The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History

By Lewis Jacobs | Go to book overview

II
GEORGE MELIES: "ARTIFICIALLY ARRANGED SCENES"

IT is with a Frenchman that the American film as an art begins. The first to exploit the medium as a means of personal expression, George Melies started movies on a new course, broadened their scope, and focused attention upon their creative potentialities. Imported into America when American movies, derisively nicknamed "chasers," were simply pictures of events, his innovations were revolutionary. George Melies, imaginative, resourceful, skillful, was the movies' first great craftsman and the father of its theatrical traditions.

Melies discovered magic in the motion picture camera. He turned its lens away from reality--from mere reporting--to fantasy and genuine creation. He also brought to movie making, with his system of "artificially arranged scenes," a conception of organization which was to change the haphazard, improvisational methods of the Americans and fertilize their technique. He enriched movies by introducing many theatrical elements: costuming, settings, professional actors. To these formal elements he added a new source of subject matter, literature, which widened the range of film subjects.

In 1896 George Melies, thirty-four years old, was a jack-of-all- trades--caricaturist for an anti-Boulangist paper, theatrical producer, actor, scenic painter at the ThéU+002tre Houdin, and professional magician. This was the year in which he turned to moving pictures. From then until the outbreak of the World War he devoted himself to his adopted art. "Film making," he wrote,

offers such a variety of pursuits, demands such a quantity of work of all kinds, and claims so sustained an attention, that I did not

-22-

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