Melies copertina 1

Georges Méliès: the birth of the legend of the Alchemist of Light

The Parisian Belle Époque is sprinkled with an infinite number of what I call “Wonder factories”, and one of them was a person:  Georges Méliès (1861-1938).

Georges Méliès
Georges Méliès, the Prince of Wonders. in 1895.

If I decided to tell this amazing story it’s not just for the deep esteem I feel for this volcano of creativity, but also to contribute in clearing the air that, in obedience to a sort of damnatio memoriae imposed by misfortune, is quite heavy around the memory of Georges Méliès. Of the heaps of wonders this incredible creative made, alas, just a puff of smoke remains, just like the ones invading the stages of his shows and movies: the first movie studio saw in France, the theatre where the Parisians went to be amazed by illusionism, the legendary celluloid archive with more than 500 movies… nothing of this exists anymore.

This icon of his time was as fleeting as his illusions, but not for the artists he inspired in the years to follow, fist of all Charlie Chaplin, who called him “The alchemist of light.”

At 29 boulevard Saint-Martin, III arrondissement, you can read:

In this building, on December 8 1861
Georges Méliès was born
creator of cinematographic shows,
magician,
inventor of many illusions.

… three absolutely uncommon professions!

But great minds think alike, it is known, so, where to look for the origins of a career devoted to illusion and impossible? Obviously, on the stage of another wonder factory: the Cabaret fantastique at the Musée Grévin.

(Read about the cabaret that enchanted Paris at the beginning of the XX century with the best illusions of the world’s greatest magicians in The amazing Musée Grévin, or the house of wonders.)

Decapitato recalcitrante di Méliès
The head of the Rebelling Beheaded act by Méliès respectfully preserved at Musée Grévin

Not a bad start for the young magician Georges Méliès, but where did he learn his magic, seen that Hogwarts hadn’t been written, yet? Going back some years, I found him taking lessons in another impossible house, then situated in London, at 170/171 Piccadilly: the Egyptian Hall.

Egyptian-hall
Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly (1895). Opened in 1824; demolished in 1905 (photo from Wikipedia).

To be precise, Georges’s father, a rich bourgeois who hoped to place his youngest son in the family business with his brothers, sent him to London to better his English. He had him hired in a shop of corset supplies, hoping he’d forget his worrisome passion for painting, and for a woman without means.

Unluckily for monsieur Méliès-father, things went south in the usual way of art. As soon as he finished his day at the shop, young Georges darted to the Egyptian Hall to paint the sets of the great Devid Devant, the famous magician who, in turn, taught him the secret art of illusion.

 

Devid Devant (1868 – 1941)
Devid Devant (1868 – 1941), English magician and illusionist, Méliès’s teacher. (photo from Wikipedia).

When he went back to Paris, Georges gathered all of his courage and announced to his family to be ready for the big step: he wanted to sell his quota of the family business to buy the legendary Theatre Houdin in boulevard des Italiens, the cradle of illusionism as we know it today. The theatre had become a black hole of debts after his brilliant founder, the invaluable Robert-Houdin retired from the scenes, but this had no impact on the spirit of the young magician. Georges had left as a painter to come back an illusionist, and good old Méliès-father could only comply.

 

Robert-Houdin (1805 -1871), il padre della prestidigitazione moderna
Robert-Houdin (1805 -1871), father of modern prestidigitation. Fun fact: Houdin was born on December 7th, Méliès on the 8th. Two magicians, one theatre. A predestined succession? (Photo from Wikipedia).

Méliès worshipped Houdin (just like the great Houdini, who chose his pen name, later on, in his honor) and he was only 27 years old when he could boast to be director and owner of his legendary theatre, the amazing tools, and the priceless automates kept inside. At the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, I found some pieces of this treasure, like the Carton Fantastique (“Fantastic Cardboard Box”) from which everything could be taken out when needed, even children.

 

Le Carton fantastique (Il cartone fantastico)
The Carton fantastique (the fantastic cardboard box) by Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, presented for the first time in 1847 on the stage of the first location of his theatre at Palais-Royal (Cinémathèque française).

For Méliès-father, a rich shoemaker who built his fortune from nothing, without even knowing how to write and read, that son so passionate for politics, poetry, art, sculpture, photography, mechanics and even magics remained forever a mystery. He said about him:

“He could have a good job, where he could make money in his sleep.”

And the unavoidable answer came:

“The thing is, I don’t want to sleep, dad!”.

Rue Taylor Melies
The building that Georges Méliès’s Father had built at 5 and 7 rue Taylor (X arrondissement) in 1879 to house his factory and his family. Georges was only 19. Later on, when he would be married and director of the Museum Houdin, Georges will live for a time at the fourth floor with his wife Éugènie and his daughter Georgette.
Rue Taylor Melies
5, rue Taylor: The “M” ofMéliès is still on the main entrance.
Date fabbrica Melies
On the façade are shown the two key dates of the story of Méliès shoe factory: 1847, the foundation; 1879, the building of the new branch following its great success. This building represents the wealthy job Georges refused to follow his artistic vocation. His father was very disappointed, and they fought about it, a lot. But it’s also true that, without its help, we would have never known the wonders of Georges Méliès!

In spite of the problems, thanks to the direction of Méliès, the Theatre Houdin went back to its former glory. His brilliant magic shows were a lure for the whole of Paris, but the destiny of that place of wonders – and of his director – still had to unravel.

 

Locandina Melies Houdin
Playbill for a show of the Theatre Houdin under the direction of Georges Méliès.

While I was studying about this unique story, I couldn’t stop myself from going to look for the place where once was the Theatre Houdin, some traces, or even just a plaque to commemorate that legendary realm of illusions. In the end: nada de nada! Of Georges Méliè’s theatre, nothing remains, not even a small sign.

 

héâtre Houdin in blv des Italiens
Boulevard des Italiens (metro stop Richelieu-Drouot) and the place left by the buildings demolished in 1924, including the legendary Théâtre Houdin, (sigh!).

December 28th, 1895, the breakthrough. Georges Méliès was invited to the exclusive red carpet of an unprecedented event: the projection of the amazing cinématographe by the Lumière‘s brothers, in the salon of the Grand Café in Boulevard des Capucines, today at the 16 (IX arrondissement). Méliès’s life was about to change forever… and with his, even the one of the newborn cinema!

Fratelli Lumiere
The Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste (photo from Wikipedia).
Targa commemorativa cinematografo
The commemorative inscription on the site of the first cinematographic projection by the Lumière brothers, that reads: «Here, on December 28, 1895, took place the first public projections of animated photography with the help of the cinematograph, a device invented by the Lumière brothers».
Alice e il Principe delle meraviglie.
Alice with her Prince of wonders.

(Read the next chapter of the story in: “Georges Méliès, the prince of wonders“)