The Bioscope Guide to … South Africa

Mabel May and the children of Piccanin village in The Picannins’ Christmas (1917), from

After rather too long a gap, we return to the Bioscope’s occasional series on national film histories – essentially a quick reference guide, with listings of online and offline resources for the researcher. So far we have covered Italy and China. And, inspired to a degree by my recent discovery of the guide to South African film and television, VintageMedia, our attention turns to a land not generally associated much with silent film at all, South Africa.

South African history, and therefore South African film history, is profoundly bound up with colonialisation, racial segregation and apartheid. The state enforced system of racial segregation was instituted in 1948 and ended only in 1994, but apartheid merely enshrined in statute an absolute state of privilege for the minority white population which had existed for a century or more. South African silent cinema was a minority cinema – white-owned, white-produced, white-performed (though not absolutely so) and exhibited for whites (again, not absolutely so). It was also a colonial cinema, similar to the situation in Australia, where local production was constrained by distance from Europe and America, by a lack of finance, and by a paucity of talent. It was a cinema on the margins.

Edna Flugrath and Holger Petersen in Der Voortrekkers (1916), from

When motion pictures first came to Johannesburg in 1895, South Africa did not exist as a country. There were the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It was in 1910, following the upheavals of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 that the four combined as the Union of South Africa. Motion pictures came in 1895 in the same form as they did throughout the world, that is via the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, which opened to the public on 19 April 1895 at Henwood’s Arcade in Johannesburg. American magician Carl Hertz brought projected film to South Africa when he first exhibited at the Empire Palace of Varieties, Johannesburg on 9 May 1896. Variety theatres quickly picked up on the new phenomenon, showing films mostly obtained via the Warwick Trading company in Britain, whose trademark projector the Bioscope became so fixed in the mind of South African patrons that it is still the common name for a cinema in South Africa over a century later.

The manager of the Empire Palace of Varieties, Edgar Hyman, became the leading figure in early South Africa film, obtaining a Bioscope cine-camera and becoming the first of a number of cameramen to film scenes from the Anglo-Boer War, an event of worldwide interest that ensured films from South Africa were in high demand. Joseph Rosenthal and William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson were aong the filmmakers whose war-front footage demonstrated the power (and the limitations) of the cinematograph as war reporter.

After the war and until the creation of the Union of South Africa, local production was minimal, mostly topicals of restricted interest, though British film companies, including Butcher’s and the Charles Urban Trading Company, filmed in the country. The first South African cinema opened in Durban in 1909, and such bioscopes spread rapidly throughout 1910, with the first cinema for ‘coloured people only’ reportedly appearing in Durban in December 1910. The issue of race came to the fore in 1910 with the banning of the film of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries world heavyweight championship fight, because local authorities feared that its exhibition might cause racial unrest. Exhibitors in vain pointed out that in 1909 film of Johnson defeating the white Tommy Burns had not caused any social disruption, but the ban remained.

South Africa’s first fiction film, The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery, was released in 1910. Made by the Springbok Film Company, it does not appear to have been a particularly disinguished production. The African Mirror newsreel, produced by I.W. Schlesinger African Films Trust, was a greater success, becoming the local agent for Pathé Frères. South Africa film production expanded in the teens through Schlesginger’s formation of African Film Productions in 1915. AFP brought in American talent in the form of Lorrimer Johnston and Harold Shaw to produce films with the potential for export to British and American markets.

Shaw was the most notable filmmaker in South African silent cinema. He directed three feature films [correction, four – see comments], each starring his wife Edna Flugrath: Der Voortrekkers (1916, retelling the story of the Great Trek of the Boer people and the Battle of Blood River), The Rose of Rhodesia (1917, a drama about stolen diamonds with a strong underlying theme of racial understanding, made by Shaw’s own company) and a horse-raing drama, Thoroughbreds All (1919), the only title of the three now lost (almost no other South African silent fiction films survive). A fourth film, The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918), was to have been made by Shaw, but after disgreements with the film company it was directed by Dick Cruikshanks. The only other director of note was Joseph Albrecht, who was AFP’s main director into the 1930s.

British newsreel showing a screeing of Der Voortrekkers (as Winning a Continent) at the West End Cinema Theatre, London, in 1917, from

Der Voortrekkers gained some overseas screenings under the title Winning a Continent, but African Film Productions struggled to find a market outside South Africa for its productions, with only King Solomon’s Mines (1918), made by British director H. Lisle Lucoque, and the lavish The Blue Lagoon (1923) being relative successes. The great popularity of American product, with vastly superior production values, meant that local productions such as Prester John (1920) and The Man Who Was Afraid (1920) struggled to find audiences even in South Africa. AFP produced over forty fiction films between 1916 and 1924, before turning largely to documentary and newsreel work, South African fiction film production effectively disappearing until the talkie era.

