Out of the vaults

Bela Lugosi and Alma Rubens in The Rejected Woman (1924)

George Eastman House has announced an online cinematheque. As the American film archive puts it, “Since we cannot screen everything in our Dryden Theatre, we have mined our vaults for favorite hidden treasures to showcase online”. The initiative has started out with 59 films, most of them silent, with the promise of more films to come.

The initiative is highly welcome, though the presentation is a little disappointing. There is no simple listing of the titles available; instead the front page displays thumbnail images of the main titles (where these exist), with the user have to hold their mouse pointer over the image to discover the title and date. Clicking on any one image gives you the video itself, a short description, the year of release and basic technical details. There are no cast and productions credits (unless mentioned in the description), and no country of production given. The video player (Flash) works well enough, though image quality isn’t always too great at full screen. All of the films come with a rather prominent George Eastman House onscreen graphic in the bottom right-hand corner.

But enough of such cavils. It is a fascinating selection of oddities, rarities and some classics, of which these are some of the highlights the Bioscope has spotted from among the silents. Do note that all of the silent films are presented without musical accompaniment.

  • Colonel Heeza Liar on the the Jump (USA 1917)
    Animation by John Randoph Bray, one of a long-running series feature the adventurous, braggart Colonel.
  • Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (Germany 1919)
    The first film made by German silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger, a delightful piece dance-like piece with two lovers whose title translates as “The Ornament of a Loving Heart”.
  • The Stolen Voice (USA 1915)
    Short feature film (44mins) with fascinating theatrical background details, directed by Frank H. Crane and produced by William Brady. It stars Robert Warwick as an opera singer who mysteriously loses his voice.
  • Beasts of the Jungle (USA 1913)
    Stagey drama set in India and Africa, with much use of wild animals (elephants, tigers, lions), directed by Alice Guy-Blaché from her American period, starring Vinnie Burns.
  • The Copperhead (USA 1920)
    Handsomely-presented feature film based on a Civil War-themed drama, with Lionel Barrymore repeating his great success in the 1918 stage version.
  • Huckleberry Finn (USA 1920)
    The only silent version of Mark Twain’s novel, directed by William Desmond Taylor and starring Lewis Sargent as Huck.
  • A Movie Trip through Film Land (USA 1921)
    Animation and live action film on the film production process, photographed by Joseph De Frenes, rich in facts and figures, absorbing in its display of the technical processes.
  • Thais (Italy 1917)
    Experimental work with bold visual invention by Futurist filmmaker Anton Giulio Bragaglia. As the GEH notes put it, the film displays “a sometimes dizzying and illusory world in which the characters (and the audience) may find it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction”.
  • The Camera Cure (USA 1917)
    Keystone slapstick comedy directed by Herman C. Raymaker, starring Maude Wayne and Malcolm St. Clair.
  • Les Fromages Automobiles (France 1907)
    Also known as The Skipping Cheeses, this is an interesting example of how George Méliès lost his way in his later years as a filmmaker, as the cheeses in question are hardly visible and the human characters are too far away from the camera for the comedy to work.

Mae Murray in Kodachrome Test Shots (1922)

  • Danse Macabre (USA 1922)
    Intriguing combination of ballet, animation and ghostly superimpositions made by avant garde director Dudley Murphy, with the dancers Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page.
  • Homunculus (Germany 1916)
    Apparently a condensed, feature-length version of the original six-part series, hugely popular in Germany, directed by Otto Rippert, about a scientist who creates an artifical human being, starring Olaf Fønss as Homunculus.
  • Daughters who Pay (USA 1925)
    Feature film starring a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi as Serge Oumansky, a Communist agent trying to organise terrorist actions against the United States government.
  • The Lost World (USA 1925)
    Cast-iron classic based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel, with pioneering animated dinosaurs created by Willis O’Brien.
  • The Flute of Krishna (USA 1926)
    Kodachrome colour film chreographed by Martha Graham and produced by Rouben Mamoulian. According to the GEH notes, “The Flute of Krishna is the only surviving record of Graham’s choreography, as dance notation had not been invented when the piece was created”.
  • The Rejected Woman (USA 1924)
    Another fascinating glimpse of the pre-vampiric Bela Lugosi, in an interesting melodrama filmed in Montreal and New York, also starring Alma Rubens and Conrad Nagel, and directed by Albert Parker.
  • The Confederate Ironclad (USA 1912)
    Kalem Civil War drama, Guy Coombs and Anna Q. Nilsson.
  • Kodachrome test shots (USA 1922)
    Two-colour Kodachrome film tests, featuring Hope Hampton, Mary Eaton and Mae Murray.
  • Out of the Fog (USA 1922)
    An odd comedy filmed by Harris Tuttle, one of the development team that produced 16mm film stock for Eastman. The film, which satirising the adventures of the team itself, is thought to be “the earliest surviving, formally produced 16mm motion picture”.
  • The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (USA 1916)
    Feature film version of the novel and hit play set in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, directed by Cecil B. De Mille and starring Charlotte Walker and Thomas Meighan.
  • Gown of Destiny (USA 1917)
    Curious Triangle Film Corporation production about a French dress designer who creates a special gown that makes whoever wears so alluring that their husbands or suitors extend themselves in one way or another that ending up helping the French war effort.

