Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Age of Attractions

The Mystical Flame (1903)

This is a classic example of Georges Méliès filming one of his stage magic acts with a few trick photography effects and calling it a film. Coming the year after “A Trip to the Moon” and other serious efforts like “Robinson Crusoe” it may seem a bit disappointing, but surely this is where the steady income came from for Star Films.

Mystical Flame

Méliès steps onto a stage, with one of his familiar backdrops and picks up a skull that is sitting on a chair, after playing with the jaw for a moment, he tosses it into the air and it becomes a handkerchief. He does various tricks with the handkerchief, turning it into a larger napkin and then a large sheet, from which he summons forth a liveried servant. The servant helps him to bring a large screen onto the stage, and then a stool-like object, which the Star Films catalog describes as a “low table.” He sets fire to the top of the table, and a flame flares up briefly before lowering to reveal the figure of a woman. The woman steps down from the table and Méliès leads her about the stage, then puts her back atop the table. He leaves the stage and the servant professes his love for the woman, who slowly fades away. Méliès returns and chases the servant off, perhaps blaming him for her disappearance, then he tumbles over the chair and disappears himself. The servant rushes to the chair to see where his master has gone, but Méliès re-manifests on the stool/table and grabs him from behind, causing him to disappear in a puff of smoke when he touches the table. He does the same with the chair and finishes the act.

Mystical Flame1

The flame is only very briefly on stage; it might make as much sense to call this movie “The Mystical Handkerchief” or even “The Skull.” The existing print isn’t that great and I’m sure this is one of those movies that would look better in the original hand-painted color. Still, it gives us a sense of the whimsy and fun that Méliès brought even to simple projects during the peak of his productivity. When in doubt, he could always make someone disappear! The black screen, which serves no obvious purpose, was probably brought in because it was easier to do in-camera effects in front of a neutral black background. The Star Films Catalog refers to the character Méliès plays as a “juggler” though he never juggles anything, and it says he appears “from under the table” although he just fades into existence on top of it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

The Witch’s Revenge (1903)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès takes the basic format of one of his magic shows and integrates it into a plot – a plot that seems to playfully celebrate the diabolical powers of Satanism! Lighthearted and fun, it manages on a small budget to provide almost as much entertainment as one of the longer films he was experimenting with at the time.

Witchs Revenge

The stage is set as the throne room of a medieval King, with a throne and some lesser courtly chairs at one end and a post with chains attached at the other. A backdrop completes the picture, suggesting a large room with a colonnade allowing a view of a city beyond. A man with a beard (played by Méliès)is in chains, dragged in by two guards while another man, evidently the King looks on. The King signals that the bearded man be shackled to the post, but the sorcerer (for he is such) pleads with him for mercy, promising to use his powers to benefit the King. The King, intrigued, agrees and sends the guards out of the room. The sorcerer now summons an imp, who rises from the floor and tumbles, before going off-stage. Moments later, a large portable stage (identified in the Star Films catalog as a “palanquin”) is brought forth. The sorcerer gestures and three women in Greek costumes appear. The sorcerer gestures again and they come to life, now dressed in courtly clothes, one assuming the role of a Queen and the others her ladies-in-waiting. The King takes the Queen by the hand and escorts her to a place of honor near the throne and the ladies take up positions nearby. The sorcerer now begins some tricks to amuse the Court, beginning with a chair that he makes spin in place and hop around. He turns it into a clown that performs some tumbles before becoming a chair once again. The sorcerer sits in the chair and disappears. The King rushes over to investigate, only to find the sorcerer is now in his throne! He summons the guards but the sorcerer turns them into demons, who chain the King to the post that was meant for the sorcerer. The sorcerer takes his crown and his Queen as the King struggles against the chains.

