Reconstituting Hobbs

Jack Hobbs batting at the Oval cricket ground in 1914

Recently I purchased a copy of A.C. MacLaren’s The Perfect Batsman: J.B. Hobbs in Action (1926). The book is an instructional guide for playing cricket, using the legendary Surrey batsman Jack Hobbs as its example. The text is written by Archie MacLaren, another of the greats from cricket’s golden era. What makes The Perfect Batsman of interest here is that it is illustrated by frames of film taken of Hobbs in 1914.

MacLaren tells us that the films were taken eleven years before his book was published, the filmmakers being Cherry Kearton Ltd., and he indicates that the films were made on his behalf. Certainly there seems to be no commercially released film of Hobbs in 1914 made by Kearton, so presumably the sequences were specially commissioned. Why it took eleven years to publish them is not explained. There are ten plates, each with sequences of between eight and twelve frames. Hobbs was in his prime in the 1910s but hardly any film from this period exists of him (plenty exists of him in the 1920s) – indeed there is very little surviving film at all of cricket in the 1910s.

Plate VIII from The Perfect Batsman, with Hobbs demonstrating ‘A High Straight Drive’

What one can do with such filmstrip is reanimate it, which is what I have done with three of the plates (2, 8 and 10). They now make up the video above. Because the longest sequence is just twelve frames, I have repeated the sequences several times and have them running at a frame rate a little slower than real time. Anyway, brief as they are, they bring back to a sort of life one of English cricket’s greats, and capture him in swashbuckling mode as well. MacLaren writes of the films:

It is a great pleasure to me to have kept these action photographs of Hobbs, which I present in this book in the hope that all our schoolboys and young cricketers generally will benefit their play by a careful perusal of them, not failing to notice his footwork, the grace of his style, and his perfect balance in all his strokes, to say nothing of his delightful follow through at the very end of his strokes.

Anyone who follows cricket would have to agree. The high straight drive in particular demonstrates the comment made in Wisden’s obituary for Hobbs, “Before the war of 1914-1918 he was Trumperesque, quick to the attack on springing feet, strokes all over the field, killing but never brutal, all executed at the wrists.”

There were a number of sports instruction books with film sequences published in the silent era. I have seen examples for cricket, tennis, boxing and ju-jitsu, and doubtless there were others. Usually the films were shot especially for the book, so that they represent unique records of their subjects. Such encouragement to study closely the individual frame echoes the ambition of some of the pre-cinema sequence photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, Georges Demeny and Ernst Kohlrausch, who saw their proto-films of the 1880s and 90s as means to analyse movement, particularly sporting movement.

Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘Cricket, batting, drive’ from The Human Figure in Motion (1887). His unnamed naked model was ‘the best all-round cricketer in the University of Pennsylvania.

Reconstituting films from non-film sources has also been done for flick card devices such as Kinoras and Filoscopes. One of the few films that survives of the greatest of all English cricketers, W.G. Grace, only exists as a Filoscope which the BFI was able to rephotograph and convert back to film, despite heavy half-tones impairing the image. One would always rather have the film, of course, but movement is movement and somehow the very fragmentary nature of such records makes the brief glimpse of life that they capture seem all the more precious.

Lives in film no. 4: Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson knocks Jim Jeffries out of the ring at the climax of their world heavyweight bout at Reno, Nevada, on 4 July 1910. The referee is the fight’s promoter, Tex Rickard. Frame still from Sights and Scenes from the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (BFI National Archive)

I’m Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world.
I’m black. They never let me forget it.
I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it.

100 years ago, on 4 July 1910, two men met to contest the world heavyweight championship. One was James Jeffries, a former world champion brought back out of retirement to answer the call made by many in America to defend the white race. The other was the Afro-American Jack Johnson, the most iconic sportsman of the era, a man feared inside the ring for his tremendous power and outside it for the threat he seemed to pose to white society. The contest at Reno, Nevada was perhaps the most socially significant sporting event of the twentieth century. And of course the motion picture cameras were there.

Johnson lived much of his life in front of the camera. By the time he began fighting, sales of motion picture rights were a major source of revenue for those in the fight business, and every bout of significance was filmed, generally in its entirety, albeit semi-illegally given that prize fighting was prohibited in most American states. Films of Johnson’s fights were among the most significant of their age, to the point where legislation was created to contain them. Above all, Johnson was the first black person to be a leading film attraction – Dan Streible calls him “the first black movie star”. He helped change how America saw itself.

Arthur John Johnson, or Jack Johnson (1878-1946), was born in Galveston, Texas, the son of a former slave, and began his fighting career in 1897. He emerged as a major contender in the early 1900s, but the leading white boxers of the period mostly declined to fight against him, such was the racism endemic in the sport and American society generally. In particular he was effectively barred from any world heavyweight championship fight. There were other talented black boxers in Johnson’s time, notably Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey and Sam Langford, but they were mostly forced to fight among themselves for black-only championships. Johnson was unusual in his thirsting for the very top, avoiding the likes of Langford as much as possible in his search for the heavyweight crown.

Following the retirement of James J. Jeffries as world heavyweight champion in 1905, the championship and boxing in general went into decline. Two inadequate champions followed, Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns. Johnson became the beneficiary of the impoverished heavyweight scene, for the lacklustre Tommy Burns had failed to attract the crowds and money, and a new black champion, it was suggested, would attract controversy and a challenger to regain white supremacy. Johnson eventually hunted down Burns to Australia, and defeated him in Australia on 26 December 1908, becoming the first black world heavyweight champion. The fourteen-round fight was filmed by the British branch of Gaumont, though the Sydney police dramatically halted the filming and the fight in the final round to prevent the live and future audiences from witnessing any further humiliation for Burns. The film’s distribution around the world greatly helped revitalise interest in heavyweight boxing, while making the idea of a search for a white challenger to retake the crown something of an obsession for white American society. It also made Johnson a considerable film attraction.

The Johnson-Burns fight, Sydney, Australia, 26 December 1908, with the booth housing the motion picture cameras to the right. From Wikimedia Commons.

At first it was believed that a challenger would soon dispose of Johnson, but his easy defeats of such challengers as Stanley Ketchel (filmed for the Motion Picture Patents Company), ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, Al Kaufman, and even the future film actor Victor McLaglen (not a title fight), created an atmosphere of panic and the very real search for a ‘white hope’ who would crush the disturbingly confident and powerful Johnson. Eventually former champion Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement to face him.

The build up to the fight of the century was tremendous, and the cinema was greatly involved. Films of both boxers in training were released, including one of a bulky and seemingly invincible Jeffries working on his ranch (Jeffries on his Ranch, made by the Yankee Film Co.). The fight itself took place on 4 July 1910 at Reno, Nevada, promoted by the larger-than-life Tex Rickard. Three film companies, Selig, Vitagraph and Lubin, representing the Motion Picture Patents Company, combined to organise the production and distribution of the fight film, under the one-off name of the J. & J. Company, with J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph supervising overall production and distribution. The cameras were set up in pride of place on a stand overlooking the ring, with no attempt at closer shots or other viewpoints, but with plenty of material shot prior to the event – enthusiastic crowds filling the street of Reno, both boxers in training, star fighters of times past and present (Abe Attell, ‘Philadelphia’ Jack O’Brien, Sam Langford, Jake Kilrain), and unique film of a portly John L. Sullivan, champion from another era, mock sparring with the first official world heavyweight champion, Jim Corbett (who made racial taunts at Johnson throughout the fight).

The fight lasted fifteen rounds, but was a foregone conclusion from round one, as Johnson humiliated a patently inferior Jeffries. That the fight lasted so long was no indication of Jeffries’ staying power; more likely it was an indication of Johnson’s awareness of the value of a full-length fight film. A film of a fifteen-round fight would command bigger audiences and greater revenue than a one-round knockout. It was commonly felt that Johnson had spun out the fight to increase its revenue (Rickard had promised $101,000 for the boxers, with 75% for the winner, and two-thirds of the movie rights), and this seems borne out by the evidence of the film itself. Johnson patently extends the contest beyond what was necessary, and can be seen taunting the hapless Jeffries during their numerous clinches. However, on the eve of the fight both Johnson and Jeffries had agreed to take lump sums for the movie profits rather than a percentage, so one might judge that Johnson’s motives were as much vengefulness as good business.

Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, from American Memory

But the most significant effect of the Johnson-Jeffries fight on the world of film came afterwards. The shock of Johnson’s victory terrified white America and thrilled the black community. Immediately the result was known there were racial conflicts throughout the country, resulting in many deaths and injuries. It was not only Johnson’s defeat of a white man, but his very public cockiness, his fondness for fast cars, fancy talk and fancy clothes, and above all his taste for white women (his various white wives were always prominent in newsreel footage of Johnson) compounded the fears. The existence of the film greatly added to the shock. Not only was one forced to read about the unspeakable Johnson becoming champion over the whites, but he could be appearing in your very own neighbourhood. The film of the fight had to be banned. With the racial violence that followed the fight as the primary excuse, and following heavy lobbying by such interest groups as the United Society of Christian Endeavor, the film was soon barred from many individual cities, and fifteen states went further by banning all prize fight films – it was assumed there would be other Johnson fights and other Johnson films, and so the states legislated against all boxing films rather than the specific cases of the Johnson-Jeffries film.

However, no immediate federal law was passed. Such legislation only arose when another Johnson fight film, that of his contest against ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn on 4 July 1912, threatened further social unrest. Bills had already been introduced by the grossly racist Congressmen Representative Seaborn A. Rodenberry and Senator Furnifold Simmons to prohibit the interstate transportation of fight films, and on 31 July 1912 the legislation was passed. It was now a federal offence to transport fight films over State lines. This naturally had a severe effect on the production and distribution of boxing films, though it by no means stopped them. The ambiguous legislation, which was much challenged as it seemed directly to contradict reasonable commerce, did not necessarily prevent such films’ exhibition, and there was still a large audience keen to see such films, especially the Johnson-Willard contest of 1915 where the victorious Jess Willard finally proved to be the ‘white hope’ so many had been looking for.

One of the most striking attempts to by-pass the ban on interstate transportation occurred in 1916. The film in question was that of the Johnson-Willard fight; the company involved the Pantomimic Corporation (created by L. Lawrence Weber, the producer of the Johnson-Willard film). A motion picture camera was placed eight inches from the New York-Canada border, pointing north. On the Canadian side was placed a tent containing a box with an electric light. Past this was then run a positive of the Johnson-Willard film, which by means of a synchronising device was then photographed on the American side, and thus a duplicate negative (of doubtful quality) was produced. The whole extraordinary process was deliberately given wide publicity, but Pantomimic lost the ensuing court case, for having violated the spirit if not the letter of the law.

The law was a preposterous one, contrary to the basic rules of commerce and unashamedly racist in intent. It was widely violated throughout the 1920s, as the continued production of fight films indicates, and the Johnson ‘threat’ was in any case over. However, it was not until the late 1930s that calls for the legislation to be repealed were heard. Boxing was now seen to be popular among all classes, with a clear following among women, and the new, unthreatening black champion Joe Louis, modesty and courtesy personified, was the very model of what white America hoped to see. The Senate finally passed a bill permitting the interstate shipment of prize fight films on 13 June 1939.

Jack Johnson with one of his fast cars, from the Henry E. Winkler Collection of Boxing Photographs, University of Notre Dame

After the Willard fight, Johnson’s life went into decline. He had been sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in 1913 for violation of the anti-‘white slavery’ Mann Act (“transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”) but skipped bail and fled to France, where he successfully defended his title against Frank Moran, the film of which was widely derided for its obvious spinning out of the fight to make a more commercial film offering. The Willard fight took place in Havana, Cuba, and he only returned to the USA to serve out his sentence in 1921, after spending time in Spain and Mexico. He carried on fighting in prison and following his release, and continued to appear before the motion picture cameras, though now in dramatic films, albeit very obscure titles made for the Afro-American community: As the World Rolls On (1921) and For His Mother’s Sake (1921) (Johnson had made at least one fiction film during his time in Spain).

Johnson kept on fighting until 1938, as well appearing on stage, refereeing fights, giving talks and making personal appearances. Always fond of fast cars and speeding, he died in a car crash in 1946.

From having been probably the most reviled man of his age, posthumously Johnson has undergone a considerable change in reputation. Always honoured by most fight fans for his boxing ability and his historical importance, he was increasingly held up as an example of black empowerment, starting with Howard Sackler’s 1967 play The Great White Hope, filmed in 1970 with James Earl Jones as the Johnson-like character Jack Jefferson. There then followed Bill Cayton’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Jack Johnson (1970) with its superb Miles Davis jazz score, which ends with the imposing words (spoken by Brock Peters) cited at the top of this post. Sympathetic biographies followed, notably Randy Roberts’ Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, and recently Geoffrey C. Ward’s book Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which was turned into a documentary by Ken Burns with another jazz soundtrack, this time by Wynton Marsalis. There is now a strong move in the US for Johnson’s 1913 conviction to be overturned, with Congress recommending in 2008 that he be granted a presidential pardon, a motion that received the unexpected support of Senator John McCain.

Finding out more
The PBS Unforgiveable Blackness website has extensive information on Jack Johnson and his times, including a special Flash feature on the Jeffries fight.

As noted above, the key biographies are Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, and Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. On the Johnson-Jeffries fight in particular, see Robert Greenwood, Jack Johnson vs. James Jeffries: The Prize Fight of the Century; Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910.

For the history of fight films in the silent era, with extensive information on Jack Johnson, there is the excellent Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema, by Dan Streible, to which this post in much indebted, particularly the filmography. Acknowledgments also to Larry Richards, African American Films Through 1959: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography.

Two essays cover the legislative back ground to the Johnson films: Barak Y. Orbach, ‘The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and Censorship of Black Supremacy‘, and Lee Grieveson, ‘Fighting Films: Race, morality and the governing of cinemas, 1912-1915’, in The Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Grieveson and Peter Kramer.

The Chronicling America site of digitised historic newspapers has a special section on the Johnson-Jeffries fight.

For celebratory centenary events, see

In 2005 Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910) was added to the National Film Registry as a work of “enduring significance to American culture”.

Parts of this post are taken from a long essay I wrote for Griffithiana in 1998 entitled ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’.


1. Fight films
(Note: Fight films tend to be recorded under a variety of titles, but US copyright titles are given where available. Dates are the dates of the fights)

  • [Jack Johnson v Ben Taylor] (GB, 31 July 1908, producer unknown)
  • World’s Heavyweight Championship Pictures between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson aka The Burns-Johnson Boxing Contest (GB/Australia, 26 December 1908, Gaumont)
  • World Championship, Jack Johnson vs. Stanley Ketchell [sic] (USA, 16 October 1909, J.W. Coffroth)
  • Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest, held at Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910 (USA, 4 July 1910, J&J Company) [The cut down version held by the BFI is entitled Sights and Scenes from the Johnson-Jeffries Fight. There were also a number of re-enactment films made of the fight – see Streible, Fight Pictures]
  • Jack Johnson vs. Jim Flynn Contest for Heavyweight Championship of the World (USA, 4 July 1912, Jack Curley/Miles Bros.)
  • Johnson-Moran Fight / The Grand Boxing Match for the Heavyweight Championship of the World between Frank Moran and Jack Johnson (France? 27 June 1914)
  • Willard-Johnson Boxing Match (USA, 5 April 1915, Pantomimic/L. Lawrence Weber) [Streible records a pirated version of the fight as well]
  • Note: Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue lists a Jack Johnson v Bombardier Billy Wells fight film made in 1911 by Will Barker, but though the film was advertised the fight itself was abandoned and the film never made.

2. Fiction films

  • Une aventure de Jack Johnson, champion de boxe toutes catégories du monde (France 1913)
  • Fuerza y nobleza (Spain 1917-18, four-part serial)
  • Black Thunderbolt (Spain 1917-18, released in USA in 1921 by A.A. Millman, 7 reels) [it is possible that this is the same film as Fuerza y nobleza]
  • The Man in Ebony (USA 1918, T.H.B. Walker’s Colored Pictures, 3 reels) [uncertain credit, because Johnson did not live in the USA 1913-1919]
  • As the World Rolls On (USA 1921, Andlauer Production Company, 7 reels)
  • For His Mother’s Sake (USA 1922, Blackburn Velde Productions, 5-6 reels)
  • Madison Sq. Garden (USA 1932, Paramount) [guest appearance]

3. Other films
(Note: Some of these titles probably reproduce material from earlier releases, such as the Kineto films of Johnson in training)

  • Burns and Johnson Training (GB? 1909) [given by Streible, not by Gifford]
  • Jack Johnson in Training/How Jack Johnson Trains (GB? 1909, Kineto) [given by Streible and BFI database, not by Gifford]
  • Jack Johnson Training Pictures/Jack Johnson Training (GB? 1910, Kineto) [given by Streible, not by Gifford]
  • Johnson Training for his Fight with Jeffries (USA 1910, Chicago Film Picture Co.)
  • Mr Johnson Talks (USA 1910, American Cinephone Co.) [gramophone recording synchronised to film]
  • How the Champion of the World Trains, Jack Johnson in Defence and Attack (GB 1911, Kineto) [given by Streible, not by Gifford. The title of the copy in the Nederlands Filmmuseum is Jack Johnson: Der Meister Boxer der Welt]
  • Jack Johnson, Champion du Monde de Boxe (Poids Lourds) (France 1911) [newsreel]
  • Jack Johnson Paying a Visit to the Manchester Docks (GB 1911) [newsreel]
  • Jack Johnson and Jim Flynn Up-to-date (USA 1912, Johnson-Flynn Feature Film Co.)

