I’ve written before about the way in which pantomime is used in cinema, not as material for adaptation, but to evoke a specific mood or set of meanings. The Two Columbines is a good example of this. It was made by Harold Shaw for the London Film Co. in 1914. Shaw was an American film-maker who worked extensively in both the UK and South Africa during the war. The Two Columbines was released for the Christmas season 1914 alongside Shaw’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol which sadly is lost, and a third film, The VC – ‘of patriotic interest, dealing with the present war’.
The Two Columbines is from an original story written by Shaw himself, and is very much in the tradition established by George R Sims’ The Magic Wand, which I described in an earlier post. Like Sims’ poem, the story uses the enchantment of the pantomime to emphasise the innocence of a child, and the pathetic contrast between children’s trusting fantasy of fairyland and the harsh reality of adult life, even [especially] for those in the business of producing the illusion of fairyland on stage. It opens with an impoverished mother (identified in the credits as ‘The Theatre Cleaner’) surprising her young daughter with the gift of a Christmas tree. The film is shot in the static, tableau style typical of European cinema in this period. Modern audiences might want to watch this opening sequence a couple of times over in order to catch all the details. We are so used to films which use the techniques of ‘scene dissection’, where close ups, point of view shots and the other apparatus of classical editing ‘take us by the scruff of the neck’ (in Hepworth’s immortal phrase) and rub our noses in the important details of a scene, that it’s easy for us to miss details subtly indicated by blocking and gesture in film-making of this period. Here, the little girl’s attempt to peek as her mother uncovers the tree, and her mother’s admonishment, and then later the girl’s insistence that she show her dolly the wonder. Nevertheless, nobody could miss the meaning of the look that the mother throws to the camera when her daughter’s back is turned. It contains a world of sorrow at the poverty and want that her daughter endures, and regret that this ‘apology for a Christmas tree’ decked with a few ‘cheap trifles’ is all she can offer her child. Thus in a single frame, the theme of the film is stated: child’s delight/adult’s sorrow. It’s a visual technique that is often used in this period and it gets me in the guts every time.
The mother surreptitiously wipes away a tear, but her daughter, touching her cheek and finding it wet, discovers her sorrow. ‘Years ago, when I was a Columbine…’ explains her mother in an intertitle, and we move to the flashback of her performance in the theatre pantomime. It opens with what appears to be a transformation scene. A fairy appears and waving her wand causes the painted front cloth to rise, revealing a tableaux of players behind. She waves her wand again and the painted back cloth rises to reveal a fan which falls apart to reveal further sprites and fairies forming more of the living tableaux. Harlequin appears with the young mother dressed as Columbine, and they dance briefly before they are joined by Clown and Pantaloon. Each of these players is dressed in costumes which exactly match those of the Harlequinade illustrated in Pollock’s toy theatre sets, even down to the preposterous erect pigtale atop Pantaloon’s head. They caper about until finally Columbine is lifted by Harlequin – but she falls and is injured, causing the abandonment of the performance – and also of her career.
It’s hard to tell how faithful this scene is to the form that pantomimes took by 1914. Accounts suggest that the Harlequinade endpiece survived at least until the mid 1930s although in a truncated form – just a gesture to the earlier comic chase and set of magical transformations that Grimaldi had made so popular in the early 1800s. There’s no evidence of it in the pantomime scenes of The Show Goes On (1937) where the Edwardian procession and modern final walk-down seem to be firmly in place. Nevertheless, in smaller and regional theatres it may well have taken the form we see in The Two Columbines. The flashback I’ve described is set a few years in the past of course. We return to the modern story and find the mother, now the lowly cleaner of the theatre, and walking with a pronounced limp, attending the dress rehearsal of the current pantomime. It still features a Harlequinade, and it’s while viewing the rehearsal for this that she sees her chance to give her child a little bit more magic than was offered by the pathetic Christmas tree by the cold hearth we saw in the opening scene.
I particularly like the scenes of the dress rehearsal, and they do perhaps attempt to suggest a difference between this pantomime and the earlier one depicted. Here the scene focusses on a magnificent Christmas tree – a suitable rebuke to the ‘apology’ for one we see earlier. It is set in an icy grotto – the sparkling magic of this set reminded me of the underwater scene from this year’s Hackney Empire pantomime – the simplicity of the classic arrangement of cloths still able to create visual delight. We see what seems to be a more familiar version of the walk-down – the principal characters of the story take their bow – the fairy and Santa Claus are there, as well as a Polar Bear. The Dame appears with her consort, and they have a little comic business suggesting their centrality to the main story before the fairy waves her wand and the Clown and Pantaloon from the Harlequinade literally tumble onto the stage and begin their part of the show, joined by Harlequin and Columbine.
It culminates with a perfectly executed version of the lift, which had proved so catastrophic to the life of the previous Columbine. Shaw brutally emphasises the contrasting fates of the two women by placing them together in the same frame, the new Columbine flushed with her success, being congratulated and lauded by all around her; the theatre cleaner gazing in adulation too, but ignored and unseen by everyone else. Cutaways throughout the previous sequence have shown her being bullied by the stage manager, on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor backstage and struggling to carry a pail filled with water, but always with a faraway look as though thinking all the time of her past glories.
In the denouement of the film, the theatre cleaner tries to recapture those glories for the entertainment and enchantment of her daughter, with tragic results. Like The Magic Wand, the film makes much of the connection between pantomime and the knowing illusion of escapism – the grinding poverty and precariousness of working class life is made manifest in the tragic misfortunes of theatrical performers whose very business is to create an illusion of stability, comfort and plenty. As The Bioscope remarked,
It is a dainty piece of work, and will be popular even with those who believe that the heroine of a Christmas story is entitled to overcome all trials and live happily ever after.
Watch The Two Columbines on BFI Player. (UK only)
Watch The Two Columbines on YouTube.
 ‘Three London Films’ in The Bioscope 5/11/1914, p. 28.
 There’s another brilliant example in Gaumont’s Noel de Guerre (director unknown, 1916). A young boy whose father is at war writes to Santa asking for a train set. The letter is intercepted by a postman whose son has recently died. He and his wife decide to grant the child’s wish by donating their dead son’s toys. As the boy delightedly unwraps his gifts to the left of the frame, the postman (Leon Bernard) hides his face from the child with his hand, and looks directly at us, his face registering the resurgence of his own grief and loss.
 The Bioscope 5/11/1914, p. 29.
2 thoughts on “Pantomime and Cinema: The Two Columbines (Harold Shaw, 1914)”
This is an exquisite film, and it really isn’t as static or tableauesque as you might think. Look at how carefully it is lit throughout; this is unusual in most films of the period, European or American, and it gives a sense of movement and intimacy. That last shot you show of the backstage milieu is gorgeous. It makes me lament all the more the loss of the London Film productions, as they evidently not only had up-to-date equipment but imaginative people to utilize it fully.
I am trying to argue that static tableau characteristics can be markers of quality and subtlety rather than a reason to abuse films. Lighting certainly enhances the film and its meanings and is one of the techniques that is used to draw attention to detail and nuance *as part* of the tableaux style the film adopts. To say it has a static style is not an insult in my book. It is more a compliment