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Overview for Georges Melies
Georges Melies

Georges Melies


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Also Known As: Geo. Smile,Marie-Georges-Jean Melies Died: January 21, 1938
Born: December 8, 1861 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Paris, FR Profession: Director ... producer director actor caricaturist magician puppeteer mechanic businessman corporal


One of the visionary pioneers of early cinema, director and independent producer Georges Méliès used his skills as an illusionist and theater owner to create the techniques of modern narrative filmmaking. Méliès was at the forefront of the motion picture business alongside other pioneers such as Thomas Edison and the Lumiére brothers. But unlike the latter, who favored a more documentary approach to filmmaking, Méliès tapped into his inner showman and created spectacles for the screen, which translated into large audiences and financial success. By accidentally inventing stop-motion photography, he used visual sleight of hand to replace one image with another, wowing audiences with the optical illusion. He used the technique to great effect with "The Vanishing Lady" (1896) and went on to create such memorable silent shorts as "The Astronomer's Dream" (1898), "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (1898) and "Cleopatra" (1899), the earliest known example of a horror movie. Méliès achieved iconic status with "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), a 14-minute sci-fi adventure that featured the famed shot of a rocket ship landing in the Man on the Moon's eye - one of the most indelible images in cinema history. Though he would go on to make notable films like "The Impossible Voyage" (1904) and "Conquest of the Pole" (1912), Méliès fell on hard times due to war and increased competition, leaving him poverty stricken. He rose to prominence toward the end of his life, however, as his stature as a pioneering filmmaker was returned in full.

Born on Dec. 8, 1861 in Paris, France, Méliès was raised by his father, Jean-Louis-Stanislas, a shoemaker who became wealthy after opening a high-quality boot factory, and his Dutch mother, Johanna-Catherine, who helped educate his father and assisted in building their business. His family's wealth allowed him to attend the prestigious secondary school, Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he received a formal classical education, but often irked his schoolmasters by constantly drawing portraits and caricatures on his textbooks. At 10 years old, he began building puppet theaters and staging marionette shows, which helped lay the foundation for his later stage career as an adult. Upon completing his education, Méliès went to work at his father's boot factory and spent three years in compulsory military service, before being sent to London by his father to work for a family friend. While there, he attended performances by famed illusionist and inventor of the pay toilet, John Nevil Maskelyne, and began developing a desire to perform magic himself. After returning to Paris in 1885, Méliès instead wanted to study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts, but his father refused to provide financial support, forcing his son to return to the family business.

Despite toiling away at his father's factory, Méliès maintained his interest in performing magic and studied the craft before performing in public. After his father retired, Méliès sold his interest in the family business to his brothers, Gaston and Henry, and bought the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Though he struggled at first to attract audiences with outdated tricks, he eventually improved upon the theater and enjoyed growing success. While wearing multiple hats in operating the theater, he was able to attract some of the biggest magicians of his day, while also pioneering a number of special effects used during the performances. Meanwhile, when the Lumière brothers unveiled their Cinematographe on Dec. 28, 1895, Méliès was not only present, but clearly the most affected member of the audience. He offered to purchase one of their cameras, but the Lumières steadfastly refused. Frustrated, but undeterred, Méliès traveled to London where he sought out inventor Robert W. Paul and secured the purchase of his Animatographe, which was basically a replica of Thomas Edison's then-unpatented Kinetoscope. From there, he was able to construct his own camera - albeit a noisy one - in order to make his own films.

In early 1896, Méliès began making his own films, and when all was said and down, managed to make over 530 shorts. His first efforts were essentially remakes of the Lumière's films. But while the brothers approached their movies with more of a documentarian's eye, Méliès tapped into his inner showman and made films that were more entertaining. Using the skills he acquired as an illusionist, he began incorporating special effects and visual trickery into his films. By accident, Méliès discovered the stop-trick - where one image replaces another - when his camera jammed, leading to the inclusion of the technique in some of his more famous films like "The Vanishing Lady" (1896), where he incorporated the old parlor trick of someone disappearing into a trap door in the floor, only this time replacing them with a dancing skeleton. But Méliès was more than just a pioneer of technique. He was also credited with inventing narrative film, thanks to his experience as a magician and theater owner, which he used in conjunction with the new invention of motion pictures to present spectacles of a kind not possible in the live theater.

Within nine months, Méliès had increased the length of his films so that by the end of 1896, they consisted of three, three-minute reels and were making regular use of previously unimaginable special effects, including making performers disappear by stopping his camera in mid-shot. As the year ended, he was also completing a glass-walled studio in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, where he could make films without fear of elements. In fact, Méliès worked tirelessly seven days a week at his suburban studio by day and traveled to Paris at night in order to continue running the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. From 1897 to 1904, Méliès made hundreds of films, the great majority now lost to the sands of time. The scores of prints which managed to survive showed why his contemporaries were both initially impressed, but ultimately bored. Failing to develop any consistent ideas, his entertainment consisted only of a succession of magical tableaux peopled by Méliès - who often dressed as the conjurer or the devil - and young women recruited from the theaters of Paris, performing against flat, painted backdrops. While many of these early experiments were bland even among his contemporaries, Méliès was undoubtedly a pioneer who initiated narrative techniques later perfected by later masters like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith.

