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Treasures and Trainwrecks of the Silent Screen
By Kage Baker, Kathleen Bartholomew
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2011 Kathleen Bartholomew
All rights reserved.
(Le Voyage dans la Lune)
January 12, 2009
No, this isn't a Von Danikenist tract; it's the first in a series of looks back at early science fiction cinema. And where better to begin than 1902, with Le Voyage dans la Lune?
Written and directed by French showman Georges Méliès, Le Voyage features one of the most indelible images in cinema history: the wounded Man in the Moon bleeding like a particularly runny Brie, grimacing in pain with a space capsule protruding from his right eye. For me, though, there is a much more iconic moment earlier in the film.
It opens at a meeting of astronomers, arguing violently as one of them proposes a trip to the moon. They wear pointed hats and robes embroidered with moons and stars. They wear starched ruffs. Nothing in any frame suggests their meeting isn't taking place in the 14th century. And then, having agreed on the proposed voyage at last, the astronomers call in servants to bring them changes of clothing. They shed the wizards' garb and dress in frock coats and top hats. Before our eyes, the Mage becomes the Scientist. This is the cinematic moment where the fairy tale mutates into science fiction, and every film Scientist—Rotwang, Dr. Zarkov, mad or otherwise—descends from this.
We get to watch the capsule being built and the casting of the great gun that will fire it moonward, before our heroes mount over the village rooftops to climb inside their vessel. Chorus girls in racy sailor suits load it into the great gun, a soldier flourishes a saber, and boom! Away go the intrepid astronomers, in a puff of stage smoke.
The stage moon becomes the smiling Man in the Moon, and then ... eeeew.
But our heroes have landed! They stumble out on the cratered surface of the Moon and watch the Earth rise! A small volcano erupts, knocking them on their behinds! Fatigued by all this discovery they lie down and sleep. Several planetary gods appear, pretty irritated by human presumption, and send a snowstorm to punish the voyagers. Our heroes seek refuge in a crater and discover an underground world, complete with running water and mushrooms of enormous size.
The Selenites come bounding into frame, vaudeville acrobats dressed up in papier-mâché heads and lobster suits. With a magnificent disregard for Noninterference Directives, our heroes swing at them with their umbrellas and burst them like so many balloons, until they are overwhelmed and dragged before the Chief of the Selenites. One good body blow takes care of him, though—Captain Kirk's diplomatic style foreshadowed here—and the astronomers race back to their space capsule with the Selenites in hot pursuit.
Tipping their capsule off a cliff into space, the astronomers plunge back down to Earth (talk about your gravity wells) dragging a Selenite with them. They land in the sea, in a nice little effects shot with a few real fish, and are given a heroes' welcome and a parade. The captive Selenite is displayed. The leader of the astronomers gets a statue.
It's all there in a nutshell, the template for future SF films. We will boldly go/go boldly to distant planets, we will see amazing things, and if we get into trouble we'll kick some alien butt. No apologies, no regrets. Those were the days!CHAPTER 2
(Voyage à Travers L'Impossible)
January 20, 2009
In 1904, a couple of years after his groundbreaking Le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès tried his hand at a more ambitious science fiction epic. Voyage à Travers L'Impossible ("A Voyage Across the Impossible," although more usually translated as simply "Impossible Voyage"), is around 20 minutes long, depending on whether you see the cheap version or the one with the bonus footage Méliès provided to exhibitors who paid extra. The concept of the deluxe 2-disc set has clearly been around a while. Voyage à Travers L'Impossible, in addition to being a longer film, is much more painstakingly hand-tinted. Where the previous film had a palette of grays, pale greens and blues, this Voyage blazes with gold and crimson. The result, while undeniably a special-effects extravaganza, is the first-ever instance of a science fiction plotline suffering at the expense of its gosh-wow visuals.
And, as with the earlier film, Méliès drew on the novels of Jules Verne for his inspiration, but more specifically he roughly copied one of Verne's own plays. The "Institute of Incoherent Geography," headed by M. Mabouloff, ventures forth on an expedition around the world. They set out in a locomotive loaded with all sorts of nifty- looking craft, including a submarine, a couple of airships, and an "Impossible Carriage," which seems to be a sort of automobile. Reaching the Swiss Alps, they transfer to the automobile and promptly have a devastating road accident, sending everyone to the hospital. Ford Explorer, I guess.
