Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections

Letter from Alexander Korda to Adoph Zukor, 16 June 1920, letter in the Margaret Herrick Library

… I am twenty nine years of age and am ten years in the prospection moving picture. Of this period I spent 3 years as an advertisement manager with the Projectograph Co. Ltd. in Budapest, for one year I was in Paris and since the last 6 years I am a stage manager. For the last five years and a half I was the administrative and stage manager of the Corvin film factory of Budapest. It was I who founded the said factory and it was under my management when it was taken over by an Hungarian bank with a capital of 8 millions of crowns, which subsequently got increased to 10 respectively to 20 millions of crowns. Budapest however offers by far no scope enough for an ambitious man to settle down there for a lifetime …

It’s a standard letter seeking employment written to a man in a position of power from a man in a humble siutation. The man of power is Adolph Zukor; what makes this such a compelling document is that the man doing the begging is his fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda, then only just establishing himself in Austrian film after having left the narrow (and politically hazardous) confines of the Hungarian film business. In a few years’ time Korda would be the man of power, though not in America but rather Britain.

The letter is just one example of the extraordinary riches to be found in the digital collections of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. You would expect the Margaret Herrick Library – one of the world’s leading film study centres – to put on a good show when it came to presenting its collections digitally, and how well they have done so.

Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections is an online database of digitised materials from the Margaret Herrick Library (named after the Academy’s first librarian – how rare it is for libraries to be named after those who care for them). It represents only a tiny proportion of the Library’s holdings, but the 2,500 or so items on offer are richly varied and presented in quite exemplary fashion. They include correspondence, photographs, periodicals, sheet music and star ephemera, along with complete copies of more than 250 Academy publications, dating back to its founding in 1927.

The site is broken down into these individual collections:

  • Academy Awards Collection
    Selected Academy Awards photographs, rule books, programs and ephemera from the Library’s extensive holdings.
  • Academy Publications
    Full text issues of member newsletters, annual reports, technical articles and other publications produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
  • Tom B’hend and Preston Kaufmann Collection
    Tom B’hend and Preston Kaufmann were collectors of material related to motion picture theaters and theater organs.
  • Cecil B. DeMille Photographs
    Selection of items from the Cecil B. DeMille photographs.
  • Alfred Hitchcock Papers
    Selected items from the Alfred Hitchcock papers. The collection mostly comprises photographs, including several from Hitchcock’s silent film period.
  • Motion Picture Periodicals
    Complete issues of various publications from the library’s collections. The library’s periodical holdings include industry trade publications, fan magazines, technical and scholarly journals, and studio house organs.
  • Movie Star Ephemera
    Examples of movie star and fan ephemera and collectibles from across the library’s collections. Items include fan magazine covers, fan club publications and movie star memorabilia, as well as products endorsed by or featuring images of movie stars. The earliest materials date back to the silent era.
  • William Selig Papers
    Selection of release fliers and correspondence from the William Selig papers. “Colonel” William N. Selig (1864-1948) was an American producer active in film from 1896 to 1938. He founded the Selig Polyscope Company and co-founded the Motion Picture Patents Company.
  • Sheet Music Collection
    Selection of items from the Robert Cushman collection of sheet music. Robert Cushman was an American photograph curator. He was on the staff of the Margaret Herrick Library from 1972 until his death in 2009. He was an avid collector of silent film sheet music, which he mostly obtained from East Coast sheet music dealers.
  • Fred Zinnemann Papers
    Selection of photographs from the Fred Zinnemann papers.
  • Adolph Zukor Correspondence
    Selected letters and other items from the man who founded Famous Players Film Company and became head of Paramount Pictures.

The documents are presented superbly, with full descriptions, transcripts, assorted display options, download and print options, even the facility to view text and image alongside on another from transcribed documents. It’s a model presentation in every way.

Of particular note, given our interest in documenting digitised journals of the silent era wherever they can be found, is the collection of motion picture periodicals. Those available are Cinema Chat (1919-1920) (74 issues), Movies (1930-1934) (8 issues), Movie Monthly (1925) (3 issues) and Silver Sheet (1920-1925) (18 issues). An example of the latter series, with a mind-boggling image promotiong the 1924 film The Galloping Fish, is illustrated to the left. So far as I am aware, none is available anywhere else online, and all have been added to our ever-growing list of silent film journals available online. The journals are presented as single PDF pages (in some cases double-pages), rather than as full PDFs of the complete issue (correction – you can download a full issue), with thumbnails images arranged in a column alongside any one digitised page to aid browsing. There is full text uncorrected OCR, with word-searching within the single page, though the main site offering word-searching across all documents in any case.

The collection will no doubt grow, and certainly has opened up an important collection to those of us who are not able to visit Beverly Hills quite as often as we might like.

My thanks to David Pierce for alerting me to the site.

Watching with Ben

I think we’ve said before now that silent film accompanist Ben Model is probably the most web savvy among his peers, with a smart grasp of social media and an infectious keenness to share the silent film medium with everyone. His latest venture is a case in point.

His YouTube channel already features a number of great silent comedies to which Model has supplied new musical scores taken (with permission) from DVD releases. Now Model is taken 16mm silent films from his personal collection, which are primarily obscure comedies of the kind unlikely ever to be programmed or released on DVD, so the best chance anyone is going to get of seeing them is if someone does a video transfer and sticks them on YouTube. This Model is doing, as the delightful introductory video above explains. Just subscribe to and every other Wednesday you’ll receive notice of the latest video he’s uploaded, with his own piano or organ score, naturally.

