Archive for the 'Mechanical Props' 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.


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

The Prince of Magicians

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.


Posted on 1st July 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, Stage Magic, 1901 | 1 Comment »

The Magician’s Cavern

L’antre des esprits, 1901, 2m54s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 345-347

A man enters a mysterious cavern full of strange gargoyles and other arcane objects. Bumping into a skeleton, he takes it down and places it on a chair, waves his hands and transforms it into a woman sporting a helmet, sword and shield. He helps her up, and transforms her costume into a long, flowing dress. He stands behind her and hypnotises her into sleep, catching her falling body. He places her across two benches and removes them, leaving her suspended in mid-air. She then dissolves back into the skeleton, which the man picks up and “bows” to the audience. The man and the skeleton then dance, after which the man picks up the skeleton and takes it away. The man then causes a stool to float into the air and perform various tumbling tricks on top of a table. A woman appears, surrounded by four dancers, all clad in diaphanous dresses. The man tries to grab them, but his hands pass through their bodies, and they vanish. He then produces two stools and a smaller table and makes them dance. He then bows to the audience, shoots up in the air and re-emerges through a trapdoor in the floor. He then removes his outer garments, wig and false beard to reveal Georges Méliès, who dons a straw boater, lights a cigarette, bows again, and leaves.

The Magician’s Cavern (whose French title translates as “The Spirits’ Lair”) once again sees Georges Méliès in show-off mode. As in The Four Troublesome Heads (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), The One-Man Band (L’Homme orchestre, 1900) and The Triple Conjuror and the Living Head (L’Illusionniste double et la tête vivante, 1900) and the very recent Extraordinary Illusions (Dislocation mystérieuse, 1901), the emphasis is on a single character conjuring up a parade of mesmerising illusions, though in this film the emphasis is as much on quality as quantity: in many ways, it’s a stock-taking showcase of all the tricks that Méliès had developed up to then.

Accordingly, we have transformations achieved both via jump-cuts and more subtle dissolves (the latter seen to best effect early on when the skeleton dissolves into the woman, and her martial costume becomes a more feminine dress), superimpositions (when the woman’s body seems to float above the ground, and later on when the stools and tables appear to dance), old-fashioned costume-based effects (though effectively lit, the dancing skeleton is clearly a man in a black suit with a skeleton painted on it), pixilation (the various movements of the table), and combination fade-in and fade-out with a superimposition (as the dancing girls mysteriously appear and disappear).

There is little narrative content aside from presenting all these various visions, and if there was any doubt about the film’s underlying showing-off purpose, it’s dispelled in the closing seconds, when the magician rips off his clothes, wig and false beard to reveal the dapper Méliès himself - which may also have been a means of asserting the authorship of the film as well as the various onscreen effects.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is beset by exposure fluctuations and contrast shifts, but this may well be inherent in the original materials, as they come and go with cuts to successive superimposition effects (there are visible splices during the pixilation scene with the table), and fine detail is otherwise quite acceptable. Frederick Hodges’ lively, bouncy piano score is attuned to the changing situations, and is particularly effective during the many dance interludes.


Posted on 29th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, Superimposition, 1901 | 3 Comments »

The Brahmin and the Butterfly

La Chrysalide et le papillon, 1901, 2m00s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 332-333

A Brahmin walks into an exotic jungle clearing and looks around. He produces a large basket and opens it, revealing it to be empty. He hangs it from two wires attached to trees, and begins to play the flute. A gigantic caterpillar enters the clearing and raises its head up to the Brahmin’s, who kisses it. He removes the lid of the basket, picks up the caterpillar, and stuffs it inside. A beautiful woman sporting butterfly wings emerges, and flutters above the basket, which the Brahmin removes. He begins to flatter the butterfly-woman, who descends to the ground. She begins a lively dance, defying all the Brahmin’s attempts at capturing her. Finally, he drapes a sheet over her. Two maidservants enter the clearing and remove the sheet to reveal a princess. The Brahmin falls to his knees. She pushes him with her foot, and he turns into a caterpillar.

