Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Color film

Cinderella (1899)

Alternate Title: Cendrillon

Georges Méliès provides this version of the classic fairy tale in one of his most ambitious nineteenth-century productions. It includes five different camera set-ups and, according to the Star Films Catalog, “thirty five” extras, all on a typically small stage.

cinderella-1899The movie starts a little abruptly, with Cinderella in the kitchen begging to be allowed to go to the ball, but her step-sisters leave and slam the door in her face. She mopes around a bit and then her fairy godmother appears and turns various household pests into servants for her and a pumpkin into a coach. Then she gives her a gown to wear, and Cinderella climbs into the coach (right there in the kitchen!) and drives off, though the godmother stops her to warn her to be back before midnight. She disappears through a trap door in the floor. The next scene shows the ballroom, with lots of nobles dancing elegantly together. The Prince sits to one side on his throne and takes little interest until Cinderella arrives. Then he steps onto the floor with her and they dance while the other guests watch. Suddenly a clock appears on the floor and shows that it is midnight, and Cinderella tries to leave, but the Prince detains her. Then a funny gnome-like creature hops out of the clock, holding up another clock-face, and Cinderella tries again to leave, but before she can make it, the fairy godmother appears and causes her dress to become rags again. She flees in humiliation while the nobles laugh, but the prince picks up one of her shoes that has been left behind. The next scene is in her bedroom, and she has a nightmare involving clocks and the gnome, all dancing about to taunt her. Then she is with her sisters again, and they are apparently ordering her to get to work, when the Prince comes in to try the shoe on everyone. Of course, he tries the sisters first, and it won’t fit, then Cinderella, and it does and the fairy godmother restores her dress and the Prince and Cinderella leave together. Now the scene shifts to outside the palace, and a crowd of people gathers to watch the wedding procession as it passes. There are soldiers, peasants, nobles, a priest, and the King and Queen as well as the happy couple. The onlookers give a dance in their honor and they are joined by a ballerina who performs. At the end, the backdrop is lifted to show the Prince, Cinderella, and the rest of the wedding party on their thrones.

cinderella1-1899In the early years of cinema, certain stories were made and remade ad infinitum. This is now the third version of this story to be reviewed on the Century Film Project (the others starred Florence LaBadie and Mary Pickford). It is a somewhat unusual take on the tale, especially since the ball is over before half of the movie’s run time has completed! Actually, a lot of what follows struck me as padding, especially the dance at the end. It seems like more time could have been spent at the beginning establishing Cinderella’s life of drudgery, and less time celebrating her wedding, though the clock nightmare was interesting. I’m not 100% certain whether the surviving copy is complete, either – perhaps there was more of the cruel step-sisters in the original. One interesting thing about the Flicker Alley print is that we get about 30 seconds of hand-painted color at the beginning, which is truly lovely, although it goes away all too quickly. I really wanted to see the ball in color, and the final dance might have been more interesting with it as well. For Méliès, this was a fairly mature production: he uses special effects in showing the magic and telling the story, but they are not the point of the film, and he links the several different scenes well with basic editing. It was probably one of the most expensive movies he had made at the time as well – just in terms of all the sets he had to build alone. For once, we have some reasonably reliable cast information. Jeanne d’Alcy, who played the queen mother, was later to be Méliès’s wife, and has appeared uncredited in a number of his other movies.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mlle Barral, Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bleuette Bernon

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Three American Beauties (1906)

Like the more recent film “American Beauty,” this patriotic art film from Edison Studios takes advantage of the fact that one of the lovelier varieties of rose is called an “American Beauty.” Ironically, this rose was originally bred in France, but wound up usurped by its American popularity which sort of reminds me of film history itself.

Three American BeautiesThe movie consists of three hand-tinted images. First, a rose, second, a young woman, and third, a flag. At the end of the movie, the flag is replaced with a field of stars. The images are connected by means of fades, something that was still quite exciting in 1906. Still, the movie is quite short, and I wonder if it wasn’t shown repeatedly, to get the point across. Perhaps the pianist could accompany with the National Anthem or another patriotic song and get the audience to stand up during the screening.

Directed by: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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

Cyrano de Bergerac (1900)

This very early experiment in sound film captures dialogue and also has color – making it a fairly impressive technical achievement for 1900. It would still be some time before all of the technical issues would be resolved, leading to synchronized sound and Technicolor for feature-length films by the late 1920s, but this movie shows that the industry was already looking forward to such techniques at a very early date.

