Time travelling

The Time Travellers of 1908, from http://www.gmfilm.co.uk

I’ve added a new section among the links for Modern Silents, a subject that, as regulars will know, has been covered here from time to time. Modern silents until recently were occasional curiosities (Le Bal), spoofs (Silent Movie), imitations of slapstick (The Plank), eccentricities (Juha) or lacked dialogue merely because they featured dinosaurs (One Million Years B.C.). But the arrival of cheap digital equipment, broadband and YouTube has encouraged experimentation in this field (as it has in so many others). More than that, there seems to be growing interest in the stylistic tropes of silent cinema as an means of expression today among a number of accomplished filmmakers, of whom the Canadian Guy Maddin is the best known.

The Bioscope will continue to pay attention to such work, so let’s kick things off afresh by looking at Martin Pickles. He is a British filmmaker, whose G.M. Film site is named after his 2001 film G.M., which took its title and inspiration from Georges Méliès. Pickles does not produce pure silent films so much as work with the aesthetic and historiography of silent film in creating some of his own work.

Take, for example, Time Travellers of 1908. This short film follows two explorers, using a time-machine shaped like a movie camera, as they visit 21st century London. It was shot entirely on Edwardian hand-cranked cameras with original lenses, and the soundtrack recorded on a 1909 Edison phonograph. There is a real sense of modern London viewed anew (is it accident or ingenuity that makes their first shot of modern London a view of Trafalgar Square taken from much the same spot as Wordsworth Donisthorpe chose for his proto-movie of 1890?)

Or there’s G.M. itself, in which an Edwardian gentleman (looking not unlike Georges Méliès) is tormented by spirits who appear through holes in the wallpaper. In the simple but effective Camera Obscura a man dreams of a ballet dancer but finds himself literally tied to his office desk. And Trafalgar Square makes another appearance in Century’s End, a ‘film-poem’ of London filmed between midday and midnight on 31 December 1999, shot on 16mm at 16fps but telecine-ed at 25 fps, as Pickles says, ‘in order to give it the jerky look of an old Edwardian film’. One would usually protest at the notion of silent films being jerky and run at the wrong speed, but here the choice is knowing and apposite.

All these and more are available as QuickTime movies on the G.M. Film site, with background explanations on their production, rationale and funding. All are short, all are ingeniously creative. Seeing such work makes you realise how silent films will continue to have a creative life because they represent a form of artistic expression which is now set in time. They constitute a vision of things, a discrete way of telling stories, that will always have an appeal to some filmmakers. There was far more to silent films, even (or especially?) early silents, than the relatively simple aesthetic referenced in Pickles’ films, but what matters here is not the pastiche but the acknowledgment from today of a particular way of seeing things. They are an act of time travelling, whether we view the originals or whether we endeavour to imitate them.

I’ll keep on the lookout for more such filmmakers, and would welcome any recommendations.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

A thousand imbeciles together in the dark

A call for papers has gone out for the 3rd Edinburgh International Film Audiences Conference, which will take place 26-27 March 2009 at the Filmhouse, Lothian Road, Edinburgh. Taking its cue from a line by Billy Wilder, the conference takes as its theme “Is the audience ever wrong? Exploring the worlds of film audiences.”

The conference is interested in all kinds of empirical research into film audiences, from any time period and any country. This is area of ever-increasing importance in film studies generally, as evidenced by a body such as the HOMER Project which is dedicated to research into cinema audiences, and particularly silent cinema, as demonstrated by such online projects as Cinema Context and the London Project, and publications from Richard Abel, Melvyn Stokes et al (some of these were listed in a recent post on The Birth of a Nation)

Here’s the full call:

