It was the end of the nineteenth century, a tumultuous time in Western society. Amidst the ongoing innovations in manufacturing and agriculture, there were new inventions such as the telegraph, the automobile, and lightbulbs; new forms of invisible energy such as X-rays and radioactivity. From the country to the city: there was significant urbanization, and with it new places like the cabaret.
Life had become more colourful, with more and more synthetic dyes being developed and put to work in clothing and eye-catching advertising. There was art nouveau, the works of van Gogh and the post-Impressionists, the whirling dances of Loïe Fuller … intriguing new ideas about people from developing fields like psychiatry.
Amidst all these changes, a new technology and form of entertainment bloomed: the cinema. Moving pictures fascinated the public and celebrated technology both in form and content—aside from the intrigue of this new invention, many early films depicted aspects of modern life such as speeding locomotives and bustling streets. It did not take long for people to exploit the creative possibilities of the new medium. Exhibitors combined different scenes to form film programmes, and filmmakers devised comic scenes and story-films; shots were edited together to better show interesting sights and tell stories.
From the beginning, cinema travelled—as Kristen Whissel writes, “Transportation technologies such as the railway, the streetcar, the steamship, and the automobile hold an important place in the history of early cinema.”1 Companies despatched cameramen all over the world to record the sights of exotic locales. But if the cinema depicted the present, it also created new worlds, and in doing so imagined the future. The film camera was not just a window to the world, but also a telescope. In this spirit, this piece will provide a visual tour through a particular strand of early film: moving pictures concerning outer space, and the discoveries that one could make there.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
The story, so far as I know, starts in 1898 with the legendary George Méliès’ film La lune à un mètre | The Astronomer’s Dream. In this short, an astronomer is studying at a desk in his observatory when Satan appears before him; although a woman arrives to vanquish him, strange things have been put into motion, as we see the astronomer’s blackboard drawing come to life. Cut to a monstrously grinning large moon with an insatiable appetite for both telescopes and men, and then some longer shots of the moon (which fades to a crescent and then becomes a woman). There’s an interesting special effect at the end of the film: with the body parts of the astronomer lying on the ground, the woman hefts them back into the moon mouth, at which time they reattach to the astronomer seated at screen right until he is wholly reformed into a person. Upon waking back in his observatory, the astronomer is dumbfounded. A strange dream indeed!
One is tempted to imagine that this astronomer forms part of the group of scientists we see in Le voyage dans la lune | A Trip to the Moon of 1902. Méliès’ magnum opus is often called the first science fiction film—although I will qualify that by noting that it is not the first to include science-fictional elements2—and indeed Le voyage is an in-depth and sophisticated depiction of a lunar journey. The bullet-shaped rocket, the spaceship lodged in the eye of the moon, the Selenites: Le voyage dans la lune is so iconic that it is difficult to say much more about this masterful film.
Inspired by the scientific romances of Jules Verne—most pertinently De la terre à la lune | From the Earth to the Moon (FR 1865) and its sequel Autour de la lune | Around the Moon (FR 1870)—as well as H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (GB 1901), Le voyage dans la lune is a lavish and spectacular production. It was Méliès’ longest and most expensive production to date, and the cost shows in the details and variety of the sets and props. Le voyage was extremely popular with audiences, and it’s easy to understand why. What must it have been like for audiences in the 1900s, seeing this dynamic imagination of another world? It must have been pure magic.
Widely available in black-and-white for many years, in 2011 a restored coloured version of Le Voyage dans la lune was re-premiered, with a new score by French electronic duo Air. The documentary Le voyage extraordinaire (FR 2011), about the restoration of the film, is also well worth watching.
Luna is also the topic of Rêve à la lune | Dream of the Moon (also known as The Moon Lover) of 1905; directors Gaston Velle and Ferdinand Zecca nod to Méliès in their tale of a drunkard who dreams of being swept up to the moon. An even greater debt to Méliès is owed by Segundo de Chomón in his 1908 film Excursion dans la lune (FR, Pathé Frères), which is a blatant, albeit stylish, ripoff of Le voyage dans la lune. The space rocket looks almost identical, although rather than hitting the moon’s eye, it is instead swallowed up in the moon’s mouth.
