New York State Archive film scripts

Here’s a good research resource which I hadn’t come across before (and should have). New York State Archives has the largest collection of film scripts in the world, some 53,000. It makes available a database of its script index, covering the period 1921-1965 (it advertises itself as covering 1927-1965, but I’ve found records going back to 1921). This doesn’t give you the script itself, just the bare outlines of the production details, but these are more than valuable enough in themselves.

Each record gives you (and is searchable by) original title (there are many non-American films listed), title in English, country, year, writer’s last name, director’s last name, alternate film title, manufacturer, and exchange. The Motion Picture Commission began its work in 1921, but tragically almost all of the 18,000 scripts for silent films that passed through its hands are now lost. However, the outline records are still there, and form a hugely useful reference source by themselves, and for a lot of these titles the archives have associated documentation, but not the script itself.

The collection exists because, for forty-four years, New York state censorship required distributors to submit scripts for vetting, so anything exhibited theatrically in New York between 1921 and 1965 is going to be there. The archive also contains the apparatus of state film censorship – applications for licences, reviewers’ reports, notices of change in title or length etc., as well as the scripts. Scripts only start to be available from 1927. Frustratingly, there doesn’t seem to be any way to search on extant scripts for silent films. Nor can you combine search requests, so you can’t automatically look for all Walt Disney-produced films in 1924, for example. Minor gripes apart, this is a major gateway into the films of the 1920s.

It’s possible to order copies of scripts, if you are the copyright owner, or have the permission of the copyright owner, or can claim copies under a ‘fair use’ declaration. It may also be that you have to be a United States citizen – it’s unclear.

A Throw of Dice on DVD

Throw of Dice

After its outing as a live experience in Trafalgar Square (the home for silent films in London these days) in the summer, the BFI is releasing Franz Osten’s 1928 A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) on DVD. It comes with Nitin Sawhney’s orchestral score which was first played at that open-air screening.

A Throw of Dice is one of three Anglo-German films set in India and directed by Osten, working with Indian actor-producer Himansu Rai. As the blurb tells us:

After the beautiful Sunita nurses Ranjit back to health following dramatic events during a royal tiger hunt, his wicked rival Sohat persuades him to risk his kingdom and his love in a fateful game of dice. Shot on location in Rajasthan, the film features over ten thousand extras and an impressive array of horses, elephants and tigers. Its star actors all had major careers in Indian cinema and remain legendary and much-loved figures. Rai stars in the role of nefarious Sohat, with Charu Roy as Ranjit, and Seeta Devi (the Anglo-Indian actress born Renee Smith) as Sunita.

The BFI contonues to find inventive ways in which to exhibit, promote and contexualise silent films. Here a competent if somewhat ponderous late silent, long thought of as a diverting curiosity of interest mostly to the specialist, is spruced and re-invented as a movie of the moment. It’s all in the marketing.

All at Sea

All at Sea

Frame still from All at Sea,

The Guardian has published a short section from the 1993 Alistair Cooke home movie All at Sea, of Charlie Chaplin clowing around on a yacht. The film was featured as a long-lost discovery at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival. Curiously, the Guardian makes no mention of the film’s notable provenance. The thirty-second sequence shows Chaplin impersonating Janet Gaynor, Greta Garbo, and the Prince of Wales. Above shows Janet Gaynor, by the way.

Three types of authenticity

The Aurora

Douglas Mawson’s ship The Aurora, from

This evening on Channel 4 there was an intriguing 90 mins documentary on Douglas Mawson, When Hell Freezes, made by the estimable Flashback Television. It’ll need to be some other time for me to produce for you a substantial post on silent film and polar exploration (a particular interest of mine), but this programme needs to be noted now for its use of original archive film of Mawson’s expedition as one type of evidence with which to convince us in our comfortable twenty-first century lives of the splendours and miseries of the golden age of Antarctic exploration.

