Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1899

Casey at the Bat (1899)

This fragment of a short Edison movie is subtitled “Or, the Fate of a (Rotten) Umpire,” setting up a fan’s violent wish-fulfillment right from the start. While we don’t have the whole thing, what we do see conforms to the simple slapstick of the time.

The camera is placed just behind home plate and to the left, allowing a clear view of the action in a small ball park. A man in a baseball uniform with large sideburns steps up to the plate and swings as the ball flies past. The umpire calls two strikes before “Casey” turns on him and begins to punch him. Soon, several other players from both teams are involved in the melee – mostly apparently trying to pull “Casey” off the hapless referee.

The position of the camera was particularly interesting to me, because it seems that this is the standard one-shot image of a baseball game, in spite of the fact that it puts the camera at some risk of being hit by a bad pitch. It may have already been established by still photographers, or possibly by baseball fans’ consensus that right behind home plate is the best place to watch a ball game. Or, it may just be the best way to frame both pitcher and batter so that the action is central to the screen without panning or switching shots. Other than that there isn’t much to say about this movie – it’s yet another example of a fight being used to generate interest and comedy in early cinema.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

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Raising Spirits (1899)

Alternate Title: Évocation Sprite (Star Films #205)

This short film from Georges Méliès fits in with other entries from him in our “history of horror” (continued each October on this blog). He uses a supernatural theme to reproduce a kind of magic-show, using the tricks of cinema to produce effects that would be difficult or impossible on a live stage.

Méliès stands at the center of a small, sparsely decorated stage, holding a large wreath. He puts his head through the wreath as he bows, then hangs it from a string so that it is about the height of his head. He demonstrates that there is nothing inside the wreath again, then waves his hands below to show that there is nothing there either. Now he makes magical gestures and the image of a demon appears inside the wreath. Méliès shakes his head disapprovingly and then gestures to make the demon disappear. The images inside of the ring first appear as fuzzy, out-of-focus blurs and then come into focus. The second image is that of a young woman. Méliès bows to her and she fades in and out once before being replaced by an image of Méliès. The two Méliès-images act independently, showing that this is a multiple-exposure. After he makes his duplicate image disappear, Méliès once again puts his head through the now-empty wreath to take a bow.

This is a pretty early use of double-exposure images in film (but see also “The Four Troublesome Heads” from the year before) and Méliès handles it well. I thought it was interesting that his “spirits” fade in and out instead of simply appearing fully-formed. It reminded me of a pre-HD television image coming into focus, but obviously Méliès wouldn’t have had that in mind. I suppose that this effect might be typical of mediumistic representations of contacting the other side – at first the connection is imperfect, but the medium can improve it. At any rate, any kind of a fade at this time was a deliberate in-camera effect, and in this case he (or his cinematographer) must have been throwing the camera out of focus deliberately, then refining it while shooting. Just goes to show that things we take for granted required skill and planning in the early years of film.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time:1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Cinderella (1899)

Alternate Title: Cendrillon

Georges Méliès provides this version of the classic fairy tale in one of his most ambitious nineteenth-century productions. It includes five different camera set-ups and, according to the Star Films Catalog, “thirty five” extras, all on a typically small stage.

cinderella-1899The movie starts a little abruptly, with Cinderella in the kitchen begging to be allowed to go to the ball, but her step-sisters leave and slam the door in her face. She mopes around a bit and then her fairy godmother appears and turns various household pests into servants for her and a pumpkin into a coach. Then she gives her a gown to wear, and Cinderella climbs into the coach (right there in the kitchen!) and drives off, though the godmother stops her to warn her to be back before midnight. She disappears through a trap door in the floor. The next scene shows the ballroom, with lots of nobles dancing elegantly together. The Prince sits to one side on his throne and takes little interest until Cinderella arrives. Then he steps onto the floor with her and they dance while the other guests watch. Suddenly a clock appears on the floor and shows that it is midnight, and Cinderella tries to leave, but the Prince detains her. Then a funny gnome-like creature hops out of the clock, holding up another clock-face, and Cinderella tries again to leave, but before she can make it, the fairy godmother appears and causes her dress to become rags again. She flees in humiliation while the nobles laugh, but the prince picks up one of her shoes that has been left behind. The next scene is in her bedroom, and she has a nightmare involving clocks and the gnome, all dancing about to taunt her. Then she is with her sisters again, and they are apparently ordering her to get to work, when the Prince comes in to try the shoe on everyone. Of course, he tries the sisters first, and it won’t fit, then Cinderella, and it does and the fairy godmother restores her dress and the Prince and Cinderella leave together. Now the scene shifts to outside the palace, and a crowd of people gathers to watch the wedding procession as it passes. There are soldiers, peasants, nobles, a priest, and the King and Queen as well as the happy couple. The onlookers give a dance in their honor and they are joined by a ballerina who performs. At the end, the backdrop is lifted to show the Prince, Cinderella, and the rest of the wedding party on their thrones.

