Méliès and the
Growing Film Industry
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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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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".
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Georges Melies: First Wizard of the Cinema (Boxset)
Melies-The Magician DVD click here
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