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.”
Here is the IMDb review for Méliès’ LA PHRENOLOGIE BURLESQUE, aka THE PHRENOLOGIST AND THE LIVELY SKULL.
“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.