Bad influence

From time to time we have noted the various publications from the silent era or just after which looked at the social effects of the cinema, particularly on children. Like most sociological treatises they are predicated on the anxieties of their age, or at least of the enquirer, and most are concerned with why children were spending so much time in front of the screen, how what they were watching might influence them adversely, and why they might not rather do something far healthier, like sports or visting public parks. And if they had to watch films, then why couldn’t they be educational ones? And so on. A number of these are freely available online, with links and short descriptions in the Bioscope Library.

Now, and with acknowledgements to the Research into Film blog where I came across it, UNESCO has published a word-searchable PDF of its 1961 annotated international bibliography, The influence of cinema on children and adolescents. The 107 page document is an extraordinary monument to fifty years of angst, with 491 reports on cinema’s influence on the young from the 1920s to the 1950s from all around the world. There is plenty here for the student of silent cinema, not just from the publications from the 1920s, but in later reports which (especially in the 1930s) interview people about their past experiences of filmgoing which inevitably look back to the silent era.

There are too many to list in their entirety, but by searching under “192” you can find everything with a 1920s publication date (there are none listed before that decade). Below are some choice examples, including the summaries provided by the UNESCO report which reveal that these documents often contains important primary evidence of filmgoing practice as well as evidence of contemporary attitudes.

Lscis, A. and Kejlina, I. Deti i kino.
[Children and the cinema]. Moscow,
General Directorate of Social Education,
Peoples I Commissariat of Instruction of the
RSFSR, Moscow, 1928, 85 p.
Chapter 1 presents information about collective infatuation or “cinematomania” of children collected by the Institute of Curricular Methods through an examination of 2,000 children in Moscow. Data are included on the dangerous influence on children of films which are not appropriate to their age. Chapter 2 describes the adaptation of film services for child audiences, the opening of a cinema for children, and the arrangements made for special children’s matinees. For the sake of comparison, information is also given about a children’s cinema in Germany during the same period.

Various practices adopted at the first children’s cinema (800 seats) in Moscow are outlined: in the foyer was a “cinema corner” with a mural newspaper and publicity material; a co-operative snack bar was opened and group games were organized; in the cinema hall proper, the services of an educational expert were made available.

Other subjects treated are the equipment needed for children’s cinemas and liaison between the children’s cinema and other children’s organizations. A report on the work of a children’s cinema and notes on several children’s films are included.

A diagram of educational work in connexion with the screening of three films before child audiences is given in the annex. Illustrated with six scenes from Soviet children’s films.

Japan, Ministry of Education.
Seishonen no Eiga-kogyo Kanran-jokyo Chosa Gaiyo, jo. / Summary of surveys on film-viewing by Children and adolescents, vol.I, Tokyo, Ministry of Education, Social Education Burecu, 1929, 79 p. (Kyoiku Eiga Kenkyu Shiryo / Data
for Research on Educational Films series, 3).

This volume is a summary of data collected on the cinema attendance of boys and girls of primary and secondary schools in Tokyo and Osaka. The surveys which produced the data were made in October 1927 in Tokyo, and in December 1921, in Osaka.

Part 1. Survey on primary schoolchildren
(1) Film-viewing by primary schoolchildren, accoring to sex.
(2) Film-viewing by primary schoolchildren, according to zones of industry.
Part 2. Survey on middle school pupils.
Part 3. Survey on pupils of girls in high schools.
Part 4. Comparison of Parts 1, 2 and 3, and conclusions.
Supplement. Observations of school authorities on the films shown and on the influence of film-viewing.

Dale, Edgar. The Content of Motion Pictures,
New York, MacMillan, 1935, 234 p.

A content analysis of 1,500 feature films (500 from each of the years 1920, 1925 and 1930). Ten categories were made: crime, sex, love, the comic element, mystery, war, children, history, travel and social propaganda. In 1930, love (29.6 per cent), crime (27.2 per cent) and sex (15 per cent) were the most important subjects, i.e. a total of 72 per cent of all subjects. 16 per cent were taken up by comedy, and 8.6 per cent jointly by mystery and war. Only one out of 500 films was a children’s film; in 1930 there were 7 historical and 9 travel films, but not one social propaganda film. An average of one crime film was seen each month by those who visited the cinema once a week. In nearly two-thirds of all cases, adolescents find crime films unattractive. Of 115 crime films shown in Columbus (Ohio) cinemas, murder techniques are shown in nearly every film, actual murder in 45, attempted murder in 21, and revolvers were used in 22 films. Sex films show: extra-marital relations, seduction, adultery, procuring, illegitimacy, prostitution and bedroom jokes. Romantic love films have for subject: melodrama, courtship, love, flirting, difficulties in marriage, historical romances.

Jimenez de Asua. L. Cinematagrafo y delincuencia.
[The cinema and delinquency] / In:
Revista de Criminalogia, Psiquiatria y Medicina
Legal, Buenos Aires, May-June 1929, p. 377-384.

Earlier studies of the influence of literature and art upon delinquency, especially of the young, began to be extended to the field of the movies soon after 1910. Such studies were undertaken in the United States of America and later in most leading countries of the world. The general conclusion is that the cinema is widely effective in suggesting crime. Various prophylactics have been attempted, of which public censorship has been most commonly and widely applied.

Pedro Casablanca has agitated for the international censorship and control of films, but the plan is scarcely practicable. The Brussels Congress for the Protection of Childhood (1921) sought to stimulate the production of a more educational type of picture. The only legitimate control over films must be in the interests of children and
here considerations of health are more important than morals.

Shuttleworth, F.K. and May, Mark A. The Social Conduct and Attitudes of Movie Fans. New York, MacMillan, 1933, 142 p. (Payne Fund Studies).

The first part concerns the relationship between cinema attendance and the character and social behaviour of young people. The test groups were composed of an equal number of “movie” and “non-movie” children, i.e. children who attended the cinema 4 or 5 times a week and children who went only twice a month. The results were based on
information obtained from the children and their teachers. It was found that “movie” children behaved less satisfactorily in general – were less co-operative, had less self-control and emotional stability, poorer judgement, poorer school performance – than the “non-movie” children. They were, however, more often cited by their class-mates as “best friends” and were more apt to admire others. No differences in honesty, perseverance, obedience and moral consciousness were observed between the two groups.

In the second part of the investigation the opinion of 416 “movie” and 443 “non-movie” children on a variety of matters were compared. Movie children were found to have more admiration for cowboys, popular actors, ballet girls, than “non-movie” children; they believe more readily that alcoholism exists, attach more importance to clothes, object more to parental control, go more often to dance parties, and read more, but what they read is not of good quality. The “non-movie” children showed a greater interest in students and teachers as film characters than did the “movie” children. However, these differences cannot be attributed solely to the cinema.

