filmarchives online

filmarchives online is a new, European-funded project to provide integrated access to moving image collections. The project is in its early stages, but the site is already offering records for 4,000 films (predominantly non-fiction) from five partner archives: the Deutsche Filminstitut – DIF e.V., the British Film Institute (BFI), La Cineteca di Bologna, the DEFA-Foundation and Národní Filmový Archiv Prague (NFA). Eleven more archives are expected to participate in 2007, with a target of 20,000 records online by the end of 2007. The site and database are available in four languages (English, French, German, Czech).

The search function is still in development, but you can search on silent films alone. Many are Topical Budget newsreel items and Mitchell and Kenyon actualities from the BFI. The emphasis is on technical records as opposed to filmographic data, though some records have credits and descriptions. This is quite a departure, as film archives traditionally have been cautious about revealing information on the film elements that they hold. As a potential union catalogue for European film collections this is clearly a project to keep an eye on.

William Haggar – Fairground Film-maker

William Haggar

Tomorrow sees the publication of William Haggar: Fairground Film-maker (Accent Press), by Peter Yorke. Yorke is the great-grandson of William Haggar, fairground entertainment and pioneer of Welsh cinema, whose energetic dramas such as A Desperate Poaching Affray (1903) and The Life of Charles Peace (1905) were hugely popular in their time and are treasured by early film historians now. Yorke’s biography draws on oral reminiscences, unpublished family memoirs and contemporary press reports to tell the rags-to-riches story of a travelling theatrical who became one of Britain’s select band of pioneer film-makers. The Bioscope understands that the mispelling of Haggar’s name on the book cover being publicised on Amazon has been corrected since…

Tom Fletcher remembers

Posting that item on Norman Studios and the black cinema of the silent era reminded me of a passage in a book that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to tell someone about. Tom Fletcher’s The Tom Fletcher Story: 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954) is a classic memoir that has been much-plundered by musical theatre historians, but I don’t know how many film historians know of this passage which records the experience of two black actors at the Edison film company in the early 1900s:

When the flickers, or moving pictures, were developed along around 1900, my partner, Al Bailey, and I got leading comedy parts. The studio was on 22nd Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. I was the talent scout for the colored people. There were no “types,” just colored men, women and children. Bailey and I did parts in the pictures that today would pay no less than four figures weekly, but we didn’t take it seriously. To us it was just something that would never get any place.

You never heard the words “lights,” “action,” “camera,” “roll ’em,” or “cut” which are so common today. There were no script writers, no make-up artists, just one man, everybody called him Mr. Porter, and I never took time to find out his first name, who placed you in your positions and gave you your actions, lit the scene and then turned the camera. His assistant was a fellow named Gilroy whom everyone called Gil. When we went on location it was to North Asbury Park, about the best place around New York for the purpose. The trees, gardens and farms gave just the right atmosphere.

At the end of each day Gilroy would hand me the money to pay off. I am not quite sure but I think it was three dollars a day for each of the people. Bailey and I got eight dollars each. We all considered it a lot of fun with pay. Vaudeville, private parties, music and show business kept me too busy to pay any real attention to the moving picture business.

Porter is of course Edwin S. Porter; Gilroy is his assistant William J. Gilroy. Fletcher’s less than awe-struck view of the early film business is illuminating, and shows how for most stage performers the new medium was a minor curiosity with little bearing on their professional lives except that the extra money was welcome. Is this a unique memoir for black performers in film at such an early date? I don’t know.

I first found the passage in Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (1989), which is an excellent, instructive history in itself, with wonderful illustrations.

It doesn’t show Edison films such as Tom Fletcher appeared in, but the Black Film Center/Archive site has some QuickTime clips of African-American performers (and some white actors in blackface) from the 1890s. The Uncle Tom Cabin’s & American Culture site has a huge range of information about the many expressions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, including the history behind the 1903 Edison film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with QuickTime video clips of this and subsequent film versions from the silent era. The lead parts in the 1903 film are played by white actors in black face; the black performers are all extras.

