Diaries of a working man

As regular readers will know, I’m very interested in testimony of the film-going experience in the silent era. I’ve done a lot of research into the experience of cinema audiences in London before the First World War, using memoirs and oral history recordings, but what is really precious is original testimony from the time. For this, we have to turn to letters and diaries.

Alexander Goodall diaries

Needless to say, references to film and the cinema-going experience in these is hard to track down. But not impossible, and there are some precious examples to be found online. I’ll be posting assorted examples of these, as I find them, and I’ll start off with the diaries of Alexander Goodall (1874-1901). Goodall was a post office clerk in Western Australia, who died sadly young of tuberculosis. He kept up a diary from the age of seventeen, which he illustrated with delightful drawings as well as observant comments on the passing scene. The diaries are held by the State Library of Victoria, and have been published in facsimile form online by Pandora, Australia’s web archive.

Goodall took a sharp interest in the scientific developments of his day, and the diaries record his encounter with the Edison Kinetoscope (1 July 1895), the Edison Kinetophone – a combination of Kinetoscope peepshow and Phonograph music – which he calls the Phonoscope (2 July 1896) and the Cinematograph (3 May 1897).

To transcribe the short texts would be to spoil the visual effect. The picture above gives you some idea of the diaries, but you should follow the links to see them in their full glory.

More diaries in the near future.

The Origins of Asian Cinema

Silent cinema was, of course, a worldwide phenomenon, and some good work has been done in recent years to move early film historiography away from Western Europe and America to reach each corner of the globe that the medium touched.

The Bioscope will endeavour to follow suit, so it is a pleasure to have this conference report from Stephen Bottomore on the recent Origins of Asian Cinema conference, held at Osian’s, New Delhi, 21-22 July.

The conference began with welcome remarks by Aruna Vasudev, Festival President. Nick Deocampo, Conference Convener then laid down the conference theme, discussing its concerns and introducing the panel discussants. The themes of what followed included: the arrival of motion pictures and early film conditions in Asia; early filmic practices; Western and native film
pioneers; Asian cinema’s ‘founding fathers’; early cinema’s resonance in Asia and the relevance of its history and practices to Asians; the role of archives and festivals in writing film history; and how Asians indigenised the foreign medium.

The list of participants included the following:


Charles Musser (USA); Stephen Bottomore (UK); Nick Deocampo (Philippines); Kim So-Young (South Korea); there was also a presentation on early Turkish cinema.


Bel Capul (Philippines); Tan Bee Thiam (Singapore); Ashley Ratnavibhushana (Sri Lanka).


Peggy Chiao (Taiwan); P.K. Nair (India); Tadao Sato (Japan); Earl Jackson (Korea); Budi Irawanto (Indonesia).


Hassan Abd. Muthalib (Malaysia); Anchalee Chaiworaporn (Thailand); Ngo Phuong Lan (Vietnam); Houshang Golmakani (Iran); Zakir Hussain Raju (Bangladesh).

Perhaps the single most useful paper was Deocampo’s which offered an overview of the origins of cinema in Asia, stressing the colonial context in many countries at the time. Most other presentations, if they were of a historical nature, consisted of a general introduction to that country’s early film history. Exceptions included Bottomore on the early travelogue maker, Burton Holmes; Musser on the importance of national filmmaking in the Philippines, notably in 1912; and Chaiworaporn on the importance of royalty in the origins of Thai cinema. The session on archives and festivals included some of the most dynamic presentations, and this suggested that there is new life in film archiving in Asia and a desire to celebrate the region’s moving image history.

Particularly interesting moments for me included:

  • the description of a socially-critical article published in Korea in 1901, in which the author used cinema as an example of vibrancy, in contrast to the sloth of real people;
  • a description by the Thai monarch of a Kinetoscope film seen in one of Edison’s machines in Singapore in 1896: of a cockfight. This would be one of the first appearances of these peepshow machines in Asia (the very first was probably in Calcutta in the winter of 1895/96);
  • the chance to hear veteran scholars, P.K. Nair and Tadao Sato, give succinct summaries of their countries’ early film history.

