From old Ireland


While sojourning in Dublin last month, I picked up a copy of a new film history which I’d managed to miss up until now. Denis Condon’s Early Irish Cinema 1895-1921, published by Irish Academic Press, describes itself as examining “early and silent cinema and its contexts in Ireland”. It is a history not just of film production in Ireland (at a time when politically it was still a part of the United Kingdom), but its exhibition and its social and cultural contexts as well. Although there have been several histories of Irish film which include accounts of filmmaking in the silent era, so far as I am aware this is the first book dedicated to the early and silent cinema period alone.

Irish film production in the silent era was small-scale (and has attracted little interest among film scholars except those from Ireland) but Condon argues the attention given to these films by Irish commentators suggests that they have “a symbolic significance far out of proportion to their numbers”. The first Irish-produced fiction films did not appear until 1913 – one-reelers made by Irish Film Productions such as Michael Dwyer and Love in a Fix – and did not seriously begin until 1916 with the formation of the Film Company of Ireland, which made O’Neil of the Glen (1916), Knocknagow (1918) and Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn (1920), the latter two of which survive. Irish-themed films were made in profusion in America, however, mostly notably by Kalem, which sent a company headed by Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier over to Ireland and made such titles as The Lad from Old Ireland (1910), Arrah-na-Pogue (1911), The Shaugraun (1912) and Come Back to Erin (1914) (the latter one of those made by the Gene Gauntier Players, rather than Kalem). On the non-fiction side, there was Irish production from early on with local views produced by exhibitiors such as James T. Jameson, through to Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, whose most interesting production was the newsreel Irish Events (1917-1920). Again, the greater number of Irish-themed non-fiction films came from outside, particularly British companies such as the Warwick Trading Company and the Charles Urban Trading Company, which produced assorted travelogue series.

This history Condon covers in remarkable detail. There appear to be few documentary sources that he has not examined, and his notes and sources will be plundered by future researchers for years to come. However, though he piles on the detail, he has arranged the book most interestingly. Avoiding too slavish an adherence to chronology, he divides the book into chapter entitled ‘Retrospection and Projection’, ‘Theatre’, ‘Virtual Tourism’, ‘Participation’ and ‘The Great Institution of Kinematography’. These reflect Irish cinema’s roots, its cultural inheritance, the importance of external producers’ work, Irish production itself, and a larger conception of cinema which includes the distribution of films, their exhibition and reception. The construction makes think about how Irish cinema was constructed.

This is a worthwhile, rigorous academic study. It is based on a thesis (and reads like it), with arguments about the institutional and pre-institutional form of early cinema which are designed to appeal to the film studies crowd. But it is also jam-packed full of every sort of detail, fascinating to dig through, and comes with a very helpful filmography that includes both films extant and films lost. My thought on reading it was that, despite the author’s progressive historiographical aims, there is something about the national film history which is a little quaint these days. We’ve done with the histories of this country and that country’s films, or we should have done. If cinema history teaches us anything it is that distribution had to flow over borders, if films were to make money. Condon certainly looks beyond Irish film production, and admirably so, but it is what audiences saw (American films, largely unmentioned except for the Kalem films) and what those audiences were (mostly absent from his book) that is the heart of the matter, not what any one country made.

Filmographie Pathé


A while ago we reported on the marvellous Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé site which documents the rich heritage of the Pathé film company. At that time it was noted that a Pathé filmography was not on the site, but was promised. Well, it’s there now.

Based on a number of sources, most notably the seven-volume Pathé filmography produced by Henri Bousquet, the filmography – which is a work-in-progress – will eventually document the entire Pathé output from 1896 to the present day. The available information comes chiefly from original Pathé catalogues and trade paper reviews, and varies from title to title. So some records are little more than a title, while others have detailed descriptions. The catalogue is arranged by year, and so far records have been entered up to 1913. From 1907 the years are broken down further into months. Each year/month brings up a list of titles, and clicking on each one brings up the catalogue record. This for example is the record for a famous Pathé title of 1908, Le cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse):

Cheval emballé (Le)
Numéro du film: 2027
Code tél.: Délire
Métrage: 135 m
Genre: scène comique

Réalisateur: Louis Gasnier
Scénario: André Heuzé

Un livreur et sa charrette s’arrêtent devant un marchand de graines. Pendant que le livreur monte dans les étages pour déposer du linge chez un client, le cheval mange un sac d’avoine. Le livreur s’en aperçoit et, grimpant dans sa voiture, s’enfuit. Le grainetier leur court après. Après maintes péripéties, poursuivi par une foule sans cesse ac­crue, le cheval rentre à l’écurie. Son propriétaire disperse les poursuivants en les arrosant copieusement.

