The sound of silent film

Sound of Silent Film

Sound of Silent Film, from

Further evidence of the rude health of the modern silent film. The third annual Sound of Silent Film Festival, an evening of modern silent films with music scores performed live, takes place at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago on 26 March. The five films on the bill are Native New Yorker by Steve Bilich, Elastic Stronghold by Justin Heim, Birdcatcher by Chris Hefner, The Purse Belongs to Her by B.J. Moore, and Bajalica by Hurt McDermott. The composers are Natasha Bogojevich, Demetrius Spaneas and William Susman.

There’s a trailer for the festival (QuickTime), or find out more from the Academy of Accessible Music website.

Knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells

I gave a talk the other day on children’s cinema-going before the First World War, which reminded me that it’s been a while since I had any of the testimonies of cinema-going in the silent era that I occasionally reproduce here on The Bioscope.

The extracts below come from the unpublished memoirs of Hymie Fagan, of Jewish working class origins, who was born in Stepney in 1903. His autobiography is one of a large collection of unpublished working class autobiographies which are held in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies at Brunel University. These autobiographies were collected by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall while compiling their three volume annotated bibliography, The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984-1989). The texts aren’t available online, and there’s only an index available which gives author, title, and some indication of the location and time period of their memoir. So you’d have to go there to find out more, but here’s evidence from Hymie Fagan of why it would be a worthwhile trip for the dedicated researcher. Here he’s writing about going to the cinema in London before the First World War. It is full of observant detail:

The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

“My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you”.

A later passage covers cinema-going during the First World War, and has useful evidence of the appeal of the cinema’ stars on the young:

Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

There are several other such autobiographies in the Brunel collection, though in my research I looked only for those subjects who had lived in London in the 1896-1914 period. John Burnett’s books looking at nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class life through memoir evidence (Destiny Obscure, Useful Toil) are not hard to find in second-hand shops, and are well worth seeking out, even if none so far as I know touches on the cinema.

Best silent film


SZABIST Inter-university Film Festival awards

All praise to Syed Paiman Hussain for his film Martey Raho. I’ve no idea what it’s about, but at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST) Inter-university Film Festival in Pakistan, his film won the award for ‘best silent film’. Other awards went to best sound, best original score, best editing, best documentary, best cinematography, best story, best actor, best director and best film. The partipants in the awards were students from various schools and universities in Pakistan that include film-making as part of their curriculum. Hussain is a student at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture. Let’s hope it’s the start of a brilliant career. There certainly can’t be too many awards for best silent film these days – we should be doing more encouraging of the art form in this way.

More information from the Pakistan Daily Times.

Kansas Board of Review Movie Index

Following the item a couple of months back on the New York State Archives’ film censorship records, let’s now turn our attention to the Kansas Board of Review Movie Index.

The index covers all films assessed by the Kansas Board of Review, 1910-1966, for which some change was demanded prior to public screening – ranging from from cutting of brief scenes to the banning of entire films. The original index, held on 3×5 index cards, lists the date, number of reels, title, film company and whether accepted, rejected or to be accepted only with specified eliminations to be made. Cards for films with such eliminations contain a detailed description of the portions to be censored, and it is these that make the online version of this index so fascinating.

The Movie Index site explains the procedure:

In its earliest existence, the board was required to “Approve such film reels, including subtitles, spoken dialogue, songs, other words or sounds, folders, posters and advertising materials which are moral and proper” and to censor films that were “cruel, obscene, indecent or immoral, or such as tend to debase and corrupt morals.” The board accomplished this daunting task by requiring that all films to be shown in the state first be passed by a board of three censors. This board had the power to remove any scenes that it felt met the aforementioned criteria. The board also could ban films in toto (as it did with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation from 1915 to 1923 for “inciting racial hatred and sectional bias”). After being reviewed and edited, the film was then tagged with a unique serial number that identified the film as having been reviewed and passed.

