Georges Melies: The Most Important Filmmaker You’ve (Probably) Never Seen

What do the following have in common: magic tricks, science fiction, ghosts, oversized insects, space aliens, vampires, the Devil, fairy tales, color, product placement, historical re-enactments, docu-drama, animation and pornography? The twofold answer is that they are all common elements in contemporary movies — and they were all first rendered in motion pictures by one remarkable man, French magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Melies.

Melies is the most important filmmaker you’ve (probably) never seen, or at least, haven’t seen enough of. Considering his importance, he remains surprisingly little-known, even to avowed film buffs. In a breathtakingly short span of 16 years, from 1896 to 1912, he made more than 500 movies, an extraordinary output of productivity.

Admittedly, many of these movies were a mere minute or two long, and the first 70 or so were simple documentations of street scenes and so forth. They soon became far more complicated, however, reflecting Melies’ theatre background; incorporating elaborate sets, costumes, and a dizzying array of camera tricks that Melies himself invented. In his memoirs, the Frenchman would write of this outburst, “The demon of invention tormented me,” and this is easy to believe when considering the vocabulary of film that he single-handedly created. (Georges Melies, Mage et “Mes Memoires” par Georges Melies, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, editeur Paris, 1961)

Melies grew up in Paris, the youngest son of a successful factory owner. His early interests included puppetry and stage magic, and as a young man he left factory work to buy the theatre that had belonged to the recently deceased Robert-Houdin, a hugely influential stage magician of the time. (So influential that Harry Houdini, a Hungarian-turned-American illusionist originally named Erik Weisz, took a variation of Robert-Houdin’s name as his own.)

Melies’ stage career was reasonably successful, but everything changed on a December afternoon in 1895, when he was invited to an exhibition of the Lumiere brothers’ invention, the cinematographe. Melies sat in a café basement with 32 other astonished spectators and watching as pictures moved upon the wall. Melies, however, saw more than just pictures; he saw the future.

He wasted little time. Within a few months he had a camera of his own, built from a modified design because the Lumieres wouldn’t sell him one of their own (protesting that they couldn’t take his money, that the camera was “an invention without a future”). Melies churned out films by the score those first months: street scenes, card games, factory gates, cityscapes, anything that was suitable for a moving picture — which was, of course, just about anything at all.

It seems impossible to parse the particular moment when a man changes from dabbler to visionary, but if any man has documented that moment it is Melies. In his Memoires — considered by many to be less than entirely accurate — Melies relates the incident that transformed him from documentarian to creator. One day, while shooting a street scene in Paris, the film jammed in his hand-cranked camera, and a few moments of judicious jiggling were needed to get the mechanism moving again. When he developed and screened the film, Melies was startled to see the substitutions that had taken place during the moments when the film was not advancing. Women changed into men, adults into children, horses into human beings, and — most ominously — an omnibus full of workers blinked into a hearse.

Reliable or not, the story neatly encapsulates the filmmaker’s growth from observer to manipulator. Melies intuitively understood what had happened, and soon his movies were utilizing and expanding upon the substitution trick in such films as The Vanishing Lady (1896) and The Magician (1898). Other tricks followed: multiple exposures against a black background allowed Melies to sing and argue with his decapitated self in The Four Troublesome Heads (1989) or call forth ghostly “spirits” to glide across the screen in Blue Beard (1901).

The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)

Dissolves resulted in fade-ins and fade-outs; split screen exposures, in which half the lens was covered for one shot, then the other half for the rewound film’s subsequent exposure, allowed Melies to have conversations — and argument — with himself without the need for a black background. Double exposures combined with differing camera placement allowed midgets to converse with giants, or — in the case of 1902’s justly celebrated The Man with the Rubber Head — allowed body parts to grow or shrink before the audience’s disbelieving eyes. A cartoon spaceship splashes into the sea and is rescued by a cartoon steamship in 1902’s A Trip to the Moon.

