Slapstick is back

Here comes 2011, and first off the blocks will be the seventh edition of the annual Slapstick festival, held in Bristol. The festival has developed into a celebration of visual comedy in general by bringing together silent slapstick with British television and radio comedians of today (not that radio excels in visual comedy, but it all fits somehow). This year the presenters include Bill Oddie, Ian Lavender, Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Neil Innes, Shappi Khorsandi and Chris Serle. Kevin Brownlow turns up presenting ‘Unknown Chaplin’ material, while the silent performers featured include Chaplin, Keaton and Langdon. And there is also a welcome tribute to one of Bristol’s finest, the Aardman Animation studios’ children TV series Shaun the Sheep, which the Bioscope should have championed long before now as a truly great example of the art of silent comedy happily carried on into the 21st century (and who would have guessed that Sir Christopher Frayling was a fan? Good on him).

Here’s the full programme:


5.40pm Watershed
Academy Award winning film historian Kevin Brownlow introduces a selection of the rarest and least known footage of Charlie Chaplin as the festival opens with the first of four events dedicated to the ‘Little Tramp’.

8.00pm Colston Hall
Neil Innes: A People’s Guide to World Domination
The very welcome return of Slapstick Festival supporter and patron, Rutle and Bonzo front man Neil Innes as he brings his new solo show to Colston Hall for one night only on the opening night of Bristol’s Seventh Slapstick Festival. Neil performs a wry, poignant, humorous and topical one-man show, spiced with anecdotes of his life and times in the worlds of media and show business. Neil’s solo shows tickle the emotions with a potent mix of fine musicianship and enlightened lyricism, packed with sharp observations celebrating the absurdities of modern existence. Join us for a unique musical experience in the company of the self proclaimed ‘Ego Warrior’ and ‘Seventh Python’


2pm Arnolfini
CLARA BOW in MANTRAP (Dir Victor Fleming; USA, 126 mins)
Clara Bow wasn’t just the ‘IT’ girl of a generation, she was also a fine actress and comedienne. Here in one of her funniest films, Bow plays the sexy wife of an old Canadian backwoodsman who becomes attracted to a young, rich and famous divorce lawyer who comes to town on vacation.

4pm Watershed
SLAPSTICK INTERNATIONAL (U) with live piano accompaniment
In a continuation of Slapstick’s tradition of sharing the best new silent comedy finds, three superb films discovered by the Giornate Cinema Muto for Italy’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival: W.C. Fields, making his silent screen debut, in THE POOL SHARKS; the same wise-cracker in the early sound short, THE GOLF SPECIALIST, plus a delightful silent from Russian, CHESS FEVER. Introduced by Pordenone’s director David Robinson, with John Sweeney on piano and Chris Serle as host.

7.30pm Colston Hall
with Bill Oddie, Ian Lavender, Barry Cryer and Neil Innes; the Jazz Train orchestra; the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Paul McGann

Four living comedy icons introduce a four-film salute to the best-loved past masters of silent humour, showing here on a giant screen with music from the 25-piece jazz combo, Jazz Train, and the European Silent Screen Virtuosi. Plus a ukulele tribute to Chaplin and an appearance by Paul McGann. £20 (£16 conc); £6 under 12s.


9.30am Colston Hall
HOMAGE TO CHAPLIN (U, Germany, 50 mins)
A rare chance to see a fine visual tribute to Charlie Chaplin, made in association with, and performed by students from, a German school for young people who are deaf. Showing here with a live piano accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald.

11am Colston Hall
Baby-faced Harry Langdon used a subtler form of visual comedy than that which became known as ‘slapstick’ but his talent made him a worthy rival of those who became better known. Here, Graeme Garden, of The Goodies and the I’M SORRY I HAVEN’T A CLUE panel explains why he’s a Langdon champion and introduces some of the comic’s brightest and funniest shorts. With live music.

2pm Arnolfini
Too often overshadowed by his more legendary comedies, THE CIRCUS boasts Chaplin’s most brilliant gags, including a Hall of Mirrors chase and climaxing with a de-trousering by monkeys on the high wire! Showing here with the UK premiere of a new short by the triple Oscar-winning animator, Richard Williams, based on his 1950s drawings of a circus in Spain.

4pm Bristol Old Vic
DAD’S ARMY and EASTENDERS star Ian Lavender makes his first Slapstick visit appearance to share his long-held passion for Buster Keaton – his chosen subject on a recent Celebrity Mastermind – before revealing and screening his all time favourite short by ‘the great stone face’ and then introducing SHERLOCK JUNIOR (PG, 1924, 45 mins) in which Keaton plays an aspiring detective wrongly accused of a crime by the family of the girl he loves. With live accompaniment by the five-piece European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

8pm Bristol Old Vic
The man who has probably worked with &/or written for more UK comics than anyone else on the planet shares his favourite moments and memories with another bright star of British comedy, Rob Brydon. Together, they’ll be telling tales and showing clips celebrating almost 100 years of film and tv humour – from Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, via Morecambe & Wise and David ‘Del Boy’ Jason to today.


9.30am Colston Hall
Amazingly, 2010 saw the rediscovery of not one but two unknown Chaplin films, a lost Charley Chase, and the recovery of films featuring Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon and British stars, Walter Forde and Pimple. Join silent comedy expert David Wyatt as he brings these gems and others to the screen again, concluding with the UK premiere of Stan Laurel’s restored Monty Python-like classic WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923).

11am Colston Hall
Writer, actor and wit Tim Brooke-Taylor shares his memories of working with the instantly-recognisable but often overlooked bug-eyed funny man Marty Feldman in his pre-Hollywood days. With clips of some of Marty’s best visual gags from shows like the seminal AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW and the BAFTA award-winning MARTY to illustrate and Chris Serle as host.

2pm Arnolfini
LECTURE: SLAPSTICK & THE CITY: Silent Comedy and the Metropolitan Playground plus HEAVEN’S SAKE and music from The Slapstick Boys
Dr Alex Clayton, Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Bristol, looks at how early slapstick films used urban architecture – including statues, giant clocks, escalators and industrial machines – to create some of their most vivid and comic sequences. With illustrative clips and, to follow, a Harold Lloyd comedy (U, 1926, 58 mins) set in the ‘Big Apple’, with a live accompaniment.

2pm Watershed
Eighty years on from the end of the silent film era, silent comedy is alive and well and regaining massive new audiences and global success in the guise of the Wallace and Gromit spin-off character Shaun the Sheep’. Here, Aardman Animation’s Creative Director Richard Goleszowski, chats with Sir Christopher Frayling about Shaun’s inspirations, development and popularity, using extracts from the shows and original models.

