Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Louis Feuillade

The Eyes That Mesmerize (1916)

Alternate Titles: Hypnotic Eyes, Les yeux qui fascinent

This installment in the crime serialLes Vampires” involves hypnotism, cross-dressing, and murder, as well as a hard-to-follow plot that strains credulity while being hard to predict. In other words, it’s a lot like other episodes of the series.

Focus! Focus!

Focus! Focus!

The movie begins by telling us that more than two weeks have passed since the events of “The Corpse’s Escape,” and that a notary has been killed at Fontainebleau. We also learn that Juan-Jose Moréno (Fernand Hermann) is a master of mesmerism, and he now brings his maid into the parlor and hypnotizes her, causing her to go into a deep trance. Then, Mazamette (Marcel Levésque) and Guérande (Édouard Mathé) decide to attend the movies. They see a story about the recent murder, and recognize Irma Vep (Musidora) and the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) in the footage. Immediately, they rush out of the theater and make plans to go to Fontainebleau. Along the way, they happen to see a visiting American named Warner galloping at high speed on his horse to a remote spot. They follow him and see him hide a box among some boulders, which they recover after he has left. At their hotel, they discover that it is $200,000, which was stolen from an American millionaire named Baldwin, who has posted a considerable reward for its recovery and the capture of Raphael Norton, the man who stole it. They realize that Warner is Norton in disguise.

This has nothing  to do with the plot.

This has nothing to do with the plot.

Meanwhile, the Grand Vampire is now disguised as a Count named “Kerlor” and Irma Vep accompanies him as a young (male) Viscount called “Guy.” They also figure out who Warner is (he’s not at all good at keeping secrets) and plan to rob him of the money. Moréno manages to get the room between “Kerlor” and “Warner,” although he has no idea what is going on, and he has brought a very large trunk along with him. The Count tells a rather silly story about a supposed ancestor of his who had to fight two bulls during the Napoleonic Wars (we see the whole thing played out). This somehow distracts the Warners while Irma Vep gets into her Vampire costume and searches Warner’s room until she finds the map. Of course, she is accosted by Moréno, who knocks her out with chloroform and drops her out the window to his gang waiting below. They bundle her into a car and drive off. Meanwhile, Moréno takes his hypnotized maid out of the trunk (!) and disguises her as Irma Vep, then has her give the map to the Grand Vampire in that disguise.

eyes-that-mesmerizeThe Grand Vampire now swings into action, sending his confederate (Miss Édith) to go find the loot indicated on the map. She gets there and finds instead a note from Guérande, inviting the legitimate owner of the box to meet with him. Then she gets captured by Moréno, who tells her to tell the Grand Vampire that he is holding Irma Vep and will release her for a ransom. She reports all of this to the Grand Vampire, who decides to get out because Guérande might have called the police, but plans to try to recover Irma Vep anyway. In the early morning, the police raid the hotel and find that Warner is actually Norton, so Guérande and Mazamette win the reward. Moréno falls in love with Irma and decides not to return her to the Grand Vampire. Instead, he hypnotizes her and causes her to write a confession of her various crimes, then orders her to kill the Grand Vampire, which she does with dispatch, as soon as he walks in the door.

Don't mess with Irma Vep

Don’t mess with Irma Vep

The episode ends with the now-rich Mazamette giving a press interview to his friend Guérande and other reporters, assuring them that, “though vice is sometimes slow to be punished, virtue is always rewarded.”

Since there are no actual vampires in the series, I am usually forced to stretch things a bit to justify my inclusion of it in my annual October “history of horror.” In this case, the connection is hypnotism, which has been a theme of horror writing and cinema since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemaar.” When Mesmer first began convincing the educated world that hypnotism was a real psychological phenomenon, and not just a parlor trick, Europeans became frightened at the possibility of a strong will dominating a weak one. What if crimes could be committed while under hypnosis, even murder? Feuillade plays on that theme in this film by causing the weak-minded maid to become a virtual robot, and Irma Vep to switch allegiances from the Grand Vampire to Moréno. In that case, however, I’m not certain mental dominance was necessary: she appears to me to have chosen to abandon the less successful master criminal for the one who has really become the focus of the story for the last two episodes. If the Grand Vampire is really dead, though, I’m not sure how they can justify calling the rest of the serial “Les Vampires.”