There’s just the one video there so far, Cook, Papa, Cook (1928) a typical example of a minor knockabout comedy of the period (in this case starring Henry Murdock, Lucille Hutton and Eva Thatcher). It’s no masterpiece, but it’s cheerful fun, and certainly whets the appetite for further fortnightly treats.

To keep up with Ben there’s
his website (
his blog (
his Facebook page (
his Twitter feed (
his YouTube channel (
his Vimeo channel (
his Tumblr (
his SoundCloud page (
and probably a lot more that I’ve missed [update: indeed I did – see comments]. Anyway, a great initative from someone who’s just at home online. Do sign up, or just keep visiting the YouTube channel regularly.

Silent film sound

From the book cover for Rick Altman’s Silent Film Sound

I don’t know what might be the cause, but there has been a dearth of silent film-related conferences so far this year. Maybe the upcoming Domitor conference (from which the Bioscope will be reporting) has so dominated the landscape that there hasn’t been the urge to come up with anything that might compete with it. Or maybe it’s because we don’t need to confer quite so much these days because we’re all talking to one another online (now there’s a topic for discussion).

But film conferences aren’t quite dead yet, and a call for papers has just been issued for Silent film sound: history, theory and practice, which is to take place 22-23 February 2013, at Kiel, Germany. The conference, which takes its title from Rick Altman’s highly influential book Silent Film Sound, is being organised by Christian Albrechts University Kiel, in collaboration with Kiel Society for Film Music Research.

Here’s the full call for papers (for which the deadline is 30 June 2012):

Silent film sound: history, theory and practice
Friday 22 – Saturday 23 February 2013

Christian Albrechts University Kiel, Germany
in collaboration with Kiel Society for Film Music Research

We are pleased to invite proposals for papers in the broad theme “Silent film sound: history, theory and practice”, to be presented at a conference of the same name on February 22 – 23 at the Christian Albrechts University Kiel.

With a few exceptions silent cinema was never silent. Cinemas and other spaces of film exhibition were in fact rather loud places where music, voices and sounds intermingled during the screening.

Today public interest in silent cinema is on the rise. Film screenings with live accompaniment have gained popularity in recent years, silent films are shown in concert halls and at festivals and they are (again) staged as events and not simply as presentation of a piece of entertainment or art.

Music and sound for silent film are relatively young fields of study and most research focuses on the American tradition. With this conference we seek to expand the field for other – especially European – regions, and compare them with well documented American cases.

We aim to gather scholars from various disciplines, to discuss and reflect on current and historical approaches to the study of sound and music and moving images. We particularly encourage both musicologists and film scholars to participate in the debate surrounding this topic, in order to benefit from each other’s perspectives and to challenge prevailing views and methodologies in this thriving field.

Ultimately, we aim to strengthen the European and international research network concerned with the variety of sound and musical practices in silent film accompaniment. We also want to discuss contemporary practices of silent film accompaniment and explicitly invite musical practitioners to share and discuss their experiences with us.

Papers may address repertories or issues relating to one of the following areas (or others related to the conference theme):

  • Film narrator/lecturer
  • Sound effects in silent film exhibition
  • Relationship of cinema with antecedent theatrical forms like Vaudeville and Variety
  • Relationship with theater music, opera and musical theater in general
  • Early film and the music recording and publishing industry
  • Singers in cinema
  • National and regional idiosyncrasies of silent film sound
  • Gender aspects in production, performance and reception
  • National identity in musical forms (community singing)
  • Diegetic music in silent cinema
  • Silent film and popular music/jazz: improvised or compiled (structural and formal issues)
  • Mechanical music
  • Opera films, music films
  • Early transmedial star systems
  • Historical discourse about music in cinemas
  • Issues of research, teaching and knowledge transfer
  • Contemporary practices of silent film accompaniment
  • Experimental silent film and its accompaniment

Proposals (max. 350 words) for 25-minute presentations should be sent to Claus Tieber (, no later than June 30, 2012. Please include a short biography, all current contact information (name, e-mail, phone number, affiliation) and specific AV requirements.

We plan to publish a book based on the refereed proceedings.

More information :

Well, that looks like a fairly thorough survey of the kinds of questions likely to be thrown up by such a subject. It’s quite close in its preoccupations to the recent Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, and seems to be part of a welcome trend of cross-disciplinary investigation, with musicologists (hopefully) as likely to be attracted to the themes as film historians.

You can always find information on early and silent film conferences, future and past, on The Bioscope’s Events pages – and do let me know of any other such conferences coming up.

Sounds in the cloud

You will recall the news from last year of a collection of generic silent film scores discovered at Birmingham Library, which exicted quite a bit of interest in the news media. That news interest would appear to have excited the Library in turn, which has pulled out all the stops to promote the collection. There have been performances of the scores and songs from the scores, the scores played to a modern film on Kristallnacht, and talk of a research project. Now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has announced a Silent Movies Animation Challenge, inciting animators to use one of the scores to accompany a silent animation film of their making.

The nine tracks have been made available on SoundCloud, which is sort of the audio equivalent of YouTube – the place to go for hearing, sharing and annotating sound recordings. You can also embed such sound files in your own website or blog, as above, so you can get a taste of the music composed for generic silent film acompaniment rather than having been composed for a specific film. Here are the sounds of the fairly run-of-the-mill cinema-going experience of the silent era.

This leads me to draw your attention to SoundCloud as a resource for silent film study in itself. Type in “silent film” or “silent film” into its search box and you will find a considerable number of scores by amateur and would-be professional composers for real or imaginary silent films, mostly performed on electric keyboards of various persuasions, as you would expect. If you go to the Advanced Search option and type in ‘silent’ into the Genre field you will get hundreds of results, though only a proprtion of these seem to relate to silent films.