Mawson is less well-known than Robert Falcon Scott or Ernest Shackleton, whose own Antarctic follies have been richly documented in recent years, Shackleton in particular. Mawson was perhaps less of a self-publicist, though he took care to have a motion picture cameraman with him (the motion picture rights helped pay for several of the Antarctic expeditions of this period), who just happened to be Frank Hurley, later (and particularly of late) to find fame as Shackleton’s cinematographer. Mawson also produced a book, The Home of the Blizzard.

His 1912-13 expedition – naturally conducted for the finest scientific reasons – explored the area of Antarctica to the south of Australia, and aimed to visit the South Magnetic Pole. Disaster struck when team member Edward Ninnis fell through a crevasse, complete with dogs and sled. Mawson and Xavier Mertz, who were with him, turned back from their exploration, but Mertz died on the return journey. Mawson made an astonishing solo journey back, arriving back at the home base only to find that the expedition ship the Aurora had left just a few hours beforehand (happily, some colleagues had remained behind in the faint hope of his possible survival). Hurley, of course, was not with the trio on this ill-fated section of the expedition, and consequently no film of it exists.

What I found intriguing about the film was its multi-layered approach to authenticity. We have in past years had the past made convincing to us through the use of archive film (and photographs). Today, however, the fashion is either for dramatic reconstructions, or a presenter going through the same privations as those suffered in the past. When Hell Freezes gave us all three, plus readings from Mawson’s text. Our modern counterparts were Tim and John, who retraced Mawson’s steps using the same equipment and clothing in the kind of pseudo-authencity one can only achieve when a television programme is to be made about the adventure. The dramatic reconstructions were bleached out to look like Hurley’s original footage, and at time the untrained eye would not have spotted the difference between the two.

The modern adventure failed to thrill, as it was inevitably doomed to do (“will Tim and John survive on the ice…?” Of course they will), but the idea was somehow to blend the three styles so that present became past and past became present. But modern video is too bright, too much of the moment – it anaethetizes the ordeal. The monochrome silent footage, by its very distance, makes those things endured in the past seem all the more astonishing, because they seem so distant. In seeing the films of Scott, Shackleton and Mawson we long for close-ups and the camera techniques of today that will bring them that much closer to us, but maybe it is the lack of intimacy that is their strength. When Hell Freezes‘s own faux dramatised scenes were strongest when they showed figures lost in the white distance, not trying to show the agonies etched on their faces.

Anyway, it was a good programme, and despite my advocacy of the archive footage, probably its best moment was the Touching the Void-like sequence where the exhausted Mawson falls down a crevasse and manages, utterly improbably, to climb back up, fall back, yet somehow find the strength to climb his rope once again to safety – while our modern day hero fails to emulate him. Whatever the means of imaginative recreation at our disposal, some feats lie beyond all comprehension.

Peter’s Polar Place is an excellent source of information on the works of Frank Hurley, including archive holdings of films films and those available on DVD. There doesn’t seen to be DVD available of Hurley’s original 1913 documentary, Dr Mawson in the Antarctic (erroneously known as Home of the Blizzard in some sources), but the film itself is held in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Animals in motion

These are heady times for the Bioscope, with hundreds of visitors all in pursuit of information on Paul Merton, following the mention of his new book and Silent Clowns tour on Have I Got News for You. So, what can we do to catch the eyes of these passing visitors and maybe entice them to find out more about the worlds of early and silent cinema? Well, what about some nineteenth-century studies of animal motion?

Mohammed running

Mohammed Running, from The Horse in Motion

So, we have two new additions to the Bioscope Library, the first of which is The Horse in Motion, by J.D.B. Stillman, published in 1882. Who he? Well therein lies a tale, because the true author of this work should have been the rather better-known Eadweard Muybridge. The book, commissioned by Muybridge’s patron, the railroad baron Leland Stanford, was based on Muybridge’s now famous photographic studies of a horse galloping. But master and reluctant servant had fallen out, and the book was published under Stillman’s name, giving Muybridge negligible credit. The book contains detailed description of the studies into the motion of the horse (and other quadrupeds), with five of Muybridge’s photographs and ninety-one lithographs based on his photographs, plus line drawings. The book’s publication caused considerable embarrassment to Muybridge at the time, as his contribution to the scientific studies was now questioned by several authorities, but it is an important publication nonetheless in the history which took us from sequence photography (or chronophotography) to the successful creation of cinema. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVU (6MB), PDF (67MB) and TXT (279KB) formats.

