The following is my entry in the France on Film Blogathon, being hosted Jan. 8-9, 2016 by the blog Serendipitous Anachronisms. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ critiques of both movies from France and French-inspired cinema!
I condescendingly pity anyone who cannot “get into” silent film. Besides witnessing its blossoming as a fresh art form, much of the joy of silent movies is watching supposedly mature adults having fun playing with every aspect of a movie camera — Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., Charlie Chaplin in practically all of his early work…and Georges Melies.
Melies pulled every trick he could think of to create elaborate cinematic otherworlds — building eye-popping sets and costumes, hand-painting his movies frame-by-frame, making objects disappear and reappear via stop-motion photography. The movie most associated with Melies, of course, is A Trip to the Moon (1902), a wild elaboration of the titular journey. But the Melies movie that delights me the most is far less epic in scope, yet just as joyful: The Untamable Whiskers.
The premise is simplicity itself. Melies appears on camera and pulls out a huge blackboard, on which he draws a face with some affectation — a beard, or clown make-up. Then Melies pushes the blackboard away, stands still, and quickly dabs at his face with his palm, as if to say, “Abracadabra.” And what do you know — Melies’ face transforms into the face he had drawn on the blackboard!
Melies does this a half-dozen times over the course of the film’s two-and-three-quarter minutes. It’s nothing that was going to change the course of cinema. And yet, I’m sure I’ve never seen a live magician who enjoyed performing his act as much as Melies does here.
The Untamable Whiskers is a microcosm of Melies’ movie career, a full display of Melies’ delight at fiddling with just a few earthly details and taking you into his fantasy vision. As cinema’s “vocabulary” expanded, Melies’ work started to look dated, and much of his work was lost or destroyed — less than half of his short films still exist today. Yet moviegoers have hardly lost their taste for traveling to other places (as the Star Wars series continues to prove). Georges Melies paved the way to galaxies far, far away just over a century ago.