Saturday, 4 April 2009

THE MESMER (Louis Grenier, 1894)

In cinema prehistory, before the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison set the 20th Century in motion, the future was still to be invented. Louis Grenier's Octoscope II was an early possibility: It used a flip-card technique to turn the stills which were then projected using a series of mirrors onto the screen. In purely scientific terms, it was limited, and Grenier lacked the business nous or finances to develop his invention. He may have lacked the desire too, for Grenier was an amateur magician, who performed tricks at private parties in Paris and London for years before moving to New York in 1888 and developing his turns into a professional stage act. He saw moving images as a novelty that he could work into his performances, and by 1891 had developed his prototype Octoscope.
With the invention he developed a new stage persona: Louis the Magic. This was also the name of his first show using the Octoscope, and it appears, according to the few existing reports, to have been a simple spirit illusion using a projection of a dancing girl, which wowed few. The Octoscope II was cumbersome, noisy and incredibly hot, meaning that it drew attention to itself however it was placed in the theater. Louis the Magic shows later that year employed similar effects and had similar problems: The New York Buzzard described The Queen of Sheba as 'a disappointing fizz of non-technologies', while The Manhattan Fidget attacked Resurrection as 'a blasphemous cuss at the black art of entertainment'.

But it was with his final effort that Louis the Magic would make his name. The Mesmer was at first sight a tricksy and self-referential illusion that nodded to Grenier's previous failure as both a magician and a scientist. The performance, as much as can be understood from contemporary reports, involved Grenier performing a series of illusions, including making an assistant (star of the New York stage Annabelle Newton) disappear. She would then re-appear on the screen, in what can be presumed to be pre-recorded reels, where she would dance to the music of the orchestra or pianist in the theatre (the musicians themselves would apparently time pauses in their sequences to coincide with pieces of film where the Newton appears to be frozen, and speed up to a frantic pace during a sequence when the illusionist himself appears on the screen and proceeds to repeat at exaggerated speed the illusion performed not five minutes earlier in the theatre, only in reverse; this time, both Grenier and Newton, according to a frantic report in the Queens Inquisitor, 're-apparitioned there upon the brocaded balconies of the real world Palace Theater, in fully three-dimensions, plausible and verified by those sound gentlemen in proximity')

The trick was repeated, but with masterful variations- at one point, when a vanishing appeared to go wrong, Grenier approached the Octoscope, ripped the reels of images out, turned the machine off, and appeared to puzzle over its non-conforming innards. As people began to leave, booing, an image of Grenier miraculously appeared on the screen, shouting instructions to himself below in the theatre about how to fix the machine. Grenier then argued with himself on the screen, causing 'much hilarity and witless falling about' according to The Downtown Fibber. By this point, the crowd was amazed.

The Mesmer was a great success, and Grenier and Newton toured the country with it, marrying on the road in 1893. The Grenier-Newton's were cover stars of both Sullied Victoriana and American Tat magazines, and a recording of a performance of The Mesmer was made using Edison's Kinetoscope, which itself toured the country.1 Grenier put all his savings into distributing this recording and it played nationally, but shorn of the live action element, the incredible illusions did not translate. By 1896, it was apparent that the tide had turned; cinema was amazing audiences in its own right, and magicians seemed quaint in this era of new wonder. Annabelle Grenier-Newton herself had taken up an offer of a contract to appear in some of Edison's Biograph movies, and Grenier himself, the debts mounting, announced one final farewell performance of The Mesmer at Brooklyn Hall on October 26, 1896 that would 'bury the ghost of magic'. Highly publicized, the show sold out; but despite hundreds of witnesses, there is much conjecture over what actually happened that night.

According to both the Brooklyn Brag and the Gotham Bugle, Grenier performed better than ever, and despite the rumoured strain on their relationship, the horseplay and chemistry between husband and wife was variously 'unnaturally natural' and 'gosh darn cute and a wonder'. The trouble appeared to flare in the third act, at the part when Grenier came into the audience to fix the 'broken' Octoscope. As usual, the images on the screen somehow continued even after Grenier turned his contraption off to examine it, and as ever, he argued with the image of himself onscreen. The Big Apple Vigilant says that 'this time there was a twist; Mrs Grenier herself appeared onscreen, and to much laughter, argued with both of her husbands about the best way to fix the problem, the joke, of course, being that there was no problem if they were both on the screen'. The Williamsburg Soothsayer continues: 'Then, the apparent faux problem, became an apparent real one, or did it? For suddenly the device spun into life, knocking out noise and heat, and the projected Mr and Mrs doubled, tripled, quadrupled, played at super time; the arrangement spun and spun, the poor couple danced and danced, faster yet, and the applause grew to ovations; and then, fast as the Octoscope spun, it caused sparks, which lit the first flame; before we knew it, the cursed contraption was a heap of hot yellow. This caused the images on the screen to melt, distort, spinning the dancing images into new confounding shapeless peoples, before imploding into snapping stars. The smell of burning plastics filled the lungs of the patrons, and the slides burned, burned, burned'
Firemen came to confront the blaze, and while no audince members were hurt, the Grenier-Nortons were never seen again, nor were their bodies found. Eye-witnesses report seeing Grenier 'dissolve into the wall' or 'erupt in a cloud of smoke' as his likeness burned on screen.

A cab driver who claimed to have driven the pair to Grand Central station later that night was proved to be a liar. Did he fake their deaths to escape debts? Or kill his wife and himself in an elaborate double-bluff? Periodically, uncanny likenesses of the pair turn up in the background of many movies from the early decades of the 20th Century; he as an unnamed bar patron or cowboy, she as a Ziegfeld Folly, or a masked beauty in a harem; but no-one ever saw them in three dimensions.
The Big Town Sober Judge offered a sentimental reflection several weeks later: 'It is as if, undone by the real world, failing at life, Grenier conjured a feat beyond any: He managed to vault himself and his wife into a deathless afterlife, a constant invisibility; and in this burning heaven of celluloid and wood, where she dances and he draws rabbits from hats, the words 'Louis the Magic' and 'legend' are never separated'
The Mesmer Directed by Louis Grenier/Thomas Edison Produced by Biograph/ Black Maria Studio Starring Louis Grenier, Annabelle Newton-Grenier Release Date US: 1894; Distributed nationally to limited theatres with Kinetoscopes.

1. This recording, which lasts for a huge for the time seventeen minutes, is what contemporary reviewers refer to when discussing the 'film' The Mesmer. It is of course, a film of a show involving film, and as such is an early example of Filmism, the movement championed by the Spanish New Wave in the early fifties: Filmism was a post-modern attempt to examine the art of cinema by filming showings of films. A split in 1960 between Real-Filmists (those who shot the theatre, the audience and surroundings as well as the feature) and True-Filmists (those who only permitted the feature itself onscreen) caused ripples throughout Spain. Both parties remaned fans of The Mesmer, however.

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