Idiot with a tripod

As you’ll know if you’re a regular in these parts, we’re keen to encourage the silent film of today wherever we can. This effort was made by filmmaker Jamie Stuart in the New York snow, and was shot, edited and then published in just over a day (26-27 December 2010). It has gained praise from Roger Ebert, who compares its technique to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and says that it ought to be awarded an Oscar.

Well it’s undoubtedly a polished piece of work from someone who who knows what he is doing technically (see Ebert’s interview with Stuart at the end of his post) but personally I think it’s some way off Vertov, not least because it doesn’t actually tell you anything. And it suffers from the curse of too many otherwise elegant pieces of wordless filmmaking to be found all over YouTube and Vimeo in adding a lame electro-music soundtrack which muffles the artistry rather than elevating it. But there’s a good editing rhythm to the video, every shot is telling, and each shot connects well with the next. OK, so it’s quite good. Just not that good.

The lost prince

Prince John in 1913, from Wikipedia

While sorting out some papers I came across a clipping which I’d quite forgotten about. It comes from the British film trade journal The Cinema in 1913 (there’s no more precise date on the copy, alas), and what it reports, though brief, is so striking that I have to pass it on. It tells us that a member of the British royal family apparently wrote a film scenario – for private consumption only – in 1913:

Princess Mary Writes a Scenario
Princess Mary, the only daughter of the King and Queen, has written a short comedy script for the moving pictures. This has been produced privately, and exhibited at Buckingham Palace. Prince John posed for one of the characters.

Princess Mary (later the Countess of Harewood) was then aged 16. The royal family were well aware of motion pictures and had been to see film shows (usually featuring themselves), and as early as October 1896 a privately-comissioned film had been made of Queen Victoria and guests at Balmoral, which survives (the guests included Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia). But to be thinking of making their own dramatic film at such an early date is remarkable, not least for showing an awareness of the new popular entertainment that the commonfolk were flocking in their millions to see. Amateur dramatic films started to be relatively common in the 1920s, but 1913 is very early for such a production, whatever the strata of society.

And then there is the one named cast member. Prince John, the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary, was a severe epileptic and was kept out of public view. There are photographs, but no motion pictures were ever taken of him – or at least that is what has been assumed. In 1913 he was was 8 years old – he would die in 1919, aged just 14. His story was poignantly told in 2003 in the Stephen Poliakoff television film The Lost Prince. The film showed us the boy viewing royal affairs with an innocent yet quizzical air, needing the love of his parents who instead hid him away on a farm, unable to express the emotions nature ought to have made them feel.

Was Prince John filmed after all? It is not certain this report is correct, of course. It could be merely relaying a rumour. But assuming the film did exist, who made it? (if it was a professional he was discreet about it, because I’ve not come across any such report) – and what happened to it? There is a royal film collection, some of which has long been in the care of the BFI National Archive, but the films in the collection are not of so early a date – at least as far as I know. The film is most likely to be lost, not so much because the royals are likely to lose things (I don’t think they often do), but because surely it would have been uncovered by now. Or it may simply have decomposed.

But someone ought to have a second look, just in case.

Capturing colour

Kinemacolor test film (‘Two Clowns’), filmed c.1906 by G.A. Smith and featuring his wife Laura Bayley

Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder is an exhibition on the early history of motion picture colour and related media. The exhibition opened on 4 December at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and runs until 20 March 2011. The exhibition encompasses magic lanterns, early colour photography, chromatropes, kromskops and applied colour films, through to Kinemacolor, Kodachrome and Technicolor, and explores dramas and actualities, Hollywood productions and home movies.

There’s not much to look at on the Museum website, but I can vouch for the presence at the exhibition of some precious examples of very early motion picture colour technology, including a Lee and Turner triple-lens colour projector c.1901 and a Kinemacolor projector from the collection of the National Media Museum, which I saw being packed up for the exhibition a few weeks ago.