Although Birth of a Nation was accepted for public exhibition in Kansas, it could only be so following eliminations made, as the Index record demonstrates:

The Birth Of A Nation
Date of Review: 1923-11-27
Company Name: States Rights
Starring: Not Stated
Notes: Film was approved with elimination. Sam Silverman submitted a sound version on 3/23/31 which was examined and disapproved 11/12/31 because of tendency to debase & corrupt morals.
Contains Smoking? Not Stated
Eliminations: Reel 2: Reduce to flash mulatto woman on floor with bare shoulders. Reel 2: Eliminate scene of Stone embracing mulatto woman. Reel 4: Eliminate scene of soldier piercing body of fallen man with bayonet. Reel 5: Eliminate scene mulatto woman fondling arm of Stone. Reel 9: Eliminate closeup of negro’s face looking through trees. Reel 9: Reduce scenes of negro chasing girl. Reel 11: Reduce scenes of Lynch holding Elsie and looking sensually at her.
Box Number: 35-06-05-12

You can search by film title, company name, performer, specific elimination (the term “negro” brings up thirty-two hits) and date range – just searching on 1910-1929 alone brings up 4,638 hits. A first rate resource, compiled by volunteers it seems, to whom all praise.

So far as I know there aren’t any other American state censorship records available online, apart from New York and Kansas, but I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who can tell me otherwise.

Les Vampires

Les Vampires

Poster for Les Vampires

Well, first of all the imminent release by Artificial Eye of a three-disc DVD edition of Louis Feuillade’s classic serial Les Vampires gives me the opportunity to reproduce one of the great posters of the silent era. Has a touch of Twin Peaks about it, I’ve always thought, even if the curtains are the wrong colour.

Anyway, Les Vampires (1915/16) is, of course, one of the great crime serials (or series) made by Feuillade for Gaumont, after he had thrilled audiences and revitalised the crime genre with Fantômas (1913). The five Fantômas films, based the popular crime novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, were particularly thrilling for being shown from the perspective not of the detective but of the master criminal, with his genius for disguise and eluding the police. Les Vampires, a little more conventionally, is shown from the perspective of the pursuing journalist Philippe Guérande, but it does have the huge plus of arch villainess Irma Vep, played in true iconic fashion by Musidora. Irma Vep, as an intertitle sequence that always raises a cheer, is of course an anagram of vampire.

Irma Vep = Vampire

Intertitle sequence from Les Vampires giving the game away

The Vampires are a criminal gang, supposedly inspired by the real-life Bonnot gang whose exploits chilled and thrilled the French just before the First World War. Irma Vep does not lead the group, though she does assassinate the Grand Vampire, a scene Feuillade apparently concocted after the actor playing the Grand Vampire neglected to turn up on set on time. The Vampires dress head to toe in black and general steal, kidnap and assassinate, before making daring escapes across picturesque Parisian rooftops. Guérande doggedly pursues them, aided by reformed Vampire Mazamette, but each time some new nefarious figure rises to prominence within the ranks of the Vampires.

Les Vampires is, strictly speaking, halfway between a series and a serial. It is divided into ten episodes, but these were released irregularly, and it was until Judex (1917, also starring Musidora) and Feuillade truly adopted the serial form. Stylish, transgressive and wildly imaginative, Les Vampires gains a particular power from combining the surreal world of the Vampires with the ordinary streets and buildings of Paris, doubtless making it all the more imaginatively plausible to contemporary audiences.

Les Vampires

Over three discs you get the ten episodes (between 40 and 70 minutes each), plus a selection of Feuillade’s short films: La Bous-Bous-Mie (1907), Une Dame Vraiment Bien (1908), La Legende de la Fileuse (1908), C’est pour les Orphelines (1916) and L’Orgie Romaine (1911). Music is scored by Éric le Guen. The release derives from the same Gaumont restoration which has been released on DVD in France by Gaumont themselves, though ranging over four discs, albeit with some extras not available on the Artificial Eye release.

Les Vampires is released on 24 March.

Rats, ruffians and radicals in Nottingham

British Silent Cinema

The Bargain, At the Villa Rose and The Rat

The full programme for the British Silent Cinema Festival has been published. The festival, entitled Rats, Ruffians and Radicals: The globalisation of crime and the British silent film (now there’s a theme and a half) takes place at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham 3-6 April.

