The Bioscope meets YouTube

You may have noticed that we have a new address. I don’t mean the Bioscope’s physical location, which of course remains the ivy-clad fastness that is New Bioscope Towers, but rather its web address. After too long a wait, we have finally ditched the annoying ‘bioscopic’ and the and switched the domain to All old links will still take you to the site as it now is, but I hope it will now be a little clearer who we are and what we’re about. This is all part of a rolling programme of changes to the site to make sure it stays in tip-top shape.

To mark the occasion, a rather odd short video, which comes from a pair of Indian design students, Ashis Panday & Ankkit Modi, who have created a Bioscope for the YouTube age. As regulars will know, we are interested in the Bioscopes still to be found in India (and in other Asian countries, I am given to understand) which tour from town to town supplying peepshow views of film clips for children. One or two of these shows, which are managed by itinerant bioscopewallahs, feature original film projectors from the 1900s. This art work (or part of an art work) has taken YouTube videos and stitched them together in a random sequence. The video doesn’t really make it clear what is happening, but we like the concept even if the actuality may be lacking.

For earlier posts on bioscopewallahs, see Salim Baba –, Prakash Travelling Cinema – and The Last Bioscopewallah –

Lives in film no. 5 – Niranjan Pal

Niranjan Pal

The chances are that few people even with a good knowledge of silent films will have heard of Niranjan Pal, though you may have started to hear about his films. The release on DVD of the film A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash) (1929) has brought to our attention the three silent films on Indian themes directed by Franz Osten: The Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas) (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice, whose production history and whose very existence strike a fascinating, almost jarring note in film history. Where and how did these non-Indian Indian films get made, and who was behind them? Well, the person behind them was, to large degree, Niranjan Pal.

Niranjan Pal (1889-1959) had a more than usually interesting life story for a filmmaker. His name has previously been best known to scholars of Indian nationalism and revolutionary politics in Britain. Born in Calcutta (Kolkata), he was the son of Indian nationalist leader Bipin Chandra Pal (right), and was brought up in culture dedicated to Indian self-determination and the overthrow of British imperial rule. Father and son came to London around 1908 when the father was invited by Pandit Shyamji Krishna Varma to help conduct pro-Indian freedom propaganda in Britain. Krishna Varma was the founder of the Indian Home Rule Society and the celebrated India House, a home for Indian students which became a hotbed of nationalist thinking, something which got it closely monitored by the British police. Bipin Chandra Pal was on the moderate side of the nationalist arguments, but his son was fired with revolutionary thinking, and was soon drawn into dangerous activity, as his autobiography recounts:

I was initiated into the work of preparing cyclostyled copies of formulae for manufacturing bombs. These were sent out to India by the hundreds, to addresses found in street directories. I learned that the formula had been secured, with great difficulty, from certain Spanish and Russian sources.

Pal’s father was alarmed by the route down which his son was going, particularly the admiration he had for freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar with his advocacy of violent revoution. Pal’s Irish girlfriend of the time had close links with Irish republicanism and was violently opposed to all forms of British rule. Things became particularly dangerous following the 1909 assassination at the Imperial Institute in London of Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie by Madan Lal Dhingra, with whom Niranjan was familiar. Ironically, it was not so much the attempts by his father to moderate his son’s passions as British culture itself that started to mollify Niranjan Pal’s thinking. As his great-grandson Joyojeet Pal writes:

Pal and his Indian friends were deeply torn between their sense of loyalty to an Indian homeland, and a conflicted relationship with their colonial masters. The same Indians who were subjected to second-hand citizenship back in India, were treated as equals under British law … They would grow to view the Englishman in England very differently from how they saw the Englishman back in India.

Pal was introduced to London’s literary/intellectual elite, meeting Bernard Shaw and the Countess of Warwick, befriending the writer David Garnett, and being supported by the journalist W.T. Stead after his father was arrested back in India. He made the key discovery for him of the London theatre, delighting in the colourful productions of the West End stage, bridling at its occasional representation of Indian life, and wondering how he might bring about a change in perceptions through his pen.

Pal abandoned his medical studies and took to writing for the stage. He joined up with Kedar Nath Das Gupta’s Indian Art and Dramatic Society, which put on recitals and dramatic productions designed to promote Anglo-Indian relations. One of these was an adaptation by Pal of Sir Edwin Arnold’s celebrated narrative poem, The Light of Asia, on the life of the Buddha. Entitled Buddha, it ran at the Royal Court Theatre for a few days in February 1912. Pal also acted, in the small role of Devadatta. Pal then offered the script to a couple of British film studios. The Hepworth Manufacturing Company gave him the courtesy of a hearing, but said it was not for them. Barker Motion Photography merely laughed at him.

Such work was unpaid, and to keep body and soul together Pal undertook assorted menial posts in London stores while looking to make money, and reach a wider audience, by tackling motion pictures more assiduously. He undertook a correspondence course which guaranteed, for the some of one pound, to turn the young man into a screenwriter. He starting writing to all the British film studios, he was met by a growing pile of formulaic rejection letters. Finally, someone wrote back. It was Charles Urban (left), who wrote to say that Pal’s script was completely unfilmable and that he needed the experience of seeing how a film was made. So it was that Niranjan Pal was invited to the south London studios of the Natural Color Kinematograph Company, helping out with scene shifting while learning what he could of the film production process.

While there Pal befriended director Floyd Martin Thornton. He showed Thornton his script for The Light of Asia, Thornton took it to Urban, and Urban decided it would make a handsome subject for a major Kinemacolor production. Urban was at the height of his fame at this time, having triumphed with the Kinemacolor record of the Delhi Durbar celebrations held to mark the coronation of King George V, and an exotic, Indian-themed story must have seemed a natural choice for a Kinemacolor fiction film production. Pal continued at the studio, uncertain that Urban would be as good as his word, only to be stunned by the huge payment of £500 for his script from the handsomely generous Urban.

It would be interesting to consider how Anglo-Indian film history might have developed had the Kinemacolor version of The Light of Asia ever seen the light of day. Sadly the production never reachd even the early stages of production, as Urban’s Kinemacolor business collapsed in 1914 following a court case brought by rival colour film inventor William Friese-Greene, which decided that the patent on which Kinemacolor was based was invalid.

Floyd Martin Thornton however remained keen to work with Pal, and tried continually to raise the finance to film The Light of Asia. Thornton was able to film two Pal scripts, both with stories set in India. The feature-length The Faith of A Child (1915) was made for the obscure Lotus Feature Films, and The Vengeance of Allah (1915) for the Windsor Film Company in Catford (Pal’s memoirs talk about filming for the Kent Film Company, which must have been associated with Windsor in some way). Pal also made a documentary, the title of which he recalls was A Day in an Indian Military Depot (1916), filmed at Milford-on-Sea, which he successfully sold to distributor William Jury (possibly on behalf of the War Office Cinematograph Committee with which Jury was involved), though I have not been able to trace any information about it.

