My Bioscope

My thanks go to Matthew Solomon, author of the recently published Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century for bringing this poem to my attention. The heartfelt piece is from the Warwick Trading Company’s Cinematograph and Bioscope Magazine, May 1906:

I trouble not, nor fret,
But have unbounded hope,
With me there’s no regret,
Whilst I’ve my Bioscope.

Whatever comes or goes,
There’s nothing makes me mope;
I feel I have no foes,
When I’ve a Bioscope.

What cares may come, through fate,
I with them all will cope,
They trouble not my pate,
Whilst I’ve my Bioscope.

Warwick. Without apologies to the others

True doubtless for the projector that Warwick marketed, but hopefully no less true for this blog (which is shaping up to enjoy its highest ever monthly viewing figures, for which much thanks to all).

(And for those who are concerned about these things, our logo shows a Warwick Bioscope projector c.1900)

Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema

A quick reminder in case those in the UK hadn’t spotted it, but tonight BBC4 is showing Paul’s Merton Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema. Merton continues on his mission to reveal the wonders of silent cinema to a general audience by going in search of the origins of screen comedy, revealing a “forgotten world of silent cinema – not in Hollywood, but closer to home in pre-1914 Britain and France”.

Revealing the unknown stars and lost masterpieces, he brings to life the pioneering techniques and optical inventiveness of the virtuosos who mastered a new art form. With a playful eye and comic sense of timing, Merton combines the role of presenter and director to recreate the weird and wonderful world that is early European cinema in a series of cinematic experiments of his own.

It should be interesting to see what is revealed. Such programmes – which are rare enough in themselves – not only open up largely hidden films to new audiences, but should be a lesson to those of us who may know these films well to see them in a fresh light, not least as a television commissioner sees them. The programme will be available on iPlayer for the usual week after transmission, and it would be interested to read people’s thoughts on it.

Merton also takes on early film in his interactive guide Paul Merton on Early British Comedy for the BFI’s Screenonline site. It’s a useful tour of the basics, well-illustrated with clips, covering Early Days, Fantastical Films, Fantasy & Realism, Cars & Robots, Facials, Stars, and Bad Boys & Girls; filmmakers such as James Williamson, Cecil Hepworth, Robert Paul, and Charles Urban; and performers such as Florence Turner, Fred Evans (Pimple) and Little Willy Saunders.

Paul Merton on Early British Comedy

Researching Ireland

Irish Film & TV Research Online is a monument to the passion for national film history. It is a website that serves as a focal point for Irish and Irish-themed film and television of all kinds. It is hosted by Trinity College Dublin, and it is mainly comprised of three searchable databases, each of which has extensive content relevant to the study of silent film (and beyond, of course).

Irish Film & Television Index
The Index documents “all Irish-made cinema and major television productions as well as Irish-themed audio-visual representations produced outside of Ireland.” It’s a bold claim, but it would be a challenge to prove them wrong, as its coverage is extensive – nearly 40,000 titles – and it includes important areas that other national filmographies often ignore, such as newsreels, interest films (and indeed silents). It based on the book publication by Kevin Rockett, The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films 1896-1996 (1996), with additional material chiefly researched by Eugene Finn. The database includes films of uncertainty identity which exist in film archives, as well as films which are now lost. As noted it includes bot Irish production and Irish-themed productions – so the researcher will find plenty of American films included because of their Irish themes and characters. However it doesn’t document the films of Irish filmmakers who operated out of Ireland if their films did not have Irish themes (so Rex Ingram is represented in the Biographies section but not in the Film Index).

