Apr 29, 2012

Quote of the Week

I have never heard one person get as many vibrations into her voice as Barbara got into hers then. It was like a symphony chorus in the Hollywood Bowl instead of just one person speaking.

 -Mae Clarke, about Barbara Stanwyck

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Apr 27, 2012

The Short Animation Blogathon: Random Picks

This post is for the Short Animation Blogathon at Pussy Goes Grrr this week. There have been some diverse, fascinating entries this week. Check out the site for more shorts.

I didn’t have a theme in mind when I compiled my clips for this event. These are simply the films that have grabbed me and which I rewatch on a regular basis:

Fantasmagorie (1908)

In this short created by French artist Émile Cohl (1857-1938), actions flow from one to the other, as smooth as running water, but wild as a summer squall. Cohl stumbled into animation at the age of fifty, following decades of work in a series of mostly creative pursuits, including caricatures, journalism and the theater. This is one of the first animated films (some say the very first), and I think it’s still one of the best.

Betty Boop and Cab Calloway

I love all the pre-code Betty Boop cartoons created by Fleischer Studios. They are wild, surreal and naughty in a playful way that seems to have died in that era. My favorite Boop cartoons are the ones featuring Cab Calloway and his band. His wild style and slinky movements fit the loopy spirit of these toons. He was sort of a living Fleischer character. There were three Boop/Calloway collaborations:

Minnie the Moocher (1932)

The animators rotoscoped movements from footage of Calloway dancing so he could make an appearance as a ghostly walrus in this short. According to Max Fleischer’s son, he was so amused to see the cartoon version of himself that he fell off his chair laughing.

The Old Man of the Mountain (1933)

Calloway gets to dance again as the titular rascal of this slightly naughty toon.

Snow White (1933)

This time Koko the Clown dances for Calloway as he sings St. James Infirmary Blues.

The Tell Tale Heart(1953)

This gloomy, unsettling version of the classic Poe tale always sets me on edge. The discordant music scrapes away like an angry cheese grater, and the spare, shadowy animation makes me afraid to look into the darkness. James Mason’s performance as the smooth-voiced, but clearly unhinged narrator always gives me goose bumps. I can see why this was the first animated film to be rated X by the British Board of Film Censors. It certainly could sow the seeds of many childhood nightmares.

Apr 22, 2012

Dick Cavett and Marlon Brando: Two Boys from Nebraska

This post is a part of the LAMB Acting School 101: Marlon Brando event.

The man’s incorruptible and that’s what I hoped! -Cavett, about Brando

Dick Cavett once said that he was planning to write an article about his friendship with Marlon Brando. The title: Night of the Living Brando. That appears to sum up the relationship between these Nebraska natives.

The two were friends for several years. Brando would even call up Cavett in the middle of the night to talk to him. Though they had strong mutual respect, they also saw many things differently, from politics to entertainment.

I never had the impression that Brando regretted escaping to his island paradise in his later years, but in an interview upon his death, Cavett lamented that he’d taken the opportunity life presented him and “just pissed it away.”

One of the best examples of this good-natured, but serious-minded tug-of-war between the two is on the June 12, 1973 episode of the The Dick Cavett Show, where Brando was a guest. It is a few months after his rejection of the Academy Award for The Godfather, in protest of the treatment of American Indians. He is clearly determined to continue to speak of their plight. And so the tug-of-war begins.

Brando swaggers onto the set, confident and almost, but not quite arrogant. His gray hair is slicked back from his face. He wears black slacks, a maroon ascot and a strangely crisp denim jacket. From the first glance, he has a mischievous look in his eyes.

Brando looks hungry. He leans back in his chair, loose, relaxed, but physically commanding. Though he doesn’t take an intimidating posture, he looks dangerous, as if he is going to gobble up the trim Cavett in one gulp.

There is rapturous applause, and he takes it with grace, though he seems a bit impatient with all the praise. Finally the noise dies down, and he looks at Cavett with a wolfish, charismatic grin. The crinkles around his eyes form a perfect frame, he’s still beautiful, and it is clear why this man became a star. He is magnetic.

