October 6, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: “Georges Méliès and His Rivals”

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "Georges Méliès and His Rivals", which screens on October 7, 8, and 9 in Theater 3.

<i>Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon)</i>. 1902. France. Directed by George Méliès

Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon). 1902. France. Directed by George Méliès

I see Georges Méliès as a link in a continuum that runs from Jules Verne through film artists like Walt Disney and Tim Burton. Verne actually survived until 1905, enabling him to be well aware of Méliès in his heyday, and it can be hoped that the younger filmmaker found a way of expressing his gratitude to the older novelist for inspiring some of his best work. Méliès (1861–1938) died just a few weeks after Disney released the first of his epic fairy tales, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (For the record, Uncle Walt was around for the first eight years of Tim Burton’s life. We are, of course, highlighting Burton’s career in a major exhibition beginning next month, and my colleague Jenny He’s description, “a director of fables, fairy tales, and fantasies,” could as easily be applied to Méliès as to Burton.) One should also take note of Karel Zeman (1910–1989), the Czech animator/director whose feature films like The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1957) and Baron Munchhausen (1962) explicitly evoke Méliès’s style and subject matter.

The Beaux Arts student-turned-magician-turned-director was so successful for well over a decade that he inspired several imitators. Ferdinand Zecca was discussed a few weeks ago, and his (with Segundo de Chomon) Excursion dans la lune (the last film in this program) is clearly a rip-off of Méliès’s immensely popular Le Voyage dans la lune (the first film in this program). Chomon (1871–1929), a very adept special-effects and animation innovator, would photograph Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 epic Cabiria (famous for its fluid camerawork), which we will be showing in November. Gaston Velle (1872–1948) is another of those significant but nearly forgotten figures in the early history of the cinema. Also a former magician, laboring in the shadows of Méliès and others, he made many accomplished films in this period that are not easily distinguishable from those of his colleagues. In fact, the credit for some of the films in this program is open to some dispute. (For those with a serious interest, the definitive work on early French cinema, in English at least, is Richard Abel’s immensely thorough The Cine Goes To Town.) Art history scholars will be familiar with the problems of attribution as related to master, student, or forger. In any event, these films speak silently for themselves, especially in beautifully tinted prints that evoke an unrecoverable innocence soon to be lost in the mud of the Great War.

In spite of their energy and imagination, these films eventually wore out the audience’s goodwill. Méliès was a man of his time. Like the literary works of his American contemporaries L. Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900) and Garrett P. Serviss (Edison’s Conquest of Mars, 1898—one of my favorite guilty pleasures, in which the Wizard of Menlo Park kicks some Martian butt), Méliès’s fantastical vision was overtaken by reality. He was in full command of cinematic resources as he saw them, and he earned an honorable place in film history. Like Alice Guy-Blaché, he faded away, although he, too, received the Legion of Honor. At the end, he was hawking toys in the Montparnasse train station. One might envision him adding a bit of performance and prestidigitation to delight his young customers. Ultimately, one can no more fault Méliès for not being D. W. Griffith than one can Verne for not being Hugo or Zola.