Bioscope Newsreel no. 10

I’m going to try and revive a neglected feature, the Bioscope Newsreel. It was an irregularly issued round-up of news stories on silent films that weren’t going to make it into fully-fledged posts, and in bringing it back to life I want to expand the brief a little to include interesting new pieces writing, blog posts etc. on our silent world (and its contexts). If I’m really good I’ll make it a weekly occurence, but I won’t commit myself to that just yet. Anyway, after a gap of just under two years, here’s issue number ten:

Films in concert
Films en Concert is a two-day silent film festival being held at the Salle André Malraux, Lambersart, France 4-5 February 2011. Featuring Chaplin biographer and Pordenone director David Robinson plus Pordenone pianists Neil Brand and Touve R. Ratovondrahety, the festival focusses on Chaplin with talks, screnings and a session for school children, plus Bébé and Bout-de-Zan comedies, Jacques Feyder’s Gribiche (1926) and Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). Read more.

Female Hamlet
John Wyver of the film and video production company Illuminations writes an excellent blog on film, art and culture. His latest post is on the Asta Nielsen Hamlet (1920), recently screened at the BFI Southbank, in which the great Danish actress plays the great Dane. An observant piece from a present-day producer of Shakespeare films (Hamlet, Macbeth). Read more.

Silent and white
Michael Hogan of The Daily Telegraph reviews the TV screening of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary record of the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition. Interestingly the review doesn’t look upon the film as historically quaint but simply as a record of those events equivalent to any TV polar documentary. Read more.

Film and European copyright
The EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands has produced some Guidelines for Copyright Clearance and IPR Management for the European Film Gateway project. Viewing things from the European angle, the guidelines consider copyright basics, exploitation rights, moral rights, orphan works, clearing rights in related media (stills, posters), searching for rights holders and a summary of copyright law in various European countries (though not the UK). Read more.

Lost and significant
It’s hard to say what exactly is the appeal in describing films that no one living has seen, but the Shadowlocked site has an entertaining item on ’15 historically significant “lost” films’, most of which are silent, and include Saved from the Titanic (1912), The Werewolf (1913), A Study in Scarlet (1914) and that great Bioscope favourite, Drakula halála (1921). Read more.

‘Til next time!

Slapstick 2008

Chaplin and Linder

Charlie Chaplin and Max Linder, from

Full details of the Slapstick 2008 silent film festival have been published, at last. The festival is taking place in Bristol, 17-20 January, and screenings take place at the Watershed, Arnolfini, Colston Hall and St George’s Bristol. Here’s the full line-up:

Thursday 17 January

Funny Ladies I: The Extra Girl (USA 1923)
14.00 at Watershed

“The plucky Mabel Normand stars as Sue, a small town girl who wants to be a star. She wins a contract with a big studio when a picture of a very pretty girl is sent to a studio instead of hers. When she arrives in Hollywood, the mistake is discovered.”

Pencil and Plasticine
18.00 at Watershed

“Animation legends Richard Williams and Peter Lord explore their mutual passion for pre-talkie animation with extracts including early Disney, Willis O’Brien and the unforgettable Jerry the Troublesome Tyke!”

Serge Bromberg presents: Retour de Flamme
20.20 at Watershed

“Since 1985, Paris-based Lobster Films have been champions of restoring archive and silent films. We are delighted to welcome Serge Bromberg, co-founder of Lobster, to Slapstick 2008 to present the first UK version of this extraordinary Retour de Flammeshow; a unique chance to experience the films he discovered and restored with his very own live piano accompaniment.”

Friday 18 January

Keystone Chaplin
9.00 at Watershed

David Robinson presents: A Film Johnnie,The Star Boarder and Kid Auto Races.

Funny Ladies II: Funny Ladies of the Silent Screen
11.00 at Watershed

Byrony Dixon and David Wyatt present a selection of silent comediennes.

Neil Innes presents: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (France 1953)
14.00 at Watershed

Composer-performer Neil Innes, best known for his work with Monty Python and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, introduces Jacques Tati’s classic comedy.

