This is my entry in Movies Silently‘s Shorts Blogathon. Make sure to check out the other entries!
There are few filmmakers that are or were as inventive and magical as French director, actor, and magician Georges Méliès. He came from the stage and his movies took a lot from that experience. They were shot almost entirely with static cameras and were designed so to invoke a play, with you, the viewer, as an audience member. But despite this older style of shooting, his movies have aged remarkably well. Early in his career he made actualities like his contemporaries the Lumiere Brothers. Later he changed pace. He brought stories to silent films. Méliès also experimented with the medium and devised many special effect tricks still used to this day. He was the producer of many, many, many trick films – movies that show off a particular special effect. He was particularly found of making people and things appear and reappear through editing. I say he overused this trick but what’s great about even Méliès’s trick films is they often attempt to have a story. It being the early days of film, there were no rules to go by. So he just tried stuff. What we got was out of this world ideas, characters, and films that highlight his creativity and unending enthusiasm. I was going to touch on a number of his films, but I decided to limit myself to just three of his nearly 550 films.
The first ones I want to talk about are two of his famous journey films. Without a doubt his film that every film-buff knows and that has been referenced in film, television, music, and even books over and over is A Trip to the Moon (1902). This, if you didn’t already know, is the movie that features the famous image of a rocket stuck in the Man in the Moon’s eye.
A Trip to the Moon is about a group of astronomers (led by a character played by Méliès) who devise a way to travel to the moon. It’s a completely ludicrous method that would never work in real life but this is a 1902 science fiction, fantasy movie so you can let it slide. Once they land, they discover a wondrous world straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It’s colorful (the color painstakingly added through slowly hand-coloring each frame) and filled with exotic plant life. There, oddities and dangers lie ahead for our adventuring heroes. Their umbrellas turn into mushrooms and grow tall if they’re stuck into the ground, and dangerous lunar dwellers are intent on capturing the astronomers. But with umbrellas, which can turn the aliens into exploding powder if the extra-terrestrials are hit with them, as their only weapons, can Méliès and his crew escape this dangerous piece of rock?
Méliès‘s silent classic still has it’s visual appeal during the moon scenes. He knew how to design a colorful world straight out of the best light fantasies. The unrealistic theatrical sets (remember, Méliès came from the stage), umbrellas turning into mushrooms, the weird alien designs straight out of a ballet or stylized theater show, and the penchant for the creatures to turn to dust when hit combine to produce a movie straight out of a dream. This leads me to the other journey film for today.
The Conquest of the Pole (1912) was made during the final phase of Méliès‘s film career. Times were changing and he was struggling to keep up. Méliès, struggling financially, no longer had full control over his films. Starting in 1911 and continuing through to the end of his time in movies, Méliès struck a deal with the Pathé Frères company, which became the distributor of his pictures. Charles Pathé, the head of the company, had the freedom to structure and edit the films any way he wanted. I’m sure this was a disappointment for Méliès, but he continued doing what he did best. The Conquest of the Pole is thought by many to be one of his bests works. Some modern critics go so far as to say it’s his best.
Not unlike A Trip to the Moon, we begin with a collection of men, this time explorers from an International Congress in an Aero Club, discussing how to travel to the impossible. This time it’s not the moon but the North Pole. The club is just a small sect of worldwide explorers devising ways to get to the pole. Méliès again has a starring role as an explorer who invents a flying machine capable of getting him and a small team to the pole. When they start off on their missions, hoards of other aerial contraptions are in the air with them. Only Méliès‘s team makes it, however. The pole they arrive at is cold and occupied by a terrible giant snow monster. The explorers will have to escape from the beast’s deadly crutches if they hope to survive.
Maybe it’s because this was made later in Méliès career but The Conquest of the Pole is less gimmicky than Méliès‘s expedition to the moon. We don’t see nearly as many editing tricks (the disappearing/reappearing stuff I mentioned earlier). The movie cares about setting mood and telling a story, with emphasis on the former. It shows progression in Méliès‘s film making that he’s pushing the special effects to the side somewhat. I say somewhat because a long portion of the film is taken up by the flying machines traveling to the pole. The trip is fantastic and all about atmosphere.
That brings me to the negatives to these two movies. They’re both fun looks into early film storytelling but the flaw I’ve noticed in some of these longer works (The Conquest to the Pole being the longest film Méliès ever made at 30 to 40 something minutes) is Méliès fills the space of the film with too much padding. We get a lot of build-up with little payoff. In both Trip and Conquest, we spend the majority of the movie getting to the locations and few minutes doing much there. It’s disappointing. I wonder if Méliès had a lot of ideas for how to get to these places but not many for what to do once there.
This is why my favorite of his films is actually one of his shorter shorts. It’s a lesser known movie called The India Rubber Head (1901). It’s only two-and-a-half minutes long and is incredibly simple in plot terms. It’s about a scientist (Méliès again), who takes something out of one of his boxes. It’s a human head. Actually, it’s Méliès‘s head. The scientist places the head on a table as it contorts its face into various expressions. The scientist then inflates and deflates the head to multiple sizes. Méliès brings a clown (yeah, it’s random) in to show him the head and its growing and shrinking abilities. The clown tries out the inflator but gets a little overzealous.
I love The India Rubber Head because of its simplicity, its oddness, and its creativity. The idea of a growing/shrinking copy of a head isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s a weird sort of thing you’d read about in old folklore or maybe a pulp magazine. This element adds a flavor to the short that I find endlessly appealing. I don’t know if I’m doing a good job explaining why I love this film so much. It just one of those films you like because it has something magical within its frames. It demonstrates that while its a pure trick film, Méliès could still devise a fun story to make it more than a technical exercise.
Méliès does that with most of his films, though. He reaches into his mind and pulls out dreams, nightmares, heroes, villains, the ordinary, the extraordinary and presents them to us like we’re the dreamers temporarily leaving our world for one of unknown adventure and discovery.