National Film Registry 2011

The Cry of the Children

It’s that time of the year once again at the end of the year when 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”.

Four silent films are among the titles chosen for 2011: the Thanhouser Film Company’s heartfelt social problem drama The Cry of the Children (1912), the world’s most popular film comedian before Chaplin, John Bunny, in A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), with his regular foil Flora Finch; John Ford’s classic railroad western The Iron Horse (1924); and Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid (1921). Here’s how the National Film Registry describes its silent choices:

The Cry of the Children (1912)
Recognized as a key work that both reflected and contributed to the pre-World War I child labor reform movement, the two-reel silent melodrama “The Cry of the Children” takes its title and fatalistic, uncompromising tone of hopelessness from the 1842 poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “The Cry of the Children” was part of a wave of “social problem” films released during the 1910s on such subjects as drugs and alcohol, white slavery, immigrants and women’s suffrage. Some were sensationalist attempts to exploit lurid topics, while others, like “The Cry of the Children,” were realistic exposés that championed social reform and demanded change. Shot partially in a working textile factory, “The Cry of the Children” was recognized by an influential critic of the time as “The boldest, most timely and most effective appeal for the stamping out of the cruelest of all social abuses.”

A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry’s earliest comic superstar. A stage actor prior to the start of his film career, Bunny starred in over 150 Vitagraph Company productions from 1910 until his death in 1915. Many of his films (affectionately known as “Bunnygraphs”) were gentle “domestic” comedies, in which he portrayed a henpecked husband alongside co-star Flora Finch. “A Cure for Pokeritis” exemplifies the genre, as Finch conspires with similarly displeased wives to break up their husbands’ weekly poker game. When Bunny died in 1915, a New York Times editorial noted that “Thousands who had never heard him speak…recognized him as the living symbol of wholesome merriment.” The paper presciently commented on the importance of preserving motion pictures and sound recordings for future generations: “His loss will be felt all over the country, and the films, which preserve his humorous personality in action, may in time have a new value. It is a subject worthy of reflection, the value of a perfect record of a departed singer’s voice, of the photographic films perpetuating the drolleries of a comedian who developed such extraordinary capacity for acting before the camera.”

The Iron Horse (1924)
John Ford’s epic Western “The Iron Horse” established his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors. Intended by Fox studios to rival Paramount’s 1923 epic “The Covered Wagon,” Ford’s film employed more than 5,000 extras, advertised authenticity in its attention to realistic detail, and provided him with the opportunity to create iconic visual images of the Old West, inspired by such master painters as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. A tale of national unity achieved after the Civil War through the construction of the transcontinental railroad, “The Iron Horse” celebrated the contributions of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants although the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country legally was severely restricted at the time of its production. A classic silent film, “The Iron Horse” introduced to American and world audiences a reverential, elegiac mythology that has influenced many subsequent Westerns.

The Kid (1921)
Charles Chaplin’s first full-length feature, the silent classic “The Kid,” is an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy. The tale of a foundling (Jackie Coogan, soon to be a major child star) taken in by the Little Tramp, “The Kid” represents a high point in Chaplin’s evolving cinematic style, proving he could sustain his artistry beyond the length of his usual short subjects and could deftly elicit a variety of emotions from his audiences by skillfully blending slapstick and pathos.

The other films on the 2011 list are Allures (1961), Bambi (1942), The Big Heat (1953), A Computer Animated Hand (1972), Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963), El Mariachi (1992), Faces (1968), Fake Fruit Factory (1986), Forrest Gump (1994), Growing Up Female (1971), Hester Street (1975), I, an Actress (1977), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Negro Soldier (1944), Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s) [technically silent, of course], Norma Rae (1979), Porgy and Bess (1959), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Stand and Deliver (1988), Twentieth Century (1934), War of the Worlds (1953).

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 1989-2010:

The Bargain (1914)
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)
Lonesome (1928)
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)
Newark Athlete (1891)
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)
Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
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)
A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
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 well over 200 silent films alone, which suggests that they are not about to run out of ideas just yet.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, last year we said that a list of American films worthy of preservation is all very well (and none of these films automatically gets preserved just because it is nominated – it’s an honour, not a financial award), 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 now listed 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?

For your diaries

Audience at the Giornate del cinema muto, Pordenone

Well folks, in just a few days it will be 2012, and it is time once again for our annual round-up of what is scheduled to be happening in the silent film world over the next twelve months. You can find further details about the conferences and festivals coming up in the relevant blog sections for these, while our calendar lists all that’s coming up in one handy place. We are considering a reorganiation of the site in the near future, but for the time being those sections remain.

OK, and it will come as a surprise to no one that things kick off with January. The Slapstick festival in Bristol, UK, returns 26-29th, with its traditional mixture of silent comedy classics and present-day TV and radio comedians. StummFilmMusikTage, the annual festival of silent films held in Erlangen, Germany, also takes place in January, though no dates have been given as yet.

February is going to have special interest for the silent film world as the Academy Awards take place on the 26th, and we’ll all be rooting for The Artist just so that we can tell everyone we’ve been backing the right horse all along. The Kansas Silent Film Festival takes place at Topeka, Kansas on 24-25th (no programme announced as yet).

March looks busy, with Cinefest, the annual collectors’ festival at Syracuse, New York, taking place 15-18th – no programme as yet, but bookings begin in January; the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Scotland’s first silent film festival now in its second year, to be held in Bo’ness, 16-18th; another relative newcomer, the Toronto Silent Film Festival, to be held 29th March-3rd April; and the twelfth Festival du film muet in Servion Switzerland, 29th March-1st April. With any luck, the Kilruddery Silent Film Festival should be returning this month, held in Bray, Ireland. Finally, there will be the major event of the first US screenings with orchestra of the fully restored Napoléon at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA, 24-25th, 31st and 1st April.

Spring will then be upon us, and April will see the British Silent Film Festival moving venue once again, this time to the Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, 19th-22nd- though officially both dates and venue remain provisional for now.

Then comes May, when we shall see the classic film convention Cinevent taking place at Columbus, Ohio, though no exact dates as yet. We do have dates for France’s Festival d’Anères, however, still going strong in Hautes-Pyrénées, 23rd-27th – or at least, we hope so, because just at present their website is down.

