The ballet and the film

Lydia Lopokova dancing alongside herself in ‘Dancing Grace’ from Eve’s Film Review no. 592, issued 6 October 1932 (but probably originally released 1922)

Thanks to an item on The Guardian film blog I have been led to this extraordinary film on the British Pathe website. Entitled ‘Dancing Grace‘, the film shows a ballerina – unidentified on the film, but now known to be Lydia Lopokova – dancing before the camera against a black background. What makes the film so remarkable is the use of slow motion and double exposure techniques to show Lopokova effectively dancing with herself. It is an uncanny foreshadowing of Norman McLaren’s classic dance film Pas de Deux (1968), with its multiple exposures of dancers creating images of extraordinary grace and beauty, only four decades earlier.

In its technique and imagination I can’t think of any film from the silent era that matches it, brief as it is. Who filmed it? The film was just one item among five in an issue of the cinemagazine Eve’s Film Review, which Pathé produced chiefly for women audiences. Much of Eve’s Film Review was shot by newsreel stalwart Ken Gordon, though nothing else in his long career points to artistry such as this.

Norman McLaren’s Pas de Deux, from The National Film Board of Canada

And why was it filmed? The Guardian tells the engrossing story of how Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were in London at the end of 1921 and performing at the Alhambra in Leicester Square, where Lopokova appeared in Tchaikovsky’s ballet, ‘The Sleeping Princess’, based on the Sleeping Beauty story. The conductor of the piece, Eugene Goossens, was also conducting at the Royal Opera House, which had been hired out by American film impresario Walter Wanger for the British premiere of The Three Musketeers, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Diaghilev was intrigued by how well Goossens matched music to film, and proposed a film of ‘The Sleeping Princess’ to Wanger, ideally to be filmed in colour, the same as another film Wanger had put on at the Opera House, J. Stuart Blackton’s The Glorious Adventure, filmed in Prizmacolor and starring Lady Diana Manners. According to an article in Dance Research by Lynn Garafola, the painters Augustus John and S.H. Sime were to be involved with the sets. Given Diaghilev’s well-documented distaste for popular culture and his refusal to allow the Ballet Russes to be filmed, it would have been a remarkable change of heart – and, one would like to hope, a film of some considerable beauty.

One-second frame sequences from ‘Dancing Grace’ with Lydia Lopokova

Sadly the colour film of the Ballet Russes was not to be. ‘The Sleeping Princess’ was not a success at the Alhambra and the theatre’s owner Oswald Stoll replaced it with a Norma Talmadge film, while the debt-ridden Diaghilev and his company slunk away to Paris. The Guardian piece then relates how later in 1922 Wanger hired Lopokova and Léonide Massine to dance Stravinsky’s Ragtime as part of a programme at Covent Garden which included Wesley Ruggles’ film Love, starring Louise Glaum.

All of this is illuminating illustration of how film could be mixed up with the other arts, and the growing interest that film had for British high society. Half of the young upper class of London appeared in crowd scenes for The Glorious Adventure, while Lopokova and her economist husband John Maynard Keynes – first attracted to her when he saw ‘The Sleeping Princess’ – were very much a part of the Bloomsbury set (alongside Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant et al.), well-born, intellectual experimenters in the arts and in ways of living, a number of whom were attracted to the cinema (Virginia Woolf wrote a notable essay ‘The Cinema’, while Keynes was a member of the Film Society, which brought Soviet film classics to Britain for the first time).

There is some confusion over the date of the film. One version of it is held by the BFI National Archive, under the title Eve’s Film Review: Dancing Graces: Studies of Madame Lopokova, dating it as 1922. It is this version which currently features in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929. However the British Pathe version bears the Eve’s Film Review issue number 592, which the BUFVC’s News on Screen database says dates it as 6 October 1932. Presumably the film was first made in 1922 and then re-used by Pathé ten years later. There is some overlap between the two, but mostly the 1932 version is a continuation of 1922 – but no longer mentions Lopokova’s name. Meanwhile, she enjoyed a further foray into film, when she appeared alongside George Balanchine and Anton Dolin in a ballet sequence for the early British sound film, Dark Red Roses (1929). Clearly Lopokova (and Keynes) had a lasting interest in film, and the worlds of ballet and film were not seen as being completely apart.

