Things may be a little quieter from The Bioscope for the next few days, as I’ve broken a bone in my thumb, and typing has become rather slow process.

So, to mark my falling over and crashing into a glass-fronted picture, from which I have learned that pratfalls hurt in real life, here’s a short item on slapstick.

First of all, a slapstick was a jointed piece of wood used in harlequinades and minstrel acts to make a slapping noise. If you are in a UK educational institution or library, you can see one in use in an 1899 film of seaside entertainers E. Williams and his Merry Men at Rhyl, filmed by Arthur Cheetham and available from Screenonline.

For slapstick comedians themselves, start off with David B. Pearson’s excellent site, which incorporates several web sites on silent comedy stars, one of which is Slapstick. This has MP4 movie files of Charlies Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon, and Max Linder. They are clips, not complete films, but they capture the artistry of falling with style perfectly.

Or look further at the individuals by visiting, Arbucklemania, Harold Lloyd, Madcap Mabel, The Harry Langdon Society or Chaplin.

On the latter, check out the Chapliniana web site, about the festival of all things Chaplin which is currently running in Bologna. The site looks great, but is only in Italian. Or check out the very helpful Charlie Chaplin UK DVD and Video Guide.

Or, if you are in the US, check out Kino range of slapstick DVDs including the encyclopedic Slaptick Symposium DVD collection – 1264 minutes of Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Charley Chase and Harold Lloyd.

And, of course, between 19-22 July, at Arlington, Virginia, there’s the Slapsticon festival, with Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon, Harold Lloyd Larry Semon, Mabel Normand, Leon Errol, Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, Billy Bevan, Monty Banks, Max Davidson, Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery…

And, thinking laterally about these things, here’s some recipes for making custard pie.

Why not read Simon Louvish’s, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett, about the cinema’s prime producer of comic mayhem.

Finally, plenty of people visit this site loking for dates of Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns shows this autumn, and the main post on this is updated as I find new tour dates. Merton’s book, Silent Comedy, will be published in October.

Anyone spot the self-referential gag in the picture?



Those good people at the British Film Institute have just released a DVD of Borderline (1930). This little-known British avant garde silent (now’s there’s an unusual combination of words) was made by the POOL collective of intellectuals, including Kenneth Macpherson (the film’s director), Winifred Bryher, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Robert Herring, who were also behind the influential film journal Close-up. But what is most interesting to us now about Borderline is that it stars Paul Robeson, who had just moved to Britain and would later star in several British films in the 1930s. The story revolves around an inter-racial love triangle, made up Robeson’s wife Eslanda, Gavin Arthur and H.D., but it is experimental method attempting to denote states of mind which is so distinctive. As Michael Brooke says in Sight and Sound:

Much of the film is invested with an often inexplicable tension, with regular explosions into rapidly cut torrents of images that reach a frenzy during the more emotionally charged scenes. But it also has quiter, lyrical moments, mostly invoving Robeson, shot from below against Swiss skies and lit as though sculpted in bronze. Whether the film ultimately ‘works’ depends on one’s individual perception, but it’s certainly a unique historical oddity.

Which is sort of how I remember it from a viewing many years ago now. The BFI release has a score by Courtney Pine, background documentaries on Macpherson and co., and booklet.

Borderline also turns up on a four-disc Robeson set from Criterion, released in America. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist features Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1924), Borderline (which uses the BFI print and Courtney Pine score), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), my great favourite among his films The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942). There are also clips from Big Fella, King Solomon’s Mines and Song of Freedom.

The Dawn of Colour

Janet and Iris Laing c.1910

The National Media Museum’s exhibition The Dawn of Colour: Celebrating the Centenary of the Autochrome opened today. The exhibition is sponsored by N.M. Rothschild & Sons, Lionel de Rothschild (1882-1942) having been an enthusiastic Autochome photographer, 700 of whose Autochromes are held by the Rothschild Archive.

The web site is beautiful to look at, with numerous examples of Autochromes and some welcome biographies of the photographers. It is good too on the technical details, with some downloadable PDFs including a 1908 instruction booklet. And the exhibition book, on the Rothschild collection, promises to be a treasure. There’s also information on Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of the Autochrome process as well as the inventors of the Cinématographe.

OK, that’s enough posts on colour photography. Back to the cinema…

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)

Stephen Bottomore’s The Origins of the War Film

On Thursday 24th May, at 16.15, Stephen Bottomore defends his PhD dissertation Filming, Faking and Propaganda: The Origins of the War Film 1897-1902 at Utrecht University. The thesis deals with the challenges early filmmakers had to face when trying to represent military action at a time when warfare itself changed drastically: no more the heroic charges and clearly defined battlefields. And very soon, officials took measures to regulate and censor reporting. Stephen Bottomore discusses the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the battle of Omdurman (1898), the Spanish-American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Uprising (1900). With regard to factual filmmaking, the thesis describes the ongoing professionalisation of war reporting, where one encounters adventurous amateurs, embedded journalists, freelance photographers and finally trained and experienced cameramen sent abroad by production companies. Another aspect of war-related imagery that is discussed extensively are “representations”, or fakes, ranging from rather blunt attempts to sell staged pictures as “the real thing” to emphatically stylized allegorical scenes. It is amazing to see how in such a short period new kinds of representational strategies, ways of filmmaking, and forms of exhibition emerged. Stephen Bottomore presents an extraordinary wealth of documents, this is most certainly the most thorough exploration of the subject to date.

On Friday 25th May, a workshop will be organised by the Onderzoeksinstituut voor Geschiedenis en Cultuur (OGC) and the Department of Media and Cultural Studies, Utrecht University: Controlling Early Cinema in Times of War, speakers being Stephen Bottomore (UU), Karel Dibbets (UvA), Nicholas Hiley (University of Kent, Canterbury) and Sabine Lenk (Filmmuseum Düsseldorf).

The regional dimension in early cinema

Domitor logo

The theme and dates for the 10th Domitor conference have been anounced. The Regional Dimension in Early Cinema will take place 17-21 June 2008 at Perpignan, France and Girona, Spain (they say Catalonia). The notice on the Domitor site reads like a draft, but what they are looking for is described thus:

Possible contributions could deal with production modes, studies concerning distribution and exploitation in a micro-historical context, as well as studies on the representation of regional aspects in film. However, the regional dimension should be the major theme, and not a mere pretext.

The official languages will be English, French and Catalan. There’s a rough outline of the conference, which will be in Girona for the first three days before hopping across the border to Perpignan for the rest, but no call for papers as yet.

Domitor is an international organisation dedicated to the study of early cinema, defined as cinema in all its aspects to 1915. ‘Domitor’ was the name suggested to the Lumière brothers by their father Antoine to give to their invention, before they decided that Cinématographe sounded a little classier. Hard to imagine that we all might have ended up going to see the movies at the local domitor…

Also, Domitor has a yearly graduate student writing award (see link to Word document at the bottom of their page), for any subject on cinema before 1915, with a prize of $500. Fascinatingly, you don’t have to be a member of Domitor to submit an essay, but you do need to be a member if you want to collect your prize. The deadline is 1 August 2007.