Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Age of Attractions

The Monster (1903)

Alternate Title: Le Monstre (Star Films #481-482)

Georges Méliès appears again in our history of horror with this fanciful short about the living dead in Egypt. This may not be the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, but it is a bit darker than a lot of other Méliès trick films.

A standard proscenium-style set is decorated like the Egyptian desert, with a large Sphinx (still with its nose!) prominent on the backdrop. Two men in middle eastern garb, including headdresses, walk onto the set, apparently engaged in conversation or negotiation. One sits on a stone block while the other gestures to him. The standing one walks to one side of the set and retrieves a large casket. He opens it and pulls out a skeleton, which makes the seated man flinch a little. The first man places the skeleton on the ground on the opposite side of the set, near another pile of blocks, then removes the casket. The seated man watches while the other performs a series of gestures. While his back is turned, the skeleton sits upright and rises, then flops over to one side. The man interrupts his gestures to place the skeleton upright on the stone blocks. He then speaks to the seated man, who looks on with interest as the skeleton continues to move on its own. When it stands up, the first man runs over to push it down again, then he gets some fabric and clothes the skeleton. He gestures again and the skeleton rises to its feet, now apparently a more fully-fleshed creature with a skull face. It begins to dance, which seems to alarm the seated man. The standing man gestures in a way that causes to monster to seem to melt into the ground, then rise up again, stretching out to become much taller than the men. It shrinks back down to normal height, but then extends its neck. Causing further consternation. Then it begins its dance again, and the standing man gestures as if he regards the operation as a success. The seated man now stands and rejects the monster, but the other man puts a veil over its head and when he removes it, the skeleton has been replaced by a young woman. When the second man gets on his knees before her, she backs away from him. The first man wraps her in fabric again and tosses her at the second man, but when he catches her she has reduced back to the skeleton and he recoils. The first man flees and the other pursues him off screen.

I’ve given a very impressionistic synopsis, above, in part because Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently reviewed this movie and went into detail regarding the context. Her view is more “correct” in terms of what Méliès wanted, and you should certainly read what she has to say. However, it should be noted that in the century since this movie came out, it has been seen many times without the original narration, and given the practice of “duping” and the arbitrary behavior of exhibitors, it’s quite possible that it was shown without that context even at the time. If you simply see it as a series of moving pictures, what you get is the impression of a magician “creating” a young woman from bones for a patron, who ultimately rejects the necromantic operation – but only after the young woman rejects him. As a horror film, it draws our attention to the line between the living and the dead, and the dangers of an erotic fascination between them. It seems that in order to get to the young woman the patron wants to see, he has to endure the parody of life that the skeleton performs for most of the movie. And then, like the “Bride of Frankenstein” in later years, the created woman has no interest in loving the man that instigated her creation. Certainly, tropes from this film continued to haunt the horror genre for many years. It’s interesting to note that the face and general look of the “monster” in this movie is the same as the ghost we see in “A Fantastical Meal” from three years earlier, even its spooky dance is similar. Méliès wasn’t above re-using a good prop, and I think here he felt that the ghost puppet had been particularly effective in eliciting chills from his audience. We can see this “monster” as part of his iconography, along with the famous image of the rocket-in-the-moon’s eye.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, probably Georges Méliès as one character.

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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A Fantastical Meal (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Repast Fantastique (Star Films #311)

This typical short trick film from Georges Méliès begins playfully, but becomes somewhat dark and even violent by the end. It qualifies for my “history of horror,” although in the end I believe that the violence was meant to be funny.

