The place of the past

Venice, California today and inset the same location as featured in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (1914), from a PowerPoint presentation of famous Chaplin filming locations on

John Bengtson is the author of Silent Traces, Silent Echoes, and Silent Visions, three books which take a fresh look at classic silent comedy films by revisting their locations today. Traces covers the films of Charlie Chaplin; Echoes covers Buster Keaton; and Visions (published May 2011) covers Harold Lloyd. The publications have gained much praise for their novel, illuminating approach to film history and simply because they are such a delight to look at.

Bengtson has now gone online with Silent Locations, a blog that promises to cover ‘Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)’. It’s early days for the site as yet, but already there are some fascinating then-and-now photographs for films of each of the three stars, with instructive background information on location and production, plus the promise of other kinds of content to follow. For example, there is a downloadable PowerPoint presentation on classic Chaplin locations, with a frame still from the film inset within a photograph of the location today, which is as beautiful as it is informative. It’s going to be a site to keep an eye on.

We can be so engrossed in what we see on the screen that we can forget that there is more to the movies than stars and stories. Every film made is a time capsule. The way people look, dress, talk, interact with one another, the social assumptions that are made, the places they live in, visit, work in, the functions and histories of those places, the transport they use, their hopes, fears, loves and hatreds. Few history books are able to pack in as much as a film does, if we are prepared to look.

This was the great theme of the late Colin Sorensen, museum curator and cultural historian. In building up the modern collection at the Museum of London, he became fascinated by film’s capacity to impart the history of London. By this he didn’t just mean documentaries, but more particularly fiction films, because of their frequently deeper resonances. Films show both a literal and an imaginary past. There are actual locations and buildings still standing or now lost, of course, and Sorensen was very good at pointing out buildings shown standing in films that exist no more, so that the film becomes a precious record of a place’s appearance and social functions. But film is also a dream of how people imagined the city was, and embeds a rich set of associations with other histories. As he wrote in his book London on Film (1996):

This unique accumulation of insight and information, of fact and fantasy, has created a vast resource for the study and appreciation of London. It offers us a largely unprobed field for a new kind of urban archaeology: the archaeology of recorded action rather than of surviving artefact.

It was Colin’s great frustration that he could mostly only present his ideas through still images, and that even when a film was running he could not find the means to fix associations between what was on the screen and the links he detected with other histories that lay in his head (he might have been able to do so much more with today’s computer software). It isn’t that films belong in the museum so much as films are a museum – it’s just that we so seldom take the time to look at them in that way.

London (1926), from London on Film

See, for example, this still from the lost British film London, directed by Herbert Wilcox in 1926, which comes from London on Film. It’s a studio setting, but a precisely recreated one of a part of London life that once was. He writes:

The ebb and flow of city life continues throughout the day and night. Paths cross and the diverge as people go their different ways … [T]he coffee stall, now a vanishing feature of London life, once provided a unique meeting place where people of all types and classes rubbed shoulders for a few moments, refreshing themselves with a drink and a sandwich.

So the setting has a historical, symbolic and practical function – the latter being that it makes for a good point at which to bring together disparate characters, and one with strong character recognition. Of course, there is much more. There are the dowdly, well-worn clothes of the Londoners. Everyone wears hats, all the man have buttoned-up shirts with ties. There is the stall itself (evidently horse-drawn even though this is the 1920s), its pavement location, its wares and its advertisements. But also running through the image is a history of British filmmaking, from the assertive Britishness of the film’s title, to the contrary fact that the lead performer is an American (Dorothy Gish, on the left), typical of many an American star with a career on the wane being snapped up on the cheap by a British studio. But she is a Gish sister, so embedded in her image is a whole history of narrative cinema that comes out of D.W. Griffith. And London was based on the London stories of Thomas Burke, another of whose novels inspired Broken Blossoms). Or we can just look at the coffee cups and think that, apart from the size of the cups, maybe there’s not that much about London life that has changed after all.

John Bengtson has done an excellent job showing how traces of the past exist in the locations of today, and by showing past and present side by side he makes us think historically. But it’s not just the stills but the films themselves that we need to annotate in a far richer form than we have achieved so far. Film’s special capacity for encapsulating times past and creating associations between where we are now and where we once were needs not just to be acknowledged but to be documented. Otherwise the history will be lost.

Connected histories

Out there a lot of bright-minded people and noble institutions are thinking of ways to make things easier and better for the researcher. They have considered all the digital content that has been produced so far, being it digitised or born digital, and now they want to construct ways of bringing this stuff together in useful ways. Of course, for initial enquiries, Google is there to answer most needs. But for less random, more structured enquiries, particularly the kinds of enquiry that the serious researcher (of whatever kind) is going to make, then you need dedicated resources. These resources depend on good metadata – that is, that all of the digital records under consideration are described in a consistent, logical manner according to agreed rules, so that like can be found alongside like. Consistency breeds discovery.

