Miriam Hansen RIP

News has come through of the death of Professor Miriam Hansen (1949-2011) of the University of Chicago. Hansen was one of the outstanding scholars investigating the silent film period, whose book Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) bids fair to be the most influential and most cited work in the field. Hansen’s subject was spectatorship and the public sphere: she investigated early film in pursuit of that mysterious point at which film becomes aware of its viewers. Her book introduces the challenge involved by reference to the Corbett-Fitzimmons boxing film of 1897 and Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik three decades later. Both had strong appeal for women audiences, but while the latter consciously anticipated the gaze of a female spectator, the former only encouraged such viewers by accident. At what point did the change come?

When, how, and to what effect does the cinema conceive of the spectator as a textual term, as the hypothetical point of address of filmic discourse? And once such strategies have been codified, what happens to the viewer as a member of a plural, social audience?

These questions go to the heart of what makes early cinema such a fascinating subject, because in attempting to answer them we see how central cinema was to a change in consciousness – specificially change in the balance between what scholars like to refer to as the private and the public sphere.

Illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanies an article by Mary Heaton Vorse, ‘Some Moving Picture Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911

Miriam Hansen was a great deal more than a one-book woman. Her first book was on Ezra Pound, and she wrote variously on German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese cinema, on popular culture, film theory, and social theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas. However it was Babel and Babylon that established her huge reputation, and it has to be the academic dream, to write the one book that changes the way people think.

It’s not a book for the general film enthusiast; indeed there has been many a general enthusiast who has been quite alarmed by it. But read it closely and you’ll find a book of great humanity underneath the dense argument. Hansen’s great achievement was to take the subject of spectatorship, and to show that behind that abstract notion of an idealised viewer, seemingly at the mercy of the ideological predilections of the cinema, there were far more complex forces at work. She showed how important it was to have an understanding of the social history of the early cinema period, allowing for a richer, more various understanding characterised by gender, class, ethnicity and locality. It was her great knowledge of early American cinema in all its forms that made her work so persuasive, and so lasting. She has died too young, and the loss felt will be great. But her ideas have helped ensure that early cinema remains a vital subject for intellectual discovery for many years to come.

Looking back on 2010

Lillian Gish knows just what it’s like in north Kent, from Way Down East

The snows of winter are piling up in fantastic drifts about the portals of Bioscope Towers. Icy blasts find their way through every crack and cranny. Outside, civilization grinds to a glacial halt, and the end of the year now beckons. In the relative warmth of the Bioscope scriptorium, I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to look back on what happened in the world of silent film over 2010. So here’s a recap of highlights from the past twelve months, as reported on the Bioscope (and in a few other places) – silent memories to warm us all.

There were three really big stories in 2010. For many of us, the most welcome news story of this or any other year was the honorary Oscar that went to Kevin Brownlow for a lifetime dedicated to the cause of silent films. The restored Metropolis had its premiere in a wintry Berlin in February. It has now been screened acround the world and issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. And there was the sensational discovery by Paul E. Gierucki of A Thief Catcher, a previously unknown appearance by Chaplin in a 1914 Keystone film, which was premiered at Slapsticon in June.

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

Among the year’s restorations, particularly notable were Bolivia’s only surviving silent drama, Wara Wara, in September, while in October the UK’s major silent restoration was The Great White Silence, documenting the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition.

We said goodbye to a number of silent film enthusiasts and performers. Particularly mourned in Britain was Dave Berry, the great historian of Welsh cinema and a friend to many. Those who also left us included Dorothy Janis (who starred in The Pagan opposite Ramon Novarro); film restorer and silent film technology expert Karl Malkames; the uncategorisable F. Gwynplaine Macintyre; and film archivist Sam Kula. One whose passing the Bioscope neglected to note was child star Baby Marie Osborne, who made her film debut aged three, saw her starring career end at the age of eight, then had a further ninety-one years to look back on it all.

