Films from the fens

Stencil colour film of Blickling Hall, Norfolk, from Eve and Everybody’s Film Review (1929)

A significant release of archive films online, many of them silent, was announced recently. The East Anglian Film Archive, founded by David Cleveland in 1976, funded by the University of East Anglia, and now located in the Archive Centre, Norfolk, has published online 200 hours from its film collection, the outcome of a major cataloguing and digitisation project undertaken as part of the UK’s Screen Heritage programme which has been doing much to support public sector film archiving in the UK.

The search, browse and highlight options can all be accessed via the front page of the site. The site design is unusual, in a plain sort of way, but not ineffective and undoubtedly user friendly. It is certainly easy to find silent era films – you simply go to the browse option, where there is a timeline with sliders which you can drag for dates anywhere between 1895 and 2010, something I’ve not seen on many other sites and which is such a simple, sensible way of guiding people to a time period. Select 1895-1930, and you get around 150 items, all of them instantly playable, and with some some real treasures, surprises and at least one major discovery.

The films all come from those English counties covered by the East Anglian region, including Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. So there are many films of primarily regional interest only (which is of courses the raison d’être of a regional film archive), though equally they are encouragement to anyone interested in film history and history through film to consider the importance of place and regional (not just national) identity in film culture. For example, John Grierson’s celebrated documentary Drifters (1929) is generally lionised for its early position in the history of the art of documentary film, but it turns up here (in its entirety) because it was partly shot in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Drifters is, fundamentally, and importantly, a regional film.

There are many other records of the East Anglian region, from interest, travel, amateur and newsreel films of the period. The latter include probably unique examples of the rare Warwick Bioscope Chronicle and British Screen News newsreels, and local newsreel the Bostock Gazette (a number of UK towns and cities in the silent era had local news services, often maintained by an indiviual cinema where the projectionist doubled as camera operator, though other such ‘newsreels’ were produced by local enthusiasts on an amateur basis). There is 1929 stencil colour film of Blicking Hall in Norfolk, from Pathé’s cinemagazine Eve and Everybody’s Film Review; film pioneer Birt Acres’ 1896 film of Yarmouth fishing trawlers, the first film made in the region; an experimental work by George Sewell, one of the founder members of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, whose The Gaiety of Nations (1929) is a visually inventive comment on world politics; and several delightful examples of silent advertising films, including a number advertising Colman’s Mustard, which were based in Norwich (see for example the spoof 1926 newsreel The Mustard Club Topical Budget, featuring a popular set of characters from an advertising campaign of the period).

Jackeydawra Melford (wearing witch’s hat) as Jackeydawra in The Herncrake Witch (1913)

The major discovery is The Herncrake Witch (1913), which I had believed to be a lost film. It is a drama starring Jackeydawra Melford, one of the first women to direct a film in Britain. We have written about Jackeydawra Melford before now, in one of the earliest Bioscope posts, noting that she produced and starred in The Herncrake Witch (1912), The Land of Nursery Rhymes (1912) and The Inn on the Heath (1914), directing the last of those (her actor father directed The Herncrake Witch). None was known to survive. The EAFA catalogue record doesn’t give that much information about the film, which is intriguing in theme if quaintly produced, noting that it was made by Heron Films, a company founded by Andrew Heron who worked with Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, of whom more in a moment. The film is described as an ‘excerpt’, though there can’t be too much missing (it runs for 8 minutes, and the original length was 710 feet). Anyway, it is a major discovery for those interested in British silent women filmmakers, of whom there are a number.

Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901), possibly filmed by Laura Bayley using the 17.5mm Biokam system (note the distinctive central perforations). The cat is playing its fiddle and the cow is jumping over the moon

Another welcome surprise is from another woman filmmaker. Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901) is an example of the 17.5mm Biokam films issued by Brighton filmmaker George Albert Smith, for which there reasons to believe that the director was his actress wife Laura Bayley. What its East Anglian connection might be I’m not sure, but it’s a precious example of a pantomime act filmed on stage (the practice seems to have been that Smith made a 35mm film of a subject, then his wife shot the 17.5mm version, possibly simultaneously, but sometimes at a different time, as there are noticeable differences between the few examples where both 35mm and 17.5mm subjects survive).

A third example of a woman filmmaker is the amateur comedy Sally Sallies Forth (1928), directed by Frances Lascot, working with producer/editor Ivy Low, which is a well-produced example of the considerable number of amateur film dramas made at this time by hobbyist individuals and film clubs. It would have been nice to have a bit more information about the film’s production on the catalogue (not least where it was shot).

From pleasant surprises to not so pleasant surprises. There are several films in the collection attributed to the aforementioned Hertfordshire filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, indeed there is a special section of the site devoted to him. Cooper is an interesting figure, involved in British films as assistant to Birt Acres from the earliest years, and later an important pioneer of the animation film. Unfortunately, his daughter and later some film historians took up his cause as a neglected master of early film, and claimed for him a number of films that he never made, or misdated other films to make them seem earlier examples of film innovation than is in fact the case. In some cases it seems Cooper told his family that films in his collection were ‘his’, when they were only so insofar as he may have exhibited them once and now owned them. I won’t go down the tedious route of pointing out which titles are wrongly identified and which aren’t (and there a quite a number that are genuinely his). It’s just really surprising that a responsible archive such as the EAFA put up these films with their dubious attributions to the fore, especially when their catalogue notes usually give pointers to the correct identification.

This abberation aside, the East Anglian Film Archive‘s new website is a very welcome new resource. It not only documents the East Anglian region so well, but for the silent film specialist it present the great variety of films of filmmaking from our period: dramas (professional and amateur), newsreels, travelogues, trick films, advertising films, industrials, magazines. It celebrates the medium in all its inventive richness, while reminding us of the particular meanings films have for particular people.

