The Scientist

What fun this is. Students on the Science Communication course at Imperial College London have produced a pastiche of The Artist (itself a pastiche, of course), on the theme of communicating science. Not a promising subject, you might think, but it is done with real style. The parallels with the Academy Award winner are ingenious, and the film (shot in monochrome) looks terrific. It even drags in the final third, much as does The Artist. Perhaps most impressively, they have persuaded the La Petit Reine production company to let them use extracts from Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack to The Artist. Full marks to them for having the nerve, and to the production company for being good sports.

The thirteen-minute film tells of a brilliant, vain scientist who gains the applause of his students but is failing to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. This is the concern of a female student, who joins him in the laboratory, co-authors some scientific papers with him, then goes on to public acclaim because of her great ability to explain science to the general public. The thematic fit is perfect. Charmingly played by Haralambos Dayantis and Harriet Jarlett, and with a real sense of how silent film works, the only disappointment is a weak, inconclusive ending when it was crying out for the duo to dance among the test tubes to general applause.

There’s information on the film’s production at the Science Communication course’ Refractive Index blog, with some interesting thoughts on the parallels between the world of cinema and their world:

In learning about the history of silent film, we discovered an important parallel between the introduction of talking in film and talking in science. Early attempts at using sound in film were deemed clunky, and yet in time, film with sound became the norm. Any new enterprise needs time and effort in order to fulfill its full potential. Similarly, early attempts at public engagement, such as the GM consultation, have been awkward and much criticised. However, with the slightly warmer response that upstream public engagement on nanotechnology has received, we may be witnessing the refinement of a technique that could eventually become the established norm.

If this is an example of how The Artist has inspired people to think of silent films, not just their history but how they tell stories, then we should be really pleased. It is turning out to be a real force for good.


Bioscope Newsreel no. 11

The Ballet Russes at the Fêtes de Narcisses, Montreux in 1928, from British Pathé

Can we make the Bioscope Newsreel a weekly occurrence, say every Friday? We’ll have a go.

Ballet Russes on film
Jane Pritchard, co-curator of the Victorian & Albert Museum’s recent exhibition ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929’ writes of the amazing discovery of the first known film of the Ballet Russes lurking in the British Pathé archive. Read more.

50 years of film studies
The Guardian film blog celebrates fifty years of film studies as an academic discipline. The pioneer lecturer was Thorold Dickinson (himself a filmaker of renown); the location was University College London; the pupils included Gavin Millar, Charles Barr, Raymond Durgnat and Lutz Becker. Read more.

Modern elephant taxidermy
Rich Remsberg unearths an extraordinary 1927 film from the American Museum of Natural History that shows you how to stuff an elephant. The taxidermist in question is the multi-talented Carl Akeley, also famed as a motion picture cameraman and inventor – the Akeley camera, with its gyroscopic head, was much used by wildlife filmmakers and newsreels. Read more.

Music for silents
An interesting interview with Ken Winokur of renowned silent film accompanists the Alloy Orchestra raises the issue of venues which insist on showing silent films silently, because André Bazin pronounced that any music accompaniment was mere nostalgia. Go to the Cinémathèque Française to watch your silents to the accompaniment of coughs and the occasional rumbling stomach, and I think most will vote for ‘nostalgia’. Read more.

Farewell to the Silent Movie Blog
For the past couple of years Christopher Snowden’s Silent Movie Blog has provided witty, well-researched and strikingly illustrated accounts of American silent film history. Sadly it is being closed down, and it is not clear whether the archive will remain online (all posts before July 2010 have been removed already). Read more.

And finally
The Bioscope is four years old today. Here’s the link to post number one – a single pithy sentence.

‘Til next time!

Spinning the Spirograph

A Spirograph with disc in position, from

We all know about having motion pictures in disc form. DVD and increasingly Blu-Ray are the domestic formats of choice, and we all understand that films need not appear as strips of film. What is not generally known is that there is nothing new about films in disc form, indeed that films could be found in this form from the earliest years of cinema – indeed the disc form precedes the motion picture film. The recent appearance online (40MB) of a catalogue for the most significant of the film disc formats before DVD – the Spirograph – is the spur for this quick history of the format.

Before there were films there were motion pictures in disc or in circular form. A number of the optical toys and motion picture devices of the nineteenth century involved sequences of images arranged around a disc, with some form of intermittency to enable the viewer to experience the illusion of movement. They included the Phenakistoscope (figures on a disc with slotted edges, effect illustrated here from MOMI), the Zoetrope (sequential images aranged around the inside of a drum with slit holes) and Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoöpraxiscope, which projected images in motion arranged around the edge of a glass disc.

