Saturday, 21 August 2010

The last great trick film? - 1909 - Princess Nicotine - J. Stuart Blackton

Just as rapid technological innovation lead to film having the ability to tackle more ‘serious’ genres such as tragedy, the medium’s increasing length also meant that film’s earliest topics were now of less importance. The Lumiere Brothers’ actuality film no longer had the effect of wowing audiences simply because they were witnessing the moving image for the first time. The trick film too, was becoming a less important genre and would eventually desist altogether.

(Although there is a convincing argument to be made that many of the action films made since the eighties are the natural extension of these early trick films: i.e. the primary emphasis of these films are visual trickery, although most of these later films lack the wit and charm of these early trick films.)

As influential as Méliès has been on many of the filmmakers of the last thirty years, his influence on his immediate peers is less apparent. Princess Nicotine, along with Blactkon’s earlier trick film, The Thieving Hand, are clear examples of trick films that have been heavily influenced by Méliès, However, as we navigate the next decade of film making, his influence and popularity both temporarily wane.

The extraordinary settings of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904) (if you want to read more about Méliès’, check out this review of both films as well as other films made by Méliès ) allowed both films to entertain and delight audiences at fourteen minutes and twenty four minutes respectively.  

However, as Méliès and other like minded film makers would discover over the next few years, audiences' interests would change dramatically; film was no longer seen as a gimmick; instead, it was now considered by some to have the potential to function as an art form.

Princess Nicotine identifies the primary problem that makes it abundantly clear why the trick film’s popularity was waning in 1908: film’s increasing length. Outside of Méliès’ two aforementioned masterpieces, it is hard to find a surviving trick film that was an unqualified success which lasted for more than ten minutes. The problem was that there was a limited selection of camera tricks that one could use. Princess Nicotine used every stage and camera trick that was available at the time, and still only managed to thread together a film that lasts for five minutes. Within five years many films would run for over an hour, making it impossible for a trick film to possess the sustained quality of a film like Princess Nicotine.

As with Blackton’s earlier trick film, The Thieving Hand, Princess Nicotine incorporates surreal and fantastical elements to an ordinary situation to entertain his viewers. Princess Nicotine involves an Edwardian man discovering two ‘tobacco fairies’ (see image below) among his smokes and the fallout that ensues.

I was surprised by the devilish amount of sassiness and wit that Princess Nicotine offers its audience; the fairies in the film are more Christopher Marlowe than Walt Disney, and all the better for it. The Smoker, who is played by Paul Panzer, is charming, but lacks the subtleties in body movement that Max Linder displayed in his film on the topic of smoking, Le Premier Cigare D’un Collegien.

What makes Princess Nicotine stand out from most other trick films is its narrative pacing. The tricks on display do not feel gratuitous; each one raises the comic stakes of the faux battle between the two parties, with the film ending on a dark but humorous note. 



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