News from the Soviets

V.I. Lenin smiling for the camera, from Kinonedelja No. 22 (29 October 1918)

Dziga Vertov is one of the most revered names in Soviet filmmaking. The ways in which he married radical politics to radical film form in films such as the screen magazine Kino-Pravda, Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth of the World and Three Songs of Lenin, and in his theoretical understanding of film, especially his concept of the ‘kino-eye’ (“I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye”) argued for film as the vital medium at the time that a new form of society was emerging. Vertov demanded that film showed the truth. In technique this meant both trusting and curiously distrusting the camera’s propensity for capturing reality, as he employed exuberant montage (especially in Kino-Pravda) to reveal supposed greater truths by stirring the passions and stimulating the ideas of the observer.

Vertov’s first films were not so radical. His film career began as a writer and occasional director for the newsreel Kinonedelja (Cinema Weekly), produced by the Moscow Film Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. This newsreel ran for forty-three issues between May 1918 and June 1919, documenting daily life in Russia in the months following the revolution of October 1917. Remarkably fourteen issues from the series survive, discovered in Sweden and now held by the Austrian Film Museum which has digitised and made twelve of the fourteen available online.

Kinonedelja has nothing like the exuberant and confrontational experiments in film reportage Vertov develped for Kino-Pravda over 1922-25. It is, instead, fascinatingly mundane. It is newsreel footage much like newsreels were being produced elsewhere around the world, basic in construction, reporting on matters of passing, local interest, in form more passive than manipulative. Kinonedelja certainly has its propagandist edge, and is loaded with the excitement of social and political change, and some propagandist language (“Soviet border guards congratulate their German comrades for liberating themselves from the bonds of monarchical slavery”). But it mixes this rather charmingly with the everyday, either reports on the ordinary (buildings being constructed, several reports on snow, a children’s festival) or by revealing the ordinary carrying on in the background. The human eye will always see more of what is going on than the camera eye, for all Vertov’s theorising.

A Red Army cinema at Gžatsk, from Kinonedelja No. 23 (5 November 1918)

The twelve newsreels (the other two are promised soon) come with Russian intertitles, but there are short descriptions provided in English. A typical example is Kinonedelja No. 3, issued 15 June 1918, length eight minutes:

1. The Peoples’ Commissar for Food Rationing, Comrade Cjurupa. / The Peoples’ Commissar for Rationing in the Southern territories, Comrade Šljapnikov. / Head of the Army Rationing Committee, Zusmanovič.

2. Intelligensia working on farms behind the Butyrsk construction site. / Planting cabbage. / Townspeople plant potatoes in a large field.

3. Lunch for the unemployed in exchange for labor. / A meal costs one ruble and ten kopecks.

4. I.G. Cereteli arrives in Moscow in the capacity of the delegate from the Caucasus.

5. In Vladivostok. Commander of the counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia, Admiral Kolčak.

6. In Moscow. June 8. Wounded Russian prisoners of war return from German captivity. / Disembarkation. / Loading the wounded into ambulances. / Wooden shoes for our prisoners in Germany. / Armbands on tunics and greatcoats testify to the repression suffered by Russian officers of the 10th division in the Hannover region. / Head commander of the Soviet Army in the Northern Caucasus, Comrade Avtonomov.

7. In Petrograd. The Revolutionary Tribunal. Murder trial for O. Kokošin und A. Šingarev. / The accused, Kulikov and Basov.

8. The new Brjansk Station in Moscow. / The central platform for passengers.

9. A children’s festival held by the Peasant Soviet in the village of Mitišča. / Who is stronger?

Much of Kinonedelja is given over to promoting the revolution and to the ongoing civil war. There are calls to arms, scenes of medical care, refugees, prisoners of war, agit trains, funerals. Little of it demonstrates the more manipulative arts of cinema (and where the newsreel does so it is clumsy, as in a story showing a queue of men keen to join the Red forces moving with comical swiftness inside an enlisting station, being inspected within, and then moving just as rapidly out of the building). It is almost guileless. Vertov would go on to greater things – in terms of film art – but for a motion picture portrait of the Soviet Union coming into being and as it was reported to its people at the time we are most fortunate to have the plain and revealing Kinonedelja.

The video are presented silently, and the quality of the digitisations is high. It is the first time the Austria Film Museum has presented archive films online (which is a little startling to learn in this day and age) and one looks forward to more of similar high quality in presentation.

Database entry for Kinonedelja, issues 38, 39, 41 (1919), showing digitised synopses for the three editions of the newsreel

However, while it may have been been slow in putting up films online, the Museum has been exemplary in digitising and making available its extensive collection of primary documentation on Dziga Vertov. The site provides an overview of the collection and a database, which has content descriptions in their original language plus German and English (most are in English as yet, but translations are promised).

So, for example, you can find 368 digitised documents on Man with a Movie Camera, 159 on Three Songs of Lenin, 72 on A Sixth Part of the World and 23 on Kinonedelja itself, with around 1,900 documents all told. They includes newspaper articles, photographs, posters, advertisements, frame enlargements, notes, letters and montage lists. All is clearly catalogued, and each document usefully crossed-linked to the relevant film, encouraging further browsing. You can also search by language, type of document, name of journal etc. There is a book guide to the collection available, Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum.

More information on Kinonedelja and Vertov’s later film work can be found in the 2004 Pordenone silent film festival catalogue (when the festival ran a major retrospective of Vertov’s films). There is a useful essay on Vertov’s career and influence on Senses of Cinema.

In search of Israel Thornstein

Letter from the American Foreign Service to MI5 seeking biographical information on Charlie Chaplin and evidence of communist affilation, from The National Archives, catalogue reference KV 2/3700

The National Archives in the UK holds the papers of British government departments, and releases these to the public after a period of 30 years (see the Bioscope guide to using TNA as research resource for film history). It releases previously embargoed papers at other times, and recently has been making available historical papers relating to MI5, the British counter-intelligence organisation whose very existence was officially a secret not so many years ago. Today’s release of a set of papers (available online) includes MI5’s dossier on Charlie Chaplin.

MI5 had no interest in Chaplin, and no reason to have one, until it was approached by the FBI in 1952 with the request that it seek out information on Chaplin’s birth and his supposed Communist sympathies. It was the height of the Cold War, and Chaplin had become a high-profile victim of the hysterical anti-Communist mania that swept through the United States in the late 40s and through most of the 1950s. Chaplin’s personal sympathies were clearly with the downtrodden, as his films demonstrated, but from 1942 onwards when he addressed a meeting of the American Committee for Russian War Relief with an enthusiastic ‘Comrades!’ and spoke at other events that supported from America’s war ally, he was viewed with increasing suspicion and distaste. That distaste had a lot to do with unsavoury details from his private life (the Joan Barry paternity suit, among other matters), and moral indignation combined with political paranoia to create an increasingly vicious hostility towards Chaplin, from the American press, broadcasters, religious bodies, politicians and government services.

Clipping from the Daily Mail, 18 April 1953, in the National Archives files

By 1947, and the release of Monsieur Verdoux (the sour tone of which somehow accentuated the suspicions held against him) Chaplin was being openly accused of being a Communist sympathiser. His frank, reasoned responses to questions fired at him from all sides did not help his cause. After making Limelight Chaplin left America with his family for Britain, 17 September 1952. When at sea the news came through that the US Attorney General James McGranery had rescinded Chaplin’s re-entry permit, stating that Chaplin would he held if made any attempt to enter the United States once more. Chaplin had been exiled.

It was following this bombshell that the FBI wrote to MI5 seeking the dirt on Chaplin. It is fascinating to read the dossier that the British secret service compiled. It is a mixture of letters, telegrams, memos, newspaper cuttings and marginalia, as the issue was kicked around from department to department, with the British trying in vain to find any information to support the American allegations (which they considered from the outset as being “of very doubtful quality”).

Chaplin had no birth certificate – this was immediately suspicious. The Americans believed that he might not be British-born at all, but that he could have been born in France, and that his true name might be Israel Thornstein. The documents do not say from where the Americans got this preposterous intelligence, though there is indication that they were prepared to believe every bit of innuendo fed to them by informers, and any suggestion of Jewish origins presumably further confirmed Chaplin’s moral turpitude and political heresy. Chaplin did not have a birth certificate, in Britain or in France, but had they searched a little harder they would have found the young Charles Chaplin recorded in the London census returns of 1891 (aged 2) and 1901.

Ivor Montagu’s 1952 telegram to Chaplin, when Montagu was in Peking

The FBI also wanted evidence of Chaplin’s Communist sympathies, ideally of Party membership. It was said that there was an “unknown issue” of Pravda in which Chaplin was praised and a Chaplin film to be made in Russia was promised. MI5 searched diligently for the mysterious issue, and found nothing. The FBI wanted confirmation (note their confidence that the evidence was out there somewhere) of Chaplin’s “financial and/or cultural contributions to the Communist movement”. None was found. The nearest the MI5 got to it was a cheerful telegram sent to Chaplin by Ivor Montagu, filmmaker, writer, table tennis player, associate of Hitchcock and – as we now know – a Soviet spy. But the telegram was innocuous and MI5 did not pass it on to the Americans.

The search carried on in desultory fashion until 1958, at which point a MI5 memo concluded (with a dash of film criticism):

It is of some interest that when Chaplin was last in London in 1957 with this film A King in New York (a not very successful satire which featured ‘McCarthyism’), he was at some pains to avoid entanglement with the Russian Embassy here. He did not want to run the risk of political embarrassment. It may be that Chaplin is a Communist sympathiser but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a ‘progressive’ or radical.

And that of course was the truth. The mild bewilderment of the British secret service faced with actual evidence as opposed to political dogma tells its own tale. The whole disgraceful saga did not properly come to an end until Chaplin was welcomed back to the United States in 1972 to collect an Honorary Academy Award.

The 112-page MI5 dossier is available from the National Archives website, where it can be downloaded for free for the next month.

But the question still remains – where on earth did the Americans find the name Israel Thornstein? (for the answer, see comments)

Pordenone diary 2011 – day three

The Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

Day three of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, and things kick off with another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, The Four Musicians of Bremen (USA 1922). Though still quite basic in style and reliant on repetitive action, this is a big step up from yesterday’s Little Red Riding Hood. It has little to do with the original Grimm brothers story, instead being an excuse for jazz-inspired invention (notably a dancing fish lured out of the water by the musicians’ playing), delighting in the self-contained world of nonsense that the animation medium permits, where any object can take a life of its own, and where dream logic rules.

