The Automatic Motorist


(4/10) In 1911 British film pioneer Walter R. Booth updated his five years old film The ‘?’ Motorist with better effects, more outer space madness and a robot. Technically brilliant, the six minute short still feels anachronistic in an age where feature films were making their entrance. 

The Automatic Motorist. 1911, UK. Written & directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban for Kineto Films. IMDb score: 6.0. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A. 

1911_automatic_motorist_002Beside France Britain was the only country with any substantial output of science fiction films before 1910. And this was exclusively thanks to one man, Walter R. Booth, who made all of them. He continued this in the first years of the 1910’s, and is best known for his trilogy of aerial invasion films, The Airship Destroyer (1909, review), The Aerial Submarine (1910, review) and The Aerial Anarchists (1911, lost film). His last sci-fi movie was a short called The Automatic Motorist, made in 1911, which marked the start of his descent into obscurity. The 6 minutes long film was an updated version of his 1906 movie The ‘?’ Motorist. I suggest you read my review of that film before digging into this one. If however, you do not feel inclined to take my advice, I can tell you in brief that The ‘?’ Motorist follows the exploits of a young couple tearing through the streets of London in their extraordinary car, running over police officers, speeding through roundabouts and scaling vertical storefronts, until they fly off to the clouds, take a trip around the rings of Saturn and crash back to Earth through the roof of a court house.


Inspecting the robotic driver.

The Automatic Motorist is basically the same film, with a few additions and much better effects. In this film it isn’t the newly-wed couple themselves that drive, but in fact it is a robotic autopilot of the drain-pipe and air duct variation so popular during the first decades of sci-fi films. An elderly gentleman is also along for the ride, but it’s unclear whether this is perhaps the father of the bride, or the inventor of the driving robot, or perhaps both. They drivers also pick up a troublesome policeman, who gets pestered by spear-wielding children in the caves of Saturn, but ends up eloping with a good Saturnian fairy. Done with Saturn, the robot driver continues down into the oceans of an unnamed planet, where our heroes explore marine life before plunging back into Earth’s atmosphere, where their car is blown to smithereens by a lightning strike in the clouds, and the passengers tumble down to terra firma, landing squarely on top of a bird hunter.


The police officer eloping with the fairy of Saturn.

The ‘?’ Motorist was one of the last films Booth did for cinema pioneer Robert W. Paul, and The Automatic Motorist was an updated version produced by Booth’s second long-time collaborator, American-born director, documentary pioneer, distributor and all-round movie mogul Charles Urban. As TV, video and other home viewing devices were still pure science fiction, rehashing old films for new audiences with a few years’ intervals wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but with the pace that cinema was evolving, one would expect to see radical improvements over five years’ time. And The Automatic Motorist does deliver on these improvements from a technical standpoint. Where the trick filming in the previous film was often a bit sloppy and amateurish, the effects of the remake are top standard (however, it also relies less on double exposure, which was the main problem in the previous film, and more on animation). Booth also happily throws hid camera around, sometimes rotating it over 1 000 degrees in a single shot, for example in scenes where the car is seen tumbling through space.


Walter R. Booth.

Walter R. Booth’s strength always lied in his unfettered imagination and his rascally love for speed and mayhem: while other filmmakers might have portrayed his speed freaks as a menace to society, Booth cheered them on. The ‘?’ Motorist looked like nothing else when it came out, and was a celebration of rebellion joie de vivre. Something of this aspect is lost in The Automatic Motorist, as Booth places a robot behind the wheels and hides the young couple in the back seat. Apart from containing some good effects, the additions to the film don’t really add anything crucial, either, and where the original felt – well, completely original – the new stuff is just old Georges Méliès tropes. The robot also feels like a lost opportunity. While it isn’t the first film containing a robot, it is probably the earliest surviving movie with a robot, and it would have been nice if Booth had done something more with the tin can man. Now we get some robotic silliness in the beginning of the film, but once the autopilot is in the driver’s seat, the movie more or less forgets about it.

So while The Automatic Motorist is probably the technically most impressive of Walter R. Booth’s science fiction films (or at least the five that are available today), it feels like the least inspired. It is also that last of his films that gets mentioned in his online biographies, even though he continued to make short movies up until 1915, when he jumped ship to commercials, apparently carving out a nice niche for himself with his skilful special effects and animations.


A rude robotic driver.

Booth began work in his fathers porcelain painting business, and soon turned his love for stage magic into a profession at the Egyptian Hall, where he joined a stage show. It was presumably there he met Robert W. Paul as he exhibited his films. 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


Probably the earliest existing footage of a robot in film.

The duo’s roads parted in 1906, when Booth went to work for Charles Urban. After leaving Paul, Booth made his own garden studio, and the sort of half-hearted attempts at realism that he dabbled in is described by one of the leading cameramen in early British cinema, F. Harold Bastick: “The very settings used were fakes. In the case of an interior, the entire room would be painted in black and white on a backcloth, the big camera focused on it, and real furniture set in positions to tally with the perspective of the backcloth. Realism was added by cutting a slit in the canvas and pushing a real table half way into the hole to match up with the painted half-table on the cloth!”


Rounding the moon.

This doesn’t mean that Booth’s movies are bad: in a world of cinema that was still growing at a rapid pace, and where all filmmakers were still sort of finding their feet in an ever-changing reality, Booth was without doubt among the most talented and the most daring risk-takers, trying to push the medium forward in ways that his meagre Charles Urban budget just wouldn’t allow. Booth’s sci-fi films can be viewed with the same loving tongue-in-cheek attitude that the films of Ed Wood produce: Booth was determined to get his stories to the screen using whatever means available. So what if the cardboard cutout submarine looks nothing like the one in the stock footage? The viewer won’t worry about the details! It’s the magic that counts! That is not to say that Booth was as bad a filmmaker as Wood (who in my opinion was better than his reputation), just that he shared the same passion for telling stories with film.

In 1915 Booth seems to have parted ways with Urban, and focused on making commercials, while Urban was active in British propaganda pictures during WWI. IMDb has no films listed for Booth after 1918, and to quote basically all biographies found on the internet: “Little is known of his subsequent career and he died in Birmingham in 1938”. 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.

Janne Wass

The Automatic Motorist. 1911, UK. Written & directed by Walter R. Booth. Produced by Charles Urban for Kineto Films. 

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