‘Working class golf’ – the posh media will never understand it

A close-up image of a dart, against a white background. It's one of the darts used by Luke Littler, 16 year-old runner-up in the 2024 PDC world darts championship. On the flight the words 'The Nuke' are reproduced.

Broadcasters and journalists – please stop trying to explain darts.

I know you were privately educated and find darts to be kind of exotic – like chicken shops or pigeon racing – but when you invite a contributor to answer the question “…but is darts a sport?” or laughingly ask what “one-hundred-and-eighty!” means, you’re embarrassing yourself and your profession.

Every now and then we’re offered a vivid snapshot of the class composition of the British media and the instinctive prejudices of reporters, producers, editors and presenters. 16 year-old darts prodigy Luke Littler has given us a fresh illustration of the intractable and tedious ruling-class domination of the media in Britain, of the narrow and backward and tragically involuted interests of the major outlets.

Text from the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper 3 January 2024 - Sorry to all Luke Littler fans but darts is not a real sport. Comparing Littler to Tiger Woods is absurd as the teenage darts sensation does not lead the life of a professional athlete. Oliver Brown
Chief Sports Writer
Telegraph sports writer stays on message.

Darts has been a recognised, international sport for decades (although Sport England, the official body, dominated by the men in blazers, only offered darts formal recognition in 2005). The famous players of my youth – Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow, John Lowe – all went pro in the 1970s and were wealthy celebrities by the mid-eighties.

Black and white photograph of a group of men playing darts outside a pub in Wales. Details from the archive page: Mr Ifor Williams, the carpenter from Cynwyd near Corwen and his workers playing darts at lunchtime. Photographer: Geoff Charles. Date: 17/12/1964
Darts in 1964. From the Geoff Charles Collection at the National Library of Wales

Playing darts – and the various grassroots championships and tournaments – has been a vital platform for working class men and women to enjoy themselves, to compete, to win fame and even to make some money – for a hundred years. But as a proletarian sport darts has been labelled as aberrant, a permanent outsider to the real sports. Here the chief sports writer from the posh people’s paper explains that darts can’t be a sport because its latest superstar doesn’t work out like Tiger Woods did, dodging the more salient comparison between golf and darts—that when you think about them for more than about a minute they’re both splendidly, indefensibly ridiculous activities.

Real sports in Britain were invented on the playing fields of Eton (and Rugby obvs) and codified by aristocratic amateurs. A pastime that emerged from the pubs and clubs of working people, played in precious time off by people who worked six days a week, couldn’t possibly be elevated to the status of a sport. The very idea that a sport might emerge in a wholly working-class environment, in the total absence of middle-class officials or governing bodies (or PE teachers and headmasters) was anathema. It literally could not be a sport.

So when reporters sent off to attend darts matches amusedly observe the scenes at the back of the crowd, ask fans why on earth they’ve come all the way from Holland and ‘share the atmosphere’ like clever anthropologists who’ve noticed something interesting happening amongst the lower classes, they’re perpetuating the stupid, backward class hostility that still structures life in Britain. They should stay away (send someone from the sports desk).

Cover of paperback edition of Martin Amis's 1989 novel 'London Fields'. The cover is white with a large dart with red flights overlaid.
Posh literary dweeb Martin Amis wrote a whole novel about darts in 1989.

There have been quiet periods in the history of darts but the PDC world championship is now thirty years old (a break-away championship first contested by 16 leading players in 1994). Prize money was, from the very beginning – if not exactly Formula 1 – at least comparable to other world sports. Games were carried on live TV, winners were celebrated everywhere in the pop media. I once saw 1980s prodigy Phil “The Power” Taylor mobbed by fans and autograph hunters in an Irish airport. He was so chill.

The annual championship meeting has been filling the huge, main hall at Alexandra Palace for over 15 years. Every match sells out. I tried to get tickets for this year’s event months ago and evenings were going for over £250/ticket. Premier League footballers and soap stars fill the front tables.

Darts fans wearing traffic cone hats at the PDC world championship

PDC events have been noisy and chaotic – with crowds encouraged to dress up, bring signs and banners and come up with inventive chants – since at least the switch from Essex to Ally Pally in 2007. It’s one of the most entertaining sporting events you can watch live. Players enjoy the racket, play up to the audience and get extra energy from the noise behind them. Fans from Holland, Canada, the Baltics and elsewhere attend.

And to finish, the rules are really simple (there’s a handy one-page summary) and scoring is easy to understand (honestly, you could be an expert in ten minutes). Print them out and put them on the wall near the coffee machine.

  • This scientific study compares scoring results from historic matches with those from the period when matches were played without audiences during the pandemic and actually concludes that there’s a (slight) negative effect from having a noisy crowd in the room.
  • If you’re my age you may sometimes find yourself experiencing flashbacks to a 1970s ITV programme called The Indoor League, presented by retired cricketer Fred Trueman. On this 1975 episode you’ll see a 19 year-old Swedish prodigy Stefan Lord piling on the 180s and a tense women’s competition.
  • Women have probably played darts for as long as the men (see The Indoor League for examples of competitive women, some travelling from other countries to play, back in the seventies). The women’s World series has been played for over twenty years and there are now dozens of professional players.
  • Bullseye carried darts mania right through to the mid-nineties. It was a sweet show. Big-hearted entertainment from another era. Here’s a 1985 episode.
  • It was mega-promoter Barry Hearn who perceptively called darts ‘working class golf’—a game played by ordinary people with extraordinary skills.

No not that one, the other one


Animated gif - Napoleon, on the platform in the National Convention in 1795, still against the excited crowd behind him, from Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon

I’m publishing the occasional post from my newsletter about the history of film here on the blog. This one concerns the biggest international release of 1927. Not the biggest Hollywood release – that was The Jazz Singer. I’m reviewing that one separately. I really didn’t think I should miss the Napoléon opportunity, though, what with the Ridley Scott version soaring up the charts as we speak and everything. And this one is a very special film.

To start with, what is this film? It’s a biopic, it’s a love story, it’s pure mythography. It’s not a history. It runs to five-and-a-half hours but stops before we get to fully Continental Napoléon. In fact, he’s 27 when the film ends and still a second-ranking General making a name for himself in Italy. Gance wanted to finish the story but the talkies killed the project (the biggest Hollywood film of the same year was The Jazz Singer). We also wonder how on earth he’d have captured the peaks and troughs of the Emperor’s mighty narrative arc when he’s already given us the most dazzling, 4:1 wide-screen finale yet seen in a cinema.

Still from the finale of Abel Gance's Napoleon, showing the split-screen format tinted in the colours of the tricolour flag

What else? Continental Napoléon is present – he’s foreshadowed in a kind of dream-sequence speech he makes to all the dead revolutionaries in the empty hall of the Convention. Dead Marat asks “what are your plans, Napoléon?” and he replies “…the liberation of oppressed peoples, the fusion of great European interests, the suppression of frontiers… THE UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC!” This is the Napoléon loved by Beethoven and Goethe – but, if we’re honest, we know already that when he says ‘republic’ he means something more like “you know, a kind of Empire with a single, unquestioned Alexander-the-Great-type leader…” We learn also of his dastardly totalising ambitions for a European super-state with the free movement of persons and presumably nice burgundy Napoleonic passports – “Europe will beome a single people, and anyone, wherever he travels, will always find himself in a common father-land.”

