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Article about Georges Méliès
Source Unknown

As a boy Georges Melies was inspired by his first visit to the Theatre Robert-Houdin to pursue a career in the magical arts. Despite obstacles, Méliès would later own and run the famous theatre.

Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions

It is virtually impossible to over-estimate Georges Méliès' contribution to the art of film. His work stands alone and is as distinctive as that of all great geniuses. His pioneering visual techniques still maintain a wonder to all ages and it comes as no surprise that audiences who witnessed a succession of vanishing ladies, flying severed heads, monstrous bats and the Devil personified were astonished in much the same way that audiences are today.

Méliès' illusions were simply an extension of those he had performed as a young magician in the Théatre Robert-Houdin, however, the discovery of film opened up a whole new world for him, filled with opportunity.

Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès was born at 29 Boulevard Saint-Martin, Paris on December 8th. 1861, the youngest of three children. His father, Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès (1815-1898) was a native of Ariège, a village near the foot of the Pyrénées from where he travelled across the country as a young boot and shoemaker under the name of "Carcassonne-L'Ami du Courage". Jean-Louis finally settled in Paris where he met his future wife, a Dutch girl named Johannah-Catherine Schuering (1818-1899) during 1843 while they both worked in the same factory. Johannah-Catherine was born in Schweningue, near the Hague, before her family relocated to Paris after their footwear manufacturing business had burned down.

Together Louis and Catherine Méliès opened their own workshop where Louis developed a new process for mechanically stitching the legs of boots. Their first son Henri was born the following year and Gaston was born in 1852. By the time of Georges birth in 1861, Louis had become a wealthy man, owning three shoemaking factories in the city and substantial property elsewhere.

Young Georges attended the Lycée Impérial at Vanves, near Paris until the school was bombarded during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and all the pupils were evacuated to Paris. Georges later declared that he was an average pupil, but he had a unique flair for sketching which was not encouraged, particularly when it was found that Georges had defaced his exercise books with portraits and caricatures of his teachers and fellow classmates.

By ten years of age Georges was busily constructing cardboard sets for his marionette shows that he would enthusiatically perform before an audience. In 1871 his theatrical passion was further fuelled by his first visit to the theatre where he saw the famous magician Robert-Houdin perform.

Before being enlisted into military service, Georges' father arranged a job for him as accounts supervisor in the family business despite Georges wish to enroll at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to train as a painter. After a compromise, Georges was allowed to take private lessons from, as claimed by his grandaughter Madeleine Malthete-Méliès, painter Gustav Moreau.

Georges then enlisted with with the 113th. Regiment of Infantry that were stationed at Blois, conveniently close to the estate of Robert-Houdin in St. Gervais, a place he surely would have visited during his time there.

Melies in London
Upon leaving the army in 1884, Georges was sent to London to learn English, a visit that would prove to be a pivotal point in his life. Initially he worked at a shoe shop after making use of his father's connections and later at a Regents Street clothing outfitters. However, during the evenings Georges would frequent the many theatrical venues that were on offer in the city, particularly the visual-fantasy productions that included Maskelyne and Cooke, billed as "Royal Illusionists" at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Later Méliès commented on the profound influence these visits would have on his career in the magic art.

John Nevil Maskelyne, a watchmaker, and George Alfred Cooke, a cabinet maker, both made their theatrical debut in 1865 purposely to expose the fakery of the Davenport brothers from America, spiritualists who were being lauded as the genuine article at the time. One of their amazing feats was to immerse the theatre in darkness while a collection of musical instruments would seem to play and move about the room by themselves. Maskelyne and Cooke reproduced the illusion in full light demonstrating how the trick was achieved. Their act would also include several of their own illusions woven into a narrative that would both amuse and amaze the audience, including an attentive 22 year old Georges Méliès. The manifestation of ghosts, animated skeletons, automatons and severed limbs certainly influenced Méliès' later works on stage and on film. From 1873, Maskelyne and Cooke continued to perform at The Egyptian Hall until 1904 when "England's Home of Mystery" was demolished.