Witchs Revenge1

The French title of this movie is “Le Sorcier” which is why I have described the man with the beard as a sorcerer, but the English title uses the term “witch,” which has come to be associated only with women. This was not always the case, and during the time of the witch trials it could be used to describe a person of either gender who made a pact with the Devil to gain worldly power. In that sense, it works just as well for the condemned magician of this story, who obviously does call upon Hellish powers to usurp the King’s position. Why would Méliès make a movie in which the Devil wins? Well, it’s not the first time there has been some playful blasphemy in a Méliès film, for example in “The Devil in a Convent.” But, I think the explanation here has more to do with the nature of comedy. The movie begins with a man in chains, bullied by guards, and in the power of the King. It’s funniest if that situation is reversed at the end. Think of Charlie Chaplin, and the other “little men” of silent comedy, and how they overcame cops, bosses, waiters, large powerful convicts, and other minions of authority. Here, Méliès is doing the same thing, only in this case the authority is endowed with the Divine Right of Kings, so the element of sacrilege is already there, even without bringing in imps and demons. Méliès takes it one step further, and, this time, unlike in “The Devil in a Covent” or “The Devil and the Statue,” he skips the “squaring-up” at the end and doesn’t have the sorcerer get his due – which would make this a moral lesson, rather than a simple comedy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 22 secs

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

Sky Scrapers of New York City from the North River (1903)

This short from Edison is a classic Panorama of lower Manhattan, taken from a moving boat. Movies like this were old hat by 1903, but apparently there was still enough of a market to justify another one.

Skyscrapers from the North River1

The image begins with the camera facing a pier, with a tugboat steaming across the screen in the opposite direction to the motion of the camera. We pass a docked steamship and the next pier – clearly labeled “Pier 13.” Once we get past this pier, a bit of the city can be seen in the distance, although by modern standards these buildings are hardly “skyscrapers.” As get proceed further, there is a docked ferry (very similar in design to current ones), and now some taller buildings come into view. According to the Library of Congress’s summary, these include the Syndicate Building, Trinity Church, and the Surety Building. We pass a docked freighter and another tugboat steams through the frame. At this point the buildings in the background at tall enough to reach about 4/5 of the top of the frame, so they are impressively tall. A building marked “Babbitt” is a soap factory, according to LoC. Piers 4 and 5 are labelled “Pennsylvania Railroad,” and several barges, evidently intended to carry railroad cars, are piled nearby. The buildings here are somewhat shorter, but large. LoC identifies two as the Bowling Green Building and the Whitehall Building. Piers 2 and three are marked “Lehigh Valley,” and a very tall building (taller than the frame) sits next to #2. Pier One is Pennsylvania Railroad again, but it is followed by “New Pier 1,” which is owned by the United Fruit Company. LoC tells us that the next pier is Pier A, and that the boat marked “Patrol” is a police vessel. Now the Battery comes into view, and we see the Fireboat House and Castle Garden, which was an aquarium at the time, as we pass along the park’s edge. The camera shows Battery Park’s waterfront and begins to turn away from Manhattan at the end.

Skyscrapers from the North River

I was a bit confused by the designation “North River” when I first saw this, expecting it would show the northern part of Manhattan, but it actually shows the southern. The low pier numbers kind of gave it away, even before I recognized the Battery. Edison’s catalog doesn’t give the kind of detail about the location that you might expect; it only mentions the aquarium. Their emphasis is on the “beautiful stereoscopic effect of the sky-scrapers,” by which I suppose they meant that you could see the nearer objects moving faster than those further away (?). Stereoscopy normally refers to systems like Viewmaster, where a 3D effect is produced by showing different images to the left and right eyes, but so far as I know, no such technology was in use for motion picture film at the time. The film overall is probably of greatest interest to architectural and maritime historians and history buffs.

Director: Unknown

Camera: James Blair Smith

Run Time: 3 Min, 38 secs

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

Robinson Crusoe (1902)

Another multi-scene interpretation of classic literature, this movie was released by Georges Méliès in the same year as “A Trip to the Moon.” It also deals with questions of colonialism, but where others have found traces of a critical approach in the former film, here it seems little has changed since Daniel Defoe’s day.