Brando has flown all the way from Tahiti to film this show. He likes Cavett, and he thinks that he will give him a platform to discuss his human rights concerns. He is mostly correct.

The first question bombs, “do you go to the movies?” Long pause. “Once in a while.” Another wolfish grin. This is the sort of exchange that makes me cringe throughout the interview. I want hate him for giving earnest Dick Cavett a hard time, but he’s so darn appealing, and he has integrity. I can’t help but be drawn to him.

It took me a while to appreciate Brando’s performance here, and I think he’s very aware that he is performing. I had to get over my superficial discomfort over his behavior to appreciate what he was trying to say. He makes some good points, but he forgets his manners while making them. Or am I just chafing at the way he rejects convention? I’m still not sure.

Things that irritated me the first time I saw the interview: the long pauses, the way he keeps going back to the American Indians while almost completely ignoring all other questions, how he constantly interrupts Cavett and changes the subject, still rankle me to a degree, but I understand what he is trying to do.

Perhaps he should have answered a few movie questions, after all, he’d never be there without his film career, but his concern for oppressed groups appears genuine and he, like many other stars, is simply attempting to use his influence for good.

Maybe Brando gives Cavett a hard time, but he respects him, and he doesn’t do it out of cruelty. He listens carefully, and he seems to think things through thoroughly before he answers. He’s is funny in a low key way, but he’s not going for laughs. He really doesn’t seem to care what people think about him. Part of it is that he seems to have faith in people drawing the right conclusions about him.

It still bothers me how frequently he cuts off Cavett, impatiently swiping away questions about his press coverage or the movies so that he can continue to speak about this cause which concerns him so deeply.

Though Cavett tries to stay the course with his questions, he does listen to Brando. He also devotes a third of the show time to his guests, representatives of the Cheyenne, Paiute and Lummi tribes. Still, there is a deep tension.

At the end of the show, Cavett asked Brando to come back the next night. I had the impression that he would like that, though he asks in a joking manner. Brando’s answer was silence, a grin, then, “sure Dick.”

That night, Cavett watched Brando punch photographer Ron Galella and break his jaw. He said it was one of the two weirdest moments in his life. To give you an idea of the impact of that incident, the other moment was when a guest died of a heart attack on the show, mid-interview.

Here’s the rest of the interview:

Part Two


Part Three


Part Four


Part Five


Part Six


Mary Pickford Blogathon Announcement

You know, I was going to wait to announce this after my guest linking event, but I’m starting to get a bit nervous. Blogathons are sprouting all over like dandelions!

So I've decided to put it out there: we need to talk about Mary. 

The legacy of Mary Pickford has taken a hit lately. First the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio is demolished by developers, then there's this kerfuffle between The Mary Pickford Institute of Film Education and The Mary Pickford Foundation (which I still don’t fully understand). I’d like to celebrate this mighty woman.

She was amazing!

·        She is to date the only woman to have had her own movie studio in Hollywood.

·        Her first marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, and the adoring crowds that accompanied them everywhere on their honeymoon, gave birth to the first celebrity couple.

·        Pickford was one of the first huge stars of the silver screen, and one of the most adored women in the world.

·        She was also was one of the first movie performers to drop the numbered poses of the melodramatic and often misused Delsarte method and act naturally for the screen. For this reason, her performances are still fresh today.

I think that last point is really important. Mary Pickford was a funny, riveting and ridiculously entertaining performer. The little girl image may make her seem old-fashioned, but Pickford’s movies are alive; they pulse with her irresistible energy. These flicks are entertaining by any standards. It is easy to see why people loved her so much.

So on June 1, 2 and 3, I invite you to send me new and previously-published posts about any aspect of Mary Pickford’s life and movie career. You can either send them to me at classicmovieblog@gmail.com or post them here in the comments.

If you haven’t seen any of Pickford’s movies, here’s a great opportunity to get to know her! Let’s do it for the memory of Mary!

In answer to my question about how one makes those cool blogathon banners, the Mythical Monkey graciously responded by sending me several excellent samples. Since the versions I eventually made are an embarrassment to banners, I'm going with these. Thank you Monkey!

