Forever film

The National Audiovisual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress, Culpeper, Virginia

When good film archivists die, they’ll probably go to Culpeper. Or somewhere quite like it. Culpeper VA is home to the National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) of the Library of Congress, a state-of-the-art film preservation centre funded by Packard half of Hewlett-Packard and a temple to the art of preserving the film heritage – 1.1 million film, television, and video recordings, to be precise.

The reason for mentioning the NAVCC is to introduce an engrossing account of the scale of the work that goes on there, written by Ken Weissman, Supervisor of the Film Preservation Laboratory. The piece, ‘The Ultimate Archive System‘, was written for Creative COW Magazine, and although it covers the breadth of the Library’s film collection across the last century and more, it has much to say about the treatment of its earliest films:

Here, for example, is what he writes about paper prints, which were once treated photochemically but are now being tested for digital restoration:

We started as a photochemical laboratory, and are primarily a photochemical laboratory to this day. It has only really been in the past half a dozen years, or less, that you can even begin a conversation that might convince people in the know that preserving motion pictures might be done digitally. So here in our lab, we began a pilot digital project for a very special collection that we have in the Library of Congress: the paper print collection.

These paper prints exist because of a vaguery in the copyright law at the time that motion pictures were invented. The Copyright Office at the Library interpreted the law to say that a motion picture film is simply a series of still photographs, and therefore the still photographic copyright law applied. If you wanted to copyright a motion picture, you had to provide the Library of Congress two copies of the film, and they had to be on paper. Not film.

A process was invented to literally create long strips of photographic paper, exactly the size of 35mm film stock, and then create contact prints from the original 35mm negatives, onto those long strips of paper. These were then deposited with the Library.

There are over 3000 titles within that collection, some of the earliest films ever made — from 1894-1915, with the vast majority from before 1912. Most of them are unique. In other words, these paper prints are the only copies of these films. They represent the single largest collection of early motion pictures in the world, by far. The Library is rightfully very proud of this collection.

The paper prints had been locked in a vault in the bowels of one of the library buildings, and rediscovered by librarian Howard Walls in the late 30s. The paper itself is still stable, but for the most part, you can’t see the images very easily except by looking directly at the paper — where of course there is no motion.

This is why there have been several attempts over the course of history since their rediscovery to put them back on film. One of the first was by Kemp Niver, and his company called Renovare. He took these 35mm prints (and there are some that are actually a larger gauge than that), and re-photographed them using a clever device that he built, printing to 16mm film. We have used various models of these Niver printers, including one where we replaced the 16mm camera with a 35mm camera, in order to print back to 35.

All of the processes have been interesting, and they’ve all been successful to some degree. However, they’ve also been unsuccessful to a great degree, in that the images are alternately soft, or fuzzy, or very shaky. There was also no way to accurately register the images. In fact, we’ve concluded that in many cases, the images aren’t very well registered on the paper.

The obvious solution is to scan the images, then take advantage of digital processing to stabilize them, correct positioning and so on. Our first scans of the paper prints were 2K x 2K, which theoretically should have been good enough, but in our analysis of the imagery, we think it might be better to go to 4K x 4K. But that’s one part of the pilot program, to figure out exactly how to do it. It’s more of a theoretical workflow because we haven’t practically implemented it yet, but we’re getting close.

Georges Méliès on a Library of Congress paper print

From film to paper to film to a row of ones and noughts – these particular ‘films’, a great many of which no longer exist in any other form than the paper on which their successive images are now held, would seem to be ripe for digitisation. But for Weissman, digitisation is essentially a means for returning the images to film. He argues that knowledge of of how ambient temperature and relative humidity affect decay, measured in a Preservation Index, means that film which under normal conditions might only last fifty years before serious degradation sets, when “stored at 25F and 30% relative humidity, you can expect it to last 40 times longer than that – 2000 years.”

That’s why, as we move further into digital technologies, the plan for now is still to scan the images, restore or preserve them as needed, then run them back to film, and put the film away at 25 degrees, 30% relative humidity, for practically forever. For most people, in practice, somewhere between 600 and 2000 years is beyond forever. Because frankly, once you get to that point, what are you really worrying about?

