Silent film sound

From the book cover for Rick Altman’s Silent Film Sound

I don’t know what might be the cause, but there has been a dearth of silent film-related conferences so far this year. Maybe the upcoming Domitor conference (from which the Bioscope will be reporting) has so dominated the landscape that there hasn’t been the urge to come up with anything that might compete with it. Or maybe it’s because we don’t need to confer quite so much these days because we’re all talking to one another online (now there’s a topic for discussion).

But film conferences aren’t quite dead yet, and a call for papers has just been issued for Silent film sound: history, theory and practice, which is to take place 22-23 February 2013, at Kiel, Germany. The conference, which takes its title from Rick Altman’s highly influential book Silent Film Sound, is being organised by Christian Albrechts University Kiel, in collaboration with Kiel Society for Film Music Research.

Here’s the full call for papers (for which the deadline is 30 June 2012):

Silent film sound: history, theory and practice
Friday 22 – Saturday 23 February 2013

Christian Albrechts University Kiel, Germany
in collaboration with Kiel Society for Film Music Research

We are pleased to invite proposals for papers in the broad theme “Silent film sound: history, theory and practice”, to be presented at a conference of the same name on February 22 – 23 at the Christian Albrechts University Kiel.

With a few exceptions silent cinema was never silent. Cinemas and other spaces of film exhibition were in fact rather loud places where music, voices and sounds intermingled during the screening.

Today public interest in silent cinema is on the rise. Film screenings with live accompaniment have gained popularity in recent years, silent films are shown in concert halls and at festivals and they are (again) staged as events and not simply as presentation of a piece of entertainment or art.

Music and sound for silent film are relatively young fields of study and most research focuses on the American tradition. With this conference we seek to expand the field for other – especially European – regions, and compare them with well documented American cases.

We aim to gather scholars from various disciplines, to discuss and reflect on current and historical approaches to the study of sound and music and moving images. We particularly encourage both musicologists and film scholars to participate in the debate surrounding this topic, in order to benefit from each other’s perspectives and to challenge prevailing views and methodologies in this thriving field.

Ultimately, we aim to strengthen the European and international research network concerned with the variety of sound and musical practices in silent film accompaniment. We also want to discuss contemporary practices of silent film accompaniment and explicitly invite musical practitioners to share and discuss their experiences with us.

Papers may address repertories or issues relating to one of the following areas (or others related to the conference theme):

  • Film narrator/lecturer
  • Sound effects in silent film exhibition
  • Relationship of cinema with antecedent theatrical forms like Vaudeville and Variety
  • Relationship with theater music, opera and musical theater in general
  • Early film and the music recording and publishing industry
  • Singers in cinema
  • National and regional idiosyncrasies of silent film sound
  • Gender aspects in production, performance and reception
  • National identity in musical forms (community singing)
  • Diegetic music in silent cinema
  • Silent film and popular music/jazz: improvised or compiled (structural and formal issues)
  • Mechanical music
  • Opera films, music films
  • Early transmedial star systems
  • Historical discourse about music in cinemas
  • Issues of research, teaching and knowledge transfer
  • Contemporary practices of silent film accompaniment
  • Experimental silent film and its accompaniment

Proposals (max. 350 words) for 25-minute presentations should be sent to Claus Tieber (claus.tieber@univie.ac.at), no later than June 30, 2012. Please include a short biography, all current contact information (name, e-mail, phone number, affiliation) and specific AV requirements.

We plan to publish a book based on the refereed proceedings.

More information : http://soundofsilents.wordpress.com

Well, that looks like a fairly thorough survey of the kinds of questions likely to be thrown up by such a subject. It’s quite close in its preoccupations to the recent Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, and seems to be part of a welcome trend of cross-disciplinary investigation, with musicologists (hopefully) as likely to be attracted to the themes as film historians.

You can always find information on early and silent film conferences, future and past, on The Bioscope’s Events pages – and do let me know of any other such conferences coming up.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day six

Image of Buster Keaton from the Giornate del Cinema Muto’s trailer, animated by Richard Williams

We have reached day six of our reports on the 2011 Pordenone silent film festival (Thursday October 6th for those of you taking notes), and our undercover reporter The Mysterious X is showing no signs of flagging as he enters the Teatro Verdi once more…


Crumbs, Thursday already … in at 9.00am for a Disney short, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth (USA 1922) a semi-animated children’s instructional on dental hygiene. Neatly done, but the main point of interest now is that the healthily-grown kid with the good teeth of 1922 would today be being filmed at an obesity clinic, with a stern voiceover …

Then Klostret I Sendomir (The Secret of the Monastery) (Sweden 1920), a Victor Sjöström costume drama, part of The Canon Revisited strand. An elderly penitent monk tells a pair of guests the tale of the monastery’s foundation, by an Earl who discovers the betrayal of his wife’s adultery with her own cousin, and that his beloved son was not actually his. Confronting her, she initially deflects the affair onto her maid, before being given a choice; either she kills the kid, or she dies. Unexpectedly, she goes to do just that, but the Earl stops her at the last second; not doing so was her last chance of redemption, she is told, and she is duly despatched with the same dagger she was going to use. The son (who had already survived an earlier attempt at defenestration by the Earl) is taken to a woodcutter with some funds, and we are told the Earl sells up and founds the monastery. There is then a twist ending, that you can see coming from about five minutes from the start of the film.

It’s a competent enough film, but not vintage Sjöström. The actresses playing the countess and her maid were excellent, and stole the film despite – or perhaps because – they were playing irredeemable characters.

Tragedy of a different kind followed; the newly restored The Great White Silence (UK 1924) presented with live piano from Gabriel Thibaudeau, as opposed to the modern and not uncontroversial score on the BFI release (which I think is fine, personally). Gabriel, class act that he is, did a fabulous job on it.

