Georges Melies, like the great majority of people born in France in the 1800s, was a Catholic, at least nominally. Phantasmagora, fantasy and the macabre were major thematic elements of Georges Melies' films and art. The biographical information we have read about this important film pioneer reveals little about his religious beliefs and practices. We have seen nothing to indicate that he was particularly devout, nor have we seen anything to indicate anything he was particularly anti-religious or unorthodox.
From: Miriam Rosen, "George Melies" in World Film Directors, Volume One: 1890-1945, ed. by John Wakeman, H. W. Wilson Company: New York (1987), pages 747-748:
...French director, producer, designer, and performer of the earliest cinema spectacles, was the third son of a successful Paris shoe manufacturer, Jean-Louis-Stanislas Melies, and his Dutch wife, Johannah-Catherine Schuering...From: Michael Morris, "St. Joan of Arc on the Big Screen" in Crisis, The Morley Institute, Inc.: December 1999, pages 26-31; also on "Catholic Culture", website (http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=2831; viewed 29 May 2005):
[page 748] In 1885, soon after his return from London, [George Melies] married Eugenie Genin [Eugénie Génin]. She was Dutch, like his mother--a timid convent student...
Joan [of Arc] was a French national heroine long before she was solemnly rehabilitated by the Church and canonized a saint in 1920... Joan's story made its cinematic debut at the end of the 19th century. The French, naturally, created the first productions just a few years after the art form was invented. The Pathe Studio produced a film in 1898 directed by Georges Hatot. Georges Melies, the cinematic magician, followed with several episodes of her life starting in 1900. Melies, remembered best for taking movie audiences on a trip to the moon, mounted a "grand spectacle in twelve tableaux, and about five hundred characters in superb costumes" for his initial rendition of the Maid's tale. His were wonderfully imaginative films inspired by various theatrical forms of the 18th century-part vaudeville and comic opera, part music hall and magic theater. Later he concentrated on filmic renditions of her burning at the stake with special effects to attract audiences to the theater. Because the average movie-goer at the turn of the century was illiterate and not likely to be able to read, Melies made his films without relying on title cards or dialogue. The story's strength was in the visuals. Some would call this period of movie-making "primitive;" others would say this was the time when this particular art form achieved its greatest purity.From: Paul Hammond, Marvellous Melies, St. Martin's Press: New York (1975), page 13:
Of the 500 films made by Melies in his lifetime, only 90 have survived, and only a quarter of those are fit for exhibition today. The nitrate film used in the silent era was terribly unstable. It does not store well, and it corrodes and combusts. Some of it was even melted down for its silver content during the most desperate days of World War I.
Melies' father was born in 1815 at Lavalenet, Ariege, a department at the foot of the Pyrenees. Jean-Louis-Stanislas Melies was one of the sons of Francois Melies, cloth-fuller, a craft that had been practised locally for two thousand years. Louis became a member of a masonic order that encouraged its candidates to travel around the country and practice their craft, so he took to the road as a journeyman boot and shoemaker...Hammond, pages 26-27:
After The Golden Cage (1897) Melies devoted himself to making films...Hammond, page 42:
From August 1889 until February 1890 Melies contributed political caricatures, under the anagrammatical pseudonym of 'Geo. Smile. and under the influence of Andre Gill, to twenty-six numbers of La Griffe (The Talon), a satirical journal edited by his cousin... La Griffe was the sworn enemy of General Boulanger, who planned to overthrow the Republic and put the Royalist pretender, the Comte de Paris, in power... When Melies came to film [popular singer] Paulus singing several hymns to Boulanger in 1897 he omitted their titles from his catalogue.
It is necessary, however, to keep Geo. Smile's 'subversive' activies in perspective, for they have been greatly exaggerated. Melies was no anarchist. During the 1880s and into the 1890s anarchism was viewed sympathetically by the working class and a section of the bourgeoisie as well. The terrorist acts of Ravachol, Vaillant and Emile Henry served to unsettle the political smugness of the Third Republic, a complacency which could just as well bring reactionaries like Boulanger to the fore too. Anti-clericalism, which led to the separation of Church and State in 1906, was commonplace.
