Freak shows and cinematographs

As initiatives such as the Crazy Cinematographe show and DVD are showing, the cinema came out of the fairground and its displays were seen by many as at one with freak shows, waxworks and performing animals. Just as many would probably say that this remains the case. Anyway, published this week is fascinating evidence of this parentage. The Society for Theatre Research has published The Journals of Sidney Race, 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment. Sidney Race was a gas company clerk, living in Nottingham, who started writing down what he saw of life in the city, including its many public entertainments, notably the Nottingham Goose Fair.

From 1892 to 1900, Race recorded his impressions of bearded ladies, armless wonders, performing seals and dancing bears, with a keen eye for ordinary detail. And so, naturally enough, he took note of the cinematograph when it arrived in Nottingham. His first impression was one of scant glamour:

It was a dirty canvas tent with the sheet arranged by the entrance and the apparatus on an old box or two opposite it where it was worked by a grim looking individual as black as a stoker.

Later he recorded seeing a ‘Living Pictures’ in Long Row, Nottingham, where he recorded that:

an enormous number of photographs, taken consecutively, are whirled with the speed of lightning, before your eyes.

He saw films shown on the Edison Kinetoscope, trick films, dramatised scenes depicting the Greco-Turkish War (made by Georges Méliès), and numerous ‘exceedingly improper’ films’. He describes one film which evidently made a particular impression. It was called The Model’s Bath.

A woman – we could detected a large smile on her face – divested herself of her skirt and other outer objects of clothing and appeared in her white drawers and chemise … The girl was in a large white night dress which had fallen down from the breast disclosing a well developed ‘frontage’ … It was a dirty and suggestive exhibition though we really saw no indecency … I am very glad it was late at night when I saw the thing and that no lady was with me.

This remarkable find was made by theatre historian Ann Featherstone, University of Manchester, who came across the journal in the Nottingham Archives. It’s not unknown to film historians, as Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive has used the journals, and cites several passages in her essay ‘The Cinematograph at the Nottingham Goose Fair, 1896-1911’, in Alan Burton and Laraine Porter (eds.), The Showman, the Spectacle & the Two-Minute Silence: Performing British Cinema Before 1930 (2001). She notes Race’s scepticism, indicating that early audiences were not always taken in by the trickery of some films as some have suggested, being able to tell a dramatised war scene from the likely reality, for instance.

I’ve not yet seen a copy of the publication, and it’s not easy to find information on it, not least because there’s nothing as yet on the Society for Theatre Research’s web site. There’s a citation for the original journal on the Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway. I’ll put up more information when I find it.

Update (March 2008):
This message has come from the Journals’ editor:

Hello, I’m Ann Featherstone. I edited the Journals of Sydney Race, published by the Society for Theatre Research. I’ve been working on and around these fascinating journals for about 10 years (!), and I was really glad when the STR agreed to publish the selection. They are absolutely fascinating. Sadly, the book hasn’t appeared on the STR website – I don’t know why. But if anyone wants a copy, please email me. The cost is £11.50 (inc. p & p).

Email Ann at a.featherstone3 [at]

New York Morning Telegraph

Just found this out on alt.movies.silent. During a 1980s research project on William Desmond Taylor, Bruce Long photocopied the ‘Pacific Coast News’ column of the New York Morning Telegraph, 1914-1922. As Long says:

During the silent film era, the New York Morning Telegraph had more coverage of the film industry than any other daily New York newspaper; its coverage included a weekly column of movie news from Los Angeles, initially titled “Pacific Coast News.” As the film industry in Hollywood expanded, that column also grew in size. Many of the “news items” came directly from publicity agents, but they still provide a useful historic glimpse into Hollywood’s growing silent film industry. Major Hollywood news stories would have been given separate articles instead of a mention inside this column. The columnists of “Pacific Coast News” included Edward V. Durling, Clem Pope, Margaret Ettinger, and Frances Agnew.

Long has now dusted down his photocopies and put them online. They are JPEGs only, and not word-searchable, but it looks like a handy research source for the patient.

He Who Gets Slapped

He Who Gets Slapped

Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped, from

The Victor Sjöström-Lon Chaney classic He Who Gets Slapped is due to get the modern-score-from-rock-musician-seeking-new-challenges treatment, as BBC News Online reports:

Goldfrapp star writes film score

Goldfrapp keyboardist Will Gregory is joining the BBC Concert Orchestra for the premiere of his new score to silent film classic He Who Gets Slapped.

