Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Walter R. Booth's Motorist Comedies

Much like Georges Méliès, the conjurer-turned-filmmaker from across the Chanel, Walter R. Booth began his cinema career on the theatrical stage performing magic tricks. While employed at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, he made the acquaintance of early English film pioneer Robert W. Paul. Booth began working for Paul after 1896, employed to come up with fanciful screen effects. The culmination of their partnership came in 1906 with The '?' Motorist.

This short film humorously exploits the ongoing controversies over the use of the horseless carriage. Automobiles only entered mass production around the turn of the century, to mixed reviews. Western painter Charlie Russell nicknamed them "skunkwagons" and rendered numerous portraits of innocent cowboys and wagon trains being driven off the road by them. George Foss of Quebec drove around a vehicle of his own design, despite threats of arrest. Benz, Ford, Renault, Olds, and others were making names for themselves. Their pace of technological innovation was so fast that a year-old car was practically useless (if it hadn't broken down already). Ford's Model T would enter production in 1908, the same year as an historic New York to Paris auto race via San Francisco, Yokohama, Irkutsk, and Moscow. Sir William Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, endorsed the idea of allowing pedestrians to carry a shotgun and be given free reign to take potshots at "all motorists who may appear to them to be driving to the common danger," citing automobiles as "the enemies of mankind."

In this The '?' Motorist, Booth plays directly into that, by allowing his motorist to create havoc on Earth and beyond.

A few years later, Booth revisited the same basic premise with The Automatic Motorist. A common thread in trick photography of the time was to treat science as a form of magic. What might once have been a haunted house comedy became a mechanical house comedy. What might have once been a sorcerer making himself objectionable became a mad scientist. In The Automatic Motorist, the automobile goes on a haywire journey through space thanks to a mechanical chauffeur. Several gags from The '?' Motorist are reused, with the increased skill that the intervening five years between 1906 and 1911 could provide. 

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