Despite wishes to persue his dreams on his return to France, Georges was forced by his father to become an overseer of the machinery at the boot-making factory. Georges' brothers Henri and Gaston had succumbed to their father's pressure earlier in the 1870's, but during his own time, Georges continued his conjuring pursuits by attending lessons given by Emile Voisin who owned a magician's shop in the Rue Vielle-du-Temple. Georges would showcase his feats of skill in front of family and friends and later on in a small theatre that presented puppet shows and comic operas.

The Theatre Robert-Houdin
During June of 1885, Georges married Eugénie Génin, a young Dutch woman whose father was a rich industrialist and a close friend of Georges uncle.
In 1888, Louis Méliès retired and handed the business down to his sons. Georges took full advantage of his position and sold his share in the company to his brothers. With the money, and a dowery from his wife's family, he had the money to buy the Théatre Robert-Houdin at 8 Boulevard des Italiens from the widow of the famous conjuror's son Emile Robert-Houdin for 40,000 francs. Georges Méliès moved his family, including his daughter Georgette, who was born in February, to an apartment close to the theatre.

Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was an enormous influence to generations of magicians including Méliès and an American illusionist named Erich Weiss who later adopted the moniker of Harry Houdini. Robert-Houdin commented in his own memoirs the style of his presentation:

"I intended to have an elegant and simple stage, unencumbered by all the paraphenalia of the ordinary conjuror, which looks more like a toyshop than a serious performance".
The 200-seat theatre was equipped with all manner of mechanical contraptions that were used in the illusions. Georges refurbished the theatre and opened it's doors to the public in the Autumn of 1888 with a production called La Stroubaika Persane.

From 1888 to 1907, Georges Méliès conceived of some thirty different compositions, many of them variations of established illusions. Reportedly Georges performed very little on stage and concentrated more on the running of the theatre and booking the various acts that would perform their own, or Georges' works. The theatre took a long time to show a profit, and then only after the inception of projections that were used to end the evenings entertainment.

After the production of The Golden Cage in 1897, Georges devoted himself to making films. In 1904 he briefly staged illusions at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, and between 1905 and 1907, Méliès presented four "spectaculars". However, in 1915, financial difficulties forced him to sell his beloved theatre, ironically, to a cinema operator.

Méliès and Early Films

Downstairs inside the Grand Café at 4, Boulevard des Capucines on December 28th. 1895 sat an audience waiting to watch the Lumiere brothers first cinematic performance. Amongst the public who were charged one franc to sit in the Salon Indien were invited members of the Paris entertainment world including the directors of the Folie-Bergere, the Grévin Wax Museum and thirty four year old Georges Méliès who was director of the Théatre Robert-Houdin.

Antoine Lumiere had rented a photographic studio directly above Méliès' theatre in 1895 and had entered Georges office one day with a mysterious invitation to attend a public screening of their patented Cinématographe at the salon. Georges Méliès never forgot the performance he witnessed:

"The other guests and I found ourselves in front of a small screen, similar to those we use for projections, and after a few minutes, a stationary photograph showing the Place Bellcour in Lyons was projected. A little surprised, I scarcely had time to say to my neighbour: "Have we been brought here to see projections? I've been doing these for ten years." No sooner had I stopped speaking when a horse pulling a cart started to walk towards us followed by other vehicles, then a passerby. In short, all the hustle and bustle of a street. We sat with our mouths open, without speaking, filled with amazement".

Although only thirty-three people attended the screening that historic day, with none of the major newspapers in attendance, word of mouth ensured that the news spread and a few days later more than two thousand people were rushing to the doors of the Grand Café to witness the spectacle.

