Georges Méliès

French film Pioneer and innovator Georges Méliès was born December 8th 1861. After completing his education, Méliès joined the family shoe business. Later he visited London And,after visiting the Egyptian Hall, run by the famous London illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne, he developed a lifelong passion for stage magic. Méliès returned to Paris in 1885 Where he studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts, also attending performances at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, founded by the famous magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, he tookmagic lessons from Emile Voisin. In 1888 Georges Méliès purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin Which was equipped with lights, levers, trapdoors, and several automata, and Over the next nine years, Méliès created over 30 new illusions including the Recalcitrant Decapitated Man, bringing comedy and melodramatic pageantry to performances which all proved popular. Méliès also worked as a political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper La Griffe.


Méliès began working more behind the scenes & acted as director, producer, writer, set and costume designer as well as inventing many of the magical tricks. He also brought many famous magicians to the theatre. As well as performing 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 and Between 1896 and 1913, Méliès directed 531 films. Which were similar to the magic theatre shows and contained tricks” and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size, and by experimenting with multiple exposures he was also able to play seven different characters simultaneously in film. After seeing the Lumière brothers’ films he bought several films and an Animatograph film projector & By April 1896 the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was showing films. Méliès built a film camera using parts from automata and special effect equipment. And developed and printed the films himself. In 1896 he patented the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, an iron-cast camera-projector, which Méliès referred to as his “coffee grinder” and “machine gun” and began shooting his first films in May 1896, and screening them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin and founded the Star-Film Company. His earliest films included Playing Cards and A Terrible Night


Whereas The Lumière brothers intended their invention to be used for scientific and historical study dispatching camera operators across the world to document it as ethnographic documentarians,’ Méliès’s Star-Film Company, catered for the “fairground clientele” who were intersted in magic, Art and illusion and Méliès began to experiment with special effects in his filmmaking using them in The Vanishing Lady, where a person seemed to turn into a skeleton before disappearing and then reappearing later. Then In 1896, Méliès built a film studio on his property in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. which had glass walls and ceilings so as to allow in sunlight for film exposure, and also included a shed for dressing rooms and a hangar for set construction. In 1896 Méliès made 78 films and 53 in 1897 covering every genre, including documentaries, comedies, historical reconstructions, dramas, magic tricks and féeries (fairy stories)

Méliès also made advertisements for whiskey, chocolate, and baby cereal. Although he only made 30 films in 1898 his films were becoming more ambitious and elaborate, including 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, the féerie The Astronomer’s Dream, the religious satire TheTemptation of Saint Anthony And A Dinner Under Difficulties. He also experimented with superimposition In the films Cave of the Demons and The Four Troublesome heads, and the early horror film Cleopatra depicts her mummy being resurrected in modern times. Méliès also made The Dreyfus Affair, and Cinderella, which were popular in both Europe and The United States. At first US filmmakers such as Thomas Edison resented the competition from foreign companies & attempted to block Méliès from screening most films in the US prompting Méliès and other film makers to established a trade union Chambre Syndicale des Editeurs Cinématographiques as a way to defend themselves in foreign markets using Théâtre Robert-Houdin as the group’s headquarters. In 1900 Méliès made 33 films, including Joan of Arc, The One-Man Band and The Christmas Dream, and In 1901 Méliès made the Bus, The Brahmin and the Butterfly, Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard, both based on stories from Charles Perrault. In1902 Méliès made The Devil and the Statue, The Man with the Rubber Head and A Trip to the Moon, Which was loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, in which Méliès himself stars as Professor Barbenfouillis, president of the Astronomer’s Club, who oversees an expedition to the Moon where they encounter a group of Moon Men.

Méliès also produced three other films The Coronation of Edward VII, using actual footage of the carriage procession in the film, Gulliver’s Travels, based on the novel by Jonathan Swift and Robinson Crusoe, based on the novel by Daniel Defoe. In 1903 Méliès made Fairyland: A Kingdom of Fairies, Ten Ladies in one Umbrella, The Melomaniac and Faust in Hell, based on the opera by Berlioz, and In 1904 he made a sequel, Faust and Marguerite. based on an opera by Charles Gounod, the Barber of Seville and The Impossible Voyage Which was about an expedition around the world, into the oceans and even to the sun. Méliès also create a special effects film for a theatre revue, entitled The Adventurous Automobile Trip. In 1905 Méliès contributed two short films to The Merry Deeds of Satan : The Space Trip and The Cyclone, and also made The Palace of Arabian Knights and the féerie Rip’s Dream for the 100th birthday of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. in 1906, he made a film version of The Merry Deeds of Satan and The Witch. In 1907 Méliès made nineteen films, including a parody of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a short version of Hamlet and in 1908 Méliès made one of his most ambitious films: Humanity Through the Ages, which retells the history of humans from Cain and Abel to the Hague Peace Conference of 1907.

Méliès made three films in 1909 and In 1910 his brother Gaston set up a studio called the Star Films Ranch in Texas, where he began to produce Westerns. By 1911 Gaston had renamed his branch of Star Films American Wildwest Productions & produced over 130 films between 1910 and 1912. Between 1910 and 1912, Georges Méliès produced 20 films including Whimsical Illusions and Spiritualist Phenomena.The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Haunted Window & In 1912, Méliès made Conquest of the Pole, inspired by Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911. This included giant monsters and also has elements of Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras he also made The Snow Knight and Le Voyage de la famille Bourrichon.

Sadly in the autumn of 1910, Méliès made a fateful deal with Charles Pathé that would eventually destroy his film career, whereby he accepted a large amount of money to produce films while Pathé Frères distributed and reserved the right to edit these films, and also held the deeds to both Méliès’s home and his Montreuil studio as part of the deal. Later he also started having financial trouble thanks to his brother Gaston’s poor financial decisions, and he lost $50,000 and was forced to sell the American branch of Star Films to Vitagraph Studios. As a result Méliès was unable to pay the money he owed Pathé thus breaking the contract and he was declared bankrupt and stopped making films. the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was shut down for a year and Méliès left Paris for several years. In 1917 the French army turned the main studio building at his Montreuil studio into a hospital for wounded soldiers. He and his family then turned the second studio set into a theatrical stage and performed over 24 variety show revues there until 1923 when it was torn down in order to rebuild the Bouvevard Haussmann. The French army also 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. The final straw came In 1923, when Pathé took over Star-Films and the Montreuil studio. And In a rage, Méliès personally 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. After being driven out of business, Méliès disappeared from public life. By the mid-1920s he was making a meager living as a candy and toy salesman at the Montparnasse station in Paris.

However in 1920s several journalists began 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. Eventually Georges Méliès was awarded the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) which was presented to him in 1931 by Louis Lumière. Lumière himself said that Méliès was the “creator of the cinematic spectacle. In 1932, the Cinema Society arranged a place for Méliès, his granddaughter Madeleine and Jeanne d’Alcy at La Maison du Retrait du Cinéma, the film industry’s retirement home in Orly, where Méliès worked with several younger directors on scripts for films including a new version of Baron Münchhausen with Hans Richter and a film called Le Fantôme du métro (Phantom of the Metro) In his later years.

He also acted in a few advertisements . In 1936 an abandoned building was rented on the property of the Orly retirement home to store the 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 1913 or stage another theatrical performance after 1923, he continued to draw, write and advise younger film and theatrical admirers until the end of his life. By late 1937 Méliès had become very ill and he was admitted to the Léopold Bellan Hospital in Paris. one of Méliès last drawings was of a champagne bottle with the cork popped and bubbling over. 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.

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