D.W. Griffith, premier filmmaker of the early cinema period, was a man of the theatre. He was an actor and a playwright before, in desperate straights, he found himself having to stoop so low as to act in a film – and then discovered his true vocation, behind the camera. But through all his films Griffith had his eye on the theatre, drawing on its themes, its properties and its particular craft.

However, this crucial element of Griffith’s artistic make-up has been curiously neglected. The films are seen as pure films in themselves, whereas in fact they owed a huge amount to a richly various theatrical inheritance, and indeed can be looked on (by the trained eye) as records of theatrical practice that would otherwise be lost.

This, roughly, is the subject of David Mayer’s Stagestruck Filmmaker: D.W.Griffith and the American Theatre, recently published by University of Iowa Press. Mayer is a historian of nineteenth century theatre, and he brings to his study of Griffith (and to his studies of early film in general) an understanding of the filmmaker’s roots in theatrical practice that is illuminating, and salutary. Simply watching the films in isolation gives you too narrow an idea of how they came to be and what their significance was for audiences at the time. You have to know from where they came, socially and culturally.

Here’s the blurb from the University of Iowa Press site:

An actor, a vaudevillian, and a dramatist before he became a filmmaker, D. W. Griffith used the resources of theatre to great purpose and to great ends. In pioneering the quintessentially modern medium of film from the 1890s to the 1930s, he drew from older, more broadly appealing stage forms of melodrama, comedy, vaudeville, and variety. In Stagestruck Filmmaker, David Mayer brings Griffith’s process vividly to life, offering detailed and valuable insights into the racial, ethnic, class, and gender issues of these transitional decades.

Combining the raw materials of theatre, circus, minstrelsy, and dance with the newer visual codes of motion pictures, Griffith became the first acknowledged artist of American film. Birth of a Nation in particular demonstrates the degree to which he was influenced by the racist justifications and distorting interpretations of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Moving through the major phases of Griffith’s career in chapters organized around key films or groups of films, Mayer provides a mesmerizing account of the American stage and cinema in the final years of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Griffith’s relationship to the theatre was intricate, complex, and enduring. Long recognized as the dominant creative figure of American motion pictures, throughout twenty-six years of making more than five hundred films he pillaged, adapted, reshaped, revitalized, preserved, and extolled. By historicizing his representations of race, ethnicity, and otherness, Mayer places Griffith within an overall template of American life in the years when film rivaled and then surpassed the theatre in popularity.

The book comes with playlist and well as filmography, and ought to do a lot to reposition Griffith as a man of his times, and his films as mirrors of those times.

An excellent dumb discourse


Ruggero Ruggeri as Hamlet in Amleto (1917)

It was the fervent belief of many in the early years of cinema that justification for the medium lay in how it interpeted stage drama. At a time when censorious authorities looked down upon the dubious cinema (with its low class audiences) and cinema was reaching out for respectability (and properties that were out of copyright), Pathé with its Film d’Art and Film d’Arte Italiana companies, and Adolph Zukor’s policy of ‘Famous Players in Famous Plays’ showed that there was financial good sense in bringing high-class drama to the cinema screen, however mutely.

The pinnacle of stage drama was, of course, William Shakespeare, and film companies in the silent film era took on the Bard with enthusiasm. The numbers are extraordinary. Some two hundred films, most of them one-reelers of the pre-war period, were produced that closely or loosely owed something to one or other of Shakespeare’s plays. Some film companies showed a particular interest: Vitagraph filmed Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet (all 1908), King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909), Twelfth Night (1910) and As You Like It (1912). Thanhouser made A Winter’s Tale (1910), The Tempest (1911), The Merchant of Venice (1912), Cymbeline (1913) and King Lear (1916). Cines, Kalem, Biograph, Ambrosio, Gaumont, Eclair, Nordisk, Milano and several others filmed the plays.

This was more than enthusiasm for high culture; it was good business. Shakespeare films appealed to an audience which found costume dramas in general to be a treat, and which was accustomed to boiled-down Bard from school texts and stage productions which concentrated on the highlights from the plays (such as the Crummles’ hectic production of Romeo and Juliet portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby). Of course, not everyone wanted to see high culture quite as much as the cinema sometimes wanted to be associated with such culture (see the cartoon at the end of this post), but more than enough were impressed, and entranced.

Once films became longer – ironically as the cinema became closer in form to the theatre – the number of Shakespeare films fell, because longer productions were more of a challenge to audiences. But even then there was a burst of activity in 1916 (the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death), with half-a-dozen or more productions in that year alone, and versions of the plays continued in silent form throughout the 1920s, with four key titles coming from Germany – Hamlet (1920, with Asta Nielsen as the Dane), Othello (1922, with Emil Jannings and Werner Krauss), Der Kaufman von Venedig (The Merchant of Venice) (1923, with Henny Porten) and Ein Sommernachtstraum (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) (1925, Werner Krauss again).