There are simple and advance search options, the latter enabling you to refine searches by country, genre, reference, location, years, songs, or date – including date range, so it is possible to isolate films from the silent period (just under 1,000 titles, fiction and non-fiction), though seemingly no way of arranging by date order, which prevents the researcher from getting an idea of chronology and change (unless you seach year-by-year, which is laborious). The records themselves are often extensive, as this record for Kalem’s The Lad from Old Ireland demonstrates:

Production company Kalem Co
Country of origin USA
Producer OLCOTT, Sidney
Director OLCOTT, Sidney
Script/Adaptation GAUNTIER, Gene
Photography HOLLISTER, George
Cast Sidney Olcott (Terry O’Connor), Gene Gauntier (Aileen), Arthur Donaldson (priest), J P McGowan, Robert Vignola (men in campaign office on election night), Thomas O’Connor (Murphy, a landlord), Jane Wolfe (Elsie Myron, an American heiress), Laurene Santley, Agnes Mapes.
Colour b&w
Sound sil
Footage 8241009 [it’s not explained what this means]
Release date 1910
Summary In the rural Ireland location of Rathpacon, County Cork, Terry is working in the fields. Determined to improve his poverty-stricken existence, he decides to emigrate to America. He bids a sad farewell to Aileen, his sweetheart, who is left in the care of her mother, but he promises to return to her. Arriving in New York, Terry works on a building site and eventually rises to become the Tammany Hall mayor of the city. Forgetting about Aileen, he is seen in the company of an American heiress on the night of his electoral victory. However, he finds a letter from Aileen informing him of her family’s desperate economic plight and declaring that they are in danger of being evicted from their home. Returning home, Terry is seen on a ship in mid-ocean conjuring up an image of Aileen. When he arrives at Aileen’s cottage the eviction is in progress. He enters the cottage and confronts the landlord. He thrusts the rent arrears into his hand and sends him out of the house. The following Sunday the banns are read by the priest announcing the forthcoming marriage of Terry and Aileen. (V).
Note USA Rel 23/11/1910; re-issued 1/8/1914. GB distr: Markt & Co. Filmed in Ireland and USA. Farnham, whose names are sometimes given as ‘Al(l)an’ or ‘Farnum’, did not participate in the production of scenes taken in Ireland, as Herbert Reynolds points out, but would likely have been responsible for the New York studio interiors. Unpublished cast members Donaldson, McGowan and Vignola have been identified by Reynolds in the extant film. THE LAD FROM OLD IRELAND is regarded by some as the first American-produced fiction film made outside the USA (Sight and Sound, Oct-Nov 1953:96), though this may have been confused with what is contemporaneously described as ‘the first production ever made on two Continents’ (Bio 12/1/1911:47). It may also be the first fiction film made in Ireland, but see note with A DAUGHTER OF ERIN (USA 1908). The available print, with intertitles in German, ends with the penultimate scene, at the cottage.
Reference Bio 12/1/1911:47; Bio 6/4/1912:v; Bio 21/8/1913:21; Kalem Kalender 1/8/1914:2 (reissue); MPN 10/12/1910:9; MPN 17/12/1910:19; MPN 21/10/1916, Sec 2:109-10; MPW 26/11/1910:1246, 1249; MPW 3/12/1910:1296,1343; MPW 17/12/1910:1405; MPW 1/8/1914:732; NYDM 2/11/1910:29; Var 3/12/1910. AFI Cat 1893-1910:574; Bowser, 1990:153-5; Rockett et al, 1987:7-8.

All reference materials cited below are held at the Tiernan McBride Library of the Irish Film Institute.

Old file record giving film stock details, plot summary, review and subjects references for film (D.C. Swift)

The Bioscope, 12/1/1911:2, plot-synopsis of the film.

Sight and Sound, Dec. 1953:96-8, ‘Ireland’s first films’, article on Sidney Olcott’s contribution to early Irish films (Proionsias O Conluain).

‘Kalem’s Great Trans-Atlantic drama…’, copy of advertisement for the film.
Format 35mm
Distributor Markt & Co
Language English
Production credits p.c/distr: Kalem Co, p/d: Sidney Olcott, c: George Hollister, sc: Gene Gauntier, scenic dsgn: Henry Alien Farnham.
Location Cork, USA
Genre/Category Short Film Drama, Historical Drama
Keywords Migration, Labourers, Politics, Rural Ireland, Evictions, Landlords, Tenants, Priests

However there is no hyperlinking for these results e.g. you can’t click on ‘Kalem’ in this record and go to other films produced by the American company, which is a shame. This is a fine resource for the extensive information it contains, but it is fundamentally a book catalogue with some search functions rather than something fully re-imagined as an electronic database.

