The studio of fallen women

The Gaumont studios in Lime Grove in 1915, with the former Urania Cottage to the left

OK, it’s a bit of a catchpenny title for a post, but here’s an intriguing bit of history. I’ve been reading Jenny Hartley’s Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women. It tells the story of Urania Cottage, which was established in 1847 by the novelist Charles Dickens and the banking heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts. It was designed as an alternative refuge to the workshouse and usual reformatories for homeless young women whose lives were being ruined through poverty, imprisonment and prostitution. The intention was to show kindness where most regimes stressed guilt and punishment, inculcating its inhabitants with domestic virtues before shipping them off to the colonies in the hope that they would settle down happily in new lands.

Urania Cottage was located in the Shepherd’s Bush area, then farmland to the north-west of London. It operated as a women’s home for around fifteen years before changing hands, and Hartley tells us that just a single photograph exists of the building, taken in 1915. And there next door to the house is a huge building with glass walls and roof, which is instantly recognisable as the Gaumont film studios at Lime Grove, founded in 1915.

One is thrilled at the discovery and eager to demonstrate connections between the two. Did Gaumont produce any Dickens-based films at this time? Sadly no. The studio (which stayed glass-roofed only until 1917) went on to play a notable part in British cinema and television history. It was home to Gaumont and some Gainsborough productions (when Gainsborough wasn’t using its Islington studio), where Hitchcock filmed The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, and where Gainsborough ladies like Patricia Roc, Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert formed a curious echo (“a new set of inmates” as Hartley puts it) of Urania’s inhabitants. There don’t seem to have been any Dickens-related films ever made at Lime Grove, though David Lean, future director of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, did start out at Lime Grove as a tea boy and then cutter. Then the BBC took over the studios and made programmes there from 1950 to 1991, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, Steptoe and Son, Dr Who, Tonight, Top of the Pops and The Late Show.

Producer George Pearson in his office at Gaumont’s Lime Grove studios around 1915, very probably in one of the bedrooms used by the inhabitants of Urania Cottage, from his autobiography Flashback

Urania Cottage wasn’t just next door to the studios: it was a part of them. George Pearson, the first director to work at the studios in 1915, writes in his autobiography:

Offices and dressing-rooms were available in an adjacent house attached to the main building.


This was Urania Cottage. It was used as studio offices, dressing-rooms and apparently even bedrooms for performers staying over at the studio during the Blitz, though the original cottage was soon converted (it is unclear when) and replaced by a new house on the same site. Despite what Hartley says, there is at least one other photograph of the studios in 1915 (reproduced at www.gaumontbritish.com) which shows Urania Cottage, though at such a sharp angle and so obscured you would have to know it was there to recognise it tucked behind the building in front of it. Judging from the large Gaumont logo, this probably dates from a few months later, with the photograph at the top of this post depicting the studios still under construction.

The building that now fills the space where Urania once stood can be seen in photographs of the studio in its BBC days, as in this one from www.bbctv-ap.co.uk. The studio was demolished in 1993, and the space is now filled by housing. Urania Cottage was a well-intentioned initiative albeit with rather fixed ideas about what was good for its inmates (those who signed up had to agree to the emigration plans, which put off many would-be applicants who found it hard to see the difference between emigration and transportation). Those who lasted what was usually a year at Urania were then shipped out to Australia, South Africa and Canada, with mixed results it would appear from the available evidence.

Rather appropriately, on the site where Urania Cottage once stood there is now a hostel for the homeless, run by the St Christopher’s Fellowship. Thus film production comes and goes, but charity lives on.

Alas for Twickenham

Filming the feature film London (1927) at Twickenham Film Studios, from http://www.twickenhamstudios.com

Yesterday it was reported that Twickenham Film Studios is to close. Administrators have been called in, and the business will have been wound down completely by June 2012. Twickenham had been used for such classics as A Hard Day’s Night, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Repulsion, Alfie, An American Werewolf in London and Blade Runner, and at least three films up for Academy Awards this year used the studios facilities in one form or another (War Horse, My Week with Marilyn and The Iron Lady).

The studio’s closure comes just one year short of its centenary. Twickenham must be one of the world’s oldest continually running film studios. It was founded in 1913 by Ralph Jupp, who purchased a former roller skating rink at St Margaret’s, Twickenham on the outskirts of London, and converted it into a premier film studio. Jupp was the UK’s leading film exhibitor, being the managing director of the leading cinema circuit Provincial Cinematograph Theatres. Together with film director Percy Nash and actor John East he formed the London Film Company, with the aim of producing high-qality feature films able to match the best of American product (American directors were imported, George Loane Tucker and Harold Shaw), to be made at what was then called St Margaret’s Studios.