How far would you trust this woman?

How far would you trust this woman?

And now for my usual nit-picky logical questioning of the plot. OK, so Moréno hires a girl who looks sort of vaguely like Irma Vep to be his maid, hypnotises her and carries her into the country in a trunk…so she can wear a mask for a few seconds and give the Grand Vampire something Irma Vep was going to give him anyway? How did he know in advance to have her wear a Vampire costume? How did he manage to get the right room when everyone was using assumed names? How did he know to station his gangsters outside the window with a net just at the moment he was going to push her out the window? And why did we have to watch that silly bullfighting sequence? Anyway, I’m glad Mazamette finally has enough money to send all his children through school. Hopefully the adventures of Musidora and Moréno will continue to thrill us next week.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Levésque, Musidora, Fernand Hermann, Jean Aymé, Miss Édith, Maxa

Run Time: 58 Min

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

The Corpse’s Escape (1916)

Alternate Titles: Les vampires: L’évasion du mort, The Dead Man’s Escape

This chapter of “Les Vampires” continues the cycle of capture-and-escape without doing much to advance the storyline, although it includes some references to earlier work of Feuillade and his mentor, Alice Guy-Blaché. The title as well as the plot seem to flirt with horror tropes, without actually becoming a horror film as we would understand the concept now.

corpses-escapeAt the end of the last movie, the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and Irma Vep (Musidora) had managed to elude capture and rob the spoils of their “colleague” Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), while he was arrested. At the outset of this episode, Moréno is being interrogated by the magistrate when he produces a pill and announces that he’d rather die than go to prison. He takes the pill, and a doctor pronounces him dead without an examination after hearing the magistrate describe what happened. The “body” is moved to a holding cell until the morgue attendants can come pick it up, and of course Moréno gets up and cold-cocks a guard in order to escape.

The heroic Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is up late at night watering his plants when he sees Moréno and his lackeys go into a nearby warehouse. He has the presence of mind to take a piece of clay to make a mold of the lock of that warehouse, just in case he ever wants to sneak around in there. Meanwhile, the intrepid, tepid Philippe Guérande (played by, yawn, Édouard Mathé) pauses in his writeup of the escape to look out the window, and is suddenly hooked around the neck and pulled down to the street below, where a gang of Vampires put him into a wicker basket with a Gaumont symbol on the side. He waits until they place the basket near some stairs, then tips it over and tumbles down to another street, where some good Samaritan passers-by open it and free him. He discovers the name of the costume company that rented the basket on another side, away from the Gaumont symbol.

corpses-escape1In investigating that company, he finds that the basket was rented by a Baron de Mortesalgues, yet another alias of the Grand Vampire. Unfortunately, Moréno was also present at the costume company, since he needed some phony police uniforms for another heist, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to nab Guérande and drags him back to the warehouse. He tells Guérande that he’ll let him go if he gives him a way to get revenge on the Grand Vampire for stealing his stolen loot, and Guérande tells him the Baron’s identity. Once Moréno leaves, Guérande is quickly rescued by Mazamette.

The Baron is having a big society do for his “niece,” who is actually Irma Vep. They dose the guests with sleeping gas and emerge with other members of the Vampires in full costume to loot their wallets and jewels. However, Moréno is able to jump on top of the getaway car and throws the luggage containing the loot off the roof, then jumps off himself, and goes back to collect it all. Mazamette visits Guérande and accuses him of being “too honest,” (after flirting shamelessly with the maid – careful Mazamette, we know you have a wife and children!) but Guérande shows him a quote about focusing on the end result and Mazamette agrees to continue the fight.

