Early Film Highlights from Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema

31 August 2011

I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the development of two of our most visually stimulating resources: Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1970; Rock and Roll, Counterculture, Peace and Protest and most recently Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema, the fourth part of our Victorian Popular Culture series.

It was a year ago that I first visited the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University and wrote about my initial impressions of the material for my first Editorial News Feature. Since that time I have seen it evolve from precious - and often pristine - Victorian artefacts, meticulously filed and shelved in an academic archive, to a vivid digital resource that is fully searchable, interactive and tailored to scholars of visual culture.

In a coup for Adam Matthew, the Bill Douglas collection is complemented by a selection of early films from the British Film Institute; arguably a film lover’s treasure trove! I have always been mesmerised by the allure and magic of the early film era; the palpable excitement that audiences must have felt when watching pictures in animation for the first time and also the terror and bewilderment they would have experienced when witnessing often alarming ‘special effects’ on a large scale.

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Some notable early ‘special effect’ films include: Santa Claus (1898), which sees Santa coming down the chimney, leaving presents for the sleeping children and suddenly disappearing just as they start to wake; Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900), showcasing early ‘close-up’ shots via a ‘magic’ reading glass; and my personal favourite, Upside Down; Or The Human Flies (1899). In this clip, a magician waves his wand and makes a top hat fly to the ceiling. He then asks some people to stand before disappearing himself, and then suddenly the remaining people find themselves standing upside-down on the ceiling. This is one of the first films made by W. R. Booth, an early special effects pioneer with a background in magic performance. What is in fact a very simple illusion – filming with the camera turned upside-down so that the actors appear to be performing on the ceiling – would have been literally astonishing for the film’s contemporary audiences at the turn of the century and that is why, for me, the magic remains so potent.

Still fromAnother recurring theme in early moving pictures is the ‘peep-show’ effect. Moving pictures – and the enticingly dark picture houses where they would have been exhibited – provided a tantalizing new medium for voyeuristic entertainment whereby audiences could observe these otherwise private happenings without interruption. Many films were shot ‘through the keyhole’ to allow the audience to witness bedroom or boudoir scenes from a supposedly secret vantage point. A few memorable films within this genre include, A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir (1896), which sees an extravagantly dressed lady removing articles of clothing – hat, shawl, sash, ribbons, overskirt, corset, more ribbons, petticoats and stockings – until she is down to nothing more than a muslin shift. This elaborate ‘strip-tease’ is repeated in the 1898 film The Bride’s First Night, which features a bride getting ready for bed while her new husband watches from behind a screen and rubs his hands together in giddy anticipation. Of the films we have selected from the BFI, the French short Flagrant Delit D’Adultere (1900) is perhaps the most risqué. This shows a couple ‘in flagrante delicto’ as the title suggests (although, unlike his mistress, the gentleman is in fact fully clothed). Upon hearing a noise, he secretes her away in a hidden cupboard before a troupe of policemen burst into the room and discover the sordid scene.

During my research for this project I have come across references to many early films that unfortunately, due to poor storage conditions or the experimental projectors used to play the reels of film, have been irrevocably lost. This resource – and digitisation in general – provides a way of capturing these artefacts for both preservation and longevity, and I am so excited to see the final result.

All of the short films mentioned and many more will be featured in Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema resource courtesy of the British Film Institute.