Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Georges Méliès began filming Le Voyage in May 1902, and began selling prints to distributors after finishing in August. The hand-coloured print from Elisabeth Thuillier’s studio ran from September–December by Méliès’s Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris.

Jules-Eugène Legris, a co-worker and fellow magician, who appears in the final scene as the parade leader, screened the film after Thursday and Saturday matinées.

Black and white prints sold for 560 francs, and colour prints went for 1,000. Sadly, due to rampant piracy, Méliès never got most of the profits from this runaway blockbuster.

Not only was Méliès a victim of piracy and cheated of most of his rightful profits, he also wasn’t credited onscreen or in advertisements either. The only U.S. exhibitor who credited him during the first six months of the theatrical run was Thomas Lincoln Tally, of L.A.’s Electrical Theatre.

To try to nip this situation in the bud, Méliès opened a U.S. branch of his Star Film Company in New York in 1903, run by his brother Gaston. This studio sold his films directly and registered them with U.S. copyrights.

The catalogue introduced this English-language studio thus: “In opening a factory and office in New York we are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act!”

Méliès also made trade arrangements with companies including American Mutoscope and Biograph, Gaumont, the Charles Urban Trading Company, the Warwick Trading Company, and Robert W. Paul’s company. Fifteen cents per foot of film became the standard price.

In 1908, new price standardizations from the Motion Picture Patents Company made Méliès’s films outrageously expensive. Coupled with the fact that his films’ fantasy and magical themes fell out of fashion, this set the stage for his financial ruin and fall into obscurity.

Because of the film’s high price, Méliès at first was unsuccessful at selling prints to fairground exhibitors. However, when he gave one exhibitor a free print, it was a wild success from the very first showing. Fairgoers packed into the theatre until midnight, and the exhibitor immediately bought the film.

When Méliès reminded him of his initial reluctance to pony up the money, he offered 200 francs to make up for this insult and inconvenience.

The film ran continuously by L’Olympia in Paris for several months. Due to the abovediscussed piracy, the film also was a runaway success in the U.S. It ran in cities including New York, New Orleans, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, L.A., and Cleveland.

Through 1904, it was a featured headline attraction in countries including Canada, Italy, and Germany. Truly, this was one of the most popular films in the early 20th century, across all markets.

Because of Méliès’s later financial woes and tanked reputation, many of the copies of his prints were lost. In 1917, the military occupied his office and melted down many of his films for silver and celluloid. The silver was used for ammo; the celluloid, boot heels.

When the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was razed to the ground in 1923, the prints stored there were sold to a second-hand film vendor by weight. Later that same year, Méliès burnt all remaining negatives in his garden in Montreuil, in a fit of anger.

In 1925, be became a toy and candy vendor by a stand in the Gare Montparnasse railway terminal in Paris, and his impressive body of film work seemed as though it had slipped into the foggy mists of time.

Thankfully, due to early film history devotees, Méliès was rediscovered in the late 1920s, and his reputation and popularity were restored. Two copies of Le Voyage were found, though both were incomplete. In 1997, a complete print was finally reconstructed.

In 1993, a hand-coloured print surfaced, believed to be from a Spanish distributor on account of the flag in the launching scene being coloured like the flag of Spain. From 2002–05, this print was restored against all odds, and in 2010, a complete restoration became publicly available. In 2011, the finishing touches were put on this restoration.

Le Voyage has had a most enormous impact on filmmakers and popular culture over the past 115 years. It made people realize films could be purely for entertainment, and that sci-fi films were not only possible, but could be popular as well.

The iconic image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye has been referenced countless times in films, artwork, and other creative visual media.

Though Méliès didn’t think this was his greatest work, he acknowledged it was his most popular. This milestone film has more than earned its rightful place in cinematic history.

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Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In loving memory of Dante Alighieri, who departed this world 696 years ago today.

Georges Méliès’s sci-fi classic was inspired by the Jules Verne novels De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) (1865) and Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon) (1870). Another prominent influence, albeit not personally cited by Méliès, seems to have been H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (French translation published 1902).

Still other influences suspected by film scholars include Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Le Voyage dans la Lune (produced 1875–76) and the 1901 Pan–American Exposition’s A Trip to the Moon ride in Buffalo. The latter cost fifty cents, and was one of the first space-themed rides. It was also the very first dark ride (think Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean).

Though film actors weren’t credited in 1902 (due in large part to how it was considered low-brow entertainment, inferior to theatre), we know Méliès played Prof. Barbenfouillis. He did everything in his films—acting, directing, writing, editing, producing, designing, special effects, publicity, technical details. As such, he was one of cinema’s very first auteurs.

