Glowing brighter

The conference “The Glow in their Eyes.” Global perspectives on film cultures, film exhibition and cinemagoing, previously reported on, has now extended itself and moved. It will now run over three days, 14-16 December, and will be in Ghent, not Brussels. This is due to the overwhelming number of contributions they have received (the call for papers has now closed). Film exhibition is very much where it’s at in film studies these days (or, at least it’s where where it ought to be), for early film and generally. More details from what is clearly shaping up to be a major event from the conference web site. As the organisers have just said to me in an e-mail, “this might become a hot conference”. I’m sure it will.

Le Bioscope

Le Bioscope

From time to time I pursue the etymology and the many uses of the word ‘bioscope’. So, let us journey to Ungersheim, Alsace, France, where you will find Le Bioscope. This is an environmental ‘leisure and discovery’ park, the intention of which is ‘to educate people to take responsibility for their own actions with respect to equilibrium with the environment’. As can be seen from the picture, it is organised in concentric circles, evoking the shockwaves caused by a meteorite which fell nearby in 1492. It is very much a ‘view of life’ (to cite the original meaning of bioscope), with the bio emphasising the biosphere, human biology, and the general interaction between Man and the world around him. It does have a cinema – Le Biorama. And for children there are lots of dinosaurs. It opened in June 2006.

RIP Ingmar Bergman

Rest in peace, Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), almost the last filmmaker to have experienced the silent era and to have it influence his own work. (Ronald Neame, who worked on Hitchcock’s silent/sound Blackmail is still with us. Eric Rohmer. Michaelangelo Antonioni. Anyone else?) As well as so much of his work being imbued with the look and feel of silent cinema, he of course gave the great silent director Victor Sjöström the key role in Wild Strawberries, and his autobiography looked further back in having the title Magic Lantern. A magic lantern also features in Fanny and Alexander. Magic lantern, silent cinema, sound cinema, theatre, opera, television – all a part of his career, all ways of seeing.

Films from 1907 at Il Cinema Ritrovato


The Bioscope has its reporters everywhere (well, sort of), and Frank Kessler has very kindly provided a report on the films from 1907 strand which featured at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival at Bologna. Here’s Frank’s report:

For the fifth time now, the Bologna Cinema Ritrovato festival has dedicated part of its program to films that are a hundred years old. Starting in 2003 to celebrate so to speak the centenary of Edwin S. Porter‘s The Great Train Robbery, this section of the program has offered many interesting insights into early film history, and also led to numerous fascinating discoveries. Due to the increasing lengths of the films to be shown, the 1907 programs occupied a larger proportion of the festival screenings than the ones projected in the previous years.

Mariann Lewinsky, who is responsible for the “100 Years Ago”-section, always tries to go off the beaten tracks, both in her selection and her programming strategies. Thus every time she chooses different angles to present also her personal view on a year of early filmmaking. Obviously, there are always practical factors to be considered, such as the availability of films, the quality of the prints etc. So, as Mariann Lewinsky explained, the fact that the 1907 retrospective was made up of mainly European films was due to such pragmatic reasons. (The 1905 program, by the way, was a very complicated one to put together as 1905 used to be – and possibly still is – the default date attributed by many archives to non-identified early films.)

All in all there were nine 1907 screenings, divided into two groups: the first one consisted of five programs dedicated to Bologna 1907 (films shown in Bologna from June 30th to July 7th, 1907, that is during the period of the festival itself, a hundred years ago), Pathé 1907, Italy 1907, Great Britain 1907 (productions by Hepworth, Urban and Mitchell & Kenyon) as well as films from the Abbé Joye Collection; the second one was organised thematically around topics such as ‘drama’, ‘actuality’, ‘at the seaside’, ‘au music-hall’, ‘colours – costume’ etc, as well as a series of films with Max Linder.

These rich and diverse programs allowed many discoveries. A favourite of mine was the 1907 Pathé film Le petit Jules Verne by Gaston Velle which, to my knowledge, is a unique case of combining explicitly the adventurous and scientific-technical universe of the well-known French author with the magical world of the féerie genre, embedding the latter in a Little Nemo-like dream sequence.

For more on Il Cinema Ritrovato do have a look at David Bordwell’s and Kristin Thompson’s blog.

Further details of the 1907 films show can be found on the Bologna festival site.

Times past

There are several large-scale digitisation progammes going on world wide which are starting to make substantial numbers of historic newspapers available online, a God-send for anyone engaged in research into early film. Some are freely available, some restricted to universities, some are commercial operations. There are various ways of getting at all of them, and in any case one shouldn’t shy away from paying a little for access to such treasures, given the huge efforts made to digitise them (something I know a little about).

