Off to Bloomingdale Asylum (1901)
This short film from Georges Méliès is a reminder that white European attitudes toward race were about as insensitive as those in the USA in the early Twentieth Century. It constitutes a simple trick film built around clowning, but seems a bit disturbing for what it portrays within that.
In this case, it seems the best way to synopsize, is to directly quote from the “Star Films Catalog.” The language is not my own, but written for an English-speaking audience about 1905: “An omnibus arrives drawn by an extraordinary mechanical horse. On the top are four negroes. The horse kicks and upsets the negroes, who are changed into white clowns. They slap each other’s faces and by the blows become black again. They kick each other and become white once more. Finally they are all merged into one large negro, and when he refuses to pay his carfare, the conductor sets fire to the omnibus and the negro bursts into a thousand pieces.”
It’s worth noting, of course, that the “negroes” of this piece are not black men, but white Frenchmen in blackface. Really black. In fact their faces are so black and their behavior so simian that I wasn’t 100% sure they represented human beings until I read the Star Catalog. Now, of course, visually this blackness contrasts with the white clown-face of the alternate appearance of the characters, which probably means that most people at the time simply read it as a clown show, but there’s a deep well of racism under the surface of this veneer. The effects are, of course, managed with simple substitution photography, well established by this time, and the “extraordinary mechanical horse” is basically a large marionette. Not one of the more illuminating works of Méliès.
Director: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min, 6 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).