Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912

Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912

by Andrew Shail

Reading the Cinematograph pairs eight short stories about the cinema—including works by such notables as Rudyard Kipling and Sax Rohmer—with eight new essays from leading film and literary scholars like Tom Gunning and Andrew Higson to reveal the influence that film and fiction had on one another in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth

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Reading the Cinematograph pairs eight short stories about the cinema—including works by such notables as Rudyard Kipling and Sax Rohmer—with eight new essays from leading film and literary scholars like Tom Gunning and Andrew Higson to reveal the influence that film and fiction had on one another in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Maria DiBattista

“As entertaining as it is edifying, Reading the Cinematograph showcases the transformative presence—and role—of cinema in British short fiction at the turn of the twentieth century. Andrew Shail has devised a marvelous format for the occasion: eight stories, reprinted in full and accompanied by their original illustrations, followed by valuable critical commentary by eminent film scholars and framed by Shail’s indispensable historical/critical introduction and sure editorial hand. A work of impeccable and imaginative scholarship.”—Maria DiBattista, Princeton University

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University of Exeter Press
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University of Exeter Press - Exeter Studies in History Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Reading the Cinematograph

The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896â"1912

By Andrew Shail

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Shail
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-854-6


George R. Sims and the Film as Evidence

Stephen Bottomore

For some years I have been collecting and studying early fiction about the cinema, and in this chapter I will look at a very early British example of this phenomenon, indeed one of the earliest examples ever. This is not my first publication on this theme of 'film fiction', for I have already written articles about French instances of this mini-genre. In these previous studies I noted one trope or story device which emerged strongly and repeatedly from the earliest years: what I call the recognition or evidence plot. Many if not most of the fictions about the cinema published before about 1912 use variations on this plot, in which a cinematograph camera records some significant incident, and then the resulting images are displayed on a screen, revealing some important and previously unknown information. In such fictions, film offers a means for viewers (who were not present at the original site) to observe significant details in the scene—which might include crimes, misdemeanours or infidelity—details which, had the scene not been filmed, would probably have passed unnoticed.

In most instances of such 'evidence' plots, the film exposes some occasion of infidelity or crime, or reveals a long-lost friend or relative. If misbehaviour is involved, the culprit—an erring spouse or criminal caught in the act—is thereby unmasked. While French writers were especially precocious and prolific in this 'evidence genre', their colleagues from some other countries were also active. The theme was found in British cinema-related fiction in the early years, and the story I will deal with here, 'Our Detective Story' of 1897 by George Robert Sims (1847–1922, see Fig. 1) is the first example of this 'evidence' trope in British fiction. I would argue, indeed, that it is the first ever example, for the only earlier claimant would seem to be an essay by Gabriel Aubray which appeared in France a few days before Sims's story (Aubray's article was published on 15 January 1897, while Sims's appeared on 24 January). But Aubray's work—in which the cinematograph is compared by a fictional diary writer to a kind of all-seeing God—is more of a philosophical essay than a narrative as such, and it does not involve a specific person or crime being exposed in a film. The 'evidence' plot has a long lineage, for one might argue that it could be classed under Aristotle's 'recognition' (anagnorisis) plot, which he defined as 'a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune'. In many classical plays a recognition scene comes in the final act when a character is revealed by some sign to be, say, of noble birth.

Sims's story was published in the Referee, a sporting and dramatic paper, in his regular gossip column, 'Mustard and Cress'. The column was attributed, as usual, to 'Dagonet', Sims's pseudonym. The story is very brief: a private detective employed by a suspicious husband has been unable to find evidence of his wife's adultery, but the husband, wife, detective and business partner all see the wife kissing the business partner in a film shot in Spain earlier that year, and divorce follows.

Sims had been writing for the Referee since the foundation of the paper in 1877, and as well as being a well-known journalist he was also one of the most prolific and popular authors of the Victorian age, producing stories, ballads and plays (his best known works being the melodramatic ballad, 'It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse' of 1879, and the play The Lights of London of 1851). On the face of it, this 1897 detective story is something of a departure for him, but in what follows I will attempt to show that it actually fits into the overall pattern of his work as a writer, and I will try to delineate some of the influences which might have prompted him to write this tale about the ability of the cinematograph to gather evidence of matrimonial misbehaviour.

The Evidence Plot: Some Early Fictional and 'Factual' Examples

The evidence theme emerged, as I've mentioned, early in cinema history, but it was also found even earlier in relation to other visual media, notably stills photography. Following the invention of the first photographic process, the daguerreotype, the essentials of this evidence theme appeared in fictional narratives: in these tales, photography often acted as some kind of 'moral agency' in the plot, and sometimes as an instrument of surveillance. In some narratives—most notably in 'The Filibuster' (1862) by Albany de Fonblanque—a photograph was used to unmask a villain. By the 1890s photography became so common in fiction that it was even claimed—with some exaggeration, I suspect—that most plays of the time used the medium as the main plot pivot.