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

The beginning of this episode was like a less-interesting version of “The Murderous Corpse” with Moréno substituting for Fantômas. Even the prison set is identical. I’m not sure why it was necessary to bring in a second master criminal for this series – perhaps because the hero was too bland? It seems to distract from focusing on the Vampires, and this episode has far too little of Musidora as a result. We do get a good amount of Mazamette, however, which is a consolation, and I love the little pantomime Lévesque performs to make certain we understand that he’s copied the key. The sequence with Guérande in the basket reminded me of “The Drunken Mattress” and other surreal comedies by Alice Guy where a person is trapped in an inanimate object which seems to develop a life and personality of its own.

Obligatory-but-admittedly-silly-logic-department: In this movie, we are led to believe that the Grand Vampire can convince half of the wealthy people in Paris to attend a party for his alias’s “niece.” Either he has somehow found time to build an identity and attend social functions for years in order to lure them to his home and rob them of whatever they brought with them (really a pretty petty theft) OR he was able to con them just by putting the word “Baron” before a name. Also, in this movie, we see Guérande pulled down from his apartment one story to the ground below, but in “The Red Cryptogram” we saw Musidora and the Grand Vampire escape out that same window to the rooftops of Paris, quite a bit higher up than a single story. Which is it?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann

Run Time: 38 Min

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

The Spectre (1916)

It’s October once again, and with that I continue my history of horror. I covered all of the 1915 episodes of “Les Vampires” last year at this time, and so now I continue with the episodes released in 1916. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a horror film, since the vampires in it are just a gang of ordinary master criminals, but since the imagery and atmosphere has been influential in the horror genre since then, I include it for consideration at this time of year. Hang on to your hats, as usual the plot is ridiculously complex!

Like, who's this chick?

This episode begins by introducing us to yet another of the alter-egos of the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé), a successful real estate agent by the name of Treps. One day a new client, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), comes to his office and requests an apartment with a safe. This arouses Treps’s greed, and he and Irma Vep (Musidora) break into the safe by way of a connecting door in the wall from the adjoining apartment. All they find, however, is a satchel full of the same type of black costume the vampires use during criminal activities. They conclude that he is a “colleague” and put the satchel back.

specterMusidora is meanwhile working for a bank under the alias of Juliet Berteaux. She learns of an upcoming transfer of 300,000 francs to be carried out by a “carefree” man named Metadier who likes to watch Gaumont films in the evenings. However, should Metadier be unable to perform his duties, she will be the substitute. So, she and the Grand Vampire attack Metadier on the train on the way home from the movies and kill him with a hatpin, dumping his body from the moving train. The next day, as she goes to get the money, suddenly the “specter” of Metadier walks in and takes it! The Grand Vampire follows him, but he escapes down a manhole.

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

When the intrepid but largely ineffectual Philipe Guérande (Edouard Mathé) learns of the theft, he goes to the bank office in disguise and recognizes Musidora. He is able to learn her alias and address, and has his agent Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) distract the maid so that he can sneak in. Musidora and the Grand Vampire, saddened at their failed heist, decide to look in Moréno’s safe to see if he’s had any success. They are startled when the body of Metadier falls out and even more surprised to find the 300,000 francs! Guérande now arrives and tries to take them captive, but of course the maid hits him on the head and they easily escape with the money. He wakes up and calls the police just before Moréno returns to find his safe broken into. Guérande holds Moréno and learns the true story: he was casing a villa for a robbery when he found the body of Metadier on the tracks, and found the note authorizing him to take the money. He then took the corpse home with him, disguised himself as Metadier and stole the envelope. Guérande hands him over to the police.

specter2Once again, the plot advances with no obvious resolution in sight: the Vampires killed a man and bungled a job, but still wound up with the money and Guérande is no closer to apprehending them. I liked this episode, though, because we got a lot of Musidora and not too much Guérande, although there wasn’t enough Mazamette for my taste. My usual logical criticism of the plot: it seems like the Vampires have to spend an awful lot of time working straight jobs in order to arrange their devious crimes. How exactly does one become a “successful real estate agent” when one only has a few days a month not wearing some other disguise? I think director Louis Feuillade handles the pacing and story complexity well. I’ve read some criticism recently that claims Feuillade always edited sequentially and never made use of inter-cutting between scenes. While that may be technically true, he does use cross-cutting here to show simultaneous actions in the adjoining apartments (maybe this could be seen as a single scene), and there’s good use of close-ups, location shots in Paris, and establishing shots that set up interiors. Also, he uses his triple-split-screen effect again to demonstrate a phone conversation, as he did in “The Dwarf.” Watching a Feuillade crime serial feels sort of like coming home: I more or less re-started this project when I watched “Fantômas” in 2014.

