Silent days at the Barbican

Extract from Yogoto Yo Yume (1933), with Nitin Sawhney score

The Barbican has become London’s home for the silent film, and on 1 March it hosts a screening of revered Japanese director Mikio Naruse’s 1933 Yogoto Yo Yume (Nightly Dreams) with the London Symphony Orchestra playing a new score by boundary-crossing Asian-British composer Nitin Sawhney. Sawhney has already made his mark with his score for the Anglo-Indian production A Throw of Dice (Franz Osten 1929), now available on DVD from the BFI. He is certainly going for the less-obvious when it comes to picking silents to supply scores to, and bringing a new audience with him as well. More details from the Barbican site.

Her Sister from Paris (1925), from

Meanwhile the Barbican’s regular Silent Film & Live Music series held on Sunday afternoons continues as healthily as ever, and there are some real gems and rarities among the offerings between January and March. Here’s the line-up:

The Ghost Train (El tren fantasma) (PG) + live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand
16:00 / An action laden adventure from Mexico’s silent film era
24 Jan 10 / 16:00 / Cinema 1

Adolfo Mariel, a railroad engineer, is sent by his company to the town of Orizaba to investigate a series of robberies on the railway’s ‘El Ferrocarril Mexicano’ line. As he alights, he is welcomed by various officials but is smitten by the stationmaster’s daughter – only to find that another man, Paco Mendoza, has also taken a romantic interest.

As Adolfo tries to solve the railway crimes, the story unfolds as an exciting adventure laden with action sequences and remarkable camera movements – much ahead of its time for many silent films of the era. Together with breath-taking stunts, chases, and fights on the railway line as the train approaches. El tren fantasma is one of just a handful of silent Mexican films that still survive, and to cap it all, the actors performed their own stunts.

Mexico 1927 Dir. Gabriel García Moreno 71 min

Orphans of the Storm (U)
15:00 / A Celebration of Twenty Years of Photoplay Productions beginning with DW Griffith’s epic melodrama
7 Feb 10 / 15:00 / Cinema 1

Accompanied by the symphonic splendour of John Lanchbery’s epic score.

Photoplay Productions is the leading ambassador for silent film presentation in the UK, perhaps the world. We are delighted to mark its twentieth anniversary with three performances, starting with DW Griffith’s epic melodrama. Lillian and Dorothy Gish star as the eponymous orphans thrust into the maelstrom of the French Revolution.

US 1921 Dir. DW Griffith 154 min.

The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreutzerova sonáta) (PG)
16:00 / A rare adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s story, with live accompaniment by acclaimed Czech percussionist Pavel Fajt
28 Feb 10 / 16:00 / Cinema 1

This rare Czech adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s story tells the tale of a man driven to rage and revenge when he hears his pianist wife and her lover playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.

Czechoslovakia 1927 Dir. Gustav Machatý 95 min.

Presented in association with the Czech Centre, London

Her Sister From Paris (PG)
16:00 / Sidney Franklin’s scintillating comedy with specially commissioned live musical accompaniment from Jane Gardner
7 Mar 10 / 16:00 / Cinema 1

As part of the Birds Eye View film festival’s ‘Blonde Crazy’ strand, we are delighted to present Sidney Franklin’s scintillating comedy starring Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman.

Dowdy Helen turns to her glamorous twin sister Lola for help in re-igniting romance in her marriage. They trick her husband into believing Helen is Lola – he falls for it, and Helen seduces her own husband. But how far can the dupe go?!

US 1925 Dir. Sidney Franklin 70 min.

South (U)
16:00 / A tribute to Australian director Frank Hurley with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand
21 Mar 10 / 16:00 / Cinema 1

As part of the London Australian Film Festival we present a celebration of the work of Frank Hurley – Australian filmmaker, photographer, adventurer and writer.

Hurley’s stunningly beautiful and dramatic images of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914-16 expedition to Antarctica, and the destruction of the ship Endurance, are amongst the most breathtaking ever captured on silent film, and confirm South as one of the most remarkable exploration films ever made.

UK 1919 Dir. Frank Hurley 88 min.

More details for all screenings, including ticket prices and how to book, from the Barbican site.

Méliès in 3D

First Chaplin, now Georges Méliès. Much more of this and we’re going to need a new category for stereoscopy. Kristin Thompson, on the essential blog Observations on film art which she co-authors with David Bordwell, has written a piece on a season of 3D films that they saw recently at the Cinémathèque Française. Part of the season was a programme of early 3D films presented by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. And when we say early, we mean really early – Bromberg showed experiments made by French inventor René Bunzli in 1900, ten-second vignettes including “a mildly risqué scene of a man arriving to visit his mistress and another discovering his wife in bed with her lover”.

