Stand up, Norma

Norma Talmadge

Browsing through Project Gutenberg, I have found a great many short or incidental references to silent movies which might never otherwise be found by researchers.

An example is Roving East and Roving West, a 1921 collection of essays by E.V. Lucas. Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) was an over-prolific essayist, with an easy style and a view on practically everything. He was an interested observer of the rise of motion pictures in the early years of the twentieth century, but by 1921, he had grown cynical at the numbing qualities of popular cinema and the medium’s failure (in his eyes) to live up to the promise of the documentary account of Cherry Kearton’s African films or Herbert Ponting’s Antarctic films. The simple response to Lucas would be that a cinema that only showed us visits to the jungle or the South Pole would soon lose its appeal, and he lapses too easily into criticising a mass audience for its simple pleasures. Nevertheless, the whole Norma Talmadge sequence can still make us squirm. The essay is called ‘The Movies’:

We have our cinema theatres in England in some abundance, but the cinema is not yet in the blood here as in America. In America picture-palaces are palaces indeed – with gold and marble, and mural decorations, built to seat thousands – and every newspaper has its cinema page, where the activities of the movie stars in their courses are chronicled every morning. Moreover, America is the home of the industry; and rightly so, for it has, I should say, been abundantly proved that Americans are the only people who really understand both cinema acting and cinema
production. Italy, France and England make a few pictures, but their efforts are half-hearted: not only because acting for the film is a new and separate art, but because atmospheric conditions are better in America than in Europe.

It was in Chicago that I had my only opportunity of seeing cinema stars in the flesh. The rain falling, as it seems to do there with no more effort or fatigue to itself than in Manchester, I had, one afternoon, to change my outdoor plans and take refuge at the matinee of a musical comedy called “Sometime,” with Frank Tinney in the leading part. Tinney, I may say, during his engagement in London some years ago, became so great a favourite that one performer has been flourishing on an imitation of him ever since. The play had been in progress only for few minutes when Frank, in his capacity as a theatre doorkeeper, presented by his manager with a tip. A dialogue, which to the trained ear was obviously more or less an improvisation, then followed:

Manager: “What will you do with that dollar, Frank?”

Frank: “I shall go to the movies. I always go to the movies when there’s a Norma Talmadge picture. Ask me why I always go to the movies when there’s a Norma Talmadge picture.”

Manager: “Why do you always go to the movies when there’s a Norma Talmadge picture, Frank?”

Frank: “I go because, I go because she’s my favourite actress. (Applause.) Ask me why Norma Talmadge is my favourite actress.”

Manager: “Why is Norma Talmadge your favourite actress, Frank?”

Frank: “Norma Talmadge is my favourite actress because she is always saving her honour. I’ve seen her saving it seventeen times. (To the audience) You like Norma Talmadge, don’t you?” (Applause from the audience.)

Frank: “Then wouldn’t you like to see her as she really is? (To a lady sitting with friends in a box.) Stand up, Norma, and let the audience see you.”

Here a slim lady with a tense, eager, pale face and a mass of hair stood up and bowed. Immense enthusiasm.

Frank: “That’s Norma Talmadge. You do like saving your honour, don’t you, Norma? And now (to the audience) wouldn’t you like to see Norma’s little sister, Constance? (More applause.) Stand up, Constance, and let the audience see you.”

Here another slim lady bowed her acknowledgments and the play was permitted to proceed.

What America is going to do with the cinema remains to be seen, but I, for one, deplore the modern tendency of novelists to be lured by American money to write for it. If the cinema wants stories from novelists let it take them from the printed books. One has but to reflect upon what might have happened had the cinema been invented a hundred years ago, to realise my disturbance of mind. With Mr. Lasky’s millions to tempt them Dickens would have written “David Copperfield” and Thackeray “Vanity Fair,” not for their publishers and as an endowment to millions of grateful readers in perpetuity, but as plots for the immediate necessity of the film, with a transitory life of a few months in dark rooms. Of what new “David Copperfields” and “Vanity Fairs” the cinema is to rob us we shall not know; but I hold that the novelist who can write a living book is a traitor to his art and conscience if he prefers the easy money of the film. Readers are to be considered before the frequenters of Picture Palaces. His privilege is to beguile and amuse and refresh through the ages: not to snatch momentary triumphs and disappear.

