Motion Pictures 1912-1939


Good grief. Rick Prelinger, of the Prelinger Archive, the sainted digitiser of so many good things now made freely available online, has just made the Library of Congress Motion Picture Catalogs available for download from The Internet Archive. Four volumes have been put up, in PDF and uncorrected but word-searchable text versions, covering 1913 to 1969, with the 1894-1912 volume in preparation. For our purposes, this includes all 1,256 pages of the 1912-1939 volume, which is sensational news for anyone interested in the study of silent film.

The Library of Congress Catalogs of Copyright Entries list all motion pictures registered for copyright in the USA (i.e. films not just made in the USA but shown in the USA). The entries give title, year, company, length, date of registration, and sometimes some credits. The printed volumes have long been the first port of call for anyone seriously engaged in identifying films from the silent period, but they have been restricted to a handful of research libraries. Suddenly they are available to all. The PDF is a huge size (157MB), but there is a 9MB text file of the word-searchable uncorrected OCR, and already there is talk of it being converted into a database. Wow.

The Bioscope Library

I’ve started a new page to The Bioscope. On the top menu you will now see Library. I’m going to use this to gather together those documents available in their entirety online somewhere which will be highlighted first as posts, and then transferred to the Library. All are freely available from downloading from their respective sources.

A number of these documents will come from Project Gutenberg, which is the free electronic books resource which is one of the glories of the Internet. The silent film researcher might suppose that its out-of-copyright material does not extend beyond the nineteenth century, but there is in fact a substantial amount of material of interest, if you know where to look (using the Full Text option under Advanced Search is recommended). These two key books from our period are available, and have been added to the Library:

1) Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (New York: Macmillan, 1915 [1922 revision]

The American poet Vachel Linday (1879-1931) wrote this celebrated study of the motion picture as an art form at a time when such a notion was generally considered ludicrous, though the grander works of D.W. Griffith were starting to change minds. It is an extraordinary work, categorising film by such grand phrases as Sculpture-in-Motion, Painting-in-Motion, Architecture-in-Motion and The Motion Picture of Fairy Splendour. It aims at the visionary, and recognises the importance of the medium in its time. It is often as foolish as it is insightful, and it has not worn well as a work of serious study, but its enthusiasm is unstoppable. It is also rich in information on films, performers and scenes that impressed themselves on Lindsay’s hyperactive imagination. It is available in ebook form as HTML (404KB) or plain text (180KB).

2) Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York/London: D. Appleton & Co., 1916)

Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) was Professor of Experimental Psychology at Harvard University. His short book The Photoplay: A Psychological Study is regarded as being the first serious work of film theory, a text which remains a key text for the study beyond its purely hisorical interest. Münsterberg was interested in the psychology and the aesthetics of motion pictures (chiefly fiction films), which he rooted in human thought processes and emotions. He argues for the legitimacy of film as one of the arts (a highly controversial position at the time) by arguing for the special ways in which it transforms the world through the act of transferring it onto the screen. It is stimulating read, and has a fascination simply for the details it gives of the cinema-going process and his responses to specific films. It is available in ebook form as HTML (289KB) or plain text (274KB).

Terra Media


A key aspect of The Bioscope’s mission is to highlight resources for the study of silent film, particularly those not well known or obvious.

A model example is Terra Media. This is a one-man marvel of information on the history of media, beautifully arranged, and filled with riches. Its centrepiece is Chronomedia, a detailed chonology of media history year-by-year. As the site says, “Chronomedia is designed to become the most comprehensive and accurate timeline of developments in communications media ever compiled. By integrating references to all audio-visual media—film and cinema, radio and television, cable and satellite, interactive (multi)media, photography, telegraphy, telephony and even printing and publishing—it becomes easier to see the parallel developments and interactions that have formed the media scene we know today.” The year-search option alone is a joy to see, individual entries are to the point, and it is all very satisfactorily cross-indexed, linked and illustrated.

There are other sections on quotations, the history of television as public performance, the quest for home video, a reference section, and a fascinating section on British media legislation. There are further sections on statistics (including early British cinema circuits) and contemporary documents (none covering the silent era). The site continues to grow, and is just such a pleasure to use. Its editor is David Fisher, whose day job is editor of the media news and market research journal Screen Digest. Take a look.

Rock with the silents

Also appearing at the San Francisco International Film Festival is the frankly bizarre combination of 70’s new wave odd ball Jonathan Richman providing a score for Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage. It appears that it was one of several silents shown to Richman, who then picked it as the one he wanted to provide a score for. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely combination of composer and film, but who knows?

I’ve previously expressed wariness over the fondness for some modern rock and jazz musicians to provide scores for silent film, simply because the the films are too often used as inspiration for often incongruous musical expression, placing the musician first rather than the film, as it should be. Certainly there have been some dire vanity projects, but also some felicitious comings-together of modern sounds and silent film form, and the attention they bring to the medium is always welcome.

I guess the trend started with Giorgio Moroder’s renowned/notorious score to Metropolis. I’ve mentioned jazz musician Dave Douglas’ take on Fatty Arbuckle, and Gary Lucas‘ bravura guitar score for Der Golem. John Cale turned up at Pordenone in 1994 and provided a score for The Unknown. Joby Talbot of Divine Comedy provided a score for Hitchcock’s The Lodger. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell (another personal favourite) has produced two CDs inspired by Buster’s Keaton’s Go West and The High Sign/One Week. Any more examples, anyone?