From old Ireland


While sojourning in Dublin last month, I picked up a copy of a new film history which I’d managed to miss up until now. Denis Condon’s Early Irish Cinema 1895-1921, published by Irish Academic Press, describes itself as examining “early and silent cinema and its contexts in Ireland”. It is a history not just of film production in Ireland (at a time when politically it was still a part of the United Kingdom), but its exhibition and its social and cultural contexts as well. Although there have been several histories of Irish film which include accounts of filmmaking in the silent era, so far as I am aware this is the first book dedicated to the early and silent cinema period alone.

Irish film production in the silent era was small-scale (and has attracted little interest among film scholars except those from Ireland) but Condon argues the attention given to these films by Irish commentators suggests that they have “a symbolic significance far out of proportion to their numbers”. The first Irish-produced fiction films did not appear until 1913 – one-reelers made by Irish Film Productions such as Michael Dwyer and Love in a Fix – and did not seriously begin until 1916 with the formation of the Film Company of Ireland, which made O’Neil of the Glen (1916), Knocknagow (1918) and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920), the latter two of which survive. Irish-themed films were made in profusion in America, however, mostly notably by Kalem, which sent a company headed by Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier over to Ireland and made such titles as The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), Arrah-na-Pogue (1911), The Shaugraun (1912) and Come Back to Erin (1914) (the latter one of those made by the Gene Gauntier Players, rather than Kalem). On the non-fiction side, there was Irish production from early on with local views produced by exhibitiors such as James T. Jameson, through to Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, whose most interesting production was the newsreel Irish Events (1917-1920). Again, the greater number of Irish-themed non-fiction films came from outside, particularly British companies such as the Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company, which produced assorted travelogue series.

This history Condon covers in remarkable detail. There appear to be few documentary sources that he has not examined, and his notes and sources will be plundered by future researchers for years to come. However, though he piles on the detail, he has arranged the book most interestingly. Avoiding too slavish an adherence to chronology, he divides the book into chapter entitled ‘Retrospection and Projection’, ‘Theatre’, ‘Virtual Tourism’, ‘Participation’ and ‘The Great Institution of Kinematography’. These reflect Irish cinema’s roots, its cultural inheritance, the importance of external producers’ work, Irish production itself, and a larger conception of cinema which includes the distribution of films, their exhibition and reception. The construction makes think about how Irish cinema was constructed.

This is a worthwhile, rigorous academic study. It is based on a thesis (and reads like it), with arguments about the institutional and pre-institutional form of early cinema which are designed to appeal to the film studies crowd. But it is also jam-packed full of every sort of detail, fascinating to dig through, and comes with a very helpful filmography that includes both films extant and films lost. My thought on reading it was that, despite the author’s progressive historiographical aims, there is something about the national film history which is a little quaint these days. We’ve done with the histories of this country and that country’s films, or we should have done. If cinema history teaches us anything it is that distribution had to flow over borders, if films were to make money. Condon certainly looks beyond Irish film production, and admirably so, but it is what audiences saw (American films, largely unmentioned except for the Kalem films) and what those audiences were (mostly absent from his book) that is the heart of the matter, not what any one country made.

Eloquent gestures


It’s been a while since we added anything new to the Bioscope Library. A new wing has been added to the tottering edifice that is Bioscope Towers, and first on the fresh new set of shelves therein is Roberta E. Pearson’s Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films, published by the University of California Press in 1992. This is one of the titles that the enlightened UCP has made available for free online as one of its eScholarship Editions offerings. It is a model ebook presentation, as well as being one of the most interesting and stimulating books written on the films of David Wark Griffith.

The book’s subject is the changes in the style of the actors’ performances in the films of D.W. Griffith, particularly between 1909 and 1912. Pearson sets this up in a delightful introduction in which she imagines Josiah Evans, “a man with a civic conscience who belongs to several progressive reform organizations”, attending a Broadway storefront picture show in 1909 in which he sees a film entitled The Drunkard’s Reformation, which he rather enjoys because it reminds him of the blood-and-thunder stage melodramas of his youth.

The acting of the young wife as she depicts her misery and desperation particularly affects him. She collapses into her chair and rests her head on her arms, which are extended straight out in front of her on the table. Then, in an agony of despair, she sinks to her knees and prays, her arms fully extended upward at about a forty-five degree angle.

Three years later he visit the Rialto Theatre on 14th Street, a considerably classier venue than that 1909 nickelodeon, and is struck in particular by a film entitled Brutality. It is similar in theme to the earlier film…

… but this moving picture does not remind him of the blood-and-thunder melodramas of his youth. The acting is the equal of Mr. Gillette’s in Sherlock Holmes or even of that in the Belasco play he and Lydia had attended last night. Particularly impressive is the young wife’s despairing reaction to her husband’s harsh treatment and abandonment. After he leaves for the saloon, the wife walks back to the dining-room table covered with the debris of their evening meal. She sits down, bows her head, and begins to collect the dishes. She looks up, compresses her lips, pauses, then begins to gather the dishes once again. Once more she pauses, raises her hand to her mouth, glances down to her side, and slumps a little in her chair. Slumping a little more, she begins to cry. How differently this actress portrays her grief from her counterpart in A Drunkard’s Reformation. A lot has changed in those three-and-a-half years since his first visit to a nickelodeon.


A Drunkard’s Reformation (left) and Brutality, from Eloquent Gestures

How the films of D.W. Griffith moved on from the one style to the next is the subject of Pearson’s book. It traces in meticulous detail the transformation from an acting style inherited from the stage meodramas of an earlier era, to a nuanced style that benefitted from ‘realist’ developments in literature and theatre. It wasn’t there in 1909; it was there in 1912, and by examining closely the films made in that intervening period and being attuned to contemporary cultural developments, the path from the one to the other can be drawn. This is what Pearson does.

It is a very detailed study, one grounded a theoretical language which may not be to everyone’s taste, but the author needs to negotiate the pitfalls that terms such as “naturalism”, “realism” and “melodrama” can lead to. She wants to be precise about the meaning of words which are used all too loosely in general critical discussion (“melodrama” in particular), and to ground what one sees in these films, and what one sees in changing, in a close understanding of what was going on at the time. As she says:

The study of cinematic performance demands that we not depend upon our own aesthetic judgments, which we tacitly deem eternal and unchanging. Rather, we must acknowledge history by attempting to understand the aesthetic standards of another time and place, of a culture very different from our own.

The rest you must read for yourselves, and I warmly recommend that you do so. Though this is very much a thesis turned into a book, with all of the formal argument structures that one recognises (such as having an introduction which rubbishes the opposition), it illuminates understanding – not just of Biograph films, but of any cultural artefact from any period which we may be tempted to interpret from our personal aesthetic experience but which needs to be seen, first and foremost, as the product of its own times.

The ebook presentation is excellent. The book is divided up into hyperlinked chapters, and page breaks are indicated where they occur in the original, which is good for accurate citation. Notes in the text are hyperlinked to a notes section at the end, the index has hyperlinks so you can go directly from term back to the text, and the illustrations are available in small and full size versions. Finally there is a search box enabling to search the entire text of the book. Excellent all round. Into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Comedy! Melodrama! Schmaltz!


Another day, another festival. This time we’re in New Zealand, for the homely delights of the Opotiki Silent Film Festival. Organised by the Opotiki Community Arts Council, and held in Opotiki’s art deco De Luxe Theatre, the festival is noteworthy for encouraging its audiences to dress up in period costume, something that you can’t quite imagine happening in Pordenone (more’s the pity).

This year’s festival takes place 4-5 September. Financial constraints have led them to bill this year’s offering as a Mini Silent Festival, but it’s a fine programme for all that (all with live piano accompaniment):

1. COMEDY CLASSIC The Three Ages ~ Buster Keaton
4pm Friday 4th ~ 1923 ~ 63mins

In his first independently produced feature film Buster tells of love and romance through the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age.

2. MELODRAMA ~ The Show-Off
5.30pm Friday 4th ~ 1926 ~ 82mins

A show-off clerk posing as a railroad executive catches a young bride and then drives her family’s finances to the brink of ruin.

7.30pm Friday 4th ~ 4 films ~ 95 mins

* Kid Auto Races in Venice 1914 – The very first time we see Chaplin as ‘the Tramp’, hogging the camera at a real event.
* The Vagabond 1916 – An impoverished violinist falls for a beautiful gypsy girl. His love appears to be thwarted but he wins out in the end.
* The Fireman 1916 – Charlie is a fireman who always does everything wrong. Group slapstick at its very best.
* One A.M. 1916 – After a night on the town, Charlie comes home drunk and unable to find his key… A raucous one-man show.

4. ROMANTIC COMEDY ~ Steamboat Bill Jr. ~ Buster Keaton
2pm Saturday 5th ~ 1928 ~ 71mins

Willie is the effete son of riverboat captain ‘Steamboat Bill’, visiting his dad after years away. Bill tries to turn his son into a man without apparent success. Bill has a dispute with a powerful banker while Willie falls for Kitty, the banker’s daughter. When a hurricane hits, Willie leaps to the rescue and saves the day.

