Archive for the '1897' Category

After the Ball

Après le bal, 1897, 1m12s
Star Film Catalogue No. 128

A woman enters her boudoir, and her maid helps her to undress, peeling off her outer garments until she is clad in a shift and stockings. She sits down, and the maid helps remove the latter. Almost naked aside from skimpy underwear, the woman gets into a tub and the maid pours the contents of a large jug over her, drying her off with a towel afterwards. They leave the room together. .

This slice of (very tame) erotica is very typical of a sub-genre that had already begun to appear in films on both sides of the Channel the previous year: Méliès’ film is a remake of Eugène Pirou’s Bedtime for the Bride (Le Coucher de la marié), while Esmé Collings’ British-made A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir proceeds along very similar lines, though stops well short of Méliès’ film when it comes to clothes-shedding. Both Collings’ and Méliès’ films (and doubtless Pirou’s too) were marketed as being suitable for private screenings to broad-minded bachelors.

Essentially, After the Ball is a strip-tease, with an upper-class woman being gradually helped out of her voluminous clothes by a maid, from the cumbersome outer garments down to her individual stockings. The woman is played by Jeanne d’Alcy (1865-1956), who previously played the title role in The Vanishing Lady (Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896) and would go on to make several appearances in subsequent Méliès films, including the seminal A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune, 1902) before marrying him in 1926.

When the woman gets into the bath, it’s not clear whether Méliès intended the effect of complete rear nudity - some form of underwear is clearly visible. It’s also unclear whether the dark powder that the maid pours over her was intended to represent water (it’s easy to see why the real thing might have been best avoided, given the likely side-effects in terms of cloth clinging alluringly to flesh) or was part of some arcane and forgotten powdering ritual, though it’s unlikely that the film’s audience at the time would have been pondering the technical details given the surprisingly extensive amount of female flesh on display. However, After the Ball is not, as has been widely claimed, the first “adult” film - Pirou’s work predated Méliès’ by several months and is reputedly rather more graphic, though less than a third of Bedtime for the Bride is believed to survive.

The print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is mostly in excellent condition aside from some minor jitter on occasion. Neal Kurz’s lyrical piano accompaniment is tasteful and unobtrusive, establishing the film firmly on the ‘art’ side of the art-vs-erotica divide.

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Posted on 16th May 2008
Under: Erotica, 1897 | No Comments »

The Bewitched Inn

L’Auberge ensorcelée, 1897, 2m02s
Star Film Catalogue Nos. 122-123

A man enters the guestroom of an inn, clearly tired and ready for bed. He puts his suitcase, umbrella and overcoat down on the bed, whereupon they promptly vanish. He rummages through the bedclothes, but is none the wiser. He removes his hat and places it on a small cabinet. It springs up of its own accord and scuttles across the room. He tries to light a candle, but it vanishes, reappearing on the other side of the room. A second attempt leads to it reappearing in its original location. Finally, he lights the wick, but it explodes. He removes his jacket and it drifts up the wall of its own accord. He sits down in a chair, only for it to vanish at the crucial moment, leaving him sprawled on the floor, the chair reappearing on the other side of the room. Holding it firmly this time, he successfully sits down and removes his boots, which shuffle away. The bedside cabinet vanishes, and his trousers climb the wall. Now too tired to care, he gets into bed, only for it to vanish, leaving him on the floor. He gets up, and the bed reappears, shortly followed by the rest of the furniture, stacked neatly on top of the mattress. The man can stand it no longer, and flees the room.

The Bewitched Inn harks back to one of Georges Méliès’ earliest films, A Terrible Night (Un Nuit terrible, 1896), though the nocturnal terrors that beset the weary traveller in the later film are far more numerous and inexplicable than a straightforward invasion by a giant bedbug.

At two minutes, this is double the length of his previous surviving work (it’s even given two numbers in the Star Film catalogue, 122-123, suggesting that it was supplied in two parts, though aside from the usual jump-cuts the setting and narrative are seamless), allowing Méliès to unleash what was then his full arsenal of cinematic tricks onto his hapless protagonist. Or rather, onto himself, since he is clearly recognisable under the false whiskers.

As before, the special effects consist mostly of jump-cuts that cause objects to vanish and reappear, though this time they’re augmented by some pre-prepared props. His hat and clothes, presumably attached to invisible wires, drift up the wall or scuttle into a corner, while the candle explodes as soon as he finally gets a chance to light it. The most sophisticated effect sees his boots shuffling away after he removes them - although almost certainly achieved with wires, the operator wittily creates the impression that they’re moving in step formation.

Although the film mostly consists of random inconveniences, there’s a sense of building towards a climax at the end, when the entire bed vanishes, only to reappear with the rest of the furniture stacked on top of it. The traveller is probably wise to flee: as Méliès had already demonstrated in such films as A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896), one isn’t safe from night-time terrors even after one has successfully drifted off to sleep.

Aside from some exposure fluctuations, mild chemical blotching and a severe tramline towards the right of the frame, the print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is in very good condition, revealing plenty of fine detail (even though it’s not possible to read the advice to guests pinned to the door, other than the ‘AVIS’ heading). Frederick Hodges’ jaunty, repetitive piano accompaniment has the relentless effect of a party going on next door, deftly adding to the sense of irritation felt by the traveller.