The quality varies hugely, as you would also expect, but browsing through the mostly short sequences makes for a rather fascinating insight into how silent film conjure up musical sequences in our minds – and how listening to music can conjure up ideas of the films that might be accompanied by it.

Try this short piece by Joseph A. Fox, for example, and see what movie it creates for you:

Some of the scores are for actual silents. Here, for example, is composer Steve Bennett’s score for Nosferatu, broken up into seventeen themes:

There are also silent film scores which have featured in performance, such as Paul Van Vuplen’s score for The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in The Land of The Bolsheviks, as performed by the Metropole Orchestra:

You will also find some silent film accompanists of established reputation on SoundCloud. Ben Model, perhaps the most new media savvy of all of them, is there, though surprisingly with just the one track (and that a radio interview). Donald Sosin is also represented by just the one piece (apparently completely silent). American duo Silent Orchestra have some taster clips of their work. Is there anyone on the site that we should know about, and why aren’t more sharing a least a few sample tunes through a site that is growing in popularity and influence?

Anne Elliot, the Birmingham Library archivist who found the collection of silent film scores explains its significance

The deadline for the CBSO competition is 2 April, and finalists’ work will be screened at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, accompanied by the CBSO on Friday 20 April 2012 as part of their Friday Night Classics: Classic Chaplin night. More details here, and a nod of acknowledgment to Silent London for the CBSO competition news.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 34

The Bioscope’s occasional news service returns with the usual varied mix of silent films happening here and there which don’t otherwise feature on this blog.

Remembering the Somme
On today, the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year, let us draw your attention to the most notable film of the First World War, The Battle of the Somme (1916). As recently reported, the film is about to go on tour in the UK with orchestral accompaniment, the score written by Laura Rossi. Not many silents get to be toured with an orchestra, and though the orchestras invovled are amateurs, the costs are inevitably high, and should you wish to help support such a bold venure financially then you can do so by visting the ‘crowfunding website WeDidThis. The tour opens in Leicester tomorrow. Read more.

3D Charlie
We reported last year on the plans of an Indian TV company to produce an animated 3D Charlie Chaplin series, but there is news of plans by a Turkish company to attempt 3D conversions of some of Chaplin’s original films to form a 90-minute film entitled Chaplin 3D – The Little Tramp’s Adventure. One’s first reaction is to throw up one’s hands in horror; the next reaction is to hope to have a chance to see just what it might look like. Intriguingly, they have gone to the best sources for their footage: Serge Bromberg and David Shepherd, with Robert Israel signed up to provide the music. The results are reported to be impressive. Hmm, we shall have to see. Read more.

Remembering Kristallnacht
Sunday 13 November will see an unusual example of silent film presentation at Belsize Square Synagogue in London. The Zemel Choir (“The UK’s leading mixed voice Jewish choir”), in commeroation of Kristallnacht, will be presenting a 1936 silent film, Hatikvah, shot by a German-Jewish filmmaker, showing pioneering Jewish settlers in Palestine. Intriguingly, the choral and orchestral accompaniment will in part derive from some of the generic silent film music scores recently unearthed at Birmingham Central Library. It’s an unexpected outcome of that exciting discovery, and one wonders to what other ends those scores might be used in time. Read more.

On Irish screens
There seems to be quite a bit of publishing activity on the Irish silent cinema (and pre-cinema) front at the moment. Hot on the heels of Gary Rhodes’ Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema comes two new books by Kevin Rockett and Emer Rockett, shortly to be published by Fourt Courts Press. Magic lantern, panorama and moving picture shows in Ireland, 1786-1909 covers the history of proto-cinematic experiences in Ireland up to the first film shows, while Film exhibition and distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010, “traces in forensic detail the social, cultural and business practices that comprise the Irish cinema phenomenon”. Read more.

Remembering Barbara Kent
The Bioscope neglected to note the passing last month of Barbara Kent, at the age of 103. Kent was perhaps the last of the headline silent film stars, having played leading roles alongside Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil, in William Wyler’s terrific The Shakedown, and in Paul Fejos classic late silent Lonesome. Among the many obituaries, Ronald Bergan’s in The Guardian has perhaps the most detail. Read more.

(And just a little extra item – those of you in the UK, should you by some strange chance finding yourself watching The One Show on Tuesday evening, you will see yours truly talking about film star competition winner and Buster Keaton co-star Margaret Leahy, with the redoubtable Gyles Brandreth.)

‘Til next time!

Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

Waiting for the show to begin

The sun sets on another Giornate del Cinema Muto. Eight days of silent films from every corner of the globe, touching every subject and embracing every style imaginable. Our final day’s report once again comes from the Bioscope’s reporter à clef, The Mysterious X.

And so we arrive at the final day of the Giornate 2011. A bittersweet day, as inevitably there are mixed feelings as we prepare ourselves for all the goodbyes, to our fellow delegates, new friends and old, the people who work behind the scenes, and the good people of Pordenone who make us feel so welcome … and sigh a little sigh of relief that there isn’t a Day 9, and we can start to make up for the lack of sleep of the past week or so.

