Bradford’s National Science and Media Museum has just created a new entrance to the Cubby Broccoli cinema, to celebrate its reopening, with life-size figures of an interesting selection of pioneers. In the wake of the Forgotten Showman Robert Paul exhibition, they’ve commissioned the figure of Ellen Paul, Robert’s wife and studio manager (actor and probably producer too), appearing here for the very first time in the company of Alice Guy-Blaché, Louis Lumière, Oscar Micheaux and Lotte Reiniger.
Anyone who’s studied the canon of early cinema knows how long it takes to change this, and do justice to unknown or forgotten figures. By the standards of film history, this marks rapid progress to correct the received view, still widely circulated, that it was the Lumières wot done it all…
Birkbeck College hosted an online Symposium last week, Remapping Early British Cinema, with twenty contributors all offering new perspectives on this topic. The complete recording will soon be online to browse. And you can catch up with Alice Guy’s work at Solax on the Kennington Bioscope YouTube channel all through June: https://www.youtube.com/kenningtonbioscope as part of Columbia University’s Women and the Silent Screen conference.
One of many paradoxes of early film history is that, while Louis Lumière considered moving pictures ‘an invention without any future’, he had no doubt that colour photographs were the future. His vindication came with the Autochrome process, patented in 1903, though only for still photography. But if he had managed to combine these, might he have taken more interest in the invention he remains most famous for?
In contrast, Lumière’s contemporary Robert Paul believed from the start that ‘animated photography’ needed to have the same appeal as the normal coloured lantern slides, and the new chromolitho pictorial postcards. Within two months of becoming an active producer and exhibitor, in February 1896 he was offering his films hand coloured as ‘a perfect presentiment of actual life in motion’. Perhaps this was due to his having started with Kinetoscopes, which already featured such coloured subjects as Annabel Whitford’s Serpentine and Butterfly dances.
The late Victorian world offered a riot of coloured materials and media, even if many records of it have only reached us in monochrome copies. None of Paul’s early subjects was thought to have survived in original coloured form – unlike some films of one of his early clients Georges Méliès. However during 2019, the BFI National Archive discovered it had The Dancer’s Dream, a delightful fantasy from 1905, with its original tinting.
But what if we could see some of Paul’s earlier productions as they would have appeared? Only one film survives out of 80 that were produced ‘by a staff of Artists and Photographers’ specially assembled in his new studio in Muswell Hill during 1898, Come Along, Do! Worse still, of this landmark work, which may be the world’s first two-shot film, only the first scene is intact. But we have frames from the second scene, which have now been animated to complete the story of a Victorian lady chiding her husband’s interest in a nude statue.
The version seen here, now posted on YouTube, has been tinted and animated by Edward Christie, to give some idea of how this might have been seen in October 1898, with accompaniment by Stephen Horne, drawing on the popular song with the same theme. Although Paul left the film business in 1910, he must have had a special feeling for this early colour period, writing to several newspapers in early 1914 to draw attention to when these films were first offered in colour.
Roland-Francois Lack, intrepid chronicler of ‘film and place’, and especially of activity in his home locality of Muswell Hill in his blog The Cine-Tourist, has just posted a fascinating account of the magician and filmmaker Walter Booth. Booth worked with Robert Paul for at least seven years, appearing in a number of key films, and no doubt contributing much to their conception and execution, as well as playing the lead in many. Whether he was ever a ‘director’ for Paul, as is claimed on IMDb, remains open to debate – especially about whether it’s possible to speak of directors in the collegial production of the early 1900s. But no question that he helped catapult the output of Paul’s Animatograph Works into the forefront of filmmaking in these years. And this blog brings together recent discoveries with new research to give perhaps the fullest picture yet of this intriguing maestro of early British cinema.
During a conference at Laval University in Quebec City last May, held to celebrate the donation of the Francois Lemai Collection of early cinema equipment, I was confronted by an intriguing challenge. A projector bearing the name Paul – but with the ‘wrong’ mechanism for a genuine Paul projector of 1905.
Back then I wrote in this blog : ‘The projector certainly had ‘R. W. Paul London’ cast into its iron base-plate, which was Paul’s guarantee of genuineness. But it also carried the name ‘Bioscope’, which was Charles Urban’s projector, described by Stephen Herbert as ‘an efficient fast-pull-down beater-movement machine’, eventually manufactured for Urban by Prestwich – a company based in North London.’ I speculated: ‘Could it be one of the rip-off ‘copies’ of his projector which Paul mentioned in a letter to the German pioneer Oskar Messter in a 1932 letter? The intermittent mechanism was a ‘beater’, instead of Paul’s ‘star-wheel’ mechanism, which points to it being essentially an Urban machine. But why, or how, did it also carry Paul’s name? Was it to trade on Paul’s better reputation?
A video of me discussing this anomalous device with Jean-Pierre Sirois- Trahan has now been posted on the TECHNÈS website of the University of Montreal
And this week’s DOMITOR conference brought yet another perspective on the material history of early cinema. Guy Edmonds, a research fellow in Transtechnology research at Plymouth University, gave a fascinating paper on the issue of ‘flicker’ in early cinema. We know this motivated much debate and innovation in projector shutters, with Paul claiming that his small single-blade shutter – which you see here – minimised flicker. But did it?
I raised the point with Guy, and he replied as follows: ‘[Paul’s] Reliance is an interesting case from my point of view because it’s almost the apogee of the engineering solution to flicker. However its flicker reduction probably worked better on paper than in reality as even the very brief eclipse of light that it produced would still have been felt by the observer – and at a relatively low frequency, c.16Hz. Whereas shutters with two or three blades would have raised the frequency to 32 or 48Hz at the same time reducing the light output – a much more effective strategy for reducing flicker to quasi-unreportable levels.’
The Lemai conference in Quebec was a rare chance to discover more about the material history of early cinema. And a reminder to many of us how little we know about, or have even considered, the mechanisms and materials of the first generation of movie apparatus. Now, research by Stephen Herbert, Guy Edmonds and others is finally getting to grips with these vital issues. Many years ago, I spoke at a Bill Douglas Centre conference, and the resulting paper in Multimedia Histories was entitled ‘Why the hardware matters’. It still does – more than ever.