REDISCOVERING THE ABBÉ’S TREASURE
The extraordinary collection of early films assembled by the Jesuit priest, Abbé Josef Joye, in the early years of the last century is today one of the greatest resources for evidence of the earliest years of cinema. This article on the history of the Collection originally appeared in the short-lived journal BFI News in 1977, and has been somewhat enlarged and revised to report on current projects for the further exploration of the rich resources bequeathed by Abbé Joye.
The earliest regular cinema exhibitor in Switzerland was not a fairground showman or a music hall entrepreneur, but a Jesuit priest, the Abbé Josef Joye, who goes down in history as a pioneer of audio-visual methods in education.
Joye was born at Romont on April 28, 1852. He entered the priesthood, and at 34 was appointed vicar in Basle. Here he created a teaching institution, the Borromäum, which organised Sunday schools, adult education and a long-running series of popular science lectures, known as Joye’s ‘Conférences de Mardi’.
Fascinated by mechanical devices, Joye used any means at hand to enliven his classes and courses. From the start he made use of the magic lantern. He made his own lantern slides – in all some 16,000 of them, to illustrate 300 lectures – using home-made apparatus and dark room. Before the end of the century he had introduced a phonograph into the Borromäum, to astonish his young students. And around 1900 he discovered the cinema.
There is a rich fund of stories of the Abbé’s film collecting activities – how he would return from a foraging expedition, smuggling his films across the border under the folds of his cassock, making his impressive figure still more ample; how he would censor the films by cutting out indelicately long embraces; and how, if his love of moving pictures on occasion curbed his scissors, he would distract his young audience from risqué passages by hurling sudden reprimands at unidentified persons at the back of the hall.
It is not certain what his sources were; but since his funds were never great, he must have begged, or bought very cheaply, films whose commercial value had expired. Hence it is that though he did not start to collect till the turn of the century, his films include some from the earliest days – even items from the original Lumière show of 1896.
Every kind of film was grist to the Abbé’s pedagogical mill. Although he naturally acquired The Life of Our Lord, The Childhood of Moses, Judith and records of visits to the Vatican or Lourdes, he clearly felt that there was a moral to be read in every story. Thus the catalogue of the vast collection is divided under such heads as ‘Drama’, ‘Children’, ‘Comic’, ‘Historical’, ‘Land and Water’, ‘Nature’, ‘Ships’, ‘Military’. The categories are sometimes rather broadly interpreted. Thus, in the historical section we find side by side, Roosevelt in Africa, Port Arthur, The Fall of Troy, Dante’s Inferno and a quite remarkably sadistic Inquisition in Spain, with the blood hand-tinted in crimson. The actuality films range from scenes of life in Moscow and Tokyo to movements of the British and German fleets and armies in the Imperial years of the first decade of the century.
Joye died in 1919, having already left Basle eight years before; but the Borromäum carefully preserved his films, even after they had ceased for the most part to be used. Inevitably though the institution was not equipped for proper archival conservation, and even by the 1940s, when the collection was catalogued, many films were recorded as being in states of severe deterioration.
The first modern film scholar to have access to the collection appears to have been the Italian Davide Turconi, somewhere in the mid-1960s. Turconi was alarmed at the extent of the deterioration: he later recalled that some of the films were so wet with degenerating emulsion that he had to hang them on clothes’ lines before he could begin to inspect them. The task of undertaking a comprehensive restoration was Augean; and no archive had the funds to undertake it. Turconi seems to have succeeded in having some films – principally Italian classics – transferred to the Vatican and thence to the Italian Historical Association. Since the Association had no facilities for storing films they were passed on to the Cineteca Nazionale in Milan and subsequently to the archive of the Centro Sperimentale in Rome.
Turconi saw that the films he had failed to rescue in this way were in peril of irresistible decay. Desperate to ensure that they should not disappear without trace – as seemed likely and imminent – he resorted to a desperate yet systematic measure. He cut a couple of frames from every shot of every film, carefully packaging and labelling each one. He task was phenomenal: ultimately he made upwards of 20,000 clippings. These are now held in various collections, but principally the Cineteca del Friuli and the George Eastman House.
. Turconi’s despair was shared by the collection’s last curator, Dr Stefan Bamberger, as he saw his films rotting away for want of funds to duplicate them, and recognised the perils of storing millions of feet of explosively inflammable nitrate film. In 1972 however, the young British director David Mingay, preparing a pioneering television series on early cinema, The Amazing Years of Cinema, rediscovered the Joye collection. Having sampled its riches for his programmes, he persuaded David Francis, then curator of the National Film Archive, to visit Dr Bamberger in Switzerland to negotiate for the safe-guarding of the collection. By the rules of the International Federation of Film Archives, the NFTVA was only allowed to “poach” on foreign territory in this way after establishing definitively that Swiss national archives lacked the funds to deal with the problem.
For Britain’s National Film and Television Archive the collection presented huge problems. The Times reported:
“The Joye Collection promises an unparalleled image of the world before the Great War. We are in danger of never seeing it…With the present resources, even with the most strenuous efforts, it is inevitable that more and more films will deteriorate beyond reclamation before they can receive attention. For the moment, all that the archive can do is to scan the catalogue, make intelligent guesses and pull out those titles which promise most.
“Potentially though the vision of the Abbé Joye has bequeathed to us an unparalleled record of the life and entertainment of a past world.” Such public appeals helped and the NFTVA succeeded in finding funds to copy the entire surviving collection on black-and-white negative. However, the Joye collection potentially offered an invaluable record of early methods of colouring films – hand-colouring, stencilling, tinting the whole film, toning the emulsion image, or adding the blood for the Inquisition. Fortunately the nitrate-based originals were retained, in more or less stable conditions, and a project is now under way to try to find the means to recopy appropriate films in their original colouring.
Meanwhile another ambitious project is progressing, to scan and catalogue the Turconi clippings in their entirety. Under the auspices of the film archive of George Eastman House, Rochester, New York and the Cineteca del Friuli, and with the other collections which hold elements of the Turconi material, the project is being coordinated by Joshua Yumibe, a young graduate who has made a special study of early colour systems.