Apologies, but…

…doing justice to Méliès’ seminal A Trip to the Moon is taking a little longer than planned.

But normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

(UPDATE: It’s taking a bit longer than I originally expected, thanks to the biggest hard drive crash I’ve had in years followed by my entire family being laid low by a hideous stomach bug - but I should have made a full recovery from both in the next few days)

In the meantime, here’s a selection of links about the film:

Posted on 9th July 2008
Under: Uncategorized | 12 Comments »

The Dancing Midget

La Danseuse microscopique, 1902, 2m43s
Star Film Catalogue No. 394-396

A top-hatted magician shakes out a sheet, from which his assistant emerges. The magician extracts six eggs from his assistant’s mouth, which he places onto a stand. He breaks the eggs into his hat, stirring them with his wand. He shakes a large number of feathers out of the hat over his assistant, and then extracts a large egg. He places it on the table, and it doubles in size, and then explodes, to reveal a tiny ballerina. She dances on the table-top, admired by the men, who perform crude imitations of her flowing movements. Suddenly, she grows to life-size, and the magician helps her off the table. The men place a large wooden crate onto two stands, and the assistant gets in. The magician drapes the sheet around the ballerina, and pulls it away to reveal his assistant - and the ballerina simultaneously emerges from the box. The three bow together, and the magician banishes his assistant before linking arms with the ballerina and walking into the distance.

The Dancing Midget (whose slightly more PC French title translates as ‘The Microscopic Female Dancer’) is another set of variations on familiar Méliès themes, though the central image of a tiny ballerina performing on a table-top is so delightful that it more than compensates for the sense of déjà vu that pervades much of the rest of the film, starting from the recycled set from The Dwarf and the Giant (Nain et géant, 1901).

Once again, we have the scenario of a magician and his assistant - the arrangement here is broadly similar to that in The Prince of Magicians (Excelsior!, 1901). In that film, the magician’s aide was turned into a makeshift soda siphon, while here he’s required to produce half a dozen eggs from his mouth in quick succession. Their contents are mixed in the magician’s top hat (using his wand to stir them), and a well-timed jump-cut leads to the first of the film’s oddly poetic images - this time, of an implausible number of feathers descending from the hat onto the assistant.

The centre-piece of the film involves the ballerina, who is hatched from an egg that grows to giant size - albeit, somewhat disappointingly, via jump-cuts rather than any of Méliès’s more elaborate shrinking and growing effects. But the tiny ballerina herself is wholly believable, especially given the way the men react to her and (badly) try to imitate her movements. After this high point, the film has nowhere else to go, despite Méliès attempting to maintain interest by introducing a new trick in the form of a sheet-and-coffin swapover (as usual, achieved via jump cuts).

There’s some severe damage at the beginning and end, and tramlines, speckling and mild exposure fluctuations throughout, but in general the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is in very good condition, the picture sufficiently sharp to be able to make out some background details in the superimposed material, which may not have been Méliès’ intention. Neal Kurz’s lyrical piano accompaniment fits the images to perfection.

Links

Posted on 8th July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, Superimposition, 1902 | No Comments »

The Colonel’s Shower Bath

Douche du colonel, 1902, 0m58s
Star Film Catalogue No. 391

Two men are cleaning the top of a stone archway, standing on a wooden platform. A platoon of soldiers marches under the platform and stands to attention as their colonel passes. He inspects them, and offers several criticisms. A soldier hands him some papers, and he sits down on a stool to read them. One of the workmen descends the ladder to replenish his bucket of water. When moving from the ladder to the platform, he trips and spills the contents of the bucket over the colonel. The soldiers laugh heartily as he rants and raves, quickly adopting poker faces when he turns in their direction.

The Colonel’s Shower Bath is a one-joke comedy whose authorship is almost impossible to discern purely from what happens on screen. In both form and content it’s little different from any number of other one-reel comedies that were being made at the same time on both sides of the Channel (and the Atlantic) - and indeed stretching back seven years to the very dawn of cinema, and such films as the Lumière Brothers’ L’Arroseur arrosé (1895). As with that film, the suspense is engineered by the title: we know from the start that the colonel will be drenched with the contents of the workman’s bucket, so the tension comes from the fact that we don’t know precisely when.