Prospero in his cave, from The Tempest (Clarendon 1908)

So where is the literature to back up this self-evidently significant corner of silent film history? Sadly, until recently, there has been very little. The silent film enthusiasts and film scholars have shied away from Shakespeare as being falsely worthy and far too uncinematic, while the Shakespeareans looked down on cinema per se, while finding the very notion of silent Shakespeare an absurdity. Jack J. Jorgens, a noted scholar, went so far as to write these dreadful words in his Shakespeare on Film (1977):

First came scores of silent Shakespeare films,one- and two-reelers struggling to render great poetic drama in dumb-show. Mercifully, most of them are lost.

Oh dear, oh dear. However, there was one work which almost eccentrically fought against the tide. Robert Hamilton Ball’s Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange Eventual History (1968) is one of the most remarkable books ever produced on silent cinema. It is a passionately-pursued archaeological investigation into every kind of Shakespeare film made during the silent era, encomapssing parodies, allusions, plot borrowing as well as ‘conventional’ adaptations, with Ball diggedly tracking down every obscure reference, every hidden print, every list of intertitles, with abundant fervour and an infectious interest in the people involved. This magnum opus has been cherished by the dedicated few for four decades, and for most of that time its discoveries and assertions have been taken as gospel. Yet even Ball ended his investigations with these disappointing words:

Silent Shakespeare film could not be art, a new art. The aesthetic problem is how to make good film which is good Shakespeare. It could not be good Shakespeare because too much was missing.

It is has been the task of a few of us (and I’ve been involved) to prove those words wrong. Silent Shakespeare was good Shakespeare, not because of what was missing, but because of what was there to be seen – a new medium expressing itself imaginatively while asserting its social worthiness and cultural relevance. To study silent Shakespeare films is to see films discovering what they could do. Yes there are histrionics at times, and yes there is some aburdity involved when complex plots are crammed into a ten-minute reel, but equally there is artistry, feeling and subtlety of interpretation. Have you ever seen a ballet of Romeo and Juliet and complained that the words were missing? Of course not. Shakespeare without the words is not a lesser form, but simply a form that requires its own special understanding. It expresses the significance of its subject within its specific constraints – which is precisely what art is.

The tide started to turn with the release of the British Film Institute’s video compilation Silent Shakespeare (1999), a work that was a revelation to many. Even hardened theatricals could see the special virtues in the Clarendon Film Company’s delightful reworking of The Tempest (1908) or the elemental passion evident in Ermete Novelli’s stunning performance in Re Lear (1910). The DVD has found its way onto many a university library shelf, while a number of scholars have begun to take on the silent Shakespeare film with fresh eyes – among them Jon Burrows, Roberta Pearson, Anthony Guneratne and Kenneth Rothwell.


The leading champion, however, has been Judith Buchanan, whose quite marvellous Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse is published this month by Cambridge University Press. This is the sympathetic, understanding account of a phenomenon that we have been waiting for. It is not a comprehensive history of the silent Shakespeare film – Buchanan defers to Ball in that respect – instead it concentrates on exemplary films and on uncovering the social, cultural and economic contexts. So it is that an opening chapter details a nineteenth-century legacy of performance, with particular attention to Shakespeare and the magic lantern, showing that the silent Shakespeare film was part of an established tradition. Chapters then follow on the first Shakespeare film, King John (1899), featuring Herbert Beerbohm Tree (also on the BFI DVD); Shakespeare films of the ‘transitional era’ between the early and late 1900s, with close, engrossing readings of Clarendon’s The Tempest and Film d’Arte Italiana’s Othello (1909); the ‘corporate authorship’ of Vitagraph’s productions; the contrasting interpretations of Hamlet by Hepworth (a renowned British 1913 production with theatrical great Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson) and Amleto, a 1917 Italian film starring Ruggero Ruggeri, little-known but perhaps the most accomplished extant realisation on Shakespeare on silent film (it’s crying out for the two Hamlets to be released jointly on DVD); the several films of the tercentary year, including the rival Romeo and Juliets starring Francis X. Bushman/Beverley Bayne and Theda Bara/Harry Hilliard, both films alas lost; the German productions of the 1920s; and wordless Shakespeare today (there are some stage productions experimenting with silence, notably Paata Tsikurishvili’s Synetic Theatre).

It’s written for a literary studies audience, but it is grounded in exemplary original research (Buchanan has toured the world to track down the relevant prints) and it is a pleasure to read. There is much here to detain anyone keen to extend their knowledge of film history. She knows her films as well as her plays – a rare and most welcome combination. Above all, Buchanan opens up the subject in all its richness of theme, inviting others to explore further, illuminating the films that we are so fortunate have survived. We will still turn to Robert Hamilton Ball for his extensive documentary evidence, but to Buchanan for her sophisticated understanding.