It reads likely a strangely regressive strategy, which so many other institutions are looking to become every more the completely digital library. But film takes up space, digitally speaking – one frame scanned at 4K amounts to 128MB, he informs us, or 24 terabytes for the average feature film. And then you’re not done with it, because you’ll probably have to migrate the files after five years “to the next greatest things”, and have back-up copies, and back-ups of backups, and then repeat the processes five years after that, and then again and again, and keep on paying for it all…

But what also drives Weissman is the love of film itself. A digital file tells you nothing until you can find the kit to run it (if it hasn’t become obsolete in those five years). But with reassuring filmstock all you need is a light source, a lens and a screen, and you can see what you’ve got. And it takes you back to what you started from. “I can’t help feeling in my heart of hearts that the simple solution is usually the best” he argues, adding “and film is a pretty simple solution.”

Film archivists like film, and arguments that film might actually be the best, even the most economic form for storing film long term, is bound to appeal. Until they stop producing film stock, of course. And then there are all those ‘films’ that weren’t ever on film because they were made digitally in the first place, which is what we’re making now. That might at least make the NAVCC’s challenge a finite one, because there will come a point when we stop producing films on film and so you’ll have a measurable problem. But what gets done with the 21st century’s motion picture medium of choice – born digital – doesn’t get mentioned.

It’s not easy having to think about keeping an impermanent medium forever.

Viewing scarlet maple leaves

Ichikawa Danjuro IX (right) and Onoe Kikugoro V in Momiji-gari (Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves), filmed by Shibata Tsunekichi in November 1899

This is an extraordinary image. It’s a Japanese postcard dating from 1908 (the postage stamp says Meijii 41, which is 1908). However the image that it shows dates from November 1899. It shows on the right the greatest of all kabuki actors, Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903), and on the left Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903), second only in fame at the time to Danjuro. They have been photographed in a scene from the dance drama Momiji-gari, translated as Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves or Maple Leaf Hunters. And the reason the drama was performed because it was done for a motion picture camera.

Projected film first came to Japan when businessman Inabata Katsutaro, a friend of Auguste Lumière, played host to Lumière operator François-Constant Girel, who gave a film show at the Nanchi Theatre in Osaka on 15 February 1897 (peepshow Kinetoscopes were exhibited in Japan in 1896). Film was an immediate hit with Japanese audiences, and several Japanese entrepreneurs enthusiatically adopted the new medium, among them Yokota Einosuke, Kawaura Ken’ichi and Arai Saburo.

It was Arai who was the first person to approach Danjuro with a proposal to film him, in 1897. Danjuro IX (left) was a legend of the kabuki theatre, ninth in an unbroken line of actors named Danjuro, and considered one of the greatest of all Japanese actors. He did much to preserve the art of kabuki and to raise the status of actors generally. However the actor, a deeply conservative character, reacted to Arai’s proposal with repugnance, refusing to have anything with a ‘shipbrought thing’ (thus equating the cinematograph with any other kind of foreign goods).

Two years later, Danjuro was sixty years old, and his manager Inoue Takejiro, was anxious to record his great art for posterity. On the understanding that such a film would go into his private vault and not been seen by the sort of commonfolk who frequented film shows, Danjuro assented. A film would be made of part of the dance play Momiji-gari, with Danjuro playing an ogress who has disguised herself as a princess (male actors always play female roles in kabuki) and Onoe Kikugoro V as the hero Taira no Koremochi. Wikipedia gives this summary of the plot of the original play (not the film, which could only show a part of the drama):

The original play, performed in both noh and kabuki, is a story of the warrior Taira no Koremochi visiting Togakushi-yama, a mountain in Shinshū for the seasonal maple-leaf viewing event. In reality, he has come to investigate and kill a demon that has been plaguing the mountain’s deity, Hachiman.

There he meets a princess named Sarashinahime, and drinks some sake she offers him. Thereupon she reveals her true form as the demon Kijo, and attacks the drunk man. Koremochi is able to escape using his sword, called Kogarasumaru, which was given to him by Hachiman. The demon gnaws on a maple branch as she dies.

