Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

A Touch Of Méliès

Georges Méliès was a conjuror at heart – a magician who truly had the calling to be an artist of illusion.  Starting in 1888 Méliès performed his magic act at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, an establishment he purchased with money made from selling his share of the family footwear business.  He loved to mystify, and it is fun to think of his own mystification upon first seeing the Lumière brother’s demonstration of their motion picture projector.  This seminal event in film history occurred  at the Grand Cafe in Paris in December of 1895.  Méliès was hooked.  He would soon turn the Robert-Houdin theatre into a movie house, showing the works of Edison, among others.  Before long he designed his own camera, and was not only exhibiting but making films.  He formed his own company, STAR FILM, and his early output was very much like the typical product of the time: Each film was a few seconds long – trains arriving at a station, waves crashing on a beach etc.  But the soul of a magician (and a story-teller) was nagging at him…

It was a discovery he made on a Paris street that would lead to his becoming the first master of special effects and fantasy films.  One day, as he was filming city scenes, his camera jammed.  Fixing the problem in a matter of minutes, he was ready to begin shooting again.  Upon developing the film, he was fascinated by what he saw: People magically transformed into objects; carriages disappeared and reappeared from out of nowhere.  These were in effect, the first jump cuts, as well as the first time-lapse shots.  Melies’ revelation would change the course of cinema.  As far as the visualization of a movie was concerned, anything was now possible.  The Lumière brothers captured reality on the screen, now, led by Méliès, filmmakers could capture true magic.  Of course, this did not mean that he was disinterested in cinema realism.  There were his “reconstructions”, sober recreations of topical events of the day.  Such films as DREYFUS AFFAIR (1899), his reenactment of the French military case.  Because he had to tell the whole story, it was necessary to include dozens of scenes and locations.  Thus his films were longer and more elaborate than much of the product of the time.  He was also known for films of  past historical events.  His JOAN OF ARC (1900) contained a dozen scenes and over 500 performers. 

Most historians believe Méliès to be the great innovator in creating story films, though there are those who credit female director Alice Guy-Blache (also French) with this achievement.  Her film LE FEE AUX CHOUX (1896) may have predated  Méliès’ story films by several months.  In any case, he certainly did more than any other filmmaker to advance the idea of entertaining audiences with narrative movies.  And that magicians soul…

It was the genre of fantasy and science fiction with which Méliès would be most identified.  And with good reason.  Full of mischief and a joyful spirit of adventure, these films offer a dizzying cocktail of trick effects, dancing-girls, fanciful men of science (to Méliès, the ultimate magicians), naughty sprites, playful demons and the overwhelming sense of Méliès (and his audience) having a good time.  In A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), perhaps his most famous and typical film, he combines many of these elements into a story sixty-seven years ahead of its time.  With over thirty scenes, the film is more than 15 minutes long  and begins with astronomers debating the endeavor and  dissolves to scenes of workmen building the craft that will carry the explores to the moon, depicted as a delightfully cheesy celestial body to say the least.  While there they encounter devilish (but always comical) beings, barely escaping with their lives.   Not exactly scientifically accurate (the director could not be heralded as a prophet of Aeronautics) , the film does foresee the excitement and sheer spectacle of the 1969 moon landing. 

Despite the flights of revolutionary imagination in his films, there is a single, deadly flaw that runs through all of them.  It is a cinematic flaw and it may have led to his downfall.  It seems that this master magician never understood the basic building blocks of cinema, the techniques quickly mastered by his contemporaries, men such as G.A. Smith and Robert W. Paul.  These are the techniques that are still used in modern cinema: Breaking down scenes into different shots of divergent angles.  The use of close-ups, medium shots and long shots.  He never caught on or never cared.  Virtually all of his scenes are photographed using the same master shot.  In BLUEBEARD (1901) a scene called for a detailed shot of a key, screaming for a close-up.  Yet he opted instead  for a giant foot long prop key to get his message across.  Perhaps because of this cinematic blind spot, the market for his films eventually vanished, like in one of his special effects.  In 1911 he had to borrow money from the Pathe brothers to continue production.  His next film THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912) is among his most charming with a giant snow monster that is a marvel of engineering and design.  Nevertheless, he was soon out of business.  Soon after that, he was forgotten.  He destroyed the prints of most of his films (only 200 or so survive) and returned to his first love: Performing his magic act.  In 1923 he filed for bankruptcy.  In 1928 a revival of his films began and a few years after that he was awarded the “Legion Of Honor” by the french government.  He was also awarded a rent free apartment where he would spend the rest of his life. Georges Méliès died in 1938 at the age of 76.

