An Over-Incubated Baby

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(5/10) Britain’s first sci-fi film features a marvelous incubator. The short comedy clip was directed by Walter R. Booth, early cinema’s most prolific science fiction director and the artistic dynamo behind early British cinema. 

An Over-Incubated Baby. 1901, Great-Britain. Directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Robert W. Paul. IMDb score: 6/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

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DVD cover

Is this Britain’s first science fiction film? It may very well be, as the Brits caught on to the genre a bit later than the French. Of course calling it a “genre” is historically incorrect, as no such term as science fiction existed in 1901, and the science fiction films made back then were mainly meant as humorous musing. But nonetheless, An Over-Incubated Baby, with its running time of about a minute and a half, meets the criteria of sci-fi, only the second or third film ever to do so in history. The first one was the Lumière brothers’ The Mechanical Butcher (1895, review), and it is unclear whether An Over-Incubated Baby beat Ferdinand Zecca’s The Flying Machine (1901, review) to the second spot or the other way round.

In this little film director Walter R. Booth takes on the perhaps slightly surprising topic of neonatal care, as he introduces us to “Prº Baker’s Baby Incubator” which promises to cause an infant to grow at a rate of 12 months in only one hour. A mother enters his clinic, that looks more like a sideshow stall, and drops off her young one, which is placed in a metal incubator by the doctor’s assistant. The doctor and mother exit the room, and the assistant grabs a HUGE thermometer to measure the temperature of the incubator. But the thermometer knocks over an oil lamp, causing burning oil to spill under the incubator, overheating it. After the doctor manages to put out the fire, the baby is taken out of the incubator – and lo and behold: during half a minute it has grown a whopping two feet, and has acquired a comely beard.

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At the Pro Bakem’s Baby Incubator.

To get to the roots of this rather bizarre idea, we have to delve a bit into the history of neonatal care. After the Franco-Prussian war, combined with a famine, the population of France was decreasing at an alarming rate in the 1870’s. This was also a time of advancement in Western medicine, and in combination these two factors helped to increase focus on obstretics and neonatal care. One particularly important figure in this movement was Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, who invented the first prototype for the incubator in 1882, which helped bring down infant mortality in one district of Paris by over 30 percent. Of course, the point of the incubator is that many prematurely born babies aren’t capable of producing their own body heat, and that’s why keeping them in heated incubators help them survive (the incubators were not intended to make babies grow faster, as the film suggests).

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Spectators line up for a photograph at Dr. Couney’s incubator sideshow at Coney Island.

However, the stubborn international medical field refused to listen to Tarnier or his colleague Pierre-Constant Budin, who tried to convince it of the benefits of the incubator (or the couveuse, as it was called in French), and viewed the concept as pseudo-scientific. They enlisted the help of a Dr. Martin Couney, who was blessed with gifts of showmanship, to show off the incubators at the 1896 World Exposition in Berlin. Couney didn’t stop at just showing off the incubators, but asked the Berlin Charity hospital to borrow him six premature babies, and armed himself with a small army of nurses, and set up “Couney’s Child Hatchery” between the Congo Village and the Tyrolean Yodelers at the World Exposition – and news of the incubators spread like wildfire in the press.

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Martin Couney with two prematures in the late thirties.

He then took his incubator show on tour all over the world between 1897 and 1900, including Britain and New York. In 1901 he held a highly publicised exhibition at the Pan-American Fair in Buffalo, again receiving huge amounts of press, which may have inspired Walter R. Booth to make this film. In 1904 Couney opened a permanent exhibition at Coney Island’s amusement park, where he would treat prematurely born babies from families who couldn’t afford proper health care, without charge. He employed five wet-nurses, and the whole project was financed by visitors who would pay 25 cents to look at the prematures, almost like at a sideshow. Even if his method received criticism, he helped to possibly save 6 500 babies from premature death (about 1 500 died despite the care they received) until the exhibition finally closed in 1943. Couney swore not to quit before hospitals opened proper incubator wards – which didn’t happen in the US until the sixties.

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Producer Robert W. Paul.

So the incubator was hot stuff in the press at the moment An Over-Incubated Baby was made, which explains the topic of the movie, even though it may well seem a bit bizarre, if not slightly distasteful, today. Whether it was meant as a satire on the idea of the incubator or just a harmless joke remains unclear. But it does feel like Booth is poking a bit of fun at Couney and his side-show attraction of boxed babies, from the cheap-looking, attention-grabbing poster on the wall of the clinic to the hapless assistant.

The movie is produced by Robert W. Paul, who was Britain’s primary cinematic innovator and promoter in the early days of cinema. When discussing the early days of the movies, Britain is often a bit sidestepped, despite the fact that much of the technical advancements were made by Paul and his early collaborator Birt Acres. One reason to this may be that film historians have tended to latch on to the big movie companies Pathé, Gaumont and Edison, as well as the juggernaut that was Georges Méliès.

