Let the Games begin

Harold Abrahams winning the 100 metres, frame still from Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924

A month from now the London Olympic Games will begin. For two weeks hundreds of cameras will be trained on the athletes, images of whom will be beamed out to billions. The host broadcaster, the BBC, will provide over 2,500 hours of live coverage. Olympic Games footage will be receivable on TV sets, PCs, smart TVs, smart phones, on large screens in public spaces, and in 3D. The Olympic Games exists for our screens.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ubiquity, power and global shared experience that the motion picture has grown to represent from its simple beginnings in 1896 than that concentrated period, every four years, when it covers the Olympic Games, a phenomenon which likewise traces its (modern) roots to 1896. Four years ago the Bioscope produced a survey of the roots of Olympic moving image production, from the earliest years to 1928. We are reproducing that post, with revisions and new information, including recently discovered films, as our way of marking the forthcoming Games.


The modern Olympic Games and motion pictures share a common heritage, beyond that shared birthdate of 1896 (motion pictures existed before 1896, of course, but 1896 was when they first made their real impact upon the world). The two phenomena grew up together, in sophistication, intention and global reach. To view the films of the early Olympic Games is to witness the growth of the medium in how it captured action and form, from analysis, to (relatively) passive witness, to a medium that shaped athletic events to its own design. We see a transition from a formality bred of militaristic roots to entertainment, art and a focus on the individual. The survey that follows summarises the history of the Olympic Games on film throughout the silent era, that is, to 1928.

Athens, 1896

No one filmed the first Olympic Games of the modern era. The Games, which were held in Athens 6-15 April and attracted 241 athletes from fourteen nations, enjoyed some notice around the world, probably appealing as much to classicists as to athletes, but the motion picture industry was in its infancy and not as yet geared up to reporting on world news. Motion pictures had not yet reached Greece, America would only awake to motion pictures on a screen on 23 April, with the debut of the Edison Vitascope, and the Lumière brothers – really the only possible candidates – did not think to send one of their operators to Athens. Occasionally on television you will see film purporting to show the Games of 1896. Such scenes are false – in most cases, you are being shown images from 1906.

Paris, 1900

The 1900 Games were something of a disaster after the modest triumph of Athens. Organised to run alongside the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, the Games were barely recognised as such, being so chaotically organised and poorly promoted that many of the athletes who did take part in the events (which stretched from May-October 1900) were unaware that they had taken part in the Olympics. It is no surprise, therefore, than no standard films were made of Paris Games (several films of the Paris exhibition survive, but none show the athletic contests).

However, fleeting cinematographic records do exist. The Institut Marey, the scientific institute led by Etienne-Jules Marey, who had developed the art and science of chronophotography (sequence photography undertaken for the purposes of analysing motion), decided to record some of the visiting American athletes, to compare their methods with those of French athletes. Alvin Kraenzlein (winner of gold medals for long jump, 60 metres race, 110 metre hurdles and 200 metre hurdles), Richard Sheldon (illustrated, gold medal winner in the shot put), and the legendary Ray Ewry (exponent of the now discontinued events of standing high jump, long jump and triple jump) were among those recorded. The ‘films’ are a few frames long, lasting less than a second each, yet they were enough to demonstrate the superiority of the dynamic attack of the American technique over the correct military bearing of the equivalent French athletes. These fleeting images survive today – there are examples in the National Media Museum – and illustrations from them can be found in the official report on the Games.

St Louis, 1904

Paris was a disaster for the nascent Olympic movement, but St Louis was worse. Again, they went for the convenience of being part of a general Exposition, and again the Olympic events were mismanaged from start to finish, with little sense of a Games with a distinct identity, and the distant location putting off many athletes not hailing from America. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, were any films taken on the Games – certainly I’ve found no evidence from catalogues of the period of any such film being taken.

Athens, 1906

The 1906 unoffical Games were held at the same stadium in Athens as 1906. The above photograph (with close-up) shows a motion picture cameraman (possibly operating a Bioscope camera) filming the high jump. Image courtesy of http://www.sportsantiques.com

The intercalary Games of 1906 did not occur during an official Olympiad (i.e. the four-yearly period that marks when the Olympic Games are held), but this intermediary contest, designed partly as a sop to the Greeks who were disappointed that the Games were not being held permanently in Athens, was a relative success and did much to get the idea of the Olympics back on track. It also attracted the film companies. Gaumont and Pathé from France, the Warwick Trading Company from Britain, and Burton Holmes of America all made short films of the Games (we are long way yet from feature-length documentaries). Three one-reel films survive. Gaumont’s coverage held by the BFI concentrates on the opening ceremonies and gymnastic displays; recently discovered Pathé footage uncovered as part the Corrick Collection in Australia includes the opening and closing ceremonies, tug o’ war, hurdling, cycling, gymnastics), and medals ceremonies; the brief unidentified footage, also held by the BFI, shows the standing high jump.

London, 1908

Dorando Pietri finishing the 1908 Marathon (still photograph)

The Games started to come of age in London in 1908. Although they were again held in tandem with an exhibition, in this case the Franco-British Exhibition, for which the famous White City and associated stadium were built, this time the Games were welcomed by the organisers. The result was a popular success and a qualified triumph for sport – the qualification being necessary because the Games were marred by some bitter rivalry between America and Britain, geo-political tensions being played out on the athletics track not for the last time.

The Games were filmed by Pathé, in what seems to have been a semi-exclusive deal. The Charles Urban Trading Company filmed events outside the stadium, including the Marathon, but within the stadium it was Pathé alone, an indication of arrangements to come. Around ten minutes survive, a selection of which can be found on the British Pathe site, while the same footage is also held by the BFI. Basic coverage is given to the pole vault, high jump, tug o’ war, discus, water polo and women’s archery, though no names are given for athletes. But what distinguishes the 1908 coverage is the Marathon. Around half of the extant film of the Games is devoted to the race, concentrating on the Italian Dorando Pietri, who staggered over the line first, only to be disqualified because he had received help after he collapsed in the stadium within sight of the finishing line (something the film makes quite clear). For the first time on film we thrill at the sight of Olympic endeavour.