Such reports often reveal prejudice and partiality, but they also show the seriousness with which sociologists began to treat cinema in the 1920s. They placed emphasis upon empirical study, using such primary evidence as questionnaires, interviews, on-site observations and such like to reach their conclusions, rather than unsubstantiated opinion. They were as an important part of taking films seriously as were the film first theorists, film societies and film archives which likewise recognised the fundamental importance of the medium – a radical step in each case from what had gone before. In treating cinema seriously, however, they had a tendency to view their young subjects as laboratory animals. There is something rather unsettling about reading about children as objects to be controlled better if only they could be better understood. It is salutory to read audiences memoirs of the period, or indeed to think back to one’s own memories of cinema-going when young to and realise that cinema was, as it has always has been, about escape. And that includes escape from adult control or adult assumption of understanding. Worthy and impeccably empirical as such studies were, fundamentally they coiuld only ever uncover so much. The real cinema remains in our heads.

The examples above by Shuttleworth, May and Dale from the famous series of Payne Fund studies which in the 1930s investigated how the movies were influencing America’s youth. A thorough history, with much unpublished material included, is Garth S. Jowett, Ian C. Jarvie and Kathryn H. Fuller’s Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy.

Poor people

Screening the Poor 1888-1914

Two posts are coming up on two important DVD releases from that excellent label Edition Filmmuseum. Post number one is on an innovative two-DVD set of magic lantern slides and early films, Screening the Poor 1888-1914.

Cinema was the ‘poor man’s theatre’ (to use a common phrase of the time); it also spoke to and documented the lives of the poor. In doing so it built on a tradition of social concern filtered through visual entertainment that had its roots in the magic lantern. In church halls, schools and missions throughout the late Victorian period, audiences were presented with sentimental but often heart-rending tales of the hardship suffered by those at the lowest rung on the ladder. The showmen, lecturers and propagandists who put on such lantern shows swiftly adopted the cinematograph as an additional weapon in their armoury, with early projectors often capable of presenting both film and slides. This multimedia nature of early ‘cinema’ shows is well-known, but is seldom reflected in modern-day exhibition of early film, still less in DVD releases. And that is what makes Screening the Poor so unusual – it brings together the lantern and the cinematograph on DVD in a conscious echo of the programmes of the late 1890s/early 1900s. The blurb for the DVD explains this further:

Around 1900, the issues of poverty and poor relief were the source of heated controversy. This DVD illustrates in seven chapters how examinations of the ‘Social Question’ were presented in magic lantern slide sets and early films. On the screens of auditoriums, Sunday schools, music-halls, cinemas and churches, visitors could witness orphans freezing to death in the snow, drunkards plunging their families into misery and helpless old people begging for a scrap of bread. Audiences experienced poignant moving pictures in performances with music, singing and recitations. The
photographic and film industries delivered glass slide sets and films in very large runs on a variety of themes relating to poverty.

This DVD recalls the forgotten art of projection and presents it anew on the modern electronic screen: drawing on original images and using authentic projection equipment, Ensemble illuminago shows enchanting Victorian slide shows and films in a live musical performance at the Munich Film Museum. Digital slideshows reconstruct the interaction between slide sets und text recitals, and early silent films are accompanied with music as they were a century ago: piano and violin underscore the moods that find visual expression in the films.

Nowadays it is rather unusual to find both films and slide sets presented on one DVD. Around 1900 it was common knowledge that the “moving pictures” in a film had evolved from photographic slide sets. Showmen, touring lecturers, music-hall entrepreneurs and cinema operators often used both projection media alternately in their live shows.

It is also unusual to compile DVDs thematically, according to social themes, rather than in a form that reflects pure film history (such as the output of a studio, director or actor). So this is a curated DVD, and the words below are from the DVD booklet, written by Martin Loiperdinger and Ludwig Vogl-Bienek. Whether an item is a film or a set of magic lantern slides is identified at the start of each description. Often the same subject from the same literary source (particularly the poems of George R. Sims, a once highly popular and influential documenter of the lives of London’s poor) cross from lantern to cinematograph. So, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now …

Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris


Charitable organisations and dedicated journalists decried the misery of the slums in industrial cities. ‘Slumming’ was the term used to describe tourist outings or philanthropic day-trips to witness the poverty. Those who eschewed direct confrontation could visit magic lantern shows or the cinema: the photographic and film industries provided a constant supply of new material covering diverse issues of the ‘Social Question’.

  • Magic Lantern: The Magic Wand (GB 1889). Producer: York & Son, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard. – During an excursion through the slums of London, an author hears the story of an 8-year-old girl who discovers a magical way to cope with her mother’s death.
  • Film: Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris / How the Poor Dine in Paris (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – The first film reportage about the ‘clochards’ of Paris: it is difficult to distinguish the extras acting in the film from the real homeless people.
  • Film: Le Violoniste della carità / The Two Violonists (IT 1910). Producer: Cines. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – Two elegant young ladies embark on a slumming adventure: they swap their clothes with two poor sisters and perform as street musicians in their place.
  • Film: La Tournée des Grands Ducs / Seeing the Real Thing (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé, Director: Yves Mirande, Cast: Armand Numès, Gaston Sylvestre, La Polaire. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano ) – This film parodies the slumming trips made by members of Paris high society. An acting troupe satisfies the demand for entertainment by playing ‘real Apaches’.

Children in Misery
The huge number of poor children was a central issue of the ‘Social Question’. They were not to blame for their wretched situation – and their need of help was obvious. Nonetheless, they were often suspected of being petty criminals. Slide shows and film screenings, however, usually presented impoverished children to their audiences as needy creatures deserving of help and affection.

  • Magic Lantern: Ora pro nobis (GB 1897). Producer: Bamforth, Text: A. Horspool, Music by M. Piccolomini. Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Piano: Judith Herrmann – Ignored by passing churchgoers, an orphan girl freezes to death at her mother’s grave – an appeal to the Christian duty to provide help and alms to the poor.
  • Film: Le Bagne des gosses / Children’s Reformatory (FR 1907). Producer: Pathé. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – An orphan boy flees from a correctional institution in which children aged between eight and twelve are mistreated in the manner of prisoners in a penal colony.
  • Film: Bébé veut imiter St. Martin / Baby Pantomimes St. Martin (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé, Director: Louis Feuillade, Cast: Clément Mary. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – Cinema’s very first child star gives a freezing girl half of his overcoat and learns that half a coat is of little help against the cold.
  • Magic Lantern: Billy’s Rose (GB 1888). Producer: York & Son, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – Death and salvation in the slums: a girl goes in search of a rose for her dying brother, but she freezes to death in the process and hands him the rose in heaven.

