Miss Mend

The latest DVD from the marvellous Flicker Alley shines a light on a playful and unashamedly entertaining side of Soviet silent cinema that will come as a surprise to some. Miss Mend is a three-part serial from 1926 directed by Boris Barnet and Fedor Ozep. The fast-moving, exuberant adventure story emulates the style of the American serials that were so popular with Soviet cinema audiences while cheerfully satirising Soviet-American relations (the scenarist was ‘Jim Dollar’, actually a Russian woman Marietta Shaginian) with a story which takes place in part in a technologically-advanced but corrupt America. Its impact is described on the Flicker Alley site in this quotation by the late John Gillett (of fond memory for old BFI hands), whose notes its borrowings from American and German Expressionist cinema alike:

Fusing elements of Fairbanks, Feuillade and Lang with brilliant location shooting in city and countryside … The film’s prolific visual invention take in a Nosferatu-like body in a coffin, mysterious encounters in a chateau, kidnappings on a jetty, and culminates in an extended, accelerating pursuit involving cars and horses. Barnet and Ozep exploit all the serial conventions and improves on them, winding down to a charming, poetic epilogue.

The films have been mastered in high definition from original 35mm elements produced by David Shepard and Jeffery Masino, with digital restoration and editing being carried out by Eric Lange of Lobster Films, Paris. The 2-DVD set runs for four-and-a-half hours and includes a 25-minute documentary on the films’ history, a 15-minute documentary on its music, and a booklet film historians Ana Olenina and Maxim Pozdorovkin, new English title translations, and an orchestral score by Robert Israel. It is released on 15 December and is available at a special introductory sales price of $29.96.

Silent movies calendar 2010


2009 is slipping away, 2010 is clamouring to take over, and it’s time once more for the Silent Movies Benefit Calendar, produced each year by Rodney Sauer of noted silent film musicians the Mont Alto Orchestra. The calendar features photographs of silent film stars contributed by fans, and highlights birthdays and marriages of stars. Proceeds from the calendar go towards silent film preservation – the 2009 calendar supported an internship in film preservation through the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The cost is $15 for the first calendar to a particular address, plus $12 for any additional calendars going to the same address. Shipping is $2.49 for one calendar, $3.09 for two, or $4.95 for three or more. The Monto Alto website has a postage calculator which includes shipping to European countries. Payment is by cheque or credit card through Google Checkout.

The Wrecker

The Wrecker

Premiered tomorrow is a new digital restoration of the 1928 British silent The Wrecker, with a new score by Neil Brand. The film, based on a play by Arnold ‘The Ghost Train’ Ridley, was directed by Geza von Bolvary and stars Carlyle Blackwell, Benita Hume and Gordon Harker. It concerns a series of train wrecks which are engineered by the fiendish owner of a rival motor-coach firm (it is a very British film), and its big selling point is a spectacular train crash early on in the film which was staged for real on the Basingstoke to Alton Light Railway in Hampshire, a sequence involving a remarkable 22 cameras. The premiere takes place 7.00pm at The Watercress Line, Goods Shed, Alresford, Hampshire, but you can also purchase the film on DVD. It comes with an impressive set of extras, including a 9.5mm version of the film, numerous other films of rail crashes (if that’s your sort of thing) and an illuminating interview from the habitually illuminating Mr Brand on composing the score. Those in the UK can also see a short report on the film, with the rail crash clips, on the BBC News site, featuring film historian Bob Geoghegan.

Some of the shots of the train crash were later used in the 1936 film Seven Sinners, starring Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings, also recently released on DVD. It isn’t silent, but it is one of the Bioscope’s favourite British films of the 1930s (a delightfully witty script courtesy of Launder and Gilliat) and comes strongly recommended. The best 1930s Hitchcock film that Hitchcock didn’t make (Albert de Courville was the man at the helm).

Chronicling America

Cartoon from The Evening World Daily Magazine, 16 January 1909, from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov

A couple of years ago we covered the Library of Congress’ newspaper digitisation project, Chronicling America, alongside a number of other digitised newspaper collections. The resource allows researchers to search and view a million newspaper pages for free from 1880-1922, covering the following American states: Arizona, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

The Chronicling America team is producing a number of subject guides with sample articles to assist researchers. Subjects selected so far include Baseball’s Modern World Series, Ellis Island, Jack Johnson, Patent Medicines, the Russo-Japanese War, and Early Cinema. Topics in Chronicling America – Early Cinema provides a list of key dates, a list of helpful search terms (Moving Pictures, Motion Pictures, Muybridge, Chronophotographic, Kodak, Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, Mutoscope, Cinematographe, Vitascope, Thomas Edison, Nickelodeon), and sixteen sample articles, from “All the Gaits of Horses” [Shown in Moving Pictures by Zoopraxiscope], New York Sun (New York, NY), 18 November 1882, to “Colored Moving Pictures”, The Sun (New York, NY), 21 March 1909 (the majority of the newspapers selected for Chronicling America don’t go beyond 1910).

My thanks to regular Bioscopist David Pierce for bringing this to my attention. An updated survey of digitised newspaper resources handy for the study of early film is long overdue. I’ll set to work on it.

Alice Guy-Blaché: cinema pioneer

Madame a des envies (1906), directed by Alice Guy

I’m a little late in taking note of an exhibition with associated screenings and events which is running at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer runs 6 November 2009-24 January 2010, and is dedicated to one of the most interesting of cinema pioneers. Usually described as the first women film director (hmm, maybe), Alice Guy (later Alice Guy-Blaché) (1873–1968) played a significant role in both French and American cinema, writing, directing and producing early silent and sound-on-disc films, running her own studio (Solax) and establishing an individual vision as a filmmaker which makes her of that much more interest that just an historical ‘first’, however enterprising.

The blurb on the exhibition site describes things thus:

This is the first comprehensive retrospective of the films of Alice Guy Blaché (1873–1968), a key but unsung figure of the early years of cinema, the first woman director, and the first woman to establish and preside over her own film studio. Between 1896 and 1920, first in France and then in the United States, she wrote, directed, supervised, and/or produced more than 1,000 films. These ranged from short films of less than a minute’s duration to full-length multi-reel features and include some hand-tinted in color, and more than one hundred films with synchronized sound made between 1902 and 1906, some twenty years before sound revolutionized motion pictures as we now know them.

A screenwriter as well as director, she worked in a remarkable variety of genres including comedies, westerns, dramas, detective stories, and a biblical epic, as well as making films based on literary classics and theatrical productions. Alice Guy (as she was known at Gaumont Film Company), made her first story film at a time when the earliest motion pictures were used in the service of science and selling cameras—a time when the notion of motion pictures as a form of popular entertainment was not yet on the horizon. Radically shifting the parameters of cinematic imagination, production, and distribution, Blaché participated in every aspect of the evolving motion picture business, and her careers in the two countries where cinema was born testify to her extraordinary accomplishments.

