Hugo and the History of the Movies (Part III)

Yesterday we covered all of Hugo before the dramatic turn reveal through that the film is not about Hugo or the automaton or even Georges Méliès, but rather about the movies.

This is the part where it gets exciting for me, because I get to talk about the reason I love this film so much. Yesterday, I left off with the cover of “The Invention of Dreams.” Today, we’ll dive into just how Hugo is about the history of film, what it tells us, and how it manages to teach viewers about film history without them even realizing it. (It’s like that old tale of the kid not liking a vegetable, and then eating it without realizing it and going, “Oh, I guess I do like that.”)

Today, we go back through a history of the movies:

After Hugo and Isabelle go to the Fim Academy library and check out “The Invention of Dreams” by Rene Tabard, we’re given a brief history of the movies.

It begins with a description of the first publicly-shown film, the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:

The film, was of course, nothing more than a train entering a station, but, as the story goes, the people who saw this film were frightened and dove out of the way, thinking they’d be hit by it, a scene so lovingly recreated by Scorsese:

The film, of course, takes the Lumière route of film history (rightfully so) and leaves out all the other stuff, like Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson and the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph, and Eadweard Muybridge doing the photographs of the horse running and all that, but still, it’s beautiful. A kid is getting a cursory introduction to film history from this film. It doesn’t have to be anything more than this, because, like all of these kids movies, it’s enough to have them synthesize the images and then, when they see them in the future, they’ll remember them. That’s really all you want.

Anyway, we get the introduction of the movies, and then a wonderful montage of the invention of cinema. It’s a wondrous montage with many split-second film clips basically moving from the beginning of film, 1896, until the “present” day of the film, which is 1931 (though the films they show end around 1926, which was really the end of the silent era).

Now, for the curious of the bunch, I’ve decided to point out all the references and clips in this section. Since I know the people who really care (like myself), when they see this movie, they’re gonna wanna know what these films are, and will want to check them out. This is how I discovered movies. I looked up stuff like this.

So here’s a sort of index for all (or almost all) the film clips shown in this ‘invention of cinema’ montage in Hugo:

The sequence begins with a Lumière film of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory:

Next they show a clip from Dickson Experimental Sound Film, which is William Kennedy Laurie Dickson attempting to capture sound on film. So he has the phonograph play and then the violin as the couple dances.

The next clip I can’t specifically place, but it’s clearly one of those Lumière or Edison city films of cars going around and stuff. They made dozens of these same ones. It’s one of those. I don’t know which specific one it is at this moment:

Next they show an Edison film (leading me to believe that one up there is probably an Edison) of Corbett and Courtney fighting:

Next they show a very famous film, Edison’s The Kiss:

Next they show one of the first films with a story (widely regarded as the first, but it’s not. It’s just the one they use as an example, kind of like how many people call The Birth of a Nation the first feature film even though it’s not), The Great Train Robbery, which is a very important film for Scorsese, since he recreated this shot in Goodfellas. The very end of Goodfellas, as Ray Liotta is getting his paper in Witness Protection, he says he has to spend the rest of his life, “as a schnook,” and he looks at the camera, and we cut to Joe Pesci recreating this exact same shot:

Next, they move to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which is arguably a bigger achievement than Birth of a Nation (seriously, watch the film. Watch how many people he got to be in it and how epic it is), and also goes along with the colloquial idea of Griffith being the one who brought about the feature film:

After this, they pull back to Hugo and Isabelle reading, and then go into more brief clips. Many of these are only shown for a couple of frames, thereby making them harder to pinpoint. But I did (save one, which might just be me being unable to think straight after all these screenshots). Here they are:

First we see Buster Keaton’s The General, the pinnacle of his films. It’s seriously his greatest directorial achievement. We see the most famous image of the film, of Keaton sitting on the coupling rod of the train as it begins to move. It’s one of the most dangerous and remarkable stunts he ever performed (and there are a dozen more in the film. Seriously, watch it, it’s amazing what this man accomplishes on his on, stunt-wise):

Next we see Louise Brooks from G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, one of the masterpieces of silent film:

Next they show a clip of Rudolph Valentino in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

This next one I can’t quite place. I believe it may be Jean Renoir’s The Whirlpool of Fate. I’m almost positive that film is in this montage, and since there are two I couldn’t place, I’m figuring it’s one of them. This seems most likely.

