Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
There’s an apocryphal tale told about the very earliest days of cinema. In this anecdote, a film is shown where a large steam train puffs its way towards the camera. The audience, so the story goes, panicked and started to race out the cinema. I’ve heard this story a lot, and its always told with the angle that we should laugh at the naïve early cinema audience. A crowd, as this story implies, were so ignorant of the new technology that they genuinely thought they were about to be run down by a non-existent train. Such illiterate fools!
But honestly, I think we’re reading this story all wrong. Were our ancestors really so stupid that they – having paid good money to watch what would have been billed a moving picture – would instantly forget that they were witnessing a moving picture? Were their nineteenth century brains really so feeble that when presented with a shot of a train moving towards the camera, they instantly thought “Jumping Jehoshaphat! There’s been a ghastly mistake, and while we’ve been in this room hoping to watch a moving picture, a wickedly evil train company have secretly installed a large window were the screen was, have hastily built a train line to run right through it, and are now executing a diabolical scheme to murder us all by driving a steam train directly into us”?
I don’t think they were. I think this story is perhaps the first wonderful illustration of one of the greatest aspects of cinema: the visceral experience. That moment when, despite sitting safely in the movie theatre, our emotions will react with sudden fear or adrenaline excitement when what we’re presented with is something new and uncanny. It would have been tremendous fun for those audiences to witness something few humans would never have had a chance to experience before – a train coming straight towards on them. A communal reaction of fear and excitement sounds like tremendous fun to me, and I reckon, if they had truly existed, the folk in that cinema probably had a great time fighting every instinct telling them to stampede out of there.
Maybe the reason modern folk sneer when they tell that anecdote is that they forget that early film developed into a world where audiences would expect entertainments that would amaze them. Athletic performers would seemingly execute incredible stunts, while stage magicians would seemingly defy all rational sense to achieve the impossible. Early film pioneers catered to this crowd, they made pictures for audiences to gawp at in disbelief.
Nobody embodies this spirit greater than early film pioneer George Méliès. From his base in Montreuil, Paris, the Frenchman was making films as early as 1896 with the express intention of catering to what he called his “fairground clientele”. His early output consistently of dozens of films a year – although what was meant by “film” was often frequently a single scene played out in a seemingly unbroken take to a camera. But within those shortest of short films, Méliès would wow audiences with the latest technical innovations – time lapse photography, splices, double exposures. He even pioneered colour by having each individual frame hand painted.
Seamlessly worked into all this camera trickery would have been a whole array of theatrical stage techniques, sleight of hand, mirrors, trapdoors. Even a theatrical black curtain, perfectly placed, could make parts of the image seem to disappear. Combining all these elements into dozens of films a year, these shortest of short films would be sold to variety theatres, or touring fairgrounds. Where audiences would be amazed, baffled, and also just a bit terrified by what they saw on screen.
As his success grew, so did his ambition. Films began to tell stories, over multiple scenes with longer running times. And his Montreuil headquarters began to expand, taking on the trappings we would later recognise as a film studio. Wardrobe, technical and set departments were built. But one key detail would strike modern eyes as strange though, in order to capture sufficient light the entire studio area was built within a vast glass structure akin to a greenhouse.
It was within these glass walls that Méliès was to make the film he is now most remembered for: Le Voyage dans la Lune. With a jaw-dropping ten thousand franc budget and a run time of nearly nineteen minutes (depending on how fast you turned the projector) this was a production with one intention – to thrill and amaze the audience. This was a science fiction film for an audience that had never seen one before, a tale of pioneering scientists voyaging into the unknown and uncovering a world of strange landscapes, vegetation and – ultimately – hostile Moon Men.
The finished product is now in the public domain – in both original and hand-painted colourised versions – so its easily enjoyed today. And as you watch it, its fun to notice how every scene is designed to cater to that early audience wanting to be thrilled. The audience goes from what would have been an impressively vast set, with fancy costumes, to the sight of genuinely imagined technology seemingly made real (a kilometre-long cannon required to shoot the scientist’s rocket into space). But while audiences might have been awed by the special effects that made the Moon Men seemingly explode when attacked, they also would have been charmed by the use of special effects to create moments of pure whimsy. There’s a peculiar scene where the scientists dream of star signs coming to live and – more effectively – the Moon itself, with a human face, Watching as the rocket gets ever closer before crashing to create the iconic image that has been used to market the film since the year it was made.
We know that at the time the film was a huge success with audiences. Novelty created interest, but the tragedy is that the pioneering freedom Méliès had working in this new medium came at a cost. The industry was so unregulated, it was hard to control who was making the money. Thomas Edison acquired a print and ran up dozens of pirate copies that made him a fortune across North America, with Méliès not receiving a cent. And Edison wasn’t the only one. Méliès wasn’t to receive a penny, nor a pfennig or rappen. Not even a centime as even in his native France the film would be shown to excited paying audiences with none of the takings making its way back to the creator. Méliès was to try for the next decade to make his ambitious films, and earn money from them but in the end he was undone, Losing control of his studio, he was to destroy it in a fit of rage, burnt what remained of his prints and went of to work in a toy store.
Luckily, Méliès was to live long enough to be rediscovered in his lifetime. Tracked down in the thirties while living in poverty, he was to enjoy recognition for his pioneering work, and lived to see retrospectives of his work at prestigious venues. He found a modest new role as the guardian of rediscovered copies of his earlier work, as well as a teacher to a new generation of French film enthusiasts.
When he died on 21 January 1938, he was still relatively poor but his death was reported as the loss of a famous pioneer. The appetite for cinema of the uncanny, for the whimsical and the inventive had not diminished and his talents in this area were acknowledge across the industry. It is revealing that tributes included one from a man who had inherited that desire to enthrall audiences visually, but was canny enough to tie it to a ruthless business sense. Walt Disney was not going to make the same mistakes one of his heroes had made.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.