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.

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  1. Pingback: Slides and clippings « The Bioscope

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