Going underground

OK, here’s a test for you – who’s in this picture? It’s a frame still from a newsreel of an aviation demonstration held in Britain for the parliamentary aerial defence committee at Hendon in May 1911. It shows two parents and their 9-year-old son. Recognise him at all? Well, it may help to know that the father is Herbert Asquith, prime minister of Britain at the time, with his wife Margot. And so yes the little boy is indeed Anthony Asquith, making his first appearance on a medium where a dozen or so years later he would shine as one of Britain’s leading film directors and go on to enjoy a notable career in film spanning four decades.

Asquith is back in vogue. Most who know their film history will associate him with elegant if (apparently) bloodless society dramas, typically adaptations of Terence Rattigan plays, peaking with a peerless version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But now more and more we are being encouraged to look at Asquith the young man, who took a very different approach to the camera. In common with a number of the British intelligensia of the early 1920s Anthony Asquith became fascinated by film while at university. He spent some time in Hollywood as a guest of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, joined H. Bruce Woolfe’s British Instructional Films to learn about filmmaking from the gound up, and was a founder member of the Film Society, the London-based body formed to screen films of articis worth or historical interest which did so much to establish an intellctual film culture in Britain.

Asquith first served as a general assistant on Sinclair Hill’s Boadicea (1926), before writing the script for Shooting Stars (1927), a film for which he was also described as assistant director, with industry old hand A.V. Bramble being named director. But the opinion of posterity (and even opinion at the time) is this is an Asquith film. It is one of the most astonishing of film debuts: a witty deconstruction of filmmaking (the story is set in a film studio) and a stylistic grand feast. It is crying out for restoration with new score, and all of promotional works that we now expect to come with high-level silents brought back to public attention. Doubtless all that will happen in the fullness of time, but before Shooting Stars becomes the talk of the town we have the film of the town, and that is Underground.

Underground (1928) was the first film for which Asquith received full director credit, and it shows quite definitely that Shooting Stars was no fluke (or astonishing late career flourish from Bramble). It is a work of someone who had seen a lot of German and Soviet films at the Film Society and who wanted to bring the exciting techniques of expressionism and Soviet montage, coupled with psychological penetration, to a British setting. Underground achieves this about as well as you could hope. There is something slightly ridiculous about looming shadows, vertiginous camera angles and doom-laden characters placed among the mundanities of a London setting. Eisenstein showed a people impelled towards revolution; Asquith shows them catching the Undergound train everyday. There is a melodramatic love story to follow, with an absolutely splendid fight climax (some of which you can see in the trailer above), but the real story is the ebb and flow of London life, which doesn’t really fit in with the tempestuous technique. The revolution was not going to happen in London – Asquith was interested in what the camera could do, not what society might do, and the two do not really connect in Underground.

But what the heck – it’s a great film to watch, and now the BFI restoration is getting the full new orchestral score treatment courtesy of Neil Brand and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s worth noting how extraordinary this is, in terms of British silent films. Brand’s score for Blackmail, shown at Bologna and at the Barbican in London last year, was the first full orchestral score for a British silent fiction film since the days of the silents themselves (Laura Rossi produced an orchestral score for the documentary The Battle of the Somme in 2006). Underground is the second. It shows how the critical and commercial reputation for British silents has risen in recent years – or at least the small coterie of British silents that are likely to please a modern audience. Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor has entered many people’s favourite lists after its DVD release and Stephen Horne‘s great work in accompanying it, and one expects that preconceptions will be shifted once again once word gets round about Underground‘s particular thrills.

Underground is being shown with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Timothy Brock at the Barbican, London, on 5 October 2011. The Barbican web page has full booking details, plus a podcast with Neil Brand giving his thoughts on scoring for silent films. It will be good to be there if you can.

Anthony Asquith made four silent features. The third among them, The Runaway Princess (1929), I’ve not seen but has a reputation of being a bit on the lightweight side. It was an Anglo-German production, for which Asquith was encouraged or obliged to rein in the arty stuff, and there’s unlikely to be much there to excite an audience today. But Shooting Stars – now there is treat for you in the future, I hope.