The fact that such a close remake was made six full years after the release of Le voyage testifies to its cultural currency in that era (and, of course, beyond). Indeed, that same year, Méliès himself invoked the moon face of Le voyage in his film Le rêve d’un fumeur d’opium | The Opium Fiend (FR 1908, Star-Film). Another Méliès film with similar imagery is L’eclipse du soleil en pleine lune | The Eclipse: Courtship of the Sun and Moon of 1907.
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To what strange place
Of course, the moon wasn’t the only destination for extraterrestial screen voyagers of this era. George Méliès’ 1904 spectacular film Voyage à travers l’impossible | The Impossible Voyage, again a satire of scientific exploration, is a perfect example of the enthusiasm for transport technology mentioned above. The scientist-adventurers from the ‘Institute of Incoherent Geography’ undertake a voyage using trains, cars, submarine and dirigeable balloon. Most notable for my purposes here, however, is the segment where the explorers’ train rushes off a mountain peak and through star- and planet-studded space, before being swallowed by the sun.
A less sophisticated method of travel is used in Gaston Velle’s Voyage autour d’une étoile | Voyage around a Star (FR 1906, Pathé Frères).3 An old astronomer despairs of ever reaching the stars when seeing his servant doing the washing helps him to hit on an idea: the use of giant soap bubbles to ascend into space. He is warmly welcomed by the star-queen before being kicked out (literally) by jealous Jupiter: landing back on earth, he is impaled on a weathervane.
In The ‘?’ Motorist of the same year, British producer R. W. Paul presents a comical take on outer space travel that eschews the scientific-exploratory framework seen in the French space films. On the run from the cops, the driver takes off up the side of a building and into the sky, riding along clouds and around the moon before the famous spin around Saturn’s rings. It’s a delightfully anarchistic film, cleverly directed by Walter R. Booth.
The other great space epic of the 1900s is Segundo de Chomón’s Le voyage sur Jupiter | A Trip to Jupiter (FR 1909, Pathé Frères). This incredibly inventive and visually stunning film shows Jupiter and other extraterrestrial sights as witnessed by a king and his astronomer, and the outer-space adventure subsequently dreamed by the king. The special effects are very sophisticated – the magical viewing screen and the double exposures used to create the moon face are two of the standout shots. This is a film that I really recommend to watch in full, but here is a taster of its style and beauty:
And though not a planet, I’ll mention La fin du monde | The End of the World, a 1910 Pathé Frères film in which an astronomer studying Halley’s Comet concludes that the end of the world will arrive on May 18th, and prepares accordingly—however, when the promised apocalypse doesn’t eventuate, his friends are angry with him for having made them lose their jobs and money.4 The appearance of Halley’s Comet in April of 1910 that same year had stirred public interest in these kind of phenomena, as seen in this collectable postcard from France:
Halley’s Comet inspired several other films that year: these include Edison’s The Comet (US), comic film How Scroggins Found the Comet (US), and Gaumont’s At the Dawning; or, The Fear of the Comet (FR). Comets would continue to appear as film subjects in the following years.
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Something that stands out in the films I’ve discussed is the extent to which the moon and stars are anthropomorphized. When viewed in the round, the moon assumes a male visage, but as a crescent, the moon is firmly coded as both female and an object of desire. One of the most beautiful examples comes, of course, from Segundo de Chomón’s Voyage sur Jupiter:
And we see similar imagery in the earliest film I’ve covered here, La lune à un mètre of 1898.
The trope of the feminine moon goes back to ancient times, its most famous exemplar coming from Greek mythology: Selene (Roman: Luna) was the goddess of the moon and its divine personification. More widely, through its constant visible cycle of appearance, growth, and disappearance, the moon symbolizes life, death, and rebirth; coming back to the female body specifically, it is often seen as a celestial parallel to the female menstrual cycle and therefore a reminder of the female capacity for reproduction. Seen in that light, it is unsurprising that such a symbolism-laden body became an important figure in early film, a medium of discovery and wonder.
