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That Fatal Sneeze (1907)

A boy retaliates to his uncle’s practical joke by secretly putting pepper on his handkerchief. The uncle begins to sneeze with increasing ferocity, the handkerchief making it worse. As he careens down the street, wreaking all sorts of damage, he is pursued by the various people he’s riled. The destructive power of his sneezing increases, shaking the very earth on which he stands. His final sneeze blows him to smithereens, leaving only his boots behind. This bizarre silent comedy could provide all sorts of educational avenues, from a discussion of social responsibility to the production of an appropriate soundtrack.

Classroom Activities

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Questions

  • Can you list all the characters we meet in the film?

  • Who is this story about?

  • Which character do you like most? What is it that you like about the character or his behaviour? Who is the goodie and who is the baddie in this film? Discuss why the class this this and what evidence is given in the film.

  • The film is shot in black and white. What do you imagine the real colours to be like? What can’t you tell because the film is black and white?

  • Have you read or seen any other stories like this?

Watching

  • Before screening the film, look at the title still and ask: Is this an old or new film? How do you know? What do you expect to see in the film?

  • Where and when do you think the story happened? What makes you think this? How many different settings are there in the film?

  • How do the settings affect what is happening?

  • What do you think is out of shot/off-screen? What can we not see in the dining room scene? In the last shot?

  • What in the setting is the same as we see today?

  • What in the setting is different from what we see today?

  • Show the film a second time, asking the class to make a list of all the close-up shots and all the long shots. Discuss why there might be more long shots in this film.

  • Look for transitions between different shots. Is there a reason in the story why the shots change at certain points?

Analysing

  • This silent film has a cumulative story structure; it is a comedy that tells the story of a practical joke and its consequences. Before screening this film, you may wish to prepare children by talking about practical jokes and whether it is good or bad to play them.

  • How do we know that the boy is playing a trick?

  • Discuss whether the boy was right to play this trick on the old man. Perhaps extend the discussion to general ideas about “doing the right thing”.

  • What can you tell about the nephew’s character from the way he behaves? What can you tell about the uncle from the first shot of the film?

  • Look at the narrative flow of the storytelling. Get the class to recount what happened at the start of the story; then what happened in the middle; and finally what happened at the end. Discuss if there is a cause-and-effect chain of events through the story. Discuss whether other stories work like this too.

  • Discuss if this could really happen. Get the class to think up different endings.

Creative

  • Write a diary or journal entry about the experience of being teased or tricked; or doing something you shouldn’t and facing the consequences.

  • History: using the library and internet, research what people looked like 100 years ago and how they lived. Compile an illustrative report/PowerPoint presentation.

  • PE: Play some chasing games, or create some of your own.

  • Using digital video cameras and editing software, experiment with creating special effects (such as someone disappearing or the extreme effects of someone sneezing).

  • Play a word game to find different ways of expressing the passage of time.

  • Using stills from the film, create a new photostory with captions.

  • Download the film and get the class to create their own new soundtrack for the film with music and audio sound effects.

  • Continue the story through drama activity: what are the man and the crowd shouting in the ladder scene (4mins 20secs to 4mins 48secs)?

  • Continue the story through drama activity: how is the man feeling in the earthquake scene (4mins 48secs to 5mins 26secs)?

Clip Details

Record Id 007-002-000-031-C
Resource Rights Holder BFI
Project Ref STST2-11
Year of Production 1907
Genre Comedy
Curriculum Areas subjects
Who Lewin Fitzhamon (Filmmaker)
Country of Origin UK
Medium / Content Live Action, Fiction, Black & White, Silent
Themes Repercussions, Practical Joke, Slapstick
Clip Length 05:00