Lillian Gish knows just what it’s like in north Kent, from Way Down East
The snows of winter are piling up in fantastic drifts about the portals of Bioscope Towers. Icy blasts find their way through every crack and cranny. Outside, civilization grinds to a glacial halt, and the end of the year now beckons. In the relative warmth of the Bioscope scriptorium, I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to look back on what happened in the world of silent film over 2010. So here’s a recap of highlights from the past twelve months, as reported on the Bioscope (and in a few other places) – silent memories to warm us all.
There were three really big stories in 2010. For many of us, the most welcome news story of this or any other year was the honorary Oscar that went to Kevin Brownlow for a lifetime dedicated to the cause of silent films. The restored Metropolis had its premiere in a wintry Berlin in February. It has now been screened acround the world and issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. And there was the sensational discovery by Paul E. Gierucki of A Thief Catcher, a previously unknown appearance by Chaplin in a 1914 Keystone film, which was premiered at Slapsticon in June.
Among the year’s restorations, particularly notable were Bolivia’s only surviving silent drama, Wara Wara, in September, while in October the UK’s major silent restoration was The Great White Silence, documenting the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition.
We said goodbye to a number of silent film enthusiasts and performers. Particularly mourned in Britain was Dave Berry, the great historian of Welsh cinema and a friend to many. Those who also left us included Dorothy Janis (who starred in The Pagan opposite Ramon Novarro); film restorer and silent film technology expert Karl Malkames; the uncategorisable F. Gwynplaine Macintyre; and film archivist Sam Kula. One whose passing the Bioscope neglected to note was child star Baby Marie Osborne, who made her film debut aged three, saw her starring career end at the age of eight, then had a further ninety-one years to look back on it all.
Arctic conditions in Rochester uncannily replicated in Georges Méliès’ A la Conquête du Pôle (1912)
The online silent video hit of the year was quite unexpected: Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) went viral after the release of the Tim Burton film of Lewis Carroll’s story. It has had nearly a million views since February and generated a fascinating discussion on this site. Notable online video publications included UCLA’s Silent Animation site; three Mexican feature films: Tepeyac (1917), El tren fantasma (1927) and El puño de hierro (1927); and the eye-opening Colonial Films, with dramas made in Africa, contentious documentaries and precious news footage.
The art of the silent film carried on into today with the feature film Louis (about Louis Armstrong’s childhood), and the silent documentary feature How I Filmed the War. Of the various online modern silent shorts featured over the year, the Bioscope’s favourite was Aardman Animation’s microscopic stop-frame animation film Dot.
Charlie Chaplin contemplates the sad collapse of Southeastern railways, after just a few flakes of snow, from The Gold Rush
It’s been quite a year, but what I haven’t covered here is books, largely because the Bioscope has been a bit neglectful when it comes to noting new publications. So that can be the subject of another post, timed for when you’ll be looking for just the right thing on which to spend those Christmas book tokens. Just as soon as we can clear the snow from our front doors.
On 24 March 1982 fire broke out in Mexico’s national film archive, the Cineteca Nacional. Smoke was reported as coming out of all four vaults (one of which held nitrate film) and the fire brigade was called. People were told to evacuate the building, but a screening was going on the the archive’s main theatre. The director went to stop the screening:
I was asking the audience to leave at once because there was an emergency: I asked them to do it calmly. The doors were opened and everybody seemed to cooperate … There was a group of youngsters left behind; they were claiming their money back. Then there came the eruption, and a big flame coming out of the screen reached us. I saw the ceiling fall down. I threw myself to the floor …
There were three explosions, and the fire was to rage for fourteen hours. Five people died, maybe more. The effect on Mexican film heritage was devasting: the exact figures are unclear, but perhaps as much as 99% of the archive film collection was lost, some 5,000 films (other sources say 6,500), of which around half were feature films and short subjects. The archive’s library and public records on film production were also lost. Although the fire was apparently caused by overheating of electrical wiring but what made it so devastating was the nitrate cellulose – highly flammable, indeed explosive, and able to continue burning without oxygen, so making it resistant to all the usual means of containing fires.
This sobering tale – the greatest disaster ever to visit a national film archive in terms of percentage of films lost (a greater number of films overall was probably lost in the Cinémathèque Française fire of 1980) – is worth recalling when we consider films from Mexico’s silent era. Feature films got underway in Mexico in 1917 (after the revolution) when a drop in foreign films owing to the First World War encouraged local producers to fill the gap. But after a flurry of activity production was constrained during the 1920s, as Hollywood competition returned. Producers struggled to get films made and shown, and the greatest and most prolific period of Mexican cinema would not come until the 1940s-50s.
Therefore there were few Mexican silent feature films made, and so few survive today. Those that do exist, however, are championed not simply because their fortunate survival, but because of their quality and distinctive style. Some have made it to festivals and retrospectives and it is very pleasing to be able to report that another Mexican archive, the Filmoteca CINE UNAM, has just made three Mexican silent feature films freely available on its website, streamed in high quality.
Tepeyac was made in 1917 by José Manuel Ramos, Carlos E. González, and Fernando Sáyago. Its subject is the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego (a Mexican Indian) in 1531. The opening sequences take in the present, where the heroine (played by Pilar Cotta with a touch of the Italian diva about her), distraught at her lover having been drowned at sea, reads a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe whereupon the film takes us back to the sixteenth century and the conflict between the Spaniards and the native peoples. The technique is faltering, but the film’s ambition and distinctive style are noteworthy. It uses national history, myth, location and religion to carve out an idea of a cinema that was distrinctively Mexican. Rudimentary though it may be, its very difference is what appeals. The film is presented in six parts, 47 mins in total, with modern Spanish titles replacing lost originals. It is also shown silent, as with the other two films on the Filmoteca UNAM site.