Animated gif - in Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon, hastening to the Italian campaign by carriage, writes a note using a quill pen
On his way to the Italian campaign Napoléon writes orders for amunition and supplies – and love notes to Joséphine, all dispatched by fast horse to Paris.

Also, he’s lovelorn, passionate, more self-confident than the most self-confident person you’ve ever met. Generals hardened by revolution and women by the Terror crumble before him. Within minutes of his arrival at the chaotic HQ of the Italian campaign (“the Army of Italy, without food, without clothes and without discipline”), all the grizzled Generals who’d made it clear in advance that they wouldn’t let the Corsican wipe their boots are doffing their huge, dusty hats to the new boss. One of them puts it well: “with his piercing eyes, this little stump of a man frightens me.”

Albert Dieudonné, playing the stump of a man, concerns himself with Napoléon’s authority, with his staggering resilience, his imperious, outsider presence but also with his fragility (the child actor chosen for the school scenes, Vladimir Roudenko, somehow musters the same wobbly-lower-lip grandeur – bullied but never bowed – we are already sobbing in the first reel).

History v biopic

And now some historiography. At the time of this film’s release a group of young historians in France was getting ready to turn the whole discipline upside-down. Led by Fernand Braudel, they wanted to find the long-term patterns in the histories they were telling by pulling back (zooming out?) from the stream of events and the personalities to focus on what they called the ‘longue durée’. This approach aimed to put the actions of historic figures into the social, economic and technological context and inevitably reduced the importance of individual actors – essentially the opposite of the ‘great man’ model of history that had dominated until the 20th Century (and that still dominates in more parochial British history writing).

Animated gif - close-up of Napoleon with a blue tint from Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon. As he speaks his halo intensifies
With each victory Napoléon’s halo intensifies

For these historians, mostly direct contemporaries of Gance, all the conditions for a Napoléon to emerge already existed in the late 18th Century and if the coarse kid from Corsica hadn’t come along to fill the role, somebody else would have done. It’s safe to assume that Gance (and Ridley Scott) would not tolerate this very dry understanding and would rather die than demote their lead characters to mere instruments of world history. To be honest, it’s not what we want from our biopics either. This Napoléon must bestride history, colossus-like, not obey its logic.

Get on with it Gance!

Gance’s canvas is vast – he gives himself almost three standard-length features to tell the story of Napoléon’s first 27 years. Consequently, from time to time, the action slows from magisterial to ponderous. The first major battle – the siege of Toulon – where Napoléon overcomes a lazy and decadent French command and a complacent English one to take back the impregnable port, takes almost an hour. We’re given half an hour of continuous moping and adoring from afar as Napoléon develops his bid for the love of Joséphine de Beauharnais, widowed tragically during the Terror but obviously enjoying the single life in revolutionary Paris where, by the look of it, anything goes. Our hero is even trained in the art of courtship by star of the Comédie-Française (and hair innovator) Talma. The party scenes in this section of the film are like something from the Great Gatsby – there’s nudity and drunkenness – a near-orgy. We fall through a flapper wormhole and spend 15 minutes in another Paris.

Animated gif - big close-up of Josephine de Beauharnais, in a deep purple tint, played by Gina Manes in 1927 film Napoleon. She looks out from behind a fan flirtatiously
Joséphine- “What weapons do you fear most, General?” Napoléon- “Fans, Madame.”

And the object of Napoléon’s desire is a complicated woman. We’re asked to admire Joséphine’s canny navigation of the post-revolutionary hierarchy, her careful use of the elite men who fall at her feet. She is very much in control of her destiny and in no way a sure thing, even for leading suitor and man-of-the-moment Napoléon Bonaparte. Where another woman of her status – a single mother in her thirties who had only narrowly avoided the guillotine – might have yielded to Napoléon’s advances when he saved Paris from the Royalists in 1795, she holds him off until the following Spring (cue moping and adoring from afar). Hers is a character I’d love to have seen Gance develop in the sequels (Anita Brookner puts it in terms we understand: “Josephine, flirting heavily with her fan, is a vamp.”).

Split-screen destiny

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon on a horse in the centre frame and advancing cavalry soldiers across all three outer frames

It’s not easy to decompose this movie into the standard three acts of the hero’s journey. And besides, the final act would surely belong to the next film in the sequence – part five – which was never made (and, spoiler alert, it wouldn’t have ended well). But this film’s final act is the most spectacular by far and for audiences at the end of the twenties, who didn’t want for spectacle after all, in the era of De Mille, Chaplin and Griffith, it must have been enormously exciting.

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in the centre frames and advancing cavalry soldiers in the outer frames - a red tint across the whole sequence

Gance and his cinematographer Jules Kruger lash together three cameras and produce something as grand as Cinemascope – twenty years before it becomes widespread – but also something that in its complexity makes ‘scope look like something primitive – a crude smearing of the image across the visual plane when set against Gance’s profound spectacle of relatedness and contrast.

Animated gif - wide, split-screen shot with Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in the outer two frames and marching soldiers in the centre frame

And once they’ve invented the device (a critic named it Polyvision), they play with it and insert shots to create sliding and rotating tableaux as rich as a work by any contemporary IMAX artist. In one scene, Napoléon, on horseback, is flipped horizontally to provide left- and right-hand bookends to a central shot of dusty soldiers marching to their fate – it’s sophisticated storytelling but also emotionally complex – a tableau not just of events but also, somehow, of juxtaposed, contrasted and reinforcing affect. It’s a disorienting, almost delirious experience soaking up all this action – and on so many levels. In this final section, which is half an hour long, the narrative is set aside almost entirely, in favour of this unarguably new language – of spectacle but also of kaleidoscopic emotional drama – never still. I couldn’t tell you the order of events here, only that I was in awe throughout.

  • I’d love to know more about young Bonaparte Vladimir Roudenko. Looks like he never made another film and died in Paris in 1976 but there’s little else online.
  • One admiring British historian, of the more orthodox kind, has called Bonaparte ‘the enlightenment on horseback’. Hegel once saw him in person and wrote later “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.”
  • The 335-minute restoration that’s on Amazon Prime and on Blu-Ray is essentially the 1981 Kevin Brownlow restoration, digitised in 2016. If you search the archives you’ll find plenty of reviews of the 1981 release in the smart papers. Brownlow’s extraordinary achievement in locating and then putting together coherently the film’s scattered fragments was recognised. It’s a masterpiece in itself. The best review I’ve read from that cycle is Anita Brookner’s in the LRB.
  • I really shouldn’t have left the music out of this review. The 1981 score is by Carl Davis and it’s a work of art in itself – linking Beethoven’s Eroica in multiple variations and a dozen other mostly French composers of the period with specially-composed material. Davis conducted the score live in the cinema for the restoration’s all-day premiere. I cannot think of a more stressful and exhausting task.
  • Jules Kruger, who photographed this extraordinary film, made dozens more and worked for over twenty years in the sound era too, all around the world.
  • Sign up for GROSS, my email newsletter journey through the history of cinema. There’s a free option for you cheapskates.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

Hollywood Babylon – a two-part aside

Crime, sex, addiction, murder and suicide – the golden age of the movies

Front cover from the first French edition of Kenneth Anger's 1965 book Hollywood Babylone. The book's title in pink boldface lettering over a black and white photograph of Jayne Mansfield in a low-cut dress

Cinema is a mature form. Cinema is also, of course, the least mature form there’s ever been. It’s art but it’s also sex and crime and addiction and untimely death. We now know that Hollywood in the 1920s was the absolute apex of American transgression (there’s a film about it). I won’t try to put forward an explanation here. I’ve read many and they’re all pretty thin. There’s nothing intrinsically naughty or fallible about the movies or movie people. Nothing in the Californian water.

