Films from the fens

Stencil colour film of Blickling Hall, Norfolk, from Eve and Everybody’s Film Review (1929)

A significant release of archive films online, many of them silent, was announced recently. The East Anglian Film Archive, founded by David Cleveland in 1976, funded by the University of East Anglia, and now located in the Archive Centre, Norfolk, has published online 200 hours from its film collection, the outcome of a major cataloguing and digitisation project undertaken as part of the UK’s Screen Heritage programme which has been doing much to support public sector film archiving in the UK.

The search, browse and highlight options can all be accessed via the front page of the site. The site design is unusual, in a plain sort of way, but not ineffective and undoubtedly user friendly. It is certainly easy to find silent era films – you simply go to the browse option, where there is a timeline with sliders which you can drag for dates anywhere between 1895 and 2010, something I’ve not seen on many other sites and which is such a simple, sensible way of guiding people to a time period. Select 1895-1930, and you get around 150 items, all of them instantly playable, and with some some real treasures, surprises and at least one major discovery.

The films all come from those English counties covered by the East Anglian region, including Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. So there are many films of primarily regional interest only (which is of courses the raison d’être of a regional film archive), though equally they are encouragement to anyone interested in film history and history through film to consider the importance of place and regional (not just national) identity in film culture. For example, John Grierson’s celebrated documentary Drifters (1929) is generally lionised for its early position in the history of the art of documentary film, but it turns up here (in its entirety) because it was partly shot in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Drifters is, fundamentally, and importantly, a regional film.

There are many other records of the East Anglian region, from interest, travel, amateur and newsreel films of the period. The latter include probably unique examples of the rare Warwick Bioscope Chronicle and British Screen News newsreels, and local newsreel the Bostock Gazette (a number of UK towns and cities in the silent era had local news services, often maintained by an indiviual cinema where the projectionist doubled as camera operator, though other such ‘newsreels’ were produced by local enthusiasts on an amateur basis). There is 1929 stencil colour film of Blicking Hall in Norfolk, from Pathé’s cinemagazine Eve and Everybody’s Film Review; film pioneer Birt Acres’ 1896 film of Yarmouth fishing trawlers, the first film made in the region; an experimental work by George Sewell, one of the founder members of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, whose The Gaiety of Nations (1929) is a visually inventive comment on world politics; and several delightful examples of silent advertising films, including a number advertising Colman’s Mustard, which were based in Norwich (see for example the spoof 1926 newsreel The Mustard Club Topical Budget, featuring a popular set of characters from an advertising campaign of the period).

Jackeydawra Melford (wearing witch’s hat) as Jackeydawra in The Herncrake Witch (1913)

The major discovery is The Herncrake Witch (1913), which I had believed to be a lost film. It is a drama starring Jackeydawra Melford, one of the first women to direct a film in Britain. We have written about Jackeydawra Melford before now, in one of the earliest Bioscope posts, noting that she produced and starred in The Herncrake Witch (1912), The Land of Nursery Rhymes (1912) and The Inn on the Heath (1914), directing the last of those (her actor father directed The Herncrake Witch). None was known to survive. The EAFA catalogue record doesn’t give that much information about the film, which is intriguing in theme if quaintly produced, noting that it was made by Heron Films, a company founded by Andrew Heron who worked with Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, of whom more in a moment. The film is described as an ‘excerpt’, though there can’t be too much missing (it runs for 8 minutes, and the original length was 710 feet). Anyway, it is a major discovery for those interested in British silent women filmmakers, of whom there are a number.

Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901), possibly filmed by Laura Bayley using the 17.5mm Biokam system (note the distinctive central perforations). The cat is playing its fiddle and the cow is jumping over the moon

Another welcome surprise is from another woman filmmaker. Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901) is an example of the 17.5mm Biokam films issued by Brighton filmmaker George Albert Smith, for which there reasons to believe that the director was his actress wife Laura Bayley. What its East Anglian connection might be I’m not sure, but it’s a precious example of a pantomime act filmed on stage (the practice seems to have been that Smith made a 35mm film of a subject, then his wife shot the 17.5mm version, possibly simultaneously, but sometimes at a different time, as there are noticeable differences between the few examples where both 35mm and 17.5mm subjects survive).

A third example of a woman filmmaker is the amateur comedy Sally Sallies Forth (1928), directed by Frances Lascot, working with producer/editor Ivy Low, which is a well-produced example of the considerable number of amateur film dramas made at this time by hobbyist individuals and film clubs. It would have been nice to have a bit more information about the film’s production on the catalogue (not least where it was shot).

From pleasant surprises to not so pleasant surprises. There are several films in the collection attributed to the aforementioned Hertfordshire filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, indeed there is a special section of the site devoted to him. Cooper is an interesting figure, involved in British films as assistant to Birt Acres from the earliest years, and later an important pioneer of the animation film. Unfortunately, his daughter and later some film historians took up his cause as a neglected master of early film, and claimed for him a number of films that he never made, or misdated other films to make them seem earlier examples of film innovation than is in fact the case. In some cases it seems Cooper told his family that films in his collection were ‘his’, when they were only so insofar as he may have exhibited them once and now owned them. I won’t go down the tedious route of pointing out which titles are wrongly identified and which aren’t (and there a quite a number that are genuinely his). It’s just really surprising that a responsible archive such as the EAFA put up these films with their dubious attributions to the fore, especially when their catalogue notes usually give pointers to the correct identification.

This abberation aside, the East Anglian Film Archive‘s new website is a very welcome new resource. It not only documents the East Anglian region so well, but for the silent film specialist it present the great variety of films of filmmaking from our period: dramas (professional and amateur), newsreels, travelogues, trick films, advertising films, industrials, magazines. It celebrates the medium in all its inventive richness, while reminding us of the particular meanings films have for particular people.

If you ae interested to find out more about the UK regional archives, visit the Film Archives UK website, or else read the 2009 Bioscope post on some of the UK regional film collections to be found online, including the Yorkshire Film Archive, Screen Archive South East and the Media Archive for Central England, all of whom have signficant silent films collection available to view online. And if you want to find them all (or at least a lot of what they hold) in one place, they you must try the new Search Your Film Archives portal hosted by the BFI (another UK Screen Heritage output). There is so much out there now to be found – do please reward the archives and those who have funded these initiatives by browsing, viewing, and taking film journeys down routes that you may not have expected.


Tacita Dean’s artwork Film, projected in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London

Will film die? Seen in one way, it never will: our cinematic history exists on celluloid and as long as there are viable film cameras and film, someone will be shooting it. Seen another way, film is already dead … what we see today is the after-life of a medium that has become increasingly marginalized in production and distribution of films and TV. Just as the last film camera was sold without headlines or fireworks, the end of film as a significant production and distribution medium will, one day soon, arrive, without fanfare.

