Silent Movie Mondays Return to the Paramount, June 8-22

The always worthwhile Silent Movie Mondays series returns to the glorious 1920s-era former movie palace The Paramount here in Seattle.  The new series runs every Monday at 7:00 PM from June 8 through June 29, 2009.

As always, the films will be accompanied on the restored Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ by the incomparable Dennis James.  If you’ve never seen a silent film, this is absolutely the way you should start.  Very few cities ever get this kind of authentic experience, and if they do it’s usually one-off screenings or a festival.  Seattle is incredibly lucky to get what amounts to a mini-festival a couple-three times a year.

Of especial note is that admission to the first show in the series is FREE courtesy of longtime series sponsor, Trader Joe’s. Damn, thanks Trader Joe’s!

The entire line-up is excellent, as usual. I highly recommend catching the June 22 show, The Godless Girl (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929), which is great stuff (the heavy Christian moralizing notwithstanding).  I had the privilege of watching Dennis accompany it at the Silent Film Festival in San Francisco a couple years back, and it was possibly the best I’ve ever seen him play.  During the climactic scenes, he dang near brought down the house.  Also very highly recommended is the concluding film on June 29, Seventh Heaven (1927) directed by Frank Borzage.

Here’s the full schedule, with links to details (and in turn to online ticket purchase):

June 8: Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926) — FREE ADMISSION!  Come early for decent seating.
June 15: Romola (Henry King, 1924)
June 22: The Godless Girl (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929)
June 29: Seventh Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927)

Sunday Secret Matinees — through November at the Northwest Film Forum

Flash Gordon and Professor Zarkov operate a space-age radio console

Every Sunday at noon through November at the Northwest Film Forum, the Sprocket Society presents the Sunday Secret Matinee, featuring the ongoing cliffhanger adventures of Flash Gordon, plus a Secret Matinee Feature, rare and unusual short films, and — of course — cartoons.

All 12 episodes of the classic movie serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe are being shown, in order, once a week — just like it was originally in 1940.

Each week’s Secret Matinee Feature guarantees thrills and chills with classic (and “classic”) science fiction, horror, giant monsters and pirate extravaganzas.

The cartoons and short films being shown each week include a mixture of sound and silent stuff:  Winsor McCay, the Fleischer brothers, Chuck Jones, Emil Cohl, Georges Melies, Norman McLaren, Thomas Edison, Willis O’Brien, Len Lye, Alexandre Alexeiff, and many others.

It’s a weekend matinee just like in the old days.
Series passes and advance tickets are available online.  Box office opens at 11:30 AM.   Full ticket info is available at the Sprocket Society web site.

Every Sunday at noon, through November 23, 2008
at the Northwest Film Forum
1515 12th Avenue
(on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine)

More info at

Long-Lost Metropolis Footage Found

A still from the recently recovered Argentinian 16mm 'director's cut' print of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'.

Silent and sci-fi film nerds the world over are all atwitter with the astonishing and happy news that a 16mm print of Fritz Lang’s original edit of Metropolis (1927) has been found in Argentina, containing all but one scene lost to date — about 25 minutes of “new” footage in all.

In 2002, an exhaustive restoration of the classic film was released theatrically and, later, to DVD. But even that version was still missing shots and entire scenes. Such missing segments were denoted by black footage with titles describing what was missing, based on research that included the original script, period censorship papers, and other documents. At the time it was universally believed that this was as good as it would ever get, and those of us privileged enough to catch a theatrical screening (as I did at The Varsity in Seattle) rejoiced.  A more fully-restored version is something no one thought possible.

According to late-breaking reports, a version of the film including this newly-recovered footage will be released by Kino Video on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009, although it is not yet resolutely confirmed at this very early date whether the recovered footage will be fully integrated into the film as opposed to offered as extras.

Related Update:  As noted recently on The Bioscope blog, an Ecuadoran newspaper has reported that another print of Metropolis with possibly previously-lost footage was found in the film archives of the University of Chile.  The bad news is it’s a 9.5mm print, a short-lived format used in the 1920s and early ’30s for home and educational markets.  Some features were distributed on 9.5mm film, but usually in a shortened form.  The El Telégrafo story quotes a Nov. 7, 2008 article in the Santiago daily, La Tercera as saying Cinemateca director Luis Horta confirmed to them that the print had been identified in 2006, after having been misfiled for decades.  Horta confessed they did not have the ability to project the obsolete format, but after the surprise 16mm find in Argentina the archive decided to send the print to Murnau-Stiftung, in Germany, for analysis.  The film had been in the collection for some time.  The bloody 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power was followed by a violent cultural purge.  Pedro Chaskel, the director of the university’s Cinemateca at the time, changed the labels of some films to prevent them from being destroyed by the military before he himself was purged. Apparently this copy of Metropolis was one of these films, though why it in particular would be endagered was not explained in the reports.  Chaskel became the director of the University of Chile in 2005, following the death of Pinochet.

To keep up with late-breaking developments and discussion by the world’s preeminent film scholars, I recommend keeping an eye on the email list of AMIA (the Association of Moving Image Archivists). The discussion already available includes first-hand accounts from the archivist who made the discovery.

