Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers

The latest set of motion picture-related documents to be added to the Internet Archive by the Prelinger Library is the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. The SMPE (later the SMPTE i.e. Television was added to the name) was founded in 1916, and continues to this day as the “leading technical society for the motion imaging industry”. The Society’s journal, known know as SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, also goes back to 1916, and the Prelinger team have so far digitised the annual volumes 1930-1954, plus a volumes of synopses of papers published 1916-1930. They will carry on up to 1962 (also they won’t be digitising the pre-1930 volumes as they don’t have a complete set).

There are numerous classic papers relating to the silent cinema period, and not just those published before 1930. The various volumes come with indexes to aid searching, but here are some noteworthy papers:

  • Merritt Crawford, ‘Pioneer Experiment of Eugene Lauste in Recording Sound’, October 1931, Volume 17
  • Oscar B. Depue, ‘My First Fifty Years in Motion Pictures’, December 1947, Volume 49
  • W.K. Laurie Dickson, ‘A Brief History of the Kinetograph, the Kinetoscope and the Kineto-phonograph’, December 1933, Volume 21
  • Carl Gregory, ‘Early History of Motion Picture Cameras for Film Wider than 35-mm’, January 1930, Volume 14
  • Louis Lumière, ‘The Lumière cinematograph’, December 1936, Volume 27
  • Robert W. Paul, ‘Kinematographic Experiences’, November 1936, Volume 27
  • E. Kilburn Scott, ‘Career of L.A.A. LePrince’, July 1931, Volume 17

As usual, the individual volumes can be downloaded in DjVu, PDF and TXT formats.

Interview with Carl Davis

In anticipation of the screenings of the Chaplin Mutuals at the Cadogan Hall next week (as reported earlier), there’s a short interview with composer Carl Davis on the BBC News Online site:

“There’s a unity about the whole thing, some of it is very autobiographical. I wondered if I could put together a story if I wasn’t locked into doing them in the order in which he made them.”

The result is that the films will not be performed in chronological order but in an order “suggestive of Chaplin’s own life, like a miniature biography”.

Now that is intriguing. For those who want to test out Davis’ thesis, the order in which the films will be shown is: Easy Street, One A.M., The Immigrant, Behind the Screen, The Fireman, The Rink, The Pawn Shop, The Vagabond, The Cure, The Count, The Floor Walker, and The Adventurer.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Poems by Vachel Lindsay

It’s been a while since we had poetry on The Bioscope. So, to make up, here are three poems by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), who if not quite the poet laureate of the silent cinema was undoubtedly the poet at the time most drawn to the medium. For film historians, he may be best known as the author of The Art of the Motion Picture, a somewhat high-flown early stab at film theory, published in 1915 and still in print.

But Lindsay is best known for his poetry, with its jazz-inflected rhythms and contemporary themes. He wrote three poems on actresses who appeared in Biograph films before the First World War: Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh and Mary Pickford. “I am the one poet”, he wrote, “who wrote them songs when they were Biograph heroines, before their names were put on the screen, or the name of their director”. That’s probably not strictly true, since he had to know their names to be able to put them in the titles of the poems, but nevertheless the poems are at one with his treatment of the moving picture as an art form.

Anyway, here they are: one interesting, one quite good, and one a little nauseating.

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress
(After seeing the reel called “Oil and Water”)

Beauty has a throne-room
In our humorous town,
Spoiling its hob-goblins,
Laughing shadows down.
Rank musicians torture
Ragtime ballads vile,
But we walk serenely
Down the odorous aisle.
We forgive the squalor
And the boom and squeal
For the Great Queen flashes
From the moving reel.

Just a prim blonde stranger
In her early day,
Hiding brilliant weapons,
Too averse to play,
Then she burst upon us
Dancing through the night.
Oh, her maiden radiance,
Veils and roses white.
With new powers, yet cautious,
Not too smart or skilled,
That first flash of dancing
Wrought the thing she willed:-
Mobs of us made noble
By her strong desire,
By her white, uplifting,
Royal romance-fire.

Though the tin piano
Snarls its tango rude,
Though the chairs are shaky
And the dramas crude,
Solemn are her motions,
Stately are her wiles,
Filling oafs with wisdom,
Saving souls with smiles;
‘Mid the restless actors
She is rich and slow.
She will stand like marble,
She will pause and glow,
Though the film is twitching,
Keep a peaceful reign,
Ruler of her passion,
Ruler of our pain!

Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh, Motion Picture Actress


The arts are old, old as the stones
From which man carved the sphinx austere.
Deep are the days the old arts bring:
Ten thousand years of yesteryear.


She is madonna in an art
As wild and young as her sweet eyes:
A frail dew flower from this hot lamp
That is today’s divine surprise.

Despite raw lights and gloating mobs
She is not seared: a picture still:
Rare silk the fine director’s hand
May weave for magic if he will.

When ancient films have crumbled like
Papyrus rolls of Egypt’s day,
Let the dust speak: “Her pride was high,
All but the artist hid away:

“Kin to the myriad artist clan
Since time began, whose work is dear.”
The deep new ages come with her,
Tomorrow’s years of yesteryear.

Mary Pickford

To Mary Pickford: Moving-Picture Actress
(On hearing she was leaving the moving-pictures for the stage)

Mary Pickford, doll divine,
Year by year, and every day
At the moving-picture play,
You have been my valentine.

