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Méliès, Georges

Entry updated 17 October 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1861-1938) French theatre and film director and entrepreneur. A natural showman, Méliès began his theatrical career as a conjurer, designing his own trick gadgets, against the wishes of his family, whose wealth came from manufacturing shoes. In 1888, his father's death allowed him to sell his interest in the firm, helping to provide him with the finances to buy the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, and his magic shows there became famous. In 1896, inspired by the Lumière brothers, he acquired a motion-picture camera and began making his own short films. He realized the medium's potential for creating illusions, and was soon producing many films utilizing trick photography as well as the stage effects built into his theatre.

His most successful period was 1897-1907. It was in 1902 that he made Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), which is regarded as the first sf movie epic (21 minutes long, at a time when 5-minute movies were the norm), whose initial source is of course the novel by Jules Verne, but which takes its structure – with its focus on a succession of spectacular set-piece tableaux – from Le Voyage dans la Lune (1875), the ambitious opéra féerie version by Jacques Offenbach; indeed much of Méliès's output obeys the fantasticated quest-based dramaturgy basic to the féerie, like his next ambitious film, Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902), the first filmed adaptation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735). His work was popular in many countries, but after 1904, when he made Le Voyage à Travers l'Impossible (1904), audiences were slowly beginning to require more than films too dependent on his unquestionable ingenuity in the invention and deployment of film-specific (often in-camera) special effects. By 1913 he was forced out of business. Any responsible evaluation of his work is hampered by the fact that the negatives of more than half of his 531 films (many only a few minutes long) were destroyed during World War One or afterwards. Méliès enjoyed a comeback in the late 1920s when his surviving films were rediscovered by interested journalists; the recovery of his reputation climaxed in a gala retrospective in 1929, and being made a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in 1931. He died with the satisfaction of being recognized as one of the Cinema's true innovators; he had pioneered many of the techniques on which all subsequent sf cinema has been based.

An early imitator of Méliès, the Spanish/Catalan director Segundo de Chomón, closely followed the storyline of Voyage dans la Lune in Excursion dans la Lune (1908; vt Excursion to the Moon); his similar though less slavishly imitative Le Voyage sur Jupiter (1909; vt A Trip to Jupiter) has on occasion been wrongly attributed to Méliès.

Méliès has also been claimed, retrospectively, as a Surrealist pioneer, but the truth is that his emphasis on legerdemain, however ingenious – and also his use of what was in effect a proscenium arch, so that all action is seen as if it is stage action witnessed from the seats of a theatre – limited his development; he was in any case not a theorizer. To the end of his active film career in 1913, Méliès never "advanced" from his initial understanding of cinema: that it was a way to do better magic. Somewhat sentimentalized, this understanding of the nature of his gift shapes Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret (graph 2007), which poignantly melodramatizes the moment of his rediscovery. Méliès was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2015. [JB/JC/PN]

see also: Gulliver; George Albert Smith.

Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès

born Paris: 8 December 1861

died Paris: 21 January 1938


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