Gugusse Et L’Automate: The First Movie Robot

 

The year the word “Computer” was first used to describe a mechanical calculating device (1897), French magician and cinema pioneer Georges Méliès released a little movie called “Gugusse Et L’Automate” The Clown and the Automaton. It was the first movie to feature a robot as a lead character, L’Automate or The Automaton.


The word “Robot” though, did not really exist in 1897. It was invented in 1921 by Joseph Čapek while helping his brother Karel Čapek write the script for a stage play called “R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)”.  The closest word back then to what a robot does was “automaton”. In French, Automate.

 

An automaton is a mechanical creation designed to look and perform like a living being. They were popular forms of entertainment in the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Most automata were miniature representations of humans and could perform amazing tasks like drawing pictures, writing poems, or simulate playing musical instruments.


Gugusse , was a popular, well known French name for a clown, much like Bozo was a common American term for clown in the 1950’ and 1960’s.

Gugusse Et L’Automate is a “Lost Film”. There are no known copies that exist today. No one knows for sure what happened to this movie. Near the end of his career Méliès destroyed or threw away some of his original films. During World War I many movies were destroyed for recycling to reclaim precious silver and to melt down the celluloid to make heels for military boots.

 

It is rather ironic that Méliès films may have been turned into the heels of boots, considering the fact that his father was a successful shoe manufacturer. When the shoe factory was turned over to the sons, Georges sold his share to purchase a magic theater. Included in the purchase of the theater was an inventory of automata, which no doubt provided inspiration for his “Gugusse Et L’Automate”.

 

What might the movie have actually looked like? Piracy and plagiarism was as much a common practice in the early days of motion pictures as it is today. The Selig Polyscope Company, an American company founded in 1896, is attributed with producing a movie titled “Clown and Automaton” in 1903 which is described as such in the Selig Catalog:

 

“A magician produces before the audience a small automaton figure of a clown, which he places upon a pedestal, whereupon the figure begins to grow, as he passes his hand in front of it, until it is full life size; when it at once comes to life and endeavors to quarrel with the magician. He, however, with the aid of a heavy sledge hammer, gradually reduces the figure to its original size. One of the most interesting films ever presented.”


Other descriptions exist attributed to “Gugusse Et L’Automate”, simply stating,  “presenting a clowns reactions to the hijinks of an automaton”.

 

Taking into consideration the actions of Méliès’ other movies, it is very likely that “Gugusse Et L’Automate” may have played out as follows.

 

Gugeusse approaches a small Automaton on a pedestal and winds it up. The Automaton grows to life size and chases Gugeusse around the stage performing acrobats and slapstick. Having had enough of the Automaton’s antics, Gugeusse hits the Automaton over the head with a mallet, beating it back down to size.

 

It has been claimed that Georges Méliès got the idea for his Growing/Shrinking trick from Albert A. Hopkins’ Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions Including Trick Photography published in 1987 (the same year that “Gugusse Et L’Automate” came out?).  Méliès was already such a successful and accomplished magician by then that the claim is unlikely. You can see an example of Méliès’ Growing/Shrinking trick in “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1902). His technique for the trick was basically a double exposure. Having painted a portion of the background black, usually disguised as a sort of arched portal or tunnel. He would be sure that no action would occur in front of the black area at the moments that the trick was to be executed. He then rewound the film in the camera and took down the set, replacing it with a completely black background. The actor would be brought onto the set and positioned in the frame where the black portal was and his actions would then be exposed onto the same piece of film, creating the illusion that the actor had been on the same set at the same time.

 

Although Méliès was known to frequently reuse sets, in the case of “Gugusse Et L’Automate” it would not be surprising if he had used no set background at all as he did in “Un Homme de Têtes” / The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), and L'homme-Orchestre / One Man Band (1900). Using an overall black background would have been a wise choice if this was actually the first time he attempted the trick. For the second exposure of the film where the Automaton grows to life size, the actor would have been positioned far away from the camera so as to appear like a miniature. To accomplish the growing part of effect Méliès put the actor on a platform with rollers and pulled it towards the camera, preferring to keep the camera stationary to avoid excessive vibrations.

 

Ever the performer Georges often appeared in his own movies. In “Un Homme de Têtes” / The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), he shows up as four disembodied heads on tables while a fifth full-bodied incarnation of himself plays a fiddle. It would be no stretch of the imagination that he might have performed Gugusse himself. The Automaton however, more likely might have been performed by another actor. If standing still while being pulled around on a rolling platform was involved, and if the hijinks were anything like any of his other movies, Méliès most certainly would have given the part to an acrobat. Many of the actors in his movies were indeed professional dancers and acrobats.

 

The duration of the movie would have been fairly close to one minute. The Selig Catalog describes “Clown and Automaton” as being 65 feet in length. The earliest motion pictures were very short, displaying brief scenes and tricks all shot in a single take. Later as the technology and the concept of “Editing” were developed, movies became longer. In 1897 when “Gugusse Et L’Automate” was released the standard running time would have been about a minute. It is unlikely that Selig Polygraph would have made many additions or subtractions from the original story when they did their “Remake” five years later, bringing it in at 65 seconds. Many movie cameras back then could also double as projectors and were driven by a hand crank. It would take two turns of the crank to advance one foot of film through the camera/projector and the standardized speed for exposing and projecting film was one foot per second, giving us roughly one minute for 60 feet of film. Roughly, “Clown and Automaton” at 65 feet may have been the result of the camera operator not cranking fast enough, or Selig simply did not care much about the exact length of his pirated plot. Back then the movies were advertised in the length of the filmstrip itself. Since the projectors were cranked by hand the actual running time could vary. If the projectionist was bored he would crank slower and the film would run longer, if he got excited during an action shot he might crank faster, thus making the film run short. Interestingly enough though, if the camera operator got excited during an action shot while exposing the film, he might crank the film too fast, as a result he would accidently increase the number of film frames being exposed and create a slow motion effect. Imagine being the projector operator having to compensate for that.

 

The Silent Era of motion pictures was surprisingly full of movies that featured robots, with up to one hundred known titles. Perhaps the most famous of all silent movie robots is Electra, aka “False Maria” in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927). Brigitte Helm plays the beautiful revolutionary Maria who’s likeness is imposed upon a cold evil metal android intent on crushing the workers revolt. One year later Helm would play the last movie robot of the Silent Era. In “Alraune” (1928), she plays a seductive tragic victim of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering? Like in “Blade Runner”(1982)? Way back in 1928?

 

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