Portishead’s Adrian Utley will also take part in the performances, in Bristol and London in December.

The 1924 film was the first to be made by MGM and stars Lon Chaney – who also appeared as The Phantom of the Opera – as a clown who gets 200 slaps a day.

Gregory said the film was an “overlooked masterpiece”.

‘Presence and charisma’

Chaney, who was one of the biggest film stars of the day, regarded his role in the film as his best.

“Whenever he is on screen he exudes such presence and charisma that it is easy to see why he was the most celebrated screen actor of his day,” Gregory added.

Chaney, who also starred as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, died in 1930, after making his only “talkie”, The Unholy Three. He was played by James Cagney in a 1957 biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces.

Jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard and drummer Tony Orrell will also perform, while the BBC Concert Orchestra will be conducted by Charles Hazelwood at the shows, at Colston Hall in Bristol and London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 1 and 3 December.

There are further details on the Colston Hall and South Bank Centre sites. Silent films are the new rock’n’roll, you know.

Domitor on the periphery


The 2008 Domitor conference has changed its title and varied somewhat its terms of reference. Previously it was going to be called ‘The Regional Dimension in Early Cinema’. Now it rejoices in the title ‘Peripheral Early Cinemas’. By which they seem to mean early cinema on the edges: geographically, industrially, culturally and temporally. But let them express it in their own words:

Call for Papers: Domitor 2008

The next biannual conference of Domitor will take place from Tuesday 17 June-Saturday 21 June in Catalonia, that is, Girona, Spain, and Perpignan, France. For the first time a Domitor conference will traverse national frontiers. The topic selected, appropriate for this unique setting, is:



The notion of “Peripheral cinemas” is geographical concept: cinema that is made or viewed far from the institutional center (for example, national capitals). But the designation is not only spatial. It also involves cinemas produced on the margins of developing industrial and cultural institutions.

“Peripheral” then, connotes “regional” or “provincial,” but these characterizations are relative to the specific historical period. It was Barcelona, for instance, that was the actual capital of Spanish filmmaking in 1900. Furthermore, the idea of “regional” or “provincial” is not relevant to numerous places (Italy, USA, not to mention non-Western countries).

As a result, the concept of “local cinema” becomes very problematic.

Issues and Questions envisioned

1. Institutional context. The operative conceptual tool of the Center-Periphery antinomy. To identify peripheral early cinemas reflects as well the institutional forms of centrality that were springing up. Where is the institutional “center” in early cinema?

2. Models and types of production. Can we speak of a “central model” —such as the cinema of attractions—and other “peripheral models,” such as travel films, tableaux vivants, publicity, etc…? Amateur films and military films are “peripheral” today in relation to commercial institutional production. Were they in the time of early cinema? Was women’s cinema, to the extent that it existed in the early period, peripheral?

3. The sociological level. Is there a sociological center —“bourgeois” film—for example, an English “working class” cinema? Is this distinction valid at the level of production? Reception? The two combined?

4. Industrial and peripheral exhibition systems. How did exhibition systems develop from a center? Were they aligned with specific ideas of a geographical center? Were there alternative forms of film exhibition not dependent on a center, for example in rural locations or the outskirts of large cities? Examples would be comparisons between Torino/Roma in Italy, Paris/Marseille or Paris/Nice in France or Madrid/Barcelona in Spain. Did this dichotomy function in cinematic environments everywhere, especially outside of Europe?

5. Historiography. Film history traditionally has been written from the center about the center. This is becoming less the case in recent years and relates to early cinema. Has historiography established a certain centrality in early films studies that we should consider revising? Furthermore, was it like that in the writing of the time? Is this centrality the norm in Western countries? At the same time, is the history of non-Western cinemas relegated to the periphery?

6. The study of representation: the “colonial” gaze. One puts in this category all the forms of viewing that emanate from the center to the periphery. How did that function in cinema at its origins? Peripheral and folkloric relationships? How did cinema take into account “minority” cultures at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries? The relationship of periphery to center would accordingly by first and foremost defined in terms of the gaze.

Included in this examination are “peripheral” cinematographic practices that gaze upon peripheral” cultures from outside as subjects. This would include “tourist,” “ethnographic” and neighboring filmmaking.

In order to avoid over-extending and overflowing the topic, we are not counting scientific, advertising or instructional films. Certainly, this is another issue, since one could maintain that they were “peripheral” in relation to institutional cinema.

