Georges Méliès Tickets | 2024-2025 Tour & Event Dates |

Georges Méliès Tickets


Events0 results

Filter By


Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès (/meɪˈljɛs/; French: [meljɛs]; 8 December 1861 – 21 January 1938), was a French illusionist and film director who led many technical and narrative developments in the earliest days of cinema. Méliès was well-known for the use of special effects, popularizing such techniques as substitution splices, multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted colour. He was also one of the first filmmakers to use storyboards. His films include A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), both involving strange, surreal journeys somewhat in the style of Jules Verne, and are considered among the most important early science fiction films, though their approach is closer to fantasy.

Early life and education

Plaque commemorating the site of Méliès' birth – "In this block of flats was born on 8 December 1861 Georges Méliès, creator of the cinematic spectacle, prestidigitator, inventor of numerous illusions"
Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born 8 December 1861 in Paris, son of Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and his Dutch wife, Johannah-Catherine Schuering. His father had moved to Paris in 1843 as a journeyman shoemaker and began working at a boot factory, where he met Méliès' mother. Johannah-Catherine's father had been the official bootmaker of the Dutch court before a fire ruined his business. She helped to educate Jean-Louis-Stanislas. Eventually the two married, founded a high-quality boot factory on the Boulevard Saint-Martin, and had sons Henri and Gaston; by the time their third son Georges, had been born, the family had become wealthy.

Georges Méliès attended the Lycée Michelet from age seven until it was bombed during the Franco-Prussian War; he was then sent to the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand. In his memoirs, Méliès emphasised his formal, classical education, in contrast to accusations early in his career that most filmmakers had been "illiterates incapable of producing anything artistic." However, he acknowledged that his creative instincts usually outweighed intellectual ones: "The artistic passion was too strong for him, and while he would ponder a French composition or Latin verse, his pen mechanically sketched portraits or caricatures of his professors or classmates, if not some fantasy palace or an original landscape that already had the look of a theatre set." Often disciplined by teachers for covering his notebooks and textbooks with drawings, young Georges began building cardboard puppet theatres at age ten and moved on to craft even more sophisticated marionettes as a teenager. Méliès graduated from the Lycée with a baccalauréat in 1880.

Stage career

After completing his education, Méliès joined his brothers in the family shoe business, where he learned how to sew. After three years of mandatory military service[citation needed], his father sent him to London to work as a clerk for a family friend. While in London, he began to visit the Egyptian Hall, run by the London illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne, and he developed a lifelong passion for stage magic. Méliès returned to Paris in 1885 with a new desire: to study painting at the École des Beaux-Arts. His father, however, refused to support him financially as an artist, so Georges settled with supervising the machinery at the family factory. That same year, he avoided his family's desire for him to marry his brother's sister-in-law and instead married Eugénie Génin, a family friend's daughter whose guardians had left her a sizable dowry. Together they had two children: Georgette, born in 1888, and André, born in 1901.

While working at the family factory, Méliès continued to cultivate his interest in stage magic, attending performances at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, which had been founded by the magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. He also began taking magic lessons from Emile Voisin, who gave him the opportunity to perform his first public shows, at the Cabinet Fantastique of the Grévin Wax Museum and, later, at the Galerie Vivienne.

In 1888, Méliès' father retired, and Georges Méliès sold his share of the family shoe business to his two brothers. With the money from the sale and from his wife's dowry, he purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Although the theatre was "superb" and equipped with lights, levers, trap doors, and several automata, many of the available illusions and tricks were out of date, and attendance to the theatre was low even after Méliès' initial renovations.

Over the next nine years, Méliès personally created over 30 new illusions that brought more comedy and melodramatic pageantry to performances, much like those Méliès had seen in London, and attendance greatly improved. One of his best-known illusions was the Recalcitrant Decapitated Man, in which a professor's head is cut off in the middle of a speech and continues talking until it is returned to his body. When he purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès also inherited its chief mechanic Eugène Calmels and such performers as Jehanne D'Alcy, who would become his mistress and, later, his second wife. While running the theatre, Méliès also worked as a political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper La Griffe, which was edited by his cousin Adolphe Méliès.

As owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, Méliès began working more behind the scenes than on stage. He acted as director, producer, writer, set and costume designer, as well as inventing many of the magical tricks. With the theatre's growing popularity, he brought in magicians including Buatier De Kolta, Duperrey, and Raynaly to the theatre. Along with magic tricks, performances included fairy pantomimes, an automaton performance during intermissions, magic lantern shows, and special effects such as snowfall and lightning. In 1895, Méliès was elected president of the Chambre Syndicale des Artistes Illusionistes.

