Insubstantial Media: Ectoplasm, Exposure, and the Still Birth of Film

By the end of the nineteenth century, European and American audiences had temporarily lost interest in stage magic, and the vanishing lady no longer held any particular theatrical appeal. Charles Bertram, the magician who had first introduced the Vanishing Lady Act onto the British stage, writes in 1896: “No place of entertainment was complete without its vanishing lady, but…the illusions which were attempted elsewhere lost all their significance, and eventually ‘wore out’ what was a most startling and marvellous feat.”1

Not coincidentally, 1896 is also the year John Maskelyne, director of London’s primary magic theater, Egyptian Hall, first introduced moving pictures into his magic shows.2 Magicians included film in their repertoire in the hope of revitalizing the public’s interest in magic, but ultimately, the new medium only worked to consolidate magic’s demise. As Jasper Maskelyne writes, “It was Mr. Devant who was responsible for obtaining for the Egyptian Hall some of the first moving picture shows ever seen in England. Little did anyone guess then that the novelty to which a few minutes of the Maskelyne programme was devoted each evening was subsequently to oust conjuring to a very great degree from public interest, and to contribute largely toward the condition of things which eventually caused Maskelyne’s Theatre to be taken over by the B.B.C” (91).3

Unaware of the ousting that was soon to take place, however, turn-of-the-century magicians enthusiastically performed their best tricks before the camera. The Maskelynes and Mr. Devant shot illusions on the roof of Egyptian Hall with a machine purchased from R.W. Paul, while in France, another magician found himself entranced by the new medium. When the Lumière brothers first presented the Cinématograph in Paris in 1895, Georges Méliès, renowned magician and owner of the Théatre de Robert-Houdin, Paris’s equivalent of Egyptian Hall, was one of the guests.4 Describing the display as “un truc extraordinaire” (“an extraordinary trick”), Méliès became determined to buy a machine for his magic theater, but the Lumières refused to sell the Cinématograph until late 1897.5 Undeterred, Méliès traveled to London in February 1896, where he too purchased a projector from R. W. Paul. Then, either through his own invention, or through acquiring the rights to the Isolatograph, designed by his friends the Isola brothers, Méliès found himself in possession of the power of filmmaking.6

As the vanishing lady disappeared from the stage, she rose like a phoenix from the ashes, making an immediate and ghostly comeback in this newly emerging world of film. Many trick films from the early years of film feature vanishing and reappearing bodies, both male and female.7 It is striking, however, that between 1896 and 1898, three filmmakers from different countries all chose to reproduce the particular version of The Vanishing Lady first performed by Charles Bertram in Britain in 1886.

In 1896 Méliès made The Vanishing Lady (L’Escamotage d’une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin) (October-November), performing the original stage trick with one crucial alteration. In Charles Bertram’s stage version of L’Escamotage D’Une Dame, his assistant, Mademoiselle Patrice, reappeared not as a body, but as a voice in the audience, asserting her presence with a single word: “Here!” In the silent medium of film, however, where the voice temporarily disappears as a mode of presence, the vanishing lady’s screen comeback becomes something of a challenge. Denying vanished lady a full visual reappearance, Méliès removes the cloth to reveal a gruesome and charred skeleton in the chair where his assistant once sat.8 Apparently unaffected by Méliès’s attempt to give some closure to the repetitive comings and goings of the magician’s assistant, however, the vanishing lady rises again from the ashes (literally, this time), making two further early cinematic appearances.

