The First Fantasy Movie

A few months ago, I took a look at William Morris, a man with a decent claim to have invented the modern fantasy genre. It’s not a certain claim… as I mentioned in the other article, it really depends on what one means by fantasy.

It also depends on limiting oneself to the literary sphere. Because, in light of yesterday’s look at A Trip to the Moon, I decided to do a bit of digging. Specifically, I was interested in the origins of fantasy in film.

What was the first fantasy movie? At least of those that survive?

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It turns out, much like in literature, that there is no one clear, non-contentious, answer. In fact, it not only depends on one’s definition of fantasy, but also of movie. We can say with certainty that A Trip to the Moon (1902) was the first science-fiction film, and we can identify the first horror film (we’ll come to that shortly), but fantasy is the weird one. Appropriately enough.

As such, I thought I would identify some of the potential candidates. Don’t worry – they’re all short. Very short.

  1. Rip van Winkle (1896)

 

 

Rip van Winkle was filmed in the United States in August 1896, as a series of short clips. It was then released in September 1896, with Exhibitors being able to pick and choose which clips they wanted. But it was only in 1903 that the series was edited into a single entity.

The lack of being a single entity means there is already a question mark hanging over Rip van Winkle’s claim. The other difficulty is that, as a fantasy narrative, it’s rather mundane. In the absence of Special Effects (not yet invented), we make do with a hunched figure serving as a Dwarf, and Rip waking up after twenty years as an old man… and that’s really it. Not quite what what we would recognise as fantasy today.

2. The House of the Devil (1896-1897)

 

 

You may recall that Georges Méliès chap from A Trip to the Moon. The Frenchman was a stage-magician before getting involved in film-making, and he was the inventor of the Special Effect. The House of the Devil (1896-1897) is famously the first horror film – having been rediscovered in New Zealand in 1988 – and was released at some point during the end of 1896 and the start of 1897. So a few months after Rip van Winkle… but actually as a coherent short film, rather than a series of clips. And, in contrast to Rip van Winkle, The House of the Devil contains bona fide magical effects. 

The biggest mark against its claim is that The House of the Devil is supernatural horror, rather than fantasy – sure, there’s cross-over, and it’s far more magical than Rip van Winkle, but if this is fantasy, then so is Hammer Horror. We need fantasy where the objective is enchantment, not to generate fear.

3. Santa Claus (1898)

 

 

A British entry, by one George Albert Smith, Santa Claus (1898) was the first Christmas movie. Released in September 1898, this one is a coherent entity, and isn’t horror moonlighting as fantasy. There’s even the magic of Santa vanishing at the end.

The problem is… is Santa Claus fantasy? Strictly, yes – Santa is a fantastical creature – but it is also not quite in the spirit of the thing. Christmas movies (or books) can certainly be fantasy. A Christmas Carol is overtly fantasy. But I’m not sure about Smith’s effort. If we judge this fantasy on the basis of Santa, then what about the Dwarf in Rip van Winkle?

4. Cinderella (1899)

 

 

Another one from Georges Méliès, who also plays the genie of the clock, this is a five minute adaptation of the Cinderella fairy tale. Released in October 1899, it’s also quite comfortably the most classically fantastical of those on this list – I have no problem with categorising this one as a recognisable fantasy film. We’ve got the single story, we’ve got the Special Effects, and we’ve got the magic. The only question is whether any of the other three displace it by virtue of being earlier.

Special mention: The Cabbage Fairy (1896 and 1900)

 

 

Another French entry, this time by a female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché, The Cabbage Fairy was a one minute folk tradition-turned-movie. There’s no narrative here, but the Cabbage Fairy is as much a fantastical element as Santa Claus, and the film was released in March 1896, predating Rip van Winkle. The biggest problem (apart from the lack of narrative) is that the 1896 original is missing, and what we have is Guy-Blaché’s remake from 1900. If this is the first fantasy film, it no longer exists.

***

So what was the first fantasy film? For my money, it’s Méliès’ Cinderella, but that’s just my opinion. I think it has a more fitting claim than the others on this list, which either strike me as more cinematic prototypes or else a bit too far from the heart of the genre. I do think it interesting, however, that regardless of which one you choose, the first fantasy film coincides almost exactly with the first modern fantasy novel. Recall that Morris’ The Wood Beyond the World dates from 1894, and we are discussing movies dating between 1896 and 1899. Fantasy Books and Fantasy Movies… uneasy twins, perhaps?

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