France has a long and storied history with motion pictures. Louis Le Prince recorded the earliest known movie in history on October 14th, 1888. On December 28th, 1895, the Lumière Brothers gave the first ever commercial screening in film history in Paris. Alice Guy-Blaché was the first woman to direct a film, and she pioneered the art of narrative fiction films. And then there’s Georges Méliès. If you’ve ever been wowed by the special effects in the latest blockbuster film, you have Georges Méliès to thank for that experience. And if you’ve never heard of Georges Méliès, don’t worry. Paris has a whole museum dedicated to him.
A Pioneer of Cinema
Remember that first commercial film screening by the Lumière Brothers? Georges Méliès was in the audience that fateful night in Paris, and he offered the brothers 10,000 francs right there and then to buy one of their cinematograph machines. His request was turned down, but Méliès managed to get his hands on an Animatograph in London instead. The history of film would never be the same.
Between 1896 and 1913, Méliès directed over 500 films. He built a studio in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, and proceeded to invent special effects as we know them today. There were no computers or CGI back then, so Méliès created all of his effects through inventive in-camera techniques. He was also one of the first film directors to use storyboards, and he made movies in every possible genre, including hugely influential films in the realm of fantasy and science fiction. The image above is an iconic moment from A Trip to the Moon (1902). Today, it’s considered one of the most famous moments in the history of cinema.
Sadly, a series of bad business decisions and financial mismanagement left Méliès bankrupt and unable to continue filmmaking by 1913. His studio in Montreuil was turned into a hospital for soldiers wounded in WWI, and Méliès left Paris for several years. He ultimately abandoned show business altogether. By 1925, he was working at a toy shop in Gare Montparnasse, largely forgotten by the film industry. Méliès lived out the rest of his life in poverty. He never made another film after 1912.
The Magic of the Musée Méliès
Méliès’ achievements did not go unrecognized during his lifetime, however. By the late 20s, journalists began tracking him down, and his accomplishments began to be heralded both in France and abroad. He released a memoir, and in 1931, he was awarded the Legion of Honour. In 1936, he became the first conservator of the Cinémathèque Française, a non-profit organization dedicated to archiving the history of film. Méliès died two years later, but his legacy and influence are still felt today. So much so that just last year, the Cinémathèque Française opened the Musée Méliès, an entire museum dedicated to this pioneering filmmaker.
I recently visited the museum, and it is a wonderful addition to the museums of Paris. It traces Méliès’ life and career through archives and original props and costumes from his films, and the layout of the museum is fantastic. You get to see his early special effects in action, as well as a large scale mock up of his famous Montreuil studio, and you can watch several of his most important films in full. The museum also does a great job of showcasing how Méliès’ films are still impacting moviemaking today.
Let’s Go To The Movies
I love going to the movies. I love sitting in a darkened theatre and watching a story unfold on the big screen. And I especially love the culture of film-going in France. Paris has the highest concentration of cinemas in the world, and I take advantage of this every chance I get. And every time I take in the latest blockbuster spectacle, I like to remember that it all started in a darkened room in Paris back in 1895. I wonder if on that night Georges Méliès imagined he would one day change the course of filmmaking. I’d like to think so. As the Musée Méliès shows us, he had quite the imagination.
Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.