L’uomo meccanico

NO RATING: PARTIALLY LOST FILM

Partially lost Italian silent sci-fi action comedy from 1921, notable for being the first feature film to revolve around a robot. Comedy superstar André Deed writes, acts and directs this fast-paced and well-made cheapo. 

The Mechanical Man (L’uomo meccanico). 1921, Italy. Written and directed by André Deed. Starring André Deed, Valentina Frascaroli. IMDb score: 5.9. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

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Poster.

L’uomo meccanico or The Mechanical Man is partially lost, and the only thing remaining is about 26 minutes of the original 80(?) minute film, so I cannot with any good judgement give this one a rating. I want to include it here, though, for two reasons. The first is that this is probably what remains of the first full length feature movie to revolve around a robot – although it wasn’t referred to as a robot in 1921 when the film premiered. The second reason is so that it can represent one of the tragedies of early film: about 80 percent of all the films made in the 1920s are presumed to be lost.

The film, made by French-Italian comedy superstar André Deed as L’uomo meccanico, depicts a scenario that would later become all too familiar in sci-fi: a good scientist creates a robot, but he is killed by a villain (in this case the femme fatale/crime boss Mado (Valentina Frascarelli), who takes over control of the automaton and proceeds to wreak havoc for her own personal gain. Enter the police (Ferdinando Vivas-May) and a hero (Deed himself), who battle the robot while they are trying to find the lair of Mado, where she remote controls the mechanical man. The scientist’s brother is able to build a second robot to battle the evil one, and we get a classic robot-on-robot duel in the end, reminiscent of later Japanese kaiju fare. But Mado is too clever a robot handler, and her robot is winning – until the hero in the shape of Deed’s Saltarello finds Mado and short circuits her machine, knocking out both her and the robot.

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The mechanical man attacks!

Robots would become a sci-fi staple, mainly as kiddie fare, during the Roaring Twenties in the pulp magazines, that were now starting to emerge, bringing strange and wonderful tales to the bedrooms of kids and adolescents both in Europe and USA. The first known appearance of a robot in film is trick film legend Georges Méliès’ short film Gugusse and the Automaton from 1899, and automatons of different varieties can be found in shorts ever after. Although The Mechanical Man is the first full length film to feature an automaton as the main attraction, it wasn’t the first feature film to feature one. That honour goes to the German Proto-Expressionist movie The Tales of Hoffmann (1916, review), in which the titular protagonist falls in love with Olympia, an automaton in the shape of a beautiful girl.

A robot had also been the focal point of the 20-part sci-fi serial The Master Mystery (review) starring escapist superstar Harry Houdini in 1919. The word robot had in fact been invented when the film came out. It was invented by Czech sci-fi author Karel Capek in his 1920 theatre play R.U.R. (or if legend holds true, actually by his brother). The play was strictly speaking not depicting robots as we see them today, but rather humanoids of flesh and blood assembled in a factory. Over time the word robot came to depict the mechanical beings rather than their artificial human counterparts. But by 1921, when this film was made, the word probably hadn’t yet had time to spread.

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The robot from the 1919 film The Master Mystery.

The film itself is light comical entertainment and has the feel of later American sci-fi serials, both in tone and story, and in the way it is filmed – without great visual style or innovation and on a rather cheap budget. It’s clear that Deed doesn’t have the same resources to work with at Milano Film in the twenties as he had at Itala in the teens, when he made his best work. However, L’uomo meccanico is well filmed, fast-paced and has good action and quite impressive special effects. The editing is kinetic and makes good use of visual effects such as double exposures, stop-tricks and pixilation. There’s a stupendous scene with the robot chasing a moving car on foot, which is really impressive considering the time in which the movie was filmed – showcasing just how much skill with cinema trickery Deed had picked up during his time working with Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomon in France – more on that later.

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A not entirely bad robot design for 1921.

The robot itself looks a lot like robots would look like for the following decades, basically up to the 1956 film Forbidden Planet with its famous Robby the Robot. Meaning: it looks like it was assembled using trash cans, cardboard boxes and huge tweezers. It moves slowly and awkwardly, with an actor inside a suit that is twice as tall as himself (or possibly even two acrobatic actors standing on top of each other). It does not look bad, though, in comparison to some of the crap that people like exploitation master Roger Corman and others would cobble together in the decades to come, and has a few very effective scenes. One that is especially riveting is not so because it would be particularly good, but before we have seen it before in a much later film. The mechanical man bashes a hole through a locked steel door, while chasing the heroes. We see a mechanical arm reaching inside, then down, it opens a latch and comes bursting through. Yes – the setup is exactly the same as in James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator.

