Laterna Magicka

As the Bioscope celebrates the immient arrival of its 300,000th visitor (keep on coming by folks, and tell your friends), here’s a taster for a sixty-minute documentary, Laterna Magicka, about the filmmaker Bill Douglas and his astonishing collection of pre-cinema artefects which now make up the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at the University of Exeter. The documentary has been made by Sean Martin and Louise Milne and produced by 891 Filmhouse in association with Accidental Media. It is to be included in the BFI DVD and Blu-Ray release of Douglas’ 1986 film Comrades, which features a magic lanternist as a central figure. The film, which tells the tragic story of the Tolpuddle martyrs, pioneers of British trade unionism, is released on both formats on 20 July.

Film studies is dead… long live film studies


Vitagraph’s Manchester office in 1921, from Richard Brown’s article ‘The Missing Link: Film Renters in Manchester, 1910–1920’

OK, not that film studies, but Film Studies the journal, published by Manchester University Press, produced out of the University of Kent, which is no more. This is sad news, because it was handsomely produced and filled with stimulating riches, issue after issue. But, as Catherine Grant on the never less than essential Film Studies for Free reports, Manchester University Press has done the decent thing and made all of the articles in the journal 2004-2007 freely available online in PDF format (earlier content 1999-2004 isn’t available in digital form). Film Studies for Free lists all of the articles that are available; here at the Bioscope we’re selective in our tastes, so here is all the articles which touch on silent cinema:

Volume 10 (Spring 2007)
Luke McKernan, ‘Only the screen was silent …’: Memories of children’s cinema-going in London before the First World War
(pp 1-20)
Full Article in PDF p1 (273 k)

Simon Brown, Flicker Alley: Cecil Court and the Emergence of the British Film Industry
(pp 21-33)
Full Article in PDF p21 (122 k)

Janet McBain, Green’s of Glasgow: `We Want "U" In’
(pp 54-57)
Full Article in PDF p54 (124 k)

Richard Brown, The Missing Link: Renters in Manchester, 1910-1920
(pp 58-63)
Full Article in PDF p58 (157 k)

Frank Gray, Kissing and Killing: A Short History of Brighton on Film
(pp 64-71)
Full Article in PDF p64 (113 k)

Brigitte Flickinger, Cinemas in the City: Berlin’s Public Space in the 1910s and 1920s
(pp 72-86)
Full Article in PDF p72 (173 k)

Kate Bowles, ‘All the evidence is that Cobargo is slipping’: An ecological approach to rural cinema-going
(pp 87-96)
Full Article in PDF p87 (120 k)

Volume 9 (Winter 2006)

David Lavery, ‘No More Undiscovered Countries’: The Early Promise and Disappointing Career of Time-Lapse
(pp 1-8)
Full Article in PDF p1 (92 k)

Volume 8 (Summer 2006)

Patrick Colm Hogan, Narrative Universals, Nationalism, and Sacrificial Terror: From Nosferatu to Nazism
(pp 93-105)
Full Article in PDF p93 (208 k)

Volume 6 (Summer 2005)

David Trotter, Virginia Woolf and Cinema
(pp 13-26)
Full Article in PDF p13 (152 k)

Elizabeth Lebas, Sadness and Gladness: The Films of Glasgow Corporation, 1922-1938
(pp 27-45)
Full Article in PDF p27 (236 k)

Volume 4 (Summer 2004)

Charles Musser, The Hidden and the Unspeakable: On Theatrical Culture, Oscar Wilde and Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan
(pp 12-47)
Full Article in PDF p12 (478 k) [this PDF is not working at present]

A marvellous selection, including a number from a special issue on Cities and Cinema. I can quite recommend the top article to you – and all the others just as much. For the remaining articles, do visit the relevant MUP web page. If a journal does have to fold, this is a noble way of keeping its contents available, especially for those without easy access to academic libraries, so plaudits to MUP, and hopefully it’s a model that others will follow (though of course we’d rather not have any more film journals fold, of course).

Silents from Sulphur Springs


Georges Méliès’ La Clownesse fantôme (1902)

The Bioscope returns from its travels in Ireland and Wales (about which you will learn something in due course) to report once more on what’s been happening in the world of early and silent cinema. Kicking things off, the Sulphur Springs Collection of Pre-Nickelodeon Films is a collection of early American films recently published online. The collection is part of the G. William Jones Film and Video Collection (formerly the Southwest Film/Video Archive) held by Southern Methodist University (SMU), Dallas, Texas. Twenty-nine of the thirty-three films, dating 1898-1906, have been published as part of SMU’s Central University Libraries (CUL) Digital Collections.

Below is a list the films being made available. Highlights include a Lubin imitation of Edison’s Life of an American Fireman (Lubin was notorious for borrowing other companies’ good ideas), several Edison panoramic films of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, an atavistic chase film Tracked By Bloodhounds, or A Lynching in Cripple Creek (the victim is not black), and the otherwise lost Georges Méliès film, La Clownesse fantôme.