4pm Bristol Old Vic
When comedian and author Shappi Khorsandi was invited to add an item to BBC Radio 4’s THE MUSEUM OF CURIOSITY, she chose Charlie Chaplin and revealed that his THE GREAT DICTATOR is her all-time favourite film. Here, she explains why she is so drawn to this satire on dictatorship, Fascism, and racism before iintroducing the film (PG, 1940, 120 mins) in which Chaplin plays both the Hitleresque Adenoid Hynkel and his look-alike, a poor Jewish barber. £10-£5

8pm Watershed
To close Slapstick 2011, Tim Brooke-Taylor introduces the Frankenstein spoofathon which catapulted his comedy colleague Marty Feldman to international stardom. Here, Feldman plays Eye-Gore in a piece of inspired lunacy which also stars Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Dir: Mel Brooks, USA, 1974, 105 mins.

All the necessary information, with booking details and information on past festivals, can be found on the Slapstick site.


Europeana is one of those inestimably worthy, pan-European projects that the European Union funds handsomely, that some people get terribly idealistic about, and you wonder just how many people actually use. Launched in 2008, it is a multi-lingual portal to the digital resources of some 1,500 European museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections, among them the British Library, the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum. There are some 14.6 million items described and accessible on its site, which certainly makes for an exceptional collection. However, it is a portal, which means that all of this stuff is available elsewhere (i.e. on the websites of the contributing institutions), and Europeana depends on its success for the usefulness of having all this content in the one place and the degree to which researchers will identify with a Europe-wide culture and want to find content across its borders and languages.

Whether you think in a European kind of way, Europeana is undoubtedly hugely useful in bringing together such a cornucopia of content. It is simply and sensibly presented and records are meticulously described. Each record gives you the essential information on the chosen object (including in most case a thumbnail image, some of surprisingly poor quality), then provides you with a link to the object on the contributing institution’s website. The research will find paintings, drawings, maps, photos, pictures of museum objects, books, newspapers, letters, diaries, archival papers, cylinders, tapes, discs, radio broadcasts, films, newsreels and television broadcasts. Most are available for free (you do come across some paid access entries, mostly for Scotalnd’s SCRAN site). It is certainly something to explore.

Europeana search results page for ‘bioscope’

So, what will we find for the study of silent films? Our usual test search term of “kinetoscope” doesn’t yield too much, but type in “silent film” and you get 91 records (note that this will currently only bring up the English language records). Most of these are either photographs (particularly of cinemas, deriving for the UK resource Culture Grid) or a range of early films (mostly actualities) that derive from filmarchives online. Searchin under “cinematograph” brings up 37 records: among them photographs of cameras, postcards, posters and flyers, while “charlie chaplin” brings up 128 records: 3 texts, 100 images, 16 videos (mostly French TV programmes from INA) and 9 sound recordings (the latter all in French).

Other search terms worth pursuing include “bioscope” (26 results), “kinema” (33), “stumfilm” (62), “stummfilm” (110), “gaumont” (261) and “kino” (4,853). It is certainly worth knowing the common terms for film subjects in other languages (a tip is to check the keywords under item you’ve stumbled upon to find more of the same), though Europeana is working on solutions to provide true multilingual access through association of search terms (so you might type in “silent film” and get results from “stummfilm” as well). Among the surprises I have found are French First World War film posters from the Imperial War Museum (via the VADS visual resource site), a number of photographs of German silent films from Deutsche Fotothek, photographs of early cine cameras from the Norwegian DigitaltMuseum, and a terrific set of photographs of cinemas past in Leeds from

Worth noting is that Europeana is to be the outlet for a three-year project, the European Film Gateway, which in 2011 will deliver its own portal to 700,000 digital objects including films, photos, posters, drawings and text documents from 21 archives across 15 countries. More on that initiative when the time comes.

Kinemacolor projector held by the Norsk Teknisk Museum, available via Norway’s Digitalt Museum and Europeana

Searching on Europeana is a somewhat haphazard experience. Because it is a compilation of the greatest hits of other institutions and resources, one does not go there to conduct comprehensive research but instead to wander round almost at random and see what catches the eye. The real fascination then comes in seeing where the digital object comes from and pursuing that source for more information. This is of course what a portal is supposed to do, and so Europeana performs its basic task very well. More and more content is being poured into it, and it certainly provides a far more useful function than the much-lauded and so far very disappointing World Digital Library. All of our libraries are trying earnestly to turn themselves into digital libraries, an inevitable consequence of which is that more and more content gets shared through linkages and common search platforms, raising the profile of major initatives like Europeana while relegating the individual library to a subsidiary role. It’s going to be hard for the individual institution to retain its identity in our bright new digital future. For the researcher, meanwhile, the assumption is that more access is better, and the easier the better. That’s not necessarily the case (research isn’t research if it’s easy), but there’s certainly no excuse now for any of us not to be discovering more.

The Bioscope will be doing its bit for individual institutions over pan-national behemoths by writing about some of the contributors to Europeana over the next few weeks.

Their films, our music

Gary Lucas playing to Dracula at the New York Film Festival, September 2010, with Carlos Villarias was Dracula, from

Will silent films survive? After the present generation of enthusiasts is gone, and now with almost no one left who remembers silent films the first time round, what impetus will there be in an age of HD, 3D, video games, home cinema, web video and mobile video to attract young audience to a silent, monochrome world filled with quaint manners, outdated narrative conventions and names that no longer hold the magic that once they had?

This issue was debated recently on the silent film discussion forum Nitrateville, and many interesting arguments were given for the survival of silent films. The great availability of silent films on DVD and Blu-Ray, the rude health (general global economic downturn notwithstanding) of some excellent festivals, the sheer fascination of viewing a past that recedes ever further away from us, scholarly investigation, the importance of book publications to inspire and intrigue, and the dedication of archives, all are cited as reasons for optimism.

I would add another, which is the silent film’s need for music. What is distinctive about the silent film as a medium is that it requires accompaniment by us. We have to add something of ourselves – our music, that is – to bring the films back to life. This performance imperative is not unique to silent films. Of course it applies to dramas, operas, indeed the music of the past. The playscript and the sheet music are the preserve of the expert until what they contain is given life through performance, is popularised. But what particularly distinguishes the silent film is that marrying of two forms of artistic expression – the film, and our music alongside it.

The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)

I experienced three illustrations of this last Sunday. It is surely strong evidence of the vitality of the medium that I was able to go to three very different screenings of silent films where the music was the real subject of interest in one city (London) on one day. I started off at Imperial War Museum to see The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917). This documentary feature was made by the British goverment’s War Office Cinematograph Committee as the successor to the hugely successful The Battle of the Somme (1916), and the film – made by Geoffrey Malins, J.B. McDowell and Oscar Bovill – documents the later stages of the Somme conflict. While the film does not have the shock value or socio-historical resonances of the first film, it is more elegantly crafted and has shots of striking visual quality, in particular shellfire at night and iconic silhouetted figures against the sky.

