Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: France

Children Digging for Clams (1895)

This very short film by Auguste and Louis Lumière is typical of their early films demonstrating daily life in motion. It provides a bit of a look at the world of 125 years ago, though mostly leaving you wanting to see more.

A dozen or so children are in a tide pool, using a variety of devices to try to locate clams. Fairly little actual digging takes place; the more prominent children are using something like a spaghetti strainer on a stick to strain through the watery sand and try to pick out larger objects. Some of the older children are paying more attention to the camera than to their ostensible work, though the little ones remain intent on finding clams. A group of adults, mostly women, stands in the background watching. All of the women are dressed in full-length dresses with feather hats, making me wonder if it was a cold day at the beach or if this was just how everyone in France dressed for a day on the beach at the time. The children (mostly girls) have hiked up their skirts in order to wade in the tide pool, and one or two little boys are in short pants. All of them, apart from one very small toddler, are also wearing hats, probably to protect from the sun. Early on in the movie, a mule-drawn cart passes by in the background, filled with children who are enjoying the ride. I get the impression that this represents middle-class children’s entertainment, not the tasks of hard-working French children who hunt clams for a living.

Director: August Lumière

Camera: August Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

An Impossible Balancing Feat (1902)

Coming five years before “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” this short by Georges Méliès pioneers, and in some ways outdoes, that movie’s central effect, despite limitations set by the primitive technology. As always, Méliès manages to bring a sense of fun and flair to a simple performance.

A proscenium-style set depicts a stage dressed with Greek statuary and a small stone tower. The door of the tower opens up and Méliès appears inside, sitting on a chair. He comes forward on the stage, bows, and gestures, causing the set to disappear. He removes his outer clothing with a flourish, now he is wearing an all-white costume. He moves to center stage, and three “twins” come out from him, one standing to his right, two to his left. The original sits back down in the chair and the first twin ascends the wall, seeming to balance on top of his head. Eventually, he turns over and is doing a headstand on the head of the original, who extends his arms and the two other twins balance on his hands, eventually doing headstands as well. Suddenly the twins disappear and Méliès is holding two flags (they go by really fast, but I think one is French and one American). They disappear and Méliès snaps his fingers and has his original suit back on. He bows for the audience and marches comically off the stage.

This movie is a fairly typical “magic show” style of trick film, such as we’ve seen many times now from Méliès. However, it combines rather more effects than one would expect in an earlier film. We have the twinning (which of course he did much more extensively in “The One-Man Band”), we have several appearances and disappearances, and we have the “balancing trick,” which uses the same effect as we saw in “The Human Fly.” In combining all of this, we have a rather more impressive array of special effects than Segundo de Chomón gave us later in “Kiriki.” However, de Chomón seems to have spent more time on perfecting the illusion than Méliès did. Objects frequently overlap in this film, and as the twins appear, both they and he original become semi-transparent, allowing us to see through them to the background, which is somewhat shaky. Presumably audiences were less picky in 1902, and just happy to see anything that looked like an impossible trick, but by 1907, they would have picked up on such sloppiness.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On the Roof (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès has no special effects to speak of, but demonstrates his use of film to show comedic narrative with minimal time and structure.

We see a set dressed a typical Parisian rooftop, framed as a proscenium. At the lower right of the screen, a window looks into the bedroom of a woman preparing for bed. Two burglars crawl along the roof of this house, breaking in through a skylight. The woman shrieks and protests, but the two overpower her and drop her from the roof. The two men proceed to fill sacks with the belongings they find in the room, while Méliès, dressed in a rather gaudy uniform, ascends the roof from the opposite side. He nearly reaches the top when a chimney he is holding onto gives way, causing him to tumble down the side of the rooftop and have to start over. Meanwhile, the thieves, alerted by all the noise he has made, prepare for his arrival. When he starts to try  to get through the skylight, they grab him and tie a heavy weight to him, immobilizing him half-in and half-out of the apartment. While he pulls out his sword and tries to free himself, they escape, although one sneaks back to steal his boots while he is in this compromised position.