This is demonstrated in a famous essay by Anthony Asquith, ‘Ballet and the Film’, published in Caryl Brahms’ Footnotes to the Ballet (1936). Asquith directed two sound films with prominent ballet sequences, Dance Pretty Lady (1932) and The Young Lovers (1954), but his essay mostly concerns the silent film and its relationship with dance. He notes the basic similarity between the two in their most basic form, but argues that

the mime in the earliest films corresponded in function if not in style to that of the more decadent classical ballets.

For Asquith, just as advances in ballet moved the dance from mere display to expression of mood or a character’s state of mind, so the film developed from crude histrionics to greater subtely of expression through the innovation of the close-up and the discovery by D.W. Griffith of a style of mime ‘that bore to life something of the relation that verse or poetical prose bears to ordinary speech’. He follows this interiorisation of style through to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, a film entirely of the mind since it all takes place inside the head of a madman. At the same time he traces a trend towards greater naturalism in ballets, so that the two art forms, coming from different directions, more or less meet at a point in the 1920s when a ballet film could most profitably be imagined. However, Asquith has his doubts about the silent ballet film:

[F]ilm and ballet have another common element – rhythm. And from the rhythmic point of view the ballet is far more like the sound film than the silent. In a silent film there are two kinds of movement: the movement of people or objects within the limits of a shot, i.e. in a given strip of film photographed without a break, and the movement expressed by the realisation of one shot to another, just as in music there is the rhythmical relation of notes to each other within the limits of a phrase and there is the rhythmical relation of phrase to phrase.

Asquith therefore compares the rhythm of silent film to the rhythm of music, arguing that in each case just the one sense is affected, through the eyes or through the ears respectively. But he then argues that the rhythm of ballet is not one or the other, but ‘the relation of each to each’.

All of which is a somewhat theoretical way of arguing that he wanted his ballet films to have a soundtrack. But ‘Dancing Grace’, even though it runs for no more than a minute and a half, points to a kind of ballet film that the silent film could have made its own. It gets inside the mind of the ballet, revealing its inner workings and not just its outward show.

An earlier Bioscope post has traced something of the history of dance and silent film. Intriguingly it includes another Douglas Fairbanks connection, as one of the three extant silent films of Anna Pavlova is a short fragment showing her dancing ‘Columbine’ on the set of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929 runs at the V&A until 9 January 2011 and features the Lopokova ‘Dancing Grace’ film. There is an exhibition blog post which talks about the two versions of the film.

Finally, the BUFVC’s News on Screen database lists another film from 1922, now lost, from the Around the Town cinemagazine, with the description ‘Lopokova in an improptu dance “Inspired by the Sun” on ultra-rapid camera’. Around the Town was made by Gaumont, not Pathé, so did Lopokova make two slow motion ballet films (i.e. requiring an ultra-rapid camera) in 1922? Intriguing.

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

The woman who did not care

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair –
(Even as you or I!)

Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem The Vampire (said to have been inspired by a painting of the same name by Philip Burne-Jones) has been hugely influential. It took a piece of Eastern European folklore which had had been popularised in Victorian literature and applied it to a new kind of woman whose sexual adventurous caused alarm and thrill in equal measure. The vampire came to films in 1913 with Robert Vignola’s The Vampire, starring Alice Hollister, but it was A Fool There Was (1915), which took its name from the first line of Kipling’s poem (by way of a play by Porter Emerson Browne), that stamped the idea of the vamp (and then the verb to vamp) on the consciousness of a generation.

The star of A Fool There Was was Theda Bara, and in her wake followed a number of screen vamps, each driving men mad and giving not a damn. Among them were Valeska Suratt, Olga Petrova, Musidora, Pola Negri, Helen Gardner, Louise Glaum, Dagmar Godowsky and Virginia Pearson. Lesser known than some of these, yet with perhaps a greater cult, is Nita Naldi, now the subject of a new website, Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp.

