News from the Soviets

V.I. Lenin smiling for the camera, from Kinonedelja No. 22 (29 October 1918)

Dziga Vertov is one of the most revered names in Soviet filmmaking. The ways in which he married radical politics to radical film form in films such as the screen magazine Kino-Pravda, Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth of the World and Three Songs of Lenin, and in his theoretical understanding of film, especially his concept of the ‘kino-eye’ (“I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye”) argued for film as the vital medium at the time that a new form of society was emerging. Vertov demanded that film showed the truth. In technique this meant both trusting and curiously distrusting the camera’s propensity for capturing reality, as he employed exuberant montage (especially in Kino-Pravda) to reveal supposed greater truths by stirring the passions and stimulating the ideas of the observer.

Vertov’s first films were not so radical. His film career began as a writer and occasional director for the newsreel Kinonedelja (Cinema Weekly), produced by the Moscow Film Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. This newsreel ran for forty-three issues between May 1918 and June 1919, documenting daily life in Russia in the months following the revolution of October 1917. Remarkably fourteen issues from the series survive, discovered in Sweden and now held by the Austrian Film Museum which has digitised and made twelve of the fourteen available online.

Kinonedelja has nothing like the exuberant and confrontational experiments in film reportage Vertov develped for Kino-Pravda over 1922-25. It is, instead, fascinatingly mundane. It is newsreel footage much like newsreels were being produced elsewhere around the world, basic in construction, reporting on matters of passing, local interest, in form more passive than manipulative. Kinonedelja certainly has its propagandist edge, and is loaded with the excitement of social and political change, and some propagandist language (“Soviet border guards congratulate their German comrades for liberating themselves from the bonds of monarchical slavery”). But it mixes this rather charmingly with the everyday, either reports on the ordinary (buildings being constructed, several reports on snow, a children’s festival) or by revealing the ordinary carrying on in the background. The human eye will always see more of what is going on than the camera eye, for all Vertov’s theorising.

A Red Army cinema at Gžatsk, from Kinonedelja No. 23 (5 November 1918)

The twelve newsreels (the other two are promised soon) come with Russian intertitles, but there are short descriptions provided in English. A typical example is Kinonedelja No. 3, issued 15 June 1918, length eight minutes:

1. The Peoples’ Commissar for Food Rationing, Comrade Cjurupa. / The Peoples’ Commissar for Rationing in the Southern territories, Comrade Šljapnikov. / Head of the Army Rationing Committee, Zusmanovič.

2. Intelligensia working on farms behind the Butyrsk construction site. / Planting cabbage. / Townspeople plant potatoes in a large field.

3. Lunch for the unemployed in exchange for labor. / A meal costs one ruble and ten kopecks.

4. I.G. Cereteli arrives in Moscow in the capacity of the delegate from the Caucasus.

5. In Vladivostok. Commander of the counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia, Admiral Kolčak.

6. In Moscow. June 8. Wounded Russian prisoners of war return from German captivity. / Disembarkation. / Loading the wounded into ambulances. / Wooden shoes for our prisoners in Germany. / Armbands on tunics and greatcoats testify to the repression suffered by Russian officers of the 10th division in the Hannover region. / Head commander of the Soviet Army in the Northern Caucasus, Comrade Avtonomov.

7. In Petrograd. The Revolutionary Tribunal. Murder trial for O. Kokošin und A. Šingarev. / The accused, Kulikov and Basov.

8. The new Brjansk Station in Moscow. / The central platform for passengers.

9. A children’s festival held by the Peasant Soviet in the village of Mitišča. / Who is stronger?

Much of Kinonedelja is given over to promoting the revolution and to the ongoing civil war. There are calls to arms, scenes of medical care, refugees, prisoners of war, agit trains, funerals. Little of it demonstrates the more manipulative arts of cinema (and where the newsreel does so it is clumsy, as in a story showing a queue of men keen to join the Red forces moving with comical swiftness inside an enlisting station, being inspected within, and then moving just as rapidly out of the building). It is almost guileless. Vertov would go on to greater things – in terms of film art – but for a motion picture portrait of the Soviet Union coming into being and as it was reported to its people at the time we are most fortunate to have the plain and revealing Kinonedelja.

