Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul AND New Discoveries: R. W. Paul and His Colleagues

The ? Motorist (1906).

The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul
    All prints from the BFI National Archive, London, except for The Magic Sword.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Cinema delle origini
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, no titles in almost every film, e-subtitles in Italian, the harp played by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, 6 Oct 2016

William Barnes (GCM catalog and website): "Robert William Paul (1869–1943) deserves a place alongside Méliès among the pioneers of camera effects. Between 1899 and 1906 he produced a series of magic films of out standing invention and vivacity, which skillfully employ the whole repertory of cinematic trickery. They are completely individual and coherent in style: only the last, The ? Motorist, acknowledges a degree of influence from Georges Méliès."

"In the dramatis personae of most of these films we can recognize the same central figure, whom we are now able to identify with certainty as Walter Robert Booth (1869–1938) – thanks to the discovery, in the John Salisse Archive in the Davenport Collection in North Walsham, Norfolk, of two stage portraits and a well-illustrated professional advertisement. (I am grateful to Peter Lane, the Magic Circle librarian, and to Anne Davenport for leading me to these.) In at least nine of the films, Booth is very recognizable – a good-looking man in his early 30s, with a wealth of black hair parted on the left, lively humorous eyes, and a very direct address to the off- screen audience – but it is likely that he appears heavily disguised in other roles also: his professional billing promised “Quick Change Impersonations” as well as “Ventriloquism, Conjuring and Illusions”."

"Booth’s importance as a performer in these films is undeniable, but speculation about his possible further involvement in the films has given rise to a good deal of regrettable confusion, which only began some 70 years after the films were made. In 1973 Booth was for the first time formally credited as the director of the Paul films in which he appeared between 1899 and 1906, in the first edition of Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue. Though Gifford never adduced any evidence for this claim, the notion has been taken up by other writers, so that Booth is often celebrated on the Internet as “Britain’s Georges Méliès”."

"The error (as I am confident it is) has certainly been compounded by the fact that Booth did in fact emerge in later years as a prolific and success ful director in his own right, making full use of the lessons he had learned with Paul, particularly in his own later magic films and science-fiction fantasies like the Airship Destroyer (1909). The Paul films had presumably been intermittent engagements in Booth’s work as a magician and live entertainer; but in 1906 he established himself as a full-time film-maker, setting up his own garden studio in Isleworth, in West London. For the next 12 years he kept up a regular supply of films to Charles Urban and his Kineto Company."

"My late brother John Barnes included Booth in the fifth volume of his history of the early years of British cinema, and subsequently, without wanting to diminish Booth’s pioneer work in any way, authoritatively contested the claim that he had begun to direct with Paul. One of John’s last articles before his death on 1 June 2008, published posthumously by the Magic Lantern Society (Newsletter 92), was entitled “The Quest for Walter Booth”. Even without access to our newly found portraits of Booth or two still-untraced Kinora reels of Booth performing, John was convinced that Booth was the principal performer in the Paul films. He pointed out , however, that though Booth might have arrived at Paul’s studio well equipped with the tricks of the stage magician, the magic in the Paul films is entirely produced by a skilled film-maker, using the resources of the camera and the laboratory, plus a repertory of stop-motion, double exposure, camera inversion, and laboratory manipulation. It is true that many stage magicians adopted cinematography – Carl Hertz, the Isola brothers, Maskelyne and Devant, and of course Georges Méliès – but Booth was never included among these by his contemporaries. John had no doubt that the magic was of Paul’s exclusive making."

"Most conclusive, however, is the testimony of Frederick A. Talbot’s pioneering book Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked, first published in 1912 and revised in 1923. Writing only six years after the last of this group of films had appeared, and as a contemporary of the film-makers themselves, he cites Méliès as one of the first French makers of trick films, and Paul as the first in Britain:"

"“I am able, through the courtesy of Mr. Robert Paul, to explain how many of the strange effects in his most striking trick films were achieved. The processes most generally practised were the “stop-motion” and “double printing,” ... but in addition to these methods he devised many others.... For example, where gradual disappearances and appearances were desired, instead of using a rectilinear diaphragm stop in the lens as is now usual, Paul occasionally resorted to the chemical dissolution of the emulsion and image from the film....”"

"Talbot continues, “One of the best and most successful trick films Paul ever produced was ... The Magic Sword. ...Paul’s studio was excellently adapted to produce strange variations in stature. ... By varying the distance between the camera and the stage Paul produced some delightful results . One picture was called The Cheese-Mites, or Lilliputians in a London Restaurant. ... Some very astonishing results can be obtained by [the] superprinting operation...there is the vision of Marley’s Ghost, and so on. ... The (?) Motorist was an extraordinary example of Paul’s handiwork. The effects were so startling and the situations so unconventional that the spectators were sorely puzzled as well as vastly entertained . ... Another of Paul’s films was the representation of a railway collision... using good toy models.”"

"Talbot was writing only six years after the last of these films was made, and was personally acquainted with practically all the pioneers of British cinema. Is it conceivable that Walter Booth, by this time a prominent film-maker – or even Paul himself – would not have protested if Talbot was mistaken in at tributing the films wholly to Robert W. Paul? By giving credit where it is due, we diminish neither Paul nor Booth.
" – William Barnes

All films directed and produced by Robert W. Paul unless otherwise indicated. All prints from the BFI National Archive, London, except for The Magic Sword.

UPSIDE DOWN; OR, THE HUMAN FLIES (GB 1899). 35 mm, 75 ft, 1'15" (16 fps); no titles. "Paul ingeniously uses two sets, one an exact inversion of the other, then films the upside-down shot (with the characters cavorting on the apparent “ceiling”) with his camera upside down."
    AA: High spirits in this magic gravity-defying sketch anticipating Fred Astaire's famous number in The Royal Wedding. Visual quality: duped, high contrast.

THE HAUNTED CURIOSITY SHOP (GB 1900). 35 mm, 129 ft, 2'09" (16 fps); no titles. "The spirits that torment a grizzled old shop-keeper are produced by a combination of double exposure and stop-camera substitution."
    AA: Crazy transformations, disjecta membra, perpetual changes, ghosts, skeletons, sarcophagi. Visual quality: duped, low contrast.

Artistic Creation (GB 1901), D: Robert W. Paul, photo: BFI National Archive, London.

ARTISTIC CREATION (GB 1901). 35 mm, 85 ft, 1'25" (16 fps); no titles. "Paul combines Walter Booth’s stage act of lightning sketches with substitution magic."
    AA: A clown draws on a canvas, and lightning sketches come alive, including a woman drawn bit by bit, and a whale. There was an applause after this film.

THE CHEESE MITES; OR, LILLIPUTIANS IN A LONDON RESTAURANT (GB 1901). 35 mm, 57 ft, 57" (16 fps); no titles. "A gentleman sits at a restaurant table, beside the window. After the waiter (Walter Booth?) has served the cheese, from behind the table, Paul splits the screen, substituting for the window and table area a second negative, shot using a greatly enlarged setting representing the window and table, on which the lady “cheese-mites” dance."
    AA: A beer mug is eagerly emptied, and little creatures emerge from cheese. The harpist played "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?" Visual quality: duped, low contrast.

A RAILWAY COLLISION (GB 1900). 35 mm, 39 ft, 39" (16 fps); no titles. "This pioneering miniature model scene is achieved with an elaborate setting and miniature steam trains which do not appear to be regular commercially available models, but made for the purposes of the film."
    AA: A drawn background, a railway collision shot with toy trains in front of a tunnel.

Undressing Extraordinary, Or, The Troubles of A Tired Traveller (GB 1901), D: Robert W Paul, photo: BFI National Archive, London.

UNDRESSING EXTRAORDINARY; OR, THE TROUBLES OF A TIRED TRAVELLER (GB 1901). 35 mm, 182 ft, 3'02" (16 fps); no titles. "An uncharacteristically whiskerless Walter Booth plays a tipsy reveller endeavouring to get into his bed, but handicapped by more than a dozen substitutions (a new costume every time he manages to remove the last), a skeletal apparition, and a snowstorm. He takes his revenge by throwing objects at the camera / audience."
    AA: Delirium. The reveller about to go to bed experiences twelve transformations while trying to undress. He even turns into a skeleton.

