There were lots of brilliant films to be seen at the British Silent Film Festival last week of course. But my favourite one was Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone, filmed on the roof of the London Hippodrome in 1901.
Part of it was perhaps circumstantial. Always at the start of a festival there’s that moment when you suddenly realise you’re finally there. After all the fuss of getting up early and catching the train and fretting about the early show you’re missing by not getting an earlier one and finding your way from the station to the venue, suddenly you’re finally there, settled in the dark with your friends breathing gently around you and the big screen before you. But you’re not just there at the festival, you’re there in the film. On the roof of the Hippodrome in the pale sunshine of 1901 watching Lil Hawthorne perform ‘Kitty Mahone’. The first of a whole series of time travelling adventures the festival promises. Kitty Mahone is more time travel-y than most offerings here of course, because there’s sound. Not the smooth flawless synchronised sound of later eras though, but the wavering, inconsistent falsetto of sound at its (almost) birth. It’s a sound that is both miraculous and fragile – its fragility a constant reminder of its miraculousness. In the middle of the film it fails completely, leaving Hawthorne gesturing in silence, a reminder of the more normal state of affairs for film actors in the era (although ‘naked’ as it were – without the assistance of a live accompanist). Eventually the sound returns, banishing the anxiety of that mute interlude in a resurgence of the chorus.
The film was made by Walter Gibbons as part of his ‘Phono-Bio-Tableaux’ series. “SEE and HEAR the LEADING VARIETY ARTISTES” proclaimed his advertisements. (1) Gibbons had a residency at the London Hippodrome between 1900 and 1902 and used the series to record the artistes who appeared for him, including Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria, Marie Lloyd, Alec Hurley and others. Sadly the Lil Hawthorne example is the only one to survive and thus has a claim to being the earliest surviving British sound film. Sound was created through the simple expedient of getting the artistes to lip synch to a pre-existing disc recording of their song while being filmed.(2) As adverts claimed, they were “The only genuine talking and singing pictures”. I don’t know how discs and films were matched up in exhibition. Presumably it was quite a hit and miss affair unlike the perfect synchronicity achieved in the BFI’s restoration – all the more astonishing an achievement since as another festival-goer informed me, the actual sound recording used here is not the (now lost) original, but one made two or three years after the film. The effect though is marvellous – the piano introduction starting in darkness before the screen busts into image and Hawthorne strides onto the stage hitting her opening note with absolute precision. Are film and sound manipulated to keep them to time, or was Hawthorne’s performance so perfectly realised that her tempo never altered from one year to the next? Sound and image made years apart but matched in the moment – the film offers time travel not just for us but for its peerlessly poised star.
Introducing the film, Bryony mentioned that it had actually been filmed on the roof of the London Hippodrome – a relatively common practice in this period. You can see why: as long as there isn’t too much of a breeze the roof of the theatre is handy for the artistes and offers a nice empty space with plenty of sunlight and few shadows and no passers by or onlookers. We know that films were also made on the top of the Alhambra in nearby Leicester Square and Tony Fletcher tells me that Gibbons may also have used the roof of the music hall in Clapham of which he was also manager for some of his films. The Hippodrome has a special charge though. Unlike the Alhambra it’s still there on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square with the huge bronze horses rearing high above its grand entrance. The building is now a casino and some of the bars on the upper floors open out onto rooftop smoking areas (although sadly they offer no views). I was filled with anticipation at the turn of the century London roofscapes the film might afford – a city poised on the cusp of the modern era. The film does not literally offer us this view of course. It is Lil Hawthorne that we must imagine contemplating it as she looks beyond us and the camera, performing outwards to a audience perhaps composed only of pigeons and chimney sweeps. Instead we see behind her a painted backdrop showing a country lane and a village in the distance. In the ‘foreground’ on the right is an Ivy-clad tower which seems to refer to the lyrics of a different song with a similar title to the one she sings. The setting is actually more complex than it at first appears since there is a second piece of scenery – perhaps a side tab – on the extreme right of the image, depicting a rocky outcrop. A little gust of wind late in the film reveals that it is not attached to the backdrop and has perhaps been brought up to the roof to help give a three dimensional illusion. By contrast the floor covering has been imperfectly laid, leaving a bare patch of rooftop to the left of the image and a slightly alarming wrinkle down the centre of the performance zone which Hawthorne negotiates with aplomb during the second verse in the mute section of the film when she moves to the left to act out a lyric that we are not party to. The sun casts a strong shadow behind her and onto the backdrop throughout.