A report that appeared in La Poste on December 30th. only hinted at the excitement that must have been felt at the time:

" no longer records stillness. It perpetuates the image of movement. The beauty of the invention resides in the novelty and ingenuity of the apparatus. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their motionless form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final."

That night at the Salon Indien was not strictly the first public screening of a motion picture. In November the same year German film pioneer Max Skladanowsky (1863-1939) had exhibited a series of short films with his Bioskop at the Wintergarden in Berlin. However, it was the Lumieres who were fortunate to first receive the world's attention.

Méliès, like many others, had immediately wanted to purchase a copy of the Cinématographe built by machinest Charles Moisson employed at Lumieres' Lyons factory, but Antoine Lumiere decided not to sell their device. Méliès was not to be outdone and soon discovered that Robert William Paul in England was marketing a projector called the Theatrograph. Georges purchased the device and screened a series of Edison shorts at his theatre as part of the shows. Later on Méliès would develop his own camera, the Kinétographe, from mechanical parts found in his theatre storeroom, which he patented with engineers Lucien Korsten and Lucien Reulos in September 1896. However, as more cameras became available, Méliès abandoned manufacture of the Kinétograph and used devices supplied by Leon Gaumont, Charles Pathé, Georges Démeny and Lumiere.

The trick of substitution

After overcoming the problems of perforated film stock and grading, Georges Méliès was now ready to embark on film production in the Spring of 1896. His first film is a one-minute production titled Une Partie de Cartes showing Méliès, his brother Gaston and two friends playing cards in the garden of Montreuil-sur-bois which closely imitated the Lumiere film Partie d'Ecarté of the previous year.

Amongst the eighty films Georges feverishly made in 1896, most were popular travelogues and records of newsworthy events. Indeed, this trend would continue through his career of approximately 500 productions. Although chiefly remembered for his foray into fantasy films, other productions included documentaries, comedies, stag films, dramas and filmed advertisements.

One cinematic trick that began his concentration on the fantastic film has become something of a myth. Méliès set down the incident in 1907:

"The camera I was using in the beginning, a rudimentary affair in which the film would tear or would often refuse to move, produced an unexpected effect one day when I was photographing very prosaically the Place de l'Opera. It took a minute to release the film and get the camera going again. During this minute the people, buses vehicles had of course moved. Projecting the film, having joined the break, I suddenly saw a Madeleine-Bastille omnibus change into a hearse and men into women. The trick of substitution, called the trick of stop-action was discovered..."

This account led Méliès to make Escamotage d'une Dame Chez Robert-Houdin (The Vanishing Lady) in October 1896, the third earliest Méliès film that still survives today. The substitution illusion was first performed by magician Bualtier de Kolta who once made an appearance at the Robert-Houdin. Méliès adapted the illusion for the screen by placing actress Jehanne d'Alcy in a chair and covering her with a large silk cloth. The camera was stopped while Méliès replaced her with a skeleton and then resumed filming.

Georges' other films from that year include Un Nuit Terrible that features a giant insect. This is Méliès first production in the horror genre, anticipating the creature-on-the-loose plots of the Fifties.

1896 also saw the first hints of the vampire film in Méliès' Le Manoir du Diable. At just over three minutes long, this was his first big production.

As Méliès realised the potential of the new medium as an expression of artistic ideas he began work on his own studio in late 1896. The studio was situated at the grounds of the family property in Montreuil-sur-bois and was fully operational by the Spring of 1897. Almost all of Méliès subsequent films were shot in this studio which resembled a large greenhouse and was fully equipped with all the complicated gadgetry he used at his theatre.

During the coming years buildings grew around the original studio to include a carpentry workshop, a store house containing costumes and scenery, and a laboratory where workers would hand-colour each frame of film. Despite the growing number of employees, Méliès was very much a one man band. He somehow found the time to manage his theatre, produce and direct his films, adapting stage and literature for the screen, cutting the film, designing sets and costumes in addition to taking the lead role in many of the films. Finally on December 20th. 1896 Méliès introduced the Star Film trademark with the motto: "The Whole World Within Reach".