When inventors first began combining the principles of such optical devices with photography, again some looked to discs to provide the solution, particularly if they were reproducing brief sequences (i.e. brief enough to fit within one rotation of the disc. In 1884 John Rudge patented a device which exhibited seven sequential lantern slides of posed photographs (so not motion truly captured by photography) arranged in a circle. The 1887 Tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz exhibited a disk of twenty-four glass 9×12 cm diapositives turned by a crank. In 1892 Georges Demenÿ took sequential photographic images on celluloid film which were transferred to a glass disc and projected by means of his Phonoscope device (also known as a Bioscope, above). The sequences, of which a man mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ is the most famous, were fleeting, but they were motion pictures derived from photographs.

The problem with the use of glass discs was the brevity of the motion sequences. However, before he introduced his successful motion picture system utilising 35mm film strips, Thomas Edison had instructed his engineers to produce a viewing system which arranged celluloid images in micro-form around a cylinder. This wasn’t just being circular for circularity’s sake – the idea was to match motion pictures to devices for the playback of sounds (in this case, Edison’s Phonograph), and early motion picture efforts at creating a disc-based system were clearly driven by a belief that emulating the gramophone disc was the route to creating a successful device for home use.

Kammatograph, from

It is often forgotten that many of the first motion picture producers saw the domestic market as being their route to riches. This made sense. The Eastman Kodak had put still photography in the hands of anyone; surely the same would occur for motion photography. It was a market that would remain elusive until the introduction (by Eastman) of 16mm film in 1923, but among the various attempts to crack the amateur market were disc-based systems, which offered a simpler, safer option to cameras and projectors using inflammable film.

Among the first and most significant of these was the Kammatograph. Invented in 1898 and marketed from 1900 by Leonard Ulrich Kamm, a Bavarian-born, London-based engineer, the Kammatograph utilised a 12-inch circular glass plate with notched edges caught by gearing with provided the necessary intermittency. There were 350 or 550 sequential images on the disc, arranged in a spiral, giving 30 or 45 seconds running time. It was aimed at the amateur market, and with those lengths of ‘film’ the idea must have been to encourage the filming of portrait shots, akin to snapshots. Not that much is known about the actual use of the Kammatograph, but two of the most prominent users of the device were not ordinary members of the public. William Norman Lascelles Davidson used a Kammatograph for his 1901 experiments on colour cinematography, while Rina Scott (Mrs D.H. Scott) was a botanist who used a customed Kammatograph to make time-lapse films of plant growth.

Theodore Brown with his invention, the Spirograph

There were other disc-based systems at this time, often developed as toys for children, among them Cinéphot developed by Clermont-Huet in 1904 and the Animatograph of Alexander Victor in 1909. However the great name is the pre-DVD history of disc-based cinema is the Spirograph. Its history is one of what-might-have-been, and it has of late become an almost cultish subject for those interested in forward-thinking technologies that nevertheless failed to succeed commercially.

The Spirograph was the creation of British inventor Theodore Brown (his wife Bessie was co-patentee) in 1907. It followed the basic idea behind the Kammatograph in presenting motion pictures in the form of miniaturised images arranged on a disc – though Brown’s original idea was to have the images arranged concentrically (he was thinking of very brief sequences and aiming for the toy market), and was tending towards using celluloid rather than glass. However his patent stated that the images could be arranged concentrically or spirally. Brown took the idea to documentary producer Charles Urban, who purchased the patent outright from Brown (supposedly for the hefty sum of $18,000, or £3,600). Urban did not work on the idea immediately, and indeed it was in need of considerable development work before it could be brought to market on the scale that Urban envisaged.

During the First World War, Urban put his engineer Henry Joy onto the task. The images were now arranged in a spiral, the results looking remarkably close to Victor’s earlier Animatograph. The first commercial version was due to appear in the USA in 1917, under the name of the Spiragraph [sic], and then the Homovie. There was no camera planned for sale, only a projector. But a hoped for $1,000,000 flotation of the Urban Spiragraph Corporation was a failure, and further work was held off until after the war.