When silents were silent

D.W. Griffith’s Those Awful Hats (1909) depicts a conventional film show with piano accompaniment. Most film shows at this time were like this – but not all. Image from http://www.journeybyframe.com

I read it again the other day. Someone explained how silent films were accompanied by music by starting with the phrase, “Of course, silent films were never silent …” We’ve all used those words, or something like them, explaning the basics of silent film to those new to or indifferent towards the medium. It’s corny, but it’s useful. Kevin Brownlow has a chapter in The Parade’s Gone By entitled ‘The Silents Were Never Silent’. But is it true? Well, if you are going to be historically exact about such things, then the answer is no. Some of time, if not very often, silent films were silent. At the risk of sowing seeds of confusion, we shall attempt to explain when, where and why.

Films from the so-called silent era were ‘silent’ because for the most part there was no soundtrack included on the film print. Although Eugene Lauste patented a sound-on-film system as early as 1907, the first films with soundtracks did not appear, in a few experimental shorts, until the early 1920s. Sound-on-film as we know it was effectively devised by the American Lee De Forest, whose De Forest Phonofilms (short films chiefly showing dramatic or musical sketches) were shown in some cinemas from the mid-1920s. Also during the silent period there had been numerous efforts at synchronising films with disc recordings, chiefly for songs. The concept first became prominent in 1900, and enjoyed much success around the 1907-1910 period, to the extent that it became common for many film programmes to include one song title using synchronised recordings. The concept was revived and improved by Warner Bros for The Jazz Singer (1927), which introduced the idea of sound film (specifically sound feature films) to a mass audience, though it was sound-on-film that would soon take over and give us the talkies.

But for the most part a silent film was silent unless accompanied by live music. But was the music always there? When films were first exhibited commercially, in 1894, via the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow, they were silent. You peered down into the machine, paid your cent or penny, and thirty seconds of so of silent miniaturised action played before your eyes. Edison wasn’t happy with this, and in 1895 introduced the Kinetophone, an adaptation of the Kinetoscope with accompanying (though not synchronised) phonograph recordings. Yet for the most part people started seeing silent films silently.

This continued with the first Lumière presentations around the world in 1895/96, which generally took place without music in salons before select audiences, introducing the concept, before the films would then be transferred to variety theatres where they could be commercialised. Here they would be accompanied by music, since every variety theatre came with a house band or orchestra. Films needed music to be commercially palatable, and because the musicians were on hand. So the idea of films needing music to bring them fully to life was established very soon.

Then films grew longer, and more dramatic, and more popular, and started to demand dedicated auditoria. Film shows in American nickelodeons or British electric theatres (we’re talking about the mid-1900s here) were 45 minutes to an hour long, with several films on the programme. It was a long time for an audience to sit in silence, or so it might seem to us, and many have assumed that because later practice was to have music accompaniment for even the humblest item in the film programme, then it was naturally so during the earlier, nickelodeon period.

Rick Altman, in Silent Film Sound (2004), startlingly overturned this assumption. He argues that music was commonplace in nickelodeon shows (i.e. around 1905-09) but that it was performed between the films, and often only then. He cites evidence from film journals, guides to managing film shows and memoirs to show that if a pianist was used at a film show, it might simply be to accompany a singer performing to illustrated song slides – and if you had a synchronised film to provide the song (usually with the audience joining in too) then there was no need for the expense of the musician. Music was also handy for keeping the audience amused during the change of reels, but there was no necessity for music to be played throughout. Even when musical accompnaiment started to be introduced, it wasn’t necessarily ubiquitous, with Altman citing evidence for film shows where the dramatic films were show with music, while the comedies played silently.

How widespread was this practice? Altman isn’t able to say, though there is enough incidental evidence to suggest that it was common enough not to require any kind of comment at the time as being anything out of the ordinary. Not was it restricted to America. In his pioneering articles for Film History on film exhibition in London 1906-1914, Jon Burrows shows that there were some London cinemas in the pre-1910 period which showed films without any musical accompaniment, though here the circumstances were slightly different. In the period before the Cinematograph Act was introduced, the London Country Council licensed entertainments as music, drama or music an drama. A simple way of dodging the censorious eye of the L.C.C. was not to have any music (or dancing) at all.

