Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)

Alternate Titles: Un homme de têtes, Four Heads Are Better Than One.

This is one of the best-known early shorts from Georges Méliès. It demonstrates considerable creativity and a sophisticated use of special effects.

four-troublesome-headsGeorges Méliès enters the frame and stands between two tables. He removes his own head and puts it on one of the tables, where it starts talking and looking around. Méliès, momentarily headless, has a new head appear on his shoulders, and he crawls underneath the table with the head on it to demonstrate that there is no person there. Méliès repeats the action twice, with a new head appearing on his shoulders each time, until four identical Méliès heads are presented at once – three on the tables, and one on his shoulders where it belongs. Méliès then plays a banjo, and the three additional heads sing along. He appears annoyed by their singing, and smashes two of the heads with the banjo, then pulls his own head off and punts it offscreen. Finally, he reattaches the remaining head and takes a bow.

This movie is technically impressive, considering the number of takes he had to do (at least four) in order to get the multiple-exposures right. Each of his heads is animated and they do seem to interact with one another as well as the full-bodied Méliès. When he takes off his head, he holds a mannequin-head in his hand (nicely painted so it does look like him, but not animated), and the space above his shoulders is blank. It looks to me as if he wore a hood or a sack over his head for these shots, but the multiple-exposure makes it transparent so that you can still see the dark curtain in the background. This is probably the reason he used such a drab backdrop, instead of the usual highly stylized painted sets he usually has, because it would have been much harder to hide the hood as it moved in front of the details. Despite that aesthetic lack, however, this remains a much more creative use of the camera than the typical appearances and disappearances we’ve seen in most of his early experiments. I note again that the Star Films Catalog gives a description of a much more exciting climax than what we seem to have today, though in this case it doesn’t look like anything is missing. I think perhaps they were just talking it up.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Adventures of William Tell (1898)

Adventures of William Tell (1898)

Alternate Title: Guillaume Tell et le clown

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is an early example of slapstick, incorporating elements of circus performances into a short comedy routine. Although slapstick had been done before on film, especially with Edison’s release of “Robetta and Doretto,” this is one of the most violent of Méliès’s early films.

adventuresofwilliamtellThe movie starts with a clown building a mannequin by placing a torso onto a pair of legs, then a head and finally a pair of arms. The clown and mannequin are on a small set with a medieval theme, and there is a stool with a crossbow leaning against it to the left of the screen. The clown takes a round object (possibly a head of lettuce) from the stool and places it on top of the mannequin’s head, then goes back to get his crossbow. Suddenly, the mannequin comes to life and hurls the lettuce at the clown from behind. The clown jumps up and runs over to the mannequin, which has become inanimate again, and pulls off an arm, inspecting it and placing it back onto the mannequin. When he turns around to pick up the crossbow, the mannequin again comes to life and smacks him. This time the clown takes off the mannequin’s head and kicks it then puts it back on the mannequin, which immediately comes to life and grabs the clown, throttling him and tossing him about (the clown is now an inanimate doll, while the mannequin is played by a person). After stomping on the husk of the clown, the mannequin-figure runs out a door. The clown gets back up and picks up his crossbow, with the film ending with him in mid-motion.

According to the Star Films catalog entry for this movie, we are missing some of the end. Supposedly, the clown shoots himself with the crossbow, which then explodes, “producing some very fine smoke effects.” This would add to the violence and supply a bit more resolution to the action. The main special effect Méliès uses here is substitution of living actors and mannequins. Otherwise, nothing appears or disappears by magic, nor are there any other effects, apart from the exploding gun we didn’t see. It still appears to me that Méliès is not managing to create very coherent narratives for his movies at this point – he is just filling the sixty seconds or so of run time with as much action as possible, as he did with “The Magician” and “The Famous Box Trick.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès).

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

November 1916

This month’s Century News is a bit late, due to distractions and the US election of the present year. The biggest news of 1916 for Americans was also a Presidential election, but there was plenty of other news for the headlines of that month as well, including the end of the bloodiest battle of World War One in Europe.