Funny Ladies III: It (USA 1927)
16.00 at Arnolfini

“Clara Bow’s sizzling personality is irresistible in the role that did most to establish her as an icon.”

Special Gala Event: Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy Classics

The Gold Rush (1925)
7.30pm at Colston Hall

“Paul Merton hosts this special Slapstick Gala, featuring the world première of Timothy Brock’s reworking of Chaplin’s score for his greatest silent comedy The Gold Rush performed by the 15 piece Emerald Ensemble. With additional comedy shorts, including Laurel and Hardy classic Leave ’em Laughing and special guests Paul McGann and Christopher Chaplin.”

Saturday 19 January

Chaplin: A Fresh Look – Panel Discussion
9.00 at Watershed

“With programmes such as Kevin Brownlow’s Unknown Chaplin and Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, TV has introduced Chaplin to a new public and re-affirmed his place in world cinema and the history of comedy. This panel discussion looks at Chaplin’s place in today’s cinema and includes newly discovered home movie footage of Chaplin. Chaired by official Chaplin biographer David Robinson with guests including: Paul Merton, Serge Bromberg and Bryony Dixon.”

Laurel and Hardy Tales with Jean Darling
11.00 at Watershed
Jean Darling, who worked with Laurel and Hardy and starred in Hal Roach’s legendary Our Gang, is interviewed by David Wyatt.

Audience with Nicholas Parsons
14.00 at Watershed

Nicholas discusses his long career in radio and TV and his passion for Keaton and Chaplin, The Arthur Haynes show and Benny Hill. Hosted by Paul Merton.

Funny Ladies IV: Exit Smiling (USA 1926)
16.00 at Arnolfini

“Beatrice Lillie plays Violet, steering a path through a trail of accidents with dotty elegance and the same dogged faith that keeps the character blind to the real feelings of Jack Pickford, the troubled bank clerk her heart is set on.” Live musical accompaniment by Neil Brand, Gunter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.

Buster Keaton: His Classic Comedy Shorts
with Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden
20.00 at St George’s Bristol

“Former ‘Goodies’ and current I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue panellists Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden choose their favourite Keaton short films, revealing the works that have influenced their lives.” With live musical accompaniment from Neil Brand (piano) and Gunter Buchwald (percussion and violin).

Sunday 20 January

Silent Comedy and The Great War
with Paul McGann and Matthew Sweet
11.00 at Watershed

Paul McGann and Matthew Sweet look at extracts from films focusing on the First World War to examine the role of silent comedy in boosting morale. The programme includes extracts from The Better Ole (1926) and a complete screening of Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918).

Paul Merton’s French Silent Clowns
14.00 at Watershed

Festival host Paul Merton explores the work of great French silent comedy pioneers including Léonce Perret and ‘Father of Silent Comedy’ Max Linder.

Phill and Neil’s Slapstick Heaven
16.00 at Watershed

“Phill Jupitus and Neil Innes take us on a journey from silent comedy and beyond, discussing their influences and passions, looking along the way at extracts from The Rutles, Monty Python and the irrepressible Spike Milligan.”

Speedy (USA 1928)
Introduced by Paul Merton
20.30 at Watershed

Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, “a superb valedictory to the silent era”.

That’s a mightily impressive line-up of presenters, and they’ve managed to squeeze in a few good films too. Pleased to see Paul Merton turning his attentions to Léonce Perret and Max Linder. Perhaps he can be persuaded to resurrect Cretinetti, Bébé, Bout-de-Zan, Onésime and a few more of the ‘lost’ European slapstick stars one day…

Further details from the Slapstick site, which is a little confusing to navigate, but you’ll find the full programme under Events (sub-divided by day).

Slapstick, European-style – part 4

Slapstick Blog-a-Thon

We conclude our survey of European pre-WWI film comedy for the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon with a look at the comedy troupe, Les Pouics.

