Fairy abductions! Via dragon wagon! An undersea kingdom! Sparkly things! Georges Méliès pulled out all the stops for this lavish production in the then-hot faerie spectacle genre. It’s all too much in the most wonderful way possible.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Now with real water!
Georges Méliès is rightly considered one of the most important film pioneers and he is mainly remembered for his pioneering work in science fiction and fantasy. That’s not the whole story, of course. Just as Cecil B. DeMille didn’t just make religious epics, Lois Weber didn’t just make social films and Ernst Lubitsch didn’t just make sophisticated comedies, Méliès branched out into other genres.
Lately, I have been focusing on his lesser-known works. His foray into politics with a torn-from-the-headlines reenactment of The Dreyfus Affair complete with suicide-by-razorblade. (And don’t worry, he was on the right side of history.) And even some of his more fantastic works like The Monster and The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship have much deeper, darker meaning when you poke around under the surface.
That being said, sometimes it’s fun to enjoy the artist at work in their wheelhouse and so here we are. The Kingdom of the Fairies (Le Royaume des Fées) was released in 1902 with great fanfare and can be considered the equivalent to a modern prestige blockbuster. It featured the finest special effects that Méliès had up his sleeve; add hand-color to the mix and the result is something truly special.
Méliès himself plays Prince Bel-Azor, an aristocrat whose beloved princess is abducted and taken away to the realm of the fairies in a rather spectacular dragon wagon. The good fairy Aurora (Bleuette Bernon) assists the distraught prince and helps him make the journey to the land where his princess is being held (thankfully in just one castle).
Along the way, there are perils including a shipwreck (the use of live fish and real water was a selling point, as were the invisible wires on the “swimming” nymphs) and a daring raid on the castle to save the princess. It’s pretty classic fairy tale stuff.
What really makes this film stand out is not necessarily the story but the way it is presented. Basically, this is the 1903 equivalent of the biggest blockbuster of a special effects fest and it holds up beautifully. Beautiful image after beautiful image is thrown on the screen, every photographic trick and mechanical wonder in Méliès’ arsenal is present. The costumes are elaborate and exquisite, the tableaux are a feast for the eyes.
The sixteen minute runtime of the currently-available version could have been a bit of slog with a lesser early film, I’m not going to lie, but time zips right by as the Méliès crew puts its best foot forward and shamelessly shows off. It’s pretty much my cup of tea.
The presentation is enhanced by the presence of the hand-applied color. It is original and authentic. Films from this period, and French films in particular, would feature color applied to each frame of each print using tiny brushes, some just made of a single hair. Legendary colorist Madame Elisabeth Thuillier collaborated with Méliès and colored his films, including A Trip to the Moon. The results are spectacular, artisanal wonders with each print being slightly different.
This element of color was present from the very beginning (Thomas Edison’s first projected motion picture show had hand-colored films) but it was particularly essential in a production like The Kingdom of the Fairies. Audiences of the day, especially those in urban France, were expecting a lot from such a picture.
Throughout the nineteenth century, French audiences were delighted by Féeries, stage extravaganzas that did much to establish the fairy tale aesthetic. Elaborate costumes, mechanical special effects, laughs, love and adventure were all part of the formula and one of the big hits was La biche au bois (1845).
By the 1890s, La biche au bois was seen as a warhorse. You wouldn’t go broke staging it but you wouldn’t make a fortune either because of the lavish and expensive costumes and sets required to pull the thing off. In The Féerie between Stage and Screen, author Frank Kessler recounts the revival of La biche au bois during the 1896 season. Because of a larger venue—some 2,600 seats— economy of scale kicked in and the fifty-year-old play became the top moneymaker of the year.
This was right at the dawn of motion pictures as popular entertainment and filmmakers took notice, shooting snippets of the play for eager audiences. (You can see frame samples from the 1896 hand-colored adaptation La biche au bois here.)
The Féerie play was, of course, a natural fit for Méliès and as you can see, the results are spectacular and every bit as extraordinary as the stage productions of the day.
The Kingdom of the Fairies is impressive as it is but there is one more secret hiding in its history: In Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture, the author states that the film “was accompanied by a special musical score at its premiere presentations.”
Now, this is intriguing and brings up a few important questions. However, I should note that anything Ramsaye claims should always be taken with a grain of salt. He gets the premiere dates of The Kingdom of the Fairies wrong in the very same sentence, for heaven’s sake. Still, it was a lead worth pursuing.
During the silent era, if a film was offered with any kind of special music, the scores fell into two categories: arrangements of earlier works or bespoke scores written especially for the film. (Or a mixture of the two but let’s not muddy our investigation too much.) So, the important question here is whether the “special musical score” mentioned by Ramsaye was original music or popular music of Méliès’ time arranged to fit the film.
This is significant because Camille Saint-Saëns is generally credited with the first tailor-made, original film score with his work on The Assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1908. (There has been some level of support for counting the music to L. Frank Baum’s Fairylogue and Radio Plays as the earliest film score but that was a multimedia presentation with some film sequences and not really a movie at all. The claim simply does not stand up to any level of scrutiny.)
So, obviously, if The Kingdom of the Fairies had an original score and a 1903 release date, that would be of great interest to me.
It turned out that answer is… we’re not sure. In his seminal work The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, historian Richard Abel writes that the movement of the characters in The Kingdom of the Fairies “may have been partly determined by musical accompaniment, whether by condensed versions of original scores or by newly written compositions.” There simply isn’t enough evidence to make the call either way.
Méliès understood the importance of musical accompaniment and even went so far as to offer a special sheet music arrangement of Charles Gounod’s arias to accompany The Damnation of Faust and Faust and Marguerite for an additional $2.50.
Speaking of pricing, films of this era were very much a la carte affairs. The Kingdom of the Fairies was released with a $180 price tag for a plain print, an additional $30 for 300 feet of tinting and an additional $180 for full color applied to all 1040 feet of film. It was later offered in the 1905 Star Films catalog for $162 but could be upgraded to color for an additional $216. Sixteen 5”x7” photographs were sold as a set for another $2.75.
At the time, theaters did not lease prints but bought them outright. This practice was the norm because Edison and other early pioneers viewed movies as a means to sell projectors and other equipment, not as a moneymaking art in themselves and the rest of the filmmakers followed suit. Because of this, the secondhand trade for used films was booming. One ad from 1904 offers a used copy of The Kingdom of the Fairies for $110.
Still, despite its popularity at the time, The Kingdom of the Fairies continues to be overshadowed by A Trip to the Moon. Now, I love the latter film as much as anyone but The Kingdom of the Fairies is a lusciously decadent confection and easily matches it in charm and beauty. What it does lack, dragon wagon notwithstanding, is a striking symbolic image like the moon with a rocket in its eye. However, this is a very minor complaint in the face of all this beauty.
The Kingdom of the Fairies deserves its reputation as one of Méliès’ best and its rich production design means that it rewards rewatches. We are fortunate that a hand-colored print survived to be viewed today because the colors really make the scenes pop and they convey the richness of the production. This is a true masterpiece.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of their wonderful Georges Méliès box set, which includes thirteen hours of material. The presentation has optional narration in English. This is authentic; Méliès provided narration scripts in French and English for some of his productions.
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