The Bioscope’s ceaseless quest to inform you of all that matters in the world of early and silent cinema takes a significant step foward – hopefully. We have added a new feature using the ingenious news-gathering tool, Scoop It! This allows you, when you come across a web page, video, image or whatever of interest, to select an image and headline text from the web address and post it in what is effectively your own curated resource. Each new discovery, or scoop, appears at the head of your Scoop It! site. This can then be picked up by those also interested in your subject, either by visiting the site, or following it on Twitter, or by getting an email alert if they so choose.

So we have created The Bioscope on Scoop It! and we will use the service to note each piece of silent film-related news that we come across, plus sites, resources and videos of interest, some of which may then get turned into fully-fldged Bioscope posts in the usual way. So it will be an archive of things Bioscopical – effectively replacing the long list of bookmarks that I currently have on my browser as prompts for future Bioscope posts. As said, you can follow this by visiting the website, also linked on the right-hand column of this site (under Other Bioscope Sites), where each ‘scoop’ gives you the headlines and links to its source; or by following the Bioscope on Twitter where each ‘scoop’ will appear; or by signing up to an email alert (one a day). You can even suggest web pages which the curator (i.e. me) might want to add to the service.

Puzzled? Well, take a quick look at the Bioscope’s Scoop It! site and you’ll get the idea. It looks stylish, it could prove useful, and I think it’s now going to replace the Bioscope Newsreels which have been appearing on Fridays (usually). Or I may still use the Newsreel for news highlights taken from Scoop It! We’ll see. Anyway, do take a peek.

750,000 and rising

It is the special privilege of all bloggers to bore / regale / fascinate (delete as appropriate) their readers with statistics. Every blog comes with a content management system that reports the daily, weekly and monthly figures, encouraging to write ever more so that you may attain the next milestone in pursuit of a truly satisfactory popularity. The urge to report such figures to your readership is a great one, though one doubts that the readers care much at all.

Here at New Bioscope Towers we are not entirely immune to such temptations, but as the viewing figures climb steadily if unspectacularly upwards, we are less distracted by them than used to be the case (oh that happy day when we first hit 10,000 views). Nevertheless, three-quarters-of-a-million visits since 2007 feels like a modest achievement, and that’s where we are. Feel free to celebrate in whatever way you find fitting.

For myself, I shall celebrate by presenting the trailer for The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’ modern silent feature film which was such a great hit at Cannes and is about to go on general release (in October, it seems). It looks to be just the sort of fun that the best silent films can be – and a film for everyone. The Bioscope salutes it, and all those who revere a medium which clearly has much more life in it yet.

Flicker alley

No. 8 Cecil Court, formerly home of The Bioscope film trade journal, now Tim Bryars Ltd bookshop

I was wandering through central London today, something I’d not had a chance to do for quite some while, and I ended up at Cecil Court. It’s a favourite spot, a short street of great charm linking Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, close by Leicester Square, and filled with bookshops of the antiquarian and first edition kind. It is also the first home of the British film industry, because it was here, between 1897 and 1911, that many of the film businesses then operating in London chose to have their offices – producers, distributors, agents, equipment manufacturers and more. It was nicknamed ‘Flicker Alley’, a name recalled with affection in many subsequent memoirs, and now of course the name given to an American DVD company specialising in silent film.

What caught my eye were the blue plaques. London is filled with blue plaques placed on the walls of buildings which were previously home to great names of the past. The traders of Cecil Court have taken this idea and placed pseudo blue plaques in their windows, each one noting the name of a film business that used to be based in that building. That they have been able to do so is thanks to the work of Simon Brown, now of Kingston University, who has undertaken detailed research into early London film businesses, and wrote a paper on the history of ‘Flicker Alley’ for the journal Film Studies, a paper which happily is freely available online.

Simon’s paper provides an understanding of the early London film industry, in all its many forms, viewed through the history of the businesses that came and went in Cecil Court. He provides tables which name each one, what their business was, and which was their address. You must turn to his paper for the full details, but the companies there from 1897-1906 were Biograph, Gaumont, Hepworth and New Bioscope, then from 1907-1911 New Bioscope, Vitagraph, Hepworth, Graham and Latham, Cinematograph Syndicate, Kamm, Williamson, F.A. Fullager, Nordisk, Williamson Dressler, Central Electric, Globe, Precision, Paragon, International Film Bureau, Rosie, Globe, Tyler, Films Ltd, New Kinematograph Enterprises, Biograph Theatres, Mansell, Theatre Chocolate Co., American Film Releases, Cinema Halles, and more. It was the more that interested me in particular, because at no. 8 Cecil Court there were plaques for Bioscope Press i.e. the original Bioscope film trade journal, and Ganes, publishers of the journal and its annual directories.

