Category Archives: Film

Oh! Asta, you hot thing!

'Oh! Asta!',
‘Oh! Asta!’, by Herre De Vos, published by De Nieuwe Muziekhandel (Amsterdam, 1917) and illustrated by H. Meyn.

Asta Nielsen is the first actress who became an international star. It’s true. The Deutsches Filminstitut hosted the 2011 conference Importing Asta Nielsen – Cinema-going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, at the Film Museum in Frankfurt. A result of this international gathering is the Importing Asta Nielsen Database accessible for cultural researchers all over the world.

Photographic portrait of Asta Nielsen, s.d.
Portrait of Asta Nielsen (German postcard, s.d.).

According to this database ‘Asta Nielsen was the first international film star who made her name a brand, nearly unrivalled in many countries in the years 1911 and 1912’.

The sheet music cover we started with (Oh! Asta!) is from 1917. It tells, no it sings about a young man who –in the darkness of a cinema– falls for the wild charms of Asta. And who wouldn’t? Look at how charming and natural Asta is in the 30-seconds opening scene of the 1910 silent film The Abyss (Afgrunden in Danish) filmed by Urban Gad, who she would marry two years later.

Nielsen was born in 1881 in Copenhagen. At eighteen she followed classes at the Royal Danish Theatre and… got pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Jesta, who would in the 1960’s, when her mother was already 83 years old, commit suicide. Asta Nielsen never revealed the identity of the father. She graduated when she was twenty-two, and became a stage actress in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In 1909 she started her film career with ‘Afgrunden’, in which she wisely adapted her acting to the demands of the film media: she performed naturally and avoided theatrical dramatization.

But above all her undisguised and shameless sexuality must have propelled her films and her career. Oh my! She’s really hot in what must have been the first ‘Gaucho Dance’ in cinematography (it heralds the craze of the Argentine tango that would offend Europe right before WWI). Look how she wriggles in her tightly stretched dress. See her wiggling her hips and pushing her bottom against that poor cowboy. Please, stop the torture!

We have added the music of the great Martha Argerich playing the Danza Del Gaucho Matrero by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. For the unedited, 37-minute silent movie Abgrunden, click here. While researching we found a different iconographic representation of the Gaucho dance, somewhat less erotic, uh…

Liebig chromo 'La danse des Gauchos'
‘La danse des Gauchos’ – Dans la République argentine, Liebig chromo, s.d. (source

The dancing Argentine cowboys and girls conquered the covers of many European sheet music. Here are two examples from our collection.

The Argentinian cowboys and girls conquered many sheet music covers.
Left: ‘El Gauchito’ by Emile Köhler, illustrated by Clérice frères (published by Librairie Hachette, Paris, 1915). Right: ‘Gaucha flor’ by Pedro Palau, unknown illustrator (published by Ildefonso Alier, Madrid, s.d.).

Asta Nielsen developed most of her film career in Germany until the mid-Thirties, when sound took over the silent era. The success of what was known as ‘Asta Nielsen films’ was immense, from Russia to the United States, where her films were heavily censored. Called the first international movie star, Nielsen earned a staggering salary. In 1925 she co-starred in the Pabst film Die freudlose Gasse with the next Scandinavian diva, Greta Garbo. Nielsen was portrayed on many film posters by artists (such as Ernst Deutsch-Dryden and Robert Leonard) who we also know as designers of sheet music covers.

Poster by Ernst Deutsch-Dryden
Poster by Ernst Deutsch-Dryden for the Asta Nielsen film ‘Komödianten’ (1913).
Poster illustrated by Leonard
Poster illustrated by Robert L. Leonard for the Asta Nielsen film ‘Hamlet’ (1921).

In 1935 Nielsen returned to Denmark where she continued acting on stage, wrote her biography, had a creative hand in visual arts, and travelled a lot with her third husband. She died in 1972.

Oh, Asta! You’re still hot and beautiful.

Photo of Asta Nielsen in 1966.
Asta Nielsen in 1966 (photography Tage Nielsen-Scanpix).

Volga(z)! Heave ho!

Sheet music (partition musicale) of 'Katanga', song by Hippolyte Ackermans & Charles Geuskens, lyrics by M. Roels, 1928, illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.
‘Katanga’ by Hippolyte Ackermans & Charles Geuskens, lyrics by M. Roels, published by Mado Editeur (Bruxelles, 1928), illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.

Voici le style moderne: the Katanga Fox Trot! The forthright and powerful cover made by Alfred Bernier has the typical Art Deco marks. A purified theme, rendered with honest lines and shapes. The natural forms are geometrically stylised, they become streamlined. Repeated elements create a rhythmic tableau of colours, shapes and letters for the song about a man longing both for the faraway land and the woman who lives there.