According to Rachael Low, the studio had one stage 165ft x 75ft with a part glass roof (blacked out in 1916) and the lot occupied three-quarters of an acre. The studio employed 50-60 (plus a stock company of actors), utilised Pathé, Debrie and Moy cameras, for lighting employed 120 Westminster arcs, six mercury vapour tubes and eight Boardman ‘North Lights’, its power supply was a 300KW rotary convertor fed from the Twickenham mains, and it had its own film processing plant.

East and Nash had left in 1914 to form Neptune Studios (later Elstree), and Jupp sold out to the ambitious Alliance Company in 1918. Alliance made such comparatively lavish productions as The Bohemian Girl and Carnival before going out of business in 1922, after which the studios were leased out to various companies, with such notable British silents as The Flag Lieutenant and The Only Way being made there. In 1928 the new owner Julius Hagen formed Twickenham Film Studios and the studios were active throughout the 1930s, making low budget productions of which the quota quickies directed by Michael Powell are now the most celebrated.

Hagen died in 1938, and the studios were hit by a bomb during the Second World War, but they continued as part of Alliance Film Studio (no relation to the earlier Alliance), subsisting on TV work but then enjoying a revival in the 1960s, perhaps most notably as home for the Beatles’ first two feature films. Work continued into present times, though the small studio was generally used for TV, commercials and post-production work.

Twickenham Film Studios today

The Twickenham Film Studios website gives no indication of its impending closure, and one wonders what will become of the website itself. It has information not only on the studio facility and recent productions, but has a history section (with minor errors dotted throughout), a picture gallery, and a downloadable filmography. There is real pride there in ninety-nine years of motion picture production. How do other silent era British film studios do when it comes to recording the history online?

Elstree gives no more than its founding date (1926), overlooking the earlier film history of the site going back to 1914. Ealing Studios notes that there was a film studio on the site from 1902, formed by Will Barker (Barker’s first actual studio on the site was 1907) but then bypasses nearly forty years of history to focus on the Ealing comedies of the 1940s and 50s. Gainsborough Studios in Islington is now a block of flats whose site says nothing of the site’s distinguished film history. Lime Grove studios, founded by Gaumont in 1915, was a BBC studio until 1991, after which the site was re-developed as a housing estate (see the Gaumont-British.co.uk website for an extensive history). Beaconsfield, founded in 1921, is now part of the National Film and Television School, though you would never know that from the NFTS site. Teddington, founded in 1912 by Ec-Ko Films (Charles Urban may have used the same site) and now part of the Pinewood Group, is active as a television studio, but there is no indication of its long history on the Pinewood Group site.

Of the others – Walton-on-Thames (a history going back to 1899, became Nettlefold and closed in 1961), Welwyn (the British Instructional Films studios, founded in 1927, closed in 1951), Isleworth (Worton Hall), Cricklewood, Bushey, Walthamstow, Harlesden (Craven Park) and more, nothing remains physicially and nothing therefore exists officially online, though fan sites and other such histories can be found (see in particular the useful summary histories on the Britmovie.co.uk forum). So it looks like the studio that cared most for its history, Twickenham, is the one that is going under. A sad day.

Reading matters

Well, it’s coming to that time of year again, and to help you get through the rigours of Christmas, we thought we come up with a selection of the books published this year on silent film which might be the sort of presents you’d rather like to get for yourselves as opposed to those you can expect from the nearest and dearest. So here’s an idiosyncractic selection of some of the publishing highlights of 2011:

Andrew Shail (ed.), Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 (University of Exeter Press). One of the most novel and interesting silent film books of the year is this mixture of anthology and critical history, which brings together eight short stories about early cinema, published at the time, paired with scholarly essays in each. Pieces such as Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Mrs Bathhurst’, George R. Sims’ ‘Our Detective Story’ and Mrs H.J. Bickle’s ‘Love and the Bioscope’ are introduced by Tom Gunning, Stephen Bottomore, Andrew Higson and others. The stories are facsimile reprints with the original illustrations, and the essays are illuminating, cogent and enthusiastic.

Bryony Dixon, 100 Silent Films (BFI/Palgrave Macmillan). The book surely no silent fan can resist is this knowledgeable, slightly polemical account of 100 representative silent films. Not the 100 best, but 100 that cover the great range of silent films, so encompassing not just the best-known feature films, but equally early cinema, documentary, newsreels, animation, natural history, actuality, advertising films and the avant garde. A book full of discoveries, with great knowledge expressed in an easy style.

