Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1900

How He Missed His Train (1900)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès plays on themes of transformation and frustration we’ve seen from him before. Once again, he shows his proficiency with effects and presents a whimsical acting style.

A man (Méliès, with a wig and false mustache) rises from bed and prepares to put on his clothes. He seems to be in a bourgeois apartment or possibly a nice hotel room, and there is a large picture window behind him, with a painted backdrop depicting Paris from an upper-story window. The man begins to pull on his vest, but suddenly there is an edit and he is pulling his trousers over his arm. He hits himself on the head, perhaps thinking he needs some coffee, and starts to put on the pants, but as soon as he gets one leg up to his knee, they suddenly become a shirt. He tries this several times, with the pants turning into a coat, vest, or a shirt each time he starts to put them on. Finally, he throws this garment to the ground and starts to pull on a boot, only to find that he has his hat on his foot. He puts the hat on his head and it becomes a boot again. With that, he gives up and climbs back into bed.

I’ve said that cinema is the realm of dream, and this movie reminds me of anxiety dreams I’ve had, especially when I’m stressed out about catching something like a plane (or train) the next morning. The film is really just another variation on the theme of “The Bewitched Inn,” in which a traveler is prevented by supernatural occurrences from being able to relax, but there’s a ring of truth to it, that somehow the simplest of tasks becomes impossible when you have a deadline to meet. Méliès is particularly amusing in this one-man show, seeming bemused by his absent-mindedness at first, then determined to overcome the difficulties, and finally resigned to sleep in.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Eight Girls in a Barrel (1900)

This short film from Georges Méliès is an example of a “trick film” with only one trick (or a one-trick-film). Méliès continues to demonstrate considerably technical skill, but the many actors on the set push the limit of his ability to mask his edits.

The film shows a proscenium-style set, representing a stage. Méliès, dressed in a toga, leads eight young women, also in classical attire, onto the stage. Before him is a barrel, and a platform with a short staircase. He lifts the barrel and turns it to show the audience that it is empty, and also that it has a solid wood bottom. He places it on the platform just below the stairs, then takes the hand of the first young lady to assist her in climbing the stairs. She climbs up, then steps into the barrels and lowers herself in. Méliès gestures and a jump cut occurs before he leads the next young woman in. Soon, all eight have “disappeared” into the barrel. As a finale, after Méliès walks offstage, he suddenly pokes his head out from inside the barrel.

This film is very simple and predictable, modern audiences wouldn’t even recognize it as a “narrative;” it is simply the depiction of a single magic trick. But, in making multiple people disappear, Méliès has once again stretched his own boundaries, and with reasonable success. The problem is that having so many people on the stage, it is easy to see where the edits happen by watching them jump in the background. Méliès himself is more practiced – he is generally leaning over the barrel at the critical instant, so it is hard to see him move. But, in the early stages of the movie there are four or more other, who don’t always succeed in holding their pose between shots. Doubtless few audience members in 1900 were alarmed by this, it was still very new, and I’d bet a good percentage of his audience hadn’t ever seen anything like it, except for the die-hard fans at the Robert Houdin Theater.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

 

Going to Bed under Difficulties (1900)

Alternate Title: “Deshabillage Impossible”

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is an expansion on a theme we’ve seen from him several times, beginning with “The Bewitched Inn.” It demonstrates his increasing ability with special effects and his confidence in being able to hold an audience with a simple gag for an increased period of time.

A bearded man (Méliès) walks onto a bedroom set, fully clothed with a hat and coat. He begins to disrobe for bed, putting his hat on a shelf and his coat upon a hook. As he takes off his trousers, he discovers a new hat and coat. Disturbed, he removes these and hangs them as well, only to find new trousers on his legs. He pulls off clothes at an increasingly manic pace, soon neglecting to hang them on the increasingly crowded hooks and simply throwing them to the floor. He jumps on the bed, apparently determined to sleep in clothes if necessary, but the bed flies up into the air (I think that is what is happening, but it isn’t framed so you can see) and he returns to the floor, pulling off more clothes until he drops.

There’s nothing really new here, but I noticed that Méliès is very good about staying in position between cuts so that it isn’t obvious that he’s moved when the new clothes appear on him. Some of them were so subtle that I didn’t even notice the clothes appearing (especially trousers) the first time I watched. When I watch movie like this, I imagine an audience of small children being kept in stitches as a man narrates the increasing frustration of the man on the screen, and adults finding the humor infectious and finally joining in by the end. I wonder a little, also, about the fact that the gag sets up an expectation of nudity, although the effect intercedes and prevents it, possibly making this a kind of naughty in-joke for the parents as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fat and Lean Wrestling Match (1900)

Alternate Title: Nouvelles Luttes Extravagantes

A fairly typical example of Georges Méliès-style slapstick with special effects, this short film has rather gruesome comedy. No doubt in the years before cartoons, it would have been very popular with children.

