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.
The 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.
All 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
Starring: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs
You can watch it for free: here.