Matthew Solomon, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (State University of New York Press). It really has been Georges Méliès’ year, and two of the year’s most notable publications concern his iconic 1902 film, Le voyage dans la lune. Fantastic Voyages is a collection of essays that cover the many different aspects of the film, from its production history, to its contemporary contexts, to its meanings today. It also comes with a critical edition DVD. It’s a whole scientific adventure in itself.

La couleur retrouvée du Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon Back in color (Capricci Editions / Technicolor Foundation). This 192-page book was produced by the Technicolor Foundation to accompany the sensational colour restoration of Le voyage dans la lune. Written in English and French, it is gorgeously illustrated and jam-packed with essential information on the film’s history, Georges Méliès himself, and the restoration. It is available for free as a PDF from the Groupama Gan Foundation website; hard copies can be purchased in France, but I got mine just by writing to Technicolor and asking.

Martin Loiperdinger (ed.), Early Cinema Today: The Art of Programming and Live Performance (John Libbey). One of the themes of silent film publication this year, at least as far as this selection is concerned, is pushing the subject out into new territories. I don’t recall seeing before now a whole book devoted to the presentation and performance of early cinema today. This fascinating selection brings together essays by academics, programmers and archivists who are discovering new meanings in the films of a century ago in the act of thinking how best to put them before the audiences of today.

Charles Drazin, The Faber Book of French Cinema (Faber). This, as the title indicates, is not solely devoted to silent films, but rather takes in the whole of French cinema. Single volumes recounting the history of a national cinema for a general audience rather than specialist academic have become something of a rarity, so an acessible and useful overview like this is particularly welcome. Drazin shows due and knowledgeable attention to French silent cinema, even the complexities of the earliest period when Pathé and Gaumont first set up their multinational empires, connecting it all to the latter years of Renior, Pagnol, Duvivier, Godard, Truffaut and Audaird.

John Bengston, Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd (Santa Monica Press). John Bengston’s photographic volumes illustrating the real locations used in the great silent comedies are innovative classics. Following on from his much acclaimed volumes on Chaplin and Keaton, here he illuminates the artistry of Harold Lloyd through an understanding of the locations used in Safety Last, Girl Shy, The Freshman, Speedy and others. A delight both for the film historian and any enthusiast for social or urban history.

Aubrey Solomon, The Fox Film Corporation 1915-1935 (McFarland). A solid, really useful acount of Fox before it was Twentieth Century-Fox, this studio history covers its foundation by archetypal mogul William Fox, the man who turned a “$1600 investment into a globe-spanning $300 million empire”, the production of such classics as The Iron Horse and Sunrise, and contains a comprehensive filmography. A film book publication of the traditional and entirely reliable kind.

Caroline Frick, Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation (Oxford University Press). As is becoming increasingly clear, cinema history is at a crossroads, as celluloid comes to the end of its natural life and digital takes over. This makes archiving riven with practical, aesthetic and politicial choices to be made, which are the subject of huge debate. This thoughtful and well-researched book shows the dilemmas but also the great opportunities that digital brings to film archives, especially in opening up previously invisible corners of our moving image heritage. Are we saving cinema, or are we saving something else?

These are just my suggestions. If you have favourites of your own from 2011, do let us all know.

Motion picture studio directories

Actress Hope Hampton, from the frontispiece to the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921

As we have noted before now, the plethora of online resources for family history that exist can be a particularly useful aid for early film research. Now the leading genealogy web service, Ancestry, has returned the compliment by making two American motion picture directories available on its site, for searching by those who subscribe to its services. The two volumess are the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1919 and 1921, which Ancestry has converted into database form, with this opening description:

Two directories to the actors, directors, producers, and technicians of the motion picture industry for the years 1919 and 1921 are contained in this database. Each directory has a biographical section with information about the listed individuals such as their name, birth date and place, a brief career bio sometimes including educational history, a physical description (for the actors) or special skills description (for production crew), and membership in clubs, unions, or other organizations. Many entries include addresses and some photographic portraits are featured. All are listed in an index at the back of each directory.

Section divisions for the directories are as follows: actors, actresses, child parts, directors, assistant directors, scenario editors and writers, cinematographers, studio managers, publicity men, laboratory and property men, and film cutters. The actors’ and actress’ sections are further sub-divided into leads, ingénues, characters, comedians, and heavies (villains). Biographical entries, besides the above listed information, also note films the individual has worked on and other important or relevant experience such as the bio of cinematographer Herbert Oswald Carleton which specifically mentions his early career as a mechanic and inventor as well as his patented invention, the Duplex Printing Machine.

Each person entry on the Ancestry database comprises: Surname, Birth date and place, Career summary, Description of physical appearance (actors) or other skills (technicians and crew), and Membership in clubs or societies. This is very handy for those searching for names across Ancestry’s gigantic database of genealogical information who require all such information to be in one place. However, it should be noted that the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921 is freely availably online in word-searchable form from the Internet Archive, which also makes available Charles Donald Fox and Milton Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920) which the Bioscope has introduced before now and portraits with text from which are reproduced on the Bioscope’s Flickr site.

Sample page from the 1921 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual

So it’s always worth checking twice with these things, and you can find summaries of Who’s Who on the Screen and now the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921 in the ever-growing Bioscope Library.

In the studio

The Ambrosio studio during the film of Cenerentola (1913), from http://www.youtube.com/user/inpenombra

There’s always some particularly fascinating about seeing films of films in production from the silent era. The business-like way a team has to go about creating fantasy, the sheer number of people who made up that team, the famous mingling with the functional. So here are some of the clips of silent films in production which you can find online. Above we have the Ambrosio studio, Turin, in 1913, with the director Eleuterio Rodolfi and actors Fernanda Negri Pouget, Mary Cleo Tarlarini and Ubaldo Stefani, during the filming of Cenerentola (Cinderella). The provenance is unclear, but the video comes from the Inpenombra YouTube channel, offshoot of the excellent In Penombra website, which features a number of clips of early Italian films.

londonlove

Manning Haynes directing London Love at the Gaumont studios in 1926, from http://www.itnsource.com

Next up, the this Gaumont Graphic newsreel (which I can’t embed but which you can find on the ITN Source site) shows the filming of the 1926 British film London Love, directed by Manning Haynes at the Gaumont studios, Lime Grove, and starring Fay Compton, John Stuart and Fay Compton. The intriguing story behind this one is the newsreel was made on the occasion of a BBC radio broadcast about the film (the known as The Whirlpool), so we see not only film production but radio production too (including dance band). With thanks to Eve from bringing this one to my attention.

annaboleyn

Henny Porten and Emil Jannings during the filming of Anna Boleyn, from http://www.britishpathe.com

Newsreel websites are a handy source for films of film production, though examples from the silent era are rare. From the British Pathe site, this fleeting clip (originally from the German newsreel Messter-Woche) shows Emil Jannings (Henry VIII) and Henny Porten (Anna) incongrously arriving on set in full costume by car for the filming of Anna Boleyn (1920). A second brief clip shows Ernst Lubitsch directing the film from a platform.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

Studio lots

Apologies for the short break while the Bioscope was taking a rest from the hypnotic screen and buying second-hand books in Hay-on-Wye instead…

Mabel Normand Studio

Mabel Normand Studio, from The Studio Lots

On one of my online travels, I came across the Studio Lots site. This is a collection of contemporary photographs and postcards of studios in Hollywood (and a few other places), with many from the silent era featured. It’s not going to win any design awards, and there are a lot of promises for background texts that haven’t been written as yet. But nevertheless, it’s a very handy selection, and you can see the Hal Roach Studio (8822 Washington Blvd), the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio (7200 Santa Monica Blvd), the Selig Studio (1845 Alessandro) and Culver City (9336 Washington Blvd), among many others. The addresses are useful, and there are backlots and ranches given as well. There’s also a Moving Picture World article from 1917 on the history of motion picture studios in California.

Well worth a wander through.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 7

We return to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner of the Walturdaw company, pioneer film distributors. Turner is now talking about their business situation in the 1900s, when they turned to production as well as distribution. As is usual with Turner, what gives him equal pleasure is the mechanical side of the business, here devices for preventing fire, and getting the better of the London County Council.

Prior to our moving to Dane Street, the three partners had not definite duties. We all put our hands to whatever was required of us during the day, and acted as operators at night. We were buyers and sellers of everything in the kinematograph Industry, new or secondhand.

There was one member, however, whose inclinations were photographically inclined, and so we took lease of Wembley Park and erected there something novel in the way of outdoor studios – a revolving platform, which allowed us to put up three sets of scenery at a time, when the wind allowed it, and each could be brought to the camera as required. Further, it was so constructed that we could always get the best of the light and sunshine.

[Ernest] Howard took charge of this department – his lieutenants being J.B. McDowell and E. Bloomfield – these latter were our cameramen.

