One of the iconic moments in dramatising early film history comes in The Magic Box, the British film industry’s collective 1951 tribute to the ‘inventor of kinematography’, William Friese-Greene. Willie has been slaving away on his efforts to make pictures move, and when he finally succeeds, he rushes out into the darkness to tell someone. The first person he meets is a stolid policeman, played by Laurence Olivier, in one of the many star cameos that decorate the film. Olivier’s disbelief turning to delighted recognition is an unforgettable moment – if only it had happened like this. Or indeed anything like it had happened for poor, desperate Willie Green.
The fact that it didn’t probably contributed to discrediting Friese-Greene’s claims as an inventor. But he wasn’t to blame for creating this scenario. That seems to have been the work of the self-proclaimed ‘historian’ Will Day, soon after Friese-Greene’s poignant, destitute death in 1921. And before long it had become central to the Friese-Greene legend, with the anonymous policeman recruited as ‘cinema’s first spectator’.
So was it sheer invention – dreamed up to glorify Willie posthumously, after the years of neglect? In fact, something like it really did happen, back in 1895, but to Robert Paul rather than Friese-Greene. Paul mentioned it in an after-dinner speech to the film trade in 1909, as a joking reminder of how far the business had come since those early days: It was 3am in the morning when they successfully finished their film and they made such a cheering over the fact that the police came in to know what was the matter. The delight that he then experienced had been maintained as it was a most interesting profession. No mention here, incidentally, that he would soon give up this ‘interesting profession’. But that’s another story.
The test film they were working on in Hatton Garden had probably been taken outside Birt Acres’ house in Barnet, and it certainly wasn’t shown on a screen at this early date, as imagined in The Magic Box and elsewhere, but seen in one of the Kinetoscope viewers that Paul was making. How the story got detached from Paul and attached to Friese-Greene has more to do with the aims of storytelling than of history, but it’s such a good scene that it would be nice to return it to its rightful owner some day.
My thanks are due to Stephen Herbert and Peter Domankiewicz for help in getting to the bottom of this mystery. More about it in the forthcoming Robert Paul tome.
So Dickens ‘invented Christmas’ as we know it, with his 1843 A Christmas Carol, according to Bharat Nalluri’s current movie? Well, if he did, then Robert Paul surely deserves to be celebrated for having invented the ‘Christmas film’ fifty-odd years later. His first in this new genre came in November 1898, with Santa Claus and the Children, in which presents apparently came down the chimney (like the majority of Paul’s films, it’s currently lost).
Then in November 1901, Paul offered a double treat, both parts firmly linked to Dickens. Mr Pickwick’s Christmas at Wardles recreated a scene from the serial that had launched the novelist’s career. And in the same month Paul’s issued his longest film to date, the multi-scene Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, in which the miser is mortified by scenes from his disappointed youth, before making ghostly visits to his employees enjoying their Christmas, like the Cratchits (above). With the Anglo-Boer war dragging on, Paul may well have felt that some seasonal cheer was needed, especially in the English idiom, as he proposed in another film released at the same time, The Magic Sword, which offered a kind of condensed pantomime, full of impressive stop-motion magic.
The latter two you can easily find online, more or less complete. But Paul’s last seasonal special is still among the lost. For 1905, he offered The Christmas Card; or the Story of Three Homes, billed as ‘a film specially devised for the present season’. A hand opens a Christmas card to reveal ‘The Home of the Rich’, where a ‘well-dressed little girl’ invites a ‘poor waif’ who has been sweeping snow from her steps into the well-provisioned house, from which they ‘mysteriously float away’ to the Home of Santa Claus. After he has obligingly morphed out of a Christmas pudding, the trio proceed to ‘The Home of the Poor’, where the waif’s mother is greatly relieved to have him back, even of the cupboard is bare – until S. Claus magically stocks it with Christmas fare, pulls a cracker and ‘drinks a toast to all the world’. Advertised as ‘the ideal picture for Christmas’, this is confidently described as ‘full of the good old-fashioned sentiment and pathos which Dickens loved to picture’.
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