Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

The Prolific Magical Egg (1902)

This trick film from Georges Méliès depicts a standard magic show, as one might have seen in the Theatre Robert-Houdin. We squeeze it into our “History of Horror” because it also shows some of the darker implications of magic and its uses.

Prolific Magical Egg

Méliès appears on a proscenium-style set which resembles a classroom – a blackboard with what looks like a mathematical formula written on it is in the background. There are also two stands erected to either side of the performer, holding up a board between them. He bows and produces a handkerchief. He folds this into his hand and moves close to the camera so that the audience can see his hands, when he opens it, the handkerchief has become an egg. He makes it disappear and reappear an additional time and then retreats to the part of the stage where the stands are erected. The egg suddenly enlarges to the size of his head and he places it on the board. Now he quickly paints a face on it and with gestures, causes it to grow even larger. It fades away to be replaced by a disembodied woman’s head, gargantuan next to the magician. She splits into three enormous heads, which space out along the board. When they move together and recombine into the first head, Méliès goes to kiss her, but now it transforms into an egg-shaped clown’s head, similar to the crude painted face he had first placed on the egg. Méliès laughs and it becomes a painted egg again, then he gestures for it to shrink back down and picks it up. He tosses it into the air and it becomes again a normal egg, which he makes disappear, pretending that he has eaten it. He leaps up onto the board and becomes a skeleton. Now a liveried servant comes out and removes the skeleton. Happy Halloween!

Prolific Magical Egg1

The most interesting piece of this movie is probably the least obvious to modern viewers: Méliès actually zooms in on his hands through the simple expedient of walking upstage towards the camera. As a result, he is no longer framed in a long shot, with his entire body, including feet, visible to the audience. We only see him from approximately the waste up. This sort of thing was still somewhat controversial a decade or so later when feature films were becoming popular. Some critics felt that it was disturbing, or inappropriate somehow to show only parts of bodies on the camera, instead of using it to film a staged performance as it would be seen from the back rows, with entire bodies of everyone in the scene visible at all times. Of course, within a few years medium shots would be no big deal, but they are very rare in 1902. The disembodied heads and enlarging egg were accomplished using a split screen and moving the camera closer, but Méliès had already done this in “The Man with the Rubber Head” by this time. The ending is the most “horror” aspect, with the skeleton briefly animate, but seemingly dead when the servant comes out to remove it. I thought at first that this was an unfortunate side effect of eating prolific magical eggs, but the Star Films Catalog suggests that there is some missing footage at the beginning in which the skeleton is brought out and transforms into the magician – perhaps he is himself a kind of undead illusion.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

The Enchanted Well (1903)

For this week’s instalment in my “History of Horror,” I’m looking at another of the early films of Georges Méliès that plays with infernal concepts and imagery for the entertainment of an audience. Whimsy, special effects, and rapid action define the scene.

Enchanted Well

A proscenium-style set displays a rural town, with a well placed at the center of the stage. A group of people in peasant clothing assemble at the well, then all go off in different directions. Now a country bumpkin approaches the well, followed by an old crone, who entreats him. He responds by chasing her off, and she makes mystical motions over the well, cursing it. The bumpkin draws water from the well, and pours it into a bucket, but the bucket suddenly bursts into flames as a demon leers forth from the well. The peasant fights with the demon, and it disappears, but now the well itself shoots forth cardboard flames, and it rises into the air, becoming first a tower, and then a furnace with two snakes coming out of it. The peasant fights the snakes, and then faces devils with pitchforks, and finally a giant snake that almost drags him into the furnace before it turns back into a well and spews forth human-sized frogs, which catch him and throw him down the well. The bumpkin manages to climb back out of the well, dripping with water, but the well moves and then turns into the Devil himself. This causes the people of the town to assemble and at first they confront the Devil, but he makes a motion and they all bow down. Then he turns into a bat and flies away.

Enchanted Well1

Méliès here shows a very traditional Medieval view of witches and their compacts with the Devil (despite current Wiccan propaganda, the word “witch” in pretty much all European languages is associated with malice and evil). The witch curses the well water out of spite when the bumpkin does not give what she asks – in the Star Catalog description it claims all she was asking for was alms – and soon her familiar spirits and demons are plaguing the man and the town itself. Although Satan does fly off at the end, there is no sign he has been vanquished, having established himself as “Lord of This World” by making the peasants bow and depriving the village of its only water supply by taking the well away, perhaps destroying the entire community over this minor slight. No wonder it was necessary to fight witches with fire and torture! In the world of Méliès films of course, this is less frightening, and more fun, than it sounds, and the fast-paced action and torments of the bumpkin are played for slapstick humor, and even small children will be more amused by the large eyes of the snakes than frightened. There are a number of very rapid substitution splices, showing the Méliès has now mastered his special effects in these longer sequences, where before one or two appearances/disappearances were all we could expect. Judging by how he moves, I believe the bumpkin was played by Méliès himself, though he may have been the Devil as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min

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

Arab Cortege, Geneva (1896)

One hundred twenty five years ago, a curious cross-cultural display was captured by one of the cameramen sent out by the Lumière brothers to capture interesting sights and sounds on their new motion picture camera, for display to curious audiences. This little snippet of film suggests much more to us today than what it shows, but it is a great historical snapshot nonetheless.

