Some of them are quite shocking


Back to the history of the word Bioscope. This postcard dates from 1904. It portrays a bioscope show, with lecturer, orchestra, and speech bubble comments from the audience. The comments include: “Remember I’m a married man,” “Kiss me quick, this is the last picture,” and “Can they see us?” On the back of the postcard, there is the handwritten comment, “This one is rather amusing I think. Don’t you? They are quite the latest style here. Some of them are quite shocking.” The postcard was sent from Dover. Interestingly, the image on the screen is a circular one, indicating that the artist was confused by the difference between motion pictures (which were square) and magic lantern slides (which did sometimes feature circular images).

Silent podcasts

The Bioscope is as dedicated to new technology as it is to old, and is always interested to see what is being done with the silent film form today. So, having brought you information on the Rudolph Valentino podcast site a while back, how about the truly silent podcast? 1st Silent Podcast is just that – a series of podcasts of silence. Visitors, or subscribers to the feed, can sample the sound of one hand clapping, silence recorded in Palau (Micronesia), Shanghai, Denmark, and Las Vegas, silence in a Tuscan vineyard, a memorial rendition of John Cage’s celebrated silent piece 4′ 33”, download silent ring tones, and, yes, of course, experience the world’s first silent video podcast. Presumably because this bills itself as 1st Silent Podcast, there are imitators out there, but I’ll trust to the original.

Virginia Woolf and suffragettes

The 17th Annual Virginia Woolf conference is being held at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, 7-10 June 2007. It includes a Virginia Woolf film festival, and a screening of the film Suffragettes in the Silent Cinema, misleadingly described as “featuring satiric clips of nickelodeon melodramas created by early twentieth-century women’s suffrage activists”, the film was compiled by cultural historian Kay Sloan in 2003. What is actually features are films that were made in the silent era which satirised the suffragettes, rather than films made by them, though the film does include clips from the film What 80 Million Women Want (1913), which was made in sympathy with the suffragette cause. Virginia Woolf, incidentally, is one of the most notable of twentieth-century figures never to have been filmed (so far as is known), though she herself wrote interestingly on film in her essay ‘The Cinema‘ (1926).

Movietone and Henderson

There are two major British newsreel collections available online. The British Pathe collection is well known, having public money behind it and much publicity. However, the entire British Movietone News library is also available, at But for the early film enthusiast, this collection is worth an additional look because, although the newsreel ran 1929-1979, its library includes a substantial amount of pre-1929 material, much of it footage from the early 1890s and early 1900s from the Henderson Collection. George Henderson was a showman in Stockton, in the north of England, in the 1890s, and kept many of the films that he showed, a collection that was added to by his son James. The collection found its way to Movietone, though the nitrate originals ended up at the BFI and copies of the key titles can be found in several collections.

The films include Edison Kinetoscope titles such as Blacksmith Shop, Robert Paul‘s Blackfriars Bridge and The Launch of HMS Albion, the first film of Queen Victoria, taken at Balmoral in September 1896, the Prestwich film of W.G. Grace at Lords celebrating his 50th birthday, the English and Australian cricket teams in 1905, Anglo-Boer War film, and assorted processions and funerals for British royalty. There are early trick films, variety acts, comedies, and a lot of material that simply hasn’t been identified by scholars as yet. To find the films, just select “pre-1929” from the Decade option on the Search page (it is necessary to register with the site first). Do not trust the dates given for the films (most are guesses), nor the titles. The films are available as streams (modem / broadband), but cannot be downloaded. There are around 300 titles in the Henderson collection available here – a hidden treasure trove.

Mother knew best

At another visit to the second-hand book shop I was pleased to find another memoir of a London childhood with excellent material on seeing films before the First World War. Dorothy Scannell’s Mother Knew Best: An East End Childhood (1974) tells of her life before and after the war as one of ten children of a Poplar plumber, earning £2 a week. This passage on Saturday cinema-going is eloquent on how people completely carried away by what they saw on the screen (in this case, her younger sister Marjorie):

We went to the ‘pictures’ on Saturday mornings. The Picture Palace was like a huge garage with dirty red doors opposite Mrs Crutchington’s shop and it cost a ha’penny. It was called the Star Picture Palace and we would all cheer when the pictures finally started for the screen was a long time flickering and shaking and tearing itself in two with brief glimpses of the previous week’s serial before it settled down, and whenever it broke down during the performance, which was often, we would all boo loudly. A lady played the piano, sad music, frightening music, and happy music according to how the film was progressing and what was taking place. Because we had so few ‘arrants’ to do, we were nearly always the first ones there and so sat in the front row where the cowboys were nine feet tall, the horses hunched up in the middle and the heroine had a ‘Dish ran away with the spoon’ face.

