Silent film sound

From the book cover for Rick Altman’s Silent Film Sound

I don’t know what might be the cause, but there has been a dearth of silent film-related conferences so far this year. Maybe the upcoming Domitor conference (from which the Bioscope will be reporting) has so dominated the landscape that there hasn’t been the urge to come up with anything that might compete with it. Or maybe it’s because we don’t need to confer quite so much these days because we’re all talking to one another online (now there’s a topic for discussion).

But film conferences aren’t quite dead yet, and a call for papers has just been issued for Silent film sound: history, theory and practice, which is to take place 22-23 February 2013, at Kiel, Germany. The conference, which takes its title from Rick Altman’s highly influential book Silent Film Sound, is being organised by Christian Albrechts University Kiel, in collaboration with Kiel Society for Film Music Research.

Here’s the full call for papers (for which the deadline is 30 June 2012):

Silent film sound: history, theory and practice
Friday 22 – Saturday 23 February 2013

Christian Albrechts University Kiel, Germany
in collaboration with Kiel Society for Film Music Research

We are pleased to invite proposals for papers in the broad theme “Silent film sound: history, theory and practice”, to be presented at a conference of the same name on February 22 – 23 at the Christian Albrechts University Kiel.

With a few exceptions silent cinema was never silent. Cinemas and other spaces of film exhibition were in fact rather loud places where music, voices and sounds intermingled during the screening.

Today public interest in silent cinema is on the rise. Film screenings with live accompaniment have gained popularity in recent years, silent films are shown in concert halls and at festivals and they are (again) staged as events and not simply as presentation of a piece of entertainment or art.

Music and sound for silent film are relatively young fields of study and most research focuses on the American tradition. With this conference we seek to expand the field for other – especially European – regions, and compare them with well documented American cases.

We aim to gather scholars from various disciplines, to discuss and reflect on current and historical approaches to the study of sound and music and moving images. We particularly encourage both musicologists and film scholars to participate in the debate surrounding this topic, in order to benefit from each other’s perspectives and to challenge prevailing views and methodologies in this thriving field.

Ultimately, we aim to strengthen the European and international research network concerned with the variety of sound and musical practices in silent film accompaniment. We also want to discuss contemporary practices of silent film accompaniment and explicitly invite musical practitioners to share and discuss their experiences with us.

Papers may address repertories or issues relating to one of the following areas (or others related to the conference theme):

  • Film narrator/lecturer
  • Sound effects in silent film exhibition
  • Relationship of cinema with antecedent theatrical forms like Vaudeville and Variety
  • Relationship with theater music, opera and musical theater in general
  • Early film and the music recording and publishing industry
  • Singers in cinema
  • National and regional idiosyncrasies of silent film sound
  • Gender aspects in production, performance and reception
  • National identity in musical forms (community singing)
  • Diegetic music in silent cinema
  • Silent film and popular music/jazz: improvised or compiled (structural and formal issues)
  • Mechanical music
  • Opera films, music films
  • Early transmedial star systems
  • Historical discourse about music in cinemas
  • Issues of research, teaching and knowledge transfer
  • Contemporary practices of silent film accompaniment
  • Experimental silent film and its accompaniment

Proposals (max. 350 words) for 25-minute presentations should be sent to Claus Tieber (claus.tieber@univie.ac.at), no later than June 30, 2012. Please include a short biography, all current contact information (name, e-mail, phone number, affiliation) and specific AV requirements.

We plan to publish a book based on the refereed proceedings.

More information : http://soundofsilents.wordpress.com

Well, that looks like a fairly thorough survey of the kinds of questions likely to be thrown up by such a subject. It’s quite close in its preoccupations to the recent Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project, and seems to be part of a welcome trend of cross-disciplinary investigation, with musicologists (hopefully) as likely to be attracted to the themes as film historians.

You can always find information on early and silent film conferences, future and past, on The Bioscope’s Events pages – and do let me know of any other such conferences coming up.

The transit of Venus

An animation of Jules Janssen’s photographic sequence showing the transit of Venus, 8 December 1874

5-6 June 2012, will see the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the Sun. It’s worth looking out for, not least because the next time it occurs won’t be until 10 December 2117.

It was certainly something to look out for on 8 December 1874, when French scientist Pierre-Jules-César Janssen (1824-1907), a keen observer of eclipses (and now most famous as the discoverer of Helium), decided to try and capture the motion of Venus crossing the sun through sequence photography, something now recognised as one of the key milestones on the route to cinematography itself.