Every other shop in the short street has these plaques in their windows, and one would be hard pressed to think of anything to compare with it in terms of modern-day buildings marking their cinema history heritage (or indeed any other heritage) in such a concentrated and compehensive form. The plaques were put there following a Cecil Court festival held last year, and it is terrific to see how the street has taken to its special place in film history. You can read all about the street’s history, going back to the seventeenth century, on the Cecil Court website, which also provides details of every shop there today.

For more of Simon Brown’s research into the early London film business, check out the London Project database, which lists practically all of the film businesses and film venues in London before the First World War – Simon did the businesses, I did the cinemas. What a great project that was – just a year (2004-5, six months each) and we produced a database, several papers, a touring exhibition, a show (turning up at the Barbican next month), and changed the look of an entire street. Meanwhile I’m still working on the book…

Now, will someone do the same sort of research for the street to which the film businesses then gravitated, once they got too big for Cecil Court, namely Wardour Street?

The Bioscope on Vimeo

Posting on the modern silent Momentos a few days ago made me think that it was high time there was a Vimeo channel on the Bioscope. There is already a Bioscope YouTube channel, where every YouTube video which features on this blog is gathered together in one handy section, accessible via link on the right-hand column (under Other Bioscope Sites). But though we have been posting videos from Vimeo for some while, there hasn’t been a channel to bring them all together.

Well now there is, and if you look under Other Bioscope Sites you will now see The Bioscope on Vimeo. The link will take you to every Vimeo we’ve featured so far: modern silents, documentaries, pastiches, mashups etc; and as each new Vimeo is added here it will go on the channel. Vimeo, if you don’t know, is YouTube with class. It is the favourite site of up-and-coming filmmakers (film school graduates and the like), who use the site to test of ideas, and as a showcase for work which normally would only get seen on the festival circuit. Comments and likes tend to strees technical and aesthetic achievement, and generally the quality is very high. Moreover, there is a significant body of work within the silent film genre, in its broadest sense.

To celebrate our new channel, I’ve posted some videos to demonstrate the range that exists. At the top of the post we have Michael Fisher’s To a Flame, a visually striking example of an historical subject treated in a modern silent style.

A different approach to silents is taken by Chandler McWilliams for Silent, which the filmmaker describes thus:

Silent is a two minute video created by combining frames from five classic silent films: Metropolis, Faust, Nosferatu, Holy Mountain, and The Dragon Painter and put to the music of Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en. The frames are chosen by custom software that compares data from each of the film’s soundtracks with the data from Ives’ music.

The result is very different to the average mashup of a silent film to a music track, creating something compellingly abstract. (Those sensitive to such things should note that the video features insistent flashing imagery).

Another take on silent films is this six-minute comedy by You Look Nice Today, in which a trio of foley artists discuss the challenges of contributing sounds to silent films. It takes a while to go anywhere and then doesn’t really get there in any case, but if celery jokes are your sort of thing, you’re in luck.

And, finally, a short film. A very short film.

The Bioscope decides

Thank you everyone for your thoughts on the direction of the Bioscope. I put the question whether it would be a good idea to expand its range beyond silent films. The balance of opinion seems to be not to do so. Of course, these are opinions from those who come to this site for its information on silent films, so there may be a slight bias there, but on careful reflection I agree with you. This is a blog about silent films, and it is best to keep it at that. Change would only be for change’s sake (which is seldom wise), and it would damage what has been built up quite carefully over four years. So we’ll stick to the brief of reporting on the world of early and silent cinema.

That said, I will start to make some excursions beyond the silent comfort zone from time to time, particularly when considering contexts and research resources. One must always bear in mind the phrase that C.L.R. James used for cricket in Beyond a Boundary, but which applies to so much else: what do they know of silent films who only silent films know? We must seek out the bigger picture, or delve behind the screen, or turn our backs on the screen sometimes and look in the other direction. Otherwise how can we say with any confidence that we know where we are?

The Bioscope wonders

Dear readers,

I have a question for you. Whither the Bioscope?