Pordenone Collegium


An invitation has been published for students to attend the Collegium at this year’s silent film festival at Pordenone, Italy, which takes place 6-13 October. There are twelve spaces available, an applicants should notmally be aged under 30 and pursuing education in cinema in one form or other. The aim of the Collegium is the engage the students in a programme of activity that takes full advantage of the expertise of archivists, musicians and film historians on hand at the world’s premiere silent film festival . Those attending are given free hotel accommodation and breakfast during the week, but are responsible for their own travel arrangements, meals, and all other expenses.

There are further details on the festival website. The deadline for applications is 27 May. Papers from previous Collegiums (Collegia?) can be found on the Film Intelligence site (talking of which, it’s high time that site got updated).

Brand upon the Brain

Brand upon the Brain

The silent film continues as a valid art form, particularly in the hands of the Canadian Guy Maddin, who has made silent film his natural mode of expression. His latest film is Brand upon the Brain, which is playing (with live music ensemble) at the San Francisco International Film Festival on May 7. The festival site describes it:

The semiautobiographical Brand upon the Brain! mines the rich territories of director Guy Maddin’s youth and spins them into a delirious fantasy of familial discontent. At the edge of the sea stands a lighthouse, once the location of an orphanage. There, some years ago, lived Guy and Sis, a brother and sister under the constant observation of their mother yet entirely ignored by their father, an ingenious inventor. When Wendy Hale, amateur harpist and half of twin detective team the Lightbulb Kids, arrives to investigate a mysterious regenerative nectar harvested from the orphans, things grow ever more complicated. A love triangle becomes a quadrangle when Wendy masquerades as her brother Chance and goes in search of clues. A fever dream of Freudian impulses and horror show theatrics, Maddin devours 100 years of film history whole and, like the ersatz Guy’s painting of the lighthouse, covers the screen with a 12-chapter outpouring of his various obsessions.

There’s a trailer for the film on the festival site which gives a good flavour of Maddin’s distinctive style and take on cinema history.

A good read or two

Having expressed disappointment at the Silent Cinema book by Brian Robb, what should the person new to silents read as an introduction to the subject? There’s not much among new publications (please somebody let me know if you have opinions otherwise), but I’ve come up with a top ten that I would recommend.

1. Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (1973)

Out of print, but easy to find second hand, this a memoir by the assistant cameraman to Billy Bitzer, who was D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer. It is an eye-witness account of the making of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, written with immense charm, wit and memorable observation. There is no other book like it for conjuring up the excitement and creativity of early filmmaking. It’s a terrific read, funny and informative, making you wish that you had been there too.

2. Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (1987)

Another book from someone who was there. Ivan Butler saw his first film in 1915 and went on to become a film historian. This is a marvellously evocative account of the films he saw in the silent era, year-by-year, with sharp observations not only on the notable films and stars of the period but also many names and titles now forgotten. You get a real sense of what it was like to be a regular filmgoer in the 1920s (in Britain). It’s out of print, but well worth tracking down.

3. Edward Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence (1962)

A classic survey of the silent screen from the early one-reelers to the 1920s, concentrating on American silent cinema. It is literate and enthusiastic in equal measure, mixing personal recollection with wise observation. And it’s still in print.

4. David Robinson, Chaplin (1985)

Charlie Chaplin’s own Autobiography is a candidate for this list, but my vote goes for this exhaustive, amazing biography, 792 pages and yet you may want to read it all at single setting. It makes best use of unprecentend access to the Chaplin archives, and it is just such an amazing, Twentieth Century story.

5. Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (1981)

If you have to have one book on motion picture technology (and it’s worth having one), this is it. It doesn’t just cover the silent era, but for that period alone (and the ‘pre-cinema’ of the nineteenth century and before) it is the best, clearest and most helpfully illustrated publication yet produced. All good film archivists swear by it. Of course it’s out of print, but not hard to find.

