The Soldier’s Courtship

Fred Storey and Julie Seale in The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), one of a few frames held by the National Media Museum

As we reported yesterday, a copy of Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896) has been discovered at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and will be premiered at the Pordenone silent film fesival in October. This is a discovery of major importance, since the film is generally recognised as the first British fiction, or narrative film. However, the film has never been entirely lost, nor is it (arguably) the first British fiction film. Let us examine the history.

In 1936 Robert W. Paul, the British film pioneer, reminisced about the residency his Animatograph projector enjoyed at the Alhambra music hall in London’s Leicester Square in 1896, a little over a month after projected films were first shown to an audience in Britain:

The first public exhibition of the Lumière cinematograph in England took place … on February 20th, at the Polytechnic in Regent Street, and the results were then superior in steadiness and clearness to my own. To compete with that machine, as shown at the Empire Theatre in Leciester Square, the Manager of the Alhambra asked me to give a show, as a ten-minute item in the programme, with my Theatrograph, which he renamed the Animatographe. This engagement was for two weeks, beginning March 25th, but actually continued for about two years. The salary, or fee, was at the rate of eleven pounds for each performance, far more than I has expected. In April, the Alhambra manager, Mr. Moul, who wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder, staged upon the roof a comic scene called The Soldier’s Courtship, the 80-foot film of which caused great merriment.

Paul’s account suggests that both the idea and the setting up of the film were the idea of the Alhambra’s manager, Alfred Moul, and the leading performers in the mini-drama were two Alhambra regulars, dancer and comedian Fred Storey and and dancer Julie Seale. Paul was chiefly there to turn the handle of the camera, though his wife Ellen did play the role of the interloper in the simple comic scene, described in the theatre journal The Era (16 May 1896):

Mr R.W. Paul has much improved the animated pictures presented by means of his clever invention … The element of humour is introduced by a picture of a soldier’s courtship. Mars and Venus (a befeathered Harriet) are interrupted in their ‘billing and cooing’ by a lady of maturer years, who insists on making a third on the seat occupied by the lovers. Protestations are in vain. Finally, the linesman, taking the law into his own hands, tips up the seat violently and throws the uninvited one to the ground. The courtship then continues.

The film appears to have been a great hit, so much so that Paul produced a remake two years later, entitled Tommy Atkins in the Park. The Soldier’s Courtship has since gone down in British film mythology as the first British fiction film.

But what is a fiction film, and what is a first? Anyone familiar with early film history will recognise the perils – nay, the folly – of describing any film as being the ‘first’ of something. Apart from anything else, such labels are meaningless when it comes to describing films produced at a time before such labels existed.

Arrest of a Pickpocket, made by Birt Acres and Robert Paul in April 1895, and a stronger candidate for the first British fiction film

If we want to dip into such controveries and argue that a fiction film is one that contains dramatic elements, then The Soldier’s Courtship had its predecessors. Robert Paul had begun film production in February or March of 1895, when he and the photographer Birt Acres collaborated on producing films for the Edison peepshow Kinetoscope, which Edison had notoriously neglected to patent in Europe, presenting a money-making opportunity to the two quick-minded London men. They produced a number of films between March and May 1895, before they fell out and went their separate ways, each finding his way towards a projected film system by early 1896. But among the films they made in 1895 (the full extent of which remains unknown) were:

  • An untitled ‘comedy’ filmed outside Acres’ Barnet home, ‘starring’ Henry Short (an acquaintance of both Acres and Paul), a few frames of which survive and which is various known as Incident at Clovelly Cottage or Cricketer Jumping Over Garden Gate. Whether it contained any genuine dramatic content is unclear – it seems chiefly to have been a test to demonstrate movement and image contrast (Short dressed in cricket whites).
  • Arrest of a Pickpocket – made in April 1895, this is the strongest candidate for the first British fiction film. It shows in single shot a pickpocket pursued by a policeman; he escapes the policeman’s clutches only to be captured by a passing sailor. The present tense is apposite, because the film survives, at the National Fairground Archive, and can be seen online at the Europa Film Treasures site.
  • Comic Shoeblack – made around May 1895. No description survives (and no film), but the title indicates an element of dramatisation, even if it is only to add spice to an actuality.
  • Carpenter’s Shop – made around May 1895, in emulation of Edison films showing scenes in a barroom and a blacksmith’s, this was ostensibly a scene from actuality, but had small dramatic points designed to capture the interest of the peepshow viewer, and could therefore be argued as being fictionalised. It is a lost film.
  • Arrest of a Bookmaker – John Barnes dates this Paul production to August 1896, but Denis Gifford in the British Film Catalogue puts it as May 1896, possibly even before The Soldier’s Courtship. A film which may be this is held by the BFI National Archive [The BFI has the film under the supplied title of Footpads – see comments]. Gifford also places Acres’ Golfing Extraordinary (a comic scene with golfers) as May 1896 and considers Acres’ Boxing Match to be a January 1896 production and to have dramatic elements (i.e. a staged match).

So, The Soldier’s Courtship is not the first British fiction film, if we can talk of fictional or narrative films in their later sense. Nor is it entirely a lost film. Firstly, a few frames from the film survived in the Kodak collection for many years and are now preserved by the National Media Museum in Bradford – one of the frames is used as the illustration at the top of this post. Secondly, as John Barnes points out – and illustrates – in The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vol. 1 – 1894-1896, a Filoscope exists of the film. The Filoscope was a hand-held flickbook with sequential images taken from cinefilms (a demonstration video is here). It was the invention of Henry Short, the same man who appeared in the ‘Clovelly Cottage’ film made by Acres and Paul in February or March of 1895. John Barnes had a copy of the Filoscope himself (his collection is now held by Hove Museum and Art Gallery) and reported that there were 176 leaves, or images. Hardly a complete film, but enough to show the central action. It was marketed as The Soldier’s Embrace, and at least one other copy has come up for auction before now.

Well, this leaves us with The Soldier’s Courtship being neither the ‘first’ British fiction film, nor a ‘lost’ film. But it is a landmark film for all that, and we have a complete 35mm copy in good condition, and that is a marvel all by itself, given that it is 115 years old. Moreover it’s a film with an identified cast, among whom Fred Storey in particular was a musical comedian of some fame. It is the first British film where we can set out a full set of credits (because we do not know the cast members of Arrest of a Pickpocket):

    The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896)
    director: Robert Paul
    production company: Paul’s Animatograph Works
    supervised by: Alfred Moul
    length: 80 feet
    location: Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, London
    cast: Fred Storey (soldier), Julie Seale (his sweetheart), Ellen Paul (woman)

And that’s a movie.

I hope that there will be chances for everyone to see it following its Pordenone premiere in October. It certainly is an exciting and important discovery.