Slapstick, European-style – part 4

Slapstick Blog-a-Thon

We conclude our survey of European pre-WWI film comedy for the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon with a look at the comedy troupe, Les Pouics.

Les who? The Pouics are little known as a name now, but they were France’s version of the Keystone Cops – their predecessors, in fact, since the group was formed in 1910, two years before the Keystone company was created. They were formed by the director Jean Durand, who joined the Gaumont company in 1910 as its director of comedy films. He quickly established a troupe of comedy performers with the necessary talents to help feed the conveyer-belt system of one-reel film production, as audiences worldwide demanded their weekly dose of comedy. Les Pouics, or Les Pouites (‘bedbugs’), on occasion billed under this name, supplied a team of comedians with precise acrobatic and pantomimic skills, suitable for all occasions, and with more than a gift for chaos.

Onésime et le Dromadaire

Onésime et le dromadaire (1914)

We know the names of several of Les Pouics. Most notable at the time was Ernest Bourbon, who starred in Gaumont comedies 1912-14 as Onésime, films whose penchant for arresting absurdity (camels in living rooms) endeared him to the Surrealists. A Pouic who would work with the Surrealists directly was Gaston Modot. Just another member of the comic team when he first worked for Durand in 1910, Modot appeared in many Onésime and Calino films, before enjoying a notable acting career over many years, working for Abel Gance, René Clair, Marcel Carné (Les Enfants du Paradis), Jean Renoir (La Règle du Jeu) and Luis Buñuel in L’Age D’Or. Other Pouics included Clément Migé, already well-known as Calino, Lucien Bataille, who played the comic character Zigoto (1911-1912), Jeanne-Marie Laurent and Paulos.

Les Pouics were recruited from circus and music hall backgrounds, and specialised in organised mayhem, a wholesale onslaught upon normality. Things existed only that they might be destroyed. Some indication of their working methods can be found in a rare interview with veterans of the troupe reproduced in Georges Sadoul’s Historie Général du Cinéma (1951):

Jean Durand: The set was built on a platform, three metres high, supported by complicated arrangement of beams. On top of that we would build a salon, with sofas, piano, furniture, the whole lot. At a whistle, the stagehands would release the beams. The whole lot would collapse into the room built underneath.

Gaston Modot: Under the floor there would be a ceiling. The fellows and the furniture would crash through it. It was rather like playing water polo. Everyone marked his man. You would say: ‘I’ll take the wardrobe and you the sideboard, and you the seat with the old lady on it’.

Durand: In the salon there would usually be a very proper gentleman who had his top hat on. He would always get the piano. Of course there would be a few newspapers in the hat as protection.

Modot: And those great three-tier scafolds, like we built in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. We’d say, you fall in the mortar, me in the lime and him in the bucket. A motorbike would come and hurl the scafold in the air. We would all fall wherever we had to. It was quite natural for professionals.

Ah, those were the days, when all an actor had to protect him from a falling piano was a top hat with some newspaper stuffed into it.

There was much about Les Pouics that makes one think of the comedy troupe of lasting fame, the Keystone Cops, who created chaos not quite so violent but with the same love of mishap and logical absurdity. But in the fate of the two troupes we see summed up the two histories of slapstick comedy in Europe and America. The European (specifically the French and Italian) comedy of the pre-World War One era, with its roots in the circus, music halls and café concert, delighted audiences around the world but always had an air of the Old World about it. It satirised modernity but was simultaneously at a remove from it. It employed trick effects, magic, and fantasy, a cinema of attractions. The American comic models that were to succeed them, as the war destroyed much of the European companies’ traditional business, were slicker, faster, technically far more accomplished, and imbued with an irresistible flavour of the New World.

So there is a lost world charm about the European comedies of Max, Cretinetti, Onésime, Calino, Kri Kri, Bout-de-Zan, Bébé, Rosalie, Robinet, Little Moritz and Rigadin. Much of the happy spirit, the undying charm of early cinema can be found in their spirited productions, churned out professionally week after week. So many now are lost, just as their reputations have faded, but there are more than enough surviving titles lurking in the archives that really deserve to be brought away from the sole attentions of the specialist and taken to a wider audience. We would all gain a better sense of early film history. And we’d laugh our socks off as well.

This mini-series owes much to the researches of others, especially Richard Abel, Aldo Bernardini, Ivo Blom, David Robinson, and the catalogues of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.