Arab Cortege

A stationary camera looks across a busy corner toward a store front marked “The Divan.” The words “des fees” are beneath. The street is crowded, with people walking in both directions, and a number of people in European garb (Genevans, presumably) line the sides of the street, looking at the passersby. In the foreground, a party of people in robes, fezzes, and other traditional “Arab” clothing parade by. Some of them are playing drums, horns and other instruments. In the background, you can see people walking in the other direction, and if you pay attention, you notice that there are Black people mixed with white. There is a brief lull in which several Swiss men in straw hats and large mustaches stare at the camera, and then a group of native-garbed Africans come past from the other direction. A woman in European clothing pulls a small child past them. Suddenly, the “staged” part of the movie evidently over, the street is filled with white people in European clothing.

Arab Cortege1

As an early film, this would have held much interest for the European audiences it targeted – the scene would be “exotic” and probably was accompanied by a short narration explaining the presence of these foreign people in the city of Geneva, and noting their “otherness” to the crowd. While Switzerland was a less multi-cultural society in the Nineteenth Century than it is today, the presence of the International Red Cross there, and the historical development of the Geneva Conventions, meant that it was a place where many diplomatic missions from around the world would converge. This scene doesn’t seem to represent a random sampling of foreigners walking down a Geneva street, however, it seems staged. Particularly the presence of the musicians in the original party of Arabs seems to suggest a deliberate spectacle, possibly in connection with an international event like a World’s Fair, or possibly the director, Alexandre Promio, set the whole thing up somehow. For us today, simply seeing the street of a European city from 1896 is exotic, with or without the presence of non-Europeans.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Marvelous Wreath (1903)

This short from Georges Méliès is a typical magic show, presented in period dress, with the emphasis on simple camera tricks and the charming personality of Méliès himself. All of his whimsy and love of fantasy comes through on the screen, as usual.

Marvelous Wreath

Méliès enters the set and bows with a flourish. He is made up in period clothing, including a wig, looking rather like one of the Three Musketeers, and the set is designed in proscenium style to represent a room in a castle, with a coat of arms visible hanging on a wall behind him, next to a large throne. He begins with a kind of G-rated strip show, in which he takes off his hat and cloak, other outer garments of the costume, and eventually his sword and boots as well, tossing each item onto a hook on the walls with supernatural precision. He places two stools on either side of the stage, and recovering his cloak, he holds it over each of them in turn. When he removes the cloak, a young girl, dressed as a page, appears sitting there. The girls remove his hanging garments from the hooks, then climb up onto the stools. He now manifests a thick rope, swinging it about like a lasso. It soon turns into a rigid hoop, which he pushes about the stage with a stick, before smashing it through a large piece of paper, which causes it to become a solid circle. The pages hold up the circle, and a demon or imp suddenly leaps out from it and dances about the stage. Méliès breaks the hoop, and has the pages hold it up high; now pulling flowers out of his hat, Méliès puts them on the broken hoop to form a wreath. He produces a fan and fans the wreath and the figure of a woman appears within. He fans it away and then reattaches the ends of the wreath, making a screen on which a close up of a clown’s face appears. The imp leaps up and jumps at the clown, causing an explosion in which both disappear. Méliès takes down the wreath and turns the pages into his outer garments, donning them and then running toward the throne just as the film ends.

Marvelous Wreath1

According to the Star Films Catalog, the movie ends when the “musketeer” as Méliès’s character is known, “disappears in a most mysterious way,” but that part seems to be missing in the surviving print I’ve seen. It’s reassuring to know that people in Méliès’s time also saw the outfit he wears and thought of musketeers (despite the fact he carries a sword, not a musket), perhaps already influenced by a stage version of the work of Alexandre Dumas. The movie is longer than the one-or-two-minute trick films of earlier years, but far shorter than epics like “A Trip to the Moon” or “Gulliver’s Travels.” None of the tricks we see are anything new, but he throws a lot of them together to make a fun performance. The use of the close-up to achieve the effect of the clown face is just one of many examples of him using this technique before it became widely accepted. Often, as in this case, the close-up was reserved for a disembodied head that was “gigantic” next to the other characters on the screen – the most famous example is of course the moon’s face in “A Trip to the Moon.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 4 Min

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

J’Accuse (1919)

Abel Gance took the world cinema scene by storm with this passionate and compelling portrait of the First World War. Although today overshadowed by the fame of his later work (such as “Napoleon”), in the context of this blog it stands out as a century-old example of cinematic innovation and boldness.