Child Labour
Impoverished children were made to work as street peddlers, shoe-shines, and messengers to help support their families. The labour unions, social reformers and charitable organisations were particularly critical of the perilous conditions faced by child labourers in factories.

  • Film: The Cry of the Children (US 1912). Producer: Thanhouser, Director: George O. Nichols, Cast: Marie Eline, Ethel Wright, James Cruze, Lila H. Chester, Text: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1843). Score by Andrew Crow (Wurlitzer organ) – A moving appeal against child exploitation featuring highly realistic staged film footage. The story of a young girl’s death in a textile factory became a manifesto of the American reform movement against child labour.
  • Magic Lantern: The Little Match Girl (US 1905). Producer: McAllister, Text: Hans C. Andersen (1845), Images: Joseph Boggs Beale (1905). Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Karin Bienek
  • Film: The Little Match Girl – Print title: Het Luciferverkoopstertje (GB 1914). Producer: Neptune Films, Director: Percy Nash. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – The young street vendor in H.C. Andersen’s fairytale The Little Match Girl (1845) is one of the most famous and enduring icons of poverty. The story of her death and salvation has inspired countless book illustrations, magic lantern shows and film productions to the present day.

Rigadin a l’âme sensible

Charity and Social Care
Controversies concerning the justification, necessity and limits of aid surrounded the public discussion on the ‘Social Question’ from the beginning: able-bodied poor people of working age were generally suspected of being themselves to blame for their poverty due to negligence, idleness, or alcoholism, or even of deviously abusing
the benevolence shown to them. Slide sets and early films on the issue of poor relief addressed such prejudices – and also made fun of over-enthusiastic benefactors.

  • Film: Le Chemineau / Print title: De Zwerver (FR 1905). Producer: Pathé, Director: Albert Capellani, according to Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862). Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – A tramp who has stolen the holy silverware is acquitted. The pastor places charity before the law and claims that he had given the tramp the plundered goods. The missing scene at the end of this film can be seen on a postcard in the ROM section of this DVD.
  • Film: Rigadin a l’âme sensible / Whiffles Has a Sensitive Soul (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé / S.C.A.G.L.,Director: Georges Monca, Cast: Charles Prince, Gabrielle Chalon, Andrée Marly. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano, viola & violin) – In this comedy, our sympathy is not directed at the poor, but rather at the aristocratic benefactor who cannot bear to see suffering: he hands out all of his money – and even gives away most of the clothes on his back.
  • Magic Lantern: In the Workhouse (GB 1890). Producer: Bamforth, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – During Christmas celebrations at the workhouse, an old man attacks the British poor relief system: his sick wife had died of starvation the previous Christmas because the care authorities had ruthlessly stuck by their regulations.
  • Film: Christmas Day in the Workhouse (GB 1914). Producer: G. B. Samuelson Productions, Director: George W. Pearson, Text: George R. Sims. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – In the film version of this ballad, the old man dies just as he finishes his lament.
  • Film: Ahlbeck. Der Kaiser bei den Berliner Arbeiterkindern in dem von ihm gestifteten Heim / Ahlbeck. Wilhelm II visits a Working-Class Children’s Home (DE 1914). Producer: Eiko-Woche. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – At the Baltic Sea spa town of Ahlbeck on the island of Usedom, Kaiser Wilhelm II becomes convinced that playing in the sand of the dunes is beneficial to the recuperation of children.

Enter not the Dram Shop

Drink and Temperance Movement
Alcoholism was often blamed as the cause of poverty. However, many social reformers emphasised that it was instead a consequence of poverty. In their war against the ‘demon alcohol’, the Temperance Movement relied on the persuasive power of projected images. Tales of drunken fathers who drove their families to ruin were part of the standard repertoire in early cinema and magic lantern shows.

  • Film: Manchester Band of Hope Procession (GB 1901). Producer: Mitchell and Kenyon. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – The Temperance Movement held street parades to rally support for their cause among the local populace.
  • Magic Lantern: Enter not the Dramshop (GB 1890). Unknown Producer. Text & Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek. – The pub threshold marks the crossroads between well-being and downfall: victims of alcohol are presented for purposes of pedagogical instruction. Medical diagrams illustrate the devastating effects of alcoholism on the human body.
  • Film: Les Victimes de l’alcoolisme / Victims of Drink (FR 1902). Producer: Pathé, Director: Ferdinand Zecca. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – Based on Émile Zola’s novel L’Assommoir, this film depicts the gradual decline of a labourer who starts out as a decent family man and ends up an inmate of a madhouse wracked by delirium tremens.
  • Film: Une Vie gaspillée (Print title) / A Life Wasted (DK 1910). Producer: Continental Films. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin). Original title not known. – A drunkard’s daughter likewise falls victim to alcoholism and freezes to death because her parents refuse to take her in.
  • Magic Lantern: Buy Your Own Cherries! (GB 1905). Producer: Bamforth, Text: John W. Kirton. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – The landlady of a pub refuses a carpenter the cherries that are standing on the bar. He thus renounces alcohol, instead spending his money on his family, and starts his own business.
  • Film: Buy Your Own Cherries! (GB 1904). Producer: Robert W. Paul. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano, viola & violin) – The film version foreshortens the ending: instead of continuing to drink, the carpenter buys gifts for his wife and children.
  • Magic Lantern: Dustman‘s Darling (GB 1894). Producer: Bamforth, Text: Matthew B. Moorhouse. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – At the door of a tavern, a widowed dustman tells the story of how his little daughter inspired him to give up drinking.
  • Film: A Drunkard’s Reformation (US 1909). Producer: American Biograph (US 1909), Director: David W. Griffith, Cast: Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Adele DeGarde, Robert E. Harron, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – While visiting the theatre with his young daughter, a drunkard is cured of his alcoholism. By cross-cutting between the Temperance Movement play on the stage and the reactions of the father and his daughter in the auditorium, D.W. Griffith makes visible the psychological process of an internal catharsis.

Don’t go down the mine, Dad

Perils of Wage Labour
Poor people who were able to work received no support. The working classes were forced to take on poorly-paid and dangerous jobs in order to survive. Mining accidents spread fear and terror among mining communities. Sensational special effects on the screen, such as firedamp explosions, helped reinforce demands by the labour unions and charitable organisations for safer working conditions and improved support for surviving dependants.

