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The Butler's Night Off

The Butler Will Deal With It
Mary Hennessey shows up at social worker Paul Colbert's rooms to tell him she has arranged for the money to send his orphans to camp for the summer. The money is going to be donated by her father, the irascible Eric Workman. He just has to show up that evening. However, three burglars break into Workman's place, and Colbert is at the wrong place at the wrong time. It's up to the old man's butler, peter Sturgess, to sort things out.

It's not a particularly fine comedy, as Sturgess plays his role in a very creepy manner; he's in love with Miss Hennessey too. Workman is okay, but a lot of time is spent showing us the orphans being cute -- usually in wild shots, doubtless because they coldn't manage any sort of timing in their line readings. If the movie is outstanding for anything, it's for William Shatner's first screen appearance, as one of the three thieves. He gets a half dozen or so brief lines.

A Strange Adventure

More Dull Than Strange
Psychopath Jan Merlin, would-be femme fatale Marla English and general bad guy Nick Adams con Ben Cooper into driving the getaway car for their armored car robbery. When they flee, they wind up at a snowed-in mountain cabin where Joan Evans and her brother, Peter Miller, are doing something for the weather bureau.

It's a nice set-up for a crime drama, and it's decently plotted, but director William Witney isn't able to bring much to it. Some of the trouble with the movie might be that it was shot for 3D, and the version I looked at was flat; certainly films converted that way are often dull. Most of the problem, however, lies with the line readings. While Adams is okay, the rest of the cast is too fresh-faced to be convincing in their dull lines and underwritten characters. Miss English gives a performance that seems more like a spoiled child than someone alluring.

There's some nice long shots of the car fleeing from the authorities, but when it comes to the actors, there's little of interest.

Roma Camp

Can we still call them that? It's an obviously staged shot, with girls dancing, a man playing with a fat dog and another man riding through on a horse.

It was doubtless considered a bit daring, given the unsavory reputation that the Romany had in those days. There isn't much else to it, although it is a well composed piece.

The Island of Marken

Ring around The Rosy
In the first of three shots, a rowboat passes before a group of women. Everyone wears clothes that look a bit old-fashioned and absurd. In the second shot, the woman standing in the first shot are featured in a medium close-up. In the third, children separate into circles of boys and of girls and dance in circles.

Marken was a small island in the Zuider Zee, separated from the mainland and thought to be full of old-fashioned people and customs. With the building of the polders, it has become a small village, probably undifferentiated from the rest of Holland. This actuality serves to preserve an image of old ways that have vanished, except to please tourists.

Catching the Ferry in Amsterdam

The Charming Mystery Of The Dog
Well dressed men and women -- and a small black dog -- dance onto a ferry and turn to wave at the audience as the side of the gangway raises to become part of the boat.

That small dog is a humorous kicker that always entertains the audience;, converting an ordinary shot -- even with the dancing and waving people -- into a humorous little slice of life.

French Military School Exercise

Young Men in uniform climb ladders, trot along a narrow walkway, then slide down poles and run off frame.

It's a nice exercise in competing lines of motion, something that the Lumieres showed mastery of from the beginning of their motion pictures, but few other film makers used for a few years. In this one, the motion is continuous and makes a pleasing whole; the Lumieres could deivide their lines of motion completely.

Orphan Girls in Amsterdam

As The Title
It's a rather ordinary actuality of the era, as a couple of matrons accompany their many charges on a walk. All the orphans are dressed alike, white chemises and dresses over darker sleeves and leggings, everyone marching along in good order.

There isn't really much more to this one than that description. I wonder at the impulse to film this, but all sorts of completely ordinary sights of the era were recorded by the motion picture camera, forming a valuable record of the details of life more than a century and a quarter ago.

Windsor Castle

A Train Ride To Fairy Land
It's a phantom train ride, one of those popular movies of 1895-1910 in which a motion picture camera is mounted on a moving locomotive and shows us the countryside. It's an ugly, urban landscape, cluttered with chimneys and factories, and rail cars on siding, until the fairy grace of Windor castle is revealed.

It's mostly an ugly picture, notable for its ending and for the clarity and detail of its images, mad possible by the 68mm. Frame that British Mutoscope made use of in this period.