Note de fin:
Sortie: Le Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, du 3 au 9.1.1908 Dans son numéro 69 du 1.2.1908 Phono-Ciné-Gazette sous la rubrique “ Le danger au Cinématographe” contait que… le collaborateur qui dirigeait la voiture a risqué sa vie car le véhicule a fait un panache auquel on ne s’at­tendait pas au moment où elle arrive en plein marché! Et dans The Moving Picture World du 9.4.1910 l’annonce de l’arrivée de Louis J. Gasnier à la direction du studio Pathé de Bound Brook était suivie d’une anecdote concernant le tournage du Cheval emballé  : Mr Gasnier is a man of great resource and has had many trilling adventures in the production of films. One notable instance of this was during the photographing of the almost classic film The Runaway Horse much comment was heard as to how it was possible to secure a horse with such intelligence as this one seemed to have. The secret of the matter lay in the fact that underneath the body of the wagon which was a two-wheeled vehicle, there was attached a coffin with the end knocked out. This was chosen because of its interior padding. In this, Mr. Gasnier took his position, face downward, and dressed entirely in black, with black gloves and a mask similar to those used on the days of the Inquisition, over his face, and from here he drove the spirited cavalry horse by means of two steel wires of the ends of which were fastened sticks for him to bold in his hands. The shafts of the wagon were fastened to the body by steels bands but in spite of this arrangement Mr. Gasnier was nearly killed. Just after the scene which shows the wagon knocking down the scaffold, the steel bands broke and Mr. Gasnier, as the wagon pitched forward and turned a complete somersault, was so badly injured that he was unconscious for more than half an hour and spent fifteen days in the hospital. The horse, at the time of this accident, was really running away, and having rid himself of the cart, dashed ahead, and finally ran into the river. Mr. Gasnier’s nerve is shown by the fact that after his release from the hospital he got back into the repaired vehicle and finished the picture.

Date de la publication électronique: 13 October 2008

So the catalogue is in French, but with smatterings of English where English or American trade paper sources are quoted. Not all records are so detailed, but here you get title, catalogue number, telegraphic code (used for ordering titles), length, category, credits, synopsis and notes.

The Pathé catalogues were divided up into categories or genres, and you can use the online filmography by such original terms as ballet pantomime, comédie, comédie dramatique, comédie policière, drame historique, scène biblique, scène d’acrobaties, scène d’actualité, scène d’industrie, scène de féerie, scène de mythologie, scène de plein air, scène de sport, scène de vulgarisation scientifique, scène grivoise, scène historique, scène militaire and vue panoramique. You can also browse by title and by credit, which includes authors of adapted works (Balzac, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Zola etc) as well as directors, scriptwriters and performers.

This is a huge boon for early cinema researchers. It is worth noting that the intention is the document the entirety of the Pathé output (exlcusing newsreels and the like), so there are the films issued by the company’s Italian (Film d’Arte Italiana), Russian (Film d’Art Russe) and British (Britannia Films) offshoots, as well as Pathé’s own French variants such as Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres (SCAGL). And don’t forget to explore the rest of the Fondation’s site, in particular its extensive and illustrated database.



D.W. Griffith, premier filmmaker of the early cinema period, was a man of the theatre. He was an actor and a playwright before, in desperate straights, he found himself having to stoop so low as to act in a film – and then discovered his true vocation, behind the camera. But through all his films Griffith had his eye on the theatre, drawing on its themes, its properties and its particular craft.

However, this crucial element of Griffith’s artistic make-up has been curiously neglected. The films are seen as pure films in themselves, whereas in fact they owed a huge amount to a richly various theatrical inheritance, and indeed can be looked on (by the trained eye) as records of theatrical practice that would otherwise be lost.

This, roughly, is the subject of David Mayer’s Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W.Griffith and the American Theatre, recently published by University of Iowa Press. Mayer is a historian of nineteenth century theatre, and he brings to his study of Griffith (and to his studies of early film in general) an understanding of the filmmaker’s roots in theatrical practice that is illuminating, and salutary. Simply watching the films in isolation gives you too narrow an idea of how they came to be and what their significance was for audiences at the time. You have to know from where they came, socially and culturally.

