Technology, Illusion and Authority in the Life and Works of Georges Méliès

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The world of early cinema is a murky and contested landscape of disputed claims to fame and innovation. The classic example of this is the continuing debate over the inventor (or inventors) who ought to be credited with the creation of cinema; Thomas Edison or the Lumière Brothers. Each invented a contraption that captured and repeated moving images in the 1890s and each saw the potential in these moving images as a future form of entertainment (though Edison’s early patents suggest that he saw a greater industrial opportunity in film than the Lumière brothers, who considered film a new sideshow novelty that would last about a year). We can see, even from this brief description, where the coming heartfelt rivalry between the Edison and Lumière camps originated, though we must always be very careful when making claims about the early days of cinema. The records and surviving films from this time are both patchy and incomplete: like the Lumière Brothers, nobody expected film to be anything more than a short-lived novelty. It is with this caveat that we will explore the creative works of Georges Méliès and what it is that he contributed to the early days of cinema.

To understand the significance of these works we will examine their birth and production by exploring Méliès fascinating personal and professional history. While it would be impossible to comprehensively cover the entire body of Méliès’ work (after all, he directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914 alone [Hammond, 134-148]), we will attempt an overview of Méliès’ career, accompanied by an in-depth examination of two of his most famous works, A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage. We will attempt to identify what it is that makes Méliès’ films special and why he is such a significant contributor to the world of early cinema.

Before we can understand the professional and creative elements of Méliès’ life, we must attempt an encapsulation of his personal life and development. In his astoundingly accomplished and comprehensive work, Marvellous Méliès, Paul Hammond presents a thorough exploration of Méliès’ personal development. We present here a summary, but encourage anyone interested in Méliès to read Hammond’s work. Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born on the 8 December, 1861, at 29 Boulevard Saint-Martin Paris. The Méliès family had a long and proud history as industrial textile workers: Georges’ grandfather had been a cloth-fuller in Lavelanet and his father had travelled the country as a boot and shoemaker, before settling in Paris, where he met Georges’ mother, when the two of them were working side by side on the same factory line. Georges’ mother, Johannah-Catherine Schruering, was one of three daughters of the boot-maker to the Hague court and, in 1843 the two were married. In 1859 the couple opened their own industrial workshop, which exploited a new mechanical method for stitching the legs of boots. The couple had three sons, Henri, Gaston and, the youngest, Georges. By the time Georges was born his father was a millionaire (soon to be a multi-millionaire) and the owner of substantial property, the perfect model of a nineteenth century industrialist (Hammond, 13).

Georges attended the Lycree Louis-le-Grand boarding school from 1870 to 1880, where he was frequently scolded for devoting too much attention to sketching, which often overtook the pages of all of his exercise books, regardless of the subject they were intended for and, at age 10, he was constructing and performing Punch and Judy shows (Méliès, 1938, 173). Alas, while it is easy for us in retrospect to see that these were early signs of Méliès’ creative genius, his teachers and family did not share this view (Hammond, 14). Leaving school in 1880, Méliès worked as a supervisor of accounts in one of his father’s factories, before he was drafted into military service in 1881 as a second class private in the 113th Infantry Regiment. After his military service ended in 1886, Méliès travelled to London, where he was employed by and boarded with a friend of his father who owned a clothing emporium (Hammond, 14-15). It was here that Méliès began to examine and study the art of illusion and physical comedy. Because he spoke little English, Méliès sought entertainment in which language wasn’t a barrier, such as the magic shows that were put on at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (Hammond, 15). As we shall see later, these magic shows (along with his irrepressible creativity) would be essential in inspiring Méliès’ work in film.

When he returned to London, Méliès wanted to enter the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and train to become a painter. His father, however, forbade it and, like his older brothers, Méliès was put to work as an overseer of the machinery in one of his father’s factories (Hammond, 17). This greatly increased Méliès’ understanding of mechanics and machinery, which, as we shall see, formed a crucial component of the aesthetic and practicalities of his films. This process of merging the mechanical with the creative arguably began when Méliès set up a workshop in his father’s factory where, assisted by the house mechanic, Eugene Calmels, he reconstructed some of the mechanical automata of Robert-Houdin, one of Méliès favorite stage magicians (Hammond, 19).

