Unknown knowns, and known unknowns


Is there any other art form where the unidentified and the lost have as much cultural cachet as they do in film? Perhaps in some quarters there are those who fret over lost operas or unattributed paintings, but there doesn’t seem anything that quite matches the fascination film buffs (especailly silent film buffs) and film archivists have for films that no longer exist (but might be found somewhere), and films that do exist but whose identity is no longer known. It must have something to the photography and the nearness in time. We’re just a few generations away from when these films were made, and yet we have forgotten already. There is tragedy, and there is guilt.

Perhaps the nearest discipline, if not art form, is archaeology, which likewise looks for that which is lost, and puzzles over that which has been found but whose purpose is unclear. So it is appropriate that a workshop on identifying unidentified films, to be organised at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus, should be entitled Silent Film Archaeology. The workshop takes place 14-16 June at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, and here are the details:

A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop

The staff of the Moving Image Section of the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation will host SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop, during June 14-16, 2012. The workshop will include unidentified films from other film preservation archives in addition to those from the Library’s collection.

NOTE: Due to resource limitations, participation in this workshop in 2012 will be limited to film archivists and historians actively engaged in film preservation activities and research efforts devoted to American produced films of the silent era. No support will be provided by the Library of Congress for travel, lodging, meals, local transportation or other expenses incurred by participants.

SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will be a three day event and take place at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, during June 14-16, 2012. The majority of the films presented will be “silents” but will not be shown in silence. Phil Carli, Ben Model and Andrew Simpson will provide musical accompaniment. In addition to full days of workshop screenings, there will be evening public screenings of recent restorations the titles of which will be announced at a later date.

A recently completed study by David Pierce, now being prepared for publication by the Library of Congress, confirms what film archivists have long suspected—that 76% of all U.S. feature films produced between 1912 and 1930 no longer survive, or exist only in fragments in non-US film archives. In spite of this sobering statistic, it is known that most US film archives hold considerable amounts of both “unidentified” and “inadequately identified” films and film fragments from the silent era. The SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will bring together practicing film archivists and researchers in an informal atmosphere for the purpose of screening 35mm prints and sharing comments and opinions, with the expectation that a significant number of the puzzles among the Library’s collection of unidentified and poorly identified films will be solved. Some film elements with sound tracks may also be screened.

It is hoped that this important film research and discovery effort will become a regularly scheduled Packard Campus activity, in service to the community of film preservationists, and that it can be expanded in the future to include all under-investigated areas of creative and technological achievement in the history of US motion pictures.

Prior registration is required and no reservations will be accepted after May 18, 2012. For more information, or to request a registration form contact: Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator at rsto [at] loc.gov. All registrants will receive additional information on schedule, housing and directions.

One of the organisers of the workshop, Rachel Parker, is also the person behind the Nitrate Film Interest Group, a Flickr site established by the Association of Moving Image Archivists which posts images from unidentified films from archives around the world, and invites anyone to have a go at ientifying them. Many have since we first drew your attention to the site, and there is now a triumphant section presenting those images which have now been identified thanks to the wisdom of individuals, if not the crowd.

It’s a good an example as there is of film archives reinventing themselves and their relationship with their users through the opportunities the web now presents to us. Do take a look, and if you can’t identify any film or person therein, you can still delight in the images and maybe contemplate the passing of time and the transcience of fame.

Silent film journals update

As I think most of you will know, the Bioscope maintains a listing of (hopefully) all of the silent film-era journals that are available online. From just a few titles only a couple of years ago, the number of journals now available – most of them freely so – has grown prodigiously. This is thanks in particular to Gallica in France, Teca Digitale piemontese in Italy, the inspired efforts of the Media History Digital Library, and to the efforts of a number of generous individuals, notably Bruce Long, who have been adding titles from their personal collections to the Internet Archive.

All of this activity has made the Bioscope’s listing more than a little unwieldy, certainly too much information for a single web page. So, while keeping the single page listing for handy reference’s sake, we have also produced individual web pages for the journals of specific countries, which we think will be more useful to you. You can find the list by going to ‘Library’ on the top menu of this site. Three sub-page options will appear: Catalogues and Databases, Directories and Journals. Hover over the third of these, and the list of countries will appear.

Alternatively, links to all of the countries appear on the main Journals page, or you can click on them here: Austria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, USA.

While we’re on the subject, the Media History Digital Library has just announced the first batch of publications whose digitisation has been sponsored by the early film studies organisation Domitor. This comprises seven volumes of testimonies and supporting documents from the U.S. District Court’s 1912-1913 lawsuit against the Motion Picture Patents Company. As the MHDL blog post reports:

Inside the U.S. vs. M.P.P.C. volumes, you will find the testimonies of M.P.P.C. members, such as Siegmund Lubin, as well as the testimonies of “Independents” who later became Hollywood moguls (e.g. William Fox). These first-person accounts offer one of the best windows you will find into the workings of the early American film industry.

More digitisation from this superb initiative, altruistically funded by individual Domitor members, can be expected in the near future.

Historical colours

Recreated Kinemacolor image from With Our King and Queen through India (1912), showing the Elephant Gate at Delhi, from Cinémathèque Française, reproduced on the Historical Film Colors timeline

Historical Film Colors is a timeline of motion picture colour systems and their antecedents. It has been put together by Professor Barbara Flueckiger
of the Institute of Cinema Studies, University of Zurich, as part of her research into the remastering of historical film into the digital age.

The timeline presents colour processes (240 of them), from Thomas Young’s paper on trichromatic vision published in 1802 through to Eastman Color High Speed Negative, type 5297 (1987). It is presented as a work-in-progress, with the promise of more detailed information to be added to each process, and an invitation to scholars to collaborate in building up the resource.

Each entry gives the year, name of the colour system, the person on company involved, illustrative images (taken from a variety of secondary sources), the principle expounded by the process (e.g. aditive three-colour), any relevant patent, and references to papers, articles and books. So you will find Kinemacolor, Technicolor, Prizmacolor, stencil colour, Cinecolor, Kodacolor and a great deal more, famous and not so famous. It’s more of a timeline than a database, so you can’t search for individual systems or combine search requests, but there is a drop-down menu letting to select systems by some of the categories on offer, and it is possible to present the entire timeline on one web page.