The film depicts the routine of war in distinctively poetic terms. No other documentary medium can tell us so much about such engrossingly mundane details as soldiers donning thigh boots to fight off frost-bite, the wounded being given tea and sandwiches, and the ominpresent mud. It also features genuine footage (filmed at a distance with shaky camera) of troops going over the top and crossing no-man’s land. And of course it has tanks, which is what the public particularly came to see and which helped make the film a commercial success.

For the screening Toby Haggith of the IWM and pianist Stephen Horne had constructed the original ‘score’. As with their earlier project of The Battle of the Somme, there wasn’t a score as such, but rather a collection of musical suggestions for the different stages of the film, recommended in 1917 by musical director J. Morton Hutcheson. Horne has put together this pot pourri of popular tunes from the era, which was played by Horne himself (piano, flute and accordion), Geoffrey Lawrence (cornet), Sophie Langdon (violin) and Martin Pyne (percussion). The emphasis was on popular. Hutcheson had picked the pop hits of the day without much thought on their relevance to the film sequences they were to match, except for some association of names, though it was hard to fathom why a tune entitled ‘The Happy Frog’ had been chosen for a scene with a tank. As the film progressed so Hutcheson became more caught in the gravity of what was being shown and the music became of greater moment, but my abiding memory of the screening is of a line of howitzers shown to the sounds of a palm court orchestra with the occasional polite thud of the drum each time of of the guns fired. You did wonder what audiences made of such a musical mélange. Did it seem appropriate? Did it affect their view on what was on the screen? Did they hear differently to ourselves? Did they simply not pay it much attention?

This might seem to be the converse of adding our music to their films, but it is our modern taste to seek out authenticity in this way. Horne’s meticulous musical reconstruction took us that much closer to the past, while at the same time making the past seem all the more like the foreign country where things are done differently.

The brides of Dracula from the Spanish version of Dracula (1931), from

A few hours latter, and I was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank for two film screenings with live music that were part of the London Jazz Festival. This was something of a personal thrill as two of my favourite musicians were on the same bill. First up was guitarist Gary Lucas playing guitar to the Spanish version of Dracula (1931). This is the version of Tod Browning’s film that was shot on the same sets at night with a Spanish cast and director Geoge Melford. So yes it’s a sound film, albeit one with long stretches of silence and no background music except at the beginning and end. So why accompanying it with live music?

The effect certainly was jarring to begin with. Dialogue, translated titles and great swooping washes of electric guitar laden with effects pedals was a bit too much for the ears to take in all at once, but gradually you acommodated yourself to it, and Lucas’ wall of sound has proven itself an effective form of providing musical accompaniment to silents (notably his music for Der Golem) and now quasi-silents. He speaks through his guitar and his music is an expression of his enthusiasm for what is being shown on the screen. That’s the key point. It is not simply a rock musician doing his thing with a silent film (as others have done, often with painfully inapposite results). Enthusiasm for the film comes first, and with that an expression of that enthusiasm through his medium of choice – the electric guitar (two in fact). The result leaves the film still very much a 1931 film, but also one that connects through music with 2010.

The film itself is quaint, but while I wouldn’t say it was hugely superior to Browning’s original (as some have done), it shows invention and the sort of creepiness, except where adherence to the stage production drags it down. Carlos Villarias’s smiling Dracula drew laughter from the audience (I found him off-puttingly similar to Steve Carrell), but Pablo Alvarez Rubio (Renfield) played insanity as well as I’ve ever seen it done, and Lupita Tovar (Eva) was strikingly voluptuous.

Keystone, from

The second film that evening was a silent film of sorts – a new work by experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison, who has enjoyed much acclaim for his work Decasia, composed out of found, distressed footage, which finds an otherworldly beauty in images in the process of decay. Morrison has continued to produced work in a similar vien, his latest effort being Spark of Being, inspired by the Frankenstein story, which he has developed with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. Douglas is building up a distinctive track record of silent film-inspired work with his band Keystone, though his modern jazz sound with strong beats behind it is better viewed as being inspired by the silents of Keaton and Arbuckle (subjects of earlier Keystone recordings) than ideal accompaniments to the films themselves.

The band came on stage – trumpet, saxophone, bass, drums, Rhodes and someone off-stage providing electronic noises – and played a punchy overture, then the film began. It was divided up into chapters (“The Captain’s Story”, “The Doctor’s Creation”, “The Creature Confronts His Creator” etc.) with the band accompanying what was shown on the screen. Morrison’s film is a mixture of distressed actuality footage and archive film, all of it silnet (or rather sound-less) including polar exploration (some of it Frank Hurley’s film of the Shackleton expedition), crowds (an amusing short sequence where people glower at the camera to signify public reaction to the Creature), two naked lovers running through woodland (““Observations of Romantic Love”) and a delightful sequence showing a Bavarian wedding projected at a slow speed that gave it a mesmeric quality). However, with the exception of the wedding, the archive film didn’t really convey the symbolic quality that was expected of it, and sometimes jarred with the bolder use of distressed footage. It was these sequences where the band seemed happiest, letting rip against a furious cavalcade of distorted images. On other occasions it seemed constrained by the need to follow the film, and one sensed that the audience would have been content just to have had the band play and never mind the film.

That’s a shame, because it was a bold coming together of experimental film and post-bop jazz, telling a familiar story in an imaginatively oblique fashion. And it was a modern silent film, given its own spark of being by Douglas’ music. I especially admire Douglas’ imaginative vision of the silent film as a springboard for musical invention, which has taken him from Keaton and Arbuckle’s Moonshine to Bill Morrison with the same band, Keystone. Certainly Sunday night would have comes as a surprise to Mack Sennett.

Silent films will survive for many reasons, but one of them is music. They are always going to sound new, to have a connection with our times, so long as we keep on re-imagining how we want to make them sound. It is a key to their enduring appeal to the imagination.

Spark of Being, from

Tied to the tracks

I’m grateful to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing this delightful short animation by Aidan McAteer to my attention. It is funny, stylish, and will have particular resonance for any weekend train traveller in the UK who has come up against the words ‘engineering works’ …

It’s a mocking idea of a silent film, the kind of silent film that was never made. All those know don’t know silent films know one thing about them – that they featured evil villains who twirled their moustaches then tied a hapless female to the railway track. And all those who do know silent films know that such scenes were hackneyed even before films were invented, and the few films that did show them did so as parody.

