Georges Méliès, The Magician of the Cinema
No appreciation for the history of cinema can be complete without getting to know one of its most influential, most visionary, and most joyfully energetic individuals: the great pioneer Georges Méliès. In fact, if there’s a film trope you’re familiar with, chances are Méliès got there first.
Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born in Paris on December 8, 1861–several decades before the silent actors most people are familiar with today. And while his name would one day be closely associated with whimsical imagery and “movie magic,” he came from a family of pragmatic bootmakers. Parents Jean-Louis-Stanislas and Johannah-Catherine ran an upscale boot-making factory on the Boulevard Saint-Martin, a business which they expected their three sons Georges, Henri and Gaston to one day run. But Georges would be destined for decidedly more creative things.
As a boy he attended the excellent Lycée Michelet and Lycée Louis-le-Grand, and while he was a good student he was less interested in his studies than in filling notebooks with drawings–sometimes to the displeasure of his teachers. The stage also intrigued him, and he would design his own puppets and puppet theaters.
Following school and several years of service in the military, Méliès was sent by his father to work as a clerk in London. During his time there he began attending magic shows, which would be a huge influence on his later career. Upon returning home he hoped to become an artist, but when his father disapproved he began working in the family factory instead. He did go steadfastly against his family’s wishes he married Eugénie Génin, however, the daughter of a family friend (they would have two children together).
While not supervising machinery at the busy factory Méliès continued attending stage magic shows, particularly ones held at the charming 200-seat Théâtre Robert-Houdin. He began taking stage magic lessons too, soon growing skilled enough to put on his own shows. A dream was beginning to brew. When his father retired, Méliès sold his portion of the factory business to Gaston and Henri and promptly bought his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin. At last he was free to indulge his creative side–and in that era of “fairy plays” and pantomimes, it could be indulged to its fullest extent.
Méliès supervised every aspect of his theater, writing, directing, designing, producing, and even inventing his own illusions and special effects. As his theater began drawing bigger and bigger crowds, he became known as one of the foremost theater owners in Paris.
In December of 1895, he and other theater owners were invited to the Lumière brothers’ private demonstration of their cinematograph. It was his first glimpse of a “moving picture” and it changed his life forever. Enthralled, he offered to buy a camera from the Lumières, but they refused. Eventually he bought a projector and tinkered with it until it could also be a camera, and soon he was showing his own little films as part of the Robert-Houdin’s stage shows.
These films tended to be simple, one-shot affairs. The first was Playing Cards (1896), which survives today, and shows Méliès himself and two men playing cards outdoors. Other films, now lost, hint at similar simplicity: Gardener Burning Weeds, The Washerwomen, Boulevard des Italiens. But Méliès’s sense of humor was soon popping up in his films as well, the earliest surviving example being A Terrible Night (1896), where a man trying to sleep is startled by a comically giant bug crawling up his bedroom wall.
It didn’t take long for the ever-artistic Méliès to discover that the cinema was the ultimate creative canvas. Unlike such pragmatic filmmakers as the Lumières, he quickly saw that films had the potential to capture the beautiful, fantastical visions that abounded in his imagination.
One of his most famous early works is The Haunted Castle (1896), showing two cavaliers entering a castle and encountering strange spooks that appear and disappear before their eyes. The vivid painted sets, jump cuts, cheeky demons and frenzied gesturing would became a distinct part of Méliès’s style. Other fantastical films include The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), The Devil in a Convent (1899), and cheerfully silly special effects exercises like The Man With the Rubber Head (1901).
To the magician Méliès, the cinema was the perfect vehicle for creating illusions. Certain odd effects that were impossible on the stage were possible in that marvelous camera. He never tired of making figures vanish and reappear, turn into different creatures, grow to fantastic sizes, or toss their own heads around like balls. He tinkered and fine-tuned these effects endlessly, often performing in them himself. His performances are still charmingly enthusiastic today.
Méliès work grew elaborate very quickly. He constructed countless vivid painted sets and large-scale props and puppets, eventually building a large glass greenhouse-like studio to help streamline production. By 1902 he had already directed the film that many consider his masterpiece: A Trip to the Moon, with its iconic shot of the rocket ship hitting the eye of the man in the moon.
His whimsical moving pictures were very popular around the globe, making him one of the most recognized early filmmakers. After working at a mind-boggling pace throughout the 1900s, by the 1910s he began growing uneasy with the corporatizing of the film industry as well as increasing debts. He made his last picture in 1912, a year before the sad death of his wife, and two years before the outbreak of WWI. In all he had made around 500 films.
When Pathé officially took over his studio and films in 1923, in anger Méliès burned his props, costumes, and the remaining negatives he had stored. He began to drift into obscurity, eventually setting up a toy and candy-selling booth at the Montparnasse train station.
But there was a happy ending to the life and career of Georges Méliès. In the late 1920s he was rediscovered by journalists for his work as a cinema pioneer. This lead to much praise, a gala retrospective of his surviving work, a medal from the Legion of Honour, and admittance to a retirement home for film industry veterans. With a roof securely over his head and his place in cinematic history officially recognized, he was able to spend his remaining years in comfort with his family.
He passed away from cancer at a Paris hospital in 1938, not long after showing visiting friends one of his very last drawings: of a champagne bottle bubbling over. An optimistic image from a man whose work is still brimful of energy and joy today, well over a century later.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.