Any questions?


I’ve added a new section to The Bioscope, and taken one away. The deleted section is Publications, which was done in a hurry and never updated. One day it will return, in a hopefully far better form.

The new section is Questions. If you have any questions on early and silent cinema, particularly if you have a research interest in some aspect of silent film, and it isn’t being covered by regular posts, do use the comment box on the Questions page (unfortunately it isn’t possible to set up a proper enquiries form within a WordPress blog). I’ll answer what I can, or find someone who can (such as one my co-contributors), and post the results where appropriate. If you’d rather contact me privately, then of course you can (contact details on the About page).

What the first movie goers saw


This is interesting. An online daily journal, The Slate, has published an article with video slide show on the reception of early films, inspired by the Phillips Collection’s Moving Pictures exhibition on early film and art, currently on exhibition in America. The article, by Jana Prikryl, is entitled ‘What the first movie goers saw’, and it is acompanied by ten films from the 1890s/1900s, a mixture of Lumiere, Edison and Biograph titles, courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art. The text reports on the Moving Pictures exhibition, which it says offers too narow an explanation of sources of inspiration for the first filmmakers, which is undoubtedly true. Interesting, the writer finds the films “oddly modern” because as short clips formed out of a “spirit of improvisation” they are close to the world of YouTube. While one must not be lured into the old belief that early films are naive and accidental – much artifice and deliberation went into even the simplest of actualities – she is right to say that in these mesmerizing clips we can see a “watershed moment in visual culture”, and the YouTube analogy is one worth pursuing (not least in view of the increasing number of early films now popping up there).

The clips include the bodybuilder Eugen Sandow in 1894, the Lumieres’ Feeding the Baby, Edison’s Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show and a Danse Serpentine. All of the clips have thorough credits and acknowledgment of source. Well worth watching, and reading, and pondering.

Joost shows silents

Joost logo

Along with half the online community, or so it seems, I’m one of those testing out the beta version of Joost, the system for distributing television programmes over the Web using peer-to-peer technology. The people who gave us Skype and Kazaa are behind it, and it’s supposed to show how all our viewing habits are going to change by turning your PC into a TV. Well, maybe so, though the much of programming on offer so far ranges from the exotic (Basquetbol de America Latina) to the unnecessary (PokerHeaven TV). But there are some signs there of a more promising future, and who can complain at the programming of the recently-added The Silent Movies Channel? Available worldwide, it features Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (“relive your childhood memories with the silent movies’ four greatest stars” says the Joost 24 site, which is an unlikely claim unless they’re thinking of those Bob Monkhouse programmes that introduced people like me to the silent comedians in the 1960s – today’s generation has Paul Merton doing the job instead).

The Silent Movies Channel is produced by a company called Indivisual, a video-on-demand business licensing a whole range of “quality niche content to on-demand platforms around the world”. What you get, then, is Chaplin’s The Rink, A Jitney Elopement, In the Park, A Night in the Show, Easy Street, His New Job, Police, The Floorwalker and Burlesque on Carmen; Keaton’s Convict 13, The High Sign, The Balloonatic, Neighbors, The Electric House, One Week, The Boat and Daydreams; and Laurel and Hardy in a selection of silent shorts from early in their careers as solo artists – Laurel in Roughest Africa, Mud and Sand, White Wings etc, and Hardy in The Sawmill, Kid Speed, and the pair of them in A Lucky Dog, their first film together (1921, though made in 1919), if not as the paired comic team they were to become.

Quality wise it’s your typical pixellated, just about adequate online video (can’t tell you about the music because the sound wasn’t working on my PC), OK full screen if you sit back enough. However, it’s interesting to see the positive comments that there have been about the Silent Movies Channel from those reviewing the channels available on Joost. This is the sort of stuff, seems to be the feeling, that should be made available to all, which can appeal to all. And it’s a pleasant way in which to while away a lunch hour.

Mander and Mitchenson

The world famous collection of theatre memorabilia gathered together by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson has now published an online catalogue. The collection comprises over two thousand archive boxes containing playbills, posters, programmes, engravings, cuttings and production photographs of London and British regional theatres. There are files on every actor and actress of note in the British theatre, and sections on circus, dance, opera, music-hall, variety, dramatists, singers and composers, together with many engravings and pictures.