June will bring us the twelfth international Domitor conference, taking place in early cinema’s spiritual home, Brighton, UK, 25-28th [Update: dates are now 18-22 June], on the theme of ‘Performing New Media, 1890-1915’. There’s going to be something of a dilemma for some, as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, for many specialists an essential part of their year, runs virtually parallel to Domitor, over 23rd-30th, with special features on Raoul Walsh, Lois Weber and the regular Films from 100 Years Ago all promised so far. 29th June-1st July will see the fifteenth annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, at Fremont, California, marking the centenary of Broncho Billy Anderson coming to Niles.

In July the sun is hot (is it shining? not it’s not). Aside from the sunshine, there will be the Olympic Games in the UK (27th July-12th August), and we’ll endeavour to have suitably Olympic things happening on the Bioscope as well. For those elsewhere, there will be the San Francisco Silent Film Festival taking place 12-15th; or else look out (hopefully) for something eye-catching once again from Babylon Kino’s StummfilmLiveFestival in Berlin this month. In 2011 Slapsticon, the annual silent and early sound film comedy festival traditionally held in Arlington, Virginia, was cancelled – we await news of what will happen this year.

Few silent film events have announced their dates as far ahead as August, though New York’s Capitolfest, scheduled for 10-12th, and Finland’s Mykkäelokuvafestivaalit, or the Forssa Silent Film Festival, is taking place 31st August-1st September. Festivals generally held this month are Strade del Cinema, held at Aosta, Italy; Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso in São Paulo, Brazil; Bonner Sommerkino, in Bonn, Germany; and the International Silent Film Festival held in Manila, Philippines. No dates or details for any of these as yet.

And then we will find ourselves in September, and ready for a particularly busy month. No dates announced as yet, but we should be getting Cinecon, the annual classic film festival held in Hollywood; New Zealand’s charming Opitiki Silent Film Festival; the Toronto Urban Film Festival of one-minute modern silent films, held in Toronto, Canada; Sydney, Australia’s Australia's Silent Film Festival (though this could turn up at any point between September and December, judging by past form); the Annual Buster Keaton Celebration held in Iola, Kansas, USA; and Cinesation, the silent and early sound film festival held in Massillon, Ohio, USA.

After all that, what might October hold? Why, Pordenone of course. The Giornate del Cinema Muto takes place 6-13th. Nothing else would dare to think even for a moment of clashing with it, and as things stand it has the month to itself.

November and December don’t seem to have anything fixed, though the Bielefelder Film+MusikFest in Germany and Poland’s Festival of Silent Films, held in Krakow and organised by Kino Pod Baranami, generally occur around this time.

If you know of other major silent films events – as opposd to individual screenings or general festivals with some silents included – do let me know. Hopefully there will be more than just the one conference happening in 2012, while the festivals all deserve your patronage. They take a lot of time, effort and money to put on, they are organised by people who believe passionately in the importance of what they do, and festivals remain the place where the real discoveries are made and silent film history is renewed and refreshed. Hope to see you at one or more such events in 2012.

Compliments of the season

It’s Christmas, folks, as you may have noticed, and the Bioscope is closing its doors for a few days while it spends time with the nearest and dearest, trying very hard to be Bob Cratchit and not Ebeneezer Scrooge. I hope you all have a merry Christmas yourselves, and the happiest of new years.

To mark the season, sort of, and by way of tribute to the man whose accomplishments have been so rightly championed all year, here’s Conquest of my Poles, Jean Lambert-wild and Jeremiah McDonald’s droll interpretation/interpolation of Georges Méliès’s À la conquête du pôle (1912). A film with all the visual wit and ingenuity of a Méliès original.

The duo have made other examples of what they call ‘screen calentures‘ in which a bewildered modern figure (McDonald) intrudes upon a silent film landscape, as in the pleasingly clever Keaton and I in which McDonald travels through assorted classic sequences from Keaton’s films.

Or try out My Serpentine, where he joins in with a 1890s hand-coloured serpentine dancer in a joyous fin de siècle knees-up.

Here’s hoping we all have as much fun over the holidays.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 36

Spot the difference

It is hard for any news provider to offer a full service at Christmas time, but even harder for the person trying to document silent films when there is only one story on everyone’s minds. The newsfeeds are choc-a-bloc with reviews of The Artist and thought pieces on what it all means when a silent film gets made in 2011. Part of the same silent mania is Martin Scorsese’s cine-nostalgic Hugo, and it only takes two films on a broadly similar theme for the world to discover a trend and seek to explain it. But we shall do our best to report what is worth reporting. And so we start with …

Silent films after The Artist and Hugo
Daniel Eagen at the Smithsonian’s rather fine Reel Culture blog takes a wry look at the impassioned debates both The Artist and Hugo have caused, viewing with amusement both those instant experts on silents who have hitched onto the bandwagon and the ‘film geeks’ who are agonising over the fine details. What is it that is so different about silent films? Eagen suggests that there probably isn’t anything different at all. Maybe they are just films, much like films of today. Read more.

Toronto Silent Film Festival
The schedule for the Toronto Silent Films Festival (one of the newer festivals out there) has been published. Lined up include Clara Bow in Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Murnau’s Tabu (1931), Rudoph Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922) and E.A. Dupont’s much-cited but not all that often seen Variety (1925). The festival runs 29 March-3 April 2012. Read more.

The birth of promotion
New York Public Library is currently hosting an exhibition on promotional and distibution materials from the silent era, entitled “The Birth of Promotion: Inventing Film Publicity in the Silent-Film Era”. The exhibition runs until January and has a cheerful promotional video. The New York Times has a fine survey of the exhibition and history its documents. Read more.

Life in the air
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley are putting on a series of silent films devoted to aviation in its broadest sense. “Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air” takes place 23-26 February 2012 and has been imaginatively curated by Patrick Ellis, with such titles as High Treason (UK 1929), A Trip to Mars (Denmark 1918) and rarity The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower (France 1927). Read more.

