Fight pictures

I wrote a post a while ago on two new books on boxing and modern culture. I’ve just started reading Kasia Boddy’s Boxing: A Cultural History, which is a real treasure trove, so more on that in due course.

I’ve not yet laid eyes on Dan Streible’s Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema, which is going to be a real treat, but anyone who’s in New York might like to know about an illustrated lecture the author will be giving at Light Industry, a new venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn. The event takes place on 6 May at 8.00pm, and costs $6.

Here’s the blurb:

Between 1894 and 1915, the first generation of filmmakers produced more than 250 motion pictures with boxing and prizefighting as their subject. Fight pictures were among the most conspicuous, profitable and controversial productions of early cinema. From 1912 until 1940, U.S. law banned the interstate distribution of film recordings of prizefights. Congress enacted the law to suppress the celebrity of the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, titleholder from 1908 to 1915. Yet, only a few years after the start of the ban, fight pictures flourished again. Throughout the 1920s and 30s these supposedly criminal records were nearly ubiquitous in movie houses and other venues. In conjunction with his newly released book Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema, Dan Streible presents glimpses of some of these ephemeral films, most of which no longer survive or exist only in fragments. Also on screen will be much of the ephemera – posters, photographs, cartoons, advertisements and the like – that accompanied these “moving fight pictures.”

See the likes of:
Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894)
Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897)
A Scrap in Black and White (1903)
Squires vs. Burns, Ocean View, Cal., July 4th, 1907 (1907)
Jack Johnson: Der Meister Boxer der Welt (1911)

It’s a compelling history, one well worth telling and telling again. More from the ring in the near future.

The Open Video Project

Edison titles

2 A.M. in the Subway (1905), Japanese Acrobats (1904) and The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, But He Fools Them (1902), from

There are a number of online video collections out there designed for university use which feature lectures, demonstrations, educational documentaries etc. One that has been around for some time is the Open Video Project, which is hosted by Internet2 in America, and aims “to collect and make available a repository of digitized video content for the digital video, multimedia retrieval, digital library, and other research communities.” It comprises a number of collections from around the world such the University of Maryland HCIL Open House Video Reports, Digital Himalaya, NASA K-16 Science Education Programs and the HHMI Holiday Lectures on Science, but for our purposes what is interesting about the site is the Edison Video section.

This features 187 Edison production from the Library of Congress, dating from the 1890s and 1900s. Many early Edison titles are, of course, available from the LoC’s own excellent American Memory site, but the majority of the titles here are not on the better-known site. Among the varied titles only available here are A Ballroom Tragedy (1905), A Nymph of the Waves (1903), A Wake in “Hell’s Kitchen” (1903), Dog Factory (1904), Fights of Nations (1907), Gordon Sisters Boxing (1901), International contest for the heavyweight championship–Squires vs. Burns, Ocean View, Cal., July 4th, 1907 (1907), Princeton and Yale Football Game (1903), a series of films on the United States Post Office, films of the Westinghouse electrical works in 1904, and films from the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. And many more.

Basic cataloguing information is provided, though there are some peculiar errors with dates from time to time, and the presentation is rudimentary apart from some helpful synopses. There is little information available on the collection overall, so nothing to explain the significance of Edison films or why these titles – predominantly actuality – have been chosen. All are available as freely downloadable MPEG-1s, with the same frustratingly small image size as one finds on the American Memory site. But let us not be churlish – here is a wonderful selection of titles, many of them unfamiliar and indicative of the range of Edison production, including comedies, dramas, variety acts, sports films, travel films, and sponsored industrial work. Well worth exploring.

Lost and found no. 4 – The Henville collection

Yarmouth Fishing Boats Leaving Harbour (1896), from

The appearance of the above film on the BFI’s YouTube site has inspired me to revive the Lost and Found strand on this blog (film collections once lost that have now been recovered), and to tell you something of the remarkable story of the Henville collection.

Cast your minds back to 1995. It was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, the Aum Shinrikyo cult relased sarin gas on the Tokyo underground, Jacques Chirac became president of France, Eric Cantona attacked a football fan in the crowd, a new moving image format, the DVD, was announced, and in film archives and cinematheques across the globe those dedicated to film history and numerology sought various ways to mark the centenary of cinema.

