The Re-making of Georges Méliès
Movie illusionist Georges Méliès anticipated 21st-century filmmaking norms, including the fight against ‘pirated’ work. Part two of a two-part essay.
Editor’s note: Part One of this essay looked at Georges Méliès’ invention of illusionist cinema and refers to the hundred or so films Méliès released during his first year of movie-making. Read more in “The Making of Georges Méliès.”
Of Georges Méliès next hundred films, a few dozen exist. These include re-enactments of current events of the day (The Last Cartridges, The Surrender of Tournavos, and his multi-part series of films about The Dreyfus Affair), a rare traveling short (Panorama from Top of a Moving Train), religious-themed films (The Temptation of St. Anthony, The Devil in a Convent), and even his sole surviving erotic film (After the Ball). Audiences were becoming more sophisticated, and Méliès stayed a step ahead of their appetites for seeing a diversity of subjects portrayed on screen, as well as novel techniques. In The Four Troublesome Heads, he used multiple exposures to create a chorus of his own heads to accompany his banjo playing. He shot the undersea-set Divers at Work on the Wreck of the ‘Maine’ through a tank filled with live fish. The Astronomer’s Dream lasts a then-unheard-of three minutes and involves an elaborate, grotesquely gobbling orb with moving lips, eyebrows and pupils. Like the earlier A Nightmare, it predicts the celestial imagery that would become Méliès’s most lasting legacy.
It’s common to think of 1902’s A Trip to the Moon as Méliès’s magnum opus, and all of the films made prior as mere precursors. But a great many of them succeed in their own right. His 1899 version of Cinderella may have been his first attempt at selling a story of multiple scenes as a single film. Joan of Arc was perhaps his most ambitious film yet, and we’re lucky that the version that survives was one of the prints hand-colored by women working in a Paris factory, martyring themselves for the famous filmmaker. Kristin Thompson calls Going to Bed Under Difficulties “as astonishing as it is hilarious”, and its obverse, How He Missed his Train, is equally so. The Man with the Rubber Head introduces another new technique, better demonstrated in Georges Franju’s 1952 docudrama Le Grand Méliès than described briefly in words. By changing the relative camera distance of just one section of screen space, objects appear to grow and shrink within static surroundings. Here Méliès’s head appears to inflate like a balloon until it explodes. The Devil and the Statue, The Prolific Magical Egg, and The Dancing Midget are among the films that repeated this sort of effect.
A Trip to the Moon takes the “Rubber Head” effect to another height. With only a ring of clouds as backdrop, the moon approaches the camera until it nearly fills the frame. The perspective appears to be that of an astronaut in the rocket approaching the moon. Méliès never needed to move his camera, as he could simulate such movement using stagecraft and multiple exposures. He utilized just about every technique he’d developed up to this point in his career, even the fish tank shot, and multi-exposed integration of footage of the churning ocean with his studio-bound designs, when the rocket splashes back down to Earth. For perhaps the first time, his story was complex enough to warrant overlapping action between scenes. The result is a film not only longer, but more similar to modern-day film narrative than anything else he’d created up to this point. It was also an unprecedented hit, inspiring countless remakes, pirated copies, and homages, beginning immediately after its release and continuing to this day.
Good news: virtually every film made in the two years following A Trip to the Moon can be viewed today. It proves to have been an incredibly rich period for the Magician of Montreuil. Méliès by now had established a pattern: he’d annually release two or three films of a scale similar to his lunar epic, as well as a score or more of shorter works. His “tentpoles” included The Kingdom of the Fairies, prominently featured in Hugo, and The Impossible Voyage, a sun expedition which arguably outdoes his famous moon mission in lavishness and sophistication. His “smaller” films are more concisely ingenious. In The Human Fly, for instance, he defied gravity 17 years before Douglas Fairbanks, 49 before Fred Astaire, and 98 before Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Guilliver’s Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants doesn’t try to pack all of Swift into a four-minute running time, but presents a few of his famous setpieces with a panache that compares favorably with the Godzilla and Mothra films made over a half-century later. The Magic Lantern is another gem, incorporating camera trickery with particularly energized performances by some of the dancers who clamored to be in his films, as they paid so much better than the stage.
It’s only been in the past few decades that scholars have really begun to understand just how crucial Méliès was, not just as an ‘inventor of fantasies,’ but as a filmic creator of norms used by every image-maker. Every time a cut is made or a set it dressed, it’s something that Georges Méliès did first.
