Wonderstruck is the new children’s book by Brian Selznick, whose previous novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Georges Méliès features as a central character, has been filmed as Hugo by Martin Scorsese. In the new novel Selznick (a distant relative of film producers Lewis and David O. Selznick) again brings silent films into his distinctive mix of textual and illustrated narrative.

The new novel tells of two children, fifty years apart. One lives in 1977: Ben, a boy from Minnesota missing his dead mother, whose story is told in words. One lives in 1927: Rose, a New York girl fixated on a silent film star, whose story is told entirely in pictures. Silent films play a crucial part in the story, which in part documents the period when films turned to sound, with what looks to be a fascinating emphasis on the impact this had on the deaf community (both Ben and Rose are deaf, or partially deaf). This is a theme that the Bioscope has posted on before now, and it is something with which Selznick empathizes greatly, as this interview with CNN indicates:

It really began when I was working on “Hugo.” I saw a documentary film called “Through Deaf Eyes” and there were a couple things in it I found particularly interesting.

One was an interview with a young deaf man who had been raised in a hearing household and he talked about how it wasn’t until he went away to college and met other deaf people that he realized he was part of this larger community, this larger culture that he had been born into, that was really fascinating to me.

There was also a section about the transition from silent movies to sound and how this was a tragedy for the deaf community because with silent movies deaf audiences and hearing audiences could understand the same movies but after the transition to sound, the deaf audiences couldn’t follow the stories anymore.

When I finished “Hugo,” I wanted to take what I had learned in terms of telling a story with words and pictures and try to do something new with it.

I had the idea to tell two different stories, one with words, one with pictures. In trying to figure out what story would make sense just with pictures, I remembered “Through Deaf Eyes,” and I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of a deaf person in a way that echoes how they experience their own life, so you would get their entire story visually.

The plot just kind of grew from there.

Through Deaf Eyes is a 2007 PBS documentary, features details of which (including videos clips), can be found on the PBS website.

From the illustrations available on the Wonderstruck website it looks to be in the same compelling hand-drawn style as The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Interestingly, the site’s promotional video makes great play with action on different planes, suggesting the 3D influence of Scorsese’s Hugo – they’ll be thinking of the film version already, no doubt.

Wonderstruck has just been published, and Hugo is released in cinemas next week. Advance notices have been enthusiastic, and cinemas seem likely to be filled with an unlikely mix of families with children, modern film buffs checking out why Scorsese has gone down such a route, and early film enthusiasts seeing their world recreated with as much historical authenticity as producers Disney may allow. At any rate, Georges Méliès is due to become a name known and his art appreciated by millions of children across the world. How happy he would be.

There are clips, downloads, images, background information and much more on the official Hugo site.

Universal Signs

This month sees the premiere of a new silent film (albeit one that seems to have been made in 2007), which is always a cause for rejoicing here at Bioscope Towers. The film is question is Universal Signs, a silent film for the deaf, presented what the official site describes as “mesmerizing American Sign Language with English subtitles”. The film looks to be one of those heartwarming tales of human relationships which tend to be a matter of taste, but here’s how the site describes the film’s appeal:

After the death of his fiancée’s daughter while in his care, Andrew (Anthony Natale, Mr. Holland’s Opus), a Deaf artist, becomes a prisoner of his own mind. Tormented day and night by memories and self-blame, Andrew falls in a downward spiral of depression and anger that alienates everyone around him. It is only through a serendipitous friendship and new love with Mary (Sabrina Lloyd, Sports Night) that Andrew is able to sense the life around him – forgive himself, rediscover his muse, and experience the transformative power of love.

An original score by Academy Award® winner Joseph Renzetti propels the story along with stellar supporting performances from Margot Kidder (Superman), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager), Deanne Bray (Sue Thomas: FBEye) and Ashlyn Sanchez (Crash).

