Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Age of Attractions

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.

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.