Ok, ok, so I said there was no sci-fi movie to speak of in 1906. I was very wrong, and have in fact come across two of such! The choice between them was reasonably clear, essentially due to the fact that one of them was not made by Georges Méliès, and therefore worth watching simply as the first look at somebody else’s visions of things that we’ve seen so far.
I will note, however, that the decision to discard the Méliès this time was by no means an easy one, and I’ll explain why; it’s called Le dirigeable fantastique, which you’d expect translated to The Fantastic Airship or something similar in English. No. What seems to be the accepted standard English title for that film is Inventor Crazybrains and his Wonderful Airship. That is a film that absolutely has to be worth a butchers at some point. It seems the French have a linguistic concept known as the “silent Inventor Crazybrains”.
But, as I said; there is finally a film available for me to watch that wasn’t made by an eccentric French illusionist. Oh, wait, it seems to have been made by a different eccentric French illusionist… Well, his dad was a magician, at least. I’m talking about a guy called Gaston Velle.
Now, Gaston Velle is much harder to find out about than Georges was. For example, the English Wikipedia has no entry on him whatsoever, and this is something that terrified me to discover. However, being the intrepid soul I am, I ventured to the murky depths of the French Wikipedia, where there’s a very small biography of the man.
As I said, he was the son of a French magician called Joseph Velle. He lived a good long life from 1868 to 1953, and over the course of a good career worked at both Pathé and Cines Italian, apparently causing a bit of a bitter row about plagiarism (he was, after all, very important creatively at both within a very short period of time…).
Anyway, let’s get on to the film. It’s a black and white silent job, as all were at that time. It is also very interesting to watch, for a good reason which I’ll explain in a moment. First, let me announce our 1906 sci-fi movie;
Voyage autour d’une étoile (Voyage Around a Star)
This may sound very familiar to you. After all, the first of this series of films, only four years previously in 1902, was Méliès’s Journey to the Moon. And it is a very similar film, in some ways. The plot; intrepid/frustrated astronomer finds himself gazing wistfully at the heavens through his telescope and announces a plan to get himself there. So far so similar. His motivation for getting there? Pretty ladies. Again, following in Georges’s footsteps.
But the differences are there, and in a roughly eight minute long silent film with a very similar plot, that’s no mean feat. We open with a pretty standard shot of our astronomer (Bert) looking through his telescope at the night sky. He has a gander at a couple of different heavenly bodies, and he likes what he sees, on the whole. Let me explain;
So, that’s a 2:1 pretty girl/angry man ratio out in space. He should publish that; cracking result. The above transitions are achieved with a bit of clean stop-motion, using the astronomer’s window as a nice big frame to switch background screens. On the whole, I think you’ll agree, the shots are much more clearly and simply laid out than those of Georges. Somehow the quality of the images seems to be better too, although this is probably just an artefact of how the films have been stored over the years.
Bert finds himself thinking, “I need me some of that space-tail. How, oh how, can I get myself up there?!”. He calls in his sidekick/assistant, and they set to thinking. Eventually, this new fellow comes up with a belter of an idea; we use bubbles. “You know how when you stir up a soapy bowl, little bubbles come out and float up? That’s literally all of the theory behind my idea.”
At first, the people are sceptical.
Eventually though, they get a working version of the bubble-flyer going. It turns out it wasn’t really too hard; get one large bucket of soapy water, stir it up. Job done; Bert gets into resultant huge bubble and off he floats.
Notice the faces in the stars with a sort of “what the fu-?” look on them. I have to assume that these were actually girls looking through star-shaped holes cut into the set, as opposed to any clever super-impositions.
Cut to the stars, and the lovely star-lady from earlier on. Seems she’s some kind of Queen amongst the other star ladies from the shot above; they all convene to discuss the recent sighting of a man floating up towards them in a giant bubble.
It is decided that they’ll welcome him. Our lucky old astronomer enjoys gleeful dancing with nubile young star-ladies in their great hall (it’s inside the star; the middle opens up like a hatch and everyone climbs inside). But only for a painfully short while. Just as he’s really getting into the swing of all this attention, the grumpy old guy from Saturn shows up to ruin the party. He shouts something like “we’ll have no trouble here!” and banishes poor Bert off the star into deep space. Where, if Méliès has taught us anything, we know that you can easily and safely float back down to Earth using nothing more than your umbrella.
And that’s it! Short, simple and decidedly a bit less surreal than somebody else’s voyage into space. Still very much obviously of the same time, though; and at that point sci-fi was really just looking at the stage of “hey, look, wouldn’t it be cool if we could go into space? I wonder what the bloody hell’s up there?”. Developing, though, and very exciting!
Overall, I rate it at;
Seven floating bubble-astronomers out of ten!