The Electric Hotel

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(8/10) Stop-motion animation with live actors has probably never been done as well as in Segundo de Chomon’s 1908 film The Electric Hotel. But this tale of a tourist couple getting pampered by an automated hotel room doesn’t transcend the novelty of the trick.

The Electric Hotel (El hotel eléctrico/Hôtel électrique). 1908, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon. Starring: Julienne Mathieu, Segundo de Chomon. Produced for Pathé. IMDb score: 6.6. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

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Poster.

Three topics dominated the scientific discussion among the general public in 1908: cars, planes and electricity. Sure, electricity had been around for quite some time, but had little actual impact on the lives of ordinary people. But in the late 19th and early 20th century electric motors were commonplace in factories and in most large cities electrical lighting were used for street lights, in public buildings, workplaces and even homes, as the electrical grid started spreading. Electric cars and trains were taken in use, and all sorts of electrical appliances were advertised in the papers, from the Hoover Electric Vacuum Cleaner, the first electric washing machines and the  Hotpoint Electric Toaster, to electric belts, hair brushes, vibrators, baths, and other devices that cured everything from hysteria to cancer. The electric clothes iron was invented in 1903, closely followed by the electric sewing machine.

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Electricity could do just about everything back in the day!

These did little for the common people, as electrification hadn’t yet started spreading past city centres and posh areas of towns; it wasn’t until the 1930’s electricity reached rural communities in Europe and North America; but they sure made great headlines. Companies and public operators started using electric kitchens, industrial refrigerators, electric elevators, and electric lighting, and while the luxuries of electricity was still out of reach for most in the first decade of the 1900’s, everyone was talking about it, and about the miraculous developments that it promised for the future. So it should come as no surprise that it was a hot topic in the films of the day.

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The 1907 Hoover.

The early trick filmers loved electricity, and no filmmaker worth their salt would pass up the opportunity to make at least one short film with the work “electric” or “automatic” in its title. Often the tricks would be the same as in films featuring magic or surreal dreams: stop tricks, reverse photography, double exposures, etc. But an especially popular trick in electricity-themed films was sped-up action created by undercranking the camera, making people and/or vehicles and animals move at super-speed, sometimes juxtaposed against actors superimposed at normal cranking, or simply moving extra slowly to create the illusion of normal movement. One popular trope was the animation of inanimate objects, making things shift positions using stop trick photography.

Many of these films are lost, or simply just too uninteresting to cover on this blog, really nothing much more than simple trick experiments. But some where quite imaginative, and representing them here at Scifist is the one that should probably be held as the best of the lot, Segundo de Chomon’s The Electric Hotel (El hotel electrico/Hôtel électrique), made in the early fall of 1908, and produced by the world’s biggest film company Pathé.

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Segundo de Chomon and Julienne Mathieu in The Electric Hotel.

Catalan filmmaker Segundo de Chomon got inspired to start making films by his wife Julienne Mathieu, who was an actress at Pathé. De Chomon started off as a distributor for Pathé Frères in Spanish-speaking countries, and was the manager of a factory for colourising their movies in Barcelona. In 1905 he began doing location filming for the company, then making documentaries, and soon got hooked on trick filming. In 1907 he moved with his wife to Paris, where he started his career as a trick filmer, and quickly became the most adept special effects photographer at Pathé, rivaling the greatness of film pioneer Georges Méliès. All in all, he made over 300 films in his career, and he became a specialist in fairy tale and fantasy stories, ghosts and science fiction. He was also the primary go-to guy when Pathé needed a Méliès copy.

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Segundo de Chomon.

Also in 1908, de Chomon made his first major Méliès copy, Excursion to the Moon (Excursion dans la lune, review), an almost shot-by-shot remake of A Trip to the Moon (1902, review). He followed this by a A Trip to Jupiter (1909), nominally an original production, but still very much in debt to the French pioneer. In 1910 he made Inside the Earth (Voyage au centre de la terre), which is probably the first adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. It seems to be a lost film, but there are fragments available online, and from the looks of it, it was a very impressive film.