Keaton in colour
Kino has been doing a great job releasing Buster Keaton’s work on Blu-Ray. Their latest release is Seven Chances (1925), with its Brewster’s Millions-style plot (Buster must marry before 7pm to inherit $7M) and the famous scene when Buster is pursued downhill by an absurd number of boulders. This ‘ultimate edition’ is of especial interest for including the film’s two-colour Technicolor opening sequence. It also comes with the classic shorts Neighbors (1920) and The Balloonatic (1923). Read more.

Now where have I seen that before?
A sixth item for once, and it’s another Kino release, this time a boxed set of some of its silent classics cheekily packaged to look like the poster for for a certain Oscar favourite and entitled The Artists. Full marks to somebody in their marketing team for the sheer nerve of it. Read more.

All these stories and more on our daily news service.

‘Til next time!

Online matters

So far in our end-of-the-year posts, we have looked at some of the leading books published in our field over the year, and some of the top DVD releases. We’ve also reviewed the year in general. Now let us turn to a selection of some of the best in silent-themed videos that have either appeared online this year, or which we have discovered for the first time this year in the course of writing the blog. It’s an entirely personal choice, and limited also to those titles that can be embedded here. But just enjoy.

Variation: The Sunbeam, David W. Griffith, 1912 (2011)

This inspired interpretation by Aitor Gametxo of D.W. Griffith’s The Sunbeam (1912) deconstructs and reconstructs the film according to its spatial logic by showing the different floors and rooms of the tenement in their respective areas of the screen. As my post on the video says, it’s an object lesson in seeing how silent films (or any other kind of film) works.

Raymond Rohauer presents The Sneeze (1970)

I learned about this comic gem through the Nitrateville site. It was made by David Shepard in 1970 and gleefully spoofs the over-presentation of silents from another age (thankfully), pointing the finger not only at notorious collector Raymond Rohauer (who reportedly found the film hilarious) but at the ponderous long introductory titles which some archives (notably MOMA) used to give to silents. The film being given the weighty introduction is Edison’s Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894), featuring Fred Ott.

The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (2011)

It’s only a 24-second trailer for what is an eight minute film, but this modern silent by Otto Kylmälä caused a sensation at Pordenone, as the audience saw just what a modern silent can be. Let’s hope it appears in its entirety for all to enjoy before too long.

The Evidence of the Film (1913)

One of the highlight online video collection of the year has been the Thanhouser Vimeo channel. Ned Thanhouser, who works tirelessly to promote the appreciation and preservation of the Thanhouser film company’s surviving work has made all of their surviving films to which he has access available online. Here’s a classic self-referential drama from 1913.

Clog Dancing for the Championship of England (1898)

This was my favourite discovery from the Huntley Film Archives’ YouTube Channel, a joyous 1898 Robert Paul film of the world clog dancing championships, won by James G. Burns, as we learned after family members got in touch. I can’t really say what it is about very early films that delights me so, except that this is the kind of film that delights me in particular. It’s just a happy film.

Rêverie (2011)

A welcome discovery this year was the Silent Stories channel which curates modern silent films of the non-pastiche kind, which is the kind we much prefer. Rêverie by Jaro Minne is a wistful, skilful example of how to tell stories through looks.

Percy Pilcher (1897)

I made my own contribution to YouTube this year, a re-animation of the seven frames that survive (reproduced in a newspaper) of the British aviator Percy Pilcher taking off on his glider for a few seconds on 20 June 1897, discussed in our post on early aviation films. Fleeting it might be, but even seven frames is enough to gain some sense of history brought back to life.

The Bicycle Animation (2011)

A favourite post this year was one on the Phonotrope animations inspired by the work of animator Jim Le Fevre, which re-imagine pre-cinema technologies such as the Zoetrope to create new forms of animation. The video above, by Katy Beveridge, is a title discovered since, which went viral after it was picked up on the Boing Boing site and has now had over a million views. It just goes to show how we all delight in visual illusion.

The Magician (2009)

And then there’s my favourite video discovery of the year. Warm applause to Richcard Hinchcliffe for a witty piece that takes less time to watch than it took to type this sentence. It’s only five seconds long, but has such underlying truth. Watch, sigh, then move on.

Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ‘1911’ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

Slapstick hits the spot

Bristol’s annual Slapstick festival returns in January, with its tried and tested mixture of classic silent comedy and today’s TV and radio comedians making a crowd-pleasing combination. The festival runs 26-29 January 2012, with a pre-event on the 21st. Here are the programme details:

Saturday 21 January 2012 – pre-festival event

Les Bubb’s Silent Slapstick Funnies PG with Les Bubb

1300hrs, Venue: Watershed, Cinema 1 £4.60/£3.60 concs

Discover the delights of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Snub Pollard with a little help from world-renowned visual comedy performer and choreographer Les Bubb, with live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

+ Cinekids: Slapstick Workshop with Les Bubb 8 – 12 years-olds

1500hrs – 1630hrs, Venue: Watershed Waterside 3 £2 per child

Ever wondered how silent comedy clowns make you laugh so much? After the Slaptick’s Silent Funnies screening, join international visual comedy performer Les Bubb for an action packed workshop to explore (and practice!) some of the techniques used by the silent comedy clowns. Wear comfy clothing and prepare for lots of laughter and some falling over.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Buster Keaton: Brownlow and Garden

1740hrs £7.20/£5.60, Venue: Watershed, Cinema 1

The first of two exceptional events dedicated to “The Great Stone Face”, hosted by Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow, here in conversation with fellow-enthusiast Graeme Garden (of The Goodies and Sorry I Haven’t a Clue). Rare film illustrations recall Brownlow’s meetings with Keaton in the 1960s, his restoration of The General, and collaboration with David Gill on the definitive Keaton documentary, A Hard Act to Follow.

“Stupid Boy!”: Celebrating Dad’s Army with Ian Lavender
An Audience with Private Pike

1930hrs £16/£14, Venue: Hall 2 (Colston Hall)

A unique chance to hear Ian Lavender discuss in his own words what it was like being in one of the UK’s favourite comedies and playing one of our best loved comedy characters – Private Pike in Dad’s Army.

Ian comes to Bristol’s Slapstick Festival with stories of his time on the Dad’s Army set.

Ian will be onstage with writer/broadcaster Matthew Sweet and the evening will include favourite clips from Dad’s Army, a showing of a complete episode, music – and more. Plus there’s a special questions and answers session where you get the chance to ask Ian a question.

