Bioscope Newsreel no. 10

I’m going to try and revive a neglected feature, the Bioscope Newsreel. It was an irregularly issued round-up of news stories on silent films that weren’t going to make it into fully-fledged posts, and in bringing it back to life I want to expand the brief a little to include interesting new pieces writing, blog posts etc. on our silent world (and its contexts). If I’m really good I’ll make it a weekly occurence, but I won’t commit myself to that just yet. Anyway, after a gap of just under two years, here’s issue number ten:

Films in concert
Films en Concert is a two-day silent film festival being held at the Salle André Malraux, Lambersart, France 4-5 February 2011. Featuring Chaplin biographer and Pordenone director David Robinson plus Pordenone pianists Neil Brand and Touve R. Ratovondrahety, the festival focusses on Chaplin with talks, screnings and a session for school children, plus Bébé and Bout-de-Zan comedies, Jacques Feyder’s Gribiche (1926) and Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). Read more.

Female Hamlet
John Wyver of the film and video production company Illuminations writes an excellent blog on film, art and culture. His latest post is on the Asta Nielsen Hamlet (1920), recently screened at the BFI Southbank, in which the great Danish actress plays the great Dane. An observant piece from a present-day producer of Shakespeare films (Hamlet, Macbeth). Read more.

Silent and white
Michael Hogan of The Daily Telegraph reviews the TV screening of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary record of the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition. Interestingly the review doesn’t look upon the film as historically quaint but simply as a record of those events equivalent to any TV polar documentary. Read more.

Film and European copyright
The EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands has produced some Guidelines for Copyright Clearance and IPR Management for the European Film Gateway project. Viewing things from the European angle, the guidelines consider copyright basics, exploitation rights, moral rights, orphan works, clearing rights in related media (stills, posters), searching for rights holders and a summary of copyright law in various European countries (though not the UK). Read more.

Lost and significant
It’s hard to say what exactly is the appeal in describing films that no one living has seen, but the Shadowlocked site has an entertaining item on ’15 historically significant “lost” films’, most of which are silent, and include Saved from the Titanic (1912), The Werewolf (1913), A Study in Scarlet (1914) and that great Bioscope favourite, Drakula halála (1921). Read more.

‘Til next time!

The lost prince

Prince John in 1913, from Wikipedia

While sorting out some papers I came across a clipping which I’d quite forgotten about. It comes from the British film trade journal The Cinema in 1913 (there’s no more precise date on the copy, alas), and what it reports, though brief, is so striking that I have to pass it on. It tells us that a member of the British royal family apparently wrote a film scenario – for private consumption only – in 1913:

Princess Mary Writes a Scenario
Princess Mary, the only daughter of the King and Queen, has written a short comedy script for the moving pictures. This has been produced privately, and exhibited at Buckingham Palace. Prince John posed for one of the characters.

Princess Mary (later the Countess of Harewood) was then aged 16. The royal family were well aware of motion pictures and had been to see film shows (usually featuring themselves), and as early as October 1896 a privately-comissioned film had been made of Queen Victoria and guests at Balmoral, which survives (the guests included Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia). But to be thinking of making their own dramatic film at such an early date is remarkable, not least for showing an awareness of the new popular entertainment that the commonfolk were flocking in their millions to see. Amateur dramatic films started to be relatively common in the 1920s, but 1913 is very early for such a production, whatever the strata of society.

And then there is the one named cast member. Prince John, the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary, was a severe epileptic and was kept out of public view. There are photographs, but no motion pictures were ever taken of him – or at least that is what has been assumed. In 1913 he was was 8 years old – he would die in 1919, aged just 14. His story was poignantly told in 2003 in the Stephen Poliakoff television film The Lost Prince. The film showed us the boy viewing royal affairs with an innocent yet quizzical air, needing the love of his parents who instead hid him away on a farm, unable to express the emotions nature ought to have made them feel.

Was Prince John filmed after all? It is not certain this report is correct, of course. It could be merely relaying a rumour. But assuming the film did exist, who made it? (if it was a professional he was discreet about it, because I’ve not come across any such report) – and what happened to it? There is a royal film collection, some of which has long been in the care of the BFI National Archive, but the films in the collection are not of so early a date – at least as far as I know. The film is most likely to be lost, not so much because the royals are likely to lose things (I don’t think they often do), but because surely it would have been uncovered by now. Or it may simply have decomposed.

But someone ought to have a second look, just in case.

Looking back on 2010

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.

It was an important year for digitised documents in our field. David Pierce’s innovative Media History Digital Library project promises to digitise many key journals, having made a good start with some issues of Photoplay. The Bioscope marked this firstly by a post rounding up silent film journals online and then by creating a new section which documents all silent film journals now available in this way. A large number of film and equipment catalogues were made available on the Cinémathèque française’s Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. Among the books which became newly-available for free online we had Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, and the invaluable Kinematograph Year Book for 1914.

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)

On the DVD and Blu-Ray front, Flicker Alley followed up its 2008 5-disc DVD set of Georges Méliès with a sixth disc, Georges Méliès Encore, which added 26 titles not on the main set (plus two by Segundo de Chomón in the Méliès style). It then gave us the 4-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone. Criterion excelled itself by issuing a three-film set of Von Sternberg films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). Other notable releases (aside from Metropolis, already mentioned) were Flicker Alley’s Chicago (1927) and An Italian Straw Hat (1927), Kino’s Talmadge sisters set (Constance and Norma), the Norwegian Film Institute’s Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1910-1912) and Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914, while the Bioscope’s pick of the growing number of Blu-Ray releases is F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), released by Eureka. But possibly the disc release of the year was the BFI’s Secrets of Nature, revealing the hypnotic marvels of natural history filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s – a bold and eye-opening release.

