France’s finest

Kino Lorber are releasing a second DVD set of Gaumont films. The first, Gaumont Treasures vol. 1(1897-1913), featured films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, and was effectively a cut-down version of a deluxe box set issued by Gaumont in France. Now Gaumont Treasures vol. 2, 1908-1916 is to be released on 19 April, featuring the work of Emile Cohl, Jean Durand and Jacques Feyder. Again it is based on a more extensive French original release (six discs), but the Kino release alone looks sensational – three discs, just under 600 minutes of film, and containing some of the most creative films of the early cinema period. Cohl was the first master of the animated film, Durand produced surrealist comedies and adventure dramas, and Feyder made films of surpassing elegance and wit. There are works from other filmmakers, examples of synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s hauntingly beautiful three-colour process.

This is the full list of films (English titles only):

DVD 1: Emile Cohl
Fantasmagoria (1908, 2 min.)
The Puppet’s Nightmare (1908, 2 min.)
Drama at the Puppets’ House (1908, 3 min.)
The Magic Hoop (1908, 5 min.)
The Little Soldier Who Became a God (1908, 4 min.)
The Boutdebois Brothers (1908, 2 min.)
Transfigurations (1909, 6 min.)
Let’s Be Sporty (1909, 5 min.)
Japanese Fantasy (1909, 1 min.)
The Happy Microbes (1909, 4 min.)
Modern Education (1909, 3 min.)
The Living Fan (1909, 4 min.)
Spanish Clair de Lune (1909, 4 min.)
The Next Door Neighbors (1909, 4 min.)
Crowns (1909, 5 min.)
Delicate Porcelains (1909, 3 min.)
Monsieur Clown Among the Lilliputians(1909, 4 min.)
Comic Mutations (1909, 3 min.)
Matrimonial Shoes (1909, 5 min.)
The Enchanted Spectacles (1909, 5 min.)
Affairs of the Heart (1909, 4 min.)
Floral Frameworks (1910, 5 min.)
The Smile-o-Scope (1910, 5 min.)
Childish Dreams (1910, 5 min.)
En Route (1910, 6 min.)
The Mind of the Café Waiter (1910, 5 min.)
Master of a Fashionable Game (1910, 4 min.)
Petit Chantecler (1910, 7 min.)
The Twelve Labors of Hercules (1910, 7 min.)
Petit Faust (1910, 5 min.)
The Neo-Impressionist Painter (1910, 6 min.)
The Four Little Tailors (1910, 7 min.)
Art’s Infancy (1910, 4 min.)
The Mysterious Fine Arts (1910, 5 min.)
The Persistent Salesman (1910, 8 min.)
A History of Hats (1910, 5 min.)
Nothing Is Impossible for Man (1910, 6 min.)
Mr. Crack (1910, 5 min.)
Bébé’s Masterpiece (1910, 4 min.)
Music-mania (1910, 5 min.)

Original music by Bernard Lubat

DVD 2: Jean Durand
COMEDIES
Calino’s Baptism (1911, 3 min.)
Calino Wants to Be a Cowboy (1911, 6 min.)
Zigoto and the Affair of the Necklace (1911, 8 min.)
Calino the Love Tamer (1912, 6 min.)
Zigoto’s Outing With Friends (1912, 5 min.)
Oxford vs. Martiques (1912, 4 min.)
Onésime Goes to Hell (1912, 7 min.)
Calino, Station Master (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime, Clockmaker (1912, 5 min.)
Onésime vs. Onésime (1912, 8 min.)
Zigoto Drives a Locomotive (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime Gets Maried … So Does Calino (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime: Calino’s Inheritance (1913, 1 min.)
Onésime Loves Animals (1913, 6 min.)
Onésime, Tamer of Men and Horses (1913, 13 min.)
Onésime and the Heart of a Gypsy (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime, You’ll Get Married … or Else! (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime’s Theatrical Debut (1913, 10 min.)
Onésime’s Family Drama (1914, 7 min.)

DRAMAS
The Railway of Death (1912, 17 min.)
Burning Heart: An Indian Tale (1912, 13 min.)
Under the Claw (1912, 25 min.)

SPECIAL FEATURE
Jean Durand 1882-1946
Mini-documentary, written by Pierre Philippe, recounting the career of filmmaker Jean Durand through photographs and film clips.

Music by Patrick Laviosa

DVD 3: Jacques Feyder and the Early Masters of French Cinema
JACQUES FEYDER
Heads … and Women Who Use Them (1916, 36 min.)
Friendly Advice (1916, 16 min.)*
Biscot on the Wrong Floor (1916, 15 min.)*
ROMÉO BOSETTI
The Long Arm of the Law (1909, 7 min.)
GEORGES-ANDRÉ LACROIX
The Barges (1911, 10 min.)**
ETIENNE ARNAUD
La Marseillaise (1912, 10 min.)
RENÉ LE SOMPTIER
A Drama of the Air (1913, 17 min.)
HENRI FESCOURT
Child’s Play (1913, 12 min.)
GASTON RAVEL
Feet and Hands (1915, 17 min.)
ANONYMOUS FILMS
A Factory Drama (1912, 13 min.)
The Pavements of Paris (1912, 13 min.)
The Fairy’s Farewell (n.d., 25 sec.)

Music by Patrick Laviosa, Ben Model (*), and Didier Goret (**)

SPECIAL FEATURES

PHONOSCENES (6 min.)
Three early synchronized-sound musical shorts: “Anna qu’est-ce quet’attends?,” “Chemineau chemine,” and “Le Mouchoir rouge de Cholet”

GAUMONT ACTUALITIES (14 min.)
Actualities that reveal the workings of Gaumont, including footage of founder Leon Gaumont demonstrating the operation of a motion picture camera, a hand-crank viewing device, a zoetrope, and dignitaries touring the Gaumont Studios

TRICHROMIE FILMS (12 min.)
Excerpts of Gaumont’s revolutionary full-color film process
(1913-1919)

This is a sensational collection. Here is the infant cinema already able to hold its held up as a mature medium, capable of displaying artistry of the highest order. With this and volume one of Gaumont Treasures, plus Flicker Alley’s five disc set of the works of Georges Méliès (plus an ‘encore‘ sixth disc), and the recent Spanish release of a Segundo de Chomón DVD set, we are astonishingly blessed with DVD releases of early French cinema. And there will be more – a four-disc set of the works of Albert Capellani, another director of style and vision, is promised by Pathé in May.

Parbleu!

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.

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…