Two impish clowns construct a magic lantern. They prop it up at an angle, and use it to project pictures onto a wall. When the picture show ends, they open up the lantern to reveal a group of dancing girls inside - and this is only the first of the indications that this lantern really is magical. Written by
After Robert W. Paul's 'The Countryman and the Cinematograph' (1901), as well as the Edison Company's remake of Paul's film, 'Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show' (1902), Georges Méliès' 'The Magic Lantern' is the earliest film that I know of that self-reflexively has as its subject a cinema screening. Self-reflexive films have been of exceptional interest to me and that this one is very early makes it even more precious. Aside from the self-reflexive element, this is a typical trick film by Méliès. He had previously used the tricks he employs here, including the multiple-exposure technique used for the projected film-within-a-film. Paul also used the same technique in his film. Moreover, both self-reflexive films were comedic, as would be many early self-reflexive films.
Yet, there are notable differences between this film and Paul's film. First, Méliès' film doesn't take place in a theatre, but rather is supposedly set in a nursery and the characters we see are toys that have come alive. Second, the projector of the motion pictures is a magic lantern with circular vignettes projected upon a black wall. The circular framing was typical of magic lantern slides, but what is projected are certainly not slides, but rather motion pictures. It's a curious choice that Méliès would pretend the magic lantern capable of projecting motion pictures, although magic lantern shows were commonly used between films in exhibitor's programs back then (including in Méliès' shows at his Robert-Houdin Theatre), and the magic lantern was a notable precursor of cinema in respect to the projection of images.
The third and more important distinction between Paul's film and Méliès' film is in their insight into the medium. 'The Countryman and the Cinematograph' was ingenious for its time in this respect, as it explored film's doppelgänger role and its deceptive nature. 'The Magic Lantern' also takes up the doppelgänger theme: the film-within-the-film begins with a bewigged eighteenth century man and woman kissing (in a medium close-up shot reminiscent of the Edison Company's 'The Kiss' (1896), which must have set the standard, as cinema's first kissing scene, for such framing) and then dissolves to images of our two toy characters. As was the case in Paul's film, the characters are astonished to find themselves watching their doubles. Although Méliès had discovered many cinematic tricks in the nearly eight years since he attended the Lumière brothers' first commercial screening on 28 December 1895, he still revealed cinema's greatest trick to be its nature of reflection.
To top it off and depart from ground already touched upon in Paul's film, the magic lantern is taken apart to introduce six dancing girls. Another dancing girl (Zizi Papillion) comes from out of frame to perform some can-can kicks and other acrobatics. They leave, but then even more dancing girls turn out from the magic lantern, with Papillion returning for more can-can kicks, at which point the two toys fight for her affections. Toy soldiers come to break this up, but soon we're back to more dancing girls. It's not a very sophisticated conclusion, but it's light entertainment typical of Méliès' trick films, and, besides, Zizi Papillion had quite a kick.
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