The Vortex

The Vortex, from

Another British silent has been issued on DVD (see the post on A Cottage in Dartmoor for a round-up of which British silents are currently available on DVD). Sunrise Silents have released The Vortex (1928), Adrian Brunel’s film, made for Gainsborough, of the Noël Coward play, starring Ivor Novello and Willette Kershaw.

Who she? Adrian Brunel, in his autobiography Nice Work, tells his usual tales of battles with the philistines that generally ran things in British films at that time (not like that now, of course), and tells this tale of working with the stage actress, who was chosen after forty others were considered for the role (including Edna Purviance, who turned them down):

Finally we chose Willette Kershaw, the American stage actress. Physically she was ideal; she was pretty, and her doll-like face appeared youthful in a way the part demanded. She was a strange creature, rather pathetic, rather lovable and not quite real. She never seemed to eat – at least, not solid foods. Her diet consisted mainly of vegetable extracts pellets.

It was her first film and a trying ordeal for her. When she had been rehearsed and all was set for taking the scene, she would swallow one of her little pills, and I would give the word go. For the first five seconds of very scene she would be detached and miles away; then she would come to, performing excellently for about twenty seconds, when she would begin to sag. Naturally, therefore, I made her scenes as short as possible, but there was that lag in her attack and very often that sagging at the end.

Brunel then goes on to write about how he saved her work in the editing, only to have the editing of the film taken away from him. Brunel is wrong is saying that it was her first film, as IMDB gives three credits for her in the 1910s. But it was her last film. The play The Vortex was highly controversial in its day, for its allusions to drug addiction and implications of homosexuality – needless to say, the film version is heavily bowderlised.

Other British silents available from Sunrise Silents are Piccadilly (1929) and She (1925).

Pen and pictures no. 3 – J.M. Barrie

There were many authors in the silent era of cinema who dabbled with the film business, usually by having their works adapted for the screen. But some went further. J.M. Barrie, now chiefly known for Peter Pan, and for his custody of the sons of the Llewellyn-Davies family, the ‘Lost Boys’ (as recently retold in the film Finding Neverland), was among the most highly regarded writers of his time, as a novelist and especially as a dramatist. Barrie was fascinated by the cinema. Many silent films were made from his plays, among them Male and Female (1919, based on The Admirable Crichton), Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1926). For Peter Pan Barrie wrote an original script, though it was not used. But Barrie did more than dabble with film scripts – he had been making his own films, which experimented with the relationship between film and theatre, fantasy and reality.

Two of these films were each connected with a combined theatre-and-film revue that Barrie had dreamt up in July 1914, only to abandon. Barrie had become fascinated by the French music hall actress, Gaby Delys, and wanted to write a revue for her that would extend his dramatic capabilities, and which would allow him to experiment with the borderline between cinema and theatre. He made notes to himself that indicate his radical way of thinking:

Combine theatre with cinematography – Cinema way of kissing. Burlesque of American titles, ‘Nope’ & ‘Yep’ – Gaby a chorus-girl, flirts with conductor in pit.

Barrie’s ideas became more ambitious. He organised a ‘Cinema Supper’ at the Savoy Hotel in London, to which he was able to invite such luminaries as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. His august guests first went to the Savoy Theatre to a series of short sketches written by Barrie and acted by such theatrical greats as Marie Lohr, Dion Boucicault, Marie Tempest, Gerald Du Maurier and Edmund Gwenn, before moving to the Savoy Hotel for supper, Barrie having hired a team of cameramen to film everyone arriving and then seated at their tables. Many apparently had no idea that they were being filmed, though the necessary lighting must sure have raised some questions among some. At one point in the evening Bernard Shaw got up and started delivering a speech haranguing three other guests present, namely G.K. Chesterton, the drama critic William Archer and the philanthropist Lord Howard de Walden, getting so heated as to start waving a sword around. The three he had insulted then all got up, bearing swords of their own, and chased him off stage. This was all a further part of Barrie’s plan, and according to Chesterton, Barrie had ‘some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality’.

The following day came the second part of Barrie’s plans. He had hired a cameraman, and with the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker as director, he made a comedy Western, starring Shaw, Archer, de Walden and Chesterton. Chesterton has left us with the best description of this extraordinary little episode:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.