The other two films were made by Mexico’s leading filmmaker of the silent era, Gabriel García Moreno. The first is El tren fantasma (The Ghost Train) (1927), a marvellous thriller about a bandit gang sabotaging a railway line. It is filled with chases, fights (including bullights) and hair’s breadth escapes – and the actors performed all their own stunts. Fast-moving, technically adventurous and ably performed, El tren fantasma is the sort of silent film to which you point people to demonstrate just how much silent films can be. The 70 minute film is presented silent, with Spanish and English intertitles.
And then there is El puño de hierro (The Iron Fist) (1927), the most remarkable of the three. Again directed by Gabriel García Moreno, this was a quite different work to the populist adventures of El tren fantasma. It is an extraordinary tale, sadly with striking modern-day resonance, of drug addiction and criminal gangs in Mexico. It portrays in often delirious fashion a dark underside of Mexican life not previously shown on the screen, and is strongly reminiscent of Louis Feuillade’s serials of crime and mystery, Fantomas and Les Vampires, with its Bat gang of hooded criminals and its surrealist imaginings of fantastical happenings in realistic settings. It was all a bit too much for Mexican film audiences, who rejected the film out of hand, bringing about the end of Moreno’s career as a director, alas. But two masterpieces in one year is quite a cinematic legacy, and El puño de hierro is undoubtedly a film to see. It runs for 77 minutes in five parts and is shown silent, with Spanish and English subtitles.
Grateful thanks must go to the Filmoteca CINE UNAM for making the films available to all, and congratulations are to it on its 50th birthday. It had its own fire in 1977, but though some original nitrate films were lost, almost all had been copied onto modern stock, so actual losses were few). Its sister archive, the Cineteca Nacional, was rebuilt in 1984, and flourishes once more under far better management, it is good to report.
Those who bemoan lost silent films, particularly in a national context, might like to consider the situation in Bolivia. Just the one silent fiction film survives of those (admittedly few) made in Bolivia, and that was only discovered in 1989. In that year sixty-three cans of nitrate film were found in a trunk in the basement of a house in La Paz. The films were the work of José Maria Velasco Maidana, all made between 1925 and 1930. Among the reels was Wara Wara, Bolivia’s sole surviving silent feature film.
Wara Wara was released in 1930, and in the form that survives it runs for 69 minutes (at 24 fps). It was directed by Maidana for Urania Film, and starred Juanita Taillansier, Martha de Velasco, Arturo Borda and Emmo Reyes. The film is based on the novel La voz de la quena by Antonio Diaz Villamil, and is set during invasion of the Inca kingdom by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Here’s the plot summary (adapted courtesy of the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso site and Google Translate):
The peaceful kingdom of Hatun Colla is invaded by an army of Spanish conquistadors who destroy villages and kill its leader Calicuma and his wife Nitaya. In the chaos, the high priest Huillac Huma saves the princess Wara Wara and take her through secret passages into a cave in the mountains. In this hideway he masses an army of natives with the hope of eventually defeating the Spaniards. One day, Captain Tristan de la Vega, the head of a small force of Spaniards, arrives in the vicinity of the hideway. In the ensuing battle Captain Tristan ends up protecting Wara Wara and is wounded. She leads him into the hideaway and tends to his wounds. They fall in love and dream of a life together. But Huillac Huma and the other tribespeople would rather see Wara Wara dead than have her become an ally of the invaders. The couple are left to starve, but they are saved and are ready to begin a new life.
The restoration of the film has taken twenty years. It was originally copied onto acetate film stock in Germany, but reconstructing the film as released was a painstaking process involving considerable investigation of primary sources. A digital restoration was undertaken by the L’immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy in 2009. The restored film was shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in July and at the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso in August. It was given its official re-release in Bolivia on 23 September.
Trailer highlighting the restoration work done on Wara Wara
The film’s director José Maria Velasco Maidana (1899?-1989) was a notable composer and conductor as well as filmmaker. He is known in music circles for his ballets and symphonic works, a number of which embrace national/native themes. He was married to the American artist Dorothy Hood. He took up film in 1925 at the very start of Bolivian fiction film production. Films had been shown in Bolivia since 1897, but exhibition was dominated by North American product, and aside from some short actualities in the teens national film production did not begin until 1923, with the first fiction feature, Pedro Sambarino’s Corazón Aymara made in 1925. It was followed later that year by Maidana’s La profecía del lago, which was promptly banned by the local censor because it featured the love between a native man and a white woman. He formed his own production company, Urania, and made Wara Wara (1930) and Hacia la Gloria (1931), as well as various documentary shorts, before returning to music.
To judge from the clips available on the two trailers have have been issued, Wara Wara looks to be fascinating in detail and competent in construction, even if its epic ambitions were probably constrained by cost. There are some strong visual compositions, including a shadow puppet sequence. More than that I cannot say with only a trailer to go on, but certainly what is there whets the appetite for more – let’s hope for a local DVD release, given its great importance to Bolivian cinema.