The evidence of the moment is more on the side of the pessimist than the optimist. I found in America no trace of interest in such valuable records as the Kearton pictures of African jungle life or the Ponting records of the Arctic [sic] Zone. For the moment the whole energy of the
gigantic cinema industry seemed to be directed towards the filming human stories and the completest beguilement, without the faintest infusion of instruction or idealism, of the many-headed mob. In short, to provide “dope.” Whether so much “dope” is desirable, is the question to be answered. That poor human nature needs a certain amount, is beyond doubt. But so much? And do we all need it, or at any rate deserve it? is another question. Sometimes indeed I wonder whether those of us who have our full share of senses ought to go to the cinema at all. It may be that its true purpose is to be the dramatist of the deaf.

What great novels were lost because writers were lured by the easy money of Hollywood? What a ridiculous accusation. Why not ask what great films were made because bright minds were put to working on the medium made for the times, sparing readers from sub-Dickensian epic novels. The movies have given us much to be thankful for.

Remaking The Lodger

It just been announced that a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 classic silent The Lodger is planned. Alas, it’s not been remade as a silent, nor is it being set in a fog-bound London. This time round, director David Ondaatje is setting the film in modern-day Los Angeles, and making The Avenger (originally played by Ivor Novello) a copycat killer (originally Jack the Ripper, maybe). Oh well.

More information from The Guardian.

All you need to know about the cinematograph

Pathe Cinematograph

The latest publication on the shelves of The Bioscope Library is Bernard C. Jones, The Cinematograph Book, published in 1915.

This is one of the classic guides to the practicalities of motion pictures in the silent era. It aimed at clarity with usefulness, and achieved it. The chapters cover the history of the ‘invention’ of motion pictures, the operation of a camera and projection equipment, developing and printing films, cinema screens, what to do in case of fire, cleaning and preparing films, producing trick films, and making films for the home. It also has a special section on natural colour cinematograph pictures, focussing on Kinemacolor. Finally there is a guide to the relevant acts and regulations (as they related to the UK). It’s all you needed to know. Once again, it comes from the Internet Archive.

Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa

There’s a new book out on one of the most intriguing of silent film stars, Sessue Hayakawa. Daisuke Miyao’s Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Duke University Press) tells the history of the Japanese actor who rose to fame in Hollywood in the silent era, ultimately gaining lasting fame for his role as the camp commander in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Hayakawa was born in Japan in 1889, where he became a stage actor. He moved to the USA aged 19, then went back to Japan to form an acting troupe which toured America in 1913. Film producer Thomas Ince gave him a contract. He was an immediate success in titles such as Typhoon (1914) and Cecil B. De Mille’s subtly sadistic The Cheat (1915). His wife Tsuru Aoki often co-starred alongside him. He left America in 1922, eventually settling in France, making occasional films. He died in 1973, having received an Oscar nomination for Kwai.

Miyao’s book focusses on the Japanese racial identity in American film, and how Hayakawa’s great appeal (he had a strong female following) was a mixture of the vogue for the refinements of ‘Japonisme’ and crude fears of a ‘yellow peril’. It’s an important history.

Shakespeare in the Canyon

I’ve been doing some research recently on films of Shakespeare’s plays in 1916, the tercentenary of his death, when there was great interest in his work, inevitably, and the film industry responded with a number of films of the plays.

However, while working on this I came across an intriguing story which is worth telling. To mark the tercentenary, the Hollywood Businessmen’s Club decided to put on a spectacular stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with the co-operation of the nearby film industry, which had moved into the area only a few years earlier. The production was put on at Beachwood Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills, in a natural amphitheatre (not what would become the Hollywood Bowl, but not far from it), on Friday 19 May 1916. It featured a cast of 5,000, who performed before an audience of 40,000. Stage properties were provided by D.W. Griffith, Jesse Lasky, Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and the universal Film Corporation, and the production featured gladiatorial combats, exotic dances, and a re-enactment of the Battle of Philippi which commenced half a mile down the canyon before working its way up to the stage.

