Sunday, September 29, 2013

Das Eskimobaby

In the annals of real and purported "Eskimos" on screen, there may well be no stranger depiction than that given by Asta Nielsen in Heinz Schall's 1916 film, Das Eskimobaby. Neilsen, known for her ability to delivery quirky performances, outdoes herself here as a Greelandic Eskimo, "Ivigtut," suddenly transported from her native land to Berlin, where the explorer who brought her there treats her as some exotic specimen. It's a riff on the old "civilizing the native" trope that had already become a movie staple, but Nielsen's furious resistance to civilization and all it represents makes for some manic scenes. She doesn't understand mirrors (of course) is repulsed by beards, beds, and western clothing, and refuses to shed her fur pants for a formal gathering. The film survives, and has been released by Edition Filmmuseum as part of their Four films with Asta Nielsen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


The impact of the original Batman television series on kids in the early 1960's would be hard to overstate. The first 45 rpm record I ever bought was the Batman theme song, and I persuaded my next door neighbor, a professional sign painter, to paint a sign for my tree fort that read "Bat Man House This Way" (I was disappointed, though, when he deliberately misspelled some words and painted it in a 'kiddie' font). These kinds of things are hard to measure, or record, but this photo from the Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University comes close; here are some kids, dressed in their Sunday best, who have taken up residence in a Bat-cave of their own, with a chalked-up logo and a hole in the floor for extra Bat-realism. If I could have known where in Cleveland these kids were, I'd have wanted to join their club!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Geographica Incognita

One of my favorite genres of writing is what might be loosely categorized as facetiæ -- writings which pretend to be something, complete with all its apparatus, but are in fact something else. The genre goes back at least as far as Lucian's True History, and this sense of the word "history" -- as in The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling -- evokes perfectly the form I love most. My novel Pyg is cast in much the same mold.

Some years before that, though, my friend and colleague Jon Hauss and I wrote a shorter text of this kind, giving it the impressive title Geographica Incognita -- "Unknown Geography." It was, like its source texts (Poe's "Descent into a Maelstrom," "MS. Found in a Bottle," and the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), framed as a quite serious study, though one undertaken with playful purposes. Jon and I dubbed it a "collapseration." And the editors of the New Orleans Review quite liked it, and published in in 1999 in an issue which is now, happily, available online for free.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Girl and her Dog, 30 Years Later

When I posted the image of Labradorean Inuit celebrity Nancy Columbia and her dog at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, the post got quite a lot of views. Miss Columbia was indeed, as my friend Kenn Harper has aptly said, the "most famous Inuk in the world," the star of stage and screen (she wrote and appeared in "The Way of the Eskimo," produced by Selig Polyscope in 1911). But by the time this photo was taken sometime in the 1930's she'd married, had a daughter, and retired almost completely from public appearances; indeed, this may have been her last. By this time, she was living in the Santa Monica area in Los Angeles, and the photos above -- staged on a backdrop with a little "snow" on it -- appears to have come from some dog show; it's part of a sequence of dog show photos on glass plates that were part of the Security Pacific Bank Collection, and which are today -- happily -- available to the public via the digital photo collections of the Los Angeles Public Library, where I was able to help them identify the photo's subject in 2010. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

From Nightclubs to Christ

Dr. Jack Van Impe was certainly an impassioned preacher in his younger days -- so impassioned that at several points on this early recording he's completely overcome with zeal, and the words seem to tumble from his mouth faster than he can assemble them into sense. The best segments here are his rants against  Rock music, which he declares is "more dangerous than heroin, LSD, or any drug you can name." There's a comparison to Pavlov's dogs ("the beat means eat!") and a warning that by 1973 this "dirty, lascivious, filthy rock mucic" will have kids "committing sex openly on the street." It was a DJ sampling classic for ages, and was used by (among others) Rage Against the Machine, DJ Shadow, and Pizzaman (the last of whom hired an actor to lip-synch the reverend's lines in his video). The LP is long out of print, and clips are still surprisingly hard to find online (doubtless Van Impe and his current ministries are not pleased), but at least one long segment is on YouTube.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Masonic Insurance

