Movements and sounds

Strip of Eugene Lauste sound film c.1912, with the soundtrack running along the bottom, from

Here’s notice of a rather interesting item in the PBS television series History Detectives. The programme is a popular history series in which the presenters go off on quest for answers to some historical conundrum or other, and in the first item of the programme the presenter encounters a collector, Rocky Accetturo, who has bought some personal papers relating to Eugene Lauste in an estate sale. Lauste (1857-1935) was a brilliant French technician who worked for Thomas Edison alongside W.K-L. Dickson working on some of the very first American films, before moving with Dickson to American Biograph.

Having been instrumental in constructing a number of the first motion picture film devices, Lauste became fascinated by the possibilities of adding sound to film. Edison had already produced the Kinetophone in 1895, in which Kinetoscope films were supposedly synchronised with Phonograph recordings (in reality it was just music played alongside films of marching bands etc. without any proper synchronisation). Several other inventors around this time attempted to match sound with film in similar fashion, notably Clément-Maurice, Henri Lioret, Henri Joly, François Dussaud and Léon Gaumont. Lauste went one step further and – while working in Britain – patented in 1907 as “A New or Improved Method of and Means for Simultaneously Recording and Reproducing Movements and Sounds“. Here the sound was to be recorded optically and produced alongside the images on the film strip. He continued with his experiments, and between 1910-1913 shot some experimental sound films in the garden of his Brixton home. However Lauste failed to find the financial backing he required, possibly on account of his own intransigence, and it would not be until the 1920s, and particularly the work of Lee de Forest, that sound on film would start to become a reality.

The programme concerns a strip of Lauste sound film which the collector found among the papers. The detective story follows the familiar track for this sort of programme, with their primary source of information appearing to be Wikipedia, but it does get better one they start speaking to archivists about the film strip. We hear the sound reproduced (one second of it, possibly of a mechanical process, maybe the sound of the camera itself) and get to meet Biograph and Lauste authority Paul Spehr, who also shows us the Edison ‘Black Maria’ studio. Finally we discover that a similar short strip of film is held by the Smithsonian, though Accetturo’s is marginally longer, and that his film probably dates from c.1912.

The item runs for some fifteen minutes and is the first item on the programme. It makes some errors (The Jazz Singer wasn’t sound-on-film) and the pseudo-dumb questioning is a bit grating, but it gets better as it goes along and the technology it demonstrates – old and new – is fascinating.

Thanks therefore to PBS for putting up a programme that those of us in the US would not have had the chance to see otherwise, and all in all its a reminder that through the silent era there was this urgent quest to marry film images to recorded sound. Synchronised sound, sound provided by musicians, sound effects, sound produced by lecturers, sound provided by performers behind the screen or to the side of the screen, and then assorted steps towards commercialising sound on film itself. The silents began digging their grave, right from the beginning.

The full History Detectives programme can be seen on the PBS site and the script can be read here. But what is Rocky doing with the rest of the papers on show – letters, cuttings, patents?

Wanted by the BFI

The First Men in the Moon (1919), from

In 1992 the BFI launched Missing Believed Lost. It was a campaign to raise awareness of Britain’s lost film heritage, and the work of the National Film Archive. A handsome book of the same title was published, edited by Allen Eyles and David Meeker, which listed 100 lost British feature films that the Archive was seeking in particular. In some cases they were being a tad disingenuous, because the Archive was fairly confident that prints existed out there somewhere and hoped to lure them out of the hands of collectors into national safekeeping.

The project was successful. A number of films were uncovered, including several early works by director Michael Powell, while among the few silents that the book listed one complete example and parts of others from the Ultus serials have turned up, plus the Walter Forde feature What Next? and the Ivor Novello-Mabel Poulton feature The Constant Nymph – all three can be seen at the BFI Southbank this August.

Eighteen years on, and to mark its seventy-fifth anniversary, the BFI National Archive is launching another lost film project, entitled Most Wanted. This time it has narrowed their target list to 75 (neatly enough) and demonstrated how changing tastes have altered to a degree what we now consider most precious among lost films. The original Missing Believed Lost stopped in 1945, with the still-missing Flight from Folly. The new list delves enthusiastically into exploitation films from the 1960s and 70s, and amazingly ends with a title as recent as 1983 ( Where is Parsifal? starring Tony Curtis and Orson Welles). The original book was mean when it came to silents, listing just ten. The new list reflects a greater respect for Britain’s silent film heritage, with twenty titles (interestingly, one title from the original book, the 1916 She, is not included in the new list, while all the other silents are).

Things have moved on in other ways since 1992. Now we have the Internet, and the BFI has gone to town in a most impressive way, produced a micro-site for the Most Wanted project, with impressively researched accounts of each film, including credits, synopses, reasons for its importance, and notes on when the film was last known to be seen. Each is richly illustrated with some evocative stills, but – naturally enough – not by clips…

Here’s the list of twenty lost silents, with short descriptions taken from the BFI site (those marked with an asterisk were selected for the 1992 book):

The Adventures of Mr Pickwick (1921 d. Thomas Bentley)
Silent version of Dickens’ breakthrough novel, directed by one of the writer’s most prolific screen adapters.