  • Magic Lantern: A Bunch of Primroses (GB 1889). Hersteller / Producer: York & Son, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – A bunch of primroses lies on the death bed of a young female worker and tells of how she blossomed in the country and met an early death doing factory work in an industrial city.
  • Film: Au Pays noir / Tragedy in a Coal Mine (FR 1905). Producer: Pathé, Director: Ferdinand Zecca. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & viola) – Mining accidents used to be part of daily life for miners: Pathé, the leading film company of the time, condemned this scandalous situation by releasing this melodramatic social reportage which was shot partly on location at a mining site and partly on a recreated set in a film studio.
  • Film: Die Beerdigung der Opfer des Grubenunglücks auf der Zeche Radbod bei Hamm i. W., den 16. Nov. 1908 / Funeral of the Victims of the Radbod Mine Desaster near Hamm in Westfalia, Nov 16, 1908 (DE 1908). Producer: Welt-Kinematograph. Score by Günter A.Buchwald (piano) – The mourners pass by the camera, silently following the coffins of colleagues killed in the accident: they start to move – they are alive! They escaped with their lives once more …
  • Magic Lantern: Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad (GB 1910). Producer: Bamforth, Text: Robert Donnelly, Score by Will Geddes. Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Score by Judith Herrmann (piano) – Dramatic slides illustrate a popular miners’ song: the sick son senses an impending accident and thus saves his father’s life.

Magic Lantern shows and early films about the ‘Social Question’ rarely tell of a successful escape from poverty, and the elimination of poverty is not an issue. The flood of emigrants was addressed by slide sets used by charitable organisations to prepare the migrants for an uncertain future. However, other means of escape from poverty were at hand: salvation in the afterlife or in the world of fantasy.

  • Film: The Two Roses (USA 1910). Print title: Les Deux roses, Producer: Thanhouser, Cast: Marie Eline, Frank Hall Crane, Anna Rosemond. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – Tony Prolo is a track worker, and his son is run over by a car driven by the company boss: the boy recovers and the worker’s family is given a nice new home as a gift.
  • Film: Deux petits Jésus / The Foundling (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé / S.C.A.G.L., Director: Georges Denola, Cast: Jeanne Delvair, Jeanne Grumbach, Georges Paulais. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – Abandoned by the father of her child, a young mother is confronted with ignorance when she goes begging: in desperation she seeks refuge in an abbey church, lays her baby in the nativity crib – and dies.
  • Magic Lantern: The Emigrant Ship (GB 1890). Unknown Producer. Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Score by Judith Herrmann (piano) – This magic lantern show about the departure and sinking of an emigrant ship was extremely popular due to its motion and dissolve special effects. It is accompanied with emigrant songs, slides of the blessings of the New World and a dazzling light show – the Chromatrope …
  • Film: Geheimnisvolle Streichholzdose / A Match Box Mystery (DE 1910). Deutsche Bioscop, Director: Guido Seeber. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano, viola & violin) – A man without legs sells matches: in a surprising animation, the matches group together to form a variety of forms, until ultimately a small windmill made of matches burns down.

This is an excellent compilation, which illuminates the visual media of the late 19th/early 20th centuries and illuminates what concerned society and how it chose to express that concern. Like the best of the magic lantern and cinematograph shows, it imparts a strong impression upon the mind, teaching us of the sorrows of an age not so far away. I hope the DVD finds its way to new audiences.

Huntley Film Archives

The Way of a Boy (c.1924), a delightful children’s stop-animation film made by Bradbury Productions, one of the treasures to be found in the Huntley Film Archives. I can find nothing about its production. Is it the American film of this title dated 1926 on the IMDb? Does anyone know?

For a while now I’ve been contemplating a post on silent films to be found on YouTube. However each time I attempt it I find myself defeated by the complexities of the copyright and ethical issues involved. Simply put, some silent film content is put there legitimately, some is not, and of the latter some has been put there in good faith, and some has not. Working out which is which is a minefield, and most people don’t much care. But here at the Bioscope we always check the source of a YouTube video and try to determine its true source and ownership. And we never include videos ripped from DVDs or television programmes (with the occasional exceptional of content re-used in mash-ups to form a new work). Those are the house rules.

Another hazard with YouTube is the inaccuracy of descriptions, something particularly prevalent for silent film era content where owners may not know the correct title, date or other identification of the film in their possession. This came home to me recently when I came across the YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, though the channel itself is full of riches and Huntley’s is a collection it would be good to tell you about in any case. So here goes.

Huntley Film Archives is a small British commercial film archive with a big reputation. It is a favourite of many a television researcher look for distinctive footage on social history and popular culture, and it is particularly strong in such subjects as entertainment, transport, travelogues, home movies and early films. Countless television programmes have named Huntley Film Archives in their end credits, and it remains an Aladdin’s cave of a collection, time and again coming up with just the right piece of footage that you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was founded in 1984 by the late John Huntley, a one-time acquisitions officer at the National Film Archive, a renowned film historian (Railways in the Cinema, British Film Music, British Technicolor Films) and an outstanding communicator, who gave hundreds upon hundreds of talks, shows, radio and television interviews on film history, always peerlessly entertaining and equipped with an anecdote for every occasion.

Battleship ‘Odin’ with all her Guns in Action (1900), filmed at Kiel by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Spectacularly filmed in 70mm, the impact of this film on a big screen is considerable and must have been overwhelming in 1900

You can find out more about the collection through its online database, though there are no clips apart from a few showreels. But it has now put some 240 videos onto its YouTube channel, and what an extraordinary collection it is, from home movies of the Festival of Britain to modern day celebrity trivia, from Butlin’s holiday camps to Kuwaiti advertising films, and from early computers to a British Film Institute summer school in 1948. What I want to draw attention to here is the silent films, because there are some real treasures available, though some have been misidentified or just not identified at all, a shame since the knowledge about the films often exists (a number are duplicated in the BFI National Archive for instance). Others, however, seem to be mysteries, as demonstrated by The Way of a Boy at the top of the post. Here are some more highlights.

Clog Dancing for the Championship of England (1898), made by Robert W. Paul

This is a delightful Robert Paul film, unique to the Huntley collection. Entitled Clog Dancing for the Championship of England, it shows the contestants in the world clog dancing championship of 1898, held in Bow. It is described in the Paul catalogue thus:

An extremely fine film of the first four competitors in the famous championship clog dancing contest. Each dances separately, and then altogether, finishing with the champion (Mr. Burns) clog dancing on a dinner plate without breaking same.

I’ve not been able to find Mr Burns’ full name [update: he was James G. Burns – see comments], but he and his competitors (Melia, Nixon and what could be Hannant) are helpfully identified on the film by the use of name cards. The film clearly does not depict the actual contest, instead recreating the event complete with the original judges conveniently bunched together to fit in the shot.