My own researches in this field have uncovered some indirect evidence for the practice, but no direct evidence. For example, in December 1910 The World’s Fair (a journal for fairground showmen which had a lot of interest in the emerging cinema business) gave these sample weekly costs for an independent showmen running a film programme:

Film service (two changes weekly) £12 0s
Singing pictures (with hire of synchroniser) £2 10s
Rental £3 5s
Rates £0 12s
Electricity £5 0s
Staffing £12 0s
Printing £2 0s
Billposting £1 0s
Advertising £1 10s
Sundry costs £4 0s
Total £43 17s

So, money for a synchronised sound picture, but no money for a musician. That doesn’t mean that a musician might not have been an extra cost just not accounted for here, but compare such an assessment of the needs of the exhibitor with the list of requirements from c.1912 given in our series How to Run a Picture Theatre, where it is assumed that a film show will have a musician providing accompaniment throughout.

However, I have done a fair amount of research into memoir evidence of cinema-going at this period, and I have not come across a single person recalling going to a film show where the films were shown silently. But memoirists (like film historians) can easily confuse later practice with earlier experiences of film-going, and imagine that what they became used had always been so. Moreover, one only has to think of how cheaply some of the first London shop shows or American nickelodeon shows were run, and how long they screened films for (from morning til might) to realise that have a musician playing all day was a luxury that not all could afford.

There is other evidence of the occasional nature of musical accompaniment in London film shows 1907-09. Police reports on film shows in the East End in 1909 reveal that one show had a mechanical piano that played throughout, irrespective of what was going on the screen; another had a piano with a sign saying that anyone in the audience was invited to play if they were able to; another gave no indication of any music being played at all. Other kinds of film show did without music – for example, the immensely popular Hale’s Tours of the mid-1900s (films shot from the front of moving trains projected in a carriage-like space to create the sensation of travelling) had no music, only the sound of the machinery and a ‘ticket collector’ telling the audience what views were on show. And many a special lecturer with films designed to illustrate a place visited or a cause requiring support got by without music (which would have drowned out what they wanted to say in any case).

Up to 1910, audiences at film shows expected music, but not necessarily music to accompany films. How widespread this practice was we do not know, but it was common enough among some of the humbler shows (which were greatly in the majority) to pass without comment. That it was not entirely desirable, however, is demonstrated by the fact that the practice rapidly died out after 1909. Film shows moved out of converted shops into larger, more luxurious auditoria, and audiences could no longer be expected to endure mean entertainment on hard benches, without raking, and in silence.

The preview theatre at Urbanora House, London, 1908. No music is being played

However, silent films did not stop being silent on occasion thereafter. Previews of films, for prospective buyers and later for critics, were generally conducted without music. Audiences had come to expect film and music to be indivisible, but the industry saw the two as separate. There might be the occasional time when a weary pianist would set down their hands for a while and no doubt get jeered by the audience while the film played on in silence, but that just confirms the expectation that audiences now had, in the 1910 and 20s. Silence could only be accidental – or just once on a while something done for dramatic effect. The best-known example of the latter was the British film Reveille (1924), a First World War drama which reaches it climax with the two-minute silence, which was presented without musical accompaniment, as the director George Pearson recalled:

Emotional music had illuminated the film throughout, led by that master of his crafty, Louis Levy. At the vital instant, his baton stopped. Melody ceased with lightning suddenness … dead silence in that great packed auditorium … the screen telling only of things that spoke to the heart alone. An old quavering mother at a little open window, old eyes seeking the heavens, worn hands against her aged breast … silence … and then a faint breeze stirring the thin muslin curtain, wafting it gently to touch her cheek … to kiss it … and wipe away a tear … and falls as silently as it had lifted … and still, the silence … exactly two minues … an audience seemingly spellbound. Then Louis Levy’s baton lifted … struck … and the Reveille broke the magic of silence …

It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of filmmaking and – so far as I know – the only part of the film that survives today.

