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Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema

Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)
Flicker Alley / Blackhawk
1896-1913 / B&W and Tinted Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 782 min. / Street Date March 11, 2008 / 89.95
New Original Music
Disc Produced by Eric Lange and David Shepard
Directed by Georges Méliès

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The 1956 Best Oscar winner Around the World in 80 Days begins with a montage of old silent film clips and a digest version of Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, filmed in 1902. The montage treats the fanciful French science fiction film as a quaint relic, not worth serious consideration in the years of Todd A-O and Cinerama. At that time Méliès' newest work was forty years old; by now most of it has gone largely unseen for a full century. Thanks to DVD, the French master's hundreds of painstaking short films, miniature marvels of art and special effects, are again readily viewable.

Archivists Jeffery Masino and David Shepard's five-disc set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) gathers over 170 of the French pioneer's films, many of them only a minute in length. Catalogued and organized for easy viewing, the collection is an invaluable record of the work of an underappreciated genius.

Méliès is said to have been the first producer-director to construct a special studio for the making of films. As with the other film pioneers, his early work includes unadorned 'reality samples that simply celebrate the cinema's ability to capture moments in time. His first film Card Party is just a shot of some gentlemen playing cards, and runs all of sixty-seven seconds. Being an accomplished musician and music hall performer, Méliès, immediately began using his films as an extension of his stage act. Rather than record reality, he interpreted it in the form of magic tricks, jokes and exhibitions of special effects, turning the screen into a fantasyland with visuals that couldn't be replicated on any stage.

Méliès' films proved that film audiences would accept stylized renderings of reality. The scenery backdrops, theatrical costumes and painted makeup fascinated storefront patrons of 1897, and his outlandish imagination of his visuals would soon give him the reputation of a maker of marvels -- the skeletal devil's coach in The Merry Frolics of Satan, the space cannon in A Trip to the Moon that fires its capsule into the Man in the Moon's eye. Some of his large-scale stage props required scores of puppeteer-operators. Méliès uses perspective tricks to make people into puppets or giants. The Man With the Rubber Head (1901) relies on one surefire gag: a man with an air bellows 'inflates' the hero's head, which grows to five times its size.

Many of these special effects are pulled off with uncommon dexterity. A man tosses disembodied heads in a row on a table, and even now it's not immediately apparent how the trick is done. Through the magic of stop-motion, a Rajah's harem girl multiplies into seven, unfolding like a scroll. Méliès sometimes presents these miracles as simple tricks, but often they are part of a story about dreams, ghosts or the adventures of fantastic creatures. His male characters (often Méliès himself) prance about in tuxedoes or period costumes, while his women appear as princesses and dazzling winged fairies. Many of the films in this set appear in original hand-tinted color, that makes the bat-wings of magical pixies all the more enchanting.

The collection spreads the many films across five discs, with easily navigated menus. Inside the folding disc holder is a booklet printed on quality paper with a full index. Each entry includes the film's title in French and English, the year, the running time and whether the film is in B&W or color. It also includes the composer of the music score, by a noted group of composers: Eric Beheim, Brian Benison, Frederick Hodges, Robert Israel, Neal Kurz, Alexander Rannie, Rodney Sauer, Donald Sosin, Joseph Rinaudo and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The quality of the presentation varies a bit, as the films have been drawn from archival sources from around the world. The selection isn't just a collection of the holdings of one company; the package text says that the set contains nearly all of Méliès' surviving films. A number of the films have commentary tracks as well. The 'big' titles are all here. In addition to the ones mentioned above, the set contains The Conquest of the Pole (tinted, 31 min.), Tunneling the English Channel (15 min.), The Impossible Voyage (color, 21 min.), Gulliver's Travels among the Lilliputians and the Giants (5 min.) and Baron Munchausen's Dream (11 min.). Also included are all nine episodes of Méliès' 1899 film about the Dreyfus affair -- eight one-minute episodes followed by a marathon 2-minute final chapter.

As a special extra, the set begins with a tribute film from the legendary Georges Franju, 1953's Le grand Méliès. The B&W film is an affectionate meditation on the passing of cinema's first legendary showman, starring Méliès' son André as his own father.André Méliès is shown trying to buy a camera and then making his own, designing his studio and putting on a fairground exhibition of A Trip to the Moon to prove to exhibitors that it is worth his higher asking price. The half-hour film has the same slowed, gentle pace as Franju's later Judex, and uses similar titles. It begins with scenes of Méliès elderly widow in an empty room. We learn that most of the filmmaker's best work was immediately pirated all over the world, even by Edison! Méliès didn't return to show business after WW1 and instead opened a small toy and magic shop. The most endearing scene shows him entertaining two little kids with magic tricks. At one point he puts a handful of flowers to his face, and his head transforms into a full bouquet, like something out of a painting by Magritte. The surreal sight points straight to the Cocteau-influenced visuals in later Franju films: the bird-headed magician in Judex and the masked madwoman in Eyes Without a Face.

Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) is a great entertainment and an invaluable research resource. Méliès' sense of fun and magic is very modern, and makes us feel as if the dawn of cinema happened just the day before yesterday.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Good, Very Good and Excelent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Le grand Méliès, 1953 short film by Georges Franju.
Packaging: Folding plastic and card disc holder with booklet in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 19, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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