Our Georgian film for the day is Amerikanka (Georgia SSR 1930), which sounds like it is going to be fun just from the title. However it is not some sort of satire on things American, which I am expecting, but rather the dramatic and true tale of how a printing press was set-up in a Moscow shop basement in 1905 by Bolsheviks during the first Russian revolution – ‘Amerikanka’, or ‘American Lady’, turns out to be a name for a type of small Russian printing press. This is almost a great film; with better handling from director Leo Esakya it would have been one. It has a startlingly dramatic beginning, with two escaped prisoners in the snow, one of whom is shot dead, while the other is chained to him. How does he escape? We’re not told; he just does, and it is dramatic slips like this that confuse the audience and hamper the film. But anyway we follow the escapee to Moscow, where he and colleagues set up the printing press to produce revolutionary pamphlets which are secretly read all over the city. The authorities eventually track down the printing press and a battle ensues, but the narrative is not as important as the dyanamic style, in which the text/images generated by the press take over the screen, serving as sloganeering intertitles, turning the film itself into a revolutionary broadside. Form and intent merge as one, though one still wants a stronger grip on the story if we are to be moved and not just impressed. But a remarkable film all told.

The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), from Cineteca Nazionale

We have already written at length about The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896), the earliest British fiction film made for projection (I choose my words with care), recently discovered in the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, where they have held the film for years but only recently established its identity. I will discuss the film in more depth in Day Four (a presentation is to be given on the film’s restoration), but just to say here that the film is a fleeting delight. The soldier and his sweetheart sit down on a bench and enthusiastically embrace; a woman of mature years sits down on the bench beside them and refuses to budge; his sweetheart remonstrates with him and encourages him to take action; he tips the woman off the bench and she leaves in a huff; the couple are triumphant, kiss, and share a cigar. The couple are played by variety theatre stalwarts Fred Storey and Julie Seale, and it is Seale’s bright, enthusiastic performance that stay in the memory. OK, it’s just a silly gag, but the Pordenone audience laughs at it – and then laughs all the more at the huge list of credits that follow the one-minute film (credits for its restoration, of course). More on The Soldier’s Courtship on the morrow.

We are in the Early Cinema programme, but before we have the main body of films, there is another British discovery, this time from the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands. The Indian Woman’s Pluck (UK 1912) is a Cecil Hepworth production employing the classical Rescued by Rover formula. A baby is kidnapped and the thieves are tracked down my the family’s faithful Indian wet nurse (played by Ruby Belasco). It’s rather well paced and shot by director Frank Wilson, with the nurse tracing her prey by following drops of blood down the garden path, until the child is returned too hurriedly and the nurse explains her actions with a bit too much gesturing.

The main part of this programme is another collection of one-reelers from the extraordinary Corrick collection from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We have been treated to gems from this collection at Pordenone for a number of years now. The Corrick family of Australian travelling entertainers included films in their early 1900s shows, and they chose with care, because the quality of the titles in the archive they have handed down to us is consistently high. It is not going to be possible to go through them all here (the memory fades and the notes written in the dark have become all the more indecipherable). Stand-out titles include an awe-inspiring view of British battleships in a line at sea in Charles Urban’s Torpedo Attack on H.M.S. ‘Dreadnought’ (UK 1907); a spirited Pathé film on tobogganing down the Cresta Run, Sports d’Hiver: Le Tobogan (France 1905), so edited to make it look like the toboggan come down the ice in close succession when in fact one does not start until another has finished, a real sports film in its cutting and dynamism; [Sailor and Cop in Carpet?] (c.1904), an unidentified comedy, clearly British, in which a policeman and sailor argue, the former hides behind a carpet hanging on a line, then the sailor and a maid roll up the carpet and beat the policeman; a fascinating Edison proto-Western, On the Western Frontier (USA 1909) in which the use of painted backdrops for interiors and exteriors give a strong sense of the Western’s stage origins – the story is inpenetrable, but we can see cinematic ideas dimly evolve, though it would be more impressive if this were a 1904 film rather than 1909; an impressive Elephants Working in a Burmese Forest (Australia 1908), filmed by the Corricks themselves, which is notably absorbing; The Fakir and the Footpads (UK 1906), a Robert Paul trick film most engaging for including a Finchley road sign (a local signification from the filmmaker); and Personal (USA 1904), the famous Edison film which introduced the comedy chase genre (sixty years ahead of Benny Hill).

We head out for coffee and an agreeable discussion about early aviation films, then start the afternoon with a trio of films from the Shostakovich & FEKS strand. FEKS stands for the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, the avant garde acting troupe established by directors Grigori Koszintsev, Leonid Trauberg and others and dedicated to bringing together popular dramatic forms (music hall, Chaplin, circus, commedia dell’arte, Keystone etc) in an exuberant kind of performance that naturally had a manifesto and an -ism to its name – Eccentricism. They put on stage productions and they made films, and Shostakovich wrotes scores for a number of those films.

An early film production, before Shostakovich joined them, was Chyortovo Koleso (The Devil’s Wheel) (USSR 1926). Many greatly admired this tale (with reel three missing) of a sailor on shore leave who becomes mixed up with a Petrograd underworld gang, led by a stage magician called ‘The Question Man’. So I wish I could report more enthusiastically about it. It has some bravura fairground sequences (including the ‘devil’s wheel’ itself), and it all ends with an exciting battle, but looking beyond the style I find little to engage me (I even doze off for a while in the middle), and curiously I find more impressive a collection of fragments from the film which follows after, which may be outtakes or tinting tests. Divorced from narative, the fragments somehow highlight the directors’ vision more effectively; indeed the way in which they hide any story makes the connections between them seem all the more mysterious and inviting.

But what a treat now follows. We have a screen test for Novyi Vavilon (New Babylon) (USSR 1927). The subject is Raisa Garshnek, who was a 17-year-old Sovkino laboratory employee. She didn’t get the lead part (they gave her a bit part instead), and seeing the screen test we can see why, but what is wonderful is that she is still with us, and we see a video interview with her, now aged 101. She has kept hold of the screen test all these years (the only surviving screen test from the Soviet silent film era), and brightly tells us of her time at Sovkino, casually mentioning that it was she who painted the famous red flag at the end of Battleship Potemkin. You don’t expect there still to be a human connection between today and a film which is now so iconic you cannot really believe that real people actually worked on it.

Kobutori (which translates as His Snatched-Off Lump), from

Next up is the first of two programmes of Japanese animation. Of course, these days everyone knows something about Japanese animation, and Studio Ghibli is one of the best-known film production companies anywhere. This programme takes us to the roots of anime and the scarcely-known early history of Japanese animation. The earliest surviving Japanese animation film dates from 1917, though in 2005 a hand-drawn fragment dating from before 1912 was found (not thought to have been released commercially). The Japanese animation films of the silent era are both familiar, in that they adopt basic techniques employed by American animation studios of the period, and strange, in that they take their films in entirely different directions – in theme, narrative, design and emphasis. They don’t look like later anime films (no large round eyes), but their very difference to the Western view gives them an affinity with the present-day work of Miyazaki and co.

I must refer you to the excellent notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström in the Pordenone 2011 catalogue, as without the context they provide the films you will only have my impressionistic, sometimes puzzled notes, because I cannot say that I always enjoyed the films that much. So we start with Namakura Gatana (Japan 1917), a mixture of rudimentary cut-out and silhouette animation about a samurai with a blunt sword, and Urashima Taro (Japan 1918), based on a folktale about a fisherman visiting the undersea domain of the Emperor of the Sea after rescuing a turtle, characterised by some elegant line, both of which were rediscovered in 2008 (something we reported at the time). The use of traditional stories and historical themes recur in what follows and distinguish Japanese early animation from what was being produced elsewhere. Kanimanji Engi (Japan 1924) is a rather creepy, unworldly fable about crabs who rescue a girl from a snake, made with silhouette animation. Some of the crabs die, indication of a bleaker attitude to life that characterises some of these films, certainly a long way off from Disney’s peppy, positive Laugh-o-Grams.

Ubasateyama (Japan 1925) tells of an old woman whose great widom enables her to solve riddles; Chappurin to Kugan (c.1921-25) is an artless oddity about which little is known. It has a cartoon Jackie Coogan visiting Japan (Chaplin appears only briefly), and in common with a number of these films it seems hard to judge for whom it was made – it seems to be equally lacking in appeal for children and adults. Sanbiki no Koguma-san (Japan 1931), or Three Little Bears, promises a more Disney-like theme, but though it has a similar combination of animals and travel through surreal adventures, it has a lot less sugar to it (my notes refer to children weeping when the bears melt a snowman – or was it the bears themselves that melted?).

Kobutori (Japan 1929) pretty much sums things up for me – who else who have considered even for a moment making an animation film about two old men disfigured by lumps on their faces? It’s a moral tale of two men who dance before odd bird-like creatures in the hope of losing their lumps; the good man is rewarded, the bad man ends up with two lumps. The artwork is fine and the narrative well-handled, but its sheer oddness I find bewildering. Another animation, another moral fable: Futatsu no Sekai (Japan 1929) was produced by the Ministry of Education and is based on the familiar Grasshopper and the Ant story. It contrasts the industry of those insects who work in summer with bourgeois idlers who, unprepared for winter time, fall into hardship, misery and even disfigurement. We are again reminded how life is unkind; Uncle Walt’s fables only tell us to have happy dreams. We finish off with Oira No Yakyu (Japan 1930), a spoof on the Japanese passion for baseball in a game played between rabbits and badgers (who look more like beavers to me). It starts off like an American animation (albiet technically inferior by far), then drifts off into more characteristic vein when the ball is knocked out into the countryside to be devoured by a frog.

An interesting evening’s programme awaits, but I head off for supper and engrossing discussion, which touches on film archive politics, Creative England, the British Film Institute, the Lumière brothers, visual sociology, the BBC, the Digital Public Space, home movies, federated databases, the Delhi Durbar, the challenges presented to translators by rapid-talking film academics, YouTube, programming early cinema, the British Library, magic lanterns, showmanship, film lecturers, scholarship, CCTV, film lecturers, digitising film journals, and much else besides. And all that takes up five hours, and so the day ends.

Please return soon for our report on day four, when we shall have offer you train travel with a hobo, a man suckled by a dog, a woman living underground, and an entire theatre quivering in horror at the sounds of the 21st century.

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

Bioscope Newsreel no. 22

United States Food Administration cinema slide from World War One, from Starts Thursday!

Jackie Cooper
Another child star of the silent era has died. Jackie Cooper, who made his first film in 1925 aged three, did not suffer the fate of many child stars in having a an adulthood of disappointing anonymity. Instead after success in the Our Gang series, he continued as a top performer throughout the 1930s, moved on to acting with success on stage and TV, then turned TV executive, won a couple of Emmys for directing, and returned to the screen as the newspaper editor in the Superman films. He died aged 88. Read more.

