Discovering Australia (and beyond)


There are some key developments underway in information services and how libraries – and in particular national libraries – deliver to their public in an online digital future. Firstly, catalogues and content are coming together, so that when you search for a title a book, film, journal, object or whatever, the item itself – in digital form – turns up and not just a record describing it. The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé is a good example of a catalogue on a film subject some of whose records include digitised resources (images).

Secondly, there is the promise of the purely digital library. Examples of these exist in the academic and commercial sectors, where a target audience expects immediate access to tailored content, while Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive have pioneered the notion of general access to a wide range of digital artefacts in the public domain. The Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica is an example of a national collection’s digital initiative, and internationally UNESCO recently launched the World Digital Library. A significant new step is the Korea’s National Digital Library, which will acquire, hold and deliver purely digital content.

Third, and the subject of this post, is the integration of these elements with content beyond that held by any one institution. In a purely digital and online environment, users are going to be less and less concerned about what any one library, archive or other information organisation has on its shelves, except as a hallmark of quality, and far more interested in finding all that they want in one place. Union catalogues exist which perform this function (for example, Worldcat, or Copac for UK university libraries), but add the content as well and it is not about attracting users to your doors but about delivering the content to wherever those users may be – at home, on the road, at your library, at another library.

This represents a fundamental shift in how knowledge is managed and how major institutions with national responsibility for preserving, describing and making accessible content do so in an environment where they are not necessarily the portal through which the user discovers and makes use of such content.

What do I mean by this? Well, the example to consider is the recently-launched ‘discovery service’ from the National Library of Australia, the SBDS Prototype. It’s unclear what SBDS stands for, but in practice the model is a simple one. It enables you to search across a number of collections, in Australia and beyond it, across books, journals, pictures, photographs, films, music, sound, newspapers, manuscripts, maps and archived websites. At its heart are several services provied by the NLA, including Australian Newspapers, the Pandora web archive and Picture Australia, but there are also general Australian services such as Australian Research Online, and world resources such as OAIster (a union catalogue of digital resources), Hathi Trust (digital books in the public domain), the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive and Wikipedia.

This isn’t a tool for discovering everything about everything. It is “focussed on Australia, Australians, and items found in Australian collecting institutions”. Also it is a work in progress and some elements are not yet functioning, such as Advanced Search. Nor does every record comes with the content in digital form, but it tells you where the content is available online and allows to to restrict searches to online content. So, if we narrow things down to silent cinema, and use our habitual search term for testing out new resource, what do we get when typing in ‘kinetoscope’? These are the results by format:

* Book (169)
o Illustrated (43)
o Audio book (1)
* Video (21)
* Article (8)
o Abstract (1)
o Conference paper (1)
* Art work (5)
* Sheet music (4)
* Photograph (3)
* Conference Proceedings (2)
* Sound (2)
o Audio book (1)
o Recorded music (1)
* Thesis (2)
* Poster, flash card, other (1)

And this is how it looks:


I have to admit to some confusion here, as the number of search results (761) does not match the number of formats supposedly represented (chiefly, it seems, because formats does not include archived webpages, of which ‘kinetoscope’ brings up 462, mostly from Russell Naughton’s Adventures in Cybersound site). But, fine detail aside, the results are plentiful, and can be narrowed down to content available online, or by decade, keyword, author/contributor, language, or from solely Australian sources. Click on any one record, and you are taken to a full catalogue record, which indicates from which participating resource the information came, and a second click takes you to that site directly (click on ‘available online’ and it takes you to the external site directly), though be warned that not everything that is described as being online turns out to be the artefact itself. There is a great deal to be found beyond material of purely Australian interest. Very quickly I found production photographs from Greed at the Online Archive of California, a 1915 song sheet ‘Those Chaplin Feet‘ from John Hopkins University’s JScholarship, and a 2006 lecture on video by Hal S. Barron, ‘Screening the rural: the American countryside in silent film‘, from Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

It’s all a bit bewildering, as well as exciting. It’s a portal designed for Australian interests, but the implications are huge, once all national institutions start to go down this route – and once supra-national resources start opening up valued resources to researchers. Where will ownership then lie? Will anyone care? How will standards be maintained? What competing systems will there be? Who will visit a research library again, except when they fancy a nice day out? Interesting times lie ahead.

