Bioscope Newsreel no. 28

Bébé victime d’une erreur? The supposed Gaumont film filmed outside the Pathé studios at 30 rue Louis Besquel, Vincennes, Paris (location today inset)

Just time to rush out a hastily-cobbled together edition of the Bioscope Newsreel for you, picking up on a few of the things happening in the silent world that have caught our eye over the past couple of weeks.

A life in the movies
The Guardian has published a profile of Kevin Brownlow, asking why a man who has won an Oscar for a lifetime dedicated to preserving the art of silent film isn’t better known in his own country. Read more.

Locating the General
On July 20 John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes and other books on the locations behind classic silent comedies, gave a presentation before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences on the locations used by Buster Keaton for The General. The Academy has published his compelling and superbly researched PowerPoint slides, with Bengston’s commentary, on its site. Read more.

Gaumont mystery
On that truly engrossing and mysterious site The Cine-Tourist, Roland-François Lack has posed an intriguing question. He has examined closely the film credited as Bébé victime d’une erreur judiciaire, an extract from which appears on the recent Gaumont boxed DVD set Le Cinéma premier, 1897-1913. But this supposed Gaumont film was sot outside the Pathé studios, as his meticulous visual evidence makes clear. What is going on? Can you solve the mystery? You may certainly enjoy the detective work. Read more.

Bonner Sommerkino
Germany’s silent film festival takes place 11-21 August and the programme has been published (in German). Among the highlights are Frank Borzage’s The Circle (US 1924), Mosjoukine in Les ombres qui passent (France 1924), the astonishing unreleased (except in Japan) experimental German film Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (Germany 1920), Shingun (1930) – Japan’s answer to Wings, and Bolivia’s sole surviving silent feature film Wara Wara (1930). Read more.

One in the eye for Murdoch
Yes, we can bring in the News International scandal which has so engrossed the British media, because there is a tangential silent film angle. When someone rejoicing in the name of Johnnie Marbles interrupted the Culture Media ans Sport select committee’s investigation into the phone hacking scandal by placing a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch’s face, he was acting in a tradition that goes back to the custard pies beloved of silent cinema and beyond. The BBC News site investigates the history. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Triangle Film Corporation

The House Built upon Sand (1916), with Lillian Gish and Roy Stewart, from La Triangle (1915-1919): Archives, recherche et histoire du cinéma

Here’s a couple of websites to bring to your attention, each dedicated in one way or another to the Triangle Film Corporation. Triangle was formed in 1915 following a parting of the ways between the brothers Harry and Roy Aitken and other board members at the Mutual Film Corporation. Harry Aitken formed the Triangle Film Corporation in July 1915 with the plan of releasing the films of three prominent producers: D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. For three years it was a considerable force in American film production before it was dissolved, brought down in part by the huge costs of Intolerance – ironically enough, given that it was formed on a tide of optimism and finance that followed the great success of The Birth of a Nation.

The first site is The Harry & Roy Aitken Collection, created by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, Madison. The WCFTR holds the papers of the Aitken brothers, comprising scripts, photos, promotional materials, company ledgers, legal records, and both personal and business correspondence. The site exhibits documents from one part of the collection, the Scripts and Scenarios series, using selected digitised documents to illustrate the great changes that took place in American film practice in the 1910s.

From the continuity script for Love of Justice? (working title The Woman of It) (1917)

The site comprises a timeline of developments in cinema in the 1910s; and a summary history of such developments, focussing on such key aspects as the arrival of feature films, the formation of exchanges, the distribution of features, and their exhibition. The central section is Continuity Script and the Rationalization of Film Production, which illustrates its historical thesis with digitised documents showing examples of Proof of Copyright, Detailed Scenario, Credits and Condensed Story, Locations, List of titles, Continuity Script Excerpt, Complete Picture Report and Budget Summary, all of them for Triangle releases. Another section, Changes in Film Style in the 1910s, demonstrates changes in lighting, staging, performance, editing and cinematography films at the start and end of the decade, with clips and stills as illustration. Finally there’s a case study based on The Clodhopper (1917), directed by Victor Scherzinger for Kay-Bee and released by Triangle, with a clip from the film and its matching continuity script.

