Broken dreams

The demise of the American Kinetoscope Company, as reported in The London Gazette of 15 February 1895

The London Gazette is said to be Britain’s oldest continuously-published newspaper. It was founded in 1665 and has ever since been a record of official announcements. It is not a conventional newspaper, however, being instead a highly specialised resource used by policy-makers, the legal profession and historians. It is an official newspaper of record and is a government publication, published by The Stationery Office .

It groups the information it holds into the following categories: State, Parliament, Ecclesiastical, Public Finance, Transport, Planning, Health, Environment, Water, Agriculture & Fisheries, Energy, Post & Telecom, Competition, Corporate Insolvency, Personal Insolvency, Companies & Financial Regulations, Partnerships, Societies Regulation, Personal Legal.

For the silent film researcher, the London Gazette is an unexpected treasure trove. The journal has supplied official reports on all company insolvenices, and browsing through its archives brings up hundreds of records of film and cinema industry companies that went bust. It makes for sad but very revealing reading. And the great thing is that the Gazette‘s archives have been digitised and are fully word-searchable.

Searching is by the search box found on the website front page. An advanced search option allows you to narrow searches by date, phrase, page number and by some selected historical events. Narrowing down the date fields to 1895-1929 brings up 1,832 results under the word ‘cinema’, 765 under ‘cinematograph’, 1,455 under ‘film’, and 87 under ‘bioscope’. So there is plenty to be found. Each record leads you to a PDF copy of the relevant page, from which it is then possible to browse acros the rest of the issue. Each record supplies you with date, issue number and page number, and search results can be sorted by relevance, oldest or newest date. The texts are fully word-searchable, and though the OCR is uncorrected it is of a good standard.

So what sort of records do we find? Using our traditional search term of ‘kinetoscope’, which brings up just the one record for 1895-1929, we make the striking discovery of a film business being dissolved before any film had been produced in the country. In February 1895, the month in which Birt Acres is believed to have shot the UK’s first 35mm film, the American Kinetoscope Company, a partnership between Greek entrepreneurs George Georgiades and Theo Tragidis, was dissolved, as reported in the Gazette of 15 February 1895:

NOTICE is hereby given that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned George Georgiades and Theo Tragidis carrying on business as Dealers in Novelties at 62 Broad-street in the city of London under the style or firm of the American Kinetoscope Company has been dissolved by mutual consent as and from the llth day of February 1895. All debts due to and owing by the said late firm will be received and paid by the said Theo Tragidis.— Dated llth day of February 1895.


This mysterious duo played an important part in British film history, being the customers who asked Robert Paul late in 1894 to manufacture Kinetoscopes for their Edison 35mm films, after which Paul decided it would be worthwile breaking into this business himself, so starting up the British film industry.

More typical is the sort of report we get on the demise of the Globe Film Company in the Gazette of 25 August 1916. They just happens to have been the producers of the fake Titanic newsreel we wrote about recently:

The Companies Acts, 1908 and 1913.
Special Resolutions of the GLOBE FILM CO.Limited.
Passed the 28th day of July, 1916.
Confirmed the 14th day of August, 1916.

AT an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Members of the Globe Film Co. Limited, duly convened, and held at 81, Shaftesbury-avenue, in the city of Westminster, on the 28th day of July, 1916, the following Special Resolutions were duly passed; and at a subsequent Extraordinary General Meeting of the said Company, also duly convened, and held at the same place, on the 14th day of August, 1916, the following Special Resolutions were duly confirmed, viz.:—
” (1) That it is desirable to reconstruct the Company, and accordingly that the Company be wound up voluntarily; and that Henry McLellan, of 6A, Devonshire-square, in the city of London, Chartered Accountant, be and he is hereby appointed Liquidator for the purpose of such winding-up.
” (2) That the said Liquidator be and he is hereby authorized to consent to the registration of a new Company, to be named ‘Globe Films Limited,’ with a memorandum and articles of association which have already been prepared with the privity and approval of the directors of this Company.
” (3) That the draft agreement submitted to this Meeting and expressed to be made between this Company and its Liquidator of the one part, and Globe Films Limited of the other part, be and the same is hereby approved, and that the Liquidator be and he is hereby authorized, subject to section 192 of the Companies (Consolidation) Act, 1908, to enter into an agreement with such new Company, when incorporated, in the terms of the said draft, and to carry the same into effect, with such (if any) modifications as he thinks expedient.”
HY. PESSERS, Chairman.