New websites turned up in 2010 that have enriched our understanding of the field. The Danish Film Institute at long last published its Carl Th. Dreyer site, which turned out to be well worth the wait. Pianist and film historian Neil Brand published archival materials relating to silent film music on his site The Originals; the Pordenone silent film festival produced a database of films shown in past festivals; the daughters of Naldi gave us the fine Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp site; while Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions finally took the plunge and published its first ever website.

The crew for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, ready for anything the elements can throw at them

Among film discoveries, in March we learned of the discovery of Australia’s earliest surviving film, the Lumière film Patineur Grotesque (possibly October 1896); in June we heard about a major collection of American silents discovered in New Zealand; and digital copies of ten American silents held in the Russian film archive were donated to the Library of Congress in October. That same month the Pordenone silent film festival unveiled the tantalising surviving frgament of F.W. Murnau’s Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1921-22). There was also time for films not yet discovered, as the BFI issued its Most Wanted list of lost films, most of them silents, while it also launched an appeal to ‘save the Hitchcock 9” (i.e. his nine surviving silents).

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.

2010 was undoubtedly the year of Eadweard Muybridge. There was a major exhibition of the photographer’s work at Tate Britain and another at Kingston Museum (both still running), publications including a new biography by Marta Braun, while Kingston produced a website dedicated to him. He also featured in the British Library’s Points of View photography exhibition. There was also controversy about the authorship of some of Muybridge’s earliest photographs, and a somewhat disappointing BBC documentary. In 2010 there was no avoiding Eadweard Muybridge. Now will the proposed feature film of his life get made?

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in the Medway ice, from South (1919)

It was an interesting year for novel musical accompaniment to silents: we had silent film with guitars at the New York Guitar Festival; and with accordions at Vienna’s Akkordeon festival. But musical event of the year had to be Neil Brand’s symphonic score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), given its UK premiere in November.

Noteworthy festivals (beyond the hardy annuals of Pordenone, Bologna, Cinecon etc) included the huge programme of early ‘short’ films at the International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen in April/May; and an equally epic survey of Suffragette films in Berlin in September; while the British Silent Film Festival soldierly on bravely despite the unexpected intervention of an Icelandic volcano.

On the conference side of things, major events were the Domitor conference, Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema, held in Toronto in June; the Sixth International Women and Film History Conference, held in Bologna also in June; and Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin Conference, held in Zanesville, Ohio in October.

It wasn’t a great year for silent films on British TV (when is it ever?), but the eccentric Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema at least generated a lot of debate, while in the US sound pioneer Eugene Lauste was the subject of PBS’s History Detectives. Paul Merton was also involved in an unfortunate spat with the Slapstick festival in Bristol in January over who did or did not invite Merton to headline the festival.

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

What else happened? Oscar Micheaux made it onto a stamp. We marked the centenary of the British newsreel in June. In October Louise Brooks’ journals were opened by George Eastman House, after twenty-five years under lock and key. Lobster Films discovered that it is possible to view some Georges Méliès films in 3D.

And, finally, there have been a few favourite Bioscope posts (i.e. favourites of mine) that I’ll give you the opportunity to visit again: a survey of lost films; an exhaustively researched three-part post on Alfred Dreyfus and film; the history of the first Japanese dramatic film told through a postcard; and Derek Mahon’s poetic tribute to Robert Flaherty.

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.

And one more snowy silent – Abel Gance’s Napoléon recreates the current scene outside Rochester castle, from

Pordenone diary 2010 – day four

Giornate del Cinema Muto poster in a Pordenone shop window at night

And then it rained. There’s always one day of heavy rain at Pordenone (it is quite near the Alps, after all) and on Tuesday October 5th it came down in torrents. This was certainly a day for sheltering in the cinema and viewing everything that came up.

Unfortunately that meant starting at 9.00am with another selection of Boireau films. As noted in day three, the French comedian André Deed’s second stint as Boireau (1911-1914) produced work that was markedly inferior to his time in Italy playing the character Cretinetti. This second selection sufered from the same frantic gesticulation and body-bending from a performer who did not know how to stand still. Une Extraordinaire Aventure de Boireau (France 1913) stood out for the extraordinary comic conceit of having two men welded together after a heavy weight falls on top of them. One, Boireau, adapts to his new circumstances with zest; the other is wretched and complains all the time. It wasn’t exactly funny, but it was memorable. I kept thinking of the British comedian Norman Wisdom, whose death had just been reported, someone who once had audiences tearful with laughter only to live on to a time when audiences could only look on his work with bemusement and embarassment. What happens to humour when it isn’t funny any more? We just want to turn away.

And then we got a series of Calino films starring Roméo Bosetti, and Boireau looked like a comic master once again, at least by comparison. Enough of all this, let’s have some challenging Soviet documentaries.

Even at this short distance in time, I have little memory left of Mati Samepo (Their Kingdom) (USSR 1928) a 22-minute fragment from a five-reel documentary compilation of Georgian newsreel material made by Mikhail Kalatozov. All that remains are some impressions of satirical intent about oil in Kalatozov’s native Georgia, and a noticeable number of stray dogs. Unforgettable, however, was his documentary Jim Shuante (Salt for Svanetia) (USSR 1930). This was a strange film about a strange corner of the world. Svanetia is a remote area of Georgia, high in Caucasus mountains. The areas is inhabited by the Svans, and in its focus on their hard lives and distinctive cultural practices, it was another in series the films of anthropological interest that featured throughout the festival. However it was far from being a conventional, fact-based documentary. Some of the customs featured were a fiction – such as turning pregnant women out of a house to give birth, which was the practice in another region of Georgia but not in Svanetia. It showed life at its most rudimentary and functional, with miseries piled upon miseries to the point where it was almost comical (I was reminded of Buñuel’s Las Hurdes which similarly piles on the wretchedness beyond the point of sympathy). The images were often brutal or earthy, and they were always astonishing composed, but they told you nothing about the people. They were merely ciphers – and ciphers for a society that bore only a tangential relationship to reality. They existed to serve as subjects for an exercise in filmic style, not as people in their own right. The film did not inform; it exploited. It was the antithesis of the model anthropological film.

