The term "Special Effects" did not exist when French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere created their "Cinematographe" and on March 22, 1895 projected their first motion picture. "Special Effects" did not exist in the United States, also in 1895, when Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat projected their first motion picture on their "Vitascope". Which would be sold under Thomas Edison's name, as his invention, not theirs, starting in April 1896.
"Special Effects" would be created by a French magician and illusionist named George Melies and his early life is where this article begins.
When Georges was ready for secondary school, he was sent to "Lycée Michelet", located in Vanves, Hauts-de-Seine, on the border of Paris.
artistic passion was too strong for him, and while he would ponder a French composition or Latin verse, his pen mechanically sketched portraits or caricatures of his professors or classmates, if not some fantasy palace or an original landscape that already had the look of a theatre set.
Georges was also building marionettes and putting on shows. After completing his formal education, Georges joined Henri and Gaston in the family business of making shoes and learning to sew, but three-years of mandatory military service ended that direction in his life. After his service and to improve his son's speaking of English, his father sent him to London, England, to clerk for a family friend, but fate has a way of entering one's life.
For the next nine years Georges Melies created over thirty new illusions for the theatre, which he performed, and increased the size of the theater's audience. When he purchased the "The Theatre of Robert-Houdin", several people came with it and the two most notable for Melies' future were, the chief mechanic Eugene Calmels, and actress Jehanne d'Alcy. Who was his assistant on stage, became his mistress, the main actress in his films, and his second wife.
I started this article by mentioning Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas Lumiere and his brother Louis Jean Lumiere and their invention of the "Cinematographe.
Acting on a possible tip from Jehanne d'Acy, Georges met with British motion picture inventor Robert E. Paul and purchased one of his "Animatograph Projectors". Paul would go on to make the "Cinematograph Camera #1" in 1896, the first camera that had reverse cranking, permitting footage to be exposed several times.
In September 1896, George Melies, Lucien Korsten, and Lucien Reulos, patented the "Kinetographe Robert-Houdin", a cast iron motion picture projector.
By the end of 1897, Melies, Korsten, and Reulos formed "Manufacture de films pours cinematographes (Manufacture of films for cinematographers)", but better known as the "Star Film Company". The three would be joined by Georges brother Gaston Melies in 1902 and he would be sent to New York City, when several American Film Companies, can you say Thomas Edison, started to infringe on Georges copyrights. Gaston, became the distributor of his brother films and in 1903, Gaston started making his own documentary films.
While, Georges was making motion pictures in France, Gaston moved his family and the American branch of the "Star Film Company" to San Antonio, Texas, and in 1910 began making Westerns starring John Ford's older brother Francis Ford with titles such as "Cyclone Peter's Matrimony" and 1911's "The Immortal Alamo". Which is considered the earliesr motion picture about "The Battle of the Alamo" and includes Santa Anna's surrender to a common soldier.
Above, Gaston Melies looking more Texan than Frenchman.
I will end my look at George and Gaston Melies in "Part Four" of this article.
PART THREE: SELECTED TITLES OF GEORGE MELIES
Melies started by filming a two-part documentary with each part running approximately one minute. "Sauvetage en riviere (River Rescue)" United States title: "The Rescue on the River", Part One and Part Two, were released in May 1896. Some film historians and websites, state that Georges Melies just imitated Robert W. Paul's "Up the River". The only problem I have with that statement is Paul's film wasn't released until two-months later in July 1896.
George Melies next film short was a story entitled:
"Escamotage d'Lune Dame Su Theatre Robert Houdin (The Conjuring of a Woman at the Robert Houdin Theatre)" The United States title: "The Vanishing Lady", released in October 1896
a Madeleine-Bastille Bus change into a hearse and a woman change into a man. The substitution trick, called a stop trick, had been discovered.
Thomas Edison used a crude and rudimentary form of editing for his August 27, 1895, 18-second film, "The Execution of Mary Stuart", to show her beheading. However, George Melies perfected the technique for "Escamotage d'Lune Dame Su Theatre Robert Houdin".
When Melies and d'Alcy at the "Robert-Houdin Theatre" performed de Kolta's illusion. Like him, they used a trap door covered by a rubber mat, but the audience only sees the magician place a newspaper on the floor, unknowingly covering the mat and trap door.
For "Escamotage d'Lune Dame Su Theatre Robert Houdin", George Melies used what became known in film editing as "The Substitution Splice". By using the splice, Melies added the transformation to and from the skeleton, Special Effects had been created according to film historians.
Quoting from the website: "The History of Horror":
Because of its themes and characters, the film has been considered to technically be the first horror film. Such a classification can also be attributed to the film’s depiction of a human transforming into a bat, a plot element which has led some observers to label the work the first vampire film. The film is also innovative in length; its running time of over three minutes was ambitious for its era.