Post-war, Pal remained in Britain, determined to succeed with his pen. He was still associated with Thornton, and began work on an adaption of Ethel M. Dell’s novel The Lamp of the Desert for Stoll Picture Productions. It is evidence of the conflicting impulses with Pal that this person so ardent in his wish for Indian independence and anxious for understanding of Indian culture should keep turning to sources that pandered to what we now refer to as Orientalism (the depiction of the East by the West, essentially), in the case of Dell by someone who had never even been to India. Pal was taken on as scriptwiter and technical adviser, but it seems that his suggestion that palm trees were not to be found on the North West Frontier did not tally with Stoll’s ideas of how India ought to look, and he was dropped from the production (Stoll eventually released it in 1922, directed by Thornton).

Pal attempted to go into production for himself, with a film entitled The Tricks of Fate, but he seems to have been duped by some con-men. The film that was to have been directed by, written by and starring Niranjan Pal was unscreenable, and he lost a lot of money. Instead he found success on the stage, with his play The Goddess (1922), which was put on with an all-Indian cast, first at the Duke of York’s Theatre, then the Ambassador’s Theatre and then the Aldwych, running for sixty-six performances over six months in London before touring the provinces.

Tourists being introduced to India at the start of The Light of Asia, from

Most significant for Pal’s future career was one of the perfomers in the cast of The Goddess, Himansu Rai. Rai formed an acting troupe, the Indian Players, and when efforts to stage The Goddess in India proved fruitless. Rai and Pal turned to the film industry, once again with the script for The Light of Asia. This time, with Rai’s greater drive and guile, they met with success, though not with a British studio but instead with German producer Peter Ostermayer, who agreed on a production at Berlin’s Emelka Studios, with location filming at Jaipur. Financing came from the Delhi-based Great Eastern Film Corporation. The director was Ostermayer’s brother, Franz Osten.

The Light of Asia, or Prem Sanyas, finally made it to the cinema screen as an Indo-German production in 1925. It told the story of Gautama (played by Himansu Rai), son of King Suddodhana, who leaves his sheltered existence to learn of the sorrows of the world, becoming a wandering teacher who brings Buddhism to the world. The cast was all Indian, and in keeping with Pal’s dedication towards educating a Western audiences in the ways of his country, it begins with a group of Western tourists in present-day India encountering an old man who then proceeds to tell them the story of the Buddha. The Light of Asia enjoyed modest success in Europe though it failed to find gain any bookings in Britain until Pal and Rai finally gained some attention for the film with a screening given before the royal family at Windsor Castle (King George V reportedly slept through it). The film also failed as an attraction in India.

Seeta Devi (Anglo-Indian actress Renée Smith) in A Throw of Dice

The film’s favourable reception in Europe led to two further productions, though owing to the lack of success in India the previous production finance source was no longer available to them. However, British companies were now showing interest, and British Instructional Films picked up the distribution rights for Shiraz (1928) and co-produced A Throw of Dice (1929) with UFA in Germany, both films therefore qualifying as Anglo-German productions. Both films were once again scripted by Pal and directed by Franz Osten, with Himansu Rai as lead performer among the all-Indian casts.

The Light of Asia, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice are each historical dramas set in India that stress exoticism (“halfway orientalist” is how Joyojeet Pal describes them), pandering as they do to a taste for a romantic India that was reflected in popular literature of the time. None is exceptional, but they are pleasing, well-constructed and attractively mounted productions which have found ready acceptance with audiences today, especially A Throw of Dice, which has enjoyed high profile through the score provided by Indian-British musician Nitin Sawhney, capped by a screening in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2007.

Pal perserved with British films for a while, writing further scenarios and seeing his story, His Honour the Judge, turned into the early talkie A Gentleman of Paris (1931), with Sinclair Hill directing and Sidney Gilliat the scriptwriter. It has no discernible Indian theme. Pal then returned to India, tried and failed to set up a film, Khyber Pass, to be filmed in Raycol colour and starring Clive Brook; had mixed fortunes making some films in India for his own Niranjan Pal Productions; then renewed his involvement with Himansu Rai and Franz Osten to become chief scenarist for the renowned Bombay Talkies. He stayed there until 1937, when he fell out with his fellow filmmakers (something of a recurring trait in Pal’s career, it has to be said), and concluded his career in film as a producer of advertising, documentary and newsreel films (he founded Aurora Screen News, 1938-42). He was also a pioneer of children’s films in India (with Hatey Khori, made in 1939).

Trailer for the documentary Niranjan Pal – A Forgotten Legend

Pal had been larely forgotten by the film industry and film historians when he died in 1959, but his son Colin went on to be an actor, technician and publicist for Hindi films (Pal had an English wife, née Lily Bell); his grandson Deep Pal is a cameraman; and his great grandson Joyojeet Pal is Assistant Professor of Information at the University of Michigan. He wrote his memoirs, entitled Such is Life, towards the end of his life, but they did not find a publisher, in Kolkata, until 1997.

Last year a project was launched by the South Asian Cinema Foundation in London to research Pal’s legacy, Lifting the Curtain: Niranjan Pal & Indo-British Collaboration in Cinema. With Heritage Lottery Fund support, the SACF has produced a documentary on Pal and published the memoirs for the first time in English, in a volume of essays, filmography and memoir, edited by Kusum Pant Joshi and Lalit Mohan Joshi, entitled Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend & Such is Life: An Autobiography by Niranjan Pal. I was honoured to be asked to contribute a chapter, on Pal and the British film studios of the silent era. The evidence of Charles Urban, someone I have researched for many years, being so supportive on an impoverished and obscure Indian student when the rest of the film industry rebuffed him, was particularly heartening to learn. The volume’s wise introduction by Joyojeet Pal is particularly recommended.

Such is Life will have great value for anyone interested in the history of Indian nationalism or Anglo-British relations at the start of the twentieth century. It is also going to be of great interest to anyone interested in silent film history, from its eye-witness account of the Kinemacolor studios, to Pal’s sharp memory for the financial details of the deals won and lost when trying to get his films of the 1920s made. His memory is not always so sharp. Some dates are clearly wildly out – for example, he recalls being inspired to produce films from an Indian perspective after protesting outside a Lowell Thomas lecture-with-film on India. But Pal began his film career in 1912/13, five years before Thomas turned to the cinematograph, and ten years before Thomas made his travelogue Through Romantic India and into Forbidden Afghanistan, which was indeed the subject of Indian protests when presented at Covent Garden in London in 1922.

