Damfinos convention

The Three Ages

The Three Ages (1923), from http://www.busterkeaton.com

The 13th Annual Damfino Convention takes place in Muskegon, Michigan, 5-6 October. This the annual convention of the International Buster Keaton Society. Promised attractions include a baseball game on the field where Buster played as a child, a ‘Know Your Keaton’ trivia quiz, a Keaton memorabilia auction, scholarly presentations, and a costume party. Among the screenings is a rare showing of The Three Ages (1922), Keaton’s first feature film, which co-starred Margaret Leahy, winner of a British ‘find-a-film-star’ competition, whose poignant story I tell in an essay available on the Damfinos website (you’ll find it in the Articles section).

Silent film days in Tromsø

Amundsen film

Roald Amundsen’s Polar Expeditions, from http://www.tiff.no

Silent film days in Tromsø is part of the Tromsø International Film Festival, held in Tromsø, Norway, and takes place 6-9 September. The festival is to be held in the Verdensteatret cinema, originally built for the exhibition of silent films in 1916. The festival site is in English as well as Norwegian, and here’s the programme:

Thursday September 6th
08:00 pm Opening – LA PASSION DE JEANNE D’ARC. Music composed and performed by Matti Bye (SE)

Friday September 7th
03:00 pm Polarfilm; ROALD AMUNDSEN’S POLAR EXPEDITIONS. Music composed and performed by Ben Model (US)

06:00 pm MADAME DE THEBES. Music composed and performed by Matti Bye (SE)

09:00 pm A TRIP TO MARS. Music composed and performed by Gaute Barlindhaug (NO)

Saturday September 8th
12:00 pm SHORT FILM PROGRAM. Music composed and performed by Ben Model
02:00 pm FROSTY CELLULOID. Music composed and performed by Ben Model
06:00 pm EXPRESS 300 MILES. Music composed and performed by Günter Buchwald
09:00 pm THE 11th YEAR. Music composed and performed by Cleaning Women

Sunday September 9th
03:00 pm SHORT FILM PROGRAM. Music composed and performed by Ben Model
08:00 pm THE PEOPLE OF THE TUNDRA. Music composed and performed by Geir Lysne

Really interesting to see the Roald Amundsen films there. Many will know of Herbert Ponting’s famous films of Caption Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole; fewer know that Amundsen took along a camera as well and that the film survives – indeed, the festival programmes notes says that a complete original negative film from the expedition has been recently been discovered. Norwegian photographer Morten Skallerud is working on a digital restoration of the material, and will be talking about his work at the festival.

A TRIP TO MARS is the renowned Danish science fiction film HIMMELSKIBET (1918). More information from the festival website.

Thanhouser on DVD

King Lear (1917)

The Thanhouser film company was founded in 1909 by American theatrical impresario Edwin Thanhouser. It had studios in New Rochelle, New York and remain in operation until 1918, when Edwin Thanhouser retired. It had a relatively modest profile at the time, with few star name under contract (Florence La Badie, James Cruze, Marguerite Snow), and it has never excited much interest among film historians. Nevertheless, it was a sturdy and distinctive operation, with a particular penchant for bold literary and dramatic adaptations. It is also distinctive because the company, or rather the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation Inc, remains in family hands, run by Edwin W. Thanhouser, grandson of the film company’s founder.

The present Edwin Thanhouser has been assiduous in helping to ensure the preservation of Thanhouser films, and has issued many Thanhouser titles on videotape and DVD. Volumes 7, 8 and 9 of the Thanhouser Presents series are being issued in September on DVD, with music by Raymond A. Brubacher. Together they present twelve titles which give good indication of the range of Thanhouser’s work.

Volume 7 is Thanhouser Presents Shakespeare. Several film companies of the period produced one- and two-reeler Shakespeare films, but it took Thanhouser to film such ‘difficult’ and less familiar titles as The Winter’s Tale (1910) and Cymbeline (1913). The third title is King Lear (1917), a feature-length production (two-and-a-half reels here, abridged from the original five), generally well-thought of by the brave band of Shakespeareans who can contemplate the idea of silent Shakespeare, and starring Frederick Warde (above).

