Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896, 1m15s
Star Film Catalogue No. 70
A magician enters a room and bows to an unseen audience. He opens the same door and invites a woman to join him. He unfolds a newspaper and lays it on the floor, placing a chair on top. He invites the woman to sit in the chair. He picks up a large tablecloth, unfolds it, and places it over the woman, carefully adjusting the bottom edge so she is completely covered. He then removes the cloth, to reveal the empty chair, which he picks up and spins around. He makes a gesture with his hands, and a skeleton appears in the chair. He tries to banish it, eventually covering it with the tablecloth. Removing the cloth, he reveals the woman, safe and sound. They bow to the audience, leave the stage, and return for another bow.
The full French title, Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, contains an explicit reference to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where Méliès had made his reputation as a stage magician. The film pays homage to Joseph Buatier de Kolta, one of Méliès’ inspirations, whose ‘vanishing lady’ trick made him famous in the 1880s. However, Méliès does not attempt to reproduce the stage version, as the film was made after he had accidentally discovered the transformative potential of the jump-cut (as the legend goes, his camera jammed while filming a street scene, and when he played the resulting film, a cab was transformed into a hearse). The Vanishing Lady is believed to be the first time that Méliès made deliberately creative use of this discovery, and although the technique is obvious to us now, it must have been far more intriguing to contemporary audiences.
Although shot from a single camera position, representing a member of the audience, the film actually consists of four separate takes separated by three carefully-planned jump-cuts. The first causes the woman to vanish under the cloth in a reasonably (though not entirely) seamless effect. The second is more blatant, as the skeleton appears out of nowhere (in fact, the film might arguably have been more effective if the woman had been transformed into the skeleton while under the cloth), while the third essentially reprises the first.
The film’s overt theatricality (the magician Méliès and his female sidekick acknowledge the audience at the start and end of the film, even returning for a second bow) paradoxically emphasises the difference between the two media: Méliès, a man of the theatre, was just beginning to discover the potential of the cinema for creating effects far beyond anything technically achievable on the stage.
The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD begins in conspicuously worse condition than that of Playing Cards (Une Partie de cartes) or A Terrible Night (Une Nuit terrible, both 1896), but stabilises after a jittery, blotchy opening to reveal a quite acceptable picture with only the occasional tramline and other minor surface damage. The picture is sharp enough to make out fine details in the painted backdrop, which suggests a drawing room opening out onto a well-maintained garden. Eric Beheim’s electronic accompaniment adds to the effect of a well-rehearsed stage routine.