One of the visionary pioneers of the cinema, Georges Méliès
was born to a boot manufacturer and passed through adolescence exhibiting
two talents: for drawing and for making cardboard Punch & Judy shows.
During his military service he was stationed near the home of Robert Houdin,
the magician whose optical illusions had captivated Méliès
as a child, and whose theater he would eventually buy after he escaped
from his family job as overseer of factory machinery.
When the Lumière brothers (Louis and Auguste) unveiled their Cinématographe
in public on December 28, 1895, Méliès was not only present,
but clearly the most affected member of the audience. Frustrated when the
Lumières would not sell him the machine, he sought out R.W. Paul
and his Animatographe in London. Méliès then built his own
camera-projector and was able to present his first film screening on April
Méliès began by screening the films of others, mainly those
made on the Edison Kinetoscope, but within months he was showing his own
works; these were apparently one-reel views, usually consisting of one
shot lasting sixty seconds. Although Méliès is often credited
with inventing the narrative film by relating stories as opposed to simply
depicting landscapes or single events, this is not strictly true; many
of the Lumière brothers' films were also much more than simple,
static views. Méliès's signal contribution to the cinema
was to combine his experience as a magician and theater owner with the
new invention of motion pictures in order to present spectacles of a kind
not possible in the live theater.
Within nine months, Méliès had increased the length of the
filmed entertainment (his last film of 1896 consisted of three, three-minute
reels) and was making regular use of previously unimaginable special effects,
such as making performers disappear by stopping his camera in mid-shot.
As the year ended he was also completing a glass-walled studio where he
could make films without fear of the elements.
From 1897 to 1904 Méliès made over four hundred films, The Trip to the Moon - 1902 being the most well, known. However the great
majority of his works were lost. The scores of prints which survive show why his commercial contemporaries
were both initially impressed, and ultimately bored. Méliès
regarded the story in his films to be a mere "thread intended to link
the 'effects' I was appealing to the spectator's eyes alone."
(His appeal to those interested in film-culture and history was not lost, as you will read below.)
His early works were entertainments, 'intermissions' for his stage magic acts, which initially consisted only of a
succession of magical tableaux peopled by Méliès (who often
dressed as the conjurer or the devil) and young women recruited from the
theaters of Paris, performing against flat, painted backdrops. He began to expand his stories, sets, and techniques, and incorporated location work later (the subject of a future bio summary) and various documentary subjects.
Méliès's own resources and interest in the trick films apparently
began to dwindle after 1905, partly due to competition from other filmmakers
and rising costs, partly because of the growing industrialization of the
French film industry, and partly due to his wish to continue presenting
live programs at the Théâtre Robert Houdin. By 1911 he had
ceased independent distribution; by the time France entered WWI in 1914
his career as a producer-director had ended. He went into bankruptcy, many of his cellulose-nitrate originals were sold (for industrial 'celluloid' used in the making of soldier's boots), and he vanished from the world scene, only to be discovered at a kiosk selling candies for a living in the 1930's by French film-makers.
His fortunate re-discovery resulted in some retirement-home comfort for him facilitated by French film enthusiasts and a rehabilitation of the memory of his works. Even today, his works are remembered and revered by various Méliès Projects around the world.
To the general public, his best-known surviving works are A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902), THE MELOMANIAC (1903), THE DAMNATION OF FAUST (1904), THE ENCHANTED WELL (1904), JUPITER'S THUNDERBOLTS (1904), AN IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE (1904) and THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE, (1912, his last year of production).
(This overly brief filmography will be enlarged as time permits.)
Avant-Garde Film Catalogue