The exhibition is organized by Whitney curator-at-large Joan Simon. It is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, published by Yale University Press in association with the Whitney, with contributions by noted film scholars Jane Gaines, Alison McMahan, Charles Musser, Alan Williams, film historian and preservationist Kim Tomadjoglou, and the show’s organizer, Joan Simon.

As well as the exhibition, there was a symposium (now past) and a series of screenings, which began yesterday and continues until December 4. For the record (since this is the most comprehensive Guy retrospective mounted, and because usefully the print sources are given), these are films being shown:

PROGRAM 1: Myth & Magic
Chirurgie fin de siècle [Turn-of-the-century Surgery], 1900 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
La Petite magicienne [The Little Magician], 1900 (Gaumont).
Lobster Films, Paris
Intervention malencontreuse [Untimely Intervention], 1902 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Chiens savants [Performing Dogs], 1902 (Gaumont). Featuring Miss Dundee and her trained dogs. Lobster Films, Paris
Faust et Méphistophélès [Faust and Mephistopheles], 1903 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Une Histoire roulante [A Rolling Story], 1906 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Ballon dirigeable—Lebaudy N3 [The Dirigible—Lebaudy No. 3], 1906 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Greater Love Hath No Man 1911 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Algie the Miner 1912 (Solax). Directed by Edward Warren and Harry Shenck. Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Alice Guy tourne une phonoscène [Alice Guy directs a phonoscène], 1905 (Gaumont). Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
L’Anatomie du conscrip [Anatomy of a Recruit], 1905 (Gaumont, 1905; phonoscène) Performed by Polin. Gaumont. Pathé Archives, Paris. Sound
Questions indiscrètes [Indiscreet Questions], 1905 (Gaumont; phonoscène) Performed by Félix Mayol. Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris. Sound

PROGRAM 2: Scoring Guy Blaché: Selections from the Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project

Roads Lead Home, 1913 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project: A Whitney Live Commission. Musical score composed by Tamar Muskal and performed for the recording by Erin Keefe (violin), Pedja Muzijevic (piano), and Wilhelmina Smith (cello), 2009
Falling Leaves 1912 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project: A Whitney Live Commission. Musical score composed by Tamar Muskal and performed for the recording by Erin Keefe (violin), Pedja Muzijevic (piano), and Wilhelmina Smith (cello), 2009

PROGRAM 3: Saving Guy Blaché: Newly Restored Films

Mixed Pets 1911 (Solax) Library of Congress, Washington, DC
A House Divided 1913 (Solax) Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: musical score by Barbara Harbach

PROGRAM 4: Detective Story

Burstop Holmes’ Murder Case 1913 (Solax) Em Gee Film Library, Reseda, CA

PROGRAM 5: Sound Meets Silents: Featuring 35mm Films and Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Baignade dans le torrent [Swimming in the Stream], 1897 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Le Pêcheur dans le torrent [The Fisherman in the Stream], 1897 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Ballet libella 1897 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Danse du papillon [Butterfly Dance], 1897 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Danse serpentine [Serpentine Dance], 1897 (Gaumont). Performances by Mme Bob Walter. Lobster Films, Paris
Les Malabares [The Malabares], 1902 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Chapellerie et charcuterie mécaniques [Mechanical Hat-and-sausage-maker], 1900 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Chirurgie fin de siècle [Turn-of-the-century Surgery], 1900 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
La Petite magicienne [The Little Magician], 1900 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Intervention malencontreuse [Untimely Intervention], 1902 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Faust et Méphistophélès [Faust and Mephistopheles], 1903 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Chiens savants [Performing Dogs], 1902 (Gaumont). Featuring Miss Dundee and her trained dogs. Lobster Films, Paris
Une Histoire roulante [A Rolling Story], 1906 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
Ballon dirigeable—Lebaudy N3 [The Dirigible—Lebaudy No. 3], 1906 (Gaumont). Lobster Films, Paris
The Ocean Waif 1916 (Golden Eagle Features/International Film Service) Library of Congress, Washington, DC

PROGRAM 6: Players & the Played/Alice Guy in Spain

Au cabaret [At the Club], 1899 (Gaumont). Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm
Avenue de l’Opéra 1900 (Gaumont). Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm
La Bonne absinthe [The Good Absinthe], 1899 (Gaumont). Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm
L’Aveugle fin de siècle [The Turn-of-the-century Blind Man], 1898 (Gaumont). Archival Film Collections of the Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm
A Fool and His Money 1912 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project: A Whitney Live Commission. Musical score composed by Missy Mazzoli and performed for the recording by the ensemble Victoire: Olivia De Prato (violin), Lorna Krier (keyboards), Eileen Mack (clarinet), Missy Mazzoli (keyboards), and Eleonore Oppenheim (double bass), 2009
Roads Lead Home 1913 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project: A Whitney Live Commission. Musical score composed by Tamar Muskal and performed for the recording by Erin Keefe (violin), Pedja Muzijevic (piano), and Wilhelmina Smith (cello), 2009
Alice Guy in Spain 1905 (Gaumont). Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Tango 1905 (Gaumont). Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Le Bolero [The Bolero], 1905 (Gaumont). Performed by Miss Saharet. Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

PROGRAM 7: Scoring Guy Blaché: Selections from the Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project

A Fool and His Money 1912 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project: A Whitney Live Commission. Musical score composed by Missy Mazzoli and performed for the recording by the ensemble Victoire: Olivia De Prato (violin), Lorna Krier (keyboards), Eileen Mack (clarinet), Missy Mazzoli (keyboards), and Eleonore Oppenheim (double bass), 2009
When Marian Was Little 1911 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Sound: Alice Guy Blaché Film Score Project: A Whitney Live Commission. Musical score composed by Missy Mazzoli and performed for the recording by the ensemble Victoire: Olivia De Prato (violin), Lorna Krier (keyboards), Eileen Mack (clarinet), Missy Mazzoli (keyboards), and Eleonore Oppenheim (double bass), 2009

PROGRAM 8: Saving Guy Blaché: Newly Restored Films

The Sewer 1912 (Solax). Directed by Edward Warren; set design and script by Henri Menessier. Library of Congress, Washington, DC

PROGRAM 9: Seeing Sound

Canned Harmony 1912 (Solax). Em Gee Film Library, Reseda, CA

PROGRAM 10: Sound Meets Silents: Featuring 35mm Films and Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

