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Stow, Percy

Entry updated 30 May 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1876-1919) UK filmmaker. Stow worked with Cecil Hepworth (1874-1953) at the latter's Hepworth Studios between 1901-1903, then co-founded the Clarendon Film Company in 1904. He directed over 290 short films before his early death in 1919. He became identified with trick films, using such ploys as double exposure, stop motion and reversing the film. Early films were typically very short, to set up and execute a visual gag. They grew longer over the years (though usually staying well under 10 minutes). Many included genre elements.

How to Stop a Motor Car (1902) has a policeman trying to halt an oncoming car, but he breaks into pieces when it runs over him. Fortunately his parts reassemble and he is helped up by a more experienced colleague, who shows him the correct method: bend over so the car runs into your backside, it will then bounce back, in this case into a hedgerow. In The Unclean World (1903) a man dislikes the taste of his cheese, so puts it under a microscope and sees a pair of cheese mites moving around; however, two human hands then appear, turning the mites over to reveal they are clockwork. The film is a parody of F Martin Duncan's The Cheese Mites (1903), which caused a stir when it showed the mites to be found in cheese (this was one of the Charles Urban Trading Company's series The Unseen World which revealed the world under the microscope). Stop That Bus! (1903; vt How the Old Woman Caught the Omnibus) has a horse-drawn bus refusing to stop for an old woman and running her over – enraged she hooks it with her umbrella, pulling it back down the road (see Superpowers), then beats up the conductor with the umbrella.

Jealous Doll, Or, The Frustrated Elopement (1904): when two children go on a date the girl's doll follows them (see Toys in SF): seeing them eating at a hotel restaurant it runs back to the house to project what it has seen into the sleeping nanny's mind (see Dream Hacking): the nanny awakes, runs to the restaurant, cuffs the boy and takes the girl home. The stop-motion of the doll is suitably unnerving. Not to be confused with Stow's earlier The Frustrated Elopement (1902), where a girl tries to elope but is caught by her father, the film then being playing backward.

Rescued in Mid Air (1906) has a young lady knocked into the air by a cyclist; kept airborne (see Flying) by her parasol she eventually grabs a Church steeple. A Scientist is asked to help: he brings out his flying machine (see Technology), which resembles a small boat with flapping wings and propellers beneath. Despite crashing into a house, it eventually reaches the steeple and hovers by it so the lady can climb aboard. The Invaders (1909) has Britain undergoing Invasion by soldiers dressed as Jewish tailors and women tourists: but a girl, whose house has been occupied, sends a messenger pigeon (see Communications) to the territorial army, who defeat the enemy's forces. In A Glass of Goat's Milk (1909) a man drinks said glass, grows a pair of goat horns and starts butting people and objects.

Electric Transformation (1909) has a scientist show a visiting party of young women his Invention, part of which is two suspended bell jars: he takes a clothes iron and a clock from his maid and places each beneath a jar – the iron melts then reforms into an exact copy of the clock (see Transmutation). The maid is displeased, so he asks her to put her head under a jar as he puts his under the other: her head melts and turns into a copy of his. She is naturally upset, until the professor uses the invention to give her a head like one of the young women. In The Electric Leg (1912) a man is fitted with an "electrical limb" to replace his missing right leg (see Cyborgs, Medicine). Though he is given a remote control to operate it, this proves ineffectual: walking down the street, the leg spontaneously kicks passing posteriors, including that of a policeman: a chase ensues. The man eventually runs up the wall and onto the roof of a girls' boarding school; falling through a skylight into a dormitory, he is pelted with pillows by the irate young ladies.

Stow also made movies of fantasy classics, such as the first film version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1903), co-directed with Hepworth; at circa 11 minutes it was, at the time, also the longest British film ever made. Special effects include Alice (May Clark) changing size (see Great and Small) and the Cheshire Cat fading in and out (see Invisibility). Other such films include Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast (1905), Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies (1907), The Pied Piper (1907) and Shakespeare's The Tempest (1908).

Many of Stow's lost or otherwise unavailable films have genre elements: That Eternal Ping-Pong (1902) has a table tennis game starting in 1900; in 2000 it is still going, the players now skeletons. If Women Were Policemen (1908) has, according to IMDb, "Militant suffragettes take over the police force" (see Crime and Punishment) – there were no policewoman in the UK until World War One): given an earlier film, The Story of a Modern Mother (1907), about a modern woman being neglectful of her family, it is unlikely to have been too sympathetic (see Feminism. When the Man in the Moon Seeks a Wife (1908) (see Moon), has said man travelling to Earth in a gas balloon, for reasons given in the title. In Juggins' Motor Skates (1909) the antagonist – presumably Juggins – uses motorized rollerskates (see Transportation). According to the British Film Institute, Electrical House-building (1912) has a "house is built by electrical devices".

With a distrust of foreigners and change, the response to contemporary societal trends tends to be reactionary. Though there were some adventure, serious, melodramatic or sentimental stories, most of Stow's films were broad comedies or farces, with pranks, backsides whacked, henpecked husbands, cross-dressing and the main character being chased across the countryside in true Benny Hill fashion. Some are still reasonably amusing. The sf-related films display early uses of several of Cinema's now familiar genre tropes. [SP]

Percy Stow

born Islington, London: 1876

died Torquay, Devon: 10 July 1919


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