Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Jeanne d’Alcy

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).

Joan of Arc (1900)

A while ago, I discussed the Cecil B. DeMille version of Joan of Arc’s story, but he was not the first master film maker to take it on. In fact, Joan’s countryman Georges Méliès beat him to the punch by over fifteen years, and did in in (hand-tinted) color, too!

The movie (as we have it today) begins with the visitation of young Joan by angels who tell her of her mission to save France from occupation by the English. We see different angels appear before her and she falls prostrate before them. She then goes to tell her parents, who seem quite distressed by the news. The next scene shows the gate at Vaucouleurs, where the guard at first seems disinclined to admit her, but he is convinced when she demonstrates her faith in God and France, and he summons other guards to escort her to the master of the house. The tableau for this scene shows a raucous party going on inside the castle, with Robert de Baudricourt leading the festivities, while a fat curate toasts and drinks from a flagon. When Joan comes in, Baudricourt mocks her and invites her to sit on his knee, but her faith overcomes him and he agrees to give her soldiers to support her cause.

The commentary on my DVD refers to the next scene as “the endless parade,” although it is only about a minute and a half long. Joan rides a horse in armor, displaying her weapons, and leads soldiers through the streets of the city. Extras in period costume march behind her, extending the small number of extras by having the same people, sometimes in different costumes, march past repeatedly. The next scene shows the crowning of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral, which I suppose the original French audience knew without being told was a result of Joan’s victory at Orléans. The movie then deipicts its one battle scene, the Siege of Compiègne. Here, the French attack a gate in front of a castle, but while they are doing so, English soldiers come out and grab Joan, taking her inside the castle. The other soldiers valiantly attack the castle, despite gunfire from the arrow slits, and throw up siege ladders to take it, but they are unable to rescue Joan.

In prison, Joan has another dream in which she sees her visions again. Taken to the interrogation, Joan refuses to sign a retraction, and is condemned as a heretic. In the Rouen marketplace, Joan is burned at the stake. The wood carrier at the execution, bringing in fuel for the burning, dies on the spot from the fumes. In a final apotheosis scene, Joan rises to heaven, where she is greeted by God and the saints.

There is a missing scene at the beginning which apparently establishes Joan as a simple peasant girl leading sheep. I suspect there may be some other missing footage as well (the Star Films catalog lists it as running five minutes longer than the version I’ve seen), but the film was considered lost until 1982, so we’re lucky to have it at all. At more than ten minutes long, it almost qualifies as a “feature film” for its time. George Méliès played seven roles, or one in nearly every scene. Joan of Arc, although widely considered a saint in France, was not actually beatified until 1909, and not technically canonized until 1920 (four years after the DeMille version). This film in a number of ways reminds me of Guy’sThe Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” and despite the use of camera trickery for the Angelic visitations and Joan’s entry into heaven, has a much more serious tone than other works of Méliès at the time. The film includes some shots where actors move closer to the camera than is usual for Méliès, I think simply because of the crowded sets, but the effect is to give us some medium-shots for once.  Along with “The Dreyfus Affair,” it shows that Méliès regarded film as an educational medium as well as entertainment, and that he had a broader range than is often assumed.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 10 Min, 18secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Cinderella (1899)

Alternate Title: Cendrillon

Georges Méliès provides this version of the classic fairy tale in one of his most ambitious nineteenth-century productions. It includes five different camera set-ups and, according to the Star Films Catalog, “thirty five” extras, all on a typically small stage.

cinderella-1899The movie starts a little abruptly, with Cinderella in the kitchen begging to be allowed to go to the ball, but her step-sisters leave and slam the door in her face. She mopes around a bit and then her fairy godmother appears and turns various household pests into servants for her and a pumpkin into a coach. Then she gives her a gown to wear, and Cinderella climbs into the coach (right there in the kitchen!) and drives off, though the godmother stops her to warn her to be back before midnight. She disappears through a trap door in the floor. The next scene shows the ballroom, with lots of nobles dancing elegantly together. The Prince sits to one side on his throne and takes little interest until Cinderella arrives. Then he steps onto the floor with her and they dance while the other guests watch. Suddenly a clock appears on the floor and shows that it is midnight, and Cinderella tries to leave, but the Prince detains her. Then a funny gnome-like creature hops out of the clock, holding up another clock-face, and Cinderella tries again to leave, but before she can make it, the fairy godmother appears and causes her dress to become rags again. She flees in humiliation while the nobles laugh, but the prince picks up one of her shoes that has been left behind. The next scene is in her bedroom, and she has a nightmare involving clocks and the gnome, all dancing about to taunt her. Then she is with her sisters again, and they are apparently ordering her to get to work, when the Prince comes in to try the shoe on everyone. Of course, he tries the sisters first, and it won’t fit, then Cinderella, and it does and the fairy godmother restores her dress and the Prince and Cinderella leave together. Now the scene shifts to outside the palace, and a crowd of people gathers to watch the wedding procession as it passes. There are soldiers, peasants, nobles, a priest, and the King and Queen as well as the happy couple. The onlookers give a dance in their honor and they are joined by a ballerina who performs. At the end, the backdrop is lifted to show the Prince, Cinderella, and the rest of the wedding party on their thrones.