This was the second meeting on this theme of early cinema in Asia: a previous conference was held a couple of years ago in the Philippines. It is planned to publish a volume of essays on this theme, some of which will be based on these conference presentations.

Grateful thanks to Stephen for the report, which gives evidence of vital and enthusiastic activity in the writing of Asian early film history, and I certainly look forward to seeing the volume of essays. Osian’s, by the way, is a new arts institution in Delhi, which combines auction house, film centre, art fund and a Centre for Archiving, Research & Documentation.

Friendly shadows


The Teleshadow, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news

Shadow puppets were an ancient precursor of our motion pictures on a screen, The Chinese word for cinema, ‘Dianying’, translates as ‘Electric Shadows’, and the word ‘shadows’ is common as a metaphor for film.

So there is something rather pleasing and appropriate about the BBC News Online report on the Teleshadow, a Japanese invention which sends video images of your friends to you in shadow form, so you can keep up with what they are doing in a ‘non-intrusive’ way. The idea is based both on the paper walls that once characterised Japanese interiors, and the lamp with rotating shadows which can be found in Western stores.

There is a projector at the base of the lamp which takes in a feed from a projector, which is trained on the person with whom you wish to stay in visual contact. It is also stressed that the Teleshadow preserves privacy by keeping details of whatever the subject may be doing on the indistinct side.

Hard to say if might catch on, but it is a charming creation, and a step back from the world of social networking through video to the graceful creations of a pre-cinema age.

The Other Weimar

Sacile Film Fair

Too hot to think, let alone write much at the moment, but here’s some further news about the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

The main film season is to be The Other Weimar (L’altra Weimer), a season of less familiar German silents, curated by Hans-Michael Bock of CineGraph, Hamburg. This is the line-up of directors and titles (a provisional list):

Ludwig Berger (1892-1969)

Hans Behrendt (1889-?1942)
DIE HOSE (1927)

Ewald Andre Dupont (1881-1956)

Richard Eichberg (1888-1963)

Henrik Galeen (1888-1949)

Gerhard Lamprecht (1897-1974)

Max Mack (1884-1973)

Joe May (1880-1954)

Richard Oswald (1880-1963)

Harry Piel (1892-1963)
RIVALEN (1923)

Arthur Robison (1883-1935)

Reinhold Schünzel (1888-1954)

Hams Steinhoff (1882-1945)

Erich Waschneck (1887-1970)

A little better-known is the closing gala film on 13 October, G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora). The other special event films over the week are Orphans of the Storm (David W. Griffith, 1921), Entr’acte (René Clair, 1924), Paris qui dort (René Clair, 1923-1925) and Chicago (Frank Urson, 1927). Other strands in the festival include René Clair, the Griffith Project, Sponsored Films, The Corrick Collections, The Bible Lands in 1897, Jean Darling and Our Gang, and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures III.

Just to recap, the festival takes places in Pordenone, after some years spent at nearby Sacile, and runs 6-13 October. An outline programme is available on the festival site. Regular attendees should by now have received their e-mail giving registrations details (30 euros), plus travel and accommodation information. More information on registration etc is available from the site. The Film Fair, selling books, journals, collectables, DVDs and videos, is back once more in the church of San Francesco. The picture above, from the Pordenone site, shows Fay Wray visiting the Film Fair in 1999 (when it was at Sacile). Festival director David Robinson stands just behind her.

Films from 1907 at Il Cinema Ritrovato


The Bioscope has its reporters everywhere (well, sort of), and Frank Kessler has very kindly provided a report on the films from 1907 strand which featured at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival at Bologna. Here’s Frank’s report:

For the fifth time now, the Bologna Cinema Ritrovato festival has dedicated part of its program to films that are a hundred years old. Starting in 2003 to celebrate so to speak the centenary of Edwin S. Porter‘s The Great Train Robbery, this section of the program has offered many interesting insights into early film history, and also led to numerous fascinating discoveries. Due to the increasing lengths of the films to be shown, the 1907 programs occupied a larger proportion of the festival screenings than the ones projected in the previous years.

