From 1896 to 1926 – part 3

High Divers at Milan

Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896)

We return to Edward G. Turner’s 1926 reminiscences of the early days of the film business in Britain. We are still in the 1890s, and changes in the business are already necessary. Turner and colleagues discover that they have pitched their product too highly…

The Crash

We soon found out, however, that we were altogether too scientific in our entertainment. The average person could not promounce the word “kinematograph,” and, if they could, it conveyed nothing to them in the way of entertainment. They all thought it was something educational, and in those days, as to-day, the public would not pay to be educated when they wanted to be amused, and so, after three months’ touring, we returned to London sadder but wiser men, and in the process of gaining wisdom, we lost our entire capital.

On the last day of the old year 1896, three unhappy men met to discuss ways and means for carrying on or closing down – the three men being J.D. Walker, J. Mackie and E.G. Turner. Mackie was demonstrator or operator, Walker was lecturer, and myself manager and treasurer – the latter office being a mere sinecure, as there were no funds to treasure, and I had to draw upon private means to pay our way.

As the bells announced the birth of a New Year (1897), we closed the books of the North American Animated Picture Company [and] reorganised our finances by my agreeing to provide £100 (which I hoped to borrow and which I succeeded in doing). Walker agreed to take half-share, and pay for his share as and when the business permitted, and Mackie withdrew as it looked an almost hopeless proposition.

Playing to the Gallery

Our policy was now altered: instead of spending a large amount of money in circularising all the best people in the towns and villages, by means of very good stationery, excellent printing and sending and sealing our letters with a penny stamp so as to attract the attention of the recipient, we went for the working classes. The results of our fresh policy was that, when the performance began, we had two or three people only in the stalls, our chief patronage came from the cheaper seats. So we decided to stop playing to the stalls, and in future to play to the gallery. From this date we were known as Walker and Turner.

On January 1, 1897, we visited the Central Working Men’s Club and Institute in Clerkenwell Road – had an interview with the entertainment secretary, who gave us an engagement for the following Saturday night, provided we gave a show of one hour’s duration for the magnificent sum of 30s.

As we had to find two cylinders of gas, and get our apparatus to and from the hall, also take two men to do the job, one will understand that it was not a profitable transaction, but the secretary personally promised us that he would send round a letter to secretaries of all the clubs in London, invite them to be present, and if our show was all we claimed it to be, there were prospects of good bookings to be obtained.

The secretary carried out his promise, and on Saturday night, when we arrived to do our show, the hall was packed to suffocation. The pictures projected were most enthusiatically received, and after the show was over we had the satisfaction of booking up dates amounting to over £200.

As we executed these dates, which were all close, others rolled in upon us from all parts of the country, principally from working men’s clubs, and that was the first step towards success; in three months our business had grown to such an extent that we had two machines operating.

Turner now moves on to some of the strategies of exhibition in the 1890s, interestingly revealing that gaps in the programme and the common practice of running films backwards were employed to spin out meagre, expensive films. He then describes the innovation in film business practice that he was central in introducing – renting, or film distribution.

A Shilling a Foot

In those days we were paying 1s. per foot for our films, the average length being 500 feet. It will, therefore, be understood that the cost of running an hour’s programme was very expensive.

It is true that to eke out our meagre supply of films we used to take a minute or two between the change, and further, we had what was known as a reversing prism, and, after we had shown a film through, e.g., “The High Divers at Milan” (which was a very effective subject for the purpose), we would then rewind the film, put it through the machine backwards, and, by means of the prism, instead of the man diving into the water from the high diving boards, there would be a splash of water, out of which the man, feet foremost, would come and go back on to the diving board – in fact, the whole subject being reversed. This used to create not only great amusement but wonder as to how it was done, and used to help us very considerably in making our programme last out the necessary time. And if they applauded, well, on went the film a second time.

The Beginning of Renting

The price of films quickly dropped from 1s. to 8d. per foot, and then became standard at 6d. a foot; this allowed us to increase our store, but it soon became evident that to have to provide new films every time we took a repeat engagement was too expensive. So we conceived the idea, first of all, of an interchange of films with other exhibitors, who experienced the same difficulties in regard to new supplies. From this we eventually evolved the renting of films to other people, because we found that we had by far a larger stock than any of the other men. By buying films regularly we could use them ourselves and hire them to the other people, and so in such small beginning was evolved the great renting system as known to-day.