We can probably agree that it’s got something to do with the collision of money, ambition and desperation that often accompanies a gold rush. The fact that the movies essentially carried over the economics and the culture and the relaxed morality of Broadway and the circus and the burlesque must be a factor.

But there’s no complete explanation. How come, for instance, that the equally consequential revolution in business and technology centred a few hundred miles north in what we now know as Silicon Valley seems to have produced nothing more transgressive than a wide range of healthful smoothies and several important new meditation techniques? And no, epic financial fraud and weird libertarian cults do not count.

Hollywood’s deep well of wickedness and vanity was essentially a secret until the mid-sixties. It’s not that anyone thought Tinseltown was a church picnic or even as respectable as the other branches of show-business. Audiences were soaking up stories of desperate, unrequited love, divorce and tragic loss in Photoplay and Movie Weekly and in the trashier sections of their daily newspapers, but the truth was hardly present. Wrong-doing was laundered until it resembled ordinary naughtiness, so as to preserve the fragile box-office value of the stars involved. The darker stories had always circulated too – occasionally surfacing in courtrooms and in autobiographies written in old age – but the iron grip of the studios’ publicity departments and the malign control exercised by the moguls over cities and police departments and legislators kept the lid on the darkness for decades.

And the conspiracy of silence was real. No journalist at a respected outlet would go near the stories of drug use, sexual licence, rape and abuse, cruelty and corruption that insiders were aware of, for fear of permanent exile or, worse, losing access to the after-party. Even the famous gossip columnists of the era were essentially authorised chroniclers.

Photograph of film-maker and writer Kenneth Anger, wearing an elaborate brocade cape in the street outside the famous Hollywood Hotel Chateau Marmont. Wikimedia Commons.
Kenneth Anger doing Kenneth Anger

Hollywood Babylon

So it took the passage of several decades and the fearless prurience of a genuine film outsider to bring these stories to light. Kenneth Anger, avant-garde filmmaker, occultist and queer icon, was the man for the job. He wrote a book called Hollywood Babylon. Looking back, it makes perfect sense. Anger was by definition beyond the reach of the studios and the PR machines. He was so far outside the mainstream he was essentially untouchable. We might call him uncancellable. And Anger circumvented the problem of how to get such a book printed by taking it straight to the house of a man known for publishing the unpublishable – Jean-Jacques Pauvert in Paris – the man who brought you the Marquis de Sade and Story of O. Pauvert published various editions of Hollywood Babylone, starting in 1959 (an early French edition will cost you a few quid).

The book’s 1965 American debut, as a ‘brown-wrapper’ edition sold alongside the dirty books, was a disaster – the US edition was banned ten days after publication and was unavailable in its home market for another ten years, when it was published in Rolling Stone Magazine’s imprint – it was by then a hip, transgressive classic (some of the more speculative and/or actionable stories were gone) and began to acquire an audience. I remember the book was a fixture in the small selection of books thought to be a bit edgy – alongside the ‘poetry’ of Jim Morrison and the SCUM Manifesto – that most record shops used to keep at the back when I began frequenting such places.

Anger’s book is not a conventional history. He is not troubled by the niceties of citation or by silly fact-checking. It’s a stream of pithy assertions, usually attributed to sources that can’t possibly be checked (because they’re dead) or to profoundly disreputable publications, lovers, drivers, hat-check girls, various has-beens with an axe to grind and untrustworthy hangers-on. It’s written in the snappy, pulp style of a tabloid:

Professional do-gooders would brand Hollywood a New Babylon whose evil influence rivaled the legendary depravity of the old; banner headlines and holier-than-thou editorials would equate Sex, Dope and Movie Stars. Yet while the country’s organized cranks screamed for blood and boycott, the public, unfazed, flocked to the movies in ever-increasing multitudes.

Respectable film people were scornful. The reviews were awful: “…here is a book without one single redeeming merit. It panders to the absolutely lowest element of the reader. By holding up a mirror to this darker part of ourselves, Mr. Anger has performed a service of sorts, I suppose.” – New York Times, 31 August 1975.

Photograph from Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon showing a scene from Our Dancing Daughters. Joan Crawford, at a crowded black-tie party, dances the Charlston on a table

It opens, though, with what I consider to be the best short essay about the origins of the dream factory, its explosive rate of innovation and its tendency to create and then destroy the stars it depended on that I’ve ever read – worth haunting the charity shops for this bit alone.

When word reached [the filmmakers] that nickelodeon crowds all over the country seemed to be flocking to see favorite movie performers known only as “Little Mary,” “The Biograph Boy” or “The Vitagraph Girl,” the disdained actors, until then thought of as little more than hired help, suddenly acquired ticket-selling importance. The already-famous faces took on names and rapidly-rising salaries: the Star System – a decidedly mixed blessing – was born. For better or for worse, Hollywood would henceforth have to contend with that fatal chimera – the STAR. Overnight the obscure and somewhat disreputable movie performers found themselves propelled to adulation, fame and fortune. They were the new royalty, the Golden People. Some managed to cope and took it in their stride; some did not.

Filmmaker and (rather more careful) historian of the same period Kevin Brownlow – not unused to controversy himself – said he asked Anger what research method he used and was told “mental telepathy, mostly.” Hollywood Babylon is illustrated unevenly but with absolute authenticity, using often jaw-dropping, presumably out-of-copyright photographs, private snapshots and publicity stills that are grainy and poorly-composed but always absolutely compelling.

It’s an unconventional and iconoclastic history of the golden age and its thesis – that human vanity and corruption are not incidental to the Hollywood project but essential to it, that it wasn’t the movies that produced the wickedness but the other way around – is utterly convincing.

  • In part two of this little aside I’ll bring you some excerpts from Hollywood Babylon as they relate to the people discussed in the GROSS reviews so far. There might be some D.W. Griffith, some Lillian Gish, some Mary Pickford…
  • Remarkably, the book is still pretty hard to come by. Both part one and part two – published in 1984 – are out of print. You’ll still find part one in the shops but part two is elusive.
  • Anger’s filmmaking has gained in stature and, when he died earlier this year, aged 96, there were obits in all the respectable outlets.
  • Here’s Anger talking to UCLA students about Aleister Crowley. I desperately want one of those ‘ANGER’ jumpers.
  • There’s not much on the streaming services but there are some Blu-Rays. Scorpio Rising, his much-banned biker bacchanal, is on YouTube. It’s actually quite sweet – and the soundtrack is exceptional.

Dudes in the woods

Robin Hood is a Mediaeval superhero. He doesn’t care much about emancipation, but he loves to skip through the trees.

Gross is every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed.


Banner graphic for GROSS - DOuglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood in silhouette at an arched window. The word 'GROSS' and the year 1922 are overlaid

There’s something cynical about this film. It’s as if it knew it was going to be the first in a multi-decade franchise, as if it knew it was likely to create the template for the action hero; leaping, laughing and slapping entitled aristocrats and bureaucrats around with gusto. Wikipedia calls Fairbanks’ Robin Hood an “…acrobatic champion of the oppressed” which accurately expresses the balance of his interests – his vibe.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the content of this movie. It’s a genuine epic – one of the most expensive movies of the era with a huge cast and elaborate, beautifully-detailed sets and the action is joyful and often breathtaking, with really good slapstick elements that must have had audiences in stitches.