Alice Guy tourne une phonoscène [Alice Guy films a phonoscène], 1905 (Gaumont). Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Lilas-Blanc [White Lilacs], 1905 (Gaumont; phonoscène). Performed by Félix Mayol. Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris. Sound
Five O’Clock Tea 1905 (Gaumont; phonoscène). Performances by Dranem. Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris. Sound
Les Maçons [The Builders], 1905 (Gaumont). Performed by the O’Mers. La Cinémathèque royale de Belgique, Brussels
La Course à la saucisse [The Race after the Sausage], 1906 (Gaumont). La Cinémathèque royale de Belgique, Brussels
Le Matelas alcoolique or Le Matelas épileptique [The Alcoholic Mattress or The Epileptic Mattress], 1906 (Gaumont). Library of Congress, Washington, DC
La Glu [The Glue], 1906 (Gaumont). Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Une Course d’obstacles [An Obstacle-course Race], 1906 (Gaumont). Restored by Archives Françaises du Film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy, France
Two Little Rangers 1912 (Solax). Filmmuseum, Amsterdam
Algie the Miner 1912 (Solax). Directed by Edward Warren and Harry Shenck. Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Greater Love Hath No Man 1911 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC

PUBLIC PROGRAM: Film Evening Honoring the Women’s Film Preservation Fund of New York Women in Film and Television with live musical accompaniment by Ben Model

Mixed Pets 1911 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC
A Fool and His Money 1912 (Solax). Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

The Ocean Waif (1916)

The Whitney website also includes an image gallery, with striking images such as this gem from her 1916 production, The Ocean Waif. And there is now a whole YouTube channel devoted to Alice Guy, courtesy of the Whitney Museum, with 16 titles so far (though I’d challenge the claim that Little Tich and his Big Boots is a Gaumont phonoscène – it was made by Clément-Maurice for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition of 1900).

Finally, some Alice Guy links for you:

Ken Wlaschin and the silent opera


Sadly the death has been announced of Ken Wlaschin, a major figure in American and British film culture for many years. Born in America, Ken came to prominence as head of the National Film Theatre in London, also serving as the director of the London Film Festival from 1969 to 1984. He returned to the States and revived the Los Angeles International Film Festival, serving also as director of creative affairs at the American Film Institute and vice chairman of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation. He was an author of great distinction, writing not only on film (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Great Movie Stars and Their Films, The Faber Book of Movie Verse) but fiction, travel books and poetry.

Obituaries to Ken Wlaschin have been published elsewhere. This post will pay a different kind of tribute by concentrating on one particular area of interest to him. Perhaps Ken’s most notable publication was Encyclopedia on Opera on Screen: A Guide to More Than 100 Years of Opera Films, Video and DVDs (2004). This stupendous publication (all 872 pages of it) is a comprehensive, cultured and engrossing guide to the alliance of opera and the screen, a history that goes back into the silent era, when opera was a remarkably popular subject for filmmakers.

Indeed the alliance is not merely as old as cinema itself, but older. In his caveat of 15 October 1888 Thomas Edison wrote the following famous words about the motion picture device that he was setting out to invent:

I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope ‘Moving View. In the first production of the actual motions that is to say of a continuous opera the instrument may be called a Kinetograph buts its subsequent reproduction for which it will be of most use to the public it is properly called a Kinetoscope …

Edison repeatedly cited opera as the prime example of what his motion picture invention was meant to achieve, his vision having always been to combine motion pictures with sound. In 1894 he wrote:

The kinetoscope is only a small model illustrating the present stage of progress but with each succeeding month new possibilities are brought into view. I believe that in coming years by my own work and that of Dickson, Muybridge, Marié [i.e. Marey] and others who will doubtless enter the field, that grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead.

So it was that opera was embedded into the consciousness of film from the very outset, and if the precise combination of vocal music and film proved a challenge for three decades (though never an impossibility), filmmakers in the so-called silent era turned to opera again and again – for its stories, its scores, its kudos and its stars.

All of this is documented in fascinating detail in Wlaschin’s Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen. As well as entries on silent cinema and opera and on first opera films, he includes sections on their early film productions of every opera imaginable. How many? Well a quick thumb through the book reveals early film productions of Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, The bartered bride, La boheme, Carmen, Don Giovanni, Faust, Fra Diavolo, Lohengrin, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Martha, The Mikado, Le nozze di Figaro, Pagliacci, Parsifal, Rigoletto, Thaïs, Tosca and many more. The exact number is impossible to determine, partly owing to problems of definition, but it undoubtedly runs into hundreds. ‘Silent’ operas films were of various kinds, of which these are the main types:

Synchronised sound
Edison hoped to marry the Kinetoscope to his Phonograph, but the Kinetophone did not have much of a commercial life and never featured any opera. But synchronisation of gramophone recordings with films to give a semblance of the full audio-visual experience began in 1900 with the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition, for which Clément-Maurice filmed Victor Maurel singing arias from Don Giovanni and Falstaff and Emile Cossira an aria from Roméo et Juliette. A second wave of synchronised (or sound-on-disc) films from around 1907 onwards led to numerous films of scenes or arias from operas, usually with actors miming to the recordings of the genuine opera singers. Systems such as the Cinephone, Cinematophone, Vivaphone, Chronophone, Cinemafono and Biophon were a common feature of cinema programmes for a number of years up to the start of First World War. Although some attempts were made to encompas an entire opera in this way (in 1907 British Gaumont issued a complete Gounod’s Faust in twenty-two separate film/sound recordings), the vast majority of these films were single-reelers of three minutes or so, lasting the length of a single gramophone recording. The greatest exponent of the form was the German producer Oskar Messter, who produced around 500 song, opera and operetta sound shorts using his Biophon system, and even opened a spcialised Berlin cinema dedicated to opera films (one or two other such cinemas opened around Europe at this time).

Georges Mendel’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1908), from the Lobster Films DVD set Discovering Cinema

The most joyous of all synchronised sound opera films is a 1908 production by French producer Georges Mendel of the sestet from Donizzetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, sung by Enrico Caruso Marcella Sembrich, Antonio Scotti, Marcel Journet, Barbara Severina and Francesco Daddi. The performers who appear on the film are actors miming to the recording, but the spirit in which the music is relayed is truly uplifting (the film – only recently discovered and not correctly identified in Wlaschin’s encyclopedia – can be found on the Discovering Cinema 2-DVD set, for which see below).

Filmed performance
Among the most prestigious, though controversial, of early cinema productions was Edison’s Parsifal (1904), a near-literal recording of the Metropolitan Opera production filmed by Edwin S. Porter, whose exhibition was hampered by a lawsuit preventing Edison from screening the film alongside Wagner’s recorded music.

Operas as films
Operas conceived of as films are a rare breed. There are two examples from the silent era. Rapsodia Satanica (Italy 1915) was an avante garde work directed by Nino Oxilia, which starred Lyda Borelli and had music that accompanied screenings by Pietro Mascagni (composer of Cavalleria rusticana). The peculiar Jenseits des Stroms (Germany 1922), directed by Ludwig Czerny, has music composed for singers and orchestra by Ferdinand Hummel, which had musical notation running along the bottom of the screen throughout the film. A print is held by the BFI National Archive.

Related to this, one composer among the greats was able to have a say in how a film of one of his operas transfered to the silent screen. Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, written in 1911, was filmed in 1926 in Austria by Robert Weine. Strauss provided new music and arranged the film’s live score, while his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the screenplay, with new scenes added for the film.

Another way of bringing together opera music with silent film was through lives of composers. Examples include opera enthusiast Oskar Messter’s feature-length The Life of Richard Wagner (1913), directed by Carl Froelich, and the 1921 Austrian film Mozarts Leben, Lieben und Leiden, on the life of Mozart, while Verdi was the subject of a 1913 Italian production, Giuseppe Verdi nella vita e nella gloria.

Geraldine Farrar in Carmen, from Flickr

The leading opera singers of the period were earnestly sought as film actors. Among them were Mary Garden, who appeared in Goldwyn’s Thaïs (1917); Lina Cavalieri, who featured in Italian and American films in the ‘teens (none directly based on operas); and Enrico Caruso, who starred in My Cousin (1918) for Famous Players-Lasky and, less successfully, in The Splendid Romance (1919). The outstanding crossover star was Geraldine Farrar, who had a huge hit with Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen in 1915 and went on to enjoy a five-year film career with titles (such as the classic Joan the Woman) which owed little to the opera repertoire but demonstrated her powerful cinematic appeal.

Often the stories from operas were used for silent films that had no allegiance to the music, often because they based themselves on source novels or plays rather than the opera. King Vidor’s La bohème (1926), with Lillian Gish as Mimi, is probably the most notable example (MGM were forbidden by the publishers from using Puccini’s music to accompany the film).

British producer Harry B. Parkinson was responsible two film series which boiled down opera stories to twenty-minute shorts. Tense Moments with Operas (1922) produced digests of Martha, Rigoletto, La traviata and others. Cameo Operas (1927) did the same, except that these were exhibited with live singers and orchestral accompaniment. Parkinson directed and John E. Blakeley produced. Examples included Carmen, Faust and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Opera music accompanying silent films
Opera themes were used to accompany silent films, notably Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ which perhaps almost inevitably was used to accompany the ride of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

Silent films about opera
There are numerous examples of silent films set in the world of opera. Best known is the Lon Chaney vehicle, The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but other examples listed by Wlaschin are Clara Kimball Young in The Yellow Passport (1916), Tom Moore in Heartease (1919), Betty Blythe in How Women Love (1922) and Greta Garbo in The Torrent (1926).

Operas based on silent films
Wlaschin records that the first film to be the inspiration for an opera was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), which served as the basis of French composer Camille Erlanger’s 1921 opera Forfaiture. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was made into an opera in 1937 by composer Oles Semenovich Chishko, while William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992) is based on both the Erich von Stroheim film and Frank Norris’ original novel.

Operas about silent films
Finally, there could be operatic works about film. Germany composer Walter Kollo came ujp with Filmzauber (Film Magic) in 1912, with libretto by Rudolf Bernauer and Rudolph Schanzer, which was shown in London and New York in 1913 as The Girl on the Film. It told of a film company producing a story about Napoleon in a small village. Other examples include German composer Jean Gilbert’s operetta Die Kinokönigen (1913) and Carlo Lombardo’s La signorina del cinematografo (1914).

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen (from which much of the information above derives) exists both as a book and as a word-searchable CD-ROM.

I’ve not found any silent opera films or synchronised opera films from the silent era online (at least not legitimately so), but here’s a listing of some of the DVDs available:

Obituaries for Ken Wlaschin have been published by the Guardian and Variety. His silent film intersts extended beyond opera by the way – among his other publications are The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896-1929: An Illustrated History and Catalog of Songs Inspired by the Movies and Stars, with a List of Recordings and Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography.

In a world of silence …

Silent is the name of an independently-financed feature film three years in the making which premiered in November 2008, and which is currently doing the rounds of festivals. Were it up to me, it would gain an award for its plot idea alone. Its subject is a world such as we understand in silent cinema, where everyone is silent. Into this world comes Abigaile Archibald, who discovers she can communicate in a completely different way to anyone else – she develops a speaking voice. She is delighted at being able to talk and sing, but the suspicious townspeople are horrified by this freak of nature and launch a witch hunt…


This ingenious concept you can see in action through the trailer, in which everyone inhabits a silent film world except for the vocal Abigaile, who sings of her woes in the mournful “Will I ever be heard?”. The look of the film (shot in black-and-white), which the director describes as a ‘gothic comedy’, takes its cue from Nosferatu but also the Universal horror films of the 1930s. It was shot in New Jersey, which has a noteworthy history of filmmaking itself, starting from Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio at West Orange way back in 1893. Fort Lee was a popular area for outdoor filmmaking in the 1910s, and companies such as World, Eclair and Solax had studios there. The filmmakers are keen to reference this history, even if their own efforts take their inspiration from later, and elsewhere.

The film is written and directed by Michael Pleckaitis for Revscope Pictures, and stars Katie Ritz (as Abigaile), Dan Bailey and Sam Sebastian. Silent has a website with background information on the film, photographs, production news and a blog. They have also produced a serial of sorts, documenting the film’s production, all episodes of which you can follow on the website or via the film’s website – or you can just follow the links here (Chapter 1 seems only to be available on the film’s website):

And for your special delight, here’s the music video for “Will I ever be heard?” (which bears more than a passing ambition towards the work of Andrew Lloyd-Webber):

The film has been around for a year now, but despite the filmmakers’ online efforts, it doesn’t seem to have gathered all that much attention. It is hard to see why, given the quality of the trailer (though some of the supporting information in the production serial is a tad underwhelming). For ingenuity of concept alone it deserves a wider audience, and let’s hope that the Bioscope’s noble readership can do its bit to spread the word. A DVD release is promised in due course – I’m looking forward to it.