There is a lot of this, sometimes formal reports, sometimes simple lists of titles of companies that are being wound-up. There are also bankruptcy notices for individuals in the film trade (such as Mollie Hanbury, film actress, reported 29 August 1922), and official notices of legislation and regulations relating to films, such as the Cinematograph Act of 1909 (as reported in the Gazette of 21 December 1909) or prescription on the amount of celluloid one could have in a building under the Defence of the Realm Act (reported 13 October 1914).

If you are looking for human interest, you will have to read between the lines. These are dry accounts of official transactions, which give you names, dates, occupations and locations, and little more. But you do seen the motion picture business as a business, and not as usually portrayed. Rather than a world of artistic endeavour and happy entertainment, here we see year after year of failures, as so many tried to join in the boom and failed. A close analysis of the reports in the London Gazette would be interesting for what it might illustrate of the ebbs and flows of a new business trying to put down roots. Much of that business is in the exhibition rather than the production side (so many failed cinemas), but that is an accurate reflection of where the balance of the money lay.

The records are not unique, and you can find much the same information on bankruptcies and windings-up in the Board of Trade records at The National Archives (as described in an earlier post). But it’s a side of film history that is too often overlooked, a side which must bring a healthy dash of realism to our understanding of what the early film business was. It was paved with broken dreams – and here’s the evidence.

New York, New York

A rare photograph showing the interior of a film business preview theatre, at the offices of American Cinephone Co., 124 East 25th Street, NYC, in 1910, from the MCNY Collections Portal

Now here’s an excellent resource for you. In 2010 the Museum of the City of New York launched its Collections Portal, opening up nearly 100,000 archival images of New York City to the web world. The collection is being added to all the time – a substantial collection of digitised postcards has just been added – and needless to say it offers plenty for the researcher interested in silent films.

The site is simple to use. The front page offers a striking browse option, where you can scroll laterally through images on the themes of Bridges, People, Waterfront, Skylines or Prints for Sale; or else by Borough (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan etc.), or featured photographer. There is a simple search option, with the advanced search giving you the options of keyword, artist/maker, subject term, excluded subject term, or accession number. There is a lightbox facility for registered users. Each image has a title, description, original dimensions given, date, and is subject indexed under a variety of terms, encouraging further browsing as each term is hyperlinked to further search results (though note that, for example, ‘motion pictures’ as a linked term gets 81 hits, but ‘motion pictures’ simply typed into the search box gets 257 hits. Classification is helpful, but always selective). There is powerful zoom function, though paradoxically you have to squint to find it (look out for the mini magnifying glass bottom left of any image).

Interior of the Automatic Vaudeville theatre, 48 East 14th Street, NYC, c.1904. Mutoscope viewers can be seen on the right-hand side

There is plenty on film-related subjects, and a lot of them from the silent period. It is best to keep search terms simple, and using the terms ‘movie’, ‘film’ or ‘motion picture’ yield the best results (our traditional test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up four images). The emphasis is not so much on production as on the distribution, sales and exhibition side of things. So there are are some fascinating interiors of New York film businesses, including American Cinephone, Mutual, Empire Film Co., Pathescope and others, plus exteriors of cinemas and other venues – among the earliest film-related images is a set showing an amusement arcade from c.1904, the Automatic Vaudeville, which includes a line-up of peepshow Mutoscopes among its visitor attractions – a handy reminder that not all films of the period were experienced in cinemas. All in all one gets a picture of the early film business somewhat stripped of its glamour, but very much a part of the ebb and flow of the business life of a great city.

What should be especially interesting for researchers is to seek out film-related subjects which the MCNY people have not identified. Among the many street views and postcard images of early 20th century New York City, there are going to be those which show cinemas, nickelodeons, variety theatres which showed film, and so on, which may not be the main subject of the image. It’s an activity worth undertaking, as I know from having searched not unprofitably for similar images of early London film venues in postcards.

