I forget how long it’s been since I brought the lovely films of Georges Méliès up here, and it would take whole minutes to check earlier videos and find out. Here, though, I offer his 1899 short, An Up-To-Date Conjurer. It’s a short film, barely a minute long, as the date almost implies. It’s almost plotless, too, another thing you might expect from the date alone (A Trip To The Moon was three years in its future), but that just means the action is all the camera-tricks and sight gags that define this style of silent movie. It’s just a minute of magic tricks, and a fun one at that.
To continue poking the depths of Terrytoons and their not-necessarily-forgotten characters, here’s a curious 1936 entry starring Kiko the Kangaroo, On The Scent. Unfortunately the only video I can find of it is this experiment in converting a projected film to YouTube, so it’s only got the sound of the projector rattling as its audio (I admit that sound gives me a warm nostalgic feel), and I’m pretty sure the film is being run at about half the correct speed, which is just crushing to the pacing. Be sympathetic; you too might someday be a kangaroo taunted by skunks on a blimp gliding to the North Pole.
Still, it’s the only cartoon I’m aware of that’s explicitly set (at the opening) in Lakehurst, New Jersey. This seems like a weirdly specifically unnecessary detail until you remember (or learn) that Lakehurst was where the United States Navy set up its main facilities for handling airships in that roughly fifteen years between deciding that airships were an interesting idea worth exploring and concluding that the problem with airships is they keep crashing in huge, hugely public catastrophes. Doing a blimp cartoon and starting it in Lakehurst would be much like doing a space cartoon and starting the action in Cape Canaveral.
I feel the need to point out that an airship expedition to the North Pole was seriously considered in the 1920s and 1930s. I would imagine that talk of that partly inspired the cartoon, but I don’t know that. The Navy’s airship expedition never got particularly close to being launched, which is probably for the best; I can’t imagine the project not ending in tragedy.
The plot puts me in mind of Georges Méliès’s 1912 The Conquest of the Pole, his last important film before his film studio’s bankruptcy. That’s not so short a film — it’s about a half-hour long — but it’s got much of the charm of going on a fantastic voyage as A Voyage To The Moon combined with a mass of incidental extra parties and nationalist and political jokes current to a century ago. On The Scent is a lesser cartoon, sure, but it does feature the title card “Those cats made a lobster out of me!”, which is just where you expect a cartoon about a kangaroo taking an airship out of Lakehurst to go. Enjoy!
I’d like to again point people over to the Movies, Silently blog, as this week they’ve posted another interesting movie: a 1903 British film version of Alice in Wonderland, thought to be the oldest made. It’s hard to see how much older an adaptation could be, although narrative stories were being made for a few years before this.
The film hasn’t got the wealth of camera effects tricks of Georges Méliès and A Trip To The Moon — a year older than this — but it’s still wondrous to see, particularly since the tricks they do use are effective in adapting a couple scenes of Lewis Carroll’s work. And the sets and costumes are magnificent in that late-Victorian/Edwardian style that just looks so eagerly like itself.
For today I’d like to offer another Georges Méliès film, 1905’s Le Diable Noir. Le Diable was probably Méliès’s favorite character, since, toss in the sort of impish devil that his films featured and you have a perfectly sound reason to spend the whole film making stop-motion tricks follow one another. Here, a tenant — I believe it’s Georges Méliès himself — attempts to get to bed and it goes about as well as you might expect. I enjoy this sort of playful demon who’ll do less about inflicting eternal torment and more who’ll make excessively many chairs appear in the room.
To kick off the weekend and give myself time to prepare statistics, let me offer another Georges Méliès short, 1911’s Baron Münchausen’s Dream. This is longer than last week’s entry, and it’s just about as long as his famous A Trip To The Moon, but the short still has much of what makes Méliès films so distinctively him. Most of the story is set up as a dream, which gives Méliès free range to have bizarre stuff just happen. I’m also amused that there’s scenes featuring Münchausen and his reflection in the mirror, which sounds like nothing until you realize that if there were a mirror there then you’d clearly see the camera and stage crew and, for that matter, the street outside the glass-lined studio where they filmed. You’ll figure out the sensible way they did the trick.
Again I apologize for not having a proper archival-quality link, but, if this embed should die please let me know and I’ll try to do something about it.
I’m afraid this short doesn’t appear to be at archive.org, so I can’t be so confident that the embedded link will work indefinitely into the future. If it doesn’t, well, let me know and I’ll try to do something about it.