The last Saturday is the odd day out at Pordenone; the morning screenings are held at Cinemazero, Pordenone’s arthouse cinema half a mile up the Via Garibaldi from our usual hangouts, while the orchestra for the closing gala rehearses. The programme up there tends to be synchronised-score or early sound films that round off threads that have been running all week; so the offer this year was a couple of Italian-American films made for the New York Italian audience in the early 30s, and the remainder of the Shostakovich/FEKS material, taking the story up to Skazka O Glupom Myshonke (The Story of the Silly Little Mouse) (USSR 1940), a 1940 animation that Shostakovich scored, or rather, was animated to his music.

Well, it was a glorious day, the sky was the purest azure, the air clear … so I sat ouside the Posta and wrote up my notes while sampling their fine coffee; saving what remained of my energy for what promised to be a long night. Sorry. I’m sure the films were wonderful …

After a light lunch, a special screening of South – Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic Of The Antarctic (UK 1919), Frank Hurley’s masterpiece of documentary, avant la lettre. A film familiar to many of us, this screening was enhanced by both the subtle work of Stephen Horne and material from Shackleton’s expedition memoir, read by distinguished British actor Paul McGann. Cleverly handled, the readings were spare when the film grows intertitle-heavy, more expansive when useful in commenting on the images; carefully not overlapping either the appearance of titles onscreen or duplicating their information. It worked very well, Stephen and Paul barely visible onstage, but spectrally unlit and almost in the wings; their contribution definitely added to the film. While it would have been different to the original lecture presentations of the 1910s, it gave a sense of how they might have been; the low-key theatricality of the presentation respectful to the material, and adding to it.

Lili Damita and Georges Trevillein Das Spielzeug Von Paris, from

A very quick break, then the best of the early Disneys we saw, his modern retelling of Cinderella (USA 1922) which was great fun … and then Das Spielzeug Von Paris (The Plaything of Paris) (Austria 1925) from the Kertesz strand. As promised in the trailer previously screened, this was a pretty racy trip through the life and loves of Parisienne cabaret star Célimène, a young Lili Damita; adored by all Paris, but particularly by a dripping wet (and promised to another) young English diplomat, and a positively ancient French aristocrat playboy, who seems to view her as simply the latest addition to his collection. But then, at least in part, the film is all about possession. The aristocrat gives the impression he wants to hang her on the wall to be admired like a painting; the Englishman wants both to put her on a pedestal and take her on fishing holidays … but she belongs to Paris, as much as Paris belongs to her … this is not the ending that we see in Moulin Rouge, for example, where the showqueen goes back onstage and performs through the tears as Real Life has failed her … here, Célimène goes back to her cabaret stardom because … she wants to. It’s her Real Life, and she likes it that way. And eventually the Englishman understands that … the aristocrat always knew.

Lili Damita was a revelation here. Not always convincing in Fiacre No. 13 as the cabbie’s adopted daughter, here she was in her element; an-ex dancer herself, she was fabulous performing in the cabaret sequences, and was having great fun in the backstage sequences, being worshipped by the various suitors; and it seemed to be Lili in the howling gale, drenched in road mud, with the car coming full tilt at her … all told, a cracking film, with glamour, dance sequences, comedy, a few thrills … no great insight into the human condition, perhaps, but highly entertaining.

Lilian Gish in The Wind

I also missed – accidentally this time – two more Italian films from the 1910s, thinking the screenings had finished before the main event; The Wind (USA 1928) with Carl Davis conducting his own score for the Mitteleuropa Orchestra. Not having been around for the original Thames Silents presentations in the eighties, it’s always a treat to see these films and scores revived; Wings was a highlight of last year’s Giornate, and The Wind was, for me, this year. Somewhere in this room here I might have a VHS off-air from the last time British TV deigned to show the Photoplay print with this score … but nothing ever compares to seeing and hearing these presentations live.

The score for The Wind is slightly unusual among Davis’ work as it – as dictated by the film – is as suffused with musical and sound effects, as the film is with the visualisation of the incessant gale. You don’t get the lavishly orchestrated melodies that inhabit many of his scores, but it’s absolutely right for the film. And what a powerful film it is. Gish – who introduced the film herself via a tape made for the film’s previous Giornate outing in 1986 – is acting her socks off as the always vulnerable, but increasingly disturbed – and disturbing – young woman stuck in the middle of nowhere with a husband she doesn’t know. Opposite her is the superb, impassive Lars Hanson, like a rock being beaten by the waves of Gish’s performance. It’s heightened stuff, and with lesser performers could have tipped over into the ridiculous … but this is Gish and Hanson, and you get totally absorbed into the film. Wonderful.

And then the final programme … a smashing collection of films-about-filmgoing that really deserved to be shown at a more audience-friendly time of 10.30 pm on the last Saturday …

Al Cinematografo, Guardate … E Non Toccate (At the Cinema – Look, Don’t Touch) (Italy 1912) is a comedy where a predatory Ernesto Vaser tries to play footsie with a female audience member, and it all goes predictably wrong in the dark; Lost And Won (USA 1911) a slight drama where two forcibly seperated sweethearts are reunited when the boy, his fortune now made, sees her starring in a film … Amour et Science (France 1912) was a short sci-fi drama about a television experiment going horribly wrong; At The Hour of Three (UK 1912) was a rather fine drama, and early example of the ‘Filmed alibi’ situation; a man is accused of murder, but a chance appearance of him at a parade filmed for a newsreel, at the time of the murder, is spotted by his love … nicely made, it has the bonus for us Brits of footage taken inside the Clarendon Studios at Croydon, and a cinema at Selhurst designed to look like a victorian country cottage, bay windows, window boxes … Arthème, Opérateur (France 1913) didn’t make much of an impact; I can’t honestly remember a thing about it … Mutt and Jeff at the Movies (US 1920) finished the show off, with our animated heroes doing their best at running a picture house …