A motion picture industry employees’ ball, New York, c.1910. Among the companies whose pennants can be seen are Moving Picture World, Nicholas Power Co., Hog Reisinger, Thanhouser, Great Northern, Lux, Lumiere, Imp, Buffalo and Rex

If you do find anything new, you should tell the people at MCNY. Their website invites interested users to submit new information or corrections, and I can confirm that they reply promptly, and make amendments quickly.

Finally, although the site is partly aimed as the commercial market, with the lightbox and information on rights and reproduction fees, they also say that any image can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes on personal blogs, for research or other academic study. Good for them, and thank you.

Go explore.

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?

Exporting entertainment

Scholarly works in the silent cinema field – indeed in most fields – don’t last long. They catch the latest academic wave for a time, surf along for a while, then sink beneath the waves as the next key text comes along. For a while it is important to cite them in your own work; then it ceases to be a necessity; finally it becomes an embarassment. You are writing an essay in 2010 and you are citing a book published in 1985? Think again.

But then just a handful of books break through academic fashion and turn out to have lasting value. You have always to refer back to them, because they are one of the signposts. They point the way. In the silent (and early sound) cinema field, one such book is Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907-1934, published in 1985 and a book that I have referred back to time and time again ever since, and one which has had a strong influence on our corner of film studies.

In part that influence is due to the unusual nature of its theme. Its subject is mechanics of the early Hollywood film industry and how it gained world dominance from the First World War inwards. But it is not so much the thesis as the method, as Thompson looks at such previously overlooked data as import and export records, industrial data and market reports – data which had scarcely been considered the stuff of film history before then, but which turned out to be essential in understanding the intracacies of production, distribution and exhibition on a worldwide scale. The information could then underpin an understanding of why, as the book’s blurb puts it, “Hollywood has become practically synonymous with cinema”.

Exporting Entertainment has inspired other works, notably Ruth Vasey’s The World According to Hollywood: 1918–1939 (1997) and Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby’s Film Europe and Film America: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920–39 (1999). It was also pioneering in its emphasis on empirical data, a trend which has been picked up in recent years by exhibition studies. Some of its arguments may have been superseded by economist Gerben Bakker’s recent Entertainment Industrialised: The Emergence of the International Film Industry, 1890-1940 (discussed in detail in an earlier post), but those steeped in film history will find Thompson’s book easier to navigate, even if it is not a light read that you are going to polish off in one sitting. But it should be read, because it sees the industry not through the starry eyes of the fan journals of the period but through the hard-bitten minds of the trade papers, who saw things in so many pounds or dollars per foot of film. The detail is amazing (as is the research behind it), and you really do see cinema on a global scale (Panama, Peru, Siam, the Malay States, Romania and Estonia all end up in the subject index). The book makes you recognise why national cinema is such a suspect way of going about investigating film history when the business was so deeply bound up by the ebbs and flows of a world market.

The reasons for all this now is to announce the happy news that Exporting Entertainment is now freely available online from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s website. As Thompson explains in her useful introduction on the book’s web page, the book has been long out of print and was never distributed in the United States (it was published by the BFI). The book has been made available in PDF form, though be warned that it is a simple scanning job and consequently the file size is large (87MB) and there is no underlying OCR so the text is not word-searchable. This is a shame, and one wonders whether Thompson might take advice from those who regularly produce e-books and re-issue the text in word-searchable format. It would certainly open up the text anew for researchers. But setting that petty point aside, this is a very welcome means of re-introducing an important but rare text to the research community, and it has gone into the Bioscope Library.

With new eyes


Gerben Bakker’s Entertainment Industrialised: The Emergence of the International Film Industry, 1890-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) opens with a quotation from Marcel Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not of finding new lands, but of seeing the territory with new eyes.