But the storytelling’s pedestrian and – with the possible exception of Sam De Grasse as brooding, bitter falcon-botherer Prince John – the acting’s unevolved. Wallace Beery throws his head back in Kingly laughter and/or fury so often I fear he must have done permanent damage to his poor neck (he was a big star, he probably had access to a full-time neck therapist back in his trailer, though).

Levelling up

Of course, what’s interesting about Robin Hood is the economics. Seriously. Is Robin an expropriative socialist? A liberal redistributionist? An effective altruist? None of the above, obviously. In this version, Robin’s an aristocrat – a feudal lord gone off the rails. He steals bags of coins and throws them randomly into crowds. This is not a planned economy. It’s levelling-up as jape. He returns from his crusade a reformed baron – a merry prankster, really – and then laughs his way around Sherwood, winning hearts and minds with his arbitrary largesse.

In this role, Fairbanks defines one end of the Robin Hood character spectrum. He’s the big-hearted if haphazard philanthropist. It’s all jumping through windows, roughing up countless chain-mail squaddies and swinging from vines (yes, vines). He overcomes the cruelty (and there is some surprising cruelty – torture, whipping, hanging…) of Prince John by means of a series of joyful flashmobs. And his generosity is that of a child – “what use do I have for money? I live in the woods!”

Yes, Magna Carta

We’re a long way from the brooding latter-day Hollywood Robin Hoods who are basically comic-book toughs – rugged individualists in Lincoln green. In Ridley Scott’s 2010 version, from right at the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe hacks his way across a hostile England with no apparent interest in the welfare of the peasantry. His Robin Hood is a big-picture guy, not a skipping-through-the-woods guy and the director dramatically and implausibly inserts him into history: he somehow contributes to the drafting of Magna Carta: (you have do this in a kind of Irish-Scottish-geordie accent for the full Russell Crowe effect) “If your majesty were to offer justice, justice in the form of a charter of liberties, allowing any man to forage for his hearth, to be safe from conviction without cause or prison without charge…” Achievement unlocked.

In the folklore Robin is always a yeoman – a small farmer – stripped of his land and driven into the forest. In later accounts he’s upgraded. He becomes a fallen aristocrat, acquiring the kind of glamour that’s necessary in the movies – usually just back from the crusades but unfairly robbed of his estates, sharing the woods with vagabonds and freedmen. In the middle-ages this class of landless commoner was a major threat to the dominance of the feudal lords.

The idea of an entirely free man – anonymous, unbound, without loyalty to any lord or parish – was terrifying to the elite. Landless men were harassed, imprisoned, transported, classified as vagabonds, criminalised. Harsh local laws kept the landless to the worst of the marginal land or moved them on all together. Later a law was introduced: “…that all Rogues, Vagabonds, and Beggars do on every Sabbath-Day repair to some Church and Chappel, and remain there soberly and orderly, during the time of Divine-Worship.” – a recognisable example of an authoritarian law that’s presented as a benign improvement – in this case to the observation of the Sabbath. The disciplinary yoke was tight, even at the margins.

For the aristocrats Robin of Sherwood is worse – he’s a freedman who commands the loyalty of others – of a private army, in fact. Essentially the ultimate threat to the peace and wealth of the owner class – Robin thrives outside the baronial economy and beyond the parochial pale. He ridicules the feudal status quo and must thus be chased around, fought and expelled from polite society.

Feudalist realism

But Robin is no freedom-fighter, he represents no challenge to the system and offers no alternative. He’s not a lollard or a leveller, not a utopian. He’s just a guy. A dude. He stages incursions, raids, hilarious stunts. He puts rent collectors and lieutenants in the stocks or hangs them by their braces from the trees, he liberates treasure and hands it out to the peasantry but he offers no vision of liberty or even of equity. The adjustments he makes are local, temporary, essentially trivial. Ultimately he marries with all the pomp of a prince and is accepted back into the baronial fold. Game over.

In this, of course, Robin is the model for all the movie action heroes to come – and especially for the superheroes: an over-achiever who rights wrongs, one at a time, one villain at a time. Not a liberator but a cheerful, reactionary hunk with a big heart.

  • I watched the film on YouTube. A decent print with an orchestral score. There’s a Blu-Ray.
  • You can get these reviews in your inbox over on Substack.
  • Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down is brilliant on all the vagabonds and outlaws and radicals who challenged the feudal norm at the time of the English Revolution and could be describing Robin here:
    • “Vagabonds attended no church, belonged to no organized social group. For this reason it seemed almost self-evident to Calvinist theologians that they were ‘a cursed generation’. Not till 1644 did legislation insist that rogues, vagabonds and beggars should be compelled to attend church every Sunday. Such men were almost by definition ideologically unmotivated: they could steal and plunder, but were incapable of concerted revolt.”
  • Wallace Beery, our Richard I, is probably the most interesting (and ghastly) person in the film, although now largely forgotten. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson calls him “the most notable example of the ugly, stupid, boorish man who was as successful in films as heroes or lovers.” This is the feature that made him a big star. The following year there’d be a sequel: Beery’s character was promoted to lead and Robin was gone all together. Between 1914 and 1916, in a series of shorts, he’d played Sweedie, a comic maid, in drag – a character he’d brought with him from vaudeville. On the Sweedie films he met and quickly married a 17 year-old Gloria Swanson – their marriage soon failed and in her autobiography she accuses him of brutally raping her. He’s a footnote in the second volume of scabrous and brilliant Hollywood Babylon – Kenneth Anger calls him, characteristically. “a turd of a toad” – and he was a drinking buddy of gangster Lucky Lucciano. He not only survived the transition to sound but dominated the new form and his highly-lucrative contract with MGM (which lasted for 20 years) made him the world’s highest-paid actor in the early-thirties. Beery made perhaps 200 films and worked until the year of his death in 1949.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • And here’s another top-grossing list.

Learning from old movies

GROSS is my first Substack thing. It’s film reviews, which I hope are funny and interesting and unpretentious.

Logo for Substack newsletter Gross, with an image from The word 'GROSS' in an old-fashioned gothic face is at the left-hand end and a still from 1917 Mary Pickford film The Poor Little Rich Girl at the right-hand end

It’s also my personal low-effort way to learn about the whole span of cinema history. I’m watching every top-grossing film since 1913 and writing them up in a Substack newsletter.

I’ve been doing it for a couple of months now. It’s my Saturday morning treat (like when I was nine or something). I’ve learnt a few things:

  • If I’m honest I was expecting the early part of the journey to be a bit tiresome. I expected to encounter a lot of fairly primitive storytelling from back at the beginning – flat scenes, static cameras, theatrical mugging. This did not happen. Almost everything I’ve watched so far has been in some way impressive or interesting or beautiful – ambitious works, full of love for the form.
  • I expected that for some of these films I wouldn’t find much to say, that they might be entertaining, even beautiful, but not particularly interesting. Also not true. Every one of them has been a jewel of history, culture, politics and technology. Every one brings with it a mind-expanding context, even the really teeth-grindingly awful ones. This horrible, callous 1920 Cecil B. DeMille picture, for instance, tells us so much about morality in the twenties, advances in movie-making tech and about the fate of the big silent stars as sound arrived.
  • I’m also learning about the complex and influential stars of the period – Mary Pickford (the first America’s sweetheart), Mabel Normand (the greatest movie comic you’ve never heard of), Gloria Swanson (the star everyone just called ‘Gloria’) and about the emerging grammar of performance and stardom.
  • I’m surprising myself every week with just how technologically advanced these movies were, just how bold and creative the technicians and creatives behind them were. The jaw-dropping electronic surveillance storyline in 1913’s Traffic in Souls, the vastly ambitious underwater tech developed for 1916’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the imaginative play with light and dark in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Nothing here is small or unambitious – everything is grand and overreaching.
Black and white film stills of Mabel Normand, film comic and director of the silent era and Vladimir Lenin, revolutionary and leader of the Soviet state
Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

Anyway, sign up on Substack and you’ll receive updates about once a week and you can log in to the website to read all the earlier posts. It’s all going to be free until there’s some kind of audience breakthrough or until I develop a spine. Please tell the film fans in your life about GROSS.