Map of allied progress in the Battle of the Somme.

Map of allied progress in the Battle of the Somme.

World War One:

Douglas Haig ends the British and allied offensive in the Somme, ending the Battle of the Somme on November 18. Each side has lost about half a million soldiers, and the allies have advanced nearly six miles along a wide front, although the keys cities of Péronne and Bapaume remain in German hands.

Hospital ship HMHS Britannic, designed as the third Olympic-class ocean liner for White Star Line, sinks in the Kea Channel of the Aegean Sea after hitting a mine on November 21. 30 lives are lost. At 48,158 gross register tons, she is the largest ship lost during the war.

On November 23, Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is occupied by troops of the Central Powers.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Politics:

In Russia, liberal politician Pavel Miliukov delivers his “Stupidity or Treason” speech to the State Duma on November 1, contributing to the downfall of the current government and drawing attention to the powerlessness of the Duma in the face of an increasingly revolutionary public.

Woodrow Wilson narrowly defeats Charles E. Hughes to retain the White House on November 7. “He kept us out of war” was used to apply to his policy regarding both Mexico and World War One (although the US had been militarily engaged with the former, and would soon be in the latter).

Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, also on November 7.

Prime Minister of Australia Billy Hughes is expelled from the Labor Party on November 13 over his support for conscription.

Funeral for a worker killed in Everett, Washington.

Funeral for a worker killed in Everett, Washington.

Labor:

The first 40-hour work week officially begins in the Endicott-Johnson factories of Western New York on November 1.

An armed confrontation in Everett, Washington, between local authorities and members of the Industrial Workers of the World results in seven deaths on November 5. The Everett Massacre will also lead to the prosecution of several Wobbly leaders, although the charges are dropped in 1917.

Diplomacy:

The Kingdom of Poland (1916–18) is proclaimed by a joint act of the emperors of Germany and Austria on November 5. It exists as a puppet state of the Central Powers, which now occupy much of Polish territory.

The altar in Honan Chapel.

The altar in Honan Chapel.

Architecture:

Honan Chapel, Cork, Ireland, a product of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement (1894–1925), is dedicated on November 5.

Journalism:

Radio station 2XG, located in the Highbridge section of New York City, makes the first audio broadcast of presidential election returns on the night of November 7-8. It is estimated that 7000 people listened to the broadcast.

goldwyn_picturesStudios:

Samuel Goldfish (later renamed Samuel Goldwyn) and Edgar Selwyn establish Goldwyn Pictures on November 19. The studio is later to become one of the most successful independent filmmakers and eventually forms part of MGM.

Births:

Evelyn Keyes actress (Suellen O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” and also in “Before I Hang” with Boris Karloff), November 20.

Deaths:

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria dies of pneumonia at the Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, aged 86, after a reign of 68 years, on November 21, and is succeeded by his grandnephew Charles I. His own son, Rudolph, had committed suicide with his mistress in 1889.

Writer Jack London dies of kidney failure at his California home aged 40 on November 22. As early as 1908, D.W. Griffith had adapted “The Call of the Wild” to film, and many other London works would be made as movies through the century to come.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Alternate Title: Kitchener’s Great Army in the Battle of the Somme

This documentary of the First World War was shot in the British trenches during the outbreak of one of the War’s most crucial (and largest) battles. Despite the limitations of the technology and avoiding potentially dangerous shooting conditions, it manages to present a powerful picture of the event.

