Pordenone update

More programme information has been published on Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, or the Pordenone Silent Film Festival as it is also known. The festival takes place at Pordenone, Italy, 6-13 October, returning to Pordenone itself after a period of some years in exile at nearby Sacile, and housed in the new Teatro Verdi.

The outline programme was the subject of another post. Now we have more details on some aspects of the programme.

The Griffith Project, now in its eleventh year, moves on iin its chronological survey of D.W. Griffith’s suriviving film output to the years 1921-1924:

  • DREAM STREET (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1921)
  • ORPHANS OF THE STORM (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1921)
  • ONE EXCITING NIGHT (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1922)
  • THE WHITE ROSE (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1923)
  • AMERICA (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1924)
  • ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL (D.W. Griffith, Inc., US 1924)

Then there is the Corrick Collection from Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive. This is a collection of early films originally exhibited around the Pacific and Southern Asia by the Corrick family, touring entertainers from New Zealand.

  • [STREET SCENES IN PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA] (Leonard Corrick, Australia, 9 March 1907)
  • THE MAGICAL PRESS (Charles Urban Trading Co., GB 1907)
  • CHASSE AU PAPILLON (Butterfly Catching) (Pathé, FR 1906)
  • FIRE! (Williamson Kinematograph Co., GB 1901)
  • LA POUDRE ANTINEURESTHÉNIQUE (The Anti-Irritability Powder) (Pathé, FR 1909)
  • LA RUCHE MERVEILLEUSE (The Wonderful Bee-Hive) (Pathé, FR 1905)
  • NAVAL ATTACK AT PORTSMOUTH (Charles Urban Trading Co., GB 1907)
  • AN INDIAN’S GRATITUDE (La Gratitude du chef indien) (Pathé, US 1911)
  • MONSIEUR QUI A MANGÉ DU TAUREAU (The Man-Bull Fight) (Gaumont, FR 1907)
  • WHEN THE WIFE’S AWAY (R.W. Paul, GB 1905)
  • CRETINETTI LOTTATORE (Foolshead’s Wrestling) (Itala Film, IT 1909)

Believe me, it’ll be worth travelling any distance to Italy just to see Urban’s NAVAL ATTACK AT PORTSMOUTH, companion piece to the thrillingly dynamic TORPEDO ATTACK ON H.M.S. DREADNOUGHT, which is held in the BFI National Archive.

There will also be a selection of titles from the National Film Preservation Fund’s Treasures III DVD, already trailed on The Bioscope, a René Clair retrospective, and a programme of sponsored films curated by Rick Prelinger, with these titles:

  • ADMIRAL CIGARETTE (Edison Manufacturing Co., US 1897)
  • AN AMERICAN IN THE MAKING (Thanhouser Co., per/for United States Steel Corp., US 1913)
  • UNHOOKING THE HOOKWORM (Coronet Pictures, per/for International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, US 1920)
  • BEHIND THE SCENES AT HUTZLER’S (Stark Films, per/for Hutzler’s, US 1938)
  • MASTER HANDS (Jam Handy Organization, per/for Chevrolet Motor Company, US 1936)

That’s how it was with silent films – it wan’t just the glamour, you had people trying to deal with hookworm too.

So, all this and much much more. Full programme details here.

More from Mitchell and Kenyon


Clearly there are people out there who cannot get enough of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. Firstly there was the discovery of the lost haul of their actuality films of life in northern Edwardian Britain, an astonishing collection of 800 films in pristine condition, which were restored by the British Film Institute, with research undertaken by the National Fairground Archive. Then there came the 2005 BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, which opened people’s eyes to past lives in a way probably never achieved before by a television programme. That was followed by the DVD of the series, then an accompanying book, then a second DVD Electric Edwardians, and then another book of the same title. And there have been public screenings, and countless newspaper articles.

And now there are two more DVDs, and both look amazing. Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland, narrated by Fiona Shaw, includes twenty-six films taken by Mitchell and Kenyon 1901-1902, and covers Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Belfast. There’s an eighteen-page booklet, and a score by Neil Brand and Günter Buchwald. The second DVD, Mitchell and Kenyon Sports, is the one for me. Narrated by Adrian Chiles (clever choice), this has scenes of football, rugby, athletics, swimming and cricket. There’s film of Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and Hull Kingston Rovers. A particular highlight is film of Lancashire bowler Arthur Mold demonstrating his action to prove that he didn’t, as was alleged, throw the ball. The camera never lies… Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne provide the musical accompaniment.

How will these sell, and what else lies in the vaults ready for release? It’s still extraordinary the excitement that has been generated by this collection of films. The ‘local topical’ film of the 1900s, in which Mitchell and Kenyon specialised, has long been well-known to film archivists. They are films with particular charm because of their artless style and the way in which the people in the films address the camera. They have always been seen as having largely regional appeal, the sort of films that few would ever see or appreciate. Then along came 800 in one go, negatives, with an underlying history connecting them with town hall showmen and fairground operators who commissioned the films and exhibited them across the country. And one musn’t forget the drive of Vanessa Toulmin, of the National Fairground Archive, in pulling all of this activity together.

