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.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 32

Carla Laemmle and Gary Busey, from Hollywood Reporter

Here in the scriptorium at New Bioscope Towers we’re setting the staff to transcribing our scarcely decipherable notes made in the dark (of course) at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, in readiness for the first of our diary reports – we hope not to keep you waiting too long. Meanwhile, other events have been taking place in the world of silent film. These are five of them.

Carla’s second century
Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, has will be 102 on October 20th, and is not just one of the few silent film performers still alive, but very probably the only one still acting. She appeared as a prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and plays alongsde Gary Busey in the forthcoming feature Mansion of Blood. Read more.

A dog’s life
The silent star of the moment, however, has four legs. Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend has gained much acclaim and aroused new interest in silent cinema’s leading canine star. The book tells a “powerfully moving story of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon”, telling a history that is as much about American entertainment and society as it is about the dog. Read more.

Silent cinema and the secrets of London
The Daily Telegraph site has a thoughtful article by Neil Brand on his experience of London through the medium of silent film and his music accompaniments, from Siege of Sidney Street newsreels, to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, to his own orchestral score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground (premiered on October 5th at the Barbican). Read more.

Louis Louis
Louis, Dan Pritzker’s modern silent film on the childhood of Louis Armstrong, with Wynton Marsalis’ jazz score, has its European debut on 13 November, as part of the London Jazz Festival, at the Barbican (again). Marsalis himself won’t be there, but the eight-piece group, led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, includes saxophonist Wes Anderson, and drummer Herlin Riley. Tickets are now on sale. Read more.

La Parade est passée
One of the quite essential silent film books, Kevin Brownlow’s 1968 The Parade’s Gone By, is to be published in French for the first time. Its translator is Christine Leteux, the knowledgeable soul behind the highly commendable Ann Harding’s Treasures blog. It is to be published by Acte Sud/Institut Lumière on 19 October (according to Amazon.fr). Brownlow himself is a guest of honour at the Lumière 2011 film festival in Lyon this week, marking the publication of his book. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Importing Asta

Asta Nilesen, from http://deutsches-filminstitut.de

Over 27 to 29 September 2011 the Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt, and Media Studies, University of Trier are organising an international conference dedicated to arguably the leading European film star of the early cinema period, Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s. The conference is curated by leading German early film scholar Martin Loiperdinger, and here’s the descriptive blurb:

Asta Nielsen has been the first renowned female star of world cinema. Her name is inextricably connected with the advent of the long feature film and the introduction of the star system. Her films played a crucial role in the transition from short films to the long feature film as the main attraction of the programme which took place in various countries, in the years before the First World War.

Asta Nielsen’s international film career started in Germany with the ‘invention’ of the Monopolfilm, the monopoly rental system, in late 1910. Her films were distributed within this exclusive system and received tremendous box-office records. The screen personality of the Danish actress appealed to audiences of all sorts. Branded as ‘the Eleonora Duse of Film Art’ she uncontestedly was the most popular film actress with German film audiences in 1913.

But was this also the case with the many countries which imported Asta Nielsen films before the First World War?

How was the distribution of her films organized in those countries?

Did the Danish actress indeed attract audiences in those countries as she was able to do in Germany? And did her films also play a crucial role in establishing the long feature film format as they did in Germany?

What about the reception of her films in so many countries with different cultures and customs? How did censorship react to the provoking characters which Asta Nielsen played on screen? How did trade periodicals and daily newspapers respond to her screen personality?

And, last but not least, in which ways was Asta Nielsen on screen appropriated and received by the varied audiences of so many countries, varying not only in gender and class, but also in education, religion, and life style? Is it possible to map different patterns of audience response to Asta Nielsen films in different countries?

The conference will discuss various modes of distribution, exhibition, appropriation, and reception of Asta Nielsen within countries of all continents.

