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Georges Méliès the Magician of Early Cinema

Updated on April 19, 2015

Paris at the end of the 19th century can be considered a capital of motion picture entertainment. Inventors of one of the most popular nowadays work of art, the Lumière brothers, organized numerous screenings of their first movies for the public. Although the first films were an amusement for inexperienced spectator, in reality they were depicting everyday life with no decorations and studio sets.

Portrait of Georges Méliès
Portrait of Georges Méliès | Source

Georges Méliès, a magician and a theater owner in Paris, once attended a film screening organized by the Lumière brothers. Attracted by the novelty of this work of art, he already saw future perspectives of film combined with theater performances. After the screening, Méliès approached the brothers with a request to sell him their camera. He was not the only person to receive their refusal, but it didn't stop him: he soon purchased another camera and built a glass studio in Paris that would become the main stage for his future films.

Thanks to the experience of work on theater stage, Méliès managed to combine elements of pantomime and stage magic with film effects produced by camera. Most of his films were one shot performances similar to theater plays. However, wise use of camera tricks like stop motion, superimposition, double exposure fade out and dissolve made his one shot movies highly entertaining and extremely popular.

Méliès was a fearless experimentalist: once filming everyday life outdoors, his camera jammed. This took him some seconds to repair but later, when checking the footage, Méliès discovered that the incident caused people and objects in the frame to disappear or be replaced by others. Since then, this effect became one of the most frequently used in Méliès' filmography.

"The Haunted Castle" (1896) is considered to be the first horror film

Many of his films were either fairy tales or adaptations of famous science fiction or fantasy and adventure novels. For example, A Trip to the Moon (1902) was based on Jules Verne's novel and became Méliès' most famous film. Later, he filmed two more films on similar themes that altogether became a trilogy. Apart from cinematic adaptations of Jules Verne's novels, Méliès filmed Gulliver's Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants (1902), based on Jonathan Swift's novel, Hamlet (1908) by William Shakespeare etc.

The Famous Le Voyage dans la Lune

Color film as such did not yet exist during the first decades of the twentieth century, so the color version of A Trip to the Moon was hand colored frame by frame. It was an enormous work, indeed, performed by several people.

Hand Colored Version of Le Voyage dans la Lune

It is considered that Georges Méliès was a founder of such genres of cinema like sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Even the world's first adult film (Apres le Bal (1897)) is believed to be done by him. He was a hard working man who managed to work for both theater and cinema. During his most creative years he established and managed a film company together with his brother Gaston Méliès and filmed several hundred works.

Despite vast success in the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, later social changes caused by World War I and high level of competition made Méliès abandon the business and left him in poverty until the end of his life.
During war his theater was taken over by soldiers who destroyed the decorations and many of his films. Less than a half of what he had filmed is now stored in museums or sold as DVD collections.

Screenshot from "le voyage de Gulliver" (1902)
Screenshot from "le voyage de Gulliver" (1902) | Source

Georges Melies films on Youtube

Thanks to the abilities of internet, many of Georges Méliès' works are available online.

  • The Vanishing Lady (1896)
  • Apres le Bal (1897)
  • The Magician (1898)
  • The Astronomer's Dream (1898)
  • The Conjuror (1899)
  • L´homme orchestre (1900)
  • The India Rubber Head (1901)
  • Barbe Bleue (1901)
  • Le mélomane (1903)
  • The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
  • The Magic Lantern (1903)
  • Le Diable Noir (1905)
  • L'Eclipse du Soleil en pleine Lune (1907)
  • Le Locataire Diabolique (1909)

Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema 1896-1913
Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema 1896-1913

A DVD collection of films by Georges Melies.

 
Hugo
Hugo

A great fiction film with Georges Melies being one of the characters.

Starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Christopher Lee.

 

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