Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the tenth installment, featuring Segundo de Chomón, who was born on October 17, 1871 in Teruel, Spain, and died on May 2, 1929 in Paris, France.
Segundo de Chomón is often called the “Spanish Méliès,” his films often aligning with the style of the pioneering French filmmaker. There is a lot of credence to that moniker; in fact, de Chomón made almost a direct copy of Méliès’ A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902). The comparison is clear. But de Chomón’s visual style diverged at some point, doing a lot more close ups and innovating with early stop motion techniques that went beyond Méliès’ substitution splices.
De Chomón began making films around 1901 or ’02, making films for Pathé in Spain. He was quickly, intentionally, assigned to trick films especially designed to compete with Méliès, and he came to France probably around 1904 or ’05. De Chomón’s career peaked around 1907 or 1908 (fittingly, as Méliès’ was declining), but his sudden domination waned quickly as trick films in general took a hit. His career as a director ended around 1912 (as did Méliès’), and he worked on visual effects for Italian films and popping in for a couple directorial efforts in 1917 and 1923, respectively (we’ll get to them). He moved his special effects expertise outside of exclusively Italy and worked his magic on Spanish and French films, Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON (1927) among them. He died at age 57 in 1929.
De Chomón made over 230 films, but the number of his films that still exist/are accessible is fewer than his more famous counterpart’s. Nevertheless, there are 67 are that still quite easy to watch, and so I’ll rank the filmography of the incredible “second magician of silent cinema.”
#67 — THE MAGIC TABLE (1908)
#66 — A DREADFUL NIGHT (1905)
#65 — THE ENCHANTED POND (1907)
#64 — LES CENTS TRUCS (1906)
#63 — DIABOLICAL PICKPOCKET (1908)
#62 — THE FANTASTIC DIVER (1906)
#61 — RÉCEPTION DE SA MAJESTÉ ALPHONSE XIII À BARCELONE (1904)
#60 — THE MARRIAGE OF PRINCESS ENA AND ALPHONSE XIII, KING OF SPAIN (1906)
#59 — THE VACUUM CLEANER (1908)
#58 — THE YAWNER (1907)
#57 — MAGIC BRICKS (1908)
#56 — THE ENCHANTED GLASSES (1907)
#55 — DANSES ALGÉRIENNES 1. DANSE DES OULÉD-NAÏD (1902)
#54 — THE MAGIC MIRROR (1907)
#53 — LOS HÉROES DEL SITIO DE ZARAGOZA (1903)
#52 — L’OBSESSION DE L’OR (1906)
#51 — MAGIC DICE (1908)
#50 — THE CIGAR BOX (1907)
A simple trick film with a rotating centerpiece, convincing costumes, and fun giant cigar set pieces.
#49 — MAGIC ROSES (1906)
MAGIC ROSES is a key example of the Méliès emulation. There are substitution splices, a centerpiece that gives rise to the tricks, and whimsical women. But the nuance in de Chomón’s difference is Pathé’s hard lean into stencil coloring (something that sets much of his body of work apart), and usually, the lack of painted backgrounds with the illusion of depth. Instead, de Chomón’s films are often set in black voids, which allows the colors to shine. Definitely a unique feel.
#48 — THE MUSIC LESSON (1909)
The sight of the growing necks of a bunch of women is kind of nightmare fuel.
#47 — L’IRIS FANTASTIQUE (1912)
Another trick film set on a black background, given a bit more life by a sprinkling flower.
#46 — THE BEE AND THE ROSE (1908)
Goofy forest-y setting and insect costumes are fun.
#45 — THE MAGICIAN FROM ARABIA (1906)
De Chomón plays with fire to great effect, smoothly transitioning it into the forms of beautiful women.
#44 — L’ANTIQUE TOLÈDE (1912)
Made in the waning year of de Chomón’s career, the actuality-ridden 1912, “THE ANCIENT (or old?) TOLEDO” showcases some of the city’s beautiful architecture. A calm, sure-handed view at history.
#43 — GERONE, THE VENICE OF SPAIN (1912)
But de Chomón’s exploration of Gerone is more varied and natural thanks to the city’s waterways. The short’s closing moments, overlooking a lake or river, are meditative.
#42 — METAMORPHESES (1912)
Lots of fun, close up shots of burning items. Snow reigns down to cool things off.
#41 — L’ÉPÉE DU SPIRITE (1910)
Wires pull things around and substitution splices abound to create the sense of a spirit comically haunting a group of people.
#40 — LA FÉE DES ROCHES NOIRES (1907)
Great settings and giant chomping head set pieces.
#39 — THE EXPRESS SCULPTOR (1907)
Yeah, it’s fun to see a dude make a bunch of funny faces.
#38 — LOIE FULLER (1902)
De Chomón’s iteration on the serpentine dance film is given a bit of “spice” by the introduction where Loie Fuller transforms from a bat, and of course the stenciled color.
#37 — THE BEWITCHED SHEPHERD (1906)
Just a bunch of great clowning.