Burned by the piracy of A Trip to the Moon, Méliès took measures to prevent leaking profits. He sent his brother Gaston to the United States, where much of the piracy had taken place. Gaston’s first act was to place a trade-paper ad warning counterfeiters: “We will not speak twice; we will act!” Gaston soon began making his own films, but none were as successful as those he distributed for his brother. Georges, meanwhile, began filming with two cameras side-by-side, creating a negative for European distribution and one for Gaston. The mind boggles at these elaborately timed tricks being captured on one camera, much less a matched set of two. Recently, archivist Serge Bromberg realized that the distance between the cameras might be just right for creating a stereoscopic print observable through 3-D glasses. He located European and American prints of The Oracle of Delphi, The Infernal Cauldron, and The Mysterious Retort, and presented them stereoscopically at film festivals worldwide. It’s hard to imagine what would have pleased Méliès more: learning he’d inadvertently made 3-D films, or that he’d one day be the subject of an award-winning 3-D adventure film.
Georges Méliès was not the only filmmaker innovating in his day, of course. It’s frequently asserted that after a decade of making films he fell behind the advancements in visual storytelling and location photography represented by the Edison company’s most prominent director, Edwin S. Porter, and his imitators. In fact, Méliès tried out some of these modes of filming. The Chimney Sweep and A Desperate Crime chase the action out of the studio and onto outdoor locations. The latter is one of his most serious, gruesome, and ultimately riveting pictures. Perhaps Méliès was unsatisfied with the box office or artistic results of these uncharacteristic experiments, however, because he retreated to confining his experiments to what he could achieve within his glass studio. Always more than he’d done the year before, as evidenced by ambitious undertakings like The Merry Frolics of Satan, Tunneling the English Channel, and the now-lost Humanity Through the Ages. But still, more of the same. Audiences still flocked to his fantasy and trick films, but his market share was decreasing and he was seen more and more as a relic of another era by his competitors.
More directly damaging to Méliès than changing aesthetics were the rapid changes undertaking the film distribution business. Méliès was unprepared for the international transformation of a prints-for-sale model into a film rental model. He had to shut down production for much of 1909. When he resumed, his films would be distributed by his former rival Gaumont. After a year of this and another shut-down, his final seven films (six of which exist) would be made under the auspices of Pathé. These include the first of many cinematic visions of the Baron Munchausen legend (Baron Munchausen’s Dream), and what must be Méliès’s most elaborate combination of filmmaking and stagecraft ever, the half-hour-long The Conquest of the Pole. But Méliès was no longer in control of his work. According to cameraman Lucien Astaix, Pathé “sabatoged” his remake of Cinderella. The last film Méliès ever made, The Voyage of the Bourrichon Family, was never even released. Ultimately the magician was forced out of his Montreuil studio and out of filmmaking. He bitterly destroyed all his own props and negatives, and ended up selling toys at the Gare Montparnasse train station. His only connection to cinema was now the occasional article he’d write for a film journal.
It would not be until the final years of the silent film era that certain Méliès films would begin to be brought back into the light. Prints of films that had once screened at a cinema attached to a vast shopping center in Montmarte were discovered in a dairy shed in Normandy, including The Witch, The Merry Frolics of Satan, The Diabolic Tenant, and The Spider and the Butterfly. The latter three of these would screen along with recovered prints of A Trip to the Moon, The Wandering Jew, The Diabolic Tenant, Whimsical Illusions and The Conquest of the Pole at a 1929 gala event at the famous Paris concert hall Salle Playel. Méliès was soon awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, and provided an apartment on the outskirts of the city, where he remained until his death of cancer in 1938.
The process of rediscovering Georges Méliès, ongoing since the Salle Playel screening, has seen plenty of setbacks. Most of the prints shown at that event vanished during the Nazi occupation of France, for instance. But new discoveries continue to occur all the time. There are now well over 200 Méliès films which exist in complete or fragmented versions, approximately half his output. We’re constantly rediscovering his influence on cinema’s history as well. He’s long been considered the “Jules Verne of the cinema,” a status epitomized by the inclusion of A Trip to the Moon in the prologue of the 1956 Oscar-winner Around the World in Eighty Days. His importance to mid-century avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, James Broughton and Maya Deren may reflect his films’ incongruity to standard filmmaking practice in the 1940s and 50s, as much as their intrinsic merit. It’s only been in the past few decades that scholars have really begun to understand just how crucial Méliès was, not just as an “inventor of fantasies,” but as a filmic creator of norms used by every image-maker. Every time a cut is made or a set it dressed, it’s something that Georges Méliès did first. He truly is “cinema’s père”.