A bold claim indeed for any book seeking to make its mark in a territory so exhaustively documented (or so it would seem) as film history. Of course, read the blurb of almost any new film monograph and it will confidently tell you that what lies within is certain to set a new standard for the field or to overturn preconceptions. Open those books and one tends to find exactly as one has found before in countless other monographs, with just a few of the arguments rearranged for novelty’s sake. Open Entertainment Industrialised on any page, and the sense of real discovery is instant. This is history with new eyes.

Gerben Bakker is based at the London School of Economics. His studies into the rise of the international film industry have been exciting a small number of us in the past few years, but they have not made much of a crossover as yet to the wider world of film history. The publication of this magnum opus ought to change things, though it has been issued as part of the Cambridge Studies in Economics History strand (at a hefty price), and is aimed primarily at economics historians. Though some of the language is specialist, the general tone will be clear to all, and the writing is lucid and inviting. It is a book that demands to be read.

His subject is the rise of the film entertainment industry in France, Britain and the United States between 1890 and 1940. That cross-national sweep immediately takes us away from the parochialism of so many film studies, while illuminating the national picture. Its contention is that cinema’s great innovation was not technological, but economic. In a helpful prologue, Bakker set out his theme by reference to the life experience of Charlie Chaplin:

When Charlie Chaplin was nineteen years old he appeared in three music halls a night. On one fine day he started in the late afternoon at the half-empty Streatham Empire in London. Directly after the show he and his company were rushed by private bus to the Canterbury Music Hall and then on to the Tivoli. This constituted the maximum number of venues an entertainer could visit on an evening, and thus the inherent limit to a performer’s productivity.

Yet, barely five years had passed before Chaplin would appear in thousands of venues across the world at the same time. His productivity had increased almost unimaginably. Most of this efficiency jump translated into lower prices, far lower than prices for music hall. Chaplin himself, therefore, was able to capture only a small percentage of revenues. Yet this tiny cut made him the world’s highest-paid performer.

There is the matter in a nutshell. The modern technologies that went with what the author calls the second industrial revolution (bringing with it the almost universal adoption of electricity, synthetic chemicals and the combustion engine) led to a huge leap in productivity. We are now in a world where we expect, without thinking, to have instant access to entertainments from around the world, at any time, wherever we might be located, cheaply or freely, and across multiple platforms. How did we get here? That is what Bakker sets out to describe, not by anecdote or easy assumption, but by thorough powerful analysis of the economic evidence using models established by business history.


‘Total released film negative length and cinema seats, US, Britain, France and Italy, in metres, 1893-1922’, originally from ‘The evolution of entertainment consumption and the emergence of cinema 1890-1940’ (available at

His method is common to other kinds of economic enquiry, one based on understanding of essential principles tested against factual evidence which can be gleaned from contemporary studies or deduced by subsequent analysis. It is a book full of graphs and tables with titles such as ‘Total released film negative length and cinema seats, US, Britain, France and Italy, in metres, 1893-1922’, ‘Management as percentage of all non-creatives in the French entertainment industry, 1901-1936’, ‘Prices, capacity, sales potential, price elasticity and consumer surplus for various types of specator entertainment venues, Boston, 1909’ or ‘Indicators of sectoral shift in the entertainment industry, US, Britain and France, 1900-1938’. It is daunting but exhilarating stuff. All the time that we were enjoying ourselves, this is what was really going on underneath.

Bakker says that his book has three main themes running through it: how motion pictures industrialised spectator entertainment, how a quality race between firms changed the structure of the international entertainment market, and what effect this had on economic and productivity growth. He explores the rise of entertainment generally, the rise of the international film industry as a part of this movement, and then the notion, mechanisms and consequences of industrialised entertainment. Out this investigation he makes seven main claims (though there are many other interrelated findings):

  • Cinema industrialised live entertainment by automating it, standardising it and making it tradeable.
  • This industrialisation was largely demand-led.
  • It was the index case for the industrialisation of other services that would follow.
  • In a process of dynamic product differentiation old formats were not competed away, but often reinvented themselves when new formats arrived: theatre changed after vaudeville, vaudeville changed after cinema, and motion pictures changed after television.
  • The tradeability of motion pictures integrated national entertainment markets into an international one.
  • A quality race in which firms escalated their costs sunk into film production and marketing, triggered in the 1910s, led to the emergence of feature films as we know them now.
  • Although the Hollywood studios have won the race, American consumers lost it. Their European counterparts enjoyed a far greater variety of both live and filmed entertaiment, and consumed lots of exotic pictures next to the standard Hollywood fare.