The First Woman Operator

At the end of 1897 we had three machines working. Walker operated one, myself the second, and the third was handled by Mrs. J.D. Walker, though a man went with her to fit up and do the donkey work. Mrs. Walker handled the mixed gas jet and operated, and she can claim without fear of contradiction to be the first woman operator in the world. She is still in business as managing director of the Empire cinema, Watford.

Was the redoubtable Mrs Walker the ‘first women operator in the world’? The evidence of the 1901 census, as reported in a recent post, shows that there were certainly other women operators around at the same time. More investigation is needed. ‘The High Divers of Milan’ is Les Bains de Diane à Milan (1896), Lumière catalogue no. 277, and is illustrated above. Reversing prisms, which were fitted onto the lens, were available from equipment suppliers at the time. They were used when film could not simply be reversed by cranking in the opposite direction i.e. the film had to be re-threaded in reverse, with the prism necessary to turn the image the correct way round. Is that a correct explanation, you experts out there?

From 1896 to 1926 – part 2

Lumière train (1897)

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895)

Part two of our series taken from the series of articles written in 1926 by Edward G. Turner of the British film company Walturdaw, reminiscing on thirty years in the film trade, has him describe the sorts of films he showed in the 1890s. He recalls many individual titles, and interestingly the majority of them are from British producers.

The first films used were Edison Kinetoscope subjects, 40 ft. long. I can remember “The Cock Fight,” “Scene in a Bar Room,” “Tyring a Wheel,” “The Black Diamond Express,” and “The Comic Wrestlers.”

Then McGuire and Baucus, of Dashwood House, Bishopsgate street, provided us with a number of subjects, the saleswoman there being Miss Rosenthall, sister of J. Rosenthall, whom all old operators will remember. McGuire and Baucus were years after taken over by the Warwick Trading Co., when Chas. Urban presided over its fortunes.

Lumière were the best source of our supply, as he had sent out to various parts of the world a number of cameras. Of his subjects I remember: “The Dancers from the Moulin Rouge,” “A Market Scene in Paris,” “Diving from a Raft,” “A Pillow Fight,” “A Street Scene in Paris,” “The Gardener,” “Bad Boy and Hose Pipe,” “High Diving at Milan Baths,” “A Train Arriving at a Station,” “The Sleeping Coachman,” “Comic Boxing in Tubs,” “Dublin Fire Brigade,” “Heavy Load of Stone.”

R.W. Paul’s list included “The Miller and the Sweep,” “Whitewashing a Fence,” “David Devant Conjuring,” “Children at Tea,” “Bill Stickers,” and “A Sea Cave.”

Films were also supplied by Birt-Acre, of Barnet, the most famous of which were “Policeman, Solider and Cook,” “The Magic Sausage Machine,” and “A Man Going to Bed.”

G.A. Smith, of Brighton, produced “The Corsican Brothers,” in 75 ft., and a number of excellent subjects besides.

Williamson, of Brighton, produced a large number of small subjects, including his films of the Boxer Rising in China.

Later, came the old showman’s wonderful film “The Poachers,” of which I think Col. Bromhead will bear kindly remembrance; the Sheffield Photo Co.’s “Daylight Burglars”; and later, the faked films of the South African War, made by Mitchell and Kenyon.

The South African War provided many films, and the public wanted more.

What an impetus these films gave to the Trade!

What a remarkable memory he had. Historians of the period will note that his chronology may be a little awry, but he is almost completely spot on with which producer supplied which titles – some of which survive to this day, others now are lost with only evidence such as this to tell us of their one-time significance. “Miss Rosenthall” is Alice Rosenthal, sister of Anglo-Boer War cameraman Joseph Rosenthal, and later a film producer herself. Birt-Acre is Birt Acres, “McGuire and Baucus” were Franck Z. Maguire and Joseph Baucus. “Williamson” is James Williamson. Next up, financial crisis, and a crucial change of exhibition policy…

U.S. Government Enters Film Industry

The U.S. Government began its entrance into the motion picture industry as early (if not earlier) as 1908. Early on, Government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and others began their foray into this arena. In the beginning, Government offices relied on outside commercial studios for their productions, but early on they realized in order to control costs, maintain creative control and eventually set up their own distribution systems, it was in their best interests to set up their own production units.