Janssen’s purpose was not to capture motion for its own sake, however. What was of particular interest to astronomers was capturing the very point of contact between planet and sun, which was needed to help determine solar distance more precisely. Since the exact moment could not be predicted, making a single-shot photograph strategy a hazardous one, Janssen planned to take a rapid sequence of photographs – or at least as rapid as the technology of 1874 would allow. This he achieved by constructing a ‘revolver photographique’ – a camera, somewhat similar in concept to a Colt revolver, driven by a clockwork-driven Maltese Cross-like mechanism capable of taking forty-eight exposures on a Daguerrotype plate over a period of seventy-two seconds. Daguerrotypes were becoming an antiquated technology, but, as Stephen Herbert explains on Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema:

… the metal plate ensur[ed] an absence of halation (flare) that could have been a problem if a glass plate had been used – and a wet plate would in any case have been inconvenient to use in such a camera. With the sun as the source there was no shortage of light, so the ‘slow’ daguerreotype process was ideal.

Janssen’s revolver photographique, pointed at a heliostat (a clockwork-operated mirror following the movement of the sun), as published in La Nature in 1875. The operator was the Brazilian astronomer d’Almeida

Janssen journeyed to Japan to take his photographic sequence (the actual operator of the revolver was a Brazilian, Francisco Antônio d’Almeida), while inspiring several British expeditions with the same purpose to use similar photographic apparatus constructed by J.H. Dallmeyer and using a form of dry plate photography (the expeditions were based in Egypt, India, Australia, Rodrigues, Honolulu, New Zealand and the Kerguelen Islands). Janssen presented the results to the Société Française de Photographie in 1875 – as still images, that is, not of course as a projected sequence, the technology for which was several years away from being invented. We can animate the sequence now, and all six seconds of it can be seen in the video above. The conditions under which Janssen ‘filmed’ were not ideal, it being a cloudy day, and the images were touched up slightly, making Janssen perhaps as much a proto-animator as he was a proto-cinematographer. (Although Janssen definitely produced a successful series of photographs, some suggest that the images we have today are from an earlier simulation made by Janssen to test his equipment).

Janssen’s work inspired others to capture scientific subjects through sequence photography, notably the physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, and he lived long enough not only to see cinematography becaome a reality, but to appear in two early Lumière films: Débarquement du Congres de Photographie a Lyon and M. Janssen causant avec M. Lagrange, filmed on 11 June 1895.

The transit of Venus as photographed by Professor David Peck Todd on 6 December 1882

Jules Janssen’s capturing of the transit of Vanus as a sequence of images invariably features in pre-histories of cinema (or histories of pre-cinema). The British astronomers using similar technology are seldom mentioned, and in none of the histories will you find mention of the next transit of Venus, which took place on 6 December 1882, and which was also captured in sequence on photographic plates by astronomers ahead of eventual motion picture technology.

How many did so in 1882 I do not know, but one who definitely did was the American astronomer Professor David Peck Todd (1855-1939). Positioned on Mount Hamilton in California, his ‘solar photographic telescope’ was constructed by the optical firm Alvan Clark & Sons and enabled Todd to capture 147 wet-plate glass negatives. These images were rediscovered 120 years later, digitally copied and animated, and premiered before the International Astronomical Union in Sydney in July 2003. The conditions under which Todd operated were better, and the photographic plates superior, to Janssen’s expdition in 1874, and the resultant video is marvellously sharp. Once again, it needs to be pointed out that the images preceded motion picture projection by some years and were never seen in this way in 1882.

There is an excellent article on Janssen and his British imitators by Francoise Launay and Peter D. Hingley, ‘Jules Janssen’s “Revolver Photographique” and its British derivative, “The Janssen Slide”‘, originally published in Journal for the History of Astronomy vol. 36 pt. 1 no. 122 (2005).

From the same journal comes William Sheehan and Anthony Misch, ‘Ménage à trois: David Peck Todd, Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson and the 1882 Transit of Venus‘ vol. 35 pt 2 no. 119 (2004), which includes the reanimation of Todd’s photographic plates and plenty on his interesting private life (his wife Mabel was responsible for the rediscovery of the poetry of Emily Dickinson).

After 1882, the next transit of Venus was in 2004. Tomorrow’s transit will be best viewed under cloudless skies around the Pacific Ocean, while in Europe we’ll see the transit already underway during sunrise on June 6th. There’s a guide on how and where to see it (don’t look at the sun with the naked eye, please) provided by The Guardian here. You can be certain of following it by watching one of the main live video streams on offer, a guide to which is provided here.