The Amazing Quest of Mr Ernest Bliss (1920 d. Henry Edwards)
A much acclaimed mini-serial showcasing the talents of Henry Edwards and Chrissie White, both major contributors to the success of the Hepworth production company.

The Arcadians (1927 d. Victor Saville)
Victor Saville’s solo directorial debut: a silent adaptation of the stage musical. ‘Pastoral masterpiece’ or woeful mistake?

The Crooked Billet (1929 d. Adrian Brunel)
One of the last films made by Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough studios before sound took over from silent cinema.

The First Men in the Moon (1919 d. J.L.V. Leigh)
The first screen adaptation of a novel by the influential British author H.G. Wells, and an early example of British science fiction cinema.

The Last Post (1929 d. Dinah Shurey)
A patriotic war picture from the only woman feature film director working in Britain at the end of the 1920s.

Lily of the Alley (1924 d. Henry Edwards) *
An experiment in film form that may be the first [British] silent fiction feature ever made without intertitles.

London (1926 d. Herbert Wilcox)
The adventure of a girl of the slums who is adopted by a titled lady but eventually marries an artist.

Love, Life and Laughter (1923 d. George Pearson) *
According to contemporary reports, a genuine lost classic: the struggle of an impoverished author and a little chorus girl against the odds of the world.

Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1926 d. Maurice Elvey)
Based on a popular trench song of the First World War, the film tells the story of a patriotic French woman who falls in love with a British soldier and feeds misinformation to the Germans. [Around half the film survives at the BFI National Archive]

Maria Martin or The Mystery of the Red Barn (1913 d. Maurice Elvey)
Film adaptation of a play about the notorious Victorian murder at Polstead in Suffolk in 1826. As the contemporary publicity put it, “A box office magnet on its title alone”.

Milestones (1916 d. Thomas Bentley) *
Family epic charting several generations of shipbuilders who are radical in youth but become conservative in later life.

The Mountain Eagle (1926 d. Alfred Hitchcock) *
Hitchcock’s second film and the only one of his 57 films as director to be lost: a Kentucky-set mountain melodrama of lust, injustice and social stigma.

The Narrow Valley (1921 d. Cecil Hepworth)
A young couple find romance amidst a narrow-minded valley community.

Reveille (1923 d. George Pearson) *
A story of the hectic, forced gaiety at the end of the First World War and the disillusionment which came to many soon after. [Note to the BFI – a short sequence from Reveille does survive somewhere (the famous ‘two-minutes’ silence’) and was shown on BBC2’s The Late Show 30 September 1992 in a programme on the Missing Believed Lost project]

The Story of the Flag (1927 d. Anson Dyer)
Britain’s first “full-length animated feature film” by the country’s most successful pre-war cartoon filmmaker, Anson Dyer.

A Study in Scarlet (1914 d. George Pearson) *
Murder, betrayal and revenge in an ambitious early adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story.

Tip Toes (1928 d. Herbert Wilcox)
Three penniless music hall artistes take a suite at a fancy hotel, where the girl pretends to be an heiress in pursuit of an English Lord.

Who is the Man? (1924 d. Walter Summers)
Romantic melodrama that featured John Gielgud’s screen debut.

Woman to Woman (1923 d. Graham Cutts)
A British officer and a French dancer meet during the war, but are parted by accident, only to be reunited just before her death.

That’s a well-chosen list, with a number of titles that would be certain to be recognised as classics were they to re-emerge, even at this distance of time.

And what’s missing from this list of what’s missing? Well, one could go on and on and on, since hundreds of British silents are missing (no one had ever counted exactly how many). However, the Bioscope will indulge itself just a little by listing another twenty-five to bring it up to a missing 100 (including some non-fiction titles, which the BFI’s list excludes). The BFI would certainly rejoice if anyone of these turned up as well.

  • Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1895) [probably the first commercial British film]
  • The Mesmerist; or, Body and Soul (1898) [former spiritualist G.A. Smith makes a trick film about spiritualism]
  • Dan Leno’s Cricket Match (1900) [The Victorian era’s greatest comic performer captured on film]
  • The Macedonian Atrocities (1903) [documentary series filmed by C. Rider Noble]
  • Robbery of the Mail Coach (1903) [pioneering multi-scene drama made by Sheffield Photo Co.]
  • Voyage to New York (1904) [40-minute travelogue made by Charles Urban]
  • The Empire of the Ants (1906) [innovative anthromorphism from wildlife filmmaker Percy Smith]
  • Henry VIII (1911) [every print of this Shakespeare drama made by Will Barker was supposedly burned in a bizzare publicity stunt]
  • Hamlet (1912) [Will Barker film in which the actress to play Ophelia was famously recruited because she could swim]
  • With our King and Queen Through India (1912) [around ten minutes survive of this two-and-a-half-hour Kinemacolor spectacular account of the 1911 Delhi Durbar]
  • A Message from Mars (1913) [stagey but no doubt fascinating story of Martian who comes to earth with moral mission] [Update: This film exists! See comment]
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1914) [Britain’s first colour feature film]
  • A Welsh Singer (1915) [directed by Henry Edwards, probably Britain’s most accomplished director of the 1910s]
  • The Manxman (1916) [much-praised drama directed by George Loane Tucker]
  • Hindle Wakes (1918) [Maurice Elvey’s first attempt at the story he would triumphantly film again in 1927]
  • Kiddies in the Ruins (1918) [wartime poignancy from George Pearson]
  • Towards the Light (1918) [characteristic Henry Edwards-directed tearjerker]
  • Victory and Peace (1918) [part of one reel is all that survives of the propaganda epic directed by Herbert Brenon and starring Ellen Terry]
  • Jack, Sam and Pete (1919) [Ernest Trimmingham gives first leading performance from a black actor in British film]
  • The Land of Mystery (1920) [drama loosely based on life of Lenin, filmed in the USSR]
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1921) [adaptation of Hardy novel witnessed in production by Hardy himself]
  • Number 13 (1922) [unfinished Hitchcock short]
  • Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (1923) [directed by lost talent Graham Cutts, starred D.W. Griffith favourite Mae Marsh]
  • The Virgin Queen (1923) [filmed in Prizmacolor and starring socialite Lady Diana Manners]
  • The Ball of Fortune (1926) [football drama with legendary Billy Meredith – the BFI holds a trailer for the film]

No doubt you can name your own (and please do).

At the same time the BFI has launched Rescue the Hitchcock 9, calling for funds to help preserve the nine silent Hitchcock feature films that do survive. You can donate here. See also the Bioscope’s silent Hitchcock filmography and the cod review of The Mountain Eagle in 2008’s Bioscope Festival of Lost Films.

Finally, and by way of a sort of obituary, the BFI’s notes for The Arcadians state that “An incomplete and deteriorating nitrate print (from a private collector?) was apparently viewed prior to July 2008 by independent film scholar F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.” Last week it was announced that science-fiction writer and prodigious Internet Movie Database film reviewer F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre had apparently committed suicide by setting fire to his New York flat. It’s a sad end for one whose comments on silent film forums and the IMDb have greatly enlivened debate, even as they sowed the seeds of confusion. Macintyre was fond of spinning tales about his supposed exclusive access to a private collection of films which he would describe, one by one, in passionate detail. Macintyre was knowledgeable about film (particularly silent film), and had some descriptive skill, but he drew no distinction between truth and fantasy, and in the case of The Arcadians – as with so many other lost films he reviewed on IMDb – he is merely telling tales, and no more saw the film than you or I. He remained a writer of fiction to the end.

Silents in Babylon

I’ve only just learned about a remarkable festival of silent film taking place at the Babylon Kino, Berlin, 16-25 July. BERLIN – BABYLON. Das StummfilmLiveFestival is a kind of greatest hits of silent cinema, a ten-day feast of some of the finest titles of the silent era. Organised in co-operation with the Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, the goal of the festival is “to bring both classics and lesser known films to a broad audience in a fresh and innovative way”. Highlights include the opening film, Maciste All‘Inferno with live orchestral accompaniment; a free open-air screening of the restored Metropolis; the John Ford silents that Bologna curated recently; and a screening on July 17 of Walter Ruttmann‘s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, where the film will play simultaneously over 3,000 monitors and 1,000 carriages of the Berlin U-Bahn. This will, the organisers say, “create the longest cinema in history, with a combined length of over 16 kilometers, where the rhythms of 1920’s Berlin mix with those of today”. Following this mass screening, the film will be shown at the Babylon Kino, accompanied by the electro duo Tronthaim.

A special feature is being made of the musical accompaniment, which will come from the starry line-up of Javier Peréz de Azpeitia, Joachim Bärenz, Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, Marco Dalpane, Trio Glycerine, Jürgen Kurz, Tronthaim, Stephen Horne, Eunice Martins and Ekkehard Wölk. Screenings will take place in the Babylon Kino, located in East Berlin, a 1929 cinema with original Art Deco screen which lurks behind the modern screen and is to be used for silent screenings (as its refurbished original organ).

Here’s the programe:

Friday 16.7.10
19.30 Eröffnung MACISTE ALL’ INFERNO
I 1925, R.: Guido Brignone; mit Bartolomeo Pagano, 95 Min.
Musik: Marco Dalpane & Ensemble

22.00 Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (Open Air)
D 1927, R.: Fritz Lang; mit Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Heinrich George, 150 Min.

