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Georges Méliès, The Alchemist of Light

Today marks the 150th birthday of Georges Méliès, the first sci-fi movie director, not to mention one of the worlds’ first directors. He made 552 films between 1896 and 1913--nearly all of which are under twenty minutes in length (many are only one or two minutes long.) His films are some of the most imaginative films ever to be directed, even by today’s standards. His innovations in the field of cinematography were groundbreaking and paved the way for future directors. D.W. Griffith said of Méliès, "I owe him everything," and Charlie Chaplin dubbed him "the alchemist of light."

Georges was born in Paris, France, on December 8, 1861. His full birth name was Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès. In his younger days, he worked as an illusionist and conjuror. He also had a background in theatre and had a lifelong compulsion to draw. All of these skills would be used to enhance his films and contributed to making his movies stand out. Many of his early films were of himself performing magic tricks, while also utilizing the film to further the illusions. He acted in eighty-four of his films.

The Conjuror 1899

In 1888, after inheriting a share of his fathers’ business, he purchased the Théârte Robert Houdin on 8 boulevard des Italiens, Paris, and began to put on his own productions. The Théârte Robert Houdin was very important and deeply symbolic to Georges.

The theatre was named after the great French stage magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin who has been credited as the Father of Modern Conjuring. The small theatre was where Houdin performed many of his most famous acts and was a mecca for would-be magicians. It was also frequented by the Parisian elite. After Houdin’s death on June 13, 1871, the theatre was inherited by his son, Emile (who was also an illusionist). Emile never performed there, but he did arrange for magic acts to continue to keep the theatre running. After Emile’s death, his widow sold the theatre to Georges Méliès.

Note: Harry Houdini intentionally chose the name “Houdini” as an homage to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. I plan to write a future posting entirely dedicated to Robert-Houdin, but I felt some clarification on the similarity of names was in order to clear up any confusion.

Georges created around twenty-five different major stage illusions at the theatre before he attended a viewing of the Lumière brother’s Cinématographe on December 28, 1895, at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. Ten short films were shown (all around 45 seconds long), including their first film, Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.) This night would change his life.

Georges tried to buy the invention from them, but they refused on the grounds that "the cinema is an invention without any future." The Lumière brothers primarily made documentary styled films and are considered the worlds first documentary filmmakers. They would go on to focus their attention on producing color photographs instead of films.

Méliès was undeterred by their refusal; he traveled to London and purchased an early projector and, with the aid of an engineer, converted it into a homemade video camera. After perfecting the camera, he patented it as the Kinétographe Robert-Houdin and began shooting his own films in 1896--only one year after seeing a film for the first time.

Méliès also became the inventor of the movie trailer in 1898. In an effort to lure an audience into his theatre, he showed short snippets of his films outside of the Théârte Robert Houdin. He also experimented with adding color to his films as can be seen in his 1900 film Joan of Arc and his 1906 film The Merry Frolics of Satan. His studio filmed between thirty and fifty movies per year until the start of World War I.

Science fiction and magic were not the only genres he filmed. He was the first director to convert books into films. For instance, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Hamlet were both made into films in 1907; Gulliver's Travels in 1902 and Don Quixote in 1908. He also used mythology, history, religious imagery and folktales for inspiration of many more of his films.

Tentation de Saint-Antoine (The Temptation of St. Anthony) 1898

The Temptation of St. Anthony is one of my favorites. It is surprising how risqué this film is considering it was made in 1898. St. Anthony is tempted by scantily clad (for 1898) woman during his prayers and there is nothing he can do to get away from them. He kisses a skull and it becomes a woman; even Christ is replaced on the cross with one of these temptresses! Finally, they are driven away by the appearance of an angel, who now appears just as desirable as the she-devils to the poor saint.

Méliès was also one of the first horror directors. His 1896 film Le Manoir du Diable (English title: The Haunted Castle), is widely considered to be the first horror film, although it was meant to be more amusing than scary. Either way, it is definitely the first vampire film. To give you some perspective, it was actually released the year before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was originally published. Le Manoir was released on Christmas Eve, 1896, at the Theatre Robert Houdin. The film was written, produced and direct by Méliès. He costarred in it playing the part of Mephistopheles and this was the first film of Jeanne d'Alcy, an actress who starred in many of his films between 1896 and 1903 who would later become his second wife.

Le Manoir du Diable (The Haunted Castle) 1896

Méliès final film was made in 1913, most likely due to a series of extraordinarily horrible events. This would be the blackest point of his life. His first wife, Eugénie Génin, who he married in 1885, died in 1913; his Théârte Robert-Houdin went bankrupt in 1914 and closed its doors; and then his brother, Gaston (who acted in some of Georges’ films and produced and directed films of his own in America), died on April 9, 1915, of “shellfish poisoning.”

Undaunted, Georges converted his studio into a theatre in 1915 and continued to show his films until 1923 when, pursued by creditors, he was forced to close it down and sell his negatives, costumes, set designs and props. What he didn’t sell was recycled as he had no way of storing it. Many of his films would be melted down and turned into boot heels for the army.

Méliès became wedded again in 1926, marrying his former actress and presumed mistress Jeanne d'Alcy. For the next five years he would make toys and sell them in a small boutique in the Montparnasse railway station. They were penniless and seemingly forgotten to the world.

Unexpectedly, his films had a resurgence with the new generation of French youth. In March of 1931, Méliès was named as one of the two pillars of French cinema alongside Louis Lumière. On October 22, 1931, he was presented with the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor) award by Louis Lumière.

He would live out his final days at the Chateau d'Orly where Méliès reminisced and occasionally performed conjuring tricks. He passed away on January 21, 1938, in Paris, France, at the age of 76 and is interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Jeanne would live another eighteen years before passing away on October 14, 1956, at Versailles, France, at the age of 91.

Méliès’ films live on and are still attracting an audience today. It was not simply fame or money that he was after. Georges was a true artist; he was driven by a deep need to give his art to the world and it still shows in his films even after one hundred years time. Approximately ninety of his films survive today, the rest are lost to time. However, many of his films are available for free on the various websites, such as Youtube.

Le Diable Noir (The Black Imp) 1905

For the sake of space, I would like to give some links to other Méliès’ films I would recommend here:

A Trip to the Moon (1902) This is the first science fiction movie ever made.

Jeanne D'arc (Joan of Arc) Starring Jenne d’Alcy as Joan. (1900)

Cinderella (1899)

The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) Color


  1. Good timing ! Interesting that the word 'alchemy' was once in Chaplin's vocabulary.


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