The photographic evidence theme played a role in some detective stories too: in this sense it is a direct forebear of Sims's story. The first of Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories about Sherlock Holmes to be published in the Strand Magazine, 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (July 1891), was about the power of the photograph as an irrefutable witness. The story concerns the hereditary King of Bohemia who is engaged to be married to a princess, but who has a problem: some time earlier he had a liaison with a 'well-known adventuress' who possesses a photograph showing herself and the King together. The King seeks Holmes' help to retrieve this photograph, hoping thereby to remove the crucial evidence of his past indiscretion.

The evidence theme also appears in fictions concerning other media, such as early television devices, and even in a story about a camera obscura (published in 1893), in which the device reveals the whereabouts of a gang of smugglers. Both Ronald Thomas and Tom Gunning draw attention to the long pedigree of the evidence theme, Thomas describing three 'devices of detection'—fingerprinting, photography and lie detectors—used by literary detectives, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, to discover the truth. Thomas omits to mention film, but Gunning argues that the filmic witness theme was a direct inheritor of the photographic equivalent, the latter often being found in fictional coverage of so-called detective cameras in the late nineteenth century.

The theme was not found solely in fiction, for there was sometimes a conflation of fictional and (supposedly) factual versions of such photographic 'evidence' plots, and this confusion has taken place from the dawn of photography. In November 1839, the year when photography was officially invented, newspapers published accounts of how a daguerreotype had provided visual evidence in a divorce case: it was stated that a husband had managed, without being discovered, to photograph his wife in a tryst with her lover. In actual fact, this surely would have been impossible, given the long exposures required for daguerreotypes; so this anecdote shows all the more forcefully the sheer rhetorical power of this 'evidence' theme—almost as a founding myth in photography.

Again, there is a direct parallel with cinema, where, in the very early days, instances of the evidence theme were also given as factual. In October 1896 the Lumière representatives Sestier and Barnett exhibited their first film taken in Australia, depicting a crowd disembarking from a paddle steamer at Manly (a town lying a dozen kilometres north of Sydney), probably shot on 25 October 1896. This film was soon to have an unexpected impact, as the press reported:

There is one Sydney man who curses long and loudly the cinématographe. In his amiable, husbandly way he took his wife to see the new cin. (new abbreviation), and in the Sunday afternoon disembarkation scene at Manly, his better half saw what she believed to be her husband coming ashore with another lady. To be the more convinced, she saw the tableau fully half-a-dozen times with the aid of opera-glasses. The accused male indignantly denies everything, but, as he cannot prove a complete alibi for that particular Sunday afternoon, and his wife won't entertain the idea of an 'extraordinary likeness', there is a big storm in the once happy 'ome. The possibilities of the cin. as a worker of mischief to supposedly upright people are great.

The following year, in Britain, an instance of infidelity was also reported as being exposed by a film cameraman, and there followed a discussion as to whether such films could be admitted in a courtroom as evidence in a trial. I have found only sketchy details of this matter—from photographic journals published in May and June 1897—but it seems that a cameraman filming at a seaside resort had happened to record a married lady and a man who was not her husband while they were out walking. Both people denied visiting the resort, so the prosecution proposed to use this film as proof that a liaison had taken place: this in the context of a divorce case. But it seems that the defence already had a counter argument prepared, which was that separate films of each of the parties, taken at different times, could subsequently have been melded together artificially. This was an interesting and novel argument, but as one source commented, '[i]t will not, however, be difficult to defeat this defence'.

This case has some similarity to the plot of Sims's Referee story, in that both involve an illicit couple being filmed and the film being shown in court, and I wonder if there was some lifting of details from one to another. The supposedly factual incident was reported just a few months after Sims's story was published, and, while it was allegedly genuine, invention of news stories was not unknown in this era. It seems quite possible that this news report was made up, influenced by the long tradition of 'devices of detection' discussed above, and specifically by the 'film as evidence' theme of Sims's story. The theme surfaced in another fiction in 1897 with an even closer resemblance to the seaside resort incident. This was in a German play, Hans Huckebein (1897; translated into English as Number Nine; or The Lady of Ostend). The plot hinges on a film which shows the apparent infidelity of a man while at the seaside. Again, it is impossible to know whether this plot was influenced by the 'factual' anecdotes.