In the studio

The Ambrosio studio during the film of Cenerentola (1913), from http://www.youtube.com/user/inpenombra

There’s always some particularly fascinating about seeing films of films in production from the silent era. The business-like way a team has to go about creating fantasy, the sheer number of people who made up that team, the famous mingling with the functional. So here are some of the clips of silent films in production which you can find online. Above we have the Ambrosio studio, Turin, in 1913, with the director Eleuterio Rodolfi and actors Fernanda Negri Pouget, Mary Cleo Tarlarini and Ubaldo Stefani, during the filming of Cenerentola (Cinderella). The provenance is unclear, but the video comes from the Inpenombra YouTube channel, offshoot of the excellent In Penombra website, which features a number of clips of early Italian films.


Manning Haynes directing London Love at the Gaumont studios in 1926, from http://www.itnsource.com

Next up, the this Gaumont Graphic newsreel (which I can’t embed but which you can find on the ITN Source site) shows the filming of the 1926 British film London Love, directed by Manning Haynes at the Gaumont studios, Lime Grove, and starring Fay Compton, John Stuart and Fay Compton. The intriguing story behind this one is the newsreel was made on the occasion of a BBC radio broadcast about the film (the known as The Whirlpool), so we see not only film production but radio production too (including dance band). With thanks to Eve from bringing this one to my attention.


Henny Porten and Emil Jannings during the filming of Anna Boleyn, from http://www.britishpathe.com

Newsreel websites are a handy source for films of film production, though examples from the silent era are rare. From the British Pathe site, this fleeting clip (originally from the German newsreel Messter-Woche) shows Emil Jannings (Henry VIII) and Henny Porten (Anna) incongrously arriving on set in full costume by car for the filming of Anna Boleyn (1920). A second brief clip shows Ernst Lubitsch directing the film from a platform.

Charlie Chaplin in Zepped


All frames from Zepped in this post come from http://www.independent.co.uk

Last week there was much publicity about the discovery of an apparently lost Charlie Chaplin film. Morace Park, of Henham in Essex, purchased a nitrate film from eBay for the princely sum of £3.20 ($5), though he was more interested in the can. When he opened the can he found a reel of nitrate film bearing the title Charlie Chaplin in Zepped. Park could find no record of the film in any Chaplin filmography or biography. The film was a mixture of live action film of Chaplin and animation. Park’s neighbour just happened to be John Dyer, a former member of the British Board of Film Classification, and together they began investigating the history of the film.

They have been thorough in their studies so far, and have determined that the film features unused footage from the Chaplin films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement. The Independent newspaper, which carries the fullest account of the discovery (including several frame illustrations), describes the film thus:

The unearthed film, called Charlie Chaplin in Zepped, features footage of Zeppelins flying over England during the First World War, as well as some very early stop-motion animation, and unknown outtakes of Chaplin films from three Essanay pictures including The Tramp. These have all been cut together into a six-minute movie that Mr Park describes as “in support of the British First World War effort”. It begins with a logo from Keystone studios, which first signed Chaplin, and there follows a certification from the Egyptian censors dating the projection as being in December 1916. There are outtakes, longer shots and new angles from the films The Tramp, His New Profession and A Jitney Elopement.

The main, animated sequence of the film starts with Chaplin wishing that he could return to England from America and fight with the boys. He is taken on a flight through clouds before landing on a spire in England. The sequence also features a German sausage, from which pops the Kaiser. During the First World War there was some consternation that the actor did not join the war effort.

At first it seemed to those who thought they knew their Chaplin history, and the habits of film collectors, that this was some cobbled-together item by someone who had edited together Chaplin clips with a separate animation film of the 1914-18 period, Chaplin being a regular subject for animators at this time. But then evidence turned up that there had indeed been a film called Zepped, exhibited in Britain in 1916. In 2006 British film historian Mike Hammond had uncovered a reference to the film in a Manchester journal (probably Film Renter), as an article in a Russian online journal reveals (scroll down to note 43 and get an English translation through Babelfish).


So what is this peculiar hybrid? The six-minute film is a mixture of Keystone and Essanay titles, plus the animation. Chaplin left Keystone in 1914 to join Essanay, leaving the latter to join Mutual in 1916. Essanay is known to have tried to make the best out of its loss by issuing Triple Trouble (1918), a mish-mash of Chaplin outtakes, but Zepped contains Keystone and Essanay titles, suggesting a still more irregular arrangement. The existence of an Egyptian censors’ certificate only adds to the peculiarity of the whole affair. There seems to be a connection with the accusations made at the time that Chaplin was avoiding his military duty by residing in the United States, though clearly this was an unofficial film and Chaplin had nothing to do with its production.

Chaplin biographer Simon Louvish speculates (in the Independent article) that the film was compiled in Egypt, which was under British occupation at the time. However, no one was making animated films in Egypt in 1916. The access to the outtakes suggests an American source, yet the theme and reference to ‘Blighty’ in the title cards hints at a British source. The frames showing some of the animation (below) look like the crude semi-animated films that British artists such as Lancelot Speed or Dudley Buxton were making at this time. The reference to ‘Made in Germany’ is a British allusion (there were protests at the import of German goods into Britain long before the War), and America was scarcely indulging in anti-German propaganda at this time. I’d point the finger at a British film distributor.


The film has been transferred to DVD, and Park and Dwyer have been showing it to assorted Chaplin experts. They have also started making a documentary film in America about their voyage of discovery, and you can follow their ‘Lost Film Project’ through Twitter and through a project blog. They seem to be making a good job not only of exploiting the discovery but of seeking to understand it. If it’s not quite ‘THE cinematic find of the last 100 years’ that the blog claims, it’s a real coup – not least for how it has left the experts baffled. We now await anxiously for the results of their researches.

Update (20 November 2009):
The people behind the Zepped discovery have kindly sent me two advertisements for the film plus a press notice, all from the journal Film Renter. Now we learn that the film was made by Screen Plays Co. of Manchester, that it was 1,000 feet long, and that there was some sensitivity over its relationship with Chaplin because the first version of the advert pointedly neglects to mention his name. He is mentioned in the second, however:

Original advertisment from Film Renter, 23 December 1916

Revised advertisement from Film Renter 30 December 1916

Press notice from Film Renter (date not given)

You can see the documents on the website for the company producing the documentary about Zepped, Clear Champion Ltd.

Another update (11 July 2011):
The latest extraordinary twist in the Zepped saga is that another print of the film has turned up, this time in a second-hand shop in South Shields, UK. This second Zepped is slightly incomplete (opening shots of a Zeppelin are missing, apparently) but otherwise looks to be the same film. It was discovered by one Brian Hann. More information (though with a muddled idea of the film’s history and value) is given in The Shields Gazette and in the comments below.