There will be a detailed report once I have visited the exhibition (late January, I think). Meanwhile, if you are interested in the history of colour cinematography, the Bioscope produced a series, Colourful Stories, on the first film colour systems, a couple of years ago:

  • Part 1: James Clerk Maxwell and the first colour photograph
  • Part 2: The Kromskop
  • Part 3: The first patent for colour cinematography, in 1897
  • Part 4: The Lee and Turner three-colour system, patented in 1899
  • Part 5: The Brighton School
  • Part 6: Inventing Kinemacolor
  • Part 7: Reviving Kinemacolor
  • Part 8: Hand-painted colour
  • Part 9: The Pathé stencil colour system
  • Part 10: First public exhibition of natural colour motion pictures
  • Part 11: Kinemacolor in America
  • Part 12: Tinting and toning
  • Part 13: The end of Kinemacolor
  • Part 14: Gaumont Chronochrome

I’m well aware that the series is not done yet (Prizmacolor, Kodachrome, Technicolor and more if we’re to complete the story for the silent era). I’ll get round to finishing it one day, I promise…

National Film Registry 2010

Newark Athlete (1891), one of five silent films included among the twenty-five films added to the National Film Registry for 2010

Once again at the end of the year we have the announcement of twenty-five further films added to the National Film Registry. Each year the Librarian of Congress (James H. Billington), with advice from the National Film Preservation Board (and with recommendations made by the public), names twenty-five American films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant that are to be added to the National Film Registry, “to be preserved for all time”. The idea is that such films are not selected as the “best” American films of all time, but rather as “works of enduring significance to American culture”.

Five silent films are among the titles chosen for 2010, including two that have been championed in particular by the Bioscope: Preservation of the Sign Language, produced in 1913 in by National Association of the Deaf president George Veditz and one a of a number of films made by the Association at that time (available online from Gallaudet University); and the Miles Brothers’ haunting A Trip Down Market Street (1906), showing San Francisco just before the earthquake struck it. The others are Paul Fejos’ Lonesome (1928), which exists in both silent and sound versions, the William S. Hart western The Bargain (1914), and W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise’s 1891 proto-motion picture film experiment Newark Athlete, the oldest film to be added to the registry so far.

The other films on the 2010 list are Airplane! (1980), All the President’s Men (1976), Cry of Jazz (1959), Electronic Labyrinth: THX 113B 4EB (1967), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Exorcist (1973), The Front Page (1931), Grey Gardens (1976), I Am Joaquin (1969), It’s a Gift (1934), Let There Be Light (1945), McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), Make Way for Tomorrow (1936), Malcolm X (1992), Our Lady of the Sphere (1969), The Pink Panther (1964), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Study of a River (1996), Tarantella (1940), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945).

The full list of films entered on the National Film Registry since 1989 can be found here, while this is the list of all silents (or films with some silent content) on the Registry 1989-2009:

Ben-Hur (1926)
Big Business (1929)
The Big Parade (1925)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Black Pirate (1926)
Blacksmith Scene (1893)
The Blue Bird (1918)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
The Cameraman (1928)
The Cheat (1915)
The Chechahcos (1924)
Civilization (1916)
Clash of the Wolves (1925)
Cops (1922)
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The Crowd (1928)
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-95)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Evidence of the Film (1913)
The Exploits of Elaine (1914)
Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
Foolish Wives (1920)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
The Freshman (1925)
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
The General (1927)
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
The Gold Rush (1925)
Grass (1925)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Greed (1924)
H20 (1929)
Hands Up (1926)
Hell’s Hinges (1926)
Heroes All (1920)
The Immigrant (1917)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Intolerance (1916)
It (1927)
The Italian (1915)
Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
The Kiss (1896)
Lady Helen’s Escapade (1909)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
The Last Command (1928)
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1927)
Little Nemo (1911)
The Lost World (1925)
Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
Making of an American (1920)
Manhatta (1921)
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Miss Lulu Bett (1922)
Nanook of the North (1922)
One Week (1920)
Pass the Gravy (1928)
Peter Pan (1924)
The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Power of the Press (1928)
Precious Images (1986)
President McKinley Inauguration Footage (1901)
Princess Nicotine; or The Smoke Fairy (1909)
Regeneration (1915)
The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
Rip Van Winkle (1896)
Safety Last (1923)
Salome (1922)
San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 (1906)
Seventh Heaven (1927)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Show People (1928)
Sky High (1922)
The Son of the Sheik (1926)
Stark Love (1927)
Star Theatre (1901)
The Strong Man (1926)
Sunrise (1927)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
There it is (1928)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Tol’able David (1921)
Traffic in Souls (1913)
The Wedding March (1928)
Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Wild and Wooly (1917)
The Wind (1928)
Wings (1927)
Within our Gates (1920)

The Library of Congress welcome suggestions from the public, and even provides a helpful list of titles not on the Registry yet but which are under consideration, to help prod your memories. It contains some 225 silent films alone, which suggests that they are not about to run out of ideas just yet.