But the startling revelation is the 3D effect achievable from films which were not shot in 3D in the first place, which is where Méliès comes in. Thompson explains:

Méliès’s early shorts were often pirated abroad, and a lot of money was being lost in the American market in particular. Aftern the Lubin company flooded that market with bootleg copies of a 1902 film, Méliès struck back by opening his own American distribution office. Separate negatives for the domestic and foreign markets were made by the simple expedient of placing two cameras side by side. The folks at Lobster realized that those cameras’ lenses happened to be about the same distance apart as 3D camera lenses. By taking prints from the two separate versions of a film, today’s restorers could create a simulated 3D copy!

Two 1903 titles – I think that they were The Infernal Cauldron [Le chaudron infernal] and The Oracle of Delphi [L’oracle de Delphes] – triumphantly showed that the experiment worked. Oracle survived in both French and American copies, and the effect of 3D was delightful. For Cauldron only the second half of the American print has been preserved. Watching the film through red-and-green glasses, you initially saw nothing in your right eye, while the left one saw the image in 2D. Abruptly, though, the second print materialized, and the depth effect kicked in. The films as synchronized by Lobster looked exactly as if Méliès had designed them for 3D.

One’s first thought is how absolutely delighted Méliès himself would have been at this unexpected effect. The second – more remote – is whether other such instances of films being shot side-by-side for domestic and foreign markets (not an uncommon practice in the silent era) might be found which might demonstrate the same 3D effect. Would we want to see this, or might it be a vulgarisation comparable to the colorisation of black-and-white films? Vulgar or not, I’m rather thrilled by this glimpse of a hidden dimension to early film just waiting to be untapped. Hats off to the lateral thinkers at Lobster for having spotted the possibility.

The Battle of the Ancre


The Battle of the Ancre, from

You will recall, I’m sure, that last year the Imperial War Museum in London undertook a digital restoration of the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme, the DVD release of which we reviewed here in detail. The Battle of the Somme was the first of three high profile feature-length documentaries that the British War Office propagandists produced during the First World War, before they changed strategy and turned much of their filmmaking energies towards producing a newsreel. The two films were The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917) and The German Defeat and the Battle of Arras (1917), and while neither could match the seismic social impact of the first film, they remain eloquent testimonies of the conflict.

There is a chance to see The Battle of the Ancre this weekend at the Imperial War Museum, as they start to give it much the same treatment as they did to the Somme film. The DVD release of The Battle of the Somme was distinguished by its twin scores, one of which recreated the original score from contemporary musical suggestions for the film’s exhibition. The same musician, Stephen Horne, is doing the same with The Battle of the Ancre. The ‘new’ score is the result of months of research by Horne and Dr Toby Haggith of the IWM, the reconstituted score is to be played by Stephen this Saturday (7 October) for the first time since the war, which makes the screening a truly special one. The film carries on the story from the first film, as it were, covering the Somme campaign as it dragged on into the winter of 1916. Its major selling point was the tank, the first time audiences had had sight of this startling new weapon. The film also memorably documents the ordeal faced by troops in the sea of mud that was the Western Front that autumn and winter.

The screening takes place 14:00 at the IWM London Cinema – all the details are on the IWM site.

While were on the subject, you might like to take a peek at IWM Film and Video Sales, an online footage sales service from the IWM, still in test mode. The site offers you the chance to view for free some 150 hours of content (a lot of it from the First World War), to download such content for private viewing or commercial scene selection (a charged service), or to look up the details of over 35,000 films. The Bioscope will be producing a review of this major new service very soon.

Remixed into silence

This an interesting development. Shown last week at the Edinburgh Festival and this week at London’s Rich Mix arts centre was Mother India – 21st Century Remix, or MI21. DJ Tigerstyle has taken the classic 1957 Indian film Mother India, directed by Mehboob Khan, and reimagined it as a 45-minute silent film. Tigerstyle (“world champion scratch DJ”) is joined by Matt Constantine on keyboards and cello, David Shaw on drums and Josh Ford on visuals. The promo above includes some clips of the performance, alongside interviews, audience reaction and so forth. The film’s website describes it thus:

Presenting the film to a contemporary audience, whilst preserving the power and vitality of the original piece is the key to this work. At 45 minutes in length, MI21 will engage you through the music to understand how dynamic a story the film has to tell.