From the gallery of photographs of Triangle productions on the Cinémathèque française site

Secondly, there’s the recently-launched La Triangle (1915-1919): Archives, recherche et histoire du cinéma, created by the Cinémathèque française. This brings together film clips (William S. Hart in The Desert Man, 1916 and Thomas Ince’s The Despoiler, 1915) with analyses of their restoration, photographs, digitised archival documents (including another contintuity script, for Lieutenant Danny, 1916, essays, catalogue records for relevant papers in Paris, Madison and Chicago, filmography, bibliography and weblinks.

Even if you don’t read French, the gallery of photographs alone is gorgeous to look at, and both sites are properly scholarly and just a little bit enthusiastic about their their subject, which is not just Triangle but the extraordinary way in which American film production stylistically and structurally evolved, matured and conquered the world over the period of the 1910s.

My thanks to Andrew Comiskey for alerting me to both sites.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Fred Storey and Julie Seale in The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), one of a few frames held by the National Media Museum

As we reported yesterday, a copy of Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896) has been discovered at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and will be premiered at the Pordenone silent film fesival in October. This is a discovery of major importance, since the film is generally recognised as the first British fiction, or narrative film. However, the film has never been entirely lost, nor is it (arguably) the first British fiction film. Let us examine the history.

In 1936 Robert W. Paul, the British film pioneer, reminisced about the residency his Animatograph projector enjoyed at the Alhambra music hall in London’s Leicester Square in 1896, a little over a month after projected films were first shown to an audience in Britain:

The first public exhibition of the Lumière cinematograph in England took place … on February 20th, at the Polytechnic in Regent Street, and the results were then superior in steadiness and clearness to my own. To compete with that machine, as shown at the Empire Theatre in Leciester Square, the Manager of the Alhambra asked me to give a show, as a ten-minute item in the programme, with my Theatrograph, which he renamed the Animatographe. This engagement was for two weeks, beginning March 25th, but actually continued for about two years. The salary, or fee, was at the rate of eleven pounds for each performance, far more than I has expected. In April, the Alhambra manager, Mr. Moul, who wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder, staged upon the roof a comic scene called The Soldier’s Courtship, the 80-foot film of which caused great merriment.

Paul’s account suggests that both the idea and the setting up of the film were the idea of the Alhambra’s manager, Alfred Moul, and the leading performers in the mini-drama were two Alhambra regulars, dancer and comedian Fred Storey and and dancer Julie Seale. Paul was chiefly there to turn the handle of the camera, though his wife Ellen did play the role of the interloper in the simple comic scene, described in the theatre journal The Era (16 May 1896):

Mr R.W. Paul has much improved the animated pictures presented by means of his clever invention … The element of humour is introduced by a picture of a soldier’s courtship. Mars and Venus (a befeathered Harriet) are interrupted in their ‘billing and cooing’ by a lady of maturer years, who insists on making a third on the seat occupied by the lovers. Protestations are in vain. Finally, the linesman, taking the law into his own hands, tips up the seat violently and throws the uninvited one to the ground. The courtship then continues.

The film appears to have been a great hit, so much so that Paul produced a remake two years later, entitled Tommy Atkins in the Park. The Soldier’s Courtship has since gone down in British film mythology as the first British fiction film.

But what is a fiction film, and what is a first? Anyone familiar with early film history will recognise the perils – nay, the folly – of describing any film as being the ‘first’ of something. Apart from anything else, such labels are meaningless when it comes to describing films produced at a time before such labels existed.

