Georges Méliès, c. 1890
8 December 1861
|Died||21 January 1938
|Occupation||Filmmaker, film actor, set designer, illusionist, toymaker, costume designer|
|Spouse(s)||Eugénie Génin (1885–1913; her death) (two children)
Jeanne d'Alcy (1925–1938; his death)
Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, known as Georges Méliès (//; French: [meljɛs]; 8 December 1861 – 21 January 1938), was a French illusionist and filmmaker famous for leading many technical and narrative developments in the earliest days of cinema. Méliès, a prolific innovator in the use of special effects, accidentally discovered the substitution stop trick in 1896, and was one of the first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color in his work. Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality through cinematography, Méliès is sometimes referred to as the first "Cinemagician". His films include A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), both involving strange, surreal journeys somewhat in the style of Jules Verne, and are considered among the most important early science fiction films, though their approach is closer to fantasy. Méliès was also an early pioneer of horror cinema, which can be traced back to his The Haunted Castle (1896).
Early life and education
Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born 8 December 1861 in Paris to Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and his Dutch wife, Johannah-Catherine Schuering. His father had moved to Paris in 1843 as a journeyman shoemaker and began working at a boot factory, where he met Méliès' mother. Johannah-Catherine's father had been the official bootmaker of the Dutch court before a fire ruined his business. She helped to educate Jean-Louis-Stanislas. Eventually the two married, founded a high-quality boot factory on the Boulevard Saint-Martin, and had sons Henri and Gaston; by the time of third son Georges' birth, the family had become wealthy.
Georges Méliès attended the Lycée Michelet from age seven until it was bombed during the Franco-Prussian War; he was then sent to the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand. In his memoirs, Méliès emphasises his formal, classical education, as opposed to accusations early in his career that most filmmakers had been "illiterates incapable of producing anything artistic." However, he acknowledged that his creative instincts usually outweighed intellectual ones: "The artistic passion was too strong for him, and while he would ponder a French composition or Latin verse, his pen mechanically sketched portraits or caricatures of his professors or classmates, if not some fantasy palace or an original landscape that already had the look of a theatre set." Often disciplined by teachers for covering his notebooks and textbooks with drawings, young Georges began building cardboard puppet theatres at age ten and moved on to craft even more sophisticated marionettes as a teenager. Méliès graduated from the Lycée with a baccalauréat in 1880.
After completing his education, Méliès joined his brothers in the family shoe business, where he learned how to sew. After three years of mandatory military service, his father sent him to London to work as a clerk for a family friend. While in London, he began to visit the Egyptian Hall, run by the famous London illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne, and he developed a lifelong passion for stage magic. Méliès returned to Paris in 1885 with a new desire: to study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts. His father, however, refused to support him financially as an artist, so Georges settled with supervising the machinery at the family factory. That same year, he avoided his family's desire for him to marry his brother's sister-in-law and instead married Eugénie Génin, a family friend's daughter whose guardians had left her a sizable dowry. Together they had two children: Georgette, born in 1888, and André, born in 1901.
While working at the family factory, Méliès continued to cultivate his interest in stage magic, attending performances at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, which had been founded by the famous magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. He also began taking magic lessons from Emile Voisin, who gave him the opportunity to perform his first public shows, at the Cabinet Fantastique of the Grévin Wax Museum and, later, at the Galerie Vivienne.
In 1888, Méliès' father retired, and Georges Méliès sold his share of the family shoe business to his two brothers. With the money from the sale and from his wife's dowry, he purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Although the theatre was "superb" and equipped with lights, levers, trap doors, and several automata, many of the available illusions and tricks were out of date, and attendance to the theatre was low even after Méliès' initial renovations.
Over the next nine years, Méliès personally created over 30 new illusions that brought more comedy and melodramatic pageantry to performances, much like those Méliès had seen in London, and attendance greatly improved. One of his best-known illusions was the Recalcitrant Decapitated Man, in which a professor's head is cut off in the middle of a speech and continues talking until it is returned to his body. When he purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès also inherited its chief mechanic Eugène Calmels and such performers as Jehanne d'Alcy, who would become his mistress and, later, his second wife. While running the theatre, Méliès also worked as a political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper La Griffe, which was edited by his cousin Adolphe Méliès.
As owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès began working more behind the scenes than on stage. He acted as director, producer, writer, set and costume designer, as well as inventing many of the magical tricks. With the theatre's growing popularity, he brought in such famous magicians as Buatier De Kolta, Duperrey, and Raynaly to the theatre. Along with magic tricks, performances included fairy pantomimes, an automaton performance during intermissions, magic lantern shows, and special effects such as snowfall and lightning. In 1895, Méliès was elected president of the Chambre Syndicale des Artistes Illusionistes.
