Walter R. Booth Films Ranked
Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the eighth installment, featuring Walter R. Booth, who was born on July 12, 1869 in Worcester, England and died in 1938 in Birmingham, England.
Walter R. Booth was a British filmmaker active in the early days of cinema. A pioneer in the trick film genre in England, Booth has become an obscure figure in film history. He worked for more famous British producers, Robert W. Paul and Charles Urban, and made films that emulated the work of the foremost director of film’s first decade, Georges Méliès. But as his career progressed, he defined his own style by an increasing complexity within the trick film framework. But like Méliès, it eventually made him out-of-touch.
And also like Méliès, and many other first filmmakers, Booth was a magician. He allegedly met Paul while performing, working for the producer as a director beginning in 1899. Booth’s earliest works are ironically more singular; it wasn’t until a few years later that he was (made?) to lean into the Méliès approach. In 1906, he left Paul to work for Urban, with whom he made what could more accurately be described as narrative films; albeit ones replete with tricks. By 1915, Booth was done with fiction films, however, making advertisement films for the rest of his known career. Otherwise, we just know that he died in 1938. As a filmmaker for two of the most important British film pioneers of the first years of cinema, Booth still has relevance today. But watching his delightful trick films, whether they’re wholly original or not, also establish him as an important creator in world and British film. I’ve ranked his most accessible films below, although these 18 are just a fragment of the over 150 that Booth made.
#18 — AN EXTRAORDINARY CAB ACCIDENT (1903)
A fun little bit of dummy work makes what is just generally a dark subject matter (a man being run over by a horse) into a comical one. And he ends up being fine! AN EXTRAORDINARY CAB ACCIDENT is pretty basic.
#17 — THE EXTRAORDINARY WAITER (1902)
The waiter in blackface is no good, but the effect of his head coming back up to his shoulders after a patron shoved it down is pretty incredible. It resides in the uncanny valley.
#16 — THE WAIF AND THE WIZARD (1901)
A simple, fun bit of business makes up this strictly defined trick film.
#15 — WILLIE’S MAGIC WAND (1907)
The titular Willie wreaks havoc on his family members to middling comic success.
#14 — THE HAUNTED CURIOSITY SHOP (1901)
There’s more uncomfortable racial humor in THE HAUNTED CURIOSITY SHOP, but Booth’s rendering of various appearances and disappearances from striking characters draws the eye more strongly than the films above this one one.
#13 — UNDRESSING EXTRAORDINARY (1901)
A distinct play on a concept Méliès would use multiple times, UNDRESSING EXTRAORDINARY features a man trying to get his clothes off. But every time he does, some new fantastical costume appears on his body, until his bed disappears and bursts of feathers rain down upon him. It lacks the manic energy of Booth’s competitor, but the concept is sound.
#12 — ARTISTIC CREATION (1901)
The effect of building a woman and the early glimpse at animation (this film does not actually qualify as animation, but it follows the pattern and set up of the ones that would come soon) elevate this short.
#11 — THE WONDERFUL BABY INCUBATOR (1901)
This early “sci-fi” short has a real good payoff to its gag: the titular incubator, which promises one years’ growth in one hour (which comes with a whole set of ethical questions), spits out a baby with crazy amounts of head and facial hair. THE WONDERFUL BABY INCUBATOR is a good indication of the bizarro worlds filmmakers were already creating, and their more bizarro senses of humor.
#10 — IS SPIRITUALISM A FRAUD? (1906)
Eerily similar in name and initial concept to Méliès’ UP TO DATE SPIRITUALISM (1900, it’s almost like Booth copied it!), IS SPIRITUALISM A FRAUD? is nevertheless interesting insight into the scientifically minded intelligencia that made up the class of men (and they were almost entirely men) making movies at the time. And really, Booth’s film diverges wildly from Méliès’, taking action out onto the streets and featuring some pretty incredible special effects of “spirits” against a black backdrop.
#9 — CHEESE MITES; OR, LILLIPUTIANS IN A LONDON RESTAURANT (1901)
A rare example of Booth innovating before his erstwhile “inspiration” Méliès, CHEESE MITES hinges on a pretty startling and impressive special effect. The titular mites interact with a normal-sized human through a rather well-hidden screen split, considering this film was made 118 years ago.
#8 — SCROOGE, OR, MARLEY’S GHOST (1901)
The first true Dickens adaptation features some impressive visual effects (the face in the door knocker, ghostly apparitions created by superimposition). SCROOGE, OR, MARLEY’S GHOST survives in fragmentary form, but the famous story is easy enough to follow.
#7 — UPSIDE DOWN; OR, THE HUMAN FLIES (1899)
If not his debut, then one of his earliest efforts, UPSIDE DOWN; OR, THE HUMAN FLIES demonstrates Booth’s ability to “disrupt” the basis of the nascent film industry (actualities) with what we now consider to be simple tricks. He just turned the camera upside down! But this simple illusion pays off, setting an early precedent for film to be able to create bizarre scenarios and fantastical effects.
#6 — A RAILROAD WRECK (1900)
Booth basically filmed a model train set for A RAILROAD WRECK, but its very simplicity, especially for 1900, makes it a charming novelty that echoes later efforts in the stop motion space and model-based practical effects. This is based mostly on the miniaturization of its subjects and landscape, which allow for incredible actions that would otherwise be logistically impossible or exceedingly expensive. The principles Booth set forth here would be used for more than a hundred years. And he basically just filmed some toys, but then again, those aren’t real spaceships in STAR WARS (1977).
#5 — THE HAND OF THE ARTIST (1906)
Considered the first British animated film in spite of the fact there’s not really much true animation here, THE HAND OF THE ARTIST nevertheless does feature a novel conceit, that of bringing live action photography to life by way of the metafictional artist just off camera. This, at least, follows the convention of animated films to come, which almost always featured the artist presenting or preparing their work.
#4 — THE ‘?’ MOTORIST (1906)
An impressive comic short that brings cab riders to the stars and beyond, THE ‘?’ MOTORIST (pronounced THE ‘Q’ MOTORIST) has some more of that charming miniature work going on. It has a much more frenetic pace than other Booth films, lending comparison to Méliès; but then, the concept of the film is unique in its own right.
#3 — MAGICAL SWORD (1901)
MAGICAL SWORD is a detailed fantasy film with an incredible opening set piece, with great dark space and illusory depth provided by a crescent moon and castle tower in the background. The giant effect is truly unsettling, although Booth just essentially filmed a man close up and superimposed it on the black background.
#2 — THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER (1909)
Perhaps Booth’s most ambitious film, THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER is a prescient view of the aerial combat of the future. Although, of course, we weren’t using blimps in World War I. Nevertheless, the fragments of the film we have show an increasing narrative complexity, complete with drama and a romantic subplot. But the crafting of the titular airships, cardboard creations rendered in three dimensions against beautiful painted backdrops, stand out. And then Booth’s presentation of the aerial combat and the wanton destruction of sets elevate the whole film to something even more impressive, signifying a transition to film language more complex than most of his contemporaries, even if it was still rooted in trick film conventions.
#1 — THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST (1911)
THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST is ostensibly a remake of THE ‘?’ MOTORIST, although it introduces another ahead-of-its-time visualization, not unlike THE AIRSHIP DESTROYER. This time, Booth injects a robot (before the term was coined) into the story, having it drive his masters to the stars and beyond. Looking at the more descriptive shots and humorous situations of THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST, its superiority over THE ‘?’ MOTORIST is clear. THE AUTOMATIC MOTORIST is Booth’s best film because it’s an entertaining ride throughout, representing the culmination of his trick film career on the precipice of the next evolution of cinema.