“An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark – that is critical genius.” Billy Wilder made this comment about audiences but just how much do we know about what film audiences think and how often are they credited with being geniuses or more often seen as imbeciles? Empirical research into film audiences is a small but developing field and this conference continues its aim of providing a space where those involved or interested in this area can come together to share research findings and discuss future ideas. Whilst the conference will appeal primarily to academics it is not confined to them. Previous conferences have had contributions from those directly involved in the film industry and this is to be welcomed. We are very pleased to announce that the opening and closing speakers have been confirmed. The opening speaker is Professor Ian Christie, from the School of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck, University of London. He is Vice President of Europa Cinemas, an EU funded organisation which supports exhibitors throughout Europe who show European films, and a Trustee of the Independent Film Parliament. He is also a regular reviewer and broadcaster on film matters. The closing speaker is Dr Sean Perkins. He has been Research Executive at the UK Film Council since 2001. His research interests include UK and global theatrical markets, the UK video and online markets, film on television and film audiences. He has managed research projects on the impact of local cinema and a qualitative study of avid cinemagoers.

There is only one criterion for proposed papers: they should be concerned with empirical research into film audiences. The audiences can be anywhere in the world and for any genre of film. They can be historical pieces of work that explore the construction of film audiences through governmental policy or pieces that look at the construction of fans via archival material. We are happy to receive abstracts from students and new researchers as well as established researchers no matter what their background is.

The conference takes place over two days in the heart of Edinburgh. One of the main attractions for participants is that we only run single track sessions – no more difficult decisions about who to go and listen to or the awful experience of presenting to just a couple of people whilst everyone else has gone to hear the famous speaker! Everyone is guaranteed a decent audience plus 30 minutes to present their paper followed by 15 minutes of questions – and we are very proud of our reputation regarding time-keeping.

Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be submitted as virus-free MS Word or rtf attachments, to Dr Ailsa Hollinshead no later than 31st August 2008. Abstracts will be reviewed by external referees and all contributors will be notified of the outcome by 30th September 2008. Copies of the conference paper will have to be with Dr Hollinshead by mid January 2009. There will be a bursary for the best student paper, which can include undergraduates as well as postgraduates (subject to proof of status). Successful candidates will be expected to book a place within one month of their paper being accepted. Costs and application forms can be obtained from the conference website.

More information is available on the conference website, including abstracts from last year’s conference.

Convening with Buster

Frauenthal Theatre, Muskegon, from http://www.silent-movies.org/2008

The 14th Annual International Buster Keaton Society Convention, organised by that excellent crowd the Damfinos (if you have to ask you haven’t watched enough Keaton films yet) will be held 3-4 October, in Muskegon, Michigan (Keaton home town). Attendees this year are promised the exclusive screening of “a radically different print of a silent Keaton feature not shown anywhere in over 80 years”. Other highlights include the lost film from the 1957 stage production of Merton of the Movies in which Keaton starred, presentations on assortedl aspects of Keaton’s career, an authors’ panel featuring George Wead, David Macleod and Imogen Smith, author of the new book Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, screenings including a double bill of Battling Butler and The Navigator, plus a baseball game played on the same ground used by Buster when a child.

Full information on the convention, registration and acommodation from www.silent-movies.org/2008.

Urban dreams

Dundas ‘n’ Bathurst, from http://www.youtube.com/user/TUFFyear1

It’s good news to be able to report the return of TUFF, the Toronto Urban Film Festival. TUFF is an eight-day public film festival held in Toronto, which features urban-themed one-minute films, all of which have to be silent. Last year’s inaugural festival (reported by the Bioscope) produced some remarkably high quality entries – as an example of which, do take a look at 2007’s overall prize winner, the dazzling Dundas n’ Bathurst (an area of Toronto) by Charuvi Agrawal and Jeffrey Tran, or visit the YouTube site which hosted the 2007 entries.

