Slapstick, European-style – part 3

Slapstick Blog-a-Thon

The third part of The Bioscope’s contribution to the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon continues to look at the less familiar side of silent film comedy, that which flourished in Europe (especially France and Italy) before the First World War. Today we round up our survey of the star performers of the period by name-checking some of the other comedians of the period, as a reference source, and as encouragement for anyone to find out more – certainly to see them if you can.

Little Moritz aime Rosalie

Little Moritz aime Rosalie (1911), from Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town

Pacifico Aquilanti – Italian comedian who played Coco (1909-?) for the Cines company, as a response to the success of André Deed’s Cretinetti at Itala.

Lucien Bataille – Gaumont comedian, whose Zigoto character (1911-1912) spoofed the popular detective films of the period; then became Casimir for Eclair (1913-1914).

Paul Bertho – French comedian who created two comic personas for Lux: Patouillard (known as Bill in Britain and the USA), and Gavroche (1912-1914).

Roméo Bosetti – early example of a named comedy series performer, he played the character Roméo for Gaumont (1907-1908), for whom he went on to be a prolific comedy director, before being lured away by Pathé.

Ernest Bourbon – French comedian, adept at combining elegance with acrobatics, who starred in the popular Onésime series (1912-1914) for Gaumont, occasionally being partnered with Calino.

Sarah Duhamel – a former child performer of wide girth who enjoyed much success as Rosalie (1911-1912) for Pathé, in which she was often partnered with Little Moritz. She subsequently played as Pétronille for Eclair (1913-1914).

Marcel Fabre – Spanish clown who worked in France for Eclair and Pathé before moving to Italy with the Ambrosio company and creating the Robinet character (1911-1914), in which he was regularly partnered by Nilde Baracchi as Robinette. His character was known as Tweedledum in Britain and the USA.

Tommy Footit – son of a famous nineteenth-century clown, George Footit (English, but found fame in France), who starred as Tommy for Eclair in 1911.

Raymond Frau – French comedian who established the comic character Kri Kri for the Italian company Cines (known as Bloomer in Britain). In 1916 he returned to France and created the Dandy character for Eclair.

Lea Giunchi – Italian comedienne who played comic foil to Tontolini (played by her brother-in-law, Ferdinando Guillaume) and Kri Kri, but also starred in the Lea series (1911-1914) for Cines. Her son, Eraldo Guillaume, was a child comedian for Cines, Cinessino.

Ferdinando Guillaume – Italian comedian from a circus family who appeared as Tontolini (Jenkins in Britain and USA) for Cines 1909-1911, then as Polidor for Pasquali. Directed many of his films. In later life appeared in a number of Fellini films.

Ernst Lubitsch – one of the great directorial talents in cinema history, Lubitsch began his film career as an actor and made comedies in the character of Meyer (1913-1914)

Clément Migé – French comedian who starred in an early Gaumont comic series, as Calino (1909-1913), a series which demonstrated notable comic invention and delight in chaos. For a short period a rival Calino series was produced by Pathé.

Léonce Perret – a performer and then an important director for Gaumont, he made some sophisticated comic films using the character name Léonce (1912-1914). His comic foil partner was often Suzanne Grandais. He moved to the USA as a director in 1917, returning to France in 1921 to continue a successful career than lasted until his death in 1935.

Moritz Schwartz – diminutive German comedian who played Little Moritz for Pathé (1911-1912), a highly popular series in its time. He was partnered romantically with Sarah Duhamel’s Rosalie for a number of films.

Alma Taylor and Chrissie White – English stars of the Hepworth company’s series of Tilly films (1910-1915), playing gleefully anarchic teenagers (Unity More played Tilly in the first film in the series), as well as many other shorts (dramatic and comic) before both went on to continued success as adults in British feature films.

Ernesto Vaser – Italian performer promoted as the Ambrosio company’s answer to Cretinetti, under the name Fricot (1909-1912?).

And there were so many others, including some female comedians whose character role we know (Cunégonde, Léontine) but not the performers’ names, alas. Countries other than France and Italy produced similar comic series, but these two countries dominated the field – nationally and internationally – up to the First World War. A new kind of comedy was already emerging in America, and would dominate the field in the post-war era.

To find out more, the best place is Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (2005), from where much of the information above was taken, especially the entry Comic Series written by David Robinson. Robinson also wrote two classic articles for Sight and Sound, ‘The Italian Comedy’ (Spring 1986) and ‘Rise and Fall of the Clowns’ (Summer 1987), which are wonderfully evocative. An excellent source of detailed information on the French comedians, focussing on extant prints, is Richard Abel’s The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (1994).

Online, there’s a good article by film historian Ivo Blom on the Italian comedians, ‘All the Same or Strategies of Difference. Early Italian Comedy in International Perspective’. And this section from the 2002 Pordenone Silent Film Festival catalogue, for a season of ‘Funny Women’, has information on Sarah Duhamel, Lea Giunchi, Alma Taylor, Chrissie White, and Suzanne Grandais.

Maybe a little more tomorrow…

6 responses

  1. Luke: Thanks for all this information about a world that is far from ours. World War One destroyed so many things. I have seen “Onésime Horologer” on a dvd set and it was hilarious. I’m glad you mentioned Abel’s book — it’s a good one.

    Regards,
    Joe Thompson ;0)

  2. It’s tantalizing to know how much more screen slapstick may be out there for us to discover in our journeys through film history. You’ve provided quite an extensive list of performers, mostly uknown to me, in your three posts. Thank you. I enjoyed Abel’s Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 very much, but haven’t read the one you mention. Time for trip to the local library, I think.

  3. I’ll be adding some more names to the posts as I find information on them. There’s still room for Gontran, Firuli, Frugolino, Polycarpe, Arthème…

  4. Luke: I had to dig around a bit, but I found it. The dvd set was Kino’s “The Movies Begin: Volume 5, Comedy, Spectacle and New Horizons”. It also has: “The Policemen’s Little Run” (too early to be Les Pouics — 1907), but very rowdy, a Max Linder, Winsor McKay Animations, and “The Bangville Police”. My only problem with the set is that some movies have narration or commentary that you can’t turn off.

    Regards,
    Joe Thompson ;0)

  5. Many thanks – and for all your comments on the slapstick posts. I’ll do a bit more delving and see what titles might be available in France and Italy.

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