Happy birthday, George Melies

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Today is the birthday of French silent-film illusionist George Melies (1861-1938).

Melies was the George Lucas of his day, only without the latter-day technology. He used every trick in the book — stop-motion, elaborate sets, and color painted directly onto the film frames — to evoke a fantasy world unlike any other.

Melies directed 531 films between 1896 and 1913. His most iconic work is probably A Trip to the Moon (1902), with its famous image of a rocket ship landed in the eye of The Man in the Moon.

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Eventually, however, Melies became too broke to continue making movies, and when his studio was taken over to aid in World War I, many of his movies were melted down to retrieve their silver and celluloid content. Melies himself destroyed most of the rest of his movies in a fit of rage after his studio was taken over. As of Dec. 2011, just over 200 of Melies’ films have been preserved and are available on DVD. Also in 2011, Melies’ life story served as the basis of Martin Scorsese’s delightful movie Hugo.

Much of Melies’ work looks quaint in this day of CGI, but it’s that very quaintness that provides their charm. Here is just one lovely example: The Untamable Whiskers (1904), with a beautiful modern-day score by Kieron McIntosh.

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