Chesterton says that the film was never shown, while Barrie’s biographer Denis Mackail suggests that Barrie’s ideas were still half-formed and objections from some of the participants (notably Herbert Asquith, who sent a stern letter from 10 Downing Street forbidding his celluloid likeness from being used in a theatrical revue) caused both films to be withdrawn. However, the cowboy film was shown publicly, two years later at a war hospital charity screening at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the splendid title of How Men Love. A review of the event indicates that Chesterton’s description of the action is what was seen on the screen, with the added detail that the others hanging from the rope over a cliff were too much even for a man of his great bulk to support, and he was forced to drop them. According to Mackail, a print was still in existence in 1941, but sadly no copy is known to exist today. Happily, this photograph does exist to demonstrate that it was not all just some mad dream:

(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography

After a revue of his, Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus (1915), starring Gaby Delys, had a filmed sequence directed by Percy Nash included in one scene, Barrie turned filmmaker again in 1916. The Real Thing at Last was a professional film production by the British Actors Film Company, for which Barrie supplied the script. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and among numerous celebratory productions, there was to be a Hollywood production of Macbeth, produced by D.W. Griffith and starring the English actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The idea of Hollywood tackling Shakespeare filled many with hilarity, and Barrie wrote a thirty-minute spoof which contrasted Macbeth as it might be produced in Britain, with how it would be treated in America. The film starred Edmund Gwenn as Macbeth, and among a notable cast Leslie Henson and A.E. Matthews both have left droll accounts of its production.

The film had a director, L.C. MacBean, but according to Matthews, ‘Barrie did all the work – MacBean just looked on admiringly’. The film gained all its humour from the contrasts in the British and American interpretations of Macbeth. In the British version, Lady Macbeth wiped a small amount of blood from her hands; in the American she had to wash away gallons of the stuff. In the British, the witches danced around a small cauldron; in the American the witches became dancing beauties cavorting around a huge cauldron. In the British, Macbeth and Macduff fought in a ditch; in the American Macbeth falls to his death from a skyscraper. The intertitles were similarly affected; a telegram was delivered to Macbeth that read, ‘If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch’. Sadly, no copy (nor even a photograph, it seems) of this happy jest of Barrie’s is known to exist today.

What does exist, however, is The Yellow Week at Stanway. This film was made in 1923, and is a record of a house party held by Barrie at Stanway, the Cotswolds home of Lord and Lady Wemyss, which Barrie rented every summer. Barrie invited his many guests, which on one occasion included the entire Australian cricket team, to take part in theatricals, cricket matches and other such entertainments, and in 1923 he hired a professional cameraman, name unknown, to film a story that he initially called Nicholas’s Dream. Nicholas, or Nico, was the youngest of the five Llewellyn-Davies boys, and a little of their history is required to put the film in proper context.

The five boys were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies, friends of J.M. Barrie and the models for Mr and Mrs Darling in Peter Pan. Both died tragically early, with Barrie assuming the guardianship of the five boys. They were, of course, the inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ of Barrie’s imagination, and Michael Llewellyn-Davies in particular became the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. But the family was to be visited by further tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in action in 1915, then Michael, Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921. Two of the others, Jack and Peter, moved away from Barrie, and the youngest, Nico, still at school at Eton, stayed with Barrie during holidays but felt Michael’s death deeply and knew that he was no substitute for him.

It is with this background, knowing both Nico and Barrie’s great personal sadness, that we should look at The Yellow Week at Stanway, which records a Stanway house party in 1923 to which Nico invited several of his Eton friends, with a complementary female component made up of friends of the Wemyss family, whose daughter Cynthia Asquith was Barrie’s secretary. She has provided us with a short account of the film’s production:

He [Barrie] was in marvelous form all through the cricket week, and in his most masterful mood – presenting the Eleven with special caps at a speech – making dinner, and summoning from London a ‘camera-man’ to film a fantasy called Nicholas’s Dream, into which he’d woven a part for everyone – a bicycling one for me. He also wrote a duologue for me and sister Mary. It was great fun having her to beguile the Etonians. Pamela Lytton, as lovely as ever, came, too, with her daughter, Hermione.

The film is largely in the standard home movie style (albeit at a time when home movies were a comparative rarity), with some simple trick effects and a distinctive tone of whimsy typical of Barrie, who wrote all of the rhyming intertitles as well as directing the film. It begins with the title, ‘The Yellow Week at Stanway. A record of fair women and brainy men’. The opening shots establish Stanway house and the Wemyss family. Nico Llewellyn-Davies greets the various guests for the Cricket Week, including roughly equal numbers of young men and women.

A game of cricket follows, where the umpire appears to be Barrie. A couple of rudimentary trick shots, with people disappearing or riding bicycles backwards come next, before an extended fantasy sequence. Nico is seen to fall asleep in ‘the forest of Arden’, and in his dream he seeks ‘his Rosalind’ but sees all the other house guests pair up without him. Mary Strickland leaves him for Anthony Lytton; another couple walk away when he greets them; another couple hit croquet balls at him; two others cycle past him; even Nico’s dog abandons him. Each vignette is accompanied by Barrie’s rhyming titles documenting Nico’s series of rejections.

Nicholas, Antony and Mary –
‘Your offer’s read sir, and declined
I will not be your Rosalind.’