5. SCHMALTZ! ~ The Plastic Age ~ Clara Bow
3.30pm Saturday 5th ~ 1925 ~ 73mins

Featuring our favourite Clara Bow. A promising student is diverted by the ‘flaming youth in rebellion’ of the twenties who danced to wild jazz and had petting parties!

6. SHORTS SELECTION ~ A Symphony of Shorts
5pm Saturday 5th ~ 73mins

An amazing selection of European and US shorts providing a fascinating insight into life before the Talkies.

* Those Awful Hats
* For Her Mother’s Day
* Folies-Bergère Fireman (features nudity!)
* Monkey Chase ~ Titanic
* The Mystery of the Leaping Fish

7. SWASHBUCKLER ~ The Thief of Bagdad ~ Douglas Fairbanks
7.30pm Saturday 5th ~ 1924 ~ 155mins

A thief (Douglas Fairbanks Snr) falls in love with the Caliph of Bagdad’s daughter who will give her hand to the suitor who brings back the rarest treasure. The thief embarks on a magical journey, fraught with danger…

I like those helpful headings. A bit at a loss as to what Monkey Chase ~ Titanic might be, but all in all a great line-up. Further information, including booking form, and a delightful selection of photos from past festivals, showing how much the audiences gets into the swing of things, can be found on the festival site. The site also promises that “the foyer will be decorated in style, and tea with Lamingtons or shortbread will be available at the Nibblenook”. Perfect.

The Australian connection


Mutt and Jeff: On Strike (1920), from The Film Connection

News of the successful outcome of an archival repatriation project. The Film Connection is a joint project between the National Film Preservation Foundation in America and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to bring American films no longer held in America back to American audiences. Through this collaboration, a number of short American silents that survive only in Australia have been preserved, digitised, and six of them made available online. The six are:

  • The Prospector (Essanay 1912)
  • U.S. Navy Documentary (1915?)
  • A Trip through Japan with the YWCA (The Benjamin Brodsky Moving Picture Co. c.1919)
  • Mutt and Jeff: On Strike (Bud Fisher Films Corporation 1920)
  • The Sin Woman Trailer (George Backer Film 1922?) [trailer for 1917 film]
  • Pathé News, No. 15? (Pathé News 1922)

The six films can be viewed and downloaded from the National Film Preservation Foundation site here, together with useful background information on each title, and you can read all about the project here. One of the films, the Mutt and Jeff cartoon On Strike, will feature at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival.

Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso


Having told you a short while ago about Brazilian silent film journals available online, now it’s time to let you know (courtesy of the Pordenone film festival site) of the Cinemateca Brasileira’s third annual festival of silent film, Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso. The festival runs 7-16 August 2009, at the Cinemateca in São Paulo, and through the modern miracle that is Google Translate, I can tell you something about it.

The main strand of the festival is dedicated to French silent cinema, and features films from Les Archive du Film CNC, the Cinémathèque Française and (familiar to regular Bioscopists) the Musée Albert-Kahn. The programme includes shorts by the Lumière brothers, documentaries on Corsica, Tunisia and Abyssinia, and assorted feature films from the 1920s, including Marcel L’Herbier’s L’homme du large (1920), Pierre Marodon’s Salammbô (1925), Alfred Machin’s Le manoir de la peur (1927), Berthe Dagmar and Jean Durand’s L’île d’amour (1928) and Jean Grémillon’s Maldone (1928). André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928) will be shown with orchestral score by Brazilian composer José Antônio de Almeida Prado. There will be a selection of early shorts directed by Alice Guy, and a special presentation by Isabelle Marinone on the relationship between anarchism and cinema in France, including films made by French film collective Cinéma du Peuple: La Commune (Armand Guerra, 1914), Les misères de l’aiguille (Raphael Clamour, 1914) and fragments from Le Vieux dock (Armand Guerra, 1914).

Silent films set in Brazil are also featured. There will be documentaries on Amazonian travel and ethnography by Luiz Thomaz Reis and Silvino Santos, including The River of Doubt (1928?) on a 1914 expedition headed by Theodore Roosevelt. There is more Latin American cinema with Chile’s El Husar de la muerte (Pedro Sienna, 1925), and a touch of modern fantasy with the Wisconsin Bioscope’s A expedição brasileira de 1916 (2006).