1. A Shocking Accident (Lubin, 1904)
2. [Couple Feeding Barnyard Fowl] (unidentified, 1903)
3. Earthquake ruins new Majestic Theater and City Hall (Edison,1906)
4. Epopée napoléonienne: Crossing Mt. St. Bernard (Pathé Frères, 1903-04)
5. [Feeding Fowl on a Country Path] (unidentified, no date)
6. [Gymnastics] (unidentified, no date)
7. Inexhaustible Cab (Lubin, 1901)
8. Japs Loading and Firing a Gun on Battleship ‘Asam’ (Edison, 1904?)
9. La Clownesse fantôme (The Shadow-Girl) (Star Films, 1902)
10. Le Laveur de devantures (The window cleaner) (Pathé Frères, 1903)
11. Life Of An American Fireman (Lubin, 1905)
12. Love in a Railroad Train (Lubin, 1902)
13. The Maniac Barber (American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., 1899)
14. Panorama City Hall, Van Ness Ave., and College of St. Ignatius (Edison, 1906)
15. Panorama Nob Hill and ruins of millionaire residences (Edison,1906)
16. Panorama notorious ‘Barbary Coast’ (Edison, 1906)
17. Panorama ruins, aristocratic apartments (Edison, 1906)
18. [Pillow Fight Scene] (unidentified, no date)
19. Ruins of Chinatown (Edison, 1906)
20. S.S. ‘Coptic’ (Edison, 1898)
21. The Counterfeiters (Lubin, 1905)
22. The Farmer’s Troubles in a Hotel (Lubin, 1902)
23. The Fight on the Bridge for Supremacy (Lubin, 1904)
24. The Golf Girls and the Tramp (Edison, 1902)
25. The Goose Takes a Trolley Ride (Lubin, 1903)
26. Tracked By Bloodhounds, or A Lynching in Cripple Creek (Selig, 1904)
27. [Trio of Acrobats] (unidentified, 1901)
28. Two Rubes at the Theater (Lubin, 1901)
29. Vertical panorama City Hall and surroundings (Edison, 1906)

The films are available in QuickTime format, and each is catalogued in much hyperlinked detail. The image quality is fine, and the original films look in good conditions, with just some touches of nitrate decomposition here and there. The website provides this statement regarding usage:

The files in this collection are protected by copyright law. No commercial reproduction or distribution of these files is permitted without the written permission of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries. These files may be freely used for educational purposes, provided they are not altered in any way, and Southern Methodist University is cited.

So now you know. It’s an excellent collection, ranging from single-shot actualities to multi-shot narratives, informative, coherent and illuminating. You can find out more about the collection, with background on all of the films, including the four not included online)) in Rick Worland, ‘The Sulphur Springs, Texas early films discovery‘, Journal of Film Preservation 51 (1995), pp. 56-64, available in PDF format from the FIAF site. It will get added to the Bioscope’s list of video sources. Go explore.

Travelling time


Things are likely to be a little quiet here for the next week or so as The Bioscope hits the conference trail. It’s off to Dublin for the James Joyce Summer School, then Aberystwyth for the Iamhist conference on Social Fears and Moral Panics, then to Bristol for the Colour and the Moving Image conference. A pause for breath, then off to Cambridge to speak on Olympic films for the Sport in Modern Europe academic network. I shall report along the way where I can, and certainly on my return.

The Italian scene


Francesca Bertini and Mario Parpagnoli in L’ultimo Sogno, from Al Cinema, January 1923

From Brazil to Italy. Our second non-English language online resource with digitised silent film era journals is Teca Digitale piemontese. This is a collection of digitised resources from Italian libraries and archives. To find the film journals, select ‘Selezionare la tipologia del materiale che si intende consultare’ from the top menu, and ‘Museo Nazionle del Cinema’ from the second menu. Click on ‘Ricerca per Ente’. You will get this list of digitised journals:

  • Bollettino di informazioni cinematografiche – 1924-1925
  • Bollettino edizioni Pittaluga – 1928-1929
  • Bollettino staffetta dell’ufficio stampa della anonima pittaluga – 1929-1931
  • Cine Mondo: rivista quindicinale illustrata de cinema – 1927-1931
  • Al cinema: settimanale di cinematografia e varietà – 1922-1930
  • Eco film: periodico quindicinale cinematografico – 1913
  • Figure mute: rivista cinematografica – 1919
  • Films Pittaluga: rivista di notizie cinematografiche: pubblicazione quindicinale – 1923-1925
  • Il Maggese cinematografico: periodico quindicinale – 1913-1915
  • Rassegna delle programmazioni – 1925-1926

There are two icons beside each title. Clicking on that on the far left gives information on the publication. The adjacent icon leads to a list of years for that journal, then click on the blue circle to find the issues within that year (this part of the site requires Java to be installed). Double-clicking on a title opens up the full issue with a menu of pages. There is a suite of tools to resize, rotate or otherwise interrogate the individual pages. There is also a word-search facility, though I had limited success finding things that way (no results for the search term ‘maciste’? Surely not).

