Skull Daze

LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE — that is the name of the nameless Georges Méliès film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s monster movie book! I owe this information to two people:

(1) Shadowplayer Douglas Noble, an excellent cartoonist as well as a cinephile, recognized the image as one that had been used by artist/filmmaker Dave McKean (MIRRORMASK) as the basis for a poster in his “Nitrate” series —

(2) McKean himself, illustrator of the awesome Arkham Asylum among many many other stupendous things, answered my plaintive tweet with the information requested, information he himself had only come by after producing the artwork and naming it, in desperation, “Méliès.” He has since been show authentic documents establishing beyond doubt the film’s true title and authorship.

Thanks to both of these Extraordinary Gentlemen. I love not only the fact that my quest had a happy result, but that it depended for that outcome upon a renowned artist being inspired by the same photograph as caught my eye.

My sole remaining task was to procure a copy of the elusive masterpiece, and this I proceeded to attempt. BUT! I met with no success. The film does not appear in the Flicker Alley box set, for which information I must thank (3) Shadowplayer Brandon, which I learn from (4) Glenn Erickson’s typically informative and lively review contains “nearly all of Méliès’ surviving films.” Nearly all, but not quite all… I somehow doubt Flicker Alley’s acoompanying booklet will supply us with names of those films which do survive but are not included in the collection. They’re good, Flicker Alley are, but nobody’s THAT good.

So independent research is indicated. I turn to the IMDb, where I find a review! This does not cause me to become incautiously optimistic, since I remember reading a review, since deleted, of THE GOLEM AND THE DANCING GIRL (a lost film), proffering the slogan “Her muddy buddy is no fuddy-duddy.”


“Gorbo” from the Czech Republic writes:

“In 1901, Henry C. Lavery, a self-described “profound thinker” of Superior, Wisconsin became certain that phrenology was true and spent his next 26 years endeavoring to put this science into a machine. On January 29, 1931, he and his partner, Frank P. White, a businessman who had taken his life savings of $39,000 out of stock in a local sandpaper manufacturer – the 3M company – to finance the venture, announced the invention of such a machine – the “Psychograph.” The machine consisted of 1,954 parts in a metal carrier with a continuous motor-driven belt inside a walnut cabinet containing statements about 32 mental faculties. These faculties were each rated 1 through 5, “deficient” to “very superior,” so that there were 160 possible statements but an almost unlimited number of possible combinations. The “score” was determined by the way the 32 probes, each with five contact points in the headpiece, made contact with the head. The subject sat in a chair connected to the machine and the headpiece was lowered and adjusted. The operator then pulled back a lever that activated the belt-driven motor, which then received low-voltage signals from the headpiece and stamped out the appropriate statement for each faculty consecutively. Thirty three machines were built, and a local office in Minneapolis flourished. The machines were leased to entrepreneurs throughout the country for $2,000 down plus $35 a month. They were popular attractions for theater, lobbies and department stores, which found them good traffic builders during the depression. Two enterprising promoters set up shop in the Black Forest Village at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and netted $200,000 at their standing-room-only booth! Phrenology in Europe had been abandoned as nonsense long before this time. The brief success of the Psycograph lasted until the mid-thirties when the company closed because of increasing skepticism and declining income. The machines were returned and packed away in storage until the mid-sixties, when John White, the founder’s son, and I put several back into working order.”

Thanks, Gorbo! Can I just say that I particularly admire the phrase “walnut cabinet”, in part because it makes the think of a little cabinet hewn from a single walnut, and in part because it makes me think of the glorious Victorian craftsmanship of Rod Taylor’s chronoperambulator in George Pal’s film of THE TIME MACHINE.

But, sad to say, I have been unable to ascertain for certain, as yet, whether this films exists or does not exist. It’s like Schrödinger’s cat. If it exists, I can find it, probably. If it partially exists, the somewhat elastic rules of my See Reptilicus and Die quest (whereby I must view every film depicted in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies)  allow me content myself with viewing whatever there is of it. That’s what I’m going to have to do with BALAOO THE DEMON BABOON. If the film is completely lost (and bear in mind that when Le Grand Méliès quit movies, he destroyed all the films in his possession), I have several options.

