Gaston Méliès, the American Brother

This article is not about the legendary film pioneer but rather about his brother, also a director, who has been unfairly forgotten. Unfairly, because his life – and particularly the ten years he spent in the United States – was just as remarkable as Georges Méliès’s, if not more so. From the East Coast to the West Coast via Texas, he was one of the pioneers of American entertainment.
Gaston Méliès, 1906. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection

The name Gaston Méliès has fallen by the wayside of history. So much so that, when learning of his existence, many are surprised to discover that there was not one Méliès, but several – just like there were Lumière and Warner brothers. There were actually three Méliès brothers. The eldest, Henri, born in 1844, never touched a film reel in his life. The youngest, Georges, born in 1861, was immediately fascinated by the new invention. And between the two, Gaston, born in 1852, first devoted himself to the family shoe factory, taking over the company in Paris in 1894 before filing for bankruptcy the following year. A difficult period ensued, during which Gaston Méliès tried in vain to relaunch the business. To make matters worse, he lost his wife Augustine in 1901 and was left to raise his two children alone.

The major turning point in his life came in the spring of 1902. His brother Georges had just completed A Trip to the Moon, now considered the world’s first blockbuster and science fiction film. The 14-minute movie was an internationally successful masterpiece, but some of the profits were lost. Georges Méliès’ production company, Star Film, was initially registered in France in 1896 in the simple form of a five-pointed star, but the brand was not recognized in the United States and the short film was soon pirated. Most copies in circulation didn’t even credit the French producer and director! In the wake of this disaster, Georges decided to open an American subsidiary and asked his brother to manage it. Gaston spoke enough English to accept this mission on the other side of the Atlantic.

Gaston Méliès and his son, Paul, in their New York laboratory. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection

In early 1903, at the age of 50, Gaston Méliès set sail for New York City. His 19-year-old son Paul quickly followed. As soon as he arrived, the Frenchman declared to the American press: “We are prepared and determined to energetically pursue all counterfeiters and pirates. We will not speak twice! We will act!” The pair opened their office on the first floor of a four-story building at 204 East 38th Street in Manhattan. Star Film’s U.S. branch looked out onto the street, and a film development lab was installed in the back room while the father-and-son duo lived upstairs. The narrow red-brick building, despite being partly modified in the 1920s, still exists, and the space is now home to an Indian restaurant.

Méliès vs. Edison

The early years were mainly focused on protecting Georges Méliès’ movies and regaining control of their distribution in the United States. This was punctuated by a series of legal disputes, a bizarre burglary in 1907, and a complicated relationship with Thomas Edison. The inventor had brought together the biggest film distributors and formed a sort of cartel, the Motion Picture Patents Company, to oust his leading competitors – including those from abroad. Despite a number of clashes, an agreement was finally reached. In 1908, Gaston Méliès was granted a license for his own films and those made by his brother. He then created the G. Méliès Manufacturing Company (sometimes referred to in the press as G. Méliès Motion Pictures or G. Méliès Star Films), cleverly playing on the shared initial of their first names. The director of A Trip to the Moon would come to regret this choice, accusing his brother of taking advantage of this borrowed fame to conquer the American market. Unfortunately, this similarity also led to confusion among film historians, and only the Parisian Méliès has been remembered.

In New York City, Gaston was initially happy filming a few short newsreels, covering subjects such as a yacht race in 1903 and the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. But everything changed when he signed an agreement with Thomas Edison. In the summer of 1909, he organized a competition for “farcical, comic, dramatic, melodramatic, or spectacular” screenplays. The awards ceremony was held in Greenwich Village at the prestigious Hotel Lafayette, which attracted the elite of the local French community thanks to its gourmet restaurant serving Parisian specialties. A handful of dramas and comedies were then filmed in the following months, mainly in Brooklyn and Fort Lee on the other side of the Hudson River. With that, Gaston Méliès became one of the pioneers of this original mecca of American cinema, long before the rise of Hollywood.