These were obviously happy times for Georges. Indeed his delight to improvise beyond the limitations of the stage and popular conjuring tricks and to enthusiastically let his imagination run free, is clearly evident in his film productions.

In 1897 the Devil appeared in his films on two more occasions in Le Cabinet de Mephistopheles and Le Chateau Haunté, both sadly now lost. Other entries to the fantasy genre of this year included Gugusse et l'Automate (The Clown and the Automaton); the still available L'Auberge Ensorcelé (The Bewitched Inn) that features a traveller who is frightened when his clothes take on a life of their own; Chirurgien Américain (A Twentieth Century Surgeon) which is possibly the first mad scientist on the screen; Le Magnetiseur (A Hypnotist at Work) and Méliès first adaptation of a literary work with Faust and Marguerite in which Faust makes a pact with the Devil to obtain eternal youth.

Méliès' numerous appearances as the Devil must far outnumber that of any other actor, having appeared in as many as 24 manifestations in his films. It has been said that Méliès was the first to realise the potential of film to shock and horrify his audience. Grisly scenes of horror had already been popular for enthusiasts of Grand Guignol, so it was natuaral for Méliès to adapt this to his work.

By 1898, Georges was using stop-motion effects regularly.
"One trick leads to another. In the face of the success of this new style, I set myself to discover new processes, and in succession I conceived dissolves from scene to scene effected by a special arrangement in the camera; apparitions, disappearances, metamorphoses obtained by superimposition on black backgrounds, or portions of the screen reserved for décors; then superimpositions on white backgrounds already exposed which are obtained by a device which I am not going to reveal, since imitators have not penetrated the whole secret. Then came tricks of decapitation, of doubling the characters, of scenes played by a single actor.... Finally, in employing the special knowledge of illusions which 25 years in the Théatre Robert-Houdin had given me, I introduced into the cinema the tricks of machinery, mechanics, optics, prestidigitation etc. With all these processes mixed one with another and used with competence, I do not hesitate to say that in cinematography it is today possible to realise the most impossible and the most improbable things".

Spirit Photography

Georges' first use of what he termed "spirit photography was employed in La Caverne Maudite (Cave of Demons) in which the ghosts and skeletons of people buried under mysterious circumstances appear. The rocky walls of the cave can be seen through the apparitions.

Other fantasy films of that year listed in the Star Film catalogue include Magic Diabolique (Black Art), Pygmalion and Galatea, Créations Spontanées (Fantastical Illusions) and Les Rayons X (A Novice at X-Rays) in which a scientist uses his x-ray machine to extract the living skeleton from a subject's unharmed body. The films that survive from this year include Le Lune a un Métre (The Astronomer's Dream) in which an astronomer dreams that he ascends to the moon, which was actually an adaptation of Méliès' stageplay "The Moon's Pranks, or the Misadventures of Nostradamus", his first adventure into space. Illusions Fantasmagoriques (The Famous Box Trick) is another screen adaptation of a Méliès stage spectacle; and Un Homme de Tete (The Four Troublesome Heads) heralded Méliès' first decapitation effect as three of his heads take on a life of their own and float around the room.

In 1899, Georges Méliès' scope was beginnning to widen and he embarked on two of his most ambitious projects. The first of these was a reconsructed newsreel of the Dreyfus affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer was being unfairly charged with espionage. Méliès' film catalogued Dreyfus' arrest, his imprisonment on Devil's Island and his return to France for retrial, becoming Méliès' longest film to date. L'Affaire Dreyfus was created as a series of films that allowed exhibitors to show them individually, or as a complete film, but the consequences of the production provoked such partisan fistfights in the streets that it led to the film being banned in France and the censorship of all other films on the subject as late as 1950.