cinderella1-1899In the early years of cinema, certain stories were made and remade ad infinitum. This is now the third version of this story to be reviewed on the Century Film Project (the others starred Florence LaBadie and Mary Pickford). It is a somewhat unusual take on the tale, especially since the ball is over before half of the movie’s run time has completed! Actually, a lot of what follows struck me as padding, especially the dance at the end. It seems like more time could have been spent at the beginning establishing Cinderella’s life of drudgery, and less time celebrating her wedding, though the clock nightmare was interesting. I’m not 100% certain whether the surviving copy is complete, either – perhaps there was more of the cruel step-sisters in the original. One interesting thing about the Flicker Alley print is that we get about 30 seconds of hand-painted color at the beginning, which is truly lovely, although it goes away all too quickly. I really wanted to see the ball in color, and the final dance might have been more interesting with it as well. For Méliès, this was a fairly mature production: he uses special effects in showing the magic and telling the story, but they are not the point of the film, and he links the several different scenes well with basic editing. It was probably one of the most expensive movies he had made at the time as well – just in terms of all the sets he had to build alone. For once, we have some reasonably reliable cast information. Jeanne d’Alcy, who played the queen mother, was later to be Méliès’s wife, and has appeared uncredited in a number of his other movies.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mlle Barral, Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bleuette Bernon

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Blue Beard (1901)

Alternate Title: Barbe-bleue

This short by Georges Méliès is one of the longest things he did in 1901 and also one of the most serious subjects he handled. The story of a man who routinely murders his wives is a classic part of the horror genre, and fits neatly into my October exploration of its history.

blue-beardBy this point in time, Méliès and other filmmakers were beginning to stitch separate scenes together to create longer narratives. Méliès had already done something like this when he created the reenactment of “The Dreyfus Affair” in a series of single-scenes. However, those movies were sold separately, while this is billed as a single item in the Star Films Catalog, meaning that it would have been sold to exhibitors already edited together in sequence.

blue-beard1The movie begins with the “Betrothal of Bluebeard,” which shows a group of nobles in a set built to resemble a palace. There are many young women present. Suddenly, a man with a large beard and a haughty manner (Georges Méliès) appears, but the women reject him when he kneels before each in turn. He then has servants bring out cardboard props representing large sums of money, but this does nothing to change the women’s minds. They are more impressed when he displays a necklace, and the father of one of the ladies forces her to accept, although she (Jeanne d’Alcy) shows obvious reluctance.

blue-beard2The next scene is “Preparing the Wedding Feast.” We see the marriage party cross through a kitchen set, at which many cooks are hard at work. There is a procession of cardboard cut-out props showing elaborately prepared boars, steaks, desserts, etc. At the end, one of the cooks is bumped and falls into the stew pot. Another cook tries to fish him out, but only pulls out his clothes. Then there is a brief “Wedding Feast” scene at which the nobles sit down and eat in celebration in a sumptuous dining hall. It is not clear whether they are served the stew with the dissolved cook in it.

blue-beard3Next is the scene “Bluebeard departs on a journey.” Bluebeard displays the keys to his castle to his new bride and gestures that she is free to go to any room she likes. Then, he produces a large key separate from the set, and indicates the one door we can see on the castle set. He forbids her to enter this room, and gives her the key, perhaps as a test of her honor. Once Bluebeard leaves, the young woman shows an interest in entering the forbidden room, but she resists. Then an imp or devil appears (I believe that this is also Méliès in costume), and entices her until she opens the door. The next scene takes place in the “Forbidden Chamber.” At first, the room is gloomy and dungeon-like, and there are seven sack-like objects dimly visible in the background. The bride crosses the room and opens the window, revealing the corpses of Bluebeard’s previous seven wives, all hanging from ropes at the back of the room. The bride is shocked, and drops the key on the floor. The key grows to tremendous proportions, apparently to show us that it is now stained with blood, and when it returns to normal size, the bride attempts to clean it off. The imp dances about in this scene as well. The next scene is titled “A Troubled Dream,” and it shows the bride lying in her bed while visions dance above her as in-camera effects. She awakes upon having a vision of Bluebeard impaling her with a sword.

blue-beard4In “Bluebeard’s Discovery and Condemnation,” the bride is caught when Bluebeard returns home and sees the blood on the key, and he flies into a rage. This scene is staged on a courtyard set, the only set used twice in this movie. The bride flees stage right into a tower door. Bluebeard pursues her and we see the top of the tower as a set for “Looking in the Tower for Fatima.” There is another woman present (possibly intended to represent a Guardian Angel). Bluebeard seizes his wife and drags her back downstairs. The scene “At the Place of Execution” takes place back in the courtyard, as does the scene “Arrival of the Deliverers,” making them appear to be a single scene with two parts (and then a third): at first, Bluebeard threatens and rages at his bride, and then, just as he is about to slay her, a group of noblemen break through the gate (actually, it looks like paper) and fight Bluebeard, finally running him through with a sword and pinning him to the wall. He continues to struggle while they reassure the bride and the imp reappears to dance around the stage. Then the sword is removed, cuing the “Death of Bluebeard,” in which he tries to rise and fight again, but finally falls to the ground. Then, there is a short “Apotheosis: The Eight Wives over Bluebeard’s Body.,” in which we see the women in a happy afterlife, with Bluebeard sprawled before them.