A 1913 cartoon from London Opinion, speaking for anyone resistant to the cinema’s occasional urge to impress Shakespeare upon us. Taken from Stephen Bottomore, I Want to See this Annie Mattygraph: A Cartoon History of the Coming of the Movies

If you are keen to seek out silent Shakespeare films for yourself (and you should, you really should) this is what’s currently available on DVD:

  • Silent Shakespeare: includes King John (Biograph 1899), The Tempest (Clarendon 1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Vitagraph 1909), Re Lear (Film d’Arte Italiana 1910), Twelfth Night (Vitagraph 1910), Il Mercante di Venezia (Film d’Arte Italiana 1910), Richard III (Co-operative 1911) [BFI] [Milestone]
  • Thanhouser Presents Shakespeare [Thanhouser series vol.7]: includes The Winter’s Tale (1910), Cymbeline (1913), King Lear (1916) [Thanhouser]
  • Richard III (Shakespeare Film Company 1912) [Kino]
  • Othello (Wörner-Filmgesellschaft 1922): also includes Duel Scene from Macbeth (Biograph 1905), The Taming of the Shrew (Biograph 1908), Roméo se fait bandit (Pathé 1910), Desdemona (Nordisk 1911) [Kino]

The International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Radio and Television, an online filmographic database not yet officially released but available in a test version, hopes to be comprehensive for the silent Shakespeare film. Buchanan herself provides a filmography (restricted to films mentioned in her text), including the location of archive prints. Around forty silent Shakespeare films survive today, mercifully.

The Stage


New (at least to me) among the digitised historical journals now available online by subscription is The Stage. This is well worth taking note of. The Stage Directory (A London and Provincial Theatrical Advertiser) was founded in February 1880 as a monthly newspaper, and continues (as a weekly) to this day. Its entire archive 1880-2007 has been digitised and put online, covering over 6,500 issues or above 170,000 individual pages reporting on the goings on of the British stage and beyond.

The importance for us is that The Stage has always kept an eye on the motion picture business, and for the silent era it was assiduous in recording the activities of this new strand of showbusiness. A series of articles from 1907 entitled “Cinematograph Notes” records new businesses, film releases, licensing issues and so forth, “Latest Films” is very handy in giving titles of new releases, and another series “Film Facts & Fancies” starting in 1919, written by ‘Figaro’, reports on the cinema world with a knowing eye.

The Stage documented the engagements of actors, and one can trace their travels across the British provincial theatres, seeing also where the variety shows were starting to introduce the cinematograph. Here one can spot names that were later to be famous: in a notice from 30 July 1903 of a performance of Sherlock Holmes at the London Pavilion, the writer notes:

A faithful portrait of Billy is given by Master Charles Chaplin, who shows considerable ability, and bids fair to develop into a clever and capable actor.

Once can follow Chaplin many performances as Billy, and then later with the Karno troupe, up and down the country, before he found his fortune on the screen.

The Stage Archive is available by subscription. There is a timed pass system, with twenty-four hours’ access costing £5, one week £15, one month £30, three months £60, six months £100 and one year £150. Once you have subscribed, you have options to browse by date, so you can scroll through an entire issue (I recommend this to start with, as it gives you an idea of layout and the contents of the regular sections), or you can search by word (or phrase in quotation marks) across all types of ‘clippings’ (i.e. sections), or by article, picture or advertisement. You can search by the time periods 1880-1900, 1901-1950 or 1914-1918 (and later periods, of course), and can order search results chronologically or by relevance.

Those familiar with digitised newspaper collections will soon recognise that The Stage Archive has been produced by Olive Software‘s ActivePaper system. Search results give you the date and page number of the issue and a snippet of the article itself (usually a headline), which you click on to open up the full article. This can be a little frustrating when you have many search results, as there is little way of telling one article from another (many of the Chaplin notices are simply titled ‘Provinces’, for instance), so it may be a little laborious investigating the more popular subjects. You get the full article in facsimile form, with your search term highlighted, and you can print these or file them away in a ‘My Collection’ facility, but there is no way to get at the underlying OCR text, unfortunately.

If you don’t subscribe, you can still use The Stage Archive to search material, you just won’t have access to the articles themselves. But there is more from The Stage that you can access without paying any subscription. The Stage produced an annual yearbook which for the silent era is another rich source of information, particularly for its directory listing of film associations, its advertisements, and especially its reports on legal cases, always fascinating for the realism they provide behind the tinsel of so much cinema reportage. The Internet Archive has the volumes for 1908-1919. The PDFs are a large size (30-50MB), but don’t forget that they are word-searchable. Look out in particular for Arthur Coles Armstrong’s long article in the 1914 volume, “My Lady Kinema – The Eleventh Muse”. And from the 1916 volume, this report on a court case caught my eye:


In the Chancery Division, before Mr. Justice Younger, Mrs. Elinor Glyn, the author of and owner of the copyright in “Three Weeks,” brought an action against the defendants for an injunction restraining the defendants from making or authorising the public exhibition of kinematograph films under the title of Pimple’s Three Weeks (without the option).

