Ah, the Whimsy of Lung Cancer: The Product Placement of Princess Nicotine

Note: This is the fifty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1909 film, PRINCESS NICOTINE; OR, THE SMOKE FAIRY, directed by J. Stuart Blackton.

PRINCESS NICOTINE; OR, THE SMOKE FAIRY (1909) is a pretty funny film. It’s a great look into how tobacco was built into society at a time when nobody was aware of its harmful effects. The wacky concept, in which a pair of little fairies torment a man with an array of smoking paraphernalia, is based on a musical starring the famous stage actress and singer Lillian Russell. J. Stuart Blackton, the Vitagraph co-founder, animation pioneer, and proponent of bringing the stage to the screen, directed this relatively reductive trick film in the midst of Shakespeare adaptations.

1909 was a weak year for film as filmmakers, Vitagraph filmmakers not the least of which, were struggling to break out of the bounds of the second decade of film’s existence, the first of the truly commercial film industry. Blackton’s own vacillation between animated tinkerings (which he would later denounce), prestige stage adaptations, and small-scale trick films perfectly encapsulates the film industry’s struggle with creating a uniform trend. Film has always offered a wide array of experiences, but it’s somewhat easy to see what kind of films were popular in any given era in retrospect. For my money, that reduction is difficult to do for the years between 1906 and 1912 or so. Still, what is certain is that PRINCESS NICOTINE was a hit on the strength of its special effects, which are indeed admirable.

The film opens with a dozing smoker. On the table are some cigarettes, a pipe, matches, and a cigar; he’s dedicated. As he dozes, two fairies creep out onto the table and begin playing around with the pipe. The man starts to smoke it and the younger fairy (played by Gladys Hulette, an early Vitagraph and movie “star”) pops out to his amazement.

It’s worth noting that the perspective plays, at this point in the film, are presented in two separate shots. The man is shown in a normally scaled set and the two fairies are interacting with massive props to make them appear small; it’s actually pretty convincing. Suddenly, however, the set the man is on loses its background is set in a black box. The reason becomes apparent just a couple minutes later in the five minute film, but in the meantime, an impressive stop-motion sequence reminiscent of Segundo de Chomón’s 1908 films.

And then a shot shows the large man interacting with the diminutive fairy, which explains the use of the black background. Impressively, double exposure is not used to render Hulette small in relation to Paul Panzer (the man playing the smoker), although it is used to show Hulette in a bottle. Instead, the scenes were shot separately with different sized sets and camera proximity and aligned near perfectly; it’s quite like the technique Georges Méliès used in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS AMONG THE LILLIPUTIANS AND THE GIANTS (1902), but better.

After some more taunting ensues between the fairy and the man, she lights some matches on fire, the man puts it out and gushes the fairy off the table with water, and accidentally sprays himself in the face. The interaction of the water between the two is really impressive. Indeed, PRINCESS NICOTINE may be one of the strongest examples of size manipulation in film by 1909, even though it had been done numerous times in trick films. The interaction is the most difficult part, and the spray of water solidified the feeling that the action is taking place in a cohesive, convincing reality. This had also been done in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, but again, less convincingly.

Also of note is the film’s treatment of smoking. Of course, smoking was embedded in American (and global) culture, but it’s strange to modern eyes to see its whimsical treatment of the death sticks. And although it is called PRINCESS NICOTINE; OR, THE SMOKE FAIRY, there is no real indicator that the fairies are specifically some kind of spiritual tobacco entity. The idea that they might be, though, is hilarious and adds a little bit more “lore” or atmosphere to the otherwise technical exhibition. The film also features Sweet Corporal cigarettes and cigars, making PRINCESS NICOTINE one of the first films to feature product placement, and the first to advertise tobacco products. It would serve as a great little cigarette commercial in itself, although it might imply that smoking leads to hallucinations of strange fairies.

PRINCESS NICOTINE; OR, THE SMOKE FAIRY is a cute little film, one with some impressive technical feats for 1909. By that time, many of the usual trick film techniques were already quite rote, but Blackton was able to improve on them to great effect. It’s also a ridiculous look at the treatment of tobacco almost 110 years ago, a funny novelty and commercial success in an off year for the fledgling film industry.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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