A man falls asleep next to his smoking table and is soon tormented by a pair of cigarette-loving fairies. This zany trick film from the American Vitagraph company plays around with the notion of fay malice.
J. Stuart Blackton is one of the more unjustly forgotten names in early cinema. Born in England, he came to America as a child with his parents and was in the first wave of silent filmmakers in the 1890s. By the 1900s, his Vitagraph company was one of the more successful studios and was producing everything from trick films to actualities to Shakespearean short films.
Today, we will be focusing on one of Blackton’s trick films. The technical aspects of filmmaking fascinated him and he was an innovator in both animation and special effects. While often whimsical in content, these pictures did not slavishly imitate the French style (think Méliès) but blazed their own trail.
Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy was released to great acclaim in the summer of 1909. The film is a split-reel comedy (that is, it took up only part of a reel of film) dealing with a smoker and his war with some very naughty fairies.
A smoker (Paul Panzer) nods off near a table with a pipe, pack of cigarettes and cigar box. (A pipe AND cigarettes AND a cigar? This man is going to be hacking up his lungs before the week is out!) The lid of the cigar box opens and two fairies emerge. The older fairy helps the younger one (Gladys Hulette of Tol’able David fame) into the bowl of the man’s pipe. When the smoker wakes up, he attempts to light his pipe only to discover a laughing fairy inside.
He attempts to grab her by the arm but snatches a flower instead. The flower blows smoke in his face and, surprise, it’s the little fairy in disguise. The war is on! The smoker blows smoke at the fairy and threatens her with a match. The fairy takes revenge by attempting to set the table on fire. When the smoker squirts both fire and fairy with a seltzer bottle, he ends up squirting himself. The end!
A quick casting note before we continue: IMDB lists Hulette as the “older fairy” but she is clearly playing the younger one. I know this because a) I have eyes with which I can see and b) Hulette would have been just shy of thirteen when this film was made. While lovely, the actress playing the older fairy is clearly never going to see her teens again. (This confusion stems from the fact that most American film studios of the 1900s did not identify their performers to the public, lest they become stars and ask for more money.)
Another nitpicky bit of business is the identity of Princess Nicotine. While the younger fairy spends much more time on the screen, the older fairy is listed as the princess in plot synopses released in 1909. I realize this is a Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein’s Monster distinction but I decided to include it anyway just to be neurotic.
The concept of a woman or girl playing the part of the trickster is not unique to this picture. Men are befuddled by female characters in Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), The Red Spectre (1907) and Max Takes a Picture (1913), just to name a few examples from the pre-feature era. Mischievousness would be a signature trait of the popular flapper genre in the 1920s and you can see a dab of the little fairy in the stylish young ladies of the following decades. Gladys Hulette would be called on to play the imp once again when she was cast as Puck in Vitagraph’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was released a few months after Princess Nicotine.
The relationship between the little fairy and the smoker can be viewed as a preview of the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd school of antagonism: escalating attacks that grow ever more bizarre as the story proceeds. There’s more than a little of the wascally wabbit in Gladys Hulette, I think.
Practical jokes had been popular topics for films since the very beginning. When the Lumiere brothers screened their series of films in 1895, one of the titles was The Biter Bit, which dealt with a boy stepping on a gardener’s hose and his eventual comeuppance. The little fairy and the smoker are a bit more evenly matched in both their pugnaciousness and their imaginativeness but it’s the same basic storyline with a few extra magical ingredients.
The notion of malicious fairies is an ancient one. Instead of the cutesy creatures of today, they were seen as frightening and were often referred to by euphemisms, lest they be summoned upon hearing their name on mortal lips. Their favorite activity, at least in the British Isles, seems to have been kidnapping and assorted charms were employed to protect against fairy abduction. Some of these beliefs continue into the modern age, though often with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The most famous evil fairy for modern audiences is probably the villainess of Sleeping Beauty, who attempted to kill a child because she didn’t get invited to a party. This idea of minor trespasses being met with outsize vengeance is echoed in early descriptions of Princess Nicotine, which mention that the older fairy trips on the corncob pipe and her annoyance triggers the film’s escalating practical jokes. While the smoker appears to gain the upper hand, his seltzer bottle turns against him and he ends up doused. Lesson: don’t annoy fairies.
Vitagraph billed the film as “one of our best novelties: a wonderful conception in trick photography abounding in mystifying achievements and startling surprises.” Blackton uses double exposure and stop motion animation, as well as old stage magic standbys like black thread, wires, oversized props, smoke and mirrors. The results were so impressive that Nickelodeon magazine published an extensive article on the film’s special effects in 1909.
While many of the techniques employed are easy to recognize today, the fairies dancing on the table next to the smoker deserves some explanation:
As they are thrown on the screen, the figures of the man and the two fairies contrast by reason of their sizes. The man is life size, the fairies no bigger than his thumb. This peculiar effect of disproportionate sizes is produced by means of a mirror. The Princess Nicotine is an actress of average height. Her companion fairy is a little girl about twelve years of age. Both play their parts close to the moving picture camera. They are reflected by a mirror placed far behind the table at which the man is sitting, the mirror being so arranged that it forms apparently one pane in a window. The reflection is caught by the camera, the lens of which is exactly flush with the top of the table, so that the images apparently stand upon the table.
Inasmuch as the distance from the camera to the mirror is great, the two fairies are so reflected that they appear in very diminutive form upon the table. Thus, the illusion of miniature fairies is produced. Had the fairies been placed from the camera a distance equal to twice that of the mirror from the camera, the same result would have been produced. A mirror was employed simply to save space. The man in reality never sees anything but the table and the objects upon it.
In addition, this technique would have had a major advantage over double exposure because the fairy actresses could see the smoker’s performance and react to it in real time. While care was still needed, there would have been no need for the military precision of a double exposure. (Double exposure was used when Hulette’s character was portrayed as being trapped inside a bottle.)
This film is sometimes listed as the first to contain product placement but I am calling baloney. Are we really to believe that projected films had been around for a decade-and-a-half and no one advertised or included a real product? Nope, not buying it. (I keep repeating this but it’s worth the reminder: just because something is old does not make it the first.)
Princess Nicotine is a wonderfully bizarre little trick film in the American style. See it for the history and see it because it’s an absolute blast!
Where can I see it?
Princess Nicotine was released on DVD as part of the out-of-print Treasures from American Film Archives box set with a piano score. The contents of that set are now available for legal viewing, including Princess Nicotine. The film is also included in the Wild and Weird set with a score by the Alloy Orchestra.
Please note that the version of the film found on Wild and Weird has a slightly different scene order, ending with the self-rolling cigar.
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