The journals are all, of course, in Italian. Content-wise the bias seems to be strongly towards Italian production, though there is plenty of coverage of American production. Photographs are thin on the ground, though do check out Figure mute: rivista cinematografica for a succession of striking colour advertisements. As a range of written resources for the study of silent film on one site, this may well have no equal, even if it’s a bit of a business drilling down to any one page. As indicated, all the journals come from the collection of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin.

My thanks once again to Teresa Antolin for alerting me to this site. Any other non-English silent film journal sites out there (or English ones for that matter)? Do let me know.

The Brazilian scene


Bebe Daniels on the front cover of A Scena Muda, 1921 no. 1

It is frustrating for the silent film researcher that, while there are some excellent online resources which provide with extensive acess to digitised newspaper collections, there are all too few film journals from our period that have digitised. Specialist resources are always going to be that much more difficult to finance. But look beyond the English language, and there are treasures to be found. In the first of two posts covering non-English digitised collections, let me introduce you to Brazil’s Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetaculo. This site makes available the runs of two Brazilian film journals, A Scena Muda (1921-1955) and Cinearte (1926-1942), digitised by the Biblioteca Jenny Klabin Segall. While it’s certainly going to help if you know Portuguese, the colour front covers (mostly of Hollywood stars) are a design delight all by themselves. Within you will find news, reviews, photographs, gossip, advertisements, and regular features on the Brazilian feature film.


A page from Cinearte, 1926 no. 7

The sites are easy to navigate. From the front page, click on As Revistas. You will then be presented with three drop-down boxes, from which you can choose which of the two journals you want to see, then select whether you want to browse by year or number, and then select from the range offered. Searching by year you get a row of thumbnails of the front covers. The documents themselves are in PDF format, of good quality, though they don’t appear to be word-searchable. However, there is an advanced search option, to be found under Pesquisa, where you can search across both journals for individual words (handy for name searches, for example). So well worth browsing even if Portuguese is one of those languages you’ve never quite grasped fully, and for judging the balance between Hollywood and the native industry in the Brazilian mind.

My thanks to Teresa Antolin for bringing this to my attention. Part two tomorrow.

Update (August 2011): The link for the site has now changed to

Filmographie Pathé


A while ago we reported on the marvellous Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé site which documents the rich heritage of the Pathé film company. At that time it was noted that a Pathé filmography was not on the site, but was promised. Well, it’s there now.

Based on a number of sources, most notably the seven-volume Pathé filmography produced by Henri Bousquet, the filmography – which is a work-in-progress – will eventually document the entire Pathé output from 1896 to the present day. The available information comes chiefly from original Pathé catalogues and trade paper reviews, and varies from title to title. So some records are little more than a title, while others have detailed descriptions. The catalogue is arranged by year, and so far records have been entered up to 1913. From 1907 the years are broken down further into months. Each year/month brings up a list of titles, and clicking on each one brings up the catalogue record. This for example is the record for a famous Pathé title of 1908, Le cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse):

Cheval emballé (Le)
Numéro du film: 2027
Code tél.: Délire
Métrage: 135 m
Genre: scène comique

Réalisateur: Louis Gasnier
Scénario: André Heuzé

Un livreur et sa charrette s’arrêtent devant un marchand de graines. Pendant que le livreur monte dans les étages pour déposer du linge chez un client, le cheval mange un sac d’avoine. Le livreur s’en aperçoit et, grimpant dans sa voiture, s’enfuit. Le grainetier leur court après. Après maintes péripéties, poursuivi par une foule sans cesse ac­crue, le cheval rentre à l’écurie. Son propriétaire disperse les poursuivants en les arrosant copieusement.

Note de fin:
Sortie: Le Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, du 3 au 9.1.1908 Dans son numéro 69 du 1.2.1908 Phono-Ciné-Gazette sous la rubrique “ Le danger au Cinématographe” contait que… le collaborateur qui dirigeait la voiture a risqué sa vie car le véhicule a fait un panache auquel on ne s’at­tendait pas au moment où elle arrive en plein marché! Et dans The Moving Picture World du 9.4.1910 l’annonce de l’arrivée de Louis J. Gasnier à la direction du studio Pathé de Bound Brook était suivie d’une anecdote concernant le tournage du Cheval emballé  : Mr Gasnier is a man of great resource and has had many trilling adventures in the production of films. One notable instance of this was during the photographing of the almost classic film The Runaway Horse much comment was heard as to how it was possible to secure a horse with such intelligence as this one seemed to have. The secret of the matter lay in the fact that underneath the body of the wagon which was a two-wheeled vehicle, there was attached a coffin with the end knocked out. This was chosen because of its interior padding. In this, Mr. Gasnier took his position, face downward, and dressed entirely in black, with black gloves and a mask similar to those used on the days of the Inquisition, over his face, and from here he drove the spirited cavalry horse by means of two steel wires of the ends of which were fastened sticks for him to bold in his hands. The shafts of the wagon were fastened to the body by steels bands but in spite of this arrangement Mr. Gasnier was nearly killed. Just after the scene which shows the wagon knocking down the scaffold, the steel bands broke and Mr. Gasnier, as the wagon pitched forward and turned a complete somersault, was so badly injured that he was unconscious for more than half an hour and spent fifteen days in the hospital. The horse, at the time of this accident, was really running away, and having rid himself of the cart, dashed ahead, and finally ran into the river. Mr. Gasnier’s nerve is shown by the fact that after his release from the hospital he got back into the repaired vehicle and finished the picture.