It was a busy time for me, as the British Film Institute’s pet early film enthusiast, if not quite expert, with screenings, events, conferences and writing a book on Victorian cinema. And somewhere early on in that manic year, a collection of films turned up. There were some seventeen cans, single reel subjects, non-standard perforations, all readily identifiable as films from the 1890s. Films from the 1890s generally only turn up in dribs and drabs, so seventeen titles in one go was quite a coup. And the archivist who took in the films let me inspect a few (they were in a very fragile state), and one I looked at was clearly filmed at Epsom. ‘Oh no’, I said, ‘it’s another Derby’. We had other early Derby films, all looking very much the same, and it was a pain in the neck trying to tell one from another. I set it to one side…

The collection had come from one Ray Henville, a collector of vintage radios. At an auction he picked up some vintage radios and with them acquired some cans of unidentified films. Henville knew nothing of old film, but one of them featured a sailing boat, so he sent in a photograph to a yachting magazine in the hope that someone might be able to identify it. Happily the photograph was seen by Bill Barnes, film historian and twin brother of John Barnes, author of the esteemed The Beginnings of the Cinema in England series.

Bill alerted that BFI, we took them in, and I ended up trying to identify them. This was a slow process, not least on account of the fragility of the films which meant that for a long period I only had frame stills to go on. But it soon became clear that here was a remarkable collection of films from the 1890s, several of them likely to have been taken by Birt Acres, the first person to take a 35mm cinematograph film in Britain.

Birt Acres filming the 1895 Derby

Birt Acres filming the 1895 Derby

What distinguished these Acres films was an indistinct frameline and a lack of sharpness to the image. These were characteristics of the Derby film, and the more I looked at it the more I felt that it could be the Derby of 1895, which would make it an extraordinary coup in the centenary year. But how to identity it for certain? There were no contemporary frame stills that I could use to compare, but the angle of the camera matched the position known to have been taken by Acres in the above photograph. Then, having checked race reports and horse racing sources, I looked at the colours of the jockeys (albeit in black-and-white), which matched the winner for 1895, and the fact that it showed a close finish between three horses, such as featured in 1895 but not any other Derby 1896-1900.

It wasn’t quite a eureka moment, and there were arguments against the identification. The film had perforations which suggested it was a later production by Acres’ great rival Robert Paul, who was effectively the producer of the 1895 Derby (it turned out to be a reprint), and once a dupe print had been painstakingly created by archivist João Oliveira and we could screen it, we discovered the film ran satisfactorily at 24 fps, when a film shot for the Kinetoscope peepshow (which was the case with the 1895 Derby) ought to have run at 40 fps. There isn’t space here to go into the complexities of this particular argument – suffice to say that one should judge things by what one finds, not what one expects to find, and that though some doubts were raised over the film’s identity I believe I was right, and the discovery recently of further Acres films from this period which similarly run at a speed seemingly too slow for the Kinetoscope tends to verify the original identification.

1895 Derby

What is believed to be the Derby of 1895, filmed by Birt Acres

It took a while to identify all the films in the Henville collection, and in some cases original identifications were overturned, but here’s the list of films, with titles in brackets for those still unidentified (links are to their entries on the BFI database):

Bataille de Neige (France Lumière 1896)
Blackfriars Bridge (UK Paul 1896)
(Blacksmith) (France? 1896?)
(Boy tormenting gardener) (France? 1896?)
Carpenter’s Shop (USA Edison 1896)
(Circulaire Train Arriving at Paris Station) (1896?) and Depart de Jerusalem en Chemin de Fer (France Lumière 1896) [two films on one reel]
Cologne: Sortie de la Cathédral (France Lumière 1896)
A Corner of Barnet Fair (UK Acres 1896)
(Crude Set Drama) (UK 1895?)
The Derby (UK Acres/Paul 1895)
(Military Parade) (UK? Paul? 1896?)
Niagara Falls (UK Acres 1895)
La Prise de Tournavos (France Méliès 1897)
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (UK Paul 1896)
(Workers Leaving a Factory) (France Méliès? 1896?)
Yarmouth Fishing Boats Leaving Harbour (UK Acres 1896)

I remember the Yarmouth film in particular because David Cleveland, then head of the East Anglian Film Archive had asked me what the likelihood was of this, the earliest film taken his region, ever turning up. I said it was next to impossible. A few weeks later, we had a copy. Now it’s on YouTube.