Sending Proposals

Those wishing to submit a proposal should send a proposal of no more than one page to the selection committee by 31 December 2007. (The e-mail addresses will be posted on the Domitor website when available.) The papers must be original unpublished research. Languages accepted are English, Catalan, Spanish and French. The papers should be no more than 10 pages (A4) or 12 pages (US letter). The final text must be submitted by 30 April 2008 to allow for translation. The presentation should last no more than 20 minutes.

A selection of papers from the conference will be published in a trilingual volume.

Membership in Domitor is not required to submit a proposal. However, in order to present a paper at the conference, membership in the organization is mandatory.

Why the prejudice against scientific, advertising or instructional films, eh? There’s always something that gets pushed to the margins. And if everything’s on the edge of something else, is there a mainstream or a centre at all? Further information (if not necessarily illumination) can be found on the Domitor website. For those who don’t know, Domitor is the leading international organisation for the study of early cinema, its main activities being a bi-annual conference followed by a volume of published papers. Details of past publications from conferences going back to 1990 can be found here.

Networks of Entertainment

Networks of Entertainment, from

Not on the Domitor site as yet are details of the most recent publication, Networks of Entertainment: Early Film Distribution 1895-1915, edited by Frank Kessler and Nanna Verhoeff, and published by John Libbey, which derives from the 2004 conference. The publisher’s blurb describes the book thus:

This collection of essays explores the complex issue of film distribution from the invention of cinema into the 1910s. From regional distribution networks to international marketing strategies, from the analysis of distribution catalogues to case studies on individual distributors these essays written by well-known specialists in the field discuss the intriguing question of how films came to meet their audiences. As these essays show, distribution is in fact a major force structuring the field in which cinema emerges in the late 19th and early 20th century, a phenomenon with many facets and many dimensions having an impact on production and exhibition, on offer and demand, on film form as well as on film viewing. A phenomenon that continues to play a central role for early films even today, as digital media, the DVD as well as the internet, are but the latest channels of distribution through which they come to us. Among the authors are Richard Abel, André Gaudreault, Viva Paci, Gregory Waller, Wanda Strauven, Martin Loiperdinger, Joseph Garncarz, Charlie Keil, Marta Braun, and François Jost.

I thumbed through it at Pordenone, and it looks well worth getting hold of.

Nosferatu trailer

Eureka Video has released a YouTube trailer for its forthcoming DVD release of Nosferatu. The two-disc set comes with commentary track by Brad Stevens and R. Dixon Smith, and an hour-long German documentary on the film by Luciano Berriatúa. It’s a F.W. Murnau-Stiftung restoration complete with Hans Erdmann’s original score, performed by the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken conducted by Berndt Heller. There’s also a 96-page booklet with articles by David Skal, Thomas Elsaesser, Gilberto Perez and Enno Patalas (former director of the Münchner Stadtmuseum/Filmmuseum, where he was responsible for the restoration of many German classics, including Nosferatu). The Region 2 DVD is released on 19 November. Kino Video will be releasing the Region 1 version in the USA. The trailer looks fantastic – we are starting to get spoiled with deluxe DVD presentations of silent classics.

Update: Do take a look at the Kino Video entry for the film, which includes a Flash video on the digital restoration of the film, one of the DVD extras.

Shasta 2nd annual silent film festival

The Son of the Sheik

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik, from

The Shasta Arts Council 2nd Annual Silent Film Festival at Redding, California, takes place 26-27 October. The films showing are The Son of the Sheik (1926), The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Circus (1928) and Stella Dallas (1925), with acompanying shorts, all with musical accompaniment from Frederick Hodges, plus The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919), with live string quartet with music composed by Timothy Brock. More details, as ever, from the festival website.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 4

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897 © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from

We return, after something of a gap, to Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor, whose reminiscences, written in 1926 for the Kinematograph Weekly, are a rich source of information on early film business practice. Here Turner discusses exhibition in the late 1890s, with particular reference to the effects of the Bazar de la Charité fire:

The First Exhibitors

The earliest exhibitors were fairground showmen, magic lantern lecturers, and men who earned their living by giving private entertainments. The theatres and music-halls took to pictures as a nine-day wonder which would have its day and die.

I remember a time about the end of 1897 when there was not a single music-hall or theatre showing pictures in London. It was only a temporary lull, however, chiefly caused through the lack of subjects. With the advent of the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope, and the American Bioscope, the pictures became a permanent installation in the music-halls in London, but the early showmen and lantern lecturers were the men who were making the pictures popular all over the country.