In competition
A late addition to the films in competition in Cannes has been announced – and it’s a silent film. The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is described as a ‘silent black-and-white period piece about the rise of a young actress and simultaneous fall from grace of a silent movie star around the time that “talking pictures” started being made’. It stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman. Read more (and see clips with interviews – in French – here).

Class, silents and the public sphere
Acknowledgments to the Illuminations blog for this link to a lengthy and engrossing article by Stephen J. Ross (author of Working-Class Hollywood) on class and politics in silent film, first published in 2003. Ross notes: “Between 1905 and April 1917, when American entry into World War I altered the movie industry and the politics of its films in dramatic ways, producers released at least 274 labor-capital productions. Of the 244 films whose political perspectives could be accurately determined, 112 (46 %) were liberal, 82 (34 %) conservative, 22 (9 %) anti-authoritarian, 17 (7 %) populist, and 11 (4 %) radical”. Read more.

Propaganda between reels
A favourite blog of the Bioscope is Starts Thursday!, in which Rob Byrne covers the glass lantern slides that promoted coming attractions in cinemas from the silent era (and beyond). His latest post is a very informative guest piece by PhD candidate Krystina Benson on the American government’s propaganda campagin during WWI one, including its use of film, all handsomely and illuminatingly illustrated by Byrne’s slides. Read more.

‘Til next time!

The siege of Sidney Street

Home Secretary Winston Churchill (in top hat) watching the Siege of Sidney Street, part of the Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, ‘Battle of London’, from British Pathé. Bioscope regulars will be delighted to note the stray dog in the bottom left-hand corner

On the night of 16 December 1910 a group of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houdsditch in the City of London. Their aim was to obtain funds to support revolutionary activity in Russia (and to support themselves), but their efforts to break in were overheard and nine policemen were called to the scene. The Latvians were armed; the policemen were not, and in the ensuing confrontation three of the police were shot dead and two injured.

The public was horrified by what swiftly became known as the Houndsditch Murders, which followed on from the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of the previous year when two Latvians had shot dead a constable and a child following an interrupted robbery. One of the Houndsditch gang, George Gardstein, had died of his injuries, having been shot accidentally by a confederate, but a huge manhunt built up to track down all of the gang, a number of whom were arrested before two (neither of whom it is now thought were present at the Houndsditch burglary) were tracked down to 100 Sidney Street, Stepney in London’s East End.

Sidney Street, from the Andrew Pictures coverage. No. 100 is on the far right-hand side of the street, below the number 3 of the ITN Source ID number

The Siege of Sidney Street (or the Battle of Stepney) that was to follow took place 100 years ago on 3 January 1911. It has gained lasting fame for unprecedented scenes that brought armed police and troops onto the streets of London to conduct a siege with desperate revolutionaries, all of which took place before the startled (and undoubtedly thrilled) eyes of the public and the press. Among those recording the events as they happened were five film companies, and it is their story that forms the reason for this centenary post.

The besieged Latvians were Fritz Svaars and William Sokoloff, known as Joseph. They had taken refuge at 100 Sidney Street only for their position to be given away by an informer late in the evening of New Year’s Day. Detectives were sent under cover of darkness to watch over the building while they tried to determine the two men’s movements by contact with a lodger and the informant. Keen not to have the men slip out their grasp, but knowing they would be armed, the police felt they had to act. In the early hours of Tuesday 3 January, armed police were positioned in houses and shops surrounding the block in which contained 100 Sidney Street. By 3.00am there were 200 policemen in place. It was realised that storming the building by its staircase would be foolhardy as the two men would have the advantage by firing down on the police officers, so the adjacent buildings were cleared of other people and the police waited for daylight.

Soldier firing from a shop door, part of the Pathé coverage, from British Pathe

As dawn broke, people started to gather around the police cordon, trying to find out what was happening. The police threw stones at the second-floor window where they believed the two men were hiding. Nothing happened. Then someone threw a brick and smashed a window pane. From the floor below shots fired out and a policeman was hit. A hail of bullets followed as they tried to move the wounded man. The two men were well-armed (they were better munitioned than the police, certainly) and well-positioned. An order was sent to bring in troops from the Tower of London. Scots Guards were sent, on the authority of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who thought upon hearing the news that it would be not interesting if he were to go along and see things for himself.

By this time the press had got wind of the story, and reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen were arriving on the scene. Five film companies were present: Pathé, Gaumont, Andrews Pictures, Co-operative and the Warwick Trading Company. Pathé (Pathé’s Animated Gazette), Gaumont (Gaumont Graphic) and Warwick (Warwick Bioscope Chronicle) had each recently established a newsreels and were companies with well-established newsfilm credentials. Co-operative specialised in Shakespeare productions, so it is something or a surprise to see them involved, while Andrews Pictures was a small-scale film renter and exhibitor. Presumably any firm who got wind of what was happening and had a camera operator at the ready made the most of the opportunity. Three of the five films taken that day survive: those of Pathé, Gaumont and Andrews.

Frame stills from the lost Sidney Street siege films made by Co-operative (left, showing the arrival of a fire engine) and Warwick (showing crowds in the area after the siege), from an article on the siege films in The Bioscope 5 January 1911, p. 9

The troops assumed positions around the building and began firing (it was by now around 11.00am). The barrage of fire from both sides was relentless and was to continue for around two hours. The crowds around the perimeter were now considerable, and policemen had a difficult time holding them back, as the newsreel films make clear. The films showed the heaving crowds, the troops getting into position, policemen armed with rifles, and gunfire coming from the buildings either side of Sidney Street.

Gaumont’s coverage shows police gunfire from the buildings opposite 100 Sidney Street, from ITN Source

The Home Secretary had not been able to get the better of his curiosity. He arrived by car at midday and positioned himself at the corner of Sidney Street and Lindley Street, peering round to see what was happening. It was an extraordinarily foolhardy action, one which would soon lead to much criticism (and regret on Churchill’s part) but at the time the idea went round that he was directing operations. Pathé’s cameraman gained a huge scoop by obtaining close shots of Churchill (though the story that film was taken of a bullet going through his top hat is quite false). It seems that no other newsreel filmed him – Gaumont certainly did not, as they were positioned on the other side of the street, while Andrews resorted to deceit, declaring that its footage of men looking down at the siege included a rear view shot of Churchill (Churchill did not take up any rooftop position).

Then 100 Sidney Street caught fire. The gunfire ceased momentarily as wisps and plumes of smoke started to pour out of the building, which is vividly shown in the film record. Flames could seen from the windows, then the shooting started up again – not just from the soldiers because, extraordinarily, the men inside were still returning fire. Joseph may have been shot dead at this time (the fire started around 1.00pm), while Fritz Svaars died in the flames when the roof caved in and part of the first floor collapsed. Soldiers fired further volleys, then ceased. No one had escaped from the building and it was clear no one could have survived such an inferno. Fire engines arrived and poured water on the charred remains. As firemen entered the building, part of a wall collapsed and one of them died of his injuries – the third and final death caused by the siege of Sidney Street.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, showing 100 Sidney Street on fire, from British Pathe

The bodies of Fritz Svaars and Joseph were discovered inside, the second only as late as 8.00pm, by which time the newsreel films had been processed, printed and were on show in some London cinemas, scooping much of the press. In the manner of newsreels at this time, the films let the pictures do the talking. Intertitles on the extant films are matter-of-fact and offer little in the way of explanation, though they do employ loaded terms such as ‘assassins’, ‘murderers’ ‘aliens’ and ‘outrage’. The sensational nature of the films was all that was needed. Detailed description and background speculation was for the newspapers; the newsreels had simply to show audiences what the event looked like, to present the moving pictures of what everyone was talking about. The audience themselves would supply the rest.

These were the Houndsditch Murderers, or at least their associates, and most of the public would not have been greatly interested in their affiliations and what drove them to such desperate actions. Their war was not with the British authorities per se, but rather with Tsarist Russia. They (and there were a dozen or so associated with Houndsditch and Sidney Street) were refugees in Britain, which they used as a base for fund-raising and plotting revolution back in Russia. They had strong ideological motivation, and would have been contemptuous of the British police and army as tools of the oppressors. For the popular press they were all anarchists, but most had Social Revolutionary or Marxist affiliations, and had fought in terrible encounters with Tsarist forces, some of them undergoing savage beatings and torture. They believed they would receive similar brutality from the British police should they be caught, which helps explain some of their actions (Fritz Svaars in particular feared that he would break under torture after beatings he had received in Riga a year before). They used robbery to raise funds to support themselves and associates at home, and in some cases for gun-running or the production of propagandist literature.

Most were Jewish, and were part of the wave of refugees driven out of Russia by the pogroms of the late 1800s and the savage reprisals that followed the failed 1905 revolution. Britain had a reputation as a haven for such refugees, though most ended up in the sweatshops of the East End, desperately poor and roundly despised by the rest of society as ‘aliens’. British film contributed to this climate of hostility. Hepworth produced The Aliens’ Invasion (1905), in which English workmen were shown being thrown out of work because of Jewish immigrants accepting low wages; the Precision Film Company produced Anarchy in England (1909), which recreated the Tottenham Outrage; while Clarendon made The Invaders (1909) in which armed foreign spies occupy a British house disguised as Jewish tailors. However, most often films portrayed anarchists as figures of fun, as in Walturdaw’s The Anarchist and his Dog (1908) – he throws his bomb, but the dog retrieves it. The siege of Sidney Street itself was not dramatised at the time, but the basic details contribute to the climactic scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and a close recreation was attempted in Hammer’s The Siege of Sidney Street (1960).

The causes that drove the revolutionaries of 1911 have faded into history, even if terrorism on British shores inspired by overseas conflict and a different set of beliefs has not. But the films remain, and the press reports, and the photographs, and the many picture postcards that were produced, as tragedy was turned into commerce. The films not only show extraordinarily exciting things happening on the streets of London, but they show us an area of London never before visited by the motion picture camera. The wretched, run-down area of Stepney of 1911 would not have attracted cameras in the normal course of events, but humble Sidney Street, its environs and inhabitants gain some sort of fleeting immortality each time we run the films again, before disappearing back into history as the cameras once more turn to focus elsewhere.