Following The Rajah’s Dream (Le Rêve du Radjah ou la forêt enchantée, 1900), The Brahmin and the Butterfly returns to a calculatedly exotic ‘Indian’ setting, in this case a jungle clearing surrounded by exotic ferns and fronds. Although the film lacks the dream-narrative bookend of its predecessor, and the Brahmin nominally appears to be in control of the proceedings, it quickly becomes clear that he is just as much a prisoner of his fears and anxieties as was the Rajah before him, with near-identical reactions both to large butterflies and women.

The film’s first half consists of a witty variation on traditional Indian snake-charming, the twist being that the “snake” is here a gigantic caterpillar (one of a long line of outsize insects in Méliès films, starting with A Terrible Night/Une Nuit terrible, 1896) who enters the basket as opposed to the other way round. Up to this point, the Brahmin is very much in charge of events, but when the butterfly - or rather a beautiful woman sporting butterfly wings - emerges, he’s powerless to influence what follows.

Even when he successfully manages to trap the butterfly-woman under a sheet, the princess who emerges regards him with disdain, treating him as a servant before turning him into a caterpillar, making the role-reversal complete. As with the Rajah before him, Freud would doubtless have a great deal to say about the anxieties revealed by this particular scenario, which literally reduces the Brahmin to a helpless, limp worm at the end.

The film’s central scenario, the spectacular emergence of the butterfly-woman, is believed to have originated in a piece of stage magic by Buatier de Kolta (1845-1903) that dates from 1885. Méliès would almost certainly have witnessed a live performance at some point.

Aside from some very faint chemical blotching and one or two instances of streaking later on, the untinted source print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is in excellent condition - which is just as well, given the level of detail in the frame and the need to make out the Brahmin and the butterfly against a busy jungle background. Disappointingly, Eric Beheim’s repetitive electronic score makes no attempt at creating any kind of Indian ambience, and neither does it take any advantage of the snake-charming elements.


Posted on 27th June 2008
Under: Mechanical Props, 1901 | No Comments »

What is Home Without the Boarder?

La Maison tranquille, 1901, 1m19s
Star Film Catalogue No. 325-326

A genteel couple try to take tea, but are interrupted first by the sound of their rowdy upstairs lodgers, and then by one of them putting his foot through their ceiling, causing clouds of plaster dust to fall on their table. They quickly leave the room, while their neighbours steal their wine with a fishing line. One of them descends into the downstairs room, wraps up the turkey in the tablecloth, climbs on the table and passes it up through the hole. He then dons a sheet and, with the aid of two improvised props, pretends to be a wild elephantine figure. The woman from downstairs walks back into the room, sees it, screams and runs off. The lodger drapes the sheet over a couple of chairs and climbs back up through the ceiling. The woman runs back in armed with a broom, and hits the sheet, causing the chairs to collapse. She and her husband summon a policeman, and show him the hole in their ceiling. As he looks up, the lodgers pour a bucket of flour over him and drop their bedding through the hole, leaving him trapped and helpless on the table. He gets up and leaves. All three lodgers descend through the hole, barricade the door and begin to trash the place.

What Is Home Without The Boarder? (whose French title translates as the sarcastic ‘The Peaceful House’) is essentially an excuse to revive the split-level set previously unveiled in The Doctor and the Monkey (Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900) - in fact, the upstairs bedroom is identical to the one in the earlier film, though the laboratory has now been replaced with a tastefully decorated dining room. Once again, the dominant mood is one of violent slapstick, though here there’s a better creative use made of simultaneous events happening on two levels, and more sense of a structured narrative, even if it concludes just as destructively as its predecessor.

The contrast between upstairs and downstairs is established in the first seconds, with a genteel couple having a quiet meal (the quietness conveyed by their comparative stillness) and their three rowdy lodgers having a wild party upstairs. They quickly make the transition from boisterousness to vandalism, outright theft (of their neighbours’ food and wine), practical jokes, and blatant disrespect for the law. There are no apparent special effects other than the set design and its breakaway floor - even the “transformation” of one of the lodgers into a strange elephantine creature is effected onscreen.