These were the men who had sunk their little all in the Industry, and they kept pegging away, believing that it must eventually win out, and that the subjects would not be confined to 40 or 50 ft. lengths, but whole stories would be filmed.

The great bar to progress was the difficulty of getting new subjects except by buying them outright, and I think my partner and myself solved the problem for the world by instituting the renting system. Little did we think that that system would spread all over the wide world, and grow to the great business it is to-day.

In those first days we only did it spasmodically, because we had very few customers, but later on when the pictures had caught on, and village halls, churches, and chapels were taking up the pictures and giving regular weekly displays, our hire system grew rapidly. We would buy as many as ten and twelve prints of a film, which was entitled “Landing an Old Lady From a Small Boat.” Our first regular hirer was Ted Lacey, of Barnards M.H. Chatham. My first customer to buy films was Mr. Henderson, of Newcastle.

This is George Henderson, of Stockton, whose surviving film collection is held by British Movietone News and available to view from their website. There’s information on this important early film collection in an earlier post, Movietone and Henderson.

We then extended operations to the entertainment bureaus, such as:- Whiteley’s, Keith Prowse, Harrods, Gamage, Webster and Girling, H.L. Toms, Woods, of Cheapside, Ashton and Mitchell, Army and Navy Stores, the Church Mission Halls, Salvation Army, the Leysian Mission, City Road, and many more whose names at the moment I cannot remember, and after thirty years, we still do business with practically all the above-named firms.

The most disastrous fire that has ever occurred in our Trade took place on May 4, 1897. It is still remembered as the Paris fire. No fewer than 130 people lost their lives in the panic and stampede which occurred, and amongst those killed were the Duchess d’Alençon (sister of the Empress of Austria), Duke d’Aumale, Baron d’Sainte Didier, and General Munier (or Muiner). The Life Assurance losses were paid as to two-thirds American companies and the remaining one-third French – the total being twelve million francs, which, in that day, represented £480,000.

The kinematograph got the blame of this fire, but it actually occurred after the operator had finished giving his display of films, and was showing some slides. He was using an ether saturator, which was giving out, and he started to replenish same by pouring fresh ether in, and, of course, at once the fumes caught fire. The exhibition was being given in a large marquee. It was decorated with inflammable material, and soon the whole was one roaring mass of flame. The tent contained bazaar stalls, etc., and the bazaar was patronised by the principal nobility and well-known people of France – which explains the enormous sums paid by the life insurance companies.

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from

This was the notorious fire of 4 May 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris, at which a Joly film projector had been used. As Turner correctly recalls, the fire was not caused by the cinematograph but instead by a Molteni ether lamp, but the calamity was swiftly associated with motion pictures, and caused great damage to the reputation of the medium.

Insurance Difficulties

This had the effect of making the Insurance Companies look askance at the kinematograph; and the mere mention of the word sent a shudder through the official minds. The public memory, however, is very short, and the desire for amusement great, and as new subjects arrived on the scene, slowly but surely, we overcame these difficulties.

Within a month of this happening I had an engagement at the St. Martin’s Town Hall. On the afternoon, I presented byself with an apparatus at the hall, and the dismay on the face of the official when he saw it was a kinematograph, accompanied by cylinders of gas, can be well imagined.

He informed the authorities at once, and one official informed me that the display could not be given. After half-an-hour, I got their sanction – they only giving way because they had failed to give notice that they would not permit a kinematograph.

The following week a resolution was passed that no kinematograph should ever be allowed in the hall again, and I believe that this is so even up to the present time. I am the only person who has ever given a display in the Westminster Town Hall, St. Martin’s Lane.

(To be continued)

The memoirs so far have been taken from the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1926, pp. 53-54, and further installments will follow in due course. You can follow the earlier installments here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

The protean Neil Brand

Neil Brand

Those passing through central London early this evening would have heard the unexpected tones of a piano being played in the middle of Trafalgar Square. There, in the chill October air, beneath Nelson’s Column was a huge screen, and beside it beneath a canopy, elegantly accoutred in black tie and pounding said piano for all he was worth, the one and only Neil Brand. He was accompanying screenings of Blue Bottles (1928), a comedy made by Ivor Montagu, starring Elsa Lanchester, and based on an idea by H.G. Wells (allegedly he wrote just the single line: “Elsa blows a whistle”, and the rest of the action just followed), and the silent version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Crowds sat on the steps, stood beside the fountains, stopped by on their way home to look this curiousness, or just walked on by, oblivious or bewildered. It was a rather magical experience.

