N.p. N.p., 1928-1932. An archive of 6 extraordinary autograph letters signed, 5 in French and 1 in English, by the pioneering film director Georges Melies, generally considered to be one of the inventors of narrative cinema, revealing a great deal about his little-discussed but profoundly important origins in the Robert-Houdin Theatre in Paris, as well as his work as a magician and ultimately a film director. Equally interesting in these letters are various revelations regarding his character, a combination of innocence, boundless enthusiasm, a quizzical nature, a photographic memory, and a great love for artists, magicians, and all performers whose work came under the umbrella of "illusion."
One image shown. Additional images of the letters in the archive are available on request.
Melies began his career in theater at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, doing extremely creative work in an area that could be described as an intersection of live theater, pantomime, magic, and vaudeville. After seeing an 1895 demonstration by the Lumiere Brothers, he became very interested in cinema, and betweem 1896 and 1914 made over 500 short films. His film work utilized many of the elements from his live performance as a basis for content, and the portion of his work that has survived reveals a storytelling style that revels in Jules Verne-esque fantastical adventure fiction. The films ranged from 1 to 40 minutes in length, and many were completely abstract, with his intense interest in the effect of "illusion" on an audience that ultimately led to him becoming the inventor of "special effects." Importantly, the "effects" he invented on celluloid were not just a component of his cinema, they were the essence of it.
Just as importantly, Melies made the first cinematic foray into science fiction and horror, and was a pioneer in the making of fantastical adventure films. "Le Manoir du diable" ("The House of the Devil," 1896) and "Le Caverna maudite" ("The Cave of the Unholy One, 1898) are generally considered to be the first horror films ever made. A print of the former was acquired upon its release by Thomas Edison, who duplicated and distributed it with great financial success in the United States. Though Edison paid no royalties to Melies, the director's name became well-known to filmgoers all over the Western world as a result.
Six years later, Melies produced what is today his most famous short feature, "Le voyage dans la lune" ("A Trip to the Moon," 1902), the first known science fiction film, and the first to depict space travel. The film was based very loosely on two popular novels of the time, "From the Earth to the Moon" by Jules Verne and "The First Men in the Moon" by H.G. Wells. The film includes a celebrated scene in which a spaceship pokes itself into the eye of the man in the moon. It is also thought to be the first pataphysical film, illustrating the "illogicality of logical thinking," a notion that is at the heart of Melies' filmmaking style.
Melies did not grasp the value of his films, which in large part led to his film company being forced into bankruptcy in 1913 by large French and American studios. The company was bought out of receivership by Pathe Freres, and because the concept of film preservation was still nearly 20 years away, most of his films were ultimately melted down for boot heels during World War I or recycled to make new film.
Melies spent the last 24 years of his life working as a toy merchant in Montparnasse Station, and it was during this period that these letters were written. The content of the letters is quite broad and uniformly fascinating, and divides into 4 groupings:
(a) a brief but extraordinary 1932 letter in English about his days as a filmmaker.
(b) a grouping of 3 letters from 1928 regarding his earliest days at Robert-Houdin Theatre, details regarding a series of short pieces he is writing about his life (for a magazine or newspaper), and a proposal to gather the pieces for publication in book form.
(c) a letter from 1929 regarding the proofs of caricatures that Melies has drawn for the purpose of publication as postcards to be sold to fans of his work.
(d) a brief but significant letter from 1931 regarding the annual "magician's gala," mentioning several of the magicians who performed, a gathering of artists that was clearly at the heart of what preserved Melies spirit during the years after his film company collapsed.
In the first letter, Melies speaks candidly of his days as a filmmaker, and the collapse of his company: "You will find me every day, even Sundays, in the hall of Montparnasse station, from 10 o'clock A.M. to 10 P.M. I keep there a shop of toys and sweets, since I have unfortunately, lost 3 millions of francs during the war, which I had gained as a producer of motion pictures and pioneer of cinematography."
The next three letters represent the heart of the content of this archive, and have to do with Melies' earliest days working as a magician in the Robert-Houdin Theatre. These letters deal in some detail with an ongoing memoir being written by Melies, ending with a letter responding to a proposal for the memoirs to be expanded and published as a book.
In the first letter, Melies writes: "I think by now you must have received the first two articles. ...I believe that information on the subject of the Robert-Houdin Theatre will interest your readers, so I won't hesitate to send more details. ...Today I constructed the exact floor plans of the stage and back stage from memory and I am enclosing them here. Your are right if you think that nothing that that happened in my little old theater has escaped my memory. With an average of 750 performances per year, that makes 27,000 performances! When I think about it, that is simply staggering."
He goes on to remark on the irony of his current profession: " [This is] written in great haste (and on my knees, above the market)...from my little store atelier where there is no space for me and I am crowded by, or should I say, drowned in merchandise. I, at 67, a merchant! I who was always an artist first and who always detested business? What is there to do!? Life has reversals like this, and the war has made me lose the result of 47 years of work [One must] resign oneself, and that is what I have done. That doesn't mean that I do not miss the good old days and I am never as happy as when I am together with colleagues, comedians, cinematographers, or magicians, when I am in my own element."
In the final letter of this grouping, Melies acknowledges with interest a further proposal to produce an edition of his memoirs, which though never published during his lifetime is likely the basis for the 1945 publication of Melies' memoirs edited by Maurice Bessy (issued by Editions Prisma and to our knowledge never republished). The letter goes on in great detail about how the linotype should be set up for the book, the importance of illustrations, etc.
The last letter, from 1932, is an enthusiastic review of Robert Evans' 1932 biography of Eugene Robert-Houdin. Melies describes the book as "very well written and as exact as possible concerning the dates," and that it "contains very few mistakes. It is certainly more near the truth than the book written against Robert-Houdin by Houdini, who seems to have been jealous of the posthumous reputation of our old master...[Evans] has evidently written this book in order to break this reputation."
Melies then goes on at great length about his knowledge from youth of Robert-Houdin's earliest days as a performer, then expounds on the nature of his original trade, and indeed, the philosophy behind the illusion at the heart of cinema: "The conjurors (don't they?) work for the public, not for the professionals; if they have a success and seem extraordinary men to spectators, what do they require more? Nobody of us is really a 'sorcerer,' it is sufficient to look to be, and principally to know how to put our tricks, clever or not, in the maximum of value."
Surviving posters and other ephemera representing Melies' work are excessively rare; letters in his hand are virtually non-existent. OCLC indicates that there is no institution with autograph material, and auction records show no appearance of any letters since 1975. Virtually all known surviving material is held by the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.