I’ve turned the Questions section of this site into an FAQs (frequently asked questions). You can still post questions at the bottom of the page, but I’ve now added a range of general questions on silent film and using the Bioscope, which I’ll add to (and correct) as needed. Hope it’s useful.
Among the many events marking the sixtieth anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan, there is a screening of Franz Osten’s 1929 Anglo-Indo-German film, A Throw of Dice, on 30 August, at 21.00pm, in Trafalgar Square. Live music will come from the London Symphony Orchestra, playing a new score by Nitin Sawhney.
It certainly sounds like an event to catch, even if the assertion on the India Now website that Franz Osten is “considered by many as one of the most talented directors of all time” will come as a surprise to most. It’s a proficiently told tale from the age of the Maharajahs, the print having come from the BFI National Archive, who approached Sawhney to provide the score. It’s also billed as that curious phenomenon of our times, “a digital restoration”. Osten, a German, made three silent films in India, on historical themes, with funding from the German Emelka studios, The Light of Asia (1926), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929). They are all beautiful to look at, and stand up well without being particularly astonishing.
There are several other screenings of the film and score lined up, more details of which you can find on the Throw of Dice website. The later screenings are: Oct 26th Sage Gateshead, Oct 27th Bridgewater Hall – Manchester, and Oct 28th Symphony Hall – Birmingham, all with the Northern Sinfonia. A bold initiative, well planned by somebody – go and see it if you can.
This is worth knowing about – the Film Search page of the BuechereiWiki site (the site’s in German but the Film Search section is available in English). The site itself appears to be a wiki for library resources.
It’s a remarkable listing of video and DVD sources worldwide, put together by Peter Delin of the Central and Regional Library, Berlin. The list covers Europe, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandanavia, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Middle East, South Asia, South-East Asia, East Asia, North America, Australia and New Zealand – plus special areas, including film footage, amateur film, documentaries, experimental films, shorts, and … silents. There are some extraordinary individual resources there, particularly search engines which look across European library collections, which I’ll investigate further and report back. Meanwhile, it’s certainly a page to bookmark.
There are several large-scale digitisation progammes going on world wide which are starting to make substantial numbers of historic newspapers available online, a God-send for anyone engaged in research into early film. Some are freely available, some restricted to universities, some are commercial operations. There are various ways of getting at all of them, and in any case one shouldn’t shy away from paying a little for access to such treasures, given the huge efforts made to digitise them (something I know a little about).
This survey covers some of the major historic newspaper resources available. For each, I’ve tested them out with the word ‘Kinetoscope’ (i.e. Thomas Edison’s peepshow viewer which first exhiited motion picture films to the public, and which was most commercially active in the 1894-1896 period, but carried on as a common term for a few years after that).
The Library of Congress is co-ordinating a huge newspaper digitisation programme, entitled Chronicling America. The project is sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program. So far it has digitised selected newspapers for the period 1900-1910, covering California, District of Columbia, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Utah, and Virginia. That’s thirty-six newspapers, including such key titles as The San Francisco Call, The New York Sun, The Washington Times, The Colored American, and The New York Evening Times.
Searching across all papers and all dates for the word ‘kinetoscope’ got me 71 hits. Clicking on a result gives me a picture of the full page, then options to view the OCR text (i.e. text derived throgh scanning using Optical Character Recognition, which may bring up some small errors), PDF, or I can download the image as a jp2 file. The term I searched for is highlighted on the image, and I can zoom in or out. Each hits gives you the title of the newspaper, the date of the issue, and the page number. On a quick survey of the texts, I saw the Kinetoscope was being commonly used as a generic term for motion pictures, rather than the Edison machine specifically.
Chronicling America is free to all, easy to use, and is certain to grow as the phased digitisation programme develops. The site has background information, including technical details for those entranced by TIFFs and JPEGs.
Times Digital Archive
Probably the most outstanding of the newspaper digitisation programmes, and the one that has had a great impact on research across any number of disciplines, is the Times Digital Archive. This is a commercial operation, managed by Thomson Gale. It offers every page from the London Times 1785-1985. It is possible to search for a term or phrase across all dates, a specific date or a date range, and across all types of section, or restricted to Advertising, Business, Editorial and Commentary, Featurees, News, People and Picture Gallery – this is a very useful feature for narrowing down searches.
Searching on ‘kinetoscope’ across all fields got me 60 hits. As it covers the 1890s period, the rsults were excellent, tracing the Kinetoscope’s appearance in London, from a first mention on 8 March 1894 of Edison’s latest invention, to the surprise discovery that in 1897 there as a racehorse called Kinetoscope (not a very successful racehorse, it seems). Search results cite the date, page, issue number and page column of the relevant article, with the search term highlighted on the page. You can view the relevant article or page as PNG images, or view the page as PDF.
Such a wonderful resource comes at a price. It isn’t freely available, and instead it is made available to institutions in a variety of subscription packages. In the UK, most universities subscribe to it, under the Athens password system (which restricts online resources to UK academic users), but it can also be found in many public libraries. It is also available through subscribing international institutions as well.
