One of my goals for Apocalypse Later in 2013 is to diversify this year's reviews a little more than I was able to do in 2012. To achieve that, I plan every month to review at least one film from each of the last dozen decades, from the 1900s to the 2010s. Given that we're just emerging from the holiday season, it seemed appropriate to kick off the oldies with a look at the earliest adaptation to the screen of the Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, especially as the story is fresh in my mind after enjoying a Theater Works stage production last month in Peoria. It was released in November 1901 and was regarded as the earliest surviving adaptation of any Dickens work until last February, the day after the Dickens bicentennial, when British Film Institute curator Bryony Dixon discovered The Death of Poor Joe, previously misfiled in their archive. While only eight months separate the two films the difference in quality and approach is astounding.
It is believed that The Death of Poor Joe was directed by George Albert Smith, one of the Brighton set of pioneering British filmmakers, who learned much of his cinematic art by working with magic lanterns. Having seen films by the Lumière brothers and Robert W Paul in 1896, he leapt into action and within a single year had patented his own camera and projection system, set up a film factory to develop and print films and begun screening 'animated photographs' at the Brighton Aquarium. He'd even corresponded with French effects wizard, Georges Méliès, and subsequently developed double exposure and split screen techniques seen in films like The Haunted Castle, Photographing a Ghost and Santa Claus, all made in 1897. He'd go on to invent Kinemacolor, the first successful colour film process. Yet The Death of Poor Joe is a slight work, a minute long single take of Jo, the child street sweeper in Bleak House, dying in the arms and lamplight of a watchman.
By comparison, Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, is a much more ambitious work. It aimed to depict not just a single scene from a Dickens novel but the entire novel, albeit in substantially reduced form in order to fit in the original eleven minute running time. It broke up the story into twelve scenes, only four of which survive today, and separated them by the cinema's first ever use of intertitles. Those are the only guidance we have to who the characters are, as it was a given that audiences of the day would be familiar with the story and so recognise it on screen without help. Of course, it's a stagebound affair, but one with notable effects work and some of that stands up today, such as when Ebenezer Scrooge's door knocker turns into the face of Jacob Marley, his former partner. The ghostly visions begin to unfold against the black curtain in Scrooge's bedroom, obvious today as an easy way to combine two shots on the same frame, a precursor to modern day greenscreen.
With the three different ghosts all replaced by Marley, the film's take on the story is adapted as much from the popular stage adaptation by J C Buckstone as from the novel. The surviving scenes show Scrooge shutting up shop for the night and going home, only to be visited by Marley's ghost as he prepares for bed, who conjures up visions from his past, present and future. The past shows up on those black curtains, but the present unfolds on different sets as Marley shows Scrooge the Cratchitt family and his nephew Fred, all toasting him. The future has Scrooge see his own grave before the surviving footage runs out. It's impressive as it stands, even with over half the picture gone. Yes, it's clear that we're looking at sets on a stage and the unknown actor in the lead hams it up royally, especially when looking at his past; his reactions aren't far off convulsions. The film also relies on the audience's knowledge and can't stand alone from it, but it's still ambitious stuff.
Paul made many films, over six hundred by the time he retired in 1910, initially directing them all himself but soon partnering with people like Walter R Booth, like Méliès a stage magician by trade, who obviously saw the same potential in film. I've seen 43 earlier Paul films, dating back to Rough Sea at Dover in 1895, and watching them in chronological order offers a similiar education in the progression of the cinematic art as watching all Charlie Chaplin's shorts from 1914, but more entertaining. That first film is a single shot of the ocean striking a sea wall, dynamic in 1895 perhaps but not today. Many of his 1896 films, like The Derby, Royal Train or Hyde Park Bicycling Scene are static shots of exactly what you think passing the camera at an angle, but others mix it up a little. Up the River has a boat pass the camera but it adds a child falling overboard and being rescued. Unfortunately the choreography isn't great so we're stuck watching the rescuers' backs.
Things did get interesting in 1896 though. Westminster Bridge would be just like those other films but it unfolds like it's a flipbook, complete with the spine attached. This is early picture in picture action and Paul returned to it often in 1896. 2am, or The Husband's Return hints at slapstick that year but Paul didn't quite get there until 1898's A Favourite Domestic Scene and Tommy Atkins in the Park. The Launch of HMS Albion introduced multiple shots and editing in 1898. Trickery shows up in 1899 with Upside Down, or The Human Flies, which has a magician levitate a hat, disappear into thin air and leave everyone dancing on the ceiling. A Railway Collision is obviously done with models but it presumably felt more real in 1900. In and amongst all the tedious procession films, some realities are fascinating, such as Tetherball, or Do-Do and An Exciting Pillow Fight, which are apparently serious sports on board ship in 1900.
It's Paul's 1901 output that's most fascinating though. All nine of his films from that year are worth seeing, though some more than others. Most are well constructed trick films, such as Undressing Extraordinary, in which a man attempts to strip for bed, only to find that the clothes he takes off are mysteriously replaced by others, or The Over-Incubated Baby, which promises twelve months of growth in an hour; one mishap with fire and the subject we see ages a number of years instead. The most fun may be Artistic Creation, in which a man draws a woman, part by part, to assemble as they come to life, but The Countryman's First Sight of the Animated Pictures is more important. It's certainly the first time I've seen film be aware of itself, as it comically riffs on the famous Train Pulling into a Station. While Robert W Paul isn't as well known as many of his contemporaries, watching these films and reading up on his achievements highlights how important he really was.
Many of Robert W Paul's surviving films can be watched for free on YouTube, including Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost. The best way may be through the Robert W Paul channel at NemKino. YouTube also has The Death of Poor Joe.