Georges Méliès, magicien du cinéma

Why so much activity concerning Georges Méliès just now? First the (virtually) complete DVD box set of his work released by Flicker Alley, and now a major exhibition with lavish catalogue, screenings, DVDs etc from the Cinémathèque française. He’s neither one hundred years born nor one hundred years dead. In fact he’s seventy years dead, and that’s the point. Under European copyright law, 2008 is the year when the works of Georges Méliès, who died in 1938, come out of copyright, under the rule which says a creative work remains in copyright until seventy years after the death of the author.

So M. Méliès has become fair game – a fact which can be of no small amount of irritation to the Malthete-Méliès family which has so assiduously guarded his legacy until now. They had nothing to do with the acclaimed Flicker Alley set, but they have co-operated with the Cinémathèque française exhibition, which opens in Paris on 16 April and which is described in some detail (in French) on the Cinémathèque’s website.

Where to start? The exhibition itself is divided into three sections: Magie et cinématographe, Le Studio Méliès de Montreuil and L’univers fantastique de Méliès, covering his life, background, work and influence. Many artefacts not previously exhibited in public are promised, and Méliès is championed for the modern generation as the master of special effects and fantasy cinema, foreshadowing Georges Lucas and Steven Spielberg. A 360-page catalogue has been produced, edited by Jacques Malthete et Laurent Mannoni, with some 500 illustrations, which from reports I’ve had so far sounds like an outstanding production in itself.

There are two DVDs published to coincide with the exhibition. The first, Georges Méliès, produced by StudioCanal/Fechner Productions, is a two-disc set featuring thirty remastered Méliès films 1896-1912, with 32-page booklet but no indication of what film titles are included nor their source.

The second DVD is Méliès, le cinémagicien, another two-disc set, produced by Arte Vidéo. This features a documentary, La magie Méliès, by Jacques Mény (1997, 130 mins), a selection of fifteen of the films from 1898 to 1909 (55 mins in total) and the renowned Georges Franju film Le grand Méliès (1952, 37 mins) which is also available on the Flicker Alley set.

This documentary, which introduced many to his films for the first time, features Méliès’ son André, playing his father, and Méliès’ second wife and star of many of his films, Jehanne d’Alcy (then aged ninety).

And there’s more. There are screenings in April-May of Méliès films and in June-July of ‘L’héritage méliès’. A complete Méliès filmography is also promised, which will be a boon, particularly if it goes the whole hog and identifies the films by Star-Film catalogue number (his production company), length, English release title, which copies are extant and where. Meanwhile, Méliès, magicien du cinéma looks like a very good reason to visit Paris over the next few months (as though there weren’t reasons enough anyway, but you know what I mean).

Where to find out more about Georges Méliès? It’s a shame – indeed something of a mystery why there isn’t a single good site dedicated to him (interesting to see that,, and have all been bought up opportunistically by domain sellers). Cinémathèque Méliès (in French) is a so-so effort of ancient design which I’ve had trouble accessing, but you can trace it back through the Wayback Machine. The Magical World of Georges Méliès likewise isn’t going to win any design awards, but it has a biography, filmography, and links to his films on YouTube. There’s a useful one page biography (written by David Robinson) on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema website. The Flicker Alley DVD set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) has already been championed here, and serious questions will have to be asked of any silent film enthusiast who hasn’t purchased a copy before the year is out.

As for reading matter, apart from the new catalogue (which is in French, of course), a really good book in English doesn’t exist. The best, albeit slim and not easy to track down nowadays, is David Robinson’s Georges Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy (1993). Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Méliès (2000) is one for the film studies courses. A standard, substantial, up-to-date biography in English (I don’t know of one in French, either) ought to be written – we repeat so much that has already been written in the film history/film studies field, and yet we leave a yawning gap like this. So you will have to make do with Brian Selznick’s haunting children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), already championed by The Bioscope, in which Georges Méliès features as a central character. And wait to see if Martin Scorsese really does decide to make a film out of it.

