Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

Max Takes a Bath (1910)

Max Linder is back with another comedy of errors. This time, he finds a simple matter of hygiene to be beyond his abilities.

We see Max at a store, purchasing a fancy new bathtub. He shows how thrilled he is to have something so elegant in which to wash himself. He takes it out to the street and tries to hail a taxi, but when the cab driver sees the tub, he abruptly drives on. Max is forced to lug the thing home on his back. He manages this, however, and soon after arriving, decides to fill it. There’s one problem – his apartment building has a single shared spigot, out in the hallway. He finds that the small containers he has will take forever to fill the tub, when filled up one at a time and brought back into the apartment, so he has the bright idea of bringing the tub out to the spigot and filling it right there. Then, when he tries to move it back into his apartment, he finds it much too heavy to push.

Not one to let a small thing stand in the way of achieving his goal, Max gets his soap and towel, then strips down and gets into the tub right there in the stairway. Everything is going fine until a neighbor walks by. Max tries to hide by sinking under the water, but of course, the neighbor notices the tub on the stairway landing and investigates, ultimately calling in the manager, then the police. Max tries to shoo them away by splashing them, but this simply results in his (and the tub’s) being hauled down to court. He tries the same tactics on the magistrate with as little success. When they try dumping Max and his water out, he rolls the tub over and scrambles out with it on his back like a turtle’s shell! He’s soon being pursued this way by police and the inevitable little dog.

Once again, this comedy follows the basic plot of Max eagerly anticipating some simple pleasure, only to be thwarted at every turn and ultimately humiliated and ruined. It’s quite funny, although it’s hard to imagine that any apartment house would provide no other way to get running water than a spigot in a common hallway. How was Max bathing before this? Maybe he’s a new tenant. The scenes of Linder in the tub made me think of Alice Guy films from around the same time, like “The Drunken Mattress” and “The Rolling Bed.” No doubt Linder was also familiar with these films when he made this one.

Director: Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 7 Min, 45secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

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Max Is Stuck Up (1910)

This is another short comedy from Max Linder for Pathé Studios. It has a similar narrative structure to our last Linder film, “Max Learns to Skate,” but takes place in the more familiar bourgeois setting of Paris shops and homes.

Max is invited to dine with a young lady by his “future father-in-law.” We see Max in his apartment putting the finishing touches on his preparations, looking dapper as ever and quite excited to be going out. He twirls his cane and heads out the door. Along the way, however, he stops at a butcher’s shop. The butcher is having difficulty with flies, so has set out several pieces of flypaper. Max steps on one as he approaches the counter. The butcher runs off screen briefly to retrieve a parcel for Max, presumably a pastry that he will bring to the luncheon date. As he begins to leave, however, he notices the flypaper on his shoe. Unable to shake it off, he sits in a chair to allow the butcher to pull it off for him, but in the process he sits on another piece. As this is removed, he puts his elbow on yet another piece, which goes with him out the door. At his destination, the young lady is still getting dressed, and is having some difficulty zipping up her dress, even with her mother’s help. Max arrives and hands over the pastry, only now noticing the piece of flypaper on his elbow. In removing it, he gets glue on both his hands and once more on his shoe, and he tries to conceal this, making it impossible for him to be of service to the young lady. He lingers briefly in the living room, fighting it out with the flypaper, before joining the family at the table for the meal. Now everything sticks to Max. His napkin, fork, glass, even the carpet are all snares he falls into. When he offers to pass a plate to his host, his difficulties reach their peak; the plate is finally destroyed and the two come to blows. On his way out the door, he once again collides with the same butcher, and is seen at the end in tears, covered in glue, paper, and baked goods.

As with “Max Learns to Skate,” we watch Max descend from happy and confident, through frustrated and discouraged, to desperate and crying. Once again, the effect is good comedy, although in this case he is a bit less sympathetic (we get the feeling he’s not really interested in the girl, but rather in the father’s money). I was surprised by the number of camera set ups and the use of insert shots to show Max’s stickiness, but when I first watched it, the print claimed the movie was made in 1906. However, it appears that this version, at any rate, really comes from 1910, which makes this less surprising (actually it’s a bit simplistic for 1910). Like many films of the time, it may have been a remake of an effort from a few years earlier. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed watching Max go through his routine, which uses subtle physical cues to illustrate his changing mood and heighten the humor of the situation.