Map of the Sidney Street area showing the besieged building (marked with red dot) and main camera positions of Andrews (A), Gaumont (G) and Pathé (P). Map from

Three of the five newsreels made of the Sidney Street siege exist at the BFI National Archive, with further copies of these at British Pathé and ITN Source. Each runs for two to three minutes in length. Happily versions of all three can be found online:

  • The Battle of London (Pathé)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and British Pathé. There are two films on the British Pathé site – one is a dupe of the BFI film, the other is not Pathé’s film at all – it is Andrews’ (see below). The Pathé film, shot mostly from the north end of Sidney Street, shows police and troops taking positions (some shots look like they were staged afterwards), Churchill viewing the scene, the building catching fire (front and rear views), the fire brigade, and crowds in the streets afterwards. The intertitles read: “Battle of London. Houndsditch Assassins at bay, Besieged by soldiers and Armed Police” … “Troops firing at the murderers in Sydney [sic] Street” … “Mr. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, watching the battle with the chiefs of Police and Detectives” … “The Besieged House catches Fire” … “Removing the bodies of the murdered and injured firemen”
  • The Great East End Anarchist Battle (Gaumont)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and ITN Source. The version on the ITN Source begins with the Gaumont film then at 2.43 turns into the Andrews film (see below). The film shows crowds and police to the south end of Sidney Street, police pushing back the crowds, views of either side of Sidney Street with smoke from gunfire, police holding back crowds with difficulty, view of the building on fire from rooftop of building opposite. The Gaumont intertitles on the ITN copy read: [No main title] … “The police pushing back the crowd at the commencement of the firing” … “The fire – and after”.
  • Houndsditch Murderers (Andrews Pictures)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive, British Pathé and ITN Source. The BFI has two versions, one with English and one with German titles, Anarchistenschlat in London. The version online at ITN follows immediately after the Gaumont film; the version online at British Pathé is listed separately (though not as an Andrews film). The film shows views of Sidney Street from the south end with gunfire and police holding back crowds, rooftop view of the building on fire, further gunfire and police holding back crowds, rear view of men on rooftop (intertitles falsely state that Churchill is one of them), rooftop view of building catching fire and arrival of firemen who aim hoses at the building, a number of firemen scale a ladder. [Note: the ITN version is complete and in the correct order; the British Pathe copy is jumbled and incomplete] The intertitles on the ITN copy read: “Houndsditch Murderers. The Great Aliens Outrage at Mile End Shewing the Actual Scenes” … “Police and Soldiers Firing From Alleyways and Windows” … “Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill Directing Operations” [the German version in the BFI does not have this title] … “The Besieged House In Flames” … “Back View and Detectives Firing On Besieged Building” … “Arrival of Fire Brigades From All Parts of London And Entering House”

The BFI reportedly also has a Pathé’s Animated Gazette newsreel item on the December 1910 funeral of the policemen whose deaths led to the Sidney Street siege, Funeral in London of the Policemen Murdered by Burglars in Houndsditch (1910). (It is not listed on the current catalogue but is given in its 1965 Silent News Films catalogue, cat. no. N.323) [Update: The film exists – see comments]

For further information on the Sidney Street siege, there is one essential source. Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (1973, revised 1988) is the classic account, outstanding in the dramatic detail and in its understanding of both police procedure and the revolutionaries’ motivations.

The Metropolitan Police Service has a short history of the siege from its point of view on its website. For an anarchist viewpoint, try, an interactive documentary on the siege currently in development (do check out the video trailer which claims that the mysterious ‘Peter the Painter’ – one of the ‘anarchist’ gang – is an ancestor of David Beckham).

The Museum of London Docklands currently has a small exhibition showing artefacts from the siege, examples of which can be view here. The exhibition runs until April 2011. The Independent has another image gallery, using exhibition artefacts and pictures from Donald Rumbelow’s collection.

Suffragettes before the camera

Asta Nielsen playing a suffragette undergoing forcefeeding in Die Suffragette (1913), from Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek

Early film reflected the society in which it arose, and there is no clearer example of this than the campaign for women’s suffrage. The movement to gain women the vote in Britain reached its climax during the period when mass cinema-going was first underway in the early 1910s, and films reflected the popular understanding of the suffragettes. The militant woman became a standard figure in early ficition films, generally portrayed for comic or satiric effect. At the same time the suffragettes were regularly covered by the newsreels, a dynamic new medium for reporting what was happening in the world to a mass audience.

The relationship between women’s suffrage and early film is explored in Frühe Interventionen: Suffragetten – Extremistinnen der Sichtbarkeit (Early interventions / Suffragettes – extremists of visibility), a series of films and lectures being held at the Zeughauskino, Berlin, 23-27 September 2010. Behind the somewhat forbidding title is a tremendous programme of rare materials uncovered from archives across Europe and curated by Madeleine Bernstorff and Mariann Lewinsky. The films document not only the suffragettes as audiences saw them in fiction and non-fiction films, but also the role of women in early cinema generally, showing how trangressive, rebellious and sometimes just plain exuberant displays by women on screen echoed the drive for changes in society of which the campaign for the vote was but a part.

The Pickpocket (USA 1913), from EYE Film Institute Netherlands

Here is the programme:

Thursday 23. September 20:00 h

Radical maid(en)s
Cheerful young girls’ break-outs, class relations and radicalisations.

Sedgwick’ s Bioscope Showfront at Pendlebury Wakes, GB 1901, 30m 1’30“
La Grêve des bonnes, France 1907 184m, 10’
Tilly in a Boarding house GB 1911 D Alma Taylor, Chrissie White 7’
Pathé newsreel The Suffragette Derby, GB 1913, ca 5’
Miss Davison’s Funeral, GB 1913, 45m 2’
A Suffragette in Spite of Himself GB 1912 Edison R: Bannister Merwin D: Miriam Nesbitt, Ethel Browning, Marc McDermott 8’, 16mm
Robinette presa per nihilista Italy 1912, D: Nilde Baracchi, 124m, 8’
Cunégonde reçoit sa famille France 1912 D: Cunegonde – name unknown, 116m, 6’
Les Ficelles de Leontine France 1910, D: Leontine – name unknown, 155m, 8’
Tilly and the fire engines GB 1911 2’ D: Alma Taylor, Chrissie White
[A Nervous Kitchenmaid] France c.1908, 74m, 4’
Introduction: Madeleine Bernstorff
Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Friday 24. September 18:00 h

The Fanaticism of the Suffragettes
Lecture with images and filmclips by Madeleine Bernstorff

Following the lecture Mariann Lewinsky will present the DVDs Cento anni fa/A hundred Years ago: European Cinema of 1909 and Cento anni fa/A Hundred Years ago: Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914 [for more information, see end of this post].

Friday 24. September 19:00 h


Les Femmes députées France 1912 D: Madeleine Guitty 154m 8’
England. Scenes Outside The House Of Commons 28 January 1913 2’
Trafalgar Square Riot 10 August 1913 1913 2’
Milling The Militants: A Comical Absurdity GB 1913 7’
St. Leonards Outrage France 1913 21m 1’
Womens March Trough London: A Vast Procession Of Women Headed By Mrs Pankhurst. March Through London To Show The Minister Of Munitions Their Willingness To Help In Any War War Service GB 1915 23m 1’
Scottish Women’s Hospital Of The National Union Of Women’s Suffrage Societies France 1917 133m 6’30
Dans le sous-marin France 1908 Pathé 145m 5’
Introduction: Madeleine Bernstorff
Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Friday 24. September 21:00 h

Women’s Life and Leisure in the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection
Presented by Vanessa Toulmin

The renowned Mitchell & Kenyon Collection provides an unparalled view of life at the turn of the twentieth century and this screening will allow us an opportunity to see women’s life and leisure in industrial England. The social and political background as well as working conditions will be shown on screen. The range and sheer diversity of women in the workplace will be revealed from the domestic to the industrial environment, women played an important role in the transition to modern society. From girls working in the coal mines to spinners and weavers leaving the factory this selection from the Collection will reveal previously unseen footage from the Archive, in a following workshop Vanessa Toulmin will speak about: Discovery and Investigation: The Research Process of the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection.

Women at Work: The ‘Hands’ Leaving Work at North-Street Mills, Chorley (1900), North Sea Fisheries, North Shields (1901), Employees Leaving Gilroy’s Jute Works, Dundee (1901), S.S. Skirmisher at Liverpool (1901), Birmingham University Procession on Degree Day (1901), Life in Wexford (1902), Black Diamonds – The Collier’s Daily Life (1904)
Women in the Social Environment: Liverpool Street Scenes (1901), Jamaica Street, Glasgow (1901), Manchester Street Scenes (1901), Manchester Band of Hope Procession (1901), Electric Tram Rides from Forster Square, Bradford (1902)
Leisure and Play: Sedgwick’s Bioscope Showfront at Pendlebury Wakes (1901), Spectators Promenading in Weston Park, Sheffield (1902), Trip to Sunny Vale Gardens at Hipperholme (1901), Bootle May Day Demonstration and Crowning of the May Queen (1903), Blackpool Victoria Pier (1904), Greens Racing Bantams at Preston Whit Fair (1906), Calisthenics (c. 1905).
Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Saturday 25. September 18:00 h

La Neuropatologia
Lecture by Ute Holl+ screening of La Neuropatologia (I 1908)

La Neuropatologia is a medical instructional film by the Turin neurologist Camillo Negri. The film can be read – utilising medical-historical methology – as the presentation of an hysterical seizure, but it could also be called an expressionist drama, a love triangle. Medical fact cannot be visualized without the medical stage, the theatre, the mise-en-scène. End of the 19th century the visual turn in medical methodology and in neurological diagnosis gets introduced.

Saturday 25. September 19:00 h

Staging and Representation: A cinematographic studio

La Neuropatologia opens the view on representational relations. The Austrian company Saturn Film produced so-called ‘titillating’ films for a male audience, but the models also had her own ideas about erotic stagings. Normal work is part of an installation, and a re-enactment of four late-19th century photographies by Hannah Cullwick, who worked as a maid and produced numerous (self)portraits as part of a sado-masochist bond with her bourgeois boss Arthur Munby.

La Neuropatologia Italy 1908 Camillo Negro 107m 5’
La Ribalta (Fragment) Italy 1913 Mario Caserini D: Maria Gasparini 60 m 3’5’
Beim Photographen Austria 1907 Saturn 50m 3’
Das eitle Stubenmädchen Austria 1907 Saturn 50m 3’
Normal Work Germany 2007 Pauline Boudry, Renate Lorenz D: Werner Hirsch 13’ 16mm/DV
Concorso di bellezza fra bambini / Kindertentoonstellung Italy 1909 80m 4’
La nuova cameriera e troppo bella Italy 1912 D: Nilde Baracchi, 138m 7’
Rosalie et Léontine vont au théâtre France 1911, D: Sarah Duhamel + Leontine – name unknown 80m, 4’
L’intrigante France 1910 Albert Capellani 162m 8’
Introduction: Madeleine Bernstorff
Live piano accompaniment

Saturday 25. September 21:00h

Glittering stars, athletic women, first star personas
From 1910 on many female comedians had their own series. There was alsoa strong presence of female artistes and performers in the cinema before 1910.

Danse Serpentine / Annabella USA c.1902 Edison ca 2’ 16mm
La Confession France 1905 D: Name nicht bekannt 60m 3’
Femme jalouse France 1907 D: Name nicht bekannt 58m 3’
Lea e il gomitolo Italy 1913 D: Lea Giunchi 99m 5’
Danses Serpentines France / USA 1898-1902 D: U.a. Annabella 60m 3’
La Valse chaloupée France 1908 D: Mistinguett, Max Dearly 38m 2’
Sculpteur moderne France 1908 R: Segundo de Chomon D: Julienne Matthieu 8’
Les Soeurs Dainef France 1902 65m 3’
Introduction: Mariann Lewinsky
Live piano accompaniment Eunice Martins
Zigomar peau d’anguille France 1913 Eclair Victorin Jasset D: Alexandre Aquillere, Josette Andriot, 940m 45’
On the turntables: Julian Göthe

Sunday 26. September 18:00

Re-Reading Steinach
Lecture and video-presentation by Mareike Bernien

Re-Reading Steinach is a re-assembly of the popular-science film Steinachs Forschungen by Nicholas Kaufmann/UFA from 1922 – with the idea to analyze representations of normative and divergent body-and gender-constructions in the beginning of 20th century.

Sunday 26. September 19:00

Cross-dressings of men and women: Elegant page-uniforms and pantskirts, men in nurse-dresses and the wonderful Lotion Magique which grows beards on breasts and breasts on bald heads.

Mes filles portent la jupes-culotte France 1911 120m 6’
Monsieur et Madame sont pressés France 1901 20m 1’
Le Poulet de Mme Pipelard France 1910 84m 5’
Cendrillon ou La Pantoufle merveilleuse France 1907 R: Albert Capellani 293 m 15’
Il duello al shrapnell Italy 1908 100m 5’
La Lotion magique France 1906 Pathé 80m 5’
La Grève des nourrices France 1907 190 m 10’
Schutzmann-Lied from Metropol-Revue 1908, Donnerwetter! – Tadellos! Germany 1909 D: Henry Bender Beta 2’ (digital sound image reconstruction by Christian Zwarg)
Introduction: Mariann Lewinsky and Madeleine Bernstorff
Introduction to Schutzmannlied: Dirk Foerstner
Live piano accompaniment

Sunday 26. September 21:00

The Woman of Tomorrow
Cinema before 1910 was abundant in non-fiction films about daily work. La Doctoresse is part of a comedy-serial by Mistinguett and her partner Prince. The Russian film The Woman of Tomorrow is about a successful feminist female doctor.

Recolte du sarasin France 1908
L’Industria di carta a Isola del Liri Italy 1909 147m 7’30“
La Doctoresse France 1910, D: Mistinguett, Charles Prince 140m 7’
Zhenshchina Zavtrashnego Dnya / The woman of tomorrow Russia 1914, D: Vera Yurevena, Ivan Mosjoukine, 795m 40’
Live piano accompaniment

Monday 27. September 18:00

Political Stagings of the Suffragettes in England
Lecture by Jana Günther on strategic image politics of the militant English suffragette movement: between permanent spectacle and crusade. The Suffragettes appropriated activist strategies of the workers’ movement and tried out acts of civil inobedience like chaining themselves to railings, hunger strikes and other distruptive acts.
+ presentation of the film A Busy Day aka A Militant Suffragette D:Charlie Chaplin, USA 1914 16mm 6’

Monday 27. September 19:00h

Die Suffragette

The restored version (by Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek) of the Asta Nielsen melodrama Die Suffragette with some rediscovered scenes – including the force-feeding-scene which had been cut because of strict censorship regulations.

Bobby und die Frauenrechtlerinnen/Mijnher Baas + de vrije Vrouwen Germany 1911 Oskar Messter 112m 6’
Pickpocket USA 1913 260 m 13’
Les Résultats du féminisme France 1906 Alice Guy 5’
Die Suffragette Germany 1913 D: Asta Nielsen (Nelly Panburne) 60‘
Introduction: Karola Gramann + Heide Schlüpmann
Live piano accompaniment Eunice Martins

Monday 27. September 21:00h

The Year of the bodyguard
The film essay by Noël Burch deals with the subject of suffragettes in 1912 training under the first English female jiu-jitsu expert Edith Garrud to fight the police and protect their leaders.

Wife, The Weaker Vessel GB 1915 D: Ruby Belasco, Chrissie White, 190m 9’
Le Sorelle Bartels Italy 1910 74m 4’
The Year of the Bodyguard Noel Burch 1981 54’ ZDF
Works and Workers at Denton Holme GB 1910, 90m 5’

In the foyer of Zeughauskino there will be a video installation ‘I would be delighted to talk Suffrage’ by Austrian artist Fiona Rukschcio and a lightbox and bulletin board by Madeleine Bernstorff with materials from the National Archives, London on police spy photographs depicting the suffragettes.

Suffragette Demonstration at Newcastle, from BFI National Archive

Madeleine Bernstorff writes these words about women’s suffrage and film in the notes to the programme:

In the early twentieth century, the cause of women’s suffrage and the suffragette movement became a cinematic topic. Something seemingly untameable had appeared on the city streets, provoking a good deal of anxiety: women, often sheltered ladies of the bourgeoisie, were organising and even demanding participation in democratic processes! By 1913 more than 1,000 suffragettes had already gone to prison for their political actions. In addition to cartoons in the print media, newsreels and melodramas were produced along with countless comedies that referred – in all their ambivalence of subversion and affirmation – to the movement. They told the audience that women belonged at home and not at the ballot box, that these unleashed furies who now appeared in the streets en masse were growing mannish, neglecting their families and even setting public buildings ablaze. In the anti-suffragette films, women’s rights activists were often misguided souls who needed to be brought back to their proper calling. They also left plenty of room for nod-and-wink voyeurism on all sides. Men, too, masqueraded as suffragettes – to illustrate how inappropriate and grotesque it was for women to overstep their roles – or to act out against the prevailing order even more wildly?

The figure of the suffragette in early fiction (usually comedy- the seriousness of Asta Nielsen’s Die Suffragette is a notable exception) film is one that has been written about in several places, though never before has such an extensive collection of relevant films been seen in one place, to my knowledge. However, I would encourage those attending the event to look twice at the newsreels as well. There are many surviving newsreels showing the suffragettes – for the simple reason that they made it their business to be filmed.

The suffragettes showed themselves to be particularly media savvy by staging events that would attract the media. The simplest strategy was to organise marches with banners with bold slogans that could be easily picked up by the cameras. Then there was the obvious tactic of letting the newspapers and newsreels know beforehand of when a march or such like was going to take place. Just occasionally there was active co-operation with the newsreel companies. Rachael Low, in The History of the British Film 1906-1908, reproduces this report from the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly 25 June 1908, p. 127, which shows how far this could go:

From certain sources whispers had reached us anent Mr. Harrison Ward’s secret conclaves with Mrs. Drummond and Miss Christabel Pankhurst, and as we surmised the plottings of the trio within the suffragette’s fortress have taken definite shape in the form of a picture history of recent performances of the ‘great shouters’ during their campaign … With exclusive right for kinematographing from the suffragists’ conning tower Mr. W. Jeapes obtained some exceptionally interesting pictures, those showing Mr. R.G. Knowles discussing the burning question with some of the leaders at the base of the tower being particularly good, the same remark applying to the life-size portraits of Mrs. ‘General’ Drummond, Miss Pankhurst and others. Mr. Jeapes and Mr. Ward probably never played to a bigger house than they did on Sunday, and the sight of the surging mass of humanity following the pantechnicon ‘conning tower’ as it emerged from Hyde Park, what time the energetic pair on top recorded the scene was something to arouse the envy of any kinematographer with an eye for picture effects.

The film, made by the Graphic Cinematograph Company, was a bit more than the average newsreel (it showed the major demonstration organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union that took place 21 June 1908 in Hyde Park). But the degree of pre-planning, co-operation and indeed the purchase of exclusive rights for a key camera position demonstrates that both news companies and suffragettes recognised the great value of one another, and that we should look on the newsreels of suffragettes as composed works rather than accidental actuality. We see what they wanted us to see.

Even when there wasn’t active co-operation with the newsreels, the suffragettes knew where cameras (still and motion picture) would be positioned, so that their protest acts would gain the greatest publicity. The best known example is that of the 1913 Derby, at which Emily Wilding Davison was killed after running onto the race-course and being knocked down by the King’s horse. The act was captured by a number of newsreels (the Pathé version is to be featured in Berlin) because they were all trained on the final bend before the end of the race, Tattenham Corner, and that is exactly where Davison chose to run out. Again, we see what they wanted us to see.

  • The Gaumont Graphic version of the 1913 Derby is here
  • The Pathé’s Animated Gazette version is here
  • The Topical Budget version is here (accessible to UK schools and libraries only)
  • (The Warwick Bioscope Chronicle version is here but I can’t make it play, and in any case Warwick either missed the incident or it has been cut from the extant film)
  • There are British Pathe compilations of suffragette newsreel footage here and especially here

There isn’t any information online about the Berlin screenings as yet (apart from this post, obviously), but information will appear on the Zeughauskino site once it gets round to publishing its September programme. (Now published)

Update (4 September): The full programme is now available (in German) from (full marks for the striking design).

Finally, the DVD from this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato mentioned above is now available for sale. Curated by Mariann Lewinsky, Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914 is a DVD and booklet on nineteen films (Italian, French, English, American), featuring such female comedy stars as Tilly and Sally (Alma Taylor and Chrissie White), Cunégonde, Mistinguett, Rosalie, Lea and Gigetta, plus newsreel films (including two compilations) of suffragette action from the UK and USA. The DVD is priced 19.90 € and is available from the Cineteca Bologna site. For those not able to be in Berlin it’s going to be the next best thing.

My thanks to Madeleine Bernstorff for providing the programme information and stills.

The National Archives goes to the movies

The National Archives

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive – not to be confused with the National Archives and Records Administration in the USA. In 2003 the UK’s Public Record Office merged with the Historic Manuscripts Commission to become The National Archives (known to its friends as TNA), which pointed to a broader, more inclusive remit, but some still hanker for the reassuring days of the PRO. The location has remained the same – an imposing modernist building in Kew, to the west of London, with ponds and swans in its grounds, and hordes of historians and amateur genealogists within. It holds government and public records from the Domesday Book onwards, which are released to the public generally after thirty years have elapsed from their original production.

