Thursday, February 6, 2014

Georges Méliès

In an age when innovation was everything, the French film maker Georges Méliès was the greatest innovator in a pantheon of greats. With a studio -- literally -- in his back yard, and his wife, family, and neighbors as his most frequent cast, he made a vast variety of films -- "trick" films, comedies, farces, and especially films of discovery and adventure -- far beyond anything else made in his era. His background as a stage magician was surely of some help, but so was his sense of fun, his stage presence, and his showmanship. More than anyone else, he bridged the gap from stage to screen.

Legend has it that, in the mid-1890's, he saw a demonstration of film by the Lumière Brothers, and approached them to ask how he could do what they did. He was told that this new art was "merely a fashion of the time," and that in a few years there would be no money in it -- don't waste your time. Perhaps the Lumières were being facetious, but in any case, Méliès bought a camera on his own and in 1896 made his first film, "Un Partie des Cartes" (A card-playing party). Further fancies followed: a woman (his wife) was placed in a chair under a sheet -- with a flourish, she was a skeleton! A lodger checked into a haunted hotel; his coat was stolen, the hat-rack vanished, and he was plagued by enormous bedbugs. Soon, no tale was too wild or strange: a man sang a quartet with his dislocated heads; he inflated his head until it exploded; sailors brought up bodies from the USS Maine as magnified goldfish swam before them. Most famously, a voyage from the earth to the moon was filmed, complete with a crash landing in the "Man in the Moon's" eye; Joan of Arc revived the Kingdom of France, and a bearded explorer -- Méliès again, as usual -- conquered the North Pole (above).

Nearly 200 of Méliès' films survive, out of perhaps 500 that he made. After World War I, the market for his kind of cinema spectacles decreased with the rise of narrative, multi-reel films. By the early 1920's, his company collapsed, and the great director was reduced to selling magic trinkets from a stall at a Paris railway station. Happily, in the 1930's, shortly before his death, he received fresh accolades, and was awarded a pension from the French government, which enabled his widow to live out her days in comfort. Most recently, he was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese's brilliant Hugo, which includes both actual footage and re-enactments of some of his most famous films.


  1. The films of Melies are truly amazing. The effects he was able to produce were astounding for his time. I can only imagine the reaction of his audiences who had probably never seen a movie before, then to be utterly flabbergasted by his tricks. Some probably felt that they couldn't believe their eyes when, for example, he "cloned" his head three times and sang along with them. Although rather crude by today's standards, Melies' inventiveness surely paved the way for others who strove to out-do his visual witticisms. Audiences of today have these early pioneers to thanks for visual effects that we take for granted.

  2. I have to agree that Melies's work was truly ingenious in all aspects, if not just the very fact he completed these works using such simple technology in his backyard. It is all too fitting that a magician would take up such a feat in film's history from an accidental discovery.

    It's a shame that interest in his films faded near the end. To our modern eyes we could blame the repetitious themes and techniques as the reason for this demise, but I would be willing to bet this was due to a cultural shift common to post-war society. Regardless, he opened the door of possibility for other magicians, puppeteers, and performance artists of all kinds. I still give credit to Melies for creating the spark that lead to film animation and stop motion which became huge in Eastern Europe.