Herbert Ponting’s documentary account of the doomed 1910-12 Scott Antarctic expedition looks stunning on the big screen – and despite being out commercially it drew a large and appreciative house. And the end is no less affecting for knowing it all in advance. It’s only now I’m wondering quite how the endtitles with their “Dulce et Decorum est” message would have played to the 1924 audiences, then fully aware of the futility of WW1, and not just the carnage.

Sound film!!! Sound on film at that … but from 1922, and Denmark, the experiments of pioneer Sven Berglund (Tonaufnahmen Berglund), who had demonstrated synchronised sound-on-film using two strips of 35mm the year before.

These were presented visually, multiple vertical lines varying in thickness with the volume, I assumed, looking like something from Len Lye; while the sound, read by laser in a lab and re-recorded on to the now-standard format, played out. As the film progressed we hear distant voices, distant music, until eventually, and very clearly, we get an English (American?) male voice reciting The Lord’s Prayer. For ’22, very impressive.

As was an unscheduled re-screening of Le Voyage dans la lune (France 1902) with a more traditional piano accompaniment from Donald Sosin. Yep, that was much more like it. (Take your word for it. – Ed.)

Poster for Eliso(USSR 1928), from http://www.cinematurkey.com

After lunch, and in for Eliso (Georgia SSR 1928), the day’s Georgian film; and the best of all of a very good bunch. Set again amongst the peoples of the high, remote mountains, but this time during the Tsarist era, this was a tale of love against religious divides, of cultural identity (positively – this was two years before Khabarda) as well as an element of “This is how bad it used to be”.

During a period of Russian expansionism a Moslem Chechen village is being deported en masse to Turkey to make way for Kazakhs; the scion of a nearby Christian village, in love with a Moslem girl, offers to help; the decision was a corrupt one. After a neat swordplay sequence worthy of Doug Sr. himself, our hero forces the general to cancel the deportation – but it has already started, after an ambitious couple tricked the village, into signing a petition for deportation thinking they were doing the opposite. The hero’s Moslem girlfriend is sent back from the caravan to burn their old village, to deprive the Kazakhs of its free use, nearly killing him in the process, as he was searching for her there. Back with the villagers, a woman dies in childbirth; this starts a a state of mourning, exacerbated by their miserable situation. Then a remarkable thing, and a remarkable sequence, happens. The village leader, elderly but striking and dignified, starts to dance: I read it as as a moment of supreme defiance; we have lost everything except what we can carry, and our culture, our identity. And we dance.

Slowly, very slowly, the tearing of hair stops. They watch him. A musician starts playing; hands are clapped; more dancers start. Gradually – five minutes perhaps – it becomes the most exhilarating dance sequence you’ve ever seen, young and old, male and female, hand-held camera roaming amongst them, the pace of the editing accelerating until the climax of sub-second flashed images. It actually surpasses the famous Coalhole sequence in Kean. All credit to the musicians; Günter Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius roared away, absolutely nailing the sequence. Please, someone, book this combination again; the topicality of the film, and the power the musicians bring to it, would wow any festival.

And straight into the second programme of Japanese animation; generally excellent, but not quite reaching the heights of Programme 1 … it mainly concerned the work of Noburi Ofuji, who used the cut-out technique applied to Chiyugami, the traditional Japanese printed paper, to create his comic characters. Pioneering, quirky and fun, also using sound-on-disc in the late silent period (or possibly animating to pre-existing records, I was none too clear) but they didn’t grab me as deeply. Others, from Ogino, were abstract patterns animated; very reminiscent of European avant-garde animation art of the thirties, the colour examples were, for want of a better word, particularly trippy. The final item was a 1937 Kodascope ‘How it’s Made’ short, Shiksai Manga No Dekiru Made (Japan 1937) showing cel animation in Japan. A good end to a fascinating strand … potentially the last Japanese strand as little remains that hasn’t been seen here over the years.

Despite my interest in early aviation I skipped the one-hour documentary on Santos-Dumont’s 50-second Mutoscope reel of him and Charles Rolls together, Santos Dumont Pré-cinesta? (Brazil 2010) … I expect Mr Urbanora to be aghast at such negligence, given his equal interest in the subject. (I am shocked. And saddened.- Ed.)

Evening, and a Disney, Jack the Giant Killer (USA 1923), before Fiaker nr. 13 (Fiacre No. 13) (Austria/Germany 1926), a Michael Kertesz/Curtiz film set in Paris despite its Austrian/German co-production status. This was a film with real charm, easily the best of the strand, and much more the sort of film to get you noticed by Hollywood; a melodramatic tale of the abandoned baby, daughter of a millionaire who doesn’t know she exists, but has been trying to find her now-dead mother. The girl grows up as the daughter of the horse-cab driver who found her. Apart from the charm, it features wonderful performances from the character actors, great atmosphere and excellent use of the Paris locations – it was highly reminiscent of Feyder classics like Crainquebille – my highest praise.

Thomas Meighan (right) in The Canadian (USA 1926), from http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com

The last film was a real treat too; from perennially underrated William Beaudine, The Canadian (USA 1926); a drama, but with seriously good comic elements within. Set in the broad wheatfields of Alberta, its subject is the problems and practicalities of marriage in small disparate communities, where your nearest neighbour may be a day’s ride away. Thomas Meighan, his name above the title, is the foreman at a friend’s spread, but although he has his own smallholding sorted out, it’s not quite ready.