A delightful evening of family entertainment in celebration of one of our best loved television series.

Friday 27 January 2012

The Clown Princes

1400hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

Chaplin, Buster Keaton & Harold Lloyd were the undisputed kings of silent comedy – or were they?

Thousands more comedies were made in the silent era starring many, many more comedians. Some even rivalled the top names and occasionally surpassed them in the laughter stakes.

David Wyatt presents his selection of some of the finest and funniest; Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Max Davidson & Larry Semon among them. For those with Keaton withdrawal symptoms though, Buster may make a surprise appearance (or two?).

Buster Keaton: “A Hard Act to Follow” with Kevin Brownlow

1600hrs Venue: Watershed, Cinema 3 £7.20/£5.60

Kevin Brownlow presents documentary footage to illustrate his work, experiences and encounters in filming the definitive Keaton documentary A Hard Act to Follow (1986) with its spectacular sequences recreating the filming of the collapsing railway bridge in The General – the most elaborate scene in all silent comedy. A unique opportunity to discover the creative methods of one of the greatest figures of film comedy, through the eyes of the world’s most honoured film historian.

Griff Rhys Jones: Silent Comedy Spectacular
A star-studded evening of classic comedy featuring Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926)

Special guest host Griff Rhys Jones

1930hrs Venue: Colston Hall £18/£16/£8

Slapstick festival’s annual silent comedy gala presents three comic masterpieces celebrating the great silent comedians of yesteryear. Hosted by the inimitable comic actor and writer Griff Rhys Jones plus ‘master of ceremonies’ Chris Serle.

Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) is considered an undisputed masterpiece of cinema. Set in the American Civil War, Buster Keaton plays Jonnie Gray unable to enlist in the Confederate army because he is needed as a railroad engineer. His sweetheart, who thinks he’s a coward, won’t talk to him until he’s in uniform. Plus Laurel & Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916).

The World Premiere of a new score for The General will be conducted by Guenter A. Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. Plus music from The Matinee Idles (featuring Paul McGann).

Saturday 28 January 2012

Charles Chaplin: Bridging Three Centuries

With David Robinson

0930hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

David Robinson is recognised as the definitive biographer and a world expert on Chaplin. In this presentation, richly illustrated with film and rare stills, he considers the phenomenon of an artist who was already on stage in the 19th century, became the most universally recognised personality of the 20th century; and in the 21st century still maintains his power as human symbol and supreme entertainer.

Since his definitive 1985 biography Chaplin: His Life and Art, David Robinson has been recognised as a world expert on the great comedian. In this presentation, richly illustrated with film and rare stills, he considers the phenomenon of an artist who was already at work as a stage artist in the 19th century, was to become the most universally recognised personality of the 20th century; and in the 21st century maintains his power, both as symbol and supreme entertainer, inspiring constant revaluation and study, and constantly attracting new young audiences. Chaplin has a unique place not just in cinema, but in the history of world art.

Grame Garden on Charley Chase

1100hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

To say Charley Chase is one of the comic greats of all time is no exaggeration: this brilliantly inventive and prolific comedian contributed to over 300 films as writer, director, or actor (sometimes as all three) before his untimely death at the age of 46. Chase worked with almost every major name in early film comedy including Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and the Three Stooges. Chase made many comedy shorts in the twenties as a hugely popular comic/performer in his own right. Chase admirer, Goodie and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue panellist, Graeme Garden selects his favourite shorts from this period to reveal Chase at his finest and funniest.

With live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.

Harold Lloyd: Double Bill (U) with Barry Cryer

1400hrs Venue: Arnolfini £8/£6

Barry Cryer introduces two of Harold Lloyd’s finest comedies:

An Eastern Westerner (1920)
Dir Hal Roach USA 23mins

One of Lloyd’s funniest shorts An Eastern Westerner is consistently clever and amusing, well-paced and packed with gags. An immature playboy is shipped off out west in order to curb his outlandish behaviour, and ends up in a number of scrapes, in this amusing Harold Lloyd short.

Plus Grandma’s Boy (1922)
Dir Fred C. Newmeyer 60 mins

A rare chance to see Lloyd’s first feature film on the big screen. Harold plays an awkward, shy boy who is afraid of everything, including his own shadow. After a bully runs him off from the girl that he loves his Grandma tells him about a magic charm his Grandfather used to gain courage. After Harold begins carrying the charm he singlehandedly captures a killer and teaches the bully a lesson.

Featuring live musical accompaniment by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

Bill Oddie’s Top Comedy Moments in conversation with Chris Serle

1600hrs Venue: Watershed, Cinema 1 £7.20/£5.60

Whose first records were produced by George Martin, and who had two singles banned by the BBC? Who earned rave reviews on Broadway for his dancing? Who rode on the back seat of the Goodies’ tandem? Who has been called ‘Britain’s best-known birdwatcher?’ The answer to all of the above is… Bill Oddie.

A national treasure, Bill Oddie was one third of UK’s top comedy hit of the 70s – The Goodies and the UK’s favourite wildlife presenter regularly fronting Springwatch and Autumnwatch.

Witty, Candid and unconventional Bill invites you to join him as he recounts his working relationships with some of the greatest comic talents of his generation, including John Cleese, Jonathan Miller and fellow Goodies whilst delighting us with his top onscreen comedy moments from the last century. You can expect some Laurel & Hardy but otherwise Bill is not giving anything away in advance, and we don’t blame him! A fascinating insight into the comic influences of this unique comic performer.

He’s Not The Messiah He’s…Terry Jones!
Monty Python’s Terry Jones presents Life of Brian

Plus on stage discussion with Sanjeev Bhaskar.

1930hrs Venue: Colston Hall £16/£14

Terry Jones, one of Britain’s most famous comic writer/performers hosts a special screening of the Life of Brian, arguably the funniest British movie of all time, at Slapstick Festival.

This is a rare opportunity for Monty Python fans to enjoy this iconic film alongside the man who uttered the immortal words “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” The legendary Monty Python comic will introduce the film and also join ‘Kumars at no42’ and ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ star Sanjeev Bhaskar to discuss the film and Terry’s role as Actor/Director.