Battle of the Somme-filmThe movie is divided into five parts, which are presented as a chronological account of the battle. The first two involve preparations and troop movements, the third shows the beginning of the battle, while the fourth mostly shows wounded and prisoners returning to the British side, and the final chapter shows some of the aftermath. Soldiers are generally identified by division or unit, and no names (even that of a general addressing his troops) are given. A lot of the men look at the camera, and it’s interesting to note the looks on their faces. Occasionally, they stare blankly at the camera, but more often they seem cheerful and wave or smile. No one shows fear or anger. No gunfire or hand-to-hand combat is shown, although we do see a progression of increasingly large mortars and cannon firing at the enemy lines, and also some shots showing the explosions from a distance. Scenes depicting the men going “over the top” in chapter three are simulations, however there are some shots of what appear to be real body piles in the later parts of the movie.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Forward-facing intertitles inform us of the specifics of the scenes that follow them, often describing two or three scenes before they happen. The editing tells a story of British victory at the Somme, although by the time this reached theaters in the UK the battle was still raging more or less indecisively, and thousands were being killed on both sides. Because we never see the battle itself, we can only view events from a kind of “headquarters-eye-view,” with soldiers going out and then streams of wounded and prisoners coming back in, but a disconnect in terms of what really happens in the middle. In spite of that, this is emotionally effective propaganda, because the British are shown as brave and eager to serve, and there is a sense of camaraderie and resolution to the piece. For the most part, the War as we see it here is fought between the British and the Germans, although some Canadians are depicted in one scene.

I've seen this a hundred times.

I’ve seen this a hundred times.

It is also highly effective documentary cinema. The images in this movie are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen a documentary about World War One. There just isn’t that much other footage from the period, so certain shots from this one show up in almost everything that gets made. The footage lacks sound and color, but it shows us images of the real people, animals, and machines that fought the battle and allows us to witness military activity from a now-remote past. One thing that this footage makes obvious is the importance of horse-power in fighting at the time. Far more cannon and supplies are shown as drawn by horses than motors. We also see how many dogs were present at the front, and one especially powerful image shows a dead dog lying next to “his master” (according to the intertitle) on the battlefield. We definitely get a clear picture of the French countryside before, and its devastation after, the battle. One panorama shot of the ruined town of Mametz seems to go on forever, reminding one of later images of Hiroshima.

Formerly Main Street.

Formerly Main Street.

Director: Geoffrey Malins

Camera: Geoffrey Malins, John McDowell

Cast: Major-General Beauvoir De Lisle, unknown soldiers.

Run Time: 1 hr, 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Famous Box Trick (1898)

Alternate Title: Illusions Fantasmagoriques

This is another of the early shorts of Georges Méliès, and like many of them it is not so much a story as a one-minute magic act. Méliès uses the camera tricks he has learned up to now to make things appear and disappear, to turn them into other objects, and to cause a simple wooden box to become a source of wonder.

famousboxtrickWe see a tightly-framed proscenium-style set with elaborately decorated backdrops. Toward the back of the stage but prominently visible is a table with a large wooden box on it. Méliès himself is dressed as a magician or “conjurer” (according to the Star Films catalog) on the stage, and as the movie begins he is performing esoteric gestures with his hands. Suddenly a live dove appears in his hand, and he bows quickly and puts it in the box. He adds two handkerchiefs and makes more mystical motions with his hands and – voila! – a boy in a clown suit appears. Méliès lifts him down, then puts him on a stand, and takes a large axe and swings it at him! Of course, there is a jump cut and instead of a single brutally mangled child we now see two which are completely unharmed. They begin fighting and Méliès separates them. He picks one up and the boy disappears and is replaced with some papers which Méliès tears up. He then puts the other boy back into the box. He now produces a hammer and smashes apart the box, but the child has disappeared. He reaches down to the floor, where one of the panels of the box rests and pats it, causing the boy to reappear. He twirls the boy around and picks him up, and suddenly the child turns into two flags, which Méliès waves vigorously. He drops them and disappears in a puff of smoke, but he comes back onstage from a rear door to take a bow.

