A stage magician by the name of Georges Méliès showcased one of the most popular tricks of his day: making a lady vanish into thin air. Of course, instead of a trapdoor, a substitution splice provides the magic but it’s all in the presentation.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Nothing up my sleeve…
In the early days of cinema, celebrities were regularly invited to demonstrate what made them famous before the camera. Annie Oakley shot her targets, Annabelle danced like a butterfly and William McKinley stiffly accepted the nomination for the presidency. However, few political or showbiz stars understood how to play to the camera like Georges Méliès.
Méliès began his career as a producer, director and star of movies in 1896 after being blown away by the Lumière motion pictures the previous year. An experienced stage illusionist, he had the showmanship and flair to take movies beyond actualities and hosepipe gags. That’s not to say that Méliès invented special effects or fantastic films. Rather, his showmanship helped establish them as premium entertainment in the early days of cinema.
I selected The Vanishing Lady to review because it makes use of a very popular and still-famous stage illusion but it also shows how Méliès was already using technology to enhance tried-and-true acts.
Méliès greets the audience and then presents his assistant, usually credited as his regular collaborator and future wife Jehanne d’Alcy. He unfolds a newspaper with a flourish and lays it down on the floor—surely no trapdoor could be used without disturbing the paper. His assistant is seated and he drapes a veil over her. And—poof! – she has disappeared in a splice.
Don’t worry, the lady will return. Why, with just a wave of his hand… A skeleton? Oh dear, no! Away with that, back on with the veil and our lady has reappeared. Méliès and d’Alcy take their bows and our one minute of entertainment is over.
In addition to these magical entertainments, Méliès spent his early years reenacting the big news events of the day, from the sinking of the Maine to the Dreyfus trial. However, it was his magic that made him a hit filmmaker and an eventual icon of early film.
Stage magic has always been about charisma and pizzazz as much as clever trickery and Méliès displays these qualities in abundance. His gestures are broad but this is meant to be a flashy performance and they fit the tone of the visual story he is telling.
The Vanishing Lady, Disappearing Lady or DeKolta Chair (after Buatier DeKolta) was a popular feat at the time. I will reveal how the stage act was performed and then we can discuss how Méliès used early special effects to achieve the same result. My source is the 1897 book Magic, Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions Including Trick Photography by Albert A. Hopkins.
If you guessed that the stage version of the Vanishing Lady involved a trapdoor, you were absolutely correct. However, the variation that Méliès used, and which is described in this book, added a newspaper to the performance in order to assure the audience that there was no way a trapdoor could be sprung.
The illusionist would place the newspaper on the floor, move a chair onto the newspaper and invite the assistant to sit. The illusionist and assistant would make sure that a wire frame is stealthily placed around her as a veil is draped over her, concealing her from the audience. (Such a frame would much easier to hide against the voluminous gown of a belle epoque lady rather than the suit of a gentleman, no?)
While the illusionist would perform his abracadabra overhead, the assistant was doing to real work of the illusion. (Insert metaphor.) The chair had no front cross rod and the seat tilted forward. And that newspaper that made the use of a trapdoor impossible? A thin sheet of rubber with a hole hidden in the center. The assistant would slide off the chair, through the newspaper sheet and into the trap door, her movements concealed by the wire frame holding up the veil.
When the illusionist lifted the veil, he would tip back the top of the wire frame. Where did she go? Where did she go? Finally, the trick was reversed to reveal the assistant safe and sound or she would appear in the wings.
Méliès understood that all of this could be replaced with a simple substitution splice. That is, the camera stops, the lady moves, the camera restarts, voila! Méliès used a more elaborate chair with cross rods, a difference that likely would not have been obvious to laypeople in the audience but might have been noted by fellow illusionists. The sudden appearance of the skeleton would surely have amused everyone, professional and amateur.
This was not Méliès’ most sophisticated film, even for 1896. The substitution splice is not as smooth as his later work and the staging is smaller and more cramped than his later tableaux. However, even in this early, simple film, it’s clear that Méliès had that special something.
One of the biggest issues stage stars had when making the jump to the screen was understanding that theater and films called for very different skills. After the initial novelty of movies wore off, stage stars generally snubbed the screen but there was a stampede in the 1910s when the star system became a firm fixture of the industry. A great many big stage names washed out because their charisma simply did not transfer. Perhaps their voice was their fortune, perhaps they were given to grand gestures and didn’t tone them down, perhaps that certain spark simply didn’t ignite without a live audience.
Méliès instinctively understood how to work with the camera at the very beginning of his career and at the very beginning of cinema in general. His showmanship and willingness to experiment made his films wildly popular with audiences and his appeal is as strong as ever. The Vanishing Lady is not his most elaborate film but it is one that perfectly showcases exactly why he became one of the true fathers of film.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema box set.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.
Disclosure: Some links included in this post may be affiliate links to products sold by Amazon and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.