Arrest of a Pickpocket, made by Birt Acres and Robert Paul in April 1895, and a stronger candidate for the first British fiction film

If we want to dip into such controveries and argue that a fiction film is one that contains dramatic elements, then The Soldier’s Courtship had its predecessors. Robert Paul had begun film production in February or March of 1895, when he and the photographer Birt Acres collaborated on producing films for the Edison peepshow Kinetoscope, which Edison had notoriously neglected to patent in Europe, presenting a money-making opportunity to the two quick-minded London men. They produced a number of films between March and May 1895, before they fell out and went their separate ways, each finding his way towards a projected film system by early 1896. But among the films they made in 1895 (the full extent of which remains unknown) were:

  • An untitled ‘comedy’ filmed outside Acres’ Barnet home, ‘starring’ Henry Short (an acquaintance of both Acres and Paul), a few frames of which survive and which is various known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate. Whether it contained any genuine dramatic content is unclear – it seems chiefly to have been a test to demonstrate movement and image contrast (Short dressed in cricket whites).
  • Arrest of a Pickpocket – made in April 1895, this is the strongest candidate for the first British fiction film. It shows in single shot a pickpocket pursued by a policeman; he escapes the policeman’s clutches only to be captured by a passing sailor. The present tense is apposite, because the film survives, at the National Fairground Archive, and can be seen online at the Europa Film Treasures site.
  • Comic Shoeblack – made around May 1895. No description survives (and no film), but the title indicates an element of dramatisation, even if it is only to add spice to an actuality.
  • Carpenter’s Shop – made around May 1895, in emulation of Edison films showing scenes in a barroom and a blacksmith’s, this was ostensibly a scene from actuality, but had small dramatic points designed to capture the interest of the peepshow viewer, and could therefore be argued as being fictionalised. It is a lost film.
  • Arrest of a Bookmaker – John Barnes dates this Paul production to August 1896, but Denis Gifford in the British Film Catalogue puts it as May 1896, possibly even before The Soldier’s Courtship. A film which may be this is held by the BFI National Archive [The BFI has the film under the supplied title of Footpads – see comments]. Gifford also places Acres’ Golfing Extraordinary (a comic scene with golfers) as May 1896 and considers Acres’ Boxing Match to be a January 1896 production and to have dramatic elements (i.e. a staged match).

So, The Soldier’s Courtship is not the first British fiction film, if we can talk of fictional or narrative films in their later sense. Nor is it entirely a lost film. Firstly, a few frames from the film survived in the Kodak collection for many years and are now preserved by the National Media Museum in Bradford – one of the frames is used as the illustration at the top of this post. Secondly, as John Barnes points out – and illustrates – in The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vol. 1 – 1894-1896, a Filoscope exists of the film. The Filoscope was a hand-held flickbook with sequential images taken from cinefilms (a demonstration video is here). It was the invention of Henry Short, the same man who appeared in the ‘Clovelly Cottage’ film made by Acres and Paul in February or March of 1895. John Barnes had a copy of the Filoscope himself (his collection is now held by Hove Museum and Art Gallery) and reported that there were 176 leaves, or images. Hardly a complete film, but enough to show the central action. It was marketed as The Soldier’s Embrace, and at least one other copy has come up for auction before now.

Well, this leaves us with The Soldier’s Courtship being neither the ‘first’ British fiction film, nor a ‘lost’ film. But it is a landmark film for all that, and we have a complete 35mm copy in good condition, and that is a marvel all by itself, given that it is 115 years old. Moreover it’s a film with an identified cast, among whom Fred Storey in particular was a musical comedian of some fame. It is the first British film where we can set out a full set of credits (because we do not know the cast members of Arrest of a Pickpocket):

    The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896)
    director: Robert Paul
    production company: Paul’s Animatograph Works
    supervised by: Alfred Moul
    length: 80 feet
    location: Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London
    cast: Fred Storey (soldier), Julie Seale (his sweetheart), Ellen Paul (woman)

And that’s a movie.

I hope that there will be chances for everyone to see it following its Pordenone premiere in October. It certainly is an exciting and important discovery.

