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Smith, G.A. (1864-1959)


Main image of Smith, G.A. (1864-1959)

George Albert Smith, the British film pioneer, was born in London and first received public attention as a result of his activities as a popular hypnotist in Brighton in the early 1880s.

In 1892 Smith acquired the lease to St Ann's Well Garden in Hove. Here, in 1894, he staged a public exhibition of a series of dissolving views, by means of a powerful long-range limelight apparatus. Smith's skilful manipulation of the lantern to produce an effective dissolving view would be very important to his role in the development of film editing from 1898-1900. Cutting between lenses - in effect from slide to slide - enabled lantern stories to deal with changes in time, perspective and location. In a film such as As Seen Through the Telescope (1900), Smith guides the viewer from long shot to close-up to long shot. The smooth and logical transition found in this sequence reveals this connection with the lantern.

His promotional booklet for St Ann's of 1897 brought together the old and new technologies by advertising his "High Class Lecture Entertainments with Magnificent Lime-Light Scenery and Beautiful Dioramic Effects", and, "Cinematographe. Displays of Animated Photography, Interesting and Sensational Moving Pictures". This provides us with an important indication that Smith was interested in the relationship between lantern slides, lantern projection and film, including the integration of still and moving images in performance. Smith was also actively involved in translating popular stories into the new medium, stories that had already undergone the conversion into sets of lantern slides.

In 1896 he had acquired his first film camera from Alfred Darling, the Brighton-based mechanical engineer, and built his 'film factory' (his film processing works) the following year. By the late 1890s, he had developed a successful commercial film production and processing business. Smith's largest customer became the Warwick Trading Company, and through this relationship he started a partnership with its Managing Director, Charles Urban.

Smith's films in the years 1897-1903 were largely comedies and adaptations of popular fairy tales and stories. His wife, Laura Bayley, influenced his work within these genres. Her life in popular theatre before 1897, particularly in pantomime and comic revues, placed Smith in intimate contact with an experienced actress who understood visual comedy and the interests of seaside audiences. Laura performed in many of his most important films, including Let Me Dream Again (1900) and Mary Jane's Mishap (1903).

Smith made only the studio shot of the train carriage in The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) but when he inserted it into Cecil Hepworth's phantom ride, View From an Engine Front - Train Leaving Tunnel (1899), he created an edited film which demonstrated a new sense of continuity and simultaneity across three shots. This filmic imagination was radical for the time and Smith used this innovation to develop a series of films in 1900 that, along with The Kiss in the Tunnel, are the most important works of his film career. They are Grandma's Reading Glass, As Seen Through the Telescope, The House That Jack Built and Let Me Dream Again.

These four films depict a number of short narrative actions and as such are probably best described as narrative fragments. However, they each introduced editing concepts that would be central to the future development of film form, such as interpolative close-ups, subjective and objective point-of-view shots, reversal, the creation of dream-time and a dissolve effect. They revealed film's distinctiveness as a new visual medium and demonstrated to his contemporaries how to create a filmed sequence. These films established Smith's significance as a major film pioneer.

Grandma's Reading Glass merits close attention because it offered a new way of entering into a fictional world by sharing a very particular kind of vicarious visual pleasure. The logic of the narrative is that we can see what the Grandson can see through the reading glass. Magically, as if through the action of a spiritualist medium, we enter into his mind in order to share his vision. The sights revealed by this cinematic illusion are of everyday objects but they all possess a degree of charm and beauty, especially the close-ups of the human eye and the cat's head. This film renounced the conventions of a theatrical perspective - the fixed view from the stalls - that had been the dominant model for film production up to 1900 and continued to be a feature of Méliès' new and longer multi-scene narratives. In its place, it presented a new filmic understanding of space and time, which was designed to reveal a new subjectivity. Grandma's Reading Glass, in effect, expressed a revolutionary new form of visual representation because of its embrace of multiple perspectives within a comprehensible linear narrative.

After 1900, the two-colour additive process known as Kinemacolor came to dominate the rest of Smith's career in film. It was launched in Paris and London in 1908 and transformed by Urban into a new enterprise: the Natural Color Kinematograph Company. It had success in the period 1910 to 1913, producing over 100 short features from its studios in Hove and Nice. However, a patent suit brought against Kinemacolor by William Friese-Greene in 1914 led to its collapse and ended Smith's career in the film business.