It is consistently highly ranked in comedy and film polls by The Guardian, IMDB and BFI, remaining one of Britain’s greatest achievements in comedy and film.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Slapstick Spoofs Hosted by David Wyatt

0930hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

Long before AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN there were silent spoofs of current epics like BENDING HUR, MUD AND SAND and THE 3 MUST GET -THERES. Before Laurel & Hardy, Stan Laurel almost made a career out of it. See Buster Keaton parodying western star William S.Hart, Ben Turpin reducing Von Stroheim to rubble, Max Linder doing Doug Fairbanks and Will Rogers just about everyone else. Don’t miss Rogers’ UNCENSORED MOVIES, Laurel’s absolute classic THE SOILERS – and much more.

My Chaplin: with Sanjeev Bhaskar

1100hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

‘Goodness Gracious Me’ and ‘Kumars at No 42’ star Sanjeev Bhaskar selects his favourite shorts and shares his passion for Charlie Chaplin with Chaplin historian and film critic David Robinson. The best of Chaplin with one of our best loved comic writer/performers. With live piano accompaniment .

Buster Keaton: Young Keaton (U)

1400hrs Venue: Arnolfini £8.00/£6.00 Concs & Bristol Silents Members

Between 1919 and 1922 Buster Keaton completed 22 comedy shorts. Many feel this was the most prolific and productive period of his life and festival patrons and Keaton admirers Bill, Tim, Barry and Ian have each selected a short to reveal Keaton at his freshest, most spontaneous and inventive. Films include THE BOAT (1921) and THE SCARECROW (1920). Featuring live musical accompaniment by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

Pierre Etaix: The Laughter Returns

1600hrs Venue: Watershed, CINEMA 1 £7.20/£5.60

Throughout the sixties Etaix consistently produced some of the finest visual comedies onscreen yet due to a disastrous rights deal his films have not been seen for almost 40 years. Étaix is a clown, magician, illustrator and cabaret artist whose films recall the genius of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd. He worked with Jacques Tati on “Mon Oncle” (1958), then found an ideal collaborator for his own film projects in Jean-Claude Carrière.

In conversation with Sir Christopher Frayling this special event co-presented with Bristol Festival of Ideas celebrates the work of this neglected film maker and performer. Plus a complete screening of Etaix’s first comedy short Rupture (1962).

La Grande Amour (1969) introduced by Pierre Etaix
87 mins Dir by Etaix Fr

2000hrs £7.20/£5.60 Venue: Watershed, Cinema 3

To conclude Slapstick Festival we present one of Pierre Etaix’s best observed and accomplished features. Etaix plays Pierre, married to Florence (Annie Fratellini), though he figures he could have married one of numerous other women. Despite the salacious gossip of the elderly local women who watch his every move, he has enjoyed a largely happy marriage and a satisfactory, albeit not exactly stimulating, life. Then the arrival of a new secretary, 18 year old Agnes (Nicole Calfan), turns his world upside down.

Consumed by a passion which he is convinced must be love, he indulges in increasingly absurd and charmingly innocent romantic fantasies, utterly distracted from his day to day life. Over time, he becomes convinced that the only way he can be happy is to consummate his love. But the dilemmas this presents him with are overwhelming.

A bold mixture of the familiar and the surprising (I’ve never seen a Pierre Etaix film – he will be attending the festival and will become the fourth recipient of their annual Aardman/Slapstick Award for ‘Excellence in Visual Comedy’), put over with the right balance of knowledge and enthusiasm. More details, including information on previous Slapstick festivals, from the festival site. Booking is now open.

On first looking into Chaplin’s humour

Gilbert Adair, from Time Out

The death was announced last week of Gilbert Adair, the essayist, critic, screenwriter and novelist. He was aged 66. Adair’s talent was wide-ranging, with much of it touching on cinema. He was a cinéaste to his fingertips. He wrote the critical history Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, wrote the novels Love and Death on Long Island and The Holy Innocents which were turned into films (the latter as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), wrote film scripts for Raoul Ruiz, and wrote many essays, reviews and thought pieces on film.

It is his essays, collected in volumes with mocking titles such as Surfing the Zeitgeist and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, that have long been favourites of mine. Though he never quite attained the originality or depth of insight shown by the French writers (Barthes, Derrida and co) whose work he deeply admired, his essays touch omnivorously on so many aspects of modern life, with never a dull sentence and many a true observation. He weaves in films, and that includes silent films, in his survey of our times with knowing enthusiasm, and by way of a tribute I’m going to reproduce part of his 1985 essay ‘On first looking into Chaplin’s humour’ (a typically knowing and punning Adair title). This takes on the Chaplin vs Keaton debate with imaginative style. Keaton, for Adair, was ‘an aristocrat’ (you will have to read the full essay to judge why he thinks so); Chaplin stood for something else.

Charlies Chaplin remains, in his posterity, what he never ceased to be in his lifetime: a maverick, a dissident, a mischief-maker. Persecuted for almost six decades by the self-appointed arbiters of moral, political and ideological orthodoxies, he now finds himself posthumously assailed in the one category in which one had always supposed him to be impregnable: the aesthetic. For his detractors, apparently, Chaplin usurped the rank once universally accorded him as the century’s supreme clown. Not only are his films politically naive, flawed by an excess of pathos and not all that funny (sic), he himself was a boorish, mean-minded man, ungenerous ‘to a fault’ and consumed by jealousy of his co-performers … There even exists a suitable candidate for the pedestal from which Chaplin will be ejected when the dismantling of his reputation is complete: Buster Keaton … Yet Chaplin’s achievement seems to me a living model for our impoverished contemporary cinema; so that I would like to propose, not a theory (I am far too partial and subjective for a theorist’s severities), but, at least, an accessible back door or tradesman’s entrance into his deceptively transparent oeuvre …

The Immigrant, … one of his earliest masterpieces, is as good a point as any for my modest thesis. Chaplin, it should be recalled, himself had entered the United States as an immigrant Englishman; and, in his autobiography, he would savour the poverty he had suffered as an infant with an almost parodially Dickensian relish. On the other hand, he was soon to become the cinema’s single most prominent luminary, and as such was assuredly familiar with Soviet propaganda classics and the warped and jagged creations of German Expressionism. What he absorbed from the latter movement, however, was not the signifier – weird perspectives, evilly brewing shadows and all – but the signified, the thing filmed: the ghetto. Chaplin was, and stayed, the film-maker of the ghetto experience; of, in a word, dirt.

