The Mechanical Man

No rating due to only partially surviving film

In a nutshell: Partially lost Italian silent sci-fi comedy from 1921, noted for being the first feature film to revolve around a robot. What remains is fairly entertaining.

The Mechanical Man (L’uomo meccanico). 1921, Italy. Written and directed by André Deed. Starring André Deed, Valentina Frascaroli. Produced for Società Anonima Milano Films.IMDb score: 5.9

The Mechanical Man in all its faded glory.

The Mechanical Man in all its faded glory.

This film is partially lost, and the only thing remaining is about 26 minutes of the original 80(?) minute film, so I cannot with any good judgement give this one a rating. I want to include in it here, though, for two reasons. The first is that this is probably what remains of the first full length feature movie to revolve around a robot – although it wasn’t referred to as a robot in 1921 when the film premiered. The second reason is so that it can represent one of the tragedies of early film: about 80 percent of all the films made in the 1920’s are presumed to be lost.

The film, made by French comedian André Deed as L’uomo meccanico, depicts a scenario that would later become all too familiar in sci-fi: A good scientist creates a robot, but he is killed by a villain (in this case the femme fatale/crime boss Mado), who takes over control of the automaton and proceeds to wreak havoc for her own personal gain. Enter the police and a hero, who battle the robot while they are trying to find the lair of Mado, where she remote controls the mechanical man. The scientist’s brother is able to build a second robot to battle the evil one, and we get a classic robot-on-robot duel in the end, reminiscent of later Japanese kaiju fare. But Mado is too clever a robot handler, and her robot is winning – until the hero in the shape of Deed’s Saltarello finds Mado and short circuits her machine, killing both her and the robot.

This robot from he 1919 serial The Master Mystery was probably the first robot monster of the big screen.

This robot from he 1919 serial The Master Mystery was probably the first robot monster of the big screen.

Robots would become sci-fi staple, mainly as kiddie fare, during the Roaring Twenties in the pulp magazines, that were now in full swing, bringing strange and wonderful tales to the bedrooms of kids and adolescents both in Europe and USA. The first known appearance of a robot in film is trick film legend Georges Méliès’ short film Gugusse and the Automaton from 1899, and automatons of different varieties can be found in shorts ever after. Although The Mechanical Man is the first full length film to feature an automaton, a robot had already been the focal point of a 20-part sci-fi serial starring escapist superstar Harry Houdini in 1919. Read the review of The Master Mystery, as it was called, here. The word robot had in fact been invented when the film came out. It was invented by Czech sci-fi author Karel Capek in his 1920 theatre play R.U.R. The play was strictly speaking not depicting robots as we see them today, but rather humanoids of flesh and blood assembled in a factory. Over time the word robot came to depict the mechanical beings rather than their artificial human counterparts. But by 1921, when this film was made, the word probably hadn’t yet had time to spread.

The film itself is light comical entertainment and has the feel of later sci-fi serials, both in tone and story, and in the way it is filmed – which is rather cheaply and without great visual style or innovation. The robot itself looks a lot like robots would look like for the following decades, basically up to the 1956 film Forbidden Planet with its famous Robby the Robot. Meaning: it looks like it was assembled using trash cans, cardboard boxes and huge tweezers. It moves slowly and awkwardly, with an actor inside a suit that is twice as tall as himself (or possibly even two acrobatic actors standing on top of each other). It does not look bad, though, in comparison to some of the crap that people like exploitation master Roger Corman and others would cobble together in the decades to come, and has a few very effective scenes. One that is especially riveting is not so because it would be particularly good, but before we have seen it before in a much later film. The mechanical man bashes a hole through a locked steel door, while chasing the heroes. We see a mechanical arm reaching inside, then down, it opens a latch and comes bursting through. Yes – the setup is exactly the same as in James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator.
As a whole it is hard to say anything definitive about the film, since only a fragment, mostly from the latter reels, remains. It is quite watchable as an episode of a sci-fi serial. It does get a bit confusing at times, and sometimes you can’t really keep track of what purposes the different characters have – but some of the confusion is cleared by new title cards.

Valentina Frascarolli does a riveting portrait of the masked villain Mado.

Valentina Frascarolli does a riveting portrait of the masked villain Mado.

The film was long thought lost, until a damaged reel of the Portuguese version turned up in Brazil, that still contained 26 minutes of viewable film. While writing this in 2014, the rest of the film is still presumed lost. It is a sad fact that around 80 percent of all the films that were made in the 1920’s are now presumed lost. In part this stems from the fact that at the time there was no coordinated film archives for the young medium, and the cultural impact of film in general was perhaps not yet fully understood. But another problem was the film itself. In those days all film companies used nitrate film. Nitrate film is nitrate cellulose – hence the word celluloid. And nitrate cellulose is basically guncotton – a highly unstable, though low-grade, explosive. There was a huge problem in the early days of film with reels catching fire in cinemas, when the projector heated up. This is why projectionists’ rooms were made to look like bomb bunkers – sealed off little rooms away from the audience with just a tiny little window. It was basically so the fire could be contained if the film lighted up. Although so called safety film was introduced in 1951, the projectionists’ booths still look pretty much like they did in the old days. But nitrate film was not just a problem because it burned away all the films, but rather because nobody really wanted to keep a whole bunch of film reels in their basements. It didn’t take more than a tiny spark or a really hot day for a damaged old reel inside a metal casing to catch fire. One film often consisted of 8 or more reels of film, and studios simply didn’t want to take the risk to store all of the old films in their archives, since they were basically packing their basements with explosives. Private collectors also had a hard time holding on to film, as the reels were considered hazardous material and often removes during fire inspections. A third reason as to why many early films have been lost is that in the beginning archivists didn’t realise that nitrate film deteriorates pretty quickly, especially in warm conditions. Nitric acid would start to separate from the reels and destroy the films. Later it was discovered that storage in cold temperatures could prevent this from happening, but it was too late for many of the films of the 1920’s.

The poster slightly exaggerated the size of the robot ...

The poster slightly exaggerated the size of the robot …

Not much documentation remains from this film, apart from what remained on the title cards of the discovered reel. The beginning titles are missing, and therefore the actors had to be identified by their looks. Some of the actors and most of the crew are unknown. What we know is that the film was written and directed by André Deed, who also played the lead. Deed was a French performer, comedian and film maker who started out in vaudeville in the late 19th century, as an acrobat, slapstick comedian and singer. In 1901 he started acting in many of Georges Méliès’ films, learning about the medium of film as he went along. He soon became one of the leading comedians of the film company Pathé, and moved to Italy in 1908. There he created the character Cretinetti, which he played in over 90 short films, and made him a minor star all over Europe. Occasionally he also donned the director’s robe. At the end of his Italian film career he set out to create a trilogy of feature films. The first, Il documento umano (Document of a human being) is lost, the second, The Mechanical Man, partly lost, and the third, Gli strani amori di Mado (The strange loves of Mado) was never made. After 1921 he returned to France and continued to act sporadically, most notably in the anti-racist film Le nègre du rapide numéro 13 from 1923.

The Mechanical Man (L’uomo meccanico). 1921, Italy. Written and directed by André Deed. Starring André Deed, Valentina Frascaroli, Mathilde Lambert, Gabriel Moreau, Ferdinando Vivas-May. Cinematography: Alberto Chentrens. Produced for Società Anonima Milano Films.


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