Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Voiturette "La Mouche"

This charming advertisement from 1900 is for "La Mouche," the first model of automobile produced by Teste et Moret, a French manufacturer. "La Mouche" had a single-cylinder built-in engine and was available in two- and four-seater models. Some 300 of the cars were built, with only seven known to exist.

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Universal's Old Dark House Mysteries

Universal Studios were most famous for their moody tales of midnight monsters, supernatural ghouls, and science gone awry: Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride, the Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. A large number of Universal's classic monster films, however, did not involve a monster at all... At least not a supernatural one. Some of their most celebrated were based very loosely on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934). There were also the Inner Sanctum Mysteries of the 1940's: a series of six murder mysteries starring Lon Chaney Jr. based on the eponymous radio show. Another informal sub-genre within the non-supernatural mysteries developed, known by its most famous entry, the "Old Dark House" movie.  

Wednesday, 12 October 2022

The Ghost-Extinguisher by Gelett Burgess

The following tale of ghost-extinguishing may seem somewhat familiar. It appears that Gelett Burgess figured out the business of removing unwanted spectres long before Mickey Mouse or Dan Akroyd. 

The Ghost-Extinguisher appears here as it did in the April, 1905 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Saturday, 3 September 2022

Taking a Break

In the interests of preserving my own sanity and enjoying a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana (now that international travel is a thing again!), we're going to be going on hiatus through the month of September. 

Join us back here on October 12 for our Halloween season! 

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Un Monstre à Paris

In January of 1910, flooding struck the city of Paris. Water saturated the earth and flooded through storm drains, pipes, catacombs, and the Metro, inundating the city for several weeks. Citizens of Paris were forced to travel by boat or build wooden walkways too and fro, while hundreds struck out for refugee camps on the hills like Montmartre, where the famed Basilique du Sacré Cœur was nearing completion. And, in the cinematic world created by Bibo Bergeron, a monsterous man-sized flea won the hearts of Parisians through song.

French trailer for Un Monstre à Paris.

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Aviation in the Year 2000

The following series of humourous postcards were sold in France around the turn of the century, imagining the foibles of flight in the decades to come. 

Differing from the others in the series, this one purports to show hunting in the year 1915.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Master of the Octopus by Edward Olin Weeks

The inventive genius of the 19th century must, of course, contend with the rapacious interests of 19th century robber-barons. In The Master of the Octopus, published in the October 1899 Pearson's Magazine,  Edward Olin Weeks describes the tragic encounter between the two over a perpetual light machine. Click on the pages for a larger version.

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Mr. Penney's Aerial Submarine by E.J. Rath

Pity the frustrated inventor, who has a remarkable idea that must be shaped to sheer dumb fact. Such is Mr. Penney, latest in the line of Darius Green and other hayseed inventors. Formerly of the city, forced to the countryside for his health, Mr. Penney cannot acclimatize to the condition of being a farmer. His workshop lures him ever onward to misadventure, undaunted by his numerous setbacks.

Written by E.J. Rath, pseudonym of Edith Rathbone Jacobs Brainerd, Mr. Penney's Aerial Submarine appears here as it originally did in the August 1908 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Brainerd was a well-established author, many of whose stories had been adapted to film. Tragically, she died at the age of 37 when the roof of the Knickerbocker Theater in Washington D.C. collapsed under heavy snow on January 27, 1922. The incident also claimed the life her husband Chauncey and 200 others. Illustrations for Mr. Penney's Aerial Submarine are by Horace Taylor. Click on each image for a larger version. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Nostalgia for idealized visions of the past is pretty much the motivating ethos of this blog, devoted to Scientific Romances, adventure stories, history, and aesthetics of the Victorian and Edwardian Periods. In what is widely considered one of his best films in years (if not decades), Woody Allen gives his own take on nostalgia in Midnight in Paris. With Owen Wilson in the lead role that once would have been his own, Allen explores both the motivations and the complications of too readily losing oneself in the past with sensitivity and gentle humour. In a film that seems like it is directed almost exactly at me, I don't come out feeling hectored or made fun of. Instead, it is a film that I can watch again and again.

Trailer for Midnight in Paris.

Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter unfulfilled with the drivel he is forced to write for modern audiences. He longs to be a real author of authentic literature, like his idols of the "Lost Generation." The so-called Lost Generation were those youth who came of age during the First World War. Some were young enough to have served, others narrowly escaped that horror, but all shared the challenge of having to find themselves and their life's meaning in a world where the notion of inevitable upward progress had died in the trenches. Paris was a hotbed of activity for artists of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, William Faulker, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso, many under the watchful eye of Gertrude Stein. Assuming that Gil is the same age or younger than Owen Wilson, that would place him in Generation X, another "lost generation" between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials currently engaged in mutual recriminations. Perhaps that is part of why the Lost Generation resonates so well with Gil. Pursuing his nostalgic ambitions, Gil finds himself in Paris on a vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her conservative parents who disdain the French (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy).

Where Gil's vision of Paris is the sultry music of 1920's cabarets and walking in the rain, Inez's mostly has to do with shopping. Inured to her fiancee's wistful dreams, she is very forthright in how he should give up the silly dream of being a poor author in Paris and accept his role as an affluent Hollywood screenwriter. Her dream is to live a lavish but shallow existence in Malibu. While in Paris, the pair meet up with one of her former professors (Michael Sheen) and his wife (Nina Arianda)... A pretentious couple whose presumptive authority on the arts is only matched by their inability to really appreciate it on a visceral, emotional, human level. Art, for them, is not something to be felt or experienced. It is something to be "discoursed" for social status among fellow pseudo-intellectuals. He reaches peak pedantry when attempting to debate a tourguide at the Rodin museum on the particulars of Rodin's life. Gil, naturally, finds all this insufferable, being more deeply engaged in with a Cole Porter 45 found at a flea market stall than in a professor's rambling monologue of questionable accuracy.

After Inez decides to go off and the spend the evening with the professor and his wife, a drunk Gil stumbles around Paris' back streets. At the stroke of midnight, a vintage 1920's Peugeot automobile pulls up beside him. Its Flapper passengers beckon him in, and Gil is transported away to the Twilight Zone.

Midnight in Paris itself offers a nostalgic, idealized look back at the Lost Generation as archetypes rather than well-fleshed out characters in their own right. Gil becomes a spectator to the broken relationship between F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, played admirably by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill. Corey Stoll plays Ernest Hemingway with intensity (and most of the best lines in the film). Adrian Brody has a memorable cameo as Salvador Dali, in a comic scene where he, Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) are totally unfazed by Gil's explanation of his situation because they are Surrealists. As icons more than characters, each delivers a wonderful performance.

The situation Gil finds himself in, which needs explanation, is that through successive visitations into the past - at the expense of nurturing his unfulfilling present-day relationships - he falls in love with the charming Adriana (Marion Cotillard), the (fictional) muse of the Lost Generation who was painted by Picasso and went off to Africa with Hemingway. She is also a woman out of time, in her own way. Like Gil she also longs for another time... Not the vacuity of the 1920's, but the vibrancy of Paris in the Belle Époque. Maxim's and the Moulin Rouge are where she really wants to be, rubbing elbows with Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, and Degas.

Allen doesn't vilify or mock nostalgia. That is left to the pedantic pseudo-intellectual. Nor does he really offer any rule or prescription for life's uncertainties, except to embrace them through courage and the pursuit of our passions. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the beautiful things of the past so long as they inform rather than replace the present, making our lives better in the here and now rather than make the here and now even more unsatisfying. As Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) says in the film: "We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence."

Eventually, in the course of their time-twisting shenanigans, a horse-drawn carriage swings by at the stroke of midnight to convey Gil and Adriana to the 1890's. After meeting Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin and Degas pop in and discuss their conversation on what time they  think was the "golden age." After some thought, they agree that it was the Renaissance. Woody Allen gives his characters everything anyone who has held out a torch of nostalgia could want: not only the ability to go into the past, but to do so under the social and economic conditions that are most amenable, with nobody wondering at your strange clothes or manners or lack of money, and everyone speaking modern English. After all, nobody would want to go back to the Victorian Era to live in a slum. Gil gets to go back to the Twenties and actually meet his idols, Adriana gets to go back to the Fin de siècle and meet hers.  But they are also confronted with the irony that every age is nostalgic for another. In every time, there is an envy for an imagined golden age of the past. So will Adriana stay in her golden age? Will Gil give up his golden age to be with her, or will he choose to remain in the Twenties? Or will he yet return to his own time to live his own life there? Could she be content in the Twenties with him? Or can she take a truly brave step into an unknown future?

