Posted in 1890s, 1900s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A quintuple shot of antique horror

Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.

Posted in 1880s, Movies, Silent film

Celebrating 130 years of film

French inventor Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed and released on 14 October 1888, is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving film. Later that same month, he filmed Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Accordion Player. Though he did make an earlier film, 1887’s Man Walking Around a Corner, that was shot onto a glass plate instead of paper film.

Roundhay Garden Scene features Le Prince’s in-laws, Joseph Whitley (1817–12 January 1891) and Sarah Robinson Whitley (1816–24 October 1888), and Annie Hartley, a friend of Le Prince and his wife Elizabeth. Sadly, Sarah died ten days after the film was shot.

Though the Lumière Brothers usually get all the credit for inventing the movies as we know it, Le Prince had them beat by seven years. While Le Prince’s early films obviously didn’t lead to the commercial popularity of cinema, he was still making films well before 1895.

Sadly, he mysteriously disappeared from a train in France on 16 September 1890, and thus was unable to stage a planned public demonstration of his work in the U.S. His body and luggage were never found, and he was declared dead in 1897.

In 2003, a photo of an 1890 drowning victim resembling Le Prince surfaced (no pun intended) in Parisian police archives. Multiple theories about the reason for his disappearance vary—suicide to avoid impending bankruptcy; assassinated in a motion picture patent war; ordered to leave by his family because he was allegedly gay (though zero evidence exists of his supposed homosexuality); murdered by his brother in a dispute over their mother’s will.

In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe testified in a court case between Thomas Edison and the American Mutoscope Company. Edison named himself as the sole inventor of cinematography, and claimed he deserved royalties from his former employee William Kennedy Dickson’s rival company.

Adolphe wasn’t allowed to present his father’s two cameras as evidence, and the court ruled in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned.

In the same period of 1888–90, William Friese-Greene (who awesomely added his wife’s surname to his with a hyphen!) and Wordsworth Donisthorpe also invented early moving picture cameras, but Le Prince still beat them to the punch with successfully capturing moving images.

The surviving ten frames of Donisthorpe’s first successful film, 1890

In Leeds, England, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. On 12 December 1930, a bronze memorial plaque was unveiled by his former workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, which was also the BBC’s Leeds station till recently. It’s now part of the Leeds Beckett University Broadcasting Place complex. A second, blue plaque there celebrates his work further.

Copyright KGGucwa

In 2003, the University of Leeds Centre for Cinema, Photography, and Television was named after Le Prince, and in France, an appreciation society exists in Lyon. His life has been the subject of several books and documentaries, most recently 2015’s The First Film.

On 8 September 2016, The First Film had its U.S. début by the Morris-Jumel mansion in NYC, where Le Prince’s first public film screening would’ve taken place in 1890, had he not disappeared.

Who would’ve guessed a two-second film of people in a Leeds garden would lead to 130 years, and counting, of cinema?

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 115th birthday to The Great Train Robbery!

Side note: The Roaring Twenties (1939) is one of my two favoritest Cagney films I’ve seen to date, the other being the indescribably awesome White Heat (1949)

Legendary, pioneering director Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, released 1 December 1903, is perhaps his best-known film. Though there were no credits during this era, we know the stars included Broncho Billy Anderson (the first film Western star), who plays three roles; Justus D. Barnes (the outlaw who famously shoots at the screen); Alfred C. Abadie (the sheriff); and B-movie Western actor Tom London (the conductor).

Bandits hold up a railway telegraph worker, forcing him to stop a train and order the engineer to fill the coal car at a water tank. The bandits then knock out the operator and tie him up.

The bandits board the train when it stops. Two of them enter a passenger car, kill a messenger, and dynamite open a box of valuables. The other two bandits kill a fireman and make the engineer stop the train and disconnect the locomotive.

The passengers are then forced off and searched for valuables. One brave soul tries to escape, but is killed.

The bandits make off with their booty, and come to a valley where their horses are waiting.

Back in the telegraph office, the operator comes to, and quickly passes out again. Then his young daughter arrives, prays over him, cuts his restraints, and throws water over him.

