Films from the fens

Stencil colour film of Blickling Hall, Norfolk, from Eve and Everybody’s Film Review (1929)

A significant release of archive films online, many of them silent, was announced recently. The East Anglian Film Archive, founded by David Cleveland in 1976, funded by the University of East Anglia, and now located in the Archive Centre, Norfolk, has published online 200 hours from its film collection, the outcome of a major cataloguing and digitisation project undertaken as part of the UK’s Screen Heritage programme which has been doing much to support public sector film archiving in the UK.

The search, browse and highlight options can all be accessed via the front page of the site. The site design is unusual, in a plain sort of way, but not ineffective and undoubtedly user friendly. It is certainly easy to find silent era films – you simply go to the browse option, where there is a timeline with sliders which you can drag for dates anywhere between 1895 and 2010, something I’ve not seen on many other sites and which is such a simple, sensible way of guiding people to a time period. Select 1895-1930, and you get around 150 items, all of them instantly playable, and with some some real treasures, surprises and at least one major discovery.

The films all come from those English counties covered by the East Anglian region, including Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. So there are many films of primarily regional interest only (which is of courses the raison d’être of a regional film archive), though equally they are encouragement to anyone interested in film history and history through film to consider the importance of place and regional (not just national) identity in film culture. For example, John Grierson’s celebrated documentary Drifters (1929) is generally lionised for its early position in the history of the art of documentary film, but it turns up here (in its entirety) because it was partly shot in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Drifters is, fundamentally, and importantly, a regional film.

There are many other records of the East Anglian region, from interest, travel, amateur and newsreel films of the period. The latter include probably unique examples of the rare Warwick Bioscope Chronicle and British Screen News newsreels, and local newsreel the Bostock Gazette (a number of UK towns and cities in the silent era had local news services, often maintained by an indiviual cinema where the projectionist doubled as camera operator, though other such ‘newsreels’ were produced by local enthusiasts on an amateur basis). There is 1929 stencil colour film of Blicking Hall in Norfolk, from Pathé’s cinemagazine Eve and Everybody’s Film Review; film pioneer Birt Acres’ 1896 film of Yarmouth fishing trawlers, the first film made in the region; an experimental work by George Sewell, one of the founder members of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, whose The Gaiety of Nations (1929) is a visually inventive comment on world politics; and several delightful examples of silent advertising films, including a number advertising Colman’s Mustard, which were based in Norwich (see for example the spoof 1926 newsreel The Mustard Club Topical Budget, featuring a popular set of characters from an advertising campaign of the period).

Jackeydawra Melford (wearing witch’s hat) as Jackeydawra in The Herncrake Witch (1913)

The major discovery is The Herncrake Witch (1913), which I had believed to be a lost film. It is a drama starring Jackeydawra Melford, one of the first women to direct a film in Britain. We have written about Jackeydawra Melford before now, in one of the earliest Bioscope posts, noting that she produced and starred in The Herncrake Witch (1912), The Land of Nursery Rhymes (1912) and The Inn on the Heath (1914), directing the last of those (her actor father directed The Herncrake Witch). None was known to survive. The EAFA catalogue record doesn’t give that much information about the film, which is intriguing in theme if quaintly produced, noting that it was made by Heron Films, a company founded by Andrew Heron who worked with Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, of whom more in a moment. The film is described as an ‘excerpt’, though there can’t be too much missing (it runs for 8 minutes, and the original length was 710 feet). Anyway, it is a major discovery for those interested in British silent women filmmakers, of whom there are a number.

Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901), possibly filmed by Laura Bayley using the 17.5mm Biokam system (note the distinctive central perforations). The cat is playing its fiddle and the cow is jumping over the moon

Another welcome surprise is from another woman filmmaker. Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901) is an example of the 17.5mm Biokam films issued by Brighton filmmaker George Albert Smith, for which there reasons to believe that the director was his actress wife Laura Bayley. What its East Anglian connection might be I’m not sure, but it’s a precious example of a pantomime act filmed on stage (the practice seems to have been that Smith made a 35mm film of a subject, then his wife shot the 17.5mm version, possibly simultaneously, but sometimes at a different time, as there are noticeable differences between the few examples where both 35mm and 17.5mm subjects survive).

A third example of a woman filmmaker is the amateur comedy Sally Sallies Forth (1928), directed by Frances Lascot, working with producer/editor Ivy Low, which is a well-produced example of the considerable number of amateur film dramas made at this time by hobbyist individuals and film clubs. It would have been nice to have a bit more information about the film’s production on the catalogue (not least where it was shot).