Last year we noted for the first time the remarkable festival of silent film in Brazil, the Jornada Brasiliera de Cinema Silencioso or Brazilian Journey of Silent Cinema. The festival returns again 6-15 August and has a strong enough programme to make you think seriously about chaning your holiday plans. The festival is organised by the Cinemateca Brasiliera, São Paulo and is curated by Carlos Roberto de Souza. As the festival press release puts it:
This annual event is dedicated to world cinema produced between the late nineteenth century until about 1930, when the arrival of sound changed the course of the cinematic art. Now in its 4th edition, the Journey has become an important part of the Brazilian cultural calendar, and allows an increasingly larger and more diversified audience to gain access to films from the silent cinema era.
All of the Festival’s scheduled features are to be accompanied by live musical performances in the Cinemateca-BNDES Theater, with ‘silent projections’ (I guess that means silent only) in the Cinemateca-Petrobras Theater.
As in previous festivals, a special feature is made of the production of a national cinema of the silent period and the work of a particular country’s film archive. This year the focus is Swedish silent cinema, and the selected works are restorations from the Swedish Film Archive (Svenska Filminstitutet / Kinemateket). Altogether, there are thirty-five titles, curated into six programmes.
The Nordic countries developed a film industry whose films spread all over the world, until the outbreak of World War I. Although after the war European production had ceded its economic importance to Hollywood movies, Sweden had one of the most brilliant cinemas in film history, with directors like Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller producing great works of artistic expression, not to mention exceptional actors like Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo. The Jornada presents a selection of works that will show a wider panorama of Swedish silent cinema and the film restoration work which has been developed in that country for decades. The opening event will present the film The Blizzard / Gunnar Hedes Saga (Mauritz Stiller, 1923), with live musical performance from Dino Vicente. Alongside the great works of Sjöström and Stiller, to be shown in recent restorations, the festival will present the first film record made in Sweden (Konungens af Siam landstigning vid Logårdstrappan / Arrival of the King of Siam in Logårdstrappan, 1897), and the celebrated Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922), in a print considered by the archive’s curator as the most beautiful of the entire collection.
The Jornada’s inaugural lecture will be given by Jon Wengström, curator of the Swedish Film Institute’s Archival Film Collections; its main themes will be Swedish silent cinema and the conservation work carried out in Sweden. He will speak about the criteria that guided his selection of Swedish Film Treasures, which include two films starring Greta Garbo – Die freudlose Gasse / The Joyless Street (G.W. Pabst, Germany, 1925) and Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, USA, 1926), as well as the single existing fragment of the actress’s collaboration with Sjöström, The Divine Woman (USA, 1928), the scandalous Afgrunden / The Woman Always Pays (Urban Gad, Denmark, 1910), and the extraordinary The Wind (USA, 1928), directed by Sjöström and starring Lillian Gish, which will be presented in the version with musical soundtrack that was released at the time.
Other highlights are the films The Dawn of a Tomorrow (James Kirkwood, USA, 1915), starring Mary Pickford, and the audacious Tretya Meshchanskaya / 3 Meshchanskaya Street, or Bed and Sofa (Abram Room, USSR, 1927).
The Jornada has a section which features highlights from Pordenone’s Giornate del Cinema Muto. This year Paolo Cherchi Usai has selected some American productions, the oldest one being the surprising Regeneration (1915), directed by Raoul Walsh; When the Clouds Roll By (1919), directed by Victor Fleming and starring Douglas Fairbanks and Stage Struck (Allan Dwan, 1925), with Gloria Swanson.
Another regular feature is silent films from Brazil. This year the festival will show some documentary feature films restored by the Cinemateca Brasileira in recent years, such as Companhia Paulista de Estrada de Ferro and Companhia Mogyana, portraying industrial labour and the building of the main railways in different cities of the São Paulo region. In the feature drama O Segredo do corcunda (Alberto Traversa, 1924) the train has an important dramatic function, to connect the State’s capital, from the magnificent Estação da Luz, to a small town, with its modest little train station. Turibio Santos, legendary guitarist and the director for many years of the Villa-Lobos Museum, will perform with this film as a special guest of the festival.
The programme “Window to Latin America” will show Wara Wara, made in Bolivia in 1929 by José María Velasco Maidana, which depicts an episode of the Inca civilization during the Spanish invasion. One of the few surviving Bolivian silent films, it was restored at the laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, and has been presented at the festival Il Cinema Ritrovato, organized annually by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna.
To honor the 80th anniversary of Cinédia, the main Brazilian film company in the 1930s, founded by Adhemar Gonzaga, the festival will present Lábios sem beijos, directed by Humberto Mauro, the only silent film the company produced (its subsequent movies were early sound films with musical accompaniment and synchronized dialogue, followed by 100% talkies).
The musicians who will be part of the 4th Jornada Brasiliera de Cinema Silencioso are Zérró dos Santos, Daniel Szafran, Wilson Sukorski, Max de Castro, Ruggero Ruschioni, Ana Fridman, Ricky Villas, Zé Luis Rinaldi, Simone Sou, André Abujamra, Marcio Nigro, Dino Vicente, Laércio de Freitas, Eric Nowinski, Marcelo Poletto, Ricardo Reis, Gustavo Barbosa, Daniel Murray, DUO N1, Basavizi, Dante Pignatari, Ricardo Carioba, Matheus Leston, Turibio Santos, Wandi Doratiotto, Danilo and Livio Tragtenberg.