The festival invites entries covering all genres of film, video, and animation from both trained professional, and untrained amateur, artists and filmmakers. National and international submissions are welcomed. Every entry has to fit in with one of the festival’s themes, which this year are:

* Urban Encounters – the moments that make city-living worthwhile
* Urban Fears – the darker side of living in a metropolis
* Urban Growth – from skyscrapers to suburban sprawl
* Urban Imaginary – hopes for the future of municipalities
* Urban Natural – the living city, both nurtured and oppressed
* Urban Secrets – stories about the hidden or forgotten city
* Urban Travels – from taking public transit to practicing Parkour

As stated, all submissions must be silent and exactly 60 seconds in length. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2008, and the festival itself runs 5-12 September 2008. Films selected by the jurors for each thematic category will play on Toronto’s network of 250 TTC subway platform screens repeatedly during one day of the festival. All selected films will also be eligible to be posted on the festival website, for viewing and voting throughout the festival, as well as for future viewing. Filmmakers can also opt to have their film added to the TUFF YouTube collection.

Finally, not only is it free to submit, but the filmmakers retain rights, and receive $150 per selected film – $75 for taking part in TUFF on the TTC, and $75 for being a part of the website. Full details of how to enter can be found on the festival website.

What an excellent venture, further evidence of the rude health of the silent film today. I’ll publish more on it at the time of the festival itself.

Pixar goes silent


The new Pixar animation film WALL-E is released soon, and there has been much made of how the virtually dialogue-free film, about a lonely robot left alone on an earth that has been vacated by humanity, is like a silent film. Without having seen it, I can’t judge, but its debt to silents is acknowledged by director Andrew Stanton, in this interview with the Baltimore Sun:

Even for Pixar, a company that thrives on new frontiers, WALL-E is a gutsy next move. It’s the first dystopian parable that’s actually ecstatic fun. It’s also the closest Pixar has come to making a full-length silent movie.

The choice of hero is audacious: a beeping, whirring Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth class, or WALL-E. For long, unbroken, startlingly seductive stretches, we see him navigate an abandoned American city all by himself. (He does have a pet cockroach.) Thanks to him, towering ziggurats made of trash compacted into cubes have sprouted up among malls and skyscrapers.

WALL-E‘s director, Andrew Stanton says he didn’t let the silence of these sections stymie him.

To Stanton, “WALL-E is not a silent movie that just happens to have sound, it’s a regular movie that just happens to use unconventional dialogue. My methodology, from the script on, was no different than it was approaching any ‘regular’ movie. It’s like I was dealing with a hero who spoke French all the time.”

Squat and scrappy, with binocular-like eyes that are as warm and eloquent as Bambi’s, WALL-E looks like a cross between R2D2 and a Cubist portrait of a geek. He’s the sole and surprisingly spirited survivor of a mammoth cleanup operation.

After Earth grew clogged with trash, the all-consuming Buy N Large corporation sent the human population into outer space and left behind a mechanical janitorial super-service to make the globe inhabitable once again. But these plans went awry (if they ever were sincere at all), and the one trash-compactor left is WALL-E, who has developed curiosity, survival skills and surprising wells of emotion – and expresses them with little more than a crook of his articulated elbows or a shift of his bifurcated head.

Stanton’s love for silent movies gave him confidence. “You just want to make sure the visuals and the acting carry as much information as possible because people’s senses are going to be a little more focused on them without dialogue.”

Stanton wrote the script with Jim Reardon, an old friend and college classmate who directed 35 episodes of The Simpsons.

“We put dialogue in brackets: We knew we would be swapping it out with something else to convey it. … so I wrote what I expected them to ‘say.’ ”

The influence of silent films on Pixar has been pronounced from the beginning. When I interviewed Stanton 13 years ago at Pixar’s old Point Richmond headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area (the company has since moved to nearby Emeryville), he told me, “Buster Keaton is God.”

Despite Stanton’s devotion to Keaton, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp may be the silent clown who hovers over the plucky and poignant WALL-E. Stanton agrees that in addition to “hundreds of other films,” WALL-E has a touch of Chaplin’s Modern Times: in content, as “an indirect comment on one possibility of the automation of humanity and losing your soul.” And in style, too – Modern Times (1936) was a silent made in the sound era, with a music track, sound effects, gibberish and only a smattering of English.