The film is a gleeful celebration of anarchy in its purest form, anticipating the Keystone Kops, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges by decades, but very much in the same spirit. No attempt is made to distinguish the lodgers: identically dressed, they’re merely three facets of the same destructive force, as demonstrated by the fact that the other two continue developing bits of comic business with the stolen meal even when all eyes should be on the intruder downstairs.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, with most of the damage restricted to the far left-hand side of the frame - handily, much of the action tends towards the right. Joe Rinaudo’s score has rather more than a hint of a demented fairground calliope, which is entirely appropriate.


Posted on 26th June 2008
Under: Mechanical Props, 1901 | No Comments »

The Doctor and the Monkey

Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900, 1m04s
Star Film Catalogue No. 317

An elderly doctor keeps a monkey in a cage. When he briefly pops out, the monkey breaks free, leaps onto a nearby table and begins to systematically wreck the doctor’s study. After overturning a cupboard, he climbs up the stairs to the doctor’s bedroom. The doctor grabs it by the tail, which comes off. While the monkey trashes the bedroom, the doctor is attempting to tame the tail, which has developed a life of its own. The tail affixes itself to his face, to the horror of the doctor’s maid, who comes in to assist, eventually pulling it off. While they attack the tail with various implements, the monkey smashes a hole through the bedroom floor and jumps through it into the study. The monkey then attacks the doctor, and then the maid, ripping off her skirt and leaving her in her petticoat.

A violent farce with next to no plot - essentially, a chimpanzee caged in an elderly doctor’s study breaks free in the opening seconds and spends the rest of the film gleefully trashing the place - The Doctor and the Monkey’s immediate point of interest is its distinctive split-level set that allows us to see the study and the upstairs bedroom simultaneously. The chimp is obviously a man in a suit, and the cage seems to be made out of balsa wood, but realism is hardly Méliès’ intention - especially when the chimp’s tail, after having been severed by the enraged doctor, develops a life of its own and attaches itself to his face (via the film’s sole jump-cut) as though it were some kind of giant parasitical worm.

Méliès made his film at a time when opposition to animal experimentation was growing (the first anti-vivisection society had been formed in France in 1883, and its ideas were gaining increasing recognition by the late 1890s), though it’s unlikely that the film was ever intended as an explicit political statement: it’s far too scattershot for that.

Méliès was clearly so proud of the set that it would very soon make a repeat appearance, to more dramatically coherent effect, in What Is Home Without The Boarder? (La Maison tranquille, 1901). Painted backdrops are used to convey what is presumably the doctor’s laboratory (a skeleton hangs from the wall, and a skull is resting on a stool, and an overlarge pair of scissors might well be pressed into some kind of surgical/autopsy use. A fake entrance with a receding corridor in exaggerated perspective dominates the left-hand side of the screen. Much of the bedroom is equally fake (Méliès even paints on rays of sunlight entering via the window), though the bed that gets comprehensively demolished is real enough. However, the floor seems about as flimsy as the cage, though when the monkey breaks through it from upstairs and jumps through to land on the floor in a cloud of dust and detritus, it’s an effectively menacing moment - though it’s rapidly undercut by farce when the monkey tears off the doctor’s maid’s dress.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, with surface damage kept to a minimum. The sharp picture offers plenty of fine detail. Joe Rinaudo’s organ-based score maintains a pounding left-hand rhythm while introducing a more staccato and percussive feel at the top end when the monkey breaks free and starts wreaking havoc.


Posted on 24th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1900 | No Comments »

A Fantastical Meal

Le Repas fantastique, 1900, 1m31s
Star Film Catalogue No. 311

A maidservant lays the dinner table for two women and an elderly man, who try to sit down - but the chairs vanish and reappear on top of the table, causing them to hit the floor with a bump. They get up, replace the chairs, and sit on them without further incident. The man takes the lid off the tureen, sticks his spoon in, and is startled to find it expanding to three times its original size. Initial enthusiasm gives way to dismay when he finds two knee-length boots inside it. He angrily orders the maid to remove both them and the tureen. He sits back down and demands the first course. The maid brings in a roast turkey. The man stands and attempts to carve it, but the table’s legs suddenly extend so that the table-top is out of reach. The man climbs on a chair, and the table shrinks to its previous height. The trio sits down again, and the table vanishes, reappearing on the other side of the room. They move over there, and the table sinks through the floor, re-emerging in its original position. They move back there, and it sinks through the floor again. They get up, and the table reappears, this time bearing a ghastly spectre that performs a macabre dance. The women flee, and the man tries to hit it with a chair, but it passes right through it. The second time, the chair hits the table, which vanishes again. The spectre is replaced with a box of dynamite, which blows the man up against the wall. His limp body falls to the ground, and then jerks around as though possessed. The women return, but can do no more than stare.