Inevitably, there is much that relates to the cinema, especially the early years of cinema. There are few documents themselves available online, but judicious use of the catalogue fields yields gems. There is a Search Everything option, and individuals fields for Names, Titles, Subjects, Dates and Keywords. Each search result provides a Brief Details and a Full Description. This is where the useful stuff lies – some thorough catalogue descriptions, such as this for the Palace Theatre in London’s Cambridge Circus, an important venue for Biograph films in the late 1890s/early 1900s, and host to occasional film shows thereafter:

Palace Theatre (Cambridge Circus, London) Collection

Resource code: GB2649-MM-TL-PLC
Title: Palace Theatre (Cambridge Circus, London) Collection
Format: Set plans and designs; Documents (production); Ephemera eg. daybills and flyers; Programmes; Drawings; Prints; Photographs (production); Photographs (venue); Photographs (miscellaneous); Negatives; Postcards; Music scores; Song sheets; Libretti; Autographs; Ephemera eg. tickets; Published material; Scrapbooks; Periodicals; Press cuttings; Correspondence; Manuscripts; Ephemera; Photocopies

Description: The Palace Theatre opened on 31 January 1891 as the Royal English Opera House under Richard D’Oyly Carte. It changed its name to the Palace Theatre of Varieties in 1892, and specialised in music hall/variety productions, hosting the Royal Command Variety Performance in 1912. From c1914 it began staging revues, as well as the occasional cinema shows in the 1920s and 1930s. In recent decades it has produced a large number of musicals.

Description: The papers include depictions of the exterior of the theatre as it was, 1896-c1989, and of the interior, c1903-1912, articles, press cuttings, notes, etc. relating to its history, 1891-20th century, theatre tickets, 1954-1968, a list of productions from 1891 to 1985, an information pack on the completion of exterior refurbishments, 1989, the Summer 1997 edition of Picture House, containing an article, Pictures at the Palace, by Graeme Cruickshank, a booklet, The Royal English Opera House and The Palace Theatre – 100 Glorious Years, An Illustrated Chronology, by George Cruickshank, 1991, programmes relating to charity and Sunday events, 1900-1994, and papers relating to the Royal Command performance of 1 July 1912.

Description: The majority of the material relates to performances and is arranged in chronological order from 1891 to 1999, although a number of items are copies or later reprints of original documents; the earliest original document is dated 1891. It includes a pen and ink sketch of Esther Palliser and David Bispham in La Basoche, 1891, a souvenir booklet issued by the theatre entitled The War by Biograph, 1900, set plans, etc. for The Gay Divorce, 1932, correspondence, set plans, wardrobe lists, technical specifications, etc. relating to a proposed performance of Carissima in South Africa, 1952, and an introductory booklet to the Théâtre Nationale Populaire, 1956. Coverage is particularly good for the following productions: Ivanhoe (1891), The Passing Show (1914-1915), Bric-à-Brac (1915), Vanity Fair (1916-1917), No No Nanette (1925), Heads Up! (1930), Dinner at Eight (1933), Streamline (1934), On Your Toes (1937) including a large number of stage plans, Under Your Hat (1938), Song of Norway (1946), Carissima (1948), King’s Rhapsody (1949), The Love Match (1953), Glorious Days (1953-1954), the Shakespeare Memorial Company’s touring production of King Lear (1955) including typed transcripts of revues, The Sound of Music (1961), Cabaret (1968), Mr. Mrs. (1968), Jesus Christ Superstar (1972) and Les Miserables (c1985-1999).

Language: eng
Conditions of access: By appointment
Acquisitions policy: Possible future additions
Owner: The Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection
Copyright status: Contact Administrator for permissions
Collection located: Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts
Trinity College of Music
King Charles Court
Old Royal Naval College
London SE10 9JF
Keyword: Variety
Keyword: Revue
Keyword: Stage setting and scenery
Keyword: Technical information
Associated name: Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus, London
Associated name: Royal English Opera House, Cambridge Circus, London
Associated name: Palace Theatre of Varieties, Cambridge Circus, London
Associated name: Théâtre Nationale Populaire
Geographic coverage: London
Collection time span: 1891-1999
Accumulated: 1938 –
Principal collector: Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson
Parent Collection: The Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson Theatre Collection

The collection itself is located at Trinity College of Music, Greenwich – contact details from the website.


Thanks to the fine people at WordPress, all sorts of statistical stuff comes with this blog’s content management system, and so I am pleased to report that The Bioscope has just passed the 10,000-visitor mark since it began in February of this year. 211 is the record number of visits for any one day (all those people looking for information on Albert Kahn), with somewhere between 80 and 100 as the daily average. There have been 201 posts (most from me – a handful from my co-contributors), 113 comments (could do better) and Akismet has cleared up 1,194 unwanted spam comments.

Thanks for reading The Bioscope, whose archives ought to build up into a useful reference source in time (that’s the plan). If there is information or features on silent film that you’d like to see here (particularly if it’s the sort of thing that can’t be found elsewhere on the Web), let me know.

When the Movies Began…


The latest feature to be added to the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema web site is When the Movies Began. This is a chronology of the world’s film productions and film shows before May 1896. It was originally compiled by Stephen Herbert and published as a booklet by The Projection Box in 1994. This updated and redesigned version incorporates new research, in particular the work of Deac Rossell, and it will be regularly revised and updated. There is also a full introduction and list of references.

Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema is a biographical reference guide to 300 or so people involved in the production of motion pictures before 1901, both behind and in front of the camera. It includes a wealth of supporting resources on the subject of Victorian film (i.e. film during the time of Queen Victoria’s reign), with a growing number of special features, such as When the Movies Began.