Irish Film & Television Biographies
Described as a work in progress, the Biographies database documents conributors to the history of both cinema and television in Ireland and those who have worked on Irish-theme films made outside the country. It is a work in progress, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem to cover anyone from the silent period of film production (e.g. Sidney Olcott, Norman Whitten, John McDonagh).

Irish Film & Television Bibliography
Another work in progress, ths Bibliography lists books, articles in journals, chapters in collections, and selections from specialist magazines. As well as being able to search across the whole database, you can browse by title or author.

The site also contains details of an annual Irish Postgraduate Film Research Seminar and a links page. Irish Film & TV Research Online has been overseen by Professor Kevin Rockett, a noted historian of Irish cinema. He describes the website as a living archive, and additional information and amendments are welcomed. No database should ever be static, but the price of relevance is eternal vigilance, as records have to be maintained and resources hosted. Hopefully Trinity College will continue to support it and researchers as dedicated as Rockett and Finn will always recognise the importance of sustaining it.

An Italian Straw Hat

Albert Préjean as the bridegroom in An Italian Straw Hat, from

Released on April 6th is the latest DVD release from Flicker Alley, René Clair’s Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (1927), known in English as An Italian Straw Hat. This was one of the very first silent feature films I ever saw, some time back in the mid-1980s, and I remember it with such fondness, to an extent where I’m actually quite anxious that it lives up to the memories, as I’ve not seen the film since. It’s a comedy of bourgeois manners, set in late 19th century France, and based on a renowned stage play from 1851 by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel. The plot revolves around the comic embarrassments that occur when a bridegroom’s horse eats the hat of an army officer’s mistress, leading to an intricately choreographed farce as efforts to restore social decorum are continually thwarted.

Flicker Alley have mastered the film in high definition at 19 frames per second (the speed at which it was shown at its French premiere) from the original 35mm negative used for the film’s English release in 1930, with elements cut for that release restored from an original French print. Intertitles are in English, while you get a choice of music scores, from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and pianist Philip Carli.

Extras include Clair’s short film, La Tour (The Eiffel Tower) (1928) and Pathé’s Noce en Goguette (Fun After The Wedding) (1907, directed by Ferdinand Zecca), an an example of the kind of early film that inspired Clair. There is a new essay by Lenny Borger and a vintage one by Iris Barry, notes on the musical score by Rodney Sauer, and a 1916 English translation of Labiche’s play.

The Flicker Alley site includes an image gallery and two extracts from the film, including the opening horse-eating-hat sequence, plus an extract from Clair’s La Tour. Judging from those, I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed.

Toronto Silent Film Festival

Acknowledgments to the ever-useful The Silent Treatment (the online PDF silent film newspaper) for news of the Toronto Silent Film Festival, which had previously escaped the Bioscope’s radar. This is a new festival, running 6-15 April 2010, so congratulations to all involved on having set it up. Here’s the programme, taken from the festival’s website:

Opening Night:
Tuesday April 6 Casa Loma
Toronto Theatre Organ Society presents:
Seven Chances 1925 USA
Director: Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, T. Roy Barnes
56 min
b/w with 2-strip Technicolor sequence

Musical Interpretation: Clark Wilson on the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ

Buster thinks his luck has turned a corner when he’s left $7 million in a will. The hitch-he must marry by 7pm on his 27th birthday and guess which day it is. So after completely offending his girlfriend, he sets out to find a willing bride only to strike out all 7 times. His friends do him a favour and place an advert for a bride willing to marry for money. The first 45 minutes is a great comedy film, the last 15 sends it into the stratosphere of insanity with the greatest chase scene in film history.

Preceded by Big Business with Laurel & Hardy

Thursday April 8 Fox Theatre
The Black Pirate 1926
Director: Albert Parker
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Billie Dove
2-Strip Technicolor
Musical Interpretation: Laura Silberberg
Film introduced by Taylor Whitney, Archivist, Preservation Specialist of “Preserving the Past”, Rochester NY

“One of the silent era’s most spectacular blockbusters.
Fairbanks’s astonishing acrobatics remain as dazzling and as fresh today.”
The world’s greatest swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks, takes to the sea with cutlass in hand for the first great pirate movie and a gorgeous example of early Technicolor.