But what is also of interest is what happened next. A huge fuss made was made about the collection, especially the Derby film. The BFI went to town on it. We had reams of press coverage, television news reports, even a mention on Barry Norman’s Film 95. But this in turn raised the interest of the donor, who felt that there had to be great commercial value in these films, and eventually he took back the nitrate originals, with the BFI retaining the dupe copies it had made. The films were put up for auction in Germany, where I think one or two titles were sold (including the Georges Méliès dramatisation of a scene from the Greco-Turkish War, La Prise de Tournavos, I think), and then the remainder went up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2000. As I recall, the collection was bought by a London antiquarian bookdealer apparently without any knowledge of film.

And then what? A mystery. Perhaps the films lie crumbling on that same bookseller’s shelves, or maybe they have passed on to other hands, convinced that the great excitement generated by the films’ discovery had to mean that they had a great commercial value. Of course, they did not, except what one might get for them at auction – in all other respects, there was nothing to be made from them. This is a folly which has been repeated again and again, dreaming of treasures when all one is left with is unshowable, inflammable and not even necessarily unique (at least six of the Henville films were duplicated in other collections), fascinating to the specialist but of only passing interest to the general viewer. And arguably of minimal aesthetic interest.

But the duplicate copies remain, and so the 1895 Derby is preserved for posterity, until some bright spark comes along and tells me it was the 1896 Oaks all along…

Update (2019):

In September 2019 theatre and film historian Barry Anthony uncovered an image taken from the Acres Derby film which clearly corresponds with the print held by the BFI. The image, which is heavily retouched and printed the wrong way round, with the background removed, was found in The Field, 21 September 1895, p. 510, submitted by one IMPECUNIOSUS (a horse-racing enthusiast), who writes that it shows the closing stage of that year’s Derby. In a later issue of the same journal (5 October) Acres complains that the image had been used without his permission. The Field is available on the British Newspaper Archive subscription site.

So it was the 1895 Derby all along. Here are the original image, the image flipped, and a still from the film:

Seconds out

Fight Pictures

The mere mechanical construction of a film projector has been overestimated … it was boxing that created cinema.

So someone once wrote (actually it was me), and even if the statement was done for effect, there’s some truth to it. Cinema was created for a purpose, which was to make money by amusing an audience, and many of the first viewers of motion pictures wanted to see boxing. The Edison peepshow Kinetoscope (first exhibited commercially in 1894) recorded several bouts, albeit specially staged for the camera; the first projected film to be shown commercially was the Lathams‘ Young Griffo v Battling Charles Barnett (first exhibited in New York on 20 May 1895); and films first extended for over an hour when Enoch Rector‘s Veriscope Company filmed the world heavyweight championship of 1897 between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons with three camera in parallel, the 63mm film stock being specially designed to frame the full view of the boxing ring – boxing in a very real sense creating cinema.

The history of boxing and early cinema is now to be given its first thorough history with the publication of Dan Streible’s long awaited Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. Published by the University of California Press next month, the book covers the rich period where the new medium of cinema collided, or colluded, with the ignoble art, as the the former built up its mass appeal and the latter sought to drag itself out of a state of illegality into legimatised entertainment. It’s a story of technical innovation, exploitation, criminality, fakery, brutality, star power, racial tension, and the rise of mass appeal sport and the media in the early twentieth century.

This history has been researched by Streible for many years now, and it seemed for too long that the book would never come out. It ought to be a crossover seller, appealing both to the early film studies community and the sports history afficionados, to go by his previous writings on the subject.


But that’s not all. Because in May the enterprising Reaktion Books publishes Kasia Boddy’s Boxing: A Cultural History. I know nothing of the provenance of this work, but it sounds tempting enough from the blurb:

Throughout this history, potters, sculptors, painters, poets, novelists, cartoonists, song-writers, photographers and film-makers have been there to record and make sense of it all. In her encyclopaedic investigation of the shifting social, political and cultural resonances of this most visceral of sports, Kasia Boddy throws new light on an elemental struggle for dominance whose weapons are nothing more than fists. From Daniel Mendoza to Mike Tyson, boxers have embodied and enacted our anxieties about race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Looking afresh at everything from neo-classical sculpture to hip-hop lyrics, Boddy explores the way in which the history of boxing has intersected with the history of mass media, and sheds new light on the work of such diverse figures as Henry Fielding and Spike Lee, Charlie Chaplin and Philip Roth, James Joyce and Mae West, Bertolt Brecht and Charles Dickens. This all-encompassing study tells us just how and why boxing has mattered so much to so many.