It’s an issue that comes up time and time again, so let’s try and pin down the historical truth. The idea of an entertainment where someone is tied to a railway track and is rescued in the nick of time certainly predates cinema. The entertainment that put the idea into the popular imagination was an 1867 stage melodrama written by American playwright and theatre manager Augustin Daly entitled Under the Gaslight which featured a man tried to railway tracks who was rescued by a woman before he could be run over by the oncoming train (Victorian theatre revelled in such stage spectaculars). An earlier play, The Engineer, had some elements that may have inspired Daly, but he put all the right elements together.

Poster for Under the Gaslight, from Note the male victim and the female rescuer

When the man in peril was changed to a woman in peril in the popular imagination is unclear, but it is no surprise that the transference was made. The play was wildly popular and was re-produced many times, while Daly complained that his big idea was stolen by other theatrical managers who adapted it for their own entertainments. When films appeared, thirty years later, the mannerisms of stage meldorama that had sent shivers up Victorian spines were out-of-date (so no more twirling of moustaches if you wanted your villain to be taken seriously) while the elaborate stage effects were increasingly supplanted by the realism that cinema could provide by filming on location. So, as dramatic films emerged a major sub-genre emerged of the train thriller (including such notable titles as D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and Her Trust). But the thrill had transferred from the tracks to the train itself. It is the speed, power and modernity of the train that characterises such films, not the notion of tying someone to the tracks which was too much ingrained in outmoded stage conventions to be taken seriously.

That said, the transference was not immediate, because there were at least two films featuring a woman in peril of being run over by a train that played it straight before anyone played it for laughs. Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s The Train Wreckers (Edison 1905) features a switchman’s daughter who is pursued by a gang of outlaws, tied to a tree, then when she she escapes (her dog unties the rope) the outlaws knock her unconscious and lay her on the railway track. Happily her boyfriend is a rail engineer who scoops her up from the cow-catcher in the nick of time. So, not exactly tied to the rails, but near enough, and a work very much in the spirit of the Victorian melodrama.

The set-up was still credible in 1911 because it turned up again with Pathé/American Kinema’s The Attempt on the Special, which is very close in action to the earlier film, down the heroine being left unconscious on the rails (rather than tied up) and the assistance from a dog. It is described thus by the BFI National Archive:

Nell, the pointsman’s daughter is tied up by a gang who plan to rob a train. A greyhound, taught to relay messages between herself and her boyfriend comes to her aid and unties her. She sends the dog off with a message for help, but in attempting to escape she is knocked down and left lying on the track. The message is recieved in time to save the girl and the gang is routed.

Ford Sterling with the sledgehammer and Mabel Normand tied in the rails in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), from

The film that established the parodic idea, and which is often used to illustrate it, is Keystone’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), featuring real-life motor racer Barney Oldfield, Ford Sterling as the moustachioed villain and Mabel Normand as the victim. The film plays it entirely for laughs, and the still above shows you everything you would expect to see. Not only is it not the archetypal silent, but it is unusual for its time in parodying dramatic conventions that someone like D.W. Griffith was still half in thrall to. Perhaps 1913 was some sort of a threshold year of a lack of respect for Victoriana, because stage melodrama is similarly ridiculed by the British film Blood & Bosh, made in the same year by Hepworth. It can be seen as a sign of the growing maturity of the film medium as it outgrew its stage origins, and as the twentieth century increasingly outgrew the nineteenth.

Betty Hutton playing Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947), from

It is commonly believed that heroines being tied to the tracks was a common element in the adventures serials that appeared around this time, such as The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The Perils of Pauline (1914) or The Hazards of Helen (1914-17). Such serials skilfully married the melodramatic conventions of an earlier age with independent heroines that were a part of the modern world. The heroines were put into perilous situations, but they had the resourcefulness to escape from them. Trains feature frequently in such serials, but the heroine is more likely to be tackling danger on the train rather than being passively threatened by it. The Perils of Pauline, often cited as showing Pauline (Pearl White) being tied to a railway track, contained no such scene. Indeed, the only example from a silent serial I have traced with anything like such a scenario is the Helen Holmes serial, A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916). Here a person was a person tied to the tracks, but it was a man, and it was Helen – in true Under the Gaslight fashion – who rescued him. In the 1947 feature film The Perils of Pauline Betty Hutton (playing Pauline heroine Pearl White) does get tied to the rails, but that just shows what had been forgotten about silents in less than two decades. And it was probably from here – a parody of a parodic idea – that the idea as being archetypally silent film took hold, and has remained.

Helen Holmes to the rescue in A Lass of the Lumberlands

Interestingly Under the Gaslight itself was filmed, in 1914, with Lionel Barrymore and Millicent Evans, though the plot synopses I’ve seen make no mention of any trains at all (and the film is lost). Instead it was Keystone who returned to the comic idea established in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life when they made Teddy at the Throttle (1917), in which Gloria Swanson gets tied (strictly speaking, chained) to the tracks, Wallace Beery is the villain, and it is the quick-witted dog (Teddy) who saves Gloria.

So the idea was around in the silent era, but infrequently so. It was played straight on a few occasions, parodied on about as many, and inverted on at least one occasion. It is anything but a major theme.

But the myth goes on. The villain twirls his moustache. The pianist pounds away furiously as the train grows ever closer. The girl, bound with rope, squirms and screams. Will the hero get there in time? Will the idea that this is what silent films were about ever be shaken off? Probably not. It’s what people need to know who don’t need to know. We’ll just have to live with them.

Three Mexican silents

The Cineteca Nacional after the fire

On 24 March 1982 fire broke out in Mexico’s national film archive, the Cineteca Nacional. Smoke was reported as coming out of all four vaults (one of which held nitrate film) and the fire brigade was called. People were told to evacuate the building, but a screening was going on the the archive’s main theatre. The director went to stop the screening:

I was asking the audience to leave at once because there was an emergency: I asked them to do it calmly. The doors were opened and everybody seemed to cooperate … There was a group of youngsters left behind; they were claiming their money back. Then there came the eruption, and a big flame coming out of the screen reached us. I saw the ceiling fall down. I threw myself to the floor …

There were three explosions, and the fire was to rage for fourteen hours. Five people died, maybe more. The effect on Mexican film heritage was devasting: the exact figures are unclear, but perhaps as much as 99% of the archive film collection was lost, some 5,000 films (other sources say 6,500), of which around half were feature films and short subjects. The archive’s library and public records on film production were also lost. Although the fire was apparently caused by overheating of electrical wiring but what made it so devastating was the nitrate cellulose – highly flammable, indeed explosive, and able to continue burning without oxygen, so making it resistant to all the usual means of containing fires.