Les who? The Pouics are little known as a name now, but they were France’s version of the Keystone Cops – their predecessors, in fact, since the group was formed in 1910, two years before the Keystone company was created. They were formed by the director Jean Durand, who joined the Gaumont company in 1910 as its director of comedy films. He quickly established a troupe of comedy performers with the necessary talents to help feed the conveyer-belt system of one-reel film production, as audiences worldwide demanded their weekly dose of comedy. Les Pouics, or Les Pouites (‘bedbugs’), on occasion billed under this name, supplied a team of comedians with precise acrobatic and pantomimic skills, suitable for all occasions, and with more than a gift for chaos.

Onésime et le Dromadaire

Onésime et le dromadaire (1914)

We know the names of several of Les Pouics. Most notable at the time was Ernest Bourbon, who starred in Gaumont comedies 1912-14 as Onésime, films whose penchant for arresting absurdity (camels in living rooms) endeared him to the Surrealists. A Pouic who would work with the Surrealists directly was Gaston Modot. Just another member of the comic team when he first worked for Durand in 1910, Modot appeared in many Onésime and Calino films, before enjoying a notable acting career over many years, working for Abel Gance, René Clair, Marcel Carné (Les Enfants du Paradis), Jean Renoir (La Règle du Jeu) and Luis Buñuel in L’Age D’Or. Other Pouics included Clément Migé, already well-known as Calino, Lucien Bataille, who played the comic character Zigoto (1911-1912), Jeanne-Marie Laurent and Paulos.

Les Pouics were recruited from circus and music hall backgrounds, and specialised in organised mayhem, a wholesale onslaught upon normality. Things existed only that they might be destroyed. Some indication of their working methods can be found in a rare interview with veterans of the troupe reproduced in Georges Sadoul’s Historie Général du Cinéma (1951):

Jean Durand: The set was built on a platform, three metres high, supported by complicated arrangement of beams. On top of that we would build a salon, with sofas, piano, furniture, the whole lot. At a whistle, the stagehands would release the beams. The whole lot would collapse into the room built underneath.

Gaston Modot: Under the floor there would be a ceiling. The fellows and the furniture would crash through it. It was rather like playing water polo. Everyone marked his man. You would say: ‘I’ll take the wardrobe and you the sideboard, and you the seat with the old lady on it’.

Durand: In the salon there would usually be a very proper gentleman who had his top hat on. He would always get the piano. Of course there would be a few newspapers in the hat as protection.

Modot: And those great three-tier scafolds, like we built in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. We’d say, you fall in the mortar, me in the lime and him in the bucket. A motorbike would come and hurl the scafold in the air. We would all fall wherever we had to. It was quite natural for professionals.

Ah, those were the days, when all an actor had to protect him from a falling piano was a top hat with some newspaper stuffed into it.

There was much about Les Pouics that makes one think of the comedy troupe of lasting fame, the Keystone Cops, who created chaos not quite so violent but with the same love of mishap and logical absurdity. But in the fate of the two troupes we see summed up the two histories of slapstick comedy in Europe and America. The European (specifically the French and Italian) comedy of the pre-World War One era, with its roots in the circus, music halls and café concert, delighted audiences around the world but always had an air of the Old World about it. It satirised modernity but was simultaneously at a remove from it. It employed trick effects, magic, and fantasy, a cinema of attractions. The American comic models that were to succeed them, as the war destroyed much of the European companies’ traditional business, were slicker, faster, technically far more accomplished, and imbued with an irresistible flavour of the New World.

So there is a lost world charm about the European comedies of Max, Cretinetti, Onésime, Calino, Kri Kri, Bout-de-Zan, Bébé, Rosalie, Robinet, Little Moritz and Rigadin. Much of the happy spirit, the undying charm of early cinema can be found in their spirited productions, churned out professionally week after week. So many now are lost, just as their reputations have faded, but there are more than enough surviving titles lurking in the archives that really deserve to be brought away from the sole attentions of the specialist and taken to a wider audience. We would all gain a better sense of early film history. And we’d laugh our socks off as well.

This mini-series owes much to the researches of others, especially Richard Abel, Aldo Bernardini, Ivo Blom, David Robinson, and the catalogues of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Slapstick, European-style – part 2


The Bioscope is taking part in the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon, a four-day festival of blogging on the subject of slapstick. The Bioscope’s contribution is to cover the story of the European comedians of the early cinema period whose work is less familiar to most now, but who enjoyed huge popularity in their day.

