Georges Méliès Trick Films, 1898 Georges Méliès Trick Films, 1898 [unratable]

     I wrapped up my comments on The Bewitched Inn by grumbling that I was growing impatient to see George Méliès learn some new tricks beyond the puppetry and stop-substitution that had comprised the whole of his special effects repertoire during the first phase of his filmmaking career. 1898, it turns out, is the year in which I begin to get my wish. While those two well-tested techniques would continue to feature prominently in Méliès’s work until his retirement from the movie business in 1912, his third year behind the camera brought both a major innovation that would loom equally large in the cinematic magician’s future and a couple of minor ones that would recur sporadically whenever a particular set of very specific circumstances called for them. It also saw him really start to get his money’s worth from the studio he built at such great cost in 1897.

     Méliès’s series of vignettes inspired by the Greco-Turkish War had blurred the distinction between the actuality and the trick film, but Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine/Visite Sous-Marine du Maine virtually erases it. The destruction of the second-class battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor contributed more than any other single incident to igniting the Spanish-American War. Although the real cause was almost certainly spontaneous ammunition explosion (still a significant problem for nations whose naval ambitions exceeded the advancement of their chemical industries as recently as 1943, when the Japanese dreadnought Mutsu blew up for no apparent reason in the Inland Sea), newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst— the Rupert Murdoch of his day— managed to sell most of the American public on a bullshit story about a mine planted under the Maine’s keel by Spanish saboteurs. Efforts to raise and study the wreck after the war’s conclusion thus attracted nearly as much interest as the conflict itself, and would have made a tempting subject for what we would now think of as documentary and pseudo-documentary filmmakers. The problems of underwater cinematography were as yet unsolved, however, so anyone seeking to document the story for real would just have to wait until after the hard and exciting work was already done. Méliès was willing to fake it (as were most 19th-century filmmakers who dealt in current events, given what pains in the ass the cameras of the day could be), and his approach to transporting the viewer to the bottom of Havana Harbor was crudely brilliant. He set up one of his usual painted backdrops to represent a section of the battleship’s shattered hull, outfitted three actors with diving suits and an array of debris (including a sailor-suited dummy!) to haul out through the great rent at center stage, and interposed a fish tank painted with seaweed and false ripples (real water being largely invisible to 19th-century film stock) between the camera and the set. Even today, it’s a nifty effect, and it must have been absolutely mind-blowing when Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine premiered.

     The Magician/Black Magic/Le Magicien and The Famous Box Trick/Illusions Fantasmagoriques are magic-show routines in much the same vein as The Haunted Castle and The Vanishing Lady, with The Magician more resembling the former and The Famous Box Trick more resembling the latter. The Magician gives us Méliès in sorcerer’s robes and an eyepatch, materializing a table and a large box, into which he then conjures himself. A moment later, the box bursts open to reveal a child dressed as a clown, who leaps down from his perch and turns into Méliès, now also dressed as a clown. Méliès conjures up a several-course meal to replace the box, but the table and his stool both vanish before he gets a chance to eat anything. Then the Devil appears, turns the clown into an ancient Roman by means of a quick tap on the shoulder, and vanishes once again. The Roman sets to work sculpting a bust of a young woman, which mysteriously comes to life. His efforts to romance the animated statue (I’m pretty sure she’s played by Jeanne d’Alcy, like so many of Méliès’s fantasy women) are frustrated, however, by the usual routine of mischievous teleportation until she finally disappears in a puff of smoke. And then the Devil pops back in to kick the sculptor in the ass. The Famous Box Trick is in at least one sense a little more mundane, for it reuses The Vanishing Lady’s mock-up of the stage at the Theatre Robert Houdin, and it presents Méliès dressed in ordinary street clothes. Again there’s a big, wooden box (big surprise, right?), into which Méliès tosses a few odds and ends and then pulls out another child in clown’s regalia. (This looks to be the same kid we saw in The Magician.) After setting the boy down on a podium, Méliès picks up a big honking axe, and duplicates the juvenile clown by chopping him in two longitudinally. The doppelgangers begin fighting, so Méliès seizes one and dematerializes him. Then he puts the other back in the box— which he breaks up with a hammer to reveal that the second boy, too, has vanished. Next he conjures the boy back, turns him into a pair of flags, waves those around for a while, and finally disappears himself in another puff of smoke. Neither of these movies does much that is actually new (although The Magician’s clown transforming in mid-leap from child to adult is easily the most impressive stop-substitution effect in any of the surviving Méliès films thus far), but they benefit from an extraordinarily rapid pace; the intervals between tricks rarely exceed three or four seconds, and the full running time of each is only a bit more than one minute, which is probably just about ideal for subjects of this nature. Unfortunately, the most inventive illusion— the bisection of the kid in The Famous Box Trick— is the only one that absolutely fails. The swing of the axe is too obviously pulled, and there’s no follow-through on the blow after the second child appears.

