Georges Méliès and the Dawn of Cinema

Before we subscribed to Netflix a couple of years ago, it had been decades since I had seen a complete version of Georges Méliès’ influential La Voyage dans la lune, also known as A Trip to the Moon (1902).

The short was originally shot in black and white, of course, while a hand colored version was also produced, but was eventually lost for decades. A print finally surfaced at the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain in 1993. By 1999 the compilation and digitization of the known parts began, with complete restoration beginning in 2010.

This hand colored version is the one featured on Netflix, and was an official selection at Cannes in 2011, having been screened at the Debussy Theatre at 7:45 pm on May 20th. 

The story is about an Astronomer’s Club that conceives and executes a lunar expedition, combining elements and devices from both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, such as a bullet-shaped projectile/capsule-firing space gun and Selenites.

Six umbrella-waving astronomer travelers descend beneath the lunar surface where they are captured by Selenites and paraded before the Grand Lunar.There they revolt and fight their way back by madcap umbrella bludgeon warfare to the projectile, where one traveler remains outside to dangle from a rope and pull the capsule off a cliff – the edge of the moon, as it were – along with a Selenite stow-away hugging the back of the projectile. They return to earth, splashing into the depths of the ocean – with the astronomer and Selenite still miraculously clinging on! There is a rapturous reception, giant medals for the explorers, and an introduction of their Selenite visitor, who ends up dancing with his handler.

Méliès was a stage magician, known for props and tricks. He produced over 500 films throughout his career which spanned the period 1896 to 1913. His films ranged between one and 40 minutes, and covered genres like advertising, documentary – A Hypnotist at Work, historical reenactments – Divers at Work on the Wreck of the ‘Maine,’magic and illusion – The Vanishing Lady, drama – L’affaire Dreyfus, and of course fantasy, like our current subject, La Voyage dans la lune

Méliès interest in filmmaking began when he attended a cinematograph demonstration by the Lumière brothers, August and Louis in late 1895. At the time, the cinematograph was in direct competition with Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, but as the Lumière brothers mysteriously believed cinema had no useful future beyond science, they never sold their invention, even to the interested Méliès, and continued their work on color photography.

Yet, as is often the case with new technologies, other inventors were working on similar machines, including Robert W. Paul with his Animatograph in London, from whom Méliès finally secured a machine along with several films to play in his own Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where he had been performing his own magic shows since 1888.

Méliès reverse-engineered the projector into a camera, purchased unperforated film in London, and experimented with development and printing methods, and began producing his own films.

By 1897, a new generation of cameras had hit the market, and Méliès abandoned his old camera for something newer. He had also moved production to a new studio called Montreuil, outside Paris, enabling him to fill his days with production, and still present shows at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in the evenings.

Méliès is the most famous of early filmmakers for his memorable use of special effects, partly due to his background as a stage magician and experience with props. These props were often papier-mache or painted sets, and his female performers, drawn from the Corps de Ballet du Châtelet, were often dressed in shades of grey Méliès knew would suggest color better than actual color costumes on black and white film.

Apart from the colorized version of La Voyage dans la lune available on Netflix, there are hundreds of his other short films uploaded to streaming sites like Youtube.

So, take an hour or so to step back 120 years, to the dawn of cinema, and enjoy what your great-great-grandparents probably thought was one of the most truly amazing things of their time.

Stover, Leon E. Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002. Print.
“A Trip to the Moon (1902) – IMDb.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
“Georges Méliès – IMDb.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016. 
“Méliès, Georges – Festival De Cannes (International Film Festival).” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.