The video are presented silently, and the quality of the digitisations is high. It is the first time the Austria Film Museum has presented archive films online (which is a little startling to learn in this day and age) and one looks forward to more of similar high quality in presentation.

Database entry for Kinonedelja, issues 38, 39, 41 (1919), showing digitised synopses for the three editions of the newsreel

However, while it may have been been slow in putting up films online, the Museum has been exemplary in digitising and making available its extensive collection of primary documentation on Dziga Vertov. The site provides an overview of the collection and a database, which has content descriptions in their original language plus German and English (most are in English as yet, but translations are promised).

So, for example, you can find 368 digitised documents on Man with a Movie Camera, 159 on Three Songs of Lenin, 72 on A Sixth Part of the World and 23 on Kinonedelja itself, with around 1,900 documents all told. They includes newspaper articles, photographs, posters, advertisements, frame enlargements, notes, letters and montage lists. All is clearly catalogued, and each document usefully crossed-linked to the relevant film, encouraging further browsing. You can also search by language, type of document, name of journal etc. There is a book guide to the collection available, Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum.

More information on Kinonedelja and Vertov’s later film work can be found in the 2004 Pordenone silent film festival catalogue (when the festival ran a major retrospective of Vertov’s films). There is a useful essay on Vertov’s career and influence on Senses of Cinema.

Casting a shadow

Last week saw the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, in which bloggers around the world took on the themes of Hitchcock or silent film or film preservation, or combinations thereof. Organised by organisers the blogs Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod, the inspiration was the recent discovery of part of The White Shadow (1923), the film on which Hitchcock served as art director and assistant director (the director was Graham Cutts), the goal being to raise funds through donations to enable the National Film Preservation Fund to put the film online with music score, for us all to enjoy.

The sum required is $15,000, and sadly as of today the campaign has raised $2,140 [Update: as of 21 May it is $6,490]. This is disappointing, especially as previous such preservation blogathons have achieved their targets. Maybe it’s the global economy; maybe people out there like reading about Hitch but don’t feel too passionately about watching Cutts; or maybe there’s simply been so much to read that they haven’t had time to donate as yet.

Well, there is still time, and with a 100 or so bloggers who signed up to the blogathon, each of which should easily be getting 150 viewers per post (and in some cases a great deal more), it only requires each reader to donate one dollar to hit the target. Do the math, then hit the Hitch to your left.

As encouragement, here’s a listing of the For the Love of Film posts which have related to silent Hitchcock or silent films in general. If I’ve missed out any relating to silent films, do let me know, and I’ll add them to the list.

So no one took up the challenge of Downhill or even Always Tell Your Wife, eh? Nor the silent Blackmail, which is the greater surprise.

You can find all of these posts listed and illustrated on The Bioscope’s sister news site courtesy of Scoop It.

Update: Here are other silent-related posts from the bloagthon that I missed:

In search of Israel Thornstein

Letter from the American Foreign Service to MI5 seeking biographical information on Charlie Chaplin and evidence of communist affilation, from The National Archives, catalogue reference KV 2/3700

The National Archives in the UK holds the papers of British government departments, and releases these to the public after a period of 30 years (see the Bioscope guide to using TNA as research resource for film history). It releases previously embargoed papers at other times, and recently has been making available historical papers relating to MI5, the British counter-intelligence organisation whose very existence was officially a secret not so many years ago. Today’s release of a set of papers (available online) includes MI5’s dossier on Charlie Chaplin.

MI5 had no interest in Chaplin, and no reason to have one, until it was approached by the FBI in 1952 with the request that it seek out information on Chaplin’s birth and his supposed Communist sympathies. It was the height of the Cold War, and Chaplin had become a high-profile victim of the hysterical anti-Communist mania that swept through the United States in the late 40s and through most of the 1950s. Chaplin’s personal sympathies were clearly with the downtrodden, as his films demonstrated, but from 1942 onwards when he addressed a meeting of the American Committee for Russian War Relief with an enthusiastic ‘Comrades!’ and spoke at other events that supported from America’s war ally, he was viewed with increasing suspicion and distaste. That distaste had a lot to do with unsavoury details from his private life (the Joan Barry paternity suit, among other matters), and moral indignation combined with political paranoia to create an increasingly vicious hostility towards Chaplin, from the American press, broadcasters, religious bodies, politicians and government services.

