The Alloy Orchestra Plays Wild and Weird: Short Film Favorites with New Music

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DIRECTED BY: D.W. Griffith, , , Segundo de Chomón,  F. Percy Smith, , Ernest Servaès, Ladislas Starevich, Winsor McKay, , Eddie Cline, Hans Richter

FEATURING: Jack Brawn, Paul Panzer, Ernest Servaès, Buster Keaton

PLOT: A compilation of twelve strange, fantastic, and experimental films from the dawn of cinema (spanning the years 1902 to 1926) with new scores for each composed by the Boston-based silent film ensemble “the Alloy Orchestra.”

Still from The Red Spectre (1907)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This presentation won’t make the List solely on formal grounds, because it’s a compilation. You could make a case for several of the individual shorts, however, on the basis of their historical significance, especially “A Trip to the Moon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” “Play House,” or “Filmstudie.”

COMMENTS: Hidden off in a corner of the Movie and Music Network‘s catalog, far away from the exploitation films in a quiet place only the cool kids know about, is an obscure little collection of classic cinema. For the most part the Alloy Orchestra’s selections in this compilation aren’t especially rare, at least to silent cinephiles, but wild and weird they certainly are. From trippy nickelodeon snippets to epic hallucinations, these films hail from a thrilling era when cinema was fresh and every new movie was an adventure in invention.

The Orchestra’s musical accompaniment is excellent and appropriate to the material. It’s mostly classical-ish, with a little bit of tasteful electronic ornamentation, and very rarely does it get avant-garde or dissonant enough to threaten the casual listener’s delicate ears. At times it’s electronic-Baroque, often it’s vibraphone and percussion heavy, with a welcome cameos by musical saws and theremins in some dream sequences. Unfortunately, the digitization used here captured some analog rumbling and distortion when the volume got too high, but in general the music is a pleasant accompaniment to the main attraction.

A brief rundown of each slice of weirdness:

  • “Those Awful Hats” (1909) – A brief, presumably then-topical joke by D.W. Griffith about ladies wearing elaborate hats in the cinema. The use of picture-within-picture was pioneering, but this may be the slightest of the sets offerings.
  • “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) – George Méliès’ lighthearted 1902 science fantasy is justifiably famous as one of the first fantastical films ever made. Everyone remembers the rocket landing in the Man in the Moon’s eye, but the in-dream appearance of gods and goddesses (one of whom, paradoxically, perches on a crescent moon herself) and the battles with fragile moonmen who go up in puffs of smoke when struck by umbrellas add to the fantasia. Unfortunately, the presentation here includes an English-language narrator who often does nothing more than explain exactly what’s happening onscreen for dullards. Méliès himself approved the narration, and his movies were sometimes exhibited with them, but the film is a stronger experience without it. (On the DVD version, the narration can be turned off).
  • Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” (1906) – “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” was a serial comic strip by Winsor McCay which depicted individuals suffering bizarre dreams after eating Welsh rarebit. Several strips were made into movies, with this Edwin Porter effort being the most successful and famous. Experimental techniques abound, as Porter uses woozy superimposed images to suggest drunkeness, and it ends with a bed flying through a city at night, an illusion which wowed them in 1906.
  • “The Red Spectre” (1907) – The story here is little more than a series of magic tricks performed by a diabolical conjuror, accomplished via editing and (now simple) camera tricks. Effects aside, what’s especially cool here is the phantasmagorical tinting; the lavender stalactites, the mustard-colored puffs of smoke. “Spectre” is a rare and special treat for film historians (or anyone who loves imaginative spectacle).
  • “The Acrobatic Fly” (1910) – This British oddity consists of a housefly (who has been glued in place) using its legs to spin various objects (sticks, a pebble, miniature barbells, and one of its deceased companions). This version is tinted green and the entire exhibition only lasts three minutes (which is more than enough).
  • The Thieving Hand” (1908) – An armless man buys a replacement limb at a pawn shop, but the appendage is a pickpocket. A comic narrative film from J. Stewart Blackton.
  • “Princess Nicotine, or, the Smoke Fairy” (1909) – This second Blackton short concerns a man who finds two fairies in a cigar box. It’s extremely charming, features some stop-animation of flower petals that assemble themselves into a cigar (which looks like something might have come up with), and overall it makes you wonder if it was really just tobacco the protagonist was smoking out of his corncob pipe.
  • “Artheme Swallows His Clarinet” (1912) – A one-joke one-reeler in which the title clown accidentally impales himself with his own clarinet, which sticks out of the back of his skull.
  • “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1911) – An elaborate Soviet stop-motion fable involving interspecies insect sex and adultery. I kid you not.
  • “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Pet” (1921) – Winston McKay himself takes the reigns to animate this dream, about a four-legged creature who grows to enormous size and eventually swallows skyscrapers. Contains an intertitle reading, “Say Doc – my wife as you know is a bug on pets – how can I murder the latest one she’s found?” Another winner.
  • The Play House” (1921) – Our own has written more extensively on this one, so we invite you to read his synopsis. Leave it to say that this one’s great reputation is well-deserved, although it peaks early with the all-Keaton theater before dissolving into a collection of barely related slapstick gags.
  • “Flimstudie” (1926) – Hans Richter’s Dada experiment, which is full of multiple floating eyeballs, dancing abstract squares, overlapping snippets of nonsense poetry, and other dream stuff, is probably the weirdest offering here, and makes for a fitting finale.

The DVD contains two bonus films not found on the presentation circulating on digital sites: The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1927) and Clay, or the Origin of Species (1965), an Oscar-winning short claymation film given a new score by Alloy.

This collection is a great primer on our weird world film heritage. Watch these audio-free oddities to see where  gets his inspiration.


“All these films delighted in the possibilities of cinema and indulged in tricks and nonsense just because they could. They were calculated to appeal to a wide audience and did.”–Michael Barret, Popmatters (DVD)

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