Sunday April 11 Revue Cinema
The Forgotten Clowns of Silent Comedy

Films introduced by programmer Chris Seguin, writer
Six Short Comedies featuring;

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle started out as one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and quickly became Charlie Chaplin’s one serious rival. Nobody combined subtle charm with rowdy slapstick so artfully, and the innocent joy of 1919’s Love demonstrates precisely why he was so popular. Arbuckle’s career would be destroyed (unfairly) by scandal a few years later, but he would enjoy a comeback after a decade’s banishment from movie screens, just before his premature death at age 46 in 1933.

Lloyd Hamilton was, according to Charlie Chaplin, “the one actor of whom I am jealous.” His prissy, disapproving demeanour elevates the any-cliché-for-a-laugh approach of Breezing Along, where banana peels, exploding cigars and bum-pinching crabs are all par for the course. Consider yourself lucky that Breezing Along is still around to enjoy today – while Hamilton made more than 250 films in 20-year comedy career, most were destroyed in a studio fire in the 1930s.

Charley Chase’s sophisticated slapsticks of the 1920s seemed determined to prove one thing: folks back then sure liked sex. Men were wolfs, women were Hottentots, and Charley was generally caught in the middle. The split-second two-timing of Too Many Mammas was directed by Leo McCarey (The Bells of St. Mary, Duck Soup) while Charley’s starring series for Hal Roach Studios would last well into the ‘talkie’ era.

Snub Pollard started his film career as comedy sidekick to Harold Lloyd; when Lloyd moved on to bigger and better things, Pollard got his own starring series. His personality didn’t extend far beyond his hangdog moustache, but Snub could deliver a gag like nobody’s business – Looking For Trouble is the proof in the pudding. And we can guarantee you’ve seen this forgotten clown before – he’s the rain-soaked gent to whom Gene Kelly hands his umbrella at the end of Kelly’s classic Singin’ in the Rain number.

If Stan Laurel is remembered today, it’s as the wispy half of the comedy team of Laurel & Hardy. But the whimpering, slow-witted sidekick of pompous Oliver Hardy is nowhere to be seen in his solo work, where he’s usually a jackrabbit go-getter with more energy than brains. The Pest is a perfect example of Laurel’s fast & furious pre-Hardy style, and a great argument for having a giant catskin rug in the house at all times.

Goon-faced Larry Semon (a kind of a silent comedy precursor to Big Bird) had a simple philosophy: bigger is better. His films had the biggest pratfalls, the fattest fat men, and gooiest giant jars of jams and the most frantic finales. The Show doesn’t miss a trick, and includes the kind of budget-busting climax that made Semon a serious rival to Chaplin in the 1920s. (PC Warning: Black people will get white flour on their faces, white people will get black coal dust on their faces.)

Musical Interpretation: Andrei Streliaev

Tuesday April 13 Innis Town Hall

Man with a Movie Camera Soviet Union 1929
Director: Dziga Vertov

Musical Interpretation: Richard Underhill and Astrogroove

This exhilarating experimentation of filming and editing knocks the audience for a loop with its playful and provocative style. Its expression of ideas without words turns it from a documentary of the day of the life of a Soviet city to an escalating feast for the eyes. Climb into the time machine and try to figure out who is watching whom.

Closing Night:
Thursday April 15 Innis Town Hall


Spotlight on Germany Double Feature

Films introduced by Angelica Fenner, Associate Professor of German & Cinema Studies, U of T

Adventures of Prince Achmed Germany 1926
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Musical Interpretation: William O’Meara

The film print of Adventures Of Prince Achmed was made possible through the generous support of Liz Bartliff of the Sutton Group-Security Real Estate

German artist Lotte Reiniger took years to complete The Adventures of Prince Achmed, now the world’s oldest surviving animated feature. This is your chance to see her take on the Arabian Nights, in a fully restored print with vibrant tinting. Each of Reiniger’s all-black, jointed silhouettes moves fluidly against backgrounds recalling the ornate architectures of Ancient China and Persia. Beautiful or grotesque, locked in combat or touching their hands and lips to one another, her figures remain elegant, erotic and utterly human.

followed by…

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt
Berlin, Symphony of a Great City Germany 1927
62 min
Director: Walter Ruttmann
Musical Interpretation: William O’Meara

The essence of the city and the intimacies of its people are captured in this fluid cinematic tone poem. The filmic composition creates a romanticized, abstract view. From the arrival in pre-dawn of a locomotive to the gritty realities and unsettling scenes that follow throughout the day and into the night, Berlin and its people never gives up on its sheer joy of life.