Back in the 1920's, insurance companies offered a variety of special plans to members of fraternal organizations -- the Odd Fellows, the Elks, the Moose, and of course the Masons -- at a discounted rate. On the theory that these memberships constituted a pool of respectable and less risk-prone sorts, these policies went for as little as $2.00 a year, as in the advertisement above from a Masonic magazine. There were just a few disqualifiers -- 'fits and disorders of the brain' -- but these were to be self-reported, again on the theory that those who belonged to such social fraternities were more likely to be honest. Some of the companies established for this purpose, like Acacia, went on to become large insurance companies for the general public; there's an interesting history of Masonic insurance available here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Alice Guy Goes North

Watching the first episode of Mark Cousins's Story of Film on TCM, I was glad to see him credit the pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché as the person to very nearly invent the idea of a story arc. A number of the films she made for Gaumont are readily available on DVD from Kino Lorber, but very her early American films, produced for Solax with her husband Herbert are much less well-known. The Blachés were innovators not only in story lines, but in portraying such things as the struggles of immigrants or the everyday life of an African-American family, that many studios didn't think were screenworthy. And here, in an advert from 1911, is another genre-busting film; more than a decade before Nanook of the North, the Blachés tackled Arctic exploration as a film subject. The movie, alas, is not known to have survived, but it was probably filmed in Saranac Lake, New York, at a film 'camp' established by champion dog-musher Caribou Bill Cooper; Cooper's "Arctic Film Company" rented out its sets and dog-teams for all manner of early "Northern" films.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rescuing Balto

Most people still know something of the story Balto, the Siberian Husky who led his dog team on the crucial final link of the serum run to Nome, Alaska in 1925. And yet, despite the engaging animated version of Balto's life, and its (forgettable) sequels, few realize that, within a year or two after his heroic feat, Balto himself needed rescuing -- from a dime museum where he was confined, ill-treated, and exploited by a showman in search of that "one thin dime" from his customers. As news of Balto's situation spread, the good people of Cleveland, Ohio stepped up with a "Balto fund" that collected enough money to buy him and six of his companions from the museum and install him in permanent, comfortable home at the city's zoo. Balto's arrival was heralded by a parade on March 19, 1927, which was well-attended despite the rain. Balto lived out his years in comfort with top veterinary care; after his death in 1933, his remains were taxidermied and placed in a case at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History -- where they may still be seen today. You can read more about Balto's life and career here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The American Woman is Becoming Ugly

Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries
Ugly is as ugly does -- and there were few characters on the lecture circuit in the 1920's and 1930's uglier than Dr. Albert Wiggan. Wiggan was a tireless lecturer and advocate for "eugenics" -- the word comes from the Greek for "good genes" -- the now long-since discredited pseudoscience which used spurious and vague notions of ability and "imbecility" to cook up evidence that immigration, "race mixing," and poor people having large families were a threat to the future of the human race. The image above comes from a pamphlet promoting his lectures on the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit, a popular, barnstorming tent full of lecturers that packed them in from coast to coast.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On bokes for to rede

This stray leaf -- all that remains of a copy of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night -- is from the library of my grandfather Scot Butler Clarke. It was presented to him by Hiram College professor John S. Kenyon, chair of the English department. Perhaps it was a prize for some scholarly achievement; perhaps a personal gift (my great-grandfather Elbert was a math professor at Hiram for many years, and all of his children went there). The quote on the bookplate is Chaucer, of course, from the Prologue to his Legend of Good Women, and the fragment has two more leaves, the first stating "The Riverside Shakespeare," and the second with a copperplate engraving of the Middle Temple Hall -- which still stands -- and where Twelfth Night was first performed in 1602.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Doan's Corners

It was once one of the best-known intersections in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Today, it's just a faceless, generic corner of the Cleveland Clinic's "campus," which has wiped out the historical character and community of a large chunk of Cleveland's East Side. But thanks to the digital collections at the Cleveland Public Library, we can catch a few glimpses of its storied history. Established when Nathaniel Doan erected a tavern at the site in 1799, it remained a hub for Cleveland's growth for nearly two centuries. The photo above is from 1929, the height of the 'roaring' twenties; the pillars of the Cleveland Trust bank at the left are about to be shaken, and the lunch counters (Chapin's on the right, Clark's on the left) replaced by soup kitchens; now it was known as 105th and Euclid. By the 1970's and '80's when I first knew this area, it had become a rundown but lively zone of second-run cinemas, X-rated dance clubs, and wig shops. The indefatigable Winston Willis, who eventually owned most of the block, fought for years to keep the Cleveland Clinic at bay, but eventually lost his last appeal, and every remaining building in this photograph was demolished.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Soul of Edgar A. Poe

