Méliès encore!

Undoubtedly one of most significant DVD releases in recent years in the early and silent cinema field was Flicker Alley’s Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913). Issued in 2008, this 5-DVD set features 173 titles made by the premier filmmaking genius of the early cinema period. It brought together material from collections around the world in as near comprehensive a form as possible, turning what had previously would have taken half a lifetime for just a handful of dedicated researchers to see into something available to all. The set contained revelations for everyone, whether early cinema expert or those stumbling upon these visionary films of magic for the first. The Bioscope produced a review with full listing of all of the titles, including Star-Film catalogue number (the name of Méliès’ film company), the original French title and English title on the discs.

The set was extensive, but it was not complete. More Méliès films were known to be out there, and now Flicker Alley has just announced Georges Méliès Encore, a single disc follow-up which adds a further 26 titles produced by the Frenchman between 1896-1911, plus two titles by his Spanish contemporary Segundo de Chomón done in the Méliès style which have long been is taken for his work. That latter offering sounds a bit odd (let’s instead see a comprehensive DVD dedicated to the supremely artistic work of de Chomón alone one day, please), but the chance to take things that much closer to the complete extant archive is a cause for rejoicing.

The production description available on Amazon.com gives these English titles:

The Haunted Castle from 1896 relies on shot-substitution, the filmmaker’s first trick discovery; it is a work in 21 shots at a time when everyone else in the world was making only single-shot films! An Hallucinated Alchemist is a beautifully-colored trick film from 1897, which survives in perfect condition. Among other surprises, the set includes military re-enactments (The Last Cartridges, Sea Fighting in Greece), dream films (The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship, Under the Seas), dramatic narratives (The Wandering Jew and The Christmas Angel, both with original narrations), slapstick comedies (How Bridget’s Lover Escaped, The King and the Jester, The Cook’s Secret), and, of course, a substantial group of the lovely trick films on which rest Méliès modern reputation.

Flicker Alley has now (updated information, 27 January) provided a full title listing on its website, from which the Bioscope has produced this listing (which corrects some slips):

15 – Défense d’afficher / Post no Bills
78-80 – Le manoir du diable / The Haunted Castle

95 – L’hallucination de l’alchimiste / An Hallucinated Alchemist [Note: this is a misidentification – see comments]
100 – Sur les Toits / On the Roofs
105 – Les Dernières cartouches [Flicker Alley call this Bombardement d’une maison] / The Last Cartridges
110 – Combat naval en Grèce / Sea Fighting in Greece

359 – L’omnibus des toqués ou Blancs et Noirs / Off to Bloomingdale Asylum

392-393 – l’oeuf du sorcier / The Prolific Egg
397 – Éruption volcanique à la Martinique / Eruption of Mount Pele
430-443 – Les aventures de Robinson Crusoé (fragment) / Robinson Crusoe

472 – La flamme merveilleuse / Mystical Flame, The
545 – Un peu de feu s.v.p. (fragment) / Every Man His Own Cigar Lighter

662-664 – Le juif errant / The Wandering Jew
669-677 – Détresse et charité / The Christmas Angel

550-551 – Les apparitions fugitives / Fugitive Apparitions
662-664 – Le juif errant / Wandering Jew, The
669-677 – Détresse et charité / Christmas Angel, The
693-695 – Le baquet de Mesmer / A Mesmerian Experiment
750-752 – L’île de Calypso / The Mysterious Island
786-788 – Le dirigeable fantastique ou le cauchemar d’un inventeur / The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship

888-905 – Robert Macaire et Bertrand, les rois des cambrioleurs / Robert Macaire and Bertrand

912-924 – Deux cent milles sous les mers ou le cauchemar du pêcheur / Under the seas
929-933 – Le mariage de Victorine / How Bridget’s Lover Escaped
1010-1013 – Satan en prison /
1040-1043 – François 1er et Triboulet / The King and the Jester

1476-1485 – Hydrothérapie fantastique / The Doctor’s Secret
1530-1533 – Le papillon fantastique (fragment) / The spider and the butterfly

The three Pathé titles are
Le vitrail diabolique / The Diabolical Church Window (1911)
Les roses magiques / Magic Roses (1906)
Excursion dans la lune / Excursion to the Moon (1908)

So, where (and what is) The Cook’s Secret?

Georges Méliès Encore is released on 16 February 2010, price $19.95.

Searching for Mary Murillo


Recently I was invited to speak at an event taking place Saturday 7 November at the BFI Southbank in London, on women and British silent cinema. There is increasing interest in the role of women in the early years of filmmaking (as demonstrated by Duke University’s Women Film Pioneers project), and as part of this trend the industrious Women and Silent British Cinema project has been investigating all traceable women filmmakers active in Britain in the silent era – including some rather obscure names, for whom little information survives. For my talk I offered to take on a scriptwriter about whom little was known, Mary Murillo, to demonstrate the research process and some of the online sources available. This blog post serves as part of my response.

Mary Murillo does not turn up in any standard motion picture encyclopedia or reference book. Her name is absent from all of the histories of the silent film era that I have consulted (bar a film credit or two), yet she was a significant screenwriter in American film for ten years, then worked in British films for six or more years where her name brought prestige to three different film companies, before she moved to work in French films at the start of the talkies. The fact that she has almost disappeared from film history says a lot about the way in which women filmmakers have been allowed to slip out of early film history, and about the low status of scriptwriters generally. So, how do we go about recovering that history?

Type her name into Google
Type “mary murillo” into Google and you get 15,500 hits. Initially this seems the very opposite of obscurity, but one quickly discovers that the same film credit data has been lifted from one or two sources to be reproduced on numerous filmographic and DVD sales sites, and what is useful information about her is very thin on the ground (one also finds many sites which refer to paintings of the Virgin Mary by the Spanish artist Murillo).

So there’s Wikipedia, which does have a short entry for her – a one-paragraph biography, a filmography and a couple of links. The biography tells us that she was born in Britain, wrote for the Fox, Metro and Stoll studios (the latter in Britain), that most notably she wrote for Theda Bara and Norman Talmadge, and that she was Irish by nationality, though some sources have her as being Latina. This is useful – and correct, because unfortunately the major piece on Mary Murillo available online, ‘Mary Murillo, Early Anglo Latina Scenarist‘ by Antonio Ríos-Bustamante, makes the fatal assumption that her surname meant that she was of Latin American extraction, despite evidence that she was born in Bradford. The writer has uncovered some useful information, but having made a wrong turning at the start, goes off in totally the wrong direction. There are other errors, notably in the filmography, and one is better off with her credits on the Internet Movie Database – over fifty titles – yet one should never accept the IMDb as being accurate or complete, especially for the silent film era, when credits can be difficult to determine (particularly for scriptwriters). Certainly she made more films that are listed there.

Family history sources
For a proper grounding in biographical film research, it is essential to use family history sources. This is where some small investment is necessary, because apart from the volunteer-produced FreeBMD (births, marriages and deaths in the UK, roughly to 1900), the major sources – Ancestry, Findmypast.com etc. – require payment. Ancestry, however, is essential, offering not just births, marriages and deaths, but census records, shipping registers, military records, and much more. The Bioscope has produced a guide to using family history sources in film research, here. Mary Murillo is a problem, however, because it was an assumed name. Her real name was Mary O’Connor. She was of Irish parentage, which is a problem because there are few Irish family history resources online and most pre-1901 census records were destroyed in 1922 during the Civil War. However, Murillo / O’Connor was born in Bradford (explained below) in 1888, yet I can find no official birth record – the first indication of what seems to have been an unconventional childhood.


Mary De Murillo, bottom line of this insert from the ship’s register for the S.S. New York, sailing from Southampton 2 August 1909, from http://www.ancestry.com

Shipping records
These are essential. One of the great boons for biographical research recently has been the publication of shipping records, particularly between Britain and the USA before 1960, which give access to passenger registers, or manifests, which contain much biographical information, as well as certain dates. Ancestry has some, Findmypast provides Ancestors on Board using records from The National Archives, but best of all is Ellis Island, a free database with digitised documents of New York passenger records 1892-1924. From Ancestry’s shipping records we discover that Mary first went to American in 1908, under the name Mary de Murillo, where we learn her age (19), that she was Irish but living in England, that she was born in Bradford, that she was an actress, and that she was travelling with her step-sister, Isabel Daintry.


This seems a wonderful clue, though it has proven to be a bit of a dead-end. I’ve not been able to trace a family history for Daintry, who was an actress herself, appearing in a few films in the early 1910s, before fading from history, leaving just a photo (left) from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York Library. One also discovers from the shipping record that Murillo does not give a family member as contact back in England, instead naming a Mrs Henderson of Eton Avenue, London as her friend. One her assumes that her parents were dead. We also learn that she was 5′ 4″ tall, with fair complexion, fair hair and brown eyes, and that she was in good health.

Why was she travelling to America? Well, she was calling herself an actress, and she was looking for work. Among the several handy databases that one can employ to find biographical information for those in the performing arts, a particularly useful one is the Internet Broadway Database, a free database of production credits for all stage performance’s on New York’s Broadway. And sure enough, there early in 1909 is Mary Murillo appearing alongside Isabel Daintry in the chorus of a musical, Havana. It was not a notable dramatic career – she has three further credits on the IBDB in 1912 and 1913, from which we may infer that she was on tour in stage productions during this period. As newspaper and theatre records reveal, she was a member of Annie Russell’s Old English Comedy Company, performing way down the cast list in plays such as She Stoops to Conquer and The Rivals. This correlates with shipping records, because we find she sailed again from Britain to New York in October 1912, this time on her own, revealed by the manifest for her departure (on Ancestors on Board) and for her arrival (on Ellis Island), with useful the information that her previous stay in the country had lasted for three-and-a-half years.

Census records
Normally census records are the bedrock of biographical research. You get a person’s age, place of birth, family members, occupation, place of residence, and incidental information that one can glean, such as social status. Unfortunately I have not been able to find Mary Murillo/O’Connor on any British or Irish census, though I have found family members (her sisters, but not her parents). However she does turn up in the 1910 New York census, where she is a lodger in Manhattan, given as born in England, profession stage actress, no other family member with her. Something to be wary of – the electronic versions of such data, in this case Ancestry, are based on transcriptions and often the names have been written down wrong – for the 1910 census, Ancestry has her name as Mary Minter. Later census records have not yet been made publicly available.

