The Silent Worker

Granville Redmond and Charlies Chaplin

Granville Redmond and Charlie Chaplin

While preparing a post on the digitisation of newspaper collections (which you’ll receive some other time), I came across one journal of such particular interest that it had to have a post to itself.

The Silent Worker was a popular American journal for the deaf, published between 1888 and 1929. Most of the articles were written by hearing-impaired authors. The entire run of the journal has been digitised by Gallaudet University Library. If you go to the search options, and click on subjects, you will find 70 articles on ‘Movies and Deaf’.

I don’t know if there has been much in the way of studies made of the relationship between deafness and silent cinema, though the Chicago Institute for the Moving Image has a Festival for Cinema of the Deaf which has included silent films, and in 1891 the pre-cinema pioneer Georges Demenÿ famously used a proto-moving image camera to show someone mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ as a demonstration of how moving images might aid deaf mutes in learning to speak. And there are many anecdotes of deaf lip-readers discovering the fruity language spoken in films like What Price Glory? which had escaped the eye of the censors. And it has been argued that Lon Chaney’s particular acting gifts came in part through both his parents being deaf.

The Silent Worker reveals a rich world where deaf audiences, and deaf creative talents, engage with the silent picture. For example, an article entitled ‘Cinema and “Signs”‘ (October 1916) compares the art of pantomime with that of the silent screen, with particular reference to Billy Merson and Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin gets many mentions, and there is an engrossing piece, ‘Moving Pictures and the Deaf’ (June 1918) by Alice T. Terry (not the actress Alice Terry), who describes a visit to Hollywood and the Chaplin Studios, where she encounters Granville Redmond (illustrated above with Chaplin), a painter and deaf-mute, who acted in A Dog’s Life and The Kid. Chaplin is revealed to have been notably accommodating towards the deaf (has anyone written on this?). Her opinions are full of interest:

Unlike the spoken drama, the deaf can enjoy moving pictures as much as the hearing do. Some may say that the deaf lose, as they do not hear the music that acompanies the pictures. But I do not think we lose; there are various ways in which we are compensated but the hearing would hardly understand if we tried to explain. For myself I hate the noisy show, that is where some struggle or a battle is going on with its accompanying loud imitation battle din. To me the vibrations are a continuous, growling thunder – or worse than that – which sickens me soul and body. In fact most all musical vibrations irritate me. But by many of the deaf I know that the vibrations are enjoyed, especially by those with some remnant of hearing.

She also has trenchant opinions on D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation “worked a great injury to the colored race”. Elsewhere, there are reports on the production of films for the deaf, including a Professor G.W. Jones who filmed speeches from Shakespeare.

One article, ‘Preserving a Famous Film’ sounds remarkably archival for April 1912, though its subject is actually the preservation on film of notable practitioners of sign language. The are also reports on Helen Keller, who starred as herself in a dramatised film of her life in 1919, entitled Deliverance (her teacher Annie Sullivan also appeared in the film).

That’s what I’ve gleaned through a quick inspection, and clearly there much more that could be unearthed. Here’s some last words, written by Alexander L. Pach, for the October 1919 issue:

We deaf people must thank the screen-art for the one biggest offset to our infirmity. Good pictures and by good pictures I mean the kind that educate and elevate, are the levers that lift us from the deadly dullness and monotony of total deafness, to the highest pinnacles of delight. They restore our hearing as nothing else does. We know every word that is spoken as well as the hearing do, for they are all projected on the screen. We only miss the music, and this is such a slight loss it doesn’t count … All the best plays of the spoken stage that have delighted millions of hearing people find their way to “Screenland”, and such big hits as “Common Clay”, “Daddy Long-legs”, “The Thirteenth Chair”, “Secret Service” etc. etc., are ours through this media. An evening at a good picture house now means one of those hits of the drama; a News-Weekly that has the whole world for its field … a more or less “funny” picture that makes us laugh whether we want to or not and then Burton Holmes shows us the people, the customs and the homes of some far away denizens of the other side of the earth. After an evening of delightful entertainment of this order one may go home utterly forgetful of the fact that an important sense is missing. He has come away refreshed. The tedium of the every day work of store, office of factory has been relieved in great measure, and we feel it’s a bully good little world after all …

There are such treasures to be found on the web. Let’s all keep on looking.


