A day at the archives… The Kirk Douglas Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society

James Fenwick, University of the West of England

16 October 2018


It was the height of summer in the USA when I arrived in Madison, WI and, apparently, the height of hazing ceremonies on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus. As I stepped off of the Van Galder coach that had brought me from Chicago to Madison and headed onto State Street I was greeted by a gaggle of students running past me naked and chanting some fraternity anthem. I took refuge in a nearby coffee shop, somewhat bemused. It reeked of patchouli inside (just like everywhere in downtown Madison did) and the radio hammered out classic British rock like Ten Years After and The Groundhogs (like every café in Madison seemed to do). “First time in Madison?” asked the owner, perhaps sensing my awkward British demeanour as I desperately tried to figure out where to queue. “Yes. Is it always like this?” I asked, my gaze turning to the window at the sight of yet more naked students. “Not always,” said the owner. “Today’s just a quiet day, that’s all man.”

And so it was to this liberal, quirky, and far from quiet city that Kirk Douglas first donated his papers in the late 1960s at the invite of renowned film historian Tino Balio (United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry). Douglas donated further additions in the subsequent decades, contributing to what has become one of the most significant film archives in the world. Housed in the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research at the Wisconsin Historical Society, an impressive neoclassical building at the heart of the University of Wisconsin Madison campus, the Kirk Douglas Papers were part of a growing empirical trend at the University. Balio obtained further archives, including the United Artists collection, as well as ‘every film released by Warner Bros., RKO and Monogram Studios between 1930 and 1950’.[i] The aim, as Balio outlined to Douglas, was to trace ‘filmmaking as one of the most important modern art forms’ and to archive and preserve materials from filmmaking history for scholarly use.[ii] And the scale of the archive is impressive holding thousands of reels from most of the major Hollywood studios, to the collections of film directors, producers, writers and starts ranging from Robert Altman and John Frankenheimer to Shirley Clarke and Rod Serling (see the online catalogue for full details of the collections). The Kirk Douglas Papers are themselves vast, covering the majority of Douglas’ career from the 1940s through to the late 1980s.

I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Transatlantic Travel Grant by the European Association of American Studies (EAAS) to allow me to conduct a research trip to the Kirk Douglas Papers. The aim was to further understand the collaborative relationship between Douglas and Stanley Kubrick as well as the industrial conditions in which they were operating in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, the intention was to gather further material for future publications on Douglas’s significance to Hollywood and independent filmmaking. I certainly couldn’t have conducted the trip without the generous grant from EAAS given the costs of travelling to Madison, as well as the exorbitant accommodation costs of the city’s hotels and Air BnB rentals (more about that below).

The Wisconsin Historical Society is set in a beautiful plaza at the end of State Street, the main shopping and eating district in downtown Madison. There are no shortage of cafes and bars to get refreshments, all of which are within a short distance of the archive. The archive is open Monday to Saturday and is located on the fourth floor. There are lifts, but I preferred to take in the ornate surroundings of the staircase each morning, adorned with classical portraits and statues.

There’s no need to book an appointment to visit the archive, though it is always advised you contact them ahead of any trip to ensure the materials you want to look at are available (email askmovies@wisconsinhistory.org). You have to register at the archive desk on your first visit and a form of photo ID is required. They accept a passport or driving licence. The staff are extraordinarily friendly and will provide a tour of the archive facilities, including the state of the art scanners. I had come prepared with a digital camera, but was taken aback at the free to use scanners that create searchable (yes searchable!) PDF files. The PDFs can either be saved direct to a USB drive or to Google Drive. If you prefer to stick with the digital camera, which some days I did for fear I was dominating the scanners, there is ample desk space to do so, along with numerous plug sockets. There is also locker space and you will be allocated a specific locker upon your arrival.

To order items to look at you fill out a slip with the catalogue code and a brief description and you leave it at the collection desk. You’re allowed to have three boxes in the reading room at any one time. I eventually got a conveyor belt system going, always ordering another box after I had finished with one and thereby having a constant stream of boxes ready. I also requested three boxes at the end of each day to be ready for the following morning in order to maximise my time. This meant I could arrive at the archive as soon as it opened and get down to scanning and photographing the documents. It also meant I got through a large proportion of the Kirk Douglas Papers during my stay in Madison, data that I am still going through as I begin to prepare conference papers and articles for future publication.