From pleasant surprises to not so pleasant surprises. There are several films in the collection attributed to the aforementioned Hertfordshire filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, indeed there is a special section of the site devoted to him. Cooper is an interesting figure, involved in British films as assistant to Birt Acres from the earliest years, and later an important pioneer of the animation film. Unfortunately, his daughter and later some film historians took up his cause as a neglected master of early film, and claimed for him a number of films that he never made, or misdated other films to make them seem earlier examples of film innovation than is in fact the case. In some cases it seems Cooper told his family that films in his collection were ‘his’, when they were only so insofar as he may have exhibited them once and now owned them. I won’t go down the tedious route of pointing out which titles are wrongly identified and which aren’t (and there a quite a number that are genuinely his). It’s just really surprising that a responsible archive such as the EAFA put up these films with their dubious attributions to the fore, especially when their catalogue notes usually give pointers to the correct identification.

This abberation aside, the East Anglian Film Archive‘s new website is a very welcome new resource. It not only documents the East Anglian region so well, but for the silent film specialist it present the great variety of films of filmmaking from our period: dramas (professional and amateur), newsreels, travelogues, trick films, advertising films, industrials, magazines. It celebrates the medium in all its inventive richness, while reminding us of the particular meanings films have for particular people.

If you ae interested to find out more about the UK regional archives, visit the Film Archives UK website, or else read the 2009 Bioscope post on some of the UK regional film collections to be found online, including the Yorkshire Film Archive, Screen Archive South East and the Media Archive for Central England, all of whom have signficant silent films collection available to view online. And if you want to find them all (or at least a lot of what they hold) in one place, they you must try the new Search Your Film Archives portal hosted by the BFI (another UK Screen Heritage output). There is so much out there now to be found – do please reward the archives and those who have funded these initiatives by browsing, viewing, and taking film journeys down routes that you may not have expected.

Viewing matters

OK folks, after last week’s suggested reading list for some of the highlights among books published on silent film in 2011, here’s a selection of the best DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the year (at least in the Bioscope’s humble opinion).

  • The O’Kalem Collection 1910-1915
    This double-DVD set from the Irish Film Institute and BIFF Productions brings together eight productions made and set in Ireland by the American company Kalem (and associated producers), including The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), Rory O’ More (1911), The Colleen Bawn (1911), plus the recent documentary on what became knows as the ‘O’Kalems’, Blazing the Trail. A model package, archive-wise, scholarship-wise and entertainment-wise.
  • Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna
    After a long, long wait, Edition Filmmuseum was finally able to bring out this year the 1920 German Hamlet, starring Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, from the German original version, with rich colour tinting and toning, and an exceptional new score from Michael Riessler. The two-DVD package includes the 1913 Nielsen film Die Filmprimadonna, documentaton on Hamlet‘s production and restoration, and an Asta Nielsen home movie compilation. Hamlet is so much more than a curiosity; an intelligent, deeply-felt and thoroughly thought-through reinterpretation of the Hamlet story.
  • Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938
    The fifth boxed set in the National Film Preservation Foundation’s series of restored film classics takes as its theme the American West. Drawn from leading archives in America and New Zealand, the collection amply lives up to its ‘treasures’ billing. Highlights incude Beatriz Michelena in Gold Rush tale Salomy Jane (1914), Clara Blow in Mantrap (1926) and real-life outlaw Al Jennings recreating his exploits in Lady of the Dug-Out (1918), a rediscovered classic if ever there was one.

  • Screening the Poor 1888-1914
    2011 has been something of a year for innovative DVD releases, and none more so than Edition Filmmuseum’s Screening the Poor, which brings together early films and magic lantern slide sets depicting issues of poverty and poor relief from the period 1888-1914. The two-DVD set not only makes an important point in showing how we should consider the films of this period in their social as much as their aesthetic contexts, but that we need also to see how film was (and remains) only one part of a wider screen culture.
  • Laila
    Flicker Alley caters for the discerning silent film enthusiast (a Criterion in miniature), and such is the trust with which it must now be held that many will have purchased a Norwegian silent film of which they knew nothing simply because they trusted the label’s judgement. They won’t have been disappointed. This 1929 tale of a lost child and native destiny has won friends wherever it has been shown, simply for telling its thrilling, romantic story in the way that only the very best of silent films can achieve.
  • Gaumont Treasures Volume 2 (1908-1916)
    Kino’s follow-up to its Gaumont Treasures volume 1 is this fabulous three-disc set (based on a six-disc French original from 2009). The set covers the work of ingenious animator Emile Cohl, proto-surrealist and adventure storyteller Jean Durand and the elegant and witty Jacques Feyder, plus some synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s own pre-WWI natural colour process. A set to savour for its variety and quality.