A Fantastical Meal combines the Grand Guignol fantasies of its immediate predecessor, Fat and Lean Wrestling (Nouvelles luttes extravagantes, 1900), and the comedy of frustration first seen in The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge ensorcelée, 1896) and developed in Up-To-Date Spiritualism (Spiritisme abracadabrant, 1900) and this film’s immediate successor Going to Bed Under Difficulties (Le Déshabillage impossible, 1900). It also anticipates Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (El Ángel exterminador, 1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972) by six or seven decades in its merciless depiction of a bourgeois trio trying and failing to sit down for a meal.

The jump-cut assault begins when they first try to sit down, as their chairs vanish in classic schoolboy-prank style, causing them to fall hard to the floor. Things seem to be looking up when the soup tureen expands to three or four times its original size, but instead of an equivalent expansion of the soup inside, it turns out to contain two boots. Less than impressed, the male head of the household blames the hapless made, tossing one of the boots after her for good measure. The next bit of business involves the table, which both elongates its legs to make it impossible to carve the succulent (if obviously fake) turkey, and sinks through the floor, reappearing on the opposite side of the room.

So far, so familiar, but Méliès then turns the film into a full-blown ghost story, as a hideous spectre appears and dances on top of the table. It was created via a superimposition, which is why the host can’t hit it with his chair. The spectre then turns into a box of dynamite which blows the host against the wall. What happens afterwards isn’t clear - it seems as though his legs shatter as though made of china, leaving them uselessly limp, and supernatural forces then force him to dance in a spectacularly undignified fashion. It’s the final humiliation, and although the maid never reappears, one suspects there’s a certain amount of quiet satisfaction in the kitchen.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD has mild surface damage (including tramlines) pretty much throughout, the frame jitters at times, and the central part of the image (where much of the action occurs) seems slightly softer than the rest - though none of this renders the film at all hard to watch. Eric Beheim’s electronic score is scrupulously neutral, with little attempt at illustrating the action.


Posted on 21st June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1900 | No Comments »

Fat and Lean Wrestling Match

Nouvelles luttes extravagantes, 1900, 2m15s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 309-310

Two female wrestlers help each other up and take a bow, their wrestlers’ outfits transformed into sober black dresses. They drape white sheets over themselves, removing them to reveal moustachioed male wrestlers, who begin a bout. The curly-haired wrestler is grappled to the ground, his body flung around as though weightless. Finally, he is tossed aside, but while his opponent is preening, the curly-haired wrestler gets up, forces the bald wrestler to his knees, and knocks his head off. He then rips off each of his arms, and tears his trunk from his legs. After claiming victory, he places the trunk in a nearby chair, and replaces its head and limbs. The bald wrestler comes back to life, and the two bow. Each wrestler plucks a female wrestler from behind his opponent. All four bow, then the men pick up the women, who vanish as they do so. The men then leave arm in arm. A much fatter wrestler enters, as does a thinner opponent, who tries and fails to lift him. The fat wrestler falls on top of him, squashing him flat. He places the completely flat body in a variety of poses, eventually rolling him up. The thin wrestler unrolls himself, grabs the fat wrestler and tosses him into the air. He looks up in the air, laughs, and the fat wrestler falls back down on top of him. The thin wrestler jumps on top of his belly, and the fat wrestler explodes, his limbs and head shooting in all directions. After the thin wrestler leaves, the limbs take on a life of their own, moving towards the trunk to reconstitute the fat wrestler. He looks in the direction of his now departed opponent and expresses outrage.