Setting aside the qualms some may feel at seeing a cinema classic being deconstructed in this way (with the implication that a contemporary audience wouldn’t be able to sit through the original), it is a triumph of some sort for the art of the silent film, reclaiming a sound film through its images as one of its own. What other sound films have been reconstituted as silents? I know of one other recent example, the group British Sea Power adding a music soundtrack to an edited-down version of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934), which once had a perfectly serviceable soundtrack of its own:

Interesting that some of the chat about this video has suggested that Flaherty’s film was a silent film originally (its sounds and dialogue may have been post-synched, but there was very much sound there all the same). It seems to be part of a similar urge for the poetics of the silent film. Maybe the sound dies for some films, eventually, but the images live on. Something to ponder, and a trend to look out for.

Meanwhile, Mother India – 21st Century Remix can be experienced at the following venues:

* Sat 05 Sept – Brighton Pavillion Theatre – 01273 709709
* Tue 22 Sept – Bristol Colston Hall – 0117 922 3686
* Sat 10 Oct – Coventry Belgrade Theatre – 024 7655 3055
* Sat 24 Oct – Bridlington Musicport Festival – 0845 3732760

Conference diary


Newman House, Dublin

I was recently on my travels, attending a couple of conferences and a summer school, and this is my report. The first half of July was remarkably crowded with moving image-related conferences and other such events in the UK (and environs). Because of the jam-packed schedule, sadly I had to say no to the Visual Delights conference at Sheffield, on the theme of Visual Empires. This had an intriguing selection of papers surveying assorted lost empires and the media they sought to bend to their needs, with an encouraging number of new speakers (new to me, that is). Perhaps someone could say something about how they found the conference.

I also had to give a miss to Researching Cinema History: Perspectives and Practices, a symposium at Burlington House in London, which normally would have been right up my street, discussing as did the changes that seem to be happening to the historiography of cinema. For I was by then in Dublin, to speak to the Dublin James Joyce Summer School on Joyce and his fleeting management of the Volta cinema in Dublin in 1909 (centenary year, you see). This took place in the delightful Georgian building of Newman House, where they nervertheless managed to drum up a decent digital projector. The gathering of students looked a little bemused at times as I piled on the detail of how one went about managing (or mis-managing) a cinema in 1909, but they loved the film clips. A Cretinetti comedy (Come Cretinetti paga di debiti / An Easy Way to Pay Bills) and a scatalogical Pathé film C’est Papa qui à pris la purge, but could have been a film shown at the Volta entitled Beware of Castor Oil!, went down particularly well. The chances are now that it isn’t the film shown at the Volta, but it was certainly something like it (a man drinks his son’s castor oil medicine by mistake and gets caught short in assorted public places). In the end it was concluded that it was probably best that Joyce turned out to be such a poor cinema manager, because otherwise he’d have become a minor, prosperous businessman who never quite got round to writing that novel he’d been dreaming about, and none of them would have been there at such a summer school at all.


An uncredited Max Linder appearing in C’est Papa qui à pris la purge (1906)

And then it was off by plane to Birmingham followed by the epic train journey through Wales (anxiously following the first Test through text messages on the mobile phone) to get to the University of Aberystwyth for the Iamhist, or International Association for Media and History, conference, on the theme Social Fears and Moral Panics. Well, hard to go wrong with a theme like that, and there was a fine array of papers covering the multifarious ways in which the media acreates, reflects, perpetuates or addresses social fears – as well as being the subject of such fears itself. This was a particularly well-managed event, where for once I could find no complaint with any of the speakers that I heard (though surprisingly I encountered only one brave enough to try showing film clips) and all topics contributed usefully to the greater theme.

There wasn’t much on silent cinema, curiously enough, because the silent era had more than its fair share of moral panics – Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid etc – indeed early cinema in general was ubiquitously viewed as a social threat of the first order. But for the record I heard papers on the ‘quality’ press and its adversion to commercial radio (Richard Rudin), the battles to preserve the Welsh language through film (Kate Woodward), how Limerick newspapers helped and hindered the fight against the 1832 cholera epidemic (Michelle Mangan), the very topical print history of influenza (Penelope Ironstone-Catterall), local reporting on the Ottoman bankruptcy crisis of 1875 (Gul Karagoz-Kizilca), the fears aroused by the arrival of the telephone (Gabriele Balbi), the image of Marconi operators given in the pages of Wireless World (David Hendy), the ‘Lady Chatterly’ trial and its press coverage (Nick Thomas), the use of fear in British government public information films (Linda Kaye, the speaker with the film clips) and the 1950s obscentity campaign against British seaside postcards (Nick Hiley).

In fact, the only silent cinema subjects I encountered were James Burns speaking on early cinema and moral panic in various parts of the British Empire, amusingly pointing out how different countries ended up worried about different things (in South Africa they feared racial mixing, in Southern Rhodesia it was sexuality, in the West Indies it was images that diminshed British prestige that concerned them, in India they worried about the threat of motorised crime); and me. I spoke on How Working Men Spend their Spare Time, a social survey conducted by George Esdras Bevans in New York in 1912, which I’ve written about on the Bioscope before now. You can find a copy of the talk on my personal website, should you be interested.


