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Death of Poor Joe (1900/01)


Main image of Death of Poor Joe (1900/01)
35mm, 50 ft, black & white, silent
DirectorG.A. Smith
Production CompanyWarwick Trading Company

A lowly young crossing sweep meets his tragic end on the unforgiving London streets.

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This apparently modest film by the Brighton-based film pioneer G.A. Smith marks a major discovery. It was never exactly lost - it has been safely preserved in the BFI National Archive for many decades - but its significance was obscured by an incorrect title, Man Meets a Ragged Boy. Now with its original title restored, we can see it for what it is - the oldest surviving film version of a work by Charles Dickens, predating R.W. Paul's Scrooge, of Marley's Ghost (1901) by several months at least.

It depicts the character 'poor Jo' (spelled Joe in the catalogue title), the crossing sweeper from Bleak House, one of a number of pitiable child figures in Dickens (including Smike, Oliver, Little Nell and Tiny Tim), and arguably the most helpless and abandoned of them all. Poor Jo is seen at night against a churchyard wall, freezing with his broom in the winter snow. A passing watchman catches Jo as he falls to the ground. But he is too late, and can only comfort the dying boy, shining his lamp upon Jo's face and mumbling a prayer. Jo puts his hands together and, taking the lamp for heavenly light, he dies.

There are enough similarities with the demise of Bleak House's Jo - the cemetery before which Jo collapses, the reciting of the Lord's prayer - to make the source unambiguous. But the film also conflates Dickens' story with that of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, who freezes in the snow but is comforted by visions of light and warmth. Dickens' Jo does collapse at the gates of the grim Tom-all-alone's cemetery, but he is then carried by the doctor, Allan Woodcourt, into George's shooting salon, where he dies surrounded by helpless wellwishers.

The film is apparently mentioned in the Biokam catalogue, meaning it was released sometime between the mid-1899 launch of the equipment (a combined camera/projector for the amateur market using 17.5mm film) and March 1901, when it appears in the catalogue of the Warwick Trading Company. It seems that a selection of films were issued with the Biokam - probably existing films reduced from 35mm. G.A. Smith worked for Warwick at that time, processing the films, so he would have been in a position to make the reductions from his own stock, and the actors are identifiable as Smith regulars Tom Green and Laura Bayley (Smith's wife).

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
Complete film (1:03)
Bleak House (1920)
Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost (1901)
Dickens on Film