At some point in 1913 or 14, Mary Murillo sold a film scenario to the husband-and-wife production team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Her career as an actress had not taken off, and like many others before her she looked to the movie industry as a way out, though in her case it was through her pen. She clearly had talent, because within two years she was one of the leading film scenarists in the American film business, becoming chief scriptwriter at Fox in 1915. This rise to fame one can trace through the best source for any online research of this kind, the newspaper archives. There are so many of these, though few are free, so either you pay a subscription or you hope your local library subscribes. Major resources include Newspaper Archives.com (for American papers), the Times Digital Archive and Guardian Archive. Free resources include Australian Newspapers, New Zealand’s Papers Past and a private archive of American papers, Old Fulton NY Post Cards. Film publicity departments sent out supporting bumf worldwide, and you can find Mary Murillo’s name scattered all over the place, becase such was her prominence that her name was frequently mentioned as a leading feature – in ‘reviews’, advertisments and posters. The Bioscope has produced a guide to newspaper archives online, though it’s in need of some updating.


Advertisment for Her Double Life, from the Sandusky Star Journal, 28 September 1916, available from Newspaper Archives.com

Mary Murillo specialised in exotic melodrama, and wrote five scripts for Theda Bara, Hollywood’s archetypal vamp. The films were Gold and the Woman, The Eternal Sapho, East Lynne, Her Double Life and The Vixen. From an article in the New York Clipper, 1 May 1918 (found at Old Fulton’s NY Post Cards), entitled ‘The Scenario Writer’, we learn this:

Even as late as the year 1914, there were few companies who deemed the writer worthy of mention on the screen and as for proper financial reward, many an excellent five reeler brought the magnificent sum of seventy-five dollars. Slowly but surely, however, the big film producers have come to realize the importance of the scenario writer in the general scheme of things with the result that from being one of the most poorly paid individuals connected with the industry, the men and women who create the successful screen plays today, now receive monetary recompense of substantial proportions. Mary Murillo, for example, a scenario writer, who made over twenty-five thousand dollars last year, sold her first script for twenty-five dollars, four years ago. She is but one of many scenario authors, who unsung and ignored but a few years back, are now reaping similar big rewards in the scenario field.

Quite a leap from stage obscurity to $25K a year in just four years. Newspaper records also tell us that Murillo left Fox at the end of 1917 to go independent, working for Metro amongst others, before joining the staff of Norma Talmadge productions in 1919, where she scripted such titles as Her Only Way, The Forbidden City and The Heart of Wetona, plus others such as Smilin’ Through where her name does not turn upon official credits but where she seems to have been a script doctor – a role she performed many times, making her exact filmography a difficult subject on which to be precise.

She ended her American film career in 1922. Why this was one can only speculate. Perhaps she wanted new challenges, perhaps her penchant for high-flown romanticism was starting to be out of fashion, or perhaps it was related to a revealing report in the New York Times of 18 March 1923, where we learn of the seizure by a deputy sheriff of a five-storey at 338 West Eighty-Fifth Street leased by Miss Mary Murillo, “a scenario writer, now said to be in Hollywood”. She had defaulted on her payments. Among the goods seized were “tapestries alleged to be valuable, a mahogany grand piano, phonograph and a quantity of records, a lot of silver and a leopard skin”. Mary had been living the movie life, and how.

Contemporary movie guides
It’s worth remembering that there were reference guides produced from the early 1910s onwards that provide biographical information on those before and behind the camera in the film business. Often the personal information provided needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s always a handy starting point. Some of these are available on the Internet Archive: for example, Charles Donald Fox and Milton Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920), and the 1921 edition of William Allen Johnston’s Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual. The latter has an entry on Mary Murillo, which seems to be wholly accurate, as follows:


Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual 1921

Trade papers
There is plenty one can find about Mary Murillo from American newspaper sources, even if mostly of a superficial kind. Once she moved to Britain, the online sources dry up, because she gets little mention in the digitised British newspapers. She started writing for Stoll Film Productions, the major British studio of the early 1920s, resulting in five films: The White Slippers (1924), The Sins Ye Do (1924) and A Woman Redeemed (1927), plus two (possibly three) titles for other studios. Information on these is best found in film trade papers, such as the Bioscope and the Kinematograph Weekly, which do not exist online and need to be located at the BFI National Library, British Library Newspapers (which has produced a useful list of British and Irish cinema and film periodicals that it holds), or on microfilm sets at film research centres. There are no indexes to such resources – you just have to scroll through them and hope to strike lucky, though the BFI’s onsite database provides many references (these are missing from the online version of the database). One trade journal that does have a handy index is the American Moving Picture World, and it is from Annette M. D’Agostino’s invaluable Filmmakers in the Moving Picture World: An Index of Articles, 1907-27 that I found an article on Murillo from 16 March 1918 – though only after looking twice, because her name was indexed as Murrillo (remember never to trust indexes implicitly – always look laterally, and be prepared for mispellings etc). From that I got the photograph at the top of this post and some tantalising biographical information, including her schooling at a convent in Roehampton, near London. (By the way, the American journal Variety does publish indexes, for film titles and an obituaries index, only in printed form).

Ask people
Of course, asking people is a hugely important part of research. It’s always best to do a bit of research yourself rather than expect others to do all your work for you, but armed with some information you’ve been able to gather, turn to the experts. Having taken my research so far, I posted a query on the classic film forum Nitrateville, which is jam-packed full of knowledgeable people only too willing to help. It so happened that none knew anything about Mary Murillo directly, but one or two respondees came up with excellent leads. One used Google Books, which enables you to search through snippets of texts from books old and current and found a mention of her in a Belgian memoir – more of that below. Another looked in the Irish Times Digital Archive, a subscription site, and found that there seemed to be an article on her in 1980. I have access to the site at work (see here for a list of all full-text, word-searchable newspapers and journals available electronically at the British Library), and discovered that the article was a piece by Irish film historian Liam O’Leary on the director Herbert Brenon, with whom Murillo worked. O’Leary, as an aside, revealed the precious information that her real name was Mary O’Connor, and that she came from Tipperary.

Tipperary and Bradford? Something odd there, but the Liam O’Leary papers are held in the National Library of Ireland, where former cameraman and known walking encyclopedia of Irish film history, Robert Monks, has care of the papers. Bob looked up Liam’s card index for me and found reference to an article on her in the October 1917 issue of Irish Limelight, a short-lived film trade journal. Happily, the British Library has Irish Limelight. From this I learned that her family came from Ballybroughie – though there’s a problem there, as there is no such place as Ballybroughie, at least as far as I can find. Her early years were spent near Tipperary, though as she and her sisters (more of them in a minute) were born in Bradford the family clearly moved around a bit. She mentions her father (no name) but not her mother, boasts of her great muscial gifts when young, says that she chose the name Murillo because she was compared when young to a Murillo madonna painting, and describes how tough she found it finding work as an actress.

She also mentions the convents she went to – St Monica’s in Skipton, Yorkshire, and Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton. This is now Woldingham School and the archivist there told me that Mary O’Connor (born 22 January 1888) and her sisters Philomena and Margaret were at Roehampton for a year (1903-04) before deciding that its tough regime was not for them. The parents’ (parent?) address is given as Thomas Cook c/o Ludgate. He, or they, were overseas (the travel agents Thomas Cook’s main offices were in Ludgate Circus, London). In the 1901 census Philomena, Margaret and another sister Winifred (but not Mary) are given as boarding at St Monica’s, aged respectively 4, 3 and 7. What were the first two doing in a boarding school at that age? Were the absent parents touring performers, or involved in international (Empire?) business, or just plain neglectful?

Mary Murillo turns up in a couple of British newspapers in the late 1920s when her name was used by two film companies issuing prospectuses in the hope of investment. In The Times, 29 November 1927, the British Lion Corporation (with backing from the author Edgar Wallace) announced that its grand plans included “a contract with Miss Mary Murillo, whereby she is to write two complete Film scenarios for the Company during the year 1928”. It also makes the surprise claim that she wrote the script for The Magician by Rex Ingram (Irish himself, of course), something not otherwise recorded in any source. She also turns up in the prospectus the Blattner Picture Corporation (found in The Daily Mirror 21 May 1928, available from pay site ukpressonline) where it declares that “the company will from its inception will have expert technical assistance, and in particular Miss Mary Murillo (formerly Scenarist for the Metro-Goldwyn Corporation, Messrs Famous-Players Lasky, Mr D.W. Griffith, Miss Norma Talmadge &c.) will write Scenarios for this Company’s first year’s programme”.

This is useful, though only a couple of films seem to have come out of her association with British Lion, and none with Blattner. She made some films in France, apparently working on English versions of French releases, though she is credited for the script of the 1930 classic Accusée, levez-vous!. Her last film credit is as a co-writer of the British film, My Old Dutch, in 1934. Then what? Well, the Belgian source I mentioned was Les Méconnus de Londres (2006), the memoirs of Tinou Dutry-Soinne, widow of the Secretary to the Belgian Parliamentary Office in London, which cared for Belgian exiles during World War II. She met Mary Murillo in London at that time, and provides a sketch of a lively, interesting character with a fascinating history in film behind her who was keen to help Belgian exiles. An email to the obliging people at the Belgian embassy in London got me Mme Dutry’s address, and she wrote me a most friendly and detailed letter with all the information she could find on her social contacts with Mary Murillo up 10 October 1941, the last time she saw her. Murillo wanted to do what she could to help the Belgian cause (she seems to have spent some time in Belgium before the war), but suddenly disappeared from the scene.

And then what? I don’t know. She just vanishes. She appears not to have married nor to have had children. I have found no death record, though admittedly Mary O’Connor is not an easy name to research. But for the film researcher the biographical information, though a necessary backbone, is not the main business. She was a scriptwriter, and we want to find film her surviving scripts, and surviving films. Firstly we need reliable film credits. I’ve said that IMDb is a good start, but always double-check with at least two other sources. The filmography at the end of this post comes from a combination of the IMDb, references in newspapers, the Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries: Motion Pictures 1912-1939 (available in PDF form from the Internet Archive), the American Film Institute Catalog (for which the records for silent films are accessible to all), Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue 1895-1985 and the BFI database. There are some uncertain titles in the filmography – as said, she seems to have tidied up others’ scripts at times, or to have developed scripts which were then completed by other hands, so determining what is her work outright is not easy.