The movie begins with four people in a typical bourgeois French dining room, preparing for a meal. One is a maid, two are nicely-dressed women, and one is Méliès in a wig with sideburns. The maid puts some food on the table and the others pull up chairs to sit down. Suddenly the chairs disappear and reappear on the table. Everyone falls down, then they get up and retrieve their chairs. This time they are able to sit down and Méliès prepares to ladel them some soup from the bowl. Suddenly the bowl disappears and is replaced with a much larger bowl. He reaches in and pulls out a boot. The others turn and yell at the maid, who comes in very distressed. Méliès takes out another boot and the maid removes the soup as Méliès throws the boot after her. They take their seats again and the maid brings in a large turkey, cooked and ready to be carved. Méliès picks up the cutlery and suddenly the table legs have grown so tall he can no long reach the bird. He and his dinner guests try climbing on their chairs, but the table suddenly becomes short again. When they sit down, the table disappears and reappears across the room. When they chase after it, it descends through the floor and emerges in another spot. This repeats, but the second time it comes back with a ghost on top instead of the food. The ghost does a frightening dance and the ladies run out of the room. Méliès tries to fight the ghost with his chair, but it just passes through the image harmlessly. Méliès persists and is able to destroy the table but not to hurt the ghost. He prepares to take a mighty blow, but the ghost disappears and is replaced by a box marked “dynamite.” When Méliès hits it, it explodes and he is thrown onto the wall. His now boneless body flails about, stuck on the wall (it’s a puppet). The maid comes in to try to assist him, but a bunch of broken crockery (his bones?) flies out of his coat and he flops around the floor bizarrely.

The theme of a ghost, poltergeist, or supernatural entity preventing the characters from performing a simple task (often going to bed) has come up several times before, but never in quite this way. The ending took me by surprise: I was expecting the ghost to chase them out of the room, but not to use dynamite to destroy its enemy! The flopping Méliès-body is darkly comedic, much darker than I expect from early cinema, although I think it’s really more slapstick than gore. The other interesting thing is the non-corporeal ghost, achieved through multiple-exposure. Méliès has used multiple exposure to multiply images on the screen, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen objects appear to pass through a body like this. Of course, it became a standard way to show a ghost on film for the next century and more. Méliès will also use puppetry more elaborately in the years to come, but the use here makes it possible for his character to survive impossible violence. It’s a pretty fun example of a supernatural film from the turn of the century.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Raising Spirits (1899)

Alternate Title: Évocation Sprite (Star Films #205)

This short film from Georges Méliès fits in with other entries from him in our “history of horror” (continued each October on this blog). He uses a supernatural theme to reproduce a kind of magic-show, using the tricks of cinema to produce effects that would be difficult or impossible on a live stage.

Méliès stands at the center of a small, sparsely decorated stage, holding a large wreath. He puts his head through the wreath as he bows, then hangs it from a string so that it is about the height of his head. He demonstrates that there is nothing inside the wreath again, then waves his hands below to show that there is nothing there either. Now he makes magical gestures and the image of a demon appears inside the wreath. Méliès shakes his head disapprovingly and then gestures to make the demon disappear. The images inside of the ring first appear as fuzzy, out-of-focus blurs and then come into focus. The second image is that of a young woman. Méliès bows to her and she fades in and out once before being replaced by an image of Méliès. The two Méliès-images act independently, showing that this is a multiple-exposure. After he makes his duplicate image disappear, Méliès once again puts his head through the now-empty wreath to take a bow.

This is a pretty early use of double-exposure images in film (but see also “The Four Troublesome Heads” from the year before) and Méliès handles it well. I thought it was interesting that his “spirits” fade in and out instead of simply appearing fully-formed. It reminded me of a pre-HD television image coming into focus, but obviously Méliès wouldn’t have had that in mind. I suppose that this effect might be typical of mediumistic representations of contacting the other side – at first the connection is imperfect, but the medium can improve it. At any rate, any kind of a fade at this time was a deliberate in-camera effect, and in this case he (or his cinematographer) must have been throwing the camera out of focus deliberately, then refining it while shooting. Just goes to show that things we take for granted required skill and planning in the early years of film.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time:1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cavalier’s Dream (1898)

I’m jumping back a bit in my “history of horror” this October because I just found this early Vitagraph short that is clearly an attempt to imitate Georges Méliès, even though it’s still very early in his career as well. It’s not a terribly frightening film, but it is an example of an American movie showing the supernatural.

