A group of intrepid explorers blast off for an anthropomorphized moon but find more than they bargained for when they meet the moon’s residents, acrobats and ballerinas. If all of this sounds suspiciously close to Méliès, that’s because it is a ripoff of same by Pathé.
Copycats, color and lunar ballerinas
Some things never change in the movies. Take a big hit like A Trip to the Moon. Any film that was popular with audiences would be targeted for theft. The first method was to make unauthorized copies of the original, while the second method was to simply remake the picture with just enough change for plausible deniability. And that’s where An Excursion to the Moon comes into play. Directed by Segundo de Chomón and released by Pathé, it is a virtual shot-for-shot do-over of the Méliès hit. However, there are some interesting differences that we will be discussing.
We’ll start by getting something out of the way. Segundo de Chomón was extremely talented in his own right. I mention this because An Excursion to the Moon is a pretty blatant ripoff and it would be easy to dismiss Chomón as a Méliès wannabe. The two men worked in the same style of magical, painted worlds and special effects. In fact, Chomón’s films often demonstrated unique wit, humor and creativity but Pathé wanted some ersatz Méliès and a fella has to eat. Dismissing his career because of some copycat pictures would be like dismissing John Gilbert just because The Cossacks was an exercise in flagrant cinematic theft.
First, a overview of the plot: A wealthy young man is enamored of the moon and is so eager to visit it that he attempts to dive into its reflection in a pool. A wise man in a beard and celestial caftan proclaims that he shall make the journey possible and he has a chalkboard full of equations to back his theory up. True to his word, he is soon able to build his bullet-like craft and he is shot at the moon via giant cannon. Once there, he meets the natives, an odd bunch that seem to disappear into puffs of smoke. The little exploratory party escapes with a moon princess and the space capsulte returns to Earth. They are praised for their daring and all ends in wine and song.
So, 90% A Trip to the Moon, right down to the rocket design. Now it’s time to talk about how these films differ from one another.
The Chomón picture was made just six years after the original but movies were already starting to tighten up. The framing in Excursion is tighter than Trip, though how much of this was due to design and how much due to limited studio space I cannot say. I am guessing that it was a budget move, the film generally seems to have been made on a far smaller scale than A Trip to the Moon.
As was common for films of this period, Excursion was tinted with color sequences. The color was handled by the Pathé team while Méliès used the services of Madame Thuillier. Pathé had tried to recruit Thuillier in 1906 but she broke the contract when she discovered she would be expected to share authority. Around the time Excursion was made, Pathé had hundreds of colorists—all women—on their payroll.
While his film was not as lavish as A Trip to the Moon, Chomón also has a few tricks up his sleeve. When the wise man explains his plan to rocket to the moon, his chalkboard is turned around to reveal a viewscreen with the proposed journey playing out for his astonished audience.
Colonialism, Hot Pants and Deadly Umbrellas
There is a very good case to be made that A Trip to the Moon was a sly satire of colonialism, a topic that Méliès had skewered in political cartoons earlier in his career. (You can read more about this interpretation in my review of A Trip to the Moon.) If Chomón shared any beliefs of this nature, you would never know it from Excursion. In fact, the entire film shows a considerable dialing back of the sex and violence found in Trip. (And please remember that these terms are relative to the time of the film’s release.)
The first change is clear when the wise man discusses his plan to explore the moon. While Méliès coordinated a battle with books and chalk flying, Chomón has the characters accept the wise man’s theory immediately and they quickly put on their traveling clothes in anticipation of the voyage.
Next, the excursion team approaches the giant cannon (lovely shot, by the way) and as we get closer, we see that the army is entirely comprised of men in uniform. This may not sound odd but the Méliès film had an army that was 99% women in satin hot pants who posed shamelessly for the camera. (Oh my! The scandal!) Chomón’s prim military is certainly less memorable.
Once the cannon fires the lunar module into the heavens, we get a shot of the man in the moon. While the Méliès film had the explorers hit the moon’s eye (complete with hand-colored blood), the Chomón picture’s moon accepts the explorers, gulping them down willingly, giving its best oo-la-la expression and following up with a fiery belch.
The moon men are not disintegrated with a swift crack from an umbrella but leap into the air and turn into puffs of smoke on their own. The moon’s king greets the explorers with a ballet recital and the closest thing to actual violence is when the explorers carry off the moon princess, which results in the moon men throwing them out with kicks and shoves. Since the princess is completely cool with leaving the moon, I am not sure it counts as an abduction so much as a surprise trip.
The film ends with a triumphant return to earth and all the characters celebrate. (Unlike the Méliès film, there is no captive moon man being dragged about and eventually disintegrated.) A happy ending!
While the explorers in the Méliès film were highly aggressive and the moon men more so (and this is where the colonialism theory comes in), the Chomón film takes a gentler, non-political approach. It’s as if someone saw M and decided that it was really about a wacky gang of bank robbers working together for one big job. The new plot isn’t necessarily bad but it does rather miss the point. The social and political subtext that Méliès brought to his picture made the difference between a good film and a legendary one.
I think I have made a sufficiently strong case that Excursion is A Trip to the Moon with the sex, violence and politics stripped from it, likely subconsciously (considering what Jean Durand was getting away with at the time over at Gaumont). I would argue, in fact, that An Excursion to the Moon is an early example of a sanitized remake, the Pat Boone of silent films, if you will.
Fun fact: Pathé used the red title cards to discourage piracy. Ironic in this case but there it is.
An Excursion to the Moon’s status as a ripoff is an interesting look into the dawn of the film factory system of the early twentieth century. While it will always be viewed through the lens of the Méliès picture (and rightly so), Excursion still has much to say about the time and place in which it was filmed.