Recently, I sat down to watch Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Set in Paris during the 1930’s, Hugo follows the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan boy who fixes clocks in a train station. In his spare time, Hugo works to build an automaton using plans from his deceased father’s notebook. In an attempt to acquire the parts necessary to complete his automaton, Hugo begins to steal from Papa Georges, who runs a local toy store. Eventually, Hugo discovers that Georges’ daughter, Isabelle, wears a necklace that contains the last part needed to complete his robot. After befriending Isabelle and convincing her to give him the necklace, Hugo is finally able to complete his machine. Eventually, after being tipped off by the drawing that his automaton produced, Hugo and Isabelle discover that Papa Georges is actually film pioneer Georges Melies. After World War I, Georges’ films became so unpopular that he was forced change professions. In the end, Georges adopts Hugo and regains prominence in the film industry.
Although I enjoyed the plot of Hugo, what I appreciated most about this film was its nods to early films that laid the foundation for the industry we know and love today. Among the films alluded to in Hugo are Safety Last, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, The Great Train Robbery, and The Music Lover, amongst others. However, the most important film referred to in Hugo is A Trip to the Moon, a groundbreaking film that helps to shape the plot of the movie. In addition to recreating the feel and scenes of several of the most important films in early cinematic history, I was very intrigued by the automaton used in Hugo. After doing more research into the subject, I was blown away at how complex most of these machines were, especially given the limited technology during the time that most of them were created. One automaton in particular that impressed me, and likely inspired the one in Hugo, is “The Writer,” created by the Jaquet-Droz family during the 18th century. Like the robot in the film, “The Writer” was able to produce a custom letter up to 40 letters long.