Maria... I’ve just met a ’bot named Maria...
In 1921, a beloved little silent-film comedian decided to write, direct and star in a science fiction film. Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times? Wrong.
The comedian in question was a French vaudeville clown and acrobat named Andre Deed. When remembered at all, he is best remembered for a series of Italian silent comedy shorts in which he played a character called Cretinetti. L’Uomo Meccanico was his first and only effort as a screenwriter, as well as being the first film I have been able to track down with a genuine robot character, and so it is truly a shame that only mangled fragments exist. All that remain are a few reels of the Portuguese version, found in storage in Brazil, consisting of about 40% of the original feature. At this remove, it’s hard to make any judgment on The Mechanical Man’s quality, but educated guesses are possible.
Deed may well have been a very funny man. His chief shtick in The Mechanical Man seems to have been frenzied leaping about, like Roberto Benigni at an Oscar ceremony after about thirty cans of Red Bull. His antics add nothing to the plot, which without him might have made a fairly straightforward silent thriller: Scientist invents giant robot with superpowers, gang of crooks led by a Female Adventuress (!) kills Scientist to gain control of the robot, Female Adventuress sends robot on deadly rampage, Scientist’s Brother creates other giant robot to battle original robot. And then there’s this little jumping guy stuck in here and there for comic relief. Apparently. Without the explanatory scrolldown at the beginning, though, you’d have a hard time guessing what the hell was supposed to be going on.
Which is not to say this film lacks a certain surreal charm. The robots are, yes, real robots! Unlike the one in Houdini’s Master Mystery, considered here a few weeks back, these are not men in robot suits (I mean, they are, but in the context of the story they’re these big sort of RC-controlled monsters) to be unmasked at the end. No Scooby-doo copouts here! There’s a scene near the end in which the evil robot is chasing a car and no less than three separate special effects are used, with sublimely cheesy results. First some speeded-up footage of the robot walking is superimposed behind the car; then, in a long shot, what appears to be a clumsy animation of the robot frantically waddling along; finally the robot is being towed behind the car on a trailer, only partially screened by smoke and firework effects.
None of this, though, can give you any idea of the awesome, the fabulous, the superlative incoherence of The Mechanical Man. This poor ruined film has become a work of art distinct from Deed’s original creation, a fabulous découpage of unrelated images and bizarre scenes to bemuse and delight the viewer, especially if the viewer has indulged in a mild controlled substance first.
Here’s a woman in a checkered Hollie Hobbie outfit and some sort of bondage mask, shooting up in a prison cell! Here she is naked in a hospital bed, slyly pouring ether on the floor so she can set it and her bed on fire when the nurses leave! Here’s what appears to be the Olympic event for Men in Hats Shoving Each Other! Here’s a dead bulldog! Here’s the robot throwing somebody’s armoire off the top of a castle! Here’s the comic relief, shooting at the participants in a bicycle race! Here’s a guy hanging off a clifftop tree by one arm! He lets go and drops, to land next to a gypsy sitting beside her campfire! Here’s a horse with its tail cut off! Here’s the comic relief dressed as Lord Nelson (I think) on a motorcycle, being chased by a car bearing a police detective in drag as Little Bo Peep! Or maybe he’s disguised as Marie Antoinette.
I swear to God. All this and a climax in which two giant robots duke it out in the Paris Opera House! Though that part isn’t as good as it sounds. But really, if you are in an even faintly altered state of consciousness, this forgotten cinematic gem will have you weeping with laughter. It’s a thousand pities it wasn’t rediscovered during the ’60s; it might have become a college campus Midnight Matinee classic.
Where, you ask breathlessly, can you find this cinematic treasure? Alpha Video has released it on a DVD double bill with the 1922 The Headless Horseman. That one stars the great American humorist Will Rogers as a rather unconvincing Ichabod Crane. It was the first film shot using the panchromatic negative process, which gives it some neat day-for-night scenes. For sheer dadaist enchantment, though, it can’t hold a candle to L’Uomo Meccanico.