Méliès branched out beyond narrative motion pictures to film early commercials for a variety of products, while also making the occasional stag film, the only surviving one being "After the Ball" (1897), which featured actress and second wife Jeanne d'Alcy bathing in a tub. He foreshadowed his greatest achievement with "The Astronomer's Dream" (1898), in which he played said astronomer who falls asleep and is visited by Satan, the Man in the Moon, and various other ethereal spirits. After directing the religious satire, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (1898), where d'Arcy portrayed a tempting young maiden who transforms into Jesus Christ, Méliès directed one of the earliest known horror films, "Cleopatra" (1899), where the titular empress is resurrected after death as a mummy. He even tried to use his films to make political statements, as he did with "The Dreyfus Affair," which portrayed famed French army captain Alfred Dreyfus as a man falsely accused. Meanwhile, Méliès upped the ante on his productions with the elaborate, seven-minute-long "Cinderella" (1899), which contained over 20 scenes and 35 actors. The film was a big hit across Europe and in the United States, though ultimately his success incurred the wrath of Thomas Edison, who tried and failed to block his films from being released in America.

His success both at home and abroad, coupled with the unionization of his fellow filmmakers to protect themselves overseas, allowed Méliès to create more elaborate and spectacular films. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, he started hitting his international stride with "Joan of Arc" (1900) and "Bluebeard" (1902), the latter of which was copied unsuccessfully by Edison's company. Around this time, Méliès began experimenting with a dolly technique that created the illusion of a character growing larger or smaller on screen, an effect he used in "The Devil and the Statue" and "The Man with the Rubber Head" (1901). But all was prologue for what would ultimately become his most famous film, "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), an astounding 14-minute depiction of an astronomer who constructs a bullet-shaped rocket and flies to the moon, where he and his team are attacked by moon men. Featuring the iconic shot of the rocket landing in the Man on the Moon's eye - one of the most indelible images of early cinema - "A Trip to the Moon" was a massive international success, though Méliès was cheated by the likes of Edison and Carl Laemmle, who sold pirated copies without paying royalties.

Over time, Méliès became more elaborate and daring with his productions, vastly expanding both time and scope in his later productions. At 16 minutes long, "Fairyland: A Kingdom of Fairies" (1903) represented one of his most creative endeavors, while the mammoth adventure "The Impossible Voyage" (1904) clocked in at 24 minutes and featured a "Trip to the Moon"-like image of a rocket ship flying into the mouth of the sun. Starting in 1905, Méliès began to feel the financial pinch of producing movies, especially with sales dwindling due to increased competition and the growing industrialization of the French film industry. He saw a creative decline in 1907 following "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Hamlet," which was due in part to Edison forcing him to join a collective of production companies after he created the Motion Pictures Patent Company to control film releases both at home and abroad. His output increased dramatically in order to keep up with Edison's stringent requirements, which of course diminished the quality. For a brief spell in 1909, Méliès stopped making films and looked for a way to counter Edison's control over the burgeoning motion picture industry, while struggling to maintain his independence.

Though he resumed operations later in 1909, Méliès found himself being pulled back toward running the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, though he continued making films. In 1910, he ceased independent distribution and signed a deal with the Gaumont Film Company, but later in the year, Méliès instead switched over to Pathé Frères - a move that ultimately ended his filmmaking career. He directed one of his most ambitious pictures, "Conquest of the Pole" (1912), which was based on Jules Verne's novel The Adventures of Captain Hattera (1874), which focused on two rivals battling each other to reach the North Pole, and featured an elaborate scene where a man-eating frost giant tries eating one of the crews. Despite its artistic vision, the film was a financial flop, as were others distributed by Pathé. Frustrated by his parent company's controlling hand, Méliès broke his contract with Pathé, only to find himself mired in debt and unable to pay. Forced to sell his American branch of his production company, he eventually went bankrupt and was unable to continue making films.

Meanwhile, World War I raged across Europe and forced Méliès to leave Paris. The Théâtre Robert-Houdin closed down and the French army took over his Montreuil studio and transformed it into a hospital for wounded soldiers, while later confiscating his original prints to melt the celluloid for its silver content. Méliès and d'Arcy turned a second studio building into a stage, where they performed variety shows until 1923. By that time, Pathé took full control of his production company and left Méliès angered enough to destroy many of his film prints in frustration. Having been forced out of the business by war, economic realities and his own inability to keep up with the changing times, Méliès scrounged out a living as a candy and toy salesman, living in poverty and obscurity for nearly the remainder of his life. In the late 1920s, he found a resurgence of interest in his work after being rediscovered by a group of journalists and began receiving his due. In 1932, he was awarded the Legion of Honor - France's highest decoration - and was given residence for himself and his family in a retirement home by the French Cinema Society. Though he worked with other artists on a number of scripts, he never made another film nor directed another stage production. Méliès died on Jan. 21, 1938 from cancer at 76 years old, knowing that his legacy as a cinema pioneer was fully intact. While his legacy grew over the generations, Méliès and "A Trip to the Moon" were often referenced a number of times in popular culture, most notably when British actor Sir Ben Kingsley played him in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-nominated film "Hugo" (2011).

By Shawn Dwyer

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