Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

Photograph (1896?)

This very brief comedy from Auguste and Louis Lumière establishes some of the visual language that would be used by slapstick comedians until the development of sound. The movie confirms that even very early in the history of cinema, movie makers were thinking of ways to create short scenarios, not simply photographing commonplace reality and reproducing it for audiences.

Photograph

The frame is set up so that we can see two men clearly, from head to foot. They appear to be in a garden or yard behind a private dwelling. One man (Auguste Lumière) sits in a chair, wearing fine clothing. His hat lies on the ground. The other (who I’m pretty sure is not Louis) stands behind a large camera, preparing to take his portrait. The seated man fusses with his hair and the other man poses him and runs back to his camera. As he tries to take the picture, the other man continues to fuss and squirm, preventing him from getting a good shot. Finally, when the seated man takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose, the photographer runs over in frustration, seeking to pose him again, but as he does, he accidentally knocks over a leg of his camera tripod, causing the camera to crash on the ground. The photographer gestures in despair as the seated man gets up to retrieve the camera, which is now wrecked.

Like “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie takes advantage of its short running time to depict a simple mishap and give the audience a quick laugh. No doubt it would have been shown with live narration, the speaker playing up the situation and incident so that the audience was ready for the big crash. Even without this embellishment, it is easy enough for a modern audience to follow and get the joke – so long as they can recognize the large box-shaped thing for a still camera! I’ve had to include a “?” in the date, because Kino’s “The Movies Begin” collection does not indicate its release information, aside from telling us that it is “Lumière #118.” To make matters worse, on Youtube a different movie claims to be “Lumière #118” and says it was released in 1895, which seems too early for such a high number – only ten of their movies were included in the famous screening at the end of that year. It probably is a remake of this movie, using different actors. The Lumières often remade their more successful pictures (I believe there are three distinct version of “Workers Leaving the Factory,” for example), and the Youtube video is longer and does not star either of the Lumières. 1896 seems like a reasonable guess for this version, but it is still speculation.

Director: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 35 secs

You can watch it for free here.

Gulliver’s Travels among the Lilliputians and the Giants (1902)

Another fantasy from Georges Méliès; this one draws from the work of English wit Jonathan Swift, although the emphasis is on whimsy and special effects rather than satire.

The movie begins with Lemuel Gulliver (evidently Méliès himself, for some reason made up as an old man) holding a lantern and carefully stepping through a set decorated with miniature houses. The buildings vary in architecture, and there seems to be a pagoda shoulder-to-shoulder with a minaret and Greek columns adorn another structure which is near what looks like a Medieval European house. Gulliver points and chuckles at some of the structures, then moves off-stage. The next thing we see is him asleep, evidently somewhere near the town center (based on the proliferation of taller buildings, now all thoroughly European) and a row of tiny people stand on a landing above him. He is draped with ropes, indicating that the Lilliputians have tied him up, and the mob wields weapons, eventually beginning to throw spears into his body, causing him to wake up. The next scene shows him seated at a normal-sized table, using cutlery and a cup all proportioned to his size, while miniature chefs bring up a ladder and climb up it to provide him with food. They pour jug after jug of wine in his cup, which he polishes off with one quaff. Now an entourage arrives, escorting the miniature queen in a palanquin. Gulliver lifts this onto the table and converses with her, then moves her back down to Earth so she doesn’t have to climb the ladder. Now smoke suddenly billows forth from a neighboring building, but Gulliver extinguishes the fire with a normal-sized spritzer he happens to have on hand.

The scene suddenly cuts to a tight three-shot of some people in Medieval dress playing cards around a table. One of these seems to be a dwarf. A young lady comes in bearing a wadded up handkerchief; when she opens it, out tumbles a tiny Gulliver! They stare at him in amazement and laugh, one of the men blows pipe smoke at him. The scene cuts to show Gulliver alone with the young lady giant, on his knee, perhaps making an outlandish proposal. She cups her hand to her ear, evidently unable to hear him and he produces a ladder and climbs up to get closer. She gestures, accidentally knocking him off the ladder and into a giant coffee cup.