Fully recovered from this inexplicable plot digression (maybe road accidents were thought to be a laff riot in 1904?), our heroes board the locomotive once more, and it chugs away across the mountains. Higher and higher it goes, until it vaults into the stars. It zooms along through space, evidently held up by its twin airships, past a few charmingly animated comets and planetary systems and one obvious sparkler left over from Bastille Day. Mais non! Here comes the Sun, and we ain't talking Beatles songs: it's the Man in the Sun, who yawns so widely the Star Locomotive flies straight into his mouth. He gasps, he coughs, he vomits fire. Does he spit the ruined train out on the surface of Mercury? Despite most synopses insisting our heroes have crashed on the sun, it's later clearly visible in the sky, so I'm going with Mercury.
The expedition members pick themselves out of the ruins of the train. This was the point where it dawned on me that there women among the members—another first for sci-fi films! I was also diverted to learn that the conical felt hat was actually worn by someone besides Chico Marx and Pagliacci. Our heroes and heroines wander around exclaiming over the scenery awhile before suddenly being overcome with the heat. Fortunately their boxcar full of glacier ice (???) survived the crash, so M. Mabouloff herds everyone into it and shuts the door. Too late, he realizes he ought to have gotten in, too, but when he opens the freezer door again he discovers all the other expedition members frozen in a block of ice. The first-ever instance of cryogenics in a film!
So the dude gets out (I'm not kidding) a couple of hay bales they brought along and, spreading them under the boxcar, sets fire to them. The crew thaws out, revived. Fortunately their submarine survived the crash, too. It's not only a charming little copy of Señor Monturiol's actual 1858 Ictineo II, it works as a space capsule! They climb in, plummet down to Earth, and deploy a parachute at the last minute to soften their sea landing—another first-time-on-film. Their undersea journey takes place in a cutaway version of the sub, which, I believe, is yet another first. Alas, the sub explodes and sends the expedition members sky-high once more, although this time they land safely in a harbor and are rescued by the cheering multitudes.
See? Lots of flashy tech, uneven plotting, zippo character de-velopment. Science fiction cinema had already become the creature we all know and love ... creature we all know and love ...
And yet, that little train is just so darned cute. Look at what it implies in self-confidence, for 1904. Man—er, Humanity—will travel across the Earth, into the Sky, and under the Sea. Not only that, we will have the foresight to bring along hay for any Star Cows we encounter and plenty of ice for our champagne.CHAPTER 3
January 26, 2009
In a perfect world, the next in this series would be an examination of the 1908 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I have been unable to determine whether a copy still exists. The odds aren't good, given the low cultural value accorded to cinema at this time. For example, a lot of Georges Méliès's films were recycled to make celluloid boot heels for the French Army. Even if a copy of the 1908 J&H lay forgotten on a shelf somewhere, it would have taken a miracle—or a Company operative working on the sly—to prevent it from deteriorating into a mound of rusty flakes during the century since its release.
For years, it had been assumed that the same fate had befallen cinema's first-ever depiction of the creation of an artificial life form, Edison's 1910 Frankenstein. As late as the 1970s, only a plot outline and some stills were known to exist. Then a single print was found in the collection of a Wisconsin film collector, who had had the foresight to back it up on a 35mm copy. As a result, we get to see the missing link between Frankenstein 's 19th-century stage tradition and Boris Karloff's iconic role.
As you might expect, the Edison Company messed with Mary Shelley's plot, to make it fit both their filming budget and American post-Victorian sensibilities. Briefly: Frankenstein leaves home and sweetheart to go off to college, invents a way to create an artificial human being, does it, is horrified by the results, goes home and marries his sweetheart. The jealous Monster barges in on the bride but is chased out. The Monster sees himself in a mirror and, overwhelmed by his own ugliness, vanishes away, leaving only a reflection in the mirror. Frankenstein enters, sees the Monster's reflection gradually replaced by his own, and damn near faints, but his bride enters and they embrace. All in just over 12 minutes. A few thoughts:
Rather than have Frankenstein dig up corpses and piece together the usable bits to create his Monster, this version has him simply tossing a few chemicals into a huge vat and standing back to see what grows. Presumably the director thought the American public wouldn't stand for the grisliness of the original plot, but his alternative is still one of the creepiest scenes ever filmed. A crude figure of the Monster was made, most likely out of paper and rags, and set on fire. The result was filmed and then run backward.
We see Frankenstein close the doors—on some kind of furnace? —and peer eagerly through a peephole. The camera shifts toFrankenstein's point of view and we see a nasty-looking mass rise slowly from the vat. The misshapen thing jerks upward, and begins to take on skeletal features; almost at once its right arm twitches, rises, and begins to flail around. A head grows on the shoulders. Another arm begins to wave. Patchwork flesh clothes the skeleton like moss, unevenly. James Whale's Monster is a draped nonentity until his one-two-three close-up on its dead face, and the Bride of Frankenstein is born in unearthly beauty, but this one is really the stuff of nightmares.
