Gaumont Treasures, 1897-1913 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Amy R. Handler

Gaumont was a pioneer in both film production and exhibition, boasting the 6000-seat Gaumont Palace in Paris, once the largest cinema in the world

Gaumont was a pioneer in both film production and exhibition, boasting the 6000-seat Gaumont Palace in Paris, once the largest cinema in the world

A three-disc DVD Collection of More than 75 Early Films by Alice Guy-Blaché, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, B&W, tinted, silent and sound, 626 min. A Kino International Release.

Bathing in a Stream (1897), At the Hypnotist’s (1898), Wonderful Absinthe (1899), The Cabbage-Patch Fairy (1900), Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), Félix Mayol Performs “White Lilacs” (1905, with synchronized sound), The Consequences of Feminism (1906), On the Barricade (1907), and more!

The Colonel’s Account (1907), Spring (1909), Custody of the Child (1909), The Defect (1911), The Roman Orgy (1911), The Trust (1911), The Obsession (1912), Tragic Error (1913), Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant (1913), The Agony of Byzance (1913), and more!

The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), The Child of Paris (1913).

Includes Two New Documentary Shorts:
Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms and Léonce Perret: The Filmmaker’s Filmmaker.

For those who believe silent cinema is best left buried in the past, Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913 may be just the thing to change your mind. More than seventy-five precious relics from the silent-film era constitute Kino International’s three-DVD collection of the work of pioneering filmmakers Alice Guy-Blaché, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret. Like classic fashion and fine wine, these cornerstones of cinema history are always vibrantly alive and in vogue. Indeed, many of these turn-of-the-century works feature dramatic and/or technical innovations that became staple elements in film production throughout later decades and up to the present day.

When inventor Léon Gaumont manufactured the Demeny Chrono camera/projector in 1896, renamed his company L. Gaumont et Cie, and established a film-production company, an archive, and numerous movie theaters, it was because he firmly believed that motion pictures had a future. In those early days, however, noisy film projectors required masking in order to entice and not drive away viewers. Enter the pianist, strategically focusing attention on key elements of plot. Intrigued by the concept of talkies, Gaumont invented the Chronographe in 1897 and the Chronophone six years later. This elaborate system recorded sound to disc, which was played during the exhibition of a film, depicting the actor speaking (or a rooster crowing, as in Guy-Blaché’s 1905 film, Cook & Rilly’s Trained Rooster), thus creating the impression of a synchronized sound film. Gaumont also experimented with film colorization by either selectively hand painting certain areas of the frame or applying a more uniform frame-by-frame tint, a process that by 1912 was refined. With a flourishing prewar market, the Gaumont Film Company soon became so large that it infiltrated the remainder of Europe and the United States.

Unknown to most moviegoers outside of film schools, Alice Guy-Blaché was the first woman filmmaker and one of the first directors of scripted, narrative films. Completely self-taught, she was a simultaneously evolving and regressive figure, in both a technical and ideological sense. All of Guy-Blaché’s films, with the exception ofThe Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906) and, possibly, Spain (1905), appear to be one-reel shorts.

Her journey toward narrative cinema began not with story or actor, but with clothing. Serpentine Dance (1897) and the better-photographed 1902 version seem to be more product advertisement than anything else. Having nothing to do with dance, the dancer, or narrative, this concept of fabric and the nonactor/character reappear in all her later work, including films not pertaining to dance. Though Serpentine Dance is shot in medium close-up, there is no emphasis on the dancer’s face, body or even her gown as a specific article of beauty. Instead, we notice that the fabric comes alive as the dancer swirls in light and shadow. The performer/identity disappears, then transforms into a tool. She joins forces with the camera and gown, as they become mechanisms of motion, while the fabric becomes an entity unto itself.

Guy-Blaché used dance as a performative means to create feminist/gender portrayals and as a technique to convey information about the narrative. Her use of dance in conjunction with a musical accompaniment can also be seen as one of the roots of contemporary music video, in which the melody either becomes a character or takes on characteristic cues. These signals announce the entrance of a particular character, or reference his or her persona. They may also emphasize a specific mood or situation associated with that character. Patrick Laviosa scored two of her non-dance narratives—The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906) and The Parish Priest’s Christmas(1906)—as well as all of Feuillade’s films. Laviosa’s recurring scores serve to evoke emotion and aid in storytelling. Color tinting also appeared for the first time in many of Guy-Blaché’s dance films such as Pierrette’s Escapades (1900) and At the Floral Ball (1900), featuring Miss Julyett of the Olympia, both shot in medium close-ups. ThePierrette color palette of orange, pink, and green mimics a Degas painting in motion.

Guy-Blaché developed a new idea in her films, whereby women played the roles of men! In regard to such cross-dressing, silent-era male actors often dressed as women when stunts were involved. That being said, why did she portray women in male roles? Clearly, her new feminist ideas suggested that women should express strong identities as freely as men. In The Malagueña and the Bullfighter (1905), for example, gender performance is expressed when the woman transforms into an aggressive bull, overcoming the male bullfighter. Malagueña reverts to long shots, however, so it’s impossible to ascertain if cross-dressing occurs.