If you ae interested to find out more about the UK regional archives, visit the Film Archives UK website, or else read the 2009 Bioscope post on some of the UK regional film collections to be found online, including the Yorkshire Film Archive, Screen Archive South East and the Media Archive for Central England, all of whom have signficant silent films collection available to view online. And if you want to find them all (or at least a lot of what they hold) in one place, they you must try the new Search Your Film Archives portal hosted by the BFI (another UK Screen Heritage output). There is so much out there now to be found – do please reward the archives and those who have funded these initiatives by browsing, viewing, and taking film journeys down routes that you may not have expected.

Staging illusions

Staging Illusion: Digital and Cultural Fantasy is a two-day conference taking place 8-9 December 2011 at the University of Sussex, whose themes, while not directly referencing silent cinema, are highly relevant to it. So here’s the conference blurb:

Staging Illusion: Digital and Cultural Fantasy,
December 8th and 9th, University of Sussex

Keynote speakers: Professor Vanessa Toulmin (Director of the National Fairground Archive), Dr Sarah Kember (Goldsmiths) and Professor Sally R Munt (Director of the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies).

Plenary speakers: Dr Astrid Ensslin (Bangor), Dr Melanie Chan (Leeds Met), Professor Nicholas Till (Sussex), and Dr Jo Machon (Brunel).

Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies & the Centre for Material Digital Culture present:

From magicians and mediums to immersive media, and from the circus to cyborgs, the celebration and/or mistrust of illusion has been a central theme across a range of cultures. Notions of fakery and deception remind us that our identities that are performative. The figure of the ‘mark’ of the fairground scam remains culturally ubiquitous, perhaps more so than ever, in an era of (post) mechanical reproduction. Is new technology a flight from the real or merely a continuation of older cultural forms? Is it necessary, or even possible, to define reality in relation to the illusory? What realms of ‘otherness’ remain to be embraced? This international conference will discuss staged illusions across a spectrum of historical, geographical and cultural contexts, featuring original and exciting papers and performances.

Panels interrogate staging illusion from diverse perspectives, including: 3D cinema, the paranormal, the music hall, digital trickery, the fairground, magicians and illusionists, theatre, science, the museum, the magic of cinema, the gothic, digital gaming, social networking, the circus, advertising, illusory bodies and genders, theme parks and digital animation. Over two days the conference will also showcase illusory performance pieces, installations and magic.

Panel speakers so far confirmed: Jon Armstrong, Adam Bee, Victoria Byard, Diane Carr, Eleanor Dare, Cristina Miranda de Almeida with Matteo Ciastellardi, Lane DeNicola, Yael Friedman, Aristea Fotopoulou, Kate Genevieve, Jonathan Gilhooly, Dr Rachael Grew, Birgitta Hosea, Jacqueline Hylkema, Jane Insley, Lewis Johnson, Laura Ellen Joyce, Frances A. Kamm, Ewan Kirkland, Chara Lewis with Kristin Mojsiewicz & Anneke Pettican, Liang-Wen Lin, Joe Marshall, John Carter McKnight, Jenny Munro, Constantino Oliva, Professor Deborah Philips, Burcu Yasemin Şeyben, Jayne Sheridan, Peter Sillett, Frances Smith, Marian St. Laurent, Nozomi Uematsu, Owen Weetch, John Wills.

No programme as yet, but registration is now open, with the cost £190 (£85 for students). There’s a downloadable booking form on the conference site, and you can follow developments on the conference blog or via its Twitter feed.

It’s a miracle!

A newspaper illustration of the Olympia stage production of The Miracle

A few years ago – specifically in 2008 and 2009 – you may recall that we ran the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films. It was a droll conceit, using a blog to put on a festival of silent films that no longer existed. We described the films as if we were watching them (and yet not watching them), in London venues that once were cinemas but are no more, and with silent film musicians of the past to accompany said films. Regular Bioscopists got into the swing of things, even commenting on details of the clothes they had worn for the evening. All in all, it was a fun thing to research and write. You can find links to all of the films shown as part of the 2008 and 2009 festival on the Series page.

However, we pulled the plug on the festival thereafter, for three reasons. One, the festival took up too much time to research. Two, we received several requests from readers for information on these films, which they had imagined were lost and who couldn’t quite grasp what the concept of a lost film festival was supposed to imply. Thirdly, we learned after the 2009 festival that one of the films had in all probability survived. Great news for film; not such great news for a lost film festival, so we decided enough was enough.

We then waited for official notice of the film having been discovered before telling you about it, only to have discovered today that the news has been out for a quite a while now. Tsk tsk – the Bioscope should do better than that. So, belatedly, it is a pleasure to be able to tell you that Das Mirakel (Germany 1912) is not a lost film. It is held by the CNC film archive in France, and was screened last year as part of a Lubitsch retrospective (Ernest Lubitsch appears in a minor role in the film) and was reviewed – in French – on that excellent blog, Ann Harding’s Treasures. Alas, she reports that while the film is in prime condition, the direction is amateurish and the performances absurdly histrionic. This is both a surprise, given that the film was based on production by one of the greats of 20th Century visual theatre Max Reinhardt, while also not a surprise at all given the film’s peculiar production history.

As we related in the original post about the film, Das Mirakel came about when the British theatrical impresario C.B. Cochran was looking for an entertainment on a suitably grand scale to fill the vast arena of London’s Olympia. Cochran had seen Max Reinhardt’s production in Germany of Oedipus Rex and invited the great producer to devise a new epic production that would make best use of Olympia.

Reinhardt initially thought of recreating the Delhi Durbar ceremonies, held in India to mark the coronation of King George V in 1911. But instead he latched upon the idea of staging a medieval legend of a nun who escapes from her convent with a knight, experiencing assorted adventures and dangers, while at the convent a statue of the Virgin Mary miraculously comes to life and undertakes the nun’s duties. The major spectacle was provided by the drama’s cathedral setting, not to mention 1,000 performers, 2,000 costumes, 500 choristers, 25 horses, an orchestra of 2,000 and assorted examples of ingenious stage mechanics (see programme, left, from Given the distance between the audience and the action, the drama was presented in dumbshow (apart from the choir). The drama was written by Karl Vollmöller, with music composed by Engelbert Humperdink.

