Acquiring the Lumière patents, the French company Pathé quickly rose to dominate the film industry in the early days of cinema. Around this time (1908), Pathé invented the newsreel, which came to supplant the actuality films as the leading form of documentary on film. Most people who went to the movies saw a newsreel prior to a feature film from about 1910 well into the 1960’s.
While Pathé made every type of film, their fantasy trick films from the first decade of the 20th Century are most memorable. There was a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas in those days, so Pathé copied Georges Méliès, and Méliès copied Pathé. We have already screened films in this series by Edison in America and Hepworth in Britain that were modeled on the techniques prevalent in Pathé films.
Segundo de Chomon (1871-1929) was a Spanish director who made a name for himself with the fantasy trick films that he did for Pathé. He is sometimes called “the Spanish Méliès.” In fact, one of the films he made for Pathé in 1908 was a virtual copy of Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon from 1902. Méliès’s shot of the spaceship stuck in the face of the Man in the Moon is legendary, whereas de Chomon has the moon swallowing the bullet-shaped vehicle.
El hotel electrico (The Electric Hotel), remarkably preserved for a film that was once believed to be lost, is a dazzling experiment in stop motion photography, and one of the first examples of pixelation in cinema (where the actors themselves have to be positioned for the stop motion effects, as if they were inanimate objects.) The plot has a man and a woman checking into a hotel, whereupon their luggage runs off by itself up the stairs and unpacks itself. Later, the man gets his boots blacked and the woman her hair done by brushes and other objects that move about on their own. The film ends with the joke that all is being controlled by a power room somewhere in the hotel, and the wrong switches get pulled, throwing everything into hilarious mayhem for the finale.
Such stop motion effects were (and still are) labor intensive, so you do not see them that often in early cinema. That didn’t stop L. Frank Baum from putting a stop motion sequence in one of his Oz films from 1914 that is very reminiscent of The Electric Hotel. Unfortunately, Baum’s films were not well-distributed, cost a lot to make, and lost money, so most people at the time did not get to see them when they were first released, and they waited decades for deluxe editions of The Wizard of Oz (1939) to include them as extras.