Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Harlequin

The Legend of Ponchinella (1907)

This early short from Max Linder demonstrates a very different style to what would become his established routine in later movies, seeming to draw from the work of Georges Méliès, as well as French folklore, for its inspiration. Rather than his usual fussy modern aristocrat, Max plays a fairy tale hero in this one.

The movie begins with a series of shots of Max, in Harlequin costume, leading a group of short masked people (probably intended to represent elves, dwarves, or goblins) through various medieval settings. Real locations are used for this, no doubt genuine castles and other ancient landscapes in France that were briefly closed off so that the costumed actors could appear to exist in some timeless period. The small band climbs a stairwell and enters a room, causing smoke somehow to start billowing up from the floor, then they all run off screen. The next scene is preceded by the intertitle “Harlequin rescues his love.” We see a group of well-dressed people surrounding a girl on a short pedestal. She moves in a mechanical way, turning and bowing to the people in the room, to their evident delight. Suddenly the smoke enters the room and all of the aristocrats flee, leaving the clockwork girl alone. She stumbles and collapses from her perch.

The room now transforms from a nice, well-appointed space to a ruin. Now Max enters and finds her in pieces on the floor. He gathers up the pieces of the girl and stuffs them into a sack and carries her away. The next shot shows Max, still with the sack, some distance from the smoking wreck of a castle. He uses a magic wand to create a bridge across a chasm and escape the wreckage. He brings the sack to a beautiful fountain and with a wave of the wand, brings the girl back to life. She now moves in a natural manner, embracing Harlequin and walking off with him. The final scene is called “Harlequin Triumphant” and it involves a series of fairy dances, in a set that closely resembles a Méliès movie, even to the point of having a face like a large moon presiding over the proceedings.

It’s important to realize that when this movie came out, Méliès was one of the most important and successful filmmakers in the world, and that much of the movies coming out imitated or outright stole from him. This is at least somewhat original, more of a homage than a rip-off, though it’s not really what we think of when we think of Max Linder. We hardly see Max’s face at all – most of the scenes are tableaux in proscenium-style sets in long shot. There is one rather lengthy pan as Max and his fairies move through the streets, but Max is always shown at full-figure, never in close-up. The use of actual castle locations is what gives the movie its distinctiveness, although most of the action takes place in sets like the one used for the final fairy dance. I believe that the final fountain where Harlequin resurrects his girlfriend may be at Versailles – possibly a good part of the movie was shot there. In all, it’s an amusing entry in French cinematic history, though not very representative of the work of Linder.

Director: Albert Capellani, Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 7 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Magic Book (1900)

This typical trick film by Georges Méliès plays on the theme of still images coming to life that mirrors the miracle of motion pictures and would be seen again in such movies as “The Hilarious Posters” and “The Living Playing Cards.” A minimal plot is woven around what appears to be a filmed performance of a magic show; just what we would want and expect from Méliès.

A proscenium-style set is decorated to be a kind of fantasy workshop, with clocks, a skeleton, a desk, and a very large bookstand at center stage. Méliès walks onto the set from a door at the rear, dressed in a beard and a bald cap, with wild hair springing out below the cap. He gives a bow to the audience and indicates the bookstand, then pulls a book fully as tall as himself from somewhere offscreen, carrying it over and putting it on the stand. The book’s title (in both French and English) is “Le Livre Magique/The Magical Book.” He opens the book, revealing a picture of a clown-like figure on the first page. He dances and gestures and the drawing comes to life, a man in a similar costume emerging and the page now appearing blank. The clown imitates the dance Méliès just gave, then goes to the side of the stage. Méliès turns the page, revealing pictures of Harlequin and Pierrot, and the process is repeated, with Méliès acting out a bit of physical business, bringing each figure to life, and the figures imitating his movements before going to one side, where they interact like old friends meeting unexpectedly.

The next page shows a young woman and an old man. When Méliès pulls the young woman from the page, all of the clowns respond with obvious interest, so I guess this represents Columbine. She does a ballerina dance and Méliès separates her from the clowns, but they soon run across the stage to fall at her feet once again. Now he animates the old man. The old man fights the clowns, one at a time, making it possible for Méliès to return them to the book. Pierrot, however, sneaks off while Méliès is distracted finding the right page, and Méliès returns all of the others to the book without noticing. He then discovers the blank page and looks around, easily finding Pierrot hiding next to the bookstand. He grabs Pierrot and forces him into the book, closing the cover, but Pierrot does not turn into a drawing, he tries to fight his way out of the pages. When Méliès tries to force the cover shut, he again hops out of the book onto the stage. After appearing and disappearing a couple of times, he is again thrust at the book, and this time becomes a drawing once again. Méliès bows, but the book falls on top of him. He disappears and reappears at the rear door, bowing once again for his performance. Then he picks up the book and walks offstage.

While this is a relatively simple film, in terms of effects and story, there are a couple of interesting aspects. One is the use of both French and English on the cover of the book, suggesting that Méliès was already aware by 1900 that much of his audience was English-speaking (and probably largely American). The other thing that stood out to me was the use of the familiar Harlequinade characters as a kind of theatrical/cinematic shorthand to give more depth to characters who could as easily have been generic clowns or nameless figures. In that sense, it’s interesting that it’s Pierrot, and not Harlequin, who almost gets the best of Méliès at the end. He’s usually the loser in this comic drama, but perhaps Méliès had a soft spot for him.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Pierrette’s Escapades (1900)

Alternate Title: Le depart d’Arlequin et de Pierrette, Le Fredaines de Pierrette

Alice Guy produces a short Harlequinade, which is available in hand-tinted color. While it is colorful and interesting, it probably baffles most modern audiences, especially in the United States, where no tradition of Harlequin exists.

Pierrettes EscapadesWhat we see is a woman in colorful clothes, who appears to be getting ready in her dressing room. Suddenly a clown in white of indeterminate gender appears, and seems to try to steal a kiss from her, which she resists. Finally, she sends the clown away and seems to relax. She begins to dance, and suddenly a colorful clown with a bicorne-style hat appears and dances with her (this new clown is definitely played by a woman). She welcomes a kiss from this clown.

Pierrettes Escapades1Without the context of the Harlequin story, this is all fairly obscure, and even with it, it is not perfect. Pierrot is traditionally the name of the “sad clown, pining for the love of Columbine,” and “Pierrette” is a feminized version of that, suggesting that all of the characters in this version are female. I really couldn’t tell the gender of the actor playing Pierrette here, though, partly because she is the one person who doesn’t get any color, and so is just a black-and-white blob. Anyway, the story is essentially that Columbine rejects Pierrot/Pierrette in favor of Harlequin. Sometimes, this makes Pierrot a tragic figure, other times he is a buffoon. Neither of those concepts came across to me here, but Harlequin certainly seemed more fun.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.