Monday, April 20, 2015

A Trip to Mars (Edison, 1910)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Friday Charles and I went to Gerry Williams’ photographic studio in Golden Hill for his monthly “Mars Movie Night,” featuring various films made over the years dealing with the Red Planet and humans either going there or fending off Martians coming here. This program was one of his most fascinating, showing three films from the 1910’s — a five-minute Edison short from 1910 called A Trip to Mars, a one-hour British feature from 1913 called A Message from Mars and an 80-minute Danish feature from 1918 originally called Himmelskibet and literally translated for English-speaking audiences as, you guessed it, A Trip to Mars. Gerry had shown the 1910 Edison A Trip to Mars on one of his previous programs and it’s an engaging film for what it is but shows just what a sorry record Edison’s company had for creativity, especially by comparison to the best work of the independent studios that were breaking Edison’s patent monopoly but would eventually become the bulwarks of the industry. The 1910 A Trip to Mars is an obvious knockoff of Georges Méliès’ marvelous A Trip to the Moon from 1902, though instead of launching himself to his outer-space destination via a cannon, the principal character of A Trip to Mars is a scientist who invents a powder that can reverse the effects of gravity, whereupon the magic stuff propels him through space directly to Mars (with none of that bothersome nonsense about space being a vacuum and therefore it being impossible for him to breathe along the way). He meets giant-sized beings, including one who responds to his attempt to climb the giant’s nose by blowing cold air over him and turning him into a giant snowball. Eventually he gets de-iced and falls back to earth with the same anti-gravity powder with which he went to Mars. It’s an O.K. movie but a singularly pointless one, and director Ashley Miller (the only person connected with this project credited on is hardly in Méliès’ league as a fantasy filmmaker, but its historical importance is undoubted — it appears to be the first science-fiction film ever made about a trip to Mars and is almost certainly the earliest one that survives, even though it survives in pretty beaten-up form, probably from a paper print. Until 1912 the U.S. copyright laws did not cover film, so it was impossible to copyright a movie — however, still photos were copyrightable, so enterprising studios made contact prints of their movies and copyrighted all the frames in them as photographs. It’s a lucky thing they did, too, because quite a few films from the very early days from which no cinematic prints survive nonetheless still exist as paper prints — though the task of rephotographing every frame and aligning them properly so they can be re-converted into a watchable movie is arduous, time-consuming and very expensive.