Tag Archives: early film

Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler


The Victorians were falling away. And with them a withered system of reality embodied in overwrought virtuoso performances. Technique as a means of reflecting Nature – or, to quote Balzac, the “conjugation of objects with light” – was displaced, uncrowned by painters pursuing a darker mirror, a diabolical truth for smashing the mendacity of a bloodless representational art.

It was finally time for Edgar Allan Poe’s crepuscular light to shine. Not solely via accepted modes but written alchemically in cinematographic rays beamed through silver salts. Filmmaking is the darkest and unholiest of arts (done right, that is), and the director was emerging now – supreme pimp to a coterie of fallen angels, nymphs and sirens.

Modernism began materialising, slowly and unevenly at first, as an answer to 19th-century illusionism. The rank trickery of which academic art’s heroes lay dead and dying – granting Poe a new, posthumous plasticity to actualise delirium, converting it from literature into an art… art worthy of the name. And here, the “Decadents” became forerunners. Consider Surrealism, its nose-dive into the gulf of interiority, as a bequest from Poe – via his greatest interpreter.

Germination (Odilon Redon, 1879)

In Odilon Redon’s Germination (1879), a wan, baleful, free-floating arabesque of heads of indeterminate gender suggests either a linear, ascending involution, or a terrifying descent from an unlit celestial void into a bottomless pit of an all-too-human, devolving identity. Redon’s disembodied heads gradually take on more human characteristics, culminating into a black haloed portrait in profile. The cosmos of Redon’s etching is governed by an unexplained, inexplicable moral sentience, which absorbs the power of conventional light. Thus black is responsible for building its essential form, while glimmers of white, hovering above and below, prove ever elusive; registering as somehow elsewhere, beyond the otherwise tenebrous unity of the picture plane; adding to the depth of its unsettling dimensions.

Continue reading Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

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Entering the ancient world through silent cinema

Cléopatra (1910)
Cléopatra (1910)

This is a guest blog for Silent London by Maria Wyke, professor of Latin at University College London.

Few people realise how important and innovative a role early cinema played in shaping modern knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. In the vaults of film archives scattered across the world, a large number of entertaining, provoking and often quite beautiful films survive that are set in the classical world. Through their enticing use of gesture and look, exotic sets and extravagant costumes, colour, music and movement, these films still offer their spectators the opportunity to enter into the history or myth of antiquity, and to experience a distant past where life is lived differently or to an extreme.

Antiquity is also one of early cinema’s most important means for bringing the past into the present, making it accessible to mass audiences across national boundaries, offering it up as a past that binds audiences to each other, and utilising it to legitimate cinema as a new and global art form. Yet early cinema’s use of the ancient world is little known or understood.

For a few years now, I have been involved in a research project with Pantelis Michelakis of the University of Bristol. Both of us are classicists, with my specialism being Rome and his Greece. Together, and with the help of film archivists, and historians of film and of cultural studies, we have been trying to understand this close relationship between cinema and Classics (we published an edited collection on the subject in 2013 with CUP, The Ancient World in Silent Cinema).

We see film screenings as an integral (and very enjoyable) part of our project – an opportunity for audiences to participate and help open up new routes for our research. So on 21st November 2015, at the fabulous Cinema Museum in East London, and as part of the Being Human Festival of humanities research, Pantelis and I will be screening a number of early “antiquity” films. If it interests you, do register for your ticket here and come along.

Though your Sins be as Scarlet (USA, 1911)
Though your Sins be as Scarlet (USA, 1911)

From 2 to 3.45 we will be showing 35mm films from the Joye collection in the National Film Archive and from 4.15 to 6pm films from archives in Paris, such as the Cinémathèque Française. What films exactly? Well, we are in final negotiations about that.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8

The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Photoplay Productions
The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Photoplay Productions

At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.

KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.

We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.