Silent films are sometimes silent, even today. Anyone who has been to a screening of a silent film at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris will have been obliged to experience the film in silence, as they have a firm rule based on the belief that any musical acompnaiment to a silent that we might come up with now would be a distracting pastiche, and it is better to be without the music at all, so that the film may be experienced in its purity. Anyone who has sat through a silent feature film in silence will be aware that such purity is difficult to achieve, and the rumbling stomach of our neighbour is more of a distraction than musical pastiche might have been. In the earlier years of the Pordenone silent film festival, when they had fewer musicians (and sometimes just the one), then you had to expect periods of silence when the pianist took a well-earned rest and we the audience sat through the rest of the film in silence, conjuring up tunes in our heads as best we could. And in the mid-1990s, at the National Film Theatre, I presented several programmes of Victorian cinema (i.e. pre-1901) without musical accompaniment at all, just me talking over the films. A mixed blessing for the audience, possibly.

So, silents were sometimes silent, and sometimes they are silent still. But (doctrinaire spirits at the Cinémathèque Française notwithstanding) we are all the better for the silents not really being what they are until they are silent no more.

Scores of scores

A music score likely to have accompanied the British film The Guns of Loos (1928), from Colman Getty (via The Guardian)

Last week the discovery was announced of a quite extraordinary treasure trove of silent film music scores. Lurking the the basement of Birmingham (UK) city council’s music library has been found a collection of some 500 music scores designed for accompanying silent films. Anyone who knows about the paucity of surviving silent films scoes generally, particularly in Britain, is going to be stunned at such an announcement. Ten or twenty would have been exciting – 500 is just jaw-dropping.

However, it appears that the vast majority are not scores for specific films but rather scores for generic scenes, which were far more usual for standard silent film accompaniment. They have titles or descriptions such as ‘grave situation’, ‘mysterious shadows’, ‘in the church’, ‘supreme peril’ and ‘angry crowd scenes’. They were used by jobbing musical directors who would tour cinemas with their sheaf of scores, ready to match music to the films required. This gives us quite a different picture to the only commonly thought of, where a musical director would be attached to one cinema. The Birmingham collection identifies a number of such directors, among them Louis Benson, H.T. Saunders, Harry T. Ramsden and and the splendidly-named Purcell Le Roi, and while some were connected with just the one cinema or area, others hit the road to organise small orchestral music for silent wherever they would be paid to do so. They would usually be the musical leads – and not always violin or piano, as the collection makes clear.

There is a piece in The Guardian which gives a short account of the collection, but the Bioscope has turned to celebrated silent film pianist Neil Brand, who has briefly examined the collection, and who has kindly provided us with his first impressions of the collection:

There is nothing particularly surprising, ground-breaking or game-changing in what they’ve got – what is new, to my mind, is the extraordinarily broad light it throws on what cinemagoers between 1914 and 1929 actually heard. All the pieces, British, French and American (roughly a third of each), are uniquely written for cinema use, published by commercially operating music publishers and are nearly all in sets of parts for a band of 7-11 players (a ‘salon orchestra’ as it was known). They all have generic titles (‘Bizarre March’, ‘The Onslaught’, ‘Emotional Waltz’, ‘Desert Monotony'(!)) or numbers, and often suggestions for their use (‘for Eastern pictures’, ‘For Pathetic or Tragic scenes’, ‘Fire or Torture scenes’ etc etc). There are a few owners names or rubber stamps and these are what particularly interest me – the Sherlock Holmes stuff begins with these; Louis Benson, who owned at least a quarter of the material we looked at, was obviously a jobbing musical director and as we looked through ‘his’ music sets I noticed visual cues written in pencil, not on the piano part as one would expect, but on the cello part. Only one cue, each time, which made me suspect that Louis hired himself out as MD to different orchestras for a specific film (which film we couldn’t guess from the sketchy pencil notes) which he then conducted / synchronised from the cello. I’ve always assumed the piano always led a band but cello also makes sense – easier to remove the hands from the instrument, less distracting when the instrument stopped playing and the bow doubled as a big, obvious baton for beating time or conducting.

