Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1901

The Dwarf and the Giant (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès shows that even after he had mastered longer forms of storytelling (as in “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella”) he continued to make simple trick films and experiment with effects. Here, forced perspective is used to achieve gigantism and a split screen allows twinning.

A standard proscenium-style stage is established by the camera; in this case the backdrop is painted to appear as if a long tunnel approaches the stage. Méliès approaches from the rear of the set, as if he has just walked down this corridor, wearing a toga. He pulls off the toga to reveal modern clothing and bows. Suddenly, a second figure pulls itself from him, and there are two Méliès on the stage. This new one is slightly shorter than the original, which he emphasizes by squatting down a bit, and the other Méliès makes fun of him. Then he pulls on a hair on top of his own head and seems to grow, magically to a new height, nearly filling the screen. He laughs at the shorter version of himself and drops confetti on its head. Then he shrinks down again and the two images re-combine for a moment, before splitting off and giving one another the raspberry before exiting the stage.

Méliès had used forced perspective more dramatically earlier in “The Man with the Rubber Head,” but the effect here seems simpler, done almost offhandedly, as if he has become more comfortable with the technique. Of course, the growth effect was achieved here by running the same film through the camera twice, with the background masked off and the camera moving closer to the actor to make him become bigger on screen, which is not a simple matter at all. At less than a minute in length, this was a pretty short movie for 1901, but there was so much demand for new content from him by now that he could make almost anything, and of course he also could use it between acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. Combined with other movies, as it would be in a period program, it’s a nice enough distraction.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 55 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Man with the Rubber Head (1901)

Alternate Title: L’Homme a la Tete en Cahoutchouc

This trick film from Georges Méliès is quite simple, but may represent one of the most important innovations Méliès contributed to cinema. It also is, as usual for him, a fun and whimsical example of a magic show.

The proscenium-style frame shows us the workroom of a doctor, perhaps a chemist or alchemist. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hat with Many Surprises (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès plays on the classic magician’s act of pulling things (no rabbits, in this case) out of a silk hat. It reflects his increasing comfort with the use of camera trickery to make things appear and disappear.

Méliès walks onto a stage in classic magician’s garb, with a cloak and a top hat. The set is dressed to be the interior of a comfortable apartment, with a portrait and a cabinet in the background. The first surprises actually come from the cloak. He takes it off and uses it to conjure a table, then it turns from a black cloak to a white tablecloth. Then he turns back to the hat, and produces from it plates, glasses, napkins, a decanter, and other table settings. Then, he looks a bit thoughtful and suddenly there is a fan in his hand. He fans it and it becomes larger, and then he fans the hat and it suddenly becomes an over-sized cardboard cutout of a hat. From this, he is able to pull out four chairs, and then the dinner companions: a squabbling couple and then a king and queen are produced. He calls forth a maid to begin serving them. Then, having completed the trick, he suddenly leaps onto the table, which crashes through the floor. The portrait comes to life and begins berating the diners, who flee in terror. Méliès re-appears and takes a bow, incidentally turning the hat and cloak back to normal.

There’s not too much here we haven’t seen before, but Méliès is always a fun presence. He’s fairly subdued in this until the end, not leaping about or being overly animated, just letting the illusions carry the story forward. Of course, much of this movie would have worked nearly as well on stage, but he quickly took it to places that only the cinema would allow. So far as I can see, there was no internal logic to the final chaos – it was just a funny way to end the film. I certainly wasn’t expecting the portrait to suddenly come to life, that was probably the biggest surprise of all!

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Excelsior! The Prince of Magicians (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès depicts a brief magic show with just a hint of narrative to hold the interest. It is an example of his use of camera trickery in the service of an enhanced stage performance.

The proscenium-style stage suggests a reception chamber in a noble house, and Méliès walks out in the company of a liveried servant. He asks the servant for a handkerchief, but the man has none. Méliès then conjures one out of the astonished man’s mouth. He then holds it up and produces a large bowl from behind it. He asks his servant to fill it with water, but again the man has no idea how to begin. Méliès pumps his arm and water shoots out of his mouth. Then he takes two fish out of the servant’s mouth, and we see them swimming happily inside the bowl. Méliès gives the bowl to his servant and soon there are flames shooting out of it where there were fish a moment ago. Méliès turns the bowl into a large lobster, and the lobster into a woman, then the woman becomes two small girls riding piggyback, and finally the girls disappear and are replaced with a large piece of fabric. Méliès kicks the servant off the stage and wraps himself in the fabric, flying up and off the stage as well, then he runs back out from stage left and catches the falling fabric in his hand, bowing at last to the audience.