But what about a world film registry, one which drew attention to world cinema (silents and beyond) and its need for preservation on account of its cultural, historical or aesthetic relevance? We have some films on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register, but that’s not really enough. Isn’t it the sort of thing that FIAF ought to promote?

Charting words

Ngram for Kinetoscope, for the years 1800-2000

Well, the Bioscope is back from its Christmas break, and keen to get the fingertips tapping once more. First up, it’s a new tool from Google Labs which offers interesting ways of analysing silent film subjects (or any other subject, for that matter). The Ngram Viewer uses data taken from the 15 million books and other documents scanned by Google Books to trace the occurence of words or phrases (up to five words) between 1800 and 2000, showing how often they occur each year.

Ngram for Bioscope, showing the first emergence of the word in the early 1800s, then its huge rise in use from 1900 onwards

All you do is enter your search term or phrase, then choose a time period and your language, and you get the results presented as a graph. So, enter the term ‘bioscope’ and you discover that the word first appears in the early 1800s – as indeed it did, having been coined in 1812 by Granville Penn for his religious tract The Bioscope, or Dial of Life. It emerges once again in the late 1890s when it was adopted by a number of early film producers (Charles Urban, Max Skaldanowsky, Georges Demenÿ) as a name for a film projector), its use exploding over the next 15 or 20 years as it became a generic term for cinema. Then it fades as the word ‘cinema’ takes over, only to enjoy a resurgence, probably on account of the increased use of the word as a make of microscope.

Ngram for Cinematograph (blue) v Kinematograph (red)

Having searched for your term, below the graph you are given the option to search Google Books itself for your term by particular time periods or universally (search under 1800-1913 and sure enough Granville Penn’s book comes up first). You can also compare your term with others, by adding a comma-separated second term into the search box, as shown above with a search for Cinematograph v Kinematograph – with the relevant graphs in different colours. You can compare any number of terms, though there are only five colours available.

Ngram for Chronophotography

There seem to be any number of interesting applications for this as a tool, even if the results are approximate and erratic. The frequency of appearance of terms in books is not necessarily a reliable guide to their importance, and some terms register no scores at all (e.g. Gaumont, Muybridge, Mary Pickford), presumably because Google Books hasn’t indexed them yet. But there is more than enough there to encourage imaginative searches and to yield interesting discoveries. I’m certainly intrigued to see the rise, fall and rise again of the word ‘chronophotography’ from 1880 to 2000. Look at the perfect curves of adoption for ‘documentary’ or ‘travelogue’, the absence of ‘silent film’ as a phrase until silent films had almost stopped being produced, or try out a comparison of film companies like this one (while remembering that some company names will be common terms which will skew the results):

Ngram comparing Biograph (red), Vitagraph (blue), Lubin (green) and Nordisk (yellow)

Do have a go, and let us know of any interesting Ngrams that you are able to create.

A Christmas Carol

Well it’s time for the Bioscope to set aside the quill pen for a few days as we head off to join the nearest and dearest for Christmas. While I’m gone, here’s a musical interpretation of the 1910 Edison film A Christmas Carol with Marc McDermott as Scrooge, as performed by Vox Lumiere, the American troupe who combine silent film screenings with rock opera, and classical quintet The Definiens Project. Make of it what you will.

A happy Christmas to you all. Be kind and good.

The ballet and the film

Lydia Lopokova dancing alongside herself in ‘Dancing Grace’ from Eve’s Film Review no. 592, issued 6 October 1932 (but probably originally released 1922)

Thanks to an item on The Guardian film blog I have been led to this extraordinary film on the British Pathe website. Entitled ‘Dancing Grace‘, the film shows a ballerina – unidentified on the film, but now known to be Lydia Lopokova – dancing before the camera against a black background. What makes the film so remarkable is the use of slow motion and double exposure techniques to show Lopokova effectively dancing with herself. It is an uncanny foreshadowing of Norman McLaren’s classic dance film Pas de Deux (1968), with its multiple exposures of dancers creating images of extraordinary grace and beauty, only four decades earlier.