  • I’m relying on a couple of lists of top-grossing films for this exercise. This one and this one. Neither is very reliable (and they seem to disagree) but I think that’s okay. The stakes are low.
  • Here’s a Letterboxd list, where I’m logging all the movies I watch.

Chaps in trouble

We’ve got to 1919. The officer class over-reaches itself and gets stuck on the ice. It’s a disaster but it all works out in the end.

Every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913, reviewed. Part seven.


It’s not an adventure, most of the really dramatic events are missing, there’s far too much penguin footage and we never get to know any of the main characters – but it’s an astonishing document of Ernest Shackleton’s catastrophic 1914 expedition to the South Pole anyway.

The record we have of this wildly unsuccessful mission and the truly heroic recovery orchestrated by its leader only exists because of the photographer sent along on the boat. Frank Hurley was already an Antarctic veteran when he signed on for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, so he knew something of what to expect.

He took with him a huge amount of absolutely state-of-the-art kit – in the present day he’d have taken crates of drones and GoPros and some kind of virtual reality rig. Everything would have been 8K for the IMAX release (there’d have been a partnership with Apple or the BBC). Hurley’s kit included his bulky ‘cinematograph machine’, a chunky 6-3/4 x 8-1/2″ plate camera and some smaller Kodak cameras, along with various lenses, tripods, and chemicals to process the film.

When Endurance finally sank, Hurley found himself wading into the icy slush that was filling the ship to rescue his exposed plates. And it gets worse: later he had to leave most of his work behind – smashing hundreds of precious glass negatives on the ice so he couldn’t change his mind about which ones to keep. That anything at all survived the arduous journey home and that we have this film to watch is another tribute to Hurley – he seeled his exposed motion picture film and all those glass plates into a tin can and soldered it shut for the journey across the ice and the Southern Ocean.

Four sepia-toned stills from 1he 1914 Shackleton film South. From top left to bottom right: Ernest Shackleton, leader of the expedition; Captain of the Endurance Captain F. Worsley, Lieutenant J. Stenhhouse, Captain of the Ross Sea vessel Aurora; Captain L. Hussey, mateorologist and banjo player

Right at the beginning of this film we meet these four sepia-toned gents. Shackleton himself, the already-famous polar explorer and leader of the expedition to cross the Antarctic (at top left) and three of his senior crew. These gorgeous, fine-grained portraits (made nearly 110 years ago) promise an encounter with the upper-class adventurers aboard Endurance. We’re set up to meet the insouciant officer class tested in the cold. But it never happens.

Hurley wasn’t a storyteller. He had no script and only a reluctant cast. Locations were provided for him by the unfolding disaster of the expedition. He was there to make a high-tech document of the triumphant high-tech crossing of the Antarctic and he plugged on, as the mission collapsed, as the beautiful ultra-modern vessel they relied on was trapped in the ice and gradually destroyed. He created some of the most memorable images of the most forbidding landscape on earth and, incidentally, a record – although a frustratingly incomplete one – of the epic human ingenuity and bloody-mindedness that brought all 28 members of Shackleton’s mission out of the wilderness two years later.

Photographer Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance
Frank Hurley shooting under the bow of the trapped Endurance

But there’s no story here. The laughing, officer-class chaps in the picture (with their fabulous upper-class teeth) are never this close to the camera again. Nor are the other ranks below them for that matter. Shackleton is seen occasionally, usually shouting instructions from an ice hummock (we learn what an ice hummock is) or through a megaphone from the top of the main-mast. Early on, before the catastrophe, we see lots of charming footage of the crew caring for the 70 sled dogs kept on-board (I’ll leave you to figure out what happened to the dogs after everything had gone wrong) and there’s evidence of a tough work regime on the ship and on the ice.

Early in the film there’s an intertitle that basically gives the game away, though, telling us what we need to know about the recklessness of the upper-class adventurers who brought all this about. It accompanies some amazing footage of a huge pod of seals sailing, let’s face it, in the opposite direction. It says:

Intertitle reads: A phenomenal sight - migration of Crab-eater seals. They knew by instincer that an abnormal season was coming and flocked North to warmer waters before the sea froze over.

So we learn that, on the way in to the ice chaos of the Weddell Sea, these pig-headed Englishmen were actually warned by the locals and yet they carried on, on into the inescapable bay.

Later it’s mostly hard yakka on the ice as the crew try first to rescue their ship and then, as it breaks up and sinks, to rescue themselves. There’s footage of the crew’s increasingly desperate efforts to rescue what they need from the listing and sinking Endurance and they try out a kind of high-tech prototype skidoo but, an intertitle explains, ‘it proved entirely unsatisfactory’. The dogs tumble down to the ice on a tight-stretched sail like passengers escaping an airliner down one of those emergency slides.

So, in narrative terms, it’s kind of a mess, but the film is never less than absolutely engaging. It’s so beautifully filmed – Hurley was an instinctive image-maker and was using an up-to-date camera and the best lenses money could buy. He processed his 35mm film using the Paget process, which applies the various lovely tints we see throughout. God knows how he managed all this on board the Endurance (amazing shots exist of Hurley – on another Antarctic mission – washing his film during processing by trailing a frame in the freezing ocean!).

And he was brave – watch this clip showing the Endurance’s solid Norwegian-made bow cutting through the ice and think about how that shot was obtained, then wait for the end of the clip and you’ll see how. Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer of the Endurance, said: “Hurley is a warrior with his camera. He would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Others called him ‘the mad photographer’ (he went on to be a famous war photographer and is known today for assembling composite images from multiple negatives to achieve the drama he was seeking).

The wildlife footage is good (and it must have been startling for audiences five or six decades before the first Attenborough epic) and would have made a delightful secondary storyline if the expedition had succeeded. As it is, the long sequence of penguins and sea lions at the end is a confusing distraction from the action we know had gone on but see nothing of.

The expedition’s escape from the ice is one of the great 20th Century adventure stories and it involved an 800-mile voyage across the Southern Ocean in a hastily adapted open lifeboat (these guys named everything – huts, piles of snow, desolate camps – so this boat was called the James Caird after one of the mission’s sponsors). Hurley had to stay behind with the main part of the crew on the wildy inhospitable Elephant Island (they named their hideout under a glacier Camp Wild), so we see nothing of what must have been one of the most remarkable journeys ever undertaken. As a result the film ends in anticlimax and we have to imagine the excitement and the privations of that voyage. Likewise the four separate attempts to rescue the men left behind and Shackleton’s canny begging and deal-making with the Chilean authorities to secure the ships to do it. But there’s something profound about this giant gulf in the story, something essentially emotionally correct – properly tragic – about missing out the trauma – frostbite, hunger, anger and fear – that must really be the heart of this story.