More details are available (in Portuguese), including titles and full descriptions of all films, on the festival site.
It’s the World Cup, and I’ve been rediscovering silent football. The high decibel sound of the vuvuzelas that the South African crowds blow so enthusiastically and monotonically (B flat, to be precise) make the matches sound as though they are taking place inside a particularly angry wasps’ nest. To keep my sanity I experimented with watching games with the sound turned off and the subtitles on. It’s a curious experience, witnessing sport in silence, without commentary or crowd sounds. The game loses its drive – in fact it ceases to be a game and simply becomes a window on one of those strange ritualistic things that humans do to occupy themselves, a Martian’s view of sport.
All of which idle thoughts are introduction to a post on the time when football films were made silent, and what accompanied them was live music, intertitles, and any comments from the audience in the cinema. So here’s a short-ish history of association football and silent film.
Football game filmed by in London by Alexandre Promio around September 1897. One of the teams may be Woolwich Arsenal. No. 699 in the Lumière catalogue.
Filming football is almost as old as filming itself. So far as is known, the first film to be made of the game was a now lost one-minute production by Robert Paul, taken in Newcastle in October 1896. A contemporary description simply says “A football match at Newcastle-on-Tyne”, and we don’t even know who was playing who. The earliest surviving football film was taken by Lumière camera operator Alexandre Promio in London in late 1897. Simply entitled Football, it shows two teams (one of whom could possibly be Woolwich Arsenal, forerunner of Arsenal) bunched around a goal on a practice pitch. The players may all be crowded around the ball because Promio wanted to get as many people in shot as possible, so one should be wary of the film as depicting genuine action. We do see this in the next surviving film, Arthur Cheetham‘s record of a Blackburn Rovers-West Bromwich Albion game. 50ft (under a minute) of an original 250ft survives, with action from both halves taken from a single camera position behind one of the goals, so one only sees tiny figures engaged in some mysterious far-off struggle.
The earliest football films show us little that we can savour as sporting entertainment. Marginally longer films started to be made from 1899, the year that the F.A. Cup Final was filmed for the first time, by the Warwick Trading Company. The film is now lost, but the catalogue description indicates a move from the emblematic, single-shot efforts of Paul and Lumière to a documentary account presenting highlights from the game, which was played at Crystal Palace:
The Sheffield United and officials entering the field; Mid-field play; Sheffield obtains a corner, showing goal play, scrimmage and goal kick; Derby County’s only goal, showing other goal, enthusiasm of the vast audience, goal keeper busy; Players leaving the field.
This was the archetype for football films for the next decade. It was probably shot by a single pitch-side cameraman, who had four key elements to capture: the teams coming onto the field; scenes of lively action; the enthusiasm of the crowd; and goals. It was well nigh impossible for a single cameraman to achieve the latter (Sheffield won 4-1, so he missed four), not only because he was based at ground level (longer shots from the stands would not have worked owing to the limitations of lenses and filmstock) and because there was only one of him, but because there was a limit to how much film he could hold. Cameras held 75 to 500 feet at this time, and even with changes of reel there was only so much they could shoot because they would be under strict instructions not to waste too much film. When a film was going to be only 100 to 200 feet long on release (the 1899 FA Cup Final film was 350 feet) then shooting thousands of feet of film in a vain attempt to capture everything was a pointless waste of expensive celluloid. Early football films are the way they are because of technical limitations and common-sense economics.
Newcastle United v Liverpool, filmed by Mitchell & Kenyon, 23 November 1901 at St James’ Park, from the BFI YouTube channel
Mitchell & Kenyon
Roughly between 1900-1910 football films were the preserve of specialist operators from the north of England. The major London companies such as Gaumont, Urban and Warwick regularly made films of the cup final, but an extensive business grew up for companies which filmed local games for local consumption. There was Jasper Redfern, based in Yorkshire, who filmed both football matches and cricket games, but the major player by far was Norden Films, best known as Mitchell & Kenyon.
Mitchell & Kenyon films were shown in town halls, music halls and fairground shows. They were often commissioned by touring showmen taking a projector from town to town, who attracted audiences by showing films of local events, including sports. Such a business was very localised, inevitably, but the dedication to football meant that many teams were documented who would never have been covered by London-based film companies. The Mitchell & Kenyon collection at the BFI National Archive includes fifty-five football films made between 1901-1907, including such encounters as Salford v Batley (1901), Sheffield United v Bury (1902), Everton v Liverpool (1902) and Bradford City v Gainsborough Trinity (1903) (all links are to BFI YouTube videos). The films generally last three minutes or so, and feature the teams coming on, crowd shots (it was important to show as many faces as possible so people would come to the film show with the hope of seeing themselves – the films were often shown the same evening) and action mostly filmed from a mid-pitch position by a single cameraman.
