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Georges Méliès

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Georges Méliès

"Méliès" and "Melies" redirect here. For Georges' brother, see Gaston Méliès.
Georges Méliès
Born Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès
(1861-12-08)8 December 1861
Paris, France
Died 21 January 1938(1938-01-21) (aged 76)
Paris, France
Nationality French
Occupation Filmmaker, film actor, set designer, illusionist, toymaker
Years active 1888–1923
Spouse(s) Eugènie Gènin (1885–1913) (her death) (two children)
Jeanne d'Alcy (1925–1938) (his death)

Georges Méliès (/mɛ.li.ˈəz/; French: [meljɛs]; 8 December 1861 – 21 January 1938), full name Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, 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".[1] Two of his best-known films are A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904). Both stories involve strange, surreal voyages, 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 Le Manoir du diable (1896). He was also featured in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret as well as its film adaptation Hugo, where he was portrayed by Ben Kingsley.

Early life and education

Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born on the 8th of December 1861 in Paris to Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and his Dutch wife, Johannah-Catherine Schuering.[2] 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.[2]

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."[2] 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."[2] 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.[2]

Stage career

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.[2] 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 Genin, 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 his 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.[2]

In 1888 Méliès's 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, trapdoors, 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 Jeanne 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.[2]

As owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès began working more behind the scenes than on stage. Under his leadership, 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.[2]

Early film career

On 28 December 1895 Méliès was present at the first public screening of the Lumière brothers' films at the Grand Café in Paris. Méliès immediately offered the Lumière brothers 10,000 francs for one of their cameras, which they refused (as they had refused much larger offers from the Grévin Wax Museum and Folies Bergère). Méliès travelled to London to purchase several films and an Animatograph film projector from inventor Robert W. Paul. By April 1896 the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was showing films as part of its daily performances.[2] Méliès used the Animatograph as a guide to build a film camera with the help of mechanics Lucien Korsten and Lucien Reulos.[3] They were able to construct a working camera using parts from Méliès's automata and special effect equipment. However raw film stock and film processing labs were not yet available in Paris, so Méliès had to purchase unperforated film in London and personally develop and print the films through trial and error.[2]

In September 1896 he, Korsten and Reulos patented the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, an iron-cast 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, Lumière, and Pathé.[2]

Méliès directed 531 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 plot. Méliès's 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.[4] (Buster Keaton would later repeat this in a technically superior fashion in The Playhouse (1921).)

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 Lucien 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's 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's 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's 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."[2] This same stop-trick effect had already been used by Thomas Edison when depicting a decapitation in The Execution of Mary Stuart; however, Méliès's 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 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.[2]

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."[2] Actors performed in front of a painted set as inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theater. 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 am 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."[2]

In total Méliès made 78 films in 1896 and 53 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 1897, 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."[2] 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.[2]

Méliès made only 30 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 also 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. In a 1907 interview, Méliès stated that "every second the actor plays different scene ten times has to remember, while the film is rolling, exactly what he did at the same point in the preceeding scenes and the exact place where he was on the stage."[2]

Méliès continued to experiment with special effects in 1899, for example in the early horror film Cleopatra. The film is not a historical reconstruction of the Egyptian Queen, and instead depicts her mummy being resurrected in modern times. Cleopatra 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 film The Dreyfus Affair, 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.[2]

Later that year Méliès made the féerie Cinderella, which was seven-minutes long with 20 scenes and a cast of over 35 people, including Bleuette Bernon in the title role. 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's films were particularly popular, and Cinderella was often screened as a featured attraction even years after its US release in December 1899.[5] Such US 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 US; 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.[2]

International success

In 1900 Méliès had made 33 films, including the 13 minute Joan of Arc, starring Bleuette Bernon in the title role. 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, one of the first films to use special effects to depict the nativity scene of the birth of Christ.[2]

