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George Melies as Satan in The Merry Frolics of Satan, 1906

Almost every account of the earliest days of movies finds space to include the old chestnut that when audiences first saw a film of a train rushing toward them they panicked and fled the theater.  Nobody is quite sure where this account originates, although a good guess is that it's a garbled version of a passage from "On A Visit to the Kingdom of Shadows," a review of a showing of Lumiére films in the July 4, 1896 edition of the Nizhni Novgorod by Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov, much better known as the writer Maxime Gorki (or Maxim Gorky), who nevertheless wrote this under the pseudonym "I.M. Pacatus."


Suddenly, we heard a clicking sound; everything disappeared and a train filled the screen. It was heading right toward us - watch out! You would have thought it wanted to rush out into the dark room in which we were sitting, to turn us into a grotesque pile of torn flesh and shattered bones, reducing to dust the room and the entire building..." [English translation by Elizabeth Ezra from her academic study George Méliès.]


Images of such power change lives and launch careers. It did for George Méliès, who had been among a select few invited to watch an early demonstration of film by the Brothers Lumiére in Paris on December 28, 1895. It started poorly: he complained of the poor showmanship when last minute delays kept them trapped in a darkened basement when suddenly:


No sooner had I stopped speaking when a horse pulling a cart started to walk towards us, followed by other vehicles, then passers-by - in short, all the hustle and bustle of a street. We sat there with our mouths open, without speaking, filled with amazement. [Ezra 1-2]


A 34-year-old stage magician, Méliès immediately began to re-imagine his form of entertainment - spectacle, trickery, satire, compression of time and space - into the language of cinema amazements, inventing methods for incorporating magic wherever necessary. Magic was an intimate art: Méliès showed his films at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin - built by the seminal French magician that Houdini also paid homage to - whose dimensions were about 20' by 20' by 55' (6m by 6m by 17m), a small box that Méliès copied exactly when he built his film studio, even including its trap doors and sliding panels.

A Trip to the Moon, by George Méliès, 1902, still

Some 520 films emerged from that studio in the next 16 years, most now lost, a mélange of "documentary, staged re-enactments of current events, erotic or "stag" films, féeries [fantasy tales], "trick" films and science fiction" in Ezra's words. For most people his career is encapsulated in the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) made in 1902. The image of the Man in the Moon with a bullet-shaped rocketship plunged into its right eye is iconic and somehow more modern than the line of chorus girls who push the bullet into its chamber.

A Trip to the Moon is merely one of several "imaginary voyage" films that Méliès made over the next several years, films that he would have thought of as a continuation of féeries rather than science fiction. Just as unintentionally prophetic is 1907's Le Tunnel sous la Manche, ou Le Cauchemar franco-anglais (Tunnelling the English Channel). One of his last films, made in 1912 when his studio was succumbing to the competition of international film factories which could produce dozens of films a month by numerous directors unlike his hand-crafted products that required him to perform every role, from set designer to cinematographer to director to actor, was A la conquête du Pole. Made, like Le Voyage dans de lune, from a féerie stage play by Adolphe Dennery based on a Jules Verne story, the narrative deliberately portrays an international expedition breaking down in animosity.


Another less-known fantastic voyage is Les Quat'cents farces du diable (The Merry Frolics of Satan) from 1906. A 17-minute extravaganza - sixteen minutes longer than his first film a decade earlier - the movie actually has two separate halves. The one more usually seen is an adaptation of a multi-media stage show featuring a coach pulled through the heavens by a skeleton horse, with a variety of wonders from angels to an exploding volcano - done in full color by means of hand-tinting. A more interesting set of tricks, though, can be seen in the first half, a satire of scientists as alchemists, the British as imperialists, and Méliès himself in a bright red Mephistopheles costume to explain the coming descent into hell, another re-imagining of the Faust legend. The acting is astoundingly broad, as it would have to be, since this was made before Méliès started using intertitles. He makes full use of all the tricks of his tricked-out studio, and adds a few just for the camera. Audiences of the day would be expected to catch the references but for us I'm linking to a helpful captioned annotation of the action posted by Ron Librach.


The print goes back and forth between hand-tinted and black-and-white, showing why some contemporary audiences found cinema spectacle often inferior to stage shows where the use of stunning colors were integral to the mood. Additionally, despite the tendency of modern critics, like Ezra, to rescue Méliès from charges of being stage-bound, this film probably gives a better understanding of what audiences would expect to see on a stage with live actors than they would from the artificial world of cinema. Méliès not only couldn't escape his roots, he showed no signs of wanting to: they were his preferred entertainment world regardless of what medium presented them.


For true SF fans, there is a hidden bonus. The travelers pulling a series of trunks out of a single trunk, which they then expand into a series of railway carriages prefigures the transformation of George Jetson's car into a briefcase he can walk off with 55 years later. I'd like to say that the alchemists beam up visions from desires in a way reminiscent of a Star Trek transporter but alas Méliès had discovered the jump cut - what Librach confusingly calls "stop motion" - and not the dissolve. What we get is standard magic - a woman appearing from a puff of smoke - in a phenomenally new form.

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