Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1900

The One-Man Band (1900)

Georges Méliès really shows off in this trick film from early in his career, reproducing himself no less than six times on the screen. The film is light on content, but still an amazing accomplishment in terms of in-camera effects.

The movie begins with a standard proscenium frame; Méliès stands in front of a row of seven chairs. He counts them off for the audience, then sits in each one sequentially. Each time he gets up, an image of him sitting in the chair remains behind. Each seated image magically has a musical instrument in its hand when it appears. These include cymbals, a trombone, a flute, a drum, a violin, and a guitar. The image in the middle has no instrument, but stands on his chair waving a baton. Now all of the Méliès-clones begin playing their instruments, appearing to coordinate and play in time. After a few seconds, they stop, stand up and take a bow. After they take their seats again, the “conductor” image in the center gestures for them to move into the center. The outer images move on top of the inner ones until there is only one image left in the center again. He then makes the chairs disappear with a gesture. He dances around the stage a bit and makes them reappear. Then he banishes the outer chairs until there is just one chair left, which he sits on as a large fan rises up behind him on the stage. He and the chair descend through a trap door. Then he suddenly appears behind the fan and leaps over it, disappearing in a puff of smoke when he hits the stage. The fan then re-descends below the stage and reveals Méliès standing behind it. He steps forward to take a final bow for his magic tricks.

Most of this movie is a pretty standard Méliès magic-show with things whimsically appearing and disappearing, but the main attraction (and the basis of the title of the film) is the part at the beginning where we see seven images of him performing together. This was done, of course, through multiple exposures, and required seven precisely timed takes on the same strip of film. It is quite an accomplishment, maybe all the more impressive to us today who know how it was done than to audiences seeing it for the first time with no knowledge of motion picture photography. If you look carefully, you can see that the multiple images “bounce” up and down a bit, not in sync with each other (it’s especially obvious with the stationary chairs after the Méliès-images have disappeared). I assume that this is because of the natural jiggle of the hand-cranked camera, which would jiggle at different times in each take. When the images stand in front of one another, they tend to be transparent, and the leaping Méliès at the end is also transparent in front of the fan. This is also a function of the multiple exposures. These technical “flaws” in no way lessen the fun or the impressiveness of the film, but they are indications of the hand-crafted, improvisational approach of Méliès’s camera trickery.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès and Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Misfortunes of an Explorer (1900)

This tantalizing fragment of a short film from Georges Méliès suggests the opening to a trick film. It mostly gives us today a brief opportunity to admire the inventive sets and costumes of his films.

We see a set decorated with various props suggesting an Egyptian archaeological find. There is a statue, walls made of heavy stone blocks, some censers, and a large sarcophagus. Méliès walks out onto the set dressed in a pith helmet and other typical Western explorer’s garb. He examines the sarcophagus and opens the lid, stepping inside before turning to look at the audience. Then the surviving film runs out.

One imagines from the set up and title that the rest of the film will involve annoying or dangerous special effects, along the lines of “The Bewitched Inn,” “The Haunted Castle,” or possibly “The Cook’s Revenge.” But, we don’t know, because the opening of the film is all we can see. Méliès looks great in his outfit, and the set and props are done to his usual standards, so one imagines that this would be another enjoyable romp. Even the Star Films Catalog is uninformative. Perhaps someday a complete print will be rediscovered so we can find out.

Director Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 18 secs (fragment)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cook’s Revenge (1900)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is another example of the use of violence for humorous effect that was so common in his work. While much simpler than the longer story pieces he was making around the same time, like “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella,” it still shows considerable effects wizardry in its brief running time.

As the film opens, a cook is harassing a maid in the kitchen, causing her to drop a stack of dishes. The cook hears someone coming and hides in a cupboard. A man runs in who looks like a butler or headwaiter to me, although the Star Films catalog identifies him as either “the manager” or “the proprietor,” suggesting this may be the kitchen of a restaurant. He chastises the maid for her clumsiness in breaking the dishes, and she exits. Then the manager sees the cook sticking his head out of the cupboard, and runs over to it, pushing it closed in the process. The cook’s head is thus severed and drops to the floor. The manager picks it up and puts it on a table, where it comes to life and moves and speaks. This alarms the manager further, and he picks it up and throws it back into the cupboard. Now the cook emerges, whole, and grabs the manager, knocking his head to the floor. Then he picks up the manager’s headless body and flails it around, taking control over the situation as the movie abruptly ends.