Pordenone 2011

The Wind

The Giornate del Cinema Muto, or Pordenone Silent Film Festival, has announced details of its programme for 1-8 October 2011. It has the look of another classic year, with some eye-catching special presentations and discoveries to tempt us acros to Italy once more. Here are details from the publicity materials available so far:

People of Italy’s Golden Age
To celebrate three decades of rediscovery and restorations of the national cinema, and Italy’s 150th unification anniversary, we present “People of Italy’s Golden Age”, with programmes devoted both to superstars and to less-known personalities, including Francesca Bertini, Pina Menichelli, Nino Oxilia, Febo Mari and the galaxy of clowns of the first decade – Cretinetti, Polidor, Kri-Kri, Robinet and friends.

It’s good to see Italian silent cinema celebrated at an Italian silent film festival – you can sometimes forget when in front of the screen at Pordenone that you are in Italy, though the festival has a tradition of celebrating Italian comedians of the era (a great favourite of festival director David Robinson).

Shostakovich and the Factory of the Eccentric Actor
Focuses on the association of the composer and the film-makers Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, which began with the unparalleled marriage of music and image in New Babylon and Odna. This is a rare opportunity to see all the surviving work of the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), unique in Soviet cinema for its vitality, originality and audacity. The Giornate will also show Shostakovich’s two “cartoon operas”, the banned and never-completed Story of the Priest and his Servant Balda and The Story of the Silly Little Mouse.

New Babylon will provide the festival’s gala opening show. Although New Babylon has often been performed before, this performance can be claimed as definitive. After the debacles of the first performances, Shostakovich’s score was lost for
45 years, until 1975, when Gennadi Rozhdestvensky found a set of orchestral parts in the Lenin Library, Moscow, and adapted a suite from the score. Subsequently other, fuller copies of the original orchestral parts became available; but it was not until this century, thanks to the work of the Paris-based Shostakovich Centre, that the most complete versions of the score, as well as Shostakovich’s own much-corrected manuscript (the original of which is in the Glinka Museum, Moscow) became freely available. Mark Fitz-Gerald, who began his studies of the score twenty years ago, has been able to extensively revise his work in preparing the new Naxos recording, and with assistance from another fine Shostakovich scholar, Pierre-Alain Biget, has brought the score and its synchronisation to a new level, at which Shostakovich’s genius can finally be fully appreciated. A second film in the FEKS programme, The Overcoat, after Gogol, will be accompanied by a new score for quartet by Maud Nelissen.

More films from the vast and largely unexplored treasury of Soviet silent films can be seen in a presentation of Georgian cinema, including the remaining two films from the oeuvre of Lev Push – a gifted director, prevented from direction after 1930, whose name was virtually unknown until last year’s Giornate.

Last year at the Giornate we were treated to Lev Push’s visually vivid Giuli (1927) and Gypsy Blood (1928). The music for New Babylon will be performed by FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra, conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald.

Kertész before Curtiz
Remembered as one of the great names of classic Hollywood (his films included Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce) it is often forgotten that Michael Curtiz enjoyed a prolific 14-year career in Europe before arriving in America. Few of the 48 films he made in his native Hungary, as Mihály Kertész, survive; the Giornate will show the newly rediscovered A Tolonc (The Expulsion, 1914), which already exemplifies his exceptional gift for narrative, pace and character. In Austria, now Michael Kertesz, he made 17 films, which have been generally overlooked by film historians, perhaps because Kertesz’ intention was primarily commercial entertainment – art was an incidental asset. The Giornate’s selection from the Austrian era will include Der Junge Medardus, from the novel by Artur Schnitzler, who collaborated on the script, and Das Spielzeug von Paris, Einspänner nr 13 and Der Goldene Schmetterling – all starring the gifted Lili Damita (who was briefly married to Kertesz) and exemplifying Kertesz’ special qualities of eroticism and sharp social satire.

Definitely one for the cineaste completists, particularly for the rediscovery of A Tolonc, not least because pitifully few Hungarian silents have survived overall.

The Canon Revisited
The popular “Canon Revisted” series this year includes an orchestral show, with Günter Buchwald conducting Chaplin’s own accompaniment to The Circus. Other “Canon” titles include Marcel l’Herbier’s Eldorado, Joe May’s Asphalt and Friedrich Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire.