Brian Hann with the second Zepped, discovered in a South Shields second-hand shop

Searching for Mary Murillo


Recently I was invited to speak at an event taking place Saturday 7 November at the BFI Southbank in London, on women and British silent cinema. There is increasing interest in the role of women in the early years of filmmaking (as demonstrated by Duke University’s Women Film Pioneers project), and as part of this trend the industrious Women and Silent British Cinema project has been investigating all traceable women filmmakers active in Britain in the silent era – including some rather obscure names, for whom little information survives. For my talk I offered to take on a scriptwriter about whom little was known, Mary Murillo, to demonstrate the research process and some of the online sources available. This blog post serves as part of my response.

Mary Murillo does not turn up in any standard motion picture encyclopedia or reference book. Her name is absent from all of the histories of the silent film era that I have consulted (bar a film credit or two), yet she was a significant screenwriter in American film for ten years, then worked in British films for six or more years where her name brought prestige to three different film companies, before she moved to work in French films at the start of the talkies. The fact that she has almost disappeared from film history says a lot about the way in which women filmmakers have been allowed to slip out of early film history, and about the low status of scriptwriters generally. So, how do we go about recovering that history?

Type her name into Google
Type “mary murillo” into Google and you get 15,500 hits. Initially this seems the very opposite of obscurity, but one quickly discovers that the same film credit data has been lifted from one or two sources to be reproduced on numerous filmographic and DVD sales sites, and what is useful information about her is very thin on the ground (one also finds many sites which refer to paintings of the Virgin Mary by the Spanish artist Murillo).

So there’s Wikipedia, which does have a short entry for her – a one-paragraph biography, a filmography and a couple of links. The biography tells us that she was born in Britain, wrote for the Fox, Metro and Stoll studios (the latter in Britain), that most notably she wrote for Theda Bara and Norman Talmadge, and that she was Irish by nationality, though some sources have her as being Latina. This is useful – and correct, because unfortunately the major piece on Mary Murillo available online, ‘Mary Murillo, Early Anglo Latina Scenarist‘ by Antonio Ríos-Bustamante, makes the fatal assumption that her surname meant that she was of Latin American extraction, despite evidence that she was born in Bradford. The writer has uncovered some useful information, but having made a wrong turning at the start, goes off in totally the wrong direction. There are other errors, notably in the filmography, and one is better off with her credits on the Internet Movie Database – over fifty titles – yet one should never accept the IMDb as being accurate or complete, especially for the silent film era, when credits can be difficult to determine (particularly for scriptwriters). Certainly she made more films that are listed there.

Family history sources
For a proper grounding in biographical film research, it is essential to use family history sources. This is where some small investment is necessary, because apart from the volunteer-produced FreeBMD (births, marriages and deaths in the UK, roughly to 1900), the major sources – Ancestry, Findmypast.com etc. – require payment. Ancestry, however, is essential, offering not just births, marriages and deaths, but census records, shipping registers, military records, and much more. The Bioscope has produced a guide to using family history sources in film research, here. Mary Murillo is a problem, however, because it was an assumed name. Her real name was Mary O’Connor. She was of Irish parentage, which is a problem because there are few Irish family history resources online and most pre-1901 census records were destroyed in 1922 during the Civil War. However, Murillo / O’Connor was born in Bradford (explained below) in 1888, yet I can find no official birth record – the first indication of what seems to have been an unconventional childhood.


Mary De Murillo, bottom line of this insert from the ship’s register for the S.S. New York, sailing from Southampton 2 August 1909, from http://www.ancestry.com

Shipping records
These are essential. One of the great boons for biographical research recently has been the publication of shipping records, particularly between Britain and the USA before 1960, which give access to passenger registers, or manifests, which contain much biographical information, as well as certain dates. Ancestry has some, Findmypast provides Ancestors on Board using records from The National Archives, but best of all is Ellis Island, a free database with digitised documents of New York passenger records 1892-1924. From Ancestry’s shipping records we discover that Mary first went to American in 1908, under the name Mary de Murillo, where we learn her age (19), that she was Irish but living in England, that she was born in Bradford, that she was an actress, and that she was travelling with her step-sister, Isabel Daintry.


This seems a wonderful clue, though it has proven to be a bit of a dead-end. I’ve not been able to trace a family history for Daintry, who was an actress herself, appearing in a few films in the early 1910s, before fading from history, leaving just a photo (left) from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York Library. One also discovers from the shipping record that Murillo does not give a family member as contact back in England, instead naming a Mrs Henderson of Eton Avenue, London as her friend. One her assumes that her parents were dead. We also learn that she was 5′ 4″ tall, with fair complexion, fair hair and brown eyes, and that she was in good health.

Why was she travelling to America? Well, she was calling herself an actress, and she was looking for work. Among the several handy databases that one can employ to find biographical information for those in the performing arts, a particularly useful one is the Internet Broadway Database, a free database of production credits for all stage performance’s on New York’s Broadway. And sure enough, there early in 1909 is Mary Murillo appearing alongside Isabel Daintry in the chorus of a musical, Havana. It was not a notable dramatic career – she has three further credits on the IBDB in 1912 and 1913, from which we may infer that she was on tour in stage productions during this period. As newspaper and theatre records reveal, she was a member of Annie Russell’s Old English Comedy Company, performing way down the cast list in plays such as She Stoops to Conquer and The Rivals. This correlates with shipping records, because we find she sailed again from Britain to New York in October 1912, this time on her own, revealed by the manifest for her departure (on Ancestors on Board) and for her arrival (on Ellis Island), with useful the information that her previous stay in the country had lasted for three-and-a-half years.

Census records
Normally census records are the bedrock of biographical research. You get a person’s age, place of birth, family members, occupation, place of residence, and incidental information that one can glean, such as social status. Unfortunately I have not been able to find Mary Murillo/O’Connor on any British or Irish census, though I have found family members (her sisters, but not her parents). However she does turn up in the 1910 New York census, where she is a lodger in Manhattan, given as born in England, profession stage actress, no other family member with her. Something to be wary of – the electronic versions of such data, in this case Ancestry, are based on transcriptions and often the names have been written down wrong – for the 1910 census, Ancestry has her name as Mary Minter. Later census records have not yet been made publicly available.

At some point in 1913 or 14, Mary Murillo sold a film scenario to the husband-and-wife production team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Her career as an actress had not taken off, and like many others before her she looked to the movie industry as a way out, though in her case it was through her pen. She clearly had talent, because within two years she was one of the leading film scenarists in the American film business, becoming chief scriptwriter at Fox in 1915. This rise to fame one can trace through the best source for any online research of this kind, the newspaper archives. There are so many of these, though few are free, so either you pay a subscription or you hope your local library subscribes. Major resources include Newspaper Archives.com (for American papers), the Times Digital Archive and Guardian Archive. Free resources include Australian Newspapers, New Zealand’s Papers Past and a private archive of American papers, Old Fulton NY Post Cards. Film publicity departments sent out supporting bumf worldwide, and you can find Mary Murillo’s name scattered all over the place, becase such was her prominence that her name was frequently mentioned as a leading feature – in ‘reviews’, advertisments and posters. The Bioscope has produced a guide to newspaper archives online, though it’s in need of some updating.


