[His films] had a visual style as distinctive as Douanier Rousseau or Chagall, and a sense of fantasy, fun and nonsense whose exuberance is still infectious…. —David Robinson
His full name was Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, and he was born on December 8, 1861 in beautiful Paris. His wealthy parents, Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and Johannah-Catherine Schuering, owned a successful factory for high-quality boots. Their parents imagined that Georges and his older brothers Henri and Gaston would simply take over the family business one day. But little did they know that Georges would not only take up a cutting-edge industry they had never even imagined, but that he would attain global fame as one of its greatest pioneers.
While he was given a fine education at the Lycée Michelet and then the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand, young Georges Méliès had a hard time focusing on his studies, preferring to cover his textbooks with drawings of fantasy lands, people, or caricatures of professors (who were less than amused). Always a fan of the theater, at age ten he built his own cardboard puppet theaters and as a teen he designed intricate marionettes. Sent by his father to London to work as a respectable clerk, he quickly became fascinated with stage magic, which was destined to be his lifelong passion. Against his father’s wishes he began to study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts, and against his whole family’s wishes he decided not to marry his brother’s sister-in-law as planned but a woman named Eugénie Génin. They would have two children, Georgette and André.
Méliès attended magic shows at the charming 200-seat Théâtre Robert-Houdin, not far from the Palais Garnier. He took lessons from magicians Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and Emile Voisin, soon staging his own magic shows at the Cabinet Fantastique and then the Galerie Vivienne. When his father retired in 1888, Méliès happily sold his share of the family business to his brothers and became the proud owner of his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin.
Working hard to improve the theater, Méliès soon become known as a prominent Parisian entrepreneur. He created illusions, hired talented magicians, wrote, directed, and designed all the shows. Crowds at the Robert-Houdin grew steadily. In 1895 he had the honor of being elected president of the Chambre Syndicale des Artistes Illusionistes. On the side he was a political cartoonist for his cousin’s newspaper La Griffe. Also on the side was Robert-Houdin performer Jehanne d’Alcy, who became his mistress and later his second wife.
In December 27 1895, Méliès was one of many Parisian theater owners who got to attend a private demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, a combination camera and projector. For Méliès, it was love at first sight. Enthralled, he immediately offered 10,000 francs for one of the machines. When they turned him down he hunted for a different projector, settling on an animatograph which he tinkered with until it would also work as a camera.
Starting in May 1896, Georges Méliès began to make films. Most were a minute long or shorter. The first was Playing Cards, almost indistinguishable from the Lumière film it was copying. A hint at the theatrical work to come was his A Terrible Night (1896), a “scène comique” showing a man trying to sleep who is disturbed by a huge pasteboard bedbug. Always experimenting with the camera, Méliès soon discovered the wonders of his favorite special effect, virtually synonymous with his work today: the “stop trick.” According to him:
One day early in my career I was casually photographing the Place de l’Opera, my camera jammed…with unexpected results. It took me a minute to release the film and to start cranking the camera again…Later when I projected I saw a ‘Madeleine-Bastille’ bus suddenly change into a hearse and some men become women…
First utilizing this effect in The Vanishing Lady (1896), Méliès would use it in dozens–if not hundreds–of short films, many being “trick films” showing his in-camera skills. The stage magician never tired of making people and objects disappear, reappear, or transform. A lady might turn into a skeleton, a giant caterpillar may turn into an equally giant butterfly, or his own head might be tossed about like a ball.
He also discovered the wonders of double exposure, allowing actors to fly through starry skies and or to portray more than one character at once.
In 1896 he and friend Lucien Reulos founded the Star Film Company, and that September Méliès began constructing his own film studio in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. It was the same size as the Robert-Houdin, with walls and ceilings made of glass for maximum light. He now divided his packed schedule between his theater and the studio, working on films from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the afternoon, arriving at his theater office by 6 p.m. and having a quick dinner before the 8 p.m. curtain went up.
