Georges Méliès

Considered the father of fantastic cinema, the creator of the first fantastic film, Georges Méliès is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most important figures in the history of cinema. The third child of Jean-Louis Stanislas, a wealthy stocking manufacturer, he was born in Paris in 1861. A student of arts and letters at the Louis le Grand Institute in Paris, he was often rebuked by his teachers because of his constantly being distracted by designing caricatures, sketches and diagrams that filled entire notebooks. Notwithstanding his father’s attempts to involve him in the family business (he limited himself to designing the machinery workings that produced the stockings, studying them in depth) his primary interest, even after receiving his degree, was prestidigitation and magic shows then very much in vogue. During a visit to the estate "Le Prieuré" in Blois, on the banks of the Loire, Georges remained impressed by all the incredible mechanical devices and complicated optical illusions made by the famous illusionist Robert Houdin (the inspiration for the name that Ehrich Weisz used to become the most famous magician of all time: Harry Houdini). Sent to London by his father to study English and practice a trade at a friend’s, he discovered and frequented the famous magic theatre Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, where John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred presented their tricks during the rich and engaging shows. Here George became friends with David Devant, an illusionist who performed at the Egyptian Hall, and Bautier de Kolta, an expert in the art of levitation and fantastic apparitions. Returning to France in 1885, he married Eugénie Génin, with whom he would have two children, Georgette and André. In the meantime, Georges began building robots like those he had seen at the Egyptian Hall and taking lessons from Emile Voisin, the owner of a magical items shop in Paris. In 1888, his father retired, leaving the company to his two brothers, Henri and Gaston. Georges gave up his share and with the money bought Robert Houdin’s theatre that his widow and son Emile had put up for sale. After restoring the sets, the machinery and the premises, Méliès inaugurated the theatre on 5 October 1888 with the first illusionist numbers: his repertoire included more than thirty theatrical illusions, many of which he would then bring to the screen. On the occasion of the Great Exposition of 1889, Méliès began to use magic lanterns in his theatre, and projections on semi-transparent plates to obtain ever more sophisticated tricks and effects. It was in 1891 that he initiated and presided over the Academy of Prestidigitation, an association that promoted and defended the rights of illusionists. At the Grand Café of Paris on 28 December, 1895, the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière organised a public demonstration of "Cinématographe" which Méliès also attended, and at the end he asked the two brothers if he could purchase a model of "Cinématographe," but their father, Antoine Lumière refused, emphasising that, “cinema is just a toy that will go out of fashion very quickly.” Georges had to go to London where Robert William Paul (inventor and director) was producing the Animatograph. Méliès bought one for one thousand francs, together with the film from the American company, Edison. On 4 April, 1896, the Robert Houdin theatre scheduled short animated projections along with the prestidigitation numbers. It was the beginning of multiple experiments carried out during summer holidays at Le Havre, where Georges began to discover and understand the great potential of a means like the newborn cinema. He founded "Star Film" and produced the first film shorts, but it was during the filming of traffic at the Place de l'Opera in Paris that, because the camera handle jammed, he discovered the first “trick” of cinematography: once the film was shown here was a bus transformed into a funeral coach (while the camera was stopped, the traffic continued). Thus began, according to the legend handed down by Méliès himself in his memoires, the research into optical effects with which, together with his mechanical abilities and his gift for illusion, he made giant steps for directors. But Méliès’ great intuition was to understand that film projections in “reconstructed reality” would have bored audiences, and that was when he started to create real fantasies. Thus the first fantastic and science fiction film director in history came into being, and with him, works such as "Le reve de Noel [Christmas Dream]," "Barbe-Bleu [Bluebeard]," "L'homme à la tête en caoutchouc [The man with a rubber head]" (with one of the most innovative visual effects of its time) and many other film shorts filled with unprecedented visual discoveries. But it was in 1902, with "Le Voyage dans la lune [Trip to the Moon]" that Méliès would enter definitively into the history of cinema, and it is considered today the first subject film in history and which signalled the beginning of the cinema era. In 2002, "Le Voyage dans la lune" was the first film to be considered a humanitarian heritage by UNESCO. Méliès’ adventure continued with great successes distributed all over the world, (often without receiving royalties) and a multitude of imitators high and low up to the inevitable beginning of the Great War, which in 1915 signalled the end of the great dream of a genius illusionist. In 1920, the Robert Houdin Theatre was bulldozed to the ground to allow for the widening of Boulevard Haussmann; mortgages and debts did the rest. Moving to a small flat in Montreuil, he couldn’t find the space for all his films he had made in fifteen years of work. There was nothing to do but pile them up outside his house and set them on fire. Georges was left a widower and remarried a former diva of Star Film; he opened a kiosk for toys and sweets in front of Montparnasse station in Paris. Forgotten until 1931, when on 21 October he was awarded the Legion of Honour as the creator of film shows, he died on 21 January 1938 and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in his beloved Paris.


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