The Department of Agriculture began producing films officially as a motion picture unit late in 1913. They had even purchased processing equipment and cameras and had the first Government motion picture lab initially hidden away in an 8 x 12 room as it had yet to be funded. In 1917 the U.S. Signal Corps began training soldiers in cinematography at Columbia University in New York. The U.S. Reclamation Service (Department of the Interior) began filming in 1908-09 using the medium to document their efforts in irrigation in the Midwest. The list goes on and on: the Bureau of War Risk Insurance , the National Forest Service, Bureau of Mines, etc. all utilized this medium in an effort to educate and inform the masses. It is a long neglected segment of film history which is well worth a new look.

Cinema Context 2

Special issue Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis (TMG):

Cinema in Context

Last year, Dutch film historian Karel Dibbets launched the website Cinema Context (see post on February 10th), an on-line database of Dutch cinema culture. Cinema Context aspires to become a new standard among the digital reference sources, comparable to the Internet Movie Database which was put on-line in 1996 by film buff and computer freak Col Needham and which since then has become an indispensable source for millions of film lovers and scholars worldwide. Whereas IMDb mainly offers film production data, Cinema Context is a research tool for the study of film programming and distribution.

Dibbets launched his website during the Cinema in Context conference (Amsterdam, 20-21 April 2006), where several projects of the international research group Homer (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition and Reception) were presented. The conference addressed the urgent question of the future of film studies, in general, and film history, in particular. Anno 2006, film history proved to be in a dynamic but problematic phase. Which direction will we take in the coming years? Can we collaborate more and in which ways? How do we deal with the growing but very diversified digital sources? What will be their role in our future research? Which questions are pertinent and which technologies do we need? Lastly, have we reached the limits of our territory?

This special issue of Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis (2006/2), edited by Ivo Blom and Wanda Strauven, documents the important debate of the Cinema in Context conference. It deals with burning questions such as local vs. national identity, film history vs. cultural geography, ‘factual’ history writing, consumerism, and the state and availability of film historical research. The issue contains the four keynote papers (in English) of the conference, and two Dutch contributions. All articles have English written summaries. The issue also contains a list of relevant websites.

Contents:

‘Cinema in context: het einde van filmstudies?’, by Ivo Blom & Wanda Strauven

‘The place of space in film historiography’, by Robert C. Allen

Cinema Context en onderzoek naar sociale netwerken binnen de filmgeschiedschrijving: een aanzet tot discussie’, by André van der Velden, Thunnis van Oort, Fransje de Jong and Clara Pafort Overduin

‘Het taboe van de Nederlandse filmcultuur. Neutraal in een verzuild land’, by Karel Dibbets

‘Just the Facts, M’am?’ A Short History of Ambivalence Towards Empiricism in Cinema Studies’, by Ian Christie

‘On the Prospect of Writing Cinema History from Below’, by Richard Maltby

‘Local cinema histories in France: An Overview’, by Jean-Jacques Meusy

You can order the Cinema in Context issue (€ 25 excl.) at Boom Publishers.

E-mail: m.siemons@boomonderwijs.nl

Address: Boom Publishers, Martine Siemons, Prinsengracht 747, 1017 JX, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Cinema Context

What is the finest film reference source on the Web, for all film let alone silent film? With all due respect to the Internet Movie Database, I think it is Cinema Context, a Dutch site created by Karel Dibbets and the University of Amsterdam. Describing itself as “an encylopedia of film culture”, the site documents film distribution and exhibition in the Netherlands in 1896. It does so through four data collections, on films, cinemas, people and companies, derived from painstakingly researched data on nearly all films exhibited in Dutch cinemas before 1960. The research team located film programmes from 1896 onwards in each of the major Dutch cities, entering all film titles, names, dates, cinemas etc, and then ingeniously matched this data to the records of these films on the IMDb.

The result is an incomparably rich resource for tracing films, the performers and the producers across time and territories, opening up whole new areas of analysis. Cinema Context also contains comprehensive data from the files of the Netherlands Board of Film Censors 1928-1960. As the site states: “Cinema Context is both an online encyclopaedia and a research tool for the history of Dutch film culture. Not only can you find information here about who, what, where and when: you can also analyse this information and study patterns and networks. Thanks to Cinema Context, we are now able to expose the DNA of Dutch film culture.” Naturally, it is available in both Dutch and English.

This is the new film research. Every nation should have the same.