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A Trip to the Moon

By 1900 the movies had already witnessed color, sound and widescreen, quickly ignored innovations that wouldn't make their mark for several more decades. By contrast, the first special effects extravaganza in 1902 quickly captivated moviegoers and proved to have a more lasting effect. This early hit film was A Trip to the Moon (1902), directed, produced, written and starring French film pioneer Georges Melies.

Today the 12-minute A Trip to the Moon might seem a bit primitive, but just imagine what it was like when the entire idea of moving images was still a new and even peculiar idea. Despite the intervening years and technical advances, the film's immense charm and wit haven't aged at all and it still appeals to modern audiences. (The rock band Smashing Pumpkins based a video on A Trip to the Moon but not everybody has their film savvy: When the video showed up on Pop-Up Videos much of the information about the original film was incorrect.)

The basic premise of A Trip to the Moon is lifted from Jules Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon, though Melies actually let his characters land on the moon rather than just circle it. In the film, a scientist decides to visit the moon by having a hollow capsule shot from a giant cannon (which, incidentally, won't work in real life so you can cancel that order with the Acme Cannon Company). Once there the scientist has some comic adventures with the moon's inhabitants and finds a surprising new use for his trusty umbrella.

Melies was a magician and stage producer, not unlike the later Orson Welles. (Oddly enough, early in his career Melies took over the theater of the world-famous magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the source of the stage name Houdini for an American boy who himself later became a minor film star and gave a vaudevillian child named Keaton the nickname Buster.) Like so many others, Melies was stunned by the 1895 showings of the Lumieres' actuality-based films and immediately began making them himself, turning out some 78 films the following year. They were only about a minute long but this was still a create-as-you-go technology. However, Melies' magical and theatrical background showed through in a variety of sensationalist and trick-oriented films, including in 1897 what is probably the first vampire movie. (Ever since, historians have credited the Lumieres for the idea of film documenting reality and Melies for film as changing reality, though the distinction has never been that clear-cut.)

A Trip to the Moon was a large undertaking for its time, costing 10,000 francs and requiring four months to make. Melies used machinery and techniques from theater but also experimented with clay models and costumes of paper-based board. He raided the local music halls for actors, but went to the celebrated Folies-Bergere for skilled acrobats to play the rowdy moon people. One of the actresses, Jeanne d'Alcy, became Melies' second wife in 1926. Melies released the film in France in August 1902 and shortly afterwards pirated copies started appearing in the U.S. (some by Edison) since it wasn't under copyright there. This caused Melies to open an American office soon afterwards.

A Trip to the Moon was just one of 23 films Melies made in 1902. You can get an idea of his range in such titles as The Man with the Rubber Head, The Treasures of Satan, The Eruption of Mount Pelee and The Coronation of Edward VII. This last was an enactment of an event that had yet to occur (with a dishwasher portraying the king!), but Melies was caught off-guard when the actual event was postponed and his film ended up in theaters two months before the real coronation. (Melies also was one of the earliest producers of risque films.)

Despite his pioneering efforts, Melies wasn't able to compete against larger companies and he eventually abandoned films in 1912, returned to the stage and was quickly forgotten. (His brother Gaston, who had moved to the U.S. to run their North America office, had some success making Westerns, even working for a while with John Ford's older brother.) Melies was rediscovered at the end of the twenties, honored with a retrospective and given a rent-free apartment by a film society. He died in 1937 at the age of 76.

Producer/Director/Screenplay: Georges Melies, based on the novel De la Terre a la Lune by Jules Verne
Art Direction: Claudel
Cinematography: Michaut Lucien Tainguy
Costume Design: Georges Melies:
Principal Cast: Bleuette Bernon (Lady in the Moon), Georges Melies (Prof. Barbenfouillis), Victor Andre, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Jeanne d'Alcy.

by Lang Thompson



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