Largo Al Factotum

Modern silent films are a mixed bag. Too often the spirit is willing but the inspiration is weak. In particular the modern silent comedy tends towards lame pantomime and fails to learn the first lesson of the original silent comedy films, which is to be funny. That involves more than being in monochrome, aping Chaplinesque movements and throwing in an intertitle or two. It requires the ability to express humour visually. The gag has to be funnier seen than it appears to be written down. The camera reveals the comedy.

So it is a particular pleasure to bring you the video on display here, because I think it is a genuinely funny modern silent comedy. It is a comic sketch set to ‘Largo al Factotum’ from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and the story revolves around a humble barber’s assistant who dreams of trichological glory. I won’t give the gag away, but suffice to say that it’s something beyond Rossini’s imagination.

Largo al Factotum is directed by Dougal Wilson (whose background is pop videos), photographed by Alvin H. Kutchler and produced by Matthew Fone for Blink Productions. The hero is played by Mat Baynton. The film is one of a number of ‘Opera Shorts‘ commissioned by Sky Arts for the English National Opera, which were first broadcast in February of this year. The ENO always sings in English, so we get Rossini’s aria in English.

It’s a classy piece of work, from the lateral tracking shots to the astute photography (looking both of the past and of today), with welcome points of detail such as the slightly wobbly intertitles. Mop-haired Mat Baynton is an engaging hero, resourceful as a Keaton or Lloyd would be in the face of the oddities of fate. And the film matches the music perfectly. Enjoy.

Beyond the screen


Theodore Brown, mid-1920s, demonstrating his invention of the Spirograph, designed to show ‘films’ on an acetate disc to educational audiences

A call for papers has just been issued for the next DOMITOR conference. DOMITOR (why do they capitalise it? It’s not an acronym) is the international body for early film studies, and it holds a biannual conference. The next conference will take place 13-17 June 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the theme is Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema. Essentially they are looking at early cinema beyond the confines of the cinema – films with a special social purpose (usally educational or instructional in some form) which had to be taken to where the audience was, rather than the other way around.

Here’s the full call:

The vanguard of recent film scholarship has shown that institutions and social networks established a variety of sites, contexts, and ways for viewing early cinema, not always as “harmless entertainment” or as a “business, pure and simple,” as the U.S. Supreme Court defined it in 1915. The DOMITOR 2010 Conference seeks to develop this line of inquiry by demonstrating how early cinema’s cultural function and social uses were shaped by a range of institutions, both commercial and noncommercial: How was cinema used in the domains of science, technology, education, and social uplift, and how did these applications influence its development and shape the public’s perception of the medium? What decisions and powers led to the marginalisation of alternatives to the “entertainment” model championed by the Supreme Court and pursued by a maturing industry? Which organisations and groups helped preserve and archive early cinema and its culture? How were the production practices of early film companies affected by their alliance with institutions outside the confines of the film industry? DOMITOR 2010 will be a forum to present new research into extra-filmic contexts that broaden our understanding of the institutional basis for cinema during its formative years. To that end, we invite papers that explore the following areas, among others:

• Extra-theatrical venues and publics for cinema exhibition: churches, settlement houses, social organisations such as libraries and museums, commercial settings such as department stores, and other marginal sites and marginalised audiences

• Purposes of cinema beyond entertainment: using cinema for education, uplift, religion, advertising, scientific exploration, politics, and journalism

• Networks of promotion and regulation of cinema: newspapers, the trade press, fan magazines, but also censor boards, organised labour, and court rooms

• Institutional relationships between film companies and other media and social institutions: film producers’ dealings with charities, corporations, civic and political groups, and film production by such groups

• Perpetuating early cinema through preservation and appreciation: the work in subsequent decades of archives, criticism, buying and collecting, and the study of film history itself

Although we imagine the general time frame for the period covered by papers in the conference to be the late 1890s through to 1915, we do realise that cinema developed unevenly across the global stage. For that reason, papers treating cinema after 1915 in countries where early cinema practices postdate the proposed time frame will be given full consideration. Similarly, papers that examine the history and current status of early cinema’s place in the archive and museum are also welcomed.

Proposal Submission Process
Those wishing to submit a proposal should do so no later than 31 October 2009 to: Proposals for pre-constituted panels of 3 or 4 participants will also be considered; such proposals should be submitted by the panel chair and consist of the collected individual paper proposals in addition to a brief rationale for the pre-constituted panel. Proposals for individual papers should be no longer than 500 words and be written in either English or French. Only a paper written in one of those two languages can be presented at the conference. Papers prepared for conference delivery should stay within a word limit of 2500 words and be able to fit within a 20-minute presentation format (including any audiovisual material used to supplement the paper). We request that all papers be submitted by 30 April 2010 to allow for simultaneous translation. While membership in DOMITOR is not required to submit a proposal, anyone presenting a paper at the conference must be a member.