Next is a brief clip of William S. Hart in Hell’s Hinges. This is a great film. A real landmark of the western genre, that shows its conventions in place as early as 1915:

Next is a very famous image from a very famous film, that of Conrad Veidt as Cesare, the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

The next one is another famous image from a famous film, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid:

The next clip is from Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad, another landmark film. These last three films are very famous and need to be seen by anyone seriously interested in film.

Next we have another clip of William S. Hart, this one from Tumbleweeds:

Next (and finally, really), we have a clip I can’t place. No idea. This may also be Whirlpool of Fate, but I don’t know. If anyone knows what this (as well as the one up there I couldn’t place) is from, let me know.

And the montage ends with a close up of, of course, the film that will be the major film as it pertains to Hugo, Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon:

This, of course, brings them to the part about Méliès being presumed dead by the film community:

And it brings Rene Tabard into the picture (played by the great Michael Stuhlbarg):

I love how clearly Tabard is modeled off of Scorsese. Look at the shape of the glasses. The beard — this is totally Scorsese as a younger man. I love that.

Anyway, Tabard takes them to his office, which is basically a Méliès museum:

He shows them pictures of Méliès in his studio:

And one of Méliès’s cameras:

And even a still from one of his films (this one being The Infernal Cake-Walk):

What I like about it is that the film shows you all this, and you’re like, “Okay, now it got all the film history stuff out of the way. They’d never let them go further than this.” Then they recreate Méliès’s studio!

Isabelle asks Tabard if he’d like to meet Méliès and Tabard says, “Oh, but you see — I already have,” and we get a flashback to the days of Méliès making his movies.

We get to see the outside of Méliès’s studio (and I imagine Scorsese must have been giddy during this entire part of the shoot. I was giddy just watching it), and we go inside, and here’s where the magic starts:

One of the great joys of Méliès’s films (this one is Fairyland, by the way) was that he used so many in-camera tricks with editing and staging to really create this illusion of cinema and show these really wonderful things. And this one was always my favorite of his — the placing of the fish tank in front of the camera and in front of the sets to make it seem as though everything was happening underwater. And when you watch the film, it’s clear this is just a fish tank and people are dropping fish into the frame, which you can see here, as the lobsters start falling:

As you watch the film, you can tell that’s what they did, but it doesn’t take away from the illusion. It actually makes you excited that they found a way to create this illusion. And then to see Scorsese recreate that illusion — in color, in 3D — and then show you the illusion — it’s a film student’s wet dream, this sequence. It’s amazing. I always pictured what this shot would look like in my head, and here, Scorsese is showing it to me:

For 1903, that’s genius.

And then we get that great Méliès quote: “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around — this is where they’re made.”

I’m just so in awe of this sequence. Here was have a camera moving around in the past!

And then Hugo and Isabelle bring Tabard to Méliès’s house and he shows Mama Jeanne the surviving print he has of A Trip to the Moon:

They actually show him loading a reel into a projector. Amazing, the things we can get away with teaching children in the movies.

They even show how old projectors work, the hand cranking at 16 frames per second:

And then we see all these great clips from A Trip to the Moon, a highlight reel of sorts. Just enough to get people to want to see the rest on their own:

And then, if just introducing children to the films of Georges Méliès and silent cinema from 1903 wasn’t enough — the explain TINTING as well!

