Who is George Méliès?
Innovator, magician, pioneer: Georges Méliès (1861-1938) is a towering behemoth over the history history of cinema. Though his tragic life was met with great hardship, his creative and technical genius is unparalleled. Méliès was the third son of a prosperous Parisian family who owned a boot/footwear factory (is father was French and his mother was Dutch). Méliès was classically educated and served in the military before he was sent to London to learn English. It was in England that he first learned to practice the tricks of an illusionist. Eventually, he returned to Paris, married, and began working in his family’s shoe factory again. When his father retired, Méliès sold his share in the family business to his two older brothers. With the proceeds he purchased and retrofitted an old theatre in Paris, Théâtre Robert-Houdin, named after famed magician Robert Houdin. Harry Houdini later called the theatre a “historic temple of magic.” It once stood at No. 8, Boulevard des Italiens until it was sold and demolished following the First World War.
In its heyday Méliès produced a number of magic shows at the theatre, he also drew political cartoons for the liberal newspaper, La Griffe. In 1895 Méliès’s life was changed. He attended an early film screening by the Lumière brothers showcasing their new invention, the Cinematograph. They screened several short early movies. Immediately after the show Méliès tried to purchase the newfangled machine for his theatre, but the Lumière brothers declined. Méliès later bought a similar machine from the Edison Company. With this new technology, Méliès co-founded the Star Film Company and began producing hundreds of short magically-inspired films using a variety of highly advanced experimental techniques. His movies featured haunted mansions, voyages to outer space and the center of the earth, or reenactments of folktales and popular literature. He accidentally discovered many new special effects and editing tricks. In total, estimates suggest he created, directed, and acted in some 500 movies. He shot many of his films at his home studio made of glass in Montreuil (located outside Paris).
In later years Méliès’s Star Film Company was subsumed under the international corporate congomerate of the Edson Company which was attempting to control the full market for movie-making. It was a crushing blow to small independent film-makers like Méliès. In addition, his brother and business partner made a series of foolish financial moves and Méliès fell deeply into debt. Upon the outbreak of World War I his home studio was acquired by the French army, many of his negatives were melted down and destroyed for the war effort, his beloved theatre was torn down, and The Star Film Company was acquired by Pathé. In a rage, Méliès destroyed most of his films and costumes for his once grand movies -and then he disappeared.
In 1924, a historian was writing a book of early cinema and so he began searching for foundational pioneers of French film-making. He managed to track down an aging and impoverished Georges Méliès who was scraping together a living by selling candy and toys in the Gare Montparnasse railway terminal in Paris. Méliès’s first wife had died and he had remarried his mistress. Very shortly after Méliès was rediscovered, journalists and artists began approaching him to document his story. Intellectuals took notice and Méliès’s prestige grew when he was granted an award by Louis Lumière for his many achievements. To help him escape destitution, a collection of admirers arranged secure housing for Méliès and his family. Younger french directors, like René Clair, began working with Méliès. In fact, Clair gave Méliès the keys to a nearby abandoned warehouse in which early negatives from his surviving films could be stored. Thus, in his last year of life, Méliès became the first conservator of the Cinémathèque Française, one of the world’s largest archival projects of the history of film. Méliès died in 1938 of cancer on the same day as fellow French film pioneer Émile Cohl. In 2011 a wonderfully imaginative film was released about Méliès later years (Ben Kingsley played Méliès).
As part of my film project I watched a collection of Georges Méliès’s surviving films detailed in two posts below. Today, slightly over 200 Méliès films survive in full or in part.
Georges Méliès Short Films (1896-1912)
Director: George Méliès. George Méliès is the great French pioneer of early narrative and special effects-based films. These pictures are incredibly ingenious for the time – the cutting room floor plays a key role in the development of each movie as we see Méliès’s chaotic and imaginative world filled with magic and intrigue. His world is often disordered and scrambled with characters frantically searching about as objects and people disappear in and out of frame. Méliès created hundreds of films in his prime, and only a small selection of his corpus survives today, but what has survived is extraordinary.
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
Director: George Méliès. Loosely based on novels by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, “The Trip to the Moon” is Méliès’s masterpiece about a group of scientist who blast their way to the moon in a little bullet. They encounter odd creatures on the surface and escape from the leader by falling back to earth where they are celebrated with a parade. Even today, this short French film is astounding and awe-inspiring.