There is no register of all extant film scripts, and one has to search in multiple places. I found two Murillo shooting scripts in the indexes of the BFI National Library in London (The Sins Ye Do, A Woman Redeemed). The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a Motion Picture Scripts Database, from which I found nine scripts, held by UCLA and AMPAS itself: Ambition, The Bitter Truth, The Little Gypsy, Love’s Law, The New York Peacock, A Parisian Romance, Sister against Sister, Two Little Imps and The Vixen (the poster, right, for her 1917 film Tangled Lives, comes from the Margaret Herrick Library site). Some of these scripts are also held in the Twentieth Century-Fox archives, as Antonio Ríos-Bustamante discovered. WorldCat, the union catalogue of world libraries, lists two scripts available on the microfilm set What women wrote: scenarios, 1912-1929. All in all, a remarkable fourteen Murillo scripts survive, a gratifyingly high number.

Finding what films exist in archives (as opposed to the DVD store – I think only two of Murillo’s films are available this way – The Forbidden City, from Grapevine and Accusée levez vous! from Pathé – but Silent Films on DVD is the place to check) is not easy. Again, no central register exists, and not all film archives publish catalogues of their holdings, let alone online catalogues. A list of world film archives is provided by the Federation of International Film Archives. A useful first source for checking whether a film survives and where (chiefly American titles, though) is the Silent Era website, which continues on its way to becoming the single-stop essential source for information on silent films. Otherwise, you just to check a lot of catalogues and ask in a lot of places (once again specialist fora such as Nitrateville or the Association of Motion Picture Archivists (AMIA) discussion list are home to many experts, archivists and collectors). The filmography at the end of this post lists the dozen Murillo films known to survive.

Round-up, and a few tips
This post documents some of the avenues down which I’ve travelled trying to uncover information on one obscure film scriptwriter from the silent era. It’s not a typical research enquiry, but then what such enquiry ever is? It should show that you start out with some basic sources and some key questions to ask, but then will find yourself led down all sorts of unexpected avenues, because people are unexpected.

And why research someone so obscure? You have to ask? Is there any nobler activity out there than to recover a life? Certainly it is always excellent when anyone recovers a corner of history that has been lost or ignored, however small it may seem. It’s a contribution to knowledge, and telling us something that we didn’t know before is a whole lot better way to spend your time as a researcher than re-telling that which we already know. So go out and do likewise – and then tell the world about it. Meanwhile, I’ve much more to try and find out somehow about Mary Murillo. What was her connection with D.W. Griffith? What films did she write for Nazimova? Who were her parents? Do any other photographs of her exist? When did she die? The quest goes on.

A few tips. Never trust any source on its own – always verify the information in two or three other places. Remember that people tell lies about themselves. Official documents such as birth certiifcates, census forms and shipping registers tell us much, but they can also mislead (sometimes deliberately – people lie about ages etc.) and the electronic databases suffer from mistranscriptions. Always think laterally. Remember when searching for female subjects that names change on marriage, and of course with Mary Murillo we have someone who lived under an assumed name. Don’t expect to find everything online, and don’t expect to find everything immediately, and be prepared to spend a little money for valuable resources that have taken a lot of money and effort to compile. Use the Bioscope Library for standard reference sources of the period, its FAQs page for tips on searching, and the categorised links on the right-hand column as a guide to the online world of silent film.

And have fun.

This post is long enough as it is, so the Mary Murillo filmography can be downloaded here as a PDF of an Excel file. It includes script and print sources.

Cockney Cherokees on the sky-line


Annette Benson and Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)

Recently on the Nitrateville silent film discussion forum, someone posted a link to a spaghetti western site which had a filmography of European westerns, going back to 1906. All very interesting, and a reminder that from the earliest years of cinema countries around the world tried to produce their own versions of the genre that seemed quintessentially American, the western.

But the filmography, though useful, is nowhere near complete. Particularly for the silent era there are huge gaps, which become clear when one looks at the British silent western alone. The spaghetti western filmographer may possibly have thought that Britain did not count as part of Europe, but equally may not have thought that such a thing as the British western existed. But exist it did, and its strange history will now unfold…

British cinema is what it is because of its relation to American cinema. For reasons economic, artistic and linguistic, British film makers have always had an uneasy relationship with American filmmaking, half envious, half slavish, playing along with the game to a set of rules not quite understood. A minor, but diverting illustration of this is the British western. With only a few exceptions British westerns can be divided up into three categories: straight attempts at westerns, adaptations of the western milieu to British Empire settings, and parodies.

Western novels were popular in Britain even before the arrival of the movies, as well as the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha, and the visits to the country of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show had created a romantic enthusiasm for the western myths and values in many in Britain at the turn of the century. The first British films to reflect this interest were a music hall sketch starring the legendary Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell as ‘Indian braves’, Burlesque Attack on a Settler’s Camp (1900), and a grotesque short comedy, The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (1901), in which the Chief (sporting a peculiar head-dress) enters a store, swallows the contents of a bottle of aperient powder, inflates and explodes. A copy of this latter oddity survives, unlike the great majority of the thirty or so westerns made in Britain between 1901 and 1915, all of them one- or two-reelers. Lost, for instance, is the next film on a roughly western theme to be made, Joe Rosenthal’s Hiawatha (1903), made during a visit to Canada and enacted by members of the Ojibwa people. Rosenthal also made Indians Gambling for Furs – is it War or Peace? at the same time.

Such curiosities aside, the key period for the production of British westerns was to be 1908 to 1913, when American films were becoming an increasing economic threat and began to demonstrate an evident hold on British audiences that British films seemed to lack. Had they but known it, British film makers had played their part in the creation of the American western, as it is probable if not absolutely proven that the Sheffield Photo Company’s exciting chase dramas of 1903, A Daring Daylight Burglary and The Robbery of the Mail Coach in particular, made a great impact in America and were a strong influence on The Great Train Robbery, the archetypal western. The latter film, with its highwayman protagonist, indicated a possible route for British films to follow if they were to challenge the Americans on their own ground. Various producers were indeed to film stories of the medieval outlaw Robin Hood and the eighteenth century highwayman Dick Turpin, but somehow the historical trappings had a lack of conviction, and it was not until the 1950s and the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood that the British came up with the depiction of a native myth that could match equivalent American western product for local popularity. A halfway solution came the following year with the Charles Urban Trading Company’s Robbery of a Mail Convoy by Bandits (1904), which located its thrills in Australia, the robbery being perpetrated by bushrangers. British film makers seeking to recreate Western thrills would turn again to the colonies in later years.

British westerns began to appear in some numbers from 1908. The chief producers were the American Charles Urban, the most cosmopolitan film maker in the British film industry, who might have been expected to show such an interest, and more surprisingly the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, based in rural Walton-on-Thames and rather better known for delicate character dramas, happy comedies, and its use of the English countryside as a background. One of the few British silent westerns to survive is Hepworth’s The Squatter’s Daughter, made earlier than the main body of silent westerns in 1906 (it is held by the BFI National Archive).

It was directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, who made the classic Rescued by Rover (1905). Rumoured to have been shot on Putney Common, London, the action opens with Indians crawling through undergrowth towards a ranch house. They beat down the fence and spear the men inside, taking a girl (Dolly Lupone) captive. She is taken to their chief, who declines to kill her with his spear, and instead she is tied to a stake to be burnt. Her father (Fitzhamon himself), riding past, hears the commotion, shoots down the Indians and rescues his daughter from the stake. The film is less than sophisticatedly made, with a particularly unconvincing ranch house, pantomime costumes and antics for the Indians, and the unmistakable greenery of the English countryside. At one point during the Indian camp scene a sailing boat goes past in the background. But for all its crudities it is quite exciting in its way, and looks to have been great fun to make.

Records of the production of British silent westerns are few, but one such record can be found in Leslie Wood’s 1937 book, The Romance of the Movies:

British producers set about stealing a march upon their transatlantic cousins and started making a brand of cowboy and Indian films all their own – in more senses than one! Many of these ‘horse operas’, as the Americans call them, were made in Epping Forest and other more or less suitable locations on the outskirts of London. Old ladies enjoying a quiet picnic on Box Hill would have their idyll rudely shattered by the war-whoops of a dozen half-naked Cockney Cherokees suddenly appearing on the sky-line, waving tomahawks and lusting for blood. Countless ‘Nells of the ranch’ rode in chaps and Stetsons over the hills at Addington, Surrey, and scores of bad men in check shirts and sombreros plotted to steal the mortgage on ‘the old mine’ at Friern Barnet. Somehow they lacked an air of reality when seen on the cinema’s screen of illusion. The horses, hired from livery stables, were but poor substitutes for the ponies of the prairie, and the English lanes lacked that barrenness and dustiness which so stirred the imaginations of the followers of the American Broncho Billy. For many years the Americans were to send us films purporting to show English life against backgrounds dotted with eucalyptus trees and cactus plants and prickly pears; the Knights of King Arthur could chew gum and our courts of justice were represented as a cross between a three-ring-circus and a public auction, and we accepted it all without a murmur, apparently because we either thought the Americans knew more about our national life than we did ourselves or because, being foreigners, we couldn’t expect them to know any better, but the cowboy pictures made in Surrey were quickly disclaimed by all right-thinking cinema-goers.

