The Moon Lover

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(7/10) A drunken romantic reaches for the moon in this warmly whimsical 1905 pseudo-sci-fi film by French trick filmer Gaston Velle. Clearly inspired by Georges Méliès, but with a personal touch. 

The Moon Lover. 1905, France. Written and directed by Gaston Velle & Ferdinand Zecca. Produced for Pathé. IMDb score: 6.0. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

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Poster

Films about trips to the moon, the stars and the planets were all the rage in the first years of the 20th century, after French pioneer Georges Méliès had released his film A Trip to the Moon (1902, review). The movie was a resounding international success and has since become perhaps the most iconic piece of cinema of the decade. Méliès’ comical face of the moon became one of the most widely copied fixtures in cinema, and French filmmakers, in particular leading company Pathé, scrambled to cash in on this early space race. While some of the company’s films were at least mildly original, other reeked of plagiarism.

In 1899 former stage performer and pioneering trick filmer Ferdinand Zecca was put in charge of the motion picture production at Pathé, and despite a dominant position on the global film market, the company soon found that it wasn’t able to compete artistically with the careening imagination of Georges Méliès, who ran his own independent film studio Star-Film. Méliès was a stage magician and theatre manager, and could incorporate his stage magic in his films, but more importantly, had a way of looking at the process of filmmaking that no other filmmaker could match at the time. In the early 20th century there still was no such thing as a “director”. Early filmmakers had diverse backgrounds, but many came from an engineering background, more interested in the new technology than in content. Some were actors that had started appearing in movies and got enthralled by the new medium, such as Ferdinand Zecca. Alice Guy Blaché at rival film company Gaumont was a secretary who started making films as she thought she could do better than what she saw that her superiors were doing at the studio. Most fictional films were still one-minute shorts without much in the way of production values – often a reused or hastily painted set in the background, for the most part slapstick comedies.

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From Gaston Velle’s 1904 film The Talion Punishment.

The “director” was often both writer and camera operator, as well as special effects manager, prop maker and set dresser. This was a cheap industry, still mostly regarded as an amusement park curiosity. The idea that, for example, a serious theatre director would stoop down to the same level as the bearded lady and the juggler and start directing films was so preposterous that it wasn’t even an issue. Stage magicians, however, were part and parcel of the same world that the cinema moved in. So when trying to get one over Georges Méliès, it was logical for Zecca to turn to a fellow magician for help. And one of the most popular ones in France at the moment was Gaston Velle, a second generation illusionist who operated shows both in Paris and Italy. Hiring him had the added benefit of reducing the competition.

Velle soon proved to have a unique artist’s eye, and often took the tricks that Méliès had pioneered and added his own little quirks and ideas, taking full advantage of Pathé’s patented stencil colouring technique. His films were often surrealist choreographies of colour, movement and metamorphoses, with a strong use of reverse photography, stop tricks and black screen double exposures. La danse du diable and Japanese Varieties were two early 1904 films that showed off his strengths.

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Still from The Moon Lover: the drunkard trying to hold on to a chimney.

In 1905 Velle and Zecca took on Méliès’ celestial journeys for the first time, after Star-Film had released their second Fantastic Voyage movie, The Impossible Voyage (1904, review), in which explorers travelled to the sun and beneath the sea in a submarine. Pathé’s film The Moon Lover (Réve à la lune) wasn’t nearly as ambitious as Méliès’ films, but tried to put their own spin on the theme. In a sense, it is more inspired by Méliès’ previous short film The Astronomer’s Dream (1898, review).

The film follows an inebriated man (played by Zecca himself) returning home after an apparently great night on the town. In an exuberant mood as he walks in through his front door, he is greeted by hallucinations of dancing wine bottles, with whom he happily takes a turn at his very own dance floor before he passes out on his couch. But no sooner does he wake again, mysteriously transported to the park bench outside his apartment, and as soon as he sits up, he falls madly in love with the moon. After he discovers that climbing a street light will get him nowhere nearer his object of desire, he proceeds to climb up on his roof, waking angry neighbours who stick their heads out the windows to scorn him. While on the roof he gets caught by a strong gust of wind, and grabs on to a metal chimney, but the gale just increases, and finally sweeps both him and the stove-pipe away, all the way to the moon. Zecca and Velle borrow the popular face in the moon from Méliès, and, unsurprisingly, the moon lover climbs into its mouth. However, here the duo seems to have run out of either time of fantasy, because nothing actually happens on the moon: the moon lover just falls out on the other side, and plummets back to Earth, where he lands/awakes on his own couch.

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The moon lover and the dancing wine bottles.