As a whole it is hard to say anything definitive about the film, since only a fragment, mostly from the latter reels, remains. It is quite watchable as an episode of a sci-fi serial. It does get a bit confusing at times, and sometimes you can’t really keep track of what purposes the different characters have – but some of the confusion is cleared by new title cards.

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Mado (Valentina Frascarelli) watched the robot fight on her screen.

The film was long thought lost, until a damaged reel of the Portuguese version of he movie turned up in Brazil, that still contained 26 minutes of salvageable film. While writing this in 2018, the rest of the film is still presumed lost. It is a sad fact that around 80 percent of all the films that were made in the 1920s have suffered the same fate. In part this stems from the fact that at the time there was no coordinated film archives for the young medium, and the cultural impact of film in general was not yet fully understood. But another problem was the film itself. In those days all film companies used nitrate film. Nitrate film is nitrate cellulose – hence the word celluloid. And nitrate cellulose is basically guncotton – a highly unstable, though low-grade, explosive.

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On Christmas 1919 the Cross House in Newcastle, UK became a giant torch after the film archive of Famous Players-Lasky in the basement caught fire. 11 people died, and the fire led to the passing of the Celluloid and Cinematograph Film Act of Britain, regulating the handling and storage of film stock.

There was a huge problem in the early days of film with reels catching fire in cinemas as the projector heated up. This is why projectionists’ rooms were made to look like bomb bunkers – sealed off little rooms away from the audience with just a tiny little window. It was basically so the fire could be contained if the film lighted up. Although so-called safety film was introduced in 1951, the projectionists’ booths still look pretty much like they did in the old days. But nitrate film was not just a problem because it burned away all the films, but rather because nobody really wanted to keep a whole bunch of film reels in their basements. It didn’t take more than a tiny spark or a really hot day for a damaged old reel inside a metal casing to catch fire. One film often consisted of 8 or more reels of film, and studios simply didn’t want to take the risk of storing all of the old films in their archives, since they were basically packing their basements with explosives. Private collectors also had a hard time holding on to film, as the reels were considered hazardous material and often removed during fire inspections. A third reason as to why many early films have been lost is that in the beginning archivists didn’t realise that nitrate film deteriorates pretty quickly, especially in warm conditions. Nitric acid would start to separate from the reels and destroy the films. Later it was discovered that storage in cold temperatures could prevent this from happening, but it was too late for many of the films of the 1920’s.

Not much documentation remains from this film, apart from what remained on the title cards of the discovered reel. The beginning titles are missing, and therefore the actors had to be identified by their looks. Some of the actors and most of the crew are unknown. What we know is that the film was written and directed by André Deed, who also played the lead.

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Andre Deed.

Although largely forgotten by all but the more dedicated silent film fans, André Deed is, along French countryman Max Linder, basically responsible for creating the slapstick-heavy comedy with innocent but foolish buffoons at the centre that became the trademark for Hollywood’s early comedy stars like Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle. With the exception of Arbuckle, all these got started in the movies during or after WWI. Deed made his first film appearance in 1901, and in 1907 he got his breakthrough by creating the character Boireau, which basically became the template for the types of characters that Ben Turpin, The Keystone Cops, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and others became famous for later. Legendary comedy producer Mack Sennett at the Keystone Studios most certainly took his biggest inspiration from the work of Deed and Perez. Anthony Balducci calls Deed “the most unjustly overlooked performer in the history of film comedy”.

Deed, born Henri André de Chapais in Le Havre in 1979, left a privileged bourgeois life at the turn of the century to become a vaudeville performer, as an acrobat, slapstick comedian and singer. In 1901 he was spotted by illusionist and film pioneer Georges Méliès, who started featuring him in his movies. Méliès once said that Deed was the only actor who could do his comedy justice on screen. Since actors in those days weren’t credited, it’s not known how many of Méliès‘ films Deed appeared in, but they were at least five, including the international smash hit The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903). During his work with Méliès Deed picked up a lot of cinematic tricks from the father of the trick film, many of which he used later in his career as a director, as can be seen in L’uomo meccanico. After working as a freelance actor for a few years, Deed was picked up by movie company Pathé in 1905, the same year that the conglomerate hired Max Linder.

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A rare surviving shot of André Deed and Max Linder together.