Following below are a couple relevant posts to that list, and the entire text of the July 2, 2008 article from Die Zeit, the German newspaper that broke the news.

From AMIA-L:

Date: Thu, 3 Jul 2008 07:11:11 +0200
Sender: Association of Moving Image Archivists
From: Martin Koerber
Subject: Re: [AMIA-L] Is this news about METROPOLIS real or a hoax?

Dear all,

I was just about to put this link into a message, when Tom beat me to it.

Paula Felix-Didier of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires indeed came to Berlin last week to show us what she found, and it is the real thing, no hoax this time. The material is terribly banged up, being a 16 mm dupe negative made from a no longer extant nitrate print, which was duplicated some decades ago after many years of heavy use. Nevertheless one can now see the director’s cut of Metropolis, 80 years after we all believed the original version was destroyed. Contrary to our thinking, obviously at least one print of the original cut made it into distribution, albeit in Argentina.

Only one of the missing scenes (the monk in the cathedral) remains missing, because it happened to be at a reel end that got badly torn. The rest is there.

The images you will find at the links Tom gave will show you some scenes, and also expose the amount of damage. They look indeed a little worse than the real thing, as they are frame grabs from a DVD transfer of the dupe.

About 10 pages of information and frame enlargements from many more missing sequences are in the printed edition of DIE ZEIT, which is coming out today. I guess you can find this at the news stands in most countries in Europe, don’t know about the international edition overseas. Flip through it before you buy it, the articles about Metropolis are in the somewhat glossy “Zeit Magazin Leben” which comes with the paper. It will surely become a collector’s item.

Kudos to Paula Felix-Didiér and her initiative to unearth the material and share the information.

A lot of thinking is now necessary to find ways to incorporate this material into the existing restoration, released on DVD by Transit Film and Kino International, among others. It has titles and black leader where the missing parts once were so in principle one could just insert whatever is new at those inserts. The good news is that Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung intends to do just that once access to the material has been granted.

The critical edition of Metropolis on DVD, which Enno Patalas derived from the 2001 restoration in order to create a “full” version of Metropolis has even more information about the missing scenes, and has the option to fill the missing scenes with not only black leader, but information from the script and other sources. When ran in synch with the material found in Buenos Aires, it is amazing to see how everything falls into place now.

The critical edition can be found here:

Date: Fri, 4 Jul 2008 08:03:33 -0300
Sender: Association of Moving Image Archivists
From: Paula Felix-Didier
Subject: METROPOLIS, the Buenos Aires affair.

Hello everybody this is just a follow up on the Metropolis find. Most of what you probably want to know is already in Martin’s post. I can tell you a little bit more about how I suspected that the print I had was more than the usual American version.

I’m the Director of the Museo del Cine de Buenos Aires, and I’m also a film historian, and a graduate from the NYU moving image preservation program. It was indeed a great moment when we pulled out the print we held in the archive and we could see a few images we’ve never seen before. This 16mm dupe neg was sitting in the Museum vault since 1992. When I was appointed director of the museum this past January, I immediately went to check the reels because I had -ticking in my mind- a story that Fernando Pena, (historian, film collector, curator and more, who also happens to be my ex-husband) told me a few years ago: a projectionist told him that he would never forget the stupid Metropolis print that made him hold it with his finger throughout the 2 hour screening. Of course, the 2 hour thing tipped him off. So we really couldn’t wait to get hold of that print and make sure. It was only a matter of finding the cans and pulling out the reels and watch them against the light to realize that at least some of the missing scenes were there. I immediately made a transfer to dvcam and we screened it one morning to finally confirm that it was all there (I know, Martin, I know… the priest reading the Bible is still missing, but we can’t really complain, can we?)

Understandably, at first nobody believed me. This had happened before. People thinking they had what it turned out to be yet another butchered version. So only after I showed it to Martin Koerber, Enno Patalas, Reiner Rotha and the Murnau Stiftung people, and they were able to see it with their own eyes, the news could be confirmed.

There is more to this story but I won’t bore you with the details.. I also want to make very clear that I haven’t shown the complete film to anybody but the aformentioned people and I’m not planning on doing so since the Murnau Stiftung holds the rights for the film. The press got only a few seconds and some frame captures.

Saludos cordiales
Paula Felix-Didier
Museo del Cine “Pablo D. Hicken”
Buenos Aires – Argentina

From Die Zeit:

Key scenes rediscovered
Key scenes from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” have been rediscovered
July 2, 2008

Last Tuesday Paula Félix-Didier travelled on a secret mission to Berlin in order to meet with three film experts and editors from ZEITmagazin. The museum director from Buenos Aires had something special in her luggage: a copy of a long version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, including scenes believed lost for almost 80 years. After examining the film the three experts are certain: The find from Buenos Aires is a real treasure, a worldwide sensation. Metropolis, the most important silent film in German history, can from this day on be considered to have been rediscovered.