Director: Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder, Gabrielle Lange

Run Time: 6 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Learns to Skate (1907)

One of the earliest surviving films of one of the earliest film comedians, this is a fairly simple short about a man’s efforts to learn a simple physical skill – but which takes considerable athletic ability to pull off in a comedic manner. Max Linder succeeds with flying colors in this early outing.

Excited Anticipation

Taken mostly in long shot, this movie consists of just a few sequential scenes, each shot from a stationary camera and lasting several seconds to a minute or more. It begins by establishing a snowy path in a forest, with several people walking along, almost looking like an actuality of France in winter until the star finally approaches close enough to the camera to be recognizable. He stands out from the rest of the characters in the movie by his dandy-ish dress. Most of the men are wearing caps that indicate they are from the working class, while Max sports a shiny top hat. He’s also carrying a pair of skates, designed to be affixed to the bottom of his shoes when he finds a frozen lake. He stops a passerby and asks directions, is pointed the right way and exits, screen left. The next shot shows a table where skaters may check their overcoats and other unneeded items (Max checks his cane, but not his hat). He approaches enthusiastically, and pantomimes his excitement at the opportunity to glide across the ice. The next shot shows wooden chairs where people don their skates, and Max gets one of the local fellows to help him on with his. Next is a shot taken of the shore of the frozen lake, showing Max descending a short plank onto the lake. He is awkward, but stays upright until actually on the ice, where he quickly enters a kind of rapid dance before toppling (and losing his hat). Another local fellow eventually takes pity on him and rights him, giving him his hat back and holding him up as they skate offscreen.

The harsh reality.

The next scene shows Max and his tutor, still arm-in-arm, moving slowly. This shot is taken from the shore and we can now see all the other skaters, out having a grand time. One fellow is on a bicycle. Max eventually feels secure enough to try on his own again and the other fellow skates off. This time, Max is a bit more secure at first, but still wobbles more than he glides, eventually losing his hat again. His effort to recover it results in another pratfall, with him landing on it and crushing it. Another scene of the ice shows Max moving along cautiously, still with the crooked hat, when he is run into by a large child. He runs this kid off angrily, but his buddies show up with snowballs, pelting Max mercilessly. In trying to get away from this assault, Max crashes into another skater who is pushing a lady in a kind of sled-wheelchair. Everyone lands on the ground, and Max, in a fury, is trying to fight with all of them. A skating policeman skates up and removes him from the lake. Max is taken back to the table, where his skates are removed and he retrieves his goods. A final close-up shows Max in tears, his dream of a winter wonderland shattered.

Aftermath

This is a pretty basic film, not especially innovative for 1907, but not bad either. What makes it work is Linder’s screen presence, which keeps the attention and interest of the audience despite the very limited plot and film technique. Max is adorable in the early scenes in which he shows the audience how excited he is to go skating, which makes it all the more effective when he discovers that the sport isn’t as easy as he’d imagined. He only takes four falls, but each is a payoff of some kind of setup, and although we know they’re coming, we don’t know just when. The most surprising is the one where he’s hit from the side, the boy coming in from off camera to crash into him, and this escalates the situation to include others. I wondered, up to that point, if any of the other characters in the movie were “acting,” or whether they were just random people found at the location, behaving naturally. Once Max starts fighting them, we know it’s been set up, but the movie overall feels decidedly natural and unrehearsed. It’s worth noting that what I’ve called a “close-up” at the end of the film is more of a medium-shot, much further back than the camera got to the bandit at the end of “The Great Train Robbery.” It’s possible that the cameraman at Pathé was a bit skeptical of this new-fangled idea, and not willing to take it so far. We can still see enough of Max’s tears that it works, though.

