At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival today there is a showing dedicated to early hand-colored films, several of which were done by the brilliant–and very Méliès-ish–Segundo de Chomón. Let’s take a brief look at this obscure director!
So you’re browsing the Interwebs and you stumble across a short film that’s clearly from the dawn of the 20th century. It has that stationary camera facing a set that’s basically a theater stage, people in quaint outfits, fairyland imagery, hand-applied coloring, and those special effects that involve sudden edits and puffs of smoke. Yes, you know exactly what this film is–it is most definitely a work by the ever-imaginative moving picture pioneer, Georges Méliès! ‘Tis himself!
But maybe take another look at that film, because there’s a good chance that it’s actually by Segundo de Chomón.
De Chomón was born in Spain on October 17, 1871. He married actress Julienne Mathieu, who started working for early film studio Pathé Frères. It’s said that Julienne influenced her husband to join Pathé, where he began working as an agent and then a director. In 1903 he produced Gulliver en el país de los gigantes, the first of what would become his specialty: trick films.
He became so good at creating special effects–in fanciful shorts that he beautifully enhanced with a special stencil-coloring process dubbed Pathéchrome–that Charles Pathé took notice. He recognized that de Chomón’s work could easily compete with that of the famous Georges Méliès, and thus the Spanish director was given the freedom to create the most fantastical visions his mind could devise.
He went above and beyond, utilizing just about every method available back then: puppetry, multiple exposures, hand-drawn animation, matte shots, and more. His work ranges from gorgeous tapestries of féerie romance like Les Tulipes (1907) to something like The Panicky Picnic (1909, which is the dream you’d have if you gorged yourself on lukewarm sushi. Let’s just say that Méliès himself was probably impressed by (or confused by) de Chomón’s fearless surrealism.
De Chomón would collaborate with several other early directors, including “Father of the Animated Cartoon” Émile Cohl. He would also run a shop devoted to color stenciling. By 1912 (at a time when Méliès’s work was in the decline) he was invited to make films in Italy. He would gradually move away from directing and concentrate on cinematography, creating special effects for such mighty epics as Cabiria (1914) and Napoléon (1927).
Plans on returning to producing films ended when de Chomón died of a heart attack in 1929. He was 57, and left behind a legacy of well over 200 films.
Perhaps because he died at an unfortunately young age, de Chomón has been overshadowed by his rival–or, rather, the man he was basically copying–Méliès. But as the years went by collectors began to notice his work, and films like The Haunted House (1906) and The Red Spectre (1907) have circulated widely in film sets and online.
Ultimately, he may always be known as “the Spanish Méliès,” but Segundo de Chomón also deserves to be appreciated for what he was: an intensely imaginative and skillful pioneer of the cinema.
I had to mainly use Wikipedia and IMDb as sources for this article. The Bioscope has a fine article on de Chomón here, and while I don’t own it myself, there is an in-depth book on his work called Segundo de Chomón, the Cinema of Fascination by Joan M. Minguet.