Pordenone diary 2009 – day two

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It’s time for day two of our daily account of this year’s Pordenone silent film festival. We’re back at Sunday 4 October, with an on-the-spot report from our tantalisingly anonymous but highly knowledgeable correspondent, whose dedication to the cause meant a rigorous 9.00am-til-late routine. What, not even just the one day bunking off to go to Venice?


9.00am starts every day from here on; time for a snatched breakfast, a double espresso and to grab a bottle of mineral water for use inside the Verdi – and to help down any paracetemol if you’re still suffering from the red wine the night before …

Today the opening offering is the latest selection from the Corrick Collection, the preserved repertoire of the pre-WW1 Australian travelling show family; highlights included a Pathé comedy, J’ai Perdu Mon Lorgnon (France 1906), about a myopic man blundering around town, having lost his specs; a 1905 documentary, Metallurgie au Creusot (France 1905), on an iron foundry which featured excellent use of tinting and hand colouring, especially the scene where red-hot strips of extruded metal snaked across the foundry floor. Similarly decorated were two Pathé fairy tales, La Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty) (1902) and La Poule aux Oeufs D’Or (France 1905) both of which wore their panto roots on their sleeves. A Walter Booth animation Comedy Cartoons (UK 1907), starts as a ‘lightning sketch’ film but becomes something more ambitious; the caricatures fade out and photographs of the subjects fade in, come to life and interact with the artist. Towards the end it gets increasingly surreal until finally a sick man’s head is split open and the things ailing him removed; bottles of champagne, cigars … and he is reassembled … distinctly Terry Gilliam territory.

Next we were into the thread investigating Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries; starting with a charming Percy Stow, Bobby the Boy Scout (UK 1909); wherein Bobby solves a jewel robbery from under the nose of the local police, but is captured by the thieves; he escapes by hiding under a greatcoat hanging on the doormounted coatpeg, Harold Lloyd-style; as the door swings open, he has outflanked the kidnappers and locks them in his cell in his place, summoning the police … who as per usual, have been portrayed as buffoons throughout.

This was followed by more conventional fare, a self-contained episode from the Stoll 1923 serial The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, The Fiery Hand; all the Sherlockian elements of course; disguises, traps, genius antagonists, plus a sadistic torture/execution to finish; it rollicked along like a serial episode should.

The German Der Hund Von Baskerville (Germany 1914) was less successful, a very strange film; coming in at just over the hour, it dispenses entirely with the plot of the novel, and barely replaces it with another; as a result, it’s a very leisurely hour in an alternate Holmes universe where Watson has all but vanished, and the good peasantry of Devon run around Schloss Baskerville in kilts, in fear of a hound likely to try and lick you to death. I don’t like celebrating a film’s entertainment value for its unwitting humour, but here, no option I’m afraid.

The programme notes were damning with faint praise for the next film, La Vie Merveilleuse De Bernadette (France 1929) and as hagiography – literally in this case – is not my favourite genre, I gave it a miss. The consensus of those that did see it was that the film was an efficiently effective and well made piece of propaganda.

Back in for Ce Cochon De Morin (France 1923), a film made by Tourjansky for Albatros. A strange comedy about a man trying to restore his reputation after a drunken sexual attack on a female train passenger. Hmmmmm. Couldn’t really get too sympathetic, frankly. A waste of the talented Nicolas Rimsky in the lead, who would have better vehicles …

More tasteful was the double-bill presented to engage the skills of a couple of local children’s orchestras; Chaplin’s A Night In The Show and Keaton’s Playhouse. Interestingly Chaplin’s anarchy came over really well – the kids seemed to have more fun with it, and the occasional stray note – if it was – matched the onscreen chaos perhaps better than a professional unit would have done.

Sorry – dodged Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle (USA 1925) on the basis that I had already seen it a couple of times and I was quite likely to get the chance to see it again; by all accounts a lovely print, but there were some technical glitches in its projection – for some reason the Verdi projection team were struggling this week.

