A Little Jules Verne

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(4/10) Gaston Velle’s 1907 film is a fairly entertaining underwater fantasy short, made hastily to cash in on Georges Méliès epic Under the Seas. Velle directs the imitation professionally, but without enthusiasm. 

A Little Jules Verne (Un petit Jules Verne). 1907, France. Directed by Gaston Velle. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novels 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Robur the Conqueror. Produced for Pathé. IMDb score: 6.1. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

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Emile and Charles Pathé conquering the world in this poster by Adroen Barrère.

In 1907 French movie company Pathé had achieved world domination. French films dominated cinemas both in the US and UK, saying nothing about the rest of the world, where domestic film production was still just getting started. Pathé had set up offices all around the globe, from Tokyo to New York to Cairo. American company Edison fought back by forming an industry trust, effectively blocking both foreign films and independent US companies. Basically it was a domestic monopoly where suppliers, distributors and small film companies had the choice of releasing their controls to Edison or get blocked from the market. Charles Pathé decided to try the same in France, where he was being pestered by both rivalling Gaumont and by pesky little Georges Méliès’ Star Film.

While Pathé through sheer power of bulk ruled supreme over the international film market, they just couldn’t compete with former stage magician Méliès’ imagination. The Americans profited by simply making illegal copies of his hugely popular films like A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) and The Impossible Voyage (1904, review). But Pathé couldn’t do that, so he decided to simply start copying Méliès’ films by remaking them in his own versions.

While Pathé’s head of film production, Ferdinand Zecca, was himself a very talented filmmaker, he didn’t have time to make all the films needed to flood the market, so he oversaw a team of filmmakers, often supervising and co-directing their films. One of the most important finds for Pathé was Gaston Velle, who, like Méliès, was a successful stage magician. Charles Pathé brought in Velle in 1903 try and imitate the style of Méliès with the same kind of trick film, and especially his fantastical voyages into space, which he had had so much success with.

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A boy flying away with a ballon airship in The Little Jules Verne.

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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Gaston Velle.

In 1905 Velle and Pathé’s head of film production Ferdinand Zecca took on Méliès’ celestial journeys for the first time with The Moon Lover (Réve à la lune, review), which wasn’t nearly as ambitious as Méliès’ films, but tried to put their own spin on the theme. That film also served as the inspiration for their next effort, A Voyage Around a Star (Voyage autour d’une étoile, 1906), a sort of cross between The Astronomer’s Dream (1902, review) and A Trip to the Moon.

Still in 1906 Velle released a more unique film called Les Invisibles (The Invisible Men) about two 18th century thieves who accidentally steal in invisibility formula and wreak havoc on the town. It should not be confused with Segundo de Chomon’s and Ferdinand Zecca’s pioneering The Invisible Thief (1909, review), which was clearly based on H.G. Wells’ novel, which Les Invisibles wasn’t. In 1907 Velle made another Méliès ripoff, Petit Jules Verne, this time to give Pathé their own version of Méliès’ film Under the Seas (1907, review).

Un Petit Jules Verne wasn’t a straight copy. Velle changed the framing story from a fisherman to a young boy, but kept Méliès’ dream frame. In Under the Seas a water fairy visits the fisherman in a dream and makes him the captain of a submarine. In Petit Jules Verne a young boy dreams of Jules Verne, and his wall opens up (in a classic Méliès window-by-the-bed shot) revealing a propellered air ship. He climbs into the basket and sets off to explore the world, looking at documentary stock footage through his spyglass. Lightning strikes the balloon, and he plummets to the sea, where he – just like Méliès’ fisherman – is able to breathe under the water. Like in the Méliès film, he encounters dancing naiads, mermaids standing in giant clam shells, and gets attacked by an octopus. Struggling, he wakes up to find that he has entangled himself in his bedsheets, just like Méiiès’ fisherman had done.

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Swimmin’ with the fishes.

A Little Jules Verne isn’t a bad film in itself, Velle knows what he’s doing and he does it well. The effects are on par with Méliès’ and the boy in the lead role does a great job. But the film looks a bit rushed and definitely cheaper than Méliès’ movies, as if Pathé wanted to get it out quickly to compete with Under the Seas. The sets are fine, but not spectacular, and the film lacks originality.

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. Velle had a dark edge and a feeling for the surreal, often making what we would today call art films, nonsensical studies in movement, geometry and tricks. The Flower Fairy, Weird Fancies and Metamorphosis of a Butterfly are among his more interesting work. In Tit-for-Tat (1906) a butterfly collector gets impaled on a champagne cork by giant butterflies, who want to give him a taste of his own medicine.

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The mermaids of the deep.

Velle’s 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.

Velle retired from filmmaking in 1913: like so many of the old pioneers, he was unable to keep up with the rapid changes in the art of cinema: shot-based storytelling, continuity editing, realism, close-ups and the emergence of the feature film. For a long time Gaston Velle was almost completely forgotten, even as the reputation of contemporaries like Méliès, Zecca and de Chomon was gradually restored. To this day, there’s not a lot of information of him online, but he is being included in a number of books on early cinema, and a few years ago Italian film festivals and scholars started taking an interest in him.

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.

Janne Wass

A Little Jules Verne (Un petit Jules Verne). 1907, France. Directed by Gaston Velle. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novels 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Robur the Conqueror. Produced for Pathé.

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