Similar to “The Magician” of last week, this is a fast-paced series of trick shots with no plotline or logic. It all happens so quickly that you can imagine an audience of children laughing and applauding with each new wonder. There are implications of violence that some adults would not approve of, but in the end no one is really hurt and all the tricks are just for fun. It’s easy to imagine that some of these tricks had already been worked out by Méliès on the stage, but that he found them easier to perform with the magic of stopping the camera. An interesting point is the flags at the end. I tried watching it frame-by-frame to verify what nationalities they were. The Star Films Catalog claims they are “an American and an English (sic) flag.” I’m pretty sure the one on stage right is actually American, while the one to our left has a small Union Jack in a dark field, which is neither British nor “English,” as I understand it. It could be an Australian flag, but I never could spot the Southern Cross. At any rate, it seems odd that he would have used these rather than the French Tricolour, but perhaps he was already aware that his most important audience would be Anglophones? If any vexillologists want to chime in, please do so in the comments.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown children

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Bloody Wedding (1916)

Alternate Titles: The Terrible Wedding, Les noces sanglantes

We finally reach the last chapter of the serialLes Vampires” by Louis Feuillade. Although this episode ends with a kind of resolution, it doesn’t differ all that much in structure from the previous chapters of the story.

A happy couple.

A happy couple.

One change is that, whereas previously episodes had little time lapse between them, in this case the story picks up several months after the last one. Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), the reporter-hero of the story, is now married to Jane (Louise Lagrange). We don’t even get to see a wedding! Philippe writes an obscure article about how the Vampires have been quiet lately, but refers to some never-depicted crimes in which he can “detect their handiwork.” Then Augustine (Germaine Rouer), the widow of the poisoned concierge from the previous episode, stops by for a visit. Guérande hires her as a housemaid at Jane’s suggestion, to help her through her difficult time. Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) stops over and appears very happy at this news.

A grieving widow.

A grieving widow.

We learn, however, that the Vampires are spying on Augustine by crawling on the rooftop and watching through the skylight. They see her trying to predict her fortune with cards, something which Jane disapproves of. So, they send her an anonymous invitation from a fortune teller who promises to reveal “the mysteries that surround you.” Of course, what she really wants is information that will lead to the capture of the Vampires. So, she lies to Guérande and says she is going to visit her husband’s grave, but actually goes to the fortune teller. Fortunately, Mazamette is now smitten with her, and follows her secretly, discovering the location she is really visiting. Irma Vep (Musidora) and another Vampire put on a show of spiritualism for her, pretending to be visions of themselves so that she will believe in the fortune teller’s powers, and then hypnotize her so that she will admit them to Guérande’s apartment. Mazamette confronts her on the way out, but doesn’t see any Vampires, so doesn’t really think anything is wrong.

A jealous suitor.

A jealous suitor.

That night, Irma Vep and Venomous, the new head Vampire (Frederik Moriss), show up with an apparatus for filling a room with poison gas. Augustine lets them in under a trance and they attack her and tie her up, then attach the apparatus to the keyhole of Guérande’s bedroom, but Mazamette, who cannot sleep because his infatuation is so strong, sees all of this happen and hides behind an arras. Once they have begun to pump the gas, Mazamette fires his gun, and they run off in a panic. He switches off the device, and helps Guérande untie Augustine when he wakes up. Augustine, Mazamette and Guérande (still in his bedclothes) go to report to the police, and Jane is left alone with a pistol for protection. Venomous returns, trying to break into Jane’s bedroom with a glass-cutter, but she shoots at him and then goes to the window. A Vampire on the sidewalk below lassos her and pulls her down, thus capturing her and they drive off with her as a captive.

A nocturnal attack.

A nocturnal attack.

It takes quite a few hours for Mazamette and Guérande to rouse the police to make a raid on the fortune teller’s house, but eventually they all drive out together (without even checking at home first). Astonishingly, the Vampires are there, rather than some other hideout, so the police are able to roust them. Irma Vep escapes by winding a long rope around herself and spinning to the ground like a yo-yo. They leave a bomb (that never goes off) and manage to capture Augustine, who was brought along for some reason, so the whole thing is a failure anyway, except that Mazamette shoots at their car and causes an oil leak, giving him and Guérande a trail to follow. For some reason he goed alone, without calling in the police this time or even waiting for Mazamette. He finds Jane and Augustine held in a cell below the chateau and passes them a pistol. Then he goes away until nightfall.

