Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1916)

Spoilers included!

On a visit to London this week, I paid a visit to the British Film Institute to see the 1916 British film adaptation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.  The film is written and directed by Rex Wilson, who was  active until the mid-1920s.  Parts of the film are available on the BFI’s Screenonline section, which is viewable through universities and libraries etc, and shows the film to be in very good condition and certainly led me to wonder why the whole film hadn’t appeared through a DVD release by the BFI.  A viewing of the whole film shows why this is the case.

Aside from the three sequences available online, the film is, frankly, a bit of a mess.  Rather like the short adaptations of classic novels that were prevalent during the early 1910s, the film is merely a succession of scenes from the novel rather than a cohesive narrative, and a relatively in-depth knowledge of the novel is required to make full sense of what is going on.  However, there is a major change within the plot.  In the film, Tom’s sister runs away at an early age with a young man.  Tom’s father chases after them, but it is too late and they are already married.  Tom’s father says he never wants to see her again.  In the second half of the film, Tom finds himself looking out for a young boy called Arthur who, at the end of the film, we find out is daughter of Tom’s sister.  Quite why this sentimental element to the film was added and yet key elements (such as Arthur’s illness) were edited out is not clear.

I was rather surprised when I returned home to find that the younger version of Tom was actually played by a girl, Joyce Templeton – this was not at all obvious when watching the film, so all credit to her for that.  In the second half of the film, Tom is played by Jack Coleman, who appears to have made no other films.  The acting throughout is all fine, with neither any standouts or problematic performances – but this may be as much to do with the potted style of the film’s narrative as much as to do with great performances.  Because of the style of the film, the viewer feels as if they don’t really get to know the characters, which is ultimately the film’s downfall.  Like much British film during the late 1910s and early 1920s, the film is adequate, but little else.

Some parts  unintentionally amusing, especially the intertitles which often have a different meaning in 2012 than they did nearly a hundred years ago.  Not only are we told that Tom “hungered for his sister’s love”, but he also says to Flashman: “Please, Flashman, don’t toss me!  I’ll fag for you.  I’ll do anything only don’t toss me!”  Show that to a bunch of young film students and they are likely to be in hysterics.

It’s unlikely that Tom Brown’s Schooldays will ever see the light of day on DVD, although it is no better or worse than some of the material on the “Silent Shakespeare” and “Dickens Before Sound” releases.  Perhaps the BFI could put together a third set featuring other adaptations of classic literature.  There is a very nice print of an early 1920s adaptation of Bleak House directed by Maurice Elvey, for example, which, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays has a simplification of the plot.  Putting these films together might not make for gripping viewing, but they would help to fill in the missing years of British film history from the beginning of the Great War to The Lodger.  

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