Bluebeard, as depicted by Gustav Doré in 1862

Bluebeard, as depicted by Gustav Doré in 1862

Bluebeard is a traditional figure in French folk tales, and there were several operas written about him in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This doesn’t seem to draw on any of them, however, although it probably draws on a 1697 story version written by Charles Perrault. Audiences in 1901 (especially in France) would be familiar enough with the story that it was possible to make this movie with no Intertitles, although in fact it was probably accompanied by live narration, at least when shown at the Robert Houdin Theater. I have had to fill in some details from reading about the narrative – it didn’t all make sense to me when I watched it cold. In particular, I didn’t understand the part about the expanding key, which I think Méliès was using as a kind of close-up, to make sure we saw the key and what had happened to it, but to a modern viewer it just looks like an anomalous magic trick. It’s also strange that the catalog breaks a single scene in the courtyard into three separate titles.

At any rate, this is quite possibly the most genuinely horrific work we’ve seen from Méliès, even granting that it retains his sense of playfulness (especially in the character of the imp) and fantasy. The implications of the story are quite grim, and even the bit with the cook dissolving into the stew works as sort of a black comedy joke, establishing the low value of human life in Bluebeard’s castle.  Bluebeard writhing on the sword is also fairly grotesque for the time. This is also the most complex movie I’ve seen from Méliès at this early date, although we are just one year away from his masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon.” That movie is just a little over two minutes longer than this one, but involved more elaborate sets and special effects, and a somewhat larger cast as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bluette Bernon

Run Time: 10 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Pillar of Fire (1899)

This may be the last of the nineteenth-century horror films I review – almost certainly it is the last pre-1900 for this year’s history of horror. It is another short by Georges Méliès who, it seems to me, contributed more to the rise of this genre of movie than any of his contemporaries. Of course, there are many lost films from the time, so it’s hard to be certain.

Pillar of FireIn this case, the scene is a diabolical furnace-room, possibly a depiction of Hell, with two gargoyle-like statues in the background. A bright green Devil appears and dances around while stoking the flames in a fire pit. Eventually, a woman rises in a flowing dress and does a Serpentine Dance. She changes color, becoming increasingly red as her dance becomes more strident, and finally she leaps into the air and rises upward as puff of flame and smoke.

Obviously, I’m calling this “horror” because of the Demonic elements, although in fact the girl doesn’t seem scary at all, and is even somewhat angelic in her original white-clad appearance. I think she represents the spirit of the flame. I made note of the colors because, happily, this is one of Méliès’s movies that exists in a hand-painted print, allowing us to see it in its full-color glory. The green and red come through very nicely, and hand-painting works especially well for these examples of Serpentine Dances, which were common in the early film period.

Imdb implies and The Silent Era confirms that this movie is derived from a scene in “She” by H.Rider Haggard, which was itself made into several other movies, with some horror elements (though not usually what people think of as “horror films”). If it is intended to reproduce that scene, several key characters are missing, as well as any other indication of context, but it is possible. The pillar of fire scene in that story comes at the climax, and so, we would see the woman as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” and the dance ultimately causes her death.

Alternate Titles: “La Colonne de feu,” “La Danse du feu,” “Haggard’s She: The Dance of Fire”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Jeanne D’Alcy

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Haunted Castle (1896)

Haunted Castle

For my history of horror, I’ll probably wind up talking about several different movies which have been claimed as the “first” horror movie. This is probably the earliest of those, for what it’s worth, but it’s also probably the hardest to nail down as “really” being a horror movie. Made by Georges Méliès very early in his experimental period, it is clearly meant to produce more chuckles than shudders. Nevertheless, the use of bats, demons, boiling cauldrons, skeletons, and classically “sheeted” ghosts all evoke the images we associate with Halloween and horror today. Méliès himself appears as one of the hapless “cavaliers” who wanders into the castle, and he uses a variety of simple camera tricks to make things appear and disappear, or move about by themselves, while the befuddled cavaliers turn on one another or look on in wonder. Interestingly, the Devil, who makes an appearance, is not played by Méliès, who may not have figured out how to “double” himself on the screen at this time (or who may have thought it too much work to bother with). Considering how early this movie is, it is still impressive in its ability to entertain, although I doubt if it ever scared anybody.

Alternate Titles: “Le Manoir du diable,” “The Devil’s Castle.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 3 Min, 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.