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Princess Nicotine; or The Smoke Fairy (2012)
a new soundtrack to the 1909 Vitagraph silent film
full recording - Trio Tremonti, in concert @ Clark University:
Production Company: Vitagraph Company of America. Producer/Director: J. Stuart Blackton Photographer: Tony Gaudio. Cast: Paul Panzer (the smoker), Lillian Russell (the elder fairy), Gladys Hulette (the younger fairy). Running Time: 6'15" minutes (with new credits).
In 1909, the New York-based Vitagraph company released Princess Nicotine: or The Smoke Fairy. It portrays the experience of a man's dreamt encounter with a mischievious fairy. Ostensibly a comedy, the film starts with a seemingly realistic scene of a smoker who falls asleep sitting at a table. He wakes to find a young female fairy who plays pranks on him. The smoker is at first amused by fairy's presence and actions. But gradually his pleasure takes a sadistic turn; he blows smoke at her and threatens to burn her with a match. The fairy becomes increasingly angered by the smoker's actions and responds by lighting the table on fire. After the smoker puts out the fire and flushes away the fairy with a nearby seltzer bottle, the short film ends with a slap-stick gesture: the hysterical smoker squirting water all over himself. Is this, in fact, a dream? The story walks uncomfortably the lines between funny and painful, innocent and sexually charged, playful and violent - a staging less of human behavior than the smoker's unconscious mental state. It's a rendering of his fantasies, neurotic traits, and anxieties.
But how does this heightened emotional content of the narrative work with the distinctive technological innovations and visual style of this film to produce meaning - and most importantly to me as composer, how should this be set to music?
Meanwhile nearby: 1909 was also the year that Sigmund Freud travelled to Clark University (Worcester, MA) for the first public lectures on psychoanalysis, and this is also the year of his first published English translations -- which included The Interpretation of Dreams. These ideas were entering the consciousness of the American public. It was also a time of parallel innovation in the world of the arts. In the visual arts Italian Futurists and the Russian avant-garde were gearing up; Wassily Kandinsky's The Blue Mountain, Henri Matisse's Dance (I), and Pablo Picasso's Fruit Dish all date from that year. Oskar Kokoschka's 1909 playlet, Murderer, The Hope of Women is often called the first expressionist drama. These movements and works sought provide audiences access to a subjective perspective, presenting a world radically distorted through the representation of internal states or emotional effects. Psychoanalysis and expressionist art sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality, and increasingly film did too in the move from actualities to narratives.
When it was made in 1909 Princess Nicotine was a veritible compendium of filmic effects and tricks, specialties of America's leading film producer, Vitagraph. With debts to Georges Méliès's pioneering French fantasy films, forced perspective was ingeniously accomplished through on-set optics and larger-than-life sized props. The animation of cigarettes and other smoking paraphernalia is an example of stop motion photography also found in Blackton's The Haunted Hotel; or the Strange Adventures of a Traveler(1907) and in French Gaumont films by Emile Cohl such as Fantasmagoire and Les allumettes animées (or The Animated Matches) of 1908. But in Princess Nicotine, these effects are in the service of representing a dream state.
It seems plausible to interpret the film as a visualization of the smoker's unconscious condition, whose meanings might be "read" in sexual terms. For example, the animation sequence at the center of the film shows the metamorphosis of the flower into a cigar. These typical feminine/masculine or yonic/phallic symbols are reinforced by the fairy’s concealment in the flower and the male protagonist’s identity as the smoker. Other objects speak to the smoker's desires - titillation and containment. There's the difference in scale between the man and the female fairy, a bottle that entraps her, a box that holds his cigarettes, and the fairy's skirt lifted in an obviously taunting sexual gesture. Release comes with a fitting final scene. The smoker quells the flames ignited by the fairy with a spray of his bottle, which then emanates uncontrollably from his lap, the dream-logical conclusion for a wet dream.
About the Music
For more info, see Scott Simmon's Film Notes on the National Film Preservation Foundation's Treasures of the American Film Archive DVD. Also, included there are Martin Marks notes on his musical setting found on the DVD.