Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: British Cinema

Upside Down, or the Human Flies (1899)

For my first post of this October, I’m reaching back somewhat into the “history of horror” to find a rare pre-twentieth century supernatural movie that isn’t by Georges Méliès. It may not be that frightening, but it was meant the thrill audiences of the day through the use of special effects.

The movie begins by showing a group of people huddled around a table clasping hands, perhaps in a séance or over a Ouija board. A man in a tuxedo and top hat rises and places an umbrella upright on the floor, balancing his top hat on it and drawing the others’ attention to himself. He levitates his hat to the ceiling and then, when one seated man laughs as if the trick is inadequate, he gestures, causing him and the others to rise out of their chairs, seemingly at his will. Suddenly he disappears and the spectators all jump into the air simultaneously. An edit occurs and suddenly all of them are on the ceiling. Apparently gravity has been reversed, because try as they will, none can get back down to the floor. One woman tries to reach it with the umbrella, and some try standing on their heads, but they are trapped on the ceiling as the movie ends.

RW Paul

This movie is a simple trick film, achieved with two splices and turning the camera upside down, although it was presumably necessary to have a backdrop that could be flipped as well. Although it isn’t a horror movie by modern standards, it does show people being punished and apparently distressed by a magical effect, and thus joins the list of precursors to the genre. It was produced by British film pioneer Robert W Paul, whose work is often ignored today, although he was contemporary with Edison, Méliès, and Lumière. This is the earliest example I have seen of people “turned upside down” in cinema, which we have seen later examples of in “The Human Fly” by Méliès, and “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats” by Segundo de Chomón.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, possibly Walter R. Booth

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 sec

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

East Is East (1916)

A light-hearted melodrama of social class set in England, this movie follows the familiar plot of the waif who is suddenly given wealth and must adapt to a world of “refinement” and snobbery. Director Henry Edwards takes on the challenge of co-starring with Florence Turner and shows a definite flair for both directing and acting himself.

east_is_eastThe movie begins with Florence Turner as Victoria (“Vickie”) Vickers, a girl from the East End of London who sits in front of window displays and dreams of a life of comfort and grace. Her boyfriend Bert Grummet (Edwards) is a skinny ragamuffin who gives her a laugh, but she refuses his offer of marriage saying, “We’re such good friends, let’s not spoil it.” He munches on his fish and chips and thinks maybe if he can start a successful fish shop, she’ll change her mind.

east-is-east1Vickie lives with “an assumed aunt and uncle,” which I think means that she has assumed them, not that she assumes they’re really her aunt and uncle. Anyway, the little family decides to pile all their worldly goods into a pram and go off to the countryside “hop-picking” (something similar happens here in southern Oregon once a year, but it’s not hops they’re picking…). Bert invites himself along and tries to kiss Vickie, which she resists. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a lawyer who is trying to locate Miss Victoria Vickers before her inheritance defaults to certain unnamed charities. He sends an assistant to scour the East End and even contacts Scotland Yard to no avail. Giving up with only days to go, he gives the assistant leave to go to the countryside on a “photographic holiday.”

Vickie and Bert look at a pretty house in Kent and fantasize about living there one day. Then Bert steals one of their chickens. As he brings the prize back to camp, the lawyer’s assistant fortuitously sees Vickie and asks to photograph her. She is indignant, and refuses, “as sure as my name’s Victoria Vickers!” The assistant suddenly realizes that he’s talking to one of the wealthiest heiresses in London, but he has considerable difficulty convincing her or her companions that he isn’t nuts. Finally, they agree to accompany him back to London to meet the lawyer. The lawyer confirms the story and explains the terms of the will: Victoria will have to learn “refinement,” while she lives on an allowance from the trust for three years. She seems dubious about this, but agrees because it means she can get money to send her “aunt” and “uncle” to visit relatives in Australia and give Bert the money to open his fish shop.


Would you trust this man if he told you he had a million dollars for you?