A Frenchwoman, Alice Guy, now recognized as the world’s first female director, also happened to be working in New Jersey around the same time. No one knows whether she and Gaston crossed paths, but imagining an encounter between the two is tempting. In the fall of 1909, the G. Méliès Manufacturing Company shot its first feature film in Fort Lee. The Stolen Wireless, an ambitious war drama lasting ten minutes (the standard length at the time) was filmed independently of the script competition and directed by Wallace McCutcheon, an experienced director Gaston Méliès had recently hired. The Frenchman therefore adopted the role of producer or, as it was known at the time, “film manufacturer.” He quickly surrounded himself with a whole host of collaborators, including directors, cameramen, actors, and actresses – or “players,” to use the terminology of the time.

Gaston Méliès and his cameraman, William Paley, filming In the Hot Lands at the Star Film Ranch, San Antonio, 1911. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection
American actress Edith Storey, ca. 1917. She made her film debut in Gaston Méliès’ westerns when she was 17. © Apeda

Up until late 1909, the company released one reel a week in accordance with the agreement signed with the Motion Picture Patents Company. But the winter made filming increasingly difficult. With electric lighting still inadequate, all scenes – including those set indoors – had to be filmed outdoors. Unfortunately, New York City and New Jersey are not known for their abundance of natural light. The region also lacked the wide-open spaces needed to produce the emerging western genre that was beginning to captivate audiences. After considering Florida, Gaston Méliès settled in Texas. He sent his son Paul and Wallace McCutcheon to scout the region in January 1910. The rest of the cast soon joined them in San Antonio. The French producer, who had since remarried, rented a property between the Mission San José and the river. Facing south-southwest and complete with a barn for storing equipment and a paddock for horses, it was perfect for making movies. Gaston Méliès christened it the “Star Film Ranch,” and in doing so created the first film studio in Texas.

Two or Three Films a Week

In San Antonio, Gaston Méliès shot non-stop. He had to meet the demands of the fearsome Thomas Edison, but also make up for the shortcomings of his brother, who was less and less active in France (he released eleven films in 1910, and only one in 1911). As a result, movies were mass-produced, at a rate of two or three 1,000-foot reels per week. Between January 1910 and April 1911, Gaston Méliès and his team brought almost 80 westerns to life. Two American actors particularly stood out: Francis Ford, a tall, dark-haired man who was none other than the older brother of future director John Ford; and Edith Storey, a 17-year-old debutante whose riding skills impressed the local cowboys recruited for each shoot to add a realistic touch. (Propelled to fame by Star Film ads, cowboys Joe Flores, Otto Meyer, and the dashing Ben Cooper soon became stars of the genre.) Gaston Méliès’ Texas movies often depicted love triangles against the backdrop of life in the Wild West, filled with young ingenues, howling cowboys, shady Mexicans, and mysterious Indians.

The Immortal Alamo, produced by Gaston Méliès in 1911, was the first film adaptation of the famous Texas battle. © Frank Thompson Personal Collection
For The Immortal Alamo, Gaston Méliès stepped in front of the camera to play a priest. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection

The Immortal Alamo was this period’s pièce de résistance. Released in May 1911, this was the first film adaptation of the 1836 battle between Americans and Mexicans which led to the death of Davy Crockett. Gaston Méliès – who by then had replaced Wallace McCutcheon with William Haddock – initially wanted the film to be shot in the ruins of the famous fort in the heart of San Antonio, but the mayor refused his request. Instead, the Frenchman resorted to using a painted backdrop not far from his ranch. He recruited several hundred extras, including cadets from the nearby Peacock Military Academy, to play the troops led by Mexican general Santa Anna. Francis Ford played two roles, a Mexican spy and American general Sam Houston, while Gaston Méliès himself stepped in front of the camera to play a priest. Unfortunately, there is no trace of this seminal film, which predates John Wayne’s The Alamo by almost 50 years, aside from a few publicity shots.

