An Excursion to the Moon

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(6/10) In 1908 Spanish master filmmaker Segundo de Chomon directed a carbon copy of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. The result is professional, but uninspired. 

An Excursion to the Moon (Excursion dans la lune). 1908, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon. Inspired by novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Production design: Vincent Lorent-Heilbrunn. Supervised by Ferdinand Zecca. Produced for Pathé. IMDb score: 5.5. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

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Poster

French film company Pathé spent the first years of the 20th century consolidating its iron grip on the international movie industry. By 1907 it was unrivalled both in output and reach. French films accounted for 60 percent of all movies shown in the US, and Pathé had offices in all corners of the world. However, in that year the French movie industry was delivered a tough blow, when Thomas Edison, the foremost film producer and distributor in the US, decided to put an end to the French cinematic invasion. Edison ganged together with a number of other companies, as well as distributors and exhibitors, forming a movie trust, which basically meant that Edison had monopoly over the US film industry, ensuring that exhibitors showed Edison films, and that he could buy foreign films to a price that he could set and with terms he could stipulate, meaning he got all the money. This also meant that Edison only imported films he knew would sell.

One person who made films that sold was French pioneer Georges Méliès, who had rocked the world with his fantastical fairy-tales and imaginative science fiction epics since the release of his 1899 movie Cinderella. His most popular film, A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) was so hugely successful, that five years after its release it still circulated the amusement fairs and exhibition parlours, sometimes legitimately, sometimes as pirated copies.

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Ferdinand Zecca (left) and Charles Pathé.

For Pathé Méliès‘ popularity was a problem, because he didn’t work for Pathé, but ran his own independent company Star Film. Ever since the very beginning of cinema, filmmakers all over the world had copied Méliès’ short, funny trick films, as Méliès himself would often copy – or parody – other directors’ clips. As he started making longer, narrative films in 1899, people quickly tried to emulate his directorial style, sometimes borrowing his ideas, designs and even entire plots. These imitations ranged from innocent inspirations to blatant rip-offs. Gaston Velle had made three sci-fi films for Pathé that placed themselves somewhere in between these: The Moon Lover (1905, review), A Voyage Around a Star (1906, review) and A Little Jules Verne (1907, review), with each movie getting closer and closer to actual plagiarism. But Pathé hadn’t yet done anything as vulgar as what they did in 1908, when they made the film An Excursion to the Moon (Excursion dans la lune): a shot-by-shot remake of A Trip to the Moon.

Like most major films made at Pathé, the movie was supervised by Ferdinand Zecca, the head of Pathé’s film production, in a capacity we would probably call executive producer today. Zecca, a former actor, musician and performer, had already done his fair share of science fiction films, directing a few short clips himself, and co-directing or overseeing Velle’s films.

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Dancing moon ballerinas in An Excursion to the Moon.

An Excursion to the Moon was directed by Spanish newcomer Segundo de Chomon, who had quickly risen among the ranks of Pathé directors. It is perhaps no coincidence that de Chomon started directing major films at the company at the same time as Velle made his short séjour as head of production at Italian film company Cines in 1907 (he would return to Pathé in 1908). de Chomon was among the most innovative and bold filmmakers of the era, in many ways well ahead of Georges Méliès, who was starting to get stuck in old habits and had a hard time renewing himself. It is a shame that Pathé had such a creative mind simply carbon-copying Méliès’ old film, purely for profit. The blame probably shouldn’t be put on de Chomon; as Fritzi Kramer puts it in the blog Movies Silently: “Chomón’s films often demonstrated unique wit, humor and creativity but Pathé wanted some ersatz Méliès and a fella has to eat.”

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De Chomon’s version of the man in the moon.

So, let’s get to the film itself. As stated, the film basically follows the story laid out in A Trip to the Moon: a party of would-be explorers listen to a scientist explaining a trip to the moon with the help of a chalk-board. We then get to see the construction of the moon rocket (or actually a projectile), which looks exactly like the one in Méliès’ film. The explorers ascend to the cannon which will shoot the rocket through the moon along a narrow ramp. A party of soldiers push the projectile into the cannon after the explorers have climbed aboard. The fuse is lit, and the rocket is shot toward the moon. We get another moon with a face – a worn-out staple ever since the 1902 film. But instead of hitting the moon in the eye, this rocket enters the moon’s mouth (just as the explorers entered the mouth of the sun in Méliès film The Impossible Voyage (1904, review).