There is as yet no further information on the DOMITOR site, but you can find out more there about past conferences and some of the organisation’s activities. And top marks to the conference organisers for not simply stipulating a time limit but a word limit as well. Too few to attend academic conferences seem to know how many words it takes to fill a 20-minute presentation. 2,500 is the answer (3,000 for me, but then I talk too fast).

The Biograph in Battle


A few weeks ago, we reported on the marvellous book digitisation project by the Cinémathèque française, the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma, and said that we would return to the collection to describe some of the highlights (and put them in the Bioscope Library). So we start with one of the truly notable publications of the early cinema period, W.K-L. Dickson’s The Biograph in Battle: Its Story in the South African War (1901). This is both the first account in book form by a motion picture operator describing his work, and the first book about the filming of war. Its subject is the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, often described as the first media war, because film cameras were there to record it.

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson had already earned his place in motion picture history by being the man who effectively invented motion picture films, when he worked as an engineer in the Edison labs 1883-1895. Dickson left Edison to join the KMCD Syndicate, formed to exploit a 70mm film system used both for screen projection (the Biograph) and for exhibition on a flick-card peepshow (the Mutoscope). The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, as they became, was the major American rival to Edison in the 1890s, and it pushed its product abroad in an ambitious campaign of proto-motion picture globalization which included the formation of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Dickson went over to his homeland in 1897 to serve as chief camera operator, filming news and travel subjects in the main. The most notable adventure he undertook while with Biograph was to film the Anglo-Boer War.

The Anglo-Boer War (more popularly known as the Boer War) was, like most wars, unclear and unnecessary. It was fought between Britain (specifically the forces of the British Empire) and the two independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, in southern Africa. The immediate cause of the conflict was the refusal by the Boers (Afrikaners) to grant political rights to a British immigrant workforce, known as Uitlanders, but the real impetus was British imperial ambitions and South African gold and diamonds. The Boers invaded the British colony of Natal on 11 October 1899, and Britain launched an invasion force under Sir Redvers Buller. This force met with several embarassing reverses, and Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts, who took Pretoria on 5 June 1900. Many felt the war was over by this point, but instead it turned into a guerilla campaign for the next two years, characterised by some brutal tactics and the British use of concentration camps to imprison Boer civilians, until victory was gained by Lord Kitchener in May 1902.

The war occured at just the point where the young film industry had the resources, and the eager audience, to make covering the war a most welcome opportunity. Four British companies sent cameramen to the Transvaal: Biograph (Dickson), Paul’s Animatograph Works (Walter Calverley Beevor and Sydney [?] Melsom), the Warwick Trading Company (Joseph Rosenthal, Edgar Hyman, John Benett-Stanford and Sydney Goldman) and Gibbons’ Bio-Tableaux (C. Rider Noble). Goldman and Noble are believed to have filmed the latter stages of the war (post-June 1900), for which no film survivies today. The others filmed the war in its first dramatic months. Other companies, notably Edison, Pathé and Norden Films (Mitchell & Kenyon) fed an audience thirst for images of the war by dramatising heroic actions, but what audiences most wanted to see was war’s actuality.


Dickson’s Mutograph camera at Chieveley filming a naval gun battery. Note the bicycle wheel which drove a suction pump that flattened the unperforated film against the aperture plate. From The Biograph in Battle.

Dickson sailed from Southampton on Buller’s ship the Dunottar Castle on 14 October 1899, accompanied by two assistants William Cox and Jonathan Seward, and equipped with a Mutograph camera. He also wrote a diary, originally for newspaper serialisation (Pearson’s Illustrated War News), and then for publication in book form, illustrated with many images from the films that he and his team took between October and June the following year. He started filming immediately upon arrival in Cape Town on 30 October. He travelled to the combat area in late November, and was present at the battles of Colenso (15 December 1899) and Spion Kop (24 January 1900).

