SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: SILENT MISCHIEF
This is the third chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
The first decade of the twentieth century saw cinema leap from its cradle as a sideshow novelty to become a viable commercial attraction, and by the end of the second decade it had supplanted music hall (or vaudeville) as the primary performance art for the masses. During these two decades, British cinema alone released thousands of titles celebrating the mischief of boys. This was one of those universally recognised attributes of the beast: the boy as Lord of Misrule, nature’s anarchist. Let us not forget that the first simple “story” film of any kind, “L’ARROSEUR ARROSÉ” (Fr 1895), featured a man hosing his lawn and a scamp running interference. Heroines? No, those were an afterthought. Cinema began with a man-and-boy comedy.
But to give you a small taste of what is now for the most part lost to us, here are just a few British titles from that period, all of them essentially one-gag jokes. Boyhood mocks the pomposity of adults, and we share in their iconoclastic glee, but then decorum is restored (usually by a good hiding or a well-boxed ear) to our smug adult satisfaction. The implicit social message in this case was: none of us enjoy the fact of authority, but authority is what protects us from the chaos within. In the uncertain political climate of early twentieth century Europe, that reassurance was not unwelcome. The class structure — and what are “adult” and “child” if they are not social classes? — would endure.
“YOU DIRTY BOY” (1896)
“THE RUNAWAY KNOCK AND THE SUFFERING MILKMAN” (1898)
“TWO NAUGHTY BOYS TEASING THE COBBLER” (1898)
“TEASING GRANDPA” (1901)
“HIS FIRST CIGAR, PROBABLY HIS LAST” (02)
“THOSE TROUBLESOME BOYS” (02)
“TOMMY AND THE MOUSE IN THE ART SCHOOL” (02)
“THE DEAR BOYS COME HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS” (03)
“AN ARTFUL YOUNG TRUANT” (04)
“DRAT THAT BOY!” (04)
“THE OFFICE BOY’S REVENGE” (04)
“THAT TERRIBLE BARBER’S BOY” (04)
“ACCIDENT TO TOMMY’S TROUSERS” (05)
“CHILDREN V EARTHQUAKES — EARTHQUAKES PREFERRED” (05)
“THE PEASHOOTER OR: A NEW WEAPON FOR THE ARMY” (05)
“THE SCHOOLBOYS’ REVOLT” (08)
“WHEN BOYS ARE FORBIDDEN TO SMOKE” (08)
“DADDY’S LITTLE DIDUMS DID IT” (10).
For better or worse, they don’t make titles like those anymore.
Quite recently, a stash of over 800 lost British documentary films from the early 1900s came to light, the output of an obscure midlands partnership, Mitchell & Kenyon. This footage, now expertly restored, yields us a priceless sociological window onto the lives of working class people a full century ago, the way they actually looked and really moved. Never before in history has one generation been granted such a clear and true glimpse into the everyday world of their great-grandparents. One of the incidental things it reminds us is that the streets of town and city in earlier times were positively teeming with young boys, because the street and workplace were then a male domain — we can still have some sense of this from contemporary news footage of the Muslim world, where segregation of the sexes remains more rigid and absolute, and child labour has not yet been marked “inhumane”.
In pre-World War I days, families were more prolific in output than they are now, children would have constituted sixty percent or more of the general population (as they do in many poorer countries today) and boys were everywhere to be seen. We shouldn’t feel obliged, observing these facts, to sweep into a sermon on the Oppression of Women. It is not our prerogative to pass moral judgements on the past, merely to view it with honest eyes. It is the differences in the past, not the similarities, which make it intrinsically fascinating. Women of all social classes were certainly evident in that early silent footage. What is significant, once you notice it, is the super-abundance of boys.