Marvel Rea, Ford Sterling and Alice Maison

The above image shows Marvel Rea (left), Ford Sterling and Alice Maison in a Mack Sennett Studios publicity photograph c.1919. It’s just been published on one of my favoutie sites, Shorpy, which describes itself as the “100-year-old photo blog”. Essentially it’s a collection of random photographic images from bygone ages (many of them more recent than 100 years ago), derived from a wide variety of sources (contributed by users), and posted simply for love of the beauty of old photographs. It hasn’t much to do with silent cinema, except for the occasional image like this, but it’s a sister art and many of the images inhabit the same world (and evoke the same feelings) as films of the silent age. So take a look, and sign up for your daily feed of haunting, surprising and generally beautiful images from days gone by.

(Shorpy was a very young coal miner, images of whom from a century ago helped inspire the site)



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 Glow in Their Eyes

Some of the most interesting work going on in early film studies (in fact, film studies in general) at the moment is the empirical work being done on audiences. There is an international organisation, HOMER, devoted to the subject, and Cinema Context in Amsterdam (subject of an earlier post) is one only example (albeit a spectacular one) on the work that is going on internationally. This call for papers for a conference is therefore particularly interesting:

The Glow in Their Eyes

Global perspectives on film cultures, film exhibition and cinemagoing

International Conference, Brussels, 15-16 December 2007

The aim of the conference is to review the current state of research in the history of moviegoing and film exhibition and distribution. We seek to bring together scholars dealing with these subjects from all over the globe. The growing number of case studies in local film history increases the need for comparative studies of cities, regions, and nations, while the relationship between micro and macro history(ies) is becoming a major issue for the field. The analysis of patterns and networks in film culture also calls for special attention to methodology. The conference aims to bring European perspectives on cinemagoing and film exhibition into dialogue with British, American and Australian research, and with research elsewhere in the world, in Africa, South America and Asia.

The conference aims to explore and map several crucial tensions arising from the issues of exhibition and cinemagoing, including:

  • The attention given to “top down” forces of industry, commerce and ideology as against “bottom up” forces of experience, consumption and escapism;
  • Contesting concepts of public and private space in media experience;
  • Questions relating to cinema’s integration into to the metropolitan experience of modernity, compared to its role in the construction of community in less urbanised and rural areas.

In line with the ECREA film studies section philosophy ( the conference approaches the phenomenon of cinema in a broad, socio-cultural sense: cinema as content, as cultural artefact, as commercial product, as lived experience, as cultural and economic institution, as a symbolic field of cultural production, and as media technology. On a methodological level, the conference is open to multiple approaches to the study of historical and contemporary cinema: film text, context, production, representation and reception. Cultural studies perspectives, historical approaches, political economy, textual analysis, audience research all find their place within this scope.

The conference also signals the completion of two major interuniversity research projects, one in Belgium (‘The Enlightened City. Screen culture between ideology, economics and experience. A study on the social role of film exhibition and film consumption in Flanders (1895-2004) in interaction with modernity and urbanisation’), and one in Australia (‘Regional Markets and Local Audiences: Case Studies in Australian Cinema Consumption, 1927-1980’). These research projects use a combination of oral histories, archival documentation, demographic data and media reportage and personal papers to examine the audience experiences and business practices of cinemas in Belgium and Australia.

The conference is supported by the International Cinema Audiences Research Group (ICARG), and will be the second international gathering of the Group’s work on the HOMER (History of moviegoing, exhibition and reception) Project, following the successful ‘Cinema in Context’ conference held in Amsterdam in April 2006. The conference will be preceded by an ICARG workshop.

Confirmed Keynote Speakers: Annette Kuhn (University of London); Richard Maltby (Flinders University)

Possible topics for papers are e.g.:

  • Film exhibition, cinemagoing and film experience in relation to theories of imperialism, postcolonialism, etc.
  • Long term tendencies such as the rise of cinemas in rural and urban environments, the boom of cinemagoing, the decay and subsequent closure of many (provincial and neighbourhood) cinemas and the rise of multiplexes
  • Tensions between commercial and/or ‘pillarised’ film exhibition, between urban and rural areas, and between provinces and regions
  • Institutional developments, geographical location and programming trends
  • Audience and film experiences in urban and rural contexts
  • A comparative international perspective on cinemagoing and exhibition
  • Diasporic cinemagoing practices
  • Representations in films of cinemagoing, film exhibition, film culture(s)
  • Reflections on methods: How to reconcile/combine large scale analysis vs in depth case study? How to link up national or regional databases on exhibition and cinemagoing?

A selection of papers presented on the conference will be published in an edited volume in 2008 (publisher to be confirmed). Please submit abstracts (500 words) with short bio to Gert.willems2 [at] and Liesbeth.vandevijver [at] before 6 July 2007. Speakers will be notified of acceptance by 31 July 2007.

