Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1897

Between Calais and Dover (1897)

This short comedy from Georges Méliès demonstrates his developing ability to use the camera to create illusionary settings. In this case, a ship in bad weather is recreated through set design and use of the camera.

Between Calais and DoverWe see a set made to suggest the upper deck of a small craft. It rocks back and forth, and the passengers tumble about. Some retreat to the interior, a woman to the left side of the stage gets sick into a basket or bowl, and the captain steadfastly clings to the railing as he rides it out. One man in center stage is still trying to get the steward to bring drinks and a meal. His table topples over before the food arrives, but he rights it and the steward unsteadily delivers the order. The man begins to eat and drink when an especially strong wave bowls him into the table. Finally, everyone on deck decides it’s time to go below.

The big question, that I was unable to answer for certain after repeated viewings, is: Did Méliès rock the set back and forth or simply the camera? It would be more innovative and clever to realize that you could achieve the same effect by rocking the camera, but Wikipedia simply says he used “a special articulated platform,” which sounds more like the set was on a platform, but I’m not certain. If you pay attention, you’ll see that the table falling over, the motions of the open door, etc appear to be managed by the actors themselves – nothing seems to fall over by itself, so it could be the camera, but I can’t be sure without more research. The “First Wizard of Cinema” DVD describes this as “actuality/reenactment,” but to my mind it is neither. It is clearly a scene created in a false environment for entertainment purposes, which is why I’m calling it a comedy. It is conceivable that it was intended to reenact a recent news-worthy storm, but without the original narration, we’ll never know. The fellow who grabs our attention is again played by Méliès himself, once again showing off his great screen presence: his checked suit is padded to make him look fatter and he wears a deerstalker cap, apparently not an homage to Sherlock Holmes but perhaps intended to make him look more English. Note that the ship has a prominent label reading “Robert-Houdin/Star Lines.” Star Films was the name of the company Méliès created to distribute his movies, and the Robert-Houdin was the theater in Paris where he exhibited them.

Alternate Titles: Entre Calais et Douvres, Between Dover and Calais

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georgette Méliès, Joseph Grapinet

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Surrender at Tournavos (1897)

Alternate Titles: La Prise de Tournavos, La Prise de Tournavos par le Troupes du Sultan

This is a reenactment of a current event done by Georges Méliès in a studio. Similar to “The Dreyfus Affair,” Méliès created a kind of newsreel by having actors portray action from newspapers in motion for the screen.

Surrender of Tournavos_(Star_Film_106,_1897)We see a fairly small stage, showing the interior courtyard of a fort with four defenders, who are firing over the wall at an unseen enemy. Soon, the enemy breaks in through a gate, and the defenders run inside a building (exit stage left). The attackers, who we can see are wearing fezzes, run in through the gate and find their way blocked by a locked door. Most of them run back out the gate while a demolitions man places a bomb on the door to the building. It explodes and the attackers run back in, an officer urging them on as bullets start to fly from inside. The officer is hit and goes down but the soldiers press the attack as the movie reel ends.

This movie is quite action-packed, and like action films ever since, no one is ever seen to reload, although we see impressive bursts of smoke from their guns. The event it portrays is a scene from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, which would for European audiences invoke the image of a Christian nation besieged by Muslim invaders, a common theme in literature and history. Méliès dispenses with his fanciful set design to make a quite realistic fort set, although to any modern viewer it is still obviously a set. Great care also seems to have gone into the uniforms of the Greeks and the Turks. As far as watching it today, it’s important to remember that it would most likely have been accompanied by live narration that explained what was on the screen and also that an audience in 1897 would probably be familiar with the situation from reading the newspapers. Viewed in silence, without context, it doesn’t seem to “mean” much to us today, but it would have been quite thrilling at the time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès)

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès)

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Serpentine Dance with Mme. Bob Walter (1897)

In the course of this project, I’ve reviewed a number of serpentine dances, from at least three countries. They were popular subjects with early filmmakers because they emphasized hypnotic movement, could be shown to almost any musical accompaniment, and could be “looped” to play for extended periods with no obvious beginning or ending.

Serpentine DanceThis Serpentine dance goes on longer than a minute (almost two) which is a pretty good run for the time. The dancer smiles and seems to enjoy herself, although one doesn’t get a strong sense of “professionalism” from her movements or her demeanor. At one point near the middle, a good portion of her leg is visible, which may have been an added attraction for male viewers.