The move begins with a credit sequence, built of actuality footage (see below for production details), silhouettes of an officer with a whistle, and the words “J’ACCUSE” spelled out by uniformed men, standing on a field in formation. This is followed by typical introductions to the lead players with intertitles followed by brief close-ups of the actors, but remarkably it begins by showing us the director/screenwriter himself, something not even the egotistical D.W. Griffith had done. Interestingly, the actors frequently are introduced as being affiliated with one or another theater, no doubt legitimating them in the eyes of a more sophisticated audience.

Read the rest of this entry »

Off to Bloomingdale Asylum (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès is a reminder that white European attitudes toward race were about as insensitive as those in the USA in the early Twentieth Century. It constitutes a simple trick film built around clowning, but seems a bit disturbing for what it portrays within that.

In this case, it seems the best way to synopsize, is to directly quote from the “Star Films Catalog.” The language is not my own, but written for an English-speaking audience about 1905: “An omnibus arrives drawn by an extraordinary mechanical horse. On the top are four negroes. The horse kicks and upsets the negroes, who are changed into white clowns. They slap each other’s faces and by the blows become black again. They kick each other and become white once more. Finally they are all merged into one large negro, and when he refuses to pay his carfare, the conductor sets fire to the omnibus and the negro bursts into a thousand pieces.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the “negroes” of this piece are not black men, but white Frenchmen in blackface. Really black. In fact their faces are so black and their behavior so simian that I wasn’t 100% sure they represented human beings until I read the Star Catalog. Now, of course, visually this blackness contrasts with the white clown-face of the alternate appearance of the characters, which probably means that most people at the time simply read it as a clown show, but there’s a deep well of racism under the surface of this veneer. The effects are, of course, managed with simple substitution photography, well established by this time, and the “extraordinary mechanical horse” is basically a large marionette. Not one of the more illuminating works of  Méliès.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 6 secs

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

I Fetch the Bread (1907)

This is a short comedy from Pathé Freres that decidedly reminds me of the work I’ve seen that Alice Guy was doing at this time. It is based on a simple gag, taken to improbable, almost surreal, extremes.

I Fetch the Bread

We open on a shot of a bourgeois Paris apartment, with a table set in the center of the screen, a middle-aged couple and their maid is preparing dinner. The door at the back of the set is opened to allow another couple to enter, and after brief greetings are exchanged, people begin to settle in for the meal. Now the hostess goes to a cupboard at the back, and produces a tiny crust of bread – apparently she forgot to make sure there was bread for company! Everyone looks flustered until the man of the house agrees to go out and get some more. We next see him emerge from a bakery with a prodigious loaf of bread. He runs down the street, but stops at a wine bar for a quick nip. After finishing the bottle, he moves on to a restaurant for another drink. His escapades are intercut occasionally with shots of the hungry group at home, waiting for the bread to arrive. Eventually, the male guest agrees to take on the task and get some bread, but he, too, keeps stopping at local watering holes of various description. The editing structure now alternates between the two men and their adventures, with each growing drunker and more incapable as they proceed. Eventually, the two encounter one another, hopelessly inebriated, at an outdoor café. Inevitably, the bread is dropped and trod upon. The two men finally stumble back into the apartment, to be reproved and abused by their wives.

I fetch the Bread1

This movie follows a similar pattern to the chase movies that were common at the time, with a single camera setup for each scene which the actors move through in a predictable pattern, until the final crash comes at the end. In this case, most of the shots are taken from the fronts of businesses, each time set up so that we see little of the street or surrounding buildings, but can plainly see the front door and action immediately behind it. I was a bit surprised at the number of separate camera setups at first, but when compared to a chase like “How a French Nobleman Got A Wife” from this time period, it is not unusual. The editing is somewhat advanced, in that we do cut away from scenes to see simultaneous action and then return to complete the scene, rather than having each shot show the beginning, middle, and end of a scene, something that would be more common in typical chase movies. The joke is a bit strained – evidently it is not safe to send a man out unsupervised to run a simple errand, because he will be too distracted by alcohol – but the movie works because it fulfills the audience’s expectations, including our expectations that the naughty husbands will be punished.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 11 secs

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

Loading a Boiler (1896)

One of the very first films made by Auguste and Louis Lumière, this movie takes advantage of their industrial background to depict an activity that was striking but also typical of the late-nineteenth century. It seems perhaps that the Lumière brothers were still learning some of the basics of film “grammar” as they made this.

