Archive for August 10, 2014

The Sunday Intertitle: 1914 and all that

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2014 by dcairns

Daisy Doodad's Dial

The TV news has been full of the war — The Great War, 1914-1918 — because obviously there are no current wars they could be reporting on. I’m ashamed to say we participated in the bloody nostalgia porn, but in defensible ways, I would argue. We watched the BBC’s Parade’s End because it was written by Tom Stoppard and starred Benelux Campervan Bindideck Cankercache Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, and we went to see the BFI’s reconstruction of a night at the cinema in 1914 — a program of short subjects assembled to create a good approximation of the kind of entertainment available in a British cinema at the outbreak of war. It reminded me very much of the excellent shorts programmes at Bologna, and indeed was programmed by Bryony Dixon who assembled those. Stephen Horne provided an improvised score.

There was actuality footage of Lord Kitchener, taken just before the outbreak, inspecting troops in Egypt, there were animated lightning sketches by the excitingly-named Lancelot Speed, there was Chaplin’s A FILM JOHNNIE (Chaplin had just started appearing in movies but was already becoming a phenomenon), and a couple of really fascinating comedy oddities.

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The first of these, starring Fred “Pimple” Evans, showed how comparatively sophisticated a Keystone one-reeler must have seemed. Pimple was a popular British comic, performing in a creepy clown-rodent makeup and evincing no particular skill. He couldn’t do elaborate stunts, his facial reactions, what you can see of them through the panstick, aren’t funny, and he has no facilities for enlivening an expository scene with bits of business, which meant the first half of LIEUTENANT PIMPLE AND THE STOLEN SUBMARINE was pretty dull. As a dim naval recruit he is entrusted with purchasing a new submarine, but foreign spies steal it. The actors cast have hooked noses and don vaguely Hassidic beards as disguises (later, Pimple puts on his own beard and nose disguise, on top of a deep-sea diving helmet (made of cardboard) he is wearing, the film’s biggest laugh) — but via an intertitle one says “Zut alors!” suggesting the film’s pre-war provenance and that the filmmakers weren’t up on international affairs. What the hell, we’re always fighting the French, aren’t we?

The BFI’s introductory title said the film made a virtue of its low budget, which turned out to be true — the submarine was a wooden crate pretending to be a conning tower, and a later battleship was a barge with added wooden gun turrets which shot fireworks. Pedestrians strolled by unconcerned during the climax. The diving helmet was cardboard and had a hole in the top for Pimple’s scalp to poke through. Cheap and cheerful, in a tradition which would extend, sort of, to the CARRY ON series, and one of at least fifty films Fred Evans made in 1914 alone.

This classic isn’t YouTube, but the BFI have thoughtfully uploaded the even less ambitious W-H-O-R-K A LA PIMPLE, aka FAT MAN ON A BICYCLE, which unhesitatingly delivers on its enticing titular premise.

Pimple and his chubby buddy wreck a fruit cart, harking forward to THE LADYKILLERS.

Much more sophisticated was DAISY DOODAD’S DIAL, exploiting the comic skills of Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl, known more for her dramatic work. She’s one of the Primal Florences — Florence Lawrence, the Edison Girl, is generally thought the first movie star, but Turner is right behind her. This American star had for some reason set up shop in the UK at film pioneer Cecil Hepworth’s studio. The movie is about face-pulling, which is always good, but it’s about so much more. The domestic comedy is sweet but with an edge — this was a big year for the suffragette movement, as the programme reminds us, and is there some hint of anxiety, a warning for women, or just a dreamlike jumble of topical concerns filtered through the comic imagination?

“I only did this!”

Particularly worth it for the phantasmal parade of gurning Florences at the end.

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