Clipping from the Daily Mail, 18 April 1953, in the National Archives files

By 1947, and the release of Monsieur Verdoux (the sour tone of which somehow accentuated the suspicions held against him) Chaplin was being openly accused of being a Communist sympathiser. His frank, reasoned responses to questions fired at him from all sides did not help his cause. After making Limelight Chaplin left America with his family for Britain, 17 September 1952. When at sea the news came through that the US Attorney General James McGranery had rescinded Chaplin’s re-entry permit, stating that Chaplin would he held if made any attempt to enter the United States once more. Chaplin had been exiled.

It was following this bombshell that the FBI wrote to MI5 seeking the dirt on Chaplin. It is fascinating to read the dossier that the British secret service compiled. It is a mixture of letters, telegrams, memos, newspaper cuttings and marginalia, as the issue was kicked around from department to department, with the British trying in vain to find any information to support the American allegations (which they considered from the outset as being “of very doubtful quality”).

Chaplin had no birth certificate – this was immediately suspicious. The Americans believed that he might not be British-born at all, but that he could have been born in France, and that his true name might be Israel Thornstein. The documents do not say from where the Americans got this preposterous intelligence, though there is indication that they were prepared to believe every bit of innuendo fed to them by informers, and any suggestion of Jewish origins presumably further confirmed Chaplin’s moral turpitude and political heresy. Chaplin did not have a birth certificate, in Britain or in France, but had they searched a little harder they would have found the young Charles Chaplin recorded in the London census returns of 1891 (aged 2) and 1901.

Ivor Montagu’s 1952 telegram to Chaplin, when Montagu was in Peking

The FBI also wanted evidence of Chaplin’s Communist sympathies, ideally of Party membership. It was said that there was an “unknown issue” of Pravda in which Chaplin was praised and a Chaplin film to be made in Russia was promised. MI5 searched diligently for the mysterious issue, and found nothing. The FBI wanted confirmation (note their confidence that the evidence was out there somewhere) of Chaplin’s “financial and/or cultural contributions to the Communist movement”. None was found. The nearest the MI5 got to it was a cheerful telegram sent to Chaplin by Ivor Montagu, filmmaker, writer, table tennis player, associate of Hitchcock and – as we now know – a Soviet spy. But the telegram was innocuous and MI5 did not pass it on to the Americans.

The search carried on in desultory fashion until 1958, at which point a MI5 memo concluded (with a dash of film criticism):

It is of some interest that when Chaplin was last in London in 1957 with this film A King in New York (a not very successful satire which featured ‘McCarthyism’), he was at some pains to avoid entanglement with the Russian Embassy here. He did not want to run the risk of political embarrassment. It may be that Chaplin is a Communist sympathiser but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a ‘progressive’ or radical.

And that of course was the truth. The mild bewilderment of the British secret service faced with actual evidence as opposed to political dogma tells its own tale. The whole disgraceful saga did not properly come to an end until Chaplin was welcomed back to the United States in 1972 to collect an Honorary Academy Award.

The 112-page MI5 dossier is available from the National Archives website, where it can be downloaded for free for the next month.

But the question still remains – where on earth did the Americans find the name Israel Thornstein? (for the answer, see comments)

For the love of Hitchcock

Bloggers are good people, or we strive to be, and what better evidence of this could there be than For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. A blogathon is where bloggers each write on the same theme on each of their respective blogs, linking to other blogs doing the same. The Film Preservation Blogathon, now in its third year, takes film history as its theme but goes that much further by raising funds for film preservation (i.e. a PayPal button appears on blog posts encouraging everyone to contribute their little bit).

In its first year the Blogathon raised funds to enable the National Film Preservation Foundation to restore The Sergeant (1910) and The Better Man (1912), two of the silent-era American films whose discovery in the New Zealand Film Archive we reported at the time. Last year funds were raised to help the Film Noir Foundation restore Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950).

The subject of this year’s Film Preservation Blogathon is Alfred Hitchcock. The aim is to raise funds to enable last year’s great discovery, The White Shadow (1923), directed by Graham Cutts with Hitchcock serving as assistant director, art director and more, to be put online by the NFPF with music score (for four months only, presumably because of ongoing hosting costs). This excellent and imaginative objective will cost in the region of $15,000.

