Saturday, 12 April 2014

Silent Betty Balfour film 'masterpiece' found in Holland



Silent Betty Balfour film 'masterpiece' found in Holland

As something of a silent film aficionado it is always a great delight for me to see the recognition that these products of the early years of cinema deserve and the general renaissance they have undergone in recent years (precipitated, it could be argued, by 2011's Oscar-winning The Artist).  This is only tempered by the sad knowledge that time is not kind to old 35mm film stock, which was invariably nitrate and not only flammable but also subject to decay over time, leading to many a silent film being missing presumed lost.

So it is an even greater joy when a previously "lost" silent film is discovered, usually after languishing for years in a private collection (and/or a mislabelled tin).  Such has been the case with Love, Life and Laughter, a British comedy-drama film from 1923 that starred silent actress Betty Balfour.  (I must admit despite being a fan of the silents that I was ignorant of Betty Balfour, who was a huge star of British cinema in the Twenties - "the British Mary Pickford", as she was known at the time.  I had vaguely heard of her most famous film series, Squibs - from 1921, its sequel the following year and the 1935 remake, from which the accompanying song is taken.  Sadly the advent of talkies marked a downturn in her career; she made sporadic appearances throughout the 1930s and her last performance was in 1945.  She passed away in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1977 aged 74.)

For decades no extant copy was known of Love, Life and Laughter, with only half-a-dozen stills and a couple of publicity documents surviving to attest to its existence.  That is until two weeks ago, when a complete copy was identified in The Netherlands by the Dutch film museum EYE.  Apparently it had lain undisturbed in a small, old cinema in the Dutch town of Hattem until 2012.  When the building underwent redevelopment its contents were sent to EYE for cataloguing, with the identity of this film having only just been established earlier this month.

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Despite lacking its original English inter-titles it sounds as though this copy is in good condition, with its new custodians the British Film Institute - whose list of "75 Most Wanted Films" included Love, Life and Laughter - promising a public screening later this year.  Something to look forward to!

Something also to give us hope that more "missing" films from the silent era of cinema may still be in existence, just waiting to be found.  Although the march of time makes such discoveries increasingly unlikely, this most recent and classic example reminds us that it is still eminently possible.  Unlabelled cannisters, private copies on hardier 16mm or 75mm film - they may well still be out there waiting to be found.  It's interesting to note that this discovery was made in the Netherlands, for it seems that that country is an inordinate source of lost film footage.  As a Laurel & Hardy fan I know that I great deal of previously-lost film related to their work has come via Holland and its seems that Betty Balfour's popularity there has also played no small part in this film's survival - dank u, Nederland!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Ohio museum volunteers constructing vintage B-17



Ohio museum volunteers constructing vintage B-17

As volunteers and enthusiasts at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre here in Britain continue to work towards getting a third Avro Lancaster bomber restored to airworthy condition, so their counterparts at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio U.S.A., are undertaking an even more mammoth task - to rebuild an example of the United States' primary Second World War heavy bomber, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

Of the forty-six surviving B-17 airframes known to exist around the world, thirteen are currently in airworthy condition - including Sally B, the only flying example in Britain, based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.  The majority are of course located in museums across America and in a few years' time, if all goes well, they will be joined by this fourteenth - Champaign Lady.

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The volunteers at the Champaign Aviation Museum - many of them U.S. Air Force veterans themselves - must be commended for taking on this project, for it is so much more than a simple restoration.  With no more complete or intact airframes forthcoming, these enthusiasts have taken to scavenging parts piecemeal and - where they no longer exist - making them themselves from Boeing's own original blueprints.  In effect, then, this is more a completely new-build aircraft than a restoration, with the promise of a machine better than a Boeing production model from the 1940s at the end of it.

With the famous Memphis Belle currently undergoing restoration at the nearby National Museum of the U.S.A.F. and destined never to fly again following designation as a national treasure, it is more important than ever that airworthy examples of this aircraft continue flying in the future.  The prospect of one built to modern tolerances with largely new parts is an exciting one, as it will no doubt ensure that at least one B-17 Flying Fortress will be flying and thrilling new generations for decades to come.  Good luck to them, say I, and I can't wait to see it!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps

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Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps

As if to prove the point in my previous post regarding the treatment historical documents are sometimes subjected to, the way they are often rediscovered and saved from the brink of destruction, this post features the story of over 5,000 photographs of the First World War that were rescued over the course of 30 years by a Sussex dustman.

