Movies in Middletown

Muncie, Indiana, from the Centre for Middletown Studies,

Usually when the Bioscope comes across interesting and relevant texts on silent cinema which are freely available online, they get described and placed for future reference in the Bioscope Library. In the case of Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, the main body of the book has relatively little to do with cinema per se, but it has three or pages of real interest to us, so I’m reproducing the entirety of that text here (while still putting it in the Library).

Middletown is a classic sociological study, published in 1929 (with a sequel, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937). ‘Middletown’ was the name the Lynds gave to an archetypal small American city, which could be looked upon as a model example by which to examine sociological trends. The city chosen was Muncie, Indiana, population 38,000 at the time of the study, which began in 1924 and looked at changes undergone in this small Midwestern city between 1890 and 1925. Middletown was instantly recognised as a classic study, and it has enjoyed enduring influence and popularity down to the present day.

The Lynds studied Middletown under six main social activies: Getting a living, Making a home, Training the young, Using leisure in various forms of play, art, and so on, Engaging in religious practices, Engaging in community activities. In the area of leisure time, their main thesis was that time for leisure had increased, but that much of this new leisure time was spent on ‘passive’ recreations, such as the cinema. The evidence presented on the place of cinema in America in the mid-1920s is rich in interest and meticulously-researched detail. One may feel a little uneasy at the mass audience being examined under the microscope like this, but there is also a heartening sense of that audience delighting in an entertainment that belonged to all, untroubled by those dwindling forces in society that might wish to clean up or close down its simple joys.

Here’s the relevant text, with the footnote numbers in square brackets and the notes themselves following after the main text:

Like the automobile, the motion picture is more to Middletown than simply a new way of doing an old thing; it has added new dimensions to the city’s leisure. To be sure, the spectacle-watching habit was strong upon Middletown in the nineties. Whenever they had a chance people turned out to a “show,” but chances were relatively fewer. Fourteen times during January, 1890, for instance, the Opera House was opened for performances ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Black Crook, before the paper announced that “there will not be any more attractions at the Opera House for nearly two weeks.” In July there were no “attractions”; a half dozen were scattered through August and September; there were twelve in October.[17]

Today nine motion picture theaters operate from 1 to 11 P.M. seven days a week summer and winter; four of the nine give three different programs a week, the other five having two a week; thus twenty-two different programs with a total of over 300 performances are available to Middletown every week in the year. In addition, during January, 1923, there were three plays in Middletown and four motion pictures in other places than the regular, theaters, in July three plays and one additional movie, in October two plays and one movie.

About two and three-fourths times the city’s entire population attended the nine motion picture theaters during the month of July, 1923, the “valley” month of the year, and four and one-half times the total population in the “peak” month of December.[18] Of 395 boys and 457 girls in the three upper years of the high school who stated how many times they had attended the movies in “the last seven days,” a characteristic week in mid-November, 30 per cent, of the boys and 39 per cent of the girls had not attended, 31 and 29 per cent, respectively had been only once, 22 and 21 per cent, respectively two times, 10 and 7 per cent, three times, and 7 and 4 per cent, four or more times. According to the housewives interviewed regarding the custom in their own families, in three of the forty business class families interviewed and in thirty-eight of the 122 working class families no member “goes at all” to the movies.[19] One family in ten in each group goes as an entire family once a week or oftener; the two parents go together without their children once a week or oftener in four business class families (one in ten), and in two working class families (one in sixty); in fifteen business class families and in thirty-eight working class families the children were said by their mothers to go without their parents one or more times weekly.

In short, the frequency of movie attendance of high school boys and girls is about equal, business class families tend to go more often than do working class families, and children of both groups attend more often without their parents than do all the individuals or other combinations of family members put together. The decentralizing tendency of the movies upon the family, suggested by this last, is further indicated by the fact that only 21 per cent, of 337 boys and 33 per cent of 423 girls in the three upper years of the high school go to the movies more often with their parents than without them. On the other hand, the comment is frequently heard in Middletown that movies have cut into lodge attendance, and it is probable that time formerly spent in lodges, saloons, and unions is now being spent in part at the movies, at least occasionally with other members of the family. [20] Like the automobile and radio, the movies, by breaking up leisure time into an individual, family, or small group affair, represent a counter movement to the trend toward organization so marked in clubs and other leisure-time pursuits.

How is life being quickened by the movies for the youngsters who bulk so large in the audiences, for the punch press operator at the end of his working day, for the wife who goes to a “picture” every week or so “while he stays home with the children,” for those business class families who habitually attend?

“Go to a motion picture … and let yourself go,” Middletown reads in a Saturday Evening Post advertisement. “Before you know it you are living the story laughing, loving, hating, struggling, winning! All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in Pictures. They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world … Out of the cage of everyday existence! If only for an afternoon or an evening escape!”

The program of the five cheaper houses is usually a “Wild West” feature, and a comedy; of the four better houses, one feature film, usually a “society” film but frequently Wild West or comedy, one short comedy, or if the feature is a comedy, an educational film (e.g., Laying an Ocean Cable or Making a Telephone), and a news film. In general, people do not go to the movies to be instructed; the Yale Press series of historical films, as noted earlier, were a flat failure and the local exhibitor discontinued them after the second picture. As in the case of the books it reads, comedy, heart interest, and adventure compose the great bulk of what Middletown enjoys in the movies. Its heroes, according to the manager of the leading theater, are, in the order named, Harold Lloyd, comedian; Gloria Swanson, heroine in modern society films; Thomas Meighan, hero in modern society films; Colleen Moore, ingenue; Douglas Fairbanks, comedian and adventurer; Mary Pickford, ingenue; and Norma Talmadge, heroine in modern society films. Harold Lloyd comedies draw the largest crowds. “Middletown is amusement hungry,” says the opening sentence in a local editorial; at the comedies Middletown lives for an hour in a happy sophisticated make-believe world that leaves it, according to the advertisement of one film, “happily convinced that Life is very well worth living.”

Next largest are the crowds which come to see the sensational society films. The kind of vicarious living brought to Middletown by these films may be inferred from such titles as: “Alimony – brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; “Married Flirts – Husbands: Do you flirt? Does your wife always know where you are? Are you faithful to your vows? Wives: What’s your hubby doing? Do you know? Do you worry? Watch out for Married Flirts.” So fast do these flow across the silver screen that, e.g., at one time The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women Who Give, and The Price She Paid were all running synchronously, and at another “Name the Man – a story of betrayed womanhood,” Rouged Lips, and The Queen of Sin. [21] While Western “action” films and a million-dollar spectacle like The Covered Wagon or The Hunchback of Notre Dame draw heavy houses, and while managers lament that there are too few of the popular comedy films, it is the film with burning “heart interest,” that packs Middletown’s motion picture houses week after week. Young Middletown enters eagerly into the vivid experience of Flaming Youth: “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters, sensation-craving mothers, by an author who didn’t dare sign his name; the truth bold, naked, sensational” – so ran the press advertisement under the spell of the powerful conditioning medium of pictures presented with music and all possible heightening of the emotional content, and the added factor of sharing this experience with a “date” in a darkened room. Meanwhile, Down to the Sea in Ships, a costly spectacle of whaling adventure, failed at the leading theater “because,” the exhibitor explained, “the whale is really the hero in the film and there wasn’t enough ‘heart interest’ for the women,”

Over against these spectacles which Middletown watches today stand the pale “sensations” of the nineties, when Sappho was the apogee of daring at the Opera House: “The Telephone Girl – Hurricane hits, breezy dialogue, gorgeous stage setting, dazzling dancing, spirited repartee, superb music, opulent costumes.” Over the Garden Wall, Edith’s Burglar, East Lynne, La Belle Maria, or Women’s Revenge, The Convict’s Daughter, Joe, a Mountain Fairy, The Vagabond Heroine, Guilty Without Crime, The World Against Her (which the baker pronounced in his diary, “good, but too solemn”), Love Will Find a Way, Si. Plankard. These, it must be recalled, were the great days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with “fifty men, women, and children, a pack of genuine bloodhounds, grandest street parade ever given, and two bands,” packed the Opera House to capacity.

Actual changes of habits resulting from the week-after-week witnessing of these films can only be inferred. Young Middletown is finding discussion of problems of mating in this new agency that boasts in large illustrated advertisements, “Girls! You will learn how to handle ’em!” and “Is it true that marriage kills love? If you want to know what love really means, its exquisite torture, its overwhelming raptures, see — .”

“Sheiks and their ‘shebas,'” according to the press account of the Sunday opening of one film,” … sat without a movement or a whisper through the presentation … It was a real exhibition of love-making and the youths and maidens of [Middletown] who thought that they knew something about the art found that they still had a great deal to learn.”