Here’s the blurb from the University of Iowa Press site:

An actor, a vaudevillian, and a dramatist before he became a filmmaker, D. W. Griffith used the resources of theatre to great purpose and to great ends. In pioneering the quintessentially modern medium of film from the 1890s to the 1930s, he drew from older, more broadly appealing stage forms of melodrama, comedy, vaudeville, and variety. In Stagestruck Filmmaker, David Mayer brings Griffith’s process vividly to life, offering detailed and valuable insights into the racial, ethnic, class, and gender issues of these transitional decades.

Combining the raw materials of theatre, circus, minstrelsy, and dance with the newer visual codes of motion pictures, Griffith became the first acknowledged artist of American film. Birth of a Nation in particular demonstrates the degree to which he was influenced by the racist justifications and distorting interpretations of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Moving through the major phases of Griffith’s career in chapters organized around key films or groups of films, Mayer provides a mesmerizing account of the American stage and cinema in the final years of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Griffith’s relationship to the theatre was intricate, complex, and enduring. Long recognized as the dominant creative figure of American motion pictures, throughout twenty-six years of making more than five hundred films he pillaged, adapted, reshaped, revitalized, preserved, and extolled. By historicizing his representations of race, ethnicity, and otherness, Mayer places Griffith within an overall template of American life in the years when film rivaled and then surpassed the theatre in popularity.

The book comes with playlist and well as filmography, and ought to do a lot to reposition Griffith as a man of his times, and his films as mirrors of those times.

With new eyes


Gerben Bakker’s Entertainment Industrialised: The Emergence of the International Film Industry, 1890-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2008) opens with a quotation from Marcel Proust:

The real voyage of discovery consists not of finding new lands, but of seeing the territory with new eyes.

A bold claim indeed for any book seeking to make its mark in a territory so exhaustively documented (or so it would seem) as film history. Of course, read the blurb of almost any new film monograph and it will confidently tell you that what lies within is certain to set a new standard for the field or to overturn preconceptions. Open those books and one tends to find exactly as one has found before in countless other monographs, with just a few of the arguments rearranged for novelty’s sake. Open Entertainment Industrialised on any page, and the sense of real discovery is instant. This is history with new eyes.

Gerben Bakker is based at the London School of Economics. His studies into the rise of the international film industry have been exciting a small number of us in the past few years, but they have not made much of a crossover as yet to the wider world of film history. The publication of this magnum opus ought to change things, though it has been issued as part of the Cambridge Studies in Economics History strand (at a hefty price), and is aimed primarily at economics historians. Though some of the language is specialist, the general tone will be clear to all, and the writing is lucid and inviting. It is a book that demands to be read.

His subject is the rise of the film entertainment industry in France, Britain and the United States between 1890 and 1940. That cross-national sweep immediately takes us away from the parochialism of so many film studies, while illuminating the national picture. Its contention is that cinema’s great innovation was not technological, but economic. In a helpful prologue, Bakker set out his theme by reference to the life experience of Charlie Chaplin:

When Charlie Chaplin was nineteen years old he appeared in three music halls a night. On one fine day he started in the late afternoon at the half-empty Streatham Empire in London. Directly after the show he and his company were rushed by private bus to the Canterbury Music Hall and then on to the Tivoli. This constituted the maximum number of venues an entertainer could visit on an evening, and thus the inherent limit to a performer’s productivity.

Yet, barely five years had passed before Chaplin would appear in thousands of venues across the world at the same time. His productivity had increased almost unimaginably. Most of this efficiency jump translated into lower prices, far lower than prices for music hall. Chaplin himself, therefore, was able to capture only a small percentage of revenues. Yet this tiny cut made him the world’s highest-paid performer.

There is the matter in a nutshell. The modern technologies that went with what the author calls the second industrial revolution (bringing with it the almost universal adoption of electricity, synthetic chemicals and the combustion engine) led to a huge leap in productivity. We are now in a world where we expect, without thinking, to have instant access to entertainments from around the world, at any time, wherever we might be located, cheaply or freely, and across multiple platforms. How did we get here? That is what Bakker sets out to describe, not by anecdote or easy assumption, but by thorough powerful analysis of the economic evidence using models established by business history.


