Friday, February 24, 2012

Scarce Letters of Movie Pioneer Georges Méliès, Hero of Scorsese's "Hugo," Surface

by Stephen J. Gertz

[MÉLIÈs, Georges] BESSY, Maurice and Lo Duca.
Georges Méliès: Mage et "Mes Mémoires" par Méliès.
Paris: Prisma, 1945. First French Edition, never translated into English.
One of 2000 numbered copies, this being No. 956.
With Melies' business card from 1909 laid in.

Between 1928 and 1932, when pioneering film director, Georges Méliès, was running a toy shop in Montparnesse Station in Paris - the period in his life covered by Martin Scorsese's splendid homage to Méliès and movie magic, Hugo - Méliès wrote a series of  letters of enormous interest to film lovers and historians. The content of the letters is quite broad and uniformly fascinating throughout.

This trove has just come into the marketplace, offered by Royal Books in Baltimore. Surviving ephemeral material representing Méliès' work is excessively rare; letters in his hand are virtually non-existent. OCLC indicates that there is no institution with autograph material, and auction records show no appearance of any letters since 1975. Virtually all known surviving material is held by the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.

From: A Trip To The Moon - Earth Rise.

An archive consisting  of six extraordinary signed autograph letters, five in French and one in English, by Méliès, generally considered to be one of the inventors of narrative cinema,  it reveals a great deal about his little-discussed but profoundly important origins in the Robert-Houdin Theatre in Paris, as well as his work as a magician and ultimately a film director. 

Equally interesting in these letters are various revelations regarding his character, great love for artists, magicians, and all performers whose work came under the umbrella of "illusion." His spirit, so finely captured by Scorsese on film, is animated on these pages.

Méliès began his career in theater at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, doing extremely creative work in an area that could be described as an intersection of live theater, pantomime, magic, and vaudeville. After seeing an 1895 demonstration by the Lumiere Brothers, he became very interested in cinema, and betweem 1896 and 1914 made over 500 short films. 

His film work utilized many of the elements from his live performance as a basis for content, and the portion of his work that has survived reveals a storytelling style that revels in Jules Verne-esque fantastical adventure fiction. The films ranged from 1 to 40 minutes in length, and many were completely abstract, with his intense interest in the effect of "illusion" on an audience that ultimately led to him becoming the inventor of "special effects." Importantly, the "effects" he invented on celluloid were not just a component of his cinema, they were the essence of it.

Equally important, Méliès made the first cinematic foray into science fiction and horror, and was a pioneer in the making of fantastical adventure films. Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil,"1896) and Le Caverna maudite ("The Cave of the Unholy One," 1898) are generally considered to be the first horror films ever made. A print of the former was acquired upon its release by Thomas Edison, who duplicated and distributed it with great financial success in the United States. Though Edison paid no royalties to Méliès, as a result the director's name became well-known to film-goers all over the Western world.

Six years later, Méliès produced what is today his most famous short feature, Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), the first known science fiction film, and the first to depict space travel. The film was based very loosely on two popular novels of the time, by Jules Verne in From the Earth to the Moon, and The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.

From: A Trip To The Moon - A Rocket In The Eye.

Méliès was forced into bankruptcy in 1913 by large French and American studios. Because the concept of film preservation was still nearly 20 years away, most of his films were ultimately melted down for boot heels during World War I or recycled to make new film.

The archive is divided into four  groups:

(a) A brief but extraordinary 1932 letter in English about his days as a filmmaker.

(b) A group of three letters from 1928 regarding his earliest days at Robert-Houdin Theatre, details regarding a series of short pieces he is writing about his life (for a magazine or newspaper), and a proposal to gather the pieces for publication in book form.

(c) A letter from 1929 regarding the proofs of caricatures that Méliès has drawn for the purpose of publication as postcards to be sold to fans of his work.

(d) A brief but significant letter from 1931 regarding the annual "magician's gala," mentioning several of the magicians who performed, a gathering of artists that was clearly at the heart of what preserved Méliès spirit during the years after his film company collapsed.

In the first letter, Melies writes candidly of his days as a filmmaker, and the collapse of his career: "You will find me every day, even Sundays, in the hall of Montparnasse station, from 10 o'clock A.M. to 10 P.M. I keep there a shop of toys and sweets, since I have unfortunately, lost 3 millions of francs during the war, which I had gained as a producer of motion pictures and pioneer of cinematography."

The next three letters represent the heart of the this archive, regarding Méliès' earliest days working as a magician in the Robert-Houdin Theatre. These letters deal in some detail with an ongoing memoir being written by Méliès, ending with a letter responding to a proposal for the memoirs to be expanded and published as a book.

From: A Trip To The Moon - Dream Sequence.

In the first letter, Méliès writes: "I think by now you must have received the first two articles... I   believe that information on the subject of the Robert-Houdin Theatre will interest your readers, so I won't hesitate to send more details... Today I constructed the exact floor plans of the stage and back stage from memory and I am enclosing them here. Your are right if you think that nothing that that happened in my little old theater has escaped my memory. With an average of 750 performances per year, that makes 27,000 performances! When I think about it, that is simply staggering."

He goes on to discuss the irony of his current situation: " [This is] written in great haste (and on my knees, above the market)...from my little store atelier where there is no space for me and I am crowded by, or should I say, drowned in merchandise. I, at 67, a merchant! I who was always an artist first and who always detested business? What is there to do!? Life has reversals like this, and the war has made me lose the result of 47 years of work [One must] resign oneself, and that is what I have done. That doesn't mean that I do not miss the good old days and I am never as happy as when I am together with colleagues, comedians, cinematographers, or magicians, when I am in my own element."

In another letter, Méliès refers to plans to produce an edition of his memoirs, which, though never published during his lifetime, is the probable foundation for the 1945 publication of Méliès' memoirs edited by Maurice Bessy. The letter goes on in great detail about all aspects of production, including how the linotype should be set up for the book, the importance of illustrations, etc.

The last letter, from 1932, is an enthusiastic review of Robert Evans' A Master of Modern Magic, a biography of Eugene Robert-Houdin (NY: Macoy 1932). The book is "very well written and as exact as possible concerning the dates," and that it "contains very few mistakes. It is certainly more near the truth than the book written against Robert-Houdin by Houdini, who seems to have been jealous of the posthumous reputation of our old master...[Evans] has evidently written this book in order to break this reputation."

Méliès  then expounds on the nature of his original trade, and the philosophy behind the illusion at the heart of cinema: "The conjurors (don't they?) work for the public, not for the professionals; if they have a success and seem extraordinary men to spectators, what do they require more? Nobody of us is really a 'sorcerer,' it is sufficient to look to be, and principally to know how to put our tricks, clever or not, in the maximum of value."

I had a chance to examine this precious archive at the recent 45th California International Antiquarian Book Fair.  It was no illusion. But it was definitely magic. Méliès was indeed the sorcerer of the Silent film era.

Images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks. The Méliès biography, at top, is being offered separately from the archive of letters.

Stills from the colored version of A Trip To The Moon courtesy of Harvey Deneroff, with our thanks.

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