Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

Fantasmagorie (1908)

This early work from Gaumont is among the first animated movies I have discovered during this project, though, as with the early works of Windsor McCay, it includes live-action images of the illustrator and follows a stream-of-consciousness storyline.

Fantasmagorie

The first image is of the illustrator’s hand, drawing an odd little character I’m going to call “the clown.” He has a pointy hat, baggy pants, and an “x” on his shirt. Otherwise, he is basically a stick figure. When he first appears, he is hanging from a beam, but he pulls this down to show a screen, with a fat character in a top hat inside. The fat character sits in a chair facing a movie screen, with the clown in the seat before him. The clown turns into a spider and swings away on a strand of web. Then a lady comes into the theater with a large hat adorned with enormous flowers. She sits in front of the fat man and he cannot see. He starts pulling flowers off the hat, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference. He rips a hole in a wall (or maybe it’s a tent flap) and hurls most of the hat through it, choosing to pull the last piece off and sit on it. He then lights a cigar and the clown reappears inside of a bubble he blows. The clown expands to enormous size and pushes everyone else off the screen, then he shrinks down and gets inside a box. The fat man comes back and puts a weight on top, but the clown bursts out and pokes him with his pointy hat. Suddenly the fat man is replaced by an old man in a chair and the clown steals his hat, snagging it on a fishhook. It turns into a blob-shape, then suddenly is a giant, sword-wielding soldier, who attacks the clown who now has a candle instead of a fishing rod. The clown puts the sword in the candlestick holder and it becomes a potted plant. Somehow, the clown’s nose is now attached to the end of the plant and he is lifted into the air as it rapidly grows. His head is pulled off his body and flung into the hands of another character, who treats it like a balloon. The clown’s body reclaims the head and the new character turns into a cannon that also looks like a giant bottle, pointing and the clown. It pulls the clown inside rather than shooting him and then opens up as the petals of a flower, revealing the clown inside. It then turns into a long snake-like object which is revealed as the trunk of an elephant, and the clown tries to ride the elephant. The elephant turns into a building and the clown opens the door and goes inside, just as a policeman walk up. The policeman locks the door, but the clown leaps out of the second-story window, breaking into pieces when he hits the ground. The animator’s hands reappear, and he puts the clown back together. The clown gets up and blows on a trumpet, which causes his pants to blow up like a balloon and he flies off, finally landing on the back of a horse.

Fantasmagorie1

All of that happens in less than two minutes! There’s not much time to make sense of it all, this is really more of a quick whimsical experiment in animation than an attempt to create a narrative. Still, certain aspects of cartoon narration are here – slapstick and violent comedy, for example, and taking advantage of the fact that drawn characters can magically transform or be dismembered and put back together again. I was reminded of the Sennett/Griffith collaboration “Those Awful Hats” by the sequence in the movie theater. All of the action takes place against a black background and most of the characters are stick-figure sketches, which probably made re-drawing them quickly an easier task. Apparently there were two other Gaumont animated releases that I haven’t come – it’s possible they have been lost. It appears that this proved to be too much work for the amount of entertainment it provided and they gave it up after that until better animation technology was developed.

Director: Emile Cohl

Run Time: 1 min, 15secs

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

Robinson Crusoe (1902)

Another multi-scene interpretation of classic literature, this movie was released by Georges Méliès in the same year as “A Trip to the Moon.” It also deals with questions of colonialism, but where others have found traces of a critical approach in the former film, here it seems little has changed since Daniel Defoe’s day.

Robinson_Crusoe

The movie begins with a depiction of Crusoe’s ship crashing, but surviving prints have very little of this – a brief flash of a man slumped over a rocky cliff, a wrecked ship in the background traces the impression lightly, though the Star Films catalog suggests we should see more of his struggle to survive. The next scene shows Robinson (Méliès) poling upriver in a raft laden with salvaged items, such as a barrel (the catalog suggests an entire scene is lost, in which we see him building the raft). Another scene shows him looting the wreck of the ship before all of it breaks up and drifts away. He locates survivors – a cat and a dog – who will be his first companions on the island. The next scene shows him atop a peak on the island’s mountainous terrain, lighting a signal fir to try to hail a passing ship. The ship sails by without stopping, however. (Once again, the catalog suggests something is missing, since two signaling scenes are listed). Now, Robinson, resigned to living long-term on the island, is shown hard at the labor of building a hut to shelter himself and his animals.