This sobering tale – the greatest disaster ever to visit a national film archive in terms of percentage of films lost (a greater number of films overall was probably lost in the Cinémathèque Française fire of 1980) – is worth recalling when we consider films from Mexico’s silent era. Feature films got underway in Mexico in 1917 (after the revolution) when a drop in foreign films owing to the First World War encouraged local producers to fill the gap. But after a flurry of activity production was constrained during the 1920s, as Hollywood competition returned. Producers struggled to get films made and shown, and the greatest and most prolific period of Mexican cinema would not come until the 1940s-50s.

Therefore there were few Mexican silent feature films made, and so few survive today. Those that do exist, however, are championed not simply because their fortunate survival, but because of their quality and distinctive style. Some have made it to festivals and retrospectives and it is very pleasing to be able to report that another Mexican archive, the Filmoteca CINE UNAM, has just made three Mexican silent feature films freely available on its website, streamed in high quality.

Tepeyac (1917), from

Tepeyac was made in 1917 by José Manuel Ramos, Carlos E. González, and Fernando Sáyago. Its subject is the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego (a Mexican Indian) in 1531. The opening sequences take in the present, where the heroine (played by Pilar Cotta with a touch of the Italian diva about her), distraught at her lover having been drowned at sea, reads a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe whereupon the film takes us back to the sixteenth century and the conflict between the Spaniards and the native peoples. The technique is faltering, but the film’s ambition and distinctive style are noteworthy. It uses national history, myth, location and religion to carve out an idea of a cinema that was distrinctively Mexican. Rudimentary though it may be, its very difference is what appeals. The film is presented in six parts, 47 mins in total, with modern Spanish titles replacing lost originals. It is also shown silent, as with the other two films on the Filmoteca UNAM site.

El tren fantasma (1927), from

The other two films were made by Mexico’s leading filmmaker of the silent era, Gabriel García Moreno. The first is El tren fantasma (The Ghost Train) (1927), a marvellous thriller about a bandit gang sabotaging a railway line. It is filled with chases, fights (including bullights) and hair’s breadth escapes – and the actors performed all their own stunts. Fast-moving, technically adventurous and ably performed, El tren fantasma is the sort of silent film to which you point people to demonstrate just how much silent films can be. The 70 minute film is presented silent, with Spanish and English intertitles.

The morphine injection scene from El puño de hierro (1927), from

And then there is El puño de hierro (The Iron Fist) (1927), the most remarkable of the three. Again directed by Gabriel García Moreno, this was a quite different work to the populist adventures of El tren fantasma. It is an extraordinary tale, sadly with striking modern-day resonance, of drug addiction and criminal gangs in Mexico. It portrays in often delirious fashion a dark underside of Mexican life not previously shown on the screen, and is strongly reminiscent of Louis Feuillade’s serials of crime and mystery, Fantomas and Les Vampires, with its Bat gang of hooded criminals and its surrealist imaginings of fantastical happenings in realistic settings. It was all a bit too much for Mexican film audiences, who rejected the film out of hand, bringing about the end of Moreno’s career as a director, alas. But two masterpieces in one year is quite a cinematic legacy, and El puño de hierro is undoubtedly a film to see. It runs for 77 minutes in five parts and is shown silent, with Spanish and English subtitles.

Grateful thanks must go to the Filmoteca CINE UNAM for making the films available to all, and congratulations are to it on its 50th birthday. It had its own fire in 1977, but though some original nitrate films were lost, almost all had been copied onto modern stock, so actual losses were few). Its sister archive, the Cineteca Nacional, was rebuilt in 1984, and flourishes once more under far better management, it is good to report.

Information on the Cineteca Nacional fire comes from Roger Smither, This Film is Dangerous:a Celebration of Nitrate Film (2002). For information on Gabriel García Moreno I recommend the essay ‘El Puño de Hierro, a Mexican Silent Film Classic‘ by William M. Drew and Esperanza Vázquez Bernal (originally published in the FIAF Journal of FIlm Preservation). For information on Mexican silent cinema in general, see Thomas Böhnke’s Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika, which is in German but is the first place to go for information on Latin American silent cinema. And, just in case you missed the link, the three films can be found at

In a silent way

In our occasional discussions of jazz and silent film, particularly jazz / improvisatory guitar and silent film, we haven’t yet covered Marc Ribot. The guitarist whose edgy sounds are best known through his work with Tom Waits, recently released an album entitled Silent Movies. The album was inspired by his experience of playing live to Chaplin’s The Kid at Merkin Concert Hall in January 2010 as part of the New York Guitar Festival, though he has played to silent films before now (Giovanni Pastrone’s Il Fuoco in 2007, for example). Only one track on the album comes from that score, but all are about the experience of putting music to film. As it says on the record company’s website:

The album reflects Ribot’s fascination with movies and contains pieces intended to function as music for films: some are adaptations of music he has actually written for films, others for classic silent movies that he scored for his personal amusement, still others for films of his own imagination. His goal is to explore, as he says “the strange area between language and spatiality that exists partly in between music and visual image, and partly as a common property of both.”

Contrary to other solo guitar forays by Ribot, where “bracing atonality or studies in texture” prevail, Silent Movies is – we are promised – “replete with beautiful melodies and quietly wistful playing”, with Ribot commenting on the CD liner notes that the project ““did indeed have the feeling of having walked backwards into the beautiful frame of a silent movie.”

All of which sounds rather pleasant, and is still further evidence of the new interest some in the jazz world are finding in silent films. Of course, we who attend silent film shows are used to improvised music where the musician works as much to the themes on the screen as the musical themes. It’s seldom what you would call jazz if you listened to it without watching the screen, but the same spirit – exploratory yet disciplined – pervades.

There’s an article in the current Jazz Times (available online) which rounds up some of the recent comings-together of jazz and silent films, each of which has been covered by the Bioscope. Apart from Marc Ribot, there’s Dave Douglas’ Keystone project (covered here, plus his new work Spark of Being with filmmaker Bill Morrison here), guitarist Bill Frisell’s tributes to Buster Keaton (covered here), and billionaire filmmaker Dan Pritzker’s film Louis, made as a silent film and performed live with a Wynton Marsalis score (covered here). Not covered in the article is the work of Gary Lucas, a guitarist whose works hovers between jazz and the avant garde (covered here).

Trailer for Dan Pritzker’s Louis, with Wyonton Marsalis’ music

What other examples are out there? Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon played his part-composed, part-improvsed score for 16-piece big band for Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925) at the National Black Arts Festival in July. Guitarist Alex de Grassi has been playing to Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934), while last month saxophonist Javon Jackson premiered his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger at the Syracuse International Film Festival. Saxophonist Courtney Pine produced a score for the BFI DVD release of Kenneth Macpherson’s experimental feature Borderline (1930). Clarinettist Louis Sclavis scored Charles Vanel’s Dans la nuit (1929). Another clarinettist Don Byron has scored for another silent film designed for black audiences, Frank Peregini’s The Scar of Shame (1927). And another guitarist, Henry Kaiser, has played to Kinugasa Teinosuke’s A Page of Madness (1926). Finally, avant jazz musician Jan Kopinski has scored and played for a number of silent films, including Nosferatu, Safety Last and The Seashell and the Clergyman.