Some of this may seem obvious, but that is because we are familiar with the outcomes. The important point is that the success of cinema in the particular form that it took was not a completely foregone conclusion. With only small variables in pricing (of raw stock, of theatre prices), discoveries in technology, competing entertainments or other socio-economic factors, cinema might never have arisen in the form that it did. He gives the example of cinema’s “major fellow traveller” the Phonograph, which remained “a premium product for a limited elite”. Contra such arguments, cinema can be seen almost inevitably to have filled a gap. Increased wages, falling hours of work, the rapid growth in urbanisation, a consequent demand for leisure, the opportunities provided by mass electrification, all can be said have created cinema – or the gap that cinema filled – because they had to.

Many studies have explored this area with this general thesis in mind. Bakker gives us the figures, and the hard reasoning. We may recognise the names and the general territory, but are encouraged to do so with such notions as deregulated entertainment markets, age elasticity of demand, industrial organisation theory and sunk costs – the latter a key concept for Bakker: costs incurred which can’t be reversed, essentially. Bakker’s argument is that the increase in sunk costs exercised by American film businesses in the period up to and throughout the First World War was their source of strength (crudely speaking, they spent more on production and promotion, and audiences responded to the quality on offer). He writes:

The First World War did matter, but in a different way than previously thought: not primarily because of the disruption of European markets, but because the war prevented the European film industry from taking part in the escalation of quality.

Now there’s a thesis you might like to argue over – but make sure you understand what endogenous sunk costs are first.

So he is right in his bold contention that this is a history with new eyes. Of course film historians have considered the economics of their subject before now, and he acknowledges the work done by David Bordwell, Richard Brown, John Sedgwick, Kristin Thompson and a few others. Yet for the most part film history has been written from a film studies perspective, focussing on style and content, in a form that may please its own community and which has interest to some in art and cultural studies, but which means little to other disciplines. Consequently what looks like an over-analysed subject is one which, rather, has been analysed too greatly in one direction, and far too slightly in others. Why were films made? Why did cinema succeed? Why do we have the entertainment industry that we do? Looking at the money doesn’t answer every question, but it helps answer a fair number of them, and we should have been asking these question (or asking them in a better way) long before now.

Bakker knows that he has produced something truly groundbreaking here. It deserves to have the same impact on film history as Peter Bailey’s Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure has had for music hall or Wray Vamplew’s Pay Up and Play the Game has had for the study of sports history – works that simply open our eyes to the economic realities underpinning their subjects, changing understanding.

There is a gentle mocking tone to some of the book, knocking those of us who have produced film histories which have concentrated on technical innovations, inventors or entrepreneurs, as if they alone made things happen. Of course they didn’t, and of course we have always known that there were greater forces that drove the real take-off of the film industry. What we have needed for so long is a guide to those forces, lighting up the territory for all. Now we have it.

(While you are persuading your local library to invest in a copy of Entertainment Industrialised, you might like to visit Bakker’s research papers site, where there are downloadable copies of several of the papers he has produced leading up to his book.)

The cinema king


Should you find yourself in London’s Charing Cross Road, on the right-hand side looking south, halfway between the Palace Theatre and Foyles book store, you will find a bar. It bears the extraordinary name of The Montagu Pyke. It is part of the Wetherspoons chain, and is apparently a popular and fashionable spot. A sign outside bears the picture of an assured Edwardian gentleman in an immaculate suit, sporting a monocle, cigar in hand. He is Montagu Pyke, and for a time he was most renowned person in British film. For Monty Pyke was the cinema king.

