Meeting Georges Melies, the Inspiration for ‘Hugo’

Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a surprising family effort, trading the brutal, violent streets of New York City for the story of a young homeless boy who discovers a magical world of invention. While the family value of the film might seem a strange move for Scorsese, look deeper and you will see exactly what attracted him to the story.

“Hugo” is based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” both works paying homage to Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of filmmaking. Scorsese is easily one of the most intelligent film scholars alive, and it is clear he wanted to bring Melies himself to life on the big screen.

Shoe Salesman

Georges Melies was born in Paris. As he grew up, his parents convinced him to take over their shoe factory. However, his real passion was stage shows, and he used the money he earned from the factory to purchase the Theatre Robert Houdin in 1888. Melies became a renowned showman, where he developed and used illusionist tricks to entertain the audience.

His life changed when he attended a presentation by the Lumiere brothers and their new invention, the Cinematographe, in 1895. Melies asked to purchase the machine but was turned down. However, he was determined to make something out of this new technology for himself.

Breaking Into Filmmaking

Melies would not be deterred. He began to attend screenings of other filmmakers’ works and soon was making his own movies, his earliest lasting close to one minute. Then, Melies changed cinema forever.

He was shooting a scene on a street when something jammed his camera. He worked to fix the problem and then began filming again. When he was watching his footage, things that were on the screen disappeared and were replaced by other objects. Melies accidentally discovered special effects.

“A Trip to the Moon”

In 1902, Melies created his most famous work, “A Trip to the Moon.” The movie remains known for the iconic scene where a spaceship crashes into the Man on the Moon’s eye. Film scholars often label this as the first science fiction effort. The short features many fantastical moments, such as animation of the Big Dipper, comets, and eventually a face-off with aliens on the moon. Melies followed this up with “The Impossible Voyage,” another fantastical sci-fi film with a group of men eager to travel around the world.

The End of Days

The story of Georges Melies is not one that ends well. Thanks to the giant success of filmmaking in America and France, the director soon went out of business. Melies abandoned film production in 1912 and reverted his theater back into variety stage shows. However, movies also drove the stage shows out of business, and in 1923, Melies declared bankruptcy. To survive, he even sold some of his films to a company that melted them down to make boot heels during World War I.

It is at this point in his life that the movie “Hugo” introduces him, as a toy salesman helped by fellow filmmakers. Finally, in 1932, his peers recognized his efforts with the Legion of Honour, presented by Louis Lumiere, and free housing to live out the final years of his life. By the end, Melies created over 500 films and remains one of the pioneers of cinema as we know it.

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