Salt for Svanetia (1930), from Wikipedia

Nor did it work as piece of Soviet propaganda. The ostensible reason for making the film was to show how a road-building programme was bringing the much needed salt to Svanetia and connecting it to the outside world, ensuring its modernisation and survival. But, as the programme note told us, the road-building was fiction too, and the whole message felt tacked on, as no doubt it was to please the party critics and censors (though they suppressed the film anyway). For Kalatozov the poetics of the image is all, and one comes away with visions of sun and shadow sweeping over the mountain sides, the stark villages with their tall towers and seemingly no people out and about, and unanswered questions about how the people were persuaded to play for the cameras, and whether actors were used. Salt for Svanetia is an amazing film, but not an honourable one.

And they we were back in Japan. I missed a couple of short films, but then settled down for the afternoon’s epic, the 188-minute Ginga (The Milky Way) (Japan 1931), directed by Hiroshi Smimizu, he of the restless camera and uncertain directorial purpose. Or at least that’s how he had seemed so far, but for Ginga he reined in the gimmicks, aside from some deft lateral tracking shots which acted as an effective visual motif. The plot was pure soap opera once again. It concerned a daughter of a businessman who marries her seducer to avoid social disapproval, a storyline that was starting to get a bit too familiar, while the passive suffering of Japanese women was starting to grate just a tad. But in truth the plot was not that important, or rather the various relationships were obscure (at least to these Western eyes), and you just surendered to the gentle style and the astute balance of understated realism and melodrama. If there had been silent television, its dramas might have unfolded much like Ginga.

There then followed a pleasant interlude – an Irish television documentary on archivist and film historian Liam O’Leary, At the Cinema Palace: Liam O’Leary (Ireland 1983). This was a delightful account of the man who virtually single-handedly established the idea of Irish film history as something to document and the need for an Irish film archive. He also worked for a time at the British Film Institute, and there were some gorgeous archive images – David Robinson (the festival director) sporting a florid 1970s moustache, David Francis (one-time curator of the National Film Archive) with a truly terrible jacket, and such a young Kevin Brownlow (O’Leary introduced Brownlow to Abel Gance when no one at the BFI was available to greet the great silent director in Britain. What must Gance have thought when the BFI sent a 17-year-old schoolboy instead?). A film about a man whose purposeful passion for film spoke to every film archivist in the audience.

Charlie Chaplin (left) in A Thief Catcher, courtesy of Paul Gierucki and Slapsticon

In the evening we were treated to two of the most notable ‘lost’ film rediscoveries of the past year. First up, A Thief Catcher (USA 1914). Yes, at last a chance for us on this side of the pond to see the sensational discovery, made by Paul E. Gierucki, of a previously unknown performance by Charlie Chaplin in a Keystone comedy. It was known – because Chaplin said so in an interview – that he had appeared uncredited as a Keystone Kop early on in his film career, but never before had anyone rracked down such an appearance. A Thief Catcher is thought to have been either his second or fourth film for Keystone in terms of production (the catalogue told us it was shot 5-12 and 25-26 January 1914, with Chaplin’s bit probably in the latter) and the fourth in terms of release (19 February 1914). But enough of the historical minutiae – is it funny?

You bet it is. Not outstandingly so, but it gained more laughs in eight minutes than poor Boireau had managed to raise in two or three hours. It’s all in the cutting. The film is a typical breakneck speed Keystone offering, with routine knockabout elevated to something special simply by the speed of the action and the deftness of the edit. Boireau showed us comedy still rooted in the stage, the comic business contained within the single shot. Keystone gave us cross-cutting, the comedy of consequences, as each shot played off against the previous one. Ironically the film’s star, Ford Sterling, outdid André Deed in face-pulling, and probably no unfunnier man ever graced the cinema screen. But Chaplin was on the ball as a performer right at the start. He plays an inspector who investigates a shed where Sterling, playing a sheriff, has been imprisoned by three robbers. In his two-minute cameo (he appears briefly at the end as well) Chaplin gives an expert display in comic bemusement, ending up being knocked out by Sterling for his pains. The moustache is there, the baggy clothes, even a hint of splayed feet. It was a magical moment when he ambled on screen (the audience cheered). A Thief Catcher easily lived up to expectations.

Next up, after a trailer for the otherwise lost John Ford film Strong Boy (USA 1929) was an entire Ford feature film not known to exist until it turned up in New Zealand recently, Upstream (USA 1927). This was a comedy-drama set in a New York boarding house full of ‘resting’ actors, one of whom (Earle Foxe) unexpectedly gets an invitation to play Hamlet in London, because he comes from a great line of actors whose name he has inherited but with none of the necessary talent. But the plot didn’t matter much; what made Upstream such a delight was the series of comic vignettes of down-on-their theatrical types – knife-thrower, a pair of comic dancers, an old Shakespearean hand – a in a zippy, joyous opening sequence that was J.B. Priestley on roller skates. It showed you everything about why American cinema conquered the world – much as A Thief Catcher did, in fact.

