One of my top picks for Best Blu-Ray of 2018 was the wonderful Flicker Alley/Lobster Films Collections (in cahoots with Blackhawk Films, CNC, Eye, Narddni Filmovy Archiv, and The Library of Congress) restoration/release of Georges Melies’ color version of A Trip to the Moon. Damn, if they haven’t topped it with this fantastic follow-up, a dual edition (Blu-Ray and DVD) of MELIES FAIRY TALES IN COLOR, a phantasmagorical array of outrageous trick films, spanning the years 1899 (yep, you read right) to 1909.
The dozen selections in the group (some running as short as sixty seconds, others a rather longish – for their period – twenty-two minutes) have been given an extra boost by incorporating the aforementioned color Trip to the Moon. So, an appropriate Devil’s Dozen of mind-blowing snippets from more than a century ago.
The remarkable thing about Melies isn’t the fact that these movies remain diverting pieces of entertainment 120 years after many were produced, but that the director/writer/producer and magical maestro was astute enough to realize the potential of the motion-picture medium. The bizarre storytelling is mere prologue, opening the gates for trailblazing ideas of color (each frame meticulously hand-painted by a small army of female artists) and sound (Melies had written scripts to be performed by actors behind the screen, although mostly as narration, a practice later adopted by the Japanese during the 1920s and early ‘30s). All of this is on view for the 2019 viewer on this release. It’s tantalizing to think what Melies could have done with widescreen and 3-D.
Melies’ scenarios (consistently macabre, frequently sardonic) prefigure works by Louis Feuillade, Tod Browning, James Whale, Val Lewton, Georges Franju…right up to Dario Argento, Jean Rollin, John Carpenter, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson. Typical Melies fare involved characters plunged into the supernatural, coming face-to-face with witches, demons and other nightmarish monsters. Regularly added into the mix was the appendage of sci-fi which gives us cyber punks a taste of 19th-century takes on space travel and ultra-plus modern technology (super flying railroads, horseless carriages, etc.). This is all fascinating stuff now; imagine how they effected 1900 viewers?
Melies’ deployment of color for shock and wonder (lost on the generally available B&W-only versions) is masterful; ditto, his ingenious Rube Goldberg moving scenery/pop-up props. His dark, surreal comedy likewise prefigures Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tati and most influentially Max Linder, who must have worshipped the little dabs of awesome fantasy. Truly, these works were the forerunners of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, the books and movies of J.K. Rowling and the crazy quilt works of Noboru Iguchi.
While not all of the 13 movies are instant classics (usually the ones based on works other than what emerged from Melies mind, remain the lesser entries, like 1905’s Rip’s Dream, his version of the Rip Van Winkle legend), all of them are must-haves for fans and collectors of the unusual, and the cinema of the authentically strange, aka psychotronic.
For me, the standouts include:
1899’s Pillars of Fire, a one minute loop that astoundingly has it all: horror, magic and sex!
1903’s Kingdom of the Fairies, a way advanced tech thriller encompassing fairy godmothers, kidnapped princesses, witches and a fast-paced tale of revenge.
1903’s The Infernal Cauldron, two minutes of inspired demonic creepiness.
1904’s The Impossible Voyage begins with an inventor’s quest to out-Verne Verne. By conjuring forces of darkness, a man’s family is plunged into horror and destruction, resulting in a trek involving rocket trains, ghostly skeletal horse-driven coaches, and more.
1906’s The Merry Frolics of Satan concerns another modern devotee of science whose life is ruptured by a visit to a strange alchemist (in reality, the Devil!).
1906’s The Witch offered turn-of-the-century crowds the impossible idea of big-screen TV and super-charged horseless carriages. It is a complex, twisty tale of revenge. At first, one is convinced that an accommodating witch has been cheated, but it turns out that her client is a man out to reclaim his lover, whom the spell-chanter has taken hostage in an evil magic castle.
1909’s The Diabolical Tenant is (along with Pillars of Fire) my favorite in the collection. A mischievous alchemist rents a bare-bones apartment for his unusual activities. His tattered suitcase goes beyond anything in Fantastic Beasts. His valise furnishes the entire flat (including a piano), most incredibly a beauteous wife, family, friends and assorted women – who proceed to party on like nobody’s business. As the landlord summons the police, the tenant quickly shoves all back into the carry-on, and vanishes – no doubt to secure another abode to taunt and torment fellow renters and Realtors.
1909’s Whimsical Illusions is pure Melies prestidigitation, a-17th century baroque magic show that defies the imagination.
The remaining titles are stunning in their own right: 1900’s Joan of Arc (an primitive epic with trick photography and graphic coloring of stake burning), a frankly racist 1902 adaptation of Robinson Crusoe (ouch for the blackfaced Friday, referred to his savior as “my housewife.”) and 1905’s The Inventor Crazybrain and his Wonderful Airship (contrary to what you think, it’s not about Space Force, but does include clown monkeys and willing nymphs). Among the casts of long-deceased unknowns is often Melies himself; all seem game, which contributes to the fun. An in-joke in nearly every title is the “product placement” of Melies Star Film production company logo on prominent props; of course, this served a dual purpose – protection against copyright infringers, motion-picture piracy already being already a problem in 1900!
Flicker Alley has gone the distance to present these extraordinary efforts in the best way possible. The 13 shorts vary in quality, but never to the extent that they are unwatchable; most, are in spectacular condition – with only a few of the restored utilizing B&W footage (where the color fragments have deteriorated). While these shorts previously existed as a DVD title, this is the first Blu-Ray edition. More importantly, digital technology since the DVD release has advanced by leaps and bounds, relegating all other versions obsolete. Lovely (and appropriate) music scores by Brian Benison, Eric Le Guen, Antonio Coppola, Robert Israel, Neal Kurz, Jeff Mills, Alexander Rainne and coproducer Serge Bromberg accompany the visuals; in many cases, the “dialog” is offered as an option, lovingly mouthed by Bromberg and film historian Fabrice Zagury.
A beautifully illustrated color booklet is also included, containing background information on the program, as well as enticing biographical tidbits about Melies. Although best watched in chronological order to enjoy the artist’s evolution from talented trickster to ace master of embryonic cinema (his only lacking seems to be in the area of intercutting, which surprisingly, he never gleaned), MELIES FAIRY TALES IN COLOR, in part, nevertheless provides the perfect prelude to your latest Marvel/DC disc, Hugo, or a Harry Potter. As for me, I’m game for a total Melies afternoon comprised of 145 minutes of exotic, hallucinatory diversions from another age.
MELIES FAIRY TALES IN COLOR. Color/Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; Flicker Alley/Lobster Films Collections/CNC, Eye, Narddni Filmovy Archiv/Library of Congress. CAT # FA0058. 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 LCPM stereo MA. SRP: $36.95.