Spirograph disc and the disc in its sleeve, c.1924, from

Urban attempted to re-introduce the re-named Spirograph through his post-war American business Urban Motion Picture Industries, located at Irvington-on-Hudson. The Spirograph in its final form was designed for simplicity of use, being a compact box on a small plinth, operated by a handle, with the exposed disc mounted on the front. The 10½ inch disc was made of safety (i.e. non-flammable) celluloid film, and carried 1,200 frames in a spiral of twelve rows, each frame being 0.22 inches x 0.16 inches. These were miniaturised via a microscopic device from standard 35mm films in the Urban library (using original films between 85 and 100 feet in length, or no more than one-and-a-half minutes long). The Spirograph could project an image four feet wide at a distance of twenty-five feet. It was hand-cranked, with an electrical lamp, and users could halt the disc at any point for illustrative purposes. It was a liberating technology, devised with the teacher in mind – portable, flexible, affordable (the price was to have been $125 per machine and $1.00 per disc), easy to use and useful, except that the films themselves were so short. You can only get so many physical images on a disc. And that probably spelled the Spirograph’s doom

Urban’s intention was to make a huge impact on the burgeoning educational market. While his initial target in 1917 seems to have the home user, now he saw schools, clubs and libraries as his main audience, and he devised imaginative subscription schemes for the hire and return of discs. Urban’s extensive library of non-fiction films stretching back to 1903 would supply the content, thereby finding a new outlet for films that had otherwise ceased to have a commercial value. By the end of 1922 a substantial library of discs was prepared, described in lavish catalogues, with 4,000 Spirographs ready for shipment [update: it is very unlikely that there were actually 4,000 Spirographs made], and a major publicity programme in readiness. But it never happened. Urban’s business overall hit the rocks in 1923 – a simple case of trying to do too much with too little money behind him – and Urban Motion Picture Industries went into receivership in 1924. The Spirograph never made it into the thousands of schools, clubs, halls and homes that Urban dreamt of, and 16mm film (introduced in that fateful year of 1923) gave the target audience a technology that was just as safe and could provide longer films. The Spirograph could be spun no more.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the Spirograph. The appearance online at the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma of a 1928 catalogue of Spirograph discs (40MB) shows that the Spirograph did have some sort of commercial life. After the collapse of Urban Motion Picture Industries in 1924 various parts of the Urban empire were picked up by a number of companies, some created for the purpose, among them the Spiro Film Corporation. Little is known about the New York-based company except the obvious source of its name, but clearly it was catering for a market which already had its Spirograph players, since the catalogue makes no mention of how to obtain these, instead restricting itself to listing and describing the 400 discs in the Spirograph collection under such headings as Science, Literature, Government, Physical Activities and Our Government. Theodore Brown himself picked up on residual rights in the Spirograph to market the device in the UK after 1924, but neither he nor Spiro made any success of a technology whose time had passed before it even had a chance to get going.

So the Spirograph Library of Motion Picture Discs (1928) goes into the Bioscope Library’s Catalogues and databases section as part of Catalogue month (which has now crept inexorably into September). The Spirograph is a fascinating technology, not just for its ingenuity but for its potential based around the needs of those outside the commercial exhibition sector. It put the individual user first. Film history, indeed technological history overall, is filled with blind alleys. Looking back on failed systems and collapsing businesses we can see different ways in which things might have gone, and contemplate an alternative cinema history. Instead it took until the 1980s for films to return to disc form for the domestic market (Laser Discs) and the mid-1990s for DVD to gain widespread acceptance among people at large, not because they wanted to be educated but because they wanted to be entertained. And the films were longer.

Finding out more

  • Stephen Herbert’s Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures is a beautifully-illustrated biography of the Spirograph’s multi-talented inventor
  • On Charles Urban’s Irvington-on-Hudson venure, including the fateful development of the Spirograph, see my Charles Urban website
  • Close-up images of a Spirograph and disc are available on the Spira Collection site (no connection with Spirograph itself – it is the collection of George Spira)
  • A illustrated list of glass and disc-based motion picture systems is given on the very useful One Hundred Years of Film Sizes site (though the dates given for the Spirograph are incorrect)
  • In 2003 a George Eastman House restoration of a Spirograph disc entitled Man’s Best Friends (i.e. dogs) was presented (on the big screen in 35mm!) at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (the catalogue date of c.1913 is incorrect – the disc would be c.1921-22)

The Regent Street cinema project


The BBC News site has just put up one of its excellent audio slideshows, in which a short sound interview with someone is accompanied by a series of related images. The latest slide show is The first silver screen, and comprises an interview with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts, talking about the university’s lecture theatre in its Regent Street, London campus, which in 1896 when it was known as the Marlborough Hall was the venue for the debut of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe. A campaign has been launched to restore the venue as a multimedia facility and teaching space for our students and the wider community. They have already received a million pound donation from the MBI Al Jaber Foundation – a Saudi billionaire, according to the BBC site. The target is £5m.

