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New Approaches to Silent Film Historiography: Technology, Spectatorship and the Archive

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2018

This was a two day conference organised by Laurence Carr, Luca Antoniazzi, Agata Frymus and Daniel Clarke. The four are Post-Graduate students in the School of Media and Communications at Leeds University. They are either working on their Doctorates or have already successfully completed them. The Conference was also supported by the Universities of Sheffield and York. The School is sited in the Clothworkers’ Building North on the main campus. And the site includes a small cinema [Philip Taylor] which means good projection of materiel and comfortable seating. A minor point is that the University Campus map takes more skill than I possess.

The conference was divided into a series of sessions with several speakers presenting papers with time for questions and comment. The presenters ranged from fully-fledged academics, archivists, graduate students and people working in this field of cinema studies. There was a wide spread of interests, knowledge, skills and experience which made for a full and fascinating study.

The opening panel was ‘Archives and Restorations’.

Fumiko Tsuneishi from Filmarhiv Austria talked about restoring The City Without Jews (1924). The film was an adaptation of a novel by Hugo Bettauer. The book is a satirical treatment of a drama set round the expulsion of Jews. The film changes the setting from Austria a to ‘Utopia’ and provides a less downbeat ending.

The archive worked on two surviving prints, one Dutch and one French. A particular focus was recreating the tinting and toning of the original film which utilised 12 colour patterns. Fumiko displayed examples of these, both in the surviving prints and in the restoration. The restoration used the new digital technologies with impressive results. However it was revealed that the funds available did not extend to a 35mm print of the final version which, at present, is stored on magnetic tape.

Clément Lafitte is an independent film archivist. His projects was ‘an attempt to resuscitate fragments of a lost film. This is Âmes de Fous by the well-known avant-garde film-maker Germaine Dulac. Dulac was a very active film-maker, making both avant-garde and relatively commercial films and also involved in production, journalism and photography. Âmes de Fous was a commercial melodrama and Dulac’s first successful film. The film comprised six episodes running about three hours but is now lost. However the EYE Filmmuseum found five fragments which were restored in 2018.

The original serial was a contemporary drama in which the daughter of a Marquis is preyed upon by charlatans. She is committed to an asylum, escapes, becomes an exotic dancer and passes for a ghost in the quest to recover Château and fortune. The film apparently included symbolist and exotic elements. It clearly fitted the pattern of French serials of the period. The ‘reconstruction’ was a novel experiment. The fragments were combined with surviving stills and a illustrated publicity booklet and the script. This combination was delivered by the archivists in a presentation of images, voices and music at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2018. Whilst not complete this ‘version’ offered a fascinating glimpse in to one early film.

Enrique Fibla-Guiterrez from the Catalan Film Archive talked about his research into a collection of amateur film. This seems to be a developing area in research and archival work. The Catalan Archive has a collection of about 5,000 titles. Enrique has been cataloguing and digitising films made in the 1920s and 1930s. The was an extensive amateur film movement in this period. The Pathé Baby 9.5 camera and projector as as as Cine Kodak became available in the 1920s. The practitioners were predominately from the industrial bourgeoisie, those with sufficient means to take up an expensive activity. This was a fairly large movement. It was connected to a Catalan Excursion Club. There were sufficient people involved for there to be a Cinema Amateur journal, a specialist shop in Barcelona and in 1935 the holding of the Intentional Amateur Film Congress.

Their product was not just home movies. In parallel with excursions they made film records of the culture and traditions of Catalonia; tying into an already existing indigenous Catalan movement. It was as yet too early to comment on amateur film during the Civil War though there are examples of this.

Panel 2: Silent Film and Aesthetics.