All told, Méliès starred in at least 300 of his 520 films. He was a cinematic star without knowing it, before such a concept existed.

Other players were Bleuette Bernon as Phoebe (a very early character actor); magician Jules-Eugène Legris as parade leader; Henri Delannoy as rocket captain; salaried employee François Lallement as the Marines’ officer; Théâtre du Châtelet ballerinas as stars and cannon attendants; Folies Bergère acrobats as Selenites; and Théâtre de Cluny actor Victor André and music hall singers Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, and Brunnet as the other five astronomers.

Le Voyage was Méliès’s longest film to date, at 17 minutes (by Méliès’s preferred projection speed, 12–14 frames per second). Most DVD prints run closer to 13 minutes. It took three months to film, and had the extravagant budget of 10,000 francs ($1,296.95 in 2017 U.S. currency, if I calculated the inflation and conversion correctly).

Most of the money went towards the Selenites’ costumes and the mechanically-operated scenery. The backdrop of the glass-roofed workshop in which the spaceship is built was painted to resemble Méliès’s real glass-roofed studio.

Méliès’s cameramen were Théophile Michault and Lucien Tanguay, salaried employees of his Star Film Company, who also performed tasks such as setting up scenery and developing film.

His actors were hired on a film-by-film basis and paid one Louis d’or a day, which was much better pay than that offered by competitors. Another perk was taking a free meal with Méliès at noon every day.

In an era well before CGI, Méliès achieved many of his special effects via substitution splice. Filming stopped for something to be removed, changed, or added. The footage was then spliced together. Other methods included transitional dissolves, multiple exposures, pyrotechnics, and stage machinery.

Méliès was a magician prior to becoming a filmmaker, and most marvellously used all the tricks of his former trade to wonderful effect.

Some prints were hand-coloured by Elisabeth Thuillier, who began working with film in 1897. Her studio was an all-female business, and used four basic dyes—magenta, orange, bright yellow, and blue-green. The dyes were often mixed to create other colours, and changed tone depending upon the shade of grey underneath.

Mme. Thuillier hand-coloured all of Méliès’s films from 1897–1912.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, Le Voyage too was meant to be accompanied by a bonimenteur (narrator) explicating the action onscreen. While the general stories in his films can be followed without intertitles, there are crucial details missing without spoken narration.

Méliès advertised the film as a pièce à grand spectacle, a type of stage extravaganza popularised by Jules Verne and Adolphe d’Ennery. Some film historians also classify it as part of the féerie genre (fantasy with mechanical stage effects, awesome visuals, and lavish scenery).

The film also contains strong satirical and anti-imperialism themes, with its bumbling explorers, obvious violations of the laws of physics, the violent treatment of the Selenites, and the parading of a Selenite captive in the concluding victory parade.

Le Voyage dans la Lune at 115, Part I (General overview)

Released 1 September 1902 in France and 4 October in the U.S., Le Voyage dans la Lune is without a doubt the most famous film of the great Georges Méliès, and one of the most important films of cinematic history. That image of the Moon with the spaceship in its eye is iconic.

Méliès stars as Prof. Barbenfouillis, president of the Astronomic Club. One member of the club quite vociferously disagrees with his proposal for a voyage to the Moon, but Barbenfouillis shuts him up by throwing a book and papers at his head.

Ultimately, the mission is unanimously approved, and five other astronomers are chosen to come along—Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Omega, Micromegas, and Parafaragaramus. A most splendid spaceship is constructed for them, whose construction they get to witness.

When the big day arrives, the astronomers are seen off with great fanfare. On a signal, the cannon loaded with the spaceship launches our heroes.

After arrival on the Moon, the astronomers are delighted to see Earth rising. They’re also delighted by the craters. Unfortunately, just as they’re about to start exploring, an explosion sends them sprawling. They then stretch out to sleep, feeling very fatigued by their journey.

Seven gigantic stars (i.e., the Big Dipper) appear, and, slowly, women’s faces come out of the stars. They seem annoyed by the intrusion of the explorers. The stars are then replaced by a lovely vision of Phoebus on the crescent, Saturn in his globe, and two charming young girls holding up a star.

By order of Phoebus, the exolorers are punished by a downpour of freezing snow, which wakes everyone up. While the snowstorm is still raging, they escape into a giant crater, and find a landscape of enormous mushrooms in a grotto.