Stockholm, 1912

Montage of clips from the 1912 Stockholm Games, from the IOC’s YouTube channel

The Stockholm Games of 1912 were the most successful yet. Twenty-eight nations, 2,407 athletes (just forty-eight of them women), a triumph of organisation, and an event followed more eagerly around the world than ever before. Responsibility for filming the Games went to the A.B. Svensk –Amerikanska Film Kompaniet, which commissioned Pathé exclusively – apparently without controversy – to film a series of short newsfilms. All this footage survives in the archives of Sveriges Television. Now, at last, the athletes are named, and we get a sense of competition and achievement. In the first of two reels covering the Games held in the BFI National Archive, we see the inevitable gymnastic display, first by Scandinavian women’s team (for display purposes alone – women’s competitive Olympic gymnastics only began in 1928) followed by men’s team and individual gymnastics; the Swedish javelin thrower Eric Lemming, winner with the world’s first 60 metre throw; fencing, shot put, the 10,000 metres walk and the shot put, won by Harry Babcock of the USA. The second reel features men’s doubles tennis, the soccer tournament (Great Britain – not England – beating Denmark 4-2 in the final), Graeco-Roman wrestling, hammer throwing, the standing high jump, and the Marathon, run on an exhaustingly hot day that caused half the runners to retire. Filmed in engrossing detail, the drama of the Marathon is built up well, the tension in the sporting endeavour pushing forward the form of the film attempting to encapsulate it. The race was won by Kenneth McArthur of South Africa.

Antwerp, 1920

America’s Duke Kahanamoku, who later enjoyed a film career, winning the 100 metres freestyle at the 1920 Antwerp Games, from the IOC’s YouTube channel

The Sixth Olympiad was to have been held in Berlin in 1916. Those Games were, unsurprisingly, cancelled, though film exists of German athletes training for the Games. After the war, the Games were awarded to Belgium, which perhaps was not entirely ready for the compliment after all it had been through, and the 1920 Games were hastily and cheaply organised. Despite this, the growing world interest in athletic competition had continued to grow, and there were several notable athletes who made their mark on Olympic history, including the ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi, America’s Charley Paddock winning the 100 metres, and France’s Suzanne Lenglen at the start of gaining worldwide fame as a tennis player. There is a tantalising suggestion in a New York Times article (28 Nov 1923) that an exclusive filming concession was organised for Antwerp, only to be overthrown before the Games because of protests from other film producers, but I have not been able to find confirmation of this nor discover which company was to have had the exclusive. But it is indication of growing American interest in the Games, and consequently increasing interest from the American media. Sadly, relatively few newsreels survive to show just some of the sporting events.

Paris + Chamonix, 1924

Photographers and cinematographers at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, from the official report, available at http://www.la84foundation.org

And then we come to 1924. The second Paris Games have become familiar to many through their recreation in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. There is a particular thrill in seeing the two British athletes whose fortunes are covered by the Oscar-winning film, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, turning up for real in such detail. This was the first Games to be covered in depth on film. The exclusive rights were granted to Rapid-Film of France. As reported for 1920, there was controversy over a single company being granted exclusive filming rights, with the Americans being particularly aggrieved, to the extent that their rugby team threatened to withdraw from its match with the French unless they were permitted to film it. The concession was granted (the USA amazingly won the match), but the episode highlighted the organising committee’s anxious search for additional revenue by selling exclusive rights, and the outrage this caused for those who believed the Games should not be anyone’s exclusive.

Though it could be conceived of as a single work, Rapid-Film’s Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 was released in three parts in France (recreation of the Ancient Games, Summer, and the Winter Games held in Chamonix), and in the UK as a series of two-reelers dedicated to different sports. It was recently restored by the International Olympic Committee’s archives in its full length form, a daunting three-and-a-half hours long. There is too much about it that is drably routine, but individual events are never less than efficiently portrayed and occasionally marvellously so. Particularly thrilling is the football, where the Uruguyan gold medal winners demonstrate a level of tehnical accomplishment light years ahead of the sturdy endeavours of the European teams. The 100 metres, won by Abrahams, is a highlight, with choice details such as the athletes digging holes in the track for their heels. Slow motion is used artfully (particularly for the 3,000 metres steeplechase). The Marathon is a tour de force, a real drama in itself, with such carefully observed details as the anxious look of officials at the drinks stations (and how delightful in itself that the French served wine as well as water).

Star athletes on show include Nurmi, his great Finnish rival Ville Ritola, the Americans Jackson Scholz (sprinter) and Helen Wills (tennis player), but disappointingly all we see of the future Tarzan Johnny Weismuller is his submerged figure in long shot as he raced to fame as a swimmer. Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (produced by Jean de Rovera) is no film masterpiece, but as a sporting record, it captures greatness.

Amsterdam + St Moritz, 1928

The flying Finns Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola in the 5,000 metres (won by Ritola). The clip shows the 1928 film’s distinctive use of onscreen titles. From the IOC’s YouTube channel.

The last Olympic Games of the silent film era were held in Amsterdam (summer) and St Moritz (winter) in 1928. The Games were by now thoroughly established as an event of worldwide significance. The idea of a film dedicated to the Games had also been established, though the problems that beset the 1928 film of the summer Games, Olympische Spelen, were such that it was barely seen, and it remains little known. The history is complicated, but essentially in 1927 the Dutch Olympic Committee approached a federation of Dutch film businesses to manage the filming of the Games. Negotiations fell down over financial considerations – and because the Dutch commitee was, at the same time, negotiating with foreign film companies. A German company, Olympia-Film Ag, was originally awarded the contract, but heated objections were raised, OFA withdrew for financial reasons, and the committee ended up doing a deal with the Italian company Istituto Luce. For the first time a director was chosen with an ‘arthouse’ pedigree (Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1936 was neither the first Olympic film nor the first with a notable director, as some histories would have us believe). The director was the German Wilhem Prager, who had enjoyed notable success with the 1925 kulturfilme sports documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty), in which Riefenstahl takes a fleeting acting role.

Prager’s film (preserved in the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands) is no more than efficient, though it does have some innovations such as having the names of athletes in some distance races appear as captions alongside them as they run. The film shows us Nurmi and Ritola once more; Boughera El Ouafi, the Algerian-born (but running for France) winner of the Marathon; the ebullient Lord Burghley (played by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire) winning the 200 metre hurdles; and Japan’s triple jumper Mikio Oda, the first Asian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. But alas, owing to the considerable mishandling of the whole affair by the local Olympic Committee, Dutch exhibitors boycotted the official film, and hardly anyone saw it.