It seems that Melies was nothing more than a staunch republican, as the second Mme Melies said: "Melies was pro-Dreyfus and anti-Boulanger. Anti-clerical? Oh, not really! He was a free-thinker. He didn't care."
A reconstructed newsreel of The Dreyfuss Affair was Melies' longest film to date. It was 780 feet and 13 minutes long. The wrongful conviction for high treason of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, and the ensuing agitation for his retrail split French public opinion down the middle. Melies, who was pro-Dreyfus, based at least some of the eleven sets of his strangely moving film on illustrations in the weekply papers. Dreyfus was played by an ironmonger who bore a strong resemblance to the real man. Other French producers made films of the Dreyfus Affair, Lumiere in 1897 and Pathe in 1899.Hammond, pages 59-60:
The Christmas Angel, "a grand picture of Pathos and Humour with a Moral", was a rare excursion into film melodrama. Melies tended to avoid the moralising and chauvinistic subjects preferred by many of his contemporaries. Scene 3, 'The Midnight Mass', gives a good idea of this production, a work of social criticism that takes on overtones of [Catholic atheist filmmaker] Bunuel:Hammond, page 67:The steps of the Church are covered with professional beggars who wait for the devout worshippers to come out, since they are almost always generous on this day. Little Marie comes and takes her place among them, but the others drive her away, threatening her with their sticks and crutches. The poor child, overcome with fatigue, goes and sits down at the foot of the lamp post. Soon out come the worshippers who give their alms to the professional beggars; footmen and grooms carry the umbrellas and cloaks for the ladies. Poor little Marie holds out her hand timidly but is refused by all, their patience having been worn out by the solicitations of the other beggars. One gentleman whom she follows in despair bullies her and strikes her violently. She falls on her knees bleeding.
Towards the end of 1907 Melies... was under extreme and often desperate pressure, as some of this year's sardonic pictures show. Humility Through The Ages, for example, is an ironical anthology of crime and brutality. The penultimate scene shows the delegates of the 1907 Hague Conference, convened to limit arms and armies, coming to blows. The last scene, mordantly ytitled 'Triumph', shows us the results of the peace conference: a battlefield over which looms the Angel of Destruction. A Fake-Diamond Swindler was a satirical reconstructed newsreel about a hoaxer called Lemoine who had claimed he could manufacture gems. The film's French title punned on the hoaxer's name, L'Habit ne fait pas le moine ('the habit doesn't make the monk', or 'clothes (do not) make the man').Hammond, page 72:
A suffragette is satirised in [Melies' film] Mrs and Mrs Duff. With the Salvation Army girl she proved to be a favorite butt for Melies' humour.Photo caption showing Georges Melies' brother Gaston dressed as a Catholic priest or monk for one of the films they made together, from: Hammond, page 73:
Gaston Melies as the padre in The Immortal Alamo (1911).Hammond, page 106:
Melies' moral philosophy is manichean and his feelings towards the opposite sex are ambivalent. Two kinds of women populated his pantomimes: angels and temptresses. His own favorite role was that of the Devil. As Tzvetan Todorov has pointed out: 'the Devil is just another word for libido". Women are everything to Melies, they are objects of contemplation and externalisations of desire. They can appear from nowhere or change places with flowers, caterpillars, skeletons, coins, bits of paper, ghosts, marble, soap bubles, their doubles, playing cards, clocks, veils, Jesus Christ, Satan, and, being privileged beings, with Georges Melies himself.Hammond, pages 111-112:
On the one hand, the Star Film world [i.e., the world of films made by Melies' production company] is an idealised Utopia where women hold a promise and make fabulous appearances as planets, constellations, the moon, astrological symbols, goddesses, sea nymphs, angels, saints, queens, the wholesome and passive kind who inhabit the clouds, grottoes and the sea-bed, who exist among flowers, fruit, shells, animals and insects and who even more intimately exist as flora and fauna, as butterflies, birds and fishes.
