After preventing her boyfriend from giving alms to a gypsy woman, a young girl daydreams about the beggar’s revenge.
Unusual ten-minute silent short from writer-director Segundo de Chomón that combines melodrama with a touch of surreal horror. Details of cast and crew have been lost to time, but this French-Spanish production has survived mostly intact.
Juanita is serving at an outdoor cafe when her boyfriend Pablo stops by for a drink. She goes over to his table to bring him a glass of wine when a gypsy woman enters the establishment, begging for alms. Pablo is about to oblige with a coin from his purse, but Juantina intervenes to stop him. There’s an argument, and the woman is thrown out. When Pablo leaves almost immediately afterwards, Juanita daydreams about how the woman might retaliate and steal her man.
In her dream, the gypsy arranges for Pablo to be waylaid on the road and kidnapped. Alerted by the cafe owner, the authorities chase the three ruffians responsible through a wood and across a river. Using the smoke from a fire, the gang eludes the forces of law and order and leaves Pablo in their strange, underground hideout to await the coming of the gypsy woman. While there, he stumbles across monstrous evidence of witchcraft and sorcery.
This short film is of interest to a modern audience in several ways. On the debit side is the negative depiction of the Romani people and their culture, casting them in the usual manner as thieves and black-hearted scoundrels who practice the dark arts, as well as more conventional forms of villainy. It’s a tiresome and lazy stereotype, of course, but it was very prevalent in early 20th Century Europe and still exists today.
Leaving that unpleasantness aside, the technical aspects of the film impress. Director Chomón was an early rival of the famous filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès. However, where Méliès often struggled to integrate narrative storytelling with his fantastical visions, Chomón demonstrates a greater ability to balance those two elements here. The story is presented realistically for the most part, even if most of the action takes place in Juanita’s dream. Assisting the grounded feel, most of the film was shot on location, with even the cafe being outside, which was a departure from the usual studio-bound work favoured by both directors.
It’s not until near the climactic scenes that events take a decidedly surreal path. This change occurs when Pablo is left alone in the hideout, which does resemble the kind of interior set that Méliès favoured. Our hero begins to root through the cupboards, presumably looking for something to aid his escape, when he comes across some large jars. A couple of these contain bizarre creatures, brought to life by de Chomón’s expertise in animation. These are obvious precursors to the ‘little surprises’ of Dr Praetorious in James Whale’s fantastic ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). However, Chomón’s creations are anything but comic, being definite nightmare fuel instead.
It’s also pleasing to see how film grammar and techniques were developing. For the most part, the camera still views the action at a distance, but Chomón varies his shots in several sequences rather than keeping the filming position fixed as if he were presenting a stage play. There’s a remarkable moment when the camera moves in on Juanita’s face as she goes into her daydream and zooms out when the vision is over. It’s bizarrely reminiscent of that famous shot in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975) when police chief Roy Schieder realises the shark is in the water off the beach, although not nearly as sophisticated or accomplished, of course.
Perhaps the most striking element, however, is the colours. It’s generally accepted that the film was hand-tinted frame by frame, but it’s such a fine job that an audience could be forgiven for assuming it was shot on an early, primitive colour film stock. English language intertitles have been added to the available print at some point in history (to which we owe the character names), and, apparently, one of these at the start of the film identifies the colouring technique used as ‘Pathécolor ó Cinemacoloris’ although this card was missing from the version reviewed here.
Segundo de Chomón was born in Aragon in northeastern Spain in 1871 as Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz. His entry into the French film industry followed his marriage to actress Julienne Mathieu. She was regularly working for the Société Pathé Frères film company, later simply known as Pathé. Chomón began working for them as a distributor, sometimes of his own Spanish productions. Recognises his talent, Charles Pathé began promoting Chomón as a rival to Méliès, and the director and his wife collaborated on the creation of more than 150 short films between 1907 and 1912, including ‘Legend of A Ghost/La légende du fantôme (1908). At the end of this period, Chomón went to work in Italy, most notably providing the impressive SFX for Giovanni Pastrone’s ‘Cabiria’ (1914). He began working increasingly in cinematography and visual effects over the next few years, contributing to such notable projects as Abel Gance’s classic ‘Napoleon’ (1927) and Guido Brignone’s ‘Maciste in Hell’ (1925). He passed away suddenly in 1929.
If you can forgive the racial stereotyping, this is an interesting example of the evolution of early cinema.