyde Park). But the degree of pre-planning, co-operation and indeed the purchase of exclusive rights for a key camera position demonstrates that both news companies and suffragettes recognised the great value of one another, and that we should look on the newsreels of suffragettes as composed works rather than accidental actuality. We see what they wanted us to see.

Even when there wasn’t active co-operation with the newsreels, the suffragettes knew where cameras (still and motion picture) would be positioned, so that their protest acts would gain the greatest publicity. The best known example is that of the 1913 Derby, at which Emily Wilding Davison was killed after running onto the race-course and being knocked down by the King’s horse. The act was captured by a number of newsreels (the Pathé version is to be featured in Berlin) because they were all trained on the final bend before the end of the race, Tattenham Corner, and that is exactly where Davison chose to run out. Again, we see what they wanted us to see.

  • The Gaumont Graphic version of the 1913 Derby is here
  • The Pathé’s Animated Gazette version is here
  • The Topical Budget version is here (accessible to UK schools and libraries only)
  • (The Warwick Bioscope Chronicle version is here but I can’t make it play, and in any case Warwick either missed the incident or it has been cut from the extant film)
  • There are British Pathe compilations of suffragette newsreel footage here and especially here

There isn’t any information online about the Berlin screenings as yet (apart from this post, obviously), but information will appear on the Zeughauskino site once it gets round to publishing its September programme. (Now published)

Update (4 September): The full programme is now available (in German) from www.madeleinebernstorff.de (full marks for the striking design).

Finally, the DVD from this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato mentioned above is now available for sale. Curated by Mariann Lewinsky, Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914 is a DVD and booklet on nineteen films (Italian, French, English, American), featuring such female comedy stars as Tilly and Sally (Alma Taylor and Chrissie White), Cunégonde, Mistinguett, Rosalie, Lea and Gigetta, plus newsreel films (including two compilations) of suffragette action from the UK and USA. The DVD is priced 19.90 € and is available from the Cineteca Bologna site. For those not able to be in Berlin it’s going to be the next best thing.

My thanks to Madeleine Bernstorff for providing the programme information and stills.

Lives in film no. 4: Jack Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, from American Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filmography

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

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

2. Fiction films

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

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

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

There and then

Market Street, San Francisco in 2010 with inset of Market Street, 1905, http://homepage.ntlworld.com/keir.clarke/web/marketst.htm

My acknowledgments go to the excellent ReadWriteWeb for a piece on websites that mash-up mapping, photos, street views, video and documentary photographs from the past. Among the interesting projects the piece describes where uses can map historical photographs to maps using geo-tags is There and Then, a site created by Kier Clarke which takes historical videos from YouTube and overlays them on a Google Street View of the location today.

There’s not a huge number on the site as yet, but among the examples are a number of the BFI’s Friese-Greene colour travel films from the 1920s mapped to their present day British locations, and some American examples of the Library of Congress, including a 1905 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, illustrated above (though I don’t think it’s from the LoC copy – note the rolling frame line). The effect is a little odd for this particular example, because the Google image is static while the 1905 film is a travelling shot, but in general it’s a delightful conceit.

It’s not a new idea, however. British film artist Patrick Keiller installed a piece at the BFI Southbank in 2007 which inset archive films within modern-day photographs of the same location, as reported in this Bioscope post.

Patrick Keiller’s combination Carrington Street, Nottingham in 2003, with inset from Tram Ride Through Nottingham, Carrington Street (Mitchell & Kenyon, 1902), from The City of the Future exhibition (2007)

I also recall an exhibition at Brighton museum a while back which showed moving images rom Brighton past and present taken from the same position exhibited next door to one another. The results are invariably haunting and thought-provoking, and it would be good to see a lot more of this sort of imaginative juxtaposition of yesterday and today.

The Market Street example was picked for Bioscope regular Joe Thompson, San Francisco resident and cable car enthusiast, whose own fascinating blog piece on A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire was reported on by the Bioscope here.

