Baron Munchausen’s Dream/Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchhausen/Les Aventures du baron de Münchhausen (1911)

After overindulging in food and wine with friends, the famous Baron Münchhausen is plagued by vivid nightmares…

An 11-minute trick film from French pioneer Georges Méliès. The marriage of his flair for bizarre and magical imagery with the tales of the notorious fantasist would seem to be the perfect fit. However, it was an opportunity largely squandered.

A night in for legendary storyteller Baron Münchhausen means good wine, good food and good company. Unfortunately, he gets too much of all three and can barely stand when the party’s over. Two servants manage to manhandle him to his bed, which lays beneath a large wall mirror. As the Baron sleeps, he begins to dream.

At first, he imagines a pleasant scene, with two couples dancing to a smiling fiddler, but the scene quickly changes to the inside of an Egyptian temple where he is violently attacked. Another switch finds him back in pleasant surroundings, but the women he admires suddenly transform into demons with animal heads and then soldiers who poke him with halberds. After that, the visions keep coming, each more terrible than the last.

By 1911, Parisian Méliès had been a highly successful filmmaker for about 15 years, getting in on the art form at its very genesis. After witnessing a demonstration of the Cinematograph developed by the Lumière brothers, Méliès built his own camera and began showing film as an accompaniment to his stage act as an illusionist. Quickly realising the new medium’s potential, he began exhibiting short ‘trick’ films that utilised early effect techniques, such as multiple exposures and stop motion substitution. These were highly popular, and the next few years saw Méliès building on his success, even opening a branch of his film company in the United States. However, by 1911, the party was almost over.

Moving pictures had caught the public’s imagination in a way few could have predicted. Still, it was necessary to maintain that early sense of wonder for the industry to survive and grow. Méliès’ flamboyant visions had appealed at first, but audience taste quickly evolved beyond mere spectacle and demanded more substance; in other words, story and drama. Although Méliès eventually attempted to embrace narrative to some extent with films like ‘The Conquest of the Pole/À la conquête du pôle’ (1912), it was too late. Financial problems and unfortunate business decisions forced him into bankruptcy in early 1914.

This film serves as a perfect demonstration of the issues that brought an end to Méliès’ career. Leaving aside its merits when viewed today, contemporary audiences must have found it disappointing. The adoption of Münchhausen as the main character might even have been regarded as false advertising. After all, the German nobleman was famous as a teller of tall tales and extravagant fantasies, so it would have been reasonable to expect some kind of a story. Instead, Méliès provides his usual cavalcade of monsters and demons trotted out via his familiar modus operandi. The protagonist might be any old man, and the story is so thin as to be almost non-existent. It might have been a tried and tested formula, but to the increasingly sophisticated audience of 1911, it probably looked like a worn-out bag of old tricks. In fact, some sources suggest that the film may not have even made it to theatres at all.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have merit, of course. Over the years, Méliès refined his technique so that the substitution effects and dissolves appear smoother, and there’s plenty of evidence of that here. Using a mirror to frame the action is a neat idea, too, with two actors parroting each other’s moments to establish its presence. The interactions between the old Baron and his fantastic visitors have a more significant impact as a consequence. There are also some fine examples of the Méliès imagination at work. The girl with tentacles in the spider’s web is a particularly striking image, and the dragon puppet from ‘The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal’ (1906) makes a welcome reappearance. The Frenchman was apparently a great fan of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s stories of the blowhard Baron, but whether it was this that prompted the use of the character or whether more commercial considerations were involved is unrecorded. It’s also worth pointing out that, unlike some of Méliès’s best work, the majority of the film plays out on a single set, which perhaps betrays his increasing financial problems at the time.

It’s a surprise to many to find out that Baron Münchhausen was actually a real German aristocrat, Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen. After serving in the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–39, he became notorious in high society for his exaggerated reminiscences and tall tales of his military exploits. Fictionalised stories of his adventures began to appear in German magazines and were collected into a book called ‘Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia’. First published in England in 1785, it was a hit all over Europe and translated into several languages, including a German edition which added new material by Gottfried August Bürger. The ridiculous nature of the stories, including a trip to the moon and riding on a cannonball, upset the real-life Baron, who threatened libel action. It appears this never came to fruition but may explain why original author Rudolf Erich Raspe never acknowledged the work as his own.