Website (under construction):



The Cineteca di Bologna in Italy is hosting Chapliniana between 1 June and 30 October 2007. This major celebration of Chaplin’s life and work will comprise an exhibition, Chaplin e l’Immagine (Chaplin in Pictures), at the Sala Borsa, Bologna; live orchestral screenings of The Chaplin Revue, City Lights, The Kid, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, The Circus and A Woman of Paris to be performed in Piazza Maggiore and the Teatro Communale during the summer evenings; and the majority of Chaplin’s films will be screened during this period, particularly during the Cinema Ritrovato film festival June 30-7 July 2007. The Cineteca is also working on the Chaplin Archive Database, which is logging the cataloguing, digitisation and preservation of the huge Charlie Chaplin paper archive.

There’s a Chapliniana site registered but nothing is on it as yet. 2007 is the thirtieth anniversary of Chaplin’s death, and a major revival of interest in his work and socio-cultural significance seems to be underway.

Update: The Chapliniana site is now active, and full of details, all of it in Italian.

Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism


What sounds like a remarkable exhibition is opening at the PaceWildenstein gallery, East 57th Street, New York. It’s called Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism, and it builds on art dealer Arne Glimcher’s feeling that Picasso and Braque were enthusiasts for early cinema, and that what they saw on the screen helped contibute to their new art i.e. cubism. The exhibition (which runs April 20-June 23) features nineteen paintings by Picasso and Braque, nine original works on paper, sixteen prints, two books, photographs, projections of early films, vintage cameras, projectors, and other objects.

It’s an intriguing theory, but with scant actual evidence. Surviving correspondence reveals nothing. Picasso saw his first film in 1896, there are assorted references to his friends and associates going to see films in the 1900s, and art historians claim to have detected relevant elements of imagery or technology in the paintings, but mostly the exhibition will have to be based on conjecture and suggestion. No matter – it’ll set minds thinking, and it’ll be further demonstration that early film did not (and could not) exist in cultural isolation. There’s an article in the New York Times, ‘When Picasso and Braque went to the movies‘, which gives the background to the exhibition.

Clearly there is something in the air here. Check out earlier posts on Lynda Nead’s essay about the image of artists in early film, and the Moving Pictures exhibition about the influence of early cinema on some American realist artists.



Romantic fiction and early cinema seldom mix, but they’re about to now. Romantic novelist Rosalind Laker has written Brilliance, published this month, which is set in 1890s Paris, and features both a magic lanternist hero and the Lumière brothers. Here’s the blurb from Amazon to tempt you:

This story is set in Paris, 1894. In a moment of impulse that she will never regret, Lisette Decourt flees her home and family on the eve of marriage to a man who has betrayed her. She attaches herself to a travelling ‘lanternist’, Daniel Shaw, whose ‘Magic Lantern’ show is a phenomenally popular precursor of silent movies. Lisette is fascinated by Daniel’s art and – though adamant that she will never fall in love again – irresistibly attracted to the magnetic Englishman. Though Fate intervenes to separate them, Lisette cannot forget Daniel. She builds a new life for herself as an independent, self-sufficient career woman, yet she remains fascinated by the vibrant new film-making industry whose French proponents are the famous Lumiere Brothers. When a chance encounter reunites Lisette with Daniel, by now a successful film-maker himself, he realizes that she has the magic, elusive quality that will make her a star…

Remembrance of bioscopes past

Every now and again I trace the etymology and use of the word ‘bioscope‘. Here ‘s a passage from Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, from the Overture to the first book, Swann’s Way:

These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted for more than a few seconds; it often happened that, in my spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the successive theories of which that uncertainty was composed any more than, when we watch a horse running, we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope.

That’s the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, though the Terence Kilmartin one is much the same. It’s interesting to view this with knowledge of Muybridge‘s sequence photographs of a horse galloping (which Proust must have known about) which broke up motion into isolated images, whereas Proust sees the way that film captures motion as now hiding the same mystery. Has anyone written about Muybridge and Proust?

While we’re here, just a little further down the chapter, there is this renowned passage on the magic lantern, a little lengthy, but worth quoting in full (again, from the Scott Moncrieff translation):

At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go up to bed, and to lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred. Some one had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased, because this change of lighting destroyed, as nothing else could have done, the customary impression I had formed of my room, thanks to which the room itself, but for the torture of having to go to bed in it, had become quite endurable. For now I no longer recognised it, and I became uneasy, as though I were in a room in some hotel or furnished lodging, in a place where I had just arrived, by train, for the first time.

