Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Death of Poor Joe – The earliest surviving Dickens film?

Conveniently in Dickens’s bicentenary year, the British Film Institute (BFI) claim to have “discovered” a film which they are trumpeting as the earliest surviving film based on a Dickens story.  They are making the most of the find: their 9 March 2012 press release shouts:  MAJOR DISCOVERY – EARLIEST EVER DICKENS FILM FOUND BY BFI NATIONAL ARCHIVE.  The director was George Albert Smith, who made films at St Ann’s Well in Hove (the press release incorrectly states that the film was made in Brighton).  It’s hardly an extensive adaptation, being merely a minute in length, but the BFI are saying that it depicts the death of Jo from Bleak House.  According to Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film who made the identification, it dates to before March 1901, which means it predates the previous record holder, Walter Booth’s Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, which was released later that year, though to be fair to Booth, The Death of Poor Joe is a very loose adaptation…

The film shows a policeman on his rounds walking past the gates of a churchyard (the church can be glimpsed on the painted flat) in the snow, the fall of which is quite convincingly simulated presumably by bits of paper.  Slowly he shines his lamp around, and we see its beam as he examines his surroundings.  He exits left, and there enters from the opposite direction a figure in rags, carrying a broom.  It makes an ineffectual attempt to sweep, and gestures forlornly in the direction taken by the policeman.  The policeman re-enters and initially motions the sweeper (clearly played by a woman despite the male garb) to go away, but the sweeper melodramatically collapses into his arms.  He tries to give the sweeper something, possibly a restorative handkerchief, but to no avail.  As the policeman helpfully plays the lamp over the sweeper’s face, the tragic figure briefly rallies, puts ‘his’ hands together in prayer, and then goes to a better place.  Death is tested in that time-honoured theatrical tradition, the policeman holding up the deceased’s arm and letting it drop.  Finis.

According to the BFI’s press release, the film was donated in 1954 by a Brighton collector who had known G. A. Smith.  They have not given the name, but was presumably Graham Head, a near neighbour in Hove to whom Smith gave items.  This early date is curious as Smith died in 1959, so one wonders why he didn’t donate it himself.  Also, the Smith-related items that belonged to Head now in Ronald Grant’s Cinema Museum were only given by his widow after Head’s death in 1980.  There is no doubt that the film was made by Smith, because of its provenance, and it probably features Smith regular Tom Green acting with Smith’s wife Laura Bayley; though it may be one of Laura’s sisters.  The sweeper does not display Laura’s overbite, though that was exaggerated by her for comic effect (most notably in Mary Jane's Mishap; or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin), and as the sweeper collapses it looks as if the policeman cups his/her breast, which might be seen as a liberty too far when acting with the boss’s wife, though one might still wonder at its propriety with his sister-in-law.

We are told that Bryony Dixon found the film lurking in the BFI National Archive in unusual circumstances.  She was researching early films from China when she came across a catalogue entry for The Death of Poor Joe, which she recognised as a (misspelled) reference to the minor character in Bleak House.  However, in the BFI database the film had been listed as Man Meets Ragged Boy, and dated to 1902.  Having realised the spurious nature of the title Man Meets Ragged Boy, and based on the catalogue entry, the film was retitled The Death of Poor Joe.  That title was listed by the Warwick Trading Company as number 1021 in its 1901 catalogue, issued in March of that year, hence the date given by the BFI for its film as no later than that for its production, and the claim that it was the earliest extant Dickens film.

There are one or two problems with this account.  The press release maintains in effect that the film sat on a shelf for the best part of six decades unrecognised, and the Death of Poor Joe title only came to light by accident.  Yet not that long ago the BFI’s database, SIFT: Summary of Information on Film and Television, had an entry for The Death of Poor Joe.  I printed off all of its records relating to G. A. Smith in August 2003.  One of these is for The Death of Poor Joe, dating it to 1900.  I did not find one for Man Meets Ragged Boy.  Even more surprisingly, according to this record there was a viewing copy of The Death of Poor Joe available at the BFI, which made me wonder to what that referred, if the film had only just been ‘discovered’; the BFI are not saying that they have found a second copy of the same film.  The most likely explanation of this puzzle is that it was not in fact lost when the SIFT database was compiled as someone in the organisation knew that a copy was held in the archive.  The BFI press release is wrong to assert that the film which Dixon pulled off the shelf was “hitherto unknown”.

 Naturally I asked Dixon about the inclusion of The Death of Poor Joe on SIFT, and she acknowledged that there was a viewing copy of the film, but said that it was listed under the title Man Meets Ragged Boy.  This was certainly not the case as recently as 2003, which suggested that somehow in the last nine years an incorrect title had been substituted for the correct one by a member of the BFI staff.   Why someone would take what sounded like a description – man meets ragged boy – and make it the title, a significant and worrying piece of clerical carelessness, was a mystery.

The second issue is how sure the BFI can be that they now have the correct title for the film in their possession.  The SIFT entry for The Death of Poor Joe (as at August 2003) reads: “A man walking through the snow on a cold winter night, meets a boy, thin and dressed in rags.  The boy collapses in the man’s arms (74ft)”.  That sounds roughly like the right one, though there are no references to broom or police uniform.  The character in the film is carrying a broom, as does Jo in Bleak House, and each is praying when he expires, clear links between the two.  But Jo in the novel dies in bed, not in the snow.  The BFI release gets round this awkwardness by theorising that the narrative conflates two stories, that of Jo, and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Matchgirl, which does have a child dying in snow; quite a feat for a film a minute long.  That would mean immediately that the declaration that this is the earliest extant Dickens film is not completely accurate.