So, there we all are, the last straggling survivors of the Giornate 2011, milling around outside the Verdi at gone midnight, not sure where to go or what to do … what can you do in the early hours of a Sunday morning in Italy? Find a wine bar, talk films, drink wine, laugh a lot. At least I got to bed by 4 am this year …

Overall, in retrospect, it was a good year; the local populace were as welcoming and hospitable as always; we missed the Ciervo, a restaurant opposite the Verdi known for its good food and lightning service, now relocated to the ground floor of a hotel just far enough away to be slightly inconvenient, but the many others took up the strain; the staff at the Posta were as hardworking and patient with us as ever, and the gentlemen in local politics and sponsoring companies seemed pleased to continue to dip into their various purses to help the Giornate continue. Fingers crossed, the way the world is at the moment. The staff and volunteers of the Giornate itself cannot be thanked enough; nothing ever seems too much trouble … the ushers in the Verdi were attentive, but failed to stop a couple of people coming a cropper in the obstacle course that is the Verdi’s auditorium. Blame the architects, though …

On the film side; there were some real highlights, some real personal discoveries, and no real clunkers; some were of course, not as good as others; the early Kertesz films were disappointing, with only his later silent films redeeming him; but historically interesting’ I suppose. The overall programme was rather dominated by Soviet cinema; the wonderful Georgian programme I would not have missed for the world, the FEKS/Shostakovich strand was more variable, shall we say, and Fragments of an Empire, in the Canon Revisited strand, a real highlight. But quite a lot of Russia for one week. And the music, all week, was simply superb, the standard being raised every year, it seems. I’ve said it before, here last year, probably, but the golden age of silent film music? We’re living in it. Congratulations to everyone involved. Now to start reserving flights for next year …

And thank you TMX for four days of fine reporting, enabling us once again to offer a comprehensive record of the Giornate del Cinema Muto to add to the archives. It was a fine festival, a little top-heavy with USSR offering for some tastes, but without a dull day, and with many highpoints, revelations and re-evaluations. My vote for films of the festival goes to Lady of the Dugout (which I knew before), The Soldier’s Courtship (which more than lived up to expectations) and Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japanese polar exploration, full of revelations), but I agree that Fragments of a Empire was an extraordinary piece of work. Hearty congratulations to all who continue to put on the festival with such professionalism, dedication and invention.

‘Til next time.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven

Voicing the silents

Jason Singh in rehearsal for his vocal accompaniment to Drifters (1929)

On November 6th the Cornerhouse in Manchester will be presenting an unusual form of silent film accompaniment. “Human beatboxer and sound artist” Jason Singh will be accompanying a screening of John Grierson’s silent documentary film Drifters (1929) using his voice alone – with a fair bit of processing, sampling and pre-recorded vocal sounds. The result, to judge from the video clip, sounds like it could be really effective. Drifters is certainly an imaginative choice – and with its poetic, modernistic treatment of an activity (herring fisheries) steeped in tradition, it could be an astute one.

How often have silent films been accompanied by the human voice? Not too often, I think. I’m just back from a weekend at Athy in Ireland, where the annual Shackleton Autumn School (a gathering of polar exploration enthusiasts in the town of the great Antarctic explorer’s birth) is held. I introduced a screening of the BFI’s restoration of The Great White Silence (1924), which documents Shackleton’s great rival Captain Scott’s failed attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole.

The restoration has gained great acclaim, not least in these pages, but I was none too complimentary about the music/soundscape by Simon Fisher Turner, which I thought used the film as decoration to an experiment in sound textures rather than being a proper accompaniment. Well, seeing the film again, I was wrong. The version of the score on DVD (lacking the strings that featured at the live premiere) is often spookily effective electronica, which brings out the film’s otherworldly qualities. The electronic sounds do lack variety after a while, but Turner spices things up with jolting introductions of contemporary gramophone recordings, and most powerfully a solo voice singing ‘Abide with Me’ over the still images and model shots recording the Scott party’s fatal return from the Pole. The unaccompanied voice had a powerful effect on the audience; a real coup de théâtre.

I have seen or heard silents accompanied by most things – piano, organ, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, orchestra, brass band, harp, electronica, percussion, rock band, violin, accordion, jazz band, recorders, player piano, turntables, silence – but only this once with the human voice alone. However, in the comments to a recent Bioscope post on those times in the silent era when silent film were shown without music, Maria Velez records the existence of a vocal quartet at the La Scala cinema in Glasgow during the first months of the First World War, which seems not only to have sung between films but during them as well.

Was this unique, or does anyone know of any other such examples from the period – or from the presentation of silents today? There were plenty of examples from the silent era of the use of voices behind or to the side of the screen, for singers (recorded or live) accompanying song films, of which there were a huge number in the pre-WWI period; and there were reciters of dramatic works, such as Eric Williams undertook in some British venues in the 1910s. And I’ve seen songs introduced as part of silent film screenings, such as the memorable performance of the ‘Internationale’ during Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück at Pordenone last year. Pianist Donald Sosin‘s silent film accompaniments have included songs sung by his wife Joanna Seaton. But voices or voice used as musical accompaniment in a non-song context? Anyone? Or any examples of unusual forms of musical accompaniment to silents beyond those that I’ve listed?

There’s a news piece on Jason Singh and Drifters at Wired, and further information on the Cornerhouse website.