The farmer has a sister, coming over to live with him having lost the last of her English family; she is unused to both the more basic farm life, and to doing anything practical; when called upon to help out in the kitchen, she is not just clueless, but can’t help giving the impression that it’s all rather beneath her. After clashes – epic, and with some killer lines – with the sister-in-law played by the wonderful Dale Fuller, with the harvest in, and the foreman announcing his departure, she takes a surprising step; the sister offers to be his wife if he will take her away. They marry, and the tone of the film changes utterly. It becomes The Wind – without the wind. The parallels are extraordinary – and this is two years before the Sjöström classic. Here, the physical rejection of the husband is followed (we assume) by a rape perpetrated by the husband rather than a third party; there is a similar comic-relief cowhand, here played by a nearly young Charles Winninger; there is a crisis where hubby rides to the rescue in both films; and a similar Damascene conversion in the wives’ attitude when both farmers have raised funds to send them away.

The Canadian beat The Wind to the screen; one wonders which source novel was published first … and then we remember that The Wind‘s happy ending is not in the novel at all. The acting in The Canadian is solid, believable, but doesn’t have the grandeur of Gish and Hanson; but highly recommended if you’re interested in the prolific career of William Beaudine, who made great films in all sorts of genres, and yet doesn’t receive very much attention.


Sterling stuff once again from our sharp-eyed reporter. Look out soon for the report on day seven (the penultimate day), when we shall discover Lily Damita wearing not much more except jewellery, Eleonora Duse in a bonnet, Gene Gauniter in Ireland, and not one but two Betty Compsons.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

When silents were silent

D.W. Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1909) depicts a conventional film show with piano accompaniment. Most film shows at this time were like this – but not all. Image from http://www.journeybyframe.com

I read it again the other day. Someone explained how silent films were accompanied by music by starting with the phrase, “Of course, silent films were never silent …” We’ve all used those words, or something like them, explaning the basics of silent film to those new to or indifferent towards the medium. It’s corny, but it’s useful. Kevin Brownlow has a chapter in The Parade’s Gone By entitled ‘The Silents Were Never Silent’. But is it true? Well, if you are going to be historically exact about such things, then the answer is no. Some of time, if not very often, silent films were silent. At the risk of sowing seeds of confusion, we shall attempt to explain when, where and why.

Films from the so-called silent era were ‘silent’ because for the most part there was no soundtrack included on the film print. Although Eugene Lauste patented a sound-on-film system as early as 1907, the first films with soundtracks did not appear, in a few experimental shorts, until the early 1920s. Sound-on-film as we know it was effectively devised by the American Lee De Forest, whose De Forest Phonofilms (short films chiefly showing dramatic or musical sketches) were shown in some cinemas from the mid-1920s. Also during the silent period there had been numerous efforts at synchronising films with disc recordings, chiefly for songs. The concept first became prominent in 1900, and enjoyed much success around the 1907-1910 period, to the extent that it became common for many film programmes to include one song title using synchronised recordings. The concept was revived and improved by Warner Bros for The Jazz Singer (1927), which introduced the idea of sound film (specifically sound feature films) to a mass audience, though it was sound-on-film that would soon take over and give us the talkies.

But for the most part a silent film was silent unless accompanied by live music. But was the music always there? When films were first exhibited commercially, in 1894, via the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, they were silent. You peered down into the machine, paid your cent or penny, and thirty seconds of so of silent miniaturised action played before your eyes. Edison wasn’t happy with this, and in 1895 introduced the Kinetophone, an adaptation of the Kinetoscope with accompanying (though not synchronised) phonograph recordings. Yet for the most part people started seeing silent films silently.

This continued with the first Lumière presentations around the world in 1895/96, which generally took place without music in salons before select audiences, introducing the concept, before the films would then be transferred to variety theatres where they could be commercialised. Here they would be accompanied by music, since every variety theatre came with a house band or orchestra. Films needed music to be commercially palatable, and because the musicians were on hand. So the idea of films needing music to bring them fully to life was established very soon.

Then films grew longer, and more dramatic, and more popular, and started to demand dedicated auditoria. Film shows in American nickelodeons or British electric theatres (we’re talking about the mid-1900s here) were 45 minutes to an hour long, with several films on the programme. It was a long time for an audience to sit in silence, or so it might seem to us, and many have assumed that because later practice was to have music accompaniment for even the humblest item in the film programme, then it was naturally so during the earlier, nickelodeon period.

Rick Altman, in Silent Film Sound (2004), startlingly overturned this assumption. He argues that music was commonplace in nickelodeon shows (i.e. around 1905-09) but that it was performed between the films, and often only then. He cites evidence from film journals, guides to managing film shows and memoirs to show that if a pianist was used at a film show, it might simply be to accompany a singer performing to illustrated song slides – and if you had a synchronised film to provide the song (usually with the audience joining in too) then there was no need for the expense of the musician. Music was also handy for keeping the audience amused during the change of reels, but there was no necessity for music to be played throughout. Even when musical accompnaiment started to be introduced, it wasn’t necessarily ubiquitous, with Altman citing evidence for film shows where the dramatic films were show with music, while the comedies played silently.

How widespread was this practice? Altman isn’t able to say, though there is enough incidental evidence to suggest that it was common enough not to require any kind of comment at the time as being anything out of the ordinary. Not was it restricted to America. In his pioneering articles for Film History on film exhibition in London 1906-1914, Jon Burrows shows that there were some London cinemas in the pre-1910 period which showed films without any musical accompaniment, though here the circumstances were slightly different. In the period before the Cinematograph Act was introduced, the London Country Council licensed entertainments as music, drama or music an drama. A simple way of dodging the censorious eye of the L.C.C. was not to have any music (or dancing) at all.