Once the film becomes tinted, Isabelle says, “It’s in color!”, and Mama Jeanne explains, “We tinted the films.” And explains the process of tinting, which is literally painting over every frame of film (which took a long time). There’s actually both tinting and toning, tinting being them painting over the light parts of the film stock, and toning being them coloring over the dark portions. It’s kind of like — tinting is giving films that sepia color, or the all red and such. And toning is basically a cousin of that. When you see multiple colors, the film was both tinted and toned. Either way, the fact that they explain film tinting to children is just amazing. It also is telling kids — “Look, silent films weren’t all just boring black and white. They did have color and magic to them.” Not everyone is going to enjoy watching silent films, but presenting it to them like this will certainly help them respect it. And it’s amazing that this film is able to accomplish this.

My favorite part of this sequence is the first time they show the rocket going into the eye of the man in the moon. Because, in terms of the film’s narrative — all we know at this point is that the automaton drew that picture (which Hugo said was the first film his father ever saw in a theater, which he believes was a message from his father), that Méliès’s name was on it, that he made the film, and that he’s tried so hard to forget the past (Mama Jeanne tells Tabard this) because it hurts him. They don’t really know what this has to do with anything.

And now Hugo’s watching this Méliès film, not really knowing what to expect, and then this image comes up:

And he has that moment of, “This is the film Dad saw!” And the look on his face is just so incredible:

That look is why we make movies.

And then the film ends and Méliès appears in the room, which was just a great moment for me, because I was like, “Oh man, now it’s all gonna come together!”

And then we get another montage of Méliès at work, starting from his time as a magician, and him building the automaton:

To him seeing a film for the first time (with a great use of the iris, something Scorsese’s been known to use a lot — the most recent and popular example being his use of the iris out and later the iris in during The  Departed):

To him buying his studio (which features a wonderful little cameo by Scorsese as the photographer. Which, a brief note — this is a visual reference to William Friese-Greene, whose life was the subject of the film The Magic Box. It’s a terrific film. Also watch for an uncredited Laurence Olivier cameo during it):

To him creating some of his films.

Now, this section does not really feature (as far as I can tell) one of Méliès’s actual films. It seems like a composite of all the tricks he would employ, just to give you the idea of how he’d go about making these films. For instance, this image of him as Satan, where he is lowered into the floor and the smoke comes up:

Was used many times by Méliès, and I think the general idea is to just show this moment rather than have it be a recreation of one of his films (for all we know, this could have been one of the films melted down into shoe heels).

Similarly, the bit with the dragon seems to be them showing how he creates this whole illusion of film, since I haven’t seen any Méliès film with a dragon in it:

Rather than being an actual film (since I’m sure Scorsese jumped at the chance to create his own “Méliès” film), it’s more designed to show you how these films were made. The actors walking past the dragon and running back, them standing off-stage while dozens of other activities happened around them, the idea that film is an illusion based on what it and what is not within the frame. It’s an important thing to teach someone that what you see is a prepared illusion by the filmmaker. Here, we see just how small these sets actually were, and what the simple use of framing and staging can do to create an atmosphere.

The other important thing, of course, perhaps the most important — is editing. The bit with the skeletons and Méliès making the actors freeze as they put in the pyrotechnics — that’s the real magic of Méliès.

This skeleton bit actually does appear in one of his films — The Palace of the Arabian Nights. It’s not an exact recreation, but it’s very close, which leads me to believe the sequence was meant to be a composite of many Méliès elements that appear in his films.

But the important thing it shows is just how good Méliès is with editing, and how he was able to create such great illusions in his films (which really no one else seemed to do).

Méliès was a wizard with editing. The way the camera worked in those days — they hand-cranked it. So if they stopped cranking the camera, it stopped filming. So they were able to edit in camera by simply stopping filming. So he’d have them freeze the film, move the actors out, add in the smoke as they started rolling again, and with a little bit of editing, it creates the illusion of these things exploding into smoke.

And then we get the shot of Mama Jeanne as the mermaid, which is taken from the film The Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and the Moon.