The defendants pleaded that their film Pimple’s Three Weeks (without the option) was an original dramatic work within the meaning of the Copyright Act, 1911, and that they were entitled to use their film.

The action against the defendant George Black was settled before the case came into Court.

And the reason it was settled is that the judge decided that Three Weeks was an immoral work, and so did not merit any copyright protection, irrespective of whether a parody could be seen as infringing in the first case.

Plenty to discover, whether paid for or free (and acknowledgments to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing The Stage Archive to my attention).

Bioscope Newsreel no. 4

The Sport of the Gods
The US Postal Service has issued a series of stamps celebrating African-American performers in early (i.e. pre-1950) films. The titles chosen are each represented by posters and include the 1921 all-black cast The Sport of the Gods, directed by Henry J. Vernot and starring Elizabeth Boyer and Edward R. Abrams. Read more.

Shakespeare goes Hollywood
Director Scott Palmer and the theatrical company Bag & Baggage Productions are putting on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is set in the world of silent-era Hollywood. Chaplin, Lloyd, Valentino, Theda Bara and Louise Brooks are all referenced, while Puck echoes Murnau’s Nosferatu. The production is being put on for Oregon State University’s Bard in the Quad at Corvallis. Read more.

Telegu silent once more
Telugu comedy actor Brahmanandam, who is recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for having appeared in the most number of films in a single language, is to star in a silent film, which is reckoned will be the first Indian silent commercial feature film since the classic Pushpak. The film, Brahmanandam Drama Company, is a Telegu remake of the 2006 Hindi film Bhagam Bhag. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Instruction, amusement and spectacle

Programme for Poole’s Myriorama show at Victoria Hall in Exeter, 1896, from

A call for papers has gone out for Instruction, Amusement and Spectacle: Popular Shows and Exhibitions 1800-1914, a conference taking place 16-18 April 2009, at the Centre for Victorian Studies, University of Exeter.

The conference aims to examine the eclectic range of popular entertainments in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with a particular focus on exhibition practices. The intention is to provide a forum that brings together the range of research currently being undertaken by different disciplines in this area, including film studies, Victorian studies, history of science, performance studies, English literature, art history and studies of popular culture.

Potential topics could include but are not limited to:

  • The role of visual entertainments (e.g. magic lantern, panoramas, dioramas, photography, peep shows)
  • Early cinema: exhibition and reception
  • Local and regional exhibition cultures
  • Science and technology: demonstration and instruction
  • Improvement and rational recreation
  • Exhibitions of ‘Otherness’ (e.g. freak shows, ethnographic shows, minstrels)
  • Music hall, pantomime, vaudeville and variety
  • Public lectures and lecturing
  • Galleries, museums and civic institutions (e.g. The Royal Polytechnic Institution, Mechanics Institutes)
  • Travelling shows, fairgrounds and circuses
  • World’s Fairs and international exhibitions
  • Magic, illusion and spiritualism
  • Concerts, recitals and readings
  • Pleasure gardens, tourism and seaside exhibitions
  • Dance and physical performance
  • Literary and other representations of popular entertainments
  • Showmen and showmanship
  • Audiences: composition and reception
  • Intermediality and exhibitions
  • Image, narrative and performance

Proposals are invited of no more than 300 words, to be sent together with designation and affiliation to, no later than 31 October 2008.

The conference is one output of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project AHRC funded project Moving and Projected Image Entertainment in the South West 1820-1914 at the University of Exeter, which is using a regional study to demonstrate the extensive national distribution of moving and projected images between 1820 and 1914.

Pen and pictures no. 3 – J.M. Barrie

There were many authors in the silent era of cinema who dabbled with the film business, usually by having their works adapted for the screen. But some went further. J.M. Barrie, now chiefly known for Peter Pan, and for his custody of the sons of the Llewellyn-Davies family, the ‘Lost Boys’ (as recently retold in the film Finding Neverland), was among the most highly regarded writers of his time, as a novelist and especially as a dramatist. Barrie was fascinated by the cinema. Many silent films were made from his plays, among them Male and Female (1919, based on The Admirable Crichton), Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1926). For Peter Pan Barrie wrote an original script, though it was not used. But Barrie did more than dabble with film scripts – he had been making his own films, which experimented with the relationship between film and theatre, fantasy and reality.

Two of these films were each connected with a combined theatre-and-film revue that Barrie had dreamt up in July 1914, only to abandon. Barrie had become fascinated by the French music hall actress, Gaby Delys, and wanted to write a revue for her that would extend his dramatic capabilities, and which would allow him to experiment with the borderline between cinema and theatre. He made notes to himself that indicate his radical way of thinking:

Combine theatre with cinematography – Cinema way of kissing. Burlesque of American titles, ‘Nope’ & ‘Yep’ – Gaby a chorus-girl, flirts with conductor in pit.