Anyone with an interest in cinema can hardly have failed to pick up on the news that, apparently, film is dead. An article by Debra Kaufman for Creative Cow, ‘Film Fading to Black‘, from which the above quote comes, has had a huge impact, with many writing obituary columns for the medium in the face of the inexorable rise of digital. Kaufman’s specific impetus was the news that three major producers of film cameras, ARRI, Panavision and Aaton, have each over the past year decided to cease production of film cameras.

Kaufman’s article is not quite as brutal as the headlines might suggest. ARRI and the rest might not be producing new film cameras, but it is pointed out that there are plenty of film cameras out there already, which are presumably being kept to good use. There is no indication yet that Kodak and Fuji, the major producers of film stock, are to cease production, even though the demand for release prints is falling and the profit margins shrinking. 50% of American cinemas may now be digital, but that’s still 50% that aren’t, even if digital screens are being added at a rate of some 750 a month. Film archives still see film as the best preservation medium for film itself, with cold storage solutions for a medium already proven to last 100 years preferable to the huge uncertainties around digital, given the rapid obsolesence of file formats and technologies. Film hasn’t quite come to the end of the road yet.

But the end is in sight, isn’t it? Whatever the claims those of a traditional frame of mind make for the special visual qualities of film, it is on its way out. Nothing lasts forever, and film is after all just a carrier of images. If a more efficient, more flexible and – let’s face it – more appealing medium as far as the general public is concerned turns up, namely digital, then we bow to historical inevitability. Moving images may not ever look quite the same, as digital’s cleaness, brightness and rather antiseptic effect override film’s more textured and subtle qualities (though cinematographers are increasingly championing digital as new cameras promise deeper, richer qualities), but who in the end will notice? Things change, because things always change.

Certainly future audiences won’t miss anything in the switch from film to digital, and that’s not just because they will lack our experience of seeing film but because people change just the same as technologies change. They will grow up at ease with something else. So it is a rather odd experience that is provided at the moment by the installation Film at Tate Modern, which bemoans the disappearance of analogue. Film is an artwork by Tacita Dean. It takes the form of a giant projection (portrait shaped) on the far wall of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Dean has devised the work as an expression of her concern at the threat to analogue film. It was shot, edited and is projected on film, and boasts an impressive list of production credits that is testimony to the craftmanship of film – grading, neg cutting, hand tinting, printing. As the exhibition notes state:

This is not a case of clinging to outmoded technology for nostalgia’s sake. As any practitioner will testify, digital and analogue formats are markedly different. The constraints and disciplines of working with a medium are essential to shaping the finished product. Photochemical film has its own distinctive texture and qualities, capturing light, colour, movement and depth in ways that digital cannot.

The eleven-minute film is abstract in form, being a succession of still and moving images bordered by perforations like a strip of film held vertically (as though passing through a projector). Images of buildings, trees, plants, water, circles, landscapes, rocks, but not people (apart from a fleeting figure passing by some stairs, and at one point a toe) play against and are overlaid with one another, someone with strong colour tinting reminiscent of the work of Len Lye. At a couple of points an eye appears in a circular frame that would appear to be a reference to G.A. Smith’s 1900 film Grandma’s Reading Glass, a key film in early film form. In most cases the images seem private to the artist and do not lend themselves to any particular interpretation except film itself.

It’s hypnotic stuff, but though plenty of people are watching it and children played happily in the light at the based of the screen, who among them really cares about film’s demise? Where are the lines of protestors outside cinemas, demanding that they see film as film? Where are the queues of unhappy customers returning their plasma screens to the shops, saying that the film experience is so much better? In truth, it’s not an issue that is going to concern anyone other than the afficionado and the specialist – and film/cinema is not the preserve of either of those. It is a popular medium, and the populace likes digital.

But that doesn’t mean the death of film, even after its main commercial life as over. Just as vinyl has survived the introduction of CD and audio files, so film is going to become the preserve of the select. Archives will still depend on it, though the rising costs of an increasingly rare medium (and rare skills able to maintain it) will mean higher access costs – if we want to see those films when they come out of cold storage so many years from now, we will have to pay handsomely for the privilege. Film buffs will still value it, and will collect prints and technologies required to show prints. They will sustain an aesthetic and cultural appreciation of film, and what will be exciting is when that appreciation is taken up by those who have grown up with digital but nevertheless look for something more in film. And artists, such as Tacita Dean, will continue to value it, for as long as it is available to them, for its plastic and particular qualities. Film is a canvas, after all.

The gloriously analogue Lomokino Movie Maker

And the first steps towards the second life of film as being made. I am greatful to Stephen Herbert for alerting me to the existence of Lomokino. Lomokino is a 35mm film camera for amateurs. Advertising itself as ‘gloriously analogue’, the camera allows you to shoot just 144 frames of film (curiously reminiscent of Twitter’s 140 characters) – and silent film at that. You need to find a lab able to process the film for you (which may prove tricky), then you can view your film via a LomoKinoScope viewer, or else scan it frame by frame, convert using iMovie, Windows Movie Maker or the like, and upload it to the Lomography site on Vimeo.

I’ve no idea whether this Austrian-based business is going to succeed, but its website certainly goes into a great deal of detail about how to make and present such films, with a large number of sample videos. There is a great range of cameras, film stock, accessories and bundles available on its online shop (including, I am intrigued to see, a Kinemacolor bundle). Do take a look – it feels like a cult in the making.

Sample Lomokino films

So film lives on, for the time being. It is important to the appreciation of silent cinema, because the entire genre (modern silents excepted) was produced using celluloid, whereas the history of sound cinema may run for centuries yet, of which just a few decades involved film as its primary medium. Yet silent cinema can also be rescued from historical oblivion by digital, given a new look and a new life, and that’s a cause for celebration. Silent films have a life beyond their temporary carriers. That they can change with the times is the best sign we have for their continued survival, and appreciation.

Lady Lumberjack

Our story begins with Dorothea Mitchell, born in England in 1877 and raised in India, where her father was involved in railway construction. Disappointed in having no sons, Dorothea’s mother encouraged and her sister to becoming practiced in what were considered manly occupations, such as carpentry, marksmanship and military-style riding. The family returned to England in the 1890s, and when her father died Dorothea became, in her words, “the man of the family”. She emigrated to Canada in 1904, ran a boarding house in Toronto, then became the companion help to a mining engineer and his wife at Silver Mountain, Ontario. She went on to run a general store, then to manage a sawmill. Her family joined her when she succeeded, unusually, in obtaining land under the Homestead Act, such as was not generally granted to women.

