Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Star Films

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).

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).

The Prolific Magical Egg (1902)

This trick film from Georges Méliès depicts a standard magic show, as one might have seen in the Theatre Robert-Houdin. We squeeze it into our “History of Horror” because it also shows some of the darker implications of magic and its uses.

Prolific Magical Egg

Méliès appears on a proscenium-style set which resembles a classroom – a blackboard with what looks like a mathematical formula written on it is in the background. There are also two stands erected to either side of the performer, holding up a board between them. He bows and produces a handkerchief. He folds this into his hand and moves close to the camera so that the audience can see his hands, when he opens it, the handkerchief has become an egg. He makes it disappear and reappear an additional time and then retreats to the part of the stage where the stands are erected. The egg suddenly enlarges to the size of his head and he places it on the board. Now he quickly paints a face on it and with gestures, causes it to grow even larger. It fades away to be replaced by a disembodied woman’s head, gargantuan next to the magician. She splits into three enormous heads, which space out along the board. When they move together and recombine into the first head, Méliès goes to kiss her, but now it transforms into an egg-shaped clown’s head, similar to the crude painted face he had first placed on the egg. Méliès laughs and it becomes a painted egg again, then he gestures for it to shrink back down and picks it up. He tosses it into the air and it becomes again a normal egg, which he makes disappear, pretending that he has eaten it. He leaps up onto the board and becomes a skeleton. Now a liveried servant comes out and removes the skeleton. Happy Halloween!

Prolific Magical Egg1

The most interesting piece of this movie is probably the least obvious to modern viewers: Méliès actually zooms in on his hands through the simple expedient of walking upstage towards the camera. As a result, he is no longer framed in a long shot, with his entire body, including feet, visible to the audience. We only see him from approximately the waste up. This sort of thing was still somewhat controversial a decade or so later when feature films were becoming popular. Some critics felt that it was disturbing, or inappropriate somehow to show only parts of bodies on the camera, instead of using it to film a staged performance as it would be seen from the back rows, with entire bodies of everyone in the scene visible at all times. Of course, within a few years medium shots would be no big deal, but they are very rare in 1902. The disembodied heads and enlarging egg were accomplished using a split screen and moving the camera closer, but Méliès had already done this in “The Man with the Rubber Head” by this time. The ending is the most “horror” aspect, with the skeleton briefly animate, but seemingly dead when the servant comes out to remove it. I thought at first that this was an unfortunate side effect of eating prolific magical eggs, but the Star Films Catalog suggests that there is some missing footage at the beginning in which the skeleton is brought out and transforms into the magician – perhaps he is himself a kind of undead illusion.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

The Enchanted Well (1903)

For this week’s instalment in my “History of Horror,” I’m looking at another of the early films of Georges Méliès that plays with infernal concepts and imagery for the entertainment of an audience. Whimsy, special effects, and rapid action define the scene.

Enchanted Well

A proscenium-style set displays a rural town, with a well placed at the center of the stage. A group of people in peasant clothing assemble at the well, then all go off in different directions. Now a country bumpkin approaches the well, followed by an old crone, who entreats him. He responds by chasing her off, and she makes mystical motions over the well, cursing it. The bumpkin draws water from the well, and pours it into a bucket, but the bucket suddenly bursts into flames as a demon leers forth from the well. The peasant fights with the demon, and it disappears, but now the well itself shoots forth cardboard flames, and it rises into the air, becoming first a tower, and then a furnace with two snakes coming out of it. The peasant fights the snakes, and then faces devils with pitchforks, and finally a giant snake that almost drags him into the furnace before it turns back into a well and spews forth human-sized frogs, which catch him and throw him down the well. The bumpkin manages to climb back out of the well, dripping with water, but the well moves and then turns into the Devil himself. This causes the people of the town to assemble and at first they confront the Devil, but he makes a motion and they all bow down. Then he turns into a bat and flies away.