Robinson_Crusoe

The movie begins with a depiction of Crusoe’s ship crashing, but surviving prints have very little of this – a brief flash of a man slumped over a rocky cliff, a wrecked ship in the background traces the impression lightly, though the Star Films catalog suggests we should see more of his struggle to survive. The next scene shows Robinson (Méliès) poling upriver in a raft laden with salvaged items, such as a barrel (the catalog suggests an entire scene is lost, in which we see him building the raft). Another scene shows him looting the wreck of the ship before all of it breaks up and drifts away. He locates survivors – a cat and a dog – who will be his first companions on the island. The next scene shows him atop a peak on the island’s mountainous terrain, lighting a signal fir to try to hail a passing ship. The ship sails by without stopping, however. (Once again, the catalog suggests something is missing, since two signaling scenes are listed). Now, Robinson, resigned to living long-term on the island, is shown hard at the labor of building a hut to shelter himself and his animals.

Robinson Crusoe1

Read the rest of this entry »

The Drawing Lesson (1903)

Another short trick film by Georges Méliès, this movie demands a bit more of the audience (or perhaps a live narrator) than some of the simpler films of earlier years. We see familiar themes and effects, taken to a somewhat more complex level than before.

Drawing Lesson

The movie begins with a proscenium-style set that depicts a garden with an ornamental colonnade in the background. A man in 18th-century-style clothing carries an easel out onto the stage and gestures his approval of the scene, then tries to signal someone to follow him. When they do not, he goes back offstage in search of them. Now a new individual (this seems to be played by Méliès) comes onstage and appears to be planning a prank on the first. He transforms a barrel into a pedestal, then adds a woman piece by piece, transforming a ball or balloon for the head, a handkerchief for the torso, and a coat for the legs. She stands in a pose as if she were a statue – a natural part of the scene. The first man returns with a class of art students, mostly in wigs and upper-class dress. They spread out on the ground and begin drawing the scene, while the man (evidently an instructor), walks around and inspects their work. Now the statue comes to life and steals his hat, then causes him to fall over, transforming in the process into an elaborate fountain and spraying water all over him. He pulls out an umbrella and kicks, while the class continues to sketch the scene.

Drawing Lesson1

The Star Film catalog describes the art instructor and the art students as if they were clearly identifiable characters, but watching without any narration or intertitles, a modern audience has to piece this together as the story progresses. It also identifies the location as “the gardens at Versailles,” which makes sense if you’ve been there or know about it, but probably wasn’t intuitive even to any non-French audience of the day. The main theme, however, of a caricatured authority figure getting his comeuppance at the hands of a random prankster with magical powers, is pretty much the essence of comedy cinema at the time and for years to come. The only special effects used here are substitution splices and the division of the lady into parts through multiple exposure, but Méliès shows how much his technique has improved since the early days with the precision of this process, which probably would have simply been a single splice, rather than three, in earlier years.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Policeman’s Parade – Chicago (1897)

One of several films shot for the Lumière brothers by a photographer abroad, this depicts a parade taking place in the USA. It gives us a chance to consider why it, and so many similar films, were made at the time.

Policeman's Parade Chicago

Typical of a Lumière film, this is a 50 second clip taken from a stationary camera at a roughly 30-degree-angle to the line of approach. In the background is a large building with arched windows, bartizans, and possibly stained glass above the main entryway, calling to mind a cathedral, armory, or castle of some kind, but which may be a stylized police station. Policemen in uniform march past in the foreground, carrying night sticks, in ranks of four, divided into groups of 24 each, escorted on the far side by a man in a different hat (presumably their superior officer). All of them are white, and nearly all have moustaches. At the very end of the movie, we see a horse-and-buggy that is part of the parade, and it is possible that there are more of these to follow.

Policeman's Parade Chicago1

Who let this hippy into the parade?

Some years back, when I watched the DVD collection “The Lumière Brothers’ First Films,” I recall how amused the narrator, Bertrand Tavernier, was by the overwhelming majority of these men being moustached, and that he referred to one that was not as “a rebel.” What is odder to us today is the fact that every one of these officers is a white men; women and African Americans were presumably excluded from the force entirely, and I’d be curious to know what percent were of Irish descent. What also stands out to us now is that they are wearing the tall rounded hats that today we associate with “Keystone Kops,” although that style was already a bit antiquated twenty years after this when those movies were made.