Somme on tour

The Philharmonia Orchestra playing to The Battle of the Somme at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall, London, in 2006

Silent films going on tour with live orchestral accompaniment is not something that happens too often. So it is particularly pleasing to be able to report the forthcoming tour of The Battle of the Somme (1916), the iconic First World War documentary filmed by J.B. MacDowell and Geoffrey Malins, with orchestral score by Laura Rossi. Rossi’s exceptional music (the first scored for a British feature-length silent since the silent era itself) was first heard at the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall in London in 2006, and can now be found on the Imperial War Museum’s DVD release (the background to film and DVD can be explored further on this Bioscope post).

The tour dates are:

The music has been scored for (to quote from Rossi’s site) 2 Flute (2nd doubling Piccolo), 2 Oboe, 2 Clarinet in Bb, 2 Bassoon (2nd doubling Contra Bassoon), 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in Bb, 3 Trombone, 1 Tuba, 1 Timpani/Percussion, 2 Percussion, Harp, Piano, Strings. You can listen to sound clips, view video clips, see a sample page from the score, purchase/download the CD or purchase the DVD, and more, all from this link on Rossi’s site.

Rossi’s press release says this about the film:

The Battle of the Somme remains one of the most successful British films ever made. It is estimated over 20 million tickets were sold in Great Britain in the first two months of release, and the film was distributed world-wide to demonstrate to allies and neutrals Britain’s commitment to the First World War … The Battle of the Somme gave its 1916 audience an unprecedented insight into the realities of trench warfare, controversially including the depiction of dead and wounded soldiers. It shows scenes of the build-up to the infantry offensive including the massive preliminary bombardment, coverage of the first day of the battle (the bloodiest single day in Britain’s military history) and depictions of the small gains and massive costs of the attack.

while the Bioscope has this to say about the film:

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

This is a bold venture indeed (particularly with four different orchestras) and hopefully further such screenings will follow, especially as we are getting that little bit closer to the war’s centenary. Rossi has more recently composed a score for the film’s follow-up feature, The Battle of the Ancre (1917), sound clips for which can also be found on her site, as well as her earlier work composing for the British Film Institute’s acclaimed Silent Shakespeare DVD.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day two

The top of the Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

Domenica. Dawn. The sun is already beating down warmly as we head out after breakfast for a long’s day’s viewing. It may be like high summer outside, but we are scheduled to spent most of it in a darkened theatre, absorbed in the extraordinarily various worlds of silent cinema revealed in day two of the Giornate del Cinema Muto. So let the adventure begin.

Some years ago the festival put on a notable programme of silent Walt Disney films, starting with the Alice comedies. In 2011 we go back further, to Uncle Walt’s first-ever films, the Laugh-o-Grams series. In 1920 Disney was a 19-year-old commercial artist working for an advertising company in Kansas City. He approached a local exhibitor, Frank Newman, with the idea of producing a cartoon filler for Newman’s cinema chain. This first film, Newman Laugh-o-Gram (USA 1921), is a rudimentary but spirited local newsreel, starting with live film of Disney himself at his desk, then turning to comic comments on local issues (crime, fashions, the state of the roads), done as lightning sketches except for a final item when there is genuine animation – one of the few examples in his entire oeuvre done by Disney alone. The Laugh-o-Gram series would continue for another two years, but Disney shifted from newsreel to modernised fables, and these are what we are to see throughout the Giornate.

Next up, The Race to the Pole. The Giornate’s Antarctic exploration strand is to give us two programmes of short films and two documentary features over the week, covering Man’s urgent quest to explore Antarctica and to become the first to reach the South Pole. I am reminded of Raymond Durgnat’s withering four-word assessment of the 1953 documentary The Conquest of Everest – “as if it mattered”. Well, of course it didn’t really matter, and despite much insistence (some of it sincere) that they were heading south for the best of scientific purposes, so much of this activity was vaingorious, driven by national pride and a quest for personal glory by some of exploration’s most stubborn – but also most interesting – men.

We will be seeing the two most stubborn and most interesting of them all, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, later in the week. This morning we have a collection of shorts which shows just how much polar activity there was worldwide, and how popular films were of such expeditions (the films often having been made in the hope that their commercial success would help offset expedition expenses). First up is The Scottish Antarctic Expedition (GB 1902-04), briefly documenting William Spiers Bruce’s scrupulously scientific expedition to Antarctica. Bruce captured ice floating by and a penguin rookery before his camera jammed – just enough to give us two emblematic shots which will now recur in all the other Antarctic films we are to see.

Ernest Shackleton appears, albeit only as a dot on the horizon, in Depature of the British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttleton N.Z. 1st Jan. 1908 (New Zealand 1908). This newsreel shows Shackleton’s ship Nimrod sailing south, waved goodbye by excited crowds and followed by a flotilla of ships. Shackleton would get to within 97 miles of the Pole before being forced to return.

Sledging into the distance, from Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12

The explorer who first made it furthest south was of course Roald Amundsen. Thanks to its recent DVD release and recognition by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12 (Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition) (Norway 1912) has become not only familiar but iconic, after years when the only familiar Anatarctic exploration images were those taken of Scott and Shackleton. Filmed by Amundsen himself and Kristan Prestrud, the sixteen-minute film does not reached the aesthetic heights achieved by Herbert Ponting (for Scott) or Frank Hurley (for Shackleton), but its matter-of-factness echoes the clear-headed, sensible – and of course successful – approach undertaken by the Norwegians. On two occasions the images haunt us – where a silhouetted Norwegian with pipe comically confronts an emperor penguin, and towards the end when their sledges pulled by dogs disappear into the white dstance, heading away from us as they move to the top of the frame and the camera remains fixed.

