Pauline Méliès: “Georges Méliès knew that cinema would become an industry one day”

French filmmaker and pioneer George Méliès (1861-1938), director of the surrealistic screen classic “Le voyage dans la lune” (1902, a.k.a. “A Trip to the Moon”) and discoverer of several early cinematic and technical developments, including the stop-motion camera, is the key figure of The George Méliès Project, his official website. It is maintained by his great-great-granddaughter Pauline Méliès, a.k.a. Pauline D.-L. Méliès (full name Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès), and she describes him as ‘one of the greatest magicians of his time, one of the greatest pioneers of cinema, father of cinematographic shows and special effects.’ She is the driving force behind the website and keeps his humongous legacy alive.

And she handles it pretty well. Mr. Méliès made headlines again when Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” (2011) hit the theaters, with Ben Kingsley portraying the film pioneer who made over five hundred shorts from 1896 until 1913. A few years ago, his long-lost 1945 autobiography was translated into English (“Méliès: My Memoir”), and in 2019, Ms. Méliès set up a very successful crowdfunding to restore his grave at Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery in Paris where he was buried in 1938. Over the years, a green stain had overtaken the stonework of the grave; it had fallen into disrepair but now it is fully restored to its former splendor (feature image: Ms. Méliès at his grave when it was officially unveiled last month).

And as of recently, her latest Kickstarter event is another ambitious project that launches two new books compiled by the Méliès family, with “Georges Méliès and His Family Tell His Stories: Intimate and Rediscovered Testimonies About the First Filmmaker” and its French-language counterpart “George Méliès et sa famille se racontent: Témoignages intimes et retrouvés du tout premier cinéaste.” The books bring to life several of Georges Méliès’ forgotten stories and make you rediscover the veteran filmmaker who is by all means the most important figure in narrative cinema history.

Georges Méliès with his two granddaughters at the Château d’Orly, then a retirement home where he lived from 1932 until his death in 1938. Left, Pauline’s grandmother Marie-Georgette (1921-1983); right, Madeleine Fontaine | Pauline Méliès

This crowdfunding is an ‘all or nothing’ project, meaning you got until next Tuesday, November 22, 2022, at 8:00 PM CET. The goal is to fund $17,112 and so far $12,000 has been raised. As always, we advise you to read the detailed description of the project before pledging.

Georges Méliès was a legendary leader of early French filmmaking who later in life took his decline philosophically and even cheerfully, never expressing any bitterness against the men who had profited from his pioneer work when his business tragically collapsed and he disappeared into obscurity.

While the Lumière brothers, Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948), photographed the world as it was and never thought that narrative cinema had a future, Mr. Méliès on the other hand turned his own theater into a picture palace and in 1897 he built the first film studio ever in his backyard in Montreuil, in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Even before the 1900s, he was a leading and prolific producer of fantasy films that merged life and dream.

Need we say more? Definitely—and why not a Zoom conversation with Pauline Méliès about her visionary great-great-grandfather and the two books that hopefully will be available very soon?

Ms. Méliès, how did your book “Georges Méliès and His Family Tell His Stories” come about?

We gathered several family testimonies about George Méliès, from George himself, but also from his second wife Jehanne d’Alcy [a.k.a. Fanny Manieux, 1865-1956], his son André [1901-1985], his nephew Paul [1885-1957], and myself. Then we put them all into a book with several photographs. The testimonies focus on the man; it’s not a biography, and you don’t have to be a film professional or an expert on George Méliès to understand it. The testimonies have never been published in French, nor have they ever been translated into English, so that’s why we did two books at the same time, one in French and the other one in English. Most of the information you can find about George is available in French, but since most of our Kickstarters speak English, an English-language version of the book seemed very logical. In the book, there are more than thirty pages written by his son André who had written down his family memories with several funny anecdotes and how his father made movies. They had been in our family archives for more than fifty years, so it’s very special to share all that information. André Méliès is my great-grandfather; he’s the father of my grandmother. That is why the book is titled “Georges Méliès and His Family Tell His Stories”; how does his family remember him, how did they see him, and how did they interact with him? How did he look at his work and how did he feel about the evolution of cinema during the 1930s? Because for him it was obvious that cinema would become much more important in the future; he knew that cinema would become an industry one day, although not everybody agreed with him at the time. But he had a theory of what cinema could be; he shared it and wrote several pages about it.

