I’ve always had a penchant for British humor, but until recently, I had no idea that it extended back to the beginning of the film industry. My knowledge of early film has always been focused on France (Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers), the United States (Edison and Edwin S. Porter), and the filmmaker-without-a-country, Segundo de Chomón. Thanks to Cecil Hepworth, I’m now embarking on a crash course (no pun intended) in early British film, and I’m downright giddy about it.
|From How It Feels to Be Run Over. You'll be finding out very soon.|
While researching a film for my book on lost horror films recently, I fell into one of those rabbit holes of research that so frequently derail me from the task at hand. The lost film I was investigating was The Doll’s Revenge (a 1907 comedy short with some horrific overtones—the granddaddy of Chucky and other dolls on the rampage). Without much information on the film, I started investigating relevant threads, such as the young star of the film, Gertie Potter, and the director, Cecil Hepworth. That’s how I came across Hepworth’s memoir, Came the Dawn, a highly-readable remembrance of his days as a pioneer of the British film industry from the late 1800s until 1923 when his company went bust. Hepworth’s original negatives—amounting to around 2,000 films—were destroyed and sold for the silver content to pay his debts. Most of his feature films and shorts remain lost.
What interested me most were the stories of his earliest films, mainly comedy shorts that he made in the early 1900s. Unlike guys like the Lumières or Georges Méliès who had professional careers in other capacities before getting into the film biz, Hepworth was a youngster whose very first business was film. What I gleaned from the anecdotes in his bio is that there was very much a DIY spirit to his film company, made up mostly of amateurs, with he and his friends playing the roles, and whoever was free at the moment running the camera (sometimes that might even be one of the children). When some of his comedy shorts became popular, they went nuts coming up with ideas to film, and the wackier the better. Shorts were only a minute or two in length, so it only took one simple gag to carry a film, and I can almost hear the crew around the table: “What if someone falls in the water? No, what if a lady falls in the water? Hey, what if we have Cecil dress up as the lady? … Okay, let’s film it.”
|Hepworth in a 1915 issue of Pictures and the Picturegoer.|
It was during this frenzied period of comedy filmmaking that Hepworth’s memoir makes reference to a short with possibly the best title ever: How It Feels to Be Run Over. It became immensely popular, and it led to a follow-up called Explosion of a Motor Car. Both films were made in 1900, and not only was this an early year for film, it was an early year for automobiles. Consider what a wild novelty Toad’s motorcar is in Wind in the Willows, and it was written eight years later. Hepworth was capitalizing on not only a brand-new trend, but one that had a lot of people concerned for public safety. How It Feels to Be Run Over, then, is taking people’s fear of new technology and making it into a colossal joke.
That DIY spirit is in evidence here, as Hepworth himself is driving the motor car. He’s credited with the cinematography, so he no doubt set up the camera, but there’s no telling who’s actually behind it. His passenger is May Clark, by the way, who would star as Alice in the first film version of Alice in Wonderland, filmed by Hepworth in 1903.
Go ahead and watch it now; I’ll wait. It’s only 40 seconds long. (The version I’m linking has, for some reason, the beginning of another short attached to it, but this is the only online version that isn’t missing a crucial frame. You can stop at the :40 mark.)
HOW IT FEELS TO BE RUN OVER - CECIL HEPWORTH - 1900
There’s a lot here for a forty-second film, and not just the newness of the automobile. It’s filmed in a single shot, for starters. We first see a horse and buggy, making the point that the old-fashioned way is plenty safe, before we see the car not only careening toward the viewer, but doing so on the wrong side of the road (this is England, so there’s no good reason for it to be on the right). There’s also the creative use of the POV shot, letting us see the car from the perspective of its victim. And then there’s the bizarre punchline: “Oh, mother will be pleased.” According to most sources, it’s the first known use of an intertitle in a silent film. Technically, it’s not an intertitle, as it comes at the end, so there’s no “inter” about it, but it does something you don’t otherwise see in film of this era: it communicates the inner feelings of a character. It’s believed that the words are scratched right into the film itself, and it certainly appears that way.
|Cinema's first intertitles?|
Just about anyone who watches the short has an opinion on what that line really means. Most agree that it’s meant as sarcasm, and that his mother most certainly will not be pleased. Some take it at face value, and think the joke is that he’s not well-liked by his mother, or even that she might be impressed at his collision with such a new-fangled machine. I think the real meaning is a lot simpler, and it’s one I haven’t seen explored. In Hepworth’s original catalogue description of the film, he describes the ending like this: “ … the car dashes full into the spectator, who sees ‘stars’ as the picture comes to an end.” From this description, it seems clear that the pedestrian’s words are not so much sarcasm as they are the nonsensical words of a guy with a bad concussion—the verbal equivalent of seeing stars. (I suppose you could say he’s speaking stars.)
|Rescued by Rover made Hepworth famous—though his daughter Barbara was eclipsed by the family dog, Blair.|
Hepworth went on to become an enormous success, and five years later, his Rescued by Rover made a star and a household name out of Hepworth’s family dog. (It’s said to be Britain’s first major fiction film, and is the reason “Rover” became such a ubiquitous dog name.) It’s a tragedy that so much of his output is lost, but I’m grateful that 116 years later, his memoir has not only given me tons of amusement (so many great anecdotes—you really must read it), but he’s introduced me to the world of early British cinema. I won't be leaving it soon.