Some high school teachers are convinced that the movies are a powerful factor in bringing about the “early sophistication” of the young and the relaxing of social taboos. One workingclass mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world somehow and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, [22] believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to the witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. While the community attempts to safeguard its schools from commercially intent private hands, this powerful new educational instrument, which has taken Middletown unawares, remains in the hands of a group of men – AN ex-peanut-stand proprietor, an ex-bicycle racer and race promoter, and so on – Whose primary concern is making money.[23]

Middletown in 1890 was not hesitant in criticizing poor shows at the Opera House. The “morning after” reviews of 1890 bristle with frank adjectives: “Their version of the play is incomplete. Their scenery is limited to one drop. The women are ancient, the costumes dingy and old. Outside of a few specialties, the show was very ‘bum.’ When Sappho struck town in 1900, the press roasted it roundly, concluding, “[Middletown] has had enough of naughtiness of the stage … Manager W – will do well to fumigate his pretty playhouse before one of the dean, instructive, entertaining plays he has billed comes before the footlights.” The newspapers of today keep their hands off the movies, save for running free publicity stories and cuts furnished by the exhibitors who advertise. Save for some efforts among certain of the women’s clubs to “clean up the movies” and the opposition of the Ministerial Association to “Sunday movies,” Middletown appears content in the main to take the movies at their face value “a darned good show” and largely disregard their educational or habit-forming aspects.


17. Exact counts were made for only January, July, and October. There were less than 125 performances, including: matinees, for the entire year.

18. These figures are rough estimates based upon the following data: The total Federal amusement tax paid by Middletown theaters in July was $3002.04 and in December $4,781.47. The average tax paid per admission is about $0.0325, and the population in 1923 about 38,000. Attendance estimates secured in this way were raised by one-sixth to account for children under twelve who are tax-free. The proprietor of three representative houses said that he had seven admissions over twelve years to one aged twelve or less, and the proprietor of another house drawing many children has four over twelve to one aged twelve or less.

These attendance figures include, however, farmers and others from outlying districts.

19. The question was asked in terms of frequency of attendance “in an average month” and was checked in each case by attendance during the month just past.

Lack of money and young children needing care in the home are probably two factors influencing these families that do not attend at all; of the forty-one working class families in which all the children are twelve years or under, eighteen never go to the movies, while of the eighty-one working class families in which one or more of the children is twelve or older, only twenty reported that no member of the family ever attends.

“I haven’t been anywhere in two years,” said a working class wife of thirty-three, the mother of six children, the youngest twenty months. “I went to the movies once two years ago. I was over to see Mrs. — and she says, ‘Come on, let’s go to the movies.’ I didn’t believe her. She is always
ragging the men and I thought she was joking. ‘Come on,’ she says, ‘put your things on and we’ll see a show.’ I thought, well, if she wanted to rag the men, I’d help her, so I got up and put my things on. And, you know, she really meant it. She paid my carfare uptown and paid my way into the movies. I was never so surprised in my life. I haven’t been anywhere since.”

20. Cf . N. 10 above. The ex-proprietor of one of the largest saloons in the city said, “The movies killed the saloon. They cut our business in half overnight.”

21. It happens frequently that the title overplays the element of “sex adventure” in a picture. On the other hand, films less luridly advertised frequently portray more “raw situations.”

22. cf. Ch. XI.

Miriam Van Waters, referee of the juvenile court of Los Angeles and author of Youth in Conflict, says in a review of Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent: “The cinema is recognized for what it is, the main source of excitement and of moral education for city children. Burt finds that only mental defectives take the movies seriously enough Jo imitate the criminal exploits portrayed therein, and only a small proportion of thefts can be traced to stealing to gain money for admittance. In no such direct way does the moving picture commonly demoralize youth. It is in the subtle way of picturing the standards of adult life, action and emotion, cheapening, debasing, distorting adults until they appear in the eyes of the young people perpetually bathed in a moral atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, wild emotionalism, and cheap sentimentality. Burt realizes that these exhibitions stimulate children prematurely.” (The Survey, April 15, 1926.)

23. One exhibitor in Middletown is a college-trained man interested in bringing “good films” to the city. He, like the others, however, is caught in fthe competitive game and matches his competitors’ sensational advertisements.

Middletown is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (30MB), PDF (33MB) and TXT (1.3MB) formats. There’s more on the influence of motion pictures on Middletown society throughout the book, which is marvellous window on a society, easy to read and enticing in all its detail. If you are interested in finding out more about Middletown itself and the studies that came out of it, there’s a Centre for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, Muncie, which continues the research work and has a wide range of background information and digitised resources.

The silent Olympics

Photographers and cinematographers at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, from the official report, available at

Note: This post has now been updated with new information at

It is less than a month now until the Olympic Games in Beijing begin, and for two weeks hundreds of cameras will be trained on the athletes, images of whom will be beamed out to billions. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ubiquity, power and global shared experience that the motion picture has grown to represent from its simple beginnings in 1896 than that concentrated period, every four years, when it covers the Olympic Games, a phenomenon which likewise traces its (modern) roots to 1896.

The modern Olympic Games and motion pictures share a common heritage, beyond that shared birthdate of 1896 (motion pictures existed before 1896, of course, but 1896 was when they first made their real impact upon the world). The two phenomena grew up together, in sophistication, intention and global reach. To view the films of the early Olympic Games is to witness the growth of the medium in how it captured action and form, from analysis, to (relatively) passive witness, to a medium that shaped athletic events to its own design. We see a transition from a formality bred of militaristic roots to entertainment, art and a focus on the individual. In the words of Olympic historian Allen Guttmann (talking of modern sports overall), we see a movement from ritual to record. The survey that follows summarises the history of the Olympic Games on film throughout the silent era, that is, to 1928.

Athens, 1896

No one filmed the first Olympic Games of the modern era. The Games, which were held in Athens 6-15 April and attracted 241 athletes from fourteen nations, enjoyed some notice around the world, probably appealing as much to classicists as to athletes, but the motion picture industry was in its infancy and not as yet geared up to reporting on world news. Motion pictures had not yet reached Greece, America would really only awake to motion pictures on a screen on 23 April, with the debut of the Edison Vitascope, and the Lumière brothers – really the only possible candidates – did not think to send one of their operators to Athens. Occasionally on television you will see film purporting to show the Games of 1896. Such scenes are false – in most cases, you are being shown images from 1906.

Paris, 1900

The 1900 Games were something of a disaster after the modest triumph of Athens. Organised to run alongside the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, the Games were barely recognised as such, being so chaotically organised and poorly promoted that many of the athletes who did take part in the events (which stretched from May-October 1900) were unaware that they had taken part in the Olympics. It is no surprise, therefore, than no standard films were made of Paris Games (several films of the Paris exhibition survive, but none show the athletic contests).

However, fleeting cinematographic records do exist. The Institut Marey, the scientific institute led by Etienne-Jules Marey, who had developed the art and science of chronophotography (sequence photography undertaken for the purposes of analysing motion), decided to record some of the visiting American athletes, to compare their methods with those of French athletes. Alvin Kraenzlein (winner of gold medals for long jump, 60 metres race, 110 metre hurdles and 200 metre hurdles), Richard Sheldon (illustrated, gold medal winner in the shot put), and the legendary Ray Ewry (exponent of the now discontinued events of standing high jump, long jump and triple jump) were among those filmed. The ‘films’ are a few frames long, lasting less than a second each, yet they were enough to demonstrate the superiority of the dynamic attack of the American technique over the correct military bearing of the equivalent French athletes. These fleeting images survive today – there are examples in the National Media Museum – and illustrations from them can be found in the official report on the Games.

St Louis, 1904

Paris was a disaster for the nascent Olympic movement, but St Louis was worse. Again, they went for the convenience of being part of a general Exposition, and again the Olympic events were mismanaged from start to finish, with little sense of a Games with a distinct identity, and the distant location putting off many athletes not hailing from America. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, were any films taken on the Games. The International Olympic Committee’s site exhibits a video clip which it says shows running events from 1904 (click on the Photos section of the site), but I don’t think those are the 1904 Games (the background looks wrong), and I’ve found no evidence from catalogues of the period of any such film being taken.

Athens, 1906

Archie Hahn (USA) winning the 100 metres in 1906 (still photograph, not from a cinematograph film)

The intercalary Games of 1906 did not occur during an official Olympiad (i.e. the four-yearly period that marks when the Olympic Games are held), but this intermediary contest, designed partly as a sop to the Greeks who were disappointed that the Games were not being held permanently in Athens, was a relative success and did much to get the idea of the Olympics back on track. It also attracted the film companies. Gaumont and Pathé from France, the Warwick Trading Company from Britain, and Burton Holmes of America all made short films of the Games (we are long way yet from feature-length documentaries). The films that survive (one from Gaumont, one unidentified) emphasise the ritual, concentrating on the opening ceremonies and gymnastic displays. Individuals are lost in the mass.