Early film career
On the evening of 27 December 1895, Méliès attended a special private demonstration of the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, given for owners of Parisian houses of spectacle.[a] Méliès immediately offered the Lumières 10,000₣ for one of their machines; the Lumières refused, anxious to keep a close control on their invention and to emphasize the scientific nature of the device. (For the same reasons, they refused the Musée Grévin's 20,000₣ bid and the Folies Bergère's 50,000₣ bid the same night.) Méliès, intent on finding a film projector for the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, turned elsewhere; numerous other inventors in Europe and America were experimenting with machines similar to the Lumières' invention, albeit at a less technically sophisticated level. Possibly acting on a tip from Jehanne d'Alcy, who may have seen Robert W. Paul's Animatograph film projector while on tour in England, Méliès traveled to London. He bought an Animatograph from Paul, as well as several short films sold by Paul and by the Edison Manufacturing Company. By April 1896, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was showing films as part of its daily performances.
Méliès, after studying the design of the Animatograph, modified the machine so that it would serve as a film camera. As raw film stock and film processing labs were not yet available in Paris, Méliès purchased unperforated film in London, and personally developed and printed his films through trial and error.
In September 1896, Méliès, Lucien Korsten, and Lucien Reulos patented the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, an cast iron camera-projector, which Méliès referred to as his "coffee grinder" and "machine gun" because of the noise that it made. By 1897 technology had caught up and better cameras were put on sale in Paris, leading Méliès to discard his own camera and purchase several better cameras made by Gaumont, the Lumières, and Pathé.
Méliès directed over 500 films between 1896 and 1913, ranging in length from one to forty minutes. In subject matter, these films are often similar to the magic theatre shows that Méliès had been doing, containing "tricks" and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size. These early special effects films were essentially devoid of plot. The special effects were used only to show what was possible, rather than enhance the overall narrative. Méliès' early films were mostly composed of single in-camera effects, used for the entirety of the film. For example, after experimenting with multiple exposure, Méliès created his film The One-Man Band in which he played seven different characters simultaneously.
Méliès began shooting his first films in May 1896, and screening them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin by that August. At the end of 1896 he and Reulos founded the Star Film Company, with Korsten acting as his primary camera operator. Many of his earliest films were copies and remakes of the Lumière brothers' films, made to compete with the 2000 daily customers of the Grand Café. This included his first film Playing Cards, which is similar to an early Lumière film. However, many of his other early films reflected Méliès' knack for theatricality and spectacle, such as A Terrible Night, in which a hotel guest is attacked by a giant bedbug. But more importantly, the Lumière brothers had dispatched camera operators across the world to document it as ethnographic documentarians, intending their invention to be highly important in scientific and historical study. Méliès' Star Film Company, on the other hand, was geared more towards the "fairground clientele" who wanted his specific brand of magic and illusion: art.
In these earliest films, Méliès began to experiment with (and often invent) special effects that were unique to filmmaking. This began, according to Méliès' memoirs, by accident when his camera jammed in the middle of a take and "a Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse and women changed into men. The substitution trick, called the stop trick, had been discovered." This same stop trick effect had already been used by Thomas Edison when depicting a decapitation in The Execution of Mary Stuart; however, Méliès' film effects and unique style of film magic are his own. He first used these effects in The Vanishing Lady, in which the by then cliché magic trick of a person vanishing from the stage by means of a trap door is enhanced by the person turning into a skeleton until finally reappearing on the stage.
In September 1896, Méliès began to build a film studio on his property in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. The main stage building was made entirely of glass walls and ceilings so as to allow in sunlight for film exposure and its dimensions were identical to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. The property also included a shed for dressing rooms and a hangar for set construction. Because colors would often photograph in unexpected ways on black-and-white film, all sets, costumes and actors' makeup were colored in different tones of gray. Méliès described the studio as "the union of the photography workshop (in its gigantic proportions) and the theatre stage." Actors performed in front of a painted set as inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theatre. For the remainder of his film career, he would divide his time between Montreuil and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where he "arrived at the studio at seven a.m. to put in a ten-hour day building sets and props. At five, he would change his clothes and set out for Paris in order to be at the theatre office by six to receive callers. After a quick dinner, he was back to the theatre for the eight o'clock show, during which he sketched his set designs, and then returned to Montreuil to sleep. On Fridays and Saturdays, he shot scenes prepared during the week, while Sundays and holidays were taken up with a theatre matinee, three film screenings, and an evening presentation that lasted until eleven-thirty."