The Miracle, as it was known, was every bit the stage sensation that Cochran hoped it would be, with London audiences being overawed by its dramatic scale and its sentimental religosity when it opened over Christmas 1911. But where things get odd is when it comes to the film – or rather films – made of The Miracle. A film of The Miracle apears to have been an afterthought – a quick cash-in on the stage production’s popularity, at a time before Reinhardt gave any serious consideration of the possibilities of cinema (he would of course go on to produce a the classic Warners 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It was originally reported that the film was to be made in London, but production instead moved to Austria, with producer Joseph Menchen and scenarist Michel Carré who was probably also the film’s director. Max Reinhardt himself seems to have had little to do with the film’s actual production. The oddness came with the camera operators and leading actress. The operators were the brothers William and Harold Jeapes, owner and chief cameraman at the Topical Budget newsreel. How they got the call to make the film is a mystery, but it was a hurried appointment, as William Jeapes later recounted:

In the first place, I may say that my own connection with the undertaking commenced just about twenty-four hours before I actually entered upon it, so you can imagine that there wasn’t much time for preparation. I received and accepted the request that I should take on the business, grabbed camera, films and baggage; caught the first train that was available, and, in almost less time than it takes to tell (as the novelists say) I was starting on the first preliminaries with Professor Reinhardt and M. Michel Carré (who adapted the play for the camera), near Vienna.

I left London on September 21st, and I returned on October 15th. During that time we were working regularly from the early morning until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at which hour it was necessary for the company to start back for Vienna, where ‘The Miracle’ was being played nightly – at the Rotunda. We did nothing on Sundays.

Jeapes and Jeapes were able newsreel operators, but were the last people you would have thought of to film a dramatic production, still less one so dependent on plausible illusion and a sense of scale. Odder still was that the key part of the Nun did not go to anyone from Reinhardt’s German production of the play, but instead went to an English actress without any film pedigree (or much of a stage one), Florence Winston. And she was Mrs William Jeapes. Other performers included Maria Carmi as The Madonna, Douglas Payne as The Knight, Ernst Matray as Spielmann, and somewhere in the background Ernst Lubitsch. All in all, a rum do.

As we wrote in 2009, the film received mixed reviews. Variety was dumbstruck, finding the film to be one of the wonders of its age:

The ‘Miracle’, reproduced from the wonderful Reinhardt pantomime of the same name presented at the London Olympia, is probably the finest exhibition of the “Celluloid drama” ever conceived. In some respects it is superior to the original pantomime spectacle, in that the paths of the performers – or characters – may be followed more minutely and with greater detail than is possible in the original, due to the possibility of showing the scenic progression with the unfolding of the plot … The whole presentment is remarkably impressive in general effect, the pictures so beautifully to resemble natural colors, the scenes so plentifully interspersed with captions announcing the progress of the tale, and finally the awakening to a realization that it was all a ghastly, enervating “dream”, is extraordinarily vivid. No spoken play could be more so.

The film’s lavish presentaton at special venues, with coloured print, a cathedral-like proscenium, organ, large choir and even incense wafting over the audience appears to have blinded some reviewers to the film’s actual shortcomings. The Bioscope (our favourite film trade paper) was more clear-sighted:

The whole play seems to have been adapted for the camera with only the most cursory regard for the latter’s possibilities and limitations. It has been forgotten that a scene viewed through an artifical glass lens is a very different thing from the same scene viewed in actuality by the naked eye … In the scenes showing the cathedral’s interior the stage is too deep, with the result that the players are constantly out of proportion with each other, and swell from midgets to giants in a fashion which is almost ludicrous as they move “down stage”.

Confusingly, there was a rival Miracle film, produced in Germany at the same time, which claimed that it was based on the legend rather than Vollmöller’s drama, to get round any copyright claim. It was also called Das Mirakel or Alte Legende – Eine Das Marienwunder, but in the UK it was marketed as Sister Beatrix. Produced by Continental-Kunstfilm GmbH in 1912, it was written and directed by Mime Misu, and is – we are fairly confident in stating – a lost film.

You can find details of the extant Das Mirakel on the CNC database. They credit the direction to Michael Carré and Max Reinhardt, but we doubt that Reinhardt had much to do with the film beyond initial negotiations (William Jeapes does at least note Reinhardt’s presence in Austria at the time of filming). Ann Harding’s Treasures’ review describes watching the hour-long film today as sheer torture, with acting styles of the flailing arm variety, no sense of composition or narrative, and a camera bolted to the floor simply recording theatre. She notes that a very much better film from the same source material exists, Jacques de Baroncelli’s La Légende de Soeur Béatrix (1923).

For all that, it would be good to have a chance to see Das Mirakel one day, just to get a sense of what so moved the variety reviewer. All it would need is a cathedral setting, an organ, a fair-sized choir and some incense. And every lost film found must be a cause for rejoicing, even if the story behind the film is of somewhat greater interest than the film itself. It is good to hae been wrong.

Female Hamlet

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet (1921)

The second notable Edition Filmmuseum DVD release to tell you about is Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna, to be issued on 10 June 2011. It was 2009 when the DVD label first announced that a DVD of Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet (1920), from the coloured print discovered in 2005, was forthcoming. Whether it was licensing issues, or technical matters that held up the release I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter – all that matters is that such a key film, from a fine restored print, and with a highly commendable score, is available on DVD at last. It certainly ought to have an impact.

The Danish actress Asta Nielsen was probably the leading European film performer of the 1910s. Though her dark demeanour and unconventional beauty probably led to a lack of success in the USA, in European countries, especially Germany, she was revered, with films such as Afgrunden (The Abyss) (1910), Balletdanserinden (1911), Die Suffragette (1913) being among the most iconic and forward-looking of their age. She and husband/director Urban Gad moved to Germany in 1911 and it was in that country, after she had established the Art-Film company, that Nielsen (now parted from Gad) embarked a radical film interpretation of Hamlet. Possibly by this time Nielsen’s star was a little on the wane, but her taste for the bold and challenging was undimmed.