London, 1908

Dorando Pietri finishing the 1908 Marathon (still photograph)

The Games started to come of age in London in 1908. Although they were again held in tandem with an exhibition, in this case the Franco-British Exhibition, for which the famous White City and associated stadium were built, this time the Games were welcomed by the organisers. The result was a popular success and a qualified triumph for sport – the qualification being necessary because the Games were marred by some bitter rivalry between America and Britain, geo-political tensions being played out on the athletics track not for the last time.

The Games were filmed by Pathé, in what seems to have been a semi-exclusive deal. The Charles Urban Trading Company filmed events outside the stadium, including the Marathon, but within the stadium it was Pathé alone, an indication of arrangements to come. Around ten minutes survive, a selection of which can be found on the British Pathe site. Basic coverage is given to the pole vault, high jump, tug o’ war, discus, water polo and women’s archery, though no names are given for athletes. But what distinguishes the 1908 coverage is the Marathon. Around half of the extant film of the Games is devoted to the race, concentrating on the Italian Dorando Pietri, who staggered over the line first, only to be disqualified because he had received help after he collapsed in the stadium within sight of the finishing line (something the film makes quite clear). For the first time on film we thrill at the sight of Olympic endeavour.

Stockholm, 1912

The Great Britain football team, gold medal winners in 1912 (still photograph)

The Stockholm Games of 1912 were the most successful yet. Twenty-eight nations, 2,407 athletes (just forty-eight of them women), a triumph of organisation, and an event followed more eagerly around the world than ever before. Responsibility for filming the Games went to the A.B. Svensk –Amerikanska Film Kompaniet, which commissioned Pathé exclusively to film a series of short newsfilms. All this footage survives in the archives of Sveriges Television. Now, at last, the athletes are named, and we get a sense of competition and achievement. In the first of two reels covering the Games held in the BFI National Archive, we see the inevitable gymnastic display, first by Scandinavian women’s team (for display purposes alone – women’s competitive Olympic gymnastics only began in 1928) followed by men’s team and individual gymnastics; the Swedish javelin thrower Eric Lemming, winner with the world’s first 60 metre throw; fencing, shot put, the 10,000 metres walk and the shot put, won by Harry Babcock of the USA. The second reel features men’s doubles tennis, the soccer tournament (Great Britain – not England – beating Denmark 4-2 in the final), Graeco-Roman wrestling, hammer throwing, the standing high jump, and the Marathon, run on an exhaustingly hot day that caused half the runners to retire. Filmed in engrossing detail, the drama of the Marathon is built up well, the tension in the sporting endeavour pushing forward the form of the film attempting to encapsulate it. The race was won by Kenneth McArthur of South Africa.

Antwerp, 1920

The Sixth Olympiad was to have been held in Berlin in 1916. Those Games were, unsurprisingly, cancelled, though film exists of German athletes training for the Games. After the war, the Games were awarded to Belgium, which perhaps was not entirely ready for the compliment after all it had been through, and the 1920 Games were hastily and cheaply organised. Despite this, the growing world interest in athletic competition had continued to grow, and there were several notable athletes who made their mark on Olympic history, including the ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi, America’s Charley Paddock winning the 100 metres, and France’s Suzanne Lenglen at the start of gaining worldwide fame as a tennis player. Sadly, only a few newsreels were made of the events. The IOC website features film of the opening ceremony, American hammer thrower Patrick McDonald, and one of the stars of the Games, 14-year-old American diver Aileen Riggin.

Paris, 1924

Harold Abrahams winning the 100 metres, from Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (frame still)

And then we come to 1924. The second Paris Games have become familiar to many through their recreation in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. There is a particular thrill in seeing the two British athletes whose fortunes are covered by the Oscar-winning film, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, turning up for real in such detail. For this was the first time where we had a feature-length documentary dedicated to the Games. Strictly speaking, the film produced by Rapid-Film of France was a series of two-reelers dedicated to different sports, including those from the first Winter Games, held in Chamonix. Nevertheless, it was also compiled as a complete film, Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924, a daunting three hours long (unexpectedly, it is preserved in its entirety by the Imperial War Museum Film and Video Archive).

[Update (September 2008): Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 is no longer held by the IWM, having been passed to the International Olympic Committee. An incomplete copy of the film is held by the British Film Institute]

Viewing the film in one sitting is something of a challenge, but individual events are never less than efficiently portrayed (aside from some tedious wrestling) and occasionally marvellously so. Particularly thrilling is the football, where the Uruguyan gold medal winners demonstrate a level of tehnical accomplishment light years ahead of the sturdy endeavours of the European teams. The 100 metres, won by Abrahams, is a highlight, with choice details such as the athletes digging holes in the track for their heels. Slow motion is used artfully (particularly for the 3,000 metres steeplechase). The Marathon is a tour de force, a real drama in itself, with such carefully observed details as the anxious look of officials at the drinks stations (and how delightful in itself that the French served wine as well as water). Few who were there can have forgotten Neil Brand’s bravura accompaniment to the 1924 Marathon at Pordenone in 1996, when the Giornate del cinema muto put on a special programme of silent Olympic films.

Star athletes on show include Nurmi, his great Finnish rival Ville Ritola, the Americans Jackson Scholz (sprinter) and Helen Wills (tennis player), but disappointingly all we see of the future Tarzan Johnny Weismuller is his submerged figure in long shot as he raced to fame as a swimmer. Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (produced by Jean de Rovera) is no film masterpiece, but as a sporting record, it captures greatness.

Amsterdam, 1928

Lord Burghley, winner of the 400 metre hurdles, from Olympische Spelen (frame still)

The last Olympic Games of the silent film era were held in Amsterdam in 1928. The Games were by now thoroughly established as an event of worldwide significance. The idea of a film dedicated to the Games had also been established, though the problems that beset the 1928 film, Olympische Spelen, were such that it was barely seen, and it remains little known. The history is complicated, but essentially in 1927 the Dutch Olympic Committee approached a federation of Dutch film businesses to mange the filming of the Games. Negotiations fell down over financial considerations – and because the Dutch commitee was, at the same time, negotiating with foreign film companies. Eventually they did a deal with the Italian company Istituto Luce. For the first time a director was chosen with an ‘arthouse’ pedigree (Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1936 was neither the first Olympic film nor the first with a notable director, as some histories would have us believe). The director was the German Wilhem Prager, who had enjoyed notable success with the 1925 kulturfilme sports documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty), in which Riefenstahl takes a fleeting acting role.

Prager’s film (preserved in the Nederlands Filmmuseum) is no more than efficient, though it does have some innovations such as having the names of athletes in some distance races appear as captions alongside them as they run. The film shows us Nurmi and Ritola once more; Boughera El Ouafi, the Algerian-born (but running for France) winner of the Marathon; the ebullient Lord Burghley (played by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire) winning the 200 metre hurdles; and Japan’s triple jumper Mikio Oda, the first Asian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. But alas, owing to the considerable mishandling of the whole affair by the local Olympic Committee, Dutch exhibitors boycotted the official film, and hardly anyone saw it.

Das Weiss Stadion, from

There was also a feature-length film made of the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Mortiz, Das Weisse Stadion. Directed by Dr Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl as a film actress) and Othmar Gurtner, it was made for Olympia-Film AG of Zurich, and edited by the great Walter Ruttmann. However, Fanck appears to have viewed it as a chore and to have filmed it in a perfunctory manner. Only two cameramen were used, which would have hampered its coverage to a serious degree – which we have to assume, since the film is not known to survive.

Olympic drama

Johnny Weissmuller (left) and Duke Kahanamoku

Finally, to complete the history, note must be made of those Olympic athletes of the silent era who went on to appear in fiction films once their fame had been established through sporting endeavour. Johnny Weissmuller, star of the 1924 and 1928 Games, of course went on to eternal fame as Tarzan. The American sprinting hero of 1920 and 1924, Charley Paddock, starred in Nine and Three-Fifths Seconds (1925), The Campus Flirt (1926), The College Hero (1927), High School Hero (1927), and (guess what) The Olympic Hero (1928). The Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was in five American Olympic teams between 1912 and 1932, but could also be seen swimming and acting in Adventure (1925), Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Woman Wise (1928) and The Rescue (1929). Buster Crabbe, like Weissmuller a swimming champion in 1928, went on to become Flash Gordon, while Herman Brix (shot put silver in 1928) went on to become Tarzan and as Bruce Bennett starred in many films, including Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

Finding out more

There are few histories of Olympic film, and where these do exist they either get elementary facts wrong or assume that everything started in 1936 with Olympia. As the above should indicate, there was a rich history of Olympic filmmaking going back to 1900, and many of the innovations in Olympic film which we might associate with later times had been achieved before films gained sound. One exception is Taylor Downing’s Olympia, in the BFI Film Classics series, which has a brief but reliable history of Olympic film prior to 1936. And if you can get hold of it, my long article ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’ in Griffithiana 64 (October 1998) has much of the history recounted above, though I have now had the opportunity to correct some facts, and amend some opinions. The best general book on the Olympic Games, by several miles, is David Wallechinsky and Janine Loukey’s The Complete Book of the Olympics, a sport-by-sport historical survey which also includes (if you look hard) information on the film careers of some Olympic athletes.