As usual, the festival will be a mixture of films, papers, symposia and special events, mostly (but not entirely) around the festival’s theme. The main outline of the programme has already been given here, but here’s a check list of the main films being shown:

Thursday, 3 April

Dir. Warwick Buckland GB 1913, 24mins

Dir. Henry Edwards, GB 1921, 1hr 15mins

Dir. Walter Forde, GB 1930, 1hr 15mins

Dir. Maurice Elvey, GB 1920, 1hr 22mins

Dir. Joe May, Germany, 1914, 44 mins

Dir Erich Waschneck, Germany 1928, 1hr 54mins

Friday, 4 April

Dir. Anders Wilhelm Sandberg. Denmark, 1923, 1hr 15mins

Dir. Frank Urson; USA 1927, 1hr 57mins

Saturday, 5 April

Dir Maurice Tourneur, USA 1917, 1hr 10mins

Dir Fred Evans/Joe Evans, GB 1917, 20mins

Dir. Graham Cutts, GB 1925, 1hr 18 mins

Sunday, 6 April

Dir. H.B Parkinson, USA 1922, 1hr

Dir. Charles Vanel, France 1929, 75 mins

The mostly crime-free special events are, on the Saturday: ‘Women and Silent Britain’, a series of presentations and screenings looking at the roles of women in the first three decades of British cinema; also on the Saturday, Luke McKernan presenting ‘The Olympic Games on Film 1900-1924’; on the Sunday, ‘Melodrama from Stage to Screen’, with emphasis on musical acompaniment (contributions from Phil Carli and Neil Brand); and most notably, on the Friday, Kevin Brownlow delivers the second Rachael Low Lecture.

And there’s more. You’ll have to read the programme for all the many papers featured during the four days, but expect to be informed, and quite possibly entranced, by presentations on subjects as diverse as crime in Finnish film of the 1920s, fan writing and self-representation in British silent films, the Biokam films of Laura Eugenia Smith, the eroticism of Anna May Wong and her representation as ‘other’, diamond smuggling in early cinema, the white slave trade and Traffic in Souls, and petty crime in Fred Karno’s music hall sketches as an influence in the early films of Charlie Chaplin.

And there are Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu shorts, and restorations from the Imperial War Museum, The Woman’s Portion (1918) and Everybody’s Business (1917). And lots more besides. Most of the films come from the BFI National Archive, plus some from the IWM, the Danish Film Archive, and UCLA Film and Television Archive (Chicago).

It’s always an excellently organised and amiable event, which achieves miracles on a funding shoestring, and is by now a more than well-established feature of the silent film calendar (this is its eleventh year). Full programme details, booking form, accommodation information and so forth are all available from the festival site. See you there, hopefully.

Charleston Symphony Orchestra Silent Film Contest

This is novel. The third annual Charleston Symphony Orchestra Silent Film Contest has just been announced. The concept for this project is to have amateur and professional filmmakers choose a piece from the set repertoire, and make a film based on his/her interpretation of the piece. The completed films are then sent to the Symphony where they will be judged by an independent panel. The selected films will be projected onto a movie screen above the orchestra as the soundtracks are performed live. The winner receives a $1,000 grand prize and may have his/her film presented at a future CSO event.

The concert will be held on Thursday, April 10 at the Charleston Music Hall, Charleston, SC, starting at 9PM. This year the selections are “The Last Spring” from Two Elegaic Melodies by Edvard Grieg, “March of the Sardar” from Caucasian Sketches: Suite by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, “The Alcotts” from Concert Sonata by Charles Ives, Symphony No. 25 Movement 1 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Magic Flute Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Barber of Seville: Overture by Gioacchino Rossini, and Messages, an original composition by local composer and professor at the College of Charleston, Trevor Weston. All are in the public domain and freely available (“i.e. iTunes”) except for the Weston piece, for which you have to request a Midi file from the organisers.

All entires must be on DVD, must not infringe copyrights, must be world premieres, and must “be intended for a family audience, be non-commercial in nature (e.g., no infomercials or commercials), fall within the equivalent of a G, PG or PG-13 rating as such ratings are determined for theatrical films by the Motion Picture Association of America, and not contain any sexually explicit, disparaging, libelous or other inappropriate content or any nudity”. What fun. Further details are available from the competition site.

Projection Box Essay Awards

The winners have been announced for the inaugural Projection Box Essay Awards 2007-2008 for research into the projected and moving image to 1915.

The judges awarded the first prize of £250 and publication in Early Popular Visual Culture, to Dr. John Plunkett for his essay ‘Selling Stereoscopy 1890-1914: penny arcades, automatic machines and American salesmen.’

“ A thorough and well sustained argument … convincing and very well written … highly original.”
“ A clear and impressive piece of work.”

Second and third prizes of Projection Box books worth £100 went to: Professor Erkki Huhtamo, for ‘Penetrating the Perestrephic: an unwritten chapter in the history of the panorama’

“A fascinating piece of re-constructive archaeology.”
“The range of sources is remarkable …”

and to Christian Hayes for ‘Phantom Carriages: reconstructing Hale’s Tours and the virtual travel experience’.