Iron Foundry Workers

Not What I Expected
Hot steel pours into slots on the ground, and men throw dirt on it to cool it, then pound it with heavy hammers.

It's raw, brute, physical labor not at all what I think of when I think of how steel is manufactured: not that I often do, but I used to think it was poured from huge vats, sparks flying, then pounded by mechanical hammers -- perhaps with Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" playing. It also looked dangerous, given that steel melts at over 1400 degrees centigrade.... some varieties much higher.

The Grand Canal, Venice

City On The Sea
Venice, Wikipedia tells me, is based on 118 small islands. I don't want to call them liars, but you would never guess it from this movie, in which buildings emerge from the waters, built on the waves, linked by bridges and gondolas.

It's one of the many actualities produced by British Bioscope under the supervision of founder W. K. L. Dickson, using his 68-mm. Frame, which too up four times the area of the standard 35mm frame. The details and clarity are, like the others in the series, amazing.


Running On Empty
The Olympics come to Barcelona and Carlos Saura offers us spectacle, a celebration involving those 30-foot-high stilt-puppets for almost half an hour, before we settle down to watch the athletes. When that happens, it becomes peculiar. The athletes are tiny against the backdrop of the stadium and the crowds, almost lost in the flashbulbs from the stands. The music bears little relationship to what we are viewing.

I think of it as more spectacle than celebration of achievement. To me, spectacle is what you do when you have nothing of substance to show, shouting when you have nothing to say. I think the impulse that led to the revival of the Olympics in 1896 were wounded by two World Wars, and then shot dead at Munich in the summer of 1972. Now, all that's left is an empty traditions, athletes looking to excel against a huge backdrop of thousands of attendees, roaring at....

As I write this, Simone Biles just resigned from competition in the Olympics and has kicked off a roar from people decrying her for doing so; she suffers from "the twisties", a condition in which she loses awareness of her body's position. Should she compete, she could cripple herself Should she compete and fail, she risks her team mates probable silver. She already has plenty of Olympic gold. Nonetheless, she is being attacked by people because she somehow "owes" them her performance. It's not her achievement, her brilliance as a gymnast, she's supposed to risk killing herself for their satisfaction. Because now even individual achievement doesn't mean anything.

Southampton High Street

Here is another of the British Bioscope actualities, shot on film stock almost four times the area of the industry standard of 35 millimeters, and restore in the last few years by the British Film Institute in collaboration with Netherland's Eye Institute. As the title indicates, it's the main thoroughfare of Southampton, and surprisingly crowded; one expects a boulevard, and discovers a jammed thoroughfare, with light rail tracks and room for twp carriages in its width, filled with people of all sorts.

I particularly like looking at the signs proclaiming what businesses are available, what goods can be bught.

Place de la Concorde

Fool the Eye
One of the advantages that Dickson's 68mm frame sized offered was the greater illusion of a three dimensional world. True, it's all flat images, but as hrses pass by each other, one of them is in front, covering the image of the other, and the mind interprets that as showing actual depth of perception. It's clearly an illusion, but there it is. There were other tricks the film makers could use to increase this effect; the most famous was the "Biograph right wall" which framed the image. But the clarity of the image here certainly conributes.


Three Shots
Here is an edited movie from 1900, when splicing together two or more pieces of motion picture film was still in its infancy. Of course the primary interest in these British Bioscope films is the clarity and beauty of the images, enabled by the frame size of 68 millimeters. This offered almost four times as much data as the standard 35 millimeter frames, and you can see that in operation. These images are beautiful, in a a disheartening way, the sun obscured behind clouds, the guns firing while the smoke from the stack is absolutely black..... death and destruction.


Royal Navy Sailors climb the ropes aboard a ship. I suppose this happened in Portsmouth, although there's no necessity for it to be. Certainly a lot of early actualities were staged far from their purported settings; much battle footage of the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War were shot in New Jersey.

The hesitant manner in which the sailors climb, some of them stumbling, makes this look real. Th composition is excellent.

Naval Exercise

He's Fallen In The Water!
The barrel of the naval gun extends.... and a man falls into the water. Sailors dive in after him. Others run out long the spar and look down. Still others lower a boat into the water.

