This sci-fi comedy from the Edison film company follows a chemist who has invented reverse gravity and ends up on Mars. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Gravity but, like, backwards.
Exploration was on everyone’s mind at the dawn of the 1910s. There had been rival claims to the North Pole in 1909, the race for the South Pole launched in 1910 and space exploration was being seriously considered for the first time.
This movie takes the opposite perspective of a journey to space. The main character, described as a chemist, has invented a powder with the power of reverse gravity. He immediately dusts himself with the material and is immediately propelled into outer space, legs kicking.
Once he arrives on Mars, he finds it populated by a species of giants who are not terribly thrilled with this newcomer. One of them rolls the chemist into a snowball and then sends him back home with his powerful breath. Home at last and thank goodness! But then the chemist spills his reverse gravity powder on the floor of his house and… here we go again?
This film probably should have been called The Accidental Trip to Mars because its story and charm relies on its character being tossed to and fro without actually meaning to become an astronaut. In fact, this reads more as a cautionary tale regarding the uses and unexpected dangers of new technology, a sci-fi classic.
A Trip to Mars is quite often dismissed as a ripoff of A Trip to the Moon but it’s worth pointing out that Mars was an incredibly hot topic at the time. Numerous ads in trade periodicals of the time advertised Mars-themed stage specials and a steady stream of novels played off the interest in the red planet.
Of course, much of this excitement was due to the relatively new theory that Mars was covered with canals and that could indicate an ancient civilization. Novels featuring Martians had their temperaments range from friendly and utopian to warlike and deadly, the latter being displayed in H.G. Wells’ legendary War of the Worlds.
By the way, the title structure A Trip to… is pretty much where the connection to the Méliès film begins and ends. I do wish people would watch some more early films besides the canon classics but even if they don’t, they need to recognize that similarity does not always equal a ripoff. I am as willing to call out a copycat as the next Segundo de Chomon fan but nothing about this film, either visually or from a story angle, is in the Méliès style beyond “is a silent sci-fi short, uses special effects.” In fact, this picture is clearly meant to be a successor to the Edison smash hit Dream of a Rarebit Fiend and has much more in common with that picture. When you’re only familiar with one thing, everything looks like that one thing, so I am popping my head out to encourage everyone to watch more early silents.
Further, A Trip to Mars was advertised by the Edison company as less of a sci-fi adventure and more of a comedy with special effects. This would also go along with the Martian stage shows at the time, which all seem to have been comedies. It’s a shame that the stage is so ephemeral because I am willing to stake my claim on the argument that these shows were the real inspiration for this picture.
Or at least partial inspiration because we cannot discount literature. One thing I do not recall running across in my sci-fi reading has been ginormous Martians from literature of the period. They could be large, to be sure, but not the living skyscrapers portrayed in this film. (The Martian fighting machines in War of the Worlds were larger than the Martians themselves, which were described as being the size of bears.) Not saying they weren’t there at all, just that we seem to prefer out Martians a bit more on the Marvin size.
One interesting work I ran across while researching is entitled Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss and it’s a doozy. Edison is the hero of the book—think of this as early fan fiction—and it’s kind of like War of the Worlds except that the Martians really are giants and the humans, led by Edison, defeat them on their own planet.
I have no idea whether or not the makers of a Trip to Mars had ever run across Edison’s Conquest of Mars but it is an interesting coincidence that both the book and the film opt for the giant route. Not making any proclamations, just putting the information out there. Frankly, Gulliver’s Travels is more likely when I think about it. (The book did not just feature Gulliver encountering tiny people, he also ran into giants that viewed HIM as the tiny person.)
There is one scene in the picture that is particularly impressive, or would be if we had access to a better quality print. The chemist is walking across what looks like rough terrain but then we see that it is a sideways closeup of a Martian actor’s face. According to a piece in Popular Mechanics by way of Motography, the face of the actor playing the Martian (who was lying on a table in the foreground) was measured first and the Edison team painstakingly created platforms further back for the chemist to walk across that would perfectly align with the features of the actor. So, this was not a double exposure, it was utilizing forced perspective with a few flourishes. (Think of this as a more sophisticated take on those “holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa” shots.)
The brief sequence too two days to film, an enormous luxury in an era where films were still being ground out at a shocking pace. However, it paid off because critics of the day praised the picture’s innovative special effects and droll story.
All in all, this is a light, charming and humorous picture that has an imaginative vision of life on Mars and the special effects to pull it off. The humor is cute and the Martians are quite impressive. I hope we are able to see a clearer print soon.
Where can I see it?
I tried and tried to track down a legitimate release but all that remains seems to be on YouTube. (I usually avoid YouTube links due to copyright issues and the fact that they can disappear overnight without a trace.) Let me know if you hear about a physical release. (There seems to be better footage held by the George Eastman House. Here’s hoping!)
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