[This post is an appendix of sorts to the larger post about Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. If you want to draw your own comparisons between the two films, you can cross-reference the scene-by-scene frame grabs from each film by clicking between the two posts.]
As another academic year draws to a close and piles of marking start … er, piling up, I find myself with less time for blogging at length about things. So, I’m on the look out for things I can work through quickly, to keep things ticking over on this site (and because I enjoy writing for it). I know I promised a double-bill review of some Japanese King Kong movies, and a randomisation of Norman McLaren, more Star Wars randoms, more in the How Special Effects Work series, a post on Peter Tscherkassky’s amazing Outer Space, and probably a few others. In short, I promised you the Earth. And now here I am, giving you the Moon. Again. Will that do for now?
I wanted to do a scene by scene comparison of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in order to expand my notes here on that fabulous, important film. As an appendix to my ever-expanding scene-by-scene analysis of A Trip to the Moon, I present Segundo de Chomon‘s 1908 remake. Born in Aragon, Northern Spain in 1871, Chomón first worked for Pathé in 1901, where he helped to hand-tint prints of their films in Barcelona (an interest in colour films would stay with him throughout his career). He began making his own films the following year, and moved to Paris to work as a technical assistant to other Pathé film-makers in 1905. Later, he would serve as director of photography on Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and produced in-camera special effects for Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Often remembered for his remakes and imitations of other trick films, especially those of Melies, Chomon’s work has it’s own visual wit and immense dexterity with special effects: magicians constantly perform the same tricks again and again with their own personal variations, so it doesn’t seem too odd to find trick films that are very similar in theme and structure. Special effects are always modifications of earlier tricks, visual solutions to the same problem of how to depict an impossible event, and though Chomón’s film is structurally very similar to Méliès’ original (itself an adaptation/absorption of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne), we might find some important differences:
From what I can tell, the figure on the right is very upset. He’s desperate for adventure, and I think he’s even yearning to go to the moon. His friends discourage him from jumping for it, and the professorial figure (i.e. the one with the big pointy hat) promises that they will go to the moon. They dance joyously, then exit screen left: as with Melies, they will enter the next shot from the right hand side of the frame, a neat bit of continuity editing, but also a temporal ellipsis. Time and space, in keeping with the theme of this film and others like it, are collapsed to give an impression of a breakneck, reckless voyage.
Here the professor describes how the mission will work. It is and isn’t rocket science, folks (see, I can recycle jokes from earlier posts, too): the rocket is shot from the Earth to the Moon, but this is where Chomon trumps his predecessor, for while Melies’ lecturer had to draw the diagram with chalk on a blackboard, Chomon’s scientist has a superimposed animation of a spinning globe and a moving rocket aimed at the moon. It’s beautifully done, as perfect a matte shot as you could hope to see in the early cinema period. Note that in both these scenes, the camera is closer than in Melies, and the performances perhaps more starkly individuated – there’s a lovely bit of business in the first shot where one of the friends tries to cheer up the miserabilist by popping a top hat on his head, to no avail. Chomon has a smaller cast, and so crowd scenes appear less cluttered. Similarly, you’ll notice that the perspective (see the telescopes in the background of this shot) is less vertiginous, less exaggerated in its distortions throughout.
The explorers go to watch the rocket being built – you can see its frame to the left of centre in this image. As with Melies, there’s an industrial accident for light relief: one man is accidentally hooked and hoisted by a crane. Are we supposed to mock the explorers for their clumsiness, their prim and proper incongruence on the shop floor? This composition is less “flat” than the Melies version, with convincing depth to the backdrop and strong lines across the frame, especially the gantry at the top.
In the next shot, it looks as though the explorers are now up on one of the gantries around the rocket-building yard. Space and time are still compressed – having seen the rocket being built, we’re now getting ready for the launch in the very next shot (it might be that they’re building a production line of rockets, but either way, we’re being shown the various stages of the mission in linear sequence). The gun that will launch the rocket points upwards and out of the frame in the background.
Unlike the Melies film, where the rocket is loaded into the canon by sailor-girls in hotpants, Chomon delegates this labour to a bunch of soldiers, but the composition is almost exactly the same. The explorers are themselves then loaded into the shell and popped into the barrel. The painting on the backdrop is immaculate – the lines of the brushed steel inside the barrel clearly marks out a space that might otherwise seem difficult to distinguish in a monochrome frame. The tinting of these images, often changing colour from shot to shot, delineates each scene.
A brief shot follows of the rocket leaving the gun, the force of the trajectory (which matches the direction of fire from the previous shot) indicated by that strong diagonal bisection of the frame.
Chomon’s recreation of Melies’ signature shot of the rocket penetrating the moon is similar, but significantly different, beginning with a dolly shot towards the sleeping satellite, but while Melies popped the shell in the Moon’s eye through the magic of a stop-motion substitution, Chomon slows down the action and smoothly flies the rocket into the moon’s gaping mouth. It’s a great, elegant effect without the violence of Melies’ version, even though it’s replaying the same joke of scale.
The moon landing now follows a familiar progression. They watch the sunset in the background. They settle down to sleep. It starts snowing. They retreat into a crater. Again, the action is closer than in Melies, and there is no display of stellar gods and goddesses. The disappointment for the explorers is that the climate of the moon is as unpredicatble as that of Earth. Luckily they brought little umbrellas…
In the underground cave, the explorers are attacked and abducted by moonmen, acrobats in suits with human faces (as opposed to Melies’ masked, exo-skeletoned crustacea). The action is frenetic, the shroomy backdrop impressively detailed. It looks like bits are missing from the film here, making the stop-motion substitutions as the mushrooms pop up, and the selenites appear, a little jerky. The explorers are hustled off the screen and brought to…
… the throne room of the king of the Moon. He’s a big, sultanic figure, his minions cowering before him. This is a more cordial meeting than in Melies’ film. The king even puts on a dance show led by a girl who is presumably his daughter:
Slightly oddly, this ballet routine takes up a good chunk of the film’s running time, repeating Melies’ interest in decorative female bodies, but transferring the pageantry from the Earth to the Moon. It’s all spoiled when one of the Earthlings, smitten with desire, grabs the king’s daughter and runs off with her. Understandably enfuriated, the king conjures his guards and sends them off in pursuit of the fleeing explorers.
One of the selenites is hand-tinted here, in this beautifully painted shot. The rocket is tipped over the edge to fall back to Earth, while the creatures are left behind on the edge of the Moon.
There’s no fuss about the depiction of the return to Earth, just a single shot of the rocket plummeting past the stars. In the next shot…
… it lands back at the starting point. For this final shot of the film, they’ve taken the trouble to crown the explorers with meticulously hand-tinted pointy hats. The stencilled colour marks this out as a special shot. Notice that the rocket has been destroyed in the fall, and the explorers clamber out triumphant. They’ve taken no prisoners, except of course for the king’s daughter, who seems quite willing to become a trophy bride for an Earthman. So, while Melies’ film ended with a colonial conquest, making the moonman dance for the pleasure of the crowd, here the king’s daughter is presumably to be assimilated with her new society, a very different (but perhaps no less sinister) form of conquest.