The easiest place to see some of the films is the International Olympic Committee’s site. Under the Olympic Games section there is a mini-history of each Games from 1896 (excluding 1906), and in each of these sub-sections at the bottom of the page there is a Photo Gallery which (if you click on any image) also contains some video clips. Information on the Olympic Games generally is all over the place, of course, but for the researcher particular attention should be drawn to the LA84 Foundation site, an astonishingly rich resource originally create to commemorate the 1984 Los Angeles Games but now providing free access to a vast range of digitised historical documents on all of the modern Games (including, for examples, the official reports).

Some other sites of interest: The Olympic Studies International Directory, a directory of research in all aspects of the Olympic Games; the Olympic Television Archive Bureau, or OTAB, the company which markets Olympic footage from all periods; and the rather wonderful, which celebrates (in English and Italian) the life of the Marathon runner the centenary of whose triumph and disaster is marked this year.

Now Capitolfest

Capitolfest is central New York’s annual festival of silent and early sound films. Now in its sixth year, the festival is to be held 8-10 August at the 1,741-seat movie palace, the Capitol Theatre, in Rome, New York, which dates from 1928 with much of the original decor intact. It also boasts a 3-manual, 7-rank Möller theatre organ, which has been restored and is used on a regular basis to accompany silent films.

Here’s the line-up from the festival site:

Friday, August 8 | Elk’s Club | Pre-glow – 16mm program

7:00pm THE LITTLE WILD GIRL (Hercules, 1928) SILENT
Director: F.S. Mattison
Starring: Lila Lee, Cullen Landis, Frank Merrill, Sheldon Lewis, Boris Karloff
Silent, accompanied by Avery Tunningley. A Northwoods drama starring Lila Lee as a girl who is rescued from a forrest fire in which her father perishes. She is taken to New York where she becomes a Broadway star and eventually finds herself involved in a murder in which she is the chief suspect. The movie’s primary claim to fame today is that the cast includes a relatively youthful Boris Karloff as one of the villains. Rarely seen since its original release, James Cozart of the Library of Congress says THE LITTLE WILD GIRL is “A nice little B” in which “the story moves.”

8:00 pm VACATION WAVES (Hollywood, 1928)
Starring: Edward Everett Horton, Duane Thompson
Length: 20 minutes


Director: Irving Cummings
Starring: Mary Astor, John Boles, Robert Elliott, Ben Bard, Oscar Apfel
Silent, accompanied by Avery Tunningley. Originally shown at the Capitol February 3, 1929. From The New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall, January 7, 1929: “A delightfully nonchalant crook picture… blessed with subtlety and good humor. Whether [director Irving Cummings] is dealing with scenes in the crooks’ hangout or a more wholesome side of life, he gives to his work a charming imaginative quality that inveigles the attention.”
The Little Wild Girl

Saturday, August 9

The remaining films are all in 35mm, shown at the Capitol Theatre.

9:30 am THE KIBITZER (Paramount, 1929)
Director: Edward Sloman
Starring: Harry Green, Mary Brian, Neil Hamilton
Length: 79 minutes
Originally shown at the Capitol May 11, 1930.. Paramount’s hit comedy stars Harry Green (in Edward G. Robinson’s stage role), playing the proprietor of a New York City cigar store who considers himself a genius in the stock market and in handicapping races. In actuality, he is braggart who knows nothing of either and who is constantly interfering in everyone else’s business. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times said the production “has plenty of good laughs” and that “the story begins a trifle tamely, but it grows gradually more and more amusing…. Mary Brian… does well as Lazarus’s attractive daughter. Albert Gran’s acting is pleasing, and Neil Hamilton is acceptable in his part.”

11:00 am Intermission

11:20 am THE SOILERS (Roach, 1932)
Starring Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts
Length: 20 minutes

11:40 am TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY (Fox, 1932)
Director: Alfred Santell
Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Dudley Digges
Length: 80 mins
Originally shown at the Capitol December 29-31, 1932. Tess is the daughter of a squatter, and wealthy landowner Elias Graves is trying to get rid of them and the other squatter families. Tess is equally determined to make sure they all stay and Graves’ son Frederick is on her side. When Frederick’s sister Teola becomes pregnant out of wedlock, Tess protects her by claiming the child as her own.


Vitaphone #732. (10 min.)

2:20 pm THE VAGABOND KING (Paramount, 1930)
Director: Ludwig Berger
Starring: Dennis King, Jeanette MacDonald, O.P. Heggie, Lillian Roth, Warner Oland
Length: 104 minutes
Originally shown at the Capitol May 20-22, 1930. Restored Technicolor print from UCLA. From “Seeing the restored Vagabond King elevates it from an historical curiosity to a viscerally exciting film.

4:20 pm Intermission

4:40 pm FAST COMPANIONS (Universal, 1932)
Director: Kurt Neumann
Starring: Tom Brown, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mickey Rooney, James Gleason, Andy Devine
Length: 71 minutes
Originally shown at the Capitol August 20, 1932. Photoplay review, June 1932: “All the favorite movie ingredients have been mixed together so deftly that you’ll be thrilled every moment. Mickey Rooney, an eight-year-old (formerly known as Mickey McGuire) is the real surprise, and Tom Brown and James Gleason are a great pair. It’s a racing story, with the same old characters—the jockey who throws the race and the slick racetrack manipulator. But packed with excitement and fun.”

6:00 pm Dinner Break

7:30 pm TWINKLE, TWINKLE (WB, 1928)
Starring: Joe E. Brown
Length: 10 minutes
Joe E. Brown stars in this Vitaphone Short, #505

7:45 pm OH! WHAT A KNIGHT! (Universal, 1928) SILENT
Length: 7 minutes
Disney cartoon with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

7:55 pm TRUE TO THE NAVY (Paramount, 1930) SILENT VERSION
Starring: Clara Bow, Fredric March
Length: 65 minutes
Originally shown at the Capitol June 8-9, 1930. A California soda shop girl has a lot of sailor boyfriends, but her heart belongs to a womanizing free-spirited gunner.

9:05 pm Intermission

9:25 pm MIND DOESN’T MATTER (Columbia, 1932)
Starring: Shaw & Lee
Length: 20 minutes
A rare comedy short featuring vaudeville’s Shaw & Lee.

9:45 pm DOUBLE DOOR (Paramount, 1934)
Director: Charles Vidor
Originally shown at the Capitol May 29-30, 1934. From The New York Times review, May 5, 1934: “The Van Brett mansion, which is the chill setting for ‘Double Door,’ has lost none of its genteel horror in the process of transportation to the screen of the Paramount. With Mary Morris as its grim and fish-eyed mistress, the brownstone house of Fifth Avenue contains its old complement of frightened occupants, murderous shadows, closed shutters and-this last in a whisper—a secret chamber. It, and the events for which it provides a setting, make up the sort of cooling antidote an earnest filmgoer needs when the weather gets warm.”

Sunday, August 10

Length: 10 minutes
Vitaphone #958

10:00 am LET’S GO NATIVE (Paramount, 1930)
Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Jack Oakie, Jeanette MacDonald, Skeets Gallagher, Kay Francis, James Hall
Originally shown at the Capitol November 7-8, 1930. From Richard Barrios’ history of early talkie musicals, A Song in the Dark (Oxford University Press, 1995): “…one of the brighter musical comedies of 1930 to come from Paramount or anywhere else…. A fast and often funny ensemble piece, it contained good songs and almost no sense whatsoever…. It was sheer malarkey, played with bounce and directed by Leo McCarey with some of the affinity toward musical anarchy he later brought to Duck Soup.” (New print from Universal.)

11:20 am Intermission

11:35 am WHY BABIES LEAVE HOME SILENT (Weiss Bros., 1928)
Starring: Ben Turpin
Length: 20 minutes

11:55 am THE SPIELER (Pathe, 1928) SILENT
Director: Tay Garnett
Starring: Alan Hale, Renee Adoree, Clyde Cook, Fred Kohler
Originally shown at the Capitol August 5-7, 1929. Photoplay review, December 1928: “Here is carnival life ‘as is’ presented by Renee Adoree who really began her career as a circus child. No frills, no artificialities. Grim realism, crude comedy and the stark tragedy of the wagon shows. Keep your eye on Tay Garnett. He’s a promising young director who knows his characterization. He has registered the carnival atmosphere and he makes you hungry for peanuts and pink lemonade. The story deals with a crooked spieler who goes straight when he falls in love with the lady who owns the show. He breaks the neck of one crook and the grip of others who try to steal control of the carnival. Alan Hale is an excellent spieler, Adoree is restrained and realistic as the show owner, and Fred Kohler gives a picture of brutality that will be hard to excel. Clyde Cook cops watches and walks a tightrope. There’s lots of laughs with a dramatic punch. See it.”