Let me explain. This blog is coming to its fourth birthday, and it is doing quite well. It gets around 6-700 visitors per day and just passed the 600,000 visitor figure overall. According to the web monitoring site Alexa it is number 1,166,704 in the ranking list of world websites. It would be good to break the 1 million barrier, and what Alexa has to say about the site’s demographic suggests things are narrower that they might be (“Based on internet averages, is visited more frequently by users who are in the age range 45-54, have no children, are graduate school educated and browse this site from home”), but on the whole it’s not bad for a site devoted to silent film – and often to corners of silent film that don’t always hold obvious interest for the dedicated few who like silent films.

However, I’ve been wondering whether it’s time for a change. I don’t just know about silent films, but though I’ve set up several other web resources, none has worked quite as well as the Bioscope, and managing six (as I currently do, plus several ancillary sites) is impractical. I would rather focus on fewer resources, and do the work better.

But as I’ve thought about change, I’ve been wary of spoiling a modestly successful model. It’s always good policy to keep to a clear theme, and straying beyond silent films could weaken the site’s impact and let down the existing audience that the site gets. On the other hand, I find myself again and again highlighting web resources of value to research (a speciality of this site) and artificially limiting what I say about them to silent films. It should be possible to widen the site’s frame of reference while keeping to its principle of encouraging discovery.

I’m not proposing a blog that’s about my personal interests. That would be tedious. So I wouldn’t go on about politics or what film I saw last night (The King’s Speech – not bad, I guess). It would be about art, culture, social history and research, and I’m fairly sure 80% of it would remain about silent films, because that’s what I know and there’s a lot to said about them that doesn’t get said elsewhere. It would be mostly about film, because it’s a great medium. But it would reach beyond to film and its contexts, and that’s something that was in my mind when I first imagined what this site might be, only it turned into something else. It something to do with the original definition of ‘bioscope’ as “a view of life or survey of life“, as a motion picture camera might observe it.

If I were to do this, I would have to reorganise the site somewhat so that the silent film resources it has built up (Library, Festivals, Videos etc) remain available. In particular I would need to maintain the links down the right-hand column which I know get used as a reference source in themselves. I might have to stay my hand simply to avoid damaging what exists and is useful.

I’m torn. I feel the need to move on and avoid repeating myself (which I’ve started to do in places). At the same time I know the importance of a clear message and the danger of spoiling what works, reasonably well.

So I would welcome your advice. What do you think? I know it’s my blog and if I want to change tack and make it a site about tree-frogs then I’m completely at liberty to do so. But the site was created to be useful, and I want to continue to be useful. Your advice, please.

Respectfully yours


(The image at the head of this post comes from the title page of Granville Penn’s The Bioscope, or Dial of Life, published in 1812)

A Christmas Carol

Well it’s time for the Bioscope to set aside the quill pen for a few days as we head off to join the nearest and dearest for Christmas. While I’m gone, here’s a musical interpretation of the 1910 Edison film A Christmas Carol with Marc McDermott as Scrooge, as performed by Vox Lumiere, the American troupe who combine silent film screenings with rock opera, and classical quintet The Definiens Project. Make of it what you will.

A happy Christmas to you all. Be kind and good.

Looking back on 2010

Lillian Gish knows just what it’s like in north Kent, from Way Down East

The snows of winter are piling up in fantastic drifts about the portals of Bioscope Towers. Icy blasts find their way through every crack and cranny. Outside, civilization grinds to a glacial halt, and the end of the year now beckons. In the relative warmth of the Bioscope scriptorium, I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to look back on what happened in the world of silent film over 2010. So here’s a recap of highlights from the past twelve months, as reported on the Bioscope (and in a few other places) – silent memories to warm us all.

There were three really big stories in 2010. For many of us, the most welcome news story of this or any other year was the honorary Oscar that went to Kevin Brownlow for a lifetime dedicated to the cause of silent films. The restored Metropolis had its premiere in a wintry Berlin in February. It has now been screened acround the world and issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. And there was the sensational discovery by Paul E. Gierucki of A Thief Catcher, a previously unknown appearance by Chaplin in a 1914 Keystone film, which was premiered at Slapsticon in June.

It was an important year for digitised documents in our field. David Pierce’s innovative Media History Digital Library project promises to digitise many key journals, having made a good start with some issues of Photoplay. The Bioscope marked this firstly by a post rounding up silent film journals online and then by creating a new section which documents all silent film journals now available in this way. A large number of film and equipment catalogues were made available on the Cinémathèque française’s Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. Among the books which became newly-available for free online we had Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, and the invaluable Kinematograph Year Book for 1914.

Among the year’s restorations, particularly notable were Bolivia’s only surviving silent drama, Wara Wara, in September, while in October the UK’s major silent restoration was The Great White Silence, documenting the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition.