My own researches in this field have uncovered some indirect evidence for the practice, but no direct evidence. For example, in December 1910 The World’s Fair (a journal for fairground showmen which had a lot of interest in the emerging cinema business) gave these sample weekly costs for an independent showmen running a film programme:

Film service (two changes weekly) £12 0s
Singing pictures (with hire of synchroniser) £2 10s
Rental £3 5s
Rates £0 12s
Electricity £5 0s
Staffing £12 0s
Printing £2 0s
Billposting £1 0s
Advertising £1 10s
Sundry costs £4 0s
Total £43 17s

So, money for a synchronised sound picture, but no money for a musician. That doesn’t mean that a musician might not have been an extra cost just not accounted for here, but compare such an assessment of the needs of the exhibitor with the list of requirements from c.1912 given in our series How to Run a Picture Theatre, where it is assumed that a film show will have a musician providing accompaniment throughout.

However, I have done a fair amount of research into memoir evidence of cinema-going at this period, and I have not come across a single person recalling going to a film show where the films were shown silently. But memoirists (like film historians) can easily confuse later practice with earlier experiences of film-going, and imagine that what they became used had always been so. Moreover, one only has to think of how cheaply some of the first London shop shows or American nickelodeon shows were run, and how long they screened films for (from morning til might) to realise that have a musician playing all day was a luxury that not all could afford.

There is other evidence of the occasional nature of musical accompaniment in London film shows 1907-09. Police reports on film shows in the East End in 1909 reveal that one show had a mechanical piano that played throughout, irrespective of what was going on the screen; another had a piano with a sign saying that anyone in the audience was invited to play if they were able to; another gave no indication of any music being played at all. Other kinds of film show did without music – for example, the immensely popular Hale’s Tours of the mid-1900s (films shot from the front of moving trains projected in a carriage-like space to create the sensation of travelling) had no music, only the sound of the machinery and a ‘ticket collector’ telling the audience what views were on show. And many a special lecturer with films designed to illustrate a place visited or a cause requiring support got by without music (which would have drowned out what they wanted to say in any case).

Up to 1910, audiences at film shows expected music, but not necessarily music to accompany films. How widespread this practice was we do not know, but it was common enough among some of the humbler shows (which were greatly in the majority) to pass without comment. That it was not entirely desirable, however, is demonstrated by the fact that the practice rapidly died out after 1909. Film shows moved out of converted shops into larger, more luxurious auditoria, and audiences could no longer be expected to endure mean entertainment on hard benches, without raking, and in silence.

The preview theatre at Urbanora House, London, 1908. No music is being played

However, silent films did not stop being silent on occasion thereafter. Previews of films, for prospective buyers and later for critics, were generally conducted without music. Audiences had come to expect film and music to be indivisible, but the industry saw the two as separate. There might be the occasional time when a weary pianist would set down their hands for a while and no doubt get jeered by the audience while the film played on in silence, but that just confirms the expectation that audiences now had, in the 1910 and 20s. Silence could only be accidental – or just once on a while something done for dramatic effect. The best-known example of the latter was the British film Reveille (1924), a First World War drama which reaches it climax with the two-minute silence, which was presented without musical accompaniment, as the director George Pearson recalled:

Emotional music had illuminated the film throughout, led by that master of his crafty, Louis Levy. At the vital instant, his baton stopped. Melody ceased with lightning suddenness … dead silence in that great packed auditorium … the screen telling only of things that spoke to the heart alone. An old quavering mother at a little open window, old eyes seeking the heavens, worn hands against her aged breast … silence … and then a faint breeze stirring the thin muslin curtain, wafting it gently to touch her cheek … to kiss it … and wipe away a tear … and falls as silently as it had lifted … and still, the silence … exactly two minues … an audience seemingly spellbound. Then Louis Levy’s baton lifted … struck … and the Reveille broke the magic of silence …

It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of filmmaking and – so far as I know – the only part of the film that survives today.

Silent films are sometimes silent, even today. Anyone who has been to a screening of a silent film at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris will have been obliged to experience the film in silence, as they have a firm rule based on the belief that any musical acompnaiment to a silent that we might come up with now would be a distracting pastiche, and it is better to be without the music at all, so that the film may be experienced in its purity. Anyone who has sat through a silent feature film in silence will be aware that such purity is difficult to achieve, and the rumbling stomach of our neighbour is more of a distraction than musical pastiche might have been. In the earlier years of the Pordenone silent film festival, when they had fewer musicians (and sometimes just the one), then you had to expect periods of silence when the pianist took a well-earned rest and we the audience sat through the rest of the film in silence, conjuring up tunes in our heads as best we could. And in the mid-1990s, at the National Film Theatre, I presented several programmes of Victorian cinema (i.e. pre-1901) without musical accompaniment at all, just me talking over the films. A mixed blessing for the audience, possibly.

So, silents were sometimes silent, and sometimes they are silent still. But (doctrinaire spirits at the Cinémathèque Française notwithstanding) we are all the better for the silents not really being what they are until they are silent no more.

France’s finest

Kino Lorber are releasing a second DVD set of Gaumont films. The first, Gaumont Treasures vol. 1(1897-1913), featured films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, and was effectively a cut-down version of a deluxe box set issued by Gaumont in France. Now Gaumont Treasures vol. 2, 1908-1916 is to be released on 19 April, featuring the work of Emile Cohl, Jean Durand and Jacques Feyder. Again it is based on a more extensive French original release (six discs), but the Kino release alone looks sensational – three discs, just under 600 minutes of film, and containing some of the most creative films of the early cinema period. Cohl was the first master of the animated film, Durand produced surrealist comedies and adventure dramas, and Feyder made films of surpassing elegance and wit. There are works from other filmmakers, examples of synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s hauntingly beautiful three-colour process.

