Alice Rosenthal was, for a short period, the linchpin on which the nascent British film industry rested. Present at the beginning of film exhibition in Britain, her role as stock keeper and sales manager of the Warwick Trading Company, the leading British film business of the 1890s, made her a familiar and vital figure to all exhibitors engaged with the new medium. If you wanted to put on a good film show, you had to see “Rosie.”
Rosenthal was born in Kentish Town, London, on December 13, 1868, the youngest of ten children of Jewish jeweler and general trader Joseph Rosentall (the spelling was changed for the next generation). His forebears came to Britain in the early nineteenth century, probably from Germany. Her mother was his second wife, Matilda (née Brokenbrow), whose gentile family were Wiltshire farmworkers.
Around 1895-1896, Rosenthal was taken on as stock manager by the firm of Maguire & Baucus, having previously worked as a dressmaker. Franck Maguire and Joseph Baucus were American businessmen who had been awarded the exclusive license to manage Edison films in Europe, as Thomas Edison sought to exploit his recent invention of the Kinetoscope. This peepshow device, showing loops of 35mm film, was the means by which most of the first motion pictures were exhibited in 1894-1895. Maguire and Baucus put on the first exhibition of films in Britain at a parlor located at 70 Oxford Street in London, on October 17, 1894 (Barnes, Beginnings, 8-10). Not long after this event, they opened an office at Dashwood House on Broad Street, close to the Liverpool Street railway station. It is at this point that Rosenthal is likely to have been hired, stating later that she was “practically the only business assistant they had in London” (Acres; Rosenthal). Newcastle exhibitor William MacDonald remembered her from this time, as the industry moved from Kinetoscopes to projected film:
At the time I refer to, the number of films obtainable was strictly limited, indeed, there were only two or three places in London even where they could be purchased. Miss Rosenthal…was then in command of a depot at Old Broad Street, City, and I frequently ran up from Newcastle, and waited two or three days before I could secure a thousand feet of film to take back with me. (“Our Picture Pioneers”)
The Continental Commerce Company, the name Maguire and Baucus gave their business, was the sole agent for Edison films in Britain. In May 1897, they also added Lumière films in standard gauge format (Barnes, Rise, 158). At a time when British film production was minimal and the number of suppliers of film and equipment few, the growing number of exhibitors, from theater managers to touring showmen, came to Continental for the best of what was available.
Rosenthal was the public face of the business. She managed the rapidly-growing stock of films, conducted all sales, served as cashier, and demonstrated both films and equipment to clients. However, amid this activity, all was not well with the Continental Commerce Company. The focus of Maguire and Baucus was as much on other business opportunities as film, and there was the suggestion that their methods were lackadaisical. This was certainly the view of Charles Urban, a fellow American, who was brought in to manage the expanding business. He noted the difficult situation in which Rosenthal found herself:
Unfortunately she had no control over the money, once she deposited some to the firm’s account at the bank. As consignments of Edison films arrived we had a rush of buyers, once the information got out. As this was a cash business, considerable sums were collected on such days and it was “Rosey’s” business to see it in safe custody. Shortly after a film sales day, the managing director would usually find an excuse to go to Paris for a week or so. After his return a very small balance stood to the credit of one account at the bank. (Urban 42-43)
Urban was someone with a long-term vision for films, particularly films of actuality, who also came with a projector—the Bioscope—which he had commissioned, ownership of which would free the company from its dependence on Edison.
Urban joined the company in August 1897. Within a month, the business had moved to Warwick Court in central London, and the following year was renamed the Warwick Trading Company. The films on offer expanded to include those produced by Georges Méliès and George Albert Smith. With the popular Bioscope projector (so popular that “Bioscope” remains to this day a name for the cinema theater in India, the Netherlands and South Africa), the office that Rosenthal managed hummed with activity. In her words, she had contact with “large numbers of persons in connection with the animated picture trade including theatrical managers, showmen, exhibitors, operators, and all classes of person having anything whatever to do with animated photography” (Rosenthal). She knew everyone. Her industry knowledge and collection management and sales efficiency underpinned the spectacular rise of the Warwick Trading Company, whose sales to 1901 were to grow 50% year-on-year, putting it at the forefront of the early British film business (McKernan, Charles Urban, 23).
Among the new staff required were camera operators to generate product that would free Warwick from too great a dependence on the product of others. The first of these was Rosenthal’s brother, Joseph, a pharmaceutical chemist, whom she recommended to Urban for his knowledge of photography (Urban 54). Joseph Rosenthal would swiftly become the most celebrated British cinematographer of the period, filming travel scenes across the globe and famously pioneering a new form of war journalism by filming the Anglo-Boer War and later conflicts (Bottomore 260-265).
There is a photograph of the Warwick Trading Company offices in 1898 that shows us Alice Rosenthal’s domain (Barnes, Rise, 157). What may have been the entire staff of five are present: Urban and office assistant George Scott inspecting reels of film; probably Joseph Rosenthal hunched over a desk at the back; typist Lena Green preparing a letter; and, in the center, Alice, at her own typewriter. Next to her is a cabinet with row upon row of small cans of film, each with the film title and its catalog number, “like so much canned milk or metal polish,” as Urban pertinently recalled (Urban 48). The first Warwick Trading Company catalog was published in 1898 and was probably compiled by Alice, since her roles as stock manager and sales person required expert knowledge of every film. There are 649 film titles listed, of which only seventy were original Warwick productions. There are a few fantasy and trick films on the list, but the majority are films of travel and transportation. Warwick offered its clients scenes from Austro-Hungary, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire (including Damascus, Jaffa, and Jerusalem), Russia, Switzerland, and the United States, with notable news events including the funeral of William Gladstone, the coronations of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and the Spanish-American War. Films of ship launches and views from trains emphasized the sense of discovery through travel (Descriptive List of New Film Subjects). Here was an emerging vision of a commodified world, with the stock manager at its center.
