A Trip to the Moon

Liz asked if I would like to post about Georges Méliès’s 1902 French short, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Which apparently was inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the Moon and From the Earth to the Moon, and by Offenbach’s operetta Le voyage dans la lune, a parody of the two. What! Offenbach made fun of Jules Verne? This I must see.

Voyage to the Moon film

But anyway. I realized my post comes at a most opportune time — thanks to my procrastinating ways — since the Western lunar eclipse begins tonight. And while some may think it sheer lunacy to stay up past midnight, I most definitely will be awake. I’m already crazy to start with, anyway.

Back to our film. The story begins with an outlandish proposal: A journey to the moon. Astrologers are handed telescopes, which magically turn into stools, and they sit down. Lectures last a long time, after all. (Can they turn them back into telescopes, I wonder?

All obstacles overcome, they build a bullet-shaped rocket. A group of women sporting sailor outfits and tights push it into a cannon, and they set off. The ship approaches the moon — which looks more and more like a huge meringue pie with a face — landing smack dab in its eye.

Must have been a heck of a shiner the next day...

Must have been a heck of a shiner the next day…

They land, disembark, and after wildly gesturing at earth, fall promptly asleep, because making history is exhausting. Naturally, all the exciting stuff happens while they’re unconscious, including a lunar shower, which wakes them up. Armed with umbrellas, they begin exploration into a mushroom jungle. Or perhaps I should say umbrella jungle? Because as soon as one astronomer sticks his in the dirt, it morphs into a giant mushroom. Then a Selenite, an alien resembling a cross between a triceratops and the creature from the black lagoon, shows up. Curious but minding its own business, it hops about until one of the explorers kills it. It explodes in a puff of smoke. Way to destroy the natives, people. Soon an army of them surrounds the scientists and takes them to see their king, whom the explorers also destroy before making a dash for the bullet-ship. At this point, I started wondering how they would return to earth without a giant cannon and a bevy of sailor beauties. Barren landscapes meet the eye, the Selenites look hideous, and even if they didn’t, where would they find a sailor suit?


There’s no way the Selenites can look like this without some serious plastic surgery.

But never fear! One heroic scientist stays outside and pulls the bullet off a cliff with a sturdy rope, making it splash straight into earth’s ocean. Because gravity.


One of the creatures falls along with it, which begs the question: why is this the first time a Selenite lands on earth? At least one of them must have tried cliff-diving before.


I read that the scene where the rocket falls into the sea was filmed using a cardboard cutout in an aquarium with tadpoles. Pretty neat.

This film employed ingenious new special effects for its time, which makes it a must-see for any film fan. Its quirky French humor is just an added bonus.


Hugo, Automatons, and Early Movies

Liz: Yesterday, I watched the 2011 movie Hugo (based on the book The Invention of Hugo Caberet by Brain Selznick), and today I stumbled across blog posts on early movie projectors and automatons–both of which play a major role in Hugo. Funny how that happens. So I decided I to write about them.

220px-Hugo_PosterFirst, Hugo. I enjoyed this film with its giant clock, 1930s French music, orphaned Hugo Cabret (played excellently by Asa Butterfield of Ender’s Game) who finds a home, its message that we all have a purpose, and, as mentioned, its early cinema history and automatons.

Summary: Orphaned clockmaker’s son runs the clocks in a railway station in Paris while stealing food to survive as well as stealing mechanical parts to repair the automaton his father found in a museum. His life gets complicated when the toy maker he’s been stealing parts from takes his father’s notebook of automaton sketches. Hugo and the toy maker’s goddaughter try to get the book back, discover why it upset the man so, and avoid the railway station inspector, who considers it his duty to send orphaned kids to the orphanage.

The story was moving and the history intriguing. Playing off his clock maker’s father saying “there are no spare parts in machines” and his own visualization of the world as one huge machine, Hugo says that  each person is a “part” of the world. As a machine, the world would have no spares and, consequently, everyone in it would have a purpose. Hugo’s seems to be to fix broken things and people, like Papa George, the toy maker. A person who isn’t filling their purpose in the world would be miserable–would feel broken.

Okay, on with the fascinating history.

The Draughtsman-Writer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.

The Draughtsman-Writer at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.

