Fairy Tales: Early Stencil Colour Films from Pathé (1901-1908)

Directors: various

So, after watching that René Clair film trying to evoke primitive cinema, it seemed logical to follow it with a hit of the real thing. This is a BFI compilation of 25 early Pathé productions, ranging from one to fifteen minutes in length, almost all in the féerie or fairy tale genre, and almost all involving some degree of colour stencilling too… and I will admit that was the main drawcard for me, cos I love that stuff; I’m fascinated by early colour film and Pathé’s stencil method has always particularly attracted me.

As the DVD booklet notes, the expense of the colour process meant that Pathé made up to 200 prints of each film to get their money back, and that also seems to be why so many of them survive. The booklet calls this selection a random assortment of titles that, over the years, managed to end up at the BFI’s archive (the prints themselves are of varied provenance, some having German titles, a couple having Czech, one having Russian), but I suspect that, nonetheless, it constitutes a pretty fair cross-section of the sort of thing Pathé were doing in the first decade of the previous century. Interesting that the colour actually isn’t necessarily the chief attraction in some of them, e.g. the adaptation of Cinderella that’s monochrome until the very end; there’s a fair amount of Méliès-style trickery on show (one of his films is included as a bonus feature), and most of them evince some reasonably high production values for the period. It’s an exhaustingly long program to watch in one hit (I should perhaps have split it into two), but delightful to watch.

Alas that it’s far less so to listen to. When it comes to silent films I do tend to be a bit conservative in terms of the musical accompaniment, and generally I much prefer scores that are similar to the sort of thing that might’ve been played when a film was first shown. I don’t absolutely insist upon historical accuracy—which isn’t always possible, I know—and not everything needs the full Carl Davis treatment, I also know, and I do recognise that some unconventional scores can actually work quite well. It’s just that, as a general rule, and in my not especially humble opinion, conventional scores befitting the period of production do usually go better. That’s not what we get here. The scores have been curated by Mike Harding from the Touch Music organisation, whose own scores here involve electronic voice phenomena and recordings of film projector sounds; the list of contributors includes Touch associates like Christian Fennesz, Oren Ambarchi and Philip Jeck amongst others. In other words, decidedly not conventional silent film scores.

And, just as the disc is lovely to look at, so for the most part I found it catastrophic to listen to. Whatever merit these scores may have as musical/sound works in their own right—and some certainly do have such merit—is almost completely outweighed by their uselessness as scores for these films. They might suit some film, but damned if most of them suit these particular ones. We’re not talking about some other films these might fit; we’re talking about these ones that, with only a few exceptions, they don’t. BJ Nilsen’s score for The Blue Bird is probably the most egregious example, a grating noise piece that sounds less like it’s been produced to suit the film that it does the considerable deterioration and wear displayed by the BFI’s print of it. As I said—some unconventional scores can work for a given film, and even on this disc the London Snorkelling Team score for The Black Pearl actually does kind of demonstrate that (it’s an odd score for a film with several odd things in it, and it kind of suits it). But, to be honest, the next time I watch this DVD I think I’ll be doing so with the sound off…

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