In 1921 she moved to Port Arthur, becoming a teacher and then a bookkeeper. Her hobby was photography, and in 1929 she met Fred Cooper, a bakery store owner, who had purchased a 16mm film camera when he and his wife went on a trip to England. Cooper and Nitchell were seized with an enthusiasm to make a fiction film. Cooper and Mitchell established the Amateur Cinema Society of Thunder Bay (aka Port Arthur Amateur Cinema Society), which became a member of the Amateur Cinema League – an American-based but worldwide federation of amateur film clubs, evidence in itself of the great enthusiasm for amateur film production (particularly dramatic films) at this time, encouraged by the introduction of 16mm film stock in 1923.

Mitchell first looked for a script in filmmaking manuals of the period, but finding nothing to her liking decided to write a feature film script for herself. The Amateur Cinema Society of Thunder Bay’s first production was A Race for Ties (1929), directed by Harold Harcourt (a one-time military adviser to some Hollywood films), written by Dorothea Mitchell (she also acted in a small part) and photographed by Fred Cooper. Based on Mitchell’s own life experiences, the film told the tale of the competition between a small sawmill owner and a large timber company to obtain a major railway construction contract. She later wrote an account of the film’s production, from which this extract is taken:

Neither had any of us the foggiest notion how long the completed story would run. We just kept going. (The ultimate was 1600ft). Directly after a roll was exposed, it had to go east to be processed and on its return the cameraman, director and I would congregate in my office (evenings of course), run it through a projector and cut it up. As Secretary Treasurer (and a few other odd jobs for good measure). I kept a record of every clipping, placing each in numbered section of egg-boxes – I’d dozens of them! – until interiors were taken and could be inserted in appropriate spots. Yes, there was ample unseen work, as well as fun. It may interest modern amateur-movie makers to know that projectors at that time were treacherous creatures! If stopped while the lamp was “on,” the film scorched – naturally adding to the ticklishness of the constant reviewing necessary.

The film was followed just a few months later by production, Sleep Inn Beauty (1929), a short comedy about a bathing beauty contest, directed, written and photographed by the same trio.

A Race for Ties (1929)

The Society’s final production was to have been The Fatal Flower (1930), but although photography was completed, a lack of funds and apparently some waning enthusiasm from other Society members meant that the 45-minute film remained unedited and unviewed. Mitchell went on to take charge of the Voluntary Registration of Canadian Women during the Second World War, took up amateur filmmaking again in her sixties with the Victoria Amateur Movie Club, then turned to writing short stories and an autobiography of her younger days, Lady Lumberjack, published in 1968. She died in 1976, aged ninety-nine.

Happily, Mitchell’s films, along with her papers, have survived, and an active project exists to research and promote the work of Mitchell and the Amateur Cinema Society of Thunder Bay, centred on the website Named after the title of the Society’s final, unfinished film, the aims of the Fatal Flower Project are to make available again the films made by the Society and now preserved by Library and Archives Canada, on DVD and online; to republished the book Lady Lumberjack; to produce educational packages; and boldest of all to finish off that unfinished film, The Fatal Flower. Using Mitchell’s original footage, the Project has edited the film and added its own titles in a style emulating that of Mitchell’s earlier films, produced a music score and even created period-style posters.

The Fatal Flower (1930), as reconstituted in 2002 by The Fatal Flower Project

And there’s more. Local filmmaker Kelly Saxberg, Fatal Flower Project member and someone greatly enthused by the story of her enterprising predecessor, has produced a documentary, Dorothea Mitchell: A Reel Pioneer, which tells the story of Mitchell, the Amateur Cinema Society of Thunder Bay and the reconstruction of The Fatal Flower. The documentary is embedded at the top of this post, and as you will have seen, A Race for Ties and The Fatal Flower have recently been made available online through Vimeo. The documentary can also be ordered on DVD.

The Fatal Flower Project talks up Dorothea Mitchell a good deal. The Fatal Flower itself is now headed by the words “a film by Dorothea Mitchell”, which wouldn’t have been on the original titles had they been written. There is much about the importance of her work to Canadian film history (A Race for Ties is championed as “Canada’s First Amateur Feature-Length Film”), particularly women in early Canadian film history (the documentary compares her to the rather better-known Nell Shipman). The literature stresses the importance of the films to the history of what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario, and there is much in the films that was clearly aimed at a very specific audience, the films haing been screened locally at the time to raise funds for charity.

Are the films any good? Of their kind, they are more than competent. They have all the hesitancies and gauchness of amateur dramatic films, but they were put together competently and entertainingly. Mitchell could construct an extended film story, and Harold Harcourt did rather well as a director for military adviser. There is good, varied use of locations, and the performances of the amateur cast are fine. You might need to be Canadian to see the most in the films and their story, still more someone from Thunder Bay, but there is something for anyone in the tale of Dorothea Mitchell and her film society, and the films charm and entertain. Perhaps most importantly the project serves to highlight the great enterprise, enthusiasm and cine-literacy demonstrated by the large number of amateur filmmakers at this time, whose love of the cinema could not be contained simply by going to the cinema. A very good job has been done all round.

The Lady Lumberjack site is at It has detailed background information on Mitchell’s life and her films.

The films and documentary are available to view on the Lady Lumberjack Vimeo channel. SleepInn Beauty is not available online at present.

Mitchell’s books, all of the films and documentary are available for sale from

The lost prince

Prince John in 1913, from Wikipedia

While sorting out some papers I came across a clipping which I’d quite forgotten about. It comes from the British film trade journal The Cinema in 1913 (there’s no more precise date on the copy, alas), and what it reports, though brief, is so striking that I have to pass it on. It tells us that a member of the British royal family apparently wrote a film scenario – for private consumption only – in 1913:

Princess Mary Writes a Scenario
Princess Mary, the only daughter of the King and Queen, has written a short comedy script for the moving pictures. This has been produced privately, and exhibited at Buckingham Palace. Prince John posed for one of the characters.

Princess Mary (later the Countess of Harewood) was then aged 16. The royal family were well aware of motion pictures and had been to see film shows (usually featuring themselves), and as early as October 1896 a privately-comissioned film had been made of Queen Victoria and guests at Balmoral, which survives (the guests included Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia). But to be thinking of making their own dramatic film at such an early date is remarkable, not least for showing an awareness of the new popular entertainment that the commonfolk were flocking in their millions to see. Amateur dramatic films started to be relatively common in the 1920s, but 1913 is very early for such a production, whatever the strata of society.

And then there is the one named cast member. Prince John, the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary, was a severe epileptic and was kept out of public view. There are photographs, but no motion pictures were ever taken of him – or at least that is what has been assumed. In 1913 he was was 8 years old – he would die in 1919, aged just 14. His story was poignantly told in 2003 in the Stephen Poliakoff television film The Lost Prince. The film showed us the boy viewing royal affairs with an innocent yet quizzical air, needing the love of his parents who instead hid him away on a farm, unable to express the emotions nature ought to have made them feel.