A daring escape.

A daring escape.

That night the Vampires are all drinking and celebrating the marriage of Irma Vep and Venomous. No one is guarding the prisoners or the chateau, so Guérande knots a rope and ties it a second story balcony in preparation for an escape. The police raid the party and a gun battle breaks out, and most of the Vampires wind up on the balcony, which Guérande now causes to collapse with the rope. Venomous and his lackeys are killed in the crash. Irma Vep, meanwhile, runs down to the hostages and threatens them with a gun. Jane shoots her with the pistol Guérande gave her and he runs in to find them over her body. A few days later, Mazamette proposes to Augustine and all ends on a happy note.

A lively dance.

A lively dance.

As I said above, this episode is a lot like the others, in that we see various captures and escapes, and the trade-off between hunter and hunted, as the story proceeds. There are the usual leaps in logic: Why did Venomous and Irma Vep go back to the fortune teller’s house, when they know the police will get that information? Why doesn’t Guérande have better security by now? Why does it take so long for the police to organize either of the raids? We’ve gotten used to the idea that Mazamette is estranged from the wife he had at the beginning of the story, but it still seems odd that he starts stalking the widow so soon after her bereavement. Also, the idea that you could follow a trail of motor oil on city streets is pretty hard to credit – anyone leaking that much oil wouldn’t get far.

An unlikely discovery.

An unlikely discovery.

In all, I would rate “Les Vampires” a little lower than “Fantômas,” not least because of the lack of a truly effective villain. The Vampires go through three leaders (or four, if we can count Moréno), none of whom really seems as diabolically brilliant as Fantômas. The one consistent thread is Irma Vep, who I must admit makes up for it somewhat with her powerful presence. Musidora is at times sultry and seductive, at others snarling and animalistic, and always seems dedicated to crime and evil. Unfortunately, she also seems to be more of a girlfriend than a leader. She’s always “with” the head Vampire, never taking charge herself. On the other side of the law, Juve wasn’t a great hero, but he’s a darn sight better than Guérande. Mazamette is the character we care about on that side of the team, but he’s ultimately a sidekick as well.

A tense situation.

A tense situation.

That’s all from the point of view of the script, but in terms of filmmaking Feuillade does show some interesting improvements in “Les Vampires” over “Fantômas.” There’s much more use of close-ups and different camera angles, rather than proscenium-style set pieces, for example. The editing has improved as well. For example, in this episode the sequence in which Venomous tries to get in the window to get Jane is cross-cut in a wonderfully suspenseful manner that actually had me tense to the point of yelling at the screen. The audience knows that Jane has a gun, and we see her see Venomous’s hand at the window, but Feuillade keeps cutting back and forth and we wonder if she has the courage to shoot right up to the last moment. It’s a sequence worthy of Alfred  Hitchcock, and there was nothing like it in “Fantômas.” The first police raid also includes some good cross-cutting between the police and the villains, although that was sort of ruined when the bomb didn’t go off.

I probably won’t return to this series as often as I do to “Fantômas,” but it’s been good to see Feuillade’s further development. Next, I’ll have to move on to “Judex!”

