The Faustian Satire of The Merry Frolics of Satan
Note: This is the thirty-sixth 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 favorite 1906 film, THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN, directed by Georges Méliès.
The single most recurring subject of Georges Méliès’ enormous filmography just might be Satan. It’s fitting, as the devil had been liberally used in a number of féerie stage productions throughout the 1800s. Méliès’ films, subsequently, were liberally inspired by the aesthetic of these fantastical plays that had pretty much fallen out of theatrical popularity in France by the time Méliès reached his peak. His revival of the style for film was ultimately brief, considering the relative shortness of his career, but his blend of the féerie with new filmic techniques resulted in the creation of a significant portion of early film language and some of my favorite films.
Often, Méliès used Satan as a tool for satire in shorter films; his larger epics beginning with A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) had a cutting satirical edge, but leaned much more into the whimsical then the morbid. The latter was reserved for his lower stakes, few minute-long trick films in which the Beast (who he often played himself) committed his evil acts in wicked delight. THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN (1906) was certainly his biggest film to ever feature his hellish muse, and blended the féerie with the darkness of the Faustian legend.
The film sprang from a collaboration with Folies Bergère director Victor de Cottens, who Méliès worked with on producing a hybrid stage/film production that resulted in AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP (1905), a truly fascinating film. That movie was ultimately one of Méliès’ best commentaries on current events, and THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN, while weaker in that department, still updates the Faustian legend to poke fun of Méliès’ favorite target: scientists. De Cottens had updated an 1839 féerie play with a modern setting and satirical theme in 1905, and Méliès was commissioned to produce two separate short films to be integrated into the play. Those films would be combined and bridged to form THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN.
In a lot of ways, then, THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN is made up of a number of different people’s visions, as with most, well, films in general; however, it’s one of the most easily traced of Méliès’ due to the involvement of de Cottens. Even still, Méliès’ adaptation of the work is of course rendered in his trademark brilliant manic beauty.
The film follows an inventor and his assistant; the former signs a contract with an alchemist, who provides magical pills that can grant a wish when thrown on the ground. The inventor wants these to make a high-speed trip around the world, of course, a common goal in Méliès’ films. Unlike other films that follow this plot line, however, THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN creates its humor and incredible events through fantastical and magical means, as opposed to “sci-fi” conventions that were nevertheless still fantasy-oriented at the time. You see, the inventor signed too hastily in his pursuit for scientific knowledge and superiority, and didn’t notice a clause that apparently explicitly stated that he was signing a deal with the literal devil. This information, of course, is provided by narration documentation, which accompanied early films in the days before intertitles. In any event, as soon as the inventor and his assistant leave, the alchemist poofs into his true form as Mephistopheles, and his assistants into personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins.
What follows is a film not unlike Méliès’ collaboration with de Cottens, AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP, or even his A TRIP TO THE MOON follow-up THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE (1904). In fact, THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN blends the two standout themes of those films that I identified: the utter disinterest in others and the constant harassment, torture, and injury of the clueless. In an AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP, the king makes a cross-continent dash in a superpowered car, leaving a swath of destruction in his wake. In THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE, this too is true of the “driven” scientists, but that film’s characters were frantically facing problems and injury themselves, rather than inflicting (much) pain on others; even they, however, were ultimately successful. THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN takes these experiences and places supernatural, rather than “natural,” roadblocks in their way, and malicious ones instead of inanimate ones.
THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN sees its characters confounded and terrified at every turn, and ultimately punished for their “misdeeds.” As the pair begin to travel, they are set upon by collapsing bridges, demonic apes and imps, a skeletal horse and buggy that takes them on a cosmic joyride, a plummet to earth, and, in the case of the inventor himself, a final, eternal fate in Hell, being roasted on a spit by gleeful demons. It’s a cruel fate, one that, it is implied, is earned by said misdeeds. It would seem this would be because of the scientist’s hasty signing of the contract, a representation of scientists’ inability to think about the consequences of their actions. While a bit harsh in this context, the point is an understandable one, and one that was widely argued in late 1800s and early 1900s fiction. I suppose it still is even today.
But perhaps the only thing that renders the outcome of the inventor’s ill-conceived trip satisfying in any way (besides the incredible visual feast that is Méliès’ sets and effects) is his treatment of his family. Earlier in the film, his family is brought along after a magic pill creates a series of footmen that hop out of trunks; they combine said trunks into a weird little train, which the inventor’s family is, it appears unwillingly, are placed into. When the group encounters their first setback, the collapsing bridge, everyone but the inventor and his assistant are killed. And the two just go on, no worse for wear! Their lack of care may just be a disconnect of the type of story being told, or the era, but it more likely is a symbol of the lengths “science,” as a community, will go to to be proven right. This impartiality to his own family’s demise makes the inventor’s final fate a bit easier to ingest; again, besides the darkly comic tone the entire film revels in.
Of course, this commentary is centuries old, as part of the Faustian tradition, just updated to take a more pointed shot at the bourgeoisie intellectual class of the time. Méliès’ cinematic vision most certainly enlivened it for an unaware or uninterested audience, and still can today, especially as the film’s second half turns resplendent in its cruel antics. The scene in which a horse and buggy the pair are trying to escape in is turned into a skeletal carriage from hell is shocking and so, so metal. When the carriage, horse skeleton and occupants included, falls into Mount Vesuvius and is erupted into the heavens, more magic takes hold as the horse starts galloping across the sky. It’s the standout moment of the film, and while it displays the movie’s weakness to stay a little overlong on what it clearly considers to be the most “awesome” scenes, its sheer spectacle sustains it for the unexpected finale.
THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN feels devoid of the problems Méliès would be facing, even as aware as I am of the changing film industry of 1906. The wicked delight offered by its morbid humor and Méliès’ clear fascination with the devil is frantically experienced through the lens of one of cinema’s most magical and fantastical auteurs. It’s a joy to watch, plain and simple. For me, the skeletal carriage is one of the enduring images of the first decade of 1900s cinema. These reasons are why THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN is my favorite film of 1906, a year marked by some distinct and incredibly important firsts.
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