An inventor hallucinates an attack on himself and his airship and finds that he cannot awaken from the dream. Dark stuff that may come as a surprise to anyone who thinks Méliès was all about cute anthropomorphic moons.
This is my contribution to the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Be sure to read the other posts!
To die for.
I’m always a little amused when someone informs me that they want to go back to the good old days when films were happy little bonbons, not even slightly political. Anyone who believes this to be the case has clearly never taken a close look at Georges Méliès.
Whether Méliès was making a torn-from-the-headlines adaptation of current events (his series on the unjust imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus) or cloaking his anti-colonialism sentiments in a science fiction story (take that Star Trek, Méliès did it first), our cinematic wizard enjoyed including plenty of red meat in his pictures. The good old days? Looks pretty much like the bad new days to me.
The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship (originally titled Le Dirigeable fantastique ou le cauchemar d’un inventeur or The Fantastic Dirigible and the Nightmare of an Inventor, or something along those lines) may have the most glorious title in the history of cinema but under that guise of pulpiness, there’s some madness and darkness lurking. (Content Disclosure: This review will be touching on suicide.)
An inventor is putting the finishing touches on his airship design. He dances with glee and then falls asleep on his workroom floor. Two sprites appear and trap him under a net while imps attack his research, throwing it out the window.
The inventor then sees that his airship has been completed and it flies through the air with young women escaping from it and floating away. The airship is then destroyed by a comet as the imps dance gleefully.
The short abruptly ends with the inventor waking up, throwing away his research and destroying the furniture.
The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship is sometimes dismissed as one of the more minor works of Méliès, nothing compared to his other lavish science fiction work or his Arabian Nights fantasies. However, as is often the case with early film, watching carefully and looking for subtext is a rewarding endeavor.
First, let’s clear up a minor disagreement. The exact date of this film’s release has been a subject of debate. Some experts say 1905, some say 1906 and still others claim 1907 as the year of release. Well, I just pulled out my handy-dandy 1905 Star Films catalog (that’s the brand Méliès released his films under) and lo and behold, here’s Professor Crazybrains! (Of course, catalog dates don’t always jive with their actual time of release but it does make the 1905 release more likely than not.)
Besides providing us with a date, the catalog also includes detailed synopses for the films, a valuable resource for any silent movie fan. The blurb for this picture reveals the exact narrative intention of Méliès and an interesting and dark stinger that was originally included in the film but is absent from the current release. (It also reveals that the film was priced at $23.64 per print or about $650 in modern money.)
First, the catalog makes it clear that the inventor is hallucinating everything that happens to him after he falls asleep. His tormenters are all in his mind. (In short, they are as unreal in the film’s cinematic world as they are in ours, something that is by no means clear from examining the surviving footage.) Second, he truly believes that his hallucinations were real and that his invention was destroyed. In despair that his life’s work has been burnt to a cinder, he sets about destroying his plans and once that is done, he hurls himself out the window.
Goodness gracious, do we need a further reminder that silent movies could be dark as all get out? Rather than a zippy, hand-colored magic fest ending with our chastened inventor destroying his work, it actually is a filmed nervous breakdown that ends in suicide. And you thought The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was twisted! (I recently had someone ask about the prevalence of hallucinations and dreams in cinema. They’ve been present since the very beginning, we just need to look for them.)
Further, The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship has an eerie prescience as Georges Méliès himself ended up destroying many of his own films in a fire, though he enjoyed a happier ending than his poor inventor. The theme of the film holds true in Méliès’ life, however, as he was a man whose wonderful inventions were out of sync with the time in which he lived. Fortunately, he tasted recognition and respect after years of neglect and his importance was acknowledged before his death. (Méliès and his later years are at the center of the book and film Hugo, of course.)
I take the story of The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship to be a cautionary tale, a sort of Icarus-inspired tale about a man whose ambitions and genius outruns his sanity and who ends up paying the ultimate price. Instead of flying to the sun with wings of wax and feathers, our inventor attempts to conquer the clouds with an airship but an imagined rogue comet destroys those ambitions.
The world of 1905 had already seen the invention of the automobile, the lightbulb, the telegraph, the telephone, the motion picture… it’s easy to imagine that a fair number of people were wondering where this crazy carousel of new technology was taking the world and whether or not it would all blow up in their faces. (In some ways, it did. See World War One.) In the end, this is a tale of anxiety and madness.
The Inventor Crazybrains and His Wonderful Airship is yet another example of how the films of Méliès are not simply charming magic shows but often hide deeper, darker meaning beneath the acrobats, space princesses and hand-colored frames. It’s not quite complete but well worth seeing.
Where can I see it?
Released on the Méliès Encore disc from Flicker Alley, designed to supplement their excellent Méliès box set, which contains over 170 individual titles.
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Wow, that is definitely not what one is generally led to expect from Georges Melies. People usually talk about his sense of humor, fantasy and invention… though fantasy and invention definitely have a dark side.
Isn’t it funny how some things never seem to change! Most things, it feels like. 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing this. I clearly need to see more Georges Melies and not take him for granted! 🙂
Thanks so much for hosting! Yes, Melies was so much more than many viewers realize. He had been an editorial cartoonist, so it stands to reason that he would know how to get deeper points across visually.
My goodness, what an outlet Melies found for all corners of his psyche. This film sounds very thought-provoking and although I sometimes balk at being made to think, ultimately I find this sort of filmmaking quite satisfying.
The nice thing about Melies is that we can watch him on several different levels. I’m sure much of his 1905 audience was there for the hand-painted ballerinas and such.
This post is inspiration for Friday night movie watching! Love this little Méliès gem and will re-watch the Encore dvd later this evening.
Can I say that anyone who is under the impression silent films consisted of “happy little bonbons” has never looked around enough to discover something like Behind the Door, The Devil’s Needle, or just about any surviving movie referenced in Brownlow’s Behind the Mask of Innocence! Yeesh!
Quite so! It was never about custard pies and honky-tonk piano, not even at the beginning.
I love Melies and never found his work just fluff but one of quite high intelligence with much thought going into his works. His imps remind me of the Joker played by Heath Ledger actually. When you think of the older people during that time period, they must have been spinning like tops. They grew up with candles, oil lamps, horse and buggies, outhouses and within their life time, they saw the inventions of all you mentioned and more. I could easily see some think it was devil’s work
A friend of the family who was born in 1910 said that her grandmother referred to automobiles as “devil wagons” whenever one drove by. 😉
I used to think Georges Méliès was all humour and fantasy until I saw his film series on Alfred Dreyfuss – I couldn’t believe it was the same director! It increased my respect for him, so I was glad to read about this film. But whoa – Suicide! Madness! And the destruction of his inventions in a fire?! Hard-hitting stuff, and a valuable lesson for all of us.
This is a perfect choice for our blogathon. Thanks for the introduction to this film, and for the reminder that none of us is so great that we’re infallible.
Thanks so much for hosting! Yes, seeing Melies pick up his camera and fight for Dreyfus is an eye-opener. I enjoyed Hugo but felt that the film went too far into the cuddly curmudgeon and secret magician angle when there was much more to the man.
I have seen this film, my mother in law (who was actually only 33 years older than me) remembered seeing some of the silents as a kid. We were actually able to get a silent from our library for her to watch, called wings, long and horribly sad. Hugo introduced me to more of Melie, it may have been a bit of a fluffy film but wasn’t too bad.
Yes, Hugo isn’t bad by any means. A little padded, perhaps, but Scorsese definitely loves the silents.
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