specter3Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Jean Aymé, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Eduoard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque

Run Time: 40 Min

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

The Dirigible “La Patrie” (1907)

Alternate Titles: The Dirigible “Homeland,” Le ballon dirigeable “La Patrie”

First, I should explain about the title. Most sources will refer to this by one of the above “alternate” names, but I was stuck with a quandary. As this is an English-language blog, I usually translate the titles into English or use a standard English title as my leading title. But, it seems wrong to me to translate the name of a ship, person, or (in this case) dirigible. We don’t talk about “The sinking of the Germany” when we mean the Deutschland, now do we? So, I’m calling it “La Patrie,” but translating the rest of the title to English.

Dirigible La PatrieSo, with that out of the way, what is this movie? It is a brief actuality film of a dirigible, or what modern Americans would probably call a “blimp,” being backed out of a hangar and launched for a voyage. All of the footage is taken from the ground, although one shot before the launch is close enough to see the captain and his crew clearly. As the movie progresses, the dirigible gets higher and further away. We also see one shot of the crowd of well-dressed men on the field watching the launch.

We haven’t seen a lot of actuality footage from Alice Guy in the collection I’ve been working through for the past four months, but I don’t know whether that’s because she didn’t shoot that much, or it hasn’t survived, or if Gaumont and Kino thought that would be of lesser interest. This is fun for modern viewers because the dirigible is something of an antique in a world of jet flight, and because of the idea that a crowd would gather to watch one launch. It’s nicely shot, but doesn’t offer much more than a quick window into a past event.

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On the Barricade (1907)

Alternate Title: Sur le barricade

This is the last narrative short I have from the collection of Alice Guy movies I’ve been reviewing since March. While most of them have been comedies (the ones with any story at all, that is), this is at least an attempt at a more dramatic, even action-packed movie, with a sentimental ending.

On the BarricadeA young man and his aging mother are eating a meal in a house whose door allows a view into the street. We can see uniformed men rushing by with guns, but the pair continue to eat. An intertitle reminds us that “Even during the revolution, it was necessary to provide for the household.” The young man gets up and takes an empty milk bottle. His mother urges him not to go out, she fears for what will happen if he gets caught in the fighting, but he insists. He goes out and we cut to a shot of some people building a makeshift barricade in the street, using parts of a wagon, bricks, baskets, and barrels. The young man approaches from behind the barricade, and the revolutionaries try to shoo him off, warning that the army is approaching from the other direction, but he says he needs to get milk for his mother (another intertitle), and they let him pass rather than argue further. The barricade keeps going up after he goes through.

Now we see a corner further along, with a large factory in the background. The boy runs up to the corner, and peers around as another group of revolutionaries retreats, forced back by the advancing troops. We see three of them get shot before the others retreat, the boy running along with them. They run down an alley, but the army pursues, and soon we are back at the barricade. The army is shooting down the revolutionaries, and the boy picks up one of their guns, but the soldiers quickly leap the ramshackle affair and take the survivors prisoner. At the officer’s command, hasty firing squad is set up, but the boy pleads to be able to take the milk to his mother, and gives his word to return. The officer grants him permission, and the boy runs off. We see his mother, pacing and fretting at his absence, and then he runs in with the milk. He puts the milk on the counter and hugs his mother, but then he insists he has to go. He goes back out the door and she follows. Meanwhile, the firing squad are finishing off some other captives, and the boy runs up just after one is shot. The officer seems surprised at the boy’s return, but doesn’t hesitate to order his men to take aim. Then the mother runs in front of the guns, and the soldiers refuse to fire at an old woman. She pleads with the officer and even he seems moved, ordering the men to volte-face and sending the boy and woman away free.