Filming football

Vuvuzelas, from To listen to the sound (if you must), try this.

It’s the World Cup, and I’ve been rediscovering silent football. The high decibel sound of the vuvuzelas that the South African crowds blow so enthusiastically and monotonically (B flat, to be precise) make the matches sound as though they are taking place inside a particularly angry wasps’ nest. To keep my sanity I experimented with watching games with the sound turned off and the subtitles on. It’s a curious experience, witnessing sport in silence, without commentary or crowd sounds. The game loses its drive – in fact it ceases to be a game and simply becomes a window on one of those strange ritualistic things that humans do to occupy themselves, a Martian’s view of sport.

All of which idle thoughts are introduction to a post on the time when football films were made silent, and what accompanied them was live music, intertitles, and any comments from the audience in the cinema. So here’s a short-ish history of association football and silent film.

Football game filmed by in London by Alexandre Promio around September 1897. One of the teams may be Woolwich Arsenal. No. 699 in the Lumière catalogue.

Early shots
Filming football is almost as old as filming itself. So far as is known, the first film to be made of the game was a now lost one-minute production by Robert Paul, taken in Newcastle in October 1896. A contemporary description simply says “A football match at Newcastle-on-Tyne”, and we don’t even know who was playing who. The earliest surviving football film was taken by Lumière camera operator Alexandre Promio in London in late 1897. Simply entitled Football, it shows two teams (one of whom could possibly be Woolwich Arsenal, forerunner of Arsenal) bunched around a goal on a practice pitch. The players may all be crowded around the ball because Promio wanted to get as many people in shot as possible, so one should be wary of the film as depicting genuine action. We do see this in the next surviving film, Arthur Cheetham‘s record of a Blackburn Rovers-West Bromwich Albion game. 50ft (under a minute) of an original 250ft survives, with action from both halves taken from a single camera position behind one of the goals, so one only sees tiny figures engaged in some mysterious far-off struggle.

The earliest football films show us little that we can savour as sporting entertainment. Marginally longer films started to be made from 1899, the year that the F.A. Cup Final was filmed for the first time, by the Warwick Trading Company. The film is now lost, but the catalogue description indicates a move from the emblematic, single-shot efforts of Paul and Lumière to a documentary account presenting highlights from the game, which was played at Crystal Palace:

The Sheffield United and officials entering the field; Mid-field play; Sheffield obtains a corner, showing goal play, scrimmage and goal kick; Derby County’s only goal, showing other goal, enthusiasm of the vast audience, goal keeper busy; Players leaving the field.

This was the archetype for football films for the next decade. It was probably shot by a single pitch-side cameraman, who had four key elements to capture: the teams coming onto the field; scenes of lively action; the enthusiasm of the crowd; and goals. It was well nigh impossible for a single cameraman to achieve the latter (Sheffield won 4-1, so he missed four), not only because he was based at ground level (longer shots from the stands would not have worked owing to the limitations of lenses and filmstock) and because there was only one of him, but because there was a limit to how much film he could hold. Cameras held 75 to 500 feet at this time, and even with changes of reel there was only so much they could shoot because they would be under strict instructions not to waste too much film. When a film was going to be only 100 to 200 feet long on release (the 1899 FA Cup Final film was 350 feet) then shooting thousands of feet of film in a vain attempt to capture everything was a pointless waste of expensive celluloid. Early football films are the way they are because of technical limitations and common-sense economics.

Newcastle United v Liverpool, filmed by Mitchell & Kenyon, 23 November 1901 at St James’ Park, from the BFI YouTube channel

Mitchell & Kenyon
Roughly between 1900-1910 football films were the preserve of specialist operators from the north of England. The major London companies such as Gaumont, Urban and Warwick regularly made films of the cup final, but an extensive business grew up for companies which filmed local games for local consumption. There was Jasper Redfern, based in Yorkshire, who filmed both football matches and cricket games, but the major player by far was Norden Films, best known as Mitchell & Kenyon.

Mitchell & Kenyon films were shown in town halls, music halls and fairground shows. They were often commissioned by touring showmen taking a projector from town to town, who attracted audiences by showing films of local events, including sports. Such a business was very localised, inevitably, but the dedication to football meant that many teams were documented who would never have been covered by London-based film companies. The Mitchell & Kenyon collection at the BFI National Archive includes fifty-five football films made between 1901-1907, including such encounters as Salford v Batley (1901), Sheffield United v Bury (1902), Everton v Liverpool (1902) and Bradford City v Gainsborough Trinity (1903) (all links are to BFI YouTube videos). The films generally last three minutes or so, and feature the teams coming on, crowd shots (it was important to show as many faces as possible so people would come to the film show with the hope of seeing themselves – the films were often shown the same evening) and action mostly filmed from a mid-pitch position by a single cameraman.

Fascinating as these films are from a socio-historical point of view (crowd behaviour, grounds, dress, displays of advertising, male-dominated space etc.) it is very difficult to get a sense of the game. The limitations of the filming, with a paucity of shots giving little sense of continuous action, leaves one peering from the distance of both time and space, finding it hard to judge what is going on. The players have no shirt numbers, and it is difficult to sense the shape of the game. I’ve been reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, and I had an idea of investigating these films for evidence of team formations, but it can’t be done. At this period the offside law stated that three defenders had to be between the leading attacker and the goal, and all teams more or less played in a 2-3-5 formation – that is, two in defence, and five in attack. Perhaps you can see this in the Mitchell & Kenyon films, but the shots are too few, and the action too indistinct, for anyone to derive any certain evidence. Camera shots from the stands which encompassed the complete action on the pitch would not be attempted until the 1920s. What one can sometimes see is the frantic pace and occasional roughness of play, the appalling state of the pitches, and incidental features which point to the influence of the cameras – notably players coming out onto the pitch single file, so that they could be picked out individually by fans watching the screen. (For more on the M&K football films, see Dave Russell’s essay in Vanessa Toulmin etc, The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon)

The newsreel era
The arrival of newsreels, around 1910, changed how football films were made and shown. The shift from peripatetic exhibition in halls and fairgrounds to cinemas led to a regularity of output which led to greater exposure for football films but also to concentration on films likely to attract the largest audiences. So league and minor cup games ceased to be filmed, and what became popular were major matches such as the later rounds of the F.A. Cup, the Cup Final itself, and some internationals. A number of films survive of Cup Finals from 1910-1914 at the BFI National Archive, including these (with links to the BFI catalogue):

1910 [Barnsley v Newcastle]
F.A. Cup Final, 1910 (original match, company not known)
Cup Tie Final 1910 (either original match or replay, company not known)

1911 [Newcastle United v Bradford City]
Cup Final 1911 (Gaumont)
The F.A. Cup Final (Pathé)
The Greatest Football Game of 1911 (company not known)
The Cup Final – The Match Replayed at Manchester (Pathé)

1912 [Barnsley v West Bromwich Albion]
Cup Final 1912 (company not known)
Football Cup Final: Replay at Sheffield (Gaumont)

1913 [Aston Villa v Sunderland]
The Cup Final (Barker)

1914 [Liverpool v Burnley]
Cup Tie Final: Liverpool v Burnley 1914 (Barker)

International football
Newsreels were not restricted to Britain, of course, and as the game increasingly spread around the world, so newsreels started to pick up on games in the various countries where the sport had taken root. Information on these is scarce and scattered, with a handful of surviving examples held in archives around the world.

Unidentified 1927 German championship game, from ITN Source collection

Games between nations were infrequently filmed, presumably for logistical reasons. There were, in any case, few international matches at this time, and most of those were between the British home nations. The earliest such film appears to have been the England v Scotland match of 4 April 1904, filmed in Sheffield by Hepworth and Paul (Scotland won 2-1). The film doesn’t survive, but there are plenty of international games from the 1920s held in the BFI National Archive, British Pathe and ITN Source newsreel collections. Most of these are home internationals, but here are links to a few international games (as it were) which can be viewed online:

Football outside of its borders did not really register with British audiences – certainly as far as the newsreels were concerned. If you wanted to see how the game was advancing internationally, you were better off looking to the Olympic Games.