And just as Modern Times, despite its mordant view of modern industry, became Chaplin’s cheeriest film because of the Tramp’s romance with “a gamin” (Paulette Goddard), WALL-E became Pixar’s most piquant and satisfying film because of WALL-E’s courtship of EVE, the svelte Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator sent from the Buy N Large mother ship to see if plants have started growing again on Earth.

EVE helped Stanton locate the core of the movie and also simply added to the pantomimed fun: “I already had one ‘person” who spoke a different language than I did, and now he’d fall in love with someone of a different nationality who spoke another language.”

Read the rest of the article here. And there’s a whole raft of WALL-E promo videos on a YouTube channel if you want to test further the notion of modern silents.

Broncho Billy rides again


The 11th Annual Broncho Billy Festival takes place 27-29 June, at the Niles Edison Theater, Fremont, CA. This year the festival marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, that monopolistic organisation which sought to control all film production, distribution and exhibition in America, by programming titles from seven of the founder American companies that formed the MPPC: Edison, Selig, Kalem, Vitagraph, Lubin, Biograph and Essanay.

Here’s the programme:

Friday Evening, June 27

6:00 – 7:00 PM “Meet and Greet” at the Fremont Bank Building, 37611 Niles Blvd.
Reception for our historians & special guests “All Film Festival Pass” holders are invited to attend.

7:30 – 8:00 PM Opening remarks, Hubbard Award, Acknowledgements
8:00 – 10:00 PM Main Program – Films from EDISON
The Salt of the Earth – Russell Simpson, William Wadsworth (1917)
The Great Train Robbery – G.M. Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, Walter Cameron (1903)
The Passer-By – Marc MacDermott (1912)
The Simp and the Sophomores – Raymond McKee, Oliver Hardy (1915)
Bruce Loeb at the piano

Saturday Early Afternoon, June 28

12:30 – 2:30 PM Films from SELIG
Little Lost Sister – Bessie Eyton, Vivian Reed, George Fawcett (1917)
A Tale of the Sea – Hobart Bosworth, Tom Santschi (1910)
Captain Brand’s Wife – Sydney Ayers, Tom Santschi (1911)
Legal Advice – Tom Mix, Victoria Forde (1916)
Philip Carli at the piano

Saturday Afternoon, June 28

3:30 – 5:30 PM Films from KALEM
A Flyer in Flapjacks – Ham and Bud (1917)
Girl From Frisco (Episode 1): The Fighting Heiress – Marin Sais, True Boardman (1916)
The Fatal Opal – Paul Hurst, Marin Sais (1914)
The Vampire – Harry Millarde, Marguerite Courtot, Alice Hollister (1913)
David Drazin at the piano

Saturday Evening, June 28

7:30 PM – 10:00 PM Films from VITAGRAPH
Playing Dead – Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew (1915)
A Tintype Romance – Florence Turner, Leo Delaney (1910)
Omens of the Mesa – Robert Thornby, Anne Schaefer (1912)
The Egyptian Mummy – Constance Talmadge, Billy Quirk (1914)
Dunces and Dangers – Larry Semon (1918)
Jon Mirsalis at the piano

Sunday Morning, June 29

A Niles Canyon Railroad Adventure:
Ride the historic Niles Canyon Railway, See Niles Canyon
as it looked in 1913. Ride the rails with fellow film fans.