The movie begins with a kind of tease, as we see two women in leotards on the proscenium-style set right after the title. It’s a bit confusing, however, because neither woman is noticeably fatter than the other. They take a bow and suddenly their clothes have become traditional 19th-century female garb. Then they walk off-stage and grab sheets, which they wrap around themselves. When they pull off the sheets, they have transformed into two men in leotards. These two men, who also seem about equal in weight, now begin to fight. One grabs the other, who turns into a doll, and thrashes him about, throwing him to the ground. He transforms back into a man while his opponent takes a bow and proceeds to pull off the other man’s head, arms and legs (now he’s a doll). The victor takes his bow and puts the first man back together again, allowing him to come back to life. Then each man pulls his female counterpart onto the stage from behind the back of the other. The men toss the ladies into the air, causing them to disappear, and then dance off the stage together.

Now is when the title finally makes sense, because two men in particularly comical wrestling get-up appear to fight, and one is fat, the other thin. The thin man tries to grapple his opponent, but he cannot budge the fat man due to his great bulk. The fat man lies on top of the thin man, flattening him out completely. He turns his back on his defeated opponent, who suddenly comes back to life and kicks him in the rear, causing the fat man to fly into the air. When he comes back down, both men are knocked to the floor, but the thin man leaps on the fat man’s belly, causing him to explode into various dismembered parts, similar to the man in the first fight. The thin man takes his bow and departs, but the fat man’s pieces slowly reassemble themselves. The fat man stands up and gestures angrily in the direction of his departed vanquisher.

Interestingly, the write up in the Star Films catalog describes only the second part of the film, suggesting that the distributor didn’t know what to make of the title either. Apparently something like “Burlesque Wrestling Matches” didn’t occur to anyone as an alternative. The French title means something closer to “New Wrestling Extravagances” or “New Extravagant Wrestling.” The other thing that’s interesting about this film is that I don’t think we see Méliès himself as any of these characters – although he’s not in every one of his early movies, he’s in an awful lot of them. By the standards of some of these movies, the special effects are fairly minimal. It’s the madcap pacing that makes this one work, more than mystery of his visual fantasy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Fantastical Meal (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Repast Fantastique (Star Films #311)

This typical short trick film from Georges Méliès begins playfully, but becomes somewhat dark and even violent by the end. It qualifies for my “history of horror,” although in the end I believe that the violence was meant to be funny.

The movie begins with four people in a typical bourgeois French dining room, preparing for a meal. One is a maid, two are nicely-dressed women, and one is Méliès in a wig with sideburns. The maid puts some food on the table and the others pull up chairs to sit down. Suddenly the chairs disappear and reappear on the table. Everyone falls down, then they get up and retrieve their chairs. This time they are able to sit down and Méliès prepares to ladel them some soup from the bowl. Suddenly the bowl disappears and is replaced with a much larger bowl. He reaches in and pulls out a boot. The others turn and yell at the maid, who comes in very distressed. Méliès takes out another boot and the maid removes the soup as Méliès throws the boot after her. They take their seats again and the maid brings in a large turkey, cooked and ready to be carved. Méliès picks up the cutlery and suddenly the table legs have grown so tall he can no long reach the bird. He and his dinner guests try climbing on their chairs, but the table suddenly becomes short again. When they sit down, the table disappears and reappears across the room. When they chase after it, it descends through the floor and emerges in another spot. This repeats, but the second time it comes back with a ghost on top instead of the food. The ghost does a frightening dance and the ladies run out of the room. Méliès tries to fight the ghost with his chair, but it just passes through the image harmlessly. Méliès persists and is able to destroy the table but not to hurt the ghost. He prepares to take a mighty blow, but the ghost disappears and is replaced by a box marked “dynamite.” When Méliès hits it, it explodes and he is thrown onto the wall. His now boneless body flails about, stuck on the wall (it’s a puppet). The maid comes in to try to assist him, but a bunch of broken crockery (his bones?) flies out of his coat and he flops around the floor bizarrely.

