The British film institute’s compilation of the sort of films audiences would see in 1914 is of historical interest; by which I mean I struggled to stay awake in some parts but felt it was worthwhile seeing. The highlight was Daisy Doodad’s Dial featuring the first film star, Florence Lawrence (above).
Film producers at this time were not in the habit of promoting their actors as stars in the 1900s, arguably in order to keep the cost of the actors down, and also because of some actors’ reluctance to be associated with ‘disreputable cinema’. Audiences, however, had other ideas and fans wanted to know more about favourite actors. Producer Carl Leammle exploited this when planted the story that the Biograph Girl (as the fans knew Florence Lawrence), who he had poached from Biograph, had died in an accident. A week later he placed an advertisement in the St Louis Post-Dispatch suggesting that enemies of his production company had misled the people of St. Louis. ‘Coincidentally’ Lawrence appeared, the following month, in St. Louis to promote her film (sorry, to prove she was still alive). Such mendacious showmanship struck the template for much of the promotion of stars that followed.
The above is a still from the film, not a publicity photograph, as the ‘Dial’ of the title refers to ‘face’ and the narrative concerns a gurning contest. Lawrence’s Daisy Doodad comes across as a feisty woman and she does the comedy well.
The compilation concludes with another star, Chaplin’s early short A Film Johnnie and concerns the tramp, whose familiar persona is not quite fully formed at this point, confusing reality with the film world to predictably quite funny results.
Other shorts include The Rollicking Rajah an early ‘talkie’, or ‘singie’; the original was accompanied by a phonograph recording, now lost but recreated for this release. Fred Evans, apparently Britain’s most popular comedian of the time, is featured in the (on one level) dreadful Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine. As accompanying intertitle suggests, Evans made a virtue of low budget productions and it is interesting to see the almost ‘home made’ ethos of film-making in the early years. The higher production values of Hollywood soon blasted home grown fare off the screen and we’ve ‘suffered’ under Hollywood’s hegemony ever since.
An episode of The Perils of Pauline was slightly disappointing because I was expecting Pearl White (Pauline) to be more of a dynamic hero; though she does shimmy down a rope from a balloon that is at a good height. You can’t judge a series on one film, of course, but she required men to rescue her; another template for today.
A number of non fiction shorts were also included, such as German Occupation of Historic Louvain and Dogs for the Antarctic which does what it says on the title and seems to be an early example of product placement for Spratts’ dog cakes.