‘Total released film negative length and cinema seats, US, Britain, France and Italy, in metres, 1893-1922’, originally from ‘The evolution of entertainment consumption and the emergence of cinema 1890-1940’ (available at

His method is common to other kinds of economic enquiry, one based on understanding of essential principles tested against factual evidence which can be gleaned from contemporary studies or deduced by subsequent analysis. It is a book full of graphs and tables with titles such as ‘Total released film negative length and cinema seats, US, Britain, France and Italy, in metres, 1893-1922’, ‘Management as percentage of all non-creatives in the French entertainment industry, 1901-1936’, ‘Prices, capacity, sales potential, price elasticity and consumer surplus for various types of specator entertainment venues, Boston, 1909’ or ‘Indicators of sectoral shift in the entertainment industry, US, Britain and France, 1900-1938’. It is daunting but exhilarating stuff. All the time that we were enjoying ourselves, this is what was really going on underneath.

Bakker says that his book has three main themes running through it: how motion pictures industrialised spectator entertainment, how a quality race between firms changed the structure of the international entertainment market, and what effect this had on economic and productivity growth. He explores the rise of entertainment generally, the rise of the international film industry as a part of this movement, and then the notion, mechanisms and consequences of industrialised entertainment. Out this investigation he makes seven main claims (though there are many other interrelated findings):

  • Cinema industrialised live entertainment by automating it, standardising it and making it tradeable.
  • This industrialisation was largely demand-led.
  • It was the index case for the industrialisation of other services that would follow.
  • In a process of dynamic product differentiation old formats were not competed away, but often reinvented themselves when new formats arrived: theatre changed after vaudeville, vaudeville changed after cinema, and motion pictures changed after television.
  • The tradeability of motion pictures integrated national entertainment markets into an international one.
  • A quality race in which firms escalated their costs sunk into film production and marketing, triggered in the 1910s, led to the emergence of feature films as we know them now.
  • Although the Hollywood studios have won the race, American consumers lost it. Their European counterparts enjoyed a far greater variety of both live and filmed entertaiment, and consumed lots of exotic pictures next to the standard Hollywood fare.

Some of this may seem obvious, but that is because we are familiar with the outcomes. The important point is that the success of cinema in the particular form that it took was not a completely foregone conclusion. With only small variables in pricing (of raw stock, of theatre prices), discoveries in technology, competing entertainments or other socio-economic factors, cinema might never have arisen in the form that it did. He gives the example of cinema’s “major fellow traveller” the Phonograph, which remained “a premium product for a limited elite”. Contra such arguments, cinema can be seen almost inevitably to have filled a gap. Increased wages, falling hours of work, the rapid growth in urbanisation, a consequent demand for leisure, the opportunities provided by mass electrification, all can be said have created cinema – or the gap that cinema filled – because they had to.

Many studies have explored this area with this general thesis in mind. Bakker gives us the figures, and the hard reasoning. We may recognise the names and the general territory, but are encouraged to do so with such notions as deregulated entertainment markets, age elasticity of demand, industrial organisation theory and sunk costs – the latter a key concept for Bakker: costs incurred which can’t be reversed, essentially. Bakker’s argument is that the increase in sunk costs exercised by American film businesses in the period up to and throughout the First World War was their source of strength (crudely speaking, they spent more on production and promotion, and audiences responded to the quality on offer). He writes:

The First World War did matter, but in a different way than previously thought: not primarily because of the disruption of European markets, but because the war prevented the European film industry from taking part in the escalation of quality.

Now there’s a thesis you might like to argue over – but make sure you understand what endogenous sunk costs are first.

So he is right in his bold contention that this is a history with new eyes. Of course film historians have considered the economics of their subject before now, and he acknowledges the work done by David Bordwell, Richard Brown, John Sedgwick, Kristin Thompson and a few others. Yet for the most part film history has been written from a film studies perspective, focussing on style and content, in a form that may please its own community and which has interest to some in art and cultural studies, but which means little to other disciplines. Consequently what looks like an over-analysed subject is one which, rather, has been analysed too greatly in one direction, and far too slightly in others. Why were films made? Why did cinema succeed? Why do we have the entertainment industry that we do? Looking at the money doesn’t answer every question, but it helps answer a fair number of them, and we should have been asking these question (or asking them in a better way) long before now.