Early film career

On 28 December 1895, Méliès attended a special private demonstration of the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, given for owners of Parisian houses of spectacle.[a] Méliès immediately offered the Lumières 10,000₣ for one of their machines; the Lumières refused, anxious to keep a close control on their invention and to emphasize the scientific nature of the device. (For the same reasons, they refused the Musée Grévin's 20,000₣ bid and the Folies Bergère's 50,000₣ bid the same night.) Méliès, intent on finding a film projector for the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, turned elsewhere; numerous other inventors in Europe and America were experimenting with machines similar to the Lumières' invention, albeit at a less technically sophisticated level. Possibly acting on a tip from Jehanne d'Alcy, who may have seen Robert W. Paul's Animatograph film projector while on tour in England, Méliès traveled to London. He bought an Animatograph from Paul, as well as several short films sold by Paul and by the Edison Manufacturing Company. By April 1896, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was showing films as part of its daily performances.

Méliès, after studying the design of the Animatograph, modified the machine so that it would serve as a film camera. As raw film stock and film processing labs were not yet available in Paris, Méliès purchased unperforated film in London, and personally developed and printed his films through trial and error.

In September 1896, Méliès, Lucien Korsten, and Lucien Reulos patented the Kinètographe Robert-Houdin, a cast iron camera-projector, which Méliès referred to as his "coffee grinder" and "machine gun" because of the noise that it made. By 1897 technology had caught up and better cameras were put on sale in Paris, leading Méliès to discard his own camera and purchase several better cameras made by Gaumont, the Lumières, and Pathé.

Méliès directed over 500 films between 1896 and 1913, ranging in length from one to forty minutes. In subject matter, these films are often similar to the magic theatre shows that Méliès had been doing, containing "tricks" and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size. These early special effects films were essentially devoid of plot. The special effects were used only to show what was possible, rather than enhance the overall narrative. Méliès' early films were mostly composed of single in-camera effects, used for the entirety of the film. For example, after experimenting with multiple exposure, Méliès created his film The One-Man Band in which he played seven different characters simultaneously.

Méliès began shooting his first films in May 1896, and screening them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin by that August. At the end of 1896 he and Reulos founded the Star Film Company, with Korsten acting as his primary camera operator. Many of his earliest films were copies and remakes of the Lumière brothers' films, made to compete with the 2000 daily customers of the Grand Café. This included his first film Playing Cards, which is similar to an early Lumière film. However, many of his other early films reflected Méliès' knack for theatricality and spectacle, such as A Terrible Night, in which a hotel guest is attacked by a giant bedbug. But more importantly, the Lumière brothers had dispatched camera operators across the world to document it as ethnographic documentarians, intending their invention to be highly important in scientific and historical study. Méliès' Star Film Company, on the other hand, was geared more towards the "fairground clientele" who wanted his specific brand of magic and illusion: art.

In these earliest films, Méliès began to experiment with (and often invent) special effects that were unique to filmmaking. This began, according to Méliès' memoirs, by accident when his camera jammed in the middle of a take and "a Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse and women changed into men. The substitution trick, called the stop trick, had been discovered." This same stop trick effect had already been used by Thomas Edison when depicting a decapitation in The Execution of Mary Stuart; however, Méliès' film effects and unique style of film magic are his own. He first used these effects in The Vanishing Lady, in which the by then cliché magic trick of a person vanishing from the stage by means of a trap door is enhanced by the person turning into a skeleton until finally reappearing on the stage.

In September 1896, Méliès began to build a film studio on his property in Montreuil, just outside Paris. The main stage building was made entirely of glass walls and ceilings so as to allow in sunlight for film exposure and its dimensions were identical to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. The property also included a shed for dressing rooms and a hangar for set construction. Because colours would often photograph in unexpected ways on black-and-white film, all sets, costumes and actors' makeup were coloured in different tones of gray. Méliès described the studio as "the union of the photography workshop (in its gigantic proportions) and the theatre stage." Actors performed in front of a painted set as inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theatre. For the remainder of his film career, he would divide his time between Montreuil and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where he "arrived at the studio at seven a.m. to put in a ten-hour day building sets and props. At five, he would change his clothes and set out for Paris in order to be at the theatre office by six to receive callers. After a quick dinner, he was back to the theatre for the eight o'clock show, during which he sketched his set designs, and then returned to Montreuil to sleep. On Fridays and Saturdays, he shot scenes prepared during the week, while Sundays and holidays were taken up with a theatre matinee, three film screenings, and an evening presentation that lasted until eleven-thirty."