Gaston Méliès was soon on the move again. He and his troupe boarded a train to California, where a number of filmmakers had begun to settle in 1910. The climate was better than in Texas, and Edison’s influence had not yet fully spread to the West Coast. The Frenchman chose the small town of Santa Paula, 60 miles northwest of a little settlement that had just joined the city of Los Angeles and went by the name of Hollywood. He first rented a plot of land in the mountains, before buying a villa which he converted into a film studio. Whether on location or touring the surrounding region with new directors, actors, and technicians, Gaston Méliès shot almost 90 westerns. The most unexpected of them all was The Cowboy Kid. The title role was played by nine-year-old Daniel “Danny” Reulos, who had come to visit his uncle Gaston and was immediately hired. Released on July 4, 1912, the innovative children’s film has survived. In the movie, the pint-sized hero leaps onto horses, wields a lasso, surprises bandits, and rescues his sister’s fiancé!

Young Daniel Reulos, age nine, in The Cowboy Kid, 1912. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection
Gaston Méliès and his team celebrating Independence Day at Sulfur Mountain Springs, California, July 4, 1911. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection

New Horizons

Most of Gaston Méliès’ westerns eschew the myth of the cowboy and the conquest of the West. The Frenchman shows California in the early 20th century, portraying a state undergoing massive change, with oil wells springing up and automobiles and horse-drawn carriages sharing the roads! Audiences also learned about suffragettes and witnessed an era of female emancipation on film. Today, aside from the slightly outdated stories they depict, the 15 or so reels that we still have access to represent valuable documentary material. But in July 1912, Gaston Méliès wanted a change of scene. He gave interviews in the press claiming that audiences were “tired of cowboys.” In search of new subjects, the 60-year-old producer spent some time on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. He then traveled to San Francisco where he set sail with his wife and some twenty collaborators on a tour of the Pacific, visiting Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Java, Singapore, Indochina, and Japan!

After California, Gaston Méliès traveled across the Pacific and filmed The Stolen Tribute to the King in Tahiti in 1912. © Jacques Malthête Personal Collection

This trip heralded the end of Gaston Méliès’ American adventure. He returned briefly in the spring of 1913, to sell his Santa Paula villa before returning to France for good. Much like director D.W. Griffith and actor Tom Mix, two other pioneers of the western genre with ties to California, the French producer left a lasting mark on the American cinematic landscape. He was almost a match for his brother, the “master of illusion” and “father of special effects,” who struggled with a decline in creativity at the turn of the 1910s. For a brief moment, the destinies of the two Méliès brothers crossed, but who remembers Gaston today? The other “G. Méliès” had been living in Corsica for two years when he died after a nasty bout of food poisoning on April 9, 1915. He was 63 at the time. The Santa Paula Chronicle reported his death a month later, but the story did not even feature in the French press – the news was overshadowed by World War I, which was ravaging the country at the time.

Much later, his former American partners would remember the man they affectionately called “Old Man Méliès.” This was the case of director William Haddock, who wrote of his early moments with the Frenchman: “Those were the happy days. We didn’t get a lot of money, but we had a lot of fun.” In the end, it was in the United States that Gaston Méliès earned his stripes as a film pioneer, contributing to the development and industrialization of a new art form with a bright future. He certainly deserved the nickname that one critic gave him in 1979, “the American Méliès.”

In the Footsteps of Gaston Méliès in the United States

French writer, producer, and director Raphaël Millet has already made two films about Gaston Méliès, one on his stay in Tahiti and another on his trip across the Pacific. He is currently working on a third film about the producer’s “American life, and completed a residency with Villa Albertine in the fall of 2023. From New York City to San Francisco, via San Antonio and Los Angeles, he met with academics, curators, archivists, actors, and cinephiles to learn about the “forgotten Méliès” and his 175 or so American films.