‘Dirt’, as a suffusive visual odour, so to speak – the scurfy piggishness of Stroheim, of Buñuel in his Mexican period, of the French directors Clouzot and Duvivier on occasions – is a filmic configuration for which the cinema would seem to have lost the formula. The ‘sordid’ it knows how to film (Raging Bull, La Lune dans le caniveau), if by that we understand either flamboyant putrefaction or a rafish, idealized, strobe-lit squalor … But, in Chaplin’s films, certainly up to Limelight, the sets are (or impress one as) grimy, the very light is filtered through the clinging, festering haze of the slums – and in a sense unintended by his critics, they stink. And Charlie himself? Naturally, he stinks. How could the paradigmatic ‘little man’ not do so? Crudely phrased, one’s apprehension of gamey underclothes is often quite overwhelming; and a reader tempted to dismiss such a contention as altogether uncouth and trivial might be reminded that, technically, underclothes constitute an immanent kind of off-screen space and may therefore be regarded as a minor aesthetic parameter (as indeed was the case with Stroheim’s fabled and finicky vestimentary perfectionism).

… It was from this total identification with the lumpenproletariat, with the material and physical realities of its quotidian existence, that Chaplin’s admittedly sometimes off-putting sainthood derives. Keaton was a great artist, to be sure, and his niche in the history of cinema is an elevated one; but Chaplin belongs to history itself.

The essay is reproduced in his 1986 collection, Myths & Memories, which I warmly recommend.

Time Out has a touching tribute to Gilbert Adair, written by Geoff Andrew.

The Delhi Durbar

The 1911 Delhi Durbar, showing the royal pavilion. From Wikimedia Commons

To the north of Delhi lies a deserted and desolate patch of open ground, surrounded by slums and a dual carriageway. Trees and scrub are broken up here and there by empty pedestals. Some statues stand there, though most have lost the inscriptions that told passers-by who the once great figures they represented were. One statue is still cared for, that of King George V, standing forlornly over a space where he once witnessed the pinnacle of his greatness, if greatness was what it was.

The space is Coronation Park, location in 1877, 1902/3 and 1911 of the three Durbars held to mark the establishiment of the Empress or Emperor of India. Though there are moves to restore the park, its desolate state now seems a rather appropriate comment on the vaingloriousness of the British Raj, and on human ambition generally. But while the Durbars are now chiefly of interest to imperial historians, romantics and collectors, the 1911 Durbar in particular is of importance to film history. It was one of the most important newsfilm subjects of its time, serving as a testing ground for the newsreels which had only recently be established. One film in particular of the Durbar, whose main ceremony took place 12 December 1911, one hundred years ago, became the most celebrated and influential film of its age. So let us spend a little time recounting the history.

A durbar was a Mughal word (taken from the Persian) meaning a reception, a court, or body of officials at such a court. The term was appropriated by the British Raj and used to describe the formal ceremonies held in 1877 to acknowledge the proclamation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. Delhi was selected as the location, being the old Mughal capital, and the Viceroy Lord Lytton devised a celebration that set the pattern for the Durbars that followed. A temporary city of tents was constructed, and an ampitheatre wherein the main ceremonies were staged. In a richly colourful display, British rule in India, and the privileged but inferior position of the Indian princes (on whose presence particular emphasis was placed) within the ruling hierarchy was illustrated through procession, pageantry and obeisance. Queen Victoria did not attend.

When the second Delhi Durbar was held in 1902-3 (at the same location), to recognise Edward VII as the new Emperor of India, once again the King-Emperor did not go to India and was represented by the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The ceremonies attracted several film companies, and some pioneering Indian filmmakers. The significant difference when it came to the Delhi Durbar of 1911 was that this time the King-Emperor himself attended. It was King George V’s own idea to go to India. George believed profoundly in the solemnity and responsibility of his position, and he wished to see his annointment as Emperor of India properly sanctified, as well as expressing a wish to do what he could to calm seditious tendencies (which had been insufficiently placated by the India Act of 1909 which established the Indian councils) by his presence.

His idea was not greatly welcomed by the British parliament, which feared the great expense that would fall upon the government of India. The eventual cost would be £560,000, plus a further £207,000 covering the management and manoeuvres for 80,000 troops (multiply those figures by 100 to get a rough idea of what those cost would be today). The King had suggested that he should be crowned Emperor on Indian soil, an idea vetoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (noting that a ceremony of Christian consecration would be offensive to Muslim and Hindu sensibilities), and instead a new crown was made, the existing crowns not being allowed to leave British soil, at a cost to the people of India of £60,000. Preparations took over a year, and were organised by Sir John Hewett, the Lieutenant-Governor of the United Provinces.

The ceremonies were to take place in the same location outside Delhi as in 1877 and 1902/3, and a giant ‘city’ of 40,000 tents was erected, which was eventually to house some 300,000 inhabitants. On 11 November 1911 King George V and Queen Mary left on the P&O ship Medina for the three-week voyage to Bombay, arriving on 2 December.

Charles Urban (centre) with his camera team at Delhi

Awaiting them in Bombay were the film cameramen. Five British film companies had successfully applied to the organising committee for permission to film the ceremonies: Barker Motion Photography, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company. Each sent at least two operators; Charles Urban had a team of seven or eight, of whom probably four were cameramen (Joseph De Frenes, Hiram Horton, Alfred Gosden, Albuin Mariner). Urban’s intentions were to make two films – one newsfilm in black-and-white, but the other on a far greater scale was to be in colour. There were various announcements by Indian film companies that they would be filming the Durbar, though only the Bengali film pioneer Hiralal Sen definitely did so (his films, sadly are lost).