Volume 8 features literary adaptations: Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1912), King Rene’s Daughter (1913), Tannhäuser (1913) and The Vagabonds (1915). King Rene’s Daughter is adapted from a Danish verse play, Iolanthe, while Tannhäuser derives from Wagner. The Vagabonds is from a poem by J.T. Trowbridge – all evidence of Thanhouser’s creative ambitions.

Thanhouser fire

Volume 9 offers relatively more conventional fare: Daddy’s Double (1910), When the Studio Burned (1913), An Elusive Diamond (1914), The Marvelous Marathoner (1915) and The Woman in White (1917), based on Wilkie Collins and starring Florence La Badie, who died following an automobile accident not long after the film was released. When the Studio Burned is based on an actual fire which took place only the month before at the Thanhouser studio in Rochelle, with various Thanhouser players, including James Cruze and Marguerite Snow, playing themselves.

The Thanhouser website has excellent supporting information on each of the titles, as well as details of the previous six volumes in the series. It also provides a Research Center, with a history of the company, biographies of leading figures, a filmography, a database in spreadsheet form of the 186 surviving Thanhouser films and their archive locations, and a range of articles on Thanhouser films. There is also Thanhouser Films: An Encyclopedia and History, written by Q. David Bowers and available on CD-ROM. And there’s an image gallery as well. Every silent film company should be so well served.

100 years of wildlife films, maybe

Martin and Osa Johnson

Martin and Osa Johnson, from http://www.wildfilmhistory.org

Starting this Saturday (August 25th), BBC4 has a wildlife season, marking 100 years of wildlife films. One might protest straight away that wildlife films were made before 1907, but the argument is that Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907) was the first true natural history film, as opposed to scientific analysis films, actualities or entertainment films featuring animals. I think F. Martin Duncan‘s work (from 1904 onwards) ought to be acknowledged, even if he mostly filmed in London Zoo, but it’s a bit late now. Ironically or not, In Birdland is believed to be a lost film.

The centrepiece of the season is the programme 100 Years of Wildlife Films, presented by Bill Oddie. Presumably there will be some acknowledgment of the considerable work done in the silent era in this field, by Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, Cherry Kearton, Paul Rainey, Herbert Ponting, C.W.R. Knight, Carl Akeley, Martin and Osa Johnson, and many more.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough with a picture of Cherry Kearton, from http://www.open2.net

There is a programme on Cherry Kearton, in the Nation on Film series, showing on 29 August, called Kearton’s Wildlife (though it’s actually a repeat). The Royal Geographical Society still awards a Cherry Kearton medal for achievements in photographing natural history (David Attenborough is a recipient), and his pioneering work (often with brother Richard) in still and motion picture photography of animals deserves to be far better known. The BBC4 site provides a full list of programmes in the series.

All of this activity coincides with plans by the Wildscreen Trust to develop a centralised collection of films and information on 100 years of wildlife filmmaking, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. There’s a website, wildfilmhistory.org, which promises a full launch at the end of 2007. There’s a book in the offing as well. Such is the power of centenaries.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Méliès shop


The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a children’s book (designed for 9-12 year-olds), written and illustrated by Brian Selznick and published this year. Set in Paris in 1931, it tells of a young orphan boy, Hugo Cabret, who is reduced to stealing to find food to eat, but then rescues an automaton from a museum fire. Seeking pieces to repair the figure, he steals pieces from a toy store by a railway station. Then he is caught. Now read on…

Our interest is that the toy store keeper is Georges Méliès. The illustration above from the book echoes the famous photograph of Méliès at his kiosk on the Gare Montparnasse, years after he had lost his film business and disappeared into obscurity, and just at the point of his re-discovery by film historians. Méliès becomes a leading character in the story, introducing Hugo to the world of early film. The book is a graphic-novel-with-text, and incorporates images from Méliès’ films.

