Méliès: Attraction and Narration

La sirène
P and R: Georges Méliès. Fr 1904

Le voyage dans la lune
P and R: Georges Méliès. Fr 1902.

Le voyage à travers l’impossible
P and R: Georges Méliès. Fr 1904

Another print:

Le voyage à travers l’impossible
P and R: Georges Méliès. Fr 1904

Le Royaume des Fées
P and R: Georges Méliès. Fr 1903

Méliès’ principle contribution to cinema was the combination of traditional theatrical elements to motion pictures – he sought to present spectacles of a kind not possible in live theatre.
In the Autumn of 1896, an event occurred which has since passed into film folklore and changed the way Méliès looked at filmmaking. Whilst filming a simple street scene, Méliès camera jammed and it took him a few seconds to rectify the problem. Thinking no more about the incident, Méliès processed the film and was struck by the effect such a incident had on the scene – objects suddenly appeared, disappeared or were transformed into other objects.
Méliès discovered from this incident that cinema had the capacity for manipulating and distorting time and space. He expanded upon his initial ideas and devised some complex special effects.
He pioneered the first double exposure (La caverne Maudite, 1898), the first split screen with performers acting opposite themselves (Un Homme de têtes, 1898), and the first dissolve (Cendrillon, 1899).
Méliès tackled a wide range of subjects as well as the fantasy films usually associated with him, including advertising films and serious dramas. He was also one of the first filmmakers to present nudity on screen with Après Le Bal.
Faced with a shrinking market once the novelty of his films began to wear off, Méliès abandoned film production in 1912. In 1915 he was forced to turn his innovative studio into a Variety Theatre and resumed his pre-film career as a Showman.”
Early Cinema


TRAUM UND EXZESS, S. 167, S. 202 f.


The Gay Shoe Clerk
R Edwin S. Porter. Edison Manufacturing Co. USA 1903

049-The Gay Shoe Clerk-2

“True, the young man not only sees but touches and even kisses the young lady, but his transgression is promptly greeted by a bash on the head from the chaperone. Meanwhile, the male spectator enjoys the woman’s ankle and the shoe clerk’s chastisement. In fact, both pictures suggest that cinema, by removing the spectator’s physical presence from the scene, allows the (male) viewer to take pleasure in what is otherwise forbidden. The close view of the young lady’s ankle is shown against a plain background to further focus the viewer’s attention, suggesting the subjective nature of the shot and abstracting it from the scene. Not only does this second shot have a different background, but the female customer probably had a stand-in. Her dress, at least, is different: the far shot does not reveal the white petticoats, which are prominently displayed in the closer view. Porter and other early filmmakers obviously anticipated the editorial principles of the artificial woman articulated by Lev Kuleshov. The ankle is also isolated in an abstracted space. While Porter seems to have been concerned with matching action, the cut did not involve a seamless “move in” through a spatially continuous world but functioned within a syncretic representational system.”
Charles Musser: Before the Nickelodeon. Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley-Los Angeles-Oxford 1991, p. 246 ff.


Striptease and Burlesque

Airy Fairy Lillian Tries on Her New Corsets (Fragment)
American Mutoscope & Biograph. USA 1905

From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen
K: A.E. Weed. American Mutoscope & Biograph. USA 1903.
Filmed August 25, 1903 in the Biograph New York City studio
Print: Library of Congress

“Both as an overt theme and as a medium of theatrical jesting, voyeurism seems to be largely a contribution of the cinema to the basic entertainment formula. Consider, for instance, a 1903 Biograph short entitled From Show Girl to Burlesque Queen in which a young woman enters a dressing room and removes everything but a sleeveless undergarment; then, slipping a strap off of one shoulder, she retreats behind a screen, over which she finally tosses the chemise. What’s particularly interesting is the fact that, throughout the act, she insists on smiling flirtatiously at the camera, and it’s the proximity of the camera which, in registering the look that she gives it, foregrounds the exhibitionist act, displaying it as exhibition.”
Cinematheque Froncaise

>>> smiling women: La signora dall’eterno sorriso on this website

“Burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery. (…) A later use of the term, particularly in the United States, refers to performances in a vatiety show format. These were popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and female striptease.”


Kisses, Comedy and Early Cinema

Interrupted Lovers
R & K: William Heise, James White. Edison Manufacturing Co. USA 1896

The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss
R: William Heise. Edison Manufacturing Co. USA 1896

“Recorded by May Irwin on 20th May 1907, the song originated from the Broadway show ‘The Widow Jones’ produced at the Bijou Theatre on 16th September 1895.
In 1896 the Edison Company purchased the rights to a motion picture projector that had been invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. The projector was renamed the ‘Vitascope’ and had its commercial debut on April 23, 1896. During its first year the most popular film shown using the ‘Edison’ vitascope was the May Irwin Kiss.
May Irwin and John Rice were the two principal actors appearing in the New York stage hit ‘The Widow Jones’. At the request of the New York World newspaper, the two staged their kiss from the last act of that comedy for Edison’s camera.”