Some memorable images but an almost complete absence of story leave this as merely a monument to the visual imagination and filmmaking technique of one of the great film pioneers.

Pharmaceutical Hallucinations/Hallucinations pharmaceutiques ou Le truc de potard (1908)

Ghostly apparitions plague a pharmacist who caters only to wealthy clients.

14-minute epic from pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès that combines his familiar trick effects with something approaching a narrative structure, although the story still lacks clarity and logical development.

A pharmacist is brewing up potions with the aid of his three assistants when his shop is visited by a couple dressed in fine attire. The pharmacist fawns over his customers and fills out their order quickly. However, his next client is a woman in beggars rags with a young boy. She pleads on he knees for medicine for the sick child, but the pharmacist turns her away. When he’s out of the room, his assistants add something to his drink. When he takes the tainted concoction, he passes out in his workshop.

The pharmacist is awoken by a ghostly figure breaking out of his medicine cabinet. After it vanishes, the cabinet is again intact and filled with bottles. For a moment, he dismisses it all as a dream, then another phantom leaps from a large book sitting on a high stand. Others follow until the room is filled. He flees back to his shop, but the ghosts pursue him, transforming into insubstantial wraiths as they do. The assistants seen none of this, and are dumbfounded by his strange behaviour.

Seeking a solution to the problem, he visits a wizard in a cave, who conjures up a young woman. A small boy arrives on a giant snail to take her away before the pharmacist returns to his shop. The woman appears and transforms the establishment into a sweet shop and the pharmacist and his assistant into chocolatiers! The shop fills with customers, and the born again pharmacist and his staff rush to serve them.

Georges Méliès could reasonably be termed as the grandfather (great-grandfather?) of movie SFX and, perhaps, even of fantastical cinema in general. An experienced stage illusionist, he began making films in 1896 and immediately recognised their artistic and commercial potential. By the end of that year, he was showing his films regularly in the theatre that he owned. He also founded his own production company, Star Films, and began building a film studio just outside of Paris. An early accident with a camera that jammed and then restarted, turning a bus into a hearse on film, showed Méliès a way of not just replicating the effect of his stage magic tricks on the screen, but creating far more elaborate illusions. Over the next couple of years, he made hundreds of these short, ‘trick’ films, showcasing other techniques such as multiple exposures and time-lapse photography.

By the turn of the century, Méliès was riding high. His most famous production, ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), played all around the world to great acclaim and more success followed with ‘The Kingdom of the Fairies’ (1903) and ‘The Impossible Voyage’ (1904). However, times were changing. Edwin S Porter’s 12-minute ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903) had provided many audiences with their first experience of a narrative story on the big screen, and it was a massive success. Méliès had never prioritised plotting, favouring instead loosely connected situations that showcased his unique visual aesthetic and SFX. Unfortunately, the public preferred narrative and Méliès’ box office receipts suffered accordingly.

This film finds him attempting, at least to some extent, to weld his fantastical visions to a focused plot. There’s a slight flavour of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ here, with the pharmacist as Scrooge, seeing the error of his ways after a ghostly visitation, and this works well for the majority of the film. However, things go seriously off the rails once our hero visits the wizard in his underground cave. What had seemed grounded in the real world, with a supernatural element apparently induced by a spiked drink, becomes fantastical and bizarre. Even if we can accept the presence of an old magician in the cave, who is this woman that he conjures up? Why does she leave on a giant snail piloted by a young boy? Are they the beggar woman and her child that we saw earlier? Is everything we see after the pharmacist takes his drink just a hallucination? Of course, there are no definite answers, and the absence of intertitles doesn’t help.

However, by this point, Méliès had progressed significantly as a filmmaker in terms of technique. The clumsy ‘substitution’ effects of his early work have been refined and perfected, and the sequence where the ghosts appear in the workshop is the high point of the film. Even the set’s back wall disappears at one stage to reveal another room, also filled with phantoms. Initially, these ghosts are simply performers under bedsheets, but the following scene sees them transformed into insubstantial, floating spirits. The effect is more impressive than in some of the filmmaker’s previous productions. Unfortunately, there is a sense of Méliès diving once more into a rather well-worn bag of tricks, and even the sets fail to capture the flamboyance and scope of his best-known work. Perhaps it was a reflection of financial constraints and the director’s dwindling fortunes.