It probably isn’t going to go into the practical details of how many arc lights the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company employed to photograph indoor fights in 1900, but it does sound like it will give us an eclectic and entertaining cultural history, outlining boxing’s special resonance and appeal, and placing film’s role within that history.

I’ve never been to a boxing match. I can’t watch televised bouts of today. But the history, the characters, the themes of boxing in the past are just so compelling, and – to be honest – the distancing effect of seeing brutal fights only in black-and-white and silently helps sanitise the subject.

To finsh off, here’s an example of how YouTube can serve as an archive bringing life to films you might never expect to see again. Dan Streible himself brought this to the attention of a film archiving list I subscribe to: the Selig Polyscope Company’s 1900 film McGovern-Gans Fight Pictures. It features the lightweights Terry McGovern and Joe Gans, the first native-born black American to win a world title (in 1900). This bout wasn’t for the world title, and it became controversial (and still is, judging from the comments accompanying the film) for Gans reportedly admitting to taking a dive. See what you think.

The film comes from a 1930s or 40s short produced by Forrest Brown, no longer existing in its original 1900 form, so far as is known. Amazing to be able to see such things still, and there’s many more such early fight pictures on YouTube, generally taken from sports shorts made decades later – see, for example, Joe Gans v Kid Herman in 1907 – though many more are lifted from programmes by ESPN, which has the world’s largest collection of archive boxing films, mostly gathered by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton of Big Fights Inc., who when they weren’t amassing an amazing collection of fight films were managing the young Mike Tyson. Tyson has probably seen more archive films of boxing matches than anyone. He’s going to love Streible’s book, I’m sure.

Pordenone diary – day two

You could always go to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, not see any films at all, and still have a marvellous and rewarding time. Some, it would appear, do just that. The weather is gorgeous, the restaurants inviting, every street is strewn with the chairs of pavement cafés, and much negotiating over the higher and lower politics of film archives goes on. It is the place where alliances are made, projects are hatched, and deals are done.

The Bioscope, however, rose with the lark (should they have such in Italy) on day two and headed for the Verdi. At Pordenone, screenings start at 9.00am in the main cinema and run til around 1.00pm, then resume 2.30pm, stop again around 6.00pm, then after supper it’s back for the final long haul from 8.30pm to midnight or so. There’s a second, smaller theatre, used for repeat showings and video screenings, the Ridotto. Had you seen everything at the Verdi on the Sunday, you would have seen seventeen titles. Many come with intertitles other than English, so earphone translation is provided. I have a stubborn belief that if a film is well-made enough, not knowing the language of the titles is not a problem – the pictures alone will suffice. This doesn’t entirely work, but I shunned the headphones, and just about got by.

First up was a selection of American shorts on social interest themes from the forthcoming Treasures from the American Film Archives III DVD. Regrettably, I missed The Black Hand (1906), the first Mafia-themed film and The Cost of Carelessness (1913), an educational film with a scene of children watching an educational film (OK, not everyone’s idea of a thrill, but I’d have been intrigued to see it). So, we kicked off with The Hazards of Helen: Episode 13 – The Escape on the Fast Frieght (1915). Not an obvious choice for a selection of films on social themes, but it was argued that Helen’s (Helen Holmes) position as a railroad telegraph operator assumed by her co-workers to be too feeble to do anything made an interesting social comment on the many women office workers of the time. Because, of course, Helen heroically fought villains across the top of the carriages of a speeding train, before returning to her job where no one was any the wiser about her. It’s not always realised that many of the early serials were not cliff-hangers, but rounded off the story neatly at the end of each episode, before resuming much the same narrative with the succeeding episode. Bud’s Recruit (1918) was a two-reel recruiting drama, where a group of neighbourhood kids form themselves into a ramshackle troop, led by all-American Bud, but it is his effete, bespectacled elder brother who by accident ends up joining the army – and of course discovering that it has made him into a true man. So a bit resistible in theme, but well-made – the director was King Vidor. Lastly in this set there was Labor’s Reward (1925), the one surviving reel of five from a dramatised history of unionism produced by the American Federation of Labor. It put particular emphasis on the exploitation of women workers, and begged audiences to buy only from shops which advertised union-made products. Quite fascinating, and a highly-polished production too.