Gibbon was perhaps dissatisfied with this form of rooftop filming with its imperfect rendering of the stage space. As Dixon & Mayer recount, in this same year he attempted to film his production of Tally Ho! within the auditorium of the Hippodrome but the quantity of arc lighting required almost blinded his cast and crew and he vowed never to repeat the experiment.(3) Actually, it seems likely that he did set up his camera in the auditorium again to film the spectacular bridge collapse in his production of The Bandits in 1902. The resulting fragment of film survives and is the focus of Dixon and David Mayer’s remarkable study of Gibbons series of Hippodrome water spectaculars produced between 1901 and 1909. The Hippodrome pit could be completely flooded, and special hydraulic machinery was installed to create a range of effects including live elephants and polar bears sliding down a water slide, an Earthquake (1906), an Avalanche (1907) and a tide rushing in to engulf the hapless heroine of The Sands o’ Dee (1908). I like to think that just next to Lil Hawthorne as she sings up on the roof, are the tanks of lead-lined teak which held 14,000 gallons of water ready to gush down specially built channels to the stage when required each night – a stage technology that created a spectacle more daring and breathtaking, surely, than any modern Marvel movie CGI sequence.
And Hawthorne’s own performance is also surely a technical marvel. I’ve been unable to find any printed lyrics or other recordings of the song that she sings, although there appear to be plenty of others with the same title. It is a song sung by a man to his sweetheart and Hawthorne is costumed in putatively male attire – the cape and the tights gesturing in the vaguest way towards a peasant costume of centuries ago. The tights also of course afford a very modern display of Hawthorne’s womanly charms and her tiara, long white gloves and high heel shoes complete this very Edwardian form of transvestism. The lyrics too suggest a past that is also the present. I still can’t decipher the first line, but the rest is transcribed below. The references to a weekly promenade and the offer of saving his wages seem to refer to a very modern courtship ritual even as the costuming and backdrop strive to suggest otherwise…
…. Sunday night you see the sweethearts walking to and fro
One sweet maid I’ll tell about, I love her so you see
She never seems to let me know that she loves me
My pretty Kitty Mahone, I’m tired of living alone
Do have some pity Kitty, say that you’ll be mine
I love you Kitty I do, and if you will be true
I’ll save all my wages for you, my Kitty Mahone…
Hawthorne’s long white gloves emphasise the gestures she makes with her hands and in the multiple viewings it took me to make that transcript, I became fascinated by them. Each movement and gesture is remarkably precise. She doesn’t wave her arms about randomly. She moves smoothly and fluidly from one specific pose to another, holding each pose briefly before moving to the next as the lyrics demand. Left hand on heart while right is outstretched – pointing finger – hands on hips – hands clasped close to right cheek – hands spread wide – left hand on hip with right touching mouth, etc. The gestures are not random, but they are not mechanical either. In the first chorus when (s)he declares s(he) is tired of living alone she makes a throwing gesture with her right hand as though rejecting this loveless state of being. But when the repeat of the chorus comes, she sings this same line with both hands clasped close to her as though imagining the bliss of the alternative. I think I may have fallen a bit in love with Lil Hawthorne myself. Or perhaps with Kitty Mahone?