In total, Méliès made 78 films in 1896 and 52 in 1897. By this time he had covered every genre of film that he would continue to film for the rest of his career. These included the Lumière-like documentaries, comedies, historical reconstructions, dramas, magic tricks, and féeries (fairy stories), which would become his most well-known genre. That same year, Georges Brunel wrote that "MM. Méliès and Reulos have, above all, made a speciality of fantastic or artistic scenes, reproductions of theatre scenes, etc., so as to create a special genre, entirely distinct from the ordinary cinematographic views consisting of street scenes or genre subjects." Like the Lumière brothers and Pathé, Star Films also made "stag films" such as Peeping Tom at the Seaside, A Hypnotist at Work and After the Ball, which is the only one of these films that has survived, and stars Jeanne d'Alcy stripping down to a flesh-coloured leotard and being bathed by her maid. Between 1896 and 1900, Méliès also made ten advertisements for such products as whiskey, chocolate, and baby cereal. In September 1897, Méliès attempted to turn the Théâtre Robert-Houdin into a movie theatre with fewer magic shows and film screenings every night. But by late December 1897, film screenings were limited to Sunday nights only.

Méliès made only 27 films in 1898, but his work was becoming more ambitious and elaborate. His films included the historical reconstruction of the sinking of the USS Maine Divers at Work on the Wreck of the "Maine", the magic trick film The Famous Box Trick, and the féerie The Astronomer's Dream. In this film, Méliès plays an astronomer who has the Moon cause his laboratory to transform and demons and angels to visit him. He also made one of his first of many religious satires with The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in which a statue of Jesus Christ on the cross is transformed into a seductive woman, played by Jeanne d'Alcy.

He continued to experiment with his in-camera special effects, such as a reverse shot in A Dinner Under Difficulties, where he hand cranked a strip of film backwards through his camera to achieve the effect. He also experimented with superimposition, where he would film actors in a black background, then rewind the film through the camera and expose the footage again to create a double exposure. These films included The Cave of the Demons, in which transparent ghosts haunt a cave, and The Four Troublesome Heads, in which Méliès removes his own head three times and creates a musical chorus. Achieving these effects was extremely difficult and required skill. In a 1907 article, Méliès noted: "Every second the actor playing different scenes ten times has to remember, while the film is rolling, exactly what he did at the same point in the preceding scenes and the exact place where he was on the stage."

Méliès made 48 films in 1899 as he continued to experiment with special effects, for example in the early horror film Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb. The film is not a historical reconstruction of the Egyptian Queen, and instead depicts her mummy being resurrected in modern times. Robbing Cleopatra's Tomb was believed to be a lost film until a copy was discovered in 2005 in Paris. That year, Méliès also made two of his most ambitious and well-known films. In the summer he made the historical reconstruction The Dreyfus Affair, a film based on the then-ongoing and controversial political scandal, in which the Jewish French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and framed for treason by his commanders. Méliès was pro-Dreyfus and the film depicts Dreyfus sympathetically as falsely accused and unjustly incarcerated on Devil's Island prison. At screenings of the film, fights broke out between people on different sides of the debate and the police eventually banned the final part of the film where Dreyfus returns to prison.

Later that year, Méliès made the féerie Cinderella, based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale. The film was six minutes long and had a cast of over 35 people, including Bleuette Bernon in the title role. It was also Méliès' first film with multiple scenes, known as tableaux. The film was very successful across Europe and in the United States, playing mostly in fairgrounds and music halls. American film distributors such as Siegmund Lubin were especially in need of new material both to attract their audience with new films and to counter Edison's growing monopoly. Méliès' films were particularly popular, and Cinderella was often screened as a featured attraction even years after its U.S. release in December 1899. Such U.S. filmmakers as Thomas Edison were resentful of the competition from foreign companies and after the success of Cinderella, attempted to block Méliès from screening most films in the U.S.; but they soon discovered the process of creating film dupes (duplicate negatives). Méliès and others then established in 1900 the trade union Chambre Syndicale des Editeurs Cinématographiques as a way to defend themselves in foreign markets. Méliès was made the first president of the union, serving until 1912, and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin was the group's headquarters.

Around the same time, Méliès used the financial success of his films to expand the Montreuil studio, which allowed him to create even more elaborate sets and added storage space for his growing archive of props, costumes and other memorabilia.

You are here
Top of page