This is the sort of very new inference one can make from this huge collection – Harry T. Ramsden of 12 Monteith Rd Glasgow, the biggest donor of material, had hundreds of pieces from ABC Dramatic and Carl Fischer Publications which would allow him to instantly provide a compiled score for any film – when you look at some of the music the pages have been turned so many times they have been taped up all round, edges and spines, until they are virtually cardboard – those are the pieces he used all the time – obviously he either really liked them or they fitted the bill in a huge number of contexts. And Purcell Le Roi, solo violinist, could provide his own music sets as well as his expertise, thus begging two questions – were these music sets with either easy or virtuosic violin parts, and was his name really Percy King?

We weren’t able to make more than a cursory sweep through the material but we did find one piece that could be linked directly to an actual film – Richard Howgill, later a music director and producer for the BBC, wrote a generic piece called The Onslaught, published by Lafleur Motion Picture Edition in 1928. On the violin part for this piece in the Birmingham set is scribbled ’25th September 1915′. That is the date of the start of the Battle of Loos, and in 1928 a movie called The Guns of Loos was a huge success throughout Britain – the movie exists in the archive (I’ve played it) and I’ll just bet that intertitle appears in it.

Some of the music is to get its first run through in eight years this Tuesday, when pianist Ben Dawson will plays some at a free pre-concert event at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s film music festival. Then, we understand, the collection is likely to disappear for a time while the Birmingham music library transfers to a new building.

However, I don’t think we will have heard the last of this collection, and if I can get more information that I am able to share with you, I will.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 27

Frame grab from the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Some weeks we’re not sure what to put in the Bioscope newsreel, and some weeks we’re just overwhelmed with how alive our dead medium continues to be. And that’s when we’ve set aside the news, already reported, of the first appearance on American screens of the full restored Napoléon with Carl Davis score, next year. So, after a gap of a few weeks while we were away on our travels, here’s some of the news in silent films now.

Hugo trailer
Martin Scorsese, as you may know, is making a film of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel, The Invention of Hugh Cabret, in which Georges Méliès is a central character. During production the film has been known as Hugo Cabret, but clearly that was too much for Disney’s marketing people, and now it’s just known as Hugo. The first trailer is out, and – guess what – it looks like a Disney children’s film. But some enticing recreations of Georges Méliès’ film and stage productions, as the image above shows, should draw us in to see when the time comes. Read more.

Silent film scores galore
An extraordinary treasure trove of silent film scores has been unearthed by Birmingham city council (in the UK) in its music library. There are around 500 scores in a collection which has lain in a basement for decades. Chiefly examples of generic scores for stock scenes (chases, mystery scenes, people in peril etc.), many are scores for small orchestras of between seven and eleven players. They appear to have been collected by touring musical directors, who went from cinema to cinema rather than work for just the one venue. We will have more on this amazing discovery and its importance for silent film history in due course. Read more.

Theodore Roszak RIP
The social critic, academic and novelist Theodore Roszak has died. Best known for coining the phrase ‘counter culture’ in his 1968 work The Making of a Counter Culture, he was also an ardent film fan and wrote one of the best of all film-themed novels, Flicker, a dark and imaginatively far-fetched work which revolves around the mysterious figure of Max Castle, B-movie horror film maker in the 1940s and reveals an extraordinary alternate history of Hollywood from the silent period onwards. Read more.

San Francisco silents
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is running as we type. Highlights include a solo electric guitar acompaniment by Giovanni Spinelli to Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (there’s an extract from a documentary on the scoring of the film here), He Who Gets Slapped, I Was Born But…, Marlene Dietrich in The Woman Men Yearn For, and the ubiquitous The Great White Silence. Read more.

Paintings of cinemas
One of the blogs the Bioscope likes to read when it feels the need to stir the brain cells a bit is Nick Redfern’s thought-provoking Research into Film. Normally his subject is analytical studies of films, but he has put up a delightful post exhibiting paintings of cinemas and their audiences by contemporary artists. Do take a look. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Napoléon in the USA

The composer Carl Davis has announced on his website that the full restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), with his symphonic score, will receive its US premiere in March 2012. As Davis notes, “a 32 year odyssey has been achieved”, since there has been a battle between rival restorations and scores of the film, with a re-edited version with score by the late Carmine Coppola (father of Francis Ford Coppola) that was exhibited in the USA in 1981 effectively keeping out the full Kevin Brownlow restoration, with all of the material he has found since 1981 (now 332 minutes in total), and Carl Davis score.

Without knowing any of the details, clearly peace has broken out (might Kevin and Francis had a chat about things when they each were awarded honorary Academy Awards last year?). There is a triumphalist trailer for the film on the TCM site which states that, courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (and American Zoetrope, and The Film Preserve, and Photoplay Productions, and the BFI) the film will screen at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, San Francisco, with the music played by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. There will be four performances only.

We will add more information as and when we find it.

Meanwhile, start queuing now …

Since Mother goes to the movie shows

Since Mother goes to the movie shows (Victor 1916), performed by the Peerless Quartet, from the Library of Congress’ National Jukebox

The National Jukebox has recently been unveiled by the Library of Congress. It is a collection of thousands of historical sound recordings that are being made available online to the public free of charge. The collection includes 10,000 78rpm disc sides issued by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1925, and many more titles are promised in the months ahead.

The National Jukebox comes with all sorts of background materials and links on historical sound recordings, playlists, and special features on artist and genres. The Bioscope took up the Library of Congress’ invotiation to users to create playlists, and has produced one on motion pictures. There are recordings about going to see films, songs written to promote films, songs from stage shows that exploited the popularity of films (such as Queen of the Movies and The Girl in the Film), and songs and tunes about film stars. Though the number available isn’t huge, it is nevertheless useful evidence of the popularity and pervasiveness of motion pictures. Popular song communicated popular understanding. Listen, for example, to the Peerless Quartet complaining in 1916 in ‘Since Mother Goes to the Movie Shows’ on how homelife has changed since Mother picked up the moviegoing habit, or see the lyrics to ‘McGinty at the Living Pictures’ from 1902 which tells us how excited some could be at what they saw on the screen [Note: See comments – this song refers to tableaux vivants, not motion pictures]:

Dan McGinty went into the opera show
With his old wife Mary Ann,
And he took a front seat, near the middle aisle.
Amongst the bald-headed clan;
But he wasn’t prepared for the sights he saw.
And he laughed with might and main
When the living pictures came to view.
Why he nearly went insane.

When he saw the Sleeping Beauty, why he got such a shock
You could hear his heart a-ticking like an eight-day clock.
Then he danced and he pranced, and says he, “I’ve been to France, But that’s the finest sight I ever saw”;
Then his eyes bulged out, he began for to shout;
The gallery boys they hollered, “Put that Zulu out”.
Then his wife grabbed his feet, pulled him under the seat.
So he couldn’t gaze upon the living pictures.

The Library of Congress supplies embed code to let you place the player for any individual track on your website, but unfortunately these don’t work with pernickety WordPress. So here are the recordings Bioscope has found, with recording details (title, duration, artist, label and number, take, and date) and link to the recording. Or just follow this link to the playlist on National Jukebox itself.