In 1903, Urban broke away from Warwick to form his own company, the Charles Urban Trading Company. Surviving an acrimonious dispute with a vengeful Maguire and Baucus, who unsuccessfully sought to bankrupt him, he took with him contracts with key film publishers and the most dependable of the Warwick staff, including Alice and Joseph Rosenthal (McKernan, Charles Urban, 33-35). The Charles Urban Trading Company achieved rapid success with its films of actuality and travel, its mission summed up by the slogan “We Put the World Before You.” However, the expansion of the business inevitably reduced Rosenthal’s role, as the multiple functions that she had previously fulfilled were taken on by several people. She left the company around 1904 to join the British offshoot of the French company Pathé Frères.
Pathé had been known predominantly for its phonograph recordings, but the cinematograph side was expanding rapidly, as it moved swiftly to become the world’s leading film business. The company’s expanded operation entailed a move to new offices at Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, in August 1903 (“Records and Trade Topics”). Rosenthal joined them not long after to support film sales, staying with Pathé when it moved in 1906 to 31-33 Charing Cross Road, London (Album d’illustrations). This must have been a significant position, indicative of the high reputation that she enjoyed in the film business, but unfortunately little is recorded of her time with the company.
Rosenthal left Pathé in 1909 to manage film sales at her brother Joseph’s Rosie Film Company (brother and sister shared the same nickname) (“Miss Rosenthal”). He had set up the company in mid-1908 following his dismissal by Urban at the end of 1907 (Bottomore 265). Offering both fiction and documentary films (which is where Joseph’s strengths lay), the new company was located in the late-seventeenth-century building and gardens of Wrencote in Croydon.
However, Alice had ambitions of her own, and must have had confidence in an experience of the business that few could match. In December 1909, she opened a cinema theater called the Cosie Picture Palace in her hometown of Croydon. By then, films had broken out of the halls and variety theaters where they had been mostly exhibited, and now had venues of their own. Most of these were modest affairs, however, established in converted shops, and the Cosie Picture Palace seated a mere two hundred, when the average cinema seated around five hundred (McKernan, “Diverting Time,” 132). Years later, in 1989, one attendee remembered it as being a small room, with bare boards, shop chairs, and a projector that broke down frequently, leaving the audience with long waits in the dark. Prices were a penny for children and twopence for adults (Eyles 18). It was a boom period for cinema construction, but too many hoped to profit from the new public craze for film, and many small cinemas quickly failed. The Cosie Picture Palace ceased operations in 1912 (“Cosie Picture Palace” [Croydon Times]). During its three-year run, Rosenthal did at least make sure that some of her brother’s films were shown at the cinema (“Round the Suburbs”).
Undaunted by her cinema’s closure, Rosenthal decided to follow Joseph into film production. Taking her initials, A.R. Film Co. Ltd. was formed in 1913, around the time that the Rosie Film Company folded. She may have taken equipment from the failed Rosie venture, including perhaps the open-air glass studio, which she set up in Thornton Heath, Croydon (“New Companies”). As with the Cosie Picture Palace, A.R. was a modest venture with little opportunity for expansion, and soon failed, hamstrung by a collapse in business caused by the war and Rosenthal’s ill health. As well as taking on film processing work and renting out its studio, the company produced four one-reel films in Croydon during 1913-1914: Quits, Scallywag Foils the Missus, Getting Even, and Two of Scotch Hot. These were knockabout comedies, whose cast members are not known today. All were filmed by Rosenthal’s nephew, also named Joseph, aged just nineteen when the company was formed (“Company No: 130607”). (He would go on to be a feature film cinematographer in the 1920s.) The A.R. films made little impact and none survive. Alice’s talents lay elsewhere, and the industry that she had helped spark into life had passed her by.
Little is known about Rosenthal following the closure of A.R. Film, after five years of inactivity, in 1920. She worked in a clerical capacity for the Royal Air Force in the 1920s, and then in the 1930s moved to Leysdown-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey, in Kent. She died on the island on October 10, 1935, aged sixty-six. Her death certificate states her profession as “manageress.” According to her death certificate, her brother Joseph was with her at the end.
Alice Rosenthal was a private person. She never married, had no children, and left little evidence of her life in film, or beyond it. We have only a few clues as to her character. Statements from her at the time of the Urban-Warwick court case demonstrate clarity and common sense (Rosenthal), while a tendency for shaving years off her true age in successive census returns suggests some vulnerability. Film director Cecil Hepworth, who worked at Warwick as a film developer, describes her as being “a plump and pleasant lady” (Hepworth 39). Most importantly, Rosenthal was remembered by cinema veterans as an essential figure in the pioneering days of film (Acres; “Our Picture Pioneers”; Turner; Urban 42-43), setting showmen and women on their way with projector, films, and hopes for the future. Film history tends to privilege producers, operators, and performers. But one such as Rosenthal, who cared for the physical films, promoted them, sold them, and was the commercial face for an emerging industry, played no less of a pioneering role, one that needs to be remembered now. The British film business, in some sense, began with Alice Rosenthal.
The author wishes to thank to Stephen Bottomore.