July 23, 2012 Posted by | early cinema, film directors, French cinema, silent film | , , , , , | Leave a comment


There is an interesting spiritual tension running throughout Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).  It is one, not so much of good versus evil, but of innocence verses cynicism.  As this unique film set during the depression begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) leaves a large sum of money, stolen in a bank robbery, with his two small children.  The police closing in, he instructs son John (Billy Chapin) to hide the money in a safe place.  Also closing in is Ben’s former cellmate, The Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum).  Powell will do anything to get his hands on the bank loot.  Ben is later hanged for a killing committed during the robbery, giving Powell an opportunity to worm (and I do mean “worm”) his way into Ben’s shattered family.  It is here that we see the most profound example of innocence and cynicism as Ben’s daughter Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) is immediately enamored of this ravenous wolf while John is filled with suspicion for the monster who will soon become his stepfather.  Also taken with Powell is the children’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).  She, along with most of the town adores this Bible quoting character.  In fact most everyone in this small town quotes scripture fanatically.  Along with this religiosity comes an almost pathological hatred of sexuality, especially of the feminine sort.  As an old lady proudly remarks of her sex life with her husband of forty years: “I just lie there and think about my canning!”  Powell also warns Willa on their wedding night that there will be no sexual relations, as a woman’s body is made solely for making babies and he has no interest in having  children.  Willa later states “My whole body is quivering with goodness!”  This, of course, presents another tension: One between human nature and the harsh standards set by fanaticism.  The sexual tension in the film is beautifully illustrated as Powell, seething with self-righteous hatred for female sexuality and the temptations it imposes on men, watches a stripper perform in a nightclub.  To our surprise (the film was made in 1955, after all) Powell’s switch blade suddenly pokes through his pants pocket.  A phallic image so blatant, it must have caused the censor spasms of anxiety way back when. 

As Willa realizes that Powell is only after money, the crazed preacher kills her in a scene so brilliantly stylized, it guarantees Laughton’s status as a master filmmaker in this, his only film as director.  (Also unforgettable are the shots of Willa’s corpse and car submerged in a lake, the water causing her hair to wave as though being blown by the wind on a summer drive.)  The couple’s bedroom is designed and lit to resemble a church and Robert Mitchum gives a chilling performance as he stares out a large window, his right hand raised to God.  His wife is in bed, her hands folded over her chest as though in a casket.  She knows her husband only wants the money but amazingly still believes he was sent by God to deliver her from her sins.  But she does know…Again the switch blade comes out – this time to finally sacrifice a woman who is abhorrent in Powell’s mind.  All this twisted religion is presented by Laughton and screenwriter James Agee as a crutch as is the alcohol abuse presented in the film.  This is apparent in the depiction of “Uncle Birdie” (James Gleason) an elderly friend of John’s.  He is the only character in the film with no interest in religion, but when he spies Willa’s body in the lake, he indulges in booze and mumbles in a drunken haze “I swear on..the book…”  Even this proud man reaches for a Bible and strong drink in times of trouble. 

The aforementioned tensions – between sexuality and religion, innocence and cynicism – are magnificently illustrated in Powell’s tatoos.  “Love” on the one hand and “hate” on the other, these elements of existence are forever intertwined as Powell demonstrates by linking his fingers together.  But there is another tension or conflict in the film and in life:  That of false or twisted religion and the real thing.  The false is represented by Powell and the hypocritical towns people who gather as a lynch mob when the preacher is finally arrested for Willa’s murder.  Earlier in the film, at one of Powell’s religious  revivals, torches throw shadows on the walls that remind us of burning KKK crosses.  The real deal is represented by an elderly woman, Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) who takes in abandoned children and rescues John and Pearl when they flee from their homicidal stepfather.  Children, as presented here, are the ultimate innocents, and they must be brought up right.  The first shot of Miss Cooper’s kids has them suddenly standing up in a garden, coming into frame as though they sprang out of the ground. 

The conflict between the two approaches to faith is demonstrated as Miss Cooper, waiting for the inevitable confrontation with Powell, joins in a hymn Powell is singing outside her window.  The two will forever be interlocked like love and hate. 

There is an interesting depiction of animals in the film.  Like the humans around them, they can be either victim or victimizer.  Cooper watches an owl kill a rabbit and remarks “It’s a hard world for little things.”  After she shoots a menacing Powell, the maniac minister screams out like a stuck hog, a bestial moment for a wild animal.  It is a comical moment as well, which confused me the first time I saw the film…Then I remembered the animal references.  Miss Cooper is one of God’s “little things” indeed – fragile and gentle for the most part – but she has the true faith in the true God by her side…and a loaded gun. 

The villainous preacher would become a rank stereotype in future films and TV shows, but Charles Laughton was somewhat of a trailblazer.  If this trail was subsequently beaten down and worn out Laughton was not to blame, as he seemed, at least with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, to greatly admire genuine religious convictions and ideals.

CREDITS: Directed by Charles Laughton.  Written by James Agee.  Based on the novel by Davis Grubb.  Photography by Stanley Cortez.  Music by Walter Schumann.  With Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, Peter Graves, James Gleason, Don Beddoe and Evelyn Varden.

July 12, 2012 Posted by | American Film, film directors | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments