Charlie Chaplin called him “the alchemist of light”, and this is his incredible story. Worthy son of the dazzling Belle Époque, Georges Méliès (1861-1938) had experimented with various arts before choosing the one he thought was more interesting «because it uses more or less all of them». With those words, Georges was referring to the cinema that, in those years laden with promises, was taking his first steps.
(to know more about the early days of Georges Méliès in the world of illusionism read: Georges Méliès, the birth of the legend of the Alchemist of light.“)
It all began on December 28th, 1895, at the first projection of the legendary cinematography by the Lumière Brothers. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t legendary at the time, so much that on the first day there were just 33 people. The performance, whose price was 1 Frank, consisted of the uninterrupted projection of a dozen movies (for a total of half an hour) in the salon of the Grand Café in boulevard des Capucines.
Three of these shy viewers had been personally invited, and they were none other than the “musketeers” of the Parisian Belle Époque’s show business. I’m talking about Édouard Marchand, director of the legendary music-hall Folies-Bergère, Gabriel Thomas, director of the fantastic Musée Grévin and his friend Georges Méliès, director of the Theatre Robert-Houdin. With three names I spelled music, dance, art, theatre, illusionism… in only one word: wonders!
Now, Méliès wasn’t the type to let occasions slip away and he was able to recognize genius when he saw it. It would be enough proof to quote what he said to a raging audience during the performance of King Ubu by Alfred Jarry (1896), the first example of the theatre of the absurd:
«At least have the decency to be idiots in silence!»
What could he have ever thought before the “animated photographs” of the Lumière Brothers?
Méliès was so impressed he asked to buy the patent, but the Lumière said no. Not too bad: the magic shows at the Houdin theatre would include the projections of the “animated photography”, with or without the cinematograph. He just had to invent one! And who wouldn’t have thought the same? (Me, for instance…). And who wouldn’t be ready, to solve its technical difficulties, to sail back and forth on the Channel? (Me again, I confess).
In fact, right in London – where Georges had lived for a time (as we told in the previous article) -, his friend Robert W. Paul, engineer, inventor, and director, known today in the field with the name of “Daddy Paul”, had developed a device that could have partially solved Méliès’s problems. It was the “theatregraph”, impossible to enunciate but not to buy, and the alchemist of light, clearly, seized it. Thanks a bunch Daddy Paul!
From 1895, Méliès could finally start to project movies made by him in his theatre in Paris, in boulevard des Italiens, but it rapidly occurred to him that the charm of the new “animated photography” was destined to fade without a consistent revolution. Once past the early enthusiasm, the audience would have grown tired of everyday scenes: workers coming out of the factories, card games, people walking… all things everyone could see anytime, and without paying! Georges had too high a sense to show not to understand that, once the cinematograph was invented, an art had to be invented as well. Just like it happened for theatre shows, movies too had to tell a story.
When the new effect of the stop shooting became public knowledge thanks to the movie “The execution of Mary, Queen of Scotland” (1895), Méliès thought he found his goose who laid golden eggs. The technique was actually incredibly useful to make objects appear/disappear/transform, creating illusions never seen before. The first step towards the “special effects” had been made.
George immediately saw in the stop shooting a great potential that could open the way to a completely new art. From that moment on, the volcano Méliès was free to unleash his creativity and it seemed – let me tell you – he sorely needed it.
Always with the need to keep everything under control, Méliès poured his soul in every movie, being at the same time producer, director, set designer, playwright, make-up artist, camera operator and, most importantly, lead actor! He was one of the first in the newborn cinema first days to experiment with:
- On-screen make-up
- painted backdrops (painted by himself, bien-sûr!)
- characters enlargement
- fade out from one scene to the other
Naturally, to develop, the new art of cinema soon needed a dedicated space that could accommodate its many necessities. For this reason, in 1897 at Montreuil, then nothing more than a small town out of Paris, Méliès designed and built the first Cinema Studio of France, not without constant problems: the big building in glass panels and wood wasn’t easy to make. The master glassmaker, once on-site, seeing the wobbly wooden skeleton put together by Méliès exclaimed:
«Who’s the idiotic architect who directed this thing?».
Georges stomached the critic with the usual elegance and, made the necessary changes, finally obtained his “posing atelier”: the legend of the Magician of Montreruil was born…
Of this legendary place, nothing remains but a plaque.
Thanks to the studio, Méliès could free himself from the weather conditions (shootings, at the time, usually took place outside, with good weather) to be free to tell all the stories he had in mind.
Medames et messieurs, I have the pleasure to inform you that, from that moment, the doors to the impossible were finally opened wide. Between 1896 and 1909, Georges Méliès made around five hundred movies, many of them “colored”, which meant that each frame was painted by hand.
The most famous of them is the extraordinary “Voyage dans la lune” (“Journey to the moon” 1902), inspired by Jules Verne’s novel “From Earth to the moon”, with the record runtime, for the times, of 15 minutes.
But the plot twist isn’t over for Georges Méliès. To learn about the sad, but incredible, the epilogue of this story read: The sad ending of Georges Méliès: the father of cinema… or not?