Date de la publication électronique: 13 October 2008

So the catalogue is in French, but with smatterings of English where English or American trade paper sources are quoted. Not all records are so detailed, but here you get title, catalogue number, telegraphic code (used for ordering titles), length, category, credits, synopsis and notes.

The Pathé catalogues were divided up into categories or genres, and you can use the online filmography by such original terms as ballet pantomime, comédie, comédie dramatique, comédie policière, drame historique, scène biblique, scène d’acrobaties, scène d’actualité, scène d’industrie, scène de féerie, scène de mythologie, scène de plein air, scène de sport, scène de vulgarisation scientifique, scène grivoise, scène historique, scène militaire and vue panoramique. You can also browse by title and by credit, which includes authors of adapted works (Balzac, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Zola etc) as well as directors, scriptwriters and performers.

This is a huge boon for early cinema researchers. It is worth noting that the intention is the document the entirety of the Pathé output (exlcusing newsreels and the like), so there are the films issued by the company’s Italian (Film d’Arte Italiana), Russian (Film d’Art Russe) and British (Britannia Films) offshoots, as well as Pathé’s own French variants such as Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres (SCAGL). And don’t forget to explore the rest of the Fondation’s site, in particular its extensive and illustrated database.

Empires on show


Visual Empires is the title of the fourth Visual Delights conference, taking place 3-5 July at the University of Sheffield, Union of Students, Western Bank, Sheffield S10 2TG.

A summary of the conference’s concerns is not easy to track down, but the original call for papers said that they were interested in Imperial cinema, regional patriotic shows, circus and empire, silent film and identity, topographical empires, expedition films, the magic lantern and the empire, patriotism on the stage, sport as national identity, music hall and imperial sentiment, photography and otherness, colonial postcards, world’s fairs and ethnographic display, panoramic and dioramic empires, advertising and empire and the Boer War. Which is more than enough to fill a conference, and there’s a impressive line-up of speakers covering conquerers and the conquered.

Below is the outline programme (the full programme with abstracts of all the papers can be downloaded in PDF format here):

Visual Delights IV – Visual Empires

Friday – Registration and Refreshments – 9.30 – 10.00 am

Opening Lecture (10.00 – 10.30am)
Welcome from Simon Popple & Vanessa Toulmin

Allison Griffiths – Nontheatrical Ethnographic Film: Playing Indian in the Museum Sponsored Expedition Film

Panel 1-10.30am- Noon

Regional Empires Chair Simon Popple

Jill Sullivan – ‘Overflowing houses’: Panoramas in Exeter and Bristol 1840-1870
John Plunkett – Gateway to Empire: Plymouth’s popular entertainments 1855-75
Joe Kember – ‘Pure, Elevating, Instructive Entertainment’: Travel lectures in Plymouth during the 1890s
Ros Leveridge – ‘A panorama of Eastern splendour and of Western might’: Screening the Delhi Durbars in South West coastal resorts

12.00 -1.00pm Lunch

Panel 2 (1.00pm – 3.00pm)

Locating Empire Chair Vanessa Toulmin

Teresa Castro – Imperialism and Early Cinema’s “Mapping Impulse.
Cosimo Chiarelli – In the (visual) heart of Borneo – Charles Hose in Sarawak
J. P. Short – Empire and the Working-Class Eye: A History of Bourgeois Anxiety
Louise Tythacott – Race on display: the ‘Melanian’, ‘Mongolian’ and ‘Caucasian’ galleries at Liverpool Museum, 1896-1929

3.00- 3.30pm – Refreshments

Panel 3 Friday Afternoon (3.30 – 5.30pm)

Imperial identities 1 Chair John Fullerton

Fulya Ertem – Facing the “Other”: A critical approach to the construction of identity narratives in the early photographic practice of the Ottoman Empire.
Roshini Kempadoo – Defining subjects: Photography and the Trinidad plantation worker (1860s – 1940s)
Michael Eaton – Golden Bough and Silver Nitrate.
Alessandro Pes – Ordinary People Celebrities-The Fascist mythizising of Italian settlers in East Africa

