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Booth, Walter R

Entry updated 18 April 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1869-1938) UK filmmaker; initially a stage magician, Booth met British film pioneer Robert W Paul (1869-1943) and shortly after began directing for his production company, Paul's Animatograph Works. Some early films simply recorded conjuring tricks but others had a narrative element, built round Booth's ability to use his stage-magic skills for special effects in this new medium. He worked for Paul until 1906, then for Charles Urban's (1867-1942) production companies: Charles Urban Trading Company and, later, Kineto. He eventually moved into making filmed advertisements. Like most filmmakers of this era Booth owed a huge debt to Georges Méliès's innovations in the field, but was able to add some of his own. Early films were usually only 1-2 minutes in length, but by 1910 they approached 10 minutes.

His first film was The Miser's Doom (1899), in which a miser dies of shock after seeing a ghost (see Supernatural Creatures); the next was Upside Down; or, The Human Flies (1899), where a magician enables his audience to cavort on the ceiling. This might be the first use of furnishing a ceiling on the floor and turning the camera upside down; but so many early films have been lost that it cannot be said unconditionally. Similarly Artistic Creation (1901) may be the first filmic example of an artist whose painting comes to life. He paints a young woman in instalments: head, then torso, arms, and finally legs, lifting them off the canvas one by one and combining them on a chair. Cheese Mites, or Lilliputians in a London Restaurant (1901) has a diner amused when tiny people come out of his cheese (see Great and Small; Gulliver); this is not to be confused with Cheese Mites (1903) directed by F Martin Duncan, an early scientific film of the mites on a piece of cheese, which caused public consternation.

Booth's first proper sf film was An Over-Incubated Baby (1901), in which Professor Bakem invents a baby incubator, promising it will provide "12 months' growth in one hour". A baby is put in the machine; but when Bakem's assistant knocks over a lamp beneath it, the fire overcooks the baby, who comes out with a beard. The "?" Motorist (1906; vt The Mad Motorist) has a couple in a car who run over a policeman: chased by him, they escape by driving up the wall of a building, then into the sky. Riding over the clouds, they circle the Moon, then use Saturn's rings (see Outer Planets) as a roundabout but fall off, crashing through the roof of a court building; pursued and caught, the car transforms into a horse and cart, the motorists into farmers, and their captors stand back, baffled, as they trot off ... only to have them revert back and zoom away. Is Spiritualism a Fraud? (1906) is subtitled "the Medium exposed". A medium holds a séance: we see apparitions in the dark – floating heads and other objects – but then the lights suddenly come on and we see how the illusions were performed (the Medium is then humiliated and mocked). This was an early example of a magician debunking spiritualism (see Eschatology). Note that although IMDb gives this film's director as J H Martin, the British Film Institute believes it to be Booth.

The Airship Destroyer (1909; vt The Aerial Torpedo; vt The Battle of the Clouds; vt Der Luftkrieg Der Zukunft) might be considered the first part of a trilogy looking at aerial threats; a scene where a large model plane passes close by the camera with smaller models in the background is a notable effect. The Aerial Submarine (1910) is subtitled "A startling forecast. Piracy in sea and in air". Set in the Near Future, two young people are kidnapped by pirates – whose captain is a woman – and imprisoned in their submarine. They had photographed the submarine, dropping the camera when abducted; their father finds it, develops the film and hands it to the authorities. Meanwhile the submarine sinks an ocean liner and plunders its treasure using diving suits. The Royal Navy chase in their own submarine, but the pirates escape when their submarine flies into the sky and drops a bomb on their pursuer. However, when a drunken pirate lights a cigarette, his casually cast aside match causes an explosion: the submarine crashes and everyone runs away, save the captain, who decides to go down with her ship, as bombs are dropped on it from a plane. The Aerial Anarchists (1911) does not survive, but the plot involves flying machines bombing London, including St Paul's Cathedral. It seems to have been inspired by Edward Douglas Fawcett's novel, Hartmann the Anarchist, or The Doom of the Great City (June-September 1893 The English Illustrated Magazine; 1893).

The Automatic Motorist (1911) is a remake of The "?" Motorist (1906), but now features a Robot chauffeur built by a Scientist for a newly married couple; the four go for a drive and the plot expands on its predecessor's. The policeman is not run over but instead is punched by the robot when he stops the car. When driving on Saturn's rings, they crash into the planet, stranding the policeman (who, seemingly just for a laugh, they had handcuffed to the back of the car) – however, this is no tragedy, as he and the Queen of Saturn take a shine to each other. The car departs, crashing into another planet with an underground ocean inhabited by sea Monsters (newts), then drives through the sky and is hit by lightning; the humans fall to Earth, shaken but alive. The robot is one of the earliest depicted in film; the first seems to be in The Mechanical Statue and the Ingenious Servant (1907) directed by J Stuart Blackton, of which contemporary reviews say the statue dances when wound up, which might make it simply an Automaton; however it is also said to have run away after being purchased, which suggests the possibility of self-determination. There were at least six more possible robot films made during 1908-1910, including L Frank Baum's The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908), based on his Oz books, which featured Tik-Tok and the Tin Man. Both the Blackton and Baum films have been lost.

Booth's films are largely of historical interest, as his plots are slapdash and, from today's perspective, the special effects usually look cheap and amateurish (which is of course an unfair judgement); he clearly lacked the budgets available to directors who worked for Pathé Frères, such as Méliès or Segundo de Chomón. Nonetheless Booth was ingenious and a pioneer: The Airship Destroyer, The Aerial Submarine and The Automatic Motorist, viewed sympathetically, can still be enjoyed today, with their more random events providing a surreal touch (see Absurdist SF). [SP]

Walter Robert Booth

born Worcester, Worcestershire: 12 July 1869

died Birmingham, England: 1938

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