Today, this ancient and brief film is of little interest on the surface; in itself, its comedy is only slightly amusing at best, and one may note that the composition of characters and their separation by clothes on a clothesline is an interesting establishment of visual planes of action for such an early work. For me, at least, it is when this film (and other such early films) is viewed within the context of film history, especially via comparison with other films, that it becomes truly interesting. Yet, that's not to say that this is an especially important film, although it has been considered of some importance to those few historians of early British film, like Frank Gray, John Barnes and those at the British Film Institute, and to those rare enthusiasts of early film, like me, who enjoy recreationally discovering film history.
"Hanging Out the Clothes" is an early British comedy and narrative fiction film. It's part of a series of courtship comedies, which experienced brief popularity during early cinema. The first such comedy seems to have been Alfred Moul and Robert W. Paul's "The Soldier's Courtship" (1896). Paul remade it as "Tommy Atkins in the Park" (1898), which has been available on home video collections. Paul also remade Smith's film as "Shadowed, or Mistress and Maid" (1898), which is lost. In America, and shortly after Moul and Paul's film, the Edison Company produced the courtship comedy "Interrupted Lovers" (1896). The films all involve a pastoral or park setting, where lovers meet under an assumption of privacy; in "Hanging Out the Clothes", the lovers use clothes on the clothesline for privacy. However, in these films, the lovers are interrupted and the films conclude with a "punitive ending" (to use Noël Burch's wording). It's essentially the same formula used by the screen's (almost) first comedy "The Sprayer Sprayed" (L' Arroseur arose) (1895). To go full circle, Paul, in 1901, parodied the courtship comedy in "The Countryman and the Cinematograph" (1901)--an ingenious film which had the film viewer discover the on-screen lovers and deal out the punishment to his on-screen doppelgänger.
The main reason I discuss this film "Hanging Out the Clothes", however, is that George Albert Smith, who was one of early film's most important pioneers, made it. Many of his films after this one (which was very early in his career), in ways, surpass anything else made by others (including the more acclaimed Edwin Porter and Georges Méliès), as Smith experimented with editing, some of the earliest multi-shot films, trick effects, close-ups and scene dissection. The composition of the shot-scene that is this film is somewhat of an indication of the filmmaker's advanced understanding of the art form. For the rest of 1897, Smith continued to produce brief comedies, including "The Miller and the Sweep": a primitive chase comedy and "The X-Rays": a courtship comedy as well as a trick film with a contemporary joke on the recent invention. He also made many so-called facial comedies, which exploited the novelty of the medium close-up. These films aren't very entertaining today, but they were somewhat innovative for their time--continuing the introduction of comedy and narrative to cinema.
A further note: Smith, apparently, made two versions of this film, which seems to have been a rather common practice in those days. In one, which can be seen on the "Silent Britain" program, the maid punishes the cheating husband by hitting him with an umbrella. In the other one, which the BFI website has, the maid pulls at her master's hair.
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