It doesn't say what exercise they were doing her,e but I think it likely they were practicing rescues, in case anyone fell into the briny. It seems odd to think of sailors who can't swim, bu swimming was not a requirement, or even necessary, unless you fell into the water. So mst of them tried to avoid it.

The River Zaan

I Counted 18 Windmills
Once I noticed them, I started counting and got up to 18; I probably missed two or seven in the first few seconds of this film.

The district was noted for its industrialization, and the windmills certainly provided power for factories. Monet painted in the district and wrote to Pissaro that he could spend a lifetime painting the along the river. Certainly, there were enough windmills to keep one occupied.


The St. Louis
The cruise ship St. Louis glides steadily and serenely past the camera, while passengers on deck wave handkerchiefs at the camera..... and by extension, the audience.

That's the sort of immediacy that motion pictures offered that still photography could not: that motion gave the audience the sense that they were present. A still photo was more accurate that a painting, but just as dead. By making use of the superior clarity of British Biograph's 68mm stock, the audience becomes more fully invested in the movement. And the moment.


The Panorama Shot
Here's a shot of the harbor, with the camera moving swiftly and serenely along, viewing the dozens, perhaps hundrds of boats sitting there.

It's what was called a panorama shot in 1900. Nowadays we call this a moving shot, but back then the equipment was too bulky to move, except by sticking it on a ship orrailroad car. The previous year the first motion picture cameras on tripods would go on sale, and by the end of the decade, a shot in which the camera moved on the axis of its tripod would become a panorama or pan shot; we still use that definition today.


Planes Of Movement
In the background, small sailboats toss on the waves. In the foreground, men and horses move along the thread of the shore, glancing occasionally at the camera.

British Biograph had the advantage of its new 68mm film, with four times the information in each frame of the older 35mm stock. One area which the older competition had was a firmer understanding of how to shoot competing planes of motion; the Lumieres, in particular, understood this from the beginning, even though it would be years before anyone else caught on. Here, Dickson and his cameramen show they understood the basics of the lumieres technique here.

Audience Leaving Circus Carré After the Biograph Show in Amsterdam

Portrait As Promotion
Here's another of the British Biograph actualities , back when W. K. L. Dickson was trying to establish his 68mm. Film as a standard to replace the 35mm. Frame. Technically there was much to recommend it, but in the end, only one format would survive; inertia made the standard that was already available the winner.

While he was trying, Dickson made the same sort of movie that others had before him. This is an imitation.of a Lumiere picture of people leaving a show of their pictures.

Inventor William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson Feeding Pigeons in Venice

Self Portrait
It was inevitable, I suppose, that W. K. L. Dickson would show up one of the shorts he shot for British Biograph, showing off his new 68mm format. It's not just Dickson, but his wife and young daughter, who wanders towards the camera, then returns.... probably imeplled by one of Dickson's assistants.

The detail offered by this format, ad well as the excellence of the restoration by the British Film Institute and the Eye Institute, is terrific.

Capuchin Monks in Vatican City

The title of the piece gives you a very good idea of what you will see in it, but the 68mm. Format of this British Biograph actuality offers clarity and detail novel to the usual audience of the 35mm format that has been standard since cinema's beginning. You can see the sticks that make up the fence behind the monks, the curling hairs in their beard.

Alas, like many of the technical innovations of cinema, it never caught on. Exhibitors would have had to invest in new equipment, new ways of handling and cranking the projectors.

Public Transport in Amsterdam

Smoke In The Air
Here's a downtown shot in Amsterdam. People stroll, people get on and off the buses, and it's all very standard for the era. What makes it exceptional is the clarity and detail of the image, abetted by this being shot in British Bioscope's 68mm format. With almost four times the fame area, details and clarity are revealed that other film makers of the time could not achieve. When someone puffs on a cigarette, you can see the smoke hang in the air and dissipate!

Pleasure in Berlin

Fun For Ordinary People
Children slide down a hillside, then race up to do so again; people jump into a swimming area by the sea and paddle around. It's another of the actualities supervised by W. K. L. Dickson for the newly formed British Biograph, showing off the superiority of the 68mm. Format, as opposed to the industry standard of 35 millimeters. The larger format offers greater clarity and more detail and makes me wish the format had caught on.

The scenes caught are standard for the era, but the composition is superior.

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