An impassioned moment from the debate on regulation and the media, with (L-R) Nick Cull (chair), Martin Barker, Julian Petley and Sir Quentin Thomas

There was a silent film screening, however. We were in the heart of Wales, with the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales just down the road, so it was more than appropriate that we were treated to Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), previously described here in detail. The film was shown in NSSAW’s distinctively cylindrical Drwm cinema, and had Neil Brand playing the piano. A somewhat prolonged introduction over-sold the film, and it was a rather flat atmosphere that was created by an audience of worldy-wise media historians unaccustomed to adjusting their perceptions to the demands of silent film. In February when I saw the film at the British Library it was fresh and thrilling; here it seemed to drag, and its highlights seemed perfunctory. It’s the audience that makes the film, every time.

With the practice such conferences have of parallel sessions I missed many papers, while others I had to skip while putting together mine (a last-minute job, alas as usual with me). There were also plenary sessions: one on Government, Panics and Media Crisis (Virginia Berridge eloquent on AIDS, Merfyn Jones – former BBC governor – choosing his words with care but equally with feeling in recounting the fresh history of the Hutton enquiry into the Iraq war), and a thought-provoking session on Regulation and the Media, with Martin Barker on ‘disguised politics’, Julian Petley on the failure of the 1977 Williams committee which sought to change laws on obscenity, and an urbane turn from Sir Quentin Thomas of the British Board of Film Classification, who didn’t saying anything much but said it with authority.

My travels should then have taken me to Colour and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive at Bristol, but weariness overcame me. A shame, because this looked like an agenda-setting conference, with a remarkable range of papers mostly focussing on the aesthetic side of things. The publication of the papers would be very welcome.


The women’s 800 metres from De Olympische Spelen, the official film of the 1928 Olympic Games (a notorious event because one competitor – according to the evidence of the film – collapsed at the end of it, leading the event to be withdrawn from the Games until 1960 because it was thought to be too strenuous for women)

Instead, a few days later, I dragged myself to Pembroke College, Cambridge, for a conference held by the Sport in Modern Europe academic network. This was a select gathering of some of the leading sports historians, and I was somewhat dazzled to be in the same room as Richard (Sport and the British) Holt, Wray (Pay up and Pay the Game) Vamplew, and Kasia (Boxing: A Cultural History) Boddy. But no matter how wise in the ways of the world sports historians are generally, they welcome a bit of guidance when it comes to film, so that was my cue to speak to them about the films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games (again, as previously covered here at the Bioscope), with emphasis on the use of slow versus natural motion and whether the sports filmmakers of the silent era were more interested in athletic records or idealised athletic motion (a bit of both, really).

So there you are – a couple of weeks in the life of the roving academic, and illustration of just where film can take you because it has this marvellous facility to reflect – and illuminate – all subjects. Which is perhaps why James Joyce was drawn to it, why the workingmen of New York in 1912 preferred it far above any competing leisure attraction, and why the seemingly plain records of the Olympic Games of the 1920s grow all the more fascinating the more you try to unpick them.

Bible stories


The Ascension from Vie de Jésus / La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (1905-14)

One of my vivid early memories of going to the cinema is going to the Oxford in Whitstable, with my younger brothers in tow, to see a reissue of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, first made in 1956 but still doing the rounds in the late 1960s. We came out exhilarated, overwhelmed by the experience. Later generations, not brought up on Bible stories in the way that we were possibily cannot imagine the visceral thrill felt at seeing those so familiar narratives brought to thunderous big screen life. In those days, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, Cain, Samson et al were part of your DNA. You knew their every story, every twist and turn of the Biblical narratives that mythologised them. Seeing them brought to vulgar cinematic life (not insipid televisual life) thrilled you to the core.

It’s worth remembering such sensations when considering the earliest Biblical films, because undoubtedly they stirred their original audiences in much the same way. Look! the Red Sea is parting! Look! the star of Bethlehem is moving! They may or may not have confirmed faith, but they undoubtedly carried with them the thrill of the realisation of what had been imagined. A fine selection of such films were on show last night at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The Ancient World in Silent Cinema 2 was an afternoon and an evening (22 June) of early films set in Biblical or Near Eastern Antiquity, and followed on from January’s screenings of films depicting Ancient Greece and Rome (previously reported on by the Bioscope). Exhibited as part of a project on the Ancient World and silent cinema being developed by University College London Department of Greek & Latin, the films were accompanied by the excellent Stephen Horne, on piano, electonic keyboard and flute (not quite managing three at the same time but managing all the combinations of two), with interval talks given by David Mayer and Judith Buchanan. As in January, there was a good audience, many of them clearly from disciplines other than film studies.