Mariann Lewinsky, who is responsible for the “100 Years Ago”-section, always tries to go off the beaten tracks, both in her selection and her programming strategies. Thus every time she chooses different angles to present also her personal view on a year of early filmmaking. Obviously, there are always practical factors to be considered, such as the availability of films, the quality of the prints etc. So, as Mariann Lewinsky explained, the fact that the 1907 retrospective was made up of mainly European films was due to such pragmatic reasons. (The 1905 program, by the way, was a very complicated one to put together as 1905 used to be – and possibly still is – the default date attributed by many archives to non-identified early films.)

All in all there were nine 1907 screenings, divided into two groups: the first one consisted of five programs dedicated to Bologna 1907 (films shown in Bologna from June 30th to July 7th, 1907, that is during the period of the festival itself, a hundred years ago), Pathé 1907, Italy 1907, Great Britain 1907 (productions by Hepworth, Urban and Mitchell & Kenyon) as well as films from the Abbé Joye Collection; the second one was organised thematically around topics such as ‘drama’, ‘actuality’, ‘at the seaside’, ‘au music-hall’, ‘colours – costume’ etc, as well as a series of films with Max Linder.

These rich and diverse programs allowed many discoveries. A favourite of mine was the 1907 Pathé film Le petit Jules Verne by Gaston Velle which, to my knowledge, is a unique case of combining explicitly the adventurous and scientific-technical universe of the well-known French author with the magical world of the féerie genre, embedding the latter in a Little Nemo-like dream sequence.

For more on Il Cinema Ritrovato do have a look at David Bordwell’s and Kristin Thompson’s blog.

Further details of the 1907 films show can be found on the Bologna festival site.

Dr Plonk

Dr Plonk

Next month sees the release of Dr Plonk, a modern silent comedy written, produced and directed by Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer (who previously gave the world the film Bad Boy Bubby). It sounds rather engaging. Here’s the synopsis from the official site:

It is the great year of 1907. Dr Plonk, eminent scientist and inventor, calculates that the world will end in exactly 101 years unless immediate action is taken. As befalls visionaries through the ages, Plonk is ridiculed for his beliefs, by politicians, by bureaucrats, even by his faithful manservant Paulus. Being the lateral thinker that he is, Plonk invents a time machine and sets out to collect the necessary proof from the very future that’s ending.

But little about the year of 2007 makes sense to the intrepid doctor. His efforts to alert the appropriate authorities cause him to fall foul of the law and become a hunted man. With the nation’s entire law-enforcement system arrayed against him, a scientific question is posed … can Dr Plonk run fast enough?

According to the director, he made the black-and-white film out of 20,000 feet of unexposed stock that he found in a refrigerator. There’s a QuickTime trailer on the site which indicates that de Heer has seen a lot of Sennett comedies (the lead character looks very much like Ford Sterling) and absorbed the lessons well. There is apparently a strong element of contemporary social satire, with Dr Plonk being mistaken for a terrorist when he visits the madcap world of 2007. The film stars Magda Szubanski, Nigel Lunghi, Paul Blackwell and Reg the dog. It comes with its own music, played by the Stiletto Sisters (violin, piano accordion, double bass) and pianist Samantha White. And it runs for 86 mins.

The film will be released in Australia at the end of August.

No sale for Chaplin

The much-trailed auction at Christies of a Bell & Howell 2709 camera used by Charlie Chaplin resulted in no sale. The price had been put at £70,000-£90,000. The camera was one of four 2709 models used at the Chaplin studios. It was purchased in 1918 and used by Chaplin throughout the 1920s.

Despite the no sale, The Bioscope had one of its reporters on the spot, who returned with some fine pictures. Here’s a close view of the camera mechanism:

Chaplin camera

And here’s a marvellous Chaplin’s-point-of-view shot of the eyepiece:

Chaplin camera

As already reported, the camera sale of which the Chaplin camera was a part is rumoured to have been Christie’s last, the collector’s market not being what it once was. Which is sad, if it means that their glamour is fading. Not that I can usually tell one box from another – I can just about manage to spot a Bell & Howell, given the ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ look of the twin magazines, but thereafter I tend to get a bit stumped. So, don’t ask me which is which among this selection of boxes, which is one for the cognoscenti:


And, finally, something I can recognise, even without its box, though only because the name is somewhat prominently displayed – an Urban Bioscope, such as graces the header of this blog:

Urban Bioscope

With many thanks to Christian Hayes for the photographs.

