Who’s Who on the Screen


Top row (L-R) June Mathis, Albert Capellani, Ruth Stonehouse; bottom row (L-R) Sessue Hayakawa, Teddy Sampson, Buster Keaton, from Who’s Who on the Screen (1920)

As some may know, while in the small hours I run The Bioscope, in the daylight hours I take occasional care over Screen Research, a social network/information source on moving image research. The latter is mostly devoted to current activity in the online video world, but the photograph section concentrates on older material, simply on acount of rights issues.

So this is just to let Bioscopists know that there is a growing collection of silent film images to be found there. In particular, I have just finished working my way through the Internet Archive copy of Charles Donald Fox and Milton L. Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920). This is a 400-page biographical guide to Hollywood in 1920, with a photograph and mini-biograph per person per page. I have published each individual on their individual page in four ‘albums’, with actors in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and directors, executives etc. in Part 4. I find the parade of images haunting (the quality of the photography is outstanding, even if the image resolution is low – the photographers are credited in an acknowledgments page on Part 4) and the biographies intriguing for the emphasis placed on how healthy every one was. All the actors stress the sports they follow and their love of the outdoors. The executives feel less need to do so.

There is more silent material to be found under the Photos section. Film historian Deac Rossell has added some gems from his personal collection, including lobby cards, programmes, contemporary collectors’ scrapbooks, and some rare examples of movie star pennants from 1915. Do take a browse.

Pathé treasures



Here’s a real treasure trove. The Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé is an organisation deciated to collecting documents and artefacts (everything, in effect, except the films) relating to Pathé. Their collection, based in Paris, comprises photographs, posters, business documents, cinematograph machinery, books, periodicals, scripts, brochures, designs… seemingly everything connected with the business empire created by Charles Pathé.

Examples of these can be found on their stylish, Flash-driven website, which has background information on each type of collection, and a useful historical timeline from the 1890s to the present day. There is also information on a Pathé filmography which they are producing, building on the herculean work undertaken by Henri Bousquet (who has produced several volumes documenting the output of Pathé in the silent era) and others. The site is, please note, all in French.


Sample search results from the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé database

The Fondation has now produced a database of its holdings (accessible from this link or via the Collections section of the site – click on Base de données). The database provides preliminary information on over 25,000 artefacts, designed to assist any researcher prior to their visiting the Fondation in person. It’s easy to use (again, all in French), and a sample search under Ferdinand Zecca (Charles Pathé’s right-hand man in the early days) yields 219 results. Many of the search results come with an associated image, creating a marvellously rich gallery of Pathé history (just look at all the extraordinary posters for the first Pathé productions if you search under Zecca).

Jérôme Seydoux is head of the Pathé and his brother Nicolas Seydoux head of the Gaumont group. Gaumont and Pathé cinemas are now merged (as EuroPalaces), as are the Gaumont-Pathé Archives. You can find the whole complex history the Ketupa site (a useful resource in itself for media ownership history).

My thanks to Mariann Sträuli for alerting to me to this site.

Update (June 2009): The filmography is now available (1896-1913).

Picasso & Braque go to the Movies

Martin Scorsese in Picasso & Braque go to the Movies, from http://tiff08.ca

You may remember that last year there was an exhibition at the PaceWildenstein gallery in New York on Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism. It took the interesting if contentious line that Picasso and Braque were enthusiasts for early cinema (for which there is scant actual evidence), and that their experience of early film helped inform their cubist art.

A year on, and a film has appeared, Picasso & Braque Go to the Movies, made by art dealer Arne Glimcher, who was behind the exhibition, and featuring, among other, Martin Scorsese. The sixty-minute documentary features at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, whose sites provides this blurb on the film:

Anyone with the remotest interest in the relationship between film and the visual arts will want to pay careful attention to this Mavericks presentation. It features heavy hitters from both cultural worlds, brought together by a most intriguing interlocutor. Arne Glimcher is among the great tastemakers of the art world. The artists he represents through his PaceWildenstein Gallery in New York City – including the recently departed Robert Rauschenberg – would alone embody a rich and coherent history of twentieth-century art. Glimcher is also a filmmaker, acting as a producer (The Good Mother) and director (The Mambo Kings) on several significant films.