Extract from Dr Wise on Influenza (1919), a public health information film and one of the few films made at the time about the Spanish Flu epidemic that survive

This is a British public information film from 1919, made by Joseph Best for the Local Government Board. It is notable for being one of the very few films in existence that document the Spanish Flu epidemic which killed more people worldwide than had died in World War One. The full film is some 800 feet long; this extract shows how the flu germ is spread in public. (The full film is described in detail on the BFI database here).

Extract from The Coronation of King Peter I of Serbia and a Ride through Serbia (1904), the oldest surviving film of Serbia

This remarkable film was made by Yorkshireman Frank Mottershaw, who travelled to Serbia with Arnold Muir Wilson, a lawyer, journalist and Honorary Consul to the Kingdom of Serbia. Mottershaw was commissioned to film the coronation ceremonies of King Peter I of Serbia on 21 September 1904 and general scenes, and the film’s remarkable nature comes simply from being it being the oldest surviving film of Serbia. This sequence from the film shows people in Belgrade at the time of the coronation. The complete film is held by the Jugoslovenska Kinoteka.

The Taming of the Shrew (1923), a little-known example of a silent Shakespeare film, starting Lauderdale Maitland and Dacia Deane

Finally this is a silent Shakespeare film, one that’s hardly ever been seen or written about. It’s The Taming of the Shrew, made in 1923 by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, directed by Edwin J. Collins and adapted by Eliot Stannard, who later wrote scenarios for Alfred Hitchcock. Lauderdale Maitland plays Petruchio and Dacia Deane is Katharina. It’s a two-reeler which concentrating on the wooing of Katharina, and though it’s no masterpiece it’s an adequate film of its type, which is a potted guide to literary highlights of a kind that rather appealed to British filmmakers at this time.

And there are more: for example, a Lumière film of 1897 showing a Japanese family at home in 1897 (the film was shot by François-Constant Girel and I believe shows the family of Inabata Katsutaro); a Bonzo the Dog cartoon from 1925, Bonzoby; rare footage of what Huntley’s call a “working class wedding from the 1910s“; and stunning footage of the Wuppertal suspended monorail, filmed I think by the German branch of Biograph, Deutsches Mutoskop und Biograph Gesellschaft, in the late 1890s.

The video clips don’t look great, often they’ve been transferred at the wrong speed, and each comes with timecode and Huntley’s name at the ID number written along the top. But we must be grateful to Huntley’s for making such treasures available to all, in whatever form. It’s just that they glitter all the more once we know what they are, who made them, and when.

Tell me Grandpa


It’s been quite a while since we have an extract from one of the memoirs of early cinema-going that I like to collect. So here’s something from Josef Morrell’s Tell Me Grandpa, published in 1981. Morrelwas born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham, London. His memoirs cover the period from pre-war to the 1920s, and includes this really well-observed sequence on the child’s experience of the early cinema. Although what he recalls tooks place in the 1910s, I’m struck with how much something like this remained the experience of children’s cinema for decades afterwards. Certainly anyone like me who can remember children’s Saturday morning film shows in the (late) 1960s and early 70s (when they died out in the UK) should recognise the happy blend of anarchy and enthalment at the thrills and spills on the screen:

However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

‘Elmo the Mighty’ is Elmo Lincoln, who would become the cinema screen’s first Tarzan.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Goldman concludes with an interesting insight into the difference between the child’s and the adult’s cinema-going experience, indicating the way in which cinema had moved from its earlier, rumbustious state to an ordered world where social pressures demanded conformity.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

A delightful piece, I hope you’ll agree, evocative and informative.

Uncle Max


Uncle Max Looks After the Baby

There is a long tradition of British televison comedians honouring the silent comedians of the past. As documented on an earlier post, one strand of this began in the 1960s with Bob Monkhouse and Michael Bentine presenting silent comedy films to new audiences. Another strand that began at the same time was televison comedians producing their own silent, or near-silent comedies, among them Ronnie Barker (A Home of Your Own, Futtock’s End, The Picnic, By the Sea), Eric Sykes (The Plank, Rhubarb, It’s Your Move) and Benny Hill (The Waiters, Eddie in August). In recent times, Paul Merton has taken on the Monkhouse/Bentine mantle by inculcating a new generation attracted by his verbal humour into the purely visual humour of his heroes; while following the line set by Barker, Sykes and Hill, Rowan Atkinson has given us Mr Bean, for which we may or may not be grateful.

Now (and for the past couple of years) children in the UK are enjoying silent comedy courtesy of David Schneider, and the television series Uncle Max. This series, produced by Irish company Little Bird Pictures, started out on ITV in 2006 and then transferred to the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC. It stars Schneider (best known as Steve Coogan’s unhappy sidekick in Knowing Me Knowing You) as the cheerfully accident-prone Uncle Max, a sort of cross between Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Mr Bean (without the undercurrent of malice). Episode titles such as Uncle Max Goes to the Dentist, Uncle Max Walks the Dog and Uncle Max Buys some Shoes give you a rough idea what to expect, and in presentation as well as spirit it has real echoes with the minor comedy series of the silent era. It’s obvious humour, but well enough composed for its target audience. And the nephew who endures Uncle Max’s chaotic approach to life is called Luke, something I heartily approve of.

Uncle Max episodes (10 minutes each) turn up on iPlayer when available, and there are trailers on YouTube. Curiously, for reasons of economy the whole series, while set in England, was filmed in South Africa.

(I’m not a) juvenile delinquent

In the last post, on the Lynds’ Middletown, there was a footnote reference to Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent. That 1925 text has now also gone into the Bioscope Library. This renowned study of the phenomenon of youth crime (source of the illustration, left) was an early work of British psychologist, Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971). Burt is best known for his work in educational psychology, and is controversial for his ideas on heredity and intelligence, and for possibly having falsified some of his research data.

Such debates are the concerns of others; our interest is in his book The Young Delinquent, and its sections on cinema. One gets a clear idea of cinema’s place in the scheme of things in the contents listing, where under ‘Environmental Conditions’ one finds cinema listed alongside betting and gambling as evidence of ‘Excessive facilities for amusement’. Cinema is not blamed of itself for juvenile crime, but is seen as part of a milieu where crime was likely to flourish. Consequently, Burt has several references to the part cinema played in the lives of the young who were associated with crime. He begins thus:

The Cinema. One feature among the attractions of every town and suburb a feature already mentioned more than once demands discussion at some length. The cinema, like the ‘penny dreadful’ before the advent of the film, has been freely censured and abused for stimulating the young adventurer to mischief, folly, and even crime. Among those who criticize it on this ground, the most credible are teachers of wide experience and magistrates of high standing; but perhaps none is so eager to advocate this view as the young culprit himself, who frequently sees, or thinks he sees, in such a derivation of his deeds a chance to deflect blame and attention from his own moral laxity to that of the producer of films.