Any more examples?

Pordenone diary 2010 – complete

Scenes from the Pordenone silent film festival – clockwise from top left: Kevin Brownlow accepting an award, audience in the Verdi, festival director David Robinson, Pordenone street, festival goers outside the Verdi, theatre seating

The Bioscope has now published its daily diary for all eight days of the 2010 Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone Silent Film Festival). For convenience’s sake, here are the links to each day with the main films covered in each report. The major themes of the festival were Japanese films from the Shochiku studio, three Soviet careers (Abram Room, Lev Push and Mikhail Kalatozov) and French clowns (1907-1914).

Day one (2 October)
Introduction to the festival, Japanese Girls at the Harbour

Day two (3 October)
Seven Seas, Rituaes e festas Bororo, Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, Striking a New Note, Drifters, Battleship Potemkin

Day three (4 October)
Love Be With Humanity, French Clowns (Boireau), The Nail in the Boot, The Masks of Mer, Le Miracle des Loups

Day four (5 October)
French Clowns (Boireau), Salt for Svanetia, Ginga, A Thief Catcher, Upstream, Chess Fever

Day five (6 October)
Bed and Sofa, Madagascan films of 1898, Corrick Collection, No Rastro do Eldorado, Marizza, Rien Que Les Heures, La Folie des Vaillants

Day six (7 October)
Blind Justice, Shingun, Death Bay, The Great Art of Light and Shadow

Day seven (8 October)
Why Do You Cry Youngsters?, Giuli, Corrick Collection, Die Waffen der Jugend, Robin Hood

Day eight (9 October)
Young Master at University, Moana, A Hero of Tokyo, French Clowns, The Ghost that Never Returns, Wings, final thoughts

Interested in the Bioscope’s reports on the Pordenone silent film festival for 2007-2009? Links to these can be found on the Series page (under Pordenone).

Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Verdi theatre, Pordenone, with book fair in the background

And so we come to our final report on the 2010 Pordenone silent film festival. The Bioscope’s editor was on the plane home by this point, but happily our cub reporter The Mysterious X was on the spot to brings this account of day eight’s offering (Saturday, October 9th).

The final day; always a source of mixed feelings. On the one hand, that end-of-a-holiday sensation, saying goodbye to friends both Italian and international that we may not see for another year; on the other that the next day represents a return to normality, the chance of a proper breakfast, your own comfy bed, and more than five hours sleep per night.

But a change of venue this morning – The Verdi being prepared, and the orchestra rehearsed, for the evening show – and we all take the pleasant stroll up the Via Garibaldi to Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema, for the morning. Smaller, more modern, just about enough room for the audience numbers, plenty of legroom if you do get a seat. No pianos this year; we have a morning of silents in their sound versions.

Starting with Daigaku No Wakadama (Young Master at University) (Japan 1933); the notes don’t reveal whether the synchronised music score is from a later reissue print or whether we are already in a transitional period in Japanese terms. The film itself seems transitional though; as in the other Shochiku films we’ve seen this week, there is a tangible sense of a nation sat on the cusp between tradition and modernity, East and West … and not entirely comfortably. The Young Master of the title is a star player of the university rugby team; so we’re western and modern right away; except the rugby club is run along the lines of an officers’ mess in Victorian India; arcane rules of behaviour, regimented discipline, strictly hierarchical … so we’re ripped out of that feeling immediately. The Young Master is also heir to his father’s wholesalery, run on ultra-traditional lines; Father does not approve of rugby, is unsure of the benefits of university versus commercial experience, while the Young Master is not overkeen on inheriting such a rigid existence quite yet; he is, within the constraints of his environment, a practical joker and an apprentice playboy. In such a spirit, he invites young Hoshichuyo, an apprentice Geisha in love with his father’s clerk, to watch a training session incognito … but she is recognised when his sister arrives, goes into hiding in his changing room locker, whereupon she is discovered. She is banished … and so is he, from the rugby club. Further complications ensue (the clerk is betrothed to the sister, and so on) which need to be sorted out before The Young Master can be reinstated in time to play in The Big Game.

So it has the structure of a farce comedy, but is (I assumed anyway) a breezy romantic drama more than a laughfest; it did have comical moments, particularly during the climactic game when we see the legs of a downed player whip out of frame, as he is unceremoniously dragged off while the scrum is being set … it’s possible the political manoeuverings of the rugby club leaders were intended as satirical comedy, if it didn’t register as such with me. It was certainly more light-hearted than other examples we had seen this week, and a good start to the day. Incidentally, the film also featured a nicely anachronistic piece of set-dressing; in the apartment of one of the characters, I think that of the clerk, were a couple of Hollywood talkie posters; a French-language one-sheet for All Quiet on The Western Front, and another for an early Cary Grant film, The Eagle and the Hawk. So, if anyone ever asks you if Cary Grant was ever in a silent film, you can now respond “Only in Japan” …

Moana, from MoMA

The second offering I wasn’t planning on seeing; and as it was getting lively in the Cinemazero I decided to catch five minutes while standing at the edge, before getting some sunshine. Robert Flaherty’s Moana (USA 1926) was being presented with a soundtrack compiled in the ’80’s by Robert’s daughter Monica, who had been in Samoa as a very young girl during the filming; she had taken great pains in recording the sounds of Samoa, and recreating the speech of the on-screen participants, fifty years after the event; the ethics, the anthropological niceties of these efforts I’ll leave to others better qualified, but I can see why she would have wanted to make one of her father’s less well known projects more approachable for modern audiences. This was also being presented as a work-in-progress; I understand no viewable film print exists of this project at the moment; that is, however, the plan; we were watching a DVD being played off a laptop. I understand that this all went horribly wrong for a while after I exited … the feedback I got was not overwhelmingly positive on a number of points.