On the Barricade1There’s a continuity problem with this movie, in that the boy, coming from his mother’s house, first approaches the barricade from behind, but when he returns to the firing squad, he and his mother approach from the other direction (they exit back in the original direction, walking towards the camera). This doesn’t really make sense, unless he’s running around the block for some reason before coming back, but I don’t know how sensitive a 1907 audience would be to this detail. It would depend largely on how careful theatrical productions were to match exits with entrances. Of all the French movies I’ve seen from this period, this is the first to be set during the revolution of 1789, perhaps the most important event in European history to this time. From that point of view, it’s interesting to think about how Guy went about selecting locations in Paris that would look enough like they did 100+ years earlier to work for the audience – although I’m not certain that the factory with the name painted on the side was likely in 1789. This movie avoids dealing with political questions or the international implications in favor of a small, human story that reminds me of the sort of war movies D.W. Griffith made during his time at Biograph. It’s a bit hard to imagine anyone returning to a firing squad after being allowed to leave unguarded, but this is presumably meant to heighten our sense that the boy is honorable and good, and thus make us identify with him. For me, it doesn’t necessarily work as well as the bizarre comedies where inanimate objects come to life and so forth, but it is an interesting piece.

Director: Alice Guy, possibly with help from Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Irresistible Piano (1907)

Alternate Title: Le piano irrésistible

This is another of Alice Guy’s slightly surreal comedies about apartment life, as with “The Cleaning Man.” This is one of those comedies that takes advantage of the silence of the film in order to suggest sounds to the viewer’s imagination.

Irresistible PianoA man in a tall hat and a formal suit is moving into an apartment, and the moving men bring in his piano. As soon as they leave, he takes off his hat and sits down to play. The moving men bring in more furniture, but they begin to dance along with the rhythm of the piece. We cut to the apartment downstairs, where a couple is taking tea, and they also begin to dance. They dance out of the door and we cut back to the original apartment. They come in, apparently intending to complain, but they continue dancing instead. Another couple is engaged in housework, but they are also compelled by the music to begin dancing, and they also dance out their door to find its source. Now we see a group of women working for a dressmaker, sewing and making clothes. They also get the bug and start dancing, heading out to find the jamboree going on in the upstairs apartment. Finally, a passing policeman hear the noise and goes to investigate, but he also begins compulsively dancing. When he enters the room it is a huge party of people dancing to the piano. The pianist tries to end his piece, but the crowd will have none of it – they force him back to the keys. They seem to slow down as the piano player becomes increasingly tired, and he finally stops, slumped over the piano, and all the dancers stop and look at one another.

Irresistible Piano1This movie is a fairly simple one-trick-pony, but it does involve multiple set-ups and shots edited together in sequence. The fun part is that we can’t really hear what the music of the pianist sounds like, though we can see its rhythm in the movements of the dancers. In that sense, it may actually work better without a soundtrack, just allowing your imagination to supply the music. It’s interesting to me how often silent movies rely on the sound that characters would hear to augment their story – as if having to work without the sense of hearing made filmmakers more creative in its depiction. The characters in this movie seem to vary from middle class (the first couple and the dressmaker), to working class (the second couple and the dressmaker’s employees), and perhaps part of the point is the unifying nature of music.

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 10 secs

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

A Four-Year-Old Hero (1907)

Alternate Title: Une heroine de quatre ans

Another apparent collaboration between Alice Guy and Louis Feuillade, this short takes us out into location shooting on the streets (and parks) of Paris. The story is light and domestic in nature, and some use of cross-cutting is made to heighten tension.

Four Year Old HeroThe opening shows a typical stage set designed as a room in a middle-class family’s home. The father sits at a large desk in the center of the room and writes on papers, while over to one side we see the mother and a small girl. The nanny enters from a door behind the mother, and she gets up and helps the daughter into her coat. The nanny takes the child’s hand and leads her out the door. An Intertitle now comes up to tell us they are “on their way to Buttes-Chaumont Park.” Now we see our first exterior shot, a fairly tight shot of a doorway through which the nanny and daughter leave. They leave that shot on the right, and a nicely matched over-the-shoulder shot cuts in to give us the impression that they have simply walked across the street to the park. In the establishing shot of the park we see several other “characters,” who I suspect are not extras but just people who happened to be in the park that day. The next shot is tight on a bench and the path in front of it, and the nanny stops here to rest, quickly dropping off to sleep while the child takes out her jump rope and begins to play. Soon, she is jumping down the path away from the negligent nanny.