She was born Mary Dooley in Harlem, New York in 1894, into a “solidly blue collar, devoutly Catholic, and upwardly mobile” family. The family hit hard times, and Mary took to the stage, developing an exotic persona (Spanish or Italian according to whim). She took her name name from actress Maria Rosa Naldi, who she described as her sister for many years thereafter. She developed her vamp persona in assorted variety shows, including working for Florenz Ziegfeld. She got her first named screen role in 1920 in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, worked hard for a time for both screen and stage as she built up her name, then got her big break playing opposite Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922). As the Nita Naldi site says, in its characteristically keen style:

Nita, cast as fire-breathing man-eater Doña Sol, executes her signature role with a gleam in her eye and all the gusto she can muster. She swans about in outré ensembles, ogles Valentino and every other male in the film suggestively, wears a series of harebrained hats (one, a favorite here at Naldi HQ, is festooned with grapes), yawns as her victim dramatically perishes in front of her, and generally refuses to behave. It was not a role for Lillian Gish – but it suited Nita down to the ground.

Paramount awarded her a five-year contract and several nondescript titles followed (Anna Ascends, You Can’t Fool Your Wife, Lawful Larceny, Glimpses of the Moon, Don’t Call it Love, and The Breaking Point). She starred opposite Valentino again in A Sainted Devil and Cobra, but her star was on the wane, chiefly it seems because of a weight problem, though stories of heavy drinking and unclear sexuality probably didn’t help matters. As with many American stars on the way down, she sought work in Europe, and one of her last film roles was to play a non-vampish schoolteacher in Alfred Hitchcock’s lost film The Mountain Eagle (1925). She returned to the stage, married a wealthy man who promptly lost all his money in the Depression, soldiered on after his death maintaining the social life of a one-time film star, and died in straitened circumstances in 1961.

Nita Naldi, from ‘The Viewpoints of a Vamp’, Picture Show, December 1, 1923

It’s a not untypical tale of a screen performer’s rise and fall, but what makes Nita Naldi such an interesting, and now cultish figure is her intelligence, wit, style and devil-may-care attitude to life. She vamped on-screen and she vamped off-screen. Two of her fervent acolytes, Donna L. Hill and Joan Myers, members of the splendidly named ‘Daughters of Naldi’, plus auxiliary ‘daughter’ Christopher S. Connelly, have produced this excellent tribute site. It comprises a full biography, photo-gallery (divided up by film), ephemera section (photoplay books, articles etc.), filmography, stageography, a handy guide to vamping (Lesson 1: Lure the victim; Lesson 2: Assume the position; Lesson 3: Bite! Truly, Madly, Deeply!; Lesson 4: Celebrate!) and a Nita Naldi Cocktail.

Some of the exceptional material here is quite well hidden. The Daughters of Naldi have taken particular care over researching biographical material, including lengthy trawls through censuses, shipping records, naturalisation records and the like, and wherever US public domain laws allow, they have made available copies of the original documents in their notes and references section, with hyperlinks to PDFs. Similarly the articles, filmography and stageography sections have a number of valuable documents available in PDF format. Just look out for the hyperlinks.

Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp demonstrates that film history research can and should be fun. The research has been rigorous but the style is knowingly playful. More material is promised, including essays, more photographs and more biographical information – because many questions remain and the search must go on.

Well done to all concerned.

Lulu’s journals

Still catching up on the silent news, and probably the biggest story from last week was the announcement from George Eastman House about the journals of Louise Brooks. Before her death in 1985, the star of Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl bequeathed her private journals to the New York film and photography museum, on the understanding that they remained under lock and key for twenty-five years. That time elapsed in August, and George Eastman House is now examining the journals.

We have good reason to expect a real treat should they be published (GEH has not announced any plans as yet). Brooks’ acerbic, observant 1982 memoir Lulu in Hollywood is a classic, and she wrote a number of well-regarded articles towards the end of her life. Brooks writes keenly and illuminatingly on a Hollywood stripped of its glamour, with intelligent observations on her films, her peers, and the industry in which she was such a contrary figure. What we have learned so far is that Brooks kept a private journal from 1956 onwards, and that she writes about Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and her own film roles. There are twenty-nine volumes, which range in size and content, amounting to some 2,000 pages.

More information on the journals from The Examiner, Variety and the Huffington Post.