The “cavalier” of the film is a man with a long ponytail dressed in knee breeches and a frilly shirt. The movie begins with him bent over a table in a large room or hall. A figure in a hooded cowl approaches his sleeping form. She wakes him up by poking him and when he gets up, the table is suddenly filled with food and the witch has disappeared. When he sits to eat, the figure of the Devil appears and confronts him, and the witch reappears in the seat across from him. He approaches her and she turns into a woman in ordinary dress. He goes to embrace this new figure and suddenly she turns into an old crone. He turns to leave and suddenly two witches and the Devil appear in front of him. He tries to go the other way and a new witch and the Devil appear at that side. Now the Devil climbs atop the table and he is flanked on all sides by the hooded figures. He collapses into the chair and they dance in a circle around him. Then the Devil gestures and all of the apparitions disappear. The cavalier awakes to find himself alone.

The original Edison catalog emphasizes the “startling and instantaneous” transformation effects achieved through stop trick photography. This had been pioneered by Méliès in just the previous years, although Edison used it for a “horrific” effect in “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” even earlier. Like many of these early films, one expects that the intention wasn’t so much to frighten to audience as to fascinate them, but this film does seem to have a somewhat darker atmosphere than Méliès movies of the same period. The Devil isn’t “funny” per se, nor do the dancing figures appear to be having fun so much as acting to threaten. Perhaps the American attitude towards horror was already a bit more serious than the French, even at this early date.

Director: Unknown, sometimes attributed to Edwin S. Porter (though Charles Musser says not possible).

Camera: Unknown, possibly J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Card Party (1895)

One of the first films shot by the Lumière brothers (although not included among the original ten screened at the first screening of their movies in December, 1895), this movie was remade by Georges Méliès and also by the Lumières themselves.

A group of three men sit at a table on a porch or patio, rapidly throwing cards down as their game progresses. One of them calls over a waiter while the others collect up the cards for a new hand. The waiter scurries off and returns with wine and some glasses on a tray, setting the whole out in front of the man who ordered. He opens the wine and begins pouring while the waiter watches the other two men playing. The wine is distributed among the men after another hand rapidly concludes, and the waiter gestures with excitement as one of them card players wins. Each man downs a good bit of wine, and the waiter continues applauding. The men set down their glasses and begin another hand as the film ends.

The waiter is really the most interesting character in the movie. He is very animated in his interest in the game, and gives the audience a kind of emotional center to what would otherwise be a pretty boring minute of footage. He seems much more invested in the outcome of the game than either of the players, and is also very eager to run and get the wine. The other men are much more subdued, although they do take a healthy draught of their wine.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Louis Lumière

Starring: Antoine Lumière, Antoine Féraud, Félicien Trewey, Alphonse Winckler

You can watch it for free: here.

Snowball Fight (1897)

This short movie from Lumière depicts an outdoor scene with many people in motion, which would have been visually exciting at the time. It is typical of their ability to take cameras on location in the very early days of film making, something which their American competitors at Edison were still finding difficult.

The camera is focused on a pathway made through a snow-covered city street. On both side of the pathway, several men and women are engaged in a snowball fight. A cyclist comes forward upon the path towards the fight, and is hit by a couple snowballs as he approaches. He continues riding towards the snowball-armed melee and is struck successively by several nearby participants as he comes between them, losing control of his bicycle and falling to the ground. His cap is flung onto the pathway. One male participant in the engagement grabs a hold of the cyclist’s bicycle and lifts it off the ground, and the fallen cyclist scrambles to his feet and yanks his bicycle away from the participant. After retrieving possession of his bicycle, the cyclist gets atop and rides away from the fight in the same direction he came from. He leaves his cap behind at the scene of his fall.

When I saw the title of this film, I expected another Lumière movie featuring children, but in this case most of the characters appear to be adults or at least teenagers. Most of the men have mustaches. Unlike the Edison pillow fight movies, I don’t think that there was intended to be anything racy about this fight – the participants are heavily bundled up and the spirit of the thing seems to be mostly in good fun. It holds up in that sense 120 years later.