Wood suggests that the decision to produce westerns was a response to economic rivalry with American cinema, which seems doubtful, but there was certainly a panic feeling among British producers that they could not produce what a global market wanted (with a comparatively small home market they were heavily dependent on exports), and had to at least to try and make westerns if that was what the public wanted. Equally a stubborn feeling that ‘whatever they can do we can do just as well’ must have influenced the decision. After all, as Wood points out, ‘the Western film or the Cowboy-and-Indian picture as it was known to every small boy, was a sure drawing card’. British producers just had to have a go. Just such a ‘cowboy picture made in Surrey’ as the right-thinking were to reject is described by Dave Aylott, who was acting in and directing films for Cricks and Martin (indeed based in Croydon, Surrey). This is from his unpublished memoir, From Flicker Alley to Wardour Street:

We once attempted to make a Western picture, and there were some very good paddocks and corrals on the adjoining estate that we used. We hired some real cowboy saddles, etc., and managed to get some good cowboy outfits complete with ‘chapps’. There were some fine long-tailed horses in the paddock but not one to suit me. I was playing one of the parts, [A. E.] Coleby another, and Johnny Butt was supposed to be a treacherous Red Indian guide. I was supposed to have a rough-looking horse that also had to buckjump. We found the very thing in a gypsy camp and had it brought to the studio. But when we had saddled it and I mounted, the animal would not move, let along buck. We tried all ways, even a chestnut burr under the tail, but it was no good. The gypsy who owned him said he could not understand his being so quiet, and when we told him to take the horse away as being no good, he said ‘Wait a few minutes. I’ll make him jump for you’. He dashed out of the gates to a little general shop a few yards away and when he came back said ‘Jump on his back and hold tight’. I don’t know exactly what he did, but I have an idea that he mentioned the word ‘ginger’. Within a few minutes I was giving the onlookers a wonderful display of buck-jumping. I stuck to him like grim death until he reared right up and nearly toppled over on top of me as I slipped off. It was along time before he quietened down. We did manage to finish the film, but never afterwards did we attempt to make a cowboy film.

The memories of Wood and Aylott view the past with amusement, but it appears that at the time producers took their task seriously and hoped for the results to be convincing and commercial. The film Aylott is describing is ‘Twixt Red Man and White (1910), and that the Cricks and Martin publicity department at least had confidence in the film be gleaned from its notice in a trade paper, which gives a good indication of the sort of western being made in Britain at this period:

‘Twixt Red Man and White. – An incident in the life of a backwoodsman, with realistic setting and splendid acting. A white trapper plays cards with an Indian whom he discovers cheating: a struggle ends with the apparent death of the Indian. The white man, fearing reprisal, hurries back to the settlement and tells his chums and all make haste to fortify their cabin. The inert body of the Indian is soon discovered by other members of the tribe, who swear revenge, and taking the trail, soon arrive at the settlement, which they immediately attack. A stout defence is offered, and the Indians are kept in check, but ammunition fails, and to save his comrades the hero of the story, notwithstanding the entreaty of his chums, gives himself up to the Indians, who march him off to their encampment, and hastily binding him to a tree, pile faggots round him, fire them, and enliven the proceedings by starting the weird ‘Death Dance’. But the cheating Indian has in the meantime recovered his senses, returns to the white man’s settlement and soon hears of his antagonist’s fate. Accompanied by the rest of the erstwhile defenders, he follows the Indians to their camp and demands that the white trapper shall be released, and the quarrel settled by single combat. Each taking a knife, a terrific fight in engaged in, which ends in the Indian being disarmed. He bares his chest for the final thrust but the white man offers his hand in friendship, and what might have ended in a deadly feud is closed by a scene in which enemies intermingle and swear peace and goodwill ‘twixt red man and white.

The plotting and performances were serious; it was the British backgrounds that let them down. That, and a certain lack of confidence which was making itself felt throughout British production, and could only be more pronounced when attempting to film the Wild West. But the films are now lost, and the titles alone remain: An Indian’s Romance (1908), The Ranch Owner’s Daughter (1909), Hidden Under Campfire (1910), The Sheriff’s Daughter (1910), An Outlaw Yet a Man (1912), Through Death’s Valley (1912), and several more. A particular oddity must have been the Natural Color Kinematograph Company’s Fate (1911), filmed in Kinemacolor and hence the world’s first western in colour. Also lost are the several comedies made in which a comic figure usually besotted with cowboy films tries to become one in real life, with chaotic results made more absurd by the British setting. For instance Pimple (Fred Evans), Britain’s most popular native film comic, made two such parodies: Broncho Pimple (1913), spoofing the schoolboy’s favourite, Broncho Billy, and The Indian Massacre (1913), which poked fun at such serious endeavours as D.W. Griffith’s The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch.

The small spate of silent British westerns seemed to have come to an end in 1914 with the First World War and the gradual emergence of the feature film. The imposture of the western could just be sustained while films were one- or two-reelers; not when the film ran for over an hour. Westerns disappeared from British production schedules, and almost the only serious attempt during the whole of the war period was a six-part series, The Adventures of Deadwood Dick (1915), co-directed by and starring Fred Paul as the Englishman Richard Harris who journeys to the Wild West for adventure, and proves himself as tough as any true Westerner. The West was already being seen as a testing ground of macho toughness, and Englishmen were by nature excluded from it. This was another theme to which British film makers would return. The incongruous Englishman out West was in any case to prove a standard figure in American films, from Charles Laughton’s imperious butler in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) to (by some curious irony) the real life Richard Harris, playing a masochistic lord undergoing a Sioux trial by strength in A Man called Horse (1970) and the self-glorifying ‘English Bob’ in Unforgiven (1992), outsiders all.


Ernest Trimingham (left) and Percy Moran (centre) in Jack, Sam and Pete (1919), from Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame

Somewhat surprisingly, there was a return to western film making in the immediate post-war silent period. The early 1920s were the absolute low point of British film production, crushed as it had been by the war and then by absolute domination by Hollywood, but they were also by extension a period of experimentation, of ‘we’ll try anything once’, when anyone might have a go. Thus a handful of silent western features appeared. In Jack, Sam and Pete (1919), based on the popular boys’ stories by S. Clarke Hook, three cowboys rescue a kidnapped child. It was a starring vehicle for Percy Moran, the pre-war star of the stirring Lieutenant Daring adventure series, who clearly hoped to create a new character to excite a young audience. One of the trio in the title, Pete, was played by Ernest Trimingham, Britain’s first black actor.

The Night Riders (1920) was one of a handful of features made in Hollywood at Universal City by the adventurous producer G.B. Samuelson and concerned cattle rustlers in Alberta. Renowned war cameraman Geoffrey Malins made the humble Settled in Full (1920), a conventional Western that in style looked back to the pre-war days. Little Brother of God (1922) was a Western set in Canada about a man (Victor McLaglen) seeking the truth behind his brother’s death. Produced by Stoll, the stolid leading British film company of the period, it was fatally compromised by being shot entirely in the studio. Rather more interesting probably were two adventures set in England starring a visiting American star of cowboy serials, Charles Hutchison. British producers had just begun what was to be a long-running policy of importing minor American stars to brighten up their productions, and for the Ideal Film Company Hutchison made Hutch Stirs ‘Em Up (1923), in which he rescues a girl from a wicked squire’s torture chamber, and Hurricane Hutch In Many Adventures (1924) again brought cowboy thrills and spills to an unexpected English setting.

By the mid-1920s naive British westerns seemed a thing of the past, and a new confidence and sophistication in the film making led to a film such as Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars (1928), set in a film studio, which satirises the filming of a ridiculous cowboy romance (all the while a deadly love triangle takes place between the three leading actors). It mocks American cinematic conventions, and could be seen as British cinema’s farewell to produce pale imitations of what came from across the Atlantic, but in fact the British western was to roll on and on…

This post is adapted from the first half of a talk that I gave many moons ago at the National Film Theatre on the British western, silent and sound. You can find the text of the talk on my personal website, where you can follow the story into the sound era and find out about The Frozen Limits, The Overlanders, Diamond City, Ramsbottom Rides Again, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, The Singer not the Song, Carry on Cowboy, The Hellions, Eagle’s Wing and A Fistful of Fingers.

Finally, here’s a filmography of the British silent western (extant films are marked with an asterisk):

1901 – Burlesque Attack on a Settler’s Camp (pc. Warwick)
1901 – The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (pc. Hepworth) *
1903 – Hiawatha (d. Joseph Rosenthal pc. Urban)
1903 – Indians Gambling for Furs – is it Peace or War? (d. Joe Rosenthal pc. Urban)
1904 – Robbery of a Mail Convoy by Bandits (pc. Urban)
1906 – The Squatter’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth) *
1908 – A Fight for Honour (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Cricks and Martin)
1908 – An Indian’s Romance (d. Frank Mottershaw pc. Sheffield Photo Company)
1909 – The Ranch Owner’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1909 – Saved by the Telegraph (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1910 – Hidden Under Campfire (pc. Walturdaw)
1910 – A Rake’s Progress (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Cricks and Martin)
1910 – The Sheriff’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1910 – ‘Twixt Red Man and White (d. Dave Aylott pc. Cricks and Martin)
1911 – Fate (d. Theo Bouwmeester pc. Natural Color Kinematograph Company)
1911 – Smithson Becomes a Cowboy (pc. Urban)
1912 – Buffalo Bill on the Brain (d. Theo Bouwmeester pc. Kineto)
1912 – Cowboy Mad (pc. Precision)
1912 – The Heart of a Man (d. Gilbert Southwell pc. GS Films)
1912 – An Indian’s Recompense (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1912 – An Indian Vendetta (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1912 – Cook’s Bid for Fame (pc. Hepworth)
1912 – Making a Man of Him (pc. Urban)
1912 – The Mexican’s Love Affair (d. Fred Rains pc. British Anglo-American)
1912 – An Outlaw Yet a Man (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1912 – Through Death’s Valley (d. Sidney Northcote pc. British and Colonial)
1912 – A White Man’s Ways (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1913 – Adventures of Pimple – The Indian Massacre (pc. Folly Films)
1913 – The Opal Stealers (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Britannia Films)
1913 – The Scapegrace (d. Edwin J. Collins pc. Cricks) *
1914 – Broncho Pimple (pc. Folly Films)
1914 – A Study in Scarlet (d. George Pearson pc. Samuelson)
1915 – The Adventures of Deadwood Dick [series] (d. Fred Paul/L.C. Macbean pc. Samuelson)
– How Richard Harris Became Known as Deadwood Dick
– Deadwood Dick’s Revenge
– Deadwood Dick and the Mormons
– Deadwood Dick Spoils Brigham Young
– Deadwood Dick’s Red Ally
– Deadwood Dick’s Detective Pard
1915 – Cowboy Clem (d. Bert Haldane pc. Transatlantic)
1915 – The Cowboy Village (d. J.V.L. Leigh pc. Gaumont)
1916 – How Men Love (d. J.M. Barrie, amateur)
1916 – Partners (d. Frank Wilson pc. Hepworth)
1919 – Jack, Sam and Pete (d. Leon Pollock pc. Pollock-Daring)
1920 – The Night Riders (d. Alexander Butler pc. Samuelson)
1920 – Settled in Full (d. Geoffrey H. Malins pc. P.M. Productions)
1922 – The Cowgirl Queen (d. Hugh Croise pc. Lily Long)
1922 – Little Brother of God (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Stoll)
1923 – Hutch Stirs ‘Em Up (d. Frank H. Crane pc. Ideal)
1924 – Hurricane Hutch In Many Adventures (d. Charles Hutchinson pc. Ideal)

Pen and pictures no. 3 – J.M. Barrie

There were many authors in the silent era of cinema who dabbled with the film business, usually by having their works adapted for the screen. But some went further. J.M. Barrie, now chiefly known for Peter Pan, and for his custody of the sons of the Llewellyn-Davies family, the ‘Lost Boys’ (as recently retold in the film Finding Neverland), was among the most highly regarded writers of his time, as a novelist and especially as a dramatist. Barrie was fascinated by the cinema. Many silent films were made from his plays, among them Male and Female (1919, based on The Admirable Crichton), Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1926). For Peter Pan Barrie wrote an original script, though it was not used. But Barrie did more than dabble with film scripts – he had been making his own films, which experimented with the relationship between film and theatre, fantasy and reality.

Two of these films were each connected with a combined theatre-and-film revue that Barrie had dreamt up in July 1914, only to abandon. Barrie had become fascinated by the French music hall actress, Gaby Delys, and wanted to write a revue for her that would extend his dramatic capabilities, and which would allow him to experiment with the borderline between cinema and theatre. He made notes to himself that indicate his radical way of thinking:

Combine theatre with cinematography – Cinema way of kissing. Burlesque of American titles, ‘Nope’ & ‘Yep’ – Gaby a chorus-girl, flirts with conductor in pit.

Barrie’s ideas became more ambitious. He organised a ‘Cinema Supper’ at the Savoy Hotel in London, to which he was able to invite such luminaries as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. His august guests first went to the Savoy Theatre to a series of short sketches written by Barrie and acted by such theatrical greats as Marie Lohr, Dion Boucicault, Marie Tempest, Gerald Du Maurier and Edmund Gwenn, before moving to the Savoy Hotel for supper, Barrie having hired a team of cameramen to film everyone arriving and then seated at their tables. Many apparently had no idea that they were being filmed, though the necessary lighting must sure have raised some questions among some. At one point in the evening Bernard Shaw got up and started delivering a speech haranguing three other guests present, namely G.K. Chesterton, the drama critic William Archer and the philanthropist Lord Howard de Walden, getting so heated as to start waving a sword around. The three he had insulted then all got up, bearing swords of their own, and chased him off stage. This was all a further part of Barrie’s plan, and according to Chesterton, Barrie had ‘some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality’.

The following day came the second part of Barrie’s plans. He had hired a cameraman, and with the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker as director, he made a comedy Western, starring Shaw, Archer, de Walden and Chesterton. Chesterton has left us with the best description of this extraordinary little episode:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.

Chesterton says that the film was never shown, while Barrie’s biographer Denis Mackail suggests that Barrie’s ideas were still half-formed and objections from some of the participants (notably Herbert Asquith, who sent a stern letter from 10 Downing Street forbidding his celluloid likeness from being used in a theatrical revue) caused both films to be withdrawn. However, the cowboy film was shown publicly, two years later at a war hospital charity screening at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the splendid title of How Men Love. A review of the event indicates that Chesterton’s description of the action is what was seen on the screen, with the added detail that the others hanging from the rope over a cliff were too much even for a man of his great bulk to support, and he was forced to drop them. According to Mackail, a print was still in existence in 1941, but sadly no copy is known to exist today. Happily, this photograph does exist to demonstrate that it was not all just some mad dream:

(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography

After a revue of his, Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus (1915), starring Gaby Delys, had a filmed sequence directed by Percy Nash included in one scene, Barrie turned filmmaker again in 1916. The Real Thing at Last was a professional film production by the British Actors Film Company, for which Barrie supplied the script. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and among numerous celebratory productions, there was to be a Hollywood production of Macbeth, produced by D.W. Griffith and starring the English actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The idea of Hollywood tackling Shakespeare filled many with hilarity, and Barrie wrote a thirty-minute spoof which contrasted Macbeth as it might be produced in Britain, with how it would be treated in America. The film starred Edmund Gwenn as Macbeth, and among a notable cast Leslie Henson and A.E. Matthews both have left droll accounts of its production.

The film had a director, L.C. MacBean, but according to Matthews, ‘Barrie did all the work – MacBean just looked on admiringly’. The film gained all its humour from the contrasts in the British and American interpretations of Macbeth. In the British version, Lady Macbeth wiped a small amount of blood from her hands; in the American she had to wash away gallons of the stuff. In the British, the witches danced around a small cauldron; in the American the witches became dancing beauties cavorting around a huge cauldron. In the British, Macbeth and Macduff fought in a ditch; in the American Macbeth falls to his death from a skyscraper. The intertitles were similarly affected; a telegram was delivered to Macbeth that read, ‘If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch’. Sadly, no copy (nor even a photograph, it seems) of this happy jest of Barrie’s is known to exist today.

What does exist, however, is The Yellow Week at Stanway. This film was made in 1923, and is a record of a house party held by Barrie at Stanway, the Cotswolds home of Lord and Lady Wemyss, which Barrie rented every summer. Barrie invited his many guests, which on one occasion included the entire Australian cricket team, to take part in theatricals, cricket matches and other such entertainments, and in 1923 he hired a professional cameraman, name unknown, to film a story that he initially called Nicholas’s Dream. Nicholas, or Nico, was the youngest of the five Llewellyn-Davies boys, and a little of their history is required to put the film in proper context.

The five boys were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies, friends of J.M. Barrie and the models for Mr and Mrs Darling in Peter Pan. Both died tragically early, with Barrie assuming the guardianship of the five boys. They were, of course, the inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ of Barrie’s imagination, and Michael Llewellyn-Davies in particular became the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. But the family was to be visited by further tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in action in 1915, then Michael, Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921. Two of the others, Jack and Peter, moved away from Barrie, and the youngest, Nico, still at school at Eton, stayed with Barrie during holidays but felt Michael’s death deeply and knew that he was no substitute for him.

It is with this background, knowing both Nico and Barrie’s great personal sadness, that we should look at The Yellow Week at Stanway, which records a Stanway house party in 1923 to which Nico invited several of his Eton friends, with a complementary female component made up of friends of the Wemyss family, whose daughter Cynthia Asquith was Barrie’s secretary. She has provided us with a short account of the film’s production:

He [Barrie] was in marvelous form all through the cricket week, and in his most masterful mood – presenting the Eleven with special caps at a speech – making dinner, and summoning from London a ‘camera-man’ to film a fantasy called Nicholas’s Dream, into which he’d woven a part for everyone – a bicycling one for me. He also wrote a duologue for me and sister Mary. It was great fun having her to beguile the Etonians. Pamela Lytton, as lovely as ever, came, too, with her daughter, Hermione.

The film is largely in the standard home movie style (albeit at a time when home movies were a comparative rarity), with some simple trick effects and a distinctive tone of whimsy typical of Barrie, who wrote all of the rhyming intertitles as well as directing the film. It begins with the title, ‘The Yellow Week at Stanway. A record of fair women and brainy men’. The opening shots establish Stanway house and the Wemyss family. Nico Llewellyn-Davies greets the various guests for the Cricket Week, including roughly equal numbers of young men and women.

A game of cricket follows, where the umpire appears to be Barrie. A couple of rudimentary trick shots, with people disappearing or riding bicycles backwards come next, before an extended fantasy sequence. Nico is seen to fall asleep in ‘the forest of Arden’, and in his dream he seeks ‘his Rosalind’ but sees all the other house guests pair up without him. Mary Strickland leaves him for Anthony Lytton; another couple walk away when he greets them; another couple hit croquet balls at him; two others cycle past him; even Nico’s dog abandons him. Each vignette is accompanied by Barrie’s rhyming titles documenting Nico’s series of rejections.

Nicholas, Antony and Mary –
‘Your offer’s read sir, and declined
I will not be your Rosalind.’

Edward and Pamela –
From the East to Western Ind
To Edward comes his Rosalind.

Sam and Rosemary –
Same drove him off with deeds unkind
And so did gentle Rosalind.

Pasty and Hermione –
If t’were not that love is blind
He’d keep an eye on Rosalind.

Eventually he wakes to find himself petted by all of the women, while the men walk away in disgust.

Following some further general shots, there comes the film’s most intriguing sequence. A title introduces ‘The Pirates’ Lagoon. An intruder’. Barrie and Michael Asquith (Cynthia Asquith’s young son) are seen on a small punt on a pond. The next title reads, ‘Michael the captain could stand when pressed. But drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Michael and three other children, including his younger brother Simon, are seen in a boat. ‘’Ware the Redskins’, reads the next title, and Michael points a gun and a smaller boy a bow and arrow. ‘Escaping the tomahawks by a miracle’, reads the title, ‘Red Michael reached Stanway by a perilous descent.’ Michael is shown climbing through a window. The film concludes with Nico pretending to sleep and embracing an imaginary person; final shots of Stanway and the house guests; shots of Eton school; and concluding with Simon and Michael Asquith waving handkerchiefs through windows in a garden wall.

