If proof were needed that the early days of cinema saw the medium at its most magical, then look no further than the works of Georges Méliès. As the resurgence of interest in silent cinema continues, fuelled by last year’s double whammy of HUGO and THE ARTIST, it’s the sheer ambition of the Parisian filmmaker that continues to impress. This year’s Cambridge Film Festival celebrates the great man with a screening of the restored version of his most famous work, A TRIP TO THE MOON, followed by THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE, a documentary on the extensive restoration it underwent. Returned to its original colour scheme, this pioneering and iconic picture has never been more beautiful.
Méliès, a magician and theatre manager by profession, was one of the first to realise the potential that cinema offered. His output was prolific to say the least: after seeing the first Lumière brothers films in 1895, he quickly bought a camera, built his own studio and set about making his own movies. He churned out more than 500 from 1896 until 1913, when he went bankrupt and was forced out of the industry.
Rejecting the documentary-style subject matter of the Lumière films, Méliès turned cinema into the medium of illusionism. He invented many basic tricks of the trade – slow motion, the dissolve, the fade-out, double exposure – in order to dazzle his audience. THE LIVING PLAYING CARDS is a perfect example: the director conjures the Queen of Hearts into reality from his giant deck of cards, before turning himself into the King of Clubs.
… He even branched out into Shakespeare, producing one of the very first versions of HAMLET …
Though most closely associated with his early Jules Verne-inspired pictures A TRIP TO THE MOON and THE VOYAGE ACROSS THE IMPOSSIBLE, which are as much elaborate fantasy as they are science fiction, he dipped his toe in to other waters as well. CLEOPATRA was a very early precursor to horror classic THE MUMMY, as the Egyptian queen is resurrected in modern times. DIVERS AT WORK ON THE WRECK OF THE ‘MAINE’ was one of several attempts to present topical issues of the day before the advent of newsreel, such as this incident during the Spanish-American War. He even branched out into Shakespeare, producing one of the very first versions of HAMLET.
Méliès was fortunate enough to be recognised within his own lifetime as a true pioneer of cinema. Louis Lumière himself awarded Méliès the Légion d‘honneur in 1931. Though many of his films are now lost forever, enough survive for us to enjoy and celebrate the man who put the spirit of ‘Abracadabra!’ in to the world of movies.
A TRIP TO THE MOON and THE EXTRAORDINARY VOYAGE screen at Sawston Cinema at 19.30 on Thursday 20th September.