An English engineer and inventor, William Crackford, is visited in his workshop by a messenger, who tells him that the famous alchemist Alcofrisbas is interested in selling him a powerful talisman. Arriving in Alcofrisbas's mysterious laboratory, where they are attacked and confused by magically moving and transforming pieces of furniture, Crackford and his servant John explain to the alchemist that they hope to make a high-speed trip around the world. Alcofrisbas promises to make the trip possible. With the help of his seven laboratory assistants, Alcofrisbas makes a batch of large magical pills for the engineer and demonstrates that, by hurling a pill upon the ground, Crackford can have any wish gratified. Crackford, in his excitement, does not read the terms of the contract he is asked to sign, and so remains blissfully unaware that he has just sold his soul to the Devil. When Crackford and John leave, "Alcofrisbas" resumes his true identity—Mephistopheles—and his "assistants" are revealed to be the Seven Deadly Sins.
Crackford comes home to dinner, where his wife and daughters are waiting for him. Wanting to try out the pills, he throws one to the floor. Immediately, two servants in livery burst out of a trunk, opening it to reveal more servants and a smaller trunk, who open it to reveal still more servants and another trunk, and so on; the process goes on until the dining room is full of servants, who load all of Crackford's furniture, as well as Crackford himself and his family, into the trunks. In the blink of an eye the trunks become a miniature train for the family, driven by John the servant. Crackford's high-speed tour has begun.
The tiny train wends its way out of the city, meeting with ridicule from onlookers. Arriving in the countryside, most of the train and all of Crackford's family are lost in an accident with a collapsing bridge; Crackford, caring only for his world tour, continues on undismayed. Crackford and John stop at a village inn, the landlord of which is again Mephistopheles in disguise. The two travelers find their attempts to eat confounded by magical disappearances and transformations; in despair, they go to the kitchen to eat with the servants, only to be disrupted by apes and demons in a farcical pandemonium of appearances and disappearances using every possible entrance and exit.
Fleeing out of the inn, the travelers make an escape in a horse and buggy, which Mephistopheles promptly transforms into a magical carriage made out of stars and comets and drawn by a bizarre mythological horse. Mephistopheles, following the travelers in an automobile, drives them up the slope of Mount Vesuvius and directly into an eruption. In a burst of lava and flames, the infernal carriage is shot into the sky and makes a voyage through space, flying past stars and planets. Colliding with a thunderstorm, the carriage bursts apart; Crackford and John tumble through space and crash through the ceiling of a dining room. Just as Crackford thinks he is about to get a bite to eat at last, Mephistopheles appears to fulfill the terms of the contract. Crackford is led into the Underworld, where gleeful demons turn him on a spit over the infernal flames.Georges Méliès as Mephistopheles
On 16 February 1839, Les Pilules du diable, a stage féerie written by Ferdinand Laloue, Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois and Clement-Philippe Laurent, premiered at the Théâtre National de Cirque-Olympique in Paris. The play was frequently revived and became known as one of the classics of the féerie genre. A new adaptation of the classic play, Les Quatre Cents Coups du diable by Victor de Cottens and Victor Darlay, premiered on 23 December 1905 at the Théâtre du Châtelet. This version of the play, though still in the féerie tradition of elaborately staged fantasy, introduced a modernized setting as well as an element of skeptical satire to the story.
Méliès had previously worked with De Cottens on the 1904 Folies Bergère revue, for which Méliès produced a satirical film sequence about Leopold II of Belgium; the sequence was screened at three hundred performances of the revue, and was later released commercially by Méliès's studio as An Adventurous Automobile Trip. For Les Quatre Cents Coups du diable, De Cottens and Darlay commissioned Méliès to make two short films to be projected as part of the entertainment: Le Voyage dans l'éspace ("The Space Trip") and Le Cyclone ("The Cyclone"). Méliès also assisted in the development of the script of the production, which enjoyed a great success and ran for some five hundred performances.
Méliès's film The Merry Frolics of Satan is freely based on the stage play (the title was changed to avoid copyright ligitation), and incorporates one of Méliès's two film sequences for the production: the voyage of the infernal carriage through space. (The other film sequence, Le Cyclone, does not appear in The Merry Frolics of Satan, but was incorporated into Méliès's later film Robert Macaire and Bertrand.) The rest of the film consists of new material made at least six months after the film sequences for the play, and with different actors. The farcically choreographed kitchen scene faithfully reproduces the set and stage machinery that had been traditionally used for this scene in Les Pilules du diable ever since 1839.