I think both of the male characters in this movie are played by Méliès, but even if they aren’t, the multiple-exposures necessary for the effects would have been pretty demanding in-camera. He has to switch between the living characters to mannequins (or mannequin heads) or back three times in less than sixty seconds. If they are both played by him, he also had to deal with re-shooting the scene in order to get both images of himself to interact. Of course, he had done all of this before, for example in “The Adventures of William Tell” and even more impressively in “The Four Troublesome Heads.” These movies have generally been set in the world of fantasy, or at least clearly marked as performances of stage magic, but here we begin in a seemingly ordinary situation that rapidly becomes fantastic. It’s a slight but amusing piece of his work that hold up well today.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 57 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900)

AKA: “How They Welcome Strangers in Chicago”

This short comedy from the Biograph studio pokes fun at urban crime. In its short running time, it manage to make a sly New York observation about the corruption of another city as well.

A man dressed as a “swell” walks onto a set representing a city street, with stores in the background. He stops and turns as a woman walks by smiling at him, and this allows a nearby thug to approach him from behind and “sap” him with a blackjack. He goes down, and the mugger grabs what he can before running off. A policeman walks on set from the other direction, and noticing the unconscious man, he leans down. Rather than helping him, he removes another item from the victim and pockets it before leaving.

New York and Chicago, as two of the largest cities in the US, have long had a friendly rivalry over their relative conditions and safety. At the time this movie was made, Chicago’s police force were untrained patrolmen who had to pay a share of their wages to political bosses, and many of them supplemented their earnings through graft and bribes. The Biograph company, located in New York, also a locus of criminal and police collusion, took advantage of the known situation in their rival city to produce this film. I admit, the policeman’s actions got a laugh out of me over a hundred and fifteen years after its production.

Director: Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

 

Addition and Subtraction (1900)

Alternate Titles: “Whisky Tom ou l’Illusionist Toqué” “Addition and Substraction” (Note: the DVD I have uses this misspelling on both the Menu and the actual film, but the “Star Films Catalog “ online has it spelled right, so I went with that as the correct spelling).

This short film by Georges Méliès is a return to his oft-used theme of a simple magic act, but with the distinction that the magician in this case may be drunk, or crazy.

The movie shows a standard proscenium that makes no effort to hide that it is the stage of a theater. On it is a man with a large beard and top hat, and a generally disheveled appearance, possibly meant to represent a hobo, or other itinerant. He dances around a bit, and takes some pratfalls. He throws his hat in the air and kicks it away. Then he pulls up a stool to sit on, but as he does so a young woman appears in the chair and pushes him away. He repeats the process twice with new stools, but each time a young lady appears and pushes him. Now, the three women get up and move to the front of the stage. The magician stands behind them and pushes them together and suddenly they become one large woman. He hits her on the head with his hat and she becomes a child. The magician stretches the child back into the large woman, and then separates her into the three original women. He retrieves their stools for them, but the surviving film ends before he can make them disappear.

I’m fairly certain that Méliès himself plays the magician in this piece, even though he’s under a fairly thick disguise. Like his other magic-show “trick films,” it plays up his physical skill and moves along at a fast clip, so that it’s hard to keep up with on a first viewing. I imagine it being shown in the Robert-Houdin Theatre with live narration, Méliès commenting humorously on the magician’s antics. For us today, it’s just a quick glimpse at what made his films so special.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès and unknown.

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sherlock Baffled (1900)

Alternate Title: Sherlock Holmes Baffled

This is a short trick film from Biograph that closely follows the formula created for such comedies by Georges Méliès. It is notable for being the first known instance of the character of Sherlock Holmes portrayed in film, and has even been suggested as the “first detective film.”

sherlock_holmes_baffledA man in the black clothing of a conventional burglar is putting objects into a bag in a small room with a table. Another man in a dressing gown enters (presumably this is Holmes) and puts his hand on the burglar’s shoulder. The burglar disappears. Holmes seems to lose interest in the mystery and sits down to light a cigar. The cigar gives off a large puff of smoke, and at the same moment, the burglar reappears in front of Holmes. Holmes pursues him and even fires a revolver at him, but the burglar disappears and reappears in different parts of the room, evading capture or injury. When he seems to have disappeared for good, Holmes picks up the sack and begins to leave the room, but suddenly the sack disappears and appears in the hands of the burglar, crouched in the open window. The burglar waves goodbye and departs with the loot, and Holmes throws up his hands in defeat.

