Bioscope Newsreel no. 16

Raymond Griffith: A Physiognomic Appreciation
David Cairns has been writing about comedian Raymond Griffith, “the most shamefully neglected performer in Hollywood history”, both on his Shadowplay blog and and his regular ‘The Forgotten’ column for the online cinematheque site MUBI. Read more (and more here).

Master of mise-en-scène
The Wall Street Journal writes in praise of Joseph Von Sternberg and the recent Criterion three-DVD set of his silent films Underworld, The Last Command and The Docks of New York. “With pristine prints and the welcome addition of Robert Israel’s newly composed but historically informed scores, film lovers can savor the work of a great director unhindered by expressive constraints”. Read more.

San Francisco 1906 in colour
Not colour film, unfortunately, but colour images taken by inventor Frederic Ives in 1906 of the city after the earthquake have been discovered by the Smithsonian Institution (actually a year ago, but the Internet is such a slow communicator of information at times). The Bioscope has previously written about the Kromskop, which helped inspire British inventors Edward Turner and G.A. Smith working on the first colour cinematography systems. Read more.

Dovzhenko on DVD
David Parkinson at the Oxford Times enthuses eloquently over the DVD releases of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929). “Anyone who considers modern sound cinema to be more sophisticated than the wordless pictures made between 1895-1930 should take a look at Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora … a dazzling array of artistic theories and screen techniques to explore such diverse topics as Ukrainian mythology, Soviet industrialisation, pacifism, the beauty of the landscape and the arrogance of the European bourgeoisie”. Read more.

Chaplin trouble
The long-promised Charlie Chaplin museum, converted out of the comedian’s home in Vevey, Switzerland, is in trouble. Art Info reports of Chaplin’s World: The Modern Times Museum that “financial difficulties have led to the purchase of the house and its surrounding land by two investors with shady connections, and supporters now wonder whether or not the museum — in planning for ten years — will ever see the light of day”. Read more.

The end of times
Happier Chaplin news from Leonard Maltin, who reports on the dedicated efforts by a group of film buffs and local history enthusiasts at William S. Hart Park in Newhall, California to mark the 75th anniversary of Modern Times, the film that called an end to the American silent film era. Read more.

‘Til next time!

The Seven Lively Arts

‘The Custodians of the Keystone’ by Ralph Barton, frontispiece illustration to Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts

In a recent post on the cinema novel, I mentioned Gilbert Seldes’ advocacy of this hybrid cultural form, and said that a follow-up post was needed, because his book The Seven Lively Arts was available online. Indeed it is, and here is the promised post.

Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was an American cultural critic, one the pioneering champions of the popular arts in the age of mass media. His made his name, and established his life-long theme, with his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. The seven are the movies, musical comedy, vaudeville, radio, comic strips, popular music and dance. Seldes championed what was excellent in what was popular. As his biographer Michael Kammen puts it:

Seldes … is conspicuous among his contemporaries because of his abiding commitment to the democratization of culture … Seldes genuinely believed that the taste level of ordinary Americans was not inevtably contemptible, and that, in any case, taste levels could be elevated.

Several decades’ worth of cultural criticism since the 1920s have rather dulled the revolutionary nature of Seldes’ stance. Elitism has become an ugly word; there is no high art or low art; and we seek to understand the components of a culture and how artefacts embody these rather than to say that one work of ‘art’ is better than another. Seldes didn’t think like a present-day cultural critic, but he did work to overturn preconceptions about supposedly low cultural forms. Of these the form that interested him the most, and to which he devoted most attention in his book, was film.

The opening chapter, ‘The Keystone the Builders Rejected’, sets out his agenda:

For fifteen years there has existed in the United States, and in the United States alone, a form of entertainment which, seemingly without sources in the past, restored to us a kind of laughter almost unheard in modern times. It came into being by accident – it had no pretensions to art. For ten years or more it added an element of cheerful madness to the lives of millions and was despised and rejected by people of culture and intelligence. Suddenly – suddenly as it appeared to them – a great genius arose and the people of culture conceded that in his case, but in his case alone, art existed in slap-stick comedy; they did not remove their non expedit from the form itself.