Barrie’s ideas became more ambitious. He organised a ‘Cinema Supper’ at the Savoy Hotel in London, to which he was able to invite such luminaries as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. His august guests first went to the Savoy Theatre to a series of short sketches written by Barrie and acted by such theatrical greats as Marie Lohr, Dion Boucicault, Marie Tempest, Gerald Du Maurier and Edmund Gwenn, before moving to the Savoy Hotel for supper, Barrie having hired a team of cameramen to film everyone arriving and then seated at their tables. Many apparently had no idea that they were being filmed, though the necessary lighting must sure have raised some questions among some. At one point in the evening Bernard Shaw got up and started delivering a speech haranguing three other guests present, namely G.K. Chesterton, the drama critic William Archer and the philanthropist Lord Howard de Walden, getting so heated as to start waving a sword around. The three he had insulted then all got up, bearing swords of their own, and chased him off stage. This was all a further part of Barrie’s plan, and according to Chesterton, Barrie had ‘some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality’.

The following day came the second part of Barrie’s plans. He had hired a cameraman, and with the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker as director, he made a comedy Western, starring Shaw, Archer, de Walden and Chesterton. Chesterton has left us with the best description of this extraordinary little episode:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.

Chesterton says that the film was never shown, while Barrie’s biographer Denis Mackail suggests that Barrie’s ideas were still half-formed and objections from some of the participants (notably Herbert Asquith, who sent a stern letter from 10 Downing Street forbidding his celluloid likeness from being used in a theatrical revue) caused both films to be withdrawn. However, the cowboy film was shown publicly, two years later at a war hospital charity screening at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the splendid title of How Men Love. A review of the event indicates that Chesterton’s description of the action is what was seen on the screen, with the added detail that the others hanging from the rope over a cliff were too much even for a man of his great bulk to support, and he was forced to drop them. According to Mackail, a print was still in existence in 1941, but sadly no copy is known to exist today. Happily, this photograph does exist to demonstrate that it was not all just some mad dream:

(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography

After a revue of his, Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus (1915), starring Gaby Delys, had a filmed sequence directed by Percy Nash included in one scene, Barrie turned filmmaker again in 1916. The Real Thing at Last was a professional film production by the British Actors Film Company, for which Barrie supplied the script. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and among numerous celebratory productions, there was to be a Hollywood production of Macbeth, produced by D.W. Griffith and starring the English actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The idea of Hollywood tackling Shakespeare filled many with hilarity, and Barrie wrote a thirty-minute spoof which contrasted Macbeth as it might be produced in Britain, with how it would be treated in America. The film starred Edmund Gwenn as Macbeth, and among a notable cast Leslie Henson and A.E. Matthews both have left droll accounts of its production.

The film had a director, L.C. MacBean, but according to Matthews, ‘Barrie did all the work – MacBean just looked on admiringly’. The film gained all its humour from the contrasts in the British and American interpretations of Macbeth. In the British version, Lady Macbeth wiped a small amount of blood from her hands; in the American she had to wash away gallons of the stuff. In the British, the witches danced around a small cauldron; in the American the witches became dancing beauties cavorting around a huge cauldron. In the British, Macbeth and Macduff fought in a ditch; in the American Macbeth falls to his death from a skyscraper. The intertitles were similarly affected; a telegram was delivered to Macbeth that read, ‘If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch’. Sadly, no copy (nor even a photograph, it seems) of this happy jest of Barrie’s is known to exist today.

What does exist, however, is The Yellow Week at Stanway. This film was made in 1923, and is a record of a house party held by Barrie at Stanway, the Cotswolds home of Lord and Lady Wemyss, which Barrie rented every summer. Barrie invited his many guests, which on one occasion included the entire Australian cricket team, to take part in theatricals, cricket matches and other such entertainments, and in 1923 he hired a professional cameraman, name unknown, to film a story that he initially called Nicholas’s Dream. Nicholas, or Nico, was the youngest of the five Llewellyn-Davies boys, and a little of their history is required to put the film in proper context.

The five boys were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies, friends of J.M. Barrie and the models for Mr and Mrs Darling in Peter Pan. Both died tragically early, with Barrie assuming the guardianship of the five boys. They were, of course, the inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ of Barrie’s imagination, and Michael Llewellyn-Davies in particular became the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. But the family was to be visited by further tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in action in 1915, then Michael, Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921. Two of the others, Jack and Peter, moved away from Barrie, and the youngest, Nico, still at school at Eton, stayed with Barrie during holidays but felt Michael’s death deeply and knew that he was no substitute for him.

It is with this background, knowing both Nico and Barrie’s great personal sadness, that we should look at The Yellow Week at Stanway, which records a Stanway house party in 1923 to which Nico invited several of his Eton friends, with a complementary female component made up of friends of the Wemyss family, whose daughter Cynthia Asquith was Barrie’s secretary. She has provided us with a short account of the film’s production:

He [Barrie] was in marvelous form all through the cricket week, and in his most masterful mood – presenting the Eleven with special caps at a speech – making dinner, and summoning from London a ‘camera-man’ to film a fantasy called Nicholas’s Dream, into which he’d woven a part for everyone – a bicycling one for me. He also wrote a duologue for me and sister Mary. It was great fun having her to beguile the Etonians. Pamela Lytton, as lovely as ever, came, too, with her daughter, Hermione.