In terms of staging, Méliès is returning to the two-level approach seen in The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900) and What Is Home Without The Boarder? (La Maison tranquille, 1901), in that there are two simultaneous activities going on in both halves of the frame, bisected by the workman’s platform (which also helps distract from the fact that the background is clearly painted, as does Méliès’ decision to heighten the impression of perspective by placing a soldier slightly beyond the platform). As before, the bulk of the action happens in the bottom half, with some comic business between the colonel and his recalcitrant charges, who clearly detest his disciplinarian nit-picking and are consequently delighted when he gets soaked later on - though they quickly switch to straight-faced solemnity once he turns to face them directly.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD has some very mild surface damage, an almost certainly unintentional jump-cut just before the colonel appears (it’s impossible to tell if this is due to print damage or flaws in the original), and more severe chemical decay right at the very end. However, the underlying image is in very acceptable condition, with plenty of fine detail. Eric Beheim’s electronic score begins with an appropriately military march, but is otherwise completely generic, and makes no musical acknowledgement of the business with the bucket.

Links

Posted on 7th July 2008
Under: 1902 | No Comments »

The Dwarf and the Giant

Nain et géant, 1901, 0m54s
Star Film Catalogue No. 386

A man, clad in a hat and a sheet, walks through a stone archway onto a street. He looks to his left, then right, and discards the hat and sheet before acknowledging the audience. He makes a demonstrative gesture with his hand, and splits into two identical twins. They have a conversation about the similarities in their height before the twin on the right puffs himself up to gigantic size. Towering over the other twin, he points and laughs before producing some confetti from his pocket and sprinkling it over him. He then shrinks back to normal size, and the twins merge back into one. He dances a pirouette, and splits back into twins again. They thumb their noses at each other before leaving.

In The Dwarf and the Giant, Georges Méliès continues to explore the same superimposition-plus-dolly effect that he used in The Man with the Rubber Head (L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc) and The Devil And The Statue (Le Diable géant ou le miracle de la madone, both 1901), though this film, despite being chronologically later - at least according to Méliès’ Star Films catalogue number - has more of a feel of a special-effects exercise than a fully worked-out narrative. As in The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898) and The One-Man Band (L’Homme orchestre, 1900), Méliès essentially plays himself, with no costume or make-up - in fact, he turns up clad in a hat and white sheet which he makes a rather over-elaborate point of discarding - an echo of the opening of The Man with the Rubber Head.

Where the film marks an advance on its two immediate predecessors (and “immediate” is the operative word, as the Star Films catalogue suggests they were indeed made one after the other, with nothing in between) is that Méliès is combining two superimposition effects - the new expanding/shrinking one, and a familiar “twinning” one that places two identical Mélièses on the screen at the same time. Typically for Méliès, he ups the ante by having the giant Méliès sprinking confetti over the smaller one, though it’s a pity that he ends the film with a glaring technical flaw. As the Mélièses lean forward to thumb their noses at each other, their rears are cut off by the matte, and they then unrealistically disappear into the sides of the archway - thus underscoring the impression that this was primarily a technical exercise.

Some mild tramlining and odd spots of black debris aside, any flaws in the picture on Flicker Alley’s DVD appear to be the fault of the original, as the image gets appreciably softer and loses contrast as soon as the first superimposed effect comes into play. But plenty of fine detail is still visible (the copyright-asserting ‘Star Film Paris’ sign on the left-hand wall is easily readable), and it’s otherwise a very satisfactory transfer.

Links

Posted on 6th July 2008
Under: Camera Movement, Superimposition, 1901 | No Comments »

The Devil and the Statue

Le Diable géant ou le miracle de la madone, 1901, 2m03s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 384-385

In a lavishly appointed room, a woman is serenaded by a man playing a lute while balanced on a ladder propped up just outside her window. After they clasp hands and gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, he descends to the ground. She crosses the room, beside herself with emotion. A devil appears in the alcove, causes bars to appear on her window, taunts her, and then performs a suggestive dance, gradually growing in size until he towers above her. In desperation, the woman pleads to a statue of the Madonna, who comes to life and shrinks the devil back to his original size, causing him to disappear. She then banishes the bars, and the lovers are reunited.

