(9/10) While derivative of Georges Méliès’ space voyages, Segundo de Chomon’s silent short from 1909 is a tour de force of innovative camera use, seamless special effects and stunning artwork. Now the apprentice becomes the master.
A Trip to Jupiter (Le voyage sur Jupiter). 1909, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomón. Supervision: Ferdinand Zecca. IMDb score: 6.1. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Science fiction films between 1900 and 1910 can really be summed up in one name: Georges Méliès. The French stage magician-turned-filmmaker created a whole language, style and narrative that would completely dominate not only the genre, but the film industry as a whole for ten years. You cannot pick up a science fiction film from this period without at least mentioning Méliès.
But in 1909 Méliès the great had finally been broken by his rivals at the world’s biggest film company Pathé, and sadly by his own inability to change with a rapidly evolving film industry. Because of new regulation regarding distribution and sales of film, his independent company Star Film was unable to compete with larger studios, and in 1910 he was grudgingly forced to merge Star Film with Pathé.
Almost from the start, Pathé tried to emulate Méliès’ success by creating their own movies in the same style, from comedy trick films to fairy tales and so-called Extraordinary Voyages in the vein of Jules Verne. One film that was especially influential was Méliès’ big international break, A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), that sparked a number of imitations, sometimes combined with elements from his 1898 film The Astronomer’s Dream (review). Two filmmakers in particular were put in charge of creating Pathé’s own laving fantasy and science fiction films, Gaston Velle and Catalan native Segundo de Chomon. In 1907 Velle breifly left Pathé to work as head of production at Italian film company Cines, but apparently things didn’t quite work out, and in 1908 he was back in Pathé’s fold.
It may have been Velle’s absence that gave Chomon his chance to show his chops in 1907, and exceeded all expectations with the superb, dark and surreal The Red Spectre, showcasing his knack for taking basic Méliès tricks and bringing them to a new level. Magnetic Removal (1908) showcased de Chomon’s aptness for stop trick photography, as it featured a new magnetic invention dismantling a family’s house. The masterpiece in this genre was The Electric Hotel (1908, review), a sci-fi-ish story about a couple checking into a modern hotel where automated furniture and props help them unpack their luggage and prepare them for a night out by shining shoes, shaving, braiding hair and getting them dressed. The nine minute short is a masterclass in stop trick animation by way of live actors (pixillation) and props. In 1908 he made his first major Méliès copy, Excursion to the Moon (Excursion dans la lune, review), an almost shot-by-shot remake of A Trip to the Moon (1902, review). He followed this by a A Trip to Jupiter (1909), another film heavily indebted to Méliès, but this time with a more personal touch.
The film is 9 minutes long and depicts a king walking around his castle and being shown different celestial bodies through his astronomer’s telescope – each of them inhabited by a corresponding god or goddess. The king goes to bed and dreams of a ladder reaching up to the heavens, which he climbs, passing the planets he saw earlier, until he makes a leap for Jupiter, and falls flailing through space. He lands on Jupiter, where he encounters the royal guard, and fights off a few of them with his sword (they disappear in puffs of flame), but is eventually overpowered. He is then taken to the king of Jupiter, which we may assume is Jupiter himself, who greets him as an equal, but when he shakes hands, the Earth-king receives a bolt of electricity. This is no equal of mine, figures Jupiter, and turbocharges our king so that he speeds across the throne room at super-speed. After a duel, the Earth king is subdued, and thrown off the planet by Jupiter. Miffed, he proceeds back down the ladder, until the crazy Saturn takes his giant scissors and cuts the ladder in two. This sends the king tumbling down the ladder, and back into his own bed, where he awakes and takes out his frustration on his court jester and astronomer.
Chomòn uses more traditional sets than the two-dimensional almost surrealistic façades and matte paintings that Méliès used during the making of his legendary space films), and they are all extremely beautifully designed, as are all the props and costumes. The movie is partly filmed on location at an actual old castle, which gives it a gritty and majestic feel. The hand colouring of the prints in this film is also exquisitely made by Pathé’s army of women working at the company’s colouring factory. There is also a bit of camera genius when de Chomón describes the ladder to Jupiter. The climbing is all made in two single shots, with the camera moving upwards with the king for long stretches. This was achieved by laying out the stars and planets as large cutouts on the floor, the gods and goddesses looking like they are standing or sitting, but actually lying on their backs, and the king crawling vertically on the floor with the ”ladder” suspended beneath him. The camera is actually suspended from the ceiling and filming straight down. The effect is completely obvious, but clever nonetheless this was one of the very earliest tracking shots, and without doubt the most impressive tracking shot up until the major films by D.W. Griffith.
Chomón infuses the film with a wonderful sense of fun and adds a few cheeky details. The story is of course very derivative of Méliès’ but Chomón adds enough flavour to make this one stand out on its own. In fact one could say that this is the film where the student becomes the master. By way of set and decor, the movie rivals anything that Méliès ever did, and the effects are all on par with Mèliès’. But ever since the beginning, Chomon was a lot more creative with editing, camera placement and angles than his mentor. Méliès stubbornly kept to his stage-bound style, filming everything in static shots, always from the same angle. Chomon wildly throws the camera around in different angles (as wild as you could go in 1909, that is).