Loading a Boiler

The single-shot film depicts a huge industrial boiler suspended by ropes over the deck of a ship, evidently having been lowered onto a huge trolley or wheeled cart on a track. A ladder is propped up against it facing us, and three men climb down the ladder while others seem to check the lines and hold it steady. The ladder is removed and hauled away, and the men mill around, possibly being instructed to keep moving until the film runs out.

One gets the impression that Lumière (whichever one it was running the camera) started this shot a bit too late to get the real drama of this huge thing being swung over the deck of the boat, and tried to make up for it by having the men “look busy” after the fact. It’s also possible that, since tracking shots and pans hadn’t yet been invented, they couldn’t think of a good way to film that, and settled for this. The English title was a bit deceptive to me; I had assumed that someone would be loading coal into a boiler, not that they were loading the boiler itself onto a ship, though that is literally what “loading a boiler” means.

Director: Auguste and/or Louis Lumière

Camera: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Coronation of Edward VII

This film from Georges Méliès is another of his recreations of events in the headlines. In this case, the ascension of a new Monarch of the United Kingdom is an opportunity for Méliès to show respect and honor his cousins across the Channel – an appropriate sentiment for a D-Day post (even if Méliès wouldn’t live to see D-Day).

Coronation of Edward VII

The set is an elaborate and realistic (by Méliès standards) depiction of a section of Westminster Abbey, with many extras representing clergy and nobles who would have attended the event. A man in especially fine looking regalia (Edward) comes forward and kneels to the Archbishop, then footmen remove some of his robes. He is seated at a lower chair in front, then some words are spoken over him and he kneels again in prayer. His sword is presented to him and this he gives to the Archbishop to bless. A new, very long robe is placed over his shoulders and he takes his seat again, to be presented with an orb and a scepter. Soon the crown is placed on his head, and suddenly everyone in the audience places their crowns or headgear on as well. Now crowned, he moves to an upper throne, and his Queen joins him at a slightly lower throne. The film we have today cuts off as other officials take their positions.

Coronation of Edward VII 1

Because of the long life of his mother, Queen Victoria I, Edward VII was over sixty by the time this coronation occurred, and his reign would only last until his death in 1910. Victoria was seen as the definition of an era and an empire, and her death and Edward’s accession dominated world news at the time. Although his reign officially began in 1901, the coronation was delayed (in part due to his health) until August 1902, presumably about the time Méliès produced this. Méliès knew his audience would read about the coronation in the papers, and he obviously went to some effort to make his reenactment look as authentic as possible. There is no trick photography, none of his whimsical set design or props, everything is made to look as real as his small set will allow. There are some moments when the crowded nature of the set forces the Archbishop of Canterbury to make some delicate maneuvers to avoid crushing set pieces, but apart from that the illusion is quite convincing, at least on the grainy print I was able to watch. This realistic, current events work aligns with “The Dreyfus Affair” series to remind us of another, more realistic Méliès tradition.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: George Albert Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 53 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Sea Fighting in Greece (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès combines his knowledge of special effects with his interest in recreating contemporary events, in the style of newsreel footage, for the edification of audiences. Here, Méliès takes on the depiction of a foreign war for an audience safe and sound in peaceful Paris.

Sea Fighting in Greece1

A backdrop shows a seascape, complete with a battleship in the background, while the foreground is an articulated stage that rocks side to side, in semblance of the deck of a ship. A single cannon points stage left, and Méliès himself, in the coat of an officer, peers through a spyglass. Suddenly, he summons his crew to the deck and they man the cannon, firing at an unseen enemy, apparently to the port side of the ship (assuming that it is understood to be sailing away from the camera). Now, Méliès turns his spyglass toward the camera and the drew looks intently in our direction, apparently sighting another enemy. There are two bursts of smoke, and one of the crew falls to the deck, apparently hit. Smoke billows out from the deck. The other men scamper to form a bucket brigade, tossing water at the smoke, while one tends to his fallen comrade.

Sea Fighting in Greece

This movie was intended to represent the Greco-Turkish War, which was raging in another part of Europe at the time, making this a “ripped from the headlines” movie. In fact, naval battles were not a major factor in this war, but it was expected that such fighting could break out at any moment, and Méliès may simply have been interested in anticipating this, or in trying out the technique of the rolling ship and the cannon blasts. The articulated stage would be used again in Star Film #112 (this was released as #110), “Between Dover and Calais”, where it is mobilized for comedic effect rather than action and suspense. While audiences were less experienced in decoding motion pictures at this time, it seems likely that most understood this to be a dramatic recreation of events at sea, not the real thing.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 3 secs

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