Hugo: Discovering Georges Méliès

I can remember distinctly when I became enamored with turn-of-the-century art work and special effects. The truth is, what I was looking at was not from that period at all – it was a music video from the 1990’s: The Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight, Tonight. It was 1996, I was in middle school, and I wanted to “see more things like that.” Of course, at the time, I had no idea what I was looking at: essentially a tribute to Georges Méliès, replete with copies of his famous rockets, moon, stage sets, and an ocean-liner emblazoned with his name.

Imagine my enthusiasm when 15 years later, Hugo hit the theaters. This family friendly movie is based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick’s. The film follows the story of Hugo, an orphan who lives in secret in Montparnasse Railway Station in Paris. The intertwined paths of Hugo and “Papa Georges,” who works at the station as a poor toy tinker, lead to the discovery of long hidden secrets from Papa Georges’ past and ultimately redemption for them both.

For those who have seen this film, you may be left wondering how much of it is fiction and how much is fact. Much of the back-story of Papa Georges (Spoiler Alert) – Georges Méliès – is true. 

Méliès displayed an artistic inclination from the time he was a school boy, building marionettes and drawing, and once his schooling was completed, he desired to study painting. His father did not support this, and instead Méliès took a job supervising machinery. Interested in stage magic, he took magic lessons, and after the family business was sold, Méliès purchased a theater. An innovative magician, Méliès performed for nine years, creating numerous new tricks and illusions. He also wrote, directed, produced, and designed many theater productions. These early experiences prepared him to become the great pioneer of film that we know him as today.

While it is true that Méliès’ jump into moving film was precipitated by viewing the Lumière brothers’ first film, his fall into poverty was not singularly caused by the advent of WWI, as explained in Hugo, but his decline started earlier, in 1907, as new formulas, business practices, and trends in the film industry progressed. By 1913, Méliès was broke, and in 1917, the French army indeed confiscated over 400 of his company’s original film prints, melting them down to make heels for shoes. When his film company was finally taken over in 1923, he burned his sets, costumes, and film negatives that were stored at his studio. Though many of his films are lost to us, 200 (out of 531) of them survive to this day.

As seen in Hugo, the broken down Méliès did become a toy tinkerer at Montparnasse Station. In the late 1920s, journalistic research into Méliès created a renewed interest in his work, and after a large store of his films was uncovered in 1929, a gala event was held in honor of his work at the Salle Pleyel.

With a phenomenal cast, Hugo is an original, sometimes dark, fantastical, and refreshing family movie: a perfect tribute to one of the fathers of film.


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