Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Age of Attractions

The Shadow Girl (1902)

I’m sneaking this one into my October “history of horror” because of the “dark” title and because I haven’t gotten to it yet – we have some big ones coming up next year and I may not have the time to get back to these minor trick films. It’s a simple short by Georges Méliès that shows mysterious appearances and disappearances in the context of stage magic.

The scene is set through a standard proscenium-style set showing a stage cluttered with theatrical equipment. A magician (Méliès) and a clown share the stage, and they pull a large white sheet from a basket. They shake it out, and suddenly there is a girl wrapped inside. They unwrap her to reveal her fetching tights and the clown tries to get fresh, causing the girl to run to the other side of the stage and Méliès to kick him in the behind. The clown now brings over a barrel and the magician and the clown hold it upright for the girl to climb through. She goes in, but a (male) clown comes out the other side. He and the magician dance for a moment as the clown brings up a hoop. The new clown jumps through the hoop and transforms again into the girl. The magician gestures her toward a plank at the back of the stage and the film ends.

The Star Films catalog suggests that the movie is cut short with this ending – apparently there is a further trick in which the girl lies on the plank and is made to levitate, then another in which a man and the girl are seen to change places at the wave of a wand. This version is all I could find, however. Another interesting point is that the catalog describes the clown assistant as an “imp,” tying the movie a bit more into the Halloween theme. It’s interesting that the magic tricks we do see focus on gender-swapping, though perhaps this is partly because it was easy to identify the difference between a man in clown makeup and a girl in tights in long shot. This remains an amusing example of the magic shows Méliès used his camera to bring to life, even after more ambitious projects had been successful.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Advertisements

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

My review of this movie was originally a facebook post, then it became the first post I ever put on this blog. I attach it below for posterity, however given the fact that I now write much longer reviews of much less important movies, it seemed like it was time to update it at last. This review will now take its place on my index.

The movie begins by showing a meeting of philosophers and scientists (many of whom dress like wizards) to discuss a proposal by one of their number. A proscenium-style stage shows a conference set up inside of an observatory, with a large telescope prominent in the background and in front there is a blackboard with the images of the Earth and Moon drawn on. A group of women carry in telescopes and present them to the magicians standing in the front rank. They raise them into the air and the telescopes transform into stools, which they now sit upon. The presenter goes to his podium and speaks, gesturing excitedly, and drawing a line on the chalkboard between the two spheres, showing the route that could be taken. Most of the audience applauds, but one of the front-ranking scientists raises an objection, resulting the speaker hurling books and papers at him. The other scientists push him to a chair in the back, and congratulate the speaker. The servant-women bring packs of gear for the front-ranking scientists, so that they can go on the expedition along with the inventor. They change out of their robes into explorers’ garb and leave the stage.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Dancing Midget (1902)

A simple trick film in which Georges Méliès combines the conventions of the stage magic show with the effects of cinema to produce a brief piece of entertainment. Once again, he shows that he was quite willing to milk a technique and concept for all it was worth.

A standard proscenium-style set is established, with the backdrop painted as a tunnel leading away from the audience with a large black area in the center. Méliès enters from stage right, dressed as a slightly comical variety of a standard magician. He waves his cape and an assistant appears, dressed in a servant’s livery and wig. He pulls six eggs from the mouth of the servant, an act which seems to amuse the man greatly, and then breaks each in succession into his hat. He stirs up the hat’s contents and dumps a great deal of confetti out of it onto his assistant’s head. Then, he produces a much larger egg from the hat, about the size of an ostrich egg. He places it onto the table and gestures, causing it first to grow, then to burst and reveal a tiny ballerina inside. She dances on the table for a while. Then the magician brings her up to full size, and puts the assistant into a crate, placing his cape over the ballerina. He pulls up the cape, and – voila! – the two have changed places. He now  kicks the servant off the stage and departs with the ballerina down the tunnel.

I’ve come to recognize that when there’s a large black space in the center of a Méliès set, it means that something will be shown in double-exposure within that space. I wonder if his contemporary audiences ever caught on? Anyway, I liked Méliès’s somewhat frenetic performance here, and was surprised by the comparably under-stated behavior of the assistant. Usually, that would be the more comedic role, with an expectation that he would try to kiss the ballerina at some point. The trick at the center of the film is not especially new, nor are the various appearances and disappearances used to support it. Still, it is another fine example of the many short films Méliès produced during his brief but prolific career.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Colonel’s Shower-Bath (1902)

This short piece of slapstick from Georges Méliès demonstrates that even as late as 1902 (the year he put out “A Trip to the Moon”), he wasn’t only making fantasy films and special effects. In fact, he wasn’t even always at the cutting edge of innovation – this movie seems at least five years behind the times.