1:00 pm Lunch Break

2:00 pm TALKING IT OVER (WB, 1929)
Length: 10 minutes
Vitaphone Short #950. A riotious monologue (and two songs) by “Broadway’s Bad Boy,” Jack Osterman.

2:15 pm SCREEN SNAPSHOTS (Columbia, c.1937)
Length: 10 minutes
“Hollywood 20 Years Ago”

Length: 40 minutes
A cavalcade of shorts, trailers, and snipes.

3:40 pm Intermission

4:00 pm MOVIE NIGHT (Roach, 1929) SILENT
Starring: Charley Chase
Length: 20 minutes
In one of his funniest shorts, Charley takes his family to the movies where he experiences a series of mishaps ranging from hiccups to an unruly live turkey.

4:25 pm THE SHAKEDOWN (Universal, 1929) SILENT
Starring: James Murray, Barbara Kent
Director: William Wyler
Length: 70 minutes
Originally shown at the Capitol June 23, 1929. The life of a less-than successful professional boxer changes when he takes in an orphan.

More details, as always, on the festival site.

Silents in Bonn

Anna May Wong in Song (1929)

The 2008 annual German festival of silent film, Bonner Sommerkino, takes place in Bonn 14-24 August. The programme has just been announced, and here are the salient details:

14 August
Girl Shy (USA 1924 d. Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor), with Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston
The Heart of the World (Canada 2000 d. Guy Maddin), with Leslie Bais, Caelum Vatnsdal

15 August
Die Spinnen 1: Der Goldene See (Germany 1919 d. Fritz Lang), with Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover
Die Spinnen 2: Das Brillantenschiff (Germany 1920 d. Fritz Lang), with Carl de Vogt, Ressel Orla, Lil Dagover

16 August
Yogoto No Yume (Japan 1933 d. Mikio Naruse), with Sumiko Kurishima, Teruko Kojima
Safety Last (USA 1923 d. Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor), with Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis

17 August
Film music improvisation event, with Neil Brand
Prasdnik Swjatogo Jorgena (USSR 1930 d. Jakow Protasanow), with Anatoli Ktorow, Igor Iljinski
La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ (France 1898 d. George Hatot), with Bretteau

18 August
The Big Parade (USA 1925, d. King Vidor), with John Gilbert, Renée Adorée

19 August
Chicago (USA 1927 d. Frank Urson), with Phyllis Haver, Victor Varconi
Smokey Smokes (USA 1920 d. Gregory La Cava)

20 August
Troll-Elgen (Norway 1927 d. Walter Fyrst), with Tryggve Larssen, Bengt Djurberg
The Immigrant (USA 1917 d. Charles Chaplin), with Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance

21 August
Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (Germany 1920 d. Karlheinz Martin), with Ernst Deutsch, Erna Morena
L’Horloge Magique (France 1928 d. Ladislas Starewitch), with Nina Star

22 August
Der Gelibte Seiner Frau (Austria 1928 d. Max Neufeld), with Dina Gralla, Claire Lotto
Vem Dömer (Sweden 1922 d. Victor Sjöström), with Jenny Hasselquist, Ivan Hedqvist

23 August
Der Geheime Kurier (Germany 1928 d. Gennaro Righelli), with Iwan Mosjukin, Lil Dagover
em>The First Born (UK 1928 d. Miles Mander), with Madeleine Carroll, Miles Mander

24 August
Walter Ruttmann event
Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt (Germany 1927 d. Walter Ruttmann)
Song (Germany/UK 1929 d. Richard Eichberg), with Anna May Wong, Heinrich George
Fair Divers (France 1923 d. Claude Autant-Lara), with Louise Lara, Antonin Artaud

That’s a superb-looking line-up, from a festival that seems deservedly to be growing in prominence. It’s a particular pleasure to see The First Born there, a once buried classic now getting more and more screenings, but overall that’s just the way to mix the popular with the unfamiliar. Commendably international too. Screenings take place in the inner courtyard of Bonn University, and it’s all free.

Full details (in German only – perhaps next year they can go multi-lingual and start to attract maybe a wider audience) are on the festival site, with extra information on the impressive line-up of musicians.

The Bioscope Man

Just recently published in paperback, The Bioscope Man is a novel by Indrajit Hazra, which has its background the days of silent cinema in Calcutta. It tell of the rise and tragic fall of Abani Chatterjee in the 1920s Indian bioscope business, starting as projectionist’s assistant and ending up a star performer, only for ignominy and failure to follow. Other fiction and reality interestingly combine – among the characters in the book are Adela Quested (from E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India) and Fritz Lang, who comes to India to make a film starring Chatterjee but ends up producing Metropolis instead. As with many aspects of Hazra’s book, this has some some grounding in historical reality, as in 1921 Lang and wife Thea von Harbou scripted the two-part Das Indische Grabmal, directed by Joe May and set (but not filmed) in India, and Lang had a lifelong fascination with India. The word ‘bioscope’ was – and remains – a common term for cinema in India, and Hazra notes that the name came from Charles Urban, whose Bioscope cameras and projectors were used by the first Indian filmmakers and exhibitors.

I’ve not read the book yet, but reviews from the Indian press, though mixed, give an interesting flavour of its contents. The Hindustan Times points out the care taken over making the background film history convincing:

The Bioscope Man is set in the Calcutta of early 20th century However, echoes of what is happening on the other coast in Bombay keep intruding into the margins of the story of the rise and fall of his protagonist.

Two years after Dadasaheb Phalke made the first full length feature film in India, Raja Harishchandra, in 1917, a Bengali film, Bilwamangal, produced under the banner of Madan Theatres, was screened in Calcutta. Harishchandra S. Bharvadekhar, a still photographer and dealer in equipment in Bombay was the first to make a film (two, brief films, in fact) in India in the late 19th century. And not too long after, in 1901, Hiralal Sen set up Royal Bioscope in Calcutta to make films: he photographed dance sequences and scenes from plays being staged at Classic Theatres. (‘Bioscope’ is the name of an early film projector for splashing moving images on a screen. It became the generic name for cinema after the American Charles Urban – producer of the world’s first successful natural colour motion picture system, Kinemacolor, as Hazra mentions in his book – popularised it.)

Hazra, a journalist who happens to be a novelist (perhaps it is the other way round), uses his ferreting skills to take the reader behind the silent parde ke peeche, into the fairly cut-throat world of the early pioneers of silent movies in Calcutta.

He also situates his story against a vividly portrayed background of a city whose confidence is being undermined by the decision of the British to shift their capital to Delhi. In the background as well, but palpably present, are the repercussions of the first partition of Bengal – usually through the fringe characters who keep popping up in the novel and the stray remarks tossed occasionally.

While the author has woven many themes into the novel – a critique of Orientalism, a portrait of the Bengali bhadralok in Victorian India, self-deception, the birth and infancy of silent movies – it is the marvellously drawn portrait of the actor whose rapid rise and fall marks him. The actor’s reflections upon his life and work are riveting.

The review in The Newindpress on Sunday shows how the hero’s experiences in the Indian film industry resonate with wider concerns, while describing how Chatterjee meets his downfall:

He starts as a projectionist’s assistant at the Alochhaya Theatre, graduates into being a prompter, and by a lucky twist of fate ends up playing the title-character of Prahalad Parameshwar. He subsequently essays the roles of Othello, Ram, Parasuram and Shivaji, and his silent movies lead to resounding success. He starts getting recognised in street corners and quaint cafes, and is nothing short of being a star.

Hazra successfully experiments with technique, so we find three interludes interspersing the narrative like the titles of the silent films: the stylised stories of Prahalad, Anandhamath and the Black Hole of Calcutta. These bioscopes starring Abani are instant hits with the masses because of their daring portrayal of intimacy and undercurrents of nationalist chic. Yet, he views freedom fighters as “criminals with ambition” and maintains his nonchalance towards nationalism even as various upheavals rock the subcontinent.

Here, brown men (teeming with Bengali pride) share a love-hate relationship with mems: Abani chooses corrosive satire to attack the shape-shifting Annie Besant, though he initially finds her “American” and desirable; Shombu Mama is infatuated with bioscope diva Faith Cooper; and Abani labours under the weight of his undeclared, one-sided love for his onscreen sweetheart Felicia Miller.