Was Prince John filmed after all? It is not certain this report is correct, of course. It could be merely relaying a rumour. But assuming the film did exist, who made it? (if it was a professional he was discreet about it, because I’ve not come across any such report) – and what happened to it? There is a royal film collection, some of which has long been in the care of the BFI National Archive, but the films in the collection are not of so early a date – at least as far as I know. The film is most likely to be lost, not so much because the royals are likely to lose things (I don’t think they often do), but because surely it would have been uncovered by now. Or it may simply have decomposed.

But someone ought to have a second look, just in case.

At the Cinema Museum

The Cinema Museum, located in the administration block of the former Lambeth workhouse in which Charlie Chaplin’s mother was incarcerated

As part of a new fund-raising campaign which aims to secure its future and establish it as an exciting new London venue, the Cinema Museum announces a programme of events presented by key film industry figures and film historians. These are the silent-related ones:

Saturday – 11th September

The Silent Majority: Glenn Mitchell
Glenn Mitchell, the author of “The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy”, will show and talk about films from the less well known comedians, many of whom he regards as geniuses in their own right. There will be films of Charlie Chase, Billy Bevan, Alice Howell, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Charlie Bowers, Al St. John, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton, to name just a few of these forgotten comic heroes of the silent screen.

Wednesday – 22nd September

Chaplin’s London in Hollywood: David Trigg
Charlie Chaplin was born in Walworth, not far from here. His father left when Charlie was only three, and he then lived at various addresses in and around the Kennington area with his mother Hannah for the next few years. With two young children and no work she slid into destitution, and eventually the family were admitted to this site – The Lambeth Workhouse. The memories and stigma of the extreme poverty never left him.

A hundred years ago to this day Charlie Chaplin left for America. The film historian David Trigg marks the event with a screening of “The Immigrant” – Chaplin’s take on what it was like to cross the Atlantic and start a new life. Chaplin made this in 1917; three years after his film career began. This will be accompanied live on the piano by Cyrus Gabrysch.

David Trigg, will also show clips from other Chaplin films demonstrating how much the film star’s life in the Kennington area influenced his film making, even to the extent of having sets built based on his own London childhood. David points out that one even resembles the building that is now the home of the Cinema Museum, where Chaplin and his mother spent some considerable time.

Thursday – 21st October

Clapperboard: Graham Murray
Graham Murray wrote and compiled around 500 editions of the popular film programme “Clapperboard” which ran from 1972-1982. Clapperboard was a programme about film history, and was presented each week by Chris Kelly. The series covered all aspects of film making and cinema history. Graham will show some clips of the programme plus a full 45 minute Bank Holiday edition of “Clapperboard”.

Film historian Graham Murray was born in Liverpool and came to London in the late 1950’s. In 1959 he joined the film division of the government’s Central Office of Information, and then joined Granada in 1962. He has worked over the years on a large number of mainly archive film based programmes starting with “All Our Yesterdays” – which looked at our history through the newsreels.

Thursday – 2nd December

From the Picturedrome to the Phoenix
Film historian Gerry Turvey explains how the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley (built 1910), featuring a later unique art deco auditorium has outlived rival cinemas, including those of the big chains. Moving from mainstream to art-house programming, then becoming a charitable trust and servicing North London’s local communities.

Gerry Turvey’s illustrated talk is based on his new book The Phoenix Cinema, A Century of Film in East Finchley published by Phoenix Cinema Trust. Following its fortunes through the various name changes (Picturedrome, Coliseum, Rex, and Phoenix), physical transformations and programming policies that have helped it to endure and outlast its rivals. The wide-ranging account will describe the Phoenix’s construction in the 1910s, the introduction of orchestras and live variety acts in the 1920s, and the response to the threat from the super-cinemas of the 1930s, how it dealt with the decline of cinema-going in the 1950s, the introduction of ‘art-cinema’ films in the 1970s. The story of this unique cinema will be of interest not only to its past and present audiences but also to all those with an enthusiasm for local history, cinema history and twentieth century development in popular culture and entertainment.

Other events taking which veer into the strange world of talking pictures include A Conversation with Julie Harris (7 October), A Conversation with Angela Allen MBE (4 November) and A Conversation with Burt Kwouk (18 November). And taking place at the Museum on 16 October is the annual Home Movie Day, London’s contribution to the international event promoting the personal film. Members of the public can bring in their home movies for inspection, projection and advice. More information on this from

Finally on 18-19 September there is a weekend fundraising event, a film and movie memorabilia bazaar between 10:00 and 17:00, entrance price £5. There will be dealers’ tables with books, psoters, stills, films, equipment, campaign books, DVDs and more.

More information on the and other upcoming events from the Cinema Museum site.

Spinning the Spirograph

A Spirograph with disc in position, from

We all know about having motion pictures in disc form. DVD and increasingly Blu-Ray are the domestic formats of choice, and we all understand that films need not appear as strips of film. What is not generally known is that there is nothing new about films in disc form, indeed that films could be found in this form from the earliest years of cinema – indeed the disc form precedes the motion picture film. The recent appearance online (40MB) of a catalogue for the most significant of the film disc formats before DVD – the Spirograph – is the spur for this quick history of the format.

Before there were films there were motion pictures in disc or in circular form. A number of the optical toys and motion picture devices of the nineteenth century involved sequences of images arranged around a disc, with some form of intermittency to enable the viewer to experience the illusion of movement. They included the Phenakistoscope (figures on a disc with slotted edges, effect illustrated here from MOMI), the Zoetrope (sequential images aranged around the inside of a drum with slit holes) and Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoöpraxiscope, which projected images in motion arranged around the edge of a glass disc.

When inventors first began combining the principles of such optical devices with photography, again some looked to discs to provide the solution, particularly if they were reproducing brief sequences (i.e. brief enough to fit within one rotation of the disc. In 1884 John Rudge patented a device which exhibited seven sequential lantern slides of posed photographs (so not motion truly captured by photography) arranged in a circle. The 1887 Tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz exhibited a disk of twenty-four glass 9×12 cm diapositives turned by a crank. In 1892 Georges Demenÿ took sequential photographic images on celluloid film which were transferred to a glass disc and projected by means of his Phonoscope device (also known as a Bioscope, above). The sequences, of which a man mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ is the most famous, were fleeting, but they were motion pictures derived from photographs.

