The Magical Mystery Color of The Spring Fairy

Note: This is the nineteenth 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 1902 film, THE SPRING FAIRY, directed by Segundo de Chomón and Ferdinand Zecca.

THE SPRING FAIRY was initially somewhat strange for me to write about, as someone who likes to find the historical and personal context of the films I center these essays on, because I didn’t really know who made it. Oh, sure enough, Segundo de Chomón was involved in its making. But there, the certainty ends. Many sources I could find list him as the sole director, but many more also list Ferdinand Zecca as co-director. I was puzzled to find the “ownership” of THE SPRING FAIRY, as it were, was muddled and unclear.

I read that THE SPRING FAIRY is actually Zecca’s film, with de Chomón really only serving as a colorist for the hand-tinted movie, but I also found that Zecca and de Chomón’s association and partnership didn’t really begin as early as 1902. Then again, de Chomón was working for Pathé Frères in Spain, while Zecca was also doing so in France. Nevertheless, many of de Chomón’s earliest films are titled in French, and list France as the country of origin. It is quite possible, then, that de Chomón and Zecca did still work together as early as 1902. The film’s original title, LA FÉE PRINTEMPS, is in French rather than Spanish, unlike some of de Chomón’s earliest films produced in Spain, but THE SPRING FAIRY’s style is much more indicative of de Chomón’s canon than Zecca’s. I felt compelled to consider the fact that contributions could have come from both men, but ultimately, I see THE SPRING FAIRY as de Chomón’s film, and the earliest indication of the kind of work he would do in the years to come.

Segundo de Chomón has been called the Spanish Méliès. That’s probably fair, and it explains why I like his body of work so much. However, he never really saw a significant revival of attention on him, perhaps explaining why his work isn’t as religiously documented, Méliès’ extensive Star film catalogs notwithstanding. Nevertheless, I think de Chomón did ultimately take the concept of the trick film into a different direction, utilizing stop-motion and other animation techniques in contemporary, more muted settings. De Chomón began making actuality films for Pathé in 1901, allegedly due to the influence of his actress wife Julienne Mathieu, who had appeared in some Pathé films. And then he turned to trick films, in a move not unlike many of his contemporaries, and one French auteur in particular. THE SPRING FAIRY was that turning point, and by virtue of it being one of de Chomón’s first fantastical films, it is also one of his most derivative of Méliès.

Zecca, on the other hand, had a more distinct directorial style. He had been working for Pathé since 1891, initially as a part of their phonograph business, and began acting and directing in films for the company in 1898 and 1899, respectively. Over the years, he would become a Pathé man, directing, producing, managing film equipment production, and doing everything in between for the company until he retired in 1939. But in those early years, Zecca made a number of pioneering, innovative films. His films À LA CONQUÊTE DE L’AIR (1901), a pre-Wright Brothers aviation trick short, and HISTOIRE D’UN CRIME (1901), which used superimposition and flashbacks, were landmark science fiction and crime films, respectively. Only a couple years later, the moodily colorful VIE ET PASSION DU CHRIST (1903) would release at a massive 44 minutes long, making it one of the earliest feature-length narrative films. In spite of the fact that he does not solely appear on my list of favorite films, Zecca was truly influential and impressive, his films some of the most nuanced and diverse of the time. And that’s why he probably didn’t really direct THE SPRING FAIRY.

If the Zecca connection isn’t a mistake or misinterpretation of de Chomón’s partnership with him, which began in 1906 when de Chomón became a stencil colorist in France for Pathé, I would imagine his role on THE SPRING FAIRY was providing de Chomón with direction, rather than the film. De Chomón, a relative newcomer to film and trick and narrative film especially, may have needed some guidance, and Zecca, who could be considered a veteran in terms of the fledgling film industry for having directed films for three or four years, would have been the one to give it to him in his position at Pathé. And as I said, looking at his later work reveals that THE SPRING FAIRY is de Chomón’s.

THE SPRING FAIRY is a simple and short féerie affair. Essentially, a poor, childless couple are visited in the midst of a winter storm by an old hag. Their kindness and moral obligation shines through when they take her in and, upon her attempting to leave, insist she stay to avoid the harsh weather. It is then that the old lady reveals herself to be a fairy, one of spring I presume, and walks outside to end the storm and sprout a number of yellow lilies. Once she departs, leaving the couple with a large bouquet of the flowers, they discover two babies and presumably live happily ever after. It’s almost like a reverse Beauty and the Beast, in that a beautiful magical being posing as an old, “ugly” crone is accepted rather than refused.

The film is simple, both in its narrative and technical execution, but one aspect of that simplicity lends the film its charm. The film is predominantly black and white, but the dress of the fairy is hand-tinted yellow, a shining beacon of hope among the grey, dreary world of frustration and sorrow the couple have lived in. The lilies, too, share the radiant glow of yellow, representative of kindness and a giving nature. The selective yellow coloring of key symbols and objects is a powerful contrasting tool. It immediately establishes a foreign magic and creates visual distinction that is incredibly pleasing to the eye. The singular color person or item in a black and white world is a powerful and symbolic technique in film, like in films such as SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), and THE SPRING FAIRY pulled it off beautifully in 1902.

De Chomón’s best work was still to come, preceding a period when he left the director’s chair for visual effects, tinting, and/or coloring jobs on films like Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON (1927). Unfortunately, he died in 1929 on the eve of a planned comeback to directing, but THE SPRING FAIRY is a strong early effort from the only other director of the time to truly give Méliès a run for his money in the same arena. THE SPRING FAIRY is too brief and constrained to reach those heights, but it indicated de Chomón’s ability to twist his inspiration even at his most derivative. It’s a pleasant and charming little movie that stands as my fourth favorite of 1902.

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

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.