Director D.W. Griffith once said of French filmmaker Georges Méliès, “I owe him everything.” Charlie Chaplin described him as “the alchemist of light.”
Méliès built the first movie studio in Europe and was the first filmmaker to use production sketches and storyboards. Film historians consider him the “father of special effects” — he created the first double exposure on screen, the split screen and the dissolve. Not to mention that he was one of the first filmmakers to have nudity in his films — he was French, after all.
And thanks to Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed 3-D family film, “Hugo,” contemporary audiences are being lovingly introduced to the silent film pioneer. “Hugo” is a fanciful tale about a young boy, Hugo (Asa Butterworth), who lives in the Paris train station in the early 1930s and discovers that the curmudgeonly old man (Ben Kingsley) operating a toy shop in the station is Georges Méliès. (“Hugo” took in $15.4 million from Wednesday to Sunday, playing on far fewer screens than other wide releases).
When cinema was in its infancy, Méliès made about 500 films filled with wonder, humor and outrageous effects. A trained magician who captivated audiences with his illusions at the Theatre Robert Houdin, he happened to be in the audience on Dec. 28, 1895, when the Lumière brothers premiered their Cinematographie to the public.
Within a year, he was making his own one-minute films. His best known work, 1902’s “A Trip to the Moon,” which features the iconic image of a rocket landing in the eye of the man in the moon, has recently been restored to its hand-colored glory.
Though audiences’ tastes changed, Méliès kept making the same kind of film. In 1910, he went bankrupt and made a deal with the Pathé production company to finance his next films. If the films failed, Pathe would take possession of his house. The films did fail and by 1913, his career was over. He managed to stay in his house until 1923, when Pathé took possession. He made ends meet at the toy shop. Just as in “Hugo,” he was rediscovered and given the Legion of Honor and a rent-free apartment, where he lived until his death in 1938.
The clips of Méliès’ films and Scorsese’s re-creations of the production of his flights of fancy hopefully will whet appetites of families to check out some of Méliès’ films, which are available on DVD and on the Internet.
France’s Serge Bromberg, who founded Lobster Films in 1984, is a film historian who has been tireless in his efforts to find, preserve and show vintage films. In September, Bromberg presented the restored color print of “A Trip to the Moon,” a project he led, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s worked for over a year on “The Extraordinary Voyage,” a documentary on “A Trip to the Moon” chronicling its production and how the long-lost color print was discovered and restored. “The Extraordinary Voyage” will come out on DVD next year along with “A Trip to the Moon.”
For those whose interest has been piqued by “Hugo,” Bromberg recently shared his top six Méliès films that are must-sees for any cinephile.
“A Trip to the Moon”: “When the film was made in 1902, it was the longest film ever — 15 minutes. It has the most amazing special effects. It is exactly like ‘Avatar.’ It was the first blockbuster in the history of cinema. It was sold all around the world.”
“Vanishing Lady”: “It is from 1896. It is the oldest special-effects film that survives. It is one minute long. It depicts a whimsical illusion that Méliès did at his Robert Houdin Theatre. This is really one of the most fantastic films.”
“The Four Troublesome Heads”: “It’s from 1898, also one minute. It is a man who takes his head and puts it on the table. Then the head grows back, and he puts the second head on the table. Then the head grows back, and he puts the third head on the table. Then the head grows back and he takes a guitar and starts playing and the heads start singing. Because they don’t sing right, he takes the guitar and knocks the heads away. It is absolutely stunning.”
“An Impossible Balancing Feat”: “It is from 1902 — one minute. He juggles with himself. It is just so amazing.”
“Joan of Arc”: “He made it in 1900. It’s 10 minutes. It is a reconstruction of the life of Joan of Arc. It’s hand-colored.”
“The Merry Frolics of Satan”: Two travelers get more than they bargained for when they encounter Satan the trickster in this hand-colored fantasy. The film features an inventive carriage ride through the skies drawn by a skeletal horse.
“It is from 1906. It had been a show [at the Robert Houdin], for which he did all of these wonderful tricks.”