On this day in Film History: Farewell, Mr. Melies

On this day in film history, the world lost the genius that was Georges Méliès (1861-1938), a pioneer and innovator of new film techniques


After graduating in 1880, Méliès initially worked in the family shoe business for three years until his father sent him to work in London for a family friend. While living in the British capital, Méliès was introduced to the work of John Nevil Maskelyne, a noted stage magician. After returning to Paris, Méliès bought a theatre and began to develop his own stage illusions and special effects, skills that would serve him well when he entered the nascent film business at the close of the 19th century.

After witnessing the Lumière brothers demonstrate their cinematograph on December 27th, 1895, Méliès immediately attempted to purchase one from the brothers, but was refused. The determined Méliès finally obtained an Animatograph from Robert W. Paul and set to work learning how to create his own short films.


The film studio in Montreuil

Between 1896 and 1913, Méliès directed over 500 films, ranging in length from one minute to forty minutes. These “films” contained very little (to nothing) in the way of plot (especially the earliest works) and instead focused on the special effects that Méliès had been developing: making objects “disappear” and “reappear”; making objects “magically” change size, and so on.

Over this period of time, Méliès came to experience tremendous success and fame, both at home in Paris and abroad internationally. His films were seen all over the world, and were considered so successful and innovative that rival filmmakers were pirating his work at an alarming rate.

Le Magicien (1898)     Le papillon fantastique (1909)    The Mermaid (1904)

One of Méliès most famous films was made in 1902 and was entitled Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). The film was loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon.


The full film can be viewed here: A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Unfortunately, Méliès success did not last. In 1908, Thomas Edison created the Motion Picture Patents Company in an attempt to control the film industry in the United States and Europe. Méliès initially joined this group but soon came to resent the monopoly that Edison was creating. Then, in 1910, he made a deal with the Pathé studio in which  Méliès would create the films while the studio reserved the right to distribute and edit those films. The studio began to increasingly edit the films in ways that made Méliès increasingly unhappy and in late 1912 he left the studio, a decision that left the filmmaker bankrupt. During World War I, the French army confiscated over 400 of Méliès’ films and melted them down to recover the silver and celluloid and made them into shoe heels. Worse, in 1923, Pathé acquired Méliès’ film company and essentially forced him out of the film business. The enraged filmmaker destroyed a large portion of his surviving negatives, which is why only about two hundred of his films survive to the present day. Embittered, Méliès disappeared from public life and died of cancer in 1938.

In later life, the former filmmaker sold toys and sweets at the Montparnasse train station in Paris, a fact that is touched upon in the 2011 film Hugo.

For more “On this day” posts, see here



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