Olympic Games
Before the World Cup was instituted in 1930, the major international football contest was the Olympic Games. Football became a popular feature of Olympic films from 1912 onwards, and some of the surviving Olympic films from the silent period give us some of the best records of football from this period. As described in an earlier post, Pathé’s record of the 1912 Games in Stockholm devotes much attention to football, with Sweden v Holland and the all-conquering Great Britain team beating Denmark 4-2 in the final. In 1924, the Rapid-Film full-length documentary Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 devotes an entire reel to the final between Uruguay and Switzerland, in which the South Americans demonstrate a dazzling level of technical skill readily apparent in the film record, even if the camera postioning limits our understanding of the game (a team of four or five was used, arranged at various points pitchside with just a couple of shots taken from the stands). The documentary film of the 1928 Games in Amsterdam does not include football (at least not in the version available on DVD), but Italian site Archivio Storico (produced by Istitutio Luce) includes severals newsreels from 1928, including Italy v France, Spain v Mexico, Portugal v Jugoslavia, and the Uruguay-Argentina final, won in a replay by Uruguay 2-1 after the first game ended 1-1 (to access these, tick the box marked ‘archivio cinematografico’ and enter the search term ‘calcio’).

Tottenham Hotspur’s Jimmy Dimmock scores the only goal against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge in the 1921 F.A. Cup Final, filmed by the Topical Budget newsreel as Cup Final 1921 Greatest Event in Football History

Football in the 1920s
In the 1920s changes began to be made to how football was filmed, though the constraints of filmstock remained. Newsreel cameramen worked to tight rules over the amount of film they were allowed to expend on any subject. Generally they worked to a 2:1 ratio i.e. the cost-conscious editor allowed them to shoot say 100 feet in making what what would be released in the newsreel as a 50-foot item. For sports events, with their high degree of unpredictablity, the ratio might rise to 4 or 5:1, but it still meant that the operator had to concentrate on likely areas of activity (particularly the goalmouth), and obtaining film of goals was often a question of luck.

Things improved for the F.A. Cup Final, where the newsreel started to employ large camera teams, and the sharing of the load meant that camera operators could concentrate on the period when the ball was nearest to them. The Topical Budget newsreel employed nine cameramen to film the 1921 final, producing a 500-foot film (approx. six minutes), but more than the number of cameras there was the variety of angle and the understanding that a narrative needed to be created. As well as cameramen being arranged behind each goal and on either side of the pitch, there were cameras in the stands giving overviews – effectively master shots – which when intercut with the closer shots of action gave a far more visually and narratively satisfying account. The Bioscope noted this innovation in its report on Topical’s film of the 1922 final when it commented that the “essential features of the whole match” had been “very cleverly put together to form a continuous ‘story'”.

However, as I point out in my book on Topical Budget, sacrifices were made to achieve narrative. The 1921 final – Tottenham Hotspur beat Wolverhamption Wanderers 1-0 – was characterised by heavy rain in the first half, sunshine in the second. Close analysis of the film reveals that several sequences from the second half have been included in what is ostensbily the first. It is untruthful as far as a documentary record is concerned, but it tells a better story.

Despite the improvements in filming, one still cannot gain much of an idea about the use of tactics. The offside law was changed in 1925 to requiring just two defenders to be between the furthest attacker and the goal, which led to greater freedom for forwards but then a consequent change in formations as centre-halves dropped back into defence, eventually leading to the famous W-M shape introduced by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman. It may be possible for some sharp-eyed analyst to work their way through the football films contained on the British Pathe site (there are around 250 available) and detect patterns, but to the average eye incoherence reigns. All one can say is that the game looks marginally less violent than it was in the 1900s, that the pitches were still terrible, and that goalmouth scrambles were commonplace.

Cup Finals were hugely important to the newsreels, but they also covered league games and the various rounds of the F.A. Cup, with games from around the country covered in different editions of the same issue according to local following. Such shorts reports were usually taken by a single cameraman, and were therefore necessarily rudimentary in form.

Pathé’s film of the 1922 Cup Final obscured by flags waved by the rights-holders Topical Budget, from

The rights to film the F.A. Cup final (and other major sporting events) were hotly contested by the newsreels. Topical Budget paid £1,000 for the exclusive rights to film the famous 1923 Cup Final, the first held at Wembley Stadium. However exclusive rights were no guarantee of exclusive coverage, as newsreel rivals sought to snatch illicit footage by smuggling cameras into the ground, such as the mini-sized, clockwork-driven Debrie Sept, which could be hidden in coat pockets. The practice was known as ‘pirating’. Pathé cameraman Jack Cotter famously disguised himself as a West Ham fan to get into the 1923 final, with his camera hidden within a fan’s giant ‘hammer’. The ruse was then gleefully revealed by Pathé in its film of the game, though the aerial shots it took of the stadium were delierately spoiled by Topical which took the trouble to have its name written in large letters across the roof of Wembley Stadium.

News photographer Bernard Grant writes about the knockabout japes of the newsreels at the 1922 Cup Final, held at Stamford Bridge between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End (Huddersfield won 1-0), in his book To the Four Corners (1933):

I saw the battle from the top floor of a high building overlooking the ground, from where I had hoped to obtain some photographs with a long-focus camera, but as I was sharing the position with the well-known film man, Frank Bassill, on this occasion a ‘pirate’ [for Pathé], I was handicapped by the efforts of the defenders [Topical Budget].

They used heliographs to deflect the sun’s rays into our lenses and let up a huge sausage balloon in front of our window, where they did their best to anchor it. This was only partly successful, however, for the clumsy thing swung about in the wind and left us clear at times. Also one of Bassill’s assistants managed to hide behind some chimney pots and work above it.

At the sound of the referee’s whistle starting the match there came a terrific noise of hammering and crashing at a point away to our left, and we saw the corrugated-iron roof of a building alongside the ground fly off in all directions.

A moment later there appeared, rising through the aperture, two heads which I recognised through my glasses as those of Tommy Scales and Leslie Wyand, pioneers in the production of movie news reels.

Steadily they rose higher and higher, turning their handles as they came, as the telescopic tower ladder upon which they stood was wound up by friends in the room below.

This happening brought into action the defenders’ large mobile ‘stand by’ force, members of which, armed with double-poled banners and flags, dashed off to meet the attack…

And so it went on. There was much money at stake, hence the battles. The money wasn’t made by the Final films themselves, which were loss leaders, but by the longer-term bookings that could be gained on the back of them for the newsreel that looked stronger than the competition. Ironically, in view of the battle Grant reports, Topical’s official account of the 1922 Final is a lost film, but Pathé’s pirated film can be viewed at, though the poverty of the footage, with most of the action in long shot or filmed through the heads of the crowd, shows all the disadvantages of having to be the pirates. In 1924 the newsreels acted together for once and protested jointly to the Football Association at the cost of the rights to film the final and submitted a joint bid of £400. It was turned down. Consequently no film exists of the F.A. Cup Final of 1924.

Fiction films
There were a number of fiction films about football in the silent era. A wonderful early effort (650 feet) is the Hepworth Manufacturing Company’s bracing Harry the Footballer (1911), in which our hero (Hay Plumb) is kidnapped just before the big game only to be rescued by his girl-friend (Gladys Sylvani) just in time to score the goal that winds the game. Maurice Elvey’s The Cup Final Mystery (1914), a lost film, had much the same plot, now spread over 2,600 feet. Also lost, and with the same plot, same length, and in the same year is A Footballer’s Honour, made by Lewin Fitzhamon for Britannia Films. There were also several comic films made in France, Italy and Germany in which someone’s obsession with football leads to chaotic results. Pathé’s Football en Famille (1910), in which a family destroys its house through its enthusiasm for the game, is a particularly manic example.

By the 1920s, a handful soccer-themed feature films were made. Britain produced The Winning Goal (1920, now lost) and The Ball of Fortune (1926), the latter starring the legendary Billy Meredith of Manchester City and Wales (a trailer survives); Germany produced Die elf Teufel (The Eleven Devils) (1927) and König der Mittelstürmer (King of the Centre Forwards) (1927), both now available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum.

Footballers in Training – Newcastle United, undated 1920s film showing Newcastle players in training, available to view at

Other kinds of football films
Not all silent era football films were records of matches. There were training films, promotional films, even silent ‘interview’ films which showed star players relaxing. There was women’s football (very popular in the early 1920s and meriting a separate post one day), street football, public schools’ football, charity football games, and newsreel stories on star players and teams just for their own sake. Silent films didn’t manage the art of filming football too well, but they covered the game extensively because it brought in the crowds. It shows how the cinema was understood as a home for entertainments beyond the stories than the film industries produced. It was the popular theatre.