Edward and Pamela –
From the East to Western Ind
To Edward comes his Rosalind.

Sam and Rosemary –
Same drove him off with deeds unkind
And so did gentle Rosalind.

Pasty and Hermione –
If t’were not that love is blind
He’d keep an eye on Rosalind.

Eventually he wakes to find himself petted by all of the women, while the men walk away in disgust.

Following some further general shots, there comes the film’s most intriguing sequence. A title introduces ‘The Pirates’ Lagoon. An intruder’. Barrie and Michael Asquith (Cynthia Asquith’s young son) are seen on a small punt on a pond. The next title reads, ‘Michael the captain could stand when pressed. But drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Michael and three other children, including his younger brother Simon, are seen in a boat. ‘’Ware the Redskins’, reads the next title, and Michael points a gun and a smaller boy a bow and arrow. ‘Escaping the tomahawks by a miracle’, reads the title, ‘Red Michael reached Stanway by a perilous descent.’ Michael is shown climbing through a window. The film concludes with Nico pretending to sleep and embracing an imaginary person; final shots of Stanway and the house guests; shots of Eton school; and concluding with Simon and Michael Asquith waving handkerchiefs through windows in a garden wall.

J.M. Barrie and Michael Asquith in The Yellow Week at Stanway, from

The film is jointed, illogical and often plain silly in the manner of many home movies. The two fantasy sequences are notable, however. The ‘Nicholas’s Dream’ betrays some unfathomable and unconscious cruelty on Barrie’s part, depicting Nico as the unloved outsider, rejected by his peers, denied the pleasures of young love. Its allusions to Shakespeare’s As You Like It prefigure Barrie’s later involvement in the 1936 film of the play (the later film’s credits read ‘treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie’), with Elisabeth Bergner as a Peter Pan-like Rosalind. The pirate sequence, though brief and not elaborate in any way, is remarkably close in conception to his photo-story The Boy Castaways which was in turn the inspiration for Peter Pan.

The Yellow Week at Stanway is preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can read the minutely detailed shotlist (penned by yours truly, long ago) on the BFI database. And there is just a fleeting extract from the film available on the Knebworth House website, showing Barrie and Michael Asquith on a punt.

Finally, just for the record, here’s a filmography of films from the silent era made from Barrie’s plays (play’s name where different in brackets), demonstrating just how popular his works were – and how ingenious producers were in renaming The Admirable Crichton:

  • US 1910 Back to Nature [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 The Little Minister
    d. James Young p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 Shipwrecked [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Kalem
  • US 1914 The Man of her Choice [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Powers
  • US 1915 The Little Gypsy [The Little Minister]
    d. Oscar C. Apfel p.c. Fox
  • GB 1915 The Little Minister
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune
  • GB 1915 Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune [for use in the play’s stage production (scene six)]
  • GB 1917 What Every Woman Knows
    d. Fred W. Durrant p.c. Barker-Neptune
  • GB 1918 The Admirable Crichton
    d. G.B. Samuelson p.c. Samuelson
  • US 1919 Male and Female [The Admirable Crichton]
    d. Cecil B. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1920 Half an Hour
    d. Harley Knoles p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1920 The Twelve Pound Look
    d. Jack Denton p.c. Ideal
  • US 1921 The Little Minister
    d. Penrhyn Stanlaws p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 Sentimental Tommy
    d. John S. Robertson p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 What Every Woman Knows
    d. William C. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1921 The Will
    d. A.V. Bramble p.c. Ideal
  • US 1922 The Little Minister
    d. David Smith p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1924 Peter Pan
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1925 Peter Pan Handled (Dinky Doodle series) [featured Peter Pan as a character] [animation]
    d. Walter Lantz p.c. Bray Productions
  • US 1926 A Kiss for Cinerella
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1927 Quality Street
    d. Sidney Franklin p.c. Cosmopolitan Productions

Seeing the unseen world

Francis Martin Duncan with microcinematographical equipment

Opening today is an exhibition at the Science Museum on the history of the science film. Entitled Films of Fact, it looks at the development of scientific films and television programmes from 1903 to 1965. Its subject, and that of the book that accompanies it, is not really scientific film as in film used in the study of science, but rather the presentation of science on film. So it’s about popularisation and communication.