This aspect of the plan works well, especially when Bert hits upon the idea of buying up cheap dogfish and selling it as “fish” (by crossing off the word “dog”). His business booms, and soon he is opening a chain of stores and sending out trucks for home delivery of his popular fish. Meanwhile, Vickie is learning how different reality is from her store-front fantasy. Servants are constantly telling her what to wear and trying to comb her hair for her. Her table manners make everyone stop and stare. She is unable to make friends at parties, even though she does learn to speak in a “refined” manner. She lives with a Mrs. Carrington (Ruth McKay) and her son, Arthur. Arthur has a bad gambling habit, but Mrs. Carrington is more concerned that Victoria will be corrupted by the “bad influence” of having contact with her old friends like Bert, who has to shove past the butler to get in when he calls.

Mrs. Carrington decides that the best thing to do is take Victoria abroad on an extended tour of exotic (unspecified) locations, while continuing her tutoring. She throws away letters that Victoria writes to Bert instead of mailing them. Victoria is kept away from all her friends for two years, and, failing socially with the new crowd, becomes lonely and depressed. Bert, meanwhile, has decided that he needs some schooling as well in order to impress Vickie. He hires a tutor and a tailor to help with his clothes. Then, he sells off his business and goes to propose to Vickie in his best suit and after some last-minute pointers from the tutor. Along the way, he reads a shocking headline in the society pages – Victoria Vickers is now engaged to Arthur! Arthur is desperate for money to cover his enormous gambling debts, so he proposed to her and since she was so alone and desperate, she agreed, despite his Charlie Chaplin mustache which she mocked in the first reel. Bert gives up and moves to Kent, buying the lovely little cottage they had admired, and living alone with a housekeeper.

east-is-east2But all is not yet lost. Victoria overhears Arthur talking to one of his girlfriends, and he says that of course he doesn’t love her, but he needs the money. Victoria finally has a revelation that she cannot live this “artificial life,” and voluntarily gives up her fortune, hoping to return to the happiness she knew in poverty. As a parting shot, she gives Arthur enough money to be free from debt. When hop-picking season comes, Vickie goes back to Kent and lingers at the site of her youthful happiness, noting that “someone” (Bert, in fact) has put barbed wire around the chicken coop to prevent theft. Bert looks out his window and sees her standing there. He sends the housekeeper out to invite her to tea with “the lady of the house,” not telling her who it is. Vickie goes in out of curiosity, and when Bert shows up she is flummoxed. “Who is the lady of the house?” She asks. Bert tells her she is, if she will still have him.

Like a lot of melodramas of the period, this relies heavily on rather unlikely coincidence (the assistant stumbling onto Victoria in Kent with only days to go being the most extreme), but it is actually a nicely crafted story within the limited formula. The contrast of rich and poor, and the ability of poor people to “know their place” and accept it, are common themes in British literature and film of the time. From that point of view, this movie makes sense, although my American sensibilities say she should have ditched Arthur, finished out the last weeks of her tutelage, and then taken the money and started her own business. It also seems strange that Bert has to sell his business in order to be “respectable.” He doesn’t seem to have anything to do but guard his chickens now, when he could be the (dog)fish-king of the whole realm! But, I think that is a reflection of British class expectations as well.

east-is-east1Overall, the movie is well-shot and edited. During the sequence where the lawyer is looking for her, we flash back and forth from his office to what she is doing. This is a kind of parallel editing, but it is more subtle than what one usually sees from D.W. Griffith, who almost always used the technique simply for suspense or in the telling of a single story, not to run two of them together, at least until “Intolerance.” Both leads do a very good job in terms of acting. I thought the best part of Turner’s performance was when she was still “unrefined,” but dressed as a rich woman in a rich world. Her body language still speaks cockney, so to speak, and even without being able to hear her accent, we could see how she didn’t fit in. But Bert undergoes the more impressive transformation, from street rat to entrepreneur to successful businessman to retired gentleman. He actually seems to fill out and gain considerable weight during the course of the picture, but I think it’s just carefully chosen wardrobe that makes the difference.

One final note: every source agrees that this film was made by the “Turner Film Company,” and one at least lists Florence Turner as the producer. I wonder if she might have been the Turner for which it is named. That would be another example of a pioneering woman business owner and producer from the early years of film, but I can’t find anything definite.

Director: Henry Edwards

Camera: Tom White

Starring: Florence Turner, Henry Edwards, Ruth McKay, W.G. Saunders, Edith Evans

Run Time: 71 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, and it’s a very over-exposed pixillated digitization. It’s all I could find, so if you know of a better version, please comment!)