In its technique and imagination I can’t think of any film from the silent era that matches it, brief as it is. Who filmed it? The film was just one item among five in an issue of the cinemagazine Eve’s Film Review, which Pathé produced chiefly for women audiences. Much of Eve’s Film Review was shot by newsreel stalwart Ken Gordon, though nothing else in his long career points to artistry such as this.

Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux, from The National Film Board of Canada

And why was it filmed? The Guardian tells the engrossing story of how Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were in London at the end of 1921 and performing at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, where Lopokova appeared in Tchaikovsky’s ballet, ‘The Sleeping Princess’, based on the Sleeping Beauty story. The conductor of the piece, Eugene Goossens, was also conducting at the Royal Opera House, which had been hired out by American film impresario Walter Wanger for the British premiere of The Three Musketeers, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Diaghilev was intrigued by how well Goossens matched music to film, and proposed a film of ‘The Sleeping Princess’ to Wanger, ideally to be filmed in colour, the same as another film Wanger had put on at the Opera House, J. Stuart Blackton’s The Glorious Adventure, filmed in Prizmacolor and starring Lady Diana Manners. According to an article in Dance Research by Lynn Garafola, the painters Augustus John and S.H. Sime were to be involved with the sets. Given Diaghilev’s well-documented distaste for popular culture and his refusal to allow the Ballet Russes to be filmed, it would have been a remarkable change of heart – and, one would like to hope, a film of some considerable beauty.

One-second frame sequences from ‘Dancing Grace’ with Lydia Lopokova

Sadly the colour film of the Ballet Russes was not to be. ‘The Sleeping Princess’ was not a success at the Alhambra and the theatre’s owner Oswald Stoll replaced it with a Norma Talmadge film, while the debt-ridden Diaghilev and his company slunk away to Paris. The Guardian piece then relates how later in 1922 Wanger hired Lopokova and Léonide Massine to dance Stravinsky’s Ragtime as part of a programme at Covent Garden which included Wesley Ruggles’ film Love, starring Louise Glaum.

All of this is illuminating illustration of how film could be mixed up with the other arts, and the growing interest that film had for British high society. Half of the young upper class of London appeared in crowd scenes for The Glorious Adventure, while Lopokova and her economist husband John Maynard Keynes – first attracted to her when he saw ‘The Sleeping Princess’ – were very much a part of the Bloomsbury set (alongside Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant et al.), well-born, intellectual experimenters in the arts and in ways of living, a number of whom were attracted to the cinema (Virginia Woolf wrote a notable essay ‘The Cinema’, while Keynes was a member of the Film Society, which brought Soviet film classics to Britain for the first time).

There is some confusion over the date of the film. One version of it is held by the BFI National Archive, under the title Eve’s Film Review: Dancing Graces: Studies of Madame Lopokova, dating it as 1922. It is this version which currently features in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929. However the British Pathe version bears the Eve’s Film Review issue number 592, which the BUFVC’s News on Screen database says dates it as 6 October 1932. Presumably the film was first made in 1922 and then re-used by Pathé ten years later. There is some overlap between the two, but mostly the 1932 version is a continuation of 1922 – but no longer mentions Lopokova’s name. Meanwhile, she enjoyed a further foray into film, when she appeared alongside George Balanchine and Anton Dolin in a ballet sequence for the early British sound film, Dark Red Roses (1929). Clearly Lopokova (and Keynes) had a lasting interest in film, and the worlds of ballet and film were not seen as being completely apart.

This is demonstrated in a famous essay by Anthony Asquith, ‘Ballet and the Film’, published in Caryl Brahms’ Footnotes to the Ballet (1936). Asquith directed two sound films with prominent ballet sequences, Dance Pretty Lady (1932) and The Young Lovers (1954), but his essay mostly concerns the silent film and its relationship with dance. He notes the basic similarity between the two in their most basic form, but argues that

the mime in the earliest films corresponded in function if not in style to that of the more decadent classical ballets.