On hearing the news of Felicia being shipped to Australia by her disapproving father, Abani enters a trajectory towards ruin when he mistakenly enters a ladies’ restroom. The man with the “bioscope in his bones” falls from grace and spends a decade playing minor roles.

A tart review from The Hindu also focusses on the wider historical background, indicating how the novel may end up being viewed quite differently by audiences within and outside India:

What is it with Indrajit Hazra? Why is he so hung up on the English? A good deal of the novel is a diatribe about the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. He tells us about how disastrous it all was for the cultural life of the city and how everything went to seed after that. Curzon, Minto and Hardinge come in for a lot of stick, which is bad enough, but then he goes after old Winston. During a discussion about whether Charlie Chaplin should be called English or American, one of the animated Bengalis inhabiting this novel comes up with this argument: “No, no Shombhu-babu. That doesn’t make him American. Does the British Minister of Munitions become an American just because his mother is American? No, Lahiri babu, Churchill is English.”

There are references galore to period socio-economic gloom, period costume, period food, period politics. Which is all very well but the fact of the matter is that all this does not push the plot forward at all. The author has done huge research, pushed the story into the canopy , then tucked in the ends.

The Bioscope Man is a well-written book in the sense that there is no doubt about Hazra’s command over the language. It is the content one is worried about. Sometimes one wonders which nation he is writing for. In the beginning of the novel he talks about the eating of shingaras and jilipis. Shingaras are, of course, the samosas of Calcutta but take a look at his description of jilipis — “bearing a resemblance to miniature French horns fit for an orchestra of midgets.” No doubt Hazra’s European translators will have a lot of fun with that.

They will also have a lot of fun with the last quarter of the book in which Fritz Lang, German expressionist film maker, turns up in Calcutta to make a film starring Abani Chatterjee. The film is titled: “The Pandit and the Englishman” and is about Pandit Ramlochan Sharma, the Sanskrit tutor of the Orientatlist Sir William Jones. The film is made with great fanfare, but in 1927 the film that is released by the UFA Studio in Berlin is not Abani Chatterjee’s film, but Lang’s Metropolis.

The Bioscope Man is published in India, the UK and the USA. It is Indrajit Hazra’s third novel. Curiously, it is not the only novel set in the early Indian film business to be out at the moment. Tabish Khair’s much-praised Filming: A Love Story, just out in the UK in paperback, centres on 1940s Bombay cinema at the time of partition, but looks back to earlier modes of filmmaking (while echoing these in the novel’s style and framework).

Silent cinema in India has attracted increated critical interest in recent years. There was a major retrospective at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 1994, out of which came Suresh Chabria’s book, Light of Asia: Indian Silent Cinema 1912-1934, which includes a lenghty filmography. The major reference source in English is Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s monumental Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. A leading Indian authority is historian P.K. Nair, who writes about the origins of Indian cinema on the Phalke Factory wiki (D.G. Phalke being the creator of India’s first feature film, as noted in The Bioscope Man).

Indian silent films on DVD remain a rarity, but the BFI has issued Franz Osten’s A Throw of Dice (1929), with music by Nitin Sawhney, which strictly speaking is an Anglo-German production, but was filmed in India and has been understandably claimed as an Indian film.

Finally, there was an article recently in The Hindustan Times on preserving India’s film heritage which sadly notes that only twenty-four of the many hundreds of films made in India during the silent era are known to have survived (three of them being films made by Franz Osten).

Colourful stories no. 12 – Tinting and toning

Nosferatu (1922), from Eureka Video

In our history of the use of colour in silent cinema, there has been probably disproportionate emphasis on Kinemacolor. The first ‘true’ colour system it may have been, and importantly technically and in perceptions of cinema it undoubtedly was, yet was only ever witnessed by a minority. Kinemacolor featured in select theatres which had installed the necessary projection equipment, but in the ordinary cinemas and movie houses it did not feature. The mass early cinema audience, where it saw colour – and it often did – did so in the form of tinting and toning.

As the film industry expanded through the 1900s, and as mass production of prints ensued, stencil colouring (that is, applying artificial colours onto the print using stencil cut-outs and a pantograph system) became a speciality, reserved for historical dramas, exotic travelogues and films with a strong fantasy element, and predominantly the preserve of the Gaumont and Pathé multinationals. Such films also commended higher prices, and once films began to extend in length beyond 1,000 feet they became no longer economically feasible (bar the occasional deluxe exception). For most other, so-called monochrome films, colour tinting and/or toning were widely employed to lift them from the mean appearance of black and white.

Tinting meant bathing the black-and-white print in a coloured dye, though from 1912 onwards suppliers started offering coloured film stocks, which gave greater evenness of colour. The colours were roughly analogous to action and mood: yellow or amber for daylight scenes, red for fire and scenes of dynamic action, green or blue-green for seascapes and scenes of mystery, blue the recognised convention for night. Colin Bennett, in his The Guide to Kinematography (1917), lists how to tint for certain well known effects:

  • Early morning: Tint film lightly in one tenth per cent bath of crystal violet
  • Moonlight (night): Use one quarter per cent patent blue solution
  • Lamp or candle light: Tint in half per cent orange brown (Mandarin) dye bath
  • Fire: Use bath containing one per cent each of brilliant yellow and rose bengal
  • Weird effects: Tint green in a half per cent naphthol green bath
  • Bright sunlight: Use half per cent brilliant yellow bath

Though there examples of just the one tint being used throughout a film, it was more common for different colour tints to be employed, enhancing the drama and varieties of mood. By the start of the 1920s, the large majority of films were exhibited with colour tinting. Even newsreels were commonly seen in tinted colours.

Yellow tint with a green tone added, from

Toning was a little more complex in production and subtler in its effects. While tinting meant simply the application of colour dye to black-and-white film, toning involved converting the black-and-white image to a colour record, reflecting its tonal qualities. There were various chemical methods by which this could be achieved. One was to convert the black-and-white silver image to another, coloured metal. Brian Pritchard’s site on historical motion picture technologies (recommended to the specialist) lists the following effects to be expected:

Iron gives blue
Copper gives red to brown
Vanadium gives green
Uranium gives black to red
Selenium gives red-brown
Sulphide gives sepia

Tinting and toning combined the two methods, for example: a sun setting over the sea might have blue-green toning for the sea and sky, but red tinting for the sun and clouds. The combination led to subtle and often hauntingly beautiful effects, and not just in fiction films, as the illustration from the British Film Institute’s restoration of South, Frank Hurley’s documentary of the ill-fated 1914-15 trans-Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, indicates:

South (1919)

Tinting and toning continued as the main means of putting colour before audiences throughout the rest of the silent era. The arrival of sound caused problems, as colour tinting interfered with the sound reproduction, chiefly by absorbing too much of the light that the photocell required to reproduce the sound. Although adapted tinted stocks were produced, and continued in some cases to be used well into the sound era, essentially tinting and toning for films were no more.

The accurate and sensitive reproduction of tinting and toning effects for silent films is a major part of the restoration work undertaken by film archives, and there is much delight taken in the finest results. The Nederlands Filmmuseum, for instance, has built up a worldwide reputation for some of its exquisite colour work on early films. Prestigious silent DVD releases now highlight faithfulness to original tinting and toning. On the other side, and mentioning no names, there have been some real horror stories presented at some silent film festivals, where garish colours grossly applied shock you with their thoughtless vulgarity. It is not, and never was, colour for its own sake, but rather colour for the film’s sake. As with musical accompaniment, decoration had always to be subservient to the drama it was there to enhance.

Trailer for the Eureka Video release of Nosferatu (F. W. Murnau-Stiftung restoration) with state-of-the-art tinting and toning

The outpouring of colour viewing prints of early films (in past years, some archives regrettably had to economise by producing viewing prints in monochrome, even though the originals they were working from were tinted) has in turn encouraged an enthusiastic literature on the aesthetics of colour in silent film. Kinemacolor, interestingly enough, tends not to be discussed so much in such works, owing to the lack of viewing prints. Examples include Daan Hertogs and Nico de Klerk, Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Films (1996), a special issue of the Italian journal Fotogenia, two essays from which (including a key work by Tom Gunning) are available online in English, and a special issue on colour of the journal Living Pictures (vol. 2 no. 2, 2003), edited by yours truly, which is now alas rather difficult to find. Probably the best text available on tinting and toning in early film, with illustrations, is Paolo Cherchi Usai’s Silent Cinema.

For a rich selection of examples of early colour films – not just tinted and toned films, but Kinemacolor, Prizmacolor, Technicolor and other such processes – Lobster Films has created a marvellous DVD, which is available in the UK from the Projection Box in the 2-DVD set The Birth of Sound and Colour as A Dream of Colour, in the USA from Flicker Alley as Movies Dream in Colour, one half of the Discovering Cinema set, and in Germany from Edition Filmmuseum as part of The First Steps of Cinema set. Under whatever title you find it, it is warmly recommended.