Iamhist conference report


Iamhist (International Association for Media and History) is an organisation of filmmakers, broadcasters, archivists and scholars dedicated to historical inquiry into film, radio, television, and related media. It publishes the widely-respected Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and organises biennial conferences. This year’s was held in Amsterdam 18-21 July, on the theme Media and Imperialism: Press, Photography, Film, Radio and Television in the Era of Modern Imperialism. There were several papers given on silent film subjects, and the Bioscope was there with pen and notebook.

A number of the best papers were given on media outside Iamhist’s usual frame of reference. Pascal Lefèvre spoke lucidly and informatively on Imperialist images in French and Belgian children’s broadsheets of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, finding arguably positive or some downright critical images that differed from the usual Western view of African peoples at this time. Andrew Francis was equally entertaining and observant in talking about the use of pro-Empire imagery in New Zealand newspaper advertising during the First World War.

On silent films themselves, James Burns spoke on the distribution (or lack of distribution) of the films of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910 and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1914 to black audiences in Africa and the Caribbean. The Johnson-Jeffries film (the black Johnson defeated ‘white hope’ Jeffries for the world heavyweight title) is well-known for how its images of a black victory alarmed many in America, though Burns pointed out that films of Johnson’s earlier victories over white opponents had not aroused anything like the same rabid reaction. He also pointed out that Birth of a Nation was not exhibited in Africa (until 1931), yet no evidence has yet been found to show why it was withheld. Burns’ has done excellent work on film and black African audiences (see his Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe), and his new research promises much, even if evidence of black audience reactions (outside the USA) remain elusive.

Simon Popple spoke on films of the Anglo-Boer War, focussing on the dramatised scenes of the conflict produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company. M&K are now renowed for their actuality films of life in Northern England in the Edwardian era, after the successful BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, but they also made dramas, recreating melodramatic scenes from the South African war to feed a public appetite for moving picture scenes of the war which had been disappointed by undramatic newsfilms of the conflict. These crudely histrionic dramas, with titles such as Shelling the Red Cross, A Sneaky Boer, and Hands Off the Flag, raise a laugh now, but presumably had them cheering in the aisles in 1900.

With the unavoidable but unfortunate practice of parallel sessions so that as many speakers as possible can be crammed in, no one could attend everything, and I missed some relevant papers, including Teresa Castro on ‘Imperialism and Early Cinema’s Mapping Impulse’ and Yvonne Zimmermann on ‘Swiss Corporate films 1910-1960’. Too few witnessed Guido Convents‘ excellent presentation on the huge production of Belgian colonial films, from the early years of the century onwards, all designed to remind the world and audiences at home that Belgian had a presence in Africa and an Imperial role to play. He also showed a heartbreaking film of the difficulties faced by the Congo film archive, which put into perspective some of the institutional troubles faced by the world’s larger film archives, described by Ray Edmondson in a plenary session. Edmondson nevertheless made an eloquent case for the ways in which some film archives have come under threat through insensitive political fashions and institutional follies. Archives seem hampered by being archives: politicians do not grasp what it is that they are about in the same way that they do with museums, a far more generously funded sector with a considerably greater public profile.

And there was more. Martin Loiperdinger showed magic lantern slides of British Empire subjects from the nineteenth century and considered their impact upon audiences. Kay Gladstone of the Imperial War Museum showed a two-hour selection of films from its amazing archive for the two world wars (and more), including a live action political ‘cartoon’ from the Anglo-Boer War, and images of Colonial troops in the First World War, though what left the audience stunned was silent, colour home movie footage of India at the time of partition in 1947, showing scenes of the misery caused that the newsreels of the time scrupulously avoided. And there was plenty on post-silent subjects, and me thrilling a small audience with a disquisition on databases and the misuse of thesauri and keywording in describing Imperial and Colonial themes. You should have been there…

These conferences are curious affairs. They are an excellent meeting place and a good way to catch up on the latest ideas, but you do also sit through some truly grim presentations – mumbled monotones, heads bowed down reading from indigestible text, oblivious to the needs of an audience. How some people can still continue to draw salaries as lecturers beats me – you do pity their poor students. And then there are the natural entertainers, who know their audience as well as their subject, and can speak wisely and clearly, in whatever time allotted. It was a well-organised event, the sun shone, the pavement cafés were inviting, and the coffee was fine. I’ll be following up some of the themes (especially silent cinema in Africa) in future posts.