Wolf Song (1929) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
Wolf Song (1929) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8

‘O brave new world!’: Silent Shakespeare streaming on the Globe Player

Re Lear (1910)
Re Lear (1910)

I love early cinema in all its wild and strange glory, but there is a special place in my heart for Shakespeare adaptations, especially those earliest examples from the 1900s and 1910s. The British Film Institute produced a video, many moons back, called Silent Shakespeare, featuring wonderful examples of films adapted from Shakespeare’s plays from around the world, dated between 1899 and 1911, with gorgeous scores by Laura Rossi. I loved it. The VHS tape was subsequently rereleased on DVD and is still available from the BFI shop, priced £19.99

Now there is another way to watch these truly gorgeous films – they are streaming on the Globe Player, an online service from the people who run Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank in London – just a few yards away from the venue formerly known as the National Film Theatre, but several centuries away in spirit. You can rent the bundle of seven films for £5.99 or buy it outright for £9.99. Here’s the link

The films in the Silent Shakespeare set are:

  • King John (GB 1899 2 min) the first Shakespeare film ever made, released both as a film in variety theatres and as a peepshow Mutoscope on the same day as Tree’s production of the play opened at the Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. 
  • The Tempest (GB 1908 12 min) 
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (USA 1909 12 min) 
  • King Lear/Re Lear (Italy 1910 16 min) 
  • Twelfth Night (USA 1910 12 min) 
  • The Merchant of Venice/Il Mercante di Venezia (Italy 1910 10 min) 
  • Richard III (GB 1911 23 min) a condensed version of one of the Stratford productions mounted by the F.R. Benson Company.
The Tempest (1908)
The Tempest (1908)

The glimpse of Herbert Beerbohm-Tree as King John is really something, and the hand-stencilled colours of Re Lear are sumptuous, but I must confess I do have a favourite: the charming, ingenious version of The Tempest, directed by Percy Stow for the Clarendon Company in 1908. It’s just sublime – and Michael Brooke calls it “comfortably the most visually imaginative and cinematically adventurous silent British Shakespeare film”, so I am in good company. Try another of my favourites, the 1911 Richard III on for size. 

Frank Benson had been playing Richard III for decades at this point, and his ease in the role really shows, especially during these haunting scenes from Bosworth field.

The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were you right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?

Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second path. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …

What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.

It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.

Continue reading The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

The AP, British Movietone and YouTube: a million minutes of world history online

British Movietone News
British Movietone News

If there was ever a week to emphasise the power of archive film, this is it. On the weekend, the Sun on Sunday released what appeared to be home movie footage from the early 1930s of Edward VIII apparently teaching the young Princess Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother to make Nazi salutes. Not surprisingly, those few frames of film have caused a media storm – with debates raging over whether Edward was not the only Nazi sympathiser in the family, or the footage should have been released at all. It seems to me that the princess is more interested in showing off her Scottish dancing moves than practising the salute – she is on holiday at Balmoral after all. And her young sister Margaret really isn’t in the least bit involved. But what do I know? This is home movie footage, of course, not intended to be scrutinised by the public, even if it may after all hint at some disturbing information in the public interest.

The fact remains, however, that this film is owned and still guarded, privately. If there is context to this clip, we are denied it, because all that has been released is a silent, heavily watermarked 17-second snatch on the Sun website. In the era of FOI requests (the Freedom of Information Act is 10 years old this year), post-WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, after MPs’ expenses and the Prince Charles letters, full disclosure and open access is where it’s at.

And it is in this climate of free access to information that the Associated Press and British Movietone have decided to release a monumental slice of their archive on to YouTube today, where it can be seen, shared and embedded by the public. There are two news YouTube channels as of today: one for the AP Archive and one for British Movietone. More than a million minutes of newsreel footage has been digitised and uploaded, creating what the archive call “a view-on-demand visual encyclopedia, offering a unique perspective on the most significant moments of modern history”. 

The YouTube channels will comprise a collection of more than 550,000 video stories dating from 1895 to the present day. For example, viewers can see video from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modelling the fashions of the 1960s

For silent enthusiasts, the fact that this upload includes the Henderson collection of news footage will be particularly welcome. In effect, this is not a release of footage (many of these films were always available to watch on the AP Archive site), but a way of liberating it. 

Continue reading The AP, British Movietone and YouTube: a million minutes of world history online

The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-35 review: ‘A beautifully textured visual history’

Clara Bow, with her red hair on show
Clara Bow, in Red Hair (1928)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Rosie Taylor. An event producer and freelance film researcher and historian, Rosie is festival curator for Afrika Eye Festival, and assistant curator and head of digital media at the Slapstick Festival.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Dawn of Technicolor since I first saw James Layton and David Pierce’s presentation in Pordenone in October 2014. And the immediate thing that struck me when I first lay eyes on this book is its sheer size. It is second in size only to an enormous old and out-of-print book I have on Paul Cézanne – I’m going to struggle to fit it on my bookshelves!