The construction of news

American Mutoscope and Biograph camera team filming the Jeffries-Sharkey boxing match, 1899

Here at the Bioscope we like to champion silent cinema in its many different forms, which has included a number of posts on newsreels. Not all readers may feel quite the same interest in early newsfilm, but there is now evidence that others are thinking along the same lines.

The Museu del Cinema, The Department of Geography, History &
History of Art at the University of Girona, and the Spanish Ministry of Science & Innovation Project are co-organising a two-day seminar entitled The Construction of News in Early Cinema. The seminar (which sounds near enough to a conference to me) is one of a series of seminars that have been held on the origins and history of cinema (La construcción de la realidad en el cine de los orígenes), and will be held at the Auditori Narcís de Carreras in Girona, Spain, 7-8 April 2011 (update: the dates are now 31 March-1 April).

A call for papers has been issued (deadline 31 October 2010), which can be downloaded in full here (PDF), but here are the main bits:

The film industry emerged at a key moment in the development of the written and graphic press and it would not be too long before it was playing a role in creating the imaginary of current affairs through images. Although these news images did not begin to be gathered together into a specific programme until the year 1908 thanks to Pathé Frères, in the very beginnings of cinema there were already images of current events, royal visits, official openings, sports events or exceptional situations that were to bind the image to its present context and bring it into the territory of what could be deemed as newsworthy …

The proposed seminar will focus on trying to define the relationship between cinema and news, to see how it began to build the news imaginary that presaged many of the questions of the future news images both in the subsequent newsreels and in those that came along with the birth of television … The time period of the study is to be from 1895 up to 1914, since we believe that the newsreels underwent a different development with the outbreak of World War I. The proposal of the seminar is to establish a methodology of research and reflection in the context of news and, eventually, to find out how and if we can talk about a kind of birth of the documentary image.

As in previous editions, the Seminar will be divided into two alternating parts. The first will involve theoretical reflection on the central theme with various presentations from leading experts. In the second part, the aim is to enable various researchers to present and discuss with the
participants their research into pre-cinema and early cinema.

Papers can be on the specific subject of the seminar or presentations of ongoing studies into pre-cinema or cinema before 1915. For the former, these are the themes the organisers suggest:

Terminological approaches. What do we talk about when we talk about news event films, or newsreels in the field of early cinema? How can we define the images that recorded contemporary events that became part of the framework of newsworthiness established by the press? At what point in time can we start talking about newreels?

- Precedents in the concept of news. Cinema began as a place of intermediality that brought together work from various forms of expressive media. From this point of view, we want to see how the concept of current events was present in such spectacles as the magic lantern shows, panoramas, illustrated journals and illustrated vignettes or how it took on a key role in the construction of the collective imaginary in Wax Museums. Also significant at the time was the idea of Teatro por horas (popular hour-long performances) that included representations of contemporary issues. Another precedent in current affairs worth studying was photojournalism and its relationship with cinematographic news.

- Limits of the notion of current affairs. The inclusion of filmic images into what was real entails research not only into news, but also into the construction of the touristic imaginary and the documentation of the industrial world. Given these premises, we are interested in defining what the limits of current affairs really are. What is considered an event? When and how long did an event remain current at the beginning of the century?

- Cinematographic news models: films of real events, images of war, royal visits, official openings, fashion events, festivals and sporting events. We have to consider that the field of filming sports events is of fundamental importance in developing the image of events in general and the subsequent setup of live television. Early cinema included frequent showings of boxing matches.

- Re-enactments news. We want to see how certain news items were re-enacted, how the staging of the scene is achieved, which elements document the truth and which are fictional.

- The role of the lecturers accompanying the news presentations. Did the figure of the lecturer appear when news was projected? Which was his role?

- The relationship between the written and the graphic press. Establishing a bridge between what the pictures show and what the press of the time explained. Analysis of the development of cinema as information from the perspective of the history of the press.