A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912)

This short movie has relatively little to do with the Arthur Conan Doyle character, and is more intended for children and those fond of cute dogs than mystery fans. Despite an overall lighthearted tone, it has some elements in common with later crime serials, such as “Fantômas.”

canine_sherlock_holmes_1912A bank robbery is shown that involves the use of poison pins attached to coins that cause a clerk to collapse while the robbers hold the customers at bay with guns. They threaten the survivors, telling them that an object they are leaving behind is a bomb they can detonate with “wireless wave” if anyone moves. The clerk now calls in famous detective Hawkshaw, who bears a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, though he seems to favor a cigar rather than a pipe. Hawkshaw swings into action by going out to the theater, but his dog Spot is able to use scent and track the robbers to their home, which he infiltrates by pretending to be hit by a car outside the door, and the woman with the robbers brings him in and cuddles him and gives him a saucer of water or milk to drink. As soon as he’s been left alone in the room, he starts to gather incriminating evidence from the wastebasket and the desktop, and finds a set of keys. He somehow gets out of the house without being let out by a person and runs back to Hawkshaw.

Spot's big moment

Spot’s big moment

Hawkshaw uses the address on a torn envelope Spot has brought him to track the robbers to their lair, although it’s not clear how he knows that they are guilty of anything. He uses the keys to get in, and sneaks up behind a robber, quickly disarming him, but he is overwhelmed when more robbers come into the room. However, during the struggle, he holds down a robber with one hand and writes a note to the police with the other! So, Spot quickly runs off to the police station, where several officers dressed like Keystone Kops read the note that Hawkshaw has written informing them to raid the place. They swoop in and pick up the robbers and recover the money. Once again, inspector Hawkshaw has saved the day! Hopefully, Spot gets a doggy treat, at least.

Hold still while I write!

Hold still while I write!

I wasn’t too impressed with this movie, overall, and in terms of “animal movies,” I would put it far behind “A Little Hero” in entertainment value. For one thing, the human actors are clearly inferior to Mabel Normand, which partly explains why their names have been lost to history. The dog is cute enough, but not really as impressive in his performance as the dog in that movie, let alone the awesome cat actor. The best “acting” he does is his pretense of injury, which he drags out for quite a while, but the humans have to be awful dumb not to notice that he lacks any bruises or breaks, especially when they pick him up and bring him inside. Also – what did Hawkshaw expect to accomplish by going to confront the robbers alone? Why did he write a note to the police while in physical conflict, but not bring them along in the first place? And why did he go to the theater when he was supposed to be investigating a serious crime? Obviously, a man who would go nowhere without canine support. But, the criminals don’t make much more sense: what possible advantage is there to knocking out a clerk with a complicated poisoned coin when you’re going to hold everyone up with guns in the first place? It’s a typically Feuillade-ian piece of surreal logic.

Director: Stuart Kinder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Urbanora

Run Time: 15 Min

I have not found this for free on the Internet. It is included on the Flicker Alley release of Sherlock Holmes (1916) on DVD. If you find it available for free, please comment.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Alternate Title: Kitchener’s Great Army in the Battle of the Somme

This documentary of the First World War was shot in the British trenches during the outbreak of one of the War’s most crucial (and largest) battles. Despite the limitations of the technology and avoiding potentially dangerous shooting conditions, it manages to present a powerful picture of the event.

Battle of the Somme-filmThe movie is divided into five parts, which are presented as a chronological account of the battle. The first two involve preparations and troop movements, the third shows the beginning of the battle, while the fourth mostly shows wounded and prisoners returning to the British side, and the final chapter shows some of the aftermath. Soldiers are generally identified by division or unit, and no names (even that of a general addressing his troops) are given. A lot of the men look at the camera, and it’s interesting to note the looks on their faces. Occasionally, they stare blankly at the camera, but more often they seem cheerful and wave or smile. No one shows fear or anger. No gunfire or hand-to-hand combat is shown, although we do see a progression of increasingly large mortars and cannon firing at the enemy lines, and also some shots showing the explosions from a distance. Scenes depicting the men going “over the top” in chapter three are simulations, however there are some shots of what appear to be real body piles in the later parts of the movie.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Forward-facing intertitles inform us of the specifics of the scenes that follow them, often describing two or three scenes before they happen. The editing tells a story of British victory at the Somme, although by the time this reached theaters in the UK the battle was still raging more or less indecisively, and thousands were being killed on both sides. Because we never see the battle itself, we can only view events from a kind of “headquarters-eye-view,” with soldiers going out and then streams of wounded and prisoners coming back in, but a disconnect in terms of what really happens in the middle. In spite of that, this is emotionally effective propaganda, because the British are shown as brave and eager to serve, and there is a sense of camaraderie and resolution to the piece. For the most part, the War as we see it here is fought between the British and the Germans, although some Canadians are depicted in one scene.