The great genius is of course Chaplin, but while some critics acknowledged that genius (particularly after The Kid, about which he is ambiguous), Seldes argues for the importance of not separating the man from the form in which his greatness was made manifest. The art was not in the man was in slapstick itself. For Seldes, ‘everything in slap-stick is cinematographic’: the slapstick comedy of Mack Sennett and Keystone was pure cinema because it was achieving results which could be acomplished by no other medium, and which were perfectly suited to that medium,; whereas D.W. Griffith, despite all the ways in which he advanced the art of the motion picture, still had half a mind in another medium (the stage, or the novel).

Seldes goes on the champion the slapstick form, taking pot-shots at his fellow critics for dismissing it without reasons. He writes illuminatingly about Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and lesser lights such as Chester Conklin. He cherishes slapstick for its absence of pretension and consequently its lack of vulgarity:

I consider vulgar the thing which offends against the canons of taste accepted by honest people, not by imitative people, not by snobs. It is equally bad taste, presumably, to throw custard pies and to commit adultery; but it is not bad taste to speak of these things. What is intolerable only is the pretense, and it was against pretentiousness that the slap-stick comedy had its hardest fight. It showed a man sitting down on a lighted gas stove, and it did not hesitate to disclose the underwear charred at the buttocks which were the logical consequence of the action.

There is a touch of paradox for paradox’s sake, but it is an engrossing set of arguments for all that. Every line makes you think again about what you have seen. Seldes goes on to tackle different aspects of his seven lively arts, with an entertaining variety of approaches to the different chapters. A chapter on D.W. Griffith is in the form of a duologue outside an Ancient Greek theatre. There is a mocking open letter to movie magnates (‘I am trying to trace for you the development of the serious moving picture as a bogus art, and I can’t do better than assure you that it was best before it was an “art” at all’). His chapter on Chaplin reveals a deep appreciation of the ebbs and flows of his work which reads like a critic commenting on a display of paintings in gallery. He is alert to the aesthetic experience of Chaplin’s overall output: ‘The flow of his line always corresponds to the character and tempo; there is a definite relation between the melody and the orchestration he gives it’. As noted, he also champions the cinema novel (it is almost the only section of the book not devoted to American culture), because it shows literary people thinking cinematically rather than people of the cinema losing faith in the essential value of their medium and weakly copying literature or the theatre. Other chapters cover jazz, comic strips, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, Krazy Kat, clowns, Pablo Picasso and more.

The Seven Lively Arts is available in online as one of the hypertext series from American Studies at the University of Virginia. The online version incudes all appendices and illustrations. The digitisation isn’t perfect, with some slips in the OCR (there are problems with split words, accents and some punctuation). In places words are missing. But it is helpfully divided up into chapters and shows page breaks and page numbers. Into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Carl Davis on The Phantom of the Opera

The Philharmonia Orchestra has published a video podcast in which Carl Davis talks about the process of writing his score for Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with Lon Chaney as the Phantom. It’s an illuminating insight into Davis’ ideas and inspirations, with plenty of clips and music extracts.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is presenting a screening of the film with live orchestral accompaniment and Davis conducting on Sunday 27 March at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank, starting at 3.00pm.

Pen and pictures no. 9 – The cinema novel

Images from the 1930 stage production of Jules Romains’ Donogoo Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique (sorry about the music)

Our series on the relationship between literature and silent film has so far mostly taken the biographical approach, looking at the particular experiences of Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, John Buchan, Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. But for post number nine we’re taking a thematic angle on things and looking at the cinema novel.

The cinema novel does not mean novelisations (which began in the silent era and may well be the subject of another post). Rather I mean a phenomenon identified by the American cultural critic Gilbert Seldes in his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. Seldes wrote:

[I]t is interesting to note that the cinema influence in literature in France is almost exactly opposite to what it is here [in America]. There it seems to make for brevity, hardness, clarity, brilliance. You will find it in the extraordinary stories of Paul Morand and Louis Aragon; and you will find in neither of these those characteristic sloppinesses which American authors are beginning to blame on the movies. If they would take the trouble of studying the pictures, instead of trying to make money out of them, and discover the elements in the cinema technique which are capable of making their own work fruitful, we might have better novels, and we certainly would have a few less bad pictures.

