Screening the Poor Review
Thanks to a pair of Blu-rays released just a week apart, June has turned out to be something of a highpoint for fans and collectors of silent cinema. Masters of Cinema have issued Jean Epstein’s Cœur fidèle in an astonishingly beautiful transfer, whilst The Great White Silence from the BFI is just as astounding in its presentation quality (arguably more so given that its footage dates back one hundred years) and ably backed up a hefty collection of extra features and additions. With high standards such as these you cannot help but feel a little sorry for other silent releases encountering the market at around the same time; surely nothing can compete with the sheer beauty - and hi-definition - of these important works. Yet spare a though, and some pennies, for the latest from Edition Filmmuseum. Released just a few weeks before Cœur fidèle and The Great White Silence, and to significantly less fanfare, was Screening the Poor, a two-disc compilation encompassing the years 1888 to 1914 and 32 separate example of early cinema. As the date suggests we find both silent films and ‘pre-cinema’, a selection of the titles being reproductions of magic lantern presentations: slide shows, spoken text, musical accompaniment and the occasional song. Needless to say, it’s a rare move to make use of both kinds of ‘moving’ pictures; the only other example I can think of is another two-disc set, the BFI’s Dickens Before Sound collection from 2006.
Screening the Poor’s focus is on the ‘social question’, an assortment of documentation, illustration and dramatisation of poverty and its various ill-effects. The discs are separated into chapters, seven in all, each taking in a different facet. Thus we find a series of films and lantern shows dedicated - using the discs’ headings - to slumming, children in misery, child labour, charity and social care, drink and the temperance movement, perils of wage labour and, finally, escape. All of which should be fairly self-explanatory excepting the last one; in a nutshell its four selections encompass the effects of wealthy benefactors, religion, emigration and (presumably) fantasy. Furthermore, the choice of slides and shorts are not dictated by geographical concerns - despite being a German release compiled by the German Film Institute, the University of Trier and Munich Filmmuseum, Screening the Poor is very much a collaborative effort encompassing the BFI, the Cinémathèque française, the Royal Belgian Film Archive, the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, the Museum of Modern Art and more besides. Consequently the two discs include a wide array of films and magic lantern performances from across the globe: the UK, the US, France, Italy, Denmark and Germany. Interestingly, it is the British examples which make up the bulk of Screening the Poor, accounting for almost 50% of the selections contained within.
As well as the diversity of origin, there is also a terrific range of filmmakers on display, many of whom should be familiar. We find, for example, an actuality by Mitchell & Kenyon, an entry in Bébé series by Louis Feuillade, an early short by D.W. Griffith and two by Ferdinand Zecca; the likes of R.W. Paul and George W. Pearson are also represented as are various newsreel producers such as Pathé. Mention of Bébé, one of cinema’s first child stars, means that note should also be made of Whiffles, aka Charles Prince - it isn’t simply the big name directors who are accounted for here. On top of this we also have the array of magic lantern performances, again from a range of sources, which only serves to emphasise the scope contained within Screening the Poor. In other words, this isn’t simply a compilation on a given theme but also a valuable cross section of early cinema and its assorted methods and means. Indeed, you could argue that for some viewers the specific focus of the set will be almost by-the-by; as a collection of, for the most part, difficult to see shorts and slides it more than justifies a purchase in its own right.
Of course, to approach Screening the Poor solely from one angle - and therefore ignoring all others - would be a massive disservice. The curatorial skill which has gone into this compilation clearly extends beyond the decision to encompass both magic lantern examples and short films, likewise the range of filmmakers and filmmaking techniques. First and foremost Screening the Poor is an examination of how poverty was represented onscreen - the additional qualities are perhaps best seen as bonuses. The real pleasure of making your way through these two discs is the ability to see the many facets of this representation, whether it be through comedy, melodrama, animation or strict documentary form. If we take just those selections under the ‘Children in Distress’ chapter we are able to sample a pair of British magic lantern shows, one - Ora Pro Nobis (1897) - which is sung, another - Billy’s Rose (1888) - spoken in verse. The first is shown as performance: we witness the operator of the lantern as well as the pianist and singer alongside the slides. The second opts to show only the slides themselves whilst the bleak narrative of dying children slowly unfolds. By way of contrast these two book-ending performances are shown either side of a pair of French films: Bébé vest imiter St. Martin (1910) is all cute charm; La Bagne des gosses (1907) follows a route through pure melodrama, beginning with the death of a child’s mother and taking in an especially oppressive reformatory school to which the only option is escape.
