Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Age of Attractions

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Alternate Titles: The Infernal Caldron and the Phantasmal Vapors, Le Chaudron infernal

This short trick film from Georges Méliès continues my “history of horror” for October, 2018. Now 115 years old, it shows that some of the effects of cinema have aged well.

Méliès, dressed as a demon (the Star Films catalog informs us he is “Belphegor, executioner of Hell”), dances in front of a large boiling cauldron, on a set dressed like a Renaissance castle, with leering devil masks on the walls. Three women (two apparently dressed as men, wearing swords) are led into the chamber, and one at a time thrown into the pot. Another demon comes forth to stir the pot and Belphegor makes some magical gestures, producing more smoke. Suddenly, the smoke resolves itself into three ghostly figures, which fly about the room over Belphegor’s head, evidently frightening him. The ghosts turn into fireballs which whip around the room. Méliès leaps into the cauldron after they have disappeared, and the cauldron and demon disappear in a puff of smoke.

Although it looked to me as if the victims were having their revenge (in a plot reminiscent of “The Golden Beetle” by Segundo de Chomón), the Star Films catalog suggests a different narrative, more in line with Catholic theology. The condemned souls have been separated from their bodies by the cauldron, and at the end Belphegor turns them into Will-O-The-Wisps, “who must forever remain with the vast concourse of Satan’s victims.” The disappearance of Belphegor at the end is apparently voluntary, since his work is now complete. The catalog also makes quite a big deal about the transparent flying ghosts, calling it, “A very fascinating and absolutely new trick.” There have been some ghosts in Méliès before this, including the semi-transparent one in “A Fantastical Meal,” but these spirits do seem somewhat more nebulous and sophisticated to me. I would imagine that producing an effect for the audience was ultimately more Méliès’s interest than making a coherent or spiritually consistent storyline.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Infernal Cake-Walk (1903)

Alternate Titles: Le Cake-walk infernal

With October now well under way, it’s time to return to my traditional “history of horror” posts. For this outing, I’ve chosen a short dance movie from Georges Méliès which meshes Satanic themes and colonialism.

The movie begins in a cavern with flames shooting up from various places in the floor. A group of young women dressed as demons (perhaps succubi?) dance across the floor, and then some male demons perform tumbling tricks. Soon, a fellow dressed like a biblical prophet appears and chases them all away, but he removes his outer clothes and is revealed to be Satan himself (played by Méliès). First he dances with a fireball in his hand, which grows in proportion until he throws it down. He summons two cake-walk dancers, a black man and woman, who perform their dance and are joined by a group of young women. Now a large cake is brought out by evidently African servants, and a new demon leaps forth from it. This fellow has a humped back and knobby knees, but despite his deformities proves to be an excellent cake-walk dancer. He performs for some time, and during the dance first his legs, then his arms detach themselves and dance independently. He disappears and all of the demons, damned souls, and dancers reappear and dance together on stage until Satan reappears and they vanish in a puff of smoke. Satan disappears through a trap door in the stage.

Because it’s mostly dancing, I was able to summarize the action pretty succinctly, however this is a fairly long movie for Méliès: over five minutes long. Not so long as “A Trip to the Moon,” but well above the earlier 1-2 minute films he was making. There are a number of intriguing aspects. The “female demons” I mentioned above have horns, but their striped costumes made me think of bees. The “male demons” are actually wearing the masks of the Selenites from “A Trip to the Moon” (having gone to the bother of making so many masks, I guess Méliès wanted to get more use out of them). The black dancers appear to be wearing makeup, but from their hair and features I think they may have been actually of African descent, not white Frenchmen in blackface. The cake-bearers are wearing black full-bodysuits, so I think they actually are white people. The Star Film Catalog tells us that the biblical-prophet-looking-guy is really Plato who has returned from a journey to the Earth to show off the cake walk dance. I suppose that Plato has to be in Hell because he was a pagan; Dante places him there in the “Inferno.” Still, it’s interesting that he serves the function of a colonial explorer bringing back exotic foreign dances to Hell. The dancers and cake bearers are to all intents and purposes captured slaves. Since recent analyses of “A Trip to the Moon” have argued that Méliès was making a point about the evils of colonialism, it’s interesting to see this movie as suggesting its origin with the Devil himself. Still, I suspect that for audiences then and today, this is mostly a fun romp of effects and dances.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, others

Run Time: 5 Min, 20 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.

Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

This actuality short from Edison depicts part of the wave of immigration that hit US shores in the early Twentieth Century, forever changing the face of the country. It’s a bit longer – and involves more shots – than earlier Lumiére documents of people disembarking boats and trains, but doesn’t really surpass them in narrative.

The first shot shows a ferry carrying people to Ellis Island from the docks where their ships put in at New York harbor. The ferry is clearly full of many people, but it looks comfortable and clean, possibly better than the conditions many had sailed over with. As it draws past, we read the name of the company, “Wm Myers.” The second shot is taken directly in front of the gangplank, so that we see the first departures off the boat coming right at the camera. They are carrying their bags, and seem intent on getting where they are going. This shot is rapidly replaced by a shot at a 30-45 degree angle, allowing the passengers to pass in front of the camera over more time. This lets us get a look at their clothes and condition. The first to pass appear to be wearing middle-class Western clothes, but they are soon followed by a number of girls with scarves over their hair, looking more like Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidic). We see a lot of women, in varying clothing, some carrying babies or accompanied by children. Although most are carrying bags or luggage of some kind, none appears to have a lot of possessions, and we rarely see a family with both an identifiable mother and father together, although both men and women pass by individually.

Ellis Island was a port of entry for a tremendous number of immigrants from various parts of Europe from 1892 until the late 1920s, when restrictions on immigration reduced the influx, and it remained in operation until 1954. It appears to me that the cameraman chose groups of “exotic”-looking immigrants for his subject, although each ferry would have brought over people from a variety of ships and locations, so this probably wasn’t difficult. There doesn’t seem to have been a political motivation for this movie – the passengers are not depicted as particularly threatening or as especially noble, they’re just people. The Edison cameraman was probably aware that Ellis Island was a “famous” location in New York and was taking advantage of its familiarity to produce a film with some potential for sales. In that sense, it becomes a valuable document of the country as “a nation of immigrants,” and a simple connection with history. Many of the people reading this blog probably had ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, and this allows us to see a part of what they experienced. It’s interesting that, compared to other movies taken in public places at the time, there seems to be less interest in the camera, although a few of the passengers do stare very hard at this contraption of their New World as they walk past.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown aspiring immigrants

Run Time: 2 Min, 5 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

How He Missed His Train (1900)

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

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

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

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Eight Girls in a Barrel (1900)

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

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

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

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

 

Going to Bed under Difficulties (1900)

Alternate Title: “Deshabillage Impossible”

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

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

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

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.