The early journey of a film wizard

Charlie Chaplin once described him as the “alchemist of light.” Silent-movie pioneer D.W. Griffith claimed to owe him “everything.”

The French filmmaker Georges Melies was a visionary who brought adventure, fun and magic to the screen when cinema was in its infancy. More than a century later, his fantasy and sci-fi classics, such as “A Trip to the Moon,” which features the indelible scene of a rocket hitting the eye of a moon face, still enthrall audiences.

The lavish new DVD box set “Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema” (Flicker Alley, $89.95), which arrives Tuesday, is the most comprehensive retrospective of the filmmaker’s work available. The five-disc, 13-hour collection features 173 of the estimated 500 films he made from 1896 to 1913.

“The project was several years in the making, put together by Lobster Films in Paris and David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates,” says Flicker Alley’s Jeff Masino. The films were culled from various sources around the world, including the Academy Archives, the British Film Institute and private collectors.

Though picture quality varies -- some of the films survive only in fragments -- they all have been digitally stabilized and cleaned. New scores were commissioned for all of them. Fifteen of the films were reproduced from partial or complete hand-colored original prints; 13 are presented with Melies’ original English narration.


A magician who owned and staged illusion shows at the famed Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris, Melies was a renaissance man when it came to film. Regarded as the cinema’s first fantasist and the father of special effects, not only did he build the world’s first movie studio in 1896, but he also produced, directed and usually starred in his films, as well as designed the sets, costumes and props.

“I would say he’s ripe for a serious academic or scholarly re-evaluation,” Masino says. “There was a lot of creativity going on. When you look at Melies’ films, there is a lot of fun and trickery there -- definitely someone excited about this new medium.”

Melies’ success was short-lived. In 1913, his company went bankrupt. With the outbreak of World War I, he lost the Robert-Houdin theater. It was the French surrealist movement of the 1920s that led to his rediscovery. He was found at that time selling candy and toys at a Montparnasse station. He was given his country’s Legion of Honor in 1931, and the following year, the Cinema Society gave him, his wife and granddaughter a home in Chateau D’Orly Freres. He died in 1938.

-- Susan King