Rex Ingram, pageant master

Rex Ingram and Alice Terry, from

Rex Ingram (1893-1950) was the most romantic of film directors. Certainly he was one of the few directors who looked as though their rightful place was in front of the camera rather than behind it (he began his film career as an actor). One of the great imaginative Hollywood filmmakers of the early 1920s, he is also viewed as one of the leading figures in the diasporic Irish cinema, and James Joyce helped immortalise him by referring to Ingram in Finnegans Wake as ‘Rex Ingram, pageant master’ (the full sentence is a long and frankly incomprehensible one, but the paranthetical reference says ‘his scaffold is there set up, as to edify, by Rex Ingram, pageant-master’).

It is certainly appropriate that a new website dedicated to Ingram should have a .ie ending rather than .com, even if he was your typical Irishman in exile (he left the country aged 18 and never returned). Rex Ingram has been created by Ruth Barton, a lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin, and it’s good to see an academic produce a site which can be seen as much as a fan site as a scholarly resource. It gets the balance just right.

The site introduces him as the ‘handsome, strong-willed visionary was responsible for a succession of films for Metro Pictures, later M-G-M, that topped the box office and were hailed as masterpieces by the critics’, director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse (1921), the man who made stars of Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro, husband of the actress Alice Terry who appeared in most of his films, a man with a bohemian social life, and a perhaps not unwilling victim of the arrival of the talkies.

A biographical section is fullest part of this work-in progress site, and covers Ingram’s early life in Ireland (he left in 1911), his time as an actor with Edison (as Rex Hitchcock, his birth name) then as an increasingly admired scriptwriter, to his directing career which began in 1914, first with Universal and then Metro, where his great film included Hearts are Trumps (1921), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Where the Pavement Ends (1923), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). Ingram rebelled against the strictures being introduced by Louis B. Mayer at what was now M-G-M and decamped to the South of France where he made Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Magician (1926). His style became increasingly personalised and undisciplined, he split from M-G-M, and then the arrival of sound flummoxed him and he retired from the motion picture industry after Baroud (1932).

The site also covers Ingram’s parallel experiences as a sculptor, artist, art collector and writer (he produced two novels), and his artistic legacy, inspiring David Lean and mentoring the young Michael Powell at his Riviera film studios. There is a picture gallery and a resources page, though with just the one link to an article and mention of Liam O’Leary’s biography of Ingram, it’s clear that this site is going to develop much further. It’s odd that there is no filmography – it would certainly help to make the site all the more definitive.

Rex Ingram is but one output of a project led by Barton to build upon Liam O’Leary’s research, with a hoped-for cataloguing of the O’Leary papers at the National Library of Ireland, an exhibition and film retrospective, and then maybe a new biography. Anyone who can help with the research, partiularly anyone with resources which might be added to the site should get in touch with Barton.

Welcome to the Bioscope

The Bioscope is five years old today, and it’s time for a change. We have had the same template all that time, and though it had its plain virtues I’ve wanted for a while to give the site a fresh look, while not upsetting the general balance of things too greatly. So here is the new look.

As you will see, we have the same name, the same subtitle, the same banner, and the same features (with a few tweaks) down the right-hand side. The search box is now positioned top left. The top menu has been simplified. Instead of the old Calendar, Conferences and Festivals sections, there is now an Events section (which is the renamed Calendar) with sub-menus for Conferences and Festivals. So no information has been lost, indeed the Conferences section now has a (hopefully) handy listing of past conferences with links.

The Library section remains as before, with main part a listing on freely available e-books on silent film, and sub-categories for Catalogues and Databases, Directories and Journals also available online, now with a clearer drop-down menu to guide you to the right section.

Other changes will be made over the next few weeks as I get used to the template and maybe make a few small cosmetic changes. I’m aware that the FAQ section is in needed of a refresh, and I also need to check all of the links on the righ-hand column, a number of which are now defunct.

