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  • Writer's pictureSouth West Silents

BFI Fairy Tales: Early Colour Stencil films from Pathe

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

The BFI’s Fairy Tales: Early Colour Stencil films from Pathe gives a wonderful insight into the work of Pathé Frères at the turn of the 20th Century (the main part of the DVD covers work from 1900 – 1908) and celebrates the incredible colour prints which were sourced by the BFI throughout the world. A fasurnating new release and very much worth ordering. More info below about this release, including how to win a copy of the new release can be found below.

For now however, we thought we would look into the world of Fairy Tales and Cinema with the help of one of our regular contributors, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry:

“My pretty dear…you must be cheerful and stop worrying…let me tell you a fairytale or two to make you feel a little better.” – Apuleius (c. 125 – c. 180)

Once upon a time fairytales were for everyone. They taught us courage and perseverance, the importance of honesty and caring for others. They entertained us and made us laugh long before the digital delights of today. The success of fairytales lies in their intoxicating blend of improbable, fantastical plots juxtaposed against the psychological truths of our subconscious drives and terrors.

With this universal appeal, it’s small wonder that fairytales films are amongst the most successful cultural commodities in the world today. The bowdlerisation of traditional fairytales by Disney has regrettably overshadowed the entire genre, so it’s important to be reminded that fairytale films do not begin and end with Disney. It’s refreshing, therefore, that the BFI, has assembled this marvelous selection of early fairytale films from the first decade of the twentieth century.

The films have their roots in the nineteenth century – a golden age for the fairytale. Folklore collectors travelled the world and the major story collections were widely read and enjoyed by the rising middle classes.

Fairies themselves were big business. They reflected the dark shadow side of a society flawed by disgusting hypocrisy and double standards. Fairies and their queen were non-monogamous and non-maternal. They loved music, dancing, and sex. They wore diaphanous, loose and flowing robes instead of constricting corsets. They ran free and wild, indulging in orgiastic revels and delicious debauchery. In short, fairies embodied everything that was forbidden. This is a vast, teeming, fascinating subject, but suffice to say there was money to be made from fairies. Filmmakers jumped on the bandwagon.

Early filmmakers came from a background of magic lantern shows, fairground magicians and shadow theatre. We see the influence of comic opera, ballet, burlesque and English pantomime. Pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès recalls: “For several years, and long before there was any question of animated pictures, the shows of the Theatre Robert-Houdin regularly ended with the projection of a series of colored photographic views on glass.” The world was poised for the birth of the fairytale film.

These early films rarely stray from the proscenium space. The camera is invariably static, but within these limitations, we see an astonishing imagination and fascination with the magical possibilities of film – apparitions, appearances, disappearances and superimpositions. In the words of Méliès – “the most impossible and improbable things”

It has to be said that the filmmaker as magician is the true protagonist of these early films, the emphasis is on invention and technical wizardry. Audiences were captivated by the illusions of disembodied heads, dragons, floating spirits and actors multiplied, fantastic tricks of perspective. The fairytale film was to develop in many directions during the twentieth century, but in these early films we see the innocence and charm of an age before the cataclysmic World Wars, an evocation of a magical existence in which we can still believe in happy endings and the fairy on top of the Christmas tree.

(Elizabeth-Jane Baldry is a harpist and composer who plays for silent film. She also directs films of British fairytales for the Chagford Filmmaking Group)

Our thanks to Elizabeth for her introduction into this wonderful world which hardly ever gets highlighted in the history of cinema!

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