It is not difficult to imagine the trials of trying to film a war with camera equipment that literally weighed a tonne. Aside from the bulky Mutograph itself, the tripod weighed 100 pounds, the four boxes of batteries needed to drive its electric motor weighed 1,200 pounds, and the whole caboodle had to be carried around in a Cape cart pulled by two horses. It was equipment hardly designed for the agile filming of war’s actuality, and it made Dickson a less than welcome presence among the troops because the camera made such a good target. Dickson describes some of the problems he operated under:

Getting back to a safer position, we watched the valiant attack of our men as they gradually pushed on. Had we a light camera these movements could have been secured, and many others of a valuable nature, but the enormous bulk of our apparatus which had to be dragged about in a Cape cart with two horses, prevented our getting to the spot. The difficulties were aggravated by the absence of roads, while the huge gullies we had to cross and the enormous boulders we had to get over made the enterprise almost impractical.

It is important to be aware of the limitations Dickson laboured under. He could not go about filming war in the raw. He was constricted by the technology, army officialdom and his independent status. Though not subject to official censorship as he was not a newspaper journalist, his movements were always under the eye of one officer or another, yet because he was not sanctioned by the War Office he could not benefit from army supplies and had considerable battles simply fending for himself and his team. His films are composed documents which record places and activities rather than the heat of battle. Indeed, owing to the range of the Mauser rifles employed by the Boer, the two armies seldom saw much of one another except for occasional assaults or mad cavalry charges. No film was going to get taken showing the fighting itself (Dickson experimented with telephoto lenses but had little success). So we see troops marching, bridges being repaired, signalmen at work, big guns firing, cavalry at the gallop, encampments. The films document the everyday, while at the same time documenting the step-by-step progress of Buller’s army as it progressed from optimism to disaster in its quest to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith.


The Battle of Spion Kop, a frame still from The Biograph in Battle.

The Biograph in Battle records Dickson’s experiences on a day-by-day basis, particular attention given to films with which audiences were to become familiar back in Britain, where the latest motion pictures dispatches were avidly followed in the music halls and variety theatres. Most notable of these was Battle of Spion Kop: Ambulance Corps Crossing the Tugela River. This remarkable film records the retreat of British troops following the disastrous assault on the heights of Spion Kop, the culmination of Buller’s ill-fated campaign. Dickson’s film (which exists as three separate shots from the same position,one taken with telephoto lens, in the copy held by the BFI National Archive) shows an ambulance train aspart of a long line of troops passing down a winding path, while in the forground troops in an entrenchment give a palpable sense of conflict which some of these 1890s war actualities lack. Dickson describes the filming thus:

We were not long in following with our Cape cart, and after several hours’ severe work for horse and man succeeded in getting a good picture of the Ambulance Corps crossing the Tugela River over a hurriedly spanned pontoon bridge. In the immediate foreground may be seen trenches filled with our men to guard against any sudden attack should the wounded be fired on by the enemy. A little below the Tugela wends its way through great boulders and a rocky bed, over which our sick and wounded must be driven as they make their way down the opposite side across the pontoon bridge and up the embankment where we now are, the worse cases being carried by innumerable volunteer stretcher-bearers, mostly coolies. On the other side, as far as the eye can reach the Red Cross ambulances are seen waiting their turn to make their perilous descent, nearly all of them having been previously emptied of their worst cases of wounded for fear of an upset, the patients being carried over and replaced after arriving at the other side, when comparatively on safe ground. The picture has an additional value that in the background is part of the battlefield where Warren’s men fought so gallantly as they advanced towards and up Spion Kop to the right.

If only Dickson’s lens had been sharper or the film longer than a minute. Somewhere in that scene was a journalist on the cusp of fame, Winston Churchill, and serving as a stretcher-bearer was the future Mahatma Gandhi.

Following the debacle of Spion Kop, the British army withdrew, regrouped, took Colenso, finally crossed the Tugela river, and raised the siege at Ladysmith, Buller making his formal entrance on 3 March. Dickson had had to deal with both of his assistants falling ill during this period, taking them to a sanatorium in Durban, but with a new assistant (name unknown) he was back in time to record the entry into Ladysmith, arriving in the town ahead of Buller himself. Dickson was exhausted by this time, and having journeyed back to Durban he succumbed to a fever. By mid-April he and his original crew had recovered, but filming priorities had changed with the uncertain progress of the war. Dickson’s next major film would be the annexation of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, which surrended to Lord Roberts on 13 March. The annexation ceremonies took place on 28 May, after which Dickson travelled on to film Roberts’ capture of Pretoria on 5 June. Both films represented the moment of triumph by the raising of a flag in the town square, though Dickson’s film of the latter was a cheeky restaging (he had arrived too late to record the actual event), featuring a larger flag than had been used in the ceremony. This piece of deception was spotted at the time by local audiences and came in for much criticism.