Elsewhere they claim that the film “has the unique distinction of being the first feature film that embraces sign language in the storytelling of a film, rendering it a foreign language film for the hearing audience”. I don’t know enough about deaf cinema to know if this is a credible claim, but it will be a notable achievement if the film communicates equally to both kinds of audience. All of the deaf characters are played by deaf actors, and the film is wholly silent, with music score, bar a few snatches of audible dialogue. Hearing audiences are provided with captions to explain the dialogue.

There seems to be a certain amount of religious impetus – the site stresses its inter-denominational appeal, there’s a central character who’s a priest, and promotional blurb includes such lines as “by promoting UNIVERSAL SIGNS you send a message that TRANSFORMATION and CHANGE is happening. All we need is each other and FAITH in the possible and freedom to FORGIVE”. A Roman Catholic in Philadelphia which holds masses in American Sign Language features in the film.



There’s plenty more information on the site. There you can find out about sign language, deaf cinema, captioning, and how to help promote the film. You can also buy T-shirts, mugs and postcards, download screensavers, and pre-order the film on DVD. It is screening at the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival on 21 May, and it has had earlier festival screenings in 2008, though what is described as the world premiere takes place on 30 May at the Keswick Theatre, Glenside, PA.

Finally, there’s a review of the film from a “sign-impaired” Erik Childress of the Chicago Film Society, which has this passage on its allegiance to the silent cinema:

There’s also something magical that occurs without calling obvious attention to itself when Universal Signs actually gets around to embracing its roots in the history of silent film. Developments in the plotting may give you the occasional eye roll for either their contrivance. But when you discover the big reveal during an Easter dinner scene, those versed in the schools of Chaplin or clavical-themed westerns will recognize the subtle shift in Renzetti’s score and provide new light on the direct convenience of an early antagonist and the second one it spawns. It’s not a far trip to imagine this dinner sequence with full title cards and speeded-up film in a full-on homage to the beginnings of motion pictures before we could all hear Al Jolson.

It’s disappointing to see that mistaken reference to “speeded-up film”, but otherwise this sounds like a film that deserves to make its mark.

The Legend of the Mountain Man



The Bioscope has an interest in films made for and by the deaf, as old hands may know. Deaf cinema shouldn’t be equated with silent cinema in general, but there is a fascinating history of deaf people’s engagement with film during the silent era, to which I shall certainly return, and it is worthwhile noting from time to time what is going on in the world of deaf film, as a sort of parallel activity to the modern silent film (another activity we’ve also been tracing).

All of which leads us to The Legend of the Mountain Man, a feature film wholly silent yet very much a talking picture, except that the language is ASL, or American Sign Language. It is made by ASL Films, who have set themselves up to produce feature films to professional standards for the deaf community, and have now made three titles: Forget Me Not (2006), Wrong Game (2007) and The Legend of the Mountain Man, which was released late last year. Their films are pure ASL, without captions or voiceover, and so for the hearing viewer offer a purely silent experience as well as a window onto a wholly talkative world.

Mountain Man concerns three children staying at their grandparents’ Montana ranch who encounter a mysterious mountain creature, and through their adventures help bring back together their dysfunctional family. It looks to be heartwarming, family fare, and has been warmly accepted by the deaf community in America (not least for its purist ASL policy). There’s plenty of information to be found on the film, and ASL Films’ mission, on the movie’s official site, which has trailer, cast interviews, showtimes, photos and news.

To find out more about deaf cinema, and deaf art and media in general, visit The Deaf Lens, whose list of links alone is just amazing, not least for what it reveals of the number of deaf film festivals out there.

Gallaudet University Video Library


Mary Williamson in The Death of Minnehaha (1913), from http://videolibrary.gallaudet.edu

A while ago I told you about the digitised series of the American journal for the deaf, The Silent Worker, which had such fascinating material on the relationship of the deaf community to silent cinema. The journal has been digitised by Gallaudet University, Washington, which specialises in education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The remarkable range of work it does includes a commitment to film, which leads us to the excellent Gallaudet University Video Library.

