At the beginning of the XX century, the illusionist and filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861-1938), gave life to wonderful worlds entirely from his imaginations, in his set at Montreuil (the first of his kind!), enriching every narration with special effects never seen before. But it was not just fantasies: Méliès also had the idea to recreate news in times when the newspaper still hadn’t been invented (To know how Méliès built his triumph during the Belle Époque, read Georges Méliès, The prince of Wonders).
Still, today the legendary name of the Star-Film, the film company he had founded and that dominated the screens of the whole world at his times, is almost forgotten.
We have already seen how Georges Méliès tended to take care of every detail of his films: set, costumes, screenplay, shooting, make-up, acting, special effects… (read the previous article).
In the scenes of his movies anyone could appear: the gardener, his daughter, his sculpture teacher, people taken from the road, the troupe of the theatre he directed (the legendary Theatre Houdin in boulevard des Italiens), but also world-famous actors.
Way before discovering his passion for cinema, Georges Méliès, recently become director of the Theatre Houdin (read the previous article), discover another one, just as powerful: the one for a member of his troupe. Very small, but with the disposition of a tiger, the fairy of the Theatre Houdin, known with the pen name Jehanne d’Aley, gladly reciprocated his affections.
Their love was long, sometimes troubled, whose ending seemed permanent to both, but…
In the previous article, I talked about how Méliès built his brilliant career and his lead place as cinema pioneer. His success was incredible, the Theatre Houdin (where the masterpieces of the Star-Film were played) was always sold out, and his name was also famous overseas.
At this point, I would really like to end my story leaving Georges in his prime, respected and saluted by all as the great artist he was, with a fluttery “THE END” on a fade-out. Sadly, I’m forced to continue, since life loves plot twists as much as Méliès did, even if this is bitter, a bit dismal, and brings the cruel sign of war and money.
Competition, cinematographic piracy, World War I, the financial crisis, the death of his beloved wife… too many blows to endure, even for an energetic spirit like Méliès.
During the war, the smallest of his sets that Georges had built-in Montreuil had been converted in a vaudeville house to keep up the spirits of the townsfolk, and of the Parisians who rushed from the center of the, by now, deserted Ville Lumière.
At the end of WWI, Méliès understood that nobody was able to dream anymore, and he was forced to sell the Theatre and the Montreuil set to pay his debts. Many movies were dispersed in auctions and melted to obtain silver. Méliès himself, in a fit of rage, burnt part of his personal archive, as he couldn’t afford to keep it anymore. Fortune, never a cheapskate with irony, made it so that the bootleg copies – the same that helped bring forth his ruin – are today the only existing proof of that treasure.
And after this depression injection, here’s a plot twist that Méliès surely sorely needed: in 1925 he met Jehanne d’Alcy, the fairy of the Theatre Houdin, who had opened a small shop of sweets and toys at the Montparnasse station in Paris. The two got married, and Méliès decided to help Jeanne with her shop, fixing the mechanical toys he well knew how to tinker with.
Don’t lose your time trying to find this nostalgic corner at the actual station: the ancient gare was demolished and rebuilt in the 70s.
From this small shop comes to life the story told by Brian Selznick, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, which inspired Martin Scorsese, following his desire to homage one of the fathers of cinema, to make the famous namesake movie.
Furthermore, always here, Lèon Druhot, a headstrong author of the cinema magazine Ciné-Journal, found Méliès in 1929. Thanks to him, the man Charlie Chaplin had called “the Alchemist of light” came out of the shadows to finally get the way overdue homage from the world of cinema, but the financial problems hunted him until the end, to the point that Jehanne could barely pay for his funeral. Even so, as witnesses say, Méliès’s kind smile never faltered, not even under the most ferocious darts of misfortune.
And having retraced this incredible story, a walk to the Père-Lachaise cemetery, 63° division, was necessary to pay my respects to the prince of wonders, buried with his muse and companion, Jehanne d’Alcy.
A fundraising for the restoration of this monument has been started right these days by George’s great-granddaughter, Pauline, who can’t afford the expenses all by herself. Pariswonders pledged, because, as a wise friend of mine pointed out: “I owe at least a cinema ticket to Méliès.”. Thanks to all the wonder hunters who’ll choose to participate UNTIL APRIL 23RD 2019.
Adieu, my prince. You tried to disappear forever, but this time, the trick didn’t work.