Bibliophile Birthday: Georges Melies, the ‘Inspiration of Hugo Cabret’

Georges Melies

Georges Melies

Born on this day in 1861 , “Cinemagician”, Georges Melies was re-introduced to a whole new generation of film fans (and bibliophiles) through Brian Selnick’s monumental 2007 book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”. Thank God.

In the very nascence of film-making, Melies was an illusionist-turned-filmmaker who recognized the contributions that manipulating audience perceptions could have on moving pictures.  He is credited with being one of the first film-makers to use stop-motion tricks, dissolves, time-lapse photography and hand-painted color in movie making. He moved stage magic into the realm of movies…and the craft has never looked back since.

bday 12-8 georges melies hugo cabret selznick artIn 2007, author-illustrator Brian Selznick built a beautiful story filled with Caldecott-winning illustrations that re-introduced the man who took film-making from its toddlerhood into the realms of real movie magic. The name and contributions of Georges Melies are resurrected (both in the book AND in the real world) in an instance where art imitates life…and vice versa (thank you Oscar Wilde!).

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” almost qualifies as a wordless book, with page after page of story-telling illustrations punctuated by intermittent pages of text.  The dark frames surrounding each page of illustration create a lovely silver-gray effect as the closed book is viewed edge-on.  It’s a thick book and on the shelf it looks like one of the most challenging tomes in the Kids/YA section. But in truth, it’s an ideal choice for reluctant/challenged readers as well as adult fans of the finest illustration arts.

When we see the wonders of special effects in film today – sitting through one on-screen spectacle after another – it’s easy to become inured to the magic behind the movie-making. We don’t really think about the journey from the earliest days of cinema to the full-on multimedia experiences we enjoy today.

Today is a good day to remember Georges Melies and his vision with a wonderful re-read of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”.

The Wrong Books and the Father of Modern Magic

bday 12-6 robert-houdin magician portrait I’m always fascinated by the ways that books can change a person’s life. But the particular story of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, is perhaps the most magical tale …one that began with the wrong book.

In the mid-1820s, young Jean saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie, or Treatise on Clockmaking, written by Ferdinand Berthoud.The bookseller had put the books off to the side for Jean. He reached up to the shelf and grabbed the books. He wrapped the two volumes and handed them to the young aspiring clockmaker.

bday 12-6 houdin Suspension-ethereenne-de-Robert-Houdin-Maison-de-la-MagieWhen Jean got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, what appeared before his eyes was a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the best of him. From those crude volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. (From Wikipedia)

While the books showed the secrets behind the magic tricks, they didn’t lay out all the particulars of ‘how-to’ accomplish them, so Houdin sought out lessons from a local amateur magician. As he honed his dexterity and stagecraft, Houdin’s path to becoming a pioneer in magical circles was set.

As his profile as a conjuror rose, Houdin brought magic off the street and out from festivals and moved it indoors.  He bought and refitted a small theatre specifically to showcase magic – both his performances and other mystical spectaculars. It became a mecca for all the greatest magicians of that era. NOTE: This same theatre was purchased after Houdin’s death by George Melies, one of the greatest innovators of film,  to show his first  moving pictures at the dawn of movie-making. Houdin is also credited with establishing a formality for stage magicians, always appearing in dress clothing. His influence is perhaps why we now imagine traditional magicians in top hats and tail coats.

bday 12-6 Magician robert houdin theatre magic

Robert-Houdin’s accidental book mix-up opened a door he may never have stepped through otherwise. Might he have been famed and remembered as a clockmaker? Perhaps. He built some pretty amazing automatons later – combining his interest in mechanics, theatre and magic. But it’s his vision, innovation and legacy as a magician that ensured his fame for centuries to come.

What a brilliant beginning! A bookseller’s mistake planted the seeds of Robert-Houdin’s legacy as the “Father of Modern Magic”.  The next time I end up with the ‘wrong’ book on hold at the bookstore or library, I think I’m going to take some time and give it a chance. An unwanted book might just open the door to new and unexpected adventures.


The Orange Tree | Automaton by Robert-Houdin

The Orange Tree | Automaton by Robert-Houdin