It was a bold enough decision to film Shakespeare, whose plays had lost favour with cinema audiences and producers once feature films had come in. But Nielsen and her directors Sven Gade and Heinz Schall went further. Though the essential structure of the film was taken from Shakespeare’s play, they went back to Shakespeare’s source material, in particular Saxo Grammaticus, to rid the play of its Renaissance trappings. And then they went further by making Hamlet a woman. The scriptwriter Erin Gepard apparently found justification for this in a obscure work of Shakespearean criticism, The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), by one Edward P. Vining. Vining’s earnest expressed thesis was that the deep-rooted mysteries lying at the hear of the play and particularly the character of Hamlet could be readily explained if you understood that Hamlet was a woman, forced to disguise her sex for political expediency, with the added complication of being in love with Horatio.

Here is some of Vining’s argument:

There is not only a masculine type of human perfection, but also a feminine type; and when it became evident that Hamlet was born lacking in many of the elements of virility, there grew up in him, as compensation, many of the perfections of character more properly the crown of the better half of the human race. All mankind has recognized the deep humanity of the melancholy prince, and many have been puzzled to find that they were instinctively compelled to bow before him in admiration, while still finding in him so many faults and weaknesses. The depths of human nature which Shakespeare touched in him have been felt by all, but it has scarcely been recognized that the charms of Hamlet’s mind are essentially feminine in their nature.

One has only to argue that Hamlet could have his feminine side and yet remain a prince to put Vining’s arguments in their place, but it is true that there have been a number of female Hamlets on the stage from the 18th century onwards. Among the stage performers who were not content to be confined to playing Ophelia have been Sarah Siddons in the 18th century, Charlotte Crampton, Clare Howard, Alice Marriott and Alma Murray in the 19th, and in more recent times Frances de la Tour and Angela Winkler. The evidence of such performers suggests both something particularly feminine in the character of Hamlet, but also a desire to lay claim to an iconically male role.

Perhaps the most notable female stage Hamlet also became the first film Hamlet when Sarah Bernhardt was filmed in 1900 in the duel scene from Hamlet. Not only was it the first film Hamlet but it was the first Shakespeare sound film, as it was made for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, with the film synchronised to a phonograph recording. Female screen Hamlets post-Nielsen have been rare, though the Turkish actress Fatam Girik was the star of İntikam Meleği (1977), English title the helpfully literal Female Hamlet. It is perhaps because it is so often such a struggle just to get Shakespeare filmed that few producers or performers have felt any need to takes things further and explore such gender reversal. Opportunities on the stage have been that much greater in number, as Tony Howard documents in his excellent Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction.

Nielsen’s interpretation was therefore part of a clear (if marginal) stage tradition, but was something of a bolt out of the blue for film. There was nothing really to compare it to in 1921, and little since – it is a film that stands on its own. It is Nielsen’s great accomplishment that we immediately accept her as Hamlet. Her androgynous looks help to a degree, but crucially she is not trying to be a man playing Hamlet (as Bernhardt and her predecssors had done) – she plays a woman who must disguise herself as a man. There is no questioning of the rightness of the idea when we watch the film, and little sense of any forcing of the narrative to fit the thesis. It works on its own terms. It has its absurdities, inevitably, particularly when Horatio discovers that the dying Hamlet has been a woman all along, but that may simply be a fault of our modern eyes. Technically the film is no masterpiece. It is plainly directed, somewhat meanly produced, and not memorably performed aside from Nielsen. But it does succeed as a consistently imagined world, where people live, work, rule and affairs of state take place. As I wrote previously here about seeing the film in 2007, “there is a keen sense of palace life going on while the central figures progressively, and madly, destroy one another”. Moreover, there is no sense at all of something translated from stage to screen. The best Shakespearean cinema is invariably where cinema comes first.

The Edition Filmmuseum DVD derives from the colour version (i.e. tinted and toned) discovered in 2005 and restored by the Deutsches Filminstitut. It comes with a new score by Michael Riessler which I found especially haunting and appropriate when I heard it in 2007. The release is a two-DVD set. Disc 1 is the film (110 mins). Disc 2 has Die Filmprimadonna (1913), starring Nielsen and directed by Urban Gad; Nielsen home movies, films on the restoration process and a short entitled Der elektronische Hamlet 2007 (2008).

Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.

Stage to screen

Members of the Society for Theatre Research at the Art Worker’s Guild

A couple of days ago I was fortunate to attend Viewing the Victorian Stage on 20th Century Film, an event organised by the Society for Theatre Research. Held in the quaintly elegant surroundings of the Art Worker’s Guild in London’s Queen’s Square, we saw a programme of rare and remarkable examples of Victorian stage practice preserved in one form or another on film. The programme was an outcome of years of research into the Victorian and Edwardian stage on film by Professor David Mayer and Helen Day-Mayer, and complementary research into its stage film holdings by the BFI’s Bryony Dixon. David introduced, Bryony talked us through the films, Neil Brand played the piano, and an enthusiastic and learned crowd lapped up the films with a mixture of amusement and astonishment.

We began with Georges Méliès’ Faust aux Infers (France 1903), presented as an example of a diablerie or férique film of the kind that was exhibited in British music halls and American vaudeville houses. The point made was that Méliès constructed a glass-roofed facsimile of his Robert Houdin’s theatre as his film studio, so that he could recreate stage effects as part of his films, using an array of ingenious machinery. For Méliès, film was a means to realise his theatrical dreams.

It was so useful to see these films from a theatre historian’s perspective. I have seen Edison’s Japanese Acrobats (USA 1904) before, and marvelled at the great skill on display, but had not known before that it shows an example of a ‘risley act’, named after Richard Risley Carlisle, an American acrobat who juggled with his feet while lying on his back, and act which he took to Japan in the 1860s. Will Evans, The Musical Eccentric (UK 1899) was less dazzling, showing a British variety comedians playing a ukelele and doing somersaults with a chair of the kind which you now see any week in the Premiership when the more acrobatic of footballers has scored a goal. He also had difficulty in keeping in shot, to a degree that you wondered why on earth the film company (Warwick) didn’t retake. But it was an unadorned demonstration of standard fare on a British variety stage on 1899, and that was what many in the audience were hoping to see – film as time machine, showing those who knew their theatre history something of what it was actually like to be there.