Google News Archive
And then there’s the Google News Archive search. Naturally enough Google has provided us with a search engine which browses historic news resources, both free and subscription-based, so you are offered tantalising glimpses of news stories that can be yours if only you’ll pay. Typing in ‘kinetoscope’ yields 2,210 results. The results seem all over the place, but it is possible to narrow down the search by date or newspaper, as Google assesses which areas are likely to yield the most results from your broad search query. It can also arrange results in a handy ‘timeline’ fashion.
It’s worth noting that many of the subscription sites, such New York Times, give you at least the first few lines of the requested article. Speaking of the NYT, you can pay $4.95 to view a single page, $7.95 a month (up to 100 articles) or $49.95 per year (up to 1,200 articles). Find out more from its TimesSelect service.
The Google News Archive is a wonderful research tool, not least for showing the sheer range of digitised newspaper collections out there, and as a quick spot-check method of seeing when a subject was being discussed, in what way, and by whom. I certainly want to read more of the Los Angeles Times article of 31 March 1897 entitled ‘Kill the Kinetoscope and its Kindred’, with the tantalising opening lines, “The Senate Judiciary Committee did well in reporting favorably the bill to prohibit the exhibition of prize-fight pictures by means of the kinetoscope and kindred devices in the District of Columbia or the Territories of the…”
British Library Newspapers
The British Library maintains the national collection of newspapers (still housed in quaint conditions at Colindale in North London). It has had had for some while a test online historic newspaper service, using Olive Software, which offers some year-long slices from four sample papers: News of the World, Manchester Guardian, Daily News and The Weekly Dispatch, from which only the News of the World gives a Kinetoscope story – on the racehorse, in 1900.
But now the British Library is engaged on a massive British newspaper digitisation programme, with higher education funding money (the JISC Digitisation Programme). The first stage of this, recently completed, has digitised 2 million pages of 19th century newspapers. Stage two, just begun, will add a further 1.1 million pages from 1690-1900. The results, however, will be accessible to UK higher and further education users only.
The lessons to be learned are simply that, if you want serious access to knowledge, you need to pay or to be a student. The number of precious resources being made available only to universities is a problem for the outside researcher, though that’s where the money is coming from, and in many cases it’s the only way of getting round licensing restrictions.
What else is out there?
There are commercial sites, such as ProQuest, which is a world leader in providing access to digitised resources to institutions, including historic newspapers. Like a number of these services, it offers free trials – but only to institutions. The massive NewspaperARCHIVE.com welcomes individuals. It boasts over 68 million pages, and lets you know your search results for free, so Kinetoscope yielded a tantalising 2,923 hits. Annual membership starts at $8.95 per month.
But there are many smaller initiatives to look out for. A while back, I wrote a post on The Silent Worker, a newspaper for the deaf, which had many articles on the deaf and silent films. I found the information on that from the British Columbia Digital Library, which has a very useful listing of digitised newspaper collections around the world. And if you are frustrated at not being able to get hold of subscription-based collections, I recommend the Godfrey Memorial Library, an American library specialising in genealogy resources which for a very cheap annual subscription (from $35.00) offers access to a large number of newspaper libraries, including the Times Digital Archive.
There’s so much out there. If you know of other collections, or directories of information, do let me know.
There’s a website on the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961), with the enticing title Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows. The title is a translation of her Chinese name, Wong Liu Tsong.
The site accompanies a documentary film of the same name about the actress who starred in a number of notable silents, including The Toll of the Sea (1922, a two-colour Technicolor film), Peter Pan (1924), Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1924), Old San Francisco (1927) and Piccadilly (1929). She generally rose above the ‘exotic’ settings in which she was invariably cast, to give luminous performances which have ensured her a lasting following. Her screen career petered out in shoddy melodramas in the 1930s/40s, but she also had a career on stage, radio and television, as the site makes clear.
The documentary is produced by Elaine Mae Woo and narrated by Nancy Kwan. There’s a trailer on the site plus a rough-cut promo. As befits its elegant and glamorous star, the site is stylishly designed. The documentary has been ten years in the making, but is reportedly close to completion. If you felt like helping it along you could always make a donation.
Let us move away from all this star-laden stuff, and get back to the nuts and bolts of silent film research. I don’t know how many English-speaking researchers will know about Paimann’s Filmlisten. It was an Austrian film review journal, which ran 1916-1956 (founded by Franz Paimann), listing all new film releases with synopsis and credit details for films shown in Austria. Clearly, it will be known to German and Austrian researchers, but a quick Google search found no English language references.