We first encountered Georges Méliès’ fondness for limb-lopping Grand Guignol effects in Adventures of William Tell (Guillaume Tell et le clown, 1898), and subsequently in The Astronomer’s Dream (La Lune à un mètre, 1898) and The Cook’s Revenge (La Vengeance du gâte-sauce, 1900), though these are mild compared with the sustained indignities meted out here. During a series of wrestling bouts, people (or, thankfully, obvious dummies) are casually flung around, their heads and limbs are torn off and, in a startlingly violent climax, a man’s stomach is jumped on, causing his body to explode and his various appendages to be scattered hither and yon.

The English title is more specific than the French original, which translates as ‘New and Extravagant Bouts’. It begins with two female wrestlers, having just finished a bout of their own - and when they bow, a jump-cut replaces their outfits with long, sober black dresses that wouldn’t look out of place in a photograph of the staff of a particularly strict academy for young Victorian ladies. Another jump-cut transforms them into male wrestlers, who would look almost identical if one wasn’t bald on top and the other possessed a full head of hair.

The first on-screen bout begins conventionally enough, but a third jump-cut then transforms the curly-haired wrestler into a dummy, which is flung around with delirious abandon, his opponent’s arms windmilling with all the manic energy of the still unborn Pete Townshend. Not to be outdone, when the curly-haired wrestler springs back to life, he also engenders a dummy substitution, only here it’s not just flung around but ripped apart.

Once these two have resolved their differences and left the arena (accompanied by the two female wrestlers, who put in a surprise reappearance), we’re introduced to two successors - this time the ones that give the film its English title. Their bout is just as violent as its predecessor, though Méliès here substitutes a dummy to make it seem as though the fat wrestler has literally flattened the thin one, in the manner of Jeff Brown’s classic (albeit not yet written) children’s book Flat Stanley. The thin man’s revenge, already described above, involves one of the most perfectly-timed jump cuts in Méliès’ entire output: the effect of a clearly living human being apparently exploding is alarmingly convincing.

What’s equally convincing is the coda, in which the now abandoned fat wrestler’s body parts automatically reassemble themselves. It’s hard to tell even from frame analysis whether this was created with strings or primitive stop-motion animation: the latter seems most likely.

Although the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is very watchable, and surface damage is less prominent than usual (at least until the very end), the image is a trifle softer than average for this disc - though this has the side-effect of hiding some of the joins. Frederick Hodges’ lively ragtime piano accompaniment perfectly matches the knockabout tone.


Posted on 20th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1900 | No Comments »

Up-To-Date Spiritualism

Spiritisme abracadabrant, 1900, 1m11s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 293

A man attempts to put his top hat on a chair, but the chair scurries off into a corner. He then places his umbrella on a stool, only to see it shoot off into the far distance. He places his hat on the same stool, only to see it rising slowly upwards and repositioning itself on the floor. He tries to retrieve it, but it shoots up into the air and drops down on the other side of the stool. He finally manages to grab it, and replaces it on his head. He then places it on a nearby table, but when he removes his coat, the hat reappears on his head. He puts it back on the table, but his coat reappears on his body, followed by the hat. His movements get more frantic as he tries to divest himself of both hat and coat, with equal lack of success - even tossing it into a corner or jumping on it ultimately have no effect. He removes his coat, places it on the floor, and lowers the table on top of it to hold it down, but the same thing happens. Defeated, he leaves the room.

In terms of its basic situation, Up-To-Date Spiritualism (whose French title means something closer to “Preposterous spiritualism”) harks back to The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge ensorcelée, 1897), in that it features a somewhat hapless protagonist being challenged and ultimately defeated by various objects developing a life of their own. Here, he’s simply trying to remove his hat and coat, but finding it impossible thanks to the intervention of apparently supernatural forces conspiring to make him end the film in exactly the same state that he began it.

For the most part, this is a return to now very familiar basics, with the jump-cut transition reigning supreme, alongside a couple of mechanical effects as a chair scurries out of frame and his hat spontaneously elevates itself into the air. The hapless protagonist’s frenzied, almost dance-like movements recall those of Tom Whisky in Addition and Subtraction (Tom Whisky ou l’illusionniste toqué). It’s fun to watch, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it ultimately has little new to offer.