In total, Méliès made 78 films in 1896 and 52 in 1897. By this time he had covered every genre of film that he would continue to film for the rest of his career. These included the Lumière-like documentaries, comedies, historical reconstructions, dramas, magic tricks, and féeries (fairy stories), which would become his most well-known genre. In 1896, Méliès made The Haunted Castle, which can technically be considered the first horror film. It was followed in 1897 by the equally named, The Haunted Castle, one of the first colored films. That same year, Georges Brunel wrote that "MM. Méliès and Reulos have, above all, made a speciality of fantastic or artistic scenes, reproductions of theatre scenes, etc., so as to create a special genre, entirely distinct from the ordinary cinematographic views consisting of street scenes or genre subjects." Like the Lumière brothers and Pathé, Star Films also made "stag films" such as Peeping Tom at the Seaside, A Hypnotist at Work and After the Ball, which is the only one of these films that has survived, and stars Jeanne d'Alcy stripping down to a flesh-colored leotard and being bathed by her maid. Between 1896 and 1900, Méliès also made ten advertisements for such products as whiskey, chocolate, and baby cereal. In September 1897, Méliès attempted to turn the Théâtre Robert-Houdin into a movie theatre with fewer magic shows and film screenings every night. But by late December 1897, film screenings were limited to Sunday nights only.
Méliès made only 27 films in 1898, but his work was becoming more ambitious and elaborate. His films included the historical reconstruction of the sinking of the USS Maine Divers at Work on the Wreck of the "Maine", the magic trick film The Famous Box Trick, and the féerie The Astronomer's Dream. In this film, Méliès plays an astronomer who has the Moon cause his laboratory to transform and demons and angels to visit him. He also made one of his first of many religious satires with The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in which a statue of Jesus Christ on the cross is transformed into a seductive woman, played by Jeanne d'Alcy.
He continued to experiment with his in-camera special effects, such as a reverse shot in A Dinner Under Difficulties, where he hand cranked a strip of film backwards through his camera to achieve the effect. He also experimented with superimposition, where he would film actors in a black background, then rewind the film through the camera and expose the footage again to create a double exposure. These films included The Cave of the Demons, in which transparent ghosts haunt a cave, and The Four Troublesome Heads, in which Méliès removes his own head three times and creates a musical chorus. Although crude by modern standards, achieving the effects was extremely difficult and required skill. Méliès once wrote that "the views performed by a single actor in which the film is successively exposed up to ten consecutive times in the camera, are so difficult that they become a veritable Chinese water torture. The actor, playing different scenes ten times, must remember precisely to the second, while the film is running, what he was doing at the same instant in earlier takes and the exact location where he was in the scene."
Méliès made 48 films in 1899 as he continued to experiment with special effects, for example in the early horror film Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb. The film is not a historical reconstruction of the Egyptian Queen, and instead depicts her mummy being resurrected in modern times. Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb was believed to be a lost film until a copy was discovered in 2005 in Paris. That year, Méliès also made two of his most ambitious and well-known films. In the summer he made the historical reconstruction The Dreyfus Affair, a film based on the then-ongoing and controversial political scandal, in which the Jewish French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and framed for treason by his commanders. Méliès was pro-Dreyfus and the film depicts Dreyfus sympathetically as falsely accused and unjustly incarcerated on Devil's Island prison. At screenings of the film, fights broke out between people on different sides of the debate and the police eventually banned the final part of the film where Dreyfus returns to prison.
Later that year, Méliès made the féerie Cinderella, based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale. The film was six minutes long and had a cast of over 35 people, including Bleuette Bernon in the title role. It was also Méliès' first film with multiple scenes, known as tableaux. The film was very successful across Europe and in the United States, playing mostly in fairgrounds and music halls. American film distributors such as Siegmund Lubin were especially in need of new material both to attract their audience with new films and to counter Edison's growing monopoly. Méliès' films were particularly popular, and Cinderella was often screened as a featured attraction even years after its U.S. release in December 1899. Such U.S. filmmakers as Thomas Edison were resentful of the competition from foreign companies and after the success of Cinderella, attempted to block Méliès from screening most films in the U.S.; but they soon discovered the process of creating film dupes (duplicate negatives). Méliès and others then established the trade union Chambre Syndicale des Editeurs Cinématographiques as a way to defend themselves in foreign markets. Méliès was made the first president of the union, serving until 1912, and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was the group's headquarters.