In the case of LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney Scooby Doo vampire-detective flick, I can tick that one off my list because I’ve seen a reconstruction of the film made from stills. No reconstruction may exist of LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE, but there’s nothing to stop me MAKING ONE, using the single still, Mr McKean’s artistic riff on it, and my own imagination. Alternatively, I can do what I did with THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, Hitchcock’s lost film, for Hitchcock Year — either dream the film, or get someone I know to dream it for me. These are all legitimate solutions.

I fully realize that, ideally, while dreaming the film, I should have my skull measured by Mr Lavery and Mr White’s psychograph, and if I can arrange such a thing you can rely on me to make it happen.

But I would not feel right in myself, enacting any of these solutions, without first establishing for a definite fact whether the putatively lost film is in fact lost. Over to you, archivists of the world.

Unsatisfied ciné-phrenologists are referred to the Beatles cartoon YELLOW SUBMARINE, which contains an entire SEA of Phrenology.

Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)

25 Responses to “Skull Daze”

  1. According to “L’Oeuvre de Georges Méliès” a huge exhibition catalog published last year by Editions La Martinière (the exhibition took place at the Cinémathèque Française), there is nothing left (even fragments) of “Phrénologie burlesque” (and not “La Phrénologie burlesque”), Méliès film #371. The UK title was “The Phrenologist and the Lively Skull”; the US title was “A Phrenological Burlesque”.

  2. Do you realize that there’s literally hundreds of “reviews” of lost films on IMDB? It’s the bane of the (mainly) silent collector’s existence, and there’s one person in particular who’s rather notorious for planting them and is roundly hated by the silent aficionados, not that I blame them. I did once contemplate trolling IMDB in this way (around the time they started to “monetize” contributor’s good-faith information, including mine) by putting a review of a Fields/Conklin silent I had a good contemporary plot description and review of, but I was just not that mean-spirited. I think it has a review now. About all I use IMDB for is cast lists, and they don’t always get the characters names right, either.

  3. IMDb reviews vary between the helpful and the completely useless. And the variation is so wide as to damage the validity of the good ones. But I met a very good friend through his IMDb reviews, so I don’t knock it. I guess some pro critics don’t like blogs because there’s so much stuff out there, but once you find a voice you like it’s not that confusing. And some of the IMDb reviewers are well worth following up when you find a good one.

  4. Samuel — thanks a million! The final piece in the puzzle is complete, thanks to you (5). Now I just have to dream the film back into mental existence, starting now.

  5. Reviews of long-lost films on IMDB serve no purpose coming from anyone who claims to have seen them recently, except for reconstructions. In the Usenet days, the denizens of alt.movies.silent used to have to deal with an occasional nettlesome individual who claimed to have seen these films, which led to pointless threads. As far as existing films, the IMDB reviews are about as expected, some good stuff, some inane, some putrid. I haven’t read them for a long time, really. I preferred Usenet reviews then, at least there was some back-and-forth with the author.

  6. Progress report: I failed to dream Phrenologie Burlesque last night, instead dreaming two lines from a nonexistent song, which are now rotating in my mind like a kebab. Eyore type voice: “So me and Mr Savage / Eliminate the cabbage.” It has a rather sinister feeling to it, but I can’t relate it to the Melies film at all, so I’ll have to try again.

  7. A Peacock Says:

    Flicker Alley have just announced a new Melies boxset –
    Méliès Encore: 26 Additional Rare and Original Films by the First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1911)

    titles haven’t been listed yet, but fingers crossed LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE will be one of them

  8. Seems to be a lost movie, but if it turns up here it would be delightful. It’s also great news that presumably the first set sold well! More early cinema please! Although the biggest DVD bald patch is probably 1910s stuff, which is all due for an anniversary and therefore could do with reappraisal on purely sentimental grounds.