In 1901 Méliès continued producing successful films and was at the peak of his popularity. His films that year included 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 Little 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.[6] That year he also made The Bus with crazy white and black people, a blackface burlesque that includes four white bus passengers transforming into one large black passenger who is then shot by the bus driver.[2]

In 1902 Méliès 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 chair drawn pulley 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.[2] 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.[2]

File:Le Voyage dans la lune colour 2.ogv File:Le Voyage dans la lune colour 1.ogv 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, a character similar to the astronomer he played in The Astronomer's Dream in 1898. Professor Barbenfouillis is president of the Astronomer's Club and oversees 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 lead six men on a voyage to the moon. The vehicle is shot out of a large cannon and hits the Man in the Moon in the eye. The six men explore the moon's surface before going to sleep. As they dream, constellations dance around them and they are attacked by a group of moon men, played by acrobats from the Folies Bergère. They are chased back to their space-ship and then somehow 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 six men return to their laboratory and are celebrated by adoring supporters.[2] At 14 minutes, it was Méliès's 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 US, such as Biograph having paid royalties on Méliès's film to film promoter Charles Urban.[7] 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!"[2] Gaston was assisted in the US by Lucien Reulos, who was the husband of Gaston's sister-in-law, Louise de Mirmont.[3]

Méliès's enormous 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, the Star-Films representative in London and the head of the Warwick Trading Company. The film was shot and 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, based on the novel by Jonathan Swift, and Robinson Crusoe, based on the novel by Daniel Defoe.[2]

In 1903 Méliès made Fairyland: A Kingdom of Fairies, which film critic Jean Mitry has called "undoubtedly Méliès's best film, and in any case the most intensely poetic."[2] In the film, Prince Belazor and Princess Azurine have different adventures in over 18 different sets and in 30 parts. Thomas L. Tally debuted the film at his Los Angeles based Lyric Theater (formerly the Electric Theater) 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."[8] Prints of the film survive in the film archives of the British Film Institute and the Library of Congress.[9]

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 years with another based on the Faust legend, Faust in Hell. 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.[2] 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 with 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.[2]

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 the film, Méliès plays Engineer Mabouloff of the Institute of Incoherent Geography, who is similar to the previous Professor Barbenfouillis. Mabouloff leads a group on the trip on the many Automobouloffs, the vehicles that they use of their travels. As the men are traveling up to the highest peaks of the Alps, their vehicle continues moving upwards and takes them unexpectedly to the sun, which has a face much like the man in the moon and swallows the vehicle. Eventually the men use a submarine to launch back to earth and into the ocean, and are greeted back home by adoring admirers. The film was 24 minutes long and was a 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."[2]

Later in 1904, Folies Bergère director Victor de Cottens invited Méliès to create a special effects film to be included in his theaters revue. The result was The 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.[2] 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.[10]

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: The Space Trip and 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's 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 22 films in 1905, including the adventure The Palace of Arabian Knights and the féerie Rip's Dream, based on the Rip Van Winkle legend and the opera by Robert Planquette. He made eighteen films in 1906, including a film version of The Merry Deeds of Satan and The Witch. But the féerie that Méliès was best known for were beginning to lose popularity and he began to make films in other genre like crime and family films. In the U.S., Gaston Méliès had to reduce the sale prices of three of Méliès's earlier popular féerie: Cinderella, Bluebeard and Robinson Crusoe. By the end of 1905 Gaston had cut the prices of all of Star Films catalog by 20%, which did improve sales.[2]

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 nineteen films, including a parody of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a short version of Hamlet. Many film critics, such as Jean Mitry and Georges Sadoul, have singled out 1907 as the year that Méliès's work began to decline and "lapse into the repetition of old formulas on the one hand and an uneasy imitation of new trends on the other."[2]

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's 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 68 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.[2]

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."[2]

Méliès resumed filmmaking in the autumn of 1909. At the same time Gaston Méliès had relocated the Méliès Manufacturing Company to Fort Lee, New Jersey and produced three films that year. In 1910 Gaston set up a studio called the Star Films 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 of fulfilling Star Films's obligation to Thomas Edison's company. Between 1910 and 1912, Georges Méliès produced only 20 films.[2]