  • The Great White Silence
    Among the best silent film reasons for making 2011 the year to invest in a Blu-Ray player has been the British Film Institute’s release of its restored version of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s 1924 re-edit of his original 1910-11 footage of the doomed Anatarctic expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Apart from the peerless quality of the polar images, the film demonstrates, not unlike Screening the Poor, the importance of considering photographic still images alongside motion pictures, as Ponting’s work is actually at its most powerful when he no longer has films to fall back on to tell his tragic story.
  • Max Davidson Comedies
    Don’t watch this compilation alone. It is essential that you enjoy the comedy shorts of Max Davidson in company (the larger in number the better), when the shared comic effect comes over best. Davidson’s Jewish-themed comedy had been rather lost to history when he was rediscovered through film festivals and he has now had the double-DVD set treatment from Edition Filmmuseum (label of the year, without a doubt). Pass the Gravy (1928) alone is as delirously funny a film as you will find anywhere.
  • Coffret Albert Capellani
    It has been quite a year or two for early French cinema on DVD. On top of some superb releases curating Gaumont, Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón, this four-DVD set from Pathé presents the work of one of the leading directorial masters of the pre-war cinema period. The set has four longer films including the Capellani masterpieces Germinal (1913) and Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge (1914) and seven short films from 1906. An education in the ambition, creativity and artistic range of the early cinema.

  • Albert Capellani: Un cinema di grandeur 1905-1911
    But that’s not all we’ve had from Albert Capellani. Also in 2011 was the Cineteca di Bologna’s disc-and-booklet set on Capellani’s work 1905-1911, not overlapping with any of the content on the Pathé collection. This is one of a series of DVDs coming out of the 100-years-ago programme curated by Mariann Lewinsky for Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato. An illuminating and captivating compilation, with excellent booklet notes (in English, Italian and French).
  • Landmarks of Early Soviet Film
    Most of these choices have been multiple disc sets, but it really has been a year for curated collections bringing in films from mulitple sources, aimed at the afficionado willing to invest a little more for a definitive set likely to take some while to view and absorb in its entirety. Flicker Alley’s collection of eight silent Soviet films widens our understanding of this period (i.e. beyond Eisenstein), including Boris Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya (1928), Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s eye-popping Salt for Svanetia (1930).
  • Silent Naruse
    And finally, from Criterion’s Eclipse series, five silents from the Japanese director Mikio Naruse: Flunky, Work Hard (1931), No Blood Relation (1932), Apart from You (1933), Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Street without End (1934). These are the only films among Naruse’s twenty-four silents now known to exist, and display Naruse’s emerging interest in the marginalised role of women in Japanese society. A fine set for watching Naruse gradually discover the style and theme that would make him one of the masters of Japanese film.

The magic of the lantern

Slide 9 from The Miner’s Rescue (W. Rider & Co), Hecht Collection, Screen Archive South East, from the Lucerna database

Time may move in a straight line, but history does not. Despite the beliefs of the more traditional writers of history, particular themes seldom roll out as a succession of sequential events leading to a satisfactory conclusion. Film, or media history, for example, is not a case of one innovation neatly being followed by another, then another, leading to the media world with which we are familiar today. There are overlaps, reverses, diversions, false trails, parallel actions, missed opportunities, and all manner of divergent yet interconnected narratives. So, the historical argument that says there were optical toys, magic lanterns, chronophotographs and such like (bundled up in neat teleological fashion as ‘pre-cinema’), which were then followed by the cinema, the goal towards which so-called pre-cinema was inexorably aiming, is, quite simply, a-historical.

This we can see with the magic lantern, whose history has been opened up as never before by the publication of the Lucerna database, a new resource of some significance. Launched yesterday at the Screen Culture and the Social Question: Poverty on Screen 1880-1914 conference in London, Lucerna is an online database and information resource for the magic lantern. Magic lanterns are generally thought of as Victorian entertainments which prefigured the cinema. One of the things that Lucerna makes very clear is how the lantern did not die out once the cinema arrived, but that the two media co-existed for many years, with showmen employing both, production companies and distributors supplying both, and journals (such as The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, which lasted under that name until 1917) serving both. To understand early cinema, we need to understand the magic lantern too.

Lucerna is dedicated to the history of the lantern, in all its forms, reflecting its many relationships with social, political, religious, entertainment and cinema history. As the site says:

For more than 350 years the magic lantern has represented and fed into every aspect of human life and every part of the world. It is still used today, both in its original form and through direct descendants like the modern data projector.

The centrepiece of Lucerna is a database of slide sets, individual slide images, readings and other texts related to slide sets, lantern hardware, people and organisations involved in lantern history, locations associated with lantern production, and events. There is at present information on 6,332 slide sets (i.e. a set of images relating a particular narrative), 26,475 individual slides, 3,687 people and 1,366 organisations connected with lantern history. Many of the records are illustrated with slides from public and private collections, and browsing through the Slides and Slide Sets options is a marvellous way of viewing the preoccupations, beliefs and diversions of Victorian and Edwardian society (the slides available so far are predominantly British, though the lantern was of course a worldwide phenomenon).