Marey runner

‘Runner provided with the apparatus intended to register his different paces’, from Animal Mechanism

It’s a happier tale to tell with our other, complementary, addition to the Library, Etienne-Jules Marey‘s Animal Mechanism, or La machine animale, first published in 1873. This was the published expression of Marey’s ‘methode graphique’, where, by a variety of graphical devices devised for the measurement of animal motion, Marey was able to demonstrate diagrammatically the walking motion of humans and horses, and the the flight of birds and insects. By this publication, Marey opened up a world of study not previously imagined, and inspired Muybridge and Stanford to undertake their own investigations. Marey did not use photography for Animal Mechanism, but, inspired in turn by Muybridge’s work, would go on to experiment extensively with sequence photographs, developing the science of chronophotography, and through it the mechanism for cinematography. The Internet Archive has both the 1879 American edition, in DjVu (9.9MB), PDF (20MB), b/w PDF (12MB) and TXT (582KB) formats, and the English third edition (not so well scanned), in DjVu only (33MB).

From 1896 to 1926 – part 5

Cinematograph show under the new L.C.C. rules

Cartoon parodying the alarm over the L.C.C.’s first regulations for film exhibition, from The Showman, 8 March 1901 (signed as being originally from The Photographic Dealer, 1898)

Back to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor. We’re still in the 1890s (we will move out of them eventually), and Turner and his partner J.D. Walker have their first encounter with the London County Council (L.C.C.), which had responsibility for the inner London area, including its public entertainments. The L.C.C. had become alarmed by the threat of fire presented by cinematograph exhibitions.

On November 8, 1897 I had an engagement at the Old Balham Baths, which I believe to-day is a permanent kinema. We had a notification from the L.C.C. that we could not show unless the apparatus and operator were enclosed in a fireproof enclosure.

This notification was delivered to us 48 hours befiore the show. So I worked all day and night in making a box out of corrugated iron. The dimensions were 4 ft. wide, 6 ft. long and 6 ft. high. The sizes were determined by the iron sheets.

This was the first operating-box ever made, and was used at Balham. This box again served as the model for practically every portable iron house, even to its dimensions, and the shutters which I originally made for this box became the standard article for this type of box.

Enter the L.C.C.

In those days the London County Council had no officers for dealing with kinematographic affairs. Somewhere about November they appointed a Mr. Vincent, who, I believe, was the head of the Chemistry Department in Villiers Street, Strand, as the officer responsbile for looking after these affairs. This gentleman inspected our box at Balham on the afternoon of the display, and told us that he would pass the box, subject to same being painted with asbestos paint inside and out.

Why this precaution I have never been able to understand, but the effects on Mr. Walker and myself were disastrous, as we had to work in this confined space, and before the end of the performance we had answered the riddle “Can a leopard change its spots?” We went in in black suits, and came out piebald, with most of the paint adhering to our clothes.

It was at Great Eastern Street that the first operating-box was made, and later improved by the addition of adjustable shutters.

The original box was fitted with a dead-man lever, i.e., the shutters had no means of being held up while the picture was being projected, except by a wire over a pulley, which was attached to a piece of wood about 15 in. long. One end of the wood rested on the floor, and the other, to which the wire was attached, would be about 6 in. off the floor.

The operator placed his foot upon the wood, which by its weight lay flat upon the floor, and the wire would automatically raise the shutter of the operating-box. If he took his foot off the lever, or fainted, or as soon as the pressure was removed from the lever down came the shutter. Later, we did away with the lever.

Soon we moved our offices to the second floor of Wrench’s premises at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, and after nine to twelve months we shifted our quarters to Nos. 77 and 78, High Holborn.