By the outbreak of World War One, Méliès was bankrupt. His last film had been released two years earlier, and it was only the conflict that prevented the repossession of his studio, which became a home for wounded soldiers in the meantime. Ironically, considering the final scenes of this film, Méliès spent most of the early 1920s working behind the counter of a small candy and toy stand owned by his second wife, Jeanne d’Alcy. Fortunately, colleagues in the industry rescued the couple from their financial straits, securing their places in a retirement home in Orly. An abandoned building on the site became a storehouse for film prints collected by notable directors, such as René Clair and Georges Franju, and Méliès was appointed its custodian. It later became the Cinémathèque Française, one of the most extensive film archives in the world.

This is not one of the director’s more notable projects, but those interested in the early days of fantastical cinema may want to check it out.

The Merry Frolics of Satan/Les quatre cents farces du diable (1906)

The devil tricks an engineer and his servant into signing away their souls, and they attempt to flee his clutches.

Seventeen-minute silent short from film pioneer Georges Méliès that mixes his extravagant style and humour while serving as another showcase for his technical work, which was innovative in the first few years of cinema and attracted many imitators.

An old man calls on an engineer and his valet in the latter’s workshop, which displays many models of the latest modes of transportation. The old man persuades the engineer to visit his master, an alchemist (played by Méliès) who mixes up some magic pills with the help of a gang of assistants. Thrown to the ground, one of the pills bursts into a beautiful fairy, although she transforms quickly into an ugly monster. Nevertheless, the engineer signs the necessary paperwork to obtain the pills and leaves with his servant.

As soon as our heroes have departed, the alchemist reveals himself to be Satan, and his cloaked assistants transform into a gang of beautiful women. This lovely horde detains the men and persuades them to use some of the pills before the entire group depart in a train created from luggage trunks. A bridge collapse removes Satan’s brides from proceedings, and it’s up to Old Nick himself to pursue his quarry as the two men attempt to flee in a stagecoach.

Georges Méliès was born the son of a successful bootmaker in Paris in 1861. He received a formal, classical education but frustrated his teachers by his interest in art, covering textbooks with caricatures and sketches, often of a fantastic nature. A career in the theatre was inevitable, given he began building puppet theatres and sophisticated marionettes when still a teenager. Stage magic became his obsession and, when his father retired, he sold his interest in the family business to his brothers to purchase the Théâtre Robert-Houdin.

A decade of increasing success followed as he developed his skills as an illusionist and a businessman. Always interested in new ideas, he attended a demonstration of the Lumière brothers new cinematograph in 1895. Failing to buy the device, he brought a projector from London and turned it into a film camera. In May of the following year, he began showing his own films at the theatre and experimenting with camera tricks and SFX. By the turn of the century, his movies were distributed all over Europe and even exported to America. They were so successful stateside that that rival producer Thomas Edison tried to prevent their release.

This film demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Méliès work at this point in his career. It also neatly encapsulated the reasons for his initial success and his subsequent fall from grace. On the credit side, it demonstrates his marvellous sets and imaginative designs, wholly artificial but unique, often copied but never bettered. The film also shows advances in his technical work, although the techniques were now tried and tested.

The undoubted highlight of the picture is the scene of the final attempted escape by stagecoach. The horse transforms into a full-size skeletal creature and flips onto its back as Satan pushes the carriage up the slope of Mt Vesuvius. An eruption flings the vehicle into space where it sails past comets, meteors and planets, some draped with elaborately costumed women. It’s still a striking sequence.

Unfortunately, none of this was anything new. In some ways, the film almost plays like a clip show or a run-through of Méliès’ greatest hits. Watched today, it’s another testament to the director’s extraordinary vision, but it was just more of the same to its contemporary audience. Producer-director Edwin S. Porter had unleashed game-changer ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), and audiences were eager for more of that kind of realism. Méliès did try his hand at more mainstream and non-fantastical subjects but those films were unsuccessful, so it’s not surprising that he chose to fall back on a previously winning formula.

Méliès had peaked with his classic ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), based on Jules Verne’s novel ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1865). That the famous French novelist was a constant inspiration for Méliès is clear. Even in this comedic reimagining of the tale of Faust, we still get our two protagonists embarking on a ‘Voyage extraordinaire’ much in the manner of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in ‘Around the World in Eight Days (1873), albeit with Satan on their trail.