“… has a good balance between the historical facts and the theorising. A good read.”

The titles of the other entries received and judged were (in no particular order):

  • ‘Early Days of Cinematograph Projection’
  • ‘Hidden History: exploring the lost world of early cinema’
  • ‘From Dioramic Views to a Dissolving Partnership: Banks and Grieves and the “sensation of the age”‘
  • ‘The Outside-in Machine: the Kinetoscope, its films and the Kinetoscope experience in London’
  • ‘Returning to Fear: new discoveries in E.G. Robertson’s Fantasmagoria’
  • ‘Tillie’s Punctured Celluloid’
  • ‘Between Narrative and Expressive Value: notes on deep staging in early cinema’

The aims of the Award for 2008-2009 are to encourage new research and new thinking into any historical, artistic or technical aspect of popular optical media up to 1900; and to promote engaging, accessible, and imaginative work. The deadline for entries of between 5,000 and 8,000 words is 24 January 2009. All details including rules and application form can be found at

Time running out for the Cinema Museum

Cinema Museum

As was reported a few months ago on The Bioscope, the Cinema Museum in south London comes to the end of its lease this month, and has no new home to move to. Its current home is a former Lambeth workhouse (the same one that once incarcerated Charlie Chaplin’s mother), but this is owned by an NHS trust and it wants to sell the dilapidated property. The Cinema Museum is privately-owned and not open to the general public. It only keeps going financially through its commercial stills business. It is an absolute treasure trove of cinema memorabilia – posters, designs, seats, uniforms, costumes, books, journals, equipment, and a sizeable film collection, as well as a million stills.

The Cinema Museum may be struggling to find a base, but it is doing very well at drumming up publicity. There have been press reports, such as this account in The Times, and yesterday there was a report on Channel 4 News, which you can see on its site (as well as the uncut original interview with owner Ronald Grant, no less).

The lease runs out on March 25, and no one knows what will happen thereafter. Anyone with a large (10,000 sq ft) space in London not doing that much who might like to provide a home for the collection should get in touch with Ronald Grant or Martin Humphries asap. It’s an irony that while the Cinema Museum faces eviction, on London’s South Bank we have the peculiar, opportunistic Movieum of London just opened, dedicatd to British cinema, sort of, though I doubt much that it devotes much space, if any, to the silent era.

If you want to see what’s held in the Cinema Museum, take a look at their wonderful promo film available on YouTube.

Update (23 March): The Cinema Museum reports that the NHS Trust which owns the building has given them a two-month reprieve (i.e. to the end of May). Meetings are taking place regarding the museum’s long-term prospects, but this will still leave them needing to find a new home in the short-term. Also their website is active again, having gone down for a short while. More news as I find it.

The world’s oldest movie

Burnt City’s Wild Goat

The Wild Goat of Burnt City, from

Those of us steeped in early film know all about the pre-history of cinema, with the optical toys, Zoetropes, Phenakistiscopes and so on of the nineteenth century and a history of screen practice going back to the seventeenth century and the emergence of the magic lantern. And many have argued that the history can go back as far as you like, some even asserting that cave paintings demonstrate a proto-cinematic imagination.

But here we have a candidate for the world’s oldest piece of animation, even the world’s oldest movie – an ‘animation’ from 2,600 B.C. In the 1970s an Italian archaeological team uncovered a pot in the 5,200-year-old Burnt City of ancient Iran. It was Iranian archaeologist Dr Mansur Sadjadi, who discovered that the five images on the pot, showing a wild goat leaping up to eat the leaves of a tree, formed a related series. Now a documentary film has been made by Mohsen Ramezani which animates the sequence.

Wild Goat

The original five images of the wild goat, from

Of course, the ancient Iranians did not invent the animated GIF, and in any case there has been some jiggery-pokery to make the animation succeed (there are more than five images to the animated sequence, the images have been cleaned up, and the background trees are unfeasibly rocksteady). So it’s an animation of an animation. Nevertheless, it’s delightful to see, and does make you think that the wish to capture life in art has always included a need to suggest motion, so that cinematic urge has always been there, in some form. It’s a fundamental human need. Now, were any other such pots made, and where are they?

Find out more about the pot and film from the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization site. Acknowledgment also to the commendable Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, where I found the story.