If you do an exhaustive study of early film, you’re going to end up watching a lot of parades. It gets pretty tedious, actually, even with a lot of the movies less than two or three minutes in length. Early actuality filmmakers relied on parades because they needed to demonstrate motion, parades were scheduled in advance and you knew where to place your camera, and they had at least a modicum of civic or cultural interest. To us today, disconnected from the events of the time and no longer excited about the simple fact of moving pictures, it’s hard to maintain the level of interest that contemporary audiences had, or were assumed to have. This one at least allows some insight into the demography and style of a major urban police force.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Eruption of Mount Pele (1902)

This short film from Georges Méliès is an early disaster film – and also a rare case of a film from Méliès with no actors or even narrative to speak of. The event it depicts occurred in the same year as its release, so it can be seen as a topical recreation of a story film-goers were reading in newspapers of the day.

Eruption of Mount Pele

The film shows an obvious miniature of a fishing village, intended to recreate the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique. In the background, a large mountain looms, with smoke emerging from its peak. Miniature boats float in the foreground, on what is obviously shallow placid water. As the movie progresses, the smoke billows in different patterns, and someone makes waves in the water, coming in from the left side of the screen toward the boats and town. At the very end, the smoke seems to pour down from above onto the tiny town, as ash might from a volcano.

Eruption of Mount Pele1

By modern standards, this isn’t a very dramatic movie, and I would imagine that at the time it was screened, live narration (perhaps even read from newspapers) would have accompanied the images, to emphasize the drama of real-world events. As it happened, in May of 1902, about 28,000 people were killed in a firestorm ignited by hot ash raining down on the city during the worst of the eruption, which continued for several years. That might have been beyond the ability of Méliès to recreate, or he might have felt it was in bad taste to show such a great tragedy in detail. Note also that the surviving print is black and white, but it would likely have been hand-painted in original release, and the eruption might appear more dramatic if the cloud had gone, say, from yellow to orange to fiery red.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone (1903)

This simple short by Georges Méliès eschews trick photography and emphasizes slapstick humor, to the point of degenerating into a riot by the end. As with “The Colonel’s Shower Bath,” the butt of the humor is the military, especially the officer class.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone

The movie takes place on a set designed to look like an urban European street corner. A sign behind a character dressed in uniform reads “Corps de Garde,” indicating that the building is a barracks. The soldier character marches back and forth while a man has his shoes shined by another. The civilians leave and the soldier stretches out to rest. Propping himself on his rifle, he begins to snooze. A glazier walks by with glass frames balanced on his back and then a man pulls a hose across the set, apparently preparing to spray the sidewalk. Another man with a ladder props it up over the soldier and climbs up to a high gas lamp with a rag. A man dressed a bit like a modern jester runs up and looks impish as he assesses the scene of the ladder, the hose, and the sleeping soldier. He gently removes the man’s rifle and replaces it with the hose. Then he sneaks offscreen until an officer walks by. When the officer upbraids the guard for sleeping, he turns on the hose, which sprays the man working over his head. The officer winds up getting the lamp cage dropped on his head and soon the worker is tussling with the soldier, grabbing his rifle and smashing in one of the windows. When the occupants protest, the worker picks up the still-spraying hose and douses them in water. Soon police officers run up to gain control of the situation, but the result is more mayhem and water spraying everywhere. The soldier ducks into the barracks and the worker climbs up to the second floor and enters via a window. The police attempt to follow, but the worker and the prankster drag out an advertising column and topple it, blocking the entrance to the barracks. All of the characters crowd on stage and wave their arms about in distress, the social order completely upended.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone1

Méliès prefigures Mack Sennett by almost a decade here with physical humor that targets soldiers and police, and reduces a city street to complete anarchy in the name of a few chuckles. The use of the hose may have been the most challenging aspect of the production – the sets are pretty obviously painted cardboard with flimsy wood frames and the actors have to avoid pointing it at walls for fear the water will cut right through them. Even so, the upper window frame does get wet and an apparently “stone wall” sags as the worker climbs in to the upper story. A quick edit gave Méliès a chance to repair the damage before things went too far, but otherwise this movie is made in single takes, as is typical of his work. Sharp-eyed viewer will notice that several of the ads on the column are for Méliès films and the Theatre Houdin -an early form of product placement. Another area in which Méliès was an innovator, one can also see ads for Pleyel Pianos and Menier Chocolate who presumably paid for the advertising.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 3 Min

