Papillon Fantastique. Les Hallucinations de Münchausen. Les 400 Coups du Diable. Le Juif errant. Le Voyage dans la Lune. These were just a few of the films shown at the prestigious Salle Pleyel in Paris eighth arrondissement on December 16th, 1929, at the “Gala Méliès,” an evening in honor of the great French film pioneer, Georges Méliès. Along with this “sélection Méliès,” there would also be a screening that evening of Cecil B. DeMille’s Forfaiture (The Cheat ).
Of course, Forfaiture was the film that astonished all of Paris when it opened there in 1916. Le Figaro had called it “a marvel,” and Sessue Hayakawa, the great star of the film, seemed to introduce a new, fully modern form of film acting. There would be a French operatic version, by Camille Erlanger, in 1922, and Marcel L’Herbier would remake the film in 1937, once again starring Hayakawa. In other words, Forfaiture held a significant place in French culture and especially in the history of Parisian film culture. Méliès and his films, however, were another story.
Méliès had once been the head of a filmmaking empire. His illusionist films from the late-1890s and early-1900s had been extremely popular around the world, he had built one of the first film studios, and he had even opened an office in New York and production facilities in New Jersey and Texas to go with the one he ran in Paris. But as the artisan who became an entrepreneur, Méliès couldn’t help but get overextended. His brother and business partner Gaston seems to have made a mess of things in the United States, and World War One was ruinous even for French movie moguls who were far more financially savvy than Georges.
Méliès fell on very hard times, and while never completely forgotten, he was certainly neglected throughout the early-1920s and lived largely on charity. The standard story about him is that he was “rediscovered” in the latter-1920s by a few journalists who found him selling candy and toys in the Montparnasse train station, and they in turn engineered his return to public life and reintroduced his films to movie audiences.
This may all be true. I have yet to track down evidence of the journalists who found him or the stories that they wrote, but the availability of newspapers and magazines from the period is sketchy at best. There’s no question, though, that there is virtually no mention of Méliès in the sources that are accessible between 1920 and 1925. I’ve found just one, in the film journal Cinéa, from 1923, in an article about the stop-motion films of Ladislas Starevich. These were “trick” films (à trucs) according to Cinéa, which called Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune “one of the classics of the genre.” I’ve found no indication that any of Méliès’ films were screened in Paris during this period, at least in commercial cinemas.
Then, in 1925, Michel Coissac published his Histoire du Cinématographe: De ses origins jusqu’à nos jours (History of Cinema: From the Beginnings to the Present Day). This was very much the French equivalent of American journalist Terry Ramsaye’s film history published in the same year, A Million and One Nights, and Coissac gave Méliès his due, listing him as a major early filmmaker, of lesser significance than the Lumière Brothers or Thomas Edison, but still very important. In fact, it’s possible that Coissac’s book helped bring Méliès back into public view and generated new interest in his movies.
Starting around 1925, the French press began taking more notice of Méliès. In 1926, for instance, the cultural affairs newspaper Comoedia ran a front-page article about a meeting of Le Congrès Cinématographe, and listed him as one of the luminaries there, along with Louis Lumière, Abel Gance, and others. A year later, the same paper reported on a German company coming to Paris to meet with Méliès in order to acquire his films and papers. In 1928, the far-rightwing newspaper L’Intransigeant also reported on a German concern—perhaps the same one—opening a film museum, and featuring the work of Méliès, “whom many had forgotten.” Then, there was the 1929 “Gala Méliès” which became a significant news story for several weeks in Paris, in such disparate outlets as Cinéa, the fascist newspaper L’Action Française, the Parisian daily Le Petit Journal, and the weekly listing of cultural events in the city, La Semaine à Paris, which ran a half-page ad for the event in the December 13th edition.
While the gala took place at the Salle Pleyel, it was sponsored by the Studio 28 cinema on the rue Tholozé in the eighteenth arrondissement, a 400-seat screening space that showed commercial movies but specialized in art films (just a year after the gala, in December 1930, fascists would tear the cinema apart when Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or premiered there). This sort of endorsement from an avant-garde cinema certified the cultural importance of Méliès’ films, and the gala was supported, as well, by newspapers and cultural journals, including Le Figaro and La Semaine à Paris.
The site of the screening itself, the Salle Pleyel, also spoke to the importance of the evening. In the eighth arrondissement on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the 3000-seat Salle Pleyel was completed in 1927, and at the time of the gala was the most modern and one of the most important concert halls in Paris. There would be very occasional film screenings there (later, during the Occupation, one of the Nazi-sponsored ciné-clubs would meet there), but mostly it was a site for classical music. Going to the Méliès event required an expense that was much more concert hall than cinematic; while most movies cost anywhere from four or five to 25 francs (around 20 cents to $1.25) in the late-1920s, the seats at the gala went from five to seven francs for a place in the second balcony up to 40 francs in the orchestra and 50 for a loge.
About two weeks later, the Studio 28 ran its own retrospective of Méliès’ films (the list is unavailable), accompanied this time by some films of Jean Epstein and Joris Ivens rather than by DeMille. With these screenings, Méliès fully reentered the film culture of Paris. Also in 1929, he became an honorary president of the Association des Auteurs de Films, a group that included a who’s who of French filmmakers, including Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Gremillon, Jean Benoît-Lévy, Colette, Jean Epstein, Jacques Feyder, Marcel L’Herbier, Jean Renoir, and many others. His films showed frequently at ciné-clubs in the city until the Occupation. At the end of December 1938 at the posh Marignan cinema on the Champs-Elysées, a little less than a year after Méliès’ death, Henri Langlois and Georges Franju’s Cercle du cinéma, the forerunner of the Cinémathèque Française, screened the last such retrospective before the Germans invaded the city.
In his heyday, Méliès had been a theatre owner. He took over the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in the ninth arrondissement and ran it until it was torn down in 1923, in something of a symbol of Méliès’ own decline. In early 1946 a new cinema opened on that very site, and it was called the Méliès in honor of the filmmaker. The movie that opened the Méliès wasn’t one of the master’s, but it seemed fitting nevertheless, one that honored the tradition of Méliès’ cinéma fantastique, the long-awaited Paris premiere of the 1939 Hollywood film, The Wizard of Oz.