Colin Harding & Simon Popple,
In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema
London: Cygnus Arts, 1996
ISBN 1 900541 05 X
Uploaded 16 April 1999
We normally review books only within two years of publication, but this one was a long time reaching us, so we are stretching a point. This compilation of documents relating to the first twenty years of the history of cinema was obviously designed to be a part of the commemoration of the centenary of cinema: it covers everything from the buildings to the projection facilities to the material recorded on film (whether fact or fiction), to public debates about the safety and morality of film screenings, to responses from the patrons of the new medium.
It is a beautiful book – coffee-table size, well-presented on glossy paper, with wonderful images (including a colour section). This is to be expected from a publication supported by the British National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (a part of the National Museum of Science and Industry), which supplied many of the images from its own collection. It is, however, a comment on the current international economic climate that this impressive volume was printed and bound in Slovenia, by Gorenjski Tisk.
The first impression of the content is equally impressive. The documents all brilliantly capture the spirit of their time. The written documents include news reports and magazine articles, extracts from books and catalogues, prospectuses, government legislation and reports: the images include photographs, film stills, posters and drawings. If you dip in, you can find verse from the British Journal of Photography (4 December 1896) on “the living picture craze”, a description of an apparatus allowing big-game hunters to shoot at moving targets in their own living-rooms (The World’s Fair, 3 July 1909), The Times fulminating on “The moral dangers of cinematograph exhibitions” (7 March 1913), Dr Martin declaring that “the cinema, while possessing plasticity, was less suitable than the stage for the expression of lyrical emotion” (29 April 1913), or a recruitment advertisement (May 1910) promising £10 per week for the manager of a show or £10,000 per year for a proprietor. One of the best sections (on “The fairground Bioscope”) is contributed by Vanessa Toulmin, who also provides a series of biographies of Bioscope operators, and there are also contributions on the British Film Copyright Archive (by Richard Brown) and cartoons and films (by Stephen Bottomore).
The book is sub-titled A Companion to Early Cinema, and if you read it occasionally, in response to your viewing or other reading, it will provide many hours of pleasure. But, if you are looking for something more systematic you may be disappointed. The two editors have organised the selected documents thematically, and introduced each section with a brief commentary. No comment is provided on individual documents, and the reasoning behind the placement of these in any particular section is not always clear (some could have been placed in any of two or three different sections), and is not made clear in the section introductions. For instance, a section called “From penny gaff to picture palace” is introduced by a commentary on the rise of permanent exhibition venues, leading a reader to expect documents about cinema buildings: it is, therefore, puzzling to find several pages of material on selling kinematograph machines, training operators, and listing film suppliers, before we reach the prospectus for Electric Theatres , and several more pages before we find an architectural drawing for a cinema and an article on “The building and its fittings”.
The thematic organisation actively interferes with any sense of chronology, as documents from any time period may be found anywhere, in any section. And though the intentions of the thematic divisions are clear from their headings (“Sex, death and religion”, “The Biograph in battle”, “The cinema and royalty”), the organisation within each is not. For instance, the second section illustrates the wide range of “The uses of cinema”, from the scientific and educational to the frivolous and amusing. The chronology of the documents (ranging from 10 December 1896 to 27 February 1914) has been completely disrupted, but the thematic thread – the only available thread linking each document to its neighbour – is tenuous at best.
There is a related problem with the lack of a sense of place – or perhaps, rather, with the assumption that place may be simply taken for granted. The book opens with a section called ‘The first sight’, referring to viewers’ first experience of cinema. This opens in 1895, with frames of the Lumiere company workers leaving the factory, and follows with Maxim Gorky’s famous poetic and visionary evaluation of that first Lumiere programme: it is a quotation from this piece that gives the book its title. One problem for anyone trying to read through this section systematically is that it also includes descriptions of much later first experiences of cinema, some of them remembered from many decades after the event. And the connection of film images taken in Paris, a first cinema experience in Moscow or Paris or Saragossa, and the predominantly British content and sources for the rest of the documents in the section is never explicated. From the perspective of a mere colonial, it smacks of the long history of assumptions that the world revolves around the British experience, even if this particular version of that experience does include Scotland and Wales. For, till we read thoroughly, the only clues that we are reading a compilation of documents from, and about and of relevance primarily to, Britain are embedded inconspicuously in the foreword by Rachael Low (“the industry as it developed in Britain”) and the commentary introducing the first section (“the everyday lives of British citizens”).
An example of all these problems coming together to disrupt a reader’s appreciation of the material is the extract from Albert E.Smith’s Two Reels and a Crank (123-5). This was published in 1952, but concerns Smith and Blackton’s filming of the Spanish-American War in 1898. No explanation is given of who Smith and Blackton were, nor who Roosevelt and Davis (to whom Smith also refers) were, and the only way to identify the war is by internal references to a Spanish enemy. The date of the events described is not given, except as “Dairy entry – March 30, 1989”: in this case the typographical errors (irritatingly common throughout the whole book, unfortunately) are crucial, as I assume it should have read “Diary entry – March 30, 1898”. No explanation is offered of the significance of this American piece to the British experience, except for the bland statement in the section introduction, that “On the other side of the world the Spanish-American war in Cuba was also covered by a number of cameramen.”(119) Though more space is devoted to Smith and Blackton than to the Boer War, the commentary continues: “It was the Boer War, however, that was to have a profound effect on the development of the cinema in Britain.” All of this raises more questions than it answers, which may, of course, have been the intention. However, if you do have questions you may well require more help than you get from this index, which lists only film titles and people’s names.
None of these comments, however, can detract from the value of the primary source material – the documents are simply fascinating! They open a window onto a past that deserves much more attention both from film scholars and from the general public. They represent moments in the history of a medium that has survived a century and looks set to continue despite the competition of new media.