Hugo Addendum: The Film In Context

To mark the release of Martin Scorsese’s latest work, the highly lauded Hugo, we thought we’d take the opportunity to take a look at some of the films and ideas referred to and explored in the film. Clips of many of the films featured in this piece can be found at the bottom of the article. Thanks to public domain rights some complete films are also included, where applicable.

Georges Méliès

What better place to begin an exploration of the cinema of Hugo than with George Méliès himself? While the Méliès presented in Hugo is something of a hybrid of a number of early cinema pioneers (more on that later), the ‘real’ Méliès wasn’t that far removed. The essential tragedy of a once-great man forced in to a life behind the counter of a toy stand is based upon fact, as is his latter day resurgence, although he never did return to filmmaker in the wake of his rediscovery.

With Hugo, director Martin Scorsese turned tragedy in to something akin to myth, and no better is that displayed than with his portrayal of Georges Méliès.


D.W. Griffith work is at times controversial yet essential film history. Intolerence was the directors direct response to the accusations levelled at him in the wake of the controversy of The Birth Of A Nation. Similarly to Méliès, Griffith is a filmmaker whose work is almost completely grounded in the silent film, with the director only making a pair of sound films at the end of his career. Unfortunately much of the filmmakers legacy has been swallowed up by the outrage over the content of The Birth Of A Nation, yet we cannot ignore the advancements in narrative discourse made by the director.

The Derailment at Gare Montparnasse

The famous photograph of the train that failed to stop is remained as a nightmare sequence in Scorsese’s film. The derailment at the station occurred just two months before the invention of the cinema, in October 1895, and somewhat miraculously, caused only one death (a passer by on the street below). Gare Montparnasse remains one of the six key train terminals in the city of Paris to this day.

Rene Tabard

A clear analogue for Henri Langlois (although Langlois was only 16 years old in 1931), Scorsese makes a hero out of the people who strive to protect film. Tabard is named for the character in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite, one of the great films about childhood, and a work that would go on to inspire the likes of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue, films which, in turn, the footprints of can be seen in Hugo. Interestingly, the character of René Tabard was an invention of Brian Selznick, the author of The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, and not, as many have suspected, Martin Scorsese.


The poster for Louis Feuillede’s epic serial is only seen on screen for the briefest of moments (in the montage charting the rise and fall of Melies), but it seems worth mentioning if not for the fact that it came up in our review of The Artist recently. Serials such as Fantômas marked the dawn of narrative ambition in the French cinema. Interestingly, it was after being approached to update the Fantômas legend that Michel Hazavinicius was given the impetus to move forward with The Artist (the opening film-within-a-film in that film is a nod to this). Director Louis Feuillede was the master of the serial drama, crafting other such memorable series’ as Judex and Les Vampires.

The Great Train Robbery

What celebration of the early cinema would be complete without an insert from Porter’s hyper-iconic to-camera shot of a bandit facing his audience? The shot itself has been mimicked and homaged countless times, most notably perhaps by Scorsese himself with the closing shot of his own Goodfellas.

Safety Last!

Of the three key silent comedians Scorsese chooses to focus upon Harold Lloyd over the slightly more obvious Chaplin or Keaton (the presence of a clock in a key plot point of Safety Last! is logical for Hugo too). Lloyd’s work in Safety Last! is amongst the most iconic, not to mention dangerous, of the early cinema. In Brian Selznick’s original novel Hugo and Isabelle actually take in a screening of Rene Clair’s Le Million, a 1931 French comedy of circumstance and chance, ground firmly in the traditions of that country’s cinema of the time.

The Crowd

As Scorsese’s camera draws in to the central local of the Parisian train station, one can’t help but recall King Vidor’s The Crowd. We know that Vidor’s film has influenced Scorsese thanks to the inclusion of the film in Scorsese’s millennial documentary, A Century Of Cinema. Never has a shot evoked a sense of scale quite as impressively as Vidor’s 1928 film.

The Automaton

The most obvious nod here would be towards Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with that films Maria one of the most iconic robots in all of the cinema. It was actually another French magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and not Méliès who was best known for his use of automatons, with Robert-Houdin something of a pioneer of the form. The use of the automaton in Hugo is clearly intended as a humanistically infused representation of the cinema, a mechanical art. Other such works to feature some form of automaton (which doesn’t strictly refer to a mechanical entity) include Carl Boese and Paul Wegener’s The Golem, and of course Victor Fleming’s The Wizard Of Oz. Melies bought Robert-Houdin’s theatre, inheriting the “Ethereal Suspension” trick seen in Scorsese’s film from the magician.

R.W. Paul

While Scorsese’s film is essentially a fantastical biography of Georges Méliès, the figure known as Méliès in the film is actually something of an amalgamation. The previously mentioned Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin provides the automaton angle, while its most likely notable early British filmmaker R.W. Paul from which Selznick derived the inventor angle from, for it was Paul whom Méliès purchased his first camera from (as opposed to built it himself as per the plot of the film).

Louis and Auguste Lumière

The grandfathers of the projected image make a number of appearances in Scorsese’s film, most notably in the chapter of the film detailing Georges Méliès, discovery of the medium of cinema. Méliès was indeed present at the very first Lumière screening on December 28th, 1895 in a Parisian cafe, witnessing such films as La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory) and l’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) for the very first time. The Lumière Brothers were by no means the lone inventors of film, although they were the first to display it communally, via projection, and therefore the ones that had reached the proverbial Holy Grail first.

Interesting sidenote. We all know the legendary tale of the first public screenings of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station), and of how audiences were so shocked by the new invention of the cinema that they ducked and screamed as the train approached, however, one line of academic thinking has it that it was not those particular screenings that caused such a reaction, but one some thirty or so years later, as the Louis Lumière pioneered a secondary adaption of the medium – 3D. It is now widely accepted that it was at these 3D screenings that the more overt reaction was garnered, and not the 1895 performance.

Multimedia Database

Click on any of the titles below for clips and similar from the films under discussion. Due to the OOC nature of many of the titles they are now in the public domain and can be viewed online at no charge.
l’Arroseur Arrosé (Complete Lumière Brothers short)
The Artist (Trailer)
L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Complete Lumière Brothers short)
The Crowd (Clip discussed above)
Fantômas (Brief clip)
Intolerance (The Fall Of Babylon clip)
Metropolis (Reconstructed and Restored trailer)
Le Million (Complete film)
Safety Last! (Composited clip – read description)
Le Voyage dans la lune (Complete film)
Zéro de conduite (Complete 42 minute film)


Add yours →

  1. Cinema invented in 1985? I know Back To The Future is a classic, but there must have been a few gems before then, surely?!

  2. Just back from seeing Hugo with my 13 year old daughter, she loved it, especially the representations of Melies early career “behind the scenes” and the remastered and recreated silent films. Overall, the film was a refreshing, charming kids adventure wrapped around a loving homage to the wonders of cinema, with no cynical merchandising (to my knowledge). My only regret was how quickly it was shunted to a smaller screen, with no option left to see it in 3d. I have a feeling it would have been quite special. I was glad to be able to point out the train derailment photo reference to Amy, thanks to your article. Good, thorough job.

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