6. George Pearson, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film Maker (1957)

Pearson was a schoolteacher, aged thirty-seven, when in 1912 he gave up his steady career to become a film director and writer with the Pathe company in Britain. This is a touching, thoughtful and often inspiring memoir from someone who toiled during the difficult years of British filmmaking. His hopes for film as an art and as a source of instruction are inspiring, even if his personal achievements were relatively humble. It’s also just a very readable and observant account of the British film industry over three decades.

7. Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (1992)

OK, this scholarly and very detailed work isn’t every beginners idea of where to begin, but if your interest is in the scholarly excitement generated by early cinema, and how the field of film before 1914 can be a source of ideas, debate and theory, this is the book for you. It uses the carer of Edwin S. Porter (director of The Great Train Robbery) as a way into a deep understanding of how the motion picture industry emerged, ably situated within a broader socio-cultural framework. It has inspired many other such studies, but hasn’t really been beaten yet.

8. Kevin Brownlow, The War The West and The Wilderness (1978)

Most would put Brownlow’s famous The Parade’s Gone By in such a list, but this is my favourite of his books, which shows us that there was much more to the silent cinema than the conventional fiction feature film. This is about the pioneers who went out and filmed wars and revolutions, went exploring with the camera, and recorded the wild West in the first years of cinema. It’s particularly good on the actuality filming of the First World War, and films of polar exploration. It’s a book about discovery which has discoveries itself on every page. There’s such enthusiasm and admiration on every page. It’s out of print of course, and copies tend to be a bit costly – but, go on, treat yourself.

9. Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns (1975)

Another classic. No book conjures up better the skill and immense fun of the great silent comedians. It has definitive observations on Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Langdon and a host of other, it is richly illustrated, and it has wise things to say on what we laugh at and why.

10. Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art (1976)

This is a social history of American film. There have been far too few such histories, as though film existed solely on the screen, without any wider social significance. This book does what any sensible history of such a phenomenon should do: it looks at the social, political, cultural and economic forces which drove cinema, with the focus on audiences and institutions. It goes beyond the silent cinema period, but if you want to see how film in the silent era interacted with society (and you should), this is a very good place to start.

Ten essential silents

Kevin Brownlow’s “Silents Please” article, published today in The Times, concludes with a list of “ten essential silents” (with his comments):

The Birth of a Nation, 1915 The most influential and controversial of all silents

Broken Blossoms, 1919 Poetry on the screen

The Phantom of the Opera, 1925 Inspired hokum

Variety, 1926 Dazzling sex drama set among trapeze artists

Flesh and the Devil, 1927 Garbo and Gilbert fell in love on this picture – and it shows

Metropolis, 1927 The silliest great film yet made

Napoléon, 1927 The most technically innovative film yet made

Sunrise, 1927 Masterly use of the camera

The Crowd, 1928 A young couple’s fight against poverty

The Wind, 1928 Lillian Gish enduring relentless Texan storms

Those are Kevin’s choices. These are mine:

Satan’s Merry Frolics (Les Quatres Cents Farces du Diable), 1906 Georges Melies’ most dazzling trick film

A Corner in Wheat, 1909 D.W. Griffith’s finest

The Battle of the Somme, 1916 The pity of war

The Rink, 1916 Charlie Chaplin, poetry in motion

Our Hospitality, 1923 Buster Keaton in sweetly nostalgic mood

An Italian Straw Hat (Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie), 1927 The funniest silent of them all

Hindle Wakes, 1927 Stunning slice of Northern life

The Manxman, 1929 Underrated Hitchcock, technically flawless

Umarete Wa Mita Keredo… (I was Born But…), 1932 Ozu’s wry, sympathetic view of childhood

Tianming (Daybreak), 1933 Chinese emotional masterpiece