This morning, I began looking for holiday decorations and, as usual, starting reading instead. Those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that I found, or rather, “rediscovered” a Scientific American from 1900 depicting scenes from a production of “Ben Hur” at the Broadway theater in New York on the cover. In yesterday’s post, I described a Christmas scene illustrated by William Martin Johnson who was most famous for his illustrations for a book entitled “Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ” by Gen. Lew Wallace. Is this just a coincidence?
Indeed, the article associated with the cover illustrations mentioned the book by name. I can’t say that I knew about the book (but I have seen the 1959 movie (and there were 2 more made in 1907 and 1925 based on this book!)), but according to Scientific American, it “attained a wider sale than probably any other American work of fiction with the exception of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ ” The article goes on to tell the story, but, as a scientific magazine should, the focus becomes mechanics and effects. “The new effects were invented by Mr. Claude L. Hagen, of the firm of McDonald & Hagen, New York city, who is also the master machinist of this splendid production of ‘Ben Hur.’ ”
The article began with a discussion about why Mr. Hagen’s skills were in particular demand in 1900: “For years the public has been demanding more realism in plays. … The public dislikes long waits, and more than once a play or opera has proved a failure on this account; but after one has seen the production of an elaborate play from behind the scenes, he will never again be impatient at the length of the entr’ acte.” Mr. Hagen was able create the chariot race illusion by means of treadmills beneath the stage “which are covered by sections of planking which are removed and carried out to the wings when the race is to take place. There are eight treadmills, one for each horse, and the horses are brought up from the stables, a few blocks away, a short time before they are needed, and they take their places with the artists and supernumeraries awaiting their cue to go upon the stage.”
So this leads to the movie “Hugo” which opened on Wednesday, and is one I recommend. Hugo is about a boy who, due to unfortunate circumstances, has been left with the job of keeping the clocks in a Parisian railroad station in good order and on time. It isn’t really a “coming of age” story as much as it is a “being an age” story. The child has grown-up responsibilities already and identifies strongly with his work. His father taught him how to be a clock maker and can fix mechanical objects, including an automaton, which represents much of the movie’s underlying themes. The child’s life becomes entwined with that of Maries Georges Jean Méliès otherwise known as Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938) a famous Parisian cinematographer.
I won’t say anymore in hopes that you see it this holiday season.
But is it steampunk? You may ask. Well, I wore my new clockwork and key earrings from Steampunk Styles and saw the previews, and looked for steampunk references (which were quite a few) and my conclusion is …
By the way, the magazine is available for purchase at Steam at Harper’s Ferry.