Cendrillon (Cinderella) released in October of 1899, became Méliès' second longest film at 75 minutes and boasted a cast of over thirty-five people.
Entries in the fantsy genre for this year include La Statue de Neige (The Snow Man); Le Diable au Convent (The Devil in a Convent) again featuring Méliès himself as the Devil; Un Bon Lit (A Midnight Episode) in which a man encounters a giant beetle; Evocation Spirite (Summoning the Spirits) features ghosts; while La Danse du Feu (Haggard's 'She' - Pillar of Fire) adapted H. Rider Haggard's famous tale of a group of explorers who encounter a 3000 year old queen who believes one of the explorers is the reincarnation of her long lost love.

Méliès and The New Century

At the turn of the new century, thirty-four Star Films were produced. Among these were Le Sorcier, Spiritisme Abracadabrant (Up-to-Date Spiritualism) and L'Illusioniste Double et la Tete Vivante (The Triple Conjuror and the Living Head). His most notorious film of the year was L'Homme Orchestre (The One Man Band) that depicts no less than seven Méliès interacting with each other as musicians, an idea that comedian Buster Keaton emulated in The Playhouse some twenty years later using precisely the same technique of multiple exposure.

We can judge the capabilities of Méliès' camera techniques simply by the loose translations of the film titles: The Man With Wheels in His Head, The Slippery Burglar, The Skipping Cheeses, Eight Girls in a Barrel, The Elastic Batallion, The Chameleon Man and of course Marvellous Egg Producing With Surprising Developments.

For Georges, the first day of the New Year began with a fire at the theatre that had begun in a studio upstairs rented by a photographer named Tourtin. The partially destroyed theatre took nine months to rebuild, but Méliès elaborately re-designed the decor at great financial cost and the Theatre Robert-Houdin re-opened on September 22nd. In the meantime, Méliès' film work didn't falter.

1901 saw twenty-nine films released including the fantasy productions Guguste et Belzebuth (The Clown vs. Satan), La Tour Maudite (The Bewitched Dungeon), La Chrysalide et le Papillon (The Brahmin and the Butterfly) that depicts Méliès in a striped kaftan and turban issuing a giant catapillar from an egg-shaped cocoon that then metamorphoses into a butterfly woman. There was also Dislocation Mysterieuse (Dislocation Extraordinary) that features more examples of explicit dismemberment. Le Petit Chaperon Rouge was one of the first of many adaptations of the "Little Red Riding Hood" story, and also released was his grandest and longest production of the year Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard) based on the novel by fellow Frenchman Charles Perault.

At the summit of his career

1902 served up two of his most distinguished and delightful pieces, the celebrated L'Homme a la Tete de Coaoutchouc (The Man With the Rubber Head) in which Méliès' head is seen to expand to bursting point after his half-witted assistant energetically pumps a pair of giant bellows. This devious, but simple illusion was executed by constructing a small carriage on a track that was moved slowly towards the static camera, thus enlarging the head. Today film-makers employ a track to move the camera in what is termed a "dolly shot". Georges often used the theme of head displacement in his films, one of the oldest tricks in any magicians bag, and also staged a series of five theatrical acts that included decapitation.

In Le Mélomane (The Melomaniac), Méliès portrays a singing teacher who tears off several of his own heads as each is replaced and throws them onto telegraph wires forming the first few notes of "God Save the King". Un Preté pour un Rendu (Tit for Tat, or a Good Joke With My Head) displays a number of Méliès' heads assaulting one another, while Le Bourreau Turc (The Terrible Turkish Executioner) from 1903 graphically shows a Vizier decapitate four prisoners with one blow of his giant scimitar, but behind his back the heads re-attach themselves onto their bodies, seize the Vizier and chop him in half while making their escape.

1902 also saw the release of Le Diable Géant ou le Miracle de la Madonne (The Devil's Statue) again giving Georges the opportunity to don the stockings and horns of Mephistopheles. However, it is the release of Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) produced during May 1902 that endures as his most famous work even though Méliès did not think it to be his best work.