All of which is preamble to the news that TNA has produced a podcast entitled The National Archives Goes to the Movies, and it’s rather good. Written and presented by Joseph Pugh, the podcast is a knowledgeable guide to the history of British cinema through the records of The National Archives. Recorded before an audience, around half of the hour-long talk is about the silent period. Among the subjects he covers are Will Barker’s 1911 film of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, all copies of which were burned in a publicity stunt; the efforts of the Colonial Office to ban The Birth of a Nation; concern within the Home Office at how Cecil B. De Mille’s The Cheat could offend the Japanese; the production of Maurice Elvey’s ill-fated epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918); the British government-sponsored dramas Hearts of the World (1918) and The Invasion of Britain (1918); Home Office efforts to ban Graham Cutts’ sensationalist Cocaine (1922); and Marie Stopes’ correspondence with the Home Office over her birth control film Married Love (aka Maisie’s Marriage) (1923).

The point of the talk is not only to entertain but to encourage research. Consequently most of the films that Pugh refers to are also listed on Your Archives, TNA’s wiki where researchers can post information on files that they have found. I’m not sure how much the wiki gets used, because researchers tend to be a little wary of giving away all their sources, but the principle is noble.

A trade paper advertisement for Cocaine and a poster for Maisie’s Marriage, taken from The National Archives’ Flickr site, original file references HO 45/11599 and HO 45/11382

The sort of records one find in The National Archives are those which document the day-to-day processes of government departments. There are memos, memos responding to memos, and memos responding to memos responding to memos. There are letters, minutes, briefing papers, personal papers, official papers, diaries, reports, lists, registers, passenger lists, medal rolls, photographs, maps and posters. The contents are generally arranged chronologically, identified by government department and then gathered together by theme into individual numbered folders.

The National Archives can be a daunting place for any newbie researcher. There is no single index, and although they produce an amazing rich online catalogue (helpfully named the Catalogue) they also have to produce a multitude of specialist guides that explain how to pursue particular topics. One of these research guides covers The Arts, Broadcasting and Film, and it’s a very good starting point. As said, The National Archives arranges its records by department, so it is important to know that responsibility for film was held by the Board of Trade’s Industries and Manufactures Department (formed 1918), but information on film is spread widely across particularly all departments. To produce a complete guide to TNA records to silent film would require a blog (or a wiki) all of its own, but here’s an outline guide to some of the key departments to explore. Please note that catalogue references will simply take you to the barest of descriptions online, and to view the documents themselves you will have to visit Kew.

  • AIR (Air Ministry, Royal Air Force etc)
    Records of aerial photography and cinematography during World War One are held in AIR 2 (search under ‘cinematography’).
  • BT (Board of Trade)
    Records of registered companies (since dissolved), including hundreds of film businesses (producers, distributors, cinemas etc), with information on capital and shareholders, are in BT 31; records of liquidated companies 1890-1932 are in BT 34; trade marks (BT 42-53) includes film company trademarks, though there is no overall index so you need to search on-site by date (see the TNA guide on registered designs and trade marks); BT 226 has bankruptcy records for companies and individuals. BT 26 and BT 27 contains lists of ship passengers who arrived in (1878-1960) or left (1890-1960) the UK. The incoming lists themselves can be viewed online (payment required) at Ancestry, and the outgoing list (again payment required) at Ancestors on Board.
  • CAB (Cabinet)
    Papers from the very heart of government. Nicholas Reeves’ Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War has a handy guide to PRO/TNA papers relating to official film, including Cabinet papers in CAB 21, 23-25, 27, 37 and 41.
  • CO (Colonial Office etc)
    Many records relating to the production, distribution and exhibition of films in British colonies and countries of the empire, including records of the Empire Marketing Board (for which John Grierson worked) in CO 758 (correspondence), CO 759 (index cards), CO 760 (minutes, papers) and CO 956 (posters).
  • COPY (Copyright Office, Stationers’ Company)
    Before the 1911 Copyright Act if a UK film producer wanted to copyright a film (usually they did so only if there had been a case of their work being copied) then they had to do so as it if was a photograph; consequently there are numerous records of films 1897-1912 registered under COPY 1. The registration forms were accompanied by single frames, bromide prints, or in a few cases a few frames of film (the originals are now held by the BFI). For a guide to this collection, which comprises a few hundred titles among the many thousands of photographs, see Richard Brown’s essay in Simon Popple and Colin Harding’s In the Kingdom of Shadows. There are also registers and indexes under COPY 3. Some film posters and other promotional material can also be found in the COPY records.
  • ED (Department of Education and Science)
    Disparate documents on film and education, a theme of growing interest throughout the 1920s, including assorted commissions of enquiry.
  • FO (Foreign Office)
    The Foreign Office was concerned with promoting British foreign policy. There are extensive records relating to British propaganda films being shown overseas during World War One, in particular FO 115 on propaganda in the USA and Canada, FO 371 covering general correspondence, and FO 395 which covers war films and American propaganda 1916-17. There is a card index to the FO papers in TNA’s search rooms, making this a particularly fruitful area to explore.
  • HO (Home Office)
    The Home Office oversaw domestic policy. There are extensive records on actual legislation (starting with the 1909 Cinematograph Act) and proposed regulation affecting the British film business, including such issues as censorship, local authority control, unlicensed film exhibitions and the filming of contentious events (political marches etc) are in HO 45. See also HO 158 for relevant general papers and correspondence.
  • INF (Ministry of Information etc)
    A particularly valuable source, with records of the War Propaganda Bureau, the War Office Cinematograph Committee, the Department of Information and the Ministry of Information, all of which were concerned with film production during the First World War (further official papers on war film production are held by the Imperial War Museum). The main section to follow is INF 4. Of particular interest is one chapter from the unpublished memoir by J. Brooke Wilkinson, leading film industry representative and first head of the British Board of Film Censors, at INF 4/2
  • J (Supreme Court of Judicature)
    Covers records of court cases (Chancery), often a rich source of information on how a film company operated. See in particular the winding up orders under J 13.
  • LAB (departments responsible for labour and employment matters and related bodies)
    Includes documents on film industry employees and industrial relations (though relatively little here for the silent era).
  • MEPO (Metropolitan Police)
    The Metropolitan Police conducted surveys of early London cinemas around 1908-09 after they were causing some social concern. The result is a rich record of the early cinema business and audiences, to be found in MEPO 2. They are described in detail in Jon Burrows’ two essays ‘Penny Pleasures: Film exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon era, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 1 (2004) and ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, anarchy and junk film in London’s “Nickelodeons”, 1906-1914,’ Film History vol. 16 no. 2 (2004), while the London Project database lists the venues covered by files MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/7 and MEPO 2/9172, file 590446 (see also HO 45/10376/16142). There are later surveys of cinemas and screenings of indecent films in the 1920s.
  • RG (General Register Office)
    Has census returns from 1861 onwards (1841-1851 are under HO 107). These can all be found online through various commercial services (see details here), but all are available for free at Kew – see the helpful TNA guide to researching census records.
  • WO (War Office)
    There is relatively little that specifically relates to film here, as most papers relating to the War Office Cinematographic Committee will be found at the Imperial War Museum and the House of Lords Record Office (Beaverbrook Papers). But surviving records of film personnel who served during the War (including Official cameramen) can be found at WO 338 (officers’ service records), WO 363 (service records), WO 364 (pension records) and WO 372 (medal cards). Digitised copies of the actual documents in all four categories can be found online through TNA’s Documents Online or Ancestry (in both cases payment is required for downloads).
  • Other records where information on silent era films can be found include ADM (Admiralty), CUST (Customs and Excise), IR (Inland Revenue), and T (Treasury).

This is a very simplistic overview, and it must be stressed that information on films will be found all over the place. For example, type in the term ‘cinematograph’ in the catalogue and you will get 1,108 records from forty-four separate departments (448 records from twenty-five departments if you narrow the date search to 1896-1930). It is a good idea to look at the bibliographies of books and the end notes of journal articles which have benefited from research at TNA (or PRO before it) to pick up specific references and useful indications of where it would be profitable to search.

The National Archives has produced some substantial publications which explore a subject in depth with copious file references. However, there is no such guide for film (one has been talked about for years but has never been forthcoming). However, there is a classic article by Nicholas Pronay, ‘The “Moving Picture” and Historical Research’, Journal of Contemporary History vol. 18 (1983) (available to higher education users on JSTOR) which describes in details the several kinds of government records which can be used for the study of film, describing why they were created, and giving specific file names. Note also that the above file information relates only to silent films – there is a huge amount of information at The National Archives relating to film (and television) from later periods, particularly govering the GPO Film Unit, film during World War II, the COI Film Unit, the Colonial Film Unit, broadcasting policy, British Council records, and much more besides.

The National Archives is still an underused resource for film history, though we have got beyond the days when Rachael Low could write a multi-volume history of British film apparently without any reference to the Public Record Office. If you’ve not been, and you can get there, then you really should – it’s the most engrossing and rewarding research experience imaginable. Go explore.

By the way, films can be public records too, but the productions of the Ministry of Information, the COI Film Unit and others are preserved on TNA’s behalf by the BFI National Archive and the Imperial War Museum.

My thanks to Brad Scott for alerting me to the podcast.

100 years of newsreels in Britain

Frame still from Pathé Gazette’s The Movie Cameramen’s Derby, released 7 September 1922, which shows a race between British newsreel cameramen (with their cameras) – available to view at

One hundred years ago, give or take a few days, a new kind of film appeared for the first time on British cinema screens. The Bioscope of those days took note of this interesting new development with this report:

There is no mistaking the smartness of Messrs Pathé, and their latest achievement — the production of a weekly cinematograph paper, The Animated Gazette — has just about beaten all records for the interest which it has awakened among the great B.P. [British Public]. The daily Press has been devoting considerable space to it, with the result that curiosity has been aroused, and people are now busily discussing the latest thing in moving pictures.

Briefly the idea is to incorporate the usual journalistic methods of writing into filming, and to portray, in lengths of about 80 odd feet, the chief items of interest that have happened during the week. Thus the illustrated newspaper is being superseded by The Animated Gazette, which depicts the actual scenes of contemporary history in living and moving reality.

Mr Valentia Steer, a well-known journalist, is editor of this moving picture periodical, and he has a staff of photo-correspondents, who are stationed in all the big cities of Europe, besides another staff at home. Last week’s news consisted of pictures of the cross-channel flight, Oxford University Eights’ trial, Peary at Edinburgh, Roosevelt at Cambridge, besides many interesting ‘glimpses’ from home and abroad.

This week’s contents bill announces motor-racing at Brooklands, the manouevres at Salisbury Plain, the departure of the Terra Nova, Chinese mission in Paris, quarrymen’s strike, Caruso in the street, Modes in Paris, and other ‘newsy’ films.

