The death of celluloid

Five seconds on the death of cinema as we have known it. As the filmmakers say (in a statement which takes longer to read than the film takes to view):

In this terrible job market with bleak prospects, in a world where film projection is getting replaced by slick machine-operated digital projection, in a culture where black-and-white silent film is all but lost to the winds of time … one doofus with a tie and a poignancy-starved cineaste found magic together. But then everything caught on fire.

One of a long series of 5-second films made by 5secondfilms.com.

Salim Baba

From time to time I’ve been posting on the bioscope tradition in India and the delightful examples of the handful who preserve the tradition of the travelling bioscope showmen or bioscopewallahs by taking film projectors – sometimes of great age – into the streets to show film clips to audiences of eager children.

This phenomenon has been picked up on by a number of filmmakers, as noted in an earlier post about the bioscopewallahs. Some of these videos are available online, and we have already posted the wonderful Prakash Travelling Cinema about a man who tours the streets of Ahmedabad operating a c.1910 Pathé projector, handcranked but adapted for sound.

Children crowding round the street projector, from Salim Baba

Now another of the films has been published online, Salim Baba, a 15-minute documentary by Tim Sternberg, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008 in the best short documentary category. It’s about as good a short film as you could hope to find – not startling in any way, just immaculately observant. It tells of 55-year-old Salim Muhammad, who lives in Kolkata and pushes round a small cart with a hand-cranked, customised projector of venerable age (one source says it is an 1897 Bioscope, another says that it is Japanese in origin). Again it has been adapted for sound, and he shows shows snippets of Bollywood songs and action sequences for a gaggle of excited children who crowd round the cart and pop their heads under a curtain to view the blurred and colour faded images. Salim inherited the tradition from his father, who used the same projector from the silent era onwards, and he is now passing it on to his sons. The love of cinema – its contents, its technology and its effect on people – fills the film. Do take a look.

A previous Bioscope post, The last bioscopewallah, tells Salim Muhammad’s story in greater detail.

Acknowledgments to the Documentary Blog where I found the link to the film.

Busy, busy, busy

Things are a bit hectic down at Bioscope Towers these days, and what with broadband problems, not only is it hard to find time to write posts but even when the time does appear I can’t post them. So, in my lunch break, and before heading off to the Imperial War Museum to mark the retirement of its highly estemeed Keeper of the Film and Video Archive, Roger Smither, and then to the BFI Southbank to see the ‘new’ Metropolis, here are links to some interesting posts on silent cinema which other bloggers have produced lately.

Doing things differently
George Clark reports on the pioneering programme of early films shown at the recent Oberhausen Short Film Festival, for AP Engine. Enthusiastic, but not uncritical.

From the career of Louis J. Mannix
Nick Redfern, at the highly impressive Research into Film blog, takes a break from statistical analysis to tell us about (and quote from) the rare memoirs of a Leeds projectionist operating in the silent era.

Never too late silents
Kristin Thompson assesses the silent films of Joseph von Sternberg through the recent Criterion DVD set at the indispensible Observations on Film Art blog that she shares with David Bordwell.

Kevin Brownlow to receive special Oscar
From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival blog, news that Kevin Brownlow is to be awarded an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Huge cheers and hats in the air about that piece of news.

The Lindgren manifesto
And from my other, infrequently updated blog, Moving Image, here’s philosopher-film archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai’s provocative but thought-provoking fourteen-point manifesto for film curators of the future, named after the founder of the BFI National Archive. Make of it what you will.

Motography

‘An odd type of theatre front': illustration from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

One of the indications of the speculative, exploratory nature of early cinema is the uncertainty felt at the time over what it or its products were to be called. Living pictures? Animated photography? Cinema? Kinema? Kinematography? Motion pictures? Moving pictures? Photoplays? Bioscope? It’s worth bearing in mind such terms when searching for early cinema subjects in digitised book and newspaper sources (alongside such other handy terms as kinetoscope, biograph, electric theatre etc.). One term you might not think to use is ‘motography’. I’m not sure how long the lifespan was of this word, but for a short period it was used by some seeking for a distinctive, all-encompassing term for the new art – indeed it was the title of an American film journal of this period (it ran 1909-1918 and was originally called The Nickelodeon).