Daddy (1923) was shown as a tribute to Cesare Gravina, but it’s an unashamed vehicle for Jackie Coogan; corn, but beautifully presented and well acted prime corn. Musically one of the highlights thus far, as Phil Carli at the piano and Günther Buchwald on violin enriched the experience way beyond the sentimental melodrama onscreen, about three generations of violinists, and elevated it to something far more memorable. If you have seen The Rag Man with Coogan and Max Davidson, it’s very much along those lines.

Harmonies De Paris (France 1928) with music by Touve Radovondrahety, was an extra 30 minutes I didn’t feel like; I’m not a huge fan of late 20’s city symphonies on the whole, but judging by the reports I should have seen it; a good film, and for Touve a bit of a triumph. These things happen …


Stayed tuned for the report on day three, when we shall learn of more Holmesiana, the parting of the Red Sea, and a night at the opera…

Report on day one
Report on day three
Report on day four
Report on day five
Report on day six
Report on day seven
Report on day eight

Pordenone diary 2009 – day one

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The keen-eyed may have noticed that your editor was not at Pordenone this year for the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the world-renowned festival of silent cinema. Alas this is true, as pressing matters demanded that I be elsewhere this time around. But that does not mean that the Bioscope was not represented, nor that it cannot bring you its by now traditional daily report on the festival’s screenings. For we put a reporter on the case, who has most diligently supplied us with a 2009 Pordenone diary. The reporter has requested that he or she remain anonymous, and that these reports are billed simply as coming from our own correspondent.

Here, therefore, is the report on day one (Saturday 3 October):


So here we are again, in the North of Italy, to gorge ourselves on Silent Film for another celebration of Giornate Del Cinema Muto … but would this, as the first post-credit-crunch Giornate, be different? The memories of last year, when the world economy seemed to be hurtling to Hell in a handbasket as we tried to glean information from Italian headlines and hotel CNN screens, dark mutterings of invading the Verdi, and barricading ourselves in with the prints and the pianists, and never going home … had receded a bit, and most of us had found a way of getting here once more. There were some subtle differences; the Book Fair, billed as not happening this year, actually did but on a smaller scale; and shared the office premises. And at the Posta, opposite the Verdi, the tipples of choice had altered with the exchange rate as British fans of ale were faced with a £7.80 bill for a pint of Birra Rosso, or £4.40 for a lager. Red wine was suddenly the drink of choice. That, and it seemed to me, correctly or not, that this year more people had opted for part-week trips rather than the full week marathon; not however, your intrepid reporter … here for the duration.

The first-day routine is unchanged; to the office, hand over the donation if applicable (seems rude not to, it’s great value and helps keep the show going) and gather up the armful of freebie books and the all-important catalogue; half an inch thick of bilingual essays, context and technical details of every film and clip to be shown, divided into this year’s festival threads; a retrospective of the Franco-Russian studio Albatros; a look at the silent tellings of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and their influence worldwide; a round-up on new discoveries and restorations; and the start of a multi-year revisiting of Silent Classics that have been shown here before, but perhaps twenty or more years ago … and therefore well before the arrival of many of those now attending … a look at some Silent Divas; tributes to the British Silent Film Festival and the Jugoslav Archive, plus some early cinema, a Cesare Gravina tribute, and some documentaries on silent personalities to be shown at the Ridotto, the Verdi’s annexe. Grab the timetable, head to the Posta and decide on your week’s movements while racking up the caffeine levels … and most importantly, greeting the friends you may not have seen since the previous year.

And plunging into the first film, with no formalities, from the Albatros thread (which starts with the earlier Ermolieff films); La nuit du 11 septembre (France 1919) … which sounded good on paper but didn’t quite excite in reality. A melodrama concerning the slow revenge Fate takes on a man tempted into a crime, the film, as it survives at least, is episodic and blighted by a huge number of wordy intertitles derived from the works of Victor Hugo – which the film story wasn’t. Severin-Mars (La Roue, J’Accuse) doesn’t so much act as pose, and you cannot invest any sympathy for a single character, so come the eventual denouement of the unlikely circumstances, you’re frankly not that bothered; a pity, as when the camera ventured outside the studio sets into the landscape, as in an early sequence on a battlefield, or a seaside scene (where a hero saves the heroine from knee-deep water) the sequences are beautifully shot.

