Silent film music

Among the joys of experiencing live silent film shows is the music accompaniment. A handful of pianists have established worldwide reputations for their skill in playing (frequently improvised) to the silents, among them Donald Sosin, whose elegant and informative website is at As demonstration of something of the working life of a silent film pianist, here’s a list of shows where he can be seen and heard this year:

  • Mar 18 2pm FIG LEAVES (Howard Hawks) at Museum of Moving Image (part of a fashion series)
  • Apr 14 12pm PETER PAN (Herbert Brenon) at Tarrytown Music Hall
    (2nd silent series there)
  • Apr 15 12pm SPEEDY (Harold Lloyd) at Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Apr 19 7:30pm SON OF THE SHEIK (with Valentino) at Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Apr 27-28 residency at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point
  • Workshop with music students, public performance of shorts and THE KID BROTHER (Harold Lloyd)
  • Jun 2 Ithaca Festival films made in Ithaca
  • Jun 3 SUCH IS LIFE and KREUTZER SONATA National Gallery, Wash DC
  • Jun 10 11am STEAMBOAT BILL JR at Coolidge Corner (MA) Theater
  • Jun 12 TBA Brooklyn Academy of Music
  • Jun 30-Jul 7 Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna (performed there since 1999)
  • Jul 14/15 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (films TBA)
  • Sep 14/16 Port Townsend (WA) Film Festival
  • Oct 6-13 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Italy (since 1993)
  • Oct 17-22 Brooklyn Academy of Music Pordenone at BAM series

More and updated information on his site.

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 1


I’m going to start up a new series of posts, telling you how to set up your own cinema, in 1910. The posts will present extracts from the book How to Run a Picture Theatre: A Handbook for Proprietors, Managers and Exhibitors, published by The Kinematograph Weekly in 1910 [correction – probably 1912]. First thing to consider, where are you going to build it?

On Selecting a Site. It requires but a very slight stretch of memory to go back to the time when the opening of an electric Theatre was an extremely simple operation. Any disused shop to which could be added an attractive looking front, was considered good enough for the purpose of a moving picture display. But with competition has come a change, and to-day, he who would succeed as a moving picture exhibitor needs not only capital, but an artistic taste and business acumen …

… The value of a site naturally depends to a large extent on local circumstances. It must be borne in mind that the public on pleasure bent does not frequent the residential areas in search of entertainment. Therefore a main business artery is to be preferred and care should be also taken to have the theatre on the right side of the street. It is strange, but nevertheless true, that twice as many persons frequent one side of a street as are to [be] found on the other side, and it is the side most used by pedestrians that is best fitted for the electric theatre …

… It is well to consider also from whence your clientele is likely to be drawn when you have opened your theatre. It does not pay to expect one’s patrons after the turmoil of the day to walk miles to the theatre. Therefore, the site should be as near as possible to the part most densely populated by the comfortably-positioned artizan or middle classes, as they are the greatest supporters of the picture theatre.

Electric Theatre was a standard term for cinemas at this time. It seems to have been first used for Thomas L. Tally’s Electric Theater, a storefront show which opened in Los Angeles in 1902. The term was exported to Britain in 1908 by New York businessman Joseph Jay Bamberger, who established the first cinema circuit in London with his Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. His cinemas were each called Electric Theatres, and the name became generally used for a time. Another name for early cinemas was, of course, a bioscope.

More to follow.

Australia’s Silent Film Festival

It’s all film festivals at the moment. Australia’s Silent Film Festival has its inaugural programme in Sydney over three days, March 30 to April 1. Screenings at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace at Cremorne will include Cyrano de Bergerac, Sunrise, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. On 1 April, at the New South Wales Art Gallery, there will be a restored print of the 1927 Australian silent classic, The Kid Stakes.

Rather pleasingly, the festival has as its nominated charity the Deaf Society of New South Wales.

The Bioscope, or dial of life, explained

The book which gave us the word ‘bioscope’ is available to download for free from the Internet Archive. The full title of Granville Penn’s 1812 religious tract is The bioscope, or dial of life, explained. To which is added, a translation of St. Paulinus’s Epistle to Celantia, on the rule of Christian life: and an elementary view of general chronology; with a perpetual solar and lunar calendar. It’s available in DjVu (9MB), PDF (21MB) or plain text (340KB) formats. For further information on Penn’s definition of the term, see the post from 6 February 2007.

The silent films of Alfred Hitchcock


I’m still experimenting with what The Bioscope should be doing, and I’ve decided to ditch the Lists section. Other more suitable Pages will be introduced in due course. Meanwhile, I’ve moved the one filmography that was under Lists to here. And so…

Here is a complete listing of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent film work, including his apprentice work at the Famous Players-Lasky British studio where he only designed titles, up to Blackmail, his last silent and first sound film. Noted are his credits for each film, and whether or not it is known to survive. All are feature-length except Number Thirteen and Always Tell Your Wife, which were both two-reelers.

