Thoughts On: “A Trip To The Moon” (1902)

You knew this one was coming! This is the final post for Méliès Month–I hope you enjoyed this extended tribute to one of the essential pioneers of the cinema!

Upward mount then! clearer, milder,

Robed in splendour far more bright!
Though my heart with grief throbs wilder,

Fraught with rapture is the night!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “To the Rising Full Moon,” 1828

For thousands of years mankind has gazed at the moon. Deities have been associated with it. We’ve written about it in poems and books, mentioned it in songs and plays, and painted and sculpted its likeness.

So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the earliest milestones of a brand-new artform should feature the elusive moon that’s so haunted our imaginations–a craggy, blinking, papier mache variety with seriously wicked eyebrows, that is.

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Georges Méliès made over 500 films, and while cinephiles are (ideally) familiar with at least a sampling of his huge body of work, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is the one film that made the Méliès name eternal. Strange that such a simple story, concerning eccentric scientists journeying to the moon and discovering strange landscapes and fierce moon-creatures, should still entertain us all these decades later. Or maybe this isn’t so strange. At the time, after all, it was one of the most elaborate films ever made, and even now in the 21st century it’s remained an impressive blend of special effects, eye-candy scenery, and gorgeous hand-painted color.

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It’s lighthearted. It moves along briskly. It’s silly. There are no closeups. There are superfluous chorus girls in tights. The story doesn’t care about logic, preferring to stay squarely in the realm of fantasy–even with the theme of “scientific expedition.” Its breezy confidence might be why it holds up so well, despite being the complete opposite of everything we contemporary audiences have come to expect from the movies.

Today we’ll sometimes make fun of old films, wondering why on earth anyone took them seriously. A Trip to the Moon is honest with us, making no pretense of seriousness, aiming solely to charm and please. So naturally, today we tend to take it seriously.

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Méliès hit a kind of artistic jackpot with this short, creating images that stick with us while dozens of others from 1900s films can fade. Take the most famous moment–the one you think of when you hear the name “Méliès”–the sight of the rocket ship striking the eye of the man in the moon. If you had never seen a silent film, you’d probably still recognize that image. Maybe we like it so much because it makes a familiar, whimsical idea so goofily literal–if the moon has a face, why not show it being struck by something? And why should correct proportions matter? And why not have some squirm-inducing goo drip down his irritated face?

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But aside from its energy and quaint imagery, A Trip to the Moon is also somewhat symbolic. It was released at the beginning of the 20th century, that time of the turnover from the traditional horse-powered way of life to the machine age. It functions as a particularly endearing time capsule, not just of people and props from 1902, but of the aura of whimsy and romanticism that permeated popular culture at the time.

For Méliès and his audiences, “the moon” isn’t merely a rocky orb in the sky that we can see most nights of the year, but a poetic concept, an unattainable dreamworld where any strange landscape or bizarre creature could be possible.

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What seems possible to us today? The moon, as we know from school, film footage and numerous photos, is really a giant rocky desert with no aliens in sight (the theories of some Internet sites notwithstanding). We can maybe pretend it’s actually a silvery landscape inhabited by pixies, but that of course is just make-believe. Make-believe is fine and dandy, as long as we make the line between reality and the imagination clear. We don’t want to sound too quirky.

Méliès’s most famous film contains a surprising gift to us: a preservation of the long tradition of poetry associated with the moon, and outer space itself. It comes from a time when audiences saw nothing strange or illogical about representing stars and planets with beautiful women. It captured the spirit of the féerie just before that spirit began to ebb away.

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We still romanticize things like the moon at times, of course, as we always will. Art is eternally with us. But A Trip to the Moon is an exceptional example of the wonder and innocence that seems to have been lost somewhere along the road to our modern, heightened self-consciousness. Even those chorus girls in their white tights, waving happily to the camera, seem innocent and carefree.

So let’s thank our lucky stars that a seminal work like A Trip to the Moon is still here, forever ready to take us out of our comfort zones in the most charming way possible. And perhaps it can also remind us of the long history of people gazing up at the night sky, imagining themselves walking on that far-off, mysterious orb.