Particularly precious to witness was Lil Hawthorne sings ‘Kitty Mahone’ (UK 1900). This is a very early example of a synchronised sound film i.e. a silent film of a singer intended to be synchronised with a cylinder recording of their voice. The synchronisation wasn’t perfect, but it was very moving to hear her voice sing out ‘my pretty Kitty Mahone / I’m tired of living alone’ as she gestured to the audience in what looked like the stage of the Hippodrome in London, but which was actually a stage mock-up and was filmed on the roof of the theatre.

Faust aux Infers (1903)

American Mutoscope & Biograph’s Duel Scene from ‘Macbeth’ (USA 1905) was crude melodrama, Shakespeare reduced to knockabout swordfighting, the kind of rough-and-tumble extracts from plays that existed as popular variety theatre turns. Here We Are Again (UK 1913) was a surviving example of a harlequinade film, of the kind made for child audiences during holidays. It was simple knockabout stuff, but also gave the clearest of echoes to the proto-pantomimes of the early nineteenth century, when every such production had its Columbine and Harlequin.

One of the hits of the evening was Le Pied de Mouton (France 1907), a Pathé féerie or fairy play directed by Albert Capellani. To an audience of early film historians this would have been an interesting example of a fantasy film with two men (brightly stencil-coloured) encountering a giant head in a forest, notable for its staging in depth. For the stage historian, here were precious examples on show of vampire traps and star traps – types of trapdoor enabling performers to disappear and reappear through the floor at astonishing speed. Opinion afterwards was that Pathé had to have followed Georges Méliès’ lead and to have constructed its studio either from a theatre or by importing theatrical machinery. Not for the first time in the evening some argued that the film must show a scene inside a theatre – a holy grail for the theatre historian, again yearning to see what an actual audience member saw. But it was so much easier to recreate the effects in the studio than to go to the huge expense and inconvenience of setting up cameras in a theatre, with the considerable arc lighting that would have been required to illuminate the proceedings sufficiently. All of the films we were shown were filmed in a studio of one sort or another – with one astonishing exception, which we’ll come to.

The Whip (USA 1916) was a feature film version of a renowned Drury Lane drama about the attempts to nobble a horse, which on stage featured a sensational rail crash. What overwhelmed audiences when they saw it in a theatre was par for the course on the screen, and the realistic nature of Maurice Tourneur’s drama – from which we saw the sequence where the locomotive crashes, with the horse (The Whip) saved just in time – seemed worlds away from the theatre. The film could thrill, but it could not astonish. Rather better as a film was Pimple’s The Whip (UK 1917), a cheerfully stupid parody of film and play, in which the rescue of the horse (a pantomime horse) needs to be repeated a number of times because the train driver keeps on getting his cue wrong. As a practitioner of deconstructed comedy Pimple (the nephew of Will Evans, who we had seen earlier) seemed remarkably modern.

And then we found the holy grail. For many years now the BFI National Archive has had a film in its collection given the supplied title of (Collapsing Bridge) and dated c.1902. Here’s the description from the BFI database:

A section opening with an armed attack by men in peasant costume, led by a girl, against an unseen enemy. A painted backcloth represents mountain scenery and a bridge is in the foreground. The men and girl vanish at the aproach of two horse-drawn coaches from opposite directions which endeavour to cross the bridge simultaneously; water suddenly cascades down from the mountains, collapsing the bridge and plunging the horses and coaches into the water.

Described thus, it reads like part of a film scenario which we would expect to be divided up into a number of shots. But we see the entire action in one long shot, clearly filmed inside a hippodrome theatre, and featuring the stock-in-trade of hippodromes, a troupe of horses diving into the water. The effect is jaw-droppingly extraordinary. But what is the show, and who made the film? We don’t yet know. It’s quite likely that the film shows a 1902 show called The Bandits (described here), but no record has been found of any film made of the production. The filmmaker is possibly Walter Gibbons, future owner of the London Palladium, who we know filmed another Hippodrome production, Tally Ho!, around the same time, using an overpowering number of arc lights. But until we know for sure the film remains frustratingly fugitive even while it almost uniquely gives you the sense of truly being in the presence of the Victorian/Edwardian theatre at its maddest and boldest.

Trilby (UK 1914) is a disappointingly stolid piece of work. Its interest for the theatre historian is that it stars Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in all his eye-rolling glory, as Svengali, but it fails to mesmerise. People talking afterwards noted the different acting styles of Tree and Viva Birkett, a florid Victorian manner alongside a subtler, even Ibsenian performance from her. It was good then to see Edison’s parodic Why Girls Leave Home (USA 1909), which cheerfully sends up every convention of the melodrama, including over-the-top acting, malfunctioning stage machinery and plot absurdities. The full film originally included a framing story in which a vicar tries to prevent his daughter from seeing a play, but she does so, and this is what she sees. Unfortunately what survives (held by the CNC archive in France) is in a dreadful state, with the image barely distinct, making us strain all the more to see laughs than would otherwise be the case. But it was clear that the Edwardians knew exactly how to laugh at the Victorians.

We finished with a long sequence (the tribunal scene) from The Only Way (UK 1926), an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and a star vehicle for theatrical great Sir John Martin-Harvey. He first appeared as Sidney Carton in 1899, and twenty-five years later he was still playing the same role, aged sixty-three. The feature film, directed by Herbert Wilcox, tries as far as possible to duplicate the stage production, though it was a film for all that and an engrossing example of the complex interrelationship between the two media. This came out in Martin-Harvey’s performance, which was a mixture of extravagant gestures and fine details that only the camera could pick up. It was pure ham from the theatrical knight, and you saw in his eyes someone who had played the same role a few hundred times too many, but you also saw such star magnetism that his great fame instantly made sense.