A fine introduction to silent film for anyone, and I like the phrase ‘musical interpretation’. Check the festival website for venue and tickets information, and useful information on the (mostly local) musicians involved.

The year of Eadweard

This is the year of Eadweard Muybridge. No particular reasons why, given that the centenary of his death fell six years ago, but just the sheer excellence of his photographic work and the continued research and discovery that it encourages have led to three exhibitions of his work being planned for 2010 – a major one at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC, which then moves to Tate Britain in London and San Francisco in 2011, and two on a smaller scale at his home town of Kingston.

The Washington exhibition runs 10 April-18 July and is entitled Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change (‘Helios’ was the name Muybridge adopted for a time when working as a professional photographer). The exhibition is being organised by Corcoran chief curator and head of research Philip Brookman. Here’s the blurb, which indicates the great breadth of Muybridge’s work and its lasting influence:

Best known for his groundbreaking studies of animal and human locomotion, 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge was also an innovative landscape artist and pioneer of documentary subjects. Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change, the first retrospective exhibition to examine all aspects of Muybridge’s art, will be on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from April 10 through July 18, 2010.

Born in England in 1830, Muybridge spent much of his career in San Francisco and Philadelphia during a time of rapid industrial and technological growth. In the 1870s, he developed new ways to stop motion with his camera. Muybridge’s legendary sequential photographs of running horses helped spark a technological revolution that changed the way people saw the world. His projected animations inspired the early development of cinema and the enormous impact of his photographs can be measured throughout the course of modern art, from paintings and sculptures by Thomas Eakins, Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, and Francis Bacon, to the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix and the music video for U2’s hit song Lemon.

Structured in a series of thematic sections, Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change includes numerous vintage photographs, albums, stereographs, lantern slides, glass negatives and positives, camera equipment, patent models, Zoopraxiscope discs, proof prints, notes, books, and other ephemera. Over 300 objects created between 1858 and 1893 are brought together for the first time from numerous international collections. Muybridge’s only surviving Zoopraxiscope—an apparatus he designed in 1879 to project motion pictures—will also be on view.

A catalogue of the exhibition will have with new essays by Brookman, Marta Braun, Andy Grundberg, Corey Keller, and Rebecca Solnit.

Then the exhibition moves to Tate Britain, where it will run 8 September 2010 to 16 January 2011, and thereafter it goes to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 26 February to 7 June 2011.

Kingston Museum’s Zoopraxiscope projector, from

Meanwhile, in Muybridge’s home town of Kingston (where he was born and where he died, thoughthe majority of his working life was spent in the United States) the museum will be hosting its own exhibition, Muybridge Revolutions. Kingston Museum is home to Muybridge’s personal collection, comprising nearly 3,000 objects which makes the museum home to one of the world’s most important historic collections of ‘pre-cinema’ artefacts. The exhibition will open around the time of the Tate Britain show in September 2010.

Kingston has played a major part in equipping the Washington/Tate/San Francisco exhibition, in particular by supplying it with its Zoopraxiscope, arguably the world’s first motion picture projector, along with some of its collection of 67 of Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope discs (only another three exist elsewhere in the world) through which he showed audiences from 1880 onwards animated sequences using silhouettes taken from his photographic sequences.

And there’s more, because Kingston University’s Stanley Picker Gallery is hosting a complemetary show which will include work produced by contemporary artists who have been given special access to the Muybridge collection.

Your first port of call for information on Eadweard Muybridge has to be The Compleat Muybridge site, while its offshot blog, Muy Blog (both are managed by Stephen Herbert) is the place to subscribe to for all the latest news on the year of Eadweard.

