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
Starring: Georges Méliès
Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs
You can watch it for free: here.