The problem with the use of glass discs was the brevity of the motion sequences. However, before he introduced his successful motion picture system utilising 35mm film strips, Thomas Edison had instructed his engineers to produce a viewing system which arranged celluloid images in micro-form around a cylinder. This wasn’t just being circular for circularity’s sake – the idea was to match motion pictures to devices for the playback of sounds (in this case, Edison’s Phonograph), and early motion picture efforts at creating a disc-based system were clearly driven by a belief that emulating the gramophone disc was the route to creating a successful device for home use.

Kammatograph, from

It is often forgotten that many of the first motion picture producers saw the domestic market as being their route to riches. This made sense. The Eastman Kodak had put still photography in the hands of anyone; surely the same would occur for motion photography. It was a market that would remain elusive until the introduction (by Eastman) of 16mm film in 1923, but among the various attempts to crack the amateur market were disc-based systems, which offered a simpler, safer option to cameras and projectors using inflammable film.

Among the first and most significant of these was the Kammatograph. Invented in 1898 and marketed from 1900 by Leonard Ulrich Kamm, a Bavarian-born, London-based engineer, the Kammatograph utilised a 12-inch circular glass plate with notched edges caught by gearing with provided the necessary intermittency. There were 350 or 550 sequential images on the disc, arranged in a spiral, giving 30 or 45 seconds running time. It was aimed at the amateur market, and with those lengths of ‘film’ the idea must have been to encourage the filming of portrait shots, akin to snapshots. Not that much is known about the actual use of the Kammatograph, but two of the most prominent users of the device were not ordinary members of the public. William Norman Lascelles Davidson used a Kammatograph for his 1901 experiments on colour cinematography, while Rina Scott (Mrs D.H. Scott) was a botanist who used a customed Kammatograph to make time-lapse films of plant growth.

Theodore Brown with his invention, the Spirograph

There were other disc-based systems at this time, often developed as toys for children, among them Cinéphot developed by Clermont-Huet in 1904 and the Animatograph of Alexander Victor in 1909. However the great name is the pre-DVD history of disc-based cinema is the Spirograph. Its history is one of what-might-have-been, and it has of late become an almost cultish subject for those interested in forward-thinking technologies that nevertheless failed to succeed commercially.

The Spirograph was the creation of British inventor Theodore Brown (his wife Bessie was co-patentee) in 1907. It followed the basic idea behind the Kammatograph in presenting motion pictures in the form of miniaturised images arranged on a disc – though Brown’s original idea was to have the images arranged concentrically (he was thinking of very brief sequences and aiming for the toy market), and was tending towards using celluloid rather than glass. However his patent stated that the images could be arranged concentrically or spirally. Brown took the idea to documentary producer Charles Urban, who purchased the patent outright from Brown (supposedly for the hefty sum of $18,000, or £3,600). Urban did not work on the idea immediately, and indeed it was in need of considerable development work before it could be brought to market on the scale that Urban envisaged.

During the First World War, Urban put his engineer Henry Joy onto the task. The images were now arranged in a spiral, the results looking remarkably close to Victor’s earlier Animatograph. The first commercial version was due to appear in the USA in 1917, under the name of the Spiragraph [sic], and then the Homovie. There was no camera planned for sale, only a projector. But a hoped for $1,000,000 flotation of the Urban Spiragraph Corporation was a failure, and further work was held off until after the war.

Spirograph disc and the disc in its sleeve, c.1924, from

Urban attempted to re-introduce the re-named Spirograph through his post-war American business Urban Motion Picture Industries, located at Irvington-on-Hudson. The Spirograph in its final form was designed for simplicity of use, being a compact box on a small plinth, operated by a handle, with the exposed disc mounted on the front. The 10½ inch disc was made of safety (i.e. non-flammable) celluloid film, and carried 1,200 frames in a spiral of twelve rows, each frame being 0.22 inches x 0.16 inches. These were miniaturised via a microscopic device from standard 35mm films in the Urban library (using original films between 85 and 100 feet in length, or no more than one-and-a-half minutes long). The Spirograph could project an image four feet wide at a distance of twenty-five feet. It was hand-cranked, with an electrical lamp, and users could halt the disc at any point for illustrative purposes. It was a liberating technology, devised with the teacher in mind – portable, flexible, affordable (the price was to have been $125 per machine and $1.00 per disc), easy to use and useful, except that the films themselves were so short. You can only get so many physical images on a disc. And that probably spelled the Spirograph’s doom

Urban’s intention was to make a huge impact on the burgeoning educational market. While his initial target in 1917 seems to have the home user, now he saw schools, clubs and libraries as his main audience, and he devised imaginative subscription schemes for the hire and return of discs. Urban’s extensive library of non-fiction films stretching back to 1903 would supply the content, thereby finding a new outlet for films that had otherwise ceased to have a commercial value. By the end of 1922 a substantial library of discs was prepared, described in lavish catalogues, with 4,000 Spirographs ready for shipment [update: it is very unlikely that there were actually 4,000 Spirographs made], and a major publicity programme in readiness. But it never happened. Urban’s business overall hit the rocks in 1923 – a simple case of trying to do too much with too little money behind him – and Urban Motion Picture Industries went into receivership in 1924. The Spirograph never made it into the thousands of schools, clubs, halls and homes that Urban dreamt of, and 16mm film (introduced in that fateful year of 1923) gave the target audience a technology that was just as safe and could provide longer films. The Spirograph could be spun no more.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the Spirograph. The appearance online at the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma of a 1928 catalogue of Spirograph discs (40MB) shows that the Spirograph did have some sort of commercial life. After the collapse of Urban Motion Picture Industries in 1924 various parts of the Urban empire were picked up by a number of companies, some created for the purpose, among them the Spiro Film Corporation. Little is known about the New York-based company except the obvious source of its name, but clearly it was catering for a market which already had its Spirograph players, since the catalogue makes no mention of how to obtain these, instead restricting itself to listing and describing the 400 discs in the Spirograph collection under such headings as Science, Literature, Government, Physical Activities and Our Government. Theodore Brown himself picked up on residual rights in the Spirograph to market the device in the UK after 1924, but neither he nor Spiro made any success of a technology whose time had passed before it even had a chance to get going.

So the Spirograph Library of Motion Picture Discs (1928) goes into the Bioscope Library’s Catalogues and databases section as part of Catalogue month (which has now crept inexorably into September). The Spirograph is a fascinating technology, not just for its ingenuity but for its potential based around the needs of those outside the commercial exhibition sector. It put the individual user first. Film history, indeed technological history overall, is filled with blind alleys. Looking back on failed systems and collapsing businesses we can see different ways in which things might have gone, and contemplate an alternative cinema history. Instead it took until the 1980s for films to return to disc form for the domestic market (Laser Discs) and the mid-1990s for DVD to gain widespread acceptance among people at large, not because they wanted to be educated but because they wanted to be entertained. And the films were longer.