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

New York, Brooklyn Bridge (1896)

Having taken the world by storm with their projected motion pictures in 1895, the Lumière brothers quickly dispatched cameras to far points of the world, eager to get images that would be exotic or exciting for audiences at home and abroad. This one comes from New York City, and is a rather idiosyncratic view of a still-famous structure.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge1

The camera is set up on train tracks, facing a stationary engine and a small building. A train approaches, turning to exit screen left. As it does so, it blocks the one recognizable arch from the bridge in the distance. Soon other trains cross our view, one quite close to the camera is being driven “backward,” with the engine behind the other cars. These appear to be commuter trains, with people sitting in the coaches. A workman on a ladder is on the other side of the tracks, and at times he seems to look at the camera. It is impossible to tell which side of the East River this image was taken from, but it appears to be at the point where the tracks are turning toward the bridge, not actually on the bridge itself.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge

Bridge? What bridge?

Today, we don’t think of the Brooklyn Bridge being for trains. The upper level is largely for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and below that is roadway for cars. Even buses and trucks don’t cross the bridge anymore, it isn’t used for public transit, just personal transportation. This was not always the case, however, as we see here. It’s surprising that the photographer felt that this view was the best way to show the bridge, since the trains block its most recognizable features for much of the run time. There isn’t a lot to distinguish this from “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or dozens of similar train movies from the nineteenth century, but presumably audience demand was high for this type of film, and getting the famous bridge was a secondary concern.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Prolific Magical Egg (1902)

This trick film from Georges Méliès depicts a standard magic show, as one might have seen in the Theatre Robert-Houdin. We squeeze it into our “History of Horror” because it also shows some of the darker implications of magic and its uses.

Prolific Magical Egg

Méliès appears on a proscenium-style set which resembles a classroom – a blackboard with what looks like a mathematical formula written on it is in the background. There are also two stands erected to either side of the performer, holding up a board between them. He bows and produces a handkerchief. He folds this into his hand and moves close to the camera so that the audience can see his hands, when he opens it, the handkerchief has become an egg. He makes it disappear and reappear an additional time and then retreats to the part of the stage where the stands are erected. The egg suddenly enlarges to the size of his head and he places it on the board. Now he quickly paints a face on it and with gestures, causes it to grow even larger. It fades away to be replaced by a disembodied woman’s head, gargantuan next to the magician. She splits into three enormous heads, which space out along the board. When they move together and recombine into the first head, Méliès goes to kiss her, but now it transforms into an egg-shaped clown’s head, similar to the crude painted face he had first placed on the egg. Méliès laughs and it becomes a painted egg again, then he gestures for it to shrink back down and picks it up. He tosses it into the air and it becomes again a normal egg, which he makes disappear, pretending that he has eaten it. He leaps up onto the board and becomes a skeleton. Now a liveried servant comes out and removes the skeleton. Happy Halloween!

Prolific Magical Egg1

The most interesting piece of this movie is probably the least obvious to modern viewers: Méliès actually zooms in on his hands through the simple expedient of walking upstage towards the camera. As a result, he is no longer framed in a long shot, with his entire body, including feet, visible to the audience. We only see him from approximately the waste up. This sort of thing was still somewhat controversial a decade or so later when feature films were becoming popular. Some critics felt that it was disturbing, or inappropriate somehow to show only parts of bodies on the camera, instead of using it to film a staged performance as it would be seen from the back rows, with entire bodies of everyone in the scene visible at all times. Of course, within a few years medium shots would be no big deal, but they are very rare in 1902. The disembodied heads and enlarging egg were accomplished using a split screen and moving the camera closer, but Méliès had already done this in “The Man with the Rubber Head” by this time. The ending is the most “horror” aspect, with the skeleton briefly animate, but seemingly dead when the servant comes out to remove it. I thought at first that this was an unfortunate side effect of eating prolific magical eggs, but the Star Films Catalog suggests that there is some missing footage at the beginning in which the skeleton is brought out and transforms into the magician – perhaps he is himself a kind of undead illusion.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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