There are more titles than this, including sound films of course (e.g the Technicolor 1937 feature Nothing Sacred and a delirious 1963 treat, Wayne D. Sourbeer’s How to Play Pinball). We’ll keep an eye out for more silent film treats. Anyway, some real treasures to explore, and many thanks to George Eastman House for having made them available to us all.

The second longest film in the world


Well here’s something I didn’t know before – the world’s second-longest film is a silent film. Indeed, until it was beaten by the compellingly-titled Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building, Helsinki) only this year, which weighs in at a daunting 240 hours, Cinématon by the French experimental filmmaker Gérard Courant was the longest film in the world, at 156 hours, or six days twelve hours.

Courant has been making the film for thirty-three years. He started making it in 1978 and is still being added to, so he could yet catch up once more with his rival. It’s not a narrative film, indeed it’s not really a single film but rather a series of unedited silent portraits (cinématons) of people, each of which is three minutes and 25 seconds long, shot on Super 8 film. To date there are 2,350 of them. Courant says he only intended to shoot 100 but the idea was so popular that he just kept on going.

The subjects range from the famous to the unknown. Included among the former are Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Fuller, Maurice Pialat, Wim Wnders, Sandrine Bonnaire, Terry Gilliam, Joseph Losey and Roberto Benigni. A number are available to view on Courant’s website, while others (appaently with the filmmaker’s blessing), appear on YouTube. They are silent films, and Courant has said he prefers silent movies “because of their power to convey strong emotions and connect with the audiences”. Whether you connect in an emotionally strong way with the film of Godard below, for example, may be open to question. It is typical of the series, where the subject, shown in close-up, simply sits before the camera. Many subject look self-conscious, uncertain of what to do, of how to fill the time.

Jean-Luc Godard, Cinématon #106, filmed 22 February 1981

The ‘film’ has been screened in its entirety on a number of occasions, each time getting longer of course, most recently at the Microscope Gallery, New York in 2010, and sequences are currently being featured at the Gulf Film Festival.

French critic Jacques Kermabon wrote this about the series in 1983:

Le Cinématon renoue avec la vocation originelle du cinématographe, émerveillé par la reproduction du mouvement et la possibilité de conserver la trace d’une existence. L’émotion naît de découvrir au cinéma la palpitation d’un corps: respiration, clignements d’yeux, hochements de tête. Tout est enregistré sans possibilité de reprise : les gestes manqués, les maladresses, les hésitations … Tout un corpus gestuel, honni du cinéma traditionnel, est ainsi exhibé, rendant caduque la notion de réalisme dans le cinéma de fiction. La pellicule a impressionné le souvenir de 3 minutes 20 d’existence. Elle restitue dans sa pesanteur, le temps qui est passé un jour. « La mort au travail », disait Cocteau du cinéma.

The original vocation of cinema? Well there is something of the Lumières about the exercise – single shot films, each of identical length, arranged in series, records of seeming plain reality that become anything but because the camera was there. And yet it is the negation of cinema, because fundamentally cinema takes you somewhere (a characteristic of every Lumière film) while Cinématon takes you nowhere. Whether you spent three minutes 25 seconds watching it or six-and-a-half days would probably make no difference. But cinema overall would be the poorer without such grandes folie.

