(7/10) Georges Méliès’ French short film was an important step in the development of the science fiction movie, even if it should probably be categorised as a fairy-tale. The film, depicting an astronomer dreaming of a crazy moon entering his room and eating him, was a leap forward for special effects and cinematic storytelling. It stars the world’s first movie stars, Méliès and his future wife, actress Jehanne d’Alcy.
The Astronomer’s Dream/A Trip to the Moon (La lune a un metre/Le rêve d’un astronome) 1898, France. Written & directed by Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Jehanne d’Alcy. IMDb score: 7.5. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
As early as 1898 French film pioneer Georges Méliès made what some argue is the world’s oldest surviving science fiction film, although there are a handful of other ones vying for that title. The short movie, at little more than three minutes, was long for its time, when most films lasted barely a minute. It’s one of the early story films, but Méliès had done other films prior that had just as much story as The Astronomer’s Dream, and others, most notably Alice Guy Blaché, had pioneered fictional films almost since the birth of cinematography.
Before we go any further, though, I’d like to address the film’s title. I’m using the English IMDb title, The Astronomer’s Dream, which is the most commonly used one. This is the translation of the French title of Le rêve d’un astronome. However, the original French title is La lune à un mètre, or “the moon at a meter’s distance”, or more freely The Moon at Arm’s Length, which has also been used as the English title for the film. When Siegmund Lubin imported the film to the US he titled it A Trip to the Moon, which is why it is sometimes confused with Méliès’ most famous movie, which is also called A Trip to the Moon (1902, review). To make matters even worse, it has yet fourth English title, which is The Man in the Moon.
The film describes an astronomer (played by Méliès himself) falling asleep at his telescope, dreaming. A demon appears out of nowhere, followed by the good fairy Phoebe, who makes the demon disappear in a puff of smoke, the she too disappears (she is played by Méliès’ number one star and later wife Jehanne d’Alcy). The astronomer draws a globe, which becomes a stick man that starts to move around. The moon suddenly appears inside the astronomer’s room with big rolling eyes and a mouth that starts to chew up the telescope, then the furniture. The astronomer punches it in the face, and it hops back into the sky and becomes a crest which acts as a chair for a scantily clad woman. The astronomer tries to reach her, puts a table by the balcony and stands on it. It disappears, and he falls to the ground.
Sceneries change fast behind the bewildered astronomer, the moon appears in the room again, small moon children falls out of its mouth, and the astronomer chucks them back in. The moon then eats the astronomer and spits him out in pieces on the floor. It then regurgitates smoke, the fairy and the demon. The fairy chases off the demon and puts the astronomer back together in his chair, where he wakes up from his dream. The world is back to normal.
Since many of Méliès’ films were inspired by literature, it is not impossible that he had read astronomer Johannes Kepler’s novel Somnium – one of the early proto-science fiction novels. It also includes a demon appearing in a dream, a witch, as well as a retold story of a trip through the solar system, much of it relayed through a feverish dream (funnily enough it doesn’t have anything about the moon eating furniture).
Repeated in print, the films seems a mess, and in a sense it is. But just like modern action film directors use fast cuts and special effects to thrill a viewer, so did Méliès. In his first five years of filmmaking he more or less developed most of the tricks that made up the bulk of special effects up until the birth of computer graphics. These included double exposure, superimposition with a black background creating what would later be called “blue screen” or “green screen” photography, time-lapse photography, stop tricks, forced perspective with moving cameras and pulleys, dissolves, and early animation done by hand-painting directly on the film frames. To all this Méliès added beautifully realized sets, complicated and sometimes gigantic puppeteered props, extravagant costumes and stage effects like smoke and fire.
Méliès was also one of the driving forces behind the development of films as a storytelling medium. The first movies were simply short slices of ordinary life, produced as novelty items to show off the new medium of moving images. In the last years of the 19th century most commercial movies either showed ordinary lifes and trades, or people performing for the camera, such as strongmen, bodybuilders, dancers or circus performers. And even to many in the business, this was all that films were: cheap parlour tricks, something to amuse your friends with at a dinner party or show at a fair, next to the haunted house and the freak show. The Lumière brothers, the much hailed pioneers of cinema, who held the first public film screening in Paris, never quite understood the draw of the moving pictures. At the conference where the first screening was held, they mainly intended to inform the crème de la crème of the Paris photography scene of their new advancements in colour photography, and were dumbstruck by the fact that their little “sideshow” became the talk of the town. And despite the ever increasing popularity of movies, they were convinced that they were just a fad. In 1905 the Lumières left the film business altogether and continued their experiments with colour photography.
