Director: Georges Méliès
In Méliès' final and most grandiose fantasy, a group of explorers embark on an aeronautical mission to explore the wonders of the north pole. All aboard the Aerobus!
Professor Maboul calls a congress of scholars to discuss ways of sending an expedition to the north pole. After much deliberation, it is decided that his own "Aerobus", a hawk-headed flying machine, will transport six international delegates (Run-Ever, Bluff-Alo Bill, Choukroutman, Cerveza, Tching Tchun and Ka-Ko-Ku) on their polar journey. The company is taken on a tour of Maboul's engineering works to see the Aerobus being constructed.
The scholars set off the next day, alongside other unsuccessful expeditions attempting to reach the pole using dirigibles, automobiles and so on. The Aerobus joins the multitudes of other flying machines in the race north. They soon outdistance the competition but crash-land on the polar ice cap. The explorers are terrified by a huge Snow Giant, who almost eats one of the crew. They finally find --and get stuck to -- the needle at Magnetic North but are then rescued by a passing dirigible. As a crowd of penguins and polar bears wave them goodbye, the dirigible returns them to a jubilant reception at the Institute.
By the time Conquest of the Pole was released in 1912, production at Georges Méliès' Star Film was drifting, glacier-like, into dissolution. Méliès had been a member of Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Trust since 1908, and since then he'd struggled to meet the quota of films that the Trust required of him for the U.S. market, despite having a second production office in New York run by his brother Gaston. Ironically, the New York office was initially set up in 1902 to help protect Star-Film - and A Trip To The Moon in particular - from being pirated by unscrupulous U.S. distributors. Edison's company was one of the worst offenders.
There were more troubles back home in Paris. Méliès was at this point devoting more and more of his time to his theatre concerns, and film production had declined as a result. Financial problems had recently forced him into a disastrous deal with distributors Pathé-Freres that gave them unprecedented control. The hard-headed Charles Pathé saw Méliès as a troublesome anachronism and was increasing distribution costs in a move that would soon drive Star-Film out of business.
|Production still: the Snow Giant attacks|
Despite being made under difficult circumstances, Conquest was Méliès' most ambitious project to date. Again the plot was recycled from A Trip To The Moon and An Impossible Voyage, and again Méliès vindicated his critics by relying on the theatrical techniques he'd been using for over a decade. But this time, like the scientist's rubber head in Méliès' 1902 short, the tale and the camera trickery it accommodated were both expanded to outlandish proportions.
Méliès' aeronauts flew through skies positively swarming with inhabitants. First come scores of rival aircraft (including what looks like the Wright Brother's flyer), then an array of zodiac symbols brought to life. But the most impressive trick up Méliès' sleeve was the pipe-smoking Snow Giant (or 'jotunn' in Norse mythology). This life-sized articulated figure was operated by up to a dozen technicians, and had moving arms and mouth, rolling eyes and even flapping ears!
There was room, too, for a topical sub-plot this time around in the shape of a militant group of Suffragettes, protesting at their exclusion from the men-only expedition. Unfortunately, the Women's Movement is lampooned even more unkindly than are the various racial stereotypes in Maboul's crew. The final indignity comes for the Suffragettes when their hefty leader meets a sticky end: after several thwarted attempts to muscle in on the polar trip, she falls out of a hot air balloon and bursts like a bubble as she lands on a church spire.
This lavish film was originally comprised of two hand-tinted fifteen-minute sections. But Charles Pathé's right-hand man Ferdinand Zecca, allegedly fearful that Méliès might replace him as Pathé-Freres' General Manager, sabotaged the success of Conquest by demanding drastic cuts. Some prints were reduced in length by almost half; not surprisingly, the film failed to turn a profit.
Only three more films survived similar butchery to limp out of Melies' studio that year while he fought to buy his way out of the Pathe agreement. One final production, Le Voyage de la Famille Bourrichon, was released in 1913, and then the curtains closed for good. Méliès filed for bankruptcy, his studio was dismantled and many irreplaceable film prints were either burned by the director himself to vex his creditors, or recycled to aid the war effort.
Within a few years, both his first wife and brother had died, and his beloved theatre had been demolished. He later married his mistress Charlotte Faes, who had starred in his early films under her stage name Jehanne D'Alcy. As recounted in Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011), the couple were discovered in the late 1920's earning a meagre living selling toys from a kiosk in Montparnasse. Re-appraised and revered by the next generation of artists and film-makers, Méliès was eventually awarded the French Legion D'Honneur and given a permanent home in Chateau d'Orly by the Cinema Society. Having finally been given the recognition he deserved, he lived in comfortable retirement until his death in January 1938.
Georges Méliès (Professor Maboul), Fernande Albany (unknown), Chorus of the Folies Bergeres
Writer/Producer/Editor: Georges Méliès, loosely adapted from 'The Adventures of Captain Hatteras' by Jules Verne.
Star Film, France
Running Time 31 mins.