Méliès made 14 films in 1910, including Whimsical Illusions, in which he performs a magic trick on stage. Méliès 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's home and his Montreuil studio as part of the deal. Méliès immediately began production on more elaborate films and among the seven films that he produced in 1911 were The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Haunted Window. Despite the extravagance of these féeries that had been extremely popular just a decade before, both films were financial failures.[2]

In 1912, Méliès continued making ambitious films, most notably with the féerie Conquest of the Pole. Although 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 in 1911, the film also included such fantastic elements as a griffith-headed aerobus and a giant monster that was operated by twelve stage hands. The film also has elements of Jules Verne's The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and is often said to be the third film of Méliès's fantastic voyage trilogy after A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. Unfortunately, Conquest of the Pole was not financially successful and Pathé decided to exercise their right to edit Méliès's films from then on.

One of Méliès's 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's longtime rival Ferdinand Zecca to edit the film down to 33 minutes, and it too was financially unsuccessful. After similar circumstances with The Snow Knight and Le Voyage de la famille Bourrichon 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.[2]

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 "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's 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 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. Amongst other resources, the army used the raw materials of Méliès's films to make boot 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 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 as of December 2011 (see Currently available videorecordings).

Later life

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, 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's 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."[2]

Eventually Georges Méliès was awarded the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor,) which was presented to him in 1931 by Louis Lumière.[11] Lumière himself said that Méliès was the "creator of the cinematic spectacle."[2] 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 ice-box in winter and a furnace in summer."[2]

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. 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!"[2] In Orly, Méliès worked with several younger directors on scripts for films that never ended up being made. These included a new version of Baron Münchhausen 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.[12] He also acted in a few advertisements with Prévert in his later years.

Langlois and Franju had met Méliès in 1935 with René Clair,[13] 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 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.[2]

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."[14] 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.[15]


Selected filmography

Georges Méliès directed hundreds of films including the following. For a full filmography see Georges Méliès filmography.

  • Playing Cards (1896)
  • The Haunted Castle (1896)
  • Batteuse à vapeur (1896)
  • Bébé et fillettes (1896)
  • Le Bivouac (1896)
  • The Vanishing Lady / Escamotage d'une dame chez Robert Houdin (1896)
  • The House of the Devil / Le Manoir du diable (1896)
  • Boulevard des Italiens (1896)
  • Cleopatra (1899)
  • Cinderella / Cendrillon (1899)
  • The Dreyfus Affair / L'Affaire Dreyfus (1899)
  • Jeanne d'Arc (1900)
  • A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)
  • The Man With The Rubber Head / L'Homme à la tête de caoutchouc (1902)
  • Gulliver's Travels / Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les Géants (1902)
  • The Inn Where No Man Rests / L'Auberge du Bon Repos (1903)
  • The Mystical Flame / La Flamme merveilleuse (1903)
  • Faust in Hell (1903)
  • Kingdom of the Fairies / Le Royaume des fées (1903)
  • The Impossible Voyage / Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)
  • The Adventurous Automobile Trip (1904)
  • Hilarious Posters / Les Affiches en goguette (1905)
  • Palace of the Arabian Knights / Le Palais des Mille et une Nuits (1905)
  • Paris to Monte Carlo / Le Raid Paris-Monte Carlo en deux Heures (1905)
  • The Mysterious Retort / L'Alchimiste Parafaragamus ou La Cornue infernale (1906)
  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea / 20.000 Lieues sous les mers (1907)
  • Humanity Through the Ages (1908)
  • Conquest of the Pole / A la conquête du pôle (1912)
  • Baron Munchausen's Dream / Les Aventures de baron de Munchhausen (1911)
  • The Ranchman's Debt of Honor (1911 - USA)
  • The Knight of the Snows / Le Chevalier des Neiges (1912)
  • Cinderella or The Glass Slipper / Cendrillon ou La Pantoufle mystérieuse (1912)
  • The Ghost of Sulpher Mountain (1912 -USA)
  • The Prisoner's Story (1912 - USA)
  • Le Voyage de la famille Bourrichon (1913)