Advertisement for Das Weisse Stadion

There was also a feature-length film made of the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Mortiz, Das Weisse Stadion. Directed by Dr Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl as a film actress) and Othmar Gurtner, it was made by the same Olympia-Film as was scheduled to film the summer Games (the commercial failure of the film led OFA to break its contract to film in Amsterdam), and edited by the great Walter Ruttmann. Until recently it was considered a lost film, but happily a print was just recently discovered and will be screened this August at the Bonner Sommerkino silent film festival in Bonn, Germany. Reports indicate that it is a beautifully shot film whose rediscovery greatly enriches our Olympic film heritage.

Olympic drama

Charley Paddock tells us why sporting celebrities often flop when it comes to films, from Photoplay, August 1928

Finally, to complete the history, note must be made of those Olympic athletes of the silent era who went on to appear in fiction films once their fame had been established through sporting endeavour. Johnny Weissmuller, star of the 1924 and 1928 Games, of course went on to eternal fame as Tarzan. The American sprinting hero of 1920 and 1924, Charley Paddock, starred in Nine and Three-Fifths Seconds (1925), The Campus Flirt (1926), The College Hero (1927), High School Hero (1927), and (guess what) The Olympic Hero (1928). The Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was in five American Olympic teams between 1912 and 1932, but could also be seen swimming and acting in Adventure (1925), Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Woman Wise (1928) and The Rescue (1929). Buster Crabbe, like Weissmuller a swimming champion in 1928, went on to become Flash Gordon, while Herman Brix (shot put silver in 1928) went on to become Tarzan and as Bruce Bennett starred in many films, including Treasure of the Sierre Madre. Jim Thorpe, for some the greatest Olympic athlete of them all, who won the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912 only to have his medals stripped from him when it was discovered he had earned money playing minor league baseball, played bit parts in numerous Westerns in the 1930s and was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe -All-American (1951).

Finding out more

There are few histories of Olympic film, and where these do exist they either get elementary facts wrong or assume that everything started in 1936 with Olympia. As the above should indicate, there was a rich history of Olympic filmmaking going back to 1900, and many of the innovations in Olympic film which we might associate with later times had been achieved before films gained sound. One exception is Taylor Downing’s recently republished Olympia, in the BFI Film Classics series, which has a brief but generally reliable history of Olympic film prior to 1936 (though he overlooks the Amsterdam 1928 film). My long article ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’ in Griffithiana 64 (October 1998) has much of the history recounted above, though I have now had the opportunity to correct some facts, and amend some opinions, in ‘Rituals and Records: The Films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games‘, European Review, vol. 19 no. 4, 2011, made available here by kind permission of Cambridge University Press © 2011 Academia Europæa. An excellent study of the media rights issues surrounding the 1924 and 1928 Games is Mark Dyreson, ‘Selling Olympic pictures: The Commercial Wars between Host Cities and the American Media during the 1920s’ (Proceedings of the 7th International Symposiums for Olympic Research).

The best general book on the Olympic Games, by several miles, is David Wallechinsky and Janine Loukey’s regularly updated and republished The Complete Book of the Olympics, a sport-by-sport historical survey which also includes (if you look hard) information on the film careers of some Olympic athletes.

The easiest place to see some of the films is via the International Olympic Committee. Under the Olympic Games section of its official site there is a mini-history of each Games from 1896 (excluding 1906), and in each of these sub-sections at the bottom of the page there is a Photo Gallery which also contains some video clips. Most of the same clips can be found on the IOC’s YouTube channel. Regrettably there is some truly foul background music.

Information on the Olympic Games generally is all over the place, of course, but for the researcher particular attention should be drawn to the LA84 Foundation site, an astonishingly rich resource originally create to commemorate the 1984 Los Angeles Games but now providing free access to a vast range of digitised historical documents on all of the modern Games (including, for examples, the official reports).

And finally, to bring things up-to-date, a film that we’ve already featured on the Bioscope but which it seems appropriate to publish again here. It’s called Boy, it was sponsored by British Airways as part of its Great Britons initiative for the 2012 Olympic Games, and it is a modern silent film, of some poignancy.

(And yes I’ll be there. Athletics, handball, football and table tennis, since you ask)


My grateful thanks to Guido Convents, Carleton Hendricks, Robert Jacquier and Adrian Wood for help in writing this post.

The other diamond jubilee

Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee procession, 22 June 1897, probably filmed by Prestwich at Parliament Square. The Queen’s carriage comes at the end of the sequence (look out for the crowds waving as the carriage approaches).

The tumult and the shouting have died, the captains and the kings have departed. The pomp, populism and absurdity of the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II have ended, and the critical eye of history can now take over.

The paraphrase of Rudyard Kiping’s ‘Recessional‘ in that opening sentence is appropriate, because Kipling wrote his famous lines about the uncertainties that lay behind the triumphalism of empire following the diamond jubilee procession of Queen Victoria, an event much discussed of late for its obvious parallels with 2012′s celebrations. The parallels are not just in the ceremonies to mark sixty years of a monarch’s reign, but in the calculated pageantry designed to overawe and to enthral the eye. In 2012 we had a rain-soaked flotilla, a pop concert and a religious service, with much controversy over the tone adopted by some of the television coverage. In 1897 there was a procession through London, witnessed by vast crowds, and recorded by a new industry eager to prove itself by documenting the greatest event in its short history – motion pictures.

The theme of the 1897 diamond jubilee was Empire. It was conceived of (by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain) as a celebration of Empire, designed to impress upon the British people the nature of its colonial achievement, with the queen processing through London as the central piee of imperial showmanship. £300,000 (£30M in today’s money) was spent on decorating London, vast stands were put up along the route and an estimated three million visitors swelled London’s population for the day itself, 22 June 1897.