All of which is preamble to the launch of Connected Histories, a resource which bringing together a number of important digital resources relating to the study of early modern and nineteeth century Britain, under a single federated search system. ‘Federated’ simply means that several subject-related databases have been brought together to form, in effect, one super-database, so you don’t have to search in several different places, but instead just the one. Bringing these databases together allows you to conduct sophisticated searches that couldn’t be achieved singly, and simply to discover more, and more quickly.

Connected Histories bringings together eleven digital resources, two of which have been previously reviewed by the Bioscope. Not all cover our period, but some complement it, and all are well worth exploring anyway:

British History Online
The digital library of primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain, from the Middle Ages to c.1900.

British Museum Images
The collection provides searchable access to almost 100,000 images, relating to early modern and 19th-century Britain.

British Newspapers, 1600-1900
The most comprehensive digital historic British newspaper archive in existence, with 3 million pages of historic newspapers, newsbooks and ephemera from national and regional papers.

Charles Booth Archive
The online archive provides access to guides, digitised images and maps from the Booth archive collections at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of London Library. (This is Booth’s famous survey into life and labour in London, dating from 1886 to 1903)

Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540-1835
A database containing details of the careers of more than 130,000 clergymen of the Church of England between 1540 and 1835, from over 50 archives in England and Wales.

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers
The Parliamentary Papers gives access to page images and searchable full text for over 200,000 House of Commons sessional papers and supplementary information from 1688 onwards.

John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera
The collection provides access to more than 67,000 scanned items from the Bodleian Library’s holdings documenting various aspects of everyday life in Britain from the 18th to the early 20th century.

John Strype’s Survey of London Online
This is a full-text electronic version of John Strype’s enormous two-volume survey of 1720, complete with its celebrated maps and plates, which depict the prominent buildings, street plans and ward boundaries of the late Stuart capital.

London Lives 1690-1800
London Lives provides a fully searchable edition of 240,000 manuscript pages from eight London archives and 15 datasets, giving access to 3.5 million names. offers online access to some of the richest ancestral information available. The collection searchable through Connected Histories focuses on the early modern history of London.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913
The Old Bailey Online contains accounts of the trials conducted at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913; and also the Ordinary’s Accounts – detailed narratives of the lives and deaths of convicts executed at Tyburn, published between 1676 and 1772.

Before you get too excited, please note that some of these are subscription services or available to UK higher education users only. Those that are free to all are British History Online (80% of it), British Museum Images, Charles Booth Archive (which I strongly recommend for detailed, socially-informed maps and data on life in late-19th century London), Clergy of the Church of England Database, John Strype’s Survey of London, London Lives, and Proceedings of the Old Bailey. British Newspapers, 1600-1900 and Proceedings of the Old Bailey are the two previously reported on by the Bioscope.

So, what can you find (those of you not paying subscriptions or having subscriptions paid for you by a university). Our traditional search term of ‘kinetoscope’ brings up just the one record, from an 1895 House of Commons parliamentary paper, with the frustrating information that you can’t proceed any further without a password. ‘Bioscope’ brings up eight hits, five free for all to view from the utterly compulsive Proceedings of the Old Bailey, such as the 1911 court case of “ROBERTS, George (19, bioscope operator), unlawfully uttering counterfeit coin; possessing counterfeit coin.” (Do note that the Old Bailey records stretch into the early part of the twentieth century). Searching on ‘cinematograph’ gives us thirty-two record, again with those from the Old Bailey records (eleven) being available to all. ‘Mutoscope’ yields thirty-six (lots of joint stock company reports under Parliamentary Papers).

You get an array of searching tools (keyword, place, person, date range), with filtering by source type, resources and access (so you can limit searches to freely-available content). There are also subject guides on topics such as ‘Family History’, and the ‘History of London’, and registered users can put together collections of documents (‘connections‘) under particular topics, and so your scribe has done his bit and created an “early cinema” connection that you can explore at your leisure. Don’t say that I’m not good to you, at least some of the time.

Connected Histories has been constructed by the University of Hertfordshire, the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the University of Sheffield, with natural language processing, indexing and the development of the search engine were carried out by the Humanities Research Institute (University of Sheffield). This is the first phase; in September of this year they will be adding 65,000 19th-century books from the British Library (which I imagine will be free to all); 23,000 19th-century pamphlets from JSTOR (a subscription-only digital store); Documents Online from The National Archives; data from People in Place: Families, Households, and Housing in London, 1550-1720 from British History Online; and History of Parliament Online. They are on the lookout for additional resources, though whether they will be able to extend their reach beyond the nineteenth into the twentieth century is not stated (such are the challenges that British copyright law presents).