Footage of the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, with clips of the stadium, participating teams, and the final which Uruguay won 4-2 against Argentina. The titles are an obvious later addition, as are the unfortunate lapses into colourisation (though this does at least let you identify Uruguay, in the light blue shirts.

The first World Cup was filmed in Uruguay in 1930. Film exists of the tournament, which was shot silent, but my knowledge of Uruguayan film is not what it might be, and besides this post has gone on long enough. You can find the clips on YouTube, or see the short clips on the FIFA site. I’m returning to the World Cup 2010. Having sound does help, as does not knowing how it’s all going to turn out (remember, everyone who saw a film in the cinema already knew the result), and I’m even getting used to the vuvuzelas. Bring on Slovenia…

Lives in film no. 3 – Dan Leno

Dan Leno, from

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

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

Oh, we destroyed the negative long ago.

Have you destroyed Mr. Leno’s negative?

No, but Mr. Leno is a famous comedian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Jukebox no. 1 – The Battle of the Century

Jack Dempsey centre, Georges Carpentier right, from The Battle of the Century,

Here comes a new series here at Bioscope Towers (though there are number of old series in dire needing of being kept up, I’m aware). There’s not enough done here on single films, beyond the occasional mention of DVD releases, so we’re going to institute Video Jukebox, which will be an occasional series that takes a silent film available online and gives some of the background history – particularly if the site which hosts the film doesn’t tell you that much.

I’m going to start off with The Battle of the Century (1921). I was surprised to see this as an addition to European Film Treasures, as I wouldn’t have suspected that the BFI (which holds the film) would have singled it out as a choice item from its archive – not least because it is not a European film. Nevertheless it is strongly European in theme, Europe v America in fact, and it is certainly a film well worth seeing and with a story behind that is equally worth telling.

It’s 1921, and the jazz age is upon us. It is an age of celebrity fashioned by the newsreel cameras, where to be in the public eye means that you must maintain a constant virtual screen life. The stars to be found in the cinema are not just actors but politicians, royalty, aviators, explorers, artists, socialites and especially sports stars. The barrier between the arena and the cinema was broken down as leading sports events were filmed (with their funding often dependent upon the sale of film rights) and sports stars were pushed into becoming film stars by trying out their acting skills on the screen – generally with painful results.

Jack Dempsey, from The Battle of the Century

Jack Dempsey was one of the stars of the age, in the boxing ring, and on the screen. He wasn’t much of an actor – he appeared in several silents including the serial Daredevil Jack (1920), Fight and Win (1924) and Manhattan Madness (1925) – but his screen presence when fighting, sparring, training or just grinning for the ever-present newsreels was utterly compelling. The pinnacle of Dempsey’s career, fistically and cinematically, was his bout with Georges Carpentier, the French world light heavyweight champion, who also enjoyed a modestly successful film career with The Wonder Man (1920) and A Gipsy Cavalier (1922).

The fight was a masterpiece of hype from legendary promoter Tex Rickard, and saw boxing’s first $1,000,000 gate. The fight, held at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Jersey City on 2 July 1921, was in no way an even match. Jack Dempsey was a far heavier (by 25lbs) and far more powerful fighter. But Rickard cleverly built up a good-versus-evil angle, with Dempsey having been widely accused of draft-dodging, while Carpentier was a war hero, having been awarded the Croix de Guerre. Dempsey’s thick-set, brooding look contrasting with Carpentier’s elegant demeanour helped accentuate these matters, but there was a contrary undercurrent in that Dempsey was the all-American figure while Carpentier was Old World and maybe just a bit too fancy. Either way, it was a contest where no one was going to be allowed to be neutral in their opinions.

Rickard targeted a new female audience for boxing by building up Carpentier’s appeal and improving facilities at the venue. He was rewarded with a crowd of 80,183 and an overall gross of $1,789,238, twice the amount of any previous fight. Rickard knew that money attracts money, so he made sure that everyone was aware of the huge sums being paid to the boxers: $300,000 plus 25% of the movie rights to Dempsey; $200,000 plus 25% of the movie rights to Carpentier.

Georges Carpentier, from The Battle of the Century

The movie rights were an essential feature of these calculations (despite an official ban on interstate commerce in fight films). The film was produced by Fred C. Quimby (who had first signed up Dempsey for Daredevil Jack), with the filming itself overseen by George McLeod Baynes. Entitled The Battle of the Century (Rickard’s own billing for the fight), the film employs all the tricks of the cinema to create one of the very best sporting movies of the silent era. It builds up the fight, far more fluidly than earlier fight films, with scenes of both fighters in training, the special stadium under construction, the crowd arriving, the press at the ready, fingers on the ticker tape machines, dissolves, close-ups and astute camera angles all tensely and rhymically edited until the point where the fighters enter the ring.

The film at this point loses some of its rhythm by inevitably following the action in real time, and by doing so initially with limited, static coverage from a single camera position perched precariously on the top of a tall stand. The fighting is intense but it is sometimes hard to tell the two fighters apart. But as the fight progresses through its four rounds the film picks up once again, close-ups increase, the camera pans with the action and as Dempsey moves in for the kill we watch transfixed as Carpentier is felled, leaps up instantly, is brought down again, and stays down.

Despite the interstate ban, the film was widely shown. Dan Streible, in the essential Fight Films, describes how Quimby organised distribution to twenty different states by employing anonymous couriers who delivered unmarked packages to hired attorneys, “who knowingly received the contraband, then either sold prints with state distribution or exhibition rights or left reels for theater managers to screen”. When even President Warren Harding and Vice-President Calvin Coolidge attending a screening of the film at a private party, then this was a film where public will was always going to override the law, come what may. Quimby made plenty of money, picked up a federal conviction along the way, then went on to join MGM and to pick up a string of Academy Awards as head of its animation unit, featuring in particular a certain battling cat and mouse.

The Battle of the Century is available in its full 34-minute glory from European Film Treasures, complete with a piano score by Antonio Coppola. For more information on the fight, read Randy Roberts’ racy and superbly-written Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler.

(Some of this text comes from an essay I wrote for Griffithiana in 1998 entitled ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’)

Olympic Hitch

The rugby game from Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927), from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Here in the UK we’re shaping up nicely for the Olympic Games in 2012. We’ve moved from being cynical to saying we can’t aford to wanting it to succeed to believing it could actually be fantastic (then after the Games we’ll revert to cynicism again, with is the natural order of things in Blighty). And for those who don’t actually like sport there’s the Cultural Olympiad – a programme of arts and culture events which have little if anything to do with the Olympic Games but, hey, arts organisations will grasp at any straw that goes floating by.

But enough of my own cynicism. We’re going to get a whole range of interesting cultural events grounded in fundamental Olympic themes such as community, regeneration, youth – you know the sort of thing. And silent cinema should get a look in, because what has just been announced by the BFI is a touring retrospective for 2012 of Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films.

This is a bold and welcome move, as for most Hitchcock’s silent career remains a closed book, beyond possibly an awareness that he made The Lodger. Strictly speaking the retrospective isn’t formally a part of the Cultural Olympiad as yet, but the BFI is pointing out, rather ingeniously, that Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, near the Olympic park in East London. A report in The Independent describes the plans, which include an exhibition:

Eddie Berg, artistic director of the BFI, said … “One of the things we are trying to get off the ground is to restore the silent films. Most of the visual tropes in these titles appear in his later works. We want to look at his influence on the contemporary world. The season will look at his huge body of work and his influence in different ways,” said Mr Berg.

The silent titles will form the heart of the retrospective, but the exhibition may also include the music of the American composer Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Hitchcock on the scores for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. A staging of Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, a 1993 artwork featuring a slowed-down version of the horror film, will also feature.

Amanda Neville, director of the BFI, said the initiative would “resurrect the [Hitchcock] films that are not on the tips of everybody’s tongues”.

Some of the films need critical restoration work, she said, and “three of them cannot go through a film projector – the level of damage to them is phenomenal.”

Robin Baker, the BFI’s head curator, said he was keen to discover the whereabouts of Hitchcock’s silent movie The Mountain Eagle, which he called the “holy grail” of lost British films.

“It was made in 1926 and was his last silent film featuring a sexually vulnerable young woman and a case of miscarriage of justice,” he said. [I think that’s a misquote and what he actually said was “first film featuring…”]

Hitchcock began his career in Britain as a designer of film title cards before directing a dozen silent films, including The Lodger, in 1926 and which the BFI hopes to restore and screen.