Actually, the only form of escape eventually comes in the form of a rich benefactor, a presence time and again throughout Screening the Poor. Oddly enough there aren’t really any instances of these shorts and slides offering genuine answers to the ‘social question’. Certainly, they can suggest temperance for alcoholics either through scare tactics (Zecca’s Les Victimes de l’alcoolisme from 1902 ends with an, admittedly delightful, example of massively overwrought cinema as its protagonist finds himself in a padded cell) or a slightly more advanced narrative (in D.W. Griffith’s 1909 film A Drunkard’s Reformation the lead is taken to a play about the ill-effects of drink which forces him to change his ways). But there is never any attempt to consider the system or the bigger social picture; the nearest we get, arguably, are two adaptations George Robert Sims’ 1879 verse In the Workhouse (one magic lantern performance, one filmic take on the tale) or perhaps Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris, a newsreel from 1904 which presents a completely non-judgemental view of the poor and the homeless, presumably as a means of shocking the audience with its plain realities.
Nowhere do we find any genuine political argument or anger, however. Rather the poverty stricken are more often than not seen as simply the means for a bit of humour or some over-the-top dramatics, to provoke nothing more than a laugh or a tear; in other words, as entertainment. The whole thing would seem exploitative were we not dealing with, predominantly, narrative films and tales. When the documentary form does intervene into the drama (as with The Cry of the Children, made in 1912, and its genuine footage of workhouse conditions) the divide between the two is clearly maintained with the non-fiction elements remaining objective and matter-of-fact. Indeed, the same is true of the newsreels, the footage of the funeral for the victims of the Radbod mine disaster being a prime example. Yet if the fictional pieces can seem a little coarse in their representation then surely this is just a reflection of the times and, in itself, another of the many interesting angles to Screening the Poor. We don’t need to agree with it, of course, merely recognise its presence and consider its effect as these films and lantern shows proceed.
Indeed, were we to concentrate too heavily on these inherent then perhaps we would ignore the cinematic qualities that nonetheless shine through. As we’re dealing with early cinema there is, understandably, a continual eye being cast on the early innovations and methods on display: the simple techniques employed by Mitchell & Kenyon which, arguably, contribute to making their films just as rewarding today; the narrative-within-a-narrative of A Drunkard’s Reformation; the wonderful opening shot of 1905’s Le Chemineau in which the titular tramp slowly walks towards the camera so that his face ends in a stark close-up. Particularly impressive are the set designs for Zecca’s two inclusions, especially the post-disaster coal mine in Au pays noir (1905) which incorporates actors, a body of water, various mechanics and finely detailed backdrops. (Needless to say, the presentation aids no end in our appreciation of such aspects.) Just as beautiful are many of the magic lantern slides, again with a great reliance on the finer points, not to mention the rich colours of these hand painted frames. The Emigrant Ship from 1890 is particularly noteworthy for its kaleidoscopic effects; its story ends with a display of “Chinese fireworks” entirely to justify further use of these simple pieces of trickery.
It’s also worth pointing out that the magic lantern pieces more than hold their own against the films. Many come from the collection of Mervyn Heard who has also provided such examples of Victorian and Edwardian ‘pre-cinema’ for the films Jude and Sleepy Hollow. As presented here it is Heard who gives the ‘voice-overs’, reading their accompanying verses in a manner that is neither dull nor unnecessarily emphatic. Interestingly, Screening the Poor oftentimes juxtaposes one of the magic lanterns with its cinematic counterpart. Thus The Little Match Girl will appear as both a 1905 slideshow from the US and a British film made by Percy Nash in 1914, similarly versions of Buy Your Own Cherries! and the aforementioned In the Workhouse. Other times they serve as a complementary counterpoint as when Zecca’s melodramatic Au pays noir is contrasted with the simpler representation of the miners’ song Don’t Go Down to the Mine, Dad from 1910. At no point do they feel secondary, but rather happily rub shoulders.
All of which is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that Screening the Poor has a bit of everything: social history, cinema history, cinema (and ‘pre-cinema’) per se. The range of methods, techniques, representations, filmmakers both well known and unknown all combine to create a superb compilation. Moreover, this wealth of diversity is such that the compilation can be enjoyed in a single sitting or perhaps one per disc (which is how I approached it). Of course the quality of individual pieces may aver from time to time, yet the contribution of each to the overall picture is such that it would be churlish to point out the weaker entries, or indeed to highlight a particularly outstanding entry. Screening the Poor is best addressed as a single entity, one that contains plenty of riches and will no doubt reward plenty of repeat viewings. Hopefully Edition Filmmuseum also have plans for similar future releases once again combining the magic lantern shows with early film pieces. On this evidence alone there is surely plenty of mileage in the format.
