Albert Kahn at last on DVD


Regular visitors to this blog will know all about The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, the BBC television series which highlighted the astonishing collection of Autochrome photographs and motion picture records of life around the world in the early years of the twentieth century, created by French millionaire philanthropist Albert Kahn. You may also know that there has been immense frustration for the many fans of the series that no DVD release has been made available, supposdly for licensing reasons, except for a colossally expensive version intended for the educational market.

Now prayers have been answered. The series has made it to DVD. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn has been released by 2 entertain (the video distributor part-owned by BBC Worldwide). The 3-disc DVD set (PAL, region 2) is in nine episodes, running 462 mins (500 mins says the BBC shop). The series shows beautifully-composed scenes from around the world: China, Brazil, the United States, Ireland, France, Mongolia, Norway, Vietnam and much more, from the mid-1900s, through the First World War and into the 1920s. Kahn’s team of photographers chiefly took still photographs, using the complex Autochrome process (invented by the Lumière brothers) with its hauntingly beautiful results, but they produced monochrome motion picture records as well, capturing distant lands and cultures on the brink of disappearing into history, and unconstrained by the need to convert the material into form that would be acceptable to the commercial cinema.

It’s unclear to what degree the DVD represents the original BBC series, which was shown in nine one-hour parts, the first five broadcast on BBC4 on April 2007 under the title The Edwardians in Colour (subtitled The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn); the remaining four as The Twenties in Colour in November 2007. The BBC Active educational version is 9×50 mins. Amazon and the BBC Shop site say that there are ten parts, but the British Board of Film Classification registers the release as being in nine parts, and this seems more likely. Anyway, the DVD set is now available, having been released on 7 September.

If you want to find out more about Kahn and his Archives de la Planète project, visit the Searching for Albert Kahn post on this blog.

The balancing bluebottle


The Balancing Bluebottle (1908)

A delightful programme was broadcast today on BBC Radio 4, The Balancing Bluebottle. It’s a 30-minute documentary on the life and work of Percy Smith, pioneering naturalist filmmaker. It’s presented by Tim Boon, curator at the Science Museum, whose recent book Films of Fact is a history of science documentary on film and television.

Normally I would pen you a paragraph or three on Smith’s career, but it’s been a long week (it’s been a long month) and I’m going to take a short cut by giving you this section from my Charles Urban site:

F. Percy Smith (1880-1945) was a modest but brilliant pioneer of scientific filmmaking. He was a clerk with the Board of Education whose hobby was photographing nature, notably magnified pictures of insects. One of these, a photograph of a bluebottle’s tongue, came to Urban’s attention, and in 1907 he invited Smith to do similar work with a motion picture camera. Failing to persuade his employers of the value of film as an educational tool, Smith joined Urban full-time in 1910. Smith’s films soon gained considerable attention, notably The Balancing Bluebottle and The Birth of a Flower, showing plant growth through stop-motion cinematography in Kinemacolor. Smith’s films were made at his Southgate home and involved meticulous preparation over many months. When war broke out in 1914 he made a series of animated war maps for Urban’s Kineto company before becoming a photographer with the Navy. After the war he did a little more work for Urban before he found greater fame with the Secrets of Nature series of nature films, made for British Instructional Films, which gained wide acclaim and were popular for two decades. He is one of the great names in scientific filmmaking.

Smith’s films entrance and instruct to this day. The Balancing Bluebottle itself featured bluebottles performing seemingly extraordinary feats of strength. Tied down with silk (and released unharmed afterwards) the bluebottles juggle a cork, a ball and a stick. The film caused a sensation at the time and can still leave an audience open-mouthed today.

  • A 1910 re-edited and reissued version of the film, under the title The Acrobatic Fly, is available on YouTube, courtesy of the BFI
  • A further retitled and reissued version from 1911, under the title The Strength and Agility of Insects, is available on WildFilmHistory
  • Smith’s 1910 film The Birth of a Flower is available to view at WildFilmHistory

The programme features Sir David Attenborough, Bryony Dixon from the BFI, Jenny Hammerton from AP Archive, and (recorded in a windy side alley off Leicester Square), one Luke McKernan. It’s available for the next seven days on BBC iPlayer, and is warmly recommended for its charm and insight.