As always, a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of cinema’s formative influences who helped to outline the new medium’s artistic possibilities.

The Witch/La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal (1906)

A troubadour goes to a fairy to have his fortune told. He attempts to pay for it by passing off a bag of sand as one containing gold. Furious at the deception, the fairy casts a spell and pursues the man. A nightmarish world of bizarre creatures and ghostly spirits surround the man as he attempts to find the woman of his dreams…

A 12-minute epic springing from the imagination of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. Here, he renders his usual striking visuals in a range of gorgeous colours. As per usual, the film, unfortunately, has no intertitles and, as such, the plot and characters remain open to some interpretation.

A travelling minstrel (perhaps a Prince) visits the mysterious fairy Carabosse, who some see as a witch. The handsome young man wants to know the identity of his true love. The supernatural creature (likely played by Méliès himself) responds by conjuring some demons to assist in the necessary spell. They bring in a large, wooden frame, and the likeness of a beautiful woman appears within it at the fairy’s command. Before he leaves, the man pays for the prognostication, and a sizeable four-leaf clover, with a bag of gold. He’s on a quest to find the woman in question. Unfortunately, the bag of gold is nothing but sand, and our hero finds his footsteps dogged by supernatural forces.

Carabosse lights a fire in a small cauldron, which sends out yellow smoke, which turns several different colours before the spell is cast. After that, the pursuit begins. The troubadour is chased across a rocky landscape until he arrives in a graveyard beside some castle ruins. Underneath a full moon, the graves open, and three ghostly women emerge. Other spirit figures appear, and the man uses the clover to banish them. Then he’s menaced by a series of strange creatures; a giant hopping frog, a large owl and a dragon with flapping wings and a whipping tail. A figure in white appears and drives the monsters away, and a ghostly king rises from his tomb to give the man a sword. Climbing into the ruins, he sees a woman bound with rope and attempts to free her.

By 1906, the runaway success of Georges Méliès and his Star Films company was beginning to wane. The innovative filmmaker was a decade into a career that had evolved from his time as a successful stage illusionist, his screen work reflecting both theatrical presentation and content. The dozens of short ‘trick’ films he’d created were beginning to look a bit old hat, eclipsed by productions that employed better storytelling and filming techniques as well as using the ‘jump cuts’ and early SFX that Méliès had invented.

The Frenchman responded by extending the length of his films and adding colour by hand-tinting, likely done by the Paris laboratory owned by Elisabeth Thuillier. Her studio employed 200 artists who used brushes to paint the film stock, each of them assigned a different colour. A film would pass through the hands of as many of 20 of them as various tints were added one by one. The artists at the studio were undoubtedly responsible for the hand-colouring of Méliès classic ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), the high point of the director’s career.

The main issue with this entry in Méliès’ extensive filmography is the usual one present in his work; the lack of an interesting narrative. By this point, all the technical skill, wonderfully-realised backdrops, and his unique, almost animated, style couldn’t disguise that this was simply more of the same. Many of Méliès’ longer subjects consisted of similar scenarios. His heroes and heroines would run from one scene to the next, pursued by various spectral figures, demons and monsters, and this one adheres pretty closely to that format. However, in this case, perhaps it’s understandable. The film was commissioned by Dufayel, a furnishing store, who required something they could show as a diversion for children while their parents browsed the inventory and the company salesmen delivered their patter.

Méliès was soon to fall on hard times due to some unwise business ventures and an evolving medium that was leaving him behind. By the outbreak of World War One, it was all over. He’d made his last films two years earlier, and the American branch of his company had been sold to Vitograph. Similarly, the Pathe Company now owned his Montreuil studio, even if they could not take official possession of it until 1923. Before that happened, it became a home for wounded soldiers, and Méliès and his wife performed theatrical reviews there. During the war, over 400 of his films were seized by the French Government and melted down for the silver and celluloid content which was used to manufacture heels for army shoes.

Méliès work is always of historical significance, but the primary point of interest in this example is the brilliant colouring of the images that it contains.