The Devil and the Statue is a variation on a theme established by The Man with the Rubber Head (L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc, 1901), in that once again the narrative is essentially an excuse for a living creature to appear to grow to gigantic size, by dint of superimposing a shot with the camera tracking in over a shot of a static room. (In this case, the joins are more obvious, and the floor on which the expanding and contracting devil is standing is all too visible).

Here, the effect is in the context of a love story, in which a courting couple is forcibly separated by the devil before being brought back together by a statue of the Madonna coming to life - a rather simpler effect than was the case in earlier Méliès films like The Magician (Le Magicien, 1898), as it only seems to involve the actress in question standing very still for most of the running time. However, it’s unlikely the audience would have been looking at her given the attractions of the increasingly imposing devil. Whereas the title character of The Man with the Rubber Head consisted entirely of a head, and therefore posed no threat, the newly gigantic devil is much more alarming.

However, despite the impressive build-up (in every sense), the dénouement can’t help but be a little disappointing, consisting largely of a reversal of the previous effect, at the end of which the devil simply fizzles out. Compared with the Grand Guignol head explosion of the previous film, one is entitled to feel a little short-changed, and for all the elegance of the set (the Renaissance Italian ambience is very effective), this is one of Méliès’ minor efforts.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD opens with severe chemical damage, but quickly settles down to present an image that’s generally in very good condition, with plenty of fine detail visible (including, as mentioned above, the floor on which the devil is standing), only occasionally beset by tramlines. Joe Rinaudo’s electronic-organ accompaniment uses scales to create the impression of things growing and shrinking in size.

Links

Posted on 5th July 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Camera Movement, Superimposition, Religion, 1901 | 3 Comments »

The Man with the Rubber Head

L’Homme à la tête en caoutchouc, 1901, 2m31s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 382-383

In a laboratory, a scientist mixes some fluids together in a bottle before opening the doors to an anteroom. There, he finds a table and carries it out. On it, he places a smaller stand with a tube emerging from its base. He extracts a human head from the box and places it on the stand. The head is alive, and looks around quizzically. The scientist removes his wig to reveal that he’s the spitting image of the severed head. He picks up a set of bellows and attaches it to the tube. The head inflates to many times its original size, to its evident alarm. The scientist then turns on a tap connected to the pipe, and the head shrinks back to its original size. The scientist summons an assistant and invites him to inflate the head again - but he does it too enthusiastically, and it explodes. Enraged, the scientist throws him out before bursting into tears.

Deservedly regarded as one of Georges Méliès’ supreme masterpieces, The Man with the Rubber Head represented one of his most significant technical advances since the not dissimilar The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898). That film featured a protagonist, played by Méliès himself, apparently detaching multiple versions of his own head, the effect achieved by a combination of mattes and superimpositions. Much the same is true of The Man with the Rubber Head, with an important difference: the head now seems to expand and contract.

Méliès achieves this by a simple trompe l’oeil effect: the background remains static throughout, but the superimposed element (Méliès’ own head) is filmed with a camera that is moving towards and away from it. Because the background fools us into thinking that the film has been shot entirely from a fixed camera position (as are the vast majority of Méliès’ films), the illusion is instantly convincing. Like all experienced stage performers, Méliès knew that a single head-inflation wouldn’t be enough - so he contrives to include two, the second culminating in an head-explosion that predates David Cronenberg’s Scanners by some eighty years.

But even without this central show-stopper, the film is a superb example of Méliès’ mastery of comic setups and timing. The film opens with the scientist idly mixing fluids to no great purpose: the sense of random pottering is at odds with the amount of work that must have gone into planning the film. The first visual coup comes when he takes a living human head out of a nondescript box, places it on the stand, and removes his own wig to reveal that the head resembles his own (evidently some bizarre cloning experiment has taken place just before the start of the film) - the kind of effect that would have been a central set-piece not that much earlier, but which is casually tossed off here as though it was a mere trifle.

