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Détresse et Charité (France) / The Beggar Maiden (UK) / The Christmas Angel (USA) (1904)


Christmas movies can range from the annoying to appalling. And it has ever been thus. In an attempt to add a sprig of holly to this site, old Jack here thought he’d watch a few. In theory, they’re all about Santa. And he’s a pleasing oldster, essentially kindly, casting a moral eye over the planet, and then is nice to everyone. Or gives them coal, or sprouts, or whatever Krampas is about. I tried, dear readers. Really, I did. Three minutes into Georges Méliès’ 1900 Christmas Dream on the YouTubes and I was done. It was unwatchable, unreviewable and I’m unforgiving of a giant, two dimensional bell.  I couldn’t go on.

Fortunately, young Steve sneaked a bottle of Bailey’s in with the last basket of nibbles.

So. With a broiling head and low tolerance threshold, old Jack tried again. The long cremated Silent Steve (did I ever mention he’s different to my boy Steve? One’s dead, the other’s in his fifties and merely feels it) would be proud.

It’s 1904. George Méliès has taken a Christmassy tragedy to the market (Détresse et Charité at home, The Christmas Angel in the States,and the possibly Tennyson-inspired The Beggar Maiden in the UK. A telling poem about the King’s gaze…). For the UK and US, in a sickly precursor of unbelievable Hollywood endings to come, he changes the ending. It’s gone from a miserable close to… well… the latter is the only one I could find for you on the YouTubes. Nine minutes, so give it a go before reading any more…

… tum-te-tummmmm…


Mercifully short, eh?! And Méliès is now telling stories. Actual stories with characters, plots and a swing at emotion. It’s not quite panto vs Les Mis, but nearly. Nearly.

So. We’re in Paris, probably. We meet a family, woman dying in bed, man stressing, daughter all rags and distress, everyone hungry. Snow falls through a skylight in a rather pretty way. Like a nice river is ready to drown you. Then a man in a hat turns up waving a page of bad news. 117 years later, it’s not clear what it was. Presumably, “you’re poor and here’s the demand for your soul,” or somesuch. Whatever, the news drives the family into a mime of wretchedness. And Dad waves a pretend cup at the girl: go beg.

This is the first of several set-ups, and Méliès lands the design with a grim beauty (despite walls of drawn on shelves and a door with a door drawn on it… we’re in a world where the flats feel flat). The other set-ups take the girl through snowy snowy hills, a church exit, a street with a cheery butcher’s (or café, or something French – there are birds being cooked on spits) and back again. Stage hands throw snow-a-like as needed, making for a properly festive atmosphere as the girl’s horrible day plays out. That said, some of the snow-stuff is sand or dust as it lands around the extras exactly the way snow doesn’t. But it’s 1904 and you likely saw this on a teeny-tiny screen whilst cranking the handle yourself… or through smog at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in 1904…

Go on, watch it again.

To the story: the girl goes begging amongst other beggars at a church. She’s pushed to the back of the ungracious queue, just far enough for the poshos in their hats and finery to be annoyed at her out-stretched cup when they get to her. The occasional beggar whacks her. There’s a rough one sans legs, skidding about on a board and tins; another, an old bastard, who’s all beard, coat and crutches. Oldster as Nasty. But nothing like the Christians, floating from their church with pity and disdain. Les tosseurs.

Cut to the Christians’ second church, the butcher-cafe-thing place. Birds cook over a dodgily achieved fire (special effects or actual flames roar up in cycles as the chickens twirl…), but you can sense the warmth, the smell, the promise of nourishment… Posh folk roar in and roar out, food gathered, when our heroine humbles her way in and begs like Daddy asked. She’s getting more desperate – albeit, you might project that on her. Rachel Gillet’s turn as Marie, said beggar maid, is free of close ups. 

And off she goes into the snow. 

Now. If you didn’t avail yourself of the nine minutes before reading this, old Jack wouldn’t want to stymie your Christmas joy. Also, I’ve not seen the French cut. So, let’s assume that here she dies. Fin.

Or! Go with the American cut… the girl passes out in the street, and a goodly street cleaner, who has a mesmerising technique for sweeping stuff off the street and onto his back-basket, seems to give her some bread. Oldster as Nice. Back home, Dad has been praying… Some nice folk in an automobile (really – 1904! It’s kind of special to see) give her a lift home and then…

Ah. Too see whether a Christmas Angel actually appears. Whether more good things happen or not… And just how to carry off lugging a hot animal carcass whilst miming like you’ve gobbled all the nuts off the whack-job tree… get back to the YouTubes.

As a short Christmas tale of long, long ago, this is gorgeous. It is tangibly well made (1904, ok), stuffed with visual imagination, and a simple, clear storyline. Méliès is eight years into making movies. Eight. He is hip deep in old books, operas, and trips to the moon… and now nails the international market for sad Christmas tales. 

Shame Dickens was three decades dead. I think he’d’ve liked it.

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