Unlike the Lumières, who were very focused on using the cinema for scientific and documentary purposes, Méliès made a beeline to its artistic side. Perhaps before anyone else, he saw that “moving pictures” could be a new form of entertainment where any vision was possible. His films would cover every genre in the book: dramas, horror films, comedies, documentaries, commercials, political satires, costume dramas, and even a few “stag films” such as After the Ball, which you probably wouldn’t know was a stag film unless I told you so. But he is arguably best known for his féeries, or fantasy stories, full of fairies, imps, strange monsters, and surreal landscapes.
The elaborate painted sets all have a very distinct “Méliès” look, and were painted in shades of gray to cope with the limits of orthochromatic film. Méliès himself acted in many of these films, and we can still get a kick out of his gleefully energetic performances today.
By 1899 Méliès’s fame was spreading and he could afford to make longer, more lavish works. In 1902 he made one film he would forever be remembered for, A Trip to the Moon (you may have heard of it). It was inspired by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, and at 14 minutes long it was his most ambitious project and one of the most extravagant films in circulation at the time. Happily it proved a huge success.
Throughout the 1900s and into the 1910s, Méliès’s films grew more distinctly fantastical. But by the late 1910s his fairytale style was growing less popular with audiences. Industry issues were cropping up as well. His Star Film Company joined new Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, but he wasn’t happy with the “corporate” style situation. In 1909 he would take breaks from making films, and his brother Gaston, who had his own studio in the U.S., supplied films for him during that time.
In the fall of 1910 Méliès made a deal that resulted in Pathé Frères distributing and reserving the right to edit his films. But Méliès’s newest work, creative though it was, would not be successful.
In 1913, after having made a mere 500 films over the past 17 years, his career and personal life began to unravel. He broke his contract with Pathé and his wife Eugénie would pass away. World War I began in 1914, and the Robert-Houdin would close for a year as a result. In 1917, in the throes of the War, the Montreuil studio was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. The French army would confiscate over 400 original prints of Méliès’s films, melting them down so the silver and celluloid could be used for shoe heels.
Then came 1923. The Théâtre Robert-Houdin was torn down during the rebuilding of Boulevard Haussmann, and Pathé took over the Star Film Company and Montreuil studio. Pathé’s move was probably the straw that broke Méliès’s back. Famously, or infamously, he would angrily burn all of the remaining negatives of his films and many of the costumes and sets.
By the mid-1920s the former filmmaker has vanished from the public eye and was making a living by selling toys and candy at a booth in the Montparnasse station in Paris. He had married Jeanne d’Alcy in 1925, and Méliès’s young granddaughter Madeleine lived with them in Paris.
Happily, he would not be forgotten for too long. Journalists and filmmakers began to seek him out, “rediscovering” his work for a new generation of viewers. In December 1929, a gala retrospective of his work was held at the Salle Pleyel. In 1931 he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, and Louis Lumière himself presented him with a medal of honor.
Also happily, in 1932 the Cinema Society moved Méliès and his family to the retirement home La Maison du Retraite du Cinéma, where to his relief he could live rent free. He would spend his remaining years drawing, advising young filmmakers, and even acting in a few advertisements. He also played a hand–although unknowingly–in future film preservation. In 1936, filmmakers Henri Langlois and Georges Franju rented an abandoned building as a storage place for film prints. Since Méliès’s home was nearby, they gave him the keys. And thus it came to pass that he was the first conservator of what would later become the prestigious Cinémathèque Française.
In 1937, Méliès became ill with cancer and was admitted to the Léopold Bellan Hospital in Paris. The great pioneer of the cinema would pass away at age 76 on January 21, 1938.
Shortly before his death, Langlois and Franju came to visit him in the hospital. Méliès showed them one of his last drawings, of an open champagne bottle bubbling over, and told them: “Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams.”
Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.
Fell, John L (ed.). Film Before Griffith. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983.
Robinson, David. “Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès.” http://www.victorian-cinema.net/melies