Entry for Kodachrome Two-color 1915 (Fox Nature Color)

It’s a vivid demonstration of the huge efforts made by inventors to come up with a workable motion picture colour system in the silent era, a race won – as we know – by Technicolor – but which is all the more interesting before they got it right, when assorted competing, imperfect systems struggled to convince the public and exhibitors that they had achieved the epitome of colour reproduction. None had, though the artifical colour systems of Pathé and Gaumont delighted with their painterly effects, and the ‘natural’ colour system Kinemacolor thrilled many with actualities of pomp and pageantry.

Flueckiger writes on her website that all of this work, producing the database, clearing rights in images, and collating all of the bibliographic references, has been very time-consuming and largely self-funded. So she is inviting not only contributions of ideas and texts, but financial support as well, through a crowdfunding campaign. She hopes to raise $10,000 in 90 days. Most of us not otherwise supported by universities ending doing this sort of thing for free, but maybe the more fool us if there’s money out there from principled individuals keen to support good research that can be shared with everyone. So good luck to her.

All of which makes me think it is high time the Bioscope returned to its Colourful Stories series of posts, each of which tackled a different colour process. Well, maybe I will. Eventually.

Broken dreams

The demise of the American Kinetoscope Company, as reported in The London Gazette of 15 February 1895

The London Gazette is said to be Britain’s oldest continuously-published newspaper. It was founded in 1665 and has ever since been a record of official announcements. It is not a conventional newspaper, however, being instead a highly specialised resource used by policy-makers, the legal profession and historians. It is an official newspaper of record and is a government publication, published by The Stationery Office .

It groups the information it holds into the following categories: State, Parliament, Ecclesiastical, Public Finance, Transport, Planning, Health, Environment, Water, Agriculture & Fisheries, Energy, Post & Telecom, Competition, Corporate Insolvency, Personal Insolvency, Companies & Financial Regulations, Partnerships, Societies Regulation, Personal Legal.

For the silent film researcher, the London Gazette is an unexpected treasure trove. The journal has supplied official reports on all company insolvenices, and browsing through its archives brings up hundreds of records of film and cinema industry companies that went bust. It makes for sad but very revealing reading. And the great thing is that the Gazette‘s archives have been digitised and are fully word-searchable.

Searching is by the search box found on the website front page. An advanced search option allows you to narrow searches by date, phrase, page number and by some selected historical events. Narrowing down the date fields to 1895-1929 brings up 1,832 results under the word ‘cinema’, 765 under ‘cinematograph’, 1,455 under ‘film’, and 87 under ‘bioscope’. So there is plenty to be found. Each record leads you to a PDF copy of the relevant page, from which it is then possible to browse acros the rest of the issue. Each record supplies you with date, issue number and page number, and search results can be sorted by relevance, oldest or newest date. The texts are fully word-searchable, and though the OCR is uncorrected it is of a good standard.

So what sort of records do we find? Using our traditional search term of ‘kinetoscope’, which brings up just the one record for 1895-1929, we make the striking discovery of a film business being dissolved before any film had been produced in the country. In February 1895, the month in which Birt Acres is believed to have shot the UK’s first 35mm film, the American Kinetoscope Company, a partnership between Greek entrepreneurs George Georgiades and Theo Tragidis, was dissolved, as reported in the Gazette of 15 February 1895:

NOTICE is hereby given that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned George Georgiades and Theo Tragidis carrying on business as Dealers in Novelties at 62 Broad-street in the city of London under the style or firm of the American Kinetoscope Company has been dissolved by mutual consent as and from the llth day of February 1895. All debts due to and owing by the said late firm will be received and paid by the said Theo Tragidis.— Dated llth day of February 1895.


This mysterious duo played an important part in British film history, being the customers who asked Robert Paul late in 1894 to manufacture Kinetoscopes for their Edison 35mm films, after which Paul decided it would be worthwile breaking into this business himself, so starting up the British film industry.

More typical is the sort of report we get on the demise of the Globe Film Company in the Gazette of 25 August 1916. They just happens to have been the producers of the fake Titanic newsreel we wrote about recently:

The Companies Acts, 1908 and 1913.
Special Resolutions of the GLOBE FILM CO.Limited.
Passed the 28th day of July, 1916.
Confirmed the 14th day of August, 1916.

AT an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Members of the Globe Film Co. Limited, duly convened, and held at 81, Shaftesbury-avenue, in the city of Westminster, on the 28th day of July, 1916, the following Special Resolutions were duly passed; and at a subsequent Extraordinary General Meeting of the said Company, also duly convened, and held at the same place, on the 14th day of August, 1916, the following Special Resolutions were duly confirmed, viz.:—
” (1) That it is desirable to reconstruct the Company, and accordingly that the Company be wound up voluntarily; and that Henry McLellan, of 6A, Devonshire-square, in the city of London, Chartered Accountant, be and he is hereby appointed Liquidator for the purpose of such winding-up.
” (2) That the said Liquidator be and he is hereby authorized to consent to the registration of a new Company, to be named ‘Globe Films Limited,’ with a memorandum and articles of association which have already been prepared with the privity and approval of the directors of this Company.
” (3) That the draft agreement submitted to this Meeting and expressed to be made between this Company and its Liquidator of the one part, and Globe Films Limited of the other part, be and the same is hereby approved, and that the Liquidator be and he is hereby authorized, subject to section 192 of the Companies (Consolidation) Act, 1908, to enter into an agreement with such new Company, when incorporated, in the terms of the said draft, and to carry the same into effect, with such (if any) modifications as he thinks expedient.”
HY. PESSERS, Chairman.

There is a lot of this, sometimes formal reports, sometimes simple lists of titles of companies that are being wound-up. There are also bankruptcy notices for individuals in the film trade (such as Mollie Hanbury, film actress, reported 29 August 1922), and official notices of legislation and regulations relating to films, such as the Cinematograph Act of 1909 (as reported in the Gazette of 21 December 1909) or prescription on the amount of celluloid one could have in a building under the Defence of the Realm Act (reported 13 October 1914).

If you are looking for human interest, you will have to read between the lines. These are dry accounts of official transactions, which give you names, dates, occupations and locations, and little more. But you do seen the motion picture business as a business, and not as usually portrayed. Rather than a world of artistic endeavour and happy entertainment, here we see year after year of failures, as so many tried to join in the boom and failed. A close analysis of the reports in the London Gazette would be interesting for what it might illustrate of the ebbs and flows of a new business trying to put down roots. Much of that business is in the exhibition rather than the production side (so many failed cinemas), but that is an accurate reflection of where the balance of the money lay.