This movie won’t do much for most fans of Sherlock Holmes, and the name was probably used for simple name-recognition purposes (the William Gillette play had recently opened in New York), rather than as an intentional homage. Holmes is essentially a clown and a victim here, not the brilliant detective of the stories. This movie was actually not shown in theaters, but released in the “peep show” coin-operated Mutoscope format for arcades in May of 1900. It closely follows the formula of such Méliès films as “The Magician,” wherein the protagonist is plagued by an appearing and disappearing nuisance. Director Arthur Marvin handles this reasonably competently, but without the agility and style of Méliès, unfortunately.

Director: Arthur Marvin

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

The Doctor and the Monkey (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Savant et le chimpanzé

Admittedly, this short from Georges Méliès is clearly intended as a comedy romp, but I’m including it with my “history of horror” because of its obvious relationship to later “ape on the loose” movies like “King Kong.” This monkey is less imposing, but the special effects are no less impressive for the period.

doctor-and-the-monkeyThe proscenium-style set displays a split-level home, with both the lower and upper floors visible, and the floor cutting mid-way through the screen. On the lower floor is a laboratory, and a doctor, played by Méliès, has a large monkey in a cage (actually an actor in a very obvious monkey suit). When the doctor turns his back, the monkey breaks out of the cage and begins to smash up the lab. The doctor pursues him and tries to bring him back under control, but to no avail. He grabs the monkey by its tail, and the tail detaches itself and begins flailing around under its own power. The doctor grabs a broom and tries to swat the tail, but it leaps up and attaches itself to his nose. The doctor’s housekeeper runs in and helps him pull off the tail, whereupon it disappears for good. Meanwhile, the monkey has climbed up to the second level, where it is smashing stored bags of flour and other things it finds. As the doctor becomes free again, it smashes through the floor and returns to the lower level terrorizing the doctor and the housekeeper. It now tears off the housekeeper’s skirt, leaving her in her pantalettes. As the film ends, the whole house is in shambles, with the monkey in evident dominance.

Apparently this movie has been compared to later video games like “Donkey Kong” because of the split-level effect, and perhaps the destructive monkey as well. Méliès intended it to be funny, but all movies about monkeys and destruction bring out questions of evolution and the beast within humanity, and the thin veneer of civilization that holds order together. In this film, the doctor proves quite incapable of controlling his creature’s instincts, and the monkey clearly gets the better of him. There’s even a sexual aspect, both in terms of the phallus-like tail attacking the man’s nose, and in the monkey tearing clothes off of the female housekeeper. Horror film makers would be exploring these themes again in the subsequent century and beyond.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

The Triple Conjurer and the Living Head (1900)

Alternate Title: L’Illusionniste double et le tete vivant

This short from Georges Méliès demonstrates the sophistication his special effects had already taken on in the last year of the nineteenth century, and the care and hard work he put into them. I’m including it in my “history of horror” for October, because of the theme of animated heads, which we saw in “The Mysterious Knight” as well.

triple-conjurerWe see Méliès himself appear on a proscenium-style set that has some familiar “magic show” elements in the background, including a cauldron and a demon face. He suddenly steps to the side, and a second Méliès steps out to the other side. The two Méliès sit on stools facing each other and interact. One Méliès gets a table and puts it between them, then places a woman’s (mannequin) head on top of it. The head comes to life and speaks. The conjurer crawls underneath the table to show that there is no body below the table. Then the second Méliès gets up and causes the woman to materialize completely – now she has a body. Both of them appear to be attracted, and make motions to kiss her, but she refuses. Then a new figure, which is Méliès in his devil costume from “The Devil in a Convent” appears and causes the woman to disappear. The Méliès facing the Devil sees him and runs off stage. The other one seems puzzled, and the devil gestures from behind his back. Finally, he turns around and sees the Devil, also running off screen. The Devil removes his costume and reveals himself as a third Méliès, taking a bow for his magic.