Bob Smethurst's wonderful attitude towards these incredible records of a past conflict is only tempered somewhat by the thought of how little they must have been valued by others and how many more fascinating documents were not saved from the incinerator in all those years.  It's desperately sad to think of a family cold-bloodily disposing of an individual's life history, not stopping to think that it in fact contributes to the history of our whole society.

Thankfully these days more and more people are thinking like Mr Smethurst, as his comment about the increased value of the photos suggests!  Whether that is merely due to the centenary of the First World War, or other factors as well, I wouldn't like to guess (although I certainly hope it's more than that).  I do get the feeling that people are becoming more suitably reverential about our past - but of course it has always been so for us nostalgists!

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Former dustman's salvaged WW1 archive

Even so there is still far too much evidence of a disregard for historical items and records such as photographs or letters, not just in Britain but elsewhere.  How many times have we seen and commented on stories such as this, of treasure troves being found in skips and the like?  I would hope that things will be better for Second World War veterans and not, as Mr Smethurst thinks, the same again but the evidence is sadly still there.  In my own [fairly recent] experience it was seeing the little bungalow - unchanged for 60 years and complete with 1950s MG saloon still parked outside - the home of an elderly local lady, who had either died or moved into care, stripped of its contents (piled up in the front garden) and eventually demolished to make way for 4 houses.  I've said before that I'm all for progress, but not at the expense of our history.

In this happy case however a huge number of important photographs and records of the First World War have been saved for future generations.  I would like to think that any museum would give their eye teeth to have them in their collection, especially in this centenary year, but either way their future safety seems assured.  I hope that whatever Mr Smethurst decides to do with them they will continue to be highly valued and once again it begs the question "what else is still out there?"

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Vintage Chicago film found at estate sale shows 1940s-era city



Vintage Chicago Film Found at Estate Sale Shows 1940s-era City

The subject of this post sounds like something my aunt and uncle would find during their numerous trawls of estate sales, or a treasure we could only dream of unearthing in the far rarer house clearances that occur with much less frequency in Britain.

It's a constant source of amazement to me that films such as this can turn up in the most unlikeliest of places decades after they were shot, capturing the attention of people - social historians, nostalgists, you, me - that the makers (and those who appeared on the screen) could never have even imagined.  But they do, as this latest example so amply demonstrates, and I for one am continually grateful for the fact.  How many historical gems have lain - and continue to lay - forgotten and undiscovered in the corner of a dusty archive, or nearly been thrown away (or worse, actually thrown away), all because of a vague/wrong label?

This could have been the case here (and likely would have been, had it occurred in this country) had the canister containing the film not been snapped up by a curious Chicagoan.  It is perhaps not surprising that the new owner showed such an interest in it since, in one of those serendipitous incidents that sometimes occur, the chap is a young film & video technician.  I'll bet even he never expected to uncover an amazing portal to Chicago 70 years ago, though, and neither did anybody else judging by the negligible amount of money he ended up paying for it!

The contents have proved to be of far greater historical value, however, containing as they do over thirty minutes' footage of mid-Forties Chicago - everywhere from the usual tourist haunts to the less-visited working districts.  It is a wonderful time capsule of what still remains "a city of beauty, strength and power" and a glorious glimpse of a time past; so unusual that even the Chicago Film Archives and the Chicago Board of Education (for whom the original film was made) are having trouble finding a record of it.

Regardless of whether the reasons become known as to why this film was shot and how it stayed undiscovered for so, it is splendid to see it again in all its glory and to know that it will be appreciated as a snapshot of history.  Once again, it makes you wonder just what else is out there waiting to be found!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Threepenny bit design to replace vulnerable £1 coin



Threepenny bit design to replace vulnerable £1 coin

As my UK-based readers will doubtless be aware, Wednesday saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer deliver the government's annual Budget for the year ahead.  Rightly or wrongly the item that garnered the most press attention was the unveiling of a proposed new £1 coin, to replace the existing 30-year-old design in 2017.  Putting aside the politics, the news is nonetheless interesting on a number of levels. 