My initial attraction to the Kirk Douglas Papers had been the fact that it contained extensive material relating to the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation, including contracts and correspondence. This was material not available at the Stanley Kubrick Archive and therefore filled a crucial gap in understanding the relationship between Harris-Kubrick and Douglas’s production company, Bryna Productions. And the material I found was startling, particularly the fraught nature of the relationship between Harris-Kubrick and Douglas and the extent to which the former tried to extricate themselves from a contract they had entered into with Douglas in 1957. In fact, they went so far as to threaten to disband Harris-Kubrick Pictures in order to nullify the contract with Douglas.

The more time I spent going through the Kirk Douglas Papers, the more it became apparent how significant a figure and producer he was in the industrial transformations taking place in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s. Material on Spartacus (1960) reveals the extent to which the film was focus-grouped and marketed, right down to testing which film logos an audience preferred. Douglas was very much an enterprising figure, always thinking of ways to further exploit and promote his work, including devising television specials for Spartacus, or developing a television series based on The Vikings (1958). He was also deeply creative, critically reflecting upon his work and those he was working for. When working on Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) he persistently provided annotations and advice on draft copies of the screenplay.

The hours I spent holed up in the archive were rewarded with the beautiful surroundings of Madison. There was no better incentive after a hard day’s work in the archive than a couple of Budweiser’s outside Jameson’s, a bar that soon became my regular. There was also a lot to do on the weekends when I wasn’t at the archive, from taking hikes around Lake Monona and Lake Mendota (Madison is situated on an isthmus between the two lakes), to touring the State Capitol building (including climbing up to the outdoor observation deck). I even took in a free screening of the debut episode of series seven of Game of Thrones at the Orpheum Theatre, sans cosplay. Accommodation at Madison does seem to be expensive throughout the year, with downtown hotels often costing hundreds of dollars for just one night. The same is true of Air BNB rentals. Instead, I stayed in a motel just twenty minutes north of downtown, which was cheap but also comfortable. The room came with a king size bed, kitchenette, full cable channels and a continental breakfast. I caught the bus each day, with a single fare costing just $2. There is also a range of weekly or monthly tickets available, which can be purchased at the Community Pharmacy on the corner of State Street and West Gorham Street.

Flight costs to Madison are also expensive and so I decided to fly into Chicago and then take the Van Galder coach to Madison. This is a much more cost-effective option at just $50 return. The trip takes around three hours, mainly because of the heavy traffic in and out of Chicago, but the coach does have Wi-Fi to pass the time. The added benefit of taking the coach was that I was able to factor in a several day stay in Chicago, a must for a blues fan like myself. Waking up to the sight of the Chicago skyline was the most thrilling way to end what was a truly remarkable research trip, one that has provided me with lasting memories as well as a bountiful of archive data for future use.


[i] Price, Jenny, 2007, ‘A glimpse into Kirk Douglas: Film center shares online collection’, https://news.wisc.edu/a-glimpse-into-kirk-douglas-film-center-shares-online-collection/.

[ii] Price, 2007.


James Fenwick is currently Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of the West of England. His areas of research include the role of the producer and the industrial contexts of post-war American cinema, Stanley Kubrick, the life and work of Kirk Douglas, and the unmade films of American cinema. He is currently co-editing a volume on the latter subject, Shadow Cinema: Historical and Production Contexts, with Kieran Foster and David Eldridge. He most recently edited the collection Understanding Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Intellect, 2018).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

A Day at the Archives… Centre National De L’Audiovisuel (CNA)

Alessandra Luciano, CNA

9 October 2018


This blog post will focus on the Centre national de l’audiovisuel in Luxembourg, which can be summarised as the national audiovisual archive. However, it is more than a repository for national heritage, situated at the crossroads of multiple roles; it often reflects the current status of Luxembourg’s cultural landscape.

I will briefly address its politics and missions, but as I am the collection manager for the moving image archives at the film-tv department, I will focus primarily on our film, television and amateur film collections.

