What would you do to get out of a traffic ticket? Fly to Saturn? That is the solution hit upon in this delightful British sci-fi comedy.
This is my contribution to the Outer Space on Film Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Be sure to read the other great posts!
Running rings around it
R.W. Paul isn’t a household name when early film producers are discussed and that’s a shame because he was there from the very beginning (fellow stage magician Georges Méliès bought his first movie camera from him) and he produced films that continue to showcase the charm of early British cinema.
There’s a tendency to lump all early trick films as Méliès wannabes but the genre was so widespread and so popular that it is better to simply view them as different flavors of magical cinema. British films embraced motion picture trickery but the best examples tended to make use of real world situations: an over-eager photographer, a family dog, the new x-ray fad. And then there is the black comedy. Oh yes. Cannibalism, maiming, things like that. In fact, I like to compare some of these early British films to Monty Python sketches.
The ? Motorist is no exception. Generally credited to director Walter Booth, it incorporates Paul’s love of motorcars and may have been inspired by a run-in with the law. Apparently, Paul’s lead foot won him a speeding ticket and he tried unsuccessfully to defend himself before a magistrate. There’s no real paper trail to prove that this film is a direct response to its producer’s legal woes but once you hear the story I think you will agree that it is at least a strong possibility.
A couple are motoring along the road when they are stopped by a policeman. Not wishing to be bothered on their road trip, they run him over and speed away. The policeman recovers and takes off in hot pursuit but the pair of scofflaws drive up a tall building and take off into the sky.
Once in outer space, the fly past the moon and land on the rings of Saturn, where they zip around a few times for good measure. And then they plummet back to earth and land right in the middle of a local court in session. Once again pursued by the law, the couple turn their automobile into a country cart and themselves into a pair of rural bumpkins. This confuses the magistrate and his court long enough for the couple to escape once again.
Well, that was certainly a busy two minutes! We must give the motoring couple all due respect for their tenacity; I’m not sure I have seen anybody else go to such lengths to avoid a ticket. (The only person I have met who beat a speeding ticket in court told the judge that she had a new car and wanted to go fast. He let her off for her honesty.)
While the motorists are indeed criminals who maim a traffic cop, the film keeps things light by substituting a dummy for the unfortunate officer and making clear that he has recovery powers that Wile E. Coyote would envy. Don’t worry, it’s not graphic and you can definitely share it with the kiddies.
Now obviously with the cheerful face of the moon, we are going to have comparisons so Méliès—A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage are cited most often when The ‘?’ Motorist is discussed—but this film is very much its own creation. It uses simpler, cleaner sets than the French films and is considerably shorter than both. It also has an unfussy but slightly twisted plot that sets it apart.
The Impossible Voyage is an adventure film with interplanetary flight very much the goal. The ‘?’ Motorist treats its voyage more casually; for all we know, this couple drives around Saturn every time a policeman tries to stop them. Fanciful though it may be, the fact that it deals with a familiar situation to most of us means that it forges instant sympathy with the rather naughty motoring couple.
The use of science fiction trappings in this comedy is no accident as R.W. Paul was something of a nerd. After going into the business of creating replicas of Edison’s Kinetoscope in 1894 (a peepshow movie machine that was used before on-screen projection was perfected), Paul ambitiously patented an immersive adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
According to Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, “On 24 October 1895, Paul filed a patent application for a moving picture journey through time, inspired by the H.G. Wells novella The Time Machine, in which the audience would experience the physical sensation of being transported through time and space. Among the methods suggested for achieving this illusion was screen projection of Kinetoscope films.”
The idea never really worked out, the technology was simply not up to the task that Paul had imagined for it, but it does show that he had a certain affection for speculative fiction. Paul also dabbled with the genre in the 1901 trick film The Over-Incubated Baby, which, as the title indicates, poked fun at baby incubators.
The ‘?’ Motorist is a delightful example of early trick films, British cinema and science fiction. It is short and its sets are comparatively simple but its droll narrative and winking black humor are sure to win over modern viewers, especially ones who have never seen how wickedly funny British cinema was at this point in history. Well worth your time. (And, come on, it’s two minutes.)
Where can I see it?
Available on DVD as part of The Movies Begin box set but also released in the R.W. Paul collection put out by the BFI. It’s a region 2 disc so you will want to make sure that you have a player that can handle the task.
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