The Magician of Muswell Hill

Booth in action in Undressing Extraordinary

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.

Here it is Roland-Francois’s blog:

Confronting a challenge

The problematic projector: a fake, a composite, or an unknown model?

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.


Behind the scenes at the studio

What really happened at early film studios? Surprisingly little detailed empirical research has been done on even the best-known early studios in America, France and Britain. Which makes the theme of this year’s online DOMITOR conference, Crafts, Trades and Techniques of Early Cinema, specially intriguing. My own contribution, in a panel on Friday 20 Nov, is to consider what evidence we have of staffing at Robert Paul’s New Southgate studio and Cecil Hepworth’s at Walton-on-Thames in South London. I’m suggesting that both of these pioneer establishments must have employed considerably more ‘hands’ than we normally imagine. They were in fact the first examples of film production as a prototype ‘new media industry’, marking the transition from 19th century artisanal practices to the new methods required by new technologies of reproduction.

There will be much more new research on display in the conference, available for all to join as a webinar. See programme and UK timings below.

Conference Schedule and Programme

Tuesday, Nov. 17, 16.00 18.00

-16.00 Welcome and Introduction
-16.15 Film Chemistry, Lab Technique, and Archival Traces -17.10 The Professionalization of Filmmaking

Wednesday, Nov. 18, 16.00 18.00

-16.00 Cameras, Projectors, and Trick Photography
-16.50 Useful Animation in Early Cinema
-17.30 Case Studies from the Media Ecology Project + Tribute to Paul Spehr

Thursday, Nov. 19, 16.00 17.00

-16.00 The Politics of Distribution and Exhibition. -16.45 Early Latin American Cinema

Friday, Nov. 20, 16.00-18.30

-16.00 Studio Labour and Organization – -16.50 In the Theatre
-17.30 Performers and Performance -18.15 Concluding Remarks and Farewell

Join from a PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone or Android device: Click this URL to join: KM.DQIAAAAUWVx_TRZHRjNpMFhZVFM5U1ZfdWEwdFJCZUJnAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA &pwd=UFlsc3gycExoL0Z3MVJMa0pDQ0UwUT09

History Repeats?

A technical hitch cut me off in mid-interview about my Robert Paul book on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, and I think I can relate to the frustration that Robert Paul must have felt on Friday 21 February 1896. On the previous evening, he had presented his new Theatrograph projector at a ‘conversazione’ – probably what we would call a salon – at his former college, the Finsbury Technical College, in Leonard Street, Shoreditch.

A Paul Theatrograph from the National Science and Media Museum collection in Bradford, where The Forgotten Showman exhibition runs until March 2021.

Unfortunately that show didn’t go as well as Paul must have hoped. According to a writer in the journal Lightning (a ‘popular and business review of electricity’ – perhaps the Wired of its day), there was an accident , ‘for which Mr Paul is in no way responsible’. Due to the apparatus being unsteadily mounted, ‘on the hand-wheel being turned to bring successive films into view, the whole picture joggled up and down on the screen’.

Would Paul have been consoled by the same writer having attended a demonstration of the Lumière Cinématographe that very afternoon, where ‘some of the more quickly moving figures were very jerky’? Possibly. What this anonymous observer had witnessed was Day 1 of the new era of projected ‘animated photography’ in Britain – and both machines displayed teething problems. His verdict was that ‘there is little to choose between the processes’, which he was sure could both soon run smoothly.

The Royal Institution, of which Paul became a lifelong supporter, in an 1838 watercolour.

Eight days later, Paul would again present his Theatrograph, this time at the more imposing Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, and this show seems to have had no steadiness problem. One member of the audience was Lady Harris, wife of the impresario Sir Augustus Harris, described as ‘a dominant figure in the West End Theatre of the 1880s and 90s’. She must have been impressed, since within weeks, Paul’s projectors were booked into both Olympia (showing films ‘in brilliant colours’) and the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square, as well as the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.

Whatever he had intended at the start of the year, racing to complete a projection mechanism that would initially re-use the films that he and Birt Acres had made for the Kinetoscope viewer early in 1895, he was now launched as a West End showman. Soon he would be shooting new films around London – including one taken on Blackfriars Bridge, with his old school, the City of London (now housing J. P. Morgan) just visible in the smoky background

Talk about snatching victory from – well, a technical hitch…