A number of the tricks we see here are equivalent to tricks of misdirection that a magician might perform live on stage, but made easier with substitution splices. The items coming from the servant’s mouth, and the things appearing and disappearing from behind handkerchiefs or large pieces of fabric are examples. I was rather surprised when water started spewing out of the servant’s mouth, and wondered if audiences at the time saw this as “vulgar,” a reference to bodily fluids or vomiting. It looks like a water pump, of course, so it isn’t as gross as could be, but I still wondered a bit, and wondered if French and American audiences of the time would see it differently. The only real narrative we have is the hapless servant, who never seems to have what he needs or to know what to expect. Still, it’s an amusing piece, and probably gives a taste of what Méliès did in live performance as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Bachelor’s Paradise (1901)

Alternate Title: Chez la sorcière

This short trick film from Georges Méliès shows off his ability to construct a satisfying narrative around a slight story and a couple of simple effects. The French title means “House of the Witch,” which gives it a slight horror element, but it isn’t very scary.

The movie takes place on a proscenium-style stage dressed as the workshop of a sorcerer or magician. Certain set-pieces are recycled from previous movies, including “The Alchemist’s Hallucination.” At the center of the stage is a cauldron held up by a ring of metal frogs. The witch, an ancient crone (I believe it is Méliès in costume) is reading some kind of mystical text, when she is interrupted by the entrance of a young man in the clothes of a dandy. He commissions a spell from her, and she sets to work at the cauldron. She pours in a potion of some kind, then dances around the cauldron waving her walking-stick as if it were a wand. Soon, a young woman levitates out of the smoke billowing from the cauldron. The young man inspects her, but seems uncertain, so the witch gestures, and soon four new girls appear, one after the other, standing in a line next to the first one. The bachelor inspects each carefully, and finally makes a selection. He takes this girl over to a chair at the right side of the screen, and the witch makes the others disappear. Now the young man attempts to woo the magically-summoned young lady, but suddenly she transforms into the crone, cackling with laughter, when the bachelor recoils, she turns him into a donkey, then rides him around the stage, hitting him with her stick.

Another of Méliès’s charming little magic movies, this one got me to thinking that one rarely sees a man dressed up as a woman in a Méliès movie, whereas it was common at the Edison studios for quite some time. I’m not certain that the witch in this movie was a man, but I believe it was. Still, when Méliès wanted a pretty young woman in a movie, that was what he used, not a man in woman’s clothing as was usual at Edison. This may mostly reflect opportunity: Méliès ran a theater and had contact with lots of young actresses, while the Edison Studio was run by engineers, who had to make an effort to find an actress willing to perform in front of a camera. Although the set up for this film is quite sexist – a man attempts to buy a woman from a procuress – the ending puts a bit of a feminist spin on it. Méliès may not really have intended it that way, he probably felt that it was funnier and a bit more family-friendly to have the bachelor receive a comeuppance. It does work for a few chuckles, at least, and the donkey suit is charming.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, probably Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

What Is Home without the Boarder? (1901)

Alternate Title: La Maison tranquille, The Quiet House

A typical short comedy from Georges Méliès, but without any camera trickery in this case. The gleeful anarchy of this piece pre-sages later developments in silent slapstick comedy.

A proscenium-style set has been divided horizontally between two stages. In the lower one, a couple in dark clothes has dinner in an orderly bourgeois dining room. In the upper stage, three men in their bedclothes dance and play musical instruments. The men upstairs kick a hole in the floor/ceiling and steal wine from the table of the couple, who run out in fear. Then, one of the trouble-makers (Méliès) jumps down into the room and sends the turkey up to his flat-mates to eat. He covers himself in a sheet and simulates an elephant, terrifying the landlady when she comes back to investigate. He returns to the upstairs space in time to help his comrades defend their territory when a policeman is summoned. The policeman is pelted, first with powder and wine, then with a mattress and other pieces of furniture the men have to hand. When he, the landlord, and landlady finally retreat, the men jump downstairs and dance around, piling furniture against the door to stop any further intrusions of their chaotic fun. The movie ends with them victorious.