Gillian Anderson is a musicologist and conductor who has been involved in providing music for a number of resorted silent films; she talked via video link. When the Museum of Modern Art produced a restoration of the Mary Pickford film, Rosita 1923, Anderson worked over the surviving fragments relating to a lost score by Louis F. Gottschalk. She then produced an orchestral score to accompany the film at a screening at Venice Film Festival. She illustrated her points by playing [on video] an extract as silent and them with the accompanying music. This was the example for her contention that what is often overlooked is

the importance of the reconstitution of the original scores, which are often the ignored but missing 50% of a moving picture.”

Her contention led to some discussion. I queried her idea of how important such scores were. They certainly accompanied ‘roadshow’ versions of important films. But for large numbers of screenings and audiences the experience would have been live improvisations or the used of standard arrangements; and in some cases a silent projection. Presumably this is an issue that will continued to be debated. One minor point, I thought that the frame rate on the excerpt we saw was too fast. It was apparently set by MOMA; it was more noticeable in the silent version.

Lawrence Carr discussed the issue of ‘implied sound’. This is a new development, essentially what can we gauge about audiences assumptions of sounds, unheard but suggested by the presentation of the narrative. He used as examples the original silent version of Metropolis |(1927) and the version produced in 1984 by George Moroder with added sound and music. The obvious examples he addressed were scenes containing factory sounds and the factory hooters. But he went on to talk about the scenes when the lower parts of the city flood and the children have to be evacuated. As he argued Fritz Lang’s [and Thea von Harbou’s] version of the film offers a sophisticated implied aural experience; think about the ‘Tower of Babel’ sequence or ‘the ‘mediator between heart and head’. Whilst Moroder’s use of sound and music offers an intriguing variation it doe so at the price of much of the originals subtle suggestions. Of course, presentations in the silent era often actualised implied sound in the music or through the use of sound effects. But for may screening s this would not be the case and as Metropolis suggests there were complexities that these add-ons would not address. I shall have another line of thought now when watching silent films.

Liz Watkins from the University of Leeds looked at the actual practice of public presentations of early Scientific Expeditions to the Arctic. These were often combinations of lecture, lantern slides and film, together with promotional material and media reports. She has looked at a range of sources about the materials used in these. They illuminate the developing strategies of public presentation and help clarify the influence of particular technologies; for example the use of Autochrome by Herbert Ponting or of Tri-colour by Frank Hurley. And examining the exact form and content of these exhibitions brings out a set of cultural values inscribed in them. Two central ideas were ‘heroism’, embodied in male characters such as Captain Scott or Ernest Shackleton; and ‘widowhood’, the role assigned to the women and families left behind. The latter construct was complicated by the competing value of the period, women’s suffrage.

Irfan Shah, an independent writer and curator, talked about the film work of the Leeds-based pioneer Louis Le Prince.. He has researched the surviving materials from Le Prince’s work in 1888/89, including three film fragments – Roundhay Gardens, Accordion and Leeds Bridge – together with surviving accounts of Le Prince. This suggests that in their initial life his films were probably somewhat different from how they now appear as archival objects. The surviving copies were made from the original paper prints in 1900/01 when there was a court case over Le Prince’s patents; these were later transferred to glass plates. Irfan’s work offers a different strategy for ‘reading’ archival film records. He also mentioned some plans for presentations at the coming Leeds International Film Festival. [Meanwhile visit the Louis Le Prince Leeds Trail].

Panel 3: Silent Film Exhibition

Peter Walsh from South West Silents talked about seven years experience in presenting silent films and some of the conclusions the work had suggested. He pointed out how some few popular titles from early cinema often dominated exhibition, a prime example being Nosferatu (1922). He talked about how South West Silents had worked to broaden the range of titles and events, one example being the Mitchell and Kenyon archive which had interested varied audiences. He commented that one aspect of this was the way the films related to what might be termed personal histories, places and people familiar to audiences. This issue returned later in the final ’round table’.

Richard Brown an Independent Film Historian talked about his research into the records that survive from the Picturedrome cinema in Huddersfield., These are lodged at the Insight Archive at the Bradford Media Museum. They include both minutes and accounts.