The theme of a ghost, poltergeist, or supernatural entity preventing the characters from performing a simple task (often going to bed) has come up several times before, but never in quite this way. The ending took me by surprise: I was expecting the ghost to chase them out of the room, but not to use dynamite to destroy its enemy! The flopping Méliès-body is darkly comedic, much darker than I expect from early cinema, although I think it’s really more slapstick than gore. The other interesting thing is the non-corporeal ghost, achieved through multiple-exposure. Méliès has used multiple exposure to multiply images on the screen, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen objects appear to pass through a body like this. Of course, it became a standard way to show a ghost on film for the next century and more. Méliès will also use puppetry more elaborately in the years to come, but the use here makes it possible for his character to survive impossible violence. It’s a pretty fun example of a supernatural film from the turn of the century.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Christmas Dream (1900)

Georges Méliès displays the holiday spirit with this fanciful and homely short film. Impressive for the period in its number of setups, it is surprisingly devoid of the special effects that one expects from Méliès.

The opening scene, which may be incomplete, shows children being tucked into a four-poster bed in a room decorated with noble crests and a fireplace. The servant that tucks them in is in Renaissance-era clothing, and she sits down to read aloud from a book. The image then fades to a stage, and a bearded man in a crown hustles people off the stage to prepare for a dance number. First, there is a kind of parade in which a coach is wheeled behind a minstrel, and what appears to be a giant toy rabbit hitting a drum. Then some clowns come onto the stage and perform a dance. One of them loses his shoe, and the rest of the performers dance around it, including dancing girls and a ballerina. Finally, the clown leads another dance and retrieves his shoe, but in doing so, his hat falls off. The crowned man returns and shoos everyone offstage, grabbing the clown by the neck. The next shot shows the snow-covered rooftops of a small town. Angels flit from one roof to another, dropping presents down the chimneys. Next we see the interior of a church, where a man supervises some children pulling on the bell ropes. Some well-dressed citizens come in and shake the snow off their clothes, removing their cloaks and proceeding into the chapel. The next shot shows the bell, constructed of wooden flats but given the illusion of reality by perspective painting and a separate clapper that swings opposite to the bell. Doves fly around the bell tower and a man with a lantern climbs up at the end of the shot.

The next scenes show well-dressed people going in to a feast, first from an exterior street shot (actually a standard proscenium stage dressed as a street), then from inside the hall. The rich people walk past some beggars in the snow and ignore them. One of them comes inside the hall, and he is generously invited to join the feast by the lord of the manor, although the servants don’t want to admit him. This happy scene fades out again and back to the bedroom from the beginning of the movie, where the children are waking up to find presents at the fireplace. Grownups come into the room and see them at play, bringing more toys for them. The final shot shows angels dancing in a snowy heaven.

It’s interesting that Méliès stayed away from his usual trick film effects, especially people appearing and disappearing. There’s a brief image of a transparent angel at the end of the shot with the rooftops, which may also be an incomplete scene, but apart from that there is no camera trickery, just some dissolves from one scene to the next. I wonder if Méliès was trying to achieve a more reverential or serious tone with this film, maintaining a respect for the holiday rather than the fantastic and whimsical approach of his trick films. He certainly did go to (at least) his usual effort on the props and costumes, and the number of setups alone make this a “big budget” film by 1900 standards. It seems to be lacking a clear plot, but I also wonder if the story of the rich man and the beggar might be from a source that French children would recognize. In general, it seems to be more interested in capturing the mood of Christmas than in telling a story, and one imagines that it pleased the children who got to see it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Magic Book (1900)

This typical trick film by Georges Méliès plays on the theme of still images coming to life that mirrors the miracle of motion pictures and would be seen again in such movies as “The Hilarious Posters” and “The Living Playing Cards.” A minimal plot is woven around what appears to be a filmed performance of a magic show; just what we would want and expect from Méliès.

A proscenium-style set is decorated to be a kind of fantasy workshop, with clocks, a skeleton, a desk, and a very large bookstand at center stage. Méliès walks onto the set from a door at the rear, dressed in a beard and a bald cap, with wild hair springing out below the cap. He gives a bow to the audience and indicates the bookstand, then pulls a book fully as tall as himself from somewhere offscreen, carrying it over and putting it on the stand. The book’s title (in both French and English) is “Le Livre Magique/The Magical Book.” He opens the book, revealing a picture of a clown-like figure on the first page. He dances and gestures and the drawing comes to life, a man in a similar costume emerging and the page now appearing blank. The clown imitates the dance Méliès just gave, then goes to the side of the stage. Méliès turns the page, revealing pictures of Harlequin and Pierrot, and the process is repeated, with Méliès acting out a bit of physical business, bringing each figure to life, and the figures imitating his movements before going to one side, where they interact like old friends meeting unexpectedly.