This is the full list of films (English titles only):

DVD 1: Emile Cohl
Fantasmagoria (1908, 2 min.)
The Puppet’s Nightmare (1908, 2 min.)
Drama at the Puppets’ House (1908, 3 min.)
The Magic Hoop (1908, 5 min.)
The Little Soldier Who Became a God (1908, 4 min.)
The Boutdebois Brothers (1908, 2 min.)
Transfigurations (1909, 6 min.)
Let’s Be Sporty (1909, 5 min.)
Japanese Fantasy (1909, 1 min.)
The Happy Microbes (1909, 4 min.)
Modern Education (1909, 3 min.)
The Living Fan (1909, 4 min.)
Spanish Clair de Lune (1909, 4 min.)
The Next Door Neighbors (1909, 4 min.)
Crowns (1909, 5 min.)
Delicate Porcelains (1909, 3 min.)
Monsieur Clown Among the Lilliputians(1909, 4 min.)
Comic Mutations (1909, 3 min.)
Matrimonial Shoes (1909, 5 min.)
The Enchanted Spectacles (1909, 5 min.)
Affairs of the Heart (1909, 4 min.)
Floral Frameworks (1910, 5 min.)
The Smile-o-Scope (1910, 5 min.)
Childish Dreams (1910, 5 min.)
En Route (1910, 6 min.)
The Mind of the Café Waiter (1910, 5 min.)
Master of a Fashionable Game (1910, 4 min.)
Petit Chantecler (1910, 7 min.)
The Twelve Labors of Hercules (1910, 7 min.)
Petit Faust (1910, 5 min.)
The Neo-Impressionist Painter (1910, 6 min.)
The Four Little Tailors (1910, 7 min.)
Art’s Infancy (1910, 4 min.)
The Mysterious Fine Arts (1910, 5 min.)
The Persistent Salesman (1910, 8 min.)
A History of Hats (1910, 5 min.)
Nothing Is Impossible for Man (1910, 6 min.)
Mr. Crack (1910, 5 min.)
Bébé’s Masterpiece (1910, 4 min.)
Music-mania (1910, 5 min.)

Original music by Bernard Lubat

DVD 2: Jean Durand
COMEDIES
Calino’s Baptism (1911, 3 min.)
Calino Wants to Be a Cowboy (1911, 6 min.)
Zigoto and the Affair of the Necklace (1911, 8 min.)
Calino the Love Tamer (1912, 6 min.)
Zigoto’s Outing With Friends (1912, 5 min.)
Oxford vs. Martiques (1912, 4 min.)
Onésime Goes to Hell (1912, 7 min.)
Calino, Station Master (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime, Clockmaker (1912, 5 min.)
Onésime vs. Onésime (1912, 8 min.)
Zigoto Drives a Locomotive (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime Gets Maried … So Does Calino (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime: Calino’s Inheritance (1913, 1 min.)
Onésime Loves Animals (1913, 6 min.)
Onésime, Tamer of Men and Horses (1913, 13 min.)
Onésime and the Heart of a Gypsy (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime, You’ll Get Married … or Else! (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime’s Theatrical Debut (1913, 10 min.)
Onésime’s Family Drama (1914, 7 min.)

DRAMAS
The Railway of Death (1912, 17 min.)
Burning Heart: An Indian Tale (1912, 13 min.)
Under the Claw (1912, 25 min.)

SPECIAL FEATURE
Jean Durand 1882-1946
Mini-documentary, written by Pierre Philippe, recounting the career of filmmaker Jean Durand through photographs and film clips.

Music by Patrick Laviosa

DVD 3: Jacques Feyder and the Early Masters of French Cinema
JACQUES FEYDER
Heads … and Women Who Use Them (1916, 36 min.)
Friendly Advice (1916, 16 min.)*
Biscot on the Wrong Floor (1916, 15 min.)*
ROMÉO BOSETTI
The Long Arm of the Law (1909, 7 min.)
GEORGES-ANDRÉ LACROIX
The Barges (1911, 10 min.)**
ETIENNE ARNAUD
La Marseillaise (1912, 10 min.)
RENÉ LE SOMPTIER
A Drama of the Air (1913, 17 min.)
HENRI FESCOURT
Child’s Play (1913, 12 min.)
GASTON RAVEL
Feet and Hands (1915, 17 min.)
ANONYMOUS FILMS
A Factory Drama (1912, 13 min.)
The Pavements of Paris (1912, 13 min.)
The Fairy’s Farewell (n.d., 25 sec.)

Music by Patrick Laviosa, Ben Model (*), and Didier Goret (**)

SPECIAL FEATURES

PHONOSCENES (6 min.)
Three early synchronized-sound musical shorts: “Anna qu’est-ce quet’attends?,” “Chemineau chemine,” and “Le Mouchoir rouge de Cholet”

GAUMONT ACTUALITIES (14 min.)
Actualities that reveal the workings of Gaumont, including footage of founder Leon Gaumont demonstrating the operation of a motion picture camera, a hand-crank viewing device, a zoetrope, and dignitaries touring the Gaumont Studios

TRICHROMIE FILMS (12 min.)
Excerpts of Gaumont’s revolutionary full-color film process
(1913-1919)

This is a sensational collection. Here is the infant cinema already able to hold its held up as a mature medium, capable of displaying artistry of the highest order. With this and volume one of Gaumont Treasures, plus Flicker Alley’s five disc set of the works of Georges Méliès (plus an ‘encore‘ sixth disc), and the recent Spanish release of a Segundo de Chomón DVD set, we are astonishingly blessed with DVD releases of early French cinema. And there will be more – a four-disc set of the works of Albert Capellani, another director of style and vision, is promised by Pathé in May.

Parbleu!