The Picturedrome was a ‘second-run’ cinema, which meant that it was behind major venues in Leeds and Keighley in obtaining titles. The cinema had been converted from two shops to produce an auditorium. The records suggest that the standards at the cinema were not high: there were records of both the manager and the projectionist being absent when problems arose. The cleaning was ‘not satisfactory’ and the title of ‘flea-pit’ was probably literal.

But the records suggested that even though the cinema came down the rankings it was not just subject to the distributors. Richard showed charts of the bookings and the rates charged. These seemed quite variable in the 1920s, from standard thirty three and a third, to shared terms with a guarantee, average £85; to a flat rate, say £100 for a six day booking. Yet on occasion when films did not generate a large box office or when the management complained about the quality of the print they were sometimes able to negotiate a reduction. And there were also occasions when success led to bookings being extended to two weeks.

This suggested that distributor dominance in this period has been over emphasised. The displayed charts showed quite a range of distributors. Something that changed when sound arrived and the distribution market was for a period dominated by about three main companies. The records also indicated that Picturedrome, which installed the British Talking Pictures system had a number of problems with the new technology and did not necessarily enjoy an increase in audiences. This suggested a more variable picture than in the existing histories.

Mario Slogan from Ghent University discussed the ‘lecturer experience’, a common format in early film. For early audiences this was a familiar technique, one found in the Lantern Slide format as well. There has been debate as to what extent such a lecture can be seen as ‘extra-textual’. Mario suggested that it could offer an ‘intertextual’ element that might differ from a silent or musically accompanied form. Examples included a transcript of a Berlin performance of Othello in 1912 and Mario’s performance of another recorded lecture for Faust from 1911.

Chris Grosvenor from the University of Essex talked about an interesting new phenomenon, crowd-funding for silent film restorations. An online programme, ‘Kickstarter’, provides a forum for launching crowd-funding campaigns. The programme has been used by a number of individuals and groups to raise the funds for particular restoration projects. These often focus on titles that are overlooked or obscure. The career and films of Marion Davies has benefited from this; ‘hen Knighthood Was in Flower from 1922 is a title that has re-surfaced on home video after a campaign by Ben Model. Chris had identified nine such projects to date.


Kieron Webb from the British Film Institute offered personal insights from his involvement in a range of restoration projects. He was impressed by the developments enabled by the new digital technologies though he also saw the merits of being able to restore onto 35mm prints. There was the Chaplin Keystone project in 2004, still mainly using traditional methods like a web gate printer. More recently Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1924 – 26) might be termed a reconstruction or even simulation on the basis of the digital input. But this had enabled restoration work in the colour palettes in the film. The use of digital technologies on colour were also important in the recent BFI work on Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a film that contained 10 different tints and innumerable colour changes. Here we got to see one of Kevin Brownlow’s comments on a shot chart; he does have a high level of discrimination in terms of film. And Kieron also talked about The Pleasure Garden from the series of nine Hitchcock’s Silents: a work that transformed our sense of the film.


Wednesday.                              Keynote 2.

Lawrence Napper of King’s College, London addressed ‘History, Lies and the Digital Archive’. He started out with a quote from a BBC broadcast ‘Reith lecture’ in which a historian of the World War I described the British film The Battle of the Somme as ‘mainly filmed in Hyde Park. Lawrence went on to demonstrate with detailed reference and illustrative clips that the great part of this film was actuality footage. The reconstructed sequence in the film amount to three clips running slightly over one minute. He also commented that the historian’s claim that the film ‘horrified’ audiences in 1916 was a misnomer. Here he referenced accounts from the period.

So how did an experienced historian get matters o wrong. Lawrence argued that even now the historical discourse often fails to treat film as a bona fide historical source. He cited perceptions of technology, style and genre. I think one could add the sense that film constitutes ‘entertainment’ rather than the variety of actual forms that exist. I also noted that the historian in question seemed to give more credence to the photographs of the US Civil War: was this the different media or the different war? At a separate point in the conference Kieron Webb had recounted attending a ‘Conservation’ conference where the two missing areas were photography and film.