The term was certainly favoured by John B. Rathbun, author of Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting: A comprehensive volume treating the principles of motography; the making of motion pictures; the scenario; the motion picture theater; the projector; the conduct of film exhibiting; methods of coloring films; talking pictures, etc. (1914), the latest volume to go into the Bioscope Library.

John B. Rathbun was a technical writer (and an associate editor of Motography, which helps explains his attachment to the term). His book is yet another of those all-purpose guides to the new industry of motion pictures, a blend of potted history, social history, technical explanation and marvelment at the rise of this extraordinary business and the huge sums that it was starting to earn. As indicated by its subtitle, Rathbun’s book takes us through the principles, production processes and exhibition of motion pictures up to 1914. It is addressed to a reader with a general interest in the phenomenon, though it sometimes forgets this.

The book starts with the familiar pre-history of the medium, from Zoetropes to Muybridge to Edison to motion picture projection. The principles of the taking and projecting of films are covered, with practical information on film stock itself, including development, printing and colour tinting. Film production follows, covering both studio and non-fiction work, then the almost obligatory chapter on the mysteries of scenario writing with suggestions on how to sell your scenario to the studios. If the lay reader did not fancy his or her chances as a scriptwriter, then they might consider opening a motion picture theatre as the best way to make money out of this new business, and advice follows on setting up a cinema, putting together the programme (with handy advice on dealing with different ages of film reels), advertising the show, an interesting discussion on whether to include vaudeville acts or not, and operating profitable sidelines.

The filming of an ‘industrial’, with Cooper-Hewitt mercury vapour lamps on the right, from Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting

A long chapter on the technicalities of projection seems to belong to another book, and might have been enough to scare off one or two would-be speculators. Rathbun follows this with guidelines on local censorship laws and regulations, then rounds off matters with an interesting chapter on colour (covering stencil colour, the Friese-Greene process, Kinemacolor and Gaumont Chronochrome), stereoscopy and synchronised sound films.

Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting is rather muddled in the guidelines it provides, as it is unsure at what level or precisely to whom it is directing its advice. Buyers at the time might have been less than satisfied, but for us now it has plenty of handy information on how the industry was perceived and some useful data and social observations relating to the exhibition sector. There are illustrations of studio interiors, laboratories, wardrobe rooms, camera operators, cinema floor plans, projection booths and so on, to add to its value as a reference source. It’s available from the Internet Archive, and into the Bioscope Library it goes.

The last bioscopewallah

salim

Mohammad Salim with his 100-year-old projector, from http://www.littleindia.com

We have written here before on the tradition of the travelling bioscope in India, film shows put on by men journeying from town to town with projector in a hand cart, some of whom work with equipment dating back to the early cinema period.

The subject has interested a number of filmmakers. There is K.M. Madhusudhanan’s feature film Bioscope, The Bioscopewallah by Prashant Kadam, Megha B. Lakhani’s Prakash Travelling Cinema (available in two parts on YouTube), Andrej Fidyk’s Battu’s Bioscope, Vrinda Kapoor and Nitesh Bhatia’s Baarah Mann Ki Dhoban and Salim Baba by Americans Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008.

An article by Nilanjana Bhowmick on the man featured in that last film has turned up on Little India (an Indian newspaper published in the USA). Entitled ‘The last bioscopewallah’, its subject is Mohammed Salim, who tours Kolkata with his 100-year-old projector (apparently Japanese in origin) on a cart, accompanied by his reluctant son. It’s an evocative piece of writing, depicting a decades-old form of street entertainment that just about hangs on in the age of the iPod and the DVD, sustained by the belief of the bioscopewallah in the magic of literally bringing cinema to the people. These are a few choice paragraphs:

Bioscopewallah……bioscopewallah ayah….aao, dekho,nai purani filme sirf ek rupiya. (Here comes the Bioscopewallah, come and watch new and old films for just Re 1).

