A King in New York at 60, Part II (Behind the scenes)

In 1957, Charles Chaplin and his family had left the U.S. for good and settled in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland. His re-entry permit for the U.S. was revoked in 1952, and he didn’t try to return. His fourth and final wife, Oona, handled his remaining affairs, such as the sale of his studio and their Beverly Hills home.

Chaplin’s final professional ties to the U.S. were severed in 1955, when he sold the last of his United Artists stock. Given the personal and political attacks he’d weathered since at least 1942, and the widespread boycotts of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), he knew A King in New York wouldn’t be shown in the U.S. at all.

Chaplin no longer had the luxury of his own studio, all the time he wanted for filming and editing, or loyal employees. He now had to rent expensive, unfriendly studios by the minute and work with strangers. AKINY was wrapped in a record twelve weeks.

The rushed production really shows in the frequently improper lighting. Though Chaplin hired legendary cameraman Georges Périnal, there often wasn’t enough time to light the set properly before filming. Many of the shots are dark and shabby instead of crisp, focused, and light.

Chaplin always spent a lot of time editing his work to a high level of perfection, but this wasn’t possible now. As much as I love a good satire, I have to agree the film suffers from taking on way too many targets—plastic surgery, TV commercials, widescreen movies, popular music, celebrities, politics, materialism, the HUAC, social pretension.

Shows like American Dad and Family Guy can wear thin after awhile, since everything is up for lampooning, with not much treated seriously. Even a deliberately over the top satire needs to rein it in to avoid coming across as cartoonish and divorced from any semblance of the real world.

If the film had stuck to a few well-developed targets, instead of stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink, the satire would’ve been even stronger and funnier. The storyline with Rupert is so strong, so relevant both then and now (for different reasons). It would’ve been even better had it been introduced earlier.

A few other things could’ve been worked in as secondary targets, maybe TV commercials, materialism, and social pretension. It’s not that the film isn’t funny or brilliant, just that it’s trying to do way too much at once.

AKINY was filmed in London, in spite of the title. Chaplin didn’t return to the U.S. until 1972, when his reputation finally was rehabilitated. The London scenery and architecture don’t exactly suggest a true New York setting.

The role of 10-year-old Rupert, like that of little Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), was crucial. At the last minute, Chaplin’s son Michael was chosen. Michael (now 71 years old) is Chaplin’s second child from his fourth and final marriage, and the fifth of his eleven total children.

At first, Charles and Oona wanted to keep Michael’s true identity secret through the pseudonym John Bolton, but Michael insisted upon using his real name. He plays Rupert brilliantly, and inspired debates by his parents in later years as to whether he or Jackie Coogan were the better actor.

Oona always argued in favor of her son’s performance.

AKINY generally got good reviews in Europe, where it did well commercially. Though it’s a social, political, cultural, and comedic study of 1950s America, the jokes and deeper themes are timeless. In some ways, the lack of an editor may have enhanced its appeal.

Sometimes an honest story with rough edges is more compelling than a polished and defanged one.

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A King in New York at 60, Part I (General overview)

Released 12 September 1957, A King in New York was Chaplin’s final starring role, his swan song proper. The film wasn’t released in the U.S. till 8 March 1972, the same year he received an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

While the film satirizes too many targets, instead of focusing on one or two things, it’s nonetheless a brilliant comedy. I think it might be my second-favorite of his talkies, after Monsieur Verdoux.

The film opens as a mob storms the palace of King Igor Shahdov of Estrovia (Chaplin), calling for his head. Their attempt at vigilante justice is denied, as he’s already escaped by air and taken everything with him.

After Shahdov lands in New York, he gives a press conference where he reveals he was overthrown because he wanted atomic energy for domestic use instead of bombs. He dreams of creating an atomic utopia.

On his first night out on the town, Shahdov is thrust headfirst into 1950s pop culture and current events. In a scene harkening back to his silent days, he has to mime what he and Ambassador Jaume want for dinner over the impossible noise of the house band behind them.

In the morning, Shahdov discovers Prime Minister Voudel has taken off to South America with all his funds and securities. Jaume wants to expose him as a thief and liar, but Shahdov realizes they have no legal claim without records. All the books and records were left behind in Estrovia when they fled.

Jaume reminds him he still has his atomic plans, but Shahdov says it’ll be difficult to finance blueprints. Shahdov doesn’t want word of this to get around, since he’d rather be thought of as a successful crook than destitute monarch.

Shahdov’s estranged wife Irene then comes for a visit. Though they’re divorcing, they have a very cordial relationship. Irene doesn’t even want alimony.

Shahdov eavesdrops on a woman next door (Dawn Addams), Ann Kay, singing in the bathtub, and comes to her rescue when she shouts for help. While he’s massaging Ann’s hurt ankle, he discovers she’s attending a dinner party he begged off. His smittenness makes him change his mind.

Unbeknownst to Shahdov, this dinner party is being televised live. Between Ann’s deodorant and toothpaste commercials, Shahdov is talked into reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The public is quite impressed with Shahdov’s performance, and he’s asked to do TV commercials. Angry and feeling tricked, he turns down all the offers, and even rips up a check.

Shahdov digs through the garbage for the check after realizing what dire straits he’s in. He also accepts an invitation to speak at a progressive school (think Montessori or Waldorf).

By the school, Shahdov meets 10-year-old Rupert Macabee (Chaplin’s son Michael), editor of the school paper. He’s very advanced for his age, and gives Shahdov quite the lecture.

The visit to the school ends in humiliation for Shahdov.

Since he’s so deep in the hole, Shahdov accepts $50,000 to act in a whiskey commercial. The ad is a smash hit, and leads to many more ads with large payouts.

Ann convinces Shahdov to have a facelift to increase his appeal and salary, but no one is happy with the results. To try to cheer him up, Ann takes him to see a slapstick comedy show. This scene too harkens back to Chaplin’s silent roots.

Shahdov’s new face comes undone when he’s laughing, and he has to have his old face restored.

Shahdov runs into Rupert without a coat in the snow, and invites him to his hotel room. Rupert admits he ran away from school because his parents were arrested for being Communists.

Shahdov’s friendship with Rupert lands him in lots of trouble. There are chilling parallels to the real-life activities of the HUAC.

I highly recommend this if you’re interested in Chaplin’s later years. Whatever you might think of his politics or personal life, there’s no denying he was a genius.

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.

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.