Films of Fact as a title comes from the name of the company of social documentarist Paul Rotha, once renowned not just as a filmmaker but as a theorist and film historian. But the exhibition also focuses on an earlier period, when science film meant films of nature, and it has generated quite a bit of press interest in one film in particular, Cheese Mites, made by zoologist Francis Martin Duncan in 1903 using microcinematopgrahic equipment (microscope + cine camera, basically) for producer Charles Urban. Urban had had the extraordinary idea of putting science films before a music hall audience, in a show he called The Unseen World. This contemporary review from the Daily Telegraph gives an idea of the astonished audience reaction:

Science has just added a new marvel to the marvelous powers of the Bioscope. A few years ago it was thought sufficiently wonderful to show the picture of a frog jumping. Go to the Alhambra this week and you may seen upon the screen the blood circulating in that same frog’s foot. This sounds a trifle incredible, but it is an exact statement of the truth. The new miracle has been performed by the adaptation of the microscope to the camera which takes the Bioscope films. Last night The Charles Urban Trading Company Ltd, who has taken the photographs, had many other miracles to show and explain to a fascinated audience. There was a blood-curdling picture of cheese-mites taking their walks abroad, the tiny creatures looking on the screen as large as small crabs. The minute hydra which lives in stagnant water appeared shooting out its tentacles and taking a meal … Twenty-five minutes, the length of the exhibition, is a long time to give to a Bioscope turn, but the rapt attention of the audience and the thunders of applause at the conclusion testified to the way in which popularity had been at once secured by these unique pictures.

Cheese Mites (1903)

Cheese Mites was the hit of the show, and is only one the Unseen World films to survive (the BFI has it). Originally the film just showed the magnified creatures. Later Urban added a comic framing story, as this Charles Urban Trading Company catalogue entry explains:

A gentleman reading the paper and seated at lunch, suddenly detects something the matter with his cheese. He examines it with his magnifying glass, starts up and flings the cheese away, frightened at the sight of the creeping mites which his magnifying glass reveals. A ripe piece of Stilton, the size of a shilling, will contain several hundred cheese mites. In this remarkable film, the mites are seen crawling and creeping about in all directions, looking like great uncanny crabs, bristling with long spiny hairs and legs.

Unfortunately, these extra scenes don’t survive. There’s a news report on the BBC site about the exhibition, which include the Cheese Mites film, so do take a look, and ponder the alarm that was said at the time to have spread among cheese manufacturers, who begged for the film to be stopped being shown. There’s also an article in this week’s New Scientist magazine which tells the story behind the film and that of Percy Smith, a later collaborator with Charles Urban, who made such classics as The Balancing Bluebottle (1908) and The Birth of a Flower (1910), employing time-lapse photography, before going on to make the once-famous series The Secrets of Nature in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Acrobatic Fly (a retitled version of The Balancing Bluebottle), made by Percy Smith in 1908. As Smith explained, “The fly is quite uninjured and is merely supported by a silken band when performing with weights which would otherwise overbalance it. When its feats are accomplished it is allowed to fly away.”

And then there’s the book. Timothy Boon’s Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Film and Television is something quite special. It’s a history of a type of film which has barely been covered by historians, and has much that is new or revalatory, for the silent era and beyond. But it’s also a cultural history, which addresses why these films were made, what the popularisation of science means, and how science relates to society at large. It’s an exciting read, and I’ll try and give it more space at another time, while looking at the literature of the early science film in general. Anyway, Charles Urban, F. Martin Duncan and Percy Smith are the flavour of the moment, which is unexpected but should be fun while it lasts. I saw Cheese Mites and Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly shown before an audience this evening, and they excited much the same mixture of amusement and amazement as they did a century ago. The filmmakers of old did know a thing or two.

The Science Museum exhibition runs until February 2009.

Méliès by instalments

Une Partie de cartes, Entre Calais et Douvres and Un Homme de têtes, from

Parbleu! The publication of the Flicker Alley five-disc set of (most of) the works of Georges Méliès has already sparked off a lot of interest and investigation, some of it centred on identifying those titles which exist but aren’t included on the DVDs. But now we have Georges Méliès: An in-depth look at the cinema’s first creative genius. This is a new blog/research tool from Michael Brooke, part of the new Filmjournal blogging site. Brooke (a regular contributor to the BFI’s Screenonline site) has taken on the task of reviewing everyone of the 173 films on the Flicker Alley set, in chronological order. Each film is given under its English and French titles, with date, catalogue number and length; illustrated with a frame still; the action described; a detailed review follows (including comments on the DVD quality); then links (usually IMDB, Wikipedia and YouTube).

It’s well done and is going to build up into a really useful resource. The emphasis is very much on stylistic innovations, but there’s more to Méliès than magic and film form. His films were grounded in social and political realities (it’ll be interesting to see how his films of the Dreyfus affair are covered), and in ways of storytelling that reach way back before the upstart cinema. Anyway, an excellent effort so far, and an answer to the complaint on this blog that there weren’t any good Méliès sites out there. It looks like one is building up film by film before our eyes.

100 years of Georgian cinema

Regular readers will recall than we marked 100 years of Russian cinema a few months ago, and now it’s time to recognise 100 years of cinema in Georgia. This news report turned up on The Georgian Times today, of which I’ll give you the silent bit:

Georgia has been making films for one hundred years. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgian cinema was known across Soviet blocs as being vibrant and creative. The Italian director Federico Fellini once described it as “a strange phenomenon, special, philosophically light, sophisticated, and at the same time, childishly pure.” But the economic breakdown which followed Georgian independence has made it very difficult to make films, although recently, experts say that quality Georgian filmmaking is beginning to return.