This survey covers some of the major historic newspaper resources available. For each, I’ve tested them out with the word ‘Kinetoscope’ (i.e. Thomas Edison’s peepshow viewer which first exhiited motion picture films to the public, and which was most commercially active in the 1894-1896 period, but carried on as a common term for a few years after that).

Chronicling America

The Library of Congress is co-ordinating a huge newspaper digitisation programme, entitled Chronicling America. The project is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program. So far it has digitised selected newspapers for the period 1900-1910, covering California, District of Columbia, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Utah, and Virginia. That’s thirty-six newspapers, including such key titles as The San Francisco Call, The New York Sun, The Washington Times, The Colored American, and The New York Evening Times.

Chronicling America

Searching across all papers and all dates for the word ‘kinetoscope’ got me 71 hits. Clicking on a result gives me a picture of the full page, then options to view the OCR text (i.e. text derived throgh scanning using Optical Character Recognition, which may bring up some small errors), PDF, or I can download the image as a jp2 file. The term I searched for is highlighted on the image, and I can zoom in or out. Each hits gives you the title of the newspaper, the date of the issue, and the page number. On a quick survey of the texts, I saw the Kinetoscope was being commonly used as a generic term for motion pictures, rather than the Edison machine specifically.

Chronicling America is free to all, easy to use, and is certain to grow as the phased digitisation programme develops. The site has background information, including technical details for those entranced by TIFFs and JPEGs.

Times Digital Archive

Probably the most outstanding of the newspaper digitisation programmes, and the one that has had a great impact on research across any number of disciplines, is the Times Digital Archive. This is a commercial operation, managed by Thomson Gale. It offers every page from the London Times 1785-1985. It is possible to search for a term or phrase across all dates, a specific date or a date range, and across all types of section, or restricted to Advertising, Business, Editorial and Commentary, Featurees, News, People and Picture Gallery – this is a very useful feature for narrowing down searches.

Searching on ‘kinetoscope’ across all fields got me 60 hits. As it covers the 1890s period, the rsults were excellent, tracing the Kinetoscope’s appearance in London, from a first mention on 8 March 1894 of Edison’s latest invention, to the surprise discovery that in 1897 there as a racehorse called Kinetoscope (not a very successful racehorse, it seems). Search results cite the date, page, issue number and page column of the relevant article, with the search term highlighted on the page. You can view the relevant article or page as PNG images, or view the page as PDF.

Times Digital Archive

Such a wonderful resource comes at a price. It isn’t freely available, and instead it is made available to institutions in a variety of subscription packages. In the UK, most universities subscribe to it, under the Athens password system (which restricts online resources to UK academic users), but it can also be found in many public libraries. It is also available through subscribing international institutions as well.

Google News Archive

And then there’s the Google News Archive search. Naturally enough Google has provided us with a search engine which browses historic news resources, both free and subscription-based, so you are offered tantalising glimpses of news stories that can be yours if only you’ll pay. Typing in ‘kinetoscope’ yields 2,210 results. The results seem all over the place, but it is possible to narrow down the search by date or newspaper, as Google assesses which areas are likely to yield the most results from your broad search query. It can also arrange results in a handy ‘timeline’ fashion.

Google News Archive

It’s worth noting that many of the subscription sites, such New York Times, give you at least the first few lines of the requested article. Speaking of the NYT, you can pay $4.95 to view a single page, $7.95 a month (up to 100 articles) or $49.95 per year (up to 1,200 articles). Find out more from its TimesSelect service.

The Google News Archive is a wonderful research tool, not least for showing the sheer range of digitised newspaper collections out there, and as a quick spot-check method of seeing when a subject was being discussed, in what way, and by whom. I certainly want to read more of the Los Angeles Times article of 31 March 1897 entitled ‘Kill the Kinetoscope and its Kindred’, with the tantalising opening lines, “The Senate Judiciary Committee did well in reporting favorably the bill to prohibit the exhibition of prize-fight pictures by means of the kinetoscope and kindred devices in the District of Columbia or the Territories of the…”

British Library Newspapers

The British Library maintains the national collection of newspapers (still housed in quaint conditions at Colindale in North London). It has had had for some while a test online historic newspaper service, using Olive Software, which offers some year-long slices from four sample papers: News of the World, Manchester Guardian, Daily News and The Weekly Dispatch, from which only the News of the World gives a Kinetoscope story – on the racehorse, in 1900.

But now the British Library is engaged on a massive British newspaper digitisation programme, with higher education funding money (the JISC Digitisation Programme). The first stage of this, recently completed, has digitised 2 million pages of 19th century newspapers. Stage two, just begun, will add a further 1.1 million pages from 1690-1900. The results, however, will be accessible to UK higher and further education users only.