The Waif and the Wizard, Or, Home Made Happy (GB 1901), D: Robert W. Paul, photo: BFI National Archive, London.

THE WAIF AND THE WIZARD; OR, THE HOME MADE HAPPY (GB 1901). 35 mm, 95 ft, 1'35" (16 fps); no titles. "Magic tricks are put to the service of a mini-melodrama."
    AA: A poor little girl is soaked in pouring rain and is visited by a wizard at her sickbed. An ok print.

THE MAGIC SWORD; OR, A MEDIAEVAL MYSTERY (GB 1902). 35 mm, 164 ft, 2'44" (16 fps); no titles. Source: Filmoteca Española, Madrid. "Paul’s whole repertory of visual tricks is devoted to a “mediaeval” tale of ghosts, ogres, and fairies."
    AA: Une féerie with a magician, a witch on a broom, a giant, a fairy, a magic cauldron, a goblin, a skull, ghosts, and perpetual metamorphoses. Visual quality: high contrast.

AN OVER-INCUBATED BABY (GB 1901). 35 mm, 75 ft, 1'15" (16 fps); no titles. "Developed in France in the last quarter of the 19th century to combat the rate of infant mortality, working incubators, occupied by frail babies, were the great hit of the Berlin Exposition of 1896 and were thereafter indispensable shows in world fairs. Dr. Martin Couney’s Coney Island incubator show survived from 1900 to the 1940s. The device was an irresistible joke for Paul, with Walter Booth as the careless incubator operator."
    AA: The funniest joke of the programme. Impatient parents put their baby into an incubator ("12 months growth in 1 hour") but fail to notice overheat. The baby emerges as an old man. Which reminds me of Eino Leino's poem about the short summer of Lapland: "meill' ukkoina jo syntyy sylilapset" - "our babies are senile geezers at birth". "Ja nuori mies on valmis hautaan jo" - "and a young man is already fit for the grave".

Scrooge; Or, Marley's Ghost (GB 1901), D: Robert W. Paul, photo: BFI National Archive, London.

SCROOGE; OR, MARLEY’S GHOST (GB 1901). 35 mm, 323 ft, 5'23" (16 fps); titles: ENG. "The narrative relies on the audience’s familiarity with the story. Apart from double and triple exposures for ghost effects, the film contains an unprecedented vertical wipe to change the scene. Walter Booth plays Scrooge’s nephew."
    AA: Three visions from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol: Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas That Might Be (the gravestone of Ebenezer Scrooge). Superimpositions, apparitions, premonitions, remembrances. The harpist played "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".

THE EXTRAORDINARY WAITER (The Mysterious Heads) (GB 1902). 35 mm, 130 ft, 2'10" (16 fps); no titles. "A variety of tricks of substitution are used to create the indestructible black waiter."
    AA: The impossible faltering waiter.

A CHESS DISPUTE (GB 1903). 35 mm, 77 ft, 1'17" (16 fps); no titles. "Rather a display of ingenuity than magic: a ferocious hand-to-hand battle takes place just below the frame-line: the viewer sees only the flying evidence."
    AA: Playing chess while getting refreshments from little glasses. An unusual battle: the action is out of frame.

AN EXTRAORDINARY CAB ACCIDENT (GB 1903). 35 mm, 49 ft, 49" (16 fps); no titles. "The magic is minimal: the substitution of a dummy when the protagonist is knocked down by a horse-cab."
    AA: An impossible hit and run accident. The crushed victim stands up immediately and continues his walk with his lady friend.

The Medium Exposed (GB 1906), D: J. H. Martin tbc, photo: BFI National Archive, London.

THE MEDIUM EXPOSED (Is Spiritualism a Fraud?) (GB 1906). D: J. H. Martin?. 35 mm, 363 ft, 6'03" (16 fps); main title: ENG; no intertitles. "Smooth trick work is entirely at the service of the story, with its spectacular street finale. Walter Booth is the amorous young man who takes advantage of the extinguished lights of the séance."
    AA: A rough reaction to a fake medium. He is tied to a chair, locked in a casket, dragged cruelly and taken away on a cart.

The ? Motorist (GB 1906), D: Robert W. Paul, photo: BFI National Archive, London.

THE ? MOTORIST (GB 1906). 35 mm, 160 ft, 2'40" (16 fps). "The influence of Méliès and French comedies is evident for the first time in Paul films, in the animation scenes of the cosmos and the trick of driving up a shopfront."
    AA: Revisited one of the most famous trick films. The ? motorist runs over a policeman, scales a wall, ascends to the sky, reaches the stars, circles around Saturn, and falls through a roof. The car transforms into a horse and back to a car. One of the earliest great car rampage and demolition derby movies. Méliès probably started them; in Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi's Driven! The Desmet Automobile Show in 2014 the earliest film was also from 1906. Visual quality: duped, low contrast.

A LIVELY QUARTER-DAY (House Furnishing Made Easy) (GB 1906). D: J. H. Martin?. 35 mm, 324 ft, 5'24" (16 fps); main title: ENG; no intertitles. "A seamless masterpiece of trick film comedy: a magician proves better at the job than a team of clumsy professional house-movers."
    AA: One of the best was the last title in this main part of the show. It's a moving day slapstick mayhem movie, done with flair and a good sense of rhythm. The reckless movers do everything wrong, and furniture is ruined in the process. Comes a magician who makes everything whole again. A fine touch in the choreography of movement, transformations, and reverse motion. Visual quality: low contrast.

Nuove scoperte: R. W. Paul e colleghi
New Discoveries: R. W. Paul and His Colleagues

THE SOLDIER’S COURTSHIP (GB 1896). D: R. W. Paul, Alfred Moul. Cinematography: R. W. Paul. C: Fred Storey, Julie Seale, Ellen Daws [Dawn]. PC: R. W. Paul. 35 mm, 73 ft, 1'18" (15 fps); no titles. Source: Fondazione CSC - Cineteca Nazionale, Roma. Ian Christie: "Premiered at Pordenone in 2011, the Cineteca Nazionale discovery and restoration of Britain’s first fictional production for screening (as distinct from Kinetoscope viewing) proved a remarkable find. The acting by three dancers from the company that was performing Bluebeard at the Alhambra music hall in central London is elegant and expressive, making full use of the improvised roof-top stage “to put a few laughs into the programme of scenic and interest films” that Paul had been showing for over a month. Suggested by the Alhambra’s manager, Alfred Moul, this subject drew on a vintage comedy about a couple’s enthusiastic courtship being rudely interrupted by a busybody – which disruptive role was taken by Ellen Daws, who would become Robert Paul’s wife in August of the following year, after what a recently discovered memoir claims was a no-less-determined courtship by the filmmaker. Paul recalled that it “caused great merriment” and the trade paper The Era welcomed“ the element of humour” added to the Alhambra programme. Two years later, Paul would re-stage the same popular subject in a leafy setting in North London, where he was by then building Britain’s first fully equipped studio." – Ian Christie
    AA: Revisited the first British fiction film rediscovered in Rome and screened here five years ago. More robust, passionate and sensual than the May-Irwin Kiss by Edison. Visual quality: duped and in low contrast.

A Collier's Life (1904, photo: Svenska Filminstitutet.

A COLLIER’S LIFE (GB 1904). D: ?. PC: R. W. Paul. 35 mm, 243 ft, 4' (16 fps); no titles. Source: BFI National Archive, London. Preserved by the Svenska Filminstitutet for the British Film Institute. Ian Christie: "Newly discovered by Camille Blot-Wellens in the Swedish Film Institute’s archive, where it was recently restored, this promises to fill a major gap in knowledge of Paul’s output after his burst of innovation early in the new century. That had included an ambitious 20-part series, Army Life (1900), covering all branches of the service. By 1904, A Collier’s Life showed “how coal is won and despatched from the colliery” in just five advertised scenes, believed to have been filmed at a Midlands mine. The shots covered checking the Davy safety lamp, “holing” at the coal face, moving loaded tubs and sifting the resulting excavation heaps, with a lunch-time scene and images of miners amid the pit’s considerable infrastructure . As an engineer, Paul remained interested in technology and industrial processes, while his catalogue at this period also included a wide range of topical subjects, as well as British and international “scenics”. What have survived, however, are mainly comic and trick films, giving a distorted image of his production. A Collier’s Life may emerge as a true proto-documentary, possibly filmed by Paul’s then employee J. H. Martin, who would go on to make the exemplary A Visit to Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory just two years later." – Ian Christie
    AA: Non-fiction. A remarkable discovery in early pre-documentary cinema. A sober, lively, impressive and well-made industrial film on a coal mine. Drills, oil lamps, coal carts, a lunch break. An expressive use of camera angles, close-ups and extreme close-ups. The smiles of the colliers.

