Georges Melies --The Era of Magic Cinema-12 great silent movies between 1896 and 1899

Channel: Cinema History


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Georges Méliès began shooting his first films in May 1896, and screening them at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin by that August. At the end of 1896 he and Reulos founded the Star-Film Company, with Lucien Korsten acting as his primary camera operator. Many of his earliest films were copies and remakes of the Lumière brothers films, made to compete with the 2000 daily customers of the Grand Café. However, many of his other early films reflected Méliès's knack for theatricality and spectacle, such as A Terrible Night, in which a hotel guest is attacked by a giant bedbug. But more importantly, the Lumière brothers had dispatched camera operators across the world to document it as ethnographic documentarians, intending their invention to be highly important in scientific and historical study. Méliès's Star-Film Company, on the other hand, was geared more towards the "fairground clientele" who wanted his specific brand of magic and illusion: art.

In these earliest films, Méliès began to experiment with (and often invent) special effects that were unique to filmmaking. This began, according to Méliès's memoirs, by accident when his camera jammed in the middle of a take and "a Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse and women changed into men. The substitution trick, called the stop-trick, had been discovered." This same stop-trick effect had already been used by Thomas Edison when depicting a decapitation in The Execution of Mary Stuart; however, Méliès's film effects and unique style of film magic are his own. He first used these effects in The Vanishing Lady, in which the by then cliche magic trick of a person vanishing from the stage by means of a trap door is enhanced by the person turning into a skeleton until finally reappearing on the stage.

In September 1896, Méliès began to build a film studio on his property in Montreuil, just outside of Paris. The main stage building was made entirely of glass walls and ceilings so as to allow in sunlight for film exposure and its dimensions were identical to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. The property also included a shed for dressing rooms and a hangar for set construction. Because colors would often photograph in unexpected ways on black and white film, all sets, costumes and actors' makeup were colored in different tones of gray. Méliès described the studio as "the union of the photography workshop (in its gigantic proportions) and the theatre stage." Actors performed in front of a painted set as inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theater. For the remainder of his film career he would divide his time between Montreuil and the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, where he "arrived at the studio at seven am to put in a ten hour day building sets and props. At five he would change his clothes and set out for Paris in order to be at the theatre office by six to receive callers. After a quick dinner he was back to the theatre for the eight o'clock show, during which he sketched his set designs, and then returned to Montreuil to sleep. On Fridays and Saturdays he shot scenes prepared during the week, while Sundays and holidays were taken up with a theatre matinee, three film screenings, and an evening presentation that lasted until eleven-thirty."

From his first films we included the following magic shorts:

Escamotage d'une dame chez Robert-Houdin / Vanishing of a lady at Robert-Houdin(1896)
Le Cauchemar / The Nightmare (1896)
Une nuit terrible / A terrible night (1896)
Entre Calais et Dover / Between Calais and Dover (1896)
Les derniers cartouches / The last gun shots (1897)
Les aventures de William Tell / The adventures of Wiliam Tell (1898)
Un Homme de têtes / A heads man (1898)
Le Magicien / The Magician (1898)
Visite sousmarine de Maine / Underwater tour of Maine (1898)
L'Illusionniste Fin-de-Siecle / The illusionist (1899)
Le Chevalier Mystère / The mistery knight (1899)
Le danse du feu / The fire dance (1899)

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Music: Kevin Mac Leod ( licensed under Creative Commons licence . Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0).