The Cameraman's Revenge

The Cameraman’s Revenge, from Wikipedia

Pause for breath, then down go the lights for the first of the Ladislaw Starewitch strand. The reason for this seemes to have been a fine touring exhibition of artefacts and photographs of Starewitch’s work which was on display, but the films themselves were a mish-mash of old restorations. We saw Mest’ Kinematograficheskogo Operatora (The Cameraman’s Revenge) (1911), Prekrasaia Lukanida (The Beautiful Lucanid) (1910) and Rozhdestvo Obitatelei (The Insects’ Christmas) (1911), all products of Starewitch’s mindboggling idea to make stop-frame animation films using models of grasshoppers, stag beetles and such like. The Insects’ Christmas was a special delight, Santa Claus climbing down off a Christmas Tree to wake some insects out of hibernation and to treat them to their own festivities.

Pordenone Film Fair

Pordenone Film Fair

I missed the German film Rivalen (1923) as I had to go to my own crucial pavement café negotiation (the fruits of which you’ll have to wait until January 2009 to see), then to the Pordenone book fair, a fascinating mix of sturdy academic volumes on improbable themes in a multiplicity of languages, and posters, photographs and tattered memorablia for the cinema of the childhood of many of the older festival goers – but such is Pordenone.

The afternoon kicked off with Entr’acte (1924), first off in the René Clair retrospective, with musical accompaniment of Erik Satie’s score by two pianists, Barbara Rizzi and Antonio Nimis. What more is there to say about one of the great jeu d’esprit of avant garde cinema, originally a filmed interlude shown between the two acts of the Dadaist Francis Picabia’s notorious ballet Relâche? The central action is a funeral procession, with the mourners initially lollopping along behind in mock-serious manner, before having to speed up to a manic rush as the hearse (pulled by a camel, naturally) gets faster and faster. A promo-reel for the festival was projected on the outside of the Verdi at night, which included this magical sequence, like so:

Teatro Verdi at night

Teatro Verdi at night, showing promotional video with scene from L’Entr’acte

Another strand was The Other Weimar. This initially puzzling title introduced the German cinema of the 1920s that we seldom see. Thanks to the studies of Kracauer and Eisner, much of the studies of German cinema at this time has focussed on Expressionism and the fevered productions whose themes seemed to anticipate the nightmares of Nazism. This strand showed the work of the directors who did not get round to making Caligari or Metropolis – those who tended to make the films that people actually went to see.

Wege Zu Kraft und Schönheit (The Way to Strength and Beauty) (1924-25) was a surprise inclusion, being a health, dance and sports documentary, albeit a popular one at the time – probably on account of its liberal displays of nudity. It was an example of the Ufa studio’s documentaries, or Kulturfilme, and most entertainingly had the festival-goers squirming in their seats as its theme of the need for us to get up off our backsides and start walking seemed all too relevant. Though it was a bit long and repetitive, it was made with mocking wit and some style, with plenty to fascinate fans of dance (including Mary Wigman and Tamara Karsavina) and sport (Babe Ruth, Helen Wills, Charley Paddock). And the keen-eyed would have spotted Leni Riefenstahl in her first film, no doubt picking up ideas for Olympia twelve years away, as a maid in a Roman bath sequence.

I cannot now remember what crucial meeting it can have been that led me to miss Fatty Arbuckle in The Cook (1918) and Max Davidson in the immortal Pass the Gravy (1928), but I hope it was really important.

In the evening, Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930). We had been promised Michael Nyman playing his own piano score, but he was unwell, and was replaced by one of the Pordenone regulars, John Sweeney – who was magnificent. The films at Pordenone are accompanied by a small team of pianists, generally hidden from view beneath the stage, with a monitor showing them the action and headphones translating the titles. This year we had Neil Brand, Gabriel Thibaudeau, Günther Buchwald, John Sweeney, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, Phil Carli and Antonio Coppola. High praise to them all. A Propos de Nice is surprisingly amateurish in places (they didn’t know much about focus), but its cumulative vision of the human madness on display in Nice confirmed its greatness.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Film Archive, the evening’s feature film was Csak Egy Kislány Van a Világon (Only One Girl in the World) (1930), the first Hungarian sound film, though most of it was silent with sonorised score. This was the tale of two war veterans who love the same woman. She falls for the livelier, he falls for another woman when he travels to the city, his friend brings them together again, culminating in a sentimental rendition of the title song. It was a simple yet curiously appealing piece with the quality of a folk tale and a structure in movements that seemed to cry out for its expression as a nineteenth-century symphony. The heroine was played by the 18-year-old Márta Eggerth, now aged ninety-five, who remakably was not able to be at the screening because she is still working (as a teacher of singing). But David Robinson, the festival director, called her on the phone afterwards, and we were treated to the extraordinary experience of listening to this lively woman who sounded as spirited and lively as she had been in 1930, while she experienced the oddness of having her telephone conversation warmly applauded by an invisible audience.