For Asquith, just as advances in ballet moved the dance from mere display to expression of mood or a character’s state of mind, so the film developed from crude histrionics to greater subtely of expression through the innovation of the close-up and the discovery by D.W. Griffith of a style of mime ‘that bore to life something of the relation that verse or poetical prose bears to ordinary speech’. He follows this interiorisation of style through to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a film entirely of the mind since it all takes place inside the head of a madman. At the same time he traces a trend towards greater naturalism in ballets, so that the two art forms, coming from different directions, more or less meet at a point in the 1920s when a ballet film could most profitably be imagined. However, Asquith has his doubts about the silent ballet film:

[F]ilm and ballet have another common element – rhythm. And from the rhythmic point of view the ballet is far more like the sound film than the silent. In a silent film there are two kinds of movement: the movement of people or objects within the limits of a shot, i.e. in a given strip of film photographed without a break, and the movement expressed by the realisation of one shot to another, just as in music there is the rhythmical relation of notes to each other within the limits of a phrase and there is the rhythmical relation of phrase to phrase.

Asquith therefore compares the rhythm of silent film to the rhythm of music, arguing that in each case just the one sense is affected, through the eyes or through the ears respectively. But he then argues that the rhythm of ballet is not one or the other, but ‘the relation of each to each’.

All of which is a somewhat theoretical way of arguing that he wanted his ballet films to have a soundtrack. But ‘Dancing Grace’, even though it runs for no more than a minute and a half, points to a kind of ballet film that the silent film could have made its own. It gets inside the mind of the ballet, revealing its inner workings and not just its outward show.

An earlier Bioscope post has traced something of the history of dance and silent film. Intriguingly it includes another Douglas Fairbanks connection, as one of the three extant silent films of Anna Pavlova is a short fragment showing her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 runs at the V&A until 9 January 2011 and features the Lopokova ‘Dancing Grace’ film. There is an exhibition blog post which talks about the two versions of the film.

Finally, the BUFVC’s News on Screen database lists another film from 1922, now lost, from the Around the Town cinemagazine, with the description ‘Lopokova in an improptu dance “Inspired by the Sun” on ultra-rapid camera’. Around the Town was made by Gaumont, not Pathé, so did Lopokova make two slow motion ballet films (i.e. requiring an ultra-rapid camera) in 1922? Intriguing.

Saving motion

Paolo Cherchi Usai (left) and Kevin Brownlow

On 19 January 2011 there is to be a notable event held at the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Strand, London, by the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. This august institution is devoted to promoting the knowledge, methods and working standards needed to protect and preserve historic and artistic works from around the world, but as well as the paintings, sculptures, buildings, museum artefacts and such like that are its usual concern, it also considers moving images. As one of its series of ‘Dialogues for the New Century’ is inviting Kevin Brownlow and Paolo Cherchi Usai to debate Saving Motion – the conservation of the moving image.

Here’s how the IIC describes the event:

Motion pictures, the movies, enjoy a position of both mass entertainment and valued products of our creative heritage. From the era of silent films to today’s high budget features, masterpieces abound, as do intimate personal moments and historic documentaries that capture the intangible aspects of what surrounds us.

Moving image heritage makes up a large portion of the world’s memory and both commercial and personal examples are found in every country and in every size and type of institution across the world. Archives, libraries, and museums struggle to conserve these records in a manner that attempts to respect the authenticity and inherent values while assuring and encouraging broad access. As the idea of digitization presents itself as a solution to both preservation and accessibility, questions arise regarding the value of the original footage, the qualities unique to film based material, our stewardship responsibilities to preserve these works in their unique original form, and the essential role and definition of film archives.

Kevin Brownlow and Paolo Cherchi Usai will explore a wide range of issues pertaining to the preservation of moving image heritage (films, video and digital materials) as well as the particular challenges of access. This dialogue between two of the leading pioneers and experts of the preservation of motion pictures will also explore the reasons for an apparent disconnect between those pursuing the preservation of film and the larger conservation community working toward the preservation of heritage in other art forms.

Kevin Brownlow is a filmmaker, film historian, author, and Academy Award recipient, best known for his documentation of the history of silent films. He is the creator of the alternative-history film, It Happened Here and the 1975 film Winstanley. Brownlow has written numerous works on silent and classic films including The Parade’s Gone By (1968). In collaboration with David Gill he produced a number of documentaries on the silent film era, including the 1983 Unknown Chaplin and the 1995 Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood. His book The Search for Charlie Chaplin was published this year, 2010.

Paolo Cherchi Usai, is director of the Haghefilm Foundation in Amsterdam, cofounder and co-director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House. He has authored numerous works on film and its preservation including Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema (1994), The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (2001) and co-author of Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace (2008).

