Gugusse and the Automaton

No rating, film lost.

The world’s first film featuring a robot was a short one-reeler made by Georges Méliès in 1897. It is considered a lost film, and there probably isn’t a single person alive who has seen it. We’ll try our best to recreate it in our minds nonetheless.

Gugusse and the Automaton (Gugusse et l’Automate) 1897, France. Directed and produced by Georges Méliès. Lost film.

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The automaton from Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo (2011).

This is not an actual review, as the film in question is presumed lost, no known copy of it exists. However, since the film has significant historical value as one one of the first science fiction films ever made, and the as the first film featuring a robot, it deserves a mention on the blog.

Gugusse and the Automaton (Gugusse et l’Automate) was one of French film pioneer Georges Méliès’ earliest fictional films, made in 1897, when he had started to experiment with trick films, inspired by his day job as the owner and star of a magic theatre. For more on Méliès, see my post about the pioneers of science fiction films. Méliès made his first films in 1896, and very quickly started pioneering special effects, such as jump cuts, double exposures, split-screen photography, latent image matting and black screen photography. His films, like most at the time, ran for the lengths of one reel, or somewhere around a minute or slightly less. Méliès early trick films often involved people appearing and disappearing in thin air, or changing appearance as through magic – beautiful ladies turning into witches or demons turning into bats or skeletons. Inanimate objects came to life through wires, rods, black screen photography and stop trick animation. So we can assume that one or more of these tricks were present in the film.

Georges Méliès

Georges Méliès and Georges Méliès.

We don’t know exactly what happened in the film, as it was almost all of his negatives were either melted down for silver and celluloid (for army boot heels) during WWI, or burned by Méliès himself after the war, when he was all but forgotten. Fortunately even the earliest of his films were so popular that several copies have remained, and today nearly 300 of his movies have been recovered. Unfortunately Gugusse and the Automaton are not among them. The only description we have of the film that is presumed to come from some contemporary record is that it is a film in which Gugusse the clown is reacts with amazement at the actions of an automaton – the old word for what we would call a robot today.

But since Méliès’ films were so widely imitated, some of the later films on the subject may shed some light on the movie. Ed Stephens writes at Zedfest that American Selig Polyscope Company released a film in 1903 called The Clown and the Automaton, and that the Selig catalogue describes the film thusly: “A magician produces before the audience a small automaton figure of a clown, which he places upon a pedestal, whereupon the figure begins to grow, as he passes his hand in front of it, until it is full life size; when it at once comes to life and endeavors to quarrel with the magician. He, however, with the aid of a heavy sledge hammer, gradually reduces the figure to its original size. One of the most interesting films ever presented.”

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Theatre Robert-Houdin.

We can draw some conclusions about Gugusse and the Automaton from when it is made. One should remember that even if Méliès is best known today for his trick films, but in 1896 when he bought his first camera he was primarily a theatre owner and stage performer. Of his first 250 film clips only a small handful were trick films or indeed fictional films at all. Méliès did just what Lumière, Gaumont and Pathé did, and got his hands on a projector as soon as he could, and started to organise screenings at his Theatre Robert-Houdin. When he first started making films, he wasn’t thinking about trick films – the moving pictures themselves were tricks, just as good as any trick that he had performed at the theatre. Films were just another trick added to his repertoire. Why would he need to show magic tricks on film, when he had his own theatre in which to do then live?

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From Méliès first trick film The Vanishing Lady (1896); Jehanne d’Alcy and Georges Méliès.

However, thanks to a film reel that stuck in the camera while he was filming a street scene one day, he had a revelation. The film temporarily stuck mid-film, but after fighting for a moment with the crank, he got it going again. However, when he viewed the shot, he found that during the interval a carriage filled with living people had transformed into a hearse carrying a corpse, and thanks to the jump cut it seemed to happen right in front of the viewers’ eyes. It was after this that he made his first film using the stop trick. The first stop trick film, called The Vanishing Lady (1896) is simple and crude, and basically involves the re-enactment of one of Méliès’ regular stage tricks. He has his assistant, actress (and later wife) Jehanne d’Alcy sit down on a chair at the stage of Theatre Robert-Houdin, and covers her with a drape. When he removes the drape, she is gone. A number he had probably performed hundreds of time on stage, with the help of a rigged chair and a trapdoor, only this time didn’t need any rigs or traps, just the magic of editing. But the fact remains that he could just as well have performed it onstage, which leads one to believe that the film was made primarily as a dry run.

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Crazy moon from The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)!