A livelier film next up from the BSFF thread; an unpretentious thriller from Stoll based on Edgar Wallace’s breakthrough novel; The Four Just Men (UK 1922). No ambitions for High Art, but a decent Mission Impossible-style tale of four slightly ambivalent upper-class crusaders for justice, taking on a businessman employing sweated labour, despite various warnings. Effective camerawork, good sharp editing and terrific use of London locations; the film is almost stolen by a cockney pickpocket used for comic relief – but the climax as the urepentant businessman awaits the deadline is imbued with real tension; a great performance from Teddy Arundell, helped by the aforementioned editing and increasingly claustrophobic camerawork.

To the opening gala, where we do get the formalities; welcoming speeches from David Robinson and local dignitaries representing the layers of local government who help subsidise the event – more importantly than ever these days.

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John Gilbert and Mae Murray in The Merry Widow, from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Fotocollection, Filmmuseum, Wien)

The main event, though, is the Erich Von Stroheim version of The Merry Widow (USA 1925), introduced by Leatrice Joy Fountain and featuring a new orchestral score by Maud Nelissen. The film itself is almost a checklist of Von’s obsessions; militaria, aristocrats at play, wedding processions, grotesques, fetishes and matters of honour; how close it all is to the source material I’m not qualified to say, but it’s a superior piece of froth; the score, using Lehar lightly but effectively matched it to perfection. And every new film I see John Gilbert in, my perception of him changes; not just the star of legend, I’m realising what a really fine actor he was too, and what a waste his loss was to cinema.

The final film of the first (half) day, Le Bonheur Conjugal (France 1923) was a pleasant enough but flaccid rom-com with a newly-married-for-money playboy finding true love – with his wife. Gabriel Thibaudeau gave his all, but couldn’t lift it above the pretty ordinary. Again, it was hard to feel any empathy with the protagonists, and the final redemption felt hollow.

So a curate’s egg of a first day, but there is so much more to come … a small stiff drink and a good night’s sleep required. See you tomorrow.


Many thanks to our mystery reporter (doubtless those who were there will already be poring through the text in search of clues as to the scribe’s identity), and look out on the morrow for the report on day two.

Report on day two
Report on day three
Report on day four
Report on day five
Report on day six
Report on day seven
Report on day eight

Val Williamson

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I learned today from film historian and Cecil Hepworth expert Simon Brown that Valerie Williamson, Hepworth’s daughter by his second marriage, has died. As Simon explains in this short notice which he has kindly supplied, Val Williamson did much to ensure that her father’s legacy was understood and respected, and her sad passing means that the last direct generational link with the British film pioneers has been broken. Simon writes:

I am sorry to have to announce that Valerie Williamson, daughter of pioneer British filmmaker Cecil Hepworth, died on Thursday 8th October after a battle with cancer. Val was born well after Hepworth stopped making films at Walton Studios, but after the death of Elizabeth Hepworth in the 1990s, Val took over the mantle of keeper of her father’s memory. Although she resisted the limelight, rarely attending screenings of her father’s work, she nonetheless became a great friend to academics, historians, documentary makers and archivists over the years, helping to ensure the long-term legacy of Hepworth through careful managing of how her father’s surviving films were used. She will be particularly missed by those historians of early British cinema with whom she freely shared her memories of her father and his work. As one of the few surviving family members with direct links to the pioneer days, her contribution to our understanding of Hepworth has been considerable and her death is a tragic loss for us all, particularly for those of us lucky enough to call her a friend. Outside of the film world Val was a potter of considerable talent and lived quietly near Guildford with her husband and her two beloved daschunds.