The day of the Coronation Durbar itself was 12 December. Up to 100,000 people filled the ampitheatre during the morning before the formal ceremonies began. At the head of the procession came veterans of past wars, including over a hundred survivors of the 1857 Mutiny, both Indian and British. Next came the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge (temporarily divested of his official power during the King-Emperor’s visit) and Lady Hardinge in an open carriage. An escort and the sound of fanfares preceded the entry of the royal carriage, with its canopy of crimson and gold, the King-Emperor and Queen-Empress dressed in their purple imperial robes, each wearing crowns. They processed down the central road, then round in a semi-circle past the central Royal Pavilion, to the Shamiana (a pavilion at the far end of the arena in front of the guests’ enclosure), where the Viceroy led them to their thrones. Here the Indian princes were to do homage to their Emperor, and after the King had given a short address, the maharajahs and princes of India came one by one (in strict order of precedence) to express their loyalty to the crown. One of the maharajahs, the Gaekwar of Baroda, caused a diplomatic incident when he declined to bow properly and then walk backwards after paying homage, instead turning his back on the King and Queen. Accident or deliberate act of defiance? Whichever, frame stills from the film record would later be used by the newspapers as evidence of the slight, for those who might not otherwise believe that such an act could even have been contemplated.

The prince identified on the Gaumont newsfilm of the Delhi Durbaras being the Gaekwar of Baroda, turning his back to King George and Queen Mary. Whether it is the Gaekwar is uncertain (see discussion below)

The Emperor and Empress rose from their thrones and walked to the central Royal Pavilion. Fanfares sounded. The official proclamation of the King’s coronation in June was made, in English and Urdu, and there were various announcements concerning beneficial funds and concessions made to the people of India. The royal couple returned to the Shamiana, while a salute was fired and cheers were taken up by the thirty thousand troops, then the sixty or more thousand guests, then those many thousands more outside the arena. At the Shamiana, the Emperor gave two last announcements concerning political changes, which had been kept in the greatest secrecy for months. These were that the capital of India was to move to Delhi, and that the partition of Bengal (an unpopular decision from the Curzon era) was to be cancelled. Both announcements, but particularly former, were received in almost stunned silence, before being greeted by general cheering. The Durbar was declared formally closed, the royal couple returned to their carriage, and departed.

The mood at the time, at least among the British, was one of complete awe as the majesty and colour of the spectacle, which seemed to be the very apex of the imperial dream. Journalist Philips Gibbs summed up its (British) impact:

Sound and colour combined to form a panorama of beauty and grandeur such as one might suppose could have its being only in a dream. Uniforms, robes, turbans of every shade and tone produced an effect which, though infinitely varied in its contrasts, was blended into one flawless harmony by the orderliness of the entire scheme. There seemed a mystic bond that welded the tremendous music of the bands, the clear notes of the bugles, and the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching hosts, into one vast paean of triumphant praise to the King-Emperor, and that found its more material counterpart in the riot of colour displayed so lavishly on every side.

The film companies hurried back to Britain. Only Urban’s camera team filming in the Kinemacolor process stayed behind (his black-and-white films were returned to Britain, however). He was seeing things beyond the news, and felt that so precious were the films that his team has captured that there was danger of their being stolen or damaged by his rivals. He later recalled:

We had the choicest of all possible positions; the officials afforded us the best of protection. They had heard rumors that rival film companies were bent on damaging or destroying our pictures and inasmuch as the King expected to see these pictures in London, it was up to the Army to see that we got them safely there. Each night we used to develop the negatives exposed during the day, and bury them in cases dug in the sand in my tent with a piece of linoleum and a rug on top – my bed on top of them, a pistol under my pillow and armed guards patrolling our camp.

The other film companies had also brought with them film processing equipment, so that they could show their films locally as well as dispatch prints back to Britain. Prints were sped back to Britain by ship and train. According to Stephen Bottomore, pre-eminent historian of the films of the 1902/3 and 1911 Durbars, all of the companies got their films onto screens in London on the same day, Saturday, 30 December 1911, including Kineto (Urban’s company filming in black-and-white), most if not all showing their results in the first show of the morning at 11:00. The films were news records, between five and fifteen minutes in length.

King George and Queen Mary viewing Barker Motion Photography’s black-and-white films of the Durbar at Calcutta House, 6 January 1912, from the Illustrated London News. Lord Hardinge noted in his diary: “In the evening we had a dinner of 50 and a cinematograph afterwards giving scenes from the Durbar and the Calcutta visit. They were not good but the King and Queen seemed to enjoy seeing them”

The films were a great, if brief, commercial success. Viewed as news, they were the toast of the town in January, and a dead duck by February, as Bottomore notes. News has to be fast, then it has to die, and a strategy of speed in order to capture the passing interest of the crowd was the only one the newsreel companies understood. Prints were sent out around the world, though perhaps not surprisingly few territories view the ceremonies with quite the same enthusiasm as did the British. But wherever you were, and whatever your sympathies, by February the Delhi Durbar was history. Its pomp was past.

On 2 February 1912 at the Scala Theatre in London Charles Urban revealed his strategy. He did not see the Delhi Durbar as news; he saw it as living theatre. His plan was to recreate the experience and the emotion of the Delhi Durbar as far as might be possible on a London stage. It was not that people were tired of the Durbar; they had not seen it as it had been seen, and as it could now be presented. Urban organised his Kinemacolor footage into a two and a half hour programme (16,000 feet), a previously unheard of length for a film show, and with introductions and intervals it in fact stretched to three hours in full. It had the overall title With Our King and Queen Through India. Its centrepiece was entitled the Coronation Durbar at Delhi, but the programme as a whole covered the whole tour. The Scala stage was turned into a mock-up of the Taj Mahal, with special lighting effects. Music was composed and scored for forty-eight pieces, a chorus of twenty-four, a twenty-piece fife and drum corps, and three bagpipes. Music that had been played at the actual event was used whereever possible, including fanfares. This was virtual reality – pictures, sound, colour, pomp and circumstance, and all for a better and cheaper seat than if you had been one of those who had sailed off to India. The show at the Scala was going to be better than the real thing.

The Taj Mahal backdrop used for the screenings of With Our King and Queen through India at the Scala Theatre, from the National Media Museum collection

Things turned out as Urban had dreamed. With Our King and Queen in India became a huge hit, commercially and socially. It became the show that every discriminating person in London had to go and see, then repeated that success acros the UK, and then worldwide (it did particularly well in America). Society came to the Scala to see a medium that it would never have deigned to cast an eye on before. Duke and duchesses, lords and ladies, royalty themselves (King George and Queen Mary visited the Scala to see the film on 11 May 1912), all came to see the Durbar recreated on the screen. Children were taken to a show whose worthiness greatly commended it to parents who had previously been suspicious of moving pictures. Among such visitors were the young John Grierson (aged 11), Ivor Montagu (7) and Paul Rotha (4), future lions of the British documentary movement.