Fritz Lang presented the original version of Metropolis in Berlin in January 1927. The film is set in the futuristic city of Metropolis, ruled by Joh Fredersen, whose workers live underground. His son falls in love with a young woman from the worker’s underworld – the conflict takes its course. At the time it was the most expensive German film ever made. It was intended to be a major offensive against Hollywood. However the film flopped with critics and audiences alike. Representatives of the American firm Paramount considerably shortened and re-edited the film. They oversimplified the plot, even cutting key scenes. The original version could only be seen in Berlin until May 1927 — from then on it was considered to have been lost forever. Those recently viewing a restored version of the film first read the following insert: “More than a quarter of the film is believed to be lost forever.”

ZEITmagazin has now reconstructed the story of how the film nevertheless managed to survive. Adolfo Z. Wilson, a man from Buenos Aires and head of the Terra film distribution company, arranged for a copy of the long version of “Metropolis” to be sent to Argentina in 1928 to show it in cinemas there. Shortly afterwards a film critic called Manuel Peña Rodríguez came into possession of the reels and added them to his private collection. In the 1960s Peña Rodríguez sold the film reels to Argentina’s National Art Fund — clearly nobody had yet realised the value of the reels. A copy of these reels passed into the collection of the Museo del Cine (Cinema Museum) in Buenos Aires in 1992, the curatorship of which was taken over by Paula Félix-Didier in January this year. Her ex-husband, director of the film department of the Museum of Latin American Art, first entertained the decisive suspicion: He had heard from the manager of a cinema club, who years before had been surprised by how long a screening of this film had taken. Together, Paula Félix-Didier and her ex-husband took a look at the film in her archive — and discovered the missing scenes.

Paula Félix-Didier remembered having dinner with the German journalist Karen Naundorf and confided the secret to her. Félix-Didier wanted the news to be announced in Germany where Fritz Lang had worked — and she hoped that it would attract a greater level of attention in Germany than in Argentina. The author Karen Naundorf has worked for DIE ZEIT for five years — and let the editorial office of ZEITmagazin in on her knowledge.

Among the footage that has now been discovered, according to the unanimous opinion of the three experts that ZEITmagazin asked to appraise the pictures, there are several scenes which are essential in order to understand the film: The role played by the actor Fritz Rasp in the film for instance, can finally be understood. Other scenes, such as for instance the saving of the children from the worker’s underworld, are considerably more dramatic. In brief: “Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s most famous film, can be seen through new eyes.”, as stated by Rainer Rother, Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum and head of the series of retrospectives at the Berlinale.

Helmut Possmann, director of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, the holder of the rights to “Metropolis”, said to ZEITmagazin: “The material believed to be lost leads to a new understanding of the Fritz Lang masterpiece.” The Murnau Foundation now sees itself as “responsible, along with the archive in Buenos Aires and our partners for making the material available to the public.”

The rediscovered material is in need of restoration after 80 years; the pictures are scratched, but clearly recognizable. Martin Koerber, the restorer of the hitherto longest known version of “Metropolis”, who also examined the footage, said to ZEITmagazin: “No matter how bad the condition of the material may be, the original intention of the film, including all of its minor characters and subplots, is now once again tangible for the normal viewer. The rhythm of the film has been restored.”

And perhaps the scratches, which will probably remain even after restoration, will have an added advantage: The cinemagoer will be reminded of what an exciting history this great film has had.

Here are some additional stills from the Argentine footage, as posted to Ain’t It Cool News:

Program Notes for Georges Melies: Impossible Voyager

Last night’s Sprocket Society show at the Northwest Film ForumGeorges Méliès: Impossible Voyager — went really well, and we packed the house. Thanks to everyone who came (especially the young ‘uns). I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Unfortunately it was so well attended, we ran out of program booklets (sorry again, folks). So for those of who missed out, or are just interested passers-by, you can download a PDF of the full program notes (1.9mb – link updated) here or at the Sprocket Society site.

Thanks again to Climax Golden Twins for contributing their excellent live mix of 78s, to Dave Shepard at Film Preservation Associates for permission to read his translation of Méliès’ original narration for The Impossible Voyage, and to Mike Whybark for the loan of his vintage tux and tails.

Oh, one note of clarification in case anyone was wondering. One of the local papers said we were to play a recording of Méliès himself reading the narration. While this would have been wonderful, it was not the case and I’m not quite sure how the misunderstanding came about since it was not in the press release. I guess I wasn’t quite emphatic enough about the live performance aspect. Ah well.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no recordings of Méliès reading or performing any of his many narrations for his films. In the case of The Impossible Voyage in particular, Dave Shepard worked with a number of scholars from around the world to assemble and translate the narration from surviving texts. (I made a few minor edits of my own to smooth some phrasings.) When I spoke (briefly) with Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films about this general topic while at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last summer, he made no mention of any such recordings of Méliès but did say that the Cinémathèque Française had apparently published some as a book or booklet some years past.

Much more than this I don’t know. So I reckon I should poke around and see what I can learn about it, wot?

Special Georges Melies Film Program on May 15, 2008 at Northwest Film Forum

Poster for 'Georges Melies: Impossible Voyager' - May 15, 2008 at the Northwest Film Forum

Announcing a very special event co-presented by The Sprocket Society and the Northwest Film Forum

Special effects epics from 1901-1912

Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 8:00 PMOne show only!