For information on Cecil Hepworth, the leading figure in British dramatic film production before the First World War, and a significant creative filmmaker into the 1920s, here are a few links:

Continuous performance

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Continuous Performance: Going to the Cinema a Hundred Years Ago is an exhibition marking the centenary of cinema-going in Britain. Well, we can argue the point whether 1909-2009 is any real sort of centenary, since pedants like me would point to the first British cinemas having appeared in London in 1906 (specifically, the Daily Bioscope opposite Liverpool Street Station gets my vote as cinema no. 1), but 1909 was undoubtedly the year when the phenomenon undoubtedly took off in a huge way and started to make such a great impact upon society.

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The exhibition is taking place at the Templeman Library, University of Kent, Canterbury, as part of the Canterbury Festival. The exhibition celebrates the first film shows and their audiences through cameras, projectors, books, photographs, fan magazines, and other ephemera from the early years of the cinema. The exhibition has been put together by Dr Nicholas Hiley, head of the university’s world-renowned British Cartoon Archive and a great collector of early cinema apparatus and memorabilia. The Bioscope plans to visit the exhibition soon and to review it in detail, but as that may take a week or two as yet, do note that it is open Friday 2 Oct – Friday 6 Nov, Mon-Fri 8.45am – 10pm, Sat-Sun 12pm – 7pm. Admission is free, and you get to visit the fair city of Canterbury into the bargain.

Silents old and new

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Neil Gaiman directing Statuesque, from http://blog.amandapalmer.net

Keep the eyes peeled for two different approaches to the silent film on British television in the next couple or months or so. Firstly, comedian Paul Merton is continuing his mission to educate his great following in the art of silent cinema. Following on from his Silent Clowns series and Paul Merton looks at Hitchcock (not to mention his guide to early British comedy on the BFI’s Screenonline site), late 2009 or early 2010 will see Lost Silence (working title), a one-off documentary exploring early European cinema, with a 3x60mins series The Birth Of Hollywood scheduled for 2011 to coincide with what the BBC claims will be the 100th anniversary of the Hollywood film industry. Assuming the programme’s slot has not been decided as yet, they might like to take note of the generally accepted fact that the first film made in Hollywood was D.W. Griffith’s In Old California (shot in February 1910). Anyway, they say the series will “focus on the influence of early US cinema on today’s films“.

And there’s silent film today. Over Christmas Sky 1 will be screening 12 Days of Christmas, a 12-part series of specially-commissioned silent films, each of which will have a different writer and director. They include cult author Neil Gaiman, who has written and directed Statuesque, starring Amanda Palmer and Bill Nighy. Gaiman has blogged about the eight-minute film’s production on his website. Other films in the series (produced by Hilary Bevan Jones for Endor Productions) will include Three Kings, a new take on the Biblical tale written by novelist William Boyd and directed by Richard Eyre, and playwright Jez Butterworth collaborating with director Ian Rickson. Tony Grisoni, Terry Gilliam’s regular screenwriter, is another scheduled contributor. So we must wait and see (or for those like the Bioscope who don’t subscribe to Sky, not see at all, at least until the DVD gets released).

Tell me Grandpa

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It’s been quite a while since we have an extract from one of the memoirs of early cinema-going that I like to collect. So here’s something from Josef Morrell’s Tell Me Grandpa, published in 1981. Morrelwas born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham, London. His memoirs cover the period from pre-war to the 1920s, and includes this really well-observed sequence on the child’s experience of the early cinema. Although what he recalls tooks place in the 1910s, I’m struck with how much something like this remained the experience of children’s cinema for decades afterwards. Certainly anyone like me who can remember children’s Saturday morning film shows in the (late) 1960s and early 70s (when they died out in the UK) should recognise the happy blend of anarchy and enthalment at the thrills and spills on the screen:

However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

‘Elmo the Mighty’ is Elmo Lincoln, who would become the cinema screen’s first Tarzan.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Goldman concludes with an interesting insight into the difference between the child’s and the adult’s cinema-going experience, indicating the way in which cinema had moved from its earlier, rumbustious state to an ordered world where social pressures demanded conformity.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

A delightful piece, I hope you’ll agree, evocative and informative.

So you want to open a motion picture theatre?

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So, as promised, it’s cinema month here at the Bioscope, and let’s kick things off with a guide to operating your own motion picture theatre, produced in 1912, which is going into the Bioscope Library.

