Note: This is the twenty-seventh 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 second favorite 1904 film, THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL, directed by Georges Méliès.
By 1904, Georges Méliès’ féerie filmmaking style could be considered down, but certainly not out. In an era defined by rapidly advancing strides in film technology and technique, it stands to reason that the popular genre would shift in a matter of a couple years or less. Victorian era films succeeded as actualities, while the turn of the 20th century saw fantastical narrative and stage-like films like Méliès’ emerge as the envelope-pushing, industry-making successes. In just a couple short years after A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), however, Méliès’ (and most of Europe’s) magical grip on the movie industry was starting to slip due to American and British innovations in realistic film. Movies like THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) were opening new doors to the possibility of the medium.
That being said, fantasy and proto-sci-fi flicks were still in abundance; they never really left the film canon, per se. Méliès’ very own THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE (1904) was one of, if not the, most popular films of the year. It’s important to note, however, that this was the year when the tide started to turn in regards to the popular and financial successes. Méliès, his contemporaries, peers, and imitators would not see major successes for very long after the second half of the first decade of the 20th century. Méliès, for all his general adherence to the style that made him famous and respected, just might have seen this writing on the wall. THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL (1904) was his turn at realism, a relative term in the context of Méliès’ inseparable eye and flair and the limitations of early film technology.
Indeed, THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL is almost entirely devoid of scene-stealing camera tricks like substitution splices or over-the-top costume or set design. That being said, Méliès does utilize some more subtle, yet not any less effective, forms of his recognizable techniques. The film follows a girl sent out by her father to beg for alms on Christmas, as her mother lays sick in bed. Everywhere she goes is represented by a pseudo-intricate set that creates the beautifully illusory depth you come to expect from Méliès, but these are normal Paris streets and locations Méliès renders in such detail, not medieval castles, mysterious forests, or serene underwater depths. Nevertheless, the film takes on the magical happiness of the holiday season visually, a contrasting undercurrent below the frantic efforts of the young girl begging for money.
A scene where the girl approaches a wonderfully constructed cross-section of a bakery, well lit on the left side of the screen compared to the dark winter night of the girl’s existence on the right side of the screen, illustrates this best. The comforts the bakery can provide are denied to her over and over again, and the film leans into the darker side of human nature during the holidays. Even still, Méliès makes sure to let you know that often the humblest among us can be the kindest. As the girl crosses a bridge, she collapses in the snow, and a scavenger “rag-and-bone man” helps her up and gives her some bread and his shawl. Before he does, however, he turns his lantern on, represented by a quick substitution splice that stands as the most subtle use of the technique I’ve seen in a Méliès film. It’s a bright spot of muted visual spectacle that serves to remind you this is still a magical interpretation of a reality.
From there, the film can really serve as a heartwarming Christmas tale not unlike THE CHRISTMAS DREAM, a 1900 favorite of mine, or a condemnation of the treatment those in need receive, even during what is supposed to be the most giving time of the year. It all depends on whether you’re watching the French or American version. The former shows the girl wandering off into a blizzard, collapsing, and ascending into heaven with the titular Christmas Angel. It’s a little dark. The American version, on the other hand, sees the girl rescued from the snow by a kindly couple in an automobile and taken home, where the holiday is celebrated in spectacular fashion. Even by 1904, the evidence of an American audience’s discomfort with more challenging material is incredible, if not all that surprising.
THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL, as I’ve reiterated a number of times, is a decidedly quieter flavor of Méliès magic, one that in the context of his more high-energy works, is also a somber step toward a different style of filmmaking. Méliès would ultimately stick to what made his films special, which THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL does not lack; it just reformats them as the story and setting dictate. As such, it’s an impressive twist on the Méliès formula and an effective emotional journey presented in just shy of ten minutes.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.