The reason for its size is immediately obvious from looking at the cover, which boasts a closeup of a strip of “35mm nitrate Technicolor cemented print” from Fig Leaves (1926). As you turn the pages you are not overwhelmed by images (as I was originally expecting, which slightly disappointed me at first), but instead the book is carefully laced with a variety of photographs, film strips, diagrams, and images of archival texts and diaries, giving a beautifully textured visual history, which complements the reading nicely. The quality of the illustrations “reproduced almost entirely from original artefacts”, is excellent, so if like me you enjoy having a good look at everything, it’s exciting.

However, as much as one likes to take a gander at the impressive pictures, a bit of reading is also important. And, if I am honest, I did find the size of the book a little daunting at first. However, once I started reading, I discovered that the language is very accessible, and though it is essentially a factual history, it is passionately written without being too personal. It takes you through the complex and multifaceted aspects of the company’s development, giving a great sense of the personal and professional aspirations, challenges, set-backs, and triumphs – all to the point that I was rooting for the Technicolor team!

Continue reading The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-35 review: ‘A beautifully textured visual history’

Cheese Mites (1903) and 10 more disgusting moments in silent cinema

Silents by numbers

Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”

Can't resist a lost-film-rediscovered story, nor a movie about cheese

A post shared by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou (1929)

The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou

Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.

The maggots in Battleship Potemkin

Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery

George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.

Continue reading Cheese Mites (1903) and 10 more disgusting moments in silent cinema

Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle – review

Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle
Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle

If a book absolutely, positively, had to be judged by its cover, then Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle would be just fine. This anthology of academic writing comes encased in black, and the cover features a shimmering Serpentine Dancer, her skirts twirling over her head and with her arms outstretched. We know this is a frame enlargement because the rainbow inks daubed on to the frame transform her rippling dress into the wings of a butterfly, or an exotic bird. She is framed by the darkness of the blank stage around her: a woman in a white dress, made into a spectacle by the twin arts of fashion and film. The cover is utterly appropriate and ravishingly gorgeous.

Before you even reach the title page, there are more dancers, swishing their skirts and pointing their toes, reproduced in silvered, coloured inks on matt-black paper. This is an academic book masquerading as a coffee-table tome. You could flick through it for hours (and I did) marvelling at these silver and full-colour illustrations, weighing the heavy paper in your fingers.

But at some point, one must stop flirting and dance with the one that brung you. That is to say, read the darned book. The good news is that that divine creation has been brought to us by the people behind the Fashion in Film Festival and as such it is comprises an intelligent and slightly idiosyncratic approach to its subject. This is not a simple skate through film-costume history. The several contributors are mostly academics and curators, in the fields of performance, design, fashion, literature and film, and their essays are arranged in three groups, relating to different eras.

Continue reading Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle – review

Damn The War! (1914) – the beauty of stencil colour

  • Click on any of the above images to view a slideshow of stills from Damn The War! (1914)

One of the highlights of the silent offering at this year’s London Film Festival, Alfred Machin’s Damn The War!/Maudite Soit la Guerre (1914) is not just a moving pacifist drama, it is an object of jewel-like beauty. As those who saw the restoration of this Belgian film at the Bologna this year attest, the secret is in the vibrant, expertly applied, stencil colour. Head Curator at the BFI Archive, Robin Baker, says:

The ravishingly beautiful restoration has returned a magical range of stencilled colours, evoking the nostalgia of tinted postcards and a world stained with the blood of war.

Stencil colouring was popular during the early film period, and through the silent era. It was a meticulous process, as Barbara Flueckiger explains on her Timeline of Historical Film Colors website:

Stencil coloring required the manual cutting, frame by frame, of the area which was to be tinted onto another identical print, one for each color. Usually the number of colors applied ranged from 3 to 6. Theprocess was highly improved by the introduction of a cutting machine. Thus the cutter could follow the outlines of the image areas on a magnified imagefrom a guide print projected onto a ground glass. Apantograph reduced the enlargement back to framesize. The machine performed the cutting on the stencil print with a needle. When cut-out manually, the gelatin had to be removed from the stenciled print to form a transparent strip. In the machine cutting process the stencil was cut into a blank film directly. For every color the stencil print was fed in register with the positive print into a printing machine where the acid dye was applied by a continuous velvet band.