Robinson Crusoe1

Read the rest of this entry »

The Drawing Lesson (1903)

Another short trick film by Georges Méliès, this movie demands a bit more of the audience (or perhaps a live narrator) than some of the simpler films of earlier years. We see familiar themes and effects, taken to a somewhat more complex level than before.

Drawing Lesson

The movie begins with a proscenium-style set that depicts a garden with an ornamental colonnade in the background. A man in 18th-century-style clothing carries an easel out onto the stage and gestures his approval of the scene, then tries to signal someone to follow him. When they do not, he goes back offstage in search of them. Now a new individual (this seems to be played by Méliès) comes onstage and appears to be planning a prank on the first. He transforms a barrel into a pedestal, then adds a woman piece by piece, transforming a ball or balloon for the head, a handkerchief for the torso, and a coat for the legs. She stands in a pose as if she were a statue – a natural part of the scene. The first man returns with a class of art students, mostly in wigs and upper-class dress. They spread out on the ground and begin drawing the scene, while the man (evidently an instructor), walks around and inspects their work. Now the statue comes to life and steals his hat, then causes him to fall over, transforming in the process into an elaborate fountain and spraying water all over him. He pulls out an umbrella and kicks, while the class continues to sketch the scene.

Drawing Lesson1

The Star Film catalog describes the art instructor and the art students as if they were clearly identifiable characters, but watching without any narration or intertitles, a modern audience has to piece this together as the story progresses. It also identifies the location as “the gardens at Versailles,” which makes sense if you’ve been there or know about it, but probably wasn’t intuitive even to any non-French audience of the day. The main theme, however, of a caricatured authority figure getting his comeuppance at the hands of a random prankster with magical powers, is pretty much the essence of comedy cinema at the time and for years to come. The only special effects used here are substitution splices and the division of the lady into parts through multiple exposure, but Méliès shows how much his technique has improved since the early days with the precision of this process, which probably would have simply been a single splice, rather than three, in earlier years.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Policeman’s Parade – Chicago (1897)

One of several films shot for the Lumière brothers by a photographer abroad, this depicts a parade taking place in the USA. It gives us a chance to consider why it, and so many similar films, were made at the time.

Policeman's Parade Chicago

Typical of a Lumière film, this is a 50 second clip taken from a stationary camera at a roughly 30-degree-angle to the line of approach. In the background is a large building with arched windows, bartizans, and possibly stained glass above the main entryway, calling to mind a cathedral, armory, or castle of some kind, but which may be a stylized police station. Policemen in uniform march past in the foreground, carrying night sticks, in ranks of four, divided into groups of 24 each, escorted on the far side by a man in a different hat (presumably their superior officer). All of them are white, and nearly all have moustaches. At the very end of the movie, we see a horse-and-buggy that is part of the parade, and it is possible that there are more of these to follow.

Policeman's Parade Chicago1

Who let this hippy into the parade?

Some years back, when I watched the DVD collection “The Lumière Brothers’ First Films,” I recall how amused the narrator, Bertrand Tavernier, was by the overwhelming majority of these men being moustached, and that he referred to one that was not as “a rebel.” What is odder to us today is the fact that every one of these officers is a white men; women and African Americans were presumably excluded from the force entirely, and I’d be curious to know what percent were of Irish descent. What also stands out to us now is that they are wearing the tall rounded hats that today we associate with “Keystone Kops,” although that style was already a bit antiquated twenty years after this when those movies were made.

If you do an exhaustive study of early film, you’re going to end up watching a lot of parades. It gets pretty tedious, actually, even with a lot of the movies less than two or three minutes in length. Early actuality filmmakers relied on parades because they needed to demonstrate motion, parades were scheduled in advance and you knew where to place your camera, and they had at least a modicum of civic or cultural interest. To us today, disconnected from the events of the time and no longer excited about the simple fact of moving pictures, it’s hard to maintain the level of interest that contemporary audiences had, or were assumed to have. This one at least allows some insight into the demography and style of a major urban police force.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Eruption of Mount Pele (1902)

This short film from Georges Méliès is an early disaster film – and also a rare case of a film from Méliès with no actors or even narrative to speak of. The event it depicts occurred in the same year as its release, so it can be seen as a topical recreation of a story film-goers were reading in newspapers of the day.