Screening the Poor is split over two discs, the first containing three of the set’s ‘chapters and the second holding the remaining four (see contents list below). Both discs are dual-layered and encoded for Region 0 PAL with optional English, German and French subtitles where necessary. All of the films come in their original aspect ratios and are presented in a 16:9 with black borders therefore appearing on the left and right of the screen (as is now standard for Blu-ray releases and also present, arguably, to ensure viewers watch the film correctly on their widescreen plasma TVs). Understandably the quality avers given both the age of the materials and the variety sources, although for the most part there is little to complain about. Some look absolutely terrific, the very few less so (The Cry of the Children seems to have come from a particularly poor source and contains some unexpected digital artefacting which thankfully isn’t present on any of the other titles, or at least not to such an overtly discernible degree). The magic lantern slides meanwhile all look terrific, whilst those examples which have been rendered as performance (i.e., those in which we see the operator, musician and speaker) were shot on digital video with an audience present and therefore look as good/so-so (given the lighting conditions) as you would expect. Soundtracks have all been newly recorded and therefore demonstrate no flaws. As a final note please be aware that some of the inclusions were sourced from German archives and therefore appear with German intertitles even if this was not the country of origin.
Extras include a 16-page booklet containing a brief introduction, notes on each of the films with credits and the various musicians and performers who have either contributed new scores or worked on the magic lantern recreations. For the real meat, however, we need to delve into the DVD-ROM contents which contain a wealth of material in easily navigable form. Each of the titles included on Screening the Poor gets its own set of notes and other paraphernalia. Obviously there is far too much to list it all here so let’s simply say that there are plenty of examples of original source material (newspaper write-ups, programme notes, posters, etc.) alongside synopses and other context. Once you’ve made your way through the four-hours-plus which make up Screening the Poor, you’ll no doubt need to spend almost as much time sampling all of these further riches. (Both the booklet and DVD-ROM content are German-English bilingual.)
The Magic Wand (GB, 1889, 6 mins)*
Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris (1910, 4 mins)
Le Violoniste della carità (1911, 10 mins)
La tournée des Grand Ducs (1910, d. Yves Mirande, 10 mins)
Children in Misery
Ora Pro Nobis (1897, 6 mins)*
Le Bagne des gosses (1907, 11 mins)
Bébé veut imiter St. Martin (1910, d. Louis Feuillade, 6 mins)
Billy's Rose (1888, 8 mins)*
The Cry of the Children (1912, d. George O. Nichols, 28 mins)
The Little Match Girl (1905, 9 mins)*
The Little Match Girl (1914, d. Percy Nash, 10 mins)
Charity and Social Care
Le Chemineau (1905, d. Albert Capellani, 6 mins)
Rigadin a l'ame sensible (1910, d. Georges Monca, 9 mins)
In the Workhouse (1890, 7 mins)*
Christmas Day in the Workhouse (1914, d. George W. Pearson, 14 mins)
Ahlbeck. Der Kaiser bei den Berliner Arbeiterkindern (1912, 2 mins)
Drink and Temperance Movement
Manchester Band of Hope Procession (1901, d. Mitchell & Kenyon, 2 mins)
Enter not the Dramshop (1890, 5 mins)*
Les Victimes de l'alcoolisme (1902, d. Ferdinand Zecca, 6 mins)
Ein vergeudetes Leben (1910, 8 mins)
Buy Your Own Cherries! (1905, 28 mins)*
Buy Your Own Cherries! (1904, d. R.W. Paul, 5 mins)
Dustman's Darling (1894, 5 mins)*
A Drunkard's Reformation (1909, d. D.W. Griffith, 15 mins)
Perils of Wage Labour
A Bunch of Primroses (1889, 8 mins)*
Au pays noir (1905, d. Ferdinand Zecca, 14 mins)
Die Beerdigung der Opfer des Grubenunglücks auf der Zeche Radbod (1908, 6 mins)
Don't Go Down in the Mine, Dad (1910, 5 mins)*
The Two Roses (1910, 12 mins)
Deux petits Jésus (1910, d. Georges Denola, 17 mins)
The Emigrant Ship (1890, 13 mins)*
Geheimnisvolle Streichholzdose (1910, d. Guido Seeber, 5 mins)
* magic lantern