Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: French Cinema

The Mystical Flame (1903)

This is a classic example of Georges Méliès filming one of his stage magic acts with a few trick photography effects and calling it a film. Coming the year after “A Trip to the Moon” and other serious efforts like “Robinson Crusoe” it may seem a bit disappointing, but surely this is where the steady income came from for Star Films.

Mystical Flame

Méliès steps onto a stage, with one of his familiar backdrops and picks up a skull that is sitting on a chair, after playing with the jaw for a moment, he tosses it into the air and it becomes a handkerchief. He does various tricks with the handkerchief, turning it into a larger napkin and then a large sheet, from which he summons forth a liveried servant. The servant helps him to bring a large screen onto the stage, and then a stool-like object, which the Star Films catalog describes as a “low table.” He sets fire to the top of the table, and a flame flares up briefly before lowering to reveal the figure of a woman. The woman steps down from the table and Méliès leads her about the stage, then puts her back atop the table. He leaves the stage and the servant professes his love for the woman, who slowly fades away. Méliès returns and chases the servant off, perhaps blaming him for her disappearance, then he tumbles over the chair and disappears himself. The servant rushes to the chair to see where his master has gone, but Méliès re-manifests on the stool/table and grabs him from behind, causing him to disappear in a puff of smoke when he touches the table. He does the same with the chair and finishes the act.

Mystical Flame1

The flame is only very briefly on stage; it might make as much sense to call this movie “The Mystical Handkerchief” or even “The Skull.” The existing print isn’t that great and I’m sure this is one of those movies that would look better in the original hand-painted color. Still, it gives us a sense of the whimsy and fun that Méliès brought even to simple projects during the peak of his productivity. When in doubt, he could always make someone disappear! The black screen, which serves no obvious purpose, was probably brought in because it was easier to do in-camera effects in front of a neutral black background. The Star Films Catalog refers to the character Méliès plays as a “juggler” though he never juggles anything, and it says he appears “from under the table” although he just fades into existence on top of it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

The Witch’s Revenge (1903)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès takes the basic format of one of his magic shows and integrates it into a plot – a plot that seems to playfully celebrate the diabolical powers of Satanism! Lighthearted and fun, it manages on a small budget to provide almost as much entertainment as one of the longer films he was experimenting with at the time.

Witchs Revenge

The stage is set as the throne room of a medieval King, with a throne and some lesser courtly chairs at one end and a post with chains attached at the other. A backdrop completes the picture, suggesting a large room with a colonnade allowing a view of a city beyond. A man with a beard (played by Méliès)is in chains, dragged in by two guards while another man, evidently the King looks on. The King signals that the bearded man be shackled to the post, but the sorcerer (for he is such) pleads with him for mercy, promising to use his powers to benefit the King. The King, intrigued, agrees and sends the guards out of the room. The sorcerer now summons an imp, who rises from the floor and tumbles, before going off-stage. Moments later, a large portable stage (identified in the Star Films catalog as a “palanquin”) is brought forth. The sorcerer gestures and three women in Greek costumes appear. The sorcerer gestures again and they come to life, now dressed in courtly clothes, one assuming the role of a Queen and the others her ladies-in-waiting. The King takes the Queen by the hand and escorts her to a place of honor near the throne and the ladies take up positions nearby. The sorcerer now begins some tricks to amuse the Court, beginning with a chair that he makes spin in place and hop around. He turns it into a clown that performs some tumbles before becoming a chair once again. The sorcerer sits in the chair and disappears. The King rushes over to investigate, only to find the sorcerer is now in his throne! He summons the guards but the sorcerer turns them into demons, who chain the King to the post that was meant for the sorcerer. The sorcerer takes his crown and his Queen as the King struggles against the chains.

Witchs Revenge1

The French title of this movie is “Le Sorcier” which is why I have described the man with the beard as a sorcerer, but the English title uses the term “witch,” which has come to be associated only with women. This was not always the case, and during the time of the witch trials it could be used to describe a person of either gender who made a pact with the Devil to gain worldly power. In that sense, it works just as well for the condemned magician of this story, who obviously does call upon Hellish powers to usurp the King’s position. Why would Méliès make a movie in which the Devil wins? Well, it’s not the first time there has been some playful blasphemy in a Méliès film, for example in “The Devil in a Convent.” But, I think the explanation here has more to do with the nature of comedy. The movie begins with a man in chains, bullied by guards, and in the power of the King. It’s funniest if that situation is reversed at the end. Think of Charlie Chaplin, and the other “little men” of silent comedy, and how they overcame cops, bosses, waiters, large powerful convicts, and other minions of authority. Here, Méliès is doing the same thing, only in this case the authority is endowed with the Divine Right of Kings, so the element of sacrilege is already there, even without bringing in imps and demons. Méliès takes it one step further, and, this time, unlike in “The Devil in a Covent” or “The Devil and the Statue,” he skips the “squaring-up” at the end and doesn’t have the sorcerer get his due – which would make this a moral lesson, rather than a simple comedy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 22 secs

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

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.