Eruption of Mount Pele

The film shows an obvious miniature of a fishing village, intended to recreate the town of Saint-Pierre in Martinique. In the background, a large mountain looms, with smoke emerging from its peak. Miniature boats float in the foreground, on what is obviously shallow placid water. As the movie progresses, the smoke billows in different patterns, and someone makes waves in the water, coming in from the left side of the screen toward the boats and town. At the very end, the smoke seems to pour down from above onto the tiny town, as ash might from a volcano.

Eruption of Mount Pele1

By modern standards, this isn’t a very dramatic movie, and I would imagine that at the time it was screened, live narration (perhaps even read from newspapers) would have accompanied the images, to emphasize the drama of real-world events. As it happened, in May of 1902, about 28,000 people were killed in a firestorm ignited by hot ash raining down on the city during the worst of the eruption, which continued for several years. That might have been beyond the ability of Méliès to recreate, or he might have felt it was in bad taste to show such a great tragedy in detail. Note also that the surviving print is black and white, but it would likely have been hand-painted in original release, and the eruption might appear more dramatic if the cloud had gone, say, from yellow to orange to fiery red.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone (1903)

This simple short by Georges Méliès eschews trick photography and emphasizes slapstick humor, to the point of degenerating into a riot by the end. As with “The Colonel’s Shower Bath,” the butt of the humor is the military, especially the officer class.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone

The movie takes place on a set designed to look like an urban European street corner. A sign behind a character dressed in uniform reads “Corps de Garde,” indicating that the building is a barracks. The soldier character marches back and forth while a man has his shoes shined by another. The civilians leave and the soldier stretches out to rest. Propping himself on his rifle, he begins to snooze. A glazier walks by with glass frames balanced on his back and then a man pulls a hose across the set, apparently preparing to spray the sidewalk. Another man with a ladder props it up over the soldier and climbs up to a high gas lamp with a rag. A man dressed a bit like a modern jester runs up and looks impish as he assesses the scene of the ladder, the hose, and the sleeping soldier. He gently removes the man’s rifle and replaces it with the hose. Then he sneaks offscreen until an officer walks by. When the officer upbraids the guard for sleeping, he turns on the hose, which sprays the man working over his head. The officer winds up getting the lamp cage dropped on his head and soon the worker is tussling with the soldier, grabbing his rifle and smashing in one of the windows. When the occupants protest, the worker picks up the still-spraying hose and douses them in water. Soon police officers run up to gain control of the situation, but the result is more mayhem and water spraying everywhere. The soldier ducks into the barracks and the worker climbs up to the second floor and enters via a window. The police attempt to follow, but the worker and the prankster drag out an advertising column and topple it, blocking the entrance to the barracks. All of the characters crowd on stage and wave their arms about in distress, the social order completely upended.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone1

Méliès prefigures Mack Sennett by almost a decade here with physical humor that targets soldiers and police, and reduces a city street to complete anarchy in the name of a few chuckles. The use of the hose may have been the most challenging aspect of the production – the sets are pretty obviously painted cardboard with flimsy wood frames and the actors have to avoid pointing it at walls for fear the water will cut right through them. Even so, the upper window frame does get wet and an apparently “stone wall” sags as the worker climbs in to the upper story. A quick edit gave Méliès a chance to repair the damage before things went too far, but otherwise this movie is made in single takes, as is typical of his work. Sharp-eyed viewer will notice that several of the ads on the column are for Méliès films and the Theatre Houdin -an early form of product placement. Another area in which Méliès was an innovator, one can also see ads for Pleyel Pianos and Menier Chocolate who presumably paid for the advertising.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 3 Min

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

New York, Brooklyn Bridge (1896)

Having taken the world by storm with their projected motion pictures in 1895, the Lumière brothers quickly dispatched cameras to far points of the world, eager to get images that would be exotic or exciting for audiences at home and abroad. This one comes from New York City, and is a rather idiosyncratic view of a still-famous structure.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge1

The camera is set up on train tracks, facing a stationary engine and a small building. A train approaches, turning to exit screen left. As it does so, it blocks the one recognizable arch from the bridge in the distance. Soon other trains cross our view, one quite close to the camera is being driven “backward,” with the engine behind the other cars. These appear to be commuter trains, with people sitting in the coaches. A workman on a ladder is on the other side of the tracks, and at times he seems to look at the camera. It is impossible to tell which side of the East River this image was taken from, but it appears to be at the point where the tracks are turning toward the bridge, not actually on the bridge itself.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge

Bridge? What bridge?