At the Northwest Film Forum — 1515 12th Avenue (on Capital Hill at Pike)
(206) 329-2629

$8.50 general admission / $5 NWFF members / $6 kids under 12 & seniors
Advance tickets available online via

A special celebration of the mad filmic genius of Georges Méliès, the father of special effects, featuring rare 16mm film prints of his greatest sci-fi, fantasy and adventure epics…all presented with unusual musical accompaniment!


A rare presentation of The Impossible Voyage (1904) with a live performance of the original narration penned by Méliès himself plus music provided by Climax Golden Twins playing 78 rpm records on actual Victrolas, right there in the theater!


Six more great films, all presented with non-traditional musical recordings including free jazz by the Hal Russell NRG Ensemble, the Master Musicians of Jajouka, The Residents (in a special remix by Scott Colburn), demented Dada scat-jazz by Fred Lane, and more! Featuring…

  • A Trip to the Moon (1901) — rare extended version!
  • The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) — rare “complete” version!
  • The Palace of Arabian Nights (1905) — stunning acrobatic sets!
  • Paris to Monte Carlo (1905) — with hand-colored scenes!
  • The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) — beautifully tinted!
  • Conquest of the Pole (1912) — his last masterpiece in a (kinda) rare French version!

Learn more and see a bunch of photos, including rare behind-the-scenes shots and production drawings, at the Sprocket Society web site. You can also download the official press release (PDF, 112kb).

Hope to see you there… A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

(Poster design by Brian Alter.)

(This program is not affiliated with Flicker Alley, though I encourage you to check out their new Méliès DVD box set!)

Comprehensive Melies Box Set Released

Cover of Flicker Alley's 'Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema' box set.Flicker Alley has just released Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913), a monumental five DVD box set that gathers 173 of the puckish master’s 500-plus films, from his very first to his very last — dang near every one known to survive today. In all, more than 13 hours of beautiful pioneering cinema.

Needless to say, I consider this a must-have for all cinephiles, and especially for sci-fi and fantasy fans; every bit as important as the massive Edison box set released a couple years ago. I recommend ordering directly from Flicker Alley (scroll down for the commerce buttons) — shipping is included in the price, there’s no sales tax, and the money will go directly to the folks responsible with no cut plucked by a middleman. (And anyway, Amazon isn’t offering its customary discount.)

By the way: we at The Sprocket Society are presenting an upcoming screening of Melies’ greatest epics with film prints accompanied by unconventional musical selections, and even the original live narration for one of the films. Georges Melies: Impossible Voyager shows on Thurs. May 15 at 8 PM at the Northwest Film Forum. (The screening is not affiliated with Flicker Alley, and the timing is purely coincidental, albeit fortuitous — I’d heard this set was in the works but had no idea when it would be released.)

Producing the set are Eric Lange of Lobster Films in France and David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates (FPA). You could not have asked for better stewards of such a project: FPA owns the old Blackhawk Films catalog, which released many Melies films to the pre-VHS home film market on Super 8 and 16mm. It’s pretty much thanks to Blackhawk that you and I have been able to see any of this stuff for the last 30 or 40 years. And Lobster is justly lauded for their preservation work in general, and is more’s to the point is responsible for the recovery in recent years not only of hitherto lost Melies films, but treasures such as elongated and long-lost hand-colored prints of well-known classics like A Trip to the Moon and Conquest of the Pole.

The collection was compiled from archives in eight countries (among them the Academy Archives, the British Film Institute, and various private collections) and includes many spectacular new restorations, some reportedly newly pieced together from fragmentary prints for this project. The set includes examples not only of Méliès’ countless trick films and fantasy spectaculars, but also his actualities, recreations of historic events (foreshadowing future newsreels), and even some of his erotic films (or at least erotic for the time). Also included, since it’s pretty much required of such a thing, is Georges Franju’s loving 1953 tribute, Le Grand Méliès, starring André Méliès as his father. A booklet is also included, with writings by the great animator Norman McLaren and scholar John Frazer, author of the excellent (and best) Melies study, Artificially Arranged Scenes (1979) — which is sadly long out of print and, worse, rare as hen’s teeth.

An especially wonderful aspect of this set is the fact that thirteen of the films are presented with English renditions of Melies’ original narrations, which he usually performed personally. (This is particularly welcome for some films which otherwise make little or no sense, such as The Good Sheperdess And The Evil Princess from 1908.) These narrative texts have been the Grail for Melies fans and scholars — their inclusion here is a major contribution to cinema history in itself.

Here in Seattle, Scarecrow Video already has a copy for rent (though you’ll have to wait until I return it in a few days). Today, I’m a kid in a candy store and my dream has come true. “Thanks, Santa!! Now about that lottery thing I keep mentioning…”

Some Early Reviews

Three Animation Must-Sees at the Children’s Film Festival: Prince Achmed and Will Vinton (Twice)

The Northwest Film Forum’s third annual Children’s Film Festival is now underway (running through Feb. 3) and, as always, is chock full of great stuff from all over the world for everyone to enjoy, regardless of birth date. But I thought I should call a couple things in particular to your attention.