Saturday 17.7.10
16.00 TAGEBUCH EINER VERLORENEN (Diary of a Lost Girl)
D 1929, R.: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; mit Louise Brooks, André Roanne, Fritz Rasp, Franziska Kinz, Sybille Schmitz , Valeska Gert, Kurt Gerron 104 min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

I 1914, R.: Giovanni Pastrone; mit Carolina Catena, Lidia Quaranta, Gina Maragnoni, 123 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

USA 1917, R.: John Ford; mit Harry Carey, Duke R. Lee, George Berrell, Molly Malone, Ted Brooks, 71 Min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

USA 1926, R.: John Ford; Goerge O’Brien, Olive Borden, Lou Tellegen, 92 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

USA 1922, R.: Erich von Stroheim; mit Erich von Stroheim, Miss DuPont, Maude George, 117 Min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

22.00 BERLIN, DIE SINFONIE DER GROßSTADT (Berlin Symphony of a City)
D 1927, R.: Walter Ruttmann; 60 Min.
Musik: Tronthaim

USA 1921, R.: John S. Robertson; mit John Barrymore, Charles Lane, Brandon Hurst, Cecil Clovelly, Nita Naldi, 67 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

23.15 BERLIN, DIE SINFONIE DER GROßSTADT (Berlin, Symphony of a City)
D 1927, R.: Walter Ruttmann; 60 Min.
Musik: Tronthaim
Walter Ruttmanns berühmter Montagefilm ist eine faszinierende Zeitreise ins Berlin der später 20er Jahre.

Sunday 18.7.10
14.30 DIE ABENTEUER DES PRINZEN ACHMED (The Adventures of Prince Achmed)
D 1926, R.: Lotte Reiniger; Scherenschnitt, 60 Min.
Musik: Trio Glycerine

I 1925, R.: Guido Brignone; mit Bartolomeo Pagano, 95 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

F 1928, R.: Carl Theodor Dreyer; mit Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, 110 min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

S 1924, R.: Mauritz Stiller; Greta Garbo, Lars Hanson, Gerda Lundequist, Otto Elg-Lundberg, 183 Min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

USA 1929, R.: Erich von Stroheim; Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Seena Owen, 101 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

Monday 19.7.10
D 1919, R.: Fritz Lang; mit Paul Biensfeld, Lil Dagover, 80 Min
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

18.00 DAS GLÜCK(Happiness)
1934 USSR, R.: Alexander Medwedkin; mit Pjotr Sinowjew, Jelena Jegorowna, L. Nenaschewa, W. Uspenskij, G. Migorjan, 95 Min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

19.30 GREED
USA 1924, R.: Erich von Stroheim; Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, 128 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

D 1920, R.: Paul Wegener und Carl Boese; mit Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Lyda Salmonova, ernst Deutsch, Otto Gebühr, 85 Min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

USA 1919, R.: Erich von Stroheim; mit Sam de Grasse, Francelia Billington, Erich von Stroheim, Gibson Gowland,
90 Min.
Musik: Javier Peréz de Azpeitia

USA 1927, R.: Tod Browning; mit Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz, 63 Min.
Musik: Joachim Bärenz

Tuesday 20.7.10
Ca. 60 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

D 1919, R.: Robert Wiene; mit Werner Krauß, Conrad Veidt, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, 75 Min.
Musik: Raphael Marionneau

USA 1928, R.: King Vidor; mit James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, 104 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

21.15 DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE (Joyless Street)
D 1925, R.: Georg Wilhelm Pabst, mit Greta Garbo, Asta Nielsen, Agnes Esterhazy, Henry Stuart, Robert Garrison, 178 Min.
Musik: Günter Buchwald

21.30 BALLET MECANIQUE / Dada-Kurzfilme
Ca. 60 Min.
Musik: Jürgen Kurz

Wednesday 21.7.10
D 1921, R. Ernst Lubitsch; mit Pola Negri, Victor Janson, Paul Heidemann, 79 Min.
Musik: Trio Glycerine

D 1929, R.: Kurt Bernhardt; mit Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Kortner, Frida Richard, Oskar Sima, Uno Henning, Karl Etlinger, Edith Edwards, Bruno Ziener, 76 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

20.00 PANZERKREUZER POTEMKIN (Battleship Potemkin)
USSR 1925, R.: Sergei Eisenstein; mit Alexander Antonow, Wladimir Barski, Grigori Alexandrow, Iwan Bobrow, Michail Gomorow, Alexander Lewschin, N. Poltawzewa,75 Min.
Musik: Jürgen Kurz

20.00 ORLACS HÄNDE (The Hands of Orlac)
D 1924, R.: Robert Wiene; mit Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Kortner, Carmen Cartellieri, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas, 110 Min.
Musik: Ekkehard Wölk

GB 1927, Alfred Hitchcock; mit Marie Ault, Arthur Chesney, June, Malcolm Keen, Ivor Novello, 100 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