I wanted class-war on the ice, a story about the collision of the modern and the implacable wilderness, a parable of officer-class hubris and bloody-minded courage. I got none of this but the film is glorious anyway – and gives us a preview of a whole new genre of wildlife and habitat storytelling, of filmmakers and adventurers working together to make entertainment, that these days seems to eat up most of our Sunday evenings in front of the box.

  • South is not, you won’t be surprised to learn, the actual top-grossing film of 1919. That was a Lon Chaney organised crime drama called The Miracle Man, which looks like a blast but is now considered lost. South’s listed gross of  $46,865 would have made it a pretty big deal in Britain, though.
  • The astonishing 1999 restoration of South is on the BFI Player (so you can get it on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to the BFI Channel).
  • Ernest Shackleton was nothing if not an officer and a bit of a prig. After their extraordinary escape from the wilderness he withheld medals from four crew-members he labelled as insubordinate or workshy during the expedition, including one heroic figure who was central to the whole effort and accompanied Shackleton on the epic voyage to South Georgia, Harry McNish.
  • Here’s a list of all the top-grossing films since 1913 and here’s my Letterboxd list.
  • This is the top-grossing list from which I get South’s gross income.

A 1918 double bill: pathos and perfect slapstick followed by a mind-expanding account of the Russian revolution

Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


Two photos joined together - in the bottom photo actress Mabel Normand in her 1918 film Mickey. She's dressed for a party, with flowers in her her. Her head rests wistfully in her hand. In the top photo Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin stands in an open space, looking to the right of the frame, hands in pockets, He's wearing his distinctive cap

So, in the second and fifth of the films I’ve reviewed here, from 1914 and 1917, we met the first America’s Sweetheart (for there have been several), Mary Pickford. Now we’ll meet the greatest female comic of the early cinema and a kind of tragic mirror to Pickford – Mabel Normand.

We’ll also meet a genius from another tradition all together, perhaps as far removed from Normand’s generous comedic charm as it’s possible to get in the cinema – Dziga Vertov, the genius who brought us Man with a Movie Camera.

All the (probably fairly unreliable) lists I’m relying on for this journey through the top-grossing films of all time list Mabel Normand’s ‘Mickey’, directed by F. Richard Jones, as the top film of 1918 but one has another, with an implausible gross of $9,685, in the top spot: ‘Anniversary of the Revolution’ (????????? ?????????) by Soviet era genius Dziga Vertov. I can’t explain what this Soviet propaganda film is doing on the list – was it the biggest movie of the year in the communist world?

Anyway, it’s clear that ‘Mickey’ was the real commercial hit here, but I’m very happy to introduce the first film from outside the emerging Hollywood system to our top-grossing list. First, though, the genuine blockbuster.

Mickey – a prequel for Greta Gerwig’s whole acting career

I’m just going to say it. I love this film. Normand, born Amabel Ethelreid Normand in 1893, is a rubber-faced, double-jointed physical comedy genius who can act (she’d also been a director for years and produced this film). In Mickey, a grown-up, 93-minute feature, there’s pathos that never tips over into mawkishness and all the standard devices of the melodramas of the period are deployed cleverly and with irony. There’s a sophisticated awareness of the form – I’m prepared to swear on a bible that Normand winks directly into the lens at least once, throwing the whole artifice of the thing in the air spellinbindingly.

Jones gives us gentle slapstick, with stunts performed by Normand herself (she’s school of Mack Sennett). She hangs from a roof, falls from a window, leaps onto a horse, shins up drainpipes and trees with abandon. The cast – including well-known native American comic actor Minnie Devereux (credited here, with the casual racism of the day, as Minnie Ha-Ha) as a resourceful housekeeper and the man who would later become Mabel’s husband Lew Cody as cad Reggie Drake – is universally brilliant. Acting is breezy, always self-conscious and slyly comic, even in dramatic scenes.

Mickey’s story is the fairytale Cinderella transposed to the folklore United States of worked-out gold mines and snooty East coast plutocrats. There’s a scene where Mickey, recently shipped in from the mine to the Long Island mansion of her aunt’s family, is set to work sweeping the hall of the great house. She gives us pure joy and mischief with the insouciance and the absolute formal discipline of Buster Keaton (others have spotted the Greta Gerwig of Frances Ha here, too). That she is Keaton’s equal, even Chaplin’s, quickly becomes obvious. That she is not as well known is a tragedy (but there’s plenty of actual tragedy to blame for that too).

Anniversary of the Revolution – a prequel for the Soviet Union

I’m going to say it here too. I love this film. It comes from another world, of course. Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman in 1896), who was still eight or nine years from principle photography on his masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera, was 23. He’d been a year younger at the time of the October Revolution. This whirlwind montage of newsreel footage from the period between the February revolution and the beginning of the civil war was his first feature.

Thirty prints of the film were made in 1918 and they were worn to shreds doing daily business on the agit-trains – the hypermodern steam-powered travelling propaganda machines that toured the country during the civil war. It seems unlikely anyone was paying to see it so how you’d calculate a gross for this one is a mystery to me – but I’d love to know if it had a cinematic life in the West. Were people paying a nickel or sixpence to see this movie in New York or London?

The film was considered lost for a century, anyway, so no one saw it in full after about 1919. It’s a documentary that’s almost two hours long, assembled from 3,000 metres of newsreel – a lot of it was probably shot and edited by Vertov on its first outing too – he’d been a newsreel monkey for the Moscow Film Committee for the whole period. It’s been called the first feature-length documentary. That seems plausible – it was worn out and forgotten by the time Nanook of the North came out. I’m sure it’s the first feature film assembled in this self-conscious way using many others as source material.

Vertov’s big edit is a vivid prequel for the Soviet Union. In his film we’re in a country still boiling with revolutionary fervour, about to fight for its survival – against multiple foes, still years from the decades-long retrenchment and retreat from its ideals, ten years before the routine brutality of the Stalin years began and 20 years before the terror.

These are the men and women who brought into being by the force of their will – and against the greatest odds imaginable – capitalism’s only ever viable opponent. They stand around blinking in the sunshine, smoking, getting in and out of ramshackle cars, shouting from improvised platforms. They’re awkward, probably exhilerated and frightened. Improvising a new nation in real time, with excitement and without the knowledge that it would collapse into pain and grief only a few years later.

So the material, by definition, is breathtaking – every figure of any importance from the whole revolutionary period is here, all the people you’ve heard of – Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, Kamenev, Lunacharsky, Kollontai – plus dozens of others, many soon forgotten. They’re usually entering or leaving a building – presumably for another interminable committee meeting or a workers’ assembly – or smoking in a courtyard.

But we also see the marches and protests, the vast gatherings on Moscow and Petersburg streets, the milling and circulating proletariat – the revolutionary subject coming into being in squares, on bridges, in railway yards. And some extraordinary, heartstopping events. On the Field of Mars, the dead of the October revolution are interred in a vast mass grave, one coffin after another stacked in a neat pattern while men with clipboards record names and locations. There are riverboats, cars, trucks, armoured cars – we’re conscious of the sweep of the territory, of the pace of events. Trotsky addresses a crowd from a train on his way to the front in the civil war. He stands on the bridge of a river boat, posing like a matinee idol (what exactly is he wearing here? A leather sailor suit?).

Men wave their hats, stand around, staring at the newsreel camera, open-mouthed. Kids run around with school holiday abandon. Soldiers and policemen stride around trying to assert their authority. Horses and dogs are everywhere. What’s the name for the shiver of awe that watching these extraordinary scenes causes? For the uncanny collision of intimacy and unbridgeable distance that these smiling, frowning, laughing, shouting faces produces? There honestly isn’t a second of this film that’s not astonishing or surprising.

