Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: folklore

Blue Beard (1901)

Alternate Title: Barbe-bleue

This short by Georges Méliès is one of the longest things he did in 1901 and also one of the most serious subjects he handled. The story of a man who routinely murders his wives is a classic part of the horror genre, and fits neatly into my October exploration of its history.

blue-beardBy this point in time, Méliès and other filmmakers were beginning to stitch separate scenes together to create longer narratives. Méliès had already done something like this when he created the reenactment of “The Dreyfus Affair” in a series of single-scenes. However, those movies were sold separately, while this is billed as a single item in the Star Films Catalog, meaning that it would have been sold to exhibitors already edited together in sequence.

blue-beard1The movie begins with the “Betrothal of Bluebeard,” which shows a group of nobles in a set built to resemble a palace. There are many young women present. Suddenly, a man with a large beard and a haughty manner (Georges Méliès) appears, but the women reject him when he kneels before each in turn. He then has servants bring out cardboard props representing large sums of money, but this does nothing to change the women’s minds. They are more impressed when he displays a necklace, and the father of one of the ladies forces her to accept, although she (Jeanne d’Alcy) shows obvious reluctance.

blue-beard2The next scene is “Preparing the Wedding Feast.” We see the marriage party cross through a kitchen set, at which many cooks are hard at work. There is a procession of cardboard cut-out props showing elaborately prepared boars, steaks, desserts, etc. At the end, one of the cooks is bumped and falls into the stew pot. Another cook tries to fish him out, but only pulls out his clothes. Then there is a brief “Wedding Feast” scene at which the nobles sit down and eat in celebration in a sumptuous dining hall. It is not clear whether they are served the stew with the dissolved cook in it.

blue-beard3Next is the scene “Bluebeard departs on a journey.” Bluebeard displays the keys to his castle to his new bride and gestures that she is free to go to any room she likes. Then, he produces a large key separate from the set, and indicates the one door we can see on the castle set. He forbids her to enter this room, and gives her the key, perhaps as a test of her honor. Once Bluebeard leaves, the young woman shows an interest in entering the forbidden room, but she resists. Then an imp or devil appears (I believe that this is also Méliès in costume), and entices her until she opens the door. The next scene takes place in the “Forbidden Chamber.” At first, the room is gloomy and dungeon-like, and there are seven sack-like objects dimly visible in the background. The bride crosses the room and opens the window, revealing the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous seven wives, all hanging from ropes at the back of the room. The bride is shocked, and drops the key on the floor. The key grows to tremendous proportions, apparently to show us that it is now stained with blood, and when it returns to normal size, the bride attempts to clean it off. The imp dances about in this scene as well. The next scene is titled “A Troubled Dream,” and it shows the bride lying in her bed while visions dance above her as in-camera effects. She awakes upon having a vision of Bluebeard impaling her with a sword.

blue-beard4In “Bluebeard’s Discovery and Condemnation,” the bride is caught when Bluebeard returns home and sees the blood on the key, and he flies into a rage. This scene is staged on a courtyard set, the only set used twice in this movie. The bride flees stage right into a tower door. Bluebeard pursues her and we see the top of the tower as a set for “Looking in the Tower for Fatima.” There is another woman present (possibly intended to represent a Guardian Angel). Bluebeard seizes his wife and drags her back downstairs. The scene “At the Place of Execution” takes place back in the courtyard, as does the scene “Arrival of the Deliverers,” making them appear to be a single scene with two parts (and then a third): at first, Bluebeard threatens and rages at his bride, and then, just as he is about to slay her, a group of noblemen break through the gate (actually, it looks like paper) and fight Bluebeard, finally running him through with a sword and pinning him to the wall. He continues to struggle while they reassure the bride and the imp reappears to dance around the stage. Then the sword is removed, cuing the “Death of Bluebeard,” in which he tries to rise and fight again, but finally falls to the ground. Then, there is a short “Apotheosis: The Eight Wives over Bluebeard’s Body.,” in which we see the women in a happy afterlife, with Bluebeard sprawled before them.

Bluebeard, as depicted by Gustav Doré in 1862

Bluebeard, as depicted by Gustav Doré in 1862

Bluebeard is a traditional figure in French folk tales, and there were several operas written about him in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This doesn’t seem to draw on any of them, however, although it probably draws on a 1697 story version written by Charles Perrault. Audiences in 1901 (especially in France) would be familiar enough with the story that it was possible to make this movie with no Intertitles, although in fact it was probably accompanied by live narration, at least when shown at the Robert Houdin Theater. I have had to fill in some details from reading about the narrative – it didn’t all make sense to me when I watched it cold. In particular, I didn’t understand the part about the expanding key, which I think Méliès was using as a kind of close-up, to make sure we saw the key and what had happened to it, but to a modern viewer it just looks like an anomalous magic trick. It’s also strange that the catalog breaks a single scene in the courtyard into three separate titles.

At any rate, this is quite possibly the most genuinely horrific work we’ve seen from Méliès, even granting that it retains his sense of playfulness (especially in the character of the imp) and fantasy. The implications of the story are quite grim, and even the bit with the cook dissolving into the stew works as sort of a black comedy joke, establishing the low value of human life in Bluebeard’s castle.  Bluebeard writhing on the sword is also fairly grotesque for the time. This is also the most complex movie I’ve seen from Méliès at this early date, although we are just one year away from his masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon.” That movie is just a little over two minutes longer than this one, but involved more elaborate sets and special effects, and a somewhat larger cast as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bluette Bernon

Run Time: 10 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Stenka Razin (1908)

Unlike last night’s entry, this is decidedly a Russian film intended for Russian audiences. We also know who produced it: Alexander Drankov, who would go on to found one of Russia’s first major production companies, and who collaborated with Vasily Goncharov on the script. Like many early silent pictures, it relies somewhat on the audience’s prior familiarity with the subject matter to make sense of the story. Stenka Razin was a well-known figure in Russian folklore, a rebellious Cossack leader who defied the Czar and his bureaucrats. This movie was also based on a folk song which elaborates the story, which we only see as vignettes. The song informed the audience’s understanding of what they saw, but the movie also had music written specially for it, which was novel at the time (Wikipedia claims both that this is the “first” Russian narrative film and the “first” musical score for a movie, but I’m leery of “firsts” and will not pronounce for certain on either point).

 Stenka_razin_1908_still_01

Stenka is in love with a Persian princess he has taken prisoner in a raid. We see him sail up the Volga with his fleet of raiders, back to the home base, along with the Princess, who performs a dance when they arrive, symbolizing their wedding. The other bandits are concerned about their leader coming under her spell and they plot to make him drunk and jealous. They forge a note from a Persian lover and Stenka becomes enraged. He drowns the princess in the Volga for her presumed infidelity. The movie ends at that point (assuming that what we have today is complete), but the song lets us know that the men are horrified by what they’ve done, but Stenka calls out for more wine and celebration, then ends on the same refrain of the boats sailing up the Volga that was at the beginning.

 Stenka Razin

Whether this was truly a “first” or not, it was an ambitious film that demonstrated that Drankov was aware of the powerful dramatic possibilities of cinema from the very beginning of his career, jumping in with both feet to tell a tragic story with the tools at hand. The movie shows all of its action in wide shot, and there are no edits within scenes, with minimal use of forward-facing intertitles to tell us what to expect to see before we see it. It’s an interesting representation of the Russian culture, and contrasts well with seminal films of other nations, like “The Great Train Robbery” or “A Trip to the Moon.”

Director: Vladimir Romashkov

Camera: Alexander Drankov & Nikolai Kozlovsky

Run Time: 6 Min

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