Niranjan Pal: A Forgotten Legend & Such is Life is available from the South Asian Cinema Foundation. A DVD is available of the accompanying 30mins documentary, though I don’t have details of how to obtain a copy except by contacting the SACF direct. Book and DVD were launched recently at the BFI Soutbank, and there is to be a launch event at the National Film Archive of India in Pune on 20 February 2012. A Throw of Dice, with the Nitin Sawhney scre, is available on DVD from the BFI in the UK and Kino in the USA. For those interested in Pal’s political background and that of the Indians in Britain around the time of India House and the burgeoning nationalist movement, I recommend the Open University’s Making Britain site, which has information on all the key individuals, locations, organisations and events. David Garnett’s autobiographical work, The Golden Echo (1953), recalls his friendship with Pal, known to him as Nanu, and other Indian nationalists in Britain (an extract is available here).

Niranjan Pal appears to have been hot-headed, a little gullible and tirelessly dedicated to his causes throughout his life. His life story was indeed his most dramatic production. It is certainly a story rich in incident and in the social, cultural and political themes of the times. That an Indian in the Britain of the 1910s and 20s should succeed in the way that he did, despite the racism that he clearly experienced on a continual basis, seems astonishing, though perhaps it was simply that he saw opportunities where others only saw hurdles. Hopefully the chance to read his life story will lead to further investigation of his life and times, and to DVD releases one day of The Light of Asia and Shiraz.

Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ‘1911’ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

In praise of Project Gutenberg

The sad news was reported last week of the death of Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg. Where the original Johannes Gutenberg, it is argued, manufactured the first printed book, Michael Hart invented the e-book. In 1971 he first typed out the Declaration of Independence on his university’s mainframe computer, and so began one of the world wide web’s greatest creations, a couple of decades before the web itself existed. Hart had created the electronic form of a printed text, but much more than that he saw the potential of creating a vast repository of freely-available texts, open to all.

His was an invention not only made for the Internet, but one which in a profound way helped inspire its ideals. One of the first things anyone learned about once they had logged on in those pioneering mid-1990s days was that there was this wonderful, altruistic project to make available the world’s public domain texts. Nor was it just one man with a keyboard, but rather a growing band of volunteers were giving up their time to type, proof-read, check OCR and present texts to the rest of the world simply because it was a noble thing to do. This, we learned, was what the Internet and the world wide web were all about – knowledge freely shared by all.

Many others have followed where Hart led, with the Internet Archive making available many of the same texts, Google now digitising out-of-copyright texts on a gigantic scale, and Amazon working hard to overturn centuries of reading practice with the Kindle e-book reader. But Project Gutenberg ploughs on, now with 36,000 books available, plus tens of thousands more through its affailiate organisations. Here at the Bioscope we have from time to time noted important texts in our field which have been made available by Gutenberg; they are described in the Bioscope Library. Below is a list of these and some of the other silent film-related books available on Project Gutenberg. The best thing you can do, by way of tribute to Hart’s great work, is to download and read at least one.

  • ‘Victor Appleton’, The Moving Picture Boys on the War Front (1918)
    One of a series of children’s adventure stories featuring the daring exploits of cameramen, a number of which feature on Gutenberg.
  • J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds, Writing the Photoplay (1919) [orig. 1913]
    A standard guide to writing a screenplay.
  • Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Edison: His Life and Inventions (1929)
    Early biography of the inventor of the Kinetoscope.
  • Arnold Fredericks [Frederic Arnold Kummer], The Film of Fear (1917)
    Thriller novel with a film background.
  • Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) [1922 revision]
    Classic, poetical study of the motion picture as an art form.
  • Geoffrey H. Malins, How I Filmed the War (1920)
    Classic account of an official cinematographer’s experiences of filming in the First World War.
  • Brander Matthews, ‘The Kinetoscope of Time’ in Tales of Fantasy and Fact (1896)
    Book of short stories with hauting tale inspired by the Kinetoscope.
  • Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916)
    Generally considered the first serious work of film theory.
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Cinema Murder (1917)
    British detective story with an American motion picture background.
  • Luigi Pirandello, Shoot! (si gira) (1927) [orig. 1915] [from Project Gutenberg Australia]
    Pirandello’s satirical novel about a cinematographer who is also an absurdist writer.
  • Jose Maria Rivera, Cinematografo (1920)
    A play (written in Tagalog) about the popularity of cinema in Filipino society.
  • Harry Leon Wilson, Merton of the Movies (1919)
    Celebrated comic novel about a terrible movie actor who is cast for laughs while he thinks he is playing in straight drama.

Thank you Michael Hart and all the volunteers at Project Gutenberg.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 30

Mural of Lillian Gish on the wall of a pump station at Massillon, Ohio, from

Hi folks, and welcome to the latest issue of the Bioscope’s erratically published but lovingly composed newsreel, mopping up for you some of the more diverting news stories of the week on silent film.

More on Brides of Sulu
A few weeks we published a post on Brides of Sulu, a supposedly American film from the mid-1930s which probably took footage from an Philippine silent fiction film (possibly two) and added an American commentary. All Philippine silent film production was believed to be lost, so this is an exciting discovery, and it was naturally a highlight at Manila’s recent International Silent Film Festival. If you read comments to the original Bioscope post you can find extra information from the grandson of the film’s lead actor, ‘Eduardo de Castro’ (real name Marvin Gardner). Or there’s an informative piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the research involved – though I think the director was not the Philippine José Nepomuceno but rather American silent film veteran Jack Nelson. But the journalist has read the Bioscope, which is grand. Read more.

The day the laughter stopped
A feature film adaptation of David Yallop’s account of the Fatty Arbuckle case, The Day the Laughter Stopped, is in development. The film is scheduled to star Eric Stonestreet and will be a telefilm made for HBO. Will silent cinema’s pre-eminent tragic tale make a successful transference to the screen? With Barry Levinson as director, we must hope at least for a thoughtful interpretation. Read more.

Lillian at the pump station
Massillon, Ohio artist Scot Phillips has created a mural featuring Lillian Gish at the junction between Lillian Gish Boulevard and Route 21, unromantically painted on a west-facing wall of a pump station next to the Tuscarawas River. The silent film star grew up in Massillon, hence the mural and the road. It took him all summer. Read more.

Telluride coup
What are the two most discussed silent films of 2011? They must be Michel Hazanavicius’ modern silent The Artist, and the colour restoration of George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. So hats off to the Telluride Film Festival for bringing the two together in one of the more imaginative programming coups of the year. And they are playing at the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema … Read more.