Lawrence went on to discuss audience responses to film such as The Battle of the Somme. And he introduced a parallel example of sound reconstitutions of the West Front on gramophone recordings of the same period. He suggested that both could be treated by some in the audience as as ‘objects of remembrance’. This introduced a forthcoming filmic event. Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ which is premiering at the London Film Festival. It combines digitised footage from film records with recording of veterans made for radio and television. Even before it is seen the work has become a subject of controversy., partly because of ‘colouring’ effects. It certainly raises issues about what is acceptable in reworking archive materials.

There is further discussion to be had on what exactly any of the instances Lawrence discussed relate to the concept of ‘lies’ or its equivalents.

Panel 6: Silent Film and Women.

Jennifer Voss from de Montfort University is working to ‘uncover women’s’ experiences in early Hollywood’. She has looked at fan magazines, scrapbooks and clippings for material on stars, in particular on Clara Bow. She has been using an online digital resource, Lantern.mediahist.org.

Clara Bow had a rapid rise to stardom but problematic experiences as a major studio asset. Jennifer trawling of both fans letters and the star’s own later recollections suggest more of a challenge to the studio treatment than is found in the ‘official’ star biographies.

Lies Lanckman from the University of Kent was using similar resources to to look at the career of another major star, Norma Shearer. In particular she has identified lost films such as The Snob (1924) or The Demi-Bride (1927) and studied the responses of fans at the time. This brings out aspects of the lost work which enable a fuller picture of the film and the place in a star career.

Agata Frymus from Ghent University focused on black women in the audiences in Harlem in the 1920s. Using a variety of printed and written sources she was able to map the cinemas operation in the neighbourhood and the way that black girls and women used these venues. She placed the topic with the issues of segregation and black migration in the period. There was also the cultural milieu in black communities, partly shaped by discourses of uplift and high culture. Also in this period there was black film production for the ‘race cinema’. In the case of Harlem it seems that such films were special events at cinemas which exhibited the mainstream films of the day.

Lucy Moyse Ferreira from Central Saint Martins has discovered a short fashion film made in 1927 by the designer and artist Sonia Delaunay. Lucy was till researching the provenance of the film and the format used, the Keller-Dorian colour system. But the film offered a distinctive presentation somewhat different from the fashion films of the period which were themselves popular items. Delaunay seems to have commissioned or produced the film herself. It offers a stance that emphasises art and design in a distinctive manner.

The question and answer that followed the papers stressed the way that digital sources were offering new avenues for exploring early film history.

Audio-Visual Heritage round table.

Led by Luca Antoniazzi with Tony Booth of the National Science and Media Museum, Simon Popple of the University of Leeds and Kieron Webb.

The participants talked about the collections at their institutions and then on the impact of digital technologies. The view of these were generally positive but there were some worrying comments regarding storage: essentially given the short shelf life and changing technologies there is pressure to constantly have to update the form in which archival material is stored. There no longer seems a uniform commitment to rely on actual film storage [nitrate or acetate], which does have a long shelf life and relatively permanent reproduction.

I raised the question of the language and practice of exhibition relying on digital formats. This was not really taken up but I shall return to this in a later post.

The conference wound up but Luca stated their intention to arrange a conference on issues regarding silent film and archiving in 2019. This was a positive two days with an amount of interesting and frequently new material. The presenters mostly stuck to their timings, a virtue more often honoured in the breach than in the observance in academia.

The organisation worked fine and the Philip Taylor cinema was a good venue and we had some really interesting and fine looking visual material. The organisers plan to publish at least some of the papers that were presented at some point in the future.

One Response to “New Approaches to Silent Film Historiography: Technology, Spectatorship and the Archive”

  1. […] that funding agencies are often loath to include moneys for a master copy on actual film. I saw a presentation from a member of the Austrian Film Archive who had used new digital techniques to good effect in […]

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