Bakker knows that he has produced something truly groundbreaking here. It deserves to have the same impact on film history as Peter Bailey’s Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure has had for music hall or Wray Vamplew’s Pay Up and Play the Game has had for the study of sports history – works that simply open our eyes to the economic realities underpinning their subjects, changing understanding.

There is a gentle mocking tone to some of the book, knocking those of us who have produced film histories which have concentrated on technical innovations, inventors or entrepreneurs, as if they alone made things happen. Of course they didn’t, and of course we have always known that there were greater forces that drove the real take-off of the film industry. What we have needed for so long is a guide to those forces, lighting up the territory for all. Now we have it.

(While you are persuading your local library to invest in a copy of Entertainment Industrialised, you might like to visit Bakker’s research papers site, where there are downloadable copies of several of the papers he has produced leading up to his book.)

Music while they worked

In The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow has a short chapter on that intriguing aspect of studio practice in the silent era, the use of musicians on set to help the actors get into the right mood. Not all directors used it, and not all actors needed it, but Conrad Nagel recalled

Every set would have musicians. Mickey Neilan had an orchestra of four, so there was always fun on his set … These musicians would know a hundred to a hundred fifty pieces of music, and they’d have a piece to go with whatever happened on the set. For hundreds of years, when you went to war, the regiment would take a band along. The music would give a great lift to the soldiers. And it was the same on a silent-picture set; the music kept you buoyed up.

Marshall Neilan, King Vidor, William Wellman all approved of the practice; Charlie Chaplin and Edward Sloman never used it. It is such a familiar part of silent film history, and yet how much do we actually know about it, beyond the anecdotal? I received an enquiry from researcher Polly Goodwin the other day about the use of musicians on set, and I realised I knew next to nothing. So, with her permission, I am reproducing her request here, in the hope that readers will be able to suggest texts, films, photographs or whatever. Here’s her email:

I am a researcher into silent film acting and I am currently investigating the phenomenon of on-set music during the filming of (many) silent films. So far, whilst I can find a few mentions of the frequency with which musicians (I believe sometimes called ‘sideliners’?) were invited onto the set, to play whilst the cameras were rolling, accounts tend to be brief and sporadic. There are a few photographs showing them at work, and the odd anecdote from actors and other on-set workers and in contemporary articles, but that is as far as I have been able to go. I wondered if anyone could give me any advice about where I might find more information on this (if, indeed, there is much information to find?) As yet, I have not found any accounts by the musicians themselves, for instance, or (which would be most interesting) by actors/directors etc. really addressing the impact (positive or negative) that this music and those who played it had. I find it such an intriguing situation – acting with the presence of music, and also of the director’s ‘direction’, in many cases, and would love to really get a fuller picture of what this unique acting environment would be like to perform in.

Has anyone come across any information about this, or any evidence in the form of photos, or, even more pie-in-the-sky-optimistically, in any snippets of on-set ‘behind the camera’ footage?

Any advice or suggestions would be more than appreciated.

Well, the Brownlow book is a start – chapter 30 covers the practice, and has two photographs, one of William de Mille with Efrem Zimbalist Jr on set, the other showing Pauline Starke and Conrad Nagel in Edmund Goulding’s Sun-up, with violinist on location. But what else is there?

100 years ago

100 years ago, The Bioscope was relieved that a certain type of film was certain to be no more:

Indecency’s Decline and Fall

The indecent picture is departing, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung. It has been tried in the balance of public opinion, and has been found wanting. It has been adjudged by the general consent of the public to be “not what we want.” The great majority of manufacturers and showmen have known all along that clean amusement is what is wanted by that section of their patrons which really matters. They have relegated the questionable film to the zone of undesirables, and so, banned by the respectable frequenter of our great picture halls, and uncountenanced by the bulk of manufactuers and dealers simply because they respect public opinion, and themselves recognise the evil which would most assuredly be the result of its constant exhibition. The indecent picture is gradually disappearing. It is mortifying to think that the man whose sole mission on earth seems to be to pull the world down into the mire, should ever have found a place in the bioscope world. But it is gratifying to note that with the steady rise of this form of entertainment into the favour of the populance [sic], there arose men who were ready to give the people real healthy diversion, to minister to the man, not to the beast. The result we all know. It has been the big jump into popularity of the really elevating yet dramatic picture, a huge slump in the output of the low-down manufacturer, and a big increase in the number of patrons who are in search of a good, sensible form of recreation, for themselves and for their children, and who are willing to pay for it. Bioscope entertainments must necessarily have a big hand in the moulding or the marring of a country’s morals, and it behoves us as fellow-workers for the general good of all mankind, to all lend a hand in the work of stamping out this evil altogether and placing those dealers and manufacturers who are inclined to look on it with an encouraging eye, in their proper places – outside the bioscope business.

