For many 2018 movie fans, the name Georges Melies is strictly confined to the character in the excellent 2011 Martin Scorsese pic Hugo. For most of us aged classic flick fans, the name is that of a God, the man who pioneered cinema sci-fi fantasy, jaw-dropping special effects and the term “blockbuster hit.” Of course, he was quickly forgotten as time and technology spat him out. Like Ben Kingsley in the Scorsese movie, Melies ended up selling toys in a train station kiosk before the too-little-too-late accolades caught up with him, sadly when (like his Brit counterpart William Friese-Greene) nearly at death’s door.
But we’re not here to be depressing; rather we’re on board to celebrate the rediscovery and reconstruction of one of greatest finds in motion picture. And I ain’t kidding!
In 1993, Lobster Film entrepreneur Eric Lange was involved in a celluloid trade deal with a Spanish archive. “What have you got to offer?” he inquired when his contemporary expressed interest in several reels of film. “Oh, I’ve got a color print of A TRIP TO THE MOON.” Lange gagged, as this was an edition considered by the majority of the film archival community to be a lost cause. Personally, for Lange, this was his Holy Grail. He was sure it was a bogus claim, that the reel was likely merely a tinted and toned copy.
But it wasn’t. And in what became a two-decade-plus odyssey of painstaking work, a complete, gorgeous 35MM-quality full-color print now exists of the great magician/filmmaker’s seminal 1902 work. Furthermore, collectors can own this and all the amazing extras that go with it in the Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films (in conjunction with mk2, The Technicolor Foundation, Foundation Groupama Gan Pour Le Cinema, Steamboat Films and Rome) new stunning Blu-Ray (the dual release also includes a DVD version) A TRIP TO THE MOON IN ITS ORIGINAL 1902 COLORS.
The movie in itself is a landmark work. At a time when Nickelodeon efforts were still mere snippets, the brazenly ambitious programs rarely running a reel or more, A TRIP TO THE MOON ran a full two reels. It also utilized ground-breaking special effects, created and achieved by Melies and his staff. It was also based upon a pair of then bestselling space travel novels, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon.
In the condensed, action-packed hybrid Melies version, a wizard/lunar scientist gathers investors to his laboratory to explain his theory of the first manned trip to outer space. Eventually, the scoffers are finally convinced and the scientist (Melies himself) enters the bullet-shaped capsule with his moneymen and adventurers; not forgetting the eternal lure of sex, the projectile capsule has a bevy of turn-of-the-century showgirls push the capsule into its cannon-like launch pad ramp.
We are then given perhaps the screen’s first gross-out special effect (and one of the most iconic in the history of motion pictures), the “rocket” poking the eye out of the man in the moon.
Now landed, these primitive astronauts are confronted by the insect-like Selenites, who capture them for, undoubtedly, a nefarious fate. Nevertheless, the Selenite king is curious about them, but, being Earthlings, they respond as only they know how: by slaughtering every Selenite in sight and making a hasty escape.
The movie ends in double prophesy. First, (cinematically), it presents the debut plot line of an alien stowing aboard an Earth-bound spaceship. Second, it (factually) chronicles an ocean splash-down, wherein the capsule is picked up and towed to shore by Navy vessels.
As mentioned earlier, A TRIP TO THE MOON became the first international blockbuster hit; unfortunately, Melies never saw a dime of the overseas take, as pirates like Edison simply duped the prints, never recording the pocketed substantial box-office receipts.
But, again, we’re not here to depress you. We’re here to celebrate. How did a full-color version of A TRIP TO THE MOON come about? I mean, after all, in 1902 there was no color film. It’s an astounding, grueling tale. Melies, in collaboration with Elisabeth Thuillier’s local art workshop, had 300 women toiling day and night in shifts, hand-coloring each and every frame. Now understand this: a motion picture runs through a projector at roughly (even then) between 16-22 fps (frames per second); so, 16-22 x 60 seconds x 15 minutes (or approximately 13,375 frames). And remember, this is for one print. Imagine if Melies’s Star Film company had a standing order for 500 color prints…or even 100…or 50? It’s mind-boggling.
All of this is discussed and visually presented in the accompanying feature-length 2011 documentary, directed by Lange and Sergei Bromberg, The Extraordinary Voyage. Along with interviews featuring Melies admirers Costa-Garvas, Michel Gondry and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the 65-minute production offers a generous helping of Melies other works, including my favorite, 1898’s Four Troublesome Heads, plus Lumiere documentary footage of Paris at the time these magical reels were made.
But now back to Lange and Lobster Films. The reel he received in 1993 was in wretched shape, but salvageable. That said, nitrate decomposition was already well under way — not quite incendiary powder or apple jelly globs, but getting there. Each strand had to be unwound, photographed frame-by-frame and stored on digital files. Still, the result was a mess. Post-millennium technology and Technicolor rode in like the cavalry, led by Tom Burton. It was now feasible to repair torn frames (almost every image was cracked in half), remove scratches, and replace the hundreds (if not thousands) of missing images from an excellent existing black-and-white 35MM print. These monochrome frames, when inserted in place, could then be cloned from the previous existing hand-colored image, and, thus, as Melies himself might have said, presto-chango, a mint full-color A TRIP TO THE MOON.
To call this experience “astonishing” is an understatement; we can also add “beautiful,” “awesome,” “spectacular,” and “unlike anything you’ve ever seen.” To think that a multitude of Melies pics were done in this process is startling; to know that the majority of them are probably lost forever is…damn, there I go again, with the depressing part. Of course, if one had to pick a single Melies color title to have in pristine condition, it would, without hesitation, be A TRIP TO THE MOON. So, who’s complaining? Not I.
But there’s more. As even in 1902, movie-makers believed that no picture was meant to be screened silent, Melies provided a narration script, with parts for actors to recite. This version can be accessed to view either the color version or the aforementioned black-and-white print (translated in English, for the 1903 American release).
But there’s still more! Both versions of A TRIP TO THE MOON can also be accessed with one of THREE musical scores (Jeff Mills, Dorian Pimpernel or Serge Bromberg – take your pick), especially composed for the presentation.
We’re not done yet. There are also two complete additional Melies works, each dealing with interplanetary space travel: the extraordinary An Astronomer’s Dream, from 1898 (and in gorgeous condition, with music) and 1904’s The Eclipse. (also, with music). The former is a horrific precursor to the 1902 lunar depiction; however, here the man in the moon is a vampiric demon with fangs who chews up bits of people, after using beauteous sirens as a lure. In the latter, medieval alchemists probe the mysteries of the universe, discovering a rapacious moon and sun getting it on with some double-take tongue and backdoor action. I’m serious, it’s fifty shades of green cheese.
Finally, there’s a beautifully illustrated 23-page booklet inside the Blu-Ray case comprising a perfect souvenir guide that one will undoubtedly peruse over and over again.
Wrapping up, let me concisely convey to sci-fi fans, SFX geeks, and silent movie buffs the world over, Flicker Alley’s A TRIP TO THE MOON IN ITS ORIGINAL FULL COLORS is what collecting is all about.
A TRIP TO THE MOON IN ITS ORIGINAL FULL COLORS. Color/Black-and-White. Full screen/widescree [1.33:1, Melies movies; 1.78:1, documentary]; 1080p High Definition. 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Blackhawk Films/Lobster Films. CAT # FA0023R. SRP: $39.99.