Friday, November 25, 2011


Even if you think you don't know anything about French film pioneer Georges Melies, chances are you've seen this iconic image from his best-remembered film. In A Trip To the Moon (La Voyage Dans le Lune) (19-0-TWO, thank you very much), this is how the Man in the Moon reacts when those upstart Earthlings shoot a rocket at him. And it just gets wilder, funnier, and crazier from there.

I love it that Martin Scorsese's new family-friendly film, Hugo, is such an unabashed valentine to Melies. (Read my review here.) It takes its time getting started, as the pacing stutters along in the first half, but when the movie finally settles down to focus on the elderly Melies and celebrate his past as the irrepressible wizard/court jester of early silent films, well, it's just irresistible.

The story concerns the orphan boy, Hugo, who lives in hiding in a Paris railway station, ca. 1930, whose life changes when he meets a crusty old man who runs a toyshop at the station. This is Georges Melies, forgotten by a more sophisticated film industry that's passed him by. The movie is based on the novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," written and illustrated by Brian Selznick (himself a descendant of movie royalty; his distant cousin was David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, among many, many others).

Hugo himself is a fabrication of Selznick's ripe imagination, but what I love about the story (and Scorsese's reverent film) is that all the details of Melies' life are actually true. He really did run a shop for mechanical toys in the Gare Montparnasse in the late '20s. Here's what it looked like:

And here's how the shop is reimagined in Scorsese's films. (That's Ben Kingsley as the elderly Melies).

Melies started out as a stage magician who loved creating illusions. After he saw one of the first "cinematographe" presentations by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, he was hooked on the new medium. In flashback, the film shows us Melies and his muse/mistress/actress Jeanne d'Alcy (who later became his wife) building a production studio made of glass for the creation of movie magic; it housed a working stage, complete with flats and trapdoors for Melies' onscreen illusions. This studio was actually built outside Paris in 1897; here's Melies himself (left, foreground) painting sets within its glass walls.

Scorsese goes into loving detail, showing how Melies and company produce their giddy short films, chock-full of dragons, mermaids, moon explorers and chorus girls. We learn how Melies created depth shooting into layers of sets, added color by hand-tinting each frame, and created special effects by pioneering the stop-motion technique, or snipping out frames of film with a scissors.

This is what the glorious excesses of Melies' unfettered imagination looked like onscreen at the turn-of-the-century:

And here's Scorsese's evocative homage in Hugo:

Best of all, what seems like a Hollywood ending in the film actually happened to Melies. With or without the intervention of a plucky little orphan boy, Melies was discovered at his toy kiosk by a film journalist, ca 1929. When a cache of some of his supposedly lost films (he made over 500 shorts, in his day) was discovered and painstakingly restored, Melies was feted with a retrospective in Paris, and awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his body of work. What's more (it being civilized France), he and Jeanne were granted a pension and moved into a country chateau for cinema veterans for the rest of their days.

It's Scorsese's recreation of the Melies retrospective at the end of Hugo that really knocked me out, when a lengthy montage of real, vintage Melies footage fills the screen. For a few moments, we can imagine what it must have felt like for a moviegoer of that era to enter into the fantastical Melies universe for the first time. I saw the movie in 3-D, which I don't necessarily recommend (although the 3-D process at the Del Mar is the best I've seen in town). I don't think I would have missed anything seeing Hugo in 2-D—except for the thrill of seeing the Melies footage on the giant screen in the Grand Auditorium. Which is where Georges Melies so richly deserves to be.


  1. I just saw the film and had NO idea what the film was about before seeing it. Thank you for your historical data and comparison photos. Very informative.

  2. Thanks, John!

    I thought people discovering Melies for the first time in Hugo would be interested in the whole backstory. What a fascinating movie pioneer he was!