In 1907 comedy history was made as Max Linder established his cheeky aristocrat playboy character Max and Deed created the hyperactive, clownish simpleton Boireau. Both proved immensely popular not only in France, but internationally. While Max Linder is often crowned as the European king of comedy pre-1915, he faced stiff competition from Deed, whose films tended to be even more popular than Linder’s in southern Europe, while Linder often drew the long straw in northern and eastern Europe. Between 1907 and 1909 Deed also worked on other films, including some with another sci-fi and trick film great, Spanish cinema wizard Segundo de Chomon, no doubt packing his bag of movie magic even fuller. Deed and Linder even worked together on at least four pictures, creating what Balducci calls the first comedy team of cinema, a prototype that would last to this day, with the refined, suave Max opposite the bumbling, clownish Boireau – think Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Tina Fay and Ami Pohler.

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André Deed in a Cretinetti film from 1911.

However, Deed’s golden period arrived in 1909, when he was approached by Italian director and head of Itala Film in Turin, Giovanni Pastrone, who offered him a very lucrative contract and a chance to direct his films in Turin. He renamed his character Cretinetti, which also became Deed’s artist name, as the popularity of his films exploded. The American success of the Cretinetti films prompted French studio Gaumont to hire two other acrobatic comedians, Clément Mégé and Spanish Marcel Perez to emulate these comedies. Mégé created the working-class character of Calino, while Perez quickly jumped ship as Italian rival Ambrosio Film, based in Rome, came calling with a similar offer that Deed had gotten from Itala Film. Perez’ character Robinet quickly rivalled even the popularity of Cretinetti, and eventually took Perez to America, where he continued his successful career.

Deed not only showed off his remarkable comedic abilities and athleticism, but also his directing chops. Many of his films seem remarkably modern for their day, thanks to Deed’s often kinetic editing and fast-paced action. When watching Buster Keaton’s legendary chase scenes from the twenties, some of them are almost copies of what Deed did ten years earlier. Some of his films had impressive production values and showcased his sure hand with trick effects.

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André Deed (right) with wife and frequent co-star Valentina Frascaroli in 1911.

The Cretinetti comedies were so hugely popular that they almost single-handedly financed the rise of Itala Film as one of the leading film companies in the world, and brought the studio the money to start creating lavish and costly feature films. Without Deed’s silly comedies, Itala would never have made the epic sword-and-sandal blockbusters Quo Vadis (1913) or Cabiria (1914), which along with Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) established the feature film as the industry standard.

Despite his age of 38, André Deed was conscripted into the reserve in 1915, and returned to France – however he was able to briefly returned to Italy in 1915 and 1916 to make two very successful feature films, including one where Cretinetti goes up against none other than Bartolomeo Pagano, the strongman who had made such an epic splash in his role as the slave Maciste in Cabiria. During the first two years of the war, Deed was able to continue making films, and resurrected the Boireau character for French audiences, but in the end of 1916 he was called into active duty. Very little is known of his years in the war, but judging from his postings it is quite possible that he saw action in the trenches. He made no films between 1917 and 1920. Back from the war, he continued to make short films, but also planned a science fiction feature film trilogy, however, was only able to direct two of the films. The first movie was called was called Il documento umano, or “The human document” or “A document of humanity”. Almost no information on this now lost film seems to have survived, other than that it featured much of the same cast as L’uomo meccanico. The title of the last planned film is reported to have been Lo strano amore di Mado or “The strange love of Mado”.

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Champagne for the robot!

Nobody today quite seems to know for sure why the third film was never made, or why Deed broke off with Milano Film and returned to France. But L’uomo meccanico remained his last directorial effort. However, the film business had changed significantly over the course of WWI. The Italian movie industry was hit hard and went into a slump that continued in the twenties, partly because of the fact that the US had caught up with European film production artistically and sorted out many of the structural problems that had hampered its domestic film production prior to the war. American producers had (finally) embraced the feature film, and Hollywood’s and the New York studios’  ranks had been bolstered by a good number of European filmmakers and stars during the war. Cecil B. DeMille was now creating America’s own sword-and-sandal epics, and the Keystone comedies, Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton had blown away all European comedy competition. And they were as beloved by Italians as by Americans. Nobody cared for Cretinetti anymore – or Max, for that matter.

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André Deed (left) in a Cretinetti film from 1910.

Little is known of his activities in France during the twenties and thirties. He continued to act sporadically, perhaps most notably in the anti-racist comedy Le nègre du rapide numéro 13 in 1923. However, his career declined and there are several long gaps in his film credits, although he did appear in a handful of films after the advent of the talkies. His last film role came in 1938. At some point we know that he took up the job as a night watchman at the Pathé studios, a job he kept until his death in 1940.

