Lights Off! The Magical World of Georges Méliès


I love cinema. Now, I can already imagine you guys roll your eyes and sarcastically comment, “Oh wow, I guess you like puppies and pizza too?” And well, I do, but that’s irrelevant. When I say I love cinema, I truly mean it. Everything about it fascinates me. I mean it’s one of the only medium that
combines all art forms to create something as magnificent and powerful as this… the
Fall of the Balrog in Lord of the Rings, which is for me the greatest movie shot in cinema history. And while today the industry is largely dominated by Hollywood or even Bollywood, I believe no country has pioneered cinema more than France. And in this new series, I hope to make you
discover some of these pioneers. Alors, lumières! Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born on December
8th, 1861, from a family of wealthy bootmakers. He started his education at the Lycée Michelet until it was bombed during the Franco-Prussian war, you know, typical stuff. After that, he went to the prestigious Lycée
Louis-le-Grand, a fact that he often brought up whenever filmmakers were accused of being “illiterates incapable of producing anything artistic” much like Uwe Boll. Although, Méliès was the first to admit
that his artistic interests far outweighed his intellectual ones as he was often disciplined for covering his textbooks with doodles. After he graduated, Méliès seemed destined
to pursue the family business of shoemaking until his father sent him to London to work
as a clerk. There, he often visited the Egyptian Hall,
where he developed a life-long passion for magic. When he returned to France, he hoped to study
painting at the École des Beaux-Arts, but his father refused to support him as an artist,
so he kept working at the shoe factory. Nevertheless, he harbored his love for magic
by regularly attending performances at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris as well as
taking magic lessons. Eventually, he became talented enough to perform
at the renowned Cabinet Fantastique of the Grévin Wax Museum. Finally, in 1888, when his father retired,
he sold his share of the shoe business to his brothers and used the money to buy the
Théâtre Robert-Houdin, which had been suffering from low attendance. He then spent the next nine years renovating
it by introducing 30 new illusions that he had invented. His most famous one was perhaps the Recalcitrant
Decapitated Man, which featured a man who didn’t allow a simple decapitation get in
the way of telling his story. It is also during that time that Méliès
met performer Jehanne D’Alcy, who quickly became his mistress and muse. Thanks to his efforts, the theater’s attendance
drastically improved and Méliès was now able to hire the greatest illusionists of
his time, such as Buatier De Kolta. But this success meant that he was now relegated
to the backstage to direct, produce, write, design sets and costumes, as well as invent
many of his performer’s tricks. And while he surely missed the spotlight,
this was crucial in allowing him to build the necessary skills to later become a successful
director. On December 28th, 1895, Méliès attended
a private demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, an early version of the modern
camera and projector. Méliès immediately offered them 10,000 Francs
for the camera but they refused as they foolishly believed there was no future in cinema and
wanted to keep it as a purely scientific tool. Not discouraged, Méliès travelled to London
to purchase an Animatograph, which he soon reversed engineered into a working camera,
thus allowing him to project his own movies in his theatre by May 1896. In Autumn of that same year, an event occurred
that would change the face of cinema. While filming a bus, Méliès’ camera jammed,
which took him a few minutes to repair. By the time the camera started working again,
the bus was replaced by a hearse. He didn’t think much of the accident until
he developed the film and realized how the magic of cinema allowed one to make objects
disappear and transform. He understood that cinema had the capacity
to distort time and space to create illusions, in short, he had discovered special effects. Now, to be fair, Edison had already used that
effect in “The Execution of Mary Stuart” but it would be in Méliès’ hands that
special effects reached their true artistic purpose. For example, he invented the first double
exposure, going as far as using seven multiple exposures at once for “The One-Man Band”,
he invented the first split screen, which he did by blocking one side of the camera
lens, filming, and then reusing the same strip of film while blocking the other side of the
camera lens, and he also invented the first dissolve or even the first graphic manipulations. Throughout his career, Méliès kept using
his ingenuity and creativity to build intricate scenes that brought the illusions he performed
on stage to a whole new level. At the end of 1896, Méliès founded the Star
Film Company, one of the first film studios in history. He built a studio in his Montreuil property,
in the outskirts of Paris. It was made entirely of glass as to allow
enough light for the camera and enabled Méliès to produce 78 movies in the first year alone. And as he did for his theater, he worked tirelessly
in every aspect of the production, whether it was set design, writing, camera work, coming
up with new special effects, acting, and so much more. At first, his movies included a wide range
of styles from documentaries to on-camera magic tricks to even pornographic material,
but by 1898, after more than 130 movies, it was clear to Méliès that his true calling
was the fantastical. By then, his rate of production had drastically
lowered to only 27 movies, but each movie was more complex and intricate than the last. This allowed him to direct some of his greatest
pieces such as the very first horror movie in history, Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb, which
depicted Cleopatra as a mummy. It’s also during that time he directed the
first of his many satirical religious films, which showed a statue of Jesus Christ on the
cross turning into his seductive mistress, Jehanne D’Alcy. In 1899, he made two of his most ambitious
movies. The very controversial Affair Dreyfus, which
discussed the case of Jewish Officer Alfred Dreyfus, who had been falsely framed and accused
of treason by his superiors. This case was extremely problematic in France
as it brought to the spotlight the rampant anti-Semitism that reigned in Europe much
before the Nazis. Méliès was pro-Dreyfus and showed him in
a sympathetic light, which resulted in numerous physical fights during the film’s screenings
until the police censored it. Later that year, more than half a century
before Walt Disney, Méliès made the first movie adaptation of Cinderella, a six minutes
long movie featuring 35 actors and above all, multiple “tableaux”, better known as scenes,
which contrasted with the fixed backgrounds that been used until then. This movie was Méliès call to fame as it
became widely popular in both Europe and the United States. However, Thomas Edison, being Thomas Edison,
resented Méliès’ success as it impeded on the monopoly he had held on film production
until then. He attempted to have Méliès movies forbidden
from being screened in the US, but Méliès retaliated by creating a syndicate which would
protect the foreign interests of French movie makers. And so, it was through this growing international
popularity that he continued creating greater and greater pieces of art. He became especially interested in using perspective
in order to make characters and objects change in size, an effect that would be used more
than a century later by Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings. This is best shown in his movie “The Man
with the Rubber Head”, which required an intricate trolley system that Méliès, of
course, designed and built himself. This, along with all the other illusions he
had perfected throughout the years, would be used in his masterpiece. And now, I can hear a general “ahhhhhhh”
from the crowd as you recognize this timeless scene from “A Trip to the Moon”, Méliès
instant 1902 classic loosely based on “From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne, yet
another French visionary. The movie is widely considered the first science-fiction
film ever and is simply spectacular. While it is not his most technical piece,
it embodies everything that made him so great. The beautiful set designs, the intricate costumes,
the elaborate effects, the story which doesn’t take itself too seriously, the sense of wonder
and adventure as one would have back then whenever they looked at the moon without ever
knowing what laid there. This feeling of a captured dream that is present
in so many of Méliès’ movies. It’s just so charming and I strongly suggest
everyone watches it. He even went as far as having each frame painstakingly
painted in order to make it the first colored movie, which you can watch through the link
in the description. At fourteen minutes long and costing 10,000
Francs to produce, the movie was a smashing success, especially in the US. But unfortunately, Méliès didn’t get to
enjoy most of his international success as film producers such as Sigmund Lubin and Thomas
Edison made a fortune by selling illegal copies of his movies. Their disregard for his copyright was so blatant
that they started collecting royalties from other companies for using the movies they
had STOLEN from Méliès! It was outrageous. As a result, Méliès partnered with his brother,
Gaston, whose shoe business had been failing, in order to open a studio in New York with
the promise of aggressively fighting counterfeiters. Nevertheless, Méliès didn’t allow this
to stop his artistic ambitions as he directed in the following year “The Kingdom of the
Fairies”, which critics have called, “undoubtedly (his) best film, and in any case the most
intensely poetic.” And from this, he rode on a wave of constant
success and increasingly ambitious movies. In 1904, he made a sequel to his famous “A
Trip to the Moon” called “The Impossible Voyage”, which at 24 minutes long was considered
yet another success. He also kept expanding his Montreuil studio
by adding electricity, buying new costumes and building a whole new set. But just a year later, his popularity started
to waver. His féerie style that he was known for was
growing less and less popular and so, Méliès was forced to try new genres such as crime
films. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop declining
sales and he was forced to cut the prices of all his movies by 20%. By 1907, critics had started to note that
his movies awkwardly balanced between a repetition of old formulas on one hand and an uneasy
imitation of new trends on the other. In 1908, his film studio, Star Film Company,
was pressured into joining Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company under threat
of being sued for patent infringement otherwise as Edison held most patents related to cinematography. Under the terms of his contract, Méliès
was forced to supply the conglomerate 1,000 feet of film per week. Obviously, such a rush for production meant
that the quality of his movies significantly deteriorated. Nevertheless, he was still able to direct
some masterpieces. For example, he made “Humanity through the
Ages”, a pessimistic tale of the history of mankind. But while he was extremely proud of his movie,
and remained proud of it throughout his lifetime, it was a flagrant commercial failure… Two years later, Méliès made a deal with
famous film distributor, Charles Pathé. In exchange of a large sum of money to produce
and direct movies, Pathé held the rights to distribute and edit them. He also held the right to Méliès’ home
and Montreuil studio. This deal would come to destroy Méliès’
career. In 1911, he produced two extremely ambitious
féeries movies, and while these would have been widely popular just a decade prior, they
were now expensive failures. The following year, he produced his longest
movie ever with the 44-minutes long “The Conquest of the Pole”, based on the recent
expeditions to the Poles by Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen. Again, the movie was a financial flop. One of his last féeries was made in 1912