South African silent cinema was white-produced for white audiences, but there were few South African films that did not feature the black population in one form or another. Inevitably such roles depicted the native population as either threatening or compliant, with Harold Shaw’s boldly inclusive The Rose of Rhodesia only able to stand out because it was an independent production (in every sense). Black performers appeared as tribes imperilling whites in gung-ho dramas of imperialist adventure such as King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel Allan Quatermain, and as naive and obedient in sentimental productions such as The Piccanins Christmas (1917). There were a few early AFP productions with all-black casts, notably the Zulutown Comedies series of slapstick shorts from 1917, performed by the Zulutown Players (though these made for white audiences). Zulu actor Goba starred in one of AFP’s first productions, A Zulu’s Devotion (1916) and in several productions thereafter.

Director Dick Cruickshanks (centre) with the Zulutown Players, from Screening the Past

Little now survives of South African silent film production, but scholarly interest has grown following the recent discovery of a print of The Rose of Rhodesia in the Netherlands, and through a rise in African film history studies generally, headed by such scholars as Jacqueline Maingard, Neil Parsons and James Burns. South Africa also boasts one of the most notable of all film histories, Thelma Gutsche’s truly epic The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940 (1972, but completed in 1946). South African film history is still trying to live up to it.

Notable filmmakers
Joseph Albrecht, Dick Cruickshanks, Henry Howse, Lorrimer Johnston, Norman Lee, Harold Shaw

Notable performers
Adele Fillis, Edna Flugrath, Goba, Mabel May, Marmaduke A. Wetherell, Grafton Williams

DVDs and online videos

  • The Rose of Rhodesia (streaming, via Screening the Past website)
  • The Symbol of Sacrifice (some scenes were included in the DVD Isandlwana, Zulu Battlefield but this seems to be no longer available; The Symbol of Sacrifice was also available from online pay service Kuduclub but this closed down in 2011)
  • Der Voortekkers (DVD-R from Villon Films)


Archives and museums


  • African Media Program (extensive database of films and videos on Africa, with variable information on some silent era productions)
  • A History of the South African Film Industry 1895-1003 (useful timeline from South African History Online)
  • Screening the Past (special issue on the online film studies journal on The Rose of Rhodesia ith rich material on silent era South African production in general)
  • Vintage Media (useful site surveying South Africa film and television history, with authoritative descriptions of most South Africa silent fiction films)

The Bioscope Guide to … China


Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess (Shen nu) (1934)

Wine, music and cinema are the three greatest creations of humanity. Of these the cinema is the youngest and most powerful. It can stimulate minds into day-dreaming. Dream is the free movement of the heart and it mirrors the sadness of the oppressive world…

At last we return to our occasional series of national histories of silent film, providing an overview of film production, personalities, publications and resources for the silent film era in the chosen country. We began the series with Italy; now we turn our attention to China, whose history of filmmaking in the silent era is as rich as any, not least because it continued well into the 1930s. The opening quotation comes from the charter of the South China Film Drama Society, from around 1926, as reproduced in Jay Leyda’s peerless Dianying (Electric Shadows), a history of film and the film audience in China.

Motion pictures came to China on 11 August 1896, when a show was presented by an unnamed Spaniard at the Hsu Gardens, Shanghai. American James Ricalton presented a programme of Edison films at the Tien Hua Tea Garden, Shanghai, in July 1897, and took several films of local scenes in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Canton. For several years the only films seen in China were imported and the only films on China were taken by foreigners, such as Joseph Rosenthal, Burton Holmes and British MP Ernest Hatch, all around the time of the Boxer rebellion in 1900.

The first Chinese film was made in 1905, Ding Jun Shan (Conquering Jun Mountain), an scene from the Peking Opera, filmed by Beijing photographer Ren Qingtai. Other such excerpts from operas continued to be made on an infrequent basis to 1909, when a next stage of development came with the Asia Film and Theater Company, founded by the Russian-American Benjamin Brodsky in Shanghai. Asia Film made shorts such as Buxing Er (Unfortunate Child) (1909) and Tou Shao Ya (Stealing a Roast Duck) (1909), the first film made in Hong Kong [this film is now thought to date from 1914 – see comments]. Brodksy returned to America during the turbulent period that led to the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, returning in 1913 for Nanfu, Nanqi (A Couple in Difficulty), the first Chinese feature film.