His first “talkie” film Blackmail, released in 1929, was shot as a silent feature and later converted to sound.

Well, I don’t expect they were planning to project those three damaged nitrate prints in any case, but the retrospective should also play its part in educating audiences about film restoration, as well as offering new opportunities to see silent films and unfamiliar Hitchcock. And as further indications of Olympic relevance, let’s point out the sporty bits of Hitchcock’s silents – boxing in The Ring, the rugby game in Downhill, the tennis match in Easy Virtue

For an overview of Hitchcock’s extensive silent film career (he began as a title writer for the British Famous Players-Lasky studios in 1920), see this earlier Bioscope post. And let’s hope along with Robin Baker that a print of The Mountain Eagle finally turns up. That really would be an event worthy of any Cultural Olympiad.

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.

The Jeffries-Sharkey Fight


USA 1899

Production Company: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Cinematographers: Arthur E. Johnstone, Wallace McCutcheon, F.J. Marion

Distributed by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
37,000 feet


Welcome to Wonderland! The venue for our screening this evening is something special, and possibly the kind of place outside the experience of some of the gentler members of our festival attendees. We are in Whitechapel, in the heart of London’s East End, and Wonderland is where the working man goes to seek out entertainments after his own heart. Those with long memories may recall when this place was the East London Theatre and put on Yiddish plays for the Russians and Poles newly come to London. Rough were the entertainments and rough the audiences who enjoyed them. Then the place turned to boxing, and under the careful management of Mr Jonas Woolf it became Wonderland, home to boxing bouts, amusement shows, so-called freak shows, and cinematograph entertainments. Up to 2,000 people will squeeze themselves into Wonderland on a boxing night, and it is boxing that we have for you tonight, in this most appropriate of venues.

For tonight we bring you The Jeffries-Sharkey Fight. Yes, all twenty-five rounds of the world heavyweight championship bout held at Coney Island on 3 November 1899. But the fight lasted for some two hours you cry, it is not possible for a cinematograph to be so long in 1899. Ah, but it is, though the struggle to achieve so stupendous a record of pugilistic endeavour on the cinematograph was scarcely less tumultuous than the bloody struggle that was the fight itself.

The film is a production of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, whose products you may have seen a large-screen entertainments in variety theatres, or as Mutoscopes, those peepshows with cards rotated by a handle that are so popular in some amusement parlours. The company employs a unique 70mm film system, which can only be exhibited by its own projectors, a policy which has encouraged the pirates, as you will learn. However, the quality of the image achieved is extraordinary, and with none of the tiresome flicker that sadly drives some people away from the cinematograph shows. Following the great commercial success enjoyed by the Veriscope Company in filming the world heavyweight championship bout between James J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons in 1897, Biograph secured the rights to film this match between Fitzsimmons’ conqueror, James J. Jeffries, and the challenger Tom Sharkey, a deal secured by Jeffries’ wily manager William Brady – a man acutely aware of the value of a motion picture deal to the boxer of today.


Jim Jeffries (left) and Tom Sharkey

Yes, Boilermaker Jim versus Sailor Tom, 215lbs and 6′ 2″ against 183lbs and 5′ 8″, a contest that has gone down as one of the most grueling fistic encounters of modern times. Twenty-five rounds would be enough to test the stamina of anyone, but what made this encounter all the tougher was the presence of the motion picture cameras. The fight took place in the Coney Island pavilion, and once a decision was made not to remove the roof (to allow in daylight), it was necessary to film under artificial lights. Mr Dan Streible, the festival’s special consultant, informs us that the Biograph company boasts of employing eleven electricians to operate 400 specially built arc lights and associated feed wires, dynamos etc., while a it was boasted a dozen operators were required to man the four cameras. Over seven miles of cinematograph film were to be taken by the operators (we rather think that there were three of them) who worked in rotation, with the cameras in parallel so that one was operating at any one time while the others were loaded in readiness and a fourth stood by in case of breakdowns.

All those arc lights generated colossal heat. We are reliably informed that the scalps of the fighters were singed, and each suffered from great weight loss as the fight progressed. Add to this the brutality of the fight itself – Sailor Tom suffered two broken ribs – and one realises that one is to experience something extraordinary, a sporting endeavour which the cinematograph did not only record but in doing so affected its outcome. We fondly imagine that the cameras are passive witnesses of what parades before them, but maybe the camera being there necessarily changes what we see, so what kind of reality is it that the cinematograph is recording?


Poster advertising the fight film, from the Library of Congress collection

But enough of such philosophising, we must return to the fight. The result you will know. As tough and able as Sharkey undoubtedly was, able to withstand terrific punishment, Jeffries countered his every sally with fierce left hooks to the jaw and thunderous blows with the right over the heart. All was level, however, until the final five rounds, when the champion began to dominate and the strength had gone out of Sailor Tom’s punches. With an energising glass of champagne offered to him by his trainer before the final round, the Boilermaker entered the ring with renewed vigour comprehensively outbox his opponent and make the judges’ decision an easy one.

Thanks to the effort, expense and ingenuity of the Biograph company, you will be able to see all twenty-five rounds of this unsurpassed sporting encounter, with George Siler, referee for the contest, brought over at notable expense to serve as expert lecturer. He will guide you through the finer points of the scientific display that you will be witnessing. Now some may have heard rumours that the Biograph company were not able to film every second of the fight. Indeed, that is the case. Though the cameras themselves never failed, most unfortunately a fuse blew just as the twenty-fifth and final round was coming to a close. Exasperatingly for the filmmakers, they missed the crucial moment where Jeffries’ glove came off, Sharkey tried to take advantage, the bell rang, and Mr Siler held up Jeffries’ arm in victory. What exactly happened? How greatly we would value seeing the cinematographic record at this very point. It is unclear how the film company has got around this unfortunate lacuna. Some say that a judicious edit has smoothed over the gap; other claim that a re-enactment has been filmed. Mr Siler is saying nothing, and Mr Brady has been equally evasive. We will only be able to judge when we have seen the film ourselves.


The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s camera team on its special platform

You may also have heard tales of other films made of this fight. Sadly, this is so. Despite the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s exclusive agreement with the promoters, other unscrupulous filmmakers who put not a penny towards the filming of the event yet are all to eager to benefit from the struggles of those who did are promoting films of the Jeffries-Sharkey fight. One company, Lubin, as you may know, has specialised in producing dramatised reconstructions of boxing matches, and having copyrighted their re-enactment of Jeffries-Sharkey ahead of Biograph, even had the cheek to sue the legitmate film producers for infringement!

But the greater crime has come from some renegade operators, among them Albert Smith of the Vitagraph company and James H. White of Edison, who smuggled cameras into the crowd, eluding the attentions of the Pinkerton men hired specifically to prevent such piracy, taking full advantage of Biograph’s lighting to produce short films of the bout. Vitagraph’s film is a wretched record of only a small portion of the fight (we have heard that they have attempted to put the film into a loop with the intention of fooling the gullible into thinking them are seeing multiple rounds) with the heads of the crowd obscuring the view. With what great irony is it for a festival of lost films that this pirate film survives, yet all posterity has of the Biograph film – the epic of its age – is a Mutoscope card or two, representing a few inches of a record that, as we know, could be measured in miles. And so, breaking all of the festival’s rules, our accompanying short is a film that does exist. Here is The Battle of Jeffries and Sharkey for Championship of the World (1899), produced by Vitagraph.

An extract from the pirated film of Jeffries-Sharkey taken by Vitagraph (the stills, commentary and music are all obviously later interpolations)

Despite the simulation and piracy, the Biograph company has enjoyed considerable success with The Jeffries-Sharkey Fight. Some say that it has brought in $200,000 at the box office, and if that is probably an exaggeration, it has undoubtedly further cemented the close relationship between the ring and the screen. However, commentators have noted fewer women attending screenings of the film that was the case for the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight two years ago. Perhaps the novelty value has worn off. In the future, boxing films will be for fight fans only, and we suspect that they will become increasingly marginalised, after having played such a crucial role in building up an audience for motion pictures when they first appeared.

Join us tomorrow night, when we will be in Oxford Street to see a magical tale in dumbshow … or is it two magical tales in dumbshow?

BFI on YouTube

The Bioscope has reported on the BFI’s You Tube channel before now, but this just to alert you to the fact that they have been adding many more videos to the site, a good number of them silent. There are currently 177 videos, and there isn’t time or space enough to point out all of the gems that lie therein. So I’m just going to point you to three, and then urge you to go explore for yourselves.