Burt identifies three ways in which he finds that ‘the power of pictures is harmfully exerted’, two of which he holds to be unusual and over-emphasised, the third to be the more serious yet less remarked upon. The first of unusual circumstances is the child who imitated crimes it had seen on the screen. This rather ludicrous assertion had exercised the minds of authorities for several years – indeed, it still does, as we are repeatedly warned of harmful imitative behaviour after watching violent or crime-oriented films, without so much as a shred of real evidence to prove any connection between the two. Burt writes:

On sifting the evidence adduced by those who express these fears, it is plain that both their inferences and their psychological assumptions are by no means free from fallacy. Nor are their facts better founded. They have between them hardly one well-attested instance from their own first-hand knowledge, hardly a single analysed case to put forward in proof. That certain children at certain ages are highly suggestible and imitative, I am far from wishing to dispute; and, beyond doubt, the peculiar conditions of cinematographic reproduction heighten this natural susceptibility still further by artificial means. The darkened hall, the atmosphere of crowd-excitement, the concrete vividness of visual presentation, the added realism due to movement and to the play of facial change, and, above everything, the intensely sensational character of the emotional scenes portrayed all are calculated to increase the child’s suggestibility, and to stamp upon the impressionable mind graphic images and lasting recollections. Mental pictures, so deeply imprinted, may sometimes issue in obsessions haunting and irrepressible recurrent thoughts and impulses bound from their very persistence and strength to work themselves out by action. All this is not to be denied. Yet, of the ensuing acts, how much is crime? Most of the characters and situations rehearsed by film-smitten children are as innocent as those of any other piece of childish make-believe. Who has not seen street-urchins mimicking Charlie Chaplin, holding each other ‘up’ with toy pistols, or masquerading in the feathers of Red Indians or the wide-awake hats of cowboys, every flaunted detail manifestly picked from the romances of the film? Even where the model is a heroic pirate or bandit chief an Arsene Lupin or a Long John Silver the adventures themselves may be as innocuous as those of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The direct reproduction of serious film-crimes is, in my experience, exceedingly uncommon: and, even then, it is usually the criminal’s method rather than the criminal’s aim that is borrowed: the nefarious impulses themselves have been demonstrably in existence beforehand.

Burt found only four or five incidents where a child, ‘dull or defective’, had commited a crime directly inspired by the cinema.

The second unusual circumstance was that cinema provided ‘a standing temptation to steal money for admittance’: that is, that its very desirability among the young was a cause of criminiality. Burt argues, however, that the temptation to steal should be seen a separate from what such money might be spent on; that is, the child stole the money first, then considered the best way in which to spend it. Cinema was, in this instance, only an indirect, not a direct cause of such criminality. Moreover, as he argues:

the temperament of the typical thief is just the temperament to which the sensations of the picture-house appeal most strongly; he comes from just the dreary, comfortless home which makes the cinema almost his sole means for mirth and amusement; hence, the union of the two habits the habit of stealing and the habit of picture-going a coincidence rightly observed to be significantly frequent, is not so much a matter of effect and cause; it is the double by-product of a deeper common source: the underlying adventurous nature of the child, for which his humdrum life affords no satisfying outlet, animates and penetrates them both. The attraction of the cinema, therefore, can be counted as a direct incentive, only where the child has acquired an over powering habit, an inveterate taste and craving, for that particular form of diversion.

For Burt, the ‘main source of harm’ was not these two common complaints, but was one of ‘moral atmosphere’:

Throughout the usual picture-palace programme, the moral atmosphere presented is an atmosphere of thoughtless frivolity and fun, relieved only by some sudden storm of passion with occasional splashes of sentiment. Deceit, flirtation, and jealousy, unscrupulous intrigue and reckless assault, a round of unceasing excitement and the extremes of wild emotionalism, are depicted as the normal characteristics of the everyday conduct of adults. The child, with no background of experience by which to correct the picture, frames a notion, altogether distorted, of social life and manners. The villain or the vampire, though outwitted in the end, has nevertheless to be portrayed with a halo of fictitious glamour, or interest would flag: he does wrong things; but he does them in a smart way, with daring, gallantry, and wit. It is true that, in most of the plays, the scoundrel is infallibly unmasked and eventually requited. But the hollow and factitious character of this pseudo-poetic justice seldom deludes the most youthful spectator.

For Burt, those very qualities of cinema that could be argued to be its greatest virtues – namely, its appeal to the imagination and the encouragement of fantasies – are to be seen as its leading vices, at least for the unbred young.

They provide models and material for all-engrossing day-dreams; and create a yearning for a life of gaiety a craze for fun, frolic, and adventure, for personal admiration and for extravagant self-display to a degree that is usually unwholesome and almost invariably unwise.

This is so sad to read. How can anyone condemn something that promised ‘fun, frolic and adventure’, and for a section of society largely denied such pleasures from any other quarter? In the end, though, Burt at least comes to a sense of proportion. He concludes:

When all is said, however, it is easy to over-blame the cinema, to exaggerate the actual harm and ignore the possible good. It is clear that, in comparison with the incalculable number of films that are manufactured and released, the offences resulting are infinitesimally few. The victims are almost wholly those who, temperamentally or otherwise, are already disposed to anti-social conduct; and the cinema can do little more than feed and fan the latent spark?

The Young Delinquent inevitably tells us more about the prevailing attitudes of the moral authorities rather than the youth themselves. It is interesting for what it reveals of the fear of youth crime in period earlier than we might normally expect, and for the association many made between cinema and delinquency. Interestingly, Burt ultimately does not put the ‘blame’ on heredity, the theme of his later work, but on environment. Cinema was a common feature of ‘low’ environments; it was therefore damned by geographical association.

The Young Delinquent is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (38MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (1.5MB) formats.

For earlier (1917) anxieties about the connection between cinema and crime, see last year’s post on The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities, the deeply-biased but highly recommended report from the National Council of Public Morals (what a name!), also available from the Internet Archive. For a fine social history of the young from 1875 to 1945, with much on the association in the public mind between youth, anti-social behaviour and cinema, see Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth, recently out in paperback. For a summary of Cyril Burt’s work, and the ongoing controveries surrounding him, see Indiana University’s Human Intelligence site.