Silent film was profoundly indebted to the Victorian theatre. Actors, acting conventions, plays, genres, types of stage effect, its kudos, all had a huge effect on how the silent film grew. We can look at silent films and see endless traces of its Victorian stage origins, not just in films that clearly emulate a stage experience, but more subtly in how films were constructed, what they wanted to be, and then what they reacted against when they felt themselves outgrowing their theatrical inheritance.

But we cannot simply look at silent films for direct evidence of stage practice. Film changes everything it touches. Stage acts were changed to fit the dimensions of film – literally so, when the space in which a film could be made was smaller than stage space. The conventions of theatre were not so much borrowed as adapted for film, and then blended with the conventions of film itself. Also, film was not static, but changed greatly over the twenty-five years that we saw, during which the relationship between the two media grew ever more complex. In the end we witnessed not so much examples of stage practice recorded on film but rather a changing history of performance. Film became another stage for actors, dancers, comedians and magicians. Some adapted more happily than others, but as soon as they put themselves before a camera it changed them. It is that process of adaptation that film records rather than being some sort of literal mirror of what took place upon a stage. We may go looking for the evidence that we seek in a piece of film, but we will always end up finding something else.

Examples of American stage and variety stars from the early 1900s can be found on the Library of Congress’ American Memory site – the American Variety Stage 1870-1920 collection – and the Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment playlist on its YouTube channel.

The organisers of the event produced a handy bibliography, which I’m going to take the liberty of reproducing, as the aim was to encourage others to engage in research in this area:

  • Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929 (Princeton University Press) 1984
  • ____,The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914 (California University Press) 1994)
  • ____, (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Early Film (Routledge), 2005
  • Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook & Christine Gledhill (eds), Melodrama: Stage Picture Screen (British Film Institute), 1994
  • Ben Brewster & Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema (Oxford University Press), 1997
  • Judith Buchanan, Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse (Cambridge University Press), 2009
  • Jon Burrows, Legitimate Cinema: Theatre Stars in Silent British Films 1908-1918 (University of Exeter Press), 2003
  • Jim Davis (ed) Victorian Pantomime / A Collection of Critical Essays (Palgrave Macmillan), 2010
  • Bryony Dixon, Chaplin-In-Context A Catalogue of Music Hall Related Films 1895 – 1930 held by the bfi National Film and Television Archive, Downloadable as Chaplin-in-context.pdf No date
  • ____, 100 Silent Films (BFI & Palgrave Macmillan) forthcoming 2011
  • Linda Fitzsimmons & Sarah Street (eds), Moving Performance: British Stage and Screen 1890s-1920s (Flicks Books), 2000
  • Dennis Gifford, Books and Plays in Films 1896-1915: Literary, Theatrical and Artistic Sources of the First Twenty Years of Motion Pictures (McFarland & Mansell), 1991
  • Martin Miller Marks, Music and the Silent Film/ Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (Oxford University Press), 1997
  • David Mayer, Playing Out the Empire: Ben-Hur and other Toga Plays and Films 1883- 1908 (Clarendon Press), 1994
  • ___, Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W. Griffith and the American Theatre (University of Iowa Press), 2009
  • Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (University of California Press), 1991
  • ___, Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900 (Smithsonian Institution Press & Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), 1997
  • Kemp R. Niver & Bebe Bergsten (eds) Early Motion Pictures: The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress (Library of Congress), 1985
  • David Robinson, Musique et Cinéma Muet (Réunion des Musées Nationaux), 1995
  • ____ From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film (Columbia University Press), 1996
  • Matthew Solomon, Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press), 2010
  • ____, (ed) Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (SUNY Press) forthcoming 2011

Tied to the tracks

I’m grateful to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing this delightful short animation by Aidan McAteer to my attention. It is funny, stylish, and will have particular resonance for any weekend train traveller in the UK who has come up against the words ‘engineering works’ …

It’s a mocking idea of a silent film, the kind of silent film that was never made. All those know don’t know silent films know one thing about them – that they featured evil villains who twirled their moustaches then tied a hapless female to the railway track. And all those who do know silent films know that such scenes were hackneyed even before films were invented, and the few films that did show them did so as parody.

It’s an issue that comes up time and time again, so let’s try and pin down the historical truth. The idea of an entertainment where someone is tied to a railway track and is rescued in the nick of time certainly predates cinema. The entertainment that put the idea into the popular imagination was an 1867 stage melodrama written by American playwright and theatre manager Augustin Daly entitled Under the Gaslight which featured a man tried to railway tracks who was rescued by a woman before he could be run over by the oncoming train (Victorian theatre revelled in such stage spectaculars). An earlier play, The Engineer, had some elements that may have inspired Daly, but he put all the right elements together.

Poster for Under the Gaslight, from Note the male victim and the female rescuer

When the man in peril was changed to a woman in peril in the popular imagination is unclear, but it is no surprise that the transference was made. The play was wildly popular and was re-produced many times, while Daly complained that his big idea was stolen by other theatrical managers who adapted it for their own entertainments. When films appeared, thirty years later, the mannerisms of stage meldorama that had sent shivers up Victorian spines were out-of-date (so no more twirling of moustaches if you wanted your villain to be taken seriously) while the elaborate stage effects were increasingly supplanted by the realism that cinema could provide by filming on location. So, as dramatic films emerged a major sub-genre emerged of the train thriller (including such notable titles as D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and Her Trust). But the thrill had transferred from the tracks to the train itself. It is the speed, power and modernity of the train that characterises such films, not the notion of tying someone to the tracks which was too much ingrained in outmoded stage conventions to be taken seriously.

That said, the transference was not immediate, because there were at least two films featuring a woman in peril of being run over by a train that played it straight before anyone played it for laughs. Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s The Train Wreckers (Edison 1905) features a switchman’s daughter who is pursued by a gang of outlaws, tied to a tree, then when she she escapes (her dog unties the rope) the outlaws knock her unconscious and lay her on the railway track. Happily her boyfriend is a rail engineer who scoops her up from the cow-catcher in the nick of time. So, not exactly tied to the rails, but near enough, and a work very much in the spirit of the Victorian melodrama.

