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My Grandmother died when I was six, so I have no real adult memories of her. What I do remember are the vague recollections a child forms. In my mind she was just another adult; I don’t remember her voice, or the way she moved. I have photos of her in the family collection and if you look closely you might note that she held her left arm bent and close to her side: a result of a stroke she suffered when she was 40. This is the image I have in my mind of my grandmother.

A few years ago an uncle lent me some old 8-mm home movies to transfer to video and there was my grandmother Ada Adams walking into a room, sitting and talking and doing the ordinary things a person does. There’s a good chance that I’d seen that footage at the time it was shot (I’m even in a couple scenes) but it was long forgotten. Now I was seeing her move for the first time with the eyes of an adult. For a brief moment I was caught up in the fascination of human motion captured on film. This was a pale version of the thrill every person must have felt when watching a film (probably for the first time) at the turn of the last century.

Now imagine it is 1902 and the person you were watching was yourself and you’ve got the idea behind the origins of the film seen in Electric Edwardians.

Public Home Movies

Ordinary people on the street were filmed going about their daily business
Ordinary people on the street were filmed going about their daily business

Electric Edwardians brings a collection of rare early films to your home. If you have any appreciation for images of other times and places, it is a wonderful thing to watch.

In the years after 1900, two pioneering English filmmakers, Sagar Mitchell and James Keynon, were hired to film ordinary people on the street going about their daily business. The idea was to then get the people to pay to see that film (often later the same day) at some local venue. What they were doing was making a public home movie.

After the recent chance discovery of some of the original negatives, the British Film Institute (bfi) National Film and Television Archive, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield National Fairground Archive, recovered, restored and printed them. From this work has come a book, a BBC TV program and this film.

According to the commentaries, the viewings were well attended special occasions, often accompanied by bands, and shown with other music-hall entertainment. In one instance, a local marching band is seen in a parade; the same band is reported to have played along with its own image on the screen later that evening. To have your photo taken in 1900 was a common though still special occasion, but to see yourself and your neighbors move on screen... well, that was just amazing.

Ordinary People

Today we see film as very closely related to theater — both tell stories and are works of drama — we forget film is first and foremost people and things moving. In Electric Edwardians, there is no connecting story to the individual scenes, and most are simply fixed-camera shots of people walking on streets, coming or going to work at the factory or in a parade for some special occasion. There are some staged shots of school children done no doubt to bring the parents (and the rest of the family) out to see them captured on film.

On screen, people do the things that they do in home movies. They stop and look at the camera and turn to the people next to them with a “do you see what I see?” expression. Then they walk towards camera — you’ve always got to walk toward the camera in a home movie. Many of the men tip their hats, and almost everyone smiles. What could be more ordinary?

What is extraordinary is that this is a scene from the dawn of film, and these are working-class people, not kings and czars. They are people and places once utterly lost, now, thanks to these films, alive again.

Better than Amber

The Mitchell and Keynon films are also extraordinary in that they are made from the original negatives. Most footage from this time comes to us only as scratched and mishandled prints; the negatives being long lost. But in this case it was the negatives that survived, and not the prints. The British Film Institute has done a remarkable job of restoring the negatives and making prints of unexpected clarity and quality. One of the extras on this DVD is a charming featurette of the restoration process. Well done, bfi!

There is an added poignancy to these images. This is the calm before the storm of World War I. Soon the novelty of the “factory gate film” will wear off and the public will demand more from their films... exotic scenes, people, movie stars. It is the interlude between Victoria and the Machine-Age 20th Century when Imperial England was at its height. If ever there was an Antebellum world, this is it. I’m not saying it was a better world, but it was one that will be soon changed forever.

And it may be my own projection, but there is a different look to the people’s faces. They certainly have other cares, but also joys, and one of those joys is to walk in front of one of those wonderful and amazing new inventions, the movie camera. Today we see them once again smiling at that camera... and they move!

DVD Extras

Electric Edwardians has excellent extra features. First up is an interview with Dr. Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive, who also does the audio commentary on the film. The audio options are limited to commentary with music accompaniment, or just the music. It might have been nice to have had the commentary alone but the two together are fine.

There is also a featurette on the bfi’s process for restoring the negatives and recovering the images from them (this ends with a sweet reenactment of the “factory gate” films when the institute’s staff leaves their building).

A comic short, “Diving Lucy,” and a reading of the essay “Pictures of Crowd Splendor” by Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago, taken from the book about the Mitchell and Keyon films is read over some of the typical street scene footage. This is a well-thought-out piece on the class elements to be found in the films.

Picture and Sound

As noted above, the picture quality is remarkable. Because the source is the original negatives, these are the best film prints from that time that I’ve ever seen. Sound is quite good. Naturally it’s a modern sound track with an original score by In The Nursery (http://www.inthenursery.com/). It is well worth a listen.

How to Watch

You’ll probably want to watch this DVD the first time with the commentary track on. People and places are described that would go unidentified, and the additional background content is helpful in understanding the context in which each film was shot. The featurette the bfi’s restoration of the film is a must-watch, though not necessarily before viewing the scenes themselves.

So watch and listen to the commentary, watch the featurette then sit back and see the film again with out the commentary. Or if you would like even more background, the “Pictures of Crowd Splendor” reading is quite good.

Students of film history will want to own a copy of Electric Edwardians, though I see this as something most people will rent or check out from their local library.