Back in again for the final film from the Shochiku strand: Tokyo No Eiyu (A Hero Of Tokyo) (Japan 1935), and again, a transitional dialogue-free film with a musical soundtrack. Directed by Shimizu, as were many of the films shown on the first days of the festival, this reverted to the template of a dark, tragedic exploration of the moral codes and hierarchies within Japanese society of the thirties. We meet a widowed businessman with a young son; feeling that he cannot devote enough time to his upbringing he remarries (for convenience, it seems) a widowed mother of two other children. After some initial sibling friction is played out, Father does a bunk; his business was selling shares in dodgy stocks, and he’d been found out. This leaves the mother with no income and no means to support herself, her two children plus this new stepson; she does what a woman has to do in a Shochiku film; she joins the sex trade, surreptitiously, unknown by all her family …

Fast forward fifteen years or so; her daughter is on the point of marrying into a ‘good’ family; they enquire into the family history, and the truth emerges. As does the father, up to his old tricks … at which point SHE feels the need to apologise to HIM for the shame …

At least in this film the outrage of the director towards the status quo is made obvious to a modern audience; this is a sharper critique than the preceding, far longer, films: more pointed, and to the point. The performances, of Mitsuko Yoshikawa as the woman trodden down by the societal rules, debasing herself to keep her family together; and of Yukichi Iwata as the bewildered, then angry son, are superb. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone in terms of entertainment, it
was for me the best of this strand. The bad news is, I’m told, that nearly all of the extant Japanese silents have been shown at Pordenone now; unless there are new discoveries … that’s our lot.

Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns), from

Back down the Via Garibaldi to the Posta for lunch … creature of habit that I am … before the afternoon’s offering, Abram Room’s Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns) (USSR 1930). It’s a stunning film, a tour de force combination of avant garde elements within an adventure film format – with a more than a dash of revolutionary propaganda, naturally. Our hero is a political prisoner in an unnamed South American country. Sentenced to vegetate in a semi-surrealist prison, a message is got to him that a strike is being planned in the oilfields by his colleagues on the outside; meanwhile his once-a-decade one day’s parole is imminent; the catch is that if the parole’s rules are broken, an armed guard is handily placed to execute summary justice. It becomes a series of battles of wits; between the prison authorities and the prisoner, then individually between the prisoner and his guard, as he jumps a train and treks across a desert wasteland towards home, the oilfields … and freedom ??? It’s utterly unlike any other Soviet film I’ve seen … aside from its politics … it has elements of the Soviet avant garde, but equally hints of Expressionism and Hollywood … a really interesting blend of styles that suited its subject matter, and made it more persuasive than most Soviet propaganda, I would imagine. Certainly more entertaining …

The final presentation of the French Clowns followed; Tartinette to Zizi … I saw a couple, not impressed again, to be honest … a lot of work must have been put into researching these films, and getting the prints here … but the presentation of them in large chunks in alphabetical order chased away all but the most ardent devotee … and lost the films the opportunity of making new converts. A great shame.

So out to the Posta for one last appointment with a Spritz Aperol, to find that the usually milling Saturday evening crowd had been augmented by people admiring a vintage car display, half a dozen beautifully restored thirties vehicles lined up, and, for a fortunate few, giving little joyrides around the town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much joy on one man’s face as when Phil Carli returned from his …

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings (1927), from

And so to the finale, perhaps even a climax; the full live orchestral presentation of William Wellman’s Wings (USA 1927), featuring the Photoplay print, and the Orchestra Mitteleuropea conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald playing the Carl Davis score. It’s one of his finest, I think, that great March as the main theme, some nice leitmotifs reappearing throughout as appropriate … very effective.

And, what with all the sound effects of the battle sequences having to come from the orchestra, I would imagine a nightmare to play. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, they nailed it. It’s a powerful film – not just the legendary flying sequences, or the breathtaking battlefront climax … but the subtle underplaying of emotions, too … sometimes Clara and Buddy go slightly over but Arlen, and particularly Henry B. Walthall convey the suppressed emotion just beneath the surface to great effect.

But it is famous for those war sequences, and deservedly so; on the big screen you get to see so much more of it; on a small screen you don’t see the aircraft growing from the smallest dot to ambush the pontoon bridge, or the staff car … you don’t quite see the battlefield extending right to the horizons … and you’re involved, you’re in the air, or in the mud, with them. And did the shot of the white crosses covering the whole landscape inform the similar shot in Attenborough’s Oh! What A Lovely War? I would just hesitate from calling it the perfect WW1 film; for that we would need a little more Gary Cooper, a little less El Brendel, a good deal fewer animated bubbles in Paris … with the latter, a nice idea that was way overused … actually, that applies to El too. And I struggle to quite see how anyone with Clara living next door would pursue the rather more watery charms of Jobyna Ralston. However much an advantage being from The City conferred. But this is nitpicking; you sit back, let the film and the orchestra take you to a time past; either WWI, or the days in the twenties when such presentations were daily occurrences in the larger cities … it was a terrific way to end the Giornate of 2010.

The Verdi at night

Was it a classic year? Not quite, I feel, though there were, as always, cinematic experiences to cherish, lessons to learn, doors opened to unsuspected areas of interest; films that would surprise, or delight, or shock, but seldom leave without further thought. And certainly films that you will be unlikely to have a second chance of seeing, as here, as they were designed to be seen.

I’m very aware that I haven’t mentioned many of the musicians’ performances; this was entirely down to a happy event chez Sosin (many congratulations, Donald and Joanna) which meant that after his (superb) show with Jean Darling on the Wednesday he hotfooted it back home, and the remainder of the Giornate stalwarts shared out the films between them – and naturally, I failed to take notes as to who ended up playing for which film. Needless to say Messrs Brand, Buchwald, Carli, Horne, and Sweeney were all playing at the top of their game despite there being some challenging films in the programme. The Book Fair was much reduced, perched on the third floor of The Verdi, but I got hold of the one DVD I was after (Cento Anni Fa, the Bologna-compiled set of Suffragette films) so I was happy.

The social side, of course, was as good as ever, new friendships made, old friendships renewed; the Giornate staff and volunteers helpful and patient, the locals as welcoming and understanding (and as amused by our attempts at Italian ) as ever, the food and drink … I look forward to what goodies are to be pulled from the bag for us next year, the 30th renewal of the World’s most important silent film festival. I hope to see you there …

Huge thanks once again to The Mysterious X, who has donned the domino, cast a cloak about their person, and slipped away mysteriously as ever into the inky dark night. I would concur with X’s assessment of the festival – not quite a classic, but funding constraints had their effect upon the programme. We missed the variety that would have been there with another strand of programming (such as the Leo McCarey shorts which were promised early on); with just the one screen available, maybe the Japanese films (some of which were very long) took up a bit too much space. But that’s only by comparison with earlier festivals. The riches on offer were real riches, and there were major discoveries every day. I was particularly encouraged by the new faces I saw the festival – students from Italy and the USA especially – which suggests that the festival is not just showing the same films to the same crowd but continues to reach out to those who need to discover silents for the first time. Tell that to your funders, guys – you are doing the right things.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven

Kevin Brownlow honoured

From right to left, Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach posing after the Governors Awards held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, 13 November 2010. From Reuters

Warm congratulations to Kevin Brownlow on his receipt last night of an honorary Academy Award for his work in documenting and preserving the films of the silent era.

