Georges   Méliès      

Film Director, Magician
(1861 - 1938)
Also: inventor, actor, producer, scenographer, illusionist
Birth Name: Marie Georges Jean Méliès
Born: December 8, 1861, Paris, France
Died: 1938
Education: Lycée Imperial, Paris; Lycée Louis Le Grand; Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris

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 4, 1896.

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