(A longer summary is available on the Kabuki21 site)

The filmmaker selected to create this important document was Shibata Tsunekichi, who had previously made films of geisha dances. Shibata employed a Gaumont camera and left this account of how the film was made:

There was a gusting wind that morning. We decided to do all the shooting in a small outdoor stage reserved for tea parties behind the Kabuki-za. We hurriedly set up the stage, fearing all the time that Danjuro might suddenly change his mind again. Every available hand, including Inoue, was called upon to hold the backdrop firm in the strong wind. Danjuro, playing Sarashi-the-maiden, was to dance with two fans. The wind tore one from his hands and it fluttered off to one side. Re-shooting was out of the question so the mistake stayed in the picture. Later people were to remark that this gave the piece its great charm.

The film was kept from public view, as had been Danjuro’s wish, but a year later it was shown to an audience of kabuki actors. According to historian Hiroshi Komatsu, the film was first shown to a general audience on 7 July 1903 when Danjuro fell ill and was unable to appear on stage. He died in September of that year. Happily the film has survived for posterity to treasure (it is held by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo) and when it was shown at the Pordenone silent film festival in 2001 (where I missed it!) this description of the six-minute, three-scene film was provided in the catalogue:

The first shot, in which Princess Sharashina dances with a fan, is viewed head on, as though she were center stage. The second shot, of the “Yamagami scene”, captures Koremori (played by Kikugoro) in the foreground and Yamagami’s dance behind Koremori. The third shot is from the same camera angle as the first, and shows Koremori and the ogress’s dance.

This is where the postcard comes in, which documents the film’s third scene.

The full postcard with postage stamp

The postcard definitely shows Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V performing for the Momiji-gari film. It has been photographed in the open air, as one can see from the shadows thrown by the sunlight. Clearly Shibata not only commemorated the event in film but took a photograph (maybe more? maybe three, one for each scene?) at the same time. The postcard, however, dates from 1908, with the legend stating something along the lines that it had been produced to honour the fifth anniversary of his passing. It seems that the production was a little more planned and commercial in intent than the anecdotal histories have suggested. Certainly Danjuro was the subject of innumerable ukiyo-e prints, which suggests an awareness of the importance of image.

There is an interesting parallel with what happened in Britain at almost exactly the same time. In September 1899 the renowned actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree was persuaded by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company to appear before the Biograph camera in short scenes from Shakespeare’s King John, the play he was presenting at the Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Four scenes from the play were filmed, which did not tell the whole story but rather showed key points from the drama, just as with Momijigari. In another parallel, a set of promotional photographs were also taken at the same time. Tree was never so fastidious as Danjuro, and his intent was probably more commercial than concerned with posterity, but it is worth noting the coming together of the new medium with the old, the former gaining kudos by association with the other and showing the advantages that it had – to capture performance and defy time. It also demonstrates an idea of cinema as filmed theatre which was to influence Japanese film for several years thereafter, impeding its development as an independent art form for two decades or more.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (dressed in white) in King John (1899)

I am able to reproduce the postcard by kind permission of its owner, a US collector by name of Dan. He is looking for a buyer for the postcard, and anyone with a serious proposal should get in touch with me and I’ll pass on details to him. My thanks to him also for translations from the Japanese. The postcard is also reproduced on the Ukiyo-e Prints website, and I am grateful to its host Jerry Vegler for being so helpful, and to Stephen Herbert for having first brought the card to my attention.

There are biographies of Danjuro IX on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site and on Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures. Much of the historical information in this post comes courtesy of Peter B. High’s article ‘The Dawn of Cinema in Japan’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 19 no. 1 (January 1984), with acknowledgment also to Hiroshi Komatsu’s notes for the 2001 Pordenone catalogue and his essay ‘Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film‘.

Extensive information on kabuki – the performers, theatres, stories and characters – can be found on the Kabuki21 site. You can get an idea of how Momiji-gari would have been performed from this YouTube video (with helpful English subtitles) which shows a modern-day production (part 8 of 8, showing the finale of the drama as depicted in the postcard).

Finally, it was recently suggested that the film be designated by the Japanese government as an Important Cultural Property (juyo bunkazai), the first film to be so honoured.

How I filmed the war

How I Filmed the War – trailer available from

Has anyone come across a modern silent documentary? I suppose you could point to Godrey Reggio’s wordless Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and its successors, with their Philip Glass scores, but I’ve not come across an example of a documentary from today which emulates the style of documentaries from the silent era. Until now.