The records are not unique, and you can find much the same information on bankruptcies and windings-up in the Board of Trade records at The National Archives (as described in an earlier post). But it’s a side of film history that is too often overlooked, a side which must bring a healthy dash of realism to our understanding of what the early film business was. It was paved with broken dreams – and here’s the evidence.

Domitor comes to Brighton

The twelfth Domitor conference, entitled “Performing New Media, 1890-1915” takes place in the UK at the University of Brighton, 18 to 22 June 2012. Domitor is the international society for the study of early cinema, and has held a conference every second year since 1990. This is the first time it has been held in the UK.

The conference aims to examine the relationship between performance and turn-of-the-century media technologies, such as the magic lantern, the phonograph, and motion pictures. Its title, Performing New Media, neatly makes the point that the impact of these new technologies upon the 1890s/1910s is paralleled by the impact of the new media technologies of today. This should give the conference a particularly interesting resonance or two, and there will be a special session on “Digital Technologies and New Media circa 1900”. Our new media are changing access to, perceptions of, and the historical interpretation of the media of 100 years ago.

A draft programme has been published, downloadable in PDF form on the Domitor site, or laid out helpfully you below.

MONDAY 18th June 2012

8:30 Pastries and beverages

9:00 Welcomes by Anne Boddington (Dean of Faculty, Faculty of Arts, University of Brighton); Frank Gray (Director, Screen Archive South East); Scott Curtis (President, Domitor)

9:30 Panel 1: Sallis Benney Theatre
Performing “Non-Fiction”

  • Gregory A. Waller (Indiana University), “Circulating and Exhibiting Moving Pictures of the Australian Antarctic Expedition (1911-3)”
  • Rositza Alexandrova (University of Cambridge), “Cinegramme-Sending from the Ilinden Uprising”
  • Rielle Navitski (University of California, Berkeley), “‘Mixtures of Féerie and Document’: Sensational Theater and True-Crime Films in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, 1908-1913”

10:30 Break

10:50 Panel 2: Sallis Benney Theatre
Music, Opera, and Song

  • Beatrice Birardi (Società Italiana di Musicologia), “From ‘Chamber’ to Cinema: The Music by Carlo Graziani Walter for Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (Italy, 1913)”
  • Bernhard Kuhn (Bucknell University), “Intermediality Italian Style: Operaticality and Metareferentiality in the Cinema of the Early 1910s”
  • Jaume Radigales (Université Ramon Llull, Barcelona) and Isabel Villanueva (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Barcelona), “Le rôle de l’opéra dans le cinéma primitif : Étude des cas”
  • Anupama Kapse (Queens College, City University of New York), “Song and Dance in the Indian Silent Film”

Panel 3: Boardroom at Grand Parade
Exhibition beyond Theatres and Cinemas

  • Jon Burrows (University of Warwick), “Automatic Entertainment: Early Cinema in the Penny Arcade”
  • Oliver Gaycken (University of Maryland), “‘Denizens of the Deep’: F. Martin Duncan, Natural History Filmmaking, and the Brighton Aquarium”
  • Oksana Chefranova (New York University), “The Screen in the Garden: Moving Image Shows in Moscow circa 1900”

12:10 Lunch

1:10 Panel 4: Sallis Benney Theatre
Music, Colour, and Sound

  • Christopher Natzén (National Library of Sweden), “‘Such Music Cannot Be Regarded as Real or Genuine Art’: Swedish Cinema Musicians in 1908-1909”
  • Mélissa Gignac (Université Paris 7), “Le son dans les années 1910 : un exemple d’autonomisation progressive des films”
  • Jennifer Peterson (University of Colorado, Boulder), “Lyrical Education: Music and Color in Early Nonfiction Film”
  • Joshua Yumibe (University of St Andrews), “Colour as Performance in Visual Music, Film Tinting, and Digital Painting”

Panel 5: Boardroom at Grand Parade
Picture Personalities

  • Charles O’Brien (Carleton University), “Griffith Goes West: The Move to California and Its Impact on Actors’ Performances in the Biograph Films”
  • Laura Horak (Stockholm University), “Performing the Film Director: Mauritz Stiller and Vingarne”
  • Ian Christie (Birkbeck College, University of London), “Performers – On Stage and Now on Screen”
  • Chris O’Rourke (University of Cambridge), “In the Flesh: Personal Appearances and the Picture Personality in Britain before 1915”

2:30 Break

2:50 Panel 6: Sallis Benney Theatre
Performance and Pedagogy

  • Marina Dahlquist (Stockholm University), “Health on Display: The Panama Pacific Exposition (1915) as Sanitary Venue”
  • Frank Kessler and Sabine Lenk (Utrecht University), “‘Kinoreformbewegung’ Revisited: Performing the
    Cinematograph as a Pedagogical Tool”
  • David Williams (independent scholar), “The Letchworth Experiment, 1914-1917”
  • Kaveh Askari (University of Western Washington), “The Artist’s Studio on Display: Workspace as Educational Space”

Panel 7: Boardroom at Grand Parade
Performing Femininity

  • Liz Clarke (Wilfrid Laurier University), “Old Wars and New Women: Performing Active Femininity”
  • Diana Anselmo-Sequeira (University of California, Irvine), “‘Neither Here, Nor There, But Everywhere’: How Early American Film Disembodied Adolescent Girlhood”
  • Leslie Midkiff DeBauche (University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point), “When the Law Is the Audience: Codifying Performance in a New Medium”

4:10 Break

4:40 Panel 8: Sallis Benney Theatre
Reconsidering Early Japanese Film: Sounds, Stories, and Performances
Panel Chair: Hiroshi Komatsu (Waseda University)

  • Ryo Okubo (University of Tokyo), “Teachers, Benshi, and Itinerant Entertainers: Magic Lantern Performances in Japan at the End of the Nineteenth Century”
  • Sawako Ogawa (University of Tokyo), “From Kodan to Kyugeki: How the Japanese Storytelling Tradition of Kodan Was Assimilated into Early Japanese Cinema”
  • Manabu Ueda (Ritsumeikan University), “The Development of Regional Characteristics during the Emergence of Moving Picture Theaters: A Comparison between Tokyo and Kyoto”
  • Masaki Daibo (Waseda University), “Reception of Film d’Art and Its Impact on Japanese Sound Culture”