And then we end the montage with Méliès broke and despondent, having lost all of his films and burning all his sets:

And there’s a great shot of the posters falling off the walls, which I’m including because it’s a great image and because it’s a poster of Fantomas:

And then Méliès says that real life doesn’t have a happy ending like in the movies, and there’s the requisite climax with Hugo and the Station Inspector, being chased, and the Safety Last! homage and all that. And you think — oh, that’s it. But no — there’s the real resolution of the film, after the “story” resolution.

We get this “tribute” of sorts to Méliès, which is really the heart of the film. This is the part that Scorsese is no doubt most directly responsible for.

Tabard comes out on stage and says they’re there to celebrate the life and work of Georges Méliès. He says that of the over 500 films he made, all of them were presumed lost, but that they conducted a search of vaults, attics, catacombs and farmhouses, and were able to find almost a hundred film prints, negatives, and damaged film stock that they were able to restore.

In case you don’t know, Scorsese is one of the leading voices in the fight for film restoration, helping to restore old and fading prints so as to help them maintain the magic they were originally intended to have. If you’ve watched that new BluRay edition of The Red Shoes, you’ll see the job Scorsese was able to do in restoring the beauty to old films. That’s part of his passion. It’s not just for the films, it’s for saving the films — making sure these old works don’t die out. Back then, of course (and this is hinted at with the Méliès selling his prints to make shoe heels, and the idea of the Lumières seeing film as a passing fad — much like 3D is considered now), they weren’t as precious about films, and routinely destroyed them (not to mention the fact that they were originally printed on nitrate, which was highly flammable and regularly caught fire — a brief tutorial of which can be found in the middle of Inglourious Basterds, another moment where I was amazed, “Is he really getting away with this?”). So many old films are now lost forever, and film preservation and restoration is one of the most important things a lover of film can engage in. And the fact that Scorsese managed to make a movie about it is really just a cherry on top.

So then Tabard introduces Méliès (as “the new instructor at the Film Academy” to boot. You know that was a Scorsese touch, making him someone who now teaches film), who gets a standing ovation from the crowd. And, after knowing all the stuff he went through, not wanting to relive the past but now realizing all the love that’s out there for him, it’s a really touching moment:

Méliès then gives one of the most touching speeches I’ve heard in a long time (one that never fails to make me tear up when it happens):

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am standing before you tonight because of one very brave young man, who saw a broken machine, and against all odds, he fixed it. It was the kindest magic trick that ever I’ve seen. And now, my friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are — wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians. Come and dream with me.”

And now the film has come full circle. It’s so beautiful. And then we get the final montage of Méliès films, starting with the great moment of him fading into his own film, which, by the way, is The Untamable Whiskers:

Now I’ll just point out which films are shown in the Méliès montage. I was able to pinpoint all of them except for two. Here are the two, in case someone knows which films these are:

The first one is clearly one of his magic trick films, I just can’t figure out which one it is. And the second seems like one of his “imp” films, with an imp or some other creature terrorizing people. I’ve seen several films of his that look just like these two, I just can’t remember which two these are.

The rest, however, I do know what they are.

This first one, I’m not entirely sure, but I’m about 85% sure this is from The Witch:

And the rest of these I can 100% guarantee you are from the films I say they’re from:

This is from Conquest of the North Pole (one of his final films, too):

This is from The Music Lover:

This is from Le Papillon Fantastique:

This is from The Impossible Voyage:

You’ll note that this film was referenced earlier in the dream sequence of the train crash (though that was also a reference to the actual 1895 Train Wreck at Montparnasse).

There are three shots from Fairyland: Kingdom of the Fairies (which is the film we saw in the Tabard flashback of being in Méliès’s studio:

And then there are two images from The 400 Tricks of the Devil (which is also known as The Merry Frolics of Satan):

Before we end with, of course, Méliès’s most famous film, A Trip to the Moon, which is now shown fully colorized (and gorgeously at that):

What I love about it is how, when we get that final scene of Isabelle narrating the book, and how Hugo finding the automaton helped him find his way “home,” there’s a sense of, “Oh yeah, right, all of that,” because after all we’ve just experienced, it’s like, “Right, the film was also supposed to be about that.” But not really.