A video introduction to Connected Histories

So, though Connected Histories is of mostly going to be of most value to those in our field interested in the origins and earliest years of film, it is a significant indicator of the ways things are going. Institutions and individual databases are becoming things of the past. Concatenations of datasets and federated search systems are going to take over. It’s the globalization of knowledge.


Detail from photograph showing Inuit man looking through a film camera in 1929, from the Library and Archives Canada collection

The Canadiana Discovery Portal is a new service (still in beta mode) that aims to be a ‘one-stop-shop’ (the dream of all administrators and information specialists) for seaching Canadian history. It brings together 60 million pages of information from fourteen institutions: Alouette Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Calgary Public Library,, Foreign Affairs & International Trade Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Manitobia, Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative, The National Gallery of Canada, Queen’s University, Scholars Portal/University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University, Toronto Public Library, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, University of Saskatchewan and Vancouver Public Library.

All of these records point to actual digital objects, and on first inspection this looks like the complete digital library for Canada. A second look tells us that this is not quite the case, since some of the those libraries have only provided access to selected items from their digital collections (so Library and Archives Canada has contributed “part of their MIKAN collection, a wide-ranging repository of Canadian images, covering many aspects of Canadian life between 1850 and 1950”). But others have been more comprehensive, and in any case much more content promised in the future. So the result is much like the European Union’s Europeana (recently reviewed by the Bioscope), a portal to digital content accessible on the sites of individual institutions, selectively but handily made available through the one portal. The records on the portal itself are brief, with links taking you to the descriptions and the digial objects themselves on the sites of the contributing organisations.

Children going to Allen Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta in 1922 to see Penrod, from Glenbow Museum

OK, so we know what we’re dealing – now is it any use for researching our subject of silent films? The answer is yes, though the records available so far aren’t quite as extensive as might have been hoped. Searching for our usual test term of ‘kinetoscope’ brings up a measly two results – and that for the same book appearing twice. Trying ‘cinematograph’ yields 36 results, ‘cinema’ gives us 545 (narrowed down to 24 for a date range 1900-1930), ‘motion picture’ provides a more productive 95 (1899-1930 date range). Searches can also be refined by medium and contributor, and sorted by date and relevance.

And yet what you can find there is frequently fascinating, because you are being pointed to such a variety of original documents: books, official papers, photographs, letters, magazine articles, scores, video files and more (mainstream newspapers do not seem to be included). Some quick searches three up a letter from a Canadian soldier based in France in 1917 writing home to his mother to say he is about to see a Chaplin film and The Battle of the Somme; edition no. 1 of of Le panorama: le seul magazine en langue française consacré aux vues animées from 1919; an account of an 1899 screening before 600 doctors in Paris of a film of an abdominal hysterectomy made by Eugène-Louis Doyen, from the journal Maritime Medical News; and a marvellous set of photographs from Glenbow Museum of cinemas in Edmonton in the early 1920s showing how they promoted various films (such as Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers) (search under ‘motion picture’ and Alouette Canada collection).

Group of cameramen outside the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, Ottawa, in 1923, from the Libraries and Archives Canada collection

It should be noted that some of the digital resources, particularly books contributed by the University of Toronto, are not accessible to general readers but only to Canadian users from higher education institutions.

Anyway, this is a very helpful route in to some rich Canadian resources. Go explore.

P.S. The Bioscope has previously covered other, film-specific Canadian resources. Here are the links:

Things Australian no. 2 – The first motion pictures

Marius Sestier (with beard) and H. Walter Barnett filming the Melbourne Cup horse race, 3 November 1896, from The Bulletin, 14 November 1896, reproduced by Tony Martin-Jones

Yesterday’s post on the Corrick Collection demonstrated the great work done by a national institution, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. But great work can come from single scholars, and this second post on things Australian turns to the work of one of those generally referrred to as an ‘independent’ scholars or researchers. Independent scholars and institutions (archives, film institutes, universities etc) don’t always mix too happily, because each operates under different rules and pressures. But without the efforts of those such as John Barnes, Aldo Bernardini, Herbert Birett and Denis Gifford, our historiography of the silent cinema would be very much the poorer. The independent scholar – the good ones, that is – gets things done.

And so we turn to Film History Notes, the plainly designed but richly informative website of Australian film historian Tony Martin-Jones. Bracingly describing his purpose as “getting to the truth after decades of unchecked nonsense”, Martin-Jones writes about the first motion pictures projected and produced in Australia and India.

