I recently (re)watched several early and classic Georges Méliès films. These pictures are incredibly ingenious for the time – the cutting room floor plays a key role in the development of each as we see Méliès’s chaotic and imaginative world filled with magic and intrigue. His cinematic landscape is often disordered and scrambled with characters frantically searching as objects and people disappear in and out of frame.
Throughout his entire corpus, Méliès created about 500 films (only about 200 survive) and they include a diverse array of stories – films about space exploration, horror films, Christmas movies, and early historical biopics. His surviving canon of films is truly a treasure. Many of his films (as well as about 80% of films made before 1950) were destroyed due to the difficulty in preserving original negatives. Additionally, Méliès destroyed some of his own original negatives and the French army also confiscated some of his negatives that have now been lost. The only reason a portion of Méliès’s canon survives at all is because his brother and business partner, Gaston Méliès, took great liberties to preserve some of the early frames for copyright by submitting them to the U.S. Library of Congress. Their company was called the Star Film Company, founded in the 1890s in France, and it eventually relocated to the United States – first to New Jersey, then Texas, and finally to California following the trend of other film companies seeking the opportunity to be able to film year-round due to favorable weather. Méliès battled copyrights of his films for much of his career, fighting against Edison (American) and the Lumiere brothers (fellow Frenchmen), as many of his films were duplicated and reproduced without his permission. He created a union of film-makers as his international reputation rose between 1902 and 1907, however it was no match for Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, which was created to crush any competition and control the film industry.
It largely worked, and by the 1920s, Méliès’s brother had died and he was financially ruined. He was found selling candy and toys in a small stand in Paris, scraping together a living. He was rediscovered in the mid-1920s as a celebrated early film director. Early directors tracked him down and befriended him, directors like Rene Clair. He then instructed and advised early film-makers, though he never made another movie after 1912. He died in 1938.
My favorite Méliès film, and incidentally his most popular, remains A Trip To The Moon.
Le Manoir du diable (1896) Director: Georges Méliès
The House of the Devil was released in the U.S. as The Haunted Castle. It is a single-frame, short silent film about the devil in a haunted castle, as he makes certain phantoms appear and disappear, for example a bat turns into a personified version of Mephistopheles, various other creatures come and go. Two men show up and are shocked by the activities in the castle, and in the end one brandishes a crucifix which scares away the devil. The film lasts a little over three minutes in length.
Some have called it the first horror film, though its intent is not to shock and disturb, but rather to entertain and amuse.
La Lune à un mètre (1898) Director: Georges Méliès
The Astronomer’s Dream’s original title was “The Moon at One Meter.” Like many of Méliès’s films, it changed over time. The films slightly longer than three minutes.
It depicts a long astronomer star gazing when he is suddenly overcome with a series of alarming dreams. Various people and objects appear and then suddenly disappear, and then the face of the moon appears and starts eating people and chairs. The astronomer pushes back the moon until it becomes a crescent and a young woman appears on it. The astronomer stretches out but he is unable to grasp the moon or the woman. Then he awakens at his desk to find it was all a dream.
This film is a clear prelude to Méliès’s later A Trip To The Moon. The set design is remarkable.
Un homme de têtes (1898)
Literally translated as “The Man of Heads” and released in the U.S. as “The Four Troublesome Heads” (1898). The film is a brilliant little display of Méliès’s love for the optical illusion. It is an early example of the use of multiple exposure before a black backdrop.
Georges Méliès is the sole actor who appears on the scene before two tables. He takes his head off and places it on a table a total of four times (appearing to be four separate heads). Then his body picks up a banjo and starts playing while his heads on the tables sing along. He bashes the banjo over two of the heads and then tosses another head aside before placing his head on his shoulders again and he bows to the audience. It is an amusing and delightful bit of cinematic trickery.
Cendrillon (1899) Director: Georges Méliès
“Cinderella” contains more compelling set designs that are clearly inspired by Gustave Dore’s engravings. Dore had provided the illustrations for the children’s version of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale. Cinderella was Méliès’s first film containing multiple complex scenes, or “tableux.” It is a short re-telling of the Cinderella story – the ball, the lost slipper, and Cinderella being reunited with the Prince. It was Méliès’s first major financial success in Europe as well as in America.
Jeanne d’Arc (1900) Director: Georges Méliès
“Joan of Arc” is Georges Méliès’s next lavish film after his successes with “Cinderella.” Peasant-girl Joan (in the town of Domremy) is visited by several angels who advise her to fight for her country during the 100 Years War. She goes on to lead the French forces to victory at Orleans, but she is captured by the English and condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake in Normandy. There is a closing apotheosis scene in which she rises to heaven to be greeted by angels. The film lasts about 19 minutes.
The film was believed to be lost until a hand-colored version was discovered by a French film collector.
Le Rêve de Noël (1900) Director: Georges Méliès
“The Christmas Dream” is a unique example of a more heart-warming Méliès film. The scenery displays Christian symbolism, reflecting a small town in Europe. In an unusual twist for Méliès, the film is peaceful not anarchic.
