Huntley Film Archives

The Way of a Boy (c.1924), a delightful children’s stop-animation film made by Bradbury Productions, one of the treasures to be found in the Huntley Film Archives. I can find nothing about its production. Is it the American film of this title dated 1926 on the IMDb? Does anyone know?

For a while now I’ve been contemplating a post on silent films to be found on YouTube. However each time I attempt it I find myself defeated by the complexities of the copyright and ethical issues involved. Simply put, some silent film content is put there legitimately, some is not, and of the latter some has been put there in good faith, and some has not. Working out which is which is a minefield, and most people don’t much care. But here at the Bioscope we always check the source of a YouTube video and try to determine its true source and ownership. And we never include videos ripped from DVDs or television programmes (with the occasional exceptional of content re-used in mash-ups to form a new work). Those are the house rules.

Another hazard with YouTube is the inaccuracy of descriptions, something particularly prevalent for silent film era content where owners may not know the correct title, date or other identification of the film in their possession. This came home to me recently when I came across the YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, though the channel itself is full of riches and Huntley’s is a collection it would be good to tell you about in any case. So here goes.

Huntley Film Archives is a small British commercial film archive with a big reputation. It is a favourite of many a television researcher look for distinctive footage on social history and popular culture, and it is particularly strong in such subjects as entertainment, transport, travelogues, home movies and early films. Countless television programmes have named Huntley Film Archives in their end credits, and it remains an Aladdin’s cave of a collection, time and again coming up with just the right piece of footage that you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was founded in 1984 by the late John Huntley, a one-time acquisitions officer at the National Film Archive, a renowned film historian (Railways in the Cinema, British Film Music, British Technicolor Films) and an outstanding communicator, who gave hundreds upon hundreds of talks, shows, radio and television interviews on film history, always peerlessly entertaining and equipped with an anecdote for every occasion.

Battleship ‘Odin’ with all her Guns in Action (1900), filmed at Kiel by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Spectacularly filmed in 70mm, the impact of this film on a big screen is considerable and must have been overwhelming in 1900

You can find out more about the collection through its online database, though there are no clips apart from a few showreels. But it has now put some 240 videos onto its YouTube channel, and what an extraordinary collection it is, from home movies of the Festival of Britain to modern day celebrity trivia, from Butlin’s holiday camps to Kuwaiti advertising films, and from early computers to a British Film Institute summer school in 1948. What I want to draw attention to here is the silent films, because there are some real treasures available, though some have been misidentified or just not identified at all, a shame since the knowledge about the films often exists (a number are duplicated in the BFI National Archive for instance). Others, however, seem to be mysteries, as demonstrated by The Way of a Boy at the top of the post. Here are some more highlights.

Clog Dancing for the Championship of England (1898), made by Robert W. Paul

This is a delightful Robert Paul film, unique to the Huntley collection. Entitled Clog Dancing for the Championship of England, it shows the contestants in the world clog dancing championship of 1898, held in Bow. It is described in the Paul catalogue thus:

An extremely fine film of the first four competitors in the famous championship clog dancing contest. Each dances separately, and then altogether, finishing with the champion (Mr. Burns) clog dancing on a dinner plate without breaking same.

I’ve not been able to find Mr Burns’ full name [update: he was James G. Burns – see comments], but he and his competitors (Melia, Nixon and what could be Hannant) are helpfully identified on the film by the use of name cards. The film clearly does not depict the actual contest, instead recreating the event complete with the original judges conveniently bunched together to fit in the shot.

Extract from Dr Wise on Influenza (1919), a public health information film and one of the few films made at the time about the Spanish Flu epidemic that survive

This is a British public information film from 1919, made by Joseph Best for the Local Government Board. It is notable for being one of the very few films in existence that document the Spanish Flu epidemic which killed more people worldwide than had died in World War One. The full film is some 800 feet long; this extract shows how the flu germ is spread in public. (The full film is described in detail on the BFI database here).