Birth of the Pearl
R:  Frederick S. Armitage.  P: American Mutoscope & Biograph. USA 1901
Print: Library of Congress /Paper print collection

“This film is one of a series of ‘Living Pictures’ filmed by Biograph in an apparent attempt to recreate the burlesque stage living picture exhibitions of the mid-19th century. As with the New York City stage tableaux, the living pictures were often representations of famous paintings or statues of nudes; in this particular case, of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’.”
Library of Congress


Showbiz 1895: Edison’s Kinetoscope

The Kiss
Serpentine Dances (koloriert)
Glenroy Brothers
The Barber Shop
Feeding the Doves
Seminary Girls

R & K: W.K.L. Dickson / William Heise. Edison Manufacturing Co. 1894-1896

“The imminent completion of the kinetoscopes spurred the Edison group into serious film production. Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (9th January 1894) was a short film made for publicity purposes during the first week of January 1894. By the beginning of March, Dickson and assistant William Heise had shot The Barbershop and Amateur Gymnast, both full-length subjects. As with most films made during the coming year, these were slightly less than fifty feet long, shot at approximately forty frames per second, and lasted less than twenty seconds. Like Blacksmith Scene, The Barbershop depicts a homosocial environment where easy comradery is routine. A customer receives a ‘lightning shave’ for five cents – the cost of seeing the film. Since the shave and the viewing of the film take the same amount of time, the subject would seem to gently rib the film spectator, who has been quickly separated from his money. Yet the depiction of a complete shaving cycle highlights the work process (the barber’s) and treats the barbershop as both a workplace and a place of leisure.
Amateur Gymnast shows a young man performing a somersault: it was probably one of several films taken of members of the Newark Turnverein, a nearby athletic club. Others show two men on parallel bars and a brief boxing match. These may have been rehearsals for the kinetograph’s first famous visitor, the strongman Eugene Sandow next hit. On March 6th Sandow came to the Edison laboratory accompanied by the management of Koster & Bial’s, the music hall where he was then performing. For the kinetograph, Sandow stripped to a loincloth and assumed an array of positions that showed off his muscular physique. In cinematography as in photography, Dickson had a well-trained eye. His camera framed Sandow next just above the knees. Against the black background, the strongman’s physique captured the complete attention of his audience.”
Charles Musser: Before the Nickelodeon. Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley-Los Angeles-Oxford 1991, p. 40

TRAUM UND EXZESS, S. 131 ff., S. 165 f.

Re-enactment: The Anglo-Boer War

Capture of Boer Battery by British
R: James H. White. Edison Manufacturing Co. 1900
Shot in West Orange, New Jersey.

“Nothing can exceed the stubborn resistance shown by the Gordon Highlanders, as we see them steadily advancing in the face of a murderous fire of the Boers, who are making their guns speak with rapid volleys. One by one the gunners fall beside their guns, and as the smoke clears for an instant the Highlanders are seen gaining nearer and nearer the disputed ground. Finally, a grand charge is made, the siege is carried, and amid cheers they plant the colors on the spot they have so dearly earned.”
Edison films catalog
Library of Congress



Docudrama 1900: L’affaire Dreyfus

L’affaire Dreyfus
R: Georges Méliès. P: Star Film. Fr 1899

“Georges Méliès is said to have picked up his strong Dreyfusard feelings from discussions with his cousin Adolphe. It is heartening to know that France’s great creative filmmaker in the early years of cinema chose the right side. He set about making his Dreyfus films with an eye to commercial opportunity but also as a means to express his personal sympathies – probably the first time that film had ever been used in this way. His approach was radical – he would make a multi-part news narrative, tracing the Dreyfus story from his original imprisonment in 1894 to the second trial in 1899. At a time when films were almost entirely single-shot narratives of less than a minute in length, Méliès produced a 15-minute, eleven-part chronological series of documentary fidelity and great cinematic invention (strictly speaking it was twelve parts, as one scene covers two catalogue numbers in the Star-Film catalogue). Filming took place August-September 1899, while the trial was taking place, at his studios at Montreuil, Paris.”
Luke McKernan
The Bioscope