I’m always apprehensive where early films are put before a new audience. What will they think of this peculiar world where people roll their eyes and throw up their hands, where men start back in paroxysms of love the instant they set eyes on a woman’s face, where titles announce the action before it has taken place, where painted cloths must serve for epic scenery, where people crowd the frame so much you can lose sight of the leading players, where people creep up close to overhear conversations and yet remain unseen, where colour is hand-painted, where miracles are magic tricks and angels float on cardboard clouds? Will they laugh because they are insensitive, or because they see these films for what they are that much more clearly than I am able to?

Well, there were some sniggers, but not many. This is the great advantage of showing a programme of such films, on a big screen, live music, and enough (but not too much) contextualisation. The audience saw what the films were about, could see where there was good, were touched by moments of artistry, were even – at times – moved. The films are their own best defence.


La Sposa del Nilo (1911)

The films were presented in roughly chronological order. We began, a little oddly, with a British knockabout comedy, Wanted – A Mummy (1910), in which a man dresses up as an Egyptian mummy to fool a professor. La Sposa del Nilo (1911) was a proto-epic, where you could sense the Italian filmmakers (Enrico Guazzoni in this case) gearing up to the gigantic imaginings of Cabiria and Quo Vadis just a few years on. The film wanted to impress you with its stateliness and scale; at time the central action (a young virgin is drowned to appease Isis and ensure that the Nile floods) became lost in the crowded frame – but that just reminded you that early cinema audiences look that much more intently at what was going on, and picked up on details that our lazier eyes sometimes miss.

La Vergine di Babilonia (1910) gave us the tale of Esther (partially based on the Biblical Esther, with a touch of the Book of Daniel as well), who brings about the overthrow of the King of Babylon when he throws her into a den of lions only for the lions to leave her alone, causing the populace to rise up against him. Amid the characteristic histronics were some well-composed shots to linger in the memory, especially one of Esther walking down some steps in her triumph, framed by the outstretched hands of the grateful people. Caïn et Abel (1911) – interesting thinking behind the chronology there – impressed especially with a Cain haunted by the crime of killing his brother being hunted down by an avenging angel across a rocky landscape, reduced in his shame to a crawling beast.

La Sacra Bibbia (1920) was the only post-WWI film on show. We were given the episode of Joseph intepreting the dreams of Pharoah, part of an Italian epic which tried to recover the glories of pre-war days but instead showed how Italian cinema collapsed so grievously post-war, unable to move on imaginatively, hampered financially. Moïse sauvé des eaux (1910) and L’Exode (1910) presented two episodes from the life of Moses. The first was average; the second, though ponderous in pace, showed real directorial imagination – the first of three films we saw made by Louis Feuillade. Here was someone who knew how to compose and fill out the frame. We even had an instance of Rembrandt lighting (a scene lit from a high window), and at one point a panning shot which covered three phases of action. However, you wondered where your sympathies should lie. The Egyptians had a hard time of it, as they wept over the death of the first born, while the smug Israelites marched out of the city. Without the homilies that might accompany them, the films sometimes had quite different messages, or sometimes no messages at all.

Pressing business forced me to miss La vie de Moïse (FR 1910) interspersed with Life of Moses (US 1909-10) – with a pre-De Mille parting of the Red Sea – and two American versions of Jephthah’s Daughter. For the evening show some films had been cut, as they’d discovered that the running times they’d been working to were for the films at sound speed, whereas we were seeing everything at exemplary silent speed. So things kicked off again with Samson et Dalila (1902), an early Pathé effort where there was no semblance of plot or build-up; instead we launched straight into Deliah cutting Samsons’s hair, then Samson pulling a huge millstone, then Samson bringing down the pillars of the temple and rising up in triumph, accompanied by angels. Film as pure sensation.


Vie de Jésus (1905-1914)

La Reine de Saba (1910), directed by Henri Andréani (who also gave us Caïn et Abel and Moïse sauvé des eaux) had almost no plot at all, at least none worth worrying over. Spectacle was all; sometimes cramped spectacle, as the director brought as many people as he could ino the frame, but the composition was excellent, with just as much attention given to the positioning of spear-carrier at the back as to the royal lovers centre stage. The film also boasted a startling procession with long camel train clearly located in North Africa, one of the camels bearing the canopied panier of the Queen of Sheba. A lot of effort and money went into making this film, evidence of how important historical and Biblical dramas were to the early cinema.