Around the same time, Méliès used the financial success of his films to expand the Montreuil studio, which allowed him to create even more elaborate sets and added storage space for his growing archive of props, costumes and other memorabilia.
In 1900, Méliès had made 59 films, including the 10-minute long Joan of Arc, starring Bleuette Bernon in the title role. It was his first film to exceed 200 m (660 ft) of film in length and was a success. He also made The One-Man Band, in which Méliès continued to fine-tune his special effects by multiplying himself on camera to create a seven-piece, one-man band. Another notable film was The Christmas Dream. He also made a few advertising films.
In 1901, Méliès continued producing successful films and was at the peak of his popularity. Among the 24 films he made that year is The Brahmin and the Butterfly, in which Méliès portrays a Brahmin who transforms a caterpillar into a beautiful woman with wings, but is himself turned into a caterpillar. He also made the féerie Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard, both based on stories from Charles Perrault. In Bluebeard, Méliès plays the eponymous wife-murderer and co-stars with Jeanne d'Alcy and Bleuette Bernon. The film is an early example of parallel cross-cutting and match cuts of characters moving from one room to the next. The Edison Company's 1902 film Jack and the Beanstalk, directed by Edwin S. Porter, was considered a less successful American version of several Méliès films, particularly Bluebeard. That year, he also made Off to Bloomingdale Asylum, a blackface burlesque that includes four white bus passengers transforming into one large black passenger who is then shot by the bus driver.
In 1902, Méliès made 18 films; and he began to experiment with camera movement to create the illusion of a character changing size. He achieved this effect by "advancing the camera forward" on a pulley-drawn chair system, which was perfected to allow the camera operator to accurately adjust focus and for the actor to adjust his or her position in the frame as needed. This effect began with The Devil and the Statue, in which Méliès plays Satan and grows to the size of a giant to terrorize William Shakespeare's Juliet, but then shrinks when the Virgin Mary comes to the rescue. This effect was used again in The Man with the Rubber Head, in which Méliès plays a scientist who expands his own head to enormous proportions. This new experiment, along with the others that he had perfected over the years, would be used in his most well-known and beloved film later that year.
In May 1902, Méliès made his most famous film, A Trip to the Moon. It was loosely based on Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. In the film, Méliès stars as Professor Barbenfouillis, a character similar to the astronomer he played in The Astronomer's Dream in 1898. Professor Barbenfouillis is the President of the Astronomer's Club and proposes an expedition to the Moon. A space vehicle in the form of a large artillery shell is built in his laboratory, and he uses it to launch six men (including himself) on a voyage to the Moon. The vehicle is shot out of a large cannon into space and hits the Man in the Moon in the eye. The group explores the Moon's surface before going to sleep. As they dream, they are observed by the Moon goddess Phoebe, played by Bleuette Bernon, who causes it to snow. Later, while underground, they are attacked and captured by a group of Moon aliens, played by acrobats from the Folies Bergère. Taken before the alien king, they manage to escape and are chased back to their spaceship. Then, with the aid of a rope attached to the spaceship, the men, along with an alien, fall from the Moon back to Earth, landing in the ocean (where a superimposed fish tank creates the illusion of the deep ocean). Eventually the spaceship is towed ashore and the returning adventurers are celebrated by the townspeople. At 14 minutes, it was Méliès' longest film up to that date and cost 10,000 francs to produce.
The film was an enormous success in France and around the world, and Méliès sold both black-and-white and hand-colored versions to exhibitors. The film made Méliès famous in the United States, where such producers as Thomas Edison, Siegmund Lubin and Carl Laemmle had pirated illegal copies and made large amounts of money off them. This piracy caused Méliès to open a Star Films office in New York City, with his brother Gaston Méliès in charge. Gaston had been unsuccessful in the shoe business and agreed to join his more successful brother in the film industry. He travelled to New York in November 1902 and discovered the extent of the piracy in the U.S., such as Biograph having paid royalties on Méliès' film to film promoter Charles Urban. When Gaston opened the branch office in New York, it included a charter that partly read "In opening a factory and office in New York we are prepared and determined energetically to pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice, we will act!" Gaston was assisted in the U.S. by Lucien Reulos, who was the husband of Gaston's sister-in-law, Louise de Mirmont.