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Trivia:

  • A very complete, hand-colored print of A Trip to the Moon was discovered in a barn in France back in 2002…100 years after it was first released! Something tells me it was meant to be.
  • This film was inspired by the Jules Verne novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon.
  • It is often credited as being the first official science fiction film.
  • When The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) was imported to the U.S. in 1899, it was also called A Trip to the Moon!
  • The president of the Astronomic Club (whose meeting we see in the first scene) is named Professor Barbenfouillis, and the other five main astronomers are Nostradamus, Alcofrisbas, Omega, Micromegas, and Parafaragaramus.
  • Méliès himself plays Professor Barbenfouillis.
  • The insect-like aliens were called Selenites, named after the Greek moon goddess Selene. Their costumes were some of the most expensive parts of the production. They were played by acrobats from the Folies Bergère.
  • Ballet dancers from Théâtre du Châtelet played the stars and the rocket ship attendants.
  • The statue commemorating the brave astronomers is inscribed “Labor omnia vincit,” a Latin phrase meaning “Work conquers all.”
  • This was Méliès’s longest film at that point, and took three months to complete.
  • Like many French films at the time, the music tended to be up to the theater and narrators often accompanied the showings, explaining the action as it unfolded.
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12 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “A Trip To The Moon” (1902)

  1. Superb article about the first genius of film!

    I always think of Melies the way I think of Hendrix- he did so much with so little technology, While later filmmakers had everything up to and including the latest computer technology, all he had was his inspiration and innovativeness. The same way Hendrix didn’t have a mountain of effects at his disposal- just a fuzz, a phase shifter, sometimes a wah wah pedal an oodles of imagination.

  2. I remember watching this film on TCM in 2002 and thinking “this film is a century old!” What a concept! Now I watch a Chaplin Mutual and think the same thing.

    • Right? Lots of Keystones and important early features have reached that milestone too. (I was especially excited about INTOLERANCE’s 100th last year!) We’re getting to the point where a lot of notable early works are OVER century old…just think, these films will one day turn 150, 200, 300…imagine if we could see film that was 300 years old! Future generations are lucky, darn them. 😉

  3. Well, you’ve outdone yourself with this whole series of Méliès articles, Lea!

    I like the lines about how we take it seriously because of its lack of seriousness—that’s a great paragraph, and a wonderful observation. And also your thoughts about how we romanticize the moon.

    And you know, your comment toward the end about the innocent and carefree chorus girls reminded me of something that strikes me over and over when I watch silents, especially those of the Edison—Keystone—Méliès, etc., era— and that is the *fun* people seem to be having. Do notice that? Adults playing, frolicking; pranks and mischievous fun, innocent merriment. I’m thinking about the square dance scene in Edison’s The Miller’s Daughter that I watched recently. And I think about the sleigh ride in The Christmas Past set—today those girls would be walking around looking down at their cell phones. Not that I’m not guilty of that, too, but… Well, I’m getting off topic and may be repeating myself, but I think maybe Méliès’s whole ouevre is an example of that kind of fun that we are now too sophisticated for (or think we are). Am I right?

    • I’ve had very similar thoughts, Donnie. Absolutely. It’s something I think about a lot. I know people always talk about “kids these days,” and how “back in my day, we were way better”…but we truly are living in a different time, when we have easier access to information and distractions than ever before. Even little kids have smartphones now. We seem much more aware of what might look “weird” or quirky to other people. (Look at the humor on so many TV shows–a lot of it revolves around poking fun at character quirks.) A self-consciousness seems to have taken over our society and we really do seem to have trouble “letting go” and having fun the way people used to. I was just thinking today about how people don’t sing together for fun anymore. I could ramble on and on about this topic, but yes…I do think you’re right!

  4. One thing I really admire is the fact that it was colored by hand. I can’t even begin to imagine how time-consuming that must’ve been, and the end result is so pretty!

    Ironically, I’m an opponent of colorization, but for these early films it was clearly the intention.

    • The colors were always so beautiful, too–those yellows are my favorite!

      Yeah, I hate it when films from the ’30s or ’40s are colorized, it never looks great and the whole idea behind it is ridiculous if you ask me. Although, I barely understand what it’s like to notice if a movie’s in black and white in the first place… 😀

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