Georges Méliès Trick Films, 1899 [unratable]
Most of the developments we’ve observed so far in the filmmaking career of Georges Méliès have been technical in nature. We’ve seen him devise and perfect some basic mechanical illusions, hone his skills as a prop-maker and set-dresser, design and construct what was arguably the era’s most advanced cinematographic studio, and experiment with adopting and adapting the tricks of the theater trade to his new medium. Those trends would all continue, but Méliès’s most important innovation in 1899 was more conceptual. That was the year when he began visibly groping toward longer formats, and with them an increasing emphasis on storytelling. Among the fifteen of his surviving films from 1899 that are now available on DVD are ten in which it is possible to discern the seeds of both the serial and the feature motion picture.
The serial-like works mostly fall outside the purview of this website (although a couple of them include significant special effects landmarks, and are thus marginally relevant to the early evolution of fantastic cinema), but they’re far too important to ignore completely. The Dreyfus Affair was an espionage scandal that convulsed France for much of the 1890’s; the short version is that rabid anti-Semites on the Army General Staff used forged documents to frame an inconsequential Jewish artillery officer for selling military secrets to a rogue diplomat at the German embassy, to no very obvious purpose. Captain Alfred Dreyfus was at first convicted in one of modern Western history’s great farce trials, then sent to the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana, and finally exonerated amid nationwide strife and ructions. Now Méliès had already dabbled in the faux-newsreel genre of staged actualities, first with his movies about the Greco-Turkish War and then again with Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine and its several lost companion-pieces, but the eleven films he made on the subject of the Dreyfus Affair (nine of which are included in Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema) were something different— and not just because they eventually enjoyed the distinction of provoking the first known official ban of a motion picture due to the brawls that tended to break out wherever they were shown. Those earlier “ripped from the headlines” movies depicted isolated incidents only, making no real effort to combine into a coherent picture of larger events. The Dreyfus Affair films, on the other hand, are like a connect-the-dots sketch of the whole scandal. They do require basic familiarity with the situation (intertitles were still a decade or so in the future, and with most of the running times just barely cracking the minute mark, there’s hardly much opportunity for scene-setting), but obviously that was not a problem at the time; anyone who knew the material well enough to get into fist-fights over it would have no trouble filling in the gaps between chapters. As for those special effects landmarks, one comes in Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon/Débarquemet à Quiberon, in which an artificial thunderstorm is superimposed over the action via double exposure, and the other serves as the climax to The Suicide of Colonel Henry/Suicide du Colonel Henry. Lieutenant Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry was the main forger of the evidence against Dreyfus, and he killed himself in prison by slitting his own throat with a straight razor after his part in the conspiracy came to light. The arterial spray in Méliès’s dramatization is surely the equal of anything done along the same lines onstage at the Théâtre du Grand Guignol.
Méliès’s 1899 proto-feature, meanwhile, is a version of the Cinderella story. Emphasis there rightly belongs on proto-feature, of course, for Cinderella/Cendrillon runs just a bit more than five and a half minutes, but even that is half again as long as The Astronomer’s Dream, and more than four times as long as what’s left of The Devil’s Castle. But of far greater importance than Cinderella’s unprecedented duration is the fact that, for the first time in any of his surviving films, Méliès has divided the movie into multiple scenes. Perhaps even more noteworthy, the transitions between scenes (three in total) are accomplished via dissolves, a technique that filmmakers still use to indicate the significant passage of time to this day. We open with Cinderella (it’s hard to say for certain, but I think this is Bluette Bernon, who would later play Aurora in Kingdom of the Faeries and the face of the moon in A Trip to the Moon) being snubbed by her glamorous stepsisters as they file out of the house to attend a royal ball. Cinderella has just settled into a despairing sulk when her Fairy Godmother (Jeanne d’Alcy) appears, and offers to do her a little favor. She transforms three rats (one assumes that Cinderella must have caught them earlier, because they’re all in a box in the corner) into servitors worthy of a high-born lady, and then produces an elegant carriage from a pumpkin that she orders Cinderella to bring her. Finally, the fairy turns her magic staff on Cinderella herself, rendering her even more stunning than her stepsisters. Of course, as we all know, these transformations will last only until midnight, leaving Cinderella just under two hours to live it up at the castle. And as we also all know, clock-watching turns out not to be among Cinderella’s more highly developed skills, and she is forced to make a hasty exit just as the prince was taking an interest in her.