6:30 Evening Event: Blackwell book reception

TUESDAY 19th June 2012

8:30 Pastries and beverages

9:00 Panel 9: Sallis Benney Theatre
Vaudeville and Comedy

  • Donald Crafton (University of Notre Dame), “McCay and Keaton: The Intermediality of Vaudeville, Animation and Slapstick Cinema”
  • Maggie Hennefeld (Brown University), “Performing Film Form: Vaudeville Theater and Early Motion Picture Comedy”
  • Gwendolyn Waltz (independent scholar), “20 Minutes or Less: Short-Form Film-and-Theatre Hybrids—Skits, Sketches, Playlets, & Acts in Vaudeville, Variety, Revues, &c”
  • Pierre Chemartin and Santiago Hidalgo (Université de Montréal), “Learning Film Performance Through Comics”

Panel 10: Room G4
Transnational Corridors: Southeast Asia, the Americas, Scandinavia

  • Nadi Tofighian (Stockholm University), “Circuit of Commerce and Cinema: Singapore and the Southeast Asian Film Market”
  • Joel Frykholm (Stockholm University), “From Movie Palace to Media Spaces: New Perspectives on the Exhibition Contexts of the Multi-Reel Feature Film, 1913–1915”
  • John Fullerton (Stockholm University), “Reframing the Panorama in Mexico: Early Actuality Film and Nineteenth-Century Lithographs and Photographs”
  • Anne Bachmann (Stockholm University), “Trajectories between Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm: What Norwegian Male Stars Brought to Swedish Biograph, 1913–1915”

10:20 Break

10:40 Panel 11: Sallis Benney Theatre
Performing Resistance

  • Natascha Drubek (University of Regensburg) “Unruly Projectionists and Censorship in the Cinema of Czarist Russia”
  • Denis Condon (National University of Ireland, Maynooth), “‘Offensive and Riotous Behaviour’: Regulating the Irish Cinema Audience, 1910-15”
  • Alison Griffiths (Baruch College, City University of New York), “Old New Media: The Time Warp Case of Motion Pictures in Prison”

12:00 Lunch

1:00 Panel 12: Sallis Benney Theatre
Old and New Media

  • Giusy Pisano (Université Paris-Est), “Au commencement était le son!”
  • André Gaudreault (Université de Montréal) and Philippe Marion (Université de Louvain), “D’un tournant de siècle à l’autre : l’animation restaurée”
  • Wanda Strauven (University of Amsterdam), “The Performing Screens of Early Cinema”
  • Andrea Haller (Deutsches Filminstitut), “Presenting New Media of the Nineteenth Century in the Context of the Twenty-First-Century Museum: The Case of the German Film Museum in Frankfurt”
  • Katherine Groo (University of Aberdeen), “Cut, Paste, Glitch, and Stutter: Remixing Early Film (History)”

2:30 Break

3:00 Special Session: Digital Technologies and New Media circa 1900: Sallis Benney Theatre

4:30 Break

5:00 Panel 13: Sallis Benney Theatre
Magic Lantern

  • Valentine Robert (Université de Lausanne/Université de Montréal), “De la page à la performance, de la toile à l’écran − ou comment la nouvelle culture des médias s’approprie et transforme le tableau vivant”
  • M. Magdalena Brotons Capó (Universitat de les illes Balears), “Les plaques de lanterne magique à l’origine de l’image cinématographique”
  • Sarah Dellmann (Utrecht University), “Getting to know the Dutch: Magic Lantern Series on the Netherlands Considered as Screen Practice”
  • Ludwig Vogl-Bienek (University of Trier), “Screening Sensations and Live Performance”

6:30 Break, Evening Event: Magic Lantern Show with David Francis

WEDNESDAY 20th June 2012

8:30 Pastries and beverages

9:00 Panel 14: Sallis Benney Theatre
The Circus and the Occult

  • Annie Fee (University of Washington), “Circus and Cinema: A Fairground Audience at the Gaumont-Palace”
  • Patrick Désile (Université de Paris), “Cirque et premier cinéma : Antagonismes et convergences”
  • Emmanuel Plasseraud (Université Paris-Est Marne-La-Vallée), “Médiums et nouveaux médias : Projections cinématographiques et performances médiumniques entre 1895 et 1915”

Panel 15: Room G4
Literature, Visuality, and Early Film

  • Pam Thurschwell (University of Sussex), “G.A. Smith, Psychical Research and Film: Disembodied Aesthetics and the Illusion of Embodiment”
  • Laura Marcus (Oxford University), “Conrad’s Figurative Understandings of the Cinema”
  • Jonathan Freedman (University of Michigan), “Henry James and G.A. Smith: Illusion and Visuality”

10:00 Break

10:30 Panel 16: Sallis Benney Theatre

  • Thierry Lecointe (chercheur indépendant), “Entre nouveauté et continuité : Le spectacle cinématographique serait-il une emergence du théâtre d’ombres français?”
  • Marco Bellano (Università degli Studi di Padova), “The Sound of the Shadows: The Aesthetics of Music for Shadow Plays in Late-Nineteenth-Century France”
  • Canan Balan (Istanbul Sehir University), “Early Multimedia Performances in Late-Nineteenth-Century Istanbul”

Panel 17: Room G4
Institutional Histories of Moving Pictures in the South West UK before 1914

  • John Plunkett (University of Exeter), “Variety Halls and Touring Visual Entertainment in Plymouth, 1860-1890”
  • Joe Kember (University of Exeter), “Plymouth’s ‘Home of Cinema’: The Long Institutional History of British Town Hall Picture Shows”
  • Rosalind Leveridge (University of Exeter), “‘A Complete Entertainment from the Moment They Enter’: Cinema and Community in the Coastal Resorts of the South West, 1909-1914”

11:30 Lunch

12:30 Panel 18: Sallis Benney Theatre

  • Alain Boillat (Université de Lausanne), “Projections fixes / animées: approche historiographique et théorique”
  • Judith Buchanan (University of York), “‘Guttersnipe’s Dialects and ‘élocution soignée’: The Ranging Cultural Performance Registers of Early Cinema Lecturers”
  • May Adadol Ingawanij (University of Westminster), “A Late ‘Early’ Cinema: Orality and Siam’s 16mm Era”
  • Martin Loiperdinger (University of Trier), “Missing Believed Lost: The Film Narrator Then and Now”