Today we look at a particular phenomenon of the period, child comedians. Here are three of the most popular of the period, all appearing in French films.

Bébé apache

Clemént Mary (1905-1974) was the the most celebrated of the European child stars of the silent period. At the age of five he was employed by the French Gaumont studios to star in a series of comedies under the name of Bébé. Bébé was a cheeky, resourceful character who was invariably far smarter than the adult world around him. Indeed, the common gag in the Bébé films was to place the child in adult situations, evidenced in such titles as Bébé apache (1910), Bébé millionaire (1911) and Bébé candidat au mariage (1911). In the first of those, Bébé’s ability to capture the mannerisms of the Parisian apache, and to play these convincingly and with deft coming timing amid an adult cast is extraordinary. He also played occasional non-Bébé roles. In 1912, Louis Feuillade at Gaumont introduced a new child character into the films, Bout-de-Zan (see below), and won a court case against Mary’s father who had protested at the competition. The father won the right to keep using the Bébé name however, and they moved to Eclectic Films to continue the series until 1916. In adulthood, he changed his name to René Dary and enjoyed a successful career in film and television into the 1970s.

There’s information on Louis Feuillade, Bébé and Bout-de-Zan in the Pordenone catalogue for 2000

See some of his credits (only a small selection of the Bébé films is given) on the IMDB, under René Dary


René-Georges Poyen (1908-1968) was taken on by Gaumont in 1908 as a co-star and planned replacement for Bébé, and was given the character name of Bout-de-Zan. Greater comic emphasis was placed on Bout-de-Zan being an ‘adult’ figure, as he dressed like an adult, aped adult mannerisms, and was generally an earthier character than Bébé. He would also often giving knowing looks to the camera, making the audience complicit in his trickery. Bout-de-Zan films stand up as well today as those of Bébé, displaying a cleverness and an apparent delight in peformance which helps override concern one might have at the exploitation of such young children, making films week after week. Poyen also appeared in the Louis Feuillade serials Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916). The last Bout-de-Zan film was made in 1916, but Poyen carried on making films into the 1920s.

The Image Entertainment DVD of Les Vampires includes a 1916 Bout-de-Zan short, Bout-de-Zan et l’embusqué

Willy Sanders

Willy Sanders (or Saunders) (1905-?) was a British music hall prodigy who first appeared on film aged four as a boxer, flooring an adult opponent, in The Man to Beat Jack Johnson (1910). His popularity was sufficient that he was brought over to France to star in the Little Willy series for Eclair, with seventy or so titles being produced 1911-16. Little Willy never had the same appeal as some of the great French child performers, but the series was reliable knockabout fare of the time, with such titles as Willy professeur de skating (1911), Willy diplomate (1913) and Petit Willy soigne la neurasthénie de son oncle (1911). Willy returned to boxing in 1913 for Willy contre le bombardier Wells, where our hero defeats ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, the great British boxing hero of the time. He seems not to have had a film career beyond 1916.

Read about Willy in Andrew Horrall’s Popular Culture in London c.1890-1918, which features him on the front cover

Read about The Man to Beat Jack Johnson on Screenonline

There will be more on the Europeans tomorrow…

Sentiment and Sensation


The Museum of Modern Art in New York has an exhibition of posters for silent films, Sensation and Sentiment: Cinema Posters 1912–14. It runs May 23–August 27, 2007. The posters come from the renowned collection of Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet (1875–­1956), and advertise American, British, Danish, French, and Italian films dating from 1912 to 1914. The exhibition also has rare photographs documenting the earliest sites of film exhibition in the United States. The exhibition is accompanied by a related film series in July and August. The wonderful poster above for Bout-de-Zan et le crime au telephone (1914) is all that’s illustrated on the website, alas.

(Bout-de-Zan is the little boy in the picture. He was played by René Poyen (1908-1968), who portrayed the character, a child always distinctively dressed as an adult, in a string of short comedies made by Louis Feuillade for Gaumont)