"The film cost around 10,000 francs, a relatively large sum for the time, due principally to the machinery involved and the costumes of cardboard and cloth used for the Selenites, the inhabitants of the moon. Their shells, heads, feet, everything was made specifically, and in consequence, expensive. I myself made the models done in clay, the plaster moulding and the costumes were made by a maker of special masks, used to working with papier maché... When I made Le Voyage dans la Lune, there were still no 'stars' among the artists, their names were never known or printed on the posters or announcements. The people employed in the film were all acrobats, girls and singers from the music hall, theatre actors not yet having accepted to play roles in films because they considered film as below the theatre. They only came later when they learned that the music hall people earned more money playing in films than they did working the theatre, for some 3000 francs a month... In the cinema they could earn double. Two years after this, my office was every evening filled with theatre people wanting jobs. I remember that in Le Voyage dans la Lune the moon (the lady in the crescent) was Bleinette Bernon, a music hall singer, the stars were ballet girls from the Chatelet, and the men (the prncipals), Victor André from the Théatre de Cluny, Delpierre, Farjaux, Kelm, Brunnet, music hall singers and myself. The Selenites were acrobats from the Folies-Bergere".

The most memorable image from the film is of the rocket landing in the eye of the moon-face, now an icon frequently used to represent the epitome of the pioneering cinema.
Now with international success, Méliès was blighted by plagerists who conspired to profit from his work. His attempts to protect his films by placing the Star Film trademark and date of copyright in every scene were foiled by pirates like Siegmund Lubin who simply erased the mark from their duped prints. In fact there is still an undated, poorly handcoloured print of Le Voyage dans la Lune in circulation, believed to be a Lubin copy from 1903. Reportedly Lubin unwittingly tried to sell a pirated print of the film to Méliès himself while he was visiting in the area. Nonetheless flattered by all the acclaim the film received, Georges Méliès only saw a fraction of the profits that Le Voyage dans la Lune had generated globally.

Méliès films had previously been distributed in America by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, but to safeguard his interests Georges opened an office in New York in September of 1902 overseen by his brother Gaston who with his brother Henri had been ruined in the footwear business due to the increasing cost of leather. From here on, Georges would produce two negatives for each film, one would stay in France, while the other would be registered in the United States.

Le Voyage dans la Lune would not be Méliès' last foray into space. The following year saw the release of Voyage a Travers l'Impossible (An Impossible Voyage), employing many of the same structures as Le Voyage dans la Lune. This time a powered locomotive is chewed up and spat out by the grimacing face of the sun. Unharmed the intrepid explorers scout the burning surface of the star.

Life under the ocean depths was also a popular location for fantastic adventures. In Les Royaumes de Fées (the Kingdom of the Fairies) of 1903, Prince Bel Azar attempts to rescue his betrothed Princess Azurine from a witch who has kidnapped her and locked her in a tower in the middle of the ocean. With the help of the 'Fairy of the Waters', the lovers are reunited. The film was based on a stage trick titled 'La Biche aux Bois' by Guignard Freres forst performed in 1845. In 1907, Méliès takes an equally surreal voyage underwater with a lampoon of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". Deux Cent Mille Lieues Sous, ou le Cauchemar d'un Pecheur (Under the Seas), features Yves, a fisherman who dreams of a submarine trip to the sea-bed where he meets the Queen of the Starfish and a slew of mermaids. He is attacked by several sea monsters, including a giant octopus before he awakes. The marine creatures were made by Méliès directly from the illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville in Jules Verne's original novel. He also shot several scenes through a glass tank with real fish putting in an appearance.
By 1903, Méliès' Star Films had agents in Barcelona, Berlin, London and New York while his film output over the following years increased.