It depicts a child falling asleep at the beginning with various Christmas characters dancing in his dream, a la the Nutcracker. Then it shows snow falling on the homes of a small European town as a church bell rings, followed by a feast, and the young child awakens the next morning for Christmas.
Barbe-bleue (1901) Director: Georges Méliès
“Blue Beard” is another of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales put to film by Georges Méliès, along with the story of Cinderella.
Blue Beard is a wealthy man, with a ghastly appearance, searching for a wife. Women are skeptical since he has previously had seven previous wives who have all mysteriously disappeared. However one man is persuaded to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to Blue Beard. He entrusts her with the castle but he forbids her to enter a particular room. When curiosity overcomes her, she enters the chamber to find the dead bodies of his prior wives hanging on hooks (the scene is still harrowing to this day). Terrified, she runs to the top of the castle and cries out to her family who save her and kill Bluebeard by stabbing him so that he is pinned to the castle. An angel appears and revives the dead women so they may be married to gentle lords of the realm.
As with many of his films, Méliès, himself, plays Bluebeard.
Robinson Crusoe (1902) Director: Georges Méliès
Sadly, Méliès’s version of Robinson Crusoe has only survived in fragmentary form, but from what we can see, the sets were incredible, both of the wrecked ship, as well as the island. Méliès plays Robinson Crusoe. The hand-colored fragment that survives was discovered in 2011.
Le Royaume des fées (1903) Director: Georges Méliès
“The Kingdom of the Fairies” had many different titles as it was widely copied and released throughout Europe and the United States. It was likely another fairy tale inspired by Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty.” It tells the story of a kingdom, and a princess who is attacked and taken away by a hoard of gremlin-looking creatures. The noblemen of the castle board a ship to chase after her, but the ship runs into stormy weather and it sinks to the bottom of the ocean with all manner of creatures. Several of the noblemen are swallowed by a whale and eventually spit up outside the castle of the gremlins. They break-in and rescue her. She triumphantly returns to her home at the castle. The film ends with a magnificent wedding.
The elaborate sets and imagination of this film surely makes it one of Méliès’s best films, particularly for the shipwreck scenes and the bottom of the ocean.
Voyage à travers l’impossible (1904) Director: Georges Méliès
“The Impossible Voyage” is based on a Jules Verne story. It was modeled on the earlier successes of A Trip To The Moon. The story is of a group of scientists who attempt to make a trip to the center of the sun. The odd cohort of bumbling scientists (from the Institute of Incoherent Geography) makes their way to Switzerland to attempt an impossible voyage around the world using all manner of vehicles and locomotion. They attach balloons to their train which floats into the sky and gets swallowed by the sun (personified). They put themselves in an ice box to avoid the heat of the sun and move to the submarine which drops down into the ocean from a cliff on the sun. Almost as soon as the underwater travels begin, the submarine explodes sending the travelers flying back up to the surface again returning to the Institute of Incoherent Geography where they are celebrated. It lasts about 20 minutes long.
Détresse et Charité (1904) Director: Georges Méliès
“The Christmas Angel” lasts around 13 minutes. It tells the story of a poor European family living in a shack during a snowy Christmas with snow leaking in through the roof. The daughter is sent to Paris to beg for alms, but she is turned away at every corner. In the French version, she dies in the snow and an angel appears and brings her soul to heaven. In the American version, a rich couple pulls up in a car and rescues her by lavishing her with riches. This distinction is unique and conveys an early American desire for a ‘happily ever after’ story.
Les Quat’Cents Farces du diable (1906) Director: Georges Méliès
“The Merry Frolics of Satan” showcases more of Méliès’s taste for the occult with a twist on the Faustian legend. A lone engineer is offered a bargain from Mephistopheles and together they go on a long adventure until the engineer is eventually dragged down into the pits of hell. Méliès plays Mephistopheles in the film.
À la conquête du pôle (1912) Director: Georges Méliès
“The Conquest of the Pole” was one of Méliès’s last films before his popularity declined in 1912 and he never made another film again. Like his earlier films it is based on Jules Verne adventure stories, and also contemporary explorations to the poles (Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen. The film was a box office flop which helped contribute to Méliès’s financial ruin. It is frequently described as one of his best films. It is a brilliant satire of the race to the ends of the earth that fascinated early 20th century mankind.
It tells the story of a group of explorers who build a large airplane to fly to the North Pole. They are frequently plagued by a group of militant suffragettes who demand to be included. In addition, other groups grow excited and build all manner of craft to race to the pole. Once at the North Pole, after all the other crafts crash land, the scientists encounter a giant ice monster and a huge magnet. They are eventually picked up by a passing aircraft, as the creatures of the North Pole bid them farewell, and they return home to a grand celebration.
It was Méliès’s longest cinematic work running at nearly 30 minutes.
This list is only a small taste of the complete canon of Méliès’s films. It is not intended to be exhaustive of his complete work. Other important works include: Baron Munchausen’s Dream (1911), The Witch (1906), Under The Seas (1907), An Adventurous Automobile Trip (1905), The Palace of the Arabian Nights (1905), Rip’s Dream (1905), among many others. In our modern age today, a devoted cinema-lover may watch all surviving 194 full films of Georges Méliès on Youtube.