Loving Louise Brooks

‘Louise Brooks’ is one of the top search terms for people visiting the Bioscope, but so far there hasn’t been much here to satisfy them. Brooks is the silent film star for people who don’t otherwise like silent films. There is such a cult built around her that she seems to lie outside the film world that created her. Her appeal is so modern, so seemingly out of step, that she has ended up a class apart. It takes an effort of will to remember that she was a relatively minor American actress, considered difficult to work with and consequently with a rather patchy American film career, whose fame mostly lies with two German films made by G.W. Pabst, whose genius it was to exploit to the fullest that extraordinary uncompromising sexual quality she undoubtedly possessed.

The cult of Louise Brooks persists, and its latest manifestation is this intriguing French student film, to which Thomas Gladysz has drawn attention in a piece for the Huffington Post. It is made by the 18-year-old Sébastian Pesle, who stars in the 11-minute film as a filmmaker drawn more to the image of Louise Brooks on the screen (in Diary of a Lost Girl) than he is to his girlfriend (Malvina Desmarest), even when she dresses up as Brooks to try and capture his attention. It is shot as a silent film – that is, no one speaks (there are no intertitles), but there is natural sound (including a well-timed slap) and music. It’s a novel, thoughtful piece of work, well worth catching.

For more information on Brooks, there is the very useful Louise Brooks Society site and its accompanying blog, both maintained by Thomas Gladysz; an Italian site with information on all aspects of her career, Louise Brooks, Silent Film Star; her frank and exceptionally well written memoir Lulu in Hollywood (1982); a memorable essay, ‘The Girl With The Black Helmet’, on meeting Brooks towards the end of her life in Kenneth Tynan’s Show People; biographies by Peter Cowie and Barry Paris; and a thoughtful thread on the Nitrateville silent film disussion form commenting on her legacy.

And of course there are films – in particular look out for the Criterion edition of Pandora’s Box (which includes the Kenneth Tynan essay among its copious extras) and the Kino International edition of Diary of a Lost Girl. But catch Brooks in any of her few silent films, even in bit parts, and she lights up the screen in an extraordinary way, somehow aware of people watching her as much in 2010 as 1929. It would be hard to love Louise Brooks – all of the biographical evidence points to someone who was determinedly unlovable – but you cannot take your eyes off her. Which is what Loving Louise Brooks artfully captures.

A thief catcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lives in film no. 3 – Dan Leno

Dan Leno, from

In 1921 Charlie Chaplin returned home to Britain to an ecstatic welcome. Touring his old London haunts, however, he found one shop-owner less than overawed by his worldwide fame. Chaplin went to a photographer’s shop on Westminster Bridge Road where he recalled seeing a framed picture of his comic idol, Dan Leno. It was still there. This conversation then followed:

My name is Chaplin … You photographed me fifteen years ago. I want to buy some copies.

Oh, we destroyed the negative long ago.

Have you destroyed Mr. Leno’s negative?

No, but Mr. Leno is a famous comedian.

Such is fame, as Chaplin notes. The man in the picture, Dan Leno, was for anyone of Chaplin’s generation the epitome of comedy. He was among the funniest and the most loved of comedians of the Victorian age, one whose career formed a bridge between the pantomime clowning of the Joe Grimaldi early-19th century era and the era of motion pictures that was to bring about the unprecedented fame of Leno’s successor as public favourite, Chaplin himself.

Dan Leno (1860-1904) was one of the greatest of all comedians. Born George Wild Galvin, the child of entertainers (as was Chaplin), he was raised in poverty in London, first trod the boards aged just four, and first rose to prominence by winning a world clog-dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. He made it to the main London stages by 1885, immediately acclaimed as a comic master, and soon established as a national favourite, particularly on account of his peformances in Drury Lane pantomimes. His artistry was built around an uncanny ability to mimic the trials and absurdities of everyday living. Leno excelled in making his comic characters as realistic as they were comic, products of an acute sense of human characteristics. As a railway guard, waiter, shop-walker, lodger, recruiting sergeant, swimming instructor or Widow Twankey (he was the archetypal pantomime dame), Leno’s befuddled demeanour reflected life’s puzzlements in a form that all could recognise and delight in. Max Beerbohm wrote of him:

Dan Leno’s was not one of those personalities which dominate us by awe, subjugating us against our will. His was of that other, finer kind — the lovable kind. He had, in a higher degree than any other actor I have ever seen, the indefinable quality of being sympathetic. I defy anyone not to have loved Dan Leno at first sight. The moment he capered on, with that air of wild determination, squirming in every limb with some deep grievance that must be outpoured, all hearts were his.