At the time that Damn The War! was made, this painstaking work would have been done by large teams of female workers. Stencil colouring was part-mechanised, however, and as such was a sight easier than the hand-colouring techniques that preceded it. In fact, it’s the combination of soft pastel-coloured inks and machine-cut precision that creates such a beautiful painterly look. In Damn The War! a wash of vivid red ink is also used to dramatic effect, and masks are used to intensify the impact of the coloured scene.

Readers of this blog will note that in the year that this film was made, the Technicolor corporation was born, which would eventually create a whole new approach to colour film. Glorious though that could be, it’s hard not to think that a certain kind of cinematic gorgeousness was lost when the stencils were all packed away.

Watch Damn The War! (1914) at 6.30pm, 12 October 2014, NFT1, BFI Southbank, in the London Film Festival. Buy tickets here.

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Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past

Gaumont Comes Home

This is a guest post for Silent London by Tony Fletcher, film historian at the Cinema Museum, about director-actor Alf Collins. Some of Collins’ Gaumont films will be shown on 30 August at a special open-air screening on the site of the original studio in Camberwell, with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.

Alfred Bromhead started the English agency for Gaumont in Britain in 1898. He distributed the films produced by the French arm of the company, which was run by Leon Gaumont, and he also attempted to produce a few films in Britain in 1899. He opened a small outdoor studio on a four-acre cricket field in Loughborough Junction in south-east London. The open-air stage measured 30ft x 15ft However, this venture was short-lived and lasted for only one summer.

Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905
Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905

In 1902, Bromhead decided to make another attempt at producing films. Alfred Collins came on board as stage manager, and Gaumont continued producing short films over the next seven to eight years. These were often shot in the streets of south-east London – pioneering chase comedies and dramas. Alf Collins had already had some film experience working with Robert Paul, as well as at the British Biograph Company. He had started performing at the Surrey Theatre under George Conquest, later joining the William Terris Company at the Lyceum Theatre. He also performed in Drury Lane Pantos playing The Copper in the Harlequinade. His full-time job between 1902 and 1932 was as the stage manager for the Kate Carney Company, which gave him opportunities to make films when they were appearing in London and the provinces.

During 1904, Bromhead moved studios from Loughborough Junction to a 14-acre site at Freeman’s cricket field, Champion Hill. Thomas Freeman was a local builder and decorator living at 127 Grove Lane. In 1891, he had acquired a site at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House (roughly where Sainsbury’s superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC are now situated). Freeman built three wood and iron cricket pavilions which were hired out during the summer to the Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and during the winter to Dulwich Hamlet FC. These appear in some of the films. Bromhead constructed an open-air stage to film interior shots as no artificial lights were available.

Continue reading Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914
A Night at the Cinema in 1914

This is a guest post for Silent London by Juliet Jacques. Jacques is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, sexuality, film, football and literature. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the LRB and her new book Trans: a Memoir will be published by Verso in 2015. 

Film historians often credit DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) with popularising the full-length feature film, if not inventing it – changing both the language of cinema and the way it was seen. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s US Civil War novel The Clansman, it opened with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”, attempting to create new formal techniques that drew on literature and drama. Distancing it from the fairground sideshows at which Edison, Méliès and other pioneers showed their works, aiming to attract more middle-class viewers, Griffith’s epic screened in theatres with an interval and printed programme, and a three-hour score by Joseph Carl Breil, which combined original music, familiar melodies and classical compositions, notoriously Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the ride of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Birth of a Nation was not the first full-length feature, historical epic or literary adaptation: Giovanni Pastrone’s 200-minute Cabiria, set in ancient Carthage and Sicily, inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô and written by poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, was released a year earlier, and several Italian studios took such risks, by now assured of their audience. So 1914 – that seismic year for Western culture – marked a turning point for cinematic convention, departing from the collections of single or double-reel comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels shown at music halls, shop fronts and penny gaffs during the early 1900s.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 attempts to recreate the atmosphere in one of Britain’s 3-4,000 “picture houses”, featuring 14 short films from the BFI archives, curated by Bryony Dixon, all in good condition, with an improvised score by pianist Stephen Horne that references music of the time, it invites 21st-century viewers to imagine when movies would have provided not just a social occasion, with rowdier audiences happy to talk not just between reels but also during them, but also the chance to catch up with the world, illustrating what had been covered by the newspapers.

