I recently rewatched one of the greatest of early films, Mary Jane’s Mishap, or Don’t Fool with Paraffin (Here Lies Mary Jane Who Lighted the Fire with Paraffin). It was directed by George Albert Smith, noted as the inventor of Kinemacolour, one of the first successful colour systems. Mary Jane is played by his wife Laura Bayley, a former variety performer, who is clearly having a great time hamming it up in the opening sequence involving a boot polish accident.
Likewise, the addition of paraffin to the stove is a moment to savour.
Bam! Up the chimney and out the chimney.
And then we see her gravestone, inscribed with the particulars of her reckless demise. But the fun doesn’t stop there! As onlookers ponder her headstone, she rises from her grave as a ghost, looking – yes – for her kerosene. Once she has her beloved paraffin, she clutches it to herself and reassumes her sepulchral slumber.
This is supposed to be a cautionary tale, but really, Bayley makes getting blown up by paraffin look pretty awesome.
We take for granted the ‘grammar’ of cinema now, but in 1903 these conventions were still embryonic. It’s an interesting fact that British filmmakers were leaders in film form (those who believe the close-up was an invention of the teens have only to watch another of Smith’s films, Grandma’s Reading Glass of 1900). As film historian Barry Salt points out, the tombstone inscription in Mary Jane’s Mishap is an early example of a textual insert shot. Even more of note are the vertical wipes used to transition in and out of this shot; “remarkable and quite unique”, in Salt’s words – nothing similar was seen for more than ten years.
The use of closer shots cut in to a scene was also just being established. Not only does Smith include three such instances in Mary Jane’s Mishap, he matches position between each shot.
Okay, not perfectly, but it’s a pretty good effort.
Not only is this a technically important piece of filmmaking, it’s a lot of fun! Watch it here on YouTube.
Addendum: A friend on Facebook alerted me to the fact that Mary Jane’s Mishap was used in a Pathétone newsreel as a “thirty years ago” segment (though the notes state that it was unissued). It’s available here on YouTube. This led me to wonder about the framerate of the original film. By my calculations, Mary Jane’s Mishap has a framerate of about 17fps (248′ at a length of 2:32, which is naturalistic movement). Of course, to be PAL-compliant the BFI had to bring it up to 25fps for their DVD, which they did via interlacing. Impossible to answer this question from a YouTube upload, but I wonder what was the strategy for the Pathétone makers of 1933? Stretch printing, or (more likely) just playing the film faster?
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Mary Jane’s Mishap. Dir. George Albert Smith. Hove: George Albert Smith Films, 1903. Available on the BFI’s excellent Primitives and Pioneers DVD-set.
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In other news:
Paul van Ostaijen’s famous poem Asta Nielsen now has an English translation – see here on Luke McKernan’s website Picturegoing. I have yet to write about Die Asta here on Silents, Please!, but she is probably my favourite actress of all time.
My picturegoing this weekend involves watching Show People (1928) with live accompaniment at the film festival. Looking forward to it!