We said goodbye to a number of silent film enthusiasts and performers. Particularly mourned in Britain was Dave Berry, the great historian of Welsh cinema and a friend to many. Those who also left us included Dorothy Janis (who starred in The Pagan opposite Ramon Novarro); film restorer and silent film technology expert Karl Malkames; the uncategorisable F. Gwynplaine Macintyre; and film archivist Sam Kula. One whose passing the Bioscope neglected to note was child star Baby Marie Osborne, who made her film debut aged three, saw her starring career end at the age of eight, then had a further ninety-one years to look back on it all.

Arctic conditions in Rochester uncannily replicated in Georges Méliès’ A la Conquête du Pôle (1912)

On the DVD and Blu-Ray front, Flicker Alley followed up its 2008 5-disc DVD set of Georges Méliès with a sixth disc, Georges Méliès Encore, which added 26 titles not on the main set (plus two by Segundo de Chomón in the Méliès style). It then gave us the 4-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone. Criterion excelled itself by issuing a three-film set of Von Sternberg films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). Other notable releases (aside from Metropolis, already mentioned) were Flicker Alley’s Chicago (1927) and An Italian Straw Hat (1927), Kino’s Talmadge sisters set (Constance and Norma), the Norwegian Film Institute’s Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1910-1912) and Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914, while the Bioscope’s pick of the growing number of Blu-Ray releases is F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), released by Eureka. But possibly the disc release of the year was the BFI’s Secrets of Nature, revealing the hypnotic marvels of natural history filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s – a bold and eye-opening release.

New websites turned up in 2010 that have enriched our understanding of the field. The Danish Film Institute at long last published its Carl Th. Dreyer site, which turned out to be well worth the wait. Pianist and film historian Neil Brand published archival materials relating to silent film music on his site The Originals; the Pordenone silent film festival produced a database of films shown in past festivals; the daughters of Naldi gave us the fine Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp site; while Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions finally took the plunge and published its first ever website.

The crew for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, ready for anything the elements can throw at them

Among film discoveries, in March we learned of the discovery of Australia’s earliest surviving film, the Lumière film Patineur Grotesque (possibly October 1896); in June we heard about a major collection of American silents discovered in New Zealand; and digital copies of ten American silents held in the Russian film archive were donated to the Library of Congress in October. That same month the Pordenone silent film festival unveiled the tantalising surviving frgament of F.W. Murnau’s Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1921-22). There was also time for films not yet discovered, as the BFI issued its Most Wanted list of lost films, most of them silents, while it also launched an appeal to ‘save the Hitchcock 9” (i.e. his nine surviving silents).

The online silent video hit of the year was quite unexpected: Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) went viral after the release of the Tim Burton film of Lewis Carroll’s story. It has had nearly a million views since February and generated a fascinating discussion on this site. Notable online video publications included UCLA’s Silent Animation site; three Mexican feature films: Tepeyac (1917), El tren fantasma (1927) and El puño de hierro (1927); and the eye-opening Colonial Films, with dramas made in Africa, contentious documentaries and precious news footage.

2010 was undoubtedly the year of Eadweard Muybridge. There was a major exhibition of the photographer’s work at Tate Britain and another at Kingston Museum (both still running), publications including a new biography by Marta Braun, while Kingston produced a website dedicated to him. He also featured in the British Library’s Points of View photography exhibition. There was also controversy about the authorship of some of Muybridge’s earliest photographs, and a somewhat disappointing BBC documentary. In 2010 there was no avoiding Eadweard Muybridge. Now will the proposed feature film of his life get made?

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in the Medway ice, from South (1919)

It was an interesting year for novel musical accompaniment to silents: we had silent film with guitars at the New York Guitar Festival; and with accordions at Vienna’s Akkordeon festival. But musical event of the year had to be Neil Brand’s symphonic score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), given its UK premiere in November.

Noteworthy festivals (beyond the hardy annuals of Pordenone, Bologna, Cinecon etc) included the huge programme of early ‘short’ films at the International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen in April/May; and an equally epic survey of Suffragette films in Berlin in September; while the British Silent Film Festival soldierly on bravely despite the unexpected intervention of an Icelandic volcano.

On the conference side of things, major events were the Domitor conference, Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema, held in Toronto in June; the Sixth International Women and Film History Conference, held in Bologna also in June; and Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin Conference, held in Zanesville, Ohio in October.