1:50 Break

2:10 Special Session: Brighton 1978/2012: Sallis Benney Theatre

4:00 Sessions end

6:00 Evening Event: Frank Gray’s Brighton Show

THURSDAY 21st June 2012

8:30 Pastries and beverages

9:00 Panel 19: Sallis Benney Theatre
Technology I

  • Benoît Turquety (Université de Lausanne), “L’histoire des techniques comme source pour l’histoire des pratiques performatives”
  • Katharina Loew (University of Oregon), “Specters of the Theater: 3-D Cinema in the 1910s”
  • Doron Galili (Oberlin College), “The Invention that Will Out-Edison Edison: Early Cinema and Moving Image Transmission”
  • Ted Hovet (Western Kentucky University), “From Circle to Oblong: Standardizing the Borders of the Projected Image in the 1890s”
  • William Boddy (Baruch College, City University of New York), “The Spectacle of Technology: Cinema and Outdoor Advertising in Early-Twentieth-Century Visual Culture”

Panel 20: Room G4
Place and Exhibition

  • Marta Braun (Ryerson University) and Charlie Keil (University of Toronto), “Architecture and Performance: Toronto’s Screen Media Landscape at the Turn of the Century”
  • Paul S. Moore (Ryerson University), “Early Cinema’s ‘Social Media’ Moment: Local Views in Mainstream Picture Shows in North America before the Nickelodeon”
  • Leigh Mercer (University of Washington), “Barcelona on the Move: The Metropolitan Cinemaway at the Intersection of Tourism, Entertainment, and Urbanism”
  • Begoña Soto Vázquez (Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid), “Cinema as Extension of the Train and the Journal: Considering a New Audience for the Cinematograph, Madrid 1900-1912”

10:20 Break

10:40 Panel 21: Sallis Benney Theatre
Historiography, Nation, Femininity, and Performance

  • Philippe Gauthier (Université de Montréal/Université de Lausanne), “L’historiographie de la performance dans le cinéma des premiers temps et l’émergence de l’histoire universitaire du cinéma”
  • Gunnar Iversen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), “Performing New Media and the Creation of National Identity: Kräusslich and Köpke in Norway before 1910”
  • Stephen Putnam Hughes (University of London), “Performing Authority at the Cinema in Victorian India”
  • Shelley Stamp (University of California, Santa Cruz), “Lois Weber at Rex: Performing Femininity Across Media”

Panel 22: Room G4
Performance Beyond the Silent Screen: Comedy, Criminality and the Fashioning of a Multimodal Cinema

  • April Miller (University of Northern Colorado), “Vamp until Ready: Parlor Songs, Pseudoscience, and the Ephemeral Performance of the Silent Screen Vampire”
  • Vicki Callahan (University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee), “Simulation Platforms for Writing Film History: A Scalar Presentation on Mabel Normand and Cinematic Performance”
  • Michele Torre (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale), “Transforming Comedic Performance for the ‘New Media’: Lina Bauer Does Film Comedy”

12:10 Lunch

1:10 Panel 23: Sallis Benney Theatre
Technology II

  • Richard Brown (independent scholar), “A New Look at Old History”
  • Paul Spehr (independent scholar), “Scopes, Phones, Graphs and Grams: Movies and Phonographs at the Introduction of Cinema”
  • Frank M. Scheide (University of Arkansas), “Freeman Owens: Early Arkansas Home Movie Exhibitor, Cinematographer, and Inventor of Motion Picture Technology from 1908-1972”
  • Stephen Herbert (Kingston University, London), “Recreating the First Cameras: A Twelve-Year Project”

2:30 Break

2:40 Special Session: Domitor General Assembly: Sallis Benney Theatre

4:00 Break

4:30 Panel 24: Sallis Benney Theatre
Programming and Performance

  • Laurent Guido (Université de Lausanne) and Laurent Le Forestier (Université de Rennes), “Performance et programmes : le cinéma programmé parmi des performances / les performances dans les programmes de cinéma”
  • Richard Abel (University of Michigan), “Motion Picture Advertisements, Programming and Performance”
  • Ansje van Beusekom (Utrecht University), “Performing Films in Winter 1904, 1905, and 1906: Albert Freres and Their Exhibition Skills in Multipurpose Buildings in Dutch Cities”
  • Ranita Chatterjee (University of Westminster), “‘Bringing out from Europe the Latest Scientific Illusion’: Performing New Media in British India”
  • Priska Morrissey (Université Rennes 2), “De l’invention des génériques: étude du cas français (1908-1914)”

6:00 Evening Event: Conference Dinner (details to be announced)

FRIDAY 22nd June 2012

8:30 Pastries and beverages

9:00 Panel 25: Sallis Benney Theatre
Fregoli, Reynaud, and Lightning Sketches

  • Frederic Tabet (Université Paris-Est), “La transparence du Fregoligraph”
  • Christelle Odoux (chercheuse indépendante), “L’application par Émile Reynaud de la photographie à son Théâtre optique: les Photo-peintures animées (1896)”
  • Jean-Baptiste Massuet (Université Rennes 2), “L’appropriation des Lightning Sketches par le Cinématographe, de la performance scénique au cartoon”
  • Malcolm Cook (Birkbeck College, University of London), “Performance Times: The Lightning Cartoon and the Emergence of Animation”

Panel 26: Room G4
Early Cinema (A)live! Sound, Body Performances, and Media Constructions of Presence

  • Wolfgang Fuhrmann (University of Zürich), “Listening to the Image: Ethnographic Film’s Long Beginning”
  • Kristina Köhler (University of Zürich), “Tango Mad and Affected by Cinematographitis: The 1910s Dance Crazes, Early Cinema, and Rhythmic ‘Contagions’ between Screens and Audiences”
  • Daniel Wiegand (University of Zürich), “‘Performed Live and Talking. No Kinematograph’: Amateur Performances of Tableaux Vivants and Local Film Exhibition in Germany around 1900”
  • Franziska Heller (University of Zürich), “Lumière Re-Mastered? Early Cinema Today and Its ‘Digital Performance’”

10:20 Break

10:45 Panel 27: Sallis Benney Theatre
Stage and Screen

  • Ivo Blom (VU University of Amsterdam), “The Cross-Medial Case of Lyda Borelli”
  • Nic Leonhardt (LMU Munich), “Pictorial Dramaturgy. Theatre and Visual Media around 1900”
  • Stephen Bottomore (independent scholar), “The Lady of Ostend”

12:00 Lunch

1:00 Panel 28: Sallis Benney Theatre

  • Caitlin McGrath (independent scholar), “‘The Eye is a Great Educator’: J. K. Dixon at Kodak”
  • Peter Walsh (Sheffield University), “Standards of Practice in Transition: The Showmanship of Jasper Redfern as It Emerged”
  • Maria A. Velez-Serna (University of Glasgow), “Mapping Showmanship Skills and Practices in Scotland”
  • Artemis Willis (University of Chicago), “‘Marvelous and Fascinating’: L. Frank Baum’s Fairylogue and Radio Plays”

2:30 Break

3:00 Special Session: Closing Roundtable: Sallis Benney Theatre

4:00 End of conference

This is certainly a remarkable range of papers and themes, with a healthy mixture of leading names in the field and new scholars coming to the fore. The Bioscope will be there for a couple of days at least, and will be producing an on-the-spot conference report for you. There are a lot of old friends named above that it will be good to see again.