At a dancehall, locals mirthfully make an Eastern greenhorn dance as they fire at his feet. The merriment is interrupted when the operator bursts in to relay news of the robbery.

The menfolk waste no time in banding together and riding to the rescue. They catch the bandits, overtake them, and recover the loot.

The closing shot (which some theatres chose to play at the beginning) is one of the most iconic of cinematic history, right up there with the spaceship in the eye of the Moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last! (1923), and King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

The film was shot at the Edison studios in NYC; New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation; and along the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, in November 1903. Some prints feature hand-coloured frames (e.g., the outlaw’s green shirt in the final shot; the orange and pink vault explosion; clothes in the dancehall).

The Great Train Robbery had its début by NYC’s Huber’s Museum and Theatre, which is now an NYU dorm. It was then shown by eleven other city theatres. The film was a huge, immediate success, one of the very first blockbusters and Westerns.

Indeed, it was one of the most popular films of that era, until The Birth of a Nation came along twelve years later and smashed all records.

The budget was about $150, equal to $4,153, or £3,238, in 2017 money.

Just one year later, a remake with the same name came out, from Siegmund Lubin’s Lubin Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Piracy and unauthorised remakes were a huge problem in this era, since copyright protection for films was legally murky. Only in 1912 were films legally classified as protected works.

The Great Train Robbery has inspired many other Westerns over the years, as well as scenes in other films and TV shows. Director Edwin S. Porter also parodied his own film in 1905’s The Little Train Robbery, which featured an all-children’s cast.

This is truly one of those films everyone should see at least once.

Posted in 1890s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A triple dose of antique horror

Welcome back to my yearly October series on classic horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries! This year, I’m starting off with three Georges Méliès films from 1897, and will also be fêting The Unknown (1927), The Mummy (1932), Häxan (1922), The Lodger (1927), Freaks (1932), The Cat and the Canary (1927), Phantom (1922), Vampyr (1932), Hilde Warren und der Tod (1917), the lost Lon Chaney, Sr., films London After Midnight (1927) and A Blind Bargain (1922), and Nosferatu (1922).

Let’s get started!

Le Château Hanté was released as The Devil’s Castle in the U.S., and The Haunted Castle in the U.K. In spite of its British title, it’s not one and the same as the world’s first horror film, the 1896 Méliès film I featured last year.

Two men enter a castle, one dressed in red and the other in brown. The man in brown offers his friend a seat which moves away. When the man in red goes to fetch the chair, it turns into a ghost, a skeleton, and a knight in armor. When it disappears, the man is confronted by Satan, and his escape route is blocked by a ghost.

This film was Méliès’s first collaboration with Elisabeth Thuillier, who ran an all-women’s film coloring lab in Paris. They worked together till 1912, when he left filmmaking. This is also the second Méliès film featuring Satan.

The Bewitched Inn (L’Auberge Ensorcelée) features Méliès as a traveller who can’t get any rest in his hotel room, as he’s beset by obstacle after obstacle in his quest to change into pyjamas and crawl into bed. His clothes and the furniture all vanish, fly up to the ceiling, or move around the room. His candle also explodes. He finally gives up and leaves.

This is the first known Méliès film to feature inanimate objects coming to life, something he did many times in his films. The theme is very similar to 1896’s A Terrible Night (which I discussed last year), and would be used again (with considerable expansion) in 1903’s The Inn Where No Man Rests.

The special effects were achieved through substitution splice, wherein the camera would stop as something was added, changed, or removed. Méliès used this technique many times. The inanimate objects were animated with wires, and the exploding candle used pyrotechnics.

Sadly, Le Cabinet de Méphistophélès (alternately titled The Devil’s Laboratory, The Cabinet of Mephistopheles, and Laboratory of Mephistopheles) is lost. Only about 200 of his 520 films are known to survive.

Out of anger and frustration at his financial ruin and fall into obscurity, Méliès burnt many of his negatives. In 1917, the French Army occupied his office and melted down many others for celluloid (boot heels) and silver (ammo). The rest were lost due to the all-too-familiar deterioration of nitrate.