Cyrano_de_Bergerac_(short_1900)The scene reproduced is the famous “duel” scene from Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand. In this scene, a foppish upstart in a hotel challenges the great Cyrano (played here by Benoit Constant Coquelin) to a duel, and Cyrano, bored by the whole vulgar display, composes a poem as he duels, ending the poem at the moment he scores a hit on his opponent. The fighting is highly formalized fencing, as shown here, not the swashbuckling action that fans of the later version with Jose Ferrer, which makes more sense in light of Cyrano’s reciting as the duel proceeds. He wears rich-looking but fairly drab brown clothes, while the opponent has flourishes of bright green and yellow on his clothes, making him more dynamic in the picture. I was surprised that there was no sound of clanging swords, only the dialogue was recorded.

CyranoApparently, the technique used here required the sound to be recorded on a wax cylinder, which was not synched in any way to the sound, so the projectionist had to try to crank at the right speed to get the words to come out at the right time. It’s easy to see why that technology wasn’t a tremendous success. Also, the color in this movie looks like hand-painted frames to me, which was no great innovation in 1900 (Méliès had been doing it for years, and Edison had tried it as well). It’s worth noting that the play was still quite new at this time (1897), so this wasn’t necessarily familiar material for all audiences, although of course having the spoken dialogue by Cyrano would help contextualize the scene for them. This also emphasizes the more “nationalist” nature of sound cinema – I don’t speak French, there are no subtitles provided, and I didn’t understand a word, whereas I can usually follow a silent foreign film without help.

Director: Clément Maurice

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Benoit Constant Coquelin

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fairy of the Surf (1909)


Alternate Title: La Fée des Grèves

This gentle piece from Louis Feuillade bears a resemblance to “The Little Mermaid” and other fairy tales. Here, instead of a mermaid, a young prince fishes a fairy from the sea while she dances atop the water, then persuades her to marry him. Alas, she finds she must return to the sea, but the prince follows. Instead of drowning, he becomes “Prince of the Sea” and lives with her in a Méliès-inspired seashell castle. The extensive location shooting, nicely intercut with extravagant interiors, differs the look and feel of the piece from Méliès, however, and the tone and pacing of the piece feels a bit more deliberate than his usual gay abandon. Most of the setups are long shots, however, and we get only limited opportunities to see the actors’ faces, making this a visually typical film for the time. The version I saw had limited hand-painting of frames, especially of the costumes of the human characters, although the movie is not properly in color.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Run Time: 7 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Merchant of Venice (1910)

Merchant of Venice

This is another Italian adaptation of Shakespeare, by the same director who gave us “King Lear” a little while before. This makes sense as an adaptation, since the story is clearly set in Italy, but unfortunately the version we have is incomplete, so it’s hard to rate its success. It feels a bit rushed and overly-ambitious, introducing many characters and showing sub-plots that wind up unresolved. It’s another nice hand-tinted color print, and Lo Savio has taken advantage of some good locations for backdrops to the action. “The Merchant of Venice” is today probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play, sometimes invoking calls for censorship, because its villain is a Jew, who is made to represent all Jews in his greed and inhumanity. In 1910 this would likely have been a lesser consideration, in Italy and most of the continent, however what we have of this version seems to downplay the anti-Semtic theme, making Shylock a victim of his own duplicity rather than a representative of a race or religion. He is, however, trapped at the end by a law prohibiting Jews from spilling “Christian” blood, so an element of the original remains. On the whole, this movie comes across as less successful than the last couple I have discussed, but as I say it may be because of missing footage.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run Time: 19 Min (original), 8-9 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

King Lear (1910)

King Lear

One of the interesting things about silent movies is how readily they adapt subject matter across cultures. This is the first Shakespeare film I’ve talked about from a non-anglophone country, but since the emphasis is not on dialogue, there’s no sense of anything “lost in translation” between English and Italian. It also is the first film I’ve discussed which includes some hand-painted scenes and some tinting, so, in effect, a color film. There were many color film experiments in the silent era, and some studios employed large numbers of low-paid painters to apply color to movie strips by hand. The effect, when done well (as it is here) is striking and somewhat ethereal, since the hand-painting varies slightly from frame to frame. In terms of telling the story of King Lear and his daughters, I found some of the choices here interesting. The good daughter, Cordelia, is portrayed in the opening as somewhat taciturn, maybe even dour, and one can understand Lear’s preferring his more vivacious-seeming daughters. They also spend a good deal of time on a setup in which Lear compares his unfeeling daughters’ hearts to a stone, which it seemed to me might have been better blended with the previous scene of their betrayal, since all the actor has to do is talk to his servants, where a confrontation with his daughters would have been more visually interesting. There is no attempt to add a happy ending, and this comes off as the most “adult” or sophisticated century Shakespeare thus far.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.