We haven’t touched on Georges Méliès for awhile, so let’s consider his 1905 film, The Legend of Rip Van Winkle, or sometimes just called Rip’s Dream.
One of the most popular genres of silent film was turning old stories into film. Sensible. But hard. Now, in the 19th century, classic literature was frequently turned into short plays that took the highlights and turned them into some sort of semi-sensical narrative for the stage. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is probably the most famous example of this. So people were used to performances of books that were just snippets. But these movies really don’t hold up–even for silent films. Toward the end of the silent age, more sophisticated productions such as Von Stroheim’s Greed, based on Frank Norris’ McTeague, definitely advanced how to do this. But the early age is tough. The first thing is that you actually have to know the original story. I threw this on last night and realized….I don’t actually know the story of Rip Van Winkle except for the whole going to sleep for 20 years thing. I read a synopsis of the Irving story later and the film made sort of sense. But it really does require fairly in depth knowledge of the original story matter that most people don’t have. What makes that different than other silent films is that those films have to tell their own stories from the beginning. So it really is a different kind of filmmaking.
What this means is that the real appeal of a film like this is the incredible use of the very rudimentary available technology by Méliès. Even if the story makes no sense to you, the way he is using special effects and hand coloring of black and white film is remarkable for 1905. I’m not sure the circus acts that provide a lot of the movement to make people seem strange or weird may not be that effective, but it’s not as if those are easy to pull off. Anyway, check it out.