The work of the film innovator who brought fantasy and illusion to the movies, is presented in a documentary and a collection of Georges Méliès most significant works.
The earliest filmmakers were inventors and businessmen, and their product was made up, for the most part, of so-called “actualities,” filmed records of real events. The novelty of motion pictures kept audiences entertained for a while, but for the movies to make the leap into a truly popular art, they needed a showman, and Georges Méliès was the right man at the right time. A marvelous DVD called Méliès the Magician, put out by Facets Video, provides an overview of this important film pioneer.
Méliès was an actual illusionist, the stage manager of the best magic theater in Paris. When he started filming in 1896, he discovered the perfect film analogy for the magician’s art: the trick shot. By stopping the camera and then starting it again, he could make things disappear, inanimate objects move, and many other delightful illusions.
The DVD contains The Magic of Méliès (from 1997), a documentary by Jacques Meny on the life and work of the director. Comprehensive and detailed, it will open your eyes to the importance of this man. He wrote, shot, designed, and directed close to a thousand films, and acted in many of them as well. He was a powerful force in cinema for a decade, with his films in high demand around the world. One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary shows the workings of his studio in Montreuil-sous-Bois, more sophisticated in its lighting and configuration than anything yet attempted.
The second part of the DVD is Méliès’ Magic Show, a collection of fifteen Méliès films screened before an audience at a Paris theater, and introduced by his granddaughter. After watching his films, it becomes clear that Méliès’s work had a special style that could not be imitated. Although he stays within the theatrical proscenium arch, the frame bustles with action, and the visual tricks are meticulously done. One film shows Méliès pulling his head off and throwing it onto a musical staff in the background, as one of the notes. Another head pops out of his neck, and that gets thrown on the wall as a new note. And so on. A later work shows him unpacking an infinite suitcase, from which he pulls furniture and throws paintings against the wall, in a frantically paced use of backwards filming. There are fairy tale films and historical pageants as well as trick films. The director’s showmanship makes almost all the films engaging and entertaining, and the prints here are excellent.
The most famous of his movies, and justly so, is A Voyage to the Moon (from 1902), loosely based on Jules Verne, in which a group of astronomers are shot to the moon by a super-cannon. The picture has a quaint, waggish humor, making fun of popular fantasies of space travel, and demonstrating a flair and sense of delight not found in films by other studios.
Méliès couldn’t keep up with the rapid expansion of the film industry after World War I, and he ended up losing everything in the 1920s. In despair, he burned all his negatives—a terrible loss. But some young movie lovers rediscovered his work, and managed to rescue the surviving prints. He was honored at a 1929 gala in Paris, where some of those films were shown again, to standing ovations. Méliès the Magician has done a similar service. By combining a choice selection of his work with a fine documentary, it firmly secures the place of Georges Méliès in the cinema pantheon.