Marjorie was the most terrible person to accompany to the pictures … We all left the world mentally, but she left it physically as well in a sense. When the heroine was tied to the railway line, and tried to fight her captors, Marjorie would fight in her seat. When the poor mother was pleading with the wicked landlord for her starving children, Marjorie was on her knees pleading too. Her screams of terror when the heroine was about to be tortured seemed louder to me than the frightening music being played by the lady pianist and I would thump Marjorie to bring her back to the world. All in vain, she never felt or heard me, and I ceased going to the pictures on Saturdays long before Marjorie did, for she could wait patiently until the next episode of an exciting serial. Rather than wait and wonder, I decided not to go. I hated serials, I just had to see a complete picture, and most of the films shown to the children had been cut and made into serials, for by chopping the films into little bits they would last the Picture Palace for weeks and weeks. I always thought it had been raining on the screen and it wasn’t until years later I realised it was the poor quality of the film. The black streaks moved everlastingly up and down.

The Star Picture Palace was in Poplar High Street, founded in 1914, and seated 400. It was run by the British Improved Bioscope Co. Ltd., no less.


On 23 February the Adelaide Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Paolo Cherchi Usai’s film Passio. The film is a compilation of silent found footage from a century of visual culture, taken from archives around the world, put to a score by Arvo Pärt. Cherchi Usai, director of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, says that the film must only be seen as a live experience in a theatre. To this end he has apparently destroyed all the masters and vowed never to release the film on video. According to the festival blurb, it is “a masterwork of the first order, a stunning and revelatory film of surprising emotional and narrative power, that explores the impending crisis of visual culture and its reflection in politics and society. Its unsettling images, drawn from a century of filmmaking, are woven into a tapestry of mysterious beauty and violence.”

The camera as historian

More on Louis Stanley Jast and the proto-film archive at Croydon Public Library (see yesterday’s post). I dug out a copy of The Camera as Historian, by H.D. Gower, L. Stanley Jast and W.W. Topley (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co. Ltd., 1916) in the British Library. The book is predominantly about the use of photography as a civic and social record, but it makes some comments about cinematography which reinforce what Jast told The Bioscope in 1914. There is further detail on the system for viewing films without projection, designed by Thomas H. Windibank, manager of the London Electric Hall cinema in Croydon, with diagrams and photographs. The text is most concerned with practical matters of taking, storing and making accessible photographic collections, but it has some fascinating general arguments. It asserts that photography’s power to record actuality “implies a corresponding responsibility” i.e. that local authorities had a duty to form photographic collections, by which the authors mean cinematographic records as well. The opening quotation boldly asserts the importance of the image for the study of history:

The means whereby the past, particularly in its elation to human activities and their results, may be reconstructed and visualized, can be roughly grouped under the four headings of material objects, oral tradition, written record, and lastly, graphic record, whether pictorial or sculptural. It is no part of our purpose to belittle the value of any of the first-named tools of the historian or scientist; but it will probably be conceded that in many respects the last named has a value greatly outweighing the others. It is obvious, moreover, that the lure of the graphic as of all other record rests entirely upon its accuracy. Now, not only is absolute fidelity to the original beyond attainment in the case of the artist, but the work even of the most painstaking draughtsman is often coloured by his individuality to such an extent that the detailed characteristics of the original he is reproducing assume in his work aspects quite foreign to their real nature.

Then comes the insistence that local authorities should be collecting film:

Hitherto little or no attention appears to have been paid to the enormous value of preserving, in such a way as to ensure their availability for the public of the future, the splendid photographic records of our national life contained in the cinematographic films daily taken for exhibition at “moving picture” theatres. This subject will be treated in a later chapter; but its importance warrants a reference to it here. Here the municipality – or whatever be the local governing body – surely has some interest, nay, the authors would urge, has a clear duty.

Jast does appear to suggest in this next extract that the value of film is as a series of photographs (though he does note elsewhere the importance of seeing films either as still images or in motion), but he explains how easy it should be to start up such a collection:

We have left to the last reference to what is perhaps the most valuable source of photographic records, at all events among those illustrating past events. We refer to the kinematograph films taken for display at the many “Picture Palaces” which have sprung up in such profusion amongst us during the last few years. Many of the noteworthy local happenings (at all events in towns of any size) are recorded in this manner. A few days after exhibition their commercial value has sunk to nothing, and they represent to the picture showman merely so many feet of waste celluloid. The value of a film containing over 4000 technically excellent photographic transparencies would, in this form, be about 3d.! It has been found that requests, by a suitable body (e.g. a Public Library) for the gift of these records are usually met by a most courteous acquiescence; while if a strictly commercial view of the matter be taken, the cost of acquiring the records – by way of purchase – need be so slight as to be negligible in comparison with their real value … That this source of material has been hitherto almost unrecognized is unfortunate. It would be deplorable if, henceforward, through apathy or lack of foresight, any opportunity should be missed of securing such invaluable records.

Jast would have been pleased to know about the regional film archive movement in Britain, but dismayed to learn that it was not instituted until the 1970s. How much local film was lost in the interim? I will now try and find out what happened to the Croydon film collection.

Croydon and film archives

Recently I was asked to find some historical quotations about the need for film archives. Calls for a museum for the preservation of films for all time are almost as old as film itself, even since Robert Paul tried to get the British Museum to take a number of his films in December 1896 (without success). The first true film archive is generally held to be the Imperial War Museum, effectively created in 1919, but there were several collections across the world in existence before them which could variously be described as film museums or libraries.

In my search through my papers, I was fascinated to come across an article by Langford Reed, ‘Films Museums: What Has Been Achieved’, The Bioscope, 30 July 1914, p. 471. In a survey of what was being done worldwide, Reed reported that “the national records office at Madrid” had a cinematograph section, while in Brussels the Congo Museum had a section devoted to “the preservation of films of wild animal life”. He says that films of religious interest were being held in the Vatican Museum. New York Public Library had a “cinematographic storehouse”, and the Indian state of Baroda had formed a library of “instructive films” which was being added to by the private cinematograph operator of the Gaekwar of Baroda. The Royal Library of Copenhagen had a collection of films taken of prominent men, together with phonograph records of their speeches (these films were taken by Denmark’s first filmmaker, Peter Elfelt).

Some of these are known about; some of these it would be intriguing to know if they ever existed in reality (and what happened to the films). But Reed’s real surprise is that in Britain he could find only one place preserving films “for the benefit of posterity” – Croydon Public Library. He went to meet the chief librarian, L. Stanley Jast, who told him:

The matter arose owing to the success which has attended a certain department, attached to the library, entitled, “The Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey.” It was suggested that section should be established to be devoted to the preservation of cinematograph films, and I accordingly wrote a letter on the subject to the chief local picturedrome proprietors. The result surprised me. I quite imagined I should be called upon to pay for any films required, but the gentlemen in question would not hear of it; they insisted on giving them to me. From the Amalgamated Cinematograph Theatres, Pyke’s Circuit, I received a film showing the distribution of prizes at the Upper Nrorwood Academy of Music, from Mr T.H. Windibank, of the London Electric Hall, pictures of the funeral of the late Town Clerk, and of the Croydon Horse Show, while from other sources I acquired about a dozen more. I am arranging with the picture theatre proprietors of the Borough to let me have other local films as soon as they have done with them – we shall keep entirely to subjects of local interest. In certain instances, too, it would be useful if we could engage an operator to take events especially for us. Practically, our only difficulties are concerned with storage, and in this connection I am now making enquiries as to fire insurance and as to the best means of permanently preserving films. I should welcome advice on these points.

The films will not be lent, as in the case of books. I have had a room – up to now devoted to the use of lantern lectures – so altered that cinematograph apparatus can be installed when required. The suggestion is to do without the usual projecting machine, and to view the pictures through the medium of an enclosed chamber, which has been especially designed for us by a local electrical engineer – himself the proprietor of a cinema – in which, in place of the projecting lens, a magnifying glass will be used. The movements will be induced by the hand, and this process will be quite efficient enough for the purpose of examining local records.

What happened to this collection? How long did it last? Was it ever used by the Croydon general public? Louis Stanley Jast appears to have been an interesting person himself: an important figure in the library world (he became President of the Library Association) and co-author of The Camera as Historian (1916). I will try and find out more.

James Joyce and the Volta

The latest issue of the James Joyce Quarterly (vols. 42/43. 1.4) has a feature section on Joyce on film, which includes an essay by Philip Sicker, “Evenings at the Volta: Cinematic Afterimages in Joyce”. James Joyce was the manager of the Volta Cinematograph, Dublin’s (and Ireland’s) first cinema, over December 1909-January 1910, and remained associated with the business for a couple of months thereafter. There has been growing academic interest in the films ‘programmed’ by Joyce for the Volta, though it is a matter of debate just how much Joyce was aware of the films he was programming, or particularly concerned about them. Sicker provides the closest analysis yet of the kinds of films shown at the Volta during its period under Joyce’s charge, including discussion of extant prints and an exploration of the degree to which traces of these can arguably be traced in Joyce’s own work. A filmography of all titles shown at the Volta December 1909-April 1910, including extant prints, researched by Luke McKernan, was published in Film and Film Culture vol. 3 (2004). It is not easy to find, and any researcher interested in the filmography and the article on the background to the Volta that went with it should get in touch.