We know next to nothing about Bernier. Having studied at the Académie de Bruxelles, he was active as an illustrator for Belgian music publishers during the end of the Twenties. He was born near Buenos Aires in 1888. We have two other covers in our collection, one of which is the black and white ‘Volga!’. This is thousand miles away from Katanga, but also a delicious Art Deco cover. The stark composition expresses the strength of the workmen and the violent wind. Again, repeated elements create a dynamic scene, frozen in time.

Cover for the sheet music 'Volga!' by Max Alexis and Charles Tutelier, published by Vergucht and illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier
‘Volga!’ by Max Alexis and Charles Tutelier, published by Vergucht (Bruxelles, 1929) and illustrated by Alfred Mariano Bernier.


The song by Charles Tutelier was probably inspired by the 1926 epic silent movie of Cecil B. DeMille, The Volga Boatman.

Volga boatman Poster Gablin

This big-scaled romantic melodrama, set in the 1917 Russian Revolution, was a shift from the usual anti-Bolshevik films, in that it also focussed on the oppression and the cruelty of the Czar’s regime and did not portray all the revolutionaries as just dumb and violent agitators. On the contrary, our hero is even susceptible to romantic entanglement. See for yourself in this short montage we made from the 2-hour classic of the silent screen.

The film gets an unintentional Dadaistic twist when the social order is being ‘revolutionised’ by the Reds.

The film was an international success and generated sheet music covers in many countries.

Two sheet music covers. Left: 'Le Batelier de la Volga' by Emile Liétard (Châtelineau, s.d.), unknown illustrator. Right: 'Song of the Volga Boatman' published by Keith, Prowse & Co (London, s.d.), unknown illustrator.
Left: ‘Le Batelier de la Volga’ by Emile Liétard (Châtelineau, s.d.). Right: ‘Song of the Volga Boatman’ published by Keith, Prowse & Co (London, s.d.). Both unknown illustrator.
Two-Sheet-Music covers: Left: 'Wolga Lied' published by B. J. Smit & Co (Amsterdam, s.d.) illustration signed F.K. Right: 'La Canzone dei Batellieri del Volga', published by A. & G. Carisch & C. (Milano, 1929), illustrated by Bonfanti.
Left: ‘Wolga Lied’ published by B. J. Smit & Co (Amsterdam, s.d.) illustration signed F.K. Right: ‘La Canzone dei Batellieri del Volga’, published by A. & G. Carisch & C. (Milano, 1929), illustrated by Bonfanti.
'Burlaki (Lied der Barkenschlepper an der Wolga' published by J. H. Zimmerman
‘Burlaki (Lied der Barkenschlepper an der Wolga)’ published by J. H. Zimmerman (Leipzig, s.d.)

One can wonder why in 1917 the title character had to work as a boatman on the Volga. For at least a few decades there hadn’t been any boatmen (Burlaks or barge haulers) working on the Volga. Cecil B. DeMille called this tampering with ‘details’ from the past, telescoping history. His reason was probably very Hollywoodesque: if the American audience knew one Russian song, then it undoubtedly was The Song of the Volga Boatman. Let’s take a minute to hear and see a poignant and primal rendition of the song by the Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff.

Ey, ukhnem!’ is the Russian title of the well-known traditional folk song. In 1866 it was published for the first time, with only one (disconcerting Boy Scoutish) verse:

The firm stance of Christoff calls to my mind the posture of the gentleman singer drawn by Jules David  for the song ‘Ténors et Basses’.

Detail from the sheet music cover for 'Ténors et Basses' (Air Bouffe) , by Paul Henrion, lyrics by Emile Barateau, published by Colombier (Paris, s.d.)
Detail from the sheet music cover for ‘Ténors et Basses’ (Air Bouffe) by Paul Henrion, lyrics by Emile Barateau, published by Colombier (Paris, s.d.)

In 1873 Ilya Repin finished his iconic (almost 3m wide!) painting of burlaks along the longest river of Europe, in Tsarist Russia. It both condemns inhumane and harsh working conditions, while also saluting the dignity and long-suffering of the exhausted working class.

Painting by Ilia Efimovich Repin (1844-1930): Volga Boatmen (1870-1873)
Ilya Repin: ‘Volga Boatmen’ (1870-1873), State Russian Museum, St Petersburg (131.5 cm × 281 cm)

It was not only in Russia that ships were pulled by manpower along a tow path. Wherever it was impractical to sail, human force was used to drag the vessels. In the second half of the 19th century it apparently was a favourite theme for painters.

Painting by Frederick Arthur Bridgman in 1875: Towing on the Nile.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman: ‘Towing on the Nile’, 1875.
Painting by Telemaco Signorini: L'alzaia, Cascine di Firenze, 1864
Telemaco Signorini: L’alzaia, Cascine di Firenze, 1864

We found unsettling photographs of this human labour.

Burlakwomen photographed on the Volga, 1900s (Wikipedia)
Burlak women photographed on the Volga, 1900s (source: Wikipedia)
Photograph: On the towpath along the river Po, around 1920-1930. (source: G. Giarelli, La cultura del fiume: i barcari del Po, 1986/1987).
On the towpath along the river Po, around 1920-1930. (source: G. Giarelli, La cultura del fiume: i barcari del Po, 1986/1987).
Een man en een vrouw trekken samen een trekschuit door een binnenkanaal. Plaats onbekend, 27 mei 1931.
Man and woman towing a cargo-boat through a ship-canal. The Netherlands, 1931 (source: Nationaal Archief).

Later vehicles and beasts of burden replaced the human pullers, before the work became obsolete when ships were fitted with engines. Towing paths now offer pleasant walks and tourist rides.

Photograph Canal du Midi: chemin de halage (2014)
Canal du Midi: chemin de halage or tow path (2014)

One more thing. Volga also was the name of a car manufactured by GAZ in the USSR from 1956 on. The Soviet nomenklatura chose the Volga as their favourite car to commute between the Kremlin and their dacha. For many Russian generations the brand became the symbol of style and success. The first model was the GAZ-M-21. But then, that’s a completely different hobby…

(credit: Youtube’s Ramzis123)

Yo-yo te quiero

Yo Yo sheet music cover illustrated by L.M., Torino, 1932).
‘Yo Yo’ by Pavesio & Chiappo, sheet music cover illustrated by L.M. (Torino, 1932).

The yo-yo was invented long ago. Traces of its origins were found in old China and ancient Greece. At the end of the 1920s the little toy became all the rage, and its popularity would again flare in the Fifties. This was largely due to the marketing efforts of businessman Donald F. Duncan. In 1930 he bought a yo-yo manufacturing company from an entrepreneurial Filipino immigrant. He also trademarked the name yo-yo, which means come-come in Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines.

Yo-Yo sheet music covers from, partitions illustrées
Yo-Yo sheet music covers. Left: ‘Yo-Yo’ by Milli and Jacobs, no illustrator (Ch. Bens, Bruxelles, s.d.). Right: ‘Son YoYo’ by Jardin and Gardoni, illustrated by Briol (P. Beuscher, Paris, s.d.).

Duncan hired demonstrators, organised yo-yo contests and devised keen marketing schemes. For example, he approached newspaper magnate William Randolph (Citizen Kane) Hearst with the following deal: Hearst newspapers would advertise Duncan’s yo-yo contests and in return all competitors had to show three newspaper subscriptions as entry fee. These marketing campaigns were  phenomenally successful and the sales of newspapers and yo-yo’s soared. Here is a Duncan yo-yo commercial from the fifties for a tied sale with breakfast cereals. And boy, are they fun!

For the next three decades Duncan’s company sold 85% of all yo-yo’s in the US. With a good business sense and imaginative marketing actions Donald Duncan turned his company into a $25 million toy giant.

Boy plaint a yo-yo. Cover of the Minneapolis 'Picture' magazine, Dec. 9, 1956.
Cover of the Minneapolis ‘Picture’ magazine, Dec. 9, 1956.
A photograph of the production process at Duncan yo-yo factory
View on the production process at Duncan yo-yo factory (source: Picture, Dec. 9, 1956).

For decades the yo-yo contests kept driving the sales worldwide. Watch how in England the youth was driven into the arms of the 1950s yo-yo craze.

And if yo-yo was the rage at home and in the streets, it of course also found its way on many sheet music covers.

The yo-yo craze on sheet music covers.
The yo-yo craze on sheet music covers. Left: ‘Min yo-yo’ by Gunnar & Sixten (Sweden, s.d.). Right: ‘Elle jouait du Yo-Yo’ by Charlys (Palace Edition, Paris, s.d.). Both by unknown illustrators.
More yo-yo sheet music covers.
More yo-yo sheet music covers. Left: ‘La Javavalse du Yo-yo’ by Freund and Jacobs, illustrated by a Freund relative (Vergucht, Bruxelles, s.d.). Right: ‘Je yoyote tu yoyotes il yoyote’ by Langlois and Servais, illustration by Peter De Greef (Schott Frères, Bruxelles, s.d.).

For the physics nerds amongst us, we found this clarifying piece of information on the website of an ‘extreme yoyo club’:
split string yoyoYou might think that the string is tied to the yoyo. It’s not. Trust me. If you look at the string closely, you’ll notice it’s actually made out of 2 strings wound together. Twist the string counter-clockwise and you’ll see the 2 strings unwind. At the yoyo end of the string is a loop made with the winding of the string. This is where the yoyo’s axle should sit. This is why it is possible for the yoyo to spin smoothly on the string.

We could end this post with an account of how even today yo-yo contests are popular (and acrobatic!). But we prefer to conclude with clown Yoyo. Have you ever heard of Pierre Étaix? He’s a French film maker, clown, actor and draughtsman who worked closely for and with Jacques Tati. Étaix’s second film (1962), tells the life of clown Yoyo (yes, he is regularly seen playing with a yo-yo). We show two bizarre extracts: the animated opening credits, and a re-enactment of a 1925 charleston private show. Savour and enjoy.