Chinese film production at this time was small-scale and localised, often restricted to a single theatre for use as theatrical interludes. Knockabout comedies was the predominant style. Film theatres were starting to spread, at least in the cities, but showed almost exclusively foreign films. Production had effectively ceased during much of the Frist World War period because film stock (which had to be imported) became unavailable. Change began in the early 1920s with new film companies: Commercial Press, Shanghai Film Company, Mingxing, Changcheng, Baihe and Da Zhonghua among them. By the middle of the decade Chinese production was highly active if volatile (many companies came and went quickly) and feature films were the norm. Notable titles include Guer Jiu Zu Ji (Orphan Rescues Grandfather) (1923), Kong Gu Lan (Lonely Orchid) (1926) and Xi Xiang Ji (Romance of the West Chamber) (1927), the latter an early example of an historical costume drama. Kung fu and swordplay films were also popular at this time.


The golden age of Chinese filmmaking came in the 1930s. Just at the point where Western countries were abandoning silent film, the Chinese cinema (partly owing to problmes in obtaining adequate sound equipment) glorified in its opportunities, and although a few sound films were made from 1931 onwards, essentially the period 1930-37 was a silent cinema period, dominated by film production from Shanghai. The leading studios were Mingxing, Tianyi and Lianhua. Production was often dominated by Leftist concerns (particularly those from Lianhua), concentrating on the struggles of ordinary people and contemporary, patriotic concerns. Examples include Xiao Wanyi (Little Toys) (1933) directed by Sun Yu (above) and Bugao Cheng’s Chun Can (Spring Silkworms) (1933). Nevertheless the films were chiefly consumed by a middle-class which valued glossy production values that showed the strong influence of American cinema. Classic melodramas, often with suffering central female figure, include The Goddess (Shen nu) (1934) and Tianming (Daybreak) (1933). These differences in production reflected the political tension of the period, with the growing differences between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists. Anti-Japanese rhetoric also characterised a number of the films.

The Shanghai studios had their film stars. Renowned names include Hu Die, Li Lili, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan and Jin Yan. Li Lili is the spirited central figure of Sun Yu’s upbeat tales of workers’ strength and nationalist struggle, though she could also play tragic roles, as in Tianming (Daybreak). Perhaps most notable actress, however, was Ruan Lingyu, whose suffering on-screen persona was reflected in her private life, commited suicide in 1935, aged just 24, after having played a film actress hounded by right-wing critics in Cai Chusheng’s Xin Nu Xing (New Woman) (1934).

The golden period ended with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Most production companies closed down, and in any case the era of Chinese silent cinema was over. The survival rate for Chinese silents is not great – of the estimated 1,100 titles produced between 1905 and 1937 only 5% are known to exist. Happily the best of these have become more available in recent years, with a couple of ground-breaking programmes at the Pordenone silent film festival in 1995 and 1997 being followed by DVD releases and a growth in critical literature and web resources.

Notable filmmakers
Zhang Shichuan, Ren Pengnian, Sun Yu, Bu Wancang, Cai Chusheng, Wu Yonggang, Cheng Bugao, Fei Mu, Shi Dongshan

Notable performers
Fan Xuepeng, Xu Qinfang, Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili, Hu Die, Zhou Xuan, Zhao Dan, Jin Yan, Lan Ping (aka Jiang Qing, the future Madame Mao)

These are the DVDs I can find from English-language sources – I’ll add more as I come across them.

A number of Chinese silents are available in the USA on the Cinema Epoch label. The quality of the transfers (and the originals) is unfortunately poor:

Other DVDs also available:

Some Chinese silents are available to view on the Internet Archive:

Center Stage (1992) is a bio-pic based on the life of Ruan Lingyu, starring Maggie Cheung


Archives and museums


The Bioscope Guide to … Italy

Lyda Borelli (left) and Francesca Bertini, drawn by Tito Corbella

Time to start up another series, and this time it’s going to be an occasional series looking at the history of silent cinema in various countries, with a list of resources (offline and online) to aid the researcher. One can argue against the need for national histories of cinema, even that such nationalism creates myopic and self-serving accounts, but their value (and popularity) probably outweigh such qualms – and they do provide us, quite literally, with boundaries. And so we start with Italy.