If you are new to the Bioscope, then a particular welcome to you. This is a website (in the form of a blog) dedicated to providing information on early and silent film. We range widely in our interests, from pre-cinema technologies through to the modern silent film today, with strong emphases on research and online resources. There is an overview of the site on the About page, which includes a lsting of some of the key informational posts we have produced in the past. Browsing through some of these will give you an idea of what we’re about. We also have a Twitter feed, Flickr site, YouTube channel, a Vimeo channel and a daily news service (courtesy of Scoop it).

It’s been an interesting five years, during which I have written enough words to fill five books – which is both worrying and heartening. Sometimes I wonder at all this energy devoted to the ephemeral online world, but then I reason that each new post gets more views per day than most of the academic papers I have written have had readers over years, which must mean something. And then I do have my moments when I wonder what the point of it all is, indeed why the focus on silent films when there are other things in this world that divert me quite as much, and at such times I have thought of closing the site down. But then someone makes a comment saying that they like a particular post, or I meet someone at some film event who says how the find the Bioscope useful, and I realise I must press on.

So thank you, gentle readers. Do let me know your thoughts about the new site. It should look better on today’s bigger screens (though I am defiantly holding on to my Academy ratio laptop for as long as I can), and there small additions like the email and print options which I hope will be useful. I am always open to suggestions for new features, subjects of posts, events to promote (with a tendency towards the international), and resources to highlight. I don’t know if the Bioscope will continue for another five years, but the next target is a million visitors, which all being well we should attain some time later this year.

So we press on.

Tears from laughter

“This merriment dangling from terror…”: Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

The death has been announced of the Polish poet and Nobel prizewinner Wisława Szymborska. Her best-known connection with film is her poem ‘Love at First Sight’, which is believed to have been the inspiration for Krysztof Kieslowski’s film Three Colours: Red. However, in the same 1993 collection, The End and the Beginning, there is another Szymborska poem, ‘Slapstick’, which wryly considers silent film comedy as a metaphor for the human condition. We have reproduced this poem on the Bioscope before now, but it’s such a favourite of mine that I’m taking the liberty of posting it here once again on this sad occasion.

If there are angels,
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off-duty, between angelic –
i.e. inhuman – occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I’m sure
that’s what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger’s eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred cosmic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

I can warmly recommend Szymborska’s poetry in general – gentle, witty, accessible and wise. Her New and Collected Poems are published by Roundhouse, and there’s a fine Selected Poems published by Faber.

The stereograminator

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at
‘The pool, with the Old Man (1865?)’, animated GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator

Now here’s something of tangential interest to us, but of interest nonetheless. The New York Public Library has a collection of around 40,000 nineteenth century stereophotographs – that is pairs of photographs designed to be looked at through a stereo viewer to give an illusion of depth. Such stereo viewers were hugely popular, and large numbers of stereo cards survive in archives and libraries.

The NYPL has opened up its collection online in an ingenious way. It has digitised the entire collection for anyone to browse, but the great pleasure of course is in seeing the images in 3D, as originally intended. So they have created an online tool, the Stereograminator (great name), enabling anyone to select a pair of images, to crop and resize them as appropriate, then to convert them into an animated GIF (you can choose slow, medium or fast for the alternation of the images) and 3D anaglyph (requiring 3D glasses, of course), with the results viewable to all via their online gallery.

Anaglyph version of the above

It’s an ingenious bit of popularisation through innovation, with a bit of what we in the library world rather painfully call ‘crowdsourcing’ i.e. getting you the public to do some of our documentation work for us. Here, with the help of site visitors, the NYPL will hope to have its entire collection converted into animated GIFs, such as the one above – and over 15,000 have been created already. Having created your GIF, you can then embed it in your blog or website, as I have done above. The resultant online gallery makes for odd viewing, with all of these images wobbling at you, but it’s addictive fun.

Other, static, nineteenth century stereograph images can be found online courtesy of the Library of Congress, Boston Public Library, and the University of Washington Libraries.