The Little Match Seller (1902), The Little Match Girl (1914), La Petite Marchande d'allumettes (1928), Little Match Girl (1937), La Jeune Fille aux Allumettes (1952)/The Little Match Girl (1954)

Rather than running these individually, I'm posting reviews for five shorts, each of which is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl. This is far from an exhaustive list, of course, but this covers every surviving version through the 1950s I was able to locate.

For those of you who don't feel like digging through my notes, I'll save you a little time - these are all good for when they were made. The two that really stood out were the 1928 silent French version and the 1937 animated version. The animated probably aged the best of the bunch, as far as general audiences are concerned, while the 1928 film was the one I found the most fascinating from a technical standpoint. So, if you're interested in old movies, that's a good one to see (actually, all of these are good to see, but that's a great starting point). Those are the two I was thinking of when I slapped a "Highly Recommended" label on this post, though in both cases it assumes some interest in the era and/or style of the work.

The Little Match Seller (1902)

This very short film mainly concerns itself with the visions and death of the title character. There are no title cards or dialogue, so what story exists is told through images. There's a brief sequence in which she tries to sell to a single passerby, then her shoes are stolen. Next, it starts snowing, and a lamplighter passes by. She's alone after that, and she starts lighting matches and witnessing visions of holiday feasts and decorations before finally seeing her grandmother. Then, of course, she freezes to death, and her spirit is carried off by an angel before her body is found by a policeman.

At just three minutes and change, it's all very quick. As is common with "adaptations" of this era, this is really more a companion piece than a serious attempt to translate the story to a new medium. Think of it as a living painting and you'll be on the right track.

The effects are accomplished by filming secondary scenes over the existing film, creating the impression there's a ghastly apparition. It's not entirely dissimilar to the effect you can get on stage by projecting a movie onto a screen beside the characters.

This was very early in the development of the art form, so it's necessary to take that into consideration when appraising it. With that caveat, the effects look good. I particularly like how the snow, accomplished practically, works with the images. Also, the pose of the poor girl's body offers a nice emotional gut punch.

The police officer's flashlight is a little odd - It looks like they went with an optical effect where they exposed a cone-shaped section of the film to something white to create the illusion of light. That particular effect is more clever than effective, but overall it's a well-done short for the time. 

The Little Match Girl (1914)

Not that I think this matters, but I should note the title cards on the only surviving version of this 9-minute movie are in Dutch, which I neither speak nor felt the need to look up on Google translate. The reason I don't think it matters is the short film mainly tells its story visually - it'd be easy enough to follow the narrative even if you're not familiar with the broad outline of the source material. Still, it means I can't comment on the substance of the title cards, which bits of dialogue were included, or anything of the sort.

What I will comment on is the use of effects, mainly accomplished with hidden cuts and tinted film, to tell a story about an abused, dying girl escaping into fantasy on New Year's Eve. The cuts are used to swap out sections of the set for those showcasing her visions, and it's all quite effective. There's nothing here that left me scratching my head over how it was accomplished, but the end impression was artistic and visually interesting.

I also thought the sets themselves were well done for the era. They don't entirely look real, but they're evocative of storybook illustrations, which feeds into the fairytale nature of the piece. Likewise, the snow and ice look impressive: again, not exactly real, but tonally right for the short film.

The story includes a bit with her father, showing him abusive and drunk. We see the girl trying to sell matches without success, and we see her shoes stolen. Eventually, she starts lighting matches and experiencing visions of happier holidays, before being carried off by an angel. Then, of course, there's the obligatory shot of her lying dead on the ground.

I did find the acting a bit over-the-top, but that's a stylistic choice, not a flaw. Overall, this was a well-executed short well worth a few minutes.

La Petite Marchande d'allumettes (1928)

Despite being released a year after the popularization of synchronized sound, this 30-minute live-action 1928 French adaptation is silent. It's also visually stunning, thanks to an impressive mix of different techniques. The movie uses miniatures, elaborate sets and props, double-exposure, puppetry, and stop-motion to create the illusion of a then-modern city, as well as an elaborate dream world.

Before getting into specifics, I should note the only version I was able to locate didn't have English subtitles available (or if it did, I wasn't able to locate the option on the streaming service carrying the film). I don't think this made a huge impact on the experience - there weren't all that many title cards, I already know the basic outline, and the film is mostly visual - but I want to acknowledge there may or may not be a few details I'm misinterpreting, particularly near the end.

The story starts out like usual - the girl is forced out into the cold to sell her matches, she encounters adversity from cruel kids who pelt her with snowballs, and there's a policeman who seems kind but doesn't actually help her in a meaningful way (though I think the implication is he wants to - this is one of those times it would probably help if I could read the language).

At any rate, she soon finds herself alone in the snow. She lights a match and hallucinates a Christmas tree. Then she falls asleep and the real dream sequence kicks off after a transition in which she dances with a spectral version of herself and runs through gossamer curtains. She finds herself seemingly shrunken down and inside a toy store she'd looked at earlier. There she encounters dolls, toy soldiers, balls, and more, all as large as she is.