Two Frenchmen have, at the same time, used the scenario as a method of fiction, and each of them has written a highly ironic piece which is capable of being transferred to the film, but which reads sufficiently well to be considered as an end in itself.

Seldes was excited by what looked like an emerging trend – writers of the modernist school seeing exciting possibilities in transferring the dynamism and visual quality of cinema to literary works. There were plenty among the modernist, Futurists, Cubists and other sorts of ists whose imaginations had been fired by cinema (especially Chaplin, Keystone and serial films). Some, such as the Futurist Anton Giulio Bragaglia managed to put their ideas into film; others, like Apollinaire, Kandinsky and Schoenberg theorised about the possibilities of combining their art forms (poetry, painting, music) with film.

None was more enthused than the first of Seldes’ examples, Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961). Cendrars was a poet, journalist, novelist and creative autobiographer (much of what he wrote about his personal history needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt). He was an arch modernist, as experimental in his life as he was in his works. Like many French intellectuals of the period, he was excited by cinema’s possibilities as a new and universal language, but unlike most he was able to get involved in production itself. He served as an all-round production assistant on Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919), appearing briefly in the film as an actor, and was assistant director on Gance’s La roue (1923), for which Cendrars directed the innovative (and extant) promo film Autour de la roue. He went on to write an impressionistic theoretical text, L’ABC du cinéma (1926), which expounded his ideas on the ways in which cinema’s multifariousness captured the very essence of modern life. His 1925 novel of the American west, L’or, attracted interest in Hollywood, with Sergei Eisenstein trying to get Paramount to produce it during his American phase. Eventually James Cruze directed it as Sutter’s Gold in 1936 while Luis Trenker made an unofficial adpatation, Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, in Germany the same year. Cendrars also wrote a quirky, perversely observant account of two weeks in Hollywood, Hollywood: La Meque du cinéma (1936).

What Seldes highlighted, however, were two works, La Fin du monde (1919) and La Perle fiévreuse (1921), in which Cendrars brought the cinema into his writing. La Fin du Monde, filmée par l’Ange N.-D. [The End of the World, filmed by the Angel of Notre-Dame] was conceived of as a film-novel and is ostenibly organised as a film scenario. It tells of God as a ruthless businessman, for whom business has been good in the war because it has yielded up so many souls. God travels to Mars, visits all manner of plagues upon earth and kills off mankind all in the name of business, only for the story to rewind like a reel of film back to the beginning to reveal human life starting again, only this time God is bankrupt.

It is not your average novel, and it did not look like one. Published by Éditions de la Sirène, which specialised in innovative designs, the book was illustrated with abstract designs and colourful lettering by the artist Fernard Léger (see example right), who also designed the typography. Léger would of course go on to turn filmmaker with Ballet mécanique in 1924. There is no English translation available, but the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (the Dutch national library) provides a background history in English and what’s more a multimedia presentation on the book (in Dutch, French or English) which outlines the narrative, illustrated with many of the original images.

Cendrars next wrote La Perle fiévreuse [The Feverish Pearl] in 1921, a work with a curious history. In his imaginative autobiography, The Astonished Man, he says that he was responsible for an Italian film which he calls La Vénus noire,

starring Dourga, the Hindu dancer from the Opéra Comique, and using all the animals from the zoological gardens.

He says that he fell victim to a financial scandal which led to the collapse of the Italian film industry, personally losing 1,250,000 francs and ruining any opportunities the film might have had. Long thought of as a piece of Cendrars fantasy, the late Italian film historian Vitorio Martinelli, discovered that the film was indeed made and reviewed, as La Venere nera (1923), though little evidence of it can be found thereafter. It may be possible that the film was destroyed by Cendrars himself, as he himself claimed.

