Category: Silent Era

The First Film (UK 2015)

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

This is a new study of Louis Le Prince, who in 1888 shot three short sequences of film in Leeds in West Yorkshire. Two were filmed in a garden in the Roundhay suburb and one on the Leeds Bridge in the City Centre. Le Prince designed and constructed his own camera. He used a paper strip combined with cellulose. At the time he was also working to use the new celluloid material and it seems he had also solved the problem of projecting his film. These films precede the far more famous Thomas Edison in New York and the Lumière Brothers in Paris. Yet Le Prince is far less well known than the other pioneers of cinema.

The director, David Nicolas Wilkinson, wants to change this and give Le Prince [and Leeds} their proper place in the early history of film and cinema. His film provides a biography of Le Prince and a study of the technology and techniques he developed and the short films that he made. The film also addresses the fact that he only made these three films – a mystery surrounds the failure to follow on his pioneering work. The mystery is also investigated in the new study.

The area does offer memorabilia to Le Prince: there are blue plaques on Leeds Bridge and alongside the old BBC building where Le Prince had a workshop. Both the Armley Industrial Museum and the National Media Museum have displays about Le Prince and the Museum has a series on on-line pages.

The film itself has a Charity première at the Hyde Park Picture House, another historical film site, on Wednesday July 1st at 8 p.m. The event will include a presentation on Le Prince, examples of early film technology on display: and the added bonus of a DVD and the seminal book on Made In Yorkshire [by Tony Earnshaw and Jim Moran]. I suspect the event will sell out quickly, recognition that seems to have eluded Le Prince in his own lifetime. There is another screening at the National Media Museum on July 2nd at 6.30 p.m.

Glasgow FF15 #7: Why Be Good? (US 1929)

Colleen Moore as the 'hot dancer' . . .

Colleen Moore as the ‘hot dancer’ . . .

I don’t know if I’ve seen Colleen Moore in a movie before, but I’m certainly going to look out for her now. Why Be Good? directed by William A. Seiter is a recently restored First National picture in which a surviving Italian print has been ‘married’ to a Vitaphone disc recording. The restoration looked very good to me but I would need Keith to tell me if the speed was correct. In some of the dancing scenes the swift movements seemed just too quick to me. The soundtrack of music and ‘effects’ works well with a standout when two drunks sing and it is represented by muted brass instruments.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

The story is very familiar, especially for the late 1920s early 1930s before the Hays Code came into force and the possibility of representing sexuality directly disappeared. Colleen Moore plays the shopgirl by day who is a ‘hot dancer’ by night and unwittingly becomes involved with the son of the department store’s owner. The young man’s father disapproves and fears she is a gold-digger – but she will prove him wrong. ‘Pert’ Kelly is a decent Irish girl from the Bronx. I looked up the unusual first name and discovered a reference to a Celtic name given to a baby boy – perhaps naming was different in 1900? The important element in the story is that Pert is a ‘good girl’ who has to pretend to be sexually aware to be accepted. She loves to dance (and the music and dance sequences are excellent) but recognises that her dancing in skimpy dresses with flashing legs is construed as a come-on. This portrayal works because Colleen Moore is such a lively actress with real personality. She was already 29 but could be younger the way she plays the role. The character is the genuine ‘modern’ young woman of the jazz age – smart and intelligent but also sensible.

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

I realise that my lack of knowledge about the stars of this period is a handicap. I think I read that the bob worn by Colleen Moore was copied by Louise Brooks whereas I had assumed that Brooks was the originator. Can any scholar confirm either way? What’s important is that while both women had the same hairstyle, Brooks became a femme fatale but Moore, in this picture at least, is the fun-loving ‘jazz baby’.

A second restoration of another Moore picture from 1929, Synthetic Sin, also directed by Seiter has also been seen in the US so I’lll look out for it appearing over here. Unfortunately some of her other successful films seem still to be lost.

Film on the Front Line: British Propaganda from WWI


This is a presentation on video of films made during World War I. The films are from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It runs at the Royal Armouries Museum for the duration of the Leeds International Film Festival. The screenings opened on November 8th with a presentation by Doctor Claudia Sternberg, a specialist on the First World War. And the films runs continuously daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There are five films ranging a 100 foot short to a two reel film.

The longest film is Exploits of a German Submarine (U-35).Operating in the Mediterranean (UK, 1918 – 36 minutes. This has an interesting pedigree. The film footage was originally a German propaganda film The Enchanted Circle, showing the exploits of one of the most successful examples of submarine warfare at the time. The British took the footage, changed the titling and possibly re-edited the material. Thus is became an example of what is called ‘counter-propaganda’. This version is quite clearly decrying the enemy. Title cards suggest that the Germans are lax about war ethics and about veracity, implying that the British are not. There is some interesting footage of the vessel and a large number of ships sunk.

Liveliness on the British Front (UK, 1916 – 8 minutes). This was produced by the same people who made the famous and extremely influential The Battle of the Somme (UK, 1915): Geoffrey H. Malins and Edward G. Long of the British Topical Committee for War Films. It was only at this stage of the war that the British Government realised and implemented using film for the war effort. We see British troops relaxing behind them lines, but also going into action. The latter are fairly clearly staged. However there is footage that gives a sense of the state of the trench system and the living conditions that troops endured.

Home on leave (UK, 1916, – 7 minutes). The film follows soldiers leaving the Western Front and retuning home for leave: something that soldiers generally had to wait a considerable time for. There is a light-hearted feel to the antics of the soldiers as they journey by road and then by ship.