Georgian film production began at nearly the same time as European cinema. The first film festival took place in Tbilisi in 1896. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Georgian cinema, a number of exhibitions, festive events and showings of Georgian silent films have been planned. “A festive opening for Georgian cinema’s jubilee celebration will be held at Rustaveli Theater,” Nino Anjaparidze, a public relations department representative for the Georgian National Film Center, said, inviting the public to attend.

According to her, the Georgian filmmaking has begun to revive. “It turned out that the anniversary coincided with the 60 year anniversary of a well-known Georgian film Keto and Kote by Vakhtang Tabliashvili and Shalva Gedevanishvili,” Anjaparidze says.

“The film festival, will also consist of showing this film and we have newly reconstructed the film and a documentary about the period when this film was made is in the works by independent company ‘Kiono Project’ headed by Archil Geloavni,” stated Anjaparidze.

Experts widely consider 1908 the year cinema was born in Georgia, when film directors Dighmelov and Amashukeli made their first experimental shots. In 1912, Amashukeli shot the first full-length documentary movie, Akakis Mogzauroba [Akaki’s Journey], about poet Akaki Tsereteli. The film was unparalleled by any other movie in world at that time as to its theme, length and artistic level. The first full-range feature film in Georgia, Kristine was shot from 1916 to 1918. The film was directed by Aleksandre Tsutsunava. In 1924 “Three Lives” by Perestiani was a great success – the film was the first attempt to provide psychological insight into the heroes.

In the mid 1920s, theatre, literature and art professionals came to the cinema. When Samanishvili’s Stepmother (Marjanishvili) and Khanuma (Tsutsunava) appeared on the screen, they marked the beginning of a new genre of comedy film. Films of this period were very popular due to the first Georgian film star, Nato Vachnadze {from such films as The Story of Tariel Mklavadze, Who can Be Blamed, and others), the country’s first silver screen diva.

Next came a period of new genres and style in the Georgian Cinema. One of the best representatives of the generation was Nikolai Shengelaia. Though he lived in Stalin’s epoch, watching his films we feel the directors active strive for innovation and artistic expressions in his films. Now, N. Shengelaias and N. Vachnadzes sons Eldar and Giorgi Shengelaia are also famous directors of the Georgian cinema.

The film My Grandmother by Kote Mikaberidze (1929) was also a crucial turning point for Georgian film. In this movie, for the first time in Georgian and Soviet cinematography, the principles of expressionism appeared.The film was forbidden to appear on the screen, but many years later the film was restored and shown in La Rochelle. Soviet ideology was so pressing in the 1930s that little innovation took place. Only some films of the period were noteworthy: Siko Dolidze’s Dariko (1936), David Rondeli’s Lost Paradise (1937), and a few others.

Keti Dolidze a famous Georgian film director and a daughter of a well-known Georgian film director, says that she must congratulate the anniversary to the Georgian cinema in the past, and that nowadays, “Georgian cinema is in very bad condition because our government puts little money into cinema.. It is very difficult to revive after 15 years of falling and how can we overtake European cinema and even Russian cinema, as they have already produced 600 hundred movies this year because their government gives them enough money to produce films… Businessmen will never put money into this field because if they put money in, they will have to pay more taxes on it,” Keti Dolidze claimed.

To read the rest, go to The Georgian Times site. The great period of Georgian filmmaking (albeit overshadowed by Soviet ideology) was the 1960s/70s, with filmmakers of world renown like Otar Iosseliani and Sergei Parajanov (arguably one of the truly great silent directors). Of Georgian pioneers Vasil Amashukeli and Alexander Dighmelov I knew nothing before now, but there is information on them and silent cinema in Georgia generally on the Georgia & South Caucus blog.

Here comes the summer

Bonner Sommerkino

Well, I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but here we have the sort of driving wind and rain that only a British bank holiday can provide. As an antidote I thought it would be useful to have a round up of this summer’s silent film festivals. So here’s a line-up of some of what’s on offer from June through to October (a bit late for summer, I know, but Pordenone in October is just pefect, once you’ve endured the welcoming and obligatory one day of heavy rain).