At this point, many believed the war to be over. Dickson (left) and his London employers certainly did so, and he left Cape Town for Southampton on 18 July 1900. His films had been a regular feature at the Palace Theatre (the London showcase for Biograph films) and at theatres around the world equipped for Biograph films. The films generally took three to four weeks to get back to Britain, and did so on such a regular basis that audiences could follow his reportage as a form of news, albeit delayed news. Although attempts had been made to film earlier conflicts (Frederic Villiers was present with a cine camera during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, John Benett-Stanford filmed at Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, and Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin filmed scenes during the Spanish-American War of 1898 for American Biograph), the films of Dickson and his fellow Anglo-Boer war cameramen – none of whom he mentions in his text, incidentally – were the first successful motion picture records of a war from the battlefront, and the picture that they gave to audiences back at home altered forever what was expected of the motion picture camera, and what audiences could demand to see on their screens.

The Biograph in Battle is an enjoyable, informative read, full of character and sharp-eyed observation. Some of the attitudes expressed, particularly towards the native population, are unfortunately characteristic of their time, but overall this is a remarkably detailed account from the earliest years of motion pictures. In 1894 Dickson had been filming fleeting variety acts for the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow; it is evidence of how rapidly the medium developed in scope and ambition that it could, just five years later, take on the documenting of a war and, incidentally, the demise of an Imperial dream.

There is a catalogue of Anglo-Boer War films held by the BFI National Film Archive, which lists most of the extant films of Dickson and his rivals, which I compiled many moons ago.

The Biograph in Battle is very rare (and very expensive) in its original form. A facsimile publication was produced by Flicks Books in 1995, with a new introduction by Richard Brown. This is now out of print but can be found second-hand. The PDF copy on the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma (49MB in size) comes from the Will Day collection and is inscribed to collector and historian Day by Dickson himself.

The is a new biography of Dickson by Paul Spehr, which covers the Anglo-Boer War period in detail: The Man Who Made Movies: W.K-L. Dickson. Spehr will be giving an illustrated talk on Dickson and film at the Barbican in London on 5 June, and again at the BFI Southbank on 10 June.

(There are no examples of Dickson’s war films online that I can find, except included in television programmes which have been uploaded without the broadcaster’s permission)



D.W. Griffith, premier filmmaker of the early cinema period, was a man of the theatre. He was an actor and a playwright before, in desperate straights, he found himself having to stoop so low as to act in a film – and then discovered his true vocation, behind the camera. But through all his films Griffith had his eye on the theatre, drawing on its themes, its properties and its particular craft.

However, this crucial element of Griffith’s artistic make-up has been curiously neglected. The films are seen as pure films in themselves, whereas in fact they owed a huge amount to a richly various theatrical inheritance, and indeed can be looked on (by the trained eye) as records of theatrical practice that would otherwise be lost.

This, roughly, is the subject of David Mayer’s Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W.Griffith and the American Theatre, recently published by University of Iowa Press. Mayer is a historian of nineteenth century theatre, and he brings to his study of Griffith (and to his studies of early film in general) an understanding of the filmmaker’s roots in theatrical practice that is illuminating, and salutary. Simply watching the films in isolation gives you too narrow an idea of how they came to be and what their significance was for audiences at the time. You have to know from where they came, socially and culturally.

Here’s the blurb from the University of Iowa Press site:

An actor, a vaudevillian, and a dramatist before he became a filmmaker, D. W. Griffith used the resources of theatre to great purpose and to great ends. In pioneering the quintessentially modern medium of film from the 1890s to the 1930s, he drew from older, more broadly appealing stage forms of melodrama, comedy, vaudeville, and variety. In Stagestruck Filmmaker, David Mayer brings Griffith’s process vividly to life, offering detailed and valuable insights into the racial, ethnic, class, and gender issues of these transitional decades.