The Centre national de l’audiovisuel (CNA) is at the crossroads of multiple and different institutions. Indeed, we are an archive which has to preserve the Luxembourgish moving image, photography and sound archives for the future. We are also a museum, with two permanent collections on display Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man in Clervaux Castle in the north of the country (location chosen by Steichen himself), and The Bitter Years located in Dudelange on a renovated industrial site. These collections are complimented by rotating exhibitions in our gallery spaces. These mainly photographic exhibitions are either contemporary or archival. We also produce and help to further young talent or established artists. The film-tv department, amongst other tasks, sponsors pre-production of films that either use archival material from our own collections, or sometimes, when budgets and time permit, produce documentaries. Similar, the sound department records new CDs and also assists in the recordings of new musical pieces. One of my favourite projects is the recording of new scores by historical Luxembourgish musicians that have never been recorded before, thus not only preserving the paper records but creating new archival items. The photo department also, besides its archival work, sponsors new photographers and their activity through different scholarships. These can either be used to encourage an artist’s development or to help an existing photographer to publish her work. Finally, we also have a pedagogy department, which sets up various workshops and training opportunities for kids, adolescents, adults, but also professionals. These are often in collaboration with international experts. Thus, the CNA is both an open platform for the general public and a professional institution.

Figure 1: © CNA, photograph or original document outlining the CNA’s mission by Minister Robert Krieps 1988

The CNA is placed under the helm of the Ministry of Culture, and has been governed by the 2004 laws that have re-organised the cultural institutions in Luxembourg. This is crucial as this legislation defined the different missions and roles the CNA has to play in Luxembourg and denotes boundaries in terms of what we do in regard to other cultural heritage institutions. However, the Centre national de l’audiovisuel was created much earlier in 1989. Its creation was a clear and conscious attempt at creating an infrastructure that would be responsible not only for the preservation of audiovisual heritage (film, photography and sound), but also the education of new means of communication and storytelling that would capture the present, preserve the past and work toward the future. Its missions are the conservation and enhancement of Luxembourg’s audiovisual heritage and to ensure that all members of the public can access its sound, moving image, and photographic collections through exhibitions, publications, screenings, conferences and other events.

The end of the 1980s is not coincidental, but can be attributed to a larger understanding of shifting cultural perspective and production. Concerning film for example, the 1980s are often referred to as the birth of modern day cinema in Luxembourg. Whereas of course Luxembourg already had a history in commercial broadcasting (radio and television), and several films were made (professionally and amateurishly), during the 1980s tax incentives were created to allow a professional movie making industry to grow. Thus, with it was also born the notion that Luxembourg needed a national centre that would reflect these changes, but also preserve these legacies in the making.

Moving image collections, digitisation efforts and philosophy

CNA’s moving image collections are hybrid. We hold photochemical prints (8mm, S8, 9,5mm, 16mm, 35mm and some less standard formats such as 17,5mm and 28mm) and several videotape formats (1”, 2”, 3/4”, different Beta types), as well as either digitised or digital born items. The CNA acquires through two channels: legal and voluntary deposit.

Figure 2: © Archives CNA, sometimes this is how we roll

As such, since its inception the film-tv department has been tackling several collections that have been deemed a priority. The film-tv archives comprise some 200,000 items (film and video combined), many of which have not yet been itemised, or else only broadly. The archives also already contain many native digital documents. 56,000 documents have been transferred (from photochemical or magnetic to file based media), a portion of which will have to be rescanned to a higher quality. More than 400 feature-length and short films, as well as documentaries made in Luxembourg since the early 20th century (35mm/16mm), are archived at the CNA. The archives also house more recent productions in digital format, which have been added via the legal deposit route.

The film prints people deposit voluntarily, (and for which they are not always the rights holder) are mostly home movies, industry films or semi-professional productions. The CNA collects only national productions; international deposits are offered to the Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg.

Figures 3 and 4: © Romain Girtgen, CNA cold storage vaults for photochemical prints (6°C/ 40RH)

Under the legal deposit law, producers have to deposit every movie produced or co-produced in Luxembourg, with or without state subsidies. Broadly, this includes a preservation copy (a film print is highly encouraged) and an access copy. Legal deposit is the statutory obligation for every film, television, radio, DVD, Blu-ray and music producer to deposit the entirety of their production and co-production at the CNA. As a result of the digital revolution, the conservation of thousands of hours of audio and visual material prompts up many challenges in terms of technological adaptability. Consequently, the CNA aims at staying ahead of all the developments in terms of production and preservation formats, and storage media, which inevitably entails considerable budgetary and human efforts.

What’s more, since 1995, the CNA has been actively collecting, digitising and preserving amateur films  (9.5mm, 8mm, Super 8, sometimes even on 16mm) documenting everyday life in Luxembourg. This is still on-going; however, we had to limit our criteria of acceptance since we already hold over 10.000 amateur titles. This collection represents a unique eyewitness account of the life of Luxembourgers. It is widely used in documentaries, exhibitions, and conferences. Starting in 2015, we have also aimed at collecting and preserving some amateur films shot on video. This has proven to be challenging because not only were video cameras more affordable and easier to use, thus increasing the amount of items, but also the very bad quality of the tapes often make it harder to retrieve and reuse the content.