Finding out more

  • Stephen Herbert’s Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures is a beautifully-illustrated biography of the Spirograph’s multi-talented inventor
  • On Charles Urban’s Irvington-on-Hudson venure, including the fateful development of the Spirograph, see my Charles Urban website
  • Close-up images of a Spirograph and disc are available on the Spira Collection site (no connection with Spirograph itself – it is the collection of George Spira)
  • A illustrated list of glass and disc-based motion picture systems is given on the very useful One Hundred Years of Film Sizes site (though the dates given for the Spirograph are incorrect)
  • In 2003 a George Eastman House restoration of a Spirograph disc entitled Man’s Best Friends (i.e. dogs) was presented (on the big screen in 35mm!) at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (the catalogue date of c.1913 is incorrect – the disc would be c.1921-22)

The beskop in Tibet

Jigme Taring

Bioscope is a word with many meanings (which is why it was chosen for the title of this blog). Bioscope can mean a view of life (its original dictionary definition), a cinematograph camera, a projector, a fairground film show, a cinema, a make of microscope, a film trade journal, and a science-based visitor attraction in France. The term was commonly used for a place to see films in the early years of the twentieth-century, and that term persisted in some countries, notably India and South Africa. What I hadn’t know before now is that it also also adopted in Tibet – albeit in the local pronunciation, beskop. I have just come across two detailed and fascinating articles on the history of film in Tibet, ‘The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & Other Stories’, written by Jamyang Norbu for the Tibetan news website Part one is here, and part two is here. It can also be read on Jamyang’s Shadow Tibet blog. He has quite a story to tell.

Film had come to Tibet by 1920. Jamyang tells us that when the “first (invited) British mission reached Lhasa” the head of the mission, Charles Bell, was entertained by Tsarong Dasang Dadul, commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, with some film shows held in his private screening room. Tsarong operated the projector himself. Jamyang doesn’t say what the films were, but reasons that it was probably one of only two projectors in Tibet. The Dalai Lama is likely to have had the other one.

Tibetans however were not unaccustomed to screen entertainments. Jamyang traces the history of puppet shows with special visual effects and the magic lantern shows exhibited by British visitors at the turn of the centiury. But after 1920 subsequent British political missions brought film projectors with them. Jamyang says that Frederick Bailey (political agent and spy) showed newsreels in Lhasa in 1924, including King George V opening parliament, while in 1933 Derek Williamson showed Charlie Chaplin and Felix the Cat films to the 13th Dalai Lama. His wife Peggy, in her memoirs recalled:

In Lhasa, Charlie Chaplin was the great favourite; we had one of his films called The Adventurer, in which he played an escaped convict. The Tibetans renamed this film ‘Kuma’ (The Thief) and everyone wanted to see, including His Holiness, who laughed heartily throughout the performance.

Tibetans called Chaplin ‘Chumping’, from Charlie the Champion, the word entering the language. Rin Tin Tin was another great favourite. The cinema came to be known as beskop, adapted from bioscope, though now Tibetans use the term ‘lok-nyen’, a translation of the Chinese ‘dian-ying’ (electric shadows). Jamyang stresses that there is little evidence of Tibetans having viewed the cinema superstitously. The first cinema in Lhasa may have opened before 1934, managed by two Muslim brothers named Radhu, Muhammad Ashgar and Sirajuddin, though the details are uncertain. It seated around a hundred, with a balcony for twenty or thirty paying higher prices, from which a Muslim translator would narrate the story to the Tibetan audience.

Much of the evidence for all this comes from accounts written by British political mission members and explorers. The Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer, author of the celebrated Seven Years in Tibet, wrote that talkies were being shown in Lhasa by the mid-1930s. Sir Basil Gould, who headed the British mission of 1936, reported that:

Monks were amongst the most ardent of our cinema clientele. There is nothing which Tibetans like better than to see themselves and their acquaintances in a frame or on the screen.

Gould was among those who supplied that need, because as well as bringing projectors with them the British brought cine cameras.

Extract from Sir Basil Gould’s films of Tibet (1940), from the BFI’s YouTube channel

The first film shot in Tibet was probably film taken by J.B.N. Noel, cinematographer with the 1922 British Everest exhibition, whose footage is included in the documentary feature Climbing Mt Everest (1922). It is included in a new BFI National Archive touring programme, The Search for Shangri-La: Tibet on Film 1922-1950. The bulk of the programme is (silent) home movie footage shot by British missions and explorers iin the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. They include the botanist George Sherriff, the aforementioned Frederick Bailey and the Williamsons, Charls Bell (on his return to Tibet in 1934) and Sir Basil Gould, who brought a cameraman with him to Lhasa, Frederick Spencer Chapman. These films feature ceremonies, landscapes and Tibetan flora and fauna. Shot for the most part in colour they form an extraordinary archive of Tibetan life before the Chinese takeover, and were used in the 2008 BBC television series The Lost World of Tibet (now available on DVD).

The first Tibetan filmmaker may have been Tsarong Dasang Dadul, who acquired a camera at some time after the projector with which he entertained Charles Bell in 1920. Actuality films were made by Tsarong’s son Dundul Namgyal, while Tsarong himself filmed Anglo-Tibetan football matches outside Lhasa in 1936. Heinrich Harrer reports that the young 14th Dalai Lama was a keen filmmaker and knew how to dismantle a projector and put it back together again. Jamyang Norbu writes that another filmmaker in the 1940s was Tibetan official Jigme Taring (shown at the top of this post) who filmed festivals and street life in Lhasa, and the 14th Dalai Lama’s official tour of Sera, Drepung and Ganden.

Jamyang goes to to write about films and cinema exhibition following the Chinese occupation, including Tibetan fiction films (the first is believed to have been made in the mid-1970s). He also writes about his personal experience of exhibiting world cinema classics to Tibetan students in the 1980s, including Nosferatu (1922). It’s a fascinating history, showing how film was not just the harbinger of modernity for Tibet but how it fitted into (and documented) established traditions. Film was never simply about the shock of the new; it complemented the old as well, and was shaped by every society that encountered it.

The Search for Shangri-La tours Britain until May 2010 – details of screenings are here; while the Everest films of J.B.L. Noel will feature at this year’s British Silent Film Festival in April.

There’s no such thing as a bad home movie

Frame still of Mavis and Margaret Passmore (holding a piece of 35mm film), from the Passmore family films, c.1903, held by the BFI National Archive

So says John Waters, and while we’ve probably all sat through some relative’s earnest document of their holiday abroad and wished that some of the panning shots of scenery could have been a little shorter, he has a point. Home movies aren’t to be judged by the usual film rules. They are made for an interior purpose; every frame speaks to a select family audience which alone can decode the film’s particular references. And yet, as time passes, and such films turn up in archives, they then speak in a different way to us all, as we see the manners, the customs, the backgrounds, the clothing, the choice of subjects, that make these films such rich social historical documents. Moreover, in other people’s home lives, we see our own. In all these respects, there can be no such thing as a bad home movie.

