The Early SF Movies of Percy Stow

Rating: 6 out of 10.

Percy Stow was one of the pioneers of British trick films, and often took on science fiction subjects in his short films made between 1901 and 1915. In these he showcased high technical quality and a touch of originality.

Rescued in Mid Air. 1906, UK. Directed by Percy Stow. Photography: H.V. Lawley. Produced by Clarendon Film Company. IMDb: 5.4/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Electric Transformation. 1909, UK. Directed by Percy Stow. Photography: H.V. Lawley. Produced by Clarendon Film Company. IMDb: N/A. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
The Electric Leg. 1912, UK. Directed by Percy Stow. Photography: H.V. Lawley. Produced by Clarendon Film Company. IMDb: N/A. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

I recently purchased Phil Hardy’s book The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Films (1985), which has turned out to be a cornucopia of information on the history of the genre. The book shines a light on many short films from the early period of cinema that have not been listed as SF in any of the online sources I have hitherto consulted. Two directors that stand out, whose films I have thus far neglected are British Percy Stow and American J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton I have been aware of, but have as of yet to unearth any of his SF films available for home viewing. I remember reading Percy Stow’s name, but the book has now given me a handful of titles, some of which are actually available on Youtube: Rescued in Mid-Air (1906), Electric Transformations (1909) and The Electric Leg (1912).

A humorous short, Rescued in Mid-Air may well be the first film featuring an aerial rescue operation. It starts with a young couple about to start on a bicycle trip. But an out-of-control motorcycle crashes into them, sending the woman flying into the air. Using her parasol as a parachute, she floats to a nearby church steeple, where she hangs on. People gather outside, watching as she is unable to climb down. An old scientist (according to SF scholar Phil Hardy it is her father) is called upon. Seeing her plight, he wheels out what looks like a white canoe with propellers underneath and two flappable wings. The scientist starts his airship and takes off for the rescue. On the way, something goes wrong, and he crashes through a roof into the bed of a sleeping man, but ultimately makes his way to the church steeple, and manages to rescue his daughter. However, he crash lands. He and the woman are safe, but his wonderful invention is ruined.

The flying boat from “Rescued in Mid-Air”.

As most SF films made during this decade, Rescued in Mid Air is a humorous subject. Eschewing the studio-bound fantasy worlds of George Méliès and other French filmmakers, the film has that very British on-location feel — partly due to a lack of funds and facilities, shot around Croydon. A still from the film shows the woman at the heart of the story is in fact played by a man. The hero, the scientist father, is cut from the Georges Méliès mold of the bearded, over-active type, with a broad, limping gait, compulsively thrusting his arms in the air while animated. The airship is of a rather impressive design, with functioning propellers underneath and wings that flap in the air. The boat is large enough to have housed one or two stage hands cranking at levers.

Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies states: “The film is unusually sophisticated for the period, using superimposition for the enlargement of the plane, a revolving backdrop to suggest camera movement and cross-cutting to convey the drama of simultaneous actions.” Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings calls it “a fairly amusing trick film”, while J.E. de Cockborne at A Cinema History especially singles out the early use of cross-cutting, an innovation that has, like so many others, erroneously been attributed to D.W. Griffith by American film scholars. For its era, this is a rather impressive little film, and yet another example of the many clever little movies making up film history that are all but forgotten today.

A scene from “Electric Transformations” (1909).

Five subjects were enormously popular during the first decade of SF film making: electricity, invisibility, hair restoration, automobiles and aircraft. Between 1900 and 1910 at least a good two dozen films were made that involved an aircraft of some kind. This was the period in which the first successful trials with heavier-than-air aircrafts were being done, and the press was filled with news about these experiments, as well as ruminations over the future or aeronautics. The world was also coming off festivities around the year 1900, entering a new century, and the Paris World Fair and other festivities had prompted numerous books, installations, newspaper articles and, of course, films, about what life would be like in the 20th Century.

