Set in a child's playroom, Georges Méliès' The Magic Lantern (La Lanterne magique) is an early cinematic example of what can best be described as The Secret Life of Toys. A natural part of childhood imagination, The Secret Life of Toys was an established part of popular culture long before Méliès brought it to the screen. Hans Christian Andersen efectively summarized the paramters of this story form in The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1835):
"Late in the evening the other soldiers were put into their box, and the people of the house went to bed. Now was the time for the toys to play; they amused themselves with paying visits, fighting battles, and giving balls. The tin soldiers rustled about in their box, for they wanted to join the games, but they could not get the lid off. The nutcrackers turned somersaults, and the pencil scribbled nonsense on the slate. There was such a noise that the canary woke up and joined in, but his remarks were in verse."
This Méliès film features a number of toys and characters that would have been familiar to European children (and adults) of the time. Pierrot and Punch assemble a candle-lit magic lantern slide projector. Harlequin and Columbine appear. Toy soldiers try to establish order. Punch transforms into a sort of jack-in-the-box. In the decades after Méliès produced The Magic Lantern numerous animated films would adapt the same Secret Life of Toys theme, updating it to include the popular toys of the day. From Starewicz's stop-motion epic The Mascot to Harmon/Ising's Toyland Broadcast to Art Clokey's Gumby and Pokey movies, rowdy parties bercame regular events whenever toys were left unattended.
Few of these animated films were directly influenced by The Magic Lantern, but it's interesting to note how similar Méliès' treatment of the subject was to some of the later films. Significantly, the Méliès film presents a variety of characters, almost in parade form, but things eventually devolve into a chaotic sort of chase. Plot and conflict are as incidental (even nonsensical) in The Magic Lantern as they are in the Fleischer Studios' Betty Boop cartoon Parade of the Wooden Soldiers(1933), Harmon/Ising's Warners cartoon Three's a Crowd(1932), or Friz Freleng's Warner cartoonThe Miller's Daughter (1934). The later films all benefit from the addition of music tracks, and they might have a slightly more complete skeleton of a plot, but they all descend to the same sort of chase chaos and anarchy as Méliès 1903 entry.
Pierrot would again encounter a magic lantern in Kenneth Anger's Rabbit's Moon, a film that he shot in France in the early 1950's while he was involved at Cinémathèque Française. Although Rabbit's Moon does not necessarily seem to be directly inspired by The Magic Lantern, Anger's beautifully shot film (in any of it's various versions) plays like a natural fusion of the theatrical cinema styles of Georges Méliès and Jean Cocteau.
Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of George Melies (John Frazer, 1979, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston).
Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald, 1989, Henry Holt and Company Inc., New York).
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