David Nicholas Wilkinson and the truth behind the birth of cinema

The First Film is an explorative documentary film that follows writer, producer, director and presenter David Nicholas Wilkinson in his quest to determine whether or not the first film footage ever recorded was done so in Leeds on 14th October 1888. The footage at the centre of the film is titled Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed by the Frenchman Louis Le Prince. It lasts only a few seconds but is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in cinematic history.

Wilkinson explores the background of this footage and its claim to being either the first ever recorded film footage or simply the earliest surviving film footage. He also looks into the strange disappearance of Le Prince on 16th September 1890 on a train from Dijon to Paris, a disappearance that meant the argument of Le Prince being the inventor of the moving image cameras had lost its most important voice, paving the way for Thomas Edison to go down in the history books as the inventor of the movie camera. Things get very suspicious when the death of his son Adolphe in an unusual hunting incident in July 1901 lays his argument to rest.

A groundbreaking piece of cinematic history

When I caught up with David Nicholas Wilkinson to discuss the film, he reflected on the underwhelming appearance of the location as it stands today, a discovery that produces one of the most memorable scenes in the film.

“One of the first shots we filmed was of me finding the original location of the scene. I had to laugh. I had no idea what to expect but a cul-de-sac is about as banal a setting as I could imagine.” His presenting style is infectious even when he encounters disappointments like these, such is his passion for the subject matter. He remains upbeat despite such adversity: “I had hoped for something to be left, even if it was a tree.”

A key fact that the film explores is whether or not a photograph in a French morgue is that of Le Prince. It shows only the face of a deceased man who looks remarkably like the groundbreaking filmmaker, but David is not convinced. “I don’t really think it’s him. In 1890 the average height of a man in France was around 5ft 6in. Le Prince was actually 6ft 4in. In the accompanying notes for the photograph, anything unusual or out of the ordinary had been recorded for each person, though it was very scant in general. If it was definitely him it would have been recorded.”

Only one shot that had to be re-filmed, which meant both David and his co-writer Irfan Shan had to try their hand at acting surprised at discovering Le Prince’s grave. “He never wanted to be in it, but he knew most of the answers and stopped me making mistakes.”

The last-minute curveball

As we come to the end of the film, a late revelation throws the argument up in the air again through a discovery by Laurie Schneider. As David explains, “We had to delay. Everyone wanted me to cut it but once I knew what I’d found out about it I knew it was vital to the story.” The fact David’s discoveries are captured on camera means the audience goes on the journey with him, leaving the story open to these kinds of curveballs throughout.

Whilst the film explores the three most plausible explanations for the disappearance of Le Prince, David explains that there are many more doing the rounds. “There are around ten theories about what happened. One theory is that he was a spy for both Britain and USA during a time when there was a threat of a second French Revolution. Another is that he was filming snuff films with Jack The Ripper…” As he tails off there is something in his voice that gives the impression he doesn’t quite believe these avenues of thought.

It is clearly a labour of love and he has produced a compelling argument on what was likely a relatively small budget. One source of frustration for him came from the British Film Institution. “I went for a BFI distribution loan, which would allow me to visit colleges and universities around the UK. I had agreements with thirty out of a planned fifty and saw it as a great way to get the truth around. I was turned down because it was deemed “too educational”. I’m sure their remit is to promote the British film industry. I can’t come up with a tangible reason for it. Maybe they don’t believe me.”

David is the driving force behind the film.

David’s relentless passion for the project is infectious.

The driving force is Wilkinson himself and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in his determined narrative. This determination comes despite concerns about the film’s viability. “It was a big worry because it had been rejected so many times. I’d been advised not to do it, but I knew people would be interested in this story.” It appears he is correct in this thought given the amount of coverage it is now getting in national newspapers. “It’s a forgotten story and an important part of our history as a film-making nation. People will now know the Le Prince name. In fact, the widespread coverage means the story is getting out even to people who haven’t seen the film.”