The Fatal Hand (1907), photo: Filmmuseum München.

THE FATAL HAND (GB 1907). D: J. H. Martin (?). PC: R. W. Paul. 35 mm, 397 ft, 6' (18 fps); no titles. Source: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm. Ian Christie: "Escaped lunatics and villains distinguished by one or more missing digits were fairly common in early 20th-century popular fiction. Here they are combined in a shocker which starts boldly with a poster offering a reward for helping to catch a four-f ingered “homicidal lunatic” on the run from “Broadhurst Asylum”. That name would have immediately suggested Broadmoor to British viewers, synonymous with imprisoning the criminally insane, but there may well have been a closer inspiration. The massive Colney Hatch Asylum was a familiar landmark near Paul’s studio in New Southgate, and in 1903 a fire led to many deaths and a mass escape of inmates. After an initial murder, this escapee catches a local train and later flees past a building that could be another North London landmark, Alexandra Palace. Giving such a lurid and violent story a low-key everyday setting follows in the style of A Daring Daylight Burglary, made in 1903 by another ex-Paul employee, Frank Mottershaw, and long considered an influence on Edwin S. Porter. Like A Collier’s Life, this was discovered in the Swedish archive by Camille Blot-Wellens; and it prompts speculation that if we had more of Paul’s dramas, there might be evidence of a distinctive house style in early British crime." – Ian Christie
    AA: An exciting discovery in early British crime film. There is a touch of a childish school play in the movie, but also memorable features including the giant shadow of the hand, the relentless drive of the villain, the threat during the escape on a train, the large scale chase with twenty policemen after the homicidal lunatic, and a genuine sense of danger on the scaffold.

THE HAND OF THE ARTIST (GB 1906). D: Walter Booth. PC: Charles Urban. 35 mm, 191 ft, 3' (16 fps); no titles. Source: National Film and Sound Archive, Australia (Corrick Collection). Ian Christie: "When first shown in 2008 as part of the NFSA’s Corrick Collection, this was wrongly at tributed to Booth while he was working for R. W. Paul. It may in fact be his first production on leaving Paul, after more than seven years, and joining Charles Urban. A recurrent motif of Booth’s work for Paul had been using stop-motion to show objects, clothing, and even body-parts becoming unruly. Here, he takes a step towards the habitual reflexivity of later animation by having the images of a man and a woman subject to the whim of their creator’s hand. First as a tramp, then a debonair suitor, and finally in a dancing couple, the man pays court to his lady; but the images are merely two-dimensional until brought to life, and easily discarded by the controlling artist. Booth had been a drawing-room magician accompanying the pioneer exhibitor William Slade, and later a lightning cartoon artist , before he joined Paul, and this background in performance seems to motivate The Hand of the Artist, making the arbitrariness of animation its real subject." – Ian Christie
    AA: Revisited a fascinating meta-film from the Corrick Collection where the artist creates an image and the image comes alive, only to be crumpled and torn by the artist who starts anew.

An excellent compilation premiered in Pordenone and revealing for the first time the full scope of R. W. Paul as a master of the magic film, original and personal, not copying Méliès.

Plus four precious R. W. Paul discoveries, two of them seen in Pordenone before, and two excellent ones on display for the first time in generations: A Collier's Life and The Fatal Hand in prints from Stockholm.

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry's harp playing brought a new and interesting twist in the musical interpretation.

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