Sunday Afternoon, June 29

1:00 PM – 3:00 PM Films from LUBIN
A Man’s Making – Richard Buhler, Rosetta Brice (1915)
Beloved Adventurer Episode 8: A Partner in Providence – Arthur V. Johnson (1914)
Until We Three Meet Again – Harry Myers (1913)
Judy Rosenberg at the piano

Sunday Late Afternoon, June 29

4:00 – 6:00 PM Films from BIOGRAPH
Their First Divorce Case – Mack Sennett, Fred Mace (1911)
The Lonedale Operator – Blanche Sweet (1911)
A Dash Through The Clouds – Mabel Normand (1912)
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian and Dorothy Gish (1912)
Judith of Bethulia – Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet (1914)
Philip Carli at the piano

Sunday Evening, June 29

7:30 – 9:30 PM Films from ESSANAY
The Madman – Francis X. Bushman (1911)
Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner – G.M. Anderson, Edna Fisher (1911)
Alkali Bests Broncho Billy – Augustus Carney, G.M. Anderson (1911)
The Shotgun Ranchman – Authur Mackley (1912)
Sophie’s Hero – Margaret Joslin, Augustus Carney (1913)
The New Church Organ – Francis X. Bushman, Beverly Bayne (1912)
Broncho Billy and the Claim Jumpers – G.M. Anderson (1915)
Versus Sledge Hammers – Ben Turpin, Victor Potel (1915)
Frederick Hodges at the piano

Full details as always from the festival website.

Instruction, amusement and spectacle

Programme for Poole’s Myriorama show at Victoria Hall in Exeter, 1896, from http://www.sall.ex.ac.uk/projects/screenhistorysw

A call for papers has gone out for Instruction, Amusement and Spectacle: Popular Shows and Exhibitions 1800-1914, a conference taking place 16-18 April 2009, at the Centre for Victorian Studies, University of Exeter.

The conference aims to examine the eclectic range of popular entertainments in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with a particular focus on exhibition practices. The intention is to provide a forum that brings together the range of research currently being undertaken by different disciplines in this area, including film studies, Victorian studies, history of science, performance studies, English literature, art history and studies of popular culture.

Potential topics could include but are not limited to:

  • The role of visual entertainments (e.g. magic lantern, panoramas, dioramas, photography, peep shows)
  • Early cinema: exhibition and reception
  • Local and regional exhibition cultures
  • Science and technology: demonstration and instruction
  • Improvement and rational recreation
  • Exhibitions of ‘Otherness’ (e.g. freak shows, ethnographic shows, minstrels)
  • Music hall, pantomime, vaudeville and variety
  • Public lectures and lecturing
  • Galleries, museums and civic institutions (e.g. The Royal Polytechnic Institution, Mechanics Institutes)
  • Travelling shows, fairgrounds and circuses
  • World’s Fairs and international exhibitions
  • Magic, illusion and spiritualism
  • Concerts, recitals and readings
  • Pleasure gardens, tourism and seaside exhibitions
  • Dance and physical performance
  • Literary and other representations of popular entertainments
  • Showmen and showmanship
  • Audiences: composition and reception
  • Intermediality and exhibitions
  • Image, narrative and performance

Proposals are invited of no more than 300 words, to be sent together with designation and affiliation to victorianshows@exeter.ac.uk, no later than 31 October 2008.

The conference is one output of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project AHRC funded project Moving and Projected Image Entertainment in the South West 1820-1914 at the University of Exeter, which is using a regional study to demonstrate the extensive national distribution of moving and projected images between 1820 and 1914.

New science, old science


The New Scientist magazine has published this short video of early science film (from the BFI National Archive) to coincide with the Films of Fact exhibition at the Science Museum and the book of the same title by Tim Boon.

The video is a peculiar hodge-podge (goodness knows what the still from the 1960s BBC series Tomorrow’s World is doing in there), and early cinema clearly isn’t the commentator’s strong point, but you do get Tim Boon sneaking in a few words of wisdom, plus clips from F. Martin Duncan’s now legendary Cheese Mites (1903), Percy Smith’s time-lapse masterpiece The Birth of a Flower (1910) and and his perenially eye-popping The Acrobatic Fly (1908). Somewhat less scientifically, you also get a glimpse of one of my all-time favourite film titles, Edison’s Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog (1901), plus other Edison clips whose presence is difficult to comprehend.

