Ever wondered why the IMDb listing for Robert Paul initially flags up a film that he definitely didn’t make, The Butterfly? In the Filmography of my book on Paul, I suggested that perhaps this might be a confusion on IMDb with a similarly titled film, The History of a Butterfly: A Romance of Insect Life, attributed to Paul’s contemporary James Williamson. In fact, this too turns out to be a chimera – even though it has no less than three other websites all purporting to carry information about it (Letterbox’d, MUBI and Itcher, since you ask).
Recently, however, I discovered an unexpected clue about why The Butterfly has been attributed to Paul. Frederick Talbot’s book Moving Pictures: How they Are Made and Worked went through at least four editions between 1912 and 1923. And the fourth ‘entirely revised’ edition includes a mosaic of fifteen frames from The Human Butterfly, credited to Paul and described as ‘the first experiment with the rolling camera’.
Talbot was much criticised for apparently taking dictation from Paul in his earlier editions. Here, he explains that Paul, ‘who never tired of experiment’ conceived a new idea, which was to have the camera ‘revolve in a vertical plane’ while the actor shown ‘maintained an upright position’. The effect, we’re told, would be that he would ‘appear to be flying through the air’. Indeed, this seems to have been an effect that interested Paul, as seen in the ‘underwater’ superimpositions of The Dancer’s Dream (see BFIplayer). And Talbot clearly benefitted from Paul providing detailed information and illustration of early SFX, as in The Magic Sword of 1901.
But for The Human Butterfly, we’re told simply that ‘Paul did not pursue this theme beyond the experimental stage; exploitation of the novelty was summarily interrupted by his retirement from the moving-picture industry.’ Quite how Paul managed to ‘retire’ so abruptly in 1909, without any announcement or comment in the trade, or in local North London press, remains a mystery. There were good business reasons to pull out of an industry that was in turmoil, due to a combination of rising production values, and the pincer effect of Edison’s cartel and Pathé’s price-war. But to learn that Paul was still experimenting with special effects on the brink of retirement only compounds the mystery of his abrupt exit
Not to mention the mystery of who added this specious ‘information’ about Paul’s and Williamson’s ‘butterfly films’? Website database filmography has created an arena for enthusiasts to volunteer their discoveries or assumptions, with little or no mechanism for correcting this, other than crowd-sourced peer pressure. If I choose to invent an imaginary Hitchcock film, this is likely to be challenged by some of the legion of Hitchcock aficionados – although that might be worth testing in practice? But in early film, more is usually deemed better, however doubtful its provenance. Thus Louis Lumière is implausibly identified as ‘director’ of 134 titles and producer of 285 on IMDb. And in Paul’s case, it’s the magician and animator Walter Booth who’s awarded over fifty credits as ‘director’.
I’ve argued that the conventions of producer and director credits cannot be applied wholesale to early cinema, where more collegial practices clearly continued. There is much more to discover about who did what in early studios – which I explore in a contribution to the forthcoming 2021 Domitor proceedings. But inventing credits and posting imaginary films doesn’t help!