Quote of the Week

Some of my foster families used to send me to the movies to get me out of the house and there I'd sit all day and way into the night. Up in front, there with the screen so big, a little kid all alone, and I loved it.

 -Marilyn Monroe

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Apr 15, 2012

Quote of the Week

The problem with beauty is that it's like being born rich and getting poorer.

 -Joan Collins

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Apr 12, 2012

Book Review: Vertigo Retold by Its Heroine

The Testament of Judith Barton
Wendy Powers and Robin McLeod

I felt like the embattled heroine of The Testament of Judith Barton when I started reading this book. I meant to read a few pages, but then it sucked me in, and my only escape was to see it through to the end.

There are few movie characters I’ve felt more empathy for than Judy Barton in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The poor woman comes to San Francisco alone, ready to begin her life, and it’s as if the men of the town are waiting to destroy her, grabbing at her like the animated trees in The Wizard of Oz.

First, she’s seduced and abandoned by a wealthy man, though it is never made clear whether it is money, passion or both that drove her to him. Then, when she thinks she’s met a decent fellow, he not only won’t acknowledge her identity, but totally strips it away from her until he recovers the apparition that obsesses him.

The Testament of Judith Barton tells the story of this young woman from Salina, Kansas. It takes her from childhood to the conclusion of the film in a rich, troubling and engrossing tale.

Due to a remarkable dispensation by the Hitchcock estate to use quotes from Vertigo in the book, the voice of the film haunts the story, but it somehow does not overtake it. I think this is primarily because the authors set up their own world before diving into the elements that are more familiar to fans of Hitchcock’s film.

I thought I would be impatient with the early scenes in Judy’s life. After all, I was interested in the book because I wanted to see Vertigo through her eyes, not necessarily the rest of her life. As her story developed, I found that I liked that background story as much, if not more than the San Francisco narrative connected to the movie.

Judy is portrayed as a straightforward small town girl. She’s a tomboy, who loves her jeweler father and spending time outdoors. Though she’s the opposite of her more feminine sister, they have a close relationship and her mother is supportive and loving.

 It was interesting to get to know the young Judy, and the people she knew in her early life. She’s an admirable, tough character. The girl has a bit of edge, but not so much that it obscures her decency. I relished her interactions with family and friends, and the details about gemstones and jewelry that unfolded as she learned her father’s trade.

Once Judy began her life in San Francisco, I became more critical, even skeptical of the direction the story was taking. Little details irked me, mostly when I thought that the Judy I knew in the movie would not behave a certain way. I wish I would have just trusted the authors, because they make it work.

Vertigo itself is not a very plausible story; this novel cannot be expected to be either, but in so many ways it is. I believed Judy could have been the way she is portrayed, and I felt for her as if she was a real person. Even knowing her fate, I kept hoping that something would change, and that was entirely due to the hold this riveting tale had on me.

Thank you to Wendy Powers for providing a copy of this book for review.

Purchase information here.

Apr 8, 2012

Quote of the Week

One day I was having coffee on the set, just drinking coffee out of a styrofoam cup. And I was wearing the black dress with the red embossed roses. It was the day of the auction scene when there were a lot of extras around. And he came up to me and he said, "Eva Marie, you should not drink your coffee that way in front of all those people. Get Miss Saint a china cup and a china saucer for her coffee!" And they did, and he was absolutely right. Why would I just be walking around with a styrofoam cup?

 -Eva Marie Saint, about Alfred Hitchcock

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Apr 7, 2012

Georges Méliès: The Lady in the Moon

I'm not sure why I always assumed that the moon in Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) was a man. It could be anyone under all that goo. I think it’s mostly because whenever I read about the movie, the writer would inevitably make that common reference to “the man on the moon.” But it isn’t a man, there’s a woman gamely performing in that mask of plaster (or whatever it is).

Her name is Bleuette Bemon (Bernon on the IMDB). Méliès recruited most of his performers from the stage, and he discovered her singing in a Parisian cabaret. In 1899, she made her film debut in Cendrillon (Cinderella), though I am not sure of her role (was she Cinderella?). According to the IMDB, she also appeared in Joan of Arc (1900), Bluebeard (1901) and Fairyland: A Kingdom of Fairies (1903). I wouldn’t be surprised if she appeared in more Méliès films, though I was not able to confirm this.