In this movie, Méliès utilizes several comedy tropes that would later be exploited by Charlie Chaplin and other famous silent comedians: celebrating confrontation with authority (the landlord and police), emphasis on fast action, escalation of violence and absurdity in rejection of social rules. All of these elements make for a very funny film, and the comedians who would later embrace them understood, as Méliès did the way this kind of chaos allows a release for people living in a highly structured modern society. On another level, this kind of comedy reflects the hidden fear of moderns that the veneer of social behavior can be dismissed as soon as one (or in this case three) member rejects it and that society will be helpless to contain them without their voluntary surrender. The ironic title in both languages suggests a degree of identification with the landlords, who have taken in boarders to benefit themselves economically, only to find that their comforts are threatened by this very arrangement. At any rate, the whole piece is great fun, and a measure of what Méliès could achieve without any magical effects.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1901)

Similar to “Kansas Saloon Smashers,” this is another comedy short from Edison about the militant prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, this movie uses gender-role reversal to lampoon her efforts. Here, we get a peek into what critics thought of her home life – and it turned out to have more truth than they may have realized.

A wide-angle shot of a proscenium-style set shows a domestic middle-class bedroom, decorated with a needlepoint proclaiming “What Is a Home without a Mother?” and two rather creepy-looking portraits of the husband and wife. The husband, a man with a long beard, jumps out of bed in his nightshirt, and picks up a baby from a crib. Evidently, the baby is crying and its mother is nowhere to be seen. The man checks the baby’s diaper, then begins strolling about the room rocking the child to sleep. In the process, he steps on a tack. Just as he puts the baby back in  its crib, an older boy crawls out of the bed, also crying. This child the father disciplines with a quick spanking, turning him over his knee for a couple of quick pats, then rudely pushing him back into the bed. Now the hapless husband paces about the room, bemoaning the absence of his wife. He picks up a newspaper and grows even more angry – presumably it is filled with tales of Mrs. Nation’s exploits. He throws it into the fire. The baby is still not asleep, so now he gives it its bottle, and this reminds him of his own bottle: a bottle of whiskey secreted under a pillow. He retrieves it and starts to drink with pleasure, when suddenly Mrs. Nation arrives unexpectedly. She grabs the bottle and throws it out the door, then turns Mr. Nation over her knee and spanks him, just as he had done to their son only moments earlier.

The humor of this movie is mostly based on the idea that a politically active woman is by definition neglecting her wifely duties, and that a weak man will be dominated by a strong woman, creating an unnatural and thereby funny situation (Mr. Nation is smaller than his wife). It’s all the more ironic in that Carrie Nation only returns from her “manly” political work in order to assert her dominance over her tippling husband. None of this is likely to get a lot of laughs today, but what is somewhat funny is that the real Mr. Nation, a retired minister, did in fact sue his wife for divorce on similar grounds only a few months after this film. He wasn’t taking care of children (Carrie’s only daughter, from a previous marriage, was a grown woman), but he did complain that she neglected the housework and wouldn’t let him drink! I thought that the depiction of child-rearing in the film was interesting: apparently the best way to get a child to sleep was to give him a couple of smacks on the bottom. I doubt if Dr. Spock would endorse this.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901)

This short film from Edison gives a comic reproduction of then-recent prohibitionist activity in the Mid-West.  Although her name is not mentioned in the title, it is clearly a film about Carrie Nation.

We see a proscenium-style wide-shot of the front of a bar, with various characters approaching the bartender to purchase drinks. There is a working-class woman, who buys a “growler” in a bucket, a friendly policeman, who buys and drinks a whiskey, and an Irish caricature, who carries a sod shovel and smokes a pipe. Suddenly, a group of women in black dresses and bonnets rush in with hatchets, smashing bottles of liquor. One of them grabs the “growler” the Irishman was buying and throws it on him, then she runs behind the bar and smashes the mirror. She is then sprayed by the bartender with his seltzer bottle, and the tide of the battle turns as the policeman returns to escort the women out of the bar. They leave, but the policeman slips on the beer and falls. The bartender also slips right as the film ends.

The Real Carrie Nation with a hatchet.