We’re so used to seeing people “mirrored” in the screen that we don’t think too much of it anymore, but it was quite a wow to have three images of the same person on the screen at once in 1900. Moreover, it took a lot of precision work. Méliès had to shoot the scene three times, making sure that he hit his cues at the same moment for each take, and not accidentally step in the same place at the same time as his “other self” would appear there. The interactions between the two images are perfect, including eye-lines and reactions, and there is no visible “split” between the two images, something which filmmakers as late as the 70s and 80s were still messing up. The head is less perfect – the table top seems to be detached from the legs, and it moves around when she talks or turns her head. This is another movie that won’t scare anyone, but I would say that the entertainment value is undiminished, in part because Méliès’s charm and enthusiasm comes through so strongly.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georges Méliès, and Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

Up-to-Date Spiritualism (1900)

Alternate Title: Spiritisme Abracadabrant

Another short from Georges Méliès depicting the plight of a fellow plagued by a Poltergeist, this movie has a lot in common with “The Bewitched Inn” and other ghost-comedies Méliès produced. I’m including it as part of my “history of horror” because it fits the theme of supernatural pests, even if it wouldn’t scare even a small child.

up-to-date-spiritualismWe see a man (Méliès) in costume on a typical proscenium-style set. He appears to be in a room or salon and to have just arrived – he is still in hat and coat, and he carries a large umbrella. He puts the umbrella on a stool and while his back is turned it suddenly flies offscreen to the right. He notices that it has vanished, but goes ahead and takes off his hat and places it on the same stool. The hat now levitates in front of him. When he tries to grab it, it eludes him, but when he lets it go, it suddenly appears on his head again. He now removes both hat and coat, only to have them reappear on his body again. He now begins a war to try to get the hat and coat off, but each time he lets go of them, they are suddenly on him again. He becomes increasingly agitated, trying to hurl the objects away, but to no avail. Finally, he tries overturning a large table and putting the offending clothes underneath it. He rubs his hands together, believing that he has outwitted the ghost, but once again the hat and coat appear on him! He now flees the room in terror or perhaps annoyance.

The Star Films catalog refers to this movie as a “comique eccentric,” and describes it much as I have, with perhaps a bit more action than I saw (“the chairs, his umbrella, his hat, etc fly away in different directions and by various methods”). The only method at work on the flying objects was suspension by a string, and the effect of having things reappear on the character is entirely handled with jump cuts. It still works, though, and I got a few chuckles watching the way Méliès’s character shows his growing irritation at the phenomenon through body language. A nice example of the work Méliès was producing in huge numbers at this point in time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

A Storm at Sea (1900)

This short from Edison illustrates the ongoing challenge of finding new and dramatic subjects for early movies. In this instance, a sea-crossing, probably with the intention of shooting movies for American audiences in Europe, was interrupted by bad weather and the Edison team decided to shoot that, with minimal preparation.

storm-at-seaWe see the railing of a ship, at an angle that suggests the camera is at middle of the deck A rope cuts through the image horizontally, directly in front of the camera. The horizon bobs up and down slowly, but to a considerable degree. We see swollen waves cresting, at least when the ship is low enough to permit it: at other times we see only sky off the deck. Two men stand casually at the railing, occasionally gesturing at the ocean. At one point, one of them reacts as if he had been splashed by a wave, but the water drops are invisible to the camera. At the end of the movie, an image of the rolling sea without the ship or the men in the foreground has been edited on.

The major problem with this film, from a modern perspective, is the two guys standing in front of the camera. They just lean on the railing as if they were watching a flock of seagulls fly by. They don’t hold on, or lean with the rocking ship, or give any sense of peril or drama. I assume they were told to get into the shot to give the scene some perspective and human interest, but their effect is to make the whole thing seem very off-hand. This is contradicted by the claims of the Edison catalog: “While our photographers were crossing the Atlantic Ocean a most wonderful and sensational picture was secured, showing a storm at sea. The picture was secured by lashing the camera to the after bridge of the Kaiserine Maria Theresa [sic], of the North German Lloyd Line, during one of its roughest voyages. The most wonderful storm picture ever photographed. Taken at great risk.” While the “risk” seems dubious, the rigging of the camera may have been somewhat innovative, as very few pictures had been shot in heavy seas at this time. It may also explain the rope we see passing in front of the lens, which may have been part of the arrangement to keep the camera from sliding all over the deck.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

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