But what is really eye-catching is the cast. Here they all are, with a few names that are still familiar (Fairbanks, Murray, Power), some that were once familiar (Hopper, Roberts, Farnum) and the remainder assorted Hollywood locals who were familiar only to their nearest and dearest:

Julius Caesar ………. Theodore Roberts
Marcus Brutus ………. Tyrone Power
Marc Antony ……….. Frank Keenan
Cassius ………. William Farnum
Casca ………. DeWolf Hopper
Young Cato ………. Douglas Fairbanks
Octavius Caesar ………. Charles Gunn
Cicero ………. Hal Wilson
Decius Brutus ………. H.B. Carpenter
Trebonius ………. Mark Fenton
Lucilius ………. Tully Marshall
Metellus Cimber ………. Cecil Lionel
Cinna ………. T.H. Gibson-Gowland
Flavius ………. Wilbur Higby
Marullus ………. Gilmore Hammond
Artemidorus ………. Harry W. Schumm
Soothsayer ………. Carl Stockdale
Calpurnia ………. Constance Crawley
Barbaric Dancer ………. Mae Murray
Cinna, a poet ………. Seymour Hastings
Titinius ……….. T.E. Duncan
Messala ………. T.D. Crittenden
Lucius ………. Capitola Holmes
Varro ………. N.A. Kessler
Pindarus ………. George Berengere
Publius ………. C.H. Geldert
Popilius Lena ………. Howard Foster
First Citizen ………. Arthur Maude
2nd Citizen ………. Ernest Shield
3rd Citizen ……….. Robert Anderson
4th Citizen ………. Clara Turner
5th Citizen ………. Samuel Searle
Slave to Caesar ………. Ralph Benzies
Slave to Antony ………. Robert Lawler
High Priest ………. M. Luiz
High Priestess ………. Florence Amy Donaldson
Portia ………. Sarah Truax
Cleopatra ………. Grace Lord

The director was Raymond Wells (presumably the film director of that name), and the assistant directors were Ernest Shield, Captain Louis R. Ball, Ralph Benzies, Mark Fenton, Nicolas Kessler, Robert Lawler, Mrs L.R. Ball, Miss Marjorie Riley, Miss Clara Turner, C.A. Bradshaw. These are some other credits that survive:

Scenic artists ………. A.J. Lapworth, W.H. Blackburn
Choreography ………. Marjorie Riley
Musical director ………. Wilbur W. Campbell (with musical selections from Delibes, Luigini, Tchaikovsky and others)

Students from Hollywood and Fairfax High Schools also featured in the crowd scenes. Assorted local figures were responsible for the organisational side of things. It was all done for the Actor’s Equity Association and made a net profit of $2,500. A follow-up indoor production then took place on 5 June 1916, at the Majestic Theatre, Los Angeles, supported financially by Griffith and Sennett.

What a show this must have been. Alas, I’ve not come across any photographs, and I’ve not yet gone looking for any reviews. It’s certainly a story worth pursuing for someone. Most of the above information I got from Ernest O. Palmer’s History of Hollywood (1938), plus an article by Catherine Parsons Smith in the journal American Music on the history of the Hollywood Bowl.

Just for the record, these are the Shakespeare films made in 1916:

THE REAL THING AT LAST (GB 1916 d. L.C. MacBean p.c. British Actors)
MACBETH (France 1916 p.c. Eclair)
MACBETH (USA 1916 d. John Emerson p.c. Triangle-Reliance)
MASTER SHAKESPEARE, STROLLING PLAYER (USA 1916 d. Frederic Sullivan p.c. Thanhouser)
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (GB 1916 d. Walter West p.c. Broadwest)
ROMEO AND JULIET (USA 1916 d. John W. Noble p.c. Metro)
ROMEO AND JULIET (USA 1916 d. J. Gordon Edwards p.c. Fox)
KING LEAR (USA 1916 d. Ernest Warde p.c. Thanhouser)
Also a 1913 MACBETH (GB/Germany d. Ludwig Landmann p.c. Film-Industrie) was re-issued in America in 1916.

