Note: This is the sixty-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1911 film, THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST, directed by Walter R. Booth.
I’ve written before about how Walter R. Booth’s 1906 film THE ‘?’ MOTORIST was a trick success at a time when trick films were starting to be phased out. But in truth, that was essentially in regards to historic hindsight and my own favorites. Trick films would still continue to do big business throughout the first decade of the 1900s, although it was getting smaller as early as 1906. But by 1911, they really were being sent off into the horizon.
But once again, Booth went to bat for the genre he helped create with his last notable film before he truly left narrative film in 1915 for advertising. THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST (1911) was a remake of his film from five years earlier, itself an interesting development in the world of film. But it was also a great evolution of the special effects that typified trick films, breaking (somewhat) out of the stage limits film was bound to for most of its early life.
The film essentially follows the outline of THE ‘?’ MOTORIST: a crazy car messes with a policeman and takes off into the sky to drive around the heavens and fall to another planet of water, then Earth. But at three times the length of the original (from 2 to 6 surviving minutes), Booth was able to fill in a lot more detail and expand on some of the more fantastical and funny moments.
It opens with an inventor showing off his “automatic motorist,” a robot (the term actually hadn’t been coined yet by 1911) brought to the screen by a man in a tin suit. It serves as the chauffeur for the newlyweds, off to their honeymoon. But the inventor tags along as well, and soon after they get going, they encounter a policeman who halts them for some reason. Speeding maybe? It’s important to note here that cars were still kind of a novelty by 1911, and the idea of a self-driving one? Pure science fiction, which is what this film quite clearly is regardless. Strangely enough, watching this film from 107 years ago holds a bit of sad relevance today.
Otherwise, though, it’s a rip-roaring comedy through the heavens after the occupants of the car assault the policeman and handcuff him to their bumper for some reason. As they drive away, a dog inexplicably rushes out onto the street to bite and tear at the seat of the cop’s pants, holding on for dear life as the automatic motorist drives the car increasingly erratically. He takes the automobile around and around in ever-faster circles in the small British town’s square, driving up city hall (?) and off into the sky.
The car’s drive around Saturn’s ring is the moment most evocative of THE ‘?’ MOTORIST, but Booth ups the ante with a Méliès-esque encounter with impish aliens when the car crashes and penetrates the inner core of the planet. Oh, and did I mention the handcuffed policeman and the dog holding onto his pants with nothing but its teeth are still hanging on? After the car bursts into the mushroom-filled caverns (evoking A TRIP TO THE MOON ), it leaves behind the policeman and the dog, the latter slinking off the frame.
But this otherwise morbid development is turned into a hilarious aside when Booth follows the cop for a bit as he struggles to get away from the aliens. Once he breaches space from the planet’s interior (in case you weren’t sure about the tone of this movie, the humans have no need to breathe oxygen in space or even underwater), the cop, given a fine performance by the actor, encounters a celestial woman.
He immediately starts flirting with the alien/goddess and swinging his feet off the side of the planet’s ring, in spite of the mortal danger he’s facing and actually convincing blackness of space surrounding him. It’s a funny non sequitur. Not many films from this era are laugh out loud funny, but I found myself scoffing at and enjoying THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST’s zaniness.
When the car falls down to another planet, it falls into some water after a great display of some model work of the car being shot into the air by a jet of liquid. As it travels through the water (again, no need for air for the humans), the film takes on its most serene quality, with newts flitting about in front of the camera to simulate travel through aquatic life. Finally, the car falls back down to Earth; a farmer shoots the car/passengers out of the sky somehow, and they go on their merry way.
THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST feels like a live-action cartoon, as the best trick films did. Booth elevated the genre with THE ‘?’ MOTORIST, but he outdid himself with THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST, getting closer to the action and expanding the comedy with stronger special effects. Outside of the more sci-fi moments, as in scenes back on Earth, the film looks more like the fledgling shot-on-location films of the late 1900s and early 1910s. Released the year before Méliès retired from the screen, THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST truly marked the end of an era, when short trick films dominated the film conversation with all of the “firsts” they invented. Soon, features and more “mature” modes of storytelling would take the cinematic stage and define the medium we know today.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.