The Bioscope, 6 November 1908, p. 3.

How indecent did they mean by indecent? Pornographic films of every hue had been produced from practically the start of cinema, but these were really only encountered in ‘smoking concerts’, men’s clubs and brothels. Pathé kept films it described as Scènes grivoises d’un caractère piquant in its catalogue during the early 1900s, and there were companies like Austria’s Saturn Films (examples of whose output can be found on the Europa Film Treasures site) producing coyly erotic films, but these would not have made into the public halls and proto-cinemas of London at this period.

Yet clearly there were shows not reported by the film trade press whose existence threatened the reputation of the industry. Although some research has been done on early pornographic films, little written evidence remains, as might be expected. While one can speculate on what to read between the lines of this editorial piece, what is most striking about it is the sense of responsibility coming out of general popularity. “Bioscope entertainments must necessarily have a big hand in the moulding or the marring of a country’s morals … ” – that’s big claim for what was still a relatively small industry, albeit one just about to mushroom in size to a remarkable degree. The editor of the Bioscope evidently foresaw this, and the anguished debates over motion pictures and morality which were to follow – and which have remained with us, in one form or another, ever since.

Still going strong

That post on Grace’s Guide, the directory of British engineering businesses, brought up the subject of Vinten, a company which began making cinematographic equipment before the First World War and is still going strong. Which made me think, which other film businesses from before 1914 (the ‘early cinema’ period) are still going strong today?

Obviously, the major Hollywood studios had their roots in this period. Carl Laemmle formed Universal in 1912, Fox (later a component part of 20th Century-Fox) began in 1912, Paramount in 1914. But the majors of today, conglomerately speaking, are very different beasts to the companies bearing their names in 1914. Of the other leading American producers of that time, Vitagraph was absorbed by Warners in 1925, Lubin (absorbed by Vitagraph) was gone by in 1916, Biograph by 1917, Edison, Essanay and Selig by 1918, Kalem (another absorbed by Vitagraph) in 1919.

So, who is around who is still trading much as they did at the start of motion pictures? Well, obviously the granddaddy of them all is Eastman, provider of the first motion picture film stock and still around trading as Kodak. Also on trhe film stock side, Technicolor, though the name dates from 1915, was effectively founded in 1912 as Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott.

In France, Gaumont (formed in 1895) continues as strongly as it has throughout cinema history. Remarkably, its archive library recently amalgamated with that of its great rival from the early days, Pathé (formed as the Société Pathé Frères in 1896) to form Gaumont Pathé Archives. Pathé itself exists as a producer and distributor, with a confusing history of subsidiary uses of the name.

In Japan, Nikkatsu, formed in 1912 out of a merger of four film companies, thrives as a leading production company. One pre-1914 Japanese producer, Inabata Katsutaro, was the agent for Lumière in Japan in 1897 before moving onto other businesses, leading to the multinational Inabata & Co. of today, which deals in information technology, chemicals, plastics, housing materials and foods.

In Britain, Vinten (founded by William Vinten in 1910) is today a leading supplier of motion picture camera supports. It seems to be the oldest British film business still operating (Butcher’s Film Service, started in 1896, was active as a business until just a few years ago).

The title of the world’s oldest film company is often claimed by Norway’s Nordisk, formed in 1906, is still producing films – and boasts the same familiar polar bear trademark that it has displayed since 1906.

Other names persist, even though they are not the original companies. Thanhouser ceased as a production company in 1918, but Thanhouser Company Film Preservation Inc., maintained by the Thanhouser family, preserves the company’s legacy by encouraging film preservation and releasing Thanhouser films on video and DVD. The Institut Lumière maintains the legacy of the Lumière brothers’ work. A peculiar outfit claims to be the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (formed 1895), but is no such thing, being a new business which has acquired the old name and has laid claim to its legacy.