To start with, here’s an odd little newsreel story from 1921 which I first showed at the National Film Theatre in 1992 (ah, memories):

The peculiar event on show is the Eton Wall Game, filmed by the Topical Budget newsreel. This sport, which only the British public school system could have produced, involves the schoolboys piling up into a scrum and trying to push a ball along the wall. If they get it to the end of a wall it’s a goal, but in the traditional St Andrew’s Day game there hasn’t been a goal scored since 1909. What is of interest here is that one of the boys taking part was Eric Blair – yes, the future George Orwell is somewhere in the pile of boys, and despite many people having stared very closely at the film over the past sixteen years, no one has spotted him as yet. So now it’s your turn.

This next gem is called Old London Street Scenes. That’s what we call a supplied title in the trade. It wasn’t called that originally, someone gave it the quaint title later:

This is a piece of footage which has been shown countless times on television because of its spectacular closing shots of London traffic. It demonstrates how a fixed camera single shot of ordinary human life can nevertheless astonish. Look out in particular for the epoch-making moment when a motor car appears among the horse-drawn carriages. It dates from 1903 (we know this because of some of the London shows seen advertised on posters on the passing vehicles). The likely production company is Walturdaw.

Finally, some more sport:

This is part of the extraordinary Mitchell & Kenyon collection of Edwardian era films. Having presumably sold all of the DVDs that they are probably likely to sell of this collection, the BFI has put up quite a selection on the YouTube site. This cricket film has been given the supplied title Arthur Mold Bowling to A.N. Hornby, and was made in 1901. As the DVD commentary (courtesy of Adrian Chiles) explains, there had been a huge controversy at the time when Lancashire’s Arthur Mold was accused of having a dodgy bowling action; that is, throwing (apologies for American readers who may not appreciate how profoundly shocking this to any cricket follower). So he appeared before the cameras demonstrating his bowling style, so that viewers could judge for themselves how legitimate he was. Compared to, say Muttiah Mulitharan, you may wonder what the fuss was about (a bit sideways on, maybe, but hardly chucking). Or, for poetry lovers among you, note simply that the batsman in the nets with Mold is A.N. Hornby, subject of a famous set of lines by Francis Thompson (the poem is called ‘At Lord’s’), recalling the cricket of his youth (when, of course, the game was always better):

For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

On which wistful note, let me just recommend once again the BFI’s YouTube site (not all silents, not all non-fiction, by the way), and look out for further posts on the stories behind one or two of the videos to be found there, in due course.

The silent Olympics

Photographers and cinematographers at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, from the official report, available at

Note: This post has now been updated with new information at

It is less than a month now until the Olympic Games in Beijing begin, and for two weeks hundreds of cameras will be trained on the athletes, images of whom will be beamed out to billions. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ubiquity, power and global shared experience that the motion picture has grown to represent from its simple beginnings in 1896 than that concentrated period, every four years, when it covers the Olympic Games, a phenomenon which likewise traces its (modern) roots to 1896.

The modern Olympic Games and motion pictures share a common heritage, beyond that shared birthdate of 1896 (motion pictures existed before 1896, of course, but 1896 was when they first made their real impact upon the world). The two phenomena grew up together, in sophistication, intention and global reach. To view the films of the early Olympic Games is to witness the growth of the medium in how it captured action and form, from analysis, to (relatively) passive witness, to a medium that shaped athletic events to its own design. We see a transition from a formality bred of militaristic roots to entertainment, art and a focus on the individual. In the words of Olympic historian Allen Guttmann (talking of modern sports overall), we see a movement from ritual to record. The survey that follows summarises the history of the Olympic Games on film throughout the silent era, that is, to 1928.

Athens, 1896

No one filmed the first Olympic Games of the modern era. The Games, which were held in Athens 6-15 April and attracted 241 athletes from fourteen nations, enjoyed some notice around the world, probably appealing as much to classicists as to athletes, but the motion picture industry was in its infancy and not as yet geared up to reporting on world news. Motion pictures had not yet reached Greece, America would really only awake to motion pictures on a screen on 23 April, with the debut of the Edison Vitascope, and the Lumière brothers – really the only possible candidates – did not think to send one of their operators to Athens. Occasionally on television you will see film purporting to show the Games of 1896. Such scenes are false – in most cases, you are being shown images from 1906.

Paris, 1900

The 1900 Games were something of a disaster after the modest triumph of Athens. Organised to run alongside the great Paris Exhibition of 1900, the Games were barely recognised as such, being so chaotically organised and poorly promoted that many of the athletes who did take part in the events (which stretched from May-October 1900) were unaware that they had taken part in the Olympics. It is no surprise, therefore, than no standard films were made of Paris Games (several films of the Paris exhibition survive, but none show the athletic contests).

However, fleeting cinematographic records do exist. The Institut Marey, the scientific institute led by Etienne-Jules Marey, who had developed the art and science of chronophotography (sequence photography undertaken for the purposes of analysing motion), decided to record some of the visiting American athletes, to compare their methods with those of French athletes. Alvin Kraenzlein (winner of gold medals for long jump, 60 metres race, 110 metre hurdles and 200 metre hurdles), Richard Sheldon (illustrated, gold medal winner in the shot put), and the legendary Ray Ewry (exponent of the now discontinued events of standing high jump, long jump and triple jump) were among those filmed. The ‘films’ are a few frames long, lasting less than a second each, yet they were enough to demonstrate the superiority of the dynamic attack of the American technique over the correct military bearing of the equivalent French athletes. These fleeting images survive today – there are examples in the National Media Museum – and illustrations from them can be found in the official report on the Games.

St Louis, 1904

Paris was a disaster for the nascent Olympic movement, but St Louis was worse. Again, they went for the convenience of being part of a general Exposition, and again the Olympic events were mismanaged from start to finish, with little sense of a Games with a distinct identity, and the distant location putting off many athletes not hailing from America. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, were any films taken on the Games. The International Olympic Committee’s site exhibits a video clip which it says shows running events from 1904 (click on the Photos section of the site), but I don’t think those are the 1904 Games (the background looks wrong), and I’ve found no evidence from catalogues of the period of any such film being taken.

Athens, 1906

Archie Hahn (USA) winning the 100 metres in 1906 (still photograph, not from a cinematograph film)

The intercalary Games of 1906 did not occur during an official Olympiad (i.e. the four-yearly period that marks when the Olympic Games are held), but this intermediary contest, designed partly as a sop to the Greeks who were disappointed that the Games were not being held permanently in Athens, was a relative success and did much to get the idea of the Olympics back on track. It also attracted the film companies. Gaumont and Pathé from France, the Warwick Trading Company from Britain, and Burton Holmes of America all made short films of the Games (we are long way yet from feature-length documentaries). The films that survive (one from Gaumont, one unidentified) emphasise the ritual, concentrating on the opening ceremonies and gymnastic displays. Individuals are lost in the mass.

London, 1908

Dorando Pietri finishing the 1908 Marathon (still photograph)

The Games started to come of age in London in 1908. Although they were again held in tandem with an exhibition, in this case the Franco-British Exhibition, for which the famous White City and associated stadium were built, this time the Games were welcomed by the organisers. The result was a popular success and a qualified triumph for sport – the qualification being necessary because the Games were marred by some bitter rivalry between America and Britain, geo-political tensions being played out on the athletics track not for the last time.

The Games were filmed by Pathé, in what seems to have been a semi-exclusive deal. The Charles Urban Trading Company filmed events outside the stadium, including the Marathon, but within the stadium it was Pathé alone, an indication of arrangements to come. Around ten minutes survive, a selection of which can be found on the British Pathe site. Basic coverage is given to the pole vault, high jump, tug o’ war, discus, water polo and women’s archery, though no names are given for athletes. But what distinguishes the 1908 coverage is the Marathon. Around half of the extant film of the Games is devoted to the race, concentrating on the Italian Dorando Pietri, who staggered over the line first, only to be disqualified because he had received help after he collapsed in the stadium within sight of the finishing line (something the film makes quite clear). For the first time on film we thrill at the sight of Olympic endeavour.