The story of film
Mark Cousins’ book The Story of Film (2006) is a pretty good and impressively wide-ranging generally history of the medium. It’s now been turned into a 15-part television series showing in the UK on Channel 4’s offshoot channel More4 from tomorrow. Expect to see silent films given their fair due (says the press release of episode one, “Filmed in the buildings where the first movies were made, it shows that ideas and passion have always driven film, more than money and marketing”). What you don’t expect to see is a UK television channel go so far as to show a silent film itself, but – incredible to relate – Film4 is showing Orphans of the Storm on 6 September to accompany the Cousins series. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Brides of Sulu

Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro in Brides of Sulu, from

A lot of us will know the commonly accepted figure of 80% of all films from the silent era as being considered lost. The figures varies for different territories, however (and whether you are counting fiction films only or all kinds of production). For America there is an estimated a survival rate of 7-12% for each year of the teens (feature films only), moving to 15-25% for the 1920s, but for China the figure is 95% loss, and for Japan the figure is between 95% and 99% loss. For the Philippines the figure is even worse – 100% loss of all native silent film production. Or at least that was what was thought. But silent films can lurk in some surprising places.

Brides of Sulu is an obscure American B-movie, made anywhere between 1933 and 1937 according to assorted sources. It’s included in the American Film Institute’s catalogue for the 1930s. The film tell of two lovers from the Philippine islands, one a Mohammedan princess (Venita), the other a pagan pearl diver (Assam). To escape her aranged marriage to a local chief, the couple flee to a remote island only to be pursued by her tribe, determined to kill Assam. It was filmed in the Philippines, though there is apparently no written account there of its production, and has an American narration (the country was still a colony of the USA at this time). The film was directed by one John Nelson, of whom nothing else (according to IMDb) is known, and stars two Phillipines film actors, Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro, as well as local Moro tribesmen.

Now Brides of Sulu is to feature at Manila’s International Silent Film Festival, because recent scholarship indicates that the film was made out of one, if not two, Philippine silents. According to the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film:

There were two late silent-era Filipino films made in 1931 about the Moros of Sulu – Princess Tarhata (Araw Movies) and The Moro Pirate (Malayan Movies). The first was produced by the forgotten cinematographer Jose Domingo Badilla, while the latter was produced and directed by Jose Nepomuceno, acknowledged as the Father of the Philippine movie industry. Tarhata‘s lead actress is Adelina Moreno, while main actor of Moro Pirate is Eduardo de Castro …

… Coincidentally, both Moreno and De Castro, are the main starring actors in Brides of Sulu. The film also looks like it has two separate parts- the dramatically acted scenes and the documentary portions. Which raises the the intriguing possibility- is Brides the mutant offspring of the re-cutting and reconstitution of two earlier local films via the editing room? Then dubbed in English and re-editorialized for U.S. release with the intention of making it look like an American production so it would be easier to sell abroad? And who is director John Nelson? … Why are his initials the same as those of Jose Nepomuceno’s? So is the nationality of the film American or Filipino?

For the exciting conclusion, please attend the opening of the 5th International Silent Film Festival on Aug. 26 at the Shangri-la Mall Cinema …

Well, given that they promise an exciting conclusion, and given that the film is to screen at a silent film festival, I think we are safe in declaring that the Philippines has found one, or maybe two, films from its silent heritage, the first such films known to survive. Brides of Sulu has circulated on assorted obscure video labels for many years, and you can view the whole film on YouTube.

Extract from Brides of Sulu, in which Assam (Eduardo de Castro) faces up to Datu Tamboyan, father of Benita (Adelina Moreno)

Viewing the film undoubtedly suggests a silent film cannibalised by some opportunistic American producer with some actuality footage and narration to make an exotic B-movie release. Maybe Jose Nepomuceno, a revered figure in Philippine film history who directed their first fiction film, Dalagang Bukid, in 1919, is ‘John Nelson’, though there doesn’t seem much reason why this should be. No doubt all will be revealed at the International Silent Film Festival, which is now in its fifth year. The festival takes place 26-28 August at the Shang Cineplex (Cinema 2), Shangri-La Plaza, Mandaluyong Manila. Brides of Sulu will be screened with musical accoompaniment by Armor Rapista and the Panday Pandikal Cultural Troupe, which suggests that they will be dropping the American narration, which will be no bad thing. Other films screening at the festival are Nosferatu (Germany 1922), Akeyuku Sora (The Dawning Sky) (Japan 1929), L’Inferno (Dante’s Inferno) (Italy 1911), The Greek Miracle (Greece 1921) and Pilar Guerra (Spain 1926) – an impressive eclectic selection.

When certain information is reported on the provenance of Brides of Sulu, we will report it. Meanwhile, you can discover more about Jose Nepomuceno in a thesis by Nadi Tofighian of Stockholm University, The role of Jose Nepomuceno in the Philippine society: What language did his silent films speak? (2006), which shows what a rich history early Philippine filmmaking can boast, even without the films themselves to refer to.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 19

The Bioscope Newsreel failed to hit your screens last Friday, as the entire editorial team was in Spain. But we have returned, with items curious and diverting for your delectation and instruction.

100 Years of YouTube
In case you missed it, one of Google’s contribution to April Fools’ Day was to add a “1911” button to YouTube that allowed users to convert videos into faux silent films, complete with sepia tone, scratches (naturally) and tinkly piano (of course). Unfortunately the joke fell somewhat flat for some, as many videos of serious note (9/11, the Japanese tsunami etc.) hardly lended themselves to facetious treatment. Read more.

We have an app for that
More on faux silents, as we now have Silent Film Director, a new app made by MacPhun for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad and available on the iTunes App Store. It allows you to convert your videos into “classic silent movies”. There are six themed filters: an “old and grainy 20s-era movie filter”, 60s home video, 70s-era home video, standard black-and-white, sepia-toned, and “Vintage Sepia” with extra graininess and signs of wear and tear. There are soundtracks you can add, then upload your video to YouTube, share it on Facebook, or enter the developers’ “International Silent Film” content. Read more.

Silent Naruse
Eclipse has issued a three-disc set that brings together the five surviving silent films of Japanese master Mikio Naruse, pre-eminent in studies of women’s lives. They are the short film Flunky, Work Hard (1931), No Blood Relation (1932), Apart From You (1933), Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Street Without End (1934). The films are presented silent, with optional soundtracks, and come with English subtitles. Read more.

The Garbo note
Greta Garbo is going to be on a banknote. She is one of six prominent Swedes (including Ingmar Bergman) whose faces have been selected to appear on Swedish bills scheduled to come into circulation around 2014-15. Is she the first film person (and of course she was a silent film person) to be so honoured? Read more.