Mitchell and Kenyon weren’t the only producers of local topicals at this period, but they were the most important. It has be stressed that we knew nothing of these films before they were discovered. My reaction, when I first saw a list of the films when I was working at the National Film and Television Archive, was disbelief – such a number of previously unknown films simply couldn’t exist. M&K were know for a handful of ‘fake’ newsreels of the Boer War, but none of the actualities films turned up in filmographies – they are completely absent from Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue, while Rachael Low’s The History of the British Film barely mentions the company. We know better now.

Will there ever be such a film discovery again?

Frosted yellow willows

Anna May Wong

There’s a website on the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961), with the enticing title Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows. The title is a translation of her Chinese name, Wong Liu Tsong.

The site accompanies a documentary film of the same name about the actress who starred in a number of notable silents, including The Toll of the Sea (1922, a two-colour Technicolor film), Peter Pan (1924), Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1924), Old San Francisco (1927) and Piccadilly (1929). She generally rose above the ‘exotic’ settings in which she was invariably cast, to give luminous performances which have ensured her a lasting following. Her screen career petered out in shoddy melodramas in the 1930s/40s, but she also had a career on stage, radio and television, as the site makes clear.

The documentary is produced by Elaine Mae Woo and narrated by Nancy Kwan. There’s a trailer on the site plus a rough-cut promo. As befits its elegant and glamorous star, the site is stylishly designed. The documentary has been ten years in the making, but is reportedly close to completion. If you felt like helping it along you could always make a donation.

Iamhist conference report


Iamhist (International Association for Media and History) is an organisation of filmmakers, broadcasters, archivists and scholars dedicated to historical inquiry into film, radio, television, and related media. It publishes the widely-respected Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and organises biennial conferences. This year’s was held in Amsterdam 18-21 July, on the theme Media and Imperialism: Press, Photography, Film, Radio and Television in the Era of Modern Imperialism. There were several papers given on silent film subjects, and the Bioscope was there with pen and notebook.

A number of the best papers were given on media outside Iamhist’s usual frame of reference. Pascal Lefèvre spoke lucidly and informatively on Imperialist images in French and Belgian children’s broadsheets of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, finding arguably positive or some downright critical images that differed from the usual Western view of African peoples at this time. Andrew Francis was equally entertaining and observant in talking about the use of pro-Empire imagery in New Zealand newspaper advertising during the First World War.

On silent films themselves, James Burns spoke on the distribution (or lack of distribution) of the films of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910 and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1914 to black audiences in Africa and the Caribbean. The Johnson-Jeffries film (the black Johnson defeated ‘white hope’ Jeffries for the world heavyweight title) is well-known for how its images of a black victory alarmed many in America, though Burns pointed out that films of Johnson’s earlier victories over white opponents had not aroused anything like the same rabid reaction. He also pointed out that Birth of a Nation was not exhibited in Africa (until 1931), yet no evidence has yet been found to show why it was withheld. Burns’ has done excellent work on film and black African audiences (see his Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe), and his new research promises much, even if evidence of black audience reactions (outside the USA) remain elusive.

Simon Popple spoke on films of the Anglo-Boer War, focussing on the dramatised scenes of the conflict produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company. M&K are now renowed for their actuality films of life in Northern England in the Edwardian era, after the successful BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, but they also made dramas, recreating melodramatic scenes from the South African war to feed a public appetite for moving picture scenes of the war which had been disappointed by undramatic newsfilms of the conflict. These crudely histrionic dramas, with titles such as Shelling the Red Cross, A Sneaky Boer, and Hands Off the Flag, raise a laugh now, but presumably had them cheering in the aisles in 1900.

With the unavoidable but unfortunate practice of parallel sessions so that as many speakers as possible can be crammed in, no one could attend everything, and I missed some relevant papers, including Teresa Castro on ‘Imperialism and Early Cinema’s Mapping Impulse’ and Yvonne Zimmermann on ‘Swiss Corporate films 1910-1960’. Too few witnessed Guido Convents‘ excellent presentation on the huge production of Belgian colonial films, from the early years of the century onwards, all designed to remind the world and audiences at home that Belgian had a presence in Africa and an Imperial role to play. He also showed a heartbreaking film of the difficulties faced by the Congo film archive, which put into perspective some of the institutional troubles faced by the world’s larger film archives, described by Ray Edmondson in a plenary session. Edmondson nevertheless made an eloquent case for the ways in which some film archives have come under threat through insensitive political fashions and institutional follies. Archives seem hampered by being archives: politicians do not grasp what it is that they are about in the same way that they do with museums, a far more generously funded sector with a considerably greater public profile.