J.M. Barrie and Michael Asquith in The Yellow Week at Stanway, from http://www.knebworthhouse.com

The film is jointed, illogical and often plain silly in the manner of many home movies. The two fantasy sequences are notable, however. The ‘Nicholas’s Dream’ betrays some unfathomable and unconscious cruelty on Barrie’s part, depicting Nico as the unloved outsider, rejected by his peers, denied the pleasures of young love. Its allusions to Shakespeare’s As You Like It prefigure Barrie’s later involvement in the 1936 film of the play (the later film’s credits read ‘treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie’), with Elisabeth Bergner as a Peter Pan-like Rosalind. The pirate sequence, though brief and not elaborate in any way, is remarkably close in conception to his photo-story The Boy Castaways which was in turn the inspiration for Peter Pan.

The Yellow Week at Stanway is preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can read the minutely detailed shotlist (penned by yours truly, long ago) on the BFI database. And there is just a fleeting extract from the film available on the Knebworth House website, showing Barrie and Michael Asquith on a punt.

Finally, just for the record, here’s a filmography of films from the silent era made from Barrie’s plays (play’s name where different in brackets), demonstrating just how popular his works were – and how ingenious producers were in renaming The Admirable Crichton:

  • US 1910 Back to Nature [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 The Little Minister
    d. James Young p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 Shipwrecked [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Kalem
  • US 1914 The Man of her Choice [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Powers
  • US 1915 The Little Gypsy [The Little Minister]
    d. Oscar C. Apfel p.c. Fox
  • GB 1915 The Little Minister
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune
  • GB 1915 Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune [for use in the play’s stage production (scene six)]
  • GB 1917 What Every Woman Knows
    d. Fred W. Durrant p.c. Barker-Neptune
  • GB 1918 The Admirable Crichton
    d. G.B. Samuelson p.c. Samuelson
  • US 1919 Male and Female [The Admirable Crichton]
    d. Cecil B. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1920 Half an Hour
    d. Harley Knoles p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1920 The Twelve Pound Look
    d. Jack Denton p.c. Ideal
  • US 1921 The Little Minister
    d. Penrhyn Stanlaws p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 Sentimental Tommy
    d. John S. Robertson p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 What Every Woman Knows
    d. William C. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1921 The Will
    d. A.V. Bramble p.c. Ideal
  • US 1922 The Little Minister
    d. David Smith p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1924 Peter Pan
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1925 Peter Pan Handled (Dinky Doodle series) [featured Peter Pan as a character] [animation]
    d. Walter Lantz p.c. Bray Productions
  • US 1926 A Kiss for Cinerella
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1927 Quality Street
    d. Sidney Franklin p.c. Cosmopolitan Productions

A Cottage on Dartmoor

A Cottage on Dartmoor

Out on 26 May is the latest silent DVD release from the BFI, Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). This intense melodrama about an escapee from Dartmoor prison was Asquith’s last silent, indeed one of the last silents to be made in Britain. A notable scene in the film is the pit orchestra for a part-silent, part-talkie movie having to sit around doing nothing while the sound passage plays. The film stars Norah Baring and Uno Henning, and has gained a modest reputation of late, thanks not least to Stephen Horne’s fine piano accompaniment at many screenings. Stephen provides the music here, while the extras include Insight (1960), a study of Anthony Asquith at work featuring on set footage and interviews, and Rush Hour (1941), a comedy film directed by Asquith about Britain’s workers coping with the transport system during the Second World War.

This is the film’s first DVD release in the UK – it’s already available on Region 1 in the USA, issued by Kino, with Stephen’s score, and the extra being Matthew Sweet’s commendable documentary Silent Britain (2006).

It wasn’t so long ago when your average film afficionado would have known nothing of British silents except Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, and would probably have been proud to admit the fact. Now, thanks very much to the work of the BFI, the annual British Silent Cinema Festival, and above all to the quality of the best of the films themselves, a good selection is available on DVD and overturning prejudices. Here’s a round up of what currently exists of British silents on DVD, so far as I know (this list will get added to as new DVDs appear):

  • Blackmail (1929, d. Alfred Hitchcock) [Arthaus] (silent and sound versions)
  • A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929, d. Anthony Asquith) [BFI] [Kino]
  • David Copperfield (1913, d. Thomas Bentley) [Grapevine]
  • The Early Hitchcock Collection (includes Champagne [1928], The Ring [1927], The Farmer’s Wife [1928], The Manxman) [1927]) [Optimum] [Delta]
  • Easy Virtue (1927, d. Alfred Hitchcock) [WHE]
  • Hindle Wakes (1927, d. Maurice Elvey) [Milestone]
  • Hitchcock – The British Years (includes The Pleasure Garden [1925], The Lodger [1926] and Downhill [1927]) [Network]
  • The Informer (1929, d. Arthur Robison) [Grapevine]
  • Lady Windermere’s Fan (1916, d. Fred Paul) (VHS) [BFI]
  • Livingstone (1925, d. M.A. Wetherell) [Grapevine]
  • The Lodger (1926, d. Alfred Hitchcock) [Whirlwind]
  • Moulin Rouge (1928, d. E.A. Dupont) [Grapevine]
  • The Open Road (1924-1926, d. Claude Friese-Greene)[BFI]
  • Piccadilly (1929, d. E.A. Dupont) [BFI] [Milestone] [Sunrise Silents]
  • The Return of the Rat (1929, d. Graham Cutts) [Grapevine]
  • The Ring (1927, d. Alfred Hitchcock) (VHS) [BFI]
  • She (1925, d. Leander de Cordova) [Sunrise Silents]
  • South (1919, d. Frank Hurley) [BFI] [Milestone]
  • A Throw of Dice (1929, d. Franz Osten) [BFI]
  • Trapped by the Mormons (1922, d. Harry B. Parkinson) [Grapevine]
  • The Vortex (1928, d. Adrian Brunel) [Sunrise Silents]
  • The Woman He Scorned (1929, d. Paul Czinner) [Grapevine]


  • Dickens before Sound (compilation of UK and USA titles) [BFI]
  • Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers (compilation of UK, USA and French titles) [BFI]
  • Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon [BFI] [Milestone]
  • Mitchell & Kenyon: Edwardian Sports [BFI]
  • Mitchell & Kenyon in Ireland [BFI]
  • R.W. Paul: The Collected Films, 1895-1908 [BFI]
  • Silent Shakespeare (compilation of UK, USA and Italian titles) [BFI] [Milestone]

Television programmes

  • The Lost World of Friese Greene [BFI]
  • The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon [BFI]
  • Silent Britain [BFI] [Kino]

OK, it’s not a vast number (I’ve been selective over the Hitchcocks – there’s a fair amount of dross out there), but look at the quality (mostly). And there’s bound to be others (do let me know what I’ve missed). And let’s ponder what’s not on DVD but ought to be: Shooting Stars, The Rat, The Informer, The Battle of the Somme, East is East, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Lure of Crooning Water, The Flag Lieutenant, The First Born

Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)

Georges Méliès

The outstanding Flicker Alley 5-disc set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) is now published, and I have my copy. Naturally, it’s a sensational package. Put together by Eric Lange (Lobster Films) and David Shepard (Blackhawk Films) from the archival holdings from seventeen collections across eight countries, the elegantly-presented DVDs comprises 173 titles (including one unidentified fragment) – almost (though not quite) every extant Georges Méliès film, plus the Georges Franju 1953 film, Le Grand Méliès. The DVDs are region 0, NTSC format.

The set comes with a well-illustrated booklet, which has essays by Norman McLaren (something of a surprise – it’s a transcript of an audio recording he made for a conference he couldn’t attend) and a long piece by John Frazer on Méliès’ life and work, adapted by Shepard from a text first written by Frazer in 1979. The full list of titles is now available on the Flicker Alley site, but here’s The Bioscope’s version, with the titles in the chronological order in which they appear on the DVDs, with Star-Film catalogue number, original French title and English title.

1 – Partie de cartes, une/Playing Cards
26 – Nuit terrible, une/Terrible Night, a
70 – Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin/Vanishing Lady, the
82 – Cauchemar, le/Nightmare, A

96 – Château hanté, le/Haunted Castle, The
106 – Prise de Tournavos, la/Surrender of Tournavos, The
112 – Entre Calais et Douvres/Between Calais and Dover
122-123 – Auberge ensorcelée, l’/Bewitched Inn, the
128 – Après le bal (le tub)/After the Ball

147 – Visite sous-marine du Maine/Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine”
151 – Panorama pris d’un train en marche/Panorama from Top of a Moving Train
153 – Magicien, le/Magician, The
155 – Illusions fantasmagoriques/Famous Box Trick, The
159 – Guillaume Tell et le clown/Adventures of William Tell, The
160-162 – Lune à un mètre, la/Astronomer’s Dream, The
167 – Homme de têtes, un/Four Troublesome Heads, The
169 – Tentation de Saint Antoine/Temptation of St Anthony, the

Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes

Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes

183 – Impressionniste fin de siècle, l’/Conjurer, The
185-187 – Diable au couvent, le/Devil in a Convent, The
188 – Danse du feu/Pillar of Fire, The
196 – Portrait mystérieux, le/Mysterious Portrait, The
206 – Affaire Dreyfus, la dictée du bordereau/Dreyfus Court Martial – Arrest of Dreyfus
207 – Ile du diable, l’/Dreyfus: Devil’s Island – Within the Palisade
208 – Mise aux fers de Dreyfus/Dreyfus Put in Irons
209 – Suicide du Colonel Henry/Dreyfus: Suicide of Colonel Henry
210 – Débarquement à Quiberon/Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon
211 – Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa femme à Rennes/Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes
212 – Attentat contre Me Labori/Dreyfus: The Attempt Against the Life of Maître Labori
213 – Bagarre entre journalistes/Dreyfus: The Fight of Reporters
214-215 – Conseil de guerre en séance à Rennes, le/Dreyfus: The Court Martial at Rennes
219-224 – Cendrillon/Cinderella
226-227 – Chevalier mystère, le/Mysterious Knight, The
234 – Tom Whisky ou l’illusionniste truqué/Addition and Subtraction



