Friday, October 10, 2008


In memory of the great British film historian John Barnes (1920-2008)
Mary Jane's Mishap
Mary Jane's Mishap; or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin. GB 1903. PC: G.A. Smith / Warwick Trading Company. D+SC+ED: George Albert Smith. CAST: Laura Bayley; orig. length: 248 ft.. BFINA print 248 ft. /16 fps/ 4 min (16 fps) No intertitles.
John Barnes: "Of the 548 fiction films shown at the FIAF Congress at Brighton 30 years ago, those from France and England proved to be the most outstanding. From an artistic point of view, nothing quite matched the artistry of Georges Méliès, or some of the coloured féeries of Pathé; whereas for cinematic flair, some of the English films came out on top. No wonder they were often copied by France and the USA. American films, especially those of Edwin S. Porter, seldom matched the charm of the French and English films, and on the whole were poorly staged. For example, the substitution work by stop-motion photography where a dummy was involved, were very crudely executed compared with English and French examples. As remarkable as Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) is for the period, a lot of its staging is very poor, for example, the shooting of one of the passengers (Anderson) and the dummy substitute on the coal tender of the locomotive.
The two English films I have selected, Mary Jane’s Mishap (G.A. Smith, 1902) and The Life of Charles Peace (William Haggar, 1905) are both films with worldwide reputations. In my opinion, these two English films in particular outshone anything the Americans had to offer in this period.
Much has been written about Mary Jane’s Mishap. Quite recently, Stephen Bottomore and I have closely examined the film, and we both agree that it still has charm and is an expressive piece of early filmmaking. The film is composed of 14 shots, and includes action in depth and fluid intra-scene editing, with cuts back and forth of Mary Jane in full, medium, and close-up shots. There is also use of stop-motion during the substitution of the dummy for Mary Jane in the explosion scene, and double-exposure in the graveyard, where Mary Jane’s ghost appears.
In a sense, Mary Jane’s Mishap is the first modern film, and tells its simple tale without the need of outside information. It is years ahead of its time in cinematic expression, and is beautifully acted by Laura Bayley (Mrs. G.A. Smith), who also proves herself an expert comedienne. I rate it as England’s first masterpiece.
I feel bound to mention here Smith’s colleague, James Williamson, also of Hove, whose The Big Swallow (1901) is the first cinematically conceived film in the history of the cinema. It could not have been replicated in any other medium. It is pure cinema, whereas Mary Jane’s Mishap could have been conceived as a series of newspaper cartoons, or magic lantern slides, although neither medium could have conveyed Laura Bayley’s humour. (...) " John Barnes. - Print from worn material. A broad farce. "Rest in pieces."
The Life of Charles Peace
GB 1905. P+D: William Haggar. CASTt: Walter Haggar (Charles Peace), Violet Haggar, Henry Haggar, Lily Haggar; orig. l: 770 ft.; BFINA print 729? ft., /16? fps/ 12 min? (16? fps); Original in English; e-subtitles in Italian
John Barnes: "my second choice is also a remarkable film in many ways. (I also considered two other films, A Daring Daylight Robbery [Sheffield Photo Co., 1905] and A Daring Poaching Affray [Haggar, 1903], but as good as they are, neither quite matches up to Charles Peace, which not only has drama, but is quite humorous in parts.)
Based on incidents in the life of a real and notorious criminal, its 770 ft. are crammed with exciting action, ranging from a rooftop escape pursued by police; a prolonged chase through the countryside; an abortive escape by train; and Peace’s final capture and execution. The film contains 16 shots, with the mise-en-scène staged with the action shown at times with varying proximity to the camera, ranging from long, medium, and close shots, all edited to form a clear and decisive narrative, which the majority of audiences at the time would have understood without the need of extra-textual assistance such as intertitles or live commentary.
The escape over the rooftop at the beginning of the film seems to have been influenced by Lew Lake’s musical sketch “The Bloomsbury Burglars”. Since its first appearance on the stage, there are other examples of rooftop pursuits by police, such as A Daring Daylight Robbery (Sheffield Photo Co., 1905) directed by an ex-employee of R.W. Paul’s, Frank Mottershaw. Lew Lake’s “Bloomsbury Burglars” is certainly a precursor of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops. The late Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, authorities on the history of the theatre in all its aspects, have this to say about the sketch, in their book British Music Hall (rev. ed., 1974): “A well-known sketch in the early years of the [20th] century, it contained an exciting rooftop fight between Jerry, Nobbler, and the police. It added the phrase “Stick it Jerry” to the language, and made “Jerry” the nickname for the Germans in two world wars.”
William Haggar had been a showman with a travelling theatre troupe and an interest in still photography before coming to films at the turn of the century, so he was well-qualified for the role of filmmaker. Like so many early film pioneers, he started off filming simple actualities, but soon developed a flair for making comedies and fast action melodramas. So successful were the results that his films were acquired by British Gaumont for release under the “Elge” banner. Haggar thus became one of Britain’s foremost filmmakers, and it is a great pity that so few of his films have survived. The Life of Charles Peace is a worthy example of his work." John Barnes. - Print from worn material. A grim and energetic story of a murderer and burglar without conscience.

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