The procession was chiefly composed of 50,000 troops escorting assorted dignitaries, colonial premiers, and the British royal family, in carriages and landaus, culminating in the aged Queen Victoria herself. It started at Buckingham Palace, went up Constitution Hill, along Piccadilly, down St James Street, along Pall Mall, past the National Gallery, down The Strand and Fleet Street to Ludgate Circus, then to St Paul’s where official ceremonies were held outside the cathedral because the queen was too frail to climb the steps, into the City, across London Bridge, along The Borough, back across the river over Westminster Bridge, past Parliament Square and Horseguards Parade, then down The Mall and back to Buckingham Palace once more. The six mile journey was to take three hours.

Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was a media event. It was documented by newspapers, photographers, cartoonists, painters, diarists and cinematographers along every inch of the procession. All along the way there were motion picture cameras. It is not certain how many firms or camera operators were there, but it seems likely that there were up to forty operators present representing up to twenty firms – mostly British, but at least two French and one Swiss concern also being represented.

The diamond jubilee procession with known motion picture camera positions marked. Other film companies were represented but their positions are not known or not certain.

The map above is taken from The Times of 21 June 1897, to which I have added colour markers to show where the cameras were positioned that we know about. The principal films were taken by Robert Paul (who had two operators, including himself) based outside St Paul’s and one at Westminster Bridge, Gaumont (led by its British representative John Le Couteur) with operators at Hyde Park and on the steps of St Paul’s itself, Joly-Normandin (‘Professor Jolly’) in St James’ Street, Biograph based at Horse Guards Parade, Velograph at Charing Cross, Prestwich at Parliament Square, Chard at four or five locations, and R.J. Appleton and Lumière (working with Fuerst Bros.) located in the Borough capturing the procession passing through South London.

Other firms known to have been there but whose location is unclear (or may not have produced successful films) were (according to the film historian John Barnes) W.& D. Downey, Haydon & Urry, the London Stereoscopic Company, the Ludgate Kinematograph Film Company, Northern Photographic Works (Birt Acres) J.W. Rowe, Dr J.H. Smith (from Switzerland), W. Watson and Wrench – though in some cases these firms may have merely advertised films that were taken by others.

The series of views taken by British Cinematographe, representing the French form of Joly-Normandin (which exhibited in the UK at ‘Professor Jolly’). The camera was positioned at the corner of Piccadilly and St James’ Street. The film shows an Indian contingent, Horse Guards, assorted carriages (the Queen is not seen in the surviving film), a gun carriage, a mounted band and Indian dignitary Sir Pratab Singh.

A number of these films survive. Each film was a single short record of around a minute’s duration, recording just one part of the procession from one angle, but each operator took several scenes from the one position, enabling each film company to then advertise a series of views that documented the highlights of the procession to the hundreds of thousands of people who missed it (or who wanted to see it all again) and were able to do so in variety theatres and halls up and down the country, as the motion picture camera made the pageantry of the moment reproducible, exportable and permanent. As theatre jounral The Era reported:

Those loyal subjects of her Majesty who did not witness the glorious pageant of the Queen’s progress through the streets of London to the thanksgiving service at St Paul’s on June 22nd, should not miss the opportunity of seeing the wonderful series of pictures at the Empire, giving a complete representation of the Jubilee procession. We owe much to the recent development of scientific photography; and by the invention of the cinématographe a means has been discovered for the preservation of what is to all intents and purposes living representations of memorable events. Our descendants will be able to learn how the completion of the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria’s reign was celebrated in the capital of the country.

Below are the surviving films from 22 June 1897, as held by the BFI National Archive (with links to the videos where these are available on YouTube courtesy of the Royal Channel):

I’ve had a lot to do with these films, ever since I put together a show that marked the centenary of the 1897 diamond jubilee procession back in June 1997. The show, helpfully entitled Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, recreates the event by having a narrator (yours truly) take the audience around the route taken by the procession, showing the surviving films in their correct sequences and filling out the story with eye-witness accounts from people such as Mark Twain, Molly Hughes, G.W. Steevens, Kier Hardy, Edward Burne-Jones and Victoria herself, read by two actors.

The show has been put on several times since then, and it will have its final outing on 21 June 2012 at the Bedford Park Festival, Chiswick, on 21 June 2012, with actors Neil Brand and Liz Fost. For anyone interested, I’ve made the script of the show – with frame stills from the films featured – available in PDF format on my personal website. Combine this with the YouTube videos above, and you can recreate your very own Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and see all the pomp of yesterday now one with Nineveh and Tyre …

Hot off the presses

It’s time for one of our occasional round-ups of recent publications on silent film, though one or two have been around for a few months now, and not all are directly about silent films – but that’s what makes them interesting.

Rin Tin Tin – The Life and the Legacy, by Susan Orlean, has already made quite an impact in the USA, with its acute mixture of nostalgia and cultural history. It tells the story of Rin Tin Tin, the German shepherd dog rescued from the trenches of WWI by Lee Duncan, whose innovative training methods led the dog to Hollywood stardom in the 1920s. Rin Tin Tin’s star waned in the 1930s, but a succession of junior Rin Tin Tins either sired or inspired by the original kept the aura going into the age of television. Orlean makes some elementary blunders about silent film history, and Lee Duncan doesn’t make for much of a hero (unlike his dog) but it is readable, wry and occasionally wise.

The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, by David Waller, brings back to popular awareness one of the most remarkable, and certainly most famous, figures of the Late Victorian/Edwardian era, Eugen Sandow. Boddybuilder, strongman and adovcate of healthy living, he became the model of manly accomplishment for a generation. He also featured significantly in film history, being one of the very first subjects to go before the Edison Kinetoscope. He was also filmed by Biograph and even had a early film technology patent to his name. A terrific biography of someone whose life story illuminates the age in which he lived.

Silent Films! The Performers, by Paul Rothwell-Smith, is a self-published biographical guide to 3,700 performers from the silent era. This heroic undertaking was inspired by the author’s attendance at the British Silent Film Festival when it was held at the Broadway cinema in Nottingham. Rothwell-Smith is as interested in lesser-known names from the nether reaches of British film history as he is in those familiar to us all, and the book makes a bold statement of intent by having Clara Bow and Fred ‘Pimple’ Evans, knockabout British comedian of the 1910s, share equal billing on the front cover. I’ve not seen it, but the sheer scale of the endeavour commands respect.

Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley’s Synchronized Lecture Entertainments, by Robert Dixon, adds significantly to our understanding of how motion pictures were presented that weren’t conventional cinema fare. As historians are increasingly uncovering, as as the Bioscope has tried to document, the multimedia show which brought together photography, films, music and live lecturer was widespread throughout the silent era, being used in particular for recouting true tales of adventure and exploration. Frank Hurley was cinematographer for the Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton, and the book documents the ‘synchronised lectures entertainments’ (Hurley’s words) made out of these adventures, as well as the later Sir Ross Smith’s Flight and Hurley’s dramatised documentary of life in Papua New Guinea, Pearls and Savages. The book is aimed at the scholars, but there are lessons for all of us, because we still haven’t got our film history right – we keep focussing too much upon the films.

Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, by Andrew A. Erish, published later this month, is a biography of a producer strangely neglected by film history. Selig was a magician and minstrel show operator, who encountered the Kinetoscope in 1896 and realised that motion pictures were for him. He was a notorious duper of other companies’ films in the early years, but moced to Hollywood, produced pioneering westerns and serials (The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913) and specialised in animal pictures, with recourse to his own studio zoo. He was one of the most enterprising and colourful characters in early cinema, and this book’s bold and not wholly bogus subtitle ought to get people talking about him again.

Australian journey no. 4 – The Salvation Army

Here’s another in our series of interim posts on Australia and silent film, while I’m away in that country.

The subject is the Salvation Army, which played a very important part in the early Australian film industry. The video above comes from a DVD made by the Salvation Army today about its founder, William Booth – God’s Soldier. It includes a substantial amount of film of Booth, the founder of the Army, in the early years of the twentieth century, demonstrating how advanced the Army was in using new technologies (film, and as the clip demonstrates, motor cars) to spread the word. The film shows Booth’s motor tour through Britain in 1904 (unfortunately with added-on crowd noises and sound effects) but it was in Australia that the Booth family made such an impact with the visual media of the day.

I wrote a post on this four years ago, and it seems best to reproduce the substance of this, with updating of information and links where needed.

Many social interest groups and charities took an interest in using moving pictures to support their work, almost as soon as films were first made widely available on screen in 1896. None was more active in this area than the Salvation Army, particularly in Australia. There in 1896 Herbert Booth (left), rebellious son of William, joined Joseph Perry, who ran the Army’s Limelight Department. Together they added film to the Limelight Department’s multi-media show of Bible stories and uplifting instruction, which combined magic lanterns, photography, choral singing and sermons to create powerful, and hugely popular, narrative spectaculars. One such show, Soldiers of the Cross, first created in 1900, is sometimes cited as being the world’s first feature film, though in fact it was not a single film but rather a combination of slides, film, scripture and song. Moreover, it was preceded by an earlier effort, the two-and-a-half-hour Social Salvation (1898).

Booth and Perry built a glass-walled film studio at 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne in 1898. The room still exists as a archive and museum maintained by the army, with exhibits on the Limelight Department’s work. Initially they filmed with a Lumière Cinématographe, but by 1901 the were using a Warwick Bioscope. Soldiers of the Cross was exhibited across Australia, but Herbert Booth clashed with Salvation Army command in London, and left the Army in 1902, moving to San Francisco and taking Soldiers of the Cross with him. Perry continued in the film industry, increasingly making secular films, and continued as a film distributor into the 1920s.

William Booth himself made good use of film to propagandise for his cause. He had a film cameraman assigned to the Army, Henry Howse, who went with him to the Holy Land in 1905, and filmed many, if not all, of the early films of Booth featured in the God’s Soldier DVD. The original films are now preserved in the BFI National Archive.

There is an excellent site, Limelight, telling the story of the Limelight Department in Australia, based on a 2001 Australian Broadcasting Commission programme and exhibition. This has extensive information on the people behind the Limelight Department, the films they made and used, their tours, and the broader context of Australian early film history.

The National Film and Sound Archive in Australia has a feature on Soldiers of the Cross, which includes selections of the magic lantern slides that were a part of the show (none of the original film is known to survive, but the show did include some Lumière life of Christ films, which do survive).

The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site has biographical entries on Herbert Booth and Joseph Perry.

Much research has been done into the Salvation Army and its use of film in these early years by the American scholar Dean Rapp. His essay, ‘The British Salvation Army, the Early Film Industry and Urban Working-Class Adolescents, 1897-1918‘, in 20th Century British History 7:2 (1996), is well worth tracking down (it’s available online through academic subscription services).

Finally, the Salvation Army continues to make use of moving images, and has an active video unit.

Australian journey no. 3 – The Corricks

We have written about the remarkable Corrick Collection before now. The Corrick Family Entertainer were performing troupe comprising Albert and Sarah Corrick and their eight children which toured Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia between 1901 and 1914. Their act incorporated films, some shot by themselves, but mostly selected from the best offerings from French, American and British producers. Around 135 films survive in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, notable for their high quality and often exquisite colouring.

This video serves as an introduction to the family and the collection, with copious clips showing how the films serve as a primer for any keen to discovery the variety, inventiveness and delightfulness of early cinema. It’s a little odd in that it is entirely silent – not even music – but it is beautifully put together, and gives you all of the essential information, from the family history through to the film’s restoration.

For more information on the Corricks, see the australianscreen overview of the collection, the NFSA’s account of the films’ restoration, with film clips and interviews, or investigate newspapers, photographs, aticles and more on the Corricks via Australia’s peerless Trove database.

(Memo to the NFSA – you do know that the Corrick film in your collection which you continue to promote as Living London, made by Charles Urban in 1904, is in fact The Streets of London, made by Urban in 1906?)

Looking back on 2011

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

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

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

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

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

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

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

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

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

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

The Artist (yet again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soldier’s Courtship

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

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

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

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

Barbara Kent

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

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

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

On first looking into Chaplin’s humour

Gilbert Adair, from Time Out

The death was announced last week of Gilbert Adair, the essayist, critic, screenwriter and novelist. He was aged 66. Adair’s talent was wide-ranging, with much of it touching on cinema. He was a cinéaste to his fingertips. He wrote the critical history Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, wrote the novels Love and Death on Long Island and The Holy Innocents which were turned into films (the latter as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), wrote film scripts for Raoul Ruiz, and wrote many essays, reviews and thought pieces on film.