- The position of the camera with regard to the event: the point of view of the camera and the staging with regard to royal visits and displays of authority. When does the camera arrive after an event has occurred? How was more than one camera used to film certain sporting events? Who were the historical personalities who believed in the power of the camera and wanted to be filmed in order to increase their fame and the other personalities who did not?

- The contexts of the audiences: how were the cinematographic news shows of the time received? Was there a relationship between what the viewer believed and the hypothetical “truth” of images? What was the timing involved in showing news events? Were there incidents or events that could be seen the next day since they were processed and shown quickly? How can we relate the timing of early cinema with the search for live events that were subsequently carried out on television?

- What was lacking in cinematographic news? The images built up a highly specific reality througha series of ideological factors: race, power, colonialism, sexism, etc. What historical events were not shown? What was outside the field of news? What was the relationship between political censorship and news?

- The regular newscasts. The newsreels of Pathé Frères began to be screened regularly in 1908. A study of the Pathé model and how it was received in the context of the period.

- Reusing contemporary news events in film making. Films such as “The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty” (Esfir Shub, 1927) and “Paris, 1900″ (Nicole Vedrès, 1948) are films that were put together using news items from before 1914. What significance did the images have in the compilation of documentaries made during the time period?

Summaries should be no more than 60 lines, to be emailed to institutestudis@museudelcinema.cat, following the guidelines set out in the full call for papers. Papers can be given in Catalan, Spanish or English. It is expected that papers presented at the seminar will be published, “provided that they have been defended by the author during the seminar”. So there you go.

Filming football

Vuvuzelas, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/football. To listen to the sound (if you must), try this.

It’s the World Cup, and I’ve been rediscovering silent football. The high decibel sound of the vuvuzelas that the South African crowds blow so enthusiastically and monotonically (B flat, to be precise) make the matches sound as though they are taking place inside a particularly angry wasps’ nest. To keep my sanity I experimented with watching games with the sound turned off and the subtitles on. It’s a curious experience, witnessing sport in silence, without commentary or crowd sounds. The game loses its drive – in fact it ceases to be a game and simply becomes a window on one of those strange ritualistic things that humans do to occupy themselves, a Martian’s view of sport.

All of which idle thoughts are introduction to a post on the time when football films were made silent, and what accompanied them was live music, intertitles, and any comments from the audience in the cinema. So here’s a short-ish history of association football and silent film.

Football game filmed by in London by Alexandre Promio around September 1897. One of the teams may be Woolwich Arsenal. No. 699 in the Lumière catalogue.

Early shots
Filming football is almost as old as filming itself. So far as is known, the first film to be made of the game was a now lost one-minute production by Robert Paul, taken in Newcastle in October 1896. A contemporary description simply says “A football match at Newcastle-on-Tyne”, and we don’t even know who was playing who. The earliest surviving football film was taken by Lumière camera operator Alexandre Promio in London in late 1897. Simply entitled Football, it shows two teams (one of whom could possibly be Woolwich Arsenal, forerunner of Arsenal) bunched around a goal on a practice pitch. The players may all be crowded around the ball because Promio wanted to get as many people in shot as possible, so one should be wary of the film as depicting genuine action. We do see this in the next surviving film, Arthur Cheetham‘s record of a Blackburn Rovers-West Bromwich Albion game. 50ft (under a minute) of an original 250ft survives, with action from both halves taken from a single camera position behind one of the goals, so one only sees tiny figures engaged in some mysterious far-off struggle.

The earliest football films show us little that we can savour as sporting entertainment. Marginally longer films started to be made from 1899, the year that the F.A. Cup Final was filmed for the first time, by the Warwick Trading Company. The film is now lost, but the catalogue description indicates a move from the emblematic, single-shot efforts of Paul and Lumière to a documentary account presenting highlights from the game, which was played at Crystal Palace:

The Sheffield United and officials entering the field; Mid-field play; Sheffield obtains a corner, showing goal play, scrimmage and goal kick; Derby County’s only goal, showing other goal, enthusiasm of the vast audience, goal keeper busy; Players leaving the field.