1920 The Great Day (titles) [lost]

1920 The Call of Youth (titles) [lost]

1921 The Princess of New York (titles) [lost]

1921 Appearances (titles) [lost]

1921 Dangerous Lies (titles) [lost]

1921 The Mystery Road (titles) [lost]

1921 Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush (titles) [lost]

1922 Three Live Ghosts (titles) [lost]

1922 Perpetua (titles) [lost]

1922 The Man from Home (titles) [lost]

1922 Spanish Jade (titles) [lost]

1922 Tell Your Children (titles) [lost]

1922 Number Thirteen (director/film unfinished) [lost]

1923 Always Tell Your Wife (co-replacement director) [one reel of two survives]

1923 Woman to Woman (co-script, assistant director, art director) [lost]

1923 The Prude’s Fall (script, assistant director, art director) [survives incomplete]

1924 The Passionate Adventure (co-script, assistant director, art director) [survives]

1924 The Blackguard (script, assistant director, art director) [survives]

1924 The White Shadow (art director) [lost] [update – discovered in 2011, see comments]

1925 The Pleasure Garden (director) [survives]

1926 The Mountain Eagle (director) [lost]

1926 The Lodger (director, actor) [survives]

1927 Downhill (director) [survives]

1927 Easy Virtue (director) [survives]

1927 The Ring (director, screenplay) [survives]

1927 The Farmer’s Wife (director) [survives]

1928 Champagne (director, adaptation) [survives]

1929 The Manxman (director) [survives]

1929 Blackmail (director, adaptation, actor) [silent and sound versions were made, both survive]

None of the films that Hitchcock did the titles for are known to survive. It is unclear whether the one reel that survives of Always Tell Your Wife features Hitchcock’s work or not. Around 2,000ft of The Prude’s Fall survives. The Passionate Adventure survives in a German titled version. There are at least two different prints of The Pleasure Garden in existence, a print which was shown a few years ago on Danish television being different in a number of respects to that in the BFI National Archive. Easy Virtue seems to exist only in 16mm. The Mountain Eagle is the only silent feature film directed by Hitchcock which remains lost. There are some striking stills from the production reproduced in Dan Aulier’s Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks. All of Hitchcock’s extant silent work is available on videotape or DVD, with the exception of Always Tell Your Wife.

For more information, see Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock, Marc Raymond Strauss’ Alfred Hitchcock’s Silent Films, or the catalogue for the 1999 Giornate del Cinema Muto, which featured a retrospective of all Hitchcock’s extant silent films.

Playground rhyme

This playground rhyme was (is?) sung by South African children:

Skinny-malinky long legs
Big banana feet
Went to the bioscope
And fell through the seat.

Bioscope is still the name for a cinema in South Africa.

Chinese classics


Koch Entertainment is releasing a number of DVDs of Chinese silents. This is excellent news. In 1995 the Pordenone Silent Film Festival put on a season of Chinese films from the 1920s and 1930s (silent cinema lasted for several years more than in the West) which were truly eye-opening. Here were dramas with the style, star quality and emotional power to match anything that Hollywood had produced at the peak of its silent production.

The titles announced are: Crossroads (1937) [sound]/Daybreak (1937) [silent], Street Angels (1937)/Twin Sisters (1934) , The Big Road (1934)/Queen of Sports (1934), and Romance of the Western Chamber (1927). The latter is released on 13 March; the others in May.

If you have to pick one title, go for Daybreak. This is one of the true classics of world cinema, let alone silent cinema. It’s a lush but moving melodrama in the Frank Borzage-style, poignant, lyrical, and starring the truly great Li Lili.

Details of all the DVDs (Region 1) can be found on DVD Planet. All have English titles.

Chaplin in Kyoto

2007 sees the thirtieth anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s death, and there are a number of events, publications and resources planned throughout the year. One such event is the 2nd Kyoto Chaplin Conference, held by the Chaplin Society of Japan. The Society’s site is rather confusingly advertising the conference as being in March 2006, but as the end date for the Call for Papers was 15 February 2007, presumably this is an error. The theme of the conference is Chaplin and War. The Kyoto Silent Film Festival takes place 24 March-1 April 2007 and includes a restored version of Shoulder Arms accompanied by the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, along with films about war by other artists, including King Vidor’s The Big Parade (restored version) and Japanese war documentaries. The programme will include a newly discovered fragment of film of the young Chaplin’s comic inspiration, the Spanish clown Marceline. The principal retrospectives are dedicated to D.W. Griffith, Sessue Hayakawa, and Japanese silent film comedians.

Other Chaplin events lined up around the world include a photographic exhibition, Chaplin in Pictures, which is touring Europe; and the completion by the Cineteca Bologna of its digitisation of the Charlie Chaplin Archive, which will go online in Summer 2007.

More information on Chaplin events can be found at