Georges Méliès Short Films (1896-1912) Review

I recently (re)watched several early Georges Méliès films and, needless to say, this ingenious film collection truly defies words. I was struck by how much the cutting room floor played a key role in the development of each short film as we see Méliès’s chaotic and imaginative world come to life –a place filled with magic and intrigue coupled with amusing stories to delight. His cinematic landscape is often disordered and scrambled with characters frantically searching for things while objects and people disappear in and out of frame. It offers a blend of ordered anarchy.

Throughout his entire corpus, Méliès created about 500 films (only about 200 of which survive today) 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 all films made before 1950) were destroyed due to the difficulty in preserving these original negatives. Additionally, Méliès destroyed some of his own negatives in a fit of frustration over copyright issues. The French army also confiscated some of his negatives which have now been lost. The only reason a portion of Méliès’s canon has survived at all is because his brother and business partner, Gaston Méliès, took great liberties to preserve some of these early frames in order to protect their copyright (he submitted them to the U.S. Library of Congress). The Méliès’s company was called the Star Film Company, founded in the 1890s in France before eventually relocating 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 make movies year-round in a favorable climate. Méliès battled copyright infringement against his films almost all of his career. As his movies grew in popularity, so did the exploitation of his work. He fought against Edison in America and the Lumiere brothers in France, unfortunately many of his films were duplicated and reproduced without permission. Méliès created a union of film-makers at the same time as his international reputation rose between 1902 and 1907, however it was no match for Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, a massive trust created to crush any competition and dominate the film industry.

Tragically, Méliès’s strategy of combatting the monopoly largely failed, and by the 1920s Méliès’s brother had died and Méliès himself was financially ruined. He disappeared for many years, scraping together an impoverished livelihood. He was later found selling candy and toys inside the Paris metro. Gradually, film-makers began to reappraise the importance of Méliès. His rediscovery led to a rebirth of his works in the mid-1920s and he was quickly celebrated as an early film pioneer. Directors began tracking him down, particularly directors like Rene Clair. This second act for Méliès served him well until his death in 1938.

My favorite Méliès film, and incidentally his most popular, remains A Trip To The Moon which I have reviewed elsewhere, however I thought all of these were brilliant in their own right.

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, and various other creatures come and go. Two men arrive and are shocked by the activities in the castle, in the end one man 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 necessarily to shock and disturb, but rather to entertain and amuse.

La Lune à un mètre (1898) Director: Georges Méliès
The Astronomer’s Dream was originally titled “The Moon at One Meter.” Like many of Méliès’s films, it changed over time. The film is slightly longer than three minutes.

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It depicts an astronomer star-gazing when he falls asleep and is suddenly overcome with a series of alarming dreams. Various people and objects appear and then suddenly disappear, just as 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 only 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 particularly remarkable in this film to capture the astronomer’s chaotic dreamworld –and after all aren’t all movies mere dreams and apparitions?

Un homme de têtes (1898)
Literally translated as “The Man of Heads” and released in the U.S. as “The Four Troublesome Heads” (1898), this 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 shockingly takes his head off and places it on a nearby table four separate times (they amusingly appear to be four separate heads). Then his body picks up a banjo and starts playing while the heads on the table sing along. He bashes the banjo over two of the heads and then tosses another head aside before placing his head back on his shoulders again before bowing 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 of the same name. 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.” The 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 then leads the French forces to victory at Orleans, but she is captured by the English and condemned as a heretic before being 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 in the 20th century.

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 rather than anarchic.

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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 his earlier portrayal of 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 been married seven times and all of his prior wives have mysteriously disappeared. However one man is persuaded to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to Blue Beard. Blue Beard entrusts her with his castle but he forbids her to enter a particular room. When curiosity overcomes her, she enters the chamber to find all the dead bodies of his prior wives hanging on hooks (the scene is still harrowing to watch to this day). Terrified, she runs to the top of the castle and cries out to her family who come to her rescue and kill Bluebeard by stabbing him so that he is forever 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 of the island. Méliès himself plays Robinson Crusoe. The hand-colored fragment that survives today 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 captive by a hoard of gremlin-esque creatures who imprison her in their castle. The noblemen of the castle then board a ship to chase after her, but the ship runs into stormy weather and it sinks to the bottom of the ocean amidst all manner of sea creatures. Several of the noblemen are swallowed by a whale and eventually they are spit up outside the castle of the gremlins. They quickly enter the castle and rescue the princess. She triumphantly returns to her home and the film ends with a magnificent wedding.

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The elaborate sets and imagination of this film surely makes it one of Méliès’s best films, particularly for the shipwrecked scenes and the bottom of the ocean.

Voyage à travers l’impossible (1904) Director: Georges Méliès

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“The Impossible Voyage” is based on Jules Verne’s famous story. It was modeled on the earlier success 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 group consists of an odd cohort of bumbling scientists (from the Institute of Incoherent Geography) as they make 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 then floats into the sky and is swallowed by the sun (personified). They put themselves in an ice box to avoid the heat of the sun and transport to a submarine which drops into the ocean from a cliff along the sun’s ridge. Almost as soon as the underwater travel begins, the submarine explodes sending the travelers flying back up to the earth’s surface again where they return to the Institute of Incoherent Geography amidst great celebration. 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 Christmas Eve as snow leaks in through their roof. Their 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 bringing 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, as well as the vulgar American obsession with riches.

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’s adventure stories, as well as contemporary explorations of the poles –such as Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen. Sadly, the film was a box office flop which helped contribute to Méliès’s financial ruin. Despite these troubles, it is frequently described as one of his best films. The film is a brilliant satire of the race to the ends of the earth that ceaselessly fascinated early 20th century mankind.

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It tells the story of a group of explorers who build a large airplane and 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, as well. Upon arriving at the North Pole, 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. This was Méliès’s longest cinematic work running at nearly 30 minutes.

This list is only a small sampling of the complete canon of Méliès’s films. It is not intended to be exhaustive of his complete work. Other important works by Georges Méliès 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 is offered the rare chance to freely watch all surviving films of Georges Méliès as they have entered the public domain. What a treat!

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