Méliès' great success in 1902 continued with his three other major productions of that year. In The Coronation of Edward VII, Méliès reenacts the crowning of the new British King Edward VII. The film was shot prior to the actual event (since he was denied access to the coronation) and was commissioned by Charles Urban, head of the Warwick Trading Company and the Star Films representative in London. The film was ready to be released on the day of the coronation, however, the event was postponed for six weeks due to Edward's health. This allowed Méliès to add actual footage of the carriage procession in the film. The film was financially successful and King Edward VII was said to have enjoyed it. Next, Méliès made the féeries Gulliver's Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants, based on the novel by Jonathan Swift, and Robinson Crusoe, based on the novel by Daniel Defoe.
In 1903, Méliès made 32 films, including The Kingdom of the Fairies, freely adapted from the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin popular stage pantomime Biche au Bois. The adventures of Prince Belazor and Princess Azurine proved to be a success with audiences. It was also the last Méliès film to star Bleuette Bernon. Film critic Jean Mitry has called it "undoubtedly Méliès' best film, and in any case the most intensely poetic." An original film score was prepared for the film's projection in larger cities. Thomas L. Tally debuted the film at his Los Angeles-based Lyric Theatre (formerly the Electric Theatre) in 1903 under the billing "Better than A Trip to the Moon." The Los Angeles Times called the film "an interesting exhibit of the limits to which moving picture making can be carried in the hands of experts equipped with time and money to carry out their devices." Prints of the film survive in the film archives of the British Film Institute and the U.S. Library of Congress.
Méliès continued the year by perfecting many of his camera effects, such as more fast-paced transformations in Ten Ladies in One Umbrella and the seven superimpositions that he used in The Melomaniac. He finished the year with a film based on the Faust legend, The Damnation of Faust. The film is loosely based on an opera by Hector Berlioz, but it pays less attention to the story and more to the special effects that represent a tour of hell. These include underground gardens, walls of fire and walls of water. In 1904, he made a sequel, Faust and Marguerite. This time, the film was based on an opera by Charles Gounod. Méliès also created a combined version of the two films that would sync up with the main arias of the operas. He continued making "high art" films later in 1904 such as The Barber of Seville. These films were popular with both audiences and critics at the time of their release, and helped Méliès establish more prestige.
Among the 35 films Méliès made in 1904, his major production of the year was The Impossible Voyage, a film similar to A Trip to the Moon in that it also features a fantastical, whimsical journey, and is likewise based on a Jules Verne novel, Journey Through the Impossible. In the film, Méliès plays Engineer Mabouloff of the Institute of Incoherent Geography, who is similar to the previous Professor Barbenfouillis. After other proposals are dismissed, the President of the Institute agrees to Mabouloff's idea of making a voyage that would surpass any made before, using "all known means of locomotion." Arriving by train, they tour the Swiss Alps in an automobile, but end up crashing the vehicle and are taken to a hospital. After recovering, the men load their machines onto a train equipped with dirigible balloons, and as they are riding up the highest peaks of the Alps, their vehicle continues moving upwards into space and unexpectedly takes them to the Sun, which has a face much like the Moon in the previous film, and swallows the train. Surviving the crash-landing, they try to deal with the heat using an icebox, however, all but one are frozen solid. The remaining traveler, Mabouloff himself, is able to thaw and move them to their submarine, which they launch back home, plummeting through space and landing in an ocean on Earth. While underwater, their submarine explodes and they are sent flying into the air before landing at a seaport. Upon returning, they are greeted by adoring admirers. The film was 20 minutes long and was a tremendous success. Film critic Lewis Jacobs has said that "the film expressed all of Méliès' talents. The complexity of his tricks, his resourcefulness with mechanical contrivances, the imaginativeness of the settings and the sumptuous tableaux made the film a masterpiece for its day."
Later in 1904, Folies Bergère director Victor de Cottens invited Méliès to create a special effects film to be included in his theatre's revue. The result was An Adventurous Automobile Trip, a satire of Leopold II of Belgium. The film was screened at the Folies Bergère before Méliès began to sell it as a Star Films production. In late 1904, Thomas Edison sued the American production company Paley & Steiner over copyright infringement for films that had stories, characters and even shot set-ups exactly like films that Edison had made. Edison also included Pathé Frères, Eberhard Schneider and Star Films in this lawsuit for unspecified reasons. Paley & Steiner settled with Edison out of court (and were later bought out by Edison) and the case never went to trial.
