Escamotage d’une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin (1896)
Director: Georges Méliès
Cast: Jeanne d’Alcy, Georges Méliès
Synopsis: A woman disappears on stage.
Known in English as The Vanishing Lady, Escamotage d’une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin is reputed to be the first of pioneering special effects wizard George Méliès’ trick photography movies, and it certainly has the feel of someone feeling their way in a new enterprise. Méliès didn’t yet appear to have appreciated the opportunities for diversity offered by the camera, and chose to replicate a theatre stage as the location for his first piece of film trickery. The camera sits squarely in front of the stage as if it were a member of the audience, which means we have this strange effect of the cinema mimicking the theatre.
Méliès, dressed in formal evening attire, emerges through a door on the right of the stage and acknowledges the audience before introducing a well-dressed young lady. This lady is 21-year-old Jeanne d’Alcy who, thirty years after the making of this film, and long after his film career had faltered, would become Méliès’ wife. D’Alcy sits on a chair placed over a newspaper (don’t ask me…) and fans herself while Méliès produces a blanket which he eventually drapes over her. Cue the first jump cut and poof!… Lady gone.
Méliès then creates a little bit of tension by only partially succeeding in returning d’Alcy from wherever he put her. Somehow, he brings back only her skeleton, upon which he stretches his acting muscles by registering a comical expression of surprise before hurriedly re-covering the skeleton with the blanket and summoning up the soft and squishy bits that surround the skeleton.
The jump cuts are a little jarring, but I guess we can forgive Méliès considering it was his first attempt. It’s curious, though, that he should choose in his first trick film to replicate an act which magicians performed on the stage without the need for, or aid of, trick photography.
(Reviewed 25th July 2014)