The Safety Shutter

When we had our office at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, we conceived the idea of automatic shutters to fall down between the light and the film. In those days we tested every machine that Wrench made, and, naturally, we took the idea to him, and in his workshop on the top floor, I believe, his mechanic worked out our idea and fitted the shutter, the opening and closing of same being worked by governor balls.

Wrench is Alfred Wrench. The long-established optical firm of J. Wrench & Sons became leading suppliers of cinematographic equipment at this time, and their offices at 50 Gray’s Inn Road housed a number of early film companies, including Will Barker’s Autoscope company, and later the Topical Film Company, as well as the eventual Wrench Film Company.

We then thought of covering in the space between the lensholder and the front of the film gate, working on the known law that combustion cannot take place without air, so that if the film fired in the gate, it went out, because there was not sufficient air left to support combustion, and thus was evolved the first fireproof gate, and we gave it to the world for nothing.

At this time we were doing business with Pat Collins (now an M.P.), Biddell Bros., the late George Green (of Glasgow), Haggar (of Wales), Dick Dooner, Jacob Studd and his sister, Hastings and Whyman, Ralph Pringle, Edison Thomas, Boscoe, all showmen; and, among lecturers, T.M. Paul, A.E. Pickard, A.H. Vidler, Waller Jeffs, Professor Wood, T.R. Woods, Baker (of Liverpool), and Lenton (of the Sherwood Film Agency), who bought his first outfit from me.

We, of course, had a number of competitors:- Joyce, of Oxford; McKenzie, of Edinburgh; Walker, of Edinburgh or Glasgow; Nobby Walker, of Bermondsey; F. Gent, of London; Jury, of Peckham (now Sir William); Brandon Medland; Matt Raymond and his lieutenant Rockett; Fowler and Ward, Ruffles Bioscope; Weisker, of Liverpool; Carter, of Leeds; Lens Bros., of Lancashire; Henderson, of Newcastle, and Gibbons (now Sir Walter). This list by no means exhausts the number.

Early Operators

Some of the operators I can remember who worked for us at this time are as follows:- Chas. Harper, C.H. Coles, W.M. Morgan, “Baby” Morgan, E.T. Williams, Jack Herbert, E. Mason (of Charrington’s, Mile End), J. Gardiner and his brother, George Palmer, W.W. Whitlock (now of gramophone fame), J. Nethercote (a school teacher), A. Malcolm, W. Walker, F. Hull, H. Luner, Joe Saw, Harry Last, F. Haward, Will Turner, T. Bosi (now of Herne Bay).

What an amazing list of names of those involved in the film business in the late 1890s. The showmen’s names are mostly familiar, being prominent fairground figures such as Ralph Pringle, Dick Dooner and William Haggar (soon to be a notable film producer). Edison Thomas is the notorious A.D. Thomas, a larger-than-life figure much associated with Mitchell and Kenyon. Waller Jeffs became a leading exhibitor in the Midlands, Matt Raymond, previously having worked for the Lumières, went on to become a prominent cinema owner (his assistant was Houghton Rockett), the Scottish Walker is William Walker, William Jury went on to become cinema’s first knight, while Walter Gibbons (also knighted) established the London Palladium. But many of those names are unknowns, and offer tantalising new avenues for research.

More from E.G. Turner in a few days’ time.

It’s that man again

There’s an ever so slightly patronising interview with Neil Brand, silent film pianist, from the BBC Today programme, which was broadcast on Thursday 25 October, which can be found on the Today programme site – go to the section 08.00-08.30, and the bit with Neil is at 08.20. You do hear plenty of Neil’s playing while he is being interviewed, which makes for an intriguing news piece. The film he talks about most is The Life Story of David Lloyd George (cue sniggers from the Today interviewer), which is featuring at the Fflics festival in Aberystwyth tomorrow night, with Neil playing.