Filmed in proscenium-style long shots, against a recycled backdrop, the film most characteristic of her style is Félix Mayol Performs “Indiscreet Questions” (1905). O..nly here is the camera close enough to capture facial expression, gesture, and sound synchronization. Since intertitles were not yet the norm, those not understanding French will have difficulty understanding the story. It is evident, however, through intonation and gesture, that “Félix” portrays both man and woman.

Among other innovations, and following Edwin S. Porter’s Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), Guy-Blaché’s color-tinted films presented an early reference to cinematic spectatorship, with stationary men and women appearing in the background. Saharet Performs the Bolero (1905), color-tinted and shot in close-ups, focuses upon a large group congregating in the background who alarmingly infringe upon a happy couple and attempt to separate them. Such social-commentary themes reappear in later dramas of all three filmmakers.

Guy-Blaché’s The Phonoscènes, an early attempt to match sound with film, are technical tests. Alice Guy Films a “Phonoscène” (1905), for example, is a completely silent documentary/drama in which long shots work to create a voyeuristic keyhole effect that reveals Guy-Blaché’s process, showing her directing in an eerily shadowed studio.

Guy-Blaché directed many seemingly ridiculous slapsticks, animal spoofs, magic acts, and chase films between 1898-1907. True to form, she returned to these antics long after making such serious films as The Cruel Mother (1906), Madame’s Cravings (1906), The Consequences of Feminism (1906), and The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906). Such reversions should not, however, be seen merely as reflecting the insecurities of a lone woman filmmaker in a man’s world, especially since moral, feminist, and social propaganda was incorporated into much of this lighter fare.

Though Guy-Blaché was a narrative filmmaker, she often employed a hybrid style, blending experimental techniques with a documentary/newsreel approach. Avenue de l’Opéra (1900), for example, is an experimental long shot filmed on location, in which the film is reversed so that people, carriages, and even music move backwards to reveal a topsy-turvy world. Spain (1905) is an experiment with varying camera movements, pans, and extreme close-ups. Periodic shaking suggests that the roving camera was hand held. In the film’s “Granada” scene, no matter how close the lens-to-face ratio, the whole face is never seen. Why? Perhaps it is not individual character that Guy-Blaché seeks but identity that can be modified as easily as shedding and changing clothes. This concept is most aggressively explored in How Monsieur Takes his Bath(1903) and, to varying degrees, in most of her dramas.

Her first narrative film, The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man (1898), is a comedy/tragedy about a “blind man” chased by a cop who, in turn, sets up another poor tramp for the same experience. Intimacy is established through physical gestures, though faces remain distant from the camera. This early social-commentary piece laid the foundation for key elements in the later films of all three filmmakers. According to Guy-Blaché, moral, religious, and social order can be achieved only through domestic harmony—when men, women, and children explore their strengths and challenge social norms. A Four-Year-Old Hero (1907), despite some scenes revealing nitrate disintegration, shows that even little girls can be resourceful and impact society. Though many of her films portray dominant woman, as in Midwife to the Upper Class (1902) and the XXX-rated Madame’s Cravings, men are also allowed strength, if it is good. Examples of such positive masculine strength can be found in The Cruel Mother, a moral melodrama about child abuse; domestic order is restored when the husband extricates his sadistic wife from their home for the good of his son.

In the thirty-minute extravaganza, The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ, the virtue of Jesus is evident. Primarily filmed with a static camera in annoying long shots, the texture of the film is strikingly different than all of her other films. Collaborating director/artist Victorin Jasset, no doubt, had much to do with the film’s picturesque design. The film moves hypnotically, like a cross between Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). Acts of intolerance are so disturbing in the “Ecce Homo” and “Cross-bearing” scenes that we wonder if, apart from Mary Magdalene and Christ, there is one decent soul in the film. Although there are outstanding special effects, the only close-up in the film is the image of Christ transferred to Saint Veronica’s fabric—a definite Guy-Blaché statement.

Building upon identity and social injustice, Louis Feuillade approaches filmmaking from a different perspective. Attracted to characters portrayed by actors, he developed an acting troupe featuring such regulars as Renée Carl, René Navarre, and Suzanne Grandois. The black comedy, The Colonel’s Account (1907), is set at a dinner table. In this play-within-a-film, the colonel reenacts warfare to such a hellish degree that dinner table, home, and dinner guests become casualties of combat. As actors jump and quake to avoid the frenetic colonel, medium shots and high-contrast lighting focus attention on each character. This style of multiple cuts and shocking movements of the characters, however, was discarded in his later work. Films such as Spring (1909), The Fairy of the Surf (1909), The Defect (1911), and The Heart and the Money (1912), reflect the slow, shadowy, mystical-pictorial style that made Feuillade famous.

It is unclear as to exactly when—1912 or 1913?—Tragic Error was made. In this much-copied innovation, a man’s near-cataclysmic obsession with his wife’s infidelity begins when he views a movie and becomes convinced that the actress walking arm in arm with another man is his wife. This film-within-a-film technique questions where the movie ends and reality begins.