But before the film had been made, Cendrars had published his script in serial form, subtitled a ‘roman cinématographié’. This was La Perle fiévreuse. It is a spoof on detective fiction, with a host of renowned fictional detectives engaged in frantic pursuit of two women. The text is presented as though a director’s script, with precise filming instructions. Richard Abel (in Dada and Surrealist Film) provides a translated example of the effect:

1. Iris in on a small statue of Shiva dancing. Hold, then pan slowly over to the maid Co-Thaô, standing in a simple black dress. Hold; then track-dolly (in the same direction as the pan) until the camera reaches the door, which opens.

2. Now dolly through the doorway toward the meeting of the Hindu dancer Rougha and Miss Ethel Berkshire, who enters with an armful of flowers.

3. Close shot of Miss Ethel, surprised and delighted, brightly lit, a little in front of the door.

And so on, for around 850 ‘shots’. Gilbert Seldes was rather dismissive of the results:

American movie technique … M. Cendrars has evidently learned all too well, because he uses it, in all its tedious detail, in La Perle Fievreuse, for which he is publishing not a scenario but a director’s script, with the cutbacks and visions and close-ups all numbered and marked. It is in the manner of the old Biograph movies with what may turn out to be not such innocent fun at the expense of the detective film. Among its characters are Max Trick, director of Trick’s Criminal Courier, the great daily which specializes in criminal news. He is marked “Type: le President Taft” and is first shown in his office with twenty-five telephones in front of him; among his collaborators are Nick Carter and Arsène Lupin, Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc.

There is a long tradition of unfilmed screenplays published as texts, often because the demands of the writer’s imagination were too much for those who needed to finance such films and put them before an audience. One can either sees these as absurdities rightly turned down by level-headed producers, or a longing for a truly imaginative cinema unconstrained by the petty demands of the money man. Some French film theorists and avant garde-ists such Jean Epstein and Marcel L’Herbier did successfully bridge the gap between dreams and reality to become noted film directors, and of course Cendrars’ La Venere nera was produced. But diverting as his text may be, it is not truly a new work of the imagination.

Rather more to Seldes’ taste, because his cinema-novel was more fully realised and a genuine breakthrough in literary creation, was the work of his second example, Jules Romains (1885-1972). Romains was a poet, novelist and prosletyser for a literary movement of his own devising, Unanimism, which was concerned with a collective state of mind. He wrote many books, showed rather too much interest in Fascism, but what interests us here is one work with an extraordinary title: Donogoo-Tonka ou Les Miracles de la science: conte cinématographique, in English Donogoo Tonka or The Miracles of Science: A Cinematographic Tale (1920).

Donogoo had its genesis in a Blaise Cendrars initative. In 1918 Cendrars invited Jean Cocteau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jules Romains and other to collaborate on a ‘cinema book’ which would bring together putative filmscripts by leading experimental writers. The book never happened, but Romains completed his scenario. However, although he argued that the text could be taken as a perfectly serviceable film script, in reality it was something halfway between the two media, and artfully achieved to be just so.

Romains’ cinema novel tells of a famous geographer, Yves Trouhadec, whose reputation depends on the discovery of the South American gold mining town Donogoo-Tonka which he placed on the map but unfortunately doesn’t exist. A would-be suicide Lamendin offers to float a company and lead an expedition to discover the lost town and save Trouhadec’s reputation. Lamendin creates fake films of the supposed town, sparking off a gold-rush. Adventurers come from all over the world to find Donogoo-Tonka, and having failed to find the town, build one anyway. Lamendin arrives to discover that the imaginary town exists after all, in which a religion is established, dedicated to scientific error (Romains’ main theme). Trouhadec is now a revered figure.

This is entertaining satire, but what is most interesting is the technique. Romains sets out his agenda in a prefatory note:

The framed portions of the text are to be projected on the screen. All the rest should be represented by the actors’ movements and by the possibilities of the staging.

Except when indicated in the text itself, the scenes should unfold with the normal rhythm of events in life. One should be especially wary of that unvarying and lamentable speed that too many people seem to see as one of the essential conventions of the cinematographic art.

Where there is some doubt on this point – in the scenes, for example, where the only events that unfold are the thoughts of the characters – it is better to err on the side of excessive slowness and overly scrupulous attention, so as to bring out all intentions and nuances.