Well, it is good to know that there are Saudi billionaires out there who care about the restoration of early cinema venues. The BBC piece says that the venue counts as Britain’s first cinema, because it was where the first public show of moving pictures took place in the UK. Unfortunately this is wrong on three counts. Firstly, it was not a cinema – it was a lecture hall in what was then known as the Polytechnic, home to many a magic lantern show and popular lecture on discoveries and new technologies, with the Lumière films being introduced as a new scientific attraction on 20 February 1896. Secondly, the first showing of moving picture films in Britain has taken place a year and half before then, about ten minutes’ walk away at 70 Oxford Street, when on 17 October 1894 the Edison Kinetoscope (a peepshow device showing celluloid film on loops) had its debut. But even if you are talking about projected film shows, then the Regent Street Polytechnic still isn’t first, because the photographer Birt Acres had already given a projected film show to members of the Lyonsdown Photographic Club on 10 January 1896 and to members of the Royal Photographic Society at 12 Hanover Square, London on 14 January 1896.

But setting aside such nitpickery, the Polytechnic was the venue where motion picture films on a screen truly took off in the UK, and it is a marvellous, evocative venue with an important history that the present university clearly values highly.

There is further information about what they are calling the Regent Street cinema project on the University of Westminster’s website, including the above promo video which knits together the cinema of the 1890s with the filmmaking of today by the university’s students. If you want to contribute to the fund, or you know any other Saudi billionaires who might be encouraged to do so, visit the site (which has the bold URL and read on.


Interior of the former Marlborough Hall, at the University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London

  • There’s a timeline for the Polytechnic on the University of Westminster site, which gives the basic history of the site.
  • The Lumière brothers weren’t actually there for the debut shows – instead they were hosted by their friend, the magician Félicien Trewey – read his story on Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema.
  • The Polytechnic, established was established in 1881 (out of the old Royal Polytechnic Institution) by Quintin Hogg – read about him on
  • Information on the pre-cinema projection of lantern images at the Poly is on the Magic Lantern Society site.
  • There’s a well-illustrated documentary from 2007 on Louis Lumière made by University of Westminster students Alexander Marinica and Mamoon Ahmed on YouTube – part one and part two – which has some very thoughtful contributions from historian Deac Rossell on the Lumières’ achievements.

Collegium 2009


Pordenone 2008

Application are being invited for the Collegium at this year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival (aka Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), which takes place 3-10 October 2009. There are twelve places available for students aged under thirty and engaged in some form in the study of cinema. The idea is to involve them in a programme of activity over the week that takes full advantage of the expertise of archivists, musicians and film historians on hand at the world’s premiere silent film festival. Those attending are given free hotel accommodation and breakfast during the week, but are responsible for their own travel arrangements, meals, and all other expenses. Here is the call from the Giornate’s website:

The Collegium – whose sessions will be open to all guests of the festival and the general public – is an unconventional experiment in the technique of study. It is designed to utilise the unique conditions of the Giornate – a very concentrated one-week event; the possibility to see an extensive collection of rare archival films; the presence in one place and at one time of many (perhaps most) of the world’s best qualified experts in film history – scholars, historians, archivists, collectors, critics, academics and just plain enthusiasts.

The aim of the Collegium is to excite a new generation in the idea of cinema history and heritage, and to infiltrate these newcomers into the very special community that has evolved around the Giornate during its twenty-seven years. We want the participants in the Collegium to feel themselves members of that community, not to be awed and intimidated by the age, experience, authority or scholarship of the people they meet in Pordenone.

From past years’ experience we recognise that we derive the maximum advantage from the special conditions of this short week of concentrated activity by returning to a fundamental, classical concept of study, in which the impetus is the students’ curiosity and inquiry rather than the imposition of a formal teaching programme. Hence instead of formal lectures and panels, the daily sessions of the Collegium take the form of a series of “Dialogues”, in the Platonic sense, in which the collegians sit down with groups of experts in different aspects of the Giornate programme or in various fields of the study and techniques of film history and conservation.The object of these Dialogues is not only to elicit information and instruction, but to establish personal, social connection between collegians and Pordenone habitues, so that the former will have no inhibitions about approaching the latter, in the course of the week, for supplementary discussion. Naturally collegians are required to see as much of the festival programme as possible.

To focus their inquiry, the members of the Collegium are each required to write, retrospectively, a paper or essay on some theme emerging from or inspired by the experiences of the Giornate. This may be done in collaboration with one of the “mentors” – veterans of the previous year’s Collegium who return to support and assist the newcomers. The principal sources of information for the publication are likely to be interrogation of the appropriate experts present at the Giornate or study of particular aspects of the programme. THE OVERALL CRITERION FOR PAPERS IS THAT THEY COULD ONLY HAVE BEEN WRITTEN AS A RESULT OF THE GIORNATE EXPERIENCE. There are no limits – beyond readable literacy – on the style and form of the essays. The aim is that these papers will not just be a student exercise, but will provide generally useful reading even for the experts from whose experience and advice they derive, who may discover insights which may not have struck them before.