James F. Hodges’ Opening and Operating a Motion Picture Theatre: How it is Done Successfully is available from the Internet Archive. It was produced as a basic manual for the opportunist. As Hodges writes in his introduction:

This book is written with the view of giving to the novice in the Motion Picture Business information that will be of service to him in his efforts, and which might require much time and labor on his part to obtain. It is written not so much to guide the man in the business as it is to guide him who contemplates engaging in the business. In it is contained much information that will open his eyes at once to important matters at the beginning, so that he may start right.

This is a guide therefore in the mould of those similar texts from the time which encouraged the gullible to believe that they could become actors or screenplay writers for the price of the dollar that the book would cost them. Many at this time looked upon the cinema as an easy route to quick riches, with elementary set-up procedures and costs, to be followed by an endless procession of huddled masses with their nickels yearning for the silver screen. In truth, by 1912 the initial rush of cinema speculation was over, and Hodges’ guide is for those who had come a little too late to the party. But it is all the more interesting for how it explains the business to one who it assumes knows little or nothing about motion pictures.

Firstly, he lures the keen investor in with the promise of riches:

There are approximately 14,000 picture theatres in the United States, and these give two shows, at least, an evening and seat an average of 500 people for the two performances; thus 7,000,000 people patronize the picture theatres and combination picture and vaudeville theatres each evening. Figuring the admission averaging 7 1/2 cents, which is reasonable, for while the 5c. houses are in the majority, the higher priced theatres accommodate larger audiences, it will be seen that more than $500,000 is taken in nightly.

This does not take into consideration those houses that are open from 11 A.M. and from 1 P.M. on. This would add considerably to these figures probably 50% or about $300,000,000 per annum. More than $50,000,000 is invested in the Motion Picture industry in this country outside of the picture theatres. Seventy-five to one hundred negative films are made each week and more than 3,000 positives, to supply the demand of the 14,000 picture houses.

Interesting figures, but they assume that every cinema was full all the time, which was seldom the case. He goes on to advise over location (“The best place to locate a Motion Picture house is, of course, on a street with plenty of traffic, or just around the corner from a busy thoroughfare”), management, competition, audiences (“A manager will gain a pretty fair knowledge of the effect of his program upon his business by watching the audience as it passes out”), how films are rented from a film exchange (“A film service is generally made up of films of different ages. One film may be a week old, the next may be three weeks old and the third may be three months old. The price you pay for service will determine what service you get”) and the new phenomenon of the feature film.

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Example of an attractive theatre front from Opening and Operating a Motion Picture Theatre

More follows on how to convert your building into a motion picture theatre (“It is absolutely essential, after deciding upon your location, to have plans of alterations submitted to the bureau of buildings, which will inspect the premises and pass upon seating capacity, material construction, etc.”), layout, lighting, seating (“For a small place 299 chairs are generally installed. This is because in most states the license for houses containing less than 300 seats is much lower than for houses containing over 300 seats”), projection equipment and electricity (here the book gets surprisingly technical), the screen, advertising, song slides, music (he recommends having an automatic piano in case the pianist fails to turn up), side-line revenues, and he gives these costs for salaries:

Machine operator, $15 to $24 per week
Pianist, $12 to $20 per week
Ticket seller, $6 to $8 per week
Ticket taker, $8 to $10 per week
Porter, $7 to $10 per week
Manager (probably yourself)

To this list may be added, if required:

Singer, $12 to $25 per week
Violinist, $10 to $20 per week
Drummer, $12 to $15 per week
Usher, $3 to $8 per week

Particularly interesting are the overall costs that he gives for costs for operating a small motion picture theatre:

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So, are you tempted? If so, then James F. Hodges is waiting for you, because at the end of his book he gives you an address and tells you that he has a number of theatres throughout the United States available for sale, or he can join you up with a syndicate, if you can indicate how much money you are willing to invest. I wonder who tore out the form at the end of the book in answer to his call?