USA 1927, R.: Tod Browning; mit Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz, 63 Min.
Musik: Günter Buchwald

Thursday 22.7.10
17.00 J’ACCUSE
F 1919, R.: Abel Gance; mit Romuald Joubé, Séverin-Mars, 144 Min.
Musik: Stephen Horne

USA 1917, R.: John Ford; mit Harry Carey, Duke R. Lee, George Berrell, Molly Malone, Ted Brooks, 71 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

20.00 MR. WEST IM LANDE DER BOLSCHEWIKI (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks)
USSR 1924, R.: Lev Kuleshov; mit Porfirij Podobed, Boris Barnet, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergej Komarov, Vera Lopatina, 94 Min.
Musik: Jürgen Kurz

GB 1929, R.: Alfred Hitchcock; mit Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, 84 Min.
Musik: Günter Buchwald

USA 1929, R.: Erich von Stroheim; Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Seena Owen, 101 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

S/GB 1929, R.: Anthony Asquith; mit Uno Henning, Norah Baring, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, 84 Min.
Musik: Stephen Horne

Friday 23.7.10
USA 1922, R.: Fred Niblo; mit Rudolph Valentino, Lila Lee, Nita Naldi, Rosa Rosanova, Walter Long,108 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

USA 1927, R.: Tod Browning; mit Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz, 63 Min.
Musik: Stephen Horne

USA 1919, R.: Erich von Stroheim; mit Sam de Grasse, Francelia Billington, Erich von Stroheim, Gibson Gowland, 90 Min.
Musik: Stephen Horne

USA 1926, R.: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman; mit Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender Charles Henry Smith, 75 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

USA 1916, R.: D.W. Griffith; mit Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lilian Gish, F.A. Turner, Sam de Grasse, Vera Lewis, Mary Alden, 180 Min
Musik: Neil Brand

22.00 HÄXAN
DK/S 1922, R.: Benjamin Christensen; mit Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt, Tora Teje, 107 Min.
Musik: Stephen Horne

Saturday 24.7.10
Ca. 60 Min.
Musik: Ekkehard Wölk
THE IMMIGRANT (USA 1917, 24 Min.), EASY STREET (USA 1917, 19 Min.), THE RINK (USA 1916, 19 Min.)

15.30 DIE ABENTEUER DES PRINZEN ACHMED (The Adventures of Prince Achmed)
D 1926, R.: Lotte Reiniger; Scherenschnitt, 60 Min.
Musik: Stephen Horne

16.00 BERLIN, DIE SINFONIE DER GROßSTADT (Berlin, Symphony of a City)
D 1927, R.: Walter Ruttmann; 60 Min.
Musik: Ekkehard Wölk

17:30 GREED
USA 1924, R.: Erich von Stroheim; Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, 128 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

D 1919, R.: Fritz Lang; mit Paul Biensfeld, Lil Dagover, 80 Min
Musik: Stephen Horne

19.45 DIE BÜCHSE DER PANDORA (Pandora’s Box)
D 1929, R.: Georg Wilhelm Pabst; mit Louise Brooks, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Alice Roberts, 133 Min.
Musik: Eunice Martins

20:00 BERLIN, DIE SINFONIE DER GROßSTADT (Berlin, Symphony of a Great City)
D 1927, R.: Walter Ruttmann; 60 Min.
Musik: Trio Glycerine

D 1922, R.: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau; mit Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Alexander Granach, Ruth Landshoff, 94 Min
Musik: Stephen Horne

J 1926, R.: Teinosuke Kinugasa; mit Masao Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa, 60 Min.
Musik: Neil Brand

23.15 BERLIN, DIE SINFONIE DER GROßSTADT (Berlin, Symphony of a City)
D 1927, R.: Walter Ruttmann; 60 Min.
Musik: Tronthaim

Sunday 25.7.10
11:00 Neil Brand: THE SILENT PIANIST SPEAKS Lecture

14.00 MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (People on a Sunday)
D 1930, R.: Robert Siodmak, Rochus Gliese, Edgar G. Ulmer und Fred Zinnemann; mit Erwin Splettstößer, Brigitte Borchert, Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Christl Ehlers, Annie Schreyer
Musik: Neil Brand

Musik: Stephen Horne

That’s quite a line-up. More details are on the Babylon site – mostly in German, but there is a short section at the bottom of the web page in English. The site also says that this is festival no. 1 – let’s hope it can be the first of many.

More information on the Babylon Kino is on the Cinema Treasures site.

Lives in film no. 4: Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson knocks Jim Jeffries out of the ring at the climax of their world heavyweight bout at Reno, Nevada, on 4 July 1910. The referee is the fight’s promoter, Tex Rickard. Frame still from Sights and Scenes from the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (BFI National Archive)

I’m Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world.
I’m black. They never let me forget it.
I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.