Nevertheless, Louis Lumière is credited with making the first fictional film, or story film, with his 1895 movie L’Arroseur arrosé, or The Sprinkler Sprinkled. The 45 second clip shows a practical joke where a boy steps on a gardener’s hose, stopping the water flow. When the gardener inspects the nozzle, the boy lifts his foot, resulting with the gardener sprinkling himself in the face, after which he chases and catches the boy and gives him a spanking. The second fictional film was presumably made by French filmmaker Alice Guy Blaché, working for the Gaumont film company, and generally considered as the first female film director. The 60 second film The Cabbage Fairy (La fée aux choux, 1896) depicts a fairy in a cabbage patch gently lifting babies from behind cabbages and putting them on the ground. The clip may seem utterly bizarre to young viewers, but back in the day when people were still familiar with such things as cabbage patches, parents used to tell their children that babies came from cabbage patches, much in the way they would say that the stork brought babies to the world. And the third fictional film in history is believed to have been Georges Méliès’ film L’Arroseur, (The Sprinkler), which is basically an imitation of Lumière’s ditto.
Yes, Méliès, the so often imitated pioneer of special effects, fantasy and science fiction films, was a pretty good imitator himself. But that was how films evolved back in the day. Someone had an idea, made a film, and others wanted to try to do it themselves, perhaps a little better, or with a new twist or idea. Still, it didn’t take long for Méliès to start developing his unique style, after he had discovered the magic of stop trick editing (quite by accident) A Terrible Night (Une nuit terrible, 1896) Georges Méliès. The short movie depicted a man (Méliès himself) trying to sleep while he is pestered by a giant bug.
People sleeping and dreaming were a common theme in Méliès’ films. Later in 1896 he made a film called A Nightmare (Le cauchemar), in which he further developed the theme. The film is an early example of Méliès’ use of stop trick photography, as it depicts people appearing on or beside Méliès’ bed out of thin air. It also marks the first appearance of the moon as an antagonist. Just like in The Astronomer’s Dream, the moon at one point appears as a crazy face inside the protagonist’s room, and it even chomps on Méliès’ arm. And just like in The Astronomer’s Dream, Méliès punches the moon in the face, causing it to retreat back into the sky. Anthropomorphic celestial bodies became a sort of calling card for Méliès, who returned to them in several films.
This all led up to Méliès best known film, the legendary A Trip to the Moon, which was primarily inspired by H.G. Wells novel First Men in the Moon, which had been translated into French in 1901, and by Jules Verne’s classic From the Earth to the Moon. The film included the immortal image of the man in the moon getting hit by a rocket in the eye, an image that would be imitated by filmmakers ad infinitum for the next ten years.
It is interesting comparing these three films as reference points for Méliès’ development as a filmmaker. A natural performer, Méliès had a talent for the dramatic from the start, but in A Nightmare his camera tricks, as well as his sets and props, are all rather crude and simple. But in 1898 the sets are already a lot more lavish and detailed, as are the costumes and the puppeteered moon face. In The Astronomer’s Dream Méliès also uses effects like fade-ins, smoke and pyrotechnics, and the story itself has a much more complex dramatic arc, even if it is only a little over three minutes long.
Some of the jump cuts are still on the cruder side, and the film features some of the problematic aspects of Méliès’ filmmaking, which would come back to haunt him later on in his career, when he refused adapt to a more modern style of filmmaking. While he continued to refine his sets, puppets and effects, his films continued to build on the same basic principles and aesthetics, such as the strictly two-dimensional look, a refusal to do location shooting, overtly exaggerated acting and an inability to break loose from story patterns which he reused time and time again. While his imagination knew no bounds when it came to visual and optical tomfoolery, he quickly started repeating himself like a broken record when it came to storytelling.
Of course, back in 1898 nobody yet knew what was to come, and The Astronomer’s Dream was something no-one had quite seen before. The movie was a hit in France, and inspired numerous ripoffs, not least from rivaling film company Pathé (Méliès had his own company Star-Film). For the time it was a remarkable feat of special effects photography, and it established story pattern that would be hugely influential.
In the role as the good fairy Phoebe we see Jehanne d’Alcy, who Mèliès’ muse, mistress and later wife. Often misspelled as Jeanne, d’Alcy was a successful stage actress, who had worked at Méliès’ Theatre Robert-Houdin since the 1880’s. For many years she was Méliès’ principal assistant in his stage illusion shows, a role she was well suited for because of her beauty and her small stature, allowing her to fit in small spaces and slip easily through trapdoors and holes in the props. Jehanne d’Alcy was a stage name, and her real name was Charlotte-Stephanie Faës, and she sometimes went by the moniker Fanny Manieux. When Méliès started making films, she more or less dropped out of stage acting to focus on the movies, thus becoming one of the very first professional film actresses.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many films she made with her future husband, since actors were hardly ever credited in early films (over fears that they would want more higher pay if they were credited). IMDb has her listed as an actress in 17 of Méliès’ more famous movies, but in reality she probably featured in a hundred or more of his films between 1896 and 1903, when she withdrew from film acting.