The set-up was still credible in 1911 because it turned up again with Pathé/American Kinema’s The Attempt on the Special, which is very close in action to the earlier film, down the heroine being left unconscious on the rails (rather than tied up) and the assistance from a dog. It is described thus by the BFI National Archive:

Nell, the pointsman’s daughter is tied up by a gang who plan to rob a train. A greyhound, taught to relay messages between herself and her boyfriend comes to her aid and unties her. She sends the dog off with a message for help, but in attempting to escape she is knocked down and left lying on the track. The message is recieved in time to save the girl and the gang is routed.

Ford Sterling with the sledgehammer and Mabel Normand tied in the rails in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), from

The film that established the parodic idea, and which is often used to illustrate it, is Keystone’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), featuring real-life motor racer Barney Oldfield, Ford Sterling as the moustachioed villain and Mabel Normand as the victim. The film plays it entirely for laughs, and the still above shows you everything you would expect to see. Not only is it not the archetypal silent, but it is unusual for its time in parodying dramatic conventions that someone like D.W. Griffith was still half in thrall to. Perhaps 1913 was some sort of a threshold year of a lack of respect for Victoriana, because stage melodrama is similarly ridiculed by the British film Blood & Bosh, made in the same year by Hepworth. It can be seen as a sign of the growing maturity of the film medium as it outgrew its stage origins, and as the twentieth century increasingly outgrew the nineteenth.

Betty Hutton playing Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947), from

It is commonly believed that heroines being tied to the tracks was a common element in the adventures serials that appeared around this time, such as The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The Perils of Pauline (1914) or The Hazards of Helen (1914-17). Such serials skilfully married the melodramatic conventions of an earlier age with independent heroines that were a part of the modern world. The heroines were put into perilous situations, but they had the resourcefulness to escape from them. Trains feature frequently in such serials, but the heroine is more likely to be tackling danger on the train rather than being passively threatened by it. The Perils of Pauline, often cited as showing Pauline (Pearl White) being tied to a railway track, contained no such scene. Indeed, the only example from a silent serial I have traced with anything like such a scenario is the Helen Holmes serial, A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916). Here a person was a person tied to the tracks, but it was a man, and it was Helen – in true Under the Gaslight fashion – who rescued him. In the 1947 feature film The Perils of Pauline Betty Hutton (playing Pauline heroine Pearl White) does get tied to the rails, but that just shows what had been forgotten about silents in less than two decades. And it was probably from here – a parody of a parodic idea – that the idea as being archetypally silent film took hold, and has remained.

Helen Holmes to the rescue in A Lass of the Lumberlands

Interestingly Under the Gaslight itself was filmed, in 1914, with Lionel Barrymore and Millicent Evans, though the plot synopses I’ve seen make no mention of any trains at all (and the film is lost). Instead it was Keystone who returned to the comic idea established in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life when they made Teddy at the Throttle (1917), in which Gloria Swanson gets tied (strictly speaking, chained) to the tracks, Wallace Beery is the villain, and it is the quick-witted dog (Teddy) who saves Gloria.

So the idea was around in the silent era, but infrequently so. It was played straight on a few occasions, parodied on about as many, and inverted on at least one occasion. It is anything but a major theme.

But the myth goes on. The villain twirls his moustache. The pianist pounds away furiously as the train grows ever closer. The girl, bound with rope, squirms and screams. Will the hero get there in time? Will the idea that this is what silent films were about ever be shaken off? Probably not. It’s what people need to know who don’t need to know. We’ll just have to live with them.

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.

Viewing scarlet maple leaves

Ichikawa Danjuro IX (right) and Onoe Kikugoro V in Momiji-gari (Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves), filmed by Shibata Tsunekichi in November 1899

This is an extraordinary image. It’s a Japanese postcard dating from 1908 (the postage stamp says Meijii 41, which is 1908). However the image that it shows dates from November 1899. It shows on the right the greatest of all kabuki actors, Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903), and on the left Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903), second only in fame at the time to Danjuro. They have been photographed in a scene from the dance drama Momiji-gari, translated as Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves or Maple Leaf Hunters. And the reason the drama was performed because it was done for a motion picture camera.

Projected film first came to Japan when businessman Inabata Katsutaro, a friend of Auguste Lumière, played host to Lumière operator François-Constant Girel, who gave a film show at the Nanchi Theatre in Osaka on 15 February 1897 (peepshow Kinetoscopes were exhibited in Japan in 1896). Film was an immediate hit with Japanese audiences, and several Japanese entrepreneurs enthusiatically adopted the new medium, among them Yokota Einosuke, Kawaura Ken’ichi and Arai Saburo.

It was Arai who was the first person to approach Danjuro with a proposal to film him, in 1897. Danjuro IX (left) was a legend of the kabuki theatre, ninth in an unbroken line of actors named Danjuro, and considered one of the greatest of all Japanese actors. He did much to preserve the art of kabuki and to raise the status of actors generally. However the actor, a deeply conservative character, reacted to Arai’s proposal with repugnance, refusing to have anything with a ‘shipbrought thing’ (thus equating the cinematograph with any other kind of foreign goods).

Two years later, Danjuro was sixty years old, and his manager Inoue Takejiro, was anxious to record his great art for posterity. On the understanding that such a film would go into his private vault and not been seen by the sort of commonfolk who frequented film shows, Danjuro assented. A film would be made of part of the dance play Momiji-gari, with Danjuro playing an ogress who has disguised herself as a princess (male actors always play female roles in kabuki) and Onoe Kikugoro V as the hero Taira no Koremochi. Wikipedia gives this summary of the plot of the original play (not the film, which could only show a part of the drama):

The original play, performed in both noh and kabuki, is a story of the warrior Taira no Koremochi visiting Togakushi-yama, a mountain in Shinshū for the seasonal maple-leaf viewing event. In reality, he has come to investigate and kill a demon that has been plaguing the mountain’s deity, Hachiman.