And so to bed.

More from Mitchell and Kenyon


Clearly there are people out there who cannot get enough of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. Firstly there was the discovery of the lost haul of their actuality films of life in northern Edwardian Britain, an astonishing collection of 800 films in pristine condition, which were restored by the British Film Institute, with research undertaken by the National Fairground Archive. Then there came the 2005 BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, which opened people’s eyes to past lives in a way probably never achieved before by a television programme. That was followed by the DVD of the series, then an accompanying book, then a second DVD Electric Edwardians, and then another book of the same title. And there have been public screenings, and countless newspaper articles.

And now there are two more DVDs, and both look amazing. Mitchell and Kenyon in Ireland, narrated by Fiona Shaw, includes twenty-six films taken by Mitchell and Kenyon 1901-1902, and covers Dublin, Wexford, Cork and Belfast. There’s an eighteen-page booklet, and a score by Neil Brand and Günter Buchwald. The second DVD, Mitchell and Kenyon Sports, is the one for me. Narrated by Adrian Chiles (clever choice), this has scenes of football, rugby, athletics, swimming and cricket. There’s film of Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and Hull Kingston Rovers. A particular highlight is film of Lancashire bowler Arthur Mold demonstrating his action to prove that he didn’t, as was alleged, throw the ball. The camera never lies… Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne provide the musical accompaniment.

How will these sell, and what else lies in the vaults ready for release? It’s still extraordinary the excitement that has been generated by this collection of films. The ‘local topical’ film of the 1900s, in which Mitchell and Kenyon specialised, has long been well-known to film archivists. They are films with particular charm because of their artless style and the way in which the people in the films address the camera. They have always been seen as having largely regional appeal, the sort of films that few would ever see or appreciate. Then along came 800 in one go, negatives, with an underlying history connecting them with town hall showmen and fairground operators who commissioned the films and exhibited them across the country. And one musn’t forget the drive of Vanessa Toulmin, of the National Fairground Archive, in pulling all of this activity together.

Mitchell and Kenyon weren’t the only producers of local topicals at this period, but they were the most important. It has be stressed that we knew nothing of these films before they were discovered. My reaction, when I first saw a list of the films when I was working at the National Film and Television Archive, was disbelief – such a number of previously unknown films simply couldn’t exist. M&K were know for a handful of ‘fake’ newsreels of the Boer War, but none of the actualities films turned up in filmographies – they are completely absent from Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue, while Rachael Low’s The History of the British Film barely mentions the company. We know better now.

Will there ever be such a film discovery again?

Iamhist conference report


Iamhist (International Association for Media and History) is an organisation of filmmakers, broadcasters, archivists and scholars dedicated to historical inquiry into film, radio, television, and related media. It publishes the widely-respected Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and organises biennial conferences. This year’s was held in Amsterdam 18-21 July, on the theme Media and Imperialism: Press, Photography, Film, Radio and Television in the Era of Modern Imperialism. There were several papers given on silent film subjects, and the Bioscope was there with pen and notebook.

A number of the best papers were given on media outside Iamhist’s usual frame of reference. Pascal Lefèvre spoke lucidly and informatively on Imperialist images in French and Belgian children’s broadsheets of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, finding arguably positive or some downright critical images that differed from the usual Western view of African peoples at this time. Andrew Francis was equally entertaining and observant in talking about the use of pro-Empire imagery in New Zealand newspaper advertising during the First World War.

On silent films themselves, James Burns spoke on the distribution (or lack of distribution) of the films of the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries boxing match in 1910 and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1914 to black audiences in Africa and the Caribbean. The Johnson-Jeffries film (the black Johnson defeated ‘white hope’ Jeffries for the world heavyweight title) is well-known for how its images of a black victory alarmed many in America, though Burns pointed out that films of Johnson’s earlier victories over white opponents had not aroused anything like the same rabid reaction. He also pointed out that Birth of a Nation was not exhibited in Africa (until 1931), yet no evidence has yet been found to show why it was withheld. Burns’ has done excellent work on film and black African audiences (see his Flickering Shadows: Cinema and Identity in Colonial Zimbabwe), and his new research promises much, even if evidence of black audience reactions (outside the USA) remain elusive.