In 1888 Louis Méliès retired and left the operation of his factories to his sons, Henri, Gaston and Georges. Completely disinterested in continuing work in his father’s factories, Georges sold his share to his two brothers, earning enough money to purchase the Theatre Robert Houdin from the widow of Houdin’s son, Emile (Hammond, 19). To Méliès’ delight, he discovered that the theatre had been “planned and equipped solely for the purpose of prestidigitation” (Hammond, 21). From 1888 to 1907 Méliès created approximately 30 theatrical illusions and tricks, many of which were recreations of improvements of those he had seen during his time in London (Hammond, 22). The performances at the Theatre Robert-Houdin ended with the projection of slides onto a screen (depicting landscapes or scenery), lever slides (which consisted of mechanized slides, displayed horizontally to give the illusion of movement), chromatropes (two engraved or decorated glass discs, turned in opposite directions to create cyclic patterns) and a series of humorous images painted by Méliès himself (Hammond, 26). This is a very significant detail, because it shows, at an early stage in his creative career, that Méliès was interested in the merging of different media and forms of entertainment, specifically the merging of projected images and stage illusions.

In February of 1896 Méliès travelled again to London, this time to purchase a projector from R. W. Paul, an instrument maker who created counterfeit ‘Kinetoscopes’. Méliès took this machine, studied its workings and designed a camera/projector, which he had the mechanic Lucien Korsten construct. By March of 1896 Méliès had a functioning camera/projector, which he nicknamed “my machine gun” (Hammond, 28). In the same month he returned to London, where he purchased a crate of Kodak film. When he returned home, he discovered, to his horror, that the film was not perforated and, as such, needed a special machine created to clumsily punch holes in the film, so that he could use it in his camera (Hammond, 28). In April of 1896 Méliès presented the first film show to be screened at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, featuring a selection of Edison’s Kinetoscope films. It was during May and June, however, that Méliès would begin to create his own films (Hammond, 29).

Initially, these films took a similar style and substance to those of the Lumière Brothers and other early pioneers of film, depicting domestic scenes and “actualities”. We cannot blame these early innovators for restricting themselves to this style of film, as they were merely continuing the methods and subjects of contemporary static photographers (Hammond, 29). We cannot expect the early innovators of film to immediately begin producing amazing works of narrative and visual accomplishment, when no such thing had existed before in the world of static or moving photography. It is this fact, and perhaps this fact alone, that makes the career of Georges Méliès so remarkable and so compelling.

You may be forgiven for wondering why it is that we have spent so much time discussing the life of Méliès, leading up to his career as a film maker, with little reference to the films themselves. It is the considered opinion of this author that it is impossible to understand the significance and origins of the key components of Méliès’ films without having a detailed understanding of his long and productive life, which came before he even owned a camera. We can see from the above that it was in his formative years that Méliès developed his obsessions with illusion, industrialism and military pomp and circumstance, which would become crucial components and themes in his body of work. We will now begin to examine two key case studies to illustrate the significance and presence of these themes in Méliès’ films.

Let us begin with what is often considered to be the iconic Méliès film, A Trip to the Moon. Made in 1902, the film has a running time of twelve minutes and forty-six seconds and, in that short time, displays all of the personal obsessions of Méliès, as listed above. First and foremost, the film concerns itself with a series of technological wonders, the most prominent of which is, naturally, the rocket which the characters use to travel to and from the Moon. It is not as simple as this, however, and the astute viewer will note that Méliès’ technological obsession pervades every frame of the film. The construction of the rocket takes place in an intricate workshop, with many workmen acting in concert to produce the contraption. This type of workshop appears in many of Méliès’ films, such as The Impossible Voyage, The Forbidden Planet and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We can draw a very strong parallel between the industrial depictions of Méliès’ films and the years he spent working in his father’s factories. In films such as these, Méliès moves beyond a desire to exhibit visual illusions (as such illusions can be framed with any number of sets and window dressings) and into a display of Méliès’ personal obsession with industrialization, machinery and modes of transport (Orgeron, 32-35).

While there is a strong exhibition of these obsessions, we can still see that Méliès is preoccupied with entertaining and amazing the audience with his cinematic illusions. These range from the simple (the astronomers entering the rocket capsule on earth, in which they move into and through an apparently two dimensional set) to the complex (such as the rocket’s return to earth, in which it falls into the ocean). Furthermore, each set piece is a mechanical wonder in and of itself. From the elaborate Salenite court with smoking braziers to the elaborate underwater set at the conclusion of the film. Finally, when the heroes triumphantly return home, they are given a full military parade and welcome (note: for some reason the full version of A Trip to the Moon doesn’t seem to exist on the various internet video sites, those wishing to see the heroes welcome at the end should refer to the Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913) DVD set). As we can see from the above, A Trip to the Moon is a drawing together of many of Méliès’ obsessions, which stemmed from his life before his filmmaking career. The industrial landscape of the Astronomer’s Parisian home, the staggeringly intricate sets and illusions and the military fanfare of the heroes return. However, while A Trip to the Moon was (probably) the first of Méliès’ films to draw all of these elements together (after all, we are missing some 500 of his films [Frazer, 35]) if we want to see the ultimate product of these personal obsessions we must turn our attentions to The Impossible Voyage.