He seems to have always been interested in depth and planes. The Red Spectre starts off as a traditional stage-based act, but soon the spectre, who acts sort of like a stage magician in the film, produced two bottles. He then walks toward the camera, until the bottles fill up the whole screen, to show us magic that takes place inside the bottles. Later Chomon opens up the wall behind the spectre, revealing a vast hall where even more action takes place. In The Electric Hotel Chomon has his hotel guests enter on ground level and take an elevator up to their room, and shows us that a crucial event takes place beneath them, that affects the reality above. And in The Invisible Thief (1909, review) there is a superb shot of police officers falling down the stairs for three floors, followed by garbage and debris raining down over them.
A Trip to Jupiter is also a work filled with planes and transitions between them. First there is the ladder, which Chomon initially films traditionally from ground level. He then switched to the camera in the ceiling, before having his king jump to Jupiter. Here, he enters what seems like some sort of dimensional doorway or a wormhole, falling “down”, with his feet toward the camera, or away from the camera, through surrealistic sets that look like they might have inspired Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinatory abstract painting scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When thrown off Jupiter, the king again “falls”, but in the opposite direction, now with his head toward the camera, before landing again on the ladder. All this was highly experimental in 1909, and a lesser director would not have trusted the audience to follow.
Chomon continued his Jules Verne-inspired work; 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.
A Trip to Jupiter doesn’t seem to be inspired by any literary source in particular: it has little to do with anything Jules Verne wrote, neither does it take its inspiration from the other contemporary sci-fi great H.G. Wells. But rather, it follows the same basic pattern that Méliès laid out in 1902. If one wants to go looking for literary predecessors, then the closest ancestors would probably be Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1608) or Lucian’s True History (circa 150 AD).
It is one of the last examples of the extraordinary voyages in the vein of Georges Méliès, and the film where Segundo de Chomon manages to out-Méliès Méliès. While direvative, it brings so many new techniques to the table, and is made with such finesse and creative spark that I wouldn’t hesitate to raise it up on a pedestal alongside A Trip to the Moon as one of the great achievements of the first 15 years of science fiction films.
In 1909 people were already making so-called story pictures, with a charge led by the Italians, creating epics and sword-and-sandal-pictures often based on stories of ancient Rome. Two of the great pioneers were Arturio Ambrosio and Luigi Maggi: 1908 saw the birth of the disaster film, with The Last Days of Pompeii, and the duo followed up in 1909 with Nero; or, the Fall of Rome. In 1911 Milano Film made Dante’s Inferno, an hour-long adaptation of the descent through the seven layers of hell, with impressive special and visual effects and hundreds of extras. The film that finally changed the tide for the film industry towards feature films was Quo Vadis by Enrico Guazzoni, a movie nearly two hours long depicting the Christian story of emperor Nero and the burning of Rome, with 5 000 extras, gladiator fights and chariot races.
At the same time, people like de Chomon and Méliès were still trying to cling to the upper echelons of the film industry doing what were essentially parlour tricks. But when the movie industry changed, unlike Méliès, de Chomon continued to work, and found that even if he himself couldn’t go on directing the new kinds of movies that were being made, his so-called parlour tricks could still be put to good use. In 1912 he made the move to Italy where he was attached by Itala Film, both as director, cinematographer and special effects creator. He was the primary cinematographer behind Cabiria (1914), a film so large that it put Quo Vadis to shame, and created a long-lasting franchise featuring strongman Maciste. The film became famous for its epic scale, its special effects, stunts and action scenes, gargantuan sets, and for its modern film language and innovative camera use. It was Cabiria that finally convinced the American film industry to start making feature films, and it had a huge impact of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, as it directly inspired Griffith to create Birth of a Nation (1915). Segundo de Chomon did some of his most impressive work on two of his last films, Maciste in Hell (1925) and Abel Gance’s ridiculously ambitious Napoleon (1927), which remained his last movie.
A Trip to Jupiter was supervised by Pathé’s head of production Ferdinand Zecca, who also created the special make-up effects. Along with The Electric Hotel and The Red Spectre it remains Segundo de Chomon’s best known directorial effort, and perhaps his best. Unlike most of his pioneering peers, like Méliès, Zecca, Velle, Alice Guy Blaché, Walter R. Booth and Edwin S. Porter, Chomon managed to survive the transition to modern feature films, in fact he was one of the driving forces behind the new cinematic language, with his unorthodox camera techniques and more than anything his pioneering use of tracking shots. For decades he remained forgotten, by has been rehabilitated in the last decade, largely thanks to new techniques of digitalisation and restoration, as well as Youtube, which has helped spread his movies to a new audience. The nationalist movement of Catalonia has also helped his cause, as it has proudly embraced its pioneering movie maker.
A Trip to Jupiter (Le voyage sur Jupiter). 1909, France. Directed by Segundo de Chomón. Supervision and special make-up effects: Ferdinand Zecca. Produced for Pathé.