Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: J. Stuart Blackton. Cast: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette.

Photo © 1909 Vitagraph Company
I don't think it's only because I'm watching a hundred years on that Princess Nicotine looks so antiquated. I can appreciate that, according to the liner notes in the Treasures from American Film Archives DVD set, the visual effects were so state-of-the-art that Scientific American published an article about them. Eminent among these feats were those required to turn Gladys Hulette into a thimble-sized fairy and to keep herself and Paul Panzer, as the cigar-smoker she torments, in simultaneous focus. That's fine, but even if it's technically true, the picture doesn't feel like one that would have exceeded the grasp of Georges Méliès a few years earlier. Worse than that, the presence of an imp doesn't automatically translate into the kind of impish wonder that even above-average Méliès emanates. The fairy is a bit of a pest, the smoker is a non-personality, the dynamics between them are too heavy-handed to tease us, but too soft to generate any other kind of tension, and the costumes look bulky and a little sad. Twice the film switches visual contexts, from a realistic-looking living room to an experiment in stop-motion animation on an abstracted tabletop, and then to another table in the middle of a black vacuum, required for the filming tricks to work. It's a pip, sort of, to see what moviemakers could devise and execute in 1909, but, at least for me, at least watching now, there's no magic window of enjoyment or awe mediating the idea and the execution. The three parts hang together only arbitrarily, and the scale of the tableau isn't vast enough to stun or focused enough to foster intimacy with the characters or their scenario. I'm sure a historian or a lens-geek could elevate my sense of the film's achievements, but I doubt they can make me love it. Grade: C+

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