Georges Méliès Trick Films, 1900 [unratable]
The loss rate among Georges Méliès’s movies is such that it can be difficult to say things with any confidence about the course of his career. Are the patterns I think I see solidifying in his work from 1900 really there, or are they merely illusions fostered by the sheer quantity of available material as compared to the much sparser record for 1896-1899? I don’t know and I can’t find out, so all I can do is to describe those possibly illusory patterns and hope for the best. What it looks like is that the dawn of the new century found Méliès codifying his output into a set of fairly distinct genres far more particular than the old categories of actualities, trick films, comic vignettes, and staged reenactments of historical or newsworthy events. Among Méliès’s trick films (which is what we’re mainly concerned with around here as the forerunners of modern fantastic cinema), it’s possible by 1900 to discern at least four such emergent genres. All of them have roots in his earlier work, and can thus be extended backward into it, but only from 1900 onward is the total volume of surviving material great enough for their contours to become clearly visible.
The most prolific of Méliès’s personal proto-genres remains (appropriately enough, given his background) the magic show. Six of the 1900 trick films can be classed thusly. In Addition and Subtraction/Tom Whiskey, ou L’Illusioniste Toqué, Méliès portrays a mad and probably drunken hobo who would very much like to sit down on a stool, but every time he tries to do so, a girl in a sailor suit materializes underneath him. Once he has three such girls on his hands, he combines them into a single big, fat one, then turns her into a little boy. A moment later, he stretches the child back out into the fat girl, then separates her into her three original constituents. In The One-Man Band/ L’Homme Orchestre, Méliès duplicates himself into a conductor and six musicians who perform briefly on a variety of instruments. After he’s collected all of his doppelgangers back into himself and dematerialized their chairs, a scenery flat so thwarts his exit that he must resort to teleportation in order to leave the stage. The Magic Book/Le Livre Magique presents him as a wild-haired savant with a colossal folio containing drawings of Punch, a harlequin, a clown, a peasant maiden, and a stoop-backed old burgher. After bringing all five characters to life, he finds them most cantankerous about returning to their pages, the clown especially. The Triple Conjuror and the Living Head/L’Illusioniste Double et la Tete Vivante is another duplication routine in which two Mélièses bring a mannequin head to life on a table between them, only to be chased off by a devil who ultimately reveals himself to be yet a third Méliès. Fat and Lean Wrestling Match/Nouvelle Luttes Extravagantes squeezes an entire sideshow into two and a quarter minutes. Two scantily clad (for 1900) women magically dress themselves, and then turn into a pair of comical wrestlers. After that first pair have done their thing, the titular bout between a stout bruiser and a mustachioed peewee begins. Both contests derive their entertainment value from the outrageous abuses the wrestlers inflict upon each other via the substitution of trick dummies in between frames. And finally, Eight Girls in a Barrel/La Tonneau des Danaïdes is exactly what it says on the package: Méliès, done up for some reason in a costume appropriate to Roman Judea, disappears eight chiton-clad chorines into a wooden keg.
All of the aforementioned films are noticeable improvements over their predecessors in a similar vein, such as The Conjuror or The Four Troublesome Heads. Partly that’s because Méliès continues to hone his mastery of photographic manipulations, so that the seams become ever less visible and the transformations ever more convincing. More importantly, though, the tricks themselves are more thoughtfully combined in these movies than was usually the case with their predecessors. Whereas earlier Méliès films on the magic show model tended to toss together all manner of illusions willy-nilly, this new crop groups them logically around a set of clear themes. Tom Whiskey produces people out of thin air and controls their number and body type. The magicians in The One-Man Band, The Magic Book, and Eight Girls in a Barrel each have their one signature trick. Only The Triple Conjuror and the Living Head falls back on the indiscriminate grab bag approach of The Magician and The Famous Box Trick. The best of the bunch, though, is Fat and Lean Wrestling Match, with its slapstick dismemberments and so forth anticipating a major current in the development of exploitation movies by almost 90 years.
Now you may recall me griping, in one of my previous Méliès reviews, about the filmmaker’s seemingly inexhaustible affection for the teleporting chair gag. It’s still in evidence among the films of 1900, but now the premise underlying that joke has metastasized into an entire genre, which I’ve come to think of as the Uncooperative Objects movie. As that ought to imply, it’s commendably no longer just chairs that won’t behave themselves. In fact, we now see a new obsession with teleporting clothing emerging. In Up-to-Date Spiritualism/Spiritisme Abracadabrant, the main offenders are Méliès’s top hat and overcoat, neither one of which will stay removed for more than three seconds. A similar situation arises in Going to Bed Under Difficulties/Deshabillage Impossible, only this time the hats, coats, trousers, and vests multiply themselves on Méliès’s body as fast as he can strip them off. Then in How He Missed His Train/Le Reveil d’un Homme Presse, the truculent garments will not allow themselves to be put on, transforming from pants to coat, from boot to hat, and so on, until Méliès finally gives up and climbs back into bed. Each of the three films is amusing in and of itself (although Going to Bed Under Difficulties has a slight edge over the others because of the way its steadily accelerating action keeps pace with the protagonist’s annoyance), but it blunts the impact somewhat to watch them all in succession like I did. Pay special attention as you watch to the poses that Méliès would have had to freeze in order for his assistants to add or switch his clothes, and notice that his motions never seem anything less than natural despite being constantly interrupted in mid-swing.