Sounds of Britain – and beyond

Beau Geste (1926), from http://www.ronaldcolman.com

The 2011 British Silent Film Festival will be taking place 7-10 April 2011 at the Barbican Cinema, London. As was the case in 2009, the festival will run in conjunction with ‘The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain’ conference, previously trailed on the Bioscope. The title of the festival will be Going to the Movies: Music, Sound and the British Silent Film. However, as one may judge from the programme highlights advertised so far, the festival is continuing the trend of the past few years of stretching beyond the confines of British silent cinema to look further afield – which I think is a good thing.

Here’s the descriptive blurb:

Music and sound in silent film will be our key themes during the four days of the 2011 British Silent Film Festival. A packed programme of rare silent films will explore how filmmakers communicated sound to cinema audiences through music and visual clues, what it was like to be in the audience of the ‘silent movies’ and how the British industry geared up for the talkies. Accompanied by the world’s best silent film musicians the programme will feature special events, presentations by special guests and unique archive film from the BFI, the Imperial War Museum and other collections.

Highlights will include

  • The Annual Rachael Low Lecture
    Delivered by Matthew Sweet, broadcaster and author of Shepperton Babylon, on stars, stardom and scandal in British silent cinema
  • Topical Budget is 100!
    Celebrating 100 years since the birth of the British newsreel with highlights from the Topical Budget series
  • ‘Only the Screen Was Silent’
    Luke McKernan, moving image archivist from the British Library, will talk about the experience of cinemagoers from the silent days using oral history material from the British Library and BFI
  • Cinema on the Fronts
    Toby Haggith will screen highlights from the Imperial War Museum collection showing how cinema addressed soldiers at the Front and their families back on the Home Front during the Great War
  • Radio on Film
    Bryony Dixon will present a selection of films looking at silent cinemas fascination with the birth of radio including radio Europa, Romance of the Postal Telegraphy, ‘I’ Got a Sweetie on the Radio’, Mr Smith Wakes Up, Bonzo Broadcasted and Wireless Whirl
  • In Sound and Silence
    Tony Fletcher presents a programme of popular classical music, opera and dance in the 1920’s and the various experiments in synchronous sound that recorded these performances
  • Transports of Delight
    A family programme of vehicular fun featuring trains, planes, automobiles and silent comedy
  • New Discoveries in British Silent Film
    Including Cecil Hepworth’s Helen of Four Gates (1921) starring Alma Taylor, rediscovered almost ninety years after it was believed destroyed and Walter Forde’s 1928 comedy What Next?
  • From Silent to Sound
    An illustrated presentation from Robert Murphy and Geoff Brown on the how British cinema made the transition from silent to sound cinema
  • Genre Film and Genre Music
    Neil Brand and Phil Carli discuss why high staccato strings means murder in cinema and how various musical themes developed during the silent period
  • Beau Geste (1926)
    Hollywood director Herbert Brenon’s adaptation of the best-selling British adventure story about the Foreign Legion starring the quintessentially English Ronald Colman
  • Twinkletoes (1926)
    US director Charles Brabin’s take on the British music hall starring Hollywood’s favourite flapper Colleen Moore
  • Lonesome (1928)
    Paul Fejos’s brilliant part-talkie where dialogue was introduced as a novelty in this story of two lonely people trying to find love in New York. The film features a fantastic jazz-fuelled parade in Coney Island
  • Morozko (1925)
    Yu Zhelyabuzhsky’s rarely seen Soviet fantasy about a stepdaughter who is driven out to face the spirit of winter is here presented with its original music score rediscovered and reconstructed for orchestra. Presented in conjunction with Sounds of Early Cinema Conference
  • I Was Born But … (1932)
    Ozu’s classic family comedy marks the very end of the silent period. As one of the greatest silent films ever made, it is screened here to celebrate the artistic excellence which the silent cinema had achieved

The Festival is organised in partnership with the British Film Institute. The conference is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its ‘Beyond Text’ programme, and organised in conjunction with Royal Holloway, University of London and the University of Edinburgh.

Well, that looks like an interesting mixture of usual suspects and unexpected suspects. Among the usuals, my contribution will hopefully be a bit more than just me talking about the experiences of filmgoers during the silent era – I plan to be putting together an entertainment of some sort. Anyway, riches a-plenty, and it’s always good news to learn that the festival has managed to survive another year – no mean feat in these straitened times.

More information will appear in due course on the British Silent Film Festival website.

Sound Workshop

Adding a soundtrack to Les Kiriki – Acrobates japonais (1907) with Sound Workshop

Now this is fun. Europa Film Treasures, the online collection of film titles from archives across Europe created by Lobster Film Productions has introduced a new online tool, Sound Workshop, with which you can produce your own soundtrack for one of their silent films.

The site (developed in partnership with Court-Circuit, an Arte programme dedicated to short films) is a free service that offers you clips from seven films on the Europa Film Treasures site. You can then select from a wide range of sounds (under four categories: cartoon, sound effects machine, natural or science fiction), music (three ragtime tracks only) or sounds that you have uploaded yourself (if you have registered with the site). Sounds available include birds singing, car horns, percussion instruments, water running, whizzes and whooshes, fire alarms, telephones, doors opening, boings and crashes. Having made your selection, you are presented with a sound mixing page (see above) where you can drag and drop your sounds onto three tracks. Anyone can select the sounds and play back the finished video, but only registered users can save the results and have it made available on the site’s gallery.

The Bioscope had a go with a short sequence from Les Kiriki – Acrobates japonais (1907), a marvellous trick film with gorgeous stencil colour by Segundo de Chomón featuring a troupe of acrobats achieving impossible feats. My efforts aren’t going to put any silent film musician out of a job, but you’ll get the idea (it’s listed under Urbanora), or test out the interesting range of efforts from other users available on the gallery and add comments if you feel so inclined.