I wanted to share Georges Méliès’s 1907 short Les Fromages Automobiles, and if you think it’s a whimsical fantasy about cars made of cheese I’m afraid you’re just being silly. The English title at least as rendered on a recent set of DVDs of Méliès films is The Skipping Cheeses and that’s surely more something to giggle about.
The story meanwhile enjoys the simplicity of a dream: a cheesemonger boards the trolley, with her cheeses hid in a basket; the smell of them causes everyone else to look around and suspect everyone but the new arrival of causing the strange odor. When she’s found out, the police are called, and she’s hauled off on a count of transporting cheese on a public conveyance. Then the cheeses hop out of their basket and follow her into court, whereupon the brie (at least according to the DVD narrator) leaps up and smothers the judge. It’s really the classic story, inspiring as it does grand thoughts of “Wait, what?” If you get past that, you can file the image of vengeful cheese away for a more conveniently-timed nightmare.
I’d like to put forth another amusing short film from Georges Méliès, this one titled Le Mélomane. It’s another amusing bit of playing with stop-motion and multiple-exposure animation, which is impressive stuff considering the film was made 110 years ago, and all the more impressive when you realize: wait, this was made 110 years ago. Méliès did effects like this mostly in-camera, without edits; to do a multiple-exposure shot he would wind the camera backwards the correct number of frames, meaning he counted the number of frames he needed for each bit of action, and simply shoot again. This has the side effect of making the multiple exposures a little ghostly in effect, but to me, that just makes it all the more amazing that he does this.
As with these, there’s a link to archive.org which ought to be good for, well, archival purposes, but I can’t figure how to embed the film from that. So here’s the video embedded by YouTube, which is easier to see today but might be broken sometime in the future:
It’s been a while since I had a movie around these parts so let me point you to George Méliès’s The Devilish Tenant, a 1909 short that gives us Méliès as the star, of course, here unpacking and packing up a room from his trunk. This may be a fairly basic premise, but it shows off the stop-motion tricks that Méliès so delighted in, and even when you know how the trick is done it’s still fun seeing. And, yes, it’s in color despite being from 1909.
The link above, from archive.org, is probably the more archive-ready. Unfortunately if things haven’t changed much there’s not a good way to embed archive.org videos on a WordPress site, so, let me include a YouTube link that’s vulnerable to disappearing over copyright claims or the other ways the Internet is a vague and ever-shifting thing.
The blog Movies, Silently reprints a Photoplay essay from 1925 in which Al Christie explains his formula for reliable comedy. Christie worked largely — I want to say entirely, but I’m not sure — in short subjects; his imdb.com profile lists 762 titles he produced, 460 he directed, and 173 that he wrote, stretching from 1912 to 1947, so I suppose we just have to hope he liked making short subjects.
I admit not recognizing most of the titles (although he apparently was an uncredited producer for the 1930, non-Jack-Benny, version of Charlie’s Aunt), since they tend to sound like Old Short Subject Titles, eg, Calling All Crooners (1937) or Short Change (1924). Well, Tillie’s Punctured Romance stands out, but this is the W C Fields version from 1928. (The Charlie Chaplin version is on archive.org, but Christie didn’t have anything to do wit it as far as I know.) Unfortunately short subjects are harder to appreciate than full-length movies; even Turner Classic Movies mostly uses them to fill in schedule gaps, and rarely has the time to curate or to put into cultural context any of the ones it does have. A occasional night of Robert Benchley shorts or of George Méliès films is great, and appreciated, but it doesn’t give the audience the chance to appreciate the whole field.
In his article Christie gives six “time-tested situations” that he says are reliable comic starters, and they’re probably still a sound base for plot-driven comedy, particularly visual comedy:
- Heaving the pie.
- The lover foiled.
- The Amateur Expert.
- The Crowner Crowned — or The Socker Socked.
- Papa and the Baby.
- Caught in the Act.
I’d like to think that “Papa and the Baby” has worn out its freshness, although if we take this to mean “father figure acts like a dope”, well, it may still have worn out its freshness but it’s also pretty relied upon, so it’s doing business for somebody. I’ve got a fondness for the Amateur Expert motif, which is good for (one) absurdist explanations to common things and (two) getting people into situations where they’re hopelessly outclassed.
The whole article, though, I think’s worth reading, not just because of its insights into how to make a short silent comedy that people will respond to, but also because these fine points about what people laugh at are written in a slangy mid-20s movie-publicity-magazine style that’s itself charming in its antiquity (“this goes back to the French farces of Moliere, and hence does not germinate with the Genus Americanus of Ribticklus”? Really, Al, you want to commit that to print?).