Film History Essentials: La Danse du Feu (1899)

(English: The Pillar of Fire)

What it’s about:

A devil dances around a large pan on a pile of wood, waving a smoking torch. He lights the fire and then fans the flames with a large bellows until a woman dressed in a flowing white dress rises amidst the smoke. The woman begins to perform a serpentine dance, and as it reaches a crescendo, the dance changes and the flame effects intensify. Finally, the woman transforms entirely and flutters up out of sight with the rising smoke.

Why it’s essential:

The oldest surviving film with color was produced in 1895. In the years following, the process of coloring films became a thriving sub-industry to the burgeoning film industry. The practice of coloring photographs had already existed for decades, but even short films required an unprecedented amount of work to hand-color in comparison. Color played a major role in motion pictures almost from the beginning, but colored prints are more susceptible to degradation from improper storage and poor preservation. As a result, many colorized films survive only in their black-and-white form, and silent films are often thought of as having been without color as well as without sound.

La Danse du Feu was colored in the workshop of Élisabeth and Berthe Thuillier, a mother-daughter operation that did all of the coloring for Méliès for 15 years, until he began to have financial difficulties in 1912-13. The Thuilliers also colored films for Pathé, though those commissions diminished after Pathé developed a more efficient, in-house coloring process involving stenciling in 1903.

By the time they began coloring films for Méliès, Berthe was 30 years old, and Élisabeth had been a colorist for over 20 years. Élisabeth was a widowed single mother in the mid-1870s, with Berthe her third and only surviving child, when she first began applying color to photographs. She must have been quite good at it. By the time she and Berthe were overseeing the tinting of Méliès’s films, they employed 220 women. Élisabeth (and later Berthe, after her mother’s death in 1907) would select and sample the colors, and then give instructions for the colorists to follow.

Each person working on a film would apply only one color, using brushes as fine as a single hair, and some films used up to 20 different colors. And, of course, the process would need to be repeated for each additional print that the producer wanted colorized. Berthe later reported that they made an average of 60 copies of each colorized film. A one-minute film like this could have cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand francs per copy, so the process could cost a production the equivalent of tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. Colorized films must have played very well with audiences to be worth the additional cost.

Although there were a few women like Alice Guy who were pioneers in roles like directing, writing scenarios, etc., applying color was an area dominated almost entirely by women. It was regarded as a very gender-specific job at that time, requiring a level of precision and an attunement to colors that were thought to be primarily feminine skills. The work, like many industrial-era jobs, was exacting and tedious, as the women bent over a workstation, peering carefully through a large magnifying glass for many hours a day.

Pathé’s coloring workshop, circa 1912

However, there was much to recommend it in comparison with other jobs available to working-class women, and it seems to have created real economic opportunities for some. Although no one working at the time would have suspected it, their efforts left an incredible and glorious legacy within early cinema that audiences still enjoy and appreciate today. They opened up an entire world of colors in silent film that would develop into a cinematic language of its own during the rest of the silent era.

What to watch for:

La Danse du Feu is a film that makes it clear why Georges Méliès emerged as the definitive filmmaker of his time. His films are so distinctly and recognizably his own. In many cases he is playing with special effects and narrative ideas that few others are attempting, except in imitation of him. He also often tells types of stories that most other 19th- and early 20th-century filmmakers aren’t, inventing entire genres of cinema in the process.

Here, though, he is filming what is effectively a serpentine dance. There is nothing new or original about that idea at all. Many other filmmakers and production companies had filmed their own versions (and sometimes multiple versions) of this popular dance. Colorizing a serpentine dance was not a new idea, either. But virtually nothing sets those other dance films apart from each other. They are, for the most part, effectively indistinguishable.

And yet, it’s difficult to imagine anyone familiar with Méliès watching La Danse du Feu and mistaking it for the work of any other filmmaker. He takes all of the signature moves of the serpentine, along with the shifting color palette that had been done before, and gives them a narrative framework. There are a few potential interpretations of these visuals. It’s possible, for example, to see the dancer as an angelic figure, whose arrival banishes the devil from the scene. Although the devil doesn’t seem particularly surprised or upset by her arrival, and she seems to proceed with the work of stoking the flames that he began. But in the US and Britain, this film was originally released as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire.

She, first published in 1887, is one of H. Rider Haggard’s most popular novels. The title character is the novel’s main antagonist, a powerful, immortal sorceress known as “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” or simply “She.” In the book’s climax, “She” leads the main character, Leo, whom she believes to be her reincarnated lover, into the center of a volcano, and commands him to bathe in the lava in order to become immortal. However, when She demonstrates this process, the fires consume her own magical immortality, and then her as well.

This is the first of many adaptations of She, and the only one to predate Haggard’s sequel novels. Obviously, its connection to the plot of the novel is tenuous at best. This scene is clearly not inside a volcano, and there is no counterpart to the dancing devil character in Haggard’s story. Probably the title was conceived retroactively in order to help market the film to an English-speaking audience familiar with the novel. The dancer seems more to represent a sort of “spirit of fire” who has been ritualistically summoned by a standard Méliès devil-figure. (The dancer and the devil are played, as usual, by Jeanne d’Alcy and Méliès himself, respectively.) She acts out each phase of the rising flame, and then is finally consumed by it.


~ by Jared on April 27, 2023.

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