Carl Davis meets his Waterloo

Charles Vanel as Napoleon in Karl Grune’s Waterloo (1928), from

The Bioscope normally avoids covering news of single film screenings. Requests come through from time to time suggesting that there be a Bioscope service advertising silent film screenings and not just festivals. My answer each time is that I’m not able to maintain such a service to the extensive level that would be expected of it, and instead I refer people to the Silent Screenings section of Nitrateville and (for information in the USA only) to the Silents in the Court and Silent Era sites.

But here’s an exception. 22 April sees the UK premiere of Carl Davis‘ score for Waterloo (Germany 1928), directed by Karl Grune. The screening will be at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, with the Philharmonia orchestra conducted by Davis.

Abel Gance’s epic Napoléon, for which Grune’s film was conceived as a response, does not include the Battle of Waterloo. Gance’s film (which he madly hoped would be part one of six) ends with the invasion of Italy. Grune’s film tells the story from the German point of view, focussing on Blüchner (Otto Gebühr) who comes to the aid of the Duke of Wellington (Humberstone Wright) to defeat Napoleon (Charles Vanel). Grune looked to Gance’s film not only in theme but in technique, with spectacular battle scenes crowned by split screen images, though it is (by reputation) a far more conventional historical costume drama overall. Carl Davis has likewise looked back to his famous 1980 score for Napoleon, stating that his score is intended to be a follow-up, combining music from the period with his own.

A DVD of Waterloo is promised from Edition Filmmuseum (see its forthcoming releases list), but there is no indication that the release will feature Davis’ score. Abel Gance’s Napoléon, famously restored by Kevin Brownlow, is regrettably one of the more elusive of silent films these days. For its American release, the restored film was cut and put to a score by Carmine Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s father, which is the only version allowed to be screened in the USA. This has hamstrung the film’s availability, not least on DVD. If you don’t mind an inferior restoration with Coppola’s frankly second-rate score, the film is available on DVD from Spain in a two-disc format. But remember that Brownlow’s restoration of the film (last screened in the UK in 2004) is over ninety minutes longer, with more accurate editing, better print quality, and colour tinting – as well as Davis’ ever-expanding score for live performances.

Information on the screening of Waterloo is available from the Philharmonia Orchestra and South Bank Centre websites. The screening starts at 7.00pm and is proceeded by a free introductory talk at 5.45pm by film historian and film music authority John Riley.

First films

Patineur Grotesque, from australianscreen

I once had the privilege of attending a film show given in Paris, organised to mark the centenary of cinema in 1995, which brought together the various ‘first’ films from countries around the world. They made an interesting selection, for what survived, for how the national contributors interpreted the brief to find the earliest film in their collections, and for the sense of national competition. I was at the National Film Archive in those days, and we decided that we would defeat all comers by choosing Louis Augustin Aimé Le Prince‘s Traffic on Leeds Bridge, ‘filmed’ (on sensitised paper) in late 1888. France’s contribution was a selection of chronophotographic Phonoscope images by Georges Demenÿ from 1892-93, Germany’s the 1895 works of Max Skladanowsky. At this distance in time I forget most of the others, though I do remember vividly the Romanian choice, the 1898-1901 medical films of Gheorge Marinescu. The American choice would have been an Edison title filmed by W.K-L. Dickson – whether it was the ‘monkeyshines’ experiments from 1899 with microphotographs on a cylinder, or Dickson Greeting of 1891 (taken with horizontal feed camera) or A Hand Shake of 1892, where Dickson and his assistant William Heise shake hands to congratulate themselves on having finally cracked the problem of taking motion picture films, I can no longer recall.

There is – usually – something hauntingly special about such films, beyond their firstness. The ghostly hand-waving figure of the monkeyshines experiments, Dickson making to bow to the camera, the distant figures crossing Leeds bridge wholly unaware of their immortality, all contain something mysterious, something appropriate, that says that here is something new in the world. The variety acts captured by the Skaldanowsky camera (wrestlers, dancers, a boxing kangaroo) perhaps less so.

