French film Pioneer and innovator Georges Méliès was born December 8th 1861. After completing his education, Méliès joined the family shoe business. He also visited the Egyptian Hall, run by the famous London illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne, and developed a passion for magic. Méliès returned to Paris in 1885 and studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts, he also attended performances at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, founded by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, and began taking magic lessons from Emile Voisin. In 1888 Georges Méliès purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Although the theatre was equipped with lights, levers, trapdoors, and several automata, 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. 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. While running the theatre, Méliès also worked as a political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper La Griffe.
As owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès became more of a director, producer, writer, set and costume designer also inventing many magic tricks. As the theatre’s popularity grew, he brought many famous magicians 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. Between 1896 and 1913, Méliès directed 531 films, these were similar to the magic theatre shows that Méliès had been doing, containing “tricks” and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size. 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. Méliès also learnt film processing through trial and error. ln 1896 he patented the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, camera-projector, which he referred to as his “coffee grinder” and “machine gun” because of the noise that it made. Méliès began shooting his first films in May 1896, and screening them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin and founded the Star-Film Company. Many of his earliest films were copies and remakes of the Lumière brothers films, including his first film Playing Cards. However, many of his other early films reflected Méliès’s knack for theatricality and spectacle, such as A Terrible Night, in which a hotel guest is attacked by a giant bedbug.
Whereas The Lumière brothers intended their invention to be used for scientific and historical purposes and dispatched camera operators across the world to film serious documentaries Méliès’s Star-Film Company, was geared more towards the “fairground clientele” who wanted entertainment. In these earliest films, Méliès began to experiment with special effects that were unique to filmmaking. Méliès’s film effects and unique style of film magic were first used in The Vanishing Lady, in which the by then cliche 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 1896, Méliès built a film studio on his property in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. which had glass walls and ceilings to allow sunlight in for film exposure. 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. Actors performed in front of a painted set as inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theatre.
In 1896 Méliès made 78 films and 53 in 1897 covering every film genre including documentaries, comedies, historical reconstructions, dramas, magic tricks and féeries (fairy stories), .Méliès also made advertisements for whiskey, chocolate, and baby cereal. In 1898 Méliès made only 30 films 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. He also made one of his first of many religious satires with The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He continued to experiment with special effects such as a reverse shot in A Dinner Under Difficulties and 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. He continued to experiment with special effects, the early horror film Cleopatra depicts her mummy being resurrected in modern times. Méliès also made two of his most ambitious and well-known films. The Dreyfus Affair, and Cinderella. Méliès’s films were particularly popular across Europe and in the United States however US filmmakers as Thomas Edison were resentful of the competition from foreign companies & attempted to block Méliès from screening films in the US so film makers including Méliès established the trade union Chambre Syndicale des Editeurs Cinématographiques as a way to defend themselves in foreign markets and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was the group’s headquarters.
In 1900 Méliès made 33 films, including Joan of Arc, The One-Man Band and The Christmas Dream, In 1901 Méliès made The Brahmin and the Butterfly, Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard, both based on stories from Charles Perrault. In 1902 Méliès began to experiment with camera movement to create the illusion of a character changing size.This effect began with The Devil and the Statue and was used again in The Man with the Rubber Head. In May 1902 Méliès made his most famous film, A Trip to the Moon. The film includes the celebrated scene in which a spaceship hits the man in the moon in the eye; 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, who is president of the Astronomer’s Club and oversees an expedition to the Moon. The six men explore the moon’s surface and are attacked by a group of moon men. The film was an enormous success in France and around the world, and made Méliès famous in the United States, Méliès’s enormous success continued with his three other major productions of that year. The Coronation of Edward VII, which used actual footage of the carriage procession in the film, and King Edward VII himself was said to have enjoyed it.
Next Méliès made 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, which is based on an opera by Hector Berlioz, In 1904 he made a sequel, Faust and Marguerite. based on an opera by Charles Gounod. in 1904 he made The Barber of Seville. His major production of 1904 was The Impossible Voyage, a film similar to A Trip to the Moon about an expedition around the world, into the oceans and even to the sun. In 1904, Méliès was invited to create a special effects film to be included in a theatre revue. The result was The Adventurous Automobile Trip. In 1905 Méliès contributed two short films to The Merry Deeds of Satan : The Space Trip and The Cyclone, and made 22 other films, including the adventure The Palace of Arabian Knights and the féerie Rip’s Dream.
For the 100th birthday of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin created a special celebration performance, including Méliès’s first new stage trick in several years, Les Phénomènes du spiritisme. He made eighteen films in 1906, including The Merry Deeds of Satan and The Witch. In 1907 Méliès created three new illusions for the stage and performed them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. He also made nineteen films, including a parody of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a short version of Hamlet. in 1908 Méliès made one of his most ambitious films: Humanity Through the Ages. This retells the history of humans from Cain and Abel to the Hague Peace Conference of 1907. Méliès resumed filmmaking in the autumn of 1909 and produced three films that year. 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, in which he performs a magic trick on stage & also created a new theatrical revue, Spiritualist Phenomena.
Unfortunately, Méliès made a questionable deal with Charles Pathé whereby Pathé was given the deed to both Méliès’s home and his Montreuil studio and in exchange Méliès was given money to produce films while Pathé Frères distributed the films and reserved the right to edit them. From 1911 Méliès began production on more ambitious & elaborate films including The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Haunted Window & In 1912, Méliès made Conquest of the Pole. which was inspired by Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911,The film included giant monsters and also has elements of Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras which is often said to be the third film of Méliès’s fantastic voyage trilogy after A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage.
He also made The Snow Knight and Le Voyage de la famille Bourrichon. However Méliès subsequently lost $50,000 and was forced to sell the American branch of Star Films to Vitagraph Studios. As a result Méliès broke his contract with Pathé in 1913, but was too broke to repay the money that he owed Pathe. He was declared bankrupt and did not continue making films-He attributes his own inability to adapt to 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. Due to the war, 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. 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. 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 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. In the 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. Georges Méliès was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1931 by Louis Lumière, who 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 1936 he rented an abandoned building 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.