Whatever else Bemon did, there’s no doubt that playing the moon for a brief moment will be her claim to fame. It is remarkable the way that image has symbolized the early days of film for so many years. It continues to inspire admiration and awaken imaginations.

I was delighted to see my four-year-old daughter become fascinated by that moon, and the films of Méliès, as I prepared my posts for this week. I never get tired of her asking to see “the moon movie.” She also asks to see “some of the black and white ones.” Oh joy! This is by far the best thing that came out of this tribute. We had a little fun making our own cloudy sky and space ship and then taking turns playing the moon:

Of course, there aren’t flames shooting out of the back of the space ship in A Trip to the Moon, but we thought our ship looked prettier with a little extra flair:

Good fun!

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Apr 6, 2012

Georges Méliès: His Influence on Popular Culture

It’s impressive how much influence Georges Méliès has had on popular culture over the past 100 years. When he first made his films, many filmmakers simply copied his ideas, often to the point of plagiarizing them. After his death, his images continued to inspire many different kinds of artists. Here are a few of the more direct ways Méliès has continued to have an impact.

The lovely video for Tonight, Tonight by Smashing Pumpkins was also heavily influenced by Méliès:


The nostalgia evoked by the floating Méliès images in Queen’s Heaven for Everyone suits the bittersweet tone of the video and song:

Recently, Méliès has received a great deal of attention due to his inclusion in the graphic novel/novel hybrid The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick and the film of the story, Hugo (2011), directed by Martin Scorsese. I adore the mysterious, engrossing book. The film did not capture my imagination as much, but I thought it was a beautiful tribute to Méliès and early film.

Here’s the book trailer for Selznick’s book,(this is the first time I have ever heard of a book trailer). It’s actually an interview with the author with a lot of great shots of the book’s illustrations:


Here’s the trailer for the film Hugo (2011). I think Asa Butterfield was the perfect actor to play the title role. His sad, intense eyes just about broke my heart:

Apr 5, 2012

Georges Méliès: Favorite Films

As much as I adore Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902), I tend to watch the shorter films of Georges Méliès more often. They are so playful, inventive and surreal. Here are a few of my favorites:

Le papillon fantastique (1909) 

I love the bright blue, yellow and orange hues chosen for this gorgeous color-tinted film. It features a beautiful butterfly and a spider with arms that look more like the wiggling appendages of an octopus:


L'homme a la Tête en Caoutchouc (1901) 

This film is a perfect demonstration of Méliès’ playful spirit. The oversized head shots provide a rare opportunity to see his amusing expressions in detail, as the close-up had not yet been invented:

Le Mélomane (1903) 

Here is a great example of the way Méliès often used his body, and particularly his head, to create surreal special effects:

Le Dirigeable Fantastique (1905)

Another beautifully-tinted color film:

I love the way Méliès literally brings this billboard to life:

There are so many more I’d like to share, and maybe I will in a future post.Though these clips can be found in many places online, I have found it much more satisfying to view them on DVD. As all of these movies were filmed from a distance with a single, stationary camera, the details are much easier to make out on a larger screen.

Here are a few of the releases I’ve enjoyed. I borrowed them from the library, but they all appear to be available for sale as well:

Georges Méliès encore: new discoveries (1896-1911), Flicker Alley 

Méliès the Magician, Facets (this one also includes an interesting Méliès documentary.) 

The Magic of Méliès, Kino Lorber 

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Apr 4, 2012

Soundtrack Review: Le Voyage Dans La Lune by Air

Air is one of my favorite bands, so I would have thought I’d be delighted when I heard they would be composing the soundtrack for the color restoration of A Trip to the Moon (1902), but I wasn’t so sure about it at first. Though the band has always used a rich pallet of sounds, from banjos and pianos to keyboards and electronic effects, I’ve always thought of them as a very modern, even futuristic group. Would their style work with a 110-year-old film?