Image from a Kinora portrait record of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his son Edward, c. 1912, from

Home movies are as old as cinema. They were produced throughout what was the silent era in commercial cinema, and continued to be shot silent for several decades thereafter. Some have argued for the scenes of their family life filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1895-96 to be the first home movies, but these were studied compositions for commercial consumption. However, cameras and projectors were soon aimed at the amateur market – indeed, in those first years of cinema some believed that the real money would be made by targeting the home. After all, the Kodak camera had shown where the business lay for still photography. Probably the first motion picture device for amateur use was the Birtac, a camera-printer-projector utilising 17.5mm film, introduced by Birt Acres (hence the name) in 1898. The Biokam, developed by Alfred Darling and Alfred Wrench followed in 1899. Gaumont in France came up with the Chrono de Poche, using 15mm film, in 1900. The Lumières themselves were behind the Kinora, a hand-held, flick-card viewer for which you could either have films made of your family as a ‘portrait’ in a studio, or film them yourself with camera using paper negatives (it was patented in 1896 but the first Kinora camera for amateur use appeared in 1907).

See a QuickTime movie of a Kinora in action, from the Royal Collection

Other such systems followed, employing narrow gauges which were cheaper and easier to handle. Initially the film used was flammable nitrate, but in 1912 there came the Edison Home Kinetoscope using 22mm safety film, and in the same year the Pathéscope, or Pathé Kok, using 28mm safety film. However, these were mostly for showing commercial films in the home, and it was 9.5mm film (introduced 1922) that was the format taken up most avidly by amateurs seeking to shoot their own films, though 16mm (introduced 1923) was used by the wealthy, and some of the first home movies in archives are those shot by the well-to-do upper middle class in the 1920s. A rival to 9.5mm that would soon overtake it in popularity was 8mm, introduced in 1932, and Super 8 appeared in 1965.

Thomas Edison with his Home Kinetoscope, introduced 1912, from Adventures in Cybersound

35mm was rarely used for home movies, such was the expense (and the fire hazard), but some examples exist, including what I think must be the earliest surviving home movies, those of the Passmore family of Streatham, filmed 1902-1908 and held in the BFI National Archive. They are a delight (they were shown at the Pordenone silent film festival in 1995). Home movies have grown in importance for film archives, or rather film archives have grown up which value such productions highly because of the way they record people and place. The smaller, or regional film archives around the world, are preserving a picture of our private selves which is likely to be rather more highly valued by future generations than the progressively quaint commercial entertainment films that still dominate moving image archiving philosophy generally.

All of which leads us to Home Movie Day. This is an international event, now in its sixth year, and for 2008 it falls on 18 October. Home Movie Day celebrates amateur film and amateur filmmaking through a wide number of events held locally at venues across the world. The events provide ordinary people with the opportunity to see home movies, show their home movies to others, to discover about home movie heritage, and to learn how best to care for such films. This year there are events taking place in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and at many points across the USA. The Home Movie Day site provides information on all the events and the home movie day ethos. In the UK, there will be events in Manchester and London. This is the blurb for the London event:

On Saturday October 18, archivists and film lovers around the world will take time out of the vaults to help the public learn about, enjoy, and rescue films forgotten with the advent of home video. Home Movie Day shows how home movies on 8mm, Super8 and 16mm film offer a unique view of decades past, and are an essential part of personal, community, and cultural history.

Home Movie Day returns to London this year at the Curzon Soho cinema bar. It’s a free event and open to everyone. There will be a Film Clinic, offering free film examinations by volunteer film archivists from the British Film Institute, Wellcome Library and BBC, who will check the film for any damage and deterioration, and offer advice about how to store film in the home.

After examination, the films can be passed to one of the projectionists, who will be continuously screening home movies throughout the day.

You don’t need to bring a film to attend and enjoy the event; everyone has a chance to win prizes generously donated by the BFI and Wellcome Collectionjust by viewing any of the films on the day. Prizes include BFI DVDs and tickets to the IMAX.

The archivists can also offer advice about preserving films in film archives around the UK and transferring films to other formats such as DVD so they’remore easily watchable in the home.

Don’t throw your films away; bring them to Home Movie Day!

The London event takes place at 12-5pm at the Curzon Soho, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5DY. For more information, contact Lucy Smee, at Dearoldsmee [at] The Manchester event takes place at the North West Film Archive.

The history of amateur film remains underwritten, though work has been done of late to remedy this. You could start with by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann’s Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (2007), or seek out Zimmermann’s earlier Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (1995). There’s also Alan Kattelle’s Home Movies, A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 (2000).

For the cameras and projectors designed for amateur use in the ‘silent’ era, the best source is Brian Coe’s The History of Movie Photography (1981), while the Kinora is covered by Barry Anthony in The Kinora – motion pictures for the home, 1896-1914 (1996). For images and information on narrow gauge film formats from the early period, visit the excellent (if increasingly out of date so far as its name is concerned) One Hundred Years of Film Sizes.

To find out about the work of regional film archives in the UK, visit the Film Archive Forum website. Film Forever is a good online guide to the preservation of films at home. Our history is in your hands.

Pen and pictures no. 4 – Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh (right) and John Greenidge in The Scarlet Woman

The subject of the latest in our series on literary figures and silent film is unusual in that his significant engagement with film preceded his first book publication. Evelyn Waugh was twenty-one, had just come down from Oxford, and was working on a novel, The Temple of Thatch (which was never to be completed), when he became involved in films.

Waugh was both fascinated and repelled by cinema. He professed a lowly opinion of films and commercial film production, but he was a compulsive filmgoer throughout his life (as his diaries reveal), and was fascinated by the narrative qualities of the medium. Such qualities he admired when appropriated in the literary works of others (Ronald Firbank, Graham Greene), and encouraged in other would-be writers, as in this 1921 exhortation to his friend Dudley Carew:

Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents. Don’t make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists (don’t scoff at this as a cheap epigram it is really very true). Make things happen. … Whatever the temptation, for God’s sake don’t bring characters on simply to draw their characters and make them talk. Fit them into a design. … It is a damn good idea. Don’t spoil it out of slackness or perversity but do MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. Have a murder in every chapter if you like but do do something. GO TO THE CINEMA and risk the headache.