This is a model database with video streams in Windows Media and QuickTime, and first-rate associated metadata. And among the many titles available on the site are silent films, including – astonishingly – the first surviving film using American Sign Language, from 1910, and nine titles from 1913 made for the National Associaition of the Deaf. The films are known about by historians of deafness, but has anyone written about these from the film history angle?

Gallaudet provides this cataloguing data for the films:

The Lorna Doone Country of Devonshire England
(12 min., B & W, silent, signed 1910)
The earliest surviving film in sign language. Dr. Edward Miner Gallaudet, prominent educator of the deaf and founder of Gallaudet University, lectures on his visit to England. [The Video Library gives the date of 1913, but this seems to be an error]

Dom Pedro’s Visit to Gallaudet College
(6 min., B&W, silent signed: 1913)
E.A Fay relates the story of the Emperor of Brazil’s visit to Gallaudet and his American Travels, in 1876.

Memories of Old Hartford
(16 min., B & W, silent, signed: 1913)
Dr. John B. Hotchkiss talks of his youth in Hartford, Connecticut in the “good old days” of the mid-1800s.

An Address at the Tomb of Garfield
(6 min., B & W, silent, signed: 1913)
Willis Hubbard leads a delegation of deaf persons who have come to Washington for a memorial service at the tomb of the late President James A. Garfield. Hubbard summarizes Garfield’s life and achievements and speaks on Garfield’s deep interest in Gallaudet University (then called the Columbia Institution) and his role in defending the fledgling college against Congressional opponents and budget-cutters.

Discovery of Chloroform
(8 min. B&W, silent, signed: 1913)
Dr. George T. Dougherty, a leading chemist in the industrial world and leader among the deaf, lectures on the chloroform in one of the world’s first educational films.

The Death of Minnehaha
(16 min., B&W, silent, signed: 1913)
Mary Williamson relates Longfellow’s famous poem in costume and sign language. [Illustrated above]

A Lay Sermon
(16 min., B& W, silent, signed: 1913)
A sermon by the Rev. Robert McGregor about the universal brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God.

A Plea for a Statue of De l’Epee in America
(6 min., B&W, silent, signed: 1913)
An address read by Rev. McCarthy and interpreted in sign language by Dr. James H. Cloud. The Abbe de’l Epee was a French cleric who invented the French (and indirectly, the American) sign language in the late 1700’s.

The Preservation of Sign Language
(16 min., B & W, silent, signed: 1913)
An address by George William Veditz in which he deplores the debasing of the “pure” sign language and urges its preservation.

Yankee Doodle, The Irishman’s Flea, and the Lady and the Cake
(6 min., B&W, silent, signed: 1920)
Three humorous short tales in sign language.

The films are mostly lectures in sign language form, so comprehension is going to be a bit limited for those not conversant with ASL, but I recommend the performance by Mary Williamson of the death of Minnehaha from Longfellow’s Hiawatha and the lecture on chloroform. They are well produced (the titles are later additions) – the person behind most of them was George Veditz, president of the National Association of the Deaf, and there’s an account of their production on the PBS site. In part it seems they were made to help preserve the art of sign language by demonstrating the work of its finest practitioners (Veditz appears on one dedicated to just this theme).

To view the films, go to the Video Library site, click on the public access link at the bottom of the page, then from the menu on the left choose ‘Deaf History’ [Update: the web page has changed, so Deaf History now appears on the main menu straight away]. There are other films extant not included here, but there is more than enough to provide a fascinating window on this world, and to show us once again that the early cinema was such an exciting and creative time. More, much more, was going on that the history books have yet been able to tell us.

There’s a history of deaf people and cinema, John S. Schuchman’s Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry. My copy’s on order.

The Silent Worker

Granville Redmond and Charlies Chaplin

Granville Redmond and Charlie Chaplin

While preparing a post on the digitisation of newspaper collections (which you’ll receive some other time), I came across one journal of such particular interest that it had to have a post to itself.