Everything you could possibly want to know about the transit of Venus is at www.transitofvenus.org, which rather wonderfully has a counter counting down the days until the 2117 transit. Just 38,538 days to go …

Lost sites

The Wayback Machine page for The Silent Film Bookshelf

We’ve been having a bit of a spring clean at New Bioscope Towers. We know that one of the features of the site that people seems to value is the lengthy lists of links in handy categories which are provided down the right-hand side (unless you are consulting the mobile version, in which case the links are at the bottom of your screen after much scrolling downwards). The problem with so many links is that a fair number change or in some cases disappear entirely, and they have to be updated every now and then (the links in the Bioscope posts themselves seldom get updated – they have to remain what they were at the time of publication, though changes are sometimes noted in the comments).

So what of the websites that have vanished? So, such as some minor blogs and discussion forums, we simply wave farewell to, and leave it at that. Others contained important information, and should not be allowed to disappear any more than we would let a book or a film disappear from an archive. Web archiving is becoming all the more important to libraries around the world, and of course we have the pioneering and now vast resource that is the Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine. And so, four years after we last conducted a survey of lost websites, here are some of the sites formerly listed by the Bioscope but still discoverable in some form via the Internet Archive. All links are to the Internet Archive version rather than the original site, and you will need to use the IA’s calendar to selected those days on which a snapshot archive record of the site was made.

  • Ariel Cinematographica Register
    Pete Ariel’s huge German-language listing (no illustrations) of makes of cinematographic equipment, including many early models (also available in a book version).
  • Arthur Dulay
    Site dedicated to Arthur Oswald Dulay, British silent film accompanist of another age, with photos, sound files and film clips. In its latter days the site turned into a discussion forum (with no discusions) so check its record from 2009 and before to find the full site.
  • BuechereiWiki Film Search
    This superb set of links created by a German librarian on where to buy films and videos on DVD worldwide still exists, but is now hidden with password access only. Happily, earlier versions (2011 and before) can be found on the IA. A first-rate reference source.
  • Dark Screens
    Ironically, this website on lost cinemas of South London is now lost itself. It lists many cinemas from the area, with mini-histories, map references and general links on cinema history. Best checked on the IA from 2010 and before.
  • Gorgeous George O’Brien
    The star of Sunrise and other Fox dramas was the subject of this fan site, which has useful biographical information even if its many images are no longer traceable.
  • The Georges Melies Database
    There are no websites that really do George Méliès justice, but this Geocities site did at least have a useful filmography and basic background information.
  • Ruan Lingyu
    Another Geocities site, this time dedicated to the great Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide at the height of her fame. A bit limited in construction, but with some handy biographical information and photos including her funeral.
  • The Silent Cinema Bookshelf
    Though it had not been updated since 1999, David Pierce’s curated selection of original documents on the silent film era was one of the outstanding websites in our field. It has gone now, apparently because the host site cinemaweb.com no longer exists, but the texts can all be found on the IA (including Gene Gauntier’s memoirs, figures on top-grossing silents, articles on silent film music, D.W. Griffith, the making of The Covered Wagon, and film financing, and documentation on silent film speeds including Kevin Brownlow’s much-cited ‘What Was the Right Speed?’). There’s a Bioscope guide to the site here.
  • ThedaBara.net
    The domain name is still active (amusingly under offer as The Dabara.net) but until a year or so ago this was a tribute site devoted to actress Theda Bara, with biography, filmography and photo gallery.

Other sites I have been unable to trace on the Internet Archive. The really handy Paimann’s Filmlisten, a listing of from an Austrian film review journal 1916-1956, which gave all film releases in Austria, has its front page on the IA but no actual list. Does anyone know what has happened to its online version?

Other sites have had names changed, or have been absorbed within other sites. These changes are now reflected in the Bioscope’s links. Do let me know of any dead links that you find.

Ghosts

Clockwise from top left: Copenhagen Cinema, Variety Picture Palace, Hornsey Palace, Electric Vaudeville, from http://www.islingtonslostcinemas.com

There are those who revere old cinemas and what remains of them. Particularly they like those cinemas from the earliest years who have an unbroken history of film exhibition, especially when they retain some of the original decor – cinemas such as the Notting Hill Gate or The Phoenix in East Finchley. Or much if the building is lost or its purpose changed, they still point to that piece of plasterwork or signage that shows that a little of the cinema still remains.

But I like cinemas that are cinemas no more. Time moves on, the purposes of buildings change, and just as many of the first cinemas in the UK were converted from shops, halls or roller skating rinks, so as their lives as cinemas came to end they took on new lives as other shops, apartment blocks, restaurants, flats, or just became empty spaces where a building once stood. Cinemas that are no longer cinemas – that’s where the real poetry lies.

It is this rich association between past and present purpose that informs a new project, website and exhibition by London artist Sam Nightingale entitled Islington’s Lost Cinemas. Nightingale’s project aims to

unearth, collect, and illuminate the multiple histories and present-day realities of Islington’s cinematic past by developing and presenting an online archive: ‘The Islington’s Lost Cinemas Website’, which includes:

  • photographic documentation of the historic sites of cinema in Islington: both past and present;
  • historical research that combines moving image history with the specifics of cinema development in Islington;
  • the reminiscences of Islington’s own community: through the invitation for those who remember the cinemas to contribute their memories and photographs of the cinemas.

