Posted by: Sally Ingraham | May 22, 2009

Melies the Magician/Melies’ Magic Show

Melies the MagicianThis documentary from Jacques Meny was a very interesting look at the life and work of Georges Melies, the “cinemagician” whom I was introduced to through The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It offered an abundance of biographical information and included many clips and bits from Melies’ films. By using reenactments, archival documents, interviews, and a non-chronological format, Meny was able to really bring all the aspects of Melies’ life and work into focus.

It was really neat to see just how exciting it was for stage magician and talented artist Melies to get his first movie camera and start playing with it. He was already so prepared to leap into the new format, so when he lept he had astonishing results. He discovered, by creative accident, the stop trick, or substitution, in 1896, and he used it to perform in his films magic tricks that he couldn’t quite pull off on stage. He was also one of the first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color in his films.

It was really terrible when Melies got left behind by the crushing rush of the exploding film industry. He couldn’t keep up with other European and American film companies which were producing outrageous amounts of film per week, and his company slowly went under. He disappeared for many years, and many people who knew his work thought he was dead. In an interview his granddaughter described how exciting it was when he was rediscovered, and when a portion of his films were found. When he did eventually die, it was with the knowledge that he was recognized as one of the pioneers of cinematography, and one of the most innovative and creative filmmakers who ever picked up a camera.

Following the documentary was Melies’ Magic Show, a collection of 15 films that were screened live. The event was hosted by Melies’ granddaughter, who called herself the “barker”, as the narrator of a silent film was called way back then. There was a pianist who accompanied the films with classic silent-film-style music.

Watching Melies’ films was so much fun! He appeared in all of them, and the pleasure he must have taken in his work is evident. His films are so active, with people leaping and darting and tumbling about. They’re also visually rich. Melies built and painted all of his own sets, using only greys, white, and black, but the detail is fabulous. The hand-tinting that appears in some of them is quite lovely. When watching the special effects he used, I didn’t have to remind myself that back then this was quite something. I was completely impressed!

Although Melies is best known now for his film A Trip to the Moon, my favorite of the films I saw was The Devilish Tenant. In this film a man takes an apartment and moves in with his one large carpet bag. Once the landlord leaves, he lifts a huge trunk out of the bag. From the trunk he begins feverishly pulling items – a table, chairs, a dresser, a piano, a huge mirror. He flings paintings onto the walls, and sets the table for dinner. Then he pulls a child, a woman, and a friend out of the bag and they all sit down to eat. Later, when the rent is due, everything goes back in a bag and the tenant escapes out the window. I laughed and laughed at this one, marveling at the effect that made the furniture come out of the bag flat and then pop into full dimensional life, and how the paintings flew through the air and attached themselves to the walls.

Melies was truly a magician, and it’s a testimony to his talent and to the joy he took in his work, that his films are every bit as delightful now as they were when they were made. I highly recommend checking them out!


  1. What a great companion to Hugo Cabret! Thanks for alerting me to this book..

  2. I haven’t seen this documentary, but you sure make it sound great. Thanks for the enthusiastic review, Sarah!

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