I shouldn’t have been surprised that it did. After all, Air had its big break with the album Moon Safari, which they promoted with a video about a monkey going into space (Sexy Boy is still one of my favorite Air tunes). Nicholas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, the duo who form Air, have always had their thoughts on the moon.

The group has also successfully scored movies before, from The Virgin Suicides to Lost in Translation. With these films, and with A Trip to the Moon, they’ve always somehow managed to make music that suits the action and yet still sounds distinctly like Air. You can’t exactly call them musical chameleons, because they never change their colors, but the effect they have is something like that.

While the album is titled Le Voyage Dans La Lune, it obviously needed more music than the 12 minutes of soundtrack recorded for the restoration. The tunes that fill out the running time are all appropriately space age ethereal. Seven Stars is a dreamy tribute to the great beyond, with hushed vocals, soft piano, and synthy space sounds. Retour Sur Terre has a familiar Air cadence, but its melancholy, distant piano made me think of some of the quieter moments in the Blade Runner (1982) soundtrack. It had a nostalgic feeling, touched with space age mystery.

The music from the film soundtrack is much livelier and adventurous. I thought the music from the opening scenes, called the Astronomic Club, was especially interesting, with its oozing, detuned notes and barnyard animal yelps. I know that sounds terrible, but it works, and it gets better every time you see it with the film.

I also couldn’t believe the funky Sonic Armada worked so well for the scenes below the surface of the moon. This was the part of the soundtrack that was the most difficult for me to accept, and now it is one of my favorite pieces. It truly grasps the wildness of what these hapless space explorers are experiencing.

My favorite theme in the film was also the shortest: the few seconds of spooky, wordless vocals and electronic tones that scored the shot of the space ship landing on the moon’s eye were perfect. It was a moment that I couldn’t imagine anyone but Air executing so elegantly.

The hand-tinted version of A Trip to the Moon is like a surrealist painting in motion. While it is possible to place it in its time, the vivid hues somehow work to make it simultaneously timeless. The plinks and plops of the percussion and space station keyboards in the soundtrack worked eerily well with those frames from long ago. Having seen a great deal of Georges Méliès’ fanciful films, I wonder if he would have marveled at the way these often distinctly modern sounds support his work in such a bizarrely appropriate way?

As an Air album, this is a strong group of songs, on a level with their best work. I don’t think the movie soundtrack is going to inspire universal love. It’s too adventurous to attract that kind of affection, but I also think that the people who enjoy it will find it hard to view the film without it once it has gotten under their skin. That’s what happened to me.

Thank you to EMI Music for providing access to the album.

Apr 3, 2012

Georges Méliès: A Trip to the Moon (1902), The Color Restoration DVD

Twelve beautiful minutes, composed of 13,375 frames that were in fragments when they were discovered in 1993. The restoration of the hand-tinted version of  Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902) is an artfully composed wonder of technology and skill.

I have noticed things in this version of the film that I have never been able to make out over the many years that I have watched it. Things like the faces on the moon medallions around the necks of the celebrated space travelers when they return to earth and the bolts on the space ship as it is built in a busy shop. The colors are rich, but also subdued. They enhance their surroundings rather than dominating them.

Though the film has been reconstructed from fragments and the images sharpened, the restoration team has also respected the character of the original creation. For example, they had the technology to even out the color, but chose instead to mimic the characteristics of the paint brushes that were originally used to color each frame of the film. So instead of a constant stream of color, it begins to fade in some instances, just as it would when a colorist’s paintbrush began to run out of ink. It is this kind of attention to detail that lends an air of reverence to the restoration.

One notable aspect of the restoration is the soundtrack composed by the French band Air. As there was no original score, the filmmakers had to start from scratch. The selection of this simultaneously ethereal and earthy group had me skeptical at first (despite the fact that they are one of my favorite groups), but not for long. It is a timeless soundtrack, meant to last for a hundred more years. By combining appropriately spacey keyboards with more classic sounds such as banjo, piano and timpani, Air has created an ambitious, but excitingly catchy score. I now find it impossible to erase it from my mind when I watch an unrestored version of the film. I’ll write more about that when I review the soundtrack album tomorrow.