Arctic conditions in Rochester uncannily replicated in Georges Méliès’ A la Conquête du Pôle (1912)

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

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

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

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

The online silent video hit of the year was quite unexpected: Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) went viral after the release of the Tim Burton film of Lewis Carroll’s story. It has had nearly a million views since February and generated a fascinating discussion on this site. Notable online video publications included UCLA’s Silent Animation site; three Mexican feature films: Tepeyac (1917), El tren fantasma (1927) and El puño de hierro (1927); and the eye-opening Colonial Films, with dramas made in Africa, contentious documentaries and precious news footage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The art of the silent film carried on into today with the feature film Louis (about Louis Armstrong’s childhood), and the silent documentary feature How I Filmed the War. Of the various online modern silent shorts featured over the year, the Bioscope’s favourite was Aardman Animation’s microscopic stop-frame animation film Dot.

Charlie Chaplin contemplates the sad collapse of Southeastern railways, after just a few flakes of snow, from The Gold Rush

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

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

It’s been quite a year, but what I haven’t covered here is books, largely because the Bioscope has been a bit neglectful when it comes to noting new publications. So that can be the subject of another post, timed for when you’ll be looking for just the right thing on which to spend those Christmas book tokens. Just as soon as we can clear the snow from our front doors.

And one more snowy silent – Abel Gance’s Napoléon recreates the current scene outside Rochester castle, from http://annhardingstreasures.blogspot.com

Sam Kula

Photograph of Sam Kula by Lois Siegel, www.siegelproductions.ca/ottawarocks/avtrust.htm

This is just a short notice to mark the sad passing of Sam Kula, one of the leading figures in international film archiving for many years. He was 77 years old and died at Ottawa General Hospital on Wednesday, 8 September 8, 2010. Sam joined the BFI in 1958 and became deputy curator under Ernest Lindgren, before joining the American Film Institute (where he was among those who oversaw the publication of the multi-volume AFI Catalog) and then the National Archives of Canada, where he established its film, sound and television section, serving as the director of the audiovisual archives 1973-1989. He served on the executive committee of FIAF, the international federation of film archives, and its television equivalent, FIAT, and was president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) for two terms. He was also founding member of Canada’s Board of the AV Preservation Trust. He was the author of The Archival Apprisal of Moving Images (1983) and Appraising Moving Images: Assessing the Archival and Monetary Value of Film and Video Records (2002), and made notable contributions to moving image history and archiving in numerous authoritative articles.

Sam’s work encompassed the moving image medium in all its forms and for all periods. However one of the most notable incidents in his archival career related to the silent era: the Dawson City collection. He played a major role in the discovery, care and historiography of the extraordinary discovery of over 500 reels of silent film that were found in 1978 underneath a boarded-up swimming pool in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, where the films had been buried in the permafrost (ideal archival conditions) for forty-nine years. The story of the find has been documented in an earlier Bioscope post. It is the film archivist’s romantic tale par excellence, and alone serves as memorial to one of world audiovisual archiving’s most dedicated servants.

There is a memorial web page with a guest book to sign.

The photograph of Sam Kula is by Lois Siegel, www.siegelproductions.ca/ottawarocks/avtrust.htm.

Wanted by the BFI

The First Men in the Moon (1919), from http://www.bfi.org.uk/mostwanted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy and Karl

Dorothy Janis and Ramon Novarro in The Pagan, from http://www.altfg.com

A lot has been happening in the silent world, so we’re going to need a few short, quick posts to catch up after all that Dreyfusiana. To begin with, two notable names passed away this week. Dorothy Janis (1910-2010) was one of the last surviving people to have starred in a major silent feature film. The film was W.S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (US 1929), in which she co-starred with Ramon Novarro. The picture was silent with a music score and songs. Her first film was in 1928 and her last in 1930 – she married in 1932 and decided thereafter that she was done with the movies. There’s an obituary on Alt Film Guide, while The Pagan is available as a DVD-on-demand and digital download from Warner Bros.

Secondly, there’s Karl Malkames (1926-2010). He was the son of silent film cameraman Don Malkames. Karl had a good career as a cameraman, working in newsreels (for Warner-Pathe) and second unit work for feature films, but he really made his mark in film history was in film restoration and the collection of vintage film technology. He worked on developed the machinery for copying silent film formats, most notably preserving much of the output of the Biograph company for the Museum of Modern Art (his father had been friends with Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith’s cameraman, and he owned an original Biograph printer). He restored silent films for the Paul Killiam TV series The Silent Years, assisted Kevin Brownlow and David Gill when they were making their Hollywood series and his expertise in the technology of silent cinema saw him cited as an oracle by film archives and film historians. He did as much as anyone has to preserve silent films and our understanding of how they were made. An obituary written by his film historian grandson Bruce Lawton is available here.