The story of Gulliver has always had fairy tale elements that have appealed to children, but Swift’s original story included biting wit and satire of English and European politics. One part that usually makes it into screen adaptations is the war between the Lilliputians and a neighboring nation of tiny people (Blefuscu) over the question of which end of a boiled egg should be cracked open first. Swift intended this as a comment on wars between Catholics and Protestants over the question of transubstantiation, but it translates well to almost any era in which bloodshed occurs over the least little things. The actual method Gulliver used to put out the fire is usually cleaned up, as it is here, however it’s a bit hard to believe that a shipwrecked man managed to salvage his spritzer. Méliès dispenses with pretty much any kind of social commentary here, although it is interesting that in Republican France he retains the Lilliputian nobility and royalty. Of course, children understand kings and queens from a young age, and it fits with his fairy tale setting. The effect of differently-sized people is achieved throughout by the use of a split screen and two separate shots being taken of the actors at different distances from the camera to make them appear larger or smaller. This results in a very limited range of movement for most of them. The most impressive use of this effect is when Gulliver is on the table, surrounded by three giants to the right, left, and behind him. His “stage” is defined by the back of a chair (or probably a set painted to resemble a chair), but it does seem to put tiny him in the middle of giant action. Longer than many of his movies at about four and a half minutes, it’s not an epic like “A Trip to  the Moon,” but it is an interesting piece of work that took obvious time and care.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min, 13 secs

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

The Last Cartridges (1897)

This early short film from Georges Méliès lacks any camera trickery or stage magic, and might even be mistaken by a modern viewer as a docu-drama, or recreation of an event from history for educational purposes. A bit of investigation shows it to be even more interesting.

The stage is set as a proscenium-style arch, appearing to depict the upper-floor interior of a partially-ruined dwelling. Several men in tattered and unmatched uniforms enter from a window via a ladder and they run about with guns, firing out the window at an unseen opposition. One of the combatants is Méliès, who appears to be wearing a fez. Some of the men ascend another ladder at stage right, apparently taking to the rooftop. Smoke indicates when they fire, and also traces bullets flying in from outside. At one point, a puff of smoke suggests the explosion of a mortar shell in their midst, and one of the men falls over. He is assisted away from the battle to the rear of the room, and at the end of the footage a nun comes in to see to him.

The original painting.

This movie is one of the relatively few examples of a film reproduction of a painting, using the addition of motion to bring to life an image that people were already familiar with. Of course, such movies quickly went out of fashion with the addition of longer narratives, and filmmakers more often turned to literary sources or stage plays for inspiration, but this is a great early example of a director “thinking visually” instead of trying to bring visuals to pre-existing words. In this case, the picture is an 1873 painting by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville depicting a battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This movie was produced in 1897, so most of the adults in the French audience remembered the war, and those too young to remember surely had learned about it in school or from their parents. The painting and the movie are intended to show the determined patriotism of the defenders, the hardships they had endured, and to give the French an opportunity to celebrate their nation despite  crushing defeat by German forces. The one thing that is missing for us today is the color, which really makes the film seem ineffective next to the painting, but apparently this occurred to someone else; according to “The Silent Era” a remake of this movie at Lumière may have been the first to have been hand-painted, which became a standard for Méliès films in later years. Alas, I have not found any recreation or preservation of the original color version.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 1 min, 11 secs

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

The Dancing Pig (1907)

This very odd offering from Pathé apparently traces its origins to a popular music hall routine that has since earned a place in obscurity. It offers a glimpse into the world of entertainment popular audiences knew long before we were born.

