Mr and Mrs Paul

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What do we know about Ellen Paul, wife of Robert? One thing for sure: that she co-starred in his – and Britain’s – very first acted comedy, The Soldier’s Courtship, filmed on the roof of the Alhambra music hall in May 1896 (and now happily restored, though as yet unseen in Britain).  She didn’t play the object of the soldier’s vigorous affections, but the busybody who intrudes and is duly punished. Fifteen months later, she and Robert would be married, after some dogged courtship on his part, according to a family friend. The story of their family life includes the grim fact of losing three children in infancy. But it also seems to have had a series of continuing collaborations between the former dancer and the novice filmmaker.

One of these is almost certainly a film that Bryony Dixon has recently turned up in the National Film Archive, Fun on the Clothesline, probably made around the time of their marriage. In this comedy featuring a slack-wire performer, Robert plays the supporting straight man in top hat and tattered tails, while an amused woman watches the antics. Identifying Ellen for certain isn’t always easy, since she was, after all, an actress. But there’s a documented hint that she and Robert played the couple in Come Along, Do! in 1898, both disguised as elderly folk. In this (above), the pair are sharing lunch outside an ‘art exhibition’ before deciding to take a closer look. When we cut to the interior, this is actually the very first such scene change known in film history – although unfortunately the second shot survives only in catalogue stills (which I used for the BFI DVD version). But what happens is that the man is pulled away from his close inspection of a nude sculpture by his wife, following the storyline of a well-known song of the same title (also used for other media, such as lantern slides and stereographs). Obviously a good subject for marital cooperation…

Ellen may well have appeared in a number of other films. But another family friend later confirmed that she played a major part in running the studio that Paul set up in Muswell Hill in 1898. Indeed she is also said to have managed the electrical instrument business while he was abroad. Early film history wasn’t only dismissive of Paul’s foundational role in creating British cinema – blame Rachael Low for that – but it has long ignored or underestimated the unrecorded work of many women. Alice Guy wasn’t the only female pioneer!

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