The film is largely in the standard home movie style (albeit at a time when home movies were a comparative rarity), with some simple trick effects and a distinctive tone of whimsy typical of Barrie, who wrote all of the rhyming intertitles as well as directing the film. It begins with the title, ‘The Yellow Week at Stanway. A record of fair women and brainy men’. The opening shots establish Stanway house and the Wemyss family. Nico Llewellyn-Davies greets the various guests for the Cricket Week, including roughly equal numbers of young men and women.

A game of cricket follows, where the umpire appears to be Barrie. A couple of rudimentary trick shots, with people disappearing or riding bicycles backwards come next, before an extended fantasy sequence. Nico is seen to fall asleep in ‘the forest of Arden’, and in his dream he seeks ‘his Rosalind’ but sees all the other house guests pair up without him. Mary Strickland leaves him for Anthony Lytton; another couple walk away when he greets them; another couple hit croquet balls at him; two others cycle past him; even Nico’s dog abandons him. Each vignette is accompanied by Barrie’s rhyming titles documenting Nico’s series of rejections.

Nicholas, Antony and Mary –
‘Your offer’s read sir, and declined
I will not be your Rosalind.’

Edward and Pamela –
From the East to Western Ind
To Edward comes his Rosalind.

Sam and Rosemary –
Same drove him off with deeds unkind
And so did gentle Rosalind.

Pasty and Hermione –
If t’were not that love is blind
He’d keep an eye on Rosalind.

Eventually he wakes to find himself petted by all of the women, while the men walk away in disgust.

Following some further general shots, there comes the film’s most intriguing sequence. A title introduces ‘The Pirates’ Lagoon. An intruder’. Barrie and Michael Asquith (Cynthia Asquith’s young son) are seen on a small punt on a pond. The next title reads, ‘Michael the captain could stand when pressed. But drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Michael and three other children, including his younger brother Simon, are seen in a boat. ‘’Ware the Redskins’, reads the next title, and Michael points a gun and a smaller boy a bow and arrow. ‘Escaping the tomahawks by a miracle’, reads the title, ‘Red Michael reached Stanway by a perilous descent.’ Michael is shown climbing through a window. The film concludes with Nico pretending to sleep and embracing an imaginary person; final shots of Stanway and the house guests; shots of Eton school; and concluding with Simon and Michael Asquith waving handkerchiefs through windows in a garden wall.

J.M. Barrie and Michael Asquith in The Yellow Week at Stanway, from

The film is jointed, illogical and often plain silly in the manner of many home movies. The two fantasy sequences are notable, however. The ‘Nicholas’s Dream’ betrays some unfathomable and unconscious cruelty on Barrie’s part, depicting Nico as the unloved outsider, rejected by his peers, denied the pleasures of young love. Its allusions to Shakespeare’s As You Like It prefigure Barrie’s later involvement in the 1936 film of the play (the later film’s credits read ‘treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie’), with Elisabeth Bergner as a Peter Pan-like Rosalind. The pirate sequence, though brief and not elaborate in any way, is remarkably close in conception to his photo-story The Boy Castaways which was in turn the inspiration for Peter Pan.

The Yellow Week at Stanway is preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can read the minutely detailed shotlist (penned by yours truly, long ago) on the BFI database. And there is just a fleeting extract from the film available on the Knebworth House website, showing Barrie and Michael Asquith on a punt.

Finally, just for the record, here’s a filmography of films from the silent era made from Barrie’s plays (play’s name where different in brackets), demonstrating just how popular his works were – and how ingenious producers were in renaming The Admirable Crichton:

  • US 1910 Back to Nature [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 The Little Minister
    d. James Young p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 Shipwrecked [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Kalem
  • US 1914 The Man of her Choice [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Powers
  • US 1915 The Little Gypsy [The Little Minister]
    d. Oscar C. Apfel p.c. Fox
  • GB 1915 The Little Minister
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune
  • GB 1915 Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune [for use in the play’s stage production (scene six)]
  • GB 1917 What Every Woman Knows
    d. Fred W. Durrant p.c. Barker-Neptune
  • GB 1918 The Admirable Crichton
    d. G.B. Samuelson p.c. Samuelson
  • US 1919 Male and Female [The Admirable Crichton]
    d. Cecil B. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1920 Half an Hour
    d. Harley Knoles p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1920 The Twelve Pound Look
    d. Jack Denton p.c. Ideal
  • US 1921 The Little Minister
    d. Penrhyn Stanlaws p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 Sentimental Tommy
    d. John S. Robertson p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 What Every Woman Knows
    d. William C. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1921 The Will
    d. A.V. Bramble p.c. Ideal
  • US 1922 The Little Minister
    d. David Smith p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1924 Peter Pan
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1925 Peter Pan Handled (Dinky Doodle series) [featured Peter Pan as a character] [animation]
    d. Walter Lantz p.c. Bray Productions
  • US 1926 A Kiss for Cinerella
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1927 Quality Street
    d. Sidney Franklin p.c. Cosmopolitan Productions

