Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

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.

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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.

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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.

The Automatic Moving Company (1911)

This short film from Pathé demonstrates considerable skill in animation, as well as a touching imaginative approach that rivals Georges Méliès in the realm of the trick film. It still seems somewhat novel today, and must have been even more so at the time.

The movie begins with a brief glimpse of the only human actor in the whole story. We see a postman approach a door and push a letter through the mail slot. The camera then cuts to the interior of the building, where the letter floats across the room and onto a desk. A letter opener, moving by itself, opens the letter and an insert shot shows it to us. A client has written to the “Automatic Moving Company” to request a move, including a new address. A ledger book opens itself and a pen makes a notation. We now cut to a gate, from which a moving cart emerges, with no horses to pull it. It pulls in up to a door, and a series of furniture extracts itself and moves into the door. We follow the furniture up the stairs and into a bedroom, where the bed constructs itself and various pieces of furniture arrange themselves in appropriate positions in the room. Moving crates come in and pictures, linens, and clothing all emerge and tidily put themselves into place. This continues as we see a dining room put itself together, and a kitchen, including anew stove, sets itself up. When one plate falls to the ground and breaks, a broom and dustpan move into position and clean it up. One side table seems to tease a lamp, moving from one side of a table to another until it finally allows the lamp to climb on top and then takes up a position. At the end, one of the moving trunks hides under a table until a large trunk comes and pulls it out with a rope. They stop on the stairs and retreat, allowing the piano to come in, before departing the scene. We see all of the moving trunks load themselves back onto the back of the cart, the doors to the cart close, and it pulls away, the job now complete.

Most of this movie is in wide shot, allowing us to see the entire room, but a couple of insert shots give us a closer view of details, and this allows us to see that the moving objects are in fact miniatures, presumably moving about miniaturized sets on the scale of a doll house. Nevertheless, the illusion is mostly very convincing, and considering the amount of work that had to go into stop motion animation at the time, it was an impressive investment for a small film that was only expected a brief theatrical run before oblivion. Interestingly, the letter indicates that the client lives in “Kalamazoo, Mich,” although everything about the movie looks French, including the moving cart which clearly has French words on it, and appears to be from Nice. Possibly America was associated with modernity and high-technology, or possibly the name “Kalamazoo” sounded exotic to the film makers, and therefore magical. I particularly liked the way certain objects were invested with personality, like the playful side table and the reluctant moving trunk.

Director: Romeo Bosetti

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (mostly animated objects)

Run Time: 4 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dwarf and the Giant (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès shows that even after he had mastered longer forms of storytelling (as in “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella”) he continued to make simple trick films and experiment with effects. Here, forced perspective is used to achieve gigantism and a split screen allows twinning.

A standard proscenium-style stage is established by the camera; in this case the backdrop is painted to appear as if a long tunnel approaches the stage. Méliès approaches from the rear of the set, as if he has just walked down this corridor, wearing a toga. He pulls off the toga to reveal modern clothing and bows. Suddenly, a second figure pulls itself from him, and there are two Méliès on the stage. This new one is slightly shorter than the original, which he emphasizes by squatting down a bit, and the other Méliès makes fun of him. Then he pulls on a hair on top of his own head and seems to grow, magically to a new height, nearly filling the screen. He laughs at the shorter version of himself and drops confetti on its head. Then he shrinks down again and the two images re-combine for a moment, before splitting off and giving one another the raspberry before exiting the stage.

Méliès had used forced perspective more dramatically earlier in “The Man with the Rubber Head,” but the effect here seems simpler, done almost offhandedly, as if he has become more comfortable with the technique. Of course, the growth effect was achieved here by running the same film through the camera twice, with the background masked off and the camera moving closer to the actor to make him become bigger on screen, which is not a simple matter at all. At less than a minute in length, this was a pretty short movie for 1901, but there was so much demand for new content from him by now that he could make almost anything, and of course he also could use it between acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. Combined with other movies, as it would be in a period program, it’s a nice enough distraction.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 55 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

This movie is an unabashed remake of Georges Méliès beloved classic “A Trip to the Moon,” although with a shorter run time and a smaller cast and (evidently) budget. It nonetheless does preserve bits of Segundo de Chomón’s signature wit and gentle charm.

The movie consists of a series of discrete shots, each set up as a tableau within a proscenium-style stage area. The first shot shows a group of “scientists” or explorers, is a garden at night, the moon hanging overhead. One, who is kitted out in a classic wizard’s robe and cap, lectures at them and gestures to the moon. The others appear skeptical at his message. However, they follow him off stage after a bit of pantomime. The next shot shows the wizard/scientist’s observatory, with a large telescope in the background. The wizard shows his fellows the elaborate equations he has worked out on the chalkboard, then turns the chalkboard over to reveal a screen on which an animated image of a capsule flying between Earth and Moon appears. The others appear to congratulate him, and then follow him off this stage to the next scene.

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Kiriki, Japanese Acrobats (1907)

This short movie by Segundo de Chomón demonstrates his easy facility with the trick film. While much of his work is compared to (or even confused with) that of Georges Méliès, I can honestly say I’ve not seen another movie that looks like this one.

A group of actors walks out onto a bare stage with a black background with a bamboo frame around the sides and top. They are a mixed-age and –gender group, all wearing Japanese-style clothing and imitative hairstyles (the men and boys have shaved “bald wigs” on to represent a chonmage). An edit brings them to about the point of a mid-shot so you can get a look at them, then the camera cuts and they begin their act, climbing on top of one another, and sometimes using poles to hold each other up. The end result is usually a symmetrical pattern of human bodies in an apparently impossible position. How was it done?

I was able to spot the trick in his trick film right away, but I’m not sure how obvious it would have been to an audience in 1907. After the edit, we are not actually looking at people standing on a stage anymore, but rather at people lying on their backs with the camera positioned above them, and they pretend to be “climbing” each other when they are really rolling/crawling on the floor. One of the reasons for the simple stage decoration was that it made it easier to match the two shots so that the audience wouldn’t notice the difference. Camera angles were still a fairly new concept in 1907, and audiences were accustomed to static cameras using proscenium-style framing to establish a stage for all of the action to take place in, so this might have seemed quite impressive, even if it is a somewhat simplistic, plotless film for the Nickelodeon Era.

Director: Segundo de Chomón

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.