cinderella1-1899In the early years of cinema, certain stories were made and remade ad infinitum. This is now the third version of this story to be reviewed on the Century Film Project (the others starred Florence LaBadie and Mary Pickford). It is a somewhat unusual take on the tale, especially since the ball is over before half of the movie’s run time has completed! Actually, a lot of what follows struck me as padding, especially the dance at the end. It seems like more time could have been spent at the beginning establishing Cinderella’s life of drudgery, and less time celebrating her wedding, though the clock nightmare was interesting. I’m not 100% certain whether the surviving copy is complete, either – perhaps there was more of the cruel step-sisters in the original. One interesting thing about the Flicker Alley print is that we get about 30 seconds of hand-painted color at the beginning, which is truly lovely, although it goes away all too quickly. I really wanted to see the ball in color, and the final dance might have been more interesting with it as well. For Méliès, this was a fairly mature production: he uses special effects in showing the magic and telling the story, but they are not the point of the film, and he links the several different scenes well with basic editing. It was probably one of the most expensive movies he had made at the time as well – just in terms of all the sets he had to build alone. For once, we have some reasonably reliable cast information. Jeanne d’Alcy, who played the queen mother, was later to be Méliès’s wife, and has appeared uncredited in a number of his other movies.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mlle Barral, Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bleuette Bernon

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Mysterious Portrait

Alternate Title: Le Portrait mystérieux

This short trick film from Georges Méliès displays his fascination with twinning and also is I believe the first of several of his films in which paintings come to life.

mysterious-portraitMéliès enters a stage with a large empty picture frame in the center, set against a backdrop crowded with posters. He walks through the frame to demonstrate that it is a three-dimensional object, with nothing inside of it. Then he walks offstage and rolls up the backdrop, revealing another one with what looks like the courtyard of a castle on it. He places a canvas inside the frame and a stool on the front of it. He gestures and suddenly a second image of him appears inside the frame, sitting on the stool. The two Méliès interact with each other and imitate one another. Then the Méliès outside the frame gestures again and the one inside becomes blurry and disappears. The remaining one walks behind the frame again, then comes out to take a bow.

Although this movie builds on the multiple exposure effect used for “The Four Troublesome Heads,” the really exciting innovation for me was the fade used to make the portrait-Méliès disappear. I believe it is the first example of a fade in cinema, or one of the first at any rate. I was completely baffled as to why he changes the backdrop until I realized that the first backdrop shows posters for other acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. That first part of the movie was intended as a kind of advertising to the audience about other things to come and see. Méliès would use this promotional idea again in the movie “The Hilarious Posters” (1905), in which the ads themselves come to life.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Conjuror (1899)

Alternate Titles: L’impressionist fin de siècle, An Up-to-Date Conjuror, A Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist.

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is another display of his attempts to recreate a magic act on the screen, using the benefits of special effects to produce wonders. It is fast paced and largely plotless.

conjurorAt the beginning, Méliès, in a magician’s costume, is positioning a full-sized mannequin of a woman on a table. He quickly brings her to life. She jumps down, bows, and dances a bit, then Méliès seats her in a chair and covers her shoulders with a shawl or blanket. He picks up a large basket or tube and places it on the table. He then covers her with the blanket and removes it with a flourish, making her disappear. Then he pulls up the tube on the table and she is revealed to be underneath. He picks her up and suddenly she turns into confetti, which he sprinkles about liberally. He puts the tube back on the table and covers himself with the blanket, disappearing and then appearing beneath the tube, which he removes himself. He leaps down from the table, turning into the woman in the process. She climbs up onto the table and jumps down, turning into Méliès. He now turns a tumble, disappears, and appears at stage left. He sits on the table and disappears again, this time in a puff of smoke.