This is a light, amusing comedy, probably with families and children as the expected audience, and quite possibly similar to clown acts that would have appeared on the stage of the Robert Houdin Theatre in years before Méliès started making movies. The only illusion involved is the construction of the tiny set to represent an outdoor urban space and the entrance to a full apartment, very much in line with the sort of sets that are possible on a stage, with the benefit of the camera’s inability to see the “sides” of the set, where it cuts off and becomes a stage. The narrative is minimal, with the characters lightly sketched, but it is a story, unlike much of cinema from the 19th century, and it has a beginning, a middle, and a (somewhat abrupt) end.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 9 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Human Fly (1902)

This simple trick short from Georges Méliès is similar to “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats” in the execution of its effect, but somewhat simpler (and five years earlier) than that movie. Although we know how he pulled off the “magic,” the performance of Méliès makes this still a delight to watch.

A proscenium-style set shows a hall in a castle or mansion, and there are several ladies in upper class dress assembled as an audience. Méliès comes out in a Russian-style costume and gives a Hopak or squat-dance, to which the ladies clap as he becomes more and more animated. Suddenly, he turns and runs up the wall! He then comes back down for a bit more dancing, before ascending the wall again to do several tumbles and then return to the ground for a finale. The movie ends with his bow.

As with the other movie, this was accomplished by setting  up a camera directly above a floor painted to match the backdrop, then editing and using double-exposure to make it appear that Méliès was doing the impossible. Partly because overhead shots were so rarely used at the time, the trick would not have been obvious to most audiences. The Star Films catalog tells us that Méliès is a “Hindoo” in this film, although his dress and dancing seemed Slavic to me – I suppose that this is another example of the careless way in which “exoticism” was utilized to generate interest in magic and movies at the time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 47 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Post No Bills (1896)

A very simple comedy short from Georges Méliès that doesn’t use any trick photography. No doubt this was an early experiment, and we are lucky to be able to see it at all.

We see a wall with a guard station, on what appears to be a genuine outdoor street. A soldier in uniform marches past, and we see writing on the wall that reads, “DÉFENSE d’AFFICHER.” The soldier marches off screen, and soon a man in a white painter’s uniform carrying a bucket appears. He pulls a poster from behind a post and glues it to the wall with a brush from his bucket. He runs off, and soon another man, similarly attired, comes up with an even bigger poster and glues it over the other one. The first poster man returns, and the two argue, soon throwing their glue pots at each other. Suddenly, they run off and the soldier marches past again, oblivious to the poster and to the bucket on the ground. Then his officer walks up and orders him to stand at attention, dressing him down for failing to protect the wall from vandalism. They march off screen together.

The “Star Films Catalog” uses just two words to describe this movie: “very comical.” Apparently they couldn’t think of much else to say about this artifact, at a time when they were distributing much longer and more complex works, but they kept it on as probably one of the cheaper properties they could occasionally sell to a backwater or particularly un-choosy theater owner. For 1896, it’s a reasonably involved story line, with multiple characters, each with his own motivations and reactions. We don’t get a good look at anyone’s face, but I think Méliès plays the first poster-hanger, gauging from the way he moves (Méliès had a distinct body language all his own). I’m assuming they used the outdoor set because this was before he had built his open-air studio in his backyard, but it could be a particularly clever backdrop. The real evidence that it was shot outside is that there’s a shadow of a tree branch on the lower left of the screen, and no one ever seemed to think to do things like that in 1896 to lend their sets verisimilitude (indeed, Méliès may have regarded it as a “mistake” to shoot it – he always avoided that sort of thing later).

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (see above)

Run Time: 1 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Montmartre’s Kids (1916)

This wartime propaganda film masquerades as a human interest documentary, but it’s easy to see that the action is contrived. It gives us a look at a Parisian neighborhood during World War I, and a sense of what motivated people’s sympathies at the time.

An opening intertitle assures us that the people of Paris are determined to fight on, and that the children of this besieged city are just as affected as are the adults. We then see a group of local kids kitted up to play soldier, with some even dressed as nuns to treat the wounded. One particularly adorable child has a toy cannon, but most are carrying broken buckets and other scrap as “ammunition.” Two kids, using a tin can and an old pipe as a radio, receive “orders” to “bother the concierge” at a particular address. This is duly passed down the line. The troops assemble (the kid with the cannon stumbles cutely several times), and they charge down the hill to the address, where they toss over their junkyard ammunition. This scene is cross-cut with the concierge, wielding a broom, on the other side of the wall being pelted with trash. The kids make a “strategic retreat” across a hill with a windmill, and the nuns treat the “wounded” in the final shots.