Stockholm, 1912

The Great Britain football team, gold medal winners in 1912 (still photograph)

The Stockholm Games of 1912 were the most successful yet. Twenty-eight nations, 2,407 athletes (just forty-eight of them women), a triumph of organisation, and an event followed more eagerly around the world than ever before. Responsibility for filming the Games went to the A.B. Svensk –Amerikanska Film Kompaniet, which commissioned Pathé exclusively to film a series of short newsfilms. All this footage survives in the archives of Sveriges Television. Now, at last, the athletes are named, and we get a sense of competition and achievement. In the first of two reels covering the Games held in the BFI National Archive, we see the inevitable gymnastic display, first by Scandinavian women’s team (for display purposes alone – women’s competitive Olympic gymnastics only began in 1928) followed by men’s team and individual gymnastics; the Swedish javelin thrower Eric Lemming, winner with the world’s first 60 metre throw; fencing, shot put, the 10,000 metres walk and the shot put, won by Harry Babcock of the USA. The second reel features men’s doubles tennis, the soccer tournament (Great Britain – not England – beating Denmark 4-2 in the final), Graeco-Roman wrestling, hammer throwing, the standing high jump, and the Marathon, run on an exhaustingly hot day that caused half the runners to retire. Filmed in engrossing detail, the drama of the Marathon is built up well, the tension in the sporting endeavour pushing forward the form of the film attempting to encapsulate it. The race was won by Kenneth McArthur of South Africa.

Antwerp, 1920

The Sixth Olympiad was to have been held in Berlin in 1916. Those Games were, unsurprisingly, cancelled, though film exists of German athletes training for the Games. After the war, the Games were awarded to Belgium, which perhaps was not entirely ready for the compliment after all it had been through, and the 1920 Games were hastily and cheaply organised. Despite this, the growing world interest in athletic competition had continued to grow, and there were several notable athletes who made their mark on Olympic history, including the ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi, America’s Charley Paddock winning the 100 metres, and France’s Suzanne Lenglen at the start of gaining worldwide fame as a tennis player. Sadly, only a few newsreels were made of the events. The IOC website features film of the opening ceremony, American hammer thrower Patrick McDonald, and one of the stars of the Games, 14-year-old American diver Aileen Riggin.

Paris, 1924

Harold Abrahams winning the 100 metres, from Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (frame still)

And then we come to 1924. The second Paris Games have become familiar to many through their recreation in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. There is a particular thrill in seeing the two British athletes whose fortunes are covered by the Oscar-winning film, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, turning up for real in such detail. For this was the first time where we had a feature-length documentary dedicated to the Games. Strictly speaking, the film produced by Rapid-Film of France was a series of two-reelers dedicated to different sports, including those from the first Winter Games, held in Chamonix. Nevertheless, it was also compiled as a complete film, Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924, a daunting three hours long (unexpectedly, it is preserved in its entirety by the Imperial War Museum Film and Video Archive).

[Update (September 2008): Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 is no longer held by the IWM, having been passed to the International Olympic Committee. An incomplete copy of the film is held by the British Film Institute]

Viewing the film in one sitting is something of a challenge, but individual events are never less than efficiently portrayed (aside from some tedious wrestling) and occasionally marvellously so. Particularly thrilling is the football, where the Uruguyan gold medal winners demonstrate a level of tehnical accomplishment light years ahead of the sturdy endeavours of the European teams. The 100 metres, won by Abrahams, is a highlight, with choice details such as the athletes digging holes in the track for their heels. Slow motion is used artfully (particularly for the 3,000 metres steeplechase). The Marathon is a tour de force, a real drama in itself, with such carefully observed details as the anxious look of officials at the drinks stations (and how delightful in itself that the French served wine as well as water). Few who were there can have forgotten Neil Brand’s bravura accompaniment to the 1924 Marathon at Pordenone in 1996, when the Giornate del cinema muto put on a special programme of silent Olympic films.

Star athletes on show include Nurmi, his great Finnish rival Ville Ritola, the Americans Jackson Scholz (sprinter) and Helen Wills (tennis player), but disappointingly all we see of the future Tarzan Johnny Weismuller is his submerged figure in long shot as he raced to fame as a swimmer. Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 (produced by Jean de Rovera) is no film masterpiece, but as a sporting record, it captures greatness.

Amsterdam, 1928

Lord Burghley, winner of the 400 metre hurdles, from Olympische Spelen (frame still)

The last Olympic Games of the silent film era were held in Amsterdam in 1928. The Games were by now thoroughly established as an event of worldwide significance. The idea of a film dedicated to the Games had also been established, though the problems that beset the 1928 film, Olympische Spelen, were such that it was barely seen, and it remains little known. The history is complicated, but essentially in 1927 the Dutch Olympic Committee approached a federation of Dutch film businesses to mange the filming of the Games. Negotiations fell down over financial considerations – and because the Dutch commitee was, at the same time, negotiating with foreign film companies. Eventually they did a deal with the Italian company Istituto Luce. For the first time a director was chosen with an ‘arthouse’ pedigree (Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1936 was neither the first Olympic film nor the first with a notable director, as some histories would have us believe). The director was the German Wilhem Prager, who had enjoyed notable success with the 1925 kulturfilme sports documentary Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty), in which Riefenstahl takes a fleeting acting role.

Prager’s film (preserved in the Nederlands Filmmuseum) is no more than efficient, though it does have some innovations such as having the names of athletes in some distance races appear as captions alongside them as they run. The film shows us Nurmi and Ritola once more; Boughera El Ouafi, the Algerian-born (but running for France) winner of the Marathon; the ebullient Lord Burghley (played by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire) winning the 200 metre hurdles; and Japan’s triple jumper Mikio Oda, the first Asian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal. But alas, owing to the considerable mishandling of the whole affair by the local Olympic Committee, Dutch exhibitors boycotted the official film, and hardly anyone saw it.

Das Weiss Stadion, from

There was also a feature-length film made of the 1928 Winter Olympics at St Mortiz, Das Weisse Stadion. Directed by Dr Arnold Fanck (the man who discovered Leni Riefenstahl as a film actress) and Othmar Gurtner, it was made for Olympia-Film AG of Zurich, and edited by the great Walter Ruttmann. However, Fanck appears to have viewed it as a chore and to have filmed it in a perfunctory manner. Only two cameramen were used, which would have hampered its coverage to a serious degree – which we have to assume, since the film is not known to survive.

Olympic drama

Johnny Weissmuller (left) and Duke Kahanamoku

Finally, to complete the history, note must be made of those Olympic athletes of the silent era who went on to appear in fiction films once their fame had been established through sporting endeavour. Johnny Weissmuller, star of the 1924 and 1928 Games, of course went on to eternal fame as Tarzan. The American sprinting hero of 1920 and 1924, Charley Paddock, starred in Nine and Three-Fifths Seconds (1925), The Campus Flirt (1926), The College Hero (1927), High School Hero (1927), and (guess what) The Olympic Hero (1928). The Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was in five American Olympic teams between 1912 and 1932, but could also be seen swimming and acting in Adventure (1925), Lord Jim (1925), Old Ironsides (1926), Woman Wise (1928) and The Rescue (1929). Buster Crabbe, like Weissmuller a swimming champion in 1928, went on to become Flash Gordon, while Herman Brix (shot put silver in 1928) went on to become Tarzan and as Bruce Bennett starred in many films, including Treasure of the Sierre Madre.

Finding out more

There are few histories of Olympic film, and where these do exist they either get elementary facts wrong or assume that everything started in 1936 with Olympia. As the above should indicate, there was a rich history of Olympic filmmaking going back to 1900, and many of the innovations in Olympic film which we might associate with later times had been achieved before films gained sound. One exception is Taylor Downing’s Olympia, in the BFI Film Classics series, which has a brief but reliable history of Olympic film prior to 1936. And if you can get hold of it, my long article ‘Sport and the Silent Screen’ in Griffithiana 64 (October 1998) has much of the history recounted above, though I have now had the opportunity to correct some facts, and amend some opinions. The best general book on the Olympic Games, by several miles, is David Wallechinsky and Janine Loukey’s The Complete Book of the Olympics, a sport-by-sport historical survey which also includes (if you look hard) information on the film careers of some Olympic athletes.

The easiest place to see some of the films is the International Olympic Committee’s site. Under the Olympic Games section there is a mini-history of each Games from 1896 (excluding 1906), and in each of these sub-sections at the bottom of the page there is a Photo Gallery which (if you click on any image) also contains some video clips. Information on the Olympic Games generally is all over the place, of course, but for the researcher particular attention should be drawn to the LA84 Foundation site, an astonishingly rich resource originally create to commemorate the 1984 Los Angeles Games but now providing free access to a vast range of digitised historical documents on all of the modern Games (including, for examples, the official reports).

Some other sites of interest: The Olympic Studies International Directory, a directory of research in all aspects of the Olympic Games; the Olympic Television Archive Bureau, or OTAB, the company which markets Olympic footage from all periods; and the rather wonderful, which celebrates (in English and Italian) the life of the Marathon runner the centenary of whose triumph and disaster is marked this year.