Out of the vaults

Bela Lugosi and Alma Rubens in The Rejected Woman (1924)

George Eastman House has announced an online cinematheque. As the American film archive puts it, “Since we cannot screen everything in our Dryden Theatre, we have mined our vaults for favorite hidden treasures to showcase online”. The initiative has started out with 59 films, most of them silent, with the promise of more films to come.

The initiative is highly welcome, though the presentation is a little disappointing. There is no simple listing of the titles available; instead the front page displays thumbnail images of the main titles (where these exist), with the user have to hold their mouse pointer over the image to discover the title and date. Clicking on any one image gives you the video itself, a short description, the year of release and basic technical details. There are no cast and productions credits (unless mentioned in the description), and no country of production given. The video player (Flash) works well enough, though image quality isn’t always too great at full screen. All of the films come with a rather prominent George Eastman House onscreen graphic in the bottom right-hand corner.

But enough of such cavils. It is a fascinating selection of oddities, rarities and some classics, of which these are some of the highlights the Bioscope has spotted from among the silents. Do note that all of the silent films are presented without musical accompaniment.

  • Colonel Heeza Liar on the the Jump (USA 1917)
    Animation by John Randoph Bray, one of a long-running series feature the adventurous, braggart Colonel.
  • Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (Germany 1919)
    The first film made by German silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger, a delightful piece dance-like piece with two lovers whose title translates as “The Ornament of a Loving Heart”.
  • The Stolen Voice (USA 1915)
    Short feature film (44mins) with fascinating theatrical background details, directed by Frank H. Crane and produced by William Brady. It stars Robert Warwick as an opera singer who mysteriously loses his voice.
  • Beasts of the Jungle (USA 1913)
    Stagey drama set in India and Africa, with much use of wild animals (elephants, tigers, lions), directed by Alice Guy-Blaché from her American period, starring Vinnie Burns.
  • The Copperhead (USA 1920)
    Handsomely-presented feature film based on a Civil War-themed drama, with Lionel Barrymore repeating his great success in the 1918 stage version.
  • Huckleberry Finn (USA 1920)
    The only silent version of Mark Twain’s novel, directed by William Desmond Taylor and starring Lewis Sargent as Huck.
  • A Movie Trip through Film Land (USA 1921)
    Animation and live action film on the film production process, photographed by Joseph De Frenes, rich in facts and figures, absorbing in its display of the technical processes.
  • Thais (Italy 1917)
    Experimental work with bold visual invention by Futurist filmmaker Anton Giulio Bragaglia. As the GEH notes put it, the film displays “a sometimes dizzying and illusory world in which the characters (and the audience) may find it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction”.
  • The Camera Cure (USA 1917)
    Keystone slapstick comedy directed by Herman C. Raymaker, starring Maude Wayne and Malcolm St. Clair.
  • Les Fromages Automobiles (France 1907)
    Also known as The Skipping Cheeses, this is an interesting example of how George Méliès lost his way in his later years as a filmmaker, as the cheeses in question are hardly visible and the human characters are too far away from the camera for the comedy to work.

Mae Murray in Kodachrome Test Shots (1922)

  • Danse Macabre (USA 1922)
    Intriguing combination of ballet, animation and ghostly superimpositions made by avant garde director Dudley Murphy, with the dancers Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page.
  • Homunculus (Germany 1916)
    Apparently a condensed, feature-length version of the original six-part series, hugely popular in Germany, directed by Otto Rippert, about a scientist who creates an artifical human being, starring Olaf Fønss as Homunculus.
  • Daughters who Pay (USA 1925)
    Feature film starring a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi as Serge Oumansky, a Communist agent trying to organise terrorist actions against the United States government.
  • The Lost World (USA 1925)
    Cast-iron classic based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel, with pioneering animated dinosaurs created by Willis O’Brien.
  • The Flute of Krishna (USA 1926)
    Kodachrome colour film chreographed by Martha Graham and produced by Rouben Mamoulian. According to the GEH notes, “The Flute of Krishna is the only surviving record of Graham’s choreography, as dance notation had not been invented when the piece was created”.
  • The Rejected Woman (USA 1924)
    Another fascinating glimpse of the pre-vampiric Bela Lugosi, in an interesting melodrama filmed in Montreal and New York, also starring Alma Rubens and Conrad Nagel, and directed by Albert Parker.
  • The Confederate Ironclad (USA 1912)
    Kalem Civil War drama, Guy Coombs and Anna Q. Nilsson.
  • Kodachrome test shots (USA 1922)
    Two-colour Kodachrome film tests, featuring Hope Hampton, Mary Eaton and Mae Murray.
  • Out of the Fog (USA 1922)
    An odd comedy filmed by Harris Tuttle, one of the development team that produced 16mm film stock for Eastman. The film, which satirising the adventures of the team itself, is thought to be “the earliest surviving, formally produced 16mm motion picture”.
  • The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (USA 1916)
    Feature film version of the novel and hit play set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, directed by Cecil B. De Mille and starring Charlotte Walker and Thomas Meighan.
  • Gown of Destiny (USA 1917)
    Curious Triangle Film Corporation production about a French dress designer who creates a special gown that makes whoever wears so alluring that their husbands or suitors extend themselves in one way or another that ending up helping the French war effort.

There are more titles than this, including sound films of course (e.g the Technicolor 1937 feature Nothing Sacred and a delirious 1963 treat, Wayne D. Sourbeer’s How to Play Pinball). We’ll keep an eye out for more silent film treats. Anyway, some real treasures to explore, and many thanks to George Eastman House for having made them available to us all.