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What tickled the Victorian fancy?

Exploring some of the film tricks and treats that were available to audiences in Victorian times.
Again, it goes back to that kind of entertainment environment in which early film arrives. It’s basically more theatrical. You have these great music hall artistes, so a lot of the early films are just showing famous people like Herbert Campbell and Dan Leno and the great music hall artists of the day. They might show funny little comic sketches, and of course films are very short, so you’ve got to be pretty quick. If you’ve only got a minute, it’s got to be a very quick set-up and punchline gag-driven little comedies, but they loved those. There’s an awful lot of those, which are effectively like a little four-strip cartoon. All done and dusted very quickly.
There’s a lot of courtship films, where you’ve got lovers sitting on a park bench and then some irritating old person hoves into view and there’s a bit of a tussle. There are one or two what we call erotic films, I suppose, that were slightly naughty. There’s a lady undressing, so the Victorian ladies very buttoned-up, unbuttoning for the camera. They don’t go all the way, I’d have to say. They’re not that blue, but sort of titillating, so I think people obviously had a lighter side in that respect. It wasn’t that forbidden. They had a bit of a naughty side to them.
It was mostly things that were theatrical and as time went on, particularly other things to do with the theatre, dancing girls and bits of colour and that sort of thing, they just loved.

Welcome back to Week 3 of the The Living Picture Craze.

“We are not amused”, Queen Victoria famously said – or so we are told. Her subjects, though, were eager for all sorts of entertainments and film was happy to oblige. In this video Bryony Dixon describes some of the tricks and treats that were available to audiences – comic sketches, star turns, theatrical scenes and erotic films (well, almost). Although, as we have seen in Week 2, non-fiction subjects outnumbered entertainments, it was the latter that inspired early filmmakers to create many of their greatest innovations.

This week we will be learning about:

  • How filmmakers exploited the novelty of movement for comic effect
  • Why The Big Swallow (1901) is still a mystery today
  • Why early film turned to the theatre for its subject matter
  • What a film programme looked like and how to make a great one for an audience

What films are you most looking forward to watching and why? Please let us know in the space below.

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The Living Picture Craze: An Introduction to Victorian Film

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