The set design is more convincing than with many previous Méliès laboratories - for instance, the one in The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900) - because the painted element has been enhanced with a clearly genuine anteroom, thus creating a sense of three-dimensional space that helps render the “rubber” effect that much more convincing. The word ‘Laboratoire’ can be read at an acute angle on the right-hand wall, and a slightly incongruous ‘Star Film Paris’ sign is affixed on the left-hand side of the frame, to register Méliès’ claim to ownership at a time when moving image copyright was in its infancy. Given how far ahead he was of the competition, it’s all too easy to see why he was so keen to assert his rights.

Disappointingly, given this film’s seminal importance in Méliès’ catalogue, the untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s DVD has clearly seen better days. It opens with a great deal of damage, and although this settles down later on, the image is beset by tramlines throughout, and the picture overall shows more grain and contrast than the norm. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is a little too generic, with no real attempt made to match what’s happening on screen.

Links

Posted on 4th July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Camera Movement, Superimposition, 1901 | No Comments »

The Hat with Many Surprises

Le Chapeau à surprise, 1901, 2m34s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 371-372

A man clad in top hat and tails enters a well-appointed drawing room, tips his hat to the audience, and places it on a small table. He takes off his coat, and shakes a larger table out of it. After adjusting the positioning of the new table, he drapes his coat over it, and it turns into a white tablecloth. He picks up his hat, and reveals that it’s empty. He then pulls four plates out of it and lays them on the tablecloth. He returns to the hat, and pulls out a set of four glasses and napkins, which he lays out next to the plates. He pulls a carafe of water and a bottle of wine out of the hat, and then some cutlery. He returns to the hat, and looks at it quizzically before producing a fan out of his pocket and waving it. Both fan and hat take on gigantic proportions. He climbs onto a stool to reach inside the hat, from which he retrieves four chairs and places them round the table. He tilts the hat forwards to reveal that it’s empty, but then extracts a man and two women, who take their places around the table. He turns the hat upside down and shakes it, and a second man emerges. The host places the hat back on his head, and it shrinks to normal size. He invites his guests to sit down, then conjures up a serving maid, who gives them food. The host looks conspiratorially at the audience, and then leaps onto the table - which disappears into the floor, taking the host with him. A picture on the wall comes to life, and looks highly amused. The host re-emerges on the other side of the room, laughing heartily as his guests leave in a huff. The picture reverts to its static form. The host picks up the discarded tablecloth and tosses it in the air. When it descends onto his shoulders, it turns back into his coat. He picks up his top hat, bows and leaves.

The Hat with Many Surprises is a delightful illustration of Georges Méliès’ seemingly boundless ability to ring virtuoso variations on what initially seems to be a decidedly familiar tune. Though the central scenario, of a ‘magician’ playing various jump-cut-engendered tricks on both the viewer and the film’s other characters is now so well known as to be somewhat hackneyed (in terms of his surviving films, these date back to The Vanishing Lady/Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896, but there are countless more recent examples), this film comes up with what appears to be a genuinely fresh approach.

As ever, Méliès himself plays the host-magician, and it’s tempting to assume from his top hat and tails that he’s got home from giving some kind of public theatrical performance, and can’t resist offering us a private one. (He acknowledges the viewer almost at the very start, and will often turn to us conspiratorially between tricks). Most of the illusions he goes on to perform are based on the age-old rabbit-in-the-hat routine, the only twist here being that a rabbit is just about the only thing he doesn’t produce from the hat - which also expands to giant size when required to disgorge furniture and even guests. (The latter, incidentally, are dressed in period costume, and may well represent specific historical figures).

Although from a technical viewpoint this is largely familiar stuff, the timing of the business with the coat (which disgorges a table before transforming itself into a tablecloth) is impressively adroit, and the moment towards the very end when a portrait comes to life is delightfully unexpected. Instead of returning to the superimposition technique featured in The Mysterious Portrait (Le Portrait mystérieux, 1899), Méliès here prefers a jump-cut switch to a real actor emerging from the canvas, the better to create a suitably 3-D effect when he’s laughing at the discomfited guests.

The untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s edition is one of the better examples, with relatively minimal surface damage and plenty of fine detail. The Mont Alto Orchestra’s attractive accompaniment neatly parallels what’s happening on screen by presenting a theme and variations, at one point deliberately missing a beat as the fourth guest takes more time than expected to emerge from the hat.

Links

Posted on 3rd July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Stage Magic, 1901 | No Comments »

Blue Beard

Barbe-bleu, 1901, 10m19s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 361-370

Bluebeard enters the hall of his castle and walks between two lines of women - but every time he attempts to make conversation with one of them, she turns her face away. He summons servants, who bring forth vast wealth as a bribe. One of the women is reluctantly persuaded to go with him, her father dragging her hand so that it can be clasped by Bluebeard. She snatches it away and bursts into tears. Two notaries are summoned, and the couple are married. One asks for payment, and Bluebeard angrily kicks his sheaf of papers into the air. Bluebeard brings his new wife to the kitchen to show the lavish meals being prepared. Vast arrangements of food and gigantic bottles are carried through by servants. Horseplay between two of them leads to a third being knocked into a cauldron by a flying cabbage. The meal is served in the gigantic dining room, with many guests in attendance. Bluebeard introduces his new wife, whose wedding train is held up by several servants. Bluebeard proposes a toast. When the couple is alone, Bluebeard gives his wife a bunch of keys, and says that she has the freedom of his castle, with the exception of one room. He then leaves for six weeks, followed by numerous servants carrying his luggage. His wife looks at the forbidden door, clearly tempted. A satanic imp leaps out of the pages of a large book and compels her to open the door before returning from whence he came. Inside the room, she finds the hanged corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives, and drops the key in a pool of their blood. While she tries to wash it off, the imp reappears, and the incriminating key grows to gigantic size. A fairy appears and shrinks it. Bluebeard’s eighth wife leaves, and has a disturbing dream (egged on by the imp) in which she is visited by the ghosts of her predecessors, following which she is stabbed by her husband, and eight gigantic keys frolic over her prone body before they and the imp are banished by the fairy. Bluebeard returns to find his eighth wife trying to wash blood off the forbidden key. She starts when she sees him, and he grabs her arm, trying to get the key back. She runs up to the castle battlements to consort with her sister (who is keeping a lookout for her brothers), but Bluebeard follows her, grabs her and tosses her body around. He drags her down the steps, only to find her brothers breaking through the gate. They pin Bluebeard to the wall with a sword, and the fairy emerges from the well to summon the ghosts of his wives, who throw off their veils to reveal that they’ve come back to life. They shake their fists at him in unison, but are distracted by seven noblemen appearing and paying court to them. They all leave, the last to depart retrieving his sword from Bluebeard’s belly. He falls to the ground, and the scenery gives way to reveal everyone else living happily ever after.

Following Cinderella (Cendrillon, 1899) and Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc, 1900), Blue Beard is another multi-scene epic, staged in similar tableau format and separated by dissolves. This time, the source material is another fairytale by Charles Perrault (who also wrote Cinderella), about the legend of the fearsome Bluebeard, whose treatment of his various wives made Henry VIII seem like a marriage guidance counsellor. His story had already been retold across numerous media, including an 1866 opera by Jacques Offenbach, and it was also a popular subject in the Victorian theatre. (Within a few years of Méliès’ film, it would inspire a novel by Maurice Maeterlinck, and two further operas, by Paul Dukas and Béla Bartók).

Méliès’ version breaks the story down into ten tableaux, all but one set in a different location. Bluebeard’s vast wealth is highlighted in the first three rooms, a lavishly appointed hall, kitchen and dining room. Through these, various physical indications of Bluebeard’s fortune are transported by servants: a large pile of money, a box of jewellery, various elaborate meals. The essential disposability of the various underlings is underscored both by Bluebeard’s offhand attitude towards them (when approached by one of the notaries, presumably in quest of money, Bluebeard sends his papers flying like a sudden, violent snowstorm), and the conclusion of the kitchen scene, with a sous-chef apparently drowning in one of the cauldrons. This is clearly not someone who cares too much about his fellow man.