However, though the print was poor, the film of the programme for me is Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japan 1912). It was crowded in Antarctica around 1910-1912. There were expeditions from Britain, Australian, Norway and Japan. The latter, led by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase mostly explored the coastal areas and did not make any attempt on the Pole, but they were excitedly acclaimed as heroes on their return, and the film is constructed as a paean to noble endeavour, with a strong nationalist tone, glorifying what were really relatively humble achievements. “Japan has left its imprint on the Antarctic continent”, it boasts. It is also interesting for the opening scenes where we are shown the equipment, and then each of the members of the expedition, with their names. No other polar exploration film of the period does this, amazingly enough, given the huge human interest in such adventures. It even names the ship’s accountant. The footage on the ice, shot by Yasunao Taizumi, is not particularly impressively, but fascinatingly the catalogue notes by leading polar film authority Jan Anders Diesen reveal that some of the footage, showing four men pulling a sledge and pitching a tent, does not feature the type of sledge used by Shirase’s expedition. There is a possibility that these shots could come from the otherwise lost film of Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition, which was being sold by Gaumont in 1909. It would be wonderful if this could be confirmed.

A newsreel follows, Pathé’s Animated Gazette no. 140 (UK 1911) which has a brief item of the dogs used in Douglas Mawson’s expedition, included among such delightful newsreel mundanities as ship launches, parades, and Kingston regatta. Mawson, who led Australian’s Antarctic expedition (previously described on the Bioscope), took with him the photographer Frank Hurley, who was still learning his craft as a polar filmmaker and would go on to greater things working with Ernest Shackleton. Nevertheless, the two sequences from Mawson’s surviving films, shown as [The Film of the Mawson Australasian Expedition] (Australia 1911-12), demonstrate great skill and enterprise from Hurley, particularly in a sequence where the explorers venture out into a fierce wind yet Hurley’s camera remains steady throughout, his sense of composition acute. Mawson’s films were presented in lecture format over 1914-16 and lecture scripts survive. The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia are reconstructing the films in their lecture format, and we see the films intercut with slides (which do indeed slide in an out as they would have been shown at the time) and commentary (recorded by Quentin Tournor) and no music. It is instrutive and effective, and there needs to be more of this sort of archaeological reconstruction of the lecture films of the period, because some of the most popular ‘films’ of our period were actually multimedia amalgamations – films, slides, music, commentary – in a form which we could say was more televisual than cinematic. Neil Brand and I had a stab at it recreating part of With Allenby in Egypt and Lawrence in Arabia (1919), but the Mawson’s scripts seem to have the crucial details of what film clip and what slide goes where. And so do any other such lecture film scripts survive?

Anyway, the polar film programme part 1 has been excellent, and it is interesting to see it watched by a full and attentive audience. Only a few years ago a programme of non-fiction films might be guaranteed to empty the Verdi, but good programming and supporting information is paying off.

Betty Amman in Asphalt, from

The Giornate’s Canon Revisited strand brings back classics for re-evaluation. There are times when the majority of us are left scratching our heads because we have not heard of said classics, it being a long time since we last read The Film Till Now. But we have all heard of Joe May’s Asphalt (Germany 1929) and we sit back in expectation of a treat. And we are not disappointed. It is as classic as they come. It sets up the city street setting with polished skill, gradually leading us into the life of a young traffic policeman with doting parents who captures a woman jewel thief only to be seduced by her. Her lover then returns, the young man kills him by accident in a fight, but (somewhat improbably) he avoids imprisonment when she turns honest for the first time and says that the killing was self-defence, and that she is guilty of the jewel theft. But the story is not the point – it is the truthfulness to the way people act out their lives before one another, the truthfulness of the policeman’s spoken and unspoken understanding of things in the scenes with his parents. It is a film that finds out all the shades of grey between good and bad. An exceptional film, given an appropriately nuanced piano accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau which was much applauded.

And then it is back to Georgia for Mzago da Gela (Georgia SSR 1934, though made in 1930), another film directed by Lev Push, this time in collaboration with Shalva Khuskivadze. This shows the remote Khevsur people, whose exotic mountainside lives are interrupted by visting tourists who bring with them a magical invention, radio. A young couple, recently married, react differently to this insight into modernity. She leaves for the big city of Tiblisi; he stays behind and broods, before going to look for her. The scenes of the two of them in traditional costume wandering lost through the modern town with everyone staring at them turn the film from drama into documentary. Then, alas, the propaganda takes over, because they have to be seen to both embrace the forward-looking Soviet Union, so she runs a dairy and he becomes a radio engineer. A free film would have been able to explore the tensions between the traditional and the modern with greater richness.

Goodness, it is only midday. We break for lunch, rejoicing in the warmth, then return for two Italian dramas. Il Veleno delle Parole (Italy 1913) is a tale of slander and innocence, quite competently done, but La Serpe (Italy 1920) is an over-wrought bore, with Francesca Bertini putting on the diva mannerisms when that style of performance was some years out of date. Italian films sadly lost their way in the 1920s; they try so hard and achieve so little.

The Giornate has been encouraging local schools to contribute music scores to silents and then perform them to us, so we get American comedies with recorders, percussion, sound effects and the teacher playing the piano and it all works rather well. Disney’s Oh Teacher! (USA 1927), featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was nicely done, and Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (USA 1922) was fun, once they’d got the DVD working (a really indistinct image, alas). It’s a curious film, not quite understanding what this new phenomenon of electricity is (by mistake Buster gets to wire up someone’s home electrically and all of the gadgets go haywire when a real electrical engineer takes his revenge), not sufficiently consistent in the gags it draws from the situation.