Enchanted Well1

Méliès here shows a very traditional Medieval view of witches and their compacts with the Devil (despite current Wiccan propaganda, the word “witch” in pretty much all European languages is associated with malice and evil). The witch curses the well water out of spite when the bumpkin does not give what she asks – in the Star Catalog description it claims all she was asking for was alms – and soon her familiar spirits and demons are plaguing the man and the town itself. Although Satan does fly off at the end, there is no sign he has been vanquished, having established himself as “Lord of This World” by making the peasants bow and depriving the village of its only water supply by taking the well away, perhaps destroying the entire community over this minor slight. No wonder it was necessary to fight witches with fire and torture! In the world of Méliès films of course, this is less frightening, and more fun, than it sounds, and the fast-paced action and torments of the bumpkin are played for slapstick humor, and even small children will be more amused by the large eyes of the snakes than frightened. There are a number of very rapid substitution splices, showing the Méliès has now mastered his special effects in these longer sequences, where before one or two appearances/disappearances were all we could expect. Judging by how he moves, I believe the bumpkin was played by Méliès himself, though he may have been the Devil as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min

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

The Marvelous Wreath (1903)

This short from Georges Méliès is a typical magic show, presented in period dress, with the emphasis on simple camera tricks and the charming personality of Méliès himself. All of his whimsy and love of fantasy comes through on the screen, as usual.

Marvelous Wreath

Méliès enters the set and bows with a flourish. He is made up in period clothing, including a wig, looking rather like one of the Three Musketeers, and the set is designed in proscenium style to represent a room in a castle, with a coat of arms visible hanging on a wall behind him, next to a large throne. He begins with a kind of G-rated strip show, in which he takes off his hat and cloak, other outer garments of the costume, and eventually his sword and boots as well, tossing each item onto a hook on the walls with supernatural precision. He places two stools on either side of the stage, and recovering his cloak, he holds it over each of them in turn. When he removes the cloak, a young girl, dressed as a page, appears sitting there. The girls remove his hanging garments from the hooks, then climb up onto the stools. He now manifests a thick rope, swinging it about like a lasso. It soon turns into a rigid hoop, which he pushes about the stage with a stick, before smashing it through a large piece of paper, which causes it to become a solid circle. The pages hold up the circle, and a demon or imp suddenly leaps out from it and dances about the stage. Méliès breaks the hoop, and has the pages hold it up high; now pulling flowers out of his hat, Méliès puts them on the broken hoop to form a wreath. He produces a fan and fans the wreath and the figure of a woman appears within. He fans it away and then reattaches the ends of the wreath, making a screen on which a close up of a clown’s face appears. The imp leaps up and jumps at the clown, causing an explosion in which both disappear. Méliès takes down the wreath and turns the pages into his outer garments, donning them and then running toward the throne just as the film ends.

Marvelous Wreath1

According to the Star Films Catalog, the movie ends when the “musketeer” as Méliès’s character is known, “disappears in a most mysterious way,” but that part seems to be missing in the surviving print I’ve seen. It’s reassuring to know that people in Méliès’s time also saw the outfit he wears and thought of musketeers (despite the fact he carries a sword, not a musket), perhaps already influenced by a stage version of the work of Alexandre Dumas. The movie is longer than the one-or-two-minute trick films of earlier years, but far shorter than epics like “A Trip to the Moon” or “Gulliver’s Travels.” None of the tricks we see are anything new, but he throws a lot of them together to make a fun performance. The use of the close-up to achieve the effect of the clown face is just one of many examples of him using this technique before it became widely accepted. Often, as in this case, the close-up was reserved for a disembodied head that was “gigantic” next to the other characters on the screen – the most famous example is of course the moon’s face in “A Trip to the Moon.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 4 Min

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

Off to Bloomingdale Asylum (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès is a reminder that white European attitudes toward race were about as insensitive as those in the USA in the early Twentieth Century. It constitutes a simple trick film built around clowning, but seems a bit disturbing for what it portrays within that.

