Between Calais and Dover

Entre Calais et Douvres, 1897, 1m10s
Star Film Catalogue No. 112

On a ferry between Calais and Dover, the choppy waters of the English channel cause the boat to roll from side to side, to the evident discomfiture of the passengers. A woman is violently sick into a receptacle held by her companion, while a heavily bearded man falls down a hole onto the lower deck. Meanwhile, an Englishman attempts vainly to hold onto the table containing his tea. Only the crew seems relaxed, though the waiter has has a momentary battle with the door and the captain is beset by demands from his underlings.

Although there are a few onscreen attempts at beefing up the illusion - the choreographed movement of the passengers, a collapsing table and chair, occasional gouts of water spraying onto the deck - the main special effect in this onstage recreation of a turbulent ferry crossing is created by lurching the camera violently from side to side, as though offering a wave’s-eye view.

The film’s nationality, and the direction indicated by the title, suggests that these are French nationals who have made the fateful decision to travel to England, and are repenting at leisure while their compatriots at screenings of the film point and laugh. It is probably just as well that Méliès refrained from depicting their fate after landing - assuming they managed it in the first place. Presumably, the man in check trousers and a deerstalker cap is meant to be English, determined to enjoy his tea at any cost, though he too eventually succumbs to the weather.

There’s an in-joke (or, more prosaically, an early attempt at asserting copyright) in the plaque advertising the ‘Robert-Houdin Star Line’ - Méliès owned the Robert-Houdin theatre (where this film would probably have had its premiere), and the Star Film company was launched in 1897, the year of its production: an altogether smoother and more successful embarkation than the one depicted here.

The untinted black-and-white print on the Flicker Alley DVD is quite badly damaged, with pronounced tramlines working against the camera’s swaying motion. There is also some significant scratching and blotching, though the constant movement of both camera and performers makes this easier to tune out than would be the case with a more static film. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment uses rapid scales and an inexorably rising pitch to convey the impression of something building to a climax - which, as in the film, never quite arrives.

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One Response to “Between Calais and Dover”

  1. Donald Sosin Says:

    Thanks for your tireless efforts and fine appraisal of these films and your kind words about my music. And I’m so happy to see that you wrote “building to a climax” instead of “building to a crescendo” which seems to crop up more and more in otherwise intelligent writing.

    All best wishes,

    Donald

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