Director: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

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

Poultry Yard (1896)

This simple actuality short from Lumière shows a common agricultural activity, where others like “Workers Leaving the Factory” and “Carmaux Drawing Out the Coke” show common industrial ones. This represents the life of a great many French people at the time it was recorded.

We see two small girls in a yard behind a farmhouse, throwing bits of grain among a large flock of birds, most of which appear to be ducks, although I see at least one chicken in the mix as well. A grown woman passes in the background, briefly looking at the girls as they work, then moving out of camera range. The older girl has her grain in a bucket, the younger one’s grain is in her apron. The younger girl frequently looks at her sister, seeming to try to imitate her movements, as if she is not quite certain how to perform the task.

This movie is similar to the Edison film “Feeding the Doves,” although it gives a more domestic view of farm life by showing children and (possibly) their mother as sharing in the chores. That said, it seems to have less historical interest, just showing that both companies were looking for subjects in day-to-day activities, and not yet all that worried about stories or even especially interesting images.

Director: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Carmaux, Drawing Out the Coke (1896)

This industrial actuality short from Lumière shows the work environment that the factory owners who invented motion pictures took as standard. We see part of the process of refining coal for fuel.

A stationary camera faces the opening of a smelter, and a large brick of coke comes out of the opening slowly while a man sprays water to cool it. Other workers hit it with rakes to break it apart and spread it out. Meanwhile, the bustle of labor goes on in the background as other workers pass through the frame.

For someone studying industrial processes from the turn of the century, this might be of some interest, but it’s not an especially outstanding Lumière brothers movie. I was hoping for a dramatic spray of steam when the water hit the coke, but there was no such reaction. The most interesting part is seeing the workers break it apart, but even at fifty seconds, this one is sort of dull. Still, where a process like this would surely be automated today, in the late nineteenth century, the work was still done with human hands, and that makes it a bit more interesting.

Director: Unknown, probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Transformation by Hats (1895)

This short film by Lumière confirms that the French company had realized at least some of the comedic possibilities of film, despite mostly being remembered for actualities today. Along with “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie stands as among the very first attempts at intentionally funny cinema.

A man sits on a stool and places one hat after another on his head, often adding false whiskers, noses, or wigs to transform his appearance. With each new headpiece, he displays a different personality, often obviously campy or goofy. His first performance involves driving a team of horses. His second appears to be taking or tearing tickets. The third is a sea captain or officer. The fourth wears a tall white top hat and a large nose, and he sneezes into a handkerchief. The fourth is a black top hat with a mustache, and he seems to be telling an amusing story. The final performance ages him into an old man, also interacting with someone off-screen.

All of this in less than a minute! It’s a shame that this performer’s name appears to be lost to history, because he might be said to be the first film comedian. His performances are frenzied and brief, but it’s pretty impressive how he transforms himself under the camera’s eye and instantly gets into character. The characters are often somewhat similar (the last two make nearly identical gestures, for example), but he obviously has a range of ability. It’s conceivable that the Lumière brothers imagined that one day actors would use film reels like these as resumes to demonstrate their range to producers.

Director: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Demolition of a Wall (1895)

This short film from Lumière shows a bit of demolition techniques from the fin-de-siécle, and gave Auguste Lumière a chance to appear before camera. Dramatic tension is built as we watch the work proceed to its inevitable climax.

Lumière stands with his back to the camera, overseeing some workers as they attempt to push over a thick section of a wall in an already-partially-demolished building. One worker is pressing the wall inwards with a jackscrew, while another is pushing it with a pick. Finally, the wall collapses, and hits the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. The workers now begin breaking it apart with their picks, both the collapsed portion and a small still-standing section below where the wall broke as it fell.

I assume that the Lumières chose this subject as a part of their ordinary work day, bringing the camera along to document something that was going on anyway, which they hoped would provide some visual interest. They had the freedom to do this because their camera was small and light weight, while the Edison camera was pretty well confined to the Black Maria. Seeing this made me reflect on how interesting it would be to have recordings of day-to-day operations at the Edison plant, but unfortunately, no such movies were made that I know of.

Director: Probably Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.