It is his essays, collected in volumes with mocking titles such as Surfing the Zeitgeist and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, that have long been favourites of mine. Though he never quite attained the originality or depth of insight shown by the French writers (Barthes, Derrida and co) whose work he deeply admired, his essays touch omnivorously on so many aspects of modern life, with never a dull sentence and many a true observation. He weaves in films, and that includes silent films, in his survey of our times with knowing enthusiasm, and by way of a tribute I’m going to reproduce part of his 1985 essay ‘On first looking into Chaplin’s humour’ (a typically knowing and punning Adair title). This takes on the Chaplin vs Keaton debate with imaginative style. Keaton, for Adair, was ‘an aristocrat’ (you will have to read the full essay to judge why he thinks so); Chaplin stood for something else.

Charlies Chaplin remains, in his posterity, what he never ceased to be in his lifetime: a maverick, a dissident, a mischief-maker. Persecuted for almost six decades by the self-appointed arbiters of moral, political and ideological orthodoxies, he now finds himself posthumously assailed in the one category in which one had always supposed him to be impregnable: the aesthetic. For his detractors, apparently, Chaplin usurped the rank once universally accorded him as the century’s supreme clown. Not only are his films politically naive, flawed by an excess of pathos and not all that funny (sic), he himself was a boorish, mean-minded man, ungenerous ‘to a fault’ and consumed by jealousy of his co-performers … There even exists a suitable candidate for the pedestal from which Chaplin will be ejected when the dismantling of his reputation is complete: Buster Keaton … Yet Chaplin’s achievement seems to me a living model for our impoverished contemporary cinema; so that I would like to propose, not a theory (I am far too partial and subjective for a theorist’s severities), but, at least, an accessible back door or tradesman’s entrance into his deceptively transparent oeuvre …

The Immigrant, … one of his earliest masterpieces, is as good a point as any for my modest thesis. Chaplin, it should be recalled, himself had entered the United States as an immigrant Englishman; and, in his autobiography, he would savour the poverty he had suffered as an infant with an almost parodially Dickensian relish. On the other hand, he was soon to become the cinema’s single most prominent luminary, and as such was assuredly familiar with Soviet propaganda classics and the warped and jagged creations of German Expressionism. What he absorbed from the latter movement, however, was not the signifier – weird perspectives, evilly brewing shadows and all – but the signified, the thing filmed: the ghetto. Chaplin was, and stayed, the film-maker of the ghetto experience; of, in a word, dirt.

‘Dirt’, as a suffusive visual odour, so to speak – the scurfy piggishness of Stroheim, of Buñuel in his Mexican period, of the French directors Clouzot and Duvivier on occasions – is a filmic configuration for which the cinema would seem to have lost the formula. The ‘sordid’ it knows how to film (Raging Bull, La Lune dans le caniveau), if by that we understand either flamboyant putrefaction or a rafish, idealized, strobe-lit squalor … But, in Chaplin’s films, certainly up to Limelight, the sets are (or impress one as) grimy, the very light is filtered through the clinging, festering haze of the slums – and in a sense unintended by his critics, they stink. And Charlie himself? Naturally, he stinks. How could the paradigmatic ‘little man’ not do so? Crudely phrased, one’s apprehension of gamey underclothes is often quite overwhelming; and a reader tempted to dismiss such a contention as altogether uncouth and trivial might be reminded that, technically, underclothes constitute an immanent kind of off-screen space and may therefore be regarded as a minor aesthetic parameter (as indeed was the case with Stroheim’s fabled and finicky vestimentary perfectionism).

… It was from this total identification with the lumpenproletariat, with the material and physical realities of its quotidian existence, that Chaplin’s admittedly sometimes off-putting sainthood derives. Keaton was a great artist, to be sure, and his niche in the history of cinema is an elevated one; but Chaplin belongs to history itself.

The essay is reproduced in his 1986 collection, Myths & Memories, which I warmly recommend.

Time Out has a touching tribute to Gilbert Adair, written by Geoff Andrew.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 28

Bébé victime d’une erreur? The supposed Gaumont film filmed outside the Pathé studios at 30 rue Louis Besquel, Vincennes, Paris (location today inset)

Just time to rush out a hastily-cobbled together edition of the Bioscope Newsreel for you, picking up on a few of the things happening in the silent world that have caught our eye over the past couple of weeks.

A life in the movies
The Guardian has published a profile of Kevin Brownlow, asking why a man who has won an Oscar for a lifetime dedicated to preserving the art of silent film isn’t better known in his own country. Read more.

Locating the General
On July 20 John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes and other books on the locations behind classic silent comedies, gave a presentation before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences on the locations used by Buster Keaton for The General. The Academy has published his compelling and superbly researched PowerPoint slides, with Bengston’s commentary, on its site. Read more.

Gaumont mystery
On that truly engrossing and mysterious site The Cine-Tourist, Roland-François Lack has posed an intriguing question. He has examined closely the film credited as Bébé victime d’une erreur judiciaire, an extract from which appears on the recent Gaumont boxed DVD set Le Cinéma premier, 1897-1913. But this supposed Gaumont film was sot outside the Pathé studios, as his meticulous visual evidence makes clear. What is going on? Can you solve the mystery? You may certainly enjoy the detective work. Read more.

Bonner Sommerkino
Germany’s silent film festival takes place 11-21 August and the programme has been published (in German). Among the highlights are Frank Borzage’s The Circle (US 1924), Mosjoukine in Les ombres qui passent (France 1924), the astonishing unreleased (except in Japan) experimental German film Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (Germany 1920), Shingun (1930) – Japan’s answer to Wings, and Bolivia’s sole surviving silent feature film Wara Wara (1930). Read more.

One in the eye for Murdoch
Yes, we can bring in the News International scandal which has so engrossed the British media, because there is a tangential silent film angle. When someone rejoicing in the name of Johnnie Marbles interrupted the Culture Media ans Sport select committee’s investigation into the phone hacking scandal by placing a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch’s face, he was acting in a tradition that goes back to the custard pies beloved of silent cinema and beyond. The BBC News site investigates the history. Read more.