I've seen this a hundred times.

I’ve seen this a hundred times.

It is also highly effective documentary cinema. The images in this movie are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen a documentary about World War One. There just isn’t that much other footage from the period, so certain shots from this one show up in almost everything that gets made. The footage lacks sound and color, but it shows us images of the real people, animals, and machines that fought the battle and allows us to witness military activity from a now-remote past. One thing that this footage makes obvious is the importance of horse-power in fighting at the time. Far more cannon and supplies are shown as drawn by horses than motors. We also see how many dogs were present at the front, and one especially powerful image shows a dead dog lying next to “his master” (according to the intertitle) on the battlefield. We definitely get a clear picture of the French countryside before, and its devastation after, the battle. One panorama shot of the ruined town of Mametz seems to go on forever, reminding one of later images of Hiroshima.

Formerly Main Street.

Formerly Main Street.

Director: Geoffrey Malins

Camera: Geoffrey Malins, John McDowell

Cast: Major-General Beauvoir De Lisle, unknown soldiers.

Run Time: 1 hr, 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

This is one of the major contenders for the title of “first motion picture” and is, in fact, the subject of a recent documentary called “The First Film” which you can read about here. I’m not really concerned with the claim, but I suspect that it will top my “Films by Year” list for some time to come (unless someone discovers something even older!). Whatever the decision on that debate, it is a moving picture that is well past its century mark, and thus deserving of a place on this blog. It is very short, but undeniably captures movement. The image is much clearer than in the “Monkeyshines” experiments, although I’m not certain if that’s because Louis Le Prince made a better camera than Edison’s lab, or if it’s just been better preserved. In any event, Le Prince made the more interesting image by virtue of shooting outside in his garden, rather than in a sterile studio space, and by capturing several people moving in his very first image. Especially noteworthy are the women; women would be rather alien to the Black Maria at first, and even after they were admitted, were usually there as some kind of spectacle, ala Annie Oakley or Annabelle Moore. These women are, like those seen in Lumière films, simply natural women, dressed as they would on any day, moving in mostly normal ways. I say mostly normal, because if you pay attention, you’ll see that one of them is walking backwards. I have no idea why that should be the case, either she was told to do that or else she tried to have a little joke at the expense of the inventor – you see, Louis, your movies run backward! Back to the drawing board…

Director: Louis Le Prince

Camera: Louis Le Prince

Cast: Adolphe Le Prince, Harriet Hartley, Joseph Whitley, Sarah Whitley

Run Time: 2 seconds

You can watch it at the top of this page or, if that link breaks, here.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914)

Daisy Doodads Dial

This is a truly unusual British short from a female director and star, Florence Turner (who was in a silent version of “Macbeth” in 1908 and would do “Far from the Madding Crowd” in 1915). It is essentially a situational comedy, but one which wisely plays on visual themes and the actors’ bodies rather than complex interpersonal relations for its humor. Turner plays Daisy Doodad, a young married woman who apparently has theatrical aspirations. One day, she shows her husband (Lawrence Trimble, also in “Madding Crowd” and also “Fools Gold”) an ad for a “face-making contest” at the local actors’ club – apparently “dial” is a slang term for “face.” But, on the day of the contest, she stays home with a toothache and her husband wins the prize. She jealously plots to enter the next contest, and rehearses on the public train into town. She causes an uproar among the passengers and passers-by on the street, and is arrested for “disturbing the peace.” When her husband comes to bail her out, she accuses him of paying the police to frame her. He sleeps alone on the armchair that night, and she dreams of her own contorted features. Turner’s performance reminded me of both Gilda Radner and Lucille Ball, the latter especially during her crying jag at the police station.

