Ray Guns and Mechanical Monsters: 5 Obscure Sci-Fi Silents

Hello, everyone! Today I’m happy to be taking part in the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, a prestigious annual fundraiser about a topic near and dear to all of our movie-loving hearts: saving films. Hosted by Ferdy on FilmsThis Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark, this year’s blogathon is aiming to raise money for the restoration of a delightful 1918 film called Cupid in Quarantine. The goal is $10,000 to cover the National Film Preservation Foundation’s laboratory costs.

Here’s the description of Cupid in Quarantine from the NFPF site:

This charming comedy about two lovebirds faking smallpox features the forgotten actress Elinor Field, who got her start in a series of Strand Comedies and later starred in such films as The Blue Moon (1920), The Kentucky Colonel (1920), and the 15-part Selig serial The Jungle Goddess (1922). Regarding her performance in Cupid in Quarantine, Motion Picture World raved, “Miss Field’s vivaciousness permeates the entire picture, filling it with life and action and a humor that is contagious.

So here’s how it works: 

  1. Everyone rushes to donate money (as little as $5 will help!),
  2. The NFPF will restore the film to gloriousness and create a new score,
  3. The film will be available to everyone FOR FREE on the NFPF website,
  4. We can all sit back and marvel at the the role we played in helping to preserve film history for future generations–for as little as $5!

Sound good? Excellent! On with the blog post:

Long before the robots-and-rocketships mania of the 1950s, long before the epic adventures of Star Trek and Star Wars, and very long before the current steampunk craze, science fiction was alive and well in the form of popular novels and…silent films (which could be surprisingly steampunk). That’s right, sci-fi silents, and you already know at least two of them: A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Metropolis (1927).

Back then, the genre wasn’t clearly defined quite yet, and would sometimes overlap with horror as it did in Frankenstein (1910) or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Sci-fi films were less common than dramas, comedies and westerns, but the ones that were made certainly left their mark.

Instead of discussing the more iconic films like Metropolis (I’m saving that masterpiece for later), I thought we’d take a look at 5 sci-fi silents that you probably haven’t heard of (and none of them are more than a half hour long!):

5. A Trip to Mars (1910)

You all know about Méliès’s lovely A Trip to the Moon, but how many of you have also seen this 5-minute Edison film?

A Trip to Mars screenshot

It’s far less elaborate than the Méliès work, but still worth a look: a scientist in his nice little wood-panelled lab creates a powder that causes “reverse gravity.” He tests it on a chair, which floats up and away, then tries it out on himself, floating out of the window, up through the sky and all the way to Mars. There he encounters strange creatures that are seemingly half tree and half human, and crawls on a craggy landscape that turns out to be the face of a rather Satanic-looking giant. After being turned into a snowball, nearly set on fire and floating away (it’s…hard to describe) he’s then “homeward bound.”

Despite being short and bizarre (it probably made more sense to Victorian/Edwardian folk, who were familiar with overly creative fantasylands), it makes for a nice little split-reel bite of 1900s moviemaking. The scene where the scientist is surrounded by the tree creatures is surprisingly convincing. I would even rank it as one of the most dreamlike scenes I’ve seen in any film–literally dreamlike, mind you, the sort of thing your poor subconscious would behold after eating something like chilled shrimp, meatballs and blueberry pie (which I experienced once thanks to a dinner with a wiiiide variety of food). Oh for a crisp, HD print of this one–but at least it’s survived the decades.

4. Paris Qui Dort (The Crazy Ray), (1925)

Disclosure: this is a René Clair film, which means that it’s a piece of Parisian avant-garde. If you don’t know this it might seem only slightly more comprehensible than the snowball/Satanic giant scene from A Trip to Mars. 

A man, who is the guard at the Eiffel tower (Clair sets the surreal tone by showing him getting out of bed already fully clothed and walking out of his room to reveal that he lives on top of the tower), notices that Paris is unusually quiet. He walks about the city to see that it’s seemingly deserted, and then starts encountering people who are motionless, frozen in place like someone had hit a “pause” button. He’s cheerfully unfazed (because surrealism). He meets the only other people who aren’t frozen, and, having Paris all to themselves, the small group decide to have some fun. After a time they discover that the “freezing” was caused by a mad scientist’s special ray gun.

Paris Qui Dort features wonderful aerial shots of 1920s Paris, as well as many shots of its famous locations. Best of all, a bunch of scenes were set in the Eiffel tower itself–we see some characters actually climb around its steel beams!

3. The Airship Destroyer, or Air War of the Future (1909)

Years before the start of World War I, English filmmaker Walter R. Booth made this one-reel thriller about a city being bombed by airships. If you’re expecting a Michael Bay-style Edwardian orgy of dirigibles and explosions, well…maybe not quite, but the charming special effects and creative shots definitely deserve a watch. This is a film that was steampunk before steampunk was cool.

The main character is an inventor of a defense missile. He’s in love with a young woman and asks her father for her hand in marriage, but he refuses (watch as the inventor bumps into a table toward the end of the scene). But the inventor can’t mourn for long, because enemies are on the horizon–in a fleet of airships!! They start slowly bombing a signal box, an armored car, and then a town. The young woman’s house is destroyed, and the inventor saves her from the wreckage and recovers the body of the now-dead father. He rushes to launch his defense missile, successfully destroying the enemy airships.

The effects in this film are a lot of fun, with animated airship cut-outs moving across a painted sky, three-dimensional models on strings, and a missile that seems to be modeled after a dragonfly. The “armored car” is a type of Model T with a wooden cover painted to look like metal (fabulous). There are some delightfully clever shots where actors in a life-size model of a plane zoom closely past the camera lens, exiting the scene on the right, and then we see a small model plane swoop from the left to attack the airship in the background–to give the impression of a plane flying in wide circles in front of us!