Méliès’s version of the well-worn tale depends every bit as much as the Dreyfus movies upon audience acquaintance with the basic story— in fact, the likely validity of assuming such acquaintance was probably the very thing that gave Méliès the confidence to carry out this experiment. After all, the cinema of the 19th century was not, on the whole, a narrative art form, although clearly that potential was there from the beginning. What was needed to make it one was a sort of visual grammar, a set of conventions that audiences could use to extract fictive sense from the images on the screen, and what better context in which to develop that than a story that everyone watching would already have known? We go in recognizing that the closing minutes of the ball take place well after Cinderella’s visit from her Fairy Godmother, that there must be some delay between the girl’s flight from the castle and her arrival back home, and that a matter of weeks would probably be necessary between the prince’s discovery that Cinderella is the owner of the shoe left behind in the ballroom and the subsequent marriage of the two characters. So when we see the same visual effect— the image of the last scene fading out as the new scene fades in to take its place— at each point of transition, Méliès is in effect asking us to accept that this is what a jump forward in time is going to look like. Anyone watching Cinderella today will instinctively take that for granted, but there was no reason for movie audiences to take anything for granted yet in 1899. Although it’s more than possible that other filmmakers were also beginning to use dissolves the same way around this time, Cinderella is therefore of revolutionary importance not just because it’s so much longer and more complex than Méliès’s previous productions, but because it is helping to teach audiences how to interpret a motion picture in a way that will later permit films of still greater complexity.
Nevertheless, Cinderella remains as much a traditional trick film as an experiment in cinematic storytelling. There are the Fairy Godmother’s alterations to reality, of course, together with Cinderella’s embarrassing change back to normal after her dance with the prince. But on top of that, fully a quarter of the film is given over to what looks like a subjective sequence in which Cinderella’s shame and disappointment are personified as a gang of rambunctious spirits who invade her cottage to taunt her with giant clocks that all read midnight. It reminds me a lot of the dream visitations in A Nightmare and The Astronomer’s Dream, but it’s worth observing that this is by far the most thematically focused and specific use of such imagery that I’ve seen from Méliès thus far. Although it does serve as an interruption to the story (and a proportionately immense one at that), it is clearly meant to serve a particular purpose within its context. This too is something apparently new in Méliès’s work, and something that both he and other filmmakers would build on in the years to come.
The rest of the surviving 1899 movies are basically business as usual in comparison to Cinderella and the Dreyfus cycle, although they benefit from an increasing breadth of variety, both in subject matter and in the repertoire of tricks employed. In The Conjuror/L’Illusioniste Fin de Siècle, Méliès turns a mannequin into a living ballerina (Jeanne d’Alcy), and performs various magical manipulations upon her. It’s a lot like The Famous Box Trick, really, only with a grown woman instead of a little boy acting as the illusionist’s assistant, and it’s far and away the least interesting thing that has come down to us from this moment in Méliès’s career.
The Devil in a Convent/Le Diable au Couvent is much better. An obvious descendant of The Devil’s Castle, this movie has Satan (unmistakably Méliès this time) invading the sanctity of a convent’s chapel. Assuming the guise of a priest, the Devil calls all the nuns to mass, then reveals himself halfway through the sermon. (I don’t know about you, but I’d love to know what the Architect of Evil was preaching.) The nuns flee in panic, and Satan begins making the chapel over to his liking. He trashes the pews and disintegrates the holy water fount, and then conjures up a homey array of demonic idols to redecorate the place. Next, he summons his own congregation of imps and devil girls (the latter disgorged from a humongous Hellmouth like the ones that often appear in medieval religious art), and perches atop a statue of a giant frog, strumming a lute while his creatures disport themselves. (Incidentally, take a good look at the hand gestures the little boy imp on the far right keeps making during the summoning. As eager as I’d be to know the content of the Devil’s sermon, I want to know even more whether those gestures meant in France in 1899 what they mean in America today.) Satan has a temporary setback when the cross-bearing spirits of four saints intervene, but they withdraw before the job is done, and the convent’s human authority figures— including the deacons, the verger, and a Swiss halberdier— are no match for him by themselves. It takes the Archangel Michael to send the Devil packing permanently.
The Devil in a Convent is the most striking example yet of the playful irreverence that seems in retrospect to be Méliès’s most distinctive characteristic as a filmmaker. He’s had devils out the wazoo since practically the beginning, and they’re always a far cry from the ones that would turn up later in movies like Satanas, Leaves from Satan’s Book, and The Sorrows of Satan. Whereas those devils busied themselves leading writers into damnation, convincing Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus, and stage-managing the Bolshevik Revolution, the ones in Méliès’s films really just want to have fun. The Devil in a Convent’s Satan occupies a House of God with an army from the underworld for literally no other reason than to throw a party! And when the infernal bacchanal is gatecrashed by the spirits of the saints, there’s no pitched battle like you’d expect to see in a more serious take on the subject. Rather, the Devil immediately sends his minions home, and tries to deal with the party-pooping holy men himself. Honestly, I can’t imagine anybody watching The Devil in a Convent and not being in Satan’s cheering section throughout. In any case, it sure does feel like a gigantic excess of comeuppance when the Devil finally gets his ass kicked by Michael.