Director: Florence Turner

Starring: Florence Turner, Lawrence Trimble

Run Time: 8 Min 55 sec.

You can watch it for free: here.

Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901)


This is another British Méliès-inspired “trick” film, but director Walter R. Booth comes with a very full bag of tricks indeed. An old man who runs a junk store discovers that various items in his possession have minds of their own and magical powers. These include a floating transparent woman, who is cut in half and re-joined, an animated skeleton, mummy, and a suit of armor, and a large vase or cauldron out of which playful dwarves emerge and frolic about. I’m not sure if it’s just cultural, but somehow the British approach to this kind of film seems more in line with the atmosphere I expect for Halloween (see also “The X-Rays”). It is child-friendly and not overly horrifying, but it’s somehow more atmospheric and not as strictly humorous as in the case of Méliès. Booth had done some earlier trick films, such as “The Human Flies” in which a group of people suddenly find themselves on a ceiling, but this was his most advanced effort to date and included several camera tricks, rather than just one. Technically, he was still lagging behind Méliès, who had done this years before, but he seems to me to have an interesting style of his own.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Run Time: 2 Min.

You can watch it for free: here.

X-Rays (1897)


So, to make things even more complicated, apparently a British director, George Albert Smith, also released a movie called “The Haunted Castle” in 1897, which was more or less a remake of the original movie by Méliès. It’s apparently lost, though, so I won’t be discussing it in this post. No, instead I’m going to talk about another contender for the prize for “first British horror movie,” which is this humorous but macabre little entry. In it, a couple in Victorian dress flirts on a park bench, while a bearded fellow with a camera-shaped box marked “X-Rays” turns them both into skeletons. This does nothing to curb their ardor, however, and he eventually gives them their flesh back, at which point the lady slaps the fellow and the scene ends with him alone and forlorn. As compared to Méliès, the photography seems to be up to par, but the background scenery and costumes are somewhat lacking. Apparently the woman on the bench was Smith’s wife, which is not unusual for the in-house productions of the time, where one used the people at hand for “actors” and performers, although many production companies rapidly expanded their talent pools.

Alternate Title: “The X-Ray Fiend”

Director: George Albert Smith

Starring: Tom Green, Laura Bayley

Run Time: 44 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Silent Shakespeare (1899-1911, 2000)


For the Bard’s birthday, I thought I’d review this collection, but it’s a little tricky because I already reviewed all of the movies it includes. Unfortunately, there are no special features or commentaries for me to discuss, so all I can say is that if you’d like to see a collection of very early film adaptations of Shakespeare all in one place: here it is. I can also mention the music, by Laura Rossi, which is subtle and appropriate to each film, although not what original audiences would have heard (it was composed for the DVD). I was a bit surprised, based on the title, that the most recent film on here was from 1911. That’s appropriate for this project, which only goes up to 1914 (for now), but I’d have thought that there were other, probably bigger, adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Classical Silent” period. Possibly they limited themselves for reasons of access and copyright, and perhaps a new collection with more recent movies will be forthcoming one of these years.

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44478627

Richard III (1911)

Richard III

My favorite Shakespeare play gets the silent film treatment in this series of 13 scenes or vignettes, which actually begin with the end of the previous play, Henry VI, Part 3. It stars Frank R. Benson as history’s greatest villain, and he also directed. Each scene is given a brief forward-facing intertitle to tell you what the action will be, and is also preceded by a brief quote from Shakespeare – thus giving us at least some of the traditional dialogue. Viewers familiar with the play will catch certain things that aren’t explained in the intertitles, for example why Richard gestures oddly with his left arm in the scene before Hastings is taken away to be executed, or why Buckingham becomes upset at Richard’s coronation. The production is British and they take advantage of good quality set design and centuries of experience staging Shakespeare to produce a quite acceptable silent version, although of course it is less satisfying than seeing it performed with dialogue. I especially missed the subtlety of the opening monologue and the banter between the hired murderers. I particularly liked the scene of Richard tormented by his conscience in the night before battle with Richmond: simple in-camera effects allowed each of his victims to appear before him in spirit-form.

Directed by: Frank R. Benson

Starring: Frank R. Benson

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch part of it for free: here. (I was unable to find it complete. If you can, let me know!)