From sleaze to silver

In the Kingdom of Shadows
July 11, 1997

On October 3 1896 Queen Victoria wrote in her diary: "BalmoralI At twelve went down to below the terrace, near the ballroom, and we were all photographed by Downey by the new cinematograph process, which makes moving pictures by winding off a reel of films. We were walking up and down and the children jumping aboutI" Three months earlier and 1,000 miles further east, Maxim Gorky had written: "Last night I was in the kingdom of the shadows. It is a world without sound, without colourI It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre." In a matter of months both camera and projector had with miraculous rapidity made their presence felt across Europe, North and South America and Australia and the cinema had in a year become irreversibly but still puzzlingly embedded in the consciousness of millions. The Lumi re brothers were sending their films out of Paris in all directions and the first audiences, whether loyal to the tsar of Russia or the empress of India or the president of the United States, were sharing the same images simultaneously. They were all stunned by the same train appearing to be speeding directly into their laps, they were the witnesses of the same coronations, comic gardeners, royal funerals.

The cinematograph process was still finding its way through and beyond the world of peepshows and vaudeville theatres and was turning into a cultural institution of its own, fraught with regulation, projects of censorship, patent disputes and an endless furious debate about taste and decency. But in this process a new and global iconography was emerging out of what was in essence at first just a toy.

This Companion to Early Cinema will surely be a godsend for social and media historians. It is a finely illustrated compendium of ephemera drawn from the press and numerous other sources in the period between 1895 and 1915. It captures magnificently the first mass experience of the moving image and shows how all of the dilemmas and issues which have surrounded the medium were first registered in the public mind. A tremendous range of texts is provided but every one has a point to make for us today and the great mass of the material consists in new discoveries - while none of the loci classici is omitted. The compilers have discovered what people thought and said in those early moments about the phenomenon of cinema and its constructions and representations of death, sex, religion, authority, war, royalty, finance, religion, morals (especially morals). The authors have collected a good deal of visual material (cartoons, posters, stills) and they have appended biographical information on hitherto lost cinema pioneers.

In historiographical terms, the extended celebration of the centenary of cinema which started in 1995 and continues with this enjoyable production, has turned out to be a highly successful international venture. There have been many television programmes working through the known material, while recreating the technological and cultural conjuncture which produced cinema in the 1890s. There have been and still are new exhibitions and collections of reminiscences. Some of the activities have been based on fresh scholarly approaches and discoveries and they have demonstrated many previously unexplored connections between early film and other strands of social and technological history.

Much previously invisible documentation (for instance, the Lumi re letters) has been brought out and/or translated - and but for the synergies of the centenary much of this would have remained in the archives. This book should take its place among the popular triumphs of the moment. It is not for reading at a sitting but for dipping into: the reader might pick out the mock sentimental poem from Punch published just before the great war, entitled "Love at the Cinema", or the extract from an 1897 trade paper, "The photographic dealer", which explains how to set up shop as a vendor of the new kinematographic equipment. The World's Fair of 1907 provides us with a number of illuminating items of publicity, while the contemporary accounts of prosecutions of cinema tradesmen suggests the whole evaporated mindset of late Victorian official morality into which the new films blew their gale of creative destruction.

Perhaps the most enlightening and partly unconscious achievement of the compendium is that it makes the user of the book see how the medium got itself into and then out of the hands of the fairground and peepshow men. For so long the moving picture was simply an amusing Victorian toy which embalmed people in their grey ordinariness, then somehow its potential as the creator of a massive alternative cultural environment was subconsciously realised by altogether new people who sought to make fortunes and empires out of this new diverting contraption.

This is much more than another kind of "Jackdaw" publication; it will provide hosts of ideas for further historical explorations of cinema history.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema

Author - Colin Harding and Simon Popple
ISBN - 0 8386 34 8
Publisher - Cygnus Arts (Golden Cockerel Press)
Price - £39.50
Pages - 1

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