The throw-back cry from the 1960s and 1970s of Indian street vendors trying to lure children and adults to the magic of movies in a box still reverberates in the serpentine bylanes of Kolkata, mingled with the smell of moss and decay. The cry might not have the same verve, nor perhaps does it elicit the earlier enthusiasm. But it still attracts curious onlookers who crowd around as the last bioscopewallah of Kolkata sets up his shop near a school or a movie theater.

Children rush to his cart, clutching a rupee coin in their hands. Some older people might still remember the voyeuristic feeling of peek-a-boo cinema under the shade of the ominously grave-looking black cloth, but most have either forgotten or never experienced the charm of the movie in the wooden box.

Mohammad Salim, with his 100-year-old projector, is a relic from a forgotten era. He roams the streets of Kolkata, letting people experience in short bursts the often surreal world of the bioscope.

Salim’s voice has become weaker with age, but the enthusiasm remains undimmed. He is the thin string that binds Kolkata with its glorious past to the beginning of cinema — the Royal Bioscope Company, India’s first bioscope company. Salim is not only oblivious to the legacy he has carried on his shoulders for decades now, but he is equally nonchalant about his brush with international fame, which includes an Oscar nominated documentary on his life. He only understands his bioscope and beyond it everything else pales.

Salim’s journey on the Kolkata streets with his bioscope began more than 40 years ago. In his late fifties, he laboriously pushes along his archaic projector on a hand driven cart. These days often he is accompanied by one of his unwilling sons, for whom the bioscope holds no magic. Sometimes he is mistaken for an ice cream vendor, most times he is ignored. In this digital age, the wooden bioscope holds no attraction and Salim cuts a lone figure as he wanders from one street to another. However, as he sets shop and Bollywood music and dialogs burst forth from his bioscope, a small crowd gathers around him; a crowd that wants to lose itself in the garish, colorful, melodramatic and musical world of Bollywood movies. The glamour, thrill, drama and dreams of Bollywood are packed into three-four minutes of trailers that transport the viewer into a makeshift world of the movies — short lived, but an escape from the real world nevertheless …

… In the 1960s and 1970s the call of the bioscopewallah was eagerly awaited in the neighborhoods of Kolkata. However in this age of television and computers, the bioscope is as antiquated as the term itself. Salim recalls the golden days when his father’s bioscope ruled the roost: “When my father used to call out, people used to come rushing out of their houses, especially children and women. They used to stand in the balcony for hours in order to catch the bioscopewallah.”

Salim started with his father when aged just twelve. In those days there were many other bioscopewallahs, all of whom showed only silent films. To keep up with the times, Salim has had to adapt to sound, showing scraps of films that highlight songs, dances and fights.

Salim survives in an age dominated by iPods and DVDs by updating his equipment to keep pace with the modern age. His passion with the bioscope led him to experiment with it and add new features. The original bioscope had no provision for sound so Salim, realizing he will lose his audiences if he failed to add it to his trailers, acquired sound.

“I love my projector and the fact that this small box contains all the wonders of a cinema hall. And I told myself, there must be a way to put sound too! I went to the cinema halls and asked people about how they put the sound on the lip movements. We tried to replicate that in my projector and succeeded. It was because I went with the times that I have been able to keep this alive. If there was no sound, no one would have watched it anymore.” …

… The era of the bioscope will likely end with Salim. His sons are not interested in carrying forward the tradition of their father and grandfather. They are young men who have come of age in the digital era of mobile phones and computer games.

Salim is philosophical about his plight and the future of his craft. He insists he is not driven by money, otherwise he would have sold the projector — an antique piece — by now. “I have had offers from abroad to sell my bioscope, I have said no. It is the heritage of my country, why should I sell it to another country?”

It’s a delightful piece well worth reading in its entirety. Not exactly silent films, but definitely in their spirit.