Who else persists, in reality or simply as adopted name? There must be others. Do let me know.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

Colourful stories no. 11 – Kinemacolor in America

Unidentified Kinemacolor film of New York harbour (synthesised colour image)

We return, after something of a break, to our series on the history of colour cinematography in the silent era. We’re still not done with the history of Kinemacolor, the dominant natural colour process before the First World War, and there will be posts on Kinemacolor in America, Britain, and in other countries, then a post on Kinemacolor’s unhappy demise, before we move onto other colour systems.

Kinemacolor was first exhibited in America at Madison Square Gardens on 11 December 1909. 1,200 members of the film trade and general press gathered to hear George Albert Smith and Charles Urban explain their system and show twenty Kinemacolor subjects, including a film taken by John Mackenzie calculated to inspire the audience, which showed 20,000 schoolchildren forming the American flag. The intention was to find a buyer for the American rights. Urban tried to do a deal with the Motion Picture Patents Company, the monopolistic organisation which had been established in January 1909 to licence film production, distribution and exhibition exclusively, through control of the patents of Edison and others, but he failed to do so. His business timing was unfortunate, both because the MPPC was striving earnestly to stifle all independent film activity in America, and because the special equipment required for Kinemacolor ran counter to its wish to standardise the American film industry.

Children Forming United States Flag at Albany Capitol, from the 1912 Kinemacolor catalogue (note that this is an ordinary colour illustration, not a Kinemacolor ‘print’ – it was impossible to reproduce Kinemacolor as a still image).

Urban returned home disappointed, but he was pursued by two businessmen from Allentown, Pennsylvania, Gilbert Henry Aymar and James Klein Bowen. They secured the patent rights for $200,000 (£40,000), with a plan to exhibit Kinemacolor through a system of local licences in variety theatres rather than picture houses. They established the Kinemacolor Company of America in April 1910, planning not to produce their own films (at least initially), instead relying on showing British product. The business was badly mishandled, and eventually a New York stock speculator, George H. Burr & Co., paid $200,000 for the patent rights and floated a new Kinemacolor Company of America. The resultant company with patent rights was then sold in April 1911 to John J. Murdock, a theatre magnate.

Kinemacolor enjoyed a good year in 1911 owing to a succession of British royal events (including the coronation of King George V) which looked spectacular in colour. Audiences flocked to Kinemacolor theatres, happy to pay higher prices for a classy product and generally making the film industry marvel at the high tone of the proceedings and the money rolling in. But an American business could only go so far showing long newsfilms of British royalty. The Kinemacolor Company of America wanted to show fiction films. The British fiction films were uniformly terrible – so they needed to produce their own.

1913 Motion Picture News advert for Kinemacolor

A big problem with Kinemacolor was that it was an additive system. Essentially this means that it composed its colour record by the addition of separate colour records (television works on the same principle), but in doing so it absorbed a lot of the available light. The result was that it was not a good idea to shoot Kinemacolor in the studio; you had to film in good natural light (many of the British films were not filmed in Britain but in Nice, France).

So, technically, the odds were stacked against them when they set out to produce their first film. In a bout of wild over-ambition, they choose to produce The Clansman, based on a dramatised version of Thomas Dixon’s grotesquely racist novel about the Ku Klux Klan. A deal was signed with the Southern Amusement Company, producers of The Clansman play, and the perfomers were to be from the Campbell MacCullough Players, one of the several stock companies which were touring the States with the production. The director was William Haddock. Filmed throughout 1911 in the New Orleans area, as the stock company went on the road with the play, the ten-reel film (Kinemacolor films were double the length of standard films owing to the altenating red-green records) was completed in January 1912 at a cost of $25,000.

Then what? No one is sure. One suggestion is that there were problems over the story rights, though one can hardly believe that they would film for an entire year without being sure that they had full permission from Dixon to do so. The other argument is that the film was technically inept and unshowable, but again you’d have thought someone might have spotted this over the course of the year. Whatever the reason, it was never shown publicly. Film trade journalist Frank Woods, who had contributed to the script of The Clansman, showed what he’d written to one D.W. Griffith, who then went off and filmed The Birth of a Nation, based on the same novel. Had the Kinemacolor version been exhibited, Griffith would presumably never have made his film, and film history might have been completely different.