When Paul met Hitch


Look this Sunday for the latest stage in Paul Merton’s noble quest to educate us all into a film history some are in danger of forgetting, when BBC4 screens Paul Merton looks at Alfred Hitchcock. OK, so Hitchcock’s not exactly neglected yet, but he’s more of a name (or a body shape) than five decades of superlatively creative filmmaking to many, and we’re promised that Merton (he’s the one on the left, by the way) will include Hitchcock’s silents in his investigation. Indeed the subject of his programme is specifically Hitch’s British films, the majority of which were silent.

Screenings will be 28 Feb 2009, 21:00; 01 Mar 2009, 00:10; 01 Mar 2009, 03:10; 01 Mar 2009, 22:00 and 04 Mar 2009, 00:05. And it’ll be on iPlayer, of course.

Update: Talking of things Hitchcock, there’s an exhibition currently running at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin on Hitchcock and production, Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film. The exhibition, which runs until 10 May 2009, has a special focus on Hitchcock’s time in Berlin studios in the 1920s, and there’s an article by William Cook about the exhibition, ‘The Master and Murnau‘ in The Guardian which discusses what Hitchcock gained from working at the Babelsberg studio for Emelka and seeing F.W. Murnau directing Der Letze Mann.

Uncle Max


Uncle Max Looks After the Baby

There is a long tradition of British televison comedians honouring the silent comedians of the past. As documented on an earlier post, one strand of this began in the 1960s with Bob Monkhouse and Michael Bentine presenting silent comedy films to new audiences. Another strand that began at the same time was televison comedians producing their own silent, or near-silent comedies, among them Ronnie Barker (A Home of Your Own, Futtock’s End, The Picnic, By the Sea), Eric Sykes (The Plank, Rhubarb, It’s Your Move) and Benny Hill (The Waiters, Eddie in August). In recent times, Paul Merton has taken on the Monkhouse/Bentine mantle by inculcating a new generation attracted by his verbal humour into the purely visual humour of his heroes; while following the line set by Barker, Sykes and Hill, Rowan Atkinson has given us Mr Bean, for which we may or may not be grateful.

Now (and for the past couple of years) children in the UK are enjoying silent comedy courtesy of David Schneider, and the television series Uncle Max. This series, produced by Irish company Little Bird Pictures, started out on ITV in 2006 and then transferred to the BBC’s children’s channel, CBBC. It stars Schneider (best known as Steve Coogan’s unhappy sidekick in Knowing Me Knowing You) as the cheerfully accident-prone Uncle Max, a sort of cross between Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Mr Bean (without the undercurrent of malice). Episode titles such as Uncle Max Goes to the Dentist, Uncle Max Walks the Dog and Uncle Max Buys some Shoes give you a rough idea what to expect, and in presentation as well as spirit it has real echoes with the minor comedy series of the silent era. It’s obvious humour, but well enough composed for its target audience. And the nephew who endures Uncle Max’s chaotic approach to life is called Luke, something I heartily approve of.

Uncle Max episodes (10 minutes each) turn up on iPlayer when available, and there are trailers on YouTube. Curiously, for reasons of economy the whole series, while set in England, was filmed in South Africa.

The Film Programme

A break in the Pordenone reports to let you know that this Friday (October 17), BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme will be dedicated to silent film, with Neil Brand on the piano, and the discussion including a consideration of Bill Morrison’s found footage work Decasia and the archiving of early film.

As usual, the programme will be available online for a week after the broadcast through the Listen Again service.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 7

Bardelys on TV
Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), the recently-discovered King Vidor feature starring John Gilbert, will get its television premiere on France 3 on 12 October, as part of the Cinéma de Minuit strand. The film will also be appearing the same week on the big screen for the first time in eight decades at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. Read more.