At about six minutes, it’s neither very long nor very short for a 1905 film, but certainly should be considered as a “short film” at the time; an increasing amount of films were running longer than 10 minutes, some even up to an hour. Neither is it an especially ambitious film; there are a number of double exposures, some nice costumes (the dancing bottles) and some fairly elaborate sets, as well as the use of multiple scenes, so this wasn’t a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants setup. However, besides a couple of extras, this is a single-character film, and it doesn’t involve complicated choreographies or labour-intense practical effects. But the sets are well made, the lighting beautifully realised and the effects well executed. Particularly the fade transporting the moon lover from his couch to the park bench is almost seamless. On the other hand, the moon lover has been overexposed and appears almost transparent in the shot where flies up to the moon (this may be exaggerated by the badly decayed print that can be found online).

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Off to the moon on a stove-pipe!

All in all it is a well executed movie, and one with a jovial and warm tone that appeals to me. I like this film. I like the moon lover, his drunken infatuation with his celestial lover. I find it a really funny and heart-warming little movie. But a masterpiece it is not. It sort of cuts off in the middle, as the natural progression would have been to have something take place on the moon, even if it was just a troupe of dancing girls. In that sense, when push comes to shove, it really just is another effects film.

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Gaston Velle.

Gaston Velle took another stab at the subject in 1906 with A Voyage Around a Star, which was bore a closer resemblance to the Méliès films, and bigger production values as well. In 1907 he directed the film Petite Jules Verne, which involved a propeller-driven dirigible, but was in fact an underwater adventure inspired by Méliès’ film Under the Seas (review), released earlier the same year. In 1906 he also made the film Les Invisibles, or The Invisible Men, which is often confused with Segundo de Chomon’s and Ferdinand Zecca’s film The Invisible Thief (Le voleur invisible, 1909, review). Several sources claim Velle’s film to be an adaptation of H.G. Wells‘novel The Invisible Man, and that it “pioneered techniques” used in later adaptations. This is dead wrong. Les invisibles used simple stop trick photography to achieve invisibility, and bore no resemblance to Wells’ novel, even if it was probably inspired by it. The Invisible Thief, however, pioneered the same black screen technique that was used in James Whale’s 1933 film adaptation, and even credited Wells in the film. de Chomon became Pathé’s other Méliès imitator in 1908, when he more or less copied A Trip to the Moon shot by shot and changed the title to Excursion to the Moon (review). He followed up with two other lavish sci-fi adventures: A Trip to Jupiter (1909) and Inside the Earth (1910, unfortunately a lost film).

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An image from the 1994 film La danse du diable.

Gaston Velle made his major films during a short time-span between 1904 and 1906. To the above mentioned can be added Burglars at Work (1904), The Rajah’s Casket (1905) and The Hen that Laid the Golden Egg (1905). These were all successful at the time, but none could quite compare with the work of Méliès and later de Chomon in scale or imagination. Often Velle’s smaller films – where he presumably had freer reins – were more interesting, certainly more artistic. His career at Pathé was cut short as he was briefly appointed as the head of film production at Italian film company Cines in 1906. But apparently he didn’t get along with the company, as he returned to Pathé in the end of 1907. After his return Cines instigated a row between the two companies, as they accused Velle of plagiarising Cines’ films for Pathé.

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A typical Gaston Velle shot.

Even though he continued to make films for Pathé up until 1913, few of his works from this later era are remembered today, and in 1913 he hung up his gloves. According to Wikipedia he “mysteriously retired”, but I doubt there is any more mystery to his retirement than there is in the dwindling careers of his fellow pioneers Méliès, Zecca, de Chomon, Edwin S. Porter, William R. Booth, and others; filmmaking simply moved on, and the old-timers weren’t able to adapt to the new language of film that emerged between 1910 and 1915. We often hear of casualties that were caused by the introduction of talking pictures, but much less has been said about the way so many of the pioneers of film as an art form silently fell by the wayside when the feature film made its breakthrough in the second decade of the 1900’s.

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Gaston & Maurice Velle and Mary Murillo. Image creds to Luke McKernan.

Velle’s son Maurice went on to become a cinematographer in the twenties, and apparently worked unsuccessfully on developing colour film. Maurice had a family with Irish screenwriter Mary O’Connor, known as Mary Murillo, who at one point moved to Hollywood, where she enjoyed a rather successful career. As far as I can tell, no real biography has been written on Velle, but apparently film scholar Luke McKernan has done some research into his life in conjunction with an Italian film festival, so one can hope that he makes the information available at some point.

You can read more on Ferdinand Zecca in my review of The Flying Machine.

Janne Wass

The Moon Lover. 1905, France. Written and directed by Gaston Velle & Ferdinand Zecca. Produced for Pathé.

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