A decade or so ago, Glimcher asked himself a question: if photography could have had such an impact on Manet and the Impressionists, shouldn’t cinema have had a similar impact on subsequent generations? His thinking turned to the advent of cubism, and especially the groundbreaking paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Soon a major gallery show and book emerged. “Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism” explicitly contrasted film clips from early cinema (especially those of Georges Méliès) with cubist paintings.

Glimcher has now turned that show into an hour-long documentary, featuring today’s leading artists, intellectuals and curators. The result is both great fun and intellectually adventurous. Martin Scorsese, as great a film historian as he is a filmmaker, signed on as a producer, and contributes a personal and fascinating narration. The ever-articulate Chuck Close provides enormous insight as a (celebrated) painter fascinated by how motion and artificiality is captured and transposed onto canvas. And in a tour-de-force series of intellectual connections, master painter and Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel reflects on time, stillness, colour, experiential desire and the necessity of colourless boxes.

There a clip from the film on Cinematical, which has Scorsese speculating on how you photograph a dream, accompanied by clips from the Edison Frankenstein on 1910. And this 2007 New YorkTimes article discusses the original exhibition and its ideas. Apparently there’s talk of it being nominated for an Oscar (or Academy Award®, if you will).

Feature attractions

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Kino DVD (left) and Republic Pictures Home Video laserdisc, from Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page

Now here’s an epic undertaking, which some (most) may dismiss as mad, while the dedicated few may admire for its imagination and method. When I used to work as a cataloguer adding records to the BFI’s database, I used to ponder how useful – or at least interesting – it would be to have a frame grab of the title of a film appearing on the front page of a film’s record. It would help pinpoint the correct way of describing the film (except for such notorious example as Manhattan, which has no opening title, or Olivier’s Henry V, whose opening title is something quite different – go check), the source of possibly the most ruthlessly accurate of all film reference books, Markku Salmi’s National Film Archive Catalogue of Stills, Posters and Designs (1982). Even now (I will confess it), whenever I see a film title, something in me thinks, how useful if someone were to collect those. Ridiculous, yes, but surely useful, somehow.

And dang me if someone isn’t doing just that. Welcome to Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page. Hill has taken on the task of publishing screen grabs of every film title frame that he can, mostly from VHS and DVD copies, giving title, year, director, image source, aspect ratio and Amazon link. Several films are represented more than once for different release versions. It’s arranged alphabetically, with no search option unfortunately, so there’s no immediate way of finding which silent titles are included, but silents there are. On quick inspection I found The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Cat and the Canary, The Manxman, The Adventure of Prince Achmed, The Gold Rush, The Golem, The Last Laugh, The Ten Commandments, Waxworks, London After Midnight (no kidding, it’s there) and many more.

Steven Hill has apparently been working on this for eleven years, and receives contributions from others dedicated to the cause. The Movie Title Screens page is but one section of his personal site, which has several other film sections, of which Fay Wray Pages has the most relevance to silents.

Anyway, a magnificent undertaking in its own way. And I’m sort of glad that he decided to take on the task, and not me.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 4

The Sport of the Gods
The US Postal Service has issued a series of stamps celebrating African-American performers in early (i.e. pre-1950) films. The titles chosen are each represented by posters and include the 1921 all-black cast The Sport of the Gods, directed by Henry J. Vernot and starring Elizabeth Boyer and Edward R. Abrams. Read more.

Shakespeare goes Hollywood
Director Scott Palmer and the theatrical company Bag & Baggage Productions are putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is set in the world of silent-era Hollywood. Chaplin, Lloyd, Valentino, Theda Bara and Louise Brooks are all referenced, while Puck echoes Murnau’s Nosferatu. The production is being put on for Oregon State University’s Bard in the Quad at Corvallis. Read more.

Telegu silent once more
Telugu comedy actor Brahmanandam, who is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for having appeared in the most number of films in a single language, is to star in a silent film, which is reckoned will be the first Indian silent commercial feature film since the classic Pushpak. The film, Brahmanandam Drama Company, is a Telegu remake of the 2006 Hindi film Bhagam Bhag. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Cartoon capers

‘The Cinema as an Educative Force. Tommy (a regular attender at cinematograph shows, during the performance of a society drama). “Is that the trusting husband or the amorous lover?”‘ Charles Pears cartoon in Punch, 7 August 1912, from I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph

One of the most interesting ways to examine contemporary perceptions of the silent cinema is through cartoons – newspaper cartoons, that is, rather than animated cartoons. Cartoons in the popular newspapers, comics and magazines of the day provide a marvellous measure of how the new phenomenon of cinema was commonly understood, since cartoons had to tap into a general feeling about the subject. Everyone had to be in on the joke for it to work. And more than simply recording popular sensibility, cartoons of the era pick up on changes in such aspects as technology and film-going habits, providing a valuable documentary record as well as a social history one.