It’s a minor film for all that, which ends rather abruptly with the rejection of the insufferably pompous Foxe character by his former colleagues, and one sensed that had they only had a stronger cast then the film could have been spun out to twice its length, because we wanted to know more about the characters. So, a lot of fun, a film to chalk up for those with an interest in Shakespeare on film (Foxe’s Hamlet mines every cliché about theatrical ham), and a film which does John Ford’s reputation no harm whatsover.

Capabalanca’s unwitting performance in Chess Fever, from

In what was a peach of an evening’s programming, things were rounded off with me for one my all-time favourite films, Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Chess Fever) (USSR 1925). This delirious comedy is terrific if you are a silent film fan, but if you are a chess fan as well, you’re in heaven. You get all startstruck in the opening sequence – look, there’s Réti! And Torre! And Marshall! And Grünfeld! And, wow, Capablanca! Chess Fever was shot by Vsevolod Pudovkin during the international chess tournament held in Moscow in November 1925. Its slight plot revolves around a man so obsessed with chess (even his socks have black-and-white squares) that he forgets his own wedding, but chess brings the two hearts together in the end. It’s filled with a succession of superb sight gags, where all of Moscow is shown to be chess-mad. It culminates with the great José Raúl Capablanca himself, the world chess champion, who appears in the film when the frustrated fiancée accosts him, though he was not aware that a dramatic film was being made with himself as a crucial character. Günter Buchwald (on top form all week) provided an appropriately lively score for violin, piano (he played both), double bass and drums, revealing himself in the catalogue to be a chess enthusiast as well. And has there ever been a better closing line for film than, “Darling, let’s try the Sicilian Defence”?

After all that I wasn’t much in the mood for Lev Push’s Gypsy Blood (USSR 1928) – some film titles make you fear the worst – and I called it a day.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Wara Wara

Trailer for the restored Wara Wara

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.

There’s more information (in Spanish) on the Cinemateca Boliviana site and in the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso 2010 catalogue.

A book has been written on the restoration by filmmaker Fernando Vargas Villazon, Wara Wara. La reconstrucción de una película perdida.

Information on silent films in Latin America generally can be found at Thomas Böhnke’s highly recommended Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika site (in German), which includes a section on silent film in Bolivia (acknowledgements to Böhnke for his Nitrateville post about the film).

Wanted by the BFI

The First Men in the Moon (1919), from

In 1992 the BFI launched Missing Believed Lost. It was a campaign to raise awareness of Britain’s lost film heritage, and the work of the National Film Archive. A handsome book of the same title was published, edited by Allen Eyles and David Meeker, which listed 100 lost British feature films that the Archive was seeking in particular. In some cases they were being a tad disingenuous, because the Archive was fairly confident that prints existed out there somewhere and hoped to lure them out of the hands of collectors into national safekeeping.

The project was successful. A number of films were uncovered, including several early works by director Michael Powell, while among the few silents that the book listed one complete example and parts of others from the Ultus serials have turned up, plus the Walter Forde feature What Next? and the Ivor Novello-Mabel Poulton feature The Constant Nymph – all three can be seen at the BFI Southbank this August.

Eighteen years on, and to mark its seventy-fifth anniversary, the BFI National Archive is launching another lost film project, entitled Most Wanted. This time it has narrowed their target list to 75 (neatly enough) and demonstrated how changing tastes have altered to a degree what we now consider most precious among lost films. The original Missing Believed Lost stopped in 1945, with the still-missing Flight from Folly. The new list delves enthusiastically into exploitation films from the 1960s and 70s, and amazingly ends with a title as recent as 1983 ( Where is Parsifal? starring Tony Curtis and Orson Welles). The original book was mean when it came to silents, listing just ten. The new list reflects a greater respect for Britain’s silent film heritage, with twenty titles (interestingly, one title from the original book, the 1916 She, is not included in the new list, while all the other silents are).

Things have moved on in other ways since 1992. Now we have the Internet, and the BFI has gone to town in a most impressive way, produced a micro-site for the Most Wanted project, with impressively researched accounts of each film, including credits, synopses, reasons for its importance, and notes on when the film was last known to be seen. Each is richly illustrated with some evocative stills, but – naturally enough – not by clips…

Here’s the list of twenty lost silents, with short descriptions taken from the BFI site (those marked with an asterisk were selected for the 1992 book):

The Adventures of Mr Pickwick (1921 d. Thomas Bentley)
Silent version of Dickens’ breakthrough novel, directed by one of the writer’s most prolific screen adapters.

The Amazing Quest of Mr Ernest Bliss (1920 d. Henry Edwards)
A much acclaimed mini-serial showcasing the talents of Henry Edwards and Chrissie White, both major contributors to the success of the Hepworth production company.

The Arcadians (1927 d. Victor Saville)
Victor Saville’s solo directorial debut: a silent adaptation of the stage musical. ‘Pastoral masterpiece’ or woeful mistake?

The Crooked Billet (1929 d. Adrian Brunel)
One of the last films made by Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough studios before sound took over from silent cinema.

The First Men in the Moon (1919 d. J.L.V. Leigh)
The first screen adaptation of a novel by the influential British author H.G. Wells, and an early example of British science fiction cinema.

The Last Post (1929 d. Dinah Shurey)
A patriotic war picture from the only woman feature film director working in Britain at the end of the 1920s.

Lily of the Alley (1924 d. Henry Edwards) *
An experiment in film form that may be the first [British] silent fiction feature ever made without intertitles.

London (1926 d. Herbert Wilcox)
The adventure of a girl of the slums who is adopted by a titled lady but eventually marries an artist.