A proscenium-style stage is established, with a small table to one side. In the center stands a very large, anthropomorphic pig – or more precisely, a person in a large pig costume, wearing a top hat and a vest. He bows to the audience a few times and a young girl flounces onto the stage, dancing around the pig and then sitting at the table, putting a box on the table and starting to pull items out, one by one, and set them on the table. The pig shows considerable interest, coming over to look over her shoulder, and she pushes him away. He returns with a handkerchief and kneels before her. She takes the handkerchief and throw it at him to signal refusal. This goes back and forth for a while until she suddenly pulls his vest off. The pig looks embarrassed, as if he is ashamed of being naked on stage, although of course the costume does not include any pig anatomy (and he didn’t have pants in the first place). She dances a jig of triumph and offers the pig one of two batons pulled from offstage, though the pig is busy knocking her box to the floor by grabbing the tablecloth in order to “cover up.” A stagehand removes the table as the pig finally consents to hold the baton. The girl and the pig do an odd little dance with their batons, more or less in time with one another. The dance ends with the girl holding the pig’s tail as they exit the stage. A final shot shows a close up of the pig mask, demonstrating its elaborate articulation, including a fully functional, and rather large, tongue.

I can honestly attest that this is the most impressive animal costume I’ve seen in a century film, and I’ve seen a few of them. In addition to sticking out its tongue, the pig can roll its eyes, pull back its lips in a smile, and wiggle its ears and nose. That’s almost on a level with the famous masks designed for “Planet of the Apes” sixty years later. It was obviously worth the effects budget from the point of view of this Vaudeville performer, whatever it made for the film maker. The question is why go to all that effort for such a bizarre and ultimately simplistic routine? The actual performance, as we see it, takes advantage of none of these abilities, we only see them in the close up, and I suspect that the performer wearing the mask couldn’t really do most of them without pulling his hands out of the arms of the pig, in order to manipulate wires in some other part of the costume, so I wonder how this even played on stage. At all events, the pig is undeniably creepy, at least to modern tastes, and has been described as “nightmare fuel” in at least one other blog. Definitely weird, and maybe only would work in France.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min, 24 secs

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

Children Digging for Clams (1895)

This very short film by Auguste and Louis Lumière is typical of their early films demonstrating daily life in motion. It provides a bit of a look at the world of 125 years ago, though mostly leaving you wanting to see more.

A dozen or so children are in a tide pool, using a variety of devices to try to locate clams. Fairly little actual digging takes place; the more prominent children are using something like a spaghetti strainer on a stick to strain through the watery sand and try to pick out larger objects. Some of the older children are paying more attention to the camera than to their ostensible work, though the little ones remain intent on finding clams. A group of adults, mostly women, stands in the background watching. All of the women are dressed in full-length dresses with feather hats, making me wonder if it was a cold day at the beach or if this was just how everyone in France dressed for a day on the beach at the time. The children (mostly girls) have hiked up their skirts in order to wade in the tide pool, and one or two little boys are in short pants. All of them, apart from one very small toddler, are also wearing hats, probably to protect from the sun. Early on in the movie, a mule-drawn cart passes by in the background, filled with children who are enjoying the ride. I get the impression that this represents middle-class children’s entertainment, not the tasks of hard-working French children who hunt clams for a living.

Director: August Lumière

Camera: August Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

An Impossible Balancing Feat (1902)

Coming five years before “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” this short by Georges Méliès pioneers, and in some ways outdoes, that movie’s central effect, despite limitations set by the primitive technology. As always, Méliès manages to bring a sense of fun and flair to a simple performance.

A proscenium-style set depicts a stage dressed with Greek statuary and a small stone tower. The door of the tower opens up and Méliès appears inside, sitting on a chair. He comes forward on the stage, bows, and gestures, causing the set to disappear. He removes his outer clothing with a flourish, now he is wearing an all-white costume. He moves to center stage, and three “twins” come out from him, one standing to his right, two to his left. The original sits back down in the chair and the first twin ascends the wall, seeming to balance on top of his head. Eventually, he turns over and is doing a headstand on the head of the original, who extends his arms and the two other twins balance on his hands, eventually doing headstands as well. Suddenly the twins disappear and Méliès is holding two flags (they go by really fast, but I think one is French and one American). They disappear and Méliès snaps his fingers and has his original suit back on. He bows for the audience and marches comically off the stage.