There is to be a retrospective of Courant’s work at La Cinémathèque de Bourgogne in October or November of this year, and the Cinémathèque’s website is currently screening one cinématon per week.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 18

The Ten Commandments (1923), from DVD Talk

Chinese American
The Chinese Film Forum UK is a network based in Manchester, UK that exists for the research and promotion of transnational Chinese film. It organises regular film screenings at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, and in early April there are some silent films: Piccadilly (GB 1929), staring Ann May Wong (5 April); a talk, ‘Beyond Dragon Ladies and Butterflies: Anna May Wong’s Stardom’, given by Mina Suder (5 April); and The Curse of Quon Gwon (US 1916-17), the earliest known example of Chinese-American filmmaking, shown as a double bill with the documentary Hollywood Chinese (US 2008), which looks at the ways the Chinese have been imagined in Hollywood movies, from silents to contemporary cinema (12 April). Read more.

The Ten Commandments – and The Ten Commandments
We must be grateful for our silents where we can find them, and sometimes they turn up on the extras rather than as the main attraction. So it is that Paramount’s six-disc (count’ em) limited edition Blu-Ray release of Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) includes his 1923 The Ten Commandments, with extras all of its own – audio commentary, hand-tinted footage and a two-strip Technicolor sequence. Read more.

Thanhouser – it’s official
The Bioscope somewhat jumped the gun when we announced that the Thanhouser collection of films was appearing online (via Vimeo), but now the news is official, and you can find a list of all the films, with supporting information (and an invitation to help support their online access with PayPal donations) on the Thanhouser site. Read more.

London matters
London Rediscovered is a one-day event on programming and presenting archive films of London, from silents to today, with talks by Patrick Russell (Curator of non-fiction at the BFI), Luke McKernan (a mere blogger), filmmaker Ron Peck, London Screen Archives’ Angela English, and Ian Christie, director of the London Screen Study Collection, curator and film historian. It takes place 29 March at Birkbeck College. Read more.

Last of the silents?
Who will be the last person living who was a silent film performer? Mickey Rooney, who appeared in ‘Mickey McGuire’ silent comedy shorts from 1927, is still with us, but the way she’s going it could well be the indefatigable Diana Serra Cary, who made her first film at the age of two in 1921, under the name Baby Peggy. The Los Angeles Times has an illuminating interview with her, which concludes with the family tragedy that followed when her fame slipped away. “I could never be important to my father again after I became ‘me.'” Read more.

Thanhouser on Vimeo

As many will know, the name of the Thanhouser Film Company – a mid-ranking American company of the early cinema period – has been kept very much alive by the efforts of the Thanhouser family, with DVD releases, research and publications. Now Ned Thanhouser has gone one step further by releasing a number of Thanhouser films previously available on DVD through the Vimeo online video site.

Above, for example, is the famous The Evidence of the Film (1913). Discovered in 1999 on the floor of a Montana projection booth, it is a crime tale typical of the period made especially fascinating on acount of its filmmaking background. It has acquired the status of a classic, and in 2001 was selected inclusion in the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. It comes with original music composed and performed by Ray Brubacher.

Some fifty videos have been made available on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel over the past few weeks. They include The Voice of Conscience (1912), the five-reeler Woman in White (1917) based on Wilkie Collins’ novel, the Wagner-based Tannhäuser (1913), She (1911) with Marguerite Snow and James Cruze, a number of Shakespeare titles including The Winter’s Tale (1910), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) with James Cruze in the dual role, and perhaps the most celebrated of all Thanhouser films, The Cry of the Children (1912), on child labour reform, which uses an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem (Thanhouser was notable for its dedication towards the literary classics) to highlight the wretched living and working conditions of the contemporary poor.

Each of the videos comes with informative but not too extensive background notes, and all in all this is a bold and welcome move on Thanhouser’s part. Quite probably it’s a reaction to the several examples of these films which can be found on YouTube, which have been ripped from the DVD releases by other hands. Far better, of course, that the videos come from a legitimate source, and hopefully it will help promote DVD sales in any case and further the preservation and promotional work of the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc.

Update: There is now a page on the Thanhouser site which lists all 56 films, provides links to the videos, and supplies useful background notes. See www.thanhouser.org/videos-online.htm.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 15

Photograph taken filming of Hide and Seek, Detectives (1918): (L-R) unknown, Tom Kennedy, Ben Turpin, Charles ‘Heinie’ Conklin, Eddie Cline, and Marie Prevost. From Steve Rydzewski (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/wiggleyears)

Behind the scenes the Bioscope is toiling away at two or three major posts, which always take a while to research, but in the meantime here’s your regular Friday round-up of some interesting (we hope) news snippets on silent film and such like.

