Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1899

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 »

Wonderful Absinthe (1899)

This movie has a fair amount in common with “At the Club” (1899), although it is in a very different setting. The movie is also fast-paced, and takes more than one viewing to be understood, although I suppose that original audiences saw it with explanatory narration.

Wonderful AbsintheWe see two outdoor seats in what seems to be a comfortable middle-class beer garden or café. A bearded man in a long coat and top hat is shown to one, and he makes his order. The waiter then shows a family to the table next to him, while he reads from a magazine. The waiter now brings out a glass, a bottle, and a carafe to his table, and pours just a bit from the bottle into the glass and leaves to take the family’s order. The man now pours from the carafe, but since he is still reading from the magazine, he does not notice that he is pouring into his hat rather than the glass. When he takes a sip from the glass, he suddenly explodes into violence, leaping from his chair. The family shrinks back, and the waiter defends them, kicking the mad absinthe-drinker in the rear and ejecting him from the screen.

Wonderful Absinthe1Modern viewers find this movie hard to understand, as exemplified by the confused reviewer at imdb who claims that the “drunk” becomes violent when “bumped from behind.” Part of this confusion results from unfamiliarity with the “absinthe ritual,” which involves adding sugar and water to the noxious drink in order to make it palatable. This is what the bearded man fails to do when he absently pours from the carafe into his hat. His reaction is probably meant as a play upon both the horrid taste of uncut absinthe (believe me, it’s bad enough WITH the sugared water) as well as making fun of the myth of absinthe’s supposed hallucinogenic effects. Despite what you’ve heard, absinthe does not cause madness or hallucinations, but this was a widespread belief until fairly recently.

 

The interesting contrast to “At the Club” is that this clearly takes place in comfortable middle-class surroundings, in an environment that is open to women and children. Again, I wonder if perhaps director Alice Guy is emphasizing the evil effects of alcohol and the degree to which it victimizes families, even when the husband is not a drinker. Or, again, she may just be poking fun at the subject in a light-hearted manner. Certainly, this does not appear to be a preachy “message” picture.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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

At the Club (1899)

Alternate Title: Au Cabaret

Out of all the Alice Guy movies I’ve seen so far, this is the first that might have a slightly feminist social critique to it, although it could just as easily be meant to be taken as a funny drunk routine. However one reads it, it is a short and simple movie, but with some interesting aspects for the unfamiliar viewer.

At the ClubA group of men sit around a table outdoors, with a hastily-built shack behind them that advertises “wines” and “liquors.” A waiter serves them as they play cards, then returns to the shack. An argument erupts and two of the men overturn the table and begin fighting, while the waiter and the other man try to keep them separate. The squabble continues until the end of the movie cuts it off.

At the Club1Now, why would I argue that this is feminist or any kind of social critique? Well, let’s remember that “clubs” and other drinking establishments were male-only domains in the West in the nineteenth century. There’s also a kind of class-criticism here that may not apply in the French: in English a “gentleman’s club” is supposed to be a place of civility and decorum, while what we see depicted here is anything but that. In the French title, the drinking establishment is called a “cabaret,” although we see none of the accoutrements associated today with that term: there is no evidence of live entertainment, nor are meals served with the wine, nor do the clientele appear bohemian or artistic. It seems to me that this movie can be taken as a kind of chastisement of the evils of drink, along the lines of the American temperance movement, but it also has a distinct sense of humor: Guy may be simply laughing at drunken men, not actually condemning them – which, I admit, seems more like the French attitude.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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

The Pillar of Fire (1899)

This may be the last of the nineteenth-century horror films I review – almost certainly it is the last pre-1900 for this year’s history of horror. It is another short by Georges Méliès who, it seems to me, contributed more to the rise of this genre of movie than any of his contemporaries. Of course, there are many lost films from the time, so it’s hard to be certain.

Pillar of FireIn this case, the scene is a diabolical furnace-room, possibly a depiction of Hell, with two gargoyle-like statues in the background. A bright green Devil appears and dances around while stoking the flames in a fire pit. Eventually, a woman rises in a flowing dress and does a Serpentine Dance. She changes color, becoming increasingly red as her dance becomes more strident, and finally she leaps into the air and rises upward as puff of flame and smoke.