Neil was on top form, naturally, and Neil watchers should be aware that he is going to be seen or heard in the next few days displaying his talents as musician, writer and actor. His tour with Paul Merton for their Silent Clowns show is taking silent comedy films around the UK, from 10 November to 9 December. In a few weeks’ time, his new radio play, Seeing it Through, on the covert First World War British propaganda outfit (whose outputs included film), Wellington House, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. More on that nearer the time. And tomorrow, he appears at the Canterbury Festival as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Kier Hardie, Edward Burne-Jones and several others in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a multi-faceted entertainment written and presented by yours truly.

Now here comes the Guardian and Observer

Regulars will know that we try and keep up with the steady stream of digitised newspapers collections appearing across the world, which are opening up research into silent film (and a few other subjects besides, of course). The latest is the British newspaper The Guardian, along with its Sunday partner The Observer. This article was published recently in The Guardian‘s Media section (with thanks once again to the eagle-eyed David Pierce for alerting The Bioscope):

Every edition of the Guardian and Observer newspapers is to be made available via a newly launched online digital archive.

The first phase of the Guardian News & Media archive, containing the Guardian from 1821 to 1975 and The Observer from 1900 to 1975, launch on November 3.

It will contain exact replicas of the original newspapers, both as full pages and individual articles. and will be fully searchable and viewable at

Readers will be offered free 24-hour access during November, but after this trial period charging will be introduced.

The rest of the archive will launch early in 2008, making more than 1.2m pages of digitised news content available, with Observer content available from its launch as the world’s first Sunday newspaper in 1791.

New reports featured in the archive cover events including the 1793 execution of Louis XVI, the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, and the 1833 abolition of the slave trade, the first and second world wars and the assassination of the US president, John F Kennedy.

“The launch of the archive will revolutionise the way in which users are able to access our historic content, whether for academic research or personal interest,” said Gerard Baines, the head of syndication and rights, GNM.

“The archive will offer historical coverage to both consumers and academics of the most important events recorded during 212 years of publishing history,” GNM added in a statement.

“With microfilm stock and paper copy in danger of degrading beyond repair, the launch of the archive ensures the preservation of the papers’ legacy.”

Silicon Valley firm Olive Software started digitising the archive in December last year.

GNM chose ProQuest CSA to be the exclusive global distribution partner for universities, libraries and corporate accounts.

Rod Gauvin, the ProQuest senior vice-president of publishing, said: “The vivid and fearless reporting by both newspapers has set journalistic standards not only in the UK, but also worldwide.

“Indeed, globally many rely on the Guardian and the Observer for unbiased, thoughtful reporting on events in their own country.”

Fingers at the ready come November 3rd…

Don’t forget Telluride

I was sent the text below about the silents shown at the recent Telluride Film Festival:

Two wonderful silent programs were featured this year at the Telluride Film Festival. The annual “Pordenne Presents” show was the gorgeous restoration from the George Eastman House of King Vidor’s THE BIG PARADE with a wonderful score played by Gabriel Thibaudeau. This powerful war epic is often taken for granted as a classic but rarely actually screens today. It confirms its reputation as a masterpiece and proves to have a contemporary resonance.

Creating equal buzz was PEOPLE ON SUNDAY the early collaboration of Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer from a script by Billy Wilder, Kurt and Robert Siodmak. Stunning cinematography by Eugen Schufftan and Fred Zinneman contribute to making this unique non-traditional narrative worth seeking out if the print from the Netherlands Film Museum makes its way to your area. Sadly, you probably won’t have a chance to experience the 6 person Mont Alto Orchestra’s lively score.

Leoanrd Maltin presented a two-hour collection of restored Vitaphone shorts with informative and humorous introductions. Legendary composer Michel Legrand and French director/film buff Bertrand Tavernier were among the audience members who couldn’t get enough.

In the Festival’s newest venue, The Backlot, dedicated to movies about movies, the new documentary THE DAWN OF SOUND was featured as was the found segment of THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906) with discussion about the restoration process from Paolo Cherchi Usai.

The lobby of The Backlot and the Brigadoon hospitality tent featured the extensive display “A Life Discovered: Unseen Material from the von Stroheim Collection” courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For the complete program, go to


Those living in Northern California are in for a treat on October 26 & 27 when the 2nd Annual Silent Film Festival in Redding will be produced by David Shepard with live music by Frederick Hodges.

More info at: