Jamming with Edwardians
In 1898 H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine
, a foundation of science fiction and speculative literature. Yet when Wells wrote his novel about a machine that could travel back in time a real time machine had already been invented: the cinematograph.
Early cinema, the pre-Griffith kind, gives us the extraordinary gift of peering into the world as it was, before the movie or video camera took over our daily minds and lives. The newly discovered ability to capture movement on celluloid and then present it to an audience, over and over, seemed miraculous until, as with all miracles, the miraculous became routine.
The earliest films by the Lumieres were as simple as could be—a train pulling into a station, workers leaving a factory at day’s end. But the ability to see the most mundane actions were mesmerizing to audiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like a parent watching a baby learn to grasp or crawl, fascination and awe took hold.
In the Milestone release Electric Edwardians: The Lost Films of Mitchell & Kenyon
, we are presented with a stunning array of short films made for a market that preceded even the nickelodeon. Mitchell & Kenyon traveled Britain and Ireland filming local citizens on the street, leaving work, playing at school, doing nothing significant except living their lives. The filmmakers would visit a town, position a hand-cranked movie camera at a busy location, film for a few minutes, process the film and project it at a local fairground or public hall as soon as possible, often that very night. Large crowds attended these screenings, often with the expectation of seeing themselves or neighbors in familiar locales.
What is so remarkable about the Mitchell & Kenyon films now—aside from the pristine quality of so many of the prints—is how “uninteresting” they are. Nothing much happens, just crowds of people passing, looking, waving, laughing. All we see, for the most part, are people of a past now completely lost.
They may be of the Edwardian era but the Victorian era is still present in these images, especially the scenes of workers leaving factories and coal mines. The presence of children among the workforce ending their day’s toil is a reminder of that era’s notorious inequities. Dickens may have died in 1870 but child labor continued despite great efforts for reform. In 1901, the same year that many of these films were made, the minimum work age in England was raised to 12. There are plenty of faces among these workers clearly under that age (though little is made of this during the otherwise helpful narration available on an optional track).
The story of the films—found a few years ago in a cellar—and the restoration process is presented ably in a short documentary. The explanatory commentary is available on the soundtrack as well as a separate essay by early film historian Tom Gunning. (One major complaint: the music is mostly new-agey lite jazz with moody piano ostinatos topped off by Kenny G.-like saxophones noodlings. Yuck. I turned the volume off.).
Above: The Great Local Derby: Accrington vs. Church Cricket Match
Cinematically these films are mostly quite simple, mostly of the classic “crank the camera, stop, crank again” style of the era. There are periodic pans, and there are a number of in-camera cuts, most notably in Torpedo Flotilla Visit to Manchester
, which uses the cuts to allow each passing ship to enter and leave the frame. Once off-camera the operator stopped cranking until the next ship was about to come into view, keeping a steady flow of passing ships within a few minutes. There are also occasional jump-cuts, though in some cases this may simply be lost frames of the original film.
One particularly striking example of jump-cuts is The Great Local Derby: Accrington vs. Church Cricket Match
(1902). A cricket team walks in line past the camera, many players smiling, wearing jackets over their uniforms, followed by more formally dressed officials, stopping for the camera. After they walk off one last man leaps though the frame tipping his hat, instantly followed by a jump-cut to a cricket player, sans jacket, standing alone in the field throwing a ball for the camera. He throws a couple more and is briefly interrupted as a man in a suit goes on-camera to fetch a wayward ball (on-camera interruptions and directions are frequent in these films). Then there is another jump-cut as the man stands closer to camera, posing in place, a boy in the background waving his hat in circles. The player tips his cap, throws a googly at the camera and—cut—three match officials are standing still posing. They walk off frame followed by a cut to a group of groundsmen posing. As they walk off the man who leaped through the frame in the first part of the film walks on and off camera carrying his baby daughter, and the boy in the background waving his cap in circles walks toward the camera. Then—cut—to a different camera set-up of a man standing with a boy beside a scoreboard that reads “28-10-0” as other boys run in and out of frame in the background. Then—cut—and the man and boy are standing with a bonneted girl, the scoreboard now reading, “185-7-101.” The man and boy begin to wave their caps and we realize by the way that the boy waves his in circles that he is the same boy who stood in the background throughout the earlier part of the film, waving his cap in the same gesture.
It’s a beautiful film, it’s magical rhythms and sequence of imagery almost certainly achieved entirely by accident. Who cares? Since the 50s and 60s cinematic avant-gardists have demonstrated how extraordinary found film can be. This collection is filled with such pleasures. It is indispensable to anyone who loves the great and simple revelations of early cinema.
Copyright © 2006 by Nelhydrea Paupér