A new head of the Kinemacolor Company of America, Henry J. Brock, took over late in 1912, and studios were established at 4500 Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Its first film, after the debacle of The Clansman, was a two-reeler Western, East and West (1912). But production and exhibition continued to be beset by technical problems, and too few films were produced to sustain the company, despite it eventually obtaining a licence from the Motion Picture Patents Company in August 1913, making it the only new company to join the trust after its original formation. Exhibitors in particular resisted including Kinemacolor films requiring separate projection facilities within their programmes. The Hollywood studio closed in June 1913, taken over by the D.W. Griffith company, which renamed it the Fine Arts studio, where The Birth of a Nation would be filmed. The Kinemacolor Company of America opened a studio in New York in October 1913, but gradually faded from view. It ceased production in 1915.

The lesson from the Kinemacolor Company of America was that colour alone was not enough. Karl Brown, who worked for Kinemacolor processing negatives, noted the audience reaction:

Our little one-reel pictures were made to exploit color for color’s sake. There was one about a hospital fire, showing lots of flames; another, from a Hawthorne story about a pumpkin that becomes a man, showed up the golden yellow of the carved jack-o’-lantern very well indeed. There was another about British soldiers, featuring the red and gold and white of their uniforms.

The audiences at the California seemed to care nothing about our beautiful colors. What they wanted was raw melodrama and lots of it, and what seemed to stir them most of all was the steady flood pictures made by a man named D.W. Griffith…

That man again. Brown noticed the way things were going and left to join Griffith as assistant to his cinematographer, Billy Bitzer.

Lillian Russell in what may be a frame still from Kinemacolor film of her (I can’t remember where the image comes from). As with other ‘colour’ images of Kinemacolor, the colour is not true Kinemacolor – in this case, it seems to be a still taken from a colour print approximating the colour effect.

The Kinemacolor Company of America produced both non-fiction and fiction. Among the former, its most spectacular production was The Making of the Panama Canal (1912), a nine-reeler, lasting around two hours, which enjoyed a considerable reputation in its time. Dramatic production was headed by David Miles, with directors including William Haddock, Gaston Bell, Jack Le Saint and Frank Woods; members of the stock company included Linda Arvidson Griffith (Mrs D.W. Griffith), Mabel Van Buren, Murdock MacQuarrie, Clara Bracy and Charles Perley, while theatre great Lillian Russell made a short film with Kinemacolor, entitled How to Live 100 Years, which she included in a touring show of hers promoting physical fitness. The cameramen (the real stars of the show) included John Mackenzie, Alfred Gosden, Victor Scheurich and Harold Sintzenich.

A demonstration reel from DeBergerac Productions showing how the effect of Kinemacolor can be achieved synthetically, using Kinemacolor film shot in Atlantic City and New York, c. 1913, plus what looks like a dance scene from an unidentified drama.

Few Kinemacolor Company of America films survive (few Kinemacolor films of any kind survive, full stop). One reel of three of The Scarlet Letter (1913), based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story and starring Linda Arvidson Griffith is held by George Eastman House. The Library of Congress has two examples of ‘Mike and Meyer’ comedies from 1915 starring the famous vaudeville team of Lew Fields and Joe Weber, produced by a subsidiary company, the Weber-Fields-Kinemacolor Company. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has a few seconds of Lillian Russell, presumably from How to Live 100 Years. A handful of actualities also survive – a few frames showing President William Howard Taft, scenes of passers-by in Atlantic City and New York (see above). The rest – and we have no clear idea of the extent of the Kinemacolor Company of America’s production – is gone.

Further reading:
Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915 (1990)
Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (1973)

Metropolis II


Metropolis (1927)

Variety has just reported a planned remake of Metropolis. Producer Thomas Schühly, who gave a grateful world the Oliver Stone epic Alexander (as well as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Name of the Rose), with production partner Mario Kassar has acquired the remake rights from the Vienna-based publishing group Sessler Verlag. There’s not much further information to go on – they’re still looking for a director is about all we know – but the chances are that like the original it’ll be German-based, as Schühly is located there. Whether it’s wanted or not is another question. What are they seeking to remake – the story, the iconography, the reputation, the robot Maria? How do you remake a vision of the future? Metropolis, like much great science-fiction, was a satire of the present. Surely a remake could only be an exercise in some strange form of nostalgia?