Film History Essentials: La Biche au Bois (1896)

(English: The Hind in the Wood)

What it’s about:

Fairies emerge from a . . . “hole” in the “ground” carrying tools. As more and more come out, they begin to dance and swing their tools. Finally, as the last fairy emerges, there is an eruption of smoke from the hole, putting a stop to their revelry.

Why it’s essential:

After his final break with Marey in 1894, Georges Demenÿ went to work making “scenes” for his phonoscope. The phonoscope was his invention that produced motion pictures using a disc with images placed sequentially around the outside, and then rotated rapidly past a light source. This resulted in scenes of only a few seconds, but they could be viewed by a single person through a peephole or projected for an audience. Demenÿ apparently compensated for the brevity of his productions by making motion pictures of dozens and dozens of “very diverse” subjects.

The following year, he entered into a partnership with Léon Gaumont to manufacture and sell the phonoscope, which was renamed the “Bioscope.” In 1896, they also offered up Demenÿ’s chronophotographic cameras for sale. These cameras used film, but it was unperforated. This made it, if not inferior, then at least out of step with what everyone else was doing. Both products ultimately failed.

Demenÿ continued working with Gaumont long enough to help manufacture a camera that used perforated film, but before long he left motion pictures behind and returned to an old interest in gymnastics. He went on to write a number of highly influential books on physical education, but his influence continued to be felt in the film world as well. Although he hadn’t been able to establish himself commercially, many others who did drew inspiration from work that he had done.

La Biche au Bois is a moderately well-known French fairy tale, full of familiar devices of the genre. A princess is cursed at birth by a fairy the Queen has offended, who promises something terrible will happen should she ever be touched by sunlight before her 15th birthday. Eventually, a brave prince falls in love with the princess’s portrait, and because he can’t wait a few extra months for their wedding, she undertakes a journey to him by closed carriage.

However, the evil fairy and a jealous rival for the prince’s affections conspire to let the sunlight into the carriage, and the princess is transformed into a white doe (or hind) and bounds away into the woods. The prince comes in search of the princess, and ends up relentlessly hunting the white doe that he keeps encountering. Meanwhile, the princess’s lady-in-waiting and a friendly fairy try to protect her, and she returns to her human form each night. Eventually, the prince manages to capture her, learns the truth, breaks the enchantment, happily ever after, etc.

If you’re wondering why none of those plot details are evident in this short clip, it’s not because there’s any footage missing. And in any case, the story I just described would have been an incredibly ambitious undertaking at a time when films were still generally less than a minute long. This film is actually part of a multimedia presentation that was incorporated into a stage performance of La Biche au Bois in Paris in November 1896, one of many commonly-staged féerie or “fairy plays.”

This film, which was also hand-tinted with color, purportedly was part of a scene in the play where a character’s nose grows to enormous size and a group of fairies climb out of his nostril (yes, really) to plague him. That particular episode does not appear in any version of the fairy tale that I’ve read, but féerie, as part of a stage tradition developed over nearly a century, were massive, visually-spectacular productions that might last for several hours, so clearly there was some “elaboration” involved in the adaptation. The existence of this stage tradition helps explain the popularity of fairy stories in early silent film, of which this may be the earliest example.

Incidentally, Demenÿ himself was apparently not directly involved in this production, and (as indicated by the late-1896 date of the production) may even already have parted ways with Gaumont. At this point, Gaumont’s business model included leasing out camera equipment, and people to operate them, for use on projects by whoever wanted to hire them. The company was also still using Demenÿ’s wider filmstock, making for a more rectangular image.

The attachment of Demenÿ’s name to to this film speaks to the fluidity of “authorship” in early films. This is one of the ways that we see his influence appear again and again, even though his hopes of personal success in film were never realized. This short glimpse of a 19th-century stage production also helps illuminate the ways it might at first have seemed that the cinema would simply be absorbed into the the repertoire of live stage entertainment, rather than continue to develop into a fully-formed, independent art of its own.

Why you should see it:

Perhaps more than with any other film of this era, I can’t even begin to imagine what the experience of seeing this at the time would have been like. For one thing, I can’t wrap my head around the way the scene would have been staged and projected to look like this was taking place on the enlarged nose of an actual actor who was physically present in front of the audience. There are also indications that the film might have been accompanied by a magic lantern projection onto the black background behind the dancing fairies, and that of course is missing entirely. The absence of sound feels more notable, as well, because we know that this scene must have been accompanied by a specifically-composed soundtrack which would have been performed live, and possibly by additional sound effects or dialogue that are simply lost to us. So, I have no idea what this might possibly have looked or sounded like in context, but it’s still fun to speculate.

Be aware that, in the clip below, the relevant scene does not begin until approximately 1:10.

Note on sources: I have drawn several details about this film solely from this review by user “Cineanalyst” on Letterboxd. This is not remotely up to my usual standards of research and independent corroboration of information, but I was able to verify enough that I felt comfortable including it, with this caveat. Cineanalyst cites as a source the book Georges Demenÿ: Pionnier du Cinéma by Laurent Mannoni, who is also the author of Demenÿ’s entry in the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Sadly, the book is apparently only available in French, and the text doesn’t seem to appear online, so I have only their account of its contents to rely on.


~ by Jared on February 18, 2023.

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