70 Oxford Street, London, today (from Google Street View) and in October 1894, from The Westminster Budget, 26 October 1894
If you travel eastwards down London’s Oxford Street, keeping to the north side of the road, you will come across an electronics shop of unprepossessing frontage, currently named McDonald’s. It claims to be the oldest electronics shop in Oxford Street, but it tells you nothing about its place in film history. Because it was here – at 70 Oxford Street – that the first public exhibition of motion picture film took place in the UK. On 17 October 1894 the Continental Commerce Company exhibited the Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device showing short films, no more than a minute long, which people could see by peering down through a viewer at a tiny image. No photograph exists of this Kinetoscope parlour (as they were called), but a drawing in a newspaper gives us some idea of the layout and clientele. We know that there were ten machines available, and that among the films on show were Blacksmith’s Shop, Cock Fight, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, The Bar Room, Carmencita, Wrestling Match, and Barber Shop.
Edison’s Carmencita (1894), one of the films featured at the first public film exhibition in the UK
Strictly speaking we’re talking about two different 70 Oxford Streets, since the original building is long gone. Around the time of the centenary of cinema (1995/96) we tried to get a plaque put on the building that now stands there, but the owners weren’t interested, so the plaque was put up nearby at no. 76. Sadly the owners of 76 showed a similar lack of respect for cinema history, and the plaque has now gone. Kinetoscopes themselves didn’t last too long, either. It was obvious to budding film entrepreneurs that films would be a greater attraction on a screen, not least because this would attract a greater number of paying customers, and within fifteen months (in the UK) projected film on a screen was a commercial reality, and the Kinetoscope’s era was over.
Wind forward 116 years and the Kinetoscope is making a sort of a comeback. The biennial Fashion in Film Festival takes place in London 1-12 December and among the side attractions, running 15 November-14 December is Kinoscope Parlour, a project supported by Film London’s Digital Film Archive Fund, which is bringing back something like the Kinetoscope experience to London. Here’s how Film London describes it:
Twelve different locations in the run-up to, and throughout, the festival will host a contemporary re-imagining of the Kinetoscope – presenting a selection of feature films made by the pioneers of early cinema, as well as archive footage that will reveal hidden layers of local cinema history. The six units, specially designed for the project, will be placed in key locations in the capital’s outer boroughs from 15 November, before the Kinoscope Parlour is re-located to London’s central boroughs for the course of the festival. For four weeks, passers-by will be able to transport themselves back to a bygone era through the magic of the moving image.
Between 15-28 November the Kinoscope will be found at these London sites: Castle Green in Dagenham, CREST charity shop in Walthamstow, Kilburn Library, Lewisham Library, Queen’s Market in Upton Park and Wolves Lane Nursery in Wood Green. Between 29 November-14 December it will be located at BFI Southbank, The Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, Somerset House, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors (Hackney) and The Wapping Project. Further details including a map are on the Fashion Film Festival site.
It won’t be too difficult to spot the Kinoscopes as they are strikingly designed in black and white stripes by designer Mark Garside. There are six of them, one for each location, unlike the original parlour idea where ten were arrayed together in rows. The original Kinetoscopes were coin-operated; the Kinoscopes are free and you have to turn a wheel to view the films, which through “cutting-edge digital technology” allows you to control the speed of the films. The films themselves are a mixture of productions from Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison (the only one of the films originally designed for showing in a peepshow), Gaston Velle, Segundo de Chomón, Robert Paul, Ferdinand Zecca and Alice Guy-Blaché, with an emphasis on “dress manipulations and magical transformations” to tie in with the fashion on film theme. Additionally there will be archive film of London’s cinema history up to the 1930s. The full list of films, indicating which ones will be available at which locations (you won’t get to see them all on the one Kinoscope) is also on the festival website.
Silent films also feature heavily in Fashion Film Festival itself, under the thematic title of ‘Birds of Paradise’. Early films are paired with experimental films on Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Ron Rice, José Rodriguez-Soltero, Steven Arnold at Tate Modern; the Barbican is showing diva Lyda Borelli in Rapsodia Satanica (1915-17), Germaine Dulac’s La Princesse Mandane (1928); and Michael Curtiz’s Red Heels (Das Speilzeug von Paris / La Poupée de Paris) (1925) and The Golden Butterfly (Der Goldene Schmetterling); while BFI Southbank has a panel event The Gossamer Wings of Early Cinema, and is showing Cecil B. De Mille’s Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1919), the Nazimova films The Red Lantern (1919) and Salomé (1923), Josephine Baker in La Revue des Revues (1927), E.A. Dupont’s Moulin Rouge (1928), Alexandre Volkoff’s Secrets of the East (Geheimnisse des Orients / Shéhérazade) (1928) and Jean Durand and Berthe Dagmar’s The Island of Love (l’Île d’amour) (1928). Fashion or no fashion, it’s an impressive line-up of silents, most of them rarely shown.
Finally, over 1-12 December, Somerset House is hosting Hemline: the Moving Screen, an artwork by Jason Bruges Studio on belle époque dancer and film performer Loïe Fuller, which they describe as “a light sculpture that uses three-dimensional volume as a ‘moving screen’ to approximate the swirling movements of fabric in a serpentine dance”.
Dates and booking details for all these screenings and events are on the festival website.