Segundo de Chomon is a little known but major film pioneer whose work appears to be in the process of being rediscovered. Last October a special event at the New York Film Festival, “The Marvelous World of Segundo de Chomon,” drew renewed critical interest in the man sometimes referred to as “the Spanish Melies.” This makes me supremely happy since I consider Senor Chomon’s strange and wonderful 1907 masterpiece The Golden Beetle (Le Scarabee d’or) to be one of my favorite early films and yet have found other movies by its mysterious and shadowy creator (as well as biographical information about him) to be somewhat difficult to come by.
I do know that Chomon got his start as a color tinting specialist for the French studio Pathé in 1901 and directed his first film for them the following year. Like his mentor Georges Melies, Chomon was known primarily for trick cinematography and optical effects. In addition to directing, he is credited with creating the special effects for films as important and far-flung as the Italian epic Cabiria in 1914 and Abel Gance’s Napolean in 1927 (his final credit), which makes him something of a cinematic Zelig. However, as The Golden Beetle makes clear, as a director Chomon was also a cinematic poet whose movies invite sustained reflection and analysis – something that cannot always be said about the one-dimensional illusionism of Melies.
The Golden Beetle begins with a shot of a sorcerer wearing stereotypical middle-eastern garb (long beard, turban and baggy clothes) standing in front of a building with an ornate facade. He spies a beetle crawling up the side of the building, plucks it off the wall and casts it into a magic, fiery cauldron. This act transforms the beetle into a beautiful woman wearing a skin-tight gold costume and sporting three pairs of giant wings. Based on the sorcerer’s delighted reaction we can assume he has conjured this beetle-woman for the purposes of his own (sexual?) gratification. However, the creator soon loses all control over his creation; the winged beauty turns the tables on him by turning the cauldron into a colorful exploding fountain, doing a delightful dance and conjuring up two female assistants of her own who plunge the sorcerer into the cauldron and thereby destroy him.
In less than three minutes The Golden Beetle impresses as a kind of prototypical feminist allegory as well as a very beautiful example of an early color-tinted film. Because it was tinted entirely by hand, it must have been an extremely painstaking process for Chomon to create his elaborate psychedelic fountain, which sprays red, purple, pink and yellow colors to all corners of the frame. Indeed it so impressed one of my students in an Intro to Film class that she identified it as the single best film I showed all semester, ranking it ahead of even many feature-length movies with sound.
Hopefully, the renewed interest in Segundo de Chomon will result in the release of a new DVD or Blu-ray compilation devoted solely to his work. In the meantime, The Golden Beetle can be viewed on the first volume of Kino’s essential The Movies Begin box set. It can also be viewed on YouTube here (even though it’s misidentified as the work of Ferdinand Zecca):