Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: September, 2019

The Dancing Midget (1902)

A simple trick film in which Georges Méliès combines the conventions of the stage magic show with the effects of cinema to produce a brief piece of entertainment. Once again, he shows that he was quite willing to milk a technique and concept for all it was worth.

A standard proscenium-style set is established, with the backdrop painted as a tunnel leading away from the audience with a large black area in the center. Méliès enters from stage right, dressed as a slightly comical variety of a standard magician. He waves his cape and an assistant appears, dressed in a servant’s livery and wig. He pulls six eggs from the mouth of the servant, an act which seems to amuse the man greatly, and then breaks each in succession into his hat. He stirs up the hat’s contents and dumps a great deal of confetti out of it onto his assistant’s head. Then, he produces a much larger egg from the hat, about the size of an ostrich egg. He places it onto the table and gestures, causing it first to grow, then to burst and reveal a tiny ballerina inside. She dances on the table for a while. Then the magician brings her up to full size, and puts the assistant into a crate, placing his cape over the ballerina. He pulls up the cape, and – voila! – the two have changed places. He now  kicks the servant off the stage and departs with the ballerina down the tunnel.

I’ve come to recognize that when there’s a large black space in the center of a Méliès set, it means that something will be shown in double-exposure within that space. I wonder if his contemporary audiences ever caught on? Anyway, I liked Méliès’s somewhat frenetic performance here, and was surprised by the comparably under-stated behavior of the assistant. Usually, that would be the more comedic role, with an expectation that he would try to kiss the ballerina at some point. The trick at the center of the film is not especially new, nor are the various appearances and disappearances used to support it. Still, it is another fine example of the many short films Méliès produced during his brief but prolific career.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Seine Flood (1910)

This short piece of photojournalism documents a largely forgotten natural disaster, when the Seine river burst its banks and displaced as many as 150,000 Parisians. As a surviving example of actuality film, it gives the modern viewer a glimpse into a disturbance in everyday life of the past century.

The movie consists of several shots of the city of Paris during the days of the flooding. Quite a few shots show us the Seine itself, usually flowing under bridges which are only a few feet from being inundated. As a foreign viewer has no context to know how high the river normally is, however, this is perhaps not as dramatic as the film makers had hoped. We also see a mobile pumping machine, a pipe that is pouring water from the streets beck into the river, and a bit of an industrial dockyard that appears to be quite swamped. The more dramatic images, however, are of wet streets and a partially-submerged park. In some places, we see boards have been set up so that people can get to the bakery for their daily loaf of bread without being soaked to the knees. In another, we see a man pulling a small rowboat, apparently carrying commuters in place of a trolley. There are two horses, valiantly pulling carriages through streets covered in at least a foot of water. There are few intertitles, and where they occur, they mostly identify locations: “The Island Club Courbevoie,” “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” “Molineaux Raliroad Drain Dumps,” “Paris Rue Felicien David Taken by Boat.”

Most of the shots are understandably taken in wide angle, and they tend to show panoramas of the scenes they convey. In some cases, the camera is static, but more often it moves from left to right, allowing us to see the extent of damage or water in a given place. The final shot is taken from a moving boat, essentially a tracking shot of the street. Sullen Parisians look at the camera while being filmed, or else they go about their business. The real interest of this movie is mainly the opportunity to see what Paris looked like at the time. The buildings, clothing styles, and even the lamp posts retain an old-world look, as if the movie could have been taken decades earlier. The only sign of an internal-combustion engine is the pump, and that seems to have been drawn to its position by horsepower. People travel either by boat, by foot, or horse-drawn carriage, although this probably reflects the result of the disaster, rather than the norm of a European city of the time.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 26 secs

I have been unable to find this film available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Colonel’s Shower-Bath (1902)

This short piece of slapstick from Georges Méliès demonstrates that even as late as 1902 (the year he put out “A Trip to the Moon”), he wasn’t only making fantasy films and special effects. In fact, he wasn’t even always at the cutting edge of innovation – this movie seems at least five years behind the times.

A proscenium-style stage has been set up to depict a guarded gate in a European city. There are several soldiers on duty, although only one paces out his watch. Others sit, slouch, or mill around nearby. Above them, a scaffold has been set up for some painters who are re-painting the arch over the gate. Suddenly, the man on duty rushes over and alerts his comrades: the colonel is coming! All of them snap to attention, and one shorter fellow, who seemingly was taking a nap, rushes out of the guard station still trying to get his sword back into its scabbard. The colonel arrives, a distinguished older gentleman with an elaborate mustache. He berates the guards a bit for their slovenly appearance, then notices the painters and briefly speaks with one. That one climbs up the ladder to the scaffold with a bucket of paint while the colonel sits on a stool beneath the scaffold. The painter slips, and dumps the white paint all over the colonel, to the great amusement of the troops. The colonel rages at everyone.

There’s not a lot to this movie, although the backdrop and costumes are quite good. The short fellow continues to slouch throughout the colonel’s tirade, and maintains a very un-military appearance overall, which sort of makes him the star of the movie. Later slapstick stars like Keaton and Chaplin would take similar advantage of the audience’s identification with the short fellow who could never make good. But, really, it’s a simple joke you can see coming a mile away. Even Edison was putting out better stuff by this time, although of course the bulk of any film program at this time was not the highest-quality material.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Automatic Moving Company (1911)

This short film from Pathé demonstrates considerable skill in animation, as well as a touching imaginative approach that rivals Georges Méliès in the realm of the trick film. It still seems somewhat novel today, and must have been even more so at the time.

The movie begins with a brief glimpse of the only human actor in the whole story. We see a postman approach a door and push a letter through the mail slot. The camera then cuts to the interior of the building, where the letter floats across the room and onto a desk. A letter opener, moving by itself, opens the letter and an insert shot shows it to us. A client has written to the “Automatic Moving Company” to request a move, including a new address. A ledger book opens itself and a pen makes a notation. We now cut to a gate, from which a moving cart emerges, with no horses to pull it. It pulls in up to a door, and a series of furniture extracts itself and moves into the door. We follow the furniture up the stairs and into a bedroom, where the bed constructs itself and various pieces of furniture arrange themselves in appropriate positions in the room. Moving crates come in and pictures, linens, and clothing all emerge and tidily put themselves into place. This continues as we see a dining room put itself together, and a kitchen, including anew stove, sets itself up. When one plate falls to the ground and breaks, a broom and dustpan move into position and clean it up. One side table seems to tease a lamp, moving from one side of a table to another until it finally allows the lamp to climb on top and then takes up a position. At the end, one of the moving trunks hides under a table until a large trunk comes and pulls it out with a rope. They stop on the stairs and retreat, allowing the piano to come in, before departing the scene. We see all of the moving trunks load themselves back onto the back of the cart, the doors to the cart close, and it pulls away, the job now complete.

Most of this movie is in wide shot, allowing us to see the entire room, but a couple of insert shots give us a closer view of details, and this allows us to see that the moving objects are in fact miniatures, presumably moving about miniaturized sets on the scale of a doll house. Nevertheless, the illusion is mostly very convincing, and considering the amount of work that had to go into stop motion animation at the time, it was an impressive investment for a small film that was only expected a brief theatrical run before oblivion. Interestingly, the letter indicates that the client lives in “Kalamazoo, Mich,” although everything about the movie looks French, including the moving cart which clearly has French words on it, and appears to be from Nice. Possibly America was associated with modernity and high-technology, or possibly the name “Kalamazoo” sounded exotic to the film makers, and therefore magical. I particularly liked the way certain objects were invested with personality, like the playful side table and the reluctant moving trunk.

Director: Romeo Bosetti

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (mostly animated objects)

Run Time: 4 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dwarf and the Giant (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès shows that even after he had mastered longer forms of storytelling (as in “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella”) he continued to make simple trick films and experiment with effects. Here, forced perspective is used to achieve gigantism and a split screen allows twinning.

A standard proscenium-style stage is established by the camera; in this case the backdrop is painted to appear as if a long tunnel approaches the stage. Méliès approaches from the rear of the set, as if he has just walked down this corridor, wearing a toga. He pulls off the toga to reveal modern clothing and bows. Suddenly, a second figure pulls itself from him, and there are two Méliès on the stage. This new one is slightly shorter than the original, which he emphasizes by squatting down a bit, and the other Méliès makes fun of him. Then he pulls on a hair on top of his own head and seems to grow, magically to a new height, nearly filling the screen. He laughs at the shorter version of himself and drops confetti on its head. Then he shrinks down again and the two images re-combine for a moment, before splitting off and giving one another the raspberry before exiting the stage.

Méliès had used forced perspective more dramatically earlier in “The Man with the Rubber Head,” but the effect here seems simpler, done almost offhandedly, as if he has become more comfortable with the technique. Of course, the growth effect was achieved here by running the same film through the camera twice, with the background masked off and the camera moving closer to the actor to make him become bigger on screen, which is not a simple matter at all. At less than a minute in length, this was a pretty short movie for 1901, but there was so much demand for new content from him by now that he could make almost anything, and of course he also could use it between acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. Combined with other movies, as it would be in a period program, it’s a nice enough distraction.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 55 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

This movie is an unabashed remake of Georges Méliès beloved classic “A Trip to the Moon,” although with a shorter run time and a smaller cast and (evidently) budget. It nonetheless does preserve bits of Segundo de Chomón’s signature wit and gentle charm.

The movie consists of a series of discrete shots, each set up as a tableau within a proscenium-style stage area. The first shot shows a group of “scientists” or explorers, is a garden at night, the moon hanging overhead. One, who is kitted out in a classic wizard’s robe and cap, lectures at them and gestures to the moon. The others appear skeptical at his message. However, they follow him off stage after a bit of pantomime. The next shot shows the wizard/scientist’s observatory, with a large telescope in the background. The wizard shows his fellows the elaborate equations he has worked out on the chalkboard, then turns the chalkboard over to reveal a screen on which an animated image of a capsule flying between Earth and Moon appears. The others appear to congratulate him, and then follow him off this stage to the next scene.

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