Those good people at the British Film Institute have just released a DVD of Borderline (1930). This little-known British avant garde silent (now’s there’s an unusual combination of words) was made by the POOL collective of intellectuals, including Kenneth Macpherson (the film’s director), Winifred Bryher, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), and Robert Herring, who were also behind the influential film journal Close-up. But what is most interesting to us now about Borderline is that it stars Paul Robeson, who had just moved to Britain and would later star in several British films in the 1930s. The story revolves around an inter-racial love triangle, made up Robeson’s wife Eslanda, Gavin Arthur and H.D., but it is experimental method attempting to denote states of mind which is so distinctive. As Michael Brooke says in Sight and Sound:

Much of the film is invested with an often inexplicable tension, with regular explosions into rapidly cut torrents of images that reach a frenzy during the more emotionally charged scenes. But it also has quiter, lyrical moments, mostly invoving Robeson, shot from below against Swiss skies and lit as though sculpted in bronze. Whether the film ultimately ‘works’ depends on one’s individual perception, but it’s certainly a unique historical oddity.

Which is sort of how I remember it from a viewing many years ago now. The BFI release has a score by Courtney Pine, background documentaries on Macpherson and co., and booklet.

Borderline also turns up on a four-disc Robeson set from Criterion, released in America. Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist features Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1924), Borderline (which uses the BFI print and Courtney Pine score), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937), my great favourite among his films The Proud Valley (1940), and Native Land (1942). There are also clips from Big Fella, King Solomon’s Mines and Song of Freedom.

Tom Fletcher remembers

Posting that item on Norman Studios and the black cinema of the silent era reminded me of a passage in a book that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to tell someone about. Tom Fletcher’s The Tom Fletcher Story: 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954) is a classic memoir that has been much-plundered by musical theatre historians, but I don’t know how many film historians know of this passage which records the experience of two black actors at the Edison film company in the early 1900s:

When the flickers, or moving pictures, were developed along around 1900, my partner, Al Bailey, and I got leading comedy parts. The studio was on 22nd Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. I was the talent scout for the colored people. There were no “types,” just colored men, women and children. Bailey and I did parts in the pictures that today would pay no less than four figures weekly, but we didn’t take it seriously. To us it was just something that would never get any place.

You never heard the words “lights,” “action,” “camera,” “roll ’em,” or “cut” which are so common today. There were no script writers, no make-up artists, just one man, everybody called him Mr. Porter, and I never took time to find out his first name, who placed you in your positions and gave you your actions, lit the scene and then turned the camera. His assistant was a fellow named Gilroy whom everyone called Gil. When we went on location it was to North Asbury Park, about the best place around New York for the purpose. The trees, gardens and farms gave just the right atmosphere.

At the end of each day Gilroy would hand me the money to pay off. I am not quite sure but I think it was three dollars a day for each of the people. Bailey and I got eight dollars each. We all considered it a lot of fun with pay. Vaudeville, private parties, music and show business kept me too busy to pay any real attention to the moving picture business.

Porter is of course Edwin S. Porter; Gilroy is his assistant William J. Gilroy. Fletcher’s less than awe-struck view of the early film business is illuminating, and shows how for most stage performers the new medium was a minor curiosity with little bearing on their professional lives except that the extra money was welcome. Is this a unique memoir for black performers in film at such an early date? I don’t know.

I first found the passage in Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (1989), which is an excellent, instructive history in itself, with wonderful illustrations.

It doesn’t show Edison films such as Tom Fletcher appeared in, but the Black Film Center/Archive site has some QuickTime clips of African-American performers (and some white actors in blackface) from the 1890s. The Uncle Tom Cabin’s & American Culture site has a huge range of information about the many expressions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, including the history behind the 1903 Edison film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with QuickTime video clips of this and subsequent film versions from the silent era. The lead parts in the 1903 film are played by white actors in black face; the black performers are all extras.

Restoring Norman Studios

The Flying Ace

A project is underway to restore the Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, as the Jacksonville Silent Film Museum at Norman Studios. The Norman Studios, run by Richard Norman, are most notable in silent film history for being where a number of feature films and shorts with all-black cast and crews were made during the 1920s. Only one title now survives, The Flying Ace (1926).

The studio complex still remains. A project to restore it begins next month and is due for completion in 2008. There’s background history on filming at Norman Studios and Jacksonville in general on the planned museum’s website, plus some terrific posters. The history of early black cinema has been much investigated of late, particularly the work of Oscar Micheaux, and the handful of surviving films given public screenings. The key source for finding out more is Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines and Charles Musser’s Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (2001).