Barbenfouillis plants his umbrella in the ground to compare its size against the mushrooms, but the umbrella suddenly takes root and transforms into a mushroom which begins growing to giant proportions.

Selenites, inhabitants of the Moon, emerge from underneath the mushrooms and attack the explorers. Barbenfouillis attacks one with his umbrella, which makes him burst into a thousand pieces. However, the Selenites keep coming, and the explorers are overpowered.

When the explorers are brought, bound, to the king’s palace, Barbenfouillis breaks free of his restraints, dashes for the King, grabs him, and throws him on the ground. The King breaks into a thousand pieces, and the explorers escape.

With the Selenite Army hot on their heels, the explorers run as fast as they can. They manage to disintegrate enough of their pursuers to escape into the spaceship. Only Barbenfouillis is left behind.

Not to be deterred, Barbenfouillis grabs onto the rope attached to the ship. His weight causes it to fall off the Moon, with the remainder of the Selenite Army unable to catch them. The shell falls with sickening rapidity, and lands in the ocean.

Due to the way the ship is constructed, it easily rises back to the surface, and is towed to port by a ship. The explorers are given a heroes’ welcome.

Italy’s first feature film

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I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!

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1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.

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If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.

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The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.

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L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.

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There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.

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It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.

Celebrating 120 years of horror cinema!

If you celebrate Rosh Hashanah, may you have a marvellous holiday!

Welcome to a month of celebration of vintage horror films with special anniversaries this year! Throughout October, I’ll be fêting Faust (1926), L’Inferno (1911), Homunculus (1916), The Phantom Carriage (1921) (my thousandth silent!), Der Müde Tod (1921), The Bat (1926), Midnight Faces (1926), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). We’re starting off with the great-granddaddies of horror, three Georges Méliès films from 1896.

Georges Méliès, as some of you might know, was one of the pioneers of both French cinema in particular and film in general. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, he was a magician and illusionist, and put all those skills to wonderful use in creating special effects. His films span the years 1896–1912, and his best-known film is Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902).

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Une Nuit Terrible (A Terrible Night) is one of only six currently known surviving 1896 Méliès films (out of eighty he made that year). It was advertised as a scène comique, and Méliès typically plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute long, the plot isn’t very complex. A man is trying to fall asleep when a large bug (a pasteboard prop controlled by wires) crawls over his bed. Méliès does battle with the anthropod, and when it’s finally offed, he puts it in his chamber pot. While making sure it’s really gone, another bug appears!

It was filmed in Méliès’s garden by his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis (a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris), with a cloth backdrop and natural sunlight.

In 2013, Méliès’s great-great-granddaughter Pauline published evidence that a film commonly entitled A Terrible Night and available on several DVDs is actually Un Bon Lit (A Midnight Episode) (1899). The original Terrible Night has the same plot and bed, but much simpler scenery and different camera angles.

 

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Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), released 24 December 1896, is considered the very first proper horror film. It’s a comic fantasy that opens with a bat transmogrifying into Mephistopheles (i.e., the Devil), who then conjures up a cauldron and an assistant. Together, they conjure up a woman in the cauldron.

They all disappear before two cavaliers arrive, but not for long. A series of spooky tricks are played, including the conjuring up of a skeleton and furniture magically moving around. When one of the cavaliers attacks the skeleton, it transmogrifies into a bat. The bat in turn transmogrifies into Mephistopheles, who conjures up four ghosts.

More tricks are played, until the last confrontation between Mephistopheles and one of the cavaliers.

This was also filmed in Méliès’s garden, with painted scenery. Though film actors were never credited in this era, we know Méliès’s future second wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, played the assistant. It’s also speculated that Mephistopheles was played by magician Jules-Eugène Legris.

At the time, its length of over three minutes was considered very ambitious.

The film was considered lost for many decades, until its miraculous 1988 rediscovery in the New Zealand Film Archive.

 

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Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) was advertised as a scène fantastique, and also filmed in Méliès’s garden. Painted scenery was used. As in many of his films, he himself plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute, the story is pretty simple. A sleeping man has several strange visions who transmogrify into one another. He awakes all twisted around, searches the bed, and is relieved it was just a nightmare.

 

I absolutely love 1890s cinema. It’s like looking back in time at a long-gone world, this precious time capsule of cinema in its infancy. Whether the films are actualities (i.e., snippets of everyday life) or fictional stories, it’s so amazing to see these preserved moving images that didn’t need CGI, graphic violence or sex, several hours, or even intertitles to tell fascinating, complete stories.