Automatons are mechanical men and were popular in the 1700s and 1800s. If you’ve seen Hugo, one particular historical automaton will sound familiar.The “Draughtsman-Writer” automaton boy sits at a little desk and writes and draws. He arrived at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA in a pieces, part of his body possibly partly ruined by a fire. His inventor was unknown. However, when put back together, this writer of  three poems and artist of intricate drawings revealed his mysterious maker by adding “Written by the automaton of Maillardet” on the edge of its artwork. Maillardet was a well-known Swiss clock maker and mechanician. For more information, check out this blog post.

Poem by the "Draughtsman-Writer" where he reveal his maker, Maillardet.

Poem by the “Draughtsman-Writer” where he reveals his maker, Maillardet.

Early cinema history. I can’t say much about this without giving away some of the story’s mysteries, so forgive me if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book. The story tells about the life of George Melies, a French magician turned movie producer. In 1895 he witnessed the Lumière brothers demonstrate their Cinématographe to the public. He tried to buy it from them, but they refused and he ultimately made his own machine and began screening movies and then producing and acting in his own.

Voyage to the Moon film


In 1896 his camera jammed, and from the resulting film, he discovered, essentially, how to  photoshop, to manipulate time and space in films. He developed double exposure (La caverne Maudite, 1898), split screen (in which performers act opposite themselves [Un Homme de tete, 1898]), and the first dissolve (Cendrillon, 1899). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a magician should be responsible for the illusions in movies.

Probably the best known image from Melies's films, or early films at all. From Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Probably the best known image from Melies’s films, or early films at all. From Le Voyage Dans La Lune

Moving picture technology actually has its roots way back in the 1830s. For more information on the early machines and inventors, check out this post (focusing the phantoscope and American movie history) and this post (a brief history written to commemorate the first commercial movie screening).

Classic Movies for Scientists

Science nerd rejoice! You have more than grade B sci-fi films to herald your profession. I was watching an old British movie (Highly Dangerous) and was pleasantly surprised to see that the heroine was not only a scientist, but an intelligent, normal person. She wasn’t merely a stereotype throw in to amuse the audience. It made me think about other movies featuring scientists. Here’s some that Jaz and I came up with that we science people can appreciate:

Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark in Highly Dangerous. WIth bugs in a jar.

Margaret Lockwood and Dane Clark in Highly Dangerous. With bugs in a jar.

Highly Dangerous (1950). In this British thriller, the lovely Margaret Lockwood plays an entomologist sent by the government to Balkan country to identify an insect being developed for biological warfare. An American newspaperman helps her out when the British agent she’s supposed to contact is shot.

When the newspaperman admits he’s not digested by bugs, Lockwood’s character knows she’s found her man.:) And, as if a good story wasn’t enough, fans of Lockwood’s The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich will be happy to see Naunton Wayne in this film, though he doesn’t mention cricket even once.

Three Guys Named Mike (1951) Stewardess Jane Wyman is the object of the romantic attention of–you guessed it–three guys named Mike: one pilot (Howard Keel), one businessman (Barry Sullivan), and one chemistry graduate student (Van Johnson). Van Johnson take her to the research lab and gives her a great explanation for bioluminescence.

Cry Wolf (1947) Intrepid geology PhD student Barbara Stanwych goes to the family home of her late husband (a marriage of convenience–he had to be married to inherit and she needed money to continue her studies. He was to pay her and they go separate ways) after he mysteriously dies.

War of the Worlds (1953) A scientist and a librarian escape from one of the original sites of an alien invasion and try to find a way to kill the invaders. (This is science fiction, but it’s a great movie so I had to include it.)

Jaz added the biographies Madame Curie, a 1943 film with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).

madame curieJaz: I saw Madame Curie a long time ago, so my memory of it is a bit fuzzy, but I do remember enjoying it. Also worth a watch: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), starring Don Ameche, Loretta Young and a very young Henry Fonda. I haven’t seen The Story of Louis Pasteur. Yes, yes, I slap myself on the wrist. How can a microbiologist and classic film junkie not have watched this? Well, I’ll tell you: there are about a bajillion films out there! Give me a break, people!

Besides these, the only films that came to mind were Dr. Dolittle, Bringing Up Baby and The Absent-Minded Professor. All of which reinforce negative stereotypes of scientists. I mean, the latter film’s hero is named Professor Brainerd. Subtle, right? And they’re all super goofy and fly around on old cars and giant creepy moths. So we’ll ignore those for this post.

I also recommend any book by the brilliant Jules Verne, who obviously did his research for every work. There’s a 1916 silent film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I found out recently — actually just now — .and which looks fascinating.