Then we get SpilimBrass, a five-piece brass ensemble playing to Chalie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (USA 1917) and Easy Street (USA 1917). They are excellent – spiritied, witty, and perfectly attuned to the needs of the films. The Adventurer must be the perfect comedy; Easy Street is not so funny (what film so honest about violence, poverty and degradation could be?) but it packs in more human observation in twenty minutes than some social historians have achieved in a lifetime.

We decide to forgo a modern documentary on Hungarian cinema and stumble out into the early evening for supper. The third and final screening session of this long day begins at 8.30, and the Verdi is full as everyone eagerly awaits the headline attraction. Firstly we get another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, Little Red Riding Hood (USA 19220, a rudimentary but nevertheless delightful modernisation of the fairy tale. There are quite a lot of repeated actions and other such animation short-cuts, but we can see Walt and his team learning their craft and enjoying doing so. A Hole in the Bucket (USA 2010) is one of the modern silent shorts that the Giornate generously finds space for, though the results tend to be mixed. American film student Rex Harsin has developed a Chaplin-like character he calls Purdie. Alas he does not have Chaplin’s years of experience on the variety stage before he ever stepped in front of a camera. No one laughs.

The Better Man (USA 1912) is a routine Vitagraph Western, most interesting for being one of the horde of American films repatriated from New Zealand and for having the money for its restoration provided by the For the Love of Film blogathon, which gets a welcome mention in the credits.

Clara Bow says come hither, in Mantrap

And then the crowd get what they having been looking forward to all day, Mantrap (USA 1926), starring Clara Blow. It is being shown as part of the Treasures of the West strand, marking the recent 5-DVD set release of films on Western themes by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Mantrap is probably Clara Bow’s best film, despite the silly story and unlikely setting (she marries dull hulk Ernest Torrence and joins in the Canadian wilderness with no one to talk to except Percy Marmont). The camera loves her, and she loves the camera, never more so than for the iconic shot where she beckons Marmont (and by implication all of us watching) with her curled finger. It’s not much of a film, to be honest; a good cast is given too little to do, wisecracking intertitles becomes wearisome after a while, and its teasing attempt at challenging conventional morality when Clara cheerfully ditches her husband for Marmont is squashed when she returns to Torrence as the dutiful wife, after a breezy spell in Minneapolis. It could have been a proto-feminist film, but it’s Victor Fleming directing, and it isn’t.

The parting of the Red Sea in Die Sklavenkönigin, a screengrab from Nitrateville

Phew, it’s been a long day. Nineteen films, three of them features, and now here’s a fourth to round off the day. Another strand at the Giornate is Before Curtiz, the films the great Michael Curtiz made before he went to Hollywood, when he was Mihály Kertész from Hungary. I’ve long wanted to see Die Sklavenkönigin (Moon of Israel) (Austria 1924), not least for its British connection since it was part-funded by British company Stoll Film Studios, with H. Rider Haggard writing the intertitles for what was an adaptation of his novel Moon of Israel. Alas, the old saying ‘A Stoll film is a dull film’ never rang truer. It’s a tale of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt being led to freedom by Moses, though the lead figure is an Israelite slave girl with Mosaic-like authority who falls in love with an Egyptian prince.

Because it says so in the film histories then I have to accept it must be partially true, but I really do find it hard to credit that Maria Corda was ever popular. Plain, heavily-built, and as lacking in star quality as she is in any acting ability, she kills the film stone dead. Yet it apparently was designed as a star vehicle on acount of her great popularity with German and Austrian auiences following the films she had made with husband Alexander Korda. Her co-star, the Chilean Adelqui Millar, is no less wooden, though having seen the ludicrous hairstyle devised for him by the wardrobe department, perhaps he just gave up from the start and was merely grateful for the cheque at the end of it. There is some interest in how the Jews are presented not entirely sympathetically, with their tendency to violence contrasting with the gentle Egyptian prince who becomes Pharoah, and the parting of the Red Sea is genuinely impressive – achieved, the catalogue tells us, “by combining double exposure of the negative with an ingenious mechanical device that launched 50 cubic metres of water over a scale model”. In the end Corda has to die to avoid the a-historical embarassment of a Jew married to an Egyptian pharoah. A film more endured than enjoyed.

It’s been a long day; it’s been a long post. Look out for the report from day three, when we shall encounter an underground printing press, bourgeois Japanese insects, a kiss on the roof of the Alhambra, and the woman who painted a famous red flag.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

Pordenone bound

It’s that time of year again, when the Bioscope heads off for its home-from-home, Pordenone, northern Italy, for the Giornate del Cinema Muto. As always, we will be producing a diary of the eight-day silent film festival. However, w’re going to experiment a little this year. Your scribe is there for the first four days, during which we hope to produce daily on-the-spot reports in the style of the conference reports we provided earlier in the year. Then I head home, but our regular, anonymised Pordenone reporter, the Mysterious X, will be taking over. X will be producing a more considered report on the second four days, to be recollected in tranquility and replayed to you in the traditional style, some time after the festival is over.

Meanwhile, to give you a taste of the festival (and demonstrate that it’s not all about sitting through exhaustive retrospectives of Georgian silents), the video above shows one time silent child star Jean Darling (of ‘Our Gang’ fame) giving a showstopping performance of ‘The Cinema Kiss’ (1929) from a programme of movie-related songs at the 2009 Giornate, with Donald Sosin at the piano.

Hope to see some of you there quite soon.