The website has begun with eight ‘lost’ cinemas, hauntingly photographed in black-and-white on the project website, with background histories for each building, and an invitation to Islington residents to participate by contributing memories or images to the site. They include the Cosy Corner Picture Playhouse (opened 1911, now an office block), the People’s Picture Playhouse (opened 1913, now local authority housing) and the Electric Vaudeville (opened 1909, now a sauna and restaurant). More are promised on the site in the future. An exhibition of the photographs, Spectres of Film: Islington’s Lost Cinemas and other Spectral Spaces, is currently taking place at A. Brooks Art in Hoxton Street. It runs until 30 June.

I had happy time a few years ago working on a research project in London’s cinemas (and other kinds of film venue) before 1914. I found arund 1,000 which had existed in London between 1906 and 1914, some of them purpose-built cinemas but most of them buildings adapted for the purose (often shops) or spaces which had other purposes besides showing films (halls, public baths, boxing arenas, arcades etc.). They are all listed on the London Project database and if we had had the time, money and indeed imagination those bare records should have been photographed much as Nightingale has done – and geo-located, and linked to film programme records, and to other London history resources, and so much more. Ah well.

When undertaking the London Project (with co-researcher Simon Brown, who worked on film businesses, while I focussed on cinemas and audiences), I got a sixth sense for detecting buildings that once were cinemas and are no more. There was something about them, some nameless isolation, that made you think – a cinema stood here once. All that activity, light, laughter, music, part of a great change in the leisure lives of Londoners, and here it is now, a block of flats or a fast food restaurant. It’s a particular psychogeographical pleasure, wandering through London spotting where so many cinemas once stood (there were 2.8 cinemas per square mile in London in 1911), inhabiting a London present with a London past and knowing that in time all these buildings will change purpose once again.

The former Biograph Theatre, Kilburn (operated 1910-1917), from Picture Palaces

If you are interested to go in pursuit of London’s lost cinemas, the first place to start is the London Project database, which lists most of the film venues of London 1906-1914, each identifiable according to London borough, and in some cases with information on the status of the building today. Picture Palaces is an evocative site by Terence Nunn documenting twenty London cinemas, some still active, others changed, each photographed and with a short history. The huge Cinema Treasures site is the best guide to cinemas worldwide (including cinemas that are no longer cinemas), with some London and UK buildings, though the emphasis is on the USA.

As for reading, the essential accompaniment to Islington’s Lost Cinemas is Chris Draper’s very fine (but also very rare) Islington’s Cinemas & Studios (Islington Libraries, c.1988). Other books on the cinemas of the various London areas include:

  • Mark Aston, The Cinemas of Camden (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, 1997)
  • Jeremy Buck, Cinemas of Haringey (Hornsey Historial Society, 2010)
  • Allen Eyles and Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas (Keytone Publications, 1991)
  • Ken George, ‘Two Sixpennies Please’: Lewisham’s Early Cinemas (Lewisham Local History Society, 1987)
  • Cliff Wadsworth, Cinemas and Theatres of Willesden ( CAW Books, 2000)

Finally, there are various Flickr groups that collect photographs of cinemas, in London and worldwide. Former Theaters, however, mostly gets the idea of documenting that which is now lost, though it still likes its building to have some hint of their entertainment past. But no one, so far as I have been able discover, is interested in cinemas transformed completely into something else, so that only the ghost of that cinema remains, in the way that Islington’s Lost Cinemas shows.

Perhaps others may be inspired to take the story further. There is more to old cinemas than architecture and nostalgia.

Heavenzapoppin’!

This you have to see. Leonard Maltin, on his Movie Crazy blog, has drawn our attention to a thirty-minute 1996 silent film (in part), Heavenzapoppin’!, which its producer and star Robert Watzke has recently made available on YouTube.

The film is a head-spinningly ingenious delight. It starts off looking like a reasonably conventional silent film pastiche, filmed in black-and-white, with title cards and so forth, set in some East European village with a folk-like tale of a hopeless young man who tries to sell the village bear and instead exchanges it for some magic beans. But then the title card writer starts to complains about his lot (he always wanted to be an opera singer), and things start to get increasingly self-referential and strange …

To say much more would be to give the game away – just to say that this is a Piradellian exercise whose closest film point of reference might be The Purple Rose of Cairo. The performing troupe that plays the villagers, the ‘Bublaires’, ably demonstrates the close connection between slapstick and commedia dell-arte, and the knockabout comedy is genuinely funny. There are a couple of well-known names involved, Helen Slater (Watzke’s wife) and Bruno Kirby as a bewildered film director. Plus you get two bears, a witch, a custard pie fight, a dog with fleas and a happy ending.