Italy’s contribution to silent cinema was a considerable and a distinctive one, but it was slow off the mark. Although it had some pioneer experimenters in the 1890s, such as Fileteo Alberini, for the most part film in the first years meant exhibition of films from other nations or actuality filmmakers such as Vittorio Calcina (who was a Lumière representative) and Italo Pacchioni, perhaps the first independent native filmmaker. At this period, when films were widely exhibited in Italy but local production was minimal, the leading figure was probably Leopoldo Fregoli, an immensely popular comedian and mimic who introduced film (the Fregoligraph) into his act in 1898.

Italian film production properly began in 1905 with the production by Alberini and fellow exhibitor Dante Santoni of La Presa di Roma (The Capture of Rome), Italy’s first dramatic film, prophetic in its choice of classical-historical subject matter. A year later their company took on the name of Cines. The growth in cinemas, and a great upsurge in audiences, encouraged an explosion in native film production. Among the leading companies were Cines, Ambrosio, Pasquali, Itala, Comerio (later Milano) and the Pathé offshot Film d’Arte Italiana. The leading production centres were Rome and Turin, and Italian films were exported worldwide as well as locally, establishing a strong reputation for costume dramas and comedies. Italy became one of the world’s leading film production centres.

Italian filmmakers (and audiences) delighted in classical and literary subjects, tackling Shakespeare, Dante and Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the much-filmed The Last Days of Pompeii), films which delighted in emphasising opulence, elevated drama and a classical heritage that was especially theirs. This taste for the cultured came in part from the aristocratic leanings, indeed blood, of some Italian producers and investors, men like actor and director Gustavo Serena, Alberto Fassini (who owned Cines), Giuseppe Di Liguoro, who ran Milano Films and was the company’s main director, and Baldassare Negroni, another aristocrat-filmmaker, this time for Celio.

To demonstrate that their cinema was not all high-minded, Italian comedians developed a rudely cinematic, knockabout style that blended chase, social satire and film trickery, with such notable comics as Cretinetti (the Frenchman André Deed), Kri Kri (Raymond Frau), Lea (Lea Giunchi) and Tontolini (Ferdinando Guillaume) and Robinet (Marcel Fabre). Delightfully Italian in their particular vaudeville style, such films also point the way to the American slapstick that was eventually to supplant them on the world market.

Cabiria (1914), from

As films grew longer, Italian ambitions grew. The taste for classical subjects led inexorably to grander treatments – the literal cast of thousands – as films started to dazzle audiences with scale and spectacle. Out of the major Italian studios came a succession of epic, feature-length productions that caused amazement worldwide: L’Inferno (1911), which shocked many with its scenes of writhing nudity, La caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy) (1911), Quo vadis? (1913), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and grandest and maddest of them all, Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914). Cabiria, a tale of the Punic Wars, was 4,000 metres long (over three hours) and came burdened with grossly verbose titles courtesy of Italy’s great poet/dramatist Gabriele D’Annunzio. Cabiria‘s commanding sense of space (accentuated by distinctive slow camera tracking shots), visual design, and the movement of crowds impressed all who saw it, even while the human drama was dwarfed. It particularly influenced the epic film in America, most noticeably D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Cabiria also introduced the character Maciste, the Hercules-like strongman, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, who would feature as the leading character in a great many films throughout the 1910s and 20s, and then revived as a character in the 1960s.

Cinema fascinated Italian intellectuals. Futurism, the modernist art movement that largely centred on Italy, theorised rhapsodically about film and its relation to the urban and the mechanical. Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra made experimental films in 1910-1912 which combined motion picture colour with music, and Ginna made the film Vita futurista (1916). Conversely, Luigi Pirandello’s wrote a novel Si gira (1915), revised in 1925 as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (English title Shoot!), in which cinema is representative of all that is mechanised and soulless.

The epic productions made Italy the talking point in world cinema for a brief period, but another national form of film – and one more localised in its appeal – was the diva film. These were slow moving but artfully designed melodramas, with scenarios where strong leading ladies suffered glamorously, usually dying for love in the final reel. Italian diva actresses included Pina Menichelli (Tigre Reale, 1916), Francesca Bertini (Assunta Spina, 1915, which she co-directed), Lyda Borelli (Malombra, 1917), Maria Jacobini (Resurrezione, 1917) and Italia Almirante Manzini (L’inamorata, 1920), while their celebrated stage equivalent was Eleonora Duse (who made just the one film, Cenere, in 1916).