Cinefest 31
Syracuse’s annual convention of silent and early sound film takes place 17-20 March. Among the auctions and dealers’ tables you can see Lonesome, What Price Glory? (1927), Happiness (1917), The Hushed Hour (1919), Mannequin (1926), and much more. Read more.

National Inventors Hall of Fame
Stephen Herbert’s estimable Muy Blog (on Eadweard Muybridge) reports on the National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees for 2011. They include some major names from the worlds of photography and early film: Thomas Armat (1866-1948), for his motion picture projector, Hannibal Goodwin (1822-1900), for discovering transparent flexible nitrocellulose film, Frederick Ives (1856-1937), for innovation in colour photography, Charles F. Jenkins (1867-1934), for the projector he developed with Armat, and Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), for stop action photography. Read more.

The Great White Blu-Ray
The British Film Institute much acclaimed restoration of Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (1924), will get a Blu-Ray and DVD release in June. The film documents Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s failed attempt to be first to the South Pole. It’s also the first British silent film to make it to Blu-Ray. The dual-format package will include the 1933 re-edited sound version of Ponting’s film, Ninety Degrees South. Read more.

The Marie Prevost Project
Stacia Jones at the excellent and supremely well-named She Blogged by Night has been surveying the career of Marie Prevost in a series of posts. Her trawl through Prevost’s many lost films from the late teens brings up a marvellous array of photographs, posters, lobby cards and slides for the actress who went from Mack Sennett bathing beauty to 1920s stardom to a wretched end in the 1930s. Read more.

The hipster YouTube
Fortune magazine looks into the success story that is Vimeo, the online video site that just does everything right – and apparently invented the ‘like’ button. Proof that you can succeed in online video without recourse to theft, negativity or skateboarding dogs. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Seeing Sweden

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visiting Stockholm in 1924 (Mary och Doug besöker Stockholm), from Filmarkivet.se

Just launched on our lucky world is Filmarkivet.se, an online archive of Swedish film, produced in a collaboration between the Swedish Film Institute and the Swedish National Library. Over 300 films have been made available so far, dating from 1897 to 1996, and another 300 are promised for this year.

The site is in Swedish only, but easy enough to navigate, with simple search, categories, timeline and browse options. The Bioscope recommends clicking on any search option, then using the decade categories on the bottom left-hand side of the page to navigate films from the silent period. There is one from the 1890s, three from the 1900s, fourteen from the teens, and fifty-three from the 1920s. You will then find a mixture of actualities, newsreels, animation films, travelogues and amateur films (fiction films are few overall, and there are none for the silent period), of varying lengths. Each film comes with video player (with full screen option), catalogue data, description, and links to the Svensk Filmdatabas (the Swedish national filmography) or the Swedish Media Database, both of which we must make the topic of another post soon. There are assorted Web 2.0 tools, including pinpointing the film locations via Google Maps (‘Visa karta’).

The King of Sweden meets the King of Siam (Thailand) at Logårdstrappan, in Konungens af Siam landstigning vid Logårdstrappan (1897)

So what can we find there? Well, there is the first native Swedish film, Ernest Florman’s Konungens af Siam landstigning vid Logårdstrappan, showing King Oscar II of Sweden meeting King Chulalonkorn of Siam on 13 July 1897. There is a phantom ride rail journey in 1911 from Narvik to Riksgränsen, a protest meeting against the government’s defence policy held in 1914, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visiting Stockholm in 1924, a delightful 1926 film showing author Selma Lagerlöf at home and studying a filmstrip from Victor Sjöström’s The Tower of Lies (1925) based on her novel, several issues of the 1920s newsreel Paramountjournalen, beautiful colour footage of Stockholm in 1927, and much more. The subject is not so much Swedish film as Swedish life on film, documenting a changing society in the clearest and most engrossing terms. It is a really fine discovery tool for Swedish social history. Set aside the language barrier and go explore.

Acknowledgments to Iestyn Hughes’ continually useful Tatws Newydd blog for the intelligence about the site.

Huntley Film Archives

The Way of a Boy (c.1924), a delightful children’s stop-animation film made by Bradbury Productions, one of the treasures to be found in the Huntley Film Archives. I can find nothing about its production. Is it the American film of this title dated 1926 on the IMDb? Does anyone know?