 However, the reference to The Little Matchgirl is not required.  While there are obvious discrepancies between the film and Dickens’s book, the former bears a greater similarity to the conclusion of a stage adaptation made by George Lander in 1875: Bleak House; or Poor ‘Jo’.  In the play, not only does Jo die by a churchyard after collapsing into the arms of Bucket (a detective) and Snagsby, but a line refers to a light: Jo says, “It's turned wery [sic] dark. Is there any light comin' ?  Snagsby replies, “It's coming fast, Jo”.  Jo then dies while repeating the Lord’s Prayer.  This may be an intermediary source for Smith’s film and account for its curious conclusion where the policeman very deliberately shines the light into the dying sweeper’s face, who puts his hands together in prayer – presumably interpreting the lamp as a divine light – just before his death.

 Even so, while the BFI were busy booming this film as based on a Dickens story, there was yet another candidate for the title, one made by Smith but dated to 1902, the date attributed to Man Meets Ragged Boy in the BFI database which Dixon consulted.  As described in Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, Vol. 1: The Fiction Film, 1895-1994 (3rd edition, 2001), After Dark; or, the Policeman and his Lantern, was a “comedy” in fifteen scenes starring Tom Green: “PC’s lantern illumines scenes of waif, drunkard, burglar, cook, beggar, pie, etc.”  This is more elaborate than the description of After Dark, or the Policeman and his Lantern as given in the November 1903 Charles Urban Trading Company (CUTC) catalogue (p.107): “A most successful film.  Amusing and very original.  The police leave the station on their night beat.  Then follows a series of views as seen by the lantern rays of one of the force.  Interest is kept up by beggar boys, drunken swells, latch-key troubles, and burgling episodes are presented.”

 As well as a slightly different description, Gifford’s version has variant punctuation for the title, so he may have used another source.  However, he calls it a comedy, the CUTC catalogue calls it “amusing”; Gifford refers to a “waif”, the CUTC catalogue to “beggar boys” (the use of the plural is possibly rhetorical).  Both the Gifford and CUTC entries state that it was 225 feet in length.  Neither refers to Bleak House or Poor Jo(e).  The film we see doesn’t look particularly comical admittedly, though the cross-dressing puts it in pantomime territory, but it does have a policeman, and it does have a lantern, which is actually a major element of the action.  In fact the first part is devoted to showing off the lamp effect, and the running time is almost half over before the sweeper even appears.  The catalogue descriptions of After Dark, showcasing the simulation of the “lantern rays”, seem a good fit.  What we see could be one part of that film, with a generic waif/beggar boy perhaps inspired by Bleak House’s Jo via George Lander.  Yet the BFI release does not mention this rather obvious possibility.

 Finding out whether there was a link between the film and After Dark was not difficult.  Barry Salt in his Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis (second edition, 1992, p.43), refers to After Dark’s technique: a “very early attempt at a lighting effect is the use of the sun reflected in a small mirror to produce a patch of bright light which is intended to simulate the light from a lantern.”  That is precisely what we see, a day-for-night shot with someone attempting to direct sunlight to match the movements of the lamp, not very well synchronised.  When I contacted Salt with my suspicion that the film might be the one he had described as After Dark: or, the Policeman and his Lantern in his book, he replied that he had seen the BFI archive’s viewing copy of After Dark more than once, and this was the film now identified by the BFI as The Death of Poor Joe.

 He added that in the National Film Archive’s 1966 Catalogue Part 3: Silent Fiction Films 1895-1930 (ie produced by what is now the BFI National Archive), the film which he saw was identified by a ‘supplied title’, as the Archive calls it, and this was Man Meets Ragged Boy.  This means that the title was printed in brackets to indicate that it had been supplied by the cataloguer, as the real one was unknown.  The National Film Archive’s 1985 Catalogue of Viewing Copies identified it in the same terms.  Unfortunately, presumably for simplicity but misleadingly, the BFI’s press release merely calls Man Meets Ragged Boy an “alternative title”, as if it originated with the filmmakers, rather than being a working title given by themselves.

 So three titles – and one film or two?  It may be that the correct title for the BFI’s film should be The Death of Poor Joe (assuming the Lander play was a source) rather than After Dark, or the Policeman and his Lantern.  But there has to be an element of doubt, given the lack of a definite chain linking the film we see and either of the titles.  The possibility that this is part of a later film does warrant consideration.  Perhaps the date posited when the film was labelled Man Meets Ragged Boy – 1902 – is accurate, and it is a surviving fragment of an entirely different, and non-Dickens, film, After Dark, or the Policeman and his Lantern.  Or it is conceivable that the pre-March 1901Dickens-themed The Death of Poor Joe was recycled as part of a longer film, one scene among a variety of situations exploiting the mirror/lantern effect, collectively called After Dark.  More research needs to be done by the BFI’s curators to establish the relationships of these titles and the film or films to which they should be assigned.

Clearly the BFI have not “discovered” the film as it wasn’t lost, just mislabelled.  It is curious that they seem to be unaware that within the last decade their own publicly-available database had already contained the title (together with the information that they possessed a viewing copy) upon which they bestowed such fanfare in 2012.  Had this not been Dickens’s big year, it is unlikely that the BFI’s announcement would have created a stir, and it seems unlikely they will now bother to correct the widespread misapprehension their press release has created that a “hitherto unknown” film has been unearthed after nearly sixty years lost in the vaults.  The best one can say about the affair is that the BFI have rectified a cataloguing error, an achievement really not worth a press release, but at worst that they may well have misidentified the film, which does not depict Bleak House’s Jo at all, and is not the earliest surviving Dickens film.

I would like to thank Bryony Dixon and Barry Salt for responding to my questions.

First published 13 March 2012, revised 6 December 2012.