On the Giornate site they add Merry-Go-Round (1923), the film from which Erich von Stroheim was fired and replaced by Rupert Julian, and Kenneth Macpherson’s experimental work Borderline (1930), starring Paul Robeson.

Early and Transitional Cinema
A dramatic rediscovery featured in the Early and Transitional Cinema series is Robert William Paul’s 1896 The Soldier’s Courtship, which has been regarded as a key work in film history, as the first British fiction film – and indeed one of the world’s first fiction films. Believed lost for almost all its 115 years, a fine print recently surfaced in the Roman archive of Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and will be premiered at the 2011 Giornate. Also in this series are two more programmes from the Corrick Collection, and a centenary programme which explores the exceptional narrative qualities of the films of the American Thanhouser Company.

The rediscovery of The Soldier’s Courtship is stunning news. It is a title that has been referred to as important more or less for as long as there have been histories of British film, but all we have ever had to refer to were a catalogue description and a single still. The film was made in April 1896 on the roof of the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square in London, where Robert Paul‘s Animatograph projector was a featured attraction. The film featured music hall star Fred Storey, Julie Seale and Paul’s wife Ellen, and is generally considered to be the first British film fiction film. Such as its popularity that Paul re-shot the film in 1897, but it appears that the Rome discovery is the 1896 original. Well, well.

Early Westerns
A small but selective programme to celebrate the American National Film Preservation Foundation’s DVD issues of early Westerns will include screenings of W.S. Van Dyke’s Lady of the Dugout (1918), Victor Fleming’s Mantrap (1926) and the little-known Salomy Jane (1914), directed by Lucius Henderson and William Nigh.

Other highlights of this year’s Giornate: a special series to commemorate the centenary of the great polar expeditions of 1911-12; Japanese silent animation film; the recently re-assembled full series of Walt Disney’s 1922 Laugh-o-Grams; and a special selection of early films depicting the experience of going to the cinema drawn from the collections of EYE, Amsterdam.

The closing show will be a full orchestral performance of Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928), with Carl Davis conducting his own score.

As with New Babylon, the orchestra for The Wind will be the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra.

Information on registration, accommodation and travel is here. Those who have not attended before need to fill out a registration request form. Old hands should now be receiving registration details by email – let the festival know if you haven’t head from them by the end of this month.

This all has the look of a classic Pordenone, and there’s more to be announced in due course. Will you want to be anywhere else the first week in October?

Film industry year books

MGM advertisement from the Motion Picture News Booking Guide 1929

We have previously reported enthusiastically and in detail on the digitisation of American film journals such as Photoplay and Film Daily undertaken by David Pierce for the Media History Digital Library, all of which can be located on the Internet Archive at

And now there’s more, because Pierce is branching out into books. He has digitised a number of essential American and British studio directories and trade annuals from the 1920s to the 1950s. They are as follows (in chronological order):

I can’t begin to tell you what a fabulous collection these represent (you can find them all through the one link here). The film trade almanacs and annuals are among the best guides we have to the workings of the motion picture industry, because they were produced for the industry and with huge contributions from that industry, as performers, filmmakers, studios, technicians and services supplied vital information to these reference sources that everyone else in the industry would then consult. If you weren’t in Quigley’s Motion Picture Almanac, Wid’s Film Daily Yearbook or the Kine Year Book in Britain, then you were invisible. So everyone had to be listed (though competing yearbooks meant that some submitted details to one reference source and not another – so always double-check if you can). Such reference books have been the bread and butter of film history research for decades. They include lists of films produced over the previous year, studio details, biographies of actors, filmmakers and technicians, statistics, background information, gossip and anecdote, information on legal cases, and copious advertisements. Above all they are full of names, and in the word-searchable form in which they are given on the Internet Archive, they are even more useful to the researcher than arguably the printed volume would be (though it’s handiest to have both).