This was the archetype for football films for the next decade. It was probably shot by a single pitch-side cameraman, who had four key elements to capture: the teams coming onto the field; scenes of lively action; the enthusiasm of the crowd; and goals. It was well nigh impossible for a single cameraman to achieve the latter (Sheffield won 4-1, so he missed four), not only because he was based at ground level (longer shots from the stands would not have worked owing to the limitations of lenses and filmstock) and because there was only one of him, but because there was a limit to how much film he could hold. Cameras held 75 to 500 feet at this time, and even with changes of reel there was only so much they could shoot because they would be under strict instructions not to waste too much film. When a film was going to be only 100 to 200 feet long on release (the 1899 FA Cup Final film was 350 feet) then shooting thousands of feet of film in a vain attempt to capture everything was a pointless waste of expensive celluloid. Early football films are the way they are because of technical limitations and common-sense economics.

Newcastle United v Liverpool, filmed by Mitchell & Kenyon, 23 November 1901 at St James’ Park, from the BFI YouTube channel

Mitchell & Kenyon
Roughly between 1900-1910 football films were the preserve of specialist operators from the north of England. The major London companies such as Gaumont, Urban and Warwick regularly made films of the cup final, but an extensive business grew up for companies which filmed local games for local consumption. There was Jasper Redfern, based in Yorkshire, who filmed both football matches and cricket games, but the major player by far was Norden Films, best known as Mitchell & Kenyon.

Mitchell & Kenyon films were shown in town halls, music halls and fairground shows. They were often commissioned by touring showmen taking a projector from town to town, who attracted audiences by showing films of local events, including sports. Such a business was very localised, inevitably, but the dedication to football meant that many teams were documented who would never have been covered by London-based film companies. The Mitchell & Kenyon collection at the BFI National Archive includes fifty-five football films made between 1901-1907, including such encounters as Salford v Batley (1901), Sheffield United v Bury (1902), Everton v Liverpool (1902) and Bradford City v Gainsborough Trinity (1903) (all links are to BFI YouTube videos). The films generally last three minutes or so, and feature the teams coming on, crowd shots (it was important to show as many faces as possible so people would come to the film show with the hope of seeing themselves – the films were often shown the same evening) and action mostly filmed from a mid-pitch position by a single cameraman.

Fascinating as these films are from a socio-historical point of view (crowd behaviour, grounds, dress, displays of advertising, male-dominated space etc.) it is very difficult to get a sense of the game. The limitations of the filming, with a paucity of shots giving little sense of continuous action, leaves one peering from the distance of both time and space, finding it hard to judge what is going on. The players have no shirt numbers, and it is difficult to sense the shape of the game. I’ve been reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, and I had an idea of investigating these films for evidence of team formations, but it can’t be done. At this period the offside law stated that three defenders had to be between the leading attacker and the goal, and all teams more or less played in a 2-3-5 formation – that is, two in defence, and five in attack. Perhaps you can see this in the Mitchell & Kenyon films, but the shots are too few, and the action too indistinct, for anyone to derive any certain evidence. Camera shots from the stands which encompassed the complete action on the pitch would not be attempted until the 1920s. What one can sometimes see is the frantic pace and occasional roughness of play, the appalling state of the pitches, and incidental features which point to the influence of the cameras – notably players coming out onto the pitch single file, so that they could be picked out individually by fans watching the screen. (For more on the M&K football films, see Dave Russell’s essay in Vanessa Toulmin etc, The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon)

