Showing posts with label comedies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label comedies. Show all posts

Monday, May 23, 2016

How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900)

I’ve always had a penchant for British humor, but until recently, I had no idea that it extended back to the beginning of the film industry. My knowledge of early film has always been focused on France (Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers), the United States (Edison and Edwin S. Porter), and the filmmaker-without-a-country, Segundo de Chomón. Thanks to Cecil Hepworth, I’m now embarking on a crash course (no pun intended) in early British film, and I’m downright giddy about it. 

From How It Feels to Be Run Over. You'll be finding out very soon.

While researching a film for my book on lost horror films recently, I fell into one of those rabbit holes of research that so frequently derail me from the task at hand. The lost film I was investigating was The Doll’s Revenge (a 1907 comedy short with some horrific overtones—the granddaddy of Chucky and other dolls on the rampage). Without much information on the film, I started investigating relevant threads, such as the young star of the film, Gertie Potter, and the director, Cecil Hepworth. That’s how I came across Hepworth’s memoir, Came the Dawn, a highly-readable remembrance of his days as a pioneer of the British film industry from the late 1800s until 1923 when his company went bust. Hepworth’s original negatives—amounting to around 2,000 films—were destroyed and sold for the silver content to pay his debts. Most of his feature films and shorts remain lost.

What interested me most were the stories of his earliest films, mainly comedy shorts that he made in the early 1900s. Unlike guys like the Lumières or Georges Méliès who had professional careers in other capacities before getting into the film biz, Hepworth was a youngster whose very first business was film. What I gleaned from the anecdotes in his bio is that there was very much a DIY spirit to his film company, made up mostly of amateurs, with he and his friends playing the roles, and whoever was free at the moment running the camera (sometimes that might even be one of the children). When some of his comedy shorts became popular, they went nuts coming up with ideas to film, and the wackier the better. Shorts were only a minute or two in length, so it only took one simple gag to carry a film, and I can almost hear the crew around the table: “What if someone falls in the water? No, what if a lady falls in the water? Hey, what if we have Cecil dress up as the lady? … Okay, let’s film it.”

Hepworth in a 1915 issue of Pictures and the Picturegoer.

It was during this frenzied period of comedy filmmaking that Hepworth’s memoir makes reference to a short with possibly the best title ever: How It Feels to Be Run Over. It became immensely popular, and it led to a follow-up called Explosion of a Motor Car. Both films were made in 1900, and not only was this an early year for film, it was an early year for automobiles. Consider what a wild novelty Toad’s motorcar is in Wind in the Willows, and it was written eight years later. Hepworth was capitalizing on not only a brand-new trend, but one that had a lot of people concerned for public safety. How It Feels to Be Run Over, then, is taking people’s fear of new technology and making it into a colossal joke.

That DIY spirit is in evidence here, as Hepworth himself is driving the motor car. He’s credited with the cinematography, so he no doubt set up the camera, but there’s no telling who’s actually behind it. His passenger is May Clark, by the way, who would star as Alice in the first film version of Alice in Wonderland, filmed by Hepworth in 1903.

Go ahead and watch it now; I’ll wait. It’s only 40 seconds long. (The version I’m linking has, for some reason, the beginning of another short attached to it, but this is the only online version that isn’t missing a crucial frame. You can stop at the :40 mark.)


There’s a lot here for a forty-second film, and not just the newness of the automobile. It’s filmed in a single shot, for starters. We first see a horse and buggy, making the point that the old-fashioned way is plenty safe, before we see the car not only careening toward the viewer, but doing so on the wrong side of the road (this is England, so there’s no good reason for it to be on the right). There’s also the creative use of the POV shot, letting us see the car from the perspective of its victim. And then there’s the bizarre punchline: “Oh, mother will be pleased.” According to most sources, it’s the first known use of an intertitle in a silent film. Technically, it’s not an intertitle, as it comes at the end, so there’s no “inter” about it, but it does something you don’t otherwise see in film of this era: it communicates the inner feelings of a character. It’s believed that the words are scratched right into the film itself, and it certainly appears that way.

Cinema's first intertitles?