For a while now I’ve been contemplating a post on silent films to be found on YouTube. However each time I attempt it I find myself defeated by the complexities of the copyright and ethical issues involved. Simply put, some silent film content is put there legitimately, some is not, and of the latter some has been put there in good faith, and some has not. Working out which is which is a minefield, and most people don’t much care. But here at the Bioscope we always check the source of a YouTube video and try to determine its true source and ownership. And we never include videos ripped from DVDs or television programmes (with the occasional exceptional of content re-used in mash-ups to form a new work). Those are the house rules.

Another hazard with YouTube is the inaccuracy of descriptions, something particularly prevalent for silent film era content where owners may not know the correct title, date or other identification of the film in their possession. This came home to me recently when I came across the YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, though the channel itself is full of riches and Huntley’s is a collection it would be good to tell you about in any case. So here goes.

Huntley Film Archives is a small British commercial film archive with a big reputation. It is a favourite of many a television researcher look for distinctive footage on social history and popular culture, and it is particularly strong in such subjects as entertainment, transport, travelogues, home movies and early films. Countless television programmes have named Huntley Film Archives in their end credits, and it remains an Aladdin’s cave of a collection, time and again coming up with just the right piece of footage that you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was founded in 1984 by the late John Huntley, a one-time acquisitions officer at the National Film Archive, a renowned film historian (Railways in the Cinema, British Film Music, British Technicolor Films) and an outstanding communicator, who gave hundreds upon hundreds of talks, shows, radio and television interviews on film history, always peerlessly entertaining and equipped with an anecdote for every occasion.

Battleship ‘Odin’ with all her Guns in Action (1900), filmed at Kiel by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Spectacularly filmed in 70mm, the impact of this film on a big screen is considerable and must have been overwhelming in 1900

You can find out more about the collection through its online database, though there are no clips apart from a few showreels. But it has now put some 240 videos onto its YouTube channel, and what an extraordinary collection it is, from home movies of the Festival of Britain to modern day celebrity trivia, from Butlin’s holiday camps to Kuwaiti advertising films, and from early computers to a British Film Institute summer school in 1948. What I want to draw attention to here is the silent films, because there are some real treasures available, though some have been misidentified or just not identified at all, a shame since the knowledge about the films often exists (a number are duplicated in the BFI National Archive for instance). Others, however, seem to be mysteries, as demonstrated by The Way of a Boy at the top of the post. Here are some more highlights.

Clog Dancing for the Championship of England (1898), made by Robert W. Paul

This is a delightful Robert Paul film, unique to the Huntley collection. Entitled Clog Dancing for the Championship of England, it shows the contestants in the world clog dancing championship of 1898, held in Bow. It is described in the Paul catalogue thus:

An extremely fine film of the first four competitors in the famous championship clog dancing contest. Each dances separately, and then altogether, finishing with the champion (Mr. Burns) clog dancing on a dinner plate without breaking same.

I’ve not been able to find Mr Burns’ full name [update: he was James G. Burns – see comments], but he and his competitors (Melia, Nixon and what could be Hannant) are helpfully identified on the film by the use of name cards. The film clearly does not depict the actual contest, instead recreating the event complete with the original judges conveniently bunched together to fit in the shot.

Extract from Dr Wise on Influenza (1919), a public health information film and one of the few films made at the time about the Spanish Flu epidemic that survive

This is a British public information film from 1919, made by Joseph Best for the Local Government Board. It is notable for being one of the very few films in existence that document the Spanish Flu epidemic which killed more people worldwide than had died in World War One. The full film is some 800 feet long; this extract shows how the flu germ is spread in public. (The full film is described in detail on the BFI database here).

Extract from The Coronation of King Peter I of Serbia and a Ride through Serbia (1904), the oldest surviving film of Serbia

This remarkable film was made by Yorkshireman Frank Mottershaw, who travelled to Serbia with Arnold Muir Wilson, a lawyer, journalist and Honorary Consul to the Kingdom of Serbia. Mottershaw was commissioned to film the coronation ceremonies of King Peter I of Serbia on 21 September 1904 and general scenes, and the film’s remarkable nature comes simply from being it being the oldest surviving film of Serbia. This sequence from the film shows people in Belgrade at the time of the coronation. The complete film is held by the Jugoslovenska Kinoteka.