Should you want to have a go yourself, do note that the films take a little while to load before you can start playing with them. You can test the sounds beforehand by clicking (and holding down the click) on the arrows for each sound option, and having played back the results you can re-edit before recording. When you have made a recording it doesn’t appear automatically on the site – it took some hours for my video to be published, probably because I created it late in the evening. It appears that the work is done by real humans (‘your results will be put online by our team soon’ it says when you have clicked ‘record’), which seems bizarrely laborious in this day and age. Also I submitted more than one video, but only one made it to the gallery. It all feels a little bit uncertain.

Sound Workshop is a bright idea, if a little creaky in execution. Nevertheless, praise is due once again to the consistently imaginative folk at Lobster for coming up with a new way to engage audiences with silent films and to demonstrate just what new opportunities exist for such content once it exists in digital form and online.

Performance, realisation and reception

The AHRC-funded Beyond Text Network “The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain” has issued a call for papers for The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: Performance, Realisation and Reception. The conference takes place Thursday 7-Friday 8 April 2011, at the Institute of Musical Research and the Barbican Centre, London. The deadline for abstracts is 30 November 2010. Here’s the invitation in their words:

We invite papers from all relevant disciplines for the last in a series of events designed to establish and develop a research network concerned with the sonic dimensions of “silent” film exhibition in Britain, interpreted in the broadest possible sense. Papers concerning the performance, presentation and/or reception of these sonic practices are particularly welcome, as are presentations by composers and performers. We are especially interested in papers on British practices, but welcome proposals facilitating comparisons.

Research questions might focus on:

  • Film accompaniment manuals and photoplay collections
  • Key British cinema performers
  • Sonic and musical practices in Britain compared to elsewhere, variations in practices according to county or region, rural versus urban setting, and exhibition context
  • Aspects of cine-variety
  • How differing sonic practices shape our understanding of silent films
  • Relationships between sonic practices and developments in the narrative structure and purpose of early films (e.g. educational, ‘stories’, newsreel, etc.)
  • The practice and/or reception of live accompaniment of early cinema in Britain today (avant garde/pop/historically conscious …)

They invite abstracts of 250 words for individual papers of up to 20 minutes, which should be e-mailed, as a Word attachment, to music@sas.ac.uk with the subject line: The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain. They will also consider shorter presentations of around 10 minutes on specific issues relating to the conference themes. These may be grouped into a panel, or sent individually. You should include your name and title, institutional affiliation (if any), email address, and postal address.

As in 2009, the conference will be running alongside the peripatetic British Silent Film Festival 2011, which takes place 7-10 April 2011 at the Barbican. Papers that include a practice element (composition, performance) are particularly welcome for that day.

Postgraduate students working in this, and/or related areas may apply for one of two scholarships (to include basic travel and accommodation, and conference fee and refreshments). Applicants should send the following information to music@sas.ac.uk, marking the subject line “PG Scholarships, The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain: name, institution where studying, and an outline of their (related) research project.

More information about the Network, whose previous events have been advertised here, can be found http://projects.beyondtext.ac.uk/soundsearlycinema/index.php.

For questions about the conference or Network, please contact either Dr Julie Brown (Julie.Brown [at] rhul.ac.uk) or Dr Annette Davison (a.c.davison [at] ed.ac.uk)

Movements and sounds

Strip of Eugene Lauste sound film c.1912, with the soundtrack running along the bottom, from http://video.pbs.org/video/1529729774

Here’s notice of a rather interesting item in the PBS television series History Detectives. The programme is a popular history series in which the presenters go off on quest for answers to some historical conundrum or other, and in the first item of the programme the presenter encounters a collector, Rocky Accetturo, who has bought some personal papers relating to Eugene Lauste in an estate sale. Lauste (1857-1935) was a brilliant French technician who worked for Thomas Edison alongside W.K-L. Dickson working on some of the very first American films, before moving with Dickson to American Biograph.

Having been instrumental in constructing a number of the first motion picture film devices, Lauste became fascinated by the possibilities of adding sound to film. Edison had already produced the Kinetophone in 1895, in which Kinetoscope films were supposedly synchronised with Phonograph recordings (in reality it was just music played alongside films of marching bands etc. without any proper synchronisation). Several other inventors around this time attempted to match sound with film in similar fashion, notably Clément-Maurice, Henri Lioret, Henri Joly, François Dussaud and Léon Gaumont. Lauste went one step further and – while working in Britain – patented in 1907 as “A New or Improved Method of and Means for Simultaneously Recording and Reproducing Movements and Sounds“. Here the sound was to be recorded optically and produced alongside the images on the film strip. He continued with his experiments, and between 1910-1913 shot some experimental sound films in the garden of his Brixton home. However Lauste failed to find the financial backing he required, possibly on account of his own intransigence, and it would not be until the 1920s, and particularly the work of Lee de Forest, that sound on film would start to become a reality.

The programme concerns a strip of Lauste sound film which the collector found among the papers. The detective story follows the familiar track for this sort of programme, with their primary source of information appearing to be Wikipedia, but it does get better one they start speaking to archivists about the film strip. We hear the sound reproduced (one second of it, possibly of a mechanical process, maybe the sound of the camera itself) and get to meet Biograph and Lauste authority Paul Spehr, who also shows us the Edison ‘Black Maria’ studio. Finally we discover that a similar short strip of film is held by the Smithsonian, though Accetturo’s is marginally longer, and that his film probably dates from c.1912.

The item runs for some fifteen minutes and is the first item on the programme. It makes some errors (The Jazz Singer wasn’t sound-on-film) and the pseudo-dumb questioning is a bit grating, but it gets better as it goes along and the technology it demonstrates – old and new – is fascinating.