  • And he’d say Oo-la-la! Wee-wee (03:07)
    Pietro [i.e., Pietro Deiro], performing
    Victor 18625
    Matrix/Take: B-23415 / 2
    1919-10-16
    Note: Instrumental medley, including Take Your Girlie to the Movies
  • Ching-a-ling’s jazz bazaar (04:04)
    Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra, performing
    Victor 35695
    Matrix/Take: C-23859 / 4
    1920-03-19
    Note: Medley includes At the Moving Picture Ball
  • Come out of the kitchen, Mary Ann (02:43)
    M. J. O’Connell, performing
    Victor 18221
    Matrix/Take: B-18789 / 6
    1917-01-02
  • Gems from Queen of the movies (04:11)
    Victor Light Opera Company, performing
    Victor 35365
    Matrix/Take: C-14410 / 2
    1914-02-04
    Note: Songs from the 1914 show Queen of the Movies: Girls run along; Forgive and forget; In the night (When the moon slyly winks); Who is to know?; Oh Cecilia; In the night
  • Gems from The girl on the film (03:41)
    Victor Light Opera Company, performing
    Victor 35363
    Matrix/Take: C-14271 / 3
    1914-01-06
    Note: Songs from the operetta The Girl on the Film: We’re all going to the mill; Won’t you come and waltz with me?; Oh, oh, oh; Steady Freddy; Do be quiet; Won’t you come and waltz with me?
  • The girl on the film (04:02)
    Victor Military Band, performing
    Victor 35361
    Matrix/Take: C-14253 / 1
    1913-12-30
    Note: Tunes from the operetta The Girl on the Film: Hesitation waltz; Won’t you come and waltz with me; Steady Freddy; Typewriting girls
  • Hollywood (02:52)
    Joe Raymond Orchestra, performing
    Joe Raymond, performing
    Victor 19211
    Matrix/Take: B-28986 / 4
    1923-11-27
  • In the night (when the moon slyly winks) (02:52)
    Lyric Quartet, performing
    Victor 17546
    Matrix/Take: B-14406 / 2
    1914-01-30
    Note: song from Queen of the Movies
  • McGinty at the living pictures (02:31)
    Edward M. Favor, performing
    Victor 740
    Matrix/Take: [Pre-matrix B-]740 / 1
    1902-04-09
  • Mickey (03:14)
    Joseph C. Smith’s Trio, performing
    Victor 18532
    Matrix/Take: B-22365 / 3
    1919-01-28
    Note: Song written to accompany the 1919 Mabel Normand picture Mickey
  • Oh! Cecilia (02:46)
    Lyric Quartet, performing
    Victor 17546
    Matrix/Take: B-14405 / 2
    1914-01-30
    Note: song from the 1914 show Queen of the Movies
  • Poor Pauline (02:28)
    Billy Murray, performing
    Victor 17655
    Matrix/Take: B-15140 / 6
    1914-10-20
    Note: Song about Pauline White
  • Queen of the movies (03:50)
    Victor Military Band, performing
    Victor 35366
    Matrix/Take: C-14298 / 1
    1914-01-09
    Note: Three tunes from the 1914 show Queen of the Movies: In the night (When the moon slyly winks); Oh Cecilia; Girls run along
  • Since Mother goes to the movie shows (03:15)
    Peerless Quartet, performing
    Victor 17959
    Matrix/Take: B-17022 / 1
    1916-01-18
  • Smilin’ through (02:15)
    Reinald Werrenrath, performing
    Victor 45166
    Matrix/Take: B-22688 / 3
    1919-04-15
    Note: Song written to accompany the 1920 Norma Talmadge film
  • Take your girlie to the movies (02:43)
    Billy Murray, performing
    Victor 18592
    Matrix/Take: B-23020 / 2
    1919-06-19
  • That’s a real moving picture from life (03:01)
    Billy Watkins, performing
    Victor 17586
    Matrix/Take: B-14635 / 2
    1914-03-26
  • Those Charlie Chaplin feet (04:01)
    Victor Military Band, performing
    Victor 35469
    Matrix/Take: C-16047 / 2
    1915-05-25
  • Zudora (03:15)
    Harry Macdonough, performing
    Victor 17734
    Matrix/Take: B-15650 / 2
    1915-02-02
    Note: “created for Thanhouser’s greatest photoplay”

If there are other on the National Jukebox that I’ve missed, please let me know. Many of these recordings can be found scattered in many places across the Web, but it is very handy to find them in the once place, and so usefully categorised.

The Bioscope also recommends IN Harmony: Sheet Music from Indiana, previously the Indiana University Sheet Music Collection, which has sheet music for several of the songs and tunes about motion pictures featured on the National Jukebox.

Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 20

Well, it’s all been happening in the land of the silents. Here’s your latest edition of the Bioscope Newsreel, rounding up some of the news stories from the week, starting with what might just turn out to become the most watched silent film ever …

Doodling with Chaplin
We kick off with Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday, which Google has commemorated in distinctive fashion by making a Chaplin video its Google logo (or doodle) for the day (strictly speaking, for 36 hours). It is the first time the Google logo has been a live-action video, and it is most elegantly done. It’s not Chaplin himself, alas – instead we get a so-so pastiche, starring members of the Google Doodle team, including Mike Dutton as Chaplin. The background to the video is given on the Google blog. Read more.

Top 50 lost films
The idea of lost films is endlessly engrossing, and listing those films believed lost that one would most like to see is many a film fan’s favourite parlour game. In 2008 the Film Threat site gave us a list of 50 top lost films it would most like to see, and now it has returned with another 50. Most of them are silents, and there are some obscure but knowledgeable choices among them. Tsunekichi Shibata’s Tokyo’s Ginza District (1898), anyone? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913)? Or the clever-clever choice of Olives and their Oil (1914) the other half of the split reel on which Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice was released. Read more.

Gorgeous George
There’s a (fairly) new website published, dedicated to George O’Brien, star of Fox silents, and a screen history immortal for his presence in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Entitled Gorgeous George O’Brien, it comes with biography, photos, articles and filmography. Read more.

Silent Britain
The British Silent Film Festival recently took place. The Bioscope was only there for a short while, but the Dumdidumdum tumblr has some short reports, and Pamela Hutchinson of the lively Silent London blog has written a thoughtful, historically informed piece on the festival and silent film music for The Guardian. Read more.

An understanding
And finally, it doesn’t have much to do with silents directly, but anyone interested in film, research and digital opportunities should take note of the news that the British Film Institute and the British Library have signed a memorandum of understanding, with the intention of increasing “public, professional and research access to audiovisual and broadcast content and integrating it with other knowledge collections”. I write about this on my other, somewhat disused blog, Moving Image. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Carl Davis on The Phantom of the Opera

The Philharmonia Orchestra has published a video podcast in which Carl Davis talks about the process of writing his score for Rupert Julian’s The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with Lon Chaney as the Phantom. It’s an illuminating insight into Davis’ ideas and inspirations, with plenty of clips and music extracts.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is presenting a screening of the film with live orchestral accompaniment and Davis conducting on Sunday 27 March at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank, starting at 3.00pm.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 11

The Ballet Russes at the Fêtes de Narcisses, Montreux in 1928, from British Pathé

Can we make the Bioscope Newsreel a weekly occurrence, say every Friday? We’ll have a go.

Ballet Russes on film
Jane Pritchard, co-curator of the Victorian & Albert Museum’s recent exhibition ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929’ writes of the amazing discovery of the first known film of the Ballet Russes lurking in the British Pathé archive. Read more.

50 years of film studies
The Guardian film blog celebrates fifty years of film studies as an academic discipline. The pioneer lecturer was Thorold Dickinson (himself a filmaker of renown); the location was University College London; the pupils included Gavin Millar, Charles Barr, Raymond Durgnat and Lutz Becker. Read more.

Modern elephant taxidermy
Rich Remsberg unearths an extraordinary 1927 film from the American Museum of Natural History that shows you how to stuff an elephant. The taxidermist in question is the multi-talented Carl Akeley, also famed as a motion picture cameraman and inventor – the Akeley camera, with its gyroscopic head, was much used by wildlife filmmakers and newsreels. Read more.

Music for silents
An interesting interview with Ken Winokur of renowned silent film accompanists the Alloy Orchestra raises the issue of venues which insist on showing silent films silently, because André Bazin pronounced that any music accompaniment was mere nostalgia. Go to the Cinémathèque Française to watch your silents to the accompaniment of coughs and the occasional rumbling stomach, and I think most will vote for ‘nostalgia’. Read more.

Farewell to the Silent Movie Blog
For the past couple of years Christopher Snowden’s Silent Movie Blog has provided witty, well-researched and strikingly illustrated accounts of American silent film history. Sadly it is being closed down, and it is not clear whether the archive will remain online (all posts before July 2010 have been removed already). Read more.

And finally
The Bioscope is four years old today. Here’s the link to post number one – a single pithy sentence.

‘Til next time!