A lot happens in the few minutes that make up this mesmerizing film. A scientist (played by Méliès) attempts to sell his colleagues on his plan to make a trip to the moon. He wins them over, and workers begin construction of a space ship.

With great fanfare, the ship is launched into the sky with cannon that appears to extend practically to the heavens. It careens into the eye of the lady in the moon, yes a lady, played by musical hall singer Bleuette Bernon. She takes it with good humor.

The space travelers look back at the earth, far away. They settle down to rest, and while they sleep, the heavens gaze down upon them. A snowstorm wakes them, and they attempt to escape it by going beneath the surface of the moon.

There they find a bizarre, magical landscape and meet a menacing moon man who bounces around on his bottom. They are captured by more moon men and taken to their leader. Within moments, the space travelers escape. They run to their ship and hurry inside. As they leave the moon, one of the aliens clings to the ship. The ship crashes into the ocean.

Upon their return to earth, the space travelers are honored in a joyful celebration. They are given moon medallions to wear around their necks, and dance in the streets. It even appears that the now captive moon man is dancing along with them.

It always amazes me that all this activity happens in only twelve minutes. The prescience of some of Méliès’ speculations is also astounding. While real astronauts don’t wear knee breeches and carry their umbrellas on the surface of the moon, the way they were shot into space is not too different a concept from the modern shuttle launch pad. The water landing is also reminiscent of actual landings. While it is a playful work of fantasy, the eerie accuracy of the speculation gives it a little more substance when viewed with a modern perspective.

The special features on the disc enhance the film delightfully. There is a charming documentary about Méliès and the restoration, The Extraordinary Voyage (2011), which I reviewed yesterday. Other features include two space-themed Méliès films: The Eclipse (1907) and The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), which are also inventive, if not nearly as ambitious. I was happy for the inclusion of an interview with Air; their explanation of their working methods and intended effect helped me to better understand and appreciate the soundtrack.

Another interesting feature was the inclusion of three black and white versions of A Trip to the Moon (1902). Each of these clips was meant to approximate the different ways viewers might have seen the film upon its original release. One version simply has a score. The other includes a narration from a script written by Méliès. A third version consists of actors reading lines to correspond with the action on screen. Apparently this last method was executed in the theater by having the performers stand behind the screen while the movie played.

Overall, this is a beautiful release. With every detail it is clear that it was prepared by people who deeply love the film. It would be a precious treasure for anyone who reveres Méliès and his masterpiece.

Thank you to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the DVD for review.

Tomorrow: I review the soundtrack album by Air.

Apr 2, 2012

Georges Méliès: The Extraordinary Voyage (2011)

When I read an article at Fast Company last year about the restoration of a color-tinted version of George Méliès’ most famous film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), I almost didn’t believe what I read. I shared it in my Classic Links, and I was excited, but the story was so fantastic that it took me a while to truly understand what it meant.

Once I did understand, I freaked out. I had to see this film! I was almost equally excited to see the documentary about this difficult, time-intensive, and expensive restoration: The Extraordinary Voyage. With no clue at all about the US distribution of the film, I wrote to one of the filmmakers, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, in Paris, France. Though I am sure Bromberg has got enough on his plate without having to deal with a classic movie blogger freaking out about his film, he kindly referred me to the American distributor of the DVD, Flicker Alley.

Thank heaven the release was only a couple of months away. As you may guess from my masthead, I deeply revere both the films of George Méliès and his contribution to cinema. Before he laid his magician’s eye on this medium, it was commonly viewed as a curiosity for carnivals or a tool to be used by professionals, such as doctors, to perform their work. Maybe someone would have come along eventually and made the movies magical, but I am happy that Méliès got there first. He had the wondering mind and boundless optimism of a child and that is what the movies needed as they were being born.

The DVD set comes with two major pieces: the restoration of the color film and the documentary. There are also three different black and white versions of the film, a couple of space-themed Méliès shorts and an interview with the band Air, which provided a new soundtrack for the film. I’ll share the details of those extras and the gorgeous restoration in my post tomorrow. Today, I’d like to focus on The Extraordinary Voyage.

