Interplanetary Motorcar Badminton: The Early Years
It’s back to the cinematic stone age this week with a rarity from 1906, The ? Motorist. This little British trick film is bizarre and fun, but also worthy of note for the number of its connections with early science fiction films that were and that might have been. Spoilers follow, in case that bothers you in a film less than five minutes long.
The ? Motorist begins with a couple in classic 1906 motoring regalia, swathed up in dusters and goggles in the best steampunk fashion, the lady’s hat held on by a scarf tied under her chin. They rattle along the street in their unholy chariot. A policeman steps out to stop them. They don’t stop. He ends up on the hood of the car, and a moment later is thrown off and rolled over, with a nice bit of cutting to match the live actor with the sacrificial dummy. Our Motorists drive on, as expressionless as robots. The policeman picks himself up and runs off in hot pursuit.
He chases them down a dead-end road, but the Motorists don’t stop: they head straight for the public house at the end of the street and proceed to drive up its wall, as astonished customers run out and crane back their heads to stare after them. Now the Motorists are driving through the clouds! Now they’re in outer space, motoring through the stars! Now they circle the Man in the Moon, who has clearly had some great reconstructive surgery after his first visit by explorers from Earth. Next we see the Motorists being towed by the tail of a comet to Saturn, where they use its rings as a racetrack before plunging back down through the clouds to Earth.
Meanwhile, in a courtroom, what looks to be the trial of a clown is in progress. Apparently it’s not going so well for the accused, who is gesturing angrily at the judge, when suddenly the Motorists crash through the ceiling and speed away. Everyone but the clown runs after them. At the end of a village lane the motorcar stalls. The gentleman Motorist gets out to crank the starter, just as the justice, police and solicitors arrive. He is swiftly apprehended, but abruptly there is no juggernaut motorcar—only a horse and carriage, driven by a harmless farmer and his wife. In a These-Aren’t-the-Droids-You’re-Looking-For moment, the astonished men release the farmer, who climbs up beside his wife. The carriage starts off and immediately morphs back into the motorcar. The demon Motorists make their escape!
Who are these people? Robots? Space aliens in disguise? You half expect the TARDIS to pop up on a street corner in front of them. In fact, whoever’s producing scripts for the next Doctor Who might give The ? Motorist a viewing next time they want to do a steampunk episode.
The ? Motorist was produced by R. W. Paul, one of the great pioneers of Victorian cinema, an inventor and electrical instrument maker who improved on Edison’s Kinetoscope and started a sideline business of making and showing films in 1895. Exhibited at fairs, seaside pavilions and music halls, these little novelties were full of gleeful invention and fantasy. Georges Méliès, doing the same thing in France, started out with a camera built by R. W. Paul. Paul even filed a patent application for what would perhaps have been the first mixed-media science fiction spectacle, inspired by H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. His plan was to give his audience the illusion of being transported through time and space. This never materialized, having no doubt proved too difficult to pull off—especially in a fair tent, assailed by the smells of sea air, cotton candy and donkey rides—but what a special effects extravaganza it might have been!
Paul got out of show business fairly early, but Walter Booth, who had directed The ? Motorist, remade it a few years later in 1911, when he had gone to work for another cinema pioneer, Charles Urban. The remake was titled The Automatic Motorist, and now the plot involved a couple driven on their honeymoon by a clockwork automaton chauffeur. This time out the motorcar went not only into space but under the sea. The Automatic Motorist still exists, in the collection of the British Film Institute, but to the best of my knowledge it has not been made available for viewing on DVD or download (If I’m mistaken, please advise). It appears, though, that its clockwork automaton driver beat André Deed’s The Mechanical Man to the title of first robot on film by ten years.
The ? Motorist may be found on Volume Two of Kino’s The Movies Begin, and is well worth checking out. Its use of cut frame, miniatures and double exposure animation is clever, and if you spot that bit of fishing line pulling the tiny motorcar on its wobbly way through the clouds, well, be charitable. Its journey through time has lasted a hundred and three years to date, and it shows no sign of ever breaking down.