Nor were his innovations limited to tricks of exposure and substitution; cleverly-placed tanks allowed fish to swim between the camera and the actors portraying divers in his faux-documentary Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine” (1898). Melies was the first person who understood both the ramifications of the substitution technique, and the larger issues of film as a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. As if that were not enough, his hand-colored films — available to exhibitors at a considerable surcharge — dazzled audiences 40 years before the arrival of the Technicolor splashed The Wizard of Oz.

For a time, all this made Melies the most popular filmmaker in the world. Audiences loved the magic in his films — the dizzying tricks and misdirection, such as the man who morphed into two men, then three, eventually seven, each playing a different musical instrument, all gesticulating wildly and hamming it up for the camera. (All, naturally, were played by Melies himself in 1900’s One Man Band.)

His appeal ranged far beyond tricks, though. Fairy tales like Cinderella (1899) were just as popular, as were historical recreations such as The Coronation of Edward VII (1902) — which married location shots of Westminster Abbey to interior scenes filmed in Paris — and such comic shorts as The Colonel’s Shower Bath (1902) or the multi-episode faux-documentary The Dreyfus Affair (1899).

This remarkable series of nine films, most only about one-minute long, dramatized the plight of a Jewish captain in the French army who was convicted of treason, imprisoned, sentenced to death, pardoned, imprisoned again and finally released. Melies, who had served in the army himself, was outraged at what he felt to be unduly harsh treatment of a slandered man innocent of wrongdoing. His depiction of Dreyfus’ plight foreshadowed the docu-drama genre that would produce such films as The Insider (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000).

The Demon of Invention

The Infernal Caldron (1903)

The Demon of Invention

It’s doubtful that any single individual — not Godard, not Fellini, not Kurosawa or Kubrick or Scorsese — has exercised the totality of vision that Melies did over his work.

More than anyone since, Melies was a true ‘auteur’. In our current age — and for several decades prior — the director’s primary role has been that of a shepherd, leading his flock of 300-odd actors, cinematographers, set designers, wardrobe and props people, lighting and sound technicians, and so on. [The epic Troy (2004) reportedly employed five hair stylists, among other necessities.) Melies, on the other hand, was directly involved in every facet of his productions: he wrote the scripts, designed and helped build the sets, sketched out the costumes, directed the action, (usually) starred in the show, and edited the final product.

It’s doubtful that any single individual — not Godard, not Fellini, not Kurosawa or Kubrick or Scorsese — has exercised the totality of vision that Melies did over his work. For better or for worse, and it was usually for the better, the films we see today are reflections of what the artist carried in his head, without intervention from intermediaries.

Usually for the better; sometimes not. Melies’ films are peppered with occasional unsavory depictions of savage Africans and goofy Chinese; one scene from The Palace of the Arabian Knights (1905) features a ‘Buddhist priest’ in a mosque, making an animal sacrifice to a Hindu goddess while surrounded by ‘vestal virgins’. (Hey, whatever works.) Entire doctoral dissertations are waiting to be written about the depiction of gender in his oeuvre, with his women generally falling into two categories: pure, noble spirits [as in the heroic Joan of Arc (1900) or the innocent young wife who, in Blue Beard, stumbles upon a grim row of hanged women) or else oddly inhuman creatures, literal objects of the manipulator’s art.

In The Vanishing Lady (1896), a magician tosses a sheet over a woman, causing her to disappear; she reappears as a skeleton, then returns to normalcy. Another woman is transformed from stone to flesh by the artist’s touch in The Magician (1898); the same year brought The Temptation of St Anthony, with its female temptresses, one of whom appears, jarringly, as a Jesus-substitute occupying a crucifix. In The Drawing Lesson (1903) a clownlike artist conjures up a woman piece by piece, who appears first as a statue, and then undergoes a bizarre transformation into a fountain.

Also in 1903 came Extraordinary Illusions, in which Melies removes pieces of manniquins from a “magical box” and assembles them into a living woman, whom he dresses and undresses, transforms into feathers and finally disassembles. Women appear as stars and planets in A Trip to the Moon (1902), as the blades of a fan in The Wonderful Living Fan (1904) and as the Queen of Hearts in The Living Playing Cards (1905); elsewhere they are mermaids and fairies and butterflies and goddesses.

