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  • 1900

At the Top of the Tree; or Biograph Pictures

Extracts from song by Harry B. Norris (London: Frank Dean and Co.; New York: Jos. W. Stern; Sydney: W.H. Paling and Co.)

This song is a celebration in nine verses and choruses of the work of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which at that time concentrated on making films of current events. So the song has lyrics about celebrities such as imperialist Joe Chamberlain, the Lord Mayor of London, and teetotal parliamentarian Sir Wilfred Lawson; the world of sport is also covered, with lyrics about films of golf and of American jockey Tod Sloan. We reproduce below just three verses/choruses of the nine: about celebrity in general; about Lord Roberts, who took over command of British and allied forces at the Boer War in 1899; and finally about a film of a yacht. The reference to “new broom” in the verse about Roberts suggests that the song was written and sung after Roberts arrived in South Africa in December 1899 and before his series of military victories from February 1900. The author Harry B. Norris wrote other popular and patriotic songs, and some of these were sung by famed music-hall artiste, Vesta Tilley.


You all know those biograph pictures, Celebrities   shown on a screen, The photos of notable people, Displayed as they   daily are seen, Tho’ some may provoke wry grimaces, and others   no more than a smile, You’ll see all the popular faces, applauded in   vigorous style.


Lucky celebrities at the tree-top, They’ve climbed to the summit intending to stop, Honour and glory their portion shall be, Because they are right at the top of the tree. ….


The [sic] next see a man that’s promoted, to hold an   important command, To country and duty devoted, revered far and wide   in the land, Much honour on Bobs they are heaping, They’ve   made him Commander-in-chief, And if the new broom does the sweeping, The   country will sigh with relief.


Plucky Lord Roberts he’s on the tree-top, He’s climbed to the summit and there he will stop, Those Army reforms in good time we shall see, Now Bobs has gone up to the top of the tree. ….


You next see a vessel in motion, she’s partly   submerged by the waves, She’s out for a trip on the ocean, you’ll notice how   well she behaves, Her canvas is spread to the breezes, at times she is   hidden by spray, We very much doubt if it pleases, the folks who’ve   gone out for the day.


Trim little yacht you are on the sea-top, You climbed to the summit one moment to stop, The trip with the tripper somehow don’t agree, When you roll and you drop from top of the sea. [End Page 391]

It Worked

Cartoon strip in Coloured Comic (25 August 1900): 117

Almost from the first days of the cinema there had been “made-up subjects”: i.e. films that were not simply records of real life, but where the filmmaker had arranged the action. The most common examples of this were films with actors, but non-actors could also be used as performers. Cartoonists and story writers played with the idea that real people could be coerced into performing for the film cameras (see, for example, “The Uncertainty of Christopher” in the 1899 section) or – as here – tricked into doing so. In this cartoon, a cunning “ventriloquist and biographist” makes one passer-by seem to shout “Shut it fat ‘ed” at another passer-by (in the second frame), so triggering a lively fight, which he happily films. The invented term “biographist” was derived from the “Biograph” camera. The Coloured Comic was one of several cheaply-produced weekly comics that hit the British market around the 1890s, largely appealing to younger readers; some of the other titles were: Big Budget, Comic Cuts, Comic Home Journal, Funny Cuts, Funny Wonder, Halfpenny Comic, Illustrated Chips, The Joker, Larks, Pictorial Comic Life, Scraps, Snapshots and The World’s Comic. They are extremely rare, sometimes only surviving in copyright...


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pp. 391-395
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