This movie is a fairly typical “magic show” style of trick film, such as we’ve seen many times now from Méliès. However, it combines rather more effects than one would expect in an earlier film. We have the twinning (which of course he did much more extensively in “The One-Man Band”), we have several appearances and disappearances, and we have the “balancing trick,” which uses the same effect as we saw in “The Human Fly.” In combining all of this, we have a rather more impressive array of special effects than Segundo de Chomón gave us later in “Kiriki.” However, de Chomón seems to have spent more time on perfecting the illusion than Méliès did. Objects frequently overlap in this film, and as the twins appear, both they and he original become semi-transparent, allowing us to see through them to the background, which is somewhat shaky. Presumably audiences were less picky in 1902, and just happy to see anything that looked like an impossible trick, but by 1907, they would have picked up on such sloppiness.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On the Roof (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès has no special effects to speak of, but demonstrates his use of film to show comedic narrative with minimal time and structure.

We see a set dressed a typical Parisian rooftop, framed as a proscenium. At the lower right of the screen, a window looks into the bedroom of a woman preparing for bed. Two burglars crawl along the roof of this house, breaking in through a skylight. The woman shrieks and protests, but the two overpower her and drop her from the roof. The two men proceed to fill sacks with the belongings they find in the room, while Méliès, dressed in a rather gaudy uniform, ascends the roof from the opposite side. He nearly reaches the top when a chimney he is holding onto gives way, causing him to tumble down the side of the rooftop and have to start over. Meanwhile, the thieves, alerted by all the noise he has made, prepare for his arrival. When he starts to try  to get through the skylight, they grab him and tie a heavy weight to him, immobilizing him half-in and half-out of the apartment. While he pulls out his sword and tries to free himself, they escape, although one sneaks back to steal his boots while he is in this compromised position.

This is a light, amusing comedy, probably with families and children as the expected audience, and quite possibly similar to clown acts that would have appeared on the stage of the Robert Houdin Theatre in years before Méliès started making movies. The only illusion involved is the construction of the tiny set to represent an outdoor urban space and the entrance to a full apartment, very much in line with the sort of sets that are possible on a stage, with the benefit of the camera’s inability to see the “sides” of the set, where it cuts off and becomes a stage. The narrative is minimal, with the characters lightly sketched, but it is a story, unlike much of cinema from the 19th century, and it has a beginning, a middle, and a (somewhat abrupt) end.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 9 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Human Fly (1902)

This simple trick short from Georges Méliès is similar to “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats” in the execution of its effect, but somewhat simpler (and five years earlier) than that movie. Although we know how he pulled off the “magic,” the performance of Méliès makes this still a delight to watch.

A proscenium-style set shows a hall in a castle or mansion, and there are several ladies in upper class dress assembled as an audience. Méliès comes out in a Russian-style costume and gives a Hopak or squat-dance, to which the ladies clap as he becomes more and more animated. Suddenly, he turns and runs up the wall! He then comes back down for a bit more dancing, before ascending the wall again to do several tumbles and then return to the ground for a finale. The movie ends with his bow.

As with the other movie, this was accomplished by setting  up a camera directly above a floor painted to match the backdrop, then editing and using double-exposure to make it appear that Méliès was doing the impossible. Partly because overhead shots were so rarely used at the time, the trick would not have been obvious to most audiences. The Star Films catalog tells us that Méliès is a “Hindoo” in this film, although his dress and dancing seemed Slavic to me – I suppose that this is another example of the careless way in which “exoticism” was utilized to generate interest in magic and movies at the time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 47 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Post No Bills (1896)

A very simple comedy short from Georges Méliès that doesn’t use any trick photography. No doubt this was an early experiment, and we are lucky to be able to see it at all.