Advertisment for Her Double Life, from the Sandusky Star Journal, 28 September 1916, available from Newspaper Archives.com

Mary Murillo specialised in exotic melodrama, and wrote five scripts for Theda Bara, Hollywood’s archetypal vamp. The films were Gold and the Woman, The Eternal Sapho, East Lynne, Her Double Life and The Vixen. From an article in the New York Clipper, 1 May 1918 (found at Old Fulton’s NY Post Cards), entitled ‘The Scenario Writer’, we learn this:

Even as late as the year 1914, there were few companies who deemed the writer worthy of mention on the screen and as for proper financial reward, many an excellent five reeler brought the magnificent sum of seventy-five dollars. Slowly but surely, however, the big film producers have come to realize the importance of the scenario writer in the general scheme of things with the result that from being one of the most poorly paid individuals connected with the industry, the men and women who create the successful screen plays today, now receive monetary recompense of substantial proportions. Mary Murillo, for example, a scenario writer, who made over twenty-five thousand dollars last year, sold her first script for twenty-five dollars, four years ago. She is but one of many scenario authors, who unsung and ignored but a few years back, are now reaping similar big rewards in the scenario field.

Quite a leap from stage obscurity to $25K a year in just four years. Newspaper records also tell us that Murillo left Fox at the end of 1917 to go independent, working for Metro amongst others, before joining the staff of Norma Talmadge productions in 1919, where she scripted such titles as Her Only Way, The Forbidden City and The Heart of Wetona, plus others such as Smilin’ Through where her name does not turn upon official credits but where she seems to have been a script doctor – a role she performed many times, making her exact filmography a difficult subject on which to be precise.

She ended her American film career in 1922. Why this was one can only speculate. Perhaps she wanted new challenges, perhaps her penchant for high-flown romanticism was starting to be out of fashion, or perhaps it was related to a revealing report in the New York Times of 18 March 1923, where we learn of the seizure by a deputy sheriff of a five-storey at 338 West Eighty-Fifth Street leased by Miss Mary Murillo, “a scenario writer, now said to be in Hollywood”. She had defaulted on her payments. Among the goods seized were “tapestries alleged to be valuable, a mahogany grand piano, phonograph and a quantity of records, a lot of silver and a leopard skin”. Mary had been living the movie life, and how.

Contemporary movie guides
It’s worth remembering that there were reference guides produced from the early 1910s onwards that provide biographical information on those before and behind the camera in the film business. Often the personal information provided needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s always a handy starting point. Some of these are available on the Internet Archive: for example, Charles Donald Fox and Milton Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920), and the 1921 edition of William Allen Johnston’s Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual. The latter has an entry on Mary Murillo, which seems to be wholly accurate, as follows:


Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual 1921

Trade papers
There is plenty one can find about Mary Murillo from American newspaper sources, even if mostly of a superficial kind. Once she moved to Britain, the online sources dry up, because she gets little mention in the digitised British newspapers. She started writing for Stoll Film Productions, the major British studio of the early 1920s, resulting in five films: The White Slippers (1924), The Sins Ye Do (1924) and A Woman Redeemed (1927), plus two (possibly three) titles for other studios. Information on these is best found in film trade papers, such as the Bioscope and the Kinematograph Weekly, which do not exist online and need to be located at the BFI National Library, British Library Newspapers (which has produced a useful list of British and Irish cinema and film periodicals that it holds), or on microfilm sets at film research centres. There are no indexes to such resources – you just have to scroll through them and hope to strike lucky, though the BFI’s onsite database provides many references (these are missing from the online version of the database). One trade journal that does have a handy index is the American Moving Picture World, and it is from Annette M. D’Agostino’s invaluable Filmmakers in the Moving Picture World: An Index of Articles, 1907-27 that I found an article on Murillo from 16 March 1918 – though only after looking twice, because her name was indexed as Murrillo (remember never to trust indexes implicitly – always look laterally, and be prepared for mispellings etc). From that I got the photograph at the top of this post and some tantalising biographical information, including her schooling at a convent in Roehampton, near London. (By the way, the American journal Variety does publish indexes, for film titles and an obituaries index, only in printed form).

Ask people
Of course, asking people is a hugely important part of research. It’s always best to do a bit of research yourself rather than expect others to do all your work for you, but armed with some information you’ve been able to gather, turn to the experts. Having taken my research so far, I posted a query on the classic film forum Nitrateville, which is jam-packed full of knowledgeable people only too willing to help. It so happened that none knew anything about Mary Murillo directly, but one or two respondees came up with excellent leads. One used Google Books, which enables you to search through snippets of texts from books old and current and found a mention of her in a Belgian memoir – more of that below. Another looked in the Irish Times Digital Archive, a subscription site, and found that there seemed to be an article on her in 1980. I have access to the site at work (see here for a list of all full-text, word-searchable newspapers and journals available electronically at the British Library), and discovered that the article was a piece by Irish film historian Liam O’Leary on the director Herbert Brenon, with whom Murillo worked. O’Leary, as an aside, revealed the precious information that her real name was Mary O’Connor, and that she came from Tipperary.

Tipperary and Bradford? Something odd there, but the Liam O’Leary papers are held in the National Library of Ireland, where former cameraman and known walking encyclopedia of Irish film history, Robert Monks, has care of the papers. Bob looked up Liam’s card index for me and found reference to an article on her in the October 1917 issue of Irish Limelight, a short-lived film trade journal. Happily, the British Library has Irish Limelight. From this I learned that her family came from Ballybroughie – though there’s a problem there, as there is no such place as Ballybroughie, at least as far as I can find. Her early years were spent near Tipperary, though as she and her sisters (more of them in a minute) were born in Bradford the family clearly moved around a bit. She mentions her father (no name) but not her mother, boasts of her great muscial gifts when young, says that she chose the name Murillo because she was compared when young to a Murillo madonna painting, and describes how tough she found it finding work as an actress.

