Archive for the 'Fairytales' Category

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.

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

The Wizard, the Prince and the Good Fairy

Le Sorcier, le prince et le bon génie, 1900, 2m06s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 285-286

A wizard sits at his desk, leafing through a book. A prince enters, and the two have an animated conversation, at the end of which the prince gives the wizard a small purse of money. The wizard places it on his desk, which promptly vanishes, and then transforms his cauldron into a woman. Startled, the prince initially doesn’t know what to make of this, but he quickly composes himself and kisses her hand. He woos her verbally, but when he attempts to embrace her, she vanishes. The prince angrily complains to the wizard, drawing his sword and trying to run him through. But as soon as the blade touches the wizard, he is replaced by a pillar with an abusive effigy, reappearing on the other side of the room. The prince grabs him again and tries the same thing - but is left holding an empty cloak, with the wizard reappearing elsewhere. The third time, the prince hits the wizard with his sword and causes him to disappear in a puff of smoke. The prince tries to leave, but bars cover one exit, and nine hook-nosed witches suddenly enter via the other door. They surround and taunt him, turning him into a shabby old tramp. In despair, he falls to his knees. A fairy appears, disperses the other women, and causes the bars to disappear, revealing an idyllic glade outside. The fairy causes the woman from earlier to reappear, clad in a bridal dress, the prince reverts to his former self, and the witches are transformed into a wedding party. The wizard reappears, but before he can do anything the fairy imprisons him in a cage.

It’s just as well that The Wizard, the Prince and the Good Fairy identifies the three main characters in the title (a literal translation of the original French), as the narrative thread of this little morality tale is initially quite hard to grasp - as demonstrated by the wildly divergent interpretations already circulating online. However, it seems clear that the initial meeting between the prince and the wizard is an entirely cordial one, and that the prince wishes to consult him about matters of the heart (as demonstrated by a none too subtle pantomime).

The wizard obliges by producing a beautiful woman, with whom the prince is clearly smitten - so much that he lets his passion run away with him twice over: firstly by attempting a full-on embrace, and secondly, by blaming the wizard for his would-be paramour’s disappearance, and attacking him with his sword. Given that the prince is clearly at fault here, it’s not immediately clear why the allegedly “good” fairy ends up caging the wizard, unless he’s transgressed some professional code of conduct by unleashing various magical manifestations, not least a coven of nine hook-nosed witches who transform the hapless prince into a tramp. Here, he bears a passing resemblance to Tom Whisky of Addition and Subtraction (Tom Whisky ou l’illusionniste toqué, 1900), though sadly without the latter’s ability to make annoying women appear, disappear and fuse together.

On a technical level, this is pretty familiar stuff for Méliès, the special effects consisting of the usual jump-cuts and puff-of-smoke explosions. Disappointingly, no use is made of the skeleton on the left of the frame, and the all too brief sequence when the wizard is transformed into a pillar sporting a nose-thumbing effigy is the only effect that goes to more elaborate lengths. Still, there’s lots going on, with plenty of rug-pulling plot twists for a brief Méliès film, and he also makes more use than usual of the three-dimensional space in front of the standard painted backdrop: the action gets closer and closer to the camera as the film progresses.

This untinted print is one of the better examples on Flicker Alley’s DVD collection so far - there’s a small amount of surface damage, but it never affects appreciation, and the image itself has a wide dynamic range and plenty of fine detail. The solo piano accompaniment is one of Frederick Hodges’ quasi-Debussian efforts.

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Posted on 15th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Fairytales, 1900 | 6 Comments »

Cinderella

Cendrillon, 1899, 5m41s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 219-224

In the kitchen, Cinderella pleads with her sisters to let her go to the ball with them, but she is rebuffed. She sits in a chair and weeps. The cauldron turns into her fairy godmother, who asks her to open a rat-trap. Cinderella does so, and a rat emerges. The fairy godmother touches it with her wand, and it’s transformed first into a giant-sized rat, and then into a human footman. Two more rats emerge, and are given similar treatment. The fairy godmother asks Cinderella to place a large pumpkin on the table, which is transformed into a carriage. Cinderella’s rags are transformed into a gorgeous dress, and the footmen help her into the carriage prior to mounting it themselves. As they leave, the fairy godmother indicates the clock, prior to sinking through the floor. At the ball, a dance is in progress when Cinderella enters, kissing the King’s hand and captivating the Prince, who gladly dances with her. Suddenly, Old Father Time leaps into the centre of the dance floor to remind Cinderella of the time. But it is too late: she changes back into her original rags. Her sisters laugh at her, and she runs away in shame. The Prince picks up one of her slippers and runs after her, but to no avail. The dance recommences. Cinderella enters her bedroom, sits at her table and sobs unconsolably. Her freestanding clock sidles up to her and Father Time re-emerges, complete with four female assistants. Father Time himself turns into a woman, and the quintet rock from side to side, each holding a clock face showing midnight. They are then transformed into large ornate clocks that jump up and down as though taunting Cinderella. They turn back into the five women, who form themselves into a group and turn into a much larger clock face, with Father Time in the middle. It vanishes, and Cinderella’s sisters appear. They order her to answer the door. The Prince enters, holding the abandoned slipper. He tries it on each of the sisters’ feet, but it doesn’t fit. He goes over to Cinderella, ignoring their taunting, and slips it onto her foot - it’s a perfect fit. The fairy godmother appears and transforms her rags back into her earlier finery. The Prince takes her hand and leads her out. Cinderella’s sisters protest, but can do nothing. A crowd gathers to watch a marching band heralding the approach of Cinderella and the Prince - she is now wearing a wedding dress. A long retinue follows them into the church. A group of boys and girls is prevented from entering, but stays outside to dance in formation with the help of a violinist. A ballerina performs an elaborate pirouette. The Prince, Cinderella and their followers strike a pose.