Riding at a jerky trot, Golo, his mind filled with an infamous design, issued from the little three-cornered forest which dyed dark-green the slope of a convenient hill, and advanced by leaps and bounds towards the castle of poor Geneviève de Brabant. This castle was cut off short by a curved line which was in fact the circumference of one of the transparent ovals in the slides which were pushed into position through a slot in the lantern. It was only the wing of a castle, and in front of it stretched a moor on which Geneviève stood, lost in contemplation, wearing a blue girdle. The castle and the moor were yellow, but I could tell their colour without waiting to see them, for before the slides made their appearance the old-gold sonorous name of Brabant had given me an unmistakable clue. Golo stopped for a moment and listened sadly to the little speech read aloud by my great-aunt, which he seemed perfectly to understand, for he modified his attitude with a docility not devoid of a degree of majesty, so as to conform to the indications given in the text; then he rode away at the same jerky trot. And nothing could arrest his slow progress. If the lantern were moved I could still distinguish Golo’s horse advancing across the window-curtains, swelling out with their curves and diving into their folds. The body of Golo himself, being of the same supernatural substance as his steed’s, overcame all material obstacles—everything that seemed to bar his way—by taking each as it might be a skeleton and embodying it in himself: the door-handle, for instance, over which, adapting itself at once, would float invincibly his red cloak or his pale face, never losing its nobility or its melancholy, never shewing any sign of trouble at such a transubstantiation.

And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections, which seemed to have come straight out of a Merovingian past, and to shed around me the reflections of such ancient history. But I cannot express the discomfort I felt at such an intrusion of mystery and beauty into a room which I had succeeded in filling with my own personality until I thought no more of the room than of myself. The anaesthetic effect of custom being destroyed, I would begin to think and to feel very melancholy things. The door-handle of my room, which was different to me from all the other doorhandles in the world, inasmuch as it seemed to open of its own accord and without my having to turn it, so unconscious had its manipulation become; lo and behold, it was now an astral body for Golo. And as soon as the dinner-bell rang I would run down to the dining-room, where the big hanging lamp, ignorant of Golo and Bluebeard but well acquainted with my family and the dish of stewed beef, shed the same light as on every other evening; and I would fall into the arms of my mother, whom the misfortunes of Geneviève de Brabant had made all the dearer to me, just as the crimes of Golo had driven me to a more than ordinarily scrupulous examination of my own conscience.

I know much has been written about Proust and the magic lantern, but does anyone know if he is writing about a specific set of lantern slides, and do these survive?

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 3

More from How to Run a Picture Theatre (1910) [correction – probably 1912]. Having chosen the building and taken care of the outside appearance, we turn to the interior and the first places to be seen by the prospective customer – the lobby and waiting room. The comments on the lobby indicate how many drab cinemas (usually shop or other such conversions) there still were, with bright lights outside but dismal within:

The Lobby or Entrance Hall. A dingy lobby betokens in the minds of many a poor entertainment. How often the mistake is made that all the public expect for outside appearance is a blaze of light.

Nothing short of 18ft. should be devoted to the lobby. Nor is this waste of space, for it enables an advertising display to be made to advantage, and the passers-by who stop to read the program boards or day bill are well against the pay-box before they realise that their curiosity has already got them almost inside the theatre.

The flooring should be of tiles or cement. A board flooring is an abomination suggestive of hasty construction and a fleeting stay …

Greater variety of material is permitted in walls and ceilings. As a general thing, plaster casting is to be preferred to imitation marble. The last may be sparingly used in the large lobbies, but is almost too heavy to be in keeping with the style of performance. A plaster cast lobby, is tastefully done, finished in white and gold, and kept always fresh by the use of paint and gold leaf is much to be preferred.

White and gold is advocated as a general colour scheme …

A waiting room is considered a necessity on account of the prevalent system of the ‘continuous show’, whereby the same programme of an hour or so would be repeated eight or more times per day, with people able to come in at any time, and often to stay as long as they liked. This contrasted with a more theatre-based policy of two or three longer shows per day with set opening hours, which would become the model a few years later.

The Waiting Room or Lobby Adjunct. … A waiting room has another advantage which should be seriously considered by the exhibitor. With the present system of continuous performance and of allowing anyone to enter or leave the auditorium while a picture is on the screen, you discourage many devotees of motion pictures who, deeply interested in a scene, have either to move to allow someone to pass in front of them or to have some newcomer making the view while looking for a seat, or a lady removing her hat as slowly as possible, and at this most pathetic moment. More than one spectator has expressed disgust when reading a sub-title, to have someone pass in front of him and shut off the view, and the moment he cannot read the sub-title on the screen, he loses the thread of the story and becomes dissatisfied with the show.

… A waiting or ante-room would be a genuine remedy to this drawback …