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Frederik Moriss, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Louise Lagrange, Germaine Rouer

Run Time: 55 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Magician (1898)

Alternate Title: Le Magicien

This early short from Georges Méliès displays his wizardry (pun intended) with camera trickery, but seems to fall short in the department of a coherent storyline. It’s a pretty fascinating experiment nonetheless, and has a particularly interesting (if inexplicable) transformation midway through.

magicianThe movie begins with a man (I think it’s Méliès) dressed up in traditional “magician” garb, including a white beard, and a cap and robe with stars and crescent moons printed on them. He is on a small set with a stone arch painted in the background, however note that the camera is closer than usual for this period: we cannot see his feet. He makes a table appear center-stage, then conjures up a box on top of the table. He backs up toward the camera, then takes a running jump at the box, disappearing before he hits it. The box now falls apart and a child dressed as a clown or a Pierrot figure jumps out. His clothes are overlong, apparently intended for a grown man. He jumps down from the table, and when he gets to the ground, he suddenly turns into an adult! He then dances around for a while and makes motions to indicate that he is hungry and wishes there were food on the table. He sits down on a stool next to the table, looking sad, and a whole meal suddenly appears before him. He reacts in surprise and pleasure, and prepares to dig in, but when he sits down again, the table, stool, and meal all disappear and he falls to the floor. When he jumps up, suddenly the Devil is behind him and puts a hand on his shoulder, terrifying him. Suddenly he turns into a man in a robe that makes me think of Dionysus, but is apparently a sculptor. There is a bust of a woman on the ground and a tall tripod stand as well, He puts the bust on the tripod and prepares to chisel on it, but it turns into the real top part of a woman and grabs the chisel away from him. Suddenly she turns into a full-bodied woman in a robe with a lyre, and the sculptor attempts to embrace her. Each time he does, she disappears and appears behind him in a new pose. Finally she turns into a puff of smoke. The Devil appears behind the sculptor and kicks him in the butt. The end.

magician1All the action I described above takes just over a minute, and it’s very hard to follow on a first viewing. I watched it four times and practically had to go frame-by-frame to write out the summary. The movie was probably narrated by Méliès when he screened it at the Robert-Houdin Theater, and it may have made a bit more sense that way, but I think he was mostly just having fun combining a bunch of different stunts and camera tricks in a way he knew would make children laugh with surprise and joy. The story (and title) would make a little more sense if the magician character returned at the end. Since the different characters mostly seem baffled by the magical goings-on, I assume that they are not all intended to be the magician in different disguises. Anyway, the thing that I find most interesting about this movie is the transformation of the child into the adult. I’m not sure why he has that happen, but I almost think it was because he needed someone short enough to be fully in frame for the part where the clown is standing on the table, and then didn’t want to lose him when he jumped down. In other words, this whole magical effect was a replacement for a camera tilt, which his tripod probably couldn’t handle. I’m not even sure if audiences at the time would have noticed the difference between the two figures, they are on screen for so short a time, unless Méliès pointed out the magical effect in his narration.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Poison Man (1916)

Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not yet finished with the crime serial called “Les Vampires!” In this episode, a new Grand Master takes charge of the Vampires’ ongoing quest to snuff out Mazamette and Philipe Guérande, but Irma Vep still gets most of the screen time.

Venemous at work.

Venemous at work.

At the beginning of the movie, we establish “Venemous,” (played by Frederik Moriss) the “brilliant but deranged chemist” who is the new Grand Master of the Vampires, hard at work in his chemical laboratory, assisted by Irma Vep (Musidora). He receives a message with invisible ink on it, revealing it by brushing it with a special chemical. It states that Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is engaged to be wed to Jane Bremontier (Louise Lagrange), and that he visits his fiancée every day. He sends Irma Vep and two female collaborators to rent the apartment above Bremontier’s. They are able to learn about an upcoming dinner party and get the proposed menu from a maid. Venemous now calls the caterer and cancels the order, substituting Vampires for the caterers on the night of the event.