Screenings: 7.00pm onwards

Nico De Klerk (Nederlands Film Archive) presents Gustav Deutsch’s Welt Spiegel Kino #2
Bryony Dixon – Curator of Silent film, BFI National Archive
Savage South Africa – Savage Attack and Repulse (1899)
The Paris and St Louis Expositions (1904)
Panorama of the Paris Exhibition No. 3 (1900)
Pan American Exposition by Night (1901)
Mitchell and Kenyon 703: Panorama of Cork Exhibition Grounds (1902)
White City – Franco British Exhibition (1908)
Brussels Exhibition (1910)
Visit to Earl’s Court (1911)
Gaumont Graphic: Festival of Empire: Their Majesties Driving in Semi State to the Opening Ceremony (1911)
Lord Grenfell lays the foundation stone of the Malta Pavilion for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 with scenes of construction (1926)
Thrills in the Making (Topical Budget 649-2) (1924)
The Excursion to Wembley of Employees of Pullars of Perth (1924)
King Opens Empire Exhibition (Topical Budget 661-1) (1924)
White City Demobbed (1920)
Fireworks at Crystal Palace (1925)

Saturday 9.30– 10.00am Registration

Panel 1 Saturday Morning (10.00 –Noon)

Ethnography and performance Chair Alison Griffiths

Jacob Smith – The Adventures of the Lion Tamer
Christina Welch – The Popular Visual Representation of North American Indian Peoples and their Lifeways at the World’s Fairs and in the Wild West Shows
Joshua Yumibe – Abyssinian Expedition and the Field of Visual Display
Theresa Scandiffio – Welcome to the Show: Field Museum-Sponsored Expedition Films (1920s-1930s)

12.00 -1.00pm Lunch

Panel 2 Saturday Afternoon (1.00- 3.00pm)

Imperial Identities 2 Chair John Plunkett

Yvonne Zimmermann – Visual Empire of the Alps
Gunnar Iversen – Inventing the Nation – Diorama in Norway 1888-1894
Andrew May & Christina Twomey – Visual subjects and colonial sympathies: Australian responses to the 1870s Indian famine
Annamaria Motrescu – Displaced Indian identities in early colonial amateur films

3.00 – 3.30pm Refreshments

3.30 – 4.00pm – ‘Lucerna’: the Magic Lantern Web Resource
Richard Crangle, Magic Lantern Society

Panel 3 Saturday Afternoon – (4.00 – 6.00 pm)

Audiences and markets Chair Joe Kember

Amy Sargeant – Lever, Lifebuoy and Ivory
John Fullerton and Elaine King – Looking back, looking forward: colonial architecture in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century and its representation in photography and the illustrated press
Denis Condon – Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments
Martin Loiperdinger – Screening the Boer War in Germany: Audience Response and Censorship

Performance: Professor Mervyn Heard’s Lantern Show 7.30 pm

Professor Heard introduces modern audiences to the weird and wonderful magic lantern entertainments once presented in public halls and private drawing rooms throughout the 19th century. Each show is different and draws on a unique collection of original 19th century mechanical moving pictures, sights, frights, moral warnings, adventures, pictorial curiosities and fascinating information. This is a specially commissioned show focusing on material related to the First World War.


Panel 1 (9.30– 11.30am)

Cinema and the British Empire Chair Nick Hiley

Tom Rice – Presenting the Empire on Screen: The Empire Series (1925-1928)
Emma Sandon – Cinema and Empire: The Prince of Wales Tour 1925
Scott Anthony – Snowden Gamble and the films of Imperial Airways
Maurizio Cinquegrani – From Sydenham to Hyderabad: a Cinematic Map of the British Empire and its Cities

11.30 – 11. 45 am Break

11.45 – 12. 30 pm The Empire Exhibition of 1938 – The Spectator’s Perspective
Presented by Ruth Washbrook, Education and Outreach Officer, Scottish Screen Archive, National Library of Scotland
Empire Exhibition Scotland 1938 (2 mins) (BW)
The King and Queen Visit the Empire Exhibition (1938) (13 mins) (BW)
Sketch Plan of the Exhibition (1938) (7 mins) (Colour)
A Visit to the Empire Exhibition (1938) (12 mins) (Colour)

12.30 – 1.30 pm Lunch

Panel 2 (1.30 – 3. 15pm)

Imperial Humour Chair Richard Crangle

Samantha Holland – The hilarious joke of miscegenation in turn-of-the-century US films and culture
Paul Maloney – St George and Ali Baba: the visual culture of pantomime in Edinburgh in 1869
Matthew L. McDowell – Newspaper cartoons and the drawing of early Scottish football, 1865-1902
Andrew Shail – ‘The Great American Kinetograph’ in Britain: Film, Fakery and The Boer War


3.30 – 5.30pm Performance: The Crazy Cinematograph and conclusion

The Crazy Cinématographe is a touring spectacle celebrating the films produced in Europe during the first decade of the twentieth century. The show celebrates the work of the European film archives by producing a prestigious and entertaining showcase for those little known wonders only known to archivists, historians and festival goers, but not to the general public.