‘Til next time!

The Bioscope interviews … Matthew Solomon

Matthew Solomon

We’re going introduce a new feature here at the Bioscope. It’s our first interview, and it’s intended to be the start of series of interviews with people involved in one way or another with silent film and related areas.

Our debut interviewee is Matthew Solomon. Solomon is Associate Professor in the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He is the author of the award-winning Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and the editor of the recent Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (SUNY Press, 2011), which focusses on that single film from 1903. The interview covers Fantastic Voyages, Le voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon itself, magic in cinema, and man of the moment Georges Méliès.

TB: How did the book Fantastic Voyages come about?

MS: About the time I was finishing the first draft of the manuscript of Disappearing Tricks, I realized there was a lot to say about Méliès that had nothing to do with magic. Editing an anthology seemed like a good way to explore that further while also keeping busy during the long stretches of time when the process of publishing Disappearing Tricks was out of my hands. I also wanted to see if a single early film could be a viable subject for a book-length treatment. I like reading and teaching books that look closely at one specific film, but I had never seen such a book written about a film made before 1914. I knew I’d need a lot of help and luckily a number of people whose work I admire were willing to be part of the book and make it what it is.

TB: Please describe the book for the readers of the Bioscope.

MS: The contributors to Fantastic Voyages closely analyze A Trip to the Moon from a number of different perspectives while exploring its connections to countless other works in many different media. While the book relates the film to Méliès’s oeuvre and firmly anchors it within the historical contexts of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, it also tries to open it up to other kinds of relationships and contexts that might suggest why A Trip to the Moon has had such a long and varied ‘afterlife’, one that continues right up to the present day. It is a highly international volume, with contributors from some eight different countries. The appendix includes a dossier of primary-source documents, including two previously un-translated essays by Méliès, and the book is published with a critical edition DVD.

TB: How did the DVD extra come about?

MS: Two of the big issues that emerged for me in researching the book were the ways that truncated prints and projection speed have shaped our understanding of A Trip to the Moon. What I found was that the film has been seen throughout much of its history in versions that were missing part or all of the last two scenes. And even though Méliès’s catalogs specify a running time of sixteen minutes, which comes out to about 14 frames per second, all available versions of the film had been transferred at a much higher frame rate, which speeds the action up by close to 100% in some cases and results in a frenetic pace that was likely never intended. I wanted to make a complete version of A Trip to the Moon available at the specified speed and I got that opportunity when the book was being prepared to go to press. Charlie Johnston, a film editor with Lost Planet New York, got interested in the project and made creation of the DVD possible. We began by scanning a reconstructed 35mm print generously loaned from the collections of Film Preservation Associates by David Shepard. Simultaneously, Nico de Klerk discovered a previously unknown color-tinted and German-titled version of A Trip to the Moon in Amsterdam. The Eye Film Institute scanned the print and consented to have it included. Musical accompaniment was by Martin Marks, who recorded a 1903 score he had discovered in London, and Donald Sosin, whose original music for the tinted version ended up being one of the highlights of the disc.

TB: There are many different interpretations of A Trip to the Moon in Fantastic Voyages. Which one surprised you most?

MS: I was surprised by at least one thing in each of the essays — an overlooked detail, a new understanding, a previously unmentioned connection, or a relevant contemporary work. Those surprises were one of the pleasures of working with such a knowledgeable and smart group of collaborators, whose contributions demonstrate that maybe we didn’t know A Trip to the Moon as well as we thought we did.

The iconic moment when the lunar capsule lands in the Moon’s eye, from A Trip to the Moon/Le voyage dans la lune

TB: Why was A Trip to the Moon so popular in 1903?

MS: One defining feature of A Trip to the Moon which made it so popular was the way it drew upon so many things circulating in the culture around 1902-1903 that would have been familiar to audiences: the Jules Verne book, of course, the Offenbach operetta, a ride that was the hit of the 1901 Buffalo World’s Fair, as well as countless other works discussed in the book. It was also a compelling storyline and a virtuoso display of the most current visual effects by the undisputed master of the trick film. Méliès was a gifted synthesizer and this film is evidence of his ability to combine diverse elements into a coherent and engaging spectacle.

TB: Why is A Trip to the Moon so important today? Why has it lasted?

MS: On one hand, A Trip to the Moon is important today because it is part of the canon — a film that gets viewed and taught as a historically important work. This is itself the result of a process that began with its rediscovery at the end of the 1920s, one which I explore in my introduction to the book. On the other hand, A Trip to the Moon continues to be an important film because it resists singular interpretation and instead lends itself to constant reinvention. When it was first rediscovered, it retroactively became a surrealist film, just as it retroactively became an early work of science fiction when that genre proliferated a few decades later. More recently, as Viva Paci points out in the last chapter of the book, Méliès’s aesthetic has been readily appropriated in music videos that give new life to A Trip to the Moon. It is a film that seems to have aged well, becoming fresh and relevant in different ways over the years.

TB: Why was there such a strong relationship between magic and illusion and early cinema?

MS: Magicians were one of the first professional groups to really recognize the potential of the cinematograph and to begin to exploit some of its possibilities. Méliès was among these turn-of-the-century magicians, of course, and he remained committed to the core principles of magic, as I discuss in Disappearing Tricks. Viewers as well as filmmakers understood film as an illusion partly since moving pictures were often screened as part of magic shows. This is just how A Trip to the Moon was first presented to viewers in Paris in September 1902 at Méliès’s magic theatre. A major draw of the film would have been its trick shots—the moon’s approach, the dream sequence, the exploding Selenites, the underwater shots—all of which were cutting-edge visual effects at the time.

TB: Are the films of Georges Méliès still ‘magical’ today?

MS: I contend they are. Méliès’s films still have the capacity to deceive us: we know that what we’re seeing is an illusion, that we’re being tricked, but we may not know just how it was done — which is not all that different from how the films were received in 1902. For many years, one of Méliès’s primary tricks went by the name of the ‘stop-camera effect’, even though Jacques Malthête pointed out thirty years ago that all these tricks involved editing as well as simply stopping and restarting of the camera. Méliès actually cut, or edited, his films to create the appearances, disappearances, and immediate transformations we see. Yet, this crucial part of the operation, the ‘substitution splice’ as it is sometimes called, often seems to have gone undetected. Likewise, by looking closely at A Trip to the Moon, one discovers that several scenes that appear to be simple straightforward long takes are actually made up of separate shots that were very carefully choreographed and seamlessly matched together. The magician of Montreuil can still trick us, more than a hundred years later.