His mission is to overturn accepted truths about these first motion pictures, of which there are many. Early film history is full of ‘firsts’ of dubious veracity, and myths have been built up which were encouraged at a time when film history was less rigorous and often dominated by sentiment. He re-examines these through detailed use of newspaper accounts, catalogues, state archives, photographic sources and local knowledge, then by applying deductive logic, not trusting to any accepted truth (even if the process sometimes leads to the conclusion that those truths are – probably – correct). He then publishes all of his findings online, with clear descriptions, painstakingly compiled lists of dates, and extensive references. This is research information that is properly shared.

So you can find out about the magician Carl Hertz and the first projected motion pictures in Australia, Lumière operator Marius Sestier and the first projected motion pictures in India (he was on his way to Australia), the meeting of Sestier and photographer H. Walter Barnett and their collaboration over the filming of the 1896 Melbourne Cup, and the 1897-1898 England-Australia test match films ostensibly filmed by Barnett (a long-held story that Martin-Jones vigorously challenges).

An extract from Patineur grotesque

He particularly goes to town over the Lumière film Patineur grotesque, which the National Film and Sound Archive recently announced as being the oldest surviving Australian film (see the Bioscope report from March 2010). Martin-Jones challenges this, basing some of his argument on the length of shadows shown in the film (which he thinks was shot later than the Melbourne Cup films), instead asserting that it is the earliest surviving motion picture taken in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia – which has less of a ring to it. He has fun identifying the location (fun partly at the expense of the NFSA which had said that the location was Melbourne), and even has a go at identifying the skater.

Institutions don’t always have the time to go into individual films with the passionate detail that Martin-Jones portrays, and in any case they are probably by definition homes of accepted truths. I have experience myself of working for a certain British film institution and having my identifcations of a very early film challenged by an independent scholar shocked that said institution could make such a blunder, writing detailed letters and papers about the misdeed (the said independent scholar turned out to be wrong, but that’s another story…) I sympathise with both sides, but I do admire an argument well made and good use of primary sources. And it is always good policy to challenge what you find, if you are going to call yourself a researcher.

Whether the truths of history (film or otherwise) can be determined by the plain accumulation of chronological evidence is another matter. What does it matter who was ‘first’? What do such ‘firsts’ mean? Why do we still persist in considering film history through national eyes? It is difficult to avoid such stuff when considering those years when motion pictures were first produced and projected, but what does it actually tell us? We should always want to get our facts straight, but the real film history – which is the impact of film upon history – lies elsewhere.

In the lobby

Lobby card for The Covered Wagon (1923), part of the Western Silent Films Lobby Card Collection

For decades lobby cards were an integral part of the cinema-going experience. While posters appeared outside the cinema to lure you in, the cinema lobby or foyer would house sets of cards – effectively mini-posters – usually arranged in grid form, promoting films on show and films to come. Lobby cards played an important part in making the very process of going to the cinema something special. Though they had been replaced by plain black-and-white stills by the time I started going to the cinema, you still scanned the forthcoming attractions with delighy, like being in a sweetshop or a toyshop, each image extraordinarily filled with promise as you lived out the drama it depcited in your mind’s eye. You saw an entire film bound up in a single, evocative image. Expectation has always been the engine which has kept the cinema going.

Lobby cards appeared in the 1910s, produced first in sets of four, later usually appearing in sets of eight, and acquiring colour by 1917 (even if the films were black-andwhite they were neverhtless promoted in colour). The standard size was 8″x11″, and they would be shown on free-standing boards or easels, or else framed on the lobby walls. They have become a favourite subject for collectors, and they record not only the emotional import of films but frequently document films that do not survive in any other form. They ceased to be produced for American exhibition at some point in the 1980s (around the time that multiplexes became the norm), but still get made for film exhibition in other territories.

All of which is premable to the bringing to your attention of the Western Silent Films Lobby Cards Collection, part of the digital library of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The collection comprises 86 lobby cards and 19 printed fliers used to promote sixty-eight silent Westerns produced between 1910 and 1930. Each image is available as as thumbnail, then x4 and x8 size, plus a zoomable file if you have the right softare for viewing .sid files. The descriptive data is meticulous if dry, telling you all about the card but nothing much about the film that it promotes. Nevertheless, the site a delight to browse. The films featured include The Mollycoddle, The Covered Wagon, The Bronc Stomper, The Pony Express and The Thundering Herd, with stars such as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, William Farnum and Fred Thomson.

