AN ECCENTRIC BURGLARY (1905) film no: 2239
A film made by the Sheffield Photo Company, this is an example of a trick film involving two robbers who are being pursued by policemen. The original nitrate is conserved in specialist conditions at the BFI.
The film begins as two robbers clamber over a wall. Trees are in the background. They climb over a wall next to a house with boarded-up windows, which they fail to open. One climbs on the back of the other, gets down, then both try to jump up. One robber flies up to the window, forces it open, and a bag is thrown up to him. He climbs in, and the second robber flies up to the window and climbs in.
Two policemen scale the wall. The policemen point up at the window, walk out of shot and return with a ladder. One slides up it, followed by the second. Each policeman wrestles with one of the robbers, rolling up the slope of the roof of the house and over the edge. One robber, chased by a policeman, runs down the roof and fires a gun. The second robber follows pursued by the policeman. The four are seen from above climbing down a drainpipe, head first.
A horse and cab come round the corner of a building (H. Hollingsworth, Importer of Wines and Spirits), followed by the two robbers one of whom carries a bag. Jump-cut slightly to the left as robber holds up the cab with gun. The driver gets out, and the robbers get in, riding off and firing a gun as they leave. The two policemen run after.
The cab travels backwards along the country road and is followed by the policeman running backwards. The horse refuses to pull the cab, despite the robbers’ pleading. The horse disappears, and the robbers get down and try to pull the cab themselves. They abandon the cab and run off firing at the pursuing policemen.
The four run backwards up a slope, then fight. The two robbers run up a long flight of steps at the side of a building. Jump-cut to the two policemen, who slide up the rail. The four travel backwards over a stone wall with gate, and the policeman chase the robber backwards by a stream. One of the policemen struggles with robber by a fallen tree and chases after him.
Finally the policemen capture the robbers and struggle with them. Jump-cut, and each of the robbers is a long way off, leaving the policemen baffled. They resume the chase, and a robber fires a shot. One policeman chases a robber over a bridge and towards the camera. The robber falls, the policeman trips over him, and the robber starts to strangle him. The other policeman follows up, having got hold of his robber. He knocks out the first robber with his truncheon, and handcuffs the two together. He picks up his colleague and they start to gather up the robbers.
This is one of many films made by Sheffield Photo Company, an important early professional film company. The Company owes its origins to Frank Mottershaw, starting out, as many then did, in photography in 1870, moving to Castle Street in 1882, later to Fargate and Norfolk Street. During the 1890’s he added the supply and exhibition of Lantern-slide to his photo supply business. His son Arthur, who took over with his other son Frank Storm in 1901, built their first projector in 1900 (which may also have served as a camera). According to Robert Benfield the Sheffield Photo Company produced 63 fictional films from 1903 until 1909 when they stopped making fictional films (their last one being, Mad Musician), 41 of them between 1904 and 1906 (Benfield, p 40). The Company remained in the family making non-fiction films – see the Context for Mixed Baby’s (1905), Books in Hand (1956) and Drive with Clare (1963-66), for more on Frank Mottershaw Jnr. and the later films. The Company heir, John Mottershaw, still has a photography business in Sheffield.
It was Frank Mottershaw Jnr (aka Frank Storm) who directed this film, as well as their first and probably most famous film, A Daring Daylight Burglary made in 1903, the year that they took the name of Sheffield Photo Company. Two years earlier he had secured a job working with Robert Paul, the leading British film pioneer at that time, in his Muswell Hill Studio. But Paul hadn’t made anything quite like A Daring Daylight Burglary or An Eccentric Burglary – he made a film called Robbery in 1898, but this was a statically filmed, and somewhat unusual, comedy.
The earlier film, A Daring Daylight Burglary of 1903 (with extras from the Sheffield Fire Brigade), is considered to have helped launch the chase movie, and to have influenced the development of American narrative drama films, particularly Edwin Porter’s highly influential The Great Train Robbery, also made in 1903. The film was made in April 1903, bought by the Edison Company (their films were distributed in the US by Miles Brothers), with a changed title of Daylight Robbery, and was probably seen by Edwin Porter in the US before making The Great Train Robbery several months later (see Elsaesser, p 33) – David Cook suggests that the film was re-made under this different title in 1904, but this is probably mistaken – it isn’t listed in Gifford (Cook, p 20). Robert Benfield argues that it was the demands for variety from travelling showmen that led to the innovation of the ‘chase film’. Nevertheless, Mottershaw and the Sheffield Photo Company often get overlooked in books that cover this period of cinema history, and sources often give conflicting information.
An Eccentric Burglary has been less analysed though it used cut backs, and other editing techniques, which were still quite novel at that time. It was one of many films made in 1905: in November they made Life of Charles Peace, about the notorious Sheffield burglar and murderer, after William Haggard had made a film of the same title earlier in the year. The year before, in 1904, Frank Storm Mottershaw travelled to Serbia as a guest of an eminent lawyer from Sheffield, Arnold Muir Wilson, who was also the Honorary Consul to the Kingdom of Serbia. Wilson, who was also a traveller, journalist, and photographer, hired Frank Storm to make a documentary film of the coronation of King Peter I of Serbia in Belgrade, and including a tour of Serbia. Wilson screened this film, The Coronation of King Peter I of Serbia and a Ride through Serbia, several times in Britain to illustrate his lectures on Serbia, and in the spring of 1905 at the Serbian National Theatre in Belgrade in the presence of the king and the royal family.
Richard Abel (editor), encyclopedia of early cinema, Routledge, London, 2005.
Robert Benfield, Bijou Kinema, A History of Cinema in Yorkshire, Sheffield City Polytechnic, 1976.
David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, 4th edition, Norton, London & New York, 2004.
Thomas Elsaesser (ed), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, BFI, London, 1990.
Barry Salt, ‘Shot Relations, Narrative: Articulating Space and Time’, in Ibid.
Denis Gifford, The British film catalogue, 3rd edition, Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001