Il Cinema Ritrovato
The Cinema Ritrovato film festival, Bologna takes place 28 June-5 July. This year there are a number of silent strands: a series dedicated to films made exactly 100 years ago, silent star Emilio Ghione, Lev Kuleshov, Comic Actresses and Suffragettes, and Monta Bell. A highlight is Neil Brand’s orchestral score for Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Other strands include Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Warner films of the 1930s, films based on the work of Giovanni Guareschi (creator of Don Camillo), Cold War films on the atomic bomb, and a Cinemascope selection.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place 11-13 July 2008. Films announced so far are (Friday 11 July) The Kid Brother (1927), (Saturday 12 July) The Soul of Youth (1920), Les Deux Timides (The Two Timid Souls) (1928), Mikael (Michael) (1924), The Man Who Laughs (1928), The Unknown (1927), (Sunday 13 July) Die Abenteur Des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) (1926), The Silent Enemy (1930), Her Wild Oat (1927), Jujiro (Crossways) (1928), The Patsy (1928).

The annual festival of silent and early sound comedy, Slapsticon, takes place in Arlington, Virginia 17-20 July. Programme highlights include Hal Roach rarities, Raymond Griffith, Mack Sennett, and Early Comedies.

Capitolfest, central New York’s silent and classic film festival returns 8–10 August at the Capitol Theatre, Rome, NY. Titles announced include The Little Wild Girl (1928), The Spieler (1928), Romance of the Underworld (1928) and The Shakedown (1929).

Strade del Cinema
Strade del Cinema is an international silent film festival with live music, held in Aosta, Italy. This year’s festival takes place 10-17 August. No titles as yet, but they have announced a Young European Musicians Contest and a SilentARTmovies contest giving “young Italian artists or foreigners living in Italy the opportunity to express an original point of view on Silent Cinema”.

Bonner Sommerkino
The annual festival of silent films held in Bonn, Germany, Bonner Sommerkino, will take place 14-24 August. The only title announced so far is Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy.

Cinecon is a classic film festival of silent and early sound titles, held in Hollywood, held over Labor Day weekend. This year’s event takes place 28 August-1 September. Titles don’t get announced until a month before the event, but you are promised “nearly thirty rare silent and early sound feature films and as many short subjects from the nation’s leading film archives and Hollywood studio vaults”, with an emphasis on rarities that seldom get public screenings.

This year’s Cinesation takes place at the Lincoln Theatre in Massillon, Ohio, 25-28 September 2008. Titles announced so far include Sold for Marriage (1916), The Grey Vulture (1926), Soul of the Beast (1923), The Cop (1928) and False Faces (1919).

Annual Buster Keaton Celebration
The 16th Annual Buster Kearton Celebration takes place in Iola, Kansas, over 26-27 September 2008. This year they are looking at the joint legacies of Keaton and Will Rogers.

Giornate del Cinema Muto
The 2008 Pordenone Silent Film Festival will be held 4-11 October at Pordenone, Italy. Among the main festival themes will be W.C. Fields, Aleksandr Shiryaev, French comedy of the post-war silent era, Hollywood on the Hudson(coinciding with Richard Koszarski’s new book on the history filmmaking in New York), Viktor Tourjansky, The Griffith Project 12 (1925-1931), and Early Cinema, including the Corrick Collection 2 (Australian collection of early actualities), the 30th anniversary of the FIAF Brighton congress, and W.K-L. Dickson (subject of a new biography by Paul Spehr).

Keep up with what’s going on through this sites Festivals page, or the highly recommended Stummfilmfestivals (in English as well as German). And try to keep warm.

Cartoon capers

‘The Cinema as an Educative Force. Tommy (a regular attender at cinematograph shows, during the performance of a society drama). “Is that the trusting husband or the amorous lover?”‘ Charles Pears cartoon in Punch, 7 August 1912, from I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph

One of the most interesting ways to examine contemporary perceptions of the silent cinema is through cartoons – newspaper cartoons, that is, rather than animated cartoons. Cartoons in the popular newspapers, comics and magazines of the day provide a marvellous measure of how the new phenomenon of cinema was commonly understood, since cartoons had to tap into a general feeling about the subject. Everyone had to be in on the joke for it to work. And more than simply recording popular sensibility, cartoons of the era pick up on changes in such aspects as technology and film-going habits, providing a valuable documentary record as well as a social history one.

‘Accidental Silhouettes no. 1: The Man of Color’, a cartoon of Charles Urban by Theodore Brown, from The Bioscope 22 February 1912

The film trade papers of the day are another source of cartoons and caricatures, not always so polished or so funny, but often picking up on minutiae of film business concerns which are of value to the specialists, or simply providing the only portraits we have of some of the film personalities (i.e. those behind the camera) that we have. Theodore Brown, editor of the British journal The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, unusually was also an occasional cartoonist (and a filmmaker, and an inventor), and provided the above cartoon of film producer Charles Urban, shown silhouetted via a Kinemacolor filter, which regulars will recognise provides my avatar in the comments to posts on this blog.