Fascinating Chomón
One of the items we brought with us from Spain was the English version of Joan M. Minguet Batllori’s Segundo de Chomón: The Cinema of Fascination. It’s a pleasing critical biography of the leading Spanish of the early cinema period, someone whose reputation as a master of the fantastical continues to grow. See for instance Chris Edwards’ detailed appreciation of Sculpteur moderne (1908) over at the fine Silent Volume blog. Read more.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 18

The Ten Commandments (1923), from DVD Talk

Chinese American
The Chinese Film Forum UK is a network based in Manchester, UK that exists for the research and promotion of transnational Chinese film. It organises regular film screenings at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, and in early April there are some silent films: Piccadilly (GB 1929), staring Ann May Wong (5 April); a talk, ‘Beyond Dragon Ladies and Butterflies: Anna May Wong’s Stardom’, given by Mina Suder (5 April); and The Curse of Quon Gwon (US 1916-17), the earliest known example of Chinese-American filmmaking, shown as a double bill with the documentary Hollywood Chinese (US 2008), which looks at the ways the Chinese have been imagined in Hollywood movies, from silents to contemporary cinema (12 April). Read more.

The Ten Commandments – and The Ten Commandments
We must be grateful for our silents where we can find them, and sometimes they turn up on the extras rather than as the main attraction. So it is that Paramount’s six-disc (count’ em) limited edition Blu-Ray release of Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) includes his 1923 The Ten Commandments, with extras all of its own – audio commentary, hand-tinted footage and a two-strip Technicolor sequence. Read more.

Thanhouser – it’s official
The Bioscope somewhat jumped the gun when we announced that the Thanhouser collection of films was appearing online (via Vimeo), but now the news is official, and you can find a list of all the films, with supporting information (and an invitation to help support their online access with PayPal donations) on the Thanhouser site. Read more.

London matters
London Rediscovered is a one-day event on programming and presenting archive films of London, from silents to today, with talks by Patrick Russell (Curator of non-fiction at the BFI), Luke McKernan (a mere blogger), filmmaker Ron Peck, London Screen Archives’ Angela English, and Ian Christie, director of the London Screen Study Collection, curator and film historian. It takes place 29 March at Birkbeck College. Read more.

Last of the silents?
Who will be the last person living who was a silent film performer? Mickey Rooney, who appeared in ‘Mickey McGuire’ silent comedy shorts from 1927, is still with us, but the way she’s going it could well be the indefatigable Diana Serra Cary, who made her first film at the age of two in 1921, under the name Baby Peggy. The Los Angeles Times has an illuminating interview with her, which concludes with the family tragedy that followed when her fame slipped away. “I could never be important to my father again after I became ‘me.'” Read more.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Verdi theatre, Pordenone, with book fair in the background

And so we come to our final report on the 2010 Pordenone silent film festival. The Bioscope’s editor was on the plane home by this point, but happily our cub reporter The Mysterious X was on the spot to brings this account of day eight’s offering (Saturday, October 9th).

The final day; always a source of mixed feelings. On the one hand, that end-of-a-holiday sensation, saying goodbye to friends both Italian and international that we may not see for another year; on the other that the next day represents a return to normality, the chance of a proper breakfast, your own comfy bed, and more than five hours sleep per night.

But a change of venue this morning – The Verdi being prepared, and the orchestra rehearsed, for the evening show – and we all take the pleasant stroll up the Via Garibaldi to Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema, for the morning. Smaller, more modern, just about enough room for the audience numbers, plenty of legroom if you do get a seat. No pianos this year; we have a morning of silents in their sound versions.

Starting with Daigaku No Wakadama (Young Master at University) (Japan 1933); the notes don’t reveal whether the synchronised music score is from a later reissue print or whether we are already in a transitional period in Japanese terms. The film itself seems transitional though; as in the other Shochiku films we’ve seen this week, there is a tangible sense of a nation sat on the cusp between tradition and modernity, East and West … and not entirely comfortably. The Young Master of the title is a star player of the university rugby team; so we’re western and modern right away; except the rugby club is run along the lines of an officers’ mess in Victorian India; arcane rules of behaviour, regimented discipline, strictly hierarchical … so we’re ripped out of that feeling immediately. The Young Master is also heir to his father’s wholesalery, run on ultra-traditional lines; Father does not approve of rugby, is unsure of the benefits of university versus commercial experience, while the Young Master is not overkeen on inheriting such a rigid existence quite yet; he is, within the constraints of his environment, a practical joker and an apprentice playboy. In such a spirit, he invites young Hoshichuyo, an apprentice Geisha in love with his father’s clerk, to watch a training session incognito … but she is recognised when his sister arrives, goes into hiding in his changing room locker, whereupon she is discovered. She is banished … and so is he, from the rugby club. Further complications ensue (the clerk is betrothed to the sister, and so on) which need to be sorted out before The Young Master can be reinstated in time to play in The Big Game.

So it has the structure of a farce comedy, but is (I assumed anyway) a breezy romantic drama more than a laughfest; it did have comical moments, particularly during the climactic game when we see the legs of a downed player whip out of frame, as he is unceremoniously dragged off while the scrum is being set … it’s possible the political manoeuverings of the rugby club leaders were intended as satirical comedy, if it didn’t register as such with me. It was certainly more light-hearted than other examples we had seen this week, and a good start to the day. Incidentally, the film also featured a nicely anachronistic piece of set-dressing; in the apartment of one of the characters, I think that of the clerk, were a couple of Hollywood talkie posters; a French-language one-sheet for All Quiet on The Western Front, and another for an early Cary Grant film, The Eagle and the Hawk. So, if anyone ever asks you if Cary Grant was ever in a silent film, you can now respond “Only in Japan” …

Moana, from MoMA

The second offering I wasn’t planning on seeing; and as it was getting lively in the Cinemazero I decided to catch five minutes while standing at the edge, before getting some sunshine. Robert Flaherty’s Moana (USA 1926) was being presented with a soundtrack compiled in the ’80’s by Robert’s daughter Monica, who had been in Samoa as a very young girl during the filming; she had taken great pains in recording the sounds of Samoa, and recreating the speech of the on-screen participants, fifty years after the event; the ethics, the anthropological niceties of these efforts I’ll leave to others better qualified, but I can see why she would have wanted to make one of her father’s less well known projects more approachable for modern audiences. This was also being presented as a work-in-progress; I understand no viewable film print exists of this project at the moment; that is, however, the plan; we were watching a DVD being played off a laptop. I understand that this all went horribly wrong for a while after I exited … the feedback I got was not overwhelmingly positive on a number of points.