Giuditta e Oloferne (1908) was Italian in origin but French in style. It looked like director Mario Caserini was imitating the Pathé of pure sensation, in this case the story of Judith and Holophernes, favoured by the early filmmakers because she ends up cutting off the Assyrian king’s head. So the film was followed by Louis Feuillade’s intepetation of the story, Judith (1909), once again showing a fine sense of composition.

Then followed one of my favourite early films – one I’d not seen in twenty years, so it was a particular pleasure to see that it was as good as I remembered it, and that the audience were similarly impressed. In Feuillade’s L’Aveugle de Jérusalem (1909), or The Blind Man of Jerusalem, a blind man is unaware that his daughter is visited by her lover and that his servants are robbing him. He witnesses Christ performing miracles in the street and has his sight cured. Pretending still to be blind, he is horrified to discover how he is being cheated. But the sight of Christ bearing his cross, forgiving his enemies, leads the man to forgive likewise. It is told through mise-en-scène of great simplicity – only two set-ups are used, the interior of the man’s house, and the street outside, each featured twice in alternation. The parable could be Biblical, but it is pure invention – a bold coup in itself. The BFI’s print (all of the films came from the BFI National Archive) has replacement titles which may reproduce the original text or may have been written later (interest from religious bodies saw that a number of these early films were shown into the 1920s and 30s); at any rate, they are in keeping with the film’s moral but modest tone. In its unassuming way, L’Aveugle de Jérusalem is the perfect film.

We finished with Vie de Jésus (1905-1914, aka La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ). Multi-scene nativities and lives of Christ were among some of the most popular of early films; so popular that they were frequently re-made. Pathé produced at least four such series, from 1896 to 1914, the New Testament narrative being broken down into tableaux which could be ordered scene-by-hand-coloured-scene according to budget, taste, or particular Christian persuasion (for example, the scene where St Veronica places a cloth over Christ’s face and receives an impression of his face on the cloth was popular with Catholic audiences but was not usually shown to Protestant audiences). This was the Bible as pure pictorialism, pure signification. The tableaux provided a checklist of necessary images – beasts in the stable? check; Judas’ kiss? check; soldiers gambling at the foot of the cross? check. And so on. Of course, anyone looking at these films without any knowledge of the Bible would be baffled; in narrative terms the series is quite incoherent. But they weren’t meant for such an audience; they were meant for an audience who knew exactly what to expect, and what lessons might be drawn. The build-up to the Crucifixion duly impressed the 2009 audience with its sober power, and just when we thought an element of ludicrousness might have been introduced with the Ascension, Christ did not rise up in the air vertically, but instead retreated backwards as well as upwards towards angels amid the clouds, a visual coup that caught us all by surprise. They knew a thing or two, the early filmmakers.


To find out more about early cinema and religion, the best source is Roland Cosandey, André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning’s Une invention du diable?: cinéma des premiers temps et religion / An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema. This is the proceedings of the first Domitor conference, held in 1990 in Quebec (I was there), Domitor being the international body for early cinema researchers. The conference was dedicated to the theme of early cinema and religion (for which read Christianity). The book has essays in English and French, and has excellent pieces on the Pathé series, Kalem’s From the Manger to the Cross (1912), Charles Taze Russell’s The Photo-drama of Creation (1914), Vitagraph’s The Life of Moses and many more. The UCL Department of Greek & Latin project which put on the Bloomsbury screenings hopes to do much more with these films:

We are now also planning the next stage of the project, after the two film screenings in January and June 2009. It will involve the investigation in detail of a broad range of silent films set in antiquity leading to the production of a special issue on The Ancient World in Silent Cinema. We are also in consultation with archivists, librarians, scholars, and festival curators in the UK and abroad to extend the project into an international network of experts, leading to an online database, conferences and publications and, perhaps most importantly, preservation, digitization, and exhibition. If you would like to inquire further about the research project or about these events, please contact Maria Wyke (m.wyke [at]

Finally, Maria Wyke has produced a podcast on the representation of the ancient world in silent films.

Crazy all over again


Crazy Cinématographe, the Luxembourg-based project organised by the University of Trier which seeks to demonstrates the power of early cinema by recreating the travelling fairground film shows of the early years of the twentieth century, is returning for its third year. Crazy Cinématographe will be setting up its tent once more on the Schueberfouer, Luxembourg‘s fairground, from 21 August to 9 September 2009. There will also be a free workshop, ‘The Art of Programming Early Cinema’, for film archivists, programmers, curators, media scholars, teachers and journalists on 4-5 September, with contributions from Eric de Kuyper, Mariann Lewinsky Straeuli, Vanessa Toulmin, and the curators of the Crazy Cinématographe shows, Claude Bertemes and Nicole Dahlen.

This is some blurb from the project flyer:

More than 20.000 fairground visitors attended the Crazy Cinématographe shows in 2007 and 2008 – a success beyond expectations. Among thrill rides and food stalls they spotted a strangely different attraction, they were lured by barkers into the cinema tent and discovered a spectacular time ride with early films. Densely packed in the Crazy Cinématographe tent, people howled with laughter until tears rolled down their cheeks, shouted disrespectful comments, clapped, held their breath, and shrieked with pleasure and horror. Crazy Cinématographe showed striking evidence that the early “Cinema of Attractions” is still an attractive formula for 21th century showmanship and that it is possible to garner popular audiences of the digital age for 35mm screenings of early films from the Belle Epoque period.

All in all 25 European film archives participated to the project by contributing their early cinema treasures to programmes as “Magical Mystery Tour”, “The Cabinet of the Bizarre”, and the legendary late night programme called “The Sex Lives of our Grandparents”. For film scholars and cinematheque programmers, Crazy Cinématographe will not only be a hilarious and crazy trip, but also a striking professional experience. Don’t miss it.

Those not in the vicinity of Luxembourg who don’t want to let the organisers down by perforce missing the screenings may be comforted by the knowledge that a DVD exists of films from the original Crazy Cinématographe show, available from the excellent Edition Filmmuseum. Rumour has it that financial pressures may mean that this is the last Crazy Cinématographe, a great shame for what has been a spirited coming together of academia and entertainment (two words that – let’s face it – seldom occur in the same sentence).

Contact details for more information on Crazy Cinématographe are here.

Cruel and unusual comedy


Haunted Spooks (1920), directed by Hal Roach, starring Harold Lloyd and Sunshine Sammy, from

Slapstick was more than just getting knocked about for the amusement of others. As Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Social Commentary in the American Slapstick Film, a series of silent film comedy screenings taking place at MOMA in New York 20 May-1 June demonstrates, slapstick comedy of the silent era took on social, cultural and poltical themes that we can still recognise today. As the blurb for the season puts it:

Rude forms of comedy have long used incendiary subjects like industrialization, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, violence, and substance abuse as vital source material – and enjoyed great success with mass audiences.

The exhibition draws on the strong MOMA collection of silent film, and because the films touch on “a number of potentially sensitive issues” each is preceded by a contextual introduction. To help you with your contextulisation needs, there is an exhibition blog with film notes, Cruel and Unusual Comedy, put together by Steve Massa and Ben Model, the latter of whom also supplies the piano accompaniment to the season.

The featured screenings are:

Drag Shows: Cross-Dressing the Sexes
Wednesday, May 20, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Getting Rid of Trouble (1912) with Charlie Murray
Sweedie Learns to Swim (1914) with Wallace Beery
Chasing the Chaser (1925) with James Finlayson
Get ‘Em Young (1926) with Stan Laurel
Good Night Nurse (1917) with Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Race Riots: Beyond Black and White
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Black and White (1913) with David Morris
A Change of Complexion (1914) with Henry Bergman.
Haunted Spooks (1920) with Harold Lloyd, Sunshine Sammy
Below Zero (1925) with Lige Conley, Spencer Bell
A Natural Born Gambler (1916) with Bert Williams

Gratuitous Violence: No Turn Unstoned
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 7:00 p.m.
Their First Execution (1913) with Ford Sterling
The Phoney Cannibal (1915) with Lloyd Hamilton, Bud Duncan
The Counter Jumper (1922) with Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy
A Deep Sea Panic (1924) with James Parrott
Cold Hearts and Hot Flames (1916) with Billie Ritchie

Animals and Children: No Harm Done
Friday, May 29, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
An Elephant on His Hands (1912) with George Ober
Cat, Dog, and Co. (1929) with Our Gang
Mind the Baby (1924) with Pal the dog
The Knockout (1923) with the Dippy-Doo-Dads
When Summer Comes (1922) With Billy Bevan

The Machine Age: Mack Sennett vs. Henry Ford
Monday, June 1, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Lizzies of the Field (1924) with Billy Bevan
His Bread and Butter (1916) with Hank Mann, Slim Summerville
Get Out and Get Under (1920) with Harold Lloyd
Squeaks and Squawks (1920) with Jimmy Aubrey, Oliver Hardy
Neck and Neck (1924) with Lige Conley

Return to the ancient world


Vie de Jésus

A while back you may recall we reported on The Ancient World, a marvellous afternoon and evening of screenings of early films set in Ancient Greece and Rome, organised by the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London, as part its The Ancient World in Silent Cinema research project.

They promised a second show, and it’s just been announced. The Ancient World in Silent Cinema 2 will present an afternoon and evening of silent film screenings with piano accompaniment and related talks, this time featuring films with settings in Biblical or Near Eastern Antiquity. The event is open to the public and admission is free. It takes place Monday 22 June at UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, London.