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Posted on 15th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, Mechanical Props, 1897 | No Comments »

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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Posted on 14th May 2008
Under: 1897 | 1 Comment »

The Surrender of Tournavos

La Prise de Tournavos, 1897, 0m57s
Star Film Catalogue No. 106

Tyrnavos, Greece, 12 April 1897. Just outside the doors of a garrison, three Greek guards fire rifles over the wall at an unseen enemy before summoning reinforcements: two more join them. Both the wall and its door are breached, and the guards retreat into the garrison. Five armed Turks invade and start hacking at the now-closed castle door. One of them orders his colleagues to take cover, and plugs dynamite into the lock. The resulting explosion blows open the door, and the Turks invade the building en masse.

Thus far, all but the first of Méliès’ surviving films have been special-effects exercises involving mechanical props or jump-cuts, but this is the earliest example of one of his historical re-enactments - or so it seems to us today. Actually, this particular re-enactment was torn straight from the headlines of 1897: April 12, to be precise, as that’s when the Greek town of Tyrnavos was overrun by Turks.

Here, the special effects are limited to an explosion, but Méliès compensates by significantly increasing the amount of on-screen action: if he doesn’t quite stretch to the proverbial cast of thousands (or even tens, if we’re honest), there’s certainly plenty going on as a group of Greek soldiers try in vain to prevent first the breaching of the castle walls and then a full-scale Turkish invasion of the building.

Although the camera’s viewpoint is still as fixed as ever, the film also marks an advance on previous films (and not just by Méliès) in that the action is staged in three distinct planes: the foreground, relative to the castle entrance, the middle ground, relative to the wall, and the background, mostly obscured by the wall, but a few details (not least the smoke of distant explosions) can be seen. Although clearly a painted stage set, the backdrop gives an effective impression of towers receding into infinity, and at one point Méliès has a Greek soldier run past the camera in close-up, adding to the sense of depth.

The film’s only special effect (unless the flickering effect in the middle of the frame is a deliberate attempt at creating the impression of fire, as opposed to a by-product of print deterioration) is the blowing-open of the door. There’s a brief jump-cut as he lights the fuse, though the primary purpose of this seems to be to replace the original door with a noticeably different-looking one that’s clearly designed to fall apart on cue. Other than that, the explosion itself and the subsequent destruction of the door, are entirely mechanical, and almost certainly derive from Méliès’ arsenal of stage tricks.

Aside from the usual relatively minor surface damage (generally scratches rather than anything more serious), the untinted print on the Flicker Alley DVD is in very good condition until the final frames, when deterioration becomes pronounced. Frederick Hodges’ music consists of declamatory phrases over a bass ostinato consisting of repeated scales, augmenting the impression of constant activity.

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Posted on 13th May 2008
Under: Mechanical Props, 1897, Historical Re-enactments | No Comments »

The Haunted Castle

Le Château hanté, 1897, 0m44s
Star Film Catalogue No. 96

A man defies warnings from his friend and prepares to spend the light in a haunted castle. He sits nonchalantly down in a chair - which vanishes and reappears on the other side of the room, causing him to fall to the ground. He gets up, looks around indignantly, walks over to the chair, reaches out to move it back, but is alarmed by the sudden appearance of a mysterious apparition clad in white robes and cowl and holding a box. Drawing a sword, the man runs him through, only to find the apparition turning into a skeleton. He shakes the skeleton and it turns into a burly guard clad in armour. He vanishes, and another man appears behind the central character, pointing out the reappearance of the white-cowled apparition. (The film ends abruptly here)

Moving into his second year of film production, Georges Méliès was still enraptured by the possibilities of the simple jump-cut, which is used here to cause ghosts, skeletons and other sinister beings to appear and disappear at the director’s whim, much to the bewilderment of the film’s hapless protagonist - who seems to be either a nightwatchman taking over a shift or a man taking a bet from a friend that he won’t last a full night in the haunted castle.

Sadly, the film’s abrupt and inconclusive ending, as well as its relative brevity (it’s about 25 second shorter than the other Méliès films of the period) suggest that as much as the final third may have been lost, but there’s more than enough going on in the footage that remains to retain attention.

As in A Nightmare (Le Cauchemar, 1896), the protagonist is beset by sinister visions, starting with a disobedient chair. However, he’s more proactive than his predecessor in that when a cowled apparition holding a box appears, he decides that the simplest course of action is to run him through with a sword, whereupon he naturally turns into a skeleton (by no means a first for Méliès: a similar transformation can be seen in The Vanishing Lady/Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, 1896). Sadly, the technology of the time doesn’t allow the skeleton to do very much except wobble unthreateningly when poked.

The final transformation to a burly guard is well handled, but after he disappears the film becomes incomprehensible, presumably thanks to a missing ending. Another man appears - he is not the colleague from the start, though he doesn’t seem to possess supernatural trappings - and points out the re-emergence of the cowled figure, but the film then ends just as Méliès seems about to explore similar variations to those that concluded A Nightmare.

Flicker Alley’s print has been hand-stencilled, with the protagonist given a fetching red outfit that certainly assures that he remains the centre of attention: aside from a couple of decorations elsewhere in the same red shade, the rest of the image is in sepia-tinted monochrome. The print has a fair amount of surface damage, including chemical blotches: it’s not clear whether the mysterious ectoplasmic material briefly superimposed over the black-clad character that appears towards the end is a deliberate special effect or a by-product of deterioration. Eric Beheim’s electronic accompaniment broadly consists of two iterations of the same call-and-response musical phrase.

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Posted on 12th May 2008
Under: Horror, Jump-Cuts, 1897 | 1 Comment »

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