How I Filmed the War is a documentary by Yuval Sagiv, a graduate student of Toronto’s York University (the film is his thesis production). It received its premiere last week at Canada’s Hot Docs festival of documentary film. Its subject is Geoffrey Malins, the British cameraman who (with J.B. McDowell) filmed the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme, a feature-length account of the conflict from the British point of view produced by the British Topical Committee for War Films, a British film trade organisation formed with War Office support.

Malins went on to gain greater fame than his co-filmmaker because he wrote an account of his experiences, entitled How I Filmed the War (1920), which is something of a vainglorious work (and mentions McDowell not at all), but is nevertheless a lively and informative record that provides us with one of the best written records that we have of filming in the First World War.

Yuval Sagiv’s film adopts the title of Malins’ book and over 75 minutes analyses text and film in the form of a silent documentary, as the Hot Docs blurb explains:

One the most successful films ever made, The Battle of the Somme, shot and edited by Geoffrey H. Malins during the First World War, is brilliantly decoded in this riveting experimental doc that unravels fascinating secrets and manipulations. A compelling contemplation of the ownership of history plays out on intertitles taken from excerpts of Malins’s controversial autobiography juxtaposed with conflicting historical accounts and emotionally devastating clips from the original film. Dispatched to the front as Britain’s “Official Kinematographer,” Malins filmed from the muddy trenches to capture the valour and horror of “the big push” on July 1, 1916—a day that has become synonymous with the futility of war. The British alone suffered 58,000 casualties by nightfall. The rising tension in this fascinating deconstruction of propaganda, illusion, and “truth” in documentary is underscored by a haunting electro-ambient soundscape.

You can get some sense of the effect from the trailer to the film, which is available on Malins’ book is available on the Internet Archive, and was covered by a previous Bioscope post, while The Battle of the Somme itself has been made available on DVD by the Imperial War Museum (also covered by an earlier Bioscope post). There is a short biography of Malins on the IWM‘s site.

The Battle of the Somme itself is indeed arguably one of the most successful films ever made, at least in the UK – historian Nicholas Hiley (to whom thanks are due for alerting me to the new film) has calculated that the film was seen by some 20 million people, or half the population of the UK at that time, a degree of social impact for a screen entertainment that would go unmatched until the rise of television. It will be really interesting to see how How I Filmed the War tackles its tremendous subject – the trailer suggests a compelling interplay between original footage and words carefully selected from Malins’ book (with their original typeface and page number) to set up a stimulating counter-narrative. There’s an interesting review at Toronto Film Scene which describes a subtle, challenging work once one has got over the unusual technique and minimalist style. I hope that it makes it to a few other festivals.

Silent animation online

A trailer for The Lost World, from

Acknowledgments to the Nitrateville discussion forum for news of this latest discovery. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has produced Silent Animation, a section of its website which offers eleven animation films from the silent era for viewing online or download. The films cover all kinds of silent animation productions, including lightning sketches (a ‘lightning’ artist filmed drawing a caricature), hand-drawn animation, stop-frame animation, cut-out animation, animated letters, and films which integrate live action with animation.

These are the eleven film on offer:

A Pool Plunge (1920)
Burr’s Novelty Review
Animator, J.J. McManus

Animated Hair Cartoon (1925)
Red Seal Pictures

Bob’s Electric Theatre (1906)
Pathé frères
Director, Gaston Velle (animation by Segundo de Chomón)

How Jones Lost His Roll (1905)
Director, Edwin S. Porter

Indoor Sports (1920)
International Film Service
Animator, Paul D. Robinson

Joys and Glooms (1921)
International News Corp.
Animator, John C. Terry

The Enchanted Drawing (1900)
With, J. Stuart Blackton

The Lost World – Promotional Film (1925)
First National

The Lost World – Trailer (1925)
First National

The Wandering Toy (1928)
Lyman H. Howe Films Co., Inc
Director, Robert E. Gillaum
Animator, Archie N. Griffith

Theatre De Hula Hula (19–)

