From fine sculpture to humorous painting to novelty song to stereoptic slide to motion picture, Come Along, Do! has had quite the pop culture journey. Often listed as the first movie with multiple scenes, this R.W. Paul comedy played with both the old and the new.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
“I’m going to look at Classical statues to appreciate art!” was the “I read this spicy magazine for the articles!” of the nineteenth century and, of course, was the punchline of many a joke involving wayward husbands who were, perhaps, a bit too dedicated to improving their cultural literacy.
It was the subject of British pioneer R.W. Paul’s 1898 comedy, Come Along, Do! When dealing with early film, it’s always risky to list anything as an unambiguous first but Come Along, Do! is often cited as the first film with two spatially distinct shots (in other words, different scenes) edited together and I cannot name an earlier one.
Filmmakers had been playing with time and space prior to 1898. The substitution shot (stop camera, change something, start camera, presto change-o!) had been present in film before projected cinema, as seen in The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895). However, Come Along, Do! represents a shift toward more elaborate storytelling and creating a narrative rhythm rather than merely capturing action.
Unfortunately, the second scene—approximately 1/3 of the film’s one-minute runtime— is lost and all we have are stills. However, Come Along, Do! was based on a popular song and comedy trope, so it’s easy to extrapolate how the footage would have played out.
The surviving scene of the film shows the couple sharing refreshments on a bench outside an art gallery. The husband slyly eyes the ladies walking by and then asks to go into the gallery proper, which his wife agrees to do. In the next, lost scene, the husband is trying to extoll the beauties of a nude Venus—and ignoring a bust of Queen Victoria, I might add— while his exasperated wife responds, “Come along, do!”
(It has been suggested that Paul and his wife played the bickering couple. This certainly would be in keeping with the family business aspect of early British film and it’s a charming thought. I hope it’s true.)
Audiences would have been familiar with the old hit song Come Along, Do! (more on that in a bit) and it is likely that any musical accompanist would have dusted off the tune to accompany the picture. The main verse that was remembered at the time was about a man admiring a Venus before being told that he ought to know better by his wife.
The lengthy nature of the surviving scene seems to have been intended to build up anticipation for the iconic Venus-staring gag that R.W. Paul’s audience would have known and expected. The actual joke would have been too short for a film even in this era of one-minute pictures, and so Paul teased before he delivered.
It is important to understand this because Come Along, Do! has been criticized for not providing a setup and a payoff. In fact, there is a setup but it relies on context that Paul reasonably assumed his audience would recognize at once. British viewers of the 1890s would have heard the strains of the old classic song, seen the sign “Art Section” and immediately understood what was coming next. This was extremely common in early film. Entire productions lasted just seconds and the audience was expected to fill in the gaps. Not a setup as modern comedians use it but there definitely was structure.
For a more modern interpretation, if you were watching a short called Piña Colada saw a man getting ready for an adulterous blind date to the strains of the old chestnut Escape (The Piña Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes, his date turning out to be his wife would be a punchline in need no further setup.
The Sounds of the Silents in Britain edited by Julie Brown and Annette Davison describes the film’s “complex genealogy,” explaining that the song Come Along, Do! was inspired by a humorous painting of a husband suddenly becoming an art lover when confronted with a nude sculpture of Venus.
Venus or Aphrodite, of course, was a wildly popular subject for all forms of fine art. While the statue used in the Paul film was a replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Venus with the Apple, the inspiration for the song is listed as neoclassical sculptor John Gibson’s Tinted Venus, which controversially revived the authentic practice of polychromatic sculpture. Classical statues were often elaborately painted but the pigments faded or flaked away, leaving the white marble that delighted Western Europe, authenticity be damned.
Gibson’s palette was nowhere near as ebullient as his Greek and Roman forebears—it’s well-nigh invisible in many photographs—but he did tint the skin and hair of his creation and give her a golden apple and earrings. It was unveiled at the International Exhibition of 1862 to mixed reviews. The Saturday Review was somewhat sarcastic about the tinting and felt that the statue’s proportions were off, writing it off as a second-rate statue by a great master. The Examiner sniffed that if the statue was given golden earrings, why not kid boots and silk stockings too?
The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics took a more tongue-in-cheek approach, declaring that if the statue became the new feminine ideal, the lack of eyelashes would be a problem for certain women. Punch joked that someone suggested the statue start wearing crinolines if it was so stintingly endowed.
The Year-Book of Facts in the International Exhibition of 1862 felt it necessary to correct the notion that Gibson colored the statue in order to make it more lifelike. It states that Gibson colored the statue to soften its look and give it an ivory appearance. Whether this was accurate or merely a cover to shield the statue from censorship is another discussion for another day.
So, in addition to the usual debate about color on Classical sculpture, the question of artistic nudity was in play, with the usual battle lines drawn. (A grade school teacher of mine gifted me The Book of Gnomes after a starchy parent demanded its removal for its, ahem, European perspective on gnomish breasts.) You have your art lovers just trying to be classy and junk, your offended prudes, and your Guys Who Are Suddenly Devotees of Sculpture, Apparently, But Only Female Nudes, Nudge Nudge Wink Wink. ‘Twas ever thus.