Fascinating as these films are from a socio-historical point of view (crowd behaviour, grounds, dress, displays of advertising, male-dominated space etc.) it is very difficult to get a sense of the game. The limitations of the filming, with a paucity of shots giving little sense of continuous action, leaves one peering from the distance of both time and space, finding it hard to judge what is going on. The players have no shirt numbers, and it is difficult to sense the shape of the game. I’ve been reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, and I had an idea of investigating these films for evidence of team formations, but it can’t be done. At this period the offside law stated that three defenders had to be between the leading attacker and the goal, and all teams more or less played in a 2-3-5 formation – that is, two in defence, and five in attack. Perhaps you can see this in the Mitchell & Kenyon films, but the shots are too few, and the action too indistinct, for anyone to derive any certain evidence. Camera shots from the stands which encompassed the complete action on the pitch would not be attempted until the 1920s. What one can sometimes see is the frantic pace and occasional roughness of play, the appalling state of the pitches, and incidental features which point to the influence of the cameras – notably players coming out onto the pitch single file, so that they could be picked out individually by fans watching the screen. (For more on the M&K football films, see Dave Russell’s essay in Vanessa Toulmin etc, The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon)
The newsreel era
The arrival of newsreels, around 1910, changed how football films were made and shown. The shift from peripatetic exhibition in halls and fairgrounds to cinemas led to a regularity of output which led to greater exposure for football films but also to concentration on films likely to attract the largest audiences. So league and minor cup games ceased to be filmed, and what became popular were major matches such as the later rounds of the F.A. Cup, the Cup Final itself, and some internationals. A number of films survive of Cup Finals from 1910-1914 at the BFI National Archive, including these (with links to the BFI catalogue):
Newsreels were not restricted to Britain, of course, and as the game increasingly spread around the world, so newsreels started to pick up on games in the various countries where the sport had taken root. Information on these is scarce and scattered, with a handful of surviving examples held in archives around the world.
Games between nations were infrequently filmed, presumably for logistical reasons. There were, in any case, few international matches at this time, and most of those were between the British home nations. The earliest such film appears to have been the England v Scotland match of 4 April 1904, filmed in Sheffield by Hepworth and Paul (Scotland won 2-1). The film doesn’t survive, but there are plenty of international games from the 1920s held in the BFI National Archive, British Pathe and ITN Source newsreel collections. Most of these are home internationals, but here are links to a few international games (as it were) which can be viewed online:
Football outside of its borders did not really register with British audiences – certainly as far as the newsreels were concerned. If you wanted to see how the game was advancing internationally, you were better off looking to the Olympic Games.
Before the World Cup was instituted in 1930, the major international football contest was the Olympic Games. Football became a popular feature of Olympic films from 1912 onwards, and some of the surviving Olympic films from the silent period give us some of the best records of football from this period. As described in an earlier post, Pathé’s record of the 1912 Games in Stockholm devotes much attention to football, with Sweden v Holland and the all-conquering Great Britain team beating Denmark 4-2 in the final. In 1924, the Rapid-Film full-length documentary Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 devotes an entire reel to the final between Uruguay and Switzerland, in which the South Americans demonstrate a dazzling level of technical skill readily apparent in the film record, even if the camera postioning limits our understanding of the game (a team of four or five was used, arranged at various points pitchside with just a couple of shots taken from the stands). The documentary film of the 1928 Games in Amsterdam does not include football (at least not in the version available on DVD), but Italian site Archivio Storico (produced by Istitutio Luce) includes severals newsreels from 1928, including Italy v France, Spain v Mexico, Portugal v Jugoslavia, and the Uruguay-Argentina final, won in a replay by Uruguay 2-1 after the first game ended 1-1 (to access these, tick the box marked ‘archivio cinematografico’ and enter the search term ‘calcio’).
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jimmy Dimmock scores the only goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge in the 1921 F.A. Cup Final, filmed by the Topical Budget newsreel as Cup Final 1921 Greatest Event in Football History
Football in the 1920s
In the 1920s changes began to be made to how football was filmed, though the constraints of filmstock remained. Newsreel cameramen worked to tight rules over the amount of film they were allowed to expend on any subject. Generally they worked to a 2:1 ratio i.e. the cost-conscious editor allowed them to shoot say 100 feet in making what what would be released in the newsreel as a 50-foot item. For sports events, with their high degree of unpredictablity, the ratio might rise to 4 or 5:1, but it still meant that the operator had to concentrate on likely areas of activity (particularly the goalmouth), and obtaining film of goals was often a question of luck.
Things improved for the F.A. Cup Final, where the newsreel started to employ large camera teams, and the sharing of the load meant that camera operators could concentrate on the period when the ball was nearest to them. The Topical Budget newsreel employed nine cameramen to film the 1921 final, producing a 500-foot film (approx. six minutes), but more than the number of cameras there was the variety of angle and the understanding that a narrative needed to be created. As well as cameramen being arranged behind each goal and on either side of the pitch, there were cameras in the stands giving overviews – effectively master shots – which when intercut with the closer shots of action gave a far more visually and narratively satisfying account. The Bioscope noted this innovation in its report on Topical’s film of the 1922 final when it commented that the “essential features of the whole match” had been “very cleverly put together to form a continuous ‘story'”.
However, as I point out in my book on Topical Budget, sacrifices were made to achieve narrative. The 1921 final – Tottenham Hotspur beat Wolverhamption Wanderers 1-0 – was characterised by heavy rain in the first half, sunshine in the second. Close analysis of the film reveals that several sequences from the second half have been included in what is ostensbily the first. It is untruthful as far as a documentary record is concerned, but it tells a better story.
Despite the improvements in filming, one still cannot gain much of an idea about the use of tactics. The offside law was changed in 1925 to requiring just two defenders to be between the furthest attacker and the goal, which led to greater freedom for forwards but then a consequent change in formations as centre-halves dropped back into defence, eventually leading to the famous W-M shape introduced by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman. It may be possible for some sharp-eyed analyst to work their way through the football films contained on the British Pathe site (there are around 250 available) and detect patterns, but to the average eye incoherence reigns. All one can say is that the game looks marginally less violent than it was in the 1900s, that the pitches were still terrible, and that goalmouth scrambles were commonplace.
