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
High Days and Holidays
People and Places
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,
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