Note that you can buy advance tickets online for any screening at the Children’s Film Festival via the Brown Paper Tickets site.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

A collage of tinted stills from 'The Adventures of Price Achmed' (1926)

As I write this, you have only two more chances to catch this: Thursday, Jan. 31 at 8 PM and Sunday, Feb. 1 and 1 PM. And you absolutely must catch it for so many reasons. One, it’s an absolute masterpiece. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is probably the first feature-length animated film ever made. But it’s very, very far from being mere film school castor oil — as you might can tell from the images above, it’s also easily among the most beautiful animated films ever made, especially in its original tinted presentation as is being shown at the festival. Working in stop-motion-animation, filmmaker Lotte Reiniger’s incredibly detailed, layered, cut-out silhouettes have to be seen to be believed. It is absolutely magical (as befitting its story source), evoking a parallel universe every bit as enveloping, sensuous and psychedelic as those crafted by Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet decades later.

Two, they’re showing a pristine 35mm tinted print! This is an incredibly rare opportunity to see this remarkable film in its fully-restored glory that no DVD or HD-TV will ever do justice to.

Third, it is being presented with a specially-commissioned score performed live by its composers, Miles and Karina. There is little better in this world than seeing a masterpiece of silent cinema shown with live accompaniment. Well okay, yeah, sex is (usually) better…but don’t tell the kids (yet).

Please, please, please do yourself a favor and make a point of seeing this film during this engagement.

Will Vinton on the History of Claymation and 3-D Animation

Once only: Saturday, Feb. 2 at 1 PM
Tickets at the door: $10 NWFF members / $12 General Public

A still from Will Vinton's 'The Legacy' (1979)

These days Will Vinton is, alas, probably best known for commercials featuring singing raisins and talking candy. But when he’s not making rent (actually, even when he is), Will is one of the great animation talents of film history — and a program of his earlier work is mentioned below. But this event is a rare chance to hear the tale from the master’s own lips…and you’d be a fool to miss it.

With clips from different stages of development that led to the creation of Will Vinton Studios and to the popularity of computer animation, Will Vinton will share his personal odyssey of film projects as it relates to the growth of all forms of 3D animation. Key developments include: 1) experimentation and clay, 2) perfecting Claymation, 3) characterization and digital tools, 4) getting back to 3D animation’s roots.

Animated Genius: Films of Will Vinton

Only one chance left to see this, but Mr. Vinton will be in attendance: Saturday, Feb. 2 at 3 PM.

A still from Will Vinton's 'The Creation' (1981)

A program of Vinton’s earlier short Claymation films, many of them rarely screened:

Legacy (1979, 7 min)
The Creation (1981, 9 min)
Mountain Music (1976, 9 min)
A Christmas Gift (1980, 8 min)
Rip Van Winkle (1978, 27 min)

Not many filmmakers kick off their careers by winning an Academy Award (for Closed Mondays). Even fewer go on to breathe life into characters that become icons of animation. Fewer still achieve stunning commercial success with inventions like the California Raisins and M&M’s “Red & Yellow.” Will Vinton has done all that, in addition to founding and managing one of the most respected animation studios in history, Will Vinton Studios. Join us for this retrospective of early films by Will Vinton, and you’ll see why this boundlessly energetic and creative animator from Portland went on to win virtually every film and television award given to filmmakers. Northwest Film Forum is proud to salute Will Vinton — a world renowned Claymation pioneer who has created some of the most innovative animation in history, and who continues to break new ground under the banner of his new company, Freewill Entertainment.

British Filmmakers Who Met on the Square

The always worthwhile blog The Bioscope recently posted about The Amina Lodge, “a British freemasonry lodge for those in the film business” which was established in 1912 and lasted, it seems, until at least 1962. Needless to say, this is unexplored history.

The post sports an extensive list of members (founding and subscribing), a number of whom were some of the biggest names in early British cinema, including no less than American transplant Charles Urban (whose unfinished memoirs, A Yank in Britain, are available from bookseller The Projection Box in the UK — said bookseller’s catalog you are commended to explore at length forthwith, crappy exchange rate notwithstanding.)

Those with any additional information — or interested access to the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in London — are encouraged to communicate.

Pordenone Festival Catalog Entry on the 1897 Middle East Films

For further background, please see my previous posts here, here, and here.

Following is the official English translation from pages 120-121 of the catalog for the 2007 Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). I have added a few links where relevant; comments in [bracketed italics] are my own. The full bilingual (Italian/English) catalog can be downloaded from the Pordenone web site (PDF, 2.9 mb).

Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange are the co-directors of Lobster Films in Paris. David Shepard is president of Film Preservation Associates in California which, among other things, owns the old Blackhawk Films collection.

Bible Land Films

This is the story of a cinema miracle — which is also still a mystery. All we have are a few clues pointing towards an explanation. In March 2007, one can of film, with the name “Collection ELGE”, appeared in the window of an antique shop. With the kind complicity of Sabine Lenk, we went behind the window, and in the shop we found 93 small rolls of Edison-perforation 35mm nitrate camera negative, some in ELGE cans, others in Lumière cans. The shrinkage was greater than 6%, but the rolls were not decomposed. And on the first frames of each were written in India ink such amazing titles as Baydar Nazareth, Fontaine à Bethléem (Fountain in Bethlehem), Panorama de Tibériade, and Jésus en Croix (Jesus on the Cross).