And Méliès soon stepped up his game, so that in around the turn of the new year 1897 he released Le manoir du diable, which has been cited as the first horror film, with multiple characters, a devil, witches on brooms, a dancing skeleton, multiple jump-cuts, etc. He also started using more and more effects like smoke, fire and explosions in his films, as well as ever more elaborate sets. But still most of his visual effects still relied on jump cuts, wire work and various stage tricks. Up to the point when he made Gugusse and the Automaton, he had not yet started playing around with double exposure and black screen tricks. He used black screens in a couple of films in 1897, but then simply as a way to hide parts of the actors’ bodies in a single shot, not in a double exposure. Therefore, we can fairly safely draw the conclusion that Méliès did not use the shrinking-and-growing effect that is described as being used in the American remake from 1902. In fact, Méliès didn’t use that particular effect before 1901 in his film The Man With the Rubber Head. The effects requires a fairly elaborate setup and very precise filming, as it involves moving an actor backward and forward against a black backdrop, creating the illusion of shrinking and growing of aligned right – basically a forced perspective shot. The American movie was probably a combination of effects from many previous Méliès films.

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A clip of Méliès himself in the 1897 film The Four Troublesome Heads.

We do know, however, that Méliès did use black screen photography when he multiplied his own head at the very end of 1897 in the movie The Four Troublesome Heads. As Stephens writes, it may or may not be a coincidence that the magazine Scientific American released a book in 1897 containing the secrets to over 400 magic tricks – including trick still photography with black screens and multiple exposures – and that Méliès started using both techniques in his films at the end of that year.

So from all this we can surmise that Gugusse and the Automaton was probably a film that relied on stop trick photography and possible some sort of physical effects. The automaton was probably played by an actor or it could have been some sort of a rod-and-wire-controlled puppet. My money is on the first. In all fairness, it was probably a pretty basic Méliès slapstick movie.

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Henri Maillardet’s writing and drawing automaton, the inspiration for the automaton in Brian Zelznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

When we read automaton or robot today, our minds might go to something like C3PO, or perhaps the automaton shown in Martin Scorsese’s Mèliès biopic Hugo (2011). And in fact, automata looked pretty much like that one – on the inside. Automata were no sci-fi concept in the late 19th century, in fact they had been around since the 15th century (in some forms since ancient Greek), when Leonardo da Vinci designed an elaborate wind-up toy for adults. Because that’s basically what automata were. They were mainly designed by clockmakers, who would use the same sort of cogs, wheels and levers they used in clocks to propel dummies. Some of them were hugely impressive pieces of machinery. One of the most impressive ones was made by Henri Maillardet in the 18th century. It was a machine that – with a pen – could write three different poems, and draw four highly detailed drawings, and served as the inspiration for the one in Hugo. Many stage magicians used automata in their acts. Some where impressive enough to be used as such, other times the number involved some illusion with assistants controlling and/or voicing a dummy from behind the stage. In some cases real automata were enhanced by the use of some trick or illusion. Such was the case with history’s most famous automaton, Wolfgang van Kempelen’s The Turk, a chess-playing automaton who went up against some of the best minds of the day, including Benjamin Franklin and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte – and won. It even got mad at Napoleon when he cheated. It did, however, very rarely, but occasionally lose when pitted against actual chess masters … There are currently two replicas in use, one in the US and one in China, and it’s such a beautiful illusion that I don’t want to spoil it, but if you’re interested in how it works, you can google it.

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Robert-Houdin with his mechanical trapeze artist Antonio Diavolo.

In the second half of the 18th century, Paris was the capital of automatons, partly thanks to the work done by clock maker turned magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the same Robert-Houdin whose theatre Georges Méliès bought from his widow in the 1870’s. Robert-Houdin bought numerous automata, and built many himself, including a wonderful little acrobat that could perform a full trapeze number on stage. We know that at least one of Robert-Houdin’s automata was found among the props and machines at the theatre after Méliès had bought it, so perhaps Gugusse and the Automaton was Méliès’ homage to his big hero Robert-Houdin.

As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons that so many of Georges Méliès’ films have survived is that they were so popular than numerous copies were made, and Edison made it a habit to make illegally pirated copies to leech off Méliès’ success in the US. That no copies of Gugusse and the Automaton have turned up would suggest – a bit disappointingly perhaps – that it was a rather unremarkable slapstick film.

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George Méliès (left) with co-workers in his film studio in Montreuil.

Méliès would of course go on to change the history of cinema, not only with his advances in cinematic trickery, but with his pioneering of elaborate, imaginative and costly narrative movies, from Cinderella (1899), Joan of Arc (1900), and Bluebeard (1901) to his most famous movie A Trip to the Moon (1902, review). He continued to champion Jules Verne with his science fiction films The Impossible Journey (1904, review), Under the Seas (1907, review) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912), making him early cinema’s most prolific science fiction director, alongside Walter R. Booth.

Janne Wass

Gugusse and the Automaton (Gugusse et l’Automate) 1897, France. Directed and produced by Georges Méliès. Lost film.

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