The lost prince

Prince John in 1913, from Wikipedia

While sorting out some papers I came across a clipping which I’d quite forgotten about. It comes from the British film trade journal The Cinema in 1913 (there’s no more precise date on the copy, alas), and what it reports, though brief, is so striking that I have to pass it on. It tells us that a member of the British royal family apparently wrote a film scenario – for private consumption only – in 1913:

Princess Mary Writes a Scenario
Princess Mary, the only daughter of the King and Queen, has written a short comedy script for the moving pictures. This has been produced privately, and exhibited at Buckingham Palace. Prince John posed for one of the characters.

Princess Mary (later the Countess of Harewood) was then aged 16. The royal family were well aware of motion pictures and had been to see film shows (usually featuring themselves), and as early as October 1896 a privately-comissioned film had been made of Queen Victoria and guests at Balmoral, which survives (the guests included Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia). But to be thinking of making their own dramatic film at such an early date is remarkable, not least for showing an awareness of the new popular entertainment that the commonfolk were flocking in their millions to see. Amateur dramatic films started to be relatively common in the 1920s, but 1913 is very early for such a production, whatever the strata of society.

And then there is the one named cast member. Prince John, the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary, was a severe epileptic and was kept out of public view. There are photographs, but no motion pictures were ever taken of him – or at least that is what has been assumed. In 1913 he was was 8 years old – he would die in 1919, aged just 14. His story was poignantly told in 2003 in the Stephen Poliakoff television film The Lost Prince. The film showed us the boy viewing royal affairs with an innocent yet quizzical air, needing the love of his parents who instead hid him away on a farm, unable to express the emotions nature ought to have made them feel.

Was Prince John filmed after all? It is not certain this report is correct, of course. It could be merely relaying a rumour. But assuming the film did exist, who made it? (if it was a professional he was discreet about it, because I’ve not come across any such report) – and what happened to it? There is a royal film collection, some of which has long been in the care of the BFI National Archive, but the films in the collection are not of so early a date – at least as far as I know. The film is most likely to be lost, not so much because the royals are likely to lose things (I don’t think they often do), but because surely it would have been uncovered by now. Or it may simply have decomposed.

But someone ought to have a second look, just in case.

Capturing colour

Kinemacolor test film (‘Two Clowns’), filmed c.1906 by G.A. Smith and featuring his wife Laura Bayley

Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder is an exhibition on the early history of motion picture colour and related media. The exhibition opened on 4 December at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and runs until 20 March 2011. The exhibition encompasses magic lanterns, early colour photography, chromatropes, kromskops and applied colour films, through to Kinemacolor, Kodachrome and Technicolor, and explores dramas and actualities, Hollywood productions and home movies.

There’s not much to look at on the Museum website, but I can vouch for the presence at the exhibition of some precious examples of very early motion picture colour technology, including a Lee and Turner triple-lens colour projector c.1901 and a Kinemacolor projector from the collection of the National Media Museum, which I saw being packed up for the exhibition a few weeks ago.

There will be a detailed report once I have visited the exhibition (late January, I think). Meanwhile, if you are interested in the history of colour cinematography, the Bioscope produced a series, Colourful Stories, on the first film colour systems, a couple of years ago:

  • Part 1: James Clerk Maxwell and the first colour photograph
  • Part 2: The Kromskop
  • Part 3: The first patent for colour cinematography, in 1897
  • Part 4: The Lee and Turner three-colour system, patented in 1899
  • Part 5: The Brighton School
  • Part 6: Inventing Kinemacolor
  • Part 7: Reviving Kinemacolor
  • Part 8: Hand-painted colour
  • Part 9: The Pathé stencil colour system
  • Part 10: First public exhibition of natural colour motion pictures
  • Part 11: Kinemacolor in America
  • Part 12: Tinting and toning
  • Part 13: The end of Kinemacolor
  • Part 14: Gaumont Chronochrome

I’m well aware that the series is not done yet (Prizmacolor, Kodachrome, Technicolor and more if we’re to complete the story for the silent era). I’ll get round to finishing it one day, I promise…