Like many other of the stars of pre-WWI cinema, André Deed died poor and in relative obscurity – even the year of his death was erroneously reported for decades. With digitalisation and internet, many have since been rehabilitated with belated biographies, dedicated websites, DVD collections, cinematic retrospects, etc. While Deed is now rightly remembered and praised in works on early cinema, he has yet to achieve the attention bestowed upon many other movie pioneers that have previously been overlooked by film historians, and is mostly mentioned in brief passages in books on film history. Ironically Ambrosio Film’s Cretinetti substitute Marcel Perez has been much more talked about in recent years – and rightly praised for his contribution to early comedy film. Perhaps the interest towards Perez is greater because he had a career in the US.

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Charles Chaplin and Max Linder.

The foremost experts on Deed today tend to be Max Linder enthusiasts, since it’s impossible to get a clear picture of Linder’s career without getting a similarly clear one on Deed’s. Unfortunately such experts, like Georg Rencken and the afore-mentioned Balducci tend to focus primarily on Deed’s years in France. However, Balducci has devoted his first chapter in his 2012 book Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film to Deed, and if I blogged about comedies, that book would certainly be on my shopping list. As it is I already spend waaay too much on sci-fi works.

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Valentina Frascaroli as Mado.

Even more marginalised in contemporary film history than the early European male comedy stars were their female counterparts, of which one important example is Valentina Frascaroli, who plays the enigmatic villain Mado in L’uomo meccanico. Fortunately Frascaroli isn’t among the most neglected of the early comediennes, owing to the fact that she was also a star of the dramatic film, and quite famous as a screen diva in her home country Italy. Apart from this, she had a very successful career on stage, which she continued even after she left the movie business in 1925. It is quite possible that she, at least periodically, provided for her husband André Deed when his film career was dwindling.

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André Deed and Valentina Frascaroli.

Deed and Frascaroli met soon after he had moved to Italy, and as early as 1909 she appeared in her first Cretinetti film, and she quickly became the leading lady to Deed’s leading man in these comedy shorts – and continued the tradition in the later Boireau movies after the couple moved to France during WWI. In France, Pathé even gave Frascaroli her own series of comedy shorts, the Gribouillette series, where she played the lead, often with Deed as the secondary character. But she also held lead or substantial roles in a dozen or more feature films of the more dramatic kind, directed by some of the foremost directors at Itala, like Pastrone, de Chomon and Eugenio Testa. Unfortunately most of her filmography is lost, but among the few films thart remain are the well-regarded The Royal Tigress (1916) and Maciste alpino (1916), released in the US as The Warrior, one of the few Maciste films starring strongman Bartolomeo Pagano that Cabiria director Giovanni Pastrone directed himself.

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Valentina Frascaroli.

Film scholar Mariann Lewinsky writes about Frascaroli: “the ever-endearing, ever-lovely Valentina, a source of joy for anyone who sees her. If [Deed] is a ‘maschera’, a character type, she is too: an effervescent, affable Columbine of the cinema, cunning and catty, wise, clever and coquettish. But she was better than him, and more versatile, and she had a dual career, not only as comic actress alongside Deed, and alone in the Gribouillette series produced by Pathé, but also as a jeune ingénue in dramatic titles such Sacrificata! (1910), a very early and remarkable film which has miraculously survived. Leafing through period publications we can gather that Frascaroli was a much-loved and appreciated actress.”

Indeed, Frascaroli is cast against type in L’uomo meccanico as a masked “villain”, and that is perhaps what makes her so alluring in the role. Clearly she was the centrepiece in Deed’s science fiction trilogy, even though he played the hero, and it’s a damn shame that the first film is lost and the third never got made.

As said, most of the film is lost, and only 26 minutes of what was presumably 80 remains. What remains is a bit confusing, but there are new subtitles (you can find them in English if you dig around the web) that clear up most of it. Do go and find it, if for nothing else, then for the fact that more people need to say that they have seen André Deed in action, and that he needs proper collection DVD.

Janne Wass

L’uomo meccanico (The Mechanical Man). 1921, Italy. Written and directed by André Deed. Starring André Deed, Valentina Frascaroli, Mathilde Lambert, Gabriel Moreau, Ferdinando Vivas-May, Giulia Costa. Cinematography: Alberto Chentrens. Produced for Società Anonima Milano Films.

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