Conference call
The 30th Annual Meeting of the Southwest/Texas Popular and American Culture Association takes place 24-28 February 2009 at Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico. The meeting covers many aspects of cinema, and the Area Chair for Silent Film is seeking papers and presentations on any aspect of Silent Film. Suggested topics include D.W. Griffith’s art, Garbo, Modern Silent Films and Filmmakers, Bronco Billy and the Rise of the Western, Studios and companies during the silent age, The birth of Talkies, Al Jolson, Lillian Gish, Silent Documentaries, Silent Horror films, Hitchcock’s silent movies, Edison, Birth of Science Fiction and the Fantasy Film, Edwin Porter. Abstracts and titles should be sent by 15 November to Rob Weiner (Rweiner5 [at] Read more.

Quasimodo rocks
Vox Lumiere, the enterprising troupe that puts on rock musical versions of silent film classics, is bringing its intepretation of Lon Chaney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to DPTV-Detroit Public TV in the USA. The production is scheduled to air in December as part of the PBS National Pledge Drive. Read more.

Memories of Lloyd
The Ghent Film Festival, which runs 7-18 October, is including a retrospective of Harold Lloyd comedies, under its ‘Memory of Film’ section. The films featured are Movie Crazy, Safety Last, Speedy, and the sound film Welcome Danger. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Caught on film

Just a quick note to let folks know that tomorrow (Tuesday 26 August) at 11.30am there’s a programme on BBC Radio 4 on film archives and silent film, produced at last month’s Bologna film festival. Entitled Caught on Film, the BBC blurb describes it thus:

Our cinematic heritage is literally rotting away. Critic Matthew Sweet visits the Festival Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna to explore the vulnerability of film and discovers why both cinematic gems and historically unique documentary films are rapidly disintegrating.

The half-hour programme will be available through the Listen Again service for a week after the broadcast.

Where the wild things are

Percy Smith

Percy Smith (left), from F.A. Talbot’s Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (1912)

It’s been a long time in coming, but it’s been well worth the wait. Today saw the launch of WildFilmHistory, a site dedicated to recognising 100 years (so they say) of wildlife filmmaking. Produced by the Wildscreen Trust and supported by Lottery funding, this is a multimedia guide to one hundred years of natural history filmmaking, from the pioneering days when stop-motion films of flowers opening wowed them in the music halls to the age of Attenborough and beyond.

The site is biographical in focus, and at its centre are ninety-one (so far) mini-biographies of wildlife filmmakers, twenty-nine of them with accompanying oral history recordings, which very usefully come with PDF transcripts. So you get interviews with the likes of David Attenborough, Hans and Lotte Haas, Desmond Morris, Tony Soper and the late Gerald Thompson, but also the academic Derek Bousé, whose excellent history Wildlife Films investigates our period – more of which below. There’s also a very useful timeline.

But of greatest value for our purposes are the film clips of early wildlife films. There are thirteen of them (many from the British Film Institute collection):

  • Das Boxende Känguruh (1895) – Max Skladanowsky’s film of a boxing kangaroo and its trainer Mr Delaware.
  • Rough Sea at Dover (1895) – Something of a surprise choice, Birt Acres’ self-explanatory film which they argue is “considered by some to be the first natural history orientated film”.
  • Pelicans at the Zoo (1898) – Pelicans at Regent’s Park Zoo, made by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, a breathtakingly beautiful film if seen on 35mm (it was originally shot on 70mm), a little more prosiac in Flash.
  • Spiders on a Web (1900) – A new one on me. This was apparently made by G.A. Smith and features two spiders in close-up, viewed through a circular mask (but no web to be seen). Clearly an extract from a longer film.
  • St. Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908) – Made by Oliver Pike, this shows both human and animal life on St kilda, off Scotland, at a time when it was still inhabited by people.
  • The Birth of a Flower (1910) – Exquisite stop-motion photography of flowers opening, complete with stencil colouring, made by the great Percy Smith for Charles Urban.
  • The History of a Butterfly – A Romance of Insect Life (1910) – A fully-fledged natural history film, made by James Williamson, with a fair bit of nitrate damage to remind us of the precious state in which some of these films survive.
  • The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911) – Eye-popping pyrotechnics performed by flies, who juggle corks, twirl matchsticks etc. This is actually a re-issue of an earlier film, The Balancing Bluebottle (1908), filmed by our hero of the era, Percy Smith, for Charles Urban once again. No animals was injured during the making of this film (honest).
  • Secrets of Nature: The Sparrow-Hawk (1922) – One of the famous British Instructional Films series of educational films from the 1920s/30s, this was made by Captain C.W. R. Knight (the site’s synopsis mistakenly says in one place that Percy Smith made the film, though he was associated with many Secrets of Nature productions) (Captain Knight turns up twenty years later as the eagle-tamer in Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going, trivia fans).
  • Secrets of Nature: The Cuckoo’s Secret (1922) – Another title from The Secrets of Nature, this time filmed by Oliver Pike and produced by ornithologist Edgar Chance
  • With Cherry Kearton in the Jungle (1926) – Cherry Kearton was the most celebrated naturalist of the era, and with his brother Richard more or less pioneered the art of wildlife photography and then cinematography. This is a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of some of his African natural history films.
  • Simba (1928) – An African travelogue (extracts only) made by the enterprising American couple Martin and Osa Johnson, blending actuality with staged scenes, and alarmingly also blending shooting with both camera and gun.
  • Dassan: An Adventure in Search of Laughter Featuring Nature’s Greatest Little Comedians (1930) – Cherry Kearton anticipates The March of the Penguins by several decades.