The conference takes place in Frankfurt (at the Deutsche Filminstitut Filmmuseum), and is scheduled to take place just before the Pordenone silent film festival (which starts 1 October). The conference organisers point out that participants will be able to travel easily from Frankfurt airport to Venice Marco Polo airport, or by Ryanair from Hahn airport (1 hour bus ride from Frankfurt) to Treviso airport (30 minute train ride to Pordenone). The conference fee will be 30 Euro for three days, 15 Euros for one day; the fee for students will be 15 Euro and 7.50 Euro respectively, which all sounds very reasonable indeed. Participants are requested to register up to 15 September 2011 via email at nielsen@deutsches-filminstitut.de.

And here’s the conference programme:

27 September

09:00 – 10:00 Registration

10:00 – 10:15 Opening of the Conference

10:15 – 12:30
Panel 1: Asta Nielsen and the Emergence of the Star System in Germany

Martin Loiperdinger (Trier):
The German Model – Asta Nielsen Monopolfilm Series

Andrea Haller (Frankfurt):
Asta Nielsen, the Introduction of the Long Feature Film and Female Audiences – the Case of Mannheim

Pierre Stotzky (Metz):
The Exhibition of Asta Nielsen Films in Metz

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch

14:00 – 15:30
Panel 2: Asta Nielsen in Austria-Hungary and Poland

Patric Blaser (Vienna):
Asta Nielsen in Austria-Hungary

Jakub Klíma (Brno):
Asta Nielsen in Brno

Andrzej Debski (Wrocław):
Asta Nielsen in Poland

15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break

16:00 – 17:30
Panel 3: Asta Nielsen in Small Countries – Northern Europe

Anne Bachmann (Stockholm):
Public Response to Asta Nielsen’s Clash with the Censorship Board in Sweden

Outi Hupaniittu (Turku):
“Three times at the censorial office and nothing to remark, for you with a special price” – Afgrunden’s lucky escape and the new ways of promotion in Finland

Gunnar Iversen (Trondheim):
Asta Nielsen in Norway

18:00 Dinner

20:30 – 22:30
Cinema Lecture
Karola Gramann, Heide Schlüpmann, (Frankfurt):
Asta Nielsen – A Cinematic Phenomenon (followed by film screenings)

28 September

09:00 – 10:30
Panel 4. The First Filmstar – Asta Nielsen in Italy and Russia

Giovanni Lasi (Bologna):
Italy’s First Film Star – Asta Nielsen, ‘Polaris’

Lauri Piispa (Turku):
Marketing Russia’s First Film Star – Asta Nielsen in the Russian Trade Press

10:30 – 11: 00 Coffee Break

11:00 – 13:00
Panel 5: Asta Nielsen in Great Britain and the US

Jon Burrows (Coventry):
‘”The Great Asta Nielsen”, “The Shady Exclusive” and the birth of film censorship in Britain, 1911-1914′

Richard Abel (Ann Arbor):
The Flickering Career of Asta Nielsen in the US, 1912–1913

13:00 – 14:30 Lunch

14:30 – 16:00
Panel 6: The Emergence of the Long Feature Film in Denmark

Caspar Tybjerg (Copenhagen):
Hjamlar Davidson, His Kosmorama Cinema, and Afgrunden

Isak Thorsen (Copenhagen):
The Mülleneisen Case: Asta Nielsen and Nordisk Films Compagni

16:00 – 16:30 Coffee Break

16:30 – 17:00
Panel 7: Film Stars and Marketing Policies in the Early 1910s

Caroline Henkes (Trier):
Asta Nielsen and Her Poor Female Characters of 1911

Ian Christie (London):
From Screen Personalities to Divas – Early Film Stars in Europe

19:00 Dinner

29 September

09:00 – 11:00
Panel 8: Strange Encounters – Asta Nielsen in Arabia and the Far East

