Méliès: It’s Gotta Be the Shoes

by Danielle Coty-Fattal on September 8, 2022

This guest author post is by Matthew Solomon, author of Méliès Boots: Footwear and Film Manufacturing in Second Industrial Revolution Paris, now available in paperback and open access, and editor of Magnificent Méliès: The Authorized Biography, written by Madeleine Malthête-Méliès and translated by Kel Pero, now available in hardcover.

If you have read Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret or have seen Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation Hugo, you will have heard the name Georges Méliès. Méliès’ most famous film, the landmark A Trip to the Moon, is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year. Méliès, in addition to being a film pioneer who made more than 520 films between 1896 and 1913, was also a magician. But, did you know he came from a family of shoemakers and began his professional life in footwear manufacturing?

Exterior of the former Société Méliès footwear factory at 5, rue Taylor (notice the Méliès initial still visible on the cornice) as it appears today. Cinémathèque Méliès, Lettre d’information, no. 44 (January 2016): 4

Méliès’ father Jean-Louis was very much a self-made man. He began his career as an illiterate journeyman who learned the trade of shoemaking and bootmaking traveling from city to city in France during an extended apprenticeship. By the 1880s, Jean-Louis Méliès was head of one of the most successful luxury footwear brands in Paris. The Société Méliès employed around 150 people and had recently opened a factory in the tenth arrondissement to produce high-end men’s and women’s shoes and boots sold in places as far away as Uruguay. Having achieved these successes, the aging Méliès père was ready to turn over the prosperous family business to his three sons, of whom Georges was the youngest. 

Photo of CheckCheck drawn on the account of the Société Méliès. Cinémathèque Méliès, Lettre d’information, no. 44 (January 2016): 2

The 1880s was a watershed decade for Georges Méliès both personally and professionally. During the 1880s, Méliès was in his twenties and it was the height of the Belle Époque. After a fashion apprenticeship in London, he returned to Paris, went to work in the Méliès factory on the rue Taylor, and married Eugénie Génin, the daughter of a successful Dutch shoe merchant. But, he decided to sell his share of the family business to his two brothers and used the proceeds to purchase the exhibition rights to Paris’s most renowned magic theater, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. (Not coincidentally, it was one of his father’s contemporaries in the French footwear industry who seems to have provided the personal connection that gave Méliès entrée to the closed world of French magic. And the magician who performed most frequently at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin during Méliès’ long tenure as director was a former bootmaker.) Shortly after taking over the theater, Méliès also became a professional caricaturist, drawing political cartoons under the pseudonym “Géo. Smile” (a partial anagram of his last name) for a short-lived caricature journal published by his cousin. One learns all of this and much more from Méliès’ biography, written by his late granddaughter Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, now finally available in English thanks to Kel Pero’s recent translation. 

Méliès’ generation had its own deadly global pandemic, which Méliès pseudonymously caricatured. La Griffe (December 26, 1889), Harvard University Libraries


In my new book, Méliès Boots, I argue that Méliès never really entirely left behind either the methods or the practices of footwear manufacturing. Indeed, the capital he invested in the magic theater and later used to seed his film production efforts was derived from the sales of shoes and boots. Although many of Méliès’ marvelous trick films have direct analogies with stage illusions, magic shows yielded no actual products, only ephemeral performances. Méliès’ mode of filmmaking, however, generated commodities that were sold in the international marketplace like the luxury fashion goods produced by the Méliès family business. Seen from the outside, Méliès’ filmmaking studio bore a resemblance to the Société Méliès footwear factory, and inside the studio, Second Industrial Revolution technologies were combined with artisanal labor. In the era before there was a film industry per se, Méliès saw himself as a “manufacturer of cinematographic views” and sold his wares through catalogues like those that had listed numerous styles of Méliès shoes and boots. And like luxury footwear products which were finished by the painstaking work of women workers (so-called piqueuses responsible for fancy embroidery), positive film prints that came out of Méliès’ laboratories were meticulously hand-colored by workshops of women applying multiple colors of aniline dye on a frame by frame basis. 

Excerpts from Méliès’ 1901 film L’homme à la tête en caoutchouc. Cinémathèque française

In Méliès Boots, I also argue that Méliès’ singular comic sensibility (including the motif of decapitated human heads taking on independent lives of their own) was shaped by the spirit of the Incohérents, a short-lived French art movement that peaked in Paris during the 1880s. The Incohérents (who some have linked to the later art practices of Dada and Surrealism) embraced  laughter as the most appropriate response to the modern world and accepted that much art was necessarily ephemeral. (Indeed, one of the many works of Incohérent art that did not survive was a sculpture made of cheese.) Only a handful of examples of Méliès brand footwear are known to survive, but fortunately for posterity, several hundred of Méliès’ most distinctive creations—his films—were manufactured on a more stable substrate, celluloid, and were considered somewhat less disposable. 

Frame enlargement from Méliès’ La Femme volante / Marvellous Suspension and Evolution, 1902. Library of Congress

Read more about this in my book Méliès Boots: Footwear and Film Manufacturing in Second Industrial Revolution Paris and in Madeleine Malthête-Méliès’ book Magnificent Méliès: The Authorized Biography, translated by Kel Pero, both published by University of Michigan Press. For an introduction to both books, join us for a book launch on September 29, 2022 at noon EST on Zoom that will include a screening of Méliès’ La Femme volante, which has not been widely seen in 120 years! Register at https://umich.zoom.us/w/91473129898 


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