The Pillar of Fire

La Danse du feu/La Colonne de feu, 1899, 1m06s
Star Film Catalogue No. 188

In a room lined with grotesque statues, a green demon emerges from a large pan and performs a dance prior to setting light to the logs under the pan. He grabs a pair of bellows and pumps up the fire until a woman clad in a voluminous white dress emerges from the pan. She unfurls her dress and both the pan and the demon vanish. She performs an elaborate dance, the material of her dress swirling around her and changing colour. The room fills with smoke. The dance finishes, and she floats up to the ceiling.

Although it’s not at all clear from the actual film, The Pillar of Fire has a literary basis in the form of H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, of which this is the first of many screen adaptations, the best known being the 1935 version with Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott and Nigel Bruce and the 1965 Hammer version with Ursula Andress, John Richardson and Peter Cushing.

The woman performing the dance that takes up much of the running time is Ayesha, whose bathing in a pillar of fire has made her not only immortal but an all-powerful symbol of womanhood. In Méliès’ film, she’s played by Jeanne d’Alcy, his future wife and occasional leading lady - she was earlier featured in The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896) and After the Ball (Après le bal, 1897)

However, there is little discernible narrative content in Méliès’ film, the vast majority of which is taken up with Ayesha’s dance, performed after she has been successfully summoned by a green demon. There are a few examples of his trademark brand of jump-cut trickery, but for the most part the effects are generated with onscreen props - a large bellows, a torch emitting clouds of smoke, and of course Ayesha’s voluminous dress, the material of which gives her dance its primary visual interest. The set design is also splendidly grotesque, with its two bizarre statues on either side of the frame towering over the human performers.

Thanks to the colour tinting (a sepia base overlaid with various colours, starting with a bilious green for the devil and continuing through a cycle of changing colours for the actual fire dance), this is one of the most visually striking prints so far in Flicker Alley’s collection. That said, it also has some severe problems - it slips noticeably out of focus at an early stage, and towards the end some marked chemical damage is beginning to take its toll - there are so many bubbles onscreen that if the picture had been tinted blue it would produce a very convincing underwater effect. Brian Benison’s electronic score begins percussively before building to a climax as Ayesha’s dance becomes ever more frenzied.

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