Monmartre is a hill in the north of Paris which was home to several famous artists, though here it looks like a poor neighborhood full of street urchins, reminiscent of Bout-de-Zan. The movie is intended to tug at the heart-strings of viewers, getting them to sympathize with France in its suffering under attack by the German Army. By showing kids, genuinely under threat of war, innocently playing at war themselves, the film makers urge right-thinking adults to show courage and stoicism in the face of the attack. From our point of view today, it’s great to see all these images of a Paris neighborhood from over 100 years ago. A lot of the shots of the area the kids play in makes it appear as an undeveloped lot, or perhaps a junkyard, but for them it serves as a city park. The edited sequence of the attack on the concierge, requiring two camera set-ups to show simultaneous action, demonstrates that this is not a spontaneous action the kids are taking, but rather a scripted storyline. Audiences in 1916 may or may not have been sophisticated enough to figure this out.

Director: Francisque Poulbot

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 50 secs

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet, if you do, please comment.

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

Released just one year after “A Trip to the Moon,” this extended adventure story from Georges Méliès was at least equally as ambitious and well-executed, although it’s not so well remembered today. Essentially a fairy tale-quest story, the use of a witch and her demons as antagonists fits it more or less into my October history of horror.

The movie begins on a proscenium-style set dressed as a medieval court. Lords and ladies arrange themselves around the throne. Méliès himself appears as “Prince Bel-Azor,” who is betrothed to Princess Azurine (Marguerite Thévenard). Various fairies give the princess wedding gifts, led by the fairy godmother, Aurora (Bluette Bernon). Suddenly a witch runs in, offended at not having been invited. When she is admonished by the prince, she turns into flame and disappears. The next sequence shows the princess in her bedchamber, assisted in undressing for bed by several ladies-in-waiting. Once they leave, the witch, assisted by several green demons, seizes the princess from her bed and puts her into a “chariot of fire.” She is unable to resist, although the prince rushes in at the last moment to be confronted by a fire-wielding demon. He and the court rush out to a high tower and watch the chariot of fire and its retinue rushing across the sky. The prince vows to pursue. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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 Nativity (1910)

This early short from Louis Feuillade pre-dates his better-known crime serials and shows his sense that film can and should be wholesome and uplifting. It is one of many efforts to bring the Bible to the screen, and shows considerable production value, if not a lot of dramatic interest.

The movie begins by showing us a group of shepherds on a small set, dressed to look like a manger at night. Suddenly they awake and witness an angel, and soon a host of angels is playing trumpets to hail the arrival of the messiah. The shepherds fall on their knees to give thanks, then after the vision disappears they express their wonder and joy and set out into the night. The next scene shows Mary and Joseph and the child; interestingly their manger is behind a large stone arch, and includes a cow. We see the shepherds’ herds of sheep in the background as they arrive to worship the child. The next scene shows the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem as the three Magi arrive in a caravan with porters and camels. They approach Herod’s palace and gain admission from the soldiers on guard, while the camels squat down on the tiny set. They are shown into Herod’s throne room, where they convey the story of their vision and quest for the child. Herod sends them on their way as emissaries to represent him, but his wife and advisers seem to raise doubts in his mind. We return to the palace exterior set and see the caravan raise up and depart on its journey. Then, the Magi arrive at the cave-manger (sans camels) and kneel down before the baby Jesus, presenting him with their traditional gifts. Meanwhile, Herod and his wife are plotting on the roof terrace of their palace, and they decide upon the slaughter of the innocent, to prevent Christ’s growing up. An intertitle informs us that an angel has warned Mary and Joseph, and that they are fleeing to Egypt. We see a brief scene of their flight through the wilderness, and then their rest at the end of the journey, where they sleep against the Sphinx while their donkey grazes.

Biblical movies often have difficulty maintaining the dignity and seriousness of their subject matter while still being entertaining. Here, a lot of money (at least by the standards of 1910 production) was clearly spent on sets and costumes, but Feuillade seems to have had some difficulty with the script. He lingers on camels and sheep, and on large processions, but doesn’t show us everything we want to see. Specifically, although the plot hinges on the story of the slaughter of the innocent, no depiction of violence is shown at all. Apart from that, while we have the dramatic appearance of the angels to the shepherds, it seems like the more suspenseful vision, that of the angel warning Joseph to flee Bethlehem, would be a more powerful image. From a modern American perspective, it’s interesting that the story of Mary and Joseph taking refuge in a manger because of poverty and intolerant inn-keepers is skipped over, though this may have been typical of the French Catholic telling of the story at the time.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Renée Carl, Nadette Darson, Alice Tissot, Maurice Vinot

Run Time: 13 Min, 40 secs

I have not found this film available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.