The Kingdom of Fairies/Le Royaume des fées/The Kingdom of the Fairies/Fairyland; or, the Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

When the king of a royal house announces the betrothal of his daughter to a handsome prince, an evil wizard appears and carries her off. The Prince sets off in pursuit, but his journey will lead him into danger and many strange lands…

Seventeen-minute fantasy epic from filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès showcasing his artistic flair and groundbreaking work in the field of early visual effects. A combination of elaborate set design, trick photography and flamboyant flourishes combine to provide one of the key works in early fantasy cinema.

Prince Bel-Azor (Méliès) couldn’t be happier on the day of his engagement to Princess Azurine (Marguerite Thévenard), but his joy is short-lived. No sooner has her father proclaimed the engagement than a wizard appears at court, spitting curses. Méliès chases him off, but after Thévenard retires with her ladies-in-waiting, the miscreant reappears and summons a horde of demons to her bedchamber. They abduct her in a flying carriage, and the Prince and his followers organise a pursuit.

However, before our hero can sail away, the good fairy (Bleuette Bernon) appears, offering a blessing along with a helmet, sword, and shield. Unfortunately, the Prince’s ship is caught in a great storm and sinks with all hands. But all is not lost as the residents of Neptune’s undersea kingdom prove surprisingly helpful, sending our heroes on their way to their final confrontation with the wizard via a passing whale!

Georges Méliès was a successful illusionist and stage magician who was immediately captivated by the possibilities of film after attending a private demonstration by cinema pioneers the Lumière Brothers in December 1895. He formed his own company, Star Films and began production. For the most part, early efforts were recreations of the sorts of illusions he had performed on stage. However, on film, they featured multiple uses of jump-cuts. According to Méliès, he discovered this technique one day when filming in the street. He was shooting a carriage passing by when his camera jammed. By the time he got it working again, a hearse was moving through the shot. Watching the film back, it appeared that one had replaced the other.

Méliès found great success with his short ‘trick’ films, and he quickly began to indulge his artistic ambitions with more elaborate sets and costumes. He also turned to narrative filmmaking and reached the peak of his success with the iconic science-fiction adventure ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902). This film ran a whopping 14 minutes and was released in both black and white and a colour version where frames were hand-painted. These techniques and innovations remained in place for his journey into fairyland, and it’s pleasing to report that the results here are just as striking.

Although nowhere near as celebrated as his lunar expedition, this is Méliès at the top of his game. The story’s vents take place in multiple locations, and these sets exhibit incredible attention to detail and reflect the eccentric and unfettered imagination of their creator. The wizard’s castle and the bleak, rocky coastlines around it are probably the best examples. Yes, they are all clearly backdrops painted like theatrical scenery, but it’s their very artificiality that gives the film a sense of its own twisted reality and bucket loads of charm. Many filmmakers of the time tried to imitate the Frenchman’s signature style, but none came close.

Many stories arose in later years that Méliès died in poverty, a forgotten man, but the truth is not that simple. Star Films did go bankrupt around 1912 due to a combination of poor financial decisions by Méliès’ brother Gaston and a decline in the popularity of the studio’s films. Ironically, Méliès, the innovator, was unwilling to change his winning formula, and he found himself left behind by a quickly developing industry and changing public tastes. The death of his first wife in 1913 and the outbreak of the Great War in Europe the following year were devastating blows from which the filmmaker never recovered.

Méliès married again in 1925 to long-time mistress Jehanne D’Alcy who had appeared as his ‘Cleopatra’ (1899). He was working at her candy and toy stand at a Paris train station, and the family was in financial difficulty. However, contemporary filmmakers were beginning to rediscover his works, and he was gaining considerable recognition in that community. However, it was still a relief when financial security was guaranteed by permanent residence at the industry’s retirement home, La Maison de Retraite du Cinéma. In 1936, he became the first custodian of the Cinémathèque Française, which is now one of the world’s most extensive film and film memorabilia archives. Méliès died after a short illness in 1938. He told friends and colleagues just before the end: ‘Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams.’

A captivating look at a unique talent who blazed an unforgettable trail through the early days of cinema.

The Devil’s Seven Castles/Les sept chateaux du diable (1901/1904)

The Devil's Seven Castles/Les sept chateaux du diable (1901/1904)After arriving at a roadside inn, a traveller is approached by a mysterious figure who turns out to be Satan. The Devil tempts him with visions relating to the seven deadly sins, and takes him on a journey through the seven castles of Hell. 

Early 20th Century, 11-minute ‘trick film’ from director Ferenando Zecca, who was working as head of production with the French Pathé Company, and is a typical example of one of the short films that were the first baby steps of the big screen horror movie. 

A man arrives at an inn for a spot of food and drink, only to be interrupted by Satan emerging from the fireplace. He conjures a giant book from thin air and takes the man on a journey through seven different locations, each related to the seven deadly sins. There’s a ‘Castle of Envy’ which looks like an antique shop, and a ‘Castle of Gluttony’ with a large head that servants have to constantly feed from a menu that includes children! There’s also a sword fight on some battlements and the final castle explodes in a sequence that’s surprisingly effective, considering the vintage of the project. This is either a tour with the Devil tempting the man into a Faustian bargain or a descent into Hell after such a bargain is accepted. Both interpretations would seem to be possible.

The Devil's Seven Castles/Les sept chateaux du diable (1901/1904)

Big Mouth Strikes Again.

Of course, this is all about the camera effects, rather than anything such as story, plot or performances. Objects appear and disappear through jump cuts, some of which are more effective than others. Perhaps its most remarkable feature is the hand-painting that has been done here, with Satan tinted red, our unarmed hero in a green jacket and other characters clothed in other pastel hues. It’s a fixed camera, of course, with one shot of the entire stage and all the players jumping in and out of existence at the stop-start of the camera. 

The film is obviously very crude by modern filmmaking standards and even compares somewhat unfavourably with the work of film pioneer Georges Méliès, who made hundreds of short films from 1895 to the mid-1910s. He is rightly celebrated as the father of movie SFX, who also brought a unique visual aesthetic to his projects. The most famous example of that is the iconic image of the moon with a rocket in its eye from his ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902), which is largely regarded as the first true science-fiction film ever made.

The Devil's Seven Castles/Les sept chateaux du diable (1901/1904)

The budget for the new ‘Bill & Ted’ movie had been slashed.

Zecca’s movie owes so much to Méliès that it’s fair to say if similar circumstances occurred in the modern filmmaking world, Méliès would most probably have been popping round to see his lawyer in fairly short order. Sadly, due to a combination of dwindling audiences and poor financial decisions, Méliès found himself bankrupt around the start of the First World War and closed his studio for good. One of his main creditors was Pathé Films.

There is some confusion about the production date of this film. The only documented release was  a September 1904 American one, but the film is listed in the Pathé catalogue for 1901. Zecca made over 150 short films from 1899 to 1919 after being recruited by Pathé as a cinematographer. Previously, he had been a cafe entertainer. His efforts covered many subjects, rather than focus on the fantastical, which was probably for the best. He certainly didn’t have the vision of artistic talent of man like Méliès and this effort does inevitably feel a little like an inferior copy of some of the great man’s work.

An interesting snapshot of early fantastic filmmaking, but one that compares rather poorly with the work of its obvious inspiration.

The Conquest of the Pole/À la conquête du pôle (1912)

Conquest_Of_The_Pole_(1912)‘A delegation of suffragettes sought in vain to interrupt the serious work of the Assembly.’

After considering a number of schemes and suffering an interruption by suffragettes, a group of scholars throw their weight behind Professior Maboul’s expedition to the North Pole. He proposes to reach the roof to the world by aeroplane. After a long and difficult flight through the heavens, he achieves his goal. Unfortunately, a giant of the Arctic snows takes offence at his presence…

Things were not going well for film pioneer Georges Méliès by 1912. His short subjects had defined the early days of cinema and he’d enjoyed constant international success for over a decade. But he’d made a very bad business deal with Pathé Studios in England and his brother had returned from a filming project in Africa with only damaged footage, incurring considerable financial loss on the his studio. But, more importantly, tastes were changing. Méliès’ fantastical subjects had been eclipsed by more realistic material, and his box office was suffering. So what was the answer? A bigger and better film in the trademark Méliès style, of course! And that film was ‘The Conquest of the Pole’ (1912); a half hour epic that harked back to Jules Verne, and one of Méliès’ biggest triumphs: ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902).

The film opens with the meeting of eminent scholars. They consider the best method for reaching the pole; train, motor car(!), or balloon. Eventually, they pin their colours to the flying ship of Professor Maboul, played by Méliès himself. It’s a surprising decision, considering the vehicle resembles a box with wheels that has a bi-plane’s wings attached and a large figurehead in the shape of a bird of prey. But no matter! Rival explorer’s protest and decide to pursue their chosen methods anyway. And then the meeting is invaded by plaque waving suffragettes, desperate to get in on the action. This could be a concession to ‘modern’ times, of course, but l suspect it’s more of an effort at witless comedy.

Conquest_Of_The_Pole_(1912)

The giant wasn’t happy about his early morning alarm call.

Méliès’ flying box/plane/bird departs for the pole, encountering lots of celestial bodies along the way, as usual in the form of smiling young women playing stars in the night sky. When they eventually arrive at the pole, our intrepid explorers encounter a snow giant, whose head and arms rise above the ice. The picture’s best sequence is the battle that follows. Rather pleasingly, afterwards they climb the actual North Pole before it falls over and deposits them in the icy water.

Technically the film is quite an achievement for 1912, particularly the snow giant. Méliès could not be accused of failing to put his budget up there on the screen. Unfortunately, despite the length of the film, is still doesn’t have the strong narrative thread that audiences were beginning to demand. lt’s still a triumph of style over substance, and nothing that audiences hadn’t seen from Melies before. In other words, more of the same, just bigger and better.

The film was not a success. Méliès lost control of his studio to Pathé. The Great War that would shatter Europe was just over the horizon. The party was over. Méliès never made another film.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1907)

20,000_Leagues_Under_The_Sea_(1907)Georges Méliès goes back to Jules Verne, five years after his classic trip to the moon. 

A young man descends to the sea bed via his submarine, where he has encounters with various strange creatures of the deep…

Georges Méliès was a Frenchman born into a family of shoemakers, who was bitten by the theatrical bug on a visit to England. He became a stage manager and illusionist, before adapting his talents to the newly born medium of cinema and becoming the pioneer of fantasy and science fiction film. Between 1896 and the beginning of World War One, Méliès turned out over 500 short subjects, mostly on bizarre themes, reaching its zenith with ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902). This was a 13 minute adaptation of Jules Verne’s ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1865) and featured the rocket hitting the moon in the eye, an image which has since become one of the most famous in all cinema.

In 1907 when he produced this 17 minute epic, Méliès was still riding the crest of international success. He had invented many early cinematic techniques, including using ‘stop motion’ to create SFX. The story may be apocryphal but allegedly he was filming a street scene when the camera jammed. He got it going again but when he watched the resulting footage, the sudden ‘break’ turned a normal horse and carriage into a hearse. This also points, perhaps a little too conveniently, towards such moments as the sudden ‘appearance’ of Satan in Méliès’ ‘The Haunted Castle’ (1986), often cited as the world’s first horror film.

Sadly, only 10 minutes of this film remains, and that in a print so white that a lot of the detail is lost. A young aquanaut descends in his submarine after a send-off featuring some soldiers and a line of dancing girls. Once under the sea, he wanders about without oxygen or a wetsuit and encounters various undersea creatures, such as a giant lobster, and some more dancing girls who emerge from a large sea shell. This is complete fantasy, of course, and at total variance with Verne’s more factual approach to storytelling. But it was the fantastic elements that allowed Méliès to indulge his visual sensibilities and outlandish designs; in short, the signature ‘look’ of all his work.

Georges_Melies

Georges Méliès

But success was not to last for the Frenchman. He signed a financially disastrous business deal with the Pathé Studios in England, just as his films started to go out of fashion. Spending more money on more elaborate productions must have seemed like the solution, but it just increased his financial woes and, just before the outbreak of World War One, he lost control of his studio and film company. In a rage, he burnt most of the negatives of his films, one of the prime reasons why barely 200 of them have survived into the present day.

For many years, it was generally believed that Méliès had died in absolute poverty; a bitter and broken man. It is true that he sold toys from a booth in the Paris Metro, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ (2011), but, by the 1920s, there had been a revival of interest in his work, particularly amongst contemporary film directors. A gala evening of his films was held in 1929, which Melies later described as ‘one of the most brilliant moments of my life’. Friendships were fellow directors endured and he became the first curator of what would eventually become the world renowned film archive, the Cinémathèque Française. He died in 1938.

Although this film is in too poor a condition to be truly representative of Melies’ best work, it still serves as a reminder of the roots of fantasy and science fiction filmmaking and stands as another testament to the first film director in the moon.