Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Comedy: The Living Playing Cards (1904, Georges Méliès)

The Living Playing Cards (1904)
France, 3 min
Directed by: Georges Méliès
Written by: n/a
Starring: Georges Méliès

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [paragraph 3 only]

Considering that Georges Méliès was a stage magician before he took an interest in cinema, it's no surprise that he liked to incorporate countless little "magic acts" into his films. As a rule, his narrative-driven films {such as A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904)} are by far his most impressive works, not only for their revolutionary storytelling structures, but also for their seemingly-boundless imagination and creativity. Nevertheless, further genius is to be found in Méliès' shorter "gimmick films," which translated the magician's tricks to the cinema screen and proved crucial in the development of visual effects. Too often, early filmmakers like Edison and the Lumière brothers employed this new technology for purely documentary purposes, presenting audiences with brief snippets of everyday life. However, this French "Cinemagician" took a vastly different outlook on the possibilities made feasible by the humble cinematograph: he made the impossible happen before our very eyes.

The Living Playing Cards (1904), along with the delightfully-whimsical The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), is one of Méliès' most inventive special-effects showcases. The film starts simply enough, with Méliès – our host, as always – stepping out onto the stage and showing the audience a playing card. It is too small for anybody to decipher, so, with a quick slide of the wrist, the card is suddenly substantially larger. He then manages to transfer the card image onto a large, blank sheet of paper, and then the Queen on the life-sized card is magically transformed into a living, breathing queen who emerges from the paper and walks around the stage. These transformations – some more refined than others – employ the use of quick cuts, multiple dissolves and cross-fades, techniques with which Méliès had been experimenting for many years. The two-minute film is presented in the style of a traditional magic act, presenting contemporary audiences with a format with which they were familiar, but somewhat furtively offering the magician a greater flexibility with his tricks.

The most entertaining part of the film takes place at the very end, when Méliès accidentally transforms the King on the playing card into a real-life King, who bursts threateningly from his sheet of paper. Terrified, Méliès flees the stage in fear. Just as he does this, the King throws off his costume to reveal that he is Méliès himself! The first time I saw this, I was genuinely taken aback by the unexpected reveal, and it took several closer inspections to deduce how the trick was actually performed; from what I was able to tell, the director substituted himself into the King's clothes at the very moment that the costume were cast aside. Such an act demonstrates very effectively the advantages enjoyed by Méliès once he had adopted this revolutionary new technology, and, ever since, magicians have struggled vainly to keep up with the advancements presented by the cinematic medium. If magicians are now a dying breed, they can blame their unemployment on clever little films like this one.


  1. Yeah, that's a good film. I always enjoy watching Melies. Have you seen The Black Imp? The special effects with the chairs are fantastic. Amazing what he could do with 19th century technology.

  2. I never really cared for most Melies shorts - they (well, obviously) seem ultimately interested in neat camera tricks, and my general feeling is that once you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. Perhaps that's why the first one I saw is still my favorite (Four Troublesome Heads). I suppose that that one also has the gift of brevity, though. ;)

    I do remember liking the twist in this one, though.

  3. You seen "The Impossible Voyage," tosser? It might just be Melies' masterpiece.

  4. Hi Raven,
    Yep, I've seen "The Black Imp." A lot of sadistic craziness, from what I remember!

    Here's my top ten Melies films:
    1) The Impossible Voyage (1904)
    2) A Trip to the Moon (1902)
    3) The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)
    4) The Living Playing Cards (1904)
    5) The Melomaniac (1903)
    6) The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon (1907) [this one can only be described as bizarre!]
    7) The Black Imp (1905)
    8) The One Man Band (1900)
    9) The Cook in Trouble (1904)
    10) The Untamable Whiskers (1904)


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