Spanish detective work

Madrid

In August 1896, Paul sent the man who had originally got him involved in ‘animated photography’, Henry Short, on a mission to Spain and Portugal. Short was to film picturesque scenes around the Iberian Peninsula, which would eventually make a special programme to show back in Britain. Probably taking his cue from the Lumière practice of showing new work while on location, Short’s eighteen subjects were first seen by local audiences, presented by a mysterious showman, ‘Edwin Rousby’, in a Lisbon theatre. Rousby was actually Hungarian, before anglicising his and his wife’s names, when they appeared at the Folies Bergères with an ‘electric orchestra’. But while on tour in Britain, they had discovered Paul’s Animatograph, and brought it to Spain and Portugal with great success. Now, they had local films to show during the last quarter of 1896.

‘A Tour through Spain and Portugal’ opened, appropriately, at the Alhambra in London on 22 October, where it was also a success (perhaps helped by two bull-fight films being withheld). But the London show would have a bizarre aftermath in January of the following year. The popular writer George R. Sims published a short story in The Referee entitled ‘Our Detective Story’, in which a detective recalls a visit to the London Alhambra, where he sees a former client, whose wife he had been shadowing. When the lights go down, ‘A Tour’ appears on screen, and the sixth item shows a man and a woman in a public park in Madrid. The woman is indeed the client’s wife, seen with his business partner.

Sims’ dialogue has to be quoted: ‘Mrs – gave a shriek. Her husband seized her by the arm. “Stay madam”, he hissed in her ear. “I will see the end of this”. A month later, they are in court, and the films is shown again as evidence of adultery, with the moral of the story: ‘always keep a sharp look-out for the gentleman who takes pictures for the cinematographe’. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of either Kipling’s Mrs Bathurst, or The Story the Biograph Told, a 1904 American film in which a businessman’s dalliance is revealed on screen when he and his wife go to the Nickelodeon. But like many things in early film, it started in London, and Paul played a – in this case  entirely inadvertent – part in it.

I owe this to Stephen Bottomore, who discovered the Sims story and wrote about it in Andrew Shail’s excellent anthology Reading the Cinematograph: the Cinema in British Short Fiction, 1896-1912 (Exeter University Press, 2011). Sadly all but one of Short’s Iberian films are currently lost (the postcard above of the Puerta del Sol is standing in for the one probably seen by Sims) – except for a Spanish dance that’s preserved on Short’s own invention, the Filoscope, kindly loaned by the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University for my c.2008 BFI Paul DVD.

One thought on “Spanish detective work

  1. Such a shame that the film of Madrid doesn’t exist. Would have brought together my twin obsessions of early cinema and the Spanish capital perfectly. This may require a visit to the Filmoteca Espanola…

    Like

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