Produced in 1904, with a running time of twenty minutes, The Impossible Voyage was an ambitious project for Méliès and the longest running film he had made at that point in his career. Made in loving full colour, The Impossible Voyage is an extravagant showcase of Méliès’ talents and interests. The film focuses on a group of geologists who wish to travel around the world using a train, automobile, submarine and dirigible. After the geologists agree to embark on this ambitious adventure they are treated to a tour of the factory of Engineer Mabouloff, who is responsible for the construction of these modes of transport and is played by Méliès himself (Frazer, 146). We are then treated to a protracted tour of the factory and the influence of Méliès’ years working in his father’s factories is undeniable.  The journey then begins and we are presented with a series of classically Méliès illusions, involving multiple exposures, substitutions and automata (whose mechanical workings were based on those Méliès replicated from Robert-Houdin). Finally, when the heroes return home they are rewarded with a huge military parade, with much fanfare to reward their bravery.

These two films are by no means the only examples of these obsessions (a study of Méliès’ career would be poor if it relied merely on two films) but they are certainly two examples where these personal obsessions all crystallized together in Méliès’ films. Those seeking further proof can easily find it. Méliès’ preoccupation with technology and industrialism can be found in Panorama From Top of a Moving Train (1898), How He Missed His Train (1900), The Spiritualistic Photographer (1903),The Clockmaker’s Dream(1904), An Adventurous Automobile Trip (1905),The Chimney Sweep (1906), Tunneling the English Channel (1907) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912). It would be pointless to list all of Méliès’ films which display his obsession with illusions and automata, because these feature in nearly all of his works, but those interested in an overview would do well to investigate The Magician (1898), The Astronomer’s Dream (1898), A Fantastical Meal (1900), Extraordinary Illusions (1901 and its remake in 1903), Excelsior! Prince of Magicians (1901), Gulliver’s Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants (1902), The Kingdom of Faeries (1903), Rogues’ Tricks (1907) and many, many more. Finally, those interested in pursuing Méliès’ preoccupation with Military and Authority figures should turn to The Surrender of Tournavos (1897), Dreyfus: Devil’s Island – Arrest of Dreyfus (1899), Dreyfus Put in Irons (1899), Dreyfus- The Suicide of Colonel Henry (1899), Dreyfus – The court martial at Rennes (1899), The Colonel’s Shower Bath (1902), The Coronation of Edward VII (1902), The Terrible Turkish Executioner (1904), A Desperate Crime (1906), The New Lord of the Village (1908), French Cops Learning English (1908) and Not Guilty (1908). It is unfortunate that we do not have the space to give each of these films the attention they deserve; perhaps this could be a thesis for an aspiring post-graduate student.

As with any director, we can see that the experiences and obsessions that Méliès encountered and developed in his life prior to becoming a filmmaker had a profound effect on the themes and ideas that he would explore in his films. We can safely say that, for Méliès, the strongest of these themes and ideas were those of Industrialism and Mechanics (drawn from his extensive experiences in the family business), Illusion and Automata (from his personal interest as a child and young man in London) and in Military and Authority figures (stemming from his military service and stern father). These three broad themes intersect and come together to create the hallmarks of what we could consider a classically ‘Méliès’ film. They create a uniquely human series of films, especially when we consider how early they appeared. Distinct from the hard industrialism of Edison’s films (see Edison: The Invention of the Movies DVD set) Méliès blends the human ingenuity of machined technology with a sense of wonder and delight. Truly, the fantastical and technical proficiency of his films was unprecedented and has had a lasting impact on all filmmakers since.    

Works Cited

  • Edison: The Invention of the Movies. DVD. Dir. Various, including Thomas Edison. Perf. Various, including Thomas Edison. Kino, 2005.
  • Frazer, John. Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1979
  • Hammond, Paul. Marvellous Méliès. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1975.
  • Méliès, George. Mes Memoires. Rome: ,1938
  • Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896 – 1913). DVD. Dir. Georges Méliès. Perf. Various, including George Méliès. Flicker Alley, 2008.
  • Orgeron, Devin. Road Movies: From Muybridge and Méliès to Lynch and Kiarastami. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2008.
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~ by Morgan on June 24, 2009.

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