Paul, who was by trade a maker of scientific instruments, got started in the movie business in 1894 when he found out that by some oversight, Edison hadn’t patented his peep-hole film viewing device, the Kinetoscope, in England. So he took it apart and tweaked it, designing a new English version. However, there were no films in England to view with the new machines, other than bootleg copies of Edison films. To solve this, he figured he needed to start making films, and for that he needed a camera, and buying a patented Edison camera would be expensive. So along with Acres he designed his own camera in 1895.

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Birt Acres with an early camera.

After opening a Kinetoscope parlour, he started experimenting with ways in which to project films on a screen, inspired by the success of the Lumière brothers’ screenings in Paris in 1895. Acres presented his version in January 1896, and Paul followed suit with a competing projector in February 20, ironically the same day as the Lumière brothers first showed their films in London. Paul also continued refining his camera, making it lighter and more portable, and was the first to create a camera with a reverse-cranking option, which made such things as multiple exposures possible, opening up completely new possibilities for special effects and trick filming. It was such a camera that Georges Méliès purchased when he started making films in 1896.

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Walter R. Booth.

Paul started making movies as early as 1895, first alongside Birt Acres, later by himself or with infrequent collaborators. The first ones were simply short clips of everyday life, news footage and events, soon he also started filming short comedy clips, mostly outdoors. In 1898 he constructed Britain’s first movie studio, and in 1899 he met Walter R. Booth, who would take British filmmaking to a completely new level.

Walter Booth was a porcelain painter turned stage magician, who presumably met Robert W. Paul at the Egyptian Hall, where he worked, as Paul exhibited his films there. The two struck up a partnership, as Booth was interested in filmmaking and Paul needed a collaborator who could help him with the drama and, more importantly, with developing movie tricks. Booth’s first two directorial efforts were The Miser’s Doom, a ghost story, and Upside Down; or; the Human Flies, both made in 1899. The latter portrayed a magician enchanting a group of people, making them stick to the ceiling – an effect accomplished by simply turning the camera upside down. Many of their early collaborations involved magic tricks, which Booth adapted from his stage show. But they also pioneered the use of miniature models in their 1900 film A Railway Collission.

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A scene from The Magic Sword, a Mélies-type fairy-tale film from 1901.

By 1901 the pair was swinging, making a number of accomplished trick films, including The Haunted Curiosity Shop, The Magic Sword and Cheese Mites; or; Lilliputians in a London Restaurant, the latter of which was an early experiment with superimposition through split-screen matte. An Extraordinary Cab Accident (1902) was an experiment with replacement dummies, and portrayed a pedestrian being run over by a horse-drawn carriage, trick the two would perfect in their 1906 science fiction movie The ‘?’ Motorist (review), which also features one of the common elements of the Paul-Booth movies, which is animation. In fact, the first film that Paul ever screened was an animated movie, and he was a champion of the animated film.

The duo’s roads parted in 1906, when Booth went to work for Charles Urban, the man responsible for exporting Méliès’ films to the US, much to Thomas Edison’s dismay. With Urban he made a trilogy of aerially themed science fiction films, The Airship Destroyer (1909, review), The Aerial Submarine (1910, review) and The Aerial Anarchists (1911), the last one of which seems to have been lost, as has the 1915 movie The Menace of the Air. In 1911 Booth also updated The ‘?’ Motorist as The Automatic Motorist, again taking flight. This was one of his last fictional films, as he then moved into advertising, after which film scholars seem to have lost his trail. It is probably no coincidence that so many of the great innovators of cinema’s first 20 years were more or less out of the business or pushed away from the spotlight by 1915. The new language of cinema created by American directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, the Italian historical blockbusters, followed by the Futurists, and brave Swedish innovators like Victor Sjöström and (Finnish-born) Mauritz Stiller was a language that these once so innovative filmmakers either could not or would not understand.

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The baby incubator clinic from the movie.

An Over-Incubated Baby isn’t one of Booth’s most elaborate films, and simply relies on a few clever jump-cuts. Compared to the level of sophistication someone like Méliès had achieved by this time, Booths trick films seem at times a bit crude, however he evolved over time. Although a magician like Méliès, his frequent use of animation and miniatures gives him more of a kinship to Spanish director Segundo de Chomon, director of films like The Electric Hotel (1908) and The Invisible Thief (1909,The Invisible Thief). An Over-Incubated Baby is of no great artistic or influential value, but interesting inasmuch as it is Britain’s first science fiction film. Booth is also an interesting figure to science fiction fans, as he was probably the most prolific sci-fi director of cinema’s first 20 years, alongside Georges Méliès.

Janne Wass

An Over-Incubated Baby. 1901, Great-Britain. Directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Robert W. Paul.

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