In 1905, Victor de Cottens asked Méliès to collaborate with him on The Merry Deeds of Satan, a theatrical revue for the Théâtre du Châtelet. Méliès contributed two short films for the performances, Le Voyage dans l'espace (The Space Trip) and Le Cyclone (The Cyclone), and co-wrote the scenario with de Cottons for the entire revue. 1905 was also the 100th birthday of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin created a special celebration performance, including Méliès' first new stage trick in several years, Les Phénomènes du Spiritisme. At the same time, he was again remodeling and expanding his studio at Montreuil by installing electric lights, adding a second stage and buying costumes from other sources. Méliès made 21 films in 1905, including the adventure The Palace of the Arabian Nights, based on the One Thousand and One Nights collection of folk tales and the féerie Rip's Dream, based on the Rip Van Winkle legend and the opera by Robert Planquette. He made 18 films in 1906, including an updated, comedic adaptation of the Faust legend The Merry Frolics of Satan and The Witch. He was also commissioned by Émile and Vincent Isola to make Vers les étoiles, a film for use in their ballet-féerie of the same name. But the féeries that Méliès was best known for were beginning to lose popularity and he began to make films in other genres like crime and family films. In the U.S., Gaston Méliès had to reduce the sale prices of three of Méliès' earlier popular féeries, Cinderella, Bluebeard and Robinson Crusoe. By the end of 1905 Gaston had cut the prices of all films on the Star Films catalog by 20%, which did improve sales.
Later film career and decline
In 1907, Méliès created three new illusions for the stage and performed them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. He also made 23 films, including Under the Seas, which is based on the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, Satan in Prison, the last of Méliès' series of films in which he portrays Satan, and a film version of William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Many film critics, such as Jean Mitry and Georges Sadoul, have singled out 1907 as the year that Méliès' work began to decline and, in the film scholar Miriam Rosen's words, to "lapse into the repetition of old formulas on the one hand and an uneasy imitation of new trends on the other."
In 1908, Thomas Edison created the Motion Picture Patents Company as a way to control the film industry in the United States and Europe. The companies that joined the conglomerate were Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Pathé and Méliès' Star Film Company, with Edison acting as president of the collective. Star Films was obligated to supply the MPPC with 1000 feet of film per week, and Méliès made 58 films that year in order to fulfill the obligation. Gaston Méliès also set up the Méliès Manufacturing Company, his own studio in Chicago, which helped his brother fulfill the obligation to Edison. However, Gaston did not produce any films in 1908. That year, Méliès made one of his most ambitious films: Humanity Through the Ages. This pessimistic film retells the history of humans from Cain and Abel to the Hague Peace Conference of 1907. The film was unsuccessful but Méliès was very proud of it throughout his life.
In early 1909, Méliès stopped making films, and in February, he presided over the first meeting of the International Filmmakers Congress in Paris. Like others, he was unhappy with the monopoly that Edison had created and wanted to fight back. The results of the meeting were an agreement no longer to sell films, but only to lease them for four-month contracts, only to rent films to members of their own organization and to adopt a standardized film perforation count on all films. Méliès was unhappy about the second decision since most of his clients were fairground and music hall owners who were opposed to this. In a fairground trade journal, Méliès is quoted as stating: "I am not a corporation, I am an independent producer."
Méliès resumed filmmaking in the autumn of 1909 and produced 9 films including Whimsical Illusions, in which he performs a magic trick on stage. At the same time, Gaston Méliès had relocated the Méliès Manufacturing Company to Fort Lee, New Jersey. In 1910, Gaston set up a studio called the Star Film Ranch in San Antonio, Texas, where he began to produce Westerns. By 1911, Gaston had renamed his branch of Star Films American Wildwest Productions and opened a studio in southern California. He produced over 130 films between 1910 and 1912, and he was the primary source for fulfilling Star Films's obligation to Thomas Edison's company. Between 1910 and 1912, Georges Méliès produced very few films.
In 1910, Méliès temporarily ceased making films in order to tour Europe with the stage magic spectacle Les Fantômes du Nil. He also began to spend more time at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin and created a new theatrical revue, Spiritualist Phenomena. Later that year, Star Films signed an agreement with the Gaumont Film Company to distribute all of their films. But in the autumn of 1910, Méliès made a deal with Charles Pathé that would eventually destroy his film career. Méliès accepted a large amount of money to produce films and in exchange Pathé Frères would distribute and reserve the right to edit these films. Pathé also held the deed to both Méliès' home and his Montreuil studio as part of the deal. Méliès immediately began production on more elaborate films and the 2 that he produced in 1911 were Baron Munchausen's Dream and The Diabolical Church Window. Despite the extravagance of these féeries that had been extremely popular just a decade before, both films were financial failures.