The instruction of disabled men in motion picture projection

Projectors

Motion picture projectors for instruction at the Red Cross Institute

It’s been a while since we added anything to the Bioscope Library. The latest addition is James R. Cameron’s The Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection (1919). Cameron was Instructor of Projection at the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, in New York. The Institute sought to instruct soldiers disabled during the First World War in suitable professions, and motion picture projection was one of them. As Cameron tells us, “almost any man with both hands intact could, with a course of study of about two months in duration, acquire sufficent knowledge to enable him to enter an operating booth, and take charge of the machines”.

Twelve pupils joined the inaugural class in May 1918 – “Most all were leg cases, either paralysis or amputation”. Cameron tells of the success of most of those undertaking the course, their earnings, and the elements of training that they received. The remainder of the booklet is then concerned with the practicalities of motion picture projection, with illustrations, terminology and lengthy question-and-answer sections, all presumably derived from the course itself, though little further mention is made of disability. The booklet therefore serves as a standard technical guide to projection at this period.

However, there is more to the history than this. There is an exceptional website, Project Façade, based on a 2005 National Army Museum exhibition, which looks at the treatment of facial injuries of British soldiers during the First World War. Some men had injuries so terrible that they were unrecognisable to family and friends, and, as the site says, “unable to see, hear, speak, eat or drink, they struggled to re-assimilate back into civilian life”. The site celebrates the pioneering plastic surgery undertaken by Sir Harold Gillies, but even with surgery and prosthetics etc., some men remained so disfigured that they felt they could not return to normal society. The site tells us that one profession that remained open to them was that of projectionist. Such men could arrive for work before anyone else, spend their working day on their own, shut away from society, and then return home in darkness. This sad revelation may be what partly lies behind the Red Cross Institute’s interest in the profession, though Cameron’s booklet, perhaps not surprisingly, makes no mention of it.

Tin facial prosthetics film

Tin facial prosthetics film (c.1916), from Project Façade

Project Façade also has a remarkable film on the making and fitting of tin masks and facial prosthetics for injured servicemen, from around 1916. There is no information on who made the film, or where it came from, but I do encourage you to see it (it requires QuickTime and is available in small and larger versions). It is gentle and inspiring. It contains nothing particularly unsettling, but do be warned that there are images elsewhere on the site which might upset some.

The Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection is available from the Internet Archive, in DjVu (4.3MB), PDF (14MB) and TXT (161KB) formats.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 5

Cinematograph show under the new L.C.C. rules

Cartoon parodying the alarm over the L.C.C.’s first regulations for film exhibition, from The Showman, 8 March 1901 (signed as being originally from The Photographic Dealer, 1898)

Back to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor. We’re still in the 1890s (we will move out of them eventually), and Turner and his partner J.D. Walker have their first encounter with the London County Council (L.C.C.), which had responsibility for the inner London area, including its public entertainments. The L.C.C. had become alarmed by the threat of fire presented by cinematograph exhibitions.

On November 8, 1897 I had an engagement at the Old Balham Baths, which I believe to-day is a permanent kinema. We had a notification from the L.C.C. that we could not show unless the apparatus and operator were enclosed in a fireproof enclosure.

This notification was delivered to us 48 hours befiore the show. So I worked all day and night in making a box out of corrugated iron. The dimensions were 4 ft. wide, 6 ft. long and 6 ft. high. The sizes were determined by the iron sheets.

This was the first operating-box ever made, and was used at Balham. This box again served as the model for practically every portable iron house, even to its dimensions, and the shutters which I originally made for this box became the standard article for this type of box.

Enter the L.C.C.

In those days the London County Council had no officers for dealing with kinematographic affairs. Somewhere about November they appointed a Mr. Vincent, who, I believe, was the head of the Chemistry Department in Villiers Street, Strand, as the officer responsbile for looking after these affairs. This gentleman inspected our box at Balham on the afternoon of the display, and told us that he would pass the box, subject to same being painted with asbestos paint inside and out.

Why this precaution I have never been able to understand, but the effects on Mr. Walker and myself were disastrous, as we had to work in this confined space, and before the end of the performance we had answered the riddle “Can a leopard change its spots?” We went in in black suits, and came out piebald, with most of the paint adhering to our clothes.