Quigley’s Motion Picture Almanac for 1929

There isn’t space to go through each of the volumes, though I heartily recommend the immensely informative Motion Picture Almanac for 1929, the Kine Year Books for their invaluable primary information on British film, and the fascinating overview of the American film industry in 1926 that is The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: The Motion Picture in Its Economic and Social Aspects (not strictly speaking a film year book). I also have great fondness for Clarence Winchester’s The World Film Encyclopedia, not because it is especially useful as a reference source (“close to useless”, says Mr Pierce), but because it was one of the first film books I ever bought and I found it so full of apparent riches. It’s also of value for being the sort of reference guide that a fan would have bought rather than a film industry type.

I may write posts on individual volumes in due course, but what I have done is create yet another section of the Bioscope Library, this time devoted to directories, to go alongside those for books, journals, and catalogues and databases. All of the directories above are listed (including those for the post-silent era, because they generally have information going back to the silent period), plus those directories previously reported on by the Bioscope.

Thank you once again to David Pierce for his digitisation efforts. He continues to add film trade journals to the Internet Archive, and we will continue to try and keep up somehow by listing them all.

The death of celluloid

Five seconds on the death of cinema as we have known it. As the filmmakers say (in a statement which takes longer to read than the film takes to view):

In this terrible job market with bleak prospects, in a world where film projection is getting replaced by slick machine-operated digital projection, in a culture where black-and-white silent film is all but lost to the winds of time … one doofus with a tie and a poignancy-starved cineaste found magic together. But then everything caught on fire.

One of a long series of 5-second films made by

Scores of scores

A music score likely to have accompanied the British film The Guns of Loos (1928), from Colman Getty (via The Guardian)

Last week the discovery was announced of a quite extraordinary treasure trove of silent film music scores. Lurking the the basement of Birmingham (UK) city council’s music library has been found a collection of some 500 music scores designed for accompanying silent films. Anyone who knows about the paucity of surviving silent films scoes generally, particularly in Britain, is going to be stunned at such an announcement. Ten or twenty would have been exciting – 500 is just jaw-dropping.

However, it appears that the vast majority are not scores for specific films but rather scores for generic scenes, which were far more usual for standard silent film accompaniment. They have titles or descriptions such as ‘grave situation’, ‘mysterious shadows’, ‘in the church’, ‘supreme peril’ and ‘angry crowd scenes’. They were used by jobbing musical directors who would tour cinemas with their sheaf of scores, ready to match music to the films required. This gives us quite a different picture to the only commonly thought of, where a musical director would be attached to one cinema. The Birmingham collection identifies a number of such directors, among them Louis Benson, H.T. Saunders, Harry T. Ramsden and and the splendidly-named Purcell Le Roi, and while some were connected with just the one cinema or area, others hit the road to organise small orchestral music for silent wherever they would be paid to do so. They would usually be the musical leads – and not always violin or piano, as the collection makes clear.

There is a piece in The Guardian which gives a short account of the collection, but the Bioscope has turned to celebrated silent film pianist Neil Brand, who has briefly examined the collection, and who has kindly provided us with his first impressions of the collection:

There is nothing particularly surprising, ground-breaking or game-changing in what they’ve got – what is new, to my mind, is the extraordinarily broad light it throws on what cinemagoers between 1914 and 1929 actually heard. All the pieces, British, French and American (roughly a third of each), are uniquely written for cinema use, published by commercially operating music publishers and are nearly all in sets of parts for a band of 7-11 players (a ‘salon orchestra’ as it was known). They all have generic titles (‘Bizarre March’, ‘The Onslaught’, ‘Emotional Waltz’, ‘Desert Monotony'(!)) or numbers, and often suggestions for their use (‘for Eastern pictures’, ‘For Pathetic or Tragic scenes’, ‘Fire or Torture scenes’ etc etc). There are a few owners names or rubber stamps and these are what particularly interest me – the Sherlock Holmes stuff begins with these; Louis Benson, who owned at least a quarter of the material we looked at, was obviously a jobbing musical director and as we looked through ‘his’ music sets I noticed visual cues written in pencil, not on the piano part as one would expect, but on the cello part. Only one cue, each time, which made me suspect that Louis hired himself out as MD to different orchestras for a specific film (which film we couldn’t guess from the sketchy pencil notes) which he then conducted / synchronised from the cello. I’ve always assumed the piano always led a band but cello also makes sense – easier to remove the hands from the instrument, less distracting when the instrument stopped playing and the bow doubled as a big, obvious baton for beating time or conducting.