Booking form and accommodation details are available from the National Fairground site.

Bible stories


The Ascension from Vie de Jésus / La vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (1905-14)

One of my vivid early memories of going to the cinema is going to the Oxford in Whitstable, with my younger brothers in tow, to see a reissue of Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, first made in 1956 but still doing the rounds in the late 1960s. We came out exhilarated, overwhelmed by the experience. Later generations, not brought up on Bible stories in the way that we were possibily cannot imagine the visceral thrill felt at seeing those so familiar narratives brought to thunderous big screen life. In those days, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, Cain, Samson et al were part of your DNA. You knew their every story, every twist and turn of the Biblical narratives that mythologised them. Seeing them brought to vulgar cinematic life (not insipid televisual life) thrilled you to the core.

It’s worth remembering such sensations when considering the earliest Biblical films, because undoubtedly they stirred their original audiences in much the same way. Look! the Red Sea is parting! Look! the star of Bethlehem is moving! They may or may not have confirmed faith, but they undoubtedly carried with them the thrill of the realisation of what had been imagined. A fine selection of such films were on show last night at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. The Ancient World in Silent Cinema 2 was an afternoon and an evening (22 June) of early films set in Biblical or Near Eastern Antiquity, and followed on from January’s screenings of films depicting Ancient Greece and Rome (previously reported on by the Bioscope). Exhibited as part of a project on the Ancient World and silent cinema being developed by University College London Department of Greek & Latin, the films were accompanied by the excellent Stephen Horne, on piano, electonic keyboard and flute (not quite managing three at the same time but managing all the combinations of two), with interval talks given by David Mayer and Judith Buchanan. As in January, there was a good audience, many of them clearly from disciplines other than film studies.

I’m always apprehensive where early films are put before a new audience. What will they think of this peculiar world where people roll their eyes and throw up their hands, where men start back in paroxysms of love the instant they set eyes on a woman’s face, where titles announce the action before it has taken place, where painted cloths must serve for epic scenery, where people crowd the frame so much you can lose sight of the leading players, where people creep up close to overhear conversations and yet remain unseen, where colour is hand-painted, where miracles are magic tricks and angels float on cardboard clouds? Will they laugh because they are insensitive, or because they see these films for what they are that much more clearly than I am able to?

Well, there were some sniggers, but not many. This is the great advantage of showing a programme of such films, on a big screen, live music, and enough (but not too much) contextualisation. The audience saw what the films were about, could see where there was good, were touched by moments of artistry, were even – at times – moved. The films are their own best defence.


La Sposa del Nilo (1911)

The films were presented in roughly chronological order. We began, a little oddly, with a British knockabout comedy, Wanted – A Mummy (1910), in which a man dresses up as an Egyptian mummy to fool a professor. La Sposa del Nilo (1911) was a proto-epic, where you could sense the Italian filmmakers (Enrico Guazzoni in this case) gearing up to the gigantic imaginings of Cabiria and Quo Vadis just a few years on. The film wanted to impress you with its stateliness and scale; at time the central action (a young virgin is drowned to appease Isis and ensure that the Nile floods) became lost in the crowded frame – but that just reminded you that early cinema audiences look that much more intently at what was going on, and picked up on details that our lazier eyes sometimes miss.

La Vergine di Babilonia (1910) gave us the tale of Esther (partially based on the Biblical Esther, with a touch of the Book of Daniel as well), who brings about the overthrow of the King of Babylon when he throws her into a den of lions only for the lions to leave her alone, causing the populace to rise up against him. Amid the characteristic histronics were some well-composed shots to linger in the memory, especially one of Esther walking down some steps in her triumph, framed by the outstretched hands of the grateful people. Caïn et Abel (1911) – interesting thinking behind the chronology there – impressed especially with a Cain haunted by the crime of killing his brother being hunted down by an avenging angel across a rocky landscape, reduced in his shame to a crawling beast.

La Sacra Bibbia (1920) was the only post-WWI film on show. We were given the episode of Joseph intepreting the dreams of Pharoah, part of an Italian epic which tried to recover the glories of pre-war days but instead showed how Italian cinema collapsed so grievously post-war, unable to move on imaginatively, hampered financially. Moïse sauvé des eaux (1910) and L’Exode (1910) presented two episodes from the life of Moses. The first was average; the second, though ponderous in pace, showed real directorial imagination – the first of three films we saw made by Louis Feuillade. Here was someone who knew how to compose and fill out the frame. We even had an instance of Rembrandt lighting (a scene lit from a high window), and at one point a panning shot which covered three phases of action. However, you wondered where your sympathies should lie. The Egyptians had a hard time of it, as they wept over the death of the first born, while the smug Israelites marched out of the city. Without the homilies that might accompany them, the films sometimes had quite different messages, or sometimes no messages at all.