The speed of the substitution splices gives this movie a kind of insane rhythm. Nothing is as it seems – or not for very long. Motion is the only constant. In less than sixty seconds, we see at least eight special effects. I think this gives this movie a manic pace not equaled by his earlier work. The woman in this movie seems familiar to me, after watching so many other Méliès films. She doesn’t seem to be ID’d anywhere, so I’m assuming it isn’t Méliès’s wife, but she does seem to have been a frequent co-star.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Mysterious Knight (1899)

Alternate Title: Le Chevalier Mystère

I’m including this short film from Georges Méliès in my “history of horror” this year, although it is mostly a typical “trick film” with a light-hearted, non-frightening tone, because it does include a somewhat unusual treatment of a head. Whether intended as horror or not, I’m tempted to see it as a kind of predecessor to “Re-Animator” and other movies with animated heads.

mysterious-knightWe see a typical Méliès proscenium-style set, this time dressed to suggest a medieval castle. There is a sword on the wall, as well as an owl. In front of the wall is an easel with a chalkboard on it, and Méliès himself appears in a wig and a costume suggesting an off-duty knight. He draws a woman’s head on the board, then reaches out and pulls it off the board. When he places it on a bottle on the table, it comes to life and begins speaking or perhaps singing. Méliès crawls under the table, to demonstrate to the audience that there is nothing underneath the head. He impales it on the sword(!) and it continues speaking with no apparent discomfort. He then puts it on a tripod and wraps a blanket around the legs of the tripod. When he removes the blanket, the whole woman has appeared. She takes his hand and bows to the audience. He then waves a fan at her and she slowly fades out. He makes her appear once again on the table, then removes her head and throws it back onto the chalkboard, where it becomes a drawing again.

Again, this movie isn’t intended to be all that frightening, but the bit about impaling a talking head on a sword struck me as rather creepy nonetheless. The movies of Méliès often draw upon popular conceptions of magic, which have certain occult overtones, however innocent and playful they may be. I was impressed by the effects in this film, which we have to remember are all done in-camera, and particularly the fade out of a single person while the rest of the image remained steady struck me as impressive for the time. Méliès had done many trick films with people and objects appearing and disappearing at this point, of course, but the interactions between himself and the head are more effective here than many of the effects he did up to this point. There are no noticeable jump cuts, although when Méliès holds the head it quite obviously turns into a mannequin’s head, and he holds it so that the face does not look at the camera to make this less obvious.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike (1899)

This is a series of footage presented on the DVD “Invention of the Movies,” but I’m not entirely sure that these scenes were presented to audiences stitched together as they are here. As it is, it appears as a kind of 1-minute documentary about the gold rush, giving modern viewers a chance to see Alaska as it appeared over a century ago.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondike1The first shot is a newspaper headline that emphasizes the harsh conditions and large numbers of unskilled people emigrating to Alaska in search of gold. After that we see a tracking shot down the street of an Alaskan boom town, with largely empty streets and many signs for new businesses. Spectators in the street stare directly up at the camera, which seems to be on a wagon or other conveyance. The next shot shows a much busier street from sidewalk-level, and here crowds line the streets. There are banners over the street and a man carries a sign advertising a local business, giving the whole scene the sense of a parade or fairgrounds. Next we see a raging river, and a large boat speeds into view, carrying a handful of men through the rapids. The last shot shows men working at sluices, with a camp visible in the background. There is a woman at the lower part of the screen (distinguishable in her heavy 19th-century dress), and at one point she picks up a rock and shows it to her escort. I get the impression that she is being given a tour of the mining facility.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondikeAs I said above, I don’t know (and somewhat doubt) that these strips of film were ever shown to audiences in exactly this way. The editing structure of the current presentation seems too close to modern documentary technique to have been used at the time. What is more likely is that each of these shots was a part of a longer film, sold separately or in a bundle to exhibitors, who showed them with live narration or reading from newspapers about events in Alaska. Possibly these snippets are all that has survived, and editing them into a single film made sense from a video distribution standpoint. We do get some nice contemporary images of the Klondike, however. The ramshackle buildings and simple tents that make up the city and mining area speak to the primitive conditions people embraced, and the crowded street scene gives a sense of the population-problems the area was facing. Also the fact that we see only one woman among all these shots is telling in terms of the skewed gender-situation at this time and place. On the whole, while they are discouragingly short, these clips do transport us to a time which has been romanticized by cinema at least since the first version of “The Spoilers” hit the screen.