Cup Finals were hugely important to the newsreels, but they also covered league games and the various rounds of the F.A. Cup, with games from around the country covered in different editions of the same issue according to local following. Such shorts reports were usually taken by a single cameraman, and were therefore necessarily rudimentary in form.
Pathé’s film of the 1922 Cup Final obscured by flags waved by the rights-holders Topical Budget, from www.britishpathe.com.
The rights to film the F.A. Cup final (and other major sporting events) were hotly contested by the newsreels. Topical Budget paid £1,000 for the exclusive rights to film the famous 1923 Cup Final, the first held at Wembley Stadium. However exclusive rights were no guarantee of exclusive coverage, as newsreel rivals sought to snatch illicit footage by smuggling cameras into the ground, such as the mini-sized, clockwork-driven Debrie Sept, which could be hidden in coat pockets. The practice was known as ‘pirating’. Pathé cameraman Jack Cotter famously disguised himself as a West Ham fan to get into the 1923 final, with his camera hidden within a fan’s giant ‘hammer’. The ruse was then gleefully revealed by Pathé in its film of the game, though the aerial shots it took of the stadium were delierately spoiled by Topical which took the trouble to have its name written in large letters across the roof of Wembley Stadium.
News photographer Bernard Grant writes about the knockabout japes of the newsreels at the 1922 Cup Final, held at Stamford Bridge between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End (Huddersfield won 1-0), in his book To the Four Corners (1933):
I saw the battle from the top floor of a high building overlooking the ground, from where I had hoped to obtain some photographs with a long-focus camera, but as I was sharing the position with the well-known film man, Frank Bassill, on this occasion a ‘pirate’ [for Pathé], I was handicapped by the efforts of the defenders [Topical Budget].
They used heliographs to deflect the sun’s rays into our lenses and let up a huge sausage balloon in front of our window, where they did their best to anchor it. This was only partly successful, however, for the clumsy thing swung about in the wind and left us clear at times. Also one of Bassill’s assistants managed to hide behind some chimney pots and work above it.
At the sound of the referee’s whistle starting the match there came a terrific noise of hammering and crashing at a point away to our left, and we saw the corrugated-iron roof of a building alongside the ground fly off in all directions.
A moment later there appeared, rising through the aperture, two heads which I recognised through my glasses as those of Tommy Scales and Leslie Wyand, pioneers in the production of movie news reels.
Steadily they rose higher and higher, turning their handles as they came, as the telescopic tower ladder upon which they stood was wound up by friends in the room below.
This happening brought into action the defenders’ large mobile ‘stand by’ force, members of which, armed with double-poled banners and flags, dashed off to meet the attack…
And so it went on. There was much money at stake, hence the battles. The money wasn’t made by the Final films themselves, which were loss leaders, but by the longer-term bookings that could be gained on the back of them for the newsreel that looked stronger than the competition. Ironically, in view of the battle Grant reports, Topical’s official account of the 1922 Final is a lost film, but Pathé’s pirated film can be viewed at www.britishpathe.com, though the poverty of the footage, with most of the action in long shot or filmed through the heads of the crowd, shows all the disadvantages of having to be the pirates. In 1924 the newsreels acted together for once and protested jointly to the Football Association at the cost of the rights to film the final and submitted a joint bid of £400. It was turned down. Consequently no film exists of the F.A. Cup Final of 1924.
There were a number of fiction films about football in the silent era. A wonderful early effort (650 feet) is the Hepworth Manufacturing Company’s bracing Harry the Footballer (1911), in which our hero (Hay Plumb) is kidnapped just before the big game only to be rescued by his girl-friend (Gladys Sylvani) just in time to score the goal that winds the game. Maurice Elvey’s The Cup Final Mystery (1914), a lost film, had much the same plot, now spread over 2,600 feet. Also lost, and with the same plot, same length, and in the same year is A Footballer’s Honour, made by Lewin Fitzhamon for Britannia Films. There were also several comic films made in France, Italy and Germany in which someone’s obsession with football leads to chaotic results. Pathé’s Football en Famille (1910), in which a family destroys its house through its enthusiasm for the game, is a particularly manic example.
By the 1920s, a handful soccer-themed feature films were made. Britain produced The Winning Goal (1920, now lost) and The Ball of Fortune (1926), the latter starring the legendary Billy Meredith of Manchester City and Wales (a trailer survives); Germany produced Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) (1927) and König der Mittelstürmer (King of the Centre Forwards) (1927), both now available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum.
Other kinds of football films
Not all silent era football films were records of matches. There were training films, promotional films, even silent ‘interview’ films which showed star players relaxing. There was women’s football (very popular in the early 1920s and meriting a separate post one day), street football, public schools’ football, charity football games, and newsreel stories on star players and teams just for their own sake. Silent films didn’t manage the art of filming football too well, but they covered the game extensively because it brought in the crowds. It shows how the cinema was understood as a home for entertainments beyond the stories than the film industries produced. It was the popular theatre.
Footage of the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, with clips of the stadium, participating teams, and the final which Uruguay won 4-2 against Argentina. The titles are an obvious later addition, as are the unfortunate lapses into colourisation (though this does at least let you identify Uruguay, in the light blue shirts.
