Focus on Film

Focus on Film

The Learning Curve is a free online teaching and learning resource provided by the UK’s National Archives (formerly, and far better known as, the Public Record Office). It brings together a range of archive materials around key historical themes, and this includes film. Its Onfilm resource has recently been revamped and renamed Focus on Film.

This now comes with 150 film clips, all of them downloadable and re-usable, and the site now has its own online editing tools, in The Editor’s Room. The National Archives does not hold film itself (selected British government films are preserved by the BFI National Archive on its behalf), so it uses film from Screen Archive South East, the BFI, the Imperial War Museum, British Pathe and the BBC.

Focus on Film

There are several silent film clips available. There is an absolutely delightful film of Folkestone in 1904, with people just being themselves, parading up and down the streets, having fun at the beach, fooling before the camera, dressed on their Sunday best. It’s long been one of my desert island films (it has no known producer or title, and goes by the supplied title of Edwardian Folkestone), and I strongly recommend it (how drearily the teaching notes on the site describe it: “The roller coaster ride reminds us of the primary aim of early film-makers, profit via entertainment”). Scarcely less delightful nor more absorbing in its social detail is a 1920 tour through the streets of Canterbury, taken from the back of a moving vehicle.

There are newsreel films of the suffragettes, including the infamous film of the 1913 Epsom Derby in which Emily Davison runs on to the race-course and is killed. There are several film clips for the First World War, including key sequences from the great documentary testament The Battle of the Somme (1916). Somewhat peculiarly, there are also clips of a modern actor telling us about the experience of the Somme, which together with clips elsewhere of actors giving us vox pops on life in the Tudor and Stuart periods may end up confusing a few schoolchildren. There’s also footage from Ireland in 1916 (The Easter Rising) and 1920s.

The quality of the downloads is good (QuickTime Pro is needed if you are going to retain a copy), and the suggested activities (for PC or interactive whiteboard) and editing facilities are fascinating. Note that the site states: Teachers and students are granted a limited, non-exclusive licence to use the film clips for non-commercial educational use only and may not re-publish materials without permission of the copyright holder.

Well worth a look.

Neil Brand at Edinburgh

You can catch the indefatigable Neil Brand – pianist, composer, writer, actor, passionate advocate of the silent film – at the Edinburgh Festival this month, in two separate fringe shows.

Firstly, there’s The Silent Pianist Speaks, where Neil reveals the secrets of the profession of silent film pianist, acompanied by film clips. The show is running at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh daily until Monday August 27th.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s a staging of Neil’s original radio play, Joanna, performed the Invisible Theatre company, at the Jazz Bar. The blurb reads: “One grand piano. One secret. Joanna tells her tale of being encased in wood for a century, revealing more than just a few notes …”. There are tickets still available for the 17th, 18th and 19th.

Both shows have enthusiatic online reviews from audiences.

Silent film festivals

I’ve just come across this excellent directory of silent film festivals worldwide, entitled Stummfilmfestivals. Yes, it’s in German, but it’s basically a set of links to festival sites plus a calendar which marks every day in which a silent film festival is taking place, as well as sorting them month by month. it covers Germany, USA, UK, France, Italy, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands and Finland. And it goes back to 2005, so you can find out about all the ones you missed.

I’ll have more on upcoming festivals in due course, but from Stummfilmfestivals you can find out more about the Regensburger Stummfilmfestival (2-11 August), the Internationale Stummfilmtage in Bonn (9-19 August), the Stummfest in Prague (30 August-1 September), Cinesation in Ohio (27-30 September), and of course Le Giornate del Cinema Muto at Pordenone, Italy (6-13 October).

A Continuous Now

The Bioscope

Every now and again I pursue the etymology of the word Bioscope. It’s a word which has enjoyed multiple applications over the years, and which has been applied to cinemas, cameras, projectors, fairground shows, a film journal, microscopes, a theme park in France, and of course a blog.

As has already been reported, it was first used by a religious writer, Granville Penn, whose The Bioscope; or Dial of Life (1812) you can download from the Internet Archive. The reason for returning to this is that I have now a copy of the image of the bioscope which accompanies Penn’s text. And, indeed, the bioscope was originally a dial, which came with the book, but on a separate card. The dial was marked from nought to seventy, representing the various stages of life, with eternity waiting before and after. The card came with a movable pointer (which seems remarkably modern as a sort of publishing gimmick). The idea was that the reader would place the pointer as whatever his or her age might be, and contemplate what was to come. Penn wanted his readers to avoid being lulled into the beief ‘that life is a continuous now’. Which is, if you think of it, a prescient description of the illusion that motion pictures create. Penn would have hated them.

Modern Gladiators

I am poorer but richer. I have forked out for Antonia Lant’s Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, as already promoted here. It is full of riches. The notes alone are a map to a marvellous world, with a host of tempting pathways down which to travel.