#36 — A FUNNY SHAVE (1906)
This is a simple trick film with great close up shots of comical, heavily made up faces.
#35 — LE VOLEUR INVISIBLE (1909)
The proto Invisible Man steals some things with impressive stop motion.
#34 — TOM THUMB (1909)
The Tom Thumb story is given a two minute treatment with illusory, deep sets.
#33 — SCULLION’S DREAM (1908)
Another stop motion showcase with some close up shots of performs in bizarre make up and disembodied hands.
#32 — WHIMSICAL PEOPLE (1908)
Clowns hanging on the moon? Yes please. After that brief introduction, ignore the rest of the short. Blackface is no good.
#31 — SLIPPERY JIM (1909)
Jim just keeps escaping, but the most impressive is an “underwater” shot and the passing of a train.
#30 — THE TROUBADOUR (1906)
Beautiful hand stenciled color frames the black backdrop and the appearance of a brilliant, peacock-like fan that transposes a wooing scene.
#29 — MUSIC, FORWARD! (1907)
Fun with music notes and disembodied heads and a convincing parade of tiny musicians.
#28 — KI RI KI — JAPANESE ACROBATS (1907)
Yellow face is present, but a compelling framing around the typical black background, and the simplest of tricks, yet an entertaining one; film from above and you can make performers look like they’re defying gravity.
#27 — KING OF DOLLARS (1905)
This is such a simple film to put up so high, but I love de Chomón’s simple innovation of doing close ups a whole lot. I also have a strange affinity for disembodied hands, and dude vomiting coins? I’m in.
#26 — METEMPSYCHOSIS (1907)
Co-directed with Ferdinand Zecca, de Chomón’s Pathé mentor, boss, and frequent collaborator (in fact there’s a lot of confusion over who directed certain films alone or together), METEMPSYCHOSIS is another “framed-black-background” short. Different designs are brought to a whimsical woman’s wings and a baby is born from a cabbage, emulating Alice Guy-Blaché.
#25 — SYMPHONIE BIZARRE (1909)
The initial sequence of shadows is the most sharp, striking image I’ve seen in a de Chomón film, and it gives way to an interesting, washed color scheme that actually sets an interesting tone for the comedy about a bunch of trampish buffoons tromping around with their instruments. The trademark de Chomón stop motion crosses the film into the otherworld.
#24 — BEGINNING OF THE SERPENTINE DANCE (1908)
This meta-exploration of a film/dance craze long over by 1908 erupts into a full-fledged orgy of dancing girls, decked in white serpentine outfits against a black background.
#23 — LES OMBRES CHINOISES (1908)
De Chomón’s uncomfortable Orientalism buttresses ahead-of-its-time silhouette/cut-out stop motion animation that foreshadows the work of a Lotte Reiniger.
#22 — THE TULIPS (1907)
I don’t know how many times I can say that the elaborate frames against a black background make for a really striking image. But elaborate frames against a black background make for a really striking image; in this case, larger-than-life reeds of grass and flowers set the stage. It sets the stage for a giant head to bop in, only to give way to pyrotechnic fountains and women in formation on flowers.
#21 — EASTER EGGS (1907)
A bunch of little people and babies come out of some eggs. I don’t know why, but that’s so incredibly funny to me.
#20 — SUPERSTITION ANDALOUSE (1912)
Given the same kind of washed color scheme as SYMPHONIE BIZARRE, SUPERSTITION ANDALOUSE may be one of de Chomón’s most ambitious films from the initial phase of his directorial career. The full dramatic action is filmed on location and sets, with some truly bizarre creature effects and spooky moments to drive home a more “realistic” fantasy/trick film.
#19 — MODERN SCULPTOR (1908)
This little display of different sculptures may seem a little dry, but I love the art direction of the era.
#18 — THE SPRING FAIRY (1902)
Likely co-directed by Zecca, THE SPRING FAIRY is a sentimental little short that uses selective hand tinting to great effect, sensationalizing the magic the titular magical being works.
#17 — THE JAPANESE BUTTERFLIES (1908)
The brilliantly crafted butterfly, wings tinted with beautiful colors, morphs into a serpentine-dancing girl. This is a visual stimulant.
#16 — SWEET DREAMS INTERMINGLED WITH NIGHTMARES (1909)
In the nightmares, dwarfish or gnomish creatures with big papier-mâché heads unlike anything I’ve really ever seen in a de Chomón film, or indeed a Méliès one, terrorize the main character. And in the sweet dreams, lovely ladies gracefully welcome her to a little grove. Both are surreal.
#15 — THE GOLDEN BEETLE (1907)
I don’t know if I have much to say about this one after describing de Chomón films, which can ring very similar, over and over, but I’ll say this: best pyrotechnics.
#14 — ELECTRIC HOTEL (1908)
One of the best showcases of de Chomón’s stop motion and close ups, ELECTRIC HOTEL is a standout film also because of its futuristic premise; one in which an automated hotel takes care of guests.