Obviously, I’m calling this “horror” because of the Demonic elements, although in fact the girl doesn’t seem scary at all, and is even somewhat angelic in her original white-clad appearance. I think she represents the spirit of the flame. I made note of the colors because, happily, this is one of Méliès’s movies that exists in a hand-painted print, allowing us to see it in its full-color glory. The green and red come through very nicely, and hand-painting works especially well for these examples of Serpentine Dances, which were common in the early film period.

Imdb implies and The Silent Era confirms that this movie is derived from a scene in “She” by H.Rider Haggard, which was itself made into several other movies, with some horror elements (though not usually what people think of as “horror films”). If it is intended to reproduce that scene, several key characters are missing, as well as any other indication of context, but it is possible. The pillar of fire scene in that story comes at the climax, and so, we would see the woman as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and the dance ultimately causes her death.

Alternate Titles: “La Colonne de feu,” “La Danse du feu,” “Haggard’s She: The Dance of Fire”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Jeanne D’Alcy

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Devil in a Convent (1899)

It’s interesting to observe that none of the “horror” films I’ve been able to track down from the nineteenth century seem to be intended to be scary. It’s not that horror didn’t exist as a concept back then – there were already stage performances of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by the end of the century, as well as the founding of the infamous Grand Guignol in Paris, right where Méliès was producing works like this much more whimsical entertainment. In it, the Devil appears as a priest is preparing to set up for a sermon to some nuns, he substitutes for the priest, then chases the nuns out and establishes a mini-pandemonium in the chapel. Various folks try to drive him out, finally the combined power of the church and an animated statue of St. Michel are victorious. The theme does flirt with blasphemy (demons and devils in the House of God), but to jaded Parisians this would have seemed pretty mild. The fast-paced action and appearances and disappearances keep things light, and no one ever seems in danger for his life or his soul. It may be simply a reflection of Méliès’s own character, and that of other early filmmakers, that the early “horror” films we find emphasize wonder and comedy more than fear, but it may also reflect concern that audiences would find the horrors too real to bear in cinematic form.

Alternate Titles: “le Diable au Couvent,” “The Sign of the Cross”

Director: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 3 min, 10 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Cripple Creek Bar Room Scene (1899)

Cripple Creek

This is another one of those movies sometimes called “the first Western,” and I guess it has a reasonable claim, although it’s so short that it’s a little hard to think of it as really definable in terms of genre. It seems to be intended more for comedic effect than to make any deep statements about the frontier, although it does suggest something about the code of conduct in a “lawless” area. It shows a barroom in which a group of men are playing cards, and an obviously already-inebriated man comes in for a drink. After taking his drink, he knocks a stove-pipe hat off the head of an unconscious man, who wakes up and becomes annoyed. The newcomer is ejected by the bartender, a large woman, with some help from the card players. She then goes behind the bar and sets up drinks for the house. It’s interesting to note that she is obviously able to handle herself and not at all threatened by the drunk’s behavior. There are no guns on display, nor any apparent indication that their use would be likely. The card-players and the bartender seem to represent a kind of community standard for acceptable behavior, while the passed-out drunk is tolerated, and the aggressive drunk brings on social reprisal.

Director: James H. White

Run Time: 48 seconds

You Can Watch It for Free: Here.

King John (1899)

King John

This is the first known example of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work to moving pictures. It is, of course, silent, and so doesn’t do much justice to the brilliant dialogue of the Bard. It exists today in a two-minute clip from what was probably a rather longer film. Watching it is sort of like looking at an artist’s interpretation of Shakespeare on canvas, or like the above illustration. If you’re familiar with the play, it is a sort of snapshot of a key scene, but it isn’t really a reenactment of the play. It was produced through the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an affiliate of the US Biograph studio.

 

Directed by: WKL Dickson & Walter Pfeffer Dando

Starring: Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Run Time: 2 min.

You Can Watch it for Free: Here