She also mentions the convents she went to – St Monica’s in Skipton, Yorkshire, and Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton. This is now Woldingham School and the archivist there told me that Mary O’Connor (born 22 January 1888) and her sisters Philomena and Margaret were at Roehampton for a year (1903-04) before deciding that its tough regime was not for them. The parents’ (parent?) address is given as Thomas Cook c/o Ludgate. He, or they, were overseas (the travel agents Thomas Cook’s main offices were in Ludgate Circus, London). In the 1901 census Philomena, Margaret and another sister Winifred (but not Mary) are given as boarding at St Monica’s, aged respectively 4, 3 and 7. What were the first two doing in a boarding school at that age? Were the absent parents touring performers, or involved in international (Empire?) business, or just plain neglectful?

Mary Murillo turns up in a couple of British newspapers in the late 1920s when her name was used by two film companies issuing prospectuses in the hope of investment. In The Times, 29 November 1927, the British Lion Corporation (with backing from the author Edgar Wallace) announced that its grand plans included “a contract with Miss Mary Murillo, whereby she is to write two complete Film scenarios for the Company during the year 1928”. It also makes the surprise claim that she wrote the script for The Magician by Rex Ingram (Irish himself, of course), something not otherwise recorded in any source. She also turns up in the prospectus the Blattner Picture Corporation (found in The Daily Mirror 21 May 1928, available from pay site ukpressonline) where it declares that “the company will from its inception will have expert technical assistance, and in particular Miss Mary Murillo (formerly Scenarist for the Metro-Goldwyn Corporation, Messrs Famous-Players Lasky, Mr D.W. Griffith, Miss Norma Talmadge &c.) will write Scenarios for this Company’s first year’s programme”.

This is useful, though only a couple of films seem to have come out of her association with British Lion, and none with Blattner. She made some films in France, apparently working on English versions of French releases, though she is credited for the script of the 1930 classic Accusée, levez-vous!. Her last film credit is as a co-writer of the British film, My Old Dutch, in 1934. Then what? Well, the Belgian source I mentioned was Les Méconnus de Londres (2006), the memoirs of Tinou Dutry-Soinne, widow of the Secretary to the Belgian Parliamentary Office in London, which cared for Belgian exiles during World War II. She met Mary Murillo in London at that time, and provides a sketch of a lively, interesting character with a fascinating history in film behind her who was keen to help Belgian exiles. An email to the obliging people at the Belgian embassy in London got me Mme Dutry’s address, and she wrote me a most friendly and detailed letter with all the information she could find on her social contacts with Mary Murillo up 10 October 1941, the last time she saw her. Murillo wanted to do what she could to help the Belgian cause (she seems to have spent some time in Belgium before the war), but suddenly disappeared from the scene.

And then what? I don’t know. She just vanishes. She appears not to have married nor to have had children. I have found no death record, though admittedly Mary O’Connor is not an easy name to research. But for the film researcher the biographical information, though a necessary backbone, is not the main business. She was a scriptwriter, and we want to find film her surviving scripts, and surviving films. Firstly we need reliable film credits. I’ve said that IMDb is a good start, but always double-check with at least two other sources. The filmography at the end of this post comes from a combination of the IMDb, references in newspapers, the Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries: Motion Pictures 1912-1939 (available in PDF form from the Internet Archive), the American Film Institute Catalog (for which the records for silent films are accessible to all), Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue 1895-1985 and the BFI database. There are some uncertain titles in the filmography – as said, she seems to have tidied up others’ scripts at times, or to have developed scripts which were then completed by other hands, so determining what is her work outright is not easy.


There is no register of all extant film scripts, and one has to search in multiple places. I found two Murillo shooting scripts in the indexes of the BFI National Library in London (The Sins Ye Do, A Woman Redeemed). The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a Motion Picture Scripts Database, from which I found nine scripts, held by UCLA and AMPAS itself: Ambition, The Bitter Truth, The Little Gypsy, Love’s Law, The New York Peacock, A Parisian Romance, Sister against Sister, Two Little Imps and The Vixen (the poster, right, for her 1917 film Tangled Lives, comes from the Margaret Herrick Library site). Some of these scripts are also held in the Twentieth Century-Fox archives, as Antonio Ríos-Bustamante discovered. WorldCat, the union catalogue of world libraries, lists two scripts available on the microfilm set What women wrote: scenarios, 1912-1929. All in all, a remarkable fourteen Murillo scripts survive, a gratifyingly high number.

Finding what films exist in archives (as opposed to the DVD store – I think only two of Murillo’s films are available this way – The Forbidden City, from Grapevine and Accusée levez vous! from Pathé – but Silent Films on DVD is the place to check) is not easy. Again, no central register exists, and not all film archives publish catalogues of their holdings, let alone online catalogues. A list of world film archives is provided by the Federation of International Film Archives. A useful first source for checking whether a film survives and where (chiefly American titles, though) is the Silent Era website, which continues on its way to becoming the single-stop essential source for information on silent films. Otherwise, you just to check a lot of catalogues and ask in a lot of places (once again specialist fora such as Nitrateville or the Association of Motion Picture Archivists (AMIA) discussion list are home to many experts, archivists and collectors). The filmography at the end of this post lists the dozen Murillo films known to survive.

Round-up, and a few tips
This post documents some of the avenues down which I’ve travelled trying to uncover information on one obscure film scriptwriter from the silent era. It’s not a typical research enquiry, but then what such enquiry ever is? It should show that you start out with some basic sources and some key questions to ask, but then will find yourself led down all sorts of unexpected avenues, because people are unexpected.

And why research someone so obscure? You have to ask? Is there any nobler activity out there than to recover a life? Certainly it is always excellent when anyone recovers a corner of history that has been lost or ignored, however small it may seem. It’s a contribution to knowledge, and telling us something that we didn’t know before is a whole lot better way to spend your time as a researcher than re-telling that which we already know. So go out and do likewise – and then tell the world about it. Meanwhile, I’ve much more to try and find out somehow about Mary Murillo. What was her connection with D.W. Griffith? What films did she write for Nazimova? Who were her parents? Do any other photographs of her exist? When did she die? The quest goes on.

A few tips. Never trust any source on its own – always verify the information in two or three other places. Remember that people tell lies about themselves. Official documents such as birth certiifcates, census forms and shipping registers tell us much, but they can also mislead (sometimes deliberately – people lie about ages etc.) and the electronic databases suffer from mistranscriptions. Always think laterally. Remember when searching for female subjects that names change on marriage, and of course with Mary Murillo we have someone who lived under an assumed name. Don’t expect to find everything online, and don’t expect to find everything immediately, and be prepared to spend a little money for valuable resources that have taken a lot of money and effort to compile. Use the Bioscope Library for standard reference sources of the period, its FAQs page for tips on searching, and the categorised links on the right-hand column as a guide to the online world of silent film.

And have fun.

This post is long enough as it is, so the Mary Murillo filmography can be downloaded here as a PDF of an Excel file. It includes script and print sources.