Georges Melies Trick Films, 1897 Georges Méliès Trick Films, 1897 [unratable]

     1897 was a vitally important year in the career of Georges Méliès, and not coincidentally in the early history of the motion picture as well. The French filmmaker’s Star Film Company, launched the previous September (at which point it was the only business venture on Earth wholly devoted to the creation of movies), was entering its first full year of operation, and its initial successes inspired Méliès to make an extremely ambitious upgrade to his production facilities. The limitations of the canvas-shrouded stage in the garden at his house in Montreuil had quickly made themselves felt during the autumn of 1896; the fabric walls flapped and rippled like sails whenever the wind blew, there was no means of securing a constant quality or intensity of light (not a trivial concern given how many of the Star Film Company’s products required repeatedly shutting down the camera and rearranging the set between frames), and precipitation of any kind would immediately bring all work to a halt. A proper studio would solve all of those problems, and Méliès had one up and running by March of 1897. Its greenhouse-like construction, with the roof and all walls except the one directly behind the stage assembled from frosted glass panes, would admit the all-important sunlight in a way that minimized both glare and stark shadows, while insulating Méliès, his casts, and his crews from less desirable weather phenomena. Meanwhile, an array of 30 powerful electric lamps and a system of shutters on the wall behind the camera station permitted further regulation of the strength and direction of the light onstage. The lamps were a much bigger deal than one might assume at this late remove, for Méliès is the only filmmaker who can be confirmed to have used artificial light in his studio setup by 1897. The 70,000 francs Méliès spent on his studio constituted a daunting risk, given the immaturity of the film industry at the time (and was twice what he originally expected to pay, due to the carpentry contractor’s woeful underestimate of the structural strength needed to support 14,000 kilograms of plate glass), but the investment was well worth it. The enhanced control of the shooting environment that the studio offered opened up an entire universe of new possibilities, so that within a year or two of the facility’s completion, even The Devil’s Castle would look like little more than a crude experiment beside the new material coming off of the Star Film production line.

     Even Méliès’s non-fantastic films of 1897 display the salutary effects of the new studio. The slapstick comedy sketch On the Roof/Sur les Toits benefits from an eye-catching, multi-layered set depicting a cityscape as seen from rooftop level, which would surely have been an immense pain in the ass to erect and maintain for the duration of the shoot under non-weatherproof conditions. The trio of pseudo-actualities inspired by events of the then-current Greco-Turkish War— The Last Cartridges/Bombardement d’une Maison, The Surrender of Tournavos/La Prise de Tournavos, and Sea Fighting in Greece/Combat Naval en Grèce— feature a variety of practical effects (most notably small explosions and rains of falling debris from above the frame) that although simple enough, would again have produced headaches in a less strictly controllable filming environment. One of the few surviving 1897 Star movies that would probably have worked just as well if shot on the old screened-in garden stage is Between Calais and Dover/Entre Calais et Douvres, another staged actuality that attempts to wring laughs out of the “Star Trek”-like rocking camera effect which Méliès previously employed to simulate the pitching deck of the Greek ironclad Hydra in Sea Fighting in Greece.

     That being the case, it’s rather weird that the contemporary trick films should make such conservative use of the new setup. The Haunted Castle/Le Château Hanté is, for all practical purposes, simply a condensed remake of The Devil’s Castle, shot on a more complex set and shorn of the material at either end— the establishing scene of Satan populating the castle with his creatures and the climactic confrontation between the Devil and the cross-wielding knight. This time, all we get is 44 seconds of a knight (unmistakably Méliès in this case) touring the titular edifice and being vexed by a more or less random assortment of supernatural manifestations. Again there are ghosts, a skeleton, a teleporting chair, and a diabolical figure who seems to control them all— although with neither a proper beginning nor a proper end, it’s equally possible that the latter character is just a really pushy estate agent. The only truly new development is a phantom clad in a full-body suit of plate armor, with which the knight grapples in what was presumably meant to be an amusingly fruitless manner. The Haunted Castle is an inconclusive nub of a movie, at least in the form presented on Disc 1 of Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema. In fact, it’s so inconclusive that I’m tempted to speculate that Flicker Alley obtained only a partial print for their DVD set, even though The Haunted Castle is not among the titles identified as fragments in the liner notes. The greatest attraction it offers is a very crude form of colorization, in which the completed prints were hand-tinted by people who can’t possibly have been paid enough to compensate for the tedium and discomfort of the job. The tinting may very well be the reason why this quickie copy of last year’s hit was made in the first place, but the technology clearly wasn’t quite ready for launch yet in 1897. In The Haunted Castle, it suffices only to color the cavalier’s clothes a hideous hot pink, and to add a few distracting daubs of the same color to various objects scattered around the set. Also, coloring within the lines is no easy matter on a frame of 35mm film, and the smaller pink accents pulsate and throb throughout the brief running time in a way that would become almost hypnotic if we had to look at it any longer.