The next page shows a young woman and an old man. When Méliès pulls the young woman from the page, all of the clowns respond with obvious interest, so I guess this represents Columbine. She does a ballerina dance and Méliès separates her from the clowns, but they soon run across the stage to fall at her feet once again. Now he animates the old man. The old man fights the clowns, one at a time, making it possible for Méliès to return them to the book. Pierrot, however, sneaks off while Méliès is distracted finding the right page, and Méliès returns all of the others to the book without noticing. He then discovers the blank page and looks around, easily finding Pierrot hiding next to the bookstand. He grabs Pierrot and forces him into the book, closing the cover, but Pierrot does not turn into a drawing, he tries to fight his way out of the pages. When Méliès tries to force the cover shut, he again hops out of the book onto the stage. After appearing and disappearing a couple of times, he is again thrust at the book, and this time becomes a drawing once again. Méliès bows, but the book falls on top of him. He disappears and reappears at the rear door, bowing once again for his performance. Then he picks up the book and walks offstage.

While this is a relatively simple film, in terms of effects and story, there are a couple of interesting aspects. One is the use of both French and English on the cover of the book, suggesting that Méliès was already aware by 1900 that much of his audience was English-speaking (and probably largely American). The other thing that stood out to me was the use of the familiar Harlequinade characters as a kind of theatrical/cinematic shorthand to give more depth to characters who could as easily have been generic clowns or nameless figures. In that sense, it’s interesting that it’s Pierrot, and not Harlequin, who almost gets the best of Méliès at the end. He’s usually the loser in this comic drama, but perhaps Méliès had a soft spot for him.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy (1900)

Georges Méliès produces a typical fantasy or fairy tale in this short film from the turn of the century. While not as elaborate in special effects as some others of the period, it displays an increasing interest in developing a storyline within movies.

Méliès plays the prince, who enters the wizard’s chamber at the outset of the film and pays him handsomely to perform magic for him. The wizard makes his table disappear and directs the prince’s attention to an alcove where his cauldron sits bubbling. With a wave of his hand, the cauldron disappears and is replaced by a lovely princess. Méliès is overcome and thrilled, and he takes the young lady’s hand. But, she disappears when he goes to embrace her. Feeling cheated, he tries to attack the wizard with his sword, but the wizard uses magic to defend himself. At first he disappears, leaving behind a large wooden simulacrum of himself, which the prince sticks with the sword before turning and seeing the real wizard. When he grabs the wizard’s cloak, he again disappears, leaving Méliès with only the cloak, and he tumbles to the ground with surprise. When he makes another attempt with the sword, the wizard disappears completely in a puff of smoke, but now bars appear in the alcove, signaling that the prince will be unable to leave. When he tries to go out using the door he entered from, a group of witches comes in and surrounds him, turning him into a pauper. Now the prince prays, and his prayers are answered by a woman, who I guess is the “good fairy” of the title. She makes the bars disappear, replacing the alcove with an entry to a sylvan glen. Then she returns the prince to his noble condition. Finally, she brings back the princess, now dressed in a wedding gown. When the wizard appears and tries to object, the fairy gestures and he is now locked in a cage. Thus, the prince and princess may live happily ever after, and a wedding dance commences at the rear of the set.

While this starts out as a typical trick film, with things appearing and disappearing to the plotless annoyance of the main character, the appearance of the fairy changes it to a more story-focused narrative. We come to see the prince as a hero, wronged by the wizard, and his faith and love for the princess allows him to overcome evil. This is, of course, in extreme shorthand given the brief running time. Thus, unlike “The Cabbage Fairy,” sometimes called the “first narrative film,” this movie has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end, and is more successful at presenting a narrative form of a fairy tale. Of course, by 1900, it was hardly alone in this sense, and it remains a relatively “simple” film by the standards of Méliès, with only a few special effects and tumbles to keep the audience’s attention.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Rajah’s Dream (1900)

Georges Méliès is on familiar ground with this fantasy tale of the nighttime adventures of an exotic aristocrat. I doubt if his viewers learned much about India from this movie, but they were no doubt entertained as he intended.

