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The film pioneer that history almost forgot

The early French cinematographer Georges Melies playing the role of a magician with a female assistant. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY profiles on the Frenchman rescued from obscurity by a chance discovery in a Normandy dairy shed.

By the spring of 1929 Jean-Placide Mauclaire had grown used to being given old reels of film. The previous year he had opened Studio 28, an art house cinema in the Montmartre district of Paris that quickly became an important landmark by attracting the great and good of the Parisian cultural milieu. Success also meant regular unsolicited deliveries of films good, passable but mostly hopeless. So when a friend brought in a cardboard box of film reels that had turned up in the dairy shed of a chateau somewhere in Normandy, Mauclaire almost dumped them without looking at them.

He decided to run one or two through the projector just in case, at which point he soon realised these old films were very special indeed. Many of them weren’t in the greatest condition but the craft and skill that had gone into their production were so obvious that Mauclaire sat up in his chair almost as the first frames flickered onto the screen. There were costume dramas, comedies, romances and playful tableaux involving magic and illusion. There were special effects and trick photography pulled off with a mixture of technical brilliance and showman’s panache, clearly the work of a craftsman with a love for the medium and a sense of mischief that never became self-indulgent.

Mauclaire watched the entire contents of the box. Most of the films didn’t have credits, but on a card at the end of one of them he glimpsed a name to confirm the suspicions that had grown since he’d watched the very first scenes: this was a trove of films made by Georges Méliès. Most excitingly, the friend who delivered the box had told him there were more, prompting Mauclaire to spend the next week rummaging in the Normandy milking shed to retrieve some 900 reels of film, the majority of them by Méliès.

Most people will be familiar with the black and white image of an anthropomorphic moon being poked in the eye by a space rocket. It’s from Méliès’ 1902 Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) and remains one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema. Le Voyage…, in which Méliès himself stars as the leader of a lunar expedition, is widely credited as the first science fiction film and almost always features in round-ups of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made.

Less than three decades after its release, however, as Mauclaire explored his treasure trove, its creator and star had been practically forgotten. The film business had moved on; pictures now came with sound and were shot with close-ups and different camera angles. The rigid-camera silence of Méliès’ work was already ancient history in a fast-moving medium.

Fortunately Mauclaire retained a strong appreciation of Méliès’ importance and set about planning a major retrospective, the highlight of which he decided would be an appearance by the man himself. All he had to do was find Georges Méliès, who hadn’t made a film in years and had been effectively missing since before the First World War.

Méliès’ almost complete disappearance from the world of cinema was partly due to changing tastes, partly down to his own actions but equally due to sheer bad luck. At the outbreak of the war he’d had his own film studio and ran a theatre he had owned since 1888. The former was requisitioned as a hospital by the army and would never be his again, the latter would be demolished in 1923 to make way for a new road. But Méliès’ fortunes were already in decline, despite his having revolutionised cinema across the world in the early years of the 20th century.

The moment that had transformed Méliès’ life came in December 1895. He’d been running the Théatre Robert-Houdin for seven years at that point, appearing regularly as a popular stage magician and illusionist. Just after Christmas he attended a demonstration of the Lumiere brothers’ new moving picture camera-projector in a basement room beneath Paris’s Salon Indien du Grand Café and was entranced by the short films that filled the room with the magic of moving pictures.

Captivated by the new technology Méliès approached the Lumieres and offered them 10,000 francs for one of their machines. He was turned down, Antoine Lumiere reportedly telling him he’d be wasting his time as well as his money as “the motion picture is an invention without a future”.

Convinced otherwise, Méliès sourced a similar machine in London and within a year was making and presenting short films whose technical influence is still visible in the cinema we know today. Substitution, double-exposure, dissolves and stop motion, they all started with Méliès who not only had the vision to dream up these experimental advances but could pull them off convincingly even with rudimentary technology.

His early films were short, beautifully made and brimmed with charm. Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin (The Vanishing Lady), for example, made in 1896 and one of his earliest films, mimicked his act as a stage magician. Filmed at his theatre, a woman sits on a chair and the film-maker drapes a cloth over her with his magician’s panache. There’s a jump cut, he whips away the cloth and the woman is no longer there. Méliès’ visible delight in the success of this trick more than compensates for what would now be seen as a fairly brutal cut; the fact he could shine on the screen was as important to his success as his technical brilliance. There’s a more successful effect when he attempts to bring her back, whips off the cloth with a flourish – and reveals a skeleton sitting on the chair, not just an impressive piece of filmmaking but also a gag of perfect comic timing.

Five years later came L’homme à la tête de caoutchouc (The Man with the Rubber Head), a brilliant piece of comedy in which Méliès plays a scientist who places a copy of his own head, blinking and gurning, onto a table and inflates it with a pair of comically large bellows until it nearly fills the screen, an effect achieved by superimposing footage of himself moving towards the camera to make it appear his head was inflating, then placing it onto the static footage of the laboratory set. Again, Méliès showed with this film that he wasn’t just a technical innovator, he was also a natural comedian: the reactions of his scientist would have graced the later work of Chaplin and Keaton.

Le Voyage dans la Lune established his worldwide reputation. The same year, 1902, he also made a mocked-up newsreel of Edward VII’s coronation and adapted Gulliver’s Travels to demonstrate he was much more than a gag man and trickster.

Despite his imagination and screen presence, however, as the motion picture took off in the US and forged ahead in terms of equipment and the filmmaking craft, Méliès stuck rigidly to his static camera filming a theatrical stage set. As the years passed his films, while still hugely accomplished, no longer displayed the panache and joie de vivre of his prime and his popularity began to decline. A distribution contract he signed in 1910 with Pathé intended to kickstart his career would prove to be his undoing. By 1913, having overstretched himself and his studio financially, he was forced to break the contract, effectively forfeiting ownership of his home and the studio complex he had built at Montreuil. The war delayed inevitable repossessions, but when in 1917 the French army moved into the studio they requisitioned hundreds of reels of Méliès’ films and melted them down to make boot heels from the silver and celluloid. In 1923, the same year Méliès’ theatre was demolished, Pathé were finally able to confiscate his properties to which he responded in temper by burning everything that was left: film stock, sets and costumes. He was angry, bitter – and ruined.

By the time Mauclaire tracked him down Méliès was nearly 70 years old and working at his wife’s tobacconist stall on the concourse of the Gare Montparnasse, selling sweets, cigarettes and newspapers to commuters. “One afternoon in July 1929 before an emotional Méliès I screened Papillon fantastique, Le locataire diabolique, Les 400 coups du diable and La Fée Carabosse, some of his finest work,” Mauclaire would later recall. In the flickering light of the screen he could see tears rolling down the old man’s cheeks as he watched. Later that year Méliès was feted on the stage at Mauclaire’s Studio 28 retrospective, his reputation restored. Most of his hundreds of films were lost a long time ago but more than 200 survive, their transfer from decaying celluloid to digital ensuring the immortality of one of cinema’s true pioneers.

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