The Blogathon runs 13-18 May 2012, and you can read more about it on the blogs of its three organisers, Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod. There will be more information on how to participate, and how to contribute donations, on each of those blogs as the date gets nearer, or follow all developments on the For the Love of Film Facebook page.

As said, the subject is Hitchcock, any aspect, though the organisers have expanded on this to include (and I quote)

Hitchcock, British silent films, silent film scores, film preservation and the people who do it (but please, as much as we love and revere him, no tributes to Martin Scorsese), the suspense genre, the stars of The White Shadow, Graham Cutts, and other related esoterica.

The Bioscope fervently hopes that at least one Graham Cutts blog post appears out of this (an entire Graham Cutts blogathon was always going to be a bit of a folorn hope). The man has never been so famous, and now’s the time to give him his due when people will be listening. We’ll do something for the Blogathon here at The Bioscope, and fingers crossed we’ll all be able to see The White Shadow in the not so distant future.

Rex Ingram, pageant master

Rex Ingram and Alice Terry, from

Rex Ingram (1893-1950) was the most romantic of film directors. Certainly he was one of the few directors who looked as though their rightful place was in front of the camera rather than behind it (he began his film career as an actor). One of the great imaginative Hollywood filmmakers of the early 1920s, he is also viewed as one of the leading figures in the diasporic Irish cinema, and James Joyce helped immortalise him by referring to Ingram in Finnegans Wake as ‘Rex Ingram, pageant master’ (the full sentence is a long and frankly incomprehensible one, but the paranthetical reference says ‘his scaffold is there set up, as to edify, by Rex Ingram, pageant-master’).

It is certainly appropriate that a new website dedicated to Ingram should have a .ie ending rather than .com, even if he was your typical Irishman in exile (he left the country aged 18 and never returned). Rex Ingram has been created by Ruth Barton, a lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College Dublin, and it’s good to see an academic produce a site which can be seen as much as a fan site as a scholarly resource. It gets the balance just right.

The site introduces him as the ‘handsome, strong-willed visionary was responsible for a succession of films for Metro Pictures, later M-G-M, that topped the box office and were hailed as masterpieces by the critics’, director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalyse (1921), the man who made stars of Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro, husband of the actress Alice Terry who appeared in most of his films, a man with a bohemian social life, and a perhaps not unwilling victim of the arrival of the talkies.

A biographical section is fullest part of this work-in progress site, and covers Ingram’s early life in Ireland (he left in 1911), his time as an actor with Edison (as Rex Hitchcock, his birth name) then as an increasingly admired scriptwriter, to his directing career which began in 1914, first with Universal and then Metro, where his great film included Hearts are Trumps (1921), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), Where the Pavement Ends (1923), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922) and Scaramouche (1923). Ingram rebelled against the strictures being introduced by Louis B. Mayer at what was now M-G-M and decamped to the South of France where he made Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Magician (1926). His style became increasingly personalised and undisciplined, he split from M-G-M, and then the arrival of sound flummoxed him and he retired from the motion picture industry after Baroud (1932).

The site also covers Ingram’s parallel experiences as a sculptor, artist, art collector and writer (he produced two novels), and his artistic legacy, inspiring David Lean and mentoring the young Michael Powell at his Riviera film studios. There is a picture gallery and a resources page, though with just the one link to an article and mention of Liam O’Leary’s biography of Ingram, it’s clear that this site is going to develop much further. It’s odd that there is no filmography – it would certainly help to make the site all the more definitive.

Rex Ingram is but one output of a project led by Barton to build upon Liam O’Leary’s research, with a hoped-for cataloguing of the O’Leary papers at the National Library of Ireland, an exhibition and film retrospective, and then maybe a new biography. Anyone who can help with the research, partiularly anyone with resources which might be added to the site should get in touch with Barton.

Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ‘1911’ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

Georges Méliès 1861-2011

Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, the magician of early cinema, was born this day one hundred and fifty years ago. Though it seems to be pure coinicidence, his 150th year has been marked by a succession of notable Mélièsian events, culminating in the release this month of Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, in which Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley) features as a leading character, and in which the production of Méliès’ films is lovingly created.

In celebration of the French master’s 150th, here is a set of links to the main DVDs, websites, publications and past Bioscope posts on Georges Méliès.




Past Bioscope posts on Méliès

I’ve not provided any links to online videos, because we have a rule here at the Bioscope about not linking to films which have been ripped from DVDs, and practically every Méliès available on YouTube has indeed been ripped in this way. The films are in the public domain (though their new soundtracks are not), but it’s a shame to see, especially when the producers of such DVDs have gone to such trouble and expense to compile their productions in the first place. But for those who don’t know, don’t care, or who believe as a matter of principle that everything should be for free and online anyway, there is plenty to be found – and doubtless Georges would be thrilled that his productions continue to delight new generations.

Some of that delight is demonstrated by the many remakes of Méliès’s films or filming techniques that can be found online. It’s practically a genre in itself. So as a different sort of tribute we’ll show you one of these instead; most of them show more enthusiasm than skill, but I quite like this one for its simplicity and Mélièsian spirit:

And finally, a quotation, written by yours truly when reviewing the 5-DVD set back in 2008, which says all that I need to say on the matter.

Georges Méliès is confirmed here as among the pre-eminent artists of the cinema, perhaps the most exuberant of all filmmakers. The films display imagination, wit, ingenuity, grace, style, fun, invention, mischief, intelligence, anarchy, innocence, vision, satire, panache, beauty and longing, the poetry of the absurd. Starting out as extensions of the tricks that made up Méliès’ magic shows, to view them in chronological order as they are here is to see the cinema itself bursting out of its stage origins into a theatre of the mind, where anything becomes possible – a true voyage à travers l’impossible, to take the title of one of his best-known films. The best of them have not really dated at all, in that they have become timeless, and presumably (hopefully) always will be so. Méliès in his lifetime suffered the agony of seeing his style of filmming turn archaic as narrative style in the Griffith manner became dominant, but we can see now that is his work that has truly lasted. The films will always stand out as showing how motion pictures, when they first appeared, in a profound sense captured the imagination.

Bonne anniversaire, Georges.

Films from the fens

Stencil colour film of Blickling Hall, Norfolk, from Eve and Everybody’s Film Review (1929)

A significant release of archive films online, many of them silent, was announced recently. The East Anglian Film Archive, founded by David Cleveland in 1976, funded by the University of East Anglia, and now located in the Archive Centre, Norfolk, has published online 200 hours from its film collection, the outcome of a major cataloguing and digitisation project undertaken as part of the UK’s Screen Heritage programme which has been doing much to support public sector film archiving in the UK.

The search, browse and highlight options can all be accessed via the front page of the site. The site design is unusual, in a plain sort of way, but not ineffective and undoubtedly user friendly. It is certainly easy to find silent era films – you simply go to the browse option, where there is a timeline with sliders which you can drag for dates anywhere between 1895 and 2010, something I’ve not seen on many other sites and which is such a simple, sensible way of guiding people to a time period. Select 1895-1930, and you get around 150 items, all of them instantly playable, and with some some real treasures, surprises and at least one major discovery.

The films all come from those English counties covered by the East Anglian region, including Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. So there are many films of primarily regional interest only (which is of courses the raison d’être of a regional film archive), though equally they are encouragement to anyone interested in film history and history through film to consider the importance of place and regional (not just national) identity in film culture. For example, John Grierson’s celebrated documentary Drifters (1929) is generally lionised for its early position in the history of the art of documentary film, but it turns up here (in its entirety) because it was partly shot in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Drifters is, fundamentally, and importantly, a regional film.

There are many other records of the East Anglian region, from interest, travel, amateur and newsreel films of the period. The latter include probably unique examples of the rare Warwick Bioscope Chronicle and British Screen News newsreels, and local newsreel the Bostock Gazette (a number of UK towns and cities in the silent era had local news services, often maintained by an indiviual cinema where the projectionist doubled as camera operator, though other such ‘newsreels’ were produced by local enthusiasts on an amateur basis). There is 1929 stencil colour film of Blicking Hall in Norfolk, from Pathé’s cinemagazine Eve and Everybody’s Film Review; film pioneer Birt Acres’ 1896 film of Yarmouth fishing trawlers, the first film made in the region; an experimental work by George Sewell, one of the founder members of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, whose The Gaiety of Nations (1929) is a visually inventive comment on world politics; and several delightful examples of silent advertising films, including a number advertising Colman’s Mustard, which were based in Norwich (see for example the spoof 1926 newsreel The Mustard Club Topical Budget, featuring a popular set of characters from an advertising campaign of the period).