The newsreel era
The arrival of newsreels, around 1910, changed how football films were made and shown. The shift from peripatetic exhibition in halls and fairgrounds to cinemas led to a regularity of output which led to greater exposure for football films but also to concentration on films likely to attract the largest audiences. So league and minor cup games ceased to be filmed, and what became popular were major matches such as the later rounds of the F.A. Cup, the Cup Final itself, and some internationals. A number of films survive of Cup Finals from 1910-1914 at the BFI National Archive, including these (with links to the BFI catalogue):

1910 [Barnsley v Newcastle]
F.A. Cup Final, 1910 (original match, company not known)
Cup Tie Final 1910 (either original match or replay, company not known)

1911 [Newcastle United v Bradford City]
Cup Final 1911 (Gaumont)
The F.A. Cup Final (Pathé)
The Greatest Football Game of 1911 (company not known)
The Cup Final – The Match Replayed at Manchester (Pathé)

1912 [Barnsley v West Bromwich Albion]
Cup Final 1912 (company not known)
Football Cup Final: Replay at Sheffield (Gaumont)

1913 [Aston Villa v Sunderland]
The Cup Final (Barker)

1914 [Liverpool v Burnley]
Cup Tie Final: Liverpool v Burnley 1914 (Barker)

International football
Newsreels were not restricted to Britain, of course, and as the game increasingly spread around the world, so newsreels started to pick up on games in the various countries where the sport had taken root. Information on these is scarce and scattered, with a handful of surviving examples held in archives around the world.

Unidentified 1927 German championship game, from ITN Source collection

Games between nations were infrequently filmed, presumably for logistical reasons. There were, in any case, few international matches at this time, and most of those were between the British home nations. The earliest such film appears to have been the England v Scotland match of 4 April 1904, filmed in Sheffield by Hepworth and Paul (Scotland won 2-1). The film doesn’t survive, but there are plenty of international games from the 1920s held in the BFI National Archive, British Pathe and ITN Source newsreel collections. Most of these are home internationals, but here are links to a few international games (as it were) which can be viewed online:

Football outside of its borders did not really register with British audiences – certainly as far as the newsreels were concerned. If you wanted to see how the game was advancing internationally, you were better off looking to the Olympic Games.

Olympic Games
Before the World Cup was instituted in 1930, the major international football contest was the Olympic Games. Football became a popular feature of Olympic films from 1912 onwards, and some of the surviving Olympic films from the silent period give us some of the best records of football from this period. As described in an earlier post, Pathé’s record of the 1912 Games in Stockholm devotes much attention to football, with Sweden v Holland and the all-conquering Great Britain team beating Denmark 4-2 in the final. In 1924, the Rapid-Film full-length documentary Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 devotes an entire reel to the final between Uruguay and Switzerland, in which the South Americans demonstrate a dazzling level of technical skill readily apparent in the film record, even if the camera postioning limits our understanding of the game (a team of four or five was used, arranged at various points pitchside with just a couple of shots taken from the stands). The documentary film of the 1928 Games in Amsterdam does not include football (at least not in the version available on DVD), but Italian site Archivio Storico (produced by Istitutio Luce) includes severals newsreels from 1928, including Italy v France, Spain v Mexico, Portugal v Jugoslavia, and the Uruguay-Argentina final, won in a replay by Uruguay 2-1 after the first game ended 1-1 (to access these, tick the box marked ‘archivio cinematografico’ and enter the search term ‘calcio’).

Tottenham Hotspur’s Jimmy Dimmock scores the only goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge in the 1921 F.A. Cup Final, filmed by the Topical Budget newsreel as Cup Final 1921 Greatest Event in Football History

Football in the 1920s
In the 1920s changes began to be made to how football was filmed, though the constraints of filmstock remained. Newsreel cameramen worked to tight rules over the amount of film they were allowed to expend on any subject. Generally they worked to a 2:1 ratio i.e. the cost-conscious editor allowed them to shoot say 100 feet in making what what would be released in the newsreel as a 50-foot item. For sports events, with their high degree of unpredictablity, the ratio might rise to 4 or 5:1, but it still meant that the operator had to concentrate on likely areas of activity (particularly the goalmouth), and obtaining film of goals was often a question of luck.