Well, what of audiences in the period? Evidence from the British Newspaper Library database suggests that the films were seen widely throughout the spring of 1901 and there are reports of screenings in Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Aberdeen and Newcastle. The most detailed accounts I’ve found are from the two week engagements in Dundee (at the Kinnaird Hall) and Aberdeen (in the Music Hall). The variety artistes’ films took their place alongside other Phono-Bio-Tableaux depicting sporting events, local scenes and dispatches from the Boer war. I’ll finish by quoting two of the Dundee reports in full:
Under favourable auspices Walter Gibbons’ Phono-Bio-Tableaux were presented to a fairly large audience in the Kinnaird Hall last night, and judging from the success of the entertainment crowded houses should be the rule during Mr Gibbons’ two weeks sojourn in Dundee. Quite a new feature in regard to animated pictures is the portraying of well-known music hall artistes, while by the aid of the phonograph the ditties particularly identified with the performers are given to the audience. Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria, Lil Hawthorne, Alec Harvey, and the American Comedy Four are introduced by this means. The phonograph played another important part in the pictures showing the C.I.V.’s leaving Southampton for London. It produced the puffing and snorting of the engine and the shouting of the crowds of men as the train steamed off. The animated pictures were of great variety, local views taking a prominent part, including the workers in Ward Foundry, Gilroy’s factory, Lower Dens mill, Keiller’s preserve and chocolate factory and Chapleside mill leaving their employment. Songs were sung by Mr Charles Baring, and orchestral accompaniments added greatly to the enjoyment of the evening.
(Dundee Evening Telegraph, 28/5/1901, p. 4.
One of the pictures shown by the Gibbon Phono-Bio-Tableaux Company in Dundee is that of British wounded soldiers leaving Pretoria. During the entertainment last night a gentleman resident in Dundee who was present intimated to the management that in the picture he recognised his brother, Surgeon-Captain M’Nab, Dysart, Fife, and mentioned that this was the latest news he had had of him since he went to the front.
Dundee Courier 1/6/1901, p. 5.
1. Dundee Telegraph 24/4/1901:1
2. Bryony Dixon, ‘The Mystery of the Collapsing Bride’ in Bryony Dixon & David Mayer, Bandits! or The Collapsing Bridge: an early film and a late-Victorian stage (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 2015), p. 4.
3. Dixon & Mayer, p. 6 & p. 13.
Bryony Dixon showed the film as part of her ‘ABC in Sound’ presentation which sought to showcase a range of early sound experimentation films and later avant-garde explorations by figures such as Norman McLaren into drawn sound (literally drawing shapes on the optical soundtrack to see what noises they produce). These films provided a context for her presentation of one of the archive’s recent discoveries: ABC in Sound, made by Moholy-Nagy in 1933 and shown at The London Film Society in December of that year. Pre-empting McLaren by nearly twenty years, Moholy-Nagy’s film also demonstrates the sounds made by various shapes drawn onto the optical soundtrack. Want to know what a row of ‘e’s sounds like? This film reveals that they make a loud ‘Brrrrrrrrrrrrr’ing noise. Actually it turns out that a row of ‘W’s make a similar sound except louder (because they spread wider across the sound-track). Dots, dashes and even repeated silhouettes of faces also offer variations of ‘Brrrrrrrrrrrr’ at different pitches and tempos.
This avant-garde stuff is all well and good. It certainly conveys the boyish excitement these artists felt about the new technology and its implications for modernity. Perhaps the reach to ‘science’ is a little disingenuous though – these are really primarily artistic responses to sound. The image you see on the screen – held stationary 24 times a second by the intermittent motion of the projector gate and repeated in the frame in exactly those intervals so that it is readable – is not what the sound head reads when the track moves continually across it in a smooth motion facilitated by the ‘loop’ formed in the film after it has left the gate. The visual impression of that image would be more of a continuous blur – something infinitely more strange and unreadable.
So much for the ‘science part’. For my money, the film of Kitty Mahone is a far more potent and more readable demonstration of sound technology and its potential impact on the modern world. I’ve been watching the film again and trying to explain to myself why it had such an effect on me.