Thanks therefore to PBS for putting up a programme that those of us in the US would not have had the chance to see otherwise, and all in all its a reminder that through the silent era there was this urgent quest to marry film images to recorded sound. Synchronised sound, sound provided by musicians, sound effects, sound produced by lecturers, sound provided by performers behind the screen or to the side of the screen, and then assorted steps towards commercialising sound on film itself. The silents began digging their grave, right from the beginning.

The full History Detectives programme can be seen on the PBS site and the script can be read here. But what is Rocky doing with the rest of the papers on show – letters, cuttings, patents?

Motography

‘An odd type of theatre front': illustration from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

One of the indications of the speculative, exploratory nature of early cinema is the uncertainty felt at the time over what it or its products were to be called. Living pictures? Animated photography? Cinema? Kinema? Kinematography? Motion pictures? Moving pictures? Photoplays? Bioscope? It’s worth bearing in mind such terms when searching for early cinema subjects in digitised book and newspaper sources (alongside such other handy terms as kinetoscope, biograph, electric theatre etc.). One term you might not think to use is ‘motography’. I’m not sure how long the lifespan was of this word, but for a short period it was used by some seeking for a distinctive, all-encompassing term for the new art – indeed it was the title of an American film journal of this period (it ran 1909-1918 and was originally called The Nickelodeon).

The term was certainly favoured by John B. Rathbun, author of Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. (1914), the latest volume to go into the Bioscope Library.

John B. Rathbun was a technical writer (and an associate editor of Motography, which helps explains his attachment to the term). His book is yet another of those all-purpose guides to the new industry of motion pictures, a blend of potted history, social history, technical explanation and marvelment at the rise of this extraordinary business and the huge sums that it was starting to earn. As indicated by its subtitle, Rathbun’s book takes us through the principles, production processes and exhibition of motion pictures up to 1914. It is addressed to a reader with a general interest in the phenomenon, though it sometimes forgets this.

The book starts with the familiar pre-history of the medium, from Zoetropes to Muybridge to Edison to motion picture projection. The principles of the taking and projecting of films are covered, with practical information on film stock itself, including development, printing and colour tinting. Film production follows, covering both studio and non-fiction work, then the almost obligatory chapter on the mysteries of scenario writing with suggestions on how to sell your scenario to the studios. If the lay reader did not fancy his or her chances as a scriptwriter, then they might consider opening a motion picture theatre as the best way to make money out of this new business, and advice follows on setting up a cinema, putting together the programme (with handy advice on dealing with different ages of film reels), advertising the show, an interesting discussion on whether to include vaudeville acts or not, and operating profitable sidelines.

The filming of an ‘industrial’, with Cooper-Hewitt mercury vapour lamps on the right, from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

A long chapter on the technicalities of projection seems to belong to another book, and might have been enough to scare off one or two would-be speculators. Rathbun follows this with guidelines on local censorship laws and regulations, then rounds off matters with an interesting chapter on colour (covering stencil colour, the Friese-Greene process, Kinemacolor and Gaumont Chronochrome), stereoscopy and synchronised sound films.

Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting is rather muddled in the guidelines it provides, as it is unsure at what level or precisely to whom it is directing its advice. Buyers at the time might have been less than satisfied, but for us now it has plenty of handy information on how the industry was perceived and some useful data and social observations relating to the exhibition sector. There are illustrations of studio interiors, laboratories, wardrobe rooms, camera operators, cinema floor plans, projection booths and so on, to add to its value as a reference source. It’s available from the Internet Archive, and into the Bioscope Library it goes.

In a world of silence …

Silent is the name of an independently-financed feature film three years in the making which premiered in November 2008, and which is currently doing the rounds of festivals. Were it up to me, it would gain an award for its plot idea alone. Its subject is a world such as we understand in silent cinema, where everyone is silent. Into this world comes Abigaile Archibald, who discovers she can communicate in a completely different way to anyone else – she develops a speaking voice. She is delighted at being able to talk and sing, but the suspicious townspeople are horrified by this freak of nature and launch a witch hunt…

silentposter

This ingenious concept you can see in action through the trailer, in which everyone inhabits a silent film world except for the vocal Abigaile, who sings of her woes in the mournful “Will I ever be heard?”. The look of the film (shot in black-and-white), which the director describes as a ‘gothic comedy’, takes its cue from Nosferatu but also the Universal horror films of the 1930s. It was shot in New Jersey, which has a noteworthy history of filmmaking itself, starting from Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio at West Orange way back in 1893. Fort Lee was a popular area for outdoor filmmaking in the 1910s, and companies such as World, Eclair and Solax had studios there. The filmmakers are keen to reference this history, even if their own efforts take their inspiration from later, and elsewhere.

The film is written and directed by Michael Pleckaitis for Revscope Pictures, and stars Katie Ritz (as Abigaile), Dan Bailey and Sam Sebastian. Silent has a website with background information on the film, photographs, production news and a blog. They have also produced a serial of sorts, documenting the film’s production, all episodes of which you can follow on the website or via the film’s website – or you can just follow the links here (Chapter 1 seems only to be available on the film’s website):

And for your special delight, here’s the music video for “Will I ever be heard?” (which bears more than a passing ambition towards the work of Andrew Lloyd-Webber):

The film has been around for a year now, but despite the filmmakers’ online efforts, it doesn’t seem to have gathered all that much attention. It is hard to see why, given the quality of the trailer (though some of the supporting information in the production serial is a tad underwhelming). For ingenuity of concept alone it deserves a wider audience, and let’s hope that the Bioscope’s noble readership can do its bit to spread the word. A DVD release is promised in due course – I’m looking forward to it.

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