Dave Berry, Wales’ finest

It is sad indeed to have the report the sudden death of Dave Berry. Dave was the great champion of Welsh cinema. His monumental Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years (1994) is as fine a national film history as exists, and it brought him much acclaim and awards. It is brimful of intelligent enthusiasm, a clear and disciplined work (for all its great size) which charts a very particular film history from the travelling showmen of the 1890s, through the key films (How Green Was My Valley, The Proud Valley, Only Two Can Play) and actors (Ivor Novello, Stanley Baker, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins) to the rise of Welsh television in the 1980s and the great boost it gave to Welsh filmmaking.

Dave was knowledgeable across all points of Welsh film history, but his great enthusiasm was for the early years. The lives of pioneers such as Arthur Cheetham, William Haggar and John Codman thrilled him and indeed it was very much due to his passionate engagement that such lives were rescued from obscurity. He championed the few films of Welsh life that survived from the silent era and dreamed of the rediscovery of such lost titles as A Welsh Singer (1915), Betta the Gypsy (1917) and Gwyneth of the Welsh Hills (1920). So there was no one who rejoiced more when the great masterpiece of silent Welsh cinema, The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) was rediscovered in 1994, a film whose history he documented (with Simon Horrocks) in David Lloyd George: The Movie Mystery (1998). The last time I saw Dave was last summer when he introduced a screening of the film at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, at the IAMHIST conference. His passion for the film was such that he could hardly bring himself to stop introducing it, so anxious was he that we appreciate fully its cinematic panache and visionary fervour.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George

Dave was a writer and critic, for a long time film critic for the South Wales Echo. He served as a consultant and researcher for the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales and the Wales Film Council (later Sgrîn), organising screenings, festivals and other such events, continually seeking to find out more, always keeping the flame burning for the cause. He wrote and devised the 1986 HTV four-part television series on Welsh film history, The Dream That Kicks (the phrase is from Dylan Thomas’ poem on cinema, ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’). He was given the Anthony Hopkins Award for outstanding contribution to Welsh film culture in 2002.

I’ve been taking long, engrossing phone calls from Dave for years, helping to pin down some lost film, trying to confirm whether some film fragment was a previously unrecognised part of Welsh film heritage, planning the next project and the next. He was a regular at the British Silent Film Festival and Pordenone, revelling in silent cinema from whatever part of the globe, before cornering you at a pavement cafe and telling his latest discovery about William Haggar. He has been such a part of the scenery for those in Britain who care about silent film that his loss will be felt greatly. Happily for posterity he has left us with Wales and Cinema, the kind of film history that will last. But more than that, he was just a nice man. Thank you for everything, Dave.

Ken Wlaschin and the silent opera


Sadly the death has been announced of Ken Wlaschin, a major figure in American and British film culture for many years. Born in America, Ken came to prominence as head of the National Film Theatre in London, also serving as the director of the London Film Festival from 1969 to 1984. He returned to the States and revived the Los Angeles International Film Festival, serving also as director of creative affairs at the American Film Institute and vice chairman of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation. He was an author of great distinction, writing not only on film (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Great Movie Stars and Their Films, The Faber Book of Movie Verse) but fiction, travel books and poetry.

Obituaries to Ken Wlaschin have been published elsewhere. This post will pay a different kind of tribute by concentrating on one particular area of interest to him. Perhaps Ken’s most notable publication was Encyclopedia on Opera on Screen: A Guide to More Than 100 Years of Opera Films, Video and DVDs (2004). This stupendous publication (all 872 pages of it) is a comprehensive, cultured and engrossing guide to the alliance of opera and the screen, a history that goes back into the silent era, when opera was a remarkably popular subject for filmmakers.

Indeed the alliance is not merely as old as cinema itself, but older. In his caveat of 15 October 1888 Thomas Edison wrote the following famous words about the motion picture device that he was setting out to invent:

I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope ‘Moving View. In the first production of the actual motions that is to say of a continuous opera the instrument may be called a Kinetograph buts its subsequent reproduction for which it will be of most use to the public it is properly called a Kinetoscope …

Edison repeatedly cited opera as the prime example of what his motion picture invention was meant to achieve, his vision having always been to combine motion pictures with sound. In 1894 he wrote:

The kinetoscope is only a small model illustrating the present stage of progress but with each succeeding month new possibilities are brought into view. I believe that in coming years by my own work and that of Dickson, Muybridge, Marié [i.e. Marey] and others who will doubtless enter the field, that grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead.

So it was that opera was embedded into the consciousness of film from the very outset, and if the precise combination of vocal music and film proved a challenge for three decades (though never an impossibility), filmmakers in the so-called silent era turned to opera again and again – for its stories, its scores, its kudos and its stars.

All of this is documented in fascinating detail in Wlaschin’s Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen. As well as entries on silent cinema and opera and on first opera films, he includes sections on their early film productions of every opera imaginable. How many? Well a quick thumb through the book reveals early film productions of Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, The bartered bride, La boheme, Carmen, Don Giovanni, Faust, Fra Diavolo, Lohengrin, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Martha, The Mikado, Le nozze di Figaro, Pagliacci, Parsifal, Rigoletto, Thaïs, Tosca and many more. The exact number is impossible to determine, partly owing to problems of definition, but it undoubtedly runs into hundreds. ‘Silent’ operas films were of various kinds, of which these are the main types:

Synchronised sound
Edison hoped to marry the Kinetoscope to his Phonograph, but the Kinetophone did not have much of a commercial life and never featured any opera. But synchronisation of gramophone recordings with films to give a semblance of the full audio-visual experience began in 1900 with the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition, for which Clément-Maurice filmed Victor Maurel singing arias from Don Giovanni and Falstaff and Emile Cossira an aria from Roméo et Juliette. A second wave of synchronised (or sound-on-disc) films from around 1907 onwards led to numerous films of scenes or arias from operas, usually with actors miming to the recordings of the genuine opera singers. Systems such as the Cinephone, Cinematophone, Vivaphone, Chronophone, Cinemafono and Biophon were a common feature of cinema programmes for a number of years up to the start of First World War. Although some attempts were made to encompas an entire opera in this way (in 1907 British Gaumont issued a complete Gounod’s Faust in twenty-two separate film/sound recordings), the vast majority of these films were single-reelers of three minutes or so, lasting the length of a single gramophone recording. The greatest exponent of the form was the German producer Oskar Messter, who produced around 500 song, opera and operetta sound shorts using his Biophon system, and even opened a spcialised Berlin cinema dedicated to opera films (one or two other such cinemas opened around Europe at this time).

Georges Mendel’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1908), from the Lobster Films DVD set Discovering Cinema

The most joyous of all synchronised sound opera films is a 1908 production by French producer Georges Mendel of the sestet from Donizzetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, sung by Enrico Caruso Marcella Sembrich, Antonio Scotti, Marcel Journet, Barbara Severina and Francesco Daddi. The performers who appear on the film are actors miming to the recording, but the spirit in which the music is relayed is truly uplifting (the film – only recently discovered and not correctly identified in Wlaschin’s encyclopedia – can be found on the Discovering Cinema 2-DVD set, for which see below).

Filmed performance
Among the most prestigious, though controversial, of early cinema productions was Edison’s Parsifal (1904), a near-literal recording of the Metropolitan Opera production filmed by Edwin S. Porter, whose exhibition was hampered by a lawsuit preventing Edison from screening the film alongside Wagner’s recorded music.

Operas as films
Operas conceived of as films are a rare breed. There are two examples from the silent era. Rapsodia Satanica (Italy 1915) was an avante garde work directed by Nino Oxilia, which starred Lyda Borelli and had music that accompanied screenings by Pietro Mascagni (composer of Cavalleria rusticana). The peculiar Jenseits des Stroms (Germany 1922), directed by Ludwig Czerny, has music composed for singers and orchestra by Ferdinand Hummel, which had musical notation running along the bottom of the screen throughout the film. A print is held by the BFI National Archive.

Related to this, one composer among the greats was able to have a say in how a film of one of his operas transfered to the silent screen. Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, written in 1911, was filmed in 1926 in Austria by Robert Weine. Strauss provided new music and arranged the film’s live score, while his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the screenplay, with new scenes added for the film.

Another way of bringing together opera music with silent film was through lives of composers. Examples include opera enthusiast Oskar Messter’s feature-length The Life of Richard Wagner (1913), directed by Carl Froelich, and the 1921 Austrian film Mozarts Leben, Lieben und Leiden, on the life of Mozart, while Verdi was the subject of a 1913 Italian production, Giuseppe Verdi nella vita e nella gloria.

Geraldine Farrar in Carmen, from Flickr

The leading opera singers of the period were earnestly sought as film actors. Among them were Mary Garden, who appeared in Goldwyn’s Thaïs (1917); Lina Cavalieri, who featured in Italian and American films in the ‘teens (none directly based on operas); and Enrico Caruso, who starred in My Cousin (1918) for Famous Players-Lasky and, less successfully, in The Splendid Romance (1919). The outstanding crossover star was Geraldine Farrar, who had a huge hit with Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen in 1915 and went on to enjoy a five-year film career with titles (such as the classic Joan the Woman) which owed little to the opera repertoire but demonstrated her powerful cinematic appeal.

Often the stories from operas were used for silent films that had no allegiance to the music, often because they based themselves on source novels or plays rather than the opera. King Vidor’s La bohème (1926), with Lillian Gish as Mimi, is probably the most notable example (MGM were forbidden by the publishers from using Puccini’s music to accompany the film).

British producer Harry B. Parkinson was responsible two film series which boiled down opera stories to twenty-minute shorts. Tense Moments with Operas (1922) produced digests of Martha, Rigoletto, La traviata and others. Cameo Operas (1927) did the same, except that these were exhibited with live singers and orchestral accompaniment. Parkinson directed and John E. Blakeley produced. Examples included Carmen, Faust and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Opera music accompanying silent films
Opera themes were used to accompany silent films, notably Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ which perhaps almost inevitably was used to accompany the ride of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

Silent films about opera
There are numerous examples of silent films set in the world of opera. Best known is the Lon Chaney vehicle, The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but other examples listed by Wlaschin are Clara Kimball Young in The Yellow Passport (1916), Tom Moore in Heartease (1919), Betty Blythe in How Women Love (1922) and Greta Garbo in The Torrent (1926).

Operas based on silent films
Wlaschin records that the first film to be the inspiration for an opera was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), which served as the basis of French composer Camille Erlanger’s 1921 opera Forfaiture. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was made into an opera in 1937 by composer Oles Semenovich Chishko, while William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992) is based on both the Erich von Stroheim film and Frank Norris’ original novel.

Operas about silent films
Finally, there could be operatic works about film. Germany composer Walter Kollo came ujp with Filmzauber (Film Magic) in 1912, with libretto by Rudolf Bernauer and Rudolph Schanzer, which was shown in London and New York in 1913 as The Girl on the Film. It told of a film company producing a story about Napoleon in a small village. Other examples include German composer Jean Gilbert’s operetta Die Kinokönigen (1913) and Carlo Lombardo’s La signorina del cinematografo (1914).

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen (from which much of the information above derives) exists both as a book and as a word-searchable CD-ROM.

I’ve not found any silent opera films or synchronised opera films from the silent era online (at least not legitimately so), but here’s a listing of some of the DVDs available:

Obituaries for Ken Wlaschin have been published by the Guardian and Variety. His silent film intersts extended beyond opera by the way – among his other publications are The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896-1929: An Illustrated History and Catalog of Songs Inspired by the Movies and Stars, with a List of Recordings and Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography.

Val Williamson


I learned today from film historian and Cecil Hepworth expert Simon Brown that Valerie Williamson, Hepworth’s daughter by his second marriage, has died. As Simon explains in this short notice which he has kindly supplied, Val Williamson did much to ensure that her father’s legacy was understood and respected, and her sad passing means that the last direct generational link with the British film pioneers has been broken. Simon writes:

I am sorry to have to announce that Valerie Williamson, daughter of pioneer British filmmaker Cecil Hepworth, died on Thursday 8th October after a battle with cancer. Val was born well after Hepworth stopped making films at Walton Studios, but after the death of Elizabeth Hepworth in the 1990s, Val took over the mantle of keeper of her father’s memory. Although she resisted the limelight, rarely attending screenings of her father’s work, she nonetheless became a great friend to academics, historians, documentary makers and archivists over the years, helping to ensure the long-term legacy of Hepworth through careful managing of how her father’s surviving films were used. She will be particularly missed by those historians of early British cinema with whom she freely shared her memories of her father and his work. As one of the few surviving family members with direct links to the pioneer days, her contribution to our understanding of Hepworth has been considerable and her death is a tragic loss for us all, particularly for those of us lucky enough to call her a friend. Outside of the film world Val was a potter of considerable talent and lived quietly near Guildford with her husband and her two beloved daschunds.

For information on Cecil Hepworth, the leading figure in British dramatic film production before the First World War, and a significant creative filmmaker into the 1920s, here are a few links:

Rashit Yangirov


Rashit Yangirov (right), Associated Press photo

It is with much sadness that I report the death last Sunday of the Russian film historian Rashit Yangirov, aged just 54. Rashit was a notable figure in early film history circles, expert in Russian and Soviet silent cinema, with his particular forte being the documentation of early Russian history and the unearthing of biographical details of filmmakers who had often been little more than a footnote, if that, in the histories. He combined freelance film history with his profession of agency journalist, working for APTN, where he covered the war in Chechnya, and much else besides. Only recently he had published a book, Slaves of Silent Pictures (Raby Nemogo), which documented the lives of the emigre Russian filmmakers who left their homeland after the 1917 revolution and settled in the film industries of Hollywood, Paris and Berlin.

I first met Rashit in the mid-1990s, at a Domitor conference, and immediately made a friend. I believe many others can tell the same story. Though his work mostly kept him in Russia, we stayed in touch electronically, and he was a regular visitor to the Bioscope. I have happy memories of working with him on the book Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, for which he supplied us with biographical information on the first Russian filmmakers (and one Ukranian) which had never before been published in English. Frantic last minute changes were telephoned down a crackly line from Moscow in those pre-email days, as Rashit delivered the latest information just unearthed from the archives and I scribbled on the page proofs. Do read his pieces on Ivan Akimov, Charles Aumont, A. Fedetsky, Aleksei Samarsky and Vladimir Sashin-Fydorov – pioneering short studies of a still little-known corner of film history.

Associated Press today produced this release announcing his death, which makes it clear what a remarkable person he was:

Soviet film historian Rashit Yangirov dies at 54


MOSCOW (AP) — Rashit Yangirov, a prominent historian of the Soviet cinema whose works saved many pre-World War II emigre filmmakers from critical oblivion, has died at age 54.

The scholar, who also worked for the past 14 years as a journalist for Associated Press Television News, died of cancer Sunday in Moscow, APTN colleagues said.

Yangirov wrote “Slaves of the Silent,” a groundbreaking 2008 book on pioneers of Russian cinema who left their homeland after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

His research tracked the lives of emigre actors and directors who became stars or extras in Hollywood, Berlin and Paris and helped shape the prewar film industry worldwide.

“His authority in the world of film critics was indisputable,” said the Library of the Russians Abroad Foundation, where Yangirov worked as senior researcher.

Yangirov wrote more than 200 articles on Russian cinema, fiction and folklore. His subjects included the cinematic cult of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, emigre female authors, the persecution of dissident Soviet poets and references to silent films in works by writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Born 1954 in the city of Ufa, 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) east of Moscow, Yangirov graduated from the history department of Moscow State University in 1977.

Andy Braddel, APTN’s regional director for Russia and the CIS, met Yangirov as a graduate student in 1988, and said evenings he spent around the kitchen table with Yangirov and his wife Zoya “taught me more about the Soviet Union than several years of lectures.”

Braddel hired Yangirov to work for APTN in 1994 as a journalist covering the wars in Chechnya, among other stories.

“He managed to juggle the relentless demands of agency journalism with an even more successful career as an academic writing about his true love, the history of Russian film,” Braddel said. “He will be deeply missed by all of us.”

Yangirov is survived by Zoya and a daughter, Lucy. A funeral was scheduled for Wednesday.

I’ve not seen his book Slaves of Silent Pictures which has been published in Russian (publisher Russkoe zarubezh’e; Russkii put’). He was hopeful of getting it translated into English, and there had been interest from a Dutch publisher. I do hope that something may be done to ensure that the work of a true film scholar reaches the wider readership it deserves. Meanwhile, there are several essays by him available in English in assorted publications, while he was also behind such initiatives as the microfilm/online subscription collection Early Russian Cinema: Russian Cinematographic Press (1907-1918).

He did much for film history, keeping alive the particular corner of the past that he cared for. Ah, this is such sad news.

