Film History Essentials: Escamotage d’une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin (1896)

(English: The Vanishing Lady)

What it’s about:

A magician, Georges Méliès, steps onto the stage and introduces his lovely assistant, Jeanne d’Alcy. He sets up a chair for her to sit on, and then covers her completely with a diaphanous piece of cloth. When he removes the cloth, she has vanished completely. He waves his arms, and a skeleton appears in her place in the chair. He covers the skeleton with the cloth, and then removes it, revealing that the lady has returned. The pair take their bows and exit.

Why it’s essential:

Georges Méliès’ father was a wealthy boot-maker in Paris, and he fought for decades to keep young Georges in shoe business instead of show business. He should have seen it was a losing battle all along. After all, Méliès was building puppet theaters when he was 10, and it only got more evident from there that entertaining was his life’s purpose. He developed a lifelong obsession with magic while living in London as a young adult, but at his father’s insistence he continued to work in the family factory upon his return to Paris. Still, he began taking magic lessons on the side.

Finally, in 1888, when Méliès was 26, his father retired and divided the business among his three sons. Méliès immediately sold his share to his older brothers and used the money to buy the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, once the performance space of one of the most celebrated magicians of the 19th century. Méliès worked for years, renovating the theater and updating the illusions, slowly building back an audience.

Three weeks after his 34th birthday, Méliès (see right) was a member of the Lumière brothers’ very first film audience, and the experience changed the course of his life. The next day, he offered the Lumières 10,000 francs for a cinematograph, but they turned him down. (His wasn’t even close to the largest offer they refused.) However, within a few months he was able to purchase a Theatrograph from Robert Paul in England, along with a number of films. Soon, he had made modifications to the device so that it could also serve as a camera, and his career as a filmmaker began.

He shot nearly 80 films in 1896 alone, most of which are now lost. His very first attempt was a rip-off of a Lumière film, and he experimented extensively with a huge variety of genres and subjects. Escamotage d’une Dame is his oldest surviving film that employs elements of the signature Méliès subjects and style: The use of camera tricks and editing to produce effects that were both magical and whimsical, all driven by the high-energy showmanship of Méliès himself.

Méliès’s most prolific technique was the “stop trick,” also known as a “substitution splice.” This is the same trick used by Alfred Clark in The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1895, so Méliès didn’t originate it, but he certainly perfected it. He also claimed to have stumbled upon it independently, and it’s a great story: He was filming an actuality out in the street one day when the camera jammed. He fixed the issue and resumed filming. Later, while watching back the footage, he noticed that at that point, a passing bus appeared to magically transform into a hearse due to the camera’s stopping and restarting. Of course, it’s quite possible that he just saw Clark’s film and worked out how it was done . . . but I’m choosing to print the legend. It’s at least a plausible one.

Why you should see it:

In Escamotage d’une Dame, Méliès uses the stop trick 3 times. The first one, when d’Alcy disappears, is the most obvious because he exposes the edges of her dress when he gathers up the cloth, so you can see her vanish. Possibly (for some contemporary audiences) that just made it appear all the more magical. The second one is the cleanest. The skeleton appears in the chair with virtually no visible shift anywhere else on the screen. The third one shows a magician’s knack for subtlety. You can see where the shift happens as he starts to put the cloth over the skeleton, but some in the audience might not have been looking for it yet, and this would probably be the easiest spot to miss that an edit happened at all.

Even more interesting, though, is the way Méliès chose to stage his performance. “The Vanishing Lady” was a well-known trick at the time (see left). You can find a great explanation here of how the stage version worked. But knowing that, it’s evident that Méliès goes out of his way at multiple points to show that he’s not performing the stage version of the trick. In brief, the basic mechanism of the trick was a wire frame that went over the lady’s head to hold up the blanket, a special chair with a seat that dropped forward, and a trapdoor hidden under a fake sheet of rubber newspaper to disguise the fact that it had a flap in the middle (the newspaper was meant to prove that no trapdoor could be used).

In this film, you can see the way Méliès unfolds and flaps the (real) newspaper before spreading it on the floor. He also shows off the chair, seeming to show that it does not have any attached wire frame, and that the seat is solid all the way around. He even uses a semi-transparent cloth so that you can just make out the d’Alcy’s figure underneath. After the lady vanishes, he further emphasizes various elements to show this is not the usual trick. The skeleton, naturally, is his own addition specifically for the film, and I love the way he mugs for the camera as though its appearance was unexpected.

Where most of his contemporaries were simply filming performers going through portions of their act as though they were in front of a live audience, Méliès was adapating a stage act for the cinema. Incredible. He is always a delight to watch, and it’s clear that he was born to be an entertainer. The enthusiasm he exudes in every frame is almost childlike, and it’s difficult not to be swept up by the fantastical scenarios that he creates . . . and here he was just getting started.


~ by Jared on February 17, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Escamotage d’une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin (1896)”

  1. […] two dozen times, or an average of once every eight seconds. But in contrast with the stage magic of his previous known use of the technique, these are done in support of an actual story, and three minutes is actually quite long for a film […]


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