Another whimsical fiend appears in The Pillar of Fire/La Danse du Feu. This one (Méliès again) stokes the fire beneath a giant frying pan until it produces a white-robed woman (the Internet Movie Database identifies her as Jeanne d’Alcy, but that’s plainly incorrect), who dances ever faster and more frenetically until she herself bursts into flames (represented by a fire-shaped shawl that replaces the outer layer of her costume) and eventually disintegrates. This is the movie that American distributors circulated under the title Haggard’s She, drawing a connection between the burning dancer and the Fire of Immortality in which Ayesha accidentally destroys herself at the novel’s climax. It’s debatable to what extent that connection is justified; certainly, there’s no sign of Leo Vincey here, nor was any devil present in Haggard’s version of the scene. But on the other hand, Méliès would later make a noticeable habit of launching off in directions all his own from premises borrowed from this or that popular work of fantastic literature. In the print used by Flicker Alley for their DVD set, The Pillar of Fire makes extensive use of the hand-tinting we saw before in The Haunted Castle, but to much better effect. The color palette is considerably broader (green for the devil’s costume, yellow for the brass body of the pan, several hellish shades of red and orange that engulf the entire screen upon the dancer’s immolation), and the tints are applied with far more care. In fact, given the vital importance of the tints to communicating the idea of the dancer becoming a human inferno, I rather suspect that The Pillar of Fire might have been made specifically as a showcase for the technique, demonstrating how it was coming into maturity. The Pillar of Fire is also notable as an illustration of Méliès’s slowly but steadily expanding creative vision, for it appears to owe as little to its predecessors as Adventures of William Tell.
The Mysterious Portrait/Le Portrait Mystérieux and The Mysterious Knight/Le Chevalier Mystère are multiple exposure pieces along the lines of The Four Troublesome Heads, but both are far more evolved and self-assured. In The Mysterious Portrait, Méliès presents a large, empty picture frame, which he walks through and around a couple of times to demonstrate its utter ordinariness. Then he brings out an abstract painting of a landscape, which he fits into the frame. The painting immediately fades to gray mush and then resolves itself again to reveal Méliès sitting on a stool in front of a backdrop matching the canvas’s previous appearance. The Méliès inside the frame mimics the original Méliès’s every gesture until the latter becomes so irritated with the former that he banishes him out of the painting. The remaining Méliès then takes the canvas back out of the frame, and walks through it again to reestablish its normality. The Mysterious Knight begins with a Norse jarl (Méliès) in his castle’s main hall, amusing himself by sketching a girl’s face on a chalkboard. When he finishes, he pulls the face off of the chalkboard and sets it down atop a bottle, where it comes alive. The jarl crawls under the bench on which the bottle rests, proving that there’s definitely no concealed body down there. Next, he takes his broadsword down from the wall, and skewers the head with it from the neck up; the head is not troubled by this, and continues chatting amiably with her creator. Removing the head from the sword and mounting her on a wooden tripod, the jarl now drapes a cloak around the device at what would be the head’s shoulder level if she had any shoulders, and when he whisks the garment away, we see the girl’s cuirass-clad body in the tripod’s place. For his next trick, the jarl opens up a silk fan, and waves it at the girl until she fades away to nothing. He conjures her back a moment later on the opposite side of the room, and finally pulls off her head and tosses it back onto the blackboard, where it becomes an ordinary chalk drawing again.
Both are extremely impressive for “pure” trick films, and show Méliès figuring out how to design a set around the mechanical requirements of a special effect. A simple multiple exposure will generally produce “ghost” images, with objects captured in the first exposure visible through those inserted for the second. That was fine for the rain and lightning in The Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon, but what Méliès wanted from his extra exposures here was the appearance of a solid object in a place where it could not physically be. For that to work, the sets on which he shot the main action needed to have large areas of blackness, where the inserted elements would face no competition from previously existing images. That’s why the set for The Four Troublesome Heads was nothing but a black backdrop. Modern blue- and greenscreen effects work much the same way, albeit at a substantially higher plane of complexity, and in the most advanced applications of the principle, the various elements would be shot completely separately, and then combined via matte printing on a third reel of film. For The Mysterious Portrait and The Mysterious Knight, it seems as though Méliès would have had to use the matte approach— especially for the moment in the latter film when the jarl is talking to the girl’s impaled head. In any case, the two movies each exemplify a different way to handle the need for an area on which the main action will not intrude. In The Mysterious Portrait, the picture frame defines the point of insertion for the second exposure, and the black canvas with which it was presumably filled via stop-substitution is completely replaced, optically speaking, by the living portrait footage. In The Mysterious Knight, the blackboard and a doorway to a lightless corridor serve the same purpose; the latter is something one would naturally expect to see inside a Viking castle and the former’s presence has already been explained by the opening bit with the jarl drawing the girl’s face, so even a modern, special effects-savvy viewer won’t think anything of them unless they’re consciously trying to unravel the trick. The Mysterious Knight also makes an interesting use of a fade to black, employing it on the second exposure to suggest the girl’s atoms being blown away by the fan. The First Wizard of Cinema’s spell-book is starting to fill up nicely now.