Movies and Film: A Century of Cinematic Splendor

A Century of Cinematic Splendor

MGM was only a glint in Louis B. Mayer's eye when Léon Gaumont, a photographic merchandiser, began producing and marketing films at the turn of the century. Gaumont soon became one of the nation's leading studios. Charles Pathé created an even more massive corporation; by 1910, Pathé was marketing many more movies in America than all U.S. companies combined.

This French dominance of the international film industry had many practical effects, not the least of which was the huge influence of French filmmaking on American directors. Succeeding generations of Gallic geniuses would continue to exert unparalleled creative and artistic pressures upon world cinema.

The Movies' First Magician

Nearly a century before there was Industrial Light and Magic, there was Georges Méliès.

A Trip to the Moon, 1902

Georges Méliès's illusionist moon from Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Second Take

It's one of the greatest losses in the history of film. In 1923, penniless and virtually forgotten, Georges Méliès sold the negatives of practically all his films to a factory for the market price of the celluloid. Only a few dozen films survive out of the thousands he made.

Among the enthralled attendees at the Lumière brothers' Grande Café showing on that fateful night in 1895 was a 34-year-old son of a rich shoemaker. A magician and illusionist by trade, Georges Méliès was taken by the new medium and vowed to transfer his considerable talents from the variety stage to celluloid.

With the family money he had inherited, Méliès constructed what would become the world's first real film studio in a huge structure in Montreuil-sous-Bois. His command over every aspect of his filmmaking was legendary, as he produced, directed, edited, and acted in practically every film he shot. During the next 20 years, he cranked out perhaps thousands of short films featuring some of the world's first trick photography—for example, scenes in which a figure would be standing on a street corner and magically disappear in the space of a single frame.

Méliès's best-known and most beloved film remains Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), a charming and still quite enjoyable short that established his international reputation practically overnight. Though his star gradually faded as he ran out of cash and other filmmakers ascended into the public eye, he was "rediscovered" in the late 1920s and given a free place to live out his years.

Many film historians and theorists still credit the stylistic differences between the films of the Lumière brothers and those of Georges Méliès with giving rise to the split between the documentary film and the fiction film. This is probably something of an exaggeration, but it's undeniable that Méliès's tricky innovations inspired countless attempts at cinematic illusion-making during the past century.

Director's Cut

One day, at the height of his career, Charlie Chaplin autographed a photo of himself for the French film comedian Max Linder. In the inscription, Chaplin identified Linder as "The Professor—to whom I owe everything." High praise indeed from the world's biggest movie star!

But Chaplin was serious about his debts to Linder, whose film career in the 1900s and 1910s soared to unprecedented heights and established him as the leading man of French film comedy. Playing the character of Max in dozens of silents with titles like Max prend un bain (1910), Max victime de quinquina (1911), Max professeur de tango (1912), Max toréador (1912), and later, in the United States, Max in a Taxi (1917), Linder created a debonair, sophisticated bungler whose deft antics provided a cool Parisian reply to America's Keystone Kops.

The personal and professional relationship between Linder and Chaplin wasn't all harmony and laughs, however. When Chaplin's films started pulling in the big bucks internationally, Linder faded into relative obscurity, an experience that left him embittered enough to take his own life.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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