Serpentine Dance1Watching this, the first thing I wondered is whether it was also released with hand-painted color. The version I have is in black and white, which is much less striking than the color serpentine dances I’ve seen. Still, for audiences of the day, seeking the thrill of moving pictures in and of itself, this would probably have been all that was needed. French Wikipedia seems to mention a dispute over the authorship, but since I can’t read French I cannot comment on it.

Director: Alice Guy (so far as I know)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: “Mme. Bob Walter”

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Bathing in a Stream (1897)

This short film from Alice Guy‘s first year working at Gaumont makes a nice follow-up to yesterday’s film. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been shot on the same day, or even within a few minutes of one another.

This time, we see a group of boys in striped swimming trunks, climbing on some rocks in a stream. There is a dog with them, and all of them, human and cainine, seem happy for the cool water, suggesting a very hot day and a respite for the bathers. The boys splash each other, scamper over the rocks, and occasionally tug their suits back into place.

Bathing in a StreamThe swimsuits, again, seem very revealing for the nineteenth century, and one wonders if women would ordinarily be able to see such a spectacle. In that sense, Alice may be showing us a rare un-fettered example of the “female gaze” at male semi-nudity. There is an older man in the background, also in trunks, and he may have been the victim of these boys in “The Fisherman at the Stream.” If so, Alice has at least thought to re-position her camera, in order to make it less obvious that these are the same streams, which is more than Edison’s filmmaker’s thought to do when making fake newsreels of the Spanish-American War a year later. What the movie reminds me of the most, however, is the Lumière film “La Mer” which I reviewed last summer. It shows the innocence of childhood play, and also the freedom of summertime, just as that movie does, but in a different way.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Aice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Fisherman at the Stream (1897)

To begin my project of reviewing the films of Alice Guy (I’m sticking to her maiden name because all the movies I plan to review predate her marriage to Herbert Blaché), I give you a very short movie of the nineteenth century. Coming one year after “The Cabbage Fairy,” this shows less fantasy and imagination, but no less whimsy.

Fisherman at the StreamA single frame shows us a man sitting on a rock with a fishing pole. Some nearly-naked young boys are climbing on rocks behind him, apparently with the intention of taking a refreshing swim. Suddenly, one of them gives the fisherman a shove off the rock. Soaking wet and fuming, the man chases the boy and gives him a short spanking, before his colleagues rescue him and dunk the poor fisherman once again.

This is far from an original film, being basically the same plot as Lumière’s “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and even moreso “The Lone Fisherman” from Edison Studios. It’s basically the oldest gag in cinema – someone is minding their own business until a prankster dunks them or sprays them with water. In that sense, Guy is showing her business sense by giving audiences what they wanted with this movie, more than her creativity. This was probably easy and inexpensive to shoot and required little or no fore-planning. I recently learned from The Blonde at the Film that if someone is dunked, “you have to mention a cleansing Baptism – it’s a rule of subtextual analysis,” so, OK, I’m mentioning it, but frankly I think this is more about how inconvenient it is to get wet in your clothes.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, probably Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Alchemist’s Hallucination (1897)

This is another early short trick film by Georges Méliès, which seems to earn a place in the history of horror films. It incorporates supernatural themes and spooky imagery, but appears mainly intended to amuse and evoke wonder at the magic of cinema.

L'hallucination_de_l'alchimisteMéliès appears as a bearded and robed magician or alchemist. His dwarf servants show him a grimoire and use a bellows to build up a flame beneath a glass retort then flee the stage. A snake emerges from the furnace and performs some acrobatics, suddenly turning into a green-clad elf or imp. The imp gives the alchemist a wand with a solar symbol on its end, then uses magic to blow the retort up to giant proportions. We see various images inside the retort, most notably a huge spider with a creepy human face. Then smoke pours out of the retort into a bucket that has been placed beneath it. A semi-transparent ghost levitates out of the bucket and dances in air. The alchemist rises from his chair as the ghost disappears, and the beaker suddenly explodes behind him, knocking him to the floor.

Méliès at work in his studio.

Méliès at work in his studio.

This movie is a good example of the magical performances Méliès used the camera to bring to life. The print I watched was beautifully hand-painted, and, while it isn’t perfectly preserved, gave a good idea of how striking and effective his color films were at the time. There are several instances of double-exposures in the film to make the effects appear at the same time as the alchemist. The enlargement of the retort is also an important effect: I have seen references to “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1901) as the first instance of such a magnification (done by moving the camera closer to the object, creating a close-up), but this was done several years earlier, admittedly not with a human body part. Finally, it is fun to speculate what substance the alchemist had invented in order to see these fantastic images!

Alternate Titles: L’hallucination de l’alchimiste, An Hallucinated Alchemist, The Hallucinated Alchemist

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free online, if you know where it is, please let us know in the comments!