Harold Brown RIP


Harold Brown, on left in the 1940s (from the British Film Institute), on the right in 2008 (courtesy of Eve Watson)

You will not find the name of Harold Brown in many film history books, but there are quite a number of film histories that could not have been written without him. Harold, who died on Friday 14 November, essentially invented the art and science of film preservation. Countless films have been preserved either by his hands, or by the hands of those he tutored, or those archives around the world who adopted his methods.

It was in 1935 that Harold Brown (born 1919) started as office boy at the newly-formed British Film Institute, where Ernest Lindgren was setting up the National Film Library. Brown was subsequently to become its first preservation officer. In the early 1930s there were no film archives, or almost none. In that decade the four great national archives that were to become pillars of the film archiving movement were established: the Museum of Modern Art Film Library (New York), the Reichsfilmarchiv (Berlin) and the National Film Library (London) in 1935, the Cinémathèque Française (Paris) in 1936. These archives were established by a dedicated band of pioneer archivists with a passion for the film as art. They were driven in particular by the passing of the silent film era, and the imminent loss of the films of that first period of cinema history, films which were being dumped by the studios who saw no value in a heritage that they could no longer sell to anyone.


Harold Brown printing a film using the Mark IV

Ernest Lindgren, as Curator of the National Film Library (later the National Film Archive and now the BFI National Archive), laid down principles and Harold Brown came up with the working methods which formed the basis for film preservation. The original film was, as far as possible, inviolate. It needed to be copied, in a form as faithful to the original as possible. Films needed to be treated not only according to their importance but to the extent of, or their potential for, chemical decay. One of Harold’s most notable achievements was the artificial ageing test, which enabled archivists to determine when a film was likely to start deteriorating, and at what time it should be copied. This allowed archives to plan sensibly for the future. A noticeable legacy of Harold’s is the punch holes that you will see occasionally in National Film Archive prints, created so that a circle of film could be put through the ageing test. Another famous Brown creation was the Mark IV, a step printer for dealing with shrunken and non-standard perforation film, built out of bits of toy Meccano, string, rubber bands and parts from a 1905 Gaumont projector.


Harold was a self-taught pioneer. His investigations established basic methods for the identification of early film formats, the repair of damaged film, the storage of film, and the treatment of colour film (his work on Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 film The Black Pirate, in two-colour Technicolor, was an early classic of film restoration). Awarded an MBE in 1967, he carried working at the National Film Archive until 1984, though he continued as a mentor and consultant to film archives internationally, well into retirement. He passed on his knowledge not only in person, but through some key publications. His Basic Film Handling (1985) and Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification (1990) are standard reference guide to the film archiving profession, and the latter is still available from the site of the Federation of International Film Archives (FIAF). Nor was he solely a nitrate era or early film specialist. He stayed abreast of issues in film archiving throughout, and it was he who gave the name ‘vinegar syndrome’ to the phenomenon of the degredation of acetate film which film archives discovered, to their alarm, in the 1980s.

You can see Harold at work in his prime in a 1963 Pathe Pictorial report on the work of the National Film Archive, available from the British Pathe site (just type in ‘film archive’, or click here for the same film from ITN Source). He features towards the end, delicately handling four frames of film, then seen operating the Mark IV. If you can, check out his modest four-page memoir in the FIAF publication This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, edited by Roger Smither. Or you can read about how Brown and Lindgren went about creating a film archive in Penelope Houston’s Keepers of the Frames: The Film Archives (1994). Or read this text by David Francis (Lindgren’s successor as Curator of the National Film Archive) for this year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival catalogue on Brown’s role overseeing the projection of the 548 films dating 1900-1906 shown at the seminal 1978 FIAF symposium on early film. Or get a copy of the BFI compilation DVD, Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers, most of the examples of which are films that Harold took in, preserved, and made available for future generations.

Harold was a wise, methodical, determined and kindly man. I was lucky enough to know him and to exchange information with him on early film formats at my time at the BFI, in the mid-1990s. I was rather awe-struck just to be holding conversations with him, but I found him to be every inch a gentleman. He has been held in reverence by generations of budding film archivists, and even as his pioneering methods have been superseded by more sophisticated technology, and as the film archiving profession now encounters the digital frontier, his understanding of the life – and the after-life – of a film underpins all that a film archive stands for. Gladly would he learn and gladly teach. Thank you, Harold.