 He saw cinema as a tool that would help him perform even more amazing tricks. -Michel Gondry, Film Director, about Méliès 

The difficult we do immediately. The impossible just takes a little longer. -Tom Burton, Director of Restoration Services, Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, about film restoration 
(Check out that link. Burton is a dead ringer for Méliès.)

The bulk of The Extraordinary Voyage focuses on Georges Méliès. It covers his life and career in a charmingly nostalgic way, with snippets of archival footage and lightly humorous visual gags. I appreciated this approach, because it brought to mind the mischievous sparkle that never left Méliès’ eyes, even when some hard knocks dimmed a bit of its light.

In addition to biographical details, the film describes the phenomenon of early color films. Before color photography was perfected and theaters had the proper equipment for showing it, black and white movies were painted by hand, one frame at a time. The effect was more like watching a moving stained glass window than a true-to-life scene.

For the films of Méliès, these artful hues were applied with the hard labor of 300 women, who earned one franc a day, sitting in a row of elevated desks, patiently painting images no larger than two centimeters. The facility belonged to Elisabeth Thuillier, a former glass and celluloid colorist, who would supervise operations by day and mix new colors by night.

At first, I was disappointed that The Extraordinary Voyage did not spend more time on the process of restoring A Trip to the Moon (1902). The restoration was barely mentioned until 44 minutes into the 65 minute film. I didn’t think that could possibly be enough time, but I turned out to be wrong. Though the complex task of restoring all 13,375 frames of the film took over a decade to complete, the basic steps of the project were fairly straightforward.

It all began in 1993, when Bromberg discovered a color version of the film existed in a Spanish archive. He arranged a swap, and brought the print to Lobster Films, a company dedicated to finding lost films that he heads with co-director Eric Lange. Upon opening the film can, they saw a solid block of material, and realized why their new acquisition had been easy to obtain. The film could not be peeled away from its tight coil.

Upon closer examination, it turned out the film was only stuck together at the edges. The images were still relatively free. In order to free up those edges, the film was placed in a strong chemical solution that, while it would allow the frames to be unpeeled, would also eventually destroy them.

The team worked quickly to digitize images as they were removed from the reel. Once these were saved, they waited for technology to advance to the point where the project could continue. It took eight years for the restoration to continue, but the group used this time to find funding and support, which they eventually got from the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema. These groups made it possible to complete the project.

The restoration was a complex process of matching colors, replacing fragmented film and organizing thousands of digitized frames. It was fascinating to witness the powerful combination of technical knowledge and determination that kept the restoration team moving steadily forward. The optimism of the team was inspiring. They never seemed to feel there was any choice but to succeed.

Over the past year I have finally started to understand what film restoration entails and how difficult, complex and ultimately rewarding it can be. The Extraordinary Voyage is yet another story that fills me with admiration for the people who put their passion and intelligence to the monumental task of preserving our filmed history.

Tomorrow: my review of the color version of A Trip to the Moon (1902) and the DVD release by Flicker Alley

Thank you to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the DVD for review.

Apr 1, 2012

Georges Méliès: A Brief Biography

George Méliès was born in 1861, in Paris, France. His father was a wealthy shoe manufacturer. Young Georges was interested in sketching, and he liked to make sets for and perform his own marionette shows. His parents did not encourage these fanciful pastimes, and Méliès eventually found himself working in the family business. However, he was allowed to take some art classes in exchange for his sensible cooperation.

Eventually, Méliès’ obsession with the theater overcame him. He saw as many shows as he could. The young man was inspired by the skill of the great Houdini and other stage illusionists. When his father retired in 1888, Méliès sold his share of the business and bought the Théatre Robert-Houdin. He devoted himself to the running of the theater and would sometimes perform himself. Before long though, he would find a new obsession.

At a presentation by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, Méliès got his first glimpse of the movies. The world would have been a very different place if a magician had not discovered the movies in their infancy. As it was, Méliès was delighted by this fascinating tool, and was determined to conduct his own experiments with the new medium. He felt there was more to moving images than the straight documentation of the Lumiere siblings.