I don’t remember if Australia was included in the Paris show, but in any case time has marched on and what was previously considered the oldest surviving Australian film, a record of the Melbourne Cup horse race filmed by Marius Sestier on 3 November 1896, has now been replaced by a marginally earlier work by the same man. Discovered in 2005 (in France) and now restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), Patineur Grotesque (Humorous Rollerskater) shows a man in exaggerated comic dress rollerskating in a Melbourne park before a small crowd [the location is now known to be Sydney – see comments]. A 10-second clip is available on the australianscreen site (why so short? the full film can only last 40-50 seconds), with the full action described thus:

A man in costume and on rollerskates performs for a gathering crowd. As part of the act the skater trips and falls, then drops his hat. As he attempts to retrieve the hat he continues to fall about. When finally the hat is restored to his head the act comes to a halt.

It is indeed grotesque, particularly when the skater lifts his coat-tails to reveal a hand printed on the seat of his pants. You do wonder whether Australia’s delight at having discovered this earlier film (which they estimate was filmed between 29 and 31 October 1896) might be tempered by some disappointment. It is a silly film, and the Melbourne Cup film that now comes second (and which you can also seen on australianscreen) is a more distinguished work and iconically Australian.

Sestier, the man who filmed both films, was French. He was a Lumière cameraman, one of a team sent around the world to spread the good word of the Lumière Cinématographe. Sestier was sent to Australia to work with the local Lumière concessionary, photographer Henry Walter Barnett. The first film he shot in Australia, Passengers Alighting from Ferry ‘Brighton’ at Manly, was filmed on 27 October, but no longer exists. Patineur Grotesque itself was shot soon after, but the NFSA has found no record of it being shown in Australia – instead it is first recorded being shown in Lyons, France on 28 February 1897.

So Australia has its earliest surviving film, but not its earliest film. The search for Passengers Alighting from Ferry ‘Brighton’ at Manly has to go on, not least to save Australia from the undignified embarrassment that, to be frank, is Patineur Grotesque. First films should be mysterious, or iconic, or in some way fitting that they are first. Otherwise they are just impostors.

More information on the discovery, and on Marius Sestier himself, is on the NFSA’s Marius Sestier Project, which includes fascinating biographical material and evidence of the detailed research undertaken by curator Sally Jackson using family history sources.

Photoplay and more

Cover for Photoplay, January 1927

As we’ve said before, while there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to digitised historic newspapers now available online, for the specialist things are tougher and those interested in the study of film history have bemoaned the absence of the major trade paper and fan magazines in digitised form.

But while most of us have done the moaning, others have been acting. Today the Media History Digital Library project was announced. This announces itself as a major conservation and access project for histoical printed materials related to cinema, broadcasting and recorded sound. Concentrating on American media industry journals, and with recourse to private funds, the project has been established by film archivist and historian David Pierce. The project has hugely ambitious plans, but it has kicked off with eight volumes (covering four years) of Photoplay, and one volume each of Motion Picture Classic (1920) and Moving Picture World (April-June 1913), taken from the collection of the Pacific Film Archive. All have been made available via the Internet Archive, as follows:

Motion Picture Classic (Volume 9 – 11 (1920))
The Moving Picture World (Volume 16 (Apr. – Jun. 1913))
Photoplay (Volume 28 – 29 (Jul. – Dec. 1925))
Photoplay (Volume 30 – 31 (Jul. – Dec. 1926))
Photoplay (Volume 31 – 33 (Jan. – Jun. 1927))
Photoplay (Volume 33 – 34 (Jan. – Jun. 1928))
Photoplay (Volume 35 – 36 (Jan. – Jun. 1929))
Photoplay (Volume 36 – 37 (Jul. – Dec. 1929))
Photoplay (Volume 37 – 38 (Jan. – Jun. 1930))

This link will take you to all of the documents on one page: Media History Digital Library

As said, this is just the start. The Media History Digital Library’s press release outlines the ambitions:

The history of American media industries exists in the magazines of the day, but is largely inaccessible. Primary materials, such as Exhibitors Herald World and Photoplay are of significant research value to media scholars, historians, and the general public; however, use of these resources is severely limited by necessary noncirculating access restrictions and/or the lack of indexing or fifinding aids.

Using private funds, a pilot project is currently underway to digitize 300,000 journal pages, including volumes of Moving Picture World and Photoplay, and a range of additional materials to appeal to varied research interests.

