Onésime, Clockmaker (1912) A Silent Film Review

That Onésime is at it again! Our surreal comedy hero decides to speed up his access to his inheritance by speeding up time for the entire world, as one does. A science-fiction-ish, comedy-ish short.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

The Onésime series has been one of my favorite discoveries during my dive into early French cinema. Directed by Jean Durand and starring Ernest Bourbon, the comedies are wild, weird and merrily incorporate genre elements at a time when movie genres were still being established. They’re so gloriously bizarre that I can’t help but love them.

Onésime dealt with (and dismembered!) a wayward clone in Onésime vs. Onésime and attempted to wife swap at a wife auction in Onésime, You’ll Get Married… or Else. This time, our hero takes on time itself.

Films of the period and earlier regularly violated the laws of time and space but few did it as overtly as this little five-minute comedy. The hook is a classic one for comedy of any place and era: Onésime receives a letter stating that a rich relative is leaving him his fortune but there is, of course, an eccentric requirement. Onésime has been deemed too immature to deserve the money right away and so he must wait twenty years to get his cash.

As eccentric demands go, this one isn’t half bad. There’s no demand for marriage or to prove his sanity or to spend the night in a Welsh manor with storms and madmen in the attic. Nor is Onésime required to spend large sums. He just has to wait. (For context, the original novel Brewster’s Millions, which has had more than its share of silent and talkie adaptations, was published in 1902.)

Well, that’s not good enough for our hero and he decides to use his expertise as a maker of pendulums to manipulate things so that he will receive his money a little early. Make that a lot early.

No cash for our hero.

You see, clocks do not measure time, they control it. And so if a clock were to run fast, time itself would follow. Using this logic, Onésime finds the biggest clocks available to him (“at the central office of pneumatic timekeeping”) and smashes them until they run at a furious pace.

The whole city is suddenly running on souped up time. A courting couple marry, have a baby and the baby becomes an adult in the space of a few seconds. Taxis roar ahead in fast forward. Houses are built in record time. And Onésime receives his inheritance in just forty days.

Talk about a whirlwind courtship!

This film is kind of the opposite number of The Crazy Ray, René Clair’s 1923/1924 film about a ray that freezes everyone in Paris except for a group of airplane passengers, who then use the opportunity to rob banks, jewelry stores and boutiques throughout the city. In the case of The Crazy Ray, the characters quickly grow bored with the dead city and try to discover what caused the freeze. On the other hand, Onésime, Clockmaker is more concerned with the zanier aspects of warped time. Further, Onésime has no interest in self-reflection or figuring out how his scheme affected the lives of his fellow citizens. But then again, considering the character’s signature obliviousness, it would have been slightly odd if he had taken an interest.

For being an Onésime film with his name in the title, there is surprisingly little Onésime in the film proper. He is there for the introduction and the clock smashing and then disappears until the final scene when we learn that his scheme worked and the inheritance is his to claim.

Dagmar showing off her muscles as she lifts her new husband.

While the other performers, particularly Berthe Dagmar as the bride with the insta-grow son, are quite enjoyable, I do think it was a mistake to keep Bourbon off the screen for that length of time. I realize that this is a five minute short film but I do like proportionately more Onésime in my comedy. Doesn’t everyone?

Messing around with the natural order of things per the laws of physics, gravity, etc. was indeed common during this period and the manipulation of time was a popular topic thanks in part to the 1895 publication of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. (The novel was even considered as the theme for a sort of proto-virtual reality machine by British filmmaker R.W. Paul.) Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can also be considered as part of the time travel DNA. Rip Van Winkle (1819) by Washington Irving as well, unless you consider the more supernatural flavor of the tale to be more fantasy than science fiction.

RUN AWAY!!!

Onésime, Clockmaker is hardly what we would consider to be hard sci-fi but it nonetheless ticks all the right boxes as a light science fiction comedy. I would have liked to have seen more of our title character and his comical grimaces in the picture but I was generally satisfied with the overall mood of anarchic and off-kilter fun. Onésime does not learn his lesson (does he ever?) and the entire world ages two decades at his whims.

Sure beats a check cashing service!

This isn’t the best Onésime comedy but it is nonetheless amusing and will likely appeal to any sci-fi nerds reading. In any case, it’s just five minutes long and certainly holds the viewers attention for that time. And if it doesn’t I suppose you can always embrace the spirit of the thing and watch it in fast forward.

Where can I see it?

Onésime, Clockmaker is available on the Jean Durand disc of the Gaumont Treasures Volume 2 box set, released in the North American market by Kino. Both volumes in the series are highly recommended as they showcase the variety and talents of the directors working under the Gaumont banner at the time. And, of course, there is plenty of Onésime to enjoy.

☙❦❧

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