If the name Georges Méliès rings a bell at all, it probably makes you think of that wacky Trip to the Moon movie from the Dawn of Film that was okay in its time, but... that time was long ago. Yes, Méliès almost single-handedly invented special effects, pioneering such techniques as stop-action substitution, dissolves, multiple exposures, and time-lapse photography, in the process creating the science-fiction film genre, but nowadays his corny sense of humor, flimsy storytelling, and overuse of the same gimmicks make the work seem dated. In fact, it was out of fashion by the time the Keystone Cops came on the scene in 1912
And yet... and yet... there is much to admire in his films. His dreamscape visuals, based on his own superb drawings, are a precursor to surrealism and all that followed, including animation ranging from Yellow Submarine to many a music video. His appearance in this blog, however, is a result of me stumbling upon an exhibition of his work, Méliès: Magicien du Cinéma, at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris earlier this summer, while visiting the Jacques Tati exposition. The Méliès exhibition turned me on to some crazy crossover between his brand of cinema, inspired by stage magic, and the world of clowning and physical comedy.
Méliès' began his performance career as a magician and in 1888 bought and ran the famous Paris magic theatre, Théâtre Robert Houdin. Exhibits on filmmakers don't always have a lot of stuff to show, other than the movies themselves, but this one was stuff-eriffic, full of all sorts of magic and early film equipment, and even a large-scale model of Méliès' studio (unfortunately destroyed in 1947) in the nearby Paris suburb of Montreuil.
[Small world department: Houdin was a great French magician whose name was adapted by Ehrich Weiss, who as Harry Houdini became even more famous than his hero; years later Houdini was said to have given Joseph Keaton, Jr. his enduring nickname after the 6-month-old boy survived a fall down a flight of stairs: "that's quite a buster your son just took."]
But What Does This Have to Do with Physical Comedy?
Yes, the exhibition has since closed, but here are a couple of clips with ties to physical comedy.
The first is Guillaume Tell et le Clown (1898), loosely related to the classic William Tell clown entrée, a parody of the legend of William Tell, who was said to have saved his own life and sparked a rebellion against tyrannical rule by successfully shooting an apple off his son's head with a crossbow. In the clown entrée, as performed by François and Albert Fratellini, difficulties in balancing the apple on the son's head and then the son eating the apple down to the core thwart the clown's aspirations to greatness. (This entrée was collected by Tristan Rémy in his book, Entrées Clownesques, most of which is available in English, translated by Bernard Sahlins in Clown Scenes.) Charlie Chaplin used the gag in a short 1917 war bonds charity film he made with Scottish comedian Harry Lauder. That movie was never released, but Chaplin came back to the gag again in his 1928 silent movie, The Circus.
Update: For a discussion about the why and wherefores of performing the William Tell entrée in 2009, see this post (and subsequent posts) on Jon Davison's blog.
Méliès' texte explicatif describes his version as follows: "The clown, wanting to present the scene of Willian Tell and the apple, constructs a mannequin out of various materials and places a melon on its head. When he turns and starts to walk away from it, the mannequin comes to life and slaps him. The clown, surprised, reassures himself that it's truly a mannequin, but when he turns around, he gets struck by the melon in his back. He is grabbed by the mannequin, who has come to life and throws the clown on the ground, escapes, and leaves the clown there all by himself."
The Fat & Lean Wrestling Match from 1990 is even more clever:
Méliès explained that this stop-action substitution effect, which he used so frequently (too frequently), was actually discovered by him by accident in 1897 when his film jammed and he stopped to fix it. "During this minute,'' he said, "the passersby, buses, carriages had moved on of course. When I projected the film, I saw a bus changed into a hearse, and men changed into women.'' Actually the technique had been used two years earlier at the Edison studios in The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots to create a decapitation effect. Whether or not he was familiar with this, Méliès still deserves credit for fully (too fully) exploring the potential of the technique.
Of course film made a lot more possible, but the idea for these transformations was even older. In Joseph Grimaldi's day they were called tricks of construction. Here's some of what I wrote about it in my Clowns book:
Grimaldi's Clown derived just as much fun from gadgets and machinery. Thanks to a lifetime in pantomime, Grimaldi was well versed in trickwork and was himself the designer of many effective "tricks of construction." In these transformations, something new and unexpected was created out of something quite ordinary, usually with satirical overtones, such as changing a lobster into a soldier by boiling it.... Many of these inventions found their way into the circus (and cartoons) as sight gags. Grimaldi's "New American Anticipating Machine," often seen today as the hot dog machine, is the most common example. Clown steals a dog from an unsuspecting gentleman, stuffs the pooch into the machine, cranks the handle, and pulls out a long row of sausages. When the owner returns and whistles for his dog, the sausages wag just like a real dog's tail.
You can read the whole chapter here.
Okay, done with with Physical Comedy
Yep, that's the physical comedy portion of this post, at least for now, but there's more!
Although it's not all that physical, here's his fantasmagorical A Trip to the Moon (1902) for those who haven't seen it:
That voiceover narrative, from a Méliès text, was added later, but for a more modern take you might want to check out this version, using music from Nine Inch Nails' Ghosts, or this one, or this one, both of which have original electronic scores that kind of work in their own way.
Even more interesting because it's visual is the Smashing Pumpkins music video, Tonight, Tonight, which is practically a remake of A Trip to the Moon.
For a shot-by-shot analysis of the movie, check out this post from Dan North's excellent film blog, Spectacular Attractions. North also has an interesting post on episode 12 of the HBO mini-series, From the Earth to the Moon, which intercut scenes of the Apollo 17 moon landing with re-creations of the shooting of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune.
You can find links to a lot of Méliès material by typing his name into the search engine at:
The Cinémathèque exhibit book, L'Oeuvre de Georges Méliès, is really excellent. Big, thorough, gorgeous, fun, perfect for the coffee table. Yes, it is in French, but it's lavishly illustrated and includes a ton of Méliès drawings. You can get it from the French Amazon by clicking on the link above.
Likewise there is now an excellent DVD collection of Méliès' films put out by the good folks at Flicker Alley, who do some real quality work in restoring and releasing old movies. I bought this, I really like it, and once I've watched all 782 minutes of it (or enough to sound like I did), I'll post a DVD Report to the blog. And do I really need to mention that the movies look 100 times better on DVD than on YouTube?
This is also a good place to once again plug one of my favorite blogs, Circo Méliès, described as "a place for the meeting of cinema, circus and variétés in the widest sense of the term." It's in Spanish, and I only speak enough Spanish to get me to the train station and buy a beer (not necessarily in that order), but I still get a lot out of this blog.
Finally, a word of warning to those who think being on top of the latest technology is a guarantee of everlasting prosperity: When Méliès fell out of favor, he couldn't pay back some big loans and went seriously broke, ending up selling toys out of a booth at the Montparnasse train station.
Okay, okay, I know that's a bummer of an ending.
To finish on a more positive note, check out the award-winning graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, in which — spoiler alert! spoiler alert! — Méliès of Gare Montparnasse ends up playing a prominent role. I just came across this last week, but I bought it and read it and highly recommend it. I promise it provides a happy ending to this post.
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