Love, Life and Laughter (1923 d. George Pearson) *
According to contemporary reports, a genuine lost classic: the struggle of an impoverished author and a little chorus girl against the odds of the world.

Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1926 d. Maurice Elvey)
Based on a popular trench song of the First World War, the film tells the story of a patriotic French woman who falls in love with a British soldier and feeds misinformation to the Germans. [Around half the film survives at the BFI National Archive]

Maria Martin or The Mystery of the Red Barn (1913 d. Maurice Elvey)
Film adaptation of a play about the notorious Victorian murder at Polstead in Suffolk in 1826. As the contemporary publicity put it, “A box office magnet on its title alone”.

Milestones (1916 d. Thomas Bentley) *
Family epic charting several generations of shipbuilders who are radical in youth but become conservative in later life.

The Mountain Eagle (1926 d. Alfred Hitchcock) *
Hitchcock’s second film and the only one of his 57 films as director to be lost: a Kentucky-set mountain melodrama of lust, injustice and social stigma.

The Narrow Valley (1921 d. Cecil Hepworth)
A young couple find romance amidst a narrow-minded valley community.

Reveille (1923 d. George Pearson) *
A story of the hectic, forced gaiety at the end of the First World War and the disillusionment which came to many soon after. [Note to the BFI – a short sequence from Reveille does survive somewhere (the famous ‘two-minutes’ silence’) and was shown on BBC2’s The Late Show 30 September 1992 in a programme on the Missing Believed Lost project]

The Story of the Flag (1927 d. Anson Dyer)
Britain’s first “full-length animated feature film” by the country’s most successful pre-war cartoon filmmaker, Anson Dyer.

A Study in Scarlet (1914 d. George Pearson) *
Murder, betrayal and revenge in an ambitious early adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story.

Tip Toes (1928 d. Herbert Wilcox)
Three penniless music hall artistes take a suite at a fancy hotel, where the girl pretends to be an heiress in pursuit of an English Lord.

Who is the Man? (1924 d. Walter Summers)
Romantic melodrama that featured John Gielgud’s screen debut.

Woman to Woman (1923 d. Graham Cutts)
A British officer and a French dancer meet during the war, but are parted by accident, only to be reunited just before her death.

That’s a well-chosen list, with a number of titles that would be certain to be recognised as classics were they to re-emerge, even at this distance of time.

And what’s missing from this list of what’s missing? Well, one could go on and on and on, since hundreds of British silents are missing (no one had ever counted exactly how many). However, the Bioscope will indulge itself just a little by listing another twenty-five to bring it up to a missing 100 (including some non-fiction titles, which the BFI’s list excludes). The BFI would certainly rejoice if anyone of these turned up as well.

  • Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (1895) [probably the first commercial British film]
  • The Mesmerist; or, Body and Soul (1898) [former spiritualist G.A. Smith makes a trick film about spiritualism]
  • Dan Leno’s Cricket Match (1900) [The Victorian era’s greatest comic performer captured on film]
  • The Macedonian Atrocities (1903) [documentary series filmed by C. Rider Noble]
  • Robbery of the Mail Coach (1903) [pioneering multi-scene drama made by Sheffield Photo Co.]
  • Voyage to New York (1904) [40-minute travelogue made by Charles Urban]
  • The Empire of the Ants (1906) [innovative anthromorphism from wildlife filmmaker Percy Smith]
  • Henry VIII (1911) [every print of this Shakespeare drama made by Will Barker was supposedly burned in a bizzare publicity stunt]
  • Hamlet (1912) [Will Barker film in which the actress to play Ophelia was famously recruited because she could swim]
  • With our King and Queen Through India (1912) [around ten minutes survive of this two-and-a-half-hour Kinemacolor spectacular account of the 1911 Delhi Durbar]
  • A Message from Mars (1913) [stagey but no doubt fascinating story of Martian who comes to earth with moral mission] [Update: This film exists! See comment]
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1914) [Britain’s first colour feature film]
  • A Welsh Singer (1915) [directed by Henry Edwards, probably Britain’s most accomplished director of the 1910s]
  • The Manxman (1916) [much-praised drama directed by George Loane Tucker]
  • Hindle Wakes (1918) [Maurice Elvey’s first attempt at the story he would triumphantly film again in 1927]
  • Kiddies in the Ruins (1918) [wartime poignancy from George Pearson]
  • Towards the Light (1918) [characteristic Henry Edwards-directed tearjerker]
  • Victory and Peace (1918) [part of one reel is all that survives of the propaganda epic directed by Herbert Brenon and starring Ellen Terry]
  • Jack, Sam and Pete (1919) [Ernest Trimmingham gives first leading performance from a black actor in British film]
  • The Land of Mystery (1920) [drama loosely based on life of Lenin, filmed in the USSR]
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1921) [adaptation of Hardy novel witnessed in production by Hardy himself]
  • Number 13 (1922) [unfinished Hitchcock short]
  • Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (1923) [directed by lost talent Graham Cutts, starred D.W. Griffith favourite Mae Marsh]
  • The Virgin Queen (1923) [filmed in Prizmacolor and starring socialite Lady Diana Manners]
  • The Ball of Fortune (1926) [football drama with legendary Billy Meredith – the BFI holds a trailer for the film]

No doubt you can name your own (and please do).

At the same time the BFI has launched Rescue the Hitchcock 9, calling for funds to help preserve the nine silent Hitchcock feature films that do survive. You can donate here. See also the Bioscope’s silent Hitchcock filmography and the cod review of The Mountain Eagle in 2008’s Bioscope Festival of Lost Films.