The West in Early Cinema

The West in Early Cinema


The Bioscope returns from Amsterdam, and will regale you with a report on the Iamhist conference tomorrow. Meanwhile, thinking of that city, there’s a new publication from Amsterdam University Press which looks interesting. Nanna Verheoff’s The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning is an investigation of the emergence of the Western as a genre in the first two decades of cinema (i.e. to 1915). The author analyses Western films, many of them little known, from archives across the world, tracing the relationships between films about the American West, and other popular media such as photography, painting, popular literature, Wild West shows and popular ethnography, as well as other popular films. Great cover too. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”.

A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland

The White Goddess of the Wangora

There was a curious sub-genre of silent films which combined exploration with drama. The enthusiasm that there was at the time for exploration films from Africa, South America, Australasia etc, led a number of these ‘explorer’s to make dramatic films, often with ‘native’ performers, which sought to sugar the pill of discovery and anthropology with human interest for the general cinema audience.

Frank Hurley, peerless cinematographer of the Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica, in the 1920s made dramatised films of life in the Southern seas, The Hound of the Deep aka Pearl of the South Seas (1926) and The Jungle Woman (1926), set in New Guinea. British director M.A. Wetherell made Livingstone (1923) in Africa and Robinson Crusoe (1927) in Tobago. Geofrey Barkas made Palaver (1926) in Nigeria. And of course the Americans Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack made Chang (1927) in Siam and Robert Flaherty made Moana (1925) in Samoa. All were curious mixes of idealism and colonialism, documentary and drama.

One of the earliest such examples must be The White Goddess of the Wangora (Die weiße Göttin der Wangora). This was made in Togo in 1913/14 by the German explorer and sometime big game hunter Major Hans Schomburgk, and starred his future wife, Meg Gehrts. The reason for this post is that her book on the experience of making this film, along with other dramas and a number of documentaries, is available from the Internet Archive. It has the grand title, A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland (1915).

The White Goddess of the Wangora

Schomburgk, famed for having discovered and captured the pygmy hippopotamus, had made an earlier filming trip to Liberia and Togo, where his negative stock was ruined and the cameraman let him down. A little wiser the second time around, he returned with the intention of making a series of dramas and documentaries of life in Togo, with a white actress in tow to act as the main draw for Western audiences. Obviously he hoped for profits which would offset the expense of the expedition. The White Goddess of Wangora told of a white child washed up on the shore of Togoland, and brought up by the local peoples as a kind of goddess. Years pass. A white hunter (Schomburgk) is captured by the tribe and sentenced to be put to death, but she has fallen in love with him. They escape, an exciting chase ensues, they get away, they live happily ever after.

The book is fascinating in detail, patronising towards the ‘savages’ they work with, but also filled with sympathetic observations, particularly on the drudgery experienced by the Togo women. It also tells us much about the indignities and privations the filmmakers suffered. Four dramatic films were produced in all: The White Goddess of the Wangora, Odd Man Out, The Outlaw of the Sudu Mountains and The Heroes of Paratau. They also made travel and industrial films. All, so far as I am aware, are now lost. It is an observant text, with plenty of interest if you can steer around the period attitudes, and it is well illustrated.

You can find a list of film credits for Hans Schomburgk on the excellent German film encyclopedia www.filmportal.de and, unexpectedly, on Stanford University’s Infolab.

The British cameraman who went with them was James S. Hodgson, who went on to enjoy a long and notable career in newsreels, eventually ending up working for The March of Time in the 1930s. You can read his biography on the British Universities Newsreel Database.