The collection is part of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and to discover more about the broadcder contexts in which the silent Western sits, do try out other image sets from the Western Americana collection, such the Detroit Photographic Company’s Views of North America, ca. 1897-1924, Ruckus! American Entertainments at the Turn of the Twentieth Century or Mammoth Plate Photographs of the North American West.

My thanks to Brad Scott for bringing the collection to my attention.

Charting words

Ngram for Kinetoscope, for the years 1800-2000

Well, the Bioscope is back from its Christmas break, and keen to get the fingertips tapping once more. First up, it’s a new tool from Google Labs which offers interesting ways of analysing silent film subjects (or any other subject, for that matter). The Ngram Viewer uses data taken from the 15 million books and other documents scanned by Google Books to trace the occurence of words or phrases (up to five words) between 1800 and 2000, showing how often they occur each year.

Ngram for Bioscope, showing the first emergence of the word in the early 1800s, then its huge rise in use from 1900 onwards

All you do is enter your search term or phrase, then choose a time period and your language, and you get the results presented as a graph. So, enter the term ‘bioscope’ and you discover that the word first appears in the early 1800s – as indeed it did, having been coined in 1812 by Granville Penn for his religious tract The Bioscope, or Dial of Life. It emerges once again in the late 1890s when it was adopted by a number of early film producers (Charles Urban, Max Skaldanowsky, Georges Demenÿ) as a name for a film projector), its use exploding over the next 15 or 20 years as it became a generic term for cinema. Then it fades as the word ‘cinema’ takes over, only to enjoy a resurgence, probably on account of the increased use of the word as a make of microscope.

Ngram for Cinematograph (blue) v Kinematograph (red)

Having searched for your term, below the graph you are given the option to search Google Books itself for your term by particular time periods or universally (search under 1800-1913 and sure enough Granville Penn’s book comes up first). You can also compare your term with others, by adding a comma-separated second term into the search box, as shown above with a search for Cinematograph v Kinematograph – with the relevant graphs in different colours. You can compare any number of terms, though there are only five colours available.

Ngram for Chronophotography

There seem to be any number of interesting applications for this as a tool, even if the results are approximate and erratic. The frequency of appearance of terms in books is not necessarily a reliable guide to their importance, and some terms register no scores at all (e.g. Gaumont, Muybridge, Mary Pickford), presumably because Google Books hasn’t indexed them yet. But there is more than enough there to encourage imaginative searches and to yield interesting discoveries. I’m certainly intrigued to see the rise, fall and rise again of the word ‘chronophotography’ from 1880 to 2000. Look at the perfect curves of adoption for ‘documentary’ or ‘travelogue’, the absence of ‘silent film’ as a phrase until silent films had almost stopped being produced, or try out a comparison of film companies like this one (while remembering that some company names will be common terms which will skew the results):

Ngram comparing Biograph (red), Vitagraph (blue), Lubin (green) and Nordisk (yellow)

Do have a go, and let us know of any interesting Ngrams that you are able to create.

Footage on demand

There are many archive footage websites which are offering their wares to the commercial footage researcher, but whose holdings are going to be of interest to the academic enthusiast. We’ve previously covered such resources as British Pathe and British Movietone, and will return to other such sites in due course. One that has come to my attention that is just a little bit different is CriticalPast. It’s certainly worth some investigation.

CriticalPast is designed to make films and still images easily available to professionals and non-professionals alike. It currently holds over 57,000 videos and 7 million still images, all royalty-free, much of it content from US government agencies, plus such familiar collections as the Ford and Universal Newsreels collections. While many footage allow visitors to view preview clips, CriticalPast lets users download footage or images immediately (upon payment, of course, and after assenting to a licence agreement), with different image resolution and prices according to usage. The cheapest rate is $3.97 (for iPhone, iPad, PowerPoint etc); the commercial rate for say an HD MPEG2 1080-25p depends on file size e.g. a 5 minute video of at 1.3GB would cost $145.

What makes CriticalPast stand out, apart from the user-friendly ordering, is the quality of the searching experience and the sheer quantity and quality of what is on offer. It is almost all non-fiction film material, ranging from 1891 (genuinely so – it’s an early Edison test) to 1996 (a few rogue fiction films have slipped in, like Chaplin’s The Bond, D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat and clips from The Birth of a Nation). The largest amount of material comes from the 1940s. As well as the simple front-page search there is an advance search option which allows to to search by specific dates, date range, colour, silent or sound, edited or unedited, language, and location. There is a very helpful timeline dividing clips up by decade, then year and thereafter by location. Once you have searched for any subject there is the option to refine your search further by decade/year, location and format. The cataloguing information is generally good, with concise, informative description and US Government Archive ID numbers. For any item you choose you can tweet about it, send to Facebook, Stumble Upon etc., email the information to a friend – and, yes, you can even view it. The images are all frame stills from the videos (British Pathe is another footage library which has created a subsidiary image archive by capturing frames as regular intervals as part of the video digitising process).

