|Trench Cake. Not in the Box of Robotness!|
On the retro recipe front, I made a 1916 Trench Cake! Full Trench Cake writeup over at Greedybots.
Last night Mr Robot and I went to the Little Theatre in Bath to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914. I mentioned this on the blog last week and lots of people seemed interested so I thought I'd share my thoughts.
Each film was preceeded by an intertitle (the name for the 'words' bits in silent films) explaining who was who and what was what in the film, putting it into context. That was useful, though did prevent the experience being a completely immersive one. The music was written for the programme, and it was a bit loud, but sounded appropriate.
There wasn't as much news footage as I expected. There wasn't much non-war news footage at all, though we did get to see the Suffragettes marching on Buckingham Palace. It made me wonder how much news would have been mixed in with entertainment in the cinemas in the 1910s. I had expected much more awfulness from the front, but of course things would have been strictly controlled by the government, and people were still of the opinion that, “It'll all be over by Christmas”. In the footage of soldiers at Christmas, war looked more like a crowded Scout jamboree, with big white bell tents and all the men queueing up with their mess tins to get fed; not a trench in sight. There was also footage from Egypt, with troops parading for the Khedive (the country's ruler) and marching off to battle.
There were four main entertainment films, two British and two American. The British ones were Daisy Doodad's Dial (about a woman who decides to enter a face-pulling contest, leading to her frightening people on the train and in the street and being arrested) and one starring popular comedy character 'Pimple'. The BFI has put the full version of Daisy Doodad's Dial on YouTube so you can watch it for yourself. In Lieut. Pimple and the Stolen Submarine, our hero is sent to see an purchase an inventor's new submarine, which French spies (this was pre-war, and they were the old enemy) promptly steal, and Pimple has to thwart them. The intertitle stressed that the low budget of the Pimple comedies was part of their attraction to audiences. They weren't joking about the budget! No attempt was made to make many elements look real, from the interior of the submarine to the warship at the end. However, it works. A shonky attempt at reality would just have looked sad, whereas the use of crudely painted backdrops and a small boat with a couple of fake smoke stacks stuck on top gave things a certain defiant panache. Pimple takes his diving helmet off “under water”, smashes a window so he can deliver a message via a fish, sticks a fake beard to the outside of his diving helmet as a disguise... it was incredibly silly, and it worked.
The production values on the American films were so much higher. The episode of The Perils of Pauline was a bit dull, as Pauline goes from being set adrift in a hot air balloon to being tied up and left in a burning house, but it looked good. I was entertained by the fact that Pauline was capable of climbing down a rope anchoring the hot air balloon to the ground while clad in a relatively tight Edwardian skirt, but fainted as soon as her beau came along. A Film Johnnie (full version of A Film Johnnie on YouTube), from Keystone, was the best of the bunch. It didn't have the same quirky comedy as Pimple, but it did have Charlie Chaplin as the little tramp, in love with the 'Keystone Girl' he sees on the screen, causing mayhem in a film studio. There were more people, believable sets... Watching it, you can really see how Hollywood came to outstrip the British film industry.
As you probably know, I have a personal interest in things relating to Britain and India. Two films on the programme were of special interest in this regard. One was a sort of song-film, which would originally have been shown with an accompanying record playing along. (See The Rollicking Rajah on the BFI Player.) The 1910s recording has been lost, but the song 'The Rollicking Rajah' was recreated from the sheet music that still exists. It's a proper music hall number; a chap (clearly not Indian) done up as a Rajah sings about how he's come to Britain for a bit of fun and all the girls love a diamond-bedecked Rajah. Let's make no bones about it, there is an undercurrent of, “Coming over here, stealing our women.” I think the choice of a clearly Cockney voice for the recording softened things rather; you've got a social underclass singing about (what was perceived as) a racial underclass, whereas had the singer performed in an upper-class accent the scales of privilege would have been much more clearly tipped. By 1914 the British had undermined the power of the Indian princes to the point where they had little to do but become the legendarily wealthy playboys of the early twentieth century. Though the ladies did, indeed, love them.
However, The Rollicking Rajah is not the only reference to India on the programme. An early wartime animation shows a giant German picking on a little British soldier – 'Tiny Tommy'. Soldiers from other nations (Canada, South Africa and India) jump into Tiny Tommy, making him large enough to take on the German. At the end, the German is defeated and serves wine to the allied soldiers around him, again including the Indian soldier. He is valued, his contribution is equal. I think Britain's relationship to India at that time was as tangled as my own family tree, and I appreciated seeing two different aspects of that relationship. The animation was actually really good; the artist is shown painting, building up pictures and then overpainting bits. If you can recall the opening credits to Yes, Minister, it's a bit like that. The finished paintings would then move, just a little
I really enjoyed seeing these 1914 films being shown on the big screen. After I tweeted that I'd been, Bristol Silents said the BFI has plans to do the same next year for 1915. I really hope they do; it will be interesting to contrast the tone of these early-days newsreels and films to the ones made as the full horror of the war became apparent.