Combining the raw materials of theatre, circus, minstrelsy, and dance with the newer visual codes of motion pictures, Griffith became the first acknowledged artist of American film. Birth of a Nation in particular demonstrates the degree to which he was influenced by the racist justifications and distorting interpretations of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Moving through the major phases of Griffith’s career in chapters organized around key films or groups of films, Mayer provides a mesmerizing account of the American stage and cinema in the final years of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Griffith’s relationship to the theatre was intricate, complex, and enduring. Long recognized as the dominant creative figure of American motion pictures, throughout twenty-six years of making more than five hundred films he pillaged, adapted, reshaped, revitalized, preserved, and extolled. By historicizing his representations of race, ethnicity, and otherness, Mayer places Griffith within an overall template of American life in the years when film rivaled and then surpassed the theatre in popularity.

The book comes with playlist and well as filmography, and ought to do a lot to reposition Griffith as a man of his times, and his films as mirrors of those times.

Cruel and unusual comedy


Haunted Spooks (1920), directed by Hal Roach, starring Harold Lloyd and Sunshine Sammy, from

Slapstick was more than just getting knocked about for the amusement of others. As Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Social Commentary in the American Slapstick Film, a series of silent film comedy screenings taking place at MOMA in New York 20 May-1 June demonstrates, slapstick comedy of the silent era took on social, cultural and poltical themes that we can still recognise today. As the blurb for the season puts it:

Rude forms of comedy have long used incendiary subjects like industrialization, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, violence, and substance abuse as vital source material – and enjoyed great success with mass audiences.

The exhibition draws on the strong MOMA collection of silent film, and because the films touch on “a number of potentially sensitive issues” each is preceded by a contextual introduction. To help you with your contextulisation needs, there is an exhibition blog with film notes, Cruel and Unusual Comedy, put together by Steve Massa and Ben Model, the latter of whom also supplies the piano accompaniment to the season.

The featured screenings are:

Drag Shows: Cross-Dressing the Sexes
Wednesday, May 20, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Getting Rid of Trouble (1912) with Charlie Murray
Sweedie Learns to Swim (1914) with Wallace Beery
Chasing the Chaser (1925) with James Finlayson
Get ‘Em Young (1926) with Stan Laurel
Good Night Nurse (1917) with Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Race Riots: Beyond Black and White
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Black and White (1913) with David Morris
A Change of Complexion (1914) with Henry Bergman.
Haunted Spooks (1920) with Harold Lloyd, Sunshine Sammy
Below Zero (1925) with Lige Conley, Spencer Bell
A Natural Born Gambler (1916) with Bert Williams

Gratuitous Violence: No Turn Unstoned
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 7:00 p.m.
Their First Execution (1913) with Ford Sterling
The Phoney Cannibal (1915) with Lloyd Hamilton, Bud Duncan
The Counter Jumper (1922) with Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy
A Deep Sea Panic (1924) with James Parrott
Cold Hearts and Hot Flames (1916) with Billie Ritchie

Animals and Children: No Harm Done
Friday, May 29, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
An Elephant on His Hands (1912) with George Ober
Cat, Dog, and Co. (1929) with Our Gang
Mind the Baby (1924) with Pal the dog
The Knockout (1923) with the Dippy-Doo-Dads
When Summer Comes (1922) With Billy Bevan

The Machine Age: Mack Sennett vs. Henry Ford
Monday, June 1, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Lizzies of the Field (1924) with Billy Bevan
His Bread and Butter (1916) with Hank Mann, Slim Summerville
Get Out and Get Under (1920) with Harold Lloyd
Squeaks and Squawks (1920) with Jimmy Aubrey, Oliver Hardy
Neck and Neck (1924) with Lige Conley

Sunnyside up


Ah me, too much happening – if only any of it was of any consequence. Anyway, apologies for the service from the Bioscope being a bit on the intermittent side of late, but there’s just time to note the publication this month of Glen David Gold’s novel, Sunnyside. Gold gained fame a few years back with his fantastical novel of warring magicians in the 1920s, Carter Beats the Devil, and he seems to have pulled off a similar trick with Sunnyside, this time by taking as his subject the cinema of roughly the same period.