The Destruction of a Fokker: Our Mobile Ant-aircraft Guns in Action (UK, 1916 – 6 minutes). The Fokker was one of the very effective German fighter planes. Most of the film shows the mobile gun crews, moving, manoeuvring and firing their 13 pound weapon. For much of the film the enemy plane is in extreme long shot. For the climax there is a special effect – the use of a model: and then shots of the burning wreckage of seemingly two downed aircraft.

Fighting U-Boats in a London Back Garden (UK, 1918 – 1 minute). This very brief film is a ‘digging for victory’ feature. Civilians demonstrate the cheerful resilience that is expected from the British as they dig and plant in their tiny garden.

As you might expect the condition of the old prints varies considerably. Moreover, video transfer is not that kind to the contrast and definition of old film. Quite a lot of the footage is reasonably sharp and clear. However, within the films there are passages [especially in the U-35 footage] which is fairly washed out and poorly defined]. It is still an interesting an informative 58 minutes. There is a musical accompaniment by the Ithaca Trio. This is a quiet and appropriately sombre piece: it avoids more rousing music even during the action sequences.

A word of caution. The Royal Armouries is not the best signposted museum I have visited. And there are not specific signs or indicators for this event – it was not listed in the Daily Events Calendar that I saw. Moreover the Museum has a large number of video installations in the permanent exhibition, and I was at first misdirected to one of those.

So Film on the Front Line is in the Cinema on the second floor, the first floor of the War exhibits. Coming in the main entrance take the right hand lift at the far end: turn left out of the lift on floor 2 and the first entrance has the cinema, also on the left. When I went the auditorium doors had been wedged open so there was extraneous noise from the other exhibits: but the wedges are easily removable.

One last note – if you find this interesting, after the Festival you could check out the Mediatheque at the National Media Museum in Bradford which has large collection of archive film, including from the World War I period.

Happy Anniversary Hyde Park Picture House

Filling up with an expectant audience

Filling up with an expectant audience

This anniversary fell on November 7th: presumably on November 8th the friendly, hardworking staff of the cinema were all recovering from their exertions. For the Friday saw six separate screenings during the day and the evening. The key event though was the evening presentation of A Night at the Cinema in 1914. This was preceded by drinks and excellent cakes whilst the ‘After Hours Quintet’ played appropriately varied syncopations. Meanwhile the screen was filled by a selection of World War I stills and film extracts.

By the time the film time rolled round there was a fairly full house and an expectant audience. There were Welcomes by Wendy Cook, the General Manager, and by Counsellor Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Chair of the Leeds Grand Theatre Trust, which now controls the cinema. Wendy offered many thanks, but especially to the Friends of the Hyde Park, now in their thirtieth year, and to the co-founder and current Chairperson Peter Chandley. Counsellor Yeadon complemented the staff of the cinema on their work over the years and the audiences whose support has meant that the Hyde Park is still a thriving venue for film and related events. She also managed a reference to Louis Le Prince: the centenary of his pioneer film was the centre piece the 1988 Leeds International Film Festival. Then two local poets, James Nash and Matthew Hedley Stoppard, read us works written in or at least about the cinema.

The feature was a compilation of films produced in 1914, both in the UK and the USA. One wonders if any of them were in the original or early programmes of the cinema. There were a number of Actualities, Travelogues, Newsreel extracts and War Shorts (including Christmas at the Front but not any fraternisation or football). There was an entertaining animation by Lancelot Speed. His name referred to his style of animation, in which drawings were applied on-screen at high speed and then animated into short scenes.

One of the pleasures of early cinema is the frequent appearance of canine performers. We had a whole pack of Dogs for the Antarctic being trained up for an expedition by Ernest Shackleton. There was also an early example of product placement: by a firm named Spratt who appeared to specialise in dog treats.

There was an example of an early attempt at accompanying sound, The Rollicking Rajah. In 1914 the film was accompanied by a recorded song on synchronised disc. In this transfer it had been recreated with a piano accompaniment.

There was an extract from a US series featuring the Intrepid Pauline (The Perils of), one of the feisty heroines who were popular in the period. Since it was only an extract some of the plot developments had to be guessed at. But we had a flight in a balloon, a dangerous descent to and fight in a steep quarry, and a frantic chase followed by a last minute rescue from a burning house. Thrills and spills.

And there were three one-reel comedies.  The first featured Florence Turner, a very popular actress from the USA.  Daisy Doodad’s Dial was filmed by Turner’s own Production company at the Hepworth Studio on the Thames. The ‘dial’ referred to her facial contortions for a competition, but which frightened unsuspecting passersby. There were some witty moments and a couple of clever superimpositions.

Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine featured the comic persona of Fred Evans, a popular music hall star turned kinema star. This film was comic pastiche of one reel naval heroics. The film made witty use of simple sets and had some imaginative sequences ‘underwater’. There was one splendid visual joke with a fish!

The third comedy was an early Charlie Chaplin vehicle, from Keystone A Film Johnny. One could see that Chaplin was still developing his persona of The Tramp. And the direction lacked the flair that he himself would bring to filmmaking. Even so there were delightful moments and sequences that suggested later routines in embryo, The film was set first in a nickelodeon, then in a film studio and then on location: so there was pleasure in seeing the working of early cinema. I did think that the transfer had the film running a shade too fast.

The whole feature had piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who has a fine sense of the rhythms of early film and a great knowledge of the musical forms of the time.

The event was clearly enjoyed by the audience. We came out to see a queue for the last screening of the day, Final Cut, a popular film which also featured in last year’s Film Festival.

So felicitations to the staff for a delightful and successful evening, which I am sure involved much hard work. There are a lot of promising screenings to follow during the rest of the Festival and more special events to come throughout the centenary year. Next in line will be a commission by the Pavilion and the Hyde Park – To the Editor of Amateur Photography.

Thanks to Stephen Brown for the photograph.