Almost immediately after the eleven-film The Dreyfus Affair cycle (L’Affaire Dreyfus, 1899), which presented the story of late nineteenth-century France’s most notorious scandal as eleven separate tableaux (of which nine survive), Georges Méliès made an even more ambitious film that adapted Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale into a series of sequences that, unlike the Dreyfus films, were clearly designed to be presented together - since Méliès devised various elaborate transitions between shots.

Twenty sequences are listed:

  1. Cinderella in the kitchen.
  2. The fairy.
  3. The transformation of the rat.
  4. The pumpkin changes to a carriage.
  5. The Ball at the King’s Palace.
  6. The hour of midnight.
  7. Cinderella’s bedroom.
  8. The dance of the clocks.
  9. The Prince and the slipper.
  10. Cinderella’s godmother.
  11. The Prince and Cinderella.
  12. The arrival at the church.
  13. The Wedding.
  14. Cinderella’s sisters.
  15. The King.
  16. The nuptial cortège.
  17. The Bride’s Ballet.
  18. The Celestial Spherics
  19. The Transformation.
  20. The Triumph of Cinderella.

However, it should be noted that many of these are combined into one shot (for instance, 1 to 4 inclusive), so the final film isn’t quite as narratively advanced as the list implies. That said, it was still amazingly sophisticated for 1899, especially in its scene transitions. Three of them - between 4/5, 6/7 and 11/12 - are linked by dissolves, achieved by closing the lens aperture, rewinding the film, and opening the aperture again, and it is generally believed that these are the first dissolves in film history. The final transition, which is apparently given its own entry as ‘The Transformation’, is more visually elaborate, as the background and side flats are removed to let the dancers blend seamlessly into a tableau involving the Prince, Cinderella and her retinue, but much more redolent of a stage production. (Although this is believed to be the first film adaptation of the Cinderella story, it had long been a popular stage favourite).

The film also appears to be a conscious synthesis and summation of everything that Méliès had developed to date, both theatrically and cinematographically. The first scene (or tableaux 1-4), in which Cinderella’s fortunes are transformed by her fairy godmother consists of a familiar sequence of Méliès’s jump-cut special effects, albeit with two distinct stages - so a small rat is transformed into a bigger rat before reaching its final form as a footman. The second scene (tableaux 5-6) is initially more straightforward, consisting of Cinderella wooing the Prince via a dance - but the surprise entry of a man with a long white beard, presumably meant to be Old Father Time towards the end promises to ring some changes on otherwise familiar material.

This promise is fulfilled in the next scene (tableaux 7-8), which begins with the film’s second dance number - though unlike the sedate court dances, these are complex routines involving Father Time, four female assistants and a great many clocks, with jump-cuts facilitating various mid-dance transformations (Father Time turns into a woman at one point) complex dance routine involving not just Father Time but four female assistants (he occasionally transforms himself into a fifth), culminating in an extraordinary image of a giant clock face with Father Time suspended in the middle - this has distinct echoes of the gigantic devouring moon in The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898).

There is then a very abrupt cut to the scene (tableaux 9-11) of the Prince and the slipper which, like the scene at the ball, is staged entirely straight. This is, as it turns out, the film’s final scene that has a primarily narrative purpose, as the rest of the film is given over to the most elaborate dance routine of all. After a lengthy procession into the church (tableaux 12-16), eight dancers are left outside, and begin to perform with the aid of a violinist (tableau 17). A ballerina enters and dominates the action (tableau 18) - and finally (tableaux 19-20) the backdrop is lifted, revealing Cinderella, the Prince and the members of their cortège in formation, blending seamlessly with the dancers in the foreground. The film has now definitively shifted from theatre to ballet - the final tableau being an authentic apotheosis, representing the Triumph of Cinderella, framed as though she was a successor to Marianne, France’s national emblem. (Although Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet wouldn’t be written for another four decades, there had already been several balletic adaptations of Perrault’s story dating back to the early 19th century, plus of course Rossini’s 1817 opera La Cenerentola).

Clearly sourced from more than one print, Flicker Alley’s presentation of Cinderella incorporates a very brief segment of stencil-tinted colour as the fairy godmother makes her first appearance. The colours aside, the condition of the print is generally fairly poor, and improves noticeably when the image cuts to a slightly sepia-tinted black and white - there’s still a fair bit of surface damage, but the definition is altogether sharper, and this quality is generally maintained to the end. Donald Sosin’s score mostly consists of solo piano, though there are interpolated electronic harp effects at key moments, such as the fairy godmother’s appearance.

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Posted on 7th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1899, Literary Adaptations, Fairytales | No Comments »

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