The suns of faraway planets
Celestial imagery was not restricted to the films I’ve described above, but appears in other films of the same period which don’t take it as a main subject; again, stellar iconography is often associated with feminine beauty, as well as magic, discovery, and the unknown. Here is a visual overview of some notable appearances:
Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (FR 1902, Ferdinand Zecca); Visions d’art 3. La Fée aux étoiles (FR 1902, Pathé Frères)
La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (FR 1903, Ferdinand Zecca); Le danse du diable | Weird Fancies (FR 1904, Gaston Velle)
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Life on Mars?
And what of the Red Planet? New Zealand’s first fiction film production, released in 1903, was A Message from Mars; it may even be a double first, as I don’t know of any earlier films about Mars. This now-lost film was an adaptation of the 1899 play by Richard Ganthony, a Christmas Carol-esque story in which a Martian visitor arrives to show a self-centred man the error of his ways. This play was wildly popular in Australasia: a 1903 article in New Zealand newspaper The Colonist claims it had been performed over 500 times in the Antipodes. The NZ film version was presumably made to capitalize on the play’s very successful tour by the Hawtrey company in the first years of the twentieth century. I couldn’t find any materials relating directly to this film (although the 1913 British version is available5), but here is one of the very many contemporary newspaper adverts for a performance of the play:
In 1909, Segundo de Chomón released a short film called Mars, which does not appear to survive, and the specific content of which I have no information about. But 1910 was a watershed year for the red planet on film, with the release of Ashley Miller’s A Trip to Mars (US 1910, Edison) and Matrimonio Interplanetario | A Marriage in the Moon (IT 1910, Latium-Film), each one of the earliest science fiction films in their respective countries. The Edison trick-film concerns a professor who discovers reverse gravity and accidentally uses it on himself, floating up through the sky to the planet Mars, where he finds strange vegetation and a huge Satanic monster.
In contrast, Mars is a benevolent place in Matrimonio Interplanetario. The story concerns human astronomer Aldovin, who falls in love with Yala, a daughter of Mars after espying her through his telescope. For a human and a Martian, where can a marriage take place? The moon is the ideal place … if they can dodge the moon-monsters.
I’ve covered Matrimonio Interplanetario in-depth in my post on the film, but here I’d like to highlight the aspect of the film I found most interesting, which concerned not transport technology but communication. The world of the film features a wireless service between Earth in Mars, and a very striking and visually smart effect is used to represent the wireless transmission:
A quite remarkable shot in a charming film.
And the future …
In this post I’m only covering films up until 1910, admittedly an arbitrary cutoff point employed only for the sake of a round number. The story of space flight in moving pictures, naturally, continues. The teens would bring further developments in cinematic space travel, with features such as the 1913 British version of A Message from Mars; Himmelskibet | A Trip to Mars (DK 1918); and the now-lost 1919 British adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. In the 1920s, audiences were treated to films such as Аэлита | Aelita (USSR 1924), Nikolai Khodatayev’s animated work Межпланетная революция | Interplanetary Revolution (USSR 1924), and Frau im Mond | The Woman in the Moon (DE 1929)—and there’s the late silent work Космический рейс | Cosmic Voyage (USSR 1936).
As imaginative as these later films all are, I find something very special about the early cinema I’ve covered in this illustrated essay. To call them magic may be a cliché, but it’s undeniable that their charm and inventiveness are intact over a century after their release. Besides their visual richness, one sees the tropes of a genre and indeed of filmmaking in general coming into focus, as anarchic staginess gives way to a more developed story structure and editing and effects become more elaborate. More than that, it is a partial but intriguing glimpse into the way filmmakers and audiences made sense of extraterrestrial places, transport, and exploration in this time, and the convergence of myth, theatre, and sensation in the nascent medium of moving pictures.
It’s often quoted that Louis Lumière stated, “the cinema is an invention without a future”, although no one has an actual source for this proclamation. If M. Lumière did indeed make such a statement, he was doubly wrong: not only did cinema technology thrive, it gave birth to a world of ideas and in doing so, both depicted and created the future.
Watch the skies.
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This post is my contribution to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. The blogathon aims to raise money to preserve and make available online the one-reel Strand comedy Cupid in Quarantine (US 1918), which tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak. Go and donate here!
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