Lakeland

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Milton Rosmer in A Romance of Wastdale (1921), from Ivan Butler, Silent Magic (1987)

Well I’m back from all too brief a sojourn in the Lake District, where my mind was on hills and dales and becks and crags, and not much on silent films. But the medium can pursue you wherever you may be, and though you might think the Lake District is the last place where you could expect silent cinema associations, they are there. To begin with, there’s the splendid still reproduced above, which comes from the only silent drama set in the area (so far as I know). A Romance of Wastdale (1921) was a British film, directed by Maurice Elvey for Stoll and starring Milton Rosmer and Valya Venitskaya (aka Valia). The film no longer exists, but Ivan Butler in his superlative book Silent Magic recalled seeing it:

Another adaptation from a well-known author, A.E.W. Mason’s A Romance of Wastdale (directed by Maurice Elvey), a grim tale of jealousy and revenge among the Lakeland mountains, was weakened by having the events turned into a dream; but it generated enough tension between the small group of characters to make certain scenes stick in the memory. The photography has a grey, gritty quality which admirably suits the circumstances, preserved in a fine still featuring Milton Rosmer.

Would that he had told which scenes impressed him so, and would that the film survived. It would be good to know more about its production. Jack Cox was the man responsible for the gritty cinematography. Wastdale (or Wasdale) is the area between Scafell Pike and Wast Water lake, by the way.

And then there’s Stan Laurel. OK, so the birthplace of Stanley Jefferson, Ulverston, is south of the Lake District, but not by much, and Ulverston is now home to the renowned Laurel & Hardy Museum. In the heart of the Lake District, in the town of Keswick, there is the cheerfully named The Cars of the Stars, a museum dedicated to famous vehicles from film and television. If you fell the urge to get up close to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Herbie, this is the place to go, and the exhibits include a Laurel and Hardy Model T and the sort-of-silent Mr Bean’s Mini.

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The Alhambra, Keswick (in the rain)

Keswick is a small town (about 5,000 population), but it does boast a cinema, and one that has been in operation since 1913. The Lonsdale Alhambra, in St John’s Street, is a delight. It opened in 1913 and from its Edwardian facade it doesn’t look like it has changed much since then. The cinema provides a handy leaflet on its history, from which we learn that the Keswick Alhambra Theatre Co. Limited as registered with £2,000 capital on 27 May 1913. It was able to seat 595 people and showed one programme a day,with two changes of programme per week. Prices ranged from 4d to 1/3d. It had music, dancing and cinematograph licences, and variety acts performed alongside the films.

By 1916 it had a local rival, the gloriously named Queen of the Lakes Pavilion, around the corner in Station Street. In the 1920s it changed its name from the Alhambra Picture Theatre to simply the Alhambra, and converted for sound. It continued, taking over its rival the Pavilion in the 1940s, and enjoyed something of a boom with the arrival of holidaymakers in the 1950s discovering the Lake District for the first time. But hard times came, as they did across the cinema industry, and by the 1980s the Pavilion had closed and the Alhambra was shut during winter months. But it has survived, and hearteningly in 2006 it was leased to R.J. Towers & partners of Gretna, a business formed by former silent film pianist Towers.

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Interior of the Lonsdale Alhambra. For more images, visit www.keswick-alhambra.co.uk/gallery

Today the cinema seats 270, has Dolby stereo sound, and has an ambience that adroitly combines its past with the present. It has one or two screenings per day, and hosts the Keswick Film Club with its imaginative programme of world cinema titles. I saw District 9 (a proficient B-movie) in thoroughly comfortable circumstances and warmly recommend the place (though they should let the film credits roll through to the end, please). It also serves as an introduction for what is going to be cinema month here at the Bioscope. Alongside the usual reports and idle speculations, throughout October we will have a number of posts focussing on cinemas and the silent era, including publications, web resources, exhibitions and projects. Take your seats, and keep watching the screen.

(One last Lakeland connection – the Old Laundry Theatre at Bowness-on-Windermere has occasional silent film screenings, and on 21 November Neil Brand will be there accompanying a programme of Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton shorts)