Early Discourses on Colour and Cinema

Early Discourses on Colour and Cinema

I have just stumbled across a really excellent thesis on the history, function and meaning of early motion picture colour processes, especially Kinemacolor. It’s written (in English) by Eirik Frisvold Hanssen, of Stockholm University, and is entitled Early Discourses on Colour and Cinema: Origins, Functions, Meanings. It is an historical and theoretical examination of motion picture colour processes 1909-1935, and in particular it focusses upon Kinemacolor, the colour system invented in 1906 by George Albert Smith and sold to the world by the ebullient Charles Urban. It was first exhibited in May 1908, given the name Kinemacolor in 1909, and for five or six years it was the sensation of film exhibitions worldwide, until it was brought down by a court case and then rival colour systems, such as Technicolor.

Hanssen’s thesis contextualises Kinemacolor within a broader history and analysis of colour, while remaining very sound on the purely technological side of things. Its centrepiece is a detailed study of the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue and its representation of the idea of colour. The thesis can be downloaded as a PDF (1.47MB), or Hanssen’s book based on the thesis is available from Coronet Books, or it can be ordered via the US book site Barnes & Noble. It’s an exceptional piece of work – aimed at the specialist, but wise in the way it shows how important it is to view motion picture colour within a wider, historiographical undcerstanding of colour.

Kinemacolor has a perennial fascination, and there should be more activity coming up, given the centenary next year, and a recently-announced research project by the University of Bristol into Kinemacolor and Technicolor. As always, The Bioscope will keep you informed.

Diverting Time

The Egyptian Hall

Courtesy of Maney Publishing, publishers of The London Journal, I am able to publish a PDF of my new essay, ‘Diverting Time: London’s Cinemas and their Audiences, 1906-1914’. Between 1906 and 1914, there were over 1,000 venues exhibiting film in London. They attracted a vast new, largely working class, audience, drawn to an entertainment which was cheap, conveniently located, placed no social obligations on those wishing to attend, and which was open at a time that suited them. The essay examines the rapid growth of the first cinemas in London and the impact that they had on audiences, particularly in terms of the value they offered, not simply economically but in terms of time spent.

The essay gets its title from Montagu Pyke, cinema chain owner, occasional rogue, and author of a fascinating pamphlet on the potential of cinema, Focussing the Universe (1910), in which he writes:

The Cinematograph provides innocent amusement, evokes wholesome laughter, tends to take people out of themselves, if only for a moment, and to forget those wearisome worries which frequently appal so many people faced with the continual struggle for existence. It forms in fact – I like the word – a diversion. It is in some respects what old Izaak Walton claimed angling to be: An employment for idle time which is then not idly spent, a rest to the mind, a cheerer of the spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness.

Did anyone ever write a truer set of words to describe the appeal of cinema?

The essay is just one output from a research project into the film business in London before the First World War which was hosted at Birkbeck, University of London. Another output online, to which the essay refers in details, is the London Project Database of London film businesses and cinemas to 1914. More will follow, in due course.

More from the Marchioness

I’ve found more information on Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend, who wrote some scenarios for the Clarendon Film Company, and an interview with whom was given in an earlier post.

The new source of information is her autobiography, It Was – and It Wasn’t, written in 1937. This tells us a little more about the agreement she made in 1912 with Clarendon to produce scenarios for them, and gives us more film titles than I had listed.

She seems to had always had an interest in films, which included considering investing in cinema buildings, and she had written articles on aspects of film before she made a deal with Clarendon:

I had been keenly interested in the Cinema Theatre and its possibilities at Maidenhead, and in 1912 I entered into an arrangement with the Clarendon Film Company of Charing Cross Road, to produce a series of picture plays; the first play, A Strong Man’s Love, being well received by the public and the Press. The House of Mystery followed. These were the first cinematograph dramas to give the author’s name, and I was the first peeress to write for the Cinema.

Were these the first films to credit the scenarist (as opposed to a playwright)? I don’t know. It might be Anita Loos, whose first film for D.W. Griffith was The New York Hat (1912), or Harriet Quimby, wrote wrote five scenarios for Griffith in 1911, but was either credited on screen? But I think Gwladys is on solid ground when she says she was the first peeress who wrote for the screen. Fascinatingly, she names two others who wrote scenarios after her – the Countess of Warwick and the Countess of Roden. I know nothing of either.