There’s a website, www.theinventionofhugocabret.com, which has information on the ideas behind the book, including a page on Méliès, and a Flash slide show of some of the book’s illustrations.

There’s a video interview with Selznick, emphasizing his fascination for the Méliès story, on the ExpandedBooks.com site. It shows many illustrations from the book, from which we learn that Selznick makes a particular point of depicting shoe-heels in his drawings (Méliès’ film library was notoriously melted down to make, amongst other things, shoe-heels).

Rumour has it that Martin Scorsese is considering making a film based on the novel, or at least that John Logan, scriptwriter for The Aviator, is writing a screenplay.

How workingmen spend their spare time

How many people writing on early film know about this? Using a bit of lateral searching on the Internet Archive, I found How workingmen spend their time, a doctoral thesis by one George Esdras Bevans, submitted at Columbia University in 1913. I’ve not come across it before, and it seems few film histories refer to it, yet it is a marvellous source of information on cinema-going, audience leisure tastes, and the relationship of earnings and work-time to leisure, with a wide range of evidence demonstrating the prime position of cinema in the public mind just before the First World War.

Here’s the author’s description of his methodology:

This investigation has been undertaken in order to determine how workingmen spend their leisure hours. On the suggestion of Dr. Franklin H. Giddings, Professor of Sociology, Columbia University, the questionnaire method was adopted and a time schedule prepared. The investigation was begun in February, 1912.

More than 4,000 schedules were distributed among workingmen thru the agency of Labor Unions, Clubs and Churches; but altho much interest in the study was manifested, only 113 properly filled out schedules were returned, and these were considered too
few in number to serve as a basis for any general conclusions.

In the Fall of 1912 the Bureau of Social Service of the Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church became interested in the study and agreed to engage investigators to interview workingmen in order to secure a sufficient number willing to answer the questions. This investigation began on November 1st, 1912, and was completed on February 3rd, 1913.

Schedules to the number of 868 were returned by the paid investigators. In addition 31 schedules were obtained as the result of a Workingmen’s Mass Meeting held November 12th, 1912, at the Labor Temple, 14th Street and 2nd Avenue, New York City. By February 3rd, 1913, 1,012 schedules had been secured from New York City, 10 from Rochester, N.Y., and 5 from Utica, N.Y. After the tabulation had been partly completed 43 schedules were received from other cities and were used in the closing part of the study relating to Expenditure of Money. Altogether, 1,070 schedules were returned, and these serve as a basis for the present study.

Bevans then goes into great detail, describing the processes he took, the particular statistical method employed, and the resistance that he sometimes received (questions were asked, “Who is back of the study?” “What capitalistic scheme is this?” “Why not investigate the employers and see how they spend their spare time?”). He also provides the questions asked and the forms supplied. The main body of the text is tables with accompanying analysis, under such headings as ‘The Relation of Occupation to the use of Spare Time’, ‘The Relation of Wage to the Use of Spare Time’, and ‘What Men Usually Do on Certain Hours and During Certain Hours’.

As an example, here’s is one of the the tables accompanying the heading ‘The Relation of Hours of Labor to the Use of Spare Time’:

Table one

This isn’t the place to go into a detailed analysis of the data, but essentially one finds that whatever the working man’s circumstances, his hours of work or his earnings, the motion picture was the favoured way of spending one’s spare time. This might be expected, but it is invaluable to see the assumption tested against other leisure options, the availability of free time, and the means to pay for it. Here’s a table on the relationship of age to spare time:

Table two

OK, not everyone interested in silent cinema is going to be that engrossed by statistics, but the sociology of early cinema is still a grievously neglected subject, and if we don’t relate the films to th people who saw them, its hard to say what we are doing investigating early films at all.