The twists and turns of the narrative may tie your brain in knots, but this is a magical piece of filmmaking. Do give it a go.

News from the Soviets

V.I. Lenin smiling for the camera, from Kinonedelja No. 22 (29 October 1918)

Dziga Vertov is one of the most revered names in Soviet filmmaking. The ways in which he married radical politics to radical film form in films such as the screen magazine Kino-Pravda, Man with a Movie Camera, A Sixth of the World and Three Songs of Lenin, and in his theoretical understanding of film, especially his concept of the ‘kino-eye’ (“I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye”) argued for film as the vital medium at the time that a new form of society was emerging. Vertov demanded that film showed the truth. In technique this meant both trusting and curiously distrusting the camera’s propensity for capturing reality, as he employed exuberant montage (especially in Kino-Pravda) to reveal supposed greater truths by stirring the passions and stimulating the ideas of the observer.

Vertov’s first films were not so radical. His film career began as a writer and occasional director for the newsreel Kinonedelja (Cinema Weekly), produced by the Moscow Film Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. This newsreel ran for forty-three issues between May 1918 and June 1919, documenting daily life in Russia in the months following the revolution of October 1917. Remarkably fourteen issues from the series survive, discovered in Sweden and now held by the Austrian Film Museum which has digitised and made twelve of the fourteen available online.

Kinonedelja has nothing like the exuberant and confrontational experiments in film reportage Vertov develped for Kino-Pravda over 1922-25. It is, instead, fascinatingly mundane. It is newsreel footage much like newsreels were being produced elsewhere around the world, basic in construction, reporting on matters of passing, local interest, in form more passive than manipulative. Kinonedelja certainly has its propagandist edge, and is loaded with the excitement of social and political change, and some propagandist language (“Soviet border guards congratulate their German comrades for liberating themselves from the bonds of monarchical slavery”). But it mixes this rather charmingly with the everyday, either reports on the ordinary (buildings being constructed, several reports on snow, a children’s festival) or by revealing the ordinary carrying on in the background. The human eye will always see more of what is going on than the camera eye, for all Vertov’s theorising.

A Red Army cinema at Gžatsk, from Kinonedelja No. 23 (5 November 1918)

The twelve newsreels (the other two are promised soon) come with Russian intertitles, but there are short descriptions provided in English. A typical example is Kinonedelja No. 3, issued 15 June 1918, length eight minutes:

1. The Peoples’ Commissar for Food Rationing, Comrade Cjurupa. / The Peoples’ Commissar for Rationing in the Southern territories, Comrade Šljapnikov. / Head of the Army Rationing Committee, Zusmanovič.

2. Intelligensia working on farms behind the Butyrsk construction site. / Planting cabbage. / Townspeople plant potatoes in a large field.

3. Lunch for the unemployed in exchange for labor. / A meal costs one ruble and ten kopecks.

4. I.G. Cereteli arrives in Moscow in the capacity of the delegate from the Caucasus.

5. In Vladivostok. Commander of the counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia, Admiral Kolčak.

6. In Moscow. June 8. Wounded Russian prisoners of war return from German captivity. / Disembarkation. / Loading the wounded into ambulances. / Wooden shoes for our prisoners in Germany. / Armbands on tunics and greatcoats testify to the repression suffered by Russian officers of the 10th division in the Hannover region. / Head commander of the Soviet Army in the Northern Caucasus, Comrade Avtonomov.

7. In Petrograd. The Revolutionary Tribunal. Murder trial for O. Kokošin und A. Šingarev. / The accused, Kulikov and Basov.

8. The new Brjansk Station in Moscow. / The central platform for passengers.

9. A children’s festival held by the Peasant Soviet in the village of Mitišča. / Who is stronger?

Much of Kinonedelja is given over to promoting the revolution and to the ongoing civil war. There are calls to arms, scenes of medical care, refugees, prisoners of war, agit trains, funerals. Little of it demonstrates the more manipulative arts of cinema (and where the newsreel does so it is clumsy, as in a story showing a queue of men keen to join the Red forces moving with comical swiftness inside an enlisting station, being inspected within, and then moving just as rapidly out of the building). It is almost guileless. Vertov would go on to greater things – in terms of film art – but for a motion picture portrait of the Soviet Union coming into being and as it was reported to its people at the time we are most fortunate to have the plain and revealing Kinonedelja.