When Bluebeard and his new wife retire to the library, the next three scenes are altogether more intimately domestic in scale. Up to this point (roughly the film’s halfway mark), Méliès’ staging has been entirely realistic, but when Bluebeard leaves with an explicit request that she not open a particular door, she gets a modicum of supernatural assistance to lead her into temptation. Whereas Eve had the serpent, Bluebeard’s unnamed wife gets a mischievous imp, who literally springs forth from the pages of a book via a well-timed jump-cut. She can’t see him, but he has her in his thrall throughout.

When she enters the forbidden chamber, Méliès milks the suspense by keeping the light levels low. We can make out strange bag-shaped things seemingly hanging from the ceiling, and of course those familiar with the story will know exactly what they are, but several seconds elapse before she manages to cross the room and fling open the curtain, to reveal the corpses of her seven predecessors. Méliès has often been described as one of the precursors of the horror genre, but this revelation has a genuine creepiness that earlier romps like The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au couvent, 1899) don’t come near. (What’s made less clear is that the key becomes stained with the wives’ blood, which is what she’s trying to wash off both in this scene and later on).

After this authentic coup de cinéma, we have a Méliès dream sequence of a kind familiar to viewers of, say, The Rajah’s Dream (Le Rêve du Radjah ou la forêt enchantée, 1900) - though here, the various revelations (a visitation by the ghosts of her predecessors, a premonition of her murder, a surreal parade of eight giant keys) are intimately linked to her disturbed psychological state - the keys in particular become embodiments of her combined sense of guilt (at disobeying her husband’s instructions) and revulsion (at what she discovered).

After this, the rest of the film is more prosaic. Set in the courtyard of Bluebeard’s castle, it shows his return and ultimate subjugation at the hands of his new wife’s relatives, the only technical points of interest being his alarmingly violent subjugation of her (achieved by switching a dummy at a key moment, along similar lines to Fat and Lean Wrestling Match/Nouvelles luttes extravagantes, 1900), and the equally violent reaction when he’s literally pinned to the castle wall with a sword. The apotheosis, when the castle walls disintegrate on camera to reveal a final tableau of all the film’s characters looking on contemptuously at the dying Bluebeard, presumably lasted longer than the few seconds’ duration offered by the source print on Flicker Alley’s DVD.

Though it’s never less than watchable, this is one of the less well preserved source prints on Flicker Alley’s DVD, with plenty of surface damage (including tramlines) and chemical decomposition evident throughout. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment effectively matches the mood of each scene.

Links

Posted on 2nd July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, Superimposition, Literary Adaptations, Fairytales, 1901 | No Comments »

The Prince of Magicians

Excelsior!, 1901, 2m06s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 357-358

Two men enter a room, one wearing a pale wig, the other a dark-haired magician. The latter bows to an unseen audience, turns to his companion and indicates that he should do something. The bewigged man leans forward slightly, and the magician pulls a cloth from out of his mouth. The magician displays the cloth from all possible angles, and produces a glass bowl from behind it. After placing it on a small chest, the magician positions his friend and pumps his arm up and down. The man’s mouth emits a jet of water, but it misses the bowl at first. The magician adjusts its position and continues pumping. When it is full of water, the magician picks up the bowl and puts it on a small table. He pats the man on the back, and a fish emerges from his mouth, which is placed in the bowl. Another fish is produced in a similar fashion. The magician then hands the bowl to his friend, but it bursts into flames, and he quickly puts it down. The magician produces a large piece of cloth from the bowl, behind which is a gigantic lobster. The magician hands the lobster to his friend, transforming it into a woman in the process. The magician wraps a sheet around her and pulls it away to reveal a girl sitting on top of another girl’s shoulders. The magician separates them, takes them each by the hand, and makes them bow to the audience. He then transforms them into pieces of cloth, which he inserts into the bowl. He asks his friend to bring over another bowl, and he pours water out of the first bowl into it. The friend examines the second bowl rather too closely for the magician’s comfort, and he angrily expels him from the room. He then picks up a large sheet, wraps himself up in it, and ascends through the ceiling. He re-enters the room just in time to catch the falling sheet. He bows again.