Waugh found inspiration in films not for pictorial values as such, but in what he saw films could offer in terms of narrative design and continuity, of montage, propulsion, and changing fields of vision. Moreover, Waugh the satirist was inspired by film’s propensity for exposing falsity through display. As George McCartney (in Confused Roaring: Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition) puts it, ‘the medium’s peculiar perceptual qualities seemed to express just those unquestioned assumptions of his age that he most wanted to satirize’. Waugh would first experiment with filmic devices in his fiction in the 1926 short story ‘The Balance’, which uses scene directions and titles in the manner of a silent film, but before then he had engaged directly in exploring film’s potential to expose human folly.

One of Waugh’s Oxford friends, Terence Greenidge, was an enthusiastic member of the university’s cinema club and had acquired a 16mm camera. Greenidge made several satirical amateur films in early to mid-1920s, including 666, The Mummers, and The Cities of the Plain, in the first and third of which at least Waugh acted, for the latter as a ‘lecherous black clergyman’. None of these films is known to survive. Greenidge later wrote of the new-found enthusiasm for cinema among Oxford undergraduates at this time:

After ‘The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari’ had been shown in our city there was only one topic of conversation at gatherings of the Aesthetic individuals for several weeks to come. Finally undergraduates began to turn to the big task of film-production itself. Various nomadic groups made several vigorous little burlesques, negligible from the point of view of artistic quality, but capable of raising a good laugh in the University clubs wherein they were shown – and at any rate films.

One of Greenidge’s films does survive, however: The Scarlet Woman: An Ecclesiastical Melodrama. As the titles of the lost films indicate, religion was a favourite target, and for The Scarlet Woman Waugh provided the scenario, as well as acting in the film. It is a ribald satire on the Roman Catholic church, concerning as it does the attempt of the Dean of Balliol to convert the English monarchy to Catholicism. Waugh was of course to convert to Catholicism just a few years later, which gives The Scarlet Woman a particular piquancy, the final rebellious assault of one more drawn to the religion than he knew.

With £6 put up by each of the leading performers to finance the production, filming started in July 1924 and lasted largely until September, though the film was not ready for showing until November 1925, when it received its premiere in Oxford. We know a fair bit about the film’s production, from Waugh’s autobiography A Little Learning and the diaries, where he wearily records that he was quite disgusted with how bad it was. However, such disdain has an air of show about it: in A Little Learning, his brief account of the film’s production does refer to ‘the fun of our venture’, particularly noting his father’s delight in the amateur theatrical nature of the filming, recognising his own possessions being used as props. In the film Waugh acts his two parts with gusto. He plays the Catholic Dean of Balliol, a real figure of Waugh’s acquaintance whom he had come to despise, depicting him as a blonde-wigged homosexual with designs on the Prince of Wales; Waugh also plays the impecunious peer Lord Borrowington. Other performers John Sutro as Cardinal Montefiasco, Waugh’s writer brother Alec Waugh, as the cardinal’s drunken mother, Lord Elmley as the Lord Chamberlain, Guy Hemingway as the Pope, John Greenidge as the Prince of Wales, and Terence Greenidge as a Jesuit priest.

Elsa Lanchester and Evelyn Waugh in The Scarlet Woman, from An Evelyn Waugh Website (

What makes the film exceptional, apart from Waugh’s contribution, is the appearance of the young Elsa Lanchester. The same age as Waugh, the precocious Lanchester ran a London club called The Cave of Harmony, which Waugh often frequented. Playing the drug-addicted actress Beatrice de Carolle, who attracts the Prince of Wales away from the lascivious Dean, she clearly demonstrates the talent that would see her in Hollywood ten years later, married to Frankenstein’s monster. The film was shot in Oxford, on Hampstead Heath, and in the Waugh family’s Hampstead back garden. Waugh recalled that his publisher father was delighted at this new extension of the notion of amateur theatricals:

My father fully appreciated the fun of our venture … he delighted to find the cast at his table and when the film was shown him took particular satisfaction in recognising his own possessions. ‘That’s my chair’ … ‘Take care you don’t break that decanter.’

The film was first shown at the Oxford University Dramatic Society, where the future composer Lennox Berkeley provided the music accompaniment with gramophone recordings. A second screening was requested by the Society of Jesus at Campion Hall. Showing that the Catholic Church could take a joke, Father C.C. Martindale sanctioned a subtitle that remains on the print: ‘Nihil Obstat – projiciatur – C.C. Martindale SJ’. It was only ever shown among friends and private groups. Greenidge retained a copy, exhibiting it from time to time, and it resurfaced in the 1960s and is now preserved by the BFI National Archive.

The Scarlet Woman (which runs for 45mins) is both a juvenile jape, and an extraordinary window into the evolution of a satirical mind. Elsa Lanchester’s fevered performance raises it to a level that sometimes matches its pretensions, and makes it watchable today. It is an amateur film in perfomance, costumes, sets, picture quality and so forth, but judged on its own merits it has survived remarkably well. Waugh published his first novel, Decline and Fall, in 1928, and became a Roman Catholic in 1930. In the 1930s he worked for a time for Alexander Korda writing film scenarios (of which the title Lovelies from America indicates the wild improbabilty of any of Waugh’s work ever being produced). He was never involved in film production again, but offered a vicious satire of Hollywood life and the American way of death in his novel The Loved One.

More information on the film’s production can be found on the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter vol. 3 no. 2 (1969), which has much information on its rediscovery in the 1960s and records all of the intertitles, and on the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies vol. 33 no. 2 (Autumn 2002), which has a detailed description of the film’s action. Both are available online. The Scarlet Woman is available on DVD from Charles Linck, P.O. Box 3002 TAMU-C, Commerce, Texas 75429, USA, email linck [at] (earlier VHS copies were transferred at sound speed; the DVD corrects this). It can also be seen for free by anyone passing through London at the BFI Mediatheque on the South Bank.

City & country

The How and Why of Spuds (1920), National Archives Collection

This year’s Northeast Historic Film’s Summer Symposium takes place 25-26 July, at Bucksport, Maine. Northeast Historic Film collects, preserves, and makes available to the public, film and videotape of interest to the people of northern New England, and holds an annual symposium which focuses on regional film, much of it amateur, and stretching back to the 1920s. This year’s theme is City & Country:

Images and archetypes of the city and the country as seemingly distinct locations and ways of life have remained a potent force in the cultural imagination since the mid 19th century. Even though the transformations of industrial culture and mobility have changed rural and urban landscapes and lifestyles, the ideas and images associated with the City and the Country continues to thrive as traditional poles of modern experience. They are where we anchor the dreams and fears of technology and tradition, and where we are animated by hopes of progress and the comforts of nostalgia. As Raymond Williams noted of this powerful duality, “the contrast of country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and of the crises of our society.”

More information as ever from the website.