Brownlow received his award alongside Francis Ford Coppola (receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award) and actor Eli Wallach at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual annual Governors Awards ceremony. Jean-Luc Godard was also given an honorary award but declined to turn up. Hollywood luminaries such as Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Oliver Stone, Kevin Spacey and Robert De Niro were in the audience. There are reports on BBC News, Reuters, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times.

Coppola has gained the all the notices, but Brownlow’s achievement is the real headline news – for silent films, film preservation, the historiography of cinema, and for British cinema – and of course for himself. Kevin took the opportunity to lecture his audience on how American copyright laws had made his work more difficult, while also celebrating the artistry of the filmmakers who made Hollywood the cultural and commercial powerhouse that it remains.

If you are keen to find out more about Brownlow’s career as filmmaker, writer, programme maker and preservationist, I warmly recommend an interview with Brownlow conducted by Ann Harding in 2008, originally published in French but now re-published in English on her excellent blog, Ann Harding’s Treasures:

AMPAS has published videos of tributes paid to Kevin Brownlow and Kevin’s acceptance speech at the Governors Award ceremony:

There’s also a biography with filmography and a ‘did you know’ on Kevin Brownlow on the AMPAS site.

Kevin Brownlow accepting his award, from

From Kinetoscope to Kinoscope

70 Oxford Street, London, today (from Google Street View) and in October 1894, from The Westminster Budget, 26 October 1894

If you travel eastwards down London’s Oxford Street, keeping to the north side of the road, you will come across an electronics shop of unprepossessing frontage, currently named McDonald’s. It claims to be the oldest electronics shop in Oxford Street, but it tells you nothing about its place in film history. Because it was here – at 70 Oxford Street – that the first public exhibition of motion picture film took place in the UK. On 17 October 1894 the Continental Commerce Company exhibited the Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device showing short films, no more than a minute long, which people could see by peering down through a viewer at a tiny image. No photograph exists of this Kinetoscope parlour (as they were called), but a drawing in a newspaper gives us some idea of the layout and clientele. We know that there were ten machines available, and that among the films on show were Blacksmith’s Shop, Cock Fight, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, The Bar Room, Carmencita, Wrestling Match, and Barber Shop.

Edison’s Carmencita (1894), one of the films featured at the first public film exhibition in the UK

Strictly speaking we’re talking about two different 70 Oxford Streets, since the original building is long gone. Around the time of the centenary of cinema (1995/96) we tried to get a plaque put on the building that now stands there, but the owners weren’t interested, so the plaque was put up nearby at no. 76. Sadly the owners of 76 showed a similar lack of respect for cinema history, and the plaque has now gone. Kinetoscopes themselves didn’t last too long, either. It was obvious to budding film entrepreneurs that films would be a greater attraction on a screen, not least because this would attract a greater number of paying customers, and within fifteen months (in the UK) projected film on a screen was a commercial reality, and the Kinetoscope’s era was over.

Wind forward 116 years and the Kinetoscope is making a sort of a comeback. The biennial Fashion in Film Festival takes place in London 1-12 December and among the side attractions, running 15 November-14 December is Kinoscope Parlour, a project supported by Film London’s Digital Film Archive Fund, which is bringing back something like the Kinetoscope experience to London. Here’s how Film London describes it:

Twelve different locations in the run-up to, and throughout, the festival will host a contemporary re-imagining of the Kinetoscope – presenting a selection of feature films made by the pioneers of early cinema, as well as archive footage that will reveal hidden layers of local cinema history. The six units, specially designed for the project, will be placed in key locations in the capital’s outer boroughs from 15 November, before the Kinoscope Parlour is re-located to London’s central boroughs for the course of the festival. For four weeks, passers-by will be able to transport themselves back to a bygone era through the magic of the moving image.

Between 15-28 November the Kinoscope will be found at these London sites: Castle Green in Dagenham, CREST charity shop in Walthamstow, Kilburn Library, Lewisham Library, Queen’s Market in Upton Park and Wolves Lane Nursery in Wood Green. Between 29 November-14 December it will be located at BFI Southbank, The Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, Somerset House, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors (Hackney) and The Wapping Project. Further details including a map are on the Fashion Film Festival site.

It won’t be too difficult to spot the Kinoscopes as they are strikingly designed in black and white stripes by designer Mark Garside. There are six of them, one for each location, unlike the original parlour idea where ten were arrayed together in rows. The original Kinetoscopes were coin-operated; the Kinoscopes are free and you have to turn a wheel to view the films, which through “cutting-edge digital technology” allows you to control the speed of the films. The films themselves are a mixture of productions from Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison (the only one of the films originally designed for showing in a peepshow), Gaston Velle, Segundo de Chomón, Robert Paul, Ferdinand Zecca and Alice Guy-Blaché, with an emphasis on “dress manipulations and magical transformations” to tie in with the fashion on film theme. Additionally there will be archive film of London’s cinema history up to the 1930s. The full list of films, indicating which ones will be available at which locations (you won’t get to see them all on the one Kinoscope) is also on the festival website.

Silent films also feature heavily in Fashion Film Festival itself, under the thematic title of ‘Birds of Paradise’. Early films are paired with experimental films on Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Ron Rice, José Rodriguez-Soltero, Steven Arnold at Tate Modern; the Barbican is showing diva Lyda Borelli in Rapsodia Satanica (1915-17), Germaine Dulac’s La Princesse Mandane (1928); and Michael Curtiz’s Red Heels (Das Speilzeug von Paris / La Poupée de Paris) (1925) and The Golden Butterfly (Der Goldene Schmetterling); while BFI Southbank has a panel event The Gossamer Wings of Early Cinema, and is showing Cecil B. De Mille’s Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1919), the Nazimova films The Red Lantern (1919) and Salomé (1923), Josephine Baker in La Revue des Revues (1927), E.A. Dupont’s Moulin Rouge (1928), Alexandre Volkoff’s Secrets of the East (Geheimnisse des Orients / Shéhérazade) (1928) and Jean Durand and Berthe Dagmar’s The Island of Love (l’Île d’amour) (1928). Fashion or no fashion, it’s an impressive line-up of silents, most of them rarely shown.

Finally, over 1-12 December, Somerset House is hosting Hemline: the Moving Screen, an artwork by Jason Bruges Studio on belle époque dancer and film performer Loïe Fuller, which they describe as “a light sculpture that uses three-dimensional volume as a ‘moving screen’ to approximate the swirling movements of fabric in a serpentine dance”.

Dates and booking details for all these screenings and events are on the festival website.