Movies have a fairy godfather. His name is Georges Melies. At the turn of the 20th century, his countrymen coined a word to describe him: cinemagician. This was altogether fitting, for this pioneer French filmmaker really was a professional conjurer before he exchanged his wand for a camera.
"It was people like Melies who saw that this new technology could be an art form," says Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the basis for Hugo, the hypnotic Martin Scorsese film about a very curious orphan who rediscovers the inventions of Melies.
Enchanted by the new medium, Melies plumbed its fantastical potential in pictures such as 1903's Fairyland: The Kingdom of the Fairies (a 16-minute epic about a princess abducted by a witch and rescued in an undersea kingdom, hand-painted in jewel tones). A Trip to the Moon, Melies' most famous movie, showed a rocket crash-landing and lodging in the eye of the man in the moon.
More than a century later, Melies' films still delight. "He was the first to do special effects," enthuses Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime film editor, describing Melies' "startling imagination."
Hugo, the director's devotional for the movies, resurrects the life and work of Melies, the most popular filmmaker of his day who faded into obscurity, was resurrected by the surrealists, forgotten again, and ultimately immortalized in 2008 by Selznick in his mesmerizing graphic novel about an orphan who needs a family, a broken man who needs fixing, and how they ultimately fix each other. (The film has grossed more than $25 million since it opened Nov. 23.)
"Melies' life was like a movie," says Selznick, a distant cousin of David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind. ("We're from the New Jersey dry-cleaning side of the Selznick family," he explains.)
Who was Melies? Why does he inspire filmmakers? And is it just coincidence that two movies this holiday season, Hugo and The Artist, celebrate the mute magic of silent films?
Melies was born in 1861 to a family of shoemakers. Preferring enchantment to insteps, he sold his share in the family factory. With the proceeds in 1888, he bought the magic theater formerly owned by Houdin, the master illusionist who inspired Ehrich Weiss to change his name to Harry Houdini. In 1895, Melies saw his first film.
"When movies were first invented, the Lumiere brothers," pioneer French filmmakers, "thought films were a fad," Selznick says. "They made films of a train pulling into a station, of workers coming out of a factory. No one had seen moving pictures before."
Melies recognized that not only could films photograph reality, they also could conjure fantasy.
According to film historian Charles Musser, "The most popular and influential Melies film was Cinderella," first shown in the United States in 1899 and which may have been the first film to use the "dissolve" between sequences. How many filmmakers owe a debt of gratitude to Melies for this dreamy segue between film scenes?
Between 1896 and 1914 Melies was prolific, turning out more than 500 movies in his heyday.
"Marty says that in French cafes they ran a new Melies film every week," says Schoonmaker, referring to Scorsese. But Melies' enchantments fell out of favor during the grave era of World War I. Facing destitution, the filmmaker sold his films to a firm that would melt down their celluloid to make shoe heels, poetic injustice for the man who wanted no part of his family's shoemaking business. To earn a living, the mechanical and magical genius who once had built his own cameras worked at a toy booth at Paris' Montparnasse train station.
"I still cannot believe how long Melies toiled there in oblivion," says Schoonmaker, noting the extent to which Melies' story parallels that of her late husband, filmmaker Michael Powell. (The maker of evocative films such as The Thief of Bagdad, The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann, Powell was among the United Kingdom's finest and most beloved directors until the controversy around his 1961 movie Peeping Tom effectively torpedoed his career.)
Rediscovering groundbreaking artists whose work has fallen into obscurity or disfavor is something of a Scorsese calling, Schoonmaker says. As a film preservationist, he has led the march to restore Powell's films, directed a documentary on Elia Kazan, and now is reintroducing Melies to those who may know him only from seeing A Trip to the Moon quoted in the Smashing Pumpkins video "Tonight, Tonight." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOG3eus4ZSo)
In the 1930s, Melies was rescued from the celluloid bin of movie history by surrealists Andre Breton and Luis Bunuel (the latter paid tribute to A Trip to the Moon in Un Chien Andalou, the film he codirected with Salvador Dali).
"Anyone who experiments with telling a story on screen is part of a lineage that stretches back to Melies," Selznick says. This has particular resonance for Schoonmaker, who learned while editing Hugo that her late husband told Scorsese many of the special-effects wizards on Powell's The Thief of Bagdad were trained by Melies himself.
Schoonmaker isn't sure whether the simultaneous release of Hugo and The Artist, French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius' silent film set during Hollywood's transition to the sound era, is mere coincidence or a product of longing for the work of art in an age of mechanical, rather than digital, reproduction. (The Artist is scheduled to open locally Dec. 25.)
"Many people, especially children, tell me that the mechanical joys of Hugo, which shows hand-cranked movie cameras and handmade automatons and clocks, are so inspiring."
Says Schoonmaker, "Maybe people just like the idea of being able to see how things work."
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at email@example.com.