Recommended reading: (reproduces documents from the period with detailed information on dyes, processes etc; also frame illustrations of tinting and toning examples)

Tom Gunning, ‘Colorful Metaphors: The Attraction of Color in Early Silent Cinema’ (from Fotogenia)

The Metropolis case

Fritz Rasp as the spy Schmale © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung; Bildbearbeitung: Dennis Neuschäfer-Rube

A day on from all the excitement of the news that a print of the previously ‘lost’, complete Metropolis had been found in Argentina, the dust has settled a little, and more information has filtered through. So here’s a round-up of the film’s history, the discovery of the print, and why the news is so significant.

Let us travel to the year 2026, not so far away now. The giant city of Metropolis is maintained by a slave army which runs the machines which served the pampered ruling class. Freder, son of the city’s ruler, is captivated by a beautiful woman, Maria, and in following her discovers the horrors of the underground life of Metropolis. Maria is a figurehead for the restless workers, and Freder’s father instructs the scientist Rotwang to build a robot in her image so that the workers will follow ‘her’ and be duped into avoiding revolution. But the robot goes beserk and incites a rebellion. Eventually the workers see how they have been misled. They destroy the robot, while Freder, his father and Maria are reunited in happiness, Capital and Labour united at last. So, your typical tale of twenty-first century life.

Such was the vision conjured up by German film director Fritz Lang and his scenarist wife Thea von Harbou for the 1927 film Metropolis, one of the most ambitious, expensive (for the German film industry) and iconic of all silent films. However, at the time it was something of a flop with audiences. The industry reponded as the industry will, and cut the film drastically, to the extent of losing scenes essential to the film’s dramatic logic. Some 950 metres were removed; almost a quarter of its original length. The film at its original length of 4189 metres (147 mins at 25fps, though there is argument over the correct running speed) was therefore only seen for a short while (until May 1927 in Berlin); thereafter a cut version of around 113 mins was all that could be seen, and – so far as posterity aware – all that had survived thereafter, despite various restored versions being produced, most recently that overseen by Enno Patalas in 2001 (which runs at 118 mins).

Move forward to 2008. Paula Félix-Didier, newly installed as curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, learns from her ex-huband (director of the film department at the Museum of Latin American Art) of a curiously long screening of a print of Metropolis at a cinema club some years before, a print which was now believed to be in the Museo del Cine. According to ZEITmagazin, which has reconstructed the story, one Adolfo Z. Wilson, who in 1928 ran the Terra film distribution company of Buenos Aires, had secured a copy of the full length version of Metropolis for screening in Argentina. A copy then found its way into the hands of film critic Manuel Peña Rodríguez. In the 1960s he sold the film to Argentina’s National Art Fund, with seemingly neither party to the deal realising the unique value of the film. A print (on 16mm) then came into the hands of the Museo del Cine in 1992. Sixteen years later, Paula Félix-Didier found it.

Maria (Brigitte Helm) flees from the mob © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung; Bildbearbeitung: Dennis Neuschäfer-Rube

Félix-Didier then acted with care. Rather than announce the discovery in Argentina (where, apparently, she believed it would not attract so much attention) she chose to have the discovery announced in Germany, where the film had been produced, and where the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung had been responsible for the most recent restored version of the film. She also had a friend who was a journalist for ZEITmagazin, which is how it ended up getting the exclusive and the stills which reveal that the print is indeed a well-worn 16mm copy, but whose very murkiness and lack of sharpness seem only to add to their haunting quality. (Word is that the stills are frame grabs from a DVD copy, so they look a little worse than the print actually is)

So, what is it that we have? What was found was a 16mm dupe neg of virtually the entire original version of Metropolis, minus just one scene, that of a monk in a cathedral, because it happened to be at the end of a reel that was badly torn (this information from Martin Koerber of the Deutsche Kinemathek, via the AMIA-L discussion list). The original 35mm nitrate print is lost. Precise details of the missing scenes (which were cut by the film’s American distributors, Paramount) are unclear, but it is reported that they reveal why the real Maria is mistaken by a rampaging mob for the robot created in her image; the significance of the role of the spy Schmale (played by Fritz Rasp), who pursues Freder, is made clear; and the scene where the workers’ children are saved by Freder and Maria towards the end of the film is revealed to be far more dramatic, and violent (a likely reason for its having been cut in the first place).

From Ain’t it Cool News, showing the trapped workers’ children trying to escape flood waters

And what will happen now? The above-mentioned restored version was produced in 2001, and has been made available on DVD in deluxe editions by Kino and Eureka. There is also a study or critical edition available from the Filminstitut der Universität der Künste Berlin. Kino recently announced that it would be issuing Metropolis on high-definition Blu-Ray early in 2009 – how will the news affect their plans?. The Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung has announced its intention to produce a ‘restored’ version, which would presumably simply mean inserting the relevant ‘lost’ sequences into the existing 35mm restoration. The reports from those who have seen the rediscovered print all indicate how coherent the complete work is, and hence how logically the extra scenes would slot in. Of course, there would be a somewhat brutal shift from pristine 35mm to battle-worn 16mm, but other such attempts at full restorations have shown similar changes in image quality where only inferior material remains, and the effect is not so jarring. Far more important will be the realisation of a story – and of one of the twentieth-century’s masterpieces of art in any form – made whole again. But what will get released, in what form, and when – it’s too soon to say.

© Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung; Bildbearbeitung: Dennis Neuschäfer-Rube

Where to find out more:

One last thought. What other lost silents might be lurking in South American film archives, perhaps not as thoroughly investigated as their North American cousins, but a territory where many American prints will inevitably have turned up? After such a tremendous discovery, we can only be greedy for more.

Update (4 July): Today in Argentina journalists were shown extracts from the rediscovered print of Metropolis. Photographs show that they were shown a DVD with brief clips. Reports indicate that the clips they were shown were (i) a worker who has exchanged clothes with Frederer gets in a car and drives to Yoshiwara, Metropolis’ red-light district; (ii) Smale, the spy following Frederer, at a newspaper stand; (iii) the robot Maria is seen in Yoshiwara; (iv) Frederer and the real Maria rescue the workers’ children, including scenes where the children are seen trapped behind bars as the flood water rise.

According to Digital Bits, Kino are intending to include the rediscovered new sequences in their already-announced Blu-Ray release of Metropolis from early next year, though it is surely too early for such confident pronouncements.

Further update (12 February 2010): For a report on the restored film’s premieres and the latest news news, see

Lost version of Metropolis discovered

Previously lost scene showing Maria fleeing, from the rediscovered print of Metropolis, from © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung; Bildbearbeitung: Dennis Neuschäfer-Rube

The wires are a-buzzing with the sensational news that a 16mm print of a lost version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has surfaced in Argentina, which may well be the original cut – around a quarter of the original film is missing from existing prints. The German newspaper Die Zeit has reported the news and published a gallery of startling images from the previously lost sequences of the film.

Word is that the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung will work with the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducros Hicken in Buenos Aires on restoring the lost scenes, but it’s too early for any concrete details. More information is promised is tomorrow’s Die Zeit, meanwhile, here’s a press release (in somewhat quaint English) from the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung:

Sensational discovery in Buenos Aires: Lost scenes from “Metropolis” rediscovered

Staff members of the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducros Hicken in Buenos Aires, found the missing scenes which had been considered lost up to now, in a 16mm Negative.

The tale of the concision of “Metropolis” is well-known. The film is renowned for the story of its restoration which began in the 1960s in the national Film archive of the German Democratic Republic, to the source critical reconstruction of the Film museum Munich (E. Patalas) in the 1980s, up until the film was digitally restored through Mr. Martin Koerber on behalf of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden in the year 2001. This restoration, which is based on the version of the Film museum Munich and on materials of the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv (Federal Archive / Filmarchive), Berlin, was completed not only with these two institutions but also with other partners of the Deutscher Kinematheksverbund (Association of German Film Archives)

In addition to this, Enno Patalas developed a study version of the film in collaboration with the University of Arts in Berlin. They supplemented the survived fragments in their original relation to the film in written form or with pictures and musical resources.

Because of these survived sources, the hiatuses which weren’t able to be found even after decades of research in national and international Film archives and private converts, were sorely cognizant. Pictures gave us the impression of what was missing – the to a supernumerary reduced figure of Georgy, the man named Slim, Josaphat, the car journey through Metropolis, the observation of Georgy through Slim, Freders delirium of Slim in which he changes into a apocalypse preaching monk. With this discovery in Buenos Aires these scenes will finally come back to life. Even if the quality of the picture is in a deplorable condition, thanks to the Argentinean material, the dream of the completion of “Metropolis” will finally come true.