Motion Pictures in History Teaching

Chronicles of America

The Gateway to the West (1924), from Motion Pictures in History Teaching

Just added to the Bioscope Library is Daniel C. Knowlton and J. Warren Tilton’s Motion Pictures in History Teaching: A Study of the Chronicles of America Photoplays as a Aid in Seventh Grade Instruction (1929). The Chronicles of America was a 1923-24 series of educational film series produced by Yale University Press. The series included such earnest and traditionalist titles as Jamestown, Yorktown, Daniel Boone, The Declaration of Independence and The Gateway to the West. These three-reeler dramas were relatively lavishly produced, helping to pay their way by getting theatrical screenings. But their target audience was in the classrooms of America, and this study of the series examines its pedagogical value. It looks at how the series contributed to ‘the learning of fundamentals’, and the degree to which they contributed to enrichment, retention and creation of interest’, through a meticulous system of testing groups. The painstaking methodology is as fascinating as the underlying assumptions of the films’ photo-historical validity. It is also handsomely illustrated with stills from the films. It’s available from the Internet Archive in PDF (48MB), DjVu (5.4MB) and TXT (326KB) formats.

21st Century Vertov

You may remember the report of a few months ago about video artist Perry Bard’s idea to recreate Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera with uploaded contributions from volunteers around the world.

Man with a Movie Camera, scene 10

Man with a Movie Camera, scene 10, 1928 and 2007 versions, from

The initial deadline for this was 15 September, with the planned new, participatory version of the film being screened on Big Screen Manchester. However, as the project site demonstrates, the uploading continues, with people offering their modern video equivalents of scenes from Vertov’s original (which can be seen on her site in its entirety or scene by scene). You can view each of the sequences, original and remake, though not the new version in its entirety. I haven’t found evidence that it been screened anywhere as yet (does anyone know?), but the site is an extraordinary and thought-provoking work just by itself. Do explore.

Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy

Paul Merton Silent Comedy

Well, as the Bioscope motors on past the 30,000-views figure, it’s hard to say which has been the most popular topic so far, but it’s probably either Albert Kahn or Paul Merton. Which is ironic, since Albert Kahn has been pursued for the Autochrome colour still photographs he organised rather than the films he commissioned, while Merton is anxious to take a back seat in promoting the work of the silent comedians he so admires.

The latest expression of this is his book, Silent Comedy, which has just been published. I’ve only thumbed through it in a bookshop so far, but what is immediately noticeable is what a wordy, conscientious and carefully-constructed work it is. Merton has paid his dues as a silent film buff, collecting 8mm copies from childhood, reading as well as watching all that he could, and he makes fulsome acknowledgment to Kevin Brownlow and David Gill for their television and restoration work, and to the works of Glenn Mitchell and Simon Louvish. Merton has clearly read a great deal, and the book goes into the personal histories of the silent comedy greats, as well as describing individual sequences in sharp detail. Anyone familiar with this territory will recognise much of the material, but it’s not meant for them. Merton is targetting his young audience, for whom Silent Comedy is a means of discovery, not confirmation of a well-known history. This is a subject that need discovering all over again.

This puts Merton in the awkward position of being the straight man, much as is going to be the case for his forthcoming Silent Clowns tour, where audiences may come to see Merton and his gags, but where Merton is anxious for them to see rather less of him and as much as possible of the films themselves. The book’s cover highlights the problem. Paul stands in the centre, his subjects in the background, but the book itself is organised the other way around.

Well, no matter, it’ll become a favourite Christmas present, and it’s a treasure trove of material that needs to be passed on to a new generation of enthusiasts. It’s also beautifully illustrated. It concentrates on the key names – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy – with little space given to the second tier of comics – Larry Semon, Charley Chase – and no mention at all of ‘minor’ figures like Max Davidson or any European comic except Max Linder (OK, you could argue that Chaplin and Laurel were European…). That’s a bit of a missed opportunity. But it serves a window on a lost world, which might just be that little bit less lost from now on.

Update: There’s a rather muddled (i.e. muddled in that it seems the reviewer can’t decide whether the book is good or not) but nonetheless intriguing review by James Christopher in The Times.