Between page and film

The Manxman

Anny Ondra in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1929), based on the Hall Caine novel, from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

The Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London is hosting a one day event with the imposing title of Cross-media cooperation between the publishing, theatrical and film industries: an interdisciplinary colloquium. The event takes place Saturday 12 April, and is an output of an AHRC-funded project on cross-media cooperation in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s.

The project is looking at the origins of the syndication or marketing of an author’s rights across several media, so common today, which it locates in the 1920s and 1930s. The aim of the colloquium is to draw together research from different disciplines to examine the extent of cross-media cooperation between media professionals, agents, and authors and ask how the past has shaped practices of the present day.

And here’s the programme, which has plenty on the cross-relationship in Britain between popular literature and film in the silent era:

Panel 1
Prof Alexis Weedon (University of Bedfordshire)
Some observations on cross-media co-operation in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s
Dr Vincent L. Barnett (University of Bedfordshire)
Elinor Glyn. The Novelist As Hollywood Star
Dr Mary Hammond (University of Southampton)
Hitchcock and Hall Caine: the Victorian Bestseller on the Silent Screen

Panel 2
Dr Amy Sargeant (Reader in Film, University of Warwick)
Frederick Britten Austin: Boy’s Own Stories, Girls’ Romances and Interwar Politics
Nathalie Morris (University of East Anglia)
Eminent British Authors and the Stoll Film Company
Dr Caroline Copeland (Napier University)
Katherine Cecil Thurston’s Chilcote

Panel 3
Dr Simon Frost (Institute of literature, media and cultural studies, University of Southern Denmark)
A Toga Tale of Ingomar the Barbarian: in print, in drawing rooms, at fairgrounds and in Hollywood
Dr Lawrence Napper (University of Greenwich and at King’s College, London)
‘Not over-exercising our intellectual powers in the choice of subjects’: The Gainsborough scenario department, 1929-31

Panel 4
Dr Simone Murray (recorded presentation from Monash Australia)
What Are You Working On?: the shifting role of the author in an era of cross-media adaptation
Prof Juliet Gardiner
Talk: Contemporary adaptation of Atonement

No indication on the colloquium web page as to when it starts or ends, or whether those panels overlap, but it does tell you that it is priced at £30 standard; £20 members/concessions, that the venue is Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E, and that spaces are limited so early booking is advisable.

Registration forms are on the site, and more information can be got from Jon Millington, Events Officer, Institute of English Studies, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU; tel +44 (0) 207 664 4859; Email jon.millington [at]

William Haggar’s phantom ride

William Haggar

William Haggar, from

Talking, as we have been, about lost films, here’s an interesting piece from the South Wales Echo (we cast our investigative net widely here at the Bioscope) on a theatre show devised by performance group Good Cop Bad Cop:

Haggar remembered in ‘rough and ready’ show

WILLIAM Haggar was one of the first pioneers of cinema in a silent age where actors ‘spoke’ volumes with just a simple frown or smile.

A travelling entertainer from Essex, he settled in Wales and transformed live entertainment into the cultural industries of the early 20th Century.

Now his work is being resurrected by two-man company Good Cop Bad Cop, which has been commissioned by Chapter for three nights of experimental theatre.

In what has been described as a rough-and-ready production, John Rowley and Richard Morgan, who set up Good Cop Bad Cop in 1995, take to the stage for their performance of Phantom Ride.

Based on a series of lost silent footage, Phantom Ride aims to rejuvenate memories from a selected 32 of Haggar’s films in a creative leap of faith by the theatre group.

The two actors, who met when they worked with Welsh theatre company Brith Gof, have brought on board newcomer Louise Ritchie for the project.

The show will be performed purely through stand-up acting on a stage which has been stripped bare of scenery, props and bright lighting.

Each will give a brief synopsis of Haggar’s work and recount memories of those switched-on enough to have handed down thoughts about his films so that future generations could get an insight into a disappearing film era.

It will then be up to audiences to visualise the rest, albeit prompted by storytelling monologues and a background soundtrack.

John Rowley, co-artistic director of Good Cop Bad Cop, says they are still making changes to the production which is how the pair usually work best.

He said: “We are still working on it.

“Although the show is on Wednesday we’ll piece it together right up until Tuesday night.

“It’s rough and ready in a way. It’s not like going into the theatre seeing bright lights, scenery and costumes. It’s based on a series of lost films which do not exist any more.

“In the silent movie era after the people watched the film they didn’t care what happened to the footage which was combustible, so they went to powder.

