After the discovery of a rare piece of film with the earliest-known footage of a Charles Dickens character, Fiona Maxwell gets the inside story of the fast forward move from 1901 to YouTube in under a week.
The discovery of a short film dating from 1901, in this, the Bicentenary year celebrating the birth of Charles Dickens, is a timely and important discovery. It is believed to be the first ever filmed adaptation depicting a character from one of Dickens’ works.
The intriguing story of the find also highlights an early piece of technology, which was the home cinema experience of its day, associated with the film. Bryony Dixon, Curator for Silent Film at the BFI National Film Archives, found a trail that led to the film the day after attending a special screening event as part of a three-month season commemorating the work of Charles Dickens.
Much discussion of the author’s work followed the screening that evening. With Dickens very much to the forefront of her mind Bryony was researching a completely different topic the next day looking through early printed film catalogues searching for films on China. Bryony explains: “My eye just lighted on a listing for The Death of Poor Joe (spelt with an ‘e’ in the catalogue) and I thought, Aha! ‘Poor Jo’ is the famous Dickens character from Bleak House. So I decided to see if we held anything in the archive that matched this old film listing in the catalogue.”
When Bryony entered the title in the database what actually came up was a reel of film that had been logged under the main title of Man meets Ragged Boy, but luckily it also referenced an alternate title: The Death of Poor Joe.
The addition of this AKA (also known as) information had been linked to the film only in recent years with the merging of technical and filmographic databases to provide one that listed both information about films as cultural objects and film content descriptions. This descriptive information matched the cataloguing of the early film on the merging of the databases. However, the significance could have remained hidden had Bryony not been searching an old printed catalogue, which prompted her interrogation of the database information that cross-referenced the additional title.
So the missing link came from the listing of the film in a catalogue issued by the Warwick trading company, based in Brighton, which was a very important company in the early days of film. It traded independent films as well as its own fictional and factual film, and so listed titles by many independent producers selling their films.
The film had originally come into the archive in the 1950s from a donor who lived in Brighton and who had deposited it along with about a dozen other reels as examples of early film. These were short films from the turn of the century and, in some cases, just a few shots of various subjects so the cans were variously labelled, many without actual titles.
This meant the cataloguers had very little to go on in the way of markings and in some cases just described what they saw on the film. Hence the labelling of Man meets Ragged Boy which says relatively little and would not throw up a connection to Dickens on a database search today. So, though safely on the shelves of the BFI Archive, the true identity of this film was hidden until this year.
Among the other reels from the same Brighton donor were some of unusual film gauge (17.5mm) made for the Biokam – a combined camera/projector for the amateur market manufactured by the Warwick trading company between 1899 and March 1901. It is thought these reels were reductions made from 35mm films and given away with the Biokam to demonstrate the device and entertain guests in wealthy drawing rooms of the day.
You could call it the camcorder of its day! We know that GA Smith, an early film pioneer based in Brighton, was working with Warwick on the technical side and on the Biokam development. He was in charge of processing of films and the equipment to reduce film from 35mm to the 17.5mm gauge.
As the Warwick trading company catalogue mentions the film The Death of Poor Joe, this gives more clues as to the age and provenance of the film and prompted Bryony to call up the reel from the vaults to view. She takes up the story:
“I ordered it up as there are some things that can only be identified by actually viewing the material. Being a curator you watch a lot of film and to further identify this work it was necessary to actually recognize the characters in the film. So knowing that it was produced by Warwick didn’t tell me who had made the film, as in the catalogue only the title was listed.
“When I screened it I instantly recognized the two actors in the film; these were Tom Green and Laura Bayley (wife of GA Smith). So poor Joe is played by a girl, as it is a pantomime coming from that theatrical tradition. There was a painted backdrop of a churchyard, and we are outdoors as you can see the wind blowing the backdrop and there are real trees hanging over it. Joe is in rags and sweeping, so we can identify him as the crossing sweeper character that Dickens created in Bleak House. It is a snippet of a stage version of the story so does not follow events exactly as in the book but it is identifiable as the character from Dickens’ novel.
“The film prop of the broom matches the illustrations in the book though to clearly show this is poor Jo (the crossing sweeper). It was common for women to play male roles in the pantomime tradition and Laura Bayley was quite a famous actress of her time. So she was filmed regularly by her husband in his films and most likely was the source of the costumes and the backdrop which he had borrowed to make his film, probably from a production his wife had been in on stage in Brighton.”
It is thought that the film was shot by Smith on 35mm and that he made reductions of the film to 17.5mm to demonstrate the Biokam invention that he had been working on at Warwick. The identification of the actors, leading to confirmation of the filmmaker and the link to the release of the Biokam helps to date the film. Another clue is that the film was shot outdoors, as it is known that Smith built his studio during 1900-1901.
Bryony realized that pinning down the date of the film was key and turned to GA Smith expert Frank Gray in Brighton to confirm these facts and dates. The conclusion is that the latest the film could have been shot was before March 1901. Now, with its original title restored, we can see it for what it is – the oldest surviving film version of a work by Charles Dickens, predating RW Paul’s Scrooge, of Marley’s Ghost (1901) by several months at least.
The timeframe from Bryony beginning her research, through identification and authentication to TeleCine transfer and digital upload to YouTube was just one week. As the discovery came in the middle of the ‘Dickens on Screen’ season there was time to make it part of the celebratory events. This meant that it could be included in a planned screening of early Dickens films by Michael Eaton and uploaded to YouTube for public viewing.
On asking Bryony about the impact of finding the film and what this meant to her she responded: “Recognizing the actors in the film really became the ‘eureka’ moment for me and working out where it was made and by whom was really very exciting – really more for the sake of my colleagues who were putting together the Dickens on Screen season and what it would mean to them.”
The original 35mm film is now held in the BFI’s deep cold store at minus four degrees Celsius to preserve it for future generations and a viewing copy is held in acetate vaults in addition to the tape and MPEG-4 file protection copies.
The film itself is just one minute long and depicts the character Poor Jo, the crossing sweeper from Bleak House, seen at night against a churchyard wall, freezing with his broom in the winter snow. A passing watchman catches Jo as he falls to the ground. But he is too late, and can only comfort the dying boy, shining his lamp upon Jo’s face and mumbling a prayer. Jo puts his hands together and, taking the lamp for heavenly light, he dies.
The importance of the find to Dickens historians, film scholars and archivists has created much excitement within the media and the academic world.
The film can be viewed on the BFI Film channel on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/BFIfilms/featured
Still from the film courtesy of the BFI National Archive.