Four Year Old Hero1The child merrily hops her way through the park and another Intertitle appears, with the word “Apaches.” Now we see two rough-looking men beating up a third man near a gate. The girl enters through the gate and, thinking quickly, ties her jump rope to the gate at ankle-height, so that when the ruffians try to get away, they trip and fall into the bushes. Rather than wait for that to happen, the child runs off. After we see the expected trip-and-fall, we cut to a shot of the little girl running to a policeman for help. He gets to the scene in time to arrest the muggers, and also returns the jump rope to the girl, who skips away. The next intertitle introduces a “poor blind man,” who is walking near a canal. He tries to cross on a bridge, which is not fully extended. The print is damaged here, so it’s hard to see, but I think the child manages to extend the bridge so that the man does not fall into the canal. Next comes “drunkards in danger.” Here, the girl closes a gate in front of a trio of stumbling men before they manage to walk in front of a train. After the train passes, we see them strewn across the gate, snoozing happily. Now the little girl realizes she is lost, and approaches a policeman, who takes her into the station. At this point the nanny wakes up and realizes her charge is gone. Her search for the child is cross-cut with her interactions with the police, and their making phone calls to find her home. Finally, when she reports her error to the parents, the phone on the father’s desk rings. He picks it up and speaks to the police, who have his daughter. A policeman takes her home and she scolds the nanny, pulling her by the ear.

Four Year Old Hero2This domestic comedy never becomes terribly tense, because we always know the little girl is all right, but its focus instead is on transmitting the idea that the little girl is “wiser” than all of the adults around her. There is, however, some good editing and camerawork, and we happily escape from those phony-looking sets for much of the picture. The use of Intertitles is interesting, but a bit odd. There haven’t been very many in the Guy movies I’ve seen up to now (although that could be because they’ve been lost, which happens a lot with titled prints), and it seems to me that several of these are superfluous. I suppose they may have wanted to identify Paris’s famous park, but was it really necessary to tell us the muggers were “Apaches” or that a man walking with a cane was a “poor blind man?” To me, these titles seem to interrupt the action more than inform it. As with yesterday’s “The Cleaning Man,” the story here focuses on the actions of a single character (the little girl), and her performance could make or break the picture. She comes across as sweetly precocious, but never annoying, which is quite a trick under the circumstances. No doubt the lack of sound actually helps here, because she doesn’t have to remember lines, just act like a child, which was obviously no problem. If she was really 4, she’d by 113 years old today!

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run  Time: 5 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cleaning Man (1907)

Alternate Title: Le frotteur

This is another of Alice Guy’s late-period comedies with Gaumont, or at least it is according to the Kino/Gaumont release of Gaumont films, although again there are online sources that attribute it to Louis Feuillade. I’m inclined to think that these movies may have been collaborations, as Feuillade was coming up the ladder at Gaumont and Guy was soon to leave.

Cleaning ManLike, “The Fur Hat,” this movie also begins on an interior stage set with obviously fake props, in this case it appears to be the living room of a middle-class apartment, with a desk in the center of the room. A man is working at the desk when another man, in somewhat frayed clothing, comes in and offers to do the floor cleaning for him. The homeowner agrees, and he and the maid leave the room. As soon as they are gone, we see that the cleaning man has a very serious commitment to his job, and a very casual attitude toward the possessions of his clients. He hurls the desk and chair aside, oblivious to the damage they may suffer. He scrubs madly at the floor, knocking over a flower vase and other furniture, and whenever they get in his way, he tosses them aside as well. Soon, we cut from this scene to the dining room of another apartment, where a man and his wife appear to be enjoying breakfast. They seem to notice a commotion from above, and then their ceiling lamp begins to shake and bits of plaster start raining down on them. They run to the window and yell, and a policeman comes in their door quite soon afterward. At this point the lamp has crashed down and a good deal of plaster is strewn about the room. They all exit with the apparent intention of investigating upstairs.

