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Audrey Kupferberg: "A Trip To The Moon" And "The King Of Jazz"

How many times have you heard a friend or relative say, “I don’t want to see that old movie.  It’s in black-and-white.”  So many associate classic films with black-and-white that they disregard all those that actually were released in color.  Two extraordinary examples of early color films recently have been made available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The first title, A TRIP TO THE MOON, was created by French magician/filmmaker Georges Melies in Paris in 1902.  The 15-minute sci-fi photoplay takes a group of astronomers from earth to the moon where they encounter the Selenite fantasy creatures, and then escape back to earth to receive great accolades for their feat.  This film has been around for years in black-and-white, but the hand-colored version that was first seen in 1902 vanished in the years that followed.  Originally, a factory in the Paris area was hired to hand-color the film frame-by-frame.  It was a process that was performed on many films of this period, and the work mainly was done by women whose hands were considered more capable of performing this painstaking process.  Until 1993, when a badly deteriorated 35mm nitrate print was brought into the Filmteca de Catalunya, the color version was considered lost. 

Due to a film archivist’s knowledge of this title’s status, and after an extremely costly and lengthy digital restoration by Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation, and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, each of the 13,375 frames of A TRIP TO THE MOON can be seen in its original color in its recent release by Flicker Alley. 

Thinking way back to the days when Melies was producing several per week of these magic films with special effects, fantasy creatures, and the sci-fi genre, it is hard to believe that he didn’t take special care to preserve A TRIP TO THE MOON.  The reality is that his studio, Star Film Company, didn’t keep up with progress in commercial filmmaking, and so its business life only spanned 1896-1913.  Around 1925, Melies burned all his films, and today only 200 of his 500 titles survive in one form or another.  A documentary on the disc, THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, tells the story of the film and its filmmaker.

KING OF JAZZ is a high-budget feature-length musical revue from 1930.  It features celebrity bandleader Paul Whiteman and an extensive cast which includes Bing Crosby when he was still just one of Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys.  The most famous and extravagant musical number is George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”  This film has been around for years in disappointing, second-rate versions.  The newly released restoration from Criterion, with extras, is lush.  Unfortunately, some of the music is embarrassingly dated and the comedy skits often are cornball; however, the two-strip Technicolor is exquisite eye candy.  Archival consultants David Pierce and James Layton did a wonderful job bringing this title back to its original luster. 

The backlog of currently unavailable early color films should be addressed more strongly.  Sorry to say, the restoration work takes lots of money.  We should celebrate the good work that has been completed to-date.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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