The papers will normally be published in an annual collection. For practical reasons there have been delays in producing the 2006 and 2007 Collegium Papers, but it is planned to publish a cumulative edition for 2006-2008 in time for the 2009 edition of the Giornate del Cinema Muto.

The FriulAdria-Collegium Prize
From 2008, the Collegium Papers are eligible for the annual Premio Banca Popolare FriulAdria. The prize, of 500.00 euros, will go to the paper adjudged the best of its year, and is awarded by the Banca Popolare FriulAdria. This historical partner of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the Banca Popolare Friuladria has a long-standing engagement with the training and development of young cinema talents, alike in the field of criticism, screen-writing and film-making. With this new prize it recognises the aim of the Collegium to stimulate the interest of new generations in the history and heritage of silent cinema, and to involve them in the distinctive scientific community which has developed in Pordenone in the past 27 years thanks to the work of the Giornate del Cinema Muto.

The novel form of the Collegium means that we do not look for formal academic or age qualifications in collegians. The qualities we look for in the twelve young people invited each year are enthusiasm, energy and above all curiosity.

Prospective applicants should in the first instance simply write a letter explaining (1) who they are, (2) what is their special interest in film history, (3) what is their experience of silent films and (4) why they feel they are suited to be members of the Collegium, which involves integrating socially with the other collegians and mentors, and making positive contacts with the Pordenone population of film history experts.

Collegians and mentors are given free hotel accommodation and breakfast during the week. They are responsible for their own travel arrangements, meals, and all other expenses.

Letters of application should be e-mailed to the Collegium secretary, Riccardo Costantini, at

The enthusiastic, the energetic and the curious have until 31 May 2009 to submit applications. Copies of papers from 2005 and 2006 can be found on the Film Intelligence site.

Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked


Edison studio with battery of lights and electrically-driven camera, from Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked

There has been a rush of newly-available e-books on the Internet Archive following expansion of digitisation activity on Google Books, and we’ll be pointing out some of the key titles in coming weeks and placing them in the Bioscope Library. First up is one of the classic early texts on film, a reference work still cited today, F.A. Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked.

Frederick A. Talbot was a British writer of popular works on science and engineering subjects, but had a special interest in motion pictures, producing both Moving Pictures (1912) and Practical Cinematography and its Applications (previously written about here) in 1913. Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked was originally published in Britain in 1912, in a revised edition in America in Britain in 1914, and a second, completely re-written edition in 1923. The copy in the Internet Archive is the 1914 revision, though it seems to be largely the same as the 1912 original.

Talbot’s task was to explain the phenomenon of the new age. “A vast industry has been established”, he writes, “of which the great majority of picture-palace patrons have no idea, and he moment appears timely to describe the many branches of the art”. Talbot’s focus is on technology and industry, rather than art or entertainment, and his chief interest is in the motion picture as a medium of discovery. But unlike the many dry works from this period which explain the mechanics of motion picture production and exhibition for the benefit of the technician, Talbot’s book bubbles over with enthusiasm. Some of his judgements need to be challenged, but his keen eye and thorough research (including contact with many of the leading figures in the industry) have kept the book fresh and valuable to this day. It is easy to read, and a easy source for good quotations.

He begins by explaining how we are able to see “animated photography”, and it is this section that has probably had the most influence, as Talbot’s somewhat muddled explanation of the “persistence of vision” has been taken as lightly read by many writers. We now know that the persistence of vision is not the reason why we are able to perceive motion (whether motion pictures or any other kind of motion, which is the real matter in hand – see an earlier post on this for an attempt at an explanation). Michael Chanan’s The Dream that Kicks is recommended for its sympathetic analysis of what Talbot got wrong yet how he struggled for the right answer at a time when science (optics etc.) had not properly supplied the information needed.


Talbot find more solid ground when he traces the history of the medium, through experiments in sequence photography of Marey and Muybridge, the discovery of celluloid, the construction of the Edison Kinetoscope and other machines, before moving on to perforations, celluloid manufacture, the taking, developing and printing of films, and their exhibition. He covers the staging of fiction films, though his interest is more in the mechanics than the aesthetics, while his real passion is revealed to be the trick film. Talbot devotes a remarkable six chapters to the trick film, revealing an almost childish enthusiasm for the simple transposition, substitution and distortion effects which characterised early trick films (and which were mostly well out-of-date by the time he wrote the book). The photograph comes from The Automobile Accident (man is driven over by a car, severing his legs, which are then repaired by a passing doctor) which he illustrates and explains in minute detail.