The Airship Destroyer was re-released in 1915 during WWI, when the English were actually being bombed by German zeppelins. One has to wonder how enthusiastic audiences were about it, considered the trauma that was around them at the time. But maybe its ending offered some encouragement.

2. La Charcuterie mécanique (The Mechanical Butcher) (1896)

Brace yourselves, and behold: the oldest science fiction film of all time! At least, according to The Overlook Film Encyclopedia by Phil Hardy.

This little Lumière Brothers film, less than a minute in length, is basically a bit of comical magic realism. A live pig is put into a box inscribed “charcuterie mécanique,” which has a large crank (I’m assuming the guys heaving the annoyed pig into the mécanique were actual pig farmers loaning their bacon to the film). As the crank is turned the butcher immediately opens up the end of the box and lifts out fully wrapped packages of pork and links of sausage. (And yes, that odd-shaped large object is a pig’s head, which even nowadays gets roasted in a pan or boiled to make head cheese.)

It’s basically a one-joke gag film, but because it involves a machine it qualifies to be the first science fiction film (that we know of). The next time you find your friends arguing about the Star Wars prequels or criticizing the lens flare in Star Trek Into Darkness, throw this film into the mix and walk away satisfied as they stare in bewilderment.

And now, for the greatest sci-fi silent film that you’ve never heard of…

1. L’uomo meccanico (The Mechanical Man), (1921)

If ever there was a reason to get on your knees and beg people to support film preservation, it would be so we can find and restore the rest of this film.

I’m not sure if I am even worthy.

The Mechanical Man is an Italian feature directed by André Deed, who was clearly influenced by both Méliès and Feuillade. Only half of this film has survived, and the title cards are of course in Italian, making it impossible to understand the plot if it weren’t for the explanations on the Alpha video release. It isn’t in the greatest quality, but honestly, I care not. I am only thankful that it is a part of our fragile lives, which are so brief here on this endlessly spinning earth.

The plot: A mad scientist creates plans for an enormous mechanical man. A gang, led by a woman named Mado, kills the scientist and steals the plans so that Mado can create the robot herself and use it for nefarious deeds. She has it steal jewels and wreak havoc, controlling it from afar with controls and a big screen so she can see what’s happening. The mechanical man ends up at a fancy party at an opera house, where the guests assume it’s a performer (in early cosplay?). It bows, offers a potted palm to a lady in lieu of a bouquet, pours champagne (this film is real), and arouses jealousy on the part of the lady’s boyfriend. The guy gets into a fight with the mechanical man, which retaliates and frightens the guests, who begin to flee in a panicked riot.

This leads to a scene worth more than gold where another mechanical man, created to defeat Mado’s crime machine, enters the opera house and the two machines start battling (sort of–it looks more like they’re ballroom dancing). Yes, my friends, you read that correctly–there is a 1920s Italian silent film out there featuring two giant robots battling in an opera house and you’ve never heard of it. 

Although it’s about as silly as you’re imagining, The Mechanical Man is irresistibly cheesy fun. It may be in choppy condition, but what’s left is still highly enjoyable. Were it ever found complete and restored to better condition, it would almost certainly be a cult favorite. I mean, look at this:

The Mechanical Man champagne toast

Exquisite.

You can see that even in films as old as the 1900s there are themes that would become standards of the sci-fi genre: mad scientists, futuristic weapons, strange laboratory concoctions, and of course killer robots. But few things are more fun for us to watch today–except maybe those goofy B-movies from the ’50s.

Happy viewing!

I hope you consider donating to help get Cupid in Quarantine out of quarantine…this is one of those times when movie fans can truly make a tangible difference! Thanks for stopping by!

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17 thoughts on “Ray Guns and Mechanical Monsters: 5 Obscure Sci-Fi Silents

  1. Not sure if it made any waves outside this sceptered isle, but ‘A Message From Mars’ (apparently, the first ever British Sci-Fi movie) re-appeared a few months ago. Not quite as odd as fighting Italian robots, but worth a look! In the UK at least, it’s available from the BFI and bbc websites.

  2. Pingback: Film Preservation Blogathon anchors at Wonders in the Dark | Wonders in the Dark

  3. I absolutely love this post, very edifying and full of great clips. I think silent scifi is incredible in the way it predicts real science advances and establishes some of the tropes we take for granted now. Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

    • I’m so happy you enjoyed it, Marilyn! Few things are more fascinating than seeing early versions of movie tropes–the “firsts” always go back much further than we’d expect. I was happy to be a participant–and if any of your future blogathons need an extra host please let me know. 🙂

  4. What a delightful post. I wonder if the Airship film is an early example of using miniatures (eg, the burning buildings) for special effects. There’s a delightful, almost magical sense of whimsy in these films, and I love the inventive little touches added, such as how the scientist puts on his top hat before taking off for Mars. You do get a sense of a vanished culture in that little gesture.

    • I love seeing those little gestures too. They came easily to people back then (like how a boy might wave his cap rather than just waving his hand) and are gone today. Now I’m wondering if anyone knows of the first film to use miniatures…hmm…that’s an interesting question to try and find out!

  5. Hi Lea. What a great selection of movies to tickle our palates. As to early use of miniatures, Albert E Smth and J Stuart Blackton of the Vitagraph produced “The Battle of Manilla Bay” in 1898 using miniature warships and smoke from cigars. Many years later they reenacted the making of the movie on film.

  6. There’s a 1924 Soviet film, Aelita: Queen of Mars, where our hero goes to Mars and establishes a proletarian state. Extraordinary seta and costumes which probably influenced Metropolis.

  7. Pingback: Josie, Lige, “Pimple,” And Other Uber Obsure Silent Comedians | Silent-ology

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