Sunnyside is, of course, the title of a 1919 Charlie Chaplin film (a minor film where Chaplin experimented with rural comedy but lost his comic touch). The novel sounds like a rich feast, using Chaplin and the American movie industry as the means to illuminate a wildly variegated decade and the encroachment of modernity. Amid multiple storylines (there are three main plot lines, covering Chaplin in Hollywood, another character in the battlefields of France, and a third caught up in the little-known Allied invasion of Russia), real-life and imaginary characters intermingle – among the former, readers will find Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor, film theorist Hugo Munsterberg, Rin Tin Tin, and of course Chaplin. There’s an enticing review of the book from the LA Times which describes Chaplin’s portrayal thus:

Scores of novels have tried and failed to depict movie stars and stardom or genius. Yet here Gold conjures a nuanced character who springs to life. Chaplin comes across as witty, charming, insecure. He dresses with a dandy’s care, suffers depressions and wears a perfume that smells like citrus with “base notes of money.” He woos women and conducts a book-length joust with Pickford, whose air of certainty and business smarts confuses and almost terrifies him. Chaplin’s doubts center on his sense of being not good enough, an uncertainty that he knows he must somehow allow to filter through his art.

“He had the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack. This was too easy — everyone did it,” Gold writes. “Where was the small moment, the flirtatious smile not returned, the cuckold discovering a cuff link and saying nothing, the smile of a baby that somehow chills the bones? That was the hardest way to make things.”

Gold places the center of Chaplin’s ache in his longing for love — and his fear of the same — in his relationships with women. Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, was a music hall singer whose career was ruined and who went mad, leaving the young Chaplin destitute, and the whole Chaplin-arc of “Sunnyside” is aimed at the moment, dreaded and longed-for, when Hannah arrives in Los Angeles. “He could meet her eyes, but only as though they were tapping his fingers against a hot stove. They were still a deep hazel, cloudy and merry, for now,” Gold writes. “It’s okay if you don’t love your mother,” Hannah says, as “Sunnyside” speeds at last toward its conclusion with a sequence of scenes that amaze, startle and move.

As someone who found Carter Beats the Devil hugely disappointing, I shall reserve judgement until I read Sunnyside. But I will have to read it (all 559 pages of it), and the book is certain to do well, and to draw people anew to Chaplin and the richly metaphoric world of silent cinema.

Good news for the Cinema Museum


Those who have been following the saga of the Cinema Museum, the Aladdin’s cave of cine-memorabilia managed by Ronald Grant, based in Lambeth, south London, will know that it has been under serious threat of closing down, because the lease was up and they were unable to find a new home. Happily the news has come through that they have successfully negotiated a new three-year lease with the landlord, and can now go ahead with fundraising plans with new confidence. Let’s hope a long-term home for the Museum is eventually found.

Universal Signs

This month sees the premiere of a new silent film (albeit one that seems to have been made in 2007), which is always a cause for rejoicing here at Bioscope Towers. The film is question is Universal Signs, a silent film for the deaf, presented what the official site describes as “mesmerizing American Sign Language with English subtitles”. The film looks to be one of those heartwarming tales of human relationships which tend to be a matter of taste, but here’s how the site describes the film’s appeal:

After the death of his fiancée’s daughter while in his care, Andrew (Anthony Natale, Mr. Holland’s Opus), a Deaf artist, becomes a prisoner of his own mind. Tormented day and night by memories and self-blame, Andrew falls in a downward spiral of depression and anger that alienates everyone around him. It is only through a serendipitous friendship and new love with Mary (Sabrina Lloyd, Sports Night) that Andrew is able to sense the life around him – forgive himself, rediscover his muse, and experience the transformative power of love.

An original score by Academy Award® winner Joseph Renzetti propels the story along with stellar supporting performances from Margot Kidder (Superman), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager), Deanne Bray (Sue Thomas: FBEye) and Ashlyn Sanchez (Crash).

Elsewhere they claim that the film “has the unique distinction of being the first feature film that embraces sign language in the storytelling of a film, rendering it a foreign language film for the hearing audience”. I don’t know enough about deaf cinema to know if this is a credible claim, but it will be a notable achievement if the film communicates equally to both kinds of audience. All of the deaf characters are played by deaf actors, and the film is wholly silent, with music score, bar a few snatches of audible dialogue. Hearing audiences are provided with captions to explain the dialogue.

There seems to be a certain amount of religious impetus – the site stresses its inter-denominational appeal, there’s a central character who’s a priest, and promotional blurb includes such lines as “by promoting UNIVERSAL SIGNS you send a message that TRANSFORMATION and CHANGE is happening. All we need is each other and FAITH in the possible and freedom to FORGIVE”. A Roman Catholic in Philadelphia which holds masses in American Sign Language features in the film.


There’s plenty more information on the site. There you can find out about sign language, deaf cinema, captioning, and how to help promote the film. You can also buy T-shirts, mugs and postcards, download screensavers, and pre-order the film on DVD. It is screening at the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival on 21 May, and it has had earlier festival screenings in 2008, though what is described as the world premiere takes place on 30 May at the Keswick Theatre, Glenside, PA.

