Butterfly mysteries

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!

Paul returns to Cambridge

Thanks to Pam Halls and Jim Smith of the Cambridge Technology Museum, Robert paid a return visit to Cambridge yesterday. That’s assuming that he might have been manning the projector on 6 October 1896, when the ‘Theatographe’ (adding a stylish ‘e’ was common practice) made its Cambridge debut at Tudor’s Circus as part of a very busy variety programme – with Nimble Nip contributing ‘eccentricities’, according to this splendid silk programme discovered by Jim in the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library. This helps show how moving pictures really did debut amid every kind of novelty in the 1890s – and none livelier than Tudor’s Circus!

Josh Nall, curator at Cambridge University’s Whipple Museum of the History of Science, contributed a superb explanation of how long-distance telegraphy had created a new demand for precision instruments to measure low electrical currents – which launched Paul’s career in the early 1890s. Before the arrival of two Greek-American businessmen in 1894, looking for an electrical engineer to run up some new-fangled Kinetoscopes, took him in a new direction for the next fifteen years. My part was to outline how Robert and Ellen Paul created Britain’s first real film studio at Muswell Hill in 1898, with an astonishing series of innovations, up to their abrupt departure from the film industry in 1909.

After merging his company with Horace Darwin’s Cambridge Instrument Company in the aftermath of World War 1, Paul became more of a corporate businessmen, helping to steer the company through the next two decades. But he kept a fully-equipped workshop in the basement of his imposing mansion in Kensington’s Addison Road, and was still solving technical engineering challenges in the 1930s – like the Bragg-Paul Respirator, which saved many lives during polio and diphtheria epidemics.

He was also contributing to the history of how cinema had started in Britain, in a lecture to the British Kinematograph Society in 1936, which was promptly reprinted by the SMPTE in Hollywood. Paul seemed bemused that anyone should want to resurrect these early years, but he happily answered letters from many directions, surely realising that this was a history in the making. No less than that of electrical science, which he’d helped promote in his contribution to the 1931 Faraday exhibition at the Albert Hall.

A Pope in your Pocket

Creating the Crouch End Paul exhibition brought me into contact with a local collector of weird and wonderful gadgets, Maurice Collins. And within Maurice’s vast collection, I was thrilled to discover an original Filoscope – one that I could actually handle, unlike those locked away in museums. The Filoscope was a flick- or, as Americans say, flipbook device invented by Robert Paul’s friend and cameraman, Henry Short, in 1897.  All the Filoscopes I’ve examined  before have used films by Paul, some of which we digitally animated for the 2007 DVD of Paul’s work, where the Filoscopes of Andalusian Dance, Westminster Street Scene and Chirgwin in his Humorous Business are the only surviving records of these early films – the first of which was shot by Short on his 1896 tour of Spain and Portugal for Paul.

But Short had signed a deal with British Biograph and Mutoscope in 1898, which the struggling company apparently hoped might raise revenue. Maurice’s Filoscope carries the BM&B brand, and contains one of the company’s most prestigious subjects: W. K. L. Dickson’s film of Pope Leo XIII, taken in Rome that same summer. As one of the founders of this company, challenging the hegemony of his previous employer Edison, Dickson had a mission to promote the brand and the format – a huge 68mm strip giving extraordinary definition compared with Edison’s 35mm.

Filming the Pope in Rome in 1898 was one of Dickson’s earliest publicity stunts, soon followed by filming Beerbohm Tree as a barnstorming King John in London in 1899, then taking the Biograph camera on location to South Africa to film the Anglo-Boer War. Gaining permission to film the Pope apparently took some months of diplomacy, but yielded the intriguing theological promise that viewing Leo in motion might constitute receiving his blessing. For Harry Short’s miniaturised version of the Biograph original, perhaps a modern portable successor to the traditional wayside shrines of Catholic tradition?

Come Along, Do!

Welcome to The Lost World of Paul’s Animatograph Works 1898-1909. The new exhibition is now open at Hornsey Library’s Original Gallery, Haringey Park, Crouch End, London N8. Detailed hours on the Library website, but essentially every afternoon from 1pm, until 7pm weekdays, 5pm weekends. Until the end of February, and look out for some talks and special events during the month. Copies of the Time Traveller graphic novel also available to take away free.

This new exhibition, following those of 2019-20 in London and Bradford, focuses on ‘the studio years’, after Robert and Ellen bought land in the new suburb of Muswell Hill ‘to take subjects on a more ambitious scale’, as Paul put it in 1936. Sadly, only one of the 80 films they made in what must have been a hectic summer has survived – and Come Along, Do! is missing its historic second shot, although this has now been restored digitally from surviving frame images. The source of these, and more frames from lost films, is a composite panel that Paul presented to the Science Museum in 1913; and an enlarged copy of this is included in the new exhibition, with a key to titles.

With a video compilation that includes some newly discovered films, this exhibition aims to present the wide range of genres that emerged from the Animatograph Works during its ten years of production. I have estimated that over 50 personnel must have been employed, in production and processing, assuming that sales were handled from Paul’s retail premises in Central London. Why no photographs of the studio in operation have so far emerged is one of many remaining mysteries, given that it must have been a significant local employer, as well as a focus of neighbourhood attention – even gossip! Irene Codd’s unpublished memoir refers to local schoolchildren bunking off school to watch a new film being made. Did none of these ever recall in later life the era of ‘Hollywood on the Hill’?

Maybe this new exhibition will trigger a discovery of further local colour? Photographs, memories, letters, rumours – any information eagerly sought! Meanwhile, do visit and discover Britain’s first film studio.