Back in again for the final film from the Shochiku strand: Tokyo No Eiyu (A Hero Of Tokyo) (Japan 1935), and again, a transitional dialogue-free film with a musical soundtrack. Directed by Shimizu, as were many of the films shown on the first days of the festival, this reverted to the template of a dark, tragedic exploration of the moral codes and hierarchies within Japanese society of the thirties. We meet a widowed businessman with a young son; feeling that he cannot devote enough time to his upbringing he remarries (for convenience, it seems) a widowed mother of two other children. After some initial sibling friction is played out, Father does a bunk; his business was selling shares in dodgy stocks, and he’d been found out. This leaves the mother with no income and no means to support herself, her two children plus this new stepson; she does what a woman has to do in a Shochiku film; she joins the sex trade, surreptitiously, unknown by all her family …

Fast forward fifteen years or so; her daughter is on the point of marrying into a ‘good’ family; they enquire into the family history, and the truth emerges. As does the father, up to his old tricks … at which point SHE feels the need to apologise to HIM for the shame …

At least in this film the outrage of the director towards the status quo is made obvious to a modern audience; this is a sharper critique than the preceding, far longer, films: more pointed, and to the point. The performances, of Mitsuko Yoshikawa as the woman trodden down by the societal rules, debasing herself to keep her family together; and of Yukichi Iwata as the bewildered, then angry son, are superb. While I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone in terms of entertainment, it
was for me the best of this strand. The bad news is, I’m told, that nearly all of the extant Japanese silents have been shown at Pordenone now; unless there are new discoveries … that’s our lot.

Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns), from

Back down the Via Garibaldi to the Posta for lunch … creature of habit that I am … before the afternoon’s offering, Abram Room’s Privideniye, Kotoroye ne Vozvrashchayetsya (The Ghost that Never Returns) (USSR 1930). It’s a stunning film, a tour de force combination of avant garde elements within an adventure film format – with a more than a dash of revolutionary propaganda, naturally. Our hero is a political prisoner in an unnamed South American country. Sentenced to vegetate in a semi-surrealist prison, a message is got to him that a strike is being planned in the oilfields by his colleagues on the outside; meanwhile his once-a-decade one day’s parole is imminent; the catch is that if the parole’s rules are broken, an armed guard is handily placed to execute summary justice. It becomes a series of battles of wits; between the prison authorities and the prisoner, then individually between the prisoner and his guard, as he jumps a train and treks across a desert wasteland towards home, the oilfields … and freedom ??? It’s utterly unlike any other Soviet film I’ve seen … aside from its politics … it has elements of the Soviet avant garde, but equally hints of Expressionism and Hollywood … a really interesting blend of styles that suited its subject matter, and made it more persuasive than most Soviet propaganda, I would imagine. Certainly more entertaining …

The final presentation of the French Clowns followed; Tartinette to Zizi … I saw a couple, not impressed again, to be honest … a lot of work must have been put into researching these films, and getting the prints here … but the presentation of them in large chunks in alphabetical order chased away all but the most ardent devotee … and lost the films the opportunity of making new converts. A great shame.

So out to the Posta for one last appointment with a Spritz Aperol, to find that the usually milling Saturday evening crowd had been augmented by people admiring a vintage car display, half a dozen beautifully restored thirties vehicles lined up, and, for a fortunate few, giving little joyrides around the town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much joy on one man’s face as when Phil Carli returned from his …

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings (1927), from

And so to the finale, perhaps even a climax; the full live orchestral presentation of William Wellman’s Wings (USA 1927), featuring the Photoplay print, and the Orchestra Mitteleuropea conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald playing the Carl Davis score. It’s one of his finest, I think, that great March as the main theme, some nice leitmotifs reappearing throughout as appropriate … very effective.

And, what with all the sound effects of the battle sequences having to come from the orchestra, I would imagine a nightmare to play. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, they nailed it. It’s a powerful film – not just the legendary flying sequences, or the breathtaking battlefront climax … but the subtle underplaying of emotions, too … sometimes Clara and Buddy go slightly over but Arlen, and particularly Henry B. Walthall convey the suppressed emotion just beneath the surface to great effect.

But it is famous for those war sequences, and deservedly so; on the big screen you get to see so much more of it; on a small screen you don’t see the aircraft growing from the smallest dot to ambush the pontoon bridge, or the staff car … you don’t quite see the battlefield extending right to the horizons … and you’re involved, you’re in the air, or in the mud, with them. And did the shot of the white crosses covering the whole landscape inform the similar shot in Attenborough’s Oh! What A Lovely War? I would just hesitate from calling it the perfect WW1 film; for that we would need a little more Gary Cooper, a little less El Brendel, a good deal fewer animated bubbles in Paris … with the latter, a nice idea that was way overused … actually, that applies to El too. And I struggle to quite see how anyone with Clara living next door would pursue the rather more watery charms of Jobyna Ralston. However much an advantage being from The City conferred. But this is nitpicking; you sit back, let the film and the orchestra take you to a time past; either WWI, or the days in the twenties when such presentations were daily occurrences in the larger cities … it was a terrific way to end the Giornate of 2010.

The Verdi at night

Was it a classic year? Not quite, I feel, though there were, as always, cinematic experiences to cherish, lessons to learn, doors opened to unsuspected areas of interest; films that would surprise, or delight, or shock, but seldom leave without further thought. And certainly films that you will be unlikely to have a second chance of seeing, as here, as they were designed to be seen.

I’m very aware that I haven’t mentioned many of the musicians’ performances; this was entirely down to a happy event chez Sosin (many congratulations, Donald and Joanna) which meant that after his (superb) show with Jean Darling on the Wednesday he hotfooted it back home, and the remainder of the Giornate stalwarts shared out the films between them – and naturally, I failed to take notes as to who ended up playing for which film. Needless to say Messrs Brand, Buchwald, Carli, Horne, and Sweeney were all playing at the top of their game despite there being some challenging films in the programme. The Book Fair was much reduced, perched on the third floor of The Verdi, but I got hold of the one DVD I was after (Cento Anni Fa, the Bologna-compiled set of Suffragette films) so I was happy.