Barnes, John, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England 1894-1901, Volumes 2-5 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996-98)
Bottomore, Stephen, 'Smith versus Melbourne Cooper: An End to the Dispute', Film History, 14, 1, 2002, pp. 57-73
Gray, Frank, 'Smith the showman: The early years of George Albert Smith', Film History 10, 1, 1998, pp. 8-20
Gray, Frank, 'Smith versus Melbourne Cooper: History and Counter-History', Film History 11, 3, 1999, pp. 246-261
Gray, Frank, 'George Albert Smith's visions and transformations: the films of 1898', in, Popple, Simon and Toulmin, Vanessa, (eds), Visual Delights: Essays on the Popular and Projected Image in the 19th Century (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000), pp. 170-180
Thomas, D. B., The First Colour Motion Pictures (London: HMSO, 1969)

Frank Gray, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of As Seen Through A Telescope (1900)As Seen Through A Telescope (1900)

A three-shot comedy about a voyeur getting his just desserts

Thumbnail image of Comic Faces - Old Man Drinking a Glass of Beer (1898)Comic Faces - Old Man Drinking a Glass of Beer (1898)

Comical short about the effect drink has on a man's behaviour

Thumbnail image of Grandma Threading her Needle (1900)Grandma Threading her Needle (1900)

Short 'facial' about an elderly woman's traumas and triumphs

Thumbnail image of Grandma's Reading Glass (1900)Grandma's Reading Glass (1900)

Short silent film experimenting with close-ups

Thumbnail image of Hanging Out the Clothes (1897)Hanging Out the Clothes (1897)

Short comic vignette in which a wife unmasks her cheating husband

Thumbnail image of House That Jack Built, The (1900)House That Jack Built, The (1900)

Comic short with a pioneering use of reverse motion

Thumbnail image of Kiss in the Tunnel, The (Smith) (1899)Kiss in the Tunnel, The (Smith) (1899)

G.A. Smith's teasing short film about a brief encounter in a railway tunnel

Thumbnail image of Let Me Dream Again (1900)Let Me Dream Again (1900)

A fantasy of kissing a beautiful woman gives way to grim reality

Thumbnail image of Lettie Limelight in Her Lair (aka Miss Bayley) (1900)Lettie Limelight in Her Lair (aka Miss Bayley) (1900)

An actress prepares for her music hall performance

Thumbnail image of Mary Jane's Mishap  or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin (1903)Mary Jane's Mishap or, Don't Fool with the Paraffin (1903)

Early 'trick' film in which a house servant is careless with fire...

Thumbnail image of Miller and the Sweep, The (1897)Miller and the Sweep, The (1897)

One-shot visual gag about a miller and a chimney sweep coming to blows

Thumbnail image of Old Maid's Valentine, The (1900)Old Maid's Valentine, The (1900)

Tragicomedy about a misinterpreted Valentine card

Thumbnail image of Pageant of New Romney, Hythe and Sandwich (1910)Pageant of New Romney, Hythe and Sandwich (1910)

Kinemacolor record of a local history pageant

Thumbnail image of Quick Shave and Brush-Up, A (1900)Quick Shave and Brush-Up, A (1900)

Short comic 'facial' about a man grooming himself

Thumbnail image of Santa Claus (1898)Santa Claus (1898)

Visually ambitious short about a traditional Christmas visitor

Thumbnail image of Scandal Over the Teacups (1900)Scandal Over the Teacups (1900)

Comedy about two gossiping women

Thumbnail image of Sick Kitten, The (1903)Sick Kitten, The (1903)

Short film about two children tending to a sick kitten

Thumbnail image of Spiders on a Web (1900)Spiders on a Web (1900)

Close-up images of two spiders

Thumbnail image of Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906)Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906)

Pioneering colour guide to various Scottish tartans

Thumbnail image of Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs (1908)Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs (1908)

Experimental film showcasing the Kinemacolor process

Thumbnail image of X Rays, The (1897)X Rays, The (1897)

Comedy about a courting couple filmed by X-rays

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How the British helped create a new art form

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Thumbnail image of Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)