The lessons to be learned are simply that, if you want serious access to knowledge, you need to pay or to be a student. The number of precious resources being made available only to universities is a problem for the outside researcher, though that’s where the money is coming from, and in many cases it’s the only way of getting round licensing restrictions.

What else is out there?

There are commercial sites, such as ProQuest, which is a world leader in providing access to digitised resources to institutions, including historic newspapers. Like a number of these services, it offers free trials – but only to institutions. The massive welcomes individuals. It boasts over 68 million pages, and lets you know your search results for free, so Kinetoscope yielded a tantalising 2,923 hits. Annual membership starts at $8.95 per month.

But there are many smaller initiatives to look out for. A while back, I wrote a post on The Silent Worker, a newspaper for the deaf, which had many articles on the deaf and silent films. I found the information on that from the British Columbia Digital Library, which has a very useful listing of digitised newspaper collections around the world. And if you are frustrated at not being able to get hold of subscription-based collections, I recommend the Godfrey Memorial Library, an American library specialising in genealogy resources which for a very cheap annual subscription (from $35.00) offers access to a large number of newspaper libraries, including the Times Digital Archive.

There’s so much out there. If you know of other collections, or directories of information, do let me know.

Lillian Gish Film Festival

Lillian Gish

Doubtless making up a little for having missed out on hosting The Simpson Movie premiere, Springfield, Ohio plays host to The Lillian Gish Film Festival over 5-8 September. Films to be featured include Broken Blossoms, The Wind (with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra), The Night of the Hunter and The Whales of August. There are lectures, a Gish Wine Tasting (!) with Roundtable discussion, and a Gish Sisters Walking Tour. The Gish family came from Springfield: the father, James Leigh Gish, ran a confectionery business there, though they moved away soon after Lillian was born (1896), to Dayton, where Dorothy was born (1898). And then, of course, they experienced a peripatetic life as child stage performers.

More details from the festival site.

Summer of British Film

Summer of British Film

Today the BBC begins its summer-long season of over 100 British films, divided into seven themes (Thriller, Love & Romance, Social Realism, Costume Drama, Horror, War and Comedy), with seven acompanying documentaries. The selection of films is really quite imaginative – there’s a full list on the BBC site. If I can veer away from silents just for a bit, I strongly recommend Edmond Greville’s Noose (1948), showing this Sunday morning, a corking crime thriller set in Soho, with Nigel Patrick having the time of his life as a sharp-talking spiv; The Scarlet Thread (1950), with Kathleen Byron and Laurence Harvey, on August 3rd, just because I’ve never seen it and it looks intriguing; Victor Saville’s 1931 version of Hindle Wakes – not quite as good as the 1927 silent, but powerful stuff nonetheless, and oddly enough the rarer title these days – on August 10th (the BBC has a still for the 1951 version by mistake); and many many more – Obsession, Young and Innocent, Hell Drivers, I Know Where I’m Going!, Hungry Hill, This Sporting Life, That Hamilton Woman, A Night to Remember, Gregory’s Girl, Witchfinder General

There’s just the one silent, Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Needless to say, it’s being shown in the small hours, Monday morning July 30th at 1.30 am. To be honest, if I had to choose one British silent only to join such a parade, it wouldn’t be the sometimes ponderous A Cottage on Dartmoor, but it’s had some exposure of late, and so I guess it has a modest vogue about it. I’d have gone for the 1927 Hindle Wakes myself. Or The Informer. Or The Manxman. Or The Flag Lieutenant

Dr Plonk

Dr Plonk

Next month sees the release of Dr Plonk, a modern silent comedy written, produced and directed by Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer (who previously gave the world the film Bad Boy Bubby). It sounds rather engaging. Here’s the synopsis from the official site:

It is the great year of 1907. Dr Plonk, eminent scientist and inventor, calculates that the world will end in exactly 101 years unless immediate action is taken. As befalls visionaries through the ages, Plonk is ridiculed for his beliefs, by politicians, by bureaucrats, even by his faithful manservant Paulus. Being the lateral thinker that he is, Plonk invents a time machine and sets out to collect the necessary proof from the very future that’s ending.

But little about the year of 2007 makes sense to the intrepid doctor. His efforts to alert the appropriate authorities cause him to fall foul of the law and become a hunted man. With the nation’s entire law-enforcement system arrayed against him, a scientific question is posed … can Dr Plonk run fast enough?