There’s so much that one could say about the texts in the volume, but the first thing to catch my eye was two pieces written by women who saw the film of the World Heavywieght Championship bout at Carson City, Nevada, between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, on 17 March 1897. One is a short, anonymous piece, ‘The Matinee Girl’, from the New York Dramatic Mirror, 12 June 1897; the other is a longer piece by Alice Rix, ‘Alice Rix at the Veriscope’, from the San Francisco Examiner, 18 July 1897, which is about women spectators of the film.

Corbett v Fitzsimmons

The film was made by the Veriscope Company, which employed three cameras in parallel, housed in a wooden cabin, so that when the film ran out of one the next door camera started (as the picture above shows). The result was a seemingly continuous, single-position record, which ran for well over an hour (there were fourteen rounds). The film was 63mm wide, giving a ‘widescreen’ effect which was shaped to the size of the ring:

Corbett v Fitzsimmons film strip

The film was widely shown and enthusiastically watched by audiences worldwide most of whom had never seen a boxing match (boxing was illegal in every American state except Nevada). There was clearly a number of women who went to see the film. And another of them wrote about the experience. Lady Colin Campbell, who wrote a column in The World, on 20 October 1897 wrote about seeing the film at the Aquarium in London (using the pen name Véra Tsaritsyn), under the title ‘Modern Gladiators’:

In spite of all that the humanitarians may say or the Peace Society may preach, the love of fighting will endure to the end of time … it is with satisfaction that I note the number of people who are crowding into the theatre of the Aquarium to see the cinematograph version of the great fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons, which took place last March in Carson City, Nevada.

It certainly was an admirable idea to have got up this historic encounter for the sake of the pictures to be obtained of it. It is given to comparatively few to see a real prize-fight; but these pictures put the P.R. ‘on tap,’ as it were, for everybody. It is the real thing: the movements of the men, the surging of the crowd, the attentive ministrations of the backers and seconds, are all faithfull represented; only it is so bowdlerised by the absence of colour and noise that the most super-sensitive person, male or female, can witness every details of the fight without a qualm. Evidently the fair sex appreciate such an opportunity, for there are plenty of those tilted ‘coster-girl’ hats adorned with ostrich feathers that would delight the heart of a ‘donah,’ which are fashion’s decree for the moment, to be seen in the theatre … The five-shilling ‘pit’ (which are the lowest-priced seats for this peep-show) is soon filled up; the half-guinea stalls are not long behindhand; and the only part of the auditorium which remains partially empty is the back row of the stalls, which, for some mysterious reason, is thought to offer such exceptional advantages that the seats are priced at a guinea. The seats being exactly the same as the half-guinea abominations in clinging red velvet, and the point of view being precisely similar to that of the front row of the pit (which is only divided off by a rope), we ponder over the gullible snobbishness of the world, while a well-meaning but maddening lady bangs out ‘The Washington Post’ out of an unwilling and suffering piano in the corner. We have nearly arrived at the point of adding our shrieks of exasperation to those of the tortured instrument when the show begins and the ‘Washington Post’ is mercifully silenced.

We are first gratified with a little slice of statistics; the two miles of films on six reels, containing one hundred and sixty-five thousand pictures; the prize of 7000l. which went to the victor; the names of the referee, the timekeeper, and various other details, to which the audience listens with ill-concealed patience … [T]he first picture is thrown upon the sheet, and, having wobbled about a little to find the centre of the canvas, settles down into an admirably distinct view of the platform, with the two champions wrapped in long ulsters, each surrounded by his backers …

Here she goes on to describe the fight in great detail, commenting on the odd effect of the silence, complaining about clinching, and describing the dramatic end where the defeated Corbett in a rage tried to attack Fitzsimmons, causing mayhem in the ring.

The two miles of pictures have taken an hour and a half to pass before our eyes; but though we leave the theatre with aching heads, we regret that so little that we determine to return as soon as we can, to witness again this combat of modern gladiators.

And though here at the Bioscope we’re wary of pointing people to stuff published illegally on YouTube, you can see edited highlights of the bout from a 16mm print probably dating from the 1960s. The intertitles are an obvious modern addition, as is the use of slow motion where they repeat the shot of the knockout blow, where the original film has been damaged. About a third of the film survives today – disappointingly, the scenes showing the uproar at the end of the fight are missing.

Dave Douglas and Keystone


In 2005 the jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas released a CD, Keystone, which had music inspired by and designed to accompany the films of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The CD comes with a DVD featuring Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) and ‘vignettes’ from Fatty’s Tin-Type Tangle (1915), with Douglas’ scores. I’m a big fan of his music, but though it is excellent its own, to be frank I thought it was a singularly insensitive attempt at accompanying silent film. It is always encouraging when rock or jazz musicians take an interest in silents and attempt a score, but too often they think that the film is accompanying them, when they need to be subservient to the screen – as any good silent film pianist will tell you.