100 years ago, on 4 July 1910, two men met to contest the world heavyweight championship. One was James Jeffries, a former world champion brought back out of retirement to answer the call made by many in America to defend the white race. The other was the Afro-American Jack Johnson, the most iconic sportsman of the era, a man feared inside the ring for his tremendous power and outside it for the threat he seemed to pose to white society. The contest at Reno, Nevada was perhaps the most socially significant sporting event of the twentieth century. And of course the motion picture cameras were there.

Johnson lived much of his life in front of the camera. By the time he began fighting, sales of motion picture rights were a major source of revenue for those in the fight business, and every bout of significance was filmed, generally in its entirety, albeit semi-illegally given that prize fighting was prohibited in most American states. Films of Johnson’s fights were among the most significant of their age, to the point where legislation was created to contain them. Above all, Johnson was the first black person to be a leading film attraction – Dan Streible calls him “the first black movie star”. He helped change how America saw itself.

Arthur John Johnson, or Jack Johnson (1878-1946), was born in Galveston, Texas, the son of a former slave, and began his fighting career in 1897. He emerged as a major contender in the early 1900s, but the leading white boxers of the period mostly declined to fight against him, such was the racism endemic in the sport and American society generally. In particular he was effectively barred from any world heavyweight championship fight. There were other talented black boxers in Johnson’s time, notably Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey and Sam Langford, but they were mostly forced to fight among themselves for black-only championships. Johnson was unusual in his thirsting for the very top, avoiding the likes of Langford as much as possible in his search for the heavyweight crown.

Following the retirement of James J. Jeffries as world heavyweight champion in 1905, the championship and boxing in general went into decline. Two inadequate champions followed, Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns. Johnson became the beneficiary of the impoverished heavyweight scene, for the lacklustre Tommy Burns had failed to attract the crowds and money, and a new black champion, it was suggested, would attract controversy and a challenger to regain white supremacy. Johnson eventually hunted down Burns to Australia, and defeated him in Australia on 26 December 1908, becoming the first black world heavyweight champion. The fourteen-round fight was filmed by the British branch of Gaumont, though the Sydney police dramatically halted the filming and the fight in the final round to prevent the live and future audiences from witnessing any further humiliation for Burns. The film’s distribution around the world greatly helped revitalise interest in heavyweight boxing, while making the idea of a search for a white challenger to retake the crown something of an obsession for white American society. It also made Johnson a considerable film attraction.

The Johnson-Burns fight, Sydney, Australia, 26 December 1908, with the booth housing the motion picture cameras to the right. From Wikimedia Commons.

At first it was believed that a challenger would soon dispose of Johnson, but his easy defeats of such challengers as Stanley Ketchel (filmed for the Motion Picture Patents Company), ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, Al Kaufman, and even the future film actor Victor McLaglen (not a title fight), created an atmosphere of panic and the very real search for a ‘white hope’ who would crush the disturbingly confident and powerful Johnson. Eventually former champion Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement to face him.

The build up to the fight of the century was tremendous, and the cinema was greatly involved. Films of both boxers in training were released, including one of a bulky and seemingly invincible Jeffries working on his ranch (Jeffries on his Ranch, made by the Yankee Film Co.). The fight itself took place on 4 July 1910 at Reno, Nevada, promoted by the larger-than-life Tex Rickard. Three film companies, Selig, Vitagraph and Lubin, representing the Motion Picture Patents Company, combined to organise the production and distribution of the fight film, under the one-off name of the J. & J. Company, with J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph supervising overall production and distribution. The cameras were set up in pride of place on a stand overlooking the ring, with no attempt at closer shots or other viewpoints, but with plenty of material shot prior to the event – enthusiastic crowds filling the street of Reno, both boxers in training, star fighters of times past and present (Abe Attell, ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, Sam Langford, Jake Kilrain), and unique film of a portly John L. Sullivan, champion from another era, mock sparring with the first official world heavyweight champion, Jim Corbett (who made racial taunts at Johnson throughout the fight).

The fight lasted fifteen rounds, but was a foregone conclusion from round one, as Johnson humiliated a patently inferior Jeffries. That the fight lasted so long was no indication of Jeffries’ staying power; more likely it was an indication of Johnson’s awareness of the value of a full-length fight film. A film of a fifteen-round fight would command bigger audiences and greater revenue than a one-round knockout. It was commonly felt that Johnson had spun out the fight to increase its revenue (Rickard had promised $101,000 for the boxers, with 75% for the winner, and two-thirds of the movie rights), and this seems borne out by the evidence of the film itself. Johnson patently extends the contest beyond what was necessary, and can be seen taunting the hapless Jeffries during their numerous clinches. However, on the eve of the fight both Johnson and Jeffries had agreed to take lump sums for the movie profits rather than a percentage, so one might judge that Johnson’s motives were as much vengefulness as good business.

Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, from American Memory

But the most significant effect of the Johnson-Jeffries fight on the world of film came afterwards. The shock of Johnson’s victory terrified white America and thrilled the black community. Immediately the result was known there were racial conflicts throughout the country, resulting in many deaths and injuries. It was not only Johnson’s defeat of a white man, but his very public cockiness, his fondness for fast cars, fancy talk and fancy clothes, and above all his taste for white women (his various white wives were always prominent in newsreel footage of Johnson) compounded the fears. The existence of the film greatly added to the shock. Not only was one forced to read about the unspeakable Johnson becoming champion over the whites, but he could be appearing in your very own neighbourhood. The film of the fight had to be banned. With the racial violence that followed the fight as the primary excuse, and following heavy lobbying by such interest groups as the United Society of Christian Endeavor, the film was soon barred from many individual cities, and fifteen states went further by banning all prize fight films – it was assumed there would be other Johnson fights and other Johnson films, and so the states legislated against all boxing films rather than the specific cases of the Johnson-Jeffries film.

However, no immediate federal law was passed. Such legislation only arose when another Johnson fight film, that of his contest against ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn on 4 July 1912, threatened further social unrest. Bills had already been introduced by the grossly racist Congressmen Representative Seaborn A. Rodenberry and Senator Furnifold Simmons to prohibit the interstate transportation of fight films, and on 31 July 1912 the legislation was passed. It was now a federal offence to transport fight films over State lines. This naturally had a severe effect on the production and distribution of boxing films, though it by no means stopped them. The ambiguous legislation, which was much challenged as it seemed directly to contradict reasonable commerce, did not necessarily prevent such films’ exhibition, and there was still a large audience keen to see such films, especially the Johnson-Willard contest of 1915 where the victorious Jess Willard finally proved to be the ‘white hope’ so many had been looking for.

One of the most striking attempts to by-pass the ban on interstate transportation occurred in 1916. The film in question was that of the Johnson-Willard fight; the company involved the Pantomimic Corporation (created by L. Lawrence Weber, the producer of the Johnson-Willard film). A motion picture camera was placed eight inches from the New York-Canada border, pointing north. On the Canadian side was placed a tent containing a box with an electric light. Past this was then run a positive of the Johnson-Willard film, which by means of a synchronising device was then photographed on the American side, and thus a duplicate negative (of doubtful quality) was produced. The whole extraordinary process was deliberately given wide publicity, but Pantomimic lost the ensuing court case, for having violated the spirit if not the letter of the law.

The law was a preposterous one, contrary to the basic rules of commerce and unashamedly racist in intent. It was widely violated throughout the 1920s, as the continued production of fight films indicates, and the Johnson ‘threat’ was in any case over. However, it was not until the late 1930s that calls for the legislation to be repealed were heard. Boxing was now seen to be popular among all classes, with a clear following among women, and the new, unthreatening black champion Joe Louis, modesty and courtesy personified, was the very model of what white America hoped to see. The Senate finally passed a bill permitting the interstate shipment of prize fight films on 13 June 1939.

Jack Johnson with one of his fast cars, from the Henry E. Winkler Collection of Boxing Photographs, University of Notre Dame

After the Willard fight, Johnson’s life went into decline. He had been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in 1913 for violation of the anti-‘white slavery’ Mann Act (“transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”) but skipped bail and fled to France, where he successfully defended his title against Frank Moran, the film of which was widely derided for its obvious spinning out of the fight to make a more commercial film offering. The Willard fight took place in Havana, Cuba, and he only returned to the USA to serve out his sentence in 1921, after spending time in Spain and Mexico. He carried on fighting in prison and following his release, and continued to appear before the motion picture cameras, though now in dramatic films, albeit very obscure titles made for the Afro-American community: As the World Rolls On (1921) and For His Mother’s Sake (1921) (Johnson had made at least one fiction film during his time in Spain).

Johnson kept on fighting until 1938, as well appearing on stage, refereeing fights, giving talks and making personal appearances. Always fond of fast cars and speeding, he died in a car crash in 1946.

From having been probably the most reviled man of his age, posthumously Johnson has undergone a considerable change in reputation. Always honoured by most fight fans for his boxing ability and his historical importance, he was increasingly held up as an example of black empowerment, starting with Howard Sackler’s 1967 play The Great White Hope, filmed in 1970 with James Earl Jones as the Johnson-like character Jack Jefferson. There then followed Bill Cayton’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Jack Johnson (1970) with its superb Miles Davis jazz score, which ends with the imposing words (spoken by Brock Peters) cited at the top of this post. Sympathetic biographies followed, notably Randy Roberts’ Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, and recently Geoffrey C. Ward’s book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was turned into a documentary by Ken Burns with another jazz soundtrack, this time by Wynton Marsalis. There is now a strong move in the US for Johnson’s 1913 conviction to be overturned, with Congress recommending in 2008 that he be granted a presidential pardon, a motion that received the unexpected support of Senator John McCain.

Finding out more
The PBS Unforgiveable Blackness website has extensive information on Jack Johnson and his times, including a special Flash feature on the Jeffries fight.

