London on film, now and then

Last year when I posted about Claude Friese-Greene’s rare natural color films of Britain in the mid-1920s restored and preserved by the British Film Institute, one of the commenters (hi Karen!) noted that she kept looking up locations in the period film on Google Maps to compare what they look like now to what they looked like 90 or so years ago. Someone else had a similar idea, only he kept to the same medium.

Short film director Simon Smith spent much of 2013 following in Claude Friese-Greene’s footsteps. Smith took modern versions of the Biocolour camera and with an impressive attention to detail, placed himself precisely where Friese-Greene had shot his scenes of London in 1927 at the end of his three-year cross-country journey. The result is a side-by-side before-and-after view of London in 1927 and in 2013.

The shooting angles are so well-matched, even where there are more street lanes or a completely different skyline. It’s remarkable how similar old and new London vistas are despite all the new construction.

Simon Smith didn’t stop at Friese-Greene’s film. Next he turned to another film in the BFI National Archive, Wonderful London, filmed in 1924 by Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller. Parkinson was General Manager of Master Films, a production company that focused on creating cheap, short melodramas, romances and action pictures until 1924 when the company folded. Parkinson and Miller had worked together before on Master Films’ 1922 anthology Tense Moments from Famous Plays, which I would dearly love to see because it sounds awesome.

(I would also do unspeakable things to see Parkinson’s unreleased 1928 The Life Story of Charlie Chaplin, a pictorial history of Charlie’s poor childhood on the streets of London. Parkinson shot the neighborhoods Chaplin grew up in, the schools he went to, old music hall artists young Charlie performed with, and contrasted them with his luxurious accommodations at The Ritz during his triumphant 1921 return to the London of his youth. Apparently the movie was never released because Chaplin got wind of it and prevented its distribution. The original film was discovered in the attic of one of Parkinson’s relatives in 1997 and sold at Christie’s for $28,552. As far as I can tell, whoever bought it has not published it. Boo!)

After Master Films went out of business, Parkinson and Miller focused on travelogue shorts, starting strong with Wonderful London, a series of 20 short films each about 10 minutes long that capture London’s lesser known attractions and non-touristy neighborhoods along with the famous sights.

This time, Smith went for a more unusual approach. Instead of the side-by-side, he embeds the 1924 film into the middle of the modern scenes he shot to match. It’s eerie and cool to see the modern world blend into the sepia world like someone opened a rift in space-time. I do miss the split screen in one way, though: I wish I could see the entirety of the 1924 footage instead of just a little chunk of it amidst the London of today.

9 thoughts on “London on film, now and then

  1. Wonderful! I adore that kind of then-and-now… I think I prefer the side-by-side for its additional detail, but the embedded-sepia version has its charms. [The local newspaper has been running a weekly column using the embedded-sepia format to show locations in old photos as they are now; it’s often quite fascinating, though the window-to-the-past method doesn’t always include enough detail to satisfy me.]

    1. I’ve seen it before in still images as well, but this is the first time I’ve seen it used with videos. I’m with you on the detail issue. I can never get enough.

  2. I also prefer the side-by-side versions better: it was fascinating to see how London has kept her underlying structure. The “window” I think might be more resonant to people more familiar with London– though I thought the closing shot on it, with the big blue chicken, was quite charming! I am now intrigued by your mention of the film of Charlie Chaplin’s London– I hope it has been preserved and will become available during my lifetime (let’s say sometimes the next 20 years or so).

  3. That’s me! *waves*

    These are AMAZING! I do love the split screen for being able to compare the details, but that rift in space-time is an incredible effect. I was admittedly primed by Pachelbel’s Canon to be sentimental, but I find it deeply moving to see old-timey people inhabiting our space with us. It brings home just how close the past is, really.

    I did find it amusing in the first movie how interested passersby were in the past, craning their necks around to see the camera and trying to stay in the shot, compared to how utterly blasé they were in the present. Just a camera, ho hum. 😆

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