Ouissal Mejri (Bologne):
Asta Nielsen in Egypt and Tunisia

Sawako Ogawa / Hiroshi Komatsu (Tokyo):
Asta Nielsen in Japan

Stephen Bottomore (Bangkok): Asta Nielsen in Australasia

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee Break

11:30 – 13:30
Panel 9: Asta Nielsen in Small Countries – Western and Central Europe

Ansje van Beusekom (Utrecht):
Distributing, programming and recycling Asta Nielsen films in the Netherlands

Paul Lesch (Luxembourg):
“Earning the audience’s unbridled applause” – Asta Nielsen in Luxembourg

Mattia Lento (Zurich) / Pierre-Emmanuel Jaques (Lausanne):
Asta Nielsen in Switzerland

13:30 – 14:30 Lunch

14:30 – 16:00
Panel 10: Digital Tools for Comparative Research in the Emergence of the Star System

Karel Dibbets (Amsterdam):
The Cinema in Context Database

Joseph Garncarz (Cologne):
The Siegen Database

N.N. (Brno):
The Local Cinema History Database on Brno

16:00 – 16:30 Coffee Break

16:30 – 17.30
Comments and Closing Discussion

Truly a gathering of notable scholars from around the world in celebration of a world star. It looks like an excellent event all round, and fingers crossed that a publication comes out of it as well.

More information should eventually be available from this link: http://importing-asta-nielsen-conference.uni-trier.de, but until it’s ready try this one (in English) or this one (in German) instead.

Chaplin in Babylon

Last year saw the appearance of a new silent film festival, the StummfilmLIVEfestival put on by the Babylon Kino cinema in Berlin, a 1929 cinema with original Art Deco screen and refurbished original organ. That first festival was a bold statement of intent, with an impressive ten-day line-up of classic silents. The Babylon Kino has made good on its promise to make the festival an annual event, and to keep up the eye-catching programming standard.

And so, from 15 July to 7 August 2011 the second StummfilmLIVEfestival will feature the complete film works of Charlie Chaplin – 80 films in twenty-four days (the filmographers among you might like to comment on whether there are precisely eighty films in Chaplin’s silent filmography). A full programme has not been published as yet, but there will be ten main screenings of the silent features with orchestral accompaniment by the Neues Kammerorchester Potsdam, conducted by Timothy Brock, on these dates:

15 Jul – The Gold Rush
16 Jul – City Lights
17 Jul – The Gold Rush
22 Jul – Modern Times
23 Jul – The Circus
24 Jul – The Kid
30 Jul – City Lights
31 Jul – A Woman of Paris
06 Aug – The Gold Rush
07 Aug – The Chaplin Review

Other musical accompaniment will be provided by Neil Brand, and Geraldine Chaplin is the guest of honour. As the Babylon website notes (in German only), eighty years ago, on 9 March 1931 Chaplin visited Berlin to promote his new film City Lights, so this is a sort of anniversary coming home for Chaplin. Tickets can now be booked for the orchestral screenings, and there are further details – in German only – on the festival site.

Female Hamlet

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet (1921)

The second notable Edition Filmmuseum DVD release to tell you about is Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna, to be issued on 10 June 2011. It was 2009 when the DVD label first announced that a DVD of Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet (1920), from the coloured print discovered in 2005, was forthcoming. Whether it was licensing issues, or technical matters that held up the release I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter – all that matters is that such a key film, from a fine restored print, and with a highly commendable score, is available on DVD at last. It certainly ought to have an impact.

The Danish actress Asta Nielsen was probably the leading European film performer of the 1910s. Though her dark demeanour and unconventional beauty probably led to a lack of success in the USA, in European countries, especially Germany, she was revered, with films such as Afgrunden (The Abyss) (1910), Balletdanserinden (1911), Die Suffragette (1913) being among the most iconic and forward-looking of their age. She and husband/director Urban Gad moved to Germany in 1911 and it was in that country, after she had established the Art-Film company, that Nielsen (now parted from Gad) embarked a radical film interpretation of Hamlet. Possibly by this time Nielsen’s star was a little on the wane, but her taste for the bold and challenging was undimmed.