Just about anyone who watches the short has an opinion on what that line really means. Most agree that it’s meant as sarcasm, and that his mother most certainly will not be pleased. Some take it at face value, and think the joke is that he’s not well-liked by his mother, or even that she might be impressed at his collision with such a new-fangled machine. I think the real meaning is a lot simpler, and it’s one I haven’t seen explored. In Hepworth’s original catalogue description of the film, he describes the ending like this: “ … the car dashes full into the spectator, who sees ‘stars’ as the picture comes to an end.” From this description, it seems clear that the pedestrian’s words are not so much sarcasm as they are the nonsensical words of a guy with a bad concussion—the verbal equivalent of seeing stars. (I suppose you could say he’s speaking stars.)

Rescued by Rover made Hepworth famous—though his daughter Barbara was eclipsed by the family dog, Blair.

Hepworth went on to become an enormous success, and five years later, his Rescued by Rover made a star and a household  name out of Hepworth’s family dog. (It’s said to be Britain’s first major fiction film, and is the reason “Rover” became such a ubiquitous dog name.) It’s a tragedy that so much of his output is lost, but I’m grateful that 116 years later, his memoir has not only given me tons of amusement (so many great anecdotes—you really must read it), but he’s introduced me to the world of early British cinema. I won't be leaving it soon.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants (1905)

If you think media manipulation is a recent development in the film industry, have I got a story for you. It involves a pair of crafty filmmakers, some made-up news stories, and best of all: a man with no pants.

Filmmaker Willy Mullens, sans pants.

1905 was a year when film was really gaining steam. The first nickelodeons opened for business, Variety began weekly publication, and the invention of mercury lamps allowed filmmakers to shoot indoors without the need for sunlight. In short, there was a lot of money to be made in the biz, and a lot of people ready to make it—and not just in the States.

Dutch brothers Willy and Albert Mullens came from a theatrical family. Their father Albertus was co-founder of the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Cagliostro-Théâtre, which advertised  "mysterious and pseudo-scientific spectacles.” Their mother Christina continued running the company after their father’s death, and Willy Mullens himself was a carnival performer, working in The Hague as a human cannonball. He was supposedly fired after being knocked out by a kangaroo, though English-language sources on the incident are hard to come by. (Any Dutch speakers? Look into this kangaroo business!)

It was soon afterward that she took Willy and Albert to Paris, where they saw the films of the Lumière brothers—an event that changed the course of their lives. They purchased several of the Lumière films, formed a traveling cinema under the name Alberts Frères, and began showing them in the Netherlands in 1899. Ultimately, they began shooting their own films, becoming one of the first film production companies in the country.

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach is typical of the type of practical joke comedies the brothers liked to film, but this one would prove to be their most successful, and is now one of the oldest surviving Dutch films in existence. The story is simple: a man napping in a beach chair gets swept out to sea, then removes his pants to wade back to shore. When a policeman spots him, he flees in panic, with a jeering crowd of onlookers following behind.

Willy both starred in and directed the film (with Albert working the camera) after the actor they hired was forbidden by his fiancée to play the role. She was not keen on having her future husband appear pantsless on camera, so the younger brother went without his trousers, instead.

What happened next was a blessing in disguise for the filmmaking brothers. On July 25th, 1905 the Zandvoortsche Courant ran a story about the entire event—the napping in a beach chair, the pantlessness—as if the events in the film had occurred in real life, and had just happened to be caught on film. Other newspapers picked up the story and decried the moral degeneration at the beach resort.

The brothers ran with the chance to capitalize on the moral outrage, advertising that the truth would be shown in the movie theater. To further attract those who were appalled about the leg nudity, they displayed the film with the alternate title Tragic Scene of a French Gentleman at the Zandvoort Beach, perpetuating the idea that the film was documentary in nature. Thus, the film was shown alternately as either a comedic farce or a tragedy about decaying values, depending on the audience.

The free publicity provided the film with sell-out crowds, with long lines of people waiting all day to get in. Because the brothers used locals as extras, many lined up just for the chance to spot themselves (or their friends) on camera. Don’t forget that film was still new to most viewers, and critical responses spoke highly of the cinematography itself, one writer saying that “the waves rolling in from the sea alone would be worthwhile seeing.”

It's worth seeing now, if not for the view of the sea (we're jaded now), for the close-up look at ordinary people in 1905. The extras include men, women, and children in their ordinary dress, many of them obviously mugging for the camera and even waving. There's also a neat look at a bathing machine, a long-gone eccentricity of a more prudish time.

In 2007, The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach was selected as one of the sixteen canonical Dutch films by the Netherlands Film Festival, making the film one of the earliest examples of the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”