A look at “Georges Méliès and His Family Tell His Stories: Intimate and Rediscovered Testimonies About the First Filmmaker” | Pauline Méliès

Where did you keep all this material? Was it in boxes in the attic?

[Laughs] It was a mix. André had written everything with his typewriter, so we had all that with our family pictures, and we found other material in archives and libraries. Our main goal was to read everything, and if it was boring or didn’t give enough information, we wouldn’t use it. In the end, we want people to know and understand him better—and also know that he had flaws. He was not an angel, he was far from perfect; he was very stubborn and didn’t want to change his way of making movies. He didn’t want wealthy people or banks as his business partners—that’s also why he was completely ruined at the end of his life. So we also talk about that.

Was it easy to compile the book?

The main difficulty was choosing and selecting the articles. My parents, my brother and I sat down and we said, ‘Okay, let’s all read everything, and if everybody agrees, we’ll include it.’ We didn’t want to have three testimonies that say the same, or things that you can already find in other books. Also, we are not film historians, so we wanted to talk about the man and his emotions, and give you an idea of who he really was. I also wrote a chapter about his rehabilitation at the end of his life. For seven years he sold toys and candy in the main hall of the Gare Montparnasse. He did not like it at all and he was bored because that was not his work, but it was the press that picked him up again. They blamed the film industry and the French government by saying, ‘Why do you treat the father of cinema like that? He is poor and alone, and works at the Gare Montparnasse. That’s a shame!’ So they began a press campaign and wrote numerous articles about him. But Georges was not the only founding father who was forgotten. The same thing happened to Émile Cohl (1857-1938) who died the day after Georges died, also poor and alone, and without any kind of recognition for his work. Georges maybe had the beginning of recognition when he was still alive, but for me, it was not enough. Maybe it was too early; cinema was too young at that time to honor, celebrate or recognize its pioneers.

A look into the world of George Méliès, cinema’s first great fantasy filmmaker

But if you look back now, especially knowing what we know now, it’s just terrible that he was overlooked like that. The same thing happened in America to D.W. Griffith who was inspired by the work of Georges Méliès.

In the train station, George always had a coffee in the morning; the day started early for him. He was always a very well-dressed and well-mannered gentleman, and people noticed that. They liked that. He was friends with everybody and said ‘Hi!’ to everyone in the train station. One day he said hello to someone who was cleaning the floor. ‘Hi, Mr. Méliès, how are you?’ A journalist saw that and heard that he was Méliès. He stopped, went over to Georges, and asked, ‘Are you Mr. Méliès, the inventor of cinema?’ And Georges said, ‘Yes I am.’ ‘But what are you doing here?’ ‘I work here, I have a toy booth and I’m selling toys.’ And that man started the campaign, but it was random. It was only after he had heard someone saying, ‘Mr. Méliès.’
[In “World Film Directors, Volume One 1890-1945,” published in 1987, Miriam Rosen writes about Méliès’ days at the Gare Montparnasse. ‘In early 1931, Méliès wrote to another forgotten filmmaker, Eugène Lauste, “Luckily enough, I am strong and in good health but it is hard work fourteen hours a day without getting my Sundays and holidays, in an ice-box in winter and a furnace in summer.”’]

“George Méliès et sa famille se racontent: Témoignages intimes et retrouvés du tout premier cinéaste” has a hardback cover, 150 color pages, and the B5 format is 9.8 by 6.9 inches | Pauline Méliès

If I’m correct, there are only a few more days to back the Kickstarter project.

[Laughs] Yes, only five days to raise $5,000. This will be difficult. You can’t change the end date or the amount of money needed; that’s the game. It’s a pity because we asked [visual effects supervisor and Academy Award winner] Phil Tippett to write the foreword. He was so nice; he sent pictures with him and the business card of Georges that he has in his office.

I like the book cover. It’s not what you’d expect for a book on Georges Méliès.

It’s very modern. People tell us, ‘Why didn’t you use the photograph of the moon with the rocket into the eye?’ But you see that image the whole time. You see it on book covers or in any article on Georges. It’s a very beautiful image, but we want a more modern setup, something new, without a black and white image with the rocket and the moon. We wanted something modern and easy to read, so I hope we can get the book published although it will be very difficult.

Zoom interview
November 17, 2022

“Le voyage dans la lune” (1902)