Still, I am beyond amazed that this film managed to include so much of film history in such an entertaining way. Look how many films Scorsese references! My main goal here was to let people know what the films were so they can look them up themselves (because it seems like no one has actually done that yet). I know that if I were 15 and seeing this for the first time, I’d go right out and try to figure out what each and every one of those films was and see them. So I’m making it easier for those who want to but don’t know what they are.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about Hugo. One final thought before I wrap up:

What’s most amazing to me about this film is how it’s going to (hopefully) be the film that kids in ten, fifteen, twenty years, say, “That’s the movie that made me want to be a filmmaker/film historian/whatever.” I never had anything like that. As a kid, there weren’t really any movies that taught me about the history of movies. I just liked movies. And I said, “I want to study about these,” and then I had to go to college with the intention of becoming a film major, become a film major (which, in the intro class, I learned all about these films, but not really in depth. It was very easy to not remember many of the shorts we saw — like The Sealed Room, and Bringing Out the Coke and The Take-Off and Crash of a Plane, and Serpentine Dances (well, anyone who went to my school — you won’t forget those Serpentine Dances. Nor will you forget the Seminary Girls pillow fight film). But I had to be a film major, and decide to take classes on both silents and color in order to see these films (since, between all three of those classes, and even the History of the Studio System class I took — I saw these shorts at least a half-dozen times throughout college) and learn about them. And here, you have a film that presents them to you in the most basic way possible (to the point where, if you didn’t remember them, it means you’re actively pushing it away and not taking it in. Because seriously, how can you not remember the stuff this film teaches you?). I’m amazed we have that.

Now, I’ll end the article with a few final images from the film, just because they’re great and I wanted to include them, but they didn’t really fit in with anything I talked about. Think of these as your end credits.

Here are some shots of the train crash in the middle of the film (the last one being a recreation of the 1895 crash):

That humorous reveal of the Station Inspector and Maximilian in the same bathtub:

A shot of the Station Inspector and Lisette, as well as our final wide shot of the train station in the film:

A nice shot looking down the staircase as Hugo is being chased by the Station Inspector and Maximilian in the climax of the film:

A gorgeous shot of the Arc de Triomphe and traffic speeding about Paris:

A series of shots from the wonderful time-lapse decaying of Méliès’s studio:

A nice shot of Hugo and Isabelle as he winds the clocks, which stuck out at me as being one of the better 3D moments in the film:

The film’s final shot, of the automaton:

And perhaps the single iconic image from the film (the one that’s popped up the most, at least), which is the one I’ll leave you with, of Hugo and Isabelle holding hands and looking out of the clock face at Paris:

6 responses

  1. Great three part series. Nicely done.

    Also, good call on Tabard modeled after a young Scorsese. I didn’t pick that up, when I saw it in theatres, but now that you mentioned it, I totally see it and think you’re right.

    March 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm

  2. BlueFox94

    Yup, this will be on my list of films that inspired ME as a filmmaker!! ^_^

    March 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm

  3. Peter Hart

    Thank you so much for all the work you have put in to this. We love the film and this was so enlightening, seeing where the clips are from and reading about the real history.

    December 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm

  4. lstarkiller

    the one with the skeleton is called “Les Illusions Fantaisistes”

    September 4, 2013 at 11:31 am

  5. Shaji T U

    Thank you so much! Really loved to read it.!!

    September 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

  6. The dragon does shortly appear in “Le Palais des mille et une nuits” (1905). But there we only see the its head (and the background painting). The scene as it is staged in “Hugo” seems to reconstruct Méliès’ drawing for the scene.

    April 13, 2016 at 7:30 am

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