Extract from The Coronation of King Peter I of Serbia and a Ride through Serbia (1904), the oldest surviving film of Serbia

This remarkable film was made by Yorkshireman Frank Mottershaw, who travelled to Serbia with Arnold Muir Wilson, a lawyer, journalist and Honorary Consul to the Kingdom of Serbia. Mottershaw was commissioned to film the coronation ceremonies of King Peter I of Serbia on 21 September 1904 and general scenes, and the film’s remarkable nature comes simply from being it being the oldest surviving film of Serbia. This sequence from the film shows people in Belgrade at the time of the coronation. The complete film is held by the Jugoslovenska Kinoteka.

The Taming of the Shrew (1923), a little-known example of a silent Shakespeare film, starting Lauderdale Maitland and Dacia Deane

Finally this is a silent Shakespeare film, one that’s hardly ever been seen or written about. It’s The Taming of the Shrew, made in 1923 by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, directed by Edwin J. Collins and adapted by Eliot Stannard, who later wrote scenarios for Alfred Hitchcock. Lauderdale Maitland plays Petruchio and Dacia Deane is Katharina. It’s a two-reeler which concentrating on the wooing of Katharina, and though it’s no masterpiece it’s an adequate film of its type, which is a potted guide to literary highlights of a kind that rather appealed to British filmmakers at this time.

And there are more: for example, a Lumière film of 1897 showing a Japanese family at home in 1897 (the film was shot by François-Constant Girel and I believe shows the family of Inabata Katsutaro); a Bonzo the Dog cartoon from 1925, Bonzoby; rare footage of what Huntley’s call a “working class wedding from the 1910s“; and stunning footage of the Wuppertal suspended monorail, filmed I think by the German branch of Biograph, Deutsches Mutoskop und Biograph Gesellschaft, in the late 1890s.

The video clips don’t look great, often they’ve been transferred at the wrong speed, and each comes with timecode and Huntley’s name at the ID number written along the top. But we must be grateful to Huntley’s for making such treasures available to all, in whatever form. It’s just that they glitter all the more once we know what they are, who made them, and when.

10 responses

  1. Thank you for your very generous comments about us at Huntley Film Archives. Yes, we are small in that there are just three of us running the show, but with the number of films we have (just on the 80000 mark at the last count), we like to think we ‘punch above our weight’ as we are privately run and not beholden to anyone.
    We’re delighted with your corrections on some of our Youtube entries and please keep them coming – we’ll incorporate them as soon as possible.
    A variety of films will continue to be loaded for research purposes, so watch this space…
    Thanks again

  2. Thank you for taking the suggested corrections in good part. Of course, I wrote only of those films I know about, not those that I don’t.

    It’s interesting to see that quite a few people have been reading this post and learning of the existence of Huntley’s for the first time. I look forward to seeing more clips appearing on your YouTube channel.

  3. Just had a look at the article on clog dancing and the Mr Burns was my grandfathers brother James G Burns who sadly lost his leg after being knocked down by Glasgow’s first electric tram. However he continued to teach clog dancing to others by using his fingers as surrogate feet. I can’t wait to show my mum your article as we had just been talking about him today and this is what made me look up articles on him.

  4. Dianne , I think we may be related. My Great Grandfather was Stephen Burns, who I believe was the clog dancers brother. Their parents were Michael James Burns and Mary Taylor, married in 1865.
    I’d love to share what family history I have if we are indeed related.
    Andy Burns

  5. I’ll forward your message to Diane Lundie, who might not spot it otherwise. Can I pass on your email address to her? (I can see your email as site administrator)


  6. Luke, I would appreciate that very much.
    I’ve been looking through some of the other old film clips here and they are amazing.
    Thank You. Andy Burns

  7. Hi Andrew, I believe that indeed we are related..I checked with my mother who remembers her uncle Stevie. Her Dad was Stephen’s younger brother John. I don’t have your Email address or I would have replied to that.

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