“The film has been thirty-three years in the making”, he states, referring to that point being the first time he pitched it to the BBC in 1982. “I’ve laid it to rest now though. Now that it’s out there I can move on. It’s often the case with filmmakers that the one project we’re really passionate about is the one that never gets made. People go decades without making a project and I often believe that they don’t really want it to get made.” It’s lucky that David’s one project was this one and we’re lucky to be able to hear the story, albeit 125 years late. The story deserved to be told and now it deserves to be seen.

The First Film is on limited release now, with the following cinemas offering screenings over the next month.

July

03.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
04.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
08.07.15 – Gate Cinema London
11.07.15 – Galway Film Fleadh – Ireland
14.07.15 – Triskel Arts Centre, Cork – Ireland
15.07.15 – IFI, Dublin – Ireland
16.07.15 – Queens Film Theatre, Belfast
20.07.15 – Greenwich Picturehouse London
23.07.15 – Ritzy, Brixton, London
26.07.15 – Cambridge Picturehouse
28.07.15 – Norden Farm, Maidenhead
30.07.15 – Kingston Arts Centre

August

01.08.15 – Bath Picturehouse
03.08.15 – Home Manchester
05.08.15 – Vue Leeds
06.08.15 – City Screen, York
07.08.15 – Sheffield Showroom
09:08:15 – Hebden Bridge Picture House
13.08.15 – Electric Palace, Hastings
18:08:15 – Picture House, Uckfield

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F. W. Murnau, 1931)

The last of four films Murnau made after moving to America – the others being the Oscar winning Sunrise, the excellent City Girl and the now-lost Four Devils – Tabu marked something of a departure for the master director. He travelled to Bora Bora near Tahiti with documentary filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty. Setting out to make a docufiction film as co-director, it quickly became apparent that Murnau wanted complete control and Flaherty was bought out of his share of the film.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

Despite the unusual setting, this has all the hallmarks of a classic Murnau romance.

The result of this is an opening sequence that seems very much like a documentary film, with native islanders (almost every actor in the film was an untrained native, along with most of the production crew) fishing, playing and acting naturally. According to the extensive booklet notes (thanks again Masters of Cinema), this was the only sequence Flaherty directed before he encountered technical issues with his camera and brought in cameraman Floyd Crosby to assist. The upshot of this was that the rest of the film was the responsibility of Murnau.

Subsequently, we then pick up on a more traditional method of storytelling. A girl named Reri (Anna Chevalier) is chosen by aged emissary Hitu of neighbouring island Fanuma to be the replacement maiden to the Gods. She is to be transported to the island to live there free of any kind of relationship; from this point on she is “tabu”. This is terrible news for both Reri and her lover Matahi, who defy this command and escape the island to a French-colonised island nearby.

The story of two lovers remaining together despite adversity is reminiscent of both Sunrise and City Girl, and other than the unfamiliar setting Murnau is on safe territory. It doesn’t feel stale, but it’s certainly the least dynamic of the three available Hollywood films. Both lead characters give assured performances in their roles despite a lack of experience. Matahi never worked on another film following this release. Anne Chevalier worked on two subsequent films (Polish film Czarna Perla and an uncredited role in John Ford’s The Hurricane) but neither are as fondly remembered as Tabu.

F. W. Murnau’s final film was actually released a week after his death. Whilst working on the sound for the film, Murnau was being driven up the coast from Los Angeles by a 14-year-old Fillipino servant and was involved in a car crash, dying a day later in hospital. It’s a shame that this was his last film and a tragedy that his life was cut short so early, robbing the world of countless more exceptional films. He had actually spent most of his final months on the island Bora Bora, having enjoyed his time there so much.