Right before your eyes

Vertov, our 22 year-old, in assembling material from hundreds of individual newsreels (aspect ratios vary throughout, it’s chaotic), was innnovating in real time. There’s obviously no consistency as to shot angle or composition. Sometimes framing is wildly off, sometimes the operator swings back and forth across a scene, as if to make sure they didn’t miss anything on the first pass. Scenes begin and end ragged, unresolved.

One of the mind-expanding joys of the thing is the way Vertov cuts the footage of these important figures (many men with big beards and/or big hats) – usually captured on the stairs up to a building, against the gloom of an entrance. He resists the obvious edit – the one that any naive human would grasp at – to top-and-tail the scenes neatly, to remove the comings and goings, the quick departures, the rushing off into the gloom. So in these scenes we have something more open-ended, provisional (something quite YouTube about the way these shots trail off, in fact).

In these cuts Vertov somehow captures the indeterminate nature of the wild Soviet experiment (feel like I ought to make my own edit of all these little endings) and in so doing invents a new form. Every self-conscious film with an ironic take on the material – every doc that makes the process visible, that involves the creator, allows its making to bleed into the narrative – has its origin in these decisions, in Vertov’s willingness to leave the end of the shot in the edit.

A fairytale, a comedy, a fantasy – and a Disney princess 20 years before Snow White

Mary Pickford was famed for playing childlike parts, flighty young women with spirit. In 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl, she broke new ground by playing an actual child.

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


An animated GIF of silent movie actor Mary Pickford covering her mouth as she giggles in the 1917 film The Poor Little Rich Girl

Pickford turned 24 a month after the film was released but in The Poor Little Rich Girl she plays a child – to the perfect satisfaction of the rapturous audiences who made this one of the top-grossing movies of 1917.

The actual top movie of the year was Cleopatra, a huge Theda Bara historical romance that apparently cost half a million dollars to make (about the same as 1916 blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but it’s apparently lost, which is kind of heartbreaking.

Here, we’ve already encountered the on-screen energy and the off-screen business mind of the amazing Mary Pickford – in 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country. We know that by the time of this movie she’d already been a big star for years – since before actors were even named in the credits, in fact – and was essentially an exec on everything she was in, with huge influence over every decision. She’d weary of playing these childlike roles but she was a very pragmatic businesswoman and played essentially the same plucky adolescent until well into her thirties, by which time she was a very rich movie executive.

As in Tess of the Storm Country, Pickford dominates every scene she’s in (other actors must have had mixed feelings about joining any Pickford production – knowing they’d be definitively overshadowed but with a decent chance of a hit). In this film, directed by Frenchman Maurice Tourneur, the overshadowed roles are terrific. They have a real fairytale charm – carefully-crafted storybook archetypes: funny, sinister, cruel, playful, stern.

There are some lovely street urchins, a charming organ grinder, various prickly and supercilious servants, some authentically remote and aristocratic grown-ups. There’s no wooden line-reading here, no static theatricality. In one scene, a dozen servants, in all the costumes of a great house – chef, maid, gardener, butler, chauffeur – enter a scene in a kind of pantomine procession, snaking around the furniture in a way that’ll make you giggle. In another, those urchins party riotously in the house’s fancy garden – a place of shadows and narrow pathways and low-hanging trees – street kids but also nymphs at play.

Still from 1917 fairy tale film The Poor Little Rich Girl. May Pickford, playing a child, a tall man in a top hat, a crystal ball, a person dressed as a donkey
From the dream sequence

Pickford’s Gwendolyn spends essentially the whole of the second act in a kind of coma (for she has been drugged). The resulting dream sequence is delightful – full of proper childhood dread plus also angels and wooded glades and staircases and top hats and crystal balls and other lovely things – double-exposures and back projections are convincingly magical. She’s accompanied by a friendly plumber from real life (he keeps a length of pipe over his shoulder as a reminder) and they encounter a group of hilarious bears, a splendid pantomime donkey, two of the nasty servants who’ve been punished, one with huge ears and one with an extra scary face on the back of her head. You’ll want to watch it all again.

The movie’s visual style is spookily like a Disney film from twenty years later. Walt was 16 when this movie was released. Presumably at this point he was busy soaking up the surreal, fairytale aesthetic of this and other (mostly French?) films. Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo – they’re all brought to mind in the magical interiors, the light and dark of the big house and garden, the (multiple) dream scenes and in the innocence and waywardness of our ‘princess’. The director’s artful play with shadow – and with bizarre imagery – must have run in the family – Jacques Tourneur, his son, was also a brilliant stylist of light – he made the 1942 Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie.

When Gwendolyn regains consciousness and is finally released from her confinement in her family’s fancy home in the city (it’s another archetype so we don’t know where it is but it’s basically a Park Avenue mansion styled as a fairytale castle) to the countryside, audiences must have breathed a big sigh – the atmosphere lightens, the light floods in. It’s a joy (and there’s lots of fun in the mud, tree climbing and so on).

Mary Pickford was in hundreds of films – sometimes shooting two or three per week. I’m no expert but I haven’t seen a weak one yet. They must exist but there’s obviously something about this actress that makes it almost impossible to make a bad film with her in it – and her contribution is always essentially the same: generosity, vivacity, charm. Pickford was screen gold of the kind any studio would treasure.

This review turned into a disquisition on underwater storytelling

This adaptation of Jules Verne’s great submarine romance was the top-grossing film of 1916and it wasn’t even the first movie version

A poster for 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A huge octopus wraps its tentacles around a circular image of captain Nemo and crew members. Two divers, one on each side of the poster, wear old-fashioned diving helmets

UPDATE, 11 October 2023. I found an absolutely gorgeous restoration of 20,000 Leagues, also on YouTube. Watch that one instead of the horrible one linked below!

The project continues. I’m watching the top-grossing movies of every year since 1913. I’m up to 1916 and it’s a vastly ambitious (and ruinously expensive) Jules Verne adaptation.

Look, it’s not a great film – in many ways it’s horrible – but it’s a landmark in all sorts of ways, not least because of these two lads.

The Williamson brothers – what a pair of sorts

The Williamson Brothers, George and Ernest – “who alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography” it says in a card at the beginning of the film – had invented a way to shoot under water (it was based on a patented invention of their father’s). It took them years to perfect it – by the time this project came around they’d shot tens of thousands of feet of film under water and released two or three one-reelers of their own using the kit in 1914 and 1915, to the amazement of audiences everywhere. This film, an early Universal production, was directed by Brit Stuart Paton, but this is really the Williamsons’ movie.

These guys are the Douglas Trumbull or George Lucas of their era – geeks who love film. The little video at the top is from the opening credits of the movie, which tells you something about their status in the project – not mere technicians. There’s a real commitment to the new tech here. The Williamsons knew that audiences were eager for new sensations and ownership of a whole new category – stories set beneath the waves – might make them some serious money. They developed a slightly unhinged, multi-year obsession with making it work. I’d like to know more about the Williamsons and suspect there’s a pretty good film in their inventiveness and their lunatic drive – perhaps made by the Coen Brothers.