And there was more. Martin Loiperdinger showed magic lantern slides of British Empire subjects from the nineteenth century and considered their impact upon audiences. Kay Gladstone of the Imperial War Museum showed a two-hour selection of films from its amazing archive for the two world wars (and more), including a live action political ‘cartoon’ from the Anglo-Boer War, and images of Colonial troops in the First World War, though what left the audience stunned was silent, colour home movie footage of India at the time of partition in 1947, showing scenes of the misery caused that the newsreels of the time scrupulously avoided. And there was plenty on post-silent subjects, and me thrilling a small audience with a disquisition on databases and the misuse of thesauri and keywording in describing Imperial and Colonial themes. You should have been there…

These conferences are curious affairs. They are an excellent meeting place and a good way to catch up on the latest ideas, but you do also sit through some truly grim presentations – mumbled monotones, heads bowed down reading from indigestible text, oblivious to the needs of an audience. How some people can still continue to draw salaries as lecturers beats me – you do pity their poor students. And then there are the natural entertainers, who know their audience as well as their subject, and can speak wisely and clearly, in whatever time allotted. It was a well-organised event, the sun shone, the pavement cafés were inviting, and the coffee was fine. I’ll be following up some of the themes (especially silent cinema in Africa) in future posts.

Fflics festival

The Life Story of David Lloyd George

Advance notice of a festival of silent and sound film in Wales. The Fflics Festival (what a great name) will be held in Aberystwyth, 25-28 October. It advertises itself as “showcasing the history of both Welsh cinema and the Welsh on the big screen; from the earliest cinematic pioneers until the end of the nitrate film era.” Full programme details have yet to be published, but on 27 October it will feature the extraordinay bio-epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.

This life of the then prime minister was made with official co-operation, or at least blessing, by the Ideal company, with Maurice Elvey directing, but it was never shown to the public. The exact reasons why it was withdrawn from release remain a mystery, but it was thought that the film was lost until a print was rediscovered by the Wales Film and Television Archive (now the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales) in 1994. At the time, we were delighted that the film had been found again, but did not hold much hopes for it as a work of art. To our amazement and delight, the film turned out to be a masterpiece, an extraordinary mix of contemporary political biography and Griffith-inspired epic. It has many marvellous scenes – a riot outside a hall where Lloyd George gave a speech criticising the conduct of the Boer War has remarkable newsreel authenticity, and the scene where the poor, who have been released from penury by Lloyd George’s introduction of old age pensions, materialise through the walls of the workhouse is incredibly moving. It’s real living history, and there isn’t any other film quite like it. Let’s hope the Archive is eventually successful in its efforts to get this genuinely great film released on DVD.

The West in Early Cinema

The West in Early Cinema


The Bioscope returns from Amsterdam, and will regale you with a report on the Iamhist conference tomorrow. Meanwhile, thinking of that city, there’s a new publication from Amsterdam University Press which looks interesting. Nanna Verheoff’s The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning is an investigation of the emergence of the Western as a genre in the first two decades of cinema (i.e. to 1915). The author analyses Western films, many of them little known, from archives across the world, tracing the relationships between films about the American West, and other popular media such as photography, painting, popular literature, Wild West shows and popular ethnography, as well as other popular films. Great cover too. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”.

Clonic Mutations

Just time to let you know about Clonic Mutations, another silent film event taking place at Tate Modern as part of its Dali & Film strand, on Friday 20 July. Here’s the blurb:

Clonic Mutations features the world premiere of live new music scores created for a range of experimental films made between 1904 and 1952 with strong ties to surrealism. Composed for twelve musicians and clockwork toys by Sergio López Figueroa, a Spanish composer and specialist in silent film, the scores examine new contextual relationships between music, historical experimental film and art. The screening will feature the newly restored version of Un Chien andalou by Filmoteca Española.

Programme duration approx 60′

The Strength and Agility of Insects, F. Percy Smith, 1911, 3’58, DVD

A Phantasy, Norman McLaren, 1952, 7’15, 16mm

El Hotel eléctrico, Segundo de Chomón, 1904, 4′, digiBeta

Tusalava, Len Lye, 1929, 9′, 35mm

L’Étoile de mer, Man Ray, 1928, 18′, 35mm

Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, 1929, 17′, 35mm

Full details from the Tate Modern site.

Bordwell on Bologna

Talking of festivals, David Bordwell’s blog has a detailed report on this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, lavishly illustrated with assorted familiar faces from the silent film festival circuit. Not that Bologna is all about silent film – as he says, “Where else can you see films from 1907, Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955), and a tribute to Ben Gazzara in a single week?” It’s a marvellous report, enthusiastic, wise and entertaining all at the same time, from what must be the very best of all film blogs.