Jackeydawra Melford (wearing witch’s hat) as Jackeydawra in The Herncrake Witch (1913)

The major discovery is The Herncrake Witch (1913), which I had believed to be a lost film. It is a drama starring Jackeydawra Melford, one of the first women to direct a film in Britain. We have written about Jackeydawra Melford before now, in one of the earliest Bioscope posts, noting that she produced and starred in The Herncrake Witch (1912), The Land of Nursery Rhymes (1912) and The Inn on the Heath (1914), directing the last of those (her actor father directed The Herncrake Witch). None was known to survive. The EAFA catalogue record doesn’t give that much information about the film, which is intriguing in theme if quaintly produced, noting that it was made by Heron Films, a company founded by Andrew Heron who worked with Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, of whom more in a moment. The film is described as an ‘excerpt’, though there can’t be too much missing (it runs for 8 minutes, and the original length was 710 feet). Anyway, it is a major discovery for those interested in British silent women filmmakers, of whom there are a number.

Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901), possibly filmed by Laura Bayley using the 17.5mm Biokam system (note the distinctive central perforations). The cat is playing its fiddle and the cow is jumping over the moon

Another welcome surprise is from another woman filmmaker. Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901) is an example of the 17.5mm Biokam films issued by Brighton filmmaker George Albert Smith, for which there reasons to believe that the director was his actress wife Laura Bayley. What its East Anglian connection might be I’m not sure, but it’s a precious example of a pantomime act filmed on stage (the practice seems to have been that Smith made a 35mm film of a subject, then his wife shot the 17.5mm version, possibly simultaneously, but sometimes at a different time, as there are noticeable differences between the few examples where both 35mm and 17.5mm subjects survive).

A third example of a woman filmmaker is the amateur comedy Sally Sallies Forth (1928), directed by Frances Lascot, working with producer/editor Ivy Low, which is a well-produced example of the considerable number of amateur film dramas made at this time by hobbyist individuals and film clubs. It would have been nice to have a bit more information about the film’s production on the catalogue (not least where it was shot).

From pleasant surprises to not so pleasant surprises. There are several films in the collection attributed to the aforementioned Hertfordshire filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, indeed there is a special section of the site devoted to him. Cooper is an interesting figure, involved in British films as assistant to Birt Acres from the earliest years, and later an important pioneer of the animation film. Unfortunately, his daughter and later some film historians took up his cause as a neglected master of early film, and claimed for him a number of films that he never made, or misdated other films to make them seem earlier examples of film innovation than is in fact the case. In some cases it seems Cooper told his family that films in his collection were ‘his’, when they were only so insofar as he may have exhibited them once and now owned them. I won’t go down the tedious route of pointing out which titles are wrongly identified and which aren’t (and there a quite a number that are genuinely his). It’s just really surprising that a responsible archive such as the EAFA put up these films with their dubious attributions to the fore, especially when their catalogue notes usually give pointers to the correct identification.

This abberation aside, the East Anglian Film Archive‘s new website is a very welcome new resource. It not only documents the East Anglian region so well, but for the silent film specialist it present the great variety of films of filmmaking from our period: dramas (professional and amateur), newsreels, travelogues, trick films, advertising films, industrials, magazines. It celebrates the medium in all its inventive richness, while reminding us of the particular meanings films have for particular people.

If you ae interested to find out more about the UK regional archives, visit the Film Archives UK website, or else read the 2009 Bioscope post on some of the UK regional film collections to be found online, including the Yorkshire Film Archive, Screen Archive South East and the Media Archive for Central England, all of whom have signficant silent films collection available to view online. And if you want to find them all (or at least a lot of what they hold) in one place, they you must try the new Search Your Film Archives portal hosted by the BFI (another UK Screen Heritage output). There is so much out there now to be found – do please reward the archives and those who have funded these initiatives by browsing, viewing, and taking film journeys down routes that you may not have expected.

Going underground

OK, here’s a test for you – who’s in this picture? It’s a frame still from a newsreel of an aviation demonstration held in Britain for the parliamentary aerial defence committee at Hendon in May 1911. It shows two parents and their 9-year-old son. Recognise him at all? Well, it may help to know that the father is Herbert Asquith, prime minister of Britain at the time, with his wife Margot. And so yes the little boy is indeed Anthony Asquith, making his first appearance on a medium where a dozen or so years later he would shine as one of Britain’s leading film directors and go on to enjoy a notable career in film spanning four decades.

Asquith is back in vogue. Most who know their film history will associate him with elegant if (apparently) bloodless society dramas, typically adaptations of Terence Rattigan plays, peaking with a peerless version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But now more and more we are being encouraged to look at Asquith the young man, who took a very different approach to the camera. In common with a number of the British intelligensia of the early 1920s Anthony Asquith became fascinated by film while at university. He spent some time in Hollywood as a guest of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, joined H. Bruce Woolfe’s British Instructional Films to learn about filmmaking from the gound up, and was a founder member of the Film Society, the London-based body formed to screen films of articis worth or historical interest which did so much to establish an intellctual film culture in Britain.

Asquith first served as a general assistant on Sinclair Hill’s Boadicea (1926), before writing the script for Shooting Stars (1927), a film for which he was also described as assistant director, with industry old hand A.V. Bramble being named director. But the opinion of posterity (and even opinion at the time) is this is an Asquith film. It is one of the most astonishing of film debuts: a witty deconstruction of filmmaking (the story is set in a film studio) and a stylistic grand feast. It is crying out for restoration with new score, and all of promotional works that we now expect to come with high-level silents brought back to public attention. Doubtless all that will happen in the fullness of time, but before Shooting Stars becomes the talk of the town we have the film of the town, and that is Underground.

Underground (1928) was the first film for which Asquith received full director credit, and it shows quite definitely that Shooting Stars was no fluke (or astonishing late career flourish from Bramble). It is a work of someone who had seen a lot of German and Soviet films at the Film Society and who wanted to bring the exciting techniques of expressionism and Soviet montage, coupled with psychological penetration, to a British setting. Underground achieves this about as well as you could hope. There is something slightly ridiculous about looming shadows, vertiginous camera angles and doom-laden characters placed among the mundanities of a London setting. Eisenstein showed a people impelled towards revolution; Asquith shows them catching the Undergound train everyday. There is a melodramatic love story to follow, with an absolutely splendid fight climax (some of which you can see in the trailer above), but the real story is the ebb and flow of London life, which doesn’t really fit in with the tempestuous technique. The revolution was not going to happen in London – Asquith was interested in what the camera could do, not what society might do, and the two do not really connect in Underground.

But what the heck – it’s a great film to watch, and now the BFI restoration is getting the full new orchestral score treatment courtesy of Neil Brand and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s worth noting how extraordinary this is, in terms of British silent films. Brand’s score for Blackmail, shown at Bologna and at the Barbican in London last year, was the first full orchestral score for a British silent fiction film since the days of the silents themselves (Laura Rossi produced an orchestral score for the documentary The Battle of the Somme in 2006). Underground is the second. It shows how the critical and commercial reputation for British silents has risen in recent years – or at least the small coterie of British silents that are likely to please a modern audience. Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor has entered many people’s favourite lists after its DVD release and Stephen Horne‘s great work in accompanying it, and one expects that preconceptions will be shifted once again once word gets round about Underground‘s particular thrills.

Underground is being shown with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Timothy Brock at the Barbican, London, on 5 October 2011. The Barbican web page has full booking details, plus a podcast with Neil Brand giving his thoughts on scoring for silent films. It will be good to be there if you can.

Anthony Asquith made four silent features. The third among them, The Runaway Princess (1929), I’ve not seen but has a reputation of being a bit on the lightweight side. It was an Anglo-German production, for which Asquith was encouraged or obliged to rein in the arty stuff, and there’s unlikely to be much there to excite an audience today. But Shooting Stars – now there is treat for you in the future, I hope.

Lost Graham Cutts film discovered!

Betty Compson as the good and evil twins in The White Shadow (1923), from the National Film Preservation Foundation

Terrific news has spread all across the wires today. A lost film by one of the leading British directors of the silent era, Graham Cutts, has been discovered in New Zealand. The film is The White Shadow, made in 1923. It starred the American actress Betty Compson, who had been brought over to star in three British films at the exalted sum of £1,000 a week, and Clive Brook, British-born but on his way to success in Hollywood riding on the back of the trio of films he made with Compson. Sadly, the film does not survive in a complete state. Around 30 minutes has been found. But it’s an important discovery for all that – as a product of a the work of a talented production team, as a notable starring vehicle, and as an example of the directorial work of Graham Cutts.