Director: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Camera: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

A Wringing Good Joke (1899)

This Edison short works on about the same level as the Lumiere film “A Sprinkler Sprinkled,” and delivers the same kind of prankish voyeuristic opportunity to its audience. Humor in early cinema was largely limited to very basic pratfalls and slapstick, as it would take greater length and complexity to set up other kinds of jokes.

wringing-good-jokeWe see a set representing the inside of a working class home or apartment. A man dozes on a chair to the right of the stage, while a woman (possibly a man in drag) works at a laundry tub to the right. When the woman goes to answer the door, a child runs out and ties on end of a string to his father’s chair, and the other to the piece of laundry his mother has left in the tub. When she returns, she begins cranking the wringer and inadvertently pulls over the chair, which itself pulls over the tub when it falls, resulting in both parents falling into a puddle of sudsy water. The boy runs out and laughs riotously at the sight.

I’m not certain if this film was shot at the Black Maria, but if so it is by far the most elaborate set we’ve seen there. By this time Edison cameras were small enough to be portable, so they may have been shooting at another location. I spoke of these kind of movies as “voyeuristic” above, and like all movies they give an audience a chance to fantasize by watching about participating in acts they do not commit themselves. In this case, the audience gets to enjoy the child’s humor at causing an accident, but avoids having to suffer or witness the consequences of this act. Other movies of this type, including “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” also allow the audience to watch as the perpetrator is punished – without being punished themselves, thus allowing them to enjoy both the act of revolt and its suppression in safety. This movie denies us that part of the experience, but leaves it to our imagination what befalls the boy when his parents get off the floor. One final note is that most modern children have probably never even seen a “mangle” or wringer, and would probably need to have the joke explained to them, although children at the time surely knew exactly what was going on.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women (1899)

This short from Edison contains action and suspense, and even the beginnings of a plot as the bravery and selflessness of rescue teams is put at the forefront. While the melodramatic adulation of fire fighters may seem quaintly nineteenth century to us today, it is worth remembering that 9/11 raised similar emotions in audiences quite recently.

firemen-rescuing-men-and-womenWe see the front of a building, with four windows visible and ladders propped against it. Smoke billows from all of the window, and two teams of firemen work from the highest ones, helping people in civilian clothing out the windows and onto the ladders, where they descend below the frame line. At one point, a fire fighter tosses a doll out the window to one of his fellows on the ladder. He then tosses it casually to the ground. After two men and a woman have been rescued, the fire fighters themselves go in and out of the windows, seemingly uncertain, for a few seconds.

The original catalog entry by Edison emphasizes “the efficiency of modern life-saving methods and apparatus now in use by the fire departments.” All it looks like is a few men on ladders, but presumably this emphasis on modern efficiency would have carried over to the live narration an exhibitor would have used to accompany this film. I assume that this was a staged event or a training exercise, and not a real fire, although it might have been presented to audiences as authentic, and there’s nothing that actually proves it fake. The doll being tossed from the window is the one odd bit, and I wonder if it was intended to help simulate a child-rescue, but the performers didn’t understand this and just tossed it quickly aside to get to the “real” rescuing.

Director:  J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dreyfus Affair (1899)

Dreyfus NewsIn a series of short movies, Georges Méliès depicted one of the major political events in French history while it was still ongoing, a scandal involving a Jewish man framed for espionage. This unusual set of films broke many conventions of film at the time, but set the stage for new developments and suggested ways in which cinema could be used artistically in the future.

Dreyfus AffairOf the original eleven films shot for this series, nine still exist. In the first, “Dreyfus Court Martial – The Arrest of Dreyfus,” we see various French officers crowded around a desk. Finally, one sits and signs a piece of paper, copying out what is dictated to him by another. The dictating man becomes agitated, and offers the other (Dreyfus) a gun, to kill himself if he is guilty, but Dreyfus refuses. The other men in the room lead him out. Read the rest of this entry »