That the idea will catch on is undoubted, and it is perhaps not looking too far into the future to anticipate the time when the weekly Animated Gazette will become an indispensable ‘daily’.

The Bioscope, 9 June 1910

This piece announced the arrival of the British newsreel, in the form of Pathé’s Animated Gazette, edition no. 1 of which appeared at some point in the first week of June 1910. It wasn’t the first newsreel in the world – that honour generally goes to Pathé Fait-Divers (later Pathé Journal), launched in France in 1908. There has been film of news events ever since films had been invented, but they weren’t newsreels. Newsreels meant regularity of service, and that was dependent on a network of cinemas and an audience which could be guaranteed to come back to the cinema week after week. Before cinemas started to appear – the first ten years or so of film history – a film might be made of a news event, but it seldom could be presented as news, that is while the event was still current and with the report being understood as being part of a regular, always updated filmed news service. Cinemas supplied the loyal audience, and it is the audience that makes the news, because what is news to one person isn’t necessarily news to another – it all depends where you are, and where that news is coming from.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette main title card from 1915 (with British Pathé spoiler). Note the boast that it was reaching 20 million people (5 million is more likely for the UK) and the line about having been passed by the British Board of Film Censors – only in wartime were British newsreels subject to censorship

Pathé’s Animated Gazette was immediately recognised as an exciting innovation. It was a product of cinema, yet it had a clear relationship with newspapers. It gave a new social purpose to cinema-going. This new film form was called by a variety of names – animated newspapers, topicals etc.- but not as yet newsreels (that term didn’t begin to catch on until 1917 or so), and Pathé’s model was soon followed by Warwick Bioscope Chronicle (1910), Gaumont Graphic (1910), Topical Budget (1911), Eclair Journal and Williamson’s Animated News, all before the First World War. In the US there was Pathé’s Weekly (1911), Gaumont Animated Weekly (1912), Mutual Weekly (1912) and Universal’s Animated Weekly (1912); France added Gaumont Actualités and Eclair-Journal; Germany had Tag im Film (1911), Eiko-Woche (1913), Union-Woche (1913) and Messter-Woche (1914). Russia had Zerkalo voiny (Mirror of the World) (1914); Australia had Australasian Gazette.(Note by the way how the newsreels all emulated newspapers by taking on names like Gazette and Journal)

The form spread around the world, often as off-shoots of the French parent companies of Pathé and Gaumont. Filmed news became a product of the early film multinationals, and through means of international exchange, world news was screened in cinemas across the globe, though the time taken to transport film internationally lessened its value as news, and audiences expressed a strong preference for local news, on subjects that were news to them. ‘Foreign’ news often wasn’t news at all, in its timing or in how the audience viewed it.

The newsreels were released at regular intervals to match the pattern of cinema-going that people in their millions were starting to adopt. In Britain newsreels were very early on issued twice-weekly and stayed that way for five decades. In the US the distances were greater and so news tended to be issued weekly. Newsreels had become firmly established as part of practically cinema programme by the start of the First World War, and newsreels were to play a key part in informing audiences about how the war was progressing. Such was their importance that the British, French and American governments each took over or created a newsreel to act as a means to deliver officially sanctioned footage (i.e. propaganda) – respectively War Office Offical Topical Budget, Annales de la Guerre and Official War Review.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visit Britain, from Pathé Gazette issue 679, released 24 June 1920. Available to view at

In the 1920s newsreels built on these strong foundations and became an essential and popular element of the cinema programme. The average newsreel in the silent era ran for some 7-8 minutes and contained anywhere between four and eight stories, eached introdued by a title card with the story title and a short comment, and sometimes with further titles cut into the story as the newsreels increasingly sought to add commentary even before sound gave them their voice. The newsreels rapidly gained a repuation for light-hearted items, stunts and gimmicks, with a fascination for sport, royalty, pageantry, tradition and sensation. Oscar Levant notoriously summed up newsreels as being “a series of catastrophes ended by a fashion show”.

That’s unfair. Anyone who has looked at newsreels in any sort of depth will soon find that there was a lot more too them than fashion shows. The newsreels were acutely aware of what were the current topics of conversation (they were released after the daily newspapers, so the news agenda had been already set for them) and picked up on the personalities and issues of the day that audiences wanted to see covered with an astute eye. This propensity for the topical makes them an excellent barometer of contemporary social concerns, albeit usually sugared with that lightness of tone that the newsreels deemend necessary because they were, after all, in the entertainment business, and their audience had come to the cinema to be entertained.

The newsreels entertained, and that ultimately became the noose around their necks that condemned them. That however was in the future – our concern is with the silent era, and in the 1910s and 1920s the newsreels reigned supreme, and we cannot understand what silent cinema means if we do not take them into consideration. Indeed no other area of silent cinema is so well represented online as newsreels (such is their continuing commercial value).

Fortunately there is amply opportunity to consider them. The newsreels may have faded away in the 1950s and 60s, but their libraries live on, selling footage to television programmes. In the UK there are five major newsreel libraries and a great deal of what they hold has been made available online, either available to all or free at point of use for educational users. They are:

  • British Pathé
    Pathé operated a newsreel in Britain between 1910-1970. Its entire archive (3,500 hours) is freely available online, albeit with low resolution copies
  • ITN Source
    ITN holds the British Gaumont (1910-1959), Paramount (1929-1957) and Universal (1930-1956) newsreel libraries. A substantial amount of this is available on its site, included among other footage managed by ITN – go to the advanced search option and select ‘New Classics’ to narrow searches down to newsreels. The entire Gaumont collection is available in download form for UK higher and further education users only via Newsfilm Online
  • British Movietone
    The entire British Movietone News collection 1929-1979 is available for free, alongside non-Movietone silent material going back to the 1890s
  • BFI National Archive
    The BFI owns the Topical Budget (1911-1931) newsreel, examples of which are available on its Screenonline site (accessible to UK educational and library users only) and on its YouTube channel
  • Imperial War Museum
    The IWM holds service newsreels from the First and Second World Wars, a number of which are available through Film and Sound Online (UK higher and further educational users only)

These services has been covered by the Bioscope before now (see links below). As it is Pathé’s centenary, let’s finish with a few words about them. First of all, happy centenary! the Bioscope sends its congratulations on having achieved such a major milestone and still a significant commercial moving image presence. Pathé has changed hands several times down the years. Until a couple of years ago it was owned by the Daily Mail newspaper; now it is managed by venture capitalists.

For anyone who cares about newsreels, the British Pathé site is a mixed blessing. It is a wonderful window onto the past, the digitisation of the films having been originally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund but kept on as a free service long beyond the original agreement with the HLF. But on the other side it has of late become a little soulless, disfigured by front page advertising, and dominated by an idea of news as gimmick and sensation, a lucky dip into the quaint ways in which our ancestors behaved rather than showing what the newsreel fundamentally was – a vehicle for the news.

One cannot get a sense of the Pathé newreels as newsreels i.e. as a set of stories released on a single reel, and for that it is necessary to cross-refer to the BUFVC’s News on Screen site (formerly the British Universities Newsreel Database) where you will find an almost complete record of issues for all British newsreels 1910-1979, together with background histories, biographies of those who worked in the newsreels, digitised documents, and links across to the British Pathé site. It is place to go if you appreciate newsreels for what they mean to the study of society and history. Newsreels matter – and the more we understand them the more we will get from viewing them.

Finding out more
These Bioscope posts have covered British newsreel collections and the use of online resources: British Pathe part one, British Pathe part two, Revisiting Pathe, Movietone and Henderson and Welcome to Newsfilm Online

Pathé editor P.D. Hugon wrote an informative booklet Hints to Newsfilm Cameraman (1915) with much information on how newsreels operated at that time. The online text has an important introduction by Nicholas Hiley.

British Pathé has a lively Twitter feed, drawing attention to exciting novelties they discover in their collection.

I’ve written lots about newsreels in the past. My history of the Topical Budget newsreel (1992) is long out of print (but you can get it dirt cheap second-hand), but there’s Yesterday News: The British Cinema Newsreel Reader (2002) which tells the history of British newsreels through texts contemporary and modern, and most recently I’ve an essay on newsreels in Richard Howells and Robert W. Matson’s Using Visual Evidence (2009).

A hero of the valleys


The young David Lloyd George’s dream of David and Goliath. All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Life Story of David Lloyd George

How do we judge a film that no one saw? The audience gives a film meaning, or at least historical specificity. There are many examples of films that have never been seen (quite a few from recent British cinema history) because they were deemed uncommercial, and other grand projects that were never completed, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico or Orson Welles’ Don Quixote. But the completed film that stands up as an exceptional work of art, that was a strong commercial possibility in its time, and whose exhibition could have changed film history (in a modest way) – such examples are rare.

One such example has just found its way to a DVD release after a remarkable history of idealism, political intrigue, slander, subterfuge, disappearance, rediscovery and restoration. The Life Story of David Lloyd George was made in 1918, vanished before any cinema audience had a chance to see it, and re-emerged to astonished acclaim in 1994. Its place must be in virtual history rather than actual film history, because its story is one of if onlys and maybes. But what a story it is.


Norman Page as David Lloyd George, Alma Reville as his daughter Megan

The story begins with the Ideal Film Company, formed by the brothers Harry and Simon Rowson in 1911 to distribute films, before moving into production in 1915. Excited by the interest shown by the public in official films of the war, the Rowsons decided to make an epic drama about the origins and purpose of the war, employing none other than Winston Churchill – then in the political wilderness following the Dardanelles disaster – to furnish ideas which would be turned into a scenario by Eliot Stannard. When Churchill returned to the cabinet in summer 1916 the original project was dropped, only to transmogrify into a biography of the new Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George (the Rowsons were strong supporters of the Liberal party). Conceived as an epic story of a man who from humble beginnings rises to lead his country through to victory in the greatest war known to man, it was an undertaking unlike anything attempted in cinema to that date, nor would it have any subsequent parallel until the American and Soviet biopics of the 1930s onwards (Young Mr Lincoln, Wilson, Lenin in October etc.). But those conform to the classical dramatic conventions of their time, and their subjects were long dead – Lloyd George was, and remains, unique in subject and form.

The script was written by a noted historian (though without film experience) Sidney Low. The director was Maurice Elvey, gradually rising to the top of his profession, at least in British film terms. The cast were a mixture of Ideal stalwarts and lookalikes, most notably in the latter case the stage actor Norman Page, whose uncanny performance as Lloyd George carries the film (Page watched Lloyd George in full flow in the House of Commons and gives us what is probably a highly accurate record of his mannerisms). Alma Reville, later to marry Alfred Hitchcock, plays Lloyd George’s daughter Megan, and Ernest Thesiger can be spotted as Joseph Chamberlain. Helen Haye (not credited on the DVD but recently identified) plays Lloyd George’s mother.