Post-war, Italian cinema withered away. The dominance achieved by America worldwide, and the competition in Europe from German cinema, had a deleterious effect on the Italian film industry, which could no longer afford to produce the lavish films of which its reputation had been based. Production dwindled almost to nothing by the mid-1920s, and quality declined in tandem (with some brave exceptions, such as Maciste all’Inferno, 1926). Fascism, dominant in Italian life from 1922, showed little interest in film until sound arrived in 1930, and with it a revival in Italian cinema – but that is another story.

Notable filmmakers
Arturo Ambrosio, Mario Caserini, Giuesppe De Liguoro, Enrico Guazzoni, Gerolamo Lo Savio, Luigi Maggi, Baldassare Negroni, Elvira Notari, Roberto Omegna, Ernesto Maria Pasquali, Giovanni Pastrone, Eleutrerio Rodolfi

Notable performers
Franceca Bertini, Lyda Borelli, Leopoldo Fregoli, Emilio Ghione, Lea Giunchi, Ferdinando Guillaume, Leda Gys, Maria Jacobini, Italia Almirante Manzini, Pina Menichelli, Amleto Novelli, Bartolomeo Pagano, Ruggero Ruggeri

These are Italian silents currently on DVD (more will be added here as I find them):

  • Assunta Spina (d. Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena 1915) [Kino]
  • Cabiria (d. Giovanni Pastrone 1914) [Kino]
  • Christus (d. Giuseppe Di Liguoro 1914) [Grapevine]
  • Diva Dolorosa [Zeitgeist]
    Peter Delpeut’s ‘found footage’ documentary on Italian silent melodrama, using fourteen films including La donna nuda (1914) and Tigre reale (1916)
  • Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (d. Mario Caserini 1913) [Kino]
  • Maciste all’inferno (d. Guido Brignone 1926) [Grapevine]
  • Marcantonio e Cleopatra (d. Enrico Guazzoni 1913) [Grapevine]
  • Salammbo (d. Dominico Gaido 1914) [Grapevine]
  • Silent Shakespeare [BFI] [Milestone]
    Includes Re Lear (d. Gerolamo Lo Savio 1910) and Il mercante di Venezia (d. Gerolamo Lo Savio 1910)

The finest publications on silent Italian cinema are, inevitably, in Italian. This is a selection of some of the leading titles, with a smattering of English language texts. Current academic interest tends to lie with the leading actresses of the teens and women directors such as Elvira Notari and Elvira Giallanella.

Luigi Pirandello’s novel Si gira (1915), or Shoot! is available for free from Project Gutenberg (Australian version)

The following silent film era journals from the Museo Nazionale del Cinema are availablein digitised form from the Teca Digitale piemontese:

  • Bollettino di informazioni cinematografiche – 1924-1925
  • Bollettino edizioni Pittaluga – 1928-1929
  • Bollettino staffetta dell’ufficio stampa della anonima pittaluga – 1929-1931
  • Cine Mondo: rivista quindicinale illustrata de cinema – 1927-1931
  • Al cinema: settimanale di cinematografia e varietà – 1922-1930
  • Eco film: periodico quindicinale cinematografico – 1913
  • Figure mute: rivista cinematografica – 1919
  • Films Pittaluga: rivista di notizie cinematografiche: pubblicazione quindicinale – 1923-1925
  • Il Maggese cinematografico: periodico quindicinale – 1913-1915
  • Rassegna delle programmazioni – 1925-1926

Archives and museums
Italy has a couple of outstanding film/pre-cinema museums, and a profusion of film archives with silent film holdings to one degree or another.

Italy is the home of film festivals, and boasts three that specialise in silent film, two of them exclusively. Pordenone and Bologna (which includes sound films) share honours for being the world’s leading festivals of early film.


  • 100 Years of Cinema Exhibition in Italy
    Part of a site on the history of cinema-going in Italy – includes basic information on cinemas and exhibition in the silent era
  • Archivio Storico
    Thousands of newsreels and documentaries from 1928 onwards produced by Luce (and others), with many video clips
  • CinemaItalia
    General history of Italian cinema written by David Parkinson, with a section on the silent era
  • Divina Lyda
    Biographical site (in Italian) on Lyda Borelli, with many photographs
  • Dive cinema muto
    Italian site (in Italian) devoted especially to the Italian ‘divas’ such as Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini (site no longer active – link is to Internet Archive record)
  • In penombra
    Valuable new site on aspects of Italian silent film history, in Italian but with English translation software
  • Non solo dive
    This site for a 2007 conference on women and Italian silent cinema seems no longer to be active, but conference details are on a Bioscope post
  • Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen
    Mostly American actresses, but pages on Bertini, Borelli and Menichelli, with useful links