Robert Paul’s films travelled all over the world between 1896 and 1909 – how widely we can only guess. But proof that one at least reached Russia came when Yuri Tsivian identified the films that had inspired Andrei Bely’s 1907 essay ‘The City’. When this leading Symbolist wrote of ‘a car rushing up a wall in defiance of the laws of gravity’, then ‘zooming higher and higher among meteors’, we know he must have seen Paul’s The ? Motorist, made the previous year.
But Paul actually made several films about Russia, including a drama, Goaded to Anarchy, most likely inspired by reports to the revolutionary uprisings across Russia in 1905. This is unlikely to have been distributed in Russia, but its climax, in which ‘a young patriot’ throws a bomb into a palace reception, assassinating the general ‘who has shown no mercy’ to his sister when condemning her to exile in Siberia. The film is lost, but we have an image of this scene – which eerily anticipates the explosive climax of Bely’s great novel Petersburg.
Last week, I was able to reintroduce Paul as a key pioneer filmmaker to students at the Moscow Film School, under the benevolent eye of director Alexei Popogrebsky. But who knows how many of his films might have circulated in movie-mad Russia before 1910?
For at least the last hundred years, Robert Paul’s films have only been known in black-and-white, and often very inferior monochrome, after several generations of copying from used projection prints that somehow survived Paul’s own purge of his stock in 1909. But he was one of the first filmmakers in Britain to show and offer for sale coloured prints. The earliest mention of this was in April 1896, when he showed at least one hand-coloured film in his regular programme at the Alhambra Music Hall, which was noted in the London Evening News.
These prints were hand-painted by Edward Doubell, who had long been colouring the famous lantern slides shown at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, now apparently willing to apply his skills to the much smaller scale – and larger quantity – of film frames. The 40 foot films Paul was making at this time would have each had 456 frames! And the price quoted by Paul (in one surviving letter) wasn’t cheap, but there were clearly exhibitors who thought the attraction worth paying for.
Can we judge how good the effect might have been? No coloured prints by Paul are known to survive – except for one fugitive fragment, shown here. This is part of Paul’s coverage of the 1897 Diamond Jubilee, showing the great procession of carriages and troops that wound its way to St Paul’s on 22 June, which can be seen in many illustrations (such as http://www.history.com/news/queen-victorias-diamond-jubilee). But these few original coloured frames were already disintegrating when photographed on their way to deposit in the National Film Archive. This may be the only authentic coloured image from Paul we’ll ever see, and it’s a beauty!
During the summer of 1897, Paul recalled ‘the King of Sweden and Norway sent his artist for a projector, with instructions that the maker was to accompany it and see it properly installed in the Palace at Stockholm’. Paul evidently complied with this request – or invitation? – and having done the job, ‘benefited from ‘special facilities for getting Swedish pictures’. He shot at least eleven short films himself (sadly none of which are known to survive), which means he must have taken a camera and film stock. And he must have taken more than one projector, since a programme of his films started running during the summer at a ‘Salon International’ above a cafe in central Stockholm.
The picture at the top, which I took last year while in Stockholm for Domitor, has the same address as Theodor Blanch’s Konst-Salon, but clearly the neighbourhood has changed a bit… So many questions: how long did Paul stay? How quickly did he train a local operator to run the show? Was he able to process the films in Stockholm, or were the negs sent back to London… And what happened to the projector installed in the Palace? No answers, of course, and a disappointing absence of any evidence of his presence in the Swedish archives.
Five years later, he would travel to Norway and shoot another series, rather mysteriously announced as ‘Norway revisited’ (there doesn’t seem to have been a first visit!). but at least one of those films has survived, and it’s a fine 360deg pan around the rooftops of Hammerfest. In fact, I suspect he felt a real affinity for the North, since one of the last known photos was taken while he was on a holiday visit to Norway in the 1930s.
The more I work through Robert Paul’s astonishing film output, especially around 1899-1902, reading and re-reading the catalogue texts for the vast majority of lost films, the more I seem to hear his own tone of voice – very different from most other catalogues of this period. Surely he can’t have written them all himself, even if someone who knew him recalled him painting backdrops at night ‘after the day’s work was done’. That would be the instrument company work? Or the studio management work? Or coming up with the actual scenarios and titles?
There are photos in his big 1901 catalogue of a few studio staff at work. But these are only the processing operatives (see above – and they were selling a lot of titles at this time). We know about half a dozen of the filmmakers who worked with him over during the early 1900s, such as Frank Mottershaw, J. H. Martin and of course Walter Booth. But having IMDb slap anachronistic ‘director’ names on dozens of his company’s films doesn’t help at all. Last year, for the Pordenone Paul programme, Bill Barnes questioned whether we really should be attributing all the famous Paul ‘trick’ films to Booth – especially when he recognisably appears in a number of them. And really, there must have been many more people at work in the Paul organisation – unless Robert really did do it all? How was the studio organised during its busiest years. Of course, we’ll never know for certain, but I’m trying to use what clues I’ve found to come up with some answers. – Ian Christie
Paul’s many films about the Transvaal war, or more properly the second Anglo-Boer War, are well known, even if most of them no longer exist. But what has come as a surprise after working through Paul’s catalogues in detail is to discover that he was alert to other wars as well. The 1900-01 Boxer Rebellion in China, and the European intervention this provoked were the subject of at least one film, an elaborate allegory titled The Yellow Peril.
And even more surprising is the discovery of two multi-part dramas set amid the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Both of these are lost (like the majority of Paul’s output), but from the detailed synopses and frame stills in his catalogues, it’s clear that they were distinctly pro-Japanese. Which may also explain why his film about the 1905 Russian revolution – partly a consequence of Russia’s dismal performance in the war with Japan – is frankly anti-tsarist. I doubt very much that it was even shown in Russia (although we know The ? Motorist was, thanks to Yuri Tsivian’s detective work). But if it had been, it might have further inspired Andrei Bely, and his great novel Petersburg. Amazing how these connections and possibilities proliferate! — Ian Christie
I’m starting a blog about Robert Paul, the undersung hero of early British filmmaking. During much of the first decade of the 20th century, Paul was known by his contemporaries as ‘Daddy Paul’, the father of the British film industry. So what do we have in Britain to commemorate this role? Streets and colleges named after him, like the Edison Road, near where Paul lived in North London, or the Université Lumière in Lyon? Hardly. There’s a small plaque on the house he built in Muswell Hill, hard to read from the street. And another on the building that replaced the one where he worked during the 1890s in Hatton Garden in central London. Any display about his pioneering role in London’s Science Museum, or in the Museum of London? You’ve guessed…
Nothing about his work in film on the grave in South London either (see above). However William Friese-Greene’s impressive tomb in Highgate Cemetery still proclaims him ‘the inventor of kinematography’, which is taking him at his own doubtful word. Actually there is one other memorial to Robert Paul, although not one you’re like to come across in daily life. The Royal Society still administers the Paul Instrument Fund, endowed by Paul after his death in 1943 to support ‘scientists in the UK who want to design and construct a novel instrument to measure phenomena in the physical sciences’. And yes, there is a link between that enigmatic gravestone and this final wish.
I put together a DVD of all Paul’s known surviving films some years ago for the British Film Institute – just over 70 out of the 800 or so he produced. Many of the Paul films you’ll find on YouTube come from this DVD, with Stephen Horne’s excellent accompaniment. And new discoveries continue to be made in archives around the world – about which more in later postings on this blog. I’m currently working on a book about Paul and his place in the early moving picture business, as well as some of the other contexts he was active in. I hope this will be ready to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth, in 2019.
Will Britain finally decide to give Paul his due? To recognise that London was one of the key cities where the moving-picture era took off? Will be become a household name, like Edison, Marconi, Lumière? I’m not holding my breath – but working to try to make it happen. Ian Christie