10 responses

  1. Full details of the StudioCanal DVD can be found here :

    I note that it doesn’t include anything that’s not in the Flicker Alley set – I’d have assumed some of the existing titles not included in that were held by the Cinémathèque française or the Méliès family.

    There’s another recent DVD Het Fantastische Luchtschip 1904-1908 issued by the Amsterdam Filmmuseum. Six Méliès films in colour :
    Le Raid Paris-Monte Carlo en deux heures en automobile (1905), Le merveilleux eventail vivant (1904), Un locataire diabolique (1908), Le diregeable fantastiqe (1905) [not in the Flicker Alley set], Le voyage à travers l’impossible (1904), Les quatres cents coups du diable (1906). (Pretty dreadful music accompaniment though).

    Hopefully there will be further DVDs – by my calculation there are between 30 and 40 existing films and fragments of films as yet unreleased.

  2. Thanks very much for this. It would be handy to know what extant Méliès titles are missing from the Flicker Alley set. I know that five titles shown at Pordenone last year aren’t there: Evocation Spirite, La Pyramide du Triboulet, L’Artiste et le Mannequin and Eruption Volcanique a la Martinique, plus there’s Dirigeable fantastique as you say. What are the others? (I’m slowly working on a Méliès filmography with cross-references to archive holdings and titles available on DVD, but have only got so far as yet).

    On another issue – has anyone (despite the several musicians involved in the Flicker Alley set) really come up with a satisfactory solution for musical accompaniment to Méliès’ work?

  3. In answer to my own query, Skatta on the Classic Horror Film Board lists these titles as being given as extant in Malthête and Mannoni’s 2002 Méliès Magie et Cinéma, but not appearing on the Flicker Alley set:

    Star Catalogue titles
    78-80. Le Manoir du diable, 75 m. 1896
    100. Sur les toits, 20 m. 1897
    105. Bombardement d’une maison, 20 m. 1897
    110. Combat naval en Grèce, 20 m. 1897
    156. Pygmalion et Galathée, 20 m. 1898
    171. Salle à manger fantastique, 20 m. 1899
    180. Luttes extravagantes, 20 m. 1899
    237-240. Les Miracles du Brahmine, 80 m. 1900
    284. L’Artiste et le Mannequin, 20 m. 1900
    392-393. L’Oeuf du sorcier, 40 m. 1902
    417-418. La Femme volante, 40 m. 1902
    422-425. Une indigestion, 85 m. 1902
    430-443. Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé, 280 m. 1902
    472. La Flamme merveilleuse, 35 m. 1903
    550-551. Les Apparitions fugitives, 40 m. 1904
    560-561. Benvenuto Cellini ou Curieuse Évasion, 55 m. 1904
    662-664. Le Juif errant, 60 m. 1904
    669-677. Détresse et Charité, 190 m. 1904
    693-695. Le Baquet de Mesmer, 60 m. 1905
    750-752. L’Île de Calypso, 70 m. 1905
    786-788. Le Dirigeable fantastique ou le Cauchemar d’un inventeur, 60 m. 1905
    888-905. Robert Macaire et Bertrand, les rois des cambrioleurs, 364 m. 1905
    912-924. Deux Cents Milles sous les mers ou le Cauchemar du pêcheur, 265 m. 1907
    929-935. Le Mariage de Victorine, 142 m. 1907
    1010-1013. Satan en prison, 90 m. 1907
    1023-1029. La Perle des servantes, 150 m. 1907
    1040-1043. François P’ et Triboulet, 95 m. 1907
    1476-1485. Hydrothérapie fantastique, 240 m. 1909

    Made for Pathe :
    Le Vitrail diabolique, 195 m. 1911

    Non-Star Catalogue titles :
    – Un film dont il ne subsiste que quelques images montrant Méliès en clochard, manipulant un cigare. [date unknown]
    – L’Agent gelé, 175 m. 1908
    – Tribulation or the Misfortunes of a Cobbler. 1908
    – Publicité pour la Régie des tabacs. 1933
    (The box contains one film listed as Unidentified 1908 which might be one of those non-Star catalogue titles).

  4. Well I’m pretty sure I saw some titles at the 1992 London retrospective that aren’t included : 888-905. Robert Macaire et Bertrand, les rois des cambrioleurs (1905), 560-561. Benvenuto Cellini ou Curieuse Évasion (1904) and 78-80. Le Manoir du diable (1896). The latter is a rather surprising missing title given that before a copy was located its catalogue description led to it being commonly described (rightly or wrongly) as the first horror or vampire film and it’s thus sought after.

    The filmography in Malthête and Mannoni’s 2002 Méliès Magie et Cinéma puts stars against those films which exist in part or in whole (but didn’t distinguish complete from incomplete). Heres a pdf table comparing that filmography to the Flicker Alley set :

    Click to access melies.pdf

    Including non-Star Catalogue and Pathé titles I make it 33 starred titles not in the Flicker Alley box.

    Of course that filmography isn’t the last word – 96 Le Château hanté (1897) isn’t listed as existing but there it is in the Flicker Alley box. And in addition to the titles you mentioned in 2005 it was announced that 175-76 Cléopâtra (1899) had been found in France.

    Utopian to expect that all will emerge but print-holders willing there’s clearly enough titles for a couple more DVD’s.

    I know the CNC bought Madeleine Malthête-Méliès archives and turned them over to the Cinémathèque Française (it’s now part of their exhibition) – do you know if the sale included the original prints held by the Cinémathèque Méliès ?

  5. I’ll see if I can find the programme for the 1992 retrospective (the BFI should have it tucked away somewhere). I’m puzzled that some films I know are in the BFI – Combat Naval en Grèce and La Prise de Tournavos for example – aren’t included, though other prints from the BFI are. And yes, what happened to Cléopâtre which got all that publicity a few years ago? I don’t think we were ever told who actually found it, or was (presumably) preserving it. I don’t know about the Madeleine Malthête-Méliès sale, sorry. I do know that CNC through the Cinémathèque Française has the Will Day collection of early films which includes Sous Les Toits, another title missing from the Flicker Alley set.

    Maybe Flicker Alley will issue a follow-up disc with all of the absent titles. We can dream.

  6. Unfortunately the BFI doesn’t have a copy of the programmes notes. The only information I have is that there were two programmes, in April and May 1993, entitled ‘The Thousand Eyes of Georges Melies’:

    April 1993
    Programme 1: The Magic of the Devil
    Programme 2: Legends & Fairies
    Programme 3: Magic and the Media
    May 1993
    Programme 4: Magic and the Moon
    Programme 5: Magic and the Gothic Imagination
    Programme 6: Traveller’s Magic

    The NFT booklet itself doesn’t give the titles being shown (bar one or two). The season was programmed by Paolo Cherchi Usai, so he might know.

  7. I think there were originally intended to be ten programmes from March to May 1992 – according to the MOMI flyer for the associated exhibition the other programme titles were Méliès Comedy & Farce, The Magic of Fairies, The Magic of the East and Méliès Documentary, Oddities and Magic. Unfortunately I can only find my copies of the programme notes for seven of them. Here they are as a pdf. (I’ve erased most of my scrawled notes in the interests of legibility). One of the titles given didn’t match what was screened in the first programme.

    Click to access 1992NFT.pdf

    The Studio Canal DVD set uses different prints from the Flicker Alley box but the few I’ve compared are in poorer condition. (Oddly although the version of The Conquest of the Pole (1911) derives from the same Austrian print it’s not tinted like the Flicker Alley version. My guess is that this set has used a b&w print struck for the Cinémathèque Méliès, and that may be the source for other titles).

    However the set contains one unadvertised additional film that’s not in the Flicker Alley box. One of the extra’s is listed as ‘Interview de Marie-Hélène Lehérissey’. Aside from a couple of interesting shots of the 16 and 35mm cans in the Cinémathèque Méliès collection this also includes what looks like the whole of 78-80. Le Manoir du diable (1896).

  8. Thank you so much for sharing the programme notes. I’m pleased to say that the BFI has now found its missing notes – there were ten programmes in all, as you say.

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