For information on book, exhibition and filmmakers, see the earlier Seeing the Unseen World post.

Colourful stories no. 11 – Kinemacolor in America

Unidentified Kinemacolor film of New York harbour (synthesised colour image)

We return, after something of a break, to our series on the history of colour cinematography in the silent era. We’re still not done with the history of Kinemacolor, the dominant natural colour process before the First World War, and there will be posts on Kinemacolor in America, Britain, and in other countries, then a post on Kinemacolor’s unhappy demise, before we move onto other colour systems.

Kinemacolor was first exhibited in America at Madison Square Gardens on 11 December 1909. 1,200 members of the film trade and general press gathered to hear George Albert Smith and Charles Urban explain their system and show twenty Kinemacolor subjects, including a film taken by John Mackenzie calculated to inspire the audience, which showed 20,000 schoolchildren forming the American flag. The intention was to find a buyer for the American rights. Urban tried to do a deal with the Motion Picture Patents Company, the monopolistic organisation which had been established in January 1909 to licence film production, distribution and exhibition exclusively, through control of the patents of Edison and others, but he failed to do so. His business timing was unfortunate, both because the MPPC was striving earnestly to stifle all independent film activity in America, and because the special equipment required for Kinemacolor ran counter to its wish to standardise the American film industry.

Children Forming United States Flag at Albany Capitol, from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue (note that this is an ordinary colour illustration, not a Kinemacolor ‘print’ – it was impossible to reproduce Kinemacolor as a still image).

Urban returned home disappointed, but he was pursued by two businessmen from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Gilbert Henry Aymar and James Klein Bowen. They secured the patent rights for $200,000 (£40,000), with a plan to exhibit Kinemacolor through a system of local licences in variety theatres rather than picture houses. They established the Kinemacolor Company of America in April 1910, planning not to produce their own films (at least initially), instead relying on showing British product. The business was badly mishandled, and eventually a New York stock speculator, George H. Burr & Co., paid $200,000 for the patent rights and floated a new Kinemacolor Company of America. The resultant company with patent rights was then sold in April 1911 to John J. Murdock, a theatre magnate.

Kinemacolor enjoyed a good year in 1911 owing to a succession of British royal events (including the coronation of King George V) which looked spectacular in colour. Audiences flocked to Kinemacolor theatres, happy to pay higher prices for a classy product and generally making the film industry marvel at the high tone of the proceedings and the money rolling in. But an American business could only go so far showing long newsfilms of British royalty. The Kinemacolor Company of America wanted to show fiction films. The British fiction films were uniformly terrible – so they needed to produce their own.

1913 Motion Picture News advert for Kinemacolor

A big problem with Kinemacolor was that it was an additive system. Essentially this means that it composed its colour record by the addition of separate colour records (television works on the same principle), but in doing so it absorbed a lot of the available light. The result was that it was not a good idea to shoot Kinemacolor in the studio; you had to film in good natural light (many of the British films were not filmed in Britain but in Nice, France).

So, technically, the odds were stacked against them when they set out to produce their first film. In a bout of wild over-ambition, they choose to produce The Clansman, based on a dramatised version of Thomas Dixon’s grotesquely racist novel about the Ku Klux Klan. A deal was signed with the Southern Amusement Company, producers of The Clansman play, and the perfomers were to be from the Campbell MacCullough Players, one of the several stock companies which were touring the States with the production. The director was William Haddock. Filmed throughout 1911 in the New Orleans area, as the stock company went on the road with the play, the ten-reel film (Kinemacolor films were double the length of standard films owing to the altenating red-green records) was completed in January 1912 at a cost of $25,000.