After failing to convince the brothers to sell him a camera, Méliès made his own machine. By May 1896, he was ready for production.

After filming in his garden for a time, Méliès eventually set up a spacious film studio with glass walls and ceilings on his property. Eventually another glass building would be built on the property to help meet audience demand for his movies.

Méliès began making films at a brisk pace, most of them about three to nine minutes long. He was at the center of production, as he wrote, designed, filmed and acted in nearly all of his films. Judging from giddy energy of his screen performances, he enjoyed wearing many hats.

The filmmaker often used his movies as a medium for sharing magic tricks. This is why it is fortunate that he happened upon his most important special effect by accident.

While filming a street scene one day, the camera stopped briefly. When Méliès looked at the film later, he noticed that at the moment of the break, the bus he had been filming suddenly disappeared and new vehicles replaced it. Making items appear and disappear by stopping and starting the camera would become one of his most commonly used film tricks. How lucky that he had the vision to make magic out of what would appear to many to be simply a technical problem.

In 1902, only six years after starting work with the medium of film, Méliès produced its first masterpiece. A Trip to the Moon is believed to have been inspired by several works at the time that speculated about life on the moon. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne wrote about space travel, and Offenbach composed an opera about a trip to the moon. The public was ready to see the first science fiction movie.

It took Méliès three months to film the 30 scenes that make up A Trip to the Moon. That qualified it for epic status in those days. The film was a huge success in France, and Méliès hoped to make a fortune in the United States as well.

Unfortunately, other filmmakers, such as Thomas Edison, made their own copies of the film and began making money on his hard work. By the time Méliès set up a film office in the US to ward off the forgers, it was too late to recover from the damage already done. He also saw widespread imitation of his films, which ranged from homage to plagiarism.

For the next several years, the film industry changed rapidly. Film producers embraced fast production in the interest of serving a public that was hungry for new movies. Méliès couldn’t keep up with the pace. He was an artist, and in attempting to film more quickly, the quality of his work suffered.

The style of filmmaking was also changing. Audiences wanted real stories in realistic settings. They had lost their interest in the fanciful fiction Méliès favored. In essence, the industry grew up and he was unable, and perhaps unwilling to leave his fantasyland.

Finally, in 1913, after 16 years of making movies, poor finances forced to Méliès to close his studio. At age 52, he turned his back on filmmaking so thoroughly that he went so far as to burn all of his props and costumes. To raise money, he sold his film stock, which was melted down to be made into boot heels. By 1915, he was forced to sell his beloved theater as well, a devastating loss that became more heartbreaking when the building was demolished for construction of a road after World War I.

In order to make a living, Méliès sold toys from a stand his wife (who had once performed for his camera) owned in the Montparnasse train station. He was reported to have been miserable being confined in the store every day, which can be seen in a self-portrait he drew of himself sitting on a stool at the counter, his neck chained to the wall. He endured seven years of confinement in the store.

Méliès found a way out of his miserable situation in 1926, when Leon Druhot, who was editor of a publication called Ciné-Journal, discovered him working at the stand. Indignant that his hero would be reduced to being a shopkeeper, Druhot called for support from the public. This was the foundation of renewed appreciation for the filmmaker.

In 1929, several of Méliès films were rediscovered and restored. They were presented to a delighted audience in an evening that raised the old filmmaker’s spirits. He passed the rest of his days with his family in a rent-free apartment, provided by his grateful countrymen.

By the time Méliès died in 1938, he was admired as an important pioneer in filmmaking. Even today, over one hundred years after his prime, Méliès’ films continue to charm audiences. Their surreal beauty, lively spirit and the charm of his magic tricks have timeless appeal.

Come back tomorrow for day two of my Méliès tribute, when I will review a new documentary about the restoration of a hand-tinted color version of a Trip to the Moon (1902).

Quote of the Week

One night the phone rang around 2:30 in the morning; I thought something terrible had happened. He said, "Hey, what are you doing?" I said, "Well, I was sleeping." He would call at all hours just to say hello. He got a big kick out of that.

 -Doris Day, about Paul McCartney

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