It wasn’t a great year for silent films on British TV (when is it ever?), but the eccentric Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema at least generated a lot of debate, while in the US sound pioneer Eugene Lauste was the subject of PBS’s History Detectives. Paul Merton was also involved in an unfortunate spat with the Slapstick festival in Bristol in January over who did or did not invite Merton to headline the festival.

The art of the silent film carried on into today with the feature film Louis (about Louis Armstrong’s childhood), and the silent documentary feature How I Filmed the War. Of the various online modern silent shorts featured over the year, the Bioscope’s favourite was Aardman Animation’s microscopic stop-frame animation film Dot.

Charlie Chaplin contemplates the sad collapse of Southeastern railways, after just a few flakes of snow, from The Gold Rush

What else happened? Oscar Micheaux made it onto a stamp. We marked the centenary of the British newsreel in June. In October Louise Brooks’ journals were opened by George Eastman House, after twenty-five years under lock and key. Lobster Films discovered that it is possible to view some Georges Méliès films in 3D.

And, finally, there have been a few favourite Bioscope posts (i.e. favourites of mine) that I’ll give you the opportunity to visit again: a survey of lost films; an exhaustively researched three-part post on Alfred Dreyfus and film; the history of the first Japanese dramatic film told through a postcard; and Derek Mahon’s poetic tribute to Robert Flaherty.

It’s been quite a year, but what I haven’t covered here is books, largely because the Bioscope has been a bit neglectful when it comes to noting new publications. So that can be the subject of another post, timed for when you’ll be looking for just the right thing on which to spend those Christmas book tokens. Just as soon as we can clear the snow from our front doors.

And one more snowy silent – Abel Gance’s Napoléon recreates the current scene outside Rochester castle, from

Salim Baba

From time to time I’ve been posting on the bioscope tradition in India and the delightful examples of the handful who preserve the tradition of the travelling bioscope showmen or bioscopewallahs by taking film projectors – sometimes of great age – into the streets to show film clips to audiences of eager children.

This phenomenon has been picked up on by a number of filmmakers, as noted in an earlier post about the bioscopewallahs. Some of these videos are available online, and we have already posted the wonderful Prakash Travelling Cinema about a man who tours the streets of Ahmedabad operating a c.1910 Pathé projector, handcranked but adapted for sound.

Children crowding round the street projector, from Salim Baba

Now another of the films has been published online, Salim Baba, a 15-minute documentary by Tim Sternberg, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008 in the best short documentary category. It’s about as good a short film as you could hope to find – not startling in any way, just immaculately observant. It tells of 55-year-old Salim Muhammad, who lives in Kolkata and pushes round a small cart with a hand-cranked, customised projector of venerable age (one source says it is an 1897 Bioscope, another says that it is Japanese in origin). Again it has been adapted for sound, and he shows shows snippets of Bollywood songs and action sequences for a gaggle of excited children who crowd round the cart and pop their heads under a curtain to view the blurred and colour faded images. Salim inherited the tradition from his father, who used the same projector from the silent era onwards, and he is now passing it on to his sons. The love of cinema – its contents, its technology and its effect on people – fills the film. Do take a look.

A previous Bioscope post, The last bioscopewallah, tells Salim Muhammad’s story in greater detail.

Acknowledgments to the Documentary Blog where I found the link to the film.

500,000 Bioscope readers can’t be wrong

Market Theater, New Orleans, 1912, from Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to The Bioscope, the place for news, information, documentation and opinion on the world of early and silent cinema.

With those words, on 4 February 2007, the Bioscope made its modest entry into the blogosphere. 1,047 posts, 1,961 comments and 49,513 deleted spam messages later, and here we are having just paid court to the 500,000th visitor. It’s nice to think that maybe one in 122 of the UK population has visited the site, but there happen to have been quite a number of repeat visitors (hello to you all). Still it’s not too bad to have had half a million visits for a blog on a somewhat obscure theme whose most recent headline post was on the digitisation of a 1903 film catalogue.

While I’m in celebratory mood, here’s a list of some of my favourite articles from the past three-and-a-half years – often because of the comments they have generated, because it is you dear readers who make the Bioscope. Thank you to you all.

Just to round off the statistics, the most successful month ever was March 2010 (18,217 visits). The most visited post by far remains Searching for Albert Kahn, with 13,212 visits (and showing no signs of stopping). Most referrals have come from (thanks as always, Joe), and the most used search terms are ‘bioscope’, ‘the bioscope’, ‘albert kahn’, ‘kinetoscope’ and ‘louise brooks’. And by rough calculation I reckon there have been some 500,000 words written. One per visit, a gratifying return.