The Taming of the Shrew (1923), a little-known example of a silent Shakespeare film, starting Lauderdale Maitland and Dacia Deane

Finally this is a silent Shakespeare film, one that’s hardly ever been seen or written about. It’s The Taming of the Shrew, made in 1923 by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company, directed by Edwin J. Collins and adapted by Eliot Stannard, who later wrote scenarios for Alfred Hitchcock. Lauderdale Maitland plays Petruchio and Dacia Deane is Katharina. It’s a two-reeler which concentrating on the wooing of Katharina, and though it’s no masterpiece it’s an adequate film of its type, which is a potted guide to literary highlights of a kind that rather appealed to British filmmakers at this time.

And there are more: for example, a Lumière film of 1897 showing a Japanese family at home in 1897 (the film was shot by François-Constant Girel and I believe shows the family of Inabata Katsutaro); a Bonzo the Dog cartoon from 1925, Bonzoby; rare footage of what Huntley’s call a “working class wedding from the 1910s“; and stunning footage of the Wuppertal suspended monorail, filmed I think by the German branch of Biograph, Deutsches Mutoskop und Biograph Gesellschaft, in the late 1890s.

The video clips don’t look great, often they’ve been transferred at the wrong speed, and each comes with timecode and Huntley’s name at the ID number written along the top. But we must be grateful to Huntley’s for making such treasures available to all, in whatever form. It’s just that they glitter all the more once we know what they are, who made them, and when.

The Bioscope on Vimeo

Posting on the modern silent Momentos a few days ago made me think that it was high time there was a Vimeo channel on the Bioscope. There is already a Bioscope YouTube channel, where every YouTube video which features on this blog is gathered together in one handy section, accessible via link on the right-hand column (under Other Bioscope Sites). But though we have been posting videos from Vimeo for some while, there hasn’t been a channel to bring them all together.

Well now there is, and if you look under Other Bioscope Sites you will now see The Bioscope on Vimeo. The link will take you to every Vimeo we’ve featured so far: modern silents, documentaries, pastiches, mashups etc; and as each new Vimeo is added here it will go on the channel. Vimeo, if you don’t know, is YouTube with class. It is the favourite site of up-and-coming filmmakers (film school graduates and the like), who use the site to test of ideas, and as a showcase for work which normally would only get seen on the festival circuit. Comments and likes tend to strees technical and aesthetic achievement, and generally the quality is very high. Moreover, there is a significant body of work within the silent film genre, in its broadest sense.

To celebrate our new channel, I’ve posted some videos to demonstrate the range that exists. At the top of the post we have Michael Fisher’s To a Flame, a visually striking example of an historical subject treated in a modern silent style.

A different approach to silents is taken by Chandler McWilliams for Silent, which the filmmaker describes thus:

Silent is a two minute video created by combining frames from five classic silent films: Metropolis, Faust, Nosferatu, Holy Mountain, and The Dragon Painter and put to the music of Charles Ives’ Hallowe’en. The frames are chosen by custom software that compares data from each of the film’s soundtracks with the data from Ives’ music.

The result is very different to the average mashup of a silent film to a music track, creating something compellingly abstract. (Those sensitive to such things should note that the video features insistent flashing imagery).

Another take on silent films is this six-minute comedy by You Look Nice Today, in which a trio of foley artists discuss the challenges of contributing sounds to silent films. It takes a while to go anywhere and then doesn’t really get there in any case, but if celery jokes are your sort of thing, you’re in luck.

And, finally, a short film. A very short film.

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

Three Mexican silents

The Cineteca Nacional after the fire

On 24 March 1982 fire broke out in Mexico’s national film archive, the Cineteca Nacional. Smoke was reported as coming out of all four vaults (one of which held nitrate film) and the fire brigade was called. People were told to evacuate the building, but a screening was going on the the archive’s main theatre. The director went to stop the screening:

I was asking the audience to leave at once because there was an emergency: I asked them to do it calmly. The doors were opened and everybody seemed to cooperate … There was a group of youngsters left behind; they were claiming their money back. Then there came the eruption, and a big flame coming out of the screen reached us. I saw the ceiling fall down. I threw myself to the floor …

There were three explosions, and the fire was to rage for fourteen hours. Five people died, maybe more. The effect on Mexican film heritage was devasting: the exact figures are unclear, but perhaps as much as 99% of the archive film collection was lost, some 5,000 films (other sources say 6,500), of which around half were feature films and short subjects. The archive’s library and public records on film production were also lost. Although the fire was apparently caused by overheating of electrical wiring but what made it so devastating was the nitrate cellulose – highly flammable, indeed explosive, and able to continue burning without oxygen, so making it resistant to all the usual means of containing fires.