     The Bewitched Inn/L’Auberge Ensorcelée also owes something to The Devil’s Castle, but because it grafts that repertoire of trickery onto the setup from A Terrible Night, it feels at least somewhat fresher than The Haunted Castle. A traveler (Méliès) dressed rather incongruously in a tweed suit, pith helmet, and riding boots takes a room at an inn and begins preparing for bed. The room is under a mischievous enchantment, however, such that A Terrible Night’s giant bug would represent a much milder impediment to a good night’s rest. The furniture and fittings, as usual, won’t stay in their places, and invariably time their vanishing acts for maximum inconvenience. The boarder’s luggage and clothes wander off under their own power whenever he sets them down. A candle explodes like a firecracker when he finally sneaks up on it with sufficient stealth to light it, rather than illuminating the room like it’s supposed to. When the bed itself disappears out from under the traveler, returns a second later, and gathers up all the other furniture onto itself to prevent him from climbing back under the covers, our luckless hero finally does the sensible thing, and runs off to complain to the management. There are some decent sight gags here, along with some amusing pantomime (Méliès creeping up on the uncooperative candle like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits is especially charming), and the stop-substitutions are so seamless now that the vanishing bed bit will fool you into thinking you see Méliès fall the first time you watch it. All the same, though, I must admit that I’m already tired of teleporting chairs, and I’m getting antsy to see Méliès develop some new tricks.

     It’s appropriate, then, that the next film in the program should be After the Ball/After the Ball, the Bath/Après le Bal, for although it’s an actuality rather than a trick film, it definitely brings something new to the table. After the Ball shows Méliès discovering what would later be jokingly dubbed the cheapest special effect, for it might be thought of as one of the earliest surviving sexploitation movies. The ubiquitous Jeanne d’Alcy returns home from a ball, at which point her maid (Jane Brady) helps her struggle out of both her gown and the amazing surplus of underwear in which 19th-century women encased themselves, and pours her a hot bath. (Interestingly, the maid’s pitcher contains ashes rather than water. Evidently earlier takes had revealed that real water was invisible to Méliès’s camera, and it was clearly necessary that something be seen pouring out over d’Alcy’s body.) Contrary to a century’s worth of descriptions, there’s no actual nudity in After the Ball; d’Alcy eventually strips down to a thong-backed, maillot-like garment which looks nearly the same color as her skin on orthochromatic film, worn over a sheer body-stocking. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine how d’Alcy would appear nude in a print of poorer quality than the one used for the Flicker Alley DVD, and that was obviously the effect Méliès was after. Reportedly, After the Ball was marketed as ideal entertainment for bachelor parties and other all-male gatherings. Today, however, this movie’s erotic charge is mild in the extreme. D’Alcy is a little prettier than I’d given her credit for on the basis of The Vanishing Lady, but she’s definitely got the body of a rustic Medieval peasant— she’s built more for delivering babies than for making men want to conceive them with her, if you follow me. In fact, the sexiest thing about After the Ball is the look Jane Brady shoots toward the camera while d’Alcy is on her way offstage, a sort of “This is fun— can we do it again?” smile that leads me to think Mr. Brady didn’t know what hit him that night.



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