Leno’s humour was grounded in character observation and word-play, but as with all great comedians it was a shared understanding with his audience that made him special. He pinpointed what Beerbohm identified as “the sordidness of the lower middle class, seen from within” while making that “trite and unlovely material … new and beautiful”. How we laugh at ourselves is how Dan Leno made us laugh.

Dan Leno is now the subject of a new biography, the first since 1977. Barry Anthony’s The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius is published by I.B. Tauris and it is a delight from start to finish. Anthony (previously co-author with Richard Brown of A Victorian Film Enterprise: The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and a fine booklet on the Kinora) is well-known among a small coterie of music hall historians for his meticulous research and encyclopaedic knowledge. He also writes beautifully. The research is worn lightly, the observations are acute, the characters stand out vividly, and the material is handled in an engaging style that makes the Victorian music hall era come alive. There is much on the Victorian music hall in general, so that the book serves as a valuable general history as well as biography. It is particularly good at giving you the essence of Leno’s performances (and those of others), as if a motion picture camera had been there.

But, as Anthony points out, towards the end of Leno’s career, the motion picture cameras were there. Leno’s later career coincided with the rise of mass media as means to package and spread fame, and Leno was filmed on several occasions. Interestingly, the films that were made of Leno for the most part did not attempt to record his performances but rather focussed on his celebrity. There was a surprising number of films made of Leno – at least a dozen. But the reason why he seldom turns up in film histories is that only one of these films survives, and that in a non-film state.

Leno was first filmed on 23 June 1899 on a trip by the music hall society the ‘Water Rats’ to Box Hill in Surrey. Impresario A.D. Thomas had them filmed on the road to Mitcham travelling in coaches (‘The Rats’ off on a Picnic), at play befor a crowd of spectators (‘The Rats’ at Play) and picnicing (‘The Rats’ at Dinner). Alongside Leno were such notables as Herbert Campbell, Joe Elvin, George Robey, Will Evans and Harry Randall. A few days later Thomas filmed the Music Hall Sports at Herne Hill in London, the sports being interspersed with comic performances intended to raise money for the Music Hall Benevolent Fund. Dan Leno featured in Burlesque Indian Attack on Settlers’ Cabin, Dan Leno’s Attempt to Master the Wheel (in the character of his famous role of Mrs Kelly) and Burlesque Fox Hunt. All titles were subsequently included in the Warwick Trading Company catalogue.

Leno was filmed at other charity events. Birt Acres filmed Dan Leno’s Cricket Match in July 1900 at another mix of charity and sports, where Leno again took a turn on a bicycle. A year later, in September 1901, he was back on the cricket field (at Stamford Bridge) for Warwick’s Dan Leno’s Day Out, paired with Dan Leno, Musical Director, where he mock-conducted the Metropolitan Police Band in ‘A Little Bit Off the Top’. A few days later he appeared before the 70mm camera of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company for Dan Leno’s Record Score, which showed him in comic argument with a wicket-keeper (for photographs from the day in Black and White Budget see the excellent Arthur Lloyd website). Anthony records that the film was exhibited alongside genuine cricket film of C.B. Fry and Ranjisinhji. Another Biograph film was Mr Dan Leno, Assisted by Mr Herbert Campbell, Editing ‘The Sun’ (1902) in which Leno and the frequent partner in pantomime, a comic promotional film for a journal run by the notorious Horatio Bottomley. This was the only film to show an acted peformance from Leno, apart from Bluebeard (1902), an extract from a Drury Lane pantomime in which Leno played Sister Anne, produced by Warwick.

Dan Leno and his wife Lydia in The Obstinate Cork (1902), from The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius

Biograph produced the only film of Leno that exists today. Its 70mm products were often issued in flip-card or flip-book form through a variety of devices for viewing at seaside arcades (through the Mutoscope) or in the home (through the Kinora). Biograph made two films in 1902 of Leno with his family in the garden at their home in Clapham, one of which showed Leno and his wife Lydia struggling to open a bottle of champagne and eventually resorting to a giant property axe to do so. The Obstinate Cork survives – in private hands – as a Kinora reel (i.e. a set of flip-cards for exhibiting in a Kinora) and forms the only moving image that exists of the great comedian.