These are, of course, instructions for reading, not viewing. Romains makes it clear that this is a cinematograph of the mind, though he does indeed have framed portions which serve as intertitles (though they are far more than that, serving as commentary and providing verbal illustrations), and the present tense narrative gives the sense of watching a film – yet it is a film where one sees equally the outward show and what is going on inside someone’s mind.

The technique is apparent in this extract:

A rapid succession of short scenes, each lasting barely a minute, shows us the propaganda for Donogoo-Tonka, insidious, rich in detail, irrepressible.

1. A fat fifty-year-old man has his morning hot chocolate in a pleasant dining room. The maid brings in the mail. The first envelope, when opened, lets out the prospectus for Donogoo-Tonka. The man skims it, without ceasing to eat his bread and butter. But watch how the twelve letters Donogoo-Tonka rise up, tear themselves free, escape from the paper and start scurrying, one after another, on the table, like a band of little mice …

… 3. A man struggles up the steps of an underground staircase. On the edge of each step: DONOGOO-TONKA. The inscription, at first lifeless and neutral, becomes more glistening, more active, from stair to stair. By the end the letters bulge out, corrode, burn. The man half-turns his head and through his no longer opaque skull we make out his brain, marked, like the shoulder of a convict, with twelve small, cracking letters.

We move from the literally visual (we’ve seen films like this before), to the arrestingly visual (OK, you could achieve that with animation, I’ve seen it done somewhere before) to the psychically visual (sorry M. Romains, but these sort of special effects won’t be around for another sixty years). It is avant garde cinema, before avant garde cinema existed.

Pages from the 1932 Dutch edition of Donogoo Tonka, with illustrations by Jo Spier, showing the ‘intertitle’ style on the left-hand page. From

Donogoo-Tonka is rather too obvious as satire, but it is an entertaining read and a constant stimulus to the imagination. It makes you think how you apprehend things, when reading, when watching, when simply living. Its dramatic possibilities did not interest film producers at the time, but a stage version was produced in Paris in 1930 and in Delft in 1931, the latter having filmed sequences shot by Joris Ivens, no less (sadly it is a lost film). It has been occasionaly staged since. In 1936 a German film version was produced, Donogoo Tonka, die geheimnisvolle Stadt, loosely based on the stage version but with a romantic plot. It was directed by Reinhold Schünzel and starred Anny Ondra. Romains disowned it.

Seldes is ringing in his praise of Romains’ achievement:

In the scenes which exploit the shares in Donogoo-Tonka we enter into the minds of individuals, of groups, of crowds; at the end the very framework of a building succumbs to the madness of the idea. And then, with a technical mastery not yet put into practise, M. Romains directs that the various scenes just projected be shown again, side by side, with a gradually accelerated rhythm. In the scenes of the adventurers we get glimpses at Marseilles, London, Naples, Porto, Singapore, San Francisco; then we see the groups starting out; the lines of their voyage converge. These scenes are projected first in succession and then simultaneously. Each time we see them we recognize some of the individuals we have seen before “And when by chance the faces are turned towards us, we have a feeling that they, too, recognize us.” The cinema has not yet accomplished that; chiefly, I fancy, because it never has been asked to.

Happily Donogoo Tonka was published in an English translation for the first time in 2009, with a knowledgable afterword by Joan Ockman.

There were other attempts at marrying the film text with the literary text at this time, for example Pierre Albert-Birot’s 2 x 2 = 1 (1919) and the dadaist poet Ivan Goll’s Die Chapliniade (1920). But the best known example from our period comes not from the French avant garde but from the English novelistic tradition, H.G. Wells‘ novel The King who was a King (1929).

The King who was a King is not one of Wells’ best works. It had its origins in an idea of his to produce a propaganda film on the subject of world peace, and it is as portentous and hectoring in tone as that might suggest. The film was never made, so Wells turned his ideas into a novel. What is interesting is its critique of cinema. In a long preface expressing disappointment with cinema story-telling, he expresses arguments that the literary modernist would have shared:

[T]he idea that the film was just a way of telling stories in moving pictures dominated the cinema theatre entirely for nearly a couple of decades, and still dominates it. It satisfied a hitherto unsuspected need for visual story-telling. It worked out lucratively … Can we get off the ground of the realistic story-film?