Electric Transformations (1909) also seems to be available online in almost its entirety, even though it is listed as being 7 minutes long, but the clip available is only 2. According to Encyclopedia of SFM, the main character’s name is Professor Bode, “a pun on the music hall performer Dr. Walford Bodie, the Electric Wizard, who claimed to be able to cure all kinds of sicknesses with his electrical apparatus”. Hardy states that the movie was seven minutes long, but the two-minutes clip available online seems to contain the entire plot synopsis outlined in his book.According to Hardy, the professor teaches a class of young lades in the science of electrical transfusion of metals: The Professor takes a flat iron and puts it under a a glass dome, next to a clock sitting beside it under a similar dome. He turns a switch, the flat iron melts, and then reconstitutes in the shape of the clock. The maid protests at this misuse of household objects, so the Professor tricks her into putting her head under one dome, as he puts his own head under the other. The maid’s head dissolves and is replaced by a copy of the professor’s head. Of course, this makes the maid furious, and she is placated only after the Professor has given her a copy of the head of the most beautiful girl in the class.

A scene from the 1903 movie “Unclean World”.

Hardy writes that the film uses the trick of “dissolving one scene into another”, but this is not quite the case (many of the plot scenarios outlined in the film are based on written archive material, rather than the actual films). There ar two main effects at work here. The first an actual practical effect, namely melting objects made out of tin and then playing them the film in reverse. The second effect with the faces is essentially the same reverse photography trick, here using two masked still images, of which one “melts” and reconstitutes in “reverse melting” as another person. This may have been achieved by such a simple trick as simply melting the negative or using positive photos developed onto a plastic sheet or similar. This is a studio-bound short effort with period-typical theatrical backdrop, the type favoured by Méliès and others. The still photography and cutout effects are a bit obvious, but different enough from other techniques used at the time as to come across as quite original. Dave Sindelar writes: “the most interesting thing about this film is the striking use of special effects. IMDB claims that the electricity is used to “melt faces”, which I thought would turn out to be a simple form of double exposure, but instead we actually do get transformations that look like melting (sometimes in reverse), and that’s certainly an effect I’ve never seen from Melies. […] It’s this striking effect that sets this one apart from many of the other silent trick shorts of the era.”

“The Electric Leg” (1912).

The Electric Leg (1912) features another pun on the good Dr. Bodie, as it features a Dr. Bounds, who fits an electric prosthetic limb onto Mr. Hoppit, a one-legged man. Unfortunately, the electric leg is somewhat unpredictable, and sends Mr. Hoppit high-kicking into the streets of London, where he accidentally kicks a bobby in his hind quarters, sending him flying through a shop window. With the aid of the artificial limb, Mr. Hoppit then careens off into the nearby hills, through a lake, straight up a twelve-foot hedge onto the rooftops of the city, where he crashes into a girls’ dormitory. The girls manage to subdue him by smothering him in pillows and blankets, until the police and Mr. Hoppit’s valet are able to take him into custody.

There’s a few optical tricks at work here, but the main special effect is the, unfortunately anonymous, actor playing the role of Mr. Hoppit with quite a bit of acrobatic skill. It’s a fun 5-minute romp, but by 1912 these kinds of humorous short films were nothing new to write home about.

Scene from “The Tempest” (1908).

Along with Walter R. Booth, Percy Stow was one of the early pioneers of British trick and science fiction film. He started his career in 1901, co-directed with Cecil Hepworth, known as one of the founders of the British film industry. One of their greatest successes was the first ever adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1903), which featured very sophisticated special effects for its time. In 1904 Stow founded Clarendon Film Company in Croydon in East London, primarily as a movie camera equipment company, but which also made short films as a side business. It is perhaps best known for the first film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1908), a 12-minute short directed by Percy Stow himself.

Percy Stow made close to 300 short films between 1901 and 1916, and thus must have been one of Britain’s most prolific directors of the era. He also dabbled with SF in at least a handful of other films, including The Unclean World (1903), involving a microscope, When the Man in the Moon Seeks a Wife (1905), in which an alien descends to Earth looking for a mate, Electric Transformations (1909), the future war fantasy The Invaders (1909) and The Electric Leg (1912). Unfortunately, most of these are either lost or not available for home viewing. Stow passed away at an early age in 1919.

Janne Wass

Rescued in Mid Air. 1906, UK. Directed by Percy Stow. Photography: H.V. Lawley. Produced by Clarendon Film Company.
Electric Transformations. 1909, UK. Directed by Percy Stow. Photography: H.V. Lawley. Produced by Clarendon Film Company.
The Electric Leg. 1912, UK. Directed by Percy Stow. Photography: H.V. Lawley. Produced by Clarendon Film Company.

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