And then here's the Big Guy, as portrayed by Charles Ogle, blundering into frame for the first time in cinema history. Despite his chemical birth, he is given the general appearance of a decaying corpse. His costume and wild mass of hair seem arbitrary and bizarre, until you see engravings of the first stage interpretations of the Monster, from 1823: clearly the costume and makeup owe something to the work of some long-forgotten London stage tech. And, with all due respect to Whale's makeup man Jack Pierce, he did not invent the Monster's flat-headed skull, as the illustration above makes perfectly obvious. Ogle is a better actor than the rest of the cast, managing to convey the Monster's unnatural strength and speed. Not bad, considering that his only previous film role was Bob Cratchit in a long-lost silent Christmas Carol.
We must never forget, though, that the title of the story is Frankenstein. The real villain is not the Monster but his creator, the first-ever Mad Scientist. Edison's version renders the moral with a unique twist: Frankenstein seeks to create perfect life, but because his mind is evil, his creation is therefore evil, too. When his "better nature" is strengthened by his love for his bride, his evil creation must logically cease to exist. Oh, really? The Monster is just going to fade away? Happy ending?
This is without question the easiest Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card ever handed to a Frankenstein, or any other Mad Scientist. Subsequent toilers amongst the Bunsen burners and test tubes will have to pay for their arrogance by being thrown off burning windmills, chased over ice floes, or (as in the case of Blade Runner) just getting their heads squished. Even Frank N. Furter gets zapped to death with a ray gun, for God's sake. We who grew up with "drop and cover" drills know all too well what wonders Science can bring us, and we like to see the guy in the white lab coat suffer a little. Or a lot.
But 1910 was a more innocent age ...CHAPTER 4
Jekyll and Hyde
(Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
February 2, 2009
The 1910 Edison film of Frankenstein was itself a dead thing revived by technology. How appropriate, on attempting to review the silent version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to discover that I need to present two reviews in one.
J&H may well hold the title of Most Filmed Novella Ever, especially if you count knockoffs of its central premise. It's been rumored a version was produced in 1897, but no hard evidence exists. The 1908 version has been, apparently, lost. New York–based Thanhouser Films produced the earliest adaptation still surviving, from 1912. The following year saw at least four new versions committed to film, and several others followed before the advent of talkies. For symmetry's sake, we'll confine ourselves to two.
Thanhouser produced generally high-quality one-reelers between 1910 and 1917. Its 1912 Jekyll and Hyde may seem clumsy and primitive, but it's light years more advanced in film technique than Edison's Frankenstein. Thanhouser's J&H is notable also for its introduction of romance into Robert Louis Stevenson's story, beginning a tradition that continues up to the present time. In the original tale, Dr. Jekyll is an elderly hypocrite who, like Faust, regrets he wasted his youth in earning public plaudits while concealing his natural urges. He devises the chemical formula enabling his id to move about independently; Mr. Hyde is born. As Hyde, Jekyll enjoys himself without any scandal, until Hyde becomes the dominant personality. But Stevenson knew exactly what his Victorian readers would stand for, and Hyde's lusts are never specifically detailed.
Thanhouser's Jekyll (stock player James Cruze) proceeds from mere scientific curiosity. Reading from a text titled "Graham on Drugs," which states baldly that a drug exists that will divide the good and evil sides of human nature, he gives it a try. Hyde pops out, a little grinning goblin with fangs, and runs amok in the local village. Realizing his mistake, Jekyll stops his experiments and sets about courting the local minister's daughter. Alas, merely strolling down a country lane with her is enough to summon Hyde. He assaults her (well, threatens her; this was 1912) and clubs the minister to death when he attempts to defend her. She runs off, finds a convenient British bobby on the streets of New Rochelle, and Hyde is chased back to Jekyll's laboratory, where he commits suicide.
Paramount's 1920 Jekyll and Hyde is much more faithful to the original story, and goes into much darker places.
John Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll is a spotless young saint, running the local free clinic. He is, of course, engaged to a beautiful and innocent girl, but in this case her father is a debauched old gent who persuades Jekyll to try a few nasty pleasures before the wedding night. Jekyll goes along with him to a music hall (nasty? Well, this was 1920) where he is immediately attracted to a sensuous dancer. He wants her! But he can't have her! Unless ... The pure-hearted youth concocts the formula to enable him to purge his vicious longings by creating Edward Hyde.
Excerpted from Ancient Rockets by Kage Baker, Kathleen Bartholomew. Copyright © 2011 Kathleen Bartholomew. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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