The release last year of Martin Scorsese’s HUGO has brought to the forefront a long-deceased cinema pioneer. That would be Georges Méliès, who is played in HUGO by Ben Kingsley.
What makes Méliès so interesting historically is that he was as much an illusionist as a filmmaker. His imagination allowed him to concoct and employ a range of special effects in the films he made around the turn of the 20th century. These effects include time lapse photography, multiple exposures, and hand-painted color on film shot in black-and-white.
Perhaps Méliès’best-remembered film is A TRIP TO THE MOON. It dates from 1902, and tells the story of a bunch of astronomers and their plight as they set off on the title voyage. While of course, the special effects in A TRIP TO THE MOON cannot compare with those we regularly see onscreen today, what makes them special and fun to watch is their sheer ingenuity, their surreal nature, and an awareness that, here, Méliès is in essence inventing the science fiction/fantasy genre.
And on June 3 and 4, A TRIP TO THE MOON will be shown on the wide screen at Proctors in Schenectady.
Now A TRIP TO THE MOON is not a rare film, to be sure, but the version scheduled for Proctors is extra-special. It is the hand-painted color version, which was rediscovered a decade ago and restored, and had not been seen in well over a hundred years.
A TRIP TO THE MOON is just sixteen minutes long; it was made before the film industry came to realize that moviegoers will stay put long enough to watch feature-length films. Today, a sixteen-minute film certainly will not sustain an entire film program, so screening with it at Proctors will be THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE, a 2011 documentary which charts the unearthing of the color nitrate print of A TRIP TO THE MOON, its restoration, and its premiere as the opening night event at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
I also want to add here that A TRIP TO THE MOON is not the only silent classic scheduled for Proctors. On June 17 and 18, THE GOLD RUSH, the 1925 Charlie Chaplin classic, also will be shown. This also is a new restoration.
In THE GOLD RUSH, Chaplin experiences a range of comedic travails as a struggling gold prospector in Alaska. There are quite a few famous sequences here, starting with the down-and-out prospector’s making a scrumptious meal out of a leather shoe and his famous “dance of the rolls.”
Admittedly, plenty of once-celebrated films have dated badly, but this cannot be said of the best of Charlie Chaplin. Why, a few years ago, I was walking along West 57th Street in Manhattan and noticed a bunch of people gathered around a storefront. There were oldsters and youngsters and, ethnically speaking, they represented a range of New Yorkers. I strolled over to see what was going on and, to my surprise and delight, those in the crowd were peering into a window. Inside was a television monitor. On it was an early Chaplin short, dating from around 1915 or 1916. Chaplin’s antics were collectively enthralling those in the group, who were collectively laughing and sharing a movie-watching experience.
One might expect the very same response when THE GOLD RUSH is screened at Proctors.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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