Things improved for the F.A. Cup Final, where the newsreel started to employ large camera teams, and the sharing of the load meant that camera operators could concentrate on the period when the ball was nearest to them. The Topical Budget newsreel employed nine cameramen to film the 1921 final, producing a 500-foot film (approx. six minutes), but more than the number of cameras there was the variety of angle and the understanding that a narrative needed to be created. As well as cameramen being arranged behind each goal and on either side of the pitch, there were cameras in the stands giving overviews – effectively master shots – which when intercut with the closer shots of action gave a far more visually and narratively satisfying account. The Bioscope noted this innovation in its report on Topical’s film of the 1922 final when it commented that the “essential features of the whole match” had been “very cleverly put together to form a continuous ‘story'”.

However, as I point out in my book on Topical Budget, sacrifices were made to achieve narrative. The 1921 final – Tottenham Hotspur beat Wolverhamption Wanderers 1-0 – was characterised by heavy rain in the first half, sunshine in the second. Close analysis of the film reveals that several sequences from the second half have been included in what is ostensbily the first. It is untruthful as far as a documentary record is concerned, but it tells a better story.

Despite the improvements in filming, one still cannot gain much of an idea about the use of tactics. The offside law was changed in 1925 to requiring just two defenders to be between the furthest attacker and the goal, which led to greater freedom for forwards but then a consequent change in formations as centre-halves dropped back into defence, eventually leading to the famous W-M shape introduced by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman. It may be possible for some sharp-eyed analyst to work their way through the football films contained on the British Pathe site (there are around 250 available) and detect patterns, but to the average eye incoherence reigns. All one can say is that the game looks marginally less violent than it was in the 1900s, that the pitches were still terrible, and that goalmouth scrambles were commonplace.

Cup Finals were hugely important to the newsreels, but they also covered league games and the various rounds of the F.A. Cup, with games from around the country covered in different editions of the same issue according to local following. Such shorts reports were usually taken by a single cameraman, and were therefore necessarily rudimentary in form.

Pathé’s film of the 1922 Cup Final obscured by flags waved by the rights-holders Topical Budget, from www.britishpathe.com.

Pirating
The rights to film the F.A. Cup final (and other major sporting events) were hotly contested by the newsreels. Topical Budget paid £1,000 for the exclusive rights to film the famous 1923 Cup Final, the first held at Wembley Stadium. However exclusive rights were no guarantee of exclusive coverage, as newsreel rivals sought to snatch illicit footage by smuggling cameras into the ground, such as the mini-sized, clockwork-driven Debrie Sept, which could be hidden in coat pockets. The practice was known as ‘pirating’. Pathé cameraman Jack Cotter famously disguised himself as a West Ham fan to get into the 1923 final, with his camera hidden within a fan’s giant ‘hammer’. The ruse was then gleefully revealed by Pathé in its film of the game, though the aerial shots it took of the stadium were delierately spoiled by Topical which took the trouble to have its name written in large letters across the roof of Wembley Stadium.

News photographer Bernard Grant writes about the knockabout japes of the newsreels at the 1922 Cup Final, held at Stamford Bridge between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End (Huddersfield won 1-0), in his book To the Four Corners (1933):

I saw the battle from the top floor of a high building overlooking the ground, from where I had hoped to obtain some photographs with a long-focus camera, but as I was sharing the position with the well-known film man, Frank Bassill, on this occasion a ‘pirate’ [for Pathé], I was handicapped by the efforts of the defenders [Topical Budget].

They used heliographs to deflect the sun’s rays into our lenses and let up a huge sausage balloon in front of our window, where they did their best to anchor it. This was only partly successful, however, for the clumsy thing swung about in the wind and left us clear at times. Also one of Bassill’s assistants managed to hide behind some chimney pots and work above it.