According to the director, he made the black-and-white film out of 20,000 feet of unexposed stock that he found in a refrigerator. There’s a QuickTime trailer on the site which indicates that de Heer has seen a lot of Sennett comedies (the lead character looks very much like Ford Sterling) and absorbed the lessons well. There is apparently a strong element of contemporary social satire, with Dr Plonk being mistaken for a terrorist when he visits the madcap world of 2007. The film stars Magda Szubanski, Nigel Lunghi, Paul Blackwell and Reg the dog. It comes with its own music, played by the Stiletto Sisters (violin, piano accordion, double bass) and pianist Samantha White. And it runs for 86 mins.

The film will be released in Australia at the end of August.

No sale for Chaplin

The much-trailed auction at Christies of a Bell & Howell 2709 camera used by Charlie Chaplin resulted in no sale. The price had been put at £70,000-£90,000. The camera was one of four 2709 models used at the Chaplin studios. It was purchased in 1918 and used by Chaplin throughout the 1920s.

Despite the no sale, The Bioscope had one of its reporters on the spot, who returned with some fine pictures. Here’s a close view of the camera mechanism:

Chaplin camera

And here’s a marvellous Chaplin’s-point-of-view shot of the eyepiece:

Chaplin camera

As already reported, the camera sale of which the Chaplin camera was a part is rumoured to have been Christie’s last, the collector’s market not being what it once was. Which is sad, if it means that their glamour is fading. Not that I can usually tell one box from another – I can just about manage to spot a Bell & Howell, given the ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ look of the twin magazines, but thereafter I tend to get a bit stumped. So, don’t ask me which is which among this selection of boxes, which is one for the cognoscenti:


And, finally, something I can recognise, even without its box, though only because the name is somewhat prominently displayed – an Urban Bioscope, such as graces the header of this blog:

Urban Bioscope

With many thanks to Christian Hayes for the photographs.

Lost and Found no. 1 – Joseph Joye

I wrote a couple of days ago on the Michell and Kenyon film collection of Edwardian actualities, and asked whether such an extraordinary film collection would ever turn up again. Well, not yet, but despite time marching on and nitrate film inevitably decaying, remarkable early film collections do still turn up. While we’re waiting, I’m going to start up a mini-series on previous amazing collections, which should make us hopeful of future such discoveries. To start with, the heartening story of the Abbé Joye…

Joseph Joye

Joseph Joye (1852-1919) was a Swiss Jesuit priest who decided, around 1902-03, to start educating the children in his charge with motion pictures. Like quite a number of clerics around the world, he made the leap from showing scenes on the magic lantern to capturing his young audience’s attention with films. What made Joye different was the scale of his endeavour. He built up a collection of many hundreds of films over the period 1905-1914, purchasing prints on the second-hand market in the German-speaking quarter of Switzerland. It is said that in some cases he smuggled prints across the German-Swiss border by hiding the cans under the folds of his cassock. All were shown to his child and adult audiences, and then retained at his Basle school.

Joye was omnivorous in his tastes, collecting comedies, melodramas, classical adaptations, travelogues, actualities, trick films, histories, science films, fairy tales, industrials, coloured films: the whole rich panoply of early cinema production. His collection remained at the school, until it was discovered by a British filmmaker, David Mingay, in 1975. It was taken in by the National Film Archive in London, which had the best facilities for tackling such a huge collection of nitrate film, in 1976. The collection of 1,200 prints (all with German titles) was eventually restored and extensively catalogued in its entirety, a task completed in the mid-1990s. It was also lovingly researched by Swiss academic Roland Cosandey, who published the book Welcome Home, Joye! Film un 1910 in 1993 (if you find a copy, I took all the frame stills).

Ah! Da fleigt ein Aeroplan

(Ah!… Da fleight ein Aeroplan, a 1910 Gaumont comedy about people’s amazement at seeing aeroplanes, from the Joye collection)

It is one of the richest collections of early films in the world, renowned among the early film studies community but little known outside it. The collection is full of unique gems. Among the star titles are Victor Sjöström’s Havsgamar (Sea Vultures) (1915) and Ranch Life in the Great South-West (1910), which features the first screen appearance of Tom Mix. There is the awe-inspiring S.S. Olympic (1910), a Kineto film about the making of the sister ship to the Titanic (much used in TV documentaries) and L’Inquisition, a surprisingly graphic Pathé film on the Spanish Inquisition, which makes you wonder what was going on in Joye’s mind when he purchased it. There are ravishingly beautiful stencil colour films, and many travel films from around the world providing rare glimpses of peoples probably never filmed before. It is thematically rich in so many ways. And no DVD has ever been published, no catalogue (all of the shotlists can be found on the BFI’s database, though no search will find you all of the Joye titles in one go), no BBC4 television series…

If the BFI is looking for another ‘lost’ film collection to promote to the world, it has one sitting on its shelves.