It was a bold enough decision to film Shakespeare, whose plays had lost favour with cinema audiences and producers once feature films had come in. But Nielsen and her directors Sven Gade and Heinz Schall went further. Though the essential structure of the film was taken from Shakespeare’s play, they went back to Shakespeare’s source material, in particular Saxo Grammaticus, to rid the play of its Renaissance trappings. And then they went further by making Hamlet a woman. The scriptwriter Erin Gepard apparently found justification for this in a obscure work of Shakespearean criticism, The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), by one Edward P. Vining. Vining’s earnest expressed thesis was that the deep-rooted mysteries lying at the hear of the play and particularly the character of Hamlet could be readily explained if you understood that Hamlet was a woman, forced to disguise her sex for political expediency, with the added complication of being in love with Horatio.

Here is some of Vining’s argument:

There is not only a masculine type of human perfection, but also a feminine type; and when it became evident that Hamlet was born lacking in many of the elements of virility, there grew up in him, as compensation, many of the perfections of character more properly the crown of the better half of the human race. All mankind has recognized the deep humanity of the melancholy prince, and many have been puzzled to find that they were instinctively compelled to bow before him in admiration, while still finding in him so many faults and weaknesses. The depths of human nature which Shakespeare touched in him have been felt by all, but it has scarcely been recognized that the charms of Hamlet’s mind are essentially feminine in their nature.

One has only to argue that Hamlet could have his feminine side and yet remain a prince to put Vining’s arguments in their place, but it is true that there have been a number of female Hamlets on the stage from the 18th century onwards. Among the stage performers who were not content to be confined to playing Ophelia have been Sarah Siddons in the 18th century, Charlotte Crampton, Clare Howard, Alice Marriott and Alma Murray in the 19th, and in more recent times Frances de la Tour and Angela Winkler. The evidence of such performers suggests both something particularly feminine in the character of Hamlet, but also a desire to lay claim to an iconically male role.

Perhaps the most notable female stage Hamlet also became the first film Hamlet when Sarah Bernhardt was filmed in 1900 in the duel scene from Hamlet. Not only was it the first film Hamlet but it was the first Shakespeare sound film, as it was made for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, with the film synchronised to a phonograph recording. Female screen Hamlets post-Nielsen have been rare, though the Turkish actress Fatam Girik was the star of İntikam Meleği (1977), English title the helpfully literal Female Hamlet. It is perhaps because it is so often such a struggle just to get Shakespeare filmed that few producers or performers have felt any need to takes things further and explore such gender reversal. Opportunities on the stage have been that much greater in number, as Tony Howard documents in his excellent Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction.

Nielsen’s interpretation was therefore part of a clear (if marginal) stage tradition, but was something of a bolt out of the blue for film. There was nothing really to compare it to in 1921, and little since – it is a film that stands on its own. It is Nielsen’s great accomplishment that we immediately accept her as Hamlet. Her androgynous looks help to a degree, but crucially she is not trying to be a man playing Hamlet (as Bernhardt and her predecssors had done) – she plays a woman who must disguise herself as a man. There is no questioning of the rightness of the idea when we watch the film, and little sense of any forcing of the narrative to fit the thesis. It works on its own terms. It has its absurdities, inevitably, particularly when Horatio discovers that the dying Hamlet has been a woman all along, but that may simply be a fault of our modern eyes. Technically the film is no masterpiece. It is plainly directed, somewhat meanly produced, and not memorably performed aside from Nielsen. But it does succeed as a consistently imagined world, where people live, work, rule and affairs of state take place. As I wrote previously here about seeing the film in 2007, “there is a keen sense of palace life going on while the central figures progressively, and madly, destroy one another”. Moreover, there is no sense at all of something translated from stage to screen. The best Shakespearean cinema is invariably where cinema comes first.