Each film can be viewed silent, with piano score, with a music score or with a commentary from the film’s preservationist. The download options for each are MPEG-2 (at 8Mbps) or MPEG4 (at 1.1Mbps). You can also view notes by preservationist Jere Guldin and historian Jerry Beck, which are available in longer form as downloadable PDFs. There are also sections giving background information on the UCLA project to preserve and make accessible its silent animation holdings, on the music (commissioned from Michael D. Mortilla), a study guide (which lists many other silent animation films held by the UCLA archive), and an historical overview of animation in the silent era written by Mark Langer, which situates the animation film within the histories of pre-cinema motion picture devices, newspaper cartoons, and early film. As Langer observes, all films at this time were, to a degree, seen as animation films:

Animation’s silent era was a period of discovery and experimentation in which animation was not yet regarded as a separate subset of the cinema at large. Indeed, in the first years of film’s existence as a medium, movies commonly were referred to as “animated films,” based on the principle that all motion pictures were still objects (be they photographs or drawings) magically brought to life through the cinematographic apparatus. What were to be the separate forms of live-action and animated cinema both drew on those pre-existing mass media and entertainments.

It’s a helpful account of the roots of animation film and of the world in which early film in general was situated. All in all this is a most impressive resource, thoughtfully presented with educational and research use in mind. The help notes state that the films are all presumed to be in the public domain; the silent versions are published with a Creative Commons licence “to encourage free and unlimited repurpose for educational use or remix”. All music on the site is copyright Michael D. Mortilla. All written text is published with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States Licence.

Lucky us. Go explore.

A luxurious wallowing place

Today (7th May) at Bristol’s Colston Hall there is to be a special screening of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc with live music by rock musicians Adrian Utley (of Portishead) and Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp). The music will be conducted by Charles Hazelwood, and will feature six electric guitars, eight members of the Monteverdi Choir, harp, percussion, horns and keyboards. The short documentary above, made by Rick Holbrook, features interviews with Utley, Gregory and Hazelwood, and shows the process of composition, illustrated by clips from the film. The trio previously collaborated on a score for Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped at Bristol in 2007.

In The Times last Saturday there was an interview with Gregory and Utley about the project. Gregory came up with this very revealing comment on composing music for silent films:

It’s a luxurious wallowing place for composers. You get to be the whole soundtrack: music, dialogue, background noise and special effects.

I think that pretty much sums up the approach of the rock musicians and jazz musicians who have dabbled in silent film scores in recent years – among them John Cale, Jonathan Richman, Black Francis, The Pet Shop Boys, DJ Spooky, Tangerine Dream, Tom Verlaine, Giorgio Moroder, Bill Frisell, Gary Lucas, Dave Douglas, Joby Talbot, Fred Frith, Marc Ribot, Steven Severin, Maximo Park, and several more. The silent film is a canvas – practically a blank canvas – onto which they can wallow with abandon. This isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, because it is a form of artistic expression, and in some cases a highly successful one, but it is one where the film is subordinated to the music (still more to the star musician). Any regular silent film musician will tell you that their job is to accompany the film, interpreting it in the best possible way to enable the audience fully to appreciate what they are seeing. They don’t provide us with concerts accompanied by the film.

So we have two different ways of approaching the silent film score, and that has to be better than just having the one. Back to The Passion of Joan of Arc, and despite the Colston Hall calling it a unique event, the composers say that they hope to take film and score elsewhere, hinting at Italy and France.

Chaplin comes to Blu-ray

A quick post just to note the latest silent to appear on Blu-Ray. Hot on the heels of The General, Sunrise, City Girl, Battleship Potemkin and the announced future releases of Metropolis, Our Hospitality, Steamboat Bill Jr. and Sherlock Jr., we now have The Kid. Chaplin’s 1921 comic tear-jerker, in which he meets his acting match in the five-year-old Jackie Coogan, is to be released on 10 May by Park Circus, as part of Charlie Chaplin Collection, alongside The Great Dictator. The extras include an introduction by David Robinson; a 26mins documentary Chaplin Today: The Kid; scenes deleted for 1971 release (the Blu-Ray edition is the shorter version which Chaplin prepared in 1971); short items on recording the new score (1971) and Jackie Coogan dancing (1920) (2 mins); and the 1922 home movie Nice and Friendly featuring Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Jackie Coogan and Chaplin.

The Kid seems to be a Region B UK release only. It’s also being made available by the same company on DVD.