Finally, and by way of a sort of obituary, the BFI’s notes for The Arcadians state that “An incomplete and deteriorating nitrate print (from a private collector?) was apparently viewed prior to July 2008 by independent film scholar F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.” Last week it was announced that science-fiction writer and prodigious Internet Movie Database film reviewer F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre had apparently committed suicide by setting fire to his New York flat. It’s a sad end for one whose comments on silent film forums and the IMDb have greatly enlivened debate, even as they sowed the seeds of confusion. Macintyre was fond of spinning tales about his supposed exclusive access to a private collection of films which he would describe, one by one, in passionate detail. Macintyre was knowledgeable about film (particularly silent film), and had some descriptive skill, but he drew no distinction between truth and fantasy, and in the case of The Arcadians – as with so many other lost films he reviewed on IMDb – he is merely telling tales, and no more saw the film than you or I. He remained a writer of fiction to the end.

Summer on the Southbank

BFI Southbank

We don’t normally highlight what takes place on a regular basis at film theatres and cinematheques, but looking at the August booklet for the BFI Southbank, it’s time to make an exception. It’s certainly a rich offering for silents and archival film in general.

The headline attraction is the UK premiere of the reconstructed and restored Metropolis (1927), now with an extra twenty-five minutes of footage, as documented on the Bioscope here, here and here. The screening takes place on 26 August, at 18:00.

The BFI is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its achive. Originally known as the National Film Library, it has subsequently been known as the National Film Archive, the National Film and Television Archive, BFI National Film and Television Archive, BFI Collections, BFI National Film and Television Archive once again, and now BFI National Archive. Passing over whatever insecurities have led to such a long-running identity crisis, you can help celebrate its 75th by attending its Long Live Film screenings, which are highlighting previously lost films that the Archive had particularly sought. Now, after decades hidden from view, you can see Britain’s answer to Fantomas, George Pearson’s Ultus and the Grey Lady (1916) plus other Ultus fragments (9 August, 18:00), Cecil Hepworth’s Helen of Four Gates (1920) (11 August, 18:10), Walter Forde’s What Next? (1928) (18 August, 18:20) and Ivor Novello and Mabel Poulton in The Constant Nymph (1928) (20 August, 18:10). Look out soon for BFI Most Wanted, a relaunched search for 75 lost British films, which is certain to include some key silent titles.

Among other attractions, look out for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (23 August 20:40); a programme of early archival treasures, A Night in Victorian and Edwardian London (4 August, 18:10); and Kenneth MacPherson’s experimental classic Borderline (1930), with Paul Robeson and H.D., introduced by film artist Stephen Dwoskin (5 August, 18:10). Collecting for Tomorrow (7 August, 13:30) is a discussion event, hosted by Dylan Cave, on the future of film collecting, which will include clips of recently acquired material including the work of modern silent filmmaker Martin Pickles (previously covered by the Bioscope).

Along the non-silent material, I must note the screenings of nitrate prints that are taking place at the BFI Southbank in July and August, also part of Long Live Film. Cellulose nitrate film stock stopped being employed in cinemas in 1952, and became the defining challenge for film archives in the latter half of the twentieth century. Nitrate film, owing to its high silver content, gavce the films on the screen a lustrous finish which is missing from safety film stock (let alone digital copies). However, because of the fire risks, a special licence is required to show nitrate film and the BFI has the only such licence in the UK. No silent nitrate films are on offer, more’s the pity, but over the two months you can see Fugitive Lady (1950), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Yearling (1946), Brighton Rock (1947), Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941), Volga-Volga (1938) and Les Maudits (1946) as they were originally seen.

On the smaller screens at the BFI Southbank, the drop-in archive facility the Mediatheque has a special focus on British silents, including such titles as At the Villa Rose (1920), Comin’ Thro the Rye (1923), High Treason (1928), The Man Without Desire (1923) and Sweeney Todd (1928).

Finally there is the welcome return of the Ernest Lindgren Memorial Lecture. The Lecture, named after the National Film Archive’s esteemed founder curator, used to be a prestigious annual event at which a leading archivist or film historian would give a keynote presentation on the state of things. Sadly allowed to lapse in recent years, the Lecture returns on 24 August (18:10) with Paolo Cherchi Usai, Director of the Haghefilm Foundation. As film archivist of world renown and author of the provocative The Death of Cinema and co-editor of the essential text Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums and the Digital Marketplace, this should be a talk not to miss.

More information on all the above from the start of the July at the BFI Southbank site.

The lost Americans

The Sergeant (Selig Polyscope, 1910), from

You know, it’s getting difficult to keep up with all the silent news just at the moment. Hot on the heels of the discovery of a lost Chaplin film, A Thief Catcher, the National Film Preservation Foundation has announced a partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to preserve and make available a collection of 75 American films (all silents) that no longer survive in American archives.

The films range in date from 1898 to 1929 and are a mixture of shorts and features, fiction and non-fiction. The plan is to preserve the films over the next three years and the make them accessible through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Copies of the complete films will also be publicly available in New Zealand and viewable on the National Film Preservation Fund Web site.