Whatever you're imagining probably doesn't do this movie justice. They use a variety of techniques to sell the illusion, sometimes for the same characters or objects. This was directed by Jean Renoir, who also made [checks notes] a bunch of films I should probably get around to watching if I want to keep pretending any of my movie opinions have merit.

Eventually, she meets a toy soldier, who conjures a meal for her, but she never gets to enjoy it. Another toy comes to life, and he's... well... I'm pretty sure he's the personification of death. He stops her from eating the meal, deactivates the other toys, then chases after her and the soldier, who attempts to get her away on horseback. There's an impressive chase through the clouds (including a few shots that are oddly similar to some of the rotoscoping effects Ralph Bakshi achieved in his adaptation of Lord of the Rings), but Death (or whoever he is) catches up, defeats the soldier, and sends him falling to the ground far below. He then grabs the match girl, who goes limp, and lays her body in front of a cross, which sprouts branches, leaves, and flower blossoms. He vanishes, and the blossoms fall off and land on the match girl. They then transform into snowflakes, and we cut back to the real world.

The performances are strong, particularly the titular match girl, with the caveat the actress was almost thirty when this came out, and it's pretty obvious. Still, she conveys a variety of emotions and enhances the already impressive piece.

But of course, the real stars here are the sets and effects. It's all pretty damn incredible for 1928. The variety of techniques on display here is stunning, and Renoir creates something beautiful and memorable. If you find silent movies boring, this won't change your mind, but this is absolutely worth tracking down if you appreciate the craft that went into this sort of thing.

Little Match Girl (1937)

This version, made by Columbia as part of their Color Rhapsody series, is pretty neat. I'll admit I was skeptical when I first saw the style - the human characters are very cartoonish, which I thought would clash with the darker subject matter or - worst - imply they might not follow through with the ending. Also, the setting had been updated to New York City in what was then the present.

But my skepticism was unfounded. This makes some alterations to the story, but if anything it goes in a darker direction, at least until the very end. And the childlike style contrasts brilliantly with the bleak subject matter, making the whole even more effective. It's a lovely, bizarre spin on the classic fairytale.

Unlike some modern versions which are somewhat ambiguous about exactly when the story unfolds, this takes place in the middle of the Times Square New Year's celebration, so there's no confusion. People sing Auld Lang Syne, there are noise makers, crowds in the street terrify the Match Girl: it's chaotic and dangerous. Eventually, she makes her way to a secluded alley and lights candles to warm herself. And as she does so, she dreams of comforts. Eventually, her dreams turn to a heavenly fantasy of cherubs and doves. She sees visions of a Christmas tree, an angel, and other wonderful sights.

Then all that gets blown away by the same winter winds that have been snuffing the life from her candles. We essentially watch heaven itself destroyed, leaving only a single burning candle. As the Match Girl crawls towards it and reaches out, it transforms into a match, which burns away. She collapses dead in the alleyway. 

But of course, the angel comes down and cradles the kid's soul, lifting her into the night sky, and eventually turning into a star. So, you know, as happy an ending as this story gets.

I like the twist of having the fantasy meet a violent end. It's certainly not the direction the original took, but it conveys the horror of what's happening. And it's enhanced by the fact the style is very childish: we're not used to seeing suffering and death look like this.

I should add the animation itself is fantastic. Stylistically, they went all out with the visuals, particularly in the extended heaven fantasy. This looks great and is well worth checking out.

La Jeune Fille aux Allumettes (1952)/The Little Match Girl (1954) 

Sorry for the confusing title - this one's a little complicated. There's a 1952 short French film of The Little Match Girl called, "La Jeune Fille aux Allumettes." Virtually no dialogue is used in the film, making it an easy candidate for dubbing. As far as I can tell, the only available version is the US release, which came out in 1954.

I'm not certain whether the original contained narration, but the 1954 version definitely does. And - no surprise here - the narration is the weakest aspect of this short. It basically just spells out what's happening on the screen, offering very little that can't be inferred.

There are several things setting this version apart, beginning with the fact it's explicitly set at Christmas Eve, rather than New Year's. While this could be a detail changed through narration, I'm inclined to think that was the intent in the French version, as well, since the girl's visions focus on Santa Claus (almost certainly Papa Noel originally) and the Virgin Mary. The girl's first vision concerns her meeting Santa, receiving a cape, and watching a ballet. Everything of course vanishes at the end.

The second vision is of a Christmas tree and the Virgin Mary, who the girl believes is her own mother. Mary brings a bunch of toys to life, and they dance for her. Then, when that all vanishes, the girl lights the rest of her matches to bring back Mary, which works, and we're told "The Little Match Girl would be warm and happy forever."

That's it. They don't show her body in the street or do any of that. If you don't know the story, you'd probably think it was supposed to be a happy ending.

Because I can't find the French version or even a description, I can't say for certain it doesn't end differently. Either way, someone decided this story needed to be sanitized for kids, which I find disappointing.

All that being said, there are some cool costumes and sets in this, particularly in the visions. Nothing jumps out at me as groundbreaking, but it's clear effort went into this production (less so for the narration, but I'll stop beating that frozen horse).

I wouldn't single this out as a "must see" version, but it's well done, despite the disappointing conclusion.