The video are presented silently, and the quality of the digitisations is high. It is the first time the Austria Film Museum has presented archive films online (which is a little startling to learn in this day and age) and one looks forward to more of similar high quality in presentation.

Database entry for Kinonedelja, issues 38, 39, 41 (1919), showing digitised synopses for the three editions of the newsreel

However, while it may have been been slow in putting up films online, the Museum has been exemplary in digitising and making available its extensive collection of primary documentation on Dziga Vertov. The site provides an overview of the collection and a database, which has content descriptions in their original language plus German and English (most are in English as yet, but translations are promised).

So, for example, you can find 368 digitised documents on Man with a Movie Camera, 159 on Three Songs of Lenin, 72 on A Sixth Part of the World and 23 on Kinonedelja itself, with around 1,900 documents all told. They includes newspaper articles, photographs, posters, advertisements, frame enlargements, notes, letters and montage lists. All is clearly catalogued, and each document usefully crossed-linked to the relevant film, encouraging further browsing. You can also search by language, type of document, name of journal etc. There is a book guide to the collection available, Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum.

More information on Kinonedelja and Vertov’s later film work can be found in the 2004 Pordenone silent film festival catalogue (when the festival ran a major retrospective of Vertov’s films). There is a useful essay on Vertov’s career and influence on Senses of Cinema.

Casting a shadow

Last week saw the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, in which bloggers around the world took on the themes of Hitchcock or silent film or film preservation, or combinations thereof. Organised by organisers the blogs Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod, the inspiration was the recent discovery of part of The White Shadow (1923), the film on which Hitchcock served as art director and assistant director (the director was Graham Cutts), the goal being to raise funds through donations to enable the National Film Preservation Fund to put the film online with music score, for us all to enjoy.

The sum required is $15,000, and sadly as of today the campaign has raised $2,140 [Update: as of 21 May it is $6,490]. This is disappointing, especially as previous such preservation blogathons have achieved their targets. Maybe it’s the global economy; maybe people out there like reading about Hitch but don’t feel too passionately about watching Cutts; or maybe there’s simply been so much to read that they haven’t had time to donate as yet.

Well, there is still time, and with a 100 or so bloggers who signed up to the blogathon, each of which should easily be getting 150 viewers per post (and in some cases a great deal more), it only requires each reader to donate one dollar to hit the target. Do the math, then hit the Hitch to your left.

As encouragement, here’s a listing of the For the Love of Film posts which have related to silent Hitchcock or silent films in general. If I’ve missed out any relating to silent films, do let me know, and I’ll add them to the list.

So no one took up the challenge of Downhill or even Always Tell Your Wife, eh? Nor the silent Blackmail, which is the greater surprise.

You can find all of these posts listed and illustrated on The Bioscope’s sister news site courtesy of Scoop It.

Update: Here are other silent-related posts from the bloagthon that I missed:

The Scientist

What fun this is. Students on the Science Communication course at Imperial College London have produced a pastiche of The Artist (itself a pastiche, of course), on the theme of communicating science. Not a promising subject, you might think, but it is done with real style. The parallels with the Academy Award winner are ingenious, and the film (shot in monochrome) looks terrific. It even drags in the final third, much as does The Artist. Perhaps most impressively, they have persuaded the La Petit Reine production company to let them use extracts from Ludovic Bource’s soundtrack to The Artist. Full marks to them for having the nerve, and to the production company for being good sports.

The thirteen-minute film tells of a brilliant, vain scientist who gains the applause of his students but is failing to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. This is the concern of a female student, who joins him in the laboratory, co-authors some scientific papers with him, then goes on to public acclaim because of her great ability to explain science to the general public. The thematic fit is perfect. Charmingly played by Haralambos Dayantis and Harriet Jarlett, and with a real sense of how silent film works, the only disappointment is a weak, inconclusive ending when it was crying out for the duo to dance among the test tubes to general applause.

There’s information on the film’s production at the Science Communication course’ Refractive Index blog, with some interesting thoughts on the parallels between the world of cinema and their world:

In learning about the history of silent film, we discovered an important parallel between the introduction of talking in film and talking in science. Early attempts at using sound in film were deemed clunky, and yet in time, film with sound became the norm. Any new enterprise needs time and effort in order to fulfill its full potential. Similarly, early attempts at public engagement, such as the GM consultation, have been awkward and much criticised. However, with the slightly warmer response that upstream public engagement on nanotechnology has received, we may be witnessing the refinement of a technique that could eventually become the established norm.

If this is an example of how The Artist has inspired people to think of silent films, not just their history but how they tell stories, then we should be really pleased. It is turning out to be a real force for good.

Enjoy!

