Vintage Cartoon Scares: ‘Le Squelette Joyeux’ (1897-8)

This is the first in a slightly belated series of spooky (and slightly silly) seasonal posts. All Hallows Eve may have come and gone, but the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in. The end of the year is not far away, which makes this the perfect time to be telling tales of ghostly apparitions around the fire – indeed, Christmas ghost stories are a genre unto themselves.

Last Halloween, I posted an early Disney cartoon involving a bunch of cheerfully partying skeletons dancing enthusiastically round a graveyard in the dead of night. This amusing little animated danse macabre inspired me to see what else I could find on a similar theme for this year – and there’s lots to be found, since the spooky appears to be a theme favoured by animators since the early days of the genre.

So we’re heading back to the beginning of it all, with this remarkable piece of film…

No, the date in the title is not a typo… This is indeed a snippet of late 19th century stop-motion animation – cartoons, in one form or another, go back a lot further than you might think!

This early example of animation, the Lumière brothers’ Le Squelette Joyeux, was released in late 1890s, making it an intriguing piece of film history that dates back to the very early days of the genre’s pioneers. And really, there were none more pioneering than these two French siblings – Auguste and Louis Lumière.

Between them, they directed and produced numerous groundbreaking films, invented a number of cinematographical processes and technologies (possibly even the actual process of moving pictures itself – this issue is still much debated), and, in late December 1895, were responsible for one of the very first public film showings in history.

Watching this delightfully wobbly skeleton literally falling apart as he dances, it is clear that this prototype animation was, at least in part, influenced by the idea of the danse macabre, and, more importantly, was likely also an influence on later film-makers – compare and contrast with this early Disney cartoon, for example.

It is doubtful we will ever conclusively know who actually invented the moving picture process, but the Lumière Brothers (Louis in particular) have as good a claim as any. However, their joyous squelette is most certainly the daddy of all later dancing skeleton cartoons!

Skull and Crossbones

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