A generous tenant

A generous tenant

On the day of the party, the Vampires are admitted and allowed to prepare and serve the meal. However, Jane’s mother gives a bottle of the champagne to the concierge to thank him for helping to bring up the food from the delivery, and when he tastes it, he dies! His wife runs up to the party to warn everyone not to drink the champagne, which no one has touched yet because Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is making a very long-winded toast. The Vampires in the kitchen realize the gig is up and escape out the window, but Venemous, who is dressed as a valet, must hide in a cabinet in the dining room. Mazamette tries to catch him in the dark, but winds up fighting with Guérande instead. Venemous is also able to escape over the rooftops of Paris.

poison-man2Now Guérande becomes convinced that he must move his fiancée to the country in order to hide her, but Irma Vep sees the car arrive to pick them up and takes a perfume bottle full of sleeping gas to surprise them. Mazamette has been hiding in a trunk on the side of the car, however, and he attacks her. Irma Vep is able to spray him with the gas and her accomplices remove him. Then, she hides in the trunk. Mazamette is dumped on the street and taken to the police station, believed to be drunk. When he wakens, he calls Philipe to warn him, but Irma slips out of the box and gets away in the car before Philipe can catch her.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Irma Vep now finds herself at a fancy restaurant in the Fontainebleau forest. She summons Venemous by telephone, but Guérande turns up first and attacks her, tying her up and leaving her on the road as a car approaches (almost a rare case of a woman tied to train tracks!). The car contains Mazamette, who stops at first to assist the damsel in distress before recognizing her. Guérande has been waiting nearby with a pistol, and now he joins his friend. They put Irma Vep in Mazamette’s car and go to lie in wait for the arrival of the Grand Master of the Vampires at the restaurant. However, when he arrives, Irma Vep honks the horn with her head and he finds her there and they drive off together in Mazamette’s car, with Guérande and Mazamette in pursuit in his car.

poison-man4

You’re doing it wrong! You’re ruining it for me!

After a lively chase, Venomous leaps out of the vehicle; Philipe chases Venomous on foot, following him onto the top of a moving train, but Venomous gets away, shooting him in the leg. Mazamette has been restrained from jumping onto the train by two well-meaning policemen, and he punches one of them. He is held for assaulting an officer, but when Guérande shows up and strikes him in the police station, the police decide to forget the whole affair.

poison-man5I found this episode to be more visually satisfying than most of the others, in part because so much of it is shot on location in the streets of Paris or the forest of Fontainebleau. We get some nice blue tinting on the night shots. Also, there was a good amount of close-ups, including on Mazamette and Guérande when they first enter the darkened room, and some good camera angles when, at various times, Irma Vep is lying on the ground, and in order to see the figures escaping across the rooftops. Finally, the editing of the chase sequence was very satisfying, including some classic cross-cutting, even though I’ve seen critics who claim Feuillade never used any. The chase across the top of a train was, of course, similar to many Westerns that had already been released, beginning with “The Great Train Robbery,” but it is handled well here also.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

I usually criticize some aspects of the strained logic in each episode, but this one has only minor departures from logic. The biggest is that, since we’ve already established that Guérande is a teetotaler, it doesn’t make much sense to put poison only in his champagne, instead of the rest of the meal. Of course, it may well be that even a truly sober Frenchman has to sip a little champagne at his own engagement, so maybe that was safe. I was a little surprised that Venemous himself turned up at the party in the guise of a butler, but at this point we’ve gotten used to the Grand Vampires taking ridiculous and unnecessary personal risks, so we’ll give that a pass as well. There’s a somewhat silly bit when a figure in Vampire disguise climbs up a drainpipe – in order to deliver a perfume bottle in Irma Vep. Surely the front door would work just as well. The one part that doesn’t make much sense to me is why is Mazamette riding in the trunk in the first place? Surely the Vampires are going to assume that he is wherever Guérande and his fiancée are, so it doesn’t seem like it would really help much in terms of security. Still, it’s a minor point and doesn’t interfere much with the enjoyment of this episode.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Frederik Moriss, Louise Lagrange, Florense Simoni

Run Time: 50 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Panorama from the Top of a Moving Train (1898)

This early experiment from Georges Méliès contradicts some of the preconceptions we have about his work: that it was always shot from a stationary camera on a sound stage, that it always involves fantasy or magic, or that he was always in front of the camera, for example. It’s certainly true that these descriptions are true for most of his later movies, but not because he lacked imagination or had never thought of trying anything else.