Still copying Méliès, de Chomon’s explorers take a nap, but without the celestial beings watching over them, as they did in the original. The explorers wake as it starts snowing, and one of them produces an umbrella. They fall into a cave with gigantic mushrooms, and are attacked jumping aliens in colourful jump-suits who disappear and reappear in yellow puffs of smoke. (They seem to be disappearing by their own accord, not because they are beaten with umbrellas, like in the original.) The explorers are ushered to the king of the moon, but instead of attacking the king, the explorers are treated to a lunar ballet by the ever-present dancing girls who inhabited most films in the early 20th century. One of the explorers falls in love with the princess of the moon, and runs off with her to the rocket, and the other explorers follow, with moon men at their heels. They drop back to earth (but without the extra baggage of clinging moon soldiers, as Méliès had it), and crash land back where they started (not in the ocean, like Méliès’ rocket). Celebrations ensue.

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The sun is rising on the moon.

So there are several differences between the two movies. A crucial one is that An Excursion to the Moon is six minutes long, just half of the original’s length. de Chomon mostly trims it down by keeping the scenes substantially shorter than Méliès, which isn’t necessarily a detriment: Méliès oftens tends to linger unnecessarily long with his tableux, dragging proceedings even when the point of a scene has made clear. But there’s also the omissions listed above.

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Moon girls legging it.

Technically the film holds up fairly well against the original. The painted sets are on par with the ones in A Trip to the Moon, although perhaps a bit smaller – and they can’t hold a candle to the stuff that Méliès was doing in 1908. There’s also lesser extras in the film, which, again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Méliès often crammed his films so full of people that the actors could hardly move. de Chomon also borrows Méliès’ energetic over-acting, with wild flailing and jumping, but keeps it slightly calmer, which is also to the film’s benefit. However, the jump cuts and special effects are sloppy and simplified compared with A Trip to the Moon. I doubt that this was due to the fact that de Chomon couldn’t have pulled them off, but rather because he probably didn’t have the time to do them the way they were supposed to be done.

All in all the film feels like it was put together in a bit of a hurry, and de Chomon has stripped the original of all its edgy content. While Méliès made clear satirical stabs at both a puffed-up scientific elite and colonialism, de Chomon portrays the excursion as well-mannered and peaceful. Méliès’ explorers acted like violent invaders, beating the aliens with the canes and umbrellas, and throwing the king of the moon from his throne. One of the moon-men was ripped to shreds in the fall to Earth, and a second was paraded as a captive back on Earth. Here the princess of the moon comes quite willingly with the explorers, and seems overjoyed to return to Earth. de Chomon has also left out all sexual content. As Kramer points out, and which I really hadn’t reflected on: all soldiers sending the rocket on its way in A Trip to the Moon were skimpily dressed women, more like showgirls than soldiers; in An Excursion to the Moon the soldiers are drab men. The film also leaves out the alluring ladies of the stars and the moon, and even the dancing girls that he adds are awfully chaste. So, again borrowing Kramer:Excursion is A Trip to the Moon with the sex, violence and politics stripped from it”.

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Segundo de Chomon.

As such the film isn’t bad, and it is clear that it has been made by one of the greatest filmmakers of the era. It’s just that it is a chaste and rather dull version of the original, and, well, a rip-off is always a rip-off. It’s sad that this is perhaps the film that most people know Chomon from, because he was such an astonishing movie maker when he was allowed free reins.

Segundo de Chomon got inspired to start making films by his wife Julienne Mathieu, who was an actress at Pathé. De Chomon started off as a distributor for Pathé Frères in Spanish-speaking countries, and was the manager of a factory for colourising their movies in Barcelona. In 1905 he began doing location filming for the company, then making documentaries, and soon got hooked on trick filming. In 1907 he moved with his wife to Paris, where he started his career as a trick filmer, and quickly became the most adept special effects photographer at Pathé, rivaling the greatness of Georges Méliès, sometimes surpassing it.