A full list of the films hasn’t been announced as yet, but these are the highlights:

  • The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies—Episode 5, The Chinese Fan (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1914). In this episode of the famous serial (previously entirely lost in the United States), ace woman reporter Dolly Desmond, played by Mary Fuller, rescues the editor’s daughter from kidnappers and gets the scoop. In the early 1910s, on-going serial narratives starring intrepid heroines lured female moviegoers back to the theater week after week.
  • The Better Man (Vitagraph Company of America, 1912), a Western in which a Mexican American outlaw proves himself the better man. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the “For the Love of Film” Blogathon.
  • The Big Show (Miller Brothers Productions, 1926), the only surviving fiction film made by the famous Oklahoma-based Wild West Show managed by the Miller Brothers. The film showcases performances by many of the troupe’s performers as well as its owner, Col. Joseph Miller.
  • Billy and his Pal (George Méliès / American Wild West Film Company, 1911), a Western filmed in San Antonio, Texas, and the earliest surviving film featuring Francis Ford. The actor-director introduced the movie business to his younger brother, John, who soon blossomed as director. Released in New Zealand as Bobby and his Pal.
  • Birth of a Hat (Stetson Company, 1920), an industrial short illustrating how Stetson makes its hats.
  • The Diver (Kalem Company, 1916), a documentary showing how to set underwater explosives.
  • Fordson Tractors (Ford Motor Co., 1918), an industrial film promoting the all-purpose tractor introduced by Henry Ford & Son in 1917.
  • The Girl Stage Driver (Éclair-Universal, 1914), an early Western filmed in Tucson, Arizona. American-made Westerns were in demand by movie audiences around the globe and helped establish the United States as the major film-exporting nation by the late 1910s.
  • Idle Wives (Universal Moving Pictures, 1916), the first reel of a Lois Weber feature in which a film inspires three sets of moviegoers to remake their lives. More of the film exists at the Library of Congress.
  • International Newsreel (ca.1926), newsreel including five stories from the United States and abroad. By the late 1910s, newsreels became a regular part of the movie program. Because the footage was usually cut up and reused, very few newsreels from the silent era survive in complete form.
  • Kick Me Again (Universal Pictures / Bluebird Comedies, 1925), a short comedy with Hungarian silent star Charles Puffy. As America became the center of world film production in the 1920s, European actors, such as Puffy, came to Hollywood to build their careers.
  • Little Brother (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913), one of two one-reelers from New York’s Thanhouser Company repatriated through the project.
  • Lyman Howe’s Ride on a Runaway Train (Lyman H. Howe Films, 1921), a thrill-packed short entertainment that was accompanied by sound discs which survive at the Library of Congress.
  • Mary of the Movies (Columbia Pictures, 1923), Hollywood comedy about a young woman seeking stardom in the movies. This first surviving film from Columbia Pictures exists in an incomplete copy.
  • Maytime (B.P. Schulberg Productions, 1923), a feature with Clara Bow in an early role. Nitrate deterioration has reached the point where “blooms” are starting to eat away at the emulsion.
  • Midnight Madness (DeMille Pictures, 1928), comedy starring Clive Brook as a millionaire who decides to teach his golddigging fiancée a lesson.
  • Run ‘Em Ragged (Rolin Films, 1920), a short featuring slapstick comedian Snub Pollard.
  • The Sergeant (Selig Polyscope, 1910), a Western filmed in Yosemite Valley when the area was managed by the U.S. Army. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the “For the Love of Film” Blogathon.
  • Trailer for Strong Boy (Fox Film Corporation, 1929), a “lost” feature directed by John Ford and starring Victor McLaglen as a courageous baggage handler who thwarts a holdup. No other moving images from this film survive.
  • Upstream (Fox Film Corporation, 1927), a feature directed by four-time Academy Award winner John Ford. Only 15% of the silent-era films by the celebrated director are known to survive. This tale of backstage romance stars Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe.
  • Why Husbands Flirt (Christie Comedies, 1918), one of the nine short comedies that will be preserved through this project.
  • The Woman Hater (Power Picture Plays, 1910), a one-reel comedy starring serial queen Pearl White.
  • Won in a Closet (Keystone Film Company, 1914), the first surviving movie directed by and starring Mabel Normand. Released in New Zealand as Won in a Cupboard.

Among the numerous highlights there are John Ford’s Upstream, a significant addition to the small number of silent features directed by Ford (there is to be a retrospective on Ford’s silents at this month’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, though not with Upstream, fairly obviously) and the Clara Bow feature Maytime, though let’s not overlook such certain gems as the proto-sound Lyman Howe’s Ride on a Runaway Train, documentaries on how to make stetson hats and how to set underwater explosives, and particularly a rare example of a complete silent newsreel (i.e. with full titles and all the stories in place – so many newsreels only survive as individual stories).

There’s also the heartening news that the preservation of two of the films, The Better Man and The Sergeant, is to be funded by monies raised by the recent For the Love of Film film preservation blogathon, which ran 14-21 February 2010 – hats off to the blogosphere for that noble action (and read more about this aspect of the preservation at the highly commendable Self-Styled Siren blog). Preview clips of The Sergeant are available on the NFPF site.

This isn’t expected to be the last such international film preservation project (and it emulates an earlier Australian/American initiative). The Library of Congress estimates that roughly one-third of American silent-era features that survive in complete form exist only in archives in other countries. That’s an exciting prospect, but we must also think of the cost – preserving the New Zealand treasure trove is going to cost $500,000. Just consider the millions upon millions that will be required to preserve just the entirety of the American silent film heritage, and then add up everyone else’s heritage. Tough decisions lie ahead.

There’s more on the project and the films’ discovery from The New York Times.

A thief catcher

Charlie Chaplin (left) in A Thief Catcher, courtesy of Paul Gierucki and Slapsticon, via the Nitrateville discussion forum

Last year we learned of the discovery of Zepped, a previously unknown (well almost) Chaplin film, though it wasn’t a Chaplin film as such but rather some sequences and outtakes from Chaplin films intercut with actuality footage of Zeppelins and some animated sequences. It received a genuine release in 1916, and it will be interesting to see how Chaplin filmographers treat it (it hasn’t made it onto the Internet Movie Database as yet).