Movies and conduct

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik (1926)

Motion pictures are not understood by the present generation of adults. They are new; they make an enormous appeal to children; and they present ideas and situations which parents may not like. Consequently when parents think of the welfare of their children who are exposed to these compelling situations, they wonder about the effect of the pictures upon the ideals and behavior of the children. Do the pictures really influence children in any direction? Are their conduct, ideals, and attitudes affected by the movies? Are the scenes which are objectionable to adults understood by children, or at least by very young children? Do children eventually become sophisticated and grow superior to pictures? Are the emotions of children harmfully excited? In short, just what effect do motion pictures have upon children of different ages?

There were so many studies in the early years of cinema, so many anguished articles, doubtless so many sermons preached from pulpits, all seeking to explain the huge attraction of motion pictures among the young and trying to assess the damage done. The above paragraph neatly sums up many of the concerns that adults held – though presumably those adults who weren’t frequenting the cinema much themselves. The questions posed are reasonable enough, but they are underpinned by a fear of the young, a fear of a loss of control. Such studies end up telling us rather more about the prejudices of their authors than the motives of their subjects.

The paragraph comes from American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct, published in 1933. The book presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. Sigh. But the reason for highlighting this 1933 book here is not for its questions or its conclusions, but for its evidence. The studies undertaken included interviews with filmgoers, who were asked about their cinema-going experiences as children, and hence it provides us with a rich selection of people’s fresh memories of watching films in the silent era.

Here, for example, are young adults remembering childhood play inspired by films:

Male, 20, Jewish, white, college junior – Quite often I would band together with other youths of my age, and we would play “Cop and Robber” or “Cowboy and Indian” trying to imitate the antics of the actors we saw in the movies. We would arm ourselves with toy pistols and clubs and chase each other over streets and yards. We would climb fences and barns, imagining them to be hills and all other objects necessary to make a realistic scene. At times we would get a little girl to play with us and we would have her be the heroine. Then someone else would rescue her, as we had seen it done in the movies.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – We had a small hobby horse which was used by the hero and heroine alternately. As my cousin’s backyard was large and contained a large number of trees, we soon learned to climb these with agility, with only one or two casualties resulting a cracked arm and a sprained wrist. From these trees we would lasso the villain and his band as they rode by. We wore this plot almost threadbare and then began to use Indians as the villains. They were always cruel and painted terrifically with mud. These cruel villains usually about three would hide behind a tree about six inches in diameter. This hid them so completely that no one could see them, especially the heroine who happened to be out walking. Then the villain would fall upon her and drag her to the Indian camp about three or four feet away. By that time, of course, the dashing hero would try to make the daring rescue. Sometimes he would succeed, but at other times he would be captured. He would then make the spectacular escape with the heroine in his arms and the wild Indians at his heels. This plot was used many times with but few variations. It provided such a great amount of action that it was always a favorite.

Female, 20, white, college junior – From these pictures I received some of my ideas of beauty. I had a great desire to have curls like Mary Pickford’s and was forced to try to secure them secretly because my father forbade the curling of my hair … I got some comfort out of being “Mary Pickford” in our games, and improved my appearance with the aid of shavings from new buildings near by. I was also fond of old-fashioned clothes which I had first seen in the movies. I always loved to dress up as the old-fashioned lady, and used everything available to make my skirts stick out like a hoop skirt.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore-The first picture which stands out in my memory is “The Sheik” featuring Rudolph Valentino. I was at the impressionable and romantic age of 12 or 13 when I saw it, and I recall coming home that night and dreaming the entire picture over again; myself as the heroine being carried over the burning sands by an equally burning lover. I could feel myself being kissed in the way the Sheik had kissed the girl. I wanted to see it again, but that was forbidden; so as the next best thing my friend and I enacted the especially romantic scenes out under her mother’s rugs, which made excellent tents even though they were hung over the line for cleaning purposes. She was Rudolph and I the beautiful captive, and we followed as well as we could remember the actions of the actors.

There are some particularly rich examples of children becoming so totally immersed in re-enacting what they had seen on the screen that it led to harm:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Two peculiar events are still impressed upon my mind as directly resulting from the influence of the movies. Once we tied one of our members to an oak tree, and notwithstanding his frantic cries, proceeded with a boisterous war-dance about the victim. The struggling boy was almost strangled by the numerous coils of rope about his neck before his frenzied mother appeared to secure his release. At another time, I was compelled to walk home through the deep snow in my stocking feet because my playmates had chosen to forcibly remove my shoes and conceal them, in imitation of a humorous scene which they had witnessed at the theater on the same day.

There is more on imitation of dress, mannerisms, etiquette and modes of behaviour, and how tips from the stars might be adopted when dating:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – Then came the time when I became interested in men. I had heard older boys and girls talking about “technique” and the only way I could find out how to treat boys was through reading books and seeing movies. I had always known boys as playmates, but having reached my freshman year in high school they became no longer playmates but “dates.” I didn’t want it to be that way but it seemed inevitable. I was asked to parties and dances and friends’ homes. The boys were older and sophisticated. I felt out of place. I noticed that older girls acted differently with boys than they did when with girls alone. I didn’t know what to do.

I decided to try some of the mannerisms I had seen in the movies. I began acting quite reserved, and I memorized half-veiled compliments. I realized my “dates” liked it. I laid the foundation with movie material. Then I began to improvise.

Of course, I had a rival in the crowd. Every time she began to receive more attention from the boys than I, I would see a movie and pick up something new with which to regain their interest. I remember one disastrous occasion. She was taking the center of the stage, and I was peeved. I could think of nothing to do.

Then I remembered the afternoon before I had seen Nazimova smoke a cigarette, and I decided that would be my next move. The party was at a friend’s home and I knew where her father’s cigarettes were kept. I got one, lit it, and had no difficulty whatsoever in handling it quite nonchalantly. The boys were fascinated and the victory was mine.

There is a lot of testimony on taking love-making tips from the movies, with Valentino frequently cited as a model, as in this droll, self-mocking example:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Later Valentino. I studied his style. I realized that nature had done much less for me in the way of original equipment than she had for the gorgeous Rodolfo, but I felt that he had a certain technique that it would behoove me to emulate. I practiced with little success. My nostrils refused to dilate – some muscular incompetency that I couldn’t remedy. My eyes were incapable of shooting sparks of fiery passion that would render the fair sex helpless. I made only one concrete trial. The young lady who was trial-horse for the attempt is still dubious about my mental stability. Worse yet, she made a report of the affair to her friends. The comments that came drifting back to me left no doubt in my mind about the futility of carrying on any longer. I gave up.