Carrie Nation was able to carry out her attacks on Kansas saloons in part because State law stated that they should not exist. She would be arrested for disturbing the peace, but released after a day because of the difficulty associated with prosecuting her for doing what the police were supposed to do already. The eastern Edison crew that worked on this movie don’t seem to have been terribly sympathetic, the cop we see drinking seems to be a nice fellow, and the prohibitionists are out of control and ultimately defeated with a seltzer spritzer. Still, it was a smart move, dramatizing events that were widely spoken about among the classes of people that were watching movies at the time. This movie was likely adapted both for individual kinetoscope viewing and for screening at venues that had projectors. It’s a pretty simple shoot, but note that the smashing of the mirror is accomplished with a jump cut, similar to the effects that Georges Méliès was now famous for. The narrator on the “Treasures” disc this is included with suggests that the women are played by men: if so, I couldn’t tell, but it’s true that women were pretty scarce at the early Edison shoots.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Magician’s Cavern (1901)

This short film be Georges Méliès is more of a magic show than a narrative, but the use of spooky iconography makes it relevant to my “history of horror.” No doubt it evoked more laughter than screams, even in audiences of the day.

A man with a large beard and a coat enters a proscenium-style stage dressed as a the stronghold of a magician. Two large gargoyles flank the stage and a strange creature (perhaps a dragon on an alligator) hangs from the ceiling. A skeleton is hangs just above the stage as well. The magician bows to the audience, then bumps into the skeleton. He takes it down from where it is hanging and puts it in a chair. With some magical gestures he transforms the skeleton into a befleshed woman with a helmet and shield, looking like Athena or perhaps an Amazon. She walks to the front of the stage and bows, then the magician transforms her clothes to a more formal dress. He hypnotizes her and levitates her between two chairs, then removes the chairs and shows that she is floating without assistance of wires. He then turns her back into a skeleton, which does a humorous “danse macabre.” The magician joins in the dance, then removes the skeleton from the stage. Now he brings out a table and stool, and the table moves through jump cuts at his command. The stool is levitated to the top of the table, and the articles of furniture do a dance of their own. Next, he summons the transparent image of several women, who dance in a circle about the stage. When he tries to grab them, they turn out to be insubstantial. There is more floating furniture dancing until he throws everything off-stage. He then flies up through the ceiling, only to return from below via a trap door, and bows again. Suddenly he pulls off his clothes, revealing himself as Méliès in his standard attire. Méliès puts on a hat and takes out a cigarette, lighting it from one of the gargoyles. He bows one last time and walks off the stage.

Méliès’s movies were starting to get longer about this time, and I feel like he was still uncertain how to fill that time with a coherent storyline. This feels like at least two separate acts, with the women and the skeleton being one story, and all the furniture (and maybe Méliès’s own transformation) being a separate one. Of course, there’s no real narrative to any of it, just a series of illusionary special effects calculated to mystify and fascinate, and it does succeed in this even today. Some of the effects work very well, including the dancing skeleton (a marionette) and the ghostly women. The levitation is a bit less impressive, because the multiple exposure he used causes him to become partially transparent when he tries to demonstrate the lack of supports for the lady. Even though it doesn’t fit that well, I like his “reveal” at the end, it’s like he’s letting us in on a part of his magic.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901)

This suggestive short Edison comedy derives from the vaudeville act of then-popular trapeze artist Charmion, who performed it in live theaters before it was captured on film. It once again confirms the close relationship between sex and cinema in America, but I believe the joke may have been on the audience in this case.

trapeze-disrobing-actA set has been constructed to replicate the upper part of the vaudeville stage. We see the curtains and the top of the proscenium and over to the right a woman sits on a trapeze in full Victorian street clothing. Behind her a backdrop is visible, but we cannot see the stage floor; it is below the frame. To the left of the picture is a theater box containing two men in false beards. The woman begins undoing her buttons, and removing her outer garments, to the enthusiastic response of the two men. She throws them pieces of her clothing and soon is in very unrevealing Victorian undergarments. In the process, she occasionally does stunts like hanging from the trapeze and twirling, and so forth. She now removes the undergarments, her stockings, etc., again throwing bits of clothing to the applauding and leaping men in the box. When she is finished, she is in leotards and a tutu.

I said above that the joke was on the audience – despite all of Charmion’s stripping, she remains fully clothed to the end of the act, and is wearing what would be today a ridiculously demure outfit for a trapeze performer. Now, if it’s true that men would gather on 23rd street for an occasional glance of an ankle, this is fairly revealing, but I suspect that women in leotards were hardly unknown on the stage, even in 1901. That’s probably part of why the movie wasn’t banned outright. Charles Musser, in Before the Nickelodeon, suggests that while this movie was intended to titillate, the two comedy characters in the box were necessary to mediate the voyeurism of the audience and make it seem acceptable. Otherwise, it would have been too much of a breach of the accepted standards of morality.

Director: George S. Fleming, Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charmion

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

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