The definitive version of Tabu is available on Masters of Cinema Blu-ray and DVD dual-format release, packed with extras (deleted scenes, a short film directed by Flaherty using leftover footage, a documentary) and with an immaculate transfer. It also restores scenes that were cut before its original release, as well as those taken out in subsequent cuts over the intervening years (the explanation for all of this is in the extensive booklet that’s included in the box)

The Floorwalker (Charlie Chaplin, 1916)

On 25th February 1916, Charlie Chaplin signed a $670,000 deal with the Mutual Film Corporation to produce a film a month over a one-year period. This made him the highest-paid entertainer in the world. The deal came as a surprise to the film industry; many had expected him to sign with a larger studio and Mutual hadn’t really been considered as an option. However, the money (according to Dollar Times online calculator it was equivalent to $15.2m in 2015) and the creative freedom swayed him and production began in earnest.

The first of these films, all of which were short comedies, was The Floorwalker, released on 15th May 1916. The basic story involves a department store floorwalker (Lloyd Bacon) who is involved with embezzlement of money with the store manager (Eric Campbell). When they receive a letter informing them that detectives are on the way to investigate the finances, they decide to run. However, when the floorwalker spots a near-perfect lookalike in a tramp (Chaplin), he decides to offer to switch personas with him, without realising that the tramp himself is in trouble with the police for property damage in the shop.

The film has a couple of classic Chaplin comedy moments. The first (which is reused throughout to great hilarity) involves the tramp’s inability to go up or down an escalator. It is just pure comedy gold and though it has been imitated many times over, never has it been done so effectively. Another set piece that has had its imitators over the years is the first meeting of the trap and the floorwalker, in which they become intrigued by one-another and begin to mirror the other’s movement. It requires perfect comic timing and is brilliantly executed. It is perhaps more fondly remembered in The Marx Brothers’ comedy Duck Soup, though the gag in that film involved a mirror so isn’t strictly a copy.

All twelve films from the Mutual Film Corporation period are collected in an excellent Blu-ray (and DVD) released by BFI this month. The presentation of each includes two scores (all have one score by Carl Davis and an alternative score by a range of composers), an audio commentary and a brief discussion in the extensive booklet. The restorations are evidently full of care and attention to detail, which I’ve come to expect of BFI releases but will never stop appreciating.

Go out and buy a copy now and support the important restoration projects for classic cinema. You won’t be disappointed with this release.

Charlie Chaplin – The Mutual Comedies is out now on BFI Blu-ray and DVD.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

I finally got around to watching Dr Caligari, having had it near the top of my “to watch” list for around six months. It was a Friday 13th weekend so it was a perfectly timed purchase. Watching it was a fantastic experience and the quality of the film belies its 95-year-old lifespan.

Our story opens with a man’s recounting of a tale about the appearance of a mysterious somnambulist show that is exhibiting at a local fair in Holstenwall, a small town near Hamburg in Germany. The show is compered by the strange Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) with the centrepiece provided by a devastatingly eerie Cesare (a pre-Casablanca Conrad Veidt). When a number of murders are committed, including one predicted by Cesare, the two exhibitors are instantly installed as the prime suspects and panic spreads across the town. [1]

With a narrative as twisted as the set on which it plays out and a plot that throws the viewer off the scent with every turn, the film is way ahead of its time across the board. Indeed, I think the biggest blocker for me guessing what was happening was the fact I underestimated quite how advanced a film released in 1920 could be. It’s probably worth bearing that in mind before watching it.

Actually, this is a fantastic starting point for those wanting to learn more about silent films and German expressionist cinema. This was the birth of the latter, as well as both horror films and twist endings. For this reason, it is wholly a ground-breaking film that needs to be seen to fully understand the landscape of cinema at the time. That’s to disregard the political context too, which the film has been closely linked with being a metaphor for – as a German film released in the aftermath of The Great War this is somewhat inevitable, especially since the two writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janozwicz were both soldiers in this war.

I wouldn’t class myself particularly as a die-hard fan of the silent era, though I have seen a handful of the more prominent pictures (mainly Masters of Cinema releases and Charlie Chaplin’s more famous works). I am slowly getting more and more into it thanks to unrivalled access to the entire history of film via both physical media and digital streaming services. It has never been easier to dip your toes in and see what you enjoy out of a wide variety of films and television series. Couple that with the endless streams of discussion pages, essays and blogs on film and you can really think about it as a very advanced education in cinema.