The most notable of the 4 films made by Méliès in 1912 was the féerie The Conquest of the Pole. In the film, Méliès portrays French Engineer Maboul. At an International Congress at an Aero Club, after reaching a consensus on the best way to fly to the North Pole, the adventurers board the Congress President, Maboul's griffin-headed "Aero-Bus," and finally arrive after beating their competitors piloting their own machines. They crash-land and, after emerging from the wreckage, they run into a pipe-smoking, man-eating frost giant but manage to scare it off with cannon fire. Later, they come to the pole where they find a huge magnetic needle but become stuck to it by magnetic attraction. Their weight causes the needle to break, plunging them into the icy water. They signal for help and are picked up by a passing airship. They return to the Aero Club and are congratulated by all present. The film was inspired by such recent real-life events as Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole. The film also has elements of Jules Verne's novel The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and is often said to be the third film of Méliès' trilogy of fantastic journeys, after A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. Unfortunately, while well received by reviewers, the film turned out to be another commercial failure as contemporary audiences almost completely ignored it. Méliès's theatrical, fantasy-based style, which had been innovative and influential early on in his career, had fallen out of popularity by 1912. Film critic Georges Sadoul stated: "The man who, in 1898, was the creator of the art of cinema was, in 1912, behind the times." Thus, Pathé decided to exercise their right to edit Méliès' films from then on.
One of Méliès' last féeries was Cinderella or the Glass Slipper, a 54-minute retelling of the Cinderella legend shot with new deep focus lenses and outdoors instead of against theatrical backdrops. Pathé hired Méliès' longtime rival Ferdinand Zecca to edit the film. However, Zecca cut the film down to about half the length Méliès had intended, and is likely responsible for adding the cross-cutting effects and medium shots seen in the film, as these devices are highly unusual in Méliès' style. (Méliès's mistress and eventual wife, the actress Jeanne d'Alcy, later accused Zecca of deliberately sabotaging the film in order to ruin Méliès' career. This charge was never proven, however.) After similar circumstances with The Knight of the Snows and The Voyage of the Bourrichon Family in late 1912, Méliès broke his contract with Pathé.
Meanwhile, Gaston Méliès had taken his family and a film crew of over 20 people to Tahiti in the summer of 1912. For the rest of that year and well into 1913, he traveled throughout the South Pacific and Asia, sending footage back to his son in New York. But the footage was often damaged or unusable, and Gaston was no longer able to fulfill Star Film's obligation to Thomas Edison's company. By the end of his travels, Gaston Méliès had lost $50,000 and had to sell the American branch of Star Films to Vitagraph Studios. Gaston eventually returned to Europe and died in 1915. He and Georges Méliès never spoke to one another again.
When Méliès broke his contract with Pathé in 1913, he was too broke to pay back all the money that he owed the company. But a moratorium that was declared when World War I began in 1914 prevented Pathé from legally repossessing his home and Montreuil studio. Nevertheless, Méliès was bankrupt and unable to continue making films. In his memoirs, he attributes what Miriam Rosen describes as "his own inability to adapt with the rental system" with Pathé and other companies, his brother Gaston's poor financial decisions and the horrors of World War I as the main reasons that he stopped making films. The final crisis in 1913 was the death of Méliès' first wife Eugénie Génin in May, leaving him to raise their 12-year-old son André alone. Due to the war, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was shut down for a year and Méliès left Paris with his two children for several years.
In 1917, the French army turned the main studio building at his Montreuil property into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Méliès and his family then turned the second studio set into a theatrical stage and performed over 24 variety show revues there until 1923. Also during the war, the French army confiscated over 400 of the original prints of Star Films's catalog of films in order to melt them down and retrieve their celluloid and silver content. Amongst other resources, the army used the raw materials of Méliès' films to make heels for shoes.
In 1923, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was torn down in order to rebuild the Boulevard Haussmann. That same year Pathé was finally able to take over Star Films and the Montreuil studio. In a rage, Méliès burned all of the negatives of his films that he had stored at the Montreuil studio, as well as most of the sets and costumes. As a result, many of his films do not exist today. Nonetheless, just over 200 Méliès films have been preserved and are available on DVD as of December 2011 (see Currently available videorecordings).
After being driven out of business, Méliès disappeared from public life. By the mid-1920s he was making a meager living as a sweets and toy salesman at the Montparnasse station in Paris, with the assistance of funds collected by other filmmakers. In 1925, he married his longtime mistress Jeanne d'Alcy, and they lived together in Paris with Méliès' young granddaughter Madeleine Malthête-Méliès. By the late 1920s, several journalists had begun to research Méliès and his life's work, creating new interest in him. As his prestige began to grow in the film world, he was given more recognition and in December 1929, a gala retrospective of his work was held at the Salle Pleyel. In his memoirs, Méliès said that at the event he "experienced one of the most brilliant moments of his life."