‘Accidental Silhouettes no. 1: The Man of Color’, a cartoon of Charles Urban by Theodore Brown, from The Bioscope 22 February 1912

The film trade papers of the day are another source of cartoons and caricatures, not always so polished or so funny, but often picking up on minutiae of film business concerns which are of value to the specialists, or simply providing the only portraits we have of some of the film personalities (i.e. those behind the camera) that we have. Theodore Brown, editor of the British journal The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, unusually was also an occasional cartoonist (and a filmmaker, and an inventor), and provided the above cartoon of film producer Charles Urban, shown silhouetted via a Kinemacolor filter, which regulars will recognise provides my avatar in the comments to posts on this blog.

Cartoons on silent cinema are scattered all over the place, and tracking them down can be a laborious business – more often than not the research stumbles across them by chance, or else works their way through the well-thumbed pages of Punch, which never fails to come up with the goods of some sort. There is, however, one book – and a very good book – on the subject, Stephen Bottomore’s I Want to See This Annie Mattygraph: A Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies (1995). It must be said that the mixture of ungainly title and bi-lingual text (English/Italian) has not helped the book’s acceptance outside the hardy band of early film buffs. (The phrase that gives the book its title comes from a cartoon where a man asks at a box office if he can see what he assumes is an actress but of course the Animatograph projector – how they laughed in 1897). But within lies a rich selection of contemporary cartoons from across Europe and America, arranged around such themes as ‘Going to the Pictures’, ‘Opposition and Rgulation’ and ‘Film Genres’, providing a history of the cinema to 1915 through the pictures that made people at the time laugh about it. It is scholarly, observant and great to look at. I particularly value it for the cartoons of cinema-going, where you find evidence of exhibition practice and audience habits that really aren’t recorded elsewhere. Its opening essay also provides a valuable history of the cartoon over and above its relationship to film history.

But what can you find online? Not a lot, unfortunately, but one worthwhile source to direct you to is the British Cartoon Archive. This is based at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and is effectively the national collection of cartoons. Navigation on the site is a little unclear, but persevere and you’ll eventually find its database, which provides access to 120,000 cartoons, each illustrated with thumbnail image (click on the image for a larger view) and accompanied by exemplary cataloguing information, including an exhaustive array of thesaurus terms, the names of all real people featured in the cartoon, and transcriptions of the text.

Sample database search result with cartoons by W.K. Haselden, Sidney ‘George’ Strube and David Low

The Archive is rightly particular about protecting copyright images, so no reproductions here bar the web page picture grab above. But type in terms like ‘film’, ‘cinema’ etc and you’ll find such telling cartoons as W.K. Haselden’s ‘The all-conquering cinema’s advance’ (1924), where cinema screens crop up everywhere you look (even at Stonehenge), or David Low’s ‘Continuous show now on’ (1926) which comments on the beleaguered state of the mediocre British film industry, unable to compete against the block-booking Americans, while the overpowering attractions of an American vamp obscure those of the ‘pure but dull British film heroine’.

There are only so many cartoons there on the silent era, but more than enough to pick up on the social perceptions of the time. Look out too for David Low’s ‘Topical Budget’, a cartoon news commentary series which took its name from a popular newsreel of the silent era. There’s a lot more to explore on the British Cartoon Archive site, in particular a collection of biographies of the cartoonists.

There are other, far smaller sites out there marketing mostly Punch cartoons, but nothing that I can see that provides the opportunity to look at early cinema subjects. The various newspapers that have been digitised tend to be of the broadsheet variety, which did not stoop to such things at this time. The British Library provides a useful overview of comics from the era, such as Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and Comic Cuts, as well as titles like Film Fun, which began in 1920 and was entirely given over to comic strips featuring popular film stars. Other sites and databases offer just an image or two, provide descriptive lists of what they have but no images, or else a subscription is required. Or they don’t cover early cinema, of course. For a good listing of sites worldwide, go to the Intute: Art and Humanities site (an excellent UK academic service describing online scholarly resources) and type in ‘cartoons’.