Today, we don’t think of the Brooklyn Bridge being for trains. The upper level is largely for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and below that is roadway for cars. Even buses and trucks don’t cross the bridge anymore, it isn’t used for public transit, just personal transportation. This was not always the case, however, as we see here. It’s surprising that the photographer felt that this view was the best way to show the bridge, since the trains block its most recognizable features for much of the run time. There isn’t a lot to distinguish this from “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or dozens of similar train movies from the nineteenth century, but presumably audience demand was high for this type of film, and getting the famous bridge was a secondary concern.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912)

This very French farce comes from a time when national cinematic styles were still being determined and when France’s film product was just starting to be challenged economically by the output of the United States. This movie may have been seen around the world at the time, but it was nearly lost at the time of its restoration, with only two known prints to work from.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet

Our lead character is a short man in a hat and baggy jacket. He is seen strolling along a path in a park, playing his clarinet as he walks. A policeman comes up to him and interrupts, showing us with gestures as he asks Artheme to stop playing. Artheme agrees and walks off. The next scene shows him as he walks up to a streetcar. A crowd is clamoring to get on board, and he begins to play again. The film speeds up and everyone is able to board quickly with the help of his music. He tips his hat to the streetcar as it pulls away. Now he comes to a group of workmen, who are pulling a heavy cabinet on a rope up the side of the building. When he starts to play, they forget their labors and start to dance, but unfortunately, Artheme was standing beneath the cabinet and when they let go the rope it crashes down on him! When they recover and pull him out from under, we see that his clarinet was pushed back into his mouth and it now penetrates his head – the mouthpiece jutting out from the back and the horn sticking out of his mouth. He seems not to be in much pain, however, and rather than horror, the workmen respond with mirth at his plight.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet1

Artheme leaves and walks on, looking for someone to help him pull it out again. He first finds a policeman, but despite his best efforts, the instrument will not budge. He approaches another man in the park, who recruits more help to get more force on the clarinet, and soon there is a line of people tugging on a rope attached to it. When they slip and lose their grip, however, the whole crowd falls backward into a lake. Artheme sits on a bench at the seashore and a man with a top hat and funny beard walks up, reading from a musical score. He comes behind Artheme and plays the clarinet through his head, making Artheme hold up the music for him. Annoyed at being reduced to a music stand, Artheme hits him and pushes him away. He now comes to a blacksmith’s shop, where men are working with hammers at an anvil. He pleads with them to help him and places his head upon the anvil. A man with a large hammer strikes the mouthpiece until the instrument has been forced out of his mouth. He stands up again, apparently no worse for the experience (and happily without a big hole in the back of his head). Nevertheless, they pick him up and dunk his head into a bucket of water several times, giving us one final laugh as the film ends.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet2

It’s easy to imagine the early Surrealists seeing this movie in youth or even childhood and loving it. It has all of the elements – including violence and bodily disfigurement – that would fascinate them later. The star and director was Ernest Servaès, who did a series of “Artheme” films for the next few years, although I believe the company he worked for, Eclipse, folded during the First World War and there isn’t much trace of him after that. According to imdb, he lived long enough to make two movies named “Mirelle,” one in 1922 and one in 1934, with that last version being the only feature length film of his career. He has a delightful personality as a French comedian, although he lacks the physicality of a Keaton or a Chaplin and probably would never have made a big hit in the USA. The effect of the clarinet is uneven, Ernest has to keep his head ducked low in order for it to look straight, and much of the time it is obvious that it is constructed of two separate pieces attached to the back of his head and stuck in his mouth. This movie has a light touch that is appealing today. I liked the images of the French coast (the water is rough and full of large, fast-moving waves) and the location shots on the streets, which give a definite sense of place; most of the park looks just like the parks we’ve seen in Keystone comedies, which is itself interesting – I guess even a hundred years ago, a park was a park.

Director: Ernest Servaès

Camera: Émile Pierre

Starring: Ernest Servaès

Run Time: 4 min, 12 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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).