French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861–1938) was in the words of Jim Gilchrist of the Scotsman, "one of the great pioneers of the cinema." The special effects and onscreen magic of movies made more than a century after his heyday still reflect the impact of his innovations and his imagination.
Beginning with the mere raw materials of a new medium, which had done little more than record scenes of everyday life, Méliès began to use film to tell stories, and then, drawing on his background as a stage musician, to enchant. Largely by accident he began exploring the uses of stop-action photography. He made the first science fiction film, was the first to use the split-screen technique, and experimented with slow motion, fadeouts, and double exposure. Yet as fascinating as his technical innovations was the sheer profusion of fantasy Méliès brought to the screen. In the surviving films of Méliès (many have been lost), cut-off heads are thrown into the air and land on telegraph wires, strumming them to the tune of "God Save the King." A spaceship, launched by chorus line of waving showgirls, lands in the eye of the man in the moon. An ancient Egyptian rejoices as his deceased wife is brought back to life by a magician, only to recoil in horror as she turns into a skeleton in his arms. Subsequent generations improved on the special effects capabilities of Méliès, but the visual surprises of his films have lost little of their impact.
Constructed Marionette Shows
The son of a prosperous French shoe manufacturer and his Dutch-born wife, who also had a background in the shoe business, Méliès was born in Paris, France, on December 8, 1861. Attending school at the Lycée Impérial in suburban Vanves, he got into trouble with teachers by filling his notebooks with caricatures of them. Another of his passions was marionettes, and he built his own sets for small marionette shows he mounted beginning at age 10. At about that age he received another push in the direction of a stage career: taken to the theater for the first time, he saw a performance by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, one of the great magicians of the age and one whose influence was memorialized in the stage name of American magician Harry Houdini.
At first Méliès had the ambition to become a painter, but his father insisted that he enter the family shoe business. Serving in the French military as a teenager, Méliès had the good luck to be assigned to a garrison near Robert-Houdin's estate; he likely picked up some instruction from the magician during this period. After finishing his military service, Méliès went to London; his father wanted to open a new branch there, and the plan was for the young Méliès to learn to speak English well. Working in a clothing store and uncomfortable in his new environment, Méliès sought out evening entertainment that did not depend on language. He attended performances by Maskelyne and Cooke, the so-called Royal Illusionists. Their shows both diverted audiences and debunked the claims of spiritualists and seers who claimed to call ghosts forth into the tangible world.
The mobile skeletons and other illusions of Maskelyne and Cooke's shows had a powerful effect on Méliès, and in 1888 he got the opportunity to put his theatrical ideas into action. His father retired, leaving the family business to Méliès and his brothers, whereupon Méliès sold his share and used the profits to buy the theater where his first inspiration had worked his magic—the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Reopening in 1888 with Méliès as owner-manager, the theater presented a variety of live acts. But it was projections—large slide shows of exotic scenes projected onto a wall or screen—that proved most popular.
In 1895 Méliès paid the one-franc admission fee and attended a demonstration by Antoine Lumière, one of the true inventors of cinema. He watched as a photograph of a street scene suddenly began to move, with a horse and cart moving toward the audience. "We sat with our mouths open, without speaking, filled with amazement," he recalled, according to the Missing Link website. Méliès immediately realized the importance of the invention and offered to buy one of the Lumière projectors. He was turned down but soon bought a rival camera offered by British inventor Robert William Paul and acquired several other movie cameras as well. He imported short films made in America by Thomas Edison to show in his theatre. Even the plain shots of factory workers leaving for home were fascinating to audiences at the time. Beginning in the spring of 1896, Méliès started making films of his own.
At first these films consisted of a single short reel, but Méliès advanced quickly. He made 80 films in the year 1896 alone, broadening his reach from single takes lasting about a minute to, by the end of the year, a three-reel, nine-minute extravaganza. From the start he had a wider palette of subjects than those of his early competitors; these early efforts included little dramas, comedies, newsreels, product advertisements, and even what would later be called pornography. Méliès almost always served as star, director, writer, producer, and even set-builder and costumer of his films, a development that fascinated later chroniclers of film as an art form but eventually damaged Méliès's financial fortunes. He built a studio (probably the first in cinema history) so that bad weather would not slow down filming, using glass walls to admit natural light. And at the end of 1896 he formed a new company, Star Film.
Early movie camera equipment was notoriously unreliable, and while Méliès was filming an ordinary street scene for one 1896 film he discovered that the film had jammed inside the machine. As he examined the film, he noticed that the resultant gap had created a curious illusion: a carriage moving along the street appeared to have been replaced suddenly by a hearse. An earlier filmmaker had experimented with what would be called stop-action cinematography, but once again it was Méliès who saw that the device had tremendous potential in extending theatrical realms of fantasy and imagination. Méliès began to introduce special effects into his films of 1897, one of the best of which, still extant, was L'auberge ensorcelé (The Bewitched Inn), in which a traveler bedding down for the night is dismayed to find his clothes moving around his room under their own power. That year Méliès also released a film called Le chirugien américain that featured what may be the earliest example on film of the mad scientist character type. Although its title meant "The American Surgeon," that film was released with the English title A Twentieth-Century Surgeon. Films by Méliès soon became popular in England and America, where they sometimes appeared under slightly altered titles.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s Méliès expanded his range, both technically and in the realm of fantasy. He probably hit upon the stop-action idea independently of other early filmmakers who experimented with it, and he is thought to have filmed the first double exposure (in La caverne maudite, 1898), the first split-screen shot (Un homme de teête, 1898), and the first dissolve effect (Cendrillon, or Cinderella, 1899). Un homme de teête was the first Méliès film to feature a special-effects decapitation, treating the viewer to severed heads that float around a room. Méliès appeared as the Devil in several films.