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Firstly, this is the most comprehensive redesign of a frequently-used piece of British currency in almost a generation.  You have to go back to the early/mid-1990s and the resizing of the 5p, 10p (1992) and 50p (1997) coins to find the last time the money in our pocket was so drastically altered.  From that point of view alone it is of course a newsworthy subject and one of the main aspects most news agencies have focussed on.

For numismatists (that's our code-speak for us coin collectors!) like myself there is an extra layer of excitement since it means that the old £1 coin will become even more of a collectors item from 2017.  The general excitement of a coin undergoing such a sea change is also heightened, since we value the behind-the-scenes processes, history and time-honoured traditions attached to the coin and its design(s).

The biggest change (pun not intended!) however, the thing that has got we nostaligists (and the press) jumping up and down in excitement, is the switch to a twelve-sided (that's dodecagonal, in case you're wondering) shape - just like one of Britain's old pre-decimal coins, the threepence piece!  The one pound coin is already similar in size and thickness to the old threepenny, so this major alteration will render it even more like a coin that hasn't been seen in British pockets for over 40 years. 

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The twelve-sided brass threepenny was introduced in 1937 at the start of George VI's reign (twelve pre-production examples were minted with Edward VIII details; the whereabouts of six of these are unknown and one recently sold for £30,000, so keep an eye out!).  Prior to that point, the threepence was a silver coin, very small - less than the size of a modern 5p (or a dime) - hence its nickname, the "thruppenny bit".  Created in 1547 under the reign of Edward VI, by the 1930s its diminutiveness meant it was becoming unpopular in England (although less so in Scotland) and in 1937 the new, larger and heavier nickel-brass threepenny was introduced (although paradoxically it retained its original nickname).

Silver threepennies continued to be produced, albeit in far fewer numbers, alongside the new brass variety from 1937 to 1945 (again, if you find a 1945 silver thruppence hang on to it, for almost all of that year's production was later melted down).  Technically they are still minted today, for use in Maundy money.   The newer twelve-sided coin was subsequently produced every year from its creation in 1937 until just before decimalisation, in 1967 (with some proof sets minted in 1970; rare dates are 1946 and 1948-51).  It, along with the other pre-decimal coinage, ceased to be legal tender in 1971.  George VI examples feature three thrift plants on the reverse (which I must admit I prefer); Elizabeth II variants switched to a Tudor portcullis.

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Now, though, the brass threepenny is due to live on in spirit as the inspiration for the new 2017 £1 coin.  While the new coin, as already mentioned, will bear more than a passing resemblance to its forebear it will of course feature a few modern design flourishes plus some not unimpressive security features.  Chief among these new touches is the bi-metallic construction, as already found on the £2 coin.  Advanced, British-designed technology by the name iSIS means the coin will be infused with some special coating (dermatologists can rest easy, it doesn't come off on the skin apparently) to combat counterfeiting - the bane of the existing £1.

Some differences then, a fair bit of modernity - but using a traditional design that by all accounts will be making a welcome return.  You and I can get involved as well, since there will be a competition in the summer to find a design for the reverse (tails) side of the new coin (keep checking The Royal Mint website).  Hmmn, have to put my thinking cap on, I reckon!  In the meantime, I've dug out my old coin collection in order to reacquaint myself with this charming coin, in anticipation of its spiritual successor's arrival in three years' time.

**Do you like the new £1 coin?  What do you think should go on the reverse side?  Let me know your thoughts below!**

Sunday, 16 March 2014

WW2 plane to be restored to glory in Concorde hangar



 WW2 plane to be restored to glory in Concorde hangar

Yet another worthy - if slightly convoluted - aircraft restoration project is the subject of this interesting article from the B.B.C, featuring a transatlantic variant of a now-rare World War Two British bomber.

The Bristol Blenheim can trace its origins back to 1935 and a Daily Mail-sponsored specification for a high-speed business aircraft.  The Bristol Aeroplane Company responded with the Type 142, which first flew on the 12th April 1935.  Not only did it meet the requirements of Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere as the fastest civilian aeroplane in Europe, it was also found to be considerably faster than any fighter 'plane then in service with the Royal Air Force!  As a result the RAF quickly moved to have Bristol create a fighter-bomber version, which became the Blenheim MkI.