This is the sort of very new inference one can make from this huge collection – Harry T. Ramsden of 12 Monteith Rd Glasgow, the biggest donor of material, had hundreds of pieces from ABC Dramatic and Carl Fischer Publications which would allow him to instantly provide a compiled score for any film – when you look at some of the music the pages have been turned so many times they have been taped up all round, edges and spines, until they are virtually cardboard – those are the pieces he used all the time – obviously he either really liked them or they fitted the bill in a huge number of contexts. And Purcell Le Roi, solo violinist, could provide his own music sets as well as his expertise, thus begging two questions – were these music sets with either easy or virtuosic violin parts, and was his name really Percy King?

We weren’t able to make more than a cursory sweep through the material but we did find one piece that could be linked directly to an actual film – Richard Howgill, later a music director and producer for the BBC, wrote a generic piece called The Onslaught, published by Lafleur Motion Picture Edition in 1928. On the violin part for this piece in the Birmingham set is scribbled ’25th September 1915′. That is the date of the start of the Battle of Loos, and in 1928 a movie called The Guns of Loos was a huge success throughout Britain – the movie exists in the archive (I’ve played it) and I’ll just bet that intertitle appears in it.

Some of the music is to get its first run through in eight years this Tuesday, when pianist Ben Dawson will plays some at a free pre-concert event at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s film music festival. Then, we understand, the collection is likely to disappear for a time while the Birmingham music library transfers to a new building.

However, I don’t think we will have heard the last of this collection, and if I can get more information that I am able to share with you, I will.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 27

Frame grab from the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Some weeks we’re not sure what to put in the Bioscope newsreel, and some weeks we’re just overwhelmed with how alive our dead medium continues to be. And that’s when we’ve set aside the news, already reported, of the first appearance on American screens of the full restored Napoléon with Carl Davis score, next year. So, after a gap of a few weeks while we were away on our travels, here’s some of the news in silent films now.

Hugo trailer
Martin Scorsese, as you may know, is making a film of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel, The Invention of Hugh Cabret, in which Georges Méliès is a central character. During production the film has been known as Hugo Cabret, but clearly that was too much for Disney’s marketing people, and now it’s just known as Hugo. The first trailer is out, and – guess what – it looks like a Disney children’s film. But some enticing recreations of Georges Méliès’ film and stage productions, as the image above shows, should draw us in to see when the time comes. Read more.

Silent film scores galore
An extraordinary treasure trove of silent film scores has been unearthed by Birmingham city council (in the UK) in its music library. There are around 500 scores in a collection which has lain in a basement for decades. Chiefly examples of generic scores for stock scenes (chases, mystery scenes, people in peril etc.), many are scores for small orchestras of between seven and eleven players. They appear to have been collected by touring musical directors, who went from cinema to cinema rather than work for just the one venue. We will have more on this amazing discovery and its importance for silent film history in due course. Read more.

Theodore Roszak RIP
The social critic, academic and novelist Theodore Roszak has died. Best known for coining the phrase ‘counter culture’ in his 1968 work The Making of a Counter Culture, he was also an ardent film fan and wrote one of the best of all film-themed novels, Flicker, a dark and imaginatively far-fetched work which revolves around the mysterious figure of Max Castle, B-movie horror film maker in the 1940s and reveals an extraordinary alternate history of Hollywood from the silent period onwards. Read more.

San Francisco silents
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is running as we type. Highlights include a solo electric guitar acompaniment by Giovanni Spinelli to Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (there’s an extract from a documentary on the scoring of the film here), He Who Gets Slapped, I Was Born But…, Marlene Dietrich in The Woman Men Yearn For, and the ubiquitous The Great White Silence. Read more.