According to Anke Wilkening, restorer of the Murnau Foundation “Hitherto incomprehensible is now intelligible, the sometimes puzzling relations of the figures among each other now make sense.” The story of the instauration can now come to an end.

Helmut Poßmann, managing director of the Murnau Foundation states that: “In continuance of the restoration from 2001, the Murnau Foundation would very much like to compile a complete version of the film together with the former partners and the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducros Hicken in Buenos Aires and to open it to the public, all the more because “Metropolis” is the first film which has been affiliated in this restored version from 2001 – safety lug Nr. 1 – to the Memory of the World register of the UNESCO.”

“This sensational discovery places the Murnau Foundation into a position being able to restore the film to a very large degree. That way it could be achieved to come as close to the masterwork of Fritz Lang as never before possible and present it to the world”, says Eberhard Junkersdorf, head of the board of trustees.

For the past 42 years the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation has applied itself to save, preserve, restore and reconstruct a bulk of the German cinematic heritage of 2.000 silent films, 1.000 talkies and about 3.000 filmlets (commercials, documentaries, etc.) from the beginning of film up to the 1960s, trying to make these films accessible to the public.

Among films as “Metropolis”, German classics like “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, “Nibelungen”, “Der blaue Engel”, “Die Drei von der Tankstelle”, “Münchhausen”, “Große Freiheit Nr. 7“ just as a multitude of productions of important German-speaking directors such as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, Detlef Sierck, Helmut Käutner and Wolfgang Liebeneiner.

The current extensive restoration project is Fritz Lang’s monumental film “Die Nibelungen” which is planned to premiere with a new musical score at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010.

Truly wonders will never cease, and lost films will only remain lost until someone finds them. More news here as it emerges.

Update: There’s more news, including a history of the print’s rediscovery and further images, in The Metropolis case follow-up post.

Pen and pictures no. 4 – Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh (right) and John Greenidge in The Scarlet Woman

The subject of the latest in our series on literary figures and silent film is unusual in that his significant engagement with film preceded his first book publication. Evelyn Waugh was twenty-one, had just come down from Oxford, and was working on a novel, The Temple of Thatch (which was never to be completed), when he became involved in films.

Waugh was both fascinated and repelled by cinema. He professed a lowly opinion of films and commercial film production, but he was a compulsive filmgoer throughout his life (as his diaries reveal), and was fascinated by the narrative qualities of the medium. Such qualities he admired when appropriated in the literary works of others (Ronald Firbank, Graham Greene), and encouraged in other would-be writers, as in this 1921 exhortation to his friend Dudley Carew:

Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents. Don’t make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists (don’t scoff at this as a cheap epigram it is really very true). Make things happen. … Whatever the temptation, for God’s sake don’t bring characters on simply to draw their characters and make them talk. Fit them into a design. … It is a damn good idea. Don’t spoil it out of slackness or perversity but do MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Have a murder in every chapter if you like but do do something. GO TO THE CINEMA and risk the headache.

Waugh found inspiration in films not for pictorial values as such, but in what he saw films could offer in terms of narrative design and continuity, of montage, propulsion, and changing fields of vision. Moreover, Waugh the satirist was inspired by film’s propensity for exposing falsity through display. As George McCartney (in Confused Roaring: Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition) puts it, ‘the medium’s peculiar perceptual qualities seemed to express just those unquestioned assumptions of his age that he most wanted to satirize’. Waugh would first experiment with filmic devices in his fiction in the 1926 short story ‘The Balance’, which uses scene directions and titles in the manner of a silent film, but before then he had engaged directly in exploring film’s potential to expose human folly.

One of Waugh’s Oxford friends, Terence Greenidge, was an enthusiastic member of the university’s cinema club and had acquired a 16mm camera. Greenidge made several satirical amateur films in early to mid-1920s, including 666, The Mummers, and The Cities of the Plain, in the first and third of which at least Waugh acted, for the latter as a ‘lecherous black clergyman’. None of these films is known to survive. Greenidge later wrote of the new-found enthusiasm for cinema among Oxford undergraduates at this time:

After ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ had been shown in our city there was only one topic of conversation at gatherings of the Aesthetic individuals for several weeks to come. Finally undergraduates began to turn to the big task of film-production itself. Various nomadic groups made several vigorous little burlesques, negligible from the point of view of artistic quality, but capable of raising a good laugh in the University clubs wherein they were shown – and at any rate films.

One of Greenidge’s films does survive, however: The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama. As the titles of the lost films indicate, religion was a favourite target, and for The Scarlet Woman Waugh provided the scenario, as well as acting in the film. It is a ribald satire on the Roman Catholic church, concerning as it does the attempt of the Dean of Balliol to convert the English monarchy to Catholicism. Waugh was of course to convert to Catholicism just a few years later, which gives The Scarlet Woman a particular piquancy, the final rebellious assault of one more drawn to the religion than he knew.

With £6 put up by each of the leading performers to finance the production, filming started in July 1924 and lasted largely until September, though the film was not ready for showing until November 1925, when it received its premiere in Oxford. We know a fair bit about the film’s production, from Waugh’s autobiography A Little Learning and the diaries, where he wearily records that he was quite disgusted with how bad it was. However, such disdain has an air of show about it: in A Little Learning, his brief account of the film’s production does refer to ‘the fun of our venture’, particularly noting his father’s delight in the amateur theatrical nature of the filming, recognising his own possessions being used as props. In the film Waugh acts his two parts with gusto. He plays the Catholic Dean of Balliol, a real figure of Waugh’s acquaintance whom he had come to despise, depicting him as a blonde-wigged homosexual with designs on the Prince of Wales; Waugh also plays the impecunious peer Lord Borrowington. Other performers John Sutro as Cardinal Montefiasco, Waugh’s writer brother Alec Waugh, as the cardinal’s drunken mother, Lord Elmley as the Lord Chamberlain, Guy Hemingway as the Pope, John Greenidge as the Prince of Wales, and Terence Greenidge as a Jesuit priest.

Elsa Lanchester and Evelyn Waugh in The Scarlet Woman, from An Evelyn Waugh Website (

What makes the film exceptional, apart from Waugh’s contribution, is the appearance of the young Elsa Lanchester. The same age as Waugh, the precocious Lanchester ran a London club called The Cave of Harmony, which Waugh often frequented. Playing the drug-addicted actress Beatrice de Carolle, who attracts the Prince of Wales away from the lascivious Dean, she clearly demonstrates the talent that would see her in Hollywood ten years later, married to Frankenstein’s monster. The film was shot in Oxford, on Hampstead Heath, and in the Waugh family’s Hampstead back garden. Waugh recalled that his publisher father was delighted at this new extension of the notion of amateur theatricals:

My father fully appreciated the fun of our venture … he delighted to find the cast at his table and when the film was shown him took particular satisfaction in recognising his own possessions. ‘That’s my chair’ … ‘Take care you don’t break that decanter.’

The film was first shown at the Oxford University Dramatic Society, where the future composer Lennox Berkeley provided the music accompaniment with gramophone recordings. A second screening was requested by the Society of Jesus at Campion Hall. Showing that the Catholic Church could take a joke, Father C.C. Martindale sanctioned a subtitle that remains on the print: ‘Nihil Obstat – projiciatur – C.C. Martindale SJ’. It was only ever shown among friends and private groups. Greenidge retained a copy, exhibiting it from time to time, and it resurfaced in the 1960s and is now preserved by the BFI National Archive.

The Scarlet Woman (which runs for 45mins) is both a juvenile jape, and an extraordinary window into the evolution of a satirical mind. Elsa Lanchester’s fevered performance raises it to a level that sometimes matches its pretensions, and makes it watchable today. It is an amateur film in perfomance, costumes, sets, picture quality and so forth, but judged on its own merits it has survived remarkably well. Waugh published his first novel, Decline and Fall, in 1928, and became a Roman Catholic in 1930. In the 1930s he worked for a time for Alexander Korda writing film scenarios (of which the title Lovelies from America indicates the wild improbabilty of any of Waugh’s work ever being produced). He was never involved in film production again, but offered a vicious satire of Hollywood life and the American way of death in his novel The Loved One.

More information on the film’s production can be found on the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter vol. 3 no. 2 (1969), which has much information on its rediscovery in the 1960s and records all of the intertitles, and on the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies vol. 33 no. 2 (Autumn 2002), which has a detailed description of the film’s action. Both are available online. The Scarlet Woman is available on DVD from Charles Linck, P.O. Box 3002 TAMU-C, Commerce, Texas 75429, USA, email linck [at] (earlier VHS copies were transferred at sound speed; the DVD corrects this). It can also be seen for free by anyone passing through London at the BFI Mediatheque on the South Bank.