While we’re still in the realm of public domain, I’ll embed the film below:
(If you find youtube’s quality unbearable [I did], try the Internet Archive version instead.)
I’m sure you’ll agree upon first viewing that the Library of Congress was correct to deem this film ‘significant’ and preserve it in the National Film Registry. As Wikipedia notes, there’s an impressive display of special effects, including the forced perspective technique achieved using a combination of trick mirrors and deep focus, as well as some stop-motion animation. Likewise, we see our first instance of tobacco product placement, as sponsored by Sweet Corporal (perhaps this was recognizable by its distinct packaging, as I don’t see any discernible product name).
Though these are important distinctions, they aren’t groundbreaking, even at this early date. We’ve already seen this level of animation in previous shorts, and Méliès had pretty much written the book on special effects with A Trip to the Moon in 1902. What’s more interesting in Princess Nicotine is its psychoanalytic subtext.
In the early 20th century, Freud’s pioneering work in the science of psychiatry was quickly gaining momentum. Much of the psychoanalytic vocabulary we take for granted today was beginning to capture the public consciousness (<– see?), especially in work concerning the interpretation of dreams, the unconscious, and sexuality. Since many of these ideas would really pick up steam with the Surrealist movement in art and literature during the 1920s, it’s reasonable to assume that their influence could filter into film as well.
In Princess Nicotine, we are led to believe that the bulk of the film takes place in a dream or a dream-like state. After the smoker nods off, the fairies appear, objects move on their own, and the scenery changes (although I’m not quite certain why this happens approximately halfway through the film, rather than directly after he falls asleep—perhaps to accommodate a change in special effects?).
As many of the film’s images were intended to be whimsical, I won’t attempt to unpack any significant meaning or symbolism from them, but I will say that there’s at least some psychosexual imagery at play. The most significant, I think, is the animation sequence, which shows the metamorphosis of the flower into a cigar. These are typical masculine/feminine symbols, made more apparent by the fairy’s concealment in the flower and the male protagonist’s identity as ‘the smoker.’ This theme of female entrapment or titillation (the bottle, the cigar box, the lifting of the skirt, the difference in scale) and male frustration (continually trying to unveil or transform the elusive feminine) finally comes to fruition in a fitting final scene: the smoker quells the flames with a spray of his seltzer bottle, which eventually bursts forth uncontrollably.
It’s the end of the dream; the nocturnal emission. Freud would approve.