As noted above, the key biographies are Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, and Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. On the Johnson-Jeffries fight in particular, see Robert Greenwood, Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries: The Prize Fight of the Century; Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910.

For the history of fight films in the silent era, with extensive information on Jack Johnson, there is the excellent Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema, by Dan Streible, to which this post in much indebted, particularly the filmography. Acknowledgments also to Larry Richards, African American Films Through 1959: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography.

Two essays cover the legislative back ground to the Johnson films: Barak Y. Orbach, ‘The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and Censorship of Black Supremacy‘, and Lee Grieveson, ‘Fighting Films: Race, morality and the governing of cinemas, 1912-1915’, in The Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Grieveson and Peter Kramer.

The Chronicling America site of digitised historic newspapers has a special section on the Johnson-Jeffries fight.

For celebratory centenary events, see

In 2005 Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910) was added to the National Film Registry as a work of “enduring significance to American culture”.

Parts of this post are taken from a long essay I wrote for Griffithiana in 1998 entitled ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’.


1. Fight films
(Note: Fight films tend to be recorded under a variety of titles, but US copyright titles are given where available. Dates are the dates of the fights)

  • [Jack Johnson v Ben Taylor] (GB, 31 July 1908, producer unknown)
  • World’s Heavyweight Championship Pictures between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson aka The Burns-Johnson Boxing Contest (GB/Australia, 26 December 1908, Gaumont)
  • World Championship, Jack Johnson vs. Stanley Ketchell [sic] (USA, 16 October 1909, J.W. Coffroth)
  • Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest, held at Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910 (USA, 4 July 1910, J&J Company) [The cut down version held by the BFI is entitled Sights and Scenes from the Johnson-Jeffries Fight. There were also a number of re-enactment films made of the fight – see Streible, Fight Pictures]
  • Jack Johnson vs. Jim Flynn Contest for Heavyweight Championship of the World (USA, 4 July 1912, Jack Curley/Miles Bros.)
  • Johnson-Moran Fight / The Grand Boxing Match for the Heavyweight Championship of the World between Frank Moran and Jack Johnson (France? 27 June 1914)
  • Willard-Johnson Boxing Match (USA, 5 April 1915, Pantomimic/L. Lawrence Weber) [Streible records a pirated version of the fight as well]
  • Note: Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue lists a Jack Johnson v Bombardier Billy Wells fight film made in 1911 by Will Barker, but though the film was advertised the fight itself was abandoned and the film never made.

2. Fiction films

  • Une aventure de Jack Johnson, champion de boxe toutes catégories du monde (France 1913)
  • Fuerza y nobleza (Spain 1917-18, four-part serial)
  • Black Thunderbolt (Spain 1917-18, released in USA in 1921 by A.A. Millman, 7 reels) [it is possible that this is the same film as Fuerza y nobleza]
  • The Man in Ebony (USA 1918, T.H.B. Walker’s Colored Pictures, 3 reels) [uncertain credit, because Johnson did not live in the USA 1913-1919]
  • As the World Rolls On (USA 1921, Andlauer Production Company, 7 reels)
  • For His Mother’s Sake (USA 1922, Blackburn Velde Productions, 5-6 reels)
  • Madison Sq. Garden (USA 1932, Paramount) [guest appearance]

3. Other films
(Note: Some of these titles probably reproduce material from earlier releases, such as the Kineto films of Johnson in training)

  • Burns and Johnson Training (GB? 1909) [given by Streible, not by Gifford]
  • Jack Johnson in Training/How Jack Johnson Trains (GB? 1909, Kineto) [given by Streible and BFI database, not by Gifford]
  • Jack Johnson Training Pictures/Jack Johnson Training (GB? 1910, Kineto) [given by Streible, not by Gifford]
  • Johnson Training for his Fight with Jeffries (USA 1910, Chicago Film Picture Co.)
  • Mr Johnson Talks (USA 1910, American Cinephone Co.) [gramophone recording synchronised to film]
  • How the Champion of the World Trains, Jack Johnson in Defence and Attack (GB 1911, Kineto) [given by Streible, not by Gifford. The title of the copy in the Nederlands Filmmuseum is Jack Johnson: Der Meister Boxer der Welt]
  • Jack Johnson, Champion du Monde de Boxe (Poids Lourds) (France 1911) [newsreel]
  • Jack Johnson Paying a Visit to the Manchester Docks (GB 1911) [newsreel]
  • Jack Johnson and Jim Flynn Up-to-date (USA 1912, Johnson-Flynn Feature Film Co.)

Whom shall you telegram?

A minor diversion, courtesy of Boing Boing. It comes from The League of STEAM (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management), a comedy troupe who present themselves as steampunk ghost-hunters (steampunk = modern technologies recast as Victorian). At any rate, it’s an entertaining take on Ghostbusters – though sadly the production budget didn’t run to any ghosts. You can find more of their videos at