The full delegate rate for the five days is £140.00 (concessions rate £80.00), with a daily rate of £30.00. All presenters have to be members of Domitor, but attendees not presenting do not have to be members, which is a sensible arrangement. Further details and online booking are provided by the University of Brighton. General information on the conference, including location and travel information, are available on the Domitor site.

By the way, it’s been noticeable this year how very few conferences there seem to be worldwide this year that are either directly or indirectly devoted to silent cinema. If anyone knows of such events coming up, do let me know.


The London Olympic Games creep ever closer, and we are going to see all manner of institutions pulling out the stops to express to us what it all means. Well, what it all means is people winning races, but those of an Olympian frame of mind like to think that it’s a bit more uplifting and inspiring than that. So it is that British Airways has sponsored its ‘Great Britons‘ initiative, designed to provide “a global platform for up and coming British talent in food, art and film” in the run up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. From this has come this short, modern silent film, entitled Boy.

The ten-minute film was scripted by ‘Great Britons’ sponsored talent Prasanna Puwanarajah. It is directed by Justin Chadwick and photographed by Danny Cohen, with a score by Alex Heffes, and stars Timothy Spall as a carpenter mourning the death of his cyclist son who finds some sort of redemption at the Olympic park’s Velodrome.

It’s surprisingly downbeat in theme, but expertly put together and they hope that its lack of dialogue will mean that it strikes a chord with audiences worldwide. British Airways will be showing the also be showing the film on flights in the months leading up to the Games. Anyway, see what you think.

We’ll be having more on silent films and the Olympics here at the Bioscope over the next few months.

Googling Muybridge

Today is 9 April 2012, and by the end of the day we can reasonably expect 700 million people to know something about Eadweard Muybridge, the visionary 19th century photographer whose rapid action sequential images pointed the way to motion pictures. That’s the number of individuals estimated to visit Google every day, and today they would have come across the latest variant on the Google logo, or doodle, a grid of horses as photographed by Eadweard Muybridge, which animates into a succession of galloping horses. Of course, probably 90% of those individuals won’t both to click on the logo to make the animation run in an endless loop, and 90% of those who do won’t both to follow up the links to Muybridge sites that occur when you click on the logo again. But that still leaves seven million people who learned something about Muybridge today. Now doesn’t that make it sound like the world just became a marginally better place?

Of course, Google being Google, the list of links is a bit overwhelming for the newcomer, and most of the first two pages is given over to sites telling you that Google has just put Eadweard Muybridge on its front page, so that the whole thing becomes a bit of an endless loop in itself which doesn’t actually tell you much.

So, for the select few of you among the 700 million, here are some of the most useful Eadweard Muybridge links around. Do explore.

Oh, by the way, happy 182nd birthday to Eadweard.

And the ship sails on

Although this film is held by British Pathé, it was originally issued by Pathé’s rival Gaumont. The first shots of the Titanic in Belfast are the only genuine extant footage of the ship. The film then continues with shots of survivors in New York, regrettably re-edited by British Pathé in 2012 to turn a ten-minute newsreel into two minutes

Those of you recently returned from Mars may be interested to know that we are celebrating the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic this month. Those of you who have spent your time on planet Earth these past few months will not have been able to get away from the books, films, television programmes, souvenirs, exhibitions, commemorative issues, tea towels and who knows what else that has been foisted upon us, and you are probably heartily sick of the subject. Nevertheless, it is an event of some cultural significance, and we feel it would be remiss if we did not try and saying something about the Titanic and silent film.

But even here the field is already crowded, with newsreels from the time being readily available online and many probably knowing by now that little film of the liner actually exists, and that much of what screened at at the time that purported to show the Titanic was in fact footage of its sister ship the Olympic. If you see footage that it is claimed shows the launch, passengers embarking, the Titanic at sea, scenes on deck, or indeed the ship sinking, pleased be assured that it is not the Titanic that you are watching.

So, just what was filmed of the Titanic, and what survives today? That will be the subject of our post.

Newsfilm and documentaries are always made with a purpose; that was as true in 1912 as it is today. There had to be real interest in the topic, such as its newsworthiness. And the hard fact is that the Titanic was not news until it sank. The Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (which was postponed and subsequently became the Britannic) were three liners planned by the White Star Line to capture trans-Atlantic business from its great rival Cunard. Cunard had the fastest liners afloat (it took five days to cross from the UK to the USA), and rather than beat them for speed White Star Line went for size and luxury. Its super-liners would be a little slower than Cunard’s, but they would beat them hand down when it came to dimensions and luxury.

The first to be built and to be launched (28 October 1910) was the Olympic. It was the Olympic that grabbed most of the headlines, and attracted the film cameras. There were newsreels of its launch and of life on board ship, and a spectacular documentary was made by the Kineto company, entitled S.S. Olympic, which covered its construction from the laying of the keel to launch. When the time came for the Titanic to be launched, two years later, there wasn’t the same interest. What had been front page news for the first ship was relegated to the inside pages for its successor, and the film companies for the most part ignored it. So, for example, the Kineto film of the Olympic was made by producer Charles Urban, who had initially approached Harland & Wolff for permission to film the construction of both liners. The shipbuilders were happy with this, but Urban took what must have seemed the more practical action and film the construction of the Olympic alone, in black-and-white (a film which survives) and in colour using his Kinemacolor process (a film sadly lost). The Titanic he seems to have ignored.

Part of S.S. Olympic (1910), the Kineto documentary on the construction of the Titanic’s sister ship. The two ships were very similar, and the film gives a good idea of what the construction of the Titanic would have looked like

So what was filmed? The film historian Stephen Bottomore, in his essential book The Titanic and Silent Cinema, suggests that there were five films or film sequences made of the Titanic. One of these can be discounted, as it merely showed the liner’s anchor being transported, but let us examine the other four (plus a fifth possibility that Bottomore also discusses).