The Vanishing Lady
In 1897, R. W. Paul made The Vanishing Lady with Charles Bertram as the star magician; and in 1898 Thomas Edison produced another version of the same trick, with the slight variation that, instead of transforming into a skeleton, the lady never returns at all [Figures 1, 2 & 3]. Each of these conjuring films strives, albeit unsuccessfully, to stage the eradication of the spectacular woman once and for all. Ghostlike, the charred female skeleton repeatedly dons its flesh and returns to haunt the screen. But why did these filmmakers from England and the United States choose to imitate Méliès’s film at a historical moment when, according to Bertram at least, the vanishing lady had worn herself out as a figure of public interest? Female Exposure Film historians have worked hard to establish the “pre” of this “prehistoric” period of cinema, arguing for the importance of separating it from later narrative film, as well as for the relative transparency of these early works. Tom Gunning, for example, distinguishes pre-1906 cinema—“the cinema of attractions”—from later narrative film, though he does carefully refuse any absolute separation between the two: “Although different from the fascination in storytelling exploited by the cinema from the time of Griffith, it is not necessarily opposed to it. In fact the cinema of attractions does not disappear with the dominance of narrative, but rather goes underground, both into certain avant-garde practices and as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (e.g. the musical) than in others.”9 The porous nature of Gunning’s historical boundaries here make his view one of the most useful, but, from the perspective of the vanishing woman, even his historical paradigm is too rigid. The vanishing lady, for example, does go underground, reemerging as a showpiece trick in particular narrative genres like the musical.10 But, in addition to occasionally reviving an earlier “cinema of attractions,” she also emerges as a narrative feature in post-1906 film, and comes to play a central role in the development of these later film plots. In contrast to Gunning, Barry Salt resists the continuity between trick films and later narrative film with surprising passion. In “Film Form 1900-1906,” he declares with more than a hint of aggravation, “It is my view that excessive attention has been devoted to early trick films, and in particular those of Méliès, in view of the fact that they proved a dead end as far as the development of the cinema is concerned…. This is not to say that they have no other interesting qualities, just that enough is enough…. There is no necessity to describe these techniques…or to comment on the films in which they appear. Their occurrence and manner of execution are always quite obvious.”11 But what causes Salt to rail so against the “excessive attention” paid to these “dead ends,” a term that emphasizes the separation of pre- and post-1906 cinema and reinforces the idea that the road to Hollywood began neither at Egyptian Hall nor the Théâtre de Robert-Houdin? Why does Salt feel compelled to monitor the interest other viewers obviously do find in these short films? One reason to revisit these short early films is that they have traditionally received far less attention from feminist film critics than the later films of the Hollywood studios, leaving the relationship between these two periods vastly under-theorized from a feminist perspective.12 As Linda Williams writes, “To a certain extent we know what the status of this body becomes as a relay to the body of the spectator within the already formulated institution of classical narrative films and their system of suture. To a certain extent we also know how these films constitute the male viewer within the film as a surrogate for the look of the male spectator and the female body as site of the spectacle. But we know much less about the position of these male and female bodies in the ‘prehistoric’ and ‘primitive’ stages of the evolution of the cinema, before codes of narrative, editing, and mise-en-scène were fully established” (Williams 509). Williams draws our attention to the gap that exists between feminist thought on Hollywood film and early film scholarship, and raises questions that encourage us to begin moving back and forth across the divide. Provoked, then, by Salt’s prohibition on looking back, I return to these early films in order to think further about what their repeated resuscitation of the vanishing female body reveals about the development of cinema and the anxieties it produced. Though feminist film theory has in many ways moved beyond the debate initiated by Laura Mulvey about women in film as either objects-to-be-looked-at or sites of absence, Constance Balides usefully draws our attention to the fact that many of the questions that have been so fully explored in the context of classical narrative film have remained quite unthought in relation to early film. Beginning to address this gap, then, Balides argues in “Scenarios of Exposure in the Practice of Everyday Life,” that the “exposure” of women, the practice of “turning women characters into spectacles,” does not confine itself to the Hollywood films on which feminists have primarily focused, but rather also constitutes a central feature of early or “primitive” cinema.13 But how successful were these attempts at exposure? What exactly does early film render visible? Although Balides rightly identifies a pattern of trying to expose the female body, these attempts are intimately bound up with a search to understand the medium of film itself.