The Silent Worker was a popular American journal for the deaf, published between 1888 and 1929. Most of the articles were written by hearing-impaired authors. The entire run of the journal has been digitised by Gallaudet University Library. If you go to the search options, and click on subjects, you will find 70 articles on ‘Movies and Deaf’.

I don’t know if there has been much in the way of studies made of the relationship between deafness and silent cinema, though the Chicago Institute for the Moving Image has a Festival for Cinema of the Deaf which has included silent films, and in 1891 the pre-cinema pioneer Georges Demenÿ famously used a proto-moving image camera to show someone mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ as a demonstration of how moving images might aid deaf mutes in learning to speak. And there are many anecdotes of deaf lip-readers discovering the fruity language spoken in films like What Price Glory? which had escaped the eye of the censors. And it has been argued that Lon Chaney’s particular acting gifts came in part through both his parents being deaf.

The Silent Worker reveals a rich world where deaf audiences, and deaf creative talents, engage with the silent picture. For example, an article entitled ‘Cinema and “Signs”‘ (October 1916) compares the art of pantomime with that of the silent screen, with particular reference to Billy Merson and Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin gets many mentions, and there is an engrossing piece, ‘Moving Pictures and the Deaf’ (June 1918) by Alice T. Terry (not the actress Alice Terry), who describes a visit to Hollywood and the Chaplin Studios, where she encounters Granville Redmond (illustrated above with Chaplin), a painter and deaf-mute, who acted in A Dog’s Life and The Kid. Chaplin is revealed to have been notably accommodating towards the deaf (has anyone written on this?). Her opinions are full of interest:

Unlike the spoken drama, the deaf can enjoy moving pictures as much as the hearing do. Some may say that the deaf lose, as they do not hear the music that acompanies the pictures. But I do not think we lose; there are various ways in which we are compensated but the hearing would hardly understand if we tried to explain. For myself I hate the noisy show, that is where some struggle or a battle is going on with its accompanying loud imitation battle din. To me the vibrations are a continuous, growling thunder – or worse than that – which sickens me soul and body. In fact most all musical vibrations irritate me. But by many of the deaf I know that the vibrations are enjoyed, especially by those with some remnant of hearing.

She also has trenchant opinions on D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation “worked a great injury to the colored race”. Elsewhere, there are reports on the production of films for the deaf, including a Professor G.W. Jones who filmed speeches from Shakespeare.

One article, ‘Preserving a Famous Film’ sounds remarkably archival for April 1912, though its subject is actually the preservation on film of notable practitioners of sign language. The are also reports on Helen Keller, who starred as herself in a dramatised film of her life in 1919, entitled Deliverance (her teacher Annie Sullivan also appeared in the film).

That’s what I’ve gleaned through a quick inspection, and clearly there much more that could be unearthed. Here’s some last words, written by Alexander L. Pach, for the October 1919 issue:

We deaf people must thank the screen-art for the one biggest offset to our infirmity. Good pictures and by good pictures I mean the kind that educate and elevate, are the levers that lift us from the deadly dullness and monotony of total deafness, to the highest pinnacles of delight. They restore our hearing as nothing else does. We know every word that is spoken as well as the hearing do, for they are all projected on the screen. We only miss the music, and this is such a slight loss it doesn’t count … All the best plays of the spoken stage that have delighted millions of hearing people find their way to “Screenland”, and such big hits as “Common Clay”, “Daddy Long-legs”, “The Thirteenth Chair”, “Secret Service” etc. etc., are ours through this media. An evening at a good picture house now means one of those hits of the drama; a News-Weekly that has the whole world for its field … a more or less “funny” picture that makes us laugh whether we want to or not and then Burton Holmes shows us the people, the customs and the homes of some far away denizens of the other side of the earth. After an evening of delightful entertainment of this order one may go home utterly forgetful of the fact that an important sense is missing. He has come away refreshed. The tedium of the every day work of store, office of factory has been relieved in great measure, and we feel it’s a bully good little world after all …

There are such treasures to be found on the web. Let’s all keep on looking.