We now cut back to the cleaning man, who is dancing about madly on the floor, continuing his work. The maid comes in and expresses amazement at how clean the floor looks, but as soon as she steps on it, she slides out of control. The cleaning man is unable to keep from slipping as well, and soon the room is filled with tumbling bodies as the owner, the police, and the downstairs neighbors arrive. Suddenly the floor, either because of the number of people or because it has been weakened by the thorough cleaning, gives way and everyone slides until they fall through the hole, crash through the floor of the ruined apartment downstairs, and finally tumble onto a man sleeping in a bed on the ground floor. The policeman arrests the cleaning man, who manages to cause further damage to the sleeping man’s furniture on his way out the door.Cleaning Man1

Although what we see is really a pretty simple edited sequence between three stationary long-shots, this movie works largely due to the manic performance of the actor in the title role. This is an example of how, even at this stage, proper casting could make a huge difference to a movie’s success, and why the star system began its rise shortly thereafter. The cleaning man’s lanky frame adds to the effect of his gesticulations and bizarre dance-like movements, and you can almost believe that he has scrubbed the floor so smooth that it has become frictionless (and undermined) at the end of his performance. His callousness toward his client’s possessions is also very funny. It’s interesting to note that this movie came out at a time when hygiene and cleanliness were becoming associated with middle class existence, and that brought with it a certain austerity in terms of furniture and decorative knick knacks, now seen as “dust collectors.” This movie touches on that, as well as the common wisdom that “you are most likely to slip and hurt yourself when the floors have just been cleaned.”

Director: Alice Guy, possibly with assistance from Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The False Magistrate (1914)

Fantomas_1916A master criminal is helped to escape from prison by the very man who has been hunting him down and then uses his powers of disguise to become a respectable representative of law and order while his foe languishes behind bars. This final installment in the famed serial by Louis Feuillade is an exercise in reversals, deception, and brilliantly tortured logic.

At the beginning of the movie, Fantômas is incarcerated in a Belgian prison at Louvain, but that doesn’t stop his gang from robbing a Marquis who tries to sell his wife’s jewels. The gang gets away with the jewels and the proposed payment, an amount totaling 500,000 francs. Juve is convinced that Fantômas will remain a menace until he is caught by the French police and executed for his crimes, so he hatches a plan to help Fantômas escape! He visits Belgium in the guise of an Austrian inspector of prisons and smuggles in a prison guard’s uniform for him to wear, then takes his place while Fantômas lets himself out of the prison. Read the rest of this entry »

Best Costume Design 1915

The clothing we wear affects how others see us and how we see ourselves. An actor’s body language and character can be directly influenced by their outfit, and time periods are established for the audience at least as much through clothing as through scenery. The movies selected for this year’s award for costume design all reflect the importance of this art to the motion pictures.

In “Trilby,” a bohemian subculture is established through clothing, and the development of the main character is shown through her wardrobe changes. In the “Les Vampires” episode called “The Deadly Ring” exotic costumes contrast with the day-to-day norms of Parisian culture. Theda Bara got to display some of the hottest fashions of 1915 in “A Fool There Was.” The Civil War era comes alive in the costumes of “The Coward.” And, although it is remembered today for the innovation of female nudity, the diverse costumes of Lois Weber’sHypocrites” help establish the archetypal nature of its characters.

The nominees for Best Costume Design of 1915 are…

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites

And the winner is…”The Deadly Ring!”

Deadly RingAs with last year, when I gave the award to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” outfit, again I chose what must be seen as one of the most iconic images of 1915 cinema, the famous bat-suit worn by Stacia Naperkowska for her brief and fatal dance sequence. While the other costumes in this movie owe a great deal to its “Fantômas” predecessor, the glamorous evening clothes of Jean Ayme and the Grand Inquisitor’s understated but official costume also earn a mention.