Complete life model slide set for Beware!; or, The Effects of Gambling (Bamforth, 1893)

Lucerna does not have a single search option. Instead you are offered nine search options: slide sets, slides, people, organisations, events, locations, hardware, texts and keywords. Each offers a range of search parameters; Slide Sets, for example, lets you refine your search by country, manufacturer (with drop down menu for every manufacturer listed – indeed every search field under every option has a drop-down menu, so you never have to select any name or term at random), type of slide subject, type of image, date, and series title. Results can be ordered by title, date or series order, and crucially you can search under slide sets for those where there are images available, which is what most users of the site are going to want to do. Unfortunately you don’t seem to be able to do this for individual (‘orphan’) slides. Each individual record (and there ae tens of thousands of them) very usefully comes with a unique Lucerna ID number.

The best thing to do is to jump in at any point and start browsing, because such is the depth of hyperlinking that you are led inexorably from page to page, following themes, places or people as you construct your personal journey through lantern history. It soon becomes clear that this is a bit beyond your average database. It’s not obsessive as such, but it’s certainly in thrall to the richness of its subject. Person entries include not just birth/death dates and occupation, but references to census records and other archive sources, associated slides or texts, locations associated with them, businesses associated with them, literature references – and all of this with hyperlinks to everything mentioned. So, I find at random the record for Charles Acres, a partner in a slide painting business, and see that he was born in Islington. There’s a hyperlink – and lo I find there are seventeen lantern people associated with Islington (14 born there, 3 died there), one business located there, and one entry which reports on a lantern show which tooks place there, organised by the Sunday School Union. Click on that, and a huge list of events appears, all of them hyperlinked and described. And so the adventure continues.

(One searching tip – don’t hit the ‘go’ option on any search page without having put in at least one search term. Failing to do so appears to set the database into endless searching mode)

Slides from a 1911 Bamforth set to accompany the song ‘Are there any little angels blind like me?’

Themes that will soon become apparent are family, religion, the sufferings of the poor, temperance, war, empire, humour, gambling, travel, crime, patriotism, morality, romance, the supernatural and travel. Many are sentimental, and lead you to think how much audiences of the time were swayed by such images. Most tell stories of one kind or another, or illustrate songs with visual narrative, and the parallels with early films, in subject and tone, is immediately noticeable. Some slide sets, such as Ora Pro Nobis or Ostler Joe (each based on poems), later became films, and one sees not separate media histories, but rather the way in which a society wanted to see stories told, and the means that then developed technologically to make this happen.

A triunial or triple lantern (W.C. Hughes, 1880s)

Lucerna has been developed by the Universität Trier in Germany; Screen Archive South East, University of Brighton, UK; the Magic Lantern Society, UK; and Indiana University in the USA. However it is predominantly the work of one man, both in its programming and in the population of data, Richard Crangle, to whom the lantern world in particular and anyone in general at all interested in sceen culture and the worlds that screens depict should be hugely grateful. Crangle has set out not simply to display lantern images (as many other sites do), but to present the lantern in its many contexts, rigorously described, as a research resource. The ambition of the site is to encourage lantern enthusiasts to share their collections and knowledge, which they can do openly or anonyously as they wish, by signing up to the site and contributing information or images. So Lucerna is meant to be a collective, Wikipedia-like endeavour, and one hopes very much that it is able to be developed along such co-operative means.

If Lucerna whets your appetite for more information on the magic lantern (which it is bound to do), then here are a few links to encourage you to explore further:

  • The Magic Lantern Society – much information, well-illustrated, on lantern history, lanterns and slides
  • The Projection Box – distributors of Magic Lantern Society publications, including the indispensible Encylopedia of the Magic Lantern
  • Screening the Poor 1888-1914 – a double-DVD of early films and magic lantern slide sets on the theme of poverty, available from Edition Filmmuseum (reviewed by the Bioscope here)
  • Laterna Magica – Magic Lantern vol. 1 – a bi-lingual (English/German) illustrated history of the lantern in the 17th and 18th centuries, by Deac Rossell
  • Visual Media – heavily illustrated site by Thomas Weyants on ‘pre-cinema’ visual media, including magic lanterns, phantasmagoria, optical toys etc.
  • Museo del Precinema – Italian museum with extensive lantern resources, home of the Minici Zotti collection
  • – large Dutch collection of lantern slides and equipment, handsomely illustrated

Lucerna is still in its early days, with the eventual aim of becoming the single definitive and comprehensive illustrated resource for the magic lantern. If enough of the lantern community join in and help Richard Crangle in his stupendous task, it may become so. But Lucerna is not just for the lantern specialist. The hope is to bring the lantern back into general consciousness, and to reintroduce it into those histories of screens, society, art, leisure, politics, religion and culture, where it most certainly belongs.

Go explore.