Smoking Cabinet

By Claire Cooke and Simone Pyne

ballet-mecanique-fernand-leger.jpgBallet Mécanique, 1924

The Smoking Cabinet is a festival of short films covering the time period in which cabaret / burlesque /music hall were at their most popular. These forms emerged in the late 19th century and promptly spread through both Europe and the US becoming principal forms of popular entertainment. The programme therefore starts at the birth of film in 1894/5, tracing innovation across various cities in western Europe until 1933, the year in which a fire tour though the Reichstag, the Nazis took control of Germany and the Reich Culture Chamber was established. All these events had a serve impact on the lives of European citizens and, or course, the tone and content of the forms of entertainment they consumed.

Cabaret, which was at its highpoint during the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and early 1930s, has always been an art form that fascinated its public. The mixed bill of exotic acts, the friction between the ‘reality’ of the stage and of the audience. Hecklers from the darkened pit set it apart from regular theatre more routinely shaped by the constraints of narrative. Early cinema too - which by virtue of its ‘newness’ was experimental and unprecedented in the arena of popular culture - offered a glimpse into the unknown, mass visual entertainment capturing an other-wordliness, an innocence and sense of the unknown that we will never return to. Watching the films in this festival the audience is vicariously thrown back into the position that the original audience members inhabited - we are sat there on the brink of modernism, expectant and excited about the world of change, about a new mechanised world.

One such moment of awe was captured by W.K.L Dickson in Annabelle’s Butterfly Dance (1894) – one of the earliest examples of ciné dance performed by vaudeville artiste Annabelle Whitford Moore, who was only 16 at the time. Annabelle was featured in numerous films made by Edison and Biograph between 1894 and 1897. These films gained such popularity that the hand painted prints frequently wore out, necessitating many reprintings and several re-filmings. Moore continued to work the circuit, eventually appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies between 1907-1912.

so-this-is-paris-ernst-lubitsch.jpgSo This Is Paris, 1926

Less obvious but playing along the same lines of women’s sensuality, celebration of Victoriana, and the notion of trick / treat films for early exhibition practices, is the Birth of a Flower by Percy Smith (1910). Utilising time-lapse photography the spectator is presented with a euphony of tightly knotted buds of hyacinths, snowdrops, Japanese lilies, and roses bursting into bloom, crassly tinted in bright reds, blues and sepias that, reportedly, 'received riotous applause and requests for immediate repeat screenings.' [1]

Is there a difference / link between the re-imagining of Smith's film as an early, erotically charged example of female sexuality and the way we now feel about or view the smoking concert films originally destined for male only audiences? Films such as a Trapeze Disrobing Act (1902, Edison) in which American vaudeville trapeze artist and strongwoman Charmion strips from full Victorian outré wear to her knickers in under one minute without getting off the trapeze, are a triumph of early cinema.

Sex in cabaret and burlesque terms, and on film, meant women. In the words of Laura Mulvey, these films could often be reduced to a specific perspective in terms of spectatorship, namely ‘the gaze’. Crucial to the success and immense popularity of these early forms was the peddling of female flesh. However, many films did also recognise women as agents of change and those programmed in this season are certainly not solely about objectification. The Smoking Cabinet features women in significant and at times dominant roles, negotiating situations on their own terms. In an extract from Ernst Lubitsch’s So this is Paris! (1926) a cast of hundreds do the Charleston beneath a pair of gigantic plastic legs. Emlen Etting's avant-garde Oramunde (1933) features a mysterious nude-in-nature and Jean Renoir’s controversial Charleston Parade (1927) stars African American vaudeville performer Johnny Hudgins and Catherine Hessling in a fur skin bikini entrenched in a battle for ownership of the 20s most popular dance craze.

charleston-parade-jean-renoir.jpgCharleston Parade, 1927

Charleston... can be quite an uncomfortable film to watch – the way it portrays Hudgins is definitely at odds with contemporary feelings about race and identity politics; however migration and the selling of the exotic, the different, the new, was a key part of burlesque and cabaret – and these were platforms which performers could at least be visual, though not always political, if only on prejudiced terms.

The Smoking Cabinet will also be presenting Yes We Have No-! (1923) Adrian Brunel’s adaptation of the music hall favourite inspired by the work of German animator Lotte Reiniger, as well a Return to Reason (1921) reflecting the scope of creativity on offer in a mixed bill of delights. Shadow plays had been popular in the Parisian revue circuit since the turn of the century and Man Ray’s films were shown in the same city 20 years on at artists’ soirees. These pieces may at first appear diametrically opposed but both evoke a lyrical frenzy associated with the passion and youth of the cabaret movement.[3]

tilly-losch-joseph-cornell.jpgTilly Losch, circa 1935–38

Sexuality returns in the wit and verve of Mechanical Ballet (1924, Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy) announcing the arrival of the machine age with a striking image of the modern woman (Katherine Hawley Murphy) now as an object / image / cipher to be manipulated, repeated, layered and duplicated like the geometrical shapes, engine pumps, spinning discs and swings that comprise the backbone of this operatic tour de force..

Yet the arched eyebrows and seductive smiles don’t last for long – bridged by expressionist Hands: The Life and Loves of the Gentler Sex (1928) – the final two women are solemn, pre-occupied. ethereal creatures, Tilly Losch (1933) all in black - mapping her surroundings, her emotions - through the gentle curvature of her hands and Ettlings’ Oramunde, (Mary Binney Montgomery), naked underneath a flowing white sheet that envelopes her from head to toe as she flits through fields and forests, hides in cavernous cliffs and finally wails into the wind to take her away.

The Smoking Cabinet: A Festival of Early Burlesque and Cabaret Film (1895-1933) is playing at the Curzon Soho between 7th - 9th December. All films mentioned in this article will be screened. We shall be hosting a talk on the role of women in cabaret / burlesque and early cinema featuring contributions from Marisa Carnesky, Amy Lame and Bryony Dixon