Finally, it’s worth noting that a number of cartoonists of the era went on to become filmmakers. Among the best-known are Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay (‘Little Nemo’) and Harry Furniss. Cartoonists were filmed by the early filmmakers, often doing ‘lightning sketches’ (speedy drawings over a preparatory sketch), such as Tom Merry, J. Stuart Blackton and several British artists who contributed political sketches to proto-cartoon films during the First World War. The Library of Congress’ American Memory site includes Origins of American Animation, which demonstrates the interrelationship between paper and screen cartoons 1900-1921.

If anyone knows of other online sources for newspaper and comic journal cartoons which cover our period, do say.

The Haunted Gallery

The Haunted Gallery


What fabulous book cover this is. I’d buy the book purely on the strength of the picture – in fact I just have. The image is a 1901 poster for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, taken from the copyright collection of The National Archives. Biograph’s 70mm films were a special feature of the Palace Theatre in London (still active today, currently showing Spamalot), and Biograph programmes generally featured news items – hence the full slogan on the screen (which is obscured on the book cover), ‘The Biograph Reproduces the Latest Events from All Parts of the World’.

But the book within is no less of a treasure. The subject of The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c.1900 is how the moving picture changed visual culture at the end of nineteenth century. Lynda Nead is an art and cultural historian, whose first foray into film history this is. Although the subtitle implies equal coverage of painting and photography, the motion picture takes centre stage, but is set into new and exciting contexts by demonstrating its effects alongside the whole range of contemporary visual media, including painting, photography, stage magic, the magic lantern, posters and even astronomy.

The result is a giddyingly rich brew of evidence and analysis, all expounding a shift in visual culture from stasis to motion, which in turn altered modes of perception and ushered in our modern world. The book’s title comes from a characteristic Nead use of the visual as metaphor: an illustration of the Haunted Gallery at Hampton Gallery, which she describes thus:

A space for pictures and for ghosts, the gallery is also for endless pacing watched by portraits of generations of the dead. It is a place of presences but not life, of likenesses which seem real but which are merely representations or figments of the imagination. The picture gallery is also a place of alternating light and darkness; it is a narrow apartment illuminated by shifts of light cast by unseen objects obliterating the light … How apt that the shadows cast on the ceiling by the windows and tapestried walls look like a strip of film, with intermittent, spaced-out picture frames, separated by short intervals of blank darkness. Set this sequence in motion and the enchantment begins; the pictures come to life and the ghosts haunt the gallery.

Nead finds in the haunted gallery a powerful metaphor for the ‘uncanny magic’ of early film. Typically she finds multiple analogues for this concept, from Edison and Biograph advertising films of ancestors climbing down from portraits on the wall to drink Dewar’s Whisky, to similar Scottish ancestors doing much the same in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Ruddigore, to Georges Méliès’ films The Living Playing Cards and The Mysterious Portrait, to tableaux vivant, to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (the statue that came to life). It all interconnects.

It certainly helps if you can see the pictures, and the book is richly illustrated throughout, sometimes enthralling so. Themes covered include the wheel and movement, representation of the everyday and the detective camera, the vision of mobility generated by the new-fangled motor car, the strip (the film strip, the cartoon strip and the striptease), and the astronomical imagination. This latter section looks at visions of the heavens (by way of serpentine dances, G.F. Watts, electricity and the Paris 1900 Exhibition), including some startling examples of astronomical photography spilling over into the imaginative world, represented in particular by Camille Flammarion, the French astronomer, author and astronomical filmmaker, whose 1872 novel Lumen describes all-seeing beings who view the passing of a time as a ray of light, in a constant relay of images. Metaphors, metaphors everywhere.

The best image comes last – a map of the procession through London taken to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee on 22 June 1897 (filmed by many cameramen), marked with bright yellow explosion symbols to mark where Martian explosions occur as recorded in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in the same year. However, it’s not all image and metaphor, and there’s a good deal of practical understanding of the production of images (still and moving) underpinning the theoretical stuff. The moving images make sense on a practical level as well as an imaginative one.