Magnetic Removal (1908) showcased de Chomon’s knack for stop trick photography, as it featured a new magnetic invention dismantling a family’s house. The  masterpiece in this genre was a sci-fi-ish story about a couple checking into a modern hotel where automated furniture and props help them unpack their luggage and prepare them for a night out by shining shoes, shaving, braiding hair and getting them dressed. The nine minute short is a masterclass in stop trick animation by way of live actors and props.

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Automatic shoe polishing.

The film tells the story of Laura (Julienne Mathieu) and Bertrand (Segundo de Chomon), two tourists who arrive at a hotel where there is no human service: everything works by way of electricity.  Their suitcases are automatically transported to their rooms, where they open and we see shirts, cuffs and handkerchiefs rise out, fold themselves and disappear into drawers. Laura is combed by a brush that works without anyone managing it and her husband is soaped and shaved by utensils with apparent life of their own. Laura’s hair is braided and the guests get an automatic change of clothes. The hotel even composes a letter to their friends, telling the, what a lovey time they are having. But downstairs an accident is waiting: the technician in charge of the electrical machinery gets drunk and starts to pull levers at random, overloading the circuits and making all the furnitue go haywire! Laura and Bernard are whisked around the room like rag dolls, and end up spread out over chairs and tables, exhausted and dizzy.

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Drunken lever pulling.

Segundo de Chomon was among the most innovative and bold filmmakers of the era, in many ways well ahead of Georges Méliès, who was starting to get stuck in old habits and had a hard time renewing himself. Instead of doing what most did, take Méliès’ tricks and repeat them, he built upon them. In The Electric Hotel he shows off his superb knack for stop-motion animation, which he was a master at with inanimate objects, but this time he also used people, describing a futuristic hotel with automatic equipment that helped dress and groom its guests for a night out. This was the same technique which blew movie-goers away in the 30’s and 40’s when it was used to depict transformations i horror movies such as The Wolfman and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; only Segundo de Chomon did it ten times better in 1908. How he was able to keep his wife so still during the long hairbrushing and braiding sequence is beyond my comprehension. Maybe she was just that good. When filming himself he wisely changes the position of his head and his expressions ever so slightly during the process, making the shaving sequence feel natural, and eliminating the need for exact realignment.

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It was an absolutely painstaking animation process similar to that used by later stop-motion artists like Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen, but with live actors. While the technique doesn’t really require much optical trickery, the exactness involved in keeping everything lined up precisely from frame to frame is hugely impressive. In most similar animations from the era one sees an ever so slight wobble as props and backgrounds, or indeed the camera itself, shifts and moves a millimeter here or a millimeter there during the process. But de Chomon always keeps everything rock-steady.

It is worth noting that this film gives us one of the first, if not the first, example of varying camera setups in a single scene (cutaways not counted) in a science fiction film. During the movie de Chomon cuts back and forth between wide shots of the room and close-ups of the strange goings on, while at the same time changing the angle of the shot. Even in the wide shots, he uses three different angles, one for the luggage “arriving”, a second one for the couple entering and a third one for the rest of the film. In the grooming scenes he uses close-ups on the actors. This wasn’t all that revolutionary in 1903, but still quite unusual as the continuous wide shot was still the norm, and especially in science fiction, where so many were still relying on the stage-bases template set up and stubbornly insisted upon by Georges Méliès.

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Segundo de Chomon getting an electric shave.

While de Chomon was highly adept at other tricks, stop-motion animation became what essentially set him apart from his peers. He made a whole bunch of other films using different stop-motion techniques. He was one of the first to use what would later become known as claymation, traditional hand-drawn animation, puppet animation and combined these with other tricks, such as double exposures, stop trick and reverse photography, sometimes seamlessly turning puppets into actors and vice versa, and sometimes creating illusions that baffle even a modern viewer.

As a narrative film, the The Electric Hotel leaves a bit to be wished for. This is my main complaint: in never transcends the novelty of the effect.