Talbot’s other great enthusiasm is for the motion picture as a medium of education and science. There is some fascinating, well-observed material on microcinematography, electric cinematography and chronophotography, with information (and fine illustrations) gleaned from experimenters such as Percy Smith, Jean Comandon, E.J. Marey and Lucien Bull. Finally, Talbot speculates most interestingly on the possibility of the motion picture as a news medium (“the animated newspaper”, or newsreel, was in its infancy), films in colour (he is an observant Kinemacolor sceptic) and motion pictures in the home.

Though care needs to be taken over some of the evidence and its presentation, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked still stands up as a fine illustration of what possibilities lay before a young medium whose rules had not yet been firmly established. In the 1923 edition Talbot expresses some disappointment that progress in the fields of education and science “has been less spectacular than in that devoted to pure entertainment”. In 1912 motion pictures might yet do anything.

Moving Pictures is available from the Internet Archive in Flip Book (25MB), PDF (6.9MB), full text (702KB) and DjVu (8MB) formats). Note that the PDF link takes you to a Google page which seem only to have sections of the book available – the full PDF version can be found by clicking on the Internet Archive’s “All files: http” link.

Cheating on the silents


Fannie Ward in The Cheat (1915)

While browsing for novelties on silent cinema subjects, like one does, I came across, one of those sites which serve up ready-made essays for hapless students challenged by deadlines and an absence of brain power (“Discover the CheatHouse secret: when you cite, it isn’t cheating”). And there was the opening of a ready-to-go essay on early cinema. It only gives you the first 120 words, hoping that you’ll pay up for the rest. The model essay is classified under Film & TV Studies, University, Bachelor’s, and suggests a grade of A-. From the evidence of those first 120 words, I’d say more likely an F-…

Early cinema is otherwise known as the “cinema of attractions”. The term was shaped around many of the great world fairs and exhibitions of the time, when filmmakers started to stray from the traditional way of filmmaking (Nichols, p. 37). The common tradition was the scientific use of images to show people the “real world”, and with the help of new technology and “tricks”, filmmakers started to focus more on the “attraction” part of film. It is a “cinema that displays its visibility” creating a fictional environment for the viewer. It brought to the viewer something new and exciting, something exotic and bizarre. This “cinema of attractions” caught on with many filmmakers, becoming much more common …

Sellars and Yeatman could hardly have done better. I love the assertion that early cinema is otherwise known as the cinema of attractions. How true that has become., and other sites like it, are heavily dependent on essays being submitted by students themselves, who gain greater access to the site the more essays they have accepted, making the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling disaster. There are some sites where hard-up academics contribute essays for a few cents, but most of these sites are sustained by the students’ work themselves. All offer a sample paragraph or summary; all charge either through subscription or pay-as-you go.

So what other cheats are out there for the gullible and the desperate? CheatHouse itself offers essays on The Birth of a Nation, Der Golem, Chaplin, early Japanese film, German expressionism, and much more, all of it woeful. offers you ‘Motion pictures and communication’ (“The motion picture, first screened in the late nineteenth century, was a new form of expression which would undergo several improvements to captivate more and more audiences. The effect of this medium, changed as it trekked through many stages of development” – just the sort of waffle that used to sustain me in my student days, alas). gives us these words of wisdom on the career of Lillian Gish:

The history of the great talent Lillian Gish is immeasurable. She has acted in more productions per decade then anyone else in this century. She has been in one hundred and five films alone, that’s not counting all the on stage productions she has performed in. The amazing talents of this once beautiful young actress can be seen in any of her early silent films too. Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm are two of her earlier films that portray her exquisite skills. Yet none of this would be know if it wasn’t for a mastermind of directing, D.W. Griffith. Gish would have lived a long unrecognized life of theatre and missed out on the most important part of her career, the silent film.

And so on and so on. You could try Doing My Homework, eCheat (“It’s not cheating, it’s collaborating”), Write My Essay,, and so on. Not all are rubbish., a general educational resource site with literature guides, study packs, reference sources and other materials, offers you what looks to be a perfectly serviceable essay on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (such irony):

Cecil B. DeMille is both celebrated and derided for his overall depiction of the “new woman,” a development resulting from the rise of consumer culture in the late nineteenth century. In this increasingly commodity-driven society, women increasingly moved into the public sphere in search of freedom and discovery at the risk of their own reputations and their families’ social position. This is notably brought out in DeMille’s most famous film “The Cheat,” in which the female protagonist disrupts the established order and inverts the traditional notion of womanhood. DeMille uses the notion of the “new woman” in “The Cheat” to critique society during that time.

The essays on more respectable sites such as BookRags are promoted as reference guides, of course, not as encouragements to plagiarism, and naturally they can be used as such. What I find interesting is the muddle and cliché in most of the model essays, which reflect what a peculiar world early film must present to the average student of the twenty-first century. How to make sense of this mad, mute, monochrome world, and to find in it relevance to the films and concerns of today? It’s a wonder that any can.