The rolls bear numbers from 1 to 203 (many are missing), and those recovered include films rejected due to technical defects. We brought them to the Haghefilm Conservation laboratory, where they were printed onto 35mm fine grain positives, allowing further identification. They are proving one of our most exciting and important discoveries.

At this writing, some films and locations remain unidentified. Most of the negatives have small perforations with square corners, as do most Gaumont films from 1897 to 1903; however, some of those with the highest numbers have perforations with beveled corners.

A Lumiere film tin, containing Lumiere single-perf film.The dozen films in Lumière cans reminded us that as of 1897 Lumière was selling Edison-perforated film. The cans indicating technical rejects reminded us of Gaumont’s unusual trading process. Before 1900, Gaumont provided independent cameramen with raw stock and equipment, in return for the right of first refusal to purchase whatever they photographed. The rejected films remained the cameraman’s property. This explains why the first Gaumont catalogues contain films made by Georges Hatot, Albert Londe, or P. Gers.

In his 1925 book, Histoire du Cinématographe des origines à nos jours, film veteran Georges-Michel Coissac, director of the religious publishing house Maison de la Bonne Presse, names another 19th century cameraman who provided films to Gaumont: the mysterious Albert Kirchner. We know very little about him, but we do know that in 1896, Kirchner, professionally known also as Léar, made religious lantern slides for Masion de la Bonne Presse, as the French Catholic church was very interested in visual education at this time. Léar also filmed for pioneer filmmaker-producer Eugène Pirou the striptease from Louise Willy’s stage play Le Coucher de la mariée (The Marriage Bed), and probably many other erotic and risqué films, and, with Father Bazile, made knock-off versions of such popular Lumière films as L’arroseur arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled / Watering the Gardener [watch it on YouTube]), La bataille d’oreillers (Pillow Fight), and so forth.

We also know that in January 1897 Albert Kirchner filed a patent for a camera called the “Biographe Français Léar”. One of these instruments may still be seen in the collection of the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. Amateur versions of the Biographe Français Léar were produced and sold by Léar (as well as by Jules Demaria under the name “Pygmalion”). That same year, Léar claimed two other camera patents, although these seem never to have been produced, and established a partnership with Paul Anthelme, a former agent of Pirou, and a Mr. Pacon, a wealthy printer. In the spring of 1897 Kirchner/Léar left for Palestine with Father Bailly, a priest who would supervise the religious aspects of the first life of Christ to be filmed on location.

Coissac’s book and Stephen Bottomore’s entry on Léar in Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, edited by Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan, indicate that in early 1897 Léar and Father Bailly photographed many films in the Holy Land, among them perhaps the first motion pictures taken in Egypt, Palestine, and today’s Israel. Coissac names a few titles: Vues du Caire (Views of Cairo), Débarquement à Jaffa (Embarking at Jaffa), Entrée des pèlerins dans la ville Sainte (Pilgrims in the Old Section). Coissac added that as Gaumont obtained 35mm cameras only in November 1897 (their previous output was on 60mm), they decided by the very end of that year to buy all the Kirchner/Léar negatives, to be able to provide 35mm films as quickly as possible. In the Gaumont catalogue of 1898, we find views of Cairo, Jerusalem, and the Holy Sepulchre (also included among our negatives). Actually, Léar also took a lot of other views, probably intended for sale to Pathé and other companies.

Among the films shot by Léar we find Les dernières cartouches (The Last Cartridges), number 93 in the Gaumont catalogue; not far from that number, 56 to 67 are views of Cairo and Palestine. Were all of these Léar films? Here’s another clue: on some of our films, we see at the edge of the frame, or for a few seconds, the silhouette of a priest. Could this be Father Bailly?

Among the films we discovered are complete episodes of a Passion du Christ (Life of Christ), including variant takes for some tableaux. In the summer of 1897, Léar, in collaboration with Coissac, completed his Passion by photographing more scenes in Paris, with actors from a tableau vivant version.

This first film version of the Gospel story was widely shown. In February 1898 it formed part of an illustrated lecture given by the Rev. Thomas Dixon, the future author of The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, upon which D. W. Griffith based The Birth of a Nation. That same year, Léar opened a short-lived cinema in the basement of the Olympia theatre in Paris, and it seems that he also sold his negatives to Gaumont, which would explain the ELGE cans now in our collection.

The end of Kirchner’s life also remains a mystery. Another famous cinema veteran, René Bunzli, writes in the margin of his copy of Coissac’s book that Léar died in an asylum shortly afterwards. But if so, who was running the firm Léar & Company in Cairo, which was prosecuted in 1901 for exporting pornographic pictures to Europe? So many questions, for one sure fact: if our conjectures are wrong, these films remain an unsolved mystery.