Finally, there’s a review of the film from a “sign-impaired” Erik Childress of the Chicago Film Society, which has this passage on its allegiance to the silent cinema:

There’s also something magical that occurs without calling obvious attention to itself when Universal Signs actually gets around to embracing its roots in the history of silent film. Developments in the plotting may give you the occasional eye roll for either their contrivance. But when you discover the big reveal during an Easter dinner scene, those versed in the schools of Chaplin or clavical-themed westerns will recognize the subtle shift in Renzetti’s score and provide new light on the direct convenience of an early antagonist and the second one it spawns. It’s not a far trip to imagine this dinner sequence with full title cards and speeded-up film in a full-on homage to the beginnings of motion pictures before we could all hear Al Jolson.

It’s disappointing to see that mistaken reference to “speeded-up film”, but otherwise this sounds like a film that deserves to make its mark.

Return to the ancient world


Vie de Jésus

A while back you may recall we reported on The Ancient World, a marvellous afternoon and evening of screenings of early films set in Ancient Greece and Rome, organised by the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London, as part its The Ancient World in Silent Cinema research project.

They promised a second show, and it’s just been announced. The Ancient World in Silent Cinema 2 will present an afternoon and evening of silent film screenings with piano accompaniment and related talks, this time featuring films with settings in Biblical or Near Eastern Antiquity. The event is open to the public and admission is free. It takes place Monday 22 June at UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, London.

This is the programme:



* Wanted a Mummy (UK 1910) 4 mins
* Sposa del Nilo / The Bride of the Nile (IT 1911) 11 mins
* Vergine di Babilonia / The Virgin of Babylon (IT 1910) 9 mins
* Caïn et Abel / Cain and Abel (FR 1911) 5 mins
* Sacra Bibbia / The Sacred Bible (IT 1920), episode of ‘The Story of Joseph in Egypt’ 9 mins.
* Moïse sauvé des eaux / Moses Saved from the River (Fr 1910) 8 mins
* L’exode (FR 1910) 13 mins
* La vie de Moïse (FR 1910) interspersed with Life of Moses (US 1909-10) 13 mins
* Jephthah’s Daughter (US 1909) 6 mins
* Jephthah’s Daughter (US 1913) 25 mins



David Mayer (University of Manchester), Margaret Malamud (State University of New Mexico), and Judith Buchanan (University of York)



* Samson et Dalila (FR 1902) 3 mins
* Samson (FR 1908) 11 mins
* David et Goliath (FR 1910) 8 mins
* Reine de Saba / Queen of Sheba (FR 1913) 19 mins
* Giuditta e Oloferne (IT 1908) 6 mins
* Judith (FR 1910) 8 mins
* Aveugle de Jérusalem / The Blind Man of Jerusalem (FR 1909) 8 mins
* Vie de Jésus (FR 1905-14) 8 mins, episodes from childhood to transfiguration
* Vie de Jésus (FR 1905-14) 18 mins, episodes from annunciation to ascension

Films of the ancient world, and particularly films on biblical themes, were of huge importance to the early cinema, capturing audiences with familiar stories and iconography, frequently augmented by the use of colour (stencil colour was regularly used for costume dramas and subjects with classical themes). Such films helped establish the early cinema’s pretensions, and its morality. Among the several gems in the programme, I recommend in particular Aveugle de Jérusalem, a Gaumont drama directed by Louis Feuillade which features a non-Biblical miracle story – a blind man has his sight restored by Christ, only to discover that his daughter has a lover and that his servants have been robbing him. He angrily throws them out of his house, only to learn forgiveness when he sees Christ on his way to Calvary. It is the model early film, in form and imagination.

The Ancient World in Silent Cinema project is doing admirable work in looking at early films from contexts other than film history, introducing them to a scholarly audience familiar with the histories and cultural contexts of the ancient world in general. In truth, those other contexts have always been a part of film history, because films can only be a reflection of the cultures that produce them. We just need them to be seen not only by those who value their film history, but by everyone who may learn from them.

The first Ancient World screening day was an inspiring and genuinely illuminating event, bolstered by an enthusiastic audience, a fine venue and some superb music. Programme two is going to be well worth attending.

Anyone interested in the research project or the screenings should contact Maria Wyke (m.wyke [at]