The first is a puzzle. When the Titanic sank, producers searched around desperately for any footage that related to the liner. Gaumont concentrated on the scenes in New York where the survivors were received. This newsreel, which demonstrated a desire for accuracy, was released as an issue of The Animated Weekly in the USA and as a Gaumont special in the UK. There were (and are) several versions of this reel, one of which shown in the USA (but not in the UK) had this intertitle for its first scene:

Laying the keel of the Titanic

Who filmed this? It is a mystery. The keel of the Titanic was first laid in Belfast on 31 March 1909. There is no other record of such a film being made that I can trace (or Bottomore), and the scene does not occur in any of the surviving versions of the film. Did Urban film part of the Titanic‘s construction after all (if he had sought rights to do so from Hardland & Wolff it is unlikely that any other company would have had permission)? But then why did he never release it (it is not mentioned in any of Urban’s catalogues)? And why did this part of the newsreel disappear when the most of rest survived? Was it film of the Olympic‘s keel being laid? (unlikely, given Gaumont’s efforts to show true footage) Or might it have been shot by Films Ltd, producers of the second film of the Titanic?

The second scene in the Animated Weekly newsreel showed the launch of the Titanic in Belfast on 31 May 1911. The film was not produced by Gaumont, but rather by Films Ltd, a Liverpool-based company with an office in Belfast. The footage does not survive, and Bottomore quotes the only account we have of it, a most unhelpful two-liner from the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly film trade journal:

Thousands who were unable to see the launch will avail themselves of this opportunity. Even those who saw the launch may in this film see some feature that they missed.

The fact that the launch was filmed by a minor film company and paid only meagre attention by the film press shows what comparatively little interest the Titanic had for the media at this point. The Animated Weekly film with these two sequences was first shown in New York on 21 April, just six days after the disaster, so if they were shipped from Belfast then would have had to have been sent out on 16 April, which seems an extraordinarily rapid turnaround. But for some strange reason the laying of the keel and the launch were not included in the British version of the reel issued by Gaumont at the start of May, and are now lost.

Instead Gaumont in the UK showed the only film of the Titanic to survive today. On 3 February 1912 a camera operator filmed the Titanic being moved into the Thompson dry dock, Belfast. The film was taken from the quayside looking up at the ship, showing the prow, and comprises seven shots from roughly the same camera position, one of them a panning shot along the length of the ship (there is a useful short analysis of the footage on Encyclopedia Titanica).

The first record we have of it being shown is when it featured in the Gaumont Graphic newsreel of 18 April 1912 (three days after the sinking), issue number 112, where it was falsely billed as ‘The Titanic Leaving Belfast Lough Bound for Southampton April 2 1912’. The news of the disaster had only just come through to the UK and Gaumont had moved swiftly to obtain the film, showing 100 feet in its next newsreel release. The full Gaumont Graphic no. 112 issue was:

1 – The British Dog Show at Earls Court
2 – Bob Sleighing
3 – Lord Mayor of Belfast Inspecting the Australian Cadets
4 – The Titanic Leaving Belfast Lough Bound for Southampton April 2 1912
5 – Paris Fashions

The Gaumont Graphic issue ledger for 18 April credits the film as “Prov Cine Local”, which must mean the operator was working for Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, a cinema chain with a strong presence in Ireland.

Gaumont issued a longer film in the UK at the start of May which was the Animated Weekly release from the USA except, except – most oddly – that there were no shots of the Titanic itself. It included footage of Captain Smith (on board the Olympic), ice floes, a flashing title with the distress code C.Q.D. (which preceded S.O.S. – both signals were employed by the Titanic), and scenes in New York with survivors and news reporters. At a later date the 2 February 1912 footage was added to this reel, and it is this version that is embedded at the top of this post.

Captain Smith from the Globe newsreel supposedly showing the Titanic (which he captained) but which actually shows the Olympic in New York in 1911 – the name Olympic has been painted out by the film company or an exhibitor but can be seen unobscured in this frame grab, top right

False claims for footage of the Titanic were made right from the start. Bottomore records a New York theatre as claiming to have colour footage of the Titanic‘s launch which it showed on 17 April. This was clearly the Kinemacolor film of the Olympic. Another company, the British-based Globe Film Company, issued a newsreel on the disaster which can be found in several archives (in different versions), which shamelessly used footage of the Olympic from 1911 throughout, going so far as to blot out the word Olympic where it appears on the ship and to remove the names of New York tugs seen beside the ship when the film claims to be showing us the Titanic at Southampton.

Advertisement for the Topical Budget newsreel film of the Titanic at Southampton, now lost, from The Bioscope 25 April 1912

The fourth and final film of the Titanic known to have been made was a newsreel of the ship at Southampton. Topical Budget, a British newsreel produced by the Topical Film Company, included the following two titles for its issue of 17 April 1912 (just two days after the sinking):

The Titanic at Southampton, prior to her maiden voyage, which has proved so disastrous.

The White Star Line. Anxious crowds awaiting news outside the London office.

All that is known about this film is an advertisement in The Bioscope for 25 April 1912. The newsreel’s own records for this period are lost, as is the film [Update – the film has been found – see comments]. The mystery is why the footage was not better exploited. If, as it seems, it was the only film of the Titanic at Southampton, then Topical had a scoop the whole world wanted to see. The Titanic had left Southampton on 10 April, and we do not know whether Topical showed the launch in one of its issues that week (British newseels were issued twice-weekly) and then showed it again for the issue on the 17th, or whether it had filmed the launch but not bothered to use the footage (full issue records for the newsreel do not survive from this period). Or might they have stooped to subterfuge and used the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres footage, and labelled as being shot in Southampton? There is no way of knowing.

William H. Harbeck, from Moving Picture News

There might have been other films of the Titanic made, but none were advertised in the film trade papers or cinema listings that historians have pored over. But what of film taken on board the Titanic? One of most intriguing discoveries from Stephen Bottomore’s research is that there were at least two cameramen on the liner when she sank. One was William Harbeck, an American producer of travelogues who had five cameras and 110,000 feet of film with him. He may have been seen filming on board when the Titanic had a near collision with the liner New York in Southampton harbour, as witnessed by passenger Lawrence Beesley, who wrote in his book The Loss of S.S. Titanic:

No one was more interested than a young American kinematograph photographer, who, with his wife, followed the whole scene with eager eyes, turning the handle of his camera with the most evident pleasure as he recorded the unexpected incident on his films. It was obviously quite a windfall for him to have been on board at such a time. But neither the film nor those who exposed it reached the other side, and the record of the accident from the Titanic’s deck has never been thrown on the screen.