The reason for mentioning here is that there is an index to the entire run, made available online by the Vienna Bibliothek. It arranges all the films by original release title, followed by Austrian release title, date, and reference number for the issue of Paimann’s Filmlisten. Here’s a section from the letter B, to give you an idea of what’s there:
Biarritz und seine Umgebung 1922-105, Nr. 331
Bibel, Die 1925-45
Biberpelz, Der 1929-105
Bibi la purée (Francsfälscher) 1926-91
Bid to love – Gaby, das Königsliebchen (Der Autoprinz) 1927-137
Biene Maja und ihre Abenteuer, Die 1926-81
Biene und ihre Zucht, Die 1918/19-57, Nr.131
Big adventures (Der kleine Landstreicher) 1923-39, Nr. 360
Big City, The (Das unsichtbare New-York) 1928-94
Big Dan – Entfesselte Leidenschaft (Eine verhängnisvolle Nacht) 1926-1
Big Killing, The (Riff und Raff als Scharfschützen) 1929-89
Big Parade, The (Die Parade des Todes) 1926-173
Big Pond – La grande mare (Über’n großen Teich) 1931-63
Big timber – Der Kampf im Urwald (Urwaldriesen) 1925-120
Big Trail, The (Die große Fahrt) 1931-39, 69
There are no digitised copies of the reviews, alas, nor any credits, but as a check list of titles and evidence of their distribution it’s an invaluable resource – all the more invaluable for those with access to the journal itself (the Austrian Film Archive has a set) It appears to go up to 1931 so far, so ideal for investigating silents.
Update (August 2016)
The indexes to Paimann’s Filmlisten are no longer avaiable on the Vienna Bibliothek site, and cannot be traced via the Internet Archive. However, a digitised run of the Filmlisten itself is available via the European Film Gateway, http://www.europeanfilmgateway.eu/de/content/filmarchiv-austria-paimann%E2%80%99s-film-lists
Edition Filmmuseum is a joint project of film archives and cultural institutions in the German-speaking part of Europe. Its intention is to publish “film works of artistic, cultural and historical value in DVD editions that both utilise the possibilities of digital media and meet the quality demands of the archival profession.” Essentially this means a set of DVDs of archive film treasures, professionally presented, which would not normally get a public release. All of the DVDs come with English subtitles (and some with other languages too).
There is a ‘silent’ strand within Edition Filmmuseum, which includes these titles:
Blade af Satans Bog / Leaves Out of the Book of Satan (Denmark 1920)
Carl Dreyer’s vision of Satan walking the earth, tempting men to do evil.
Anders als die Andern / Different from the Others (Germany 1919)
One of the first gay-themed films in cinema history, directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Veidt.
Blind Husbands (USA 1919)
Erich von Stroheim’s directorial debut.
Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) & König der Mittelstürmer (King of the Centre Forwards) (Germany 1927)
Two football-themed feature films, both from 1927.
Ella Bergmann-Michel: Dokumentarische Filme 1931-1933
Five documentary films by artist, photographer, and filmmaker Ella Bergmann-Michel.
Friedrich Schiller – Eine Dichterjugend (The Poet as a Young Man) (Germany 1923)
Curt Goetz’s biopic of the poet Schiller’s adolescence.
Crazy Cinématographe. Europäisches Jahrmarktkino 1896-1916
Already trailed by The Bioscope, this is a compilation of early films shown across Europe in fairgrounds. A separate post will cover its remarkable contents.
Nathan der Weise (Germany 1922)
Manfred Noa’s appeal for religious tolerance, set in 12th-century Jerusalem.
Alfred Lind: The Flying Circus & The Bear Tamer (Denmark 1912)
Two dramas directed by Alfred Lind.
And there is more (see the Danish Film Classics strand), and more releases to follow.
This is a superb initiative. Edition Filmmuseum DVDs will be available at the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna (June 30 – July 7) and at the International Silent Film Festival Bonner Sommerkino in Bonn (August 9 – August 19), and can be ordered from the website. And the website is in English as well as German.
The new BFI DVD of the surreally beautiful films of scientific filmmaker Jean Painlevé, Science is Fiction, looks marvellous just by itself, but for lovers of early scientific films (there are a handful of us) the DVD also includes Percy Smith‘s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911, though this is actually the retitled The Balancing Bluebottle from 1908), with its cork-juggling flies.
Alas, having posted items on the British Pathe newsreel site telling people about the free downloads (with lots of silent material, including some fiction films), the service has changed. The agreement the company had with the Lottery Fund was that it would make its collection freely available online for three years, and then might charge. Well, it’s been a bit more than three years, and the charging has been brought in. It is no longer possible to download low resolution copies for free. Instead you are offered high resolution (512Kb/per sec) copies which can be downloaded for £25 (plus VAT). You can still search the database and view the preview stills for free, but the free downloads have gone.
But do not despair! Because the British Pathe films are also available from ITN Source, ITN currently having the rights to manage British Pathe footage sales. And there, if you go to the Advanced Search option, and select British Pathe from the Collection drop-down menu, you get access to the entire library with free video streams (but not downloads). How long this situation will continue, I’ve no idea, but for now it’s all there to view from ITN – but not to keep.