Silent Homage: HUGO’s Tribute to the Silent Films of Yesteryear

17 August 2014

Adapted from the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo captures of the fictional tale of a penniless orphan who lives in the walls of Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, tirelessly winding and tending to the station’s clocks. Interestingly, the film, which is more pointedly historical fiction, ties in the biographical narrative of Georges Melies, a turn of the century Parisian filmmaker. In real life, after an inspired period of filmmaking, Melies lost his film studio and reels of work to the Great War. As a result, Melies came to work as a toymaker in the Gare Montparnasse. This is where, in Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly film, Hugo and Melies’s stories intersect and Hugo’s fictional narrative serves as a catalyst to tell audiences the biography of a legendary filmmaker.


As background on Melies, the filmmaker made films when cinema was in its earliest stages of development. Like children, Melies played with cinema curiously and excitedly. There was no established etiquette for film or any expectations on films by the film community. Frankly, there was barely a film community. Melies was free in cinema, learning all he came to know about the medium through his own experimentations. Thus, when telling of Melies’s life in cinema through the medium of cinema (clever), what is better than juxtaposing Melies’s life with a child’s adventure? Figuratively, Melies’s beautiful, daring, tragic, and triumphant adventure in cinema enhances alongside the narrative of bright-eyed, precocious Hugo.

Poetically, Georges Melies’s inventive, creative, experimental, and awe-inspiring filmmaking style is not only discussed in Hugo, it is also the muse for the film’s own inventive, creative, experimental, and awe-inspiring moments. For example, Melies was one of the first filmmakers to use color in film. In his time, films were all black and white; however, Melies’s films were hand painted with color (as mentioned in Hugo). Vibrant color is a significant use of imagery in Scorsese’s Hugo; the vivacious shades of reds and brights in the Gare’s flower shop, the warm shades of gold and luminous natural light used during various daytime scenes, and the bleak and cold colors used behind the Gare’s walls where Hugo lives all set tone in the film, making Hugo, which is already a visual experience, an even more visually stimulating experience, as stimulating as Melies’s hand-painted A Trip to the Moon (1902).


Moreover, Melies’s filmography includes experiments in multiple genres of filmmaking: fantasy, drama, sci-fi, comedy, and horror. Melies was not a director who continued to release the same type or style of film over and over; he was not fearful of mixing genres in one film. Recognition of Melies’s genre inter-play also finds its way into Hugo. Scorsese’s Hugo is a “family film,” if one was to force it into one category, but it is also full of tragedy, fantasy, and action. In other words, like Melies work, Hugo is dynamic and vast; Hugo explodes with imagination, while exploring cinematic elements ranging from film noir all the way to animation. Very unusual, very experimental, but also very inspired and inspiring.

Furthermore, Hugo also pays tribute to other silent films, such as Safety Last! (1923). In one particular sequence of the film, as Hugo, yet again, must run and hide from Inspector Gustave Dasté, the station’s security, Hugo dangerously dangles outside the station, clinging to a clock’s handle. Not only is it an allusion to one of the most famous scenes in Safely Last!, but earlier in Hugo the title character and his friend, Isabelle, sneak in a cinema and watch Safely Last! The children watch this death-defying scene from a noteworthy moment in cinema’s silent era and, later in the film, Hugo reenacts the stunt when cornered by Dasté. In that regard, it is not only the film Hugo that pays homage to Safety Last!, but the character within the film also pays his respects to a new, creative, albeit dangerous, action inspired by Safety Last!



And, it is not just the references to silent film Hugo uses to pay homage to international silent cinema; Hugo itself uses silent sequences, namely the film’s opening, which undoubtedly and intentionally is inspired by Melies, his contemporaries, and the films of the silent era, to help viewers understand and celebrate silent film. The establishing shot begins with the golden gears of a clock turning, which dissolve into a bustling nightscape of Paris, likening the motion of a clock with the motion of the city. The scene sweeps the City of Lights until it finds the Gare Montparnasse, and then sweeps in to the train station, through the bustling city within a city—full of travelers and station workers—to a clock hanging high above the center of Gare Montparnasse. In this clock, peering out from behind the number four, Hugo Cabret looks about the station, noting its people, particularly the regulars: a flower shop owner, bookshop owner, and the station inspector. Satisfied, Hugo retreats from his vantage point behind the number four, entering his world, the world behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse; Hugo slides through the secret passages of the station to yet another clock, this one with a view of a toymaker and his shop. On the counter sits a wind-up mouse, which has Hugo’s complete attention. Patiently, he waits for the toymaker to fall asleep, slips through a vent in the wall, quietly and slowly makes his way to the toymaker’s counter where the mouse rest, and puts his hand out to snatch it. “Got you, at last,” says the toymaker, the first words uttered in Hugo.




This opening explodes with information, action, and tension, yet no word it spoken until the toymaker’s line. Here, in the opening, Hugo makes a claim about the power of silent film. The symbolic likening of a clock’s gears to Paris by night speaks of movement and time (or, perhaps, movement’s relationship with time), which will become a significantly important topic in the film. The sweep into the station, matching the bustle of the station and its trains with the speed of the camera is equally communicative to a visual audience. And, of course, the image of a bright-eyed boy standing behind time, the timekeeper; the boy who reveals a world behind a world that is as interesting, full or movement, and effected by time as the world audiences first meet. And, finally, as the boy creeps toward a toy mouse (cleverly falling into a mousetrap), we finally hear it, “Got you, at last,” and wonder might that be Hugo’s filmmaker commenting on the magic of silent cinema that he just captured in his opening sequence? The opening sequence is one of the film’s strongest, not just because Scorsese knows how to make a film, but because it feels as though the opening pays tribute to silent film and embraces the best of it, allowing audiences to read the images without being told what to see.


Tell someone something, s/he has knowledge; show someone how something works, s/he has an understanding, perhaps even an appreciation. This is, potentially, what Scorsese had in mind as he worked on Hugo. Hugo allows Melies’s cinematic impact and influence to evolve throughout the film, not simply telling people about this noteworthy director, but exploring Melies significance and the way silent film works to help audiences recognize filmmaking of yesteryear, understand its impact, and appreciate its contribution to international cinema.


~ by Kate Bellmore on 17/08/2014.

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