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.
We 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
Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown children
Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs
You can watch it for free: here.
This is incredible. Each time I start to watch a Georges Méliès film, I think, “I’m going to concentrate to see how he’s using trick photography.” But five seconds into it I’ve forgotten about all that and I’m charmed by the action on screen.
Also, thank you for a new word today: vexillologists.
Thanks! He really is a charmer, isn’t he?