The Edition Filmmuseum DVD derives from the colour version (i.e. tinted and toned) discovered in 2005 and restored by the Deutsches Filminstitut. It comes with a new score by Michael Riessler which I found especially haunting and appropriate when I heard it in 2007. The release is a two-DVD set. Disc 1 is the film (110 mins). Disc 2 has Die Filmprimadonna (1913), starring Nielsen and directed by Urban Gad; Nielsen home movies, films on the restoration process and a short entitled Der elektronische Hamlet 2007 (2008).

Bioscope Newsreel no. 24

Jean Dujardin and Uggy share the acting honours in The Artist

Things are still unsettled here at New Bioscope Towers, what with so much stuff still in boxes and electrical matters needing to be sorted out, but your scribe will for a while rest upon a handy packing case and record for you some of the news items from the world of silents this week (and the week before).

Best film dog
As many of you will know now, the modern day silent film The Artist did not win the Palm d’Or at Cannes, though it was a close run thing. Jean Dujardin did pick up the award for best actor, but probably a little closer to the Bioscope’s heart was the announcement of the Palm Dog – an unofficial award for the best performance by a dog in a film shown at Cannes – which went to Uggy, a Jack Russell member of the cast of The Artist. Uggy’s performance has been variously described as “stunning”, “stand out” and “the finest in the 11 year history of the Palm Dog”. Read more.

The world remembers part 1
UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme highlights important documentary heritage artefacts from around the world, and as we have reported before now, a few films have been included so far. Newly inscribed on the register is the important Desmet collection of films, company documents, posters and film stills from the 1910s, submitted by the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam(formerly the Nederlands Filmmuseum). Also inscribed in 2011, by the Russian Federation, is Tolstoy’s Personal Library and Manuscripts, Photo and Film Collection. I wasn’t aware Tolstoy had a personal film collection – as we have noted before, he was no lover of the medium. We will have to find out more. Read more.

The world remembers part 2
But there are also national registers, and new to the UK Memory of the World register is the extraordinary Mitchell & Kenyon collection of some 800 films from the Edwardian era, mostly actualties depicting lives in English and Irish working towns. Congratulations to the BFI National Archive which cares for the collection and successfully argued for the collection’s inclusion on the UK register (along with the GPO Film Unit collection of the 1930s). Read more.

Tuff times ahead
Toronto’s annual festial of modern, one-minute long silent films is open for entries once more. Describing itself as ‘the world’s only true “underground” film festival’, films submitted and selected get to reach over 1.3 million daily commuters who ride the Toronto subway system. The event takes place 9-18 September 2011 and this year’s guest judge is Atom Egoyan. The deadline for submissions is 15 July. You can see past award winners on TUFF’s Vimeo site – and the standard is high. Read more.

The genius of Buster
A thoughtful and observant article by Jana Prikyl on Buster Keaton has been published in The New York Review of Books to coincide with the screening of twelve feature-length and twelve short films by Buster Keaton, at Film Forum, New York City, 23 May – 8 August 2011. The essay covers Kino’s recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases, the Brownlow/Gill documentary A Hard Act to Follow, Kevin W. Sweeney’s Buster Keaton: Interviews, and James L. Neibaur’s The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til next time!

Bioscope Newsreel no. 18

The Ten Commandments (1923), from DVD Talk

Chinese American
The Chinese Film Forum UK is a network based in Manchester, UK that exists for the research and promotion of transnational Chinese film. It organises regular film screenings at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, and in early April there are some silent films: Piccadilly (GB 1929), staring Ann May Wong (5 April); a talk, ‘Beyond Dragon Ladies and Butterflies: Anna May Wong’s Stardom’, given by Mina Suder (5 April); and The Curse of Quon Gwon (US 1916-17), the earliest known example of Chinese-American filmmaking, shown as a double bill with the documentary Hollywood Chinese (US 2008), which looks at the ways the Chinese have been imagined in Hollywood movies, from silents to contemporary cinema (12 April). Read more.