panorama-from-the-top-of-a-moving-trainWe see the top of a train, as the title suggests. The camera faces forward, so as the train moves we get more of a tracking shot than what is today called a “pan” (short for “panorama”), but the we do see dynamic movement and some of the streets of Paris as seen from the train tracks. The most exciting moments come as the train passes underneath bridges – even for a modern audience there is a moment of wondering if the lower bridges might hit the camera. Smoke billows back from the chimney into the camera lens, obscuring our vision at times. The film ends just as the train begins a turn that allows a view of  river, possibly the Seine.

This isn’t an especially skillful example of an actuality film. Méliès’s decision to point the camera forward on the train robs us of a clear view of most of the scenery, and the beginning and end points appear random, rather than chosen to make the most interesting picture. Most of the appeal had to be the simple fact of movement captured on film, plus the drama of wondering what will happen if the bridge is too low. Still, by moving the camera itself, rather than taking an image of a train in motion from a stationary position, Méliès has already in 1898 shown that the audience need not be treated only to shots of a proscenium with actors making entrances and exits. I don’t believe that Méliès invented the “panorama,” however, nor was he the first to put a camera on a train. This was done quite early on by cinematographers working for the Lumière brothers and many other filmmakers copied the style when audiences responded well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Treasures of Satan (1902)

Alternate Title: Les Trésors de Satan

This short film by Georges Méliès represents my final “history of horror” entry for the month of October. As usual, it deals with its subject matter playfully, and in this case it is even somewhat hard to be certain what is going on, but the theme of Satanic black magic is implicit from the title and performance.

treasures-of-satanA figure dressed as Satan is on a set, designed to be a large chamber in a castle. Satan has large feather-like horns on his hat and a goatee, but otherwise appears normal. On a table on stage left is a pile of bags with large numbers written on them (lots of zeros). He summons some assistants (with smaller “horns” on their hats) who lift a coffin-sized chest onto some stools and help Satan place the money bags into the chest. They lock the chest and leave the room. Almost immediately, another man in medieval garb (no horns) sneaks into the room and dances about with glee over the money he hopes is in the chest. He breaks it open, but it snaps shut on his fingers. Then the money begins leaping about uncontrollably. He traps it in the chest again, but then a demon-woman (horns again) climbs out holding one of the bags. followed by five others. They tempt him with the money, then suddenly the bags turn into large spears and the women pursue the man, poking him. When he tries to hide in the chest, it disappears and rematerializes upright on the left side of the stage, and he is exposed to the spears. He runs in to the chest again, and it blinks out and reappears on the stools with the same effect. Finally the women disappear when he kneels to pray. He tries to grab the chest, but it gets up of its own accord and eludes him. He hits it with a stool and it turns into a demon-acrobat, who tumbles. The demon and Satan try to grab the man, who tries to run away, but Satan charms him into the chest, which then emits fire and smoke, while all the demons dance around it. At the end, Satan transforms the chest back into the money bags.

I’ve tried to be somewhat neutral in my description of this plot, because there are contesting narratives as to what is actually going on. The logical assumption is that the non-demon man (played by Méliès himself) is a thief, trying to steal from Satan and being punished in return. However, the Star Films Catalog says that he is a miser, and that Satan is stealing from him: supposedly he is “greatly astonished” that his fortune has been moved from the table to the chest. However, this doesn’t really fit the action: why should a miser sneak into his own chamber? Why would he leave his money lying out on a table? And, he doesn’t look “astonished,” he looks excited by the idea that there’s money in the chest. The first time I watched, I actually thought this was dual-role movie, with Méliès as both Satan and the thief/miser. However, watching again, I wasn’t so sure that Satan was Méliès. He’s too far away from the camera to be identified for certain, and he moves differently than the playful dancing one gets to know as Méliès’s body language. The bearded man is unmistakably Méliès.

Director Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.