Some Speculation Concerning Father Bailly

As noted above, a “Father Bailly” accompanied Albert Kirchner on his trip to Palestine in order to “supervise the religious aspects” of the filming of scenes from Christ’s life. Perhaps if this priest could be identified, further clues about these films might be found even through some tangential, non-cinema archive or reference.

As we’ve seen, Kirchner was associated with Masion de la Bonne Presse, which was founded by the Augustinians of the Assumption (aka the Assumptionists). According to Wikipedia, Father Emmanuel Bailly served as superior general from 1903-1917. I theorize this may be the “Father Bailly” referred to above.
It is apparent that this Father Bailly was a traveler, as I found Google references to letters he sent to France from Rome in the late 1800s. According to this web page (which I auto-translated using Google Translate) in 1900 a “Father Bailly” led a congregation of French Assumptionists on an Easter pilgrammage to Nazareth in Palestine, where he apparently gave a powerful sermon (if that’s the correct term to use). I’m only guessing, of course, but it seems probable to me that this was Emmanuel Bailly — if he was prominent enough in the order to become the superior general three years later, it seems likely that he would be entrusted to lead an Easter pilgrammage to far Palestine. This suggests (barely) that he may have traveled there previously…perhaps with Monsieur Kirchner/Léar.

My online research is greatly hampered by the fact that I can’t read French. But I can’t help but wonder if the archives of Bayard Presse (the antecedent of Maison de la Bonne Presse) or an Assumptionist order in France might hold any further clues about the 1897 film expedition that could perhaps positively identify the films recovered by Lobster Films?

More on Lobster Films’ Rescued 1897 Movies of the Middle East

As I’ve noted previously (here and here [with stills]), early in 2007 Lobster Films in Paris recovered 93 reels of previously unknown actuality and dramatic footage from various locations in the Middle East, notably Jerusalem and other locales in Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey. Lobster co-founder Serge Bromberg reported that despite their age and the fact they are, of course, on volatile nitrate film stock, the precious films evinced “not a scratch, [and] no decomposition”.

To say these films are of enormous historical importance is definitely an understatement.

Prints of a number of the motion pictures restored by Lobster Films were premiered during the 2007 Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), held October 6-13 in Italy, in a program entitled “Incunabula: Bible Land Films” (“Incunabula: film dai paesi biblici”). The films of Turkey were not shown.

I was not able to attend the festival, a source of nearly physical pain for me — besides these films, there were no less than 8 films by René Clair (including a screening of À propos de Nice accompanied by freakin’ Michael Nyman), 4 films by Georges Méliès recently rediscovered in Barcelona, a presentation by no less than John Canemaker on the life of Winsor McCay, an extensive retrospective of films by master animator Ladislas Starewitch, and about a gazillion other things I’d give my eyeteeth to have attended. But I digress and wallow…

Precious little information about the newly-rescued 1897 Middle East films is known, even less is (so far) available. So much so (is that a paradox?) that one professor of film studies who actually attended the festival contact me for information. While most (and humbly) flattering, I’m afraid I was not much help.

Even two weeks after the screening at Pordenone, Google reveals almost nothing of substance. Thus far, the only worthwhile discussion I’ve come across is a post to the excellent Bioscope blog run by Luke McKernan, who attended the festival and posted a daily diary while there. But I do not intend to damn with faint praise: McKernan’s post is chock full of wonderful information. (It should be noted that he also co-edited, with Stephen Herbert, the absolutely essential book Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema [BFI, 1996], which I simply cannot recommend too highly. The companion web site reproduces, I do believe, all of the entries in the book — a remarkable move which I applaud them for. I refer to both resources constantly.)

And so, in the interest of further propagating precious information (and my own archiving), I am posting an extended excerpt from Mr. McKernan’s post on the subject. Links within the excerpt below are from the original post unless otherwise noted. Comments in [italicized brackets] are mine, but the post is not otherwise altered. Many thanks to Luke for posting this!

(The catalog/program for the 2007 Pordenone Silent Film Festival can be downloaded from the official web site [PDF, 2.9 MB].)

Update: I have posted the catalog’s entry about the films.

Pordenone diary – day five
By “urbanora” (Luke McKernan)
The Bioscope (blog)
October 15, 2007

In March [sic?: my understanding is it was in February] of this year, someone spotted a small can of film in an antique shop window. It had the words ‘Collection ELGE’ on the can, indicating a Gaumont film (from the letters L.G. for Léon Gaumont [link added]). The discovery came to the attention of film historian Sabine Lenk, who in turn alerted Lobster Films of Paris, specialists in early film and inspired discoverers of the extraordinary. What lay within the antique shop, however, hinted at being their most exceptional discovery yet. There were ninety-three cans in the shop, the owner apologising that they were only negatives (!). They were Edison-perforation 35mm, some in ELGE cans, some in Lumière cans, with some shrinkage but little decomposition. And they appeared to date from 1897.

Films very rarely turn up these days from the 1890s, and when they do they tend to be in ones and twos. For ninety-three to emerge in one go is practically unprecedented. And there there was their subject matter. Handwritten titles on the opening frames indicated films taken in Nazareth and Bethlehem, and dramatised scenes of the life of Christ. Before a single film had been printed or viewed, it was clear that here was a truly major discovery.

