I’ve just found about this rare screening of films by the Spanish director Segundo de Chomón, taking place at Tate Modern on Friday 6 July at 19.00pm. Segundo de Chomón is one of the masters of early fantasy film, overshadowed rather by Georges Méliès, but whose trick films are no less intoxicating or ingenious, filled as they are with sorcerers, mystics, devils and exotic dancers. The sixty-minute programme includes all these titles (several of which are coloured prints, heightening the exoticism of the scenes):
Poules aux Oeufs D’Or, 1905
Antre Infernal, 1905
Antre de la Sorcière, 1906
Spectre Rouge, 1907
Armures Mysterieux, 1907
Scarabée D’Or, 1907
Excursion Incoherente, 1910
Legende du Fantôme, 1908
Stephen Horne is playing the piano, for what is an excellent programme of films little seen but once seen unlikely to be forgotten. Early cinema was a magical place. Further information from the Tate site. It’s part of the Dali & Film season, and Dali would have loved them.
On your recommendation I made it to the screening, and it was just an exceptional programme. The films were surprising, funny and exciting. It was a great selection of films, often involving mischievous devils with an interest in magic tricks showing off for the camera. Often the films began with a clear narrative before spiraling into chaos and surrealism; ‘Excusion Incoherente’ began as a disastrous picnic where worms were found in the chocolate cake and frogs were found in the eggs, but back at the hotel(?) a crazy chase ensued involving a giant snake, an alligator and a strange giant head (which I was convinced turned up again in ‘Legende du Fantome’). I assumed the still above depicted a troubled man’s nightmare but instead is part of an incredibly surreal sequence in which the silhouette of a sleeping woman becomes built upon by a rapidly-constructed bridge along with a train that ends up in her mouth.
The films were very playful, enhanced by the vivid tinting effects. I had not come across Chomón before and would love to know more about him and see more of his work – was working in France for Pathé?
Thanks for the recommendation!
Ah, what a pleasing comment to receive! I’m so glad you went along and got so much out of it. And my good friend Stephen Horne was playing the piano.
Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929) is little known outside early film circles, which is a huge shame, since he is a masterly filmmaker. He was a Spaniard, who joined Pathé in 1901, where his wife worked as an actress. He worked in Barcelona for a while as a Pathé concessionary, shooting local topicals and running a workshop which coloured Pathé films. He moved back to Paris in 1905, and took charge of Pathé’s trick film production, until 1910. It was over this period that he made the extraodinary fantasy films, with their mixture of trick work, animation, colour and a remarkable, cinematic imagination, a good selection of which ae held in the BFI National Archive, hence yesterday’s programme. He went to work as a specialist in special effects, including working on such famous films as Cabiria (1914) and Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927).
This information mostly comes from the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, a recommended publication, if you’re rich. Early trick films like these were known as féeries (fairy plays), and had their roots in French stage productions. They were expensive to make (the added colour especially) but their popularity justified the extra cost. As narrative films started to come in around 1907-08, their popularity waned, and their production ceased. Cinema had to grow up, but in doing so, as for all of us, it lost something.
There’s no DVD of Chomón’s films, that I know of. However, there’s a compilation of his films on Google Video,
http://video.google.es/videoplay?docid=-4407490996968547798, ripped from I know not where.
The speaker before the screening mentioned that a couple were on compilation DVDs, but gave no details as to what those might be. He also mentioned that another Chomón will be played on July 20th during the ‘Clonic Mutations’ programme.
Did Pathé have a trick-film department? In one of the films, a reflective shield came so close to the camera that the rest of the studio could be seen within it, particularly the glass walls for letting in all that sunlight. It’s very interesting that Chómon ran a colouring workshop; would love to find out how this was done, and whether he essentially ran a production line tinting movies as they came through the workshop.
Yes the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema is incredible, but have only encountered it at the bfi library. I suppose there hasn’t been much written or published about Chomón or his work? I noticed the bfi leader on the prints – one actually credited Méliès as director, which suggests a cataloguing inaccuracy from long ago and also reaffirms the stylistic connections between the two filmmakers’ work.
Thanks for the google video link – am always surprised by what has been uploaded online.
Ah, those mistitled National Film Archive prints, still not changed after all these years… There was a major FIAF conference on cinema before 1906, held in Britain in 1978, for which the NFA made many prints available for the first time and put in rough titles based on knowledge at that time. Huge amounts of scholarship has gone into these films since, but some of those title cards still remain.
The two DVD compilation with Chómon films appears to be Landmarks of Early Film vol 1, which has The Golden Beetle (1907), and Lobster Films’ Le Retour de Flamme vol 2, which has Kiriki, Japanese Acrobats (1907).
The history of Pathé’s production practice is too complex to get covered here, but essentially they had three studios, but I don’t think any one specialised in trick films – rather they had trick film specialists who catered for that section of their market: Gaston Velle, then Segundo de Chómon. The colouring of films was done factory-style by teams of women. Presumably this was repeated in Spain for local release prints, or maybe he took on extra work for the company which couldn’t be covered by the factory in Paris.
There’s a book, Segundo de Chomón, Beyond the Cinema of Attractions (1904-1912), by Joan M. Minguet Batllori, but it doesn’t look easy to track down.
That 1978 conference was held in Brighton, right? Would be great to screen the same programme of films 30 years later, or hold a catch-up conference.
Thanks so much for the info; that book does look difficult to find, but I’m going to read up more about Pathé’s production methods and its history in general. I’ve got a copy of Richard Abel’s book which I’ll now get around to.
I am fascinated by early cinema and wrote several essays during my MA on the subject, including Kinematograph parlours in London, phantom rides and Hale’s Tours. I find your site perfect for keeping in touch with early and silent cinema, especially now that I’m out of full-time study.
Yep, the famous FIAF symposium on cinema to 1906 took place in Brighton. From time to time there has been vague talk of reviving it in some way (30th anniversary next year), but nothing has happened. Essentially its work is now carried on by the Domitor group of early film scholars. You can find the list of films shown at the Symposium in the FIAF publication Cinema 1900-1906: An Analytical Study, which has a filmography of what was shown plus transcripts of papers. Find it at
there are two Segundo de Chomon titles on the Crazy Cinematograph DVD that I curated for Luxembourg City of Culture with my colleagues in Trier and Luxembourg. Tht titles zre Le Roi des Dollars from 1905 and Les Tulipes from 1907 with both prints from the Nederlands Film Museum. The DVD is currently avaiable as a special offer from the National Fairground Archive for a limited period of time so e-mail me via the National Fairground Archive at http://www.shef.ac.uk/nfa – there are some really wonderful treasures on the film. However, I would tell people to come and see the show on the fairground with the animators and actors and fair organ music – fantastic – I shall try and bring it to the United Kingdom.