Sometimes it seems that Melies is willing to see women as anything at all — except actual human beings. All the chorus girls and dancing girls and matrons in crowd scenes are rarely asked to do anything significant or interesting. The titles of Eight Girls in a Barrel (1901) and Ten Ladies in an Umbrella (1903) are pretty much self-explanatory.

However, any criticism along these lines must take into account the fact that in his films, no one suffers more at the hands of Melies than Melies himself. He is constantly tearing off his own head, being harassed by unseen forces, or — as the Devil — being chased away and vanquished. If Melies carried the prejudices of his time against women and minorities, as seems likely, he was equally ready to make fun of himself onscreen as well, and to poke fun at established white-male hierarchies such as the university and the army. (Although not, if we are to judge by his surviving films, the church.)

So what does this all have to do with audiences nowadays? Well, quite a lot. As I write this, Avatar has become the highest-grossing movie in history, Twilight is a cultural phenomenon, and special-effects films like Clash of the Titans regularly fill movie houses. The cinema of the fantastic is alive and well; Georges Melies invented it.

He placed vampires onscreen in 1897 with The Devil’s Castle, and sent travelers into space with A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage (1904), which is nothing less than a trip to the sun. He pioneered ornately staged, special-effects-laden work such as The Palace of the Arabian Knights (1905), The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) and The Conquest of the Pole (1912) — a 30-minute epic featuring an enormous ice-giant that eats an explorer and vomits him up again — and would not be surprised at the longevity of the genre he helped create.

Nor would Melies have raised an eyebrow at the long, long reach and profitability of the video porn industry. After all, he invented that too, when he dressed a thick-hipped actress named Jeanne D’alcy in a flesh-colored body suit and filmed her bathing in a 70-second opus called After the Ball (1897).

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After the Ball doesn’t look like much these days — it’s more apt to elicit laughter than arousal — but that’s not the point. It’s the first, faltering step of an industry that would continue unabated to such cultural touchstones as Deep Throat (1972) and beyond, to the Internet depravities of our age. In the same way, A Terrible Night (1896), with its oversized cockroach harrying a guy who just wants a good night’s sleep, foreshadows giant-insect movies from Them! (1955) to Eight-Legged Freaks (2002).

James Cameron’s Avatar, with its indigenous aliens resisting the imperial advances of Earthling soldiers and corporate executives, is a recognizable reinterpretation, or perhaps refutation, of Melies’s most famous film, A Trip to the Moon. That movie, with its iconic image of the moon’s face, tells a surprisingly sinister story of a group of human scientists who, upon finding indigenous life on the moon, promptly try to eradicate it. Given the nature of the era, and the fact that the savage, alien Selenites carried spears and were ruled by an alien monarch, it’s not surprising that the audience was expected to identify with the ‘civilized’ explorers/invaders.

It’s tempting to say that, without Melies, there would be no Avatar, no vampire movies, no Star Wars or Star Trek, no special-effects extravaganzas, no docu-dramas like Erin Brockovich or Monster — the 2003 version with Charlize Theron — no animation, no Walt Disney, and no porn. Tempting, yes, but wrong.

Surely even without Melies, someone would have thought to draw pictures on paper and then move them a little at a time between frames. Someone would have thought to invent product placement by adding a consumer item to a scene, as Melies did with a gigantic bottle of champagne in Blue Beard. Without a doubt, someone would have eventually thought to turn the movie camera upon naked women — or men! — with or without the questionable benefit of a body stocking.

Yet the fact remains that all of these things were done first by Georges Melies, not by Ferdinand Zecca or Thomas Edison or the Lumiere brothers. His remarkable vision deserves to be recognized and celebrated. For how often is an entirely new art form invented? When it is, consider how vital are the pioneers who, perhaps tormented by the demon of invention, urge that form into new, previously unimagined realms.

The Man With The Rubber Head (1901)

David Maine is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006) and Monster, 1959 (2008). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and, among other outlets. He currently lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.