The work of an early cinema actress

I’ve just stumbled across a Project Gutenberg ebook of Edith J. Morley’s Women Workers in Seven Professions (1914), produced for the Fabian’s Women’s Group. The Fabian Society was a socialist group committed to gradualist reform which helped form the Labour Party in 1900, and which of course continues to this day. Its Women’s Group was founded in 1908 and was active in producing reports and pamphlets on work and social conditions for women. Morley’s book looks at women’s work in teaching, medicine, nursing, health visitors and sanitary inspection, the civil service, clerks and secretaries, and the acting profession. The latter section is mostly about the stage, but it does include this intriguing snippet about the cinematograph work that the actress might occasionally find:

It is only possible for me to touch very lightly on employment by the cinematograph firms; but from the enquiries I have made, the usual payment seems to be roughly from 5s. to 7s. 6d. a day, the workers finding their own clothes: 10s. 6d. if the workers can ride and swim: 3s. a day for walking on, when light meals are provided. There is a form of application to be filled in, which demands the following particulars:-

Bust measurement.
Waist measurement.
Skirt length.
Line of work.
Ride horseback. Cycle. Swim.

The pictures take about ten days to prepare, and as a supplementary trade, undoubtedly this work is of value to the actress.

I think that the ability to cycle is something that has not been considered when researchers have looked at the work of women in early British film. Clearly a topic for further investigation. An ability to swim, however, we already know about. There’s a celebrated story of Will Barker selecting an Ophelia for his film of Hamlet (1908) purely because she was able to swim (see Robert Hamilton Ball’s Shakespeare on Silent Film, pp. 77-78).

2 responses

  1. A very interesting snippet that Luke has found here, and completely unknown to film history. I think this aspect of the physical abilities of early film performers has been somewhat unrecognised by other film historians. I have a bit about it in my book ‘I want to see this Anniemattygraph’, but have found lots more in the early trade press. Early performers were often, in effect, stunt men (and women) too.

  2. I’ve found using word searches on the new Advanced Search option on Project Gutenberg to be a marvellous research tool. I’d particularly rcommend it for anyone interested in how the language of early cinema came to be adopted into the fiction of the period (all those references to scenes passing by like a cinematograph). How else might you find that, for example, What Katy Did, contains a reference to Eadweard Muybridge? I’ll be posting more discoveries as I find them.

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