The first World Cup was filmed in Uruguay in 1930. Film exists of the tournament, which was shot silent, but my knowledge of Uruguayan film is not what it might be, and besides this post has gone on long enough. You can find the clips on YouTube, or see the short clips on the FIFA site. I’m returning to the World Cup 2010. Having sound does help, as does not knowing how it’s all going to turn out (remember, everyone who saw a film in the cinema already knew the result), and I’m even getting used to the vuvuzelas. Bring on Slovenia…
Having told you a short while ago about Brazilian silent film journals available online, now it’s time to let you know (courtesy of the Pordenone film festival site) of the Cinemateca Brasileira’s third annual festival of silent film, Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso. The festival runs 7-16 August 2009, at the Cinemateca in São Paulo, and through the modern miracle that is Google Translate, I can tell you something about it.
The main strand of the festival is dedicated to French silent cinema, and features films from Les Archive du Film CNC, the Cinémathèque Française and (familiar to regular Bioscopists) the Musée Albert-Kahn. The programme includes shorts by the Lumière brothers, documentaries on Corsica, Tunisia and Abyssinia, and assorted feature films from the 1920s, including Marcel L’Herbier’s L’homme du large (1920), Pierre Marodon’s Salammbô (1925), Alfred Machin’s Le manoir de la peur (1927), Berthe Dagmar and Jean Durand’s L’île d’amour (1928) and Jean Grémillon’s Maldone (1928). André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928) will be shown with orchestral score by Brazilian composer José Antônio de Almeida Prado. There will be a selection of early shorts directed by Alice Guy, and a special presentation by Isabelle Marinone on the relationship between anarchism and cinema in France, including films made by French film collective Cinéma du Peuple: La Commune (Armand Guerra, 1914), Les misères de l’aiguille (Raphael Clamour, 1914) and fragments from Le Vieux dock (Armand Guerra, 1914).
Silent films set in Brazil are also featured. There will be documentaries on Amazonian travel and ethnography by Luiz Thomaz Reis and Silvino Santos, including The River of Doubt (1928?) on a 1914 expedition headed by Theodore Roosevelt. There is more Latin American cinema with Chile’s El Husar de la muerte (Pedro Sienna, 1925), and a touch of modern fantasy with the Wisconsin Bioscope’s A expedição brasileira de 1916 (2006).
The festival has a section dedicated to notable titles previously featured at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. This year it is showing Marion Davies in The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928), Beatrice Lillie in Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926), Nell Shipman in Back to God’s country (David Hartford, 1919), and Li Lili in that great Bioscope favourite, Tianming/Daybreak (Sun Yu, 1933), plus Alfred Machin’s anti-war Maudite soit la guerre! (1914). And there’s a special programme devoted to the trick and fantasy films of Segundo de Chomón.
Clockwise from top left: La Venus de nácar (Venezuela 1932), Braza dormida (Brazil 1928), Del pingo al volante (Uruguay 1928); El húsar de la muerte (Chile 1925), Luis Prado (Peru 1927), El automóvil gris (Mexico 1919), from Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika
Now that we have such marvellous tools as BabelFish and Google Translate to assist the stubbornly monolingual amongst us, there is no excuse for not looking out for sites beyond those in English that offer valuable information on silent film.
A fine example is Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika, which though it is in German, has as it subject the silent film in Latin America. Were you to read any of the general histories of silent cinema, you would probably not realise that there was any film production going on at that time in Latin America at all. When I worked on a book called Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema many moons ago, examining the lives of the earliest film pioneers worldwide, investigating what had gone on in South America and environs felt like the deepest archaeology. Spanish and Portuguese books were hard to find, and the major source turned out to be in French, Guy Hennebelle and Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, Les Cinémas de l’Amérique Latine: Pays Par Pays, l’Historie, l’Economie, les Structures, les Auteurs, les Oeuvres (1981).
More has been published since then (some of it in English), and a small amount has come out on DVD, though there is still a sense of discovery of litle-known lands (at least for the non-Latin American), which is where Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika is so good. The main part of the site is potted histories of film production and exhibition during the silent era in Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Columbia, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. For some the history is a little thin, but one gets an overall picture of great vitality and creativity, with the strongest production centres being Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.
Other sections cover stars and directors (generally their dates, a photograph and a filmography), including such notable names as Enrique Rosas, Carlos Gardel, José Agustín ‘Negro’ Ferreyra, Lupe Vélez and Dolores del Río; descriptions of some key films, posters, examples of lost films, book on silent film in Latin America (divided up by country but surprisingly not citing any studies of Latin/South American film generally), and documents. Crucially there is a welcome section on the handful of Latin American silents available on DVD and VHS, and those that survive in film archives (pitifully few).
Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika is put together by Thomas Böhnke, to whom all praise for shining such a light on a neglected corner of world film history.
A day on from all the excitement of the news that a print of the previously ‘lost’, complete Metropolis had been found in Argentina, the dust has settled a little, and more information has filtered through. So here’s a round-up of the film’s history, the discovery of the print, and why the news is so significant.
Let us travel to the year 2026, not so far away now. The giant city of Metropolis is maintained by a slave army which runs the machines which served the pampered ruling class. Freder, son of the city’s ruler, is captivated by a beautiful woman, Maria, and in following her discovers the horrors of the underground life of Metropolis. Maria is a figurehead for the restless workers, and Freder’s father instructs the scientist Rotwang to build a robot in her image so that the workers will follow ‘her’ and be duped into avoiding revolution. But the robot goes beserk and incites a rebellion. Eventually the workers see how they have been misled. They destroy the robot, while Freder, his father and Maria are reunited in happiness, Capital and Labour united at last. So, your typical tale of twenty-first century life.