#13 — THE GOLDEN SPIDER (1909)
This more elaborate story film from de Chomón features stop motion insects drawing things, itself an impressive visual. But wedged into a film about strange gnomes (?) and their machinations amid swamps and huts, the effects have even more impact.
#12 — EXCURSION TO THE MOON (1908)
This famous rip-off of Méliès’ A TRIP TO THE MOON sure does “adapt” the film almost shot for shot. De Chomón, likely more by necessity than artistic design, made a more restrained movie, and I mean literally, with a much shorter run time and smaller set pieces. But in his own way, he imparts a different kind of style and stenciled color; his interpretation of the man in the moon, especially, stands out.
#11 — BURGOS VOYAGE (1911)
This simple actuality is given beautiful life by the aforementioned washed-out colors. I am transported to another world watching BURGOS VOYAGE.
#10 — PARK IN BARCELONA (1904)
And much like BURGOS VOYAGE, PARK IN BARCELONA would not stand out from de Chomón’s fantastical films…on paper. But there is something magical about this actuality’s bobbing look at a recreational area from 115 years ago. It feels profound.
#9 — THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1908)
THE HAUNTED HOUSE is a comic, spooky forerunner of the, well…haunted house genre. With effective stop motion and hilariously out-of-this-world make up, de Chomón created a landmark late era trick film. And don’t forget the crafted, miniature world of the introduction, complete with creepy trees and a haunted face on the house.
#8 — BOB’S ELECTRIC THEATRE (1906)
BOB’S ELECTRIC THEATRE is an incredible display of stop motion animation in the way we would better understand it today. What I mean is, instead of using stop motion as a trick in our “real world,” de Chomón uses it here to create an animated world of its own. Granted, it’s still framed as a show being put on in our real world, but the performers in the titular theater are characters going through the motions. They’re not levitating plates or otherwise animate inanimate objects. The short’s also given that washed out color I’ve described so much.
#7 — SATAN AT PLAY (1907)
What essentially boils down to an older style of trick film, in which a magician presents various tricks enhanced by the magical capabilities of the movies, SATAN AT PLAY is given macabre and comic identity by its titular lord of darkness and his antics. An effect with women in bottles is quite impressive, and the hellish set makes everything all the more metal.
#6 — A PANICKY PICNIC (1909)
Ugly faces, spooky forests, silhouette animation, shadow plays: A PANICKY PICNIC has it all. It’s a veritable who’s who of effects of the trick film era. It is consistently entertaining and surprising.
#5 — THE FROG (1908)
I believe THE FROG to be one of de Chomón’s most well-known films, and for good reason. The image of a little frog prancing around a larger version of itself on a rotating pedestal against a black background (the frog is stencil colored as well) is striking. And when other beings pop up on the pedestal, the scene becomes no less bizarre. THE FROG is such a simple film to place so highly, but it perfectly encapsulates de Chomón’s artistic sensibilities and does so almost more strongly than potential competitors with its “school play” frog costume.
#4 — LEGEND OF A GHOST (1908)
Another one of the more ambitious de Chomón narratives, LEGEND OF A GHOST features an incredible hellish car ride through demonic depths and underwater and heavenly scenes. LEGEND OF A GHOST is one of the few de Chomón epics, with a diverse number of settings, characters, and surreal costumes.
#3 — A TRIP TO JUPITER (1909)
A TRIP TO THE JUPITER is the de Chomón epic. It obviously owes a lot to Méliès’ cosmic fantasies, but A TRIP TO JUPITER is, by all intents and purposes, a unique film. Hand-tinted in the brownish yet beautiful overtones, the short also features its own man in the moon image and effective, diverse sets. It perfectly represents the way that Méliès “imitation” could yield incredible, different results.
#2 — THE WAR AND THE DREAM OF MOMI (1917)
“Co-directed” with Giovanni Pastrone of CABIRIA (1914) fame, THE WAR AND THE DREAM OF MOMI was made in Italy, clearly, during World War I. It is just barely a feature film by the traditional sense of the term, running a total of 40 minutes. Pastrone likely directed the live action sequences, in which a grandfather tells a grandson about the war. But when he falls asleep, the child dreams about stop motion toy soldiers going about their miniature warfare. This is where de Chomón came in, providing special effects for various films across Europe after his own directorial career effectively ended in 1912. As far as I can tell, this is the only directorial credit de Chomón ever received for a “feature” film, or indeed for his special effects contributions alone.
#1 — LULU (1923)
De Chomón’s last directorial effort is also his finest. After all the incredible pioneering work he did throughout the 1900s, especially in the decade’s waning years, his brief resurgence in a different era of movie-making stands out amid his vast filmography. LULU is an eight-minute stop motion animation short of a cute little monkey settling in for the evening before having to confront a burglar. The models are very cute, and the animation relatively smooth. LULU’s world is miniature and restrained. The short has the power of the best stop motion films; there’s an innate sense of the artistry behind the film and an appreciation for all the work that went into it.