Simon Popple spoke on films of the Anglo-Boer War, focussing on the dramatised scenes of the conflict produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company. M&K are now renowed for their actuality films of life in Northern England in the Edwardian era, after the successful BBC series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, but they also made dramas, recreating melodramatic scenes from the South African war to feed a public appetite for moving picture scenes of the war which had been disappointed by undramatic newsfilms of the conflict. These crudely histrionic dramas, with titles such as Shelling the Red Cross, A Sneaky Boer, and Hands Off the Flag, raise a laugh now, but presumably had them cheering in the aisles in 1900.

With the unavoidable but unfortunate practice of parallel sessions so that as many speakers as possible can be crammed in, no one could attend everything, and I missed some relevant papers, including Teresa Castro on ‘Imperialism and Early Cinema’s Mapping Impulse’ and Yvonne Zimmermann on ‘Swiss Corporate films 1910-1960’. Too few witnessed Guido Convents‘ excellent presentation on the huge production of Belgian colonial films, from the early years of the century onwards, all designed to remind the world and audiences at home that Belgian had a presence in Africa and an Imperial role to play. He also showed a heartbreaking film of the difficulties faced by the Congo film archive, which put into perspective some of the institutional troubles faced by the world’s larger film archives, described by Ray Edmondson in a plenary session. Edmondson nevertheless made an eloquent case for the ways in which some film archives have come under threat through insensitive political fashions and institutional follies. Archives seem hampered by being archives: politicians do not grasp what it is that they are about in the same way that they do with museums, a far more generously funded sector with a considerably greater public profile.

And there was more. Martin Loiperdinger showed magic lantern slides of British Empire subjects from the nineteenth century and considered their impact upon audiences. Kay Gladstone of the Imperial War Museum showed a two-hour selection of films from its amazing archive for the two world wars (and more), including a live action political ‘cartoon’ from the Anglo-Boer War, and images of Colonial troops in the First World War, though what left the audience stunned was silent, colour home movie footage of India at the time of partition in 1947, showing scenes of the misery caused that the newsreels of the time scrupulously avoided. And there was plenty on post-silent subjects, and me thrilling a small audience with a disquisition on databases and the misuse of thesauri and keywording in describing Imperial and Colonial themes. You should have been there…

These conferences are curious affairs. They are an excellent meeting place and a good way to catch up on the latest ideas, but you do also sit through some truly grim presentations – mumbled monotones, heads bowed down reading from indigestible text, oblivious to the needs of an audience. How some people can still continue to draw salaries as lecturers beats me – you do pity their poor students. And then there are the natural entertainers, who know their audience as well as their subject, and can speak wisely and clearly, in whatever time allotted. It was a well-organised event, the sun shone, the pavement cafés were inviting, and the coffee was fine. I’ll be following up some of the themes (especially silent cinema in Africa) in future posts.

Modern Gladiators

I am poorer but richer. I have forked out for Antonia Lant’s Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema, as already promoted here. It is full of riches. The notes alone are a map to a marvellous world, with a host of tempting pathways down which to travel.

There’s so much that one could say about the texts in the volume, but the first thing to catch my eye was two pieces written by women who saw the film of the World Heavywieght Championship bout at Carson City, Nevada, between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, on 17 March 1897. One is a short, anonymous piece, ‘The Matinee Girl’, from the New York Dramatic Mirror, 12 June 1897; the other is a longer piece by Alice Rix, ‘Alice Rix at the Veriscope’, from the San Francisco Examiner, 18 July 1897, which is about women spectators of the film.

Corbett v Fitzsimmons

The film was made by the Veriscope Company, which employed three cameras in parallel, housed in a wooden cabin, so that when the film ran out of one the next door camera started (as the picture above shows). The result was a seemingly continuous, single-position record, which ran for well over an hour (there were fourteen rounds). The film was 63mm wide, giving a ‘widescreen’ effect which was shaped to the size of the ring:

Corbett v Fitzsimmons film strip

The film was widely shown and enthusiastically watched by audiences worldwide most of whom had never seen a boxing match (boxing was illegal in every American state except Nevada). There was clearly a number of women who went to see the film. And another of them wrote about the experience. Lady Colin Campbell, who wrote a column in The World, on 20 October 1897 wrote about seeing the film at the Aquarium in London (using the pen name Véra Tsaritsyn), under the title ‘Modern Gladiators’:

In spite of all that the humanitarians may say or the Peace Society may preach, the love of fighting will endure to the end of time … it is with satisfaction that I note the number of people who are crowding into the theatre of the Aquarium to see the cinematograph version of the great fight between Corbett and Fitzsimmons, which took place last March in Carson City, Nevada.