Paintings of cinemas
One of the blogs the Bioscope likes to read when it feels the need to stir the brain cells a bit is Nick Redfern’s thought-provoking Research into Film. Normally his subject is analytical studies of films, but he has put up a delightful post exhibiting paintings of cinemas and their audiences by contemporary artists. Do take a look. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Napoléon in the USA

The composer Carl Davis has announced on his website that the full restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), with his symphonic score, will receive its US premiere in March 2012. As Davis notes, “a 32 year odyssey has been achieved”, since there has been a battle between rival restorations and scores of the film, with a re-edited version with score by the late Carmine Coppola (father of Francis Ford Coppola) that was exhibited in the USA in 1981 effectively keeping out the full Kevin Brownlow restoration, with all of the material he has found since 1981 (now 332 minutes in total), and Carl Davis score.

Without knowing any of the details, clearly peace has broken out (might Kevin and Francis had a chat about things when they each were awarded honorary Academy Awards last year?). There is a triumphalist trailer for the film on the TCM site which states that, courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (and American Zoetrope, and The Film Preserve, and Photoplay Productions, and the BFI) the film will screen at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, San Francisco, with the music played by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. There will be four performances only.

We will add more information as and when we find it.

Meanwhile, start queuing now …

The O’Kalem collection

A while ago we told you about Blazing the Trail, a new documentary by Peter Flynn about the American film company Kalem and the films it and associated companies made in Ireland 1910-1915. Now the documentary and eight surviving ‘O’Kalem’ films have been issued on a double DVD set by the Irish Film Institute and BIFF Productions. The O’Kalem Collection 1910-1915 comprises The Lad from Old Ireland (2 versions) (1910), Rory O’ More (1911), The Colleen Bawn (1911), You Remember Ellen (1912), His Mother (2 versions) (1912), For Ireland’s Sake (1914), Come Back to Erin (incomplete) (1914), Bold Emmett, Ireland’s Martyr (1915) and the feature-length documentary Blazing the Trail. The second DVD also contains an O’Kalem image gallery. Some of the films have replacement English titles as they only survive in foreign-titled versions. There is piano and violin accompaniment.

O’Kalem was the nickname given to the Kalem filmmakers who made these tales of romance, rebellion and escape, which overturned all the crude stereotypes of stage Irish which had featured in films to that date. They were innovative in being American fiction film productions shot overseas, making handsome use of Kerry locations, and A Lad from Old Ireland was the first fiction film made in Ireland. O’Kalem means more than just the Kalem company itself. Its leading lights Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier stayed on in Ireland and filmed as the Gene Gauntier Feature Players (Come Back to Erin and For Ireland’s Sake) and the Olcott alone as Sid Films (Bold Emmett, Ireland’s Martyr). This is an important collection, for what it represents of Irish and early American cinema, and for the charming, fresh quality of the films. It has been lovingly put together and is warmly recommended (the delightful Blazing the Trail we have already praised – together they make make the ideal package).

And there’s more. Should you be so charmed by the films that you wish to visit Ireland, then an O’Kalem trail will await you. Last Monday Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan launched the O’Kalem Film Trail, a tourist trail in Kerry which takes you through the two twons most associated with the filming, Beaufort and Killarney. The ten stops are:

  • The Beaufort Bridge
  • The Beaufort Bar (where the film company stayed)
  • The O’Sullivan Field
  • The Churchtown graveyard and St Mary’s Church
  • The River Laune
  • The Gap of Dunloe
  • Muckross Lake and the Colleen Bawn Rock
  • Muckross Abbey
  • Dinis Cottage
  • Torc Waterfall

A 20-page booklet has also been produced. One fervently hopes that there will be American tourists heading over to Ireland in search of their roots who come home clutching a DVD of early cinema titles. All in all, enterprise has been shown to match that of the original O’Kalems.

The O’Kalem Collection: 1910-1915 is available from the Irish Film Insitute as a multi-region NTSC 2-DVD set, price 21.99 euros, including postage and packing.