A page from a 1913 Scientific American explaining the operation of the Williamson brothers' underwater filming aparatus in a series of eight photographs

The Williamson method involved a patented 30-foot long, collapsible tube (“a portable hole in the ocean“, they called it) with an iron chamber at the bottom end of it. The chamber was cranked down into the water with a camera operator crouching inside it, presumably praying the studio’s insurance was up to date (some accounts of the tech suggest it was all done with mirrors – which seems to be untrue. The detail here is pretty convincing). Specially developed film stock meant the Williamsons could achieve an exposure of 1/50th of a second, making shooting moving pictures perfectly feasible at 16 frames per second. The operator used a conventional camera and shot the undersea world through a thick glass window. No one had to get wet and no special cameras were needed. Scenes were shot in shallow, sunlit water so lighting wasn’t needed – The effect is impressive – and must have been mindblowing in a darkened cinema in 1916. Huge sharks, schools of smaller fish, a reef and a ship wreck are all seen with amazing clarity.

Look! Sharks!

The way the great sharks in particular circulate in the dappled light of the shallows and then loom menacingly out of the haze is beautiful and chilling. The intertitles use the language of the unmotivated shark attack, man-eaters, killing machines, suggesting that the irrational fear of these beasts long pre-dates Jaws – a whole new genre of fiction is proposed right here.

Later in the film, scenes are shot on the sandy bottom as if on a studio soundstage. Actors (stunt performers?) in big diving suits are directed in an awkward analogue of the dry-land process. Shooting began almost 40 years before the invention of scuba diving so these are not the diving scenes we’re all familiar with now in which actors move naturally, oriented parallel to the surface, kicking to achieve smooth motion and exploring with the freedom of a baracuda or an eel.

So the undersea action doesn’t take place in the magical unanchored world of the water column, with free movement in all directions. It all takes place in the two-dimensional setting of the sea bottom. Motion is achieved by literally walking from mark to mark (in weighted boots). Everything’s basically shifted sideways (and down a bit) to the bottom of the ocean.

Meanwhile, Paton’s artful adaptation of the Jules Verne – he blends the storylines from the original book and its sequel ‘The Mysterious Island’ and develops Nemo’s Indian Prince back-story. Also, balloonists from the Union Army, escaping a civil war ambush, crash on the island (I kid you not). There’s a strange and unsettling sequence where a ‘child of nature’, played by Jane Gail, who was already a big star (and was in 1913’s top-grossing Traffic in Souls, which I reviewed here) is bothered by various boorish and/or murderous blokes until we learn that she is actually Nemo’s daughter and the story begins to resolve itself in the standard melodramatic way. In one bizarre scene, Gail, blacked-up and wearing an inexplicable leopardskin shift, is shown how to wear trousers and a nice white shirt. She quickly takes to the new duds.

A man tries to explain clothing to a woman dressed in a leopard skin shift
Your arm goes in here

There’s much in Verne’s stories about Imperialism, liberty and self-determination. Nemo flees India after an unsuccessful uprising against British rule, he sacrifices all for the liberty of the undersea world. I can imagine a viable, low-budget remake – a festival hit with a post-colonial technofuturist vibe. Nemo was transposed, between the first book and the second, from Polish to Indian. Might he be further transposed to the role of undersea warrior for the Global South? A deep-sea superhero with an agenda?

In this film, which simplifies the geopolitics, let’s face it, the freedom idealised is not the ideal of the book’s French Republican author or even the dippy 20th Century freedom of the nature-worshipping scuba diver but the purposeful freedom of the 19th Century adventurer-explorer – conquering an unknown terrain by just walking off into it with a gun (the divers carry weapons that look like Winchester rifles from a cowboy film – we learn they’re powered by compressed air). There’s a hunting scene in which Nemo and his amazed guests stalk sharks in the manner of big game hunters on safari.

The unconstrained motion, the fish-like propulsion and the elegant forward movement of a scuba diver would have seemed weird, alienating, to audiences in 1916, as these straight-backed hunters walking the underwater range seem odd to us. If you studied the way the undersea imaginary in the movies has evolved since this film you’d presumably locate some kind of pivot – from ungainly and upright to elegant and unconstrained – in the motion of cinematic divers. But when did it occur? 1930s? WW2? Jacques Cousteau’s 1960s’? And was there a resistance to the idea that divers ought to set aside humanity’s pretty well-established bipedal mode for the swishing to-and-fro of a lower species? We’re used to it now but is there something fishy and inhuman about the movement of a scuba diver?

Pioneer scuba diver and documentary-maker Jacques Cousteau under water in a scuba diving suit
Cousteau doing his thing

20,000 Leagues wasn’t the first film set on a submarine. Interest in undersea adventures and submarine warfare was heightened by the first world war, in which both allied and German forces had used terrifying, high-tech submarines. Only a year before this film was released, 1,200 people had died when a German U-boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

An illustration showing the sinking ot the ocean liner RMS Lusitania - the ship has just been struck by a torpedo and is listing dramatically to starboard. Passengers on deck are clinging to rails.

Shipping was under constant attack from the huge German submarine fleet which treated all trans-Atlantic shipping as a legitimate target. These events must have been present to cinemagoers everywhere. A submarine was a source of wonder and of dread – the autonomous drone of its day. A marauding agent of hypermodern maritime destruction (30% of the world’s merchant fleet was sunk by German U-boats during the war).

Appropriately Nemo’s submarine is run on naval lines, uniformed sailors salute and parade on the top deck (they wear a natty oversized floppy beret). The elements of the submarine narrative are all already here: hatches and airlocks, bulkheads, valves and dials. Ratings rush hither and thither with messages. There’s a periscope and a realistic torpedo room and a shiny steel torpedo (carefully polished by the crew before launch).

Illustration of the submarine Nautilus from the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The 1954 Nautilus was a pretty grand vessel

But this Nautilus is not really Verne’s fabulous, exotic vessel and definitely not the buttressed undersea gothic cathedral of the 1954 Disney film (this is the adaptation that’s meaningful to people of my generation – it was a fixture at Saturday morning pictures throughout my childhood). For the 1916 film a working (but non-submersible) submarine was built. It’s impressive but it’s basically a cigar-shaped boat.

The submarine Nautilus, a life-sized vessel built for the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, on a calm sea. On the top deck a group of five me stand around.

And it’s not grand – the only concession to Nemo’s flamboyance is a saloon draped with fabrics and hung with artefacts from his past as an Indian prince (Allen Holubar, who plays Nemo, is, uncomfortably, blacked up for the role and brings a kind of Santa Claus meets Jack Sparrow energy). Nemo’s saloon is also the location of the big, round observation window at which his guests gather to watch the action outside.

And speaking of action outside, the other dramatic centrepiece of Verne’s book – the battle with the terrifying giant octopus that threatens to envelope Nautilus and swallow it whole – is here rendered as a – frankly pathetic – man-sized flapping rubber toy, something from Spongebob Squarepants – apparently controlled from the inside by an operator (and also patented by the Williamsons – these guys were the Jobs and Wozniak of silent cinema).

The movie may have cost $500,000 – enough to make a pretty professional narrative film even in the present day (almost five times the budget for D.W. Griffiths’ 12-reel epic The Birth of a Nation, released in the previous year) – but it lacks the intoxicating strangeness of the original. It’s a technological testbed for production methods that would one day become routine but it’s also a clumsily-told story and a cheesy orientalist fantasy. Performances are never better than routine and mis-en-scène is awkward and flat (although I reckon this might be more to do with the essentially impossible challenge of matching the interior narrative sequences with the sensational stuff going on through the big window out on the sea bottom). Poor Stuart Paton.