Dr Caligari is a prime example. The Wikipedia page alone is like a short essay on the development, production, release history and reception of the film, complete with links should you wish to find out more information from the original sources.

The set design is as twisted as the plot itself.

It’s good to take a step back and appreciate exactly how far we have come. I remember my family’s first Windows-based computer [2] – a PC running Windows 95, which was then state of the art. As the internet wasn’t readily available we had two computer-based options to do research: Encarta Encyclopaedia and Microsoft Cinemania. The latter was a bit of a godsend for someone who was interested in cinema, with over 20000 films detailed with stills, sound clips and some even having short video clips. It was rudimentary but quite spectacular. As I was 11 at the time my main priority was watching a short but thrilling clip from Nightmare on Elm Street, so I can’t really remember whether Dr Calgari was covered, though I suspect it was.

Now, though, we can search “Dr Caligari” and retrieve 563,000 results on Google (other search engines are available but they generally aren’t as good). Two of the top results give the ability to stream it for free, with two versions available on YouTube. I just think it’s fascinating we are able to do this now, and even more amazing that we now just take it for granted. Progression, eh?

Well, it doesn’t stop there. The basic picture quality is incomparable to what was readily available some twenty years ago. Back then you had three choices if you wanted to see an older film again: wait for it to be re-released at the cinema, wait for it to come onto television, or buy a VHS copy of it for around £15. This latter one allowed you to access the film much sooner, but the picture quality was just atrocious and really unwatchable by today’s standards. Nowadays, you can pick up a Blu-ray copy of most films for less than £10, often closer £5, and the picture quality is like a dream for cinephiles.

Apologies. I digress. The film itself is pretty mind-blowing. I don’t really know where to start with it, and there has been a great deal written about this film elsewhere by people with much better vocabulary. The bottom line is that I was thoroughly impressed. The twisted design, the tense music (I listened in 5.1), the staccato body movement that gives the acting a really sinister edge, the subversive plot. They all combine to present us with a journey that was way ahead of its time. As the reality behind what I was seeing became clear I was left absolutely gobsmacked by the ending. It’s just a must watch for anyone keen to get to grips with the history of cinema.

Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari is available now on Masters of Cinema dual-format Blu-ray and DVD.

[1] It’s funny that I’m attempting to not give away any of the plot when describing the film. It seems 95 years isn’t enough time to wait before spoilers are okay. Think about that the next time you want to talk to someone about the next episode of that show you both like but they haven’t seen.

[2] Our first home computer of any kind was the extremely popular Commodore Amiga, which was originally released in 1985. I’m not sure exactly which model we had as it has long since disappeared, though I suspect it was a 500. I don’t recall it ever being used for word processing and it certainly wasn’t connected to the internet, such was life in central Lancashire in the mid-1980s.

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

Version reviewed: The Park Circus UK Region B/2 2010 Blu-ray/DVD dual format release as part of The Charlie Chaplin Collection.

Considered by critics as not only one of Chaplin’s greatest films, but also one of the greatest films of all time, City Lights is a wonder to behold. Fantastic from start to finish, equally hilarious and touching, wonderfully scored and acted, it’s a film that needs to be seen and the continued praise is more than justified.

The (spoiler-free [1]) storyline goes something like this: A tramp (Charlie Chaplin) falls in love with a beautiful blind flower girl, who is in dire financial trouble. The chance befriending of a wealthy and frequently drunk man plus a series of money-making schemes play out as the tramp attempts to find the money that will help the girl’s family and pay for an operation to fix her blindness.

The storyline is the perfect basis for some hilarious moments, including a legendary boxing match and the following clip I found on YouTube. Is there a more hilarious way to introduce his most well-known character?

It’s not just a series of old-fashioned silent pantomime comedy routines, though. I’ve seen a handful of Chaplin’s most popular films and anyone who has even dipped their toes in will know that he’s way more than just a performer of slapstick comedy. There are moments throughout his films that really pack an emotional punch, with his tramp rarely getting a fair deal in life. Equally, when it comes to romance, Chaplin is nothing short of astonishing, never more so than in the final sequence of City Lights film. Despite the film being over 80 years old, I’m going to avoid any spoilers. Just watch it.