It certainly was an admirable idea to have got up this historic encounter for the sake of the pictures to be obtained of it. It is given to comparatively few to see a real prize-fight; but these pictures put the P.R. ‘on tap,’ as it were, for everybody. It is the real thing: the movements of the men, the surging of the crowd, the attentive ministrations of the backers and seconds, are all faithfull represented; only it is so bowdlerised by the absence of colour and noise that the most super-sensitive person, male or female, can witness every details of the fight without a qualm. Evidently the fair sex appreciate such an opportunity, for there are plenty of those tilted ‘coster-girl’ hats adorned with ostrich feathers that would delight the heart of a ‘donah,’ which are fashion’s decree for the moment, to be seen in the theatre … The five-shilling ‘pit’ (which are the lowest-priced seats for this peep-show) is soon filled up; the half-guinea stalls are not long behindhand; and the only part of the auditorium which remains partially empty is the back row of the stalls, which, for some mysterious reason, is thought to offer such exceptional advantages that the seats are priced at a guinea. The seats being exactly the same as the half-guinea abominations in clinging red velvet, and the point of view being precisely similar to that of the front row of the pit (which is only divided off by a rope), we ponder over the gullible snobbishness of the world, while a well-meaning but maddening lady bangs out ‘The Washington Post’ out of an unwilling and suffering piano in the corner. We have nearly arrived at the point of adding our shrieks of exasperation to those of the tortured instrument when the show begins and the ‘Washington Post’ is mercifully silenced.

We are first gratified with a little slice of statistics; the two miles of films on six reels, containing one hundred and sixty-five thousand pictures; the prize of 7000l. which went to the victor; the names of the referee, the timekeeper, and various other details, to which the audience listens with ill-concealed patience … [T]he first picture is thrown upon the sheet, and, having wobbled about a little to find the centre of the canvas, settles down into an admirably distinct view of the platform, with the two champions wrapped in long ulsters, each surrounded by his backers …

Here she goes on to describe the fight in great detail, commenting on the odd effect of the silence, complaining about clinching, and describing the dramatic end where the defeated Corbett in a rage tried to attack Fitzsimmons, causing mayhem in the ring.

The two miles of pictures have taken an hour and a half to pass before our eyes; but though we leave the theatre with aching heads, we regret that so little that we determine to return as soon as we can, to witness again this combat of modern gladiators.

And though here at the Bioscope we’re wary of pointing people to stuff published illegally on YouTube, you can see edited highlights of the bout from a 16mm print probably dating from the 1960s. The intertitles are an obvious modern addition, as is the use of slow motion where they repeat the shot of the knockout blow, where the original film has been damaged. About a third of the film survives today – disappointingly, the scenes showing the uproar at the end of the fight are missing.

Ways to Strength and Beauty

A new biography of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach – Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl – contains the remarkable discovery that she made her film debut in the once celebrated 1925 German sports documentary Ways to Strength and Beauty (Wege Zu Kraft und Schönheit). This proto-Nazi film, a celebration of physical culture interlaced with scenes of classical humbug was highly popular in its day, probably on account of its several scenes of nudity. The film, directed by Wilhelm Prager, has long been seen as a pecursor of Riefenstahl’s Olympia (her brilliant film of the 1936 Olympic Games) but it was not known (or at least not proven) that she appeared in Prager’s film, in various cod-classical scenes. It can’t be entirely unknown, since Riefenstahl is credited on the IMDB entry for the film, but I think it is the first time solid evidence (a credited photograph) has been found to support the rumour.

Kino podcasts

And there’s more. You can see preview clips of the Kino DVD set Reel Baseball as part of their podcast delivery, at Other silent clips or trailers available this was include The Night Before Christmas (1905), A Christmas Carol (1910), The Saga of Gösta Berling (with Greta Garbo), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. You can find them also on via iTunes at