In this case, it seems the best way to synopsize, is to directly quote from the “Star Films Catalog.” The language is not my own, but written for an English-speaking audience about 1905: “An omnibus arrives drawn by an extraordinary mechanical horse. On the top are four negroes. The horse kicks and upsets the negroes, who are changed into white clowns. They slap each other’s faces and by the blows become black again. They kick each other and become white once more. Finally they are all merged into one large negro, and when he refuses to pay his carfare, the conductor sets fire to the omnibus and the negro bursts into a thousand pieces.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the “negroes” of this piece are not black men, but white Frenchmen in blackface. Really black. In fact their faces are so black and their behavior so simian that I wasn’t 100% sure they represented human beings until I read the Star Catalog. Now, of course, visually this blackness contrasts with the white clown-face of the alternate appearance of the characters, which probably means that most people at the time simply read it as a clown show, but there’s a deep well of racism under the surface of this veneer. The effects are, of course, managed with simple substitution photography, well established by this time, and the “extraordinary mechanical horse” is basically a large marionette. Not one of the more illuminating works of  Méliès.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 6 secs

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

The Coronation of Edward VII

This film from Georges Méliès is another of his recreations of events in the headlines. In this case, the ascension of a new Monarch of the United Kingdom is an opportunity for Méliès to show respect and honor his cousins across the Channel – an appropriate sentiment for a D-Day post (even if Méliès wouldn’t live to see D-Day).

Coronation of Edward VII

The set is an elaborate and realistic (by Méliès standards) depiction of a section of Westminster Abbey, with many extras representing clergy and nobles who would have attended the event. A man in especially fine looking regalia (Edward) comes forward and kneels to the Archbishop, then footmen remove some of his robes. He is seated at a lower chair in front, then some words are spoken over him and he kneels again in prayer. His sword is presented to him and this he gives to the Archbishop to bless. A new, very long robe is placed over his shoulders and he takes his seat again, to be presented with an orb and a scepter. Soon the crown is placed on his head, and suddenly everyone in the audience places their crowns or headgear on as well. Now crowned, he moves to an upper throne, and his Queen joins him at a slightly lower throne. The film we have today cuts off as other officials take their positions.

Coronation of Edward VII 1

Because of the long life of his mother, Queen Victoria I, Edward VII was over sixty by the time this coronation occurred, and his reign would only last until his death in 1910. Victoria was seen as the definition of an era and an empire, and her death and Edward’s accession dominated world news at the time. Although his reign officially began in 1901, the coronation was delayed (in part due to his health) until August 1902, presumably about the time Méliès produced this. Méliès knew his audience would read about the coronation in the papers, and he obviously went to some effort to make his reenactment look as authentic as possible. There is no trick photography, none of his whimsical set design or props, everything is made to look as real as his small set will allow. There are some moments when the crowded nature of the set forces the Archbishop of Canterbury to make some delicate maneuvers to avoid crushing set pieces, but apart from that the illusion is quite convincing, at least on the grainy print I was able to watch. This realistic, current events work aligns with “The Dreyfus Affair” series to remind us of another, more realistic Méliès tradition.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: George Albert Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 53 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Sea Fighting in Greece (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès combines his knowledge of special effects with his interest in recreating contemporary events, in the style of newsreel footage, for the edification of audiences. Here, Méliès takes on the depiction of a foreign war for an audience safe and sound in peaceful Paris.

Sea Fighting in Greece1

A backdrop shows a seascape, complete with a battleship in the background, while the foreground is an articulated stage that rocks side to side, in semblance of the deck of a ship. A single cannon points stage left, and Méliès himself, in the coat of an officer, peers through a spyglass. Suddenly, he summons his crew to the deck and they man the cannon, firing at an unseen enemy, apparently to the port side of the ship (assuming that it is understood to be sailing away from the camera). Now, Méliès turns his spyglass toward the camera and the drew looks intently in our direction, apparently sighting another enemy. There are two bursts of smoke, and one of the crew falls to the deck, apparently hit. Smoke billows out from the deck. The other men scamper to form a bucket brigade, tossing water at the smoke, while one tends to his fallen comrade.

Sea Fighting in Greece

This movie was intended to represent the Greco-Turkish War, which was raging in another part of Europe at the time, making this a “ripped from the headlines” movie. In fact, naval battles were not a major factor in this war, but it was expected that such fighting could break out at any moment, and Méliès may simply have been interested in anticipating this, or in trying out the technique of the rolling ship and the cannon blasts. The articulated stage would be used again in Star Film #112 (this was released as #110), “Between Dover and Calais”, where it is mobilized for comedic effect rather than action and suspense. While audiences were less experienced in decoding motion pictures at this time, it seems likely that most understood this to be a dramatic recreation of events at sea, not the real thing.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 3 secs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min, 13 secs

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