Méliès and the Growing Film Industry

1903's genre releases for Méliès included Le Monstre (The Monster) that shows a man in ancient Egypt who is overjoyed at the resurrection of his dead wife by the influences of a conjuror. As he reaches to embrace her, she becomes a skeleton in his arms. Also released was another adaptation of Goethe's "Faust " with Faust aux Enfers (The Damnation of Faust), inspired this time by Berlioz's opera and again starring Méliès as Mephistopheles who takes a woman down into the deep recesses of Hell where he opens his cloak to unfold a pair of impressive bat's wings.

Faust et Marguerite the following year featured a synchronised soundtrack of Gounaud's opera that was played alongside the projection of the film.

Other significant genre productions over the next couple of years include 1904's Sorcellerie Culinare (The Cook in Trouble), in which a chef is literally stewing in his own juice with only his tattered garments being recovered from the pot; and La Fée Carabosse, ou le Poignard Fatall (The Witch) of 1906.

By 1909, Georges had been elected president of the "Congress International des Editeurs du Film", an assembly of representaives of all the major film-making countries met in Paris during February. A resolution was reached that all films would be rented instead of being sold outright, a decision that would badly effect Méliès income.

Georges had emerged from the first generation of film-makers, proudly independent and mindful of the artistic applications of the medium rather than as a business enterprise. The first decade of the new century had seen a prolifiration of large companies headed by the like of Léon Gaumont (1864-1946) and in particular, Charles Pathé (1863-1957). Méliès received stiff domestic competition from Pathé's company who from inauspicious beginnings as a fairground exhibitor, had by 1909 nurtured his company to control nearly a quarter of the world's film industry. Méliès' financial independence would soon be lost when the public demand for moving pictures required a higher volume of film product every month.

Events were moving too fast for Méliès. His output was becoming more intermittent while his energies were being directed more towards the theatre. In 1911 he only made two films, Le Vitrail Diabolique and Les Hallucinations du Baron de Munchausen that featured an enormous spider-woman, devils and a winged dragon that hovers over the Baron's bed as he dreams. Neither film could relieve Méliès' growing financial difficulties, so he entered into a business arrangement with Pathé who agreed to initiallty finance and distribute Georges films on a profit sharing basis. In a disastrous move, Pathé changed the conditions of the agreement by offering Méliès a loan against the security of his studio in Montreuil. Under this arrangement Méliès made his last six films.

One of the clauses in the contract permitted Pathé to edit Méliès' films. This was carried out by Ferdinand Zecca, Pathé's newly appointed right-hand man. Zecca (1864-1947) joined Pathé in 1901 and had become the company's most prolific director until he was appointed General Manager in 1910. Allegedly Zecca, fearful that Méliès might replace him at Pathé, purposely butchered his films. Either through ill-will, or basic incompetence, it seems that the treatment Méliès was receiving simply indicated that the man and his work were things of the past.

Financial Ruin

1912 was the last year of Georges Méliès cinematic career. He produced four films that year, the first being A la Conqute du Pole (Conquest of the Pole). Méliès portrays Professor Mabouloff, the leader of an expedition to the frozen wastes of the North Pole where the group encounter the 'Giant of the Snows'; a full scale marionette operated by stage hands.

There followed another adaptation of 'Cinderella' that was mostly shot outdoors and was cut before release from 54 minutes to just 33 minutes. His last film, La Voyage de la famille Bourrichon was an adaptation of a music-hall farce by Eugene Labiche, but this also received dramatic cuts at the hand of Ferdinand Zecca.

All these films were unsuccessful, both by design and by public reaction. Méliès' film methods were considered outdated, particularly when D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation and Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria would soon hit the cinema screens worldwide. Méliès' brother Gaston suffered a similar fate after filming a number of actualities when he took his position in the offices and film factory in New York. In 1909 Gaston began making his own short fictional films and in 1910 sent his son Paul, a score of actors, a director and a cameraman to Texas where they made an astonishing number of profitable short Westerns with less than astonishing results. In 1912, Gaston embarked upon a tour of the South Pacific and Asia, but upon his return to New York he discovered that most of the film had been ruined by the tropical conditions. This seems to have necessitated the closure of the New York offices, and Gaston, already ill, returned to France where he died during 1915.