As said, most of these films did not present Leno in performance but rather Leno the celebrity, seen clowning in public, playing up to his popular persona. They crossed the barrier between fiction and non-fiction. If any were to be discovered they wouldn’t so much show us Leno’s art as his popularity, and that would be so precious in itself. Leno the comic giant belonged to his time. Nothing dates so remorsely as humour. What makes one generation roll in the aisles makes the succeeding generation shrug its shoulders or wince with embarassment. What matters for our understanding of the history of comedy is not whether we would find Grimaldi, Leno or Chaplin funny today (though we might) but that we appreciate just what they meant to the people of their time. This is what Barry Anthony’s book achieves so well. It tell us enough to give a good idea of Leno’s comedy, but still more it shows us how key he was to his times, how people identified with his humour, how much he was of his times and yet transcended his times. The films that were made of him were not intended to replicate his act but to reflect the profound affection with which he was held by millions.

Dan Leno suffered throughout his professional life from a series of mental and physical breakdowns, brought on by the pressures of huge popularity. He died in 1904, aged just 43.

Finding out more
Leno made a number of sound recordings, and unlike his motion picture legacy, all of these survive. Recordings from 1901 and 1903 can be heard Music Hall Perfomers site, while his famous number ‘The Grass Widower’ can be heard on YouTube. Peter Preston has written an interesting piece in The Guardian comparing Leno’s passing fame to that which endures for Marlon Brando – as unlikely a pairing as one could imagine. Paul Morris’ essay on the English Music Hall site evocatively sums up Leno’s art. Finally, Leno’s comical pseudo-autobiography, Dan Leno Hys Booke (1899) is available online from the Internet Archive.

The art of the benshi

Here’s an interview from the Japanese Times with Midori Sawato, best-known of the small band of voice artists who keep alive the art of the benshi. There are around ten modern benshi in Japan, who continue the tradition of adding live narration to silent films, which was the standard manner in which silent films were exhibited in Japan up to the late 1930s, when – at its peak – there were some 7,000 such benshi in employment. The benshi would be positioned alongside the screen and take on the multiple roles, accompanied by live music, and putting their particular personality onto the film entertainment. Sawato gives around 100 such shows per year.

Sawato has been featured here before, as she is main voice artist featured on Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series of Japanese silents with benshi narration, reported on here. In the interview (which takes a couple of minutes before she gets to silent films) she describes how she was working in publishing in 1972 when she went to a silent film narrated by master benshi Shunsui Matsuda, one of a number of celebrated benshi still active. She became so engrossed by the art that she became his apprentice, making her debut with Chaplin’s The Rink. One of the interesting aspects of the interview is the realisation that benshi narrate for non-Japanese silents as well as Japanese – which is of course how it was during the silent era.

The interview covers how she learned the art (mostly by listening), how she conveys different characters, and her thoughts about the importance of silent film as a means to preserve history and culture. There’s also the oblique admission that she continues to perform to the films despite relatively small audiences, believing that it is good work to be doing whether the audience be large or small. It’s a noble activity.

The video serves as my means to introduce The Bioscope on YouTube. I’ve set up a channel, or playlist, on YouTube which lists almost all of the videos featured on The Bioscope since its inception in February 2007. I say almost all, because some videos have been taken down since then, and some have come from other sites (such as Vimeo). But it’s most of them, and I think they make interesting browsing. I’ll continue to add each new video to the channel as they are featured on the blog. The Bioscope on YouTube is now a link on the right-hand column of this site, alongside our other satellite sites, The Bioscope on Flickr (images featured on or associated with the blog), The Bioscope Bibliography of Silent Cinema (selected from the British Library catalogue, still ongoing), The Bioscope on Twitter (a feed from blog posts only), and Urbanora’s Modern Silents (another YouTube playlist, with some overlaps with the new channel).