Then what? No one is sure. One suggestion is that there were problems over the story rights, though one can hardly believe that they would film for an entire year without being sure that they had full permission from Dixon to do so. The other argument is that the film was technically inept and unshowable, but again you’d have thought someone might have spotted this over the course of the year. Whatever the reason, it was never shown publicly. Film trade journalist Frank Woods, who had contributed to the script of The Clansman, showed what he’d written to one D.W. Griffith, who then went off and filmed The Birth of a Nation, based on the same novel. Had the Kinemacolor version been exhibited, Griffith would presumably never have made his film, and film history might have been completely different.

A new head of the Kinemacolor Company of America, Henry J. Brock, took over late in 1912, and studios were established at 4500 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Its first film, after the debacle of The Clansman, was a two-reeler Western, East and West (1912). But production and exhibition continued to be beset by technical problems, and too few films were produced to sustain the company, despite it eventually obtaining a licence from the Motion Picture Patents Company in August 1913, making it the only new company to join the trust after its original formation. Exhibitors in particular resisted including Kinemacolor films requiring separate projection facilities within their programmes. The Hollywood studio closed in June 1913, taken over by the D.W. Griffith company, which renamed it the Fine Arts studio, where The Birth of a Nation would be filmed. The Kinemacolor Company of America opened a studio in New York in October 1913, but gradually faded from view. It ceased production in 1915.

The lesson from the Kinemacolor Company of America was that colour alone was not enough. Karl Brown, who worked for Kinemacolor processing negatives, noted the audience reaction:

Our little one-reel pictures were made to exploit color for color’s sake. There was one about a hospital fire, showing lots of flames; another, from a Hawthorne story about a pumpkin that becomes a man, showed up the golden yellow of the carved jack-o’-lantern very well indeed. There was another about British soldiers, featuring the red and gold and white of their uniforms.

The audiences at the California seemed to care nothing about our beautiful colors. What they wanted was raw melodrama and lots of it, and what seemed to stir them most of all was the steady flood pictures made by a man named D.W. Griffith…

That man again. Brown noticed the way things were going and left to join Griffith as assistant to his cinematographer, Billy Bitzer.

Lillian Russell in what may be a frame still from Kinemacolor film of her (I can’t remember where the image comes from). As with other ‘colour’ images of Kinemacolor, the colour is not true Kinemacolor – in this case, it seems to be a still taken from a colour print approximating the colour effect.

The Kinemacolor Company of America produced both non-fiction and fiction. Among the former, its most spectacular production was The Making of the Panama Canal (1912), a nine-reeler, lasting around two hours, which enjoyed a considerable reputation in its time. Dramatic production was headed by David Miles, with directors including William Haddock, Gaston Bell, Jack Le Saint and Frank Woods; members of the stock company included Linda Arvidson Griffith (Mrs D.W. Griffith), Mabel Van Buren, Murdock MacQuarrie, Clara Bracy and Charles Perley, while theatre great Lillian Russell made a short film with Kinemacolor, entitled How to Live 100 Years, which she included in a touring show of hers promoting physical fitness. The cameramen (the real stars of the show) included John Mackenzie, Alfred Gosden, Victor Scheurich and Harold Sintzenich.

A demonstration reel from DeBergerac Productions showing how the effect of Kinemacolor can be achieved synthetically, using Kinemacolor film shot in Atlantic City and New York, c. 1913, plus what looks like a dance scene from an unidentified drama.

Few Kinemacolor Company of America films survive (few Kinemacolor films of any kind survive, full stop). One reel of three of The Scarlet Letter (1913), based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story and starring Linda Arvidson Griffith is held by George Eastman House. The Library of Congress has two examples of ‘Mike and Meyer’ comedies from 1915 starring the famous vaudeville team of Lew Fields and Joe Weber, produced by a subsidiary company, the Weber-Fields-Kinemacolor Company. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has a few seconds of Lillian Russell, presumably from How to Live 100 Years. A handful of actualities also survive – a few frames showing President William Howard Taft, scenes of passers-by in Atlantic City and New York (see above). The rest – and we have no clear idea of the extent of the Kinemacolor Company of America’s production – is gone.

Further reading:
Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915 (1990)
Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (1973)