BFI Fairy Tales – Early Colour Stencil Films From Pathé (1901 – 1908)

There’s something startling about just how inventive cinema was in the early days of its creation.  Whereas other artistic mediums have taken hundreds of years to bear fruit, film seemed to have caught on to what it was about mere years after its very conception.  Ranging from 1901 to 1908, the films in the BFI Fairy Tales release show a frank endorsement of both storytelling and visual innovation instead of just being the usual curio from afar of time.

Ranging from old fairy stories to visual feasts of colour and magic, this collection is proof of just how creative the early filmmakers were.  A number of directors are featured as well as some films whose origins are unknown but the sheer amount of great short filmmaking will mean concentrating the releases high points is essential.  The films of Ferdinand Zecca open the release and range from short curios to mini fantasy epics.  Les Sept Chateaux du Diable (1901) is a prototype fantasy horror, mixing Faust like narratives to moral exploration in examining the seven deadly sins in the form of seven castles.

The film is visually stunning, especially considering that the camera doesn’t move at all.  This can be said for the majority of the films and directors have instead found new movements and texture in moving normally static objects i.e. the sets.  Zecca’s film presents this best and the scene at sea, with its various moving waves and different boats is utterly astonishing.  Zecca’s other epic Ali Baba et Les Quarante Voleurs (1902) is just as visually exciting though goes off into experimental absurdism towards the end in a cacophony of colour.

Gaston Velle’s shorts are next and are also one of the releases highlights.  The quaint magic of Japonaireries (1904) and the weird creatures of La Danse du Diable (1904) are highly entertaining while his longer film The Hen That Laid the Golden Egg (1905) is a lavish four part narrative filled with magic and mischief.  These opening films set the tone of the release which is full to the brim with this sort of visual magic; accidental, almost serendipic innovation in a desire to achieve something that was simply fun and entertaining.

This brings us on to another aspect of the release that needs to be discussed; the music.  The music to all of the films is new and especially commissioned for artists on the Touch label.  This label is one of the most experimental and avant garde in the world and the decision to use them produces results of varying quality.  Albert Capellani’s films suffer greatly from music that is more concerned with experimenting itself than having a real relationship with the films.  The same can be said for Zecca’s two epics which are left struggling with their score.

These films were designed for to be as accessible and as entertaining as possible in their day.  It seems that their role as curios only for the died hard cineastes has meant that musically they are to be associated with most musique concrète of composers and this is a shame.  The pieces are crying out for traditional piano work, fun and modest like the release of R.W Paul’s shorts.  What at first seems a good idea makes these small entertainments unnecessarily challenging.

Méliès Barbe-blue (1901) may lack the director’s famous attention to detail but the short is made nigh on unwatchable because of its horrendous score by SAVX that sounds not unlike a kettle releasing a thin jet of steam.  For all of the music’s short comings though, the films are absolutely brilliant.

The release is packed full of excellent fun shorts; all with colour, flair, imagination and entertainment at their heart.  In these early films can be found the initial innovation that has kept the medium striving to the very point we’re at today.  Perhaps though, choosing your own music for the soundtrack may do the films more justice.

Adam Scovell

One thought on “BFI Fairy Tales – Early Colour Stencil Films From Pathé (1901 – 1908)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s