On the other hand, seductive women, the kind that fulfil a promise, appear as ghosts and succubi, the seven deadly sins, as the Devil's agents, and as Satan.
Amidst the disorder of delusion and desire a temptress might be taken for an angel [in Melies' films]. Melies was tormented by women just as much as he was fascinated by them--this ambivalence is one reason why he was happy to change them into other objects. Apart from purely Christian soul-searching, Melies' manichean moral philosophy may have been an intellectualisation of a very real moral dilemma. In her recent gossipy biography, Melies' granddaughter repeatedly contrasts the qualities of her grandfather's first wife, Eugenie--chaste, retiring and homely--with his mistress, later his second wife, Fanny-wordly, demanding and ardent. Melies was to gravitate between the two until Eugenie's death in 1913.Hammond, page 110:
Melies liked playing the Devil most of all. His pantomime demon personifies the subversive spirit of eroticism, whose appearance causes havoc, and whose enemies are quick to subdue him. In Beelzebub's Daughters, or The Women of Fire, made in 1903, a good year for demons, a Devil forms three "mystic maidens" by moulding the flames that issue from his hands. Lovely women are often created and live like salamanders amidst fire and smoke. The liveliness, the heat, and the destructive potential of fire maake it an erotic symbol for ardent, sensual womanhood. The chaste woman, on the other hand, is destroyed by fire, as is Joan of Arc, whose life Melies filmed in 1900, and the female victim in A Miracle Under the Inquisition (1904), of whom nothing remains but ashes. Melies' Devil is also the cinema's first mad scientist, although a genial savant who has the ability to create life, usually in the shape of beautiful women. In The Devil in A Convent (1899), Satan takes on an erotic vampire role and assumes the form of a bat: "The Devil jumps forth from the Holy Water font, amid a column of smoke issuing from same, and flies gently to the ground by spreading his cloak as the wings of a bat."
Like Freud's primal father who kept all the females for himself, Melies often chose to be the only man in his films, while surrounding himself with women. Perhaps a certain patriarchal egotism, complemented by an employer's low opinion of the abilities of his workers, may explain everything.
[Caption] This is the set for The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The saint, played by Melies, dressed in a sackcloth habit, is busy reading the Bible when a woman in a flimsy costume suddenly appears behind him and starts to stroke his beard. He recoils violently, hides his face behind the loose sleeve of his habit and asks for divine aid, which arrives, because the girl promptly vanishes. But when the poor man sits on his stool in an attempt to regain his breath two women (one of them Jehanne d'Alcy) seat themselves on his lap. He jumps up and the demons withdraw. Then the saint rushes over to the skull, a momento mori, lifts it to his lips and kisses it twice. At the third embrace the skull becomes a beautiful women, who is quickly reinforced by two companions. Before disappearing the three graces form a chain and dance around the distraught saint. He makes for the cross but Christ turns into a woman and descends to torment him, at which point an angel arrives. The saint appears to be saved, while Jesus resumes his rightful position ont he cross, but the angel is just as desirable as the other phantoms of this ascetic's fevered imagination.Hammond, page 123:
From time to time [in Melies' films] a journey to perdition serves as the apotheosis of a melodrama or comedy. Such is the case in The Wandering Jew (1904). Isaac Laquedem, condemned to walk forever for having refused water to Christ en route to Calvary, is assailed by guilty memories, Satan, an angel and terrible weather, "but on he plod . . . he plods . . . he plods throughout the succession of the centuries". It is amusing to observe that, like Melies, the unfortunate Jew was once a shoemaker! The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) is a variation on the Faust legend. After an eventful trip through outer space the engineer Crackford, whose tim on this earth has run out, is roasted on Satan's turnspit.