Currently available videorecordings

Due to a variety of factors, roughly 200 of Méliès's 531 films exist. These factors include Méliès's 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 US 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.[2]

  • George Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (5-DVD, 173-Film Collection)
  • George Méliès Encore: New Discoveries 1896-1911 (26-Film supplement to the above 5-DVD Collection)
  • Films of George Méliès
  • The Great Train Robbery and Other Primary Works
  • Marvelous Méliès
  • Méliès Le Cinémagicien
  • Mes Mémoires
  • Pioneers of the French Cinema, Volume One
  • A Trip to the Moon

In popular culture

The work of Georges Méliès has been referenced a number of times in film, television and fiction, including:

See also

Biography portal
Film portal
Paris portal


Further reading

  • Bessy, Maurice and Duca, Lo. Georges Méliès, mage. France: J.J. Pauvert. 1961.
  • Brackhage, Stan. The Brakhage lectures: Georges Méliès, David Wark Griffith, Carl Theodore Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein. The GoodLion. 1972.
  • Deslandes, Jaques. Le boulevard du cinéma à l'époque de Georges Méliès. France: Éditions du Cerf. 1963.
  • Erza, Elizabeth. Georges Méliès, the birth of the auteur. New York : Manchester University Press. 2000.
  • Frazer, John. Artificially arranged scenes : the films of Georges Méliès. MA, G. K. Hall and Company. 1979.
  • Gaudreault, André. "Theatricality" and "narrativity" in the work of Georges Méliès. McGill University. 1982.
  • Hammond, Paul. Marvellous Méliès. St. Martin's Press. 1975.
  • Handman, Gary. Georges Méliès : a bibliography of materials in the UC Berkeley Library. UC Berkeley. 2009.
  • Jenn, Pierre. Georges Méliès Cineaste. France: Editions Albatros. 1984.
  • Kessler, Frank, Lenk, Sabine and Loiperdinger, Martin. Georges Mʹelis̀, Magier der Filmkunst. Germany: R. Stern. 1993.
  • Malthête-Méliès, Madeleine. Méliès l'enchanteur. France: Hachette. 1973.
  • Malthête-Méliès, Madeleine. Méliès et la naissance du spectacle cinematographe. France: Klincksieck. 1984.
  • Malthête-Méliès, Madeleine. Essai de Reconstitution du Catelogue Francais de la Star-Film suvivi d'une Analyse Catalographique des Films de Georges Méliès recenses en France. Centre National de la Cinematographie. 1981.
  • Malthête, Jacques. Méliès, l'illusionniste fin de siecle?. France: Presses de le Sorbonne nouvelle. 1998.
  • Méliès, Gaston. Le Voyage autour du monde de la G. Méliès Manufacturing Company. France: Association Les Amis de Georges Méliès. 1988.
  • Méliès, Georges. Memoirs. France: J.J. Pauvert. 1961.
  • McLaren, Norman. Georges Melies : first wizard of cinema. Flicker Alley. 2008.
  • Robinson, David. Georges Méliès : father of film fantasy. Museum of the Moving Image. 1993.
  • Sadoul, Georges. Georges Méliès. France: Éditions Seghers. 1961.
  • Sadoul, Georges. An index to the creative work of Georges Melies, 1896-1912. Sight and Sound. 1947.
  • Smith, Jason and Kentridge, William. William Kentridge : 7 fragments for Georges Méliès. National Gallery of Victoria. 2006.
  • Thompson, Frank T.. The Star Film ranch : Texas' first picture show. Republic of Texas Press. 1996.

External links

  • Official Georges Méliès website
  • Find a Grave
  • Who's Who of Victorian Cinema
  • 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

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