Paris is a supremely appropriate setting for a film raising the question of our relationship with the past, because Paris is a city where the past carries an almost palpable weight. This may be the mere whimsy of a Canadian whose home town is barely over 100 years old (for a Parisian it might just be "Saturday"), but the sense of history in Paris is as heavy as the stones which built the great city. The steps of Notre-Dame de Paris are worn away with centuries. You can touch by hand the statues carved by great masters. Standing in Place de la Concorde, one can almost hear the guillotine and see the blood seep into the ground. More than anywhere, Paris lives and breathes its past.    

This fact benefited the production of Midnight in Paris as easily as it did the narrative. 
It doesn't take much to restore a Paris streetscape or a restaurant to its 1920's appearance when it was already half a century old by the 1920's. In some rare cases, Paris' overabundance of museums helped to recreate what had been lost. Another memorable scene at a carnival was shot at the  Musée des Arts Forains in the old winemakers district of Bercy. Gil is having the time of his life dancing up to the hottest Twenties tunes when he meets up with Adriana, who explicates on the beauty of a pedal-powered carousel from the 19th century.

Like so many films set in Paris, Midnight in Paris cannot but be an ode to the city itself. In addition to overt monologues in worship of Paris ("You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can't. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists..." "That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me." "This is unbelievable! Look at this! There's no city like this in the world. There never was.") Allen takes care to showcase the best of the city in loving montages and scenic shots. It resonates with anyone who has been there and fallen in love with the city, or anyone who loves to hear people talk about the passions that enflame them.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

René Clair's Phantom of the Moulin Rouge

Le Fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge) was the first full-length feature film by one of France's great silent film directors, René Clair. His very first film was the short subject  Paris qui dort, in which a negligent scientist creates a ray that freezes the residents of Paris in their tracks, except a small handful who happened to be above the ray's beam at the time. That 1924 production was joined by Entr'acte, to be shown as part of a Dadaist ballet. 

Clair's interest in this early phase of his career lay in the surreal aspects of film, as one might except from his Dadaist connections. His plots are thin means to an end of experimenting with special effects and plays with perception. Le Fantôme du Moulin-Rouge begins with a former politician brought to heel by the editor of the most yellow newspaper in Paris. The editor wants the hand of his daughter - already betrothed to another man - or else he will expose a hidden political scandal that will ruin the former politician's reputation. The marriage is called off until they can get this sorted out, sending the jilted lover into a spiral of depression that lands him into the thrall of a scientist experimenting with hypnotism and out of body experience. Several days later, mysterious events start occurring all over the city, courtesy of Clair's trick photography.   

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

A Tale of Negative Gravity

A Tale of Negative Gravity was written by Frank R. Stockton and debuted in the November 1884 edition of The Century magazine. In it, an inventor cracks the problem of anti-gravity, much to his wife's chagrin. Conspiring to keep it a secret for personal use, it ends becoming quite handy in settling a matter of the heart for the inventor's son. It is presented here as originally published. Click on each page for a larger version.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Ward Kimball and the Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

After a lifetime of cigarette addiction, Walt Disney was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer on November 7, 1966. Doctors gave him only six months to live. He didn't even make it that far: Walt collapsed at home on November 30, was taken to the hospital adjacent to his beloved movie studio, and passed away on December 7. His sudden parting left the studio bearing his name in mourning, but the show had to go on. There was still a full slate of films that Walt had been involved with that were in production and due for release. One of those films, debuting on March 8, 1967, was also one of Disney's most inspired comedies, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin.

The Disney studio never drifted far from 19th century historical romanticism, even in the decades since Walt's passing. The "Gay Nineties" was a favourite aesthetic sensibility for the company, returned to again and again through The Nifty Nineties (1941), Casey at Bat (1946), So Dear to My Heart (1949), The Brave Engineer (1950), Crazy Over Daisy (1950), Football Now and Then (1953), Pigs is Pigs (1954), Lady and the Tramp (1955)Pollyanna (1960), and Summer Magic (1963). The very last live-action film on which Walt Disney worked was The Happiest Millionaire, based on true-life philanthropist and eccentric Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, which was released on June 23 of 1967. Disneyland's Main Street USA was a physical manifestation of this fascination, and every Disneyland park around the world since has had a Main Street (or an ersatz version of it) as its opening act.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin pushes the date back a few decades, to the same mid-19th century period as Song of the South (1946) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but retains that same fascination with the Gilded Age. Specifically, Bullwhip Griffin is set to the California Gold Rush of 1848, and the challenges and opportunities experienced by the sourdoughs who sought fabulous wealth along the Golden State's shining waters.