A huge onrush of cinema building occured in London following the passing of the Cinematograph Act (the first UK legislation devoted to the new industry) at the end of 1909. Fortunes were to be made in this new business so attractive to a mass audience which, though it didn’t pay much for its pleasures, was prepared to turn up once or twice a week, every week, to the cinema. For a new breed of speculators, it looked like a licence to print money. That’s certainly how it must have appeared to Montagu A. Pyke, a former commercial traveller, gold miner and bankrupted stock market gambler. Pyke had seen crowds lined up in Oxford Street to see Hale’s Tours (films of journeys shown inside a rocking rail carriage) and decided this was the business for him.

Obtaining a £100 loan from a City business friend, Pyke formed Recreations Ltd in 1908, with nominal capital of £10,000, but no assets of his own. He identified a property in Edgware Road:

… firstly because it is a very thickly populated neighbourhood, and secondly, it appeared to me from the class of people one sees daily on the streets that they would make an appreciative audience if you gave them good value and the prices were right.

Pyke found two shop properties at 164-166 Edgware Road, and recalled that they were next door to Funland, a shop show which operated for a short period in 1908/09 and undoubtedly played its part in influencing the choice of location, as a proven film-going attraction. He raised money by exploiting society connections and spinning tales of vertiginous profits, including £1,000 from Lady Battersea, sister of Lord Rothschild. Pyke placed his first cinema in a populous neighbourhood with good passing trade, and offered a continuous show between twelve noon and midnight, with prices at 3d, 6d and a shilling. Programmes lasted between an hour and an hour and fifteen minutes. Takings, he recalled, were £400 a week, against outgoings of just £80, and Pyke embarked on a rapid programme of expansion, with investors queuing up to join him.

Initially Pyke’s cinemas were shop conversions, but his policy soon turned to larger venues in prestige locations. Each building was given the generic title of Cinematograph Theatre. Each cinema was also a limited company in itself (a common feature of cinema capitalisation at this time), but he established an umbrella company Amalgamated Cinematograph Theatres Ltd in 1910, with £150,000 capital, by which point he was managing five cinemas. At its peak, the ‘Pyke Circuit’ included fourteen cinemas in central London.

The Pyke Circuit

  • Recreations Theatre – 164/166 Edgware Road – opened 19 March 1909
  • Finsbury Park Cinematograph Theatre – 367-369 Seven Sisters Road – 1 October 1909
  • Walham Green Cinematograph Theatre – 583 Fulham Road – 29 December 1909
  • Ealing Cinematograph Theatre – 22 Ealing Broadway – 5 January 1910
  • Pyke House Cinematograph Theatre – 19, 21 & 23 Oxford Street – 17 February 1910
  • Shepherds Bush Cinematograph Theatre – 57/57A Shepherds Bush Green – 3 March 1910
  • Piccadilly Circus Cinematograph Theatre – 43-44 Great Windmill Street – 5 March 1910
  • Hammersmith Cinematograph Theatre – 84-88 King Street – 1910
  • Clapham Junction Cinematograph Theatre – St John’s Hill – 27 July 1910
  • Elephant and Castle Cinematograph Theatre – 47/51 Walworth Road – 5 November 1910
  • Croydon Cinematograph Theatre – 62 & 64 North End – 21 December 1910
  • Peckham Cinematograph Theatre – 166 Rye Lane – February 1911
  • Brixton Cinematograph Theatre – 101 & 103 Brixton Hill – 10 March 1911
  • Holloway Cinematograph Theatre – 71/83 Seven Sisters Road – 29 March 1911
  • Balham Cinematograph Theatre – 172 High Road – 1911
  • Cambridge Circus Cinematograph Theatre – 105/107 Charing Cross Road – 26 August 1911

Pyke’s business methods were highly dubious, and soon exposed. A committee of investigation formed in 1912 uncovered numerous business irregularities, including dividends being paid out that had not been earned. Pyke was the most notorious exploiter of investors’ eagerness to profit from the cinema craze. His strategy was based on the assumption that the boom would be short-lived, tempting avaricious investors with quick-term profits from a pyramid of flotations. He certainly profited handsomely himself. From a salary of £25 a week in 1908 he had risen in 1911 to paying himself £10,000 a year. As the cinema business only established itself all the more, and competition from larger and more competently managed rivals grew, Pyke’s business necessarily collapsed. He had only two cinemas in operation by the end of 1913 (Piccadilly Circus and Cambridge Circus), and was made bankrupt in 1915, the same year in which he was accused of manslaughter following the death of an employee in a nitrate film fire at the Cambridge Circus venue. Pyke’s ambitions to expand into the provinces were never realised. Amalgamated itself was reconstituted as a company in December 1916 and continued to manage five theatres (Edgware Road, Finsbury Park, Oxford Street, Walham Green and Shepherd’s Bush) to the end of the war.