The picture opens with a giant bat flying in a medieval castle. The bat circles the room, before suddenly changing into Mephistopheles. Who produces a cauldron and an assistant, that helps him conjure a women from the empty cauldron!
I want to move forward to 1899 and what is considered the first use of the motion picture industry on public opinion, but I must go back five-years to October 15, 1894 for background.
3) Devil's Island--Within the palisade
6) Landing of Dreyfus at Quiberon
7) Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes
8) Attempt on the Life of Maitre Labori
9) The Fight of the Journalists at Lycee
10) The Court Martial at Rennes
11) Dreyfus Leaving the Lycee for Jail
In 2000, biographer Elizabeth Ezra wrote her biography, "Georges Melies", for the University of Manchester England Press. In her work, she relates that French film critic and historian Georges Sadoul considered "The Dreyfus Affair Film Series" as the first "politically engaged film". Which at the time of its release, the French government had censored!
Two interesting shorts from 1899 are:
"La colonne de feu (The Pillar of Fire)", that for the United Kingdom and the United States, would have its title lengthened to reflect popular British writer H. Rider Haggard's novel "SHE". The English language title was, "Haggard's She: The Pillar of Fire". While, Melies short had nothing to do with the H. Rider Haggard's novel about "Ayesha: SHE Who Must Be Obeyed" and the blue flame that extended her life for 2,000 years.
The website, "Century Film Project", describes the picture much better than I could:
---the Cecil B. DeMille version of Joan of Arc’s story, but he was not the first master film maker to take it on. In fact, Joan’s countryman Georges Méliès beat him to the punch by over fifteen years, and did in in (hand-tinted) color, too!
The movie (as we have it today) begins with the visitation of young Joan by angels who tell her of her mission to save France from occupation by the English. We see different angels appear before her and she falls prostrate before them. She then goes to tell her parents, who seem quite distressed by the news. The next scene shows the gate at Vaucouleurs, where the guard at first seems disinclined to admit her, but he is convinced when she demonstrates her faith in God and France, and he summons other guards to escort her to the master of the house. The tableau for this scene shows a raucous party going on inside the castle, with Robert de Baudricourt leading the festivities, while a fat curate toasts and drinks from a flagon. When Joan comes in, Baudricourt mocks her and invites her to sit on his knee, but her faith overcomes him and he agrees to give her soldiers to support her cause.
Melies productivity in 1900 would include 40 more shorts of varying lengths and on several subjects, but it was his "Feerie (Fairy)" stories that most people preferred. His 1901, "Le Petit Chaperon rouge (Little Red Riding Hood)", is presumed to be lost, but we do have some of Melies production drawings.
Even in 1901, Georges Melies was still naïve about the distribution of his films outside of France. He gave his permission for the British, "Warwick Trading Company" to show "Little Red Riding Hood" in the United Kingdom, but Thomas Edison copied the film, without permission, for showing and increasing his own profits in the United States. This was one of several such acts by the "Edison Manufacturing Company" that led Georges to send his brother Gaston to oversee release of his French films in the United States.
Another major production from Melies in 1901 was "Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard)", running 12-minutes.
This is a French folk-tale about a man who married different women and then murders them. There already had been five literary versions of the tale going back to 1779, four plays going back to 1798, and two operas going back to 1789, but Georges' short was the first film version. In 1944, actor John Carradine portrayed the role on film, and in 1948, director Fritz Lang made the definitive film version starring Sir Michael Redgrave and Joan Bennett.
Melies portrayed the title character and Jehanne d'Alcy portrayed the "Le nouveelle espouse de Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard's new wife)".
"Bluebeard" is a very wealthy sinister aristocrat whose previous seven wives have just vanished. A young lady now becomes his latest wife in this horror tale. She will discover a room full of blood and her husband's seven previous wives bodies hanging on butcher hooks. The plot asks will she survive, or will she become Bluebeard's eighth vanished wife?
Below, the eighth wife dreams of keys to a secret room.
Below Inside the secret room.
On October 17, 1956, the first motion picture in Todd-AO, producer Michael Todd's version of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days", opened in both the United States and Canada. The opening prologue had popular American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow speaking to Verne's life and writings. In the prologue is a showing of a 13-minute silent short from Georges Melies that Morrow stated was based completely upon the novel, "From the Earth to the Moon".
"Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Voyage to the Moon)" United States title: "A Trip to the Moon", was released on September 1, 1902.
Murrow's prologue had it wrong, Georges Melies most famous motion picture short was taken from three science fiction novels, and become the first science fiction motion picture. Two of the three were by French writer Jules Verne, 1865's "From the Earth to the Moon" and its sequel, 1870's "Around the Moon", but Melies also used characters from British author Herbert George "H.G." Wells' 1901 "First Men in the Moon".
Melies characters are not taken from either author's novels, but consist of six French astronomers that make the trip in the bullet shaped space craft. They are named, "Nostradamus", "Alcofrisbas", "Micromegas", "Parafaragaramus", "Omega", and "Professor Barbenfouillis" portrayed by Georges Melies.
The following are colorized pictures of the original black and white short.
The six astronomers will be shot to the moon in a giant cannon, right out of Verne, and loaded into the cannon by several French ladies.
The canon fires the bullet space craft toward the moon.
The above face of the moon is George Melies. The astronomers walk on the moon without space suits and fall asleep.
When they wake up, the astronomers are captured by the insect-like moon people, the "Selenite's", H.G. Wells' moon creatures, and taken to their leader.
The astronomers escape imprisonment, are pursued by "Selenite's", and make it back to their space craft. Five get inside as it slides off a ledge with the sixth, George Melies, holding onto a rope and a "Selenite" holding on to the end of the rope. The space craft falls back to the Earth and crashes into the ocean.
The usually seen ending is of the astronomers and the "Selenite" being rescued by a ship and towed ashore. However, the actual ending has a parade to celebrate their trip, but it is missing from many surviving prints.
Back in 1898, Georges Melies filmed a 3-minute short entitled "Le lune a un metre (The Moon is one meter)" United States title: "The Astronomer's Dream".
The plot has an "Astronomer", played by Melies, falling sleep and dreaming of a woman, played by Jehanne d'Alcy, chasing Satan away from him at the start of his dream. Satan reappears at the short's ending, as does d'Alcy, as the same woman, but between the two Satan appearances. Jehanne d'Alcy also appears as the mythological Greek Moon Goddess "Selene" coming through the astronomer's window riding a crescent moon.
Some film reviewers bring this picture up as the real first "science fiction picture" predating "Le Voyage dans la Lune" by 4-years.
They are looking at this wrong and reaching to make it science fiction. The short is only another rendering of one of the stage acts performed by Melies and d'Alcy at the "Robert Houdin Theatre" transferred to film.
Above and below, George Melies as the "Astronomer".
The only possible connection to a science fiction story would be the moon and "Selene". Who also appeared in the dream sequence of "Le Voyage dans la Lune" sitting on the moon. In this earlier film, the moon doesn't look real and is an obvious set piece for the filmed illusion and the introduction of "Selene" standing on the crescent moon. Which also looks like a set piece used in the original staged illusion.
In 24 minutes, Melies takes a group of people, from the "Institute of Incoherent Geography", in a automobile to a train station at the bottom of the Alps. There they board a train that will fly them to the sun and return them to the Earth as a submarine.
A fisherman named "Yves" falls asleep and dreams of traveling under the sea in a submarine and meets both real and fanciful creatures. Some of the cut-out sea creatures are copies of Alphonse de Neuville's drawing for the novel's first edition. Dancers from the still operating "Chatelet Theatre", below, in Paris,appeared in the short that had no special effects.
Melies's narrative looked at civilization from the Biblical "Cain and Abel" through the "Hague Convention of 1907". The film is considered lost and no information on its length is known. Among George Melies episodes were the aforementioned "Cain and Abel", the "Druids", the "Persecution of the Christians by the Romans", the use of pillories in the "Middle Ages", and "Louis XIII". The film also contains scenes of the aforementioned "1907 Hague Convention", but it ends with an "Angel of Destruction" the hovers over a battlefield of dead soldier
1910 brought changes to the "Star Film Company", Georges decided to take time away from making films and return to the stage. He created a touring show, "Les Fantomes du Nil (The Ghosts of the Nile)" and would make an extensive tour of Europe and North Africa. In the United States, as I previously mentioned, Gaston, established in San Antonio, Texas, first, the "Star Film Ranch", and the following year renamed it, "Star Films American Wildwest Productions" and in 1912, Gaston moved his family to the "Wild West" of Hollywood, California, to continue making Western movies.
However, before Georges left for Europe, he made the mistake that would eventually take down his motion picture business. Georges Melies was in need of a large amount of funds and went to Charles Pathe of the large "Pathe Freres Corporation" for a loan. Georges agreed to conditions that still showed his naivete in business dealings. Charles Pathe would give Georges Melies the money he wanted, but "Pathe Freres" would distribute Melies future motion pictures, would reserve the right to edit them as they saw fit, and as collateral for the loan. George Melies signed over to Charles Pathe the deeds to both his home and motion picture studio.
In 1910, Melies made only eleven shorts before starting his European magic tour, and upon his return in 1911. George Melies would make only film, the very expensive "Les Adventures du baron de Munchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen)" United States title: "The Hallucinations of Baron Munchhausen". The film was a major financial loss for the film maker and in 1912 he suffered another major box office failure.
On January 21, 1938, at the age of 76-years, George Melies died of cancer.
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