And so it continues up to the present day, with many marvellous clips which both amaze and cause a sigh of happy nostalgia (Zoo Quest, Jacques Cousteau). A little oddly, the site includes pages for films that they haven’t tracked down yet – these include Oliver Pike’s In Birdland (1907), which they argue was the first true wildlife film (hence the centenary), but unfortunately no copy is known to exist.

This is a very well produced site, on which a huge amount of effort has been expended on clearing and producing the clips, esearching the history, and presenting the interviews. The early film clips are wonderful to see, even if I miss one or two titles that I think should have been there (e.g. Herbert Ponting’s fine penguin footage from his films of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition). The site opens up the history of wildlife film, demonstrating an interconnected heritage, championing excellence, and encouraging us all to find out more.

Wildlife Films

So, if you are interested in finding out more, where should you go? Well, as mentioned, I strongly recomennd Derek Bousé’s Wildlife Films (2000). This is a first-rate history of wildlife filmmaking and television production, good not only on the plain history but on the mysteries of the genre, which ever since its earliest days has had to adopt assorted entertainment strategies, particularly storytelling, to make its work palatable to a mass public. It is thoughtful and informative. Also recommended is the similarly thought-provoking Animals in Film (2002) by Jonathan Burt. There’s also the recent BBC publication, Michael Bright’s 100 Years of Wildlife (2007), which is aimed at the popular end of the market, but does at least name check people such as Kearton, Smith and Urban.

WildFilmHistory is a wonderful resource, which promises to grow and welcomes any information on new material that they might use. In the spirit of the great filmmakers it champions, go explore.

The Lodger on HD

The Lodger

The opening images from The Lodger (1927), from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

This Friday sees what I think is a first for a silent film – exhibition in HD format. The US channel MGMHD is showing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) at 4.20am on February 1st. It is, I believe, derived from the BFI National Archive’s restored print, and was transferred in the UK by Granada International. I have seen a bit of it, on a non-HD screen alas, but even so the image quality looks quite stunning.

The image above of the opening frames of the film comes from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock, “an attempt to reduce each of the 52 available major Hitchcock films down to just 1000 frames”. It’s an offshoot of the remarkable HitchcockWiki, which I commend to you. 1000 Frames of Hitchcock provides the same service for The Pleasure Garden (1925), Downhill (1927), The Ring (1927), Champagne (1928), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), The Manxman (1929) and Blackmail (1929, but the sound version only). And all the others, of course.

The Great War in Colour

The BBC is putting on more for the Albert Kahn and autochrome addicts among you. This Monday BBC2 starts a three-part series The Great War in Colour: The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn, which looks at the First World War through the colour photographs in the Kahn collection. Part one is on 21 January, at 19.00. The programmes are streamed online via BBC iPlayer for one week after transmission.

Note: If you are new to this site and looking for background information on Albert Kahn, please visit the Searching for Albert Kahn post.