Eventually Georges Méliès was made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, the medal of which was presented to him in October 1931 by Louis Lumière. Lumière himself said that Méliès was the "creator of the cinematic spectacle." However, the enormous amount of praise that he was receiving did not help his livelihood or decrease his poverty. In a letter written to French filmmaker Eugène Lauste, Méliès wrote that "luckily enough, I am strong and in good health. But it is hard to work 14 hours a day without getting my Sundays or holidays, in an icebox in winter and a furnace in summer."
In 1932, the Cinema Society arranged a place for Méliès, his granddaughter Madeleine and Jeanne d'Alcy at La Maison du Retraite du Cinéma, the film industry's retirement home in Orly. Méliès was greatly relieved to be admitted to the home and wrote to an American journalist: "My best satisfaction in all is to be sure not to be one day without bread and home!" In Orly, Méliès worked with several younger directors on scripts for films that never came to be made. These included a new version of Baron Munchausen with Hans Richter and a film that was to be titled Le Fantôme du métro (Phantom of the Metro) with Henri Langlois, Georges Franju, Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert. He also acted in a few advertisements with Prévert in his later years.
Langlois and Franju had met Méliès in 1935 with René Clair, and in 1936, rented an abandoned building on the property of the Orly retirement home to store their collection of film prints. They then entrusted the key to the building to Méliès and he became the first conservator of what would eventually become the Cinémathèque Française. Although he was never able to make another film after 1912 or stage another theatrical performance after 1923, he continued to draw, write to and advise younger film and theatrical admirers until the end of his life.
By late 1937, Méliès had become very ill and Langlois arranged for him to be admitted to the Léopold Bellan Hospital in Paris. Langlois had become close to him, and he and Franju visited him shortly before his death. When they arrived, Méliès showed them one of his last drawings of a champagne bottle with the cork popped and bubbling over. He then told them: "Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams." Méliès died of cancer on 21 January 1938 — just hours after the passing of Émile Cohl, another great French film pioneer — and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
On being presented with the Legion of Honour in 1936, Walt Disney expressed gratitude for Méliès and his fellow pioneer Émile Cohl, saying that Cohl and Méliès "discovered the means of placing poetry within the reach of the man in the street."
Terry Gilliam has called Méliès "the first great film magician," adding: "His joyous sense of fun and ability to astound were a big influence on both my early animations and then my live-action films… Of course, Méliès still has a tight creative grip on me."
Tribute is paid to Méliès in the 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret and the 2011 film based on the book, Hugo. The plot centers on the work of Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley in the film, which depicts some real-life experiences of Méliès.
Due to a variety of factors, roughly 200 of Méliès' over 500 films exist. These factors include Méliès' destruction of his original negatives, the French army's confiscation of his prints and the typical deterioration of the majority (an estimated 80 percent) of films made before 1950. New films have occasionally been discovered but the majority that were preserved come from the U.S. Library of Congress, due to Gaston Méliès submitting paper prints of each frame of all new Star Films in order to preserve copyright when he set up the American branch of Star Films in 1902.
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- Lee, Kevin B. (November 28, 2011). "On Beyond 'Hugo:' Méliès and More Early Movie Magic at the 'Minute' Cinematheque". Fandor. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
- Cinémathèque Méliès (June 2013), "Dossier: la soirée historique du Grand Café, Georges Méliès y assistait...la veille!", Cinémathèque Méliès: Lettre d'information (37): 7
- Frazer, John (1979), Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès, Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., ISBN 0816183686
- Malthête, Jacques; Mannoni, Laurent (2008), L'oeuvre de Georges Méliès, Paris: Éditions de La Martinière, ISBN 9782732437323
- Rosen, Miriam (1987), "Méliès, Georges", in Wakeman, John, World Film Directors: Volume I, 1890–1945, New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, pp. 747–765
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Georges Méliès.|
- Official Georges Méliès website
- Georges Méliès at Find a Grave
- Georges Méliès at Who's Who of Victorian Cinema
- Georges Méliès at the Internet Movie Database
- Museo Méliès, English and Spanish (Pequeña Coleccion Privada)
- Index des Films avec Georges Méliès
- Cinémathèque Méliès (Les Amis de Georges Méliès)
- Georges Méliès daily in-depth reviews of individual Méliès films
- Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions