Alice – random but cool

Alice in Wonderland (1903) from http://www.youtube.com/user/bfifilms

It has been fascinating to watch what has been happening to the BFI’s latest online video release of Alice in Wonderland (1903). Restored and issued a few days ago to coincide with the release in the UK of Tim Burton’s new Alice in Wonderland feature film, made for Disney, the film has enjoyed a remarkable reception. Since 25 February it has attracted 123,564 hits on YouTube and has been embedded on numerous other websites (now including this one). Blogs have commented on it, websites have reviewed it. The link has been passed on goodness knows how many time via Twitter, and again and again the reaction from all kinds of people has been positive about the film. The line that keeps on being repeated is that the film is superior to Burton’s bloated effort, but there is more enough evidence of genuine appreciation for what could be achieved in 1903. Here are some sample tweets:

jolie_jolie In anticipation for the Alice in Wonderland movie, here’s the very first film, from 1903 – over 100 years ago! http://tinyurl.com/ydc4kp2

sillyjilly81024 RT @ohnotheydidnt Random but cool: silent Alice in Wonderland from 1903: Just in time for Tim Burton’s new, some… http://bit.ly/bUOhYZ

alisongang RT @neatorama Alice in Wonderland – 1903 version – Neatorama http://bit.ly/aJQe0x

RadioNikki The VERY FIRST Alice in Wonderland film from 1903 !! http://wmee.com/AirStaff/NicholeRoberts.aspx

katejcrowley The first Alice in Wonderland movie ever made. We’ve come a long way! Pretty cool though. From 1903: http://bit.ly/bvhaJL via @addthis

I read this as meaning that the general audience of 2010 is more than capable of appreciating the creative strengths of early cinema. There is delight at its invention alongside amusement at its quaintness. There is genuine appreciation of its proto-special effects with an understanding of how they fit into an ongoing history of film fantasy.

How different from the ways such films were disseminated and received only a few years ago. Alice in Wonderland has been in the BFI National Archive for years, and the common ways in which we were able to present such films to an audience were at very occasional screenings at the National Film Theatre as part of early cinema programmes (attended by a couple of dozen people if you were lucky) or at festivals and exchange screenings with other film archives and institutes. Sometimes we just viewed the films by ourselves and bemoaned the fact that so few people could see them, or might ever want to see them. Only we understood their true value – or so we believed. VHS and DVD came along to help spread the message, but it was always a tough proposition to sell a compilation of early films. What one seldom had the opportunity to do was to show such films individually.

Now look where we are. Alice may well have garned more views in the first week than it received on its original release in 1903 (does anyone know how many people got see an individual film in 1903? I’ve no idea). Moreover it is being seen by such a wide range of people. It has been taken out of its specialist field into general appreciation. This is what YouTube does, and what other film archives need to take note of. It establishes a common platform that is so much better for these films than the specialist ones that we have created for them in retrospectives, festivals and niche DVD releases. When these films are shown to the afficionados or those deemed to know best how to appreciate them, we learn little about them that is new. They are constrained by their select surroundings. Make them available among the skateboarding cats, comic skits, rants and ravings, music videos and TV clips that make up YouTube’s mad mix (all of them short films, just like early cinema) and they are given new life through new audiences. The reactions will be wild at times, there will be plenty of misinterpretation or ignorance of ‘proper’ film history, but the positives far outweigh the petty negatives. The positives are that the film is available to all, that it will be placed in contexts that we as curators or custodians might never think of, that it is exchangeable and shareable as information, that it belongs to today as much as yesterday. And since I started writng this post two hours ago, the number of views has risen by nearly 5,000 to 128,285. While I’ve been rambling, others have been watching, and sharing.

For the record, Alice in Wonderland was produced in Britain by Cecil Hepworth (left), whose studies were in Walton-on-Thames outside London. Denis Gifford, in his British Film Catalogue, credits the direction to Hepworth and his regular director at this period, Percy Stow. Mabel (May) Clark, who had joined Hepworth as a film cutter, plays Alice; Hepworth himself plays a frog, his wife Margaret plays the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, while future director of Irish films Norman Whitten plays the Mad Hatter and a fish, while cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull and his brother Stanley are two of the playing cards. The film was originally 800 feet or twelve minutes in length (though it was divided up into sixteen scenes which could be bought separately). Eight minutes survive today, in a somewhat ragged state. It was the longest British film yet made.

Alice was made with close attention to Tenniel’s original drawings, though it was bold enough to include its own additions to the narrative, giving Alice a magic fan (Tim Burton adds the Jabberwock to his version of the tale, which seems a somewhat greater liberty to take). Its special effects, achieved using optical printing and some ingenious use of scenery, allow us to see Alice grow large and small with impressive effectiveness. But perhaps the most delightful element is the procession of playing cards (filmed at the Mount Felix estate at Walton), which seems to have involved the participation of a local school. The narrative makes no sense when viewed with cold logic, but then neither does Lewis Carroll’s original. In short it is random – but cool. Now go tell someone about it.

26 responses

  1. Though I wouldn’t recommend it, the comments thread on Youtube shines an interesting light onto people’s attitudes towards early cinema, and by extension restoration. The fact that so many commentators feel the need to put the word restoration itself in inverted commas reflects a moment of incredulity followed by a moment of reflection. The film presented isn’t pixel perfect, but then how could it be when half the film has started rotting?

    With modern audiences so au-fait with the idea of holding an archive of film in your left hand, it’s perhaps a wake up call to realise that film is still a physical object that needs maintaining. Well done to the BFI for putting out there with such perfect timing.

  2. Thanks for this, Luke. I’ll tell someone about it through the medium of Tweet.

    Make no mistake – if there had been skateboards in 1900, someone would have stuck a cat on it and rolled it past a Cinematographe.

    I’m sure Teresa Rizzo wasn’t the first to make the comparison between a carnivalesque, frenetic and eclectic ‘cinema of attractions’ and YouTube, but it’s a cogent account nevertheless: http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=109

  3. And don’t forget the cameo by Hepworth’s dog, Blair, who would later become the star of Rescued by Rover. Perhaps that should be the next film to get a full-scale YouTube revival.

    Historians of film have been trained to be suspicious of discussions of early film that see at as of interest only in terms of how it prefigures later forms of cinema. That’s certainly the way most YouTube comments about Melies films tend to go, but I wonder if there’s a productive curiosity at the heart of those responses. If nothing else, positing Melies as a forward-thinking fantasist who planted the seeds of Star Wars (nauseating though that might be), raises awareness of his work, which is essential before any more nuanced accounts can be heard.

  4. burntretina – I agree that the film does teach lessons about restoration, and that it was bold but right of the BFI to present it as such. Not every film can be restored from a selection of material. Sometimes you have just the one damaged film, and you can’t repair what no longer exists. It’s a good lesson.

    Dan – thanks for the Teresa Rizzo link, which I hadn’t come across. It’s becoming a familiar argument, and I tend to be apprehensive about seeing the cinema of attractions applied to all manner of situations, but it undoubtedly does help to us at least a partial understanding of what’s going on. I like your phrase ‘productive curiosity’. That’s what it’s about.

    I’d overlooked Blair’s appearance in Alice (and I’m usually on the look out for random dogs in early films). The cinema of distractions reveals itself once more – see https://bioscopic.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/first-film-dogs.

  5. If any readers retain a shred of faith in humanity, I urge them not to squander it by clicking on Perez Hilton’s blog or, worse still, reading through the comments section.

  6. Alice now has 271,373 hits. Still a way to go to beat the BFI’s no. 1 YouTube hit, which is …. G.A. Smith’s Santa Claus (1898), at an extraordinary 458,471.

  7. I think we should be careful about repeating cliches about early cinema ourselves, as this example of the widespread disemmination, at least, of Alice in Wonderland implies. An autumn 1991 season of early cinema chosen by Barry Salt and shown at NFT2 had an average audience across 12 programmes of 113 people, just under the theatre’s capacity. A few years later an NFT season of Victorian Cinema had an even larger average audience, if memory serves. When the films that are shown are not cliched representatives of something “primitive”, and are presented in an interesting way at an appropriately schedulled time — the Barry Salt season ran weekly, instead of daily, at a time on the weekend (!) when out-of-town viewers could easily come — then they can be very successful.

  8. Point taken – particularly as it was me who programmed the Victorian Cinema shows, which did mostly fill NFT2 (helped by it being the centenary of cinema). I have exaggerated things a little for emphasis, and there is of course huge value in presenting curated programmes by knowledgeable people (I was at the Barry Salt shows too) which respect the films – and their audience. But I do also feel that the potential of these films have been constrained because it was assumed that they were of specialist taste only. I’ve also spent too long myself thinking that I was one of those privileged few who really understood what was going on. In the face of such enthusiasm for the Alice film that we now see (405,786 views and still rising), I think we have to question whether we have been valuing these films in the right way – or at least we should be aware that other ways exist. Sure many of the comments don’t reveal much in the way of an understanding of film history, but they delight in what they see – and I want to learn from that.

  9. Couldn’t agree more with Deac Rossell and Urbanora’s reaction. And if I may add an impromptu opinion: avoiding the cliched may also involve NOT including a loud piano player who was merely summoned there without having much affinity with the music …

  10. Not much affinity with the film, I assume you mean. I’m all for variety and experimentation for musical accompaniment to silent films, but time again you do discover that piano works best. It’s just whether it’s good piano or bad piano (remember too that frequently those piano players will not have seen the film before having to play to it).

  11. There is an underlying snobbery in some of these comments that I find alarming. It’s as if the readers of this blog don’t actually want non-film historians to discover early cinema. It’s as if you don’t think that their comments are valid because they repeat for you what are just cliches. Looking at the comments accompanying Alice on you tube I am struck by the volume of delight, amazement and sense of discovery that this film has provoked. And for many it has simply been a surprise to discover that film existed in 1903. How many screenings of Victorian or Edwardian cinema in archive-endorsed theaters create this awareness? I suggest that you go back to your ivory towers and lock away your archives. Perish the thought that the films should be seen by anyone else.

  12. Down with ivory towers, absolutely. However, I think one comment asked merely that we don’t forget that there is something to be said for the programme curated by someone expert in the field, and there’s a lot to be said for that. What we don’t want is for that to be the only way in which these films are received. I am delighted to see the response that the film has generated, because they do reveal the thrill of discovery – the same thrill I had when I stumbled across early cinema years ago and decided I had to get to the bottom of what made these films tick. I hope Alice leads others down a similar rabbit hole.

  13. With the film, indeed. I know about those pianists. Which is why I’d sometimes rather do without them, put in earplugs so as to avoid their taking all the attention away. Apart from that, I think this thread is mainly about opening the windows, and so I consider Mr(s) Hallett’s rash post a bit of a … projection.

  14. While we’re on the subject of elitism, let’s recognise how privileged some of us to experience silent films accompanied by live music (and frequently those pianists are improvising to a film they’ve never seen before – how brilliant is that?).

    I’m not sure how this conversation has veered to cliche (and I’m not quite sure what is being meant by cliche anyway), still less piano players. It’s about opening windows, as you say (Alice now at 450,461 views, by the way – I wonder how soon before it gets picked up by those who measure viral video figures).

  15. Was this the first instance of “size changing” on screen in cinema? I tend to doubt it was, as Hepworth or Melies may have earlier used that trick, but I’m not sufficiently versed in the history of very early film to know.

  16. I think the earliest example is Georges Méliès’ L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc (The Man With the Indiarubber Head), in which a head (Méliès himself) grows larger and larger until it practically fills the screen. That dates from 1901. It’s the sort of trickery (using optical printing) that would have fascinated Hepworth, so maybe he had practised it earlier than 1903, but I can’t think of an example.

  17. Can anybody help me with info on Albert Blinkhorn (b. 1869 in Spalding Lincolnshire) who became president of Hepworth American Film Corporation.
    I have found an ‘Albert Blinkhorn’ in 1911 in my area of East London as owner-manager of The Palace Electric Theatre, the first cinema in Leytonstone. He sold the cinema around 1913.
    I think they are the same person as AB seems to show up as a film agent c1912-14 as a film agent travelling back and forth from the USA.
    Any help appreciated

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  19. I have run into Albert Blinkhorn while researching one of the two American productions of Jane Eyre made in 1914. Blinkhorn Photoplays distributed not only Hepworth in the US but a couple of features made by the Whitman Features Company, a very short-lived outfit. Their Jane Eyre was directed by Martin Faust, who had acted in the first Jane Eyre, made by Thanhouser in 1910. The last two features distributed by Blinkhorn — “The Witness Invisible” and “The Aviator Traitor” — were apparently in-house Blinkhorn Photoplays productions. They vanished in 1914. Blinkhorn also had a documentary series, “Blinkhorn’s Natural History Travels.” I see only one subject, “The Capture of a Sea Elephant and Hunting Wild Game in the South Pacific Islands,” which was shot in San Pedro, California. UD

  20. It’s good to see that this comment thread is still alive. Alice has now broken the million barrier – 1,017,289 views as of today.

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