  9. A Peacock Says:

    Yes particularly for foreign films, it’s pretty empty.
    David, have you seen His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz?

  10. No! I can get a copy, do you think I should? It does look very nice.

  11. A Peacock Says:

    YES! I’d love to hear what you think of it.
    I think it might be on a dvd along with 2 other 1910s Wizard of Oz films
    ah yes it’s called The World of Oz and includes :
    His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz
    Magic Cloak of Oz
    Patchwork Girl of Oz
    and the 1925 Wizard of Oz
    … or you could go about seeing them the easier way!

  12. A Peacock Says:

    Also, David your services to are required!!!
    Nick at MastersofCinema has uploaded frame grabs from a surprise film their releasing in May

    He’s said they will release one film SD only, from a director not already in the collection.
    And a film Blu only, from a director already in the collection. Both in May and neither have been hinted at before…
    (my earlier guesses of Renoir’s ‘La Chienne’, L’Herbier’s ‘L’Inhumaine’ or his ‘El Dorado’ – have all been proved wrong by the Russian paper…

    You must recognize these frames!

  13. They’re now saying that the Russian paper is dreadfully misleading, which I take to mean the film ain’t Russian. I guessed Queen of Spades, but the film seems to be 20s-30s modern dress, going by image 5, so I’m wrong.

    Just watched L’Herbier’s Mystery of the Yellow Room — a bundle of fun!

  14. A Peacock Says:

    Queen of Spades is coming out from Optimum this month. It’s playing at the Filmhouse, is it worth seeing? Are the rave reviews calling it a masterpiece of British cinema justified?

    I’ve never seen a L’Herbier before, but i’ve read Mizoguchi cited him as an influence so he’s always intrigued me. Should I check L’Argent out?

  15. A Peacock Says:

    oh also, if it helps over on criterionforum Jonathon S wrote:

    I think it may be a French silent, partly because of the visual style but also the newspaper appears to be Les Dernieres Nouvelles, a Russian language paper edited in France by Pavel Milyukov (whose name is shown) between 1920 and 1940. So maybe an Albatros production with a contemporary setting and Russian characters. The visual style looks a bit avant-garde like Epstein or L’Herbier.

    leading Nick to say that he’d cracked it the misleading grab.

    So your right it must be French, I’m just trying to think of a fairly major french film unreleased in the uk, because surely they wouldn’t just release an incredibly obscure film by an incredibly obscure director?
    What throws me is in picture 2, the guy to the right of the window looks like he’s from a 30s american gangster film, which makes me think it’s probably not 20s?

  16. Queen of Spades is reviewed here somewhere, i think, it’s terrific, although I’ve only seen a rather ragged copy.

    Guy in the hat could be 20s, I’d say. Epstein or L’Herbier seem likely. especially with the modernist design. Although their films are often even more extreme in their art deco stylisation.

  17. A Peacock Says:

    Ah i’ll look it up!

    How about Duvivier? A lot of people seem to be going back to him..

  18. Well, Criterion have already released Pepe le Moko, so he wouldn’t be new to the collection. They ought to release something else though, La Fin du Jour or La Tete d’un Homme or something.

  19. A Peacock Says:

    Criterion may well have… but not MoC

  20. Can’t think of any Duviviers that seem a natural match for these images. Maybe Feyder?

  21. Or Gremillon? Allegret (Marc or Yves)? There are quite a few French possibilities from the 1930s.

  22. The new titles for the upcoming Melies Encore set, are up on the Flicker Alley website, and unfortunately LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE isn’t there, which must mean as you said, that this is a lost film. Oh well

  23. It’s all right, I’m going to remake it! Using cut-outs.

  24. Although, the Melies Encore set has something called “The Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship” so obviously it’s still an essential disc.

  25. I should say so! And might even work as a substitute for those unable to afford the big box set.

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