     Adventures of William Tell/Guillaume Tell et le Clown is much cleverer. In a reversal of the story in which Tell is required by the Habsburg governor to shoot an apple off the top of his son’s head with a crossbow, this film has a clown assembling a wax dummy of the Swiss folk hero, in preparation for shooting some manner of object off of its head. The dummy (played in animate form by Méliès) doesn’t care for that idea, though, and beans the clown in the back of the head with the target as soon as he turns around to pick up his crossbow. Naturally, the dummy is just a dummy again when the clown turns back to see who hit him. The clown tries again after removing and replacing the dummy’s arm to confirm that it is indeed just a wax statue, but gets smacked in the head from behind a second time. The next thing we know, the clown has been replaced with a dummy, and Tell is giving him a sound thrashing. We’re talking some serious World Wrestling Federation shit here— right down to the Hulk Hogan leg-drop as a finishing move! Tell runs off, and the clown picks himself up off the floor, clutching his aching buttocks. It’s the premise that really makes the film here, for Adventures of William Tell is not at all similar to any previous movie among the surviving remnant of Méliès’s catalogue, and the physical comedy does not rely on objects disappearing from wherever someone expects them to be. The switching back and forth between actors and dummies is also virtually seamless, which is obviously a considerable asset. The time would come, of course, when that would cease to be worthy of special praise in a commercially released motion picture, but this early in the history of the art form, it was still a pretty big deal.

     The Astronomer’s Dream/La Lune à Un Metre is the most visually impressive of the surviving 1898 movies, playing very much like a more accomplished update of A Nightmare. The titular astronomer (Méliès) sits in his laboratory, busying himself over some manner of book, when Satan appears behind him in a suitably infernal explosion of smoke— not that the astronomer notices. Also unnoticed is the arrival of some manner of moon goddess (Jeanne d’Alcy), who banishes the Devil with a stern command. My instinct is to identify the goddess as Nephthys, because her crescent-moon headdress is so obviously modeled after the sun-disc crowns of Egyptian solar gods, but the Egyptians usually depicted Nephthys wearing an even weirder hat that resembles nothing so much as a flashlight stood on end. Anyway, Nephthys (or whoever) leaves immediately after Satan, and the astronomer gets up to continue his studies of the moon. His instruments seem to have minds of their own, however, and are imaginatively uncooperative in that signature Méliès manner. Even more ill-behaved is the moon itself, which zooms into the lab to eat the astronomer’s telescope, contaminate the air with corrosive vapors, and spit capering children at the harried scholar. Having justly had enough, the astronomer begins flailing at the moon with a broom, but it withdraws back into the sky to taunt him. A brief respite occurs when the moon turns gibbous and another lunar spirit (wearing the same crown as Nephthys, but clad in an otherwise completely different costume and played by a younger, slimmer actress) starts flirting with him. It’s all been a cruel prank, though— the laboratory’s picture window slams shut to be replaced by a blank wall and a demonic statue, and then the moon rushes back inside to eat the astronomer alive! Satan— implicitly revealed as the architect of all this hullabaloo— returns to examine the scholar’s chewed remains (which the moon has by this point vomited back up), but he is followed by Nephthys who again sends him packing, and then reconstitutes the grateful astronomer… who immediately wakes up in his undamaged laboratory, face-down in the book he must have fallen asleep while studying.

     As I said, this is much the same as A Nightmare, but the enormous puppet representing the bellicose moon is a great deal better than the version from two years before, and the tricks in The Astronomer’s Dream possess a thematic unity that those in its model lacked. Also much better is the laboratory set, with its giant painted telescope prefiguring the interplanetary cannon in A Trip to the Moon. There’s a hint of genuine story here, too, with Nephthys and the Devil apparently contending for the astronomer’s fate, along with a dark undercurrent that we haven’t really seen before, except maybe in the form of the dead sailor recovered by the submarine work crew in Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine. Finally, it’s worth noting what might be a bit of stop-motion animation in the moment when the diagram on the astronomer’s chalkboard comes to life. I’m not quite sure that’s really how the trick was done, nor am I sufficiently conversant yet with Méliès’s later work to know how much mileage he’d get out of that technique later on, but if it is stop-motion, the way it’s used here— showing up in the discrete black space of the chalkboard, visually separate from the rest of the scene— testifies to the appearance of another innovation that would be hugely important in the coming years.