Viewing scarlet maple leaves

Ichikawa Danjuro IX (right) and Onoe Kikugoro V in Momiji-gari (Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves), filmed by Shibata Tsunekichi in November 1899

This is an extraordinary image. It’s a Japanese postcard dating from 1908 (the postage stamp says Meijii 41, which is 1908). However the image that it shows dates from November 1899. It shows on the right the greatest of all kabuki actors, Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903), and on the left Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903), second only in fame at the time to Danjuro. They have been photographed in a scene from the dance drama Momiji-gari, translated as Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves or Maple Leaf Hunters. And the reason the drama was performed because it was done for a motion picture camera.

Projected film first came to Japan when businessman Inabata Katsutaro, a friend of Auguste Lumière, played host to Lumière operator François-Constant Girel, who gave a film show at the Nanchi Theatre in Osaka on 15 February 1897 (peepshow Kinetoscopes were exhibited in Japan in 1896). Film was an immediate hit with Japanese audiences, and several Japanese entrepreneurs enthusiatically adopted the new medium, among them Yokota Einosuke, Kawaura Ken’ichi and Arai Saburo.

It was Arai who was the first person to approach Danjuro with a proposal to film him, in 1897. Danjuro IX (left) was a legend of the kabuki theatre, ninth in an unbroken line of actors named Danjuro, and considered one of the greatest of all Japanese actors. He did much to preserve the art of kabuki and to raise the status of actors generally. However the actor, a deeply conservative character, reacted to Arai’s proposal with repugnance, refusing to have anything with a ‘shipbrought thing’ (thus equating the cinematograph with any other kind of foreign goods).

Two years later, Danjuro was sixty years old, and his manager Inoue Takejiro, was anxious to record his great art for posterity. On the understanding that such a film would go into his private vault and not been seen by the sort of commonfolk who frequented film shows, Danjuro assented. A film would be made of part of the dance play Momiji-gari, with Danjuro playing an ogress who has disguised herself as a princess (male actors always play female roles in kabuki) and Onoe Kikugoro V as the hero Taira no Koremochi. Wikipedia gives this summary of the plot of the original play (not the film, which could only show a part of the drama):

The original play, performed in both noh and kabuki, is a story of the warrior Taira no Koremochi visiting Togakushi-yama, a mountain in Shinshū for the seasonal maple-leaf viewing event. In reality, he has come to investigate and kill a demon that has been plaguing the mountain’s deity, Hachiman.

There he meets a princess named Sarashinahime, and drinks some sake she offers him. Thereupon she reveals her true form as the demon Kijo, and attacks the drunk man. Koremochi is able to escape using his sword, called Kogarasumaru, which was given to him by Hachiman. The demon gnaws on a maple branch as she dies.

(A longer summary is available on the Kabuki21 site)

The filmmaker selected to create this important document was Shibata Tsunekichi, who had previously made films of geisha dances. Shibata employed a Gaumont camera and left this account of how the film was made:

There was a gusting wind that morning. We decided to do all the shooting in a small outdoor stage reserved for tea parties behind the Kabuki-za. We hurriedly set up the stage, fearing all the time that Danjuro might suddenly change his mind again. Every available hand, including Inoue, was called upon to hold the backdrop firm in the strong wind. Danjuro, playing Sarashi-the-maiden, was to dance with two fans. The wind tore one from his hands and it fluttered off to one side. Re-shooting was out of the question so the mistake stayed in the picture. Later people were to remark that this gave the piece its great charm.

The film was kept from public view, as had been Danjuro’s wish, but a year later it was shown to an audience of kabuki actors. According to historian Hiroshi Komatsu, the film was first shown to a general audience on 7 July 1903 when Danjuro fell ill and was unable to appear on stage. He died in September of that year. Happily the film has survived for posterity to treasure (it is held by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo) and when it was shown at the Pordenone silent film festival in 2001 (where I missed it!) this description of the six-minute, three-scene film was provided in the catalogue:

The first shot, in which Princess Sharashina dances with a fan, is viewed head on, as though she were center stage. The second shot, of the “Yamagami scene”, captures Koremori (played by Kikugoro) in the foreground and Yamagami’s dance behind Koremori. The third shot is from the same camera angle as the first, and shows Koremori and the ogress’s dance.

This is where the postcard comes in, which documents the film’s third scene.