Figure 5: ©Archives CNA, amateur film collections – Kodak cardboard box for 16mm film – stamp reads “Belgisch Congo Belge”

Whereas our collections on photochemical prints are in good condition (we suffer some damage from vinegar syndrome), the state of our magnetic tape collections is in parts unknown. Therefore, we have shifted our focus onto our very large television archives. The television video formats, used primarily during the 1970s and 1980s, are very fragile and must therefore be processed as a priority. Audiovisual heritage on magnetic tape is generally prone to faster decay and obsolescence, not only because the tape may be damaged but also because the playback and records machines have become sparse and the knowledge to use them has most often not been passed onto next generations.

Our television collections encompass all the events that shaped life in Luxembourg and the Greater Region from 1955 to the present day. The State is committed to preserving and making available the entire CLT-UFA historical archives. These archives (news bulletins, documentaries and miscellaneous reports) consist of 16mm film (from 1955 to 1980) and video material (from 1969 until the switch to digital media). The particularity of the collection is that it is not only Luxembourgish but we hold a large collection called Paris Television, as well as French and Belgium broadcast news adding to the diversity of our collections. Our archives are therefore often requested and used for international productions, film and television, but also for transnational research projects.

Figures 6 and 7: © Romain Girtgen, CNA cold storage vaults for magnetic media (16°C/ 40%RH)

Unfortunately, we can only provide access to our collections either on-site or via a file server system, if the item is available digitally. This however entails that the CNA staff has to research the requested moving image in our database, as such we cannot always follow up on every request, and we have to sometimes remind our public to be as specific as possible when looking for footage. Nevertheless, we collaborate on numerous film, television, exhibition or research projects.

However, the CNA is in the process of developing a new database, which will in the long term enable its archives to be available online, and for some registered users it will even be possible to buy archival items through the web portal. This is a large-scale undertaking that will take place in several phases. Following the structural work of the database (2014/2015) and data migration (2015) stages, a lengthy process will commence to bring the database up to standard and to correct the data contained therein. When the new database will be available for internal use, a later stage will enable Internet users to search thousands of photographs, films, television broadcasts and audio documents on an online portal. This project has further underscored the necessity of good and qualitative metadata collection, upkeep and information structure. Currently the Ministry of Culture is also aiming toward a national platform for all of Luxembourg’s cultural institutions to be available online for viewing.

The collected, catalogued and archived audiovisual documents constitute an essential part of Luxembourg’s national memory, which future generations can continue to experience, view and listen to. They also constitute an inexhaustible source of testimonies for those who not only wish to study Luxembourg’s history and society, but also that of its neighbouring countries. If any of this speaks to you or you have any further questions please feel free to get in touch.

As a sort of “appendix” I would like to briefly point out some of CNA film projects which feature parts of our collections that may be interesting to some of you:

HISTOIRE(S) DE FEMME(S)
a film by Anne Schroeder, produced by Samsa film in co-production with the CNA.

The film traces the great history of the emancipation of women and of the feminist movements from the very personal perspective of individual stories from the lives of Luxembourg women during the 20th century.

This documentary features private films from the CNA collection, as well as “official” archives.

Figure 8: © Archives CNA, Collection Gerty Beissel

ASHCAN
a project by Willy Perelszstejn, produced by Les Films de la Mémoire in co-production with the CNA.

Ashcan was the code name for the secret prison in Mondorf-les-Bains where the Allies kept Nazi officials imprisoned from May to August 1945. One of the young American officers in Ashcan was John Dolibois, of Luxembourg origin and the future US ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

How did the Allies treat their prisoners? What were they hoping to achieve by holding the prisoners in incommunicado detention? What information did the Allied interrogators seek to draw from their prisoners? How did they try and make them talk?

Based on the interrogation accounts, the documentary will plunge us into a fascinating investigation into an episode of the Second World War in Luxembourg of which little is known.

208
Co-production of CNA, Grace Productions and Samsa
Film, currently in development

Figure 9

In 1933, “Radio Luxembourg” began broadcasting in England, despite fierce opposition from the BBC, and became Europe’s most powerful commercial radio station. In its heyday during the 1950s and 1960s, “208 Radio Luxembourg, The Station of the Stars” was THE radio of the rock ‘n’ roll and pop revolution, a promoter of and source of inspiration for the greatest music stars of the time, from Paul Anka to Cliff Richard, from the Beatles to the Osmond Brothers. “208” represented the voice of freedom throughout Europe, even beyond the “Iron Curtin” and across Scandinavia, and left its mark on an entire generation. The film retraces this unique history, in particular via Villa Louvigny’s famous DJs: Pete Murray, Barry Alldis, Kid Jensen, Bob Stewart, Dave Christian, Tony Prince Benny Brown and Stuart Henry.

Figure 10


Alessandra Luciano has a bachelor in film studies from the University of Exeter and a master in film studies from Columbia University. She also graduated from the Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image Master from the University of Amsterdam. Since 2013 she has been working as lead film archivist and collection manager in CNA’s moving image archive.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

American movie-maker Harold Shaw as an agent of British Influence 1916-1920

Neil Parsons, formerly University of Botswana

1 October 2018


Making movies to persuade former enemies to become allies was not confined to the Second World War. During the Great War, experienced American stage actor and movie director Harold Marvin Shaw was recruited to draw the anti-British sting out of a planned South African historical epic to match The Birth of a Nation.

Figure 1: Harold Marvin Shaw (1877-1926), a publicity still. (Source: Stage and Cinema, vol.2, no.42, 20 May 1916, p.6)

After directing Edison and IMP dramas in America, Shaw had been appointed chief producer of the London Film Company in 1913. His first feature The House of Temperley (1913) was made in close collaboration with Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the novel Rodney Stone on which it was based. Such was its success that, according to Rachael Low, ‘it seemed at last that British pictures had recovered from their inferiority.’ Shaw directed 35 films for London Films between 1913 and 1915.

Figure 2: Classic grouping and attention to detail in The House of Temperley (1913) (Source: East, John M. ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957, opp.p.224, plate 23: no acknowledgement given here, or on page 11 acknowledgements)

Shaw proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of the British cause in the Great War, but was refused enlistment in the Canadian army. Probably through Conan Doyle, he appears to have moved in British propaganda and intelligence circles. After filming a number of short dramas about German spies and intrigues, Shaw directed the military recruitment drama You!—commissioned from London Films by the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee, and considered one of the war’s most significant propaganda films by film historians Nicholas Hiley and Luke McKernan.

Enter fellow American, Isidore William Schlesinger, millionaire owner since 1913 of virtually every theatre south of the Zambezi and of African Film Productions Limited. Schlesinger wished to curry favour with the South African government of Generals Botha and Smuts, which in late 1914 had barely survived a pro-German rebellion by some of its top army officers. Botha and Schlesinger planned an epic historical movie, on a Griffith-like scale, to capture white Afrikaner (Boer) patriotic pride and to earn possible super-profits from export overseas.

Figure 3: Isidore William Schlesinger (1871-1949), Johannesburg-based American movie mogul (Source: cartoon captioned “Schlessy”, origin not located but must be pre-1923 newspaper or journal)

Schlesinger persuaded Shaw in London to go out to South Africa as AFP’s chief producer-director. In London, Shaw would have been briefed by South Africa’s high commissioner, W.P. Schreiner. Brother of the famous feminist Olive Schreiner, Schreiner had effectively been exiled to London as South Africa’s leading liberal politician and lawyer arguing the multiracial cause. Schreiner as high commissioner stopped the showing in Britain of two films about South Africa considered anti-Boer and anti-Muslim, disparaging potential British allies and inhibiting their military recruitment. He also stopped the export to South Africa (until 1932) of the racially inflammatory The Birth of a Nation.

Figure 4: William Philip Schreiner (1857-1919) at the London trade show of Winning a Continent (Source: Kinematograph Weekly, 13 Sept. 1917, p.85)

Botha had chosen Afrikaner nationalist historian Gustav Preller to draft a scenario on the Great Trek of the Boer Voortrekkers (pioneers) of the 1830s. Preller saw the Great Trek as the foundation of his white nation, with white Afrikaners as God’s (other) chosen people given the divine right to take land away from the heathen. But it was Preller’s well-known anti-British bias that would have raised alarms in London intelligence circles.