In the meantime, Georges problems increased. His first wife Eugénie had died, and while he was concentrating on his theatre work, the outbreak of World War I depleted Parisian audiences to the theatres including Theatre Robert-Houdin, subsequently they all closed. With both of his sources of income gone, Méliès converted one of the buildings at Montreuil into a little theatre called "Variétés Artistique". The repertory company was primarily a family affair and included his daughter Georgette, her husband, their son André and his wife. This small enterprise managed to see itself through 'The Great War' until 1923, when with mounting debts, Pathé had managed to obtain an order for the compulsory sale of all of Méliès' Montreuil property. Ruined, Méliès was forced to vacate the family estate while the tools and products of his life's work was dispersed to junk dealers, or destroyed. The property was sold off in lots, although the studio survived in a progressive state of ruin until 1945.

At the same time, the Theatre Robert-Houdin was demolished to make way for a new road. Obliged to remove the vast accumulation of material from the theatre, including several huge crates containing the negatives of his films from his seventeen year career. It is reported that in a moment of exasperation and anger at his misfortunes that he ordered the destruction of this precious material.

During the intervening years, Méliès was reduced to performing monologues and conjuring tricks at seaside casinos, and during the winter he toured the French provinces. At the age of 64, Georges re-married during the December of 1925. His wife, and former mistress Charlotte Stephanie Faes had performed under Méliès' tutelage on both stage and screen as Jehanne d'Alcy. Charlotte owned a little toy store situated on the Gare Montparnasse and this became the couple's sole source of income. They would tend the small kiosk together for the next seven years.


In 1926, Leon Druhot, the editor of the film magazine "Ciné-Journal" discovered the whereabouts of Georges Méliès by chance at the little kiosk and began to publicise the plight of one of the world's earliest film pioneers.

In 1929, avant-garde cinema proprieter Jean-Paul Mauclair discovered a cache of Méliès' old films. Once they were restored from their poor condition and copied, arrangements were made to screen them to a new generation of film audiences and on December 6th. 1929 a selection of the films were shown alongside Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 production The Cheat. Reportedly audiences were delighted, and Georges noted this event as one of the most rewarding of his life:

"The professionals were dumbfounded that it had been possible thirty years earlier to make films with such rudimentary equipment, so perfect, so complicated, remarkable in technique and whose hand-colour was ravishing".

Méliès had begun to see his work lauded, and more importantly, he was given a three-room apartment at the Chateau d'Orly that had been converted as a retirement home for veterans of the film industry. Later they were joined by their eight year old grandaughter Madeleine when her mother Georgette had died in 1930; a source of lasting grief for Georges.

Méliès' final years were tranquil ones. In the mid-30's he took part as an actor in two publicity films for a tobacco company, but the roles were mute. Other plans were made to continue work in various capacities, but by this time Méliès' health had deteriorated.
After making a radio broadcast in 1937, Georges was hospitalized where, on the 21st. of January 1938, the master illusionist took his last bow and was buried at the family vault in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, Paris.

His wife Jehanne d'Alcy survived him by eighteen years. Before her death, she and Georges' son André (1901-1985) appeared in a delightful docu-drama titled Le Grand Méliès (1952) directed by Georges Franju. André, who bore a striking resemblance to his father, portrays "Le Pere du Film Fantastique".

It was only in his later years that Georges Méliès was finally recognised for the pivotal role he played in the creation of narrative film. His legacy now seems stronger than ever with renewed appreciation for his films by all cinema enthusiasts.

D.W. Griffith, rightly applauded for his own contribution to the cinema, was once asked of what importance Méliès' work was to him.

He simply replied "I owe him everything".