The Ten Commandments – and The Ten Commandments
We must be grateful for our silents where we can find them, and sometimes they turn up on the extras rather than as the main attraction. So it is that Paramount’s six-disc (count’ em) limited edition Blu-Ray release of Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) includes his 1923 The Ten Commandments, with extras all of its own – audio commentary, hand-tinted footage and a two-strip Technicolor sequence. Read more.

Thanhouser – it’s official
The Bioscope somewhat jumped the gun when we announced that the Thanhouser collection of films was appearing online (via Vimeo), but now the news is official, and you can find a list of all the films, with supporting information (and an invitation to help support their online access with PayPal donations) on the Thanhouser site. Read more.

London matters
London Rediscovered is a one-day event on programming and presenting archive films of London, from silents to today, with talks by Patrick Russell (Curator of non-fiction at the BFI), Luke McKernan (a mere blogger), filmmaker Ron Peck, London Screen Archives’ Angela English, and Ian Christie, director of the London Screen Study Collection, curator and film historian. It takes place 29 March at Birkbeck College. Read more.

Last of the silents?
Who will be the last person living who was a silent film performer? Mickey Rooney, who appeared in ‘Mickey McGuire’ silent comedy shorts from 1927, is still with us, but the way she’s going it could well be the indefatigable Diana Serra Cary, who made her first film at the age of two in 1921, under the name Baby Peggy. The Los Angeles Times has an illuminating interview with her, which concludes with the family tragedy that followed when her fame slipped away. “I could never be important to my father again after I became ‘me.'” Read more.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 15

Photograph taken filming of Hide and Seek, Detectives (1918): (L-R) unknown, Tom Kennedy, Ben Turpin, Charles ‘Heinie’ Conklin, Eddie Cline, and Marie Prevost. From Steve Rydzewski (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/wiggleyears)

Behind the scenes the Bioscope is toiling away at two or three major posts, which always take a while to research, but in the meantime here’s your regular Friday round-up of some interesting (we hope) news snippets on silent film and such like.

Cinefest 31
Syracuse’s annual convention of silent and early sound film takes place 17-20 March. Among the auctions and dealers’ tables you can see Lonesome, What Price Glory? (1927), Happiness (1917), The Hushed Hour (1919), Mannequin (1926), and much more. Read more.

National Inventors Hall of Fame
Stephen Herbert’s estimable Muy Blog (on Eadweard Muybridge) reports on the National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees for 2011. They include some major names from the worlds of photography and early film: Thomas Armat (1866-1948), for his motion picture projector, Hannibal Goodwin (1822-1900), for discovering transparent flexible nitrocellulose film, Frederick Ives (1856-1937), for innovation in colour photography, Charles F. Jenkins (1867-1934), for the projector he developed with Armat, and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), for stop action photography. Read more.

The Great White Blu-Ray
The British Film Institute much acclaimed restoration of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (1924), will get a Blu-Ray and DVD release in June. The film documents Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s failed attempt to be first to the South Pole. It’s also the first British silent film to make it to Blu-Ray. The dual-format package will include the 1933 re-edited sound version of Ponting’s film, Ninety Degrees South. Read more.

The Marie Prevost Project
Stacia Jones at the excellent and supremely well-named She Blogged by Night has been surveying the career of Marie Prevost in a series of posts. Her trawl through Prevost’s many lost films from the late teens brings up a marvellous array of photographs, posters, lobby cards and slides for the actress who went from Mack Sennett bathing beauty to 1920s stardom to a wretched end in the 1930s. Read more.

The hipster YouTube
Fortune magazine looks into the success story that is Vimeo, the online video site that just does everything right – and apparently invented the ‘like’ button. Proof that you can succeed in online video without recourse to theft, negativity or skateboarding dogs. Read more.

‘Til next time!

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