But now there is news of another discovery, and this is that much more exciting because it is a genuine Chaplin film, and one previously unknown.

It is known, because Chaplin himself tells us in his autobiography [update: this is incorrect – see comments], that as well as the starring roles that he played in Keystone comedies, he also played bit parts as a Keystone Kop in several pictures. However, Chaplin does not mention any titles, and despite much searching and hoping down the years, no print of a Keystone film has emerged with just such a Chaplin cameo … until now.

To be unveiled at this year’s Slapsticon featival will be A Thief Catcher, directed by Henry Lehrman and originally released on 19 February 1914. The film stars Keystone regulars Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy with Chaplin making what the festival press release describes as “an extended and very funny cameo as a policeman”. The press release states that the film was shot between 5 and 26 January 1914, which to judge from release dates could make it the second or third film Chaplin made at Keystone, being released just after his third starring comedy, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, issued on 9 February 1914. Chaplin’s first film was Making a Living, released 2 February 1914, his second Kid Auto Races at Venice, released 7 February and the first film in which he donned the tramp’s costume.

The print of A Thief Catcher was discovered earlier this year by sharp-eyed film preservationst Paul E. Gierucki of CineMuseum LLC. The film is to be shown at Slapsticon 2010 as part of a Chaplin Rarities Programme on Saturday 17 July at 20:00 at the Spectrum Theater in Rosslyn, Virginia. The Rarities programme will be a newly recovered reel of Chaplin outtakes from his Mutual comedies, and a new print of Chaplin’s Liberty War Loan propaganda short, The Bond (1918) featuring outtakes from that film.

A bit part is just a bit part, but this is nevertheless a significant discovery. It is more film of Chaplin, it tells us a little more about his early career in film, it confirms what he reports in his autobiography, it shows us Chaplin in his pre-tramp form, and of course it will now send archivists and collectors anxiously to check out other Keystone films for other Chaplin Kop sightings. And how long before Her Friend the Bandit (1914), the one film in which Chaplin starred to remain a lost film, is re-discovered. As we said before now, there are no lost films, just corners where we haven’t looked yet.

Update: A frame still from A Thief Catcher has now been made available by its discoverer Paul Gierucki and is reproduced at the top of this post. Interestingly Chaplin is sporting his familiar moustache, indicating that the film was made after Kid Auto Races in Venice, and that he was using the moustache even for cameos.

Olympic Hitch

The rugby game from Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927), from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Here in the UK we’re shaping up nicely for the Olympic Games in 2012. We’ve moved from being cynical to saying we can’t aford to wanting it to succeed to believing it could actually be fantastic (then after the Games we’ll revert to cynicism again, with is the natural order of things in Blighty). And for those who don’t actually like sport there’s the Cultural Olympiad – a programme of arts and culture events which have little if anything to do with the Olympic Games but, hey, arts organisations will grasp at any straw that goes floating by.

But enough of my own cynicism. We’re going to get a whole range of interesting cultural events grounded in fundamental Olympic themes such as community, regeneration, youth – you know the sort of thing. And silent cinema should get a look in, because what has just been announced by the BFI is a touring retrospective for 2012 of Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films.

This is a bold and welcome move, as for most Hitchcock’s silent career remains a closed book, beyond possibly an awareness that he made The Lodger. Strictly speaking the retrospective isn’t formally a part of the Cultural Olympiad as yet, but the BFI is pointing out, rather ingeniously, that Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, near the Olympic park in East London. A report in The Independent describes the plans, which include an exhibition:

Eddie Berg, artistic director of the BFI, said … “One of the things we are trying to get off the ground is to restore the silent films. Most of the visual tropes in these titles appear in his later works. We want to look at his influence on the contemporary world. The season will look at his huge body of work and his influence in different ways,” said Mr Berg.

The silent titles will form the heart of the retrospective, but the exhibition may also include the music of the American composer Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Hitchcock on the scores for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. A staging of Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, a 1993 artwork featuring a slowed-down version of the horror film, will also feature.

Amanda Neville, director of the BFI, said the initiative would “resurrect the [Hitchcock] films that are not on the tips of everybody’s tongues”.

Some of the films need critical restoration work, she said, and “three of them cannot go through a film projector – the level of damage to them is phenomenal.”

Robin Baker, the BFI’s head curator, said he was keen to discover the whereabouts of Hitchcock’s silent movie The Mountain Eagle, which he called the “holy grail” of lost British films.

“It was made in 1926 and was his last silent film featuring a sexually vulnerable young woman and a case of miscarriage of justice,” he said. [I think that’s a misquote and what he actually said was “first film featuring…”]

Hitchcock began his career in Britain as a designer of film title cards before directing a dozen silent films, including The Lodger, in 1926 and which the BFI hopes to restore and screen.

His first “talkie” film Blackmail, released in 1929, was shot as a silent feature and later converted to sound.

Well, I don’t expect they were planning to project those three damaged nitrate prints in any case, but the retrospective should also play its part in educating audiences about film restoration, as well as offering new opportunities to see silent films and unfamiliar Hitchcock. And as further indications of Olympic relevance, let’s point out the sporty bits of Hitchcock’s silents – boxing in The Ring, the rugby game in Downhill, the tennis match in Easy Virtue

For an overview of Hitchcock’s extensive silent film career (he began as a title writer for the British Famous Players-Lasky studios in 1920), see this earlier Bioscope post. And let’s hope along with Robin Baker that a print of The Mountain Eagle finally turns up. That really would be an event worthy of any Cultural Olympiad.