Earliest Dickens Film

The Death of Poor Joe
R: George Albert Smith. B: Charles Dickens (novel). D: Laura Bayley, Tom Green. P: Warwick Trading Company. UK 1900/01
Print: BFI National Archive

The Death of Poor Joe is a 1901 British short silent drama film, directed by George Albert Smith, which features the director’s wife Laura Bayley as Joe, a child street-sweeper who dies of disease on the street in the arms of a policeman. The film, which went on release in March 1901, takes its name from a famous photograph posed by Oscar Rejlander after an episode in Charles Dickens‘ ‘Bleak House’ and is the oldest known surviving film featuring a Dickens character.”

“The film was very likely to have been based on a stage original (Bayley was a stage actress and pantomime artist in Brighton) or possibly a magic lantern slide set. It has that look of deliberation which comes when something is being followed closely, particularly the actions of the nightwatchman. Further investigation of the film’s production origins may reveal just how closely or tangentially it is related to Dickens’ novel. The film is also interesting for the effect of the nightwatchman’s lamp light (created by a light shining off-screen) and for the wind-blown backdrop with the shadows of branches – the film was clearly made in the open-air (probably St Ann’s Well Gardens in Hove, when Smith had an open-air studio).”
Luke McKernan
The Bioscope

Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost
R: Walter R. Booth. B: Charles Dickens. D: Daniel Smith. P: Paul’s Animatograph Works (Robert W. Paul). UK 1901

“Produced by the English movie pioneer R. W. Paul, this version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was, until the 2011 rediscovery of the Bleak House-derived The Death of Poor Joe (d. G.A. Smith, c.1900/1901), believed to be the earliest adaptation of Dickens’ work on film. The only known print, held by the BFI, is incomplete, but manages to tell enough of the story for it to be recognisable. As so often in the cinema’s early days, the filmmakers chose to adapt an already well-known story, assuming the audience’s familiarity with the tale meant less need for excessive inter-titles. There is evidence to suggest that Paul’s version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was based as much on J.C. Buckstone‘s popular stage adaptation as on Dickens’ original story. (…) Although somewhat flat and stage-bound to modern eyes, this first cinematic excursion into Dickens’ most popular tale was an ambitious undertaking at the time. Not only did it attempt to tell an 80-page story in five minutes, but it featured impressive trick effects, superimposing Marley’s face over the door knocker and the scenes from his youth over a black curtain in Scrooge’s bedroom. Paul was a trick film specialist and Walter Booth – credited with the film’s direction – was a well-known magician.”
Ewan Davidson

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