Blenheims consequently formed part of the backbone of both Fighter and Bomber Command in the early years of the war, although even by 1939 they were outclassed by newer fighters like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt 109.  Nevertheless they performed many vital, if now largely forgotten, roles in the first three years of the conflict.  Blenheims were the first British aircraft to cross the German coast following the declaration of war.  They formed part of the Free French Air Force after the fall of France.  During the Battle of Britain they undertook bombing and reconnaissance raids on German airfields, often sustaining high casualties.  When the Blitz began, Blenheims fitted with radar became night-fighters to battle the German bombers.  The aircraft eventually served in several theatres of war including North Africa and the Middle & Far East, over time evolving into new designs including the Beaufort torpedo-bomber and the Beaufighter.  It was also the basis for the aircraft featured here - the Bolingbroke.

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RCAF Bristol Bolingbroke

The Bolingbroke was merely a variant of the Blenheim rather than an evolution - in fact the original Bolingbroke MkI was almost identical to the Blenheim MkIV.  The alterations to the Blenheim design by this stage had attracted the attention of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who were looking for a new aircraft to undertake the maritime patrol role.  Fairchild Canada was awarded the license to build under contract in Quebec and so the Bolingbroke was born.  From 1940-44 Bolingbrokes provided patrol bomber service on the Atlantic & Pacific coasts and were later mainstays of the the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

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Bolingbroke wreck in a Manitoba scrapyard, 2006
After the cessation of hostilities the RAF scrapped its entire fleet of Blenheims.  The RCAF took a slightly different tack, as mentioned, and sold their surplus airframes for scrap - with local farmers taking advantage of the valuable aluminium, fuel and other parts (or, as in this case, for target practice!).  As it turns out this was something of a blessing in disguise for, while there are only 2 or 3 extant examples of original Blenheims left in the world, there are currently thirteen Bolingbrokes - in Belgium, the USA, UK, and Canada - four of which (including this one) are undergoing restoration either to original or Blenheim specification.

The difficulty in restoring such a rare aeroplane is made apparent in the article, but I have no doubt the team at the Bristol Aero Collection will do a good thorough job in bringing Bolingbroke 9048 back to fighting trim.  In the same hanger where Concorde was constructed, no less!  It's splendid to see yet more dedication from aviation enthusiasts and museum volunteers, as well as the sporting assistance of Rolls-Royce; I'm sure 9048 will sit proudly alongside Concorde and the other exhibits at the Collection as a testament to the men who flew Blenheims and Bolingbrokes.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

British teen's 1914 diary from Paris brought to life on Twitter

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British teen's 1914 diary from Paris brought to life on Twitter

Hello All!  Well, another busy start to the month has seen ten days fly by but now here I am again with a new post.  I say "new" but the subject was first reported on as far back as January-February.

The 100-year old diary of Olive Higgins, a teenage girl from Kent studying in Paris, has recently come to light after over ten years in the possession of a London journalist & writer, who spent that time researching the girl's tragically short life following the discovery that they both happened to come from the same area. 

Margate girl Olive Higgins' diary put online at 100th anniversary of death

To celebrate the centenary of Olive's writings the journalist, Rob McGibbon, came up with the splendid idea of publishing the daily entries on Twitter (@OlivesDiary1914) - as well as creating a website with every day reproduced in full as well as further information about Olive Higgins, her family and how Mr McGibbon came to be interested.

The diary and the project it inspired have a poignant ending, however.  Barely two months in to her Paris adventure Olive Higgins was struck down by double influenza and sadly died on the 25th February.  Consequently her diary entries stop halfway through that month, as she struggled to recover.

Nevertheless her record of those first few weeks in Paris make for fascinating reading - a real insight into the thoughts of a 16-year-old student one hundred years ago, yet revealing teenage feelings and insecurities still familiar a century on.  Mr McGibbon's project has certainly been a worthwhile one not only from his personal point of view but also as a valuable piece of social history and a fitting & timely tribute to Olive Higgins' life.

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