Video Jukebox no. 1 – The Battle of the Century

Jack Dempsey centre, Georges Carpentier right, from The Battle of the Century,

Here comes a new series here at Bioscope Towers (though there are number of old series in dire needing of being kept up, I’m aware). There’s not enough done here on single films, beyond the occasional mention of DVD releases, so we’re going to institute Video Jukebox, which will be an occasional series that takes a silent film available online and gives some of the background history – particularly if the site which hosts the film doesn’t tell you that much.

I’m going to start off with The Battle of the Century (1921). I was surprised to see this as an addition to European Film Treasures, as I wouldn’t have suspected that the BFI (which holds the film) would have singled it out as a choice item from its archive – not least because it is not a European film. Nevertheless it is strongly European in theme, Europe v America in fact, and it is certainly a film well worth seeing and with a story behind that is equally worth telling.

It’s 1921, and the jazz age is upon us. It is an age of celebrity fashioned by the newsreel cameras, where to be in the public eye means that you must maintain a constant virtual screen life. The stars to be found in the cinema are not just actors but politicians, royalty, aviators, explorers, artists, socialites and especially sports stars. The barrier between the arena and the cinema was broken down as leading sports events were filmed (with their funding often dependent upon the sale of film rights) and sports stars were pushed into becoming film stars by trying out their acting skills on the screen – generally with painful results.

Jack Dempsey, from The Battle of the Century

Jack Dempsey was one of the stars of the age, in the boxing ring, and on the screen. He wasn’t much of an actor – he appeared in several silents including the serial Daredevil Jack (1920), Fight and Win (1924) and Manhattan Madness (1925) – but his screen presence when fighting, sparring, training or just grinning for the ever-present newsreels was utterly compelling. The pinnacle of Dempsey’s career, fistically and cinematically, was his bout with Georges Carpentier, the French world light heavyweight champion, who also enjoyed a modestly successful film career with The Wonder Man (1920) and A Gipsy Cavalier (1922).

The fight was a masterpiece of hype from legendary promoter Tex Rickard, and saw boxing’s first $1,000,000 gate. The fight, held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City on 2 July 1921, was in no way an even match. Jack Dempsey was a far heavier (by 25lbs) and far more powerful fighter. But Rickard cleverly built up a good-versus-evil angle, with Dempsey having been widely accused of draft-dodging, while Carpentier was a war hero, having been awarded the Croix de Guerre. Dempsey’s thick-set, brooding look contrasting with Carpentier’s elegant demeanour helped accentuate these matters, but there was a contrary undercurrent in that Dempsey was the all-American figure while Carpentier was Old World and maybe just a bit too fancy. Either way, it was a contest where no one was going to be allowed to be neutral in their opinions.

Rickard targeted a new female audience for boxing by building up Carpentier’s appeal and improving facilities at the venue. He was rewarded with a crowd of 80,183 and an overall gross of $1,789,238, twice the amount of any previous fight. Rickard knew that money attracts money, so he made sure that everyone was aware of the huge sums being paid to the boxers: $300,000 plus 25% of the movie rights to Dempsey; $200,000 plus 25% of the movie rights to Carpentier.

Georges Carpentier, from The Battle of the Century

The movie rights were an essential feature of these calculations (despite an official ban on interstate commerce in fight films). The film was produced by Fred C. Quimby (who had first signed up Dempsey for Daredevil Jack), with the filming itself overseen by George McLeod Baynes. Entitled The Battle of the Century (Rickard’s own billing for the fight), the film employs all the tricks of the cinema to create one of the very best sporting movies of the silent era. It builds up the fight, far more fluidly than earlier fight films, with scenes of both fighters in training, the special stadium under construction, the crowd arriving, the press at the ready, fingers on the ticker tape machines, dissolves, close-ups and astute camera angles all tensely and rhymically edited until the point where the fighters enter the ring.

The film at this point loses some of its rhythm by inevitably following the action in real time, and by doing so initially with limited, static coverage from a single camera position perched precariously on the top of a tall stand. The fighting is intense but it is sometimes hard to tell the two fighters apart. But as the fight progresses through its four rounds the film picks up once again, close-ups increase, the camera pans with the action and as Dempsey moves in for the kill we watch transfixed as Carpentier is felled, leaps up instantly, is brought down again, and stays down.