Elephant’s graveyard

http://www.hathitrust.org

I’m not sure why the Bioscope hasn’t written anything on the Hathi Trust before now. It is one of the largest repositories of digitised written content available, and with huge amounts of content relevant to silent film studies. Maybe it’s because the legality of the enterprise isn’t clear (the Author’s Guild and others have filed a lawsuit against it for copyright violation), yet much of the content is also available via the Internet Archive or Google Books, and it has an impressive list of American universities behind it.

The Hathi Trust (named after the Hindi word for elephant, hence the punning title to this post) is a catalogue and digital repository of digitised content from over sixty research libraries in the USA. It currently boasts 10,263,901 titles, including 5,422,520 books and 269,186 serials, 29% of which they say are in the public domain (in the USA). In other kinds of numbers, thats 3,592,365,350 pages, or 460 terabytes of digital files, or 121 miles of shelving, or 8,339 tons in weight (helpfully they provide a note explaning how this was calulated, basing it on “an average book having 350 pages, being 3/4 of an inch wide, containing 47 MB of information, and weighing 26 ounces”).

It’s a very clear, business-like and practical website. You can search in three ways – by catalogue record (seaching across titles, authors, publisher, year of publication etc.), by full text search (i.e. words within the texts themselves) or via ‘collections’ curated by users. Although every title listed on the database exists in digital form, copyright restrictions similar to those which constrain Google Books mean that though you can search by word across all of the text, only a proportion of the texts can be viewed as full text (presumably 29%). It is possible to narrow searches to only full text results.

As said, there is a subject search option, and if you type in ‘motion pictures’ you get 15,516 records, of which 455 are viewable in full text form. However, some spot-checking using other search terms shows that many relevant titles aren’t classified under ‘motion pictures’, so you are better off using the full-text search option.

So, using our regular test term of ‘kinetocope’, what do we get? A mightily impressive 8,619 results (i.e. books or serials that mention ‘kinetoscope’ somewhere), of which 3,512 are fully viewable. These include W.K-L. Dickson and Antonia Dickson’s History of the kinetograph, kinetoscope, & kinetophonograph (1895), Edwin George Lutz’s Animated cartoons; how they are made, their origin and development (1920), Maxwell Hite’s Lessons in how to become a successful moving picture machine operator (1908) and C. Francis Jenkins’ Animated pictures; an exposition of the historical development of chromophotography (1898).

Each full-text record is present in a ‘classic’ view which shows one page on the screen and allows you to scroll through page by page using arrow buttons, as well as zooming in or out and rotation tools. Other views on offer are scrolling, flipbook, thumbnails (handy for image-rich publications) and plain text. You can search for any word within the text, the results for which are given highlighted in a line or two of text, as in the example below taken from the unexpected source of Indian massacres and tales of the red skins: an authentic history of the American Indian from 1492 to the present time (1895). Clicking on the page number then takes you to the relevant page in the text.

Mention of the word ‘kinetoscope’ in Indian Massacres and Tales of the Red Skins (1895)

This is extraordinary stuff. On relatively quick inspection, I’ve found several key texts not available on the Internet Archive, for example Mrs D.W. Griffith’s (Linda Arvidson) When the Movies Were Young (1925) and Martin Quigley’s Magic shadows; the story of the origin of motion pictures (1948). There are many titles whose public domain status seems dubious (Ernest Lindgren’s The Art of the Film, for example, published in 1963 – though maybe the copyright wasn’t renewed in the USA), but then there are quite modern titles there presumably with the blessing of the publisher: Gregory A. Waller’s Main Street amusements: movies and commercial entertainment in a Southern city, 1896-1930 (1995), for example.

And it’s not just books. There are motion picture journals here, incuding titles not available on the Internet Archive. Bioscope reader Mirko Heinemann kindly brought the following editions of Moving Picture World to my attention, several of which are unique (digitally) to the Hathi Trust site:

These have all been added to the Bioscope’s list of silent film journals available online. There is a PDF download option provided, though in many cases it seems to be only a page at a time, unless the record specifies that the whole volume is available for download.

You can create your own collection to act as a research aide memoire or to assist others. For this you need to register with the University of Michigan, which is straightforward, select the texts under your theme, tag them, choose a title for your collection, and it gets added to the long list of collections previously created and browsable. There is already a list there for American silent film culture, listing sixty-one “Primary sources related to the history of American silent film”.

The Hathi Trust Digital Library is frankly a bit overwhelming. There’s so much there you hardly know where to start. On testing the site I felt like I need a more obscure subject to pursue (yes, there are some subjects out there more obscure than silent films) just so that I could have a manageable set of resources. I’m uncertain about its interpretation of fair use and public domain, but there are plenty of titles there for which you can search the full text but not view the full text, so legal proprietaries would seem to have been followed.