and was a retelling of his immensely popular Cinderella movie. The movie was almost 1 hour long, which was
incredible considering the fact that cinema didn’t even exist less than two decades
prior, but Pathé massively edited it down to just over 30 minutes and it was still a
flop. After a couple more similar flops, Méliès
decided to break his contract with Pathé later that year. Meanwhile, his brother Gaston in the US was
no better off as he had decided to travel through Asia to film documentaries. However, the films were often damaged while
they were sent back to his studio in New York. Unable to fulfill his obligations to Thomas
Edison and having lost $50,000, or almost 1.3M dollars today, he was forced to sell
his film studio in 1913. He returned to Europe and died only two years
later having never spoken to his brother again. Méliès was now severely indebted to Pathé. And while the advent of World War One meant
that Pathé was unable to take possession of his studio, it didn’t change much as
Méliès was too bankrupt to produce anything. Not that he wanted to as the horrors of the
war and the divide that had built between his brother and him were finally able to break
his seemingly unwavering desire to make movies… The final straw occurred in 1913, when his
first wife, Eugénie, died which left him alone with a 12 years-old child, André, to
raise. His theater was also shut down by the war
and the French army had turned his Montreuil studio into a military hospital as well as
confiscated 400 of his films to melt down into shoe heels for the army. In 1923, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was torn
down to rebuild the Boulevard Haussmann and that same year, Pathé was able to take over
Star Films and the Montreuil Studio. In a fit of rage, Méliès decided to burn
his costumes, sets, and above all, his movies, which as a result were long thought to have
been lost to the world… but fortunately, through extensive search, over 200 hundred
of his movies have been rediscovered, although that pales in comparison to the 500 movies
he directed throughout his career, and we must come to accept that many of those have
truly been eternally lost. In 1925, Méliès married his long-time mistress,
Jehanne d’Alcy, but by then he was mostly forgotten and financially ruined as the couple
barely scraped by operating a small candy and toy stand in the Gare Montparnasse in
Paris. But fortunately, Méliès had started to be
rediscovered again as the year prior, the journalist Georges-Michel Coissac interviewed
him for a book on the history of cinema. In it, Coissac hoped to underline the importance
of French pioneers in the early days of cinema. In 1926, following the success of Coissac’s
book, the magazine Ciné-Journal asked to publish his memoirs, which furthered bolstered
Méliès new found, or rather, refound prestige. Throughout the end of the 20s, more and more
journalists took interest in him and eventually a Gala of appreciation was made on December
1929, which Méliès described as “one of the most brilliant moments of his life.” Finally, in October 1931, he was made a Chevalier
de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest honor in France. The medal was presented to him by no other
than Louis Lumière, who called Méliès the “creator of the cinematic spectacle”. Perhaps an admission that he was wrong to
not sell him their camera more than 30 years ago. An admission that while his brother and him
had invented the camera, Méliès had invented cinema. But this new-found fame did little to alleviate
his poverty and in a letter to a friend, he admitted, “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 icebox in winter and a furnace in summer.” Méliès died in poverty of cancer on May
21st, 1938 at age 76. Some of his last words advised his friends
to “Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream
your dreams.” And today, his name is but a bookmark in history,
even for cinephiles. The greatest recognition he has received in
recent years was perhaps Scorcese’s “Hugo”, an alright movie that featured Méliès as
one of its secondary characters, which was a shame because the scenes recounting his
life were by far the best of the movie. Although one must appreciate how much Ben
Kingsley and Méliès look alike. And recently, a kickstarter was started in
order to repair his crumbling grave, and while the kickstarter was successful, it’s a tragedy
for me that his grave was even allowed to deteriorate this much in the first place. Because what truly makes his movies so great
is George Méliès himself. Sure, today, his movies are not the most thrilling
to watch, especially since many screenings of silent movies feature generic music and
not the tailored, orchestral pieces that were an integral part of movies back then. But watching a Méliès movie is like watching
a dream. Watching an extract of pure imagination. You get a sense of frontier as Méliès used
creativity and ingenuity to not only overcome the technical limitations he faced back then,
but from that, create a unique artstyle. You can only smile at the beauty and uniqueness
of his movie sets, costumes, characters and more. You can only appreciate the genius he showed
in his ability to tell the stories he wanted to tell. When you watch a George Méliès movie, you
can’t help but feel emotional as you sense the love, energy and passion he put into each
of his movie much like a child that received a new toy and can’t wait to discover all
the great worlds they will build with it. You feel the endless efforts and determination
he put into making his dreams come true. And efforts is really an understatement as
he worked every day from 7AM for 10 hours on his movies which was then followed by evening
shows at his theater until midnight. Every single day of the week. And as someone who is truly passionate of
cinema, I can only sit and watch in awe something beautiful… something wonderful… a fantastical
world, his fantastical world. And so next time someone asks you who is your
favorite movie director, I hope you consider Georges Méliès.

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