Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) Director: George Méliès
“A Trip to the Moon”
Georges Méliès’s films tend to present fantastical journeys through time and space with technical innovations and aesthetic splendor. While many of his short movies were created to complement his stage performances as a magician, his later films such as The Impossible Voyage and The Haunted Castle are true marvels of cinema. I have seen A Trip to the Moon many times and in my view it is his best film, well deserving of its rank among the greatest films of all time. Méliès’s films possess a sense of chaotic excitement, anarchy, and wonder, placing them many years ahead of contemporaries in the world of early film-making.
Le Voyage dans la Lune is loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon as well as H.G. Wells’s adventure stories. At a meeting of astronomers, five brave adventurers (Nostradamus, Alcofrisbias, Omega, Microgemas, and Parafaragaramus) volunteer to fly to the moon in a bullet which is shot into space by a group of ladies (these ladies were actually hired from the Chatelet Ballet in France). The famous scene in which the bullet hits the eye of the moon is one of the most iconic scenes in the early history of film. Once on the surface of the moon, Phoebe and Saturn awaken the crew, and they venture into a cave where giant mushrooms grow. They encounter a race called the Selenites (“selenites” refer to the ancient Greek word for “moon” and were played by French acrobats), however if they strike the Selenites with their umbrellas the creatures disappear in a cloud of smoke. After being brought before the leader of the Selenites the adventurers escape back to their bullet, which they push off the side of the moon which crashes back to Earth in the Atlantic ocean. The film concludes as the explorers are celebrated in a parade with a statue reading “Labor Omnia Vincit” (of “Work Conquers All”).
This was Méliès’s 400th film and it was made on a budget of 10,000 Francs, a massive sum at the time. There were roughly 30 different tableaux, or scenes, in the film. He wrote, directed, acted in, produced, and constructed the costumes and sets –he was an auteur in the highest sense. A Trip To The Moon was influential on other emerging directors like Edwin Stanton Porter who began making narrative films such as The Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). Porter was able to build on the foundation laid by Méliès. Whereas Méliès placed prime importance on the stationary shot, Porter instead focused on the frame of the scene. By cutting frames, the director and editor had the ability to compress time –that is, by editing the film the cutting room floor became a more successful mode of suspending an audience’s disbelief through the arrangement of moving shots within time. D.W. Griffith was an early master of this strategy, as well.
Other important films directed by George Méliès include: Cendrillion or “Cinderella” (1899) whose scenes were modeled on the drawings of Gustave Dore and was highly influential on later directors like Cecil B. Demille; The Impossible Voyage (1904) which was modeled on the success of A Trip to the Moon; and The Haunted Castle (1896-97). The name of Méliès’s production company was called Star Film (1896) with the motto: “The whole world within reach.” For A Trip To The Moon, Méliès rather painstakingly infused the logo of his company on the stars in some of the scenes to prevent theft of his footage, however thieves still colored over the logos and sold the film illegally. Méliès made films until the outbreak of World War I, but he was unable to compete with the booming American market and in the end he became an aging figure mostly forgotten and indebted. Shortly before his death he was discovered selling toys and trinkets in the train station in Paris, and his story was thankfully recovered by historians of early cinema.