Le Noël de Monsieur le curé [The Parish Priest's Christmas] (1906)

This is a short film from director Alice Guy-Blaché, one of the pioneers of early film who quite literally helped invent the form. She's arguably one of the most important contributors in the medium's history, and yes, it's maddening she's not more widely known and discussed (apparently she thought so, too, and spent a great deal of time later in life lobbying for her legacy).

The Parish Priest's Christmas tells a fairly simple story of a priest trying to prepare for Christmas. The story is entirely told through visual media; there are no title cards and the only words we see are the date to inform us this is set at Christmas.

The priest goes to the home of two poor members of his parish, who appear to donate a cradle full of straw that a figure of the baby Jesus can go in. Next, he goes to what looks to be a well-off man selling such figurines - I can't tell if he's meant to be an artist or just a dealer. Regardless, he has a figure the priest wants, but he demands more money than the priest can afford. Defeated, the priest leaves.

Back in church, he sets up the empty cradle as his parish arrives. They all gather around and pray to the cradle in front of a stained glass window containing an image of the Virgin Mary. A pair of angels appear to either side of Mary, who comes alive and hands over the statue of the baby Jesus she was holding, which is placed in the cradle. Mary then freezes again, the angels vanish, and everyone prays.

Thematically, this includes the popular motif of economic injustice being rectified. It's also explicitly religious, which seems less common in Christmas films of the era (or at least those I've been able to track down). Interestingly, both this and the holiday movies of  Georges Méliès include religious iconography (and in the case of The Christmas Angel, interweave those with commentary on wealth distribution), suggesting that French audiences were more interested in the religious side of the holidays than American.

While I don't find the narrative particularly interesting, the illusion at the end is managed brilliantly. The angels appear by having everyone freeze as the camera's stopped, the angels enter, and the camera rolls again. Simple enough. But Mary's there the whole time, dressed to hide the actress in plain sight. If you're watching carefully, you'll catch her move the slightest bit, but I had to rewind to catch it: the framing is brilliantly managed, and the actress holds her position well. It's a simple trick, but it really works.

In addition to this, Guy-Blaché also directed a 33-minute long epic called, "La vie du Christ" (a.k.a.: The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ) the same year. Despite including the nativity, I don't really consider this Christmas media, at least not for purposes of review on this blog. "La vie du Christ" includes some incredibly impressive sets and is probably a must-watch for students of film history. This one is much less of a commitment and may be of interest to more casual film fans, but it's honestly not where I'd suggest starting.

While the majority of Guy-Blaché's filmography has been lost, there's still a wealth of movies that survived, many of which are brilliantly constructed (narratively, she was way ahead of her time). Likewise, you can find some fascinating examples of her playing with technology you might be surprised to discover was around, such as movies made in the first decade of the 20th century with both color and sound.

The Parish Priest's Christmas isn't the best example of what she's capable of, though the trick photography at the end is worth seeing.