Pressing business forced me to miss La vie de Moïse (FR 1910) interspersed with Life of Moses (US 1909-10) – with a pre-De Mille parting of the Red Sea – and two American versions of Jephthah’s Daughter. For the evening show some films had been cut, as they’d discovered that the running times they’d been working to were for the films at sound speed, whereas we were seeing everything at exemplary silent speed. So things kicked off again with Samson et Dalila (1902), an early Pathé effort where there was no semblance of plot or build-up; instead we launched straight into Deliah cutting Samsons’s hair, then Samson pulling a huge millstone, then Samson bringing down the pillars of the temple and rising up in triumph, accompanied by angels. Film as pure sensation.


Vie de Jésus (1905-1914)

La Reine de Saba (1910), directed by Henri Andréani (who also gave us Caïn et Abel and Moïse sauvé des eaux) had almost no plot at all, at least none worth worrying over. Spectacle was all; sometimes cramped spectacle, as the director brought as many people as he could ino the frame, but the composition was excellent, with just as much attention given to the positioning of spear-carrier at the back as to the royal lovers centre stage. The film also boasted a startling procession with long camel train clearly located in North Africa, one of the camels bearing the canopied panier of the Queen of Sheba. A lot of effort and money went into making this film, evidence of how important historical and Biblical dramas were to the early cinema.

Giuditta e Oloferne (1908) was Italian in origin but French in style. It looked like director Mario Caserini was imitating the Pathé of pure sensation, in this case the story of Judith and Holophernes, favoured by the early filmmakers because she ends up cutting off the Assyrian king’s head. So the film was followed by Louis Feuillade’s intepetation of the story, Judith (1909), once again showing a fine sense of composition.

Then followed one of my favourite early films – one I’d not seen in twenty years, so it was a particular pleasure to see that it was as good as I remembered it, and that the audience were similarly impressed. In Feuillade’s L’Aveugle de Jérusalem (1909), or The Blind Man of Jerusalem, a blind man is unaware that his daughter is visited by her lover and that his servants are robbing him. He witnesses Christ performing miracles in the street and has his sight cured. Pretending still to be blind, he is horrified to discover how he is being cheated. But the sight of Christ bearing his cross, forgiving his enemies, leads the man to forgive likewise. It is told through mise-en-scène of great simplicity – only two set-ups are used, the interior of the man’s house, and the street outside, each featured twice in alternation. The parable could be Biblical, but it is pure invention – a bold coup in itself. The BFI’s print (all of the films came from the BFI National Archive) has replacement titles which may reproduce the original text or may have been written later (interest from religious bodies saw that a number of these early films were shown into the 1920s and 30s); at any rate, they are in keeping with the film’s moral but modest tone. In its unassuming way, L’Aveugle de Jérusalem is the perfect film.

We finished with Vie de Jésus (1905-1914, aka La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ). Multi-scene nativities and lives of Christ were among some of the most popular of early films; so popular that they were frequently re-made. Pathé produced at least four such series, from 1896 to 1914, the New Testament narrative being broken down into tableaux which could be ordered scene-by-hand-coloured-scene according to budget, taste, or particular Christian persuasion (for example, the scene where St Veronica places a cloth over Christ’s face and receives an impression of his face on the cloth was popular with Catholic audiences but was not usually shown to Protestant audiences). This was the Bible as pure pictorialism, pure signification. The tableaux provided a checklist of necessary images – beasts in the stable? check; Judas’ kiss? check; soldiers gambling at the foot of the cross? check. And so on. Of course, anyone looking at these films without any knowledge of the Bible would be baffled; in narrative terms the series is quite incoherent. But they weren’t meant for such an audience; they were meant for an audience who knew exactly what to expect, and what lessons might be drawn. The build-up to the Crucifixion duly impressed the 2009 audience with its sober power, and just when we thought an element of ludicrousness might have been introduced with the Ascension, Christ did not rise up in the air vertically, but instead retreated backwards as well as upwards towards angels amid the clouds, a visual coup that caught us all by surprise. They knew a thing or two, the early filmmakers.


To find out more about early cinema and religion, the best source is Roland Cosandey, André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning’s Une invention du diable?: cinéma des premiers temps et religion / An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema. This is the proceedings of the first Domitor conference, held in 1990 in Quebec (I was there), Domitor being the international body for early cinema researchers. The conference was dedicated to the theme of early cinema and religion (for which read Christianity). The book has essays in English and French, and has excellent pieces on the Pathé series, Kalem’s From the Manger to the Cross (1912), Charles Taze Russell’s The Photo-drama of Creation (1914), Vitagraph’s The Life of Moses and many more. The UCL Department of Greek & Latin project which put on the Bloomsbury screenings hopes to do much more with these films:

We are now also planning the next stage of the project, after the two film screenings in January and June 2009. It will involve the investigation in detail of a broad range of silent films set in antiquity leading to the production of a special issue on The Ancient World in Silent Cinema. We are also in consultation with archivists, librarians, scholars, and festival curators in the UK and abroad to extend the project into an international network of experts, leading to an online database, conferences and publications and, perhaps most importantly, preservation, digitization, and exhibition. If you would like to inquire further about the research project or about these events, please contact Maria Wyke (m.wyke [at]

Finally, Maria Wyke has produced a podcast on the representation of the ancient world in silent films.