The movie begins on a standard proscenium set, decorated as the sleeping chamber of a Rajah. The Rajah himself (Méliès) sits upon an elaborate bed, he yawns and lies down, still wearing his sword and all of his clothing. A butterfly swoops into the room and disturbs his nap, fluttering about his head until he gets up and tries to catch it in a net. Failing this, he lies down again, but this time the bed and the entire room disappear, and he tumbles to the ground, finding himself in a wooded area next to a stone wall. He tries to sit on a bench, but it disappears and reappears across the stage. Each time he tries to sit on it, he falls down again. Then, as he tries to approach it a dead tree appears in his path. He tries to pull it up, but a devil’s head appears on it and it starts waving its limbs like arms. He pulls out his sword to challenge it and it turns into a man with devil horns, who grabs the sword and dances around to mock the Rajah. The Rajah tries to wrestle him, but he disappears in a puff of smoke. After recovering from this, the Rajah finds himself confronted by a woman in a robe. He falls to his knees and professes love, but the woman refuses him. She summons other women, similarly skimpily attired, and they do a dance that involves twirling and knocking the Rajah to the ground. The Rajah manages to get up and run away, but even more women join the chase and soon the screen is filled with faerie-like young girls. They form a circle around the Rajah and beat his head with sticks. He is led up a scaffold to be beheaded. He fights with the executioner, but suddenly finds himself in his room, beating on a pillow. He falls to the floor once again and looks around, realizing that the entire experience has been a dream.

This is a pretty standard Méliès short, with the main character plagued by things that appear and disappear at random, unable to gain control of his situation, and frequently leaping and tumbling for comic effect. Like all of them, it has lovely sets and costumes, and a sense of playfulness that keeps it fresh. What stands out a bit is the scene at the end with all of the women running around the stage. Méliès rarely had so many extras – I think there may be more people on the stage at one time here than we saw in the parade for “Joan of Arc!” He always had an eye for spectacle, and obviously in this case, he was willing to go to the effort to achieve his vision, even for a simple trick film.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Joan of Arc (1900)

A while ago, I discussed the Cecil B. DeMille version of Joan of Arc’s story, but he was not the first master film maker to take it on. In fact, Joan’s countryman Georges Méliès beat him to the punch by over fifteen years, and did in in (hand-tinted) color, too!

The movie (as we have it today) begins with the visitation of young Joan by angels who tell her of her mission to save France from occupation by the English. We see different angels appear before her and she falls prostrate before them. She then goes to tell her parents, who seem quite distressed by the news. The next scene shows the gate at Vaucouleurs, where the guard at first seems disinclined to admit her, but he is convinced when she demonstrates her faith in God and France, and he summons other guards to escort her to the master of the house. The tableau for this scene shows a raucous party going on inside the castle, with Robert de Baudricourt leading the festivities, while a fat curate toasts and drinks from a flagon. When Joan comes in, Baudricourt mocks her and invites her to sit on his knee, but her faith overcomes him and he agrees to give her soldiers to support her cause.

The commentary on my DVD refers to the next scene as “the endless parade,” although it is only about a minute and a half long. Joan rides a horse in armor, displaying her weapons, and leads soldiers through the streets of the city. Extras in period costume march behind her, extending the small number of extras by having the same people, sometimes in different costumes, march past repeatedly. The next scene shows the crowning of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral, which I suppose the original French audience knew without being told was a result of Joan’s victory at Orléans. The movie then deipicts its one battle scene, the Siege of Compiègne. Here, the French attack a gate in front of a castle, but while they are doing so, English soldiers come out and grab Joan, taking her inside the castle. The other soldiers valiantly attack the castle, despite gunfire from the arrow slits, and throw up siege ladders to take it, but they are unable to rescue Joan.

In prison, Joan has another dream in which she sees her visions again. Taken to the interrogation, Joan refuses to sign a retraction, and is condemned as a heretic. In the Rouen marketplace, Joan is burned at the stake. The wood carrier at the execution, bringing in fuel for the burning, dies on the spot from the fumes. In a final apotheosis scene, Joan rises to heaven, where she is greeted by God and the saints.

There is a missing scene at the beginning which apparently establishes Joan as a simple peasant girl leading sheep. I suspect there may be some other missing footage as well (the Star Films catalog lists it as running five minutes longer than the version I’ve seen), but the film was considered lost until 1982, so we’re lucky to have it at all. At more than ten minutes long, it almost qualifies as a “feature film” for its time. George Méliès played seven roles, or one in nearly every scene. Joan of Arc, although widely considered a saint in France, was not actually beatified until 1909, and not technically canonized until 1920 (four years after the DeMille version). This film in a number of ways reminds me of Guy’sThe Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” and despite the use of camera trickery for the Angelic visitations and Joan’s entry into heaven, has a much more serious tone than other works of Méliès at the time. The film includes some shots where actors move closer to the camera than is usual for Méliès, I think simply because of the crowded sets, but the effect is to give us some medium-shots for once.  Along with “The Dreyfus Affair,” it shows that Méliès regarded film as an educational medium as well as entertainment, and that he had a broader range than is often assumed.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 10 Min, 18secs

You can watch it for free: here.