And so much more. There are examples of day-dreams and fantasies, of which stars they fell in love with, what induced sorrow, what thrilled them, and memories of what frightened them. The a several memories of a film in which a gorilla with the transplanted brain of a human commits murders (presumably the Bull Montana film Go and Get It, 1920), which clearly terrified many:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – The horror-pictures and serials used to frighten me when I was a child. I remember one picture in particular I cannot even recollect the name of it but it was a newspaper story and concerned several mysterious killings which, it came out later, were committed by a huge orang-utan which had been given the brain of a man in an experiment by a doctor one of the men killed by the animal. I remember distinctly the scene which frightened me so. The ape was standing in an open window leering at his next victim who was lying in bed, a helpless invalid, rendered even more helpless by fear and horror. Of course, a newspaper reporter, the hero in the story, came in to his rescue just in time and shot the ape, but by that time I had been so thoroughly frightened that I could not sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see this ape standing in the window and as the foot of my bed was only a few feet away from an open window, unprotected by even screens, I soon decided to spend the rest of the night in my mother’s bed with her. I remember being so paralyzed with fear that I could scarcely get out of bed, but once my feet touched the floor I ran as fast as I possibly could to my mother and spent not only that night but the next one, also, with her. I do not believe I cried, but I became speechless, powerless, rigid, staring wide-eyed into the dark, and the fright did not leave me for several days.

Finally, there is evidence of lessons learned from the movies, and of prejudices either reinforced or overturned. There is much on racial stereotyping, mostly the Chinese, but also this last piece of testimony summing up much that was worst about the movies:

Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior – It seems to me that every picture picturing a Negro is just to ridicule the race. When a Negro man or woman is featured in a movie they are obliged to speak flat southern words, be superstitious, and afraid of ghosts and white men. They have to make themselves as ugly and dark as possible. The bad things are emphasized and the good characteristics left out. This is very unfair to the race. All Negroes are not alike; there are different types as in other races. Why must they be portrayed as ignorant, superstitious animals instead of decent people that are just as capable of doing great things as any other race; all they need is the chance. It is the same with other dark races besides the Negro. They are always the loser, the shrinking coward, and never the victor. It is very unjust of the white race to make every nation appear inferior compared to them.

You can take or leave the analysis that goes with the text, but the short memoirs themselves are vivid, eloquent and revealing. There is much evidence here for anyone keen to explore the social impact of cinema (particularly on the young) in the 1920s and the mysteries of spectatorship. Movies and Conduct is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (4.9MB), PDF (22MB) and TXT (542KB) formats. I’ll add it to the Bioscope Library.

The horse in animation


Here’s something intriguing, if somewhat on the fringes of our subject. Rufus Butler Seder’s Gallop! is a very young children’s book, just published, which employs a patented technology, Scanimation. This shows animal figures as a kind of barcode-like strip. The animals move when you open a new page by pulling a scrambled underlying image which lies beneath an acetate strip marked with horizontal bars. Essentially, like silhouetted animations of Muybridge sequence photographs, we see a horse gallop, a chicken walk, a dog run, a cat leap.

The similarity to Muybridge’s work is very noticeable. Seder is described as being “an inventor, artist, and filmmaker fascinated by antique optical toys” and a description of the process points out that it

uses a technology based on the same principles as kinetoscopes, zoetropes, and other nineteenth century antiques that employed an optical illusion using the persistence of memory to create the flow of motion.

(Some confusion over technologies there, but I like the Dali-inspired term persistence of memory over the standard persistence of vision)

It’s not really possible to put over exactly how it looks, so I recommend checking out the children’s section of your local bookshop for the full effect, but Seder’s Eye Think Inc. site displays something of the effect, as in this animated GIF:


It’s an intriguing invention, though one suspects that adults are going to be more diverted by the effect than children. Maybe it might register more if it could only generate the effect in colour. But for us it’s a useful illustration of the interconnectness of things: the fascination with optical illusions that led to the optical toys of the nineteenth century which in turn led to motion pictures, and woven into this thread the vision of Muybridge, who sought not simply to make things to move but to capture the motion of real life. And there’s the not unrelated history of the pop-up book (to which Gallop! is to some degree related), three-D, and the wonder of seeing things break out of the confines of a two-dimensional world.

It’s all animation, or animated pictures as the cinema pioneers had it – simply bringing things to life.

Knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells

I gave a talk the other day on children’s cinema-going before the First World War, which reminded me that it’s been a while since I had any of the testimonies of cinema-going in the silent era that I occasionally reproduce here on The Bioscope.

The extracts below come from the unpublished memoirs of Hymie Fagan, of Jewish working class origins, who was born in Stepney in 1903. His autobiography is one of a large collection of unpublished working class autobiographies which are held in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies at Brunel University. These autobiographies were collected by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall while compiling their three volume annotated bibliography, The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984-1989). The texts aren’t available online, and there’s only an index available which gives author, title, and some indication of the location and time period of their memoir. So you’d have to go there to find out more, but here’s evidence from Hymie Fagan of why it would be a worthwhile trip for the dedicated researcher. Here he’s writing about going to the cinema in London before the First World War. It is full of observant detail:

The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

“My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you”.

A later passage covers cinema-going during the First World War, and has useful evidence of the appeal of the cinema’ stars on the young:

Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

There are several other such autobiographies in the Brunel collection, though in my research I looked only for those subjects who had lived in London in the 1896-1914 period. John Burnett’s books looking at nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class life through memoir evidence (Destiny Obscure, Useful Toil) are not hard to find in second-hand shops, and are well worth seeking out, even if none so far as I know touches on the cinema.

Re-envisioning the child in Italian film

Re-envisioning the child in Italian film

Re-envisioning the Child in Italian Film: New Perspectives on Children and Childhoods from Early Cinema to the Present is a conference being held 14-15 July 2008 at the University of Exeter. Normally we don’t allow non-words like ‘re-envisioning’ here at The Bioscope, but this promises to be an interesting congruence of Italian studies, film studies and childhood studies. The conference blurb assures us that “whilst the recurrent presence of the filmic child has been acknowledged within traditional film historiography, its changing role and status has until recently suffered from a peculiar critical neglect.” They are asking for papers on the following:

* Representations of children in early cinema
* The child in historical drama/costume drama
* The role of the child in Italian film criticism
* Child actors
* The politicisation of children and childhoods
* Violence and the traumatised child
* Childhood and innocence
* The lost, endangered or missing child
* The resurfacing of lost childhoods/the ghosts of childhood
* The child and questions of gender and sexuality
* Childhood and genre
* Childhood under postmodernity and the ‘death of childhood’
* Re-reading the child in Neorealism
* The child in global cinema
* Childhood and immigration

The representation of children in early cinema is a subject that merits serious academic investigation, and though the concentration on Italian rather narrows the field, hopefully there will be someone to take on the theme. The Call for Papers closes 1 February 2008. Further details from The School of Arts, Lenguages and Literatures, University of Exeter.