It was at Great Eastern Street that the first operating-box was made, and later improved by the addition of adjustable shutters.

The original box was fitted with a dead-man lever, i.e., the shutters had no means of being held up while the picture was being projected, except by a wire over a pulley, which was attached to a piece of wood about 15 in. long. One end of the wood rested on the floor, and the other, to which the wire was attached, would be about 6 in. off the floor.

The operator placed his foot upon the wood, which by its weight lay flat upon the floor, and the wire would automatically raise the shutter of the operating-box. If he took his foot off the lever, or fainted, or as soon as the pressure was removed from the lever down came the shutter. Later, we did away with the lever.

Soon we moved our offices to the second floor of Wrench’s premises at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, and after nine to twelve months we shifted our quarters to Nos. 77 and 78, High Holborn.

The Safety Shutter

When we had our office at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, we conceived the idea of automatic shutters to fall down between the light and the film. In those days we tested every machine that Wrench made, and, naturally, we took the idea to him, and in his workshop on the top floor, I believe, his mechanic worked out our idea and fitted the shutter, the opening and closing of same being worked by governor balls.

Wrench is Alfred Wrench. The long-established optical firm of J. Wrench & Sons became leading suppliers of cinematographic equipment at this time, and their offices at 50 Gray’s Inn Road housed a number of early film companies, including Will Barker’s Autoscope company, and later the Topical Film Company, as well as the eventual Wrench Film Company.

We then thought of covering in the space between the lensholder and the front of the film gate, working on the known law that combustion cannot take place without air, so that if the film fired in the gate, it went out, because there was not sufficient air left to support combustion, and thus was evolved the first fireproof gate, and we gave it to the world for nothing.

At this time we were doing business with Pat Collins (now an M.P.), Biddell Bros., the late George Green (of Glasgow), Haggar (of Wales), Dick Dooner, Jacob Studd and his sister, Hastings and Whyman, Ralph Pringle, Edison Thomas, Boscoe, all showmen; and, among lecturers, T.M. Paul, A.E. Pickard, A.H. Vidler, Waller Jeffs, Professor Wood, T.R. Woods, Baker (of Liverpool), and Lenton (of the Sherwood Film Agency), who bought his first outfit from me.

We, of course, had a number of competitors:- Joyce, of Oxford; McKenzie, of Edinburgh; Walker, of Edinburgh or Glasgow; Nobby Walker, of Bermondsey; F. Gent, of London; Jury, of Peckham (now Sir William); Brandon Medland; Matt Raymond and his lieutenant Rockett; Fowler and Ward, Ruffles Bioscope; Weisker, of Liverpool; Carter, of Leeds; Lens Bros., of Lancashire; Henderson, of Newcastle, and Gibbons (now Sir Walter). This list by no means exhausts the number.

Early Operators

Some of the operators I can remember who worked for us at this time are as follows:- Chas. Harper, C.H. Coles, W.M. Morgan, “Baby” Morgan, E.T. Williams, Jack Herbert, E. Mason (of Charrington’s, Mile End), J. Gardiner and his brother, George Palmer, W.W. Whitlock (now of gramophone fame), J. Nethercote (a school teacher), A. Malcolm, W. Walker, F. Hull, H. Luner, Joe Saw, Harry Last, F. Haward, Will Turner, T. Bosi (now of Herne Bay).

What an amazing list of names of those involved in the film business in the late 1890s. The showmen’s names are mostly familiar, being prominent fairground figures such as Ralph Pringle, Dick Dooner and William Haggar (soon to be a notable film producer). Edison Thomas is the notorious A.D. Thomas, a larger-than-life figure much associated with Mitchell and Kenyon. Waller Jeffs became a leading exhibitor in the Midlands, Matt Raymond, previously having worked for the Lumières, went on to become a prominent cinema owner (his assistant was Houghton Rockett), the Scottish Walker is William Walker, William Jury went on to become cinema’s first knight, while Walter Gibbons (also knighted) established the London Palladium. But many of those names are unknowns, and offer tantalising new avenues for research.