We see a wall with a guard station, on what appears to be a genuine outdoor street. A soldier in uniform marches past, and we see writing on the wall that reads, “DÉFENSE d’AFFICHER.” The soldier marches off screen, and soon a man in a white painter’s uniform carrying a bucket appears. He pulls a poster from behind a post and glues it to the wall with a brush from his bucket. He runs off, and soon another man, similarly attired, comes up with an even bigger poster and glues it over the other one. The first poster man returns, and the two argue, soon throwing their glue pots at each other. Suddenly, they run off and the soldier marches past again, oblivious to the poster and to the bucket on the ground. Then his officer walks up and orders him to stand at attention, dressing him down for failing to protect the wall from vandalism. They march off screen together.

The “Star Films Catalog” uses just two words to describe this movie: “very comical.” Apparently they couldn’t think of much else to say about this artifact, at a time when they were distributing much longer and more complex works, but they kept it on as probably one of the cheaper properties they could occasionally sell to a backwater or particularly un-choosy theater owner. For 1896, it’s a reasonably involved story line, with multiple characters, each with his own motivations and reactions. We don’t get a good look at anyone’s face, but I think Méliès plays the first poster-hanger, gauging from the way he moves (Méliès had a distinct body language all his own). I’m assuming they used the outdoor set because this was before he had built his open-air studio in his backyard, but it could be a particularly clever backdrop. The real evidence that it was shot outside is that there’s a shadow of a tree branch on the lower left of the screen, and no one ever seemed to think to do things like that in 1896 to lend their sets verisimilitude (indeed, Méliès may have regarded it as a “mistake” to shoot it – he always avoided that sort of thing later).

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (see above)

Run Time: 1 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Montmartre’s Kids (1916)

This wartime propaganda film masquerades as a human interest documentary, but it’s easy to see that the action is contrived. It gives us a look at a Parisian neighborhood during World War I, and a sense of what motivated people’s sympathies at the time.

An opening intertitle assures us that the people of Paris are determined to fight on, and that the children of this besieged city are just as affected as are the adults. We then see a group of local kids kitted up to play soldier, with some even dressed as nuns to treat the wounded. One particularly adorable child has a toy cannon, but most are carrying broken buckets and other scrap as “ammunition.” Two kids, using a tin can and an old pipe as a radio, receive “orders” to “bother the concierge” at a particular address. This is duly passed down the line. The troops assemble (the kid with the cannon stumbles cutely several times), and they charge down the hill to the address, where they toss over their junkyard ammunition. This scene is cross-cut with the concierge, wielding a broom, on the other side of the wall being pelted with trash. The kids make a “strategic retreat” across a hill with a windmill, and the nuns treat the “wounded” in the final shots.

Monmartre is a hill in the north of Paris which was home to several famous artists, though here it looks like a poor neighborhood full of street urchins, reminiscent of Bout-de-Zan. The movie is intended to tug at the heart-strings of viewers, getting them to sympathize with France in its suffering under attack by the German Army. By showing kids, genuinely under threat of war, innocently playing at war themselves, the film makers urge right-thinking adults to show courage and stoicism in the face of the attack. From our point of view today, it’s great to see all these images of a Paris neighborhood from over 100 years ago. A lot of the shots of the area the kids play in makes it appear as an undeveloped lot, or perhaps a junkyard, but for them it serves as a city park. The edited sequence of the attack on the concierge, requiring two camera set-ups to show simultaneous action, demonstrates that this is not a spontaneous action the kids are taking, but rather a scripted storyline. Audiences in 1916 may or may not have been sophisticated enough to figure this out.

Director: Francisque Poulbot

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 50 secs

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet, if you do, please comment.