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.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VI (The history of sound on film)

The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894 or 1895

One of the myths about the early sound era is that The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture. While it was certainly the most successful up to that date, and has become the best-known early talkie, it was far from the first experiment.

The thing that elevated TJS above all over sound-on-film experiments was Al Jolson’s incredible star power, charisma, personality, talent, personal affinity with the story. Had George Jessel’s demand for a higher salary been granted, silent cinema may have continued much longer.

This is a Kinetophone (or Phonokinetoscope), the technology used to create The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. It was Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s attempt at creating a sound-on-film system, a Kinetoscope accompanied by a phonograph. A Kinetoscope is a single-user film-viewing device with a peephole.

The Kinetophone didn’t attempt to synchronize sound and image. Instead, people listened to the phonograph through a tube. Only 45 were ever made, and only three Kinetophone films are known to survive. The others are Nursery Favorites (1913) and a 1912 demo.

Other early sound-on-film systems included Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Théâtroscope, and Phonorama (or Cinemacrophonograph), all used by the 1900 Paris Exposition. While interesting experiments and novelties, they weren’t practical or popular.

Lack of efficient synchronization was the main problem. Audio and visual images were both recorded and projected with different devices, and thus rarely worked in exact harmony. Proper playback volume was also difficult to achieve, particularly in large theatres.

Sound recording systems of this era were of generally low quality, unless the performer were planted right in front of the clunky acoustic horn. In the early sound era, this dilemma manifested itself again.

In 1902, Léon Gaumont, a pioneer of the French film industry, demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone system to the French Photographic Society, using an electric connection he’d patented. In 1906, he débuted the Elgéphone, which used compressed air for amplification. The Elgéphone was based upon the British Auxetophone.

U.S. inventor E.E. Norton’s Cameraphone was Gaumont’s systems’ main competition, though neither adequately addressed the three main issues with sound-on-film technology. They were also too expensive.

In 1907, Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee, got the first sound-on-film technology patent. His system transformed sound into lightwaves which were then photographically recorded directly onto celluloid. However, he never made effective use of this.

In 1913, Edison débuted a new cylinder-based sound-synching system, also called the Kinetophone. Unlike the earlier Kinetophone, this one projected films onto a screen instead of necessitating individual viewing through a peephole.

An intricate pulley system connecting the projector and phonograph enabled synchronization, though conditions weren’t often ideal. After barely more than a year, this system too was retired. Popular interest in sound-on-film had also abated.

The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914), a four-part, eight-hour Jehovah’s Witnesses’ film, synchronized live action and slides with music and lectures on phonograph discs. This was the first major film of that type.

Over nine million people in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand saw it. The budget was $300,000 ($7,173,000 today).

Slides used in The Photo-Drama of Creation

In 1914, Eric Tigerstedt (one of early 20th century Finland’s most important inventors) got a German patent for his sound-on-film innovations, and demonstrated this to scientists in Berlin.

In 1918, Hungarian inventor and engineer Dénes Mihály submitted his Projectofon system to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court. He received his patent in 1922.

In 1919, U.S. inventor Lee De Forest got several patents which led to the first optical sound-on-film system with commercial potential. Soundtracks were photographically recorded onto a filmstrip’s side to create a composite print. If audio and visual were properly synchronized while recording, it would be accurate in playback.

Another system came from research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner. In 1922, he demonstrated it to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, but it was never used commercially.

15 April 1923 by New York’s Rivoli Theater, De Forest Phonofilms gave the very first commercial screening of sound films. A series of shorts accompanied a silent feature.

Though the company created some original films, most of them were celebrity documentaries, and comedy and musical performances. De Forest’s sound-on-film system was used through 1927 in the U.S., and till the end of 1930 in the U.K., but Hollywood remained skeptical.

In 1919, German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle patented the Tri-Ergon system, and gave a public screening 17 September 1922, by Berlin’s Alhambra Kino. This became Europe’s dominant sound-on-film system.