More from E.G. Turner in a few days’ time.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 4

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897 © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from www.parisenimages.fr

We return, after something of a gap, to Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor, whose reminiscences, written in 1926 for the Kinematograph Weekly, are a rich source of information on early film business practice. Here Turner discusses exhibition in the late 1890s, with particular reference to the effects of the Bazar de la Charité fire:

The First Exhibitors

The earliest exhibitors were fairground showmen, magic lantern lecturers, and men who earned their living by giving private entertainments. The theatres and music-halls took to pictures as a nine-day wonder which would have its day and die.

I remember a time about the end of 1897 when there was not a single music-hall or theatre showing pictures in London. It was only a temporary lull, however, chiefly caused through the lack of subjects. With the advent of the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope, and the American Bioscope, the pictures became a permanent installation in the music-halls in London, but the early showmen and lantern lecturers were the men who were making the pictures popular all over the country.

These were the men who had sunk their little all in the Industry, and they kept pegging away, believing that it must eventually win out, and that the subjects would not be confined to 40 or 50 ft. lengths, but whole stories would be filmed.

The great bar to progress was the difficulty of getting new subjects except by buying them outright, and I think my partner and myself solved the problem for the world by instituting the renting system. Little did we think that that system would spread all over the wide world, and grow to the great business it is to-day.

In those first days we only did it spasmodically, because we had very few customers, but later on when the pictures had caught on, and village halls, churches, and chapels were taking up the pictures and giving regular weekly displays, our hire system grew rapidly. We would buy as many as ten and twelve prints of a film, which was entitled “Landing an Old Lady From a Small Boat.” Our first regular hirer was Ted Lacey, of Barnards M.H. Chatham. My first customer to buy films was Mr. Henderson, of Newcastle.

This is George Henderson, of Stockton, whose surviving film collection is held by British Movietone News and available to view from their website. There’s information on this important early film collection in an earlier post, Movietone and Henderson.

We then extended operations to the entertainment bureaus, such as:- Whiteley’s, Keith Prowse, Harrods, Gamage, Webster and Girling, H.L. Toms, Woods, of Cheapside, Ashton and Mitchell, Army and Navy Stores, the Church Mission Halls, Salvation Army, the Leysian Mission, City Road, and many more whose names at the moment I cannot remember, and after thirty years, we still do business with practically all the above-named firms.

The most disastrous fire that has ever occurred in our Trade took place on May 4, 1897. It is still remembered as the Paris fire. No fewer than 130 people lost their lives in the panic and stampede which occurred, and amongst those killed were the Duchess d’Alençon (sister of the Empress of Austria), Duke d’Aumale, Baron d’Sainte Didier, and General Munier (or Muiner). The Life Assurance losses were paid as to two-thirds American companies and the remaining one-third French – the total being twelve million francs, which, in that day, represented £480,000.

The kinematograph got the blame of this fire, but it actually occurred after the operator had finished giving his display of films, and was showing some slides. He was using an ether saturator, which was giving out, and he started to replenish same by pouring fresh ether in, and, of course, at once the fumes caught fire. The exhibition was being given in a large marquee. It was decorated with inflammable material, and soon the whole was one roaring mass of flame. The tent contained bazaar stalls, etc., and the bazaar was patronised by the principal nobility and well-known people of France – which explains the enormous sums paid by the life insurance companies.

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from www.parisenimages.fr

This was the notorious fire of 4 May 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris, at which a Joly film projector had been used. As Turner correctly recalls, the fire was not caused by the cinematograph but instead by a Molteni ether lamp, but the calamity was swiftly associated with motion pictures, and caused great damage to the reputation of the medium.

Insurance Difficulties

This had the effect of making the Insurance Companies look askance at the kinematograph; and the mere mention of the word sent a shudder through the official minds. The public memory, however, is very short, and the desire for amusement great, and as new subjects arrived on the scene, slowly but surely, we overcame these difficulties.

Within a month of this happening I had an engagement at the St. Martin’s Town Hall. On the afternoon, I presented byself with an apparatus at the hall, and the dismay on the face of the official when he saw it was a kinematograph, accompanied by cylinders of gas, can be well imagined.

He informed the authorities at once, and one official informed me that the display could not be given. After half-an-hour, I got their sanction – they only giving way because they had failed to give notice that they would not permit a kinematograph.

The following week a resolution was passed that no kinematograph should ever be allowed in the hall again, and I believe that this is so even up to the present time. I am the only person who has ever given a display in the Westminster Town Hall, St. Martin’s Lane.

(To be continued)

The memoirs so far have been taken from the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1926, pp. 53-54, and further installments will follow in due course. You can follow the earlier installments here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 3

High Divers at Milan

Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896)

We return to Edward G. Turner’s 1926 reminiscences of the early days of the film business in Britain. We are still in the 1890s, and changes in the business are already necessary. Turner and colleagues discover that they have pitched their product too highly…

The Crash

We soon found out, however, that we were altogether too scientific in our entertainment. The average person could not promounce the word “kinematograph,” and, if they could, it conveyed nothing to them in the way of entertainment. They all thought it was something educational, and in those days, as to-day, the public would not pay to be educated when they wanted to be amused, and so, after three months’ touring, we returned to London sadder but wiser men, and in the process of gaining wisdom, we lost our entire capital.

On the last day of the old year 1896, three unhappy men met to discuss ways and means for carrying on or closing down – the three men being J.D. Walker, J. Mackie and E.G. Turner. Mackie was demonstrator or operator, Walker was lecturer, and myself manager and treasurer – the latter office being a mere sinecure, as there were no funds to treasure, and I had to draw upon private means to pay our way.

As the bells announced the birth of a New Year (1897), we closed the books of the North American Animated Picture Company [and] reorganised our finances by my agreeing to provide £100 (which I hoped to borrow and which I succeeded in doing). Walker agreed to take half-share, and pay for his share as and when the business permitted, and Mackie withdrew as it looked an almost hopeless proposition.

Playing to the Gallery

Our policy was now altered: instead of spending a large amount of money in circularising all the best people in the towns and villages, by means of very good stationery, excellent printing and sending and sealing our letters with a penny stamp so as to attract the attention of the recipient, we went for the working classes. The results of our fresh policy was that, when the performance began, we had two or three people only in the stalls, our chief patronage came from the cheaper seats. So we decided to stop playing to the stalls, and in future to play to the gallery. From this date we were known as Walker and Turner.

On January 1, 1897, we visited the Central Working Men’s Club and Institute in Clerkenwell Road – had an interview with the entertainment secretary, who gave us an engagement for the following Saturday night, provided we gave a show of one hour’s duration for the magnificent sum of 30s.

As we had to find two cylinders of gas, and get our apparatus to and from the hall, also take two men to do the job, one will understand that it was not a profitable transaction, but the secretary personally promised us that he would send round a letter to secretaries of all the clubs in London, invite them to be present, and if our show was all we claimed it to be, there were prospects of good bookings to be obtained.

The secretary carried out his promise, and on Saturday night, when we arrived to do our show, the hall was packed to suffocation. The pictures projected were most enthusiatically received, and after the show was over we had the satisfaction of booking up dates amounting to over £200.

As we executed these dates, which were all close, others rolled in upon us from all parts of the country, principally from working men’s clubs, and that was the first step towards success; in three months our business had grown to such an extent that we had two machines operating.

Turner now moves on to some of the strategies of exhibition in the 1890s, interestingly revealing that gaps in the programme and the common practice of running films backwards were employed to spin out meagre, expensive films. He then describes the innovation in film business practice that he was central in introducing – renting, or film distribution.

A Shilling a Foot

In those days we were paying 1s. per foot for our films, the average length being 500 feet. It will, therefore, be understood that the cost of running an hour’s programme was very expensive.

