The Bioscope is taking part in the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon, a four-day festival of blogging on the subject of slapstick. The Bioscope’s contribution is to cover the story of the European comedians of the early cinema period whose work is less familiar to most now, but who enjoyed huge popularity in their day.
Today we look at a particular phenomenon of the period, child comedians. Here are three of the most popular of the period, all appearing in French films.
Clemént Mary (1905-1974) was the the most celebrated of the European child stars of the silent period. At the age of five he was employed by the French Gaumont studios to star in a series of comedies under the name of Bébé. Bébé was a cheeky, resourceful character who was invariably far smarter than the adult world around him. Indeed, the common gag in the Bébé films was to place the child in adult situations, evidenced in such titles as Bébé apache (1910), Bébé millionaire (1911) and Bébé candidat au mariage (1911). In the first of those, Bébé’s ability to capture the mannerisms of the Parisian apache, and to play these convincingly and with deft coming timing amid an adult cast is extraordinary. He also played occasional non-Bébé roles. In 1912, Louis Feuillade at Gaumont introduced a new child character into the films, Bout-de-Zan (see below), and won a court case against Mary’s father who had protested at the competition. The father won the right to keep using the Bébé name however, and they moved to Eclectic Films to continue the series until 1916. In adulthood, he changed his name to René Dary and enjoyed a successful career in film and television into the 1970s.
René-Georges Poyen (1908-1968) was taken on by Gaumont in 1908 as a co-star and planned replacement for Bébé, and was given the character name of Bout-de-Zan. Greater comic emphasis was placed on Bout-de-Zan being an ‘adult’ figure, as he dressed like an adult, aped adult mannerisms, and was generally an earthier character than Bébé. He would also often giving knowing looks to the camera, making the audience complicit in his trickery. Bout-de-Zan films stand up as well today as those of Bébé, displaying a cleverness and an apparent delight in peformance which helps override concern one might have at the exploitation of such young children, making films week after week. Poyen also appeared in the Louis Feuillade serials Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916). The last Bout-de-Zan film was made in 1916, but Poyen carried on making films into the 1920s.
Willy Sanders (or Saunders) (1905-?) was a British music hall prodigy who first appeared on film aged four as a boxer, flooring an adult opponent, in The Man to Beat Jack Johnson (1910). His popularity was sufficient that he was brought over to France to star in the Little Willy series for Eclair, with seventy or so titles being produced 1911-16. Little Willy never had the same appeal as some of the great French child performers, but the series was reliable knockabout fare of the time, with such titles as Willy professeur de skating (1911), Willy diplomate (1913) and Petit Willy soigne la neurasthénie de son oncle (1911). Willy returned to boxing in 1913 for Willy contre le bombardier Wells, where our hero defeats ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, the great British boxing hero of the time. He seems not to have had a film career beyond 1916.
There will be more on the Europeans tomorrow…