Director: Louis J. Gasnier

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Man with the Rubber Head (1901)

Alternate Title: L’Homme a la Tete en Cahoutchouc

This trick film from Georges Méliès is quite simple, but may represent one of the most important innovations Méliès contributed to cinema. It also is, as usual for him, a fun and whimsical example of a magic show.

The proscenium-style frame shows us the workroom of a doctor, perhaps a chemist or alchemist. Read the rest of this entry »

The Hat with Many Surprises (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès plays on the classic magician’s act of pulling things (no rabbits, in this case) out of a silk hat. It reflects his increasing comfort with the use of camera trickery to make things appear and disappear.

Méliès walks onto a stage in classic magician’s garb, with a cloak and a top hat. The set is dressed to be the interior of a comfortable apartment, with a portrait and a cabinet in the background. The first surprises actually come from the cloak. He takes it off and uses it to conjure a table, then it turns from a black cloak to a white tablecloth. Then he turns back to the hat, and produces from it plates, glasses, napkins, a decanter, and other table settings. Then, he looks a bit thoughtful and suddenly there is a fan in his hand. He fans it and it becomes larger, and then he fans the hat and it suddenly becomes an over-sized cardboard cutout of a hat. From this, he is able to pull out four chairs, and then the dinner companions: a squabbling couple and then a king and queen are produced. He calls forth a maid to begin serving them. Then, having completed the trick, he suddenly leaps onto the table, which crashes through the floor. The portrait comes to life and begins berating the diners, who flee in terror. Méliès re-appears and takes a bow, incidentally turning the hat and cloak back to normal.

There’s not too much here we haven’t seen before, but Méliès is always a fun presence. He’s fairly subdued in this until the end, not leaping about or being overly animated, just letting the illusions carry the story forward. Of course, much of this movie would have worked nearly as well on stage, but he quickly took it to places that only the cinema would allow. So far as I can see, there was no internal logic to the final chaos – it was just a funny way to end the film. I certainly wasn’t expecting the portrait to suddenly come to life, that was probably the biggest surprise of all!

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Alternate Titles: The Infernal Caldron and the Phantasmal Vapors, Le Chaudron infernal

This short trick film from Georges Méliès continues my “history of horror” for October, 2018. Now 115 years old, it shows that some of the effects of cinema have aged well.

Méliès, dressed as a demon (the Star Films catalog informs us he is “Belphegor, executioner of Hell”), dances in front of a large boiling cauldron, on a set dressed like a Renaissance castle, with leering devil masks on the walls. Three women (two apparently dressed as men, wearing swords) are led into the chamber, and one at a time thrown into the pot. Another demon comes forth to stir the pot and Belphegor makes some magical gestures, producing more smoke. Suddenly, the smoke resolves itself into three ghostly figures, which fly about the room over Belphegor’s head, evidently frightening him. The ghosts turn into fireballs which whip around the room. Méliès leaps into the cauldron after they have disappeared, and the cauldron and demon disappear in a puff of smoke.

Although it looked to me as if the victims were having their revenge (in a plot reminiscent of “The Golden Beetle” by Segundo de Chomón), the Star Films catalog suggests a different narrative, more in line with Catholic theology. The condemned souls have been separated from their bodies by the cauldron, and at the end Belphegor turns them into Will-O-The-Wisps, “who must forever remain with the vast concourse of Satan’s victims.” The disappearance of Belphegor at the end is apparently voluntary, since his work is now complete. The catalog also makes quite a big deal about the transparent flying ghosts, calling it, “A very fascinating and absolutely new trick.” There have been some ghosts in Méliès before this, including the semi-transparent one in “A Fantastical Meal,” but these spirits do seem somewhat more nebulous and sophisticated to me. I would imagine that producing an effect for the audience was ultimately more Méliès’s interest than making a coherent or spiritually consistent storyline.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Infernal Cake-Walk (1903)

Alternate Titles: Le Cake-walk infernal

With October now well under way, it’s time to return to my traditional “history of horror” posts. For this outing, I’ve chosen a short dance movie from Georges Méliès which meshes Satanic themes and colonialism.

