16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance

What Do Those Old Films Mean?
Each part 26 Min., Dir.: Noël Burch

Return to main: What Do Those Old Films Mean?

Vol. 1: Great Britain 1900-1912
Along the Great Divide

Vol. 4: France 1904-1912
The Enemy Below

Vol. 2: USA 1902-1914
Tomorrow the World

Vol. 5: USSR 1926-1930
Born Yesterday

Vol. 3: Denmark: 1910 – 1912
She! The City and The History

Vol. 6: Germany 1926-1932
Under Two Flags

Lantern Hall and Fairground Stand
The British ”primitive” cinema is an anomaly. Nearly all the figures of classical editing (cut to close-up, cross-cutting, continuity-cutting...) were introduced by one or another of the six or seven great British pioneers1. Yet few if any of their films compare in artistry with the productions of Méliès or Pathé, while it was left to the American entrepreneurs (after 1909) to develop and industrialise the British discoveries, elaborating that ”universal language” which was to serve them so well.

Several factors made Britain the ”birthplace” of classical film editing. Chief among them was it’s magic lantern industry, the world’s largest and most innovative throughout the nineteenth century. Prefigurations of editing can be seen in the multilantern Dissolving Views, in the narrative sequencing of photographs for the Temperance Movement’s Life Models - edifying tales achieved by actors posing in three-dimensional sets. And as almost all the major pioneers, whatever their social class, were photographers and lanternists, the step from one medium to the other was gradual or even imperceptible.

A certain middle-class, Home Counties culture was a further constituent of this display of ”British inventiveness”. For it was the Smiths, the Williamsons and the other amateur gentlemen of the ”Brighton School” who made the most concerted and spectacular contributions to film syntax; it was not a Haggar in South Wales or a Mottershaw in Sheffield. Indeed, the former constitute the only body of truly middle-class film-makers in the world before 1908. Their conscious experimental bent, between about 1898 and 1904, was fired by the impatience of the better educated with a medium that seemed so much less articulate than the one-act play or the short story.

Of course, the filmmakers whose works were in a more popular vein were often as inventive as the gentlemen dilettantes, albeit more pragmatically. Mottershaw, no doubt, introduced full-blown continuity-cutting instinctively, because his action melodramas seemed to cry out for it, whilst for Smith or Williamson, the close-up, for example, was a calculated ”stunt”.

Yet all British production, irrespective of social provenance, had one fatal trait in common: their family based, craft nature. The acting credits of Charles Peace, The Dear Boys Home for the Holidays or Rescued by Rover all show to what extent these were ”home movies”, acted by ”papa, mamma, baby and the dog”.

Now, while such ”cottage industry’ production no doubt contributed to the innovative thrust of the early British cinema, it also rapidly spelled its doom. To compete with French cinematography, Italian set-building or American proficiency would have required capital which British producers simply did not have. The American expatriate Charles Urban’s efforts along more industrial lines did succeed in carving out a niche for that British speciality, the Serious Documentary. But soon the foreign markets were lost for the country’s fiction films and the domestic market overrun (80% of films shown in 1910 were foreign, mostly French and American). At the same time, a strenuous effort was made to gentrify what had hitherto been an overwhelmingly ”rough” audience. The japes and gamesomeness of the gentlemen pioneers, the rambunctious disrespect of the Haggars and Alf Collins’s faded away behind the draperies and plush carpeting of the first picture palaces.

From before 1900 until around 1910, cinema in Britain, as in most countries, was the entertainment of the poor. And most of the British films of the period can be seen as either ”edifying the poor”, in the tradition of the Victorian philanthropy, or as actually ”speaking with the voice of the poor”, ministering to the fantasies of the working class, vindicating their resentments.

Of course, nearly all the films by the gentlemen of Brighton, Hove or Walton-on-Thames either show the poor what bright, happy lives their ”betters” lead (The Dear Boys Home for the Holidays) or hold up to them the mirror of their own, usually drunken, depravity (Rescued by Rover). Only very occasionally do they condescend to filming the picturesque ways of the people (A Free Ride).

The insistent recurrence of the Temperance motif is in part a hangover from the store of nineteenth century tales and tracts, often kept artificially alive in the catalogues of companies like Bamforth, which produced thousands of slide-sets before turning to cinema. The Temperance Movement proper was now arguably past its peak, and its lantern shows were more likely to be for the young (e.g. The Band of Hope). On the other hand, the persistent images of a profligate and dangerous nether world - tramps molesting babies, gypsies stealing them (often, indeed, ”under the influence”) - were common symbols of class dread, corresponding to fears that were very much alive among the middle and upper classes.

Indeed, at the turn of the century, these had better reasons than ever to fear the poor: a more radical trade-unionism had appeared; there were now MP’s sympathetic to their cause; and there was a growing body of socially concerned reportage - evangelical, philanthropic and medical - which frequently painted a horrifying yet fascinating picture of the poor as a subhuman race, a breed apart. A Parliamentary report (1903) on the unfitness of Army recruits had revealed the deplorable state of health of working people, due largely to malnutrition. Tory ideologues seized upon the theme of the degeneracy of the race. This idea of ”the enemy within” fed in turn the theme of an ”enemy without”, of an ”imminent invasion” which reached fever pitch in 1909. The invasion panic was further fuelled by a climate of hostility towards foreign immigrants, already attested by restrictive legislation (Aliens Act, 1905).

All of these themes are resumed in the catchword notion of ”the Empire in Danger’. The humiliating stalemate on which the Boer War had ended, the rising power of the German fleet and Tory electioneering rhetoric which exploited these anxieties, all contributed to make this the golden age of jingoism, reflected in many racist films of ”native uprisings” heroically quelled, and in a spate of others designed to recruit for the territorial army.

By contrast with all the above, the most genuinely proletarian of the film pioneers was William Haggar, ”the illegitimate son of an Essex housemaid”. The films which he made for the education-thirsty, class-conscious miners of South Wales, who provided the bulk of his fairground audience, are mostly lost today. But their catalogue descriptions show them to have been at least as ”anarchistic” as the few that have survived. The lost Salmon Poachers, for example, showed the heroes giving the slip to the gamekeepers - poaching enjoyed special prestige amongst the rural and urban poor.

However, as the middle classes began taking an interest in cinema (article in the Times in 1910; Prime Minister at the ”pictures” in 1912), and as the growing distribution business sought to attract a more prosperous audience, a National Board of Censors was created (1913) and with it ”subversive” themes disappeared from British films until the eve of the Second World War.

1 - G A. Smith, James Williamson, Arthur Melbourne Cooper and Cecil Hepworth; Alf Collins, Frank Mottershaw and William Haggar