The Mermaid (1904) A Silent Film Review

Georges Méliès puts on a proper magic show complete with pulling rabbits out of a hat and concluding with a nautical scene with a mermaid, nymphs and Neptune. Could we ask for anything more?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Siren Song

Georges Méliès was making bigger, more elaborate extravaganzas in the 1900s but it’s important to remember that he was also producing smaller and, on the surface, simpler fare that dipped into his experience as a stage illusionist. The Mermaid (originally La Sirène in France) is an example of this. It’s a little split reel production that runs less than five minutes altogether but there’s a lot happening.

Late for work, it seems…

The film opens with a magician (Méliès) arriving onstage still wearing his coat and smoking a cigarette. The fish tank used for the act hasn’t even been filled yet. This is what the kids nowadays would call a flex because our friend Georges doesn’t need a big flashy entrance to entertain us.

And entertain us, he does. First, by capturing fish to populate the tank in his own top hat and then by changing things up with the classic “rabbit from a hat” trick. Finally, he adds some decorations to the fish tank and pushes it to center stage.

Presto!

Until this point the scenery has been a simple room with a carpet, a hammock, a table and, of course, the fish tank. Now things become more elaborate with grotto scenery in the foreground and background. To the modern eye, this looks a bit jumbled but there’s actually an explanation for this.

One thing we must understand about Méliès films is that if we are seeing them in black and white, we are missing a lot. Méliès used the services of Madame Thuillier to hand-color his films with stunning results. Compositions that once looked cluttered suddenly are dynamic and harmonious.

It’s easy to see why prints with more elaborate color schemes fetched a higher price, sometimes double or more. The work was labor intensive with colorists, almost exclusively women, individually coloring each frame of each print with tiny brushes. (See my reviews of The Kingdom of the Fairies and A Trip to the Moon, both of which survive in full hand-color, for more details.)

Alas, The Mermaid does not seem to survive with its original color intact and this is a common thing. While the majority of silent films had some form of color, from hand-color to tinting and toning, a great many were preserved on black and white safety film, which meant the original color scheme was lost forever.

What might have been…

I have taken the liberty of recreating a possible color scheme for the header image of this review so you can get an idea of what this movie would have originally looked like. I enjoyed channeling Madame Thuillier and borrowing her palette, though I cannot pretend to replace her.

So, for those of you keeping track of the events of the film, our magician places scenery around his aquarium and then steps away and the aquarium is rolled toward the camera while the grotto backdrop remains perfectly still. Inside, a reclining mermaid appears via dissolve.

Photobombing fishy

Overlaying live fish swimming about was a particularly favored effect of Georges Méliès and he had been using the technique for years. It was simple enough: Méliès would place a large, clean aquarium between the camera and the subject and shoot through it so that the fish would dart about.

You can see it on display in a more realistic context in Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine” (1898), which reenacted the recovering of bodies from the wreckage of the American battleship sunk in Havana harbor. In that case, Méliès also incorporated texture onto the aquarium to mimic the shimmer of water.

Please, pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Naturally, The Mermaid makes no pretenses of realism and so a perfectly clear tank was used, as it had been in The Kingdom of the Fairies. (In A Trip to the Moon, Méliès incorporated the aquarium more forcefully by actually dunking his model rocket into it.) The charming thing about The Mermaid is that Méliès takes the audience into his confidence and shows exactly how his aquarium trick works.

This playful look behind the curtain at the magician’s bag of tricks is remarkably effective, especially if you remember that Méliès had been using this trick for at least six years. Audiences would have considered it an old hat in the fast-paced world of early cinema, so lampshading the technique makes it fresh again. Naturally, I make no claims of firsties here and Méliès often incorporated the mechanics of magic into his work but I appreciated the meta flourish all the same.

Behold, she has legs and everything!

Méliès reappears and crawls underneath the mermaid to show that the actress is suspended on nothing, another stage magic classic, and then reveals the actress out of her mermaid tail and in a diaphanous gown. The film concludes with Méliès transforming himself into Neptune and posing for one of his signature tableaux compositions with the rest of the cast.

In addition to the mischievous meta details, this film also works because of the gradual escalation of wonders. We start with a man and a fish tank and conclude with an entire mythological backdrop. While on its surface, The Mermaid seems like more of a traditional magic show than the other work of Méliès, it makes full use of the cutting edge film effects of 1904. The result is a clever blending of old and new that creates something fresh and fun.

The boffo, socko finale

The Mermaid is proof positive that sometimes wonderful things come in tiny packages. While nowhere near as epic and ambitious as his more famous works, it is nonetheless light as a feather and cute as can be. It’s just a darn shame that the original colors did not survive, as I am sure this film was positively stunning with the Thuillier touch.

Where can I see it?

The Mermaid was released on DVD as part of the Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema box set from Flicker Alley and the Movies Begin set from Kino. And let’s keep hoping that an original hand-colored version emerges! If you’re interested in seeing what has survived, the Méliès: Fairy Tales in Color set from Flicker Alley has them beautifully presented in HD.

☙❦❧

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