Wells set out to write a novel that demonstrates what he believes film should be able to achieve, as a vehicle for Wellsian ideas. Unfortunately he chose the wrong subject, and with insufficient appreciation of the method he was adopting. He shows some imaginative touches, describing the action throughout as though it is a film that we are watching, giving some indication of camera movements and scene-setting, but it remains novelistic in its thinking and in its unfolding. It lacks Romains’ wit. It makes the mistake of trying to correct film rather than trying to re-imagine the novel. The effect can be seen in this passage:

The film now plunges into the midst of Dr. Harting’s Steelville lecture upon The Causes of War.

Dr. Harting is an old distinguished-looking American, lean and tall, after the type of the late President Eliot of Harvard. He uses glasses to read his notes, and holds them in his hand while he speaks, often tapping the papers. He stands upon a platform at a reading-desk. Behind him are diagrams, indistinctly seen at first, and a chairman sits beside him. The picture is photographed with the camera turned somewhat upward in such a way as to make Dr. Harting slenderly dominant, like the prow of a ship.

A glimpse is given of Zelinka and Margaret sitting together in the front row of the audience, and then one sees a few other figures in the audience. Man the Destroyer is present, hostile and critical, and several commonplace and excitable types.

The lecturer says:

Do not imagine you can secure the Peace of the World by good resolutions. So long as you have national flags, national competition, national rivalry, you will have war.”

Man the Destroyer in the audience shouts, “Traitor,” and an old gentleman sitting near him says, “My country, right or wrong!” and looks round excitedly for approval.

A middle-aged man rises, points to the lecturer and says:

You go too fast and too far.”

The picture centres back on the lecturer.

This thinks that it is cinematic, but it isn’t. It simply sets out that which one might find in an ordinary novel, with the addition of camera placements. We would see the action anyway, without these additions. The use of present tense masks what is actually quite conventional. Wells understood film well enough, but he was too much the novelist to be able to express such understanding in words.

The cinema novel was an interesting by-product of the enthusiasm of the literary intelligensia for film in the late teens and early 1920s, as modernist ideas were evolving. It did not turn into a genre, because avant garde cinema emerged in the mid-1920s to fill the need. The true successors of La Fin du monde and Donogoo-Tonka were L’entracte (1924), La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) and Un chien andalou (1929). However, the cinema novel did return three decades later through the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose concept of the ciné-roman presented the film script as a text which had an independent existence as a literary work. L’Année dernière à Marienbad is an example.

This post is indebted to the introduction by Garrett White to Blaise Cendrars, Hollywood: Mecca of the Movies (University of California Press, 1995), Joan Ockman’s afterword to Donogoo Tonka or The Miracles of Science (Buell Center/Princeton Architectural Press, 2009) and Richard Abel, ‘Exploring the Discursive Field of the Surrealist Film Scenario Text’, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli (ed.), Dada and Surrealist Film (MIT Press, 1996).

Bioscope Newsreel no. 15

Photograph taken filming of Hide and Seek, Detectives (1918): (L-R) unknown, Tom Kennedy, Ben Turpin, Charles ‘Heinie’ Conklin, Eddie Cline, and Marie Prevost. From Steve Rydzewski (see

Behind the scenes the Bioscope is toiling away at two or three major posts, which always take a while to research, but in the meantime here’s your regular Friday round-up of some interesting (we hope) news snippets on silent film and such like.

Cinefest 31
Syracuse’s annual convention of silent and early sound film takes place 17-20 March. Among the auctions and dealers’ tables you can see Lonesome, What Price Glory? (1927), Happiness (1917), The Hushed Hour (1919), Mannequin (1926), and much more. Read more.

National Inventors Hall of Fame
Stephen Herbert’s estimable Muy Blog (on Eadweard Muybridge) reports on the National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees for 2011. They include some major names from the worlds of photography and early film: Thomas Armat (1866-1948), for his motion picture projector, Hannibal Goodwin (1822-1900), for discovering transparent flexible nitrocellulose film, Frederick Ives (1856-1937), for innovation in colour photography, Charles F. Jenkins (1867-1934), for the projector he developed with Armat, and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), for stop action photography. Read more.

The Great White Blu-Ray
The British Film Institute much acclaimed restoration of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (1924), will get a Blu-Ray and DVD release in June. The film documents Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s failed attempt to be first to the South Pole. It’s also the first British silent film to make it to Blu-Ray. The dual-format package will include the 1933 re-edited sound version of Ponting’s film, Ninety Degrees South. Read more.

The Marie Prevost Project
Stacia Jones at the excellent and supremely well-named She Blogged by Night has been surveying the career of Marie Prevost in a series of posts. Her trawl through Prevost’s many lost films from the late teens brings up a marvellous array of photographs, posters, lobby cards and slides for the actress who went from Mack Sennett bathing beauty to 1920s stardom to a wretched end in the 1930s. Read more.

The hipster YouTube
Fortune magazine looks into the success story that is Vimeo, the online video site that just does everything right – and apparently invented the ‘like’ button. Proof that you can succeed in online video without recourse to theft, negativity or skateboarding dogs. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Flicker alley

No. 8 Cecil Court, formerly home of The Bioscope film trade journal, now Tim Bryars Ltd bookshop

I was wandering through central London today, something I’d not had a chance to do for quite some while, and I ended up at Cecil Court. It’s a favourite spot, a short street of great charm linking Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, close by Leicester Square, and filled with bookshops of the antiquarian and first edition kind. It is also the first home of the British film industry, because it was here, between 1897 and 1911, that many of the film businesses then operating in London chose to have their offices – producers, distributors, agents, equipment manufacturers and more. It was nicknamed ‘Flicker Alley’, a name recalled with affection in many subsequent memoirs, and now of course the name given to an American DVD company specialising in silent film.

What caught my eye were the blue plaques. London is filled with blue plaques placed on the walls of buildings which were previously home to great names of the past. The traders of Cecil Court have taken this idea and placed pseudo blue plaques in their windows, each one noting the name of a film business that used to be based in that building. That they have been able to do so is thanks to the work of Simon Brown, now of Kingston University, who has undertaken detailed research into early London film businesses, and wrote a paper on the history of ‘Flicker Alley’ for the journal Film Studies, a paper which happily is freely available online.

Simon’s paper provides an understanding of the early London film industry, in all its many forms, viewed through the history of the businesses that came and went in Cecil Court. He provides tables which name each one, what their business was, and which was their address. You must turn to his paper for the full details, but the companies there from 1897-1906 were Biograph, Gaumont, Hepworth and New Bioscope, then from 1907-1911 New Bioscope, Vitagraph, Hepworth, Graham and Latham, Cinematograph Syndicate, Kamm, Williamson, F.A. Fullager, Nordisk, Williamson Dressler, Central Electric, Globe, Precision, Paragon, International Film Bureau, Rosie, Globe, Tyler, Films Ltd, New Kinematograph Enterprises, Biograph Theatres, Mansell, Theatre Chocolate Co., American Film Releases, Cinema Halles, and more. It was the more that interested me in particular, because at no. 8 Cecil Court there were plaques for Bioscope Press i.e. the original Bioscope film trade journal, and Ganes, publishers of the journal and its annual directories.

Every other shop in the short street has these plaques in their windows, and one would be hard pressed to think of anything to compare with it in terms of modern-day buildings marking their cinema history heritage (or indeed any other heritage) in such a concentrated and compehensive form. The plaques were put there following a Cecil Court festival held last year, and it is terrific to see how the street has taken to its special place in film history. You can read all about the street’s history, going back to the seventeenth century, on the Cecil Court website, which also provides details of every shop there today.

For more of Simon Brown’s research into the early London film business, check out the London Project database, which lists practically all of the film businesses and film venues in London before the First World War – Simon did the businesses, I did the cinemas. What a great project that was – just a year (2004-5, six months each) and we produced a database, several papers, a touring exhibition, a show (turning up at the Barbican next month), and changed the look of an entire street. Meanwhile I’m still working on the book…

Now, will someone do the same sort of research for the street to which the film businesses then gravitated, once they got too big for Cecil Court, namely Wardour Street?