Such was the vision conjured up by German film director Fritz Lang and his scenarist wife Thea von Harbou for the 1927 film Metropolis, one of the most ambitious, expensive (for the German film industry) and iconic of all silent films. However, at the time it was something of a flop with audiences. The industry reponded as the industry will, and cut the film drastically, to the extent of losing scenes essential to the film’s dramatic logic. Some 950 metres were removed; almost a quarter of its original length. The film at its original length of 4189 metres (147 mins at 25fps, though there is argument over the correct running speed) was therefore only seen for a short while (until May 1927 in Berlin); thereafter a cut version of around 113 mins was all that could be seen, and – so far as posterity aware – all that had survived thereafter, despite various restored versions being produced, most recently that overseen by Enno Patalas in 2001 (which runs at 118 mins).
Move forward to 2008. Paula Félix-Didier, newly installed as curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, learns from her ex-huband (director of the film department at the Museum of Latin American Art) of a curiously long screening of a print of Metropolis at a cinema club some years before, a print which was now believed to be in the Museo del Cine. According to ZEITmagazin, which has reconstructed the story, one Adolfo Z. Wilson, who in 1928 ran the Terra film distribution company of Buenos Aires, had secured a copy of the full length version of Metropolis for screening in Argentina. A copy then found its way into the hands of film critic Manuel Peña Rodríguez. In the 1960s he sold the film to Argentina’s National Art Fund, with seemingly neither party to the deal realising the unique value of the film. A print (on 16mm) then came into the hands of the Museo del Cine in 1992. Sixteen years later, Paula Félix-Didier found it.
Félix-Didier then acted with care. Rather than announce the discovery in Argentina (where, apparently, she believed it would not attract so much attention) she chose to have the discovery announced in Germany, where the film had been produced, and where the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung had been responsible for the most recent restored version of the film. She also had a friend who was a journalist for ZEITmagazin, which is how it ended up getting the exclusive and the stills which reveal that the print is indeed a well-worn 16mm copy, but whose very murkiness and lack of sharpness seem only to add to their haunting quality. (Word is that the stills are frame grabs from a DVD copy, so they look a little worse than the print actually is)
So, what is it that we have? What was found was a 16mm dupe neg of virtually the entire original version of Metropolis, minus just one scene, that of a monk in a cathedral, because it happened to be at the end of a reel that was badly torn (this information from Martin Koerber of the Deutsche Kinemathek, via the AMIA-L discussion list). The original 35mm nitrate print is lost. Precise details of the missing scenes (which were cut by the film’s American distributors, Paramount) are unclear, but it is reported that they reveal why the real Maria is mistaken by a rampaging mob for the robot created in her image; the significance of the role of the spy Schmale (played by Fritz Rasp), who pursues Freder, is made clear; and the scene where the workers’ children are saved by Freder and Maria towards the end of the film is revealed to be far more dramatic, and violent (a likely reason for its having been cut in the first place).
From Ain’t it Cool News, showing the trapped workers’ children trying to escape flood waters
And what will happen now? The above-mentioned restored version was produced in 2001, and has been made available on DVD in deluxe editions by Kino and Eureka. There is also a study or critical edition available from the Filminstitut der Universität der Künste Berlin. Kino recently announced that it would be issuing Metropolis on high-definition Blu-Ray early in 2009 – how will the news affect their plans?. The Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung has announced its intention to produce a ‘restored’ version, which would presumably simply mean inserting the relevant ‘lost’ sequences into the existing 35mm restoration. The reports from those who have seen the rediscovered print all indicate how coherent the complete work is, and hence how logically the extra scenes would slot in. Of course, there would be a somewhat brutal shift from pristine 35mm to battle-worn 16mm, but other such attempts at full restorations have shown similar changes in image quality where only inferior material remains, and the effect is not so jarring. Far more important will be the realisation of a story – and of one of the twentieth-century’s masterpieces of art in any form – made whole again. But what will get released, in what form, and when – it’s too soon to say.
A glossy history of the film is given in Zeit Online – in German, but with gorgeous images
The best place online for information on German films of the 1920s is the very fine www.filmportal.de site (in English and German)
Lastly, check yesterday’s post on this site, which has the text of a press release from the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, with yet more information
One last thought. What other lost silents might be lurking in South American film archives, perhaps not as thoroughly investigated as their North American cousins, but a territory where many American prints will inevitably have turned up? After such a tremendous discovery, we can only be greedy for more.
Update (4 July): Today in Argentina journalists were shown extracts from the rediscovered print of Metropolis. Photographs show that they were shown a DVD with brief clips. Reports indicate that the clips they were shown were (i) a worker who has exchanged clothes with Frederer gets in a car and drives to Yoshiwara, Metropolis’ red-light district; (ii) Smale, the spy following Frederer, at a newspaper stand; (iii) the robot Maria is seen in Yoshiwara; (iv) Frederer and the real Maria rescue the workers’ children, including scenes where the children are seen trapped behind bars as the flood water rise.
According to Digital Bits, Kino are intending to include the rediscovered new sequences in their already-announced Blu-Ray release of Metropolis from early next year, though it is surely too early for such confident pronouncements.