Thanks to his multiple roles as director, producer, writer, actor and cinematographer, and especially thanks to his pre-existing fame as a stage magician, Georges Méliès was the first actual movie star, and one of the few people in early film who could sell his films with the power of his name on the billboard – at least in France. While few outside the culture elite of Paris knew her name, d’Alcy was in effect also the world’s first female movie star. She appeared in the female lead in a slew of films in the first three years of Méliès’ film making career. Of those early roles she may be best remembered from The Vanishing Lady (1896), Méliés’ first stop trick film, The Devil’s Castle (1987), perhaps the first “horror” movie, Faust et Marguerite (1897), probably the first Faust movie, and especially After the Ball (1897), which is the first film in history to depict full nudity. The short clip depicts a woman coming home from a party and taking a bath. d’Alcy plays the bathing woman, and Jeanne Brady a maid, who first helps her to undress, and then proceeds to pour water over her back from a jug. The film never shows d’Alcy from the front after she has undressed – and in fact she wasn’t actually nude, but wore a body stocking – a trick often used in early film to simulate nudity or semi-nudity.
Her next well-remembered role after The Astronomer’s Dream was as Cleopatra in Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899), in which a grave robber finds the mummy of Cleopatra and raises her from the dead. The film marked the first appearance of the famed Egyptian ruler, thus making d’Alcy the first woman to portray Cleopatra. This film was the one that caught the eye of American distributor Charles Urban, and prompted him to start importing Méliès’ films to the US. It was about the same time when she got competition from another actress, called Bleuette Bernon, a singer whom Méliès discovered when she performed at a cabaret in Paris, and was so impressed with her stage presence that he started hiring her as an actress.
By 1899 d’Alcy was 34, whereas Bernon was 21 and perhaps more suitable for roles which called for a younger actress. Thus Bernon landed the title role in Méliès’ breakthrough film Cinderella (1899), in which d’Alcy played the fairy godmother. The movie was a resounding success all over Europe, and the US as well. It was the first in which Méliés made use of multiple scenes, and had six different sets, even though it only ran 6 minutes long.
Emboldened by this experience, Méliès then made his next big movie in 1900, which was the first screen adaptation of the legend of Joan of Arc – a 19 minute epic in 12 scenes, that became such a success for the US distributor Warwick, for which Urban worked, that the leading US film distributor Edison started showing pirated prints illegally in order to cash in on the film’s popularity. There’s some widespread confusion about who actually played the first on-screen Jeanne d’Arc. French Wikipedia lists Bleuette Bernon in the lead, while IMDb lists BOTH Jehanne d’Alcy and an actress called Jeanne Calvière. English Wikipedia lists Calvière as Jeanne d’Arc, and references a book called A Trip to the Moon – Back in Colour. However, the book doesn’t state that Calvière played Joan of Arc, only that she was a stable woman recruited as an actress for that film, and that she stayed with Star-Films’ ever-changing and loosely bound troupe for the rest of Méliès’ career. However, she only has two IMDb entries, so one would surmise that she probably played smaller roles, and wouldn’t have been hired straight from the circus stables to take on the lead in the company’s most ambitious film – not with seasoned performers like d’Alcy and Bernon at hand.
d’Alcy’s last lead role in a major film came in Bluebeard (1901), a retelling of the folk-tale of a young woman who is married off to the grim nobleman Bluebeard, only to discover that he has killed his seven previous wives. She also had multiple roles in A Trip to the Moon, but retired from acting the next year, as her age made her difficult for Méliès to cast in major roles that required young, soft-cheeked women. Instead she started overseeing Star-Films’ costume department.
Georges Méliès’ long-time wife and the mother of his children, Eugénie Génin, passed away in 1913, at the same time as his film career tanked. d’Alcy, his long-time mistress, became his companion, and they married in 1925, after WWI and number of circumstances had led to Méliès losing both his studio and his theatre. d’Alcy had inherited a small shop at Montparnasse station, where Méliès started selling toys and sweets, living in poverty and forgotten, but for a few old friends in the film community who helped the couple financially – until the rediscovery of his films by scholars in the late twenties and thirties. This period in their lives was portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo (2011), in which d’Alcy was played by actress Helen McCrory. d’Alcy passed away in 1956, at the age of 91, outliving her husband by 18 years.
And that’s that about d’Alcy, to whom we may return in future posts. One may argue that The Astronomer’s Dream doesn’t belong on a site dealing with science fiction films, as it is clearly more of a whimsical fairy-tale, but because it marks an important step toward the first sci-films, I have nevertheless chosen to include it as my first entry. For more on the life and career of Georges Méliès, see my post on the pioneers of science fiction film.
The Astronomer’s Dream/A Trip to the Moon (La lune a un metre/Le rêve d’un astronome) 1898, France. Written & directed by Georges Méliès. Starring: Georges Méliès, Jehanne d’Alcy. Cinematography, editing, production desing & special effects by Georges Méliès. Produced by Georges Méliès for Star-Film.