Words on the screen


First the classics, now the Eng Lit department – UK universities are discovering silent films and examining them in welcome new ways. The Film and Literature Programme, Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York is organising a one-day symposium on silent cinema and literature on Friday 1 May, led by the university’s Judith Buchanan, whose forthcoming book on silent Shakespeare films will receive close attention here once it has forthcome.

Here’s the blurb on the symposium:

Silent Cinema and Literature

One-day Symposium

Friday 1 May 2009

University of York, 9.30am-6.30pm

  • Lawrence Rainey: ‘Modern melodrama: Chickie (1925)’
  • Erica Sheen: ‘Imperishable bodies: Graham Greene’s A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road
  • Judith Buchanan: ‘The biblical, the literary and the olfactory: synaesthetics in MGM’s 1925 Ben Hur
  • Lawrence Napper: on British cinema of the 1920s (title tbc)
  • Jon Burrows: ‘“A Vague Chinese Quarter Elsewhere”: The Cinematic Mapping of Thomas Burke’s Limehouse, 1919-1936’
  • Andrew Higson: ‘Becoming Michael Curtiz: “European” cinema, literary connections, and the challenge of Hollywood in the 1920s’

The day will end with a roundtable discussion of issues of shared interest followed by a drinks reception. To register, please email Emily Blewitt: seb518 [at]

Full registration (including refreshments and lunch): £25
Student registration (including refreshments and lunch): £10
University of York Department of English students: free registration

(Early registration is advised since places are limited.)

Let’s have more of this – medical departments looking at the work of Jean Comandon and other such pioneers, history departments considering the significance of early newsreels, art classes looking at 1920s set designs, geography students considering pioneering travelogues for their topographical content, medievalists looking at how their age is depicted in one-reelers, sport studies assessing the correct running speeds for silent films of … runners. Just so long as they tell us something new and jolt us out of our complacency.

Whatsoever a man soweth


The lastest archival DVD release from the perpetually inventive folk at the British Film Institute is The Joy of Sex Education. A compilation of British sex education films from 1917 to 1973, it has attracted a fair bit of media attention, not too surprisingly. You can read about the sound film attractions of the release on MovieMail, but this post is just to record the presence of three silent films on the disc, with music accompaniment by Dave Formula (formerly of Magazine). Of these, the most notable title is the earliest – Whatsoever a Man Soweth (1917)

Sex education films, or public hygiene films, first appeared during the First World War, when military authorities became concerned by the spread of venereal disease among soldiers, which was rendering them unfit for duty. Whatsover a Man Soweth, 38mins long, is a British production made by Joseph Best, who had been a newsreel editor and who would go on to direct some intriguing African-themed films in later years (including the Paul Robeson title My Song Goes Forth, 1937). Whatsoever was sponsored by the British War Office for use with for the Canadian Army (there was a close connection between British and Canadian official filmmaking, largely owing to the Canadian Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, heading the War Office Cinematograph Committee), though the film seems to have been exhibited widely among Allied troops in general.


The film sets out not so much to instruct as to scare. Its story concerns Dick, a Canadian soldier on leave in London. He encounters a prostitute outside the National Gallery, but is warned away from her by a passing officer. Dick is then taken to a hospital to see victims of venereal disease, the film taking some delight in showing us rotting limbs. Pages from a Final Report of the Commission on Venereal Diseases explain the nature of hereditary syphilis to the audience, and we get to see the spirochetes in a syphilitic sore under a microscope. But the fun does not stop there. Dick visits a schoolfor the blind, learning that half of the children there became blind through hereditary VD. After the war, Dick’s brother Tom visits prostitutes in London. On his return to Canada, his wife becomes infected with syphilis. Tom undergoes a cure, but his wife gives birth to a baby who is born blind.

Kevin Brownlow writes about the film in Behind the Mask of Innocence, and cites examples of some of the striking intertitles, both coy and direct:

“Do nothing of which you could be ashamed to tell you sister or your mother”.

“Daddy took a chance”.

“There is no such thing as a safe prostitute. They are practically all diseased”.

“Every child has a right to be born clean into this world, and than man is to be pitied whose own flesh and blood looks him in the face to say, ‘Curse you, Dad, I was dirty born and you are the reason why!'”

