This is a guest post for Silent London by Juliet Jacques. Jacques is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, sexuality, film, football and literature. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the LRB and her new book Trans: a Memoir will be published by Verso in 2015.
Film historians often credit DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) with popularising the full-length feature film, if not inventing it – changing both the language of cinema and the way it was seen. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s US Civil War novel The Clansman, it opened with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”, attempting to create new formal techniques that drew on literature and drama. Distancing it from the fairground sideshows at which Edison, Méliès and other pioneers showed their works, aiming to attract more middle-class viewers, Griffith’s epic screened in theatres with an interval and printed programme, and a three-hour score by Joseph Carl Breil, which combined original music, familiar melodies and classical compositions, notoriously Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the ride of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Birth of a Nation was not the first full-length feature, historical epic or literary adaptation: Giovanni Pastrone’s 200-minute Cabiria, set in ancient Carthage and Sicily, inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô and written by poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, was released a year earlier, and several Italian studios took such risks, by now assured of their audience. So 1914 – that seismic year for Western culture – marked a turning point for cinematic convention, departing from the collections of single or double-reel comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels shown at music halls, shop fronts and penny gaffs during the early 1900s.
Marking the centenary of the First World War, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 attempts to recreate the atmosphere in one of Britain’s 3-4,000 “picture houses”, featuring 14 short films from the BFI archives, curated by Bryony Dixon, all in good condition, with an improvised score by pianist Stephen Horne that references music of the time, it invites 21st-century viewers to imagine when movies would have provided not just a social occasion, with rowdier audiences happy to talk not just between reels but also during them, but also the chance to catch up with the world, illustrating what had been covered by the newspapers.
Several newsreels open the collection. First, a “light” item about British pilots Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks Looping the Loop at Hendon, in March. This lasts just a few moments, but shows how bracing aviation must have been, the rickety box-planes flying low, the pilots exposed. What seems most amazing now is that just months later, 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, these were used in warfare. (Less surprising is that far more British pilots died in training than combat.)
One of the biggest pre-war political concerns features in Palace Pandemonium (May), which shows Emmeline Pankhurst marching to Buckingham Palace, held by police who barely hide their contempt, to petition George V for women’s suffrage. This reminds us how high-profile the campaign was, but Austrian Tragedy immediately shifts the agenda, chronicling the Austro-Hungarian royal family’s efforts to carry on after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
For them, and the rest of the world, life would never be the same, but the programme makes us aware that the war did not become Britain’s dominant social concern until later in 1914. Next, Sir Ernest Shackleton plans an expedition to the Antarctic, soon after Captain Scott’s death, taking plenty of dogs – the feel is rather different to Herbert Ponting’s despatches from Scott’s doomed mission, screened in miscellanies in 1910-12 and collected as The Great White Silence in 1924, and we see Shackleton learning from Scott’s mistakes, taking plenty of dogs, which could carry equipment but also serve as food, as they had for Scott’s rival Roald Amundsen.
The war is anticipated in Egypt and Her Defenders, which shows Lord Kitchener as British Consul General, reviewing troops before he became Secretary of State for War. Otherwise, the programme emphasises the ordinary people involved. Scouts’ Valuable Aid (August) features Sea Scouts looking on the cliff tops for an invading fleet, indicative of those early stages when the public could not imagine how destructive the conflict would prove – the next newsreel, covering the devastation of Louvain and its ancient university library after the Germans invaded Belgium, brings home the horrors of the continental war, even if the only footage from the trenches is of the troops celebrating Christmas, a brief clip of the Tommies eating together rather than the famous football match, in a location undisclosed for reasons of national security.
The documentaries are more interesting than the fiction filns, which sometimes drag despite their short length. The music hall entertainment is evoked in The Rollicking Rajah, a song that showcases ladies’ fashions and dance moves as well as the crude racist stereotyping of imperial Britain, which would have been accompanied by a synchronised sound disc, now lost, but recreated here from surviving sheet music. It interests purely as a period piece: more excitement is found in The Perils of Pauline, an extract from a popular US serial starring Pearl White, one of many to feature a strong, independent female lead, which makes little sense out of context but excites with its dramatic climax, rather clichéd but technically impressive, where Pauline is rescued from a burning building.
Popular music hall comedian Fred Evans appears in Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine, one of 200 shorts featuring his much-loved Pimple character. Parodying the heroic Lieutenant Daring films, with a predictably inept authority figure who loses his submarine with sealed orders inside, its humour comes chiefly from its cheap cardboard sets and conspicuously disguised spies.
The comedy in Daisy Doodad’s Dial, made by American Vitagraph star Florence Turner in her studio by the Thames, is very crude: Daisy gets arrested as she practises for a face-pulling competition, her daft expressions filling the screen were perhaps more of an amusing novelty in 1914 than they are today. A brighter future for film comedy is suggested in the final item: A Film Johnnie, Charlie Chaplin’s sixth movie. It’s slapstick – the Little Tramp disrupts a film shooting at Keystone Studios, gets blamed for a fire starting and chaos ensues – but it is cleverly constructed, and although neither this nor any other films in the collection approach the status of Art, it is highly entertaining, capturing the excitement of seeing such a genius at such an early stage, and concluding a programme which provides a fascinating detail of the cinematic and political culture of its time.
By Juliet Jacques