As with Jonathan Auerbach’s Body Shots, covered in a recent post, here is someone from outside the usual early film studies coterie, looking on the subject with fresh eyes and leading it into a broader cultural world, demonstrating bold analogies and connections, inviting in those from other disciplines to see how film was integral to a change in consciousness in the late-Victorian/early-Edwardian era. Both publications have enriched our field. I feel that the Bioscope may have to expand, to become just that little bit more metaphorical, if it is properly to represent its subject in its contexts. We’ll see.

Screen heritage survey

Magic lantern slide from National Media Museum

Magic lantern slide from the National Media Museum, http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk

A online survey was launched today, to uncover collections in the UK with moving image and screen-related artefacts. It is organised by a body called the Screen Heritage Network (of which the organisation I work for, the British Universities Film & Video Council, is a member). The survey is open to any UK collection with artefacts relating to the moving image and screen-related media which may be accessible to the public or researchers. There are ten categories of artefact being sought:

1. Film production equipment
2. Television and video equipment
3. Animation and special effects
4. Sound
5. Sets and costumes
6. Cinema and projection
7. Magic lanterns, slide projectors and viewers
8. Toys and games
9. Installations
10. Documentation

The information gathered will be used to create the first-ever online database of moving image and screen-related objects in UK collections.

Behind this activity lies a definition of ‘screen heritage’ which goes beyond moving picture to encompass the machinery that produces and exhibits them, the culture that supports them, and a notion of ‘screen’ that extends beyond cinema and television back to magic lanterns and forward to video games, consoles and the handheld technologies of today.

So the survey, in looking at artefacts, is concentrating on just a part of this vision of what ‘screen heritage’ comprises. It’s all most appropriate to the study of silent cinema, and where silent cinema fits in within the broader scheme of things. Do take a look at the project site, and if you know of a museum or other heritage organisation within the UK that ought to be taking part, and which we may have missed, let us know.

Image and Sound

Friese-Greene film

Strange things going on at the Tate. This Friday, 7 September, Tate Britain is hosting Image and Sound, which it describes as

Iconic British silent films shown with live music dominate the enormous central gallery, and Steve Beresford, Scanner and David Toop perform together for one night only.

The event is organised by Artprojx (“a co-marketing, event production and creative strategic consulting agency”), and mixes artists’ films with experimental music/sounds and British silents – in this case, Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), with Stephen Horne at the piano, and Claude Friese-Greene’s The Open Road series of colour films 1924-25, with the much-travelled Neil Brand on the piano.

Goodness knows how the ‘iconic’ silents will blend in with the experimental sounds, artists’ films (including Haris Epaminonda’s Light, Tarahi II, Tarahi IIII, Tarahi V, Michael Nyman’s Moscow 11.19.31, and what sounds like a special treat, Emily Wardill’s Basking in what feels like ‘an ocean of grace’, I soon realise that I’m not looking at it, but rather that I AM it, recognising myself). With a bar available in the gallery and folk wandering to and fro, it should make for an interesting happening, but possibly not the ideal circumstances in which to savour the silents (though they are at least in their own room, The North Duveens).

Still, why not go along and support Neil and Stephen, and see if I’m wrong. The Tate’s growing commitment to exhibiting silent film is commendable, and if they can continue to place the films before new audiences, even if the settings may sometimes be challenging, this can only be to the good. Doors open at 6.00pm with tickets on a first-come-first-served basis, and the event runs til 10.00pm. The central Image and Sound event runs 7.00-9.00, The Open Road is at 6.30 and A Cottage on Dartmoor at 7.45.

There’s rather more information on the Artprojx site than on the Tate’s.

Now Playing

Now Playing

Now Playing is the title of a book and an exhibition on the hand-painted movie poster. The book is by Anthony Slide, Jane Burman Powell and Lori Goldman Berthelsen, and its full title is Now Playing: Hand-Painted Poster Art from the 1910s through the 1950s. The beautifully illustrated book cover the history of posters which were commissioned by individual cinema theatres and theatre chains, and celebrates the work of artists most of us have never heard of, such as Batiste Madalena, Ike Checketts, O.M. Wise and R.J. Rogers. There’s a really interesting interview with Slide, one of the most prolific and knowledgeable of silent film historians, on the Alternative Film Guide. Some amazing research has clearly gone into recovering a lost history of promotion and extraordinary artistic vision.

Now Playing at the Dunn

The book is complemented by an exhibition of original hand-painted movie posters at the Linwood Dunn Theater, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood. The exhibition is entitled Now Playing at the Dunn, and it looks gorgeous.