Comic Costume Race (1896) A Silent Film Review

An 1896 charity event captured by the cameras of pioneer R.W. Paul. Comedians must don humorous costumes before engaging in a footrace. Chaos and tutu fluffing ensue.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Oh, you card!

When projected cinema burst onto the scene in 1895, most of the films screened had been originally intended for viewing through the popular peepshow machines. Audiences may have been satisfied to watch a single short film when peering through a coin-operated slot but if they were going to be seated in a theater, they wanted something longer and more elaborate.

Topical Scenes! Constant Change!

Movies were generally less than a minute at this time, so a program of multiple pictures needed to be curated and stocked. The immediate need for more films in more varieties sparked a craze with camera crews traveling the world and even more stage performers being persuaded to pose for the movies.

British pioneer R.W. Paul had helped launch cinema with early titles like Rough Sea at Dover but crashing waves alone wouldn’t entertain audiences for long. Paul’s films were screened at British music halls and this connection allowed him to book popular acts for his motion pictures, including a charity sports event in 1896. (You can read more about Paul’s history in connection to the music hall in Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema by Ian Christie.)

Program for a Paul screening.

Music Hall Sports was an annual charity event held at Herne Hill, south London on July 14, 1896 and, as with most fundraisers, the object was not really to win so much as entertain and thus raise funds. To that end, the comic costume race was more about hijinks than the footrace.

In the film, we see contestants dash to the starting line, which is lined with closed baskets. Each basket contains a multi-part costume: multiple clown suits, waistcoat, tutu, top hat, etc. They must don these items before they can begin to run. After scrabbling between them as to whose box is whose, they begin to get dressed. The contestant to our far right is particularly amusing as he takes the time to fluff his tutu as he puts it on. Again, it’s not about the winning but the entertaining.

That’s MR. Last Place to you!

Comic Costume Race was singled out as one of the highlights in Paul’s film program. In two separate pieces, The Era described the film as creating “great amusement” and that it appealed to the audience “with special force.”

(Incidentally, Paul’s music hall program was made up primarily of actuality footage but it also included fictional shorts like The Soldier’s Courtship, possibly the earliest British fiction film, and The Arrest of a Bookmaker. The Twins’ Tea Party could be a true actuality but the children behave as though they are being coached off-camera, so it could possibly be considered a precursor to docufiction.)

The setup…

Comic Costume Race appealed to the working class audience of the music halls but this picture was about to receive a shot of prestige. In addition to capturing rare footage of Victorian entertainments and being an early hit in the motion picture world, Comic Costume Race was among the first films to be screened before royalty. Queen Victoria, a keen photography enthusiast, was presented with a motion picture exhibition at Windsor Castle in November of 1896.

Film historian John Barnes extensively covered the Windsor Castle performance in his work, The Beginnings of Cinema in England. The exhibition was put on by the proprietors of the W. & D. Downey photography studio, which held a Royal Warrant and saw to the official portraits for the crown. In this capacity, the younger Downey offered to capture the royal family and their guests, including Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Turi the Pomeranian, on motion picture film at Balmoral.

The Balmoral scenes are a chaotic jumble with assorted royals striding and/or leaping, depending on their age, and multiple dogs and a horse drawn carriage in the mix. It was natural for the subjects of these films to want to see the finished result and so a screening was arranged in the Crimson Drawing Room with the Queen’s immediate family and some fifty guests in attendance.

The two William Downeys, father and son, operated two different projection machines and, in addition to the Balmoral footage, offered up a variety of films from R.W. Paul, the Lumière brothers, and others. There were also lantern slides to fill out any gaps in time between the movies.

Fighting over costumes…

Among the Paul films screened were The Bathers, The Costermonger, Skirt Dance, and Comic Costume Race. Naturally, he saw an opportunity, made the most of this royal seal of approval and added “Exhibited before H.M. the Queen at Windsor Castle” to his advertisements.

So, I think it’s safe to say that Comic Costume Race’s appeal was almost universal. The music hall audiences ate it up but royalty and the aristocracy were eager to see it as well. (Though I find it infinitely amusing that the music hall performers seemed calmer and more organized than the royal family.)

The race concludes.

Oh, and it wouldn’t be an early film without some kind of historical tangle. The popularity of Comic Costume Race was enough for Paul to shoot footage of a similar event in 1898. While, as Barnes puts it, “the indications are that it is the earlier event which is recorded” on the preserved print, there is a possibility that the film we are seeing is from 1898 and not 1896.

Whether the generally accepted date is correct or if 1898 is the real date, Comic Costume Race is amusing and charming and it’s easy to see why it appealed to just about everyone who viewed it. Now we just need to try to convince the producers of Taskmaster to include the event in an upcoming season… and don’t forget the tutu!

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by the BFI as part of their Region 2 R.W. Paul collection. It is also included on the BFI online player but that is region locked. (Grumble, grumble.)

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2 Comments

  1. Joe Thompson

    Hi Fritzi. Coincidentally, the San Francisco Giants were playing the Milwaukee Brewers today. The Brewers feature a Sausage Race during the seventh-inning stretch. People wearing giant costumes representing various types of sausage have a foot race. On Sundays, the people in the big costumes hand off to kids in little ones, who finish the race. People like comic costume races.

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