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Bond (1918), available in its 1942 Canadian reissue form under the title Some Bonds I Have Known

If we concentrate on the silent film era (which is our wont) there are some 7,200 clips available. You can find Edison films from the 1890s, then news-based material from around the world (it certainly isn’t just restricted to the USA, and interestingly there are quite a few British Gaumont Graphic newsreels), with strong World War I material (there isn’t that much in the archive before 1915), travel, exploration and industrial films, and much surprisingly material for the curious browser. I have found oil exploration in Persia in 1908, British food aid being received by Russian villagers in 1917, US black troops on horseback and bicycle in 1918, Hungarian newsreels of its brief Soviet republic of 1919, footage of Ernest Shackleton’s final Antarctic expedition in 1922, and the production of nitrate film stock in Rochester, NY in 1929.

It’s a fascinating site, compulsively browsable, and really useful whether you are looking to use clips yourself or not. Go explore.


Europeana is one of those inestimably worthy, pan-European projects that the European Union funds handsomely, that some people get terribly idealistic about, and you wonder just how many people actually use. Launched in 2008, it is a multi-lingual portal to the digital resources of some 1,500 European museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections, among them the British Library, the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum. There are some 14.6 million items described and accessible on its site, which certainly makes for an exceptional collection. However, it is a portal, which means that all of this stuff is available elsewhere (i.e. on the websites of the contributing institutions), and Europeana depends on its success for the usefulness of having all this content in the one place and the degree to which researchers will identify with a Europe-wide culture and want to find content across its borders and languages.

Whether you think in a European kind of way, Europeana is undoubtedly hugely useful in bringing together such a cornucopia of content. It is simply and sensibly presented and records are meticulously described. Each record gives you the essential information on the chosen object (including in most case a thumbnail image, some of surprisingly poor quality), then provides you with a link to the object on the contributing institution’s website. The research will find paintings, drawings, maps, photos, pictures of museum objects, books, newspapers, letters, diaries, archival papers, cylinders, tapes, discs, radio broadcasts, films, newsreels and television broadcasts. Most are available for free (you do come across some paid access entries, mostly for Scotalnd’s SCRAN site). It is certainly something to explore.

Europeana search results page for ‘bioscope’

So, what will we find for the study of silent films? Our usual test search term of “kinetoscope” doesn’t yield too much, but type in “silent film” and you get 91 records (note that this will currently only bring up the English language records). Most of these are either photographs (particularly of cinemas, deriving for the UK resource Culture Grid) or a range of early films (mostly actualities) that derive from filmarchives online. Searchin under “cinematograph” brings up 37 records: among them photographs of cameras, postcards, posters and flyers, while “charlie chaplin” brings up 128 records: 3 texts, 100 images, 16 videos (mostly French TV programmes from INA) and 9 sound recordings (the latter all in French).

Other search terms worth pursuing include “bioscope” (26 results), “kinema” (33), “stumfilm” (62), “stummfilm” (110), “gaumont” (261) and “kino” (4,853). It is certainly worth knowing the common terms for film subjects in other languages (a tip is to check the keywords under item you’ve stumbled upon to find more of the same), though Europeana is working on solutions to provide true multilingual access through association of search terms (so you might type in “silent film” and get results from “stummfilm” as well). Among the surprises I have found are French First World War film posters from the Imperial War Museum (via the VADS visual resource site), a number of photographs of German silent films from Deutsche Fotothek, photographs of early cine cameras from the Norwegian DigitaltMuseum, and a terrific set of photographs of cinemas past in Leeds from

Worth noting is that Europeana is to be the outlet for a three-year project, the European Film Gateway, which in 2011 will deliver its own portal to 700,000 digital objects including films, photos, posters, drawings and text documents from 21 archives across 15 countries. More on that initiative when the time comes.

Kinemacolor projector held by the Norsk Teknisk Museum, available via Norway’s Digitalt Museum and Europeana

Searching on Europeana is a somewhat haphazard experience. Because it is a compilation of the greatest hits of other institutions and resources, one does not go there to conduct comprehensive research but instead to wander round almost at random and see what catches the eye. The real fascination then comes in seeing where the digital object comes from and pursuing that source for more information. This is of course what a portal is supposed to do, and so Europeana performs its basic task very well. More and more content is being poured into it, and it certainly provides a far more useful function than the much-lauded and so far very disappointing World Digital Library. All of our libraries are trying earnestly to turn themselves into digital libraries, an inevitable consequence of which is that more and more content gets shared through linkages and common search platforms, raising the profile of major initatives like Europeana while relegating the individual library to a subsidiary role. It’s going to be hard for the individual institution to retain its identity in our bright new digital future. For the researcher, meanwhile, the assumption is that more access is better, and the easier the better. That’s not necessarily the case (research isn’t research if it’s easy), but there’s certainly no excuse now for any of us not to be discovering more.