At the sound of the referee’s whistle starting the match there came a terrific noise of hammering and crashing at a point away to our left, and we saw the corrugated-iron roof of a building alongside the ground fly off in all directions.

A moment later there appeared, rising through the aperture, two heads which I recognised through my glasses as those of Tommy Scales and Leslie Wyand, pioneers in the production of movie news reels.

Steadily they rose higher and higher, turning their handles as they came, as the telescopic tower ladder upon which they stood was wound up by friends in the room below.

This happening brought into action the defenders’ large mobile ‘stand by’ force, members of which, armed with double-poled banners and flags, dashed off to meet the attack…

And so it went on. There was much money at stake, hence the battles. The money wasn’t made by the Final films themselves, which were loss leaders, but by the longer-term bookings that could be gained on the back of them for the newsreel that looked stronger than the competition. Ironically, in view of the battle Grant reports, Topical’s official account of the 1922 Final is a lost film, but Pathé’s pirated film can be viewed at www.britishpathe.com, though the poverty of the footage, with most of the action in long shot or filmed through the heads of the crowd, shows all the disadvantages of having to be the pirates. In 1924 the newsreels acted together for once and protested jointly to the Football Association at the cost of the rights to film the final and submitted a joint bid of £400. It was turned down. Consequently no film exists of the F.A. Cup Final of 1924.

Fiction films
There were a number of fiction films about football in the silent era. A wonderful early effort (650 feet) is the Hepworth Manufacturing Company’s bracing Harry the Footballer (1911), in which our hero (Hay Plumb) is kidnapped just before the big game only to be rescued by his girl-friend (Gladys Sylvani) just in time to score the goal that winds the game. Maurice Elvey’s The Cup Final Mystery (1914), a lost film, had much the same plot, now spread over 2,600 feet. Also lost, and with the same plot, same length, and in the same year is A Footballer’s Honour, made by Lewin Fitzhamon for Britannia Films. There were also several comic films made in France, Italy and Germany in which someone’s obsession with football leads to chaotic results. Pathé’s Football en Famille (1910), in which a family destroys its house through its enthusiasm for the game, is a particularly manic example.

By the 1920s, a handful soccer-themed feature films were made. Britain produced The Winning Goal (1920, now lost) and The Ball of Fortune (1926), the latter starring the legendary Billy Meredith of Manchester City and Wales (a trailer survives); Germany produced Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) (1927) and König der Mittelstürmer (King of the Centre Forwards) (1927), both now available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum.

Footballers in Training – Newcastle United, undated 1920s film showing Newcastle players in training, available to view at www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=82773.

Other kinds of football films
Not all silent era football films were records of matches. There were training films, promotional films, even silent ‘interview’ films which showed star players relaxing. There was women’s football (very popular in the early 1920s and meriting a separate post one day), street football, public schools’ football, charity football games, and newsreel stories on star players and teams just for their own sake. Silent films didn’t manage the art of filming football too well, but they covered the game extensively because it brought in the crowds. It shows how the cinema was understood as a home for entertainments beyond the stories than the film industries produced. It was the popular theatre.

Footage of the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, with clips of the stadium, participating teams, and the final which Uruguay won 4-2 against Argentina. The titles are an obvious later addition, as are the unfortunate lapses into colourisation (though this does at least let you identify Uruguay, in the light blue shirts.

The first World Cup was filmed in Uruguay in 1930. Film exists of the tournament, which was shot silent, but my knowledge of Uruguayan film is not what it might be, and besides this post has gone on long enough. You can find the clips on YouTube, or see the short clips on the FIFA site. I’m returning to the World Cup 2010. Having sound does help, as does not knowing how it’s all going to turn out (remember, everyone who saw a film in the cinema already knew the result), and I’m even getting used to the vuvuzelas. Bring on Slovenia…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 306 other followers