Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A few years ago in Blackburn, England, someone opened a number of sealed containers in an old photographer's shop and discovered the original camera negatives to eight hundred short films made almost a century before. The collection found its way to the British Film Institute for cataloguing and archiving. The Mitchell & Kenyon Company was a touring motion picture studio at a time before there were venues especially built for the showing of motion pictures. It operated between 1901 and 1913.
Like earlier touring lantern-slide companies, the enterprising pair would show up with their cameras in a northern English, Scottish or Welsh town a few days before a major holiday or a local fair. They'd arrange to film their one-take-wonder movies at parades or other pre-ordained events, or create their own event by filming the students of a school or arranging a public attraction in the city streets. Sometimes they'd stumble across a real event, like a function attended by Lord Baden-Powell (the founder of the Boy Scouts!) or a celebration for a hero in the "Anglo-Boer War." Two or three days after the filming, their publicity man would announce that new motion pictures of these local events would be displayed in tent shows or public halls. Filming a children's school almost guaranteed that every parent would buy tickets for the whole family.
One hundred years later we aren't exactly looking for Aunt Minnie to show up on screen, but the films are a revelation akin to looking through the window of a time machine. Commercial films in France and America films were already developing into a storytelling industry, and when "real" documentary subjects appeared on playbills, the films often turned out to be re-creations or fakes. The Mitchell & Kenyon reels are riveting. Their camera positions are well chosen to give us a deep view of their chosen subject matter. Sometimes we see parades and fun-fair activities with participants largely unaware of the filming. Elsewhere, crowds of gawkers, particularly young boys, push themselves in front of the camera and crowd out the intended 'official' subject matter.
It's fascinating to see. The detailed and sharp pictures give us a keen look at hairstyles and clothing fashions among Sunday strollers and working folk. Little working girls tend to wear pinafores while the young sons wear sailor suits as their mothers lead them by the hand. Everyone has a hat in 1901 -- giant frilly things for women and dapper derbys, spanners and caps for the men. Men don't just wave, they wave with their hats. Even little boys wave their handkerchiefs at the camera
Although we see many people when they're aware of the camera and amused by it, or sometimes mugging, there are plenty of clips at factories or on the street where we watch life from 1903 or 1905 as it was lived. The streets are paved or muddy, and horse-driven trolley cars are beginning to be replaced by awkward steam-powered vehicles. It's an incredible look into the past, almost to the year (and the right part of the world) where H.G. Wells wrote his famous Time Travel story.
Now distributing through New Yorker Video, Milestone film & video presents Electric Edwardians: The Lost Films of Mitchell & Kenyon in a commendably straightforward manner that will please serious film devotees. A feature-length selection from the 800 clips available are arranged by general topic and presented with their archiving number and a short title card to give us a basic idea of what it is we're seeing and where and when it was taken.
Youth and Education
The show starts with some of the most endearing footage. Young students parade for the camera, some in rehearsed drills by rank. They're just like kids today, cute as buttons, but cheerfully happy to be kids, with no universal media to introduce them to adult concerns at preschool ages. Lines of little darlings walk hand in hand or do pirouettes, while proud teachers look on, all smiles for once. And of course there's the odd joker or two, or a trio of little girls cutting up when everyone else is behaving as told. And to think that if any of these kids are still alive, they're upwards of 110 years old. It's sobering to realize that in scarcely fifteen years, many of these boy tots will become cannon fodder in European trenches.
We're also shown a graduation day from the University of Birmingham. Even the twenty-year olds come off as beamingly optimistic: But they're not necessarily old enough to escape the war either.
Mitchell & Kenyon set up their camera outside factories, collieries (coal mines), textile and steel mills and even a fishery, capturing amazingly detailed images of working life. The men carry lunch pails and wear rough work clothes; when the factory-gate shots show a shift on its way home at least half the men stumble out dirty and hungry, without any interest in the camera. We see kids milling about, youngsters sent to walk dad home, perhaps leading a toddler by the hand or carrying younger sister as a babe in arms. The men smoke; we don't know if they're heading home or to the pubs. We get a glimpse of the only black faces in the collection, guys who seem to be workers too.
Nervy boys line the fences to make faces at the camera, or run in front of the crowd to mug. Other young men stop as well. One camera is positioned so that passing trolley cars occasionally interrupt the view, giving the film a spectacular you-are-there feel. These views remind us of some of Jack Cardiff and Freddie Francis' great scenes of workers in Sons and Lovers made 60 years later.
High Days and Holidays
shows the folks out for a good time. It's hard to make clear class distinctions here. Some of the gatherings are worker-only affairs or even religious parades. We notice more of the large clog-like shoes worn by some boys that seem to be a kid of one-size fits all prole footwear. This section is largely parades and fun fairs, carnivals and sporting events. One terrific shot shows a full-on temperance union parade complete with ardent female supporters and morally uplifting banners bearing religious messages. Another is a Catholic procession at Halifax complete with young girls dressed in their communion smocks.
Rugby, Cricket and Football fans will like to see the snippets of competition; the disc notes tell us that one Football team pictured has just changed its name to 'Manchester United.'
People and Places
plops the cameras down in the midst of cities and teeming sidewalks, or at least sidewalks that get crowded when a jolly-fun motion picture camera shows up. The rough streets are also crowded with horse drawn wagons doing the work of modern trucks; the teamsters driving them somehow manage to move through crowds without harming anyone. We see Glasgow and Belfast in 1901 and Bradford in 1902; and a couple of shots from moving trucks (or the top of the new electric trams?) give us high angle views of the urban landscape and its citizens.
Finishing off the set are films taken at a seaside boardwalk on a sunny day in 1901, with men enjoying the sun in their suits and women carrying large parasols. All the clothing seems to be black, or at least dark.
The films are mostly in fine shape, with a few scratched or roughed-up clips retained when they have a high interest factor, as is the case with some of the sports films. The presentation is enhanced by music provided by "In The Nursery", a prolific producer of scores for silent films. A Dr. Vanessa Toulmin from the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield provides a commentary as well as a filmed interview. Also included are a featurette on the restoration and a film by Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago, Pictures of Crowd Splendor. Several other short films by Mitchell & Kenyon make up another extra. Generous text extras are added as a DVD-Rom feature.
The marketing copy for Electric Edwardians: The Lost Films of Mitchell & Kenyon advertises it as the filmic equivalent of the opening of an Egyptian tomb and makes the comparison to the visions of H. G. Wells. Both claims are fully accurate. The BFI's selection of early Mitchell & Kenyon short subjects is excellent, and the disc will be a definite "Ooh and Ahh" item for anyone with an interest in what has gone before.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Electric Edwardians: The Lost Films of Mitchell & Kenyon rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin, National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield; Video interview with Dr. Toulmin, Pictures of Crowd Splendour by Tom Gunning, University of Chicago; Featurette on the restoration; Diving Lucy and additional shorts by Mitchell and Kenyon
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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