Although there’s nothing especially groundbreaking in The Prince of Magicians, either in terms of technique or narrative content, it’s an agreeable enough diversion, with a couple of genuine show-stoppers along the way. The magician’s transformation of his friend into a hand-pumped soda siphon is unprecedented in Méliès’ surviving work up to now, and the gigantic lobster that emerges from behind a sheet (complete with wobbly antenna and functioning pincers) is at least an authentic visual coup, even if it turns out to be merely a transitional effect - it is almost immediately transformed into one of Méliès’ long-suffering female assistants, who is in turn split into two much smaller girls.

Although Méliès once again plays the magician, there’s more of a sense of camaraderie here than there was in his solo efforts, with his Dr Watson-style sidekick only too happy to go along with his various tricks - until near the very end, when the magician seems to take exception to what seems to be excessive scrutiny of one of the bowls. Given that the tricks are clearly obtained through cinematic means (jump-cuts, as ever, predominate, notably in the scene where a clearly cardboard fish is transformed into the real-life article when placed in water), making it unlikely that the magician’s friend will discover anything useful, it’s an effective way of linking the filmic material with its stage-magic origins.

Given that Flicker Alley’s DVDs (both Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema 1896-1913 and Saved From The Flames) contain what is believed to be the only surviving copy of this film (Lobster Films in Paris obtained it after purchasing a job-lot of prints found in an antique dealer’s trunk), it’s in remarkably good condition, with only minor surface famage and a generally very sharp, well-exposed picture. The jaunty chamber-orchestra score is pretty generic, but sets the right tone.

Links

Posted on 1st July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, Stage Magic, 1901 | 1 Comment »

The Bachelor’s Paradise

Chez la sorcière, 1901, 1m51s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 350-351

A bachelor visits a witch and asks her to find him a wife. She asks him for money, and he tosses her a small purse. She concocts a potion in her cauldron and sets fire to it. Once the flames die down, a beautiful woman emerges. The witch multiplies her into five women and asks the bachelor to choose. After carefully examining them, he picks the second and asks her to sit down on a stool. The witch then folds the other four women back into one, and makes her disappear in a puff of smoke. The bachelor begins to woo his chosen companion, but as he gets particularly ardent, she changes into the witch, who cackles with glee at the trick she has played on him. When the enraged bachelor tries to attack her, she transforms him into a donkey and mounts him, riding him around the cauldron to the accompaniment of regular beatings from her riding crop.

This comic cautionary tale (whose French title is the more prosaic “At the Witch’s Home”) highlights the potential drawback of choosing a mate by supernatural means. For much of the running time, the witch seems genuinely helpful towards the bachelor, spiriting up not just one but five potential brides, but she changes her tune towards the end when she reveals that they were a figment of her twisted imagination all along, and that the bachelor is helplessly in her power.

The bachelor’s comeuppance is particularly satisfying because everything about him in the early stages, from his foppish costume (topped by an absurdly Napoleonic hat) and airy waves of the hand, to what appears to be an initial assumption that he won’t have to pay - which is then followed by a casual, dismissive toss of a purse of money as if to suggest that there’s plenty where that came from. Clearly a fake himself, his desire for an equally fake bride seems all too fitting, as is his ultimate transformation into a humble beast of burden, which the witch then thoroughly mistreats for good measure.

The special effects are mostly very straightforward jump-cuts, though a combination of these and well-judged movement allows Méliès to create the impression that the various women are “unfolded” from each other, as though multiple cut-outs on a paper chain. The design of the witch’s lair includes many props familiar from earlier Méliès films, such as the outsized scissors from The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900).

Some severe damage at the start of the untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD quickly settles down to a generally very acceptable picture, with only a few faint tramlines and occasional surface blemishes (and a brief moment when the image blurs) marring what follows. Plenty of fine detail aids appreciation of the grotesque décor of the witch’s lair. Eric Beheim’s electronic score, augmented by tinkling bells, is fairly generic, but does the job effectively enough.

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Posted on 30th June 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, 1901 | No Comments »

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