Just earlier on this week, my parents and I went to see a temporary exhibition in my home town in Spain, about Georges Méliès. The exhibition was organised by LaCaixa and is going around Spain (potentially elsewhere). I found it was nicely done, although we agreed all visits could probably do with a guide – there are explanation panels and info, but the information was still limited, although interesting a well presented. In that sense, displaywise, they get a good score from me, because it was done with taste and fitting with the topic to discuss Melies and early cinema (there were light games, lots of screens, the information on the panels was presented as if it was newspaper from the period). They also play one of his movies: A Trip to the Moon (1902). Another touch I really liked was how the exhibition mentioned that Melies story is the core of a recent modern movie which I personally love: Hugo. In this sense, the exhibition goes above and beyond in terms of contextualisation and ambiance. But what was my surprised when I arrived home and realised we had never shared the genius of this man with you…Of course, I couldn’t let it be. So please join me for a session of magic, fantasy, and utter most ingenuity.
Méliès was born in Paris in 1861. He was the son of Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and Johannah-Catherine Schuering, who founded a shoe factory specialised in high-quality boots, where Méliès worked for a while before deciding to pursue his true dream: magic. He was thrilled by illusionism. Therefore, he bought the Robert Houding Theatre in Paris in 1888. Méliès had spent time in London, seeing the great prestidigitation acts and getting to know the field. He reformed the theatre and improved the illusions he could performed on stage, increasing the number of visitors through the door. He was a complete showman, although he spent most of his time working off stage: directing, producing. However, this will all change in 1895 when the Lumière brothers revealed the Cinématographe to members of the public. Méliès was there and he was determined to buy one, but they refused his offers. Frustrated, he decided he ought to obtain a projection device of a kind for his theatre so he turned to the other, perhaps less sophisticated options available, until on a trip to London he bought the Animatograph from Robert W. Paul. The theatre started showing films on a daily basis, and the curious mind that owned it begun tampering with his new machine to make it anew. Thus Méliès made his new purchase a filming camera, and he started experimenting.
Between 1896 and 1913 he directed over 500 films, following a similar pattern than the performances he used to produce: with magic tricks, illusions. They were full-on spectacles. He built his own filming studio in Montreuil, a building made out of glass to allow light in for film exposure. Little by little his films became more elaborate and more quirky. The Lumière brothers productions were characterised for the everyday life representations, but Méliès mind was full of colour, magic and surrealism. And this became crystal clear with his production of A Trip to the Moon, where he also stars as the main character: Professor Barbenfouillis. He took inspiration for this movie from novels written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Suddenly, our protagonist became a key name in the field of science fiction. Méliès sold his film both in black and white, and in the hand-coloured version. His name became very popular not only in France and the rest of Europe, but also America, attracting the attention of other producers who started making illegal copies of his work, therefore he decided to open a branch of Star Films in New York, in an attempt to control the issue. Shortly afterwards, Méliès will show the world one of his most famous productions: The Impossible Voyage (1904). However one of his original American fraudsters, Thomas Edison, created in 1908 the Motion Picture Patents Company, therefore establishing control over the production of films both in the United States and Europe. And so, Mr Edison crafted his monopoly over the industry.
The following year Méliès stopped producing. He presided at meeting with the International Filmmakers Congress in Paris where him and many of his peers discussed their dissatisfaction with Edison’s policies. The agreements raised by the congress did not please him particularly, but he obliged and went back to making films. But these were not as successful anymore, and Méliès started having problem with Pathé. By 1914 the man was broke, and Pathé eventually took over his studios by 1923. Méliès disappeared from the public. He resumed his life with Jeanne d’Alcy, keeping a very low profile as a toy-fixer and salesman at a small booth at the station of Montparnasse. He could have spent his final years in that place going unnoticed, his work lost to the ages after he burnt a lot of his films. Yet fate had other plans for Méliès. Several French journalists started showing interest for early French cinema, and researched his work. He was eventually found at his booth and driven forward to receive the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, medal which he received in 1931 by Louis Lumière himself. The Lumière brothers acknowledge that although they did invented the cinematograph, Méliès was, nonetheless, the pioneer of art of film making and the cinema. Unfortunately, this recognition he was given did not manage to improve his situation much, although he obtained a free rent apartment for the rest of his life. However, by late 1937 Méliès became really ill and his health would not recover. He died on the 21st of January 1938 of cancer. His final recognition, although posthumous, happened last year in 2015, when his name was entered in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Perhaps it is my innate romanticism, but I would like to think that his memory is kept by all of us members of the public, every time we smile or are startled by the magic of cinema. Every time someone thinks “just how do they do it”, and every moment someone thinks perhaps they can also fly to the moon.