Brownlow writes about other such films made during the war, such as the American Fit to Win (1917), The Scarlet Trail (1918), Open Your Eyes (1919) and End of the Road (1919). The best-known title of the period to tackle the theme was Damaged Goods, originally a 1902 play by Eugene Brieux and filmed with some boldness in America in 1915 and with great coyness in Britain in 1919 (this survives, but perhaps as it is a drama rather than a sex education film as such it is not included in the BFI set). There was a colour film on venereal disease whose exhibition was organised by Charles Urban for exhibition to troops in London and France in 1917-18. Information on this lost film is scarce, but it sems to have been a Kinemacolor Company of America production from 1913, originally shown at American recruiting stations, which Urban re-exhibited using a refinement of Kinemacolor called Kinekrom. In a 1982 letter from one-time Kinemacolor employee William Crespinel to Kevin Brownlow he recalls “that horrid, yet important medical film on the various stage of syphilis”.

The other silents on the disc are characteristically timid Any Evening After Work (1930, 27 mins) and How To Tell (1931, 21 mins).

The Joy of Sex Education comes with an illustrated booklet which has introductory essays by Tim Boon (Science Museum, London), Hera Cook (Lecturer in the History of Sexuality, University of Birmingham) and Katy McGahan (Non-Fiction Curator, BFI National Archive) who curated the films first as a BFI Southbank show and now as a DVD.

Update: There is a video clip from Whatsoever a Man Soweth (with its decidedly less-than-period soundtrack) on the BBC News site, as part of an article on the history of the sex education film.

The Classic Slum

The Classic Slum

It’s been a while since we had any memoirs of cinema-going. This, as regulars may know, is a particular research topic of mine, particularly memoirs of those who were children in London before the First World War.

The example below, however, comes from Salford. It comes from a renowned memoir of working class life, Robert Roberts’ The Classic Slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (1971). Roberts looks back to his childhood in Edwardian Salford, combining the personal with academic historical research in a uniquely powerful combination. As Roberts says, “few historians are the sons of labourers”, and his account of hard urban poverty hits you with eloquently-expressed authenticity.

The section from The Classic Slum on the cinema is typically evocative and filled with telling observations. He identifies the joyous effect that the cinema had upon its early, working class audiences, but also how it was a boon for women as a legitimised form of entertainment that had none of the social stigma of the pub. He also makes useful observations about seat pricing policies, children reading out intertitles to help out the illiterate, and the genuine educative value of the cinema.

Cinema in the early years of the century burst like a vision into the underman’s existence and, rapidly displacing both concert and theatre, became both his chief source of enjoyment and one of the greatest factors in his cultural development. For us in the village the world suddenly expanded. Many women who had lived in a kind of purdah since marriage (few respectable wives visited public houses) were to be noted now, escorted by their husbands, en route for the ‘pictures’, a strange sight indeed and one that led to much comment at the shop. Street corner gossip groups for a time grew thin and publicans complained angrily that the new fad was ruining trade: men were going to the films and merely calling in at the tavern for an hour before closing time. The disloyalty of it! Children begged, laboured and even thieved for the odd copper that would give them two hours of magic, crushed on a bench before the enchanting screen.

Moralists were not long in condemning cinema as the tap-root of every kind of delinquency. Cinema owners protested virtue: one kept an eight-foot-long poster across his box office: ‘CLEAN AND MORAL PICTURES. Prices – 2d. and 4d.’ In our district the Primitive Methodist chapel, recently bankrupt and closed, blossomed almost overnight into the ‘Kinema’. There during the first weeks would-be patrons of its twopenny seats literally fought each night for entrance and tales of crushed ribs and at least two broken limbs shocked the neighbourhood. In the beginning cinema managers, following the social custom of the theatre, made the error of grading seats, with the most expensive near the screen and the cheapest at the back of the house. For a short time the rabble lolled in comfort along the rear rows while their betters, paying three times as much, suffered cricked necks and eye strain in front. Caste and culture forbade mixing. A sudden change-over one evening, without warning, at all the local cinemas caused much bitterness and class recrimination. By 1913 our borough still retained its four theatres, but already thirteen premises had been licensed under the Cinematograph Act.

Yet silent films for all their joys presented the unlettered with a problem unknown in theatres – the printed word. Often in the early days of cinema, captions broke into the picture with explanations long, sententious and stage-ridden. To bypass this difficulty the short-sighted and illiterate would take children along to act as readers. In this capacity I saw my own first film. When the picture gave place to print on the screen a muddled Greek chorus of children’s voices rose from the benches, piping above the piano music. To hear them crash in unison on a polysyllable became for literate elders an entertainment in itself. At the cinema many an ill-educated adult received cheap and regular instruction with his pleasure, and some eventually picked up enough to dispense with their tutors. Yet in spite of all the aids to culture and learning, unknown fifty years before – compulsory education, free libraries, the spate of cheap print, the miles of postered hoarding, and the cinema, the brightest lure of all – among the lower working class a mass of illiterates, solid and sizeable, still remained.