But despite the uncharacteristically flagging inspiration on show here, Méliès would ring more variations on this particular theme in the self-describing Going To Bed Under Difficulties (Le Déshabillage impossible, also 1900), which isn’t much more involving but at least has more of a sense of cumulative absurdity.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is suffers from a fair amount of surface damage (and quite a few splice marks), though there’s plenty of fine detail and none of it seriously affects appreciation. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment is along the same lines to that which he devised for The Bewitch Inn - a lively, up-tempo, relentlessly repetitive number that perfectly matches what’s happening onscreen.


Posted on 17th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1900 | No Comments »

The Magic Book

Le Livre magique, 1900, 2m39s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 289-291

A man enters a room, in the middle of which is a large stand - onto which he places a gigantic book, bilingually titled ‘Le Livre magique’/'The Magical Book’. He opens it to the first page, which features a picture of Mr Punch. Taking him by the hand, he pulls Mr Punch out of the book and into the room. He turns the page, to reveal a double portrait of Harlequin and Pierrot, pulls them into the room in a similar fashion, and then turns the page again to reveal pictures of a young woman and her father. This time, he only pulls the young woman into the room: she curtsies and performs a little dance. This attracts the attention of the book’s other characters, who surround her. Annoyed, the man pulls her father out of the book, and he waves his stick at his daughter’s suitors. The two men join forces and push Punch back into the book, followed by Harlequin, but Pierrot hides behind the book. Meanwhile, the man has pushed the young woman and her father back into the book. He finds Pierrot, grabs him by the ear and tries to force him back into the book, closing the covers. But Pierrot has yet to be absorbed back into the pages, pushes the book open again, jumping back into the room. The man forces him back into the book through the front cover, successfully, but the book then falls on top of him, flattening him completely. He then re-enters the room through the door, and bows, before picking up the book, tucking it under his arm, and leaving.

A delightful conceit that’s developed into an almost perfectly structured sketch, The Magic Book is based on a very simple idea (the characters in a book come to life when its owner thrusts his hand into the pages and drags them out), but it’s presented with more than enough visual and conceptual wit to hold attention. The characters themselves are familiar archetypes: Mr Punch, Harlequin and Pierrot (the latter costume has already seen service in 1896’s A Nightmare/Le Cauchemar and 1898’s The Magician/Le Magicien), and the chances are that the (apparent) father-daughter duo on the book’s final pages would have been equally recognisable to Méliès’ original audience.

The film has a classical three-act structure. In the first, the characters are extracted from the book, in the second, their interaction causes various complications, and in the third, they are (eventually) returned from whence they came. The second act is the most immediately engaging, as it deftly sketches a reasonably involved scenario in the space of a few seconds. The book’s owner has, up to now, been extracting all the characters, but when he comes across the double portrait of the young woman and her father, he deliberately only picks the former, as he clearly has romantic designs on her and would prefer to express these without the danger of a chaperone being present.

However, when it becomes equally clear that Punch, Harlequin and Pierrot feel the same way, the man cynically extracts the father too, knowing that he can count on his support both when it comes to stick-waving moral outrage and for assistance in shoving the various characters back from whence they came. The third act also involves a bit of business with Pierrot, who successfully evades this reinstatement at first, though it’s disappointing that Méliès’ invention flags somewhat at the very end: the visual coup of the book falling off the stand and apparently crushing the man isn’t developed at all, and he merely reappears through the door to take a bow.

There are two points of interest about the book itself: firstly, its title (which is also the title of the film) is bilingual in French and English, showing that Méliès was clearly interested in distributing the film in English-speaking territories. Secondly, related to this, is the fact that his signature accompanies the various drawings. As with the written reference to his theatre in Between Calais and Dover (Entre Calais et Douvres, 1897), this is almost certainly Méliès’ attempt to assert his copyright and prevent piracy by contriving an excuse for the author’s name to appear on screen as often as possible.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD begins with some severe chemical damage, but settles down to something quite watchable, albeit marred by numerous faint tramlines throughout. Frederick Hodges’ piano accompaniment makes witty and highly apposite use of Debussy’s twelfth prelude, ‘Minstrels’.


Posted on 16th June 2008
Under: Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1900 | No Comments »

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