In 1921, Orlando Kellum created Photokinema, which was used for a few shorts. It was most famously used for sound effects, singing, and an introduction in D.W. Griffith’s bomb Dream Street.

In 1923, Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen created the Cinéphone system.

Things began changing with the advent of Vitaphone. In 1925, Sam Warner of Warner Bros. saw the potential of Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system, and convinced his brothers to experiment with it by New York’s Vitagraph Studios, which they’d recently bought.

They renamed the system Vitaphone, and publicly débuted it 6 August 1926, with a full-length synchronized soundtrack and sound effects for Don Juan. The film was accompanied by eight musical shorts and a four-minute introduction by the infamous Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

While sound-on-film technology ultimately triumphed, sound-on-disc was initially superior due to lower costs and greater audio quality. More and more films were released with synchronized soundtracks and sound effects, along with more Vitaphone shorts, until the historic night of 6 October 1927.

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.

Celebrating 120 years of horror cinema!

If you celebrate Rosh Hashanah, may you have a marvellous holiday!

Welcome to a month of celebration of vintage horror films with special anniversaries this year! Throughout October, I’ll be fêting Faust (1926), L’Inferno (1911), Homunculus (1916), The Phantom Carriage (1921) (my thousandth silent!), Der Müde Tod (1921), The Bat (1926), Midnight Faces (1926), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). We’re starting off with the great-granddaddies of horror, three Georges Méliès films from 1896.

Georges Méliès, as some of you might know, was one of the pioneers of both French cinema in particular and film in general. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, he was a magician and illusionist, and put all those skills to wonderful use in creating special effects. His films span the years 1896–1912, and his best-known film is Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902).

melies_une_nuit_terrible_star_film_26_1896

Une Nuit Terrible (A Terrible Night) is one of only six currently known surviving 1896 Méliès films (out of eighty he made that year). It was advertised as a scène comique, and Méliès typically plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute long, the plot isn’t very complex. A man is trying to fall asleep when a large bug (a pasteboard prop controlled by wires) crawls over his bed. Méliès does battle with the anthropod, and when it’s finally offed, he puts it in his chamber pot. While making sure it’s really gone, another bug appears!

It was filmed in Méliès’s garden by his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis (a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris), with a cloth backdrop and natural sunlight.

In 2013, Méliès’s great-great-granddaughter Pauline published evidence that a film commonly entitled A Terrible Night and available on several DVDs is actually Un Bon Lit (A Midnight Episode) (1899). The original Terrible Night has the same plot and bed, but much simpler scenery and different camera angles.

 

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lemanoirdiable

Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), released 24 December 1896, is considered the very first proper horror film. It’s a comic fantasy that opens with a bat transmogrifying into Mephistopheles (i.e., the Devil), who then conjures up a cauldron and an assistant. Together, they conjure up a woman in the cauldron.

They all disappear before two cavaliers arrive, but not for long. A series of spooky tricks are played, including the conjuring up of a skeleton and furniture magically moving around. When one of the cavaliers attacks the skeleton, it transmogrifies into a bat. The bat in turn transmogrifies into Mephistopheles, who conjures up four ghosts.

More tricks are played, until the last confrontation between Mephistopheles and one of the cavaliers.

This was also filmed in Méliès’s garden, with painted scenery. Though film actors were never credited in this era, we know Méliès’s future second wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, played the assistant. It’s also speculated that Mephistopheles was played by magician Jules-Eugène Legris.

At the time, its length of over three minutes was considered very ambitious.

The film was considered lost for many decades, until its miraculous 1988 rediscovery in the New Zealand Film Archive.

 

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melies_le_cauchemar_star_film_82_1896

Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) was advertised as a scène fantastique, and also filmed in Méliès’s garden. Painted scenery was used. As in many of his films, he himself plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute, the story is pretty simple. A sleeping man has several strange visions who transmogrify into one another. He awakes all twisted around, searches the bed, and is relieved it was just a nightmare.