In an effort to find his voice, Feuillade often experimented stylistically, as in the two mystical fantasies, Spring and The Fairy of the SurfSpring is the weaker of the two, though superimpositions and transitions of angels frolicking atop water are impressive. The Fairy of the Surf presents a moody, selectively-tinted pictorialism, exemplified by the boat scenes on rocky water that were later presented in Victor Sjostrom’s, A Man there Was (1917). The historical films Roman Orgy (1911) and The Agony of Byzance (1913) have strong social/moral messages. Roman Orgy is weaker in composition and narrative structure, although slow, lengthy takes freeze into magnificent paintings, encouraging viewers to reflect on the film’s content. The use of long shots visually weakens The Agony of Byzance, although Laviosa’s score for the film is compelling. Feuillade also neglected to inform viewers that Emperor Constantine was such a devout Catholic that he executed his unbelieving wife and son.

A Very Fine Lady (1908) is Feuillade’s comic, X-rated response to Guy-Blaché’s risqué Madame’s Cravings; a well-endowed Renée Carl walks down the street, wreaking complete social disruption in her wake. Feuillade excels in moral tales and social-injustice dramas such as The Defect (1911), The Trust: Or the Battles for Money (1911), and The Heart and the Money. Moodily melodramatic and pictorially striking, The Heart and the Money is a seamless split-screen gem that concerns a young woman’s fatal lesson that marriage for money leads to destruction. The Trust: Or the Battles for Money initiates the realism of Feuillade’s Life as it Is series. Again, issues of greed are frowned upon. Rich in close-ups, point-of-view shots, noir lighting, angle shots, and suspense, this film introduces the character of the private detective.

The Obsession (1912) is Feuillade’s timely psychological response to the Titanic disaster. There is some nitrate damage toward the end of this film about obsessive premonitions but not enough to disrupt the story. It is notable for its combination of noir-like pictorial beauty and documentary style, as when the Titanic departs Cherbourg at night, with steam and fog foreshadowing the fatal iceberg. Feuillade’s interest in the architectural integrity of lines is depicted in this film in high-angle shots of train tracks, which also appear in The Defect and other films. Feuillade’s Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant (1913) concerns an impoverished little boy, lost in large clothing, who manages to traverse the upper class through the friendly theft of an elephant. Successive Bout de Zan and Life as it Is installments led Feuillade to create additional series, including his best-known works such as Fantômas (1913), The Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916).

It is easy to see why Gaumont’s first feature filmmaker, Léonce Perret, although a little-known figure, greatly influenced 1920s cinema. The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador(1912) and The Child of Paris (1913) are replete in refined pictorialism, advanced split-screening, fast cutting and other editing novelties, special effects, backlit silhouettes, highly stylized and theatrical lighting, angles, pans, masterful transitions, extreme close ups, point-of-view shots, early reaction shots, and, thankfully, a shift from stationary tableaux to more consistent multiple camera set-ups. Of the two features included in this collection, Mystery is the weaker in composition, though both contain problems. This is most obvious when poor-quality sepia tones accentuate rather than camouflage the low-contrast, blown-out lighting. It is unknown whether this fading and toning, possibly caused by preservation, is due to exposure or the beginning stages of nitrate decomposition. It would be interesting to know if Perret or those who preserved the film added the sepia tone.

Tonal lighting, however, is pictorially entrancing in The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, as Suzanne and boyfriend Jean lie in their death boat, completely at the mercy of a storm. Lighting is astoundingly strong in the film-within-a-film scene, as Suzanne, a catatonic spectator, watches a reenactment of a crime while the surrounding background blackens, accentuating the inner workings of her mind. Narrative errors include an intertitle reference to Suzannne as the Marquis’s daughter (she is his niece) and an ambiguous letter about the psychoanalyst sent to Jean from an unknown writer. These errors aside, this fast-paced thriller, starring Perret as an evil Count with murderous intentions, is amazingly suspenseful for 1912.

Socially and morally alarming, The Child of Paris examines kidnapping and violence against a child, a crime more darkly examined in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). There are similar visual cues in both films, such as the appearance of the child’s ball minus the child, foreshadowing doom. Another similarity is the shop window: Perret’s avenger and Lang’s killer focus first on themselves, then objects such as Perret’s doll and Lang’s knife, and finally, transitioning through split-screen, on their objects of desire. About the only problem with this provocative masterpiece is Uncle Jacques’s complete disappearance from the story after he leaves for military duty, a flaw we can forgive.

Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913, a must for scholars and cinephiles alike, also contains outstanding documentaries on Feuillade and Perret, but, sadly, none for Guy-Blaché. Here’s hoping that Kino will rectify this shortcoming in the very near future.

To buy Gaumont Treasures, click here.

Amy R. Handler, a filmmaker, film scholar, fiction writer and poet, writes for Film Threat and numerous publications in the U.S. and U.K. She is presently writing several chapters for German Cinema: A Critical Filmography to 1945.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1