Méliès, Georges (1861-1938)

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MÉLIÈS, GEORGES (1861-1938)

Born in Paris in 1861, the third child of a successful boot manufacturer, Georges Méliès showed interest in the visual arts of drawing, caricature, painting, and sculpture from childhood. As a young man, he briefly entered the family trade and worked with the shop machinery. He later said, "I was born an artist in my soul, very skilled with my hands, capable of inventing things and a comedian by nature. I was at once an intellectual and a manual worker." His knowledge of mechanics combined with his artistic talents later led him to undertake scenic and machinery design for the theater and films.

During an 1884 stay in London, Méliès was first attracted to the world of stage illusion. He returned to Paris in 1885, but rather than reentering the family business, he continued the study of painting and drawing. He married his first wife, Eugénie Genin, the same year. Their children, Georgette and André, were born in 1888 and 1901, respectively.

When Méliès's father, Louis, retired in 1888, Méliès sold his inherited share of the footwear business to his two older brothers and bought the famous, but run-down, Théatre Robert-Houdin from the widow of the famous magician for whom it was named. Over the next ten years, he created at least thirty illusions for the theater, many of which he later recast into motion-picture effects.

It is likely that Méliès attended the first public film screening in Paris by the Lumière brothers (Auguste and Louis) on December 28, 1895. He bought a projector and began to show films at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in April 1896.

Between 1896 and 1900, Méliès started to develop the film genres and technical approaches that he would explore throughout his filmmaking career, which peaked between 1901 and 1904 and ended in 1912. Unlike the Lumière cameramen, who chose outdoor locations for their documentary style of production, Méliès selected a closed, interior space in which to compose his "artificially arranged scenes." This practice anticipated that of the great studios at the height of the film industry. He built the first permanent film studio and created the first company solely dedicated to producing films, the Star Film Company. He may have been the only filmmaker to use artificial light as early as 1897.

A perfectionist, Méliès worked meticulously on all aspects of production. He devised effects, designed period costumes, and drew backgrounds before writing a scenario to guide the action. In addition to handling logistical details, Méliès often joined with friends and family to act in his own films. His daughter, Georgette, who acted as a child, later became, perhaps, the world's first female camera operator. Although demanding, Méliès was concerned for the well-being of his actors and technicians; he was active in theatrical and motion-picture trade organizations throughout his career.

Shaky finances caused Méliès to return to the stage in 1910 and to leave filmmaking two years later. His wife, Eugénie, died in 1913, after a long illness. In 1917, during World War I, his film studio at Montreuil became a hospital for the war-wounded. Méliès and his family staged variety shows after that in a second studio converted into a theater. He remarried in 1925, to Jehanne d'Alcy, a former actress and Méliès's mistress of many years. The two sold toys and candy at a small shop in the Gare Montparnasse. Méliès published his reminiscences in 1926 and made his last public appearance in 1929 at a gala retrospective of his work at the Salle Pleyel. The following year, his daughter Georgette died. In 1931, Méliès was awarded the Legion of Honor and hailed by Louis Lumière as "the creator of cinematic spectacles." In 1932 he, his wife, and his granddaughter were given lodging at an estate owned by an organization for people who had been involved with motion pictures. He died of cancer on January 21, 1938, and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

During his career, Méliès completed some 498 films. Many vanished or were destroyed during his lifetime. Some prints were recycled for their silver content during World War I, with the celluloid made, ironically, into boot heels for soldiers. Other film copies disappeared when the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was demolished in 1923. In the 1950s, however, thirty-three lost prints of Méliès films were rediscovered in the U.S. Library of Congress, preserved as rolled paper contact sheets submitted for copyright. A collection sold by Méliès's brother, Gaston, to the Vitagraph Company and privately held for many years added an additional thirty films that had been thought missing. In all, 137 Méliès films are known to have survived.

Méliès is best known for creating a vocabulary of special-effects photography, based on his stage illusions, that manipulates time and space. He first used stop-substitution, his single most important cinematic contribution, in The Vanishing Lady (1896); double exposure in The Cabinet of Mephistopheles (1897); reversed action in A DinnerUnder Difficulties (1898); and an early matte shot in A Mysterious Portrait (1898).

Méliès refined these techniques in hundreds of short fantasy films; his most famous, A Voyage to the Moon (1902), spread his name around the world. He explored other genres from historical recreation to political films. The Dreyfus Affair (1899) was probably the first film serial as well as the first film censored for political reasons. He also pioneered the "stag" film by feigning nudity in After the Ball (1897). It is possible that Cinderella (1899) alerted Cecil B. DeMille to the possibilities of spectacle, which he later became known for in Hollywood.

Early biographers and film historians saw Méliès's contribution to film as primitive and evolutionary toward the style that was later practiced by D. W. Griffith. Méliès's work was criticized for having no developed story line, only a series of scenes; for using only one camera angle; and for the technical impreciseness of mismatched edits. However, less-biased analysis examines Méliès's work from its own singular perspective. For Méliès, story line was always the finishing touch in a creative process, not the core. He started with a series of illusions costumed and set in an appropriate period. His editing process highlighted magical effect or comprehensive point-of-view, not narrative flow. In one instance, Méliès cut film to show a vehicle crashing through a building twice from two different perspectives; that way, his audience could see the reactions of those outside the building as well as those within the building. To Méliès, the stuttering effect of such reiteration on the narrative was not a concern. Although his camera remained physically stationary, Méliès simulated camera movement by shifting the visual perspective of scenes in his background painting. Scholars now acknowledge that Méliès's unique exploration and presentation of cinematic space is essentially different from films of the period that used three-dimensional space.

See also:Film Industry, History of; Griffith, D. W.; LumiÈre, Auguste/LumiÈre, Louis.


Frazer, John. (1979). Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès. Boston: G. K. Hall.

Gaudreault, André. (1987). "Theatricality, Narrativity, and Trickality: Reevaluating the Cinema of Georges Méliès." Journal of Popular Film and Television 15(3):110-119.

Ted C. Jones