     That innovation is the multiple exposure, and The Four Troublesome Heads/Four Heads Are Better Than One/Un Homme de Tète is completely built around it. This film has perhaps the simplest premise of all its contemporaries, but it’s tremendously engaging anyway. This time, Méliès dispenses with any set save a black curtain, a stool, and a pair of tables. Standing between the latter and drawing attention to the one on his right, Méliès pulls off his own head, and sets it down beside him. Then he does it again. Then he does it a third time, setting head #3 down on the table to his left. Now with a fourth head grown, he picks up a banjo and begins to strum, while his three superfluous heads strike up a cacophonous chorus. Appalled by the extra heads’ tone-deaf racket, Méliès smashes the two to his right out of existence with his banjo, yanks off and tosses away the head he’s currently wearing, and puts the head to his left back onto his shoulders where it belongs. There are some revealing visual defects which seem to suggest last-second solutions to unanticipated problems (the sections of table surface surrounding each head have clearly been painted on in post-production, for example), but The Four Troublesome Heads is both quite impressively staged and simply brimming with enthusiasm for the newly discovered illusion which it showcases. It also unexpectedly serves as an example of how to put across the idea of sound in a silent film. Naturally we can’t hear the disembodied heads’ discordant singing, but we can see that no two of them are in anything like synch, and the exaggerated expressions which Méliès adopts for each of the caterwauling noggins suggest such utter and unselfconscious abandon that we have no trouble imagining what they must sound like in concert.

     And now, finally, The Temptation of Saint Anthony/Tentacion de Saint Antoine. It has often been observed that there is no easier way to get away with sin and blasphemy in a movie than to place them in an explicitly religious context, and with this film, Méliès demonstrates that he was already starting to figure that out by 1898. For those who are even bigger heathens than me, and don’t know the story, Anthony of Egypt (also known as Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, and about a hundred other things) was a third-century religious hermit whose exploits as recorded in Athanasius of Alexandria’s The Life of Anthony did much to popularize and solidify the concept of monasticism in the rapidly Christianizing Roman Empire. Anthony fell in with a Christian ascetic at the age of eighteen, and in his mid-30’s sold off or gave away all of his not inconsiderable family property and went to live alone in the incredibly inhospitable Wadi al Natrun desert to the west of Alexandria, with an ancient tomb as his only shelter; the idea was that with no human contact to distract him, he could devote himself fully to the contemplation of Christ and his teachings. If Athanasius is to be believed, Satan found this enormously irritating, and took it upon himself personally to derail Anthony’s efforts. When Anthony proved impervious to boredom and too determined in his mission to succumb to indolence, Satan brought out the big guns, and beset him with sexy phantom women. That part, naturally, is what Méliès depicts in The Temptation of Saint Anthony. We see the saint (who could honestly be just about anybody under all that makeup) ensconced in his sepulchral lair, praying rather incongruously before a more or less life-sized crucifix. Before long, the girls (including both the inescapable Jeanne d’Alcy and the anonymous dark-haired cutie from A Nightmare) start zapping in and out of the tomb, playing unholy havoc with Anthony’s concentration. They hug him and pet him and frolic around him in circles, and generally seem a fuck of a lot more appealing than another 430,000 Our Fathers or Hail Marys. In a moment that’s as funny as it is ballsy, the prettiest of the bunch incarnates herself into the figure on Anthony’s crucifix, and climbs down from the cross to molest him! But in the end, the Angel of the Lord puts in a nick-of-time appearance to deliver Saint Anthony from the unspeakable horror of a really good time. Some people have interpreted The Temptation of Saint Anthony as one of the first religious movies, and in a purely superficial sense, I suppose that’s probably true. However, it’s difficult to take piety at face value from the guy who would later give us The Devil in a Convent and The Merry Frolics of Satan, and more importantly, Méliès seems much more interested in the three winsome succubi than he is in the dreary old hermit they’re tormenting. It might also be significant that the angel who comes to Anthony’s rescue could just as well be one of them, were it not for her wings and halo. If so, Méliès would be in good company, for the lessons The Temptation of Saint Anthony seems to be teaching were learned very well indeed by even such exalted successors as D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille— to say nothing of the men behind the 1925 version of Ben Hur, with its arena full of topless flower girls. It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s anything Méliès didn’t help pioneer!

 

 

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