That said, Douglas’ music is great of itself and the effort is to be applauded. And so, starting tonight at the Iridium in New York City, Dave Douglas and his Keystone band will be touring with a programme of modern jazz and early American silent film. According to the record company website, “each set will will consist of new pieces composed since the release of their Grammy-nominated recording, Keystone, on Douglas’ own Greenleaf Music label. The band will also reprise music heard on that release and perform along with short silent film comedies from the works of Roscoe Arbuckle, unfairly maligned director and star of the early film era. This will be a passionate and humorous evening of music and film.”

These are the dates for the rest of the tour:
04-22: Geneva, Switzerland – Alhambra
04-23: Paris, France – New Morning
04-25: Brno, Czech Republic
04-26: Basel, Switzerland
04-28: Stockholm, Sweden – Fasching Club
04-30: Malmo, Sweden – Jazz in Malmo
05-01: Koln, Germany – Kolner Philharmonie
05-02: Amsterdam, Netherlands – Bimhuis
05-04: Bray, Ireland – Improvised Music Company
05-05: Liege, Belgium – ASBL Jazz a Liege
05-06: Katowice, Poland – Gornoslaskie Centrum Kultury

You can hear audio file extracts from Keystone at

Edwardian hoodies


Anyone watching BBC television at the moment will have seen the trailer for the BBC4 Edwardians season. The trailer uses footage from the now renowned Mitchell and Kenyon collection of mostly actuality films of life in nothern England 1900-1914, digitially treated to mix the people of Edwardian times with such modern figures as a pizza delivery motorbike, a ‘golf sale’ signboard, rock concert fans, a policeman with a gun, and a hoodie. So of course they’re just like us and we’re just like them. You can see the trailer here (click on ‘Watch the season trail’).

Update – For all those who have been looking, the music that accompanies the trailer is Fashion Parade, by Misty’s Big Adventure. More details from the band’s MySpace site.

American Memory

Among the very best resources on the web is the Library of Congress’ American Memory site. The purpose of American memory is to provide “free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience”. Its Motion Pictures section is a marvellous example of this, offering users access to a wide range of predominantly early cinema subjects, all available for viewing and downloading, in MPEG, QuickTime and RealMedia formats.

Each collection is usefully contextualised and indexed, and there are impeccable cataloguing records. The collections with silent film material (both fiction and non-fiction, but chiefly the latter) are:

Needless to say, this is all non-copyright material, one of the consequences of which being that eBay is full of DVDs of early film materials which are simply repackaged downloads from this site.

Silent film music

Among the joys of experiencing live silent film shows is the music accompaniment. A handful of pianists have established worldwide reputations for their skill in playing (frequently improvised) to the silents, among them Donald Sosin, whose elegant and informative website is at As demonstration of something of the working life of a silent film pianist, here’s a list of shows where he can be seen and heard this year:

  • Mar 18 2pm FIG LEAVES (Howard Hawks) at Museum of Moving Image (part of a fashion series)
  • Apr 14 12pm PETER PAN (Herbert Brenon) at Tarrytown Music Hall
    (2nd silent series there)
  • Apr 15 12pm SPEEDY (Harold Lloyd) at Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Apr 19 7:30pm SON OF THE SHEIK (with Valentino) at Tarrytown Music Hall
  • Apr 27-28 residency at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point
  • Workshop with music students, public performance of shorts and THE KID BROTHER (Harold Lloyd)
  • Jun 2 Ithaca Festival films made in Ithaca
  • Jun 3 SUCH IS LIFE and KREUTZER SONATA National Gallery, Wash DC
  • Jun 10 11am STEAMBOAT BILL JR at Coolidge Corner (MA) Theater
  • Jun 12 TBA Brooklyn Academy of Music
  • Jun 30-Jul 7 Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna (performed there since 1999)
  • Jul 14/15 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (films TBA)
  • Sep 14/16 Port Townsend (WA) Film Festival
  • Oct 6-13 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Italy (since 1993)
  • Oct 17-22 Brooklyn Academy of Music Pordenone at BAM series

More and updated information on his site.

Americanizing the movies

Americanizing the Movies

Richard Abel’s latest look is Americanizing the Movies and “Movie-Mad” Audiences, 1910-1914. Its subject is the relationship between early cinema and the construction of a national identity. Abel analyses film distribution and exhibition practices to reconstruct a context for understanding moviegoing at a time when American cities were coming to grips with new groups of immigrants and women working outside the home. It makes use of a hugely impressive range of archival sources archive prints, the trade press, fan magazines, newspaper advertising, reviews, and syndicated columns.