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The homunculus scene from The Red Spectre (1907).

Instead of doing what most did, take Méliès’ tricks and repeat them, he built upon them. In The Electric Hotel (1908) he showed off his superb knack for stop-motion animation, which he was a master at with inanimate objects, but this time he also used people, describing a futuristic hotel with automatic equipment that helped dress and groom its guests for a night out. This was the same technique which blew movie-goers away in the 30’s and 40’s when it was used to depict transformations i horror movies such as The Wolfman and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; only Segundo de Chomon did it ten times better in 1908. In The Invisible Thief (1909, review) he took Méliès basic black screen technique, but used it to make a person invisible. The film was based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man, and depicted the scene where the protagonist undresses to reveal his invisibility. Méliès had never attempted anything like this, and if you look at famous James Whale’s 1933 film The Invisible Man, you can see that special effects guru John P. Fulton has more or less copied de Chomon’s scene. Mind you, de Chomon’s effect wasn’t flawless, and you can clearly see the outlines of the actor as the light hits the black suit, and Fulton/Whale did a much more elaborate setup. But considering the technology available in 1909, de Chomon pulls off an astounding feat of special effects trickery.

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Surreal imagery from The Frog (1908).

Segundo de Chomon also made a whole number of surreal art films in the vein of Gaston Velle, elaborately ornamented with art noveau set dressing, rainbow-coloured fountains, huge pyrotechnics, clay animation, double exposures, stop-motion, ludicrously exact mattes and split-screens, all exquisitely hand coloured by the hundreds of women working in Pathé’s colouring factory.  He used depth in a way that few filmmakers did at that time, check out his first hit film The Red Spectre (1907) for a magnificent close-up, which inspired another James Whale/John P. Fulton movie, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in particular the scene with the bottled homunculi. See the bizarre The Modern Sculptor (1908) and realise that the entire film is shot in reverse. Watch the mad fever dream that is The Frog (1908) and try to figure out what the hell is going on. Then watch his 1909 film A Trip to Jupiter, and realise how dull it is when he was once again forced to do another Méliès trip to the moon imitation.

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de Chomon’s invisibility trick from 1909.

All in all, he made over 300 films in his career, and he became a specialist in fairy tale and fantasy stories, ghosts and science fiction. He was also the primary go-to guy when Pathé needed a Méliès copy. The short Les lunatiques (1908) was yet another treatise involving the moon and pretty girls appearing from thin air, and Magnetic Removal (1908) showcased de Chomon’s knack for stop trick photography, as it featured a new magnetic invention dismantling a family’s house. In 1910 he made Inside the Earth (Voyage au centre de la terre), which is probably the first adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. It seems to be a lost film, but there are fragments available online, and from the looks of it, it was a very impressive film.

de Chomon more or less quit directing in 1913, after the Italian feature blockbuster Quo Vadis came out, and instead took jobs as cinematographer and special effects creator for feature films (and shorts). The one he is probably best remembered for today by film buffs is the epic sword-and-sandal blockbuster Cabiria (1914), which was made following the huge success of Quo Vadis. That is because the film included history’s first dolly shot. de Chomon also worked on a number of other films by Cabiria co-director Giovanni Pastrone, including The Royal Tigress (1916) and Hedda Gabler (1920), as well as the two best known early films featuring the strongman Maciste, The Warrior (1916) and Maciste in Hell (1925). And in 1927 he was basically dragged out of retirement to help on Abel Gance’s megalomanic masterpiece Napoleon, widely held as one of the best silent films ever made. It’s noteworthy that he was one of the few pioneers of the first decade of cinema (well, barely) that wasn’t retired and/or forgotten after WWI, but instead managed to put his knowledge and expertise to good use in the new era of film.

Janne Wass

An Excursion to the Moon (Excursion dans la lune). 1908, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomon. Inspired by novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Production design: Vincent Lorent-Heilbrunn. Supervised by Ferdinand Zecca. Produced for Pathé. 

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