Cartoons on silent cinema are scattered all over the place, and tracking them down can be a laborious business – more often than not the research stumbles across them by chance, or else works their way through the well-thumbed pages of Punch, which never fails to come up with the goods of some sort. There is, however, one book – and a very good book – on the subject, Stephen Bottomore’s I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph: A Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies (1995). It must be said that the mixture of ungainly title and bi-lingual text (English/Italian) has not helped the book’s acceptance outside the hardy band of early film buffs. (The phrase that gives the book its title comes from a cartoon where a man asks at a box office if he can see what he assumes is an actress but of course the Animatograph projector – how they laughed in 1897). But within lies a rich selection of contemporary cartoons from across Europe and America, arranged around such themes as ‘Going to the Pictures’, ‘Opposition and Rgulation’ and ‘Film Genres’, providing a history of the cinema to 1915 through the pictures that made people at the time laugh about it. It is scholarly, observant and great to look at. I particularly value it for the cartoons of cinema-going, where you find evidence of exhibition practice and audience habits that really aren’t recorded elsewhere. Its opening essay also provides a valuable history of the cartoon over and above its relationship to film history.

But what can you find online? Not a lot, unfortunately, but one worthwhile source to direct you to is the British Cartoon Archive. This is based at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and is effectively the national collection of cartoons. Navigation on the site is a little unclear, but persevere and you’ll eventually find its database, which provides access to 120,000 cartoons, each illustrated with thumbnail image (click on the image for a larger view) and accompanied by exemplary cataloguing information, including an exhaustive array of thesaurus terms, the names of all real people featured in the cartoon, and transcriptions of the text.

Sample database search result with cartoons by W.K. Haselden, Sidney ‘George’ Strube and David Low

The Archive is rightly particular about protecting copyright images, so no reproductions here bar the web page picture grab above. But type in terms like ‘film’, ‘cinema’ etc and you’ll find such telling cartoons as W.K. Haselden’s ‘The all-conquering cinema’s advance’ (1924), where cinema screens crop up everywhere you look (even at Stonehenge), or David Low’s ‘Continuous show now on’ (1926) which comments on the beleaguered state of the mediocre British film industry, unable to compete against the block-booking Americans, while the overpowering attractions of an American vamp obscure those of the ‘pure but dull British film heroine’.

There are only so many cartoons there on the silent era, but more than enough to pick up on the social perceptions of the time. Look out too for David Low’s ‘Topical Budget’, a cartoon news commentary series which took its name from a popular newsreel of the silent era. There’s a lot more to explore on the British Cartoon Archive site, in particular a collection of biographies of the cartoonists.

There are other, far smaller sites out there marketing mostly Punch cartoons, but nothing that I can see that provides the opportunity to look at early cinema subjects. The various newspapers that have been digitised tend to be of the broadsheet variety, which did not stoop to such things at this time. The British Library provides a useful overview of comics from the era, such as Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and Comic Cuts, as well as titles like Film Fun, which began in 1920 and was entirely given over to comic strips featuring popular film stars. Other sites and databases offer just an image or two, provide descriptive lists of what they have but no images, or else a subscription is required. Or they don’t cover early cinema, of course. For a good listing of sites worldwide, go to the Intute: Art and Humanities site (an excellent UK academic service describing online scholarly resources) and type in ‘cartoons’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that a number of cartoonists of the era went on to become filmmakers. Among the best-known are Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay (‘Little Nemo’) and Harry Furniss. Cartoonists were filmed by the early filmmakers, often doing ‘lightning sketches’ (speedy drawings over a preparatory sketch), such as Tom Merry, J. Stuart Blackton and several British artists who contributed political sketches to proto-cartoon films during the First World War. The Library of Congress’ American Memory site includes Origins of American Animation, which demonstrates the interrelationship between paper and screen cartoons 1900-1921.

If anyone knows of other online sources for newspaper and comic journal cartoons which cover our period, do say.

Chautauqua silent film series

Gary Cooper

The Chautauqua Silent Film Series is a series of silent films showing at Chautauqua, Colorado, you will be surprised to learn. And a fine selection it is. Here’s the blurb from the Colorado Chautauqua National Historic Landmark site, with their assessments of the films’ attractions:

True Heart Susie (1919)
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, May 28
Starring Lillian Gish. A country girl in love with her neighbor anonymously gives him money to go to college.

The Wildcat (1921)
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, June 4
An uproarious, hard-edged anti-military spoof.

Fairy Tales from the Teens
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, June 11
In Cinderella (1914), “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford stars. The performance in Snow White (1916) so impressed a young Walt Disney that he made his first feature film based on the story.

The Kid Brother (1926)
with Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Wednesday, July 2
Starring Harold Lloyd. Harold’s resourcefulness while fighting is a thing to behold.

Hands Up (1926)
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, July 16
Starring Raymond Griffith. A southern spy during the Civil War must try to capture a shipment of gold. His task is complicated by two sisters, the Indians and a firing squad.