A proscenium-style stage has been set up to depict a guarded gate in a European city. There are several soldiers on duty, although only one paces out his watch. Others sit, slouch, or mill around nearby. Above them, a scaffold has been set up for some painters who are re-painting the arch over the gate. Suddenly, the man on duty rushes over and alerts his comrades: the colonel is coming! All of them snap to attention, and one shorter fellow, who seemingly was taking a nap, rushes out of the guard station still trying to get his sword back into its scabbard. The colonel arrives, a distinguished older gentleman with an elaborate mustache. He berates the guards a bit for their slovenly appearance, then notices the painters and briefly speaks with one. That one climbs up the ladder to the scaffold with a bucket of paint while the colonel sits on a stool beneath the scaffold. The painter slips, and dumps the white paint all over the colonel, to the great amusement of the troops. The colonel rages at everyone.

There’s not a lot to this movie, although the backdrop and costumes are quite good. The short fellow continues to slouch throughout the colonel’s tirade, and maintains a very un-military appearance overall, which sort of makes him the star of the movie. Later slapstick stars like Keaton and Chaplin would take similar advantage of the audience’s identification with the short fellow who could never make good. But, really, it’s a simple joke you can see coming a mile away. Even Edison was putting out better stuff by this time, although of course the bulk of any film program at this time was not the highest-quality material.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1906)

This early short from Edison incorporates several technical advances worthy of Méliès, but employs them in a decidedly different manner, producing a very “American” special effects comedy, despite its being a remake (not to say outright rip-off) of a British original. It’s particularly interesting as one of the first iterations of a persistent early cinema myth.

The classic proscenium-style frame actually does depict a stage in this instance, a stage on which a screen has been set up for projecting motion pictures. There is a box visible to the left of the screen, and a man sits in it, presumably part of a larger, invisible audience. The first movie begins with a title telling us that the program is “The Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.”  The actually movie’s title is “Parisian Dance.” We see a young lady in modest attire come on the screen and do a dance, which does involve raising her skirts for a a few kicks. The man in the box gets increasingly excited, eventually jumping down onto the stage to join the filmed lady in the dance. She disappears and a new title tells us we will next see “The Black Diamond Express.” A train track appears and our rube again gets very excited, leaning forward into the screen to see the oncoming train. As the train rushes past the camera, he panics, and dives back into his box for safety. The final film is “The Country Couple,” and it involves a rustic young man and woman having a brief romantic interlude. The man again leaps onto the screen, perhaps jealous or perhaps angry because the girl reminds him of his daughter. He attempts to attack the young man, pulling down the screen as a result and revealing the projectionist behind it. He and the projectionist proceed to get into a scuffle, rolling across the stage in combat.

It was a pretty clever idea, using a series of old Edison pictures to fill in as “movies-within-a-movie” to develop a whole new plotline. It also required some technical understanding of how to handle split screen effects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when “Uncle Josh” gets in front of the screen: he tends to disappear as if he’s gone behind the screen, or to become transparent so we can see the movie projected on top of him. Still, this movie gave us a kind of “Shadowrama” almost ninety years before MST3k. I’m pretty sure that films were not rear-projected at the time, as we see here, and that in a real situation the projectionist would have been situated in front of the screen, not behind it, approximately at the position that the camera is for the purposes of shooting this movie. I suspect that the reason he is moved is so that he can be revealed to the audience when Uncle Josh pulls down the screen, since editing and multiple camera set ups are not within the framework of this movie, and also the reveal works dramatically much better than someone yelling at Uncle Josh from behind would. The “cinema myth” I refer to above is the commonly-recurring trope about people panicking and running from theaters when a train was shown coming at the camera. It appears unlikely that this ever happened, but the story expresses the power of cinema to move people, something that apparently film makers were already aware of in 1902.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charles Manley

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Learns to Skate (1907)

One of the earliest surviving films of one of the earliest film comedians, this is a fairly simple short about a man’s efforts to learn a simple physical skill – but which takes considerable athletic ability to pull off in a comedic manner. Max Linder succeeds with flying colors in this early outing.

Excited Anticipation

Taken mostly in long shot, this movie consists of just a few sequential scenes, each shot from a stationary camera and lasting several seconds to a minute or more. It begins by establishing a snowy path in a forest, with several people walking along, almost looking like an actuality of France in winter until the star finally approaches close enough to the camera to be recognizable. He stands out from the rest of the characters in the movie by his dandy-ish dress. Most of the men are wearing caps that indicate they are from the working class, while Max sports a shiny top hat. He’s also carrying a pair of skates, designed to be affixed to the bottom of his shoes when he finds a frozen lake. He stops a passerby and asks directions, is pointed the right way and exits, screen left. The next shot shows a table where skaters may check their overcoats and other unneeded items (Max checks his cane, but not his hat). He approaches enthusiastically, and pantomimes his excitement at the opportunity to glide across the ice. The next shot shows wooden chairs where people don their skates, and Max gets one of the local fellows to help him on with his. Next is a shot taken of the shore of the frozen lake, showing Max descending a short plank onto the lake. He is awkward, but stays upright until actually on the ice, where he quickly enters a kind of rapid dance before toppling (and losing his hat). Another local fellow eventually takes pity on him and rights him, giving him his hat back and holding him up as they skate offscreen.

The harsh reality.

The next scene shows Max and his tutor, still arm-in-arm, moving slowly. This shot is taken from the shore and we can now see all the other skaters, out having a grand time. One fellow is on a bicycle. Max eventually feels secure enough to try on his own again and the other fellow skates off. This time, Max is a bit more secure at first, but still wobbles more than he glides, eventually losing his hat again. His effort to recover it results in another pratfall, with him landing on it and crushing it. Another scene of the ice shows Max moving along cautiously, still with the crooked hat, when he is run into by a large child. He runs this kid off angrily, but his buddies show up with snowballs, pelting Max mercilessly. In trying to get away from this assault, Max crashes into another skater who is pushing a lady in a kind of sled-wheelchair. Everyone lands on the ground, and Max, in a fury, is trying to fight with all of them. A skating policeman skates up and removes him from the lake. Max is taken back to the table, where his skates are removed and he retrieves his goods. A final close-up shows Max in tears, his dream of a winter wonderland shattered.

Aftermath

This is a pretty basic film, not especially innovative for 1907, but not bad either. What makes it work is Linder’s screen presence, which keeps the attention and interest of the audience despite the very limited plot and film technique. Max is adorable in the early scenes in which he shows the audience how excited he is to go skating, which makes it all the more effective when he discovers that the sport isn’t as easy as he’d imagined. He only takes four falls, but each is a payoff of some kind of setup, and although we know they’re coming, we don’t know just when. The most surprising is the one where he’s hit from the side, the boy coming in from off camera to crash into him, and this escalates the situation to include others. I wondered, up to that point, if any of the other characters in the movie were “acting,” or whether they were just random people found at the location, behaving naturally. Once Max starts fighting them, we know it’s been set up, but the movie overall feels decidedly natural and unrehearsed. It’s worth noting that what I’ve called a “close-up” at the end of the film is more of a medium-shot, much further back than the camera got to the bandit at the end of “The Great Train Robbery.” It’s possible that the cameraman at Pathé was a bit skeptical of this new-fangled idea, and not willing to take it so far. We can still see enough of Max’s tears that it works, though.

Director: Louis J. Gasnier

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Casey at the Bat (1899)

This fragment of a short Edison movie is subtitled “Or, the Fate of a (Rotten) Umpire,” setting up a fan’s violent wish-fulfillment right from the start. While we don’t have the whole thing, what we do see conforms to the simple slapstick of the time.

The camera is placed just behind home plate and to the left, allowing a clear view of the action in a small ball park. A man in a baseball uniform with large sideburns steps up to the plate and swings as the ball flies past. The umpire calls two strikes before “Casey” turns on him and begins to punch him. Soon, several other players from both teams are involved in the melee – mostly apparently trying to pull “Casey” off the hapless referee.

The position of the camera was particularly interesting to me, because it seems that this is the standard one-shot image of a baseball game, in spite of the fact that it puts the camera at some risk of being hit by a bad pitch. It may have already been established by still photographers, or possibly by baseball fans’ consensus that right behind home plate is the best place to watch a ball game. Or, it may just be the best way to frame both pitcher and batter so that the action is central to the screen without panning or switching shots. Other than that there isn’t much to say about this movie – it’s yet another example of a fight being used to generate interest and comedy in early cinema.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

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.