Graham Cutts (1885-1958) was arguably the leading British film director of the 1920s. Working with Herbert Wilcox and then Michael Balcon, two of Britain’s top producers of the period, Cutts made stylish romantic dramas characterised by fluid narrative, sumptuous production (on slim budgets) and subtly emotional performances. It could be argued that he was the first British film director to think cinematically. In particular he proved his worth by bringing out the best in some of the many American stars who were brought over to appear in British films at this time, such as Mae Marsh in Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (1923), Alice Joyce in The Passionate Adventure (1924), Jane Novak in The Prude’s Fall (1925) and Betty Compson in Woman to Woman (1923). This was a huge hit at the time, and is arguably the most sought-after lost British silent film – at least on artistic grounds or importance to film history.

The White Shadow, from the National Film Preservation Foundation

Woman to Woman starred Compson and Brook, and was hit with both audiences and critics, who admired its maturity of style and theme. Produced for Balcon-Saville-Freedman (Michael Balcon, Victor Saville and John Freedman), the film was directed by Cutts and produced by Michael Balcon, the first film to be made by one of British cinema’s most notable production talents. The success of the film led to a second made by the much the same production team. This was The White Shadow (1923), a tale of twins, one good, one bad, each played by Betty Compson. The verdict at the time was that the film was not as successful, commercially or artistically, as Woman to Woman, but we will have to wait until what survives of the film is made generally available to judge what we think of the latter.

Graham Cutts would go on to make a number of notable films for Balcon’s Gainsborough Studios, this time showing how to bring the best out of British stars. The Rat (1925), starring Ivor Novello as a Parisian apache, was very popular and is one of those British silents that still works well with general audiences today. It inspired two sequels. Cutts also made the accomplished The Sea Urchin (1926) with Betty Balfour and The Rolling Road with Flora Le Breton (1928). His star waned in the latter half of the decade, probably exacerbated by an awkward personality (he was obsessively jealous of his fellow filmmakers), but he continued to do some professional, if low-key work in the 1930s (the boisterous Just William, made in 1939, is a Bioscope favourite).

And yes, of course, there is some extra interest in The White Shadow because of its assistant director, art director, dialogue writer and editor. The same man undertook all four functions, and he was Alfred Hitchcock. The news has gone round the world that this is a rediscovered Alfred Hitchcock film, which is a little misleading. It is something that will have undoubtedly had Cutts whirling in his grave, because he was particularly resentful of how the young man’s talent came to eclipse his own, so that by the end of the decade the pre-eminent talent in British film was not Graham Cutts but his presumptuous protégé. Hitchcock had entered film production in 1920 as a title writer, and had directed two short films (the unfinished and lost Number Thirteen and Always Tell Your Wife, of which half survives), before joining Balcon’s team as an all-purpose talent. He was assistant director, art director and co-scriptwriter on Woman to Woman, and told Truffaut the following about working with Cutts:

FT: Graham Cutts directed that Picture [Woman to Woman]. You did the adaptation and dialogue, and were assistant director as well?

AH: More than that! My friend, the art director, was unable to work on the picture. I volunteered to serve as art director. So I did all of this and also helped on the production. My future wife, Alma Reville, was the editor of the picture as well as the script girl. In those days the script girl and the editor were the same person … It was while working on that picture that I first met my wife.

Then I performed these various functions for several other films. The second was The White Shadow

The White Shadow – three reels of it – was discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive by archivist Leslie Lewis, having originally been in the collection of New Zealander projectionist and collector Jack Murtagh. It is to recieve its “re-premiere” on 22 September 2011 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. There are reports on the National Film Preservation Foundation and in the LA Times, neither unfortunately doing Cutts’ reputation many favours. Let’s turn such shallow historio-filmography around. Alfred Hitchcock’s doesn’t need any new find to bolster up his reputation; Graham Cutts is the one in need of rediscovery. His was a real and important talent. Now we have a little more in the way surviving archive by which to celebrate it.