The Bewitched Inn (1897)

L'auberge_ensorcelée_(1897)This is another of Georges Méliès‘s short trick films, and another entry in my history of horror films for October. It does deal with the supernatural, and the events do disconcert and maybe even frighten its protagonist, although the audience was most likely expected to react with laughter.

Bewitched InnMéliès enters the stage wearing a false beard and a large pith helmet, portraying a stylized traveler in a hotel room. As he prepares for bed, each of the items he discards comes to life, moves about the room and disappears. When he tries to light a candle, first one disappears, and the other, allowing itself to be lit, explodes. He tries to sit on the chair, but it teleports across the room. When he finally removes his boots, they “walk” across the floor and disappear as the other items have. Finally, he tries to get into bed, but it disappears from under him. When it reappears, and the chair leaps on top of it, he flees the room in terror.

Bewitched Inn1This is reputed to be the first film in which Méliès made inanimate objects come to life to torment their owners, which would become a common theme in his movies. As with “A Terrible Night,” it depicts a guest who is prevented from sleeping by odd events, which was supposedly a common theme in variety shows. Méliès would also repeat this idea, and it is not very different from the two movies called “The Haunted Castle” (1896 & 1897) also by Méliès. He was of course still in an early experimental stage and was trying things out at this point, some of which he would return to and build upon later. One thing I thought was interesting is the large sign which says “notice” (“Avis”) on the door: apparently hotels already posted rules in France almost 120 years ago. I had always assumed that was a recent, possibly primarily American, development.

Alternate Titles: L’auberge ensorcelée, The Bewitch Inn (possibly a typo).

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

X-Rays (1897)


So, to make things even more complicated, apparently a British director, George Albert Smith, also released a movie called “The Haunted Castle” in 1897, which was more or less a remake of the original movie by Méliès. It’s apparently lost, though, so I won’t be discussing it in this post. No, instead I’m going to talk about another contender for the prize for “first British horror movie,” which is this humorous but macabre little entry. In it, a couple in Victorian dress flirts on a park bench, while a bearded fellow with a camera-shaped box marked “X-Rays” turns them both into skeletons. This does nothing to curb their ardor, however, and he eventually gives them their flesh back, at which point the lady slaps the fellow and the scene ends with him alone and forlorn. As compared to Méliès, the photography seems to be up to par, but the background scenery and costumes are somewhat lacking. Apparently the woman on the bench was Smith’s wife, which is not unusual for the in-house productions of the time, where one used the people at hand for “actors” and performers, although many production companies rapidly expanded their talent pools.

Alternate Title: “The X-Ray Fiend”

Director: George Albert Smith

Starring: Tom Green, Laura Bayley

Run Time: 44 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Haunted Castle (1897)


Wait, didn’t I just review this? Well, sort of. It appears that two movies were released by Georges Méliès with this title in English This “Haunted Castle” can be seen as a sort of remake of the earlier film, although they were shown with different titles in France (see below). The theme is quite similar, with a man in period costume being threatened by apparitions that appear and disappear thanks to camera trickery. It’s not clear to me whether the version we have is complete, but it’s much shorter than the earlier movie as well, and uses fewer actors, which probably meant it was cheaper to produce. What wouldn’t have been cheap is the color, which has been hand-painted frame by frame on this print, making it (arguably, as always) the “first” color horror movie. Again, it’s mostly played for laughs and whimsy, but there’s a skeleton and a Devil, so it can be seen as a Halloween-themed movie.

Alternate Titles: Le château hanté.

Director: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 39 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

What Demoralized the Barber Shop (1897)

What Demoralized the Barber Shop

This little clip from the days of film’s “innocent” youth gives us a chance to look at the development of what would become known as the “male gaze” in cinema. A group of men are in a barbershop, situated in a basement. The camera is framed to allow us to see up the stairs to the street. Suddenly, two pairs of feminine legs become visible. The women face one another, tugging their dresses upward, while the men below break into “pandemonium” at the sight of their ankles and shins. The viewer is treated to the view of disembodied female body-parts, and to a comedic over-representation of his own (presumed) reaction. The men are portrayed as having no control over their sexuality or behavior, while the women are oblivious to what is happening below their feet. Modern viewers will be especially amused that it is simply ankles that create the reaction in this early piece of deliberate titillation, although of course the folks at Edison were aware of how far they could go before there was a police raid on the Black Maria. As time went on, movies would inspire a great deal of debate over censorship, morality, and the gender order, but this example demonstrates how early some of the standards were set.

Director: William Heise

Run time: 48 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.