THE MYSTERIOUS CAFE is one of the Edison company’s rare forays into the “trick film”, at least before Porter joined the company. The set-up is quite simple: a comic, elderly couple (referred to as Mr. and Mrs. Spoopendyke in Edison promotional materials) enter a café, taking their seat at a table. The woman goes to take her seat when the chair disappears out from under her, causing her to land on the ground. The re-appears on top of the table, and when the man goes ot help his wife up, she disappears and immediately re-appears seated on the chair atop the table. Leaning against the table, it disappears out from underneath them, causing them to come crashing to the ground. More frantic scrambling ensues as the man, wife, and chairs continue to disappear and re-appear in various positions, with comic chaos ensuing. When they’ve finally had enough, they beat the poor waiter with an umbrella before wrapping him in the tablecloth and beating him further.
Dating from 1900, the film presents a very rudimentary narrative, of the kind that could have been found in a vaudeville sketch. The film adheres to the “proscenium framing” so common of the period, but differs in that it employs a significant amount of editing to achieve its trick effects. However, unlike the effects being employed by people like Melies and de Chomon in France at the same time, the effects in THE MYSTERIOUS CAFÉ are quite crude, and shatter the illusion of magic that the French trick films were able to create through careful planning and precise cutting. Also, the film devolves into roughhouse slapstick toward the end, and ends without a neat-wrap up.
While the Edison catalogue description promises that the film is “sure to provoke much merriment”, it lacks the light, whimsical charm of the French trick films that make those films such a wonder and a delight more than a century after they were made. Blackton and Smith reveled in film’s fantastic properties; in addition to making a number of trick films, they also re-created news events of the period using a series of simple yet ingenious tricks that managed to fool audiences of the time into believing what they were seeing was real. This film uses stock characters – American vaudeville archetypes – and combines them with the aesthetic of the French trick film with mixed results. Watching it, one cannot help thinking of Kevin Brownlow’s point that American films tended to appear drab and rather uninspired in comparison with their European counterparts. When Edwin S. Porter began making films for Edison, he was able to integrate the trick effects more successfully, particularly with the delightful DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND (1906), which ranks with the best of Melies and de Chomon’s work in terms of technical effects if not pure whimsy and a sense of the pre-war innocence and fun that those French trick films convey so well. Perhaps the criticism of THE MYSTERIOUS CAFÉ boils down to the fact that it feels more like a clear imitation rather than a first-rate work of cinematic inventiveness.
The film itself was shot sometime between June 1899 and September 1900. Although it was released through Edison, the filming took place at the roof-top Vitagraph studio in Manhattan that was being employed by filmmakers J. Stuart Blackton and Alfred E. Smith during this period (before the Edison company opened its studio in the Bronx in 1904).