As suggested by the title, the story was inspired by Faust, and is believed to be the very first film adaptation of this timeless story. It’s also believed to be Méliès’s very first literary adaptation.

The synopsis says Mephistopheles cavorts about in various disguises before revealing his true self. Along the way, he does magic tricks, presumably objects appearing, disappearing, and moving around. I’d also assume Méliès plays Mephistopheles.

Posted in 1900s, Movies, Sci-fi, Silent film

Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Georges Méliès began filming Le Voyage in May 1902, and began selling prints to distributors after finishing in August. The hand-coloured print from Elisabeth Thuillier’s studio ran from September–December by Méliès’s Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris.

Jules-Eugène Legris, a co-worker and fellow magician, who appears in the final scene as the parade leader, screened the film after Thursday and Saturday matinées.

Black and white prints sold for 560 francs, and colour prints went for 1,000. Sadly, due to rampant piracy, Méliès never got most of the profits from this runaway blockbuster.

Not only was Méliès a victim of piracy and cheated of most of his rightful profits, he also wasn’t credited onscreen or in advertisements either. The only U.S. exhibitor who credited him during the first six months of the theatrical run was Thomas Lincoln Tally, of L.A.’s Electrical Theatre.

To try to nip this situation in the bud, Méliès opened a U.S. branch of his Star Film Company in New York in 1903, run by his brother Gaston. This studio sold his films directly and registered them with U.S. copyrights.

The catalogue introduced this English-language studio thus: “In opening a factory and office in New York we are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act!”

Méliès also made trade arrangements with companies including American Mutoscope and Biograph, Gaumont, the Charles Urban Trading Company, the Warwick Trading Company, and Robert W. Paul’s company. Fifteen cents per foot of film became the standard price.

In 1908, new price standardizations from the Motion Picture Patents Company made Méliès’s films outrageously expensive. Coupled with the fact that his films’ fantasy and magical themes fell out of fashion, this set the stage for his financial ruin and fall into obscurity.

Because of the film’s high price, Méliès at first was unsuccessful at selling prints to fairground exhibitors. However, when he gave one exhibitor a free print, it was a wild success from the very first showing. Fairgoers packed into the theatre until midnight, and the exhibitor immediately bought the film.

When Méliès reminded him of his initial reluctance to pony up the money, he offered 200 francs to make up for this insult and inconvenience.

The film ran continuously by L’Olympia in Paris for several months. Due to the abovediscussed piracy, the film also was a runaway success in the U.S. It ran in cities including New York, New Orleans, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, L.A., and Cleveland.

Through 1904, it was a featured headline attraction in countries including Canada, Italy, and Germany. Truly, this was one of the most popular films in the early 20th century, across all markets.

Because of Méliès’s later financial woes and tanked reputation, many of the copies of his prints were lost. In 1917, the military occupied his office and melted down many of his films for silver and celluloid. The silver was used for ammo; the celluloid, boot heels.

When the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was razed to the ground in 1923, the prints stored there were sold to a second-hand film vendor by weight. Later that same year, Méliès burnt all remaining negatives in his garden in Montreuil, in a fit of anger.

In 1925, be became a toy and candy vendor by a stand in the Gare Montparnasse railway terminal in Paris, and his impressive body of film work seemed as though it had slipped into the foggy mists of time.

Thankfully, due to early film history devotees, Méliès was rediscovered in the late 1920s, and his reputation and popularity were restored. Two copies of Le Voyage were found, though both were incomplete. In 1997, a complete print was finally reconstructed.

In 1993, a hand-coloured print surfaced, believed to be from a Spanish distributor on account of the flag in the launching scene being coloured like the flag of Spain. From 2002–05, this print was restored against all odds, and in 2010, a complete restoration became publicly available. In 2011, the finishing touches were put on this restoration.

Le Voyage has had a most enormous impact on filmmakers and popular culture over the past 115 years. It made people realize films could be purely for entertainment, and that sci-fi films were not only possible, but could be popular as well.

The iconic image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye has been referenced countless times in films, artwork, and other creative visual media.

Though Méliès didn’t think this was his greatest work, he acknowledged it was his most popular. This milestone film has more than earned its rightful place in cinematic history.