The Birds and the Bees


Why not pop down to the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank next Tuesday evening to see a programme of some of the less usual kind of silent films? The Birds and the Bees is a special programme of early natural history films, put together by the BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon. Early British film history is rich in naturalist filmmakers who, decades before David Attenborough, were combining science with entertainment to prove that the movies could do more than just distract the masses with slapstick and melodrama. Filmmakers such as Oliver Pike, who specialised in recording birds in their habitat in films such as St Kilda, its People and Birds (1908); or the wonderful Percy Smith, who made stop-frame films of plant growth that could take over a year to produce, as well as meticulous studies of animal life with a touch of showmanship about them. Or what about the extraordinary J.C. ‘Bee’ Mason, war cameraman, adventurer and apiarist, whose films of his life-long hobby, such as The Bee’s Eviction (1909), are mad entertainment.

It’s on at 18.15, Tuesday June 16th in NFT2. More details from the BFI Southbank web pages.

The Edison Motion Picture Myth

Thomas Edison W.K-L. Dickson

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is something of a surprise, since it is a comparatively recent publication to be found on the Internet Archive. It’s Gordon Hendricks’ The Edison Motion Picture Myth (1961), a notable if idiosyncratic contribution to early film history.

Gordon Hendricks was a determinedly independent film historian who was driven to investigate the history of Edison’s development of the motion picture to overturn the “morass of well-embroidered legend” which existed at that time for the beginnings of American film, especially in the biographies of Thomas Edison. Hendricks wanted also to champion his own hero, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, Edison’s chief technician on the motion picture project.

The book is a meticulous exploration of the history of the Edison experiments 1888-1894 which led to the Kinetoscope peepshow viewer, the Kineotgraph camera, and the world’s first successful motion picture films. Hendricks made an intensive trawl through the archives at the Edison National Historical Site, overturning myth after myth, and producing solid information which has been gratefully turned to by succeeding film historians, but it has to be said the book is not an easy read. Hendricks aranges his information in tortuous fashion, swamping the reader with bewildering detail. As Charles Musser puts it, “the caustic historiography … verged on the impenetrable”. But Hendricks achieved his aim, and Dickson’s pre-eminent role as the inventor of motion pictures is widely accepted by historians (though some challenge the focus on personalities in considering the business of ‘invention’).

If that description of the book doesn’t quite whet the appetite of the non-specialist, there are several good sources online for finding out more about Edison, Dickson, and the invention of American film.

The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site has biographies of Thomas Edison and W.K-L. Dickson as well as a wealth of associated information.

The Edison National Historic Site has extensive information on all parts of Edison career. The Edisonia section has information on the archives, sound clips, Kinetoscope films, a large number of photographs, and a listing of all 1,093 of Edison’s patents.

The Library of Congress’ American Memory site has a section, Inventing Entertainment, with a large number of early Edison films and sound recordings all freely available for viewing and downloading. See such classics as Dickson Greeting (1891, arguably the first film ever made, illustrated below), Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894), Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894) and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895).

Dickson Greeting

The Thomas A. Edison Papers is one of the great research resources on the net. The project they are undertaking is to edit over five million documents. The online edition has 180,000 document images and a searchable database of 121,000 documents and 19,250 names. The seaching mechanism is a bit on the elaborate side, but it’s more than worth it – for example, take a look at over 300 letters written between Edison and Dickson.

And if you don’t like all this revisionist stuff, why not visit the Edison Birthplace Museum, and be reassured that Edison invented it all.

Finally, the book to read is Charles Musser’s filmography de luxe, Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900 (1997).

Gordon Hendricks also wrote Beginnings of the Biograph (1964) The Kinetoscope (1966) and Eadweard Muybridge (1975), all of them rich in reliable, painstakingly uncovered evidence. The Edison Motion Picture Myth is available to download from the Internet Archive (note the mispelling of ‘Edison’ in the title, by the way) in DjVu (13MB), PDF (16MB) and TXT (589KB) formats.

Silent cinema in Ulster

Picture House

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, in Cultra, Co. Down, is known for its exhibitions on the way of life of the people of Northern Ireland, including not just artefacts but sometimes relocated original buildings. Current activity at the museum is seeing the installation of a traditional hardware shop, a draper’s shop, a dispensary, and a cinema. True to form, the cinema originally operated in the upstairs of a barn in the town of Gilford, in the 1920s. It has now been rebuilt in its entirety at Cultra, and the intention will be to operate it as a cinema once more.

There a BBC northern Ireland report on the story here and a Northern Ireland Executive press release here. The latter fascinatingly gives the costs of installing the Gilford Silent Cinema:

EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation (NITB) £541,441
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure £432,269
Heritage Lottery Fund £177,900
Foundation for Sport and the Arts £34,500
Total £1,186,110

Which seems like quite a lot of money. But, as the Northern Ireland Museums Minister said,

“In today’s world children instantly understand the technology behind DVDs, television and film. The learning spaces in the cinema will play a key role in helping them understand film production in days gone by. This can only benefit everyone and contribute to a better and more tolerant society.”

Well, amen to that.