This is the programme:



* Wanted a Mummy (UK 1910) 4 mins
* Sposa del Nilo / The Bride of the Nile (IT 1911) 11 mins
* Vergine di Babilonia / The Virgin of Babylon (IT 1910) 9 mins
* Caïn et Abel / Cain and Abel (FR 1911) 5 mins
* Sacra Bibbia / The Sacred Bible (IT 1920), episode of ‘The Story of Joseph in Egypt’ 9 mins.
* Moïse sauvé des eaux / Moses Saved from the River (Fr 1910) 8 mins
* L’exode (FR 1910) 13 mins
* La vie de Moïse (FR 1910) interspersed with Life of Moses (US 1909-10) 13 mins
* Jephthah’s Daughter (US 1909) 6 mins
* Jephthah’s Daughter (US 1913) 25 mins



David Mayer (University of Manchester), Margaret Malamud (State University of New Mexico), and Judith Buchanan (University of York)



* Samson et Dalila (FR 1902) 3 mins
* Samson (FR 1908) 11 mins
* David et Goliath (FR 1910) 8 mins
* Reine de Saba / Queen of Sheba (FR 1913) 19 mins
* Giuditta e Oloferne (IT 1908) 6 mins
* Judith (FR 1910) 8 mins
* Aveugle de Jérusalem / The Blind Man of Jerusalem (FR 1909) 8 mins
* Vie de Jésus (FR 1905-14) 8 mins, episodes from childhood to transfiguration
* Vie de Jésus (FR 1905-14) 18 mins, episodes from annunciation to ascension

Films of the ancient world, and particularly films on biblical themes, were of huge importance to the early cinema, capturing audiences with familiar stories and iconography, frequently augmented by the use of colour (stencil colour was regularly used for costume dramas and subjects with classical themes). Such films helped establish the early cinema’s pretensions, and its morality. Among the several gems in the programme, I recommend in particular Aveugle de Jérusalem, a Gaumont drama directed by Louis Feuillade which features a non-Biblical miracle story – a blind man has his sight restored by Christ, only to discover that his daughter has a lover and that his servants have been robbing him. He angrily throws them out of his house, only to learn forgiveness when he sees Christ on his way to Calvary. It is the model early film, in form and imagination.

The Ancient World in Silent Cinema project is doing admirable work in looking at early films from contexts other than film history, introducing them to a scholarly audience familiar with the histories and cultural contexts of the ancient world in general. In truth, those other contexts have always been a part of film history, because films can only be a reflection of the cultures that produce them. We just need them to be seen not only by those who value their film history, but by everyone who may learn from them.

The first Ancient World screening day was an inspiring and genuinely illuminating event, bolstered by an enthusiastic audience, a fine venue and some superb music. Programme two is going to be well worth attending.

Anyone interested in the research project or the screenings should contact Maria Wyke (m.wyke [at]

Killruddery tales, and a touch of Dante

Kevin Brownlow at Killruddery Silent Film Festival 2009

Two interviews from the recent Killruddery Silent Film Festival, made by Irish company DOCUMENTAVi, have appeared online. The first is with Kevin Brownlow, an engaging twenty-minute film in which Kevin ranges widely over a lifetime promoting the silent film. He discusses discovering silent film while at school, the first films he collected, befriending silent directors (Al Parker in particular) and the task he took on of interviewing those who made the silent film. He covers film festivals, the Thames Silents series, Ireland and silent film, the power of silents experienced live as opposed to online or on TV, and the importance of live, ‘authentic’ (he is amusingly scathing of the taste for modern rock groups to dabble with silents). It’s a delightful encounter.

Stephen Horne at Killruddery Silent Film Festival 2009

Then, looking somewhat bleary-eyed, as anyone might who had just accompanied three silents in a row at the festival, pianist Stephen Horne talks about how he got into providing music for silent films, how this combines with the work he does accompanying dance, and his recent experiences performing the ‘original’ score for The Battle of the Somme. It’s an eloquent, informative seven-minute piece.

Talking of the estimable Mr Horne, he can be heard this Sunday at the Barbican in London, accompanying Guiseppe di Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911), together with percussionist Martin Pyne and a smattering of electronic samples amid the piano accompaniment. Stephen assures me that it will be nothing like Tangerine Dream (whose DVD score for the film has pained many – doubtless Kevin Brownlow among them), so there’s every reason to go along and catch the Dante-inspired film which caused such a sensation in its time (chiefly on account of copious nudity among the damned). Fragments from a second 1911 L’Inferno, directed by Giuseppe Berardi, will also be shown, apparently for the first time in the UK.


L’Inferno, from