Tag Archives: RW Paul

Silent film: coming soon to a laptop near you

The weekend is nearly upon us and it promises to be cold and damp. Normally I would advise you to go to the cinema, wouldn’t I? I stand by that. There are plenty of shows on in Scotland this weekend, and Londoners can go to see Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne accompany Alraune at the Barbican this Sunday.

But if you can’t find a silent film screening near you and instead you’d rather curl up inside with a hot water bottle and your broadband connection, there are some silent films playing inside your computer that you won’t want to miss.

  • The Danish Film Institute has done a wonderful thing – digitised its entire surviving silent film heritage and put it online at Stumfilm.dk, where you can stream it for zero krone. Yes, and many of the films have music and English subtitles too. There is so much here to enjoy, including Pat & Patachon. I was quite taken with the copious amounts of Asta Nielsen available, and AW Sandberg’s The Golden Clown from 1926 – but then I barely scratched the surface.
  • Consider this one of your semi-regular reminders to check out the BFI Player again, because it seems like new silent films arrive there all the time. In particular, may I draw your attention to the new Robert Paul collection, celebrating his 130th anniversary, which includes some of his less well-known works. Not to mention the rest of the epic Victorian collection. If you’re a Paul fan (and of course you are), don’t miss the opening of the RW Paul exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford on 22 November. Another date for your early film diary: the Ernest Lindgren lecture on 10 December at BFI Southbank remembers the pioneering film preservation work of Harold Brown.
  • Of course there’s always the Orphan Works on the BFI YouTube channel for all you international readers.
  • Pop over the the Eye Film Museum YouTube channel to check out the Jean Desmet Collection – currently containing 370 films, many with English subtitles. New titles are added every Thursday!
  • Highlights of the fantastic Kino Lorber Women Film Pioneers box set curated by Shelley Stamp are on Netflix in the UK, and many other countries too.
  • US readers can find a variety of silents, including Chaplin features, when they subscribe to the Criterion Channel
  • And next month, from 14 December, you’ll be able to see the lustrous new restoration of Maurice Tourneur’s The Broken Butterfly (1919) on the Film Foundation website.

Where else do you – legally – watch silent films online? Archive.org? Kanopy? Feel free to share any great finds in the comments.

  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page

Victorian value: early British films on the BFI Player

UPDATE: Watch the Victorian Film Collection on BFI Player

Is it too late to tell you about the BFI’s Victorian Film Weekender? Not quite. There’s still time to book for this weekend’s three days of screenings, debates and talks – including a reprise of the magnificent Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, first seen at the London Film Festival. So hurry – go do that – and then mark another date in your diary: Monday 13 May.

That’s when a cavalcade of Victorian cinema will appear online, on the marvellous BFI Player. And it’s all in honour of a bicentenary: it’s coming up to 200 years since Queen Victoria was born, on 24 May 1819. In Canada, they celebrate that date every year as Victoria day. Now we can join in by watching vintage cinema in the great monarch’s honour.

He and She (1898)
He and She (1898)

Here’s Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, telling you why you should watch.

“Early British film is a legacy to be proud of, these rare moving pictures document the last years of Queen Victoria’s long reign with a vividness that no other kind of historical artefact can bring. These incredibly rare, fragile film fragments speak volumes, adding colour and texture to our understanding of the Victorians vibrant and rapidly progressing world”

More than 700 British films made between 1895 and 1901 will be available to watch, entirely free of charge, on the streaming site, including those astonishing 4K digital restorations of the 68mm large-format films. That’s around 200 Victorian-era titles from the Mitchell & Kenyon collection and 500 newly transferred films.

The filmmakers responsible include: including RW Paul, Birt Acres, WKL Dickson, James Williamson, Walter Booth, GA Smith, Cecil Hepworth and Walter Gibbon. The quality of many of these films is incredible and the range and variety breathtaking.

Subjects include the Boer War, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Boat Race, travelogues, boat launches, football, theatre, agriculture and working life. And you’ll be able to spot figures including Queen Victoria, Edward VII, the Duke of Windsor, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Pope Leo XIII, WG Grace, Prince Ranjitsinhji, Herbert Campbell, Lil Hawthorne and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. There’s even sound and colour – so hold on to your hats!

I’ve had a little advance peek at some of this, and I can tell you that it’s a fascinating collection – offering glimpses of public and private life from the century before last as well as some seriously experimental filmmaking.

Birt Acres, ‘pioneer of the cinematograph’, 1854-1918

Birt Acres was born on 23 July 1854 in Richmond, Virginia. He died on 27 December 1918, 100 years ago today, in Whitechapel, London. For reasons I cannot explain, he is buried in a cemetery in Walthamstow, further out of the city, and just a few minutes away from where I live.

Birt Acres's grave in Walthamstow, east London
Birt Acres’s grave in Walthamstow, east London

The other day I took a stroll to Queens Road Cemetery, London E17 to take a look at Birt Acres’s grave. It may be hard to make out the lettering in this pictures, but beneath the caption “Peace”, it reads:

In

loving memory of

Birt Acres

1854-1918

A pioneer of the cinematograph

Acres was a pioneer all right – a massively important figure in the history of early British cinema. In 1894, when he was working as a photographer in Barnet, RW Paul sought his expertise on a project of his: the development of a motion picture camera. According to Paul, he rejected Acres’ design suggestions, but they continued to collaborate and Acres patented the new device, so it’s likely his contribution was actually significant. Together, in 1895, they filmed the “first successful motion picture film made in Britain”, outside Acres’s house, Clovelly Cottage in Barnet.

Frames from Incident at Clovelly Cottage, 1895. Filmed at Clovelly Cottage, 19 Park Road, Chipping Barnet
Frames from Incident at Clovelly Cottage, 1895. Filmed at Clovelly Cottage, 19 Park Road, Chipping Barnet

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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.”

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