From The Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 25, 1860
Faithful followers of this blog will have read some weeks ago of the curious case of the stolen "Ultima Thule" Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, and of its likely thief, the "comic songster" Ossian Euclid Dodge. Mr. Dodge, though not a young man, headed west, and set up a music shop in Cleveland, Ohio, on Euclid Avenue, a thoroughfare whose name must have gratified his ego. While there, he permitted his purloined photograph to be copied, as well as used as the subject of a portrait in oils of Poe by the painter and sculptor William Walcutt. Alas, Walcutt's painting too has become lost over the intervening epoch, along with his reputation -- aside from a few scattered references in the press of his day, there are few of his works in museums today, and even the date of his death -- 1882 or 1895 -- is uncertain. His one remaining work of note is the Perry Monument in Cleveland.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lady Godiva Twice Daily

The theatrical tradition of 'tableaux vivants' (living pictures) or "poses plastiques" is a long one. They could be perfectly wholesome, with everyone attired in period costumes or tastefully draped in robes or togas -- or, if everyone stood still, one could do without the drapery. Since no-one moved, it was technically not theatre, and therefore outside the legal purview of the Master of the Revels (later the Lord Chamberlain) -- a detail which was used, many years later, by Mrs. Henderson to launch her "Windmill Theatre," a history lovingly re-created for the film Mrs. Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench. This handbill dates back to the 1830's, at which time Mrs. Henderson's pre-Victorian precedent, Madame Warton, was offering her personations of Lady Godiva (not to mention Venus, Sappho, and Diana!) in her own exhibition hall, dubbed "Walhalla," in Savile House in Leicester Square.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

3D Movies in 1922

3D film technology is always touted as the "latest," and although most have some idea of the earlier era of 3D film in the 1950's with its paper and cellophane glasses and tendency toward horror films (think Vincent Price in House of Wax), few realize that the earliest 3D movies were shown in 1922. One system, known as "Teleview," was invented by Laurens Hammond and installed in the Selwyn Theatre in New York. It used two projectors, one showing  only the frames from a right-eye perspective, one from the left; cinema-goers sat behind "televiewers" which were electronically synchronized to the frames and blocked out the opposite eye automatically. It was a bulky and expensive setup, and never made it as a commercial proposition -- and yet, remarkably, its basic principle is exactly the same as the latest 3D television today. For more detail about Teleview, see Daniel Symmes's archived site, "The Chopper." Although Hammond's system wasn't a commercial success, he went on to invent what's arguably the most durable and distinctive electronic keyboard of all time: the Hammond organ.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Eidophusikon

Of all the curious eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual technologies claiming to replicate the appearance of nature -- the Diorama, the Panorama, the Moving Panorama, or the Theatre of Arts -- the Eidophusikon perhaps came closest. First shown in London's Leicester Square by the painter Philip James de Loutherborg in 1781, it was a complex apparatus, and much of its mechanism remains a subject of dispute and conjecture. Like Daguerre's later Diorama, it employed subtle lighting effects and colored filters; like Thiodon's Theatre of Arts it had miniature boats and human figures that moved by some subtle mechanism; like the moving Panorama, some of its scenery moved on rolls or scrolls. There have been many attempts to re-create it; I saw one not-terribly-successful one at the Yale Center for British Art some years ago; its over-reliance on plexiglass was a problem, I thought. A far more ambitious version was achieved by a small group at the Asutralian National University in 2005; the video of this recreation is a must-see for any enthusiasts of old media. There's also a brilliant page from the New Model Theatre showing the steps they take in construction (they've built several).

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Optigan: An Optical Disc from 1971

Like its cousin the Mellotron, the Optigan was an organ that used pre-recorded instrumental sounds to provide automated melody or back-up lines to the player -- the novelty was its use of optically-recorded discs, which borrowed the technology developed decades earlier for optical soundtracks on film. Although sold by a subsidiary of toy company Mattel, it was definitely not a toy; it was relatively expensive, and heavy too. I know this because one was left in the basement of my house; the tubes and other electronics were housed in the pedal assembly, which must have weighed at least thirty pounds. I'm embarrassed to admit that, not knowing what it was at the time, I left it on the curb -- hopefully some electronics enthusiast recognized what a treasure it was; all I know is, it was gone the next morning. Months later, I found one of the optical discs in the basement next to where the organ had been -- you can hear what this and other discs sounded like at the Optigan website.