Albert Bloomfield left Walturdaw in 1908, forming the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company, J.B. McDowell soon joining him. McDowell would go on to achieve lasting fame as a cameraman in the First World War, filming much of the documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). Interestingly, one of the companies he worked for before Walturdaw was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which had a revolving open-air studio (on the Thames embankment) much as Turner describes, dating around 1899.

[J.D.] Walker took over the Film Hire Department, [G.H.J.] Dawson the Entertainment Department, and myself the Sales and Accessory Department. The business thus became sectionalised, each man devoting himself exclusively to his own side of the business, whereas in the past we had been cosmopolitan in this respect. Things grew apace, and we were doing business with all parts of the world.

A Fireproof Spool

One day at Dane Street, the late Mr. Holmes, of Essex Road, who was the chief kinematograph mechanic to Levy Jones, of Horton Square, called to see me, and found me experimenting with a tin box. Instantly he said to me, ‘I see what you are after, I am working on the same thing; suppose we join forces?’

While we were discussing the point, my eye fell on a kinematograph camera film box (in those days the boxes were outside the camera). At once we had solved the problem. Why not make a copy of the camera film box in metal, fit it to the top of the kinema machine, make a similar box for the bottom spool-arm and so get fire-proof spool boxes?

The first pair were made of mahogany, and Mr. Holmes used them pretty regularly. They answered their purpose perfectly. We then had them made in metal and thus came about one of the greatest improvements in the kinema world.

A Lost Fortune

I took the model to Mr. Wrench and asked his advice as to taking out a patent, as I had done previously with the fireproof gate. I shall remember his words as long as I live:

He told me he had taken out over 100 patents on his lanterns, and never made any money out of any of them; other makers copied, and rarely was he able to stop them, except at great expense. Further, non-flam film was bound to be perfected in a month or two (it was always to be a month or two as it is to-day), and when non-flam film did come out, that would solve all our difficulties with the L.C.C., insurance companies and other authorities.

Alas! I took his advice and lost a fortune. The owner of those patents would be rolling in untold wealth to-day, as spool-boxes are compulsory all over the world.

Films, of course, were of cellulose nitrate, and were highly inflammable. ‘Non-flam’, or safety films (cellulose acetate) were often talked about, but in general they lacked the robustness of nitrate. Some safety systems were available around 1908, but cellulose acetate really only found use for narrow gauge systems designed for non-theatrical and amateur use, of which Edison’s 22mm Home Kinetoscope system, introduced in 1912, was the first.

The L.C.C. Butts In

No more was heard of fireproof spool-boxes until the demonstration which was given at the London Hippodrome, on December 17, 1908, when no fewer than ten firms exhibited, before the representatives of the London County Council and insurance bodies, their machines, showing how they had tackled the question of making the machines safe.

Incidentally, I claim to have had a good deal to do with this demonstration. It came about in this way. Passing the Hippodrome about a fortnight previously, I found that a demonstration of fire extinguishing apparatus for kinematographs was being given inside the Hippodrome. I walked in to see what was moving, and discovered that the apparatus was similar to an ordinary water cistern, such as are used in w.c.’s, fitted on four rods and suspended over the machine; this was the ingenious arrangement that the trade had been called together to see.

The apparatus was so arranged that if a piece of film caught fire it released a spring and the water supposed to come down and put the fire out. I, with a number of other exhibitors, saw this absurd apparatus, and laughed it to scorn, but certain members of the County Council were strongly in favour of foisting this wretched thing upon the trade.

The Test that Failed

Mr. Brandon (one of the oldest exhibitors) and myself, stepped into the ring and challenged the efficacy of this absurd invention, and I, as spokesman, asked that a fair test might be given, first to the apparatus which the various makers were selling, and secondly, that the County Council would call us together to demonstrate. The test was to be under the same conditions that we would have if we were actually showing, and this challenge was accepted.

Frank Allen kindly granted us the use of his ring, and on December 7 the demonstration was given, and proved the death knell of the water cistern, for when the film was set fire to by means of the rays from the arc lamp, the wretched invention failed, the water instead of coming down all over the spool and putting the fire out, simply fell over the bottom spool and damaged the film – and let the rest flare away.

All the other machines were tested very severely by the judges, and each came out triumphant. Some of the tests were really severe, inasmuch as they fired the film on the top sprocket, the bottom sprocket, and in the gate, and yet in no instance did the fire enter into the spool cases.

Stay turned for the next episode, when Turner tells us about ‘Flicker Alley’ and discusses the rise of the exclusive.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 314 other followers