The movie begins in a cavern with flames shooting up from various places in the floor. A group of young women dressed as demons (perhaps succubi?) dance across the floor, and then some male demons perform tumbling tricks. Soon, a fellow dressed like a biblical prophet appears and chases them all away, but he removes his outer clothes and is revealed to be Satan himself (played by Méliès). First he dances with a fireball in his hand, which grows in proportion until he throws it down. He summons two cake-walk dancers, a black man and woman, who perform their dance and are joined by a group of young women. Now a large cake is brought out by evidently African servants, and a new demon leaps forth from it. This fellow has a humped back and knobby knees, but despite his deformities proves to be an excellent cake-walk dancer. He performs for some time, and during the dance first his legs, then his arms detach themselves and dance independently. He disappears and all of the demons, damned souls, and dancers reappear and dance together on stage until Satan reappears and they vanish in a puff of smoke. Satan disappears through a trap door in the stage.

Because it’s mostly dancing, I was able to summarize the action pretty succinctly, however this is a fairly long movie for Méliès: over five minutes long. Not so long as “A Trip to the Moon,” but well above the earlier 1-2 minute films he was making. There are a number of intriguing aspects. The “female demons” I mentioned above have horns, but their striped costumes made me think of bees. The “male demons” are actually wearing the masks of the Selenites from “A Trip to the Moon” (having gone to the bother of making so many masks, I guess Méliès wanted to get more use out of them). The black dancers appear to be wearing makeup, but from their hair and features I think they may have been actually of African descent, not white Frenchmen in blackface. The cake-bearers are wearing black full-bodysuits, so I think they actually are white people. The Star Film Catalog tells us that the biblical-prophet-looking-guy is really Plato who has returned from a journey to the Earth to show off the cake walk dance. I suppose that Plato has to be in Hell because he was a pagan; Dante places him there in the “Inferno.” Still, it’s interesting that he serves the function of a colonial explorer bringing back exotic foreign dances to Hell. The dancers and cake bearers are to all intents and purposes captured slaves. Since recent analyses of “A Trip to the Moon” have argued that Méliès was making a point about the evils of colonialism, it’s interesting to see this movie as suggesting its origin with the Devil himself. Still, I suspect that for audiences then and today, this is mostly a fun romp of effects and dances.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, others

Run Time: 5 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Excelsior! The Prince of Magicians (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès depicts a brief magic show with just a hint of narrative to hold the interest. It is an example of his use of camera trickery in the service of an enhanced stage performance.

The proscenium-style stage suggests a reception chamber in a noble house, and Méliès walks out in the company of a liveried servant. He asks the servant for a handkerchief, but the man has none. Méliès then conjures one out of the astonished man’s mouth. He then holds it up and produces a large bowl from behind it. He asks his servant to fill it with water, but again the man has no idea how to begin. Méliès pumps his arm and water shoots out of his mouth. Then he takes two fish out of the servant’s mouth, and we see them swimming happily inside the bowl. Méliès gives the bowl to his servant and soon there are flames shooting out of it where there were fish a moment ago. Méliès turns the bowl into a large lobster, and the lobster into a woman, then the woman becomes two small girls riding piggyback, and finally the girls disappear and are replaced with a large piece of fabric. Méliès kicks the servant off the stage and wraps himself in the fabric, flying up and off the stage as well, then he runs back out from stage left and catches the falling fabric in his hand, bowing at last to the audience.

A number of the tricks we see here are equivalent to tricks of misdirection that a magician might perform live on stage, but made easier with substitution splices. The items coming from the servant’s mouth, and the things appearing and disappearing from behind handkerchiefs or large pieces of fabric are examples. I was rather surprised when water started spewing out of the servant’s mouth, and wondered if audiences at the time saw this as “vulgar,” a reference to bodily fluids or vomiting. It looks like a water pump, of course, so it isn’t as gross as could be, but I still wondered a bit, and wondered if French and American audiences of the time would see it differently. The only real narrative we have is the hapless servant, who never seems to have what he needs or to know what to expect. Still, it’s an amusing piece, and probably gives a taste of what Méliès did in live performance as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Bachelor’s Paradise (1901)

Alternate Title: Chez la sorcière

This short trick film from Georges Méliès shows off his ability to construct a satisfying narrative around a slight story and a couple of simple effects. The French title means “House of the Witch,” which gives it a slight horror element, but it isn’t very scary.

