Scullion’s Dream (1908) A Silent Film Review

The kitchen workers of a castle are assisted in their duties by a mystical creature, a sleeping potion and a meat cleaver. Hijinks and dismemberment ensue in this trick film from Segundo de Chomón.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.

Candy from strangers

Segundo de Chomón’s reputation has been undergoing something of a regeneration lately. Once dismissed as a copycat of Georges Méliès, his films are now receiving appreciation for their clever special effects and off-the-wall humor. Chomón was more likely to use closeups than Méliès, who generally preferred to showcase his spectacular sets, which stood him in good stead when he embraced stop-motion animation.

A dream…

Scullion’s Dream was made in 1908, near the end of the trick film boom, but it showcases the very best of the genre. The star of the show is the stop-motion work but the film also includes drawn animation and smart use of reversed film.

The picture opens with the servants of the castle acting up and not getting their work done. They settle down when the cook returns but are still not very production. Then a dwarf emerges out of a wicker basket and gestures that he is going to put the lot of them to sleep. He places mugs of beer on the ground and disappears.

Do we know where this beer came from? No! But will we still drink it? Heck, yeah!

The servants see the beer and decide it’s perfectly safe to drink it all, even if they have no idea where it came from. Soon, all of them are asleep. The dwarf reemerged… with a meat cleaver.

If you are in any way familiar with 80s horror… you have absolutely no idea what is coming next! No, it’s not a bloodbath. The dwarf cuts off the hands of each servant, which then independently start to perform their tasks. The dishes are washed, a basket is woven and the napkins are folded, the kitchen accounts are tallied on a blackboard (with a mistake written and then corrected) and, finally, a fly draws animated cartoons on the bald head of a member of the staff. The work done, everyone wakes up.

Polishing the silver.

Okay, so the plot was just a skeleton to hang special effects on, which is fine and expected for this kind of picture. So, let’s get right into the effects.

The first sequence shows vegetables being chopped and slices of carrot swirling around before reforming once more. This was clearly accomplished with stop-motion and reversing the film but the animation is exceptionally smooth and graceful. The next scene of dishes being dried is a little more mysterious because the plates are passed from stack to stack. It looks as though the artificial severed hand was used to balance the plates as they moved along.

The hand chop.

Next, we have a wicker basket woven and then handkerchiefs folded. Once again, Chomón reverses the film as it is far easier to smoothly unravel a basket than it is to weave one. Next, a quick scene of self-polishing silver spoons. Then, the film shows the cook’s chalkboard and the sums appearing on it. Adding a mistake to the calculations and then erasing it is a witty touch because each number had to be painstakingly animated. The error makes the action seem far more human and natural.

Things were already weird (though, it is worth noting, comical dismemberment, decapitation and cannibalism were common in the movies) but they get even weirder when a fly lands on the head of a bald servant, draws pictures and the pictures come to life. Chomón used charcoal, redrawing the picture on the bald pate for every new “frame” of animation. Why? Because he could. And, in another charming little flourish, the fly walks away across the servant’s white sleeve, leaving little black footprints.

Little flyprints.

French films of this period were often available elaborately hand-colored or stencil-colored and Chomón’s productions were no exception. He worked for Pathe and they had adopted the more streamlined stencil color process, which involved cutting a single stencil for every color of every frame rather than directly applying color by hand with small brushes. Many films only survive in black in white but Scullion’s Dream’s print was tinted, a cheaper option that still gave audiences a bit of color to enhance the mood.

This is all very well and good, but I have found that in the films of both Chomón and Méliès, more elaborate color processes make the story much easier to follow. For example, A Trip to the Moon seemed a bit cluttered until the hand-colored version emerged in Spain and brought harmony and order to Méliès’ composition.

The cluttered early scene.

In the case of Scullion’s Dream, the eye is not particularly drawn the to basket containing the dwarf and it is easy to miss his all-important gestures upon first viewing. I firmly believe that stencil color on the character would immediately make the scene flow much better and be easier to understand. Naturally, I understand that we are fortunate to have any copy of any early film but pictures like this and Méliès’ Blue Beard really make me wistful for what was lost.

A great deal of early film color was lost in the transfer to black and white safety film but, as stated before, in the case of Scullion’s Dream, this appears to be the original cost-saving tinting. The film is colored an attractive sepia with bright green title cards. Having title cards a distinct color was an antipiracy measure because color motion picture film had not yet been invented, so the only way to include different tints in the same print was to physically cut them together. This extra step would be far too costly and inconvenient for your garden variety film pirates, so a stolen film could be easily identified.

Green title card.

Still, despite the lack of color, this picture is a real winner. You’re never going to go wrong with dismemberment humor in my book and the witty touches, like erasing the mistake on the blackboard, go a long way toward making this film a winner.

Scullion’s Dream is just what you want in a trick short film: spectacular effects, a little bit of twisted humor and plenty of imagination. This is another winner from Chomón.

Where can I see it?

Stream courtesy of EYE. Their copy is missing the Servants Gone Wild introductory scene but is otherwise complete and nicely tinted, too.

☙❦❧

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2 Comments

  1. olivernutherwun

    I’m not sure how I’ll find time to get any work done, with all these films you keep finding for us – and here’s another one to chase up. Much appreciated!

    I totally agree with you re the loss of the hand-colored/stencilled prints; I grew up in the era when almost all the silent films available were 1) slapstick, 2) B/W dupes of dupes (of dupes), and 3) played at the wrong speed – usually too fast (although in the early days of VHS/Beta there was a copy of Intolerance (sans any music) that ran almost an hour longer than it does today – I doubt that won any converts to the cause!). It’s really only in the last 20-30 years that a wide audience has had the opportunity to see many silent films in at least something approximating their original form – the return of color/tinting/toning being a big part of that.

    Watching the color ‘A Trip to the Moon’ draws attention to the bespoke aspect of the hand coloring era – as the French flag has (not so) mysteriously turned into the colors of the Spanish one (where was that print found again?). So, we still only really have an idea of what one copy of ‘A Trip to the Moon’ looked like in color. There would have been many, many more.

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