243 – Vengeance du gâte-sauce, la/Cook’s Revenge, The
244 – Infortunes d’un explorateur, les/Misfortunes of an Explorer, The
262-263 – Homme-orchestre, l’/One-Man Band, The
264-275 – Jeanne d’Arc/Joan of Arc
281-282 – Rêve du Radjah ou la forêt enchantée, le/Rajah’s Dream, The
285-286 – Sorcier, le prince et le bon génie, le/Wizard, the Prince and the Good Fairy, The 289-291 – Livre magique/Magic Book, The
293 – Spiristisme abracadabrant/Up-to-date Spiritualism
294 – Illusioniste double et la tête vivante, l’/Triple Conjurer and the Living Head, The
298-305 – Rêve de Noël/Christmas Dream, The
309-310 – Nouvelles luttes extravagantes/Fat and Lean Wrestling Match
311 – Repas fantastique, le/Fantastical Meal, A
312-313 – Déshabillage impossible, le/Going to Bed under Difficulties
314 – Tonneau des Danaïdes, le/Eight Girls in a Barrel
317 – Savant et le chimpanzé, le/Doctor and the Monkey, The
322 – Réveil d’un homme pressé, le/How He Missed His Train

L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc

L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc

325-326 – Maison tranquille, la/What is Home Without the Boarder?
332-333 – Chrysalide et le papillon, la/Brahmin and the Butterfly, The
335-336 – Dislocation mystérieuse/Extraordinary Illusions
345-347 – Antre des esprits, le/Magician’s Cavern, The
350-351 – Chez la sorcière/Bachelor’s Paradise, The
357-358 – Excelsior!/Excelsior! – Prince of Magicians
361-370 – Barbe-Bleue/Blue Beard
371-372 – Chapeau à surprises, le/Hat With Many Surprises, The
382-383 – Homme à la tête en caoutchouc, l’/Man With the Rubber Head, The
384-385 – Diable géant ou le miracle de la madone, le/Devil and the Statue, The
386 – Nain et géant/Dwarf and the Giant, The

Voyage dans la lune

Voyage dans la lune

391 – Douche du colonel/Colonel’s Shower Bath, The
394-396 – La danseuse microscopique, la/Dancing Midget, The
399-411 – Voyage dans la lune/Trip to the Moon, A
412 – Clownesse fantôme, la/Shadow-Girl, The
413-414 – Trésors de Satan, les/Treasures of Satan, The
415-416 – Homme-mouche, l’/Human Fly, The
419 – Équilibre impossible, l’/Impossible Balancing Feat, An
426-429 – Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants, le/Gulliver’s Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants
No number – Sacre d’Edouard VII, le/Coronation of Edward VII, The
445-448 – Guirlande merveilleuse, la/Marvellous Wreath, The

451-452 – Malheur n’arrive jamais seul, un/Misfortune Never Comes Alone
453-457 – Cake-walk infernal, le/Infernal Cake-Walk, The
458-459 – Boîte à malice, la/Mysterious Box, The
462-464 – Puits fantastique, le/Enchanted Well, The
465-469 – Auberge du bon repos, l’/Inn Where No Man Rests, The
470-471 – Statue animée, la/Drawing Lesson, The
473-475 – Sorcier, le/Witch’s Revenge, The
476 – Oracle de Delphes, l’/Oracle of Delphi, The
447-478 – Portrait spirite, le/Spiritualistic Photographer
479-480 – Mélomane, le/Melomaniac, The
481-482 – Monstre, le/Monster, The
483-498 – Royaume des fées, le/Kingdom of the Fairies, The
499-500 – Chaudron infernal, le/Infernal Cauldron, The
501-502 – Revenant, le/Apparitions
503-505 – Tonnerre de Jupiter, le/Jupiter’s Thunderbolts
506-507 – Parapluie fantastique, le/Ten Ladies in an Umbrella
508-509 – Tom Tight et Dum Dum/Jack Jaggs and Dum Dum
510-511 – Bob Kick, l’enfant terrible/Bob Kick the Mischievous Kid
512-513 – Illusions funambulesques/Extraordinary Illusions
514-516 – Enchanteur Alcofribas, l’/Alcofribas, the Master Magician
517-519 – Jack et Jim/Comical Conjuring
520-524 – Lanterne magique, la/Magic Lantern, The
525-526 – Rêve du maître de ballet, le/Ballet Master’s Dream, The
527-533 – Faust aux enfers/Damnation of Faust, The
534-535 – Bourreau turc, le/Terrible Turkish Executioner, The
538-539 – Au clair de la lune ou Pierrot malheureux/Moonlight Serenade, A
540-541 – Prêté pour un rendu, un/Tit for Tat

Voyage à travers l’impossible

Voyage à travers l’impossible

547-549 – Coffre enchanté, le/Bewitched Trunk, The
552-553 – Roi du maquillage, le/Untamable Whiskers
554-555 – Rêve de l’horloger, le/Clockmaker’s Revenge, The
556-557 – Transmutations imperceptibles, les/Imperceptible Transmutations, The
558-559 – Miracle sous l’Inquisition, un/Miracle Under the Inquisition, A
562-574 – Damnation du Docteur Faust/Faust and Marguerite
578-580 – Thaumaturge chinois, le/Tchin-Chao, the Chinese Conjurer
581-584 – Merveilleux éventail vivant, le/Wonderful Living Fan, The
585-588 – Sorcellerie culinaire/Cook in Trouble, The
589-590 – Planche du diable, la/Devilish Prank, The
593-595 – Sirène, la/Mermaid, The
641-659 – Voyage à travers l’impossible/Impossible Voyage, The
665-667 – Cascade de feu, la/Firefall, The
678-679 – Cartes vivantes, les/Living Playing Cards, The

683-685 – Diable noir, le/Black Imp, The
686-689 – Phénix ou le coffret de cristal, le/Magic Dice, The
690-692 – Menuet lilliputien, le/Lilliputian Minuet, The
705-726 – Palais des mille et une nuits, le/Palace of the Arabian Nights, The
727-731 – Compositeur toqué, le/Crazy Composer, A
738-739 – Chaise à porteurs enchantée, la/Enchanted Sedan Chair, The
740-749 – Raid Paris – Monte-Carlo en deux heures, le/Adventurous Automobile Trip, An
756-775 – Légende de Rip Van Vinckle, la/Rip’s Dream
784-785 – Tripot clandestin, le/Scheming Gamblers’ Paradise, The
789-790 – Chute de cinq étages, une/Mix-up in the Gallery, A
791-806 – Jack le ramoneur/Chimney Sweep, The
807-809 – Maestro Do-Mi-Sol-Do, le/Luny Musician, The

818-820 – Cardeuse de matelas, la/Tramp and the Mattress Makers, The
821-823 – Affiches en goguette, les/Hilarious Posters, The
824-837 – Incendiaires, les/Desperate Crime, A
838-839 – “Anarchie chez Guignol, l'”/Punch and Judy
843-845 – Hôtel des voyageurs de commerce ou les suites d’une bonne cuite, l’/Roadside Inn, A
846-848 – Bulles de savon animées, les/Soap Bubbles
849-870 – Quatre cents farces du diable, les/Merry Frolics of Satan, The
874-876 – Alchimiste Parafaragaramus ou la cornue infernale, l’/Mysterious Retort, The
877-887 – Fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal, la/Witch, The

L’Tunnel sous la Manche ou le cauchemar anglo-français

L’Tunnel sous la Manche ou le cauchemar anglo-français

909-911 – Douche d’eau bouillante, la/Rogues’ Tricks
925-928 – Fromages automobiles, les/Skipping Cheeses, The
936-950 – Tunnel sous la Manche ou le cauchemar anglo-français, le/Tunnelling the English Channel
961-968 – Eclipse de soleil en pleine lune/Eclipse, or the Courtship of the Sun and Moon, The
1000-1004 – Pauvre John ou les aventures d’un buveur de whisky/Sightseeing through Whisky
1005-1009 – Colle universelle, la/Good Glue Sticks
1014-1017 – Ali Barbouyou et Ali Bouf à l’huile/Delirium in a Studio
1030-1034 – Tambourin fantastique, le/Knight of Black Art, The
1035-1039 – Cuisine de l’ogre, la/In the Bogie Man’s Cave
1044-1049 – Il y a un dieu pour les ivrognes/Good Luck of a Souse, The
1066-1068 – Torches humaines/Justinian’s Human Toches 548 A.D.

1069-1072 – Génie du feu, le/Genii of the Fire, The
1073-1080 – Why that actor was late
1081-1085 – Rêve d’un fumeur d’opium, le/Dream of an Opium Fiend, The
1091-1095 – Photographie électrique à distance, la/Long Distance Wireless Photography
1096-1101 – Prophétesse de Thèbes, la/Prophetess of Thebes, The
1102-1103 – Salon de coiffure/In the Barber Shop
1132-1145 – Nouveau seigneur du village, le/New Lord of the Village, The
1146-1158 – Avare, l’/Miser, The
1159-1165 – Conseil du Pipelet ou un tour à la foire, le/Side Show Wrestlers
1176-1185 – Lully ou le violon brisé/Broken Violin, The
1227-1232 – The Woes of Roller Skates
1246-1249 – Amour et mélasse/His First Job
1250-1252 – Mésaventures d’un photographe, les/The Mischances of a Photographer
1253-1257 – Fakir de Singapour, le/Indian Sorcerer, An
1266-1268 – Tricky painter’s fate, a
1288-1293 – French interpreter policeman/French Cops Learning English
1301-1309 – Anaïc ou le balafré/Not Guilty
1310-1313 – Pour l’étoile S.V.P./Buncoed Stage Johnnie
1314-1325 – Conte de la grand-mère et rêve de l’enfant/Grandmother’s Story, A
1416-1428 – Hallucinations pharmaceutiques ou le truc du potard/Pharmaceutical Hallucinations
1429-1441 – Bonne bergère et la mauvaise princesse, la/Good Shepherdess and the Evil Princess
No number – unidentified film

1495-1501 – Locataire diabolique, le/Diabolic Tenant, The
1508-1512 – Illusions fantaisistes, les/Whimsical Illusions

1536-1547 – Hallucinations du Baron de Münchausen, les /Baron Munchausen’s Dream

Pathé – A la conquète du pôle/Conquest of the Pole, The
Pathé – Cendrillon ou la pantoufle merveilleuse/Cinderella
Pathé – Chevalier des neiges, le/Knight of the Snow, The

Pathé – Voyage de la famille Bourrichon, le/Voyage of the Bourichon Family, The

Almost needless to say, the quality of the digital transfers is excellent, sometimes startlingly so. There are fifteen examples of beautiful hand-colouring. Many musicians have provided scores, making the DVD a fascinating demonstration in itself of different approaches to the task of accompanying Georges Méliès (even if, for myself I find the American taste for organ accompaniment baffling). They are Eric Beheim, Brian Benison, Frederick Hodges, Robert Israel, Neal Kurz, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alexander Rannie, Joseph Rinaudo, Rodney Sauer and Donald Sosin. Some of the films come with Georges Méliès’ original English narrations, designed to be spoken alongside the films, and here are spoken by Serge Bromberg and Fabrice Zagury (with some rather quaint mangling of the English language in places).