The movie takes place on a proscenium-style stage dressed as the workshop of a sorcerer or magician. Certain set-pieces are recycled from previous movies, including “The Alchemist’s Hallucination.” At the center of the stage is a cauldron held up by a ring of metal frogs. The witch, an ancient crone (I believe it is Méliès in costume) is reading some kind of mystical text, when she is interrupted by the entrance of a young man in the clothes of a dandy. He commissions a spell from her, and she sets to work at the cauldron. She pours in a potion of some kind, then dances around the cauldron waving her walking-stick as if it were a wand. Soon, a young woman levitates out of the smoke billowing from the cauldron. The young man inspects her, but seems uncertain, so the witch gestures, and soon four new girls appear, one after the other, standing in a line next to the first one. The bachelor inspects each carefully, and finally makes a selection. He takes this girl over to a chair at the right side of the screen, and the witch makes the others disappear. Now the young man attempts to woo the magically-summoned young lady, but suddenly she transforms into the crone, cackling with laughter, when the bachelor recoils, she turns him into a donkey, then rides him around the stage, hitting him with her stick.

Another of Méliès’s charming little magic movies, this one got me to thinking that one rarely sees a man dressed up as a woman in a Méliès movie, whereas it was common at the Edison studios for quite some time. I’m not certain that the witch in this movie was a man, but I believe it was. Still, when Méliès wanted a pretty young woman in a movie, that was what he used, not a man in woman’s clothing as was usual at Edison. This may mostly reflect opportunity: Méliès ran a theater and had contact with lots of young actresses, while the Edison Studio was run by engineers, who had to make an effort to find an actress willing to perform in front of a camera. Although the set up for this film is quite sexist – a man attempts to buy a woman from a procuress – the ending puts a bit of a feminist spin on it. Méliès may not really have intended it that way, he probably felt that it was funnier and a bit more family-friendly to have the bachelor receive a comeuppance. It does work for a few chuckles, at least, and the donkey suit is charming.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, probably Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

What Is Home without the Boarder? (1901)

Alternate Title: La Maison tranquille, The Quiet House

A typical short comedy from Georges Méliès, but without any camera trickery in this case. The gleeful anarchy of this piece pre-sages later developments in silent slapstick comedy.

A proscenium-style set has been divided horizontally between two stages. In the lower one, a couple in dark clothes has dinner in an orderly bourgeois dining room. In the upper stage, three men in their bedclothes dance and play musical instruments. The men upstairs kick a hole in the floor/ceiling and steal wine from the table of the couple, who run out in fear. Then, one of the trouble-makers (Méliès) jumps down into the room and sends the turkey up to his flat-mates to eat. He covers himself in a sheet and simulates an elephant, terrifying the landlady when she comes back to investigate. He returns to the upstairs space in time to help his comrades defend their territory when a policeman is summoned. The policeman is pelted, first with powder and wine, then with a mattress and other pieces of furniture the men have to hand. When he, the landlord, and landlady finally retreat, the men jump downstairs and dance around, piling furniture against the door to stop any further intrusions of their chaotic fun. The movie ends with them victorious.

In this movie, Méliès utilizes several comedy tropes that would later be exploited by Charlie Chaplin and other famous silent comedians: celebrating confrontation with authority (the landlord and police), emphasis on fast action, escalation of violence and absurdity in rejection of social rules. All of these elements make for a very funny film, and the comedians who would later embrace them understood, as Méliès did the way this kind of chaos allows a release for people living in a highly structured modern society. On another level, this kind of comedy reflects the hidden fear of moderns that the veneer of social behavior can be dismissed as soon as one (or in this case three) member rejects it and that society will be helpless to contain them without their voluntary surrender. The ironic title in both languages suggests a degree of identification with the landlords, who have taken in boarders to benefit themselves economically, only to find that their comforts are threatened by this very arrangement. At any rate, the whole piece is great fun, and a measure of what Méliès could achieve without any magical effects.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.