This sobering tale – the greatest disaster ever to visit a national film archive in terms of percentage of films lost (a greater number of films overall was probably lost in the Cinémathèque Française fire of 1980) – is worth recalling when we consider films from Mexico’s silent era. Feature films got underway in Mexico in 1917 (after the revolution) when a drop in foreign films owing to the First World War encouraged local producers to fill the gap. But after a flurry of activity production was constrained during the 1920s, as Hollywood competition returned. Producers struggled to get films made and shown, and the greatest and most prolific period of Mexican cinema would not come until the 1940s-50s.

Therefore there were few Mexican silent feature films made, and so few survive today. Those that do exist, however, are championed not simply because their fortunate survival, but because of their quality and distinctive style. Some have made it to festivals and retrospectives and it is very pleasing to be able to report that another Mexican archive, the Filmoteca CINE UNAM, has just made three Mexican silent feature films freely available on its website, streamed in high quality.

Tepeyac (1917), from http://www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema

Tepeyac was made in 1917 by José Manuel Ramos, Carlos E. González, and Fernando Sáyago. Its subject is the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego (a Mexican Indian) in 1531. The opening sequences take in the present, where the heroine (played by Pilar Cotta with a touch of the Italian diva about her), distraught at her lover having been drowned at sea, reads a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe whereupon the film takes us back to the sixteenth century and the conflict between the Spaniards and the native peoples. The technique is faltering, but the film’s ambition and distinctive style are noteworthy. It uses national history, myth, location and religion to carve out an idea of a cinema that was distrinctively Mexican. Rudimentary though it may be, its very difference is what appeals. The film is presented in six parts, 47 mins in total, with modern Spanish titles replacing lost originals. It is also shown silent, as with the other two films on the Filmoteca UNAM site.

El tren fantasma (1927), from http://www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema

The other two films were made by Mexico’s leading filmmaker of the silent era, Gabriel García Moreno. The first is El tren fantasma (The Ghost Train) (1927), a marvellous thriller about a bandit gang sabotaging a railway line. It is filled with chases, fights (including bullights) and hair’s breadth escapes – and the actors performed all their own stunts. Fast-moving, technically adventurous and ably performed, El tren fantasma is the sort of silent film to which you point people to demonstrate just how much silent films can be. The 70 minute film is presented silent, with Spanish and English intertitles.

The morphine injection scene from El puño de hierro (1927), from http://www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema

And then there is El puño de hierro (The Iron Fist) (1927), the most remarkable of the three. Again directed by Gabriel García Moreno, this was a quite different work to the populist adventures of El tren fantasma. It is an extraordinary tale, sadly with striking modern-day resonance, of drug addiction and criminal gangs in Mexico. It portrays in often delirious fashion a dark underside of Mexican life not previously shown on the screen, and is strongly reminiscent of Louis Feuillade’s serials of crime and mystery, Fantomas and Les Vampires, with its Bat gang of hooded criminals and its surrealist imaginings of fantastical happenings in realistic settings. It was all a bit too much for Mexican film audiences, who rejected the film out of hand, bringing about the end of Moreno’s career as a director, alas. But two masterpieces in one year is quite a cinematic legacy, and El puño de hierro is undoubtedly a film to see. It runs for 77 minutes in five parts and is shown silent, with Spanish and English subtitles.

Grateful thanks must go to the Filmoteca CINE UNAM for making the films available to all, and congratulations are to it on its 50th birthday. It had its own fire in 1977, but though some original nitrate films were lost, almost all had been copied onto modern stock, so actual losses were few). Its sister archive, the Cineteca Nacional, was rebuilt in 1984, and flourishes once more under far better management, it is good to report.

Information on the Cineteca Nacional fire comes from Roger Smither, This Film is Dangerous:a Celebration of Nitrate Film (2002). For information on Gabriel García Moreno I recommend the essay ‘El Puño de Hierro, a Mexican Silent Film Classic‘ by William M. Drew and Esperanza Vázquez Bernal (originally published in the FIAF Journal of FIlm Preservation). For information on Mexican silent cinema in general, see Thomas Böhnke’s Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika, which is in German but is the first place to go for information on Latin American silent cinema. And, just in case you missed the link, the three films can be found at www.filmoteca.unam.mx/cinema.