The Bioscope will be doing its bit for individual institutions over pan-national behemoths by writing about some of the contributors to Europeana over the next few weeks.

The colonial gaze

Baghdad (1928), made by British Instructional Films, from

Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire is a newly-published website supplying information on films about the British colonies. How quaint that sounds. But for a large part of the twentieth-century (and therefore for a large part of the time that there have been motion picture films) the British Empire and its aftermath was assiduously documented on film, dramatised on film, and film traffic between the colonies was much debated and legislated over.

The result is a substantial archive of film about the Empire that is no more which has become a rich source for socio-politcal historians as well as film historians with an interest beyond the familiar. It was to serve such an audience that the Colonial Film project was established, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and organised by Birkbeck College and University College London in partnership with three film archives: the BFI National Archive, the Imperial War Museum, and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

The chief result of this three-year project is the website, at the heart of which is a database of some 6,000 colonial films, taken from the records of the three archives. A lot of these records are available elsewhere i.e. on the databases of the BFI and the IWM, but there is obviously some convenience in bringing them together under this particular subject. The project researchers have added a great deal of background information for some the films, beyond the shotlists that the archives previously produced (some of them typed by these very fingers, a number of moons ago), including ‘context’ and ‘analysis’ sections, which put the films in a modern perspective. The project has also digitised and made available online some 150 titles.

The Stoll Film Company’s Nionga (1925)

The films catalogued range in date from Arrivée d’un train à Melbourne (1896) to RAF Gibraltar Flight Safety Commercials (2005). Our interest, as always, is in the silent film material, and of those 6,000 around 750 are from the silent era, and 32 are available to view online. The films described included actualities, newsreels, drama-documentaries, travelogues, industrial films and fiction films, all evidence of the abiding interest the Empire had for British filmmakers and (to a degree) British audiences.

What I want to highlight here are the films that are available to view, because they are fine collection in themselves. The site comes with some impressive searching tools, including an interactive map of the world for searching by country, and searching by theme (“Empire and Administration, Empire and Development, Empire and Education, Empire and Health, Empire and Independence …”), production company, genre and event. The advanced search option lets you select by date range and narrow searches down to films you can view, so select 1896-1929 and tick the box that says “show only works with videos” and there you are.

Among the treasures to view are three silent feature films, examples of the remarkable (and curiously British) mini-genre of dramas set in far-flung lands (usually Africa) featuring native performers. There is Palaver: A Romance of Northern Nigeria (1928), made by Geoffrey Barkas for British Instructional Films (“Filmed amongst the Sura and Angas people of the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria, where the rivalry between a British District Officer and a tin miner leads to war”); the Stoll Film Company’s Nionga (1925) (“Nionga, a chieftain’s daughter, is induced by a vindictive witch-doctor to persuade her betrothed lover, Kasari, to plot the destruction of a neighbouring tribe”), for which the filmmaker is not known; and Stampede (1930), made by the adventurers Majour Court Treatt and his wife Stella, filmed in the Sudan (“The film tells the story of Boru, adopted into the ‘Habbania’ tribe after his mother is killed by a lion, who grows up with the Sheikh’s son, Nikitu”).

One watches these curious mixtures of travelogue, ethnography and melodrama with both fascination and bemusement, the latter because to is hard to see how they were ever viewed as commercial propositions. The films attempt to be liberating in how they tell stories of African life with African performers, but the colonialist attitude is revealed in patronising titles, the portrayal of Africans as impressionable and child-like, and the choice presented of good (because paternalist) and bad (because they lead Africans astray) whites in Palaver. Nionga has an all-African cast and so offers the opportunity for a fresh point of view, but titles promising a drama of “a crude life of simple people” and “a glimpse into the minds of Savages” demonstrate that the film is constructed entirely from a Western White point of view. Stampede (which has a music track and commentary) was made by travel filmmakers who added a fictionalised element because it was the only way for them to produce a commercial film. In the end one watches these films not for the dramas imposed upon the performers but for the incidental details of African life that the dramas cannot entirely obscure.