A captive Selenite on earth, from the final scene of A Trip to the Moon

TB: Is A Trip to the Moon really a satire on imperialism, as is argued in the book? Aren’t we a little guilty of imposing our idea of how films work onto a film which audiences would have read very differently in 1903?

MS: A Trip to the Moon is a lot of things, and a satire is one of them. The last two scenes, which are missing from so many prints (including most now circulating on the Internet) really make this clear. The medal ceremony with all of the posturing by the explorers, who have been so inept and violent; the captured Selenite on a leash that is beaten with a stick until it dances for the cheering crowd; and the statue of the conqueror Barbenfouillis with his foot firmly planted on the head of an unhappy vanquished moon: all that points to a highly ironic take on exploration and, with it, imperialism. We have to remember that Méliès was a political cartoonist as well as an illusionist before he started making films. The ‘magician of Montreuil’ was not nearly as innocuous as he has been made out to be in retrospect. I certainly wouldn’t claim that movies are viewed in the same way today as they were in 1902 or 1903, but contemporary audiences may in fact be less attentive to detail than the viewers of Méliès’s time, who were in the habit of reading and interpreting images dense with meaning like political caricatures much more carefully than most of us do today. During the 1890s, for example, commentators on Lumière films drew attention to leaves fluttering in the wind in the background, but this detail passes unnoticed today. If you slow down A Trip to the Moon to 14 frames per second, as we did on the DVD, and really look carefully at what is happening onscreen, you notice there’s a whole lot more to it than a compelling story and a clever series of visual effects.

TB: 2011 is turning out to be a remarkable year for Georges Méliès, with the colour restoration, the Hugo Cabret film to come – and of course your book. And we have had exhibitions and the Flicker Alley DVD releases. Why is there so much interest in Méliès just now?

MS: Yes, Méliès is getting a lot of attention right now — just in time for the 150th anniversary of his birth. The cluster of Méliès events in 2011 may be partly coincidence. I know that restoration of the hand-colored print of A Trip to the Moon discovered in Spain has been in the works for more than a decade and might well have appeared sooner, just as the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s wonderful book perhaps could have been produced earlier. In addition to Fantastic Voyages, you might also note the Méliès conference taking place later this month in Cerisy-la-Salle. But most importantly, the level of interest in Méliès would not be what it is now if not for the long-awaited entry of his work into the public domain a year-and-a-half ago, which more or less coincided with the release of the Flicker Alley DVDs. The timing has worked in favor of Méliès’s legacy: given his preference for the short form and his skill in staging virtual onscreen environments, Méliès’s work seems more prescient than ever right now.

TB: Fantastic Voyages seems to suggest that film studies is no longer enough if we are to appreciate such a film as A Trip to the Moon? Is film studies changing, or does it need to change?

MS: I hope the book demonstrates the value of treating cinema as a part of a much broader set of cultural practices while remaining attentive to the specifics of individual films. This is something that historians of early cinema have become accustomed to doing because so much contextual and intertextual knowledge is sometimes needed simply to make sense of the films. Film studies has become more inclusive and interdisciplinary, I think, and we can see some of the ways the field has changed by comparing the essays in Fantastic Voyages to accounts of A Trip to the Moon in earlier books, where it was often mentioned only as a forerunner of narrative cinema. Although I certainly wouldn’t deny this, such a narrow view centered on storytelling seems rather impoverished when one considers the true richness of the film and the diverse contexts that helped to generate it.

TB: What is your next project going to be?

MS: I’m working on a study of Méliès that examines his work as it cut across the various media in which he worked during his career, including (but not limited to) caricature, cinema and theater. While Méliès was undoubtedly a multi-media auteur, I’m ultimately less interested in his singular genius and vision than in using archival research and close examinations of his work to explore the ways that images and performances were staged, politicized, manipulated, commodified, circulated and exchanged in particularly modern ways during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

TB: Thank you.

Motion picture studio directories

Actress Hope Hampton, from the frontispiece to the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921

As we have noted before now, the plethora of online resources for family history that exist can be a particularly useful aid for early film research. Now the leading genealogy web service, Ancestry, has returned the compliment by making two American motion picture directories available on its site, for searching by those who subscribe to its services. The two volumess are the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1919 and 1921, which Ancestry has converted into database form, with this opening description:

Two directories to the actors, directors, producers, and technicians of the motion picture industry for the years 1919 and 1921 are contained in this database. Each directory has a biographical section with information about the listed individuals such as their name, birth date and place, a brief career bio sometimes including educational history, a physical description (for the actors) or special skills description (for production crew), and membership in clubs, unions, or other organizations. Many entries include addresses and some photographic portraits are featured. All are listed in an index at the back of each directory.

Section divisions for the directories are as follows: actors, actresses, child parts, directors, assistant directors, scenario editors and writers, cinematographers, studio managers, publicity men, laboratory and property men, and film cutters. The actors’ and actress’ sections are further sub-divided into leads, ingénues, characters, comedians, and heavies (villains). Biographical entries, besides the above listed information, also note films the individual has worked on and other important or relevant experience such as the bio of cinematographer Herbert Oswald Carleton which specifically mentions his early career as a mechanic and inventor as well as his patented invention, the Duplex Printing Machine.

Each person entry on the Ancestry database comprises: Surname, Birth date and place, Career summary, Description of physical appearance (actors) or other skills (technicians and crew), and Membership in clubs or societies. This is very handy for those searching for names across Ancestry’s gigantic database of genealogical information who require all such information to be in one place. However, it should be noted that the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921 is freely availably online in word-searchable form from the Internet Archive, which also makes available Charles Donald Fox and Milton Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920) which the Bioscope has introduced before now and portraits with text from which are reproduced on the Bioscope’s Flickr site.

Sample page from the 1921 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual

So it’s always worth checking twice with these things, and you can find summaries of Who’s Who on the Screen and now the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921 in the ever-growing Bioscope Library.

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