There he meets a princess named Sarashinahime, and drinks some sake she offers him. Thereupon she reveals her true form as the demon Kijo, and attacks the drunk man. Koremochi is able to escape using his sword, called Kogarasumaru, which was given to him by Hachiman. The demon gnaws on a maple branch as she dies.

(A longer summary is available on the Kabuki21 site)

The filmmaker selected to create this important document was Shibata Tsunekichi, who had previously made films of geisha dances. Shibata employed a Gaumont camera and left this account of how the film was made:

There was a gusting wind that morning. We decided to do all the shooting in a small outdoor stage reserved for tea parties behind the Kabuki-za. We hurriedly set up the stage, fearing all the time that Danjuro might suddenly change his mind again. Every available hand, including Inoue, was called upon to hold the backdrop firm in the strong wind. Danjuro, playing Sarashi-the-maiden, was to dance with two fans. The wind tore one from his hands and it fluttered off to one side. Re-shooting was out of the question so the mistake stayed in the picture. Later people were to remark that this gave the piece its great charm.

The film was kept from public view, as had been Danjuro’s wish, but a year later it was shown to an audience of kabuki actors. According to historian Hiroshi Komatsu, the film was first shown to a general audience on 7 July 1903 when Danjuro fell ill and was unable to appear on stage. He died in September of that year. Happily the film has survived for posterity to treasure (it is held by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo) and when it was shown at the Pordenone silent film festival in 2001 (where I missed it!) this description of the six-minute, three-scene film was provided in the catalogue:

The first shot, in which Princess Sharashina dances with a fan, is viewed head on, as though she were center stage. The second shot, of the “Yamagami scene”, captures Koremori (played by Kikugoro) in the foreground and Yamagami’s dance behind Koremori. The third shot is from the same camera angle as the first, and shows Koremori and the ogress’s dance.

This is where the postcard comes in, which documents the film’s third scene.

The full postcard with postage stamp

The postcard definitely shows Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V performing for the Momiji-gari film. It has been photographed in the open air, as one can see from the shadows thrown by the sunlight. Clearly Shibata not only commemorated the event in film but took a photograph (maybe more? maybe three, one for each scene?) at the same time. The postcard, however, dates from 1908, with the legend stating something along the lines that it had been produced to honour the fifth anniversary of his passing. It seems that the production was a little more planned and commercial in intent than the anecdotal histories have suggested. Certainly Danjuro was the subject of innumerable ukiyo-e prints, which suggests an awareness of the importance of image.

There is an interesting parallel with what happened in Britain at almost exactly the same time. In September 1899 the renowned actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree was persuaded by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company to appear before the Biograph camera in short scenes from Shakespeare’s King John, the play he was presenting at the Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Four scenes from the play were filmed, which did not tell the whole story but rather showed key points from the drama, just as with Momijigari. In another parallel, a set of promotional photographs were also taken at the same time. Tree was never so fastidious as Danjuro, and his intent was probably more commercial than concerned with posterity, but it is worth noting the coming together of the new medium with the old, the former gaining kudos by association with the other and showing the advantages that it had – to capture performance and defy time. It also demonstrates an idea of cinema as filmed theatre which was to influence Japanese film for several years thereafter, impeding its development as an independent art form for two decades or more.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (dressed in white) in King John (1899)

I am able to reproduce the postcard by kind permission of its owner, a US collector by name of Dan. He is looking for a buyer for the postcard, and anyone with a serious proposal should get in touch with me and I’ll pass on details to him. My thanks to him also for translations from the Japanese. The postcard is also reproduced on the Ukiyo-e Prints website, and I am grateful to its host Jerry Vegler for being so helpful, and to Stephen Herbert for having first brought the card to my attention.

There are biographies of Danjuro IX on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site and on Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures. Much of the historical information in this post comes courtesy of Peter B. High’s article ‘The Dawn of Cinema in Japan’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 19 no. 1 (January 1984), with acknowledgment also to Hiroshi Komatsu’s notes for the 2001 Pordenone catalogue and his essay ‘Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film‘.

Extensive information on kabuki – the performers, theatres, stories and characters – can be found on the Kabuki21 site. You can get an idea of how Momiji-gari would have been performed from this YouTube video (with helpful English subtitles) which shows a modern-day production (part 8 of 8, showing the finale of the drama as depicted in the postcard).

Finally, it was recently suggested that the film be designated by the Japanese government as an Important Cultural Property (juyo bunkazai), the first film to be so honoured.

Shakespeare on screen

Here’s news of a conference on Shakespeare and film which includes silent Shakespeare in its call for papers – though you’ll have to hurry, as the deadline is 28 August. The conference takes place at the Ohio University Inn and Conference Center, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA, 22-24 October 2009:


Keynote Speakers

* Peter Holland (University of Notre Dame)
* Linda Charnes (Indiana University)
* Douglas Lanier (University of New Hampshire)

The conference organizing committee invites abstracts (200-300 words) or papers on a range of issues in film and television productions of Shakespeare from the Silents to the Age of Branagh and Baz. Papers can focus on individual films; the work of major directors; intertextual (and visual) dialogue between Shakespeare films or between stage and film Shakespeares; television Shakespeare; spin-off films and television programs; Shakespeare in cyberspace; global Shakespeare; theories of appropriation and adaptation; editions and screenplays; funding, promotion and marketing; photography and trailers; DVD material; audience; film scores; cinematography; cultural context; film clips; and teaching strategies.

Abstracts or papers are due by June 5, 2009 (early decision) or August 28, 2009 (final deadline). All inquiries should be directed to: Samuel Crowl/Department of English/Ohio University/Athens, Ohio/45701 or via email to crowl[at]

All sessions of the conference except the Thursday evening keynote lecture will be held at the Ohio University Inn located just across the Hocking River from the campus of Ohio University. Special room rates will be available for conference attendees. The Friday evening conference banquet will be included in the registration fee.