#611) Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy (1909)
OR “Alright, another freebie!”
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton
Class of 2003
The Plot: A man (Paul Panzer) settles in for the evening with a pipe of tobacco. When he falls asleep, he dreams of two tiny fairies (Gladys Hulette and Actor Unknown) emerging from his cigarette box and playing tricks on him. Despite this odd premise, “Princess Nicotine” boasts some genuinely impressive special effects.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “fantasy tour de force” as well as “the most celebrated special effects film of its day.” An essay by film professor/NFR stalwart Scott Simmon is taken directly from his program notes for the “Treasures of the American Archive” DVD.
But Does It Really?: What the hell did I just watch? Like many of these early silent shorts, “Princess Nicotine” is confusing, but man are those special effects a sight to behold. At one point I literally asked the question “How did they do that?” “Princess Nicotine” makes the NFR for its incredible effects, as well as representation of J. Stuart Blackton, a pioneer of early film.
Everybody Gets One: J. Stuart Blackton was a reporter for the New York Evening World when he was assigned to interview Thomas Edison about his new invention the Vitascope. Blackton was so impressed and won over by Edison that he pivoted to filmmaking, adding short films to his stage performances with magician Albert Smith. In 1897 Blackton and Smith founded the American Vitagraph Company (later Vitagraph Studios), and their immediate success led to more creativity and experimentation with their films. Inspired by Georges Méliès, Blackton’s films started to include optical and in-camera effects, as well as stop-motion animation. In addition to its noteworthy effects, “Princess Nicotine” may have been an advertisement for Sweet Caporal Cigars. Speaking of…
Wow, That’s Dated: While the dangers of smoking tobacco were known and documented throughout the early 20th century, advertisements for tobacco products were quite common, only coming to a head in 1964 when a 386-page report by the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry undeniably linked smoking to cancer. Since then, more rules and regulations have been put into place banning the advertisement of tobacco products in various forms, especially anything geared towards children. According to the CDC, while cigarette smoking is still the number one cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, as of 2020 the total population that smokes is 12.5%, down significantly from 42% in 1964.
- My main takeaway from this short was, naturally, the special effects. At first, I assumed the fairy on the table was achieved using double exposure, and while that technique was used for a few shots, most of those effects were achieved in-camera. The actors playing the fairies performed next to the camera, with their movements reflected onto a mirror several feet behind the table which, when viewed through the camera lens, made it appear that they are tiny figures on top of the table. Over 110 years later, it still looks great.
- Paul Panzer was a silent film actor who transitioned to bit parts in talkies. He is one of Rick’s waiters in “Casablanca“, and we’ll see more of him when I finally get around to covering “The Perils of Pauline”.
- This feels like a good time to shout out cameraman Tony Gaudio, who would go on to be the cinematographer for such future NFR entries as “Little Caesar“, “The Life of Emile Zola“, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood“.
- Nothing to see here, just a child smoking a cigarette. Go on about your business.
- I’m always tempted to try and delve into these films on a deeper level, with the hope of discovering some hidden meaning or metaphor, but sometimes a film about a cigar is just a film about a cigar.
- According to the aforementioned Simmon essay, audiences immediately took notice of the special effects in “Princess Nicotine”, leading to an article in Scientific American that called them “so startling that it defies explanation by the initiated.”
- Vitagraph would continue making shorts until 1925 when the company was sold to Warner Bros. The company’s early developments with sound film were picked up by Warner for their features, which culminated in “The Jazz Singer” in 1927.
- J. Stuart Blackton lost most of his Vitagraph fortune in the 1929 Stock Market Crash and spent the remainder of his life working odd jobs and showing his old movies on the lecture circuit. Blackton was working on a color film project with Hal Roach when he died of complications from a car accident in 1941 at the age of 66.
Further Viewing: J. Stuart Blackton’s experimentation with stop-motion animation led to 1906’s “Humorous Phases on Funny Faces”, widely considered the first animated film. I’ve nominated this film for NFR consideration in the past and, as of this writing, the granddaddy of all animation has yet to make the cut.