Strange Short Films From the Dawn of Cinema
We have new technologies coming at us from every angle these days but imagine being around for the advent of moving pictures. Pretty fucking monumental, right? Now imagine (it might not be a stretch) you were a creative type, prone to seeing wild opportunities where others thought only to record stage plays. That’s what this list is about: what the people pushing artistic edges saw in this new medium.
I assembled the following with help from the 366 Weird Movies List, John Skipp and Heather Drain’s The Bizarro Encyclopedia of Film and from Madeleine Swann, who is an expert in all things fin de siècle and 1920s Hollywood. My descriptions hardly scratch the surface of what could be said for each film.
As the Dadaist, Expressionist, and Surrealist films came later, they are in Part Two. Part one covers the birth of special effects, early experimentation with techniques and media, and some delightfully wacky nonsense.
My hope is that you’ll be entertained and maybe fall down a rabbit hole of your own.
The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895)
Director: Alfred Clark
Run time: 18 seconds
In the earliest days of moving pictures, there had to have been heady conversations about how best to use this miraculous new technology for the good of humankind. During one of these discussions, Thomas Edison must have said, “I have an idea. Let’s reenact the decapitation of Mary Queen of Scots!” “Sounds good to me,” said everyone else in the room. And the field of special effects was born.
The Devil in a Convent (1899)
Director: Georges Méliès
Run time: 3 minutes 12 seconds
The Devil in a Convent is a short French film in which the Devil manifests, taunts nuns and priests, and throws a party. The director, Méliès of Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) fame, plays the lead role. Copious substitution splices (a.k.a. stop tricks) help the Devil conjure a hoard of demons and a very large two-dimensional frog. Not only is The Devil in a Convent notable for its anti-ecclesiastical sentiment, but it’s also an entertaining example of an artist playfully discovering the possibilities of a new medium. Méliès’s other short films from the era display the same exuberance.
Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Run time: 7 minutes
Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend was an adaptation of a popular American comic strip of the same name. The film is notable for two things: (1) being the first movie about a cheese-induced dream and (2) its groundbreaking special effects. Given the first scene, in which the rarebit fiend fiends on rarebit, it is quite possibly also the first gross out film.
The Frog (1908)
Director: Segundo de Chomón
Run time: 3 minutes 6 seconds
The Frog is a French short about a frog who emerges from a fountain. The frog, who is utterly charming, then circles the rapidly changing and wildly diverse occupants of the fountain. The whole thing ends with the fountain returning to normal and the frog taking a shower in it. It’s whimsical while staying on the right side of cloying. It’s also colorized, an enormously tedious process at the time, made only slightly less so by this director’s advancements in stencil colored prints.
The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912)
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Run time: 13 minutes 22 seconds
The Cameraman’s Revenge is a Russian stop motion film about adulterous beetles, made using actual beetles and other assorted insects. What would have been a straightforward morality tale takes on a strange and humorous air because of the chosen medium. The attention to detail is jaw-dropping and could hold its own against any stop motion from the intervening century. For another groundbreaking use of technique, at one point there is even a film of the film within the film. But in the end, what makes it weird is the bugs!
Director: Jon Emerson
Run time: 25 minutes
Written by Tod Browning of Freaks fame, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is a zany American comedy centered on the detective Coke Ennyday. With his extra-large tin of cocaine and his bandolier of filled syringes, Coke Ennyday sets out to discover the secret of a mysterious man who is rolling in money. Ridiculousness abounds, from Coke’s scientific periscope and front door built like a bank vault; to his love interest, Inane; to his checkered car, which matches his checkered suit, in which he plays checkers. Drug use is constant and over-the-top; at one point Coke even injects an inflatable pool float to make it go faster. And while they don’t always get their effects right—for instance, opium gives people the energetic silly walks—the drugs are what give this film a weirdness all its own.
The Penwiper (1926)
Director: Joseph Sunn
Run Time: 3 minutes 58 seconds
The Penwiper is an early claymation short by the Chinese American animator Joseph Sunn. It is presented as part of the parodic series, “Ralph Wolfe’s Scrambled Nature Studies.” A penwiper, evidently, is a penguin-like bird who dreams about cavemen who are jerks; who lays eggs that morph (not hatch) into baby birds; and who fly by spinning. While it may be more important for its historical context than its actual content, still, The Penwiper is easy to delight in.
There It Is (1926)
Director: Harold L. Muller
Run time: 18 minutes 51 seconds
There It Is an American comedy notable for mixing live action with stop motion and for its several special effects gags. After an egg cracked on a skillet becomes a chicken and a pair of pants dances on its own, the tenants of the house call a very literal version of Scotland Yard to hunt the Fuzz Faced Phantom. The humor is farcical, allowing for absurdity and ridiculous extremes, but what might be its greatest significance is the twist ending, as it is one film makers are still using (to my personal dismay) nearly 100 years later. (Spoiler: They were all crazy!)
Part Two covers the Surrealists, Dadaists, Expressionists, etcetera-ists of the later 1920s, when shit gets even weirder.
Amy M. Vaughn is the author of Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space (Filthy Loot). Her forthcoming books include Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel (Thicke & Vaney) and The Shelter (Cabal). She is also a contributing editor at Babou 691.