Nosferatu (1922)
with Hank Troy, piano; Ed Contreras, percussion and Rodney Sauer, accordion
Wednesday, August 13
The best vampire movie ever made. It’s on the best lists: 100 Best Horror Movies, Best Silent Films, and Best German Cinema.

Mark of Zorro (1920)
with Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Wednesday, August 27
Starring Douglas Fairbanks. This film brought the “legend” of Zorro to the screen for the first time!

Sherlock Jr. (1924) Starring Buster Keaton & Shoulder Arms (1918) Starring Charlie Chaplin
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, September 3
A double feature of fun. Buster Keaton is a film projectionist who longs to be a detective. Charlie Chaplin is a boot camp private who has a dream of being a hero.

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, September 10
Starring Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky and Gary Cooper. The story of a love triangle in the desert.

Son of the Sheik (1926)
with Hank Troy, piano
Wednesday, September 17
Starring Rudolph Valentino. One of the most popular films from the silent era and Valentino’s final screen performance.

More details as always from the Silent Film Series website.

Adventures in silent pictures

Makin’ Whoopee, part of Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, from

We haven’t had enough ballet here on The Bioscope. So, just opened at the New York State Theater is Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman’s “Double Feature”, performed by the New York City Ballet. The two parts of the ballet, which was first commissioned in 2004, are “The Blue Necklace” and “Makin’ Whoopee”. Both are inspired by silent movies, blending melodrama with slapstick comedy.

Silent film would seem to be a natural source of inspiration for ballet, and there are examples dotted around. Matthew Bourne’s dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures indicates some of its inspiration by its name, and Bourne has drawn on silent film for sets (Caligari helped inspired his “Cinderella”) as well as dance.

Amy Moore Morton, artistic director of the Appalachian Ballet Company, created and dances the lead in “With Chaplin”, which is none too surprisingly centred on Charlie Chaplin.

In the silent era itself ballet does not seem to have featured that often, but there are some notable exception. René Clair’s sublime Entr’acte (1924) was created as an interlude to feature between the acts of Francis Picabia’s ballet “Relâche”, performed by the Ballets Suédois with music by Erik Satie.

Also from the avant garde, Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique is ballet in cinema form, even if it doesn’t feature dance as such, except the dance of objects and machines (plus a Chaplin figure). It was was created by American composer American composer George Antheil and Léger, though music and film did not come together for many years. So, in that spirit, here’s a clip from the film with music by guitarist Gary Lucas (a Bioscope favourite). Sorry about the faux scratches at the start.

Gary Lucas playing to an extract from Ballet Mécanique

Returning to Chaplin, don’t forget the dance (ballet) of the rolls from The Gold Rush (1925). And indeed you could argue for any number of Chaplin films for their balletic qualities.

Moving to modern silent director, Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) is a ballet version of the Dracula story with German Expressionist decor and choreography by ballet director Mark Godden.

A modern oddity is Le Sacre du Printemps (2005), a film by Oliver Hermann which bills itself as a “‘Silent Movie’ to Stravinsky’s ballet score”. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philarmonic on the DVD release, and to judge from reviews it’s something of a challenging experience:

…a pair of albino men in tutus, a godlike black female figure baking tiny people like cookies in her kitchen, nuns, voodoo rituals, walls of neatly-mounted Polaroid snapshots being broken thru with an axe, or people endlessly lost in a giant green maze. Not to mention some very sexual scenes and a roomful of naked figures writhing around which disturbingly hovered between Dante’s Inferno and a Nazi death camp ‘shower’.

Hmm. Let us turn instead to Anna Pavlova, greatest of all ballerinas, who appears in three extant silent films, Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a feature film drama in which she acts rather than dances; Anna Pavlova (1924), which is a non-fiction film depicting her in various ballet sequences filmed in New York in 1924; plus there is a fragment of film of her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Lastly, it’s worth noting that many of the silent film pianists of today help earn their daily bread by playing for ballet and dance classes. Carl Davis has written for ballet as well as his renowned silent film scores, and it would be interesting to know how silent film musicians view accompanying dance or accompanying the screen, and what the interelationships might be.

Any more examples? Just let me know.

An apology

The Bioscope would like to apologise to any visitors to this blog who are finding Adsense ads appearing on posts if they come via a Google link. This is a feature that WordPress has introduced, and I can do nothing about it. I understand that if you are a regular visitor, or if you are logged into WordPress yourself, then you do not see the ads, but if you a newcomer or an infrequent visitor, then the ads will occasionally crop up. There seems to be nothing I can do to change this – you can’t even pay to make them go away. So I just want to make it clear that I have not sanctioned the use of this blog to sell anything to anyone, and I am very unhappy that it has been hijacked in this way, contrary to what was my understanding when I first signed up with WordPress. If I can change things, I will.