The festival has a section dedicated to notable titles previously featured at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. This year it is showing Marion Davies in The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928), Beatrice Lillie in Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926), Nell Shipman in Back to God’s country (David Hartford, 1919), and Li Lili in that great Bioscope favourite, Tianming/Daybreak (Sun Yu, 1933), plus Alfred Machin’s anti-war Maudite soit la guerre! (1914). And there’s a special programme devoted to the trick and fantasy films of Segundo de Chomón.

In short, it’s a fabulous-looking programme. Full details of the films can be found on the site, divided up by day and theme, along with contact details and other festival information, all in Portuguese.

Strade del cinema 2009


Apologies for being a little in the day with news of Strade del Cinema, Italy’s less-heralded international festival of silent cinema and music. The festival takes place in Aosta (near Turin), at the Aosta Roman Theatre, and this year runs 6-13 August. The festival is organized by the Strade del Cinema Cultural Association and the City of Aosta, in collaboration with the Turin National Museum of Cinema/Fondazione Maria Adriana Prolo and the support of the UNESCO Italian National Commission. This year’s festival is dedicated to Charlie Chaplin, and is free to all. Its distinctive feature is the emphasis on music by young musicians, participants in the festival’s Young European Musicians Contest.

Here’s the festival programme:

Opening Event in collaboration with AOSTACLASSICA
Tribute to Stanley Kubrick through Gyorgy Ligeti’s music
Orchestra Laboratorio SFOM diected by Mauro Gino


Retrospective Charlie Chaplin 2

The Fireman, music by Chirichiello e i casi a parte
producer: Charles Chaplin for Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Frank D. Williams and Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin; release date: 12 June 1916.

The Vagabond, music by Yati Durant Ensemble
producer: Charles Chaplin for Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Frank D. Williams; photography assistant: Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin; release date: 10 July 1916.


Retrospective Charlie Chaplin 2

The Adventurer, music by Parallelo Dramma
producer: Charles Chaplin for Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Henri Bergman, Edna Purviance, Martha Golden, Eric Campbell; release date: 22 October 1917

The Floorwalker, music by Simone Maggio
producer: Charles Chaplin for Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Frank D. Williams; photography assistant: Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin; release date: 15 May 1916


Retrospective Charlie Chaplin 2

The Tramp, music by Lili Refrain
producer: Jess Robbins for The Essanay Films; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Henri Ensign; with: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Fred Goodwins, Lloyd Bacon; release date: 11 April 1915

Shangaied, music by Magus
producer: Jess Robbins for The Essanay Films; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Henri Ensign; with: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Lawrence A. Bowes; release date: 21 June 1915


Retrospective Charlie Chaplin 2

Easy Street, music by Illya Amar
producer: Charles Chaplin for Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Henri Bergman, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin; release date: 5 February 1917

Work, music by Elia Casu/Antonio Pinna Duo
producer: Jess Robbins for The Essanay Films; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Henri Ensign; with: Charles Chaplin, Billy Armstrong, Edna Purviance; release date: 21 June 1915


Retrospective Charlie Chaplin 2

The Pawnshop, music by PanGea Orchestra
producer: Charles Chaplin for Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Henri Bergman, Edna Purviance, John Rand; release date: 2 October 1916

The Rink, music by Federico Missio Movie Kit
producer: Charles Chaplin pour Lone Star Mutual; director: Charles Chaplin; photography: Roland Totheroh; with: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Albert Austin; release date: 2 October 1916

Events: Tigre Reale (Italy, 1916)

Music by Paolo Angeli, Gavino Murgia and Antonello Salis

Tigre Reale (ITALY, 1916)
director: Giovanni Pastrone; writer : Giovanni Vergada (1873); photography: Giovanni Tomatis, Segundo de Chomón; producer: Itala Film, Turin; original length: 1742 m; copy length: 1600 m ; titles: italian; censor certificate: 11662 du 20/6/1916; release date in Rome: 9/11/1916; preview: Turin, “Salone Ghersi”, July 1916; Rome, 9 november 1916 With: Pina Menichelli (Countess Natka), Alberto Nipoti (Giorgio la Ferita), Febo Mari (Dolsi), Valentina Frascaroli (Erminia), Gabriel Moreau (Count De Rancy), Ernesto Vaser, Enrico Gemelli;
restored copy: 35mm bn col, 1592 mt., 69′ a 20 ft/s

Events: Safety Last (USA, 1923)

Music by Neil Brand

Safety Last (USA, 1923)
production: Hal Roach pour Hal Roach Studios; director: Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan; photography: Walter Lundin; artistic direction: Fred Guiol; with: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott B. Clarke; release date : 1 April 1923.

More information on the festival website (which seems to tell you a lot about the music but not much about how to get there, where to stay, and so forth).