The film is classed as a silent film and for the most part it is, though there are some parts where the audio and visuals synchronise up, most notably when the tramp accidentally swallows a whistle. I’m not going to sit here and claim to be all-knowing about what is a silent film and what isn’t, but it was nice to see Chaplin making use of the more advanced audio-recording techniques that had become available after his last film’s release, 1928’s The Circus.

It is fortunate that we are even able to see City Lights as we do today. Following the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 1927 (which featured large sections of synchronised audio, though was not entirely a talkie), the end of the silent era of films was put into motion. By 1931, when City Lights hit cinemas, the major studios had stopped producing silent films and were following the desires of the cinema-goers by producing talkies. As Chaplin was the producer, writer, director and star, he was able to follow his instincts and released another silent film, a decision which was vindicated by the exceptional box office receipts (it turned a profit of around $3.5m, and was the fourth-highest grossing film of the year). It is somewhat strange that its popularity has maintained given it was technically behind the times upon release, though that is just a sign of its timeless quality.

Speaking of timelessness, I found it remarkable how little the content of the film had aged. Indeed, I wonder how the top-grossing comedic actors of 2015 would handle the content of the film. With a blind woman as the main love interest, would Adam Sandler have been able to resist a cheap joke at the expense of her disabilities? Indeed, Will Ferrell touched on blindness in a sequence in Anchorman 2, which, whilst pretty funny, lacked a little tact. There is no suggestion here that Chaplin was going to undermine blindness – this woman is beautiful and that’s all that matters.

citylightsscreenshot

Chaplin’s Tramp with his nameless love interest

There are some bonus features on this release, however they are limited to the DVD version as they are standard definition. I haven’t got to them yet, but they look interesting: video footage of Winston Churchill visiting the set, seven minutes of outtakes, an introduction by David Robinson (Chaplin biographer), a 26 minute documentary about the film called Chaplin Today: City Lights and a photo gallery. What I would say is this – the video quality on the Blu-ray is not so exceptional that there is no room left on the disc for the bonus features on the DVD, though I wonder whether this is more due to the source material than anything else. I plan to write a separate blog charting my frustrations with buying Chaplin in the UK, but that’s for another day. To summarise: I wish Criterion releases were cheaper to buy outside of the US.

As a side note, I was looking for a featured image for this article and came across a wide variety of English-language and foreign alternative posters for the film. Some of them are really impressive and are a good indicator of how studios used their perception of the local markets to gauge the tone of the poster. The following is one I found from Germany that I found particularly interesting.

Alternative German poster for City Lights (or Lichter der Gross Stadt)

Alternative German poster for City Lights (or Lichter der Gross Stadt)

City Lights is available to buy now on Park Circus dual format Blu-ray and DVD.

[1] I class any description that can be deduced from the DVD/Blu-ray box or trailer, or that only covers events in the opening sequence of the film, as spoiler-free.

Dreams of Toyland (Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, 1908)

A young boy dreams that his toys come to life.

Watch here.

Another example of the fine curiosities available on the brilliant BFI Player. I recently discovered this was pre-loaded onto my TV (a Samsung) so I’ve been watching some pretty obscure silent films in my lounge in all their glory.*

This film is well worth watching as the director attempts a highly elaborate stop-motion sequence that lasts for well over half of the total running time. It must have taken hours to create and should be marvelled at given its age – 106 years old. You can imagine the painstaking attention to detail that has gone into it. There’s almost no chance he had a pre-written storyline for the characters and this free-spirited approach has lent itself to a lot of creativity, which in turn succeeds in reflecting a child’s dreams as inspired by a trip to the toy shop.

A must for fans of quirky silent cinema!

* I’ve also been suffering from insomnia recently but silent films are the perfect indulgence if you’re in bed and don’t want to disturb your wife whilst not wasting your time counting sheep!