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 did appeared, in a profound sense captured the imagination. And there is that consistency of vision that confirms Méliès as a true artist with a body of work that belongs in a gallery – or in this case a boxed set of DVDs – for everyone to appreciate.

What a great publication this is. Every good home should have one.

Update (January 2010):
For information on a sixth, supplementary disc with an additional 26 titles, see https://bioscopic.wordpress.com/2010/01/08/melies-encore.

Women silent filmmakers in Britain

I’ve just uploaded a revised version of my filmography, Women Silent Filmmakers in Britain, onto my personal site. The story behind this was first reported in the Women behind the camera post. Essentially it’s a filmography of women directors, producers, editors, scriptwriters and camera operators active in Britain in the silent. It’s still very much a work in progress, and any comments or corrections are most welcome.

Electric Salome

Electric Salome

Princeton University Press

Electric Salome is the title of a recent book by Rhonda K. Garelick, which is her term to describe Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), one of the key performance artists of the late-19th/early 20th centuries. Fuller was a pioneer of modern dance, who made use of modern stage technologies of lighting and colour to create startling visual effects, particularly through her Serpentine Dance, where her swirling dresses combined with changing colour lighting to create haunting, phantasmagorical effects. She was beloved by artists and poets – Mallarmé, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin – and became the subject of early filmmakers.

Loïe Fuller

Loïe Fuller, a 1902 portrait by Frederick Glasier, from http://www.shorpy.com

Garelick’s book is strong on Fuller’s position as a figure of modernism and as a key figure in modern dance. It is, however, disappointingly weak on her early film appearances, reducing mention of these to a misleading footnote. There is much confusion over Fuller’s early film work, as she had many imitators – on stage and on film – and early films of skirt dancers are often mistakenly identified as her (see, for example, the site www.edisonfilm.com, which erroneously claims to show Fuller in a Edison film, though she never made a film for Edison).

For the record, these are the known films that were made of (or by) ‘La Loïe’:

Danse Serpentine (Lumière cat. no. 765, 1896) [extant]
La Loïe Fuller (Pathé, 1901) [extant]
Loïe Fuller (Pathé, 1905, coloured) [extant]
Le Lys de la vie (The Lily of Life) (1920) [extant]
Vision des rêves (1924)
Les Incertitudes de Coppelius (1927)

Le Lys de la vie

Le Lys de la vie (1921), from Bibliothèque nationale de France

Garelick has a little more to say about the later titles (only Le Lys de la vie survives among them). They were made by Fuller and her lover Gabrielle Bloch. The feature-length Le Lys de la vie sounds to be an extraordinary work – based on a story by Queen Marie of Romania, a combination of fairy tale and dance themes telling the story of two princesses competing for the love of a prince, played by René Clair, no less. Fuller herself directed but did not appear in the film, which seems to have been characterised by innovative cinematographic effects (such as incorporating negatives for some ghostly effects) mixed with conventional fairy tale elements.

Garelick tells us less about the other two, lost films. Apparently they were not completed, and were presumably semi-professional productions. It is likely that Fuller did not appear in them either (certainly not as a dancer – she was in her mid-60s, and died in 1928).

Loïe (not Loie as Garelick’s book has it throughout) Fuller was an iconic figure who continues to attract much scholarly interest. There’s a useful set of links about her on the Great Dance Weblog. As indicated above, films exists of her many imitators. She refused to be filmed by Edison, but the Edison studios did make films of other dancers in the 1890s, such as Ruth St Denis, Amy Muller and especially Annabelle, whose several Kinetoscope skirt dance films were clearly in imitation of Fuller and were often mistakenly (deliberately or otherwise) promoted as being films of Fuller herself.

Loie Fuller is a gorgeous-looking site which accompanies the book Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller, by modern Fuller imitator/acolyte Ann Cooper Albright.

Garelick’s book is a fine, insightful study with a strong theoretical basis, but as ever the facts about films are not just scanty but are not recognised as having any importance. The confusion that Fuller’s supposed film appearances created at the time persists, and she exists in those skirt films that survive more often as a guiding spirit than the woman herself.

More from the Marchioness

I’ve found more information on Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend, who wrote some scenarios for the Clarendon Film Company, and an interview with whom was given in an earlier post.

The new source of information is her autobiography, It Was – and It Wasn’t, written in 1937. This tells us a little more about the agreement she made in 1912 with Clarendon to produce scenarios for them, and gives us more film titles than I had listed.

She seems to had always had an interest in films, which included considering investing in cinema buildings, and she had written articles on aspects of film before she made a deal with Clarendon:

I had been keenly interested in the Cinema Theatre and its possibilities at Maidenhead, and in 1912 I entered into an arrangement with the Clarendon Film Company of Charing Cross Road, to produce a series of picture plays; the first play, A Strong Man’s Love, being well received by the public and the Press. The House of Mystery followed. These were the first cinematograph dramas to give the author’s name, and I was the first peeress to write for the Cinema.

Were these the first films to credit the scenarist (as opposed to a playwright)? I don’t know. It might be Anita Loos, whose first film for D.W. Griffith was The New York Hat (1912), or Harriet Quimby, wrote wrote five scenarios for Griffith in 1911, but was either credited on screen? But I think Gwladys is on solid ground when she says she was the first peeress who wrote for the screen. Fascinatingly, she names two others who wrote scenarios after her – the Countess of Warwick and the Countess of Roden. I know nothing of either.

Next she gives interesting information on how much she was paid:

The late Sir George Alexander and I believed in the artistic future of the Cinema. At that time I considered its moral and ethical possibilities limitless, and it is interesting to compare the views of the Gaumont Company in 1913 as to the prices paid for scenarios, with the money of 1935. In 1913 a representative of the Gaumont Company told an interviewer that, “on the whole, the scale of payment is not high, and the picture dramatist does not expect – at any rate, he does not receive – anything like the renumeration of his brother, the real dramatist. The royalty system exists, but it is not general, the plot usually being bought outright. The average price is that of a short magazine story, but many ideas are disposed of for half a guinea apiece.” At that time I was paid £300 for writing six film plays, but, fortunately for authors, prices have increased considerably since then.

After an aside on the importance of the cinema as a force for education, she describes how she used a model theatre in her garden – together with cardboard cut-out nuns for her film The Convent Gate – to work out how scenes should appear. Then, after comments on the need for appropriate music for silent films, she concludes thus:

After my first film play was produced by the Clarendon Film company, the same company produced another – When East meets West. This completed a series of seven film dramas commissioned by the same company during a period of two years – A Strong Man’s Love, At the Convent Gate, The House of Mystery, Wreck and Ruin, The Love of an Actress and The Family Solicitor. All these sound most melodramatic now, but had their little success in those days.

I hadn’t come across some of these titles, but all were produced, so here’s a complete filmography for her, with slightly mocking descriptions taken from Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue:

Released January 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Elizabeth
Crime. Vicar’s daughter elopes with actor who kills manager and is acquitted by barrister who loves her.

Released April 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Fake ghost, gas chamber, and raid on den of 50 coiners by 100 policemen.

Released September 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Marie St Clair
Drama. Jilted bride recovers sanity after being saved from fire.

Released August 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Actress
Evan Thomas … Peer
Drama. Film actress feigns drunkenness to repel peer but saves him from suicide after he takes to drink.

WRECK AND RUIN (2,755ft)
Released August 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew
Drama. Foreman saves mill owner from flood caused by striking workmen.

Released September 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Lawyer forges earl’s will so that his indebted son may inherit.

Released February 1915
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Indian fakir hypnotises officer’s daughter and explodes gas bulbs from afar with electric rays.

None of these films is known to survive today.

Women behind the camera

From an advertisement for the Kinora home movie camera

I have been adding texts of my talks, essays, filmographies and other work on to my personal website, www.lukemckernan.com, where I am free to do so. Do take a look at the Publications, Talks, Shows and Research sections for assorted interests of mine in the worlds of early and silent cinema, which I hope may be of use to others.

The latest text to go up is Women Silent Filmmakers in Britain. This is a filmography of films directed, shot, produced, scripted or edited by women in Britain in the silent era – a full filmography in each case, not just the handful of films that survive. It’s something that I first put together some time in the late 1990s, and it’s still very much a work in progress, so any comments, corrections or additions (especially new names) will be most welcome. Among the names listed are scriptwriters Muriel Alleyne, Lydia Hayward, Alma Reville and Blanche McIntosh; directors Ethyle Batley, Frances E. Grant, Dinah Shurey, and Jakidawdra Melford; camera operators Jessica Borthwick and Mrs Aubrey Le Blond; scientific filmmaker Mrs D.H. Scott, editor Adeline Culley, executive Ada Aline Urban, and many more.

It’s an area ripe for more research. British silent cinema itself is still an undervalued and neglected field, and the significant role of women in film production at that time is scarcely known. A pioneering piece of writing is Katherine Newey’s essay ‘Women and Early British Film’ in Linda Fitzsimmons and Sarah Street (eds.), Moving Performance (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000). However, there is much new activity in the field, including an ongoing ‘Women in Silent Britain’ project which was discussed at the recent British Silent Cinema Festival. More news on this work as and when we get it. I’ll also be posting pieces on individual women filmmakers (and not just British) in the future.

(By the way, the image at the top of this post comes from a 1911 booklet, The Golden Book of Motion Photography, advertising the use of home movie cameras. It comes from Barry Anthony’s The Kinora: Motion Pictures for the Home 1896-1914).