Several major libraries and the owner of the largest private collection of such materials are participating in the pilot.

The goal of the Media History Digital Library project is to establish additional partnerships with libraries and archives for a joint digitization project to conserve and provide broad free access to these important resources.

These are the the titles that the project is targeting:

Industry MagazinesBillboard, Box Office, Cine-Mundial, Daily Variety, Exhibitor’s Herald, Exhibitor’s Trade Review, The Film Daily, The Film Index, The Hollywood Reporter, Motion Picture Daily, Motion Picture Herald, Motion Picture News, Motography, The Moving Picture World, Radio Broadcast, Radio Daily, Talking Machine World, Variety

Company MagazinesThe Lion’s Roar, Publix Opinion, RCA News, Radio Flash, Reel Life, Universal Weekly

Fan MagazinesMotion Picture Classic, Motion Picture Magazine, Motion Picture Digest, Radio Mirror, Screenland, Shadowplay

Technical JournalsAmerican Cinematographer, American Projectionist, The International Photographer, International Projectionist, Motion Picture Projectionist, Projection Engineering, Radio Engineering, Sound Waves, Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers

Well, that should keep us all busy. Of course this will take time and money (it’s costing 10 cents a page at the moment), but a model has been established whereby institutions holding such collections can work together efficiently, avoiding duplication of effort and adhering to common standards and formats to provide researchers with the best possible search and access opportunities.

The project outline is as follows:

  • Each archive or library agrees to offer its pre-1964 public domain journals for digitization.
  • Each archive or library will provide an inventory of its holdings, perform condition inspections and pack selected materials for shipping. The project will pay transportation and reasonable insurance both ways. Any funds for digitization will be welcome, but not required.
  • Each digitized volume will have an inserted page with the name and logo of the organization contributing the original volume, the organization that manages that part of the workflow, and the funder.
  • The Internet Archive will execute some of the digitization and will host the master and derivative format access files.
  • In return for contributing materials, each organization is entitled to receive copies of all digital files for any non-commercial purpose including hosting on their website.
  • David Pierce will raise financial support for the project as well as perform copyright searches.

As some may have noticed from the Bioscope’s recent survey of silent film journals online that the first fruits of this project have been available on the Internet Archive for a few weeks now, but the formal announcement of the project was held back while some digitisation issues were resolved. But Leonard Maltin spilt the beans in his enthusiastic blog post earlier today, so David Pierce went public today.

What can one say? This is a sensational development, with a myriad of opportunities for the researcher – not just in film studies, but social history, media history, histories of communications and technology, fashion history, genealogy, advertising studies, gender studies and so much more. But there is much that we can do to help. There’s the invitation for collection owners to participate in the project, but also each one of us can prove the value of this project by just using the documents. Download them, study them, blog about them, cite them in papers, curate them – demonstrate that this is what we need. The best way of saying thank you is to start using them. Go explore.

From silent screen to digital screen

The Bioscope on the pier at Weston-Super-Mare, c.1910

From Silent Screen to Digital Screen: A Century of Cinema Exhibition is a two-day conference to be held at De Montfort University, Leicester, 10-11 July 2010. The conference, to be hosted by the Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre in DMU’s Faculty of Humanities, will celebrate a century of cinema exhibition since the Cinematograph Act 1909, the first major legislation relating to moving pictures in Britain, coming into force on 1 January 1910.

Keynote speakers will include Richard Gray of the Cinema Theatre Association, and others to be confirmed.

Proposals are invited on any aspect of cinema exhibition including:
audiences, technologies, cinema design and building, programming,
legislation and other aspects of the cinemagoing experience. If interested you should sent abstracts (500 words) with a short biography including contact details to Stuart Hanson (shanson [at] and Steve Chibnall (schib [at] by 23 April 2010. There isn’t a web page for the conference as yet, but I’ll add one to this post just as soon as one appears.

The conference gains its title from Stuart Hanson’s recent book From Silent Screen to Multi-screen: A History of Cinema Exhibition in Britain Since 1896, a commendable and rather useful work, which was covered by the Bioscope (a little too nitpickingly, I fear) here.

Update: The deadline for abstracts has now been put back to 14 May.