Pyke had been the most prominent figure in the British film business for a short while, but he disappeared into obscurity. Few cinema histories mention him, and it was only with the growth of interest in a social history of British cinema that researchers started to recover his story. Their task was helped by the publication of a chapter of Pyke’s otherwise unpublished autobiography, When I Was the Cinema King, in an edition of Picture House, the Cinema Theatre Association journal (no. 10, 1987). The text was made available by his grandson, Christopher Pyke, who has now produced a website devoted to Pyke and to selling a book, a self-published combination of biography of Pyke, using his memoir, and an account of Pyke’s own investigation into his grandfather’s history. The book, My Search for Montagu Pyke: Britain’s First Cinema King, can only be ordered online from CPI Book Delivery. It was launched last month at the Montagu Pyke bar.

I’ve long had a fondness for Monty Pyke. He was a rogue of sorts, and an employee did die in a fire at one of his premises, even if he was acquitted of manslaughter. But he had his philosophical side, and I’m fond of quoting lines from a 1910 pamphlet of his, Focussing the Universe (also reproduced in that issue of The Picture House). In an earlier post I gave you his use of the words of Isaac Walton to suggest the profound sense of cinema as a diversion. In this passage, he recognises its universal appeal:

Not least of the charms of the Picture Theatre for me is the fact that it is, in the real sense of the word, catholic, appealing not only to men and women of every class and degree, but to men, women and children of all ages. Before its advent, the process of amusing or interesting the child at a public entertainment was a somewhat difficult one, while the possibility of instructing him or her thereat, was never considered at all … The Picture Theatre, if it has done nothing else, has brought delight to the minds and souls of thousands upon thousands of mites in this great Metropolis, some of whom look upon it as the one oasis in the desert of their dull and sordid lives.

The signboard outside the former Cambridge Circus Cinematograph Theatre (where the fire took place) depicts Pyke in his pomp, adapted from the 1911 Vanity Fair portrait of him at the top of this post. He would be proud.


The Montagu Pyke, 105-107 Charing Cross Road, London

This post is adapted from my 2006 paper on London’s first cinema circuits, Unequal Pleasures: Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. and the early film exhibition business in London, which you can find on my personal website.

Pathé treasures


Here’s a real treasure trove. The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé is an organisation deciated to collecting documents and artefacts (everything, in effect, except the films) relating to Pathé. Their collection, based in Paris, comprises photographs, posters, business documents, cinematograph machinery, books, periodicals, scripts, brochures, designs… seemingly everything connected with the business empire created by Charles Pathé.

Examples of these can be found on their stylish, Flash-driven website, which has background information on each type of collection, and a useful historical timeline from the 1890s to the present day. There is also information on a Pathé filmography which they are producing, building on the herculean work undertaken by Henri Bousquet (who has produced several volumes documenting the output of Pathé in the silent era) and others. The site is, please note, all in French.


Sample search results from the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé database

The Fondation has now produced a database of its holdings (accessible from this link or via the Collections section of the site – click on Base de données). The database provides preliminary information on over 25,000 artefacts, designed to assist any researcher prior to their visiting the Fondation in person. It’s easy to use (again, all in French), and a sample search under Ferdinand Zecca (Charles Pathé’s right-hand man in the early days) yields 219 results. Many of the search results come with an associated image, creating a marvellously rich gallery of Pathé history (just look at all the extraordinary posters for the first Pathé productions if you search under Zecca).