With our King and Queen in India was not a conventional film. Quite aside from its length, and the fact that it was in colour, it was more of a theatrical event than a film per se. Its different components recording incidents from the whole royal tour could be selected or ordered according to the length of available programme, so that no one screening might be the same as the next. The use of a lecturer throughout, the special music, stage and lighting effects, the whole sensory impact created something that was rather more than a mere picture show (to use a phrase said by one of Urban’s acquaintances at the time).

Four colour images from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue showing scenes from With Our King and Queen through India. It was not possible to reproduce Kinemacolor in print, so the images were conventionally coloured for print and do not accurately represent how the film actually looked. Clockwise from top left – the arrival of the royal couple in Bombay, state entry into Delhi, the royal review, and the Durbar ceremony itself

The film made a fortune. Urban calculated that through a combination of the Scala programme and five touring road shows in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the film grossed more than £150,000 (though this figure may be for all Kinemacolor exhibited in UK); over the two years that Kinemacolor had its residency at the Scala, gross receipts (from a theatre that seated just 920) were £64,000. That’s six and a half million pounds in today’s money, from one small theatre alone.

And what of the film now? Just as Coronation Park, venue for vaingloriousness has become a deserted wasteland, so the Kinemacolor film that so entranced a world that still believed in the pageantry of empire is lost, with only reviews, catalogue records and memoirs to give us a second-hand sense of what experiencing it must have been like. Well, not entirely lost. Just as a statue or two, a commermorative obelisk and a plaque stand in the park as reminders of once was, so something of the Kinemacolor film survives, having been discovered in the Russian state film archive in 2000. It doesn’t show the main ceremonies; the single reel shows a parade of British troops and an artillery display that took place two days later. It is marvellous that it survives, and was undoubtedly grand to experience at the time, but it is a sideshow. The greater part is lost.

Frame still showing the Kinemacolor effect from the surviving reel of With Our King and Queen through India. The colour synthesis has been recreated electronically, because true Kinemaclor can only be see by projecting the films (via a rotating red/green filter). From the Russian State Archives

But fate has been kinder when it comes to the black-and-white films that were made. Those of Barker, Gaumont, Pathé, Warwick survive and can be found online in various places. They show us the spectacle, the deep sense felt of the power of the visual to express power, and the absurdity of it all. The best to watch is probably that by Gaumont, which is available on the Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire site (despite some nitrate damage at the start). It includes a title that reads “How the Gaekwar of Baroda paid homage to King George”, but Stephen Bottomore has queried whether the prince shown is in fact the Gaekwar. Intriguingly the evidence of the films show that there was more than one Indian prince who turned his back on the royal couple (two turn their backs, both dressed in white, but one with a dark turban, the other white). Was this mass disdain, or was the whole incident manufactured by the press?

If you are interested to pursue the history of the 1911 Delhi Durbar and its films, there are several online sources available:

Parts of this post have been taken from my article “The modern Elixir of Life”: Kinemacolor, royalty and the Delhi Durbar, Film History, vol. 21 no. 2, 2009. I am also indebted to Stephen Bottomore’s essay ‘Have You Seen the Gaekwar Bob?’: filming the 1911 Delhi Durbar, Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 17 no. 3, August 1997. Both are available online, but only via academic subscription services.

Finally, there are plans to redevelop Coronation Park, with gardening, more trees, a cricket area, an interpretation centre, and a general tidying up, though they have missed their original deadline which was the Durbar centenary. The Wall Street Journal has the story.

Coronation Park today, from The Wall Street Journal blog

Georges Méliès 1861-2011

Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, the magician of early cinema, was born this day one hundred and fifty years ago. Though it seems to be pure coinicidence, his 150th year has been marked by a succession of notable Mélièsian events, culminating in the release this month of Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, in which Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley) features as a leading character, and in which the production of Méliès’ films is lovingly created.

In celebration of the French master’s 150th, here is a set of links to the main DVDs, websites, publications and past Bioscope posts on Georges Méliès.




Past Bioscope posts on Méliès

I’ve not provided any links to online videos, because we have a rule here at the Bioscope about not linking to films which have been ripped from DVDs, and practically every Méliès available on YouTube has indeed been ripped in this way. The films are in the public domain (though their new soundtracks are not), but it’s a shame to see, especially when the producers of such DVDs have gone to such trouble and expense to compile their productions in the first place. But for those who don’t know, don’t care, or who believe as a matter of principle that everything should be for free and online anyway, there is plenty to be found – and doubtless Georges would be thrilled that his productions continue to delight new generations.

Some of that delight is demonstrated by the many remakes of Méliès’s films or filming techniques that can be found online. It’s practically a genre in itself. So as a different sort of tribute we’ll show you one of these instead; most of them show more enthusiasm than skill, but I quite like this one for its simplicity and Mélièsian spirit:

And finally, a quotation, written by yours truly when reviewing the 5-DVD set back in 2008, which says all that I need to say on the matter.

Georges Méliès is confirmed here as among the pre-eminent artists of the cinema, perhaps the most exuberant of all filmmakers. The films display imagination, wit, ingenuity, grace, style, fun, invention, mischief, intelligence, anarchy, innocence, vision, satire, panache, beauty and longing, the poetry of the absurd. Starting out as extensions of the tricks that made up Méliès’ magic shows, to view them in chronological order as they are here is to see the cinema itself bursting out of its stage origins into a theatre of the mind, where anything becomes possible – a true voyage à travers l’impossible, to take the title of one of his best-known films. The best of them have not really dated at all, in that they have become timeless, and presumably (hopefully) always will be so. Méliès in his lifetime suffered the agony of seeing his style of filmming turn archaic as narrative style in the Griffith manner became dominant, but we can see now that is his work that has truly lasted. The films will always stand out as showing how motion pictures, when they first appeared, in a profound sense captured the imagination.

Bonne anniversaire, Georges.