Seven months on, and amazingly the collection was ready for exhibition at Pordenone. Inevitably enough, this being a collection of early, non-fiction films, the Verdi [theater] was less than full for this historic premiere. So there were folks who preferred their cappuccino to witnessing the most remarkable discovery of the festival, but more fool them. The rest of us heard an introduction from Serge Blomberg of Lobster, who said that the rolls of film bore number 1 to 203, with many missing. The films we were to see came from Palestine and Egypt. Other titles showing scenes in Turkey would be shown at a later date.

And so to the films. They were one-minute or so each in length, actualities of life in the Bible lands (as Lobster have labelled the films), very much in the Lumière style. Indeed, the films showed the sort of studied composition and coherent action encompassed within the frame and completed within the film’s duration that characterises Lumière productions. Some had two shots, some featured camera movement [unusual for the time]. They were all in superb condition. We saw camel drivers, a snake charmer (whose cobras tried to escape into nearby bushes and were hauled back, not best pleased), children dancing in front of the ruins at Luxor, street vendors in Cairo, an Arab street funeral procession, a funfair (illustrated above) with swings pulled by ropes and a mini ‘big’ wheel, women drummers, men dancing, men and women making bricks, women preparing food, a panning shot of the Kedron Valley, women sowing seeds on horse-drawn ‘carts’ (they looked like sleds) outside Nazareth, and many more such scenes. Perhaps most impressive were the two or three films showing the shadouf being operated, the human-powered (usually child-powered) irrigation system with a bucket and a counterweighted arm. These were scenes that had gone on from centuries, millennia even, and here was the motion picture capturing them — in 1897 (or thereabouts), when in truth they could have been scenes from any time.

Following the actualities, we had the dramatic films. There were scenes from two lives of Christ — or at least, filmed in different locations. The first was clearly filmed in Palestine, presumably in Nazareth and Bethlehem themselves. These were brief scenes from the birth and childhood of Christ, extraordinarily featuring an Arab (Christianised?) Joseph and Mary. The Adoration of the Shepherds and then the Magi (not much difference between the two) took place by some steps, with a rough authenticity unlike any Nativity film you ever saw. Mary wore a large white shawl that covered much of her face. We saw further scenes with this couple, Mary on a donkey, the rest on the flight to Egypt, Mary breastfeeding her child, the toddler Jesus’s first steps (not a scene I remember from the Bible).

And then the backgrounds changed. The scenery became wooded, without buildings, and Mary, Joseph and Jesus (a young girl) were now played by white performers, with attitudes and iconography far closer to the conventional. These scenes appear to have been filmed in France, but they continued to surprise. We had an Annunciation scene with an angel Gabriel suddenly appearing (a trick effect unlikely to be as early as 1897), Joseph working at his carpentry, someone dropping a pot which the child Jesus then magically mended, Joseph rowing Mary and Jesus across a river, young girls dressed as angels joining Mary and Jesus. Most astonishing was the film where the child Jesus carried a cross, placed it upon the ground, and then lay down upon it. Then is some precedent for this sort of intimation of the future on the part of the child Jesus in the Western art tradition, but it was still a mind-boggling feat of the imagination.

So who made these films, and how saw them? Although there is not certain evidence as yet, the most likely candidate is Albert Kirchner, also known as Léar. Kirchner was a French photographer and likely producer of risqué postcards, who is first recorded as having made a striptease film, Le Coucher de la Marie, with Eugène Pirou in 1896. Unblushingly moving from pornography to religion, Kirchner teamed up with a Catholic priest and educationalist, Father Bazile, to make short comedy films. In Spring 1897 he set off with one Father Bailly to film in Egypt and Palestine, returning to France to film a twelve-scene Life of Christ with Michel Coissac (a future film historian who wrote about this episode). This was the first-ever Life of Christ to be filmed, and it enjoyed huge popularity — the Reverend Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman on which D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation would be based, exhibited it in America in 1898 — and was much imitated. Kirchner’s films were bought up by Gaumont, and some can be found listed in Gaumont catalogues. He then disappears from the historical record, but he may have died soon afterwards.

There was much excited discussion among the early film enthusiasts after the screening (there aren’t many of us who get wildly enthused by 1890s films, but we’re a dedicated breed). It seems unlikely that all the films date from 1897, given some of the sophisticated techniques on view at times, and we may have seen films produced by different hands. And so many questions. Why the two lives of Christ? Were the ‘authentic’ scenes shown in France, rejected by audiences, and scenes more in keeping with Western taste shot in their place? Or were the two lives really one and meant to be shown together, despite the changes in performers and costumes? Were the actuality scenes meant to be integrated with the dramatised scenes? We know that the films — assuming they are Kirchner’s — were popular, but what exactly did audiences see? It is only a few months since this extraordinary collection was discovered, and there is still a huge amount to be discovered. What is certain is that a gap in the history books needs to be filled, and we have a collection of views of life in Palestine and Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century which will not only excite the historians but enrich generations to come. [Remainder of original post omitted.]