Old movies, and the history of early fantasy films

The moon with a rocket in its eyes in A Trip To The Moon (1902).
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In this week’s old movies column, we take a look at some of the earliest fantasy films ever made – and you can find some of them online for free.


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For years, humanity has turned to fantasy for comfort. Before science came to better our understanding, we yearned for magical worlds and spell-binding journeys. We still do, turning to gripping tales of witches and wizards.

Now, with the upcoming release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, high-fantasy concepts are back in cinemas. To celebrate, I am going back to the early years of filmmaking and looking at how our earliest films captured the fantastical.

Early cinema in the Victorian and Edwardian eras wasted little time in mastering special effects to bring fantasy films to life. One of the most impressive filmmakers in this field was Walter R. Booth. A former magician, he utilised celluloid and camerawork to create imaginative illusions on the screen. Though simplistic, I’d argue that one of the first fantasy movies was his delightful short Upside Down; Or The Human Flies (1899).

It’s not hard to see how the trick was captured, turning the camera upside down and altering the backdrop to help us perceive the players as walking across the ceiling. What’s most charming about this short is how much fun the performers are having, dancing wildly with the utmost glee.

Booth continued his work in mystical movies but exceeded the simplicity of The Human Flies. Jump-cuts, projection and forced perspectives helped aid the creation of magic, which was prevalent in The Magic Sword: A Mediaeval Mystery (1901).

Booth adapted a famous pantomime to the screen as a knight battles an evil sorcerer. The special effects here include the shape-shifting wizard who becomes giant and flies upon a broom.

Booth also directed The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901), working with Robert W Paul, and together they helped bring this special tale to life. Revolving around the magical objects in the titular shop, the filmmaking duo utilised pyrotechnics, special props, and in-camera editing to allow the fantasy to dance. The pair continued their relationship, also bringing to life the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol, with Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost (1901).

Alice In Wonderland (1933)

Alice In Wonderland (1933)

Then there is the droll Mister Moon (1901) which isn’t necessarily a fantasy narrative film, but sees musical comedian Percy Honri play as the titular character, a version of the moon that has a body and a small ukulele. It’s a very appealing and silly short, indeed.

Some could argue that Georges Méliès A Trip To The Moon (1902) is actually a science fiction short. However, with the addition of fairies, and an actual man as the moon itself, it does have elements of the fantastical. It’s most certainly an adventure as a rocket shop lands on the moon and the occupants meet an assortment of creatures. Wonderfully imaginative, Méliès work triumphed and its impact on cinematic history is unparalleled. It’s also an utterly incredible and impressive watch.

One of the most famous fantasy stories is Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. Written in 1865, the novel has had multiple adaptations. It’s earliest film was in 1903. The live-action short from Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow was a marvel of technical animation. Featuring May Clark in the main role, Hepworth and Stow bring the inventive qualities of Carroll’s story to life, including making Clark shrink and grow as Alice as she stumbles through the Hall of Many Doors, whilst also seeing her hand reach into the rabbit’s home. The 12-minute short film has only one surviving print, which is at the BFI archives, who restored the original tinting.

There were two other live-action shorts, in 1910 and 1915. Walt Disney, from 1923 to 1927, also produced an animated/live-action series called The Alice Comedies. The first live-action feature film of Alice In Wonderland was a 1931 low budget movie, with a Pre-Code Hollywood adaptation arriving in 1933, where Cary Grant plays the Mock Turtle in a terrifying costume.

Fantasy movies only expanded over time, with many different television series and movies telling us tales of warlocks and witches wielding powers, and taking us on perilous journeys. The wonder of these movies can be traced back to the early grandfathers of cinema who took us to worlds beyond our own. How marvelous it is to know that our Victorian ancestors loved magic just as much as we do.

This is your weekly reminder that most of these Victorian shorts are all available to watch for free on BFI Player, so you can go on a fantastical journey through early cinema yourself….

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