Harbeck was American, but he wasn’t that young (he was 44), and the woman with him was not his wife, but otherwise this seems likely to have been him. Some have speculated that the cameraman was the 19-year-old American Daniel Marvin, son of Harry Marvin, president of the Biograph film company, who was returning from honeymoon in Europe with his American wife Mary. But they were first class passengers, whereas Bessley and Harbeck were second class (and hence on another deck); moreover, Bessley elsewhere refers to Harbeck’s ‘wife’ as being “evidently French”, as Henriette Yvois certainly was.

Another man potentially with a camera was Jean-Noël Malachard, a French newsreel cameraman with Pathé-Journal who was journeying to New York to join the company’s American branch. Both Harbeck and Malachard drowned, with any film that they may have taken going down with them, though as the sinking itself took place at night there was no way they could have even attempted to record the disaster itself.

So we have four films that were made of the Titanic, with maybe a fifth shot on board as the liner left Southampton:

  • c.31 March 1909 – laying of the keel at Belfast – producer known – length unknown – film lost
  • 31 May 1911 – launch at Belfast – producer Films Ltd – length unknown – film lost
  • 3 February 1912 – moving into dry dock at Belfast – producer Provincial Cinematograph Theatres – length 100ft – film extant
  • c.10 April 1912 – at Southampton, prior to depature – producer Topical Film Company – length c.60ft – film lost [Stop press: This film has been found! But does it show the Titanic? See comments]
  • 10 April 1912 – footage possibly shot of near collision with US liner New York – producer William Harbeck – length unknown – film lost

What does the extant film of the Titanic signify? Of itself, it has little to say. It is not very interesting film of a big ship. It evokes no sense of loss, greatness, vaingloriousness, hubris or tragedy. We bring those feelings to the film, once we are told what it signifies. We invest our feelings in what we see on the screen. Yet there is that special frisson when we see the footage and realise that what is now history was once actuality. A connection is made that is part of the unique power of film, collapsing time while simultaneously making us aware of the yawning gap of time. The footage of the Titanic exposes the limitations of film as historical record, while at the same time showing how powerful even the plainest film can be if we bring powerful thoughts to bear upon it. There is also that special connection between actuality and drama, where each offsets the other. The actuality only makes us yearn to see the story told. The dramatic only makes us want to see anything that makes it clear that our dreams have some basis in reality.

The key source for studying the Titanic and contemporary film is the aforementioned The Titanic and Silent Cinema by Stephen Bottomore, to which this post is much indebted. Among the huge number of Titanic publications, I recommend Richard Howells’ The Myth of the Titanic for its insightful analysis of the disaster’s cultural significance, with some subtle readings of the films made about the tragedy. As he wisely points out, there are two Titanics out there: the real Titanic that lies beneath the ocean waves, and the Titanic of myth that sails on in literature, musicals, movies and memories.

I am giving a talk on the Titanic and film at the Cinema Museum on Sunday 15 April, where we will be tracing the story of the disaster through both newsreels and fiction films. Neil Brand will be at the piano. It will be interesting to see what the audience will make of an interweaving of the actual and the dramatic, as we tell the story once again, as the Titanic sinks beneath waves again, as we shiver at what it tells us of our fallibility and fragility all over again.

(My thanks to Linda Kaye of the British Universities Film & Video Council for access to copies of the Gaumont Graphic newsreel ledgers)

Good health

Part one of Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council. Part two is here and part three is here

Film archivists know the real treasures in their collections, and while they continue to cater those who wish to see the better known and more obvious classics, it is often the less familiar titles that nevertheless demonstrate the special power of the medium that find favour within the archives. So it was that during my time at the BFI, one of the films that we frequently held us as being the greatest in our collection was Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council (1931).

Never did a great film have so unprepossessing a title, but in the 1920s and ’30s Bermondsey council in London was at the forefront of public health propaganda (in the best sense of the word) and the use of film. At a time before the National Health Service, when many in London’s poorer district suffered from preventable illnesses caused by poor living conditions, the council’s Public Health Department undertook a bold programme to improve public health and to make the people of Bermondsey and Southwark aware of the need for and the opportunities for following a healthy lifestyle. Driven by husband and wife team Alfred and Ada Salter (he became Bermondsey’s MP, she its Mayor, the first female mayor in London), and with films mostly made by H.W. Bush, the Department made or sponsored some 33 films over the two decades, screenings these for free in any space where people might gather, including street screenings, employing cinemotor vans which came with portable projection equipment.

The films include such titles as Where There’s Life There’s Soap (1933), Health and Clothing (1928), The Empty Bed (1937) and Maternity and Child Welfare (1930). All were made silent, for economic reasons and ease of exhibition as much as anything else. All are imbued with a palpable sense of purpose and dedication to a good cause. You derive a real sense of the goodness of people, as well as a sense of shame at the conditions in which people were living well into the twentieth century (though the emphasis is on good work done rather than bad things that needed to be eradicated). Some Activities of the Bermondsey Borough Council Itself is so compelling to watch, not merely for its account of the public health programme, but for its unadorned images of ordinary life in the city (just the views of streets with which the film opens have a special thrill, simply because such views on film are so rare for this period).

Cinemotor, designed for exhibiting films or lantern slides, from the Wellcome Library

The films that survive are preserved by the BFI, with copies held at the medical charity the Wellcome Trust, and it is the Wellcome which has put some of the film on its YouTube channel and on its own site to accompany an exhibition entitled Here Comes Good Health, on the wotk of the Bermondsey Public Health Department. The exhibition runs at the Wellcome (on Euston Road, London) 22 February-3 June 2012, and you can read about the Council’s work, see films and photographs on the exhibition website.

If you are interested to find out more, there is a particularly handsome new publication by Elizabeth Lebas, who has been researching British ‘municipal’ films for some years now, Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980. There is more information on the exhibition, the Public Health Department and its films, with plenty of links to other resources, on the Wellcome Library’s blog.

I also recommend an engrossing account by composer Felicity Ford (on her blog The Domestic Soundscape) who is writing a soundtrack for a related municipal film, Bathing and Dressing (1935), made by the National Council for Maternity and Child Welfare and Carnegie Welfare Centre, Shoreditch. She describes her research process, including locating contemporary sounds and oral history interviews from the British Library, that bring the people and the times back to life as much as do the films.