Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Star Films

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)

The Last Cartridges (1897)

This early short film from Georges Méliès lacks any camera trickery or stage magic, and might even be mistaken by a modern viewer as a docu-drama, or recreation of an event from history for educational purposes. A bit of investigation shows it to be even more interesting.

The stage is set as a proscenium-style arch, appearing to depict the upper-floor interior of a partially-ruined dwelling. Several men in tattered and unmatched uniforms enter from a window via a ladder and they run about with guns, firing out the window at an unseen opposition. One of the combatants is Méliès, who appears to be wearing a fez. Some of the men ascend another ladder at stage right, apparently taking to the rooftop. Smoke indicates when they fire, and also traces bullets flying in from outside. At one point, a puff of smoke suggests the explosion of a mortar shell in their midst, and one of the men falls over. He is assisted away from the battle to the rear of the room, and at the end of the footage a nun comes in to see to him.

The original painting.

This movie is one of the relatively few examples of a film reproduction of a painting, using the addition of motion to bring to life an image that people were already familiar with. Of course, such movies quickly went out of fashion with the addition of longer narratives, and filmmakers more often turned to literary sources or stage plays for inspiration, but this is a great early example of a director “thinking visually” instead of trying to bring visuals to pre-existing words. In this case, the picture is an 1873 painting by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville depicting a battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This movie was produced in 1897, so most of the adults in the French audience remembered the war, and those too young to remember surely had learned about it in school or from their parents. The painting and the movie are intended to show the determined patriotism of the defenders, the hardships they had endured, and to give the French an opportunity to celebrate their nation despite  crushing defeat by German forces. The one thing that is missing for us today is the color, which really makes the film seem ineffective next to the painting, but apparently this occurred to someone else; according to “The Silent Era” a remake of this movie at Lumière may have been the first to have been hand-painted, which became a standard for Méliès films in later years. Alas, I have not found any recreation or preservation of the original color version.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 1 min, 11 secs

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

An Impossible Balancing Feat (1902)

Coming five years before “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” this short by Georges Méliès pioneers, and in some ways outdoes, that movie’s central effect, despite limitations set by the primitive technology. As always, Méliès manages to bring a sense of fun and flair to a simple performance.

A proscenium-style set depicts a stage dressed with Greek statuary and a small stone tower. The door of the tower opens up and Méliès appears inside, sitting on a chair. He comes forward on the stage, bows, and gestures, causing the set to disappear. He removes his outer clothing with a flourish, now he is wearing an all-white costume. He moves to center stage, and three “twins” come out from him, one standing to his right, two to his left. The original sits back down in the chair and the first twin ascends the wall, seeming to balance on top of his head. Eventually, he turns over and is doing a headstand on the head of the original, who extends his arms and the two other twins balance on his hands, eventually doing headstands as well. Suddenly the twins disappear and Méliès is holding two flags (they go by really fast, but I think one is French and one American). They disappear and Méliès snaps his fingers and has his original suit back on. He bows for the audience and marches comically off the stage.

This movie is a fairly typical “magic show” style of trick film, such as we’ve seen many times now from Méliès. However, it combines rather more effects than one would expect in an earlier film. We have the twinning (which of course he did much more extensively in “The One-Man Band”), we have several appearances and disappearances, and we have the “balancing trick,” which uses the same effect as we saw in “The Human Fly.” In combining all of this, we have a rather more impressive array of special effects than Segundo de Chomón gave us later in “Kiriki.” However, de Chomón seems to have spent more time on perfecting the illusion than Méliès did. Objects frequently overlap in this film, and as the twins appear, both they and he original become semi-transparent, allowing us to see through them to the background, which is somewhat shaky. Presumably audiences were less picky in 1902, and just happy to see anything that looked like an impossible trick, but by 1907, they would have picked up on such sloppiness.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On the Roof (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès has no special effects to speak of, but demonstrates his use of film to show comedic narrative with minimal time and structure.

We see a set dressed a typical Parisian rooftop, framed as a proscenium. At the lower right of the screen, a window looks into the bedroom of a woman preparing for bed. Two burglars crawl along the roof of this house, breaking in through a skylight. The woman shrieks and protests, but the two overpower her and drop her from the roof. The two men proceed to fill sacks with the belongings they find in the room, while Méliès, dressed in a rather gaudy uniform, ascends the roof from the opposite side. He nearly reaches the top when a chimney he is holding onto gives way, causing him to tumble down the side of the rooftop and have to start over. Meanwhile, the thieves, alerted by all the noise he has made, prepare for his arrival. When he starts to try  to get through the skylight, they grab him and tie a heavy weight to him, immobilizing him half-in and half-out of the apartment. While he pulls out his sword and tries to free himself, they escape, although one sneaks back to steal his boots while he is in this compromised position.

This is a light, amusing comedy, probably with families and children as the expected audience, and quite possibly similar to clown acts that would have appeared on the stage of the Robert Houdin Theatre in years before Méliès started making movies. The only illusion involved is the construction of the tiny set to represent an outdoor urban space and the entrance to a full apartment, very much in line with the sort of sets that are possible on a stage, with the benefit of the camera’s inability to see the “sides” of the set, where it cuts off and becomes a stage. The narrative is minimal, with the characters lightly sketched, but it is a story, unlike much of cinema from the 19th century, and it has a beginning, a middle, and a (somewhat abrupt) end.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 9 secs

You can watch it for free: here.