Henry Slater and the World of the Private Detective

A further connection with real events is particularly striking in Sims's story. In the same month, January 1897, that 'Our Detective Story' was published, with its narrative of a detective tracing a woman and then seeing a film which proves her adultery, a genuine detective, Henry Slater, was advertising in the British daily press that he could use a film camera to collect evidence in divorce cases.

Henry Slater's detective agency had been in business since the mid-1880s, under the control of Henry Slater himself (though this was a pseudonym). His agency was one of several private detective businesses which had emerged in Britain through the latter part of the nineteenth century, prompted by the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the establishment of the Divorce Court. This radical change in the divorce laws made it possible legally to end a marriage, based on the proven misbehaviour of either of the parties. By demanding proof of these offences, the Act gave rise to an industry of private detectives and agencies, Slater's firm being one of these. The emergence of the private detective was also an inspiration for writers: the first private detective in literature appears in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right of 1869, a tale of a husband hiring a detective to spy on his wife, whom he suspects of adultery.

By the 1890s Slater's agency was well established at 1 Basinghall Street, near the Bank of England in the City of London, and was to remain active for many years. The agency became especially associated with divorce work and with cases involving sexual misbehaviour, and Slater's detectives were trained to watch suspects and to notice whom they associated with, often as a means of uncovering alleged romantic liaisons. Advertisements for the company appeared in the personal columns of newspapers and other periodicals, with wording such as this, from January 1897 [see fig. 1.3]:

If you desire an object accomplished, a mystery cleared up, or the doings of a person secretly ascertained, consult Slater, 'the greatest detective of the age,' vide Press.

Slater has for years been successful in nearly every case entrusted to him, whether domestic, financial, or commercial.

Before commencing Divorce proceedings, consult Slater, who will obtain all available reliable evidence. Successful in every case in the Divorce Court for the past eleven years.

Slater's Detectives for ascertaining where people go, what they do, the company they keep, whether the club is responsible for late hours, and if shopping alone occupies so much time.

In other advertisements Slater boasted that his agency had female as well as male detectives on staff, and the availability of women agents seems to have been seen as a significant advantage—also by other detective agencies in this period. By late 1896 Slater had a small army of women detectives, and was advertising that his agency was available and ready, '[f]or secret watchings and private enquiries, by female detectives of all ages and sizes without arousing any suspicion' (see Fig. 2). Some of these female agents it seems were virtually spies, placed for example (as one of these operatives claimed) in all the 'swell' cycling clubs. This indicates that recreational activities were seen as being especially likely arenas in which extra-marital romantic liaisons would develop, or at least where such activity could more easily be observed and detected than in the workaday world.

Probably it was for similar reasons that Slater often advertised in the entertainment press. For example, the London Entr'acte (a music hall journal) carried advertisements from Slater, including one in May 1896, stating, 'if you desire a mystery cleared up, or the doings of a suspected person secretly ascertained consult Slater'. The agency seems to have calculated that, as with cycling clubs, entertainment venues were likely sites for infidelity, and probably this was correct. New forms of mass transport, combined with a drop in prices for entertainments, were swelling audience numbers in the mid- to late nineteenth century, and lonely wives were thought likely to meet their lovers in the relative anonymity of a theatre crowd. What's more, actresses and chorus girls were well known targets for married (and unmarried) men, and both the Alhambra music hall and its neighbour and rival in London's Leicester Square, the Empire, were known as places to go for romantic or sexual assignations of various kinds.

Slater's was possibly the leading private detective firm in Britain at this time (albeit much less remembered these days than its American equivalent, Pinkerton's), and the agency claimed to use the latest methods. When new forms of photography emerged in the mid-1890s—principally X-ray photography (known as 'the new photography' in these first years) and cinematography—the Slater agency immediately latched onto these for their publicity value if not for their actual utility in detective work. On 8 August 1896 The Standard newspaper carried an advertisement which claimed that, '[o]wing to the success Mr. Henry Slater has personally achieved with the New Photography, he is prepared to introduce same in divorce matters free of charge'. It is not clear—and was not even apparent to Slaters' puzzled contemporaries—how X-rays could be used in divorce matters. The same doubts surfaced following Slater's next claim, one regarding cinematography. On 29 January 1897 The Standard carried an advertisement for Slater's agency which stated:

Animatographe.—Mr. Slater is prepared to carry out this new process of Photography in all cases, and to produce the Pictures in court in evidence. Consultations free. [see Fig. 3]


Excerpted from Reading the Cinematograph by Andrew Shail. Copyright © 2010 Andrew Shail. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Andrew Shail is a lecturer in film at Newcastle University.

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