What do you do with an insistent photographer? Eat him and his camera, of course! A darling and somewhat twisted little trick film comedy from Britain.
Early motion pictures, the ones made during the first decade of the silent era, are not the easiest films to sell. They’re short, sometimes less than a minute, and they can have a remote, surreal quality. Sure, most movie buffs have seen The Kiss, A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery, perhaps a few others, but less famous pictures can be a hard sell.
Do you want to know what my favorite early film is? It’s not from Edison, Méliès or the Lumière brothers. It’s this funny little movie from British director James Williamson.
The Big Swallow is aptly named. It runs for about a minute and the plot is as simple as it is strange. A man (Sam Dalton) realizes he is being photographed and becomes belligerent. “You there! Stop or I’ll eat the camera!” His warning goes unheeded and so the man steps forward, his whole face and then his open mouth taking over the screen. The cameraman and his equipment fall into the gaping void and the man steps back, joyously chewing on his victims.
Who doesn’t love a little light cannibalism in their comedy?
I laughed my head off the first time I saw this delightful little picture and it is one of my favorites to share with silent newcomers. Add some color and some grumbling sounds and it could easily pass as one of the quirky mini-sketches of Monty Python.
James Williamson is one of the great tinkerers of early film. As I have mentioned before, I hesitate to hand out phrases like “the first” and “invented by” but he was certainly a pioneer in multi-shot editing, closeups and the onscreen picturization of a character’s thoughts and feelings. Films like Attack on a China Mission, Fire! And The Little Match Seller assure his place in the history of cinema. (Williamson continued to tinker and innovate until his death in 1933 but directed his last picture in 1910.)
While it’s tempting to hand all the kudos to innovation to one person, the facts show that early motion pictures were a golden era of invention and numerous men and women contributed to the technology that would create the movies as we know them. James Williamson is not well known outside of nerd circles but he deserves to be.
Now let’s take a moment to break down different aspects of The Big Swallow and discuss why they succeed so well.
Technology: Williamson understood the difference between motion pictures and the stage and he took full advantage. It may seem obvious to us but at the time (and a few well into the twenties) there were directors who were content to plunk down their camera at a likely distance and let it grind. Of course, we’re not expecting an unchained camera at this point in film history but a bit of innovation is nice.
The main character of The Big Swallow approaches the camera instead of the camera zooming in on him but the result is the same: an extreme closeup that is also part of the picture’s narrative. (For another example of cast members approaching the camera in early cinema, do check out Méliès’ 1899 film about the Dreyfus Affair.) Many innovations of early cinema are credited to the French and the Americans but this picture proves that the British were also operating on the cutting edge.
The Beginnings of Comedy: Humor in silent films not labeled “SLAPSTICK COMEDY” often eludes modern viewers. They seem to think that irony, tongue-in-cheek performances and intentionally over-the-top scenes are all modern inventions. (This has plagued The Kiss in particular—it’s broad because it’s from a comedy.) While The Big Swallow is unambiguously a comedy, it is a type of humor that is not often associated with early films: black humor. Moviegoers of the early twentieth century loved their sick humor just as much as we do today. In spite of their crazy hats and celluloid collars, they weren’t all that different from us.
Killing the Frog: There is a saying that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog. You’ll find out what makes it tick but it won’t do the frog any good. In short, you kill jokes by trying to discover the secret of the humor.
The Big Swallow is funny and audacious and mad. It’s a masterpiece of bizarre humor in three succinct shots. There have been complaints about the shot of the camera being swallowed as it “detracts from the logical purity” of the film because the consumed camera no longer a surrogate for the audience point of view. With all due respect, I am call frog dissection. This is a movie about a man eating a camera and cameraman, I think we are safely in the world of the surreal. Let’s not over-analyze such a glorious bit of nonsense.
If you’re looking for something fresh and funny in early film, this is it. The early silent era wasn’t all painted backdrops, train robberies and practical jokes with skirts and hoses. Sometimes, there was also a touch of madness. Well, more than a touch in this case.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Big Swallow was released on DVD as part of The Movies Begin box set.