Several newsreels open the collection. First, a “light” item about British pilots Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks Looping the Loop at Hendon, in March. This lasts just a few moments, but shows how bracing aviation must have been, the rickety box-planes flying low, the pilots exposed. What seems most amazing now is that just months later, 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, these were used in warfare. (Less surprising is that far more British pilots died in training than combat.)

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914
Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914

One of the biggest pre-war political concerns features in Palace Pandemonium (May), which shows Emmeline Pankhurst marching to Buckingham Palace, held by police who barely hide their contempt, to petition George V for women’s suffrage. This reminds us how high-profile the campaign was, but Austrian Tragedy immediately shifts the agenda, chronicling the Austro-Hungarian royal family’s efforts to carry on after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Continue reading A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – in August 2014

This is a really fascinating idea, and a hugely entertaining hour and a half of anyone’s time. The BFI has compiled a typical “mixed” cinema programme from a century ago, and is releasing it theatrically this summer. It’s called, of course, A Night at the Cinema in 1914, and it comes out in August. Yes, you may be seated in an air-conditioned room with comfy seats and Dolby 5.1 sound, but you’ll be able to watch a variety bill of drama, actuality, comedy, serials and travelogues – just like your own great-grandparents in the Hippodromes of yore.

Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)

Some of the titles in the bill will be familiar to you, but there are a few surprises too – and the cumulative experience of watching 15 films in one sitting is wholly refreshing. There’s Chaplin, Florence Turner and Pimple larking about, but also newsreel footage from the front, and from suffragette demonstrations in London, and Ernest Shackleton’s preparations for his Antarctic voyage. Of course, there’s a segment from The Perils of Pauline, and an opportunity for a singalong too. Music is provided by an expert – Stephen Horne has recorded an improvised score for the whole shebang.

Continue reading A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – in August 2014

Ten ‘firsts’ by Eadweard Muybridge

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Robert Seidman, author of Moments Captured, a novel based loosely on the work and life of the pioneering 19th century photographer Eadweard MuybridgeThe Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Nine Firsts – and One Disputed First – by Eadweard Muybridge, Photographer Extraordinaire

The Horse in Motion
The Horse in Motion

1. The Trotting Horse 

In 1878 Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) created the mechanism that recorded the first photographs of a horse trotting. No photographer had ever been able to capture such rapid motion before. Muybridge’s multi-camera mechanism stopped time and seized motion itself so that he and his employer, California’s ex-governor Leland Stanford, could analyse the animal’s gait and improve the training of his racehorses.

2. The Photo Finish

Muybridge was at a racetrack when two horses finished in a dead heat. The usual volatile debate followed about which animal had triumphed.  The dispute tripped Muybridge’s innovative impulse, and soon Eadweard invented the first device to record the “photo finish”. In a letter to Nature magazine in May 1882, Eadweard Muybridge argued that every horse race should make use of a high-speed photo at the finish to determine the winner. A camera very much like the one that Muybridge deployed still determines the outcome of contested horse races.

3.  Photo Finish Ubiquity

The idea of Muybridge’s photo finish was later expanded to include other sporting events, including foot races and swimming contests. Today, on TV and in film, the grace and agility of divers and swimmers, sprinters and footballers are presented in stop-motion, yet another of Muybridge’s contributions to the way we see and perceive.

San-Francisco-Panorama.-Panel-one-EM8028
The first panel of Muybridge’s panorama (Eadweardmuybridge.co.u)

4. Panorama

In January 1877, Muybridge placed his view camera on the roof of railroad magnate Mark Hopkins’ half-finished mansion in the posh Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and began the process that recorded the most detailed and complete – though not the first – panoramic view of the city.  Starting at 11am and using the contemporary equivalent of a telephoto lens, Muybridge took 13 photos as he carefully moved his camera around in 360 degree circle. The panorama remains the most complete description of the City’s “Golden Era” before its partial destruction in 1906 by an earthquake and subsequent fire.

5.  The American West and US National Parks

Throughout the late 1860s Muybridge produced a stunning portfolio of the wild beauties of the American West, including breathtaking documentation of Yosemite before it became a national park.  Multiple historians assert that the photos helped spur the National Parks movement itself. Theodore Roosevelt, the father of the US National Parks system, was directly influenced by Muybridge’s and other early photographers views of the American wilds.

Continue reading Ten ‘firsts’ by Eadweard Muybridge