Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

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.

The Dancing Midget (1902)

A simple trick film in which Georges Méliès combines the conventions of the stage magic show with the effects of cinema to produce a brief piece of entertainment. Once again, he shows that he was quite willing to milk a technique and concept for all it was worth.

A standard proscenium-style set is established, with the backdrop painted as a tunnel leading away from the audience with a large black area in the center. Méliès enters from stage right, dressed as a slightly comical variety of a standard magician. He waves his cape and an assistant appears, dressed in a servant’s livery and wig. He pulls six eggs from the mouth of the servant, an act which seems to amuse the man greatly, and then breaks each in succession into his hat. He stirs up the hat’s contents and dumps a great deal of confetti out of it onto his assistant’s head. Then, he produces a much larger egg from the hat, about the size of an ostrich egg. He places it onto the table and gestures, causing it first to grow, then to burst and reveal a tiny ballerina inside. She dances on the table for a while. Then the magician brings her up to full size, and puts the assistant into a crate, placing his cape over the ballerina. He pulls up the cape, and – voila! – the two have changed places. He now  kicks the servant off the stage and departs with the ballerina down the tunnel.

I’ve come to recognize that when there’s a large black space in the center of a Méliès set, it means that something will be shown in double-exposure within that space. I wonder if his contemporary audiences ever caught on? Anyway, I liked Méliès’s somewhat frenetic performance here, and was surprised by the comparably under-stated behavior of the assistant. Usually, that would be the more comedic role, with an expectation that he would try to kiss the ballerina at some point. The trick at the center of the film is not especially new, nor are the various appearances and disappearances used to support it. Still, it is another fine example of the many short films Méliès produced during his brief but prolific career.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Seine Flood (1910)

This short piece of photojournalism documents a largely forgotten natural disaster, when the Seine river burst its banks and displaced as many as 150,000 Parisians. As a surviving example of actuality film, it gives the modern viewer a glimpse into a disturbance in everyday life of the past century.

The movie consists of several shots of the city of Paris during the days of the flooding. Quite a few shots show us the Seine itself, usually flowing under bridges which are only a few feet from being inundated. As a foreign viewer has no context to know how high the river normally is, however, this is perhaps not as dramatic as the film makers had hoped. We also see a mobile pumping machine, a pipe that is pouring water from the streets beck into the river, and a bit of an industrial dockyard that appears to be quite swamped. The more dramatic images, however, are of wet streets and a partially-submerged park. In some places, we see boards have been set up so that people can get to the bakery for their daily loaf of bread without being soaked to the knees. In another, we see a man pulling a small rowboat, apparently carrying commuters in place of a trolley. There are two horses, valiantly pulling carriages through streets covered in at least a foot of water. There are few intertitles, and where they occur, they mostly identify locations: “The Island Club Courbevoie,” “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” “Molineaux Raliroad Drain Dumps,” “Paris Rue Felicien David Taken by Boat.”

Most of the shots are understandably taken in wide angle, and they tend to show panoramas of the scenes they convey. In some cases, the camera is static, but more often it moves from left to right, allowing us to see the extent of damage or water in a given place. The final shot is taken from a moving boat, essentially a tracking shot of the street. Sullen Parisians look at the camera while being filmed, or else they go about their business. The real interest of this movie is mainly the opportunity to see what Paris looked like at the time. The buildings, clothing styles, and even the lamp posts retain an old-world look, as if the movie could have been taken decades earlier. The only sign of an internal-combustion engine is the pump, and that seems to have been drawn to its position by horsepower. People travel either by boat, by foot, or horse-drawn carriage, although this probably reflects the result of the disaster, rather than the norm of a European city of the time.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 26 secs

I have been unable to find this film available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Colonel’s Shower-Bath (1902)

This short piece of slapstick from Georges Méliès demonstrates that even as late as 1902 (the year he put out “A Trip to the Moon”), he wasn’t only making fantasy films and special effects. In fact, he wasn’t even always at the cutting edge of innovation – this movie seems at least five years behind the times.

A proscenium-style stage has been set up to depict a guarded gate in a European city. There are several soldiers on duty, although only one paces out his watch. Others sit, slouch, or mill around nearby. Above them, a scaffold has been set up for some painters who are re-painting the arch over the gate. Suddenly, the man on duty rushes over and alerts his comrades: the colonel is coming! All of them snap to attention, and one shorter fellow, who seemingly was taking a nap, rushes out of the guard station still trying to get his sword back into its scabbard. The colonel arrives, a distinguished older gentleman with an elaborate mustache. He berates the guards a bit for their slovenly appearance, then notices the painters and briefly speaks with one. That one climbs up the ladder to the scaffold with a bucket of paint while the colonel sits on a stool beneath the scaffold. The painter slips, and dumps the white paint all over the colonel, to the great amusement of the troops. The colonel rages at everyone.

There’s not a lot to this movie, although the backdrop and costumes are quite good. The short fellow continues to slouch throughout the colonel’s tirade, and maintains a very un-military appearance overall, which sort of makes him the star of the movie. Later slapstick stars like Keaton and Chaplin would take similar advantage of the audience’s identification with the short fellow who could never make good. But, really, it’s a simple joke you can see coming a mile away. Even Edison was putting out better stuff by this time, although of course the bulk of any film program at this time was not the highest-quality material.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.