There were other such early sociological studies. The most notable is Emilie Altenoh’s study of film audiences in Mannheim, Germany over 1912/13, published as Zur Soziologie des Kino: Die Kino-Unternehmung und die Sozialen Schichten Ihrer Besucher (1914), part translated as A Sociology of the Cinema in Screen, vol. 42 no. 3, Autumn 2001. I hear tale that a full translation into English is underway. Another is M.M. Davis’ The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreation in New York City (1911). There is always something a little unsettling about people being studied anatomically in this way – and generally working-class people. What seemed irrational or in need of explanation (and then control) by elites, seemed wholly rational to those enjoying the experience. But we still have to be glad that such studies were done. As Bevans’ data amply proves, watching movies was, quite simply, a good way of spending your time.

Into the Bioscope Library it goes.

More times past

Colorado newspapers

More information on digitised newspaper collections. Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection covers newspapers published in Colorado 1859-1923, an amazing 120 titles being available. The site uses the ingenious Olive Software programmes has been adopted by a number of digitised newspaper collections. Just type in your search term, make sure to tick the box marked Search All Publications, then there are various options for refining your search query. Search result provide you with an image of the article in question, which you click to view full size. Results for silent cinema subjects vary. There is plenty to be found searching on Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, precious little on D.W. Griffith or Kinemacolor. Note also that the site works best with Internet Explorer.

Some other American historic newspaper sites out there (which are freely available) include Utah Digital Newspapers (1850-1950) and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1841-1902). Many more such collections are described in the earlier Times past post.

Screen Heritage

Screen Heritage is becoming a key phrase in the discussion about the preservation, dissemination and understanding of moving image history, particularly in the UK. The British Film Institute has announced a Strategy for UK Screen Heritage, with a strategy document published and an invitation for comments (deadline 7 September). This is focussed on the future maintenance and growth of public sector moving image archives. Secondly, a group of museums and archives, headed by the National Media Museum, has formed a Screen Heritage Network, with funding from the Museums Libraries and Archives Council, and an understanding of ‘screen heritage’ which extends beyond moving images to artefacts, documents etc. And MeCCSA (the Media, Cultural Studies and Communications Association) has announced a seminar on screen heritage, taking place on 22 September 2007 at Roehampton University, which aims to bring a focus to the many discussions on-going about the long-term future of the UK’s moving image and screen heritage. There’s a lot going on, and Bioscope readers may be interested to participate or to follow the arguments.

Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers

The latest set of motion picture-related documents to be added to the Internet Archive by the Prelinger Library is the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. The SMPE (later the SMPTE i.e. Television was added to the name) was founded in 1916, and continues to this day as the “leading technical society for the motion imaging industry”. The Society’s journal, known know as SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, also goes back to 1916, and the Prelinger team have so far digitised the annual volumes 1930-1954, plus a volumes of synopses of papers published 1916-1930. They will carry on up to 1962 (also they won’t be digitising the pre-1930 volumes as they don’t have a complete set).

There are numerous classic papers relating to the silent cinema period, and not just those published before 1930. The various volumes come with indexes to aid searching, but here are some noteworthy papers:

  • Merritt Crawford, ‘Pioneer Experiment of Eugene Lauste in Recording Sound’, October 1931, Volume 17
  • Oscar B. Depue, ‘My First Fifty Years in Motion Pictures’, December 1947, Volume 49
  • W.K. Laurie Dickson, ‘A Brief History of the Kinetograph, the Kinetoscope and the Kineto-phonograph’, December 1933, Volume 21
  • Carl Gregory, ‘Early History of Motion Picture Cameras for Film Wider than 35-mm’, January 1930, Volume 14
  • Louis Lumière, ‘The Lumière cinematograph’, December 1936, Volume 27
  • Robert W. Paul, ‘Kinematographic Experiences’, November 1936, Volume 27
  • E. Kilburn Scott, ‘Career of L.A.A. LePrince’, July 1931, Volume 17

As usual, the individual volumes can be downloaded in DjVu, PDF and TXT formats.