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.