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Electric Edwardians: The Story of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection

Electric Edwardians: The Story of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection by Vanessa Toulmin (BFI, 2006), 310 pages, ISBN: 1-84457-144-0 (hardback), £60; ISBN: 1-84457-145-9 (paperback), £17.99

Jon-Burrows_profileAbout the reviewer: Dr Jon Burrows is Associate Professor in Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. Most of his research is focused on the subject of silent cinema, with a particular emphasis on early British cinema. He has written numerous essays and articles about different aspects of British silent film culture and a monograph about the employment of famous theatre stars in British cinema of the 1910s. His publications include: Legitimate Cinema: Theatre Stars in Silent British Films, 1908-1918 (2003); ‘The Great Asta Nielsen’, ‘The Shady Exclusive’ and ‘The Birth of Film Censorship in Britain, 1911-1914’, in Martin Loiperdinger and Uli Jung (eds), Importing Asta Nielsen: The International Film Star in the Making 1910-1914 (2013); ‘The Art of Not ‘Playing to Pictures’ in British Cinemas, 1906-1914′ in Julie Brown and Annette Davison (eds), The Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain (2013).

The recently discovered haul of over 800 films produced by the Blackburn firm of Mitchell and Kenyon constitutes the world’s third largest film collection associated with a particular early cinema company, eclipsed in scale only by the surviving holdings of Edison and Lumière. To date, it has inspired a hugely successful BBC television series along with a very well-received collection of essays and several bestselling DVDs. But whilst the publication of the first academic monograph devoted to this collection might seem as inevitable as it is timely, it is important to note that the films of Mitchell and Kenyon represent as much of a challenge as a gift when it comes to extended study. The contents of this collection are nothing like as varied as its American and French equivalents, being overwhelmingly dominated by non-fiction footage of crowd scenes in industrial cities of the North and the Midlands (over 120 of the titles are films of factory labourers leaving work, for example). The comparative paucity of published research on early actuality filmmaking reflects – at least in part – the fact that film historians have generally found the genre difficult to write about in detail. One might see a further obstacle to deep engagement with this material in the fact that Mitchell and Kenyon were not internationally significant pioneers in the mould of Edison and Lumière. One contributor to the aforementioned edited collection remarked that he saw nothing amongst the new restorations to dispute the conjectural claim made in 1948 by Rachael Low and Roger Manvell that this company ‘do not seem to have exerted any influence on the development of cinema technique’.

Dr. Toulmin’s book does actually make a number of intriguing points which persuasively refute the suggestion that Mitchell and Kenyon’s filmmaking technique was uniformly unadventurous and conventional. She records how they introduced important innovations in the staging and editing of sporting events, for example – even going so far as to use the camera as a nascent ‘third umpire’ to address a burning cricketing controversy in 1901. This is ultimately a subsidiary strand of the book, however, and the discussion of purely textual issues is largely confined to a single chapter. Equal consideration is given, via the second chapter, to a painstakingly researched delineation of the cultural mindset and presentational practices of the figures who might be considered the real ‘auteurs’ of most of Mitchell and Kenyon’s films: the travelling showmen who directly commissioned them.

The two chapters described above make up around one-third of the book. The lengthiest part of the text takes the form of a socio-historical examination of the dominant subjects represented in the collection, divided into chapter-length sections on entertainment, sport, the city space, work and militarism. The one aspect of this book which I found mildly exasperating is the lack of a full explanation of the aims which inform the organisation of these chapters and the approach taken. The closest thing we get to a statement of methodological intent is a sentence promising a demonstration of how the films ‘can be utilised as documents of social history’. The book certainly delivers on this score, repeatedly drawing attention to various nuances of detail which these remarkably pristine visual records reveal, such as the emerging forms of physical interaction between pedestrians and the new electric trams, or the scale of participation by the working classes in Boer War-related celebrations, which both expand and occasionally contradict existing historical knowledge of the subject.

… a major work of social history in its own right

But, speaking as an early cinema scholar, it seems to me that the most substantial achievement of the contextual analysis in the later chapters lies in a contrary direction. The hugely ambitious synthesis of ideas which Toulmin has drawn from a diverse body of existing historical studies and her own research on everyday life in Edwardian Britain ultimately helps to considerably deepen one’s appreciation of the intrinsic resonances of the films. Subjects that might otherwise appear mundane are recast as richly meaningful signifiers of a tentative acclimatisation to the age of modernity. Parades and ceremonies which seem quaintly traditional are shown to be thoroughly contemporary reactions to a period of dynamic transformation (commissioned by the exhibiting showmen themselves in some cases). In particular, by focusing on the ways in which acts of communal spectatorship rather than the spectacle attended are frequently privileged by the filmmakers, Toulmin interprets Mitchell and Kenyon’s oeuvre as a series of considered interventions into a process of affirming and renegotiating the concept of community which was taking place in the first decade of the 20th century. In this respect, the book constitutes both an invaluable interpretive ‘key’ to the collection for film scholars and a major work of social history in its own right. Its usefulness as a reference work in the latter field is further enhanced by the inclusion of around 400 previously unpublished frame reproductions.

Jon Burrows

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