While The Electric Hotel is sometimes described as the first stop-motion film, this is not true. Even de Chomon himself used the technique earlier, and there were others who experimented it to a lesser scale years before. However, few used it as extensively as him, and no-one did it with live actors the way he did, or as well. The inspiration came from British expat in America, J. Stuart Paton, another pioneer in animation, who in 1907 made the short film The Haunted Hotel, in which a baffled hotel guest watched in amazement as his dinner prepares itself. Most of the film is actually live action, with coffee pots and china being moved with wires and rods, but there’s a remarkable scene in which a knife cuts bread and salami. de Chomon more or less recreated this film, with some added ghosts, in his 1907 movie The Haunted House, and then refined the effects over time. Thanks to Ismael Juárez at Mundo Cinema Mundo for pointing out the link to Blackton.

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A scene from Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel (1907).

There has been some confusion over whether The Electric Hotel was made as early as 1905 in Spain, perhaps stemming from its commonly used Spanish title. However, de Chomon hadn’t even began using stop-motion animation by then, and the common consensus today is that it was made in France in 1908.

Segundo de Chomon’s  The Invisible Thief (1909, review) is, to the best of my knowledge, the first film which explicitly plays out scenes from H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man. In the film de Chomon shows the now famous scene where the protagonist undresses and reveals his invisibility. The sequence is filmed in a single continuous shot, and was the first of its kind. This was done by the exact same principle used by the special effects team led by John P. Fulton in the making of the classic Universal film The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale in 1933, and which is basically still used today in a refined form blue and green screen photography.

In 1910 de Chomon made Inside the Earth (Voyage au centre de la terre), which is probably the first adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. It seems to be a lost film, but there are fragments available online, and from the looks of it, it was a very impressive film.

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He’s invisible!

Segundo de Chomon also made a whole number of surreal art films in the vein of Gaston Velle, elaborately ornamented with art noveau set dressing, rainbow-coloured fountains, huge pyrotechnics, clay animation, double exposures, stop-motion, ludicrously exact mattes and split-screens, all exquisitely hand coloured by the hundreds of women working in Pathé’s colouring factory.  He used depth in a way that few filmmakers did at that time, check out his first hit film The Red Spectre (1907) for a magnificent close-up, which inspired another James Whale/John P. Fulton movie, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in particular the scene with the bottled homunculi. See the bizarre The Modern Sculptor (1908) and realise that the entire film is shot in reverse. Watch the mad fever dream that is The Frog (1908) and try to figure out what the hell is going on. Then watch his 1909 film A Trip to Jupiter, and realise how dull it is when he was once again forced to do another Méliès trip to the moon imitation.

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de Chomon’s wife. actress Julienne Mathieu.

In 1909 people were already making so-called story pictures, and it would only last 4 more years until out of Italy came the first blockbuster movie, Quo Vadis by Enrico Guazzoni, a movie nearly two hours long depicting the Christian story of emperor Nero and the burning of Rome, with 5 000 extras, gladiator fights and chariot races. At the same time, people like de Chomon and Méliès were still trying to cling to the upper echelons of the film industry doing what were essentially parlour tricks. But when the movie industry changed, unlike Méliès, de Chomon continued to work, and found that even if he himself couldn’t go on directing the new kinds of movies that were being made, his so-called parlour tricks could still be put to good use.

de Chomon more or less quit directing in 1913, after Quo Vadis came out, and instead took jobs as cinematographer and special effects creator for feature films (and shorts). The one he is probably best remembered for today by film buffs is the epic sword-and-sandal blockbuster Cabiria (1914), which was made following the huge success of Quo Vadis. That is because the film included history’s first dolly shot. He lso worked on a number of other films by Cabiria co-director Giovanni Pastrone, including The Royal Tigress (1916) and Hedda Gabler (1920), as well as the two best known early films featuring the strongman Maciste, whose famous character debuted in Cabiria, The Warrior (1916) and Maciste in Hell (1925). And in 1927 he was basically dragged out of retirement to help on Abel Gance’s megalomanic masterpiece Napoleon, widely held as one of the best silent films ever made.

Janne Wass

The Electric Hotel (El hotel eléctrico/Hôtel électrique). 1908, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon. Starring: Julienne Mathieu, Segundo de Chomon. Produced for Pathé. 

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