A more varied array of prop misbehavior occurs in A Fantastical Meal/Le Repas Fantastique, in which Méliès and two lady friends attempt to eat dinner under a veritable siege of supernatural hassles. It’s almost like a 92-second dress rehearsal for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The diners’ chairs disappear out from under them. The soup tureen transforms into a giant cauldron full of old boots. The table grows and shrinks to prevent anyone from gaining access to the main course, then takes to teleporting back and forth across the room. A dancing ghost appears, frightening the women out of the room, and when Méliès attacks it with a chair, the spook turns incongruously into a crate of dynamite and blows him to kingdom come. The film plays so many different pranks on its hapless protagonists during its brief running time that there’s just no way for the action to become repetitive.
Note that the ghost in A Fantastical Meal can be interpreted as being responsible for all the other obnoxious manifestations, much like the devils in some of Méliès’s earlier work. That notion of cause places the movie on the boundary between the Uncooperative Objects genre and the more sophisticated category of films that attempt to tell a more or less coherent story, sketchy and abbreviated though it may be. These are the most interesting of Méliès’s shorts, as they point the way forward to the emergence of cinema as a narrative art form. Three other trick films from 1900 fall into the proto-narrative category, plus probably The Misfortunes of an Explorer/Infortunes d’un Explorateur, which is too fragmentary in its present form to be assessed with any certainty; the surviving print cuts off just as the titular explorer (Méliès) steps into the seemingly empty sarcophagus that dominates an Egyptian tomb.
The Cook’s Revenge/La Vengeance du Gâte-Sauce is the simplest of the bunch. It concerns a cook whose amorous interference with a waitress’s duties causes her to drop the stack of dishes she’d been carrying onto the kitchen floor. The cook hides in a cupboard as the head waiter comes in to see what’s causing the commotion, but foolishly pokes his head out after the waitress is sent packing. The furious head waiter slams the cupboard door on the cook’s neck, decapitating him— after which the head waiter has a hell of a time capturing the still-animate head and stuffing it back into the cabinet. A moment later, the cook emerges, inexplicably restored, and yanks the boss’s head off in retaliation before scampering off to seek employment elsewhere. It’s basically the same set of sight gags as Fat and Lean Wrestling Match, only this time there’s a reason for them to be occurring beyond just putting on a show. Which rather makes me wonder why I find the latter movie so much more entertaining. Maybe it’s simply the greater variety of abuses that the wrestlers put each other through during the course of their bouts.
The Doctor and the Monkey/Le Savant et le Chimpanzé is similarly slapstick in tone, but has more to recommend it. For one thing, it’s got the earliest man in an ape suit that I’ve seen thus far. Méliès plays a scientist who keeps a monkey caged in his laboratory, but unbeknownst to him, the bars are no match for simian strength. The creature breaks loose and wreaks havoc all over the lab while the scientist and his maid strive futilely to recapture it. The secret to this movie’s success is one that I learned as a teenager making a monster-rampage short with my brother and a friend: if your script is too thin, make up for it by giving the monster lots and lots of shit to smash. The Doctor and the Monkey has one of Méliès’s most complex sets to date, giving the guy in the suit plenty of scope for scrambling about the screen making a mess.
And speaking of complexity, the most elaborate of Méliès’s short narrative films from 1900 (that is, the most elaborate apart from the ten-minute, “full-length” Joan of Arc, which merits a review all its own) is The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy/Le Sorcier, le Prince, et le Bon Genie. A prince (Méliès) comes to see a wizard at his castle laboratory in the hope that the magician can conjure him up a princess. The wizard does as he is bidden, but the artificial girl vanishes as soon as the prince tries to embrace her. Enraged, the prince draws his sword, but steel proves no match for magic. The wizard traps the prince in his castle and disappears, leaving him at the mercy of a gang of crones. They also wield arcane powers, turning the prince into an elderly beggar too weak to go swinging any broadswords around. The prince isn’t beaten yet, however. His prayers summon a good fairy, who banishes the crones, restores him to his proper form, and even conjures a permanent version of the wizard’s immaterial princess. The wizard returns in a last-ditch effort to thwart the prince’s escape, but the fairy encloses him in a magical cage.
What we see in The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy is Méliès applying some of the storytelling lessons he learned from Cinderella to the shortest running time on which they can do any good. Again he exploits the familiarity of fairy-tale subject matter to render a brief and sketchy narrative instantly comprehensible. And although that subject matter has thus far figured relatively little in Méliès’s output, subsequent years would see it rise in importance until it rivaled even the comic diablerie that has loomed so large in his work since practically the beginning.
Finally, Méliès carries into the 20th century the fascination with dreams that first surfaced in A Nightmare way back in 1896. That said, the dream movies are somewhat underrepresented in the class of 1900, with only The Rajah’s Dream/Le Reve du Radjah, ou Le Foret Enchante falling into that category. The raja (Méliès) beds down for what I take to be an afternoon nap (he might have an easier time getting to sleep if he’d take off his fucking talwar…), but is distracted when a huge butterfly flits into the chamber. His efforts to catch the insect are unavailing, so he returns to his bed. As soon as sleep claims him, he dreams that he is transported to a mysterious glen where he is tormented by— that’s right— a teleporting chair. Other denizens of the wood include a tree monster, a capering devil, a haughty goddess, and her army of nymphs. The latter capture the raja and condemn him to beheading. Luckily, he comes awake in the midst of struggling with the nymphs’ executioner— which turns out to be really his own pillow.
As with the magic show movies and The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy, The Rajah’s Dream is considerably more focused than previous Méliès shorts of its type. However, in the context of a dream film, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Dreams being what they are, a certain amount of frank illogic is called for when attempting to represent them in art. The Rajah’s Dream still has enough to pass muster, but it comes up a little short of The Astronomer’s Dream as an attempt to capture the unfettered whimsy of the real subconscious mind. I suspect we may be seeing the boundaries of the dream film and the fantastical narrative film starting to blur (at least as practiced by Méliès), but only the next couple years’ worth of movies will tell.