Jérôme Seydoux is head of the Pathé and his brother Nicolas Seydoux head of the Gaumont group. Gaumont and Pathé cinemas are now merged (as EuroPalaces), as are the Gaumont-Pathé Archives. You can find the whole complex history the Ketupa site (a useful resource in itself for media ownership history).

My thanks to Mariann Sträuli for alerting to me to this site.

Update (June 2009): The filmography is now available (1896-1913).

Hollywood in Berlin

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a welcome example of a modern film scholarship text made freely available online. Thomas J. Saunders’ study, Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany, looks at the American film in Germany during the Weimar period. German films of the 1920s have been much championed and studied, in part as alternatives to American films of the period, but the focus here is on the considerable impact American comedies, serials, society dramas and historical epics had in Germany, and the debates they occasioned on the influence of cinema and the perils of Americanisation. Films covered include The Ten Comandments, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ben Hur and Greed, and the image and impact of Jackie Coogan, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Chaplin, Keaton and ‘slapstick’ in general. The book therefore looks at cultural and industrial relations between Germany and America in 1920s, through the prism of popular cinema, bringing together economic history, reception studies, film studies and social history.

The book has been published online in chapterised, word-searchable, web form as one of the California Digital Library’s eScholarship Editions, a welcome initiative to make sample scholarly text freely available online to demonstrate its range of publications. Another example from the same source, already in the Library, is Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. Academic publishers, where they are rich enough to do so, are increasingly experimenting with multi-platform strategies, making texts available in print, online by subscription or to a restricted group (many of the eScholarship Editions are available only to University of California staff and students), and a few titles (or sample chapters) available free to the public. It breaks down barriers, demonstrates the flexibility of text, encourages discovery. More such forward-thinking initiatives, please.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

Laws and cases

It’s high time we had a new addition to the Bioscope Library. Fresh in, and just being stamped and having its classification number assigned is The Law of the Motion Picture Industry (1916), by Gustavus A. Rogers. This is the text of a lecture given by a New York lawyer to the College of the City of New York on 28 November 1916. The legal side of early film may not seem to have that much appeal, but it is a crucial subject to grasp. Laws existing and laws which had to be devised for the purpose not only governed but helped define the new medium.

Gustavus A. Rogers proves to be a helpful guide, with a clear-sighted view of his subject and much case law that he is able to cite as milestones in the development of cinema as a social entity. There is a particularly helpful section on patent law (“Ask the average person who is the inventor of motion pictures and the answer will be, Thomas A. Edison. Mr. Edison himself would probably agree that he is the inventor, but the courts have held otherwise”.) and the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which sought to restrict trade to those businesses which recognised Edison’s film patents. Out of this history Rogers draws some fascinating and helpful definitions of what motion pictures actually were (in law), what the technology was there to achieve, and how a motion picture production was to be defined. He cites in the important case of the Kalem Company v Harper Brothers, which determined that the Kalem 1907 film Ben Hur infringed the copyright of the Lew Wallace book on which it was based. Rogers’ interest is in what the ruling meant for the definition of a motion picture in other legal proceedings. He says that the the case had not “definitely determined as to whether a photo-play is really ‘a commodity’ or whether as such it comes under the jurisdiction of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Law”. Rogers’ inference from this is interesting:

I am, however, of the opinion that whenever it will become important to effectually dispose of the question, that it will be found that there is no difference between the photo-play and the celluloid record which is used upon the phonograph, or the picture postal-card. For, after all, what is sent in commerce is a strip, or strips, of film, contained in rolls of approximately a thousand feet each. On these are still photographs that are commercially useful when put into a projecting machine and ground out to portray the story on the screen, in the same manner as the phonograph record is put upon the machine for the purpose of reproducing the musical sounds or matter contained on the record.

This short document (sixty pages) is therefore useful not just as a survey of the law’s engagement with motion pictures to 1916, but as a thoughtful disquistion on what a motion picture actually is. There is useful discussion of trade marks, copyright law, censorship (with comparisons of the state of things in America, Britain and France), Sunday legislation, and an overview of the laws regarding motion pictures in various European countries. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (1.6MB), PDF (5MB), b/w PDF (1.5MB) and TXT (122KB) formats.