This led to a humorous painting of a man trying to enjoy the art at the Exhibition, with his furious wife pulling him away, playing into the old “wife as jailkeeper” comedy trope. And, finally, this is where we meet the 1874 song Come Along, Do! It featured a close copy of the painting on the sheet music and the lyrics poked fun at the whole affair:
To Dr. Kahn’s Museum I took her, one day,
To study the classical nude;
She thought that Venus and Jupiter were
Underdressed and decidedly rude.
The beauties of Venus I tried to point out,
When into a temper she flew,
“She’s worse than Mazeppa, it’s awful, she said,
I’m ashamed, sir, so come along do.”
Come along do, come along do;
What are you staring at? come along do;
Come along do, come along do,
You ought to know better — so come along do.
(Dr. Kahn’s Anatomical Museum had been another controversial topic of the previous decades, with its graphic exhibits. Mazeppa likely refers to the poem by Lord Byron, much of which concerns the title character being bound naked to a horse, which itself inspired numerous works of visual art that would have in turn inspired many a “Come along, do!”)
The scene was visualized with an 1874 stereograph image portraying a reverent lover of the female nude in art (NUDGE!) and his irritated wife. Stereographs were placed in a viewing device and gave the illusion of a 3D image. They can be compared to those View Master toys that many of us knew and loved as children. The dramatic nature of the vignette would have been ideal for the stereograph, which was not animated.
There were adult stereographs but in this more family-friendly image, the Venus is obscured but it seems to be Venus Italica by Antonio Canova. (Which, interestingly enough, was also lightly and less controversially tinted by its maker.) A visitors guide to London published in 1874 directed tourists to view a copy of the statue at Lansdowne House, so it certainly was within reach of the general public.
While the Tinted Venus is not specifically named as the troublemaking statue in any of these sources, it was certainly the most famous British Venus of the time and was referenced regularly in discussions of art, it even had a variety of fuchsia named after it. It was also used referenced as an example of ideal beauty and Punch picked it up as slang for stylish beauties. (Paul’s use of the replica Thorvaldsen Venus doesn’t really signify much as the film’s sets were very simple and he likely used the closest Venus he either owned or could borrow.)
So, now we are left with a very interesting question: if it was the tinted version that inspired this pop culture chain, just twelve years separated the Venus from the song and stereograph. But the film Come Along, Do! was released twenty-four years after the song was published. Hardly a piping hot pop culture reference.
However, 1898 was the year that the Tinted Venus was back in the news.
A lengthy piece in the 1898 edition of The Magazine of Art covered the art collection that businessman Thomas J. Barratt kept at his home, Bell-Moor. He had purchased the Venus at a Christie’s auction after what the magazine described as “a warm competition” for the sum of £2,000. (£200,000 or $240,000 in today’s money).
Barratt is considered to be the father of modern publicity campaigns. His Pears’ Soap brand used whimsical paintings of children enjoying the product and secured celebrity endorsements, making it a Victorian pop culture icon. Barratt was clearly branding himself as well as a man of taste and refinement, more than just a clever soap hawker and fit for the finest society. The Magazine of Art covered his entire collection in glowing terms but paid special attention to the Venus.
R.W. Paul was born seven years after the Tinted Venus sculpture was unveiled and would have been a small child when the song was at its height of popularity. Perhaps Come Along, Do! was created because of a nostalgic whim, the availability of a Venus or because of the coverage of Barratt’s collection. Wherever Paul found his inspiration, it seems reasonable to at least consider that the Venus being in the news once again helped jog the national memory of the good times singing Come Along, Do! If Barratt understood the power of the Venus for publicity, an old entertainment hand like Paul absolutely would have seen it too.
In any case, Paul was not alone in his revival of a Venus statue for comedy. Thomas Anstey Guthrie, under the pen name F. Anstey, published The Tinted Venus in 1884 and it was still in print in 1898. The story told the tale of a statue of Venus coming to life and befuddling an innocent barber. It was subsequently adapted into the play and film One Touch of Venus, which in turn likely influenced the 1987 film Mannequin. (F. Anstey stories had a knack for ending up in later novels and Hollywood adaptations uncredited. His humorous 1882 novel Vice Versa was about parent and child switching bodies, which surely made for a freaky Friday.)
Conclusion: John Gibson tinting the hair of a marble statue 150+ years ago is the very definition of the Butterfly Effect in pop culture.
It’s unlikely that the second scene of Come Along, Do! will emerge after all these years but we have to hold out a little hope. Those two still shots are all we currently have but we can always wish for a reel hidden away in a basement or attic or farmhouse or Czech movie theater. A film with such rich history surely deserves its survival.
Where can I see it?
Released as part of the BFI’s R.W. Paul collection.
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