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.
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
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
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.
Continued: Méliès and Early Film
Forward to Part 3 / Part
Georges Méliès' "Self
courtesy of the Lawrence Steigrad Fine
Arts Gallery 42, East 76th. Street, New York.