It is true that to eke out our meagre supply of films we used to take a minute or two between the change, and further, we had what was known as a reversing prism, and, after we had shown a film through, e.g., “The High Divers at Milan” (which was a very effective subject for the purpose), we would then rewind the film, put it through the machine backwards, and, by means of the prism, instead of the man diving into the water from the high diving boards, there would be a splash of water, out of which the man, feet foremost, would come and go back on to the diving board – in fact, the whole subject being reversed. This used to create not only great amusement but wonder as to how it was done, and used to help us very considerably in making our programme last out the necessary time. And if they applauded, well, on went the film a second time.

The Beginning of Renting

The price of films quickly dropped from 1s. to 8d. per foot, and then became standard at 6d. a foot; this allowed us to increase our store, but it soon became evident that to have to provide new films every time we took a repeat engagement was too expensive. So we conceived the idea, first of all, of an interchange of films with other exhibitors, who experienced the same difficulties in regard to new supplies. From this we eventually evolved the renting of films to other people, because we found that we had by far a larger stock than any of the other men. By buying films regularly we could use them ourselves and hire them to the other people, and so in such small beginning was evolved the great renting system as known to-day.

The First Woman Operator

At the end of 1897 we had three machines working. Walker operated one, myself the second, and the third was handled by Mrs. J.D. Walker, though a man went with her to fit up and do the donkey work. Mrs. Walker handled the mixed gas jet and operated, and she can claim without fear of contradiction to be the first woman operator in the world. She is still in business as managing director of the Empire cinema, Watford.

Was the redoubtable Mrs Walker the ‘first women operator in the world’? The evidence of the 1901 census, as reported in a recent post, shows that there were certainly other women operators around at the same time. More investigation is needed. ‘The High Divers of Milan’ is Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896), Lumière catalogue no. 277, and is illustrated above. Reversing prisms, which were fitted onto the lens, were available from equipment suppliers at the time. They were used when film could not simply be reversed by cranking in the opposite direction i.e. the film had to be re-threaded in reverse, with the prism necessary to turn the image the correct way round. Is that a correct explanation, you experts out there?

Prakash Travelling Cinema

Part one

Prakash Travelling Cinema is a delightful short film, posted on YouTube by the filmmaker, Megha B. Lakhani. She made the 14-minute film while at the National Institute of Design, India, and it has gone on to win festival awards.

The film documents two friends who maintain a travelling bioscope show on the streets of Ahmedabad. The ramshackle outfit, which they take around on a hand-cart, comprises a genuine c.1910 Pathé projector, adapted for sound, with peep-holes all around the mobile ‘cinema’ itself (which they call their ‘lorry’), through which children watch snippets plucked from popular Bollywood titles. One of the amazing sights of the film is either of the two men hand-cranking their sound projector at exhausting speed.

Part two

Although they are not showing silent films, the whole enterprise is imbued with the spirit of the original travelling bioscope operators of India, and of course the technology hails from the silent period. The word ‘bioscope’ still persists in places in India for cinema, as it does in South Africa. However, the film wants to do more than show a quaint operation, and it is very much about friendship, conviction, Indian society, and the persistence of a human way of doing things in the face of modern media technologies.

There are an estimated 2,000 mobile cinema shows in India today, and the travelling bioscope has been made the subject of other recent films. There is Andrej Fidyk’s 1998 documentary film Battu’s Bioscope, on a modern travelling show in rural India; Vrinda Kapoor and Nitesh Bhatia’s short film Baarah Mann Ki Dhoban (2007), on modern bioscope workers whch also touches on the history of India film exhibition; and Tim Sternberg’s film Salim Baba (2007), again about a modern travelling bioscope show, this time with an adapted 1897 Bioscope. Plus there’s Tabish Khair’s acclaimed novel Filming, published this year, which moves from a travelling bioscope show in 1929 to the Bombay cinema of the 1940s as a means to examine the rise of modern India. Clearly there’s a metaphor in the air.

Prakash Travelling Cinema was made in 2006, and there’s a full set of credits here. The film is in Hindi, with English subtitles, and on YouTube, owing to its length, it comes in two parts.

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