by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
Sept. 15, 2003
LOOKING BACK ONE CENTURY
It is a fascinating yet strangely unsettling experience to watch the Mitchell & Kenyon films. We sit in a darkened theater, seeing the living, breathing people of the year 1903, as factory workers - adults and children alike - walk out from the gates of the factories where they work. Or we see them walking through the local fairgrounds, or watching a parade. We view their faces, observe their clothing, guess their ages, and see ourselves one step removed.
Few moderns have ever heard of Mitchell & Kenyon, a motion picture production company which was founded in 1897 in Blackburn, England, a company town that only survived for a few decades. A near-miraculous rediscovery of short films stored in two barrels in a basement for about 70 years has brought this collection again to light. They reveal much about the early operation of the mass media, while stirring up thoughts on topics as diverse as the economic abuse of children, fashion in the Edwardian era, and the history of the county fair.
In 1990, workmen were stripping a building in Blackburn, Lancashire.
They would have thrown a couple of old barrels into the trash, barrels which had been left to gather dust in the cellar since heaven knows when. They were only prevented from doing so by the intervention of Peter Worden, a local businessman and historian. For reasons too involved to discuss here, Worden had long suspected that there might be something of historical value in that building, a building which had once been used by the long defunct Mitchell & Kenyon company. Worden had to bide his time until it became possible to investigate.
The barrels proved to contain some 800 films shot mostly in the first few years of the 1900s. To the delight of film scholars and historians, they are the original camera negatives, meaning that they consist of the original film that went through the movie camera as the scene was shot. This type of material generally provides the best quality material for restoration and viewing.
The films were transferred to the British Film Institute (known worldwide as the BFI) for safe keeping and to carry out the process of preservation, restoration and interpretation. Dr Vanessa Toulmin, a University of Sheffield scholar with in-depth knowledge of the history of British fairs became involved. Toulmin has teamed with BFI film historian and preservation specialist Patrick Russell in the process of interpreting what the films actually show, and presenting the restored films to the public.
Why a specialist on fairs? It turns out that many of these early films were made to be shown at local county fairs that made their way through the English countryside. Film scholars have been remarking for years about the interaction between the county fair circuit and early filmmaking.
Factory workers were filmed leaving work and then invited to see themselves (for a small admission fee) on-screen at the movie show at the fair. It may seem a little simple to us moderns but it was the direction of the mass media of the day. Now the Mitchell & Kenyon films allow us to see what the viewers saw, as well as to see shots of the fairs themselves.
The first batch of restored films were shown in Sheffield to local acclaim, but they began to make a worldwide stir when they were shown at the prestigious international silent film festival known as Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (roughly translating as The Silent Film Festival), held in Sacile, Italy in 2001. A second batch was shown at the 2002 festival and continues to fascinate.
This festival, now in its 22nd year, provides a place for film historians, scholars, and enthusiasts from all over the world to gather, watch more films than seems humanly possible, and discuss what is going on in the fields of film history, preservation, and restoration.
The Mitchell & Kenyon collection is described enthusiastically by festival Director David Robinson: 93In terms of cinema history, the reclamation of the Mitchell & Kenyon negatives is like the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb (there is a quite material parallel: the Peter Worden collection, stored in two barrels, was literally excavated from beneath the cellar floor in Mitchell & Kenyon's former shop).
Taken together, the films capture a picture of the industrial North of England 100 years ago with a breadth and vividness unparalleled for any other sector of early 20th Century society. Here are the folk of Blackburn and Sheffield and Manchester, at work and at play, at the fair and the football match, on grand occasions and at humble seasonal festivities. The 99 "factory gate" films ... are at once monotonous and miraculous. In these, at a rough estimate 50,000 humble people, with self-conscious pride, stare at us, present themselves directly for our inspection. The historian John Barnes has justly said, "Other early actualities enable us to enter the past: in the Mitchell & Kenyon films, the past comes to us."
As someone who viewed the 2001 and 2002 Mitchell & Kenyon presentations at Sacile, I can only second what Robinson and Barnes said. We are presented with life in the raw, if only what was viewable in public. It is not actors and actresses struggling through fictional accounts, but the English people of the day in their ordinary lives. They walk towards us on screen, wave at the camera, pose shyly or proudly.
We see males who would appear heavily dressed by modern standards - vests and coats, scarves and hats, shirts with collars and leather boots. We notice that there are boys among the men, children who look to be all of eight or nine years old. There are women dressed in long skirts with full aprons and high-necked blouses and again the hats. There are young girls, again looking as young as eight or nine perhaps and dressed similar to the older women.
What we are experiencing is the story of hard labor among the English working class in the Industrial Age, only this time it is not a dry account in a history book but the living breathing people themselves. They don92t look or act too unhappy on film, but the idea of young children as factory workers is bothersome.
There is another thought that occurs to the viewer of these scenes, sometimes only upon later reflection, that these are people who were living and breathing and joyful at times, and through the passage of time, if nothing else, probably none of them is any longer with us. This is another unsettling feeling that comes from viewing these films.
I mentioned this to Vanessa Toulmin after the 2002 presentation, and she replied, 93Yes, they probably died in the war.94 She of course meant the war that is so central to the silent film era, the war we now call World War I, although it was not known by that term then. Perhaps a few hardy survivors from these film clips went on to fight the second World War a few years later. Most or all of them are gone, and we wonder at their hardiness, respect them as the saviors of the civilized world through two monstrous conflicts, and feel our own mortality.
The Mitchell & Kenyon films will be going public as early as 2004 in a BBC documentary series. The British Film Institute offers the ability to see excerpts online at http://www.bfi.org.uk/collections/mk/clips/index.html. It does not match the big-screen theatrical experience, but it gives a suggestion as to the flavor of the material.