The Hathi Trust would appear to have created the optimum digital library, at least for text-based content. For advanced searching, it is ahead of the Internet Archive, with only its display tools not quite matching the IA’s excellent viewer. The limitations on downloading PDFs are a disappointment, but the ease of use, the relevance of results, and the sheer range of publications on offer (sometimes surprising, generally useful) make this essential for anyone engaged in silent film research. Moreover, as a coming together of the collections of a range of noteworthy collections, it represents what the digital library of the future means – not confined by the physical walls of any one insitution, but shared by many for the benefit of all, wherever they might be.

The Hays code

Will H. Hays c.1921, from the Library of Congress

Meet William Harrison Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, then U.S. Postmaster General, then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) from 1922 to 1945, making him one of the most influential people in American film. The MPPDA (later the Motion Picture Association of America) was formed following the criticism made of the Hollywood following such scandals as the death of the drug-addicted Wallace Reid and the lurid Fatty Arbuckle case. The industry feared the imposition of federal censorship and created the MPPDA to demonstrate that it could govern itself.

The MPPDA was therefore a trade association whose chief interest was in maintaining good relations with government, church groups, and other bodies concerned at the influence – real or imagined – that motion pictures had, particularly on the young. Its best known output was the Production Code, popularly known as the Hays code, of 1930, which set down moral guidelines for the production of motion pictures, with these three guiding principles:

  • No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  • Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  • Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

The Code as not mandatory at first, but became so in 1934 (hence the ‘Pre Code’ films of the era immediatelt before 1934) and would remain in force, though progressively infringed, until 1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA ratings system.

All of this makes the operations, decisions, personnel and associates of the MPPDA of huge relevance to the study of American motion pictures, in the silent era and beyond. And so the creation of the MPPDA Digital Archive is considerable importance to our field.

This is a database, with digitised documents, of the extant records of the General Correspondence files of the MPPDA, covering the period from 1922 to 1939. The MPPA microfilmed some of its archive of documents in 1965, then threw away the originals. Researcher Richard Maltby discovered the reels in 1984 and had copies made of twelve of them. Subsequently the original microfilms were donated to the Special Collections Department of the Centre for Motion Picture Study of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by which point some had been mislaid (covering the 1920s). So some of the reels made by Maltby are the only surviving copies, and they can be found on the MPPDA Digital Archive.

There are some 35,000 pages available. Owing to the poor quality of the microfilms, the use of optical character recognition for converting the documents into word-searchable text wasn’t possible. Instead – and thanks to assorted research grants – Maltby as fellow researchers at Flinders University, Australia (notably Ruth Vasey) have transcribed, described or otherwise annotated huge numbers of the documents, as well as having them digitised and ordered in a form that respects their original arrangement and enables reliable citation for scholars. It is a model piece of database construction.

An advertisement for Daughters of Today (1924) which caused an uproar by mentioning Leopold and Loeb (see http://mppda.flinders.edu.au/records/137)

So what will you find? You will find the essential minutiae of an industry protecting its reputation through the subtle arts of public relations. As the website puts it:

The documents in the MPPDA’s General Correspondence files are an immensely rich source of information about the history of the motion picture industry. They describe the organization and operation of the industry’s trade association, and include extensive correspondence and other documentation relating to industry policy and public relations, distributor-exhibitor relations, censorship and self-regulation. The great majority of this material is unavailable from other sources.

You will find letters, telegrams, memos, press releases, speeches, official statements, newspaper cuttings, and much more. The search apparatus is extraordinary. As well as being able to search for any term, you can search by frame reference, year, record type, keyword, organisation, film, or person. In each case a drop-down menu is provided, with the number of records held under each term, so straight away you can see that there are, for example, 75 press releases available, 13 documents on audience research, 30 records relating to United Artists, 10 documents on Battleship Potemkin, and 986 document that reference Will H. Hays himself. Some of the classification employed (i.e. for the keywords) is idiosycratic or unevenly applied (only one record keyworded under ‘sex’?), but it makes the database compulsively browsable as well as useful.

The database is open to all, but the document appear in low resolution form unless you are registered with the site (which is free). The higher resolution images come with a helpful zoom option for examining documents in closer detail. There is much background information on the MPDDA, its archives and the construction of the database, with quick links to featured records, people and organisations available on the front page for these needing a flavour of what the site contains (so, for example, the entry on Harry Warner gives you a short biography, links to organisations and links to all association records where he is mentioned). Although the archive is advertised as covering 1922-1939, there are a few documents going back to 1912.

Richard Maltby, Ruth Vasey and the Screen and Media Department of Flinders University, Australia continue to work on the database, adding new transcriptions and supporting descriptive information. It is an extraordinary achievement and a huge boon to moving image research, for the silent era and beyond.

Go explore.