A miller carrying a bag of flour and a chimney sweep carrying a bag of soot collide and a contrasting fight breaks out as the two men swing their bags at one another. A striking comedy from George Albert Smith.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
At least there wasn’t a glitter salesman…
Note: When I selected this film for inclusion in my Films of 1898 theme month, I referenced an older work dating it for that year. However, studies of George Albert Smith’s work published since have definitively pinpointed the release year of this film as 1897 with the first print sold in October. I chose to move forward with this review as the film already captured my fancy and because it illustrates the challenge of studying early cinema: new research constantly upends old assumptions, big and small. It’s exciting but it can certainly wreak merry hell with your theme months!
Okay, here’s a humorous what-if for you to ponder: suppose a miller with a bag of flour and a chimney sweep with a bag of soot start duking it out. The visual contrast would be inherently funny, as would the mess when the flour and soot spill out.
Well, that’s exactly what British comedians of the nineteenth century thought too and this popular comedy bit was the subject of one of pioneer George Albert Smith’s first films, The Miller and the Sweep. Shot on location in Brighton, Smith didn’t mess too much with the winning formula but he did open up the scenery with a real mill (the Race Hill Windmill, it collapsed in 1913) behind the combatants and a mob of either angry or amused spectators following them off the screen.
In The Brighton School and the Birth of British Film, film historian Frank Gray points out that Smith was working with a tried and tested multimedia gag. A comic sketch called The Sweep and the Miller involved men from these professions both courting a “buxom housemaid” and they engage in the “manly art” (boxing) for her hand. Other sketches and magic lantern slides followed the basic formula, though the maid was optional, and 1888 slideshow ended with the miller chasing the sweep up a chimney and their lover being unable to discover which was which.
The music hall influence cannot be denied, it was everywhere in early films generally and Smith was personally connected to the stage due to his work as a hypnotist, as well as his marriage to actress Laura Bayley. And, of course, the magic lantern was the direct precursor to projected cinema. However, it’s interesting to see that a comical contrast and/or battle between a chimney sweep and a miller can be found in other forms of art, some of which pre-dated the rise of the music hall in the mid-nineteenth century.
In fact, the white dust/black dust imagery of a miller and a sweep became a reasonably common visual metaphor and it crops up often in English works of the nineteenth century. This makes sense as both professions were easily recognizable, and the connection would have been immediately obvious.
One example is a humorous poem, The Miller and the Sweep, by Charles Bowker Ash in his 1831 collection. It’s about a miller and a sweep who stumble upon one another in the night before fleeing in terror, their flour and soot mix and cover the village in a strange gray dust. Later, the sweep claims to have seen a giant headless body and the miller claims he was fighting the devil himself but both proclaim, “Thou fool, ‘twas only I!”
(The 1924 directory Staffordshire Poets states that Ash was “a minor poet, moderately well known, possessed little more ability than the average quality.” Meow!)
In his 1849 memoirs, Sand and Canvas; A Narrative of Adventures in Egypt, with a Sojourn Among the Artists in Rome, Samuel Bevan states that soot stuck to the sweaty faces of himself and his companions, while dust clung to their clothing. “So that our ensemble partook of both the miller and the sweep.”
An anecdote published in 1861 tells the tale of a Catholic and a Protestant who engaged in a debate and both were so convincing that the Catholic converted to Protestantism and the Protestant became Catholic, “just as in the contest between the miller and the sweep, the miller beat the sweep till he was white and the sweep the miller till he was black.”
Artist Hubert Herkomer made this image the subject of a watercolor, The Miller and the Sweep, which he exhibited in 1873. The painting portrays a grand miller riding comfortably in an oxcart, while the sweep is filthy from his labors and on foot.
In addition to the long line of metaphors and imagery, there were numerous films made to take advantage of the gag. The History of British Film by Rachel Law lists Washing the Sweep (1899), The Baker and the Sweep (1898), Whitewash and Miller (1898) and The Rival Painters (1905). Piracy, unauthorized remakes and copycats, as well as parallel inventions, were a given in early film, especially with so many filmmakers dipping from the same well.
This picture is also fascinating in contrast with R.W. Paul’s 1898 comedy Come Along, Do!, which took the opposite approach to pacing. Paul’s film was also based on a well-known gag with deep roots in nineteenth-century British pop culture—in his case, a husband gawking a bit too enthusiastically at a Classical nude—but even its brief runtime takes things slowly. While The Miller and the Sweep immediately gets down to business, Paul teased audience anticipation with a separate scene portraying the couple before they enter the art gallery.
Both lighting-fast comedy and slower paced jokes can be effective in earning laughs and the fact that both approaches were being used at once is a testament to the variety that was available to audiences at the time.
In addition to Smith’s snappy pace, The Miller and the Sweep is most handsome to look at thanks to the presence of the real windmill with its blades turning in the background. Again, we have contrast between Smith’s outdoor scene and the more formal sets found in Paul’s comedy, as well as those produced by Georges Méliès. On the Roofs, for example, featured and elaborately-painted night sky and a multi-level rooftop scene for the actors to scamper across.
However, we shouldn’t let historical analysis let us forget that The Miller and the Sweep is hilarious. We get a picturesque scene interrupted by chaos and the performers, no doubt music hall veterans, do not pull their punches and thwack one another vigorously before racing out of the frame. It’s exactly the sort of chaos we can expect in early British films in general and the work of Smith in particular. There’s no better way to spend about 30 seconds.
Where can I see it?
Released in The Movies Begin collection.
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