Montego Bay to Williamsfield, Jamaica (1913)

There are other short fiction films: the resoundingly gung-ho How a British Bulldog Saved the Union Jack (1906) and Edison’s drama of the Indian ‘Mutiny’, The Relief of Lucknow (1912). Among the non-fiction films and such gems as the Charles Urban Trading COmpany’s A Trip through British North Borneo (1907); British Instructional Film’s engrossing West Africa Calling (1927); another BIF travelogue of particular interest today, Baghdad (1928); Gaumont’s spectacular record of the 1911 Delhi Durbar ceremonies marking the coronation of King George V; and another Charles Urban production, the Kineto company’s Montego Bay to Williamsfield, Jamaica (1913), a subject apparently filmed in both Kinemacolor and monochrome (alas, only the monochrome survives).

This is an impressive resource, though some are going to find it frustrating to be faced with so many catalogue descriptions that aren’t accompanied by the films themselves. Other might find the contextualisation are little heavy on the political correctness, anxious that we should only interpret these films in the correct way. Ultimately most are not going to be interested in the lessons – either those imparted by the original colonialist filmmakers, or those deduced by modern commentators from a post-colonial point of view. It’s what we are allowed to see of the people, the landscapes, the industries, the townscapes that lingers in the mind. The camera came to observe and report back, but what endures are the individuality and dignity of its subjects and the difference of their cultural milieu. The camera ultimately serves them.

Go explore.

Iceland digitised

Advertisement for The Prodigal Son (Glafaði sonurinn) in the icelandic newspaper Lögberg, 17 January 1924

Here’s a new and interesting challenge for the dedicated silent film researcher with a world view – Icelandic newspapers. is a digital library of the printed cultural heritage as preserved in newspapers and periodicals of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. It brings together the collections of the National Library of the Faroe Islands, the National and Public Library of Greenland and the National and University Library of Iceland. It’s an ongoing project, but there are already nearly three-and-a-half million digitised documents on the site.

So what is there on film? Well, this is where the challenge comes in, because Icelandic is not one of the easier texts to navigate, and because I really only know one thing about Iceland and silent film, which is that it was the location for one of the longest, and most tedious, British films ever made, The Prodigal Son (1923), directed by A.E. Coleby, produced by Stoll, starring Stewart Rome and based on a novel by Hall Caine. In its fullest version the film was 18,454 feet in length, running to some four-and-a-half hours of screen time. I am one of the few who has actually sat through what survives of this film – the BFI has a version at a trim 9,118 feet – which it still took two long afternoons to get through. Funereal in pace, grimly histrionic, leadenly directed and singularly inept in its failure to make any creative use of its Icelandic settings, it is near the top of my top ten worst ever screen experiences. But it was made in Iceland, so what can we find about it in the Icelandic press of the time?

And the answer is quite a lot. Typing in “prodigal son” (in quotes) into brings up sixty-nine results, which it helpfully subdivides into decades, so you can instantly see that there are twenty-four hits from 1920-29 (and it then further subdividies these by individual years). You also quickly see that the film’s title in Icelandic was Glataði sonurinn. There are pieces on its production in 1922, its release in 1924, and its reissue (to something around 6,000 feet) in 1929. There are no photographs, but there are advertisements, you are able to gain enough of an idea about its importance and impact.

Varied film offerings advertised in Morgunblaðið, 22 September 1928

The presentation is excellent, with guidelines available in English. The search results given you a link to the title of the individual newspaper page, a line of text in which the search term appears, the date and page reference. Clicking on the link gives you a calendar (enabling you to browse adjacent issues), and a PDF of the full newspaper page with your search term highlighted. Thereafter it does depend on how strong your Icelandic is, but searching on some popular film names gives an indication of exposure and popularity – 547 hits for Chaplin between 1910 and 1929, 200 for Pickford, 272 for Fairbanks, 41 for Max Linder, and so on. Such hits usually lead you to advertisements for cinema programmes, so you can readly pick up an idea of what was being shown and when. Or just type in kvikmynd (film). It is possible to view text only (there’s a Text button on the left-hand column), so you can copy and paste text into Google Translate or whatever and get a rough idea of what’s going on.

There was a small Icelandic film industry in the silent era. The first films (actualities) were made in 1906, the same year that the Reykjavik Cinema Theatre was established. The first locally-produced fiction film was Ævintýri Jóns og Gvendar (The Adventures of Jon and Gvendur) (1923), directed by Loftur Guðmundsson. A feature film, Saga Borgaraettarinnar (Sons of the Soil), was made in Iceland in 1920, but it was a Danish production by Nordisk films (Iceland did not become completely independent of Denmark until 1944). However, there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot more that was produced for several years thereafter, so Icelandic cinema for our period chiefly means exhibition, for which there is plenty to discover here. All in all, is well worth investigating for the bold and adventurous among you. Go explore.