The Magic Book (1900)
This typical trick film by Georges Méliès plays on the theme of still images coming to life that mirrors the miracle of motion pictures and would be seen again in such movies as “The Hilarious Posters” and “The Living Playing Cards.” A minimal plot is woven around what appears to be a filmed performance of a magic show; just what we would want and expect from Méliès.
A proscenium-style set is decorated to be a kind of fantasy workshop, with clocks, a skeleton, a desk, and a very large bookstand at center stage. Méliès walks onto the set from a door at the rear, dressed in a beard and a bald cap, with wild hair springing out below the cap. He gives a bow to the audience and indicates the bookstand, then pulls a book fully as tall as himself from somewhere offscreen, carrying it over and putting it on the stand. The book’s title (in both French and English) is “Le Livre Magique/The Magical Book.” He opens the book, revealing a picture of a clown-like figure on the first page. He dances and gestures and the drawing comes to life, a man in a similar costume emerging and the page now appearing blank. The clown imitates the dance Méliès just gave, then goes to the side of the stage. Méliès turns the page, revealing pictures of Harlequin and Pierrot, and the process is repeated, with Méliès acting out a bit of physical business, bringing each figure to life, and the figures imitating his movements before going to one side, where they interact like old friends meeting unexpectedly.
The next page shows a young woman and an old man. When Méliès pulls the young woman from the page, all of the clowns respond with obvious interest, so I guess this represents Columbine. She does a ballerina dance and Méliès separates her from the clowns, but they soon run across the stage to fall at her feet once again. Now he animates the old man. The old man fights the clowns, one at a time, making it possible for Méliès to return them to the book. Pierrot, however, sneaks off while Méliès is distracted finding the right page, and Méliès returns all of the others to the book without noticing. He then discovers the blank page and looks around, easily finding Pierrot hiding next to the bookstand. He grabs Pierrot and forces him into the book, closing the cover, but Pierrot does not turn into a drawing, he tries to fight his way out of the pages. When Méliès tries to force the cover shut, he again hops out of the book onto the stage. After appearing and disappearing a couple of times, he is again thrust at the book, and this time becomes a drawing once again. Méliès bows, but the book falls on top of him. He disappears and reappears at the rear door, bowing once again for his performance. Then he picks up the book and walks offstage.
While this is a relatively simple film, in terms of effects and story, there are a couple of interesting aspects. One is the use of both French and English on the cover of the book, suggesting that Méliès was already aware by 1900 that much of his audience was English-speaking (and probably largely American). The other thing that stood out to me was the use of the familiar Harlequinade characters as a kind of theatrical/cinematic shorthand to give more depth to characters who could as easily have been generic clowns or nameless figures. In that sense, it’s interesting that it’s Pierrot, and not Harlequin, who almost gets the best of Méliès at the end. He’s usually the loser in this comic drama, but perhaps Méliès had a soft spot for him.
Director: Georges Méliès
Camera: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 2 Min
You can watch it for free: here.