Despite the interstate ban, the film was widely shown. Dan Streible, in the essential Fight Films, describes how Quimby organised distribution to twenty different states by employing anonymous couriers who delivered unmarked packages to hired attorneys, “who knowingly received the contraband, then either sold prints with state distribution or exhibition rights or left reels for theater managers to screen”. When even President Warren Harding and Vice-President Calvin Coolidge attending a screening of the film at a private party, then this was a film where public will was always going to override the law, come what may. Quimby made plenty of money, picked up a federal conviction along the way, then went on to join MGM and to pick up a string of Academy Awards as head of its animation unit, featuring in particular a certain battling cat and mouse.

The Battle of the Century is available in its full 34-minute glory from European Film Treasures, complete with a piano score by Antonio Coppola. For more information on the fight, read Randy Roberts’ racy and superbly-written Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler.

(Some of this text comes from an essay I wrote for Griffithiana in 1998 entitled ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’)

Olympic Hitch

The rugby game from Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927), from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Here in the UK we’re shaping up nicely for the Olympic Games in 2012. We’ve moved from being cynical to saying we can’t aford to wanting it to succeed to believing it could actually be fantastic (then after the Games we’ll revert to cynicism again, with is the natural order of things in Blighty). And for those who don’t actually like sport there’s the Cultural Olympiad – a programme of arts and culture events which have little if anything to do with the Olympic Games but, hey, arts organisations will grasp at any straw that goes floating by.

But enough of my own cynicism. We’re going to get a whole range of interesting cultural events grounded in fundamental Olympic themes such as community, regeneration, youth – you know the sort of thing. And silent cinema should get a look in, because what has just been announced by the BFI is a touring retrospective for 2012 of Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films.

This is a bold and welcome move, as for most Hitchcock’s silent career remains a closed book, beyond possibly an awareness that he made The Lodger. Strictly speaking the retrospective isn’t formally a part of the Cultural Olympiad as yet, but the BFI is pointing out, rather ingeniously, that Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, near the Olympic park in East London. A report in The Independent describes the plans, which include an exhibition:

Eddie Berg, artistic director of the BFI, said … “One of the things we are trying to get off the ground is to restore the silent films. Most of the visual tropes in these titles appear in his later works. We want to look at his influence on the contemporary world. The season will look at his huge body of work and his influence in different ways,” said Mr Berg.

The silent titles will form the heart of the retrospective, but the exhibition may also include the music of the American composer Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Hitchcock on the scores for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. A staging of Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, a 1993 artwork featuring a slowed-down version of the horror film, will also feature.

Amanda Neville, director of the BFI, said the initiative would “resurrect the [Hitchcock] films that are not on the tips of everybody’s tongues”.

Some of the films need critical restoration work, she said, and “three of them cannot go through a film projector – the level of damage to them is phenomenal.”

Robin Baker, the BFI’s head curator, said he was keen to discover the whereabouts of Hitchcock’s silent movie The Mountain Eagle, which he called the “holy grail” of lost British films.

“It was made in 1926 and was his last silent film featuring a sexually vulnerable young woman and a case of miscarriage of justice,” he said. [I think that’s a misquote and what he actually said was “first film featuring…”]

Hitchcock began his career in Britain as a designer of film title cards before directing a dozen silent films, including The Lodger, in 1926 and which the BFI hopes to restore and screen.

His first “talkie” film Blackmail, released in 1929, was shot as a silent feature and later converted to sound.

Well, I don’t expect they were planning to project those three damaged nitrate prints in any case, but the retrospective should also play its part in educating audiences about film restoration, as well as offering new opportunities to see silent films and unfamiliar Hitchcock. And as further indications of Olympic relevance, let’s point out the sporty bits of Hitchcock’s silents – boxing in The Ring, the rugby game in Downhill, the tennis match in Easy Virtue

For an overview of Hitchcock’s extensive silent film career (he began as a title writer for the British Famous Players-Lasky studios in 1920), see this earlier Bioscope post. And let’s hope along with Robin Baker that a print of The Mountain Eagle finally turns up. That really would be an event worthy of any Cultural Olympiad.