Méliès and Early Films
Return to Part 1
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
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
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:
"...photography 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
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
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.
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
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".
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
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
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
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.
Continued: The New Century
Return to Part 1 / Forward to Part 4
DVD's and Videos