“A lot of work has been done to restore them in different parts of the world but a lot have been lost. I think only eight exist at the moment and they are in fragments.”

During the 70-minute show the audience is expected to play its part by using imagination and imagery.

John added: “What we are interested in is the live raw experience of an audience member, and the relationship between the audience and the performer which is often kind of negative in traditional theatre.

“We will be using the same space as the audience as it’s not a built-up stage.

“It could be some of the audience end up standing next to the actor listening to them as if it was a personal conversation.

“That part of the audience is then turned into part of the performance.”

I like the idea of getting the audience to contribute to the imaginative recreation of a lost film. That sort of engagement with the audience is very much in the spirit of Haggar, who toured the fairgrounds with his films and knew that it was those who came to see the show that really made the films what they were. William Haggar is the great pioneer of Welsh cinema, responsible for such lively works as A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903) and The Life of Charles Peace (1905), and the subject of Peter Yorke’s recent biography. Yorke has also produced a website about Haggar and his book, at

Good Cop Bad Cop: Phantom Ride can be seen at Chapter, in Cardiff, Wednesday, January 23, to Friday, January 25, at 8pm. Further information from the Chapter website.

A Charlie Chaplin Christmas

Charlie Chaplin Christmas

Talking of lost films, as we have been, today sees the opening in Chicago of A Charlie Chaplin Christmas, a play based around an imaginary lost Chaplin film, A Tramp’s Christmas. The play is a production of Chicago’s Silent Theatre Company, which has the brave and notable mission of creating stage productions inspired by silent movies. Its previous production was Lulu, based on G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box.

A Charlie Chaplin Christmas tells of a production company in the silent era desperate to find production funding. It tells potential backers that is has Chaplin signed up to take part in the film, and then have to make good its promise with a convincing lookalike. One of the inspirations behind the production is the old story that Charlie Chaplin himself once entered a Chaplin lookalike content, and came third. As with Lulu, the Silent Theatre Company performs in monochrome. Sets, costumes and make-up all are in black-and-white (or black or white).

The production is running at the Studio Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center, and runs until January 6. More information, visit the Silent Theatre Company’s MySpace page.

Thanhouser on DVD

King Lear (1917)

The Thanhouser film company was founded in 1909 by American theatrical impresario Edwin Thanhouser. It had studios in New Rochelle, New York and remain in operation until 1918, when Edwin Thanhouser retired. It had a relatively modest profile at the time, with few star name under contract (Florence La Badie, James Cruze, Marguerite Snow), and it has never excited much interest among film historians. Nevertheless, it was a sturdy and distinctive operation, with a particular penchant for bold literary and dramatic adaptations. It is also distinctive because the company, or rather the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation Inc, remains in family hands, run by Edwin W. Thanhouser, grandson of the film company’s founder.

The present Edwin Thanhouser has been assiduous in helping to ensure the preservation of Thanhouser films, and has issued many Thanhouser titles on videotape and DVD. Volumes 7, 8 and 9 of the Thanhouser Presents series are being issued in September on DVD, with music by Raymond A. Brubacher. Together they present twelve titles which give good indication of the range of Thanhouser’s work.

Volume 7 is Thanhouser Presents Shakespeare. Several film companies of the period produced one- and two-reeler Shakespeare films, but it took Thanhouser to film such ‘difficult’ and less familiar titles as The Winter’s Tale (1910) and Cymbeline (1913). The third title is King Lear (1917), a feature-length production (two-and-a-half reels here, abridged from the original five), generally well-thought of by the brave band of Shakespeareans who can contemplate the idea of silent Shakespeare, and starring Frederick Warde (above).

Volume 8 features literary adaptations: Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1912), King Rene’s Daughter (1913), Tannhäuser (1913) and The Vagabonds (1915). King Rene’s Daughter is adapted from a Danish verse play, Iolanthe, while Tannhäuser derives from Wagner. The Vagabonds is from a poem by J.T. Trowbridge – all evidence of Thanhouser’s creative ambitions.

Thanhouser fire

Volume 9 offers relatively more conventional fare: Daddy’s Double (1910), When the Studio Burned (1913), An Elusive Diamond (1914), The Marvelous Marathoner (1915) and The Woman in White (1917), based on Wilkie Collins and starring Florence La Badie, who died following an automobile accident not long after the film was released. When the Studio Burned is based on an actual fire which took place only the month before at the Thanhouser studio in Rochelle, with various Thanhouser players, including James Cruze and Marguerite Snow, playing themselves.

The Thanhouser website has excellent supporting information on each of the titles, as well as details of the previous six volumes in the series. It also provides a Research Center, with a history of the company, biographies of leading figures, a filmography, a database in spreadsheet form of the 186 surviving Thanhouser films and their archive locations, and a range of articles on Thanhouser films. There is also Thanhouser Films: An Encyclopedia and History, written by Q. David Bowers and available on CD-ROM. And there’s an image gallery as well. Every silent film company should be so well served.