“A genuine attempt to record Dreyfus on film took place when the prisoner was brought back from Devil’s Island in July 1899 to face a second trial in France. This event, taking place in Rennes, became a great media circus, with scores of journalists and photographers descending on the town. In amongst them was a certain Monsieur Orde, carting a huge Biograph camera around the streets, and, despite the protests of the Dreyfus family, trying to record anything connected with the affair. He managed to film Madame Dreyfus on one of her visits to the prison and, by renting a house across from the prison yard and biding his time, succeeded in obtaining a shot of the prisoner himself on one of his daily walks. The next step in the screen portrayal of Dreyfus was dramatisation, and two film versions of the affair were made in 1899: Georges Méliès began work on his one in August, which consisted of some twelve separate scenes, showing Dreyfus (played by an ironworker) from his arrest, through his degradation and imprisonment, to the trial in Rennes. A Pathé version, in six scenes including the trial, was in production at about the same time, and both were on the market by the autumn of 1899. Méliès was a passionate Dreyfusard, and his portrayal of the prisoner reflects the filmmaker’s sympathies, though this was not to everyone’s taste: the first screening provoked fighting between pro- and anti-Dreyfusards, and Méliès’ version was apparently banned by the French government, the first instance of film censorship for political reasons. A restriction on showing films about the Dreyfus affair was only lifted in 1950. The affair had clearly demonstrated, even in this very early period, that the cinema could tackle burning contemporary events in both factual and dramatised formats.”
Stephen Bottomore
Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema

Dreyfus in the French media: Dreyfus’ suspension from the army, the court room at Rennes and the attempt on M. Fernand Labori’s life

291-Affäre Dreyfus-Le Petit Journal

290-Der Dreyfus-Prozess in Rennes

289-Attentat auf Labori-Le Petit Journal

Dreyfus caricature

Zur politischen und historischen Bedeutung der Dreyfus-Affäre:
Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung



Opening the Williamsburg Bridge
K: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. P: American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. USA 19. Dezember 1903 (Datum der Einweihung)
Location: East River, New York, N.Y.



An Era of Disasters

010-Unfall Montparnasse 1895 Gare Montparnasse, Paris 1895

Éruption volcanique à la Martinique
R: Georges Méliès. P: Star-Film. Fr. 1902

“This picture depicts the eruption of the volcano by which over 30,000 souls were hurled into eternity. The numerous explosions which took place during the eruption are plain to be seen. Thousands upon thousands of tons of molten lava, sand, rocks and steam are thrown high in the air and descend with crushing force upon the unfortunate inhabitants of the doomed city of St. Pierre. This is the worst calamity which occurred since a similar eruption by Mt. Vesuvius when Pompeii was destroyed.”
Lubin Catalog

Ferdinand Zecca on the set of his film La catastrophe de la Martinique, Fr 1902

Galveston Hurricane and Tidal Wave of 1900
K: Albert E. Smith. P: Edison Manufacturing Co. USA 1900

“At the first news of the disaster by cyclone and tidal wave that devastated Galveston on Saturday, Sept. 8th, 1900, we (Thomas Edison Films) equipped a party of photographers and sent them by special train to the scene of the ruins. Arriving at the scene of desolation shortly after the storm had swept over that city (September 24, 1900), our party succeeded, at the risk of life and limb, in taking about a thousand feet of moving pictures. In spite of the fact that Galveston was under martial law and that the photographers were shot down at sight by the excited police guards, a very wide range of subject has been secured. The series, taken as a whole, will give the entire world a definite idea of the terrible disaster, unequaled since the Johnstown flood of 1889.”
Edison Film Catalogue
Library of Congress

San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake
P: American Mutoscope & Biograph. USA 1906

>>> San Francisco, 1906San Francisco, Chinatown 1912

TRAUM UND EXZESS, S. 41, S. 153 f., S. 210

Visual Newspaper

The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy
R: Edwin S. Porter. K: James Blair Smith. Edison Manufacturing Co. 1902

“On a February afternoon in 1902, a blaze of suspicious origin enveloped Durland’s Riding Academy, a condemned equestrian center adjacent to Central Park on Columbus Circle. Men in top hats watched and horse-drawn carriages drove by as firemen hosed off the burning building. The scene was captured by Thomas Edison’s film production company (…). It may not be the first architectural disaster film shot in New York, but it is surely among the earliest.”
Mark Lamster
Design Observer

“(…)firefighters were popular figures at the time, and we’ve seen them in a number of films, but this is the earliest example so far of them actually fighting a fire. It’s pretty much newsreel footage, nothing seems to have been faked, and the camera shows us what it can of the situation. We’ve moved into an era when Edison camera operators are comfortable with pans, and do them without much planning or preparation, to get as broad a view of the scene as possible. Durland’s Riding Academy was in Manhattan, where the Edison Studios were now headquartered, and the camera was mobile enough to get to the scene in time to get footage of the fire in progress. No doubt this fire was still in the news when this movie was being shown, and people were excited to be able to “see” the news as well as read about it.”
Century Film Project

Cleveland Fire Department
K: Billy Bitzer. P: Biograph Company. USA 1903