The social side, of course, was as good as ever, new friendships made, old friendships renewed; the Giornate staff and volunteers helpful and patient, the locals as welcoming and understanding (and as amused by our attempts at Italian ) as ever, the food and drink … I look forward to what goodies are to be pulled from the bag for us next year, the 30th renewal of the World’s most important silent film festival. I hope to see you there …

Huge thanks once again to The Mysterious X, who has donned the domino, cast a cloak about their person, and slipped away mysteriously as ever into the inky dark night. I would concur with X’s assessment of the festival – not quite a classic, but funding constraints had their effect upon the programme. We missed the variety that would have been there with another strand of programming (such as the Leo McCarey shorts which were promised early on); with just the one screen available, maybe the Japanese films (some of which were very long) took up a bit too much space. But that’s only by comparison with earlier festivals. The riches on offer were real riches, and there were major discoveries every day. I was particularly encouraged by the new faces I saw the festival – students from Italy and the USA especially – which suggests that the festival is not just showing the same films to the same crowd but continues to reach out to those who need to discover silents for the first time. Tell that to your funders, guys – you are doing the right things.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven

Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven

Donald Sosin rehearsing before a screening at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone

We’ve reached the penultimate report of the 2010 Giornate del Cinema Muto, and while I was strolling about the streets and blustery sea-front of Trieste, our anonymous reporter, known only as The Mysterious X, was on the spot at Pordenone to provide this account of the goings-on of Friday 8 October:

A quick scurry from the hotel, via the cafe for a quick espresso doppio, and to grab a bottle of mineral water for the cinema; for starting at 9.00am, we had the latest instalment from the Shochiko strand of the Giornate, Wakamono Yo Naze Naku Ka (Japan 1930) (Why Do You Cry Youngsters?).

By this stage of the Giornate we had discerned that Shochiku specialised in contemporary dramas of 30’s Japanese life, and particularly the culture clashes generated by modern western influences, seemingly largely from Hollywood, with the more traditional Japanese moral codes. And with a pacing that could be described as languid … and this film was no exception to the established trend. But intriguingly, the clash here, although along generational lines within a family, does not happen in quite the expected way. We meet the family – widowed father, son and daughter, happy and traditional in
outlook; until the father decides to remarry … his new, somewhat younger bride is a Modern Girl, with Modern Outlook and Modern Interests … a panning shot of the spines of the books she has brought to the house reveal titles of works of sexual psychology, shocking to the late teenaged children … Freudian, indeed. After episodes of increasing friction, the children flee the nest and set up house in a poorer neighbourhood, next to a family whose father is in the process of selling his pretty daughter into the sex trade.

All beautifully staged, and shot (although the picture quality is occasionally marred by print damage; not nitrate decomp I don’t think, but many of the Japanese films this week displayed the same type of damage, the effect it has is of watching a film through a sooty snowstorm) but the themes were becoming familiar; in a way these films were becoming as interesting in the anthropological sense, as we learned through the week how the dress codes worked, the significance of whether a suit or kimono was being worn to work, whether the suited man would change into kimono at home or not, which clothing denoted which level of the strict hierarchy in the Japanese sex trade, from Geisha, to dance hostess, to club
girl, to streetwalker … because representatives from the industry appeared in nearly all the films we saw. Not mentioning the curious – to western eyes of 2010 – 1930’s Japanese ideas of private and public morality. What constituted a happy or just ending in a Shochiku film seldom matched our modern Hollywood sensibilities. But, hey, we come here to learn … and the length and pacing of these films encourages the audience to think as we watch.

Mie Yamashita, who had played exceptionally beautifully to the Japanese films all week, had returned home by this point, so bravely stepping into the pit for this 3¼ hour marathon was our very own Stephen Horne, flute at hand, performing beautifully as ever, his style (and his partial use of the flute) certainly suiting Japanese silents.

Out into the noonday sun; as interested as I am in early cinema, I didn’t fancy half an hour of medical films, recording injuries, conditions and experiments in treatment, just before lunch [shame – Ed.]…

It’s been a bit of a challenge finding illustrations for this post, so I’ve given up looking for film stills and here’s a modern-day photograph of a harsh Caucasian landscape instead …

But back straight after, for Giuli (USSR/Georgia 1927) a Georgian rural drama directed by Lev Push and Nikolai Shengelaya, and set in the wild rocky Caucasus, where semi-nomadic clans survive by sheep-herding, and live with their own strict codes of behaviour, and feuds simmer deeply. Giuli is the daughter of an elderly shepherd, who promises her in marriage to the local (and equally elderly) clan chief … whereas she is in love with a more lowly, but virile, handsome etc. shepherd.

If the plot is hackneyed, and pretty much interchangeable with films about any society and at most times, this film was unmissable due to the spectacular cinematography of director-to-be Kalatazov, the use of the harsh Caucasian landscape, and the equally rocky and craggy
faces of the cast; the elderly males crevassed with wrinkles, the younger men with the most incredible aquiline profiles, spectacular moustaches and jutting chins, but with the humanity of the central performances giving heart to the film. All told a welcome antidote to the propagandistic films of the Soviet era, which personally leave me quite cold.

One of the highlights of the last few Giornates has been the series of films, discovered in Tasmania and preserved by the Australian national film archive, representing the repertoire of the Edwardian-era Corrick family’s touring cinema show, a mixture of self-made films, and those imported from Europe and the US. This latest batch – and we are promised that there is more to come – were every bit as interesting as those shown in previous years.

The programme started with the state funeral of New Zealand Premier Richard Seddon, the man who managed to keep New Zealand politically independent from Australia, and a huge figure in New Zealand’s politics. Shot by a local cameraman in the style of state funeral films everywhere, this also gave a tantalising glimpse of Edwardian Wellington as the cortege passes. Next up was what appeared to be a film recording a vaudeville stage act; Bicyclette Presentee En Liberte (1906) featured, in a proscenium setting, two gentlemen – twins, possibly – and their performing bicycle; that is, the bicycle performed while the men watched, one assumes by wires, but if so, very well hidden. There followed a short moral tale, The Waif and The Statue (UK 1907) directed by Walter Booth; a homeless starving girl is rejected at a church door; she shelters from the snow under a statue of Hope – which magically comes to life and finds her a benefactor to give her a safe home. Similar in style to some Edison films I’ve seen, the special effects are very well handled, and nicely played in a tableau-like manner … I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that this started life as a lantern-slide series. Back to France, and Chasse De Sanglier (Wild Boar Hunt) (France 1904) a seemingly heavily staged representation of hunting wild boar with dogs … Le Diner Du 9 (Dinner on the Ninth) (France 1909) was more amusing – a comedy of manners – which had the luxury of 10 minutes to develop in – where the confusion over dinner dates combined with the need to keep face, means the lead character (played by Charles Prince) ends up having three dinners that night … and in houses where the host was not expecting a guest. Nicely subtle, and not at all broad, very little that could be described as slapstick; quite sophisticated for an ’09 film comedy, possibly betraying its origins as a stage play of the era. Deux Braves Coeurs (Two Brave Men) (France 1909) was in contrast a less sophisticated mini-melodrama of civil war and self-sacrifice; following that were two similar films of a river-borne procession in Burma, filmed and distributed by Charles Urban; and Edwin S. Porter’s Life of a Cowboy (1906) which, apart from a final sequence that seemed to come from another drama entirely, was seemingly a filmed version of sketches and scenes performed by a Wild West Show of the time; if you read the posters or adverts of the shows from the era, then every little vignette – Rowdies making a greenhorn dance, Indians attacking a stagecoach, lasso tricks … all present and correct, and no interlinking plot whatsoever. Les Fleurs Animées (France 1906) was another extravaganza of hand-colouring and special effects from Pathé and the works of Segundo De Chomon; here anthropomorphic flowers take revenge on a man responsible for the destruction of a flower bed.