From the regions


The over-the-top sequence from A Scrap of Paper, from

If most people think of film archives, then they think of the national collections such as the BFI National Archive, Cinémathèque Française, Library of Congress etc, or else broadcasters such as the BBC. What few consider, even within the film business, is the next tier down of collection, the regional film archives which represent a particular and special part of a country’s moving image heritage. In the UK we are fortunate in having a vibrant regional film archive network, operating (with measly funding) within the public sector, each representing one or other of the English political regions. So there is the East Anglian Film Archive, the Northern Region Film and Television Archive, the South West Film and Television Archive, the North West Film Archive, and so on. What is also seldom appreciated is that these archives generally have unique silent film holdings.

One of these archives, the Yorkshire Film Archive, is the immediate reason for this post, because it has just launched Yorkshire Film Archive Online, a really first-rate showcase of regional film. There are documentaries, amateur films, industrials, newsreels, advertising films, educational films, and dramas, all devoted to the Yorkshire region, all freely available and contained within an expertly designed site brim for of background information, all the search options you could wish for, options to add comments, and a really fine selection of films. This includes a number of silents (aside from those amateur films of later decades which were shot silent). The earliest shows Queen Victoria visiting Sheffield in 1897, the truly heroic Egg Harvest – Cliff Climbing at Flamborough (1908), the joyous local celebration that is Easter at Shipley Glen (1912) and a touching and surprisingly downbeat A Scrap of Paper, made in Hull to support those who had lost loved ones during the War,or who had been disabled. The film shows a father writing his last letter home, before he goes over the top and is seen lying dead in no-man’s land in the film’s final shot. (The site dates the film as 1914-18 but the tone of the titles suggest it was made just after the war).

Yorkshire Film Archive Online demonstrates what a dynamic film culture existed from the earliest years outside London. It is a model resource, but the YFA is not the only English regional archive with silent film on show. The Media Archive for Central England, based in Leicester, lists sixty-three titles between 1899 and 1930 in its catalogue, starting with an Anglo-Boer War recreation, and continuing with a rich variety of mostly local newsreels, some with online clips, such as The Meet of the Quorn Hounds, at Kirby Gate (1912) and Leicester Poor Boys’ and Girls’ Summer Camp at Mablethorpe (c.1920).


Joan Morgan and Langhorn Burton in Little Dorrit (1920), from

Screen Archive South East, based in Brighton, is strongly aware of the part its region played in the early years of filmmaking in Britain. Its Screen Search catalogue describes over 900 films, many of them viewable online, and several from the silent era. under the theme ‘Early film in the South East‘ you can find Speer Films’ dynamic bank robbery thriller, The Motor Bandits (1912), a clip from the twenty minutes that survive of the Progress Film Company of Shoreham’s Little Dorrit (1920), starring the late Joan Morgan, and the illustrator and occasional filmmaker Harry Furniss in Winchelsea and its Surroundings. A Day with Harry Furniss and his Sketchbook (c.1920).

Screen Search also has travel films, home movies, documentaries, newsreels and productions by local cine-clubs. Look out too for films made in the 1930s by the twins John and William Barnes, the former of whom went on to become the author of the five-volume The Beginnings of the Cinema in England series of film histories.

The Wessex Film and Sound Archive, a partner archive to Screen Archive South East, cover the middle southern region of England. It has an online catalogue and a few sample clips, notably a 1905 example from Portsmouth filmmaker Alfred West‘s famous patriotic programme, Our Navy.


Children’s Matinee, showing children outside the Vaudeville cinema in Colchester, 3 October 1914, part of the East Anglian Film Archive collection, from

There is more to be seen and learned about the regional archives on the Moving History site, which is a guide to the national and regional public sector film archives of the UK, and has a wide selection of sample clips, arranged by theme and by archive. Films from the English regional archives can also be found as part of the BBC’s Nation on Film website. There is a lot more to these archives than silents, of course, and the majority of clips to be found on their sites will be of later periods, particularly from when the home movie boom took off in the 1930s.

Finally, if you want to learn more about the operations and ethos of the RFAs, visit the Film Archive Forum site, the body that represents the interests of the UK’s public sector moving image archives (see its map of the UK’s archives here). Film is so much more than many think it is – beyond the entertainment cinema there is a whole culture of films made locally, for reasons both personal and professional, which document twentieth century lives in uniquely resonant form. What the films sometimes lack in polish they gain in their powerful connection to the people, for in seeing them we see ourselves. Do explore.