A French Cow Shed and The Silent Movies

Behind Martin Scorsese’s Hugo fantasy set in Paris, lies a little known but true tale with links to a fabulous cache found in a dairy shed in Normandy.

Silent film maker Georges Méliès

The trail has now been uncovered by Toronto writer Philippa Campsie of the Parisian Fields blog who unearthed the fascinating story of Georges Méliès, creator of hundreds of silent films before World War I. Read on for more of her blog republished here by kind permission of the writer. While you are here for Hugo take a look at our latest Oscars 2012 coverage


Discovery in a Dairy Shed

Some movie reviewers are saying that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a 3D fantasy set in Paris, is the best film of 2011. It certainly gets our vote. We loved the story, the characters, and the special effects (well done without being overdone). We also loved the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, on which the movie is based.

And we know something that most viewers do not know, which adds to our appreciation. We have discovered a secret that is hinted at, but never fully explained in Hugo.

Although the book and the movie are mostly fiction, they incorporate the true story of Georges Méliès, who created hundreds of silent films before the First World War. He made ground-breaking fantasy and adventure pictures, experimenting with special effects and editing techniques that were ahead of his time, but he fell on hard times in the 1920s. Several bad business deals and the effects of the war on the film industry left him with barely enough money to get by. He ended up working in a toyshop in the Gare Montparnasse, as we see in the book and the film. (The photograph below is not from the film, it is the real Méliès.)

The movie ends with the rediscovery of Méliès’s work and a gala at Paris’s Salle Pleyel in which his work is introduced by a film historian called René Tabard (a fictional character). Tabard explains that although most people thought that Méliès’s films had been lost during the war, a search had recovered many of them from attics, barns, and other unlikely locations.

That is close to the truth, but here’s the real story.

In May 1929, Jean-Placide Mauclaire, who had founded the repertory cinema Studio 28 in Montmartre, was given a box of old film reels by a friend. The films, many of which were in poor condition, had been found in the dairy shed (laiterie) of a chateau in Normandy.

Mauclaire watched the films without, at first, knowing who had made them, entranced by their fantastic sets, costumes, characters, and stories. He ended up making three or four trips to the Normandy chateau to recover further reels and eventually collected about 800 or 900 containers of film.

Eventually he spotted the name Georges Méliès in the credits of one of the films. He knew enough to realize what he had discovered, and he was able to locate the impoverished film-maker in Paris. As Mauclaire later told a film historian, “One afternoon in July [1929], before an emotional Méliès and [my friend] Gilson, I screened Papillon fantastiqueLe locataire diaboliqueLes 400 coups du diable andLa Fée Carabosse.”* These were among Méliès’s most celebrated films.

It was Mauclaire who helped stage the gala in December 1929 that restored Méliès’s reputation – if not his fortune. Méliès was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1931, but struggled financially until a social organization offered him an apartment in Orly, where he lived until his death in 1938. (In the picture above, Méliès is on the left and Mauclaire is on the right.)

So what had happened to the films between the beginning of the First World War and 1929?

The dairy shed in question stood on the grounds of the Chateau de Jeufosse, near Gaillon, about 100 kilometres to the northwest of Paris. The chateau had once been the home of Gustave Rives, a turn-of-the-century Paris architect.

Readers of this blog may recall that Gustave Rives was the architect who enlarged and embellished the huge department store in Montmartre known as the Grands Magasins Dufayel.

This vast shopping emporium included a theatre, which was one of the first in Paris to project films. Dufayel used the cinema to entice customers into his store.

Jean Renoir (noted film director and son of the Impressionist painter) described a visit to Dufayel’s cinema in his memoirs, My Life and My Films. The story takes place in 1897:

The free cinema was another of [Dufayel’s] daring innovations… Scarcely had we taken our seats than the room was plunged in darkness. A terrifying machine shot out a fearsome beam of light piercing the obscurity, and a series of incomprehensible pictures appeared on the screen, accompanied by the sound of a piano at one end and at the other end a sort of hammering that came from the machine. I yelled in my usual fashion and had to be taken out…

So my first encounter with the idol was a complete failure. Gabrielle [Renoir’s nursemaid] was sorry we had not stayed. The film was about a big river and she thought that in the corner of the screen she had glimpsed a crocodile.

Dufayel died in 1916, and his theatre fell into disuse. For some reason, Gustave Rives took possession of the hundreds of reels of film that Dufayel had collected. Perhaps he was a fan of Méliès and decided to salvage the films. Or perhaps Dufayel had asked him to keep the films – according to one source, Rives was Dufayel’s executor.

Gustave Rives died in 1926. The new owners of the Chateau de Jeufosse presumably found the films on the property and alerted the movie enthusiast who passed them to Mauclaire in Paris. Thus a portion of the work of Georges Méliès was saved for posterity.

Other copies of Méliès’s films were found elsewhere, but this was one of the most important discoveries of his work in the 1920s.

Funny how Gustave Rives keeps popping up in this blog. I have already written about the Grands Magasins Dufayel and a few blogs ago, I learned that he had designed the former Hotel Astoria on the Champs-Elysées. Now I find him saving the films of Georges Méliès. I have a feeling I might be stumbling across him again.

Some of the places associated with Méliès, Dufayel, and Rives exist to this day.

The Chateau de Jeufosse is still standing, and one of the buildings in its grand park (probably not the dairy shed) is run as a bed-and-breakfast by its current owners.

You can see Hugo and other films at the cinema that Mauclaire established – Studio 28at 10, rue Tholozé in the 18th arrondissement.

The Salle Pleyel continues as an important concert venue at 252, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the 8th arrondissement.

In the town of Orly, the park that surrounds the building in which Méliès was given an apartment in the 1930s has been named for the film-maker. It is located on the rue de la Libération. There is also a monument to Méliès at the nearby Hôtel de Ville (city hall) in Orly.

The building that once housed the Grands Magasins Dufayel is now the offices of a bank at 7, boulevard Barbès in Paris. The building occupies almost an entire block.

The 19th-century Gare Montparnasse that appears in the film was replaced by a modern building in the 1960s. The older building did not have the fabulous clock tower featured in the film, but the film does include (as a dream sequence) a very real catastrophe that occurred in 1895, when a train crashed through the station’s front wall.

In Paris, truth is every bit as interesting as fiction.

Bonne Année to all our readers, subscribers, followers, commenters, referrers, fellow bloggers, mentors, supporters, enthusiasts, and friends.

Text by Philippa Campsie

*The story of Mauclaire appears in a book called Georges Méliès, l’Illusioniste fin-de-siècle ? by Jacques Malthête and Michel Marié. Jacques Malthête is a great-grandson of Georges Méliès.

Photograph of the Gare Montparnasse from the Roger-Viollet collection, Paris en images.

Philippa Campsie
has also written two walking guides to Paris
– Audrey Hepburn in Paris.
“The Audrey Hepburn walking tour through central Paris links the locations of some of her best-known films…”
-Shopping with Jackie in Paris
“The Shopping with Jackie Kennedy walk focuses on the places she knew back when she spent her year abroad in Paris…”
Both can be downloaded from the web and cost just $1.98 each.

Text  reprinted by kind permission of Parisian Fields blog and Philippa Campsie.

The author of this piece: Philippa Campsie is a Toronto writer who, as she notes on the blog: “studied in Paris as a university student, and has never quite got Paris out of her system ever since.”
Norman Ball who co-authors Parisian Fields blog, is a retired university professor who can’t stop taking pictures of Paris graffiti and interesting cars.

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