Today is the birthday of Georges Méliès who was born in 1861 in Paris. He was an illusionist and film maker and, as I mentioned yesterday, he bought the theatre that once belonged to the illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. He was always interested in art and was often in trouble at school for drawing in his notebooks and textbooks. He made a puppet theatre when he was ten and, by the time he was in his teens, he was making some quite complicated marionettes. He first discovered his passion for stage magic whilst working in London. There he visited the Egyptian Hall which was run by the illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne.
When he returned to Paris in 1885, he continued his interest and began to take lessons from a magician whilst working in his father’s factory. When his father retired, three years later, Méliès sold his share in the family business and bought the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. It was a beautiful theatre and came equipped with lighting, levers, trapdoors and several automata. But most of the tricks and illusions they provided were out of date. Méliès set about inventing new ones. In the next nine years he came up with more that thirty. He introduced comedy into his performances. One of his best was the ‘Recalcitrant Decapitated Man’ in which a professor’s head would be cut off whilst he was making a speech. The head would continue talking until it was returned to his body. As well as inventing the tricks, Méliès was also writer, director and costume designer. He also staged pantomimes, automaton performances and magic lantern shows.
Then, in 1895, he attended a demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph. He immediately fell in love with the new medium. He really wanted to buy a camera, but the Lumière brothers weren’t selling. So he bought himself a projector from London and managed to adapt it so it could also be used as a film camera. The film also had to come from London and, as there were no film processing laboratories, he learned how to develop and print the films himself. He began making his first short films in 1896. There is one about a man who is attacked by a giant bedbug called ‘A Terrible Night.’ It’s only about a minute long, but already you can see his flair for props. Around this time, the Lumière brothers had decided to concentrate their work on serious documentary films. This left Méliès free to corner the market in something a bit more fanciful, which was what he was really interested in.
Méliès began to experiment with, and sometimes invent, special effects that could only be created on film. He said in his memoirs, that it began when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. He found his film showed a bus that suddenly turned into a hearse and a woman who turned into a man. He had discovered the ‘stop trick’. It wasn’t long before he built himself a film studio, just outside Paris in Montreuil. His stage was in a building made entirely of glass to maximise the light and it was made in the same dimensions as his theatre. He also had a shed for dressing rooms and a separate hanger for making scenery. His scenery is beautifully theatrical, we love it.
His new interest in film didn’t mean he gave up his work at the theatre. Méliès was a busy man. He would be at his film studio at 7.00 am, spent ten hours building sets and props, finish at 5.00 pm, get changed, go to his theatre in Paris for 6.00 pm for meetings, have a bit of dinner and be back at the theatre in time for the show at 8.00. He would spend Fridays and Saturdays filming and on Sundays and holidays there would be film screenings at his theatre that went on until 11.30 pm.
He made seventy-eight films in 1896, the following year he made fifty-two. By then he had pretty much all the genres covered. He had made documentaries, historical films, dramas, magic tricks, fairy tales and even a few advertisements. He also made a couple of more risqué films. The only one that survives is ‘After the Ball’ in which a woman gets undressed, steps into a tub and is bathed by her maid.
In 1898, he made fewer films, but they were more elaborate. He had discovered the tricks of running the film through the camera backwards, and running unexposed film through several times to create multiple exposures, such as in ‘The Four Troublesome Heads’. In 1899, he made a version of Cinderella, which was his first film with multiple scenes. It was hugely popular all over Europe and also in the United States. Thomas Edison, who is pretty much the villain of this blog, did not enjoy the foreign competition and tried to ban them. But then he figured out how to just make pirate copies instead.
In 1900, he made ‘The One-Man Band’ in which he plays seven different versions of himself at the same time and in 1901 he made a film about the wife-murdering Bluebeard, which is well worth a watch, not only for the brilliant scenery and props, but also the way the evil Bluebeard is impaled on a sword and forced to watch his dead wives resurrected. In 1902, he made ‘A Trip to the Moon’, which we have discussed elsewhere. Georges Méliès directed over 500 films between 1896 and 1913 so it would be impossible to discuss them all, but his 1905 film, ‘Le Diable Noir‘ is one of my favourites.
But his way with cinema gradually fell out of fashion and he also lost a lot of money and creative control of his work, this was partly due to Edison and other larger film companies. Then the First World War happened and his film studio was taken over for an army hospital and the French military confiscated 400 of his films and melted them down for the silver they contained and also the celluloid, which was used to make boot heels. In 1923 his theatre was torn down and his film company taken over by Pathé. He burned all his remaining films. By the mid 1920s, he was scratching a living selling sweets on the station at Montparnasse. But several journalists had begun to research his work and in 1929 there was a gala retrospective of his work. Méliès said in was one of the most brilliant moments of his life. In 1932, the Cinema Society found him a place at the film industry retirement home in Orly. Although he never made another film, he continued to draw, write and advise younger film directors until the end of his life.