Last week, as I was writing about lost films, I was musing about the many films I had read about in my youth but had never seen. Many of those from the early decades of film history are, I assumed, lost forever. I was thinking particularly of the really early stuff, and particularly of the films of Georges Méliès. While many of his films are still extant (and I have extolled the previous Kino release previously), many of those I had wished to see were those Denis Gifford describes in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies. A prime example would be The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906). The single still in the book – of carriage drawn by a skeletal horse with an accordion-like torso – has always fascinated me. So I was going to mention this film as an example of the lost but lamented. Just to be on the safe side, though, I did a quick search, and discovered, to my delight, that it is NOT lost. To my further delight, I found it on a collection which can best be described as mind-blowing.
There have been a number of Méliès collections to date, but not one, I feel safe in stating, has come close to what is on offer in Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913). Five discs. 782 minutes. 173 films. These are, it seems, all the known surviving films, arranged in chronological order, boasting new scores, and, where possible, narrations following the original English text written by Méliès. Those narrations underline just one of the charming, fascinating aspects of these films. They are very clearly documents of cinema aborning, and the language of visual storytelling is only just being created. Méliès was a man of the theatre, and that way of thinking and visualizing carries through in his films. For all that he created the special effects extravaganza, his films are also redolent of filmed theatre: static camera, everything in medium long shot (as if we were in a good seat at the theatre), entire scenes played out in what is in effect (if not reality) a single continuous shot. The spoken narrations are thus often necessary for the audience to make sense of what is happening on the screen. For instance, because of the lack of close-ups and the like, the meeting of the astronomers at the beginning of A Trip to the Moon (1902) is nothing more than wildly gesticulating chaos, and no clear narrative is possible to discern without the narrator telling us where to look. As Méliès’ career was winding down, D.W. Griffith was busy pushing cinematic storytelling to full maturity, taking visual storytelling to a level of sophistication that is still what we are most familiar with today. But this very shortcoming in Méliès’ technique is part of the his work’s appeal: when we watch these films, we become conscious of seeing a new art-form in mid-formation.
The condition of the prints is, of course, variable. But given that we are dealing with films over a century old, that they exist at all is astonishing, and that the films look as good as they do is a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea. Méliès made some colour films (the frames were individually hand-painted), and they are present here, too. The charm of these films cannot be overstated.
The sheer comprehensiveness of this collection would be more than enough, in and of itself, to justify its presence in the library of any serious fan of film history in general, but fantasy, SF and horror in particular. But accompanying the films is Le Grand Méliès, a half-hour tribute by Georges Franju (the director of Eyes Without a Face, and himself a god in the pantheon of French film), and the 35-page booklet, along with helpfully listing all the films, features two valuable essays: one is a vintage piece by none other than Norman McLaren (whose experimental animation marks him as a spiritual successor to Méliès), and the other is a thorough introduction to the man’s work by John Frazer.
An essential collection. To call it invaluable would be to do it an injustice. It’s that important.