 

I absolutely love 1890s cinema. It’s like looking back in time at a long-gone world, this precious time capsule of cinema in its infancy. Whether the films are actualities (i.e., snippets of everyday life) or fictional stories, it’s so amazing to see these preserved moving images that didn’t need CGI, graphic violence or sex, several hours, or even intertitles to tell fascinating, complete stories.

Celebrating 120 years of going to the movies

Exactly 120 years ago, on Saturday evening, 28 December 1895, in a cellar room of the Grand Café’s Salon Indien, at 14 Boulevard des Capuchins, Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumière projected ten of their pioneering moving images to an audience of about one hundred paying patrons. These films included La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), L’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled), and Repas de Bébé (Baby’s Meal).

Charles-Émile Reynaud actually had the first showing of moving pictures, starting 28 October 1892 at the Musée Grévin in Paris, but his Théâtre Optique was just a successor to his Praxinoscope and the zoetrope, not an actual film projector such as the Lumières used.

Using highly-flammable nitrate film (the industry standard until about 1952), at a 35-millimeter width, the Lumières used their own version of a device known as the Cinématographe, which worked as projector, camera, and printer. Unlike the films made by Thomas Edison’s studio, which had four circular perforations on each side of the frame (the industry standards which continues to the present day), the Lumières’ films only had one set of circular perforations per frame.

Though today we understand just how volatile nitrate film stock can be, with the evidence of many silent and early sound films being presumed lost forever due to devastating vault fires, the Lumières actually used open flames to project their moving images, and even set up their projector in the middle of the room, among the audience. They wanted the patrons to have a good look at the magical new toy and wonder just how it worked.

Only after the first devastating nitrate fire, on 4 May 1897, did people really begin to understand just how dangerous nitrate could be. Though this particular fire was due to the projectionist lighting a match while putting ether into the tank of illuminating fluid, not the nitrate itself, the film industry regardless implemented some very heavy, serious restrictions on its transportation, handling, and storage. The projector also needed to be in a fireproof booth, and multiple projection rooms per theatre were called for. These rules persist to the present day.

Cinematograph_Lumiere_advertisement_1895

Over the last 120 years, rumors have spread about how the audience reacted to this first public showing of true moving images, such as claiming they screamed and fainted. However, the reality probably isn’t nearly as extravagant as what the legends depict. For example, L’Arivée d’un Train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) wasn’t shown till January 1896, and isn’t listed in the December 1895 program, but many people cite that as one of the ten films shown.

The problem with historical rumors and urban legends is that they often start with a grain of truth, and then become exaggerated over the years. Before long, people don’t investigate what really happened, and sources all start quoting one another and taking unverified stories as established historical truth. You can find the same lack of attention to accuracy and game of telephone regarding a lot of myths about the silent era and the transition to sound.

Programa

Though film industry standards to this day still follow the Edison Kinetoscope standard of four circular perforations on each side of the frame, the Lumières’ Cinématographe set another established industry standard. Because their magical projector only used intermittent motion by equally resting and moving the film, this produced better image clarity. Projectors 120 years later still do this.

1024px-Plaque_Lumière

Who in that cellar room 120 years ago, including Auguste and Louis themselves, could’ve ever predicted moving images would not only become a lasting part of the culture, but also develop by such leaps and bounds? The Lumières didn’t think cinema had a future, and thus refused to sell their Cinématographe to other filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès.

Yet the people gathered there so long ago didn’t care these films were just snippets, in black and white, without a synchronized soundtrack or dialogue, without plots. All that mattered was the exciting, amazing novelty of seeing moving images on a screen. Filmmakers today constantly up the ante with bigger and better special effects, but there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned sense of wonder and awe coming from a simpler, more innocent era.

Fratelli_Lumiere

Though my favorite period of the silent era is the 1920s, I’ve always had great love for these early snippets from the dawn of film in 1887 to about 1910. Watching these films is like literally looking back in time at beautifully-preserved time capsules, with people who are long since deceased, buildings that are long since torn down or radically changed, money no longer in circulation, clothes long since out of fashion, modes of transportation which are now obsolete.