Festival-goers at the Posta café doing what festival-goers like to do best

The programme finished with a film not from The Corrick Collection, but a new discovery by and from a private archive in London; Those Jersey Cowpunchers (US 1911) – or rather, and unfortunately, the first reel of two – is a comedy from Nestor, one of the real Hollywood pioneer outfits, and supposedly based on their experiences in trying to make westerns; in the film, the Billiken company head west from their New Jersey studio to make use of western locations and personnel, only to find there are no real cowboys left … they are all in the movies now; they wire back to base, to send some Eastern actors to play the roles; said actors are just applying their awful ‘Indian’ make ups when reel one finishes … it may just be that we are thus cheated of a delicious satire on early Hollywood racial stereotyping … we may never know …

After a quick break, another new discovery being introduced to the World … Die Waffen der Jugend (Germany 1912), and much anticipated as this three-reel comedy was the directorial debut of Robert ‘Caligari’ Wiene; and it really didn’t disappoint; the youth of the title is a headstrong, tomboyish daughter of a middle-class father who can no longer cope with her; he packs her off to boarding school where she remains a handful; a midnight mandolin recital is one thing, but getting into a fight with a fellow inmate and drawing a clasp knife from her stocking top … is another. Eventually she makes her escape in the traditional sheet-rope manner, and wanders the streets of the local town … wherein she draws the attentions of two criminal beggars, squatting in a dingy basement. They induce her to come with them, and keep her prisoner … which is their big mistake. In a Stockholm-syndrome-in-reverse scenario, in an effort to please her, the criminals smarten themselves up, clean up the basement, and eventually when she is found by the police and reunited with Father, decide to go straight and, much to their own horror, accept a job offer from him. A delightful, energetic and downright funny film; highly accomplished for a directorial debut, and with a superb performance from Gertrud Grabner as the beggars’ teenage nemesis; if IMDb is to be believed, this was the second – and final – film of her career … the internet fails to reveal what became of her. In its small understated way, one of the films of this year’s Giornate.

Skipping a modern documentary on Kalatozov, the director of The Cranes Are Flying but also masterful silent-era cinematographer for an extended dinner break, and brace myself for the evening events; the prizegivings, and sponsors speeches, before the spectacle that is Doug Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. The speeches from the sponsors and local dignitaries were succinct, and made welcome noises about their continued support, financial and moral, for the continuance of the Giornate; times are harder in Italy than in some other countries, and events on the level of Pordenone and Bologna do not come cheaply; I trust these people do actually realise how much they are doing for film culture in Europe and the World, and how grateful we are that they continue to support the events. Inevitably, given the brevity of the above, the presentation of the Prix Jean Mitry did drag on a bit; a shame as the recipients, André Gaudreault and Riccardo Redi are deserved recipients, and made good speeches; it was their introductions to the audience by the presenters that were overlong, and not entirely necessary; surely a written tribute and career overview could have been printed in the catalogue instead? A quick presentation to the Haghefilm/Selznick School Fellowship recipient Karin Carlson, was followed by the two films she had restored; two 1910 Essanay one-reel comedies, Mulcahy’s Raid and A College Chicken; both sprightly films, surviving in excellent picture quality if possibly missing some frames, Mulcahy’s Raid is the tale of a stereotypical Irish American cop enlisting passing actors to round up an illegal gambling den; A College Chicken was the tale of a stolen chicken passing through various hands before ending up as a contraband dorm feast at a co-ed private school. A little amuse-bouche for the main course to follow.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

Robin Hood (USA 1922); starring Douglas Fairbanks. On paper, what could possibly be a greater combination of star and vehicle? And yet … it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It’s beautifully shot, the grandeur of the sets is stunning, the stunts are phenomenal, Doug is Doug .. .but we do have to wade through some stodge to get to the meat. It’s a full hour before we reach Sherwood Forest; the Merry Men are in place, there is none of the delineations of their characters that we get in the Errol Flynn version … but a load of exposition on how much King Richard and Maid Marian are in love with Robin Hood … honestly, sections could be retitled as a bisexual love triangle. Which would make an interesting film, but it was not what we were as an audience turning up for, in 2010 any more than 1922.

Even the spectacular sets were underutilised; is it me being fanciful speculating that the makers of the later Flynn version saw the former version’s immense spiral staircase and wondered why a duel wasn’t being fought there? The Rathbone/Flynn duel was iconic, the set for it was built in ’22 … but with no fight. If it sounds like I’m criticising a 1922 film for not being a 1938 film, perhaps you’re right; but I do find it surprising that Doug Fairbanks, of all people, could lose sight of what made his earlier films so captivating and so popular, and blow the opportunity the subject afforded. At 2¼ hours, the film is 45 minutes too long, and while in ’22 there could be an excuse for thinking longer = better, it needed someone taking Fairbanks aside – and it must have been him making the artistic decisions – and suggesting heavy cuts. Fairbanks did, I think, learn the lesson … his later adventures are far more taut and packed with action … but the definitive telling of the tale, using lessons learnt from the ’22 film, would be in three-strip
Technicolor and not tinted and toned.

The final show, more French clowns, letters O-S – yes, they were being shown alphabetically by character name all week – started
around an hour after the scheduled time, around ten to midnight; sadly, this was also the showcase for the aspirants from the Piano
Masterclasses that had been running all week. Obviously this was not deliberate, but neither was it fair … I believe some thought has to be
given to avoiding a future repetition, as it was simply too late in the day for most of the potential audience. I know it was for me.

Thanks once again, Mysterious. Some food for thought there. I did actually return from Trieste for the Corrick film show because it included one (not two as billed) of Charles Urban’s films of Burma from 1903, part of a series of films shot by H.M. Lomas for Urban none of which was known to survive before now. Unfortunately it hasn’t proved possible as yet to match the film (which shows a succession of richly-decorated boats, some of them bearing Western tourists, being rowed along a wide river) to any title from the Urban catalogue.

The final day’s report will follow soon.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight