Silent Cinema

Silent Cinema

Silent Cinema by Brian J. Robb is a new publication on the subject for the general reader that seems to have come out of nowhere. The author has previously written books on Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt, while for for Kamera Books this is their first book. The blurb promises: “Through a study of the earliest origins of cinema to the stars, comedians and directors who became popular from the late-Victorian ear [sic] to the end of the 1920s, and including a look at the earliest Hollywood scandals of the time, ‘Silent Cinema’ will be a handy guide to the art of cinema’s silent years in Hollywood and across the globe.” It also comes with a DVD including extracts from Son of the Sheik, Phantom of the Opera, The Perils of Pauline, Salome and Orphans of the Storm. And it’s only £5.95 on at the moment. Must be worth a punt.

Festival in Amsterdam

Here’s some blurb on the upcoming biennial film festival in Amsterdam next month:

“From 11 until 15 April, the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam will be holding its third Filmmuseum Biennial. During this biennial film festival, the Filmmuseum will be showing silent films together with live performances of new soundtracks. Special finds from the historical film collection will also be presented. Visitors will be able to enjoy gems from film history in some forty screenings, many complete with musical accompaniment by, for example, classical ensembles, contemporary composers and DJs.

Restorers have been working behind the scenes of the Filmmuseum to safeguard films from the early period of cinema (1895-1928) and restore them to their former glory. The museum has gained international recognition with its much-discussed restorations and presentations of silent films from its collection (Beyond the Rocks, Menschen am Sonntag), complete with new soundtracks which are often performed live.

A set of five highlights resulting from the restoration efforts of both the Filmmuseum and the festival’s guest, the Österreichisches Filmmuseum, can be seen during the Filmmuseum Biennial. Under the slogan, a ‘feast for the eye and ear’, musicians and composers were invited to compose new scores. Singer, musician and composer Fay Lovsky will perform her own ‘soundscape’ during the showing of the opening film The Floor Below (C.G. Badger, 1918), a unique find from the Filmmuseum’s collection. In a performance in the Paradiso venue, a DJ will translate the energy of Dziga Vertov’s images in The Eleventh Year (Odinnadtsatii, 1928) in compelling electronic beats, bleeps en riddims. Composer and musician Corrie van Binsbergen gives Jacques Feyder’s L’Atlantide (1921) a new dimension with a mix of jazz, ‘grooves’ and ethnic music. Moreover, the Filmmuseum invited Rainer Hensel, the composer who used to create the soundtracks for Theo van Gogh’s films, to make a new score for Such Men are Dangerous (Kenneth Hawks 1930) and the Biennial curator Martin de Ruiter has written a new score for the Austrian classic, Der Mandarin (Fritz Freisler 1918), which will be performed by film and theatre orchestra Max Tak.”

Further information on the silent films and their musical accompaniment is here.

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 4

Back to the 1910 [correction – probably 1912] publication How to Run a Picture Theatre (see previous posts). Having attended to the location, exterior and lobby, it’s time to consider the auditorium itself. As before, the emphasis is on convincing the potential cinema owner of moving on from the slack, short-termist practices of the past and make the venue the sort of attractive proposition likely to attract a loyal clientele.

The Auditorium. The good impression created by the outside appearance and the entrance lobby is of no avail if it is not sustained by the auditorium.

The prosperity of the picture theatre depends upon its attracting a regular patronage. The evanescent visitor is of but little use to the exhibitor, except as a walking advertisement spreading the fame of the show and thus attracting other patrons …

For floor covering, it is becoming increasingly universal to use a good carpeting instead of linoleum. There is something in the feel of a velvet pile that sub-consciously suggests and conveys the impression of luxury …

Cinemas had been established on the principle of attracting a passing trade, but as it became clear that film was no flash-in-the-pan then new strategies were called for. Cinemas were becoming a long-term investment. Cinema owners also needed to take far more notice of fire precautions and cleanliness. Disinfectants were not only used on the building but on its customers as well. It was common for attendants to pass up and down spraying people with sweet-smelling disinfectant. Cinemas were not known as flea-pits for nothing, but is remarkable that there seems to be no evidence of audiences protesting at such patronising treatment.

Precautions from Fire and Disinfection. … every well-equipped building should contain a plenitude of automatic sprinklers, hand grenades and the like. It should also be well provided with fire hydrants, and it is well to give the staff a periodical turn out in order …

In a theatre well equipped with fire appliances the audience experiences an added degree of safety and the likelihood of panic is reduced to a minimum …

The interior of the theatre should also be well disinfected not only after each performance, but during the time the pictures are being shown. There is a multiplicity of sprayers and deodorising compounds on the market, most of which are of great service not only in warding off disease but in keeping the atmosphere pure and sweetly scented…

As deodorisers, Pinozal, Ozone, Empire Essence are probably the most effective.

Next, raking. Early shop-shows inevitably had a level floor. To enable everyone to be able to see the film, an inclined floor was essential.

The Rake. The floor must be inclined from screen to rear, a good rake being one in ten. Steps should always be avoided, as when the hall is in semi-darkness, accidents are likely to happen, with consequent actions at law, besides which, in an emergency, steps militate against a speedy emptying of the house.

And then there was the screen. Numerous types were available on the market. Intriguingly, the recommendation here is for a coated plaster screen. The reference to ‘daylight’ means those cinemas which were experimenting with an auditorium lighted during the performance, as some had expressed concern over audiences being left in the dark. It did not catch on.

The Screen. There are many kinds of screen, patent and otherwise, daylight and mirror, but the best is generally said to be one of plaster built into the wall and coated with preparation.

Interestingly it is recommended that seats not be too comfortable lest people stay too long. Most cinemas operated on a continuous show policy where people could come in when they liked and stay as long as they like, with the assumption that they wouldn’t stay forever to see the same programme shown over and over again. A surprise recommendation is for somewhere for people to place their hats, not least so that they could have hands free to hold the cup of tea that many cinemas provided.

Seating. Tip-ups for seating cannot be beaten, and care should be taken to see that they are comfortable, but remember that you do not wish your audience to remain the entire evening unless you are giving a one house a night show …

It is well to have a centre, as well as two side aisles where floor area permits. The sides can be used for entrance and the centre for exit. Give as much space as possible between the rows of seats, from 2ft. 6in. to 3ft. is a fair distance …

It is a good idea to have hat racks under the seats, as these not only conduce to the comfort of those who are considerate enough to remove their hats, but leave the hands free to hold the cup of afternoon tea, or the program, or what not.

Lastly, attention is given to the decor, and ventilation. Early cinemas, filled with smoke, could be unpleasantly fuggy. But fresh air was clearly something of an alien concept for some cinema owners.

Decoration and Upholstery. … most of the architects, builders, decorators and exhibitors are making a grave mistake, in having the interior walls and ornaments of light colours. Such colours will suit an opera house, but not a moving picture theatre. Sombre colours will undoubtedly bring out better effects from the screen …

A good plan is to have the panels in a rich red colour with the border of still a darker shade, and have all the plastic ornaments painted imitation walnut or mahogany …

Ventilation and Heating. There are still a great many showmen who, incredible as it may seem in this enlightened day, still have no artificial means of ventilating their theatres, or what is just as bad, depend entirely upon the electric fan revolving on a shelf or bracket, and simply churning up the air in the room, without renewing it.

Ventilation means change of air … Ventilation is good for everybody …

All healthy persons accustomed to living in fresh air, having to sit for three or four hours in an over-heated atmosphere, invariably experience the sensations, first of drowsiness, followed by headache, then a period of lassitude, and almost entire prostration …

The advent of a ventilating genius who could succeed in revolutionizing our present method of ventilation would be welcomed by all right livers and true thinkers. Certainly the ventilation of some of our picture theatres, music halls, and public buildings is anything but satisfactory …

The British Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, Ltd. stands in the forefront amongst firms manufacturing ventilating apparatus …

British Silent Cinema programme

The British Silent Cinema Festival programme has now been published. Among the new features are the Inaugural Rachael Low Lecture (named after the leading historian of British cinema) given by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling; a special presentation by Charlie Chaplin authority Frank Scheide, ‘Chaplin, Costers and London Street Life’; and Andrew Higson on ‘Crime and Deviancy in the Picture House’. The festival runs Thursday-Sunday 26-29 April.

Researching patents

Hale’s Tours patent diagram

Among the many remarkable research resources available online for those interested in the technical aspects of early and silent cinema, some of the most important are patent records. There are three major sites:

Google Patents

Still in Beta mode, this enables you to search across 7 million US patents, from the 1790s up to last year. The records come from the United States Patgent and Trademark Office (see below), and the information is all in the public domain. You can search for patent number, inventor, assigneee, classification or date. It helps to know something about the patent process to get the best results, and don’t search for a product name – these rarely feature in patent descriptions. Search results provide the patent number etc, plus a copy of the patent document itself – Abstract, Drawing, Description and Claims.

US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

The patent data and images on Google Patents all derive from the USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database. This is an alternative search option, better suited for professionals and research experts. As with Google, it only lists US patents.


For European patents, including British, you have to go to the Europe Patent Office’s esp@cenet service. From the main site you choose your country of interest: Britain is The search options are more or less the same as above, but care should be taken over searching by patent number, for which you need to add a country code and year.

Here are two examples to try out:

George Hale’s 1905 design for a a film show is a mocked-up railway carriage which rocked to and fro, marketed as Hale’s Tours (US patent 800100) [illustrated above]

George Albert Smith’s 1906 patent for a motion picture colour system, later to be called Kinemacolor (Patent no. 26671, or GB190626671)

British Silent Cinema Festival

The British Silent Cinema Festival hasn’t published its full programme as yet, but there is a guide to screenings and presentations which gives a good overview. The theme of the festival is Underworld: Crime and Deviancy in the British Silent Film, and it is being held at the Broadway, Nottingham, 26-29 April. The festival, co-organised by the Broadway and the BFI, is in its tenth year (time has flown…), and as usual it will feature a mixture of screenings, papers and special presentations in the informal manner which the festival has established so successfully for itself. Anyway, here’s the blurb:

Underworld: crime and deviancy in the British Silent Film

26 – 29 April 2007

Where did the crime film originate? Joseph von Sternberg’s silent masterpiece Underworld (1927) [illustrated] is often cited as the first gangster film and the prototype for the genre, spawning the crime thrillers of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and the more recent mob films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. But what came before that landmark film? This year’s British silent film festival examines the antecedents of the crime film; unearthing rare glimpses of master criminals and serial killers, legendary detectives and international terrorists. Looking at adaptations from some of the best-known crime writers, Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Wallace, we uncover crimes of passion, politically motivated crime, and crimes concealing Society’s dark secrets. Drawing on the extensive collections of the BFI National Archive, we will also look at both true crime, featuring Nottingham-born villain Charlie Peace and John Lee ‘the Man They Couldn’t Hang’ and crimes of the imagination, from the first ever crime film to Hitchcock’s Ripperesque tale of the London fog, The Lodger.

Screenings and presentations:

  • True Crime on Film: a history of real-life crime films from the earliest days including Mitchell and Kenyon’s The Arrest of Goudie and The Life story of Charles Peace.
  • Crime in silent fiction film: a history of crime stories including the recently discovered first ever crime film Arrest of a Pickpocket (1895) to Hitchcock’s classic The Lodger (1926).
  • Special live cinema event in the atmospheric surroundings of the medieval St Peter’s Church – Hitchcock’s serial killer mystery, The Lodger.
  • British star, Clive Brook in Joseph Von Sternberg’s rarely screened masterpiece Underworld (1927).
  • The First Born (1928) actor/director Miles Mander stars in this society shocker with co-star Madeleine Carroll (39 Steps).
  • Edgar Wallace’s tale of international terrorism The Four Just Men (George Ridgewell, 1921) with introduction by Wallace expert Jeremy Jago.
  • Classic crime series The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Fred Paul’s macabre Grand Guignol stories.
  • Rarely screened fragments of Britain’s only surviving silent serial, Ultus: The Man from the Dead.
  • Secrets and lies in Victorian England cause criminal deeds in a 1920 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
  • Bulldog Drummond’s Third Round (1925) directed by Sidney Morgan and starring Jack Buchanan in the title role.
  • Ellie Norwood, one of the great interpreters of our most famous detective Sherlock Holmes on film and a screening of Holmes feature The Sign of Four (1923).
  • Early films of the Salvation Army to mark William Booth’s origins in Nottingham and his connection to Broadway.
  • The International Women Pioneer Film Makers’ Project – presentations and discussion around this international research programme.

Excellent stuff. One film in particular to pick out is Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928), a genuine undiscovered classic, mature in theme and sophisticated in style, which hasn’t had the public profile is deserves largely because the surviving print is marginally incomplete. That, and the fact that it doesn’t turn up in any of the film histories. Shame on them, and well done to the festival’s organisers for having unearthed it.

Booking information from the festival website.

Ah, the Nuts and Bolts

One of the long neglected areas of film scholarship has been the technology developements over time. From the earliest days of the industry, cameramen, etc, had to come up with methods to handle film, shoot at different speeds, film from the air, and on and on. When archives first broached the idea of film preservation, for the most part film itself was the object of our affection. It wasn’t until much later that we realized the importance of this cinemachinery in the industry. From early cameras, lighting, and printers, the developments came fast and furious. Some were monsters in size and shape, like the original Mutoscope Camera of A, M & B. Carl Gregory developed a practical optical printer in 1927-28.

These and devlopments like them were one of the things responsible for the technical improvements in film production that made it to the screen. I have always found this period to be a treasure trove of technological development, and look forward to seeing much more research into this area of the early film industry.

Practical Cinematography and Its Applications

OK, back to the serious stuff, and another key text available for downloading from The Internet Archive. Practical Cinematography and its Applications (London: W. Heinemann, 1913) was written by F.A. Talbot, who wrote various popular science guides, including the much-cited Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1912). This plain person’s guide to the practical aspects of cinematography covers operating the camera, film development, scientific applications of cinematography, military uses, education films and (rather oddly) how to write screenplays. Odd, because Talbot’s concern is otherwise about the motion picture as a tool of discovery, not entertainment. There is also an intriguing call for national cinematograph laboratories. It’s available for free download in DjVu (9.6MB), PDF (29MB) and TXT (357KB) formats.

Silent MySpace

A surprising number of silent film figures have pages on MySpace. Here’s some of them, though mostly of interest for the phenomenon rather than the reliable information that they might provide:

And probably many more.