I recently went to see the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo, the director’s first film intended for family viewing—and a 3D picture to boot. Based on American writer Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about an orphan living in a busy, 1930s train station in Paris, the film captivated me with its characters, inventive plot, and gorgeous use of 3D-technology. The movie (and book) draws heavily on the mythology and history of real-life French filmmaker Georges Mèliés, a magician by training who directed more than 500 innovative films before declaring bankruptcy in 1913.
Interestingly, the Mèliés story has a Texas connection. One of the reasons Georges Mèliés suffered financially toward the end of his film career was that American film companies were screening pirated versions of his films, so in 1902 he sent his brother Gaston Mèliés to the United States to guard his copyrights.
Gaston, also a filmmaker, spent a few years in New York, but he eventually settled in San Antonio, possibly to treat himself to the healing sulphur waters near the ruins of the San Jose Mission. In San Antonio, Gaston Mèliés established a studio called the Star Film Ranch, and devoted his talents to turning out some 70 one-reel films, mostly westerns. The San Jose ruins served as the set for at least three Star Film productions, all made in 1910. Like his brother Georges, Gaston was fond of special effects and outlandish action sequences: A May 1976 story in the San Antonio Light notes that Mèliés’ film An Unwilling Cowboy featured a full-blown square dance on horseback.
In 1911, Gaston and his Star Film Ranch maximized the appeal of the Alamo with a film called The Immortal Alamo, in which Mèliés cast himself as William Travis (and director John Ford’s older brother Francis played Davy Crockett). Students from the Peacock Academy, a San Antonio military institute, played both Texian and Mexican soldiers.
It’s a big state, but a small world.