The full postcard with postage stamp

The postcard definitely shows Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V performing for the Momiji-gari film. It has been photographed in the open air, as one can see from the shadows thrown by the sunlight. Clearly Shibata not only commemorated the event in film but took a photograph (maybe more? maybe three, one for each scene?) at the same time. The postcard, however, dates from 1908, with the legend stating something along the lines that it had been produced to honour the fifth anniversary of his passing. It seems that the production was a little more planned and commercial in intent than the anecdotal histories have suggested. Certainly Danjuro was the subject of innumerable ukiyo-e prints, which suggests an awareness of the importance of image.

There is an interesting parallel with what happened in Britain at almost exactly the same time. In September 1899 the renowned actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree was persuaded by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company to appear before the Biograph camera in short scenes from Shakespeare’s King John, the play he was presenting at the Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Four scenes from the play were filmed, which did not tell the whole story but rather showed key points from the drama, just as with Momijigari. In another parallel, a set of promotional photographs were also taken at the same time. Tree was never so fastidious as Danjuro, and his intent was probably more commercial than concerned with posterity, but it is worth noting the coming together of the new medium with the old, the former gaining kudos by association with the other and showing the advantages that it had – to capture performance and defy time. It also demonstrates an idea of cinema as filmed theatre which was to influence Japanese film for several years thereafter, impeding its development as an independent art form for two decades or more.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (dressed in white) in King John (1899)

I am able to reproduce the postcard by kind permission of its owner, a US collector by name of Dan. He is looking for a buyer for the postcard, and anyone with a serious proposal should get in touch with me and I’ll pass on details to him. My thanks to him also for translations from the Japanese. The postcard is also reproduced on the Ukiyo-e Prints website, and I am grateful to its host Jerry Vegler for being so helpful, and to Stephen Herbert for having first brought the card to my attention.

There are biographies of Danjuro IX on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site and on Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures. Much of the historical information in this post comes courtesy of Peter B. High’s article ‘The Dawn of Cinema in Japan’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 19 no. 1 (January 1984), with acknowledgment also to Hiroshi Komatsu’s notes for the 2001 Pordenone catalogue and his essay ‘Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film‘.

Extensive information on kabuki – the performers, theatres, stories and characters – can be found on the Kabuki21 site. You can get an idea of how Momiji-gari would have been performed from this YouTube video (with helpful English subtitles) which shows a modern-day production (part 8 of 8, showing the finale of the drama as depicted in the postcard).

Finally, it was recently suggested that the film be designated by the Japanese government as an Important Cultural Property (juyo bunkazai), the first film to be so honoured.

Alla ricerca di Chaplin e Keaton

The Cineteca di Bologna has just issued two handsomely-produced book and DVD sets, All ricera di Charlie Chaplin – Unknown Chaplin (The Search for Charlie Chaplin) and Alla ricera di Buster Keaton – A Hard Act to Follow.

The two sets bring together the classic documentary series together with accompanying texts written by Brownlow. The three-part television series Unknown Chaplin was produced by Brownlow and David Gill in 1983, and showcased the previously-unseen collection of Chaplin out-takes that so richly illuminated his working methods. The text, originally written by Brownlow in 1983, was published for the first time by the Cineteca in 2005 in a dual-language edition with DVD. This re-issue has the Italian text only (163 pages), while the DVD is the English-language series (with Italian subtitles). It includes the extras How Unknown Chaplin was Made (on the making of the TV series), The Making of The Count (historian Frank Scheide examines the process of making the Mutual film) and Chaplin meets Harry Lauder (1918). These are available on the UK and American DVD releases.

Frank Scheide viewing The Count

Buster Keaton – A Hard Act to Follow is a three-part television series made by Brownlow and Gill in 1987. It documents the story of Keaton’s working life, with close examination of his working method through the films (though without the revelation of a hidden archive of film this time round). The accompanying book (250 pages) has been written for this publication, which makes it particularly important, but again, the text is in Italian only (there are hopes of an English publication eventually). The DVD is of the English-language television series, but the release has Brownlow’s approval, as opposed to the UK version which lacks many explanatory titles. There are no extras.

The sets are available for 15.00 € each or 27.00 € for the two, from the Cineteca di Bologna site.