Released under different titles in France--and not surprisingly, often confused with its analogous 1896 movie, "Le Manoir du Diable (1896)"--Georges Méliès' Haunted Castle is considered, by all means, a remake.
An elegantly dressed man enters through a stage door onto a set with decorated back screen, a chair and small table. He brings a well-dressed women through the door, spreads a newspaper on the floor, and places the chair on it. She sits and fans herself; he covers her with a diaphanous cloth. She disappears; he tries to conjure her back with incomplete results. Can he go beyond the bare bones of a conjuring trick and succeed in the complete reconstitution of a the lady?Written by
"The Vanishing Lady" seems to be the earliest surviving trick film by Georges Méliès (a time-sensitive claim, to be sure). His first films were standard actuality films like those made by the Lumière brothers. One of his earliest films "Playing Cards" (Une partie de cartes) (1896) is, indeed, a remake of the Lumière film, "Card Game" (Partie de cartes) (1895). As the apocryphal story goes, Méliès accidentally discovered trick photography while filming a traffic scene. The camera jammed in the midst of filming, but he was able to get it to work again and resume shooting. The jump cut, or stop-substitution effect, made it appear that a carriage transformed into a hearse and that men turned into women. However, the Edison Company had already realized such an effect, furthered by splicing, such as in "The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots" (1895). Perhaps, Méliès was inspired by one of these films. After all, he did purchase films from the Edison Company to project at his Robert Houdin Theatre before he set out on making his own pictures. It's known that he did have a copy of "Annabelle Serpentine Dance" (1895)--a film that of which hand-colored prints were sold; Likewise, Méliès would offer hand-colored prints of his films at extra cost, which was the case with "The Vanishing Lady".
Thus, "The Vanishing Lady" isn't novel so much for its tricks; yet, it's novel for the presentation of those tricks. In "The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots", the stop-substitution effect serves the historical reenactment, and the filmmakers attempted to conceal the trick. Méliès's film, however, is for--is about--the tricks, with the magic act serving to present them. This seems to explain why the Edison Company found little use initially for stop action and editing until they later began to make imitations of Méliès's films. Moreover, as Tom Gunning has explained as the "cinema of attractions", these early films are about presentation and not, as in later narrative films, representation. Later, Méliès would also be instrumental in the development of narrative films.
The vanishing lady trick is based on an actual magic act by Joseph Buatier de Kolta, which Méliès surely could have reproduced on film if he so desired. Indeed, he had previously performed the act on stage at his Robert Houdin theatre. The newspaper bit was important for the traditional magic act, but is only a decorative relic here. Instead, for the film, he employs three stop-substitutions (or, to use a term that recognizes the importance of editing: "substitution splicing")--to make a woman disappear, to make a skeleton appear and then to make the woman reappear--which he would touchup by splicing. Méliès uses especial filmic effects for presentation and, in turn, makes the film about the presentation of this magic. Méliès had invented cinema magic.
There's another trick in this film. The stage setting, with the painted background, is an artificial set created for the film. Méliès, the true auteur that he was, was also responsible for the stage designs of his films. This film was actually filmed outdoors--probably at his garden at Montreuil--for the natural lighting (see the shadows). The film's original French title refers to the act taking place within the Robert Houdin theatre. This wasn't true for the filming of the act, but it was true for its exhibition when Méliès projected the film to his audience.
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