The event promises to be a fascinating one, with a strong bias toward silent film, and with two of the most prominent, thoughtful and opinionated people in our field addressing an audience of general conservationsists rather than the usual film crowd. In particular the theme of a disconnect between the conservation of film and the conservation of other heritage works promises much. Does the care of film exist in a world of its own, separate from the conservation or preservation of other media, and if so then why so, and is it a good or bad thing? If we could hang films in national galleries or museums might they be better cared for? Or might those who care for other heritage media have something to learn from how film archives manage huge problems with minimal resources while contending with thorny issues such as copyright which do not affect those caring for old masters or archaeological sites?

Previous such dialogues have been made available in transcript form on the ICC site, so if you can’t be there you can still read about it. The event takes place at 19:00 and is free to all.

The genius of Segundo de Chomón

Une Excursion Incohérente (1909)

For some while we have been bemoaning the lack of a DVD of the work of Segundo de Chomón, the brilliant Spanish trick filmmaker from the 1900s period, whose work is frequently compared to that of Georges Méliès. Examples of his work ripped from a VHS of unclear history can be found online in assorted places, but at last we can report the publication of an official DVD, Segundo de Chomón, el cine de la fantasía.

Produced by the FilmoTeca de Catalunya, and with films taken from the collections of the BFI, CNC Archives du Film, Eye, La Cineteca del Friuli and others, the multi-region DVD contains 31 titles (144 minutes of film), with an original music score by Joan Pineda. There is a booklet, Segundo de Chomón: Más allá del cine de las atracciones 1902-1912, written by Joan M. Minguet, author of the main work on de Chomón, Segundo Chomón. El cinema de la fascinació (2009). There are subtitles available in Catalan, Spanish and English.

The films are:

Los Héroes del Sitio de Zaragoza (1905)
L’Hereu de Can Pruna (1904)
Barcelone, Parc au Crépuscle (1904)
Le Roi de Dollars (1905)
Plongeur Fantastique (1905)
Ah! La Barbe (1905)
Les Cent Trucs (1906)
Le Courant Électrique (1906)
L’Antre de la Sorcière (1906)
Le Spectre Rouge (1907)
La Boîte à Cigars (1907)
Les Oeufs de Pâques (1907)
Sculpteur Express (1907)
Les Tulipes (1907)
En Avant la Musique (1907)
Kiriki, Acrobates Japonais (1907)
La Maison Ensorcelée (1907)
Les Lunatiques (1908)
Les Papillons Japonais (1908)
L’Insaisissable Pickpocket (1908)
Création de la Serpentine (1908)
Electric Hôtel (1908)
Le Petit Poucet (1909)
Le Voleur Invisible (1909)
Voyage sur Jupiter (1909)
Le Théatre Electrique de Bob (1909)
Une Excursion Incohérente (1910)
Gérone, la Venise Espagnole (1912)
Superstition Andalouse (1912)
Métamorphoses (1912)
Barcelone, Principale Ville de la Catalogne (1912)

Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929) became involved in film through his wife, who was an actress in Pathé films. In 1902 he became a concessionary for Pathé in Barcelona, distributing its product in Spanish-speaking countries, and managing a factory for the colouring of Pathé films. He began shooting actuality films of Spanish locations for the company, then 1905 moved to Paris where he became a trick film specialist. The body of work he created over five years was outstanding. Films such as Le Spectre Rouge, Kiriki – Acrobates Japonais, Le Voleur Invisible and Une Excursion Incohérente are among the most imaginative and technically accomplished of their age. De Chomón created fantastical narratives embellished with ingenious effects, gorgeous colour, innovative hand-drawn and puppet animation, tricks of the eye that surprise and delight, and startling turns of surreal imagination (see, for example, the worms that crawl out of a chocolate cake in Une Excursion Incohérente, one of a number of films where visitors or tourists are beset by nightmarish haunted buildings, a favourite de Chomón theme).

It is curious why he is not generally known as one of the early cinema masters, except among the cognoscenti in the field. Perhaps it is because there is a smaller body of work than that created by Georges Méliès (his works can perhaps be described as a cross between that of Méliès and another who combined trickery with animation, Emile Cohl); perhaps it is because he was a Spaniard working in France for the key part of his film career that has meant that neither side has championed him as much as they might have done. De Chomón carried on as a filmmaker, specialising in trick effects, working for Pathé, Itala and others, and contributing effect work to two of the most notable films of the silent era, Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927). Perhaps the publication of Segundo de Chomón, el cine de la fantasía will bring hilm back into the spotlight that his genius undoubtedly merits.

Le Théatre Electrique de Bob (Bob’s Electric Theatre), from UCLA’s YouTube channel, where it is dated 1906 though this is apparently the 1909 version of the film also on the DVD (see UCLA’s Silent Animation site)

Another example of Segundo de Chomón’s work to be found legitimately online is on the Europa Film Treasures site, the ingenious Les Kiriki – Acrobates japonais (1907).

(A question to those who might know – the DVD seems to be derived from the earlier VHS set, maybe from the 1980s, examples of which you can find draped all over YouTube. Can anyone confirm this?)

Looking back on 2010

Lillian Gish knows just what it’s like in north Kent, from Way Down East

The snows of winter are piling up in fantastic drifts about the portals of Bioscope Towers. Icy blasts find their way through every crack and cranny. Outside, civilization grinds to a glacial halt, and the end of the year now beckons. In the relative warmth of the Bioscope scriptorium, I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to look back on what happened in the world of silent film over 2010. So here’s a recap of highlights from the past twelve months, as reported on the Bioscope (and in a few other places) – silent memories to warm us all.

There were three really big stories in 2010. For many of us, the most welcome news story of this or any other year was the honorary Oscar that went to Kevin Brownlow for a lifetime dedicated to the cause of silent films. The restored Metropolis had its premiere in a wintry Berlin in February. It has now been screened acround the world and issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. And there was the sensational discovery by Paul E. Gierucki of A Thief Catcher, a previously unknown appearance by Chaplin in a 1914 Keystone film, which was premiered at Slapsticon in June.

It was an important year for digitised documents in our field. David Pierce’s innovative Media History Digital Library project promises to digitise many key journals, having made a good start with some issues of Photoplay. The Bioscope marked this firstly by a post rounding up silent film journals online and then by creating a new section which documents all silent film journals now available in this way. A large number of film and equipment catalogues were made available on the Cinémathèque française’s Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. Among the books which became newly-available for free online we had Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, and the invaluable Kinematograph Year Book for 1914.

Among the year’s restorations, particularly notable were Bolivia’s only surviving silent drama, Wara Wara, in September, while in October the UK’s major silent restoration was The Great White Silence, documenting the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition.

We said goodbye to a number of silent film enthusiasts and performers. Particularly mourned in Britain was Dave Berry, the great historian of Welsh cinema and a friend to many. Those who also left us included Dorothy Janis (who starred in The Pagan opposite Ramon Novarro); film restorer and silent film technology expert Karl Malkames; the uncategorisable F. Gwynplaine Macintyre; and film archivist Sam Kula. One whose passing the Bioscope neglected to note was child star Baby Marie Osborne, who made her film debut aged three, saw her starring career end at the age of eight, then had a further ninety-one years to look back on it all.

Arctic conditions in Rochester uncannily replicated in Georges Méliès’ A la Conquête du Pôle (1912)

On the DVD and Blu-Ray front, Flicker Alley followed up its 2008 5-disc DVD set of Georges Méliès with a sixth disc, Georges Méliès Encore, which added 26 titles not on the main set (plus two by Segundo de Chomón in the Méliès style). It then gave us the 4-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone. Criterion excelled itself by issuing a three-film set of Von Sternberg films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). Other notable releases (aside from Metropolis, already mentioned) were Flicker Alley’s Chicago (1927) and An Italian Straw Hat (1927), Kino’s Talmadge sisters set (Constance and Norma), the Norwegian Film Institute’s Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1910-1912) and Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914, while the Bioscope’s pick of the growing number of Blu-Ray releases is F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), released by Eureka. But possibly the disc release of the year was the BFI’s Secrets of Nature, revealing the hypnotic marvels of natural history filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s – a bold and eye-opening release.

New websites turned up in 2010 that have enriched our understanding of the field. The Danish Film Institute at long last published its Carl Th. Dreyer site, which turned out to be well worth the wait. Pianist and film historian Neil Brand published archival materials relating to silent film music on his site The Originals; the Pordenone silent film festival produced a database of films shown in past festivals; the daughters of Naldi gave us the fine Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp site; while Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions finally took the plunge and published its first ever website.

The crew for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, ready for anything the elements can throw at them

Among film discoveries, in March we learned of the discovery of Australia’s earliest surviving film, the Lumière film Patineur Grotesque (possibly October 1896); in June we heard about a major collection of American silents discovered in New Zealand; and digital copies of ten American silents held in the Russian film archive were donated to the Library of Congress in October. That same month the Pordenone silent film festival unveiled the tantalising surviving frgament of F.W. Murnau’s Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1921-22). There was also time for films not yet discovered, as the BFI issued its Most Wanted list of lost films, most of them silents, while it also launched an appeal to ‘save the Hitchcock 9” (i.e. his nine surviving silents).

The online silent video hit of the year was quite unexpected: Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) went viral after the release of the Tim Burton film of Lewis Carroll’s story. It has had nearly a million views since February and generated a fascinating discussion on this site. Notable online video publications included UCLA’s Silent Animation site; three Mexican feature films: Tepeyac (1917), El tren fantasma (1927) and El puño de hierro (1927); and the eye-opening Colonial Films, with dramas made in Africa, contentious documentaries and precious news footage.

2010 was undoubtedly the year of Eadweard Muybridge. There was a major exhibition of the photographer’s work at Tate Britain and another at Kingston Museum (both still running), publications including a new biography by Marta Braun, while Kingston produced a website dedicated to him. He also featured in the British Library’s Points of View photography exhibition. There was also controversy about the authorship of some of Muybridge’s earliest photographs, and a somewhat disappointing BBC documentary. In 2010 there was no avoiding Eadweard Muybridge. Now will the proposed feature film of his life get made?

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in the Medway ice, from South (1919)

It was an interesting year for novel musical accompaniment to silents: we had silent film with guitars at the New York Guitar Festival; and with accordions at Vienna’s Akkordeon festival. But musical event of the year had to be Neil Brand’s symphonic score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), given its UK premiere in November.

Noteworthy festivals (beyond the hardy annuals of Pordenone, Bologna, Cinecon etc) included the huge programme of early ‘short’ films at the International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen in April/May; and an equally epic survey of Suffragette films in Berlin in September; while the British Silent Film Festival soldierly on bravely despite the unexpected intervention of an Icelandic volcano.

On the conference side of things, major events were the Domitor conference, Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema, held in Toronto in June; the Sixth International Women and Film History Conference, held in Bologna also in June; and Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin Conference, held in Zanesville, Ohio in October.

It wasn’t a great year for silent films on British TV (when is it ever?), but the eccentric Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema at least generated a lot of debate, while in the US sound pioneer Eugene Lauste was the subject of PBS’s History Detectives. Paul Merton was also involved in an unfortunate spat with the Slapstick festival in Bristol in January over who did or did not invite Merton to headline the festival.

The art of the silent film carried on into today with the feature film Louis (about Louis Armstrong’s childhood), and the silent documentary feature How I Filmed the War. Of the various online modern silent shorts featured over the year, the Bioscope’s favourite was Aardman Animation’s microscopic stop-frame animation film Dot.

Charlie Chaplin contemplates the sad collapse of Southeastern railways, after just a few flakes of snow, from The Gold Rush

What else happened? Oscar Micheaux made it onto a stamp. We marked the centenary of the British newsreel in June. In October Louise Brooks’ journals were opened by George Eastman House, after twenty-five years under lock and key. Lobster Films discovered that it is possible to view some Georges Méliès films in 3D.

And, finally, there have been a few favourite Bioscope posts (i.e. favourites of mine) that I’ll give you the opportunity to visit again: a survey of lost films; an exhaustively researched three-part post on Alfred Dreyfus and film; the history of the first Japanese dramatic film told through a postcard; and Derek Mahon’s poetic tribute to Robert Flaherty.

It’s been quite a year, but what I haven’t covered here is books, largely because the Bioscope has been a bit neglectful when it comes to noting new publications. So that can be the subject of another post, timed for when you’ll be looking for just the right thing on which to spend those Christmas book tokens. Just as soon as we can clear the snow from our front doors.

And one more snowy silent – Abel Gance’s Napoléon recreates the current scene outside Rochester castle, from