Once a free-limbed page in hose,
Baby-Rosalind in flower,
Cloakless, shrinking, in that hour
How our reverent passion rose,
How our fine desire you won.
Kitchen-wench another day,
Shapeless, wooden every way.
Next, a fairy from the sun.

Once you walked a grown-up strand
Fish-wife siren, full of lure,
Snaring with devices sure
Lads who murdered on the sand.
But on most days just a child
Dimpled as no grown-folk are,
Cold of kiss as some north star,
Violet from the valleys wild.
Snared as innocence must be,
Fleeing, prisoned, chained, half-dead –
At the end of tortures dread
Roaring Cowboys set you free.

Fly, O song, to her to-day,
Like a cowboy cross the land.
Snatch her from Belasco’s hand
And that prison called Broadway.

All the village swains await
One dear lily-girl demure,
Saucy, dancing, cold and pure,
Elf who must return in state.

To Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet were first published in The Congo and Other Poems (1914). Mae Marsh was first published in The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems (1917). The film Oil and Water was made in 1913. David Belasco was the theatre impresario who discovered Gladys Smith and gave her the stage name Mary Pickford.

Downing Street posts silents

Who’d have thought it? Downing Street is posting silent films on YouTube. It’s true. DowningSt is a registered YouTube member and has posted some 50-60 videos on YouTube, including a selection of Topical Budget silent newsreels from the collection held by the British Film Institute. This one shows Conservative PM Andrew Bonar Law (not one of the more celebrated British prime ministers) introducing his new cabinet to the newsreel cameras in 1922 – absolutely fascinating for the differing reactions from the ministers to this unprecedented intrusion from the media. (Adding comments has been disabled, by the way, should you have wished to express your rage – or heartfelt approval – at Bonar Law’s handling of the economy in 1922).

Others available from DowningSt on YouTube include MR BALDWIN AND ‘OLD BERKELEY’ (Stanley Baldwin with a hunt), NOW FOR THE PREMIERSHIP STAKES! (Baldwin electioneering), and LLOYD GEORGE RESIGNS (the fall of the Lloyd George Liberal government in 1922). I’m particularly fond of a 1921 Topical Budget film showing Lloyd George at Chequers in 1921, DOWNING ST IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, deftly filmed by Fred Wilson (in the dim and distant past I wrote a book on Topical Budget, and I’m always pleased to see it getting continued screenings). There was a real art to the best of the silent newsreels, as for any other kind of silent film production.

One oddity – all of the Topical Budget items posted by DowningSt are without a soundtrack, yet three of them come from the 1992 BFI Topical Budget video release, which had excellent music by Neil Brand. Shame.

Moving Pictures

Oh to be in Washington, as this exhibition sounds excellent. Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film is running 17 February-20 May at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009. As the blurb says, “This exhibition will present American realist painting from the late 19th and early 20th centuries side-by-side with the earliest experiments in film. Approximately 100 works, including nearly 60 short films (a few minutes long) by Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and the Cinémathèque Française, along with works by American masters such as George Bellows, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan, will provide a new context for looking at the artists’ choice and presentation of subject matter. For the first time, film will be fully integrated into the history of American art.”

The connection between art and early film is a fascinating subject that needs to be explored more. The work of chronophotographers like Eadweard Muybridge, trying to capture reality through sequence photography, had a particular fascination for realist artists like Frederic Remington, whose paintings of horses must be seen in the light of Muybridge’s famous achievement of photographing a galloping horse. And then the emergence of moving pictures themselves provided an extra challenge for artists who had already had to face up to photography, provoking them into new ways of expression. The early filmmakers were the first surrealists!

A view of life

Why call this site The Bioscope? Well, the Bioscope was the name of a camera and a projector (both a brand name and generic), it was the name for fairground film shows and for early cinemas (it still is the name for a cinema in South Africa), and it was the name of a British film trade journal. So it covers the taking, projecting, exhibiting and documentation of early film. There are several other uses of the word, and I’m starting up a Bioscope category to trace the etymology, usage and meanings of the word.

So, to begin at the beginning: Bioscope. The word is constructed from the Greek (bios, life; skopeein, to look at), and the Oxford English Dictionary gives its traditional definition as ‘a view of life or survey of life’. The word was coined by Granville Penn in his 1812 Christian tract The Bioscope, or Dial of Life. Penn’s book included a separate card on which was illustrated a dial marked from nought to seventy, marking the ages of man from childhood to decay in decades, with eternity waiting before and after. A pointer was attached for the reader to mark out his current age, and hence to contemplate the lessons in Penn’s book on the allotted span of human life and to avoid the belief ‘that life is a continuous now’. This dial was the Bioscope, and just as a horoscope was a measure of the heavens at the hour of birth, so the Bioscope was the ‘general measure of human life’.

Meanings a-plenty already.

Crime and deviancy

The British Silent Cinema Festival is now in its 10th year. The festival is held at the Broadway, Nottingham, and is a ‘celebration’ of British cinema before 1930, organised in collaboration with the British Film Institute. The Festival aims to showcase the vast collection of films, fiction and non fiction, produced in Britain before the advent of sound. This year’s theme is Underworld: Crime and Deviancy in the British Silent Film. The call for papers is now closed. The Festival is taking place 26-29 April 2007.