1900: 10 movies

posted 2012 July 10

Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs 
Directed by Gabriel Veyre;
Produced by the Lumière company

   Is there any more gorgeous movie than this? Children chase a camera ecstatically in 1900 black-and-white southeast Asia, as a camera pulls backwards in a rickshaw. The title translates as "The village of Namo - Panorama taken from a rickshaw".

Let Me Dream Again 
Directed by George Albert Smith, Produced by the Warwick Trading Company.

   Not the first dream sequence, but a great one, and the first that transitions by blurring and un-blurring the focus. The comedy is played remarkably well by Smith's wife, the always-amazing Laura Bayley, and Tom Green. The character of the wife is probably played by an unknown actress, and is most likely not Bayley, unless they had some unbelievable makeup artists on hand. 
   As for subject matter, the mood shifts from sexy to surprising to annoying to funny. What's most interesting is that the movie has a complex after-taste that alternates between sadness and an acceptance of aging. All in all, it's a tragi-comic tale that grabs the torch of masterful story-telling and cinematic technique that Melies held the year before. The possibilities inherent to the movie-medium were expanded yet again.

Au bal de Flore 
Directed by Alice Guy.

   With such stunningly beautiful costumes, painted backdrop, coloring, and movement by the actors, this movie is a dream of perfection made real through art. Both this and another of the movies director Alice Guy made during this year, Le départ d'Arlequin et de Pierrette, feature the first onscreen romance between women, as well as the first kiss between women. 
   Allegedly, the dancers are Julyett and Lally de l'Olympia. The title translates from French as "At the Flora ball".

Le départ d'Arlequin et de Pierrette 
Directed by Alice Guy

   There are several reasons this movie is beautiful, the most obvious being the bright, glowing colors. It should also be honored for being what seems like an all-female production. Then there is the floating style of moving about the stage, which is a great idea as an alternative to having characters simply walk about. The direct communication with the camera is also a nice effect, and so is the hand-gesturing and body-language.
   The plot appears to be a variation on the classic Commedia dell'arte plotline. As far as I can make it out, Columbine pushes Pierrette away because she has been drinking and is too crass. The sight of Harlequin approaching, on the other hand, excites Columbine into primping in the mirror. At Harlequin's arrival, the two women dance joyfully at first, but then shift imperceptibly into a mood of sweet seduction. Finally, the two characters begin making out. This is a play about sexuality for sure, but it's one that celebrates sexual union that is light, playful, and equality-based, as opposed to Pierrette's sneaky, sloppy one-sided desire. 
   Kudos are in order for Alice Guy as she introduced two movies this year which feature the first onscreen kisses between women, the other movie to do so being Au bal de Flore.
   The title translates from French as "The departure of Harlequin and Pierrette".

Champs de Mars 
Produced by James H. White for the Edison Manufacturing Company

   This movie exhibits the fairly-new technique of rotating the camera, the first instance being in Fifth Avenue, New York (1897) which was also directed by James H. White. Picking as its setting Paris around the then one-year-old Eiffel Tower, the director has given us a now-historic and aesthetically pleasing 360-degree scene. The day is lively as there are so many people decked out in their ambling-outfits, complete with hats, canes, and parasols. It's also interesting to see the camera move at the same pace as the walkers, sometimes picking one particular person or set of people and following them, stopping at key places, and simply soaking in the glorious sights, the humans on the ground, the sky above, and the interceding tower. The moments when we are shown a blank stone wall, as we follow a pair of women who have passed behind it and then catching them as they come out from the other end, is a great demonstration of pure cinema. All in all, this is evidence that the movie-medium was breaking further away from its still-photography roots.

Le danse des saisons 
Directed by Alice Guy

   Somewhat dull at first glance, especially considering all the dancing we've seen up to this point. But this movie does have several strong points. It is a very charming dance, and the theme of winter is engaging. But even more engaging is the dancer's costume and the way she is always coming up close and moving away from the camera. It's an effect that reinforces our perception of continuous depth, not that deception is an admirable route for cinema to follow, but illusions of reality do delight the eyes. To top it all off, the falling snow, which though is obviously partly hand-thrown, adds a wonderful feel of playful fantasy to the production.
   The title translates from French as "The dance of seasons".

Nouvelles luttes extravagantes 
Directed by Georges Méliès; 
Starring Georges Méliès and Jeanne d'Alcy

   Many often wonder whether Melies was under the influence of any kind of mind-altering substance while making or conceiving his movies. This movie, with its absolute nuttiness and nonsensicality may decide that for you. Or, you can just see it as a predecessor to surrealist thought in movies. Not really as much going on here as in Melies' earlier Le cauchemar, but it is assured in its wacky rhythm like no other Melies movie, or no other movie at all. The violence is a bit extreme and difficult to reconcile with morality,  but if you can stomach it, it can serve as an exaggerated study of violent sports and as a bold declaration of how the movies are a realm where the imagination can flow unfettered without anyone really being hurt.
   The title translates from French as "Extravagant new fights".

Cyrano de Bergerac 
Directed by Clément Maurice; 
Starring Benoit Constant Coquelin

   The second oldest sound-movie I've heard of, but this one has color as well, and such fine, delicate coloring at that! The sound is a little off, as Cyrano's challenger sounds extremely high-pitched, but that is forgivable given the early stage of sound-recording at the time. The subject matter is interesting as it's a scene from the classic titular play which at that time had just been out for three years. On top of that, it stars the play's original lead actor! Pace-wise, the movie exhibits a wonderful balance of action and dialogue, which can be credited in part to the play's author, Edmond Rostand.

Le sorcier, le prince et le bon génie 
Written, Directed, and Produced by Georges Méliès

   Nice balance of a fairy-tale and Melies' cutting-edge special effects. What's even nicer is the unexpected turns in the plot. Though the action all takes place in one setting, there is enough going on and in such a well-choreographed manner, that the frame never feels claustrophobic. 
   The title translates from French as "The sorcerer, the prince, and the good genie".

Le livre magique 
Directed by Georges Méliès;
Starring Georges Méliès

   Cheerful sketch that seems to make use of error. After the magician, who is played by Melies, gets all the characters back inside the book, the book teeters over him and he pushes it back to a standing position with his hands. Then, a few moment later, after an obvious cut, the book falls again, "smashing the magician". The inclusion of that initial, probably unintentional book-falling, adds continuity, and keeps us from guessing that the final gag was planned. It also gives us insight into Melies creative process, as we might have witnessed with that first book-falling the actual moment that Melies got one of his ideas.
   The title translates from French as "The magic book".

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