Méliès turned to more exotic settings for some of his films. In La chrysalide et le papillon (released as The Brahmin and the Butterfly, 1901), the filmmaker dressed as an Indian man observing a caterpillar that changes into an alluring butterfly woman. Unlike other early filmmakers, Méliès employed professional actors—often chorus girls from nearby theaters for the female roles—to make his films as entertaining as possible. Yet at times he made serious works with no fantasy element. L'affaire Dreyfus, his longest film before 1900, was a multipart nonfiction treatment, essentially a documentary, about the controversial espionage trial of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus. The film stirred street violence and was banned, becoming among the first films subjected to political censorship.
Filmed Space Shot
The year 1902 saw the release of several Méliès films that survived the later mass destruction of his work and became icons of the early silent film era. In L'homme à la tê de caoutchouc (released as The Man with a Rubber Head), a man's head (as usual, that of Méliès) seems to inflate as his assistants squeezes bellows. The illusion was created by putting Méliès on a little wagon on a miniature track and then moving the track toward the camera. Similar tricks (later with the camera instead of the subject moving—Méliès never hit upon the ideas of close-ups and long shots) lay behind special effects using a "dolly" for decades afterward. More ambitious financially was Le voyage dans la lune (The Trip to the Moon), filmed in May of 1902. The film cost Méliès 10,000 francs to make, and in a way it was cinema's first big-budget spectacular. The film featured lunar inhabitants called Selenites, played by a large cast of music-hall actors and acrobats whom Méliès attracted by offering higher salaries than they could make in live theater. The film's most famous image, frequently reproduced later, showed an earth spaceship landing in the eye of the man in the moon.
Le voyage dans la lune marked the beginning of another long-term cinematic trend—it was widely pirated and circulated in unauthorized copies. Méliès tried to keep control over the distribution of his films, opening offices in Barcelona, Berlin, London, and New York by 1903. But the new studio model of filmmaking, pioneered in France by the Pathé Frères corporation, was beginning to make inroads on Méliès's do-it-yourself operations. Méliès continued to make successful films, including Sorcellerie culinaire (released as The Cook in Trouble), in which a man is himself cooked in the stew he has been preparing, and several other adventure stories, including a 1907 parody of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which a fisherman is attacked by a giant octopus. In 1908 he made a film of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
By 1911 Méliès was in financial trouble and had to form a distribution deal with the Pathé studio in order to survive. He made a few more films, including A la conquête du Pole (The Conquest of the Pole, 1912), which featured a giant Bigfoot-like marionette. But he devoted most of his energy toward his Robert-Houdin Theatre, which was in turn financially hurt by the outbreak of World War I. Méliès converted part of his studio building into a small theater called Variétés artistiques, where he and his family made up most of the performing forces. He limped along until 1923. When the Robert-Houdin Theatre was torn down as part of a road-building project, Méliès had to remove a lifetime's worth of materials from the building, and much of it, including many of his precious film negatives (he made some 500 films in all), was discarded or sold as scrap. Many of the Méliès films that survive today are copies originally made by distributors or pirates.
Coming full circle in the 1920s, Méliès scratched out a living by doing magic shows at French casinos. His first wife died, and in 1925 he married one of his former actresses, Charlotte Stéphanie Faëes, and the two operated a small toy kiosk at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. His fall from prominence was interrupted when French film journalist Léon Druhot spotted Méliès working in the toy shop and wrote about him. A retrospective of Méliès films, with several new prints, was organized in 1929 by theater owner and experimental film advocate Jean-Paul Mauclair, and Méliès was given a rent-free apartment in a housing development devoted to cinema pioneers. He appeared in two advertising films in the mid-1930s and was inducted into the French Legion of Honor. Méliès died in Paris on January 21, 1938. Painters of the Surrealist movement have cited Méliès as an influence, and his style is plainly reflected in the work of contemporary Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin.
Ezra, Elizabeth, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, Manchester University Press, 2000.
Robinson, David, Georges Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy, Museum of the Moving Image, 1993.
New York Times, March 3, 2002.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland) January 3, 2002.
"Georges Méliès," Senses of Cinema, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/04/melies.html (February 16, 2007).
"Marie Georges Jean Méliès," Adventures in Cybersound, http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/MELIES_BIO.html (February 16, 2007).
"Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions," The Missing Link, http://www.mshepley/btinternet.co.uk/melies.htm (February 16, 2007).