The Birmingham Town Hall riot scenes

The film’s production was announced to the trade press in February 1918, under the title The Man Who Saved the Empire. It was not the only propagandist feature film epic to be made in Britain at this time, with American directors brought in by British official film interests to make Hearts of the World (D.W. Griffith) and Victory and Peace (Herbert Brenon), but it was the only one made on such a scale with private money only. Filming proper began towards the end of August and astonishingly was completed by the end of September. It took place in several of the historical locations, including the north Wales of Lloyd George’s childhood, Birmingham and London. Shaping up to be two-and-a-half hours long, there were suggestions that the film could be released as a serial, but excitement was high at what promised to be the outstanding British film release of the year.

In October the trouble started. Horatio Bottomley, the rabble-rousing, influential owner of the nationalistic journal John Bull, began a campaign against the film. Essentially his line was that the film was a disgrace because it was being made by Germans. The Rowsons were Jews, real name Rosenbaum, and in Bottomley’s nakedly bigoted mind, Jews were equated with Germans. Bottomley’s campaign against the film (Ideal won a libel suit against him) brought a lot of unwelcome publicity, and may have added to a sense of awkwardness felt by some in the government at the production of a film lauding the achievements of the prime minister at the time of an impending general election (one took place in December 1918, just after the war ended).

In the end, none of the evidence that we have really explains what happened next. The Ideal company were paid off, to the sum of £20,000 (around half a million pounds in today’s money), which was the cost of the film’s production – though no recompense for the anticipated returns. Lawyers for the government turned up, paid Ideal in twenty one thousand pound notes, took the negative away with them in a taxi – and that was the last that anyone saw of it, publicly at least. Someone in power thought it worth a lot of money to prevent the film from being shown, but to this day no one can really say why, and the documentary record (including a memoir written by Harry Rowson) is tantalisingly vague.


Symbolic illustration of a theme from one of Lloyd George’s speeches, showing the Allies learning to pull together

The only evidence we have for the film after this date is a reference in the diary of Frances Stevenson – Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress – over a year later. On 24 February 1920 she wrote:

Last night went to see a film of D’s life which Captain Guest had put on the screen in No 12 [Downing Street] – a perfectly appalling thing. The idea was all right but the man who was supposed to be D. was simply a caricature. I begged D. not to let it be shown. Mrs Ll. G. very angry with D. because she said I had put D. against it because I had objected to the domestic scenes in it!

Were there plans to show the film in 1920? Is Stevenson referring to this time, or 1918, when she says “I begged D. not to let it be shown”? Might she be speaking of a different film entirely? We do not know. The Life Story of David Lloyd George was no more, unseen by anyone, little more than a footnote in a history or two. British film historian Denis Gifford interviewed Maurice Elvey in 1967, shortly before he died, when Elvey said (with remarkable sang froid in the circumstances):

This I suppose must have been one of the best films I ever made or ever shall make … It is such a shame it has disappeared.

In 1994 the film was discovered. It was in a barn at the home of Viscount Tenby, David Lloyd George’s grandson. It was in pristine condition, though in an unassembled form. Considerable effort and ingenuity effort was required from the only recently-formed Wales Film and Television Archive to piece the film together. As the first sequences were constructed and shown to film historians and Lloyd George experts, the general reaction was astonishment. Instead of the quaint drama that, to be honest, we had been expecting, here was a film of skill and power, possessed of a fervour and a commitment to the issues of the day that were electrifying. The film had its premiere – literally so – on 5 May 1996 (precided by a showing on 27 April for an invited audience) at the MGM cinema, Cardiff, accompanied by the Cardiff Olympia Orchestra playing a score by Welsh composer John Hardy. Since that time it has had screenings around the world, usually with Neil Brand accompanying on piano, and it gained recognition as a unique classic. But there has been a huge struggle on the part of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales (as they are now called) to get the film issued on DVD. Now, at last, with pseudo-orchestral score by Brand, it is available for all to see – and it is a film that demands to be seen.


Elderly inhabitants of the workhouse, freed by Lloyd George’s introduction of an old age pension scheme, materialise outside the workhouse walls

The Life Story of David Lloyd George tells the story of its subject from childhood to wartime victory (the film was completed before the war was won), relayed in key scenes selected to demonstrate a calling to national duty and a desire to overturn injustice. The early scenes, showing Lloyd George’s upbringing in Wales, have not been given the praise that should be their due. They capture an atmosphere of modesty, devoutness and dedication towards one’s fellow man which is moving in its general effect, and deeply touching in its detail, grounded as it is in an affectionate portrait of late Victorian Welsh society.

Lloyd George is shown triumphing in the law and local politics through his oratory and commitment to noble causes. He gains notoriety through his anti-Boer War (1899-1902) stance, illustrated by a speech he gave at Birmingham Town Hall which occasioned a near riot in the streets, which the film recreates with truly extraordinary newsreel-style realism, helped by many hundreds of extras. If these scenes impress by their documentary quality, the film’s greater power comes in how it illustrates the revolutionary effect of Lloyd George’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, introducing old age pensions and and the National Insurance Act (1911). The very rightness of the actions moves us now, and surely must have had – or would have had – an overpowering effect on a contemporary audience, for whom these great changes were recent occurrences.


While most celebrate the homecoming of loved ones after the war, one woman represents those mourning the dead

Other vigorous tableaux follow, clearly inspired by the newsreels (Lloyd George himself was a consumate performer for the news cameras), notably the Queen’s Hall suffragette riots. The film makes much use of an impressive House of Commons interior set, peopled by lookalikes, shot and perfomed with an easy realism that could fool some into thinking they were watching actuality. The film dips somewhat in its second half when the First World War begins. Lloyd George served brilliantly as minister of munitions before becoming prime minister in 1916, but there is paradoxically less drama on show once the film has arrived at the climactic stage to which its first half has been building. The battle scenes are convincing, likewise Lloyd George’s visit to the Front, and there is a prolonged sequence inside a munitions factory which may lack dramatic interest but as a seemingly documentary record is superbly shot. But our emotions are not re-engaged until the film’s final scenes, when the war comes to an end. Troops line up on the parade ground in their hundreds, fall out, then run to their waiting loved ones, at which point they materialise into civilian clothes. Amid all the happiness, one woman turning her head and weeping stands for all those whose loved ones were not returning home. Shown live, it catches the audience’s breath every time.

It is not a film for every one. Those hoping for either a more conventional human interest story, or a political drama, may be disappointed. Its newsreel-style – a deliberate aesthetic choice to reflect the way in which many of the audience were most familiar with Lloyd Geoge as a public figure – lessens the emotion while it heightens the sense of living history. It is unlike any other silent film in intent and form. But watch The Life Story of David Lloyd George, and then try and take seriously one of the conventional dramas of the war made duing the war – Hearts of the World for example – and they come across as pitiable, not so much in their execution or use of dramatic convention as in their absence of real social and political feeling. The Life Story of David Lloyd George is not realistic as such, despite its newsreel inspiration. It is pure hagiography. But more than any other film of the period it manages to articulate what people were fighting for. Which is what the Rowsons had wanted for their epic war film, right from the beginning.


Lloyd George addresses the camera in the film’s final scene: ‘There must be no “next time”‘

The film runs for 152 minutes. Viewers will see from time to time sequences which clearly do not quite fit. Titles referring to Moses are followed by film of Boadicea (the film has several such emblematic sequences); Lloyd George’s vision of his prime ministerial predecessors has obvious re-take shots; longueurs in the latter half would undoubtedly have been edited down had the film been completed for release. The film had to be pieced together without a running order, and a place found for every extant shot, somehow. Tinting records came with the film, the colour richly but sensitively reproduced by the Wales archive.

On the DVD you get 47 mins of extras, including an interview with composer Neil Brand which goes beyond the thinking behind his sumptuous score to consider the value of silent film generally. It is a tour de force from Neil which I would recommend showing to anyone wanting to understand what the silent film means for us today. Kevin Brownlow is interviewed, stating that the film would have changed film history (particularly in Britain) had it been shown – Britain’s The Birth of a Nation. Would it have been a huge financial success though? I think Ideal may have ended up with a problem on their hands – a long film, without stars, partisan in politics, perhaps too reliant on the patriotic uplift occasioned by the war. But we’ll never know.

The DVD is available for purchase online from the National Library of Wales’ shop, price £18.99, or if you are passing through Aberystwyth, visit the shop in person. Those intrigued by the history should certainly check out David Berry and Simon Horrocks’ book David Lloyd George: The Movie Mystery (1998), which includes Harry Rowson’s memoir, and essays from Lloyd George’s biographer John Grigg, Nicholas Hiley, Sarah Street, Roberta Pearson, John Reed (who restored the film) and others. Information on the film, the archive that restored it, and a short video clips can be found on the Moving History website. Finally, on my personal site, there the text of a talk I gave on the British epic film of the silent era which puts The Life Story of David Lloyd George in that particular context.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George will never fit easily into film history, because it was never seen, and because there has never been anything else like it. But it is a major work irrespective of film history, and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales have done us a great service in making available to all.

Downing Street posts silents

Who’d have thought it? Downing Street is posting silent films on YouTube. It’s true. DowningSt is a registered YouTube member and has posted some 50-60 videos on YouTube, including a selection of Topical Budget silent newsreels from the collection held by the British Film Institute. This one shows Conservative PM Andrew Bonar Law (not one of the more celebrated British prime ministers) introducing his new cabinet to the newsreel cameras in 1922 – absolutely fascinating for the differing reactions from the ministers to this unprecedented intrusion from the media. (Adding comments has been disabled, by the way, should you have wished to express your rage – or heartfelt approval – at Bonar Law’s handling of the economy in 1922).

Others available from DowningSt on YouTube include MR BALDWIN AND ‘OLD BERKELEY’ (Stanley Baldwin with a hunt), NOW FOR THE PREMIERSHIP STAKES! (Baldwin electioneering), and LLOYD GEORGE RESIGNS (the fall of the Lloyd George Liberal government in 1922). I’m particularly fond of a 1921 Topical Budget film showing Lloyd George at Chequers in 1921, DOWNING ST IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, deftly filmed by Fred Wilson (in the dim and distant past I wrote a book on Topical Budget, and I’m always pleased to see it getting continued screenings). There was a real art to the best of the silent newsreels, as for any other kind of silent film production.

One oddity – all of the Topical Budget items posted by DowningSt are without a soundtrack, yet three of them come from the 1992 BFI Topical Budget video release, which had excellent music by Neil Brand. Shame.