Next she gives interesting information on how much she was paid:

The late Sir George Alexander and I believed in the artistic future of the Cinema. At that time I considered its moral and ethical possibilities limitless, and it is interesting to compare the views of the Gaumont Company in 1913 as to the prices paid for scenarios, with the money of 1935. In 1913 a representative of the Gaumont Company told an interviewer that, “on the whole, the scale of payment is not high, and the picture dramatist does not expect – at any rate, he does not receive – anything like the renumeration of his brother, the real dramatist. The royalty system exists, but it is not general, the plot usually being bought outright. The average price is that of a short magazine story, but many ideas are disposed of for half a guinea apiece.” At that time I was paid £300 for writing six film plays, but, fortunately for authors, prices have increased considerably since then.

After an aside on the importance of the cinema as a force for education, she describes how she used a model theatre in her garden – together with cardboard cut-out nuns for her film The Convent Gate – to work out how scenes should appear. Then, after comments on the need for appropriate music for silent films, she concludes thus:

After my first film play was produced by the Clarendon Film company, the same company produced another – When East meets West. This completed a series of seven film dramas commissioned by the same company during a period of two years – A Strong Man’s Love, At the Convent Gate, The House of Mystery, Wreck and Ruin, The Love of an Actress and The Family Solicitor. All these sound most melodramatic now, but had their little success in those days.

I hadn’t come across some of these titles, but all were produced, so here’s a complete filmography for her, with slightly mocking descriptions taken from Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue:

Released January 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Elizabeth
Crime. Vicar’s daughter elopes with actor who kills manager and is acquitted by barrister who loves her.

Released April 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Fake ghost, gas chamber, and raid on den of 50 coiners by 100 policemen.

Released September 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Marie St Clair
Drama. Jilted bride recovers sanity after being saved from fire.

Released August 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Actress
Evan Thomas … Peer
Drama. Film actress feigns drunkenness to repel peer but saves him from suicide after he takes to drink.

WRECK AND RUIN (2,755ft)
Released August 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew
Drama. Foreman saves mill owner from flood caused by striking workmen.

Released September 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Lawyer forges earl’s will so that his indebted son may inherit.

Released February 1915
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Indian fakir hypnotises officer’s daughter and explodes gas bulbs from afar with electric rays.

None of these films is known to survive today.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

Mr Hunt

110 years ago, on 22 June 1897, Queen Victoria processed through London to mark sixty years of her reign. Numerous motion picture cameramen were positioned around the route, including Birt Acres, Robert Paul, R.J. Appleton, Dr J.H. Smith, Alexandre Promio (filming for Lumière), Henri Lavanchy-Clarke, Alfred Wrench and John Le Couteur. A number of these short film survives, mostly in the collection of the BFI National Archive. Ten years ago I put together a commemorative show which combined the surviving films with photographs from around the route and actors reading our eye-witness testimony from Mark Twain, Edward Burne-Jones, Molly Hughes, G.W. Steevens and others. Recently I revived the show, and this is just a bit of advance notice that it will be featuring at this year’s Canterbury Festival, on Friday 19 October, with Stephen Horne on the piano, Neil Brand (away from the piano for once) taking the male parts and Mo Heard the female parts, with me as narrator. Booking opens 13 August!

The image above shows a section of the crowd in the stands outside St Paul’s Cathedral, where the main ceremonies took place (the Queen being too infirm to scale the steps and go inside). In the centre of the photograph you can see the camera and tripod of Mr Hunt, one of Robert Paul’s team of cameramen. And you can see footage taken by Paul himself (positioned on the other side of the square, in this QuickTime video clip from the New Zealand Film Archive.

West End Live

West End Live

This weekend, why not come to Leicester Square (should you be in London) and see West End Live, billed as “Free for all the family, this spectacular event includes performances from top West End shows alongside a variety of other musical acts. There will be a host of interactive displays and exhibits for a fun-filled action packed day.” Billed among all this fun for the family, which includes a Saturday Morning at the Pictures event organised by the BFI, you will find the Moving Pictures exhibition of film production and exhibition in London before the First World War, hosted by London’s Screen Archives. I was involved in the research for this, so do pop by if you can. You’ll find it in the same marquee as the BFI and Film London. Failing that, the exhibition returns to Westminster Archives Centre thereafter until the end of June.