Figure 5: Gustav Preller (1875-1943), white Afrikaner cultural nationalist and historian (Source: courtesy of South African History Online – SAHO)

The resulting movie, De Voortrekkers, also titled Winning a Continent to appeal to American ideas of ‘manifest destiny’, retained Preller’s emphasis on the piety of the trekkers. But Shaw’s revisions of the scenario replaced British officials and Protestant missionaries as the white villains of the piece by fictional Portuguese Catholic traders—inciting the Zulu king to massacre the trekkers. A fictional good Christian Zulu warrior was introduced into the plot to give a role for Schlesinger’s favourite old African actor, A.Z. Goba. Shaw’s influence can also be seen in the insertion of a love interest and light-hearted scenes (echoed in later ‘trek’ movies from The Covered Wagon onwards) around the camp fire.

Figure 6: Boer piety and enlightenment in De Voortrekkers (1916). (Source: courtesy of Kevin Brownlow)

Shaw had much greater input into the scenario of the second pro-war historical epic that he was slated to direct, on the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879-80. Anticipating Zulu (1964) by the best part of fifty years, The Symbol of Sacrifice celebrated the military virtues of both British and Zulu. (Zulu men had proved reluctant to join the South African army as labourers in the Great War.) Shaw also wove into the scenario the close friendship between a Zulu couple and a white one. But Shaw quarrelled with Schlesinger and did not direct the movie.

Harold Shaw founded his own film company, and made two movies in Cape Town that more closely conformed to liberal ideas of justice and tolerance. One was a comedy about two priests and a rabbi persuaded to bet on horses. The other was The Rose of Rhodesia the tale of an African rebellion foiled by the ‘bromance’ between a chief’s son and a missionary’s son. Shaw’s American film star wife, Edna Flugrath was the Rose in question.

Figure 7: ‘Bromance’ braving real danger in The Rose of Rhodesia (1918). (Source: Kinematograph Weekly, 23 Oct. 1919, p.868)

Harold and Edna returned to London after the war’s end, where they made and acted in movies for the remnants of London Films. plus the Stoll and Alliance companies. It was during this period that Shaw was induced to re-enter the world of propaganda and perhaps espionage. He was approached by Basil Thomson: ex-colonial officer in Fiji, author of the novel The Indiscretions of Lady Asenath (1898), prison governor in England, and head of C.I.D. at Scotland Yard since 1913—where he distinguished himself in wartime as revealer of Roger Casement’s Black Book and hounder of German spies, Indian and Irish nationalists, Suffragettes, and Jewish Communists. Appointed in 1919 as Director of Intelligence at the Home Office, he was theoretically in charge of all other British intelligence agencies. And he was still a frustrated author.

Figure 8: Basil Thomson (1861-1939), British intelligence chief and author of fiction

Thomson commissioned Harold Shaw’s company to make a film in Lithuania of his story set in the recent Russian revolution. The Land of Mystery (1920) features one Lenoff who exactly matches Lenin in appearance. Lenoff is unlucky in love with a ballerina (played by Edna Flugrath) who runs off with a prince, thus causing Lenoff to start the revolution in a fit of pique—before he goes mad and commits suicide. (The real Lenin is said to have seen the film and creased himself laughing.) Shaw’s cast and crew spent three freezing dark mid-winter months in Lithuania.

The Land of Mystery was shown week after week in London. It led to questions being raised in Parliament about Thomson’s dubious involvement, and it was described in The Bioscope as having ‘caused more discussion than any British film of the last five years’. By no means the last crazy intelligence boss, Thomson had to resign in 1921 after falling out with prime minister Lloyd George. He responded by writing his memoirs, memorably titled Queer People (1922), and was subsequently publicly disgraced after being found with a prostitute (female) in Hyde Park.

At least Shaw managed to find a German distributor for The Rose of Rhodesia in Berlin, recovering from its Spartacist rising—and only that German version still survives today. Breaking his nine-year absence overseas, Harold Shaw arrived back at Ellis Island, New York, in September 1922.

Figure 9: Greeted by officials at Ellis Island, New